I am approaching the end of my 14th year of teaching High School students English/Language Arts. I have taught all grade levels in that 14 years with the exception of 10th grade. It seems as though the profession of Education continues to evolve and revolve. I am examining uncharted waters , for me at least, in the methods I want to employ to engage my students. I praise those that have gone before me and plan to follow their charts and trip logs.
I have been grappling with the idea of project-based learning for several years. A few years back I attended a training presented by Dr. Roger Taylor. Taylor presented a fascinating concept he called I-Search Research. In general, the concept was to provide students with an open-ended “Big Question” and allow them to explore their own creativity to reach a conclusion, or “A-HA Moment.” The method is designed to engage the gifted and talented students, stretching the limits of their potential. I was so enthralled by this method that I began to immediately implement I-Search Research into my lesson plans for each unit. Culminating each unit, students are given a “Big Question” along with several options to explore that big question. The students, then, are limited by their own creativity as to the process they use to examine the big question, synthesize it, and present it. Students are required to create a hands-on product as well as use a form of mulit-media to present their research and product. Since implementing this method of discovery learning in my classroom, I have found that students enjoy this experience of each unit the best. Yes it is challenging but most students often find it engaging to explore their own creativity. During some units we will create teams and have a contest to see which team can provide the best product and presentation given their topic and research.
The I-Search Research projects allow students to utilize and employ any Web 2.0 tools at their disposal. A colleague of mine pointed me in the direction of a great web resource, Cool Tools For Schools, that gives students an overwhelming amount of options to use in the multi-media element of their I-Search Research. Students are fascinated, sometimes frustrated, at the exciting new opportunities for them to explore. Some students want to rely on Power Point for their multi-media, but the Web 2.0 apps force them to expand their horizons.
A few years ago the leaders of our school district began to zero in on standardized testing results. Faculty in our school district held ‘data retreats’ to explore our students’ needs based on results from the Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Exam and the ACT. Based on the results of the data retreat and the cumulative scores on both the state standardized test and the national standardized test educators believed that we needed to do a better job at mimicking the standardized testing experience. It was suggested that the majority of our quizzes and tests were processed and presented in the same standardized testing format. Along with this push there was also strong recommendations, based on the data, that our students needed to write more and read more non-fiction. No problem. Our English department went on a mission to overhaul the quizzes and tests in each of our units. We collaborated and shared all of our information. After a few years of this, I’m not quite sure if we have accomplished our goal or if we have plateaued to a certain extent regarding the standardized testing results. In any case, I am in search of something more…for me and for my students.
Given the need for all educators to meet standards and benchmarks on the state and national levels, as well as the need for our students to ‘do well’ on standardized testing, I believe there is a more effective way of engaging our students. Beyond the idea of reading a book, writing about it, then taking a test on it lies a much more engaging method to allow our students to own, not just ‘buy in’, their education.
Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, clearly and effectively shows how important creativity is in our learning and, even more, the necessity of the awakening of our right-brain to compete in a global job market. The point is, as educators, we need to provide opportunities for our students to open their minds, explore various methods of learning, and allow them to grow intellectually and emotionally. It is imperative that educators supply these opportunities as well as maintain a course where standards and benchmarks remain on the radar.
Project-Based Learning is the method of engagement I am going to focus on for the next academic year. First, the structure of my classroom has to change. I have tables in my classroom and all of the students currently sit at them in a traditional manner. The tables are going to be moved to form the perimeter of the classroom. The chairs will all be facing the open space in the middle. I want the tables to be used as ‘work benches’ rather than flat surfaces to take tests. The filing cabinets that are filled with paper files of days gone by, the teacher’s desk, and all of the piles of paper that I use as resources are going to be eliminated. This new work space must be inviting while meeting the needs of the workers.
I am no longer going to be on the stage while my students are sitting and getting. I haven’t really practiced this method of instruction for years since the invocation of the I-Search Research, but the physical set-up of the classroom will be more indicative of a student-centered ‘center’. I will be the guide on the side. I know, we have heard that before but it’s time to put it completely into practice.
In my research on project-based learning I have found four informative websites that have helped shaped the beginning of this journey for me. The first site I found was the Buck Institute for Education. This website provides a step-by-step process for getting started and provides great resources for support in project-based learning. Another informative website for project-based learning and many other educational resources is Edutopia. This website provides a plethora of insight for educators in many areas including teaching methods, teaching strategies, and current trends in education. The third website I found to be very helpful is Project-Based Learning: The Online Resource for PBL. This site provides many collaborative opportunities and I found it helpful in getting started with designing projects based on content. The final site I found provides checklists or rubrics, specific to grade level and content, Project Based Learning: PBL Checklists powered by 4Teachers.org.
I asked my building principal recently, “When does being an educator become easy?” The response, as you might know, is that it never does. That’s why not everyone can be an effective teacher. I have been teaching for 14 years and my job has a soul, is a living being, it keeps growing and evolving. Not only does the field of education evolve for each individual teacher’s experience, it also revolves…what has been will be again, that is, if you can continue to learn, grow, and evolve with your students. Teaching is exciting when we decide, as educators, to continue to learn. I love to learn and will continue to learn along with my students through each and every peak and valley of education.