Monday, January 30, 2017

Why Project Based Learning?

Regular readers will recognize that I'm relatively new to the Project-Based Learning (PBL) method of inquiry outlined by BIE, but not new to the approach.  Looking back on the Cultures Projects my high school students completed nearly a decade ago when I asked them to research an issue currently facing a non-western culture, do something to help that issue by connecting with organizations working on it, and then present their research to our school community, I can see clear connections to the PBL approach in my earlier curriculum designs. Whether you call it project-based learning, authentic assessment, passion-driven inquiry, connected learning, or flipped learning - all of these approaches circle back to the idea that students are at the center of their learning. Students need choice in their inquiry topics and voice in how to share their work with a real audience.  Voice. Choice. Purpose.  These are the cornerstones of the project-based approach.

I have had the opportunity the past couple months to teach the PBL approach alongside my principal to interested teachers in my building during our faculty meeting time. We've crafted driving questions, discussed group dynamics, and brainstormed community connections for our authentic audiences. A number of teachers are getting ready to try their first PBL designed unit in the coming weeks. Excitement and anxiety are swirling. And not just for our teachers. This is not only a new approach for teachers in our building, but it is an entirely new approach for our students as well.

In anticipation of sharing the PBL approach with my colleagues, I designed a mini-PBL project for my tenth grade honors students as an example of what the PBL process looks like in action. In November, my students and I took a hike, circling around our school, wading through milkweed meadows and climbing pine trees.  Why? For our unit on texts focused on the theme of "The Natural World." We were looking for inspiration. Students read works by Barbara Kingsolver, Emma Marris, Walt Whitman, and more.  We used our texts as mentors to guide our thinking and inquiry. And then I presented our driving question: "What is a local environmental issue that you can address?"  We used our nature walks as inspiration to look carefully at what was impacting our local environment.  We noticed butterflies and bees, trees and bats, garbage and water pollution.  So we had to do something to help.

Why project-based learning?  Here's why:

Maddie, Camryn, Amanda, Trinity and Maddie researched and built bee hives with the help of their science teacher.

And, here's why:

Students have real purpose and real audiences for the research they took on. My students taught elementary school students, interviewed hunters, built beehives, made posters to stop littering and promote recycling, tested our drinking water quality, and so much more.

This is what learning should look like.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

One Word for 2017: RESONATE

At the start of the new year, even though school was not yet back in session, my student editors and I kicked off our literary magazine. But this is not your ordinary school literary magazine.  Instead, we were inspired to start a state-wide online and published magazine to showcase teen poets, writers, essayists, and artists in our great Mitten State.  We call ourselves MIteen Writers.  And to inspire the many writers in our state, we started an Instagram account to share daily writing prompts.

Our first prompt:
For the first day of the new year, let's start with just one word. Grab your notebook and brainstorm a list of touchstone words. Which will you select to be your #oneword for 2017? Your one word should serve as an inspiration, a reminder, as a call to action for your year. Share your word below, or better yet, snap a pic of your brainstorm and word selection. We can't wait to see what your #wordfor2017 will be!
When our classes resumed last week, I brought this prompt into my high school classroom. Unlike last year, when I had the students brainstorm in their notebooks and then share their one word on a sticky note tacked to the cabinets in my classroom, this year I had my students add their one word to an index card. Why the change? Because last year their touchstone words lived in my room. And they lived in my room for only a portion of 2016.  Come June, our words were stripped from the walls and tossed into the trash in order to ready the room for a new batch of students in the fall.  For a word, a resolution, or a mantra to have power, it must be present. It must be ubiquitous.

So this year, we added our words to index cards. We decorated our cards, shared them in a gallery walk around the room, and then we tucked them away.  Some students stuffed theirs into the folds of their wallet or the front pouch of their backpack.  Others asked for tape to add theirs to the inside door of their locker.  Still others planned to tape theirs to the mirror at home, pin it to the wall near their bed.

Mine - "grow" - stayed tucked in my writer's notebook for a few days.  I had made my list, just like I asked my students to do, and selected my word.  But I knew something wasn't ringing true. It didn't feel like my word quite fit.  It was headed in the right direction, but it wasn't a perfect fit.

It wasn't until this past Sunday afternoon, when the yoga instructor at the Y asked us to set our intention for our afternoon practice that I figured out what it was.  Sitting cross-legged on my mat, she asked us to let our intention rise as one word inside us. Let it resonate.

And that was it.  That's my word.


Grow was on the right track.  I wanted a word for 2017 that moved me into new spaces, into innovation. But my hope for 2017 isn't that I grab for a wild variety of ideas and watch them grow, hope they grow.  Instead, I needed a touchstone word that called for me to be intentional, to have vision, to ensure that my actions resonated with my priorities and that priorities resonated with how I was spending my time and energy.


It is a word that calls me to reflect on how I am helping my students' voices resonate in our world.
It is a word that asks to me pause, to consider what I am asking of others, what I am asking of myself.
It is a word that inspires me act with empathy, with compassion.

"Empathy is the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others. When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering." - Matthieu Ricard


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