By Michael Niehoff
Education Content Coordinator at iLEAD Schools
Educators who are motivated to improve their instructional skills embark on a lifelong journey of hard work and reflection. At Empower Generations, facilitator Susan Miller is modeling this journey as she facilitates high-quality project-based learning.
A skilled veteran science and math teacher, Miller stepped away from education for a time to operate a family business. This past September, she returned, joining the team at Empower Generations, a tuition-free charter school that serves pregnant and parenting teens.
The transition to the project-based, competency-focused school was eye-opening for Miller. “I had an epiphany during my first semester,” said Miller. “I realized that I still teach standards but not based on a predetermined schedule.”
Miller said she embraced a more holistic approach to teaching that focused on meeting her learners where they were. She asked them what they were interested in and wanted to learn more about. For example, when the learners had questions about addiction, Miller used their curiosity as a starting point for deeper learning. “I took their inquiry and connected it to my subject areas. In this case, we could study brain chemistry,” Miller said.
With this inquiry-based approach in mind, Miller sought out how to design projects and learning experiences that would maximize her learners’ experiences.
Miller’s first project, influenced by the pandemic, focused on the immune system. For this topic, learners chose to do a crime scene investigation. Miller said the process showed her what her learners needed in terms of skill development and workflows.
“The project actually influenced my personal educational journey,” said Miller. “I learned how to support them.”
The next project was about genetics and nutrition. Learners surveyed their families and learned about dominant and recessive genes and how to predict certain genetic ratios and possibilities.
“The learners did a great job,” Miller said. “But again, it was almost more about my instructional practice — learning how to scaffold and design an effective project.”
Miller’s first-semester PBL experiences informed her work during the second semester. She said she’s currently focusing on three key topics to workshop in six-week intervals: “The Body and Drugs,” “The Body and Nutrition,” and “The Body and Relationships.” The learners’ current driving question is “How can I use data interpretation to make better choices about my body and drugs?”
Through a trial-and-error approach, along with support from Amber Soto, iLEAD’s Director of Mathematics Instruction, Implementation and Improvement, Miller is learning the PBL process and is excited about the possibilities.
“It’s such a different approach for me,” said Miller. “If it’s not working, then I fix it. And I’m starting to adjust things in real time based on the learners’ needs.”
Miller said she’s optimizing the power of both peer and self-assessment and feedback. With math, for example, she allows learners to choose among assignments to address their individual needs. If the work is too difficult, a learner can choose a foundational assignment focused on skills. If the work isn’t challenging enough, the learner can choose an exploration assignment. If the challenge level is just right, the learner can choose a practice-oriented assignment.
“I’m finding that the learners are very honest with themselves and choose what they need the most at that particular time,” Miller said. “These choices also inform me where to adjust my instruction. If too many are choosing the foundational option repeatedly, then I need to adjust my approach.”
Miller is excited about what she is seeing not only in the learners’ math growth but also the learners’ confidence and mind-sets. Early in the year, she said, her learners stayed quiet and didn’t take chances or risk failure.
“My goal was to get them to not be afraid and to trust themselves,” Miller said. “If high school is supposed to prepare us for life, then taking risks is a good skill to learn.”
Miller is also enjoying her transition from past experiences as more the “sage on the stage” to being the “guide on the side.” She says this represents the PBL transition from teacher to facilitator.
“I spent years working with learners who needed help, but I didn’t know how to help them,” Miller said. “But now, I finally can be the teacher I want to be.”
Empower Generations Director Malaka Donovan is impressed with Miller’s continual reflection and love of her own personal learning journey.
“Susan jumped in with both feet, ready to get to know our learners, our staff and our unique program,” Donovan said. “She has not only been innovative in her instruction to the learners but also in working with our educational guides to create interdisciplinary projects.”
Throughout the pandemic, Miller has facilitated distance learning. She feels the challenge has made her a better facilitator, but she is eager to work with learners face-to-face for the first time. Her long-term projects center on addressing food insecurity and the availability of high-quality nutritious foods in the community.
Miller admires the work of Green Bronx Machine, an organization that, according to their website, “builds healthy, equitable, and resilient communities through inspired education, local food systems, and 21st-century workforce development.” Miller would love to offer something similar in her learners’ community.
“Ultimately, all this is about the learners being self-sufficient,” Miller said. “Lots of them are young parents and need to be self-sufficient. But as young parents, they can also teach their children these same things.”