The most important thing I learned about using project based learning (PBL) last year is that just because I am crazy excited about the teaching method, it doesn’t mean my students will be. I assumed that my students would embrace nontraditional learning, and love learning English Language Arts with hands-on projects. I was wrong. I know that many students enjoyed the projects we did, but there were open complaints from the beginning. My students had been conditioned to think of school, especially their English class, as one-dimensional. I failed to prime them for the experience and won’t make that same mistake again.
This year, I am starting with the WHY. I had seen Simon Sinek’s TED Talk about starting with why, and I still messed it up. That’s why this year I am going to start by asking my students to create a list of skills they think employers will want in their employees when they graduate. Hopefully they come up with skills like communication, critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and collaboration. A quick Internet search reveals that these are some of the skills employers are looking for (this article even comes with cool interactive charts). Once my students see their list, I want to ask them how we can grow those skills in our English class. I want them to see right from the outset that a traditional model of instruction won’t get them there. I want them to be the ones who tell me, we need to do more than sit at a table reading and writing. Then I want to introduce them to the idea of PBL.
Starting with why we are using project based learning is only part of how I’m hoping to improve my classes for the next school year. I also learned last year that I need to be stricter when it comes to deadlines. I was so worried that I, and my students, would look bad if we presented to a live audience and didn’t have everything perfect, so I kept pushing deadlines back to give my feet dragging students time to finish their projects. This only caused problems. Many students finished their work by the original due date and I had to scramble to find them something meaningful to do so they didn’t sit in my class trying to watch movies and YouTube videos on their Chromebooks. One project I tried was never even completed, much to my embarrassment after it had been publicized in the local newspaper and on my district’s website.
I will be focusing on setting firm deadlines for my students and scaffolding the work to ensure we meet those deadlines. I am also going to do fewer projects at the same time. That way I have time to plan and scaffold properly instead of flying by the seat of my khakis. Last year I had three different projects going on with five different classes far too often. I was stretched too thin to do the best job for my students. Thankfully, this year I will only have two different preps with just four classes, due to a schedule change at my school. The pace should slow considerably and my students will benefit from longer classes.
The last reflection I want to mention here is about the number and frequency of projects I forced on my students. For more than the first half of the school year I tried to go wall-to-wall PBL with my sophomore class. By Christmas they were through, and we still had a project to finish in January. That’s right, I ran a project across semesters. Half of it was done and counted as a midterm, and they still had to complete it in the new year. It was a less than ideal situation for them and for me. Fortunately, the project finished on time, thanks to a deadline set by my collaborative partner.
My students and I had open and honest conversations about the projects we were doing. They voiced their complaints and concerns. I listened and explained the reasons why I had pushed them so hard, but I did not become defensive. Their complaints were valid, for the most part, and I wanted their voices to matter. I gave them a few choices for what we could do next, and they decided we would take a break from PBL and read a book instead. After taking time off from PBL we finished the year strong with one last project.
I’ve already started writing three different projects for next year to mix in with some that I’ll revamp and redo, and I have to keep reminding myself not to bite off more than I can chew. I know that my students will benefit from the experiences, but they also deserve to have well-crafted projects that can be completed on time. Of the three new projects I’m drafting, two are for the Spring semester. That will give me enough time to scaffold them and ensure we meet our deadlines.
I’m still crazy about PBL, and this year, I think my students will be too.