One of the questions I get when I help teachers think about how to incorporate project based learning (“PBL”) in their classrooms has to do with how to get started. Unless you are teaching in a school that has made a campus-wide commitment to PBL, it is likely that at the beginning of the year you will be facing some students with little to no experience with it, and PBL classrooms look and feel very different than those using traditional direct instruction. So I often advise teachers to start small, stay within their students’ and their own comfort zone, and make sure to scaffold the learning experience to ensure early success that can be built on throughout the year.
So when we opened Paulo Freire Freedom School–Downtown this year, we had to make a decision on how to introduce PBL to our kids. Advice notwithstanding, there was no toe dipping with us – we went all in trusting that our kids would rise to the challenge; and rise up they did.
In our very first minutes together, during our whole school community meeting, we introduced our Driving Questions – How do we discover the community we are now a part of? And, How can we construct the community we desire? From those questions and the “need-to-knows” that followed we categorized our inquiry into 5 subject areas:
1) Paulo Freire Freedom School – what can we learn about the existing school, who/what the school is named from, its beliefs and traditions, its mission and vision?
2) What are these things called “advisories” — what is their purpose and what happens during this time?
3) Who are we as individuals? How can we learn about our respective strengths/stretches and most importantly our passions? How can we convey this information in an interesting, easily accessible way?
4) What is Downtown Tucson like? Where can you go to find food, be safe, get help, play, learn?
5) How does the experience of immigrants living in an inner city Cleveland neighborhood, who come together to plant a garden, connect to our experience in Tucson? (This question was a teacher plant to introduce the novel Seedfolks that we read).
We spent a week exploring all the above together. It required field trips, on-line research, adult interviews, riding the bus, learning to use new technology, learning how to collect, analyze and display data, discussing how to work in groups and how to create effective presentations. After a week, students selected presentation groups and set forth to develop a 5-7 minute presentation that they would then perform for a class of high school seniors (our new school is connected to an existing high school). After they had time to refine their presentations using the high school feedback, we ended our 7-day Introductory PBL mini-unit with presentations to their parents so they would be educated about our new community.
Neither the presentations, nor the process were perfect. We have a better understanding of the collective and individual skill levels of our students in a variety of areas and are reflecting on how we can fine tune our next project to best address those levels. But we also have set a baseline – and it’s pretty high – for what we expect them to accomplish. More importantly, students themselves are aware of what they can do.
If you are a practitioner reading this, you might be wondering about the specifics of how we did this. There are a lot of factors in our favor – we are a very small school committed to PBL so we hired teachers who were on board and our parents are either active supporters of the methodology or at least indifferent. Our size allows us to have a flexible schedule and permits nimble decisions that first and foremost support our learning goals. Also, I am on the BIE National Faculty and was able to take the lead in designing the overall experience. But the point is not to advocate for the replication of this unit or to “go all in” the next time you are considering PBL. Rather I just would encourage teachers not to sell themselves or their students short – to take the risk and forge ahead. As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” Take the shot!