Embracing the struggle of PBL with new students is key

Posted on 10.10.2012


Freshmen World History students start out their Project Based Learning career the same way with me. Their first true project is an Oral History one – they have to write a ‘Family Biography’.  In order to do this, they ingage in  Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Creation and Reflection.

It’s such a great way to start out the year, we all have a ton of fun by the end.  Along the way it’s a struggle.  And that’s what’s important.

Before the project is introduced we look at a few concepts about environmental factors and how they affect push/pull migrations and nomadic/sedentary societies.  I then share the whole project with them.  We break down each step and look at what must be done to create the final product.

Students struggle with every step: In the inquiry ‘phase’ they struggle to come up with questions about how their family is affected by the environments it’s lived in.  They learn about environmental factos, push/pull migration patterns, examples of sedentary and nomadic cultures and then work on creating questions in groups, as a class and by themselves they can research about their family when they interview family members.

They conduct research by interviewing a family member for 10 minutes about their history and create a transcript of the recorded interview.  Using their research, they analyze it by engaging in active reading (a 5 step method – here is a worksheet I use to teach the method).  They work in teams along the way.  I give them advice on how to record the interview, we practice the active reading techniques and analysis method.  We share our ideas.

After they have outlined their transcript for important information they write a biography about how the environment has affected their family’s history and ultimately, how they are influenced by their family (an main question we focus on with freshmen).  They also create a visual timeline using maps to show the main parts of the biography.

The students struggle.  Every year. At every step.  In almost every period, at almost every step, I get the classic 4 word statement:

“I. Don’t. Get. It.”

They don’t get how to do each step, so we go slower, I identify where some might be tripped up and answer as many questions they might have.  We work in groups and share possible answers.  We practice.  And ultimately, we move on.  But they still use that 4 word sentence.

They also do not understand how each step relates to their final product – they always just want to write the biography and create the visual timeline.  Despite my initial transparency and constant reminding, they do not see how each step relates.  I implore students to come see me outside of class, rarely they come.  They still use that 4 word sentence.

Students use that phrase to not just describe their lack of understanding, they are also trying to convey a whole mess of emotions.  Most days class ends with some students pumped; one student, Malik always walked out, shoulders back, head high with confidence saying, “I got this.”  Some students end class silent and scared.  The general atmosphere is always confusion though.  Yet, I leave class smiling to myself that this is normal.  This is what true learning is: It’s confusion, confidence, fear, excitement and new experiences.  They might not get it now, but they will.

It’s an AMAZING project, I love how complicated, how reflective, how collaborative and how it sets the pace for the rest of the year.  I wonder if I am taking sick pleasure out of their initial confusion and fear and uncertainty.  I wonder if I am being cruel.  Maybe I should go slower, maybe I should spend more time one-on-one.  My heart goes out to my students because I know that this is so hard, so alien and so frustrating to many of them.  I can see it on their faces and in their actions.  I do my best to support them.

Something amazing happens on the day before the project is due.  The students are supposed to bring in all the steps and pieces of the project so they can reflect on the process.      I won’t lie, only a few have most of the pieces – those go off and peer edit using a checklist I create (along with a few questions students must answer to provide feedback).  But the others use that phrase one last time:

“I. Don’t. Get. It.”

That loaded phrase with all the emotion, all the frustration.  So we go to the chalk board and lay out all the steps and it’s a magical moment for all the students: they see all the parts laid out in front of them, they see each completed step and how it relates to the previous step.

And low and behold; they get it.

As students reflect their shoulders slide down, their chest opens up, they start to get excited.  Then a new question comes: “can I turn this in late?!?”

I love this project because it sets the pace, it leaves the students feeling empowered knowing that they are going to do some amazing things this year.  I love the project because I have embraced that it will be a struggle.  That each year I have no idea what the final product will ultimately look like and say.  I get to learn with my students and feel frustrated, excited, scared, safe and ultimately, challenged.

Learning has to be a struggle or else it’s just not as meaningful.