Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Persistence in PBL By: Cory Vasek

My PBL journey began many years ago and has been very difficult but totally worth it....

17 years ago, I read an article about PBL that peaked my interest and then spent nine more trying to find anything I could about this practice but without much luck.  That luck changed when I spent a summer at Georgetown for my James Madison Fellowship.  The first person I met was Cathy Alderman who teaches American History at Anderson New Tech High School in Redding, California.  We got to know each other and after a couple of weeks, I casually mentioned I wanted to use PBL.  She responded that was all she used.  A year later, I travelled to California to observe her class and judge if PBL was for me.

I saw students who were independent, yet worked cooperatively, used critical thinking, and acquired problem solving skills.  The process of a project was important, but students were also learning history as well as working on today’s issues.  I was going to use Project Based Learning no matter what, but now I had to find a way to get more training.

That opportunity came in the summer of 2014.  I searched long and wide for a place to get additional training.  I came into contact with Bob Abrams who at the time was working for an organization called Economic Opportunities through Education by 2015 (EcO15), a workforce development/education initiative, funded by the Lilly Endowment, that operated in 10 SE Indiana counties. According to Bob, "the initiative embraced PBL as an effective model for supporting students to success at tough STEM subjects". After talking to Bob, I decided the closest and best option was the PBL Academy at Jac-Cen-Del High School in Osgood, Indiana.  My school was willing to pay for my registration fee, but I had to pay for my transportation and lodging.  After being trained by excellent teachers like Andrew Larson from CSA New Tech in Columbus, I was ready to try my first unit.  I ran it that fall.  The unit was on Immigration in my American History class.   It went well, but I needed to revise it so I went back to Indiana the following summer for additional training and have been going back to the PBL Open Workshop every summer since.  I have also added a unit on democracy (I won an award the first year I taught this!) and will be using a media unit later this year as well.
Me accepting the Strengthening Democracy award from my Community Partner (Nebraskans for Civic Reform) for the work on my Democracy Unit.

What has made my transition to PBL difficult?  Besides the money/travel I mentioned earlier, I am the only one in my school to use it.  There are not really any cross curricular opportunities because of that.  My administration accepts me doing this but is not overly supportive.  Because of this, converting to a total PBL culture in my class has been difficult.  I also coach two sports, lead an annual trip to Washington D.C. and help with its fundraisers, and am working on Nebraska’s civic improvement initiative.  So having the time available to plan and run a total PBL conversion has not been an option.

I don’t want to sound like I am complaining because I am not.  It has been a difficult transition, and I will continue to teach PBL and convert more units until I use PBL “wall to wall.”  For anyone that is struggling with the decision to convert or to continue using PBL, stay strong.  You can do it.  Is it hard?  Yes.  Is it worth the struggle?  Absolutely!  When I feel tired or think it would be easier to go back to a more traditional model, I always come back to what this country needs from education at this moment and going forward…cooperative learners, critical thinkers, and problem solvers. The best option to develop these kinds of students is Project Based Learning. 

Cory Vasek is a 7th and 8th grade history teacher at Mary Our Queen school in Omaha, and has been teaching for 22 years.  He has been implementing PBL since 2014.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Teacher's Holiday Wish LIst

Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School
Columbus, Indiana

Being a teacher often means being one who accepts delayed gratification. Just yesterday at the gym I ran into a former student who had just graduated from college with a degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology and was immediately employed. I was touched when he said, “Thanks for everything, especially the technical writing!” The times that students reach out to us mean a LOT. I don’t need to remind anyone of the fact that it’s why we do what we do. But we also know that those thanks may take a decade or so to crystalize in students’ minds and only some of them ever reach out at all. I suppose all of that hard work that we make students do does not always feel like a “thanks” is warranted!

During the holidays, though, all is forgiven. Depending on the state of the economy, some holiday seasons find us inundated with cookies, chocolate- dipped pretzels, coffee mugs and maybe even a couple gift cards (fist pump.)

It’s all nice. It’s all appreciated. At the end of the day (and I suspect I speak for most teachers here) my list came back to what items most benefit our learning environment. (For the record, I will never turn away a gift card--- they are the only Christmas Bonus we’ll ever see, so now that that has been said, here is my wish list for this year.) But here is a personal list from several facilitators at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School in Columbus, Indiana.

1. Food. One of the most gratifying acts that I carry out regularly is offering students something to eat. It is almost always the case that when I see a tired or grumpy student, a bite of something will help. Every week when I go grocery shopping, on my list is always a couple boxes of granola bars and a big container of nuts. I keep these items in a drawer in my desk and students know that I will feed any of them, any time, no questions asked. By necessity, any gifted food will need to be of the packaged and portable variety, but even so, they do not have to be excessively sugary. I love introducing kids to protein and energy bars, nuts they rarely eat because they are expensive, and protein- fortified granola that provide far more nutritional value than the “cereal bars” they can grab in the cafeteria. Providing this particular form of aid for a student has a visceral and wholly gratifying feeling, and not only do they appreciate it, but their behavior almost always improves and our relationship grows as a result.

Another weekly ritual that we do at school is borrowed from the Swedes. Once a week we have Fika, a short break from the work to sit together and have a few bits of food and a warm drink. As a study abroad student during college, I learned to love Fika, which occurred twice per day, no matter the weather. Most Swedes will tell you that even though they love their coffee, it’s not about the coffee; it’s about the pause, the time together, and the ritual. For us, instead of coffee and chocolate, it might be a Dixie cup of hot cocoa or juice and a bit of scone or hummus and pita chips (again, another opportunity to introduce new, healthier food options.) I ask students to chip in on the cups and anything not perishable that we use. Fika supplies would also be warmly accepted as a holiday gift.

2. Magazine subscriptions. Their impact ripples through classrooms and beyond. Given that they can be saved, passed along, or cut up for collages, they make for a flexible gift. Educational titles such as Popular Mechanics, Time, and Scientific are a favorite of UDL Specialist Laura Burbrink. Facilitator Joe Steele also appreciates the subscriptions that speak to a common interest between he and a student, such as a Rolling Stone subscription. In addition to being a great source of leisure reading, it also builds relationships between teacher and student. And they last a year (or more.)

3. Houseplants. For obvious reasons, having plants in a classroom makes the learning environment better. In a good year, I like my room to feel like a jungle. Naturally, students should become the stewards of those plants and these jobs can provide that important responsibility and trust that, again, grows relationships between teacher and students. Houseplant care is a great skill to learn that can spill over into gardening, horticulture, landscape design or farming. Being generally easy to care for, students come to see that there is no real mysticism involved in caring for plants, and that simply knowing the care requirements and consistently monitoring & watering them can go a very long way. Given that plants need supplies (many of which may be languishing in the garages or sheds of my students,) I would also graciously accept new or used ceramic pots, bags of potting soil, and fertilizer sticks.

I prefer plants to classroom pets not just for the ease of care but also for their long life and the bond that can form between a person and a plant that they might find surprising. Also, there is something really cool about taking a really sickly, brown plant and nurturing it back to strength (with little real threat of tragedy if it does not work out.) Imagine if that plant is then gifted to the student that saw its return to health. Now there is a “regift” worth giving!

4. Clothing donations. At our school, we have a Professional Dress Closet that students may access for presentation outfits. It is an expectation that students look their very best for presentations, which at our school, happen often. Teachers regularly contribute gently worn shirts, pants, blouses, dress shoes, ties, and belts to the Closet, but even so, there could always be more; often students will hurry in to a presentation looking a bit “frumpy,” wearing pants that are clearly two sizes too big. We smile, offer a nod of approval, and wish we had pants for such a student that actually fit!

Once students learn the basics of professional dress (like having dress clothes, remembering to bring them, tying ties and tucking in shirts,) we then like to add more “advanced” topics, such as matching shoes and a belt, creating a mix- and- match wardrobe, and learning to iron. To take those additional steps means to have a more robust selection from which to choose. Knowing that only certain families have the ways and means to pass along extra (clean) dress clothing (on a hanger,) it is probably also true that those families are the same ones that would be bringing in cookies for us anyway.

5. Personal and handmade goods. Chemistry facilitator Josie Senko says, “I think the best types of gifts from students or parents are ones that are thought out and specific for the person.  I appreciate cards that talk about something they value about me, little trinkets specific to my content, or gifts that are homemade and help me connect to the student more.  One of my favorite gifts I received was a little gift box with lotions and such that the family of the student makes and sells.  It showed me what the student does outside of school and gave me a connection to the family that I may not have had otherwise.” I have received such handmade or personalized gifts that are not only sentimental but also practical; I can use them as scaffolds for content, like the Tangle toy that can model protein folding or the student- made clay cell model that is so uncannily accurate that fifteen years’ worth of students have picked it up with amazement.

For most of us, the holidays are a joyous time of year that offers us a chance to breathe and devote time to our families, hobbies, and other passions. We will all eat too much, so extra sweets as gifts are burdensome. Coffee mugs are great, but if they are holiday- themed (they will be,) then we will either tuck them away into an over- full cabinet or awkwardly use the mug year round. Handmade trinkets are special and sentimental, but for pragmatic teachers like me, I would prefer something that can create benefit for students in the future. But whether I get a pile of gifts this season or not, I will be back in January, with the rest of the teacher world, and we will keep doing the necessary work that will pay back society in a million invisible ways over the next half century and beyond.