Some Opinions From Wheeler Elementary

I realized in my last few posts I spoke a lot about interviewing people associated with Wheeler Elementary but I never actually shared my results. Essentially, I wanted to talk to these people about whether or not they thought that Project Based Learning was an effective type of curriculum for Wheeler, and for environmental education. This would mean I could use Wheeler as a case study in my project as an example of PBL, and maybe turn to other environmental education theories to make up for the short comings of PBL.

So firstly, I talked to Mrs. Kramer, the Curriculum and Education Facilitator Chair for Wheeler Elementary’s District). She told me the method of Project Based Learning that Wheeler was using was called the Gold Standard method (one of many), and that the teachers had taken courses at the Buck Institute to be prepared to teach to this method. In talking about why they had decided to make this switch towards PBL, she told me that a community member had come forward to talk about the quality of environmental education from Douglass County Environmental Service. He advocated for using the PBL method to engage the students in environmental science, as he felt the field was suffering due to lack of student interest. This pushed Mrs. Kramer’s interest in PBL, and motivated her to make the switch. She told me that the district is watching/observing Project Based Learning in Wheeler the same way I am- as a pilot program to monitor success and see how difficult it would be to implement throughout the district.

Then, I spent a few days emailing with Ms. Logan, the 4th-5th grade teacher at Wheeler Elementary School. She helped me reach out to other teachers at Wheeler, and culminate lots of opinions about the success/failings of PBL.

Firstly, the successes. The teachers loved seeing the student engagement increase both inside and outside the classroom. The students were asking questions on deeper levels and taking interest in subjects outside the framework of the curriculum, which as Ms. Logan says, “is all that an educator can hope for.” She also told me that the students were getting more interested in the professional aspect to the material- students were asking questions about their journey to getting into the profession of different positions dealing with environmental and earth sciences. There is also an immense focus on 21st century skills that the teachers believed to be immensely helpful, such as collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.

But then, the drawbacks. Project Based Learning is very different from the traditional classroom structure of learning, which brought its own struggles. Firstly, there were kids that actually benefited from the traditional routine and structure of a teacher-directed classroom- specifically students with behavioral issues. Secondly, the teachers struggled to balance the freedom of project-time with the structure of teaching time- how much time to allocate to each for the optimal learning experience. And lastly, lots of the teachers expressed concern with trusting the process. This was the first time anyone at Wheeler had taught to the Project Based Learning method, so trusting that it would be just as beneficial as traditional classroom teaching was hard. It was made worse, they said, by external messages like meeting curriculum standards for state testing.

I’ve done lots of research on educational theory that can hopefully correct these problems presented with PBL. I’ll try to keep you updated on it! The next few days will most likely be spent practicing my own final project incessantly. I’ll probably post a couple more times about the wrap-up of my internship, if I get some time.

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