Teaching is a profession that elicits a myriad of questions throughout the day, from the rhetorical to pedagogical. Finding intellectual space to ponder these questions in a way that will impact practice can be tough, and we want to help. Our new series, “In The Quiet: Reflections on Learning” invites you into the mind of an expert in the field through a brief Q&A. So, wherever your quiet is—after the bell, on the commute, or elsewhere—please enjoy this space to reflect as you hone your craft.
Liz Prather has spent twenty-seven years as a classroom teacher, teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level. She is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin.
What trends have you noticed over the years about how students respond to a project-based learning approach in the writing classroom?
When I started using project-based learning in 2010, about a third of my students resisted the invitation to direct their own learning. Some of them were apathetic and some lacked the maturity to be independent; others saw PBL as disrupting the unspoken contract of school they were familiar with. In the last ten years, however, I’ve noticed that students are much more willing to direct their own learning. They embrace the independence of project-based learning while also collaborating and using inquiry to get feedback on their research and their project.
What is a myth you have encountered about project-based learning and what would you like to replace it with?
The biggest myths about project-based learning center around issues of time: teachers worry they won’t have time to “teach the standards”; teachers worry they won't have time to “grade” thirty different projects rather than just grading one assignment from thirty students; teachers believe planning project-based learning takes a long time, and so on. While planning a PBL unit does take some upfront time to organize, the other issues with time dissolve when PBL truly takes over your paradigm. With PBL, I actually had more time because we weren’t bogged down with meaningless quizzes, vocabulary lists, reading logs, or a dozen other forms of busy work that so often stands in for the intense, consuming work of learning.
Can you share an example of an unexpected benefit you've noticed that project-based writing brings to your classroom?
I have much deeper relationships with students. I know about their lives, their families, their passions, and their thinking process. After using PBL for several years, I began to realize how surface my student-knowledge was in a traditional classroom. For example, with a traditional classroom, I might meet with students once or twice a semester for a single writing conference. With PBL, I’m meeting with them one-on-one or in small groups at least one or two times a week. Both the frequency and the quality of my interactions strengthened my satisfaction and my value as a teacher.
As a learner, what professional learning experience has had the most positive impact on your teaching career?
In 1994, I participated in a four-week National Writing Project Summer Institute that changed my life as a teacher. Unlike professional learning designed to deliver the latest silver bullet, that summer institute taught me the evergreen strategies of inquiry, empathy, and differentiation, that have served me as an educator for three decades.