We’ve just had an absorbing, inspiring week-end with teachers from Hilltop Rd Public School, in Sydney. Being in a stunning location, overlooking the Blue Mountains, probably helped, but seeing teachers working on a project reminded me of a frequently overlooked reason to do project-based learning: its capacity to emotionally engage.
We always ask our participants to complete a part of a project during our training events, because they gain a fresh perspective on how to design projects that engage our intellects, our hands – and our hearts. People do the intellects and hands thing quite well, but educators often shy away from themes that stir up deep emotions in our students. It’s as if we we’re afraid of lifting the lid on their feelings, for fear of losing control of the learning process. In fact, I believe it’s the reverse. Learning sticks to the laughter and the tears we share when it’s bound by an emotional glue. It’s what puts the personal into personalised learning, and we shouldn’t fear it.
By simply asking educators to write about their childhood memories of ‘comfort food’, we regularly see people deeply moved – as we saw this Sunday on a beautiful late autumn morning – when they chronicled their familial links. Sisters who nursed them through painful adolescence. Mothers who worked long hours to get them through college. Fathers who are no longer around.
Last week, we heard from a teacher from the Gold Coast who was so moved by her tale of her Italian grandparents (Nonno and Nonna) that she had to ask someone to read it on her behalf. This snippet describes her Grandparent’s reunion, after separate emigrations, and an enforced 3 year separation:
“Three years later, having only spoken to him 2 or 3 times, Nonna left her family and travelled halfway across the world to a place where they spoke not her language, listened not to her needs and would rather have not accepted her. She left one of the worst mid-European winters behind and arrived on a sweltering, hot Australia Day. In the three months it took her to leave everything she knew behind, she nearly lost the lives of both her children, but she survived.
When she finally made it to Brisbane, she looked out across a sea of faces to find the one familiar face she needed. She saw a man who looked familiar, but it wasn’t. No. This man had a definite line across his forehead, burned in by a scorching Queensland sun. He approached her and smiled, but still she didn’t see the familiar man she knew. He gently touched her hand. No, this wasn’t her husband. The man who risked it all. Her husband’s hands were warm and soft and smooth. These hands that met hers were roughened, dark and coarse. “You’re not my husband,” she told him. But it was. My Nonno had tears streaming down his face. “You’re home now,” he said.”
As with the stories that were shared in the Blue Mountains, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. This teacher hadn’t just tapped a well of emotion – she’d discovered her potential to do what Ron Berger labels ‘beautiful work’.
And so can our students, if we give them opportunities to create authentic stories, pictures and songs that really matter to them .