Friday, August 17, 2012

Project-Based Musings: A Beginning

watch it
The upsurge in conversations hashtagged #PBL-- Project-based Learning-- streaming through my Twitter feed has been fun to watch. I'm interested in the current surge of interest in PBL because I spent most of my secondary teaching career as the Language Arts teacher in a year-long, challenge-based experiential program for high school seniors. And while I love reading about and hearing some of the experiences people have had with project-based learning, I  also think that some important things either go unsaid or get glossed over when we strive to step-- or think-- outside the box that education has become.

For the next period of time, I want use this blog to reflect on some of these unsaid, glossed-over, invisible things. I do this in part as a way to think through some aspects of my dissertation, in part as a way to reflect on the course I just finished teaching, and in part because, well, aren't we supposed to feed the Commons? (Is that Howard Rheingold's phrasing?) IOW, if I have experience that might benefit another educator, let me put it out there.

In the challenge program I mentioned above, I developed and taught the Language Arts 'curriculum' that wove through the different segments of the program, including backpacking, extensive community service projects, and long-term career internships. Other colleagues focused on Social Studies and Environmental Science, as well as related electives. Together my colleagues and I co-planned the experiential aspects of the program and facilitated the students' processes through them. We were guided by our beliefs, and others', that when students confronted and had to work through challenges, they would develop the confidence and dispositions with which to build meaningful adult lives.
Adirondack Mountains 2003

In other words, when the students were backpacking, so were we. When the time in the school year came to do something tangible for somebody else, we coached the students on how to identify a need, devise ideas to meet the need, contact someone in the community, etc. We taught kids to write resumes and make cold calls; they interviewed for and secured internships in careers they wanted to explore.

Me, I asked them to write. A lot. All the time. On mountain-tops, on the job, in a class meeting. We wrote, shared our writing, wrote some more.

Through each experience, we asked students to set personal goals and reflect on what they had done to achieve them, as well as to work through the barriers in their own thinking that had held them back. "You can do more than you think you can" was like a mantra humming in the background of everything we did. And the students could, and often did.

For that matter, so did we. Because in any project-based learning experience, everybody is a learner. And that can be a very humbling experience for a teacher.


watch it by emdot used via Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.0
Adirondack Mountains 2003 by Karen LaBonte 


A few PBL-related resources that splashed across my Twitter stream:


  1. I am so excited that you have decided to dedicate your blog for the time-being to this topic. My school is a hotbed of project-based learning, partly because the environment in which the school exists literally demands attention. I do want to learn about some of the unforeseen challenges (and triumphs).

    To your class' credit, I designed the first unit for my grade 8 students around a performance project done in conjunction with a visiting artist from the 52nd Street Project in NYC. While the grade 8 class will only have one day of workshops in person, the performances sparked from and developed beyond that day will be recorded and shared via a blog. The visiting artist will be able to provide ongoing feedback and commentary from across the Atlantic.

    I am quite excited: this is project-based learning within four walls. And I have no doubt that I will be growing right along with my students.

  2. Alexis, what a great project you have lined up for your students! I love how you will use the blogs to maintain and grow a conversation with the artist. That one visit has the potential to become an overarching theme for your year! Thanks for reading.