This is why I use project based learning (PBL). As a language arts teacher, it’s not always easy to engage all of my students. Lots of kids don’t like to read and write. They don’t enjoy learning about subject-verb agreements or reading the plays of William Shakespeare. For my first three years as a teacher I struggled with how I could engage more of my students in a content area I’ve loved since early childhood. I have always been enthusiastic about reading and writing, and that enthusiasm helped engage more students than the material alone, but it wasn’t enough.
This year, in a new school, I’ve been given the freedom to create non-traditional units centered around a driving question that build toward a culminating project. I’ve seen increased engagement from my students and my enthusiasm has only grown. I always knew that if I could give my students real world applications for learning difficult material they would not only learn more, they would make significant personal gains that are not always easy to teach – gains like building confidence speaking in front of an authentic audience and the ability to learn from mistakes and fail forward without the experience turning into a negative and tanking one’s grades.
For me, PBL is a no-brainer. It benefits the students in ways I never could have as the center of instruction. For three years I meticulously planned lessons designed to “make learning fun” as I led the class with comedic genius embedded in my lectures and a few opportunities to work in collaborative groups. I created PowerPoints with awesome images in the hope that they would keep students focused on the content. I berated my classes into listening and shamed them when they didn’t. I had heard about being the “guide on the side,” and sometimes I tried that with some success. The truth is: I like attention. Being the “sage on the stage” can be great fun – especially when you have a quick wit and a good sense of humor, but it’s not always fun for the students.
This school year, things changed. I moved from rural Eastern North Carolina to a slightly less rural area in the Blue Grass region of Kentucky. My new district is dedicated to innovation and moving education forward. Hence, they have focused on project based learning. Since I was interested in trying PBL, this has been a perfect fit. It hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve learned as much about implementing PBL from my own mistakes as I have from all the literature I’ve read about it or trainings I’ve attended. Not every project has been a major success, but I feel like my students have learned as much or more than any of my past classes. Giving the kids opportunities to direct their learning and make choices for how they want to demonstrate that learning has been an amazing experience. There are times when my class is running so efficiently without my assistance that I don’t really know what to do with myself. When this happens, I stand back, out of the way, and just watch (with immense pride) as my students collaborate and work together. I thought I knew what it meant to be the “guide on the side,” but until this year I had never really experienced it. Now that I’ve seen the powerful impact PBL has on student engagement and learning, I’m hooked. I still get to be the center of attention often enough to satisfy my ego, but my students get the opportunity to make their own learning fun, and that’s the best part.