2013: How Project-Based Learning Could Change Everything

Happy New Year!

Each new year brings with it a promise; a promise that this year could be the best year of our lives; a promise that we will form good habits and get rid of the bad ones. And we’re right–for the most part. We also know that truthfully it is quite hard to change bad habits, form better ones, and there is no way to predict what a new year will bring. Still, the promise of what could be is one of the many magical parts of life.

This particular year, for me, already carries with it at least one bitter disappointment. I falsely believed I would be a shoe-in to be approved to present at this year’s ISTE conference in San Antonio; alas, it is not to be. I found out about midway through December that my proposal was not accepted. It was initially a blow to both my pride and ego, but once I had a chance to think about it, I had to admit that I was also simply disappointed because what I get to do for a living is something I want to share with the world!

I was as wary as anyone when I first started to explore and research project-based learning (PBL), but I very quickly realized that this might be a game changer in public education. You see, our politicians are all looking for quick fix legislation to help improve student performance. I think most who would read this blog can agree that this will never help alleviate our educational woes. For instance, most recently, the state of Georgia passed a constitutional amendment that allows the state to approve more charter schools. The claim for the need for this direct change was that parents and students need more choice. I agree, but not with more charter schools that one, will only siphon more money away from money strapped public systems and two, many of them will never close due to parent outcry no matter how bad the performance of the school is nor how underfunded it is. No, I believe it is all about generating choice within our current public schools.

PBL, as well as problem-based learning, could be a very viable solution.

Don’t get me wrong, for a program like the one I helped to develop in The Studio, it does take a bit of money, or at the very least being very creative with whatever current technology a school possesses. Still, with the implementation of PBL programs within public schools, you immediately give students and parents choice. PBL involves a different type of learning and is renowned for its ability to develop very strong soft and analysis skills. The emphasis is taken off the teacher and put more squarely on the student, their choices, and ownership of their learning. Without changing everything about a school and by offering a separate program that becomes a part of the DNA of a school, all stakeholders involved have an opportunity to win. Our program isn’t perfect, but in many ways it is starting to thrive. Students entering their first year of the program dote on it constantly as do their parents, students are interacting with real world problems and developing an understanding of required standards, and maybe more impressive is that some students are falling in love with learning again–something that is often lost during middle school years. It isn’t for everyone, but that’s why it would be an option, a new way to learn, something different from the status quo–a choice.

My sincere hope is that this upcoming year will hold the promise of spreading this message, changing a few mindsets, and maybe helping those making big decisions to see there are still good alternatives out there don’t decimate what many consider to be an important staple to the freedoms we enjoy here in our country–the public school system.

For the record, I hope to attend ISTE nonetheless this year. Maybe I’ll have better luck in 2014!

A Whole New World: Part III

Welcome to part three of my series all about project-based learning. You can find the first two installments here and here.

I’ve spent the last two posts on this subject praising its results and unashamedly promoting its practice, but now comes the hardest part. It is easy to the sing the praises of anything you believe in, but showing reasons for others to believe are much trickier indeed. There are plenty of analogies for this–the most prominent of which might be good ol’ religion and belief. If you are reading this, excited about PBL, but have no idea how to incorporate it into your teaching practice, then this post will be an attempt to help you. For those reading this that are still quite skeptical, hopefully this post will give you some insight into how it can still be practical.

Lets discuss issues first:

#1 Access to Technology – This is a ‘biggie’ for most of us. School funds are limited, updates to school technology is always years behind, and time are all factors that make access difficult. PBL does NOT require the use of a computer, but they are awfully nice to use. Since most schools do have computers with internet access, the larger issue is how good the technology is and how much time and resources are available to create access. For our first year in the world PBL, we were allowed to use technology at all times. This was incredibly beneficial, but even with the constant access there were barriers between school firewalls and restrictions.

#2 Traditional to Untraditional – For PBL to be successful in its fullest sense there has be a paradigm shift on all parties involved–students, parents, and teachers. This can be very difficult. For an instructor, you have to be willing to let go of some of your traditional control in the classroom. For students and their parents, they have to be willing to see that there is another way to learn and accept that grades are not the most important part of education. This is especially difficult in high school as GPA becomes a large motivator for students due to the need to make high marks to get into the best schools.

#3 Battling Social Norms – What I mean by this issue is there is a battle in American society for what is acceptable and what is really needed in the classroom. I’ve written about this briefly before, but basically the challenge is that testing as a way of proving a child’s educational worth has become a social norm for us. Because of this, classrooms are not really allowed to create real rigor beyond maybe the traditional hours of homework. The social pressure to have a child perform at a high level on a test puts most educators in a bind from the standpoint of challenging students to a higher standard. I’ve witnessed with my own eyes how a child identifies him or herself with their test grades. In a survey I had given to my students this year, I had one young lady write, “I learned how to fail;” she wrote this in response to the question of “What did you learn from this class this year?” She had made an 89% on the test. This student is not alone in feeling that anything below a perfect 4.0 GPA is failure. Although it is encouraging to see young people take their work seriously, it can be disheartening to know that students believe a number grade defines who they are as a learner.

It can be hard to imagine students keeping up with productivity with time constraints, but there is way to make it successful for most students.

Now there are certainly more issues, but the three above sum up some of the biggest challenges. This year, my PBL  classroom was me jumping in with both feet into the deep end. You do not have to dive in as deeply as I did. In fact, the list below, is a very practical guide to implementing PBL style course work even in a more traditional classroom.

Please note*** The following tips are all paraphrased and borrowed from a document written by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss. You can find the original document here. I strongly encourage you to download the document and read it thoroughly!

I am sharing these specific points from Suzie and Jane simply because it may be the best set of advice you’ll find on making PBL work for you. Here is my revised top five list to begin with:

#1 Focus on Authentic Products – The most important tip I can give you is to keep your products for a project real. The result of a project should be tangible and something where students can see the result of their efforts. For instance, if you’re teaching a geometry students about right angles and various triangles, it is important for these students to use right angles and triangles in the creation of a product that shows how they work in reality. (To a degree you could be combining geometry and architecture or even physics.)

#2 Don’t Avoid Soft Skills – Soft skills can be defined as those skills that often times are not assessed in the traditional sense of a classroom assignment. Projects have the ability to assess and develop critical thinking skills, global awareness, and the ability to solve problems creatively. Check this link out: (http://critical-thinking.iste.wikispaces.net) A great source to get you started.

#3 Use Formative Strategies to Keep Projects on Track – This can be difficult, but it is essential to project success. This can come in the form of teacher reflections, mini-lessons (NOT lectures), and using formative assessments as a learning tool for students and not just a way to judge them. The key here is to get students feedback quickly and reflect on where they are in the project building process.

#4 Gather Feedback Quickly! – Getting students feedback in a timely manner is essential to their success. Two great ways to gather feedback quickly is using ‘bell ringers’ and ‘exit tickets.’ Bell ringers can be simple check-ins with students for the first five to ten minutes of class where you can check for understanding of concepts; exit tickets allow you to get quick student reflections after each class gathering.

#5 Focus on Teamwork – This one is tough, but essential. Students need to work together on PBL, but many students don’t know how to do this. Some practical things to do to help students is to have them write up a team contract that has standards they are all held to; students also can also create a project calendar to stay on deadlines. The key is to model good collaboration and team management with your students.

There are several more practical ways to get started with PBL, but above is really just my top five. Again, I strongly encourage you to

You can get the full document from Edutopia.

download the full document from Edutopia. (The original document has a very cool ‘bonus’ tip with links to resources to help you get started on rubrics, checklists, and and other assessment tools!)

Well, this was a rather long post, but I hope some of you find this valuable. I intend to continue this series from time to time when I find new elements to share with you all.

Happy project building!

Khan Academy

The Khan Academy has gotten some well deserved attention in the last several months. The video below is twenty minutes, but certainly worth watching. Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, won the Google award for his innovative website: http://www.khanacademy.org. If you’re a teacher, take a good look at his work and what is available. Those of you who have followed this  blog at all know how I feel about the change needed in education. I’ll let Khan explain it for himself. Enjoy!

Jason Bourne Could be a Teacher

Recently, Matt Damon gave an interview with Pierce Morgan on CNN. The big headline to come out of the interview was what appeared to be his shocking admonishment of President Obama after being such an avid supporter of him during his candidacy. I, however, found something else he said much more interesting.

In Damon’s proclamation that President Obama has ‘misinterpreted his mandate,’ he goes on to speak about something very true about education. He mentions our country’s obsession with testing students and how “we aren’t teaching children, we’re training them.” Well stated Jason Bourne.

I think many of us agree with Mr. Damon’s sentiment, but few of us are really willing to let go of our notions that we must measure students to a similar standard. Let me be clear, I am not completely against standardized testing; it has its time and place, but we are certainly over-testing our students. To stop training our students, as Mr. Damon states, we have to be able to admit that there is more than one way to educate students and that our students cannot be defined by the results of a bubble sheet.

We’ve grown comfortable with this idea that the only way we can compete internationally is to show our test scores are up to par with everyone else, but I think with that comfort we’ve lost what makes America great–ingenuity, creativity, and problem solving. There is no current standardized test that can calculate those wonderful intangibles; however, those intangibles can be taught, explored, and reinforced.

But not through training our students. Right, Mr. Bourne?

Dr. Seuss is my Homeboy

My week has been completely thrown off kilter, which is why my promised weekend post didn’t happen, and even more so the reason you won’t be getting that intended post even today. Part of me is still formulating how to put together the segment I’m writing, but some of it really has been my crazy week. In any case, an experience I had yesterday is the inspiration for this particular post.

I am currently wrapping up a master’s degree in School Library Media (SLM) (that’s right folks one day I might be a media specialist) and as part of my final requirements I have to intern a certain number of hours. Well, yesterday it was my turn to experience an elementary school in action for a full day. I was actually pretty excited about encountering the ‘smaller’ world that I have very little experience with. I wasn’t disappointed either.

The school I visited is a poster child for diversity. It’s demographics are quite literally 85% Hispanic/Free and Reduced Lunch, 10% African American, 4% Korean/Vietnamese, and 1% Caucasian/White. Being the poster child for what it means to be as white as white bread can be, the day held many cool adventures for me. The school was celebrating Black History Month with an assembly, which was fantastic, and I had the opportunity to talk to many fourth and fifth graders about their experiences in school and their relationship with reading. I still don’t think I could ever teach or be a media specialist in an elementary school, but I’ll be darned if those kids weren’t super adorable.

The setup above leads me into what my post is really all about–Dr. Seuss. I am one of those haughty know-it-alls that believes they’ve read everything the genius of children’s books had

A book that will remind you what real education is all about.

ever written. Oh, I was so wrong. The media specialist I worked with yesterday introduced me to a book that was published after the beloved children’s writer passed back in 1991. (Next week is his birthday!) The book was apparently a project he had been working on for at least two or three years, but it never came to fruition before his passing. His publisher and editors found his original manuscripts and took the liberty of completing and publishing the work. I suppose this could have been done just to make another buck off of his legacy, but I’m going to give his publisher the benefit of the doubt because I am incredibly thankful that his peers decided to complete the book; it is entitled Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!, and it is says in a way that only Dr. Seuss can how badly education needs to change.

You see, my promised post I’ve told everyone about will center around what Dr. Seuss conveys in this very book. I had a sense of pride and encouragement from reading both Seuss’s original words and his collaborator, Jack Prelutsky, rhyme and  cadence about celebrating teachers who teach “outside the box” and not “to the test.” Within the book there is a letter from Janet Schulman, Seuss’s editor, about how Seuss had once told her about the creation of this book about teachers, but he didn’t think teachers would like it. Schulman encouraged Seuss that surely teachers would love anything he wrote, and he simply replied that he wasn’t so sure this time. I can see why. Seuss and his collaborators take aim at our, at times, lame education system by showing children being taught the test in a factory assembly line fashion, while the teacher portrayed in the story, Miss Twining, is unorthodox helping students take ownership of their learning and helping them make grandiose connections between seemingly unrelated objects. Miss Twining encourages her students that they will be prepared for their tests and so much more with her teaching style in the story, but the principal and even some of the children aren’t quite sure; there is great uncertainty. Needless to say, the story ends in a way that sheds light on some of the issues we have with both teaching a learning today, but I’ll let you go out and read it and decide you thoughts for yourself.

So I simply want to say: Dr. Seuss, I love you. I say this unashamedly and admiringly. I know there is no way for you to know how much discovering this book means to me, but nonetheless I have to write down my appreciation. Your words, pictures, and passion has encouraged me to continue teaching the way that I am, and push my students to think outside the limits of a test.

Alright, that being stated, it is time to get down to the business of telling you all who care to read about my ever-promised post, or posts, about the program I’ve been developing for well over a year now. The next post you see will start putting the pieces of the program together for you to see. Thanks for hanging in there and taking the time to read.

Now, go out and read some Dr. Seuss; it will do your heart and soul some good.