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6 Tips for Powerfully Integrated Projects

One of the weaknesses of our modern education system is that content has become so siloed that students rarely see the connections between subjects or connections with their world. Integrated projects can break down these walls when students investigate authentic problems that cross subject lines.

I have team-taught social studies with English and math with science. I have also designed numerous projects that integrated multiple content areas. Integrated projects can be challenging to plan and manage, even for experienced PBL teachers. Here are 6 tips that I have learned to make integrated projects powerful learning experiences for all students.

6 Tips For Powerfully Integrated Projects 

1. Get everyone on board

I tend to get really excited when brainstorming integrated projects. A few years ago, some colleagues and I came up with a Shark Tank-style project solving issues that are remnants of the modern Industrialization. We were mostly humanity teachers but thought that it would make a great school-wide project.

In our eagerness sharing with the rest of the staff, we overwhelmed them and teachers felt forced into something that they weren’t comfortable with. People deserve the opportunity to process what they are being asked to be a part of.

What I learned is that it is as important to get group buy-in, as it is to plan something great. For future ideas, I created a Google Doc pitch of the concept. Then I shared it with commenting rights to everyone involved a week before we were scheduled to discuss it. This gave everyone an opportunity for their voice to be heard both in support and with concerns. It also gave time for people to process the proposal without feeling overwhelmed by my zeal.

The result was a huge success as people who were hesitant before, now were committed to join.

Check out numbers 2-6 at TeachThought where this was originally posted.

When They Want Schools to be like Businesses…

Cheesy Stock Business Photo

I hate when business people want to apply, without context, their ideas to schools. But this modern take on management is very compatible with PBL classrooms.

Author Kim Scott has been co-founder and CEO of multiple tech and consulting companies and a high level manager at both Google and Apple. She has been advisory consultant to leaders at Dropbox and Twitter. She has managed companies working in Kosovo, Moscow, and Israel. In other words, she has led at some of the best and most innovative companies in the world.

I have adapted a management quote from her book, Radical Candor, Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity to our school setting:

“When I was at business school staff meeting, I was taught that my job as a manager teacher was to ‘maximize shareholder value‘ ‘raise test scores.’ In life, I learned that too much emphasis on shareholder value test scores actually destroys value learning, as well as morale. Instead, I learned to focus first on staying centered myself, so that I could build real relationships with each of the people who worked for me my students. Only when I was centered and my relationships were strong could I fulfill my responsibilities as a manager teacher to guide my team class to achieve the best results. Shareholder value High test scores are the result. It’s not at the core, though. ” 

A couple of thoughts, in the business world, data and metrics about making money really is the point. None of the companies that she started, or places that she worked for were non-profit charities. Their purpose was to make cash, yet she says focusing on profits over people is actually counterproductive to that goal.

Now all of these companies use data and make decisions based upon it. But her core values are building personal relationships with her team and giving honest feedback to them. Qualitative data based on observations and relationships is more important than raw, quantitative data. Both businesses and schools involve shaping imperfect humans. Scott understands that relationships are the key to motivation and growth.

The second thing is self care, which many teachers struggle with due to the many demands placed on them. We can not be who we need to be for others if we are personally drowning due to stress, poor health, etc. Take time for yourself to go on a hike or other exercise, make a delicious, home cooked meal, or read a book. Add it to your calendar if you must. It’s vital to your success!

So if business folks want to evaluate schools, then they had better come from a human centered approach instead of a results driven one. Since even in their world, it is more effective.

Life Long Mentors

I once wrote a post about the first time a student followed me on Twitter (I had to go looking way back for that post). I ended up with my own personal policy of not following students on social media until after they graduate. I didn’t block them in any way from following me, but I did not reciprocate.

To be honest, I regret this self imposed policy now. Also I definitely didn’t hold myself to it the past few years.  I have since connected with many students and it is fun to watch them live their lives. Many have finished college, are getting married, having children, and starting their careers.

It is very popular to say how important it is for teachers to build relationships with their students. We all love the old quote, “Students won’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” But I do believe that cliche is true and have personally seen the difference caring makes in the classroom. But…..

How much do we really care if we treat each year of students as a “new batch” and forget about the old ones?

If we really care about our students than it should be for more than one year. Now I realize that there are physical limitations to the amount of caring we can do after students leave our classes. I have had thousands of students over the years and would be lying if I said that I can remember them all, especially their names 🙂

But social media is a great tool to keep up with as many students as possible. It is impossible to have the same close relationship with every student, but we can connect with many and our influence can be multiplied.

One of the groups of students that I am most strongly connected to is my first class at the wall-to-wall PBL school that I taught at. It was a new school and an exciting experience for both myself and the students. I looped with the kids so I got to teach them for two years in a row and for some of them I taught again as seniors. The length of time together and the powerful culture of our school resulted in deep bonds.

The other way that I have bonded with students is through meaningful projects. Our best projects got students excited about the world and making a difference. Students learned about who they were as a person and what mattered to them. Some of them discovered new career interests and skillsets that they didn’t even realize that they had! It was my privilege to encourage them in their unique paths as they explored their passions.

When I say that I care for students, I don’t want it to be for one year. Social media gives me the ability to be a lifelong mentor and friend to them. So for all of the negativity that can be found in these online spaces, don’t forget that they are also powerful tools to keep up with our students.

How can you structure your school and leverage social media for long term relationships with your students?


“It’s the Most PAINFUL, Time of the Year”

Instead of the holiday season being “the most wonderful time of the year” as the song goes, for many students it is an incredibly painful time. I am not talking about the girl who is crushed because her boyfriend broke up with her, but students who are deeply hurting.

Many students, especially those from low socio-economic backgrounds, are dealing with real trauma daily. This can be escalated by the holidays. In our culture, when all of the messages around them are about joy, presents, and spending quality time with your family, it only amplifies the pain some of our students feel about their home life.

Some students may be dealing with the trauma of the loss of a parent or grand parent. If the death happened around the holidays, then they may be remembering the feelings of loss and depressed. There also may have been a significant income loss in the family household leading to frequent moving or homelessness.

I had a student whose birthday was coming up.  When I asked if he was doing anything for special for it, he said, “No, I never get anything for my birthday.” I took him out for lunch at Wendy’s and it really made an impact on him. Unfortunately, “normal” for him was that no one cared.

Many of our students are not looking forward to presents, but embarrassed that they lack basic necessities. They are not looking forward to holiday feasts, but will be missing the daily breakfast and lunch that the school provides. Maybe utility bills are not being paid and the heat is turned off. For them, holiday vacation means hunger, cold, and loneliness.

For other students, family gatherings means more stress in their homes. They may be forced to go to a non-custodial parent’s house and deal with step parents and siblings who they have strained relationships with. There may be stressful situations including drugs and alcohol abuse, or even worse child neglect or abuse. They are dreading what they will be forced to endure over the break.

For teachers, this means don’t be surprised if you see some acting out behaviors from students the next few weeks. Don’t assume that kids are hyper because they are looking forward to the holidays. It may be the exact opposite. They may be acting out because school is the only safe place in their lives and they are stressed about their home life.

The holiday time is an important time to be patient, loving, and kind to students. If you sense that they seem “off,” pull them aside and have a conversation with them about things at home. Ask them if they are looking forward to the holidays. Seek genuine answers and be a supportive listener. Students need extra care and understanding from us as it may be the only positive part of their holidays.

8 Ways to Create Groups in Your Class

Let’s get one thing out of the way, there is no such thing as perfect grouping strategies. There will be struggles in some groups in every project. This is because we teach humans, not widgets. The beauty of students is that they are imperfect beings who are learning social skills alongside of our content. And from my experience with the adults in my life, social skills is an area of lifelong learning!

Before we get into specific strategies you should consider certain factors for your groups such as the length of the project, complexity of the task, and student needs. You should also consider academic ability, English Learners, Special Education students, personalities, and behavior. For short term, simpler tasks, you may give students more freedom of choice or use random grouping strategies. For longer, complex tasks, it is better to be very intentional about your grouping strategies.

So here are 8 grouping strategies that I have found effective. Different ones work better with different students, situations, and age levels. I recommend that you experiment to see which ones fit your style and students.

1. Random

Random grouping strategies are best for short term tasks such as an hour long design challenge or daily partner work. I don’t recommend random grouping strategies for long term projects.

Some fun ways to group students randomly are to hand each student a playing card as they enter and then create groups of 4 by finding matching numbers. Another way is to make cards of famous couples from pop culture, literature, or concepts from your content area. Again pass these out as students enter and have them find their match.

Other strategies for random, short term groupings are Clock Buddies;  Flippity Name Picker; and  Kagan’s Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up.

2. Pairs

Sometimes teachers get into a pattern of thinking that PBL projects should always be in groups of 4. Instead I ask myself, what is the minimum number of students needed to successfully complete the task? Then I go with the smallest number possible. I actually prefer groups of 2 or 3 unless the task is complicated enough that it requires more. This prevents students from coasting along while others do all of the work.

Don’t be afraid to go SMALL with your groups. Younger students also thrive in smaller groups.

3. Skills

Depending on the project, sometimes it is important that each group contains students with specific skills. An example would be that for video projects I always like to make sure that each group has a good video editor.

I accomplish this by giving a survey ahead of time and asking students to identify their strengths such as writing, speaking, technology, art, etc. I pick the categories based on the skillsets needed for the final product. Then I create the groups making sure that every team has all of the skills represented.

4. Topics

Sometimes it makes sense to group like-minded students together. For the MyParty Election Project, students had to create their own political party. This project would not work if students were grouped together who had opposing values and ideas. So we took an assessment that sorted students into 4 major philosophies based on their political opinions. Then each philosophy went to a different corner of the room and they choose groups from among these like-minded students.

Putting students together by topic works great when students are doing passion projects or interested in researching similar problems or solutions.

5. Student Choice

At the end of every project, I survey my class for feedback on how to improve. The number one thing that they ask for, every single time, is “Can we choose our own groups.” I think that there are some advantages for students who are experienced in PBL choosing their own groups. They can be productive working with like minded people.

But I also find that letting students pick their own groups almost always leads to sorting kids by ability. The motivated, high achievers pick each other. The middle of the road students form other groups. And then the students who don’t fit in, have “labels,” or are behavior problems end up in a dysfunctional group of “leftovers.” So I recommend only letting students choose their own groups in a couple of situations.

I always let students pick their groups on the first day of class when I am doing team building or problem solving activities. First of all, it is a short-term task and most importantly they are identifying all of their friends to me and I can immediately see who should never work together again! They out themselves without even realizing it.

The second situation would be if you have established a true culture of caring and helpfulness in class. If your students can be trusted to be inclusive in picking their groups and make sure that everyones needs are met then I say go for it!

6. Your Partner / My Pairs

This is probably my favorite grouping strategy because it honors the students’ choice, yet still gives control to the teacher. I always explain the process ahead of time so that students know what I will be doing.

Near the end of a project, I give a survey asking who they want to partner with on the next project. Sometimes I add in criteria such as it can’t be someone you are currently working with or have worked with this quarter/semester/year. Then I match the pairs to form groups of four. Students like it because they know that they will have at least one person in their group that they can be successful with. I like it because it avoids some of the concerns of students picking groups that are stacked or leftovers. It is a great compromise.

7. Special Assignment

Often there are students in my class who have special needs. Sometimes they are officially identified for accommodations whether it is language based or academic. Other times they don’t have the “label” but really need similar support. Sometimes these are children who struggle to focus or to self manage their behavior. What I intentionally try to do with these students is find a buddy student that works well with them and complements their weaknesses. Often it is not the strongest academic student, but rather a strong leader who can work with them.

I don’t hang the supporting student out to dry. I meet with them ahead of time and acknowledge their strengths. I ask if they would be willing to help me out by working with a certain student. I explain that this student wants to be successful but may lack a certain skill or need some specific direction on what to do during a project. I then monitor these groups and coach the leaders on how to help the other students stay focused and be successful. All of the students grow in different skills throughout the project.

8. Supergroup & Slackers

Sometimes, usually towards the end of the year and especially if we have an important public audience, I make a Supergroup and a group of Slackers. The way I do this is allow students to pick their own groups! The motivated, high achievers choose each other; the quirky artsy kids choose each other; of course, no one chooses the kids who were the weak links all year.

I am honest with my students, so I tell the Slacker group, ” You haven’t been pulling your weight and no one else wants to work with you. So you are stuck with each other. You had better figure out how to get work done together or you are all going to fail this project.” They tend to find a way to get things done.

I have never done a project yet where every group functioned like a well oiled machine and I am ok with that. Throughout the year, the students grow and learn from each other. Figuring out how to get along and successfully completing work is one of the most important benefits students gain from PBL.