Pioneering project-based learning in Tennessee – Brent Thrasher, USA

Brent Thrasher first started to consider a career in education during high-school. A frequent volunteer to help his peers with homework, Thrasher was often complimented on his ability to reteach content. He found it very rewarding to help others and to share in their success. And like many educators we profile on Daily Edventures, Thrasher didn’t have to go far for inspiration.

“My Advanced Biology teacher, Mr. Pat Grimes, could be credited with planting the idea of becoming an educator in my mind,” says Grimes. “He was an excellent teacher – actually more of a facilitator than a teacher, and that was before [facilitator] pedagogy was being pushed in the mainstream. I think Mr. Grimes modeled what an impact a good teacher can have on students, and I can remember thinking, ‘I wish I had more teachers like him.’ This is the standard I set for my own classroom when I began teaching.”

A Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE) Expert, Thrasher in his seventh year as a classroom teacher, educational technologist, and instructional technology coach for Overton County Schools in Tennessee.

“I love helping students and other teaching professionals utilize technology in new and engaging ways,” says Thrasher. “I hope that my work will better prepare my students to thrive in a technology-driven world, and that my students learn that technology’s greatest power is facilitating learning. I try to grow by learning about new technologies, and exploring how they can be implemented into education.”

Here’s today’s inspiring Daily Edventure with Brent Thrasher. Enjoy!

Why do you feel passionate about innovation and technology in the classroom?
This goes back to my first year of teaching (2009). I taught seventh and eighth grade science at Rickman Elementary, and I tried to model my classroom after my former teacher, Mr. Grimes. I created lessons that were more student-centered, requiring students to work together in groups to construct their own understanding rather than lectures and worksheets. I actually convinced my principal to let me take over the old, unused science lab as my full-time classroom. I knew that was more of the environment I needed to facilitate my constructivism-based lessons.

It was near the end of the school year when I was approached by the vice principal and principal one afternoon. They explained to me that they had been contacted by the water department for our county. The supervisor at the time had an idea for a project. He was asking the middle school science teachers to teach students about back-siphonage as it relates to the water system. The students were then to create a poster to show what they had learned about the topic. My first concern was… well, what is back-siphonage???  Then I thought, how am I going to teach something I don’t know about?

I spent most of the night doing searches on the internet trying to learn about back-siphonage. I took notes in OneNote, saved links and clipped web pages.  After a few days of learning about back-siphonage, I felt confident I could develop a good lesson on the topic and we could begin the project.  Then it occurred to me, I had a very meaningful experience learning about this topic, and I wanted my students to share in that experience.  I remember thinking there was a lot of value in discovering and constructing an understanding, rather than terms and explanations being fed to me.

With this new revelation I began implementing backward-design (before I knew what that was).  I knew the learning outcome I wanted, and I knew I wanted to design a task that engaged students in uncovering information about the learning goal.  With this in mind, I decided I would present this task as a problem.

I came in to the classroom and told the students that we had a major concern with drinking water called back-siphonage, and have been asked by the water department to help inform the local area about the issue and how it can be prevented.  Like myself, the students immediately asked what back-siphonage was. I would only reiterate that the group would be responsible for discovering that together.

We had five prehistoric desktop PCs (four that were Windows-based and one eMac), a bad internet connection, and notebook paper. Naturally, this wasn’t going to be a heavily technology-based project – not at first.

Then the student groups came to me with a real problem.  They said, “We just can’t get enough information here at school.”  We had one computer that the whole group had to share and an internet connection that wasn’t reliable. So, I asked if they had internet at home and showed the students how to use a shared OneDrive folder to collect all that they found at home.

I had never used OneDrive in this way before, but it just seemed like a quick fix for the issue we had. After a couple of days, I was very impressed with how much this simple implementation greatly improved our productivity. Students came to class with lots of content and spent their face-to-face time sorting through and discussing what they wanted to use on the poster.

This really made me think about how I teach.  I could see how impactful technology can be in the learning experience. The logistics were simplified so that our focus was on the content, not trying to get everybody up to speed on the project.

Once students had their design and content, OneDrive again made it easy for us to move the project along. Since I was the one who set up and shared the folders, I had access to the content. The groups would simply let me know they were ready for printed material for their post and I would get on my PC and fetch their content.

We submitted three posters to the local water department where they chose one “winning” poster from the district. My students’ poster was printed and distributed throughout the county, including to the Tennessee Association of Utility Districts, where it was featured in their journal. My students solved a real-world problem!

This was a defining point in my career as an educator.  I look back at the challenges and how my students overcame limitations to achieve something great. I am still very proud of that group of students, and love to share their successes. I always think of this project and how it helped me to realize how integral technology is in the classroom.

ore important, it helped me to realize that technology can be impactful even when there are limited resources. Some of the simplest platforms, like OneDrive, completely changed how my students worked together to achieve a goal.

Whether it’s a day-to-day challenge or larger problem, what’s the biggest obstacle you or your country or region has had to overcome, or will have to overcome, to ensure a quality education for students?

Our biggest obstacle has been the infrastructure in our district. In our district, all schools are Title 1 status, which means we have limited funds. Luckily, our district has been fortunate in receiving more funding recently and has been able to build up a better infrastructure for our schools, which has made a difference.

Although the infrastructure in each school has been improved, we still have to overcome the issue of limited bandwidth. Of course, this is the backbone that will support all technologies in instruction. That demand will only increase as we continue to implement more and more technologies in instruction.

I have been personally involved with helping other teachers integrate technologies like OneNote Class Notebooks into their instruction. Class Notebooks are the evolution of what I tried to do with OneDrive, so I know first-hand the impact such a technology can have on instruction. I think implementing these technologies is a must to meet the needs of our students.

In terms of education innovation, what are you most excited about for the future? What is your biggest hope for today’s students?

I think we have made the foundational shift to more constructivism-style instruction. I’m excited about the next big shift into more cross-curricular experiences for students. Experiences that are more holistic, like STEM curricula. I think these hybrid curricula would ultimately produce students who have had more meaningful learning experiences.

Brent Thrasher

Mathematics Teacher/Technology Coach

Rickman Elementary School

Rickman, Tennessee

  • Blog URL: https://resmrthrasher.wordpress.com/
  • Birthplace: Livingston, Tennessee, USA
  • Educational background: BS Secondary Education – Earth and Space Science | MA Curriculum and Instruction – Educational Technology
  • Website I check every day: Twitter
  • Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: I love my Surface Pro – I have been a long-time fan of digital inking in the classroom. (I started out with an HP convertible in ‘09 with Win 7 and OneNote 2010.)
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
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