Project-Based Learning in the Modern Age: Leveraging Empathy Among Teachers For Success

When I think back on my most successful groups and projects we created, I see a dynamic group of individuals, equipped with the necessary tools, and bolstered by a supportive administration. From 2013–2017, I worked as a fourth-grade teacher in the Bay Area, on a teaching team of 4, with two co-teachers in each classroom. Collaboration was embedded in almost every part of our teaching practice: there was consistent communication about curriculum and lesson plans on at least a weekly basis. We met before, during, and after each unit, and we divided curriculum content equally between one another. One of the most involved units of our curriculum was The Fort Ross Unit, which is always stated as a proper noun to underline its stature on our year and curriculum.

A little background on me: I was born and raised in San Francisco and attended both public and private schools, as well as utilizing the Parks and Recreation latchkey program at the recreation center up the street from my home. In adherence to the California State Content Standards for History Social Science, the Fort Ross trip in 4th grade held celebrity status. As a younger sister, I watched my older sister depart for the reconstructed historic landmark on the coast of northern California. The next year, it was my turn to leave in my homemade peasant skirt and blouse with butterflies in my stomach.

Many years later, I sat on the other side of the desk and relived that moment four years in a row. This time, I ushered 25 students each year across the threshold of the fort, weaving the same hiking path across the Bodega Bay coastline. In my memory as a child, the actual trip had eclipsed any classwork that may have been assigned around Fort Ross. As a teacher, The Fort Ross Unit is an excellent example of project-based learning and my first taste in implementing the design process in the classroom. It is equal parts standards-based content, scaffolded developmentally-appropriate research, task-management, and note-taking skills, and immersive outdoor education experience. Most importantly, it is fun.

Fun and rigorous project-based learning experiences require planning and collaboration. While part of me understands that the close-knit relationships I formed with my first teaching team were exceptional and rare, I also know that there were other factors at work. School leadership made it possible for us to meet regularly by assigning specialist classes to create common meeting times, by utilizing pre-service and service days to dive into curriculum planning and encouraging classrooms to work together. I trusted my supervisor, the lower head of school, to support me, and my school frequently covered professional development and workshops around the United States.

In my capacity as a technology coordinator, I am currently working as a specialist teacher, an information and technology systems director, and an administrator of a budding technology department. One of my specialties is creating order from chaos. As I tame each arm of my role, I find myself more and more interested in what learning by design looks like at a teacher education level. While I recognize the use of the tools, and I myself am a huge proponent of life-long learning, having limited experience in implementing and assessing curriculum through other adults is daunting.

What I have learned is that dedicated time for collaborative work is required, and, related to that, understanding basic project management skills is crucial in executing the work. What’s more, teaching is both a science and human practice. It is possible to be a teacher and someone who is unempathetic, but it is generally not the case for most of the individuals who chose to work in classrooms or with children and young adults. Empathy and self-awareness enhance project management because they allow individuals to work to their strengths, to seek support and resources, and to provide meaningful feedback to one another.

This month has been quite an interesting exercise in managing a ship in the storm. Amid the rising panic of COVID-19 in the Seattle area, schools around the area are also tasked with setting up a contingency plan for remote learning. This is project management in action, with a sense of urgency. Last Friday, we took time as a community to come together and plan out two weeks of student work related to classroom work to be completed independently. The experience is fresh in my mind, and it provides a unique opportunity to reflect on how my administration has intentionally created space for learning for its teachers.

Specifically, one theme that recurred throughout the planning day, building off of conversations throughout the week, was the human element. Beyond providing two weeks’ worth of curriculum-based activities to do at home, our school, starting at the administration level, was also scaffolding time to feel and practice empathy for the community. It’s this piece, I argue, that will create a positive impact on the learning environment for both teachers and students. The connection of project-based learning to social-emotional learning is well-documented and having lived through several PBL units, I can speak from firsthand experience. This is the first time I’ve had the insight of working on this at the administration level. Teachers worked together under real constraints to create a product for a real-world problem, and while we’d rather stay open throughout the outbreak, we may have the opportunity to implement their work. We’re not through the crisis yet, but I believe we’re more prepared because we’re building on a foundation of empathy and self-awareness.

Educator, long-distance runner, and lifelong learner

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