13 May 2014

Students Plan to Change the World with Real-World Project Based Learning

It started before I even walked in the building.  I began to feel the friendliness and culture difference at Eminence Independent Schools.  As I walked toward the front door of the school, Shannon Treece, high school principal, walked in the same direction fresh from a meeting with the area school councils association.  Though we had never met and her arms were full, she stopped me with a large smile on her face as our paths converged on the sidewalk.  "Are you Renee?  Nice to finally put a Twitter name with a face."  From there I was greeted and provided a printed visitor tag with my name logged into their online system for easy record keeping. While I waited to head to the classroom area, I observed multiple visitors enter the school with smiles on their faces.  The friendliness and welcoming spirit was obvious, and you could tell they really cared that people were visiting their #SchoolOnFire.  (I can tell you I've entered other schools and have not experienced quite that friendly a welcome.)

A simple Twitter exchange turned into an opportunity for me to witness the student-led Project Based Learning happening at Eminence. Principal Treece invited me to see what her students (literally, her students) were doing.  Ms. Treece facilitates the learning of this group of teenagers because they came to her asking for more service learning opportunities.  Initially, she told the students they would schedule more PBL and service learning for the fall because she needed to find someone to facilitate, get schedules rearranged, figure out what they would do, etc.,  but then the students pushed her and she decided--that's what she's there for--to facilitate the learning of students.  So, she squeezed this PBL service learning experience with teenagers into her busy day and now meets with the students regularly.

By reaching out to community members and parents and asking for help (without having all the answers, decisions, and materials ahead of time), Ms. Treece and her students were able to find Dr. and Mr. White from the Shelbyville, Kentucky area who were willing to work with them. In addition to their non-profit organization based here in Kentucky, the couple run an orphanage in Uganda, and they knew they could use some help from dedicated teenagers who were willing to serve and to learn about the culture of the Ugandan people.  A partnership was forged.

The students began meeting regularly in an old KFC building next door to the school.  The school purchased this building because they are always thinking about how to re-purpose space and resources since they are not a resource rich district.  However, they are rich with thoughts, ideas, learning, and excitement. Ms. Treece meets with the students (and Mr. White joins them often) and she says the students and have encountered obstacles already (including self-doubt).  Nevertheless, because Eminence promotes a risk-taking culture, the students are persevering in their endeavors to make their dream a reality. 

Because Principal Treece knows effective PBL is student led, she asked the students to figure out what they would do, and with careful questioning, brainstorming, researching, and collaborating, the students decided they will create a self-sustaining community in Uganda to serve the children in the orphanage. They were clear about this dream becoming action.  They learned about the 72 school-aged children in the Ugandan orphanage and wanted to find a way for those students to live and to learn how to support themselves.

To practice their public speaking skills and to become more articulate with pitching their project, Ms. Treece invited me to listen to students present their work, and what a privilege it was to hear them talk about the project. They talked me through the 5Ws and their mission statement in a pre-planned format complete with effective powerpoint use.  (They obviously know the intention of Powerpoint isn't to read slides to people, so they placed one word per slide in large block letters.  Each word was the signal for the next speaker to talk about the dream, the future, and the plan.)

Working together, this group of approximately 15 students created a name and a wrote a mission statement that they shared with me today.  #Unlock is a student led organization which exists to empower, educate, and equip children in an impoverished area by creating a self-sustaining community.

Who:  high school students partnering with businesses and faith-based organizations
What: creating a self-sustaining community in Uganda for students who are former street children from the slums
Where: Eminence, Kentucky and Uganda, Africa
How: by learning about the culture and people and by researching and designing the community
When: ongoing project starting now & lasting several years
Why: "because doing something to impact the world is more important than sitting in classes for 6 hours a day to make a project you will throw away."

Toward the end of their presentation, I began asking them questions about the project. One student stated it well for the group "we want to help the world for real--by solving real problems."  Another chimed in "any kid can do this--kids want to change the world and they can with teachers, students, and community working with one another."

Their work has only just begun.  This summer the students will present at a few conferences to raise awareness for their project and to seek sponsorships, and in the fall they will continue their research and design and will begin participating in Google Hangouts with the Ugandan students.  In preparation for meeting the Ugandan students virtually, the Eminence students are reading and discussing two texts, Kisses for Katie and The Queen of Katwe:  A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster.  The students take their work seriously and say "with this--you have to care--we're talking about people's lives."