New Publication in GCTE’s ‘Connections’


For those that following me on social media in any form, you may have already seen me post about this, BUT I wanted to document the accomplishment on the blog. I was thrilled to hear a few months ago that my two submissions to the fall edition of Georgia Council of Teachers of English (GCTE) Connections were selected for publication. Continue reading

Time to Break the Ice

Tomorrow is the first day of school. As Shakespeare has so eloquently put it there will be “the whining schoolboy with his satchel/and shining morning face, creeping like snail/unwillingly to school.”  (Not much has changed in 450 years.) I have had a few students and teachers tell me they aren’t ready to go back quite yet. The way I see it you can’t stop the first day from coming so you might as well embrace it. And embrace it I will.

The first day can be a bit awkward. Students are present but not always there; everyone is nervous and uncertain of what class will be like for the year; teachers have to go over the mundane nature of the course syllabus, and the list goes on and on. Inevitably, someone has to break the ice and get the party–I mean year–started.

So in honor of educators everywhere looking to start the year off right, here are some interesting and unique ice breakers you can use in class this week (or in the weeks to come if you’re not starting school quite yet):

Octopus Pyramid Build
Builds: Communication Skills, Teamwork
Supplies: String, Rubber Bands, 10 Solo cups per group
The How: To play, you’ll need to make ‘the octopus’ first. cut six to eight strand of string that are about 6″ each and tie them to a rubber band in a circle. (You’ll repeat this for every group you expect to have.) Have students in groups of six each take one of the strings attached to the rubber band. Students must now work together to grab solo cups with ‘the octopus’ and build a ten cup pyramid. The first group to assemble a pyramid wins.
Wrap-Up: One great way to conclude the ice breaker is have the winning group explain how they they pulled it off and ask other groups what held them back. I like to use this activity as a way to talk about team work and communication.

Yarn Web
Builds: Understanding, Connections
Supplies: Spool of Yarn
The How: Have students stand in a circle, or oval if you’d like, and have one student start with the spool of yarn. You can do this a couple of different ways, but usually I come up three different questions students can ask each other and answer. The questions should  be interesting and unique so students get to see each other in a new light. The first student answers any of the three questions and then tosses it to any one they want in the circle then they ask the person who catches the spool a question. After answering, that person holds on to their part of the yarn and tosses to to someone else and asks a  question. This continues until each person gets the yarn. The result should be a very cool looking web between all the students.
Wrap-Up: I like to conclude this activity by pointing out how the web physically connects us and that we have some interesting similarities. I also try to get feedback from the students about something interesting they learned from the other students.
Twist: You can also have students answer just one question and each person has to remember the previous students’ answers.

Mystery Solvers
Builds: Communication, Teamwork, Problem Solving
Supplies: Get everything from this link: Peter Pappas 
The How: This activity was just shown to me by Suzie Boss of Edutopia. All the directions are on the link above, but basically you randomly split students into groups of five or six and give each student in a group five to six clues. (Each group gets all the clues for the mystery) The students in the group have to work together to solve the mystery through communicating the clues they have.
Wrap-up: I’ll actually use this for the first time tomorrow. I plan on concluding the activity by talking about the keys to collaboration in a group and the importance of different ways of problem solving. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I hope you can find one of these useful. To all those teachers and students starting school this week or next, best of luck, embrace the inevitable, and have some fun. Cheers!

The “Coffee Chat”

During my first year of working in the construct of a PBL classroom my colleague and I developed what we call ‘Coffee Chats.’ We decided early on that we would need supplemental, ‘old school’ almost-lecture style tutorials for our students. The goal was to generate initial knowledge or ideas in a twenty to thirty minute span; basically, keep it short and sweet. We also didn’t want to call these twenty minute standard teaching practices lectures. No, instead we came up with the term ‘Coffee Chat.’ A much more endearing term don’t you think?

The result of our chats revealed some interesting truths.

First, it is important to note that these were not a complete success but not due to their function; rather, the only problem we ran into is that we didn’t do these often enough or on a regular

Lecturing for more than thirty minutes? This is what you can expect.

enough schedule. We hope to improve this going into next year. Second, we learned that the term ‘coffee chat’ is a winner. Students really latched onto the term and we found that many of our students would attend willfully for many subjects. (Here it is important to understand that we did not make our coffee chats mandatory; I’ll explain later.) Third, we held the attention of our students to a much higher degree when we kept our chats to twenty minutes or less. A few chats would reach into the thirty or forty minute range; they just didn’t seem to be as affective. Finally, we discovered our students often times took coffee chat knowledge and used it as a spring board for furthering a project or even completely revising one.

We did our best to authenticate our coffee chats by allowing beverages during the chat time. (Our school had recently opened a coffee shop as a marketing lab, so students really could bring in coffee in the morning.) We also decided this first year to allow our chats to be voluntary. There were drawbacks in the sense that a few coffee chats were really necessary for all to hear, while others could be missed based on what a child already knew. Our solution? Next year we plan to have a calendar in place that shows which chats are mandatory and which are voluntary for each semester. How well will this work? I suppose we have next year to find out for ourselves.

I wanted to share the coffee chat idea with you in case you find the concept of value. I feel this is a good compromise for a teacher who really wants to dive into PBL but has reservations about giving up so much control. You would be amazed how much more willing a student is to attend and listen to a ‘lecture’ when it is termed as a coffee chat or a workshop. (I’ll talk about workshops in a future post as well.) If I learned anything from my first PBL year, it is that students are capable of much more understanding, devotion, and creativity if you just give them the opportunity to choose.

Besides, aren’t we all motivated when we know we have choice in how we tackle a problem? We need critical thinkers and people who can think outside of the proverbial box. Coffee chats are merely a way of sparking initial interest or to clarify a standard. What happens after the chat is what separates PBL from everything else in education.

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: ( 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!

Caution: Controversy Within

A parent forwarded this video to me today. I find it worth sharing. The author of the ideas within do not wholly express my own opinions, but it is pretty close. He certainly has it right in correlation to the needed paradigm shift in public education. (He has a few holes in his argument, but much of the evidence he does bring up is worth considering!)