IW teachers trained on project-based learning

Published 12:52 pm Wednesday, July 6, 2016

By Matt Leonard

Staff Writer

Schools need more collaboration, more art, more revision, more projects and less of a focus on testing. Those were among the big-picture items that trainers focused on in professional development for Isle of Wight County teachers.

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Last month, the teachers who volunteered for training in project-based learning participated in a week-long boot camp. It was the county’s first county-wide development that had PBL in mind.

Teachers were split up into three large groups: elementary, middle and high school teachers. Those three groups were divided even further into small teams that would work together throughout the week to form a project that they could implement in their classroom next year. {mprestriction The training was provided by teachers from High Tech High School, a charter school in California that has been praised for its implementation of project based learning and progressive education initiatives. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The teachers arrived at Smithfield High School or Smithfield Middle at around 8:30 a.m. and had multiple sessions throughout the day until around 4:30 in the afternoon.

The week began with a field trip; some groups went to Windsor Castle Park, some went to Chippokes Plantation State Park, some went to other locations. Lynn Briggs, a school spokesperson, said the trips didn’t have an agenda. The groups went to the locations as a sort of brainstorming activity. The group that went to Windsor Castle Park, for example, came back with ideas on how to improve the park through conversations with other patrons at the park and their own observations.

But on Thursday, four days into the training, teachers in the SHS library were talking about the importance of curation in the showcasing of student work.

Janna Steffen, a HTH teacher, was showing them how student work in the school can make for a more vibrant learning environment. She showed the teachers a picture of an area in the high school where the walls were plan white and brick. Another HTH teacher had used Photoshop to show what the area would look like with art on the walls.

This makes students care more about their work, she said. Displaying the work in an original way is also important.

“No one looks at bulletin boards,” she told the teachers.

This idea of curation is just one part of the PBL process that the HTH teachers sought to pass on in the week of training.  The formation of projects, critique, assessment and curation are all important steps in the learning process for the students, according to Mele Sato, another of the HTH trainers.

Charlie Linnik, also a HTH trainer, said that assessment is something teachers usually don’t get very creative with. It’s important to do more than just a quiz and equally important to have the students occasionally assess their own work and each other’s work.

Linnik said students need to be able to spot the strengths and weaknesses in a peer’s work so they can bring the strengths into their own work and properly communicate the weaknesses. A level of analysis that can be left behind with a multiple choice test.

Tables in the school had examples of small and large projects that students at HTH had completed. One showed the process of critique with the progress a student made in a drawing through a few different iterations; another was a book — a real book that you can buy on Amazon — put together by a science class; one project combined a short essay on a historical figure with a drawing of the person on a transparency that, when laid over the essay, highlighted specific words.

This focus on art and design and overall aesthetic is important to PBL.

Teachers were shown a video of HTH CEO Larry Rosenstock who spoke about this.

“The focus on STEM is great, but its to the detriment to art and design,” Rosenstock said in the video.

Design, he said, is almost as important as math when it comes to the field of engineering.

This is a lot of what is missing in classrooms that focus on planning for standardized tests, Steffan said.

“Is memorizing facts that important? We have phones; we have information available literally at our fingertips,” she said.

That’s where projects come into play. A project allows a student to collaborate with other students while also building problem solving skills.

Likkin and Sato told a room full of teachers that these projects don’t need to be used for every lesson the students are taught, but they should be a regular part of the learning environment.

Before heading off to lunch both teachers said they were in regular public schools prior to coming to HTH. They said the PBL philosophy leads to more work for them, but, at the end of the day, they’re happier. Which they said is important for the students just as much as them.

“The kids are smart,” Linnik said. “They know when you’re faking it.”

If you’re enthusiastic about the subject, then it will help the students be enthusiastic, she said.

For those that could be skeptical about PBL, Steffan said she would tell them to think about their own experience in the classroom.

“I would ask if that method (a class focused on testing) truly created happy experiences in your mind for school or in your experience as a teacher,” she said. She expects the answer is no, because she had a similar experience before going to HTH. She was giving nine standardized tests a year to elementary school students. That focus on testing burned out both her and the students she was teaching.

Isle of Wight School Board member Kirstin Cook said the focus on PBL will help foster the skills the school system has been talking about a lot this year like creativity, collaboration and communication.

“Although our society has been evolving and advancing at a very rapid rate, very little has changed in the world of education,” Cook said. “We need to create a culture of learning which ensures that our students have the skill set necessary to be successful and competitive in the 21st century.

“Our leadership team has put together a strong professional development plan and has a very realistic and gradual implementation plan.  Both of these factors are critical to the success of any initiative.”

At the end of the day, it’s getting back to the way education was before the schools became hyper-focused on testing, Isle of Wight School Board member Vicky Hulick said.

The school system will be moving into PBL slowly, Hulick said, which will allow teachers, students and parents to get an idea of what to expect.

“I’m pretty excited,” she said. “It’s the way I want my children to be taught.”  {/mprestriction}