At Camden Rockport Middle School in Camden, Maine, remote Project Based Teaching began as a way to combat excessive snow days.
“It was selfish, a little bit,” joked Jaime Stone, principal of the school. “We had one year where we had nine snow days in a year. A student learning day in January at home is more valuable than one in late June.”
Now, with the possibility of schools closing because of a new coronavirus, Stone is glad her seventh and eighth grade teachers for the past couple of years have been engaging their students in PBL when school could not safely be in session.
“Ultimately what we really wanted from our remote school days was to minimize disruptions in our students’ learning,” Stone said. “We will have some things to learn if we have to keep that up for an extended period of time, but at least we and our students know what online PBL looks like.”
The school began building interdisciplinary projects four years ago, using helpful free tools from PBLWorks like the Essential Project Design Elements. Many teachers at Camden Rochport use online platforms with Google Classroom and interactive tools like Padlet to engage students in dialogue, even when they can’t be face-to-face.
Up until now the school has only used remote learning for single days at a time, since snowy roads to school can usually be cleared relatively quickly, allowing things to get back to normal.
The school’s short-term experiments enabled them to tackle several potential roadblocks, clearing the way for longer remote learning sessions if necessary.
For example, once the school provided iPads to each student, the next concern was whether all students had internet access. A family survey helped determine what needs existed in the community, and in a quest for equity, the district provided hotspots via Kajeet, with some school-appropriate controls to students who were without. Students learned how to use Google Classroom and the hotspots in school before they were needed for remote learning.
Next, the school committed time and resources toward the goal of moving PBL into the virtual space. Teachers worked with peers during collaborative planning time to ensure they could deliver their solid project ideas in a digital environment.
For example, students recently finished a Civil Rights project that was a natural for online learning. The products students created involved research, graphics, informational text, the development of poetry, and writing ‘a day in the life’ from the perspective of the Civil Rights heroes the students studied.
Writing instruction at the school -- whether students are in the building or not -- has been enhanced by the use of technology. “Being able to provide students with timely and specific feedback as they work through Google Docs is powerful whether students are right with you in the classroom or learning at home,” Stone said.
But not everything translates well to remote learning.
For example, an instructional activity in the Civil Rights project was a tableau, a living picture that enables students to build empathy and connection to concepts, people, or questions being investigated. In a tableau, groups of students create a silent, frozen scene demonstrating something important for others to respond to. Not being together in a common space would likely lessen the visual and emotional impact of a tableau, but Stone and the Camden Rockport teachers are continuing to stretch for tools that make this kind of learning work if students can’t be together.
“When we first started this work, I would say about 75 percent of the teachers were easily able to move to online learning,” she concluded. “But seeing how this is working and how it is benefitting our students, to keep learning when they can’t be at school, with has everyone all in!”