Students Working Real-World Problems for a Real Audience

I’ve just finished the last section of the draft of my teaching memoir, which describes an incredible Problem-Based Learning experience my students had working for a Chicago law firm. It reminds me of how much I still miss my own problem-solving class, but I’m thrilled that I continue to encounter similar efforts occurring today. In Aurora, Illinois, the city partnered with the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy [IMSA] to offer the “Smart City Youth Design Challenge” for middle and high school students. More than 50 youth will be selected for a one-day challenge at IMSA to design Aurora as the smart city of the future.

The second largest city in Illinois, Aurora has much to offer already. The Fox River runs through a scenic downtown on its way back from recession, and the city is home to the famous and popular art deco Paramount Theater. From a news release from the city: “Poised to become a sandbox for innovation, Aurora is partnering with world-class companies and investing in smart city infrastructure to become a leading-edge urban development hub for the state of Illinois and beyond.”[1]

Working in small groups led by facilitators, participants will create ideas and design for what transportation, education, entertainment, community, energy and other parts of the city could be like in a city of the future. They will then get to pitch their ideas to a real audience at a special event with the city leaders.

“Our youth not only represent our future potential, but they also are a reflection of our present priorities,” said Mayor Richard C. Irvin. “What we do now to empower them can have a direct impact on our city, country and world.”[2]

I believe in learning opportunities like this. I have seen the ideas of students become reality when they are given a chance like this. I only wish these opportunities were commonplace instead of the exception. Every time we challenge our learners to work on a real-world problem for a real audience, we give them a chance to grow their skills and their self-esteem. For 17 semesters, my problem-based learning class did that. I miss it, and I hope that there are many more opportunities like it for students everywhere.


[1] https://kanecountyconnects.com/?s=aurora+challenges+students&submit=Search

[2] https://www.dailyherald.com/submitted/20190919/aurora-offers-programs-to-engage-youths-in-community

The Case for Service Learning

This quotation really resonates for me right now. Last night I submitted a section of my teaching memoir to my writing group about a class I created for my high school that involved service learning. Using the Problem-Based Learning approach developed in medical schools, my students learned to define a problem and the criteria for an effective solution. That guided their research and helped them to generate and evaluate solutions. They worked problems for the school and the larger community. One year my students even worked for a Chicago law firm on a problem in Toledo, Ohio! Each of these problems became a form of service to others as my students struggled to figure out how to provide the answers their “clients” sought.

For so many of my students, this service became transformational, changing their views about themselves and their place in the world. Some redesigned the gardens for a local historic site, some figured out strategies to promote the Post-Prom celebration to keep students safe after prom, and some helped redesign the eighth-grade orientation. One group not only redesigned a vandalized part of a local trail for the county, but they chose to do the hard physical work of rebuilding. And when vandals struck again, long after they’d received credit in class for their work, they repaired it on their own time. Time after time, I watched students discover the satisfaction of doing something helpful for others. For most of them, this was a new experience. This class showed them the enormous payback for their efforts.

I even saw that reaction among my creative writing students. When they wrote children’s books, we took field trips to local grade schools to read them to children. I’ll never forget my hulking football star sitting cross-legged on the floor of a second-grade classroom, reading his story to a rapt audience. Out of that grew a collaboration with classes from a grade school within walking distance. We visited them once, and they returned the favor. My students partnered with children to write children’s stories, which they sent home with the children. Having a real audience for their work fed their sense of satisfaction, but the gratitude of the children and their teachers, expressed in priceless, hand-drawn thank you notes delivered to the class, gave my students special satisfaction.

Dieter F. Uchtodorf wrote, “As we lose ourselves in the service of others, we discover our own lives and our own happiness.” And from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Live’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?” I watched students embrace those concepts because they had experienced them firsthand.

If I ruled the world [a phrase I used to use with my students], I would mandate service learning for all high school students. Only through experience can they discover the satisfaction and happiness that derive from doing for others. And if our young people understood that, wouldn’t that change our society for the better? As generations of graduates entered the world with a desire to help others, wouldn’t we all benefit?

Learning to Sew: Lessons for the Classroom

As I scramble once again to finish garments for a jury deadline, I find myself reminiscing about my first experience sewing clothing for myself. As a woman of a certain age, I hark back to the binary days of applied arts in junior high: shop for the boys and home economics for the girls. All the girls in my seventh-grade home ec class had to make a skirt using the same pattern. Each skirt had the same pleats, set-in waistband, and side zipper. Our only personal touch was the choice of fabric. I loved the blue and green shadow plaid I picked, but the process and the product failed to inspire me. I wore the skirt a few times and put it away, along with any thoughts of making my own clothing.

Always passionate about fashion, however, I often thought of becoming a clothing designer [one of the dozens of careers I fancied in high school], conveniently ignoring my lack of sewing experience and skills. My parents’ housekeeper made my prom dress from a pattern and fabric I chose, and the summer before my wedding to a “starving” graduate student, I designed an entire trousseau, but she put it together. I would design; others would sew.

That summer my mother presented me with a sewing machine.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“You love clothes and you won’t have any money for them for a long time…” she replied.

“How do I use it?” I asked my mother, knowing full well that she didn’t even know how to sew on a button.

“I don’t know. Figure it out!” She smiled.

Figure it out I did. How hard could it be, I asked myself as I bought Impressionist print voiles and linings and made two wonderful shift dresses that I wore for years.

For a long time I remained self-taught, making all my clothing as well as our window coverings and bedspreads. I gave up sewing when I went back to teaching full-time, but one of the great joys of retirement was the freedom to sew without pressure. Sewing workshops and guidance from the wonderful mentors in my wearable art group elevated my skills. I had collections of garments made from vintage Obis in runway shows, and I even developed a collection called “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” whose color palette and use of vines as a motif was one of my favorite efforts. And here I am working on another collection.

I find myself thinking about the factors that changed my desire to learn:

  • A need to know, since sewing my own clothes was the only way I’d be able to have anything new for a long, long time
  • Some early success to encourage me to keep going
  • The chance to personalize my efforts and to use my own creativity
  • Following success and positive feedback, the desire to take it further, to elevate my skills and understanding
  • Excellent teachers/mentors who challenged and supported my efforts

I see these factors as impactful and available in the classroom setting. Relevance exists in our curriculum, and good teachers help students see that and give them a need to know. In my own field of literature, others write about its importance to hand down culture through stories, expand horizons, grow vocabulary, improve writing skills, and teach critical thinking. All these offer value, but I believe the most compelling reason to teach literature is the way it serves as a vehicle for us to explore the human condition and address the “big questions” about life. What does it mean to be a good person? Is man inherently good or evil or both? What are our responsibilities to each other? And on and on… Through our exploration of literature, we can consider these questions and even the answers provided by some of the authors. In those settings, outside of our personal experience, we can develop our own very personal answers.

Other content area teachers can make powerful arguments for relevance in their fields as well. I came to understand grammar and structure in English through my study of French and Latin. I make constant use of math skills whether it’s calculating ingredients or pan sizes or planning yardage for a garment or roughly adding up purchases in my head as I shop to follow my budget. History offers huge lessons that we should be heeding today. If we look at the rise of populist dictators in the past, for example, we have ample warning for what is happening globally and domestically today.  I use my understanding from chemistry to rethink recipes, from botany as I grow orchids and succulents, and from physics as I seek to understand how things work and how to solve problems. The relevance is there – as teachers we need to make it explicit.

We need to provide classroom lessons that allow students to achieve some success before we escalate our expectations of them, scaffolding their lessons. Starting with more accessible demands allows for those early successes, and then teachers can build upon them. Just as I began with a simple shift and have progressed to lined jackets and drafting my own patterns, students need easier tasks to accomplish before they move on.

Well-designed lessons can also encourage creativity and develop opportunities for students to personalize their learning and tap their own creativity. We need to stop thinking about one-size-fits-all instruction and encourage more open-ended experiences. Thanks to my predecessor’s model, my Advanced Placement English students worked in small groups to develop a director’s notebook for King Lear, transposing the play to another time and place, creating costume sketches and scenery, and explaining their choices. What better way to think about the timeless themes in the play and what they mean to us today? Given the chance to be creative in their approach to the play, students developed and articulated a deeper understanding of it.

 As teachers we can and should build ever escalating demands into the curriculum, as long as we’re there to support students if they struggle. Mastery of a give skill should be followed with the next most demanding level of that skill, whether it’s moving from a simple paragraph to an extended essay or narrative, or moving from simple short story analysis to deep reading of longer, more complex literature. We should start with accessible tasks but continually elevate our expectations. We need to be there to help students when they find those tasks increasingly challenging.

This kind of teaching requires a more constructivist classroom, a far cry from the bell-to-bell talking at students that I was trained to do. Problem-based learning helped me make that shift, and the students and I both benefited. But those factors can be embedded even in a traditional classroom approach if we put students’ needs first.

So I’ll return to my sewing machine and my looming jury deadline, grateful that I was able to make that shift before I retired, hopeful that teachers and students today will continue to make shifts like it, too.