It is evident that educator collaboration, purposeful professional learning, and administrative support for risk-taking are ingredients that help to make a learning environment vibrant and exciting.
Sara Douglas (@sjteaching) knows that experiential learning and “getting messy” are two ways that inspire students and get people excited for learning. As a drama teacher, she experiences this first hand. Bringing that engagement from the Drama class into the English class has been her focus over the past few school years.
Sara was fortunate enough to travel to High Tech High in San Diego with two colleagues over this past Spring Break. It was very obvious that, at High Tech High, collaboration is central to everything that is done. Working within the confines of the timetable and the school structure she is currently in, Sara came back from Spring Break ready to focus on meaningful projects that really engaged students and moved learning forward.
Have a look at this if you want a little more background: What is Project Based Learning?
1. Sara found that her students really struggled with poetry. After seeing PBL in action, she thought that shifting her current practices to one that focused on critical thinking and synthesis. Her goal was to have students interact authentically with poetry, learn about a poet, connect that poet’s ways of thinking with the philosophies or theories or an historically significant philosopher or scientist. She built the project called “Meeting of the Minds” with these goals in mind, aiming to enlist the assistance of two other colleagues (History and Science).
2. The BIG question for Sara was:“How will a poetry project that involves critical thinking and synthesis impact student results on the Poetry Section of the Standardized Grade 12 Provincial Exam?” For her students, Sara wanted her students to know their poet and their philosopher/scientist well enough that the student could create a believable dialogue between the two. Ideally, the test would be in the public presentation of the works.
3. Students researched the poet and the poetry created, looking for themes and trends, and getting to really know the poet as well as their digital footprint (and the books in their library)would allow. They did the same with the philosopher/scientist, determining the impact this person had/has on our world today. The “product” they created was a dialogue between the two. Here is a sample: Meeting of the Minds: Patrick Lane and Sir Isaac Newton
4. Students had voice and choice. The field was wide open for choice in philosopher though many chose someone they had learned about in Comparative Civilizations. The field was also wide open for choice of scientist though it was clear that many also chose based on prior knowledge from Chemistry or Physics. The poet had to be Canadian (provided a direct connection to BC’s CanLit requirements).
5. Minute by minute, day by day feedback is essential and Sara was available during work-time and via e mail for immediate feedback and guidance. In addition, some students accessed the teacher-librarian for assistance in editing and narrative structure. Building a culture of collaborative teaching and learning is a hidden learning that is being celebrated as a step forward to breaking down barriers and the silo structure of a traditional high school setting.
6. The finished products are on display in Sara’s classroom. There is definite pride in the work and Sara has found that students are feeling more confident in their understanding of poetry and the purpose of poems (and performing better on their practice exams).
Right now, it is challenging to host public exhibitions. As exhibition is an essential part of Project Based Learning, I wanted to do something. I contacted Victoria BC poet Yvonne Blomer, who knows Patrick Lane well, and asked her if she would read the student writing (featured above) and provide feedback (the inside scoop, so to speak).
Yvonne wrote: “I think it is very good – I like how cranky Patrick is with Newton. Patrick had a GG award in the 1970s but not recently. He was shortlisted for a lot of awards for Red Dog, Red Dog and for the memoir, There is a Season. That jumped out at me, because the GG he and Newton are talking about is more recent. I’m not sure that really matters. I like how they are in a garden, and Patrick finds tranquility there, I think that is very accurate. Their conversation is good too – I like the bit about being friends because they each get to learn from each other – I think that’s what it suggests – Newton listens to Patrick not as a real friend, maybe, but as one just who learns for himself from listening.”
How cool for a student to get that feedback like this from Yvonne? She did forward the writing to Patrick who responded quietly and calmly and, as Yvonne wrote, quite in the way the student created Patrick’s character in the conversation.
It is important to understand that the last part of the process, the public exhibition, is important, but can be creative. We were able to model how that can happen even when a “traditional” public exhibition is not possible. Through creative connections, and use of social media, we were able to publicly exhibit one piece (it’s a start!). It was an interesting experiment and, as Yvonne’s colleague, who also read the student writing wrote:” I will never look at a rotten apple in the same way again.”
It is evident that this process would not have been as successful without teacher collaboration, purposeful professional learning, and the structures in place to support risk taking. This story exemplifies these three key components for shift in pedagogy and get schools “moving” (Stoll in Kaser and Halbert, Leadership Mindsets).
And, we still need work. Our next big question focuses on effective assessment of this learning.
As always, please contact Sara (@sjteaching) or me (@ajgadd) or leave a comment below.