Lydia Withrow, an eighth-grade English teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in West Virginia, strives to teach in a style that balances learning with fun. She calls it “organized chaos,” and it’s not for the faint of heart: Withrow’s classes typically are chaotic, with students often left to explore their own learning during class time, collaborating with peers and figuring out problems on their own.
At the start of every school year, Withrow polls students on their favorite and least favorite aspects of English class. Students often cite projects as one of their least favorite activities, placing them below tests or paint-by-numbers essay topics. “It surprises me when students say that,” Withrow says, “because there is no failed project. A project that produces inadequate results is still successful.” The learning, Withrow says, is in the attempt. She adds that, by the end of their time in her class, most students learn to love projects as much as she does.
Projects play a big part in Withrow’s class both because they exhibit students’ understanding more deeply than other types of assessments, and also because they jolt students out of their comfort zones. Withrow’s teaching on projects takes many forms. “Giving up control requires me to play different roles,” Withrow says. “I become the ‘hired hand’ in this lesson. Whatever they need me to do or need me to be, I become.”
Though she teaches English, Withrow often draws topics from other disciplines, including science. One project-based lesson on forensics, from an online PBL source called Defined STEM, introduces students to the basics of fingerprinting and DNA analysis. Once the discussion is open, students are allowed to freely explore the topic, choosing their own focus area and developing a project nearly from scratch. “I leave the entire field of study open for exploration,” Withrow explains. “The end result is for them to educate the rest of the class. They must become the teachers.”
Students are almost always up to the challenge. They research, they ask questions, and sometimes even reach out to local law enforcement. Final projects have seen students lift fingerprints with professional supplies, perform bite mark analysis with taffy, describe the rigors of handwriting analysis, and engage the class in basic K9 training, which included identifying scents blindfolded.
Of course, Withrow’s methods are not without their challenges.
In a classroom that’s often very noisy, students can lose focus or become demanding of her time. “Patience is hard to find at times,” she admits, and project-based learning can often require a mindset shift from being the one preparing lessons to watching students prepare their own lessons. “The biggest ‘must’ that you have to have is the willingness to be approachable and the skill to speak one-on-one to each and every student on-demand, nonstop, throughout the process.”
The fact that the learning is so open-ended means the takeaways—and the role she plays in the classroom—are often radically different from year to year, which is fine with Withrow. “When I teach projects, I rarely give them the outcome,” she says. “Determining the final result is part of their process. So during the unit, I become a mentor, scavenger, test subject, and mere observer.”