Scaffolding the PBL Shift

Scaffolding the PBL Shift

I remember my first year teaching freshmen Global Studies at a brand new Project Based Learning school. I was so excited to allow students to pursue their own paths in student centered learning. I gave them open-ended topics like imperialism to pursue with little guidelines and no rubrics. I thought the students could research and figure out what interested them and what was important all on their own.

Fairly soon the students started coming to me and begging for guidance, and it wasn’t limited to struggling students. The most vocal students were the ones who had gotten all A’s in traditional classes. Some of their complaints were based on the fact that they had previously understood the “game” of school and PBL had changed the rules of what it meant to be successful. Instead of just regurgitating back what the teacher said on the test, they now had to analyze and think critically for themselves.

But some of their complaints were legitimate. It was unrealistic of me to throw them into the deep end of the pool without first teaching them how to swim. They were like young Forrest Gump with his crooked back unable to walk correctly without his leg braces. Too much voice and choice before students are ready can paralyze them into a state of confusion and indecision….

Continue reading Scaffolding the PBL Shift at the Buck Institute for Education blog where it was originally posted.

Poverty Project Builds Social Awareness

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“At our Project Based Learning (PBL) high school we are constantly developing the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) skills of our students through collaboration in authentic work. We decided to end the school year with a service learning project to focus on the competency of social awareness. We combined American Studies, an integrated American history and ELA class, with chemistry in the Poverty Project. In American Studies, students explored the questions: “Why are people poor? Whose fault is it? and How can we fix poverty?” while learning about the Great Depression and reading The Great Gatsby. In chemistry class, students learned about how soap works on a molecular level and the intermolecular forces involved.

To launch the project, we had representatives from Heartside, a local mission that works with their “neighbors” (homeless people), come in and talk to students about how Heartside shows their neighbors respect and gives them dignity through education and art programs. Our students were challenged to brainstorm what they could do to support Heartside…..”

Continue reading Poverty Project Builds Social Awareness at the Buck Institute for Education blog where it was originally posted.

Cramming in Last Minute Caring

studying hard

By Dean+Barb

We have about a month of school left. I am worn out from a long and stressful year. The weather is getting warmer and sunny (rare during Michigan winters). Kids are getting more restless and active. Everyone knows that we are pretty much down to the end and the pressure is on to make sure that we “cover all of the content” required by the syllabus, district, or curriculum office. Every Friday I am exhausted and ready for the weekend.

I too am feeling the pressure of the end of the year, but in a different way. I feel like I am still learning to know my students and I only have limited time to engage them on a deep level. The seniors (which I no longer teach) are thinking about grad parties and college choices. This is my last month of having my students in class daily and getting to know their hopes and dreams. I have limited time to hear their jokes, listen to stories about their plays, music performances, and games. Time is slipping away from me being there to hear about students’ struggles with family issues, friendship problems, or personal dilemmas.

I think about the students that I don’t know as well as I would like to because they are quiet or closed off. I think about the girl who has a hard shell around her keeping out anyone from seeing her deep pain. I think about the boy who thinks that no one really understands what his home life is like. So many students with so many dreams, yet also so much personal pain and struggles.

I want to finish the year strong. To me that means lots of listening, caring,  and connecting. To me that means pushing my students to love themselves and each other.  Our last project focuses on poverty through the lens of the Great Depression. I want my students to care about the less fortunate and be empathetic.

I will end the year by concentrating on connecting with students personally.

I will end the year by speaking encouraging words daily.

I will end the year by challenging students to consider the less fortunate.

I am tired. I am ready for a break, but my students still need my best.

I will end the year with love. I will show students how to love each other. I will leave my students with a message of hope and love for all.

We are going to cram in as much caring this month as we can…

Student Voice and Choice

I had the opportunity to record a short Google Hangout with other National Faculty members from Buck Institute for Education on the Gold Standard for “Student Voice and Choice.”

John Larmer wrote a nice post summarizing it here.

Check out the entire GHO below:

Going Public: The Power of Local, Community Partners in PBL

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Ever have a project that students don’t get very excited about? Chances are that it was lacking a quality audience and purpose.

Deciding on the right public product that is authentic to students can be one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of designing a gold standard project-based learning (PBL) project. Sometimes teachers try to force a project on a set of standards in an artificial way. A way to avoid this is to start with an excellent, local partner.

How We “Went Public”

In our community, Grand Rapids, a couple of local citizens started an organization called Grand Rapids Whitewater, dedicated to removing dams from the Grand River in order to restore the original rapids for economic and ecological reasons. They raised money and political capital until it became obvious that their dream was going to become a reality. My colleagues and I immediately recognized that this was going to be the biggest change to our city in decades. We had to get our students involved!

Finish reading my guest post at Getting Smart blog or on the blog where it was originally published.


Peer Teaching

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In my math class I feel I did a good job teaching some student the content, but many students in class learned more from each other than from me.

Many students do not learn math well from large group instruction of examples on the board. They thrive with individual attention. But I can not sit down individually with 25 students for an extended amount of time. This was frustrating for students and myself.

The solution came as I encouraged students to work on practice problems together. From this collaboration, stronger students started helping ones who struggled and needed more attention. I could do large group examples and my strongest students would “get it.” They would then work in groups and help others. This gave the “teaching” students confidence and the “learning” students the attention that they needed. I saw a dramatic increase in the quality of work on assessments.

The other “technique” that I use in math class is that whenever I give practice problems I also give students the answer key. The reason that I do this is so that students can check their own work. By having the answers students will not do a whole bunch of problems wrong and learn bad habits. If students get a problem incorrect they can “reverse engineer” how to do the problem correctly from the answer. This can lead to deep understandings. Students can’t cheat by copying the answers from a friend because they all have the answers and I don’t grade the practice problems. The motivation to do the problems comes from a clear understanding that the problems represent the coming assessment.

I then can work the room and help the students who self assess that they don’t know what they are doing. Students either gain confidence as they check their work and see correct answers or get immediate feedback that they are incorrect and can ask for help from their classmates or me.

Sometimes the students need less of listening to us and more of working together to solve problems on their own. We need to step in and coach as necessary, but also encourage students to develop their own number sense and be able to solve problems themselves.

Wait Time Done Right


I was part of a PD on asking deeper questioning this week. They did a great job modeling what they were teaching us. They would introduce a concept and have us practice with a “neighbor” or would ask a question and have us discuss at our tables. They kept these activities short, only giving us a minute or two to discuss which kept us on task and did not give time for side conversations.

This was not a new process to me, but they did one extra step that I think was significant. While we were talking they went around to different groups and asked someone to share out their thinking in the large group conversation that followed. So after these small conversations when we discussed as a whole group the leaders did not have to ask who wants to share because these people were already chosen.

I had never thought of wait time like this before. To me, when I think of wait time I usually think of pausing and not calling on the first student who raises their hand, but letting other students have a chance to process first.

Their process, in my opinion, is a much better way to do wait time. Students have a warning that they will be sharing, but have time to mentally prepare what they will say and get feedback from their group. This is an opportunity for shy students to think through things and yet are given a voice without being put on the spot.

Wait time doesn’t have to mean a student thinking silently. Wait time also means the opportunity to discuss your thoughts with a partner before taking the risk of sharing with the whole group.

What techniques do you use to give your students wait time?

Civil Rights Tour of Grand Rapids

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Last spring my students did a project studying local Civil Rights history and comparing it to the more “famous” national Civil Rights Movement. They made podcasts telling the local stories and then we put it into a tour.

Check out the blogpost that Experience GR wrote about the project…

Why “off task” is OK

By McQuinn

By McQuinn

My friend Russ tweeted this quote (questioning it):

“Every spare moment in our classrooms should be packed full of engaging, learning opportunities.” from The Edvocate.

I replied that I’m ok with students being off task sometimes. You see no one is always “on.” We all get distracted sometimes and we also need brain breaks. This may not have been the point of the post, but I often hear people talk about students like they need to make sure that they are working hard on what they are “supposed to be doing” every second of the day.

I think that there are a couple of dangers with this attitude. For one the teacher can become a taskmaster that is always policing the room. The teacher then is seen as an adversary by students, rather than someone to learn with. I think this kind of teacher rarely reflects on the types of activities in their class and whether boredom is the cause of the off task behavior.

Secondly we miss the opportunities to teach students self management. Rather than worrying about whether students are on task we should focus on teaching students to set deadlines and meet them in regards to their projects and work. Successful students already do this and are viewed as “good” students by many. I wonder how many of our “struggling” students are really just students lacking organizational and time management skills?

In the past I have not done enough to seek out the reasons why students are not meeting deadlines. This year I will conference more with students who fall behind and facilitate a conversation to help them figure out how to keep up in class. I will support them in organizational skills as needed.

Finally, sometimes it is ok to just have fun in class for no specific reason. As Dean Shareski always says we need more joy in schools. Sometimes that does not look like a learning experience, and that is ok. Humor, joy, and relationships are the building blocks of trust that will allow deeper learning later. Humans were not designed to always be working. We need to remember our students’ humanity.

If we really want to close the achievement gap



What drives me crazy about conversations about the achievement gap between minorities and whites is that we don’t talk about the causes. Before we get to solutions we should look to why the achievement gap exists. The thing is, that conversation is uncomfortable. I see three main historical reasons that are intertwined racism, poverty, and segregation.

Everyone knows that during the Jim Crow era, blacks were forced into separate schools that were inferior in every way to white schools: resources, buildings, money, teacher training, etc. Segregated schools were definitely not equal and put blacks at huge disadvantages. Segregated schools contributed to huge income gaps (along with institutional racism such as redlined housing and unfair hiring practices). So today we have a legacy where many blacks live in poverty and still attend defacto segregated schools in urban areas due to white flight to either the suburbs or private schools.

So how should we proceed based on these historical causes of the achievement gap? Well there actually is evidence (and here) of some successful ideas to close the achievement gap through integrating schools by busing minority students to white suburb schools or other ways of desegregation. Unfortunately there is about ZERO support for this type of program. Why? Partly because of the costs of the busing, but mostly the vocal complaints of white parents who don’t like it.

Researchers know that integration leads to all kinds of positive effects for blacks and also does not “harm” white achievement (I would add that it would have many benefits for white students being more understanding and empathetic of blacks).

The other thing that we could do as a society is address the wealth gap and actually do something to help people make a living wage and get out of poverty as we know that socio-economic status is the most important factor in measuring student achievement. Of course, blacks are disproportionately poor due to the same historical factors of segregation and discrimination.

Why don’t we address integration of schools and poverty? Well for one they would require the government to actually do something and many whites would oppose these actions with thinly veiled racism. These problems are outside of the control of local school districts and would require state or federal involvement.

If we really want to leave No Child Left Behind, we could start by fixing the causes of the achievement gap instead of blaming urban schools, teachers, students, and their parents. Instead we punish failing schools and closing them we could integrate schools and address the problem of poverty.