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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Building Culture Begins in the Staff Room

Are you wondering how you can build culture in your school? Are you wanting to teach students how to model positive collaboration skills? I would like to propose that these culture “nonnegotiables” begin with the staff.  I definitely don’t want to say that CSA Central has it all figured out when it comes to adult collaboration, but we do our best to foster collaboration with each other.  The four things we purposely do to help us collaborate together effectively is having a shared work space, Critical Friends Group meetings, Friday meetings with a structured agenda, and integrated projects.

Shared Work Space
I remember touring CSA New Tech High School while I sat in my first PBL 101 (now PBL Jumpstart)  class almost 10 years ago.  Their staff room was amazing!  It had a huge table where they had their meetings in the middle and individual desks along the side, but they were all together.  I LOVED THAT!  Actually, it probably helped in my decision to teach at CSA as much as the model of project-based learning itself. It intrigued me that a staff could work so closely together.

So when I came to CSA Central, I was surprised that they didn’t have a whole team workroom.  However, that would soon change.  Our plan, our design, our agreements have developed significantly since the first year of having the work room, but we have a great shared place.  This room has a place for us all to meet together for our weekly meetings. It has two smaller sections of tables, one for the 7th grade teachers and one for the 8th grade teachers.  It also has two other desks for the special ed and ELL teachers to work in there with us.  As 8th grade teachers, we use the work room almost 100% of the time when we are not with students.  It makes it easier to plan projects and stay on the same page with issues that come up since we have a shared space.  Prior to the creation of this room, our team meetings, no matter which of the 4 schools I worked at, would be in a staff member’s room.  I was a part of 8 years of successful meetings in other teachers’ classrooms, but it says something when a space is shared so well among adults.  Students get to see how we work together just like what we ask them to do. Sidenote: Can you find 3 CSA Central facilitators in this pic of our workroom?

Critical Friends Group
Every Wednesday, the whole CSA Central staff meets together first period. We meet in order to give/receive feedback on something we are working on in class or to focus on a specific skill we want to collectively and professionally develop in order keep us all on the same page. When we are in the creation process, we present our ideas to the staff, and they either help us continue our brainstorm or tune what we have already.  The brainstorming protocol we use is The Charrette Protocol, but if the the project is more developed, we use the Tuning Protocol with modified time limits. If neither of those protocols work for you, then find one that will on the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) website. The important part of a protocol is that it helps us have meaningful, structured, and productive conversations. Sometimes we use this time to do professional development or share some of our individual ideas with the whole group.  Just this last week, the person who helps train engineers to work together at Cummins, a large engineering company in Columbus, came and showed us the activity she uses with their employees. We used this as an opportunity to see what she does with them and think through how we can apply it for our students all while we learned a little bit more about each other.  We schedule our CFG’s on our cabinets in the teacher work room. Our Wednesday meeting time is a perfect time for us to share our ideas and receive feedback in a safe environment, and it also helps us stay on the same page in our planning of our projects.

Friday Meetings with Structured Agenda
Every Friday morning, we meet as a whole CSA Central staff for what we call our “Nuts and Bolts” meeting.  We use this time to plan CSA Central culture building activities for our students like our beginning of the year project, The Race to Real-World Readiness, our middle of the year recharge session, or even the end of the year presentations (Personal Education Development Talks). This, also, involves 6th grade activities to teach them about our program, brainstorming and putting into motion ideas to help us continue to fine tune our identity as a school within a school and as part of a K12 Pathway for our district, and planning of our school tours and visits when other schools come to check us out.  We also use this time to share dates of other activities and events going on so we all stay in communication with each other.

We seemed to always do a great job at the beginning of the year coming up with our working group agreements and group roles for the staff in order to make sure we would share the load. However a few weeks later we would forget what our roles were and would have to go check out a poster when we wanted to remember what our agreements were.  Last year we started posting them at the top of each of our meeting agendas.  We begin (most) of our Friday meetings with the Connections Protocol.  Here is the structured agenda we have now use and that works best for us.  Then when it is time for the next Friday’s meeting we just make a copy of the last week’s agenda, and work from there. 

Integrated Projects
There is nothing like doing an integrated project to help you develop your collaboration skills.  Students can observe their teachers learning how to work together.  When you are used to working by yourself in your classroom working with only your content, it can be difficult to adjust for the first couple of integrated projects. There’s a learning curve, when you have to share your time with another teacher and collectively figure out what classroom management looks like when you are both with the students.  It is not always easy to work with another adult to create and facilitate projects, but it is a great way to develop more authentic projects and help the students see how their teachers work together too. Here are some resources from the New Tech Network on team teaching and/or working in an integrated classroom.

Staff Culture is a great place to start as you are creating school culture.  What you want to be important to your students, you need to model as a staff.  We have worked really hard to develop an atmosphere of collaboration for both the students and the staff.  Like I said, it isn’t always perfect.  Communication still can break down.  Sometimes spending so much time together isn’t a great thing, but one thing I know is that we all want what is best for the students, and we want to model best practices for the students.

What does your staff do to develop school culture? What next steps can you take to build a culture of collaboration among your staff? For more information about building culture check out The PBL Playbook  podcast and its most recent episode, Creating a PBL Culture .

Monday, June 25, 2018

Project Management Tools

Trisha Burns
Columbus Signature Academy Middle School
Columbus, IN

Do you drown in the middle of your projects?  Do you find it hard to keep track of the different groups and where they are in the process?  You are not alone!  PBL teachers are constantly looking for ways to better manage the process, and I would like to share the three tech tools that we use on our team at Columbus Signature Academy Central Campus to help us facilitate student-driven learning. Our goal is to create learners who can self-regulate and become agents for their own learning. We know it takes time to develop these skills, so we use these project management tools to help facilitate the students’ content learning, their navigation through the project, and help them use their executive functioning skills. 

1. Benchmark Checklist

Benchmarks are like the milestones in your project, the checkpoints the students need to accomplish and get feedback on so there are completed final products (and no surprises with the quality). When you get in the messy middle of the project, the groups get to different benchmarks at different times. I’ve managed this process several different ways. I’ve listed the benchmarks on the board in my class, and they move a post-it note that has their names on it through the benchmarks as they go. They are only allowed to move the post-it note when a teacher tells them too. However my favorite way to manage the process is with a Google Sheets table. 

This is a table that we created for our carnival project.  It is our go-to spot for all information for the project.  All teachers are given editing rights to this sheet and students are given viewing rights.  When you do integrated projects, or even when you are working with your special ed teacher or ELL teacher, it is nice for everyone to see the progress of the project.  Teachers (and students) know that if there is an “x” in the spot, it means that group is done (and approved) for that benchmark, and they can move on. If it is blank or if there is a “come see me” note, the group knows they need to work on it.  

You will notice both individual benchmarks and merged cells which were group benchmarks.  We link this to our learning management system (itslearning) for students to always find.  This really helps groups self-regulate and plan their next steps for the project.  It is also great to do your benchmark checklist digitally because there are times in projects where your students need more scaffolding, and you need to add a benchmark.  

Where do the benchmarks come from? How do you determine what goes on this checklist? It is all part of your project planning, your students’ need to knows and next steps, and what is needed from your community partners to have a successful final product. For some help on how to benchmark and scaffold, check out this resource from Magnify Learning, Scaffolding & Benchmarks. 

We recently discovered Google Keep for a “To-Do List” app.  Google Keep is used to save lists,
pictures, thoughts, and reminders. You can share them with people and organize the order they show up on the app or website. When my team of teachers learned how to use it in an unrelated faculty meeting, we knew immediately how we could use it to help facilitate our groups for our project. It was fun to actually use something you learn in a faculty meeting the very next day!  

Groups created their "Next Steps" list using Google Keep, and they shared it with the teachers. You can look at Google Keep on your laptop or your phone.  It was really convenient to walk around to groups and check in on their next steps list by looking at my phone.  We also had some groups who would put names beside their “Next Steps” so the group members knew who was working on what during that class period. One of my favorite parts about Google Keep is that it makes a mark through what is finished.  It is easy to see what the groups have accomplished and not just what they have left to do.

Another way we used Google Keep during our carnival project was to keep track of students’ strikes.  When we would have students who weren’t working with their groups or who were off task, we were able to keep track of it on a list that was only shared with the teachers.  So even though there were 4 teachers doing this project, we had open communication (digitally) for issues we were seeing with groups.

3. Google Forms
I love google forms!  These are surveys that you can create for free through your Google account.  It takes the information from the survey and gives you a spreadsheet of responses.  My team uses these at several different points of a project.  We have used them for group contracts, for selecting groups, for group check-ins, for project reflections, and any other time we need to collect data quickly (like for a field trip or t-shirt size).  

This is an example of a Google Form used for a group contract.  After we created groups, we gave them some time to complete this form.  Upon reflecting, this wasn’t our favorite way to collect group contracts, but I wanted to share it in case it works for you!

Here is the Google Form we used for our Carnival Reflection.  We know we will want to do the carnival project next year, so we had the students complete this form. We will share the results with next year’s students so they can have the data they need for similar booths they decide to have for their carnival (after the teachers look through it first, of course!)

At our school, we have to give the student lunch codes to the cafeteria for students who want a sack lunch for field trips.  Google Forms makes that data collection a breeze.  Check out this quick form! We have the survey set to collect the student’s email addresses, and we can turn that in to the cafeteria.

Project management is key.  It helps facilitate the students on the path of becoming agents of their own learning, and it keeps you from being surprised  when the final end products are turned in or presented. When you take the time to check in with groups, it is valuable feedback time. You are setting your students up for success. 

We know all of our time is valuable, so why not use some tools to help you save some of your time. When you are feeling overwhelmed in the middle of the project, see if there is a way to incorporate one of these tech tools to help you manage the workload, or better yet, go ahead and plan to use them in your project from the beginning!  

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Understanding the Structure of Presentations

By: Caleb Abshire
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech
Columbus, IN

Mark Twain once said, “It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” The reason a good speech takes so long to prepare is that all good speeches tend to be like trees, at least in their structure. Where a tree has a trunk, branches, leaves, and roots, a speech has a thesis, segues (anecdotes or jokes), visual aids, and facts and statistics.  While a tree pollinates the ground, a speech should be planting a seed in the mind of one’s audience. The elements that make a presentation different are also what make public speaking a powerful form of communication: tone of voice and a direct relationship to one’s audience. However, both of these rely on a well-built and sturdy foundation.

The Roots
The roots of a presentation are its facts and statistics. They are what allow a presentation to stand upright and feed the presentation the nutrients it needs to really blossom. Without solid, credible facts and/or statistics, a presentation can easily be toppled and proclaimed to be a lie.

The Trunk
Carrying the facts and statistics throughout the presentation is the trunk of our metaphorical tree, the thesis statement or motif. A presentation must always be focused, well scoped and purposeful. A presentation without a point is afternoon-tea talk. A thesis could be anything from “I like bananas” to “Bananas are going to cure cancer,” so long as you stick to it and make it strong.

The Branches
The main reason trees are so loved is that they provide lots of resources. They provide shelter, shade, food, oxygen, paper, pencils; practically everything in use today has probably used some part of a tree in its manufacturing. Trees can provide so much of this because of their branches. Likewise, a presentation should give food for thought, a place to put our thoughts into words and act on them, a reprieve from having to fight our own fights, and a record of what humanity is thinking through each sentence.

The Leaves
The leaves of the presentation are the visual aids and jokes or anecdotes used throughout to make the
thesis easy to remember. They make a presentation pretty and are what start the fire in people’s hearts first. Leaves are a tree’s respiratory system; visual aids and anecdotes are a presentation’s. A good visual aid grabs the audience’s attention and reminds them what’s going on. If trees were just wide blocks of wood, they wouldn’t be very fun. Visual aids, jokes, and anecdotes provide the volume to cover a wider breadth of material without suffocating the audience. 

Voice and Audience
A tree doesn’t have a voice to provoke emotion in people; it can do so without one. The speaker must be the voice of the presentation. It is important to know one’s audience in order to prune the “tree” directly to them. Some may say that a tree is much prettier when it was planted for them, and in the same way a presentation is much more likely to be listened to if it was pruned for the audience. Trim the bits that the audience won’t particularly enjoy and substitute with something more relevant, and then present in such a way that the audience will listen by using all of the capabilities of expression given to us as humans.

My Trees
Over the years here at CSA I’ve written and given many presentations. At the end of each project (which we have one of in each class every month) we have to present our findings in a concise and followable manner to score points on our “Oral Communication” Rubric. One of my favorites was presenting my idea for clean renewable energy in a project we call “Shark Tank”, stylized like the eponymous T.V. show. That project was fun for me because I was so proud, not only of my shake-to-charge battery, but because I knew I had a solid presentation to back me up. I had a trunk that focused on the need for a clean, renewable energy source. My mathematics became my roots, and my technical drawings my branches. My stories about working with my dad on electronics provided the shade and beauty that my presentation would have otherwise lacked. My presentation didn’t win, but I was still proud to see that my tree’s seeds had been sown. 

About the Author: Caleb Abshire is a junior at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech. He loves his whole family, including his three younger siblings. He enjoys reading and writing and physics, as well as video games and music.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The 6 R's of Summerrrrrr--May 2018

Trisha Burns
Columbus Signature Academy Middle School
Columbus, IN

Ahhhh...summer.  We are always so excited to see it come, and we are sad to see it go.  As teachers we joke around saying things like “sure we get the summers off.”  The “teacher in the summer” memes make us smile and cry all at the same time.  Regardless if you feel you have a summer “break” or wonder how in the world you ever have time to teach in the first place, there are certain things all teachers should try to do over the summer.
Refresh and Reflect

 I love that I get to facilitate for Magnify Learning in the summer.  It means every summer I go through the steps of planning a project from a beginner’s level.  I love getting to be refreshed on the basics of PBL so often.  It doesn’t seem to matter than I’ve been doing PBL for 10 years and facilitating for 8 years, I still love getting this refresher!  I get to share experiences and my best practices while giving feedback and learning from other teachers across the country. New project ideas are an added bonus to a summer PBL workshop!
 I know not everyone is ready or able to be a facilitator, but throughout the summer we should spend time reflecting on our best practices and refreshing on the basics of our teaching methods.  Maybe you could search project libraries for new project ideas. Maybe you spend time on Pinterest getting new scaffolding or workshop ideas, or maybe you sit down with your team of teachers at a local coffee shop and reflect how your previous year succeeded or failed to live up to last summer’s expectations.  One opportunity that is very beneficial is signing up for a PBL Advanced course. You get to capture the basics of project planning, but you get to do it with a more in depth focus now that you have some experience under your belt.  Whatever you decide to do, take some time to reflect and freshen up on your PBL skills.  
Read and Receive
Hi. My name is Trisha Burns and I am a professional development junkie.  I remember when I
first heard about Project Based Learning.  I was so excited that I was going to be able to go to a week long professional development workshop.  Little did I know it would change my teaching career so significantly.  By taking a week out of my summer, I was able to, with my fellow 8th grade math teacher, plan a whole new curriculum! We had more project ideas than we had time for in the school year. Although 10 years later I don’t still use the same projects we created, I do still use the protocols and planning methods I learned that week.
Summer is a perfect time to learn something new. If you are new to PBL, you should sign up for a PBL Jumpstart course near you, or do some reading through the Magnify Learning blog to become more familiar with the PBL process and culture of your classroom.  Regardless if this school year is your first year of using PBL or your 10th year, there is always something new to learn.  Sometimes you don’t even know what you don’t know, and if that is the case, I suggest Twitter for you.  Follow Magnify Learning @magnifylearning or get yourself involved in #PBLchat and begin to learn best practices from other schools or teachers.  I know several organizations have come together to put a framework around PBL at HQPBL. It would be a great place to read about the research supporting PBL and what experts would say is the framework around PBL.   However you decide to learn this summer, take some time to read and receive new information that will make you a better teacher for the upcoming year.  
Rejuvenate and Relax
And the fun part. Don’t forget to take time for you this summer.  Take time to relax; take time to rejuvenate. The best thing you can give your family, your team members, and your students is a happy and healthy you.  As much as I like to learn new things and to reflect on the last year, I also like to be able to pursue passions or adventures that I don’t get to experience during the school year.  
If you look at the calendar you may panic.  The summer is so short, and it will go so fast.  How can you make a plan?  Which of the 6 R’s of summer, do you need to make a bigger priority this summer? If you normally spend your whole summer becoming familiar with your curriculum, or planning your projects, or learning something new, don’t forget to take some time for yourself to relax.  However, if you normally spend your whole summer relaxing, don’t forget to think ahead.  A little preparation can truly help you get the year off to a good start and maybe you can stay relaxed a little bit longer into the school year.  
How do you spend your summer?  I would love to hear about the professional development or “aha” moments you have this summer and that you plan to use to help your upcoming school year be more successful.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Top 5 Reasons to attend Magnify Learning’s Indiana 2018 Open PBL Workshops

Summer is the perfect time to get refreshed and re-inspired for our jobs! It's also when you actually have a enough time to get some professional development in without feeling overloaded by the hundred other tasks you have to do. Maybe you've been considering trying project-based learning in your classroom or are interested in learning more about it. You might have been wondering how it works and if it's for you.

Our summer Indiana June 2018 Open PBL Workshops are a great option for exploring project-based learning!  If you aren't sure if you want to take four days to get some project-based learning training, here are five reasons to attend:

1. Learn- Our PBL Jumpstart workshops are an excellent opportunity to build your foundational knowledge about project-based learning and develop your PBL skills. We will provide you with the PBL basics and process so you can begin building your own project. If you've already been using project-based learning, then we also provide PBL Advanced workshops to help you refine your PBL craft and dive deeper into the PBL process. Our facilitators are PBL certified classroom teachers who have tried, tested, and implemented their own PBL units. They are PBL practitioners who have walked through the process, and are well-equipped to guide and support you through it as well.

2. Create-During the course of the workshop you will be given guidance and space to design your own project-based learning unit. You’ll have opportunities to ask questions, attend workshops based on your need-to-knows, and create a unit based on your content area. You are the expert of your content and students, so the design of the PBL unit is entirely up to you. We are there to support you as you build the framework for your very own PBL! 

3. Collaborate- Our workshops are all about working together! We run through a series of protocols and practices which create an atmosphere of connecting and collaborating with one another. Throughout the four days you’ll have multiple opportunities to interact and receive feedback from other teachers. You’ll have work time where you can brainstorm with other teachers, and you’ll have opportunities to work one-on-one with your facilitators. Many of our facilitators walk away feeling a sense of camaraderie with their staff and the teachers they meet. Many of them stay in touch and develop a new community partner or fellow collaborator! 

4. Explore-You will not only get to explore the PBL process, but you will also be staying in a city where there are lots of opportunities to explore. Check out the sights and experiences Columbus and Indianapolis have to offer! There are lots of parks, walkways, art districts, shops, and places to eat delicious local food. Try out the famous Zaharakos ice cream in Columbus. See the city of Indianapolis along the beautiful Canal Walk. We've even put together some ideas for you: Explore Indianapolis and Explore Columbus Take some time to recharge, have fun, and see what these cities have to offer!

5. Transform - Project-based learning implemented with fidelity has the power to transform your school, classroom, and the lives of students. It isn't just a fad or quick fix. We truly believe it is the best way to teach and the best way for students to learn. Not only is it empowering to design our own curriculum; it’s exciting to create learning opportunities that are engaging and meaningful to our students. We know that we’ve done our job, when teachers are already wanting to go back to school and try out their projects and it’s only the middle of the summer! 

Any one of our PBL participants will share with you that the four days of training is a small exchange for the positive returns project-based learning will bring you and your students. Plus, now through the end of the month you can take advantage of our Early Registration special and receive 20% OFF! Just use the PROMO Code PBL2018. We hope to see you at one of our Indiana June 2018 Open PBL Workshops this summer!

Monday, April 23, 2018

What to Expect When You're Expecting (to Attend a Magnify Learning Training)

Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School
Columbus, IN

It is -5 degrees outside (or at least it felt like it for months), so ask yourself this: are you ready for the summer? My guess is that if you are reading an educational blog right now, you are probably also thinking about your next educational aspirations. We hope those aspirations include taking a four-day Project Based Learning journey with us. Please navigate over to the Magnify Learning website for registration information. 

If you have already decided to attend a PBL training this summer, ask yourself these questions now. And don’t just ask them; answer them as well. If you feel like it, write those answers down. 

1. How do you view your role in the classroom? If you come to a Magnify Learning training, you will be greeted by your friendly facilitators, whose job is to guide you through a process of discovery about Project- Based Learning. Yes, it is true that they will teach you everything they know about best practices on the topic of PBL, including how to structure a PBL unit, scaffold student learning, assess student progress, and manage group dynamics. They will refer to themselves as facilitators and not “teachers” or “trainers” because that is how they view their role. The definition of facilitation is to make something easier than it would otherwise be, and that is how PBL educators come to see their role (both in trainings and in their own classrooms.) 

It should be pointed out, though, that both in your training and in classrooms full of students, there will always be a healthy blend of instruction from the teacher (who will henceforth be referred to as the facilitator), collaborative learning, individual research, and exposure to all modalities of learning that will be relevant in students’ futures. You may consider recording your instruction or asking a colleague to observe and take notes during your class in advance of the training, with a specific focus on your role in the classroom: are you the focal point, or more of a facet? Both roles are appropriate for a PBL facilitator, though at different times, and in different ways. 

Some educators have a false construct of PBL as an environment where we give up control and students are free to explore in an unstructured, noisy and chaotic environment. This is by no means how your facilitators will expect you to proceed with students once your training is complete. While it is true that PBL thrives when the learning environment is flexible and when the instructor encourages interdependent learning, and yes, it will probably be a bit noisier at times than a traditional classroom, it is very structured, overall. So if learning to facilitate PBL is a goal of yours, but you are not sure what that looks like in a project-based room, then carry on! 

2. How comfortable are you with not having all of the answers? The training itself will be a
project; this is by design. Your facilitators want you to feel what your students will feel. This will be uncomfortable at times, especially on the first day. You may feel overwhelmed and there will be moments when you think (or say), “Why don’t you just tell us what to do (or how to do it)?” Naturally we know that students have these thoughts and say these things, but do you answer them? Probably not. In all seriousness, though, your facilitators will not have all of the answers, especially as they pertain to your specific school environment. 

Your PBL facilitators do the same things that you do with your students: they take content knowledge, get it in the hands of the learners, and ask them to apply that knowledge in new ways (such as developing a PBL unit that will work in your classroom, and with your students). What they will do is give you all of the content knowledge that they have, and go ask you to apply it to solve a real world problem (by creating your own PBL project).

Educators that implement PBL should be comfortable admitting that they do not know the answer to certain questions. There is a “sweet spot” somewhere at the boundary of the content knowledge you have and where your students can go with that knowledge (that you share with them). If you never find yourself admitting that you don’t know the best way to solve a particular problem, that may be an indication that your students need a bigger challenge. 

3. How well do you know your standards? The reason this question is so important to consider is because it is crucial that mastery of content remain in the forefront of what students walk away with. PBL, though, goes further than simple proficiency; we ask students to apply their content knowledge in order to solve an authentic problem or connect with their community. Your students need to be able to demonstrate that content proficiency and have the many additional layers of 21st Century Skills in their toolbox. Magnify Learning will recommend that as you make a shift to the exciting and sometimes daunting world of PBL, you take a close look at your content standards and pick out a collection of them that you feel either a) have traditionally been challenging for students or b) that you struggle to make relevant for them, or c) might fit together well in an authentic context, even if you previously did not feel empowered to bring them together. 

Additionally, though, PBL offers innumerable value-added components to good classroom instruction, including team collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. The aspects of PBL that are not explicitly focused on content can be challenging to manage, but then again, that’s why you are coming to the training! Your facilitators will help you find a balance between delivering content effectively and asking students to apply that content to new situations, all while the students are learning new and invaluable skills that will serve them well into their futures. 

4. How do you get feedback, and how do you receive that feedback?   
A large component of the training is focused on feedback, both from your facilitators and peers. This aspect of the training is one that participants consistently report helped them refine their ideas so that they actually work in the classroom. This aspect of the professional culture that will be built in the training is more than just a way to make the projects better; the use of feedback tends to become a part of the DNA of classrooms, too, as participants will take the feedback tools and teach their own students to use them.  

No need to be afraid. The culture of the training will allow for constructive feedback to flow freely and without fear of judgment. We only ask that you come into the training with an open mind and a willingness to listen to the input of others. Your work will be better because of it. 

5. Who is in your professional network, and how do you leverage the resources and knowledge in it? This goes along with the facet of feedback. And for the most part it just comes down to interacting with others that share common educational interests and experience. If your district already requires that you participate in a Professional Learning Network, wonderful! Perhaps that group can explore PBL topics together or offer feedback on instruction or ideas (projects or otherwise). 

In the social media realm, be sure to check out the ever-growing network of individuals and organizations talking about Project-Based Learning. Naturally, start with @magnifylearning. There are a lot of healthy and progressive discussions happening regularly, including #PBLchat on Tuesday evenings. 

Since you already have enough to do preparing for your classes, we’ll call that enough homework in preparation for a great Magnify Learning PBL training session! We look forward to seeing you this summer, and don’t forget about the discount when you bring a group! 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Behind the Curtain of PBL

By: Trisha Burns
CSA Central-Columbus Signature Academy Middle School
Columbus, IN 

There is a balance between teachers teaching what is required and empowering students to drive their own learning.  In fact, it can be one of the scariest parts of starting PBL in your classroom.  However, this is where you have to make sure your project design and facilitation skills are on point.  Think of the project as a play.  Anyone who has ever been to a play knows that there is just as much going on behind the curtain as in front of it.  

Before the project begins, there is a lot of work that goes on behind the curtain.  Teachers start with
Photo by Monica Silvestre from Pexels
standards, authentic problem ideas, and employability skills that they want to teach and create a project with.  They contact possible community partners and create a list of breadcrumbs, or a trail of clues that the students need to know or be able to do during the project.  Once they have the breadcrumbs written those can become a list of possible need to knows that they make sure goes in to the entry event, which launches the project and hooks students.    

On project launch day, the students receive the entry event and generate their list of need to knows.  If the teacher was intentional with placing breadcrumbs in the entry event, the students asked the questions that the teacher needed them to (and more, because students are way more creative that teachers!) In front of the curtain, the students are driving the project and behind the curtain, the teacher breathes a sigh of relief because the students asked about the content the teacher needs to teach.  The facilitator organizes the students “need to knows” in the order that the questions need to be answered and now behind the curtain, the director has their project calendar in which to build their scaffolding.

Students begin to define the problem they need to solve by summing it up in a driving question.  They should be able to use clues from the entry event to answer these three questions: 
  • Who are we in the project?
  • What are we doing?
  • Why are we doing it?

Again, behind the curtain, the teacher planned the entry event with clues in it.  On the stage, the students define the problem which (again) will be even better than what the teacher anticipated.

Next, it is time to get a community partner who can help solve the problem with you.  Behind the curtain, the teacher has already contacted a community partner and has a plan on how it could possibly work.  On the stage, the teacher facilitates a protocol, like a chalk talk, to have the students generate a list of possible community partners.  Again, behind the curtain the teacher breathes a sigh of relief when their possible community partner has been written down. The other thing that happens behind the curtain is that the teacher is given a list of other community partners that he/she never would have thought of on his/her own.  This is HUGE.  The teacher could have just given the community partner to the students and said that they wanted to work with them, but by directing this play (or facilitating the classroom), the teacher was able to give the students’ a voice and the project becomes better than expected. Furthermore, the students gain a sense of empowerment in the project and their learning.

What happens when the students don’t follow the cues or the breadcrumbs the director gives them?  Let’s face it, there are times that actors decide to improv a little, and it makes the director nervous.  However,  if it is a non-negotiable content cue they missed, the director should feel free to lead the discussion or protocol in a way to make the actors realize they need the information.  There are times in my classroom, if I’ve tried to facilitate and ask questions, and they aren’t picking up on my hints, I just flat out ask them or suggest it.  If it isn’t a content non-negotiable, let it go.  This is part of giving up some of the “power” of the play.  Behind the curtain, the director gives himself/herself a pep talk, readjusts the script to make the changes, and then moves on.

The project moves along. The shows goes on, and the director/facilitator begins to see that a lot of  his/her work is done behind the curtain, before or at the beginning of the project.  His/her role switches into giving individual group feedback based on a group's solution or on a group's performance.  The director also spends time facilitating the actors/students to adjust their own progress. Sometimes students need more help than was expected; it’s okay.  The facilitator creates more scaffolding to build the students’ knowledge up and  help them successfully complete the project.  

The most rewarding part of the “play,” is at the end of the project.  This is the time that the teacher is more than excited to step back and let the students get the glory for all of their hard work.  And then when it is all said and done,  the teacher goes back behind the curtain and reflects on the project. This is the time to think through what he or she learned throughout the process. This play has ended, and now it's time to begin planning the next one!