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 3rd Annual Studio Fall Expo

It’s that time of year again!

If you live near or around the Atlanta Metro Area, we’d like to formally invite you to come see what our students really do. Every fall we hold an expo-style event that showcases our student’s projects throughout the semester.

The event is Wednesday, December 12th @ 6PM in the North Gwinnett High School commons. It is always a great event, and we love to see the community come out and support the students and their work.

20 Level Creek Road, Suwanee, Ga 30024


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!

Feet to the Fire

Part of what makes my Studio classroom unique from many is that I will always contend with students and parents alike that, although guided, there is room for error, exploration, and re-mastery. What makes this possible is a mind set me and colleagues have fondly coined putting our students ‘feet to the fire’. The idea here is that our students will really only learn what it takes to deliver a great product is if you take the time to learn many points of emphasis on their own. By points of emphasis I mean developing a new technology skill or developing better researching skills. The truth is my colleagues and I don’t have all the answers in terms of how to make a certain product or how to even use certain computer apps. (That’s not to say we don’t know how to use many of them, but there are times we want our students to try something new even if we don’t know how it works.) Most students take on these challenges proudly, and it sets in motion a level of motivation you rarely see in lecture-based classrooms; however, like with all parts of life, there are those few who see the challenge and shy away from it for fear of failure. We’ve built up an education system that deems failure as an insurmountable mistake. This is especially true in high school when everything begins to ‘count’. The reality we all know we live in is that mistakes happen, failure in many cases is eminent, but without those failures, we never see the solution.

The fine line between learning from one’s mistakes and being a fool is a thin one, but one that can still be clearly defined. We encourage students to make mistakes, reflect on them, change the pattern of behavior, and move on. Students only become self-depleting vessels of their own self-destruction when they refuse to learn from a mistake and continue a malfuctionary set action. (Yes, I made up the word malfunctionary, but it works and I’m claiming Shakespeare as my inspiration.) Students must make mistakes, sometimes big ones, in order to succeed in our class and by doing so, we hope we are setting them up for greater success well beyond high school.

The caveat to our ‘feet to the fire’ policy is that it can isolate a student quickly. You have to be observant at all times of a student’s struggles; otherwise, you may be faced with a student who never sees anything but frustration and failure. They will feel unsupported and quickly disconnect from the class. We encourage self-advocacy with our students, but it is still my responsibility to notice when a student is struggling and unwilling to admit it.

So what does ‘feet to the fire’ look like for us? Well this year it means generating infographics using summer research while constructing an argumentative essay or even a multimedia timeline that spans from 8,000 BCE to modern day all in a matter of just a few project planning and execution days. (Roughly a week.) Scary, right? Sure, but students have to learn to trust themselves and we have to learn to in turn trust them because we never know what any of us are truly capable of until we set our feet to the fire**.


** – To clarify, I’m a big fan of archetypes. Here think about fire’s ability to destroy, but also bring about renewal and new life.

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.)