After starting the PBL last week, this week was the week for researching, a time for the girls to build their initial understanding of their individual topics. What independence they showed as they searched for facts about the topics that they had chosen! Most of them moved easily between books and digital resources, recording their information and creating new research questions.
At times, they became frustrated with the complexity of the information, but there was a deep commitment to reaching understanding and mastery. I worked on sending them to less complex sources for the initial work and then to return to the more difficult ones. When they needed a break, they took a short walk to help them refocus, a strategy that I have them use regularly in my class, or they shifted their work to the memorization piece of the project.
As part of the scaffolding for the project, I had given them a list of 25 people from Europe from 1400-1600 to memorize. As I explained to them that these were people with whom any well-educated person would be familiar. Their job was simply to learn why each person was significant in 5-7 words. The list ranged from Martin Luther to Michelangelo to Prince Henry the Navigator. I had two reasons for having them memorize this list. The first was simply to broaden their understanding of the time period and provide a bridge to some of the other topics about which they weren’t personally studying. I also wanted to give my students who struggle with the challenges that independent research presented a single task over which most of them have control. They have learned through the course of the year the strategies that work for them when they need to memorize information. It gave them a sense of being capable and in control as they worked on their research, which was more difficult.
While they worked with almost total independence this week, I simply wandered the room, available to answer questions and make suggestions when needed, but largely an observer. They were the ones at work, setting goals for themselves each day and tackling each with an amazing amount of focus.
One thing I noticed right away, however, was that they needed me present. While I wasn’t standing at the front of the class, writing an outline or posing questions, I was still very definitely setting the tone of the room. I quickly learned that if I went to check my email or do some other work, the mood in the room changed. My lack of focus on their work meant they could shift their focus, and it was challenging for them after that happened to get back to the same degree of commitment that they had had before. I had given them a completely wrong message by shifting away from their work. They needed me to honor their effort with my attention. After learning that lesson the painful way, I set about staying in the moment with them. I wandered between the desks, asked questions when I saw something of interest. I gave suggestions when I had them and learned new facts as they identified them. It was easy to make it clear to the students that they were becoming the experts, and I wanted to learn from them.
When I provided the support, they did the learning! It was their project and their work, and they wanted to do it!