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 Great Charter School Debate: Part 4

This is the final post of my series on the November 6th vote on amendment 1 (the charter school amendment) in the state of Georgia. Here is a student made video that says basically what I, and many others, have already been saying. If you live in Georgia, vote wisely in a few weeks. Check out the video through the link below.


The Great Charter School Debate: Part 1

In November, Georgians will have an opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to approve Charter schools any where in the state of Georgia. Currently, local school systems in Georgia control the creation and operation of charter schools. Over the next two months leading up to the November vote, I will chronicle my views as well as the facts of the case over the Charter school debate. To be clear, I am not anti-charter; I am anti-state implemented charter. We have a handful of good charters in the state now, but they are locally controlled and are held to the same standards as all schools in their particular county. The video below is a scary example of a reality we may face here in Georgia if our state becomes the final say on charter school approval. In my next post, I’ll layout what a charter school is by definition, and what makes them work and what makes them no better than our current public schools.


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!

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.)