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Sunday / September 22

Why PBL Makes Me Unapologetic

You may have seen the phrase “unapologetically me” across social media recently-these viral buzz words refer to a bold characteristic that is celebrated for being careless or perhaps unempathetic to what others may think or feel. Now when I say “PBL makes me unapologetic” I’m toeing the line between this modern definition and the more traditional one, as defined by Webster Dictionary as: “not acknowledging or expressing regret”. In my work in schools across the country I have sat across the table from many individuals who are reluctant to take up PBL, and I understand why! PBL is not always an easy lift and it can be scary to try something that feels unfamiliar, and perhaps even questions the foundation of teaching and learning as one has understood it to be. But no matter how challenging the enrollment process may be, I remain unabashed in my efforts to help teachers develop their toolkit by learning how to design authentic and rigorous learning experiences for their students.  I believe deep in my bones that every child deserves the opportunity to be challenged and engaged, every teacher is worth investing in their craft, and every community deserves to be enlisted in the process of collectively developing their future.

PBL is About the Kids

Despite many misconceptions about PBL not being rigorous, when I co-plan projects with teachers we always begin with the standards (1). My first reality check for teachers is after we have landed on which standards we will be designing a project for I ask “what do these standards have to do with the real world? And why should your students care?”. If together we can’t come up with a reply that doesn’t feel contrived then we go back to the drawing board. By going through this quick exercise during the brainstorming process, we are able to ensure that there is a “why” for student learning that is rooted in the interests and passions of our students and current issues that pertain to them (2). This entry point to learning can feel confusing for those of us who learned from teachers who replied to our questions of “why are we learning this?” with a swift “because I said so!” or “because this is how I learned” or “because I have been doing this for 20 years and I know it works”. And while there is a time and place to uphold tradition, I would argue that teaching and learning isn’t always one of them.

PBL Empowers Teachers

For those of us who survived No Child Left Behind the scars run deep-most of us still feel the residue of accountability and external mandates. And if you are a new teacher, chances are you feel beholden to a strict pacing guide provided by your district or a new curriculum adoption that’s been messaged as “the Holy Grail” for your teaching practice. Whatever your “top down” baggage is (and we all have it!), PBL allows you to move that bag aside and get your swag on with a new handbag! (3)

The project design process requires teachers to be creative, resourceful, well versed in their content, and integrate new approaches to teaching alongside traditional best practices. Somewhere along the process of spinning all these plates during project planning alongside me, teachers realize that it no longer behooves them to look to others to tell them what to do or to ask for permission, as they have historically felt obligated to do (4). They realize that they possess the knowledge and ability to create meaningful learning for their students; and that is an incredibly empowering experience for teachers to exercise their agency. PBL truly empowers teachers to see themselves as designers of their curriculum, and for that reason I am completely unashamed in my efforts to spread the good word of PBL.

PBL Makes Shift Happen! 

The best part of my job is when a school will truly allow me to partner with them by allowing me to provide teachers with ongoing support (5). When this happens I am afforded the wonderful gift of time-time to work with teachers, time to help them develop their craft, and time to see the seeds of our work grow. No matter where the school is located, what type of school it is, or what grades it serves, during this time I get to see the domino effect that PBL can initiate for a community: teachers become more collaborative (6), teacher and student agency increases, community exhibitions occur (7), parents are engaged in their children’s learning, and the overall culture of the school shifts-sometimes you can see it, sometimes you can hear it, but it is obvious by the buy-in of all those who make up the community. So much good stuff happens just as proxy of PBL that you will never find me remorseful about PBL.

There are many trendy (and effective) ways to go about engaging students-and it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game: “PBL vs the world”. I simply hope to make a case for PBL as another tool to add to every teachers’ toolbox. PBL starts with the students in mind, honors teachers as professionals and builds entire communities-you better believe I stand firm in my quest for global domination of project-based learning (…I’m only partially kidding).

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As an educator in schools across the country with a “one-of-a-kind” professional DNA, Dr. Jenny Pieratt prides herself on providing practical PBL tips and tools for teachers, along with authentic #realtalk on the subject of project-based learning. To learn more about her work visit www.craftedcurriculum.com and follow her on social media @crafted_jennyp. Be sure to check out her new book from Corwin: Keep it Real with PBL and her “PBL on-demand” e-courses

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