Join Us at GACTE July 12th!

My protege and partner-in-crime, Mr. Nic Carroll, and I will be presenting at this year’s GACTE (Georgia Association for Career and Technical Education) conference at the Cobb Galleria Center in Atlanta on Friday, July 12th.

We’ll be focusing on the topic of using Google Apps, specifically Google Sites, as a way to develop student e-portfolios:

Digital Portfolios: Using Google Sites and Tools to Build Student Developed Project Portfolios

We’re excited for this opportunity to share what we’ve been doing with our PBL Studio students for the last few years. Feel free to visit the GACTE website for more information if you’re interested in joining us!

We’ll be presenting at 10:00 AM that morning. Hope to see some of you there!


When the STEM Community Gets it Wrong

I call it the pendulum effect. American society has the interesting habit of fixating on something considered ‘the solution’ to any given problem–in this case education–and when we do this, we easily lose sight of the bigger picture. In essence, we go from one full swing of the pendulum in one direction to a full swing in the opposite direction where the pendulum stays locked often forgetting the pendulum is meant to swing both directions–consistently–at all times–in order to maintain proper momentum.

Recently, we had two of our juniors win a prestigious web design award that is partially sponsored by Google. The competition centered around a group’s ability to design, advertise, create a business plan, demonstrate functionality and market. My colleague, Nic Carroll, sponsored their group’s efforts and went with them to receive the award. (They won in all categories overall!) While at the Atlanta Google office and listening to Google leaders speak, Mr. Carroll was struck by how hard they pushed STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) as the solution to all educational woes and downplaying the efforts of studies in humanities and the like. This got both of us thinking. You see we’re both firm proponents of STEM, but like most ideas in education or business its merely a buzz word that doesn’t give credence to what matters most–critical thinking.

What we’ve learned in our time as PBL teachers using a humanities base is that it really isn’t about how much STEM is implemented into a program of study; rather, the onus should be on innovation, critical thinking and problem solving. All three of those concepts can be accomplished in any area of study if presented through inquiry. STEM is not the only solution and if we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves swinging the pendulum in the other direction to sit and stay once everyone realizes that our kids can’t write or draw off of history’s critical lessons or create with any new ingenuity due to a lack of art. It doesn’t have to or need to be this way. We can have both STEM and humanities working in conjunction, asking the right questions, and developing critical thinkers. I worry, however, that those in the technology businesses and large technology conglomerates will stifle the idea that the humanities are as important a resource as STEM studies.

What do you think? Isn’t a balance necessary. We’ve have a humanities-based PBL classroom for three years now, and we’ve seen tremendous growth in thinking and innovation through our program. We must be careful not to fool ourselves into thinking there is ever one, black and white solution.

The Wonderful World of Google Apps: How We Use Spreadsheet in PBL

This is part three of an ongoing series. To see the previous entries click here and here.

Spreadsheets in Google Drive is probably the most significant of the apps we use through Google in our PBL classroom The Studio.  One of the tenants of PBL is to have students take ownership of their learning and to have choice. Well, if you’re an educator you know all to well that choice has been restricted quite a bit in many cases due to standardization. To be clear, I am not anti-standardization. There is something to be said for having everyone work towards a common goal; however, a classroom’s, teacher’s and student’s autonomy has to fit into the balance as well. I feel strongly that PBL (Project Based Learning) allows this to happen. Just last year, the federal government implemented the Common Core in an attempt to revamp the country’s educational focus and try to bring cohesion to our nation’s schools learning practices. I, for one, was very impressed with the end result of the standards presented to the country. They are everything PBL needs to thrive including a heavy focus on the development of skills and not just rote memorization of random facts and ideas. (Not that there is anything wrong with memorizing something from time to time.) The problem is that most school systems took these standards and decided they needed to tweak them for their own needs. Good intentions, sure, but the result is nothing more than further bureaucracy and more force-feeding of underdeveloped curricula. Really, my point here is that the Common Core is steering us in the right direction, even if our own school system is to some degree bastardizing them.

So what does this mean for my class and Google Spreadsheets?

As mentioned above, PBL is about student ownership and choice, and although we are stuck with the standards the nation and state hand us, that doesn’t mean we can’t give choice to our students. Whenever we begin a project, students are first to go to a spreadsheet that is already set up for them with a preexisting rubric that contains every standard of every subject they are attempting in the PBL class. From here, students can then choose the standards in which the believe they will achieve by conducting their next project. This simple idea gives us a two-fold effect by allowing students immediate choice in their learning while adhering to important standards, and it causes students to take immediate ownership of their learning due to this choice. Below are a few screen shots that show the basic set up of the spreadsheet:











It takes quite a bit of effort and time to set up this kind of spreadsheet, and it has evolved over the course of the last three years; however, by taking the time to create this, we’ve been able to really allow students more autonomy while holding them accountable for the learning they will be tested on later. It is also a simple tech skill they develop by learning to navigate and manipulate a spreadsheet.

To be successful, we do set ground rules with the amount of standards that must be implemented in each project. We learned the hard way that with no set criteria some students will simply choose only a few standards to hit, which defeats the overall purpose of our expanded learning. We sell this standard by calling it a ‘strong suggestion’ but the students know what it really means. We advocate that students use no less than eight standards for the LA and APHG and they actually implement all the standards for the BC  as they hit most of those standards in every project anyway.

There is certainly more to this than just what I’ve shared here, but this should give you an excellent idea of how we manage our project rubrics and basic scoring. Spreadsheets is just another reason why in The Studio we love Google Apps.

The Wonderful World of Google Apps: How We Use Docs in PBL

If you’d like, check out my introductory post about Google in our classroom here.

There is nothing particularly brilliant about what Google documents offers. Microsoft’s Word still out performs Google’s attempt by leaps and bounds in terms of functionality and alteration; however, where Google docs steals the show is simply in its sharing and cloud capabilities.

For us in The Studio, Google docs gives us an avenue to digitally share, collaborate and assess student work all while protecting our student’s identities and safeguarding against students digital misconduct (read cheating here). Specifically, we use Google documents to have students develop research proposals, but students also use them to develop research packets, narrative and expository writing, and just general collaboration among project group members. Due to Google’s instant sharing capabilities and fair security settings, students can submit final proposals and products to use via Google documents where we can then access and comment on their work all digitally. What we love about docs as well is how they easily connect and can be embedded into a Google site, which each of our students maintains as an online portfolio. Finally, what I probably most love about all Google Drive apps is that they all instantly save as you go and they collect revision histories for you so nothing is ever lost; we can also easily see if a student cheated or lied about the completion time of a document. (Time stamps don’t lie!) Not that we ever really have to check revision history for this very often, but it is still a nice feature to have in place.

Today, I’m focusing solely on our use of docs to generate research proposals. If you’d like to learn more about Drive capabilities through Google, you should check out their blog here.

Alright, on to research proposals. Nic Carroll (my colleague) and I decided early on that we wanted our proposals to be written in APA format and to have certain sections within the document each time a student group turned it in to be assessed. We felt that MLA would ultimately be useless for our students after high school besides a handful of English courses they would take, so APA was soon elected as our research focus. We do not use exact APA style as there are just too many rules for most high schoolers to learn comprehensively; however, we do expect many of the rules to be used and followed, while using The Owl @ Purdue writing center as a reference for remembering APA formatting. Below is an image of how we set up the instructions and the title page:

From the title page, we developed how we wanted each section of the proposal to organize itself. This has been an evolutionary process. What we do now is not exactly what we did two years ago. Each year we re-accessed (sometimes even mid-year) and reorganized the proposal based on what we felt was missing, needed to be dropped, or adjusted. It is also important to note that the term research proposal might need to be used loosely. This document is something that is written over the entire process of the project building period. As you’ll see below, one half of the proposal must be done after the first week to ensure that students are steadily building the document. Essentially, the proposal ends up being a fairly thorough research document/essay including: an introduction, research questions, description of the intended audience, a list of standards and any relevant vocabulary that fits with them, an intended outcome, job titles and descriptions, result/conclusion, student reflections, and finally a reference/bibliography section. This is a way as a language arts teacher to ensure that students are always writing academically and developing formal writing skills even when their products may not push them to do so in any given project. Check out the next set of images below to get an idea of how we align the proposal for our students. *Note that the images are an incomplete view of everything we place on the proposal.

What you still can’t see from the images is a final section that is used for listing all their bibliographic information in APA format. I don’t claim for this to be perfect, but it has worked well for us and our students. By completing this at times arduous document, they become better writers and become much more familiar with the standards they are required to learn. This final image below just demonstrates how we use the share function if you’ve never used it before:

As mentioned above, we use docs for more than just these proposals, but this is one of the most formal ways we’ve used them successfully in a PBL classroom. I hope you might have found some of this enlightening or maybe something you could even use in your classroom. Happy learning!

The Wonderful World of Google Apps: An Introduction

I’ve been busier this fall semester than I anticipated I would be just a few months ago. The only posts I’ve really contributed in the last two months have focused solely on the charter school amendment being voted on today in Georgia. (I’m sure I’ll share my thoughts on the result when I find out later tonight.) It is time to move on, however, and focus back on PBL and its practice in the classroom. Enough politics for one year, right?!

I’m starting a new series of posts that is going to concentrate exclusively on how we use Google Apps in The Studio. For those new to the blog, The Studio is the my project-based learning classroom where a few colleagues and I have spent the last three years developing a PBL environment where students in a large public school could have choice in terms of the direction of their learning. In the class, we rely heavily on Google Apps and their many features. Their versatility is what made them so attractive to us to begin with. Our school utilized Google’s option to generate your own domain while still using all of their products such as Gmail, Google Drive, Calendar, etc. Thanks to a fellow PBLer-in-arms Mike Reilly over at Lanier HS in Sugar Hill, Ga we were set up with this access before we even began planning for The Studio at North Gwinnett. Nic, my colleague, and I immediately saw the value in using what was then referred to as Google Docs as a digital avenue to operate the structure of our new class. It wasn’t long before we designed everything from project proposals to rubrics to student portfolios for the class. I’ll attempt in a handful of future posts, to explain how we use Google Apps to turn our classroom into a mostly digital playground for learning and assessment.

Here is an overview of what Google offers educators that can be used safely in any classroom:

Gmail — It seems silly, but gmail accounts are some of the most secure public accounts around. When teachers and students are all sharing Gmail accounts, it is incredibly easy to communicate, chat, and develop an online discussion between the instructor and his or her students. This also allows students to collaborate more readily. Look into getting your school set up with a Google domain, so you know the accounts are even more secure and can be controlled locally at your school. (This also allows for control over student accounts and account names. For instance, our students use their first initial, last name and the last three digits of their student number as their usernames that are attached to our extensions that are all run through Google. i.e.

Drive — This is the mecca of what Google provides for us in terms of versatility and digital assessment. Formally labeled Google Docs, Drive connects users to online access to Google’s version of a word processor, spreadsheets, forms, presentations, drawings, and even video. What is so nice about Drive is that you can upload any kind of file to the account; you’re only limited by the amount of space Google provides, which you would rarely run out of space. So, PDFs, MP3s, MP4s, WAV, etc. can all be collected in your personal cloud space under Drive. The focus of my next few posts will center around Drive and how we use these particular apps in the class.

Google Sites — This is how we help students develop their own digital portfolios as well as teach them basic website building. As students complete a project, they collect their research, presentations, proposals, and products on their own portfolios. This collection will be used this next year to help our current juniors get into paid internships their senior year. We also love using Sites because it is a singular location for students put all of their project content in one place for easier summative grading. Sites isn’t as intuitive as many would like, but the challenge of learning how they operate is well worth it as students learn basic website building skills including some coding. More advanced students can manipulate their portfolios using html and even Java to develop stunning portfolios. (I’ll demonstrate in a future post!)

Google Books and WeVideo — Google Books has been a great feature to connect my literature students to various pieces of content digitally rather than lugging around a textbook, and since so much literature is out of copyright, most ‘classics’ can be found through Google Books. WeVideo is relatively new and isn’t technically owned by Google, or at least to my knowledge it isn’t, but WeVideo is an online video editing software that works seamlessly with GoogleDoc Videos. This means any video clips saved as a GDoc Video can be pulled into the editor from the cloud and put together in a project at any time and from any location with internet access. This is huge considering we have so many students work with video creation in their products.

Well, that’s the basic overview. In my next post, I’ll cover how we use Google Documents in our program including how we help students develop research proposals. Until then, explore the links above and consider the possibilities of how you might use Google Apps in your classroom!