New kid in the staffroom

Three years ago I was an unmotivated university student attempting to complete a degree in secondary teaching. I was apprehensive about the future and unsure whether or not teaching was for me. Ever since I was young I have loved to share my knowledge with others, whether this was by making worksheets for my younger sisters and teaching them the alphabet in our cubby house or taking on a leadership role in high school and teaching other students about social justice. However, at this point in my tertiary education I was plateauing and my mind turned to other careers that I felt might be more interesting or rewarding.

When the list of placement schools was released informing my friends and I where we would be completing our final practicum as pre-service teachers I discovered that I had been placed at Parramatta Marist High School in Western Sydney. Now, at this point in my life I had grown up with three younger sisters, attended an all girls’ private Catholic high school in the Hills District and had never taught boys. You can imagine my apprehension and anxiety when the university practicum organiser continued on to tell me that the school had an entirely new approach to teaching called Project-based learning and that I would be team-teaching 60 teenage boys in one classroom, sometimes with two integrated subjects, for 100-minute periods. Honestly, I was absolutely terrified.

I remember coming home from my first day after meeting my supervisor, touring around the school and observing various classes and being so overwhelmed by this new world of education but surprisingly excited for the next few months. I vividly recall my wise Mum saying “I think you’re going to like it there. Wouldn’t it be funny if you ended up working there next year?”- I obviously immediately dismissed the idea. Little did I know exactly how much I was going to learn in the coming year: about myself as a person, an educator and as a leader.

The day I started at Parramatta Marist High School it was like my eyes were opened for the first time to real education and the spark that had dimmed over the past few years was reignited. I suddenly found myself engaged and excited for the future of education and my role as a high school English teacher. The main reason for this dramatic change in my attitude was because I never realised that there was more than one traditional method of educating students. For me, being introduced to this innovative pedagogy of Project-based learning and seeing it successfully applied in a classroom setting cemented my resolve to teach and brought back the passion for education I thought I had lost.

Project-based learning, according to The Buck Institute, is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge. But I think that, in reality, Project-based learning goes far beyond this simple definition. This pedagogy gives students the opportunity to develop real world skills including collaboration and communication but also transforms them into critical thinkers and excellent global citizens who will excel in life outside of school. Unlike many traditional teaching models, Project-based learning encourages students to be creative, innovative and to consider how the content they learn inside the classroom applies to life outside of those school gates. It is quite difficult for educators in the 21st century to facilitate learning and effectively prepare our students for the real world because it is ever changing. It is often recognised that many of the jobs that our students will undertake in the future don’t even exist yet and so it is a constant challenge for educators to develop new ways of delivering content whilst teaching the skills necessary to survive and thrive in the dynamic 21st century society.

In the education community change can sometimes be a polarising subject; with some individuals adopting the “if it’s not broken why fix it?” attitude while others are more willing to develop their practice according to the latest research and the demands and needs of the contemporary classroom. Project-based learning is most certainly not the only model of education that addresses these issues, but my experience over the past few years has proven to me that it is a pedagogy that truly works. The current Principal of Parramatta Marist High School, Br. Patrick Howlett, has the view that, as 21st century educators, we must never become stagnant in our practice- teaching and learning are fluid concepts and we must adapt, continue to learn and never become too comfortable. Project-based learning encourages teachers to continuously re-evaluate their practices in the classroom and strive for more effective ways of teaching and engaging students. I am very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to begin my teaching career with this in mind and I am challenged to improve every day by my students.

As an early career teacher, my perception of Project-based learning has changed over my time at Parramatta Marist High School. While undertaking my practicum I began to understand the theory and process behind this new teaching model and was able to observe some very talented teachers apply this in their various subjects. However, it was not until I began independently teaching my own classes in my first and second years that I fully realised the potential of this method and how it positively develops my students. The students that I teach are able to confidently share their ideas and learning in front of 59 of their peers as well as other teachers and adults, they are able to effectively collaborate with other students to solve difficult problems, they are autonomous and motivated learners who, for the most part, love to learn. These are all statements that may be questioned by teachers because the effect of Project-based learning on students needs to be experienced first hand in order to be believed.

Visiting teachers often ask me, “So what is so special about PBL?” and I respond by telling them that my Year 8 students last year adopted the roles of authors and illustrators and created their own published picture books that explored allegory, reconciliation, current Australian social issues and visual literacy techniques; my Year 9 students are currently completing a HSIE/English integrated project about World War II and they have already been to a lecture by a UNSW Professor via FaceTime in preparation for curating their own museum exhibitions in conjunction with several museums in Melbourne; my Year 10 students have formed their own opinions about modern day prejudice through a study of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee while studying relevant modern day rap artists and analysing various hashtag campaigns on Twitter; and my Year 11 English Studies students have conducted extensive research into careers they would like to pursue after leaving school, have written their resumes and cover letters, discussed interview strategies with a Human Resources executive and participated in a mock interview with our school Principal and Assistant Principal. Project-based learning addresses real world problems and creates an authentic learning environment.

Another important aspect of learning at Parramatta Marist High School is the dynamic learning spaces we use and the effective application of technology in the classroom. As an early career teacher I am extremely fortunate to have these resources and opportunities at my disposal. My classrooms, and even the furniture, are conducive to individual, group-based, workshop and whole class learning. I strive to give my students a variety of learning opportunities through different student-centred activities and these fluid learning spaces lend themselves to deeper student learning and more effective teaching. This, in combination with extensive incorporation of technology, creates a creative, engaging and modern school. It is a clear reality that technology will be a central part of these students’ lives in the future. The fact that the school is an Apple Distinguished School means that as teachers we have access to the latest in computer technology and this is an invaluable means of delivering content, encouraging independent student research and critical thinking and ultimately facilitating holistic learning. The use of other advanced technologies such as laser cutters and 3D printers both excites and enthrals students in subject content and is aligned with the emerging science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educational movement.

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Project-based learning at Parramatta Marist High School involves the integration of several subjects and therefore means that we teach our junior classes in pairs. I think that, particularly as a new teacher, being able to observe and work alongside another teacher really helped me to develop my own teaching style as it exposed me to many different approaches and practices. Although all staff members follow the Project-based learning process and protocols including learning intentions, entry events and group contracts we all have our own way of navigating the classroom and engaging with students. One thing I really value about this pedagogy is that often there is no right or wrong approach: it is all about being innovative and creative and therefore ensuring the best possible learning experience for our students. Personally, my creativity has infinitely increased over my time at the school and I now view new projects as a challenge to consider inventive and authentic formative and summative tasks whilst making learning something that students genuinely enjoy.

Just like my Mum had predicted I have now been a full time staff member at Parramatta Marist High School for two years and my passion for effectively educating and empowering young people continues to grow every day.

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