In this article, Angela Jarman shares her reflection on the purpose and meaning of Public Events in PBL Methodology and how to change the mindset when one values them.
Real PBL Projects and Events
It’s only natural that we adults look at school today through the lens of our own experience. This not only colors how we see certain subjects but it also presets our expectations about rules, routines and traditions.
So how do most adults see school events?
For most people, school events were formal affairs guided by strict protocol where only the students with the highest average or the brightest talents participated on stage as stars. Meanwhile, the student body was measured by how well they conformed. Was everyone in perfect uniform? Did they stand still during the anthem? Were they disciplined throughout the speeches? These public events were the cherry on top of the sundae of the school year, and it was expected that everything went smoothly. In the words of Buck Institute, these were “dessert” projects – designed to please the public, not teach the student.
Public Events as a Surprise
For parents whose school history included events like these, Tree of Life public events must come as a big surprise. Our events are different every time. Some go smoothly, some don’t. Some show a surprising level of showmanship, with parents literally leaving the event saying, “I didn’t know my child could do that!” Others show very little showmanship, prompting one to wonder privately: “Why was that class allowed to present?”
Trying is part of Learning
Tree of Life events have a different purpose, focused more on the learning process than the actual results. Our education system is based on the experience of trying, failing and trying again until success is met, where we ask students to test their limits, not stay in the shallow end of their known pool of talent. One major limit people have is taking personal risks in public settings.
“I look at how my students get on stage and face that fear of speaking up, and ask myself, where would I have been if my school had allowed me to do this as a student?” Jennifer Anglin muses. “These are fears I had to overcome as an adult, many times losing opportunities because of this reluctance to take risks.”
Jennifer Anglin is our MUN coach and has taken students who used to fear speaking in public in English or Spanish to international events in New York and Panama, where her small team has competed against the biggest private schools in their countries. She has guided her team to embrace risks, and to see setbacks as an opportunity to improve.
Real World experiences in Education
This is the stage on which Tree of Life places the public event. They are an essential part of the learning process. When students present to a general or expert public, they are testing the depth of their knowledge. They are meeting surprise questions that their teacher might not have asked. They are seeing their understanding goals in a context at least one step removed from the classroom. Their new knowledge is plugging into the ‘real world’ and they get to see whether it is relevant and appreciated, or not.
Learning the Art of Conversation
For example, in my “Forgotten Faces” exhibit where my history students presented the stories, faces and historical context of different victims and survivors of the Holocaust, they discovered something important to their future as successful communicators. They learned that the visual grabbed more attention than the written word. They also learned that the sheer quantity of facts – dates, names, events – made their public nervous about asking questions. They wanted to tell their stories but felt unsure how to make their historical knowledge interesting. We learned as a group that we need to make history more accessible by turning these intimidating dates, names and events into short stories that amaze, inspire and impress. Essentially, we learned that we are still learning the art of conversation.
Performing again after Pandemia
Another example might be the recent Show de Especialidades Artísticas (SEA). The lessons learned from public presentations are numerous, but I’ll focus on just one act: the JR2 Music Elective Presentation. Teens who lost out on two years of public events due to the pandemic were challenged to present a song onstage in front of a live audience. At first reluctant, then inspired, JR2 students decided they didn’t want to ‘just’ sing – they wanted to play as part of a band. They wanted to learn to play the guitar and perform, in just 16 weeks, with just 40 minutes a week to play together.
Michael didn’t protest: “But more than half of you have never played a guitar before!”
They wanted to learn to play the guitar and perform, in just 16 weeks, with just 40 minutes a week to play together.
Nor did the lack of guitars stop the group. He borrowed the instruments necessary, or had students share, and began a basic course on chording, strumming and rhythm. Soon, some students were strumming during recess, or before and after school. Kids who had never considered themselves musically inclined were stopping by the music class to hang out. Some were worrying aloud about their peers who weren’t taking the coming event seriously enough, and exercising personal leadership, chiding their classmates to ‘try harder.’ In the last class before the event, I stopped in to listen, and was delighted to see the concentration on their faces as they belted out the number. Gone was the embarrassment, but there were still plenty of nerves. How would this work ‘live’? I wasn’t sure.
On the actual day of the event, all but one student showed up on time. Not everyone recalled the dress code, but everyone still trooped on stage. For many, this was the first public performance in more than 3 years, and the audience was packed. There were sweaty palms and nervous fingers, but they performed the song. Lesson #1: Finish what you start.
Four students who had never ever made a public appearance in this way before sang with microphones. Lesson #2: Everyone can find a task and be part of the team.
While there were points to polish throughout the performance, the reflection it permitted is a vital part of the learning experience. Lesson #3: It’s not as bad as we fear. They didn’t die from a heart attack. Nor did the stage open up mid-show and swallow them whole. Actually, it was fun to do something as a group.These students will go on to perform in grades 9, 10 and 11 with more aplomb, more confidence. They will know why their teachers request individual practice (Lesson #4), why dress code and stage etiquette is important (Lessons #5 and 6). But most importantly, they will know they have a voice and can use it (Lesson #7).
“Was it worth it?” I asked a very reserved teen who refused to be named.
“Kinda. It wasn’t that bad.”
“Would you do it again?”
Mastering our Fear of Facing the Unknown Public
When it comes to mastering our fear of facing the unknown public, Tree of Life teachers will take that ‘Why not’, and run with it! Since events at Tree of Life are part of the learning process, each experience builds on the last. We will always have positives and negatives, at every level, throughout their education. No matter how these pluses and minuses balance out, if we keep working inside a growth mindset, we will always come out winners as we reflect on the experience and learn what we need to improve. As Carol Dweck puts it in this helpful explanation on mindsets, “it’s important to acknowledge effort, but praise improvement.”
And for parents who participate as our generous public audience, we strive to showcase this improvement as students grow with new challenges that stretch their limits.
By Angela Jarman
Photographs by Leandro Natale