Saturday, March 11, 2017

PBL Learning Walks - An Awesome PD Experience!

When I first got the email that we would be doing learning walks for the Hawaii Innovative Leaders Network, I put it on the back burner because it meant traveling to the Big Island just before Spring Break during a very busy week. Thankfully, I made the decision that this was an important part of the HILN journey, and at 5:00 a.m. on Thursday, I was at the airport, ready to take off for the Big Island with Kapono Ciotti. Our destinations? Innovations Public Charter School and Honaunau Elementary School. 

Innovations PCS services students in grades K-8 in multi-age classrooms, and their curriculum is student-centered, inquiry-based, and project-based. We had an opportunity to visit different grade levels, and clearly, students are engaged in their own learning. We saw 7th and 8th graders leading a discussion with their peers that embedded the theme of immigration in a study about poetry. Another group of students shared how they are creating freeze-dried snacks for the Hokulea crew to take along on their voyages. Some students were experimenting with recipes, and others were re-designing a solar-dehydrator. I was struck by the confidence of the students as they worked on these real-world projects.
Students were chopping up dried fruits and are working on a recipe to make granola snack bars for the Hokulea crew.

These students were fixing the solar dehydrator to make it work more efficiently. I was surprised at how comfortable students are with using different tools for their projects. Students were working independently with the teacher circulating amongst the different groups who were involved in different projects.

In every classroom, students were engaged in their work and were helping each other to understand and complete the assignments. In one fifth and sixth grade classroom, students were working on a video to explain a math concept to their parents as part of their upcoming student-led conference. The teacher shared that when she checked student projects the previous day, she realized that her instructions and expectations were not clear to the students so she spent some class time reviewing the rubric and asking questions to ensure students understood the descriptors. She also showed the students an exemplary project that one of their classmates had completed. After that, students realized what they needed to do, and off they went to work with their partners. The video the teacher shared is by a sixth grader named Cameron, and it is amazing, and his real-life application is quite creative :-)

Honaunau Elementary is a different kind of school from Innovations. They are a very rural community with a high percentage of disadvantaged and English Learner students. We didn't get to visit classrooms (there were subs because teachers were at a PD), but we talked with staff and the principal shared their journey. Even if she stated that they're just beginning their PBL journey, I beg to differ. The students are very involved in their school garden, and students give up their recesses to "work" in the garden. They even have a partnership with Ace Hardware in their community; students grow starter plants which are sold at the store. Their latest project is harvesting seeds from plants. Students are learning through hands-on projects and becoming more effective communicators as they share what they're learning with their school community. 

 Students problem-solved to build these water catchments because when it rained, the water fell off the roof and soaked the ground. They now collect the rainwater and use it for their plants.

These are some of the starter plants the students are raising and selling at Ace Hardware. Students who work during recess get paid, and the school has worked with parents to set up a savings account at a nearby credit union, and students are depositing their earnings in their account. What a powerful lesson these students are learning about saving!

Much as I loved visiting the classrooms, the real meat of our learning walk came at the end of each school visit. Our BIE leader, Cris Waldfogel is a master at getting the most out of the discussion and reflection. I've been on the receiving end of learning walks in the past, and I realize that what separated those from this one was Cris' expertise in leading the discussion. The questions, the affirmations, the wonderings, the reflections . . .  I felt that it was such a trusting, positive environment where the school leaders could share their questions and "insecurities" and be validated for their efforts. School leaders Jennifer Hiro (Innovations PCS) and Noreen Kunitomo (Honaunau Elementary) are inspirational yet very humble. So much learning is going on in their schools, and at the heart of student learning are projects that are rigorous and relevant and build relationships amongst students, teachers, and the school community. 
Next month, my HILN "Grey Team" will be visiting our school and Waialae PCS. I am still a bit nervous about the learning walk, but I know that the team will be supportive and provide our school team with honest feedback and help us to reflect on how we want to proceed with PBL.  This learning walk protocol is powerful; sometimes it takes an outsider's perspective to help us to celebrate what we've accomplished and to reflect on how we will continue on our PBL journey.

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