I teach a couple of classes of at-risk and low performing students. These are students who have been told their whole lives by grades, family, teachers, assessments that they are not smart, that they can’t handle heavy thinking, that they can’t handle independent, critical thought. And while many do float to these expectations (I will forever be indebted to Mike Rose for the verb “to float”. If you have never read his essay, “I just wanna be average,” stop what you’re doing and read it now), many move well beyond them. As Felicia might say, “These kids don’t need to be saved, they just need somebody to believe in them.” I tell you, that woman is smart.
Over the course of last semester, we had done some fun, hands on type of PBL, but I wanted to push their thinking. I went to The Buck Institute’s website (BIE), and I did some searching around Google and Twitter for what could be a fun, intriguing unit. When I found the “Cool with School Rules” project, I had an idea and I developed a unit on ethical decision making with then end goal of examining school rules. I designed the unit around three primary forms of ethics: utilitarian, obligation, and consequential. When I presented the unit to the classes, given this group of kids, they were baffled (one asked if I mixed this class up with my Theory of Knowledge class) about why we would even bother talking about such inane topics. But, several were curious and actively engaged in thought experiments and the like. And many chose not to.
But then, without them knowing that they were going to engage in some PBL, I had the principal come in to class one day. He told them that he had heard we were studying ethics, so he figured they might be the right kids to help him out. As he said, “There are many students in this school who are having a difficult time following rules and just being damn civil to each other.” So he wanted some help in motivating students to be better, behave a bit more civilly, and respect the building and what we are trying to do a bit more. So he asked my classes to help him come up with strategies. He gave us four weeks to come up with something. We would need six.
He left and we got right to work. My students divided the building (hallways, library, bathrooms, cafeteria, gym/weight room/locker rooms), and groups took sections to work on. In the process of completing the assignment for the principal, they had to base a lot of what they did and say in one of their three ethical frameworks.
Using the launch process, the students were able to engage with ethics in some form of concrete reality. As well, we introduced other questions regarding rules and culture and the manner in which these play a role in how people act and behave towards each other and their environment.
The PBL was designed with all of the necessary elements:
- We launched the project with the principal coming in and presenting a real, viable issue. After he left, the students spent time brainstorming in small groups what they knew and understood about school rules and why they may or may not follow rules. These conversations were rooted in the ethics we had studied.
- From this exploration, the students were able to develop questions. This is a difficult part for many students, these kids are certainly no exception (in their mind to ask a question is to admit you might not know everything, you might be wrong, or you might actually care). However, with the right tools and framework, some of these kids came up with some solid questions.
- They spent some time studying more ethical decision making strategies and other ideas that people had done to create a culture where people wanted to be there. And they came up with some answers to their questions. Again, some had well developed answers while many had very thin answers. Regardless, they worked within these ideas and concepts.
- From here, they spent time in their assigned areas of the school and took notes and studied the needs of these areas. They also studied what some other schools had done with posting rules in some creative manners. With all of this knowledge, they came up with their ideas for posters and slogans.
Over the course of the next few weeks, my students worked on coming up with ways to engage students to behave and follow rules. The students were reflective in their own struggles with rules and school and applied what they knew of themselves and their friends to what they felt might motivate others.
When the principal came back after six weeks, the students presented their ideas to him. As you might expect with a group of at-risk and low performing students, many didn’t get as much done as they could have, but some did exceedingly well (many students still argue about the “broken windows theory”).
The principal, however, was so impressed with one group that their posters are hanging in bathrooms around the school (these are the pictures presented). They took the approach of making memes to remind students of expectations for the bathrooms.
The beauty of a well executed PBL, as I am beginning to learn, involves so much. In the case with at-risk and low performing students, most need a bit of structured and guided inquiry. This group needs explicit deadlines as at-risk and low performing students tend to struggle with self-direction. They also need explicit rubrics and guidelines. They need all of the requirements of good PBL as outlined by The Buck Institute.
When reflecting on the process when they were done, many students, including two in the group who have their memes hanging, said that for the first time in their 12 years in the education system, they felt their opinion was valued and they were taken seriously. When the principal was in the room listening to their presentations, they felt like he was genuinely interested. Probably because he was. He wasn’t there to grade them. After each presentation he offered his advice and that if they wanted their posters or ideas presented to the school, this is what they would have to do.
According to BIE there needs to be some sort of authentic, public demonstration, because far too often, students present only for the grade book. When the principal was there to listen and to pry and to advise, they realized that this was for real. And for just a moment, there was somebody else in the room who believed in them, which is what they really needed.