Over my spring break, I was VERY fortunate to have the opportunity to visit and exchange ideas with 9 amazing campuses in the Parramatta Diocese in Parramatta, Australia. After five days of school visits and workshops, my brain is full of an overwhelming array of memories, snapshots, ideas, and exchanges. There are too many details to capture in my typical On the Map accounts which in the past have tended to synthesize my ARIE trips in more-or-less chronological day-by-day entries of my PBL adventures. Instead of capturing this trip in this way, I have decided to describe how this trip has enriched my Happy and my Hack Lists. This article will describe the additions to my Happy List. After I’ve had a few days to reflect on my notes, I will write another article that digs into the things I’m adding to my Hack List as a result of this wonderful trip.
The most important beautiful and happy memories I gathered at each campus involved students who were happy to learn. Student engagement was very high at every campus I visited. Students were very enthusiastic while telling me all about their work. Several students gave me impromptu workshops on elements of Project-Based Learning (PBL) and on the specific things they were learning in their projects. A ten-year old taught me about high modality words while explaining to me how she was using them to make her PSA script more persuasive. Several teams practiced their presentations with me and asked for my feedback. One team tried to present twice to me so they could immediately apply their feedback. At one campus, PBL has raised student engagement enough to increase their attendance from around 60% to over 80% over the course of the project with several days at 100%. When I saw this data and heard about the challenging context of this campus, I cried because it hit me that PBL was impacting these hard-to-reach kids in meaningful ways and our work had a little part in that.
In every campus, there was evidence of PBL documentation in all classrooms. All classes had wall displays with Knows and Need-to-Knows, rubrics, group contracts, driving questions, and other artifacts (sample products, past products, workshop summaries, etc.). I was really happy to see Knows and Need-to-Knows lists that were quite messy because they had been clearly updated over the course of the project. These appeared in class walls and on students’ work areas. I saw evidence of some amazing PBL systems that were infusing the seeming chaos of PBL with content and 21st century skills learning. I observed and heard some great accounts on how students were using group contracts as tools to organize their teamwork and hold their teammates accountable.
At every campus, I met dynamic, hard working, thoughtful and professional staff members who were giving PBL a real shot. All teachers had designed and facilitated at least one project. Some teachers were already on their 3rd project even though we are still in the first term of the school year. There was clear collaboration among teachers who were together navigating the challenges of PBL. Teachers were already committing to the hard work involved in preparing PBL units because of the engagement and deeper learning they were observing in their classrooms during their projects.
The teachers were very thoughtful and forthcoming while sharing their successes and their challenges. It was really validating to hear how much each campus had to celebrate and to commiserate over our shared PBL struggles. We spent time exchanging strategies in order to better implement Knows & Need-to-Knows lists and rubrics and to improve Content & 21st century skills scaffolding and assessments. It was exciting to brainstorm new strategies to improve these PBL elements.
The hospitality at each campus was really beautiful. Another week of their wonderful tea times and I might have struggled to fit into my business clothes. One student was so excited by our visit that he bought us Vegemite. After our Vegemite picture was posted, other campuses gave us other food gifts to counterbalance the odd acquired taste of Vegemite. The people at each campus were so friendly and warm – truly some of the nicest people I’ve visited during my ARIE trips!
I’m also grateful that I got to work with the great ARIE team. I don’t have many pictures of them because we had to separate ourselves into smaller teams in order to visit our 25 partner campuses. Instead I have tons of pics of Ray and I touring Parramatta since he was my observation partner at most of my school visits. We had a wonderful time that gave me lot of ideas and that filled me with a lot of inspiration to take back to my students next week. What a wonderful way to recharge and get ready for the final stretch of the 2016-2017 school year.
Thank you to all the Parramatta leadership team and to all the Parramatta schools that hosted me (St. Francis’s, Holy Family at Eddington, Holy Family at Luddenham, St Aidan’s, St Matthew’s, Our Lady of the Way, St Oliver’s, St. Bernadette’s, and Xavier College). My mind and heart have been enriched by our exchange – thank you very much!
p.s. A special thanks to Tim for taking time out to show me and Ray a kangaroo family on our way to one of our school visits and for all his wonderful insights that added texture to our observations.