Someone who believes in them

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

IMG_1071Over 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”).

IMG_1069The 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.

IMG_1065When 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.

PBL in TOK: reflection and what to do with the knowledge you created

I have been working on adding a project based learning (PBL) component to my theory of knowledge class (TOK). The easy part in developing PBL in TOK (if you are in an IB school, acronyms are part of the process, and this last sentence is normal. If you don’t teach in an IB school, my apologies for the acronyms) is coming up with project ideas, the difficult part has been designing effective plans to meet the needs of TOK and provide robust, authentic projects beyond a presentation that lead to TOK thinking.

TOK makes up part of the core of the IB Programme. In order for a student to receive his or her IB diploma, that student needs to succeed in TOK. It is a class where students ask questions about knowledge as knowledge arises from real life situations. In doing so, students ask: What knowledge means, where it comes from, how it is acquired, created, produced, and so on. TOK, therefore, is a class that revolves around epistemology.

While I have been working out how to implement PBL in my TOK (and all of my classes, for that matter), I have borrowed heavily from John Spencer and  A.J. Juliani, their book Launch, as well as the Buck Institute for Education. In the process, I have been putting together a unit planning template from all those resources that also brings in IB requirements. I think I am finally nearing my first use of it all.

As I have been working on PBL in TOK, there has been a nagging feeling that something was missing. I have come to the conclusion that education is most effective when students take the necessary time to reflect on what they have done, what skills they used, and the impact those skills might have in and outside of class. This is essential in IB, as one trait from the IB learner profile asks that students be reflective. And so when it comes to PBL in TOK, I have realized the TOK thinking must happen in the reflection process.

Here is the way I see this happening: present students with a a problem as it  arises out of a real life situation (this is TOK language) from the world outside of school. Have the students use knowledge, information, and skills from one of their content classes to address the problem, go through the LAUNCH process, design a project, implement, present, and reflect. While this does not look so different in any for of PBL they would do in history or math (for example), TOK, therefore, must happen in the reflection and presentation. It is here where they will address the knowledge issues  they encountered during the completion of the project.

IB asks for students “to consider the world” and their “own ideas” in the reflection process. In addition, students are asked to reflect on their “strengths and weaknesses” in order to support their “learning and development.” Imagine asking students to add this to their reflections: “What can you create outside of TOK (or whatever class you might be using PBL and reflections) with the knowledge you have acquired from this project?”

And there it is. Without any real warning sign, I feel ready to implement PBL in TOK. The necessary reflection, which will include necessary ideas for TOK, such as an exploration of the knowledge issues they encountered in completing the project and other TOK themes.

What kinds of questions do you ask of your students when they reflect on a unit? How do you use this information? I look forward to an exchange of ideas in the comments.