Teacher Dreams, Collaboration, and Personalized, Project-Based Learning

I remember sitting in a class for pre-service teachers when the head of student teaching asked us this question: “What do teachers dream?” Each of us in the class threw out our best, most sparkly teacher dreams: “I want to touch young lives.” “I want to have a big impact, especially on marginalized populations.” “I want to share content I’m passionate about.” Our list was optimistic and focused on shaping the future. The professor listened patiently, nodded, smiled, and then said, “What I meant to ask was, what do teachers dream about?”

Ask any teacher, and you’ll find that teacher dreams are outlandish, uncomfortable, and even frightening! Mr. Coray finds himself teaching in an L-shaped room where he can only see the front half of the class but not the students in the part of the classroom that faces the corner. Teachers dream of obstacles that prevent them from attending class or keep them from being on time. They dream of unannounced observations when things are crazy in the classroom. They dream of teaching in their underwear. They dream of being expected to present stellar lessons in spite of the impossible. Leave out the underwear nightmare, and many teacher dreams have truth on some level, which may be why they are so memorable and so haunting. Mr. Coray does not have an L-shaped room, but many CTE teachers have situations where some students are working in a lab while others are working in a classroom. Covid, quarantines, and other health-related issues may have prevented us from being with our students when we wanted to be there. Sometimes we feel like we have to make the difficult choice between meeting our own health needs and being present in class every day for our students. Observations rarely occur during our best teaching moments. As the list of demands on our time grows, we do find ourselves doing the impossible. No wonder our minds play out our fears in our sleep!

Yet sometimes I think our minds are simply working on solutions. I had been waking up from teacher nightmares for a few days straight as I planned some new lessons I’ll implement in the fall. As part of a team effort with the other CCA teachers in my school to strengthen our CCA curriculum, I decided to take on a couple of areas I haven’t taught before. I want those areas to be just as hands-on, dynamic, and personalized as the rest of my curriculum, and I wasn’t sure what direction to take things.

One early morning my teacher dreams were especially intense. I was teaching 3rd grade, which just happens to be one grade I have not taught in real life. We were supposed to be leaving on a field trip. I was wondering if we were really going to be able to make it on the train all the way across the Canadian border and back as planned before the end of the school day, and I suddenly realized that I hadn’t packed myself a sack lunch as I should have. That meant going from room to room in the school asking if anyone had any bread or peanut butter I could borrow. All the while, a third-grade teacher from my former school, and one I greatly respect, was following me around and asking me questions that all started with, “Don’t you think you should. . . .” I knew that I had left my own third-grade class unattended, and I felt apprehensive about that. And I kept running into my principal from the junior high where I currently teach. He is one of the most supportive administrators I have ever had, and in my dream, I didn’t feel he was judging me, but I was conscious that he would be disappointed if he knew I had left my class alone.

Crazy as that dream was, when I awoke, I knew exactly how to personalize the unit I was working on and turn it into a project, mostly by pulling in ideas from projects I have already done with students in the past. Having a source to draw from gave me a starting place. I put together that unit, and I haven’t been bothered by teacher dreams for a couple of weeks.

No matter where you are on the path to personalized learning or project-based learning, there has to be a starting place somewhere, and maybe even more than one starting place. There’s no shame in being at a starting point, and it’s ok to go through that door slowly. I hope that when you come to a door that opens to opportunity, you don’t pass it by in favor of a more familiar path.

Last week I promised to give more ideas in answer to the question, “What would you say to teachers who feel that personalized learning is ‘just one more thing’?”

First, I think it’s important to validate teachers’ feelings of exhaustion. In the last two years, we have been asked to do more than ever—to be more creative, more resilient, more high-tech, more compassionate—really to do more of the impossible.

Second, I think it’s ok to recognize that some teachers are not ready. Let them come to the door on their own timeframe.

However, many teachers are ready to take on personalized, competency-based learning, project-based learning, or a combination of PCBL and PBL. How can we make these possibilities feasible without burning out talented teachers who are already doing their best?

This is an exciting problem to dream about. Here are just a few ideas:

At the district level we need people who are connected to effective PCBL and PBL that is happening in classrooms within the district. Some of the best professional development I have ever attended has been taking the opportunity to visit other classrooms with district leaders who knew where to see what I was hoping to implement and to observe. I may not adopt every practice or project I see, but I can take back what works for me and adapt it for my classroom. This means having the opportunity for paid substitutes and time away from the classroom for teacher observations.

When small groups of teachers move successfully and excitedly toward PCBL in a school, other teachers will follow. Administrators can look for those small groups who will take initial steps forward and can provide resources and support at the school level. This could include the offer of time to observe in classrooms where PCBL is the norm. It could also include other paid time for professional development. Or it could include access to books or workshops geared toward PCBL and/or PBL. Most of all, it could include paid time and the opportunity to collaborate.

Collaboration could be the biggest key to unlocking our PCBL future. In CTE, we teach 21st-century workplace skills—communication, collaboration, teamwork, etc. Yet teachers often work in isolation, each creating their own lessons or versions of lessons. This independent creation and re-creation of the wheel is part of what exhausts us. To be fair, even when we’re handed lessons out of a box, it takes hours and hours to become familiar enough with what we’ve been given to be able to present it to others in meaningful ways. But what if we didn’t have to re-create what has already been done? What if we had sources to pull from—sources that gave us strong starting places or even a head start? What if we could all rely on team members to help make our jobs easier rather than harder?

Building effective collaborative teams can be a challenge. I’ve seen this happen in our district, where we’re given time to collaborate and a content team to collaborate with, and every meeting is the same conversation as the last meeting, none of which has to do with PCBL. Yet I’ve worked with non-assigned, informal teams that have energized me and given me rocket-booster ideas for my projects. This year I ate lunch with English teachers, art teachers, and a special ed teacher. We all looked at issues from different angles, but because we shared students, we were able to help each other find useful solutions when needed.

After presenting about a foods project I do with my classes, the Spanish immersion teacher approached me to ask if I would be willing to extend the project so that shared students could learn relevant Spanish vocabulary within the framework of my project. How powerful is that? What if we could step out of our isolated boxes and figure out how to help each other succeed at the common goal of PCBL?

I love to create projects. Wrapping my brain around a project energizes me from first combing through the standards to figuring out assessments and grading to building activities in between. I know not everyone feels the way I do, but I am happy to brainstorm with anyone who wants to brainstorm. I would love to build, expand, and extend my own projects with cross-curricular activities happening in multiple classrooms. What if my efforts at teaching sustainability and helping students create “sustainability projects” were echoed in science classes? What if students wrote about their research and project results in their English classes? What if they had to perform grade-level math calculations to solve problems connected with their projects?

Organized, intentional collaboration could supercharge our PCBL efforts.        

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It’s Not About the Sewing

I’ve spent the last 3 days at state Career and Technical Education conferences. These are always some of my favorite teacher trainings of the year. The conferences are a chance to network, spend time with old friends, meet new friends, and participate in engaging, hands-on activities we can replicate in our own classrooms. Not surprisingly, we heard a lot this year about PCBL—Personalized, Competency-Based Learning, which is one of my favorite teaching topics. I’m happy that more teachers are getting involved in personalizing, which I truly believe helps all students succeed.

Probably my favorite workshop this year was “Sewing is Not About Sewing,” taught by Kayla DeCoursey. This was a fabulous, engaging, hands-on, personalized, project-based workshop that highlighted many vital, 21st-Century workplace skills. Kayla described how she designed this workshop as a rebuttal to a fellow teacher who said that teaching sewing was no longer valuable or relevant. She pointed out the skills students learn from sewing, such as visual-spatial awareness and reasoning, small-motor skills, measurement, and creativity. I would add to those skills the skills of problem-solving, grit, endurance, critical thinking, engineering design, and proper use of tools and care of materials, as well as the potential for collaboration on projects with others.

Collaboration, communication, dependability, responsibility, respect, empathy, cultural awareness and acceptance, creativity, resilience, grit, problem-solving, and critical thinking could arguably be skills that are needed in the workplace and in life more than any of the other content we teach. Information is abundant. Students can find it anywhere. What they do with that information will make the difference between solving difficult world problems and sinking under unsustainable practices of our society.

How does Kayla foster these skills in her classroom, and how did she engage teachers in using these skills? She set out 32 half-size dress forms and let us go to work. We had each brought a yard of fabric and our own creativity. We had 3 hours to draw, drape, and construct a dress from scratch. Every teacher met this challenge from a different skill level, just as every student would in the classroom. There were teachers who didn’t want to accept the full challenge, and that was ok for a teacher workshop, but Kayla doesn’t let her young students off the hook. She shows them some drawing and draping techniques, and they keep going until they figure it out.

I found the challenge instantly engaging and wanted to put my best into it. That’s the magic of personalization with project-based learning. It wakes up students’ imaginations and tells them it’s ok to play, to get creative, and to push themselves at the same time. I drew a sleeveless dress with contrasting waistband, circle skirt, and high-low hem. Yes, the bodice is lined. Yes, the seams are finished. And yes, I had the dress sewn and hemmed before the three hours were up. But just before.

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In Translation: I’ve Never Been So Proud of Any Class

Friday I had the kind of teaching experience that makes pre-service teachers want to teach and keeps in-service teachers in teaching.

On Tuesday I learned I was getting a new student–a refugee student who speaks no English. I immediately felt my own inadequacy as a teacher, but I tried to brush that aside with ideas for how I could include this student in my classroom and help him participate in our lessons.

If I’m honest, Wednesday wasn’t stellar. I see my students every other day and decided I could make Friday better. I planned to incorporate a Power Point with pictures into the lesson plan, and then I used the translator feature in Microsoft to translate the text from my Power Point into the student’s native language. I know that electronic translators have flaws, but I figured this was the best hope I had of communicating with my new student, who, by the way, is pleasant, alert, bright, and trying his best to make sense of his new world.

On Friday, I put up the Power Point with an explanation in English and the student’s language explaining to the class why I was using this additional teaching method. I told the class I wanted the whole class included in our conversations. I explained that the translation I was using was not perfect and might at times be confusing for our new friend, but it was the best we had, and we needed to try it.

My classes are currently mid-way through a project-based-learning unit I call “The Big Event.” They start by researching a variety of medical conditions that affect diet. We learn about MyPlate as well as safe food handling and kitchen safety procedures. The students make a healthy snack in the lab, and then I introduce the problem: We’re planning a large family party for a group of fictional family members, several of whom have specific medical conditions. The students must plan a menu that meets the needs of those family members as well as other criteria. On the last day of the unit, they get to cook some of the items from their chosen menu.

On Friday, the goal was for each team to make a list of healthy foods their fictional family member can and should eat, as well as a list of foods that person should avoid.

I told the class with the new student that even though I typically expected nothing more than a presentation of a list from each team, for this class, I was hoping they would also include pictures, which might help our new student feel connected to the content.

That’s when the magic happened. As teams started to research and build their lists, they began to pull me aside with questions like this: “Mrs. Coray, can we use the translator feature and make Power Points with pictures and translations of what we are talking about?” The whole class was a buzz of excitement. I was showing some teams how to use the translator feature in Microsoft, and other students were showing me how to make it better, and there was this whole-class, synergistic, collaborative effort that brought me almost to tears! Each team seemed eager to include their new friend in the conversation.

Our new student’s own team went even further. They pulled out their computers, pulled up translator apps, and began passing their computers back and forth as a way to communicate. One girl on the team with artistic talent drew elaborate pictures as they made their list in regard to their fictional family member, Uncle Jake, who was recently diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. As the team made their list, their art specialist drew a page depicting soda, candy, and baked goods, and another page with fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and foods made from whole grains.

I got an even bigger surprise when that team asked me if they could use the translator app to allow their new friend to speak when their team presented their list to the class. They would have him read his part in his native language with another student standing by as interpreter to read that same part in English. It was fantastic!

The team presentations were amazing, and more than I could ever have hoped for!

Just before the bell rang, one student on the new student’s team asked if he could also use the translator app next time we’re in the foods lab as a way to help his new friend participate with cooking.

Junior high students are often careless with their belongings, and I find all kinds of things left after class in my classroom. They never take papers with them if the papers do not affect their grade. I noticed as the bell rang how those beautiful drawings were left behind on the table. I also noticed how my new student carefully scooped up those drawings and tucked them in with his things.

It made me happy!