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Project Based Learning has always played a vital role in Oakton’s curriculum and gives teachers a way to convey the same material in a more engaging method. Students also benefit from these new assessments as it caters to those who are better at expressing what they’ve learned in a creative way instead of simply taking a test. Oakton has integrated many beneficial project based learning assessments into their curriculum all the way from the Exhibition of Learning (EOL) that begins in 9th grade to Capstone in 12th grade.

 To learn more about what other schools around the world are doing with project based learning, 9 people went from Oakton either administrators, department chairs, and 2 students to the Deeper Learning Conference that took place in San Diego, California at a group of schools named High Tech High. This group of schools consists of an elementary school, a high school, and charter schools. High Tech High emphasizes inquiry based learning and hands on project based learning which is slightly different from the emphasis Oakton places on their students. The conference had teachers from all over the nation and world, including teachers from Germany and Canada. The theme of the conference was how students can learn the same material differently instead of teachers simply lecturing their material.

Mrs. Ana Mayra Irizarry-Vaughan, the Math department Chair at Oakton, was one of Oakton’s staff members that attended the conference. The conference, itself, was 3 full days but the group stayed an extra day to recoup and reflect on what they’ve learnt from the conference and how they plan to implement the knowledge they’ve gained at Oakton. While on the trip, Ms.Irizarry validated, to herself, that Oakton was on the right track and was doing a great job at implementing project based learning and inquiry based learning. Inquiry based learning is learning by doing problem solving instead of passively listening to a teacher lecture. Many teachers have implemented these teaching methods in their classrooms, but not all. “I validated not just myself, as a teacher, but as a school that Oakton is going in the right direction by realizing that people outside of America are also taking part of the same initiative”, said Mrs. Irizarry. Mrs. Irizarry also loved how the two students that tagged along were able to participate so actively and had the opportunity to learn a lot from the conference. While on the trip, the math teacher learned small things that could better help her with teaching. For example, she learned how to better manage group projects. This skill, as she stated, changes how she would assign group projects in the future in order for students to see what role they play in a group rather than relying on each other to get the group work completed.

Mrs. Irizarry thinks project based learning is critical in making sure students are learning in the most effective way possible. As she stated, “I think project based learning is important because students should have an opportunity to be assessed in more than one way; it should not be just tests because not everyone is good at test taking”. Doing a project or anything other than taking a test gives students another way of expressing what they’ve learnt. Projects also engage students more and teach them how to apply what they’ve learned to the real world. After returning from the trip, the math teacher immediately implemented what she had learnt from the conference. For instance, in her Multivariable Calculus class, she implemented the technique of critiquing students work openly. With this method, all the classmates give a positive formal critique to their peers publicly.   

The two students who were fortunate to attend this inspiring conference were Elizabeth Malone and Tess Jones. They travelled with the administrators, who were basically their moms for a week, to High Tech High in Point Loma, San Diego. When Malone heard about the convention, she immediately emailed the committee at High Tech High and asked if she would be allowed to attend, yet they quickly said no. However Malone persisted and emailed again, attaching her credentials and all the work she has done with Project Based Learning and EOL in Fairfax County and Oakton, more specifically. Finally, the committee agreed to let her come, and offered to pay for her $1000 attendance expenses as well.

Once Malone received approval from the convention itself, she realized she still needed approval from the Oakton admin, and find money for the flight and other expenses. Dr. Banbury, our former Principal at Oakton, agreed to allow Malone to attend under one condition: find someone who is younger and who can take over for Malone with PBL and deeper learning next year. Consequently, Malone rushed to do multiple secret interviews to select a younger student, and she chose Jones, a junior, who Malone was extremely impressed by with her dedication and passion for Capstone. Dr. Banbury was kind enough to let these two students attend, but even more, he payed for the other expenses that were not covered by the convention, such as flights.

This trip to California was Jones’s first time being immersed in the “deeper learning” philosophies, and she absolutely loved the convention and everything it had to offer. “We died and went to school heaven at High Tech High,” said Jones. She learned that Oakton is definitely headed in the best possible direction, continuing to implement deeper learning after six years.

The students who are enrolled in High Tech High had the opportunity to showcase their learning and abilities by running sessions for the visitors. One session that Malone and Jones attended included four sophomores who built a telescope from scratch to fulfill their Physics and Calculus requirements, showing that they can use their knowledge of the subject to apply it to real-life situations, such as constructing a telescope with no assistance. Furthermore, attendees learned about how to incorporate children with minor learning disabilities into the classroom, like ADHD or dyslexia, so that they are still fully focused with completely hands-on studies. These real applications of knowledge also tied into major social issues in today’s society, such as homelessness and how student-teacher interactions are essential in a school environment.

Jones is typically a shy person, but she was extremely eager to talk to everyone about the same things she is passionate about. “It was certainly an out of body experience to be around everyone who is passionate about the same thing — educating the youth in the proper way that transfers creativity and innovation,” said Jones. She enjoyed talking to attendees from around the country about Oakton’s use of PBL, EOL, and Capstone, and how we can realize what we are doing wrong and how we can fix it. Although there are some big shoes to fill, Jones is definitely ready to take on the responsibility of stepping into Malone’s shoes next year.

Just how lucky is Oakton to have such an amazing Capstone and Portrait of a Graduate program? Malone wants to make both students and teachers realize how wonderful these programs are for working with deeper learning and bringing about true change to the Oakton community. “I wish that I could somehow convey to students how lucky we are, and how yes, it kind of sucks to do this work because it is harder, but it is actually making you so much smarter, and it is giving you the opportunity to make a difference in the world,” said Malone. “Getting Smarter” podcasts that Malone listens to mentions Fairfax County as being one of the top counties in the country for PBL, and specifically Oakton High School. Oakton has grown immensely in its progress with deeper learning programs, and the rest of American can actually learn from both our successes and failures within the community.
“Shoutout to Oakton admin for being our new best friends,” said Malone. “I’m no longer teacher’s pet, I’m admin pet,” she added. This trip was undoubtedly one for the books in the Oakton community, bringing new ideas and enthusiasm to the table for change and further progress. Moral of the story: you can learn absolutely nothing about a person from a Scantron. But with PBL and deeper learning, there is actual learning happening that is inspirational, irreplaceable, and forever beneficial.

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Bringing true change to Oakton community