by Sarah Fiess, School Outreach Coordinator at Tech Valley High School in Albany, NY
Each spring, similar versions of the same snarky joke make their way around Twitter: “Every tax season I thank my math teacher for spending so much time in high school on the Pythagorean Theorem!” This is the slightly more mature version of the teenage complaint that teachers are all too familiar with–”When will I ever use this in real life?” Yet this is an important question for educators to consider when we plan how to meet all of those state standards. The key to increasing my students’ buy-in and commitment to whatever project we were working on was the degree of authenticity that I built into the final product. Currently I work at Tech Valley High School, a PBL school that strives to find authentic partners for EVERY project with which the students are engaged. Every single one. Really! And you can do it too! Try one or more of the authenticity strategies below to bring your students to the next level!
#1 Stronger with Strangers
Students in your class, their parents, other teachers in your school–this is usually the perimeter of the audience that teachers draw around “public” projects. But these familiar faces don’t drive students to impress the way someone new and “important” will. Engaging with a specific and vested audience is within your grasp, even if your contact list is slim. Start by inviting people to your school—share opportunities to participate in programs or projects that are meaningful to their work and passions.
#2 Dive into your Digital Rolodex
One strategy to find presenters and audiences is to access the deep networks of all the people in your school community–you’d be amazed by who comes out of the woodwork! One teacher at our school a chemistry teacher from another school who shared his passion for building musical instruments out of unconventional objects – like a metal toolbox guitar. A parent became a great guest presenter for our students, not because of his day job as a graphic designer, but because of his membership with the Society for Creative Anachronism. He taught our students about medieval warfare complete with armor, weapons, and fighting lessons! Another student had connection with a local veterans group, the perfect audience for our Global Humanities class as they presented about the experiences of local soldiers in the World Wars.
#3 Form an Alliance!
Another method used by Tech Valley High School to recruit authentic partners from the business community has been to form a Business Alliance. The group of about 35 local professionals meet three times over the course of the year to provide feedback on curriculum. Because they are engaged with the school, our teachers and students, and each other, many of these business allies become partners on classroom level projects as well. Whether it is through their own businesses or their access to a rich network of colleagues in and across various industries, Business Alliance members are valuable allies in building authentic business connections for our students.
#4 Draft a Blueprint for Partners
TVHS Math teacher Jason Irwin, and Technology teacher John Hartnett, launch their integrated Geometry/DDP class each year with partners from local civil engineering firm, Creighton Manning. Over the years, they have refined this project to feature an authentic task, designing a residential subdivision on a plot of land supplied by the firm, connected to the real-life work that civil engineers do every day–verifying compliance with zoning ordinances and the geometry of road construction. Because these partners have a clearly defined role in this project and limited demands on their time, they have been willing to repeat their involvement for the last several years–great long-term partners!
#5 Students as Experts
Strong audiences can be comprised of mixed backgrounds, but the most engaged groups are interested in the same work your students are doing. Ask yourself: “Who do I know who does this for work or pleasure?” If you can’t find someone from a related industry, try inviting a class from a local college to be the “experts.” Likewise, younger students can be a great audience and put your students in the “expert” role. A deeper engagement with classrooms across the community and/or learning continuum is a win-win!
#6 Location, location, location!
Moving a project outside of your classroom walls makes a huge difference in raising the level of authenticity for students. I found this in my own practice when I moved out of my comfort zone with drama-based products (like monologues, “remix” scenes from a play, etc.). Most classes were engaged and excited in the project, but I saw a distinct positive difference in the final product when students knew that they would be performing in a “real” space, a small black-box theater we used for our final show as opposed to the fluorescent-lit classroom we used every day. When they were empowered by their space to feel like real actors, they performed more like real actors.
Similarly, my colleague, Jenny Ezzo, found that moving the final presentation site for one of her social studies projects off campus made a big difference. Rich to begin with, a mock trial project was further enriched by moving the site of the trial to the courtroom of a local municipal court. Tables for the attorneys, a witness box, and judge’s bench were key “props” that raised the stakes for the students, some of whom were seeing the inside of a court for the first time.
Ask yourself: “Where do people do this kind of work in real life?”
Consider what real careers do the work that you are asking kids to do in your project. Start your hunt for alternative locations with those authentic careers in mind. If you can’t think of a real job that does the work, you may need to reassess the authenticity of the project.
#7 Take Risks!
The most challenging part of developing a more authentic classroom is the twofold practice of risk-taking and humility. Being authentic requires opening your door and engaging your students with the broader world outside the four walls of your room. This means that you are putting your students and practices out there to potentially be judged and critiqued by your broader audience. That’s a scary prospect! But also consider how helpful your vulnerability could be to someone else–the risk of engaging outside can also give you new opportunities for collaboration and refinement of your practices.
This fall a group of 40 English-language students from Beijing Polytechnic descended on our high school for a visit. We thought, “What a great opportunity to help our freshman Chinese 1 students practice their language skills!” For our students, this was a big challenge, but one that they participated in (and benefitted from) because of the strong modeling of their teacher, Sophia Hsia. For me, the proof of success was in the response of the college students. At the end of the event, we asked, “How was their Chinese?” The undergrads responded honestly, “So-so. Not great.” But when we revealed that our high school students had only been learning Chinese for three months, the college students were in awe! “We’ve been studying English for eight years! They are really brave to practice with us!” Both groups of students revealed mindset growth through their interactions with each other.
#8 “Failure” is Okay
Presentations could get “messy”–a student intern may crash and burn in the workplace; “final” products often will need some edits to be considered error-free; your event may suffer from low-attendance. But not every hit is a homerun–take a single or the pop-fly out and learn for next time.
#9 Become your own Salesforce
As I work to build connections, I find myself often asking, “Do you know someone else who could help me?” View building an authentic learning experiences as a sales job–be clear on what you are selling and make an offer that is hard to refuse. Reach out in a variety of ways using as many types of media as you need (flyers, phone calls, e-mails, facebook, twitter). And be persistent in reaching out—ask for referrals when you hear a “no.”
#10 Go Public!
When I first began using Project Based Learning in my classroom, it was in the context of a writer’s workshop, the last phase of which is always “publishing.” Publishing took many forms and over the course of a school year, students would share their work products in a variety of ways: gallery walks with peers, classroom magazines, on the bulletin board in the hall. But every year, I saw the best products and the most robust revision when we presented to a broader audience–beyond teachers, beyond other students–when students wrote and printed their own chap books for the district poetry festival or when we self-published a class anthology of our narratives and marketed the books in our community. I also remember feeling that I just didn’t have time to do these types of projects more than once or twice a year. As I have grown in my career, I find that I am more likely to make the ask–using my network to help deepen my students’ experiences without burning myself out in the process. Successful projects bear repeating, and if you’ve built a good partnership–you’re likely to get repeat help!
Authenticity is hard work–building the relationships, designing curriculum, refining the context of learning all takes time and energy. The quality of work and degree of mastery your students accomplish will make your efforts worthwhile.