Yesterday was a great day. I had the opportunity to spend an entire morning and afternoon surrounded by teachers with a passion for making learning meaningful, memorable and fun. But more than that, I got to watch as these teachers presented their students’ work to a captive audience of other teachers hoping to figure out how to accomplish the same thing.

Now, this wasn’t ordinary work. This was a “we just finished an 8-week student-centered, inquiry-driven, content-connected, real-world applicable, make-the-world-a-little-better” learning experience.


I have had the privilege of working alongside these teachers as they completed their first ever fully-implemented PBL experience. This is no easy task. All six of these teachers implemented a Blue Apple project called State of Sustainability. Through research and discovery, students learned about why sustainability is important. Then, they used their creativity to design a published product that shared their knowledge with the world.

This experience allowed me to get a glimpse into how these projects move the needle on student ownership. Not only that, but it’s a huge motivator of teacher ownership as well. It requires a big commitment from teachers. You need a willingness to try something new, and an openness to being okay with getting messy. When we open ourselves to feeling a bit uncomfortable in our practice, it can go a long way in our personal and professional development.

Get Messy!

Learning is a messy process – and authentic learning immerses us in unique parts of this mess. We as teachers have to let go of control. When we allow our students to become active learners, we have to be okay with things not always playing out as we envisioned. We also have to adapt new teaching practices that we simply may not feel comfortable doing. We will struggle. But we know that without struggle there is rarely progress, so it’s important to embrace the messiness and feel confident that great things will come of it as a result.

Make Mistakes

Mistakes are a powerful “must-have” in the learning process. But, maybe even more powerful in the teaching process. If we model and normalize the ups and the downs of learning with our students, we are teaching a bigger lesson – the importance of self-compassion. As they work through their challenges, we can teach them to think, “This is tough and it’s okay not to know the answer right now.” This becomes especially important as students begin to see themselves as active participants in their learning. They begin to take ownership of that process, and find ways to navigate through it using what they learned by failing forward.

Embrace Change

I think one of the hardest parts of being willing to tackle a new endeavor is that it simply comes with a lot of unknowns. And it undoubtedly comes with a lot of necessary work. What I learned through the work of these teachers is that when change is necessary, we must collaborate and lean on each other to make it happen. It’s difficult to take on new challenges as educators, because we are already asked to do so much. But that’s why it is particularly important to connect with our teacher colleagues. They truly are the only ones who understand the heavy lifting that is required each and every day. There will be a lot of uncertainty, but knowing that help or support is a classroom away makes the process a more enjoyable and rewarding experience.

One of the biggest realizations I had yesterday was that when we pair authentic learning experiences with appropriate learning scaffolds and supports, students really can do work that makes an impact on a larger scale. They truly have the potential to be changemakers. And it’s simply because they have a teacher who creates these opportunities that allow them to soar. In small ways and really big ways, your work matters every single day.

*Image Summertime: Number 9A by Jackson Pollock

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