S03E28 – GOING BEYOND PROJECT-BASED LEARNING FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRLS IN COLUMBUS
WE SPEND SO MUCH TIME IN THE EDUCATION WORLD FOCUSING ON STANDARDS, WORRYING ABOUT EVALUATIONS FOR BOTH TEACHERS AND STUDENTS AND JUST TRYING TO GET THROUGH WHAT IS AN EXTREMELY RIGOROUS WORKDAY. TIME FOR REFLECTION IS SCARCE. THE REASON I WANTED TO START WILDFIRE EDUCATION AND TEACH OTHERS HOW TO IMPLEMENT THE KORDA METHOD WAS THAT, AS TEACHERS, WE ALL GOT INTO THIS PROFESSION FOR THE SAME REASON: WE WANT TO DEVOTE OUR LIVES TO HELPING STUDENTS.
FOR MYRIAD REASONS EVEN THE “BEST” TEACHERS STRUGGLE FEVERISHLY TO BRING OUT THE BEST IN EVERY ONE OF THEIR STUDENTS. ONE OF THE THINGS I LEARNED OVER 20 YEARS OF TEACHING MATH AND LATER ENTREPRENEURSHIP, IS THAT IT ISN’T THAT WE HAVE BAD STUDENTS OR LAZY TEACHERS, BUT THAT THE SYSTEM ITSELF IS BROKEN.
I think this conversation with Pam Reed from the Columbus City Preparatory School System really highlights that feeling of being in a Sisyphean struggle to make school better for all of our students. We talk about how the Korda Method has changed her as a teacher, the impact on students and some key elements of the skills curriculum that makes it more than just project-based learning, and why she found so important for her students.
PAM REED, HUMANITIES TEACHER AT COLUMBUS CITY PREPARATORY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, SHARES HOW DIFFERENT IT IS TO TEACH WITH THE KORDA METHOD, AS STUDENTS LEARN HISTORY IN A COMPLETELY NEW WAY.
[Doris Korda]- Pam, tell us about your school and why you came to the workshop.
[Pam Reed]- We’re one of the few urban middle schools for girls in the country, I don’t think there’s another public girl’s middle school in the state of Ohio. Coming to the workshop, I had no idea what to expect. My principal posed this entrepreneurial lab idea and I wrote a grant to get 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, here’s what you do and here’s how we’re all going to practice it the same way kind of things, but it wasn’t that at all. It was my dream educational experience, where I got to be the educator that I’ve always wanted to be.
style=”text-align: center;”>IT WAS LIKE GETTING PERMISSION TO TEACH THE WAY THAT I ALWAYS WANTED TO TEACH.
You came in thinking you were going to get this curriculum to do an entrepreneurship class. And then you ended up designing a pilot for your humanities course.
I did. When we did the business model canvas, I could see that becoming a problem-solution framework for how my students could look at situations in history or current events. So I dissected all of my curriculum, made all these maps, did all these things because I want them to make connections between what’s happened in the past and what’s happening today.
My student-teacher, Ms. Ellis, and I set up the library with pictures all around the room that described important events from the 21st Century. The girls had to go around and examined everything. They took notes on what they saw and they used their phones to do research.
They then picked one event to pitch as the most critical for their peers to research and prepare a 60 second pitch for the next day. Students needed to explain why this event is the most important in the 21st century. I was sure it was going be a disaster, but they did a ton of research.
It was the research that impressed me the most because I gave them no direction.
What they came in with were stories of people who were involved in Charlottesville and how the minimum wage actually affects a single mother, and things that I just I didn’t think about. The audience were active listeners, they had to rank the pitches and the top eight pitches became our actual research project topics.
And they said, “How can we possibly solve this problem?” And I explained that there’s a system for how to do it. 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. For instance one group was looking at women’s rights.
You told me that as they did their research they realized two things. Number one, they probably couldn’t solve that problem in a month. 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.
After they refined the problem and started coming up with a viable solution, they had to take the problem and to trace it back through its roots. 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.
My big ELA standard that I wanted to touch on was perspective. I was afraid when groups were looking into racial profiling or the Trump presidency. I was worried they would get into that and just be mad. But a lot of the groups figured out that it’s not just about how one group feels, it’s about the other groups that are on the outside of that. The perspectives that they have.
They started thinking they were going to look at why people voted for Trump but what their research brought them was new insight on the topic. They realized that their community, the Black community, has their own perspective that shapes the narrative. Their solution was this whole thing on bias. It was knowing your history, looking at all your information, knowing what you’re talking about that before you just start talking about it.
And I didn’t lead them to this understanding or tell them to “walk in someone else’s shoes,” or some other cliche. That wouldn’t have made a difference.
AT 14-YEARS-OLD, THEY HAD AN INSIGHT THAT MOST ADULTS DON’T.
I saw half of them present and was impressed with their presentations. I was impressed with how thoughtful they were, with how each one of them connected to its historical roots and context. I learned things I didn’t know. And I was impressed with their solutions. But I want to switch gears now. You said already, that you are a risk-taking teacher for 20 years. How different has this been for you?
Teaching with the Korda Method is different for me in every way possible. I was never a by-the-book teacher. I always created everything that I was doing and I never used a textbook. But like you say, the Korda Method is a deschooling process.
It’s not just deschooling the kids, it’s deschooling me after 20 years of teaching. There remains a kind of a finite way of looking at teaching that believes we will all get to point Z by this date, a rigidity of it.
With this, I pose a problem and the intentionality of how I have to do it is very different. It’s not coming up with the answers, but coming up with questions. So the question has to be a very different question than what I’ve asked in the past. There are a lot more “whys,”and “how do you knows,” and then just walking away, and leaving you with it and they do not like that.
They don’t like it because they’re so trained that the way school works is the teacher tells them what to do and they do it. And then the teacher gives the grade. And this is so different.
TEACHING IN THE KORDA METHOD BREAKS ALL THE RULES OF TRADITIONAL EDUCATION AND IT FEELS FREEING. I LIKEN IT TO PERMISSION TO TEACH THE WAY I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO TEACH. IT FEELS SCARY BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE THE ANSWER.
I’m also very tough on myself with who I am as a teacher. There’s always that part where I want to do better. I won’t say perfect, but I want to do better. And I think for me it’s been good to know I can’t control the better. It’s not about what I do. I can build all the parts that will give them support or answer questions; the pathways and the rubrics, the things that will help them know, “here’s where we want to go.” But where they end up going, that is up to them, and it’s very liberating.
MOST OF THESE GIRLS HAVE BEEN CRAVING THIS, THEIR WHOLE EDUCATIONAL CAREER. THEY HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR A TEACHER THAT WOULD ALLOW THEM THE SPACE TO GROW AS LEARNERS.
Every time I hear a teacher who’s been teaching for years discover that it makes me smile. 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 surprised when we give them work that’s meaningful to them, 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.
For years I’ve talked to other teacher’s, my student-teachers, about the carrot on a stick. “Teaching is smoke and mirrors,” like you have to be behind the scenes manipulate things. But teaching this way has shown me a new way. Whenever we think that they don’t care, they’re tuned out, there’s nothing that matters to them, that they care so passionately. They are just looking for a way to show that they care.
So I give them a lot of choice in my class the way that it’s structured this year, but it’s authentic choice. It’s not a choice that’s manipulated or choose A, B, or C. It’s been very, very open. And for them, that’s made all the difference because they feel like they’re in charge.
And working on something real and relavant and that they get to choose doesn’t mean the class isn’t hard. I can hit all my objectives. And it’s completely rigorous. The challenge is absolute there in my class.
AND IT’S NOT JUST PROJECT-BASED LEARNING, BECAUSE I’VE BEEN DOING PROJECT-BASED LEARNING FOR YEARS.
Right. The Korda Method is a very specific methodology that basically allows the students that kind of spark an interest in learning.
Yeah. I’m thinking about a student I had. She went to this totally different tangent, far from where I would have ever thought that she would go. Was she going in the direction that would give her the best results? No. Was the way that she was working through the process of it dead on? Yes. 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 wanna have to think about it.”
So to see her completely engrossed and ignoring her team and sharing with me the amount of research that she did, and the questioning, 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 big risk. She went with something that she felt in her heart mattered and proved it, knew it inside and out. That’s my goal.
So you are about five weeks into school now, and we just had an interesting conversation earlier today. Basically, you are setting up a new section and you just did a one-week project on migration to get the students ready to tackle colonization and you were panicked because you haven’t taught this in a long time and you were struggling because you got hung up on all this content. You want them to learn this content and that content.
And then you asked, “what do you want them to learn? If there is one thing that you want these 14-year-old girls to learn in two weeks, what would that be?” I had to picture a specific girl in my head decide what is the end goal? I want them to learn why people move, it’s just as simple as that. And I was way over-complicating it. And trying to figure out how I was going to get them to learn all of these specific facts.
It is because in two weeks you can’t teach them everything about human migration. Even if you had them for every day for two weeks and they 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 information that way.
Now they are going to look at the refugee crisis. Authentically. What is actually happening? This is a relevant thing. I teach a lot of girls whose families are immigrants, this is not just theoretical. And you pointed out that we have a very vibrant Somali community. So we examine not just past European colonization examples that they can look at, and I don’t have examples they NEED to look at.
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 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? And also get them to look at other examples in history. And what is your hope in two weeks that they’ll come out with?
I think that 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. 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 it is an authentic way to look through the lens of history. Why did people come over?, what was it like when Columbus came to the Americas? But not simply a timeline, “Hey, Columbus came and all this and stuff happened.” But rather, “Was that a successful example of a migration? Was it not a successful one? Why? What could we learn from that example? Were there successful migrations in the past?”
So in two weeks these 14-year-olds t is going to have done their own personal exploration, following what is most compelling and interesting to them. They will make their own discoveries and develop the nuanced, more sophisticated, understanding that, “Whoa, the reasons people move are many and they’re complicated.” And how great is that?
Well, if I were an employer or doing admissions at a university and I had kids who could think critically, who can analyze things, who can work in teams; these are so much better than regurgitating some historical facts or regurgitating a timeline of events.
There’s way more critical thinking when teaching like this. I can say that for sure compared to what did in the past. I can even get them to write so much deeper and to actually care about what they’re writing about, when compared to more traditional assignments. And the curriculum? I’m hitting all the content in the curriculum I need to hit. I mean it.
There’s no part of what I’m doing that is leaving anything behind. It’s so nice how parents come into open house and then see the challenge. 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.