My PBL Adventure Year 3 Reflection–UPDATED

Writing this post has been put off for almost two weeks now. Partially because the end of the year hadn’t quite arrived, but also because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write down for others to consume. The year has not been bad in the least, but I found myself maybe more uncertain and cautious at the end of this year than in years past. From the most positive perspective, we have finally reached our four year program goal of concluding the fourth year as an internship. We have about twenty-five of our students participating as interns next year, which is exciting since this has been part of the dream. We expanded the program to pull in another teacher as well as a fourth to help run the internship program. Our freshman group has been the highest preforming yet with great projects as well as scores. (Note that AP scores will not be in until July.) We had more people than ever take notice of our program including our own county finally noticing what PBL has to really offer our schools. The middle grades program is finally in-line with our program effectively creating a 6-12 PBL model for our schools. There is plenty to be excited about and to feel pride in, yet a few issues linger that have bothered me at the end of the year.

Our first group to go through from freshman year to now were essentially guinea pigs as we went through the trials and errors of creating PBL for our school. Their results have varied in many areas. Some amazing students have flourished in the program and will continue onto those internships, while many others took for granted what the class offers. Many of those students, however, have still moved on to great opportunities with dual-enrollment and even ivy league opportunities. This first group taught me about myself as a teacher, made me grow and change my line of thinking; they forced me to come facet-to-face with the best and worst parts of myself as a professional. Because of their willingness to start this journey, those younger than them will have a continued opportunity to thrive–if we can continue to get the community on board. That continues to be a sticking point where some people just don’t like what were doing, and the excuses are endless and mostly unfounded. Although we’ve done a better job communicating what we’re doing, there is still plenty of stigma around our program.

Our second year group grew this year by about twelve new students. Some students really thrived, while others struggled to use the class productively. Those who struggled all struggled for the same reasons–they have a hard time using their time well, can be easily distracted, and struggled being dependable in group settings. This is not to mention those who have other variables like home life that may have been affecting them negatively. Still, this group was solid. Projects varied in quality, but were full of great content in most cases. Test scores were solid as well. Although, from a language arts perspective, they should certainly have been better. Our county’s writing exam proved to be easy enough for our students to succeed in and we don’t know the AP results yet. What become disheartening is the amount of students leaving the program who are quite good at it. This exodus has been a wake up call for me and colleagues to the point where we’re redesigning the purpose of year two and three of the program to offer the development of new and valuable skills. We’re still scavenging through the reasons students are leaving, but they typically provide reasons such as parental pressure, a feeling of having learned all they can from the program in terms of soft skills, a general frustration with group projects, or a general uncertainty about what they are getting out of the program. As disheartening as this is to see and hear, it helps us refocus our efforts and ask important and timely questions of ourselves: are we providing the right classes? Is our vision in line with what we’re doing? What must change to enhance the courses? Where are we falling short? What resources do our kids need? Are we putting enough time into the program? The questions are numerous, but important to assess nonetheless.

Overall, we’re still successful and we’re seeing gains. I’m growing as a teacher, and this environment helps me remember why I love my job so much. But there are challenges and pitfalls we’re facing. As we evaluate another year of PBL in the books, it is vital that my colleagues and I strive to mend what is broken, scrap what doesn’t work, and keep a keen focus on the goal of preparing students for the world outside of high school. It’s been another year of ups and downs, but the ups continue to heavily out weigh any of the pesky downs. Here’s to the future!

UPDATE: It is with sadness and hopefulness that I must inform those of you who might care that we are foregoing our junior level of the Studio next year. The decision was difficult but necessary as our third cohort deserves the best we can offer to them from our PBL classroom. We will be retooling the program to ensure clarity and fidelity as we move forward. Our first cohort will still participate in their internships, however. The biggest reason for this decision is we are facing a deficiency in the number of teachers we need to support the classes and students. This too, we hope to rectify this next year. Stay tuned for more updates.

When Do Student Results Really Show in PBL?

Good question.

The answer is complex, and I don’t say that as a cop-out. The reality is project-based learning helps develop a very different student than your more traditional classroom model. I was being interviewed by a colleague of mine yesterday and the line of questioning eventually came to the crossroads of evaluating the ability for a student to analyze in a PBL classroom versus a traditional classroom. When answering, I came to my own epiphany that it will always be hard to make honest comparisons to traditional classroom students versus PBL classroom students effectively without being caught up in what just simple numbers tell us. They are just two different beasts–apples and oranges really.

In the PBL classroom, analysis is required daily to make a decision on a project, but this type of analysis does not always translate into high test scores on a reading comprehension assessment. Where I suspect I’ll see my students thrive with their analysis skills is in real-life scenarios that require the student to make decisions that matter to the end result of a project or even situations of greater gravity that may pertain to life changing events. On the flip side, a student who in a traditional classroom can take a reading comprehension assessment and thrive may not be able to handle the pressure of making a time sensitive, make-or-break decisions like a PBL student could.

So from what I can gather, that is the rub. Or the compromise, rather. A traditional classroom student can be drilled and drilled and drilled with practice and strategies, but may have a much harder time transitioning to situations in college and beyond that require critical thinking and project management. A PBL classroom student will at times stumble on an important reading comprehension assessment because his or her analytic skills are not defined by answering multiple choice questions, but by seeing a bigger picture and the real consequences of a decision. All that being said, I do believe that a PBL student can be molded into a solid test taker, but is that the goal? To make solid test takers? Is that what will drive innovation and bring new ideas to our workforce? I’m not convinced that is the point at all.

Apples and oranges. Making a comparison between these students will most likely disappoint us, so maybe, just maybe, we need to change our point of view.

Reality Check

AP results are in and they are what you might call sobering.

I’ll preface that word choice by also stating that the scores were by no means terrible, but they didn’t meet my or my colleagues expectations for The Studio PBL classroom. Like a business strives to improve profits, we were hoping to make strides forward in our AP scores (our bottom line if you will) proceeding our inaugural year. Alas, we just didn’t quite make those strides; however, we did see one particular area of improvement in the scores that we certainly take heart about; I’ll speak more to that shortly.

AP (advanced placement) is a different animal than anything else in our high schools. Controlled by the College Board (the developers of the SAT and PSAT), AP courses and tests are meant to be much tougher classes and tests than what most see in our first few years of college. The tests that are developed all have different protocols for grading and recently, several tests have been revamped or changed significantly including the AP World History exam. Not to make excuses, but no matter the classroom context, these tests are extremely difficult to prepare for whether teacher or student. With each new year of The Studio, we continue to draw closer to what we believe are solutions to see more success in our students’ AP exams. The truth is we are almost the only ones implementing not only clearly defined standards in a PBL classroom, but AP course work and standards as well. It is exciting to be on the forefront of something so game changing; however, the reality still remains that we are still balancing how our classroom meets the needs of both a 21st century learner and a testing system that still needs great amounts of testing practice to be successful.

What we are working on going into this new school year is a more regimented time for students to practice both multiple choice and writing tasks involved in the tests. The idea is to give more context to the test, while also still striving for great, relevant projects. The goal is not to simply give students test practice, but to also evaluate the quality of writing responses and giving feedback to the student, which in turn should give greater context to the point of a correct answer or response. It will be a tough road to hoe this year, but it is essential to us seeing our AP exams reflect the learning happening the classroom. (Bear in mind that our state test scores as well as county are still top notch across the PBL curriculum!) If we manage to develop the right balancing act, then The Studio will take the next step forward in its quest to help innovate the current public school model.

So what did see happen this year? Our tenth graders partaking of the AP World History exam this year didn’t fair as well as we had hoped. The average score was below anticipated, but we did see students who had not been successful the previous year increase their score and in some cases pass the exam. The best news came with the ninth grade group who took the AP Human Geography exam. Half the class (mostly honors and on-level students) passed the exam! This was a great improvement from last years ninth grade group. We’re taking the good with the bad and figuring out how we can grow and improve. Only time will tell, but we’re focused and ready to march forward towards new goals. With school starting in just a week and half, the third year of the PBL experience is about to begin!

My Second Year of PBL Comes to a Close

Year two of my adventure in implementing PBL (project-based learning) into a large urban classroom setting came to a close officially yesterday at 11:45am eastern time. My students headed off to their summer, and my colleagues and I began the process of evaluating and reflecting on another year.

It was a good year. It had its share of tribulations, but anything worth doing will have its challenges; I’ve learned great lessons from both the positive and negative moments that arrived throughout the year. The number one positive to come out of year two is that there is officially going to be a year three. We will now have three levels of the Studio: freshmen year, sophomore year, and now junior year! I consider this a great success considering so many new programs in a time of economic turmoil and budget cuts easily crumble and fade quickly. Our numbers are strong for next year and we’ll be introducing a new teacher into the mix, which I am personally elated about. The point is we are expanding, growing, developing, learning, and still adventuring.

We all know that here in U.S. we are playing a testing numbers game, and we are no different in the Studio in the sense that we must answer to the same demands. It has been the hardest concept to win anyone over to believing that PBL is a viable and real way of learning in a classroom when tests so often determine a student’s fate for college and beyond. The good news here is that we continue to have success on high stakes tests and we’ve seen some improvement from last year even. We won’t have results from AP tests until July, but we’re hopeful that those numbers will reflect continued growth. Our EOCT (end of course test) scores showed an increase in ability with the 9th grade group as all but five scored in the EXCEEDS category and the remaining five made no less than an eighty-five percent on the exam.

Numbers on tests don’t tell the whole story though.

We have students who have earned spots for Georgia’s Governor Honors Program, a Georgia Tech summer technology group, the MARC (Model Atlanta Regional Commission) summer institute, as well as internships. (All of ours students are either 9th or 10th graders; most of them can’t even drive yet!) I couldn’t be prouder of their accomplishments and how they are using the skills developed in the classroom to achieve greater aspirations outside of the classroom.

I foolishly posted that my second year has come to a close, but the reality is that I’ll be right back at in another week when many local PBLers will get together for an informal conference for two days. It should be a great time to share and brainstorm for the future. In the meantime, as I reflect on a year just coming to an end, I say bravo to my students, my colleagues, and maybe even a little pat on my own back for another successful year.

Here’s to the future!

Pineapples Don’t Have Sleeves

An interesting article in the NY Times today concerning a particularly confusing and disquieting reading passage on a standardized test for eighth graders in New York that asked questions that left students scratching their heads in utter confusion.

If you’ve looked at my blog recently than you probably already saw my little rant on my distaste for standardized testing. This certainly helps me feel reinforced with what has been a growing wariness on my part of the testing industry. This particular article spotlighted a passage that was extracted from a Daniel Pinkwater, a fairly well-known children’s author, story that was a parody of the Aesop fable of “The Tortoise and the Hare” except in this case the tortoise is a pineapple. Yep, a pineapple. (Not that there is anything inherently wrong with this concept; it actually sounds like an interesting read.) The problem isn’t even really the story; it’s the absurd questions the test creators, Pearson, generated for the passage and the fact that out of context the story makes little sense. You’ll need to read the article to really get a feel for how bad it is (and to understand my title), but here is a small passage from the article by Anemona Hartocollis:

“The crux of the passage is that the pineapple challenges the hare to a race, and the other animals are convinced the pineapple must have a trick up its sleeve and will win. When the pineapple stands still, the animals eat it. The moral of the story: “Pineapples don’t have sleeves.”

One of the disputed questions asked, essentially, which was the wisest animal. Some students said that none of the animals seemed very bright, but that a likely answer was the owl, because it was the one that uttered the moral.

Others worried that the owl was a distraction, because owls are supposed to be wise, so it would be the wrong answer.”

Tell me again. How does this prove a child’s knowledge or analysis of reading?

Another very interesting blog post from a local education journalist in our local paper brought up points by another edublogger, Will Richardson. Richardson was pointing out that a series of tweets by Chris Lehmann say all too well how multi-billion dollar business groups–like The Gates Foundation–are using technology to invade public schools and undermine educators. I found this particularly interesting considering that I am certainly of the mindset that groups with all the money and power have consistently villified teachers. I ask again why we are not questioning these groups and their connections to those who perpetuate testing as the only avenue of achieving results from student learning? I agree with Richardson that we need to start generating on-going and meaningful discussions about these groups having their hands in the molding of policy.

(To be clear, Richardson concentrates on technology being the “trojan horse” that these groups are using to get into public schools, which is at least partially true, but I personally don’t have a problem with continuing to acquaint students with technologies that will be integral in their adult world. )