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Project-based learning topic of workshop for city teachers
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Educators from Martinsville schools work on their presentation about their vision of the future of Martinsville during a week-long professional development session at Martinsville Middle School. Teachers from the four K-12 city schools are learning how to implement more project-based learning lessons like those used at the successful High Tech High in San Diego. (Contributed photo)

Monday, July 15, 2013

What makes Martinsville unique, and where will it be in 20 years?

More than 40 Martinsville School System educators were asked to explore those questions and do a presentation on their findings — all within a few hours — last week. The exercise was held during the first day of a weeklong workshop on project-based learning (PBL), which the school division plans to implement at all grade levels this fall.

The purpose of the assignment was to give a “slice” or glimpse of how project-based learning works. Actual classroom projects will be more involved and take longer.

PBL involves such things as exploring a real-life problem, issue or topic; working in groups; thinking critically; thinking creatively; problem solving; communicating verbally, writing and making presentations.

If it sounds like the world of

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work, that’s the point.

“The old-school model of passively learning facts and reciting them out of context is no longer sufficient to prepare students to survive in today’s world,” according to the educational website Edutopia. “Solving highly complex problems requires that students have both fundamental skills (reading, writing, and math) and 21st century skills (teamwork, problem solving, research gathering, time management, information synthesizing, utilizing high-tech tools). With this combination of skills, students become directors and managers of their learning process, guided and mentored by a skilled teacher.”

To illustrate how project-based learning works, educators at the workshop were given two to three hours to discuss, research and develop a presentation on “What makes Martinsville unique, and where will it be in 20 years?”

They broke into groups, then discussed possible answers, what to focus on, whom to interview, what data and artifacts to collect, and how to put it all together. After field work, they reassembled to put their presentations together. Workshop leaders Laura McBain of San Diego’s High Tech High and educational consultant Erika Jordan offered guidance as needed.

One group presented a paper “quilt” telling how the resilient people of this area recovered from the decline of tobacco, are working to recover from the decline in the textile and furniture industries and that education is key. Images of landmarks were on the quilt; group members gave narrations; and one participant did a humorous interpretive dance.

Another group acted out a discussion between “local people” who had different viewpoints on what this area has to offer and what the future may hold. They wove in a variety of facts about attractions, higher education and economic development efforts.

One group did a PowerPoint presentation on Harvest Foundation initiatives to help improve the area. It focused on the ongoing construction of New College Institute’s roughly 50,000-square-foot building that will be home to the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, as well as educational programs for advanced manufacturing and health care technology, and offices and public event space.

A Prezi (web-based presentation) focusing on higher education in this area was presented by one group. High school dual enrollment and industrial certifications, the renovation at Martinsville High School and the shop local effort also were mentioned during the presentation and critique.

One group showed a video with educational, arts, cultural, entertainment, sports and natural attractions, including the PART bus and Dick and Willie Trail.

In interviews, several workshop participants were positive about project-based learning. Anne Ryan, special education teacher at Martinsville Middle School, said PBL will create “more independent learners, better problem solvers, team workers ... better-educated students and better users of education.”

Edutopia said, “Schools where PBL is practiced find a decline in absenteeism, an increase in cooperative learning skills and improvement in student achievement. When technology is used to promote critical thinking and communication, these benefits are enhanced.”

McBain said High Tech High graduates well exceed national averages for such things as the percentage of students who go to college, percentage of students who graduate from college and students going into science, technology, engineering and math.

Angilee Downing, assistant superintendent for instruction for the Martinsville Schools, said PBL has been used on a limited basis the last two years in the school division by teachers who volunteered, and this year all teachers will have their students do at least one project each semester, with a public demonstration of projects in the fall and spring.

She has seen the excitement and passion of students at High Tech High for PBL, she said, and she wants Martinsville students to have that. “Life is more than a multiple-choice question,” she added.


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