Volume 2, Issue B ::: June 1998
Project-Based Learning and the GED
by Anson M. Green
A few years ago, I was hired to teach a General Educational Development (GED) class for public assistance recipients in San Antonio, Texas. I had been teaching Western humanities classes to freshmen and sophomores at Florida State University and had no training in teaching under-prepared adults. Though I could tell that the multilevel nature of the class would make the lecture approach I used in the university unworkable, I was most comfortable with a teacher-centered classroom. I adopted an approach where students silently studied individual subjects of the GED test using commercial GED textbooks, and I provided individual instruction.
This was somewhat successful in moving high-level students through the GED, yet I felt stymied in my efforts to motivate and educate those who required more remediation. Months of diligent work writing essays from GED textbook prompts or studying a science book often left them frustrated. In addition, I felt that most students who left class, with or without their GEDs, still lacked the self-esteem, motivation, and teamwork skills needed to get off public assistance and enter the workforce.
My frustration was relieved when I was introduced to the Project FORWARD life skills curriculum from El Paso Community College. 1 The curriculum stresses reading and writing activities that foster confidence and motivation by encouraging students to work together toward their academic and life goals. My quiet classroom began to give way to an excited, open community of learners. By connecting class activities to my students' world a world where poverty, domestic violence, abuse, and brushes with the law are a commonality I was able to increase their motivation to learn. Though their ages, educational backgrounds, and race varied, their shared experiences became the basis for instruction.
In September, 1996, Project FORWARD invited me to join a cadre of adult education teachers to explore innovative teaching techniques. A major objective was to implement a student project in our class. Though class projects seemed like an exciting idea, I never thought that they could be a viable means of producing the more de ned skills needed to pass GED tests. Our initial meeting with Project FORWARD Director Barbara J. Baird and education consultant Heide Spruck Wrigley was spent de ning the theory and discussing methods of implementation. 2 While the approach seemed exciting, I had reservations about how a project could be tied to the GED competencies and how my students, who are often very test driven,' would react to the idea.
Our First Project
Students in my open-entry class must attend class 25 hours a week to receive their welfare bene ts; thus we provide ve hours of instruction per day, ve days a week. As test-driven' as my students can be, they rarely studied for their GED tests ve hours a day. After some diligent work in the morning, they were usually less productive in the afternoons and turned to reading magazines, chatting, and even sleeping if they had spent a long night up with a sick child. When I undertook this new teaching initiative for Project FORWARD, I was hoping that we could make the afternoons more productive by using them for project time.
Much to my surprise, my class was very excited when I introduced the idea of spending our afternoons working on a project. I think part of my success in turning them from more traditional work lay in the way I introduced the idea. Rather than telling the class we were going to do projects in the afternoon, I asked them if they had any ideas that might improve the class and add some spice to our usually slow afternoons. I brie y mentioned the idea of working on a class project and at the same time passed around a book of student poems compiled by another class. All but two of my 20 students were interested, and ideas on what we could do began to emerge.
That year, my class produced a handbook for students designed to help new learners on public assistance feel more comfortable coming back to school. The idea came from two new students who suggested we make a one-stop resource outlining Aid to Families with Dependent Children / Job Opportunity and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) requirements and containing information on the GED test. 3
The project was a great success for all; students excitedly compiled a useful handbook, and I was pleased by the amount of quality essay writing and editing skills gained in the process. Students edited each others' work and commented that they enjoyed debating and arguing over points of grammar rather than using worksheets to gain the knowledge. Since the handbook was designed for and by JOBS students, the class really began to grow as a community. Students realized that they had common hardships and concerns; new friendships developed, and students enjoyed working together to solve new problems. When we turned from the project to more traditional GED work, I sensed new motivation and excitement in the classroom.
When we nally received the bound copies of our student handbook after a brief summer break, only two students remained in our open-entry open-exit class who had been involved in creating it. The booklets made a strong impression on the new students, and they became eager to "one up" the previous class. I was pleased by the motivation and had high hopes for our next project.
This Year's Project
This year, my class took on a project that moved them from enriching their environment in the classroom to reaching out and becoming actively engaged in their community: a tall order, but one that evolved naturally within the class.
Last September, one student, Jennifer, suggested that our class give younger students advice on the dangers of dropping out of school. Dropping out and the unexpected pregnancy that often preceded it were experiences that most of my students had in common. I saw a perfect opportunity to develop a powerful project. The potential for building self-esteem, teamwork, and communication skills seemed limitless; plus, the project would demand many academic skills. Unfortunately, only about ve of my 16 students seemed really interested. They persisted, however, and, as ideas began to come together, more and more students began to provide input.
On the suggestion of Jennifer's case manager, we found a contact at a local junior high school who was a counselor. The counselor came to hear my students' intentions and left very interested in hosting our presentation. The meeting was a true watershed. My class began to truly see the potential for the project. A counselor, who, when my students had been in high school, might have been a gure to be avoided, was now inviting them to use their experiences as a positive teaching tool for others. Two of my students had dropped out of this same school, making the signi cance of the project even more profound. In class, we spent anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours a day working on the details of the project; the remainder of the class time was spent focused on specific GED work. Some days, when attendance was poor or students felt a pressing need to cram for the GED tests, we did not work on the project at all. We assigned several students to be in charge of particular sections of the project so that when someone was absent or left the class, progress on that section could continue. We kept an informal list of who was working on what and found it to be a successful way to manage the work.
The project seemed to be well underway when we ran into a glitch that brought it to a halt. Before Thanksgiving break we received a phone message confirming that we had approval to do a presentation, but that the topic of pregnancy could not be brought up. I tried to contact the counselor for clarification, but was told she was already out of her office for the break.
Even though my students range in age from their late teens to mid-30s, early pregnancy had been a major contributor to all of their loss of education and opportunity. If they could not candidly advise students on this point, how could they truly feel like they were making a difference? Despondent, we left for Thanksgiving break. The next week our class resumed, and, as I expected, work on the project ceased. My students had lost the impetus to continue.
Fortunately, I reached the counselor the following week and received some encouraging news. The controversy lay in the way we treated the subject of pregnancy. As long as the topic remained in the personal stories of my students, it was acceptable. We were, however, not allowed to direct questions to the students that pertained to premarital sex or contraception. Though it was an added challenge, the stipulation allowed me to involve the class in a very real critical analysis of a subject that is still controversial in the South. After several more weeks of dedicated rehearsal, my class delivered a series of presentations to students at the Anson Jones Middle School. Our presentations, entitled "Something to Think About," focused on the extreme hardships and almost insurmountable obstacles my students faced after dropping out of school. They included a question and answer session on the realities of dropping out of school, a budgeting game that emphasized the impossibility of making it on minimum wage with no diploma, and concluded with personal testimony from my students.
The presentations were a great success. My students were congratulated by counselors, teachers, and, most importantly, the middle school students themselves. Imagine a scene where 70 12 to 14 year old boys, many of whom are heading for gangs, are struck silent by a tale of abuse, alienation, and abandonment told by a young woman only a few years older than themselves. My class had made a signi cant impression on a usually impenetrable group.
Following the presentations, my students were over owing with con dence and actively critiqued their performance, while discussing what they wanted to do next time. They demanded we schedule more presentations at other schools. The few students who had preferred to be backstage participants, facilitating the presentation, suddenly gained the con dence to volunteer their stories.
My class worked like never before toward perfection, probably because they were addressing issues in which they were the experts. They also recognized the need to connect successfully with the students. In a sense, they were creating their own curriculum to teach others. As they wrote their autobiographies, rehearsed them in front of a borrowed video camera, and rewrote them again and again, they developed the critical analysis and writing skills needed for the GED essay test. They were writing about their lives, so they went at it with a passion that a textbook or exam could never inspire.
While creating the budgeting game, students gained solid math skills in truly contextual learning. What started out to be a simple process of adding and subtracting paychecks and debts became a lengthy lesson in nance supplemented with GED textbook work in percentages and decimals. Real-life problem solving entered the class: What exactly was the F.I.C.A. tax, and how do we gure it? What are xed and exible payments? Is cable TV really a necessity? They debated what to include and how to gure costs, guring and re- guring until a consensus was found and the presentation planned.
Besides academic remediation, my students started gaining the self-esteem, motivation, and group interaction skills necessary for success in the workplace. Pat, a mother of four, successfully entered a highly competitive air conditioning and heating program taught by Texas A & M University just days after our presentations. Though very motivated on her own, Pat commented that working on the project helped boost her con dence, making the transition to a completely male vocational classroom less daunting. Now, several months later and still the only woman in the program, Pat has been appointed shop foreman over 28 men in her class. Accomplishments like this are truly tangible examples of the intrinsic qualities gained from project work. Relying solely on the GED to ensure success is not realistic. A strong sense of personal responsibility, a solid self-image, and good interpersonal skills are a vital addition to the credential. By working as a team, my students were able to turn past mistakes into a positive learning experience for themselves and others 4 .
This project was ambitious; however, implementing project-based activities in class need not be so intensive. Students nd it easy to write about their families. Using inexpensive three-ring binders and photographs from home, students can create and compile autobiographies. Writing comes more easily and students gain the marketable skills of editing, laying out, and organizing a text that is their own. Pooling the diversity of the class into a peer-edited cookbook, a collection of student autobiographies, or a letter to the local transit authority to request better bus service to your program can provide a rich forum for building a tight community in the classroom, in addition to working on skills needed for the GED.
The Teacher's Role
Project-based learning allows students to become actively engaged in their learning experience. The instructor takes a back seat while students initiate, facilitate, evaluate, and produce a project that has meaning to them. Instead of creating and directing exercises for passive students, instructors become coaches, facilitators, and sounding boards for student ideas. As a teacher, I constantly listen for issues that really engage the class. This conscious listening helps me identify key issues that are important to my students. I then use these issues as catalysts for student activities or projects. 5 Rather than trying to teach students how to be critical thinkers by providing readings and writing samples on the Louisiana Purchase or cellular mitosis from GED textbooks, I take themes that are important to them and help them create activities that develop strong thinking and language skills. Since the focus is relevant, learning becomes natural, unforced, and engaging. Students work, not simply to pass a test but to create change or add re ned meaning to their lives.
This approach means I had to look at my classroom in a different light. When I began teaching, I saw talking, interaction, and commotion in the class due to outside issues as deviation from learning. I felt safe with teacher-guided activities that produced quiet, individualized learning. Channeling students' energy and concerns into a quiet classroom was often dif cult. Now, I capitalize on this energy and information and use it as raw material for student work. Furthermore, students who once expected straightforward test preparation, but usually dreaded it, nd the open, participatory environment more conducive to learning. Students who had dif culty writing half a page on a regular GED topic were amazed to nd themselves writing four or ve pages of analysis on their own lives for our project. Math work, which often seemed oppressive, was eagerly tackled for our project because it truly seemed relevant.
I feel that much of the success of project-based learning activities rests on the creation of a comfortable, risk-free classroom environment. Students must feel they can discuss their lives, beliefs, and mistakes without fear of criticism or judgment. Only then can the instructor locate real issues of importance to build on in class. For the instructor, the challenges lie not so much in carrying out the actual project but in being able to assume effectively the role of mentor and coach rather than dispenser of solutions. Being actively involved in the salient issues of the class and then teasing out what is evocative and meaningful to the students is crucial. Distilling these into a class project, though, usually takes care of itself. Students are experts in their own reality; the biggest challenge is letting them guide you through it.
1Project FORWARD is an 80-lesson life skills curriculum funded through a special projects grant from the Texas Education Agency. For information on obtaining the curriculum on disk, contact The Texas Center for Adult Literacy and Learning Clearinghouse at 1-(800)-441-7323.
2 See chapter two of Heide Spruck Wrigley and Gloria Guth's Bringing Literacy To Life: Issues and Options in Adult ESL Literacy (San Diego: Dominie Press Inc., 1992) for a thorough account of a variety of classroom approaches that emphasize student participation and meaningful learning. Elsa Roberts Auerbach's Making Meaning, Making Change (McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems Inc., 1992) is also indispensable on these points.
3 This student project, "RULER," accompanied by a "How To" guide, is available through The Texas Center for Adult Literacy and Learning Clearinghouse at 1-(800)-441-7323.
4 The project, "Something to Think About," has been published on the Internet at http://members.aol.com/CulebraMom /jrhigh.html. Print copies are available from The Texas Center for Adult Literacy and Learning Clearinghouse at 1-(800)-441-7323.
5 Auerbach (note 2), page 43. Chapter four of this book, "Ways In: Finding Student Themes," provides some useful tips on identifying issues important to your students.
About the Author
Anson M. Greenis the instructor for the Culebra Road JOBS class for Northside ISD in San Antonio, Texas. For the past two years, he has been a member of the Project FORWARD Master Teacher Initiative. He also teaches English at Texas Lutheran University and Humanities at San Antonio College. E-mail is welcome at: Ansongreen@aol.com.