Why do we PBL? or From Sustainability to Sustaining

December 6, 2012

Drew Schrader

School reform is unsustainable.

There, I said it. Now let me explain.

I ran cross country in high school and one of my favorite poems was one called “Why do I run?” There is a fantastic sequence near the beginning that goes :

Is it easier now? Not really.

The same pain I felt the first day I began.

Only easier now to cover greater distances in shorter periods of time.

The work involved in transforming school culture, curriculum, and expectations is intense, grueling work. Is it easier a year, two years, three years in? Not really, just easier to do it better and more consistently.

The upshot is that it is also highly sustaining work. Creating situations for students to engage in deep, authentic, and engaging work is addictive. Sort of like the first time you hit a golf ball REALLY pure, and all you want to do is have that same feeling over and over again. Part of this is the familiar “educator’s high” when we see the light go on for a particular student, or even an entire group of students. Part of what we ignore, however, is that when our students are engaging with our content via engaging contexts and problems, SO ARE WE! I was never happier or more engaged as a teacher then when I was skipping out just a head of my students each AM to apply some content idea to the solution of a messy problem.For me, the shift of late has been away from questions about “How do I make this work sustainable?” and towards questions about “What about this work sustains me?” Not that I think we should abandon sustainability questions. Obviously there are practical, monetary considerations and we have to ensure we can continue to turn on the computers (and that we have computers to turn on) and we should also be on high alert for things we should stop doing.

But ultimately it is about fueling the fire, not reducing the drag.

So here’s my short list of what sustains me:

1. My Colleagues – I am incredibly fortunate to work with an incredible collection of brilliant, passionate, and committed individuals. I sprint to keep up. Like all busy people, it is a struggle to make time for collaboration that isn’t directly tied to a tangible next step, but every time I am lucky enough to do it, it is more than worth it.

2. My Schools – I can’t overstate what a privilege it is to be a part of the growth and implementation of so many schools. All of them are filled with incredible individuals whose commitment to their students is truly energizing.

3. My Projects – I try to keep a distinction between “my job” and “my work.” My job is the stuff I’m paid me to do and my work is what I’d probably be doing anyway. My projects are my work and I count myself fortunate as an educator for the number of times where my job and my work overlap so strongly.

4. Twitter – If I were more organized, I’d attempt to call this my “Personal Learning Network” but I’m not at that level. What I do know is that any time I wake up and I am not psyched to be doing what I am doing, I spend 30 min looking at the ideas people are throwing around on Twitter. Always enough to kickstart my adult-onset ADD!

5. The end-game – Bottom line is that I hope to be a small part of a large movement to change education for real, and forever.

What sustains you?