Dirt Under Your Nails

Have you ever been so excited to start gardening that you didn’t bother to put gloves on? Just dug your hands into the dirt? I do this…often. Pulling weeds while walking down the street and in parks. I later scrub the dirt out from my nails, but not too much…I’m proud to carry remnants of my to-the-earth hobby with me throughout the day. PBL is like this. Instead of dirt under my nails, I carry my filled to the brim, worn notebook and laptop – full of ideas, scaffolds, project launches, and essential community contacts.

Here’s a trade secret: PBL, even when done really well, is messy. I mean you left the gloves off and it just rained messy. You will get wet sitting in the front row, or even 10 rows back. This is because Project Based Learning is a hybrid of inquiry based learning and traditionally sequenced learning. Yes, there is structure to PBL, but it’s a loose structure. You know, like a garden. Do your research, sow the right seeds for the season with an objective in mind taking into careful consideration of soil, moisture, season, and lighting…and still the unexpected comes along. Master Gardeners, I learned recently, aren’t masters of gardening but masters of problem solving – “We don’t know everything about gardening, we just know how to figure it out.” (Master Gardner at Orientation September, 2016)

I’ve been teaching PBL for 10 years at New Technology High School – the flagship school for the New Tech Network which is now comprised of nearly 200 Project Based Learning schools worldwide. In that 10 years I’ve had some incredible learning experiences both inside the classroom and out – not least of which have come from the students I’ve gotten to know, my experience becoming a mother 3 times over (2x biological, 1x step mom), and my relationships with the unique adults I get to know in this line of work – the gurus, the academics, and the “I hated school, but sure I’ll help out” wild cards full of insight.

Every year I reflect and write down ideas for next year. Things to remember, the answer, the solution. A surge of creativity in the Spring – I revisit core teaching values. Next year will be streamlined, it will be smooth, I will sleep better and so will my students, I will finally be a Master Teacher!

Yet, year after year, incredible insights and tools in hand…it doesn’t get easier – it gets different.

Different kids, different world events, different community news, different tools…every year different. This year’s notes will give me a good structure to work from in the fall, but I still need to come to work alert and ready to adjust every day. There are some core strategies for PBL that do become more second nature with experience. Maybe being a Master PBL teacher doesn’t mean you know the secret to PBL…maybe it just means you have a plan, but also have the ability and willingness to strategize as you go and a willingness to re-design after meeting your students where they are. Even better, being willing to strategize with others. That’s the messy nature of this work, dirt under your nails. I can’t imagine doing it any differently.

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