I figured it would be a pretty easy thing to do. About eight years ago, I began teaching a college course called “Fine Arts in the Classroom.” Since this is an elective course that education students take toward the beginning of their course of study, I thought it would be easy enough to incorporate project-based learning (PBL) into the curriculum. I had heard of PBL while doing coursework for my master’s at Dordt College. I really liked the way it engaged the students, so I did a bit of research, read a book or two, talked to some teachers who had done some cool things with PBL, and set off. At times, PBL was engaging and wonderful and one of the most satisfying things I have ever worked on with my students. At other times, it seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.
I started my adventure in an imaginary world. Several of the books and articles I had read warned that PBL needs to be centered on real-world problems. I had also talked to a couple of teachers who used a combination of real-world problems and hypothetical scenarios. Because I didn’t have a ready partnership with a school, and because my goals for the project involved students writing lesson plans and teaching sample lessons, an imaginary scenario seemed like a good place to start.
On the first day of class, I handed my students a letter. The letter was from an imaginary principal at an imaginary, newly-formed Christian school congratulating them on being hired and informing them the school was going to try to celebrate God’s creativity by focusing on the fine arts across the curriculum. The school had gotten a grant that allowed them to send the teachers on a two-week summer retreat where they would develop units to be taught in the school. They were expected to present their work at a special meeting of the new school board at the end of the summer. Their presentation would include both justification for such a curriculum and sample lessons, lesson plans, and schedules showing how it would be enacted. On the second day, in response to a quick survey they had filled out, I handed students a directory showing what they would each be teaching in the new school (they got surprisingly excited about this) and their committee assignment (one committee for each of the fine arts: creative writing, dance, drama, visual arts, and music).
After two weeks, the students elected two student co-chairs to keep them on track. I used class time to teach about integrating the fine arts into the classroom, and we worked through the unique challenges for teaching each of the fine arts. Students regularly met with their committee groups to work things out. Toward the end of the semester, I asked them whom they wanted to serve on the imaginary school board to which they would present. They chose faculty, staff, administration members, and a local pastor or two.
The results were amazing. Students sent out letters inviting the “school board” to a special meeting, and even took a collection amongst themselves to buy doughnuts and coffee for their guests. The had put together a large booklet that included pages and pages of justification for each of the fine arts, schedules, and lesson plans to show how the fine arts could be implemented by regular classroom teachers in the context of specific integrated units in core school subjects. Their plans spanned a range of subjects and covered grades from kindergarten through high school. They photocopied the booklets for the board and practiced their presentation until it was short enough and fascinating enough to keep the attention of all their special visitors. Since the imaginary school was a Christian school, they considered Christian worldview in justification and lesson planning, something our textbook didn’t include. And best of all, I had been able to cover a great deal of material in class on which they had been remarkably focused since it all had a bearing for their final projects. In the end of term, grading was remarkably easy. They had surpassed my expectations nearly every step of the way.
I used the same approach in the following two semesters. I changed the prompt each time so that no class would feel it was getting a routine, recycled activity, and I was again pleased with the results. I began to reflect on it, though, and recognized that one of the reasons it was going so well is that an imaginary world didn’t offer the same challenges that a real-world problem would. Specifically, it didn’t involve any real-life students, teachers, or administrators. On the other hand, my imaginary exercise could cover the whole curriculum and a large range of ages. I figured I would stick with it. Then came the call for help.
Adventures in the Real World
A former student sent me an e-mail. She had gotten a job in the same Chicago public high school where she had taught as a student. Since I had supervised her student teaching, I knew the school. It was in a neighborhood with some very significant economic needs. On one of my visits there, I had actually seen a police car chasing a student across a soccer field. I had been impressed by the spirit of the school. Once I walked in the doors, the place seemed safe. I was amazed to see security guards playing chess with students who had study hall periods. It was a good place.
My former student, (who I will call Ms. Markus), was teaching an advanced English class. She was struggling with engaging her students in Shakespeare because they were just reading from the book. She wanted the students to experience what a real Shakespeare play would be like. She was wondering if I could help. This, I thought, was a job for my PBL “Fine Arts in the Classroom” class.
My former student came to campus to meet with me about her project. As we were talking about it, one of my colleagues overheard the conversation and recommended a grant for which we should apply. The deadline, however, was only a few days away. We pulled together a proposal and were surprised to hear a few weeks later that we had been awarded the grant. I added this information into my first-day prompt and prepared to meet with my students.
Once again, my students surpassed my expectations. They traveled several times to Ms. Markus’s school, met with their groups, picked out some scenes to perform, and rehearsed. As a result of our grant, we were able to take our college and high school students alike to a Chicago Shakespeare performance. After a quick lunch, the students even managed to squeeze in some practice time out on the pier. The final performances took place in theater here at Trinity Christian College. We arranged to have the high school students bused in and also arranged for a separate bus to transport their families. The grant did not cover food, but my students managed to convince a local restaurant to donate some free food. My students made posters, gathered an audience of Trinity students and students from local middle schools, arranged for a soundtrack, and made programs with all the high school students’ names in them.
At times, this was a difficult experience for me. As a teacher, I am used to being in control of situations. Here, I found I had for force myself to stand to the side with my mouth shut while my students worked out the problems. This was hardest during the times when it seemed like the whole project was going to completely unravel.
In the end, though, PBL had once again helped my students surpass my expectations. As I reflected on our work, I realized that the hardest challenges had involved bus forms, permissions to use facilities, grant reports, reimbursements, restrictions, and rules that all made it a little harder to do what we needed to do, but my students rose to the occasion. I was also surprised at how well my students somehow still managed to incorporate all of the fine arts in their work.
Finding the Right School to Partner With
After a couple of semesters, Ms. Markus’s schedule changed and she was no longer teaching the advanced English class. She also felt that she had learned enough from our project that she didn’t need our help so much anymore; to be honest, it also was a lot of work for us each semester. It turned out that another former student, who I will call Mrs. Forhan, had recently gotten a job in a troubled Chicago Public middle school. I asked her if she would like some help, and she was excited about the possibilities. This school had been without a principal for a few years and was, like the earlier school, in an economically needy area. Because we would be working with third graders, though, I could go back to having my students break up into groups based on the fine arts and having them work with a small group of students. Mrs. Forhan found two of her colleagues who welcomed us into their classrooms as well. Because we had renewed the grant, we were able to bring the third graders to Trinity to perform their adaptations of several of Mo Willem’s picture books.
We worked with that school for about three semesters. Mrs. Forhan kept getting moved to different grade levels, which actually worked out well for us, as each grade level seemed to present a new set of challenges. Eventually, though, Chicago Public Schools decided to close down that school and Mrs. Forhan was reassigned to another school in a part of the city that was too far for us to be able to continue our project.
I was frustrated. Although each iteration of PBL had been a good experience for both my students and the students they were working with, I was tired of having to start over with a new school every couple of years. Although it meant we could respond to a new set of needs, it also meant meeting a new principal and learning a new set of policies and rules each time. At about that time, however, I received requests for help from two local Christian schools, both very diverse schools in different ways, and from an after-school program at a ministries center. For these projects, I organized the students into their five fine arts teams, and let them contact the principals or coordinators and set up an after-school or during-school enrichment program of their own devising. This meant they were involved with every stage of the planning. I found I had to keep in close contact with the principals and coordinators to monitor how plans were developing, but it seemed to be a success. Also, because my students were again working with Christian schools, they could consider in a more direct manner the Christian justifications and implications of their service.
Lately, I am concerned that the individual groups seem disconnected from each other. I am worried that students working with the drama group, even though they are able to spend hours working with third graders in a school environment, might not learn as much about how to incorporate music, visual art, dance, or creative writing in their teaching. Students also seem to rush through processing their faith-based justification for their work as they write their proposals for the leader of the school with whom they will be working. And sometimes the after-school arts programs do not tie into the regular curriculum as much as I would like. I have been thinking that maybe we need to return to the imaginary situation that I started with eight years ago.
And so I have learned that no PBL situation can ever really cover everything you hope it will. I have learned that PBL is easier when you have relationships established with partner institutions, but that those relationships do not necessarily last for a long time. I have learned that no two PBL exercises are ever the same. I have learned that I can trust my students to work out the details, and rely on them to go far beyond what I have asked. And I have learned that project-based learning continues to teach me at least as much as it teaches my students.