Category Archives: PBL

Squeeze of the Test

We offered our first professional development this week to local teachers on PBL (project based learning). Since we are a lab school at the county level it was determined from the planning stages of our school to offer PD to the local districts.

One of my colleagues and I ran the PD session and I was struck by a couple of things. The teachers who attended did not ask very many basic questions about what PBL is or why it is a good pedagogical choice. Many of them had already used it in their classrooms in at least one project and were looking to further develop their understanding and practice of it. They did not need to be convinced to try PBL. In their districts they were the early adopters. They did ask questions about student motivation, managing the projects and groups, and grading.

The questions that hit me the most were questions about testing and assessment. They wanted to know how we assess; how we measure student growth (i.e. what standardized tests do we use and how often); were we concerned about how our students will do on the 11th grade state test (you know the BIG one).

Lifted from Trendblend

These teachers were obsessed with testing and assessment. But to be clear these questions were not asked in a skeptical or judgmental way. They were asking these questions because that is the climate that they live in back in their home districts. It was very clear to me that testing was very emphasized in their schools and although they wanted to shift to student-centered PBL they were concerned about how their students would do on tests. They were looking to be assured that if they went all in with a PBL classroom that their students would perform better on standardized tests. To me, test results are not a very important part of PBL at all. I believe in PBL because I think it encourages a better way to learn and develops important life skills such as collaboration and communication that won’t be on any test.

Even though I taught in one of these districts two years ago, I have forgotten how dominate the testing culture is in most schools today squeezing out everything else. I am truly blessed to be free from the fear of these tests. My students will take the tests and I sometimes worry about how they will do a little bit, but I do not teach in a climate that obsesses about them non-stop and makes them a key factor in every decision.

Other PBL teachers, how do you encourage teachers who want to shift to PBL but feel pressured by a test obsession culture?

National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day!

Today was supposed to be the launch of our school’s greatest project ever including field trips to local factories. Unfortunately weather got involved and we had massive closings (our school buses in students from 20 different local districts) and our busing canceled the trip on us. We ended up with about 25% of our student body showing up so what should we do? Well when you are given lemons you make…bubble wrap!

On the way to work I heard that today is national bubble wrap appreciation day. So we took the protocols learned from Chad Sansing’s Flying Schools Educon session and adapted them to this “special” day. Students went through the design process creating new applications for bubble wrap.

 They made boats that really float 

 Bow ties are cool!
Animal Clothing
Gun target with paint in it that “pops” out when it is hit.
A steering wheel that you can pop when you are stressed. 

If you didn’t catch the reference this came from The Reichenbach Fall. 

All in all it turned into a good introduction to design thinking. We have a long ways to go in particular in the area of improving on our original ideas but it was a good first step and I look forward to implementing this kind of thinking into future projects.

Do you trust students?

I have been trying to be authentic to my beliefs about learning. Hence the students are working on projects of their own design around the Vietnam War and the Cold War. My one class has five groups of 2-5 students each building a Tumblr feed, making a game, writing a children’s book, creating a rap video, and filming a documentary.

The other half of the class (about 20 students) is working together to make a Choose Your own Adventure style videos on YouTube. This is a very mixed group with students who have previously performed well and struggled in my class. Let me just say that they have blown me away. First of all a couple of them took charge and organized the group’s research assigning everyone a topic which they then decided to make into a timeline.

Next on the whiteboard they started mapping out the paths of the “choices” in the video.

Later they divided into roles as writers, directors, actors, artists, props, editors, and computer designers for special effects. We are putting an addition on our school for next year and the construction workers put up a temporary wall as they literally tore off the outside wall over holiday break. What opportunity did students see with this wall?

A place to draw scenes for their videos.

Even after being so impressed with their efforts I saw some of them shooting some scenes outside. I watched them for a few minutes. They were not in costume. They were not organized. The video camera was sitting to the side on a stand. They weren’t even using it!

They were obviously not using their time wisely. I went outside to redirect and Jake told me that he was using his phone since it had an app that added some special effects. I said ok and went back inside.

I guess I forgot about that part of the conversation because I started class the next day by complimenting them on their organization, their creativity, and their efforts. Then with the memory of them running around in a field yesterday, I gently reminded them to focus on the quality of their video. I told them their “process” of learning was great, but that all people would see would be their end product: the videos.

They quickly assured me that they were taking steps to address this including some costumes and props. A few minutes later they were begging me to come watch their movie trailer.

Once again they showed great things in what they were doing. I have blogged alot about giving students a chance to own their learning and they will do great things. The truth is that this project has been very hard for me for fear that the students will “fail” and not learn anything. It has not been easy to give up control.

My teacher eyes see kids running around in a field and I momentarily lose my trust in their efforts. Then they show me what they are doing and prove that they deserve it.

Letting go as a teacher is so hard…

How to win a war.

Last week I lost a war. This week I was determined to do better. The first thing I did this weekend was to actually complete the Venn Diagram assignment myself. I realized many weaknesses of it including poor design and poor choice of texts. I should have created structure before the assignment to help them understand the texts before asking them to compare them. The Library of Congress also did not really address the topics in the way that I wanted. 

So Monday morning I apologized again for the assignment and told students I was not grading it. I explained my intentions and goals of what I had hoped to accomplish and acknowledged how the assignment failed in its execution. I introduced a new challenging read related to the essential questions, but in this task did not ask them to do anything extra with the text, just understand it.

The rest of the week students chose a part of the story of the Spanish American War to tell and started developing materials for their videos. Students like this better, but it would be a stretch to say that very many of them are excited about the project.

Your Choice from marfis75

My larger solution is coming at the end of the project. We are planning the next project on the Cold War. I created a Project Briefcase with the standards and the topics of emphasis: McCarthyism  Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. My temporary Driving Question is “How do you all want to study this?”

I have not planned how we will do this project, the audience, or what our final product will be. There will be no fancy entry event. Students are going to help design this project from day one on what they want it to be. I have given lip-service to this idea before but it is time to put my money where my mouth is: student designed projects. #winning

The one thing that we are planning for this project is a detailed simulation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We feel this is worthwhile because the students have asked us multiple times including last week to do more simulations. Also it is taking a ton of time to research and set up on our part so there is no way that we can wait to start putting it together.

We are looking at this next project as a pilot for turning over our entire curriculum to the students. We have some concerns but it is time for students to take control of their own learning.

I lost a war this week.

I lost a war this past week. My partner and I designed a PBL unit around the driving question “…cuz MD?” for a unit on the Spanish American War. We plan on having students each tell small parts of the war by creating short Common Craft style videos. At first students were hooked trying to figure out what “MD” was. But after they did our project seemed “destined” to failure.

We have found that when students have a good basic background on a topic such as WWII or 9/11 that they do a good job on inquiry. When the topic is more difficult students tend to focus on basic “what” questions instead of deeper “how” or “why.” On top of that they can not even ask good “what” questions unless we lead them to the topics. This is logical when they lack background knowledge, so we end up creating fairly structured activities to “guide” them. In the past if we do not do this they miss many important concepts on their own.

So this past week we created a number of structured assignments to “help” students. We created an activity where they compared Howard Zinn’s description of the Spanish American War with a more traditional approach from the Library of Congress. They were supposed to make a Venn Diagram comparing the similarities and differences of the texts. Students struggled with the reading level and with how Zinn’s writing was not structured like a normal textbook. They had not read Zinn before and could not recognize the “big story” that he was telling of the struggle of women, labor, and minorities as a counter to big business and government. This was the first time we have asked them to compare texts like this. Our selections were too long, too unfamiliar, and the task was too unstructured for the first time attempting it.

The next day we had students analyze the poem “White Man’s Burden” (not an easy read). Again this was the first time that we have looked at poetry this year and we mostly asked them to do it on their own. Students were not curious or engaged. They were bored. We were looking at primary sources that were not easy reads and students gave up because they had no buy in in the project. They called us out on it on Friday. (The irony was I was proudly wearing my new shirt for the first time.) They called it irrelevant,  “busy work,” and “worksheets.” They called it “vomiting up information.” They said they saw no point in what we were doing. They were struggling and frustrated. It hurt because it was true.

One student reminded me of promises I had made in the past not to teach like this and gave examples of better learning that we had done in the past. Once students find their voice you can’t take it away from them. I listened and did not immediately respond. That alone is really difficult for me. I processed and talked to my partner. We recognized mistakes we made in not showing students the relationship between the assignments and the essential questions. We apologized and explained the connections to the class. We went through the essential questions with the class and checked off the ones that we had addressed. It was also clear that students have a good understanding of the key concept of Manifest Destiny after the week’s activities.

We communicated the objectives more clearly to them and it ended on a good note. Students left feeling less frustrated. Problem solved.

But it hasn’t really resolved for me. I was boring. I sucked. I have to do better. This represents my deepest struggle with teaching to the standards. I am not happy with this project and never have been. I am teaching it because I have to for the standards. I recognize the lack of relevance to students but was unable to come up with a way to make it matter to them. We have no authentic audience for the videos and choose them because we thought they would be fun for the students around this boring topic to them.

 This tension between what I have to teach and what students want to learn has been the biggest internal struggle for me this year. To be continued…