Project-based Learning: A Coral Reef of Discovery

by Shae, Student at West Allis-West Milwaukee School District

When I was three years old, my mother taught me the gift of language. Not just how to speak and understand it, but how to find beauty in a vast sea where most stayed toward the shallow end. I was told not to follow the rest of the crowd. The discoveries I wanted could not be found on the shore or where the water only reached my ankles. They were deeper, past the high tides and seaweed. Near the underwater forests where the fish swam. Far below the surface and not locatable with a simple glance across the marine. Those discoveries lurked alongside protagonists I admired and villains I hated. They wanted to know the relationship between x and y. They explored how molecules in solids were different from those in liquids. They knew what death meant in other cultures. They were factors of exploration, ones of which required the beauty of language to dive into. Ones which required passion and desire. Ones that would be of service to the community and a service to my education. Project-based learning is a coral reef of investigation and expedition. Everything it has to offer cannot be fully embraced with a short scan. It exists to help students dive deeper into the unknown, and I am so grateful for that fact.

Since I was in elementary school, my parents knew that I learned differently. My impatience and displeasure that came from sitting at a desk was immense. Teachers would attempt to keep my focus on the lesson, but I preferred drawing comics or writing stories. Even when I was in a classroom with students up to two years older than me, it felt like an advancement in the material I was learning and not the way I was learning it. I sat behind desks for seven years, and though my grades never slipped up, I still longed for something more to express myself. Thankfully, I discovered a few avenues to do so in middle school.

Next Generation Learning was an alternative to the standardized classes at my intermediate school. Students from all three grades were integrated into a combined space that was the size of three classrooms. We had no desks or lessons that lasted an hour. We still had a curriculum, but teachers went about them differently. For math and science, we constructed models of tiny houses. For social studies and reading, we explored the 1920s and planned a party where everyone would impersonate characters from books. We had tests, but they weren’t very frequent or stressful. However, it couldn’t all be simple. Electives were still held in normal classroom settings. When I wasn’t in physical education or playing my violin, I was sitting at a desk in pure boredom.

With a year gone thanks to the pandemic, my eighth grade graduation ceremony came all too soon. It felt wrong standing up at the podium that sunny June afternoon. Not because I was scared to speak in front of 300 people, but because in some ways, I still felt like the seventh-grader I was before the world changed. Alas, time doesn’t stop, and certainly wouldn’t for this. My parents and I had been looking for the best avenue for my high school since January, and we had found quite the fitting option. It took many phone calls, emails, tours, and contacts with schools far outside of the district, but thankfully, we found somewhere that has proven to be a perfect place for me.

When I told my friends that I was going to Dottke Project-Based Learning High School, some of them looked at me with more confusion than if I were speaking a foreign language. Until recently, most weren’t aware of Dottke and all they had to offer. Some of my friends were skeptical, seeing as Dottke was formerly utilized as an alternative school, but I did all I can to wash their notions away. Dottke, though it’s a three-story building with only 140 kids to occupy it, is quite the place to be. During my first three days while I got my schedule situated, it was obvious that this school was not a typical high school. The aquaponics lab, community closet, guitar studio, makerspace area, and more were examples of that. Even the classrooms were enchanting to look at and be inside of. 

Advisory was used as time for whatever a student needed to work on, and they had their own desk to do so at, which they could customize however they wanted. Over the course of the first month, I got to know practically every student at Dottke. It felt like an environment of acceptance and gave me that family feeling I never quite got in my previous schools. In terms of learning, I had finally found a school that suited my needs for creativity and exploration. The entire purpose of Dottke was to let students express themselves, find their passions, and do what made them happy, all while learning real-life skills that would help them in the future. 

Even with all of this, Dottke didn’t offer the music and language electives I wanted. So, it was arranged for me to visit Central High School for a short while every morning, where I would take Spanish and Orchestra. I was glad to have a diverse field of options to set me up for a bright, successful future in the sea of possible avenues. I’m happy to spend each day in an ocean of different types of fish where I feel confident to swim on my own. I am so grateful to have found project-based learning and a school that helps me be the best version of myself.

sunsetShae is a student at James E. Dottke PBL High School. She has been immersed in project-based learning for years and has a large passion for her education. She loves reading, writing, playing with her cats, and watching professional wrestling. When she gets older, Shae hopes to become an author for Young Adult literature.