Andrew Larson, High School Facilitator
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School
Central to the practice of Project-Based Learning is the use of community partners, persons outside of the classroom, to interact with students through the completion of a project. The use of such adult connections has many proven benefits for students, and they are one of the 6 A’s of PBL Project Design. When these connections are leveraged effectively, students demonstrate an elevated level of engagement, commitment to quality work, attendance, and motivation. We talk a lot about thinking beyond the guest speaker; while these interactions are still positive, the best use of community partners serves a larger role in a project.
The most appropriate use of community partners (and my apologies if this is too obvious) is for delivering content, feedback, and skills instruction better than the teacher. With this in mind I would contend that the best community partners are, in fact, experts in their area. Sometimes, a community partner is little more than someone for whom a service is being provided (fundraising, donations, educational material, etc.) While it certainly makes sense to include such persons as adult liaisons, especially when students are expected to report out to them, it may not be enough. Students that are creating marketing materials for The Humane Society (probably need more help from an expert in marketing than they do from The Humane Society.)
Community partners will ideally be utilized at the beginning, middle, and end of a project. When it is not feasible to have a community partner present at the beginning, they should be referenced directly in the launch of a project, along with mention of what kind of help they can provide for students. And critically, it may be more important to utilize certain types of community partners, namely experts, squarely in the middle of the project, because they may be the best equipped to coach and instruct in content or skill development.
We may have a default image of such a community partner that pops into our heads when we first approach a project idea. That person may or may not be wearing a business suit in our mental construct. While in no way would I suggest that a white collar professional is NOT the right person for a project, I want to encourage project designers to think more broadly about who the best experts are for a project. I will discuss some examples below.
Not all experts are professionals.
I have a friend who is hands down the best storyteller that I have ever known. Over the years, around campfires, at wedding receptions and on social media, countless have been held spellbound by his profound and hilarious storytelling style. So when it came time for a storytelling project, he was the best fit. Now, at first, I did what anyone else would do: I thought of authors and publishers. In my small town, there are not so many of them around, and to reach an author with notoriety might be a challenge. My friend Brian Stark was the best community partner I could have ever asked for. He lives far away, but as luck would have it, was home for a visit at the time of our project launch. He delivered the motivation for the project, ensuring students that they all had a story to tell and that it was possible to craft compelling stories from seemingly mundane experiences. This led to the need to know of, “how does one create a story when I have not done anything interesting?” A week later he was back home in Arizona and connected with my students on Google Hangouts to provide a storytelling workshop. He walked students through the elements of plot, and told great stories based on small, seemingly insignificant, events. The fact that he was working with my students virtually was a ripple that added to the “cool factor” of the project.
Retirees are an underutilized resource.
Never underestimate the collective knowledge and wisdom of the retired. While we might often think of connecting with the retired to provide something for them (as with retirement home residents, for example) it is doubly true that they often are thrilled to be asked to come and offer their experience to learners. One of the best community partners that I have ever had was the grandfather of a student who had recently retired after a 40- year career as a machinist. His technical skill, being far superior to my own, was indispensable in a science project involving making hand- made musical instruments. Incidentally, the recipients of the instruments were preschool students; while their role was vital in determining if our instruments could withstand a beating, they were not as much help in the creation of the instruments. My own father, a retired pediatrician, has assisted as an expert in anatomy in numerous fetal pig dissections and in health career- related senior projects. My own grandfather was interviewed for his experience in the Philippines for the creation of a World War II documentary film.
It is also worth pointing out that these individuals often have more flexible schedules than working professionals. Given that we ask a good deal from our partners, even sometimes requesting weekly interactions with students, this is a clear advantage, logistically.
Community partners must like kids and be relatable.
Sometimes, as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers. But I have had plenty of community partners that I have not asked back simply because they did not seem to enjoy the interaction with young people, and, in turn, the students were unengaged by the interaction. They have to be relatable and engaging. The benefits of community partners go beyond their knowledge; if students’ learning experiences are not enhanced by the interaction, then the only benefit of having the community partner is checking the box that says, “Yes, I had a community partner that provided a workshop for students.” Just like with disengaging teachers, students will only learn from engaging individuals that you invite into your classroom.
Another seemingly obvious point is that community partners should not be expected to have the expertise in engagement that you do. When I ask experts to speak to the whole class or larger group, I will always provide them with the talking points that align with our need to knows around project content, process or skills. If they do not have instructional knowledge to go slowly, write down key points for students, or provide adequate wait time for responses, you should do so. I have been known to carry such presentations by providing the kinds of questions that students would normally ask, but will not, because the situation is awkward or because students are baffled by the presentation. Alternatively, you can change tactics so that the community partner might instead work with small groups instead of the whole class.
Several years ago, a friend whose expertise is marketing was asked to provide a workshop on marketing strategies for a propaganda project. Little did we know just how much anxiety she had about speaking to a large group of students (I learned via a social media post the night before!) The happy ending is that she enjoyed the interaction so much that she has been back many times and has invited members of her team to do so as well. This is almost always the case.
As a parting thought, it benefits all of us, and perhaps especially students, to work with a variety of types of people as community partners. It broadens their view of success and fulfillment. It is important for us all to not think only in terms of the business suit when we think about from whom our students can learn about life beyond school.
Andrew Larson is a science facilitator at the Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School and an experienced Magnify Learning workshop facilitator. He manages our regularly updated blog about project based learning with contributions from other PBL facilitators and students. When he’s not doing awesome PBL work, you can find him mountain biking, spending time with his family, or digging around in the garden.