Academic Relevance Becomes Top Priority For W.Va. Educators

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 05, 2009 3 min read
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The “three R’s” stand for reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic, of course. Now, West Virginia, the leader in the push to integrate the 21st-century skills of technological literacy, critical thinking, and analytical ability into teaching, has added a fourth: relevance.

That means many of the state’s instructors who are crafting project-based units for the first time are trying to tie them back to local communities by requiring students to present their work before actual decisionmakers. Placing those stakes on the projects encourages students to engage more fully in their learning, proponents of the units say.

“It gets kids civically involved,” said Cindy Allred, a social studies teacher at Scott High School, in Madison. “It’s not just all about the classroom. It’s not in a vacuum anymore.”

The school is located in Boone County, the southern part of West Virginia that has suffered economically as coal production has fallen. So Ms. Allred’s 10th grade classroom will analyze U.S. Census data on the area from four time periods to get a sense of how issues of health, natural resources, immigration, and urbanization affect quality of life and socioeconomic status.

Students will compare the county with other similarly economically challenged areas in the nation that have experienced a revitalization. At the end of the project, they will present a business plan to officials, including the county commissioner, that outlines ways to improve employment and attract migration to the area.

“If the kids have a way they can voice their opinions, they might grow up to be civic leaders themselves,” she said. “Maybe this project will become something they will be involved with after they graduate high school.”

Juanita M. Spinks, a teacher of English, composition, and creative writing at Greenbrier East High School, in Lewisburg, remembers living through the state’s “textbook wars” in the 1970s. Her project-based-learning unit focuses on a related topic: banned books.

To launch her unit, she plans to have her school’s principal visit the classroom and announce that certain often-challenged books, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, or The Prince of Tides, will be banned. Students will need to make a case to members of the school board on why or why not the novels should be retained.

To do so, they will need to locate the district’s policy on how to challenge a book; research news articles on banned books; and complete a literary analysis of one of the novels.

Limitations Imposed

Fears about Internet security—many of the projects contain an online component—have in some cases reduced the ability of the projects to involve stakeholders beyond local communities, some experts lament.

Although many teachers now understand how to get students to present their projects to peers or even occupants of the school building, “I don’t think people are understanding the transformative potential of using 21st-century technology to share beyond the walls of the classroom, beyond the walls of the state, and beyond the walls of the country,” said Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, a Williamsburg, Va.-based digital-learning consultant.

And despite the argument that project-based learning increases relevance, detractors contend that it could shortchange explicit instruction in basic literary and historical content. For instance, a recent op-ed piece in The Boston Globe criticized, for that reason, calls to change Massachusetts’ highly regarded standards and assessments to reflect 21st-century skills.

Ms. Spinks, though, has no plans to throw out the classics. Although students can select their own texts for the banned-books unit, she’ll use The Great Gatsby, alongside immigrant narratives, as the core novel for a unit she’s now developing on the American dream.

Properly monitored, project-based learning also does not mean totally eschewing more direct types of instruction in content or in specific skills, such as how to document sources in a research paper, she said.

“I don’t think you can teach project-based learning without content,” Ms. Spinks said. “Questions do come up, and you may have to reteach something.”

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Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as Academic Relevance Becomes Top Priority For W.Va. Educators


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