Heather Wolpert-Gawron

The Power of Teaching Something You Know Nothing About

By on September 6, 2011

This year, I have decided to teach solely in Project-Based Writing. I’m defining Project-Based Writing as a series of constructed units built around authentic assessment, authentic audience, and authentic learning that incorporates the multiple writing genres. That is, it’s all about blurring the lines between school life and the real world. The goal is: if it doesn’t apply outside of school, then it isn’t worthy enough to teach inside of school.

As a result of this shift, and mind you, it’s only been a couple of weeks since school began, I’ve found that not only do my students enjoy learning more, but I enjoy teaching more. The strange thing is, however, that it is mostly due to the fact that with PBW, I’m not limiting myself to only teaching what I know. I’m learning with them, and in so doing, am modeling how to learn. In other words, I am the writing authority, but not the content authority.

Let me give you the best example I can. Right now, as we speak, I am in the midst of a fantastic unit called The Darpa Project. It all began this summer when my husband told me of a cool symposium going on in late September in Florida for which DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) was seeking presenters. They were asking scientists, futurists, ethicists, and science-fiction writers to apply to be a part of a forum to brainstorm ways to colonize a planet within 100 years. The project itself is called the 100 Years Starship Study. Incidentally, I can hear Star Trek music in my brain scoring that title every time I write or type it.

The conference would be segregated into 7 tracks, all focused on different aspects of what it would take to colonize: the time-distance issues, economic challenges, medical considerations, communicating and publicizing the rationale, etc…

As I read over the website, it occurred to me that applying to speak at a conference was a sort of a persuasive writing exercise. It also occurred to me that studying these different “tracks” and synthesizing one’s research into a proposal was a sort of an executive summary. And lo, a Project Based Writing Unit was born.

So I whipped together an iMovie introducing the concept with some dramatic suspense music thrown in. I threw together a pacing guide for myself and a packet with checklist for them. The packet gave details of how each small “professional community” of experts would be broken down into groups of 7 students. Each student would be responsible for becoming an authority on one of the “tracks.” The packet also contained various assignments and due dates leading up to a mock panel that would take place during lunch, where students from all over the school could come to our symposium to learn about colonizing the stars. And then I had a thought: hey, what if I called my friend in the CalTech patent office and asked if she knew of anyone who could come over during these lunchtimes to be an authentic audience for my students? Perhaps that person(s) could ask questions like a Q & A, or evaluate the presentations in some way? Wow, wouldn’t my students be excited, I thought.

So I sent out the email to my buddy, who responded and said she’d ask around and get back to me, and two weeks later I got a call…from NASA.

It seems that there is now an additional group added to the agenda for the DARPA 100 Years Starship Study: my students. It’s true. A small panel of my students will be presenting via Skype (or WebX, TBD) to an audience of those very same scientists, futurists, ethicists, and science-fiction writers my students will be researching. My students will be presenting not as scientists, but as experts with a unique invested interest in this project. After all, the adults in the room are planning for the generations that will come after the generation after us. My students, on the other hand, will have a hand in building the future for their own children. They will be leaving a legacy behind when they leave 8th grade.

But the import of what this unit has become is not what makes it so fun to teach. What makes it so fun to teach is how little I know about the content I’m asking my students to learn.

Sure I know a lot about writing and reading comprehension and research skills and internet literacy; and that’s ultimately what I’m responsible to teach. However, that’s not what the content of this unit is focused on. What that means is that we get to learn together. This is different than reciprocal learning, which is when I learn from them and they learn from me. This is going on a journey with my students, emailing and exploring and discovering and having head scratching moments and eureka moments along with them. We enter the classroom with ideas together, we sit and brainstorm together, and ultimately we will come away from this experience richer and more knowledgeable together.

I’ve got a few units already in the works for other genres later this year: Literary Analysis and Narrative to name two. But my goal now for this year is not to teach what I know, but to fold in what I know with what I don’t so that modeling learning becomes part of my job.

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