Turning Apathy into Aspirations

Using project-based learning to develop relationships and establish relevance.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) has changed my life, but the changes I have seen in young people is the reason I am spreading the love. Skyler was the student that you knew was able to succeed academically and pass tests, but chose not to. We would get excited and say, “Skyler, you know everything you need to know. Are you going to do well on ‘the test’ this year?” Skyler would reply, “I agree with you that I can do well, but no, I am not going to pass the test.”

Have you had a Skyler? You see, Skyler was smart enough to know that if he wanted to be in the same classes as his skateboarding friends, he needed to ‘fail’ the test. This would allow him to be in remediation classes with his buddies.

In eighth grade, we introduced Skyler to PBL. The real world learning, authentic audiences, and structured processes made sense to Skyler and allowed him to succeed individually while being in groups with his friends. The engagement opened up learning to Skyler, and he excelled emotionally and academically. The culture that is built around successful PBL is another big win for students like Skyler.

AMLE talks with author Ryan Steuer about PBL

The crescendo of Skyler’s story arrived when Skyler picked up a camera and taught himself photography. I didn’t teach Skyler how to use a camera, but we did help him see the value in learning and how learning can apply to the real world. Skyler’s story continues to rise as Time magazine selected one Instagram account from each state to feature (time.com/instagram50). For the state of Indiana, the featured Instagram account belongs to Skyler, now 17 years old. Skyler also has a shop where you can buy his photography! I say crescendo and not climax because now Skyler aspires to take photos for National Geographic. Apathy replaced by aspiration!

I spend a lot of time with passionate educators who already implement PBL, some who are just starting out, and those who are hesitant to begin. A lot of the same “need to knows” arise about aligning standards, driving questions, and other “nuts and bolts” of PBL. Let’s talk through two core tenets that must be in place for the transformational PBL to happen: Community Partners and Real-World Problems.

The Importance of an Outside Voice

Community partners are vital to authentic project-based learning, and can be involved in any part of the project. Entry Events, a PBL phrase describing how we launch a project to students, are ideal opportunities to invite a community partner to attend. An authentic audience for presentations can bring high impact to learning while being a low risk entry point for community partners. As you become more proficient in developing relationships with community partners, they can become content experts. Bring in an architect to teach AutoCAD or ask a DNA specialist to talk about chromosomes.

Samantha Cooksey, a student from Columbus Signature Academy New Tech in Columbus, IN, described the value of community partnerships, “I can’t help but be excited when we have important figures act as our community partners, like when my English 12 facilitators recruited the help of author, Michael Cart, for a project about book reviews.”

Community partners change the typical dynamic of the classroom, but many of the educators I work with ask how they can find these assets to add to their classroom. Here is one example:

“Jackie is from a large school district that has a PBL track K-12. As a facilitator who knows the advantages of community partners she is always on the lookout for them. Jackie has a wide web of community help when she is looking for authenticity to ramp up in her classroom. Jackie was looking for first responders to help launch her next project. The standards and deliverables were all set up, but she still needed the perfect community partner to help launch. While making a quick stop at McDonalds, she found herself waiting in line behind a police officer. Jackie jumped into a two-minute conversation in a fast food line and landed a community partner who was very willing to help. As it turns out the officer was actually in an outreach position, so it was her job to be present in classrooms.”

Solving Real-World Problems

Students often ask, “When will we ever use this?” We all know they are going to ask the question, so why don’t we answer the question right off the bat? By applying our standards to real-world problems, we make the connection of standards to life very clear. Where do people in business use algebra or genetics? These are questions that can be explored by expert teachers in the middle grades. The middle grades are an ideal time to awaken our learners to the application of their learning. Socially and emotionally, students are passionate, but they need assistance in directing their passions. Our academic classrooms can be that vehicle, and PBL has structures in place to help facilitate the work.

When eighth graders learn their nonfiction reading and social studies standards by registering people to vote, their learning takes on a new meaning. The college student who told the eighth graders she didn’t know one needed to register to vote became an experience that could not be replicated without real-world application. Because of that PBL project, people who would not have been able to vote can do so.

Instead of writing a research paper, how can history come alive for students? One class interviewed senior citizens to hear and record their stories. To prepare for the interviews, students needed to learn about

the different decades in order to ask appropriate questions. As further proof that intergenerational projects can be top notch, the students composed biographical papers about the seniors and the history surrounding their lives. The project culminated in a tear-filled presentation where the students presented their learning to the seniors. Can you identify the social studies and English standards that can be integrated in this project? The learning became real with faces and names for the students, and one of the seniors remarked, “We didn’t know there were good kids out there anymore.” Indeed, powerful community building.

Systems of PBL

How do you sustain the work of PBL? School districts have several different implementation methods for systematically bringing PBL to their students and community. While some people want us to tell them the best model, it will depend on the local context. As a teacher, I have been involved in creating a school-within-a-school model, so that is what I will discuss in detail.

Our school-within-a-school model began by converting the instructional model to PBL for 25% of our middle school. Decatur Middle School, on the southwest side of Indianapolis, has about 950 seventh and eighth grade students with around 70% free and reduced price lunch. To determine which 25% of the students would be immersed in PBL, we had a stratified lottery system to ensure that we were demographically balanced with the rest of the school. Attendance was 1.5% higher than the rest of the school, with 25% of the students we had 8% of the discipline, and in an F school, we would have been a B if you could have pulled out our test data. Other benefits for learners was the ability to build a culture of learning, inquiry, and collaboration.

As we jumped to this new PBL journey in 2009, we reached out to the Indiana Middle Level Education Association for feedback and guidance. Shirley Wright, IMLEA Executive Director, stated, “IMLEA was excited to be asked to support the Decatur MS PBL wing project since they were one of our first three designated “Schools to Watch. PBL is one of the required criteria for Schools to Watch to meet.” With the support of IMLEA we moved forward with great success for students, school, and the community.

Using a PBL approach is likely to help develop students as critical thinkers and problem-solvers who are actively engaged in their communities. Forming and nurturing relationships with community partners, families, and members of the school community may allow for different opportunities and ways in which students, and the community, can grow.