It’s personal

We do project based learning at the Workshop. The students come up with a problem. We sit with them and think about how to begin to solve the problem. Together we puzzle over different approaches. We think about different resources. We come up with two to four ways to demonstrate that they’ve effectively addressed the problem. They research, write, argue, build, design, make mistakes, make breakthroughs, listen, learn, daydream, and the project slowly comes to an end. We talk about the process together. We evaluate the work along the way and offer lots of feedback. They reflect about the process and their final product. We reflect on the process and their final product. We sit down together and do a final evaluation.

We’ve written about this project process that we’re adapting. It’s not new or particularly original. I like to think we try to make it effective for our awesome group of students. We have good days and bad days.

What I was thinking about tonight was how personal these projects become and what that means for education.

Most of my time in high school was about keeping “school” away from everything I thought was important. I read a lot but not my school books. I wrote a lot but not for class. I thought a lot about music, about listening and playing it, but the moment school touched any part of that, I’d withdraw. The few times I tentatively tried to insert my passions into a class didn’t go well. You can’t write this paper that way. That’s not what I asked for. Yes, you still have to do this. And I didn’t want to buy in — buying in didn’t appear to offer me much. Of course, it’s a good bet my high school teachers remember another kid with enormous potential who was lazy or crazy or both.

Project based learning is personal. If it’s done right, it’s personal. It’s your idea and there’s a team of folks waiting to help you make it real. Sometimes it’s with others as a group project and sometimes you’re working alone. When it goes well, it’s a triumph. You’ve brought something into this world, however rough or in need of work. You will probably fail at first because any worth doing is difficult and will necessarily require multiple tries.

Think about how scary and new this must be for students used to six or seven classes where they can doze, where they can offer one or two answers to prove their involvement, where they can take a test that they spent less an hour preparing for and get a B-, where they can write a paper in one sitting and get a C+. You almost never have to engage or put your own passions into it.

At the Workshop, though, you’re in a large house with a bunch of individuals who want you to dream up your own idea and carry it all the way through and who are relentless in pushing your forward. It’s pretty awesome. It’s what school should feel like. It’s real so it’s scary and risky and messy. Having just watched the latest round of projects, I feel how deeply personal this process can become. I’m immensely proud of this last round of student projects, regardless of outcome, because of the personal investment they’ve all put forth, the chances they’ve taken in trying to create something new, and the ways they’ve begun to genuinely take charge of their own education.

One exhausted and contented teacher, going to bed.