Sunday, March 13, 2011

Stumbling Into Project-Based Learning (Guest Post)

UPDATE: The link asks for a login - I asked Susan to modify the permissions and will update again once it is open to everyone.

UPDATE: Susan's post has been copied and pasted below...

My colleague, Susan Phalen, asked if she could use this space to broadcast her recent experience with Project-Based Learning in her AP Lang class. The project focuses on attempting to persuade the school administration to institute homework-free periods throughout the school year (as inspired by Race to Nowhere). FYI, Susan and I sat next to each other at the RTN viewing last month, and were equally inspired, I think (that was one of my initial posts...).

So, fellow educators, please read Susan's guest post. You may leave comments here or DM her @msphalen.


{Begin Guest Post: "Stumbling into Project-Based Learning, by Susan Phalen}

Every year in my AP Language & Comp class we read Emerson and Prose on education.  We talk about John Holt's “How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading.”  This year, we went together to see Waiting for Superman and, a few months later, Race to Nowhere.  My students were galvanized by seeing their L.A. counterparts onscreen suffering from the same overload and stress that they deal with every day.  “It doesn't exaggerate one bit!” they told me.  “We never get enough sleep, we're always behind, and we're exhausted.  We make ourselves sick—but we won't take off from school.”  I'd overheard enough student conversations to know that this was no more than the truth.

Back to the classroom, where I prepared to move on to the next unit of study.  They, however, could not stop talking about what they saw as a change whose time had come.  “We should write a letter to the principal,” they said.  “Ask him for a homework-free weekend once a month.”  Aha!  I thought.  A writing opportunity with a real-world application.  “Sure,” I said.  And we were off.  They paired up a few weeks ago and I had each pair propose our idea in one paragraph using a different rhetorical mode:  definition, exemplification, narration, cause/effect, process analysis, and so on.  We figured that we would combine the best parts of all of them and see how it worked.

I had not reckoned with the the sheer energy and drive this group would bring to the table: “We should survey the student body so the principal doesn't think it's one little group of AP students complaining,” Shelby said.  “Use Survey Monkey, it's free,” Elyse advised.  “And get the word out on FaceBook,” Nikki agreed.  “Hey, Ms. Phalen, can we have some class time to write survey questions?”  Startled by the speed with which this letter was gaining momentum, I said “OK.”

Realizing that they were now designing a presentation, they thought about next steps.  After all, if Ms. Phalen was letting them use class time, they were clearly in charge on this one.  What would persuade more people of the validity of their idea?  Shelby had, in another class, successfully lobbied our school board by showing up en masse at a board meeting.  It was natural that she would suggest we present our proposal to the board in, say, three weeks?   “Dress up, everyone!” she ordered.  Madhuri, the senior editor of the school newspaper, decided that our proposal would form the center story of this month's issue.  “Ms. Phalen, we definitely need some more class time.”  Alarmed, I started revising my lesson plans for the week.  “Uh, guys?”  I said.  “I still need you to take that test soon, OK?  How is—uh, how is Monday for everyone?”

They took the test Monday, then on Tuesday got back down to business.  They realized that their case would be stronger for some data (“Logos, everybody!”), so they did some Internet research on homework and spent another day sorting and evaluating it.  The survey results started to come in and they realized that seniors were over-represented.  Monica, alarmed, said “We need more sophomores, you guys!  Who knows some sophomores?”  Finally we were ready to combine everything we had into one Google doc that we could edit together in real time in our Writer's Lab.

I could not imagine how this next step would work.  I pictured mass confusion and no accountability, with (by conservative estimate) half the class checking out to chat about the upcoming weekend.  So I asked a few questions before we left the room:  1. What will be our main organizing mode?  2.  Can we please diagram our claim and list our reasons (support)?  3.  What tone and register will be most effective?

These questions led us to list the modes we needed to accomplish the various tasks of the proposal:

At that point they were ready  to pair up and take on specific pieces of the project.  Mahsa, Rebecca, and  Emily  immediately took on the organizing of the whole; Elyse and Shelby decided that since the survey was their baby, they would analyze the findings and figure out where and how to insert them.  Monica said that she would write up the objections our proposal was sure to encounter so that we could preemptively address them.  Sophia and Caroline, who didn't know right away what task they should do, looked at me for directions.  I looked back and (for once!) realized that I should NOT be the Answer Lady on this one.  I asked “What task can you see that we still need to do?”  They looked blank.  Alexandra said, “Sophie, you could write the narrative that's supposed to open the piece.”  Sophia's face lit up.  “I can do that!” she beamed.  Caroline said “I can help Madhuri write the exit poll questions for the teachers who are going to see the film next week.”  One by one, they had figured out what parts they wanted to own.

That was Friday.  Once we got upstairs to the Writing Center, they spent the period working intently, more deeply engaged than than I had seen them in a long time.  They came to me only when they hit a snag.  Elyse announced, dramatically, “We have a problem.”  Turned out that they needed to buy a membership to Survey Monkey so that they could get all 200 survey responses analyzed (I put the $25 on my credit card rather than hold up the project; they immediately passed a hat around and handed me $17) and once the organizing crew wanted my feedback.  Mahsa said worriedly “Does this look right to you?”  I looked at their diagrammed proposal and said, “Yes, it looks fine to me but, honestly, we just won't know if it works until we read it in draft.  We can always change it if it's not right.”  That's all they needed from me: reassurance and permission to proceed while still unsure of the outcome.

At this point I'm clear about only a few things:  I didn't plan this into being—I did support it with structure and class time and then successfully stayed out of its  way.  They probably won't be this single-minded every day, even on a project of their own choosing.  And, finally, I don't know how to repeat this process with my other classes.  Given that time-management skills are my current Waterloo, repeating this may not even be what I do next.  But I do know that I want more of this, please.  I'm still orbiting the planet with how cool it felt to be in a room with other engaged workers instead of with obedient and dutiful students.

I see too that project-based learning cannot be one size fits all.  This project is working for this group, this year; I will not expect next year's class to get hooked by the same thing.  Part of what energized them this year was the element of kairos—the right word at the right time.  The newly-released documentary we saw was the catalyst for them.  I can't know now what will hook the next group.  However, I can let the next class know that a group project is an option for them too.  I can stay alert to the signs of excitement when they show up.  I've had beginner's luck, but if I start now to research what other teachers and schools do with project-based learning, I will have a few more strings to my bow ready for the next opportunity.

This is an interim report.  In a few weeks, I hope to write about the presentation and publication of our class's proposal and to reflect on the incredible energy that becomes available when students sense that they can affect our big, frustrating, illogical adult world where—let's face it—everything real gets done.

Note to self:  This, this is why kids love the sci-fi novel Ender's Game.  Not because it's a real-life version of a video game but because in it, smart kids design and execute brilliant strategies that SAVE THE WORLD.  That's what our students want to do too.  They know—as we know—that it needs saving.  And that adults aren't doing it very well by themselves.