Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Perils of Project Based Learning

Today, the staff of our school was having one of our first PLC meetings of the year. We were running through the business at hand, discussing some of the things that we have needed to get together and discuss. It was during this meeting that one of our new teachers, a lateral entry teacher, asked an innocent enough question. She asked simply, "I've got projects coming up next week and I was wondering if you guys would help me out by grading them in your classes, too?"
Now let me state a couple of things about our school before I go any further. We think of ourselves as a project based school. Our students are constantly working on projects and problems of some kind. We were featured in an ASCD production based on PBLs! Secondly, we just finished a round of projects with the freshmen where all the teachers who taught freshmen spent part of their day grading freshmen projects. Thirdly, I work with an awesome bunch of people who will do anything to help kids become better students. And finally, we the teachers, have great autonomy at our school when it comes to curriculum and how we do things in our classes. But back to my story.
I watched the reactions of the rest of my colleagues in that office when our new teacher asked the question. I watched their reactions and I know what they were thinking. You see, I know, because I was thinking the same thing. I was thinking- "Why do I need to give up more time in my class? I can barely get through all I have to do now. Why would I want to spend another day on projects?" I watched those thoughts ripple across the office in the body language and facial expressions of the other teachers. I watched it, I thought it, and then I paused and thought about it.
Where did this feeling come from? Why was my immediate knee-jerk reaction to scream foul and begin to think about lost time? Well, I suspect that for each of us it might have been something different. For me, it was the years and years of trying to squeeze an impossible amount of US History into a ridiculously finite amount of classroom instruction time. Coupled with the fact that US History was a high-stakes End of Course testing area where the results would be splashed on webpages, newspapers, and government reports. Or maybe it is that belief that all of us have that our subject is so important that there is no way, under any circumstances, we would give up time away from our state curriculum. Or maybe it is the desire to protect our own projects and our own pacing. Maybe it's just the stress we feel to teach, to the best of our ability our subject matter day in and day out. Whatever it was. I felt it and I saw it. And then something funny happened.
I thought to myself. Screw it. It's one day. We'll figure it out. And I watched as the other teachers began to do the same thing. My colleagues began to think about helping out too. You could see it again. Visibly. People who were quiet and tense became people who were not. They had all decided to help out. All this, of course, took place in just a few seconds. I don't even know if other people noticed. But I did. I noticed and spoke to me about many things but most importantly about the cool people I work with. We have all been programmed by time on task, end of course tests, ap tests, curriculum standards, pacing guides, etc... and for just a second all of that won. But then it didn't. Everyone started to talk about it and we all agreed that we could help out the new teacher. You know, the one who hadn't been programmed like we had. The lateral entry teacher. The one who asked an innocent question and expected nothing but her compatriots to help her out. And we will. Because projects are important to us. And today, maybe just for a second, we realized that and decided to take a stand for something other than quantitative testing.
And it just reinforced what I already know.

No comments: