Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Student's First Impressions of a PBL High School

By Caleb Abshire, Grade  9
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

            In some high schools, people complain about not having friends. People complain about having too much stuff to do, or not enough stuff to do. People complain about their work being meaningless, and therefore school seeming like a waste of time. When I thought about what I wanted when I went to high school, the main thing I wanted was for my work to count.
            So far, I can say that my work in high school does count. It does mean something, and not just to me.
            The projects we work on are a lot of fun and actually mean something. Just last week I worked on a project where we were making a video that was going to be shown in one of our other classes (Advisory.) It was a lot of fun, and also very fulfilling, to work on something that was meaningful to others, and to myself. 
           The friends that I work with are also very different compared to other high schools. At other high schools, social groups are formed, and these social groups can be very exclusive. At a PBL school, all of the social groups learn to be very tolerant of other people (they have to be,) because it’s a risk to work in a collaborative work environment. But it’s definitely worth it.
            The facilitators are also a lot of fun, and they get the job done great. We have a lot of laughs with our facilitators, and have a lot of questions for them as well; and in the end, it’s those questions that drive our lives forward.
            I am quite happy to learn lessons from my projects. At other schools people might laugh when mistakes are made, expecting perfection. It’s different at a PBL school. People don’t laugh at each other for making mistakes; they try to help one another learn from it so that we can laugh at it at a later date. We build off of each other, branching out to areas of life we might never have been able to reach in a society where the focus is on “who is better”, a society that asks questions like, “How good are your grades?” “Did you win the football game?” “Did you win the marching band competition?” These questions miss the point of why those competitions were created in the first place: to better each other. These competitions help us drive each other forward,  push each other to become better and better each day, to push past the mistakes we’ve made, and to better the lives of those around us. These awards recognize leaders, people that truly work hard to better the lives of people around them. PBL schools work to better the lives of people around them and teach high school students this value. Life is all about getting better personally as well as helping the world get better, and many schools may not teach that second part.
             Project- Based Learning is a very different educational experience than what I expected. Most of the projects that I worked with in elementary school usually only took about a week and had no impact on the people around me. That’s very different at my project- based high school. I used to question myself, asking myself what value I had in this world. I knew that I had value, but I had no idea what that value could be. PBL has given me a sense of purpose because the projects that you undertake have a direct effect on your friends and sometimes even your community. Each day is something new at a PBL school. The students are fun to work with, the facilitators are fun to work for, and the projects are fun to work on. While adjusting to it is a bit hard, the rewards we get in the long run, and the fun we have, working hard, are what make PBL fantastic. It is definitely worth it, for the real life experience, for the friends made, and for the lessons learned.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Low- Maintenance Entry Event Approaches

Labor Day weekend means a much- anticipated opportunity to take a breath. Already, the school year is five weeks old. For many of us, we’re in the second cycle of projects, which means that we have experienced what I think is the hardest aspect of PBL: the changeover. On the one hand, there’s the large quantity of culminating work from the just- ended project, which must be assessed fully; on the other, there’s all of the preparation for the next project. The result is stressful and can be overwhelming.
Over the years we’ve tried everything in terms of approaches to a project launch. Some of them are well- planned and carefully executed. Others are (sometimes for sheer purpose of survival) a bit more on- the- fly. This year, we’ve had a couple of project launches prepared on a short time line that I thought worked well and reduced the burden of many hours of preparation to get a project off the ground. Here are some examples.
     1)      Storytelling
Sometimes the easiest AND most appropriate way to get students thinking about a problem, situation or task is just to tell a story. Research has verified the importance of storytelling as a cognitive tool, so why not use this timeless approach to engage students into a new learning scenario?
In order for us to better learn about the perspectives that our students brought to our Environmental Studies/ English 9 course, we wanted students to write their “Personal Nature Narrative”. Lacking for any better ideas, we read the classic Dr. Seuss book The Lorax and followed it up with a debrief. There are different types of people represented in this book, and those differences represent us. After making sure that everyone understood why we read the story, we got into the logistics of their task.
In using this approach, students had something from which to refer in terms of a possible solution to telling their own story: a great fable about humans and their interaction with nature. The Lorax also happens to be the book that I read my six- year old more than any other; so the story not only helped they connect with the topic, it helped them connect with me at the start of the new year.

     2)      Community event as a project launch

One of the cornerstones of our school culture is our school garden.  We love using it as a learning tool for problem solving in math, science, engineering, environmental studies, and community involvement in general. Last year, we were a part of a “Community Garden Showcase” put on by our local Purdue Extension Office. It was a good event, with students there to talk about their biology research projects in garden ecology. To make a short story even shorter, we knew we wanted to do it again.

We scheduled it for August of this year without really knowing what the details of the event would
We made delicious Bruschetta from the garden tomatoes and basil.
look like, but knowing that we’d have a fall harvest at around that time. In preparation for the event, we introduced kids to the garden and spent time cleaning it up. We picked a harvest to share with the community. Even though these were new students, they quickly connected with the garden because- who knew- there was actual, real food there and because we were on a deadline to get the garden looking presentable!

With several students on hand at the Community Garden Showcase, interacting with Master Gardeners and neighbors, they saw the power and potential of a garden to create community; they didn’t have to wait until the end of the project to see this for their selves. It really gave them something to work towards as we planted a new fall crop. There will be a similar event at the end of the project where they showcase the food we grow and cook from it, and the research we do about making our garden a bigger part of the fabric of our community.

     3)      Jump in with an existing academic program

Is there any good reason why you can’t or shouldn’t use an existing frame work for a contest or academic competition to provide that authentic drive? This year one of my classes is building Scrambler cars, a classic Science Olympiad event, to learn and apply Newton’s Laws of Motion. The event has a rigorous set of rules and constraints, meaning I don’t have to create them! This ialso makes it conducive to a partnership with local engineers, as they are constantly meeting tight parameters and deadlines. Given that all of the contest details are already established, my job shifts to scaffolding the science content and helping them figure out the best ways to build this car. Ultimately I’d love for some of these students to get involved with the program, but whether they do or don’t, we’ll have our own Scrambler car competition judged by engineers, and they will have learned the content I need them to learn.

     4)      Turn a lab into an entry event
The Emerald Ash Borer has been identified in our county within the last year, having spread south from Michigan over the last two decades and infecting practically every Ash tree they encounter. It just so happens that we have Ash trees within a short walk of our building. So, a tree identification activity in my AP Biology class ended up (not by chance) at a White Ash. After the identification was complete, there was a (planned) teachable moment. We use this moment to compare notes about the Emerald Ash Borer’s history and economic impact, and for students to receive their challenge (to document Ash tree locations in our town, mathematically model their spread, and determine possible courses of action for the city.) Through this project we’ll learn community interactions, population dynamics, and evolution.

Not every hastily- planned entry event will be successful, and those who are die- hard planners might not ever take the advice I offer. But sometimes even a meticulously planned entry event can fall flat, either for lack of student “WOW” factor or, simply too much detail. The other thing to know is that there can always be a do- over. If students don’t get or respond to the entry event you present, there’s always tomorrow. They need to understand the task and its importance, so do that “Take Two” if you need to (in which case you KNOW it’s going to be on the fly! Embrace it!)