Badger Rock Charter: Project-based learning? Maybe not

Student portrait of Stephen PerezStudent portrait of Stephen PerezBadger Rock Middle School's mission statement demands that our academic program thrive on authentic community project-based learning.

But what does that mean?

Many parents who have chosen to send their students to the Badger Rock charter school included our project-based learning as a reason why they made that choice.

"My daughter really is a ‘hands on learner,’” one mother said. Another parent shared that her child struggles to pay attention in class and that doing “projects” would help her student focus more, hopefully. When I first announced that our class would be doing a project, hands shot up.

"Can I make a poster?”

“Can I make a model?”

“What about a shadow box?”

I was befuddled; they did not know what the project was. When I then explained that we would be writing a research paper, there was an audible sigh. My kids felt cheated. Apparently, the connotative meaning of “projects” is building something, or maybe presenting something.

My view of project-based learning at Badger Rock Middle School is more broadly defined than an activity that is kinesthetically based. I'm wondering if a more appropriate term to describe what we do at Badger Rock is process-based learning. The process of writing the research paper began with the components of a sentence.

A sentence needs a subject and a predicate. More simply, a “who” and a “did what.” The proficiency of my students’ writing was not surprising. I learned many years ago not to lament what they do not know and teach them what I want them to learn.

Writing is a hard skill to acquire, and one that is also difficult to teach. Noted American writer, William Zinsser, once described teaching writing as the most difficult subject to teach. Since he taught writing, and has authored several books on writing, one might conclude that his opinion is biased. I, however, agree with him. My students, too, would agree that learning to write well is difficult.

As schools in Wisconsin adapt curriculum that is aligned to the Common Core Standards, our students and teachers will be challenged to move beyond creative writing. While narrative writing is a standard, students are also expected to write informational/expository and argumentative pieces as well.

Expanding the types of writing that students are expected to master is something that will benefit them later, both in high school, college, and in the workplace. Private sector friends of mine complain about the dearth of quality writers who are attempting to enter the workforce. In the same conversation, they question my sanity in trying to be to teach 6th graders American Psychological Association (APA) and/or Modern Language Association (MLA) formatting in their writing.

The complaint and the criticism, to me, appear to be a paradox. If schools are not turning out proficient writers, then it is imperative that teachers teach students the process of writing proficiently. Therefore, I introduced the idea of format and modeled this essential element of research writing. 

Was this easy? No! Was this challenging to the students? Yes, very challenging! Did they demonstrate mastery? No, but mastery was not expected.

Learning is a process and the process takes time.

Nick Saban, the NCAA Football National Championship coach at the University of Alabama, reminds his players that every drill, every practice, and every meeting is part of the process. His players learn to work to improve themselves in the singular parts of the process, and not to worry about the end result.

This is what I feel like we are doing at Badger Rock Middle School. If we can improve all the little things like starting sentences with capital letters, making sure that sentences have end punctuation, and formatting, then the writing will be better. It may not happen immediately, but I know my kids will get better.

I believe in them.