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Five reasons to showcase our project based learning*

JoAnn Groh

*This blog by Paulo Freire Freedom School-Downtown principal JoAnn Groh was published originally on the BIE website on June 7, 2017 and on the CITY Center for Collaborative Learning website on June 17, 2017.

One of the requisite design elements in BIE’s Gold Standard Project Based Learning is the need for projects to include a ‘public product’. Last year our schools went all in on that element by hosting the Pennington Street Showcase featuring work from almost 50 different projects and performances completed that year in our three schools.  The event was held from 3:00-7:00 pm on a Friday evening and was open to parents and community members, and over 1000 people came to assess and celebrate students’ performances. It was a lot of work, but I think well worth the effort and I would encourage my fellow educators to similarly design experiences to showcase the work done by their young people.  Here’s my take on its benefits:

1) Accountability – Measuring Our Impact

“If we want to be evaluated by something other than test scores, it is incumbent upon we innovative, progressive educators to come up with other ways of telling our stories.” When I heard this quote at a Deeper Learning workshop, I heard it as a call to action. No more waiting around for someone else to solve the problem of too narrowly framed assessment measures. Committing to sharing student work with the public is a great accountability measure because PBL performances are likely to require demonstration of a broader skill set including not only content knowledge, but also important 21st century skills such as collaboration, creative problem solving, communication and creativity.

2) Community Learning – Teaching Our Friends and Family

These public demonstrations of learning can have the added effect of educating our community about topics they might not be readily familiar with. As an example, in the tradition of a Chautauqua, an adult education movement popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, our 6th and 7th graders hosted a community event focusing on climate change. The night included three parts:

  • Act 1 – A series of two minute TED style talks given by pairs of kids about mitigation and innovation related to climate change in developing countries.
  • Act 2 Part 1 – Voices of anger and despair from the future. Students will deliver from a future perspective of a community that has been devastated by climate change. It will reference science and needs to be thoroughly grounded in research. Products could include poetry, monologue dance etc.
  • Act 2 Part 2 – Voices of empowerment from the future. An uplifting end to the event in which student will again present from a future perspective, but this time to thank the current 2015 generation for their efforts in recognizing and acting on climate change.

Of course most of our audience already had some knowledge surrounding climate change, but by the end of the night everyone agreed that they had learned a ton about different aspects of climate change impacts as well as the ramifications of the COP21 Summit in France. Public demonstrations of student learning are an opportunity to bring our community together to focus on critically important topics we all could learn more about.

3) Increased Student Effort – Making It Real Makes It Important

When students know they will have an audience beyond their teacher, there is an immediate adrenaline boost that motivates them to up their game. This is particularly true in motivating students to take the revision process seriously. I knew we had this one down when one day I got a call from a parent excusing her son from school that day for being sick and she said, “Noah is devastated because he knows that today is peer review day and he really needs the feedback in order to revise his project before Exhibition night.”

4) Public Dialogue –  Talking About Schools

I have found that my truest conversations with the public about why and how school should change to meet the emerging changes of our society happen at these public events when parents and community members are exposed to the impact that PBL teaching can have. It is hard not to question the reliance on traditional drill and kill teaching methodologies when exposed to deep learning that looks like the amazing performances that they are being exposed to.

5) Celebration of Youth – Giving Them the Spotlight

Finally, our kids are wonderful — diverse, creative, energetic, kooky. School can be hard on them as they work to navigate social challenges, manage the pressures of home life, work and applying for college, and balance coursework from multiple classes. What better way to honor their individuality and work and to let them shine publicly and then recognize them for their awesomeness? Nothing is as beautiful as watching students visibly glow with pride after successfully completing a significant accomplishment. And success is contagious; as students begin to believe in what they can do, they do more.

Our Showcase in April 2017 is now several months in the past and we are reflecting on what we can do this year to improve its format. It feels a little like childbirth to me, in that right after we finished I questioned if I would ever go through that again. With a little time and perspective, I’ve forgotten the stress and am ready to go at it again. The joy we get from watching our students exhibit their academic skills and knowledge at an unprecedented level, particularly when those performances are in front of their parents, siblings and the community, makes it well worth the effort!

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