While planning for the beginning of the new school year, one of our teachers felt it was important for us to address the summer’s violent events in order to help students process them. Yes! Absolutely! As a school with a social justice focus, a school that values exploring many perspectives, a school that works to create safe environments for our diverse students to express how they see themselves in the world, analyzing and discussing these events felt urgent and necessary. Figuring out the best way to do that while also keeping in mind curricular time constraints, adolescent development, and the challenges faced when addressing issues of race and class, would not be a simple task. At PFFS, we believe our focus on social justice and environmental sustainability should be reality based, but grounded in agency and hope.
Which is where project based learning (“PBL”) comes in. At our staff retreat, teachers were provided with professional development on PBL and then given planning time to collaboratively work on developing a unit/project they would be teaching. We discussed ways to establish a culture of PBL from the get go, using a BIE hangout on the topic as a text to discuss strategies that we could use right away. See Building a PBL Culture.
As part of our discussion, we came up with the great idea of using our study of the summer events as a way to both introduce PBL and have students immediately delve into examining how we want to create a school culture that is safe and supportive for all. So our project, taught in a two-day intensive at PFFS-Downtown, and in Advisory over the course of several weeks at PFFS-University, will have our students addressing this Driving Question:
How do we learn from the lessons of this summer to create a model community where difficult, but important conversations happen in a safe, respectful and loving way?
Their end product will be a set of recommendations that we will use as school norms for the year. In addressing this question, students will inevitably have to learn about not only the events in Baton Rouge, Dallas and elsewhere, but they will research the resulting public responses (some highly publicized others not so much) and assess their relative effectiveness. They will also look into work that has been done for decades around promoting peaceful, productive discourse and research. Students will then synthesize the results of their collaborative inquiry to create consensus on proposed school norms.
It is possible that after delving into this sustained inquiry, students may work towards taking actionable next steps with our larger community, connecting with local groups who are already engaged in doing good work in the areas of social justice. Actionable next steps are necessary for creating a culture of agency and hope. Especially at a time when there is so much frustration and learned helplessness.
Our hope is that embarking on a project in this way, they will see first hand that their work at PFFS is topical, relevant and will be actually put to use in a meaningful way When we have difficult conversations in the future – as we inevitable will – we will be so much better equipped to tackle them effectively as a community.
The events of this summer have been hard to watch – so much violence and pain has been inflicted. Our hope is to help our young people witness what is going around them, but with tools that will help them individually and collectively analyze and process them, allowing them to see how they can be a part of making this world a better place for all.