PBL & the Town Hall Meeting: Academics or School-Sponsored Speed Dating?

Chuck Abell, English Teacher, Rush-Henrietta Senior High

As it turns out, blogging is not only the means for this post; it is also the subject of it as well. In my Action Research, I sought for ways to break down barriers within the broader educational system. While many emotional/psychological barriers exist in this realm, physical barriers present themselves too. Technology, for all of its flaws, is one way of minimizing or reducing these obstacles – in particular, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) provide ways to overcome physical barriers to communication, for instance, between students in different districts who have limited access to transportation. So in this project, I was easily able to see the potential for technology to help build bridges between students (and even adults). The only problem was that I myself have little expertise with social media.

Bring in my affinity group – by collaborating with three other educators, each of whom has more facility with social media than I do, I was introduced to new technological avenues for creating meaningful dialogues. In particular, I learned about the valuable role Student Forums can play in the education process. When combined with more traditional research technologies – computer, database, etc. – the Student Forum proved a fun and useful means of sharing information and ideas. In the context of our project, the students were sharing experiences and conceptions about aspects of the current educational system, dialogues that would ultimately form the basis of their personal research papers. In fact, the first week of the project, we hardly used the databases and more traditional research mechanisms, instead focusing on generating meaningful dialogues via the Student Forum — first within each individual school, then between the four different schools. While it was difficult to keep up given the volume of posts, the Forum made for interesting reading. Students initiating and extending discussions that at times became quite personal. At some level, the Forum was helping to weaken some of these walls that stand between students from different neighborhoods, races, economic classes, and other demographic categories.

As the project progressed, I watched students’ motivation and engagement oscillate – a function of a variety of factors, no doubt. As the final Town Hall meeting approached, though, student anticipation remained high. Actually meeting these fellow bloggers – and on a college campus – was clearly a unique opportunity, for myself as much as for my students. When students would ask me what to expect, I usually shrugged my shoulders; this was new territory for me as well. When the actual meeting day arrived, I found myself focusing on decidedly non-academic concerns: Would my students represent R-H nobly? Would kids be absent? Would students mingle with peers from other schools? In short, despite the weeks of research leading up to this event, I found myself much more interested in the socio-emotional potential of the event, which, as I think about it now, is really the point. So much of the work we do in academia – for all of its high-level theory and intricate processes – is really about learning how to communicate across social lines, how to cultivate compassion and wisdom when dealing with others who are different from us. In this respect, the event – and the project as a whole – achieved its main purpose: It allowed students to broaden their frame of reference.  Problem-based learning (PBL) introduced students and teachers to new ideas, new environments, and new peers, and while there were moments of conflicts that emerged in the room, for the most part, students at the Town Hall Meeting treated each other – and the process – with dignity and respect. The bus ride back to school was lively and cheerful; something meaningful had happened at MCC that day. One last image, while not the intended outcome of the event, helps put the whole process into perspective: one R-H student, already boarding the bus suddenly rushes back towards the City School District bus to exchange phone numbers with a girl from another district. And who says technology doesn’t build bridges?

For my action research report, see Integrating Problem-based learning and Cross-Sector Collaboration in a High School English Classroom.

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