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!

Having the End in Mind

It’s been awhile.

Sometimes life just gets in the way of blogging, but have no fear–I have a whole new reflection to share with you today.

Since The Studio’s inception three years ago, my colleague and I struggled to develop the best practice for introducing our students to the world of project-based learning, our expectations, and the realities of good research. This year I think we hit a home run with our freshman group.

You see, we start every school year in our Studio classroom by utilizing summer reading as a basis for the first ‘mini-project’. The idea being that the summer reading actually matters, and the first project is relatively low stakes. (It has a relatively low weight to their overall grade throughout the year.) For the last two years, we’ve used this mini-project as a way of drawing our freshmen into what I had stated above–PBL, expectations, and research. Each year we’ve improved by just the tiniest of margins, but this year we seem to have really figured out how to manage all of our intentions and support our students.

So what was different this year? Much like one of our summer reading books for our ninth grade group suggests, we had the end fully in mind this time around. Sean Covey’s book The 7 Habits of a Highly Effective Teen mirrors his late father’s book of a similar title oriented towards adults and attempts to teach teenagers the value of really prioritizing their lives. The habit of ‘beginning with the end in mind’ is a mantra we’ve used in our PBL class since the beginning, which is partially why I have students read this book coming into high school. Taking a lesson from the book itself, we carefully rearranged how we wanted our first project to flow, and the kind of experience we wanted our new students to have. The end result was a combination project of both a well-designed infographic and an argumentative essay–both developed in small groups of four or less.

Students read two books over the summer for the Studio I (first year) class: The 7 Habits and Harm de Blij’s Power of Place. While ‘Habits’ is an easy read, de Blij’s is anything but for a fourteen year old. We use ‘Habits’ as a way to trigger the right kind of thinking going into a PBL environment–students have to be able to collaborate, think ahead, communicate effectively, follow through, and respect others. ‘Power’ is an in-depth overview of everything a student needs to essentially understand for AP Human Geography. (de Blij wrote many of the current textbooks used in AP classrooms today.) With two very different texts, the struggle has always been how to blend the purpose of both texts into a single, meaningful project. This year we finally found our way. Students were told to find a major issue, with our guidance, in de Blij’s book to center an argument around. Students were told they had to choose a side or qualify their argument about one de Blij’s topics or observations about human geography. Once selected, the issue also had to be given a solution incorporating one of the seven habits in Covey’s book. The project’s product was two-fold as mentioned above. The argumentative essay was a collaborative effort. All members of the group agreed upon an issue and a possible solution, but each member wrote an initial draft separately from the rest of their group. Students then came together to draft a final essay incorporating each member’s insights into a cohesive paper requiring both a clear thesis, arguments given and cited from de Blij’s book, and a solution integrated and cited from Covey’s book. The infographic could be designed using any digital platform, but was to visually represent the issue the group chose and its possible solution. The infographic was to highly visual, but have clear facts and statistics represented throughout.

At the end of the project phase, each student reflected one five specific areas:
What did I learn academically?
What did I learn from a social aspect (ie working in groups)?
What was my greatest weakness during the project?
How can I improve on that weakness in the next project?
What was the most memorable aspect of the project?

The results? Well see for yourself below:

Breath of Fresh Air

If you’ve read the blog recently than you know that earlier this week a few like-minded individuals, including myself, got together for what we deemed an un-PBL conference. The two days were both stellar experiences that culminated in some great vertical teaming with my middle school counterparts, new tech tools, and planning for a bright future for PBL in a few of our local schools. It was a small affair, but the intimate feel to the group allowed for some great collaborative sessions.

The bigger takeaways from the two days had to do with helping to shape what a grade 6 thought 12 model will look like in my school cluster. We are reaching an ever nearing pinnacle where solidifying a clear model is becoming necessary. It was encouraging to watch that model really start to take shape. From a personal stand point, I had a chance to consider new approaches such as devising more ‘entry events’ for new projects to heighten interest, working with students very early in the year to look closely at their schedules outside of school to see how much interference there is to finishing a project at times, and really developing a consistent format for formative assessments throughout a project phase. These are very doable improvements, but time and commitments can get in the way. It is my sincere hope that me and my colleagues can really execute some of these thoughts well this year. In a coming post I’ll address the concerns of how time consuming PBL feels and how daunting the setup feels too.

Finally, here are a few techie tools that were discussed and could be valuable to you:

1.) Wolfram Alpha – Amazing comparative search engine. This very well may change how our students research academically.

2.) LiveBinder – Not a Google Apps fan or expert? This could be a great place to have students organize and communicate digitally for projects.

3.) KickStarter – Need an idea for a project? Want to help students get their projects supported in the real world? Then check this beauty out!

A big thank you to Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss from joining us! (If you’re serious about getting PBL started in your classroom or school, these two ladies are a great place to start.)

2011-2012 Top Ten

I want to start a new tradition of listing out my favorite projects that are completed throughout the year. In part, so I never forget how special some of these projects are as well as honor my students’ awesome work. Below you’ll find a top ten that really isn’t in any particular order. (I don’t have the heart to really rank them when so many are so good to begin with!) I have a little snippet of explanation as well with each.

1. Augmented Reality – This was the first time I had heard of AR; although, the technique has obviously been around for at least a little while. My students being a bit wiser than me in terms of the latest technology decided to base a project entirely around using AR as a learning tool in the classroom. The first attempt resulted in a 3D to-scale model of a clipper ship, while a later attempt would generate images of the globe, a model of an English factory from the industrial era, and a few other cool pieces. Basically what happens with AR is that software is used with the aid of a camera that when aimed on a “trigger” projects, in real time, a 3D interactive model with relatively high detail. In summation, a very cool interactive tool!

2. Knowledge of the Garden – You’ve seen me gloat about this one on the blog a few times already. I’m always thrilled when our students projects become real and visceral. In this case, students created an educational green space in a local park and used public speaking, presentation, and fundraising skills along with academic research to generate a physical product that will be in our community for a long time to come. (This was our “Get Active” type event from last year.)

3. Time Scanning – I just posted about this, so click here to see what it is all about if you haven’t seen it already. (This will be on display at the expo tomorrow night!)

4. The Pixel People – We have many students, especially young men, who love video games. Many have wanted to generate a game themselves, but honestly our resources at school are somewhat limiting as well as our project time lines usually don’t warrant enough time to really create such a product. Well, thanks to a great little program called Scratch, that all changed this year. We had two students develop a video game that takes a player on an adventure that simultaneously teaches the player important AP Human Geography terminology. It is a lo-def game, but fun to play and great to see come to life.

5. Appspeare – A down side to our Studio make-up is that the language arts portion of many projects become after thoughts due to the grandeur of the AP content; however, every once in a while a project really resonates with LA portion of the class. In this case, a young man developed an app with the intent of helping students understand and interpret Shakespeare better. He includes historical information, reading strategies, his own analysis of a play, and connects with the human geography of Shakespeare’s era. Although not a licensed developer yet, this creation will help this student possible find a new hobby in app development in the coming years!

6. Fit 4 You Learning – I’ve doted on this project on the blog before too. This was simply cool because it was students really thinking about how they learn and then applying it to a product that would help others learn. A couple of young ladies, who  consistently develop great projects, devised a teaching and learning ‘company’ that appeals to all learning types and generated lesson plans, activities, and an interactive website for the product. The result was professional and insightful. Metacognition at its finest.

7. The Six Degrees – This was fun in more ways than I can tell you. Have you ever played the game “Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon” or some form of it? This entire project was based off of the belief that you could get back to any desired Wikipedia page in six steps or less. Students developed a lab of sorts to record their findings as they tried to constantly come back to various topics of the historical era they were researching. The result was a simple, but informational research document included tables, graphs, analysis and conclusions drawn from various outcomes. It was an entertaining experiment with interesting results. (More often than not, they could get back to a desired page in six steps or less.)

8. The Epic of DERP – Remember when I said that many of our students love video games? Well this project served to reinforce that idea all over again. A first semester project, a group of young men used a handful of video game mapping programs to develop a visual epic that was to mimic ones such as Gilgemesh and The Iliad. The result was a ninety-plus page epic with visual maps of the various adventures and landscapes included in the epic. It was well written and really synthesized the research of ancient civilizations and early epics.

9. A Tale of Four Cities – Another video game related project, this particular one I wrote about before as well. Using Minecraft, students developed replicas of four major ancient civilizations and their most important structures. Although, this project lacked some of the writing integrity that I would have liked, the overall result was fascinating and structurally fairly accurate.

10. The Decision 2012 – One of the most thought provoking of all the projects, six students took the task of learning about current political, economic, and societal issues inherent in the upcoming US elections and developed their own candidate campaigns, debates, propaganda, and points of view. The result was astonishingly mature (especially for ninth graders) and balanced political project that really demonstrated their knowledge of the political process. What probably matters most about this project is that they really looked at the issues and the political climate of the country, which is rare in many young people let alone high school freshmen.

Pretty cool, huh? I can only imagine what next year will bring…