Meet the BIE National Faculty: James Fester

Up to this point in my teaching career I have been a classroom teacher at the Middle School level primarily in the area of Social Studies. But thanks in large part to my work with BIE, I have recently transitioned out of the classroom and have begun working as a district-wide coach in the areas of both technology integration and Project Based Learning.

In addition to my coaching role during the school year and my work with BIE, I’m also a Google Certified Trainer and Educator who presents across the west at technology conferences on a number of topics, including how to use technology to support a PBL classroom. I also work for Grand Classroom, a student travel company that provides students with authentic, experiential learning excursions in our nation’s national parks. 

A Convincing Start in PBL
My PBL journey began eight years ago when my district invited BIE to come out and take all of our teachers through the PBL 101 workshop. At that point in my career I would have to admit that I was extremely skeptical of professional development of any kind. However, by the end of the workshop I had created what I thought was a fairly engaging project focusing on the U.S. Electoral College and despite the fact that I had no idea what to expect, I decided to go ahead and deploy it since I and my colleagues had put so much work into it over the course of the 101.

What happened was far beyond anything I could have anticipated. Students of all learning levels were simultaneous engaged throughout the project, even those who previously showed no interest in history as a subject. The quality of work and time they put into their projects went outside the scope of the classroom, with students continuing to work at home without any prodding from me. The students were so proud of what they’d done and so anxious to share it beyond the walls of our classroom that our presentation night exceeded the fire code for our library by about 20 people.

It was at this point I began to think that maybe there was something to this Project Based Learning thing after all. This feeling was confirmed the next morning when the first thing to come out of my students mouth when they arrived in class was, “So when can we do that again?” It is for this reason that I am a firm believer in the transformative power and promise of PBL. I love how it encouraged student ownership of work, how it simultaneously fosters a culture of both independence and collaboration, and although there may not be such a thing as a “silver bullet” in the world of education, I think this is the closest to one we may ever get.    

A Favorite Project
One of my favorite projects is a social studies project where students design a monument for an unknown or underrepresented group of people from our history curriculum. It has been done with great success in both 7th grade world and 8th grade U.S. history. The driving question for the project is, “How do monuments and memorials teach us about history?”

Students learn about monuments and how they are designed from both research and from professionals like park rangers and interpreters who Skype in to answer students-generated questions. They then design their own, based on the current unit of study, using whatever tools they want to create visual aides they will later use when they present their projects. Students have used everything from Lego bricks to clay to computer programs when designing models of their monuments. They then use these as part of a presentation where they propose their idea to a panel of adults who ask probing questions to see what they students learned. The project is always a big success and really allows students to showcase their creativity and artistic ability in a way few projects do.  

A “Fail Forward” Moment
Even with all the preparation, supplies, and planning in the world sometimes projects just go wrong. I remember a recent project I did in which students selected an issue that affected our home county of Marin, then developed a project which explored the connection between this issue and what we had studied in history that year. The students were engaged, the subject matter was both standards-based and authentic, and everything was headed towards success.

Then, some of the students decided they wanted to create surveys in order to gather data on specific issues, which at first seemed totally fine, but soon it took an unintended twist. It went from two surveys to six, then to twelve, and so on until we were awash in surveys, many of which had underdeveloped questions that were too confusing to answer. This was an unanticipated issue, which resulted in a teachable moment where we paused the project to discuss how to write questions that get you the information you want. Although it took extra time, it was a great learning opportunity for everyone, including myself, and it reminded me that sometimes the best learning opportunities come from mistakes and failures, something we should strive to teach all out students. 

My Work Now
I decided to become a teacher when I was in the 6th grade, and fully expected to spend my entire career in a classroom teaching students. I rarely had opportunities to reflect on my own teaching or to learn from the work of others. My work with BIE has allowed me to redefine what it means to be a teacher, turning it from something that meant working directly with my students to also encompassing my work with teachers to support their students. I also get to meet and grow with educators from across the country by seeing what they are doing and how they implement Project Based Learning in their own schools.

A famous alpine climber once said, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” Project Based Learning has made me feel similarly about the students and teachers that I work with. There is no such thing as a class where PBL won’t work or a teacher who is too hopeless to do it right. There are just instructional approaches and teaching methodologies that need to be revised and retried so that we can achieve the success that we want for ourselves and our students.   

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