A Balance in Control

Yesterday, I blogged about focusing on what’s in our own control. It’s funny because just over a week ago, I began to write a post about knowing how and when to find a balance in control in your classroom. I had about two paragraphs complete, and then I had to step away because of recent events. Yesterday’s post seemed more fitting, but I wanted to jump back in and finish my thoughts about “control” from before we were hit with this pandemic. So here goes…

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One of the most common frustrations I hear from teachers who have or are planning to transition to a PBL approach in their classroom is knowing how to give up their control to their students. It’s a huge leap for teachers to make. Most of us grew up with our own teachers standing at the front of the classroom, deciding the agenda for the day, determining our next steps in our curriculum, telling us what to do or to read or to make next. When we went to “teacher school,” we likely imagined ourselves taking that spot at the front of the room, imagining all of the ways we would emulate our favorite teachers from our past while adding our own flare to our own classrooms. I know I did.

So when we look around and agree that school maybe doesn’t look quite the way it should, and you begin to dip your toes into what you think might be a more authentic approach to real-world learning, one of the toughest things to face is stepping out of that spot at the front of the room. Releasing your control to your students. Letting them call the shots. Allowing them to choose their own paths. It’s hard for many reasons. You can’t know what’s going to happen. It’s unpredictable, and that can be scary. It’s also difficult to watch students fail, even when we know the powerful learning that can come from failure. When I read about PBL or when I talk to others doing it, giving up control is one of the most challenging parts for most people.

It was the opposite for me. This was one of the things I was most excited about when transitioning to a PBL model. I couldn’t wait to step aside and figure out my new role as a “guide on the side,” if you will, while my students were able to explore their own interests and ideas and dreams, making mistakes along the way, adjusting as they went. I love to be the person who stands up for the capabilities of my students. I dare people to approach me with a comment about how they’re “only in middle school.” I pounce at the opportunity to defend and brag about what I have seen my students accomplish. I am very good at scooting over and letting my student grab hold of the reins. It’s been one of my biggest strengths throughout this process, but it has also been a weakness.

Where most people struggle to know how to let go, I have realized, especially recently, that I need to hold on a little tighter than I have at times. I do not pretend to know everything when it comes to best practices in delivering a PBL model, but I believe I pay attention pretty well and do a decent job of reflecting on each project, each quarter, and each year as it passes. I believe I am improving in knowing when to release and when to hold tighter on my reins of control.

A good example I have of this is our annual Film Festival quarter project. Each year, during third quarter, our students participate in the same project. It’s the only project we repeat from year to year. Being that it is our only annual repeat project, it has allowed us ample opportunity to evaluate the successes and struggles with the project each year and to adjust accordingly in the coming year. I believe the following descriptions display my need and my ability to pull a little tighter on the reins each year until finding the right balance.

With each Film Fest project, we introduce a new challenge…

In year one, students were tasked with using cause and effect to explain a medical discovery that has impacted our world today. They could work alone or in a group. They could plan out and create the film however they wanted. It was our first time trying a project like this, and the expectations and requirements were pretty loose. “Make a movie!” How cool does that sound? What we found is that it’s way easier said than done. We ended up with some okay films that had good information in them but were either boring or confusing to view. 

In year two, we decided to focus our efforts on cinematography. If we were asking our students to produce a quality film, it is only fair that we provide ample guidance in how to do that. The challenge was to tell a true untold story and why it’s important for the world to know about it. If you’ve seen the movie Hidden Figures, this is the idea we were going for – a story that is not well known but is deserving of an audience. We decided to require that students work in a group this time around so that roles could be split up among students for such a lofty project. We also brought in a local filmmaker who taught about various elements of cinematography like how to prep your film ahead of time with a screenplay and storyboard, how to make camera shot and angle choices, and how to properly edit your final product. With a bit more control in our court, we ended up with some higher quality films that still lacked in many areas. Mostly, quality suffered because groups were struggling to manage their time throughout the quarter and found themselves cramming at the last second.

This year, we decided to share the driver’s seat even more. The challenge was storytelling – to tell a compelling story. We required multi-grade-level groupings so every group had at least one student who had the cinematography lessons from last year to apply to this year’s film. Then we deliberately chunked their tasks and timelines for them. Certain parts of the project were done entirely in Humanities class, guided by me, while other parts were done with their groups in a CHILL time we had them set aside for Film Fest work only. I had my hand on the reins more than usual this time around, but I’ve come to realize that’s necessary from time to time. Our films this year are the best we have seen yet. They are more complete and creative than we have seen before.

I believe these successes were there because of the control we decided to take back within this project. PBL isn’t about giving up all control to students. They aren’t prepared for that. Nor are most teachers. It’s about finding a balance in control. Giving and taking. In many ways, the ARCTIC Zone is my own PBL project, in which I continue to make mistakes, reflect, adjust, repeat. Each year, each project gets a little bit better.

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