Statement of problem
From the time that the idea of public education took hold in the mid-19th century, it has faced challenges to its credibility. Some of these challenges have been rightly aimed at inequality. This remains an issue today (Kober 2020). Others have been aimed at student academic achievement and falling test scores in spite of evidence that, among all racial and minority groups, reading and math scores have improved over the span of decades (NCES 2013). The Covid pandemic in recent years has, however, led to renewed scrutiny, and according to a 2022 Gallup poll, when asked about satisfaction with the public school system, 54% of people say they are dissatisfied and 22% are completely dissatisfied. Unfortunately, much of the criticism has been aimed at teachers who are often overworked and underpaid. Increasingly too, curriculums are under attack because of misinformation spread on social media and political opportunists targeting what they perceive as a system of liberal indoctrination (Graham 2021). As teachers adapt to demands over what is taught and how it’s taught, while at the same time remaining committed to best practices developed in the Universities, one question that can be asked is, what can individual educators do to restore trust and improve public perception?
The prior question is one I have had to ask myself during my own teaching experience. I taught at Heart Butte, a small school on the Blackfeet reservation. Prior to my two-year employment, the school had multiple administrations over the course of several years and a 50% teacher turnover rate each year, largely because of the challenges that the location and student body posed, to no fault of the students’ own. It is a climatically harsh and isolated environment, afflicted by poverty and lack of opportunity. There are high levels of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as a lack of trust in the federal or state government with the school often being a target of frustration. As a result, my employment coincided with a federally funded initiative to provide aid to the school through the Schools of Promise Grant.
The grant provided 1.5 million dollars in aid to support “students’ mental health needs, boost student engagement and provide training for local school boards and educators” (Great Falls Tribune 2016). In accordance with these goals, the grant provided the means for me to start a school literary magazine, which soon became the center of the curriculum. The accompanying freedom and support that I had to implement this curriculum is something not always afforded to new teachers, and that being the case, I felt driven by the opportunity. I informed the students of the class mission, and we went to work. In two years, we produced three editions of Wind Songs–as the magazine was named—and distributed over 300 hundred copies to parents and the community.
It should be noted that in addition to student writing on topics from Shakesperian inspired letters to parodies of popular children’s tales, Wind Songs also featured photographic images of other exciting things teachers were working on throughout the school. What I witnessed was a renewed confidence in the students' own abilities to convey themselves through writing, and also, an appreciation from parents who held tightly to the words preserved in print. While there were certainly challenges and setbacks that, in the end, limited the number of publications I would have liked to share, I would, nonetheless, consider the mission a success. Moreover, it reaffirmed my faith that positively reinforcing the values of public education is well within an individual's teacher’s means, and not necessarily through a literary journal alone. I contend that any unit committed to the principles of project based learning can have the same effect.
In my statement of problem, I mentioned best practice. Here I will define project based learning as best practice and show it as a viable means of community engagement in addition to examining the means that teachers currently communicate with the public.
What is Project Based Learning?
Project based learning (PBL) is student centered learning and focuses on engaging students through authentic experiences that focus on real world problems and encourages sharing of knowledge to solidify understanding. (Kokotsaki, D. et al. 2016) Its conceptual roots go as far back as John Dewey and the constructivists who argued that “deep understanding occurs when a learner actively constructs meaning based on his or her experiences and interaction with the world” (Krajcik 2009) The publication of literary magazines qualifies as project based learning when students work collaboratively and are permitted to voice issues related to their immediate experiences or as reactions to current media topics.
Due to the immediacy of students' engagement with problematic issues, teachers may struggle with what and when to censor. For literary magazines, Mossman (2007), has found that one of the safest guidelines to follow are those established by the FCC. Additionally, he would reject student work if it glorified harmful behavior and concludes: “literary magazines, as reflections of their school communities, should have a higher calling. They reflect, yet they also can and should ennoble the community's values.” Arguably, any project-based unit should also reflect and ennoble the community values if they are to meaningfully connect with the people within those communities.
Though values may vary to some degree from place to place, they are often universally held and could be referenced in any school’s value statement. Once identified they can be a safe departure point for meaningfully moving a project forward. Values in action may be observed in a variety of projects across any subject. Examples include: examining justice through mock trials in social studies (PBL works); promoting sustainability through modeling fishery practices and their long term impacts in science (Edutopia); designing cost-effective homes for the homeless in math (Modelsofexcellence). There are many resources freely available for teachers on the internet and most have the potential for cross-curricular collaboration where their impacts might be multiplied.
Importantly, though, project based units require students “to apply the knowledge and skills they learn as the focus of the curriculum rather than as a supplement at the end of traditional instruction,” (Bradley-Levine 2014). Thus, for any teacher seriously interested in a project-based unit, it is important to block a substantial part, if not the entire course, toward implementation. Again when considering literary magazines, that means not only structuring the classroom for collaboration on its production, but also assigning writing assignments that can double as content. The benefit, here, is that students already have an audience in mind beyond what would otherwise be graded by the teacher and likely discarded later.
Expanding Use of Social Media and digital platforms
In considering the audience–i.e. the general public– no broader horizon of engagement could be opened than the digital space in the last two decades. Social media and a host of other online platforms, I’d argue, are one of the most powerful tools humanity has yet created, and its potentials are still yet to be fully realized. Rather than fight the trend, as I had been prone to do in my own teaching experience by immediately questioning any student who pulled out their phone or switched from their browser to a social media site, it would perhaps be better for teachers to make peace with it. Indeed, research has found that “by encouraging engagement with social media, students develop connections with peers, establish a virtual community of learners and ultimately increase their overall learning” (Tarantino, et al. 2013) Moreover, digital content can be used as a means to connect with the community and promote online engagement. In context of my central question– “what can individual educators do to restore trust and improve public perception?”--connecting with the community is perhaps the most important thing to consider, especially for its utility in offsetting negative narratives that continue to circulate.
Current studies on the means of communication in academic literature
While the benefits of project based learning and communication through social media are understood, there is little quantifiable research that investigates what teachers are actively doing to reach out to parents and the community. Instead, what we do have are the following: DiMartino, C., & Jessen, S. B. (2016) found that schools in their case study used pamphlets, principals met with parents at fairs, and that in a competitive schooling system, which is being opened up to new choices, public schools in certain areas are employing private marketing strategies to retain and attract students. Graham-Clay S. (2005) found that written communication, phone calls, voice messages, pre-recorded videos, and schools websites are all found to be effective under the right circumstances, and cultural considerations help enhance the quality of parents' responses. Kilgore, A. J. (2010) found that teachers who used emails more frequently had more positive interactions with parents with two issues being misinterpretation of content and lack of parental access to computers.
Study method and design
Given the lack of data on teacher communication with the public and use of project based learning to influence the public’s perception my study will thus examine how teachers currently communicate, as well as measure the effectiveness and reach of project based units impacts on local communities, so as to suggest whether or not teachers might implement them more effectively on a wider scale.
The method I plan to use to gather my data will be through a survey that quantifies the types of interactions that teachers have with parents and the public, as well as inquires as to whether they use project-based learning as a part of their curriculum.
I have completed a draft of the survey which I would pilot with a small group of educators. Pending the effectiveness of the survey, I would then request school administrators in several local schools whether they’d share the survey through the schools email servers. The data will be gathered via a survey website and compiled into two graphs: one a bar chart that measures frequency of interaction on one axis and means of interaction on the other; and the other, a box plot that measures frequency of positive interacts on axis and whether project based learning has been implemented on the other.
In conclusion, this survey should provide quantifiable data as to how teachers are communicating with students, how often they are doing so, and whether teachers who use project based learning have more positive and frequent interactions. This data could attest to the effectiveness of project based learning for public messaging. My presumed findings are that teachers who use project based learning as a substantial part of their curriculum will have both more positive and frequent interactions with parents and community.
Bradley-Levine, J., & Mosier, G. (2014). Literature review on project-based learning. University of Indianapolis Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning.
Furger, R. (2007, October 2). Taking it to the class: Green Projects for the classroom. Edutopia. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://www.edutopia.org/environmentally-conscious-lesson-ideas
Gallup. (2022, February 18). Education. Gallup.com. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx
Graham, E. (n.d.). Who is behind the attacks on educators and public schools? NEA. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/who-behind-attacks-educators-and-public-schools
Great Falls Tribune. (2016, July 29). 'school of promise' program gets $1.5m grant.. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://www.greatfallstribune.com/story/news/local/2016/07/29/school-promise-program-gets-grant/87760754/
Hamel, P., & Hamel, P. (2020, April 27). Mock trial project engages high school seniors in remote learning. PBLWorks. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://www.pblworks.org/blog/mock-trial-project-engages-high-school-seniors-remote-learning
Krajcik, J. S., & Blumenfeld, P. C. (2006). Project-based learning (pp. 317-34). na.
Kokotsaki, D., Menzies, V., & Wiggins, A. (2016). Project-based learning: A review of the literature. Improving Schools, 19(3), 267–277. https://doi.org/10.1177/1365480216659733
Models of excellence. Tiny Homes for the Homeless | Models of Excellence. (n.d.). Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://modelsofexcellence.eleducation.org/projects/tiny-homes-homeless
Nancy Kober, Diane Stark Retner (2020), History and evolution of public education in the US - eric. (n.d.). Retrieved May 14, 2022, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED606970.pdf
NCES. (2013). The nation's report card: Trends in academic progress 2012. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a part of the U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/main2012/2013456.aspx
Tarantino K. McDonough J., Hua M. (2013) Effects of student engagement with social media. (n.d.). Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://www.studentaffairs.com/Customer-Content/www/CMS/files/Journal/Effects-Of-Student-Engagement-With-Social-Media.pdf