The How’s and Why’s of PBL: Part Three of My Visit to Southport Elementary

Post Tour Interview 

After our wonderful tour through the halls and classrooms of Southport Elementary, we stopped to chat and ask questions that had popped up. If you missed my first two post, click on this link: to get to my blog home page! I compiled a list of questions that my classmate, Emma, and I asked about PBL and about the school and school district in general. 

1. Do you pull students from classes? (High performing, low performing, special ed, ELA etc)

Emma and I were curious about how they handled having students of varying abilities in school that is highly focused on teamwork. Witkemper explained their policies for helping struggling students and for making sure that high-performing students are challenged enough. She outlined their process for making sure that students are getting the appropriate help that they need. At the beginning of the school year, all of the students take a diagnostic test to assess their overall abilities. Those that score in the “high risk” level are given another assessment to narrow down what the problem might be. For example, if a student does poorly on the reading section, Witkemper wants to know what part of reading this particular student struggles with. Do they struggle with reading comprehension or are they having a hard time with grammar and punctuation? Knowing the root cause of a student’s problem helps the administration know how to best help. One of their main rules prevents students from being pulled out of core class time. This allows them to stay in the classroom with their peers often with the help of a classroom aid. Witkemper also explains that they try to pull students out of class only as long as it takes to close the gap between them and the other students. Once that gap is closed, they remain in the classroom with everyone. 

She also explained that the mentor teacher from each great level has been trained on differentiated learning, so all of the higher performing students are grouped into one class but stay with everyone. These students are not pulled out for a separate class. Instead, the teachers give different problems to different students; however, all of the students are welcome to work together. That way, higher performing students can help their classmates with problems and vice versa. Peer learning allows students to explain concepts in different ways that their friends and classmates might understand better. Knowing that they try their hardest to keep students together with their peers assures me that the interests of the students are always a top priority. 

2. How have your demographics changed in the last 10 years?

Over the last ten years or so, the demographics in Perry Township have rapidly changed. Spencer told us about the influx of Burmese refugees that moved into the area in the last ten years. Southport immediately received tons of new students from a totally different country and culture. We then ask how they supported these students many of whom are ELA. Witkemper explained their struggle with the language barrier between the new students and their parents. Spencer and Witkemper worked with the district to create a better system for having translators on hand. The entire district now has a procedure for calling and finding translators for any number of languages to keep parents in the loop. 

Changing demographics has also affected the number of ELA students in the classrooms. The administration has taken that in stride and makes sure that these new students feel as included in day-to-day classroom activities as possible. 

3. How do your teachers feel about the PBL curriculum? What kind of training/support do they receive? 

Emma and I wondered how the teachers felt about the change, especially those who had less experience. Spencer told us about the teachers’ dedication to change and the importance of their mentor teachers. We talked about how changing their teaching style in the midst of their careers must be a scary change. Many teachers who start PBL in their classrooms do it on their own just like Spencer did; he knows the feeling and worked to create an environment that supports his teachers and his students. The implementation of the cluster classroom with the Master Teachers provided all of the teachers with a space for learning and support. The administration and Master teachers meet individually once a week to check in and see what they might need for the week ahead. Having that sanctuary helps to keep the teachers confident in class.   

4. What are your homework policies like?

In doing research on educational practices and policies, I have read a couple of sources that talk about the declining importance of homework in school. Alfie Kohn’s book “Down With Homework!” delves into the difference between the abstract idea of homework accepted by many schools and the actually assignments and benefits that come with them. I asked Spencer what he thought about assigning homework; I wondered if he thought homework still had a place in PBL curriculum. Spencer felt homework generally was not necessary. The Southport faculty and staff do a wonderful job using the long school day to fit in all of the material. Homework tends to become busy work for the students and cuts into family and play time. Most states, including Indiana, have required amounts of homework (15-30 minutes a night), so it’s difficult to completely eliminate homework; however, because Southport is a fully PBL school, much of the work that students complete at home pertains to their project. This way, the students feel their work has purpose, and they are much more likely to complete the task and complete it well. Using this technique also holds the students responsible for their work not out of fear of punishment but to make sure they are helping their classmates as best they can. After this tour, I have a better understanding of how PBL helps change not only singular classrooms but also the culture of teaching throughout the entire building. 

5. How do your parents feel about the PBL structure, especially those who were parents at the school before PBL was implemented?

Now that the entire building uses PBL, I wondered what parents thought about the change and if Spencer or Witkemper received an influx of questions or concerns. At the beginning of my research, I read Sally Butzin’s book Creating Joyful Classrooms, and she included a section about the struggles of changing the structure of a school in the eyes of the rest of the community. Spencer said that they had no real changes in their correspondence with parents. Even those who had been there before Southport was a PBL school did not feel any concerns with the change. Witkemper and Spencer both cited their efforts to keep in constant communication with their parents and the community as the main reason the change went so well. Spencer writes a weekly newsletter for all of the parents and for the community to share what the students have been up to and any important news. This keeps the parents in the loop, and helps to keep their inboxes free of repetitive questions. They also have a strong social media presence that includes the community in their projects and what it’s like to be a PBL school. They have a Facebook and a Twitter account! One other app the school uses allows parents, teachers and administrators to communicate more efficiently. Teachers have the ability to create a page for their classroom to post announcements and upcoming events for their parents to see. Using social media and other platforms besides just beginning of the year letters helps the parents feel more connected to the school. 

Visiting Southport Elementary provided Emma and I with a wealth of experience in the world of PBL. So far into our projects, we have only been reading about all of the joys and struggles of using PBL. Being able to spend time with teachers and administrators who work to uphold the standards of PBL every day showed us how PBL is not only possible but also effective. Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to visit Southport again before my project ends. It truly is a special place.

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