Volume No. 11 Issue No. 1 January 2014  

  D 49 teacher redefines teaching through “real” projects

     After 20 years of teaching, Paul Austin, a science, technology, engineering and math teacher for the Patriot Learning Center in Falcon School District 49, said he no longer considers himself a teacher but rather an educator.
   “I’m here to educate and whatever that looks like, I’m doing it,” Austin said.
   In November 2012, the Falcon Education Foundation awarded one mini-grant to Austin, who has now been with the PLC two years. This year, the foundation awarded Austin three more mini-grants. The grants allowed Austin to undertake projects outside the scope of the PLC’s budget, he said.
   This year’s grants went to the following projects: “Sewing with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math;” Wooden Robot Arm;” and “Losing Your Marbles.”
   “The team-building, collaboration, the project itself, the redesigning, the testing, the failing, they (students) can’t get those skills sitting in a classroom going through a typical curriculum,” Austin said. “They basically get tricked into thinking they’re having fun but they’re actually learning.
   “I have kids of my own that go to school, so I always think about if it was my son or daughter in front of me, what would they need to be successful in today’s economy and job market. I see how my own kids over the years have become disengaged. Kids have already identified that this (traditional way of teaching) is disconnected and they’ve been taught to suck it up.”
   Austin said that as recently as five years ago, he was still teaching in the traditional manner, and he prided himself on getting kids to turn their work in on time. He said he told them what to do and how to do it; and, with that, his grades could be boiled down to whether students were organized and turned assignments in on time.
   “How does that reflect a student’s ability and intelligence?” he said. “If I can get a kid to recognize what their resources are and go and find that resource and then apply it using their problem-solving abilities, then I’m doing it right.”
   Many of the ideas he gets for the projects he tries to initiate at the PLC are garnered from professional conferences he attends on his own time, Austin said. “I’m usually looking for something (projects) the school can afford,” he said. “I go, ‘Wow; even if I don’t get a grant, we can still do this with the funds the school has.’ My thinking is what’s the worst case scenario? I don’t get the grant but I still get to do what I wanted to do.”
   Austin said the product resulting from the projects is as important as the process. “Before I would have to say this is where a student is (academically) based on the performance on this one test,” he said. “Now, my assessment is not only getting to the product but the product itself. That really lets me understand that they get the concepts it took to get there.
   “I’ve become more of a coach over time rather than a teacher. Before, if I gave you worksheets and tasks and you didn’t do well, I would penalize you. But you’re just practicing so why would I ever penalize you for practicing? A coach doesn’t penalize you for practicing.”
   Under his new definition of teaching, Austin said, “Kids have been given permission to use the resources in their hands to find out what they need to know.”
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