Reflections of a PBL Teacher During a Pandemic by: Susannah Swanson

In project based learning, students meet grade-level standards by answering a driving question. Elementary students could be answering a question like “How can we plant a garden to grow food?” One of my favorite PBL projects in 8th grade Social Studies asks students, “How do inequalities in the justice system impact society?” Right now the driving question I have for myself as an educator is, “How do I teach my students during a global pandemic?” I have been a project based learning teacher for six years so the most obvious answer seemed to be “Project Based Learning.” Here is what I learned from my students:

  • Students need voice and choice.

I had originally planned to have my sixth graders make time capsules to show what they learned about Canada. However, losing school in the building meant losing potential burial sites. I live in a condo and I know many of my students lived in apartments and transitional housing. Even students who lived in houses did not always own the yard or have much of a yard. I adjusted the PBL to have an option to create an electronic PBL. One student said, “I know an electronic one would have been easier, but I did a physical time capsule because I need to use my hands to learn.” Another parent said, “I am so thankful you made an electronic option. It is just too much for us to try to find physical items right now.”

  • Step back and relinquish control: trust the process.

I think this is very hard for us as teachers. Often our teacher education programs and our administrators have made it clear that a good teacher controls the classroom. PBL challenges this idea by valuing peer feedback protocols. However, crisis learning presents particular challenges to this. Not all students have internet 24/7 or access to a device. I was inspired by another teacher on my team who would have synchronous learning classes that she recorded and posted to google classroom. Although certainly not perfect, I liked that it provided more access to more students. I set a time for my students to get on google meets (which can be accessed via phone if students do not have a computer) and recorded it to post later for all of the students to see on their own time. The students who were able to log on gave each other feedback on their projects while they were in process. As a teacher, it took every ounce of willpower for me not to jump in and critique their work. It is one thing to facilitate this in class but online, during a traumatizing situation, I found myself wanting control. I made myself let the students do most of the talking and feedback. And guess what? It worked. The students said exactly what I would have said. They also came up with innovative ideas for improvement that I did not think of myself.

  • Students will surprise you.

I am going to be honest, I beat myself up when I saw the first round of project products my students turned in. They were not the same consistent level of quality that I was used to seeing in my classroom. I filled out the rubrics and wrote feedback on all 89 projects, closed my computer, and called my team lead to vent. She reminded me to be gentle with myself. The next day, most students had reworked their projects based on feedback from myself and their classmates. I had not asked them to do this. Tears came to my eyes because yet again, they were directing their own learning.

Would I have done things differently? Absolutely! I have lost count of how many things I have changed my mind about and learned during this school year. Were the projects as good as what they would have been in the classroom? This is harder to answer. I would say that my emerging bilingual students and differently enabled students definitely needed more support than I was able to give them. The inequity that online crisis learning has highlighted has applied to PBL just like it has applied to other instructional delivery methods. I hope this summer to find more solutions in order to teach with equity so that I can continue to teach with PBL in the fall.

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