Teachers are tired right now as it has been a long and stressful year. Students are getting antsy this spring as they may not have the endurance for an entire year of school after the Covid disruptions the previous two years. All of us have experienced some level of trauma and are dealing with it in our own ways. Students may be tired, bored, or apathetic to school right now.
Textbooks and worksheets are not going to cut it if we want to engage kids in deeper learning. Project Based Learning can energize our students by giving them meaningful tasks in the community. When students embark into inquiry on a current issue in their community they find relevance in the curriculum. They are motivated to solve real problems that impact their lives. Students begin to see themselves as important members of their community who can influence and bring change. It leads to confidence in themselves as learners.
The Legacy Project
A few years ago I taught in an alternative high school full of students who were mainly there to get their diploma and get out. The staff worked hard to build trusting and caring relationships with these young people, many of whom had experienced significant trauma. Our school was a safe haven for them, and they thrived in our strong culture.
My favorite tradition was how we sent off students when they completed their coursework. We had eight half quarters so students were “graduating” all throughout the year. Our school building was a long modular unit with a single hallway down the middle. Whenever a student was done, we paused all classes, and everyone lined the hallway and clapped as the graduate walked the hallway like a gauntlet getting high-fives and hugs as they went. It was amazing time of celebration and joy!
All of the teachers at the school used a PBL framework, and we decided to end the year with an interdisciplinary school-wide project. We challenged students with the Driving Question: “What will be my legacy at East Lee?” Students brainstormed and listed many improvements that could be made to our facilities. They described our campus as feeling like a prison with our drab beige building, overgrown landscape, locked chained link fence in front, and worn out classrooms.
Students came up with all kinds of ideas. Some were beyond our scope–such as a new basketball court (but we did get a portable hoop to use in the parking lot). But many of their ideas were implemented with the help of some business donations. The biggest task was painting the exterior of our building with the help of a local painting company who bought the paint and provided the tools. But students also successfully petitioned the superintendent to remove the locked gate and fence in front. This may seem trivial, but it made a strong impact on how students felt they were treated and trusted. We also built flower boxes, planted trees, and re-did the landscaping.
Students had an incredible sense of pride as they improved our school. They knew that they were leaving it in better condition for future kids. Students saw themselves as contributing members of our community. Student representatives started attending board meetings sharing their perspectives on district policies. Rather than being seen as outcasts from the main high school, they found voice and purpose in who they were.
Students gained many SEL skills through this project: confidence, communication, problem-solving, advocacy, hard effort toward a goal, planning and managing their teams. For our returning students, we established a culture of pride and achievement to launch the following year. We were able to transfer their SEL skills to learning goals in the classroom helping them achieve graduation and long-term career plans afterward.
One and done Professional Development is ineffective. Here’s a great little post about questions you should be asking before you hire a consultant. I would be glad to develop a vision with you!
If you are interested in how your school can use a PBL framework to challenge students with meaningful work I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. Summer dates are filling up fast. Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss how I could partner with your school for Project Based Learning, Transformative SEL workshops, or coaching options. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.