Monday, July 4, 2016

Project Based Learning and Apple Pie

It is the season of Independence Day, every aisle of every store is stocked floor to ceiling with red, white & blue pool noodles, American-flag emblazoned picnic paraphernalia and patriotic party favors in preparation for backyard BBQ’s across the country. Last night my wife and I got caught up in the season and took the kids to the community theater to see a production of Meredith Wilson's, The Music Man. The show takes place in small town River City, Iowa on the 4th of July, 1912. By intermission the kids were antsy enough to go home, but as I sat in the dimly lit theater, watching the smiling faces sing songs and perform prat falls on stage, it made me realize that each of the players on stage may get far more out of the experience of putting on a show then maybe the patronage that pay the $14 admission. Community Theater is a great form of Project Based Learning.

It seems like a million years ago, but, I began my career as a high school drama teacher - best gig ever. It was like being the chaperone to a publicly funded version of the Little Rascals Clubhouse: we would dream up some scheme and the club would spend countless hours plotting, planning, preparing and producing shows. Although I spent time trying to teach a few standards in between all the dreaming and producing, the truth is, the students learned far more about working as a team, solving problems, making decisions when there was truly no right answer and all this learning was in preparation for a deadline that was publicly known: each of our mom’s would be in the audience opening night when the curtain rose.  I directed that first school play was nearly 20 years ago, and, when I bump into a 35 year old, former drama student in the grocery store, they often explain to me that the skills they learned producing those plays in high school are skills that still help them in their adult life.

Today, as an advocate for Project Based Learning, I realize that back in the old drama room D-103, we were rocking PBL before it was a thing. The power of the modern PBL movement is the weaving together of cross curricular learning and development of the 21st Century, College and Career Readiness Skills, like Collaboration, Creativity, Communication and Critical Thinking.

While the PBL movement is taking on many shapes and sizes within the American institution of Education, most agree that true Project Based Learning is more than the old mission project, where mom and dad help little Bobby assemble a sugar-cube constructed mission that goes from display at open house to the dumpster along with the $50 in art supplies that parents produced to capture the grade. PBL is about creating something authentic, something that includes student voice and choice, projects must offer the opportunity for students to reflect and revise, over time, during the course of the work, and the project must produce a product that is offered up to the public outside the classroom.

Whether you are considering a class play for the students in your charge, or you are a parent with a budding actor at home, I would encourage you to embrace the real learning that takes place when young people are given the opportunity to learn in authentic settings. To be clear, it doesn’t have to be a play, find your passion, connect it to the interests of the kids, create something that is on display for the public to see, and make it an authentic opportunity for learning! For some kids it may be building a website that helps people find lost dogs; another student may share a history lesson only using close up photographs of antiques. It is time to stop believing that college and career skills come only from the drill and kill academy of the academically rigorous classroom. For too long we have believed that standards can somehow be acquired in isolation, then eventually applied in adulthood, by a future version of our students. How will these future adults ever be dreamers of innovations and producers of productivity if we never really let them attempt authentic production until they are expected to also support their own families? Let your son be an actor, let your daughter be a student director, encourage your small group to produce a play as a learning outcome: don’t worry, you are not encouraging future Hollywood starlets any more than PE class alone produces Olympians. Let the computer driven student code and the child who chases light take photos. Structured as an authentic learning opportunity, each of these experiences can lead to a life long pathway of productivity.

As the flags fly and the fireworks flash, I can't help but think that the community theater is one of our American gems, a place where people gather to watch a story, co-constructed, come to life. Classrooms should be the same. Everyday, let's gather our students together, invite them to inspire us with their stories, then we can stand back and let them create, collaborate, think critically and communicate their way into a future that we can't possibly imagine.