Saturday, May 25, 2013

Finishing Strong: A Case for Project Based Learning

Myth: The School Year is Winding Down

There seems to be this myth circulating that the school year is winding down. Here in NYS we have an entire month left of school so that is the furthest thing from the truth.  What contribute to this myth however are the NYS testing schedule and our own local assessments.  For many outside the classroom these "summative" assessments would seem to indicate the end of the academic year, and that is reasonable to assume because they are supposed to be, well summative.  The problem is these assessments are given in April and May and we still have an entire month of instruction left.  The rub then is this, how do we convince students and families that what we are doing in the last months of school is just as important as what we were doing leading up to the state and local assessments?  It is important that we finish the year strong and end the myth that the school year is winding down.  We need to be sending our students out with a willingness, dare I say an eagerness, to look for their own learning opportunities over the summer. 

The Case for Project Based Learning

Project based learning engages students in exploring real-world problems and challenges.  Students see the connections between what they have learned in one discipline and its application to another.  It allows significant opportunities for active learning and collaboration.  Project learning promotes critical thinking and decision making, and it helps to teach persistence.  Students are motivated and engaged, and often seek out additional resources and information on their own.  These are precisely the learning habits that we need to form in our students.  If the learning that takes place in these last months of school has students taking control of their learning, applying the skills and concepts that have been learned, and breaks down the invisible barrier between the classroom and the world outside its doors we will have gone a long way in convincing others of the myth that the school year is winding down.

In The Classroom

Recognizing the waning enthusiasm of my students, and detecting the impending restlessness that comes with June, I wanted to go big for the last month of school and try something new.  I came up with an idea to change the architecture project that was designed to assess student understanding of geometry concepts. The standards assessed remained the same, but I wanted to incorporate the project with what the students were studying in English language arts, social studies and science.  I wanted my students to see the connection between different disciplines. I believed that if students took more responsibility for their learning and applied the concepts and skills they had learned in all their classes, they would demonstrate deeper understanding and greater levels of engagement.

I approached my colleagues about trying thematic and project based learning for the last month of school.  We decided to use the Middle Ages as our backdrop, and address our content standards through project based learning.  Students are presently researching and writing papers on the Bubonic plague, how it spread and its impact on life in Europe.  They are researching medieval manors, creating scale-drawings (floor plans) and building models of castles.  This upcoming week students will be challenged to design, build and launch a trebuchet providing them with an opportunity to learn through experience about technology in the past. 

The use of project based learning has been very rewarding. I have observed students exploring, making judgments, and interpreting and synthesizing information in meaningful ways. There has been improvement in many students’ abilities to work with their peers, and the level of excitement and engagement is nothing short of amazing. The myth that the school year is winding down is just that, a myth.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

We Can't Ignore Social Emotional Literacy

With the spotlight shining brightly on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, "rigorous" curricula and their associated high-stakes assessments, we as educators run the risk of ignoring other critical skills for learning, problem solving and communicating - the skill set encompassed in social/emotional literacy (SEL). A failure to  address SEL adequately will have devastating effects on the students in our classrooms and our communities at large.

The world we live in seems increasingly narcissistic. As educators we have a responsibility to make students "college and career ready", but we also have an equally (or perhaps an even more) important task, and that is to model and teach responsible citizenship. The attitudes and actions that lead to responsible citizenship, and away from narcissism, are rooted in SEL. These are in fact the skills that will lead to success throughout life.

What Can We Do?

Actively teaching our students empathy is imperative.  Being able to understand what another person is feeling helps students to build and maintain positive relationships with others. We need to cultivate a culture of empathy in our classrooms by teaching students how to identify/label emotions in themselves, recognize them in others, and share feelings in a non-judgemental way.

Closely tied to empathy is effective communication.  Effective communication lies in the ability to understand another person or group's perspective, to be an active listener and then to be able to articulate one's own thoughts, ideas and/or needs. We need to provide students with ample opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue and to practice negotiation and compromise.

Cultivating a sense of appreciation is necessary. We need students to focus on what is going well, and that the things that are going well, more often than not, outweigh the things that are not.  Recalling one good thing that has happened in the past 24 hours is a great way to start the day on a positive note. When we are in a positive state of mind, our brain is more receptive to information and ready to learn.

We must remain dedicated to teaching the attitudes and actions that lead to responsible citizenship.  The benefits of doing so are in the creation of a positive classroom and school climate, an increase in pro-social behavior and academic achievement.

Additional SEL Resources:

Prelude2Learn -
Tribes Learning Community -
Project Happiness -
 Second Step -