Purposeful PBL

Yesterday I walked into Mr. Rooke’s room to do something menial and simple. I walked away awed and inspired, and with a sense that we really are making a difference in our schools.

Mr. Rooke, our very deserving Teacher Of the Year, has a very non-traditional way of teaching Spanish. I’ve never seen his students filling out worksheets. I’ve never heard his students complain about unfair amounts of work, boring lessons, or tough tests. Mr. Rooke’s students go on to perform outstandingly in advanced Spanish classes, genuinely like Mr. Rooke, and treat him with the utmost respect. Mr. Rooke embeds language learning into study units that are of personal interest to the students, and that is what we discussed when I was in his room yesterday.

Students have been learning about Central America through movies, novels, and classroom discussions. They have learned about the role of poverty in the civil wars of the 1980′s, and the effects of intervention by outside powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union. Recently, they have been discussing MS-13, a violent gang that traces its origins to refugees from the civil war in El Salvador.

So, as the students are learning Spanish, they are also becoming aware of recent cultural and political events that are not covered in traditional Social Studies classes, and they are becoming very aware of how interconnected our world is. They are also learning about real people involved in events, not just learning about events in an abstract manner. This personal connection is crucial.

To reinforce these connections and foster empathy, Mr. Rooke has added another dimension to the learning. He has funds in an account with Kiva.org that the kids will award to applicants for microfinancing. To decide who gets the funds, students have selected loan applicants to research.  They are using Explain Everything and other tools on their iPads to prepare Shark Tank-style presentations for their peers. Then, as a class, they will vote on the top applicants and award the funds to them. When the loans are repaid, probably next year, the next group of students will be ready to evaluate a new set of loan applicants.

This project embodies everything I’ve always imagined for our G21 initiative. It is about the kind of learning that is not for the test. They are learning about people who live in places they have never even heard of. They are learning about the reality of life in these places. They are becoming aware of their privileged lives as citizens of the United States, and of the power and responsibility that comes with that privilege. The kids will always be able to point to this time in their lives when, as a class, they made someone’s life better. 

UPDATE: If you would like to help the students fund additional Kiva micro loans, make a donation at their GoFundMe site.


This year we have some really great G21 projects in the works. One I especially like is Mrs. Rohrer’s Fireworks project inspired by Katy Perry’s song Firework.

Mrs. Rohrer and her students are creating an awards program for Goochland Middle School to recognize students who are trailblazers, fireworks who inspire others to be fireworks themselves.

From determining the criteria for selecting award recipients, to selecting the awards committee, to designing and producing the awards themselves in their ceramics class, the students are in control of this project. They are even coordinating with the yearbook committee to dedicate a page to this year’s winners, the inaugural cohort of the GMS Fireworks.

The students are helping to establish something that will remain long after they have left GMS. In the process, they are examining the qualities that make their peers outstanding citizens of the middle school world, building empathy and working collaboratively. Maybe someone should let Katy Perry know what she’s inspired these kids to do.

A new G21 skill?

Teachers know that we have 12 twenty-first century skills that we’ve been focusing upon since the start of our G21 projects in 2008. This year, I’m making a change to the core set of skills.

The change is to first combine “collaborate small group” and “collaborate large group” into one big “collaboration” category. I still think the distinction is apt, but we need space for a new skill!

That skill, as deftly supported by Walter McKenzie, is empathy. Specifically, Alan November, whom I got to hear again this summer at ISTE 2012, spoke passionately about global empathy. But how do we develop this skill? Or is empathy a skill?

McKenzie writes that we can develop empathy in students this way:

By modeling, coaching, facilitating, moderating and promoting it across all areas of the curriculum. It begins with the empathy we experience one-on-one in our most immediate relationships and builds from there: friendships, small groups, teams, cohorts, classes, networks and beyond.

For G21, it means designing opportunities for empathy. And if we’re serious about global empathy, then we need to make connections with learners and experts in other parts of the world. The Water Project, our G21 Faire winner from BES this year for the elementary category, was an excellent exemplar on how to do just that.

For more on Alan November and his call for global empathy, check out this link.