When I first started teaching, I felt like I was fumbling around, wanting to do well by my students but always struggling to find the right approaches. I started strong, like most new young teachers, full of enthusiasm, staying late and working through the weekends. But as the first few years passed, I changed. My practice was largely influenced by a stranger I didn’t know too well during that time: NCLB.
I first felt the pressures of raising my students’ test scores during my second year. After we received the data from our end-of-the-year California Standards Test (CST), my principal pulled me into her office. She pointed out the lack of significant math growth and advised me to raise the level of my teaching. That’s when I started to change into the teacher that I never wanted to become—a teacher who focused his year on preparation for the CSTs.
I continued my practice with the slow poison of NCLB running through my veins. I wasn’t alone. Cynical conversations cropped up in the shadows of our school. New and veteran teachers together started to change the good, replacing it with textbooks full of scripted curricula. Our craft had become a list of instructions, a how-to book, devoid of the creativity and innovation that was once there. In a conversation with my wife about the teacher I had become, she disclosed to me that if she was a parent at my school, she wouldn’t want her child to be enrolled in my class. Ouch! Her brutal honesty woke me up. During the following months I spent some time in deep reflection and created a plan to bring me back to my roots.
My new path was littered with roadblocks. Tight schedules prevented me from teaching away from the textbooks my district heavily relied upon. Ever more frequent assessments had married us to a traditional way of teaching, and any departure from it prompted closer looks from school and district administrators. Lessons were focused on the type of questions the students were going to face on the next assessment, and not on the development of critical thinkers or productive citizens. School for our students had become a breeding ground for the mundane and boring, while our copy machines continued to clatter and groan from the abuse they received during their daily routine of producing worksheets.
Nevertheless, real change for me and my students has started to happen. The catalyst for this transformation was project-based learning (PBL). A neophyte to this approach, I have waded through many confusions and misconceptions. My initial thought was that projects should be an enrichment activity, done after a unit of learning, or between units. However, after reading about crafting “beautiful work” in Ron Berger’s book, Ethic of Excellence, and engaging in conversations with colleagues in the HTH GSE and elsewhere, I realized that PBL is much more than students creating products. The real value lies in the processes of research, design, critique, revision, and reflection that lead to those products.
For me, new questions have surfaced regarding the implications of project-based learning in traditional settings. With a heavy concentration on test prep, coupled with a regime of bi-quarterly summative assessments, the students at my school have been inundated with years of traditional rote learning. The complexities and independent learning of the PBL process have left my students confused, looking to me to fix problems for them and to give them a structure for working and thinking.
In particular, since I have added PBL to my curriculum, I have discovered that the majority of my students continue to struggle with finding their voices. Being asked to articulate their thoughts and to reflect on their learning is foreign to their experience. At first, they struggled to speak with complete thoughts and complete sentences, and their journals were void of personal reflections. Here is where my action research question was born. For the next year, I will be trying to figure out what I can do to create a classroom where students are comfortable explaining their thinking and sharing their ideas. I hope that my research will provide my school with strategies that will help our students take command of their learning and develop the skills of articulation, reflection and independent learning that will carry them through their middle, high school, and college years. I also hope it will help me get one step closer to becoming the teacher I always wanted to be.
To learn more about Edrick Macalagium’s on-going work and research, visit his digital portfolio on the HTH GSE website at //gse.hightechhigh.org/