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:

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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.

A Meeting of the Minds

On Monday, June 4th and Tuesday, June 5th, Lanier High School in Sugar Hill, Ga will be hosting a casual  and a bit informal PBL conference for a meeting of the minds in our county. There is no charge and there is no pre-paid lunches or anything like that; the conference is really just a chance to bounce ideas off of one another, share successes and lessons learned, as well as plan for the future.

If you’re in the Gwinnett area on these dates and you’re interested in joining us, feel free to register by clicking here. (You’ll also get your basic info for the event there.) Look to the right hand side and click the register button.

PBL gurus, Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss will be attending, teaching, and sharing. It really isn’t something you want to miss whether you’re already a project-based learning junkie, a beginner, or just curious.

Hope to see you there!

Imagination

…it is so essential to not only success in school and life, but in our own happiness. I think back to being a child and how boundless my imagination seemed. Hours upon hours spent dreaming, plotting, and playing out fantasies that were all very real in my heart. I look at myself today and see evidence of that kid, but the truth is my imagination is most certainly bound now. I would tend to think that those that are able to keep their imagination free and unfettered are some of our most successful businessmen and women, technologists, writers, and visionaries.

In terms of current education, I feel strongly that we need to be fostering the continued growth of imagination in our students. I’m as guilty as anyone at times with how my classroom operates. (My more traditional classroom setting has that prison-like feel to it some days where I’m the sole authority of knowledge and my students are their to just ‘learn their lesson’) Still, what has been one of the coolest experiences of developing a PBL classroom has been seeing students suddenly re-engaging their imaginations to develop projects that matter to them.

Don’t get me wrong–I have several students who really struggle coming up with creative solutions to the problems that these projects present, but I think that may be the result of their own imaginations being suppressed over time in school, or at home for that matter. The students who really take advantage of what PBL offers often times astound me with their work. I’ve seen everything from community events to educational green spaces to 3D interactive educational timeline boards (more on that one later) to ninety page novellas from my students. The point is that the result of these projects would be very rare in a traditional classroom. Why? Because there is no time considering the pacing of units and preparation for tests, right?! No matter the reason or what we might want to blame for hampering our students’ imaginations, what we really need to do is continue to find ways to re-engage those imaginations.

I strongly encourage any one out there that is involved in educating our youth to foster their imaginations by using any means possible to show what they can build, develop, redesign, re-image, write, craft, or invent. The key to their future as well as our own is most often found in unlocking the potential of the human mind.

Project: Knowledge of the Garden – UPDATED

UPDATE (4/19): The garden is complete! Last weekend I spent a few hours with my students aiding them in completing a project they had passionately been pursuing for the last several month. Scentia Hortus, or Knowledge of the Garden as translated from Latin, will stand as an educational green space in Suwanee’s White Street Park. Click here for an article the Gwinnett Daily Post wrote about the project. Below is a great picture of the effort. It has been incredible to watch this project develop over time and come to life.

From (4/9): Here is the latest article highlighting a few of my students recent work on finishing an ongoing project at a local park. I couldn’t be prouder of the work they have done and the follow through they’ve shown throughout the, at times, arduous process of developing the project. Students developed an educational green space in the shape of a flat globe to demonstrate their knowledge of both human geography but various writing styles for language arts as well. Here is a snippet from one of our students, Katelyn, as quoted in the article on the reason the garden is shaped like a globe and what is included in the garden:

“Within the land of the globe, we will be placing day lilies and irises. A path made of river stone will be throughout the sea. We wrote plaques that will be bordering the continents and have information regarding topics such as environmental impact of the continent, techniques that environmental writers use to spread the environmental news, agricultural techniques, and even some of the national flowers of the areas,” she continued. “There are 10 plaques bordering the continents with this information, and there are three plaques stationed at the garden entrances that detail the agricultural revolutions.”

If you live in the Suwanee area, take the time to go by and see their work at White Street Park! Yet another great example of how PBL revolutionizes education for this generation of students.

‘Testing Season’

When ever the end of March and the beginning of April approaches there is more irritants in the air than just pollen. Yes, this is the time of year that many of us educators have come to affectionately label ‘Testing Season’.

In the state of Georgia, and really around the country, the end of March triggers the beginning of a two (plus) month process of testing students in every way imaginable. For high school, it begins with the high school graduation test, which is being phased out with a new focus on passing End of Course Tests (EOCT) now. Specifically in Gwinnett County, we then test all our Sophomores in the Gateway examination. This test asks students to write essays on two separate days covering science and then social studies; we then proceed to performance finals, then AP exams, and last but not least those EOCTs. (At the middle and elementary levels they have to contend with the CRCTs.) Yes, there is no denying it is truly testing season for one and all.

This is a new battleground not just for students, but increasingly so for teachers as well since many of us will soon be judged heavily on our students scores. What worries me most is the quality of tests being produced at all levels. I’m not alone in wagging my finger at my own county for producing sub-par interim exams. How do I know they are sub-par? It is quite revealing when the average across the board for students in any particular school and subject is below a passing rate, which has certainly been the case. What makes these interims more frightening is the same student who couldn’t pass the county’s examination will then knock the EOCT out of the park at the end of the year. No matter what angle you choose, the EOCT is too easy or the county’s interim is unmanagable, there is evidence of issues within the tests themselves. I think that is what is most troubling in our current times when teachers are scapegoats and legislation is in the business of quick fixes–we never seem to question the test makers, or the insane amount of money the testing industry garnishes every year. (We’re talking about  billions of dollars, here.) There is little incentive to produce more quality and relevant tests when the rich appear to be quite happy with the status quo. Legislators are lobbied by testing groups and companies all the time with financial incentives to keep them all well fed. It is a deplorable turn of events because we’ve all bought into the belief that we’ve fallen behind the rest of the world educationally. No, what we’ve done is buy into the ponzi scheme of standardized testing. If you couldn’t tell, I’m not a fan.

The truth is many countries don’t try to educate everyone. At least, not everyone all the way past secondary education. Many countries have students take a test by the time they are twelve years of age and their success, or lack there of, determines the academic future. Some go to trade schools while others are put on the fast track to college and university. Here, we have always pushed education for all, and rightfully so, but we are kidding ourselves to believe we’ll ever get more than half our country into universities, keep them there, and have them graduate summa cum laude. It just isn’t realistic. Another issue with us buying into our testing frenzy is what it has done to students around the world. There are laws in South Korea now that ban students from meeting for study groups past a certain time in hopes of staving off sleep deprivation, psychosis, and suicide attempts. I will always contend our solution is not test as well as the rest of the world (whom in many cases do not test every student), but is to instead innovate. Get creative minds working toward new solutions and seeing things differently. In other words, take the lead in education instead of pretending to play catch up with everyone else.

So as testing season begins, I wish to remind all who are willing to read my rant that there is so much more to success than numbers on a test or averages and bell curves. The change we need in our schools starts with demanding those test generators to be accountable for the product they make in conjunction with the money they profit, to develop more rigorous teaching programs at universities so only the most dedicated and most skilled choose to enter the field, and to start believing student are more than a number or an average or unit of study.

The time for innovation and accountability for not just teachers but everyone has long since passed. We have important decisions to make as teachers, parents, and government officials.

How do we want to lead the world and change our passive aggressive education system?

I think it is high time we expunged ‘testing season’ from our vocabularies. Who’s with me?!