Santa Ynez Valley Union High: An Organic Project-Based Learning Journey

Key Points

  • Nothing is better than creating the space and culture necessary for both teachers and students to address real-world problems in truly creative and collaborative ways.

  • It gives students a sense of autonomy and they enjoy taking the reins of their thoughts and futures.

Last summer, I became the new principal of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School on California’s central coast. After a few years away from a high school campus, my goal was to make instruction – specifically deeper, inquiry-based learning – my priority.

Over the past seven years, I have been fortunate enough to dive deep into problem and project-based learning. This includes research, professional writing and professional learning facilitation all over the country. I have worked with hundreds of educators and dozens of schools on implementing project-based learning.

To get started, teachers volunteered to attend summer professional development dedicated to PBL. This was not only a great way to get buy-in and launch more inquiry-based learning, but it also served as a fantastic way for me to work with groups of teachers whom I’d be serving. We worked to not only implement more problem and project-based learning this year, but also to chronicle our work. Here is a summary of our collective experiences thus far.

The Driving Questions

Teachers designed inquiry-based projects that challenged students to not only think, but to allow their creativity and ownership to emerge. A few examples of the driving questions are:

What is something in the world that you would like to see change?

How can you use the Hero’s Journey to recognize and celebrate a local hero?

How are roles of women today similar or different from the Victorian era?

How can stress and anxiety be useful components of productivity?

How would you rank decades overall based on political, social and economic impact?

Student Voice & Choice

Teachers focused on designing projects that offered menus of options. This included various ways for students to focus on diverse approaches to the driving question, as well as unique ways to share their learning. These included podcasts, infographics, documentary films and even live theater productions.

English teacher Patrick Shattuck fully embraced the power of student choice. Shattuck not only applied this to projects but also made it an integral part of the classroom culture. He said he continually tells his students that the classroom is theirs and not his.

“We come up with class expectations, policies, and even deadlines together,” said Shattuck. “When I assign a project, students are always given the option to create their own topic as long as it meets certain criteria.”.

He said that both he and his students benefit. “It gives students a sense of autonomy and they enjoy taking the reins of their thoughts and futures,” he said. “Student voice and choice enhance my teaching by making the curriculum fluid, fresh and exciting. I learn a lot too.”

Civic Engagement

Many of the projects this year thus far have challenged students to engage with their greater community and even partner with professionals.

English Teacher Casey Reck challenged her 9th graders with the Local Hero Project. Working in self-selected groups, students chose a local hero to interview and then used the Hero’s Journey to share their story. Final products included podcasts or videos and Reck was extremely enthused about the outcomes. (see sample project here)

“Students learned how applicable the Hero’s Journey can be to real people; it isn’t just something found in literature or movies,” said Reck. “They realized that everyone has to overcome obstacles in life–whether that is moving to a new country and learning a new language or paying for grad school or switching careers.”

Social Science Teacher Greg Wolf challenged his juniors to choose a current issue of their choice in which they would like to see change. Once issues were chosen, Wolf said that students had to conduct research to both tell the story of their chosen issue and then generate a ‘call to action.’

In effect, Wolf said that students took on the role of single-issue lobbyists. Products ranged from documentaries to podcasts to websites to social media campaigns to petitions, all of which were actually published (check out examples on the Social Science Dept. Instagram).

“My biggest takeaway thus far is the realization that the more I focus on what I want my students to do with the content, the more it becomes about what skills I want them to develop and how meaningful the learning experience can be,” he said.

Wolf said that his students would learn if he formed the right relationships with them, creates the right environment, and then got out of their way.

“Students have been happier this year in my class than I have ever seen, which I attribute to the new dynamic of meaningful inquiry coupled with student voice and choice,” he said.

Student Ownership

One of the most powerful projects thus far this year emerged from the Advanced Drama Class. Teacher Jeff McKinnon decided to pursue a devised theater project that uses the procedures of docu-drama to create an original, collaborative, and authentic performance piece.

McKinnon said that the students were instructed to interview one another about how stress affects their lives. He said the initial objective was to compile enough perspectives on stress in the high school culture to normalize it as a potentially useful tool, rather than an affliction to be avoided.

After some initial work, McKinnon said the unexpected happened in the process. He said what began to emerge from the transcribed student interviews was a subculture of intolerance and sexual abuse that students had experienced both on and off campus.

“This is really the key when creating a collaborative project,” said McKinnon. “That is to pivot toward what is emerging, rather than forcing the issues into an expectation of a pre-packaged result.”

McKinnon said he was reminded that process beats product. “I suppose the real revelation for me too is that something so easily generated can have such a profound impact and can be easily replicated along a variety of topics,” he said.

McKinnon said he learned more than he had originally bargained for and felt honored to have the experience. “I felt I was being given a privilege, an insider’s peek into a culture that was not mine,” he said.

For McKinnon, the result codified the power of project-based learning. “It is, at its base, collaboration on a devised and original project from start to finish,” he said. “Often at the start we have no idea what it will look like at the finish, but that is what many of us educators crave and most enjoy about the process.”

Final Reflections

This journey thus far has only reinforced to me that deeper learning is as much of a mindset as a pedagogy. As a school site instructional leader, nothing is better than creating the space and culture necessary for both teachers and students to address real-world problems in truly creative and collaborative ways.

Michael Niehoff

Michael Niehoff is a Getting Smart Columnist. He is a teacher, leader, blogger, and student advocate.

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