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​Scituate Middle School teachers Beth Keough and Anita

Hall (rear left and right, respectively) are peers on the

school's "Olympian Team." 

In the Community

Graduate School Faculty Aid Middle School through Real-World Approach

Providence, R.I. — By the time they’re in middle school, most students have learned about the Pyramids and Cleopatra. They’ve probably also learned about Tutankhamun (King Tut) and other pharaohs.

But, with the help of two faculty members in the Providence College Graduate School’s master’s of education in literacy program, 65 sixth-graders at Scituate (R.I.) Middle School are tackling modern, real-world issues through a form of teaching aimed at preparing them for the 21st century.

The Project-Based Learning (PBL) assignment for the Scituate students was the idea of Dr. William Oehlkers and Cindy DiDonato, adjunct faculty members in the graduate literacy program.

PBL is an approach to teaching in which students explore problems and issues of today in a cross-curricula manner. Based around a small-group approach, PBL embraces “essential elements” of 21st-century education, including collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication, Oehlkers said.

Oehlkers and DiDonato co-teach Best Practices in Middle/Secondary Grades at PC. In that class, graduate students were asked to coach a colleague in implementing a PBL unit in their own school or a school of their colleague.

As course instructors, Oehlkers said DiDonato’s and his efforts would be best measured by directly working with a team of teachers in the same school. They approached the “Olympian Team” at Scituate Middle School, which decided to incorporate PBL into its existing social studies curriculum.

Learning for the future

For this particular group of students, the issue tackled was “Should the United States continue to provide foreign aid to Egypt?” The unit began with a traditional study of Egypt but moved quickly into the “Arab Spring” events. Students worked in teams, engaged in formal debates, and used technology — such as Skype and a wiki — to further their knowledge of the topic.

“What made this unit so effective is that technology was used as a tool to serve the inquiry process,” DiDonato said.

 “I am delighted with the outcome,” Oehlkers added. “Watching the preliminary debates showed me convincingly that middle-grade students can both research an issue and communicate persuasively.”

Oehlkers said what made this project more worthwhile was not only the willingness of the students to embrace the new style of learning but also the teachers’ full acceptance and belief in the power of PBL.

The “Olympian Team” teaching team consisted of Emily Fox, Anita Hall, Beth Keough, and Christy McCarthy, who explained how much this project resonated with their students.

“Students have thoroughly expressed how much they have enjoyed working on this project. They embraced the challenge of defending a topic they believed in more so than the challenge of studying for a multiple-choice test,” the teachers said in an e-mail.

“More importantly, the conversation of what they were learning did not stop at the end of the day. Students were going home to talk to their parents and informing them about an issue that some parents weren’t aware of.”

In the end, all of the teachers agreed that PBL “is one of the most effective ways of teaching any curriculum.”

“This entire project was a learning process for the students and the teachers. We had our challenges along the way, but the ultimate outcome of this project has been overwhelmingly worthwhile,” they said. “Overall, we are thrilled that we participated in this style of teaching. We would definitely recommend this to other teachers and schools.”

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