On November 15th, my professional Learning Team (PLT) at Enloe Magnet High School was granted the opportunity to visit Vernon Malone College and Career Academy. We established this cross-disciplinary PLT ourselves, with the idea that our Wednesday afternoons could be spent actively learning more about Project-Based Learning (PBL), as everyone in the group had limited exposure to PBL. We faced a number of challenges from the beginning. First, we are the only cross-disciplinary PLT in our school, so arranging meetings meant stepping outside of the expected process. Secondly, we were eager to avoid a common pitfall in professional learning: the instinct to efficiently minimize the number of tasks on your plate. Overworked teachers, even with the best intentions, often try to synthesize the obligations of the job by responding to each new challenge by saying, “Don’t I already do that, really?” Despite these challenges, our group was energized, as each person voluntarily committed to the group and to learning something new.
We subscribe to the belief that collaborative group work can be very rewarding, but must be managed successfully. We are also committed to the idea that the education our students receive must align with the real-life professional world that they will enter when they graduate. Several members of our group have been a part of WakeEd Partnership’s SummerSTEM program, through which WakeEd unites businesses with teachers to support the process of PBL in schools. This is where it got very interesting. This past July, Teresa Pierre led our SummerSTEM group to Red Hat, where we were immediately hooked by the presentation about their work process. I cannot imagine where else I would have been exposed to the Agile-based work management system called Scrum; yet, in the business world, it is practiced every day in many fields. The appeal of bringing this process to our school hit me, but was problematic to implement; changing the culture of a school is not a job for a few personnel alone.
This is the point where Michelle Woods comes into our journey. Michelle was our SummerSTEM coach during the first summer my partner, Nate Barilich, and I participated. She is also the PBL coach at Vernon Malone, and I knew that her school had not just envisioned using the Agile model to facilitate PBL, but that they had a systematic approach that strengthened the students’ understanding of the process. I requested an opportunity to see it in action, but I also wanted to invite the entire PLT at Enloe. With the support of Paul Domenico and our principal, Dr. Chavis, we arranged the trip with coverage, and brought an administrator with us (Thanks Mr. Mallory!).
Michelle arranged the day so that we could rotate through classes in the morning to observe how the teachers from the academically blended classes facilitated PBL in various disciplines. What we saw ignited our interests from the first step: in Ms. Goodsen’s room, ninth graders were reflecting on their group projects. She asked a volunteer to explain what was happening to the guests in the room; when he said, “We are failing forward,” I nearly fell over. I know it sounds like the veneer of a shared vocabulary might not be so amazing–I had only ever heard that kind of language used in isolated professional development–but he knew what it meant. Those ninth graders had internalized the process of managing their own group work, completing authentic self-evaluation, and after reflection, were able to improve on their products. I had never seen something so transcend the traditional classroom model. The students we saw all over the campus demonstrated a similar level of engagement and intrinsic interest in growth. They were as diverse a group as I work with face to face each day, but the control and responsibility they were exhibiting was far different from my classroom.
After our walk-through, we regrouped for a chance to process what we had seen, supported by a Q&A with students and teachers. Again, the genuine understanding of the purpose and process of PBL was evident from each of the students we talked to. It was through this experience that we were all able to see what it meant to fully develop a culture of PBL in an educational institution. Our concerns were satisfied, our energy renewed, and our imaginations were excited. The day culminated with group planning and a visit to their PLTs. The chance to see how these educators from across every course supported each other’s professional risk-taking was a reward. The Critical Friends protocol that I knew and have shared on an early release day with my staff was standard practice throughout Vernon Malone. It utilized the power of cross-disciplinary PLTs to bring one teacher’s brainstorming for a final project, solidifying his ideas and creating a very concrete project plan with the end-product in mind, to fruition.
It is difficult to stop sharing the profound impact this visit had on our shared goal of increasing PBL at our campus. I can try to sum up the experience in one anecdote from the very next day we were back on campus. In my ninth grade, standard English class, my co-teacher and I were explaining to the newly formed groups how they would be using the Scrum process to manage their projects. One student saw the map on the board, which illustrated how they would track their progress, and he asked who it was for. I replied that it was for his class to use, and he said, “Hey, we just learned that in Marketing this morning!” I literally jumped to hear that one of my colleagues, in reaction to her visit to Vernon Malone, was also compelled to implement what we saw. The fact is, the ease of instituting change at our school is increased by our shared commitment to a common process. For that training, I thank Michelle, the staff at Vernon Malone, and Teresa and Paul through SummerSTEM, for giving us the opportunity to bring real change to our high school.