Today I spoke with fellow HTH teacher Tricia Ornelas about her experience with project-based learning. Although I've worked at HTH for two years in a room practically nextdoor to hers, I have never really taken the opportunity to ask her about her teaching practice.
Tricia teaches English/Creative Writing to seniors. During her six years at HTH, she has team-taught, she has worked in a partnership, and she has worked alone; she has taught juniors and she has taught seniors. Throughout those varying situations, she has had to adopt a range of approaches to our project-based environment - some of which, she acknowledges, work better for her than others.
One thing that struck me about her perspective on PBL is that she (unlike most of our coworkers) is quite critical of its effectiveness as an approach to teaching and learning. She employs projects in what she does, but considers it to be just one strategy amongst a range that work for her. Although probably many of us at HTH do this as well, she is more explicit than most that doing projects has its drawbacks. She prefers to structure her curriculum in terms of skills/knowledge she'd like them to acquire, as opposed to deliverables she'd like them to produce.
I think a lot of what she told me resonates with what I do already, but perhaps it's a matter of semantics. She says the project is just one strategy amongst a range of strategies she employs; I say that the project steers the curriculum toward relevant content knowledge and skills. Probably we're doing the same thing and just articulating it differently.
An example: after about 45 minutes of discussion around her critique of PBL, I mentioned that Anne and I had been struggling with how to make our art project "authentic" (see the six A's from last week's post). She made an offhanded suggestion to me that we find a gallery to show our students' paintings for the next project. She said it would help give the project "teeth" and, therefore, raise the stakes for the kids. Although it felt like an afterthought to her, this small moment indicated that, in fact, Tricia's approach to teaching demonstrates the same principles that are the very foundation of PBL (in this example: connecting learning to the adult world, widening the audience beyond the classroom, etc.). She just seems to focus less attention on the big, exciting end product and more on the process of learning that goes into creating it. I think that's a pretty sound approach.
To view Tricia's Digital Portfolio, visit http://staff.hightechhigh.org/~tornelas