Project Based Learning: How the Courtyard Rejuvenation Project Made My Day

Students plantingI have been a staff developer at OCM BOCES for more than 14 years now. I reflect on all the work I have done over the years with schools, classrooms, teachers and students with a certain amount of pride knowing that work I do with Responsive Classroom®, Standards Based Planning, and other work has changed practice in the classroom and ultimately student achievement. My passion and beliefs are what drives me to inspire other educators not only in Central New York but across the country to prepare this new generation of learners to take on the world they will eventually inherit. I have such strong convictions that educators need to create strong relationships with their students and design classrooms that are developmentally appropriate, effectively managed, and where there is positive community and engaging academics. The work I do in Project-Based Learning also feeds this passion. Over the past 3 years, I am so proud to be part of a team of trainers who have grown our work in PBL beyond the boundaries of our OCM BOCES component districts. To train teachers in PBL-101 and assist them as they take the risk in planning their first PBL experience with their students is so rewarding. Doing follow-up coaching continues this relationship and further fosters the development of authentic, rigorous and common core focused projects. Watching teachers have paradigm shifts as they learn how to: develop standard-based (rather than standards referenced) projects using the backward design of Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design; to use assessments “for” learning (rather than just “of” learning); and to shift to standards-based grading and the use of rubrics. Fostering the thinking around these educational reforms are so rewarding as a staff developer, but it is also so important to be there for teachers to support the cognitive dissidence that also sometimes accompanies these deep learning experiences participant in PBL-101 often times experience.

Project wallMy soul is fed by all the work I do, but recently I think I may have experienced something that will go down as one of my most memorable experiences since becoming a staff developer. Don’t get me wrong, I have had many memorable experiences over the years but being part of the working phase of the “Courtyard Rejuvenation Project” at Chestnut Hill Middle School in Liverpool will most likely go down as one of my top 5. My colleagues and I are often invited to be part of the public audience for many projects around our area. These are also rewarding to be part of, to not only see the application of the learning that takes place in the PBL-101 training, but to see the excitement and enthusiasm of the students and teachers.

Science teacher at Chestnut Hill Middle School, Alan Robbins and Technology teacher, Stephen Kushnir invited my colleague Randi Downs and me to be part of the public audience of their Courtyard Rejuvenation Project. Students were divided up into inquiry teams that would focus on rejuvenating an already existing courtyard with a water structure, garden, rabbit, and weather station.  The inquiry teams were: Pond Team, Nature Trail Team, Rabbit Team, Garden Team, Weather/Alternative Energy Team, and the Documentary and Publishing Team. The problem was that over the years all these pre-existing components of the courtyard had fallen to disrepair.

The driving question for this project was:
How can we redesign the courtyard to accomplish two goals: 1) Increase biological diversity and 2) Create a place that encourages student and staff use.

After being part of the public audience where each inquiry shared their research and proposals for their additions to the courtyard, the teachers shared that our next scheduled PBL coaching day with them would be when they start to do that actual student proposed work on the courtyard. The two of us were so excited that we would be part of the working and/or implementation phase of the project. The goal was to have all the work done for a ribbon cutting the Monday before Thanksgiving. Randi and I arrived at the school on a day that the temperature dropped from being beautiful the day before, to close to freezing on the day the work was scheduled to resume. The kids were dressed for construction. Each period and each group, with no complaint worked with focus on their courtyard Paverarea. A rabbit habitat was being constructed by some, a walkway for the nature trail by another group, wetlands with native plants were being planted, a frame for a garden was being built, and the weather station was being dismantled to repair and paint. The courtyard was filled with focused conversations, laughter, joy, and fun. The technology teacher held a workshop for the trail group as he showed them how to lay pavers and tamp them after they were set. The science teacher worked with the garden group as they worked on creating their raised bed. Principal, Mike Baroody, changed out of his suit and into work gear to also lend a hand as mulch was being spread. It was so fun to hear kids interacting with their principal as they discussed how they would need to clear out the Creeping Charlie that was on the edges of the area where the mulch was being placed. Randi and I rolled up our sleeves and also helped where it was needed. At one point I did a 360 degree rotation with my iPhone to capture the 100% engagement of the students on video. Randi and I were just in awe at just how engaged every student was, even in this frigid weather. Middle school girls, with their manicured nails, were wrist deep in dirt without a care. It was so great watching children not only collaborating with their fellow students but also with their teachers. As a teacher searched for a pencil to measure an angle on the raise garden, the student handed him one that he had in his pocket and continued working side-by-side with his teacher. As the rototiller lost a part, students came running to help the technology teacher as he searched for the part in the newly tilled soil.

LandscapingAt the end of every period, the teachers would rally the students to put closure to their work and prepared them to enter the building to respect the other learners in the school. Randi and I observed collaboration throughout the whole day. There was such a climate of positive interactions, student to student and student to teachers. I was able to do an interview video of a couple students as they worked on the project. They shared in the video how they wish all learning was projected-based. They said they felt they learned so much more being part of research and proposal writing. They shared their discoveries and their excitement for their next PBL experience.

As the two of us tried to thaw out in my Jeep on the ride home, Randi and I could not stop smiling. Seeing the fruit of the work we do. Having these interactions with teachers and with students was so rewarding. Watching the PBL-101 training come alive for not only students but also for teachers. To observe the 8 essential of PBL, project walls, standard-based plans for each inquiry team, workshops with small groups, collaboration, critical thinking, communication, creativity, effective management, 100% engagement and a positive community of learning, the true application of what we teach in PBL-101, fed our souls…we just looked at each other and said, “I love our job!”

Shaw_PatrickPatrick Shaw

2 thoughts on “Project Based Learning: How the Courtyard Rejuvenation Project Made My Day

  1. Fantastic, Patrick! These students–and the adults who joined them–will have a lasting reminder of that meaningful, authentic, collaborative project every time they visit the refreshed courtyard.

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