My Journey with Afterschool and Project-Based Learning

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By: Aimee Scott, Youth Services Manager

John Boner Neighborhood Center

Indianapolis, IN

@JBNCenters

I started my journey in out-of-school time (OST) learning in January 2011 when I started working at the John Boner Neighborhood Centers (JBNC), but it wasn’t initially where I thought I would end up. I graduated two years earlier from Indiana University in 2009 with a Bachelor’s of Science in elementary education. I always knew I wanted to teach and work with students. At the time, I thought that meant I wanted to become a classroom teacher in the public school system. That was really all I knew. 

After graduation, I moved home and tried to do that. I would like to say the economy was not great and that 2010-2012 was a hard time to find a teaching job. That may be true, but schools were hiring. I know they were because I went to (quite) a few interviews. I think I was just terrible at interviews. If you are reading this and you teach college students who want to be teachers, please take note! I never learned anything about how to interview for a teaching job, and this put me at a huge disadvantage. I realized this and quickly sought out resources and learned a few things about interviewing. I also received some advice from a coworker who told me to share my story in interviews. If you’re seeking employment then make sure to share your story when you interview. My very next interview was at JBNC. I shared my story in that interview and was offered my first position in education. I would become the Site Coordinator of what was then The Boner Center Afterschool Program at Brookside Elementary School. 

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On my first day at Brookside, I remember observing a youth worker attempting to get students to line up,  and they were struggling. Out of instinct, I stood up and did a 10 second countdown with a prompt to be in line by the end. I am not sure if it was because I was new or loud or just because most students are conditioned to respond to these types of attention getters, but they did. They were in line and silent within 7 seconds and the youth worker was too. I think she was confused, surprised and in awe all at once. From this moment forward, I realized that I could help this program. 

I started implementing changes right away.  I started sharing my knowledge of youth development, behavior and classroom management with the youth workers. We created Academic Centers for students to use when they didn’t have homework. I created lesson plans for staff to implement during Academic Enrichment time. I loved it, and I was good at it. There were challenges, of course, big challenges. I struggled to coach and supervise staff. I was sometimes too hard on students. I was easily frustrated when they didn’t want to participate in the activities I created. I learned from my mistakes and sought resources to continue to improve, and together we developed a quality academic afterschool program. 

I was offered a full-time position in April and began planning Summer Camp. Summer Camp quickly became my most favorite place in the world. It was like afterschool, but we were with the youth all day, every day, and we had so much more time to have fun! My favorite thing about summer camp is watching youth develop a sense of self and the ability to be comfortable with who they are. Of course, I love a good dance party. I love playing capture the flag and I LOVE to emcee a “Who can be the best Taylor Swift” skit competition, but those activities are what lead to the growth. At camp, we are like family. And if you have a family of 65 and know those people have seen you use a tennis racket as a microphone as you sing your heart out to Beyoncé all for bragging rights, you know you are loved for who you are. 

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I have been working in OST programs at JBNC for 8 years and believe that we have some of the best programs in the state. We focus on quality improvement and hire and develop the best youth workers so we can deliver high quality programming. Every year we learn something and every year we grow and get better. We ask various stakeholders to observe and offer genuine feedback and with that we implement changes. We stay relevant and work to respond to the needs of our youth and our community. We have strong relationships with our schools and partners. We align with the school day through academic standards and pacing guides. We have strong relationships with our students and their families. Our youth engage in activities that allow them to find their strengths and develop new skills. We are doing great work. Many of our youth show improvement in grades and test scores and even attendance and that is great, but I just knew we could do more. However, I did not think doing more meant taking on project-based learning. Honestly, I thought project-based learning or PBL was the next buzz word in the afterschool world. I joined various conversations and tried to keep an open mind, but I just knew PBL was a fad that would pass, and I wasn’t that interested. I was seeking a long-term solution and PBL was not it. 

In the Fall of 2018, I was asked to assist Magnify Learning and their Director of Professional Development, Diane Clancy, in teaching PBL to a group of mainly high school students who served as afterschool youth workers and would be implementing PBL in their programs. Magnify Learning, a nonprofit that provides project-based professional development, was just starting to bring project-based learning training to afterschool programs and needed someone to refine the training so that it was applicable to OST. I wasn’t convinced that this was important to OST overall, but I was, of course, willing to help even if it was just for this one program.

That fall I went to the Bedford Boys and Girls Club to assist Diane, and I attended my first PBL workshop. Initially at the training in Bedford, I thought that the protocols they were using during the workshop were something that would change our culture. Each protocol offered a quality way for students and staff to share ideas, offer feedback and reflect. I thought to myself, “This (using protocols) is what could change our programs.” 

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Giving and receiving feedback is something that I see people of all ages struggle with and there are protocols that not only teach the skills to do this, but provide opportunities to see the value in doing so. I immediately implemented some PBL protocols at my own programs and was committed to learning more. When I returned to work, we were having our annual summer camp reflection brunch. I was excited to introduce “I Likes” and “I Wonders” to the team, which is a process for giving feedback called Critical Friends. This language gave us the opportunity to provide feedback in a constructive and non-threatening way and everyone loved it. This has become our common language. We use “I Likes” and “ I Wonders” in everyday conversation. Even just today, I noticed that our leadership team is even using this language! 

As I learned more, I realized that the entire PBL framework was what could change our programs, not just the protocols. Over time I started to recognize and understand that project-based learning was something good, not just a fad. PBL offers a framework for implementing all of the awesome stuff we are already doing. I saw that the PBL protocols they were using in the workshop could provide opportunities for students (and staff) to get and receive feedback as well as practice and build skills necessary to succeed in the workforce, in school and also in life outside of school.

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I believe that PBL will change our programs and OST programs everywhere. It offers a way to take all of the quality work we are already doing and organize it into a system that makes sense, allows for student voice, improves the connection to the school day and perhaps my favorite benefit, it offers a framework that allows students (and staff) to learn in an authentic way that will translate to having the skills and abilities necessary to participate in the 21st century workforce. The framework, which you can learn more about in the Magnify Learning PBL Jumpstart, can be as simple or as in depth as you like or need according to your project or program needs. It allows us to organize our enrichment activities so that we are providing a common language and offering consistent opportunities for youth voice. This leads to increased engagement and the protocols allow students to engage in conversations and activities that promote problem solving and communication skills. 

I have supervised young people since I started this work. In my experience, young people seem to fear feedback and are conditioned to nod and agree with adults. To this day, when I ask a young person to talk (or any person really), they start showing signs of discomfort. Sure, this is normal for most people, but this is after I have stated from the beginning and continuously that we are a team and want to provide feedback so that individuals can grow and be able to lead our youth to the very best of their ability. This is typically after weeks of building relationships with and working together. Still, they are uncomfortable knowing that they are about to receive feedback. Without fail, they put their head down. I can work to reassure them that everything is okay and I am there to help and sometimes that might mean they lift their head a bit. But they don’t hear what I say. They can barely share their own thoughts and opinions. They nod. They agree. Sometimes they respond almost robotically, like they are reading a textbook and paraphrasing something that I said. Over time, we develop the ability to communicate. They start to trust me and so they start to receive the feedback. Sometimes they even give me feedback! The coolest thing that I have seen so far in my PBL journey is young people giving and receiving feedback authentically. 

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My wish and goal is that every young person and the adults they work with could experience PBL and develop the skills and abilities related to communicating effectively, understanding strengths and being open to and grateful for honest feedback. I imagine what it would be like if our entire staff had these skills and abilities. I truly believe we would all work better as a team and therefore make a greater impact on the neighbors and families we serve. So I took the first step and decided to pilot PBL this past summer and have continued the work in afterschool.  We continue to learn from our experiences, and I look forward to sharing our most memorable stories and the wins and fails that create them as we continue to dive into this work in afterschool!


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Aimee Scott is the Youth Services Manager at the John Boner Neighborhood Centers where she oversees youth programming including five afterschool and three summer camp programs for youth K-12. Aimee is working with Magnify Learning as their Director of Afterschool to bring PBL to other afterschool programs across the state. When Aimee is not working to improve quality and access to afterschool programs, she enjoys playing with her two pups and spending time with friends and family.


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