February 2023 Teacher Voice

Sparking Curiosity through Problem-Based Learning by Rachael Narcisi 

Each newsletter we will highlight the voice of an educator within Colorado to share some of their amazing work and ideas. In this issue, Rachel Narcisi shares her thoughts about project based learning.

At one of my district cohort meetings several years ago I came across a quote from George Couros (the author of The Innovator's Mindset). It epitomizes my mission with my students each and every day: 

"Inspiration is one of the chief needs of today's students.  Kids walk into schools full of wonder and questions, yet we often ask them to hold their questions for later, so we can 'get through' the curriculum.  We forget that our responsibility isn't solely to teach memorization or the mechanics of a task but to spark a curiosity that empowers students to learn on their own."  

I want to inspire my students to wonder about math because wonder leads to more questions and discoveries, which is where the learning occurs.   

For the first fifteen years of my teaching career, many of the real-world math projects I used felt somewhat contrived or not completely applicable to student’s everyday lives. Rarely did students get a voice or choice within the context of one of these projects. I assigned these projects in my classes but always as 'dessert' at the end of a unit and never as the 'main course' of learning. Then, through a district math cohort I was a part of, I had the opportunity to get trained in Project Based Learning (PBL). The approach embodied everything I valued and strived to be as an educator for my students. Getting trained in PBL six years ago has been one of the best professional decisions I have ever made. It changed my approach in my classroom for the better. Now, the unit project is the ‘main course’ with students learning the content through the lens of this project.

When I first went through PBL training, I felt excited and overwhelmed at the same time. One of the objectives of the PBL classroom is for students to have an authentic experience that employs real-life skills and that provides the students an opportunity to showcase all that they have done in front of an audience other than just their teacher and peers. I couldn’t wrap my head around how I could do this in my classroom for each of the units in my classes. I set a goal for myself of developing one authentic PBL unit per semester for my Algebra 2 classes. I could do that.

In the unit on transformations of functions, students get lots of exposure and practice with piecewise functions.As an introduction to the unit, I show students how I create my name in Desmos using the functions we are beginning to study. We adjust the domain (x-values) and range (y-values) to change what the function looks like. Students first create their name on Desmos to get a feel for how to manipulate piecewise functions to create an image. Students catch on quickly. Soon, they are ready to move on to designing and creating their group class logo. 

During the course of the unit, I ask an upperclassman graphic design student to come speak to our class about the design process and the use of color when designing a logo. These upperclassmen are excited to have the opportunity to be experts in the room and my students enjoy hearing from fellow students about the important points with regard to logo design and public speaking/presentation. My students take to heart what these peer presenters share with them. Most groups usually incorporate a good deal of what they learn into their projects and presentations.

Students present their logos to a panel of judges composed of parents, community members, my colleagues, and school administrators. The students’ goal is to convince the judges to vote for their logo as the best representative of the class. The winning team gets their logo professionally printed by district and posted outside of the classroom. It becomes that class’s Schoology picture for the rest of the school year. And, I award gift cards to the winning group. Every group is celebrated for their hard work and their logos get displayed in the classroom.  

Skeptics argue that PBL teachers don’t cover as much content as those who teach in a more traditional way. Granted, this may be true. But the depth that we can go and the opportunities students have to interact with and apply the content are invaluable. Not to mention the life skills such as public speaking, team work, self-advocacy, adaptability, conflict resolution, leadership skills, communication skills, etc. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist at USC, said “It is impossible to think about things deeply or to remember things about which you’ve had no emotion.” During this unit, I have students perform the best they do all year on their projects and assessments, and it gives many students an outlet to display their creativity. The voice and choice that are staples of project based learning give students the opportunity to connect emotionally to the content in meaningful ways, which promotes deep thinking and retention. 

My work in project based learning is transforming my teaching. My role is shifting from presenting content to  facilitating students’ mathematical thinking and learning. I’m excited to implement more authentic PBL units into my classes. I strongly believe the impact it has on the students and their learning is well worth the time and effort.


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Rachael Narcisi is in her 22nd year of teaching high school math in the Cherry Creek School District.  A National Board Certified teacher, Rachael knew she wanted to teach math ever since her 8th-grade Logic class.  In her classroom, Rachael seeks to help her students build math fluency, and develop an appreciation of the many ways math influences our world.