Baby Steps

When I first started telling people about our plan to design an alternative learning environment that incorporates project-based learning, something you would have heard me say is that I believe this is the future of education. That thinking hasn’t changed. It’s just taking a little longer to see movement than I had originally anticipated.

I do not believe project-based learning is the solution for all that is lacking in our education system. However, I absolutely see a future where lessons are not scripted, teachers are not bound to standards and pacing schedules, bells are not ringing every 50 minutes, and students are not restricted to the same expectations and assessments as everyone else around them. We’ll get there.

In the meantime, there are educators implementing hands-on, real-world experiences in their classrooms despite system restrictions working to limit those opportunities. Teachers are finding ways to relinquish control and are trusting student voices to guide their own learning. And we have students and community members working for change. I want to share about two baby steps of movement taking place locally right now.

First, there is a proposal in the works to launch an alternative learning environment similar to the ARCTIC Zone in each of the other two middle schools in Eau Claire. It is currently sitting in the hands of the district’s LEAP Committee (Learning Environments and Partnerships). The hope is to have a project-based learning environment in all three ECASD middle schools by the start of the 2020 school year.

The ultimate goal is to establish an entirely new secondary track within our district that utilizes project-based learning. In addition to the middle school zones, district and community members are working diligently to create a high school opportunity called the LAND School (Liberal Arts, Nature, and Design). The team will stand before the ECASD school board to present their updated plan on Monday night. Take a look at the following link for more information about this project idea: The LAND School

The second baby step I am so excited to share about came to me several weeks ago when I received an email from a 7th grade student from Altoona, a neighboring school district. She said she had been tasked to write a persuasive essay about adding or changing something at her school. She was interested in proposing the implementation of a program like the ARCTIC Zone at her school. Where she got the idea from or how she heard about us, I do not know, but with her permission, I’ve attached her final essay below. If this isn’t a powerful baby step toward positive change in our area, I don’t know what is. Here is a student using her voice to take action and spark meaningful change for herself and her community.

In 2015 Ali McMahon and Andy Brown, two teachers at North Star Middle School, decided they were bored with having to go through the motions and teach the standard, basic curriculum.  They loved teaching but not in the way they were, not in the dull, disengaging way. But what about the students in classes like this? Everyone knows ‘that’ kid. You might have even been that kid. The kid that couldn’t sit still. The kid who always blurts out wisecracks and makes people laugh. The kid that doesn’t do well in school, and hates it.  Many times, these kids get labeled as the stupid kids, or the ones who aren’t capable of learning. These kids are actually really smart. They might just learn differently than the way teachers are teaching. Maybe they need hands on work–maybe, Project Based Learning (PBL). Mrs. McMahon and Mr. Brown put their heads together and came up with a solution.  What did they do to solve the problem? They came up with a solution that changed the way kids learn. Kids involved in the program love school now, they actually want to come! Interruptions are limited and the kids are engaged. Their solution, an authentic, real world curriculum, and technology integrated classroom. The ARCTIC zone. This is one of the many project-based classroom success stories. At Altoona Middle School there are many kids similar to the ones at North Star. The ones who always disrupt and those who don’t thrive at school. Anyone in my grade can attest to that. Project based learning would help this issue and there are many supporting reasons for it.  Altoona Middle School should input a classroom similar to the ARCTIC Zone next school year or create more of a cross-curricular curriculum with more projects. My reasons being, not all students learn the same, students in programs like this succeed and it teaches real-world skills.

America has been a successful country. There is no doubt about that.  But, America is built on freedom and democracy. Our school system is not.  Our school system was changed during the industrial revolution which was in the 18th century, more than 800 years ago. During the industrial revolution, factories needed people with the same skill sets. Schools were given standards that kids needed to know.  Now, 800 years later, teachers are educating us the same way but more than half of us will be doing jobs that haven’t even been invented yet! How do you teach for that? You teach life skills. Real world skills.  That’s what project based learning does. One way that project based learning does this is it teaches you soft skills. Soft skills are imperative. The authors of the article, “The Importance of Soft Skills” explain soft skills as “..a combination of intrapersonal and social skills.”  The article also states that, “Surprisingly, many employers will not be focused as much on technical skills-such as a mastery of finance and accountant knowledge-as they will be on so-called soft skills.” Another article, “Project-based Learning (PBL):Inculcating Soft Skills in the 21 Century Workplace”,  says that “21st Century employers are looking for graduates who posses soft skills that include responsibility, self-confidence, social and communication skills, flexibility, team-spiritedness, good work attitude, self motivation, and self management.”  It also states that many bosses are looking for the qualities and skills that project based learning teaches.

Another way that project based learning teaches the real world skills we need is that it teaches creative thinking.  For many students at our school, the idea of showing what they learned however they want, or coming up with what to do for a project is a daunting, almost paralyzing task. We have had so much structure for so long, that for some of us our creativity is fading.  Creative thinking is critical for so many jobs. Especially when you are dealing with technology, which is what most of the jobs will be about when we enter the workforce. The article “What is Creative Thinking and Why is it Important?” from Microsoft tells us that “Talented workers who are able to think outside of the box are a critical asset to help businesses overcome challenges and find new opportunities.” This shows us that creative thinking is a vital skill to have, that some traditional schools are killing.  Finally, PBL helps with the aspect of time prioritization. Mrs. McMahon says that her students have had major increases in their ability to prioritize assignments and manage their time. The article, “Importance of Time Management in the Workplace.” says that being able to manage your time wisely will benefit you in many ways. Such as, being able to deliver your work on time, create better quality work, improve your productivity and efficiency, minimize your stress and anxiety, and give you more opportunities in your career.  Many of those examples are also applied in school.

The second reason I have for implanting PBL is that all students learn differently.  People learn differently, which is common knowledge. Einstein even said it. “Everybody’s a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.” If you implant a classroom similar to the ARCTIC Zone, the kids who learn better with PBL would thrive and get more out of school.  When kids in a traditional environment do a project, for example the scrapbook we did in ELA and social studies, everyone has to show their learning in the same way. With a scrapbook. When you force kids to all produce the same project it kills creativity and can cause unwanted stress because of the way they are required to show their learning.  It might not be their preferred way. In the scrapbook project I did an adequate job, because even if we were not assigned a scrapbook that might have been something that I would have done. But, for some kids putting their learning into a scrapbook would not help them learn. This can cause lower quality work, less understanding and knowledge of the topic, and high stress levels on students. However, if students were informed about what they need to learn and then they got to show their knowledge however they wanted, the outcomes would be more favorable.  This is what happens with project based learning. Next, when a student gets to show knowledge the way they want to, it sticks in their brain and gives kids the ability to retain the knowledge better. Lance Finkbeiner, a teacher at Anastasis Academy, a PBL school, says that, “If kids can associate their learning into something they are passionate about they will remember it better.” When you are excited about something your brain remembers more about it. So, when you are able to associate your learning with something you love it will stick with you. PBL allows for deeper learning and understanding to occur.  Finally, Howard Gardner has proven that people learn differently. Howard Gardner is a professor from Harvard University. He believed that the concept of knowledge/intelligence was too limiting, and that I.Q. didn’t measure the other types of intelligences. He researched it and found that people have multiple intelligences. Multiple intelligences are not a learning style, but a way to help you learn. When you know what intelligences you are higher in, you can play to your strengths and alter your learning to accentuate the intelligences you thrive in.

Finally, students participating in this kind of learning are successful. Many teachers who teach PBL say that they have seen positive increases in student’s behavior and soft skills. Mrs. McMahon says that she has seen, “ ..increased engagement and a desire to be at school again.” This is big. Michael Linsin, a teacher and bestselling author, says that, “.. no strategy, technique or method in the world works as well to motivate students to behave, attend during lessons and focus on their academic work.”  Mr. Linsin also says that when students love school, it can, “..change students like no other thing can or ever will,”. When kids love school it can inspire and make light spark. Second, PBL helps build student’s confidence. In the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, you get introduced to a girl named Samantha who goes to a school called High Tech High, an innovative PBL school. At the beginning she is painfully shy. She doesn’t like talking in group discussions or partake in group work. As Samantha continues with PBL she becomes more and more confident.  Samantha flourished with PBL to the point where at the end of the year she was the director of a play that her class did as a project. This play was seen by most of the school, students, parents, and community members. Mrs. McMahon says that she also has seen a spike in her student’s confidence. An article “Student Confidence and Self Esteem” says that, “Confidence is vital to a student’s success.” They also say that having confidence can lower dropout rates, assist kids with learning, help them love learning, and also help them stay motivated and achieve their goals.  Confidence is key. Finally, the test scores where PBL is implanted are just as good or higher than traditional schooling. Schools like High Tech High perform above the state average. Ali Mcmahon says “…our students’ test scores in both STAR and the Forward Exam are just as good as students outside of our program.”  A study conducted on the benefit of PBL classrooms showed that the students in a PBL classroom had a 63% higher improvement in test scores than those in classrooms taught with the traditional method. PBL can get kids to enjoy learning, limit disruptions, build soft skills and confidence, while still increasing test scores.

Many people argue that PBL is too difficult to teach in public schools, because you have to teach all of the standards while still achieving high test scores.  However, research shows that students involved with PBL test just as well as students in traditional learning. People also argue that PBL is not for everyone. That is 100 percent true. That is why I believe that AMS should implant a classroom for students that learn better with this type of learning, instead of changing the curriculum.

Implanting a PBL classroom at AMS can give opportunities to people who learn differently, and help Altoona grow into a more diverse learning environment. It would help kids who need a different type of learning thrive and teach real-world skills. Altoona Middle School should implant a classroom like the ARCTIC Zone to help kids who learn differently get more out of school. Altoona would be a more successful and positive learning environment with confident kids who enjoy school, and look forward to coming everyday. 

Change Happens One Step at a Time




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