Saturday, January 30, 2016

Education That Means Something

By Samantha Cooksey, Grade  12
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

Learning comes in many different forms but seemingly the most common method used by instructors today in traditional schools is reading from bland, outdated textbooks and regurgitating facts and rules until they’re branded into your memory like a tattoo. Except for some kids, it’s almost like their “skin” physically cannot hold onto these “tattoos,” and they just wash off like they’re temporary so they can make room for the next one. I can’t help but wonder if the instructors who rely so heavily on textbooks and online tutorials do anything to help kids whose retention may not be as strong as others’. I know that I definitely wouldn’t have survived through high school if I had continued on the traditional route, just based on my experience in a traditional elementary school.

I’m one of those students who doesn’t gain much of anything from just reading academic texts. The mere sight of a mathematics book in 6th grade was enough to make me want to cry. My classmates would popcorn read from science texts while I would doodle nonchalantly in the margins of my notebook (and be reprimanded for it). My teacher would pass out worksheets upon worksheets, make us write down every single assignment we had for homework that night in an agenda, and I could feel every individual brain cell in my head set itself on fire. By the time I had scraped by into my last year of elementary school, I had already, in my youthful naivety, considered asking my mother to pull me out and homeschool me. So far, I felt like everything I had learned (save for a few important things) was completely meaningless to me.

I was inducted into the CSA program during middle school in the program’s earlier years. PBL was a relatively new concept in my little hometown of Columbus by the time I was introduced to it, so it had its fair share of flaws, but it was something different and new to me. It worked. I felt involved and engaged. That’s what changed my outlook on the concept of education. Before, I competed against my classmates to see who could fill out a multiplication table the fastest, who could read the most advanced books for AR points, who could run the longest without tiring during gym. But when I began my path on PBL, suddenly I was doing things that mattered. I found myself being part of projects that helped the community, left a mark on our tiny back-end-of-nowhere town, and put myself and my peers within the public eye. Suddenly, my education meant something, and I was learning skills more valuable than quick thinking and deep retention that only really helped when taking ridiculous standardized tests.

All of the projects that left me feeling the most changed as a student forced me to think beyond proving that I learned the content to get a grade. In AP Biology, my class was appointed the task of finding a solution to a serious invasive species problem with which the trees in our town were afflicted. If you told elementary-aged me that I would be doing research that could help protect the environment from real biological threats, I wouldn’t have believed you, because I never expected any of the work I did in school to be significant enough to even make it past the walls of the building.

In my Spanish class, I remember a vast majority of the projects we did leaving a profound impact on Columbus. With every new unit we did, we found another way to celebrate Spanish culture and educate our non-Spanish peers about it. Every year, SeƱora Orr holds a Dia de los Muertos event and encourages anybody from the community to attend. The last year that I participated in it, I heard that a Spanish lady who attended the event came to my facilitator afterwards, crying tears of joy because she was so touched and thankful that my class had reached out to her and her culture in the way that we had. Almost every single project I did in that class had something to do with teaching others and spreading cultural awareness. That is the sign of a good project--the fact that its reach was far enough to influence complete strangers not involved with our school in any way was astounding, and made me feel like I had been a part of something worthwhile.

If I had to list what I thought made a project great, that list would probably look something like this:
  1. It forces you to push your own boundaries of comfort, causing you to do things that you from a few years ago NEVER thought to be possible.
  2. It leaves an impact, not only on you and your class, but the community as well. It needs to make a difference.
  3. It teaches you how to work effectively as a group. Studying independently has its benefits, but learning how to work alongside peers is a valuable skill, especially when you start looking for a job.
  4. It allows you to think big. As in, “Yes, you should contact this super important person and see if they can show up to our event,” or “Yeah, there is absolutely a chance that you can make a new scientific discovery.” “You can compete in a national competition and win.” “You can have your work posted for the entire writing community to see and go perform in front of hundreds.” That kind of big-picture thinking always made me feel like I was more than just a high school student.    
  5. It teaches you other important skills, like time management, organization, and communication. (ESPECIALLY communication--talking to strangers is very hard for students like me!)

Making a good project requires creativity. It’s always a breath of fresh air when my facilitators make up their own projects, because that lets me know that they really care about the quality of the education that their students get. I can’t help but be excited when we have important figures act as our community partners, like when my English 12 facilitators recruited the help of the author, Michael Cart for a project about book reviews. It feels invigorating when projects take the class to different places, like a museum in Louisville where we set up exhibits that we created, and for some, the still-recovering areas of New Orleans where students literally helped people rebuild their homes. I love when projects force my group members and me to tackle building things that we’ve never tried even wrapping our heads around beforehand, like a freaking cardboard boat.

The way my facilitators have integrated real-world situations with the standards of education they are made to teach has impressed me, even to this day in my 6th year of participating in PBL. I hope that someday, all the teachers who’ve spent their time teaching from outdated textbooks are shown the wonders that PBL can create for their students. I know that from my experience, I have become a significantly well-rounded student as a result of it, and having the kind of education that I’ve received is so much more valuable than I realized after starting it.