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Trust (in Project-Based Learning)

I was 13 minutes late to City Neighbors Charter School today. Not because I woke up late or traffic was bad, but because I wanted to experience Baltimore—take some pictures, talk with locals, walk some of the neighborhood blocks. Baltimore feels different than D.C. I don’t know exactly why, yet. But it is. Maybe it’s because of the row homes. Maybe it’s because it’s more expansive and not as compressed. Maybe it’s because it consists of 400 blocks and not eight regional wards. Maybe it’s because the people who sit on benches that read “Baltimore—The Greatest City in America” look like they live another motto.

When I finally arrived at the school, my students were on the way outside for a journaling activity to reflect on yesterday’s field trip to an organic berry farm 30 minutes west.

I asked the teacher that I was shadowing, “Should I lock up the classroom after I put my stuff down?”

“No,” she said, “everything will be fine.” I smiled in the moment—not because I was happy not to worry, but more because I was pondering the assumption that people deserve to be trusted.

I’ve never worked in a school where I didn’t have to think twice about my belongings if they weren’t in sight. My current school is a lot better than my first, but I’ve still had items stolen at both.

But how do you teach students who are used to being watched daily—by store owners, police, surveillance cameras, even teachers—how to trust? Here’s some advice from Mrs. Seidl, Mrs. Dash, and Mr. Harris—three City Neighbors teachers and experts in project-based learning.

  • Start With A Conversation
    Communicating trust early and often is key. Students and parents need to know why so much emphasis is placed on interpersonal relationships, not just core academic subjects. Explain and reinforce that trust will be consistently communicated in all actions—verbal and nonverbal. Express that we all share the same intent and that we have to be in partnership with everyone in the child’s life.
  • Community
    Students need to constantly engage in team-building activities—whether set aside from the typical day or woven into a collaborative learning project. This builds a dependence on the group and each other. It also teaches students how to converse and use proper vocabulary to build and diffuse conversations.
  • Peer Mentorship
    When paired well, mentor students rise to the occasion to be a reflection of school values, and they communicate and reinforce those values in their mentees. Students constantly express their sense of accomplishment when helping another student.
  • Let Them Talk
    There’s been a lot of emphasis lately on teachers changing their roles to become facilitators of learning. However, students are the true facilitators. Let them talk. Let them teach each other. Once one or a few students acquire the knowledge, they will naturally share their learning.
  • Time and Space
    Give students opportunities to melt down without critique from you or their peers. Adjustment takes time, and it naturally takes some students more time than others. Students benefit from having the understanding and trust that comes from having the space to be themselves and accepted at all times. Teach kids how to react—or how not to react—when in the midst of a meltdown.
  • Discipline and Stewardship
    When students commit an infraction, have them engage in work that benefits the building. For example, have them paint a wall, clean the cafeteria, be responsible for materials collection and replacement. The idea is that students have to work to regain the trust of the community. Discipline must be immediate and consistent to work. If not, both students and parents will lose trust in the process.
    Further, stewardship should not only be used as a means of discipline. Build a love for community, belongings, and the classroom by having students consistently maintain their space. This shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be the job of the teacher or janitorial staff.

There’s a lot to be said about trust. We all know the satisfaction that comes from being trusted. But we also know how hard trust is to regain once it’s lost. I plan to implement the advice given by Mrs. Seidl, Mrs. Dash, and Mr. Harris this school year and let you know what I discover. Hopefully, the lessons my students learn about trust this year will permeate their lives for years to come.

Alex Brown
2015 Education Innovation Fellow