Going Beyond PBL for Middle School Girls in Columbus

By October 23, 2017 No Comments

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In this episode, Doris speaks with Pam Reed, Humanities teacher at Columbus City Preparatory School for Girls. Pam shares how different it is to teach with this radically different method, as students learn history and critical thinking by solving contemporary problems that they find meaningful.

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Doris: So, hello, Pam.

Pam: Hi.

Doris: So I’m so happy to be with you. And this is just after you finished your pilot, your first-ever. Can you please start by telling folks about yourself and then what brought you to the workshop.

Pam: Yes. So my name is Pam Reed. And I’ve been teaching in Columbus City Schools for 20 years. I love everything about urban education. I started teaching at a middle school on the south side of Columbus and was working with the mostly Appalachian and African-American population. I went to an elementary school for one year and found that elementary is not for me at all. And that time I got my master’s degree in teacher leadership. I have my national board certification in ELA, which I just renewed. And then I came here to Columbus City Preparatory School for Girls, where my daughters both also attend. I have two girls who are 15 and 11 who go here. I teach 8th grade English. And then this year we are starting a pilot program of teaching an 8th-grade humanities class, which I got to write and teach.

Doris: That’s so exciting. So you’re teaching humanities and you’re teaching English?

Pam: Yes.

Doris: And this is a… Can you tell a little bit about the school?

Pam: Yes. So our school started in 2010. The founder of the school still works in Columbus City and she visited different private girl schools around the country to find…to put together a model of what would work for us. We’re one of the few urban middle schools for girls in the country. We basically take girls as a lottery system from all over the city. And teach them like we have an advisory program here. We have morning salutes. We have a morning meeting every morning. Our girls get to have core enrichment. So they do…it’s not like a traditional thing where there is intervention. We have clubs and tons of opportunities for shadowing and hospitals and businesses. It’s a really different environment.

Doris: And it’s the only girl’s public school in the City of Columbus, correct?

Pam: It is. We’re one of the few in the state. I don’t think there’s another public girl’s middle school in the state of Ohio.

Doris: Really interesting.

Pam: Yeah.

Doris: So you came to the workshop. Talk about what that did for you and what you came out deciding to do and what just happened like tell us a little bit about that.

Pam: Well, as a teacher, I’ve always been a risk-taker. So if there was something that was new or innovative I was always willing to try it. And coming to the workshop, I had no idea to be honest with you what to expect.

Doris: Sure.

Pam: So my principal kind of posed this entrepreneurial lab idea. And when she posed it I actually wrote a grant to get kind of what I envisioned in my head. But the workshop was not what I had envisioned. I thought it would be one of the pre-packaged like here’s what you do kind of deal.

Doris: Here’s the packaged curriculum for an entrepreneurship class.

Pam: Yes. And here’s how we’re all going to practice it the same way. And we’re going to… And what it was kind of my dream educational experience, where I got to be the educator that I’ve always wanted to be. It was… I said to then, that it was…it’s like getting permission to teach the way that I always wanted to teach.

Doris: That’s awesome.

Pam: Which was through critical thinking and research analysis and questioning things and but it wasn’t content, you know, curriculum-driven…

Doris: Driven.

Pam: …it was allowing the students to find their own way through history or through ELA.

Doris: Yeah. So you came in thinking you were going to get this curriculum to do an entrepreneurship class. And then you ended up designing, in the workshop, a pilot for your humanities course.

Pam: I did. When we did the business model, I could see that becoming a problem-solution…

Doris: Framework.

Pam: A framework for looking how my students could look at situations in history or current events.

Doris: Yeah. And because when you got there and you started seeing what this was and decided, “Oh wow, this is…I want to use this in my humanities course.” You started thinking very differently about the start to your humanities course this year. And can you describe a little how you set up what these students of yours just went through and this is the first month of school in 8th grade in your humanities course and how many girls in your class?

Pam: I have 31 girls.

Doris: 31 girls. So tell us a little bit about your pilot.

Pam: So I dissected all of my curriculum. I made all these maps. I did all these things. And I still couldn’t wrap my head around how do I get them to care about history? And I didn’t want them just to do history or turn something in, in history. I want them to make connections between what’s happened in the past and what’s happening today. So my student-teacher and I, Ms. Ellis, we found 40 of the most important events kind of what we thought were the most important events of the 21st century. So everything from the minimum wage gap to the Pulse Nightclub shooting to the transgender military ban. And we found pictures. We just started out with pictures.

And we set up the library with pictures all around the room and just a placard that described what the event was just “Pulse Nightclub shooting” that was it. So the girls would have to go around and they examined everything. They took notes on what they saw. And they can use their phones to do research. And then they had to pick one event. And the next day we did a problem pitch. I was so not sure how this would work.

Pam: I was like this was going be a disaster.

Doris: Yeah, scary, yeah.

Pam: They’re going to not do it first of all.  I will have girls bow out because they don’t want to speak. And what happened was every single person had a pitch prepared for the next day. A 60-second pitch, to explain why this event is the most important event in the 21st century. And they did their own research overnight like this is the first week of school they’re doing this big huge thing and…

Doris: What are some of the examples of whatt the girls came in and pitched the next day?

Pam: I mean, well, like the Charlottesville attack, the clash at Charlottesville, they did a ton of research. It was the research that impressed me the most because if I would have said, “You have to research this,” and given them this whole list of questions that they had to answer. I gave them no direction. So what they came in with were stories of people who were involved in Charlottesville or how the minimum wage actually affects a single mother or things that I just I didn’t think about, the girls listening…so the audience, were active listeners. They had to rank the pitches. So they ranked. They had to pick the top eight because we have a big class. And the top eight pitches became our actual research project topics. And man, they were a very diverse group of topics.

Doris: Yeah. And they’re contemporary issues these girls wanted to solve or address somehow.

Pam: Yes. And everybody got their first or second choice are the groups that they wanted to work on. And so Black Lives Matter, racial profiling, Trump presidency. So they were researching…they had to figure out the, what the true problem is. We had to go through this process of how do we refine a problem?

Doris: That’s huge.

Pam: It was huge.

Doris: Yeah.

Pam: It challenged me so much as a teacher. It’s not just… It’s very different for me just to give curriculum. I know how to do that.

Doris: Yes.

Pam: But for me to get you to think about how to get a question out to a solvable problem and you’re 14 years old. Because they would say like, “How can we possibly solve this problem?”

Doris: Right.

Pam: You can. There’s a way for you to do it. And when they would…so we worked through a six-question kind of distilling process and they would get their question down to something that they felt was solvable. And they went in directions that I didn’t even think they would go in at all. So women’s rights, at first they wanted to look at domestic violence and how domestic violence can influence women and their decisions. And what they ended up with was how women should have STEM…be trained in STEM projects because…and how they should stand up for themselves in the workplace and know what the laws are. It was a totally different direction.

Doris: This was the team, yes, that presented the wage gap between men and women. So this is a great story because what you described to me the other day after I watched them and some of the other teams and I was so impressed with these 14-year-olds who are presenting about the wage gap between men and women and how to solve it. That what you’re describing is really interesting to think about that they started with having chosen a domestic violence and as they…what you said to me was that as they did their research, they realized number one they probably couldn’t solve that problem in a month and number two, that a lot of the root causes for domestic violence have to do with a woman not feeling empowered and not knowing how to self-advocate. And so they then changed or refined the problem they were working on. And that’s how they ended up coming up with the problem of the wage gap between men and women and a solution. I thought that was quite extraordinary.

Pam: I wouldn’t have thought of that.

Doris: Yeah, but they did, through their research.

Pam: They did. They went in a place I would have never gone it was far better than anything I could have ever given them.

Doris: Yeah. So then all these teams you now get them… And you’re right it’s really hard to get them to refine their problems, so that, there’s something they can grab hold of and get their arms around and then what?

Pam: So after they refined the problem and they started coming up with a viable solution was looking at the past of the problem. So they had to take the problem they came up with was the wage gap could be an example, and they had to trace it back through its roots. And that seems like a simple thing but to look at the timeline of an actual historical event or an idea or an issue in this country is pretty big. So like my girls who looked at Black Lives Matter, taking that back through time like they took it back to slavery and then they looked at how we’ve handled issues with racial inequality in this country since then. So it was more refined than just the timeline they actually looked at the nuances that happened at each step and how each step built on so we got to the place where we are now.

Doris: Which is so interesting. So most of the students are African-American themselves?

Pam: Yes.

Doris: And these 14-year-olds are looking at really in a kind of a sophisticated adult way at cause and effect historically.

Pam: Yeah, perspective. So my big ELA standard that I wanted to touch on was perspective. And that’s also part of historical thinking and social studies. So when they were looking like for racial profiling or oh, the Trump presidency was really rich. I thought they would get into that and just be mad.

Doris: Right.

Pam: And what ended up happening was they came up with this…they figured out that it’s…and a lot of the groups figured out that it’s not about how one group feels, it’s about the other groups that are on the outside of that, perspectives that they have. So instead of…they went into it thinking they were going to look at why people voted for Trump and what they figured out was it was looking so they said in our own community in the Black community, we look at it this way. And that we need to change some of our biases, look at our stereotypes. So they created…their solution was this whole thing on a bias. They called it bias, B-I-A-S.  It was knowing you’re…like getting your stereotypes, understanding, like looking at all your information, knowing what you’re talking about that before you just start talking about it.

Doris: Interesting.

Pam: Which is very sophisticated thinking for an adult.

Doris: Let alone a 14 year-old.

Pam: Like for a 14-year-old they had an insight that most adults don’t and that’s…don’t just believe something because somebody said it should be like that. You should get to know the person and understand…and actually every team in its own way kind of came back to that same solution in some way. That there’s another perspective and that you need to understand somebody else’s… If I would have come at them and said, “Hey, you need to walk in somebody else’s shoes,” or done some of those cliches.

Doris: It’s meaningless, yeah.

Pam: It would not have made any difference.

Doris: But they had this problem they were passionate about that, they’d chosen. They wanted to come up with something creative and effective to solve it. And so they had to do a bunch of research to learn.

Pam: They did. They had to understand the past of the problem so that they could work on the future of the problem.

Doris: Fantastic. So somebody who’s trying to teach history in these four weeks you didn’t get to decide what parts of history they were going to…

Pam: I did not.

Doris: Yeah. And did they learn history in a way that you think will stick and will grow?

Pam: Yeah. It’s far more meaningful and impactful than anything I could have taught them, far more. And if they could make connections to the news they would come in and say like, “I saw this thing on the news,” and it’s like so they’re still building forward with the idea that they originally had. And none of them went in the direction they thought they were going to initially.

Doris: That’s interesting. And so I saw half of them present. And I was really impressed. And I was impressed in every dimension. I was impressed with their presentations. I was impressed with how thoughtful they were. I was impressed with how each one of them connected to its historical roots and context. Some interesting things I learned things I didn’t know. I don’t know if you did.

Pam: I did.

Doris: Yeah. And I was impressed with their solutions. They were really thoughtful.

Pam: They were very thoughtful and very doable. That was the thing that was pretty cool.

Doris: So you are a risk-taking teacher. And you’ve been teaching for 20 years. How different has this been for you? You’ve only done it once so it’s early but how different was this for you?

Pam: Well, it’s different for me in every way possible. I’ve never been a by-the-book teacher. It’s I mean, I’ve always created everything that I was doing. And I’ve never used a textbook. I’ve never been a teacher like that. But like you say it’s Deschooling but it’s Deschooling me.

Doris: Yeah.

Pam: It’s not Deschooling the kids. It’s Deschooling me after 20 years of teaching there still is like a kind of a finite way of looking at teaching still like we will all get to point Z by this date and…

Doris: And that’s how you…you’re so indoctrinated to think like that.

Pam: Yeah. There’s a rigidity of it where it’s like you know I teach, I assess, I re-teach, I re-assess and I figure out where we’re going. And this is like I pose a problem. And the problem takes a…there is the intentionality of how I have to do is very different. I still always spend a lot of time on my lessons. But that…

Doris: Oh, it’s a lot of work still, yeah.

Pam: But this is different. It’s not coming up with the answers. It’s coming up with questions. So the question has to be a very different question than what I’ve asked in the past.

Doris: Yes. Yeah.

Pam: Yeah. There’s a lot more why, and how do you know, and then just walking away, and leaving you with it and they do not like that.

Doris: They don’t like it because it’s not…they’re so trained that the way school works is the teacher tells them what to do, they do it. And then the teacher gives the grade. And this is so different.

Pam: Yeah. This breaks all the rules of traditional education and it feels freeing. It feels like that permission to teach the way I’ve always wanted to teach. It feels scary because I don’t have the answer like there’s not a…and I don’t make up an answer key, never been that teacher but there’s not like a right or wrong to this.

Doris: Well, you can’t control the box, right?

Pam: I can’t control where they go with it. And even…I mean, I can definitely assess them through rubrics and different things but it’s like the rubric it still has to be kind of fluid depending on where we go. So I have an idea in my mind when I’m starting. I’m also very tough on myself with who I am as a teacher.

Doris: I’ve noticed that.

Pam: So there’s always that part where I want to do better. I won’t say perfect. But I want to do better. And I want it to be…and I think for me it’s been good to kind of know, I can’t control the better, the better happens because of what they do.

Doris: What they do.

Pam: It’s not about what I do. I mean I can build all the parts around it that will give them support or questions or…

Doris: The pathways, the…

Pam: …pathways the rubrics. The things that will help them know, “Hey, here’s where we want to go,” but where they end up going, is really not…

Doris: And isn’t that kind of liberating for them?

Pam: It’s very liberating for them. This group of girls, most of these girls have been craving this, their whole educational career.

Doris: Talk about that, what do you mean by that?

Pam: They have been waiting for a teacher that would allow them the space to grow as learners. What I see I can think of one group in particular when we were doing the migration. I would just walk over just to do check-ins with them. And they were so intent on where they were going. I’m not going to say I was inconsequential they don’t need the structure. They made their own structure. Like all the things that they did it was very eye-opening to me. I had some girls who still craved asking the questions and wanting a little guidance. But most of the girls they just they want the space.

Doris: So what you’re talking about to me is makes me smile every time I hear a teacher who’s been teaching for years discover that almost as a surprise, right. And it’s because of the way the system of education, the way we set it up we think that we have to force them in some way or trick them in some way or we have to be the pressure that causes them to learn. And then we’re so surprised when we give them meaningful work that’s meaningful to them. We’re so surprised that every one of them is interested. They’re curious. They want to learn. And they will, if you set it up well and you’re there to scaffold the way you’re talking about, they’re going to go further and deeper than we can ever get them to go by muscling them through it, right?

Pam: Yeah, it’s funny for years that I’ve talked to other teacher…like my student-teachers about the carrot on a stick, teaching is smoking mirrors like you have to behind the scenes manipulate things. But this has shown me and it should show every educator, whenever we think, especially, about this generation that they don’t care they’re tuned out. There’s nothing that matters to them, like they do.

Doris: They care a lot.

Pam: They care so passionately. They’re just looking for a way to show that they care. And giving them…there’s a lot of choice in my class the way that it’s structured this year, but it’s authentic choice. It’s not choice that’s a manipulated choice or choose A, B, or C. It’s been very, very open. And for them, that has been…that’s made all the difference because they feel like they’re in charge.

Doris: Yeah. And that isn’t…what’s hard for people to wrap their heads around is that they’re having…working on something that’s relevant and real that no one’s solved yet. And they’re deciding what that is, does not mean it isn’t rigorous. Those two things are completely separate things. And they’re not even separate from the learning objectives.

Pam: No. They’re not. I can hit all my objectives. And it’s completely rigorous. The challenge is absolute there in my class. My principal is very…she wants to see the result of something.

Doris: Right.

Pam: When she’s come into the room my students know what the objectives are like they can tell you and it’s not that they can say robotically like, “We are working on…” They know. They’re like, “Well, right now the perspective of what we’re doing is authentic.” So I’m hitting all of my objectives.

Doris: Content as well as skills, right?

Pam: Content, standards. Everything is in there. It’s just set up different. And it’s not just project-based learning because I’ve done project-based learning for years.

Doris: No it’s not. It’s a very specific thing, isn’t it? It’s weird.

Pam: Yeah. It’s like something beyond.

Doris: Right. And so what we have is a very specific methodology that basically allows the students that kind of spark an interest in learning.

Pam: Yeah. Well, I’m thinking because we just did a thing on system of human migration where they had a current event and I’m thinking like I had a student. She went to this totally different tangent of where I would have ever thought that she would go. But her research questions… Was she going in the direction that would give her the best results? No. Was her thinking the way that she was working through the process of it dead on? Yes. I mean, it’s like…and she’s one of my students that struggles with this the most. She’s one of the ones who’s like, “Give me the answer. I just want the answer, tell me what to do. I don’t…”

Doris: “I don’t want to have to think about.”

Pam: “…I don’t wanna have to think about it.” So to see here completely engrossed in ignoring her team and sharing with me like the amount of research that she did on the questionings and how she analyzed every little bit of this. It didn’t matter to me so much that she went in a “wrong direction.” What mattered to me was that she was engaged, she took a risk, like, she took a big risk. She went with something that she felt in her heart mattered and proved why people had moved out of this country and knew it inside and out. That’s my goal.

Doris: The girls I thought it was really extraordinary to hear what they…after the presentations you asked them some questions? Like why did we do this?

Pam: Yeah.

Doris: Do you think the girls are understanding ‘why’ because this is the tricky zone, the deschooling where a lot of the kids really are not comfortable yet, in this place.

Pam: They’re not. But they can really see that the way that we started out the year helped them understand that history is not isolated. It is not something that just happens. It happens one time. So they could really see that there’s a connection between the past and the present.

Doris: Yes.

Pam: They could…they like the open-endedness of that, they were in charge of their own learning. They like the empowerment, the ownership of it. Even the girls who were kind of freaked out by it…

Doris: Yeah. Yeah.

Pam: …still liked that they were in charge of it. I think they liked having an authentic audience. I mean, I know that’s something that they talked about is having actual people come in and not just presenting to a class or having paper that they turn in and so I’m done. And even though I’ve seen that the last presentation that we did have an authentic audience. I could see the remnants come over from the last one where they’re taking it more seriously. It matters to them more. So I’m definitely seeing they’re making the connection of why we’re doing this.

Doris: So we’re about five weeks into school. We just had an interesting conversation earlier today.

Pam: Yes.

Doris: And what happened?

Pam: I’m trying to figure out a way we can…I’m just trying to figure out how I’m going to teach…my next standard is about exploration and colonization in the 15th and 16th century. And I’ve only taught social studies once in my entire career and taught it very old school.

Doris: Right.

Pam: And so I wanted to… Before this week, we had done a current events project on the system of human migration because I don’t want to teach it just an ‘explore and colonization’ and chronologically, here’s what happened. I wanted them to understand the system of human migration first. So they looked at maps of human migration currently. They chose a country. They did a week-long project to show how human migration works today. And that was good. And I got to this place where I got stuck. And it was the… So you ask the questions about what do you really want them to learn? Because I do get stuck on what I want to teach.

Doris: Yeah. Because your first answer to that question was throwing in front of me these…

Pam: Content.

Doris: …all the content. I want them to learn this content and that content and this content.

Pam: Yes. I don’t know how to teach it. I don’t know how to…and then you’re like what do you want them to learn? They walked away with one thing that you want these 14-year-old girls to learn.

Doris: In two weeks.

Pam: I had to picture a specific girl in my head, and like, what is the end goal? It helped me so much because I know what. I want them to learn the system of human migration. Why people move.

Doris: That’s it.

Pam: It’s just as simple as that. And I was way overcomplicating it. And trying to figure out…

Doris: What you were going to teach, what content you were going to teach them.

Pam: How am I going to get them to know all these things?

Doris: In two weeks.

Pam: Right. Which is hilarious because I just saw these real-life examples of how I don’t have to give them everything, that they figure out…if I’ve posed the questions they have to show me that they can figure out…that it is it’s deschooling me.

Doris: It is because in two weeks you can’t teach them everything about human migration.

Pam: I can’t.

Doris: You can’t. And even if you had them for every day for two weeks and they didn’t have to sleep or eat and you didn’t have to sleep or eat and you could talk for 24 hours a day for two weeks, you still couldn’t do it. And we also know because we have tons of proof and evidence that they don’t retain…that kind of being taught doesn’t stick anyway.

Pam: There’ll be a lot of hot air wasted.

Doris: Yeah. So you churned all weekend and you came in today with all this content. I said choose a girl and you chose one in your class, and you said if in two weeks she could come out of that two weeks having learned one thing what would it be? And you said it really well, why people move. And I went, “Yeah.” And so then when we use that as your starting point, it kind of freed you up to construct something very different.

Pam: Yeah. Yeah. So now they are going to look at the refugee crisis, authentically, like what’s happening. Columbus does have a lot of refugees. They will be able to authentically figure out a solution to a crisis that’s happening.
Doris: Right now.

Pam: Right. This is a relevant thing. And because I mean I have a lot of girls whose families are immigrants. This is not just some…

Doris: Theoretical.

Pam: …’over there.’ Right. It is something that is happening here to our girls. And you pointed out that we have a very vibrant Somali community. So we have not just past European colonization examples that they can look at. I don’t know what examples to look at.

Doris: Because they’ll decide. And they’ll come up with some solution to making Columbus a better place to live if you come here as an immigrant. And in the course of it as an expert teacher, you’re going to be able to push them with your questions to understand the historical context for this, why these people moved here, whoever they choose, and also to look at other examples in history.

Pam: Yes.

Doris: And what is your hope in two weeks that they’ll come out with?

Pam: I think that, honestly, from looking at what migration studies look like in college, it really will have the same background knowledge as a college student who studies the sociology of human migration. I mean, it’s not the way that this shifted in the project that it’s shifting into is something that they will really care about and that they have people in their houses that are rich sources of information of how you come to a new country and understand something. And looking at…like that’s an authentic way to look through the lens of history and why did people come over, what was it like when Columbus came to, you know, but it’s not just like, “Hey, Columbus came and all this and stuff happened.” It’s, “Was that a successful example of a migration? Was it not a successful one? Why was it…? That could we learn from that… whether it was successful or not successful? Were there successful migrations in the past?”

Doris: So in two weeks these 14-year-olds, instead of, what you were coming in with which was your lots and lots and lots of research are around the content you’re going to throw at them they are out of these two weeks each and every individual student is going to have done a different…their own personal exploration journey following what is most compelling and interesting to them, making their own discoveries, and coming out of it with that nuanced more sophisticated, understanding that, “Whoa, the reasons people move are many and they’re complicated and they look…they’re all different kinds of things.” And how great is that?

Pam: Well, if I were an employer in the future or a college doing admissions and I had kids who could critically think, who can analyze things, who can work in teams, these are so much better than regurgitating some historical facts or regurgitating the fact that, you know, this happened on this date and this…

Doris: When people look at this kind of education which I think is more rigorous actually than traditional school and they ask yeah, but well, that’s great that they’re engaged, but what about learning history, and what about learning critical thinking, and what about learning writing, and those academics?

Pam: They are still doing everything that you just said. There’s way more critical thinking. I can say that for sure compared to what I’ve done in the past. I love being a writing teacher. And so that part will never go away but I can get them to write so much deeper and they actually care about what they’re writing about, versus it’s just an assignment.

Doris: Right.

Pam: And the curriculum? I’m hitting all the content in the curriculum I need to hit.

Doris: That’s awesome.

Pam: I mean it. There’s no part of what I’m doing as leaving anything behind. It’s so nice how parents come into open house and then they…the parents see the challenge, they see what their kids are working on at home and they are supportive of it, your principal walks in, she’s supportive of it. You have kids who are complaining because your class is challenging so you know it’s rigorous…

Doris: That’s a good sign, yeah,

Pam: Right. There’s no part of what I’m doing right now that I go home at the end of the day and question and say and I really wish I would have done that better. Like I am learning to let go of perfectionism with education in that class because it was free-flowing. It’s a fluid class. There’s not…

Doris: Because it’s all about the individuals in the room.

Pam: Yeah. It’s not about me. And it’s not about me.

Doris: That’s right. Yes. And you know what I’m going end there. And I’m so proud of you. And this is a lot of fun. I’m having fun with you.

Pam: Thank you. This was amazing.

Doris: This is great.

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