10 February 2014

Project-Based Learning

As a teacher, it’s really easy to fall into the “Sage at the Stage” model of teaching. We stand up front, deliver a lecture that we’ve rehearsed and timed, then give students worksheets copied from a book that has scripted curriculum and pre-made answer keys that are really easy to check.

It’s predictable.
It’s convenient.
It’s time-efficient.
And oftentimes, it’s to the detriment of student learning.

I don’t remember doing the worksheets I completed during my formal education; I don’t remember what content they covered, and therefore, I couldn’t tell you if the material sank in to my long-term memory. Odds are, it was in one ear and out the other.

However, I do remember the hands-on projects we did. My favorite was “The Face of Evil” project Mrs. Meyer gave us in English after we read “The Masque of the Red Death”. The only guideline Mrs. Meyer gave was we had to find a way to show what evil looks like. After a week, her room was filled with the things of nightmares. That project impacted me so much, that I use the same assignment in English 10 after we read “Lord of the Flies”.
One of my favorite "Face of Evil" projects by 2012 alums David Catsinas, Lynsey Erickson, and Eric Herr; David even made a swell shelf for me to display it!
Photo Courtesy | Blake Tobey

What made this assignment so great was how it encouraged collaboration and deep conversations among us students. We argued about what colors best represented evil, which images provoked fear and cruelty, and most importantly, what would gross out Mrs. Meyer.

We shared stories about the evil we saw in the news, in movies, comic books, in our peers, and even in ourselves.

Eventually, we came to realize “evil” isn’t some vague, abstract word that was confined to villains in Disney movies; it is a reality alive and well across the world and in every person.

A worksheet can’t lead a student to that understanding. A five-paragraph essay alone doesn’t give students the opportunity to share thoughts and understanding. A multiple choice test doesn’t reflect a student’s understanding or thoughts about a topic.

Poe and Golding didn’t want readers to get caught up on setting, plot turns, character development, or what form of irony they employed. Authors are trying to make a point, and they use things like setting, plot, character, and irony to make that point.

Mrs. Meyer understood that, and created assignments that reflected it. Project-based learning truly measures a student’s understanding of a concept.

It also helps students make those connections to the real-world that they so desperately crave (or, at least that’s what I suspect, considering we teachers hear daily “where will I use this when I grow up?”).

In Intro to Theatre, we’re covering physical and technical theatre. We took notes and watched videos all about set design concepts, looked at and dissected examples, and even discussed the concepts together.

Understanding the concepts of set design means little if the concepts can’t be applied, however.

So, they’re designing and building model sets, just like real set designers do in the real world. They read scripts, analyzed set needs, decided on realistic or abstract sets, sketched out ideas, and started building 3D models. Some might look at this as a “fluff” assignment, but these students are doing the same thing professional set designers are doing on Broadway.

Students are also learning it’s not all fun and games. Their sketched out ideas have some great details that make their sets look great, but going from page to stage isn’t as easy. The more details they have, the more work they have to do. The better they want it to look, the more effort they have to put forth.

Freshman Kaley works on her interior design for her grand house.
Photo Courtesy | Blake Tobey 
A student's work in progress for their exterior scene. The clouds posed a particular challenge to make them look like they are suspended, but the student did a great job fixing that.
Photo Courtesy | Blake Tobey

Senior Tierra comparing her sketch to images she's found online, trying to figure out how to go from "page to stage".
Photo Courtesy | Blake Tobey

Sophomore Drew figuring out how to get a wall-door combo that won't block the audience's sight lines. Sight lines are impossible to test on paper, which is why real set designers make a 3D model.
Photo Courtesy | Blake Tobey

“Yeah, I could cut out tiny books for the bookshelf, but that would take forever!”

Yes, dear student, it would! But, think of how incredible it will look!

Project-Based Learning is nothing all that new. However, it is just now getting some more traction in classes across the country.

Next week, I’ll be trying a new PBL assignment with my English10B classes. We’re just finishing watching The Help to help students see some of the basic principles of prejudice in action. Then, they will work in groups to identify some form of prejudice that is affecting our school, community, state, or nation that they will research. Their project is to find a way to address the prejudice so the situation can be improved.

Just last year, students simply wrote research papers about the topic, but what was the point? Sure, they knew how to research and write formally, but nothing was solved. Nobody outside their class heard their presentation. And the prejudice they researched was still running rampant through our halls, town, and beyond.

Nothing had changed, and the students only had a grade to show for it.

Granted, I need to make sure our students can write well, but PBL lets the students go further. The students will still learn to research. They’ll still write formally. But they will need to find a way to make that research and understanding they developed to make an impact on their community.

After all, isn’t that the whole purpose of writing? To make a point for others to consider and grow from?

Isn’t that the whole point of formal education? To teach students how to think, and give them the chance to practice?

04 February 2014

Holy Raging Solipsist, Batman!

Solipsist: the theory that the self is all you know to exist.

Or, "a person that believes his or her version of reality is the only version that exists".

Or, "one who thinks that just because he hates it, everyone else should hate it, too".

Who doesn't know a solipsist or two? Heck, we're surrounded by closed-minded idiots daily, be it in person or via media.
The Westboro Baptist Church is very vocal about its beliefs
Photo Courtesy: NPR.org
These people are paraded out in popular news programs as "expert analysts" that can speak clearly and objectionably about complex issues. However, these experts usually resort to attacking the people whom they oppose instead of focusing on the issues at hand.

And, OH! What apocalyptic clashes of will and intelligence (or lack thereof) ensues when two solipsists are brought in to debate an issue (note: I use "debate" very loosely...). Progress and compromise can't happen if a solipsist is thrown into the mix; it's simply impossible.

Jump to about 1:30 in to get the gist of solipsism at its finest.
Courtesy YouTube

Let's face it; it's insanely easy to spot a rampant solipsist. But in that truth lies a great irony. In some way, shape, or form, we've all got a little solipsist in us. How readily are we able to recognize or admit to the solipsist in us all?