January 26, 2023
It was supposed to be a tough year, and this was, after all, that class of students.
That class that derails every conversation - they just had too many opinions.
That class supposedly had terrible academic habits - they just wanted to talk with one another.
That class that former teachers couldn’t help but complain about - couldn’t these students follow the program?
I knew this information was not helpful as their future teacher. Priming a teacher’s pump with low expectations is a great way to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if five years in student management taught me anything, it is that all students deserve a fresh start, not just year-to-year but day-to-day. I tuned these voices out and chose to focus on what I could control - my pedagogy, my classroom environment, and my relationship-building. And luckily, I also had a not-so-secret teaching approach up my sleeve. An approach so perfect for this group that I knew I was in for an amazing year.
That approach? It’s called Project Based Learning (PBL).
See, what I heard about this group of students was that they were very opinionated, loved to collaborate (i.e., talk to one another), and were independent thinkers. This group of students would - like most students - would thrive when given a chance to be innovative, speak up, and be heard on important social issues, engage in meaningful collaboration, and make a difference in the world.
This was a group of students that was made for PBL.
So, you would probably not be surprised to hear that at the end of the year, this entire 8th-grade class - this class that had that reputation - all attended an after-school ‘community exhibition of learning.’ They educated hundreds of parents and community members on modern-day slavery. They passionately offered alternatives to various consumer products linked to modern-day slavery - chocolate, clothing, seafood, coffee, etc. They did this by creating unique and engaging public service announcement videos and amazingly creative posters. They connected the experience of modern-day slaves with historical American slavery by assuming the voice of an 1800s abolitionist. They were empowered. They were successful. They were alive with learning.
Yes, that class of students, 100% of them, turned in their final projects because it mattered; they had a real-world audience; they were intellectually and emotionally invested in ending modern-day slavery. This project mattered, and that class showed up ready to do the work. Project Based Learning worked for this group and can work for other educators.
So what is ‘Project Based Learning,’ and why is it such an exciting way to teach?
According to PBLWorks.org, “Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” PBL is the collaborative, student-driven, authentic, and real world. PBL in the social studies setting allows students to engage deeply in social issues. As students connect the past to the present, they develop research-backed opinions on important social issues and communicate their learning by creating final projects for a stakeholder of their choosing.
Prior to our final unit on modern-day slavery, our PBL units included immigration and Constitutional issues. Students collaboratively researched and created projects around such topics as refugee restrictions, border security, DACA, gun control, search and seizure, student free speech, and other pressing topics. They became part of the national conversation when they communicated their research-informed opinions to our local and national representatives. Students received emails and letters from numerous elected officials - always a highlight for these future voters!
In the end, PBL helped me connect with a group of students who - despite their reputation - demanded that the school be collaborative and authentic to work for them.
And you know what? I just had my best year of teaching ever, all thanks to that group of students.
This guest article was written by Brad Cole while taking the online continuing education course BEYOND DIVISIVENESS: Teaching Students to Respectfully Discuss by the former THI instructor Stacey Shaw.
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