Stepping Outside of the Box


As much as I love my job, there is so much about education that I don’t like.

Standardized tests, for example. The idea that one size fits all. Forcing students to learn inside a box into which so many of them don’t fit.

The dynamic in my classroom is a perfect example of why standardized anything doesn’t work. I have a high number of students with IEPs for various learning difficulties. I have a high number of students for whom English is a second, or even third language. For many of my students, English is a subject to be feared rather than enjoyed. To many of them, reading feels like awfully hard work.

So, reading passages and bubbling in responses on a standardized test is a difficult, daunting task.

The catch is that they are all such bright, creative, capable kids. But, their test scores don’t show it. Our baseline (standardized) test this year proved that much: the scores weren’t so great.

And, the test was not hard. Or, at least standards-wise it wasn’t. But add in limited English proficiency, or any number of learning difficulties, and that “not hard” standardized test was…well, hard.

Clearly, standardizing everything doesn’t work for my kids. But, we have to teach the standards. How, as teachers, do we unstandardize standardization in order to help all students learn?

This is a question with which I have continually grappled the last couple of years. But, this year, I may have found my answer in Project-Based Learning.

When school started five weeks ago, we started our first PBL unit.  Having never attempted PBL before, I didn’t know what I was in for. I was out of my comfort zone as I gave much of the control to my students, and let them drive the content. They picked their core text for the unit. I used their questions and struggles to choose additional content and in-class activities. There was no reading schedule for this unit. Their “test” at the end didn’t involve pencil and scantron; it involved creativity. I only had a vague conception of where I was going; it was like moving around blindfolded, hoping I didn’t trip over anything too big.

I was so worried about the logistics and the planning and the minute details that I don’t think I truly realized the beauty of PBL until yesterday: It gets rid of the box. We covered Common Core Standards without scantrons. And my non-standardized kids understand them.

Yesterday was “test” day: A student art gallery. You can see some of the results in my photos above. You can see how absolutely, unbelievably amazing my students are. You can see that they are more than standardized anything.

I didn’t realize how much I had invested in this unit until I was driving home yesterday. I thought about some of my students:
An autistic student who created a beautiful painting, then eloquently explained to me how the emotion expressed in the painting was based on the personal connections made to the autistic main character in the book;
A student who has difficulty finishing work within the alloted timeframe, who painstakingly created a jaw-droppingly beautiful painting about loneliness;
An ESL student who was having trouble understanding English emotion words, who found a connection based on a Chinese emotion word without an English equivalent.

I couldn’t help it — I cried.

I’m so proud of these kids. I’m so proud of their willingness to step out of their comfort zones, to be vulnerable, and to forge connections with the literature they read.

And, I’m glad that we finally have a way to be rid of the box.


8 thoughts on “Stepping Outside of the Box

  1. ThomasUNC October 2, 2016 / 12:07 pm

    Congratulations Jenn. When we put the work in their hands, students learn and more importantly care.
    You expressed concerns over students not having a reading schedule. Have you considered having them make a schedule once they select their book?
    PBL requires planning, flexibility, and trust. Sounds like you are a quick study!

    Liked by 2 people

    • jennybee618 October 3, 2016 / 12:31 am

      I had my students create reflections in which I asked them to provide me feedback on the project. Several of them suggested reading schedules; of course, several others said they liked the independence and the self-pacing. So, I have to find a way to strike a balance with that next semester — I’m toying with the idea of creating a blank schedule that they can fill out themselves and checking in with the schedule routinely to hold them a little more accountable for the reading portion. There is definite room for improvement…so it will just be even better next semester 😉


  2. leighahall October 2, 2016 / 2:45 pm

    As a country, we have lost our minds when ti comes to standards and testing. I think we do need to be mindful about what we teach and how we teach it, but we have gotten so rigid with it all and it comes with a terrible price. You cannot standardize people. It won’t work.

    I loved looking at your students’ artwork. I love that you had just a vague idea of what you were doing. I think this is an interesting and importance dance to engage in. You want to have a handle on things just enough to communicate with students but not so much that you confine them. Looks like you did great.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jennybee618 October 3, 2016 / 1:01 am

      It was both terrifying and freeing! I think we are so conditioned as teachers to being over prepared all the time. Any teacher who has been caught with 30 extra minutes at the end of the period has experienced the “what am I going to do with them now” fear. That happened to me my very first class my very first day as a teacher, so I have over-prepared ever since. So, it was liberating to let them dictate what they needed, and to give them free time in which to work. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself because I felt like I should be doing something. But, In their reflections, almost all of them said they really appreciated the class time to think and create. I love that they all interpreted it just a little differently!


  3. griepmk October 2, 2016 / 11:27 pm

    This is so great. I love how you have taken when we learned in our summer classes and applied it to your classroom. One thing I have tried to take notice of this year is that when I “think outside of the box” in my classroom I come home a happier teacher. This is exactly what you did here. As teachers we need to push our students and help them to see education as more than just a test even though it is hard for us to see past that sometimes too. How did your students react to sharing their artwork with others? This is so inspirational. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jennybee618 October 3, 2016 / 1:13 am

      As a whole, I think they were really impressed by each other. The ones who didn’t take it as seriously (because there are always some who don’t) were pretty humbled by the ones that did. Some of them were really nervous about sharing their art. But, I had them prepare talking points so that they would have a way to converse with others about their artwork. We also practiced in class the day before so that they knew how to say what they wanted to say.

      I’m pretty sure they are all excited to tackle our next project starting tomorrow. I hope we can keep it going!


  4. brennalche October 5, 2016 / 5:00 pm

    First off I am in love with your students art work, they are truly amazing. I love how you recognized that the “box” wasn’t working, that your students needed something else. It shows that teaching outside of the box will get amazing results. The students seemed to learn more this way than previously. I found this post very inspirational thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. dezvillalobos October 5, 2016 / 7:11 pm

    Oddly enough I was actually writing a journal today about this same topic; not project based learning, but how we as teachers teach the standards while allowing students to pursue the content in their own way and also their own interests. It seems like you have found something that works! I am concerned about how I would implement something like this into my future classroom, but this just gives me a lot to think about. Thank you for sharing, and the artwork looks fantastic!

    Liked by 1 person

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