This is the third post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.
I remember as a kid that Stretch Armstrong was definitely the ultimate Christmas present. I am pretty sure that at some point I “accidentally” punctured or cut him in someway just to figure what exactly was inside his amazing body. Teaching with the PBL framework can feel like you are getting pulled in many directions at times between student voice and choice, community partners, and your regular teaching demands. Teachers who are more flexible have, dare I say, a less stressful time with PBL and their students benefit from the freedom granted.
The most flexible teacher that I know is my friend, Nate Langel. He is a science teacher who is willing to do anything to get kids excited about learning. Want to do an integrated project, he’s in. He doesn’t worry about timing with his calendar or standards. He knows that he will make it work with the NGSS emphasis on practice and application. Want to partner on a project about poverty, the problems of industrialization, or water? Nate is leading the charge!
What we can learn from Nate’s approach is that he often starts with a great project concept, not the standards. Then he looks through his content and finds the standards to match. This allows him to be flexible to all kinds of project ideas that at first glance, might not “look” like they fit his class.
The other thing that Nate does well is that his students do not perform canned labs but design their own experiments around a problem or theme of the PBL project. He encourages students to research and come up with crazy hypotheses that students can test. “Normal” in his classroom is to see every group of students working on a totally different experiment towards a common group of standards. Kids love the opportunity to be creative and ask their own questions.
Maybe you are not ready to be this flexible yet. How about starting like another colleague of mine? His students were creating PSA’s around the topic of invasive species. A group of girls approached him about a local problem. The airport was using a de-icing agent on their runways that was ending up in the nearby stream and polluting it. They wanted to research the effects. He let this group do a separate project while still meeting the content standards. You might guess that this group was more invested in the project than the rest of the class and did the highest quality work.
When you run a student-centered classroom with voice and choice, then you have to be flexible to where students decide to take the projects. It’s more of a road trip to your learning goals than using GPS. Of course, Google Maps can take you anywhere by the fastest route and help you avoid construction, accidents, and tolls. But sometimes the “obstacles” are where the greatest learning takes place.
Starting a PBL road trip means that you know the destination of standards and enduring understandings that your class is headed for, but let students choose the route and where to stop to take selfies along the way. Students learn how to manage the project and themselves, and are more motivated along the way.
Killing a Project
Sometimes projects go off the rails. There are always unforeseen difficulties that arise with school events, student groups, and the logistics of working with your community partners. Acts of God can throw a monkey wrench in. We once had to cancel our field trip to local factories to launch a school wide project because of a snow day. Then the community partner cancelled an appearance the following day because of the storms. PBL teachers have to be willing to improvise when things don’t go as expected because I can guarantee that challenges will come.
One year my students made Choose your own Adventure videos about World War I and World War II. This was a whole class assignment of 50 students working together to research, storyboard, write a script, make props, act, film, and edit the final product.
Things went south in so many ways. I did not create enough structure for the students to organize and complete the project (yes, teachers can be too flexible). There were miscommunications; students forgot costumes at home on filming day; everything took longer than expected; filmed scenes were lost as we had no system to get the files easily from the cameras to computers for editing.
After a few weeks, one class had very few final videos completed and the other class had a hodge podge of scenes done. Neither class was anywhere near a final product and would probably need weeks to finish. My teaching partner and I made the decision to kill the project. Sometimes it is necessary to discard a project that isn’t working. We reflected on the obstacles with our students and were able to improve our processes for future projects the rest of the year.
Teaching with a PBL framework is going to bring some unsuspected challenges. Being flexible ensures that you honor your student’s voice and choice and may also help you to keep your sanity!
Links to the rest of the series on Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher: