Project IDEA Corner: World Versus Word
World versus word - the difference is only a letter but that letter can stand for a lifetime. The world - we see, we live, we love, we embrace - it teaches us volumes. The word - its power is phenomenal - it can create opportunities or build barriers depending on the way it is used. Paulo Freire (1988) stated that it is man's ability to use his own word, to name the world (p. 13). Within this word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed - even in part - the other immediately suffers (p. 75).
By accepting the invitation to join Project IDEA (the Institute for the Development of Educators of Adults), I discovered a way to interact with various educators around the state of Texas. My cohort explored just-in-time literature through discussions conducted in an extremely user-friendly way that culminated with insight, commitment and passion about the experience of teaching/facilitating on a level that inspired, increased and ignited reason.
As part of the nine-month program, I facilitated a project-based learning activity with my class, used the action learning cycle and reflected whilst developing professionally. The action research enveloped the learners in a cycle that progressed from action to reflection to learning to planning and back to action.
MY PROJECT PARTICIPANTS
We were trained on action research and project-based learning at the October IDEA Teacher Action Research Institute I, in San Antonio, Texas. I returned home "ready and willing" to facilitate an IDEA student project with a classroom of learners. The only problem was . . . "Which classroom of learners?"
My GED/ASE mathematics class was focused, attentive, on-track and consumed with passing the test by December's end, so I had to cast my glance elsewhere to find a group to develop the IDEA project. One of my colleagues offered me her English Second Language (ESL) class. I knew that her group was the answer to my question, so I agreed and began working with a 75% beginning, 15% intermediate and 10% advanced English Language Civics (EL/Civics) group that spoke mainly Spanish. My only hesitation was that I am not a Spanish speaker and I was concerned how we would communicate.
These displaced Even Start participants, who had been enrolled for two weeks in our EL/Civics classes, were quite diverse. Before arriving in the United States, one had been through the fifth grade and four of them had been to school through seventh grade. Only one had a college education; she had worked with emergency medical services for ten years in Monterrey, Mexico. None of these women were fluent in English. Considering the ethnicity and the multi-levels within the class, the teaching activity for the first lesson needed to make a clear impact, as I needed their help and "buy-in," and wanted to have an eventful first session. Although uncomfortable, I was project (Project IDEA) driven, so I stepped off into unfamiliar territory and observed the process whilst introducing project-based learning.
Faced with understanding my new group, it was apparent that the immediate need was to establish communication among the learners to facilitate a learner-centered environment. A lesson on communication described it as simple as - a sender - a message - a receiver (Moscowitz, 1996).
I used two puzzles to introduce my puzzling predicament. One had extremely large pieces and the other had small ones. I had them assemble the larger puzzle first and when finished, gave them the much smaller one. I watched as they worked through their problem of assembly. With a word here and there, I communicated with them about their activity. How did they solve the problem? The student answers included: teamwork, looking for certain patterns in the pieces, cooperation, thinking, pictures on the box, color and sharing. Reflecting further, the students agreed that solving problems required:
- talking it over;
- meditating or thinking it through; and
- trying out several solutions.
I asked them if they would help me with a project since they had worked through the activity and realized through reflection, what had made them successful. I told them in a very tiny nutshell about Project IDEA and they all agreed to help me.
After introducing the puzzles and discussing the benefits of teamwork to deliver a finished product, I continued with various activities.
- Show and Tell - I asked students to bring something special to class to show and tell why it was important to them. Discussion always included "Who would you want to make sure knows this information?"
- Demonstration and discussion on books and how they are made with pictures. We discussed "Which comes first - book or pictures?"
- Discussion on how to make things. I brought in donut holes and asked how they were made. We discussed the steps and the process - plus we got to eat them!
Thinking about making things and making projects - what would they make? How would they do it? What would help them? Who would it be for? I had no idea what went on during their discussions in Spanish, but it always worked out and their reflections showed their dedication.
Because of the September 11 tragedies, the English Study Group, as they chose to be named, agreed to make Christmas cards for every fireman in the City of Paris, Texas. The recent events helped the group agree on these worthy recipients. These men and women were heroes, who put their lives on the line, and this would be the students' way of showing appreciation. The students acted, thought, learned and planned the project during the 15 classes prior to our scheduled visit to the fire station. They agreed on their course of action by talking about conflicting ideas in a most democratic way. Through teamwork, they accomplished the project selection, the color of card stock to use, the orientation of the card for folding, the message, including where to place and what color to use, whether to print or decorate first, how to store the project when class was not in session, the number to make, delivery of the cards and date to visit the fire station.
The night before the tour, my class gathered and made a snowman cake for the firemen. The gifts were finished and delivered to the fire station on December 10, 2001. The local newspaper arrived and took a picture to be in the paper the next day. All the firemen in town happened to be at the station for training classes the day we visited. The cake and cards were appreciated and our group was given a royal tour.
We discovered the firemen were expecting an elementary history class instead of our adult EL/Civics group and there was an uncomfortable moment when we first arrived. The surprise and shyness soon gave way to smiles, nods, hand motions and an attempt by one of the firemen to use his high school Spanish in order to communicate better. All of my students dressed nicely and looked beautiful for the tour. I observed upon their faces the pride in presenting their project.
As the firemen explained the jaws-of-life to the class, one of my participants noticed that in this fire station, there were as many "jaws" as in all of Monterrey. The reaction was disbelief due to the population of the Mexican city. Whilst visiting the station's classrooms, the firemen demonstrated and were assisted by my students, in the proper way to keep the airway open when administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Since the firemen were attending classes, the English Study Group was exposed to how important continuing education was to a profession.
THE REFLECTIVE ELEMENT
Focusing on the outcome of my participation during this time, I have to admit I was drawn intensely by the reflection element. This tool helped make me aware of my perceptions and the assumptions that surrounded them. Mirroring was meaningful in applying truth to my method.
Casting a backward glance upon my learners made me aware of the growth they achieved during our project. A simple Christmas card project turned into a multi-faceted community experience. As Barbara Baird, Project IDEA Director, so aptly put it to me, ". . . language is essentially a social function that is learned by interacting with others . . ." I realized that the time spent attempting to send the message brought the group closer.
The impact from Project IDEA involvement has taken many forms for the expansion of our local professional development and the involvement of students in orientation. I encouraged the evening ESL teacher to start his own personal reflections, after he told me that a public transportation project "is taking on a life of its own" in his class. Our teachers, program director and one of our volunteers began a study group with the help of a past IDEA participant, Tamara Thornton Clunis who offered the WebBoard services through Southwest Texas State University. We established a forum for reading and discussing professional books supplied through the Texas Center for Adult Literacy & Learning (TCALL). At work, we brainstormed about using former GED students enrolled at Paris Junior College as a panel during our next orientation. None of this was happening before Project IDEA - as one can see, it has been invaluable to our program and we have only begun to step into the realm of action research and project-based learning.
Did the self-esteem and direction take off? Yes! One of my project participants opened her own "TEXMEX" food concession stand on a busy corner in Paris with her translator-computer-like tool by her side. We communicate constantly via e-mail. Her husband helps her with her English and I'm still going to tackle that Spanish "someday." Another participant secured an interview for a position with a local florist. Yet another has a position with a local hotel. These learners are now in motion . . . not to be stopped. Perhaps they've become the life learner we strive for . . . or they already were and that's why they came to us to begin with and we were able to help them find the tools that opened new doors for them.
My vision widened as I renewed my study on teaching and learning theory. I found William James' statement speaking to me so clearly in Frank Pajares' article, William James: Our Father Who Begat Us. Originally expounded by Charles Sanders Peirce in 1878 in an article entitled How to Make Our Ideas Clear, the pragmatic method, as James (1907/1975) came to define it, aimed to discover the truth of an idea by determining its agreement with reality, "be such realities concrete or abstract" (p. 101). Ideas, argued James, are ultimately functional. They do not possess innate or fixed qualities. Rather, "truth happens to an idea," and it happens when "we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify" it (p. 97).
Moscowitz, M. (Ed.). (1996). Communicating With Confidence (Lesson 1, pp. 4-7). New York: Cambridge Adult Education, a division of Simon & Schuster.
Freire, P. (1988). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. NY: The Continuum Publishing Corp.
James, W. (1975). Pragmatism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pajares, F. (In-Press). William James: Our Father Who Begat Us. A chapter in press with B. J. Zimmerman & D. H. Schunk, (Eds.), Educational psychology: A century of contributions. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Assoc. [Online] http://www.emory.edu/EDUCATION/mfp/PajaresJames.PDF
About the Author
Claire Anderson is the Paris Junior College Youth Coordinator for Lamar, Delta and Hopkins counties and ASE Math instructor for PJC's Adult Education. She has a Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education (NTSU 1976) and is searching for a Masters program that will accommodate the schedule of her family. Balancing baseball, Boy Scouts, drama, band, choir and synchronized swimming with her husband and two pre-teen children presents many opportunities for critical thinking. Her certification for teaching Gifted and Talented (2000) helps her to think "out of the box." Working with At-Risk Youth is a passion and pleasure for Claire. Her email is email@example.com.