Last Thursday was, officially, one of my most memorable days as a teacher. Ever. It was terrifying but awesome. After five weeks of studying the essays of the marvelous George Orwell, my year 12 students were ready (sort of) to complete the first part of their Module B project – participating in a debate about Orwell as an essayist in front of Australia’s top Orwell scholar, Dr Peter Marks, author of George Orwell The Essayist. Pretty intimidating, right? I confessed to my students (after their debates were over) that I could never do what they had done. They were truly, truly amazing.
The project’s driving question is ‘What would Orwell have to say about our world today?’ and students were required to participate in a debate and write a personal essay answering the above driving question. I know it seems weird doing PBL with year 12, but for me and my students it is natural. They are used to the pressure of sharing their learning with an audience beyond the classroom. Obviously they were still freaked out before the debate last week – they were well aware of who Dr Marks is and what he has contributed to the study of Orwell’s essays in particular. So, how did I manage to get Dr Marks at my school? Did I pay him? Nope. I just emailed him and asked. We had been in contact way back in 2009 when I discovered that he had written his PhD on Orwell’s essays and organised to meet him at Sydney Uni so I could photocopy his (entire) thesis. Asking Peter to come to my school was risky, I figured he’d be too busy… but he happily fit us into his busy schedule! How cool is that?
On the day, my students spoke passionately and confidently for their team’s position – arguing whether Orwell was a rebel, saint, prophet or common man. Peter was so generous in his praise for my students, letting them know their speaking skills were superior to those of many university students and encouraging them to enroll to study at Sydney Uni. You can imagine the delight of my students! The value of his visit went beyond praise of my students, as he shared so much of his knowledge about Orwell as a writer, person and thinker that will certainly help my students not only in their HSC but in life – seriously, Orwell was one amazing human being. I will always be grateful to Peter for giving up his time to support my students’ learning. His visit allowed me to see my students in a new light, as young learners distinct from HSC students. This is a powerful thing.
Finally, it was super, super, super cool to have one of my students tweet me to share with me her thoughts about PBL and learning after the debate: