Trumansburg Connection: Project Based Learning finds a unique home in T-Burg

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Standardized testing is holding strong as the benchmark for measuring student success, although some schools are able to push back against teacher-based methods in favor of implementing student-based methods. The Trumansburg Central School District (TCSD) is one that has been able to maintain high test scores while also swinging the pendulum back to student-based teaching methods by utilizing Project Based Learning (PBL).


PBL is an interdisciplinary, student-led methodology that “encourages students to learn and apply knowledge and skills through an engaging experience. PBL presents opportunities for deeper learning in-context and for the development of important skills tied to college and career readiness,” according to Defined STEM, which provides schools the tools to implement and assess PBL projects. Rather than the teacher delivering the information, the students address real-life challenges presented by their own interests, or in some cases their teachers. Challenges are worked on collaboratively and interdisciplinary, and the students work largely independently of the teachers. The teachers take on more of a project manager role, standing by to answer questions and help find direction if needed.


The TCSD middle school seventh-grade class is currently working on a PBL project that aims to combine math, English language arts, science, and media literacy. Media literacy is fairly new to New York State, implemented three years ago “in response to a State Ed requirement that all seventh and eighth grade students receive literacy education from a certified librarian…and a lot of the class is based around PBL experiences,” said Gail Brisson, who works in both the elementary and middle school libraries, and is a district PBL trainer.


Adding a unique twist in this PBL is the involvement of Rosemarie Hanson, Food Services Director. Hanson moved from Food Services Helper to Food Services Director in January of this year and has been an integral part of the transition to healthier, less processed, and more local foods being served in the cafeterias. As she has been able, she has transitioned away from processed foods to more scratch-cooked foods made with local ingredients.


Hanson was approached by the seventh-grade team at the end of the 2017/18 school year to help lead a PBL that tied with the cafeteria and school lunch program. Of the “Let’s Do Lunch” program, Brisson notes, “For the lunch project, we will be looking at ways to increase participation in the school lunch program as well as ways to make lunches more appealing to students. This will give us a wonderful opportunity to talk about advertising and marketing, including how social media is used to promote products or brands. Students will meet with Rose to learn about what she needs from us, and they will develop marketing campaigns using print and digital formats.”


It is intentional that the Let’s Do Lunch PBL is coinciding with October’s farm to school month, which connects farms, communities, and schools. For the 2017 farm to school month, Hanson organized Rainbow Salad Days in the elementary school as well as a district-wide Apple Crunch event. Hanson is taking an active lead from the beginning stages of this project, which began with a viewing of season one, episode two of “A Chef’s Table,” which features Dan Barber, a pioneer in the farm to table movement, and an advocate for animal rights. Barber is a chef and owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan, Blue Hill at Stone Barns Pocantico Hills, New York, and part owner of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, where they grow ingredients used at both restaurants. Incidentally, “A Chef’s Table” is produced by TCSD alum John Henion.


In addition to kicking off the unit with an example of how farm to table can be done well, the students also went on a field trip tour of local farms and harvested produce including brussels sprouts, honey and butternut squash varieties, kale, carrots, apples, and lettuce, which was brought to the school for their own farmer’s market during their media literacy class. Each student was able to select some produce from our harvest and recipes to take home to try.


The next step for the project also involves Hanson, as she will present to the media literacy classes, and work with them as they begin exploring school food and how their experience and food choices could be improved. Hanson’s goals are to, “Get kids engaged in the cafeteria and understand the school lunch program. I would like them to realize what is involved in the decisions about what food is served, and then make their own choices about what is served within the [school lunch program] parameters. We want to serve kids what they want to eat, but we also want to help them want to eat things that are local and good for them.”


Part of Hanson’s position as Food Service Director is to provide nutrition education to students, and her passion for the education component, the students, and local foods are obvious. “It’s a team effort, but the education component was my motivation for getting involved in school food in Trumansburg. When you are surrounded by so many farms and farmers with kids in the district, and chefs with kids in the district, an area with such a great food history, I just wanted to be involved in that. I want the students to feel empowered and part of the process and I want them to feel ownership of the whole process.”


The program and curriculum development are still in process, but it is likely the program will theme throughout the school year, and will include the math, ELA, and science programs, and possibly even an Iron Chef Jr. competition. There is surely more to come on this exciting project that is supported in part by the Park Foundation’s School Food and Nutrition initiative.

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