Authenticity Matters

Just yesterday I held the receiver of the phone in one hand, begging a negotiations officer to send the SWAT team in, who now surrounded my house, to rescue my two girls as I held the basement door shut. My husband had just walked downstairs, his rifle strewn across his chest, to confront our son about why the police had come to our house in the first place. It wasn’t his fault his PTSD from the war had kicked in when the police arrived, but now two officers lay dead or wounded on our front lawn, and I was scared for my children and for myself. I had never seen him this angry before.

If you’re confused or frightened, I understand. What I really did yesterday? I played the role of a wife in this exact situation and other situations as part of a SWAT Team and Crisis Negotiation Team Training for our local police department. The police liaison at our school knew of my acting background and contacted me last week to participate in several hostage/crisis scenarios. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I am so glad I agreed.


In preparation for this day of training, a crisis scenario had been brainstormed by several members of the police department that somewhat mirrored a real situation that had occurred in another state just last October. The training took place in a house just behind the fire station whose interior had never been seen by any member of the teams, including those who created the scenario. I was given details about the scenario and then entered the house along with my “husband” and “three children” where we waiting for the first call.

From start to finish, officers approached the house as if it was a real case. Body bags had previously been placed on the yard to resemble the officers who had been shot and required medical attention. Snipers were positioned inconspicuously around the house. And the negotiations team was hurriedly collecting information about the situation and who might be inside the house, preparing to make contact.

The phone rang, and I answered acting in the way I had been coached, saying things I had been directed to say. The same scenario was used multiple times throughout the day, though some people rotated duties among their teams, and the role players (me) were given new directions that would ultimately lead to different outcomes: peaceful surrender, hostage situation, requiring the use of a throw phone (which was brought in by a robot!!!!), a secret bedroom window rescue of my two “daughters,” among other things.

The entire day was exhilarating and fun, yet terrifying at the same time, considering these are real scenarios that could and have played out. At the end of the day, I found myself absolutely impressed with the men and women working for safety and justice in our neighborhood. The level of calm and quick-thinking displayed with every one of them among such highly intense and emotional circumstances heightened my respect and gratefulness for this group of people, having been given this unique glimpse into their reality.

There is one phrase I heard over and over throughout the day. Different people at different times said it to me or near me. I heard it while being prepped for the day in the morning. The officer coaches in the house with me during the scenarios mentioned it numerous times. I was told by officers between scenarios. Several people offered it again during the debriefing session following the final scenario. The thing I heard so many times from so many people yesterday was, “You have no idea what a difference it makes to have real role players instead of coworkers during scenario training sessions like this.”

I had been thinking about that all day. For their training yesterday, they were “called” to the scene of a house none had ever seen before. The voices on the other end of the phone had never been heard before. The faces inside those walls had never been seen before. Many officers commented about how quickly their hearts jumped when they realized there were REAL kids in the house! The gravity of the situation was suddenly different, the focus stronger.

As I sat in my car today, waiting for my new brakes to be installed at the Express Lube, I couldn’t stop thinking about yesterday. Learning never stops. No matter what profession you assume, the hobbies you explore, the adventures you choose to embark upon, learning never stops. And the best learning occurs when genuine, authentic experiences are put before you. It’s why the police department called me in yesterday. It’s why our students are so much more engaged in their learning during projects that offer real-world connections. Meaningful connections. Like our Join Hands Day project where we found numerous ways to support our community and raised money for a child who departs for her Make-a-Wish trip to Disney in just a few days. Or the live launch of the 8th grade TED talks at the end of this year.

Authenticity matters. It raises stakes. It heightens focus. It sharpens skills. It deepens learning.


Challenging the Summer Slide

The “summer slide” is an unfortunate occurrence that happens to students when they are disconnected from the everyday interactions that happen during the school year. There is a lot of research that speaks to the rise in academic gaps that are revealed each fall when a new academic year begins. According to an article from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), “students [lose] a greater proportion of their school year gains each year as they grow older – anywhere from 20 to 50 percent.”

Do these numbers make you as uncomfortable as they do me? I could launch into my opinion on adopting a new school calendar year, but I’ll refrain. That is a far larger topic that likely won’t be tackled in the very near future. Along with the obvious loss in academic learning that takes place over the summer months, I would argue that there are other gaps that grow, including peer relationships and an overall connection to learning.

After our first year with the ARCTIC Zone, we knew we wanted to find ways to stay in touch with our students and to hopefully keep a connection to learning alive for them throughout the summer break. At that time, we implemented several ideas we hoped would do the trick. Each summer we’ve altered our summer expectations and offerings. Our family summer picnic is still a huge success, and I’m excited to say this will be our first year welcoming alumni to share the evening with us. This is a tradition that will remain in place for as long as I have anything to say about it.  It is an opportunity for incoming families to meet and mingle withe returning families, and it’s just a great chance for students to hang out on a beautiful evening outside.

We needed to find a way to connect students to learning and exploring while they were away from school without it feeling like a chore but with accountability, as well, to ensure they would all reap the benefits of those experiences. Our students now have a summer passion project they are expected to complete before they return to school in the fall at which point they will give a short presentation to new and returning AZ students where they will share their project ideas and outcomes. Last year we had projects of all kinds. One student raised quails while another student designed a video game while another student tested several baking methods for cheesecake while yet another student tracked the success of various baits at multiple fishing spots around Eau Claire. The goal is not to “require” a school project but to open their eyes to the learning opportunities that exist all around them all the time. I want them to realize this connection and to deepen their desire and love for learning.

Another idea we’ve implemented this summer came on just weeks before we parted for vacation. The hope has always been to increase student engagement and initiative and to build their leadership and communication skills. So, at this moment, I stand typing this post within the walls of my classroom on a beautiful summer morning as a group of middle school students (not all AZ students, by the way) hang out for their first Anime Club Meeting that was 100% organized by two student leaders. This summer, we created the idea of student-led summer clubs. All students had the option to become a leader of any summer club of their choice. I offered my availability and guidance for any moment, like being able to offer school as a meeting space if needed, but other than that, they are on their own to organize club meetings and communicate with their members.

All in all, when we parted ways for the summer, information had been sent out to all students regarding 12 different clubs. Some example clubs include a bowling club, running club, movie club, art club, and a babysitter’s club. Anime happens to be something I know NOTHING about, but that’s okay because I don’t have to do anything! The club leaders came prepared with snacks, decorations, crafts, and of course … anime episodes for watching. I’m just here enjoying their company and their laughter, which was my hope for this idea from the start – peer connections. All of the other leadership stuff is just an added bonus.

There doesn’t seem to be any movement toward altering the school calendar, so until that happens, I think the answer to challenging the summer slide phenomenon, is getting students connected … with each other, with themselves, and with learning opportunities that surround them on a daily basis. Isn’t that what we want for their futures, anyway?

Quality Feedback

The summer season is always a time when I like to sit down and really reflect on the previous year and to begin brainstorming ideas for the year to come. Say what you want about teachers having their summers off, but alongside a very strong need to just sit,  recharge, and take some time for me, I find it to be a necessary component in being able to hit the restart button for a new year with fresh ideas and improved practices.

One thing we realized needed some teaching this past year was the art of giving quality feedback. This is not a skill that comes naturally for most, nor is it always easy to provide the kind of feedback we feel is helpful for fear of being too critical or offending the other person. Feedback should be critical, though. It’s how we improve. Sometimes an extra eye or ear is exactly what we need to strengthen ourselves and our work, not to mention the strength we build with one another in being able to provide respectful, honest ideas.

An idea I shared with my students is one I found online somewhere that describes four different types of feedback using the four suits in a deck of cards. Hearts and diamonds (the red suits) are both positive feedback while spades and clubs (the black suits) are both critical. I try to avoid the word “negative” because, although it is feedback regarding something the reviewer does not necessarily like, that word just has “bad” connotations attached to it. Maybe I’m wrong here. Maybe you have a better idea for a replacement word? Let me know if you do…

The hearts and spades both represent “fluffy” feedback as I call it that lacks real substance. It might be something like, “This is really good.” That’s a positive comment, and we all love to hear positive comments like that about ourselves and our work, but it doesn’t really do much to help us build on what we have or to be able to replicate the “goodness” in the future. Likewise, the statement, “This needs more work,” is a critical statement that doesn’t really offer much in terms of steps for improvement. So we practice offering diamonds and clubs – feedback comments that really tell a person what it is that is good and what, specifically, needs improvement. Statements like, “You used really great eye contact while delivering your speech” or “I think your introduction could use a stronger hook to grab your audience’s attention right away” help a person to understand exactly what is great and not so great about their work and allows for them to move forward purposefully.


So, as I sit in my living room on this gloomy Monday morning on my second week of summer “reflect and recharge” time, I come to you for feedback. What do you like or dislike about this blog? How often do you wish the blog was updated? What kinds of things do you want to read about as we move into our fourth year with the ARCTIC Zone? More of something? Less of something?

I welcome any and all ideas, suggestions, advice you can offer. The one thing I ask is that you offer diamonds and clubs … because how else do I improve?


Giving Back

Long before I began teaching at Northstar, a tradition emerged called Join Hands Day where the entire building would halt classes for one Friday in May and every student would participate in a day of service-learning and giving back to our community. Each grade level tackles the day differently. Some return to Camp Manitou to help clean up for the summer season as a way to give back for allowing us to spend time there in the fall, some rake and clean up local parks, and others spread out to various organizations throughout the community to offer a helping hand for the day.

This being our first year with three grade levels to manage between the two of us, we asked the students if they wanted to join their grade level groups to participate in their planned activities for the day, or if they wanted a chance to plan their own. I was excited and nervous when the vast majority agreed they wanted a go at planning their own activities in a way that could give back to our community. I knew this could be an amazing experience, but I also knew it could be a total messy flop. And it was going to be especially difficult planning events for all 70 students when each of them was spread out through four different Humanities classes throughout the day – the time in which we would be planning.

I had never done anything like this before, and I wanted to make sure it was completely in their hands, so I did my very best to facilitate discussion, ask probing questions, and help guide them to the appropriate people and resources to further their planning without imparting my own opinions or biases. We started by brainstorming an enormous list of potential activities or events that could help our community or others in some way. There were many discussions and votes that ultimately led to the list being narrowed down to four potential ideas: volunteering in their former elementary schools, hosting a 5k pet walk to raise funds for charity and to promote healthy living, paint a mural with a positive message, and host a bowling tournament to raise funds for charity.

With four ideas and four Humanities classes, it worked out perfectly for each class to randomly select one activity on which to take the lead. It was important, at this point, for each class to understand they were responsible for further investigating their activity as an option for the entire group. It did not mean they were going to be doing that event and none of the others. It was a great way to work in a natural “jigsaw” and for each group to feel responsible for a piece of the day. Within each class, they split into teams they felt were necessary for furthering their research and planning within their activity. Many classes ended up with a communications team and a supply team among others.

Each day I tried to have a general idea for what I thought I wanted each class or group to cover or consider. For example, one day I wanted every class to consider and list potential obstacles we could face with trying to pull off their activity – weather, cost, transportation, permits, etc., and then they had a new direction to take their conversations. Often times, though, my own plans for the day were thrown out almost immediately as things came together organically. Emails were sent to principals and partnership coordinators at elementary schools as well as parent chaperones, phone calls were made to Menards about mural supply costs and to bowling alleys, interviews were conducted with our principals and police liaison regarding the legalities of hosting a fun walk/run event on our site. Every email, every phone call, every interview was written or conducted by the students.

Eventually, things morphed naturally, and a full day was beginning to take shape. If I’m being completely honest, I could not believe how much was falling into place. It turns out kids have HUGE hearts, GREAT ideas, and people LOVE to say “yes” to them! The class working on the 5k event decided it was best to remove it from our list of potential ideas because, though the event would be simple enough to pull off, they just didn’t feel it was likely to get a good turnout in the middle of the day on a Friday, and they wanted to make sure the day was worth every second of their time and energy. Many of the original ideas ended up morphing in natural ways. To explain all changes in detail would be ridiculous, so I won’t.

When Friday, May 10th rolled around, let me tell you how our day looked. Our group of 70 students split into three groups. One group chose to work on replanting the vegetable and flower gardens our first group of ARCTIC Zone 6th graders had planted two years ago. The gardens will be tended to by AZ families throughout the summer, and all vegetables harvested are free for the taking by all AZ families. Another group worked on designing and painting a “mural.” They cut it into enough sections for each student to have his/her own piece to paint which will soon be hung at the Children’s Museum in downtown Eau Claire. After multiple conversations with the museum, they were thrilled to accept our offer to paint something with a positive message for them and asked that we create something related to healthy eating/living so it can be hung in their lounge area. The finished product will be hung at some point this summer, so we will be sure to gather some members of our mural group to be present for that!


The final morning group split into four smaller sections and walked or rode to each of their former elementary schools. There they spent time volunteering in classrooms, helping to hang artwork, cleaning up playgrounds, answering questions about middle school, and chilling with kids at recess.


After enjoying a picnic lunch together outside, we loaded the bus – a bus that had been booked by students and paid for by our generous PTSA (with a mini-grant that was written by a student). The bus took us to Wagner’s Lanes where each student bowled a total of two games and recorded their final scores to bring back to their sponsors they had reached out to ahead of time. Sponsors of family, friends, teachers, neighbors, and so on pledged a choice amount of money per point their student scored that day. Prior to the actual event, they had all decided to donate the collected funds to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, so when the day was complete, the collecting began.


On the final collection day, I was made aware of something on my own personal social media account. Here’s where I need to take a side track for a moment, though I promise it’s relevant.

When I think about teachers who made a significant impact on my life, my mind immediately thinks of five different teachers. One was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Cohodes,  who was part Native American, had a heart of gold, and found beautiful ways to share her culture with us. Next was my fifth grade math teacher, Mr. Peterson, who coined the phrase, “Oof da” and also gave me the nickname, Ali, which has stuck for the last 20 years. Mr. Zoromski was my favorite high school math teacher who knew how to connect with me on my level at the time with humor while also putting me in my place when necessary. Frau Winterleigh was my sweet and spunky German teacher who opened my eyes to a language and a culture I just love. And then there was Ms. Strong.

Ms. Strong was my high school orchestra teacher and conductor for all four years. As I’ve eluded to with my new teaching position, interacting with the same students for multiple years does amazing things for building relationships. Having all four years with Ms. Strong was no exception to that concept. She was by far the craziest, funniest, kindest teacher I remember. She loved her students with her whole heart and would drop everything for any one of us. I remember her hectic schedule travelling from school to school and wondering how on earth she managed to pull it all off. She gave everything she had to her students and to making music – which, for me at the time, was a very special gift. Though I admittedly haven’t played in far too long, my violin remains close to my heart and always will, and I have Ms. Strong to thank for that.

Ms. Strong has since become Mrs. Hornby and the mother of two beautiful, spunky children of her own. Her youngest, Claire, was very recently diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that is inoperable. She is nine years old and is now spending her time at St. Jude’s Hospital in Tennessee where she is receiving the best possible care and is seeing and experiencing as much of the world as she possibly can.


On the final collection day for our bowl-a-thon fundraiser from our Join Hands Day event, my social media feed alerted me that Claire was now part of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and they donations could be made directly to her! When I introduced Claire’s Caring Bridge site to my students, they all agreed our money should go to her. So just last week, the ARCTIC Zone donated a grand total of $3,373 to Claire’s wish! You read that total right! That total, combined with the fundraiser her own elementary school conducted for her, is likely to cover most if not all of her wish, which the foundation is considering rushing for her due to the severity of her condition.

My students received a “thank you” video directly from Claire and sent one to her in return. I cannot begin to describe how proud I am of my students – not only for collecting such a large sum of money, but for the time and planning and creative thinking they did to pull off an entire day that was dedicated to giving back to their community and was 100% theirs. This doesn’t even crack the surface of what project-based learning can offer.

If you’re curious about Claire, with permission from her mother, you can read more about her and her amazing perseverance, positive attitude, and the incredible support system she has surrounding her here:



Do What You Love

I just started reading a book called Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis. It’s a book written for women that tackles “lies” society has been telling us about who we are or who we are supposed to be and offers very blunt, very inspiring suggestions for debunking these lies and taking control of our lives in a way that will lead to more happiness on the other side. One of the very first pieces of advice she offers is to surround yourself with positivity and to do what makes you happy. She admits that both of these sound incredibly obvious, but are very often easier said than done.

The first thing I did after reading this chapter was make a list of everything I choose to “do” in my life. Included on my list were things relating to my profession like “teaching in the ARCTIC Zone” all the way to things I just kind of dabble in like “gardening.” In looking at my list, I found there are many ways I could categorize the activities. I could list them as professional or personal or I could rank them by a level of importance I find them to hold in my life. Some of them clearly fit into a “want” category more than a “need.” At any rate, it got me thinking carefully about why I choose to do each of the things on my list and whether or not that “why” was strong enough for me to keep it on my list.

When I think about my “why” for teaching in the ARCTIC Zone, my thoughts drift to the afternoon of our final day of school this year. The last day is always a bit of a chaotic nightmare, regardless of the grade level you teach. End-of-year activities are often weather-dependent, scheduling a tight enough plan together to keep students engaged becomes tricky, and emotions are high simply because of the time of year – utter exhaustion mixed with tearful goodbyes. Admittedly, the majority of the day had caused me to feel more stressed out than anything, until the 8th grade celebration came to a close. We had just concluded the graduation-like ceremony in which each 8th grade student crossed the stage for friends and family to applaud, and at this point, students were dismissed to leave with their families.

As I stood toward the back of the room, one-by-one, my students and their families found their way to me. Pictures were taken, tears were shed, stories were shared. There were many special moments – moments I’ll keep to myself, for some things are better kept close to the heart. I will say this, though – there is a huge difference between receiving a hug from a student and receiving a REAL hug from a student. I got a lot of REAL hugs that day – from both students and family members.

The ARCTIC Zone has provided me an opportunity to build relationships with students and families on a level I never imagined possible when I started teaching nine years ago. We’ve shared three years together. Three critical years in their student’s growth and development. I’m not sure if I helped any of them become better readers or writers or historians or scientists. I do know, however, this group of 8th graders is leaving with far more confidence and resilience and a much better understanding of and acceptance for who they are than when they entered our doors. I feel really good about that.

On the last day, the 8th grade class also presented Andy and me each a special gift – a book of pictures and quotes. Though the pictures make me smile and will always be something to look back on, it is the words of my students that leave the biggest print on my heart. I’ll share a few of my favorites below.

THIS is my “why.”


A Night to Remember

In the three years we have been developing the ARCTIC Zone, in every brainstorming session we’ve had regarding various project ideas, a night of original TED Talks has always been part of the conversation. We knew it would make the ultimate culminating project for our 8th grade students before parting ways for the next big step in their lives. It combines so much of what we are aiming to accomplish in the AZ. Building the courage to craft an original script from the heart and the confidence to deliver that script to a live audience is exactly the kind of challenge we wanted to pose our students and exactly the kind of challenge to which they have always been excited to rise.

In dreaming up an event like this, you visualize things going a certain way or you imagine specific topics being selected to discuss. What I have come to learn, however, is that what I imagine is rarely what comes to be, and what does come to be is often far better than what I ever could have imagined.

It is difficult to put into words how I felt last night watching our first group of 8th graders take the stage to deliver their very own, very personal talks. I can only guess how a parent feels when their children reach various milestones in their lives, but I wonder if it might be similar to how I felt last night. As I watched each student walk up the aisle to the stage on his/her own, I found myself holding my breath. You can only hold their hands for so long before they have to step out on their own. No talk was perfect, and yet, every talk was perfect. Every student exited backstage with a wide smile of pride and a huge breath of relief.

I was grateful to have my own parents in the audience last night, and a comment from my dad still has me beaming. He was especially impressed with a common theme that seemed to connect each of the talks – a theme of kindness. This group of 8th graders is special for so many reasons. They were our first. But there’s something more. They have an unwavering respect and acceptance for each other and for others.

To say I was proud last night would be a major understatement. I couldn’t even look at any of them afterward without feeling the urge to cry. They spoke with confidence, and they spoke with heart. It is a night I will not soon forget, as I hope is the same for them.

ted 2

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