Guest Educator Column — Katherine Johnson, Lindbergh

Display at fair

Students working at computers.A few years ago I saw the need for a new approach to my teaching. While my kids were successful in mastering the skills I was teaching, there were still two glaring issues. First, there was no buy-in. My students couldn’t understand the connection of the themes we discussed in The Great Gatsby to the themes of their own lives. “Why are we doing this?” was a question often uttered. Then there was the issue of my students wanting to stay firmly “in the box” when it came to their work. They wanted the exact answer, they wanted to know exactly what to do and how to do it. There was no discovery, no free-thinking, no creativity. Something had to change.

Working with my department chair and our administrators, I was given two classes and told to run with my ideas. From there, my colleague, Valerie Schroll, and I worked to create a project-based learning course that satisfied all the state standards for 11th grade English, but also challenged students in a way that they hadn’t been before.

At the onset, we had a lot of questions. What is project-based learning? How do we make this an authentic learning experience for our students? Where do we begin? From there, it was decided that every project designed for the course had to satisfy three non-negotiables: first, the project must assess specific and focused skills; second, the project must offer choice; and third, the project must have a real world connection and an authentic audience. With those principles in mind, the learning that started to occur in my classroom was unlike anything else I’d experienced in my career.

When students are engaged in their content, magic happens because they have a choice in what they are learning, how they are learning, and how they demonstrate their learning. My students started to “wow” me on a daily basis with their ideas and inspiration. They were working harder than I’d ever seen and they were enjoying it! What?! And if that wasn’t amazing enough, all these other fringe benefits started to appear as well. Suddenly, homework and deadlines and work ethic weren’t issues. My kids were doing all of this because they wanted to. They were developing good habits as a natural byproduct of an engaging and authentic curriculum. Instilling those life skills is one of the best gifts I can give to my students.

The course is still a work in progress. Perhaps it always will be. I am constantly (excessively?) asking my kids, “Is this working for you?” If my kids aren’t learning, I have to reassess – I have to go back to the three principles that started this whole adventure. The reflection is worth it. Is it overwhelming at times? Of course, teaching always is. But I feel I owe it to my students and their future – our future.

The longer I am in the classroom, the more I understand that the role of educator is very minutely defined by the content. There is so much more to each of my students that must be challenged and taught. A student is not defined by being able to use a comma properly or understanding the steps of mitosis. While these skills are important, they don’t matter if students don’t have the life skills they need to be productive members of society. That is where I believe the job of an educator truly begins.