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Thursday, September 8, 2016

PBL Should Be a Happy Marriage


What does educational reform look like? Maybe a lot like a happy marriage.

Over the years I’ve (almost always) enjoyed learning new teaching approaches. Some have stuck. People in my district born in the Seventies or earlier remember Baldridge, which taught us a “Plan- Do- Study- Act” approach to having a data- driven classroom. Carol Tomlinson’s Differentiated Instruction was eye- opening, indeed (you mean to tell me I might want to consider teaching different lessons for different students??) Later on I learned what Inquiry- Based Lessons were; I remember feeling pretty energized by this approach after a two- week intensive Summer Research Institute at Indiana University with Jose Bonner forever ago.


When I first learned about Project Based Learning, it felt as though I had truly been called home. I didn’t think that I would ever teach any other way as long as I remained in the field (to be clear, I still feel this way!) What I have come to appreciate, however, is that like all of us, I am the sum of many of the reforms that have come along over the past twenty years.


There was a period where I was under the misconception that PBL was so utterly new that all of the cool stuff I picked up along the way were now obsolete and ought be abandoned. Though those were exciting and exhilarating years, but they were also exhausting and sometimes baffling. Now, when we approach projects, we go into it with full awareness that our projects are going to be data- driven and will utilize differentiated instruction, inquiry- based approaches on some level, because that’s where we all came from, years or decades ago. These were revolutionary, innovative education at a point in time, and should be honored as important steps in our collective journey.


PBL is a revolutionary and transformative educational reform, though no longer brand- new. The movement continues to spread rapidly (some may argue too rapidly.) Fewer and fewer people are abjectly clueless about it. Many realize, after some explanation, that they do some permutation of PBL in their classrooms. Therein lies that tricky part: how do we do PBL with integrity while blending and incorporating our past strategies, and not fundamentally altering the “DNA” of Project Based Learning?


Here are some somewhat more “modern” educational philosophies and approaches that I feel pretty confident should be in a (polygamous) marriage with PBL.


  1. Universal Design for Learning. UDL is a systematic, brain- based approach with allows students multiple means of expression and action, and allows instructors multiple means of representation. Students need to see, hear, smell, touch, and experience our projects. When it comes to representing their knowledge and skills, they need to be given voice and choice in their expression. PBL should be very engaging, especially to students that need to see the relevance of the content to their lives. If done well, it can provide a range of challenges for varying ability levels. All of these facets of PBL fit into the framework of UDL. This is a marriage that works.


  1. Growth Mindset. Having a growth mindset is almost a prerequisite for students in a PBL environment; it is certainly so for instructors. Things get messy, and it’s never the easy path to do a PBL project with students. Failure and setback are a virtual assurance for teachers and students alike. Embracing those challenges as opportunities to improve is a fundamental part of the fabric of  the PBL learning environment. The “culture of revision” that Carol Dweck advocates means that the work is never truly done and that it can always be better (what a great opportunity to implement prototyping into our work!) Not all of our students possess a Growth Mindset at this moment; Dweck might correct me by adding a “not yet” to the end of that statement, especially if we integrate that culture of revision and continuous improvement with a PBL environment.


  1. Standards Based Grading. This is my current tinkering with the PBL model, though I am far from the first to do it. I remember, years ago,  listening to Mike Kaechele speak at the New Tech Annual Conference about their use of SBG in their wall- to- wall PBL school, Kent Innovation High in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They spoke with such confidence about their assessment practices that I was intrigued and inspired. It’s taken me three years to get to the point where I feel confident doing Standards- Based Grading in even a primitive form, but I have no doubt that Mike was right about it working in a PBL environment. What’s even better is that it is a perfect compliment to the development of a Growth Mindset, as the “not yet” approach to mastery fits right in with a revision mentality to assessment. SBG has also taken much of the mystery out of creating rubrics for projects, which has traditionally been one of the most difficult aspects of PBL for new trainees to embrace or implement. While SBG doesn’t need PBL to work and vice versa (as evidenced by my friend Michael McDowell’s school district in California where both traditional and PBL schools have united around SBG) they should be married. Like some marriages, the love increases with time.


No classroom is an island, no teacher is a purebreed, and no one strategy will save education. But Project Based Learning is a perfect partner for some of the best thinking around schools today. It’s no surprise that it’s growing fast. And it should be no surprise to teachers that PBL works, as long as they don’t forget the journey that led them to it.


Friday, August 12, 2016

Elementary Math PBL: "Take Me On Vacation"!


By Alyssa Mentz 

Have you ever planned a project focused around math at the elementary level? Examples of projects at this level with a math focus are few and far between. How should one approach this? Most likely, in a way very similar to what you are already doing as an elementary PBL teacher.

In the elementary setting, math and PBL have a unique partnership. While many (most) of the projects are centered around ELA, science, and social studies standards, it is usually a stretch to fit the math standards in to these projects in a way that connects to the real world. Simply adding animals to word problems does not meaningfully connect math to a project about endangered animals. 

In thinking about math projects, the teacher must have that same mindset as he or she would when designing other projects going on in the classroom that involve science and social studies problems. Elementary forms the basis of math fundamentals such as number sense, computation, and the basic math facts for the rest of these students' lives. Using these to your advantage to deepen their learning is key.

When starting to think of a project, it's important to start with the standards, and with the end result in mind. The prior learning done in years before, as well as in their current classroom are also important factors to consider. In a recent project in our classrooms, we spent two months exploring addition and subtraction with regrouping before we could be confident enough to extend our thinking to apply that to a real world problem and project. Although the main content standards were addition and subtraction, other math skills, such as graphing and money, were taught within mini-lessons throughout the project. 

Along with the standards, thinking about how lifelong skills can be included within the project is also important to math projects. How many times did you as a student, or your current students say “How will I even use this in my real life? Why do I need to even learn this?” If you are able to say here is exactly how you will use it, and when you will use it, makes the learning so much more meaningful.


The project we completed this year in math was based around my spring break vacation to Philadelphia. The students used the previously learned skills of addition and subtraction and applied it to monetary amounts. They learned how to manage money within a ledger and how to budget money. They had $500 to spend on one day of my vacation. The real world learning for this project was through the roof for a class of second graders. The realization of how much things actually cost was a learning curve for them all. They had to take into consideration travel, lodging, food, and activities within the day. They also had to collect information as to my interests for activities. They used research skills, money skills, addition and subtraction, graphing, and oral communication skills within the project. Take a look at the project here!

Alyssa Mentz is second grade teachers at Plymouth Discovery Academy in Plymouth, Indiana.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Balancing Approaches for PBL Success


Image from www.pixabay.com

Having done Project- Based Learning for nine years, I can say a few things with certainty. The most important thing I can say is that I have made every mistake that can be made, more than once.

With my pure and good intentions of providing students with an exciting, free, and authentic learning environment, I have occasionally lost sight of the importance of this true fact: good teaching is good teaching. (The opposite is also true.) Having always valued variety and an element of excitement in my learning, there were times when “lecture” and “worksheet” were taboo topics; likewise, in the pragmatic, rooted in reality world that PBL can be, certain awesome activities from my past were shoved in the closet for years.

I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum, multiple times. I have ended up in the middle. I suppose that experience is the best teacher. But if you’re starting out on a PBL journey, remember these three guiding principles. My hope is that they keep you grounded and help you sustain this approach as well as help your students ease into it with you.

Use the best tools and methods available on any given day. This might (and will often) mean that you are providing direct, more traditional instruction methods to students if and when it is the best, most proven means by which to teach new content. As my friend and highly respected mentor Michael McDowell recently wrote, “don’t ask kids to Google how to add.” It’s not the best method available. In PBL trainings we always encourage participants to not abjectly toss out their old favorite methods and activities; instead, we ask them to blend those best practices into a new fabric: academic standards mastered and applied to authentic, real- world problems.

One of the paradigm shifts that teachers must undergo as they embark on Project- Based Learning adventures is to not be the expert on everything. To clarify, we’re not suggesting that teachers should not be experts in their content; they should. But they will not know all the myriad ways that the content is being applied to the complex, modern world.

The response of “I don’t know” is uncomfortable for some, at first, but necessary. Use technology resources when you truly don’t have the answer, or know the best way. My friend and colleague Jean Lee taught me the expression that she uses with her college students: “GTF” (Google That Fact). Brilliant! The internet gives us permission to not know everything.

Begin with the end in mind. Create the unit tests, rubrics, and other culminating assessment tools first. Tier those assessment tools according to “shallow” and “deep” learning, and whatever you do, don’t skip the shallow stuff. Sure, maybe some kids blow through the beginner levels, and that’s fine, as long as you can verify this and give them a path to move forward. Whether you use a Standards- Based Grading style rubric or a “PBL- Style” rubric, there should be an obvious next step for students, and that next step should always be a progression towards deeper/ applied learning. In the end, we hope their work demonstrates that they have, first and foremost, mastered the basic knowledge and skills and then (and only then) applied that knowledge to the authentic learning situation that the project presents.

Remember that you are indispensable. It is irresponsible to ask students to direct the course of their own learning if they don’t have the appropriate framework for that content. Why would we forego our own education, experience, and expertise when it comes to helping students unpack a concept, skill, or historical event? It is entirely possible and appropriate to ask students to apply higher thinking skills such as critical thinking, application, evaluation, and synthesis to content on their own, but we must provide them with the context and framework to do so. Otherwise we run the risk of having our students become curators of disconnected ideas, or worse, misconceptions.

Speaking of misconceptions, let’s talk about the internet. Technology is a great tool, but it can also be a crutch. When students don’t even bother to open a web page because everything they need is in the search result summary, have they really done research? I would argue that even unstructured research time should be guided by research questions, especially for beginner researchers. Give them questions like, “What were several effects of World War II on Europe? According to whom (what are their credentials?)” or “In what way(s) do GMO foods affect the environment, and why? According to whom (what are their credentials?)” Whatever those research questions are, make sure they are aligned to your rubric (i.e. they are doing application of or critical thinking about the “shallow” content you’ve previously taught them.)

Believe me when I say that I have personally made these and countless other errors in my delivery of projects with students. I have likewise experienced the corresponding disappointment in student outcomes that occur when we decide to adopt any one approach too fervently.

I now know again what I used to know before. A productive PBL environment needs structure and freedom, variety as well as routine, traditional and innovative techniques. So many like me think that the shift is going to be huge and overwhelming, and it can be… but shouldn’t. Others (and we see this in trainings very often as well) realize that PBL simply requires a shift of context more than anything. When they realize this, the tension in their shoulders releases and they start to get excited, because they see that they can fit their own best practices into a method that will lend authenticity and applied learning to their classroom.


Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Six "A"s of PBL Project Design



Because it's summer. 
What makes a project truly great? Every year brings new project adventures with students, and sometimes we really nail it. Some projects are near misses, and others are abject flops. When it comes time to deconstruct project successes and failures, it is nice to have something upon which to look back, just to see if all of our grand visions materialized. 

The most meaningful data, of course, is student feedback and reflection. We make sure that we always have a share- out at the end where students share “likes”, “wonders”, and “next steps” (i.e. what should be done to make this project fly better next year?)  Also, though, for those of you that like lists, there is one!

The authoritative guide to “must haves” has long been Adria Steinberg’s  Six “A”s Rubric. No matter the experience level of the instructor, this rubric should be a guiding light for building a project.  I love it because it’s simple. Below are the Six "A"s and some examples and tips for putting them to work for you and your students in a PBL project.

1. Authenticity. Is the problem being addressed real and of relevance to the students? Is the final product something that will have value that stretches beyond the classroom? One of the cornerstone projects in our Biology I course is a melanoma awareness campaign. Everyone has been touched by cancer, and teens need to be cognizant of skin cancer risks in particular. We use this very relevant topic to learn about DNA, the cell cycle and the dangers of excessive exposure to sunlight. Students create social media campaigns to get the word out to their teenage peers about the importance of sunscreen and sun safety in advance of Spring Break and the beach season. While this topic is inherently authentic, it all hit home for our students when one of them actually developed melanoma and required invasive surgery to remove cancerous cells.

Even something as “normal” as a mock trial puts students in very authentic situations as jurors, witnesses, lawyers and judges, especially if the mock trial takes place in an actual courtroom. I’m always surprised at how nervous and excited students get on trial day, just because we are in a real courtroom! An authentic setting can really go a long way to give kids that feeling and create a lasting impact on their learning. 

2. Academic Rigor. One of the keys to doing PBL with fidelity is creating situations and product requirements that require deep content knowledge. One could argue that the project described above wouldn’t really require the detailed knowledge of the underlying processes that lead to cancer, and they’d be right; after all, a person with good marketing or graphic design skills would likely communicate more effectively, and to a wider audience, than someone with just pure scientific know- how.

There are various approaches to ensuring rigor in projects. One is to require that students present their content knowledge to experts as a quality check before any product is sent out of the classroom. This is pretty easy to justify from a rational, logical point of view, and students are receptive to the seriousness of that requirement. Another strategy is to have the work/ product be created directly for professionals. When my class prepared their data for a phylloplane yeast biodiversity survey with our Purdue University community partners, the expectation was that they would present their results in a scientific paper because that is the expectation of the profession.  That implicitly added rigor, because that format requires deep content knowledge. In physics classes at my school, students have to pass an intense practical exam on electrical wiring before they can go out into the field to rewire homes in need. Creating benchmarks that motivate, set a high bar, and are authentic bolster the rigor of projects. 

3. Applied Learning. To me, this is the one “A” where PBL shines. In a traditional setting, students may or may not be asked to apply what they have learned to the solving of an authentic problem.  They may never know or see why the quadratic equation is valuable or why using conversational Spanish can save a life. Academic standards are the minimum competencies and often do not require application of content.

In our Geometry/ Introduction to Engineering and Design, students designed and presented a rainwater collection system for our school garden. They had to apply their knowledge of triangles and angles as well as surface area and volume to build a prototype within tight budgetary constraints. Today, the final stages of the design that was selected (a shed with a rainwater collection system) are being finished—a partnership between students, instructors and community partners (the contractors and materials salespersons.)

4. Active Exploration. Every U.S. History class in the country studies World War II, but how many construct their understanding of that event by interviewing and documenting the experiences of veterans? In PBL, this type of constructivist approach, when done alongside of quality instruction, helps students see the depth of events and phenomena that they would not otherwise get in traditional delivery.

In science classes, labs are implicit to what we do. I’ve been guilty (especially in my past life as a traditional teacher) of having students go through the motions with labs and experiments without knowing why or what the “so what” really is. In PBL projects, traditional labs and activities still exist, but they take on a deeper significance as we intentionally apply the results of those experiments to the larger project context.

5. Adult Relationships. There is a difference between a guest speaker and a community partner. While both can and should be given a platform to speak about their real- world work, a community partner lends their expertise to students that need it in order to solve their problem. My experience is that most community partners actually prefer this approach because it’s more fun for them, and more valuable for the students. At the beginning of a project, students should meet or at least be made aware of their community partners and their roles. Throughout the project, at least once but preferably more than once, community partners should be actively communicating with students as they work towards solutions or final products. Finally, community partners should be invited to evaluate final products (especially when the product is explicitly created for them.)

In the mock trial project mentioned above, a local lawyer (and former student) provided workshops on courtroom proceedings for all of the courtroom roles. He pressed students to communicate with clarity and to ask the right types of questions. When trial day came, he was there to observe and offer feedback at the end. The kids loved the experience and there is no doubt that he has inspired the argumentative types to give the legal profession serious consideration.

6. Assessment. The yardsticks against which student work should be evaluated should come from academic standards, first and foremost. However, professionals in the fields of interest can provide 100% real feedback in terms of what is actually expected in board room presentations and performance evaluations. While I don’t recommend that a community partner be given the authority to assign grades, they should provide the feedback to students in their content accuracy, quality of product, professionalism, and presentation skills. It’s also important that the big assessments are supported by smaller, incremental assessments (which we call benchmarks.) These are crucial for students to know if they are on the right track and for you to feel confident that they are prepared for the final, larger- stakes presentations. Assessments can (and often should) be traditional in format, but not exclusively so.


One question we don’t get very often: “Why are we learning this?” The best thing PBL does is take the mystery out of learning. Students are much more likely to understand the reasons for the things we do if we use The Six As as a framework for our projects. Ideally, hit all six of them. If you don’t, give yourself a break and talk to your students about what could be done differently. Take their reflection seriously and keep striving for “all A’s.”

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Assessment in Project Based Learning: Frequently Asked Questions



Answer this multiple choice question:

The end of May means…
a.       The end of a school year that raised questions about my assessment practices
b.      The end of a school year where I knew exactly what all my kids knew and could do
c.       The beginning of summer (a.k.a. “when teachers don’t work”)
d.      The beginning of professional development season and time for PBL training!

If you answered “a”, “d” or both, then read on for some insight into one of the most common topics of conversation at PBL trainings: assessing student work in the PBL environment. Teachers want to feel assured that their assessment of students’ content knowledge and skill set will be compatible in a project- based setting. Here are some common questions with some responses based on personal experience.

Do those of us that do PBL on a full- time basis still do traditional assessments and give traditional homework assignments?

Yes. We do tests, quizzes, and homework assignments just like everyone else. I think there are some best practices with respect to using these traditional assessments, though; first, there should be clear and obvious ties to the context of the project. This isn’t a big stretch, most of the time. We ask students to apply the standards to solving authentic, real- world problems, and in doing so, it isn’t a lot of extra work to create or re- word assessment items (test questions, etc.) to tie back to the scenario of our project. The same goes for homework, although in most project- based classes I am aware of, there’s more of a balance between traditional skill- building type homework and project related research. For example, as we learn about DNA replication and the possibility of mutations that arise during that process we might end a traditional content homework with something like this:

“How do the events of the Interphase portion of the cell cycle help us inform our audience about the dangers of too much sun exposure?”

Math classes are the one area where traditional homework is a particularly important necessity; repetition, repetition, repetition is still a key factor in success when it comes to building numeracy skills.

How do you balance individual and group assessment?

In a word, equally. When one switches to a collaborative learning environment, there is sometimes a tendency to swing perhaps too enthusiastically to group assessment. This is a mistake for a few key reasons. First, and most obviously, it can encourage freeloading. We all know that, in a pure sense, all students can contribute to the success of a project in many diverse ways; we also know, in a pragmatic sense, that if less motivated students know that their grade will be the same as the highly motivated in their group, they might just decide to float. Second, in the high stakes of high school, parents of high achievers do not want the transcripts of their children to suffer because of an overemphasis on group assessment. Last, an overemphasis on group assessment doesn’t reflect the reality of the work force. Yes, most jobs today involve team collaboration. However, most such jobs also involve individual performance reviews as well. Should PBL teachers assess group products on a whole- group basis? Yes. To what extent should they try to balance the individual and group assessment? In my opinion, equally. My personal rule of thumb is to make a final, high- stakes product an equal weight to more traditional assessment such as a test or essay.

How is your grade book set up?

In trainings, we generally reserve the discussion of assessing skills outside of the content for the last part of the week, simply because there are so many other PBL- related processes to wrap the mind around. But with the emphasis on workplace skills increasing nationally, weighting of grades into categories is becoming a more recognized practice. Back when I taught at a traditional school and with a traditional gradebook, I was often disenchanted with my single- category gradebook. I assigned points for effort, work ethic, speaking, group work, and other things, but they all appeared strictly as “biology.” Clearly that’s not accurate. While it is not necessary to have weighted grades in a PBL environment, it is preferable to most of us and certainly reflects a more accurate representation of the whole student. If a school or instructor has the liberty to create grade categories such as content knowledge, work ethic, and oral and written communication skills and collaboration, then I would encourage them to test those waters. At our school every class is weighted as shown below:



Before you “go rogue” with a gradebook setup that is nontraditional, make sure that a) you have permission to do this, b) the category types and weights are highly public to students, parents, administrators and other stakeholders, and c) you have a plan for assessing these items in a sensible way (see the next section.)

How does one actually assess 21st Century/ Workforce & College Readiness Skills?

The business of creating assessment tools for oral or written communication, work ethic, or collaboration is not light work which should be done in isolation. It’s also not uncharted territory. Your district may already have such rubrics, but if they do not, there are many existing frameworks for assessing these skills. Request or search for samples at New Tech Network or Buck Institute for Education

When assessing these skills, it’s important to give student discrete subskills on which to focus. For example, in a given journal entry, students may be asked to focus on transitions, or grammatical accuracy, or use of passive voice. In any given oral communication assessment, they may be asked to focus on evidence, or clarity, or avoiding filler words or distracting gestures. In any given collaborative task, they may be directed to focus on making a decision based on consensus or troubleshooting a conflict. On a larger, culminating assessment there may be more skills assessed (or not,) but giving students the “heads up” on your expectations is as important with these skills as it is with content.

How does PBL fit in with other assessment practices such as Standards- Based Grading?

Over the course of my time doing PBL, I’ve written a lot of content rubrics, and after several years, have gotten comfortable and kind of good at it; the question I have, though, is, “why do I keep writing new rubrics year after year?”

The approach that I have traditionally used (and still do in some situations) is to write a project- specific assessment rubric that embeds content into the scenario in which students are working. For example, a biology project involving a skin cancer public awareness campaign would have all of the cell division, mutation, gene expression and gene regulation concepts embedded in the context of students creating a skin cancer social media campaign or some other form of public outreach.

This all has worked fine for me. The question, though, is that knowing that our standards don’t change (uh, well… at least not every year) and that we will therefore provide curriculum and instruction on those topics perennially, why are my rubrics not also the same each year?

I’ve experimented this year with Standards- Based Grading, and many of you reading this will be more experienced than I in this realm. My general sentiment is that I really like it for several reasons. Most importantly it’s geared towards mastery. A student may start off at “level 2” of content mastery for a given standard but end up at level 3 or 4. Students are very receptive, I’ve found, to working towards mastery if they know what the expectation of mastery is, and if they are allowed to build on and revise their knowledge.




It is still necessary, of course, to create tools that show the specific expectations for a final product. But, with Standards- Based Grading, students are demonstrating their progress towards content mastery gradually, and along the way, as opposed to just at the end of the project. My personal professional development for the summer is to continue to develop Standards- Based rubrics for my AP Biology course… a very daunting and time consuming task, but one that I know is a good investment of time.

Assessment is arguably the most critical part of the Curriculum/ Instruction/ Assessment “trifecta,” because it is how we can demonstrate results. Most of us see and understand how valuable PBL is as a model when it improves engagement, gives students a vehicle for applying their learning, and enhances workforce/ college readiness. But the world wants data that demonstrates the efficacy of PBL. Good assessment is of paramount importance for having good data that will give more teachers and schools the confidence to try PBL or improve their PBL practices.

Hope to see you this summer at a PBL training near you! See Magnify Learning for training dates, locations and other details.

 



Saturday, January 30, 2016

Education That Means Something

By Samantha Cooksey, Grade  12
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

Learning comes in many different forms but seemingly the most common method used by instructors today in traditional schools is reading from bland, outdated textbooks and regurgitating facts and rules until they’re branded into your memory like a tattoo. Except for some kids, it’s almost like their “skin” physically cannot hold onto these “tattoos,” and they just wash off like they’re temporary so they can make room for the next one. I can’t help but wonder if the instructors who rely so heavily on textbooks and online tutorials do anything to help kids whose retention may not be as strong as others’. I know that I definitely wouldn’t have survived through high school if I had continued on the traditional route, just based on my experience in a traditional elementary school.

I’m one of those students who doesn’t gain much of anything from just reading academic texts. The mere sight of a mathematics book in 6th grade was enough to make me want to cry. My classmates would popcorn read from science texts while I would doodle nonchalantly in the margins of my notebook (and be reprimanded for it). My teacher would pass out worksheets upon worksheets, make us write down every single assignment we had for homework that night in an agenda, and I could feel every individual brain cell in my head set itself on fire. By the time I had scraped by into my last year of elementary school, I had already, in my youthful naivety, considered asking my mother to pull me out and homeschool me. So far, I felt like everything I had learned (save for a few important things) was completely meaningless to me.

I was inducted into the CSA program during middle school in the program’s earlier years. PBL was a relatively new concept in my little hometown of Columbus by the time I was introduced to it, so it had its fair share of flaws, but it was something different and new to me. It worked. I felt involved and engaged. That’s what changed my outlook on the concept of education. Before, I competed against my classmates to see who could fill out a multiplication table the fastest, who could read the most advanced books for AR points, who could run the longest without tiring during gym. But when I began my path on PBL, suddenly I was doing things that mattered. I found myself being part of projects that helped the community, left a mark on our tiny back-end-of-nowhere town, and put myself and my peers within the public eye. Suddenly, my education meant something, and I was learning skills more valuable than quick thinking and deep retention that only really helped when taking ridiculous standardized tests.

All of the projects that left me feeling the most changed as a student forced me to think beyond proving that I learned the content to get a grade. In AP Biology, my class was appointed the task of finding a solution to a serious invasive species problem with which the trees in our town were afflicted. If you told elementary-aged me that I would be doing research that could help protect the environment from real biological threats, I wouldn’t have believed you, because I never expected any of the work I did in school to be significant enough to even make it past the walls of the building.

In my Spanish class, I remember a vast majority of the projects we did leaving a profound impact on Columbus. With every new unit we did, we found another way to celebrate Spanish culture and educate our non-Spanish peers about it. Every year, SeƱora Orr holds a Dia de los Muertos event and encourages anybody from the community to attend. The last year that I participated in it, I heard that a Spanish lady who attended the event came to my facilitator afterwards, crying tears of joy because she was so touched and thankful that my class had reached out to her and her culture in the way that we had. Almost every single project I did in that class had something to do with teaching others and spreading cultural awareness. That is the sign of a good project--the fact that its reach was far enough to influence complete strangers not involved with our school in any way was astounding, and made me feel like I had been a part of something worthwhile.

If I had to list what I thought made a project great, that list would probably look something like this:
  1. It forces you to push your own boundaries of comfort, causing you to do things that you from a few years ago NEVER thought to be possible.
  2. It leaves an impact, not only on you and your class, but the community as well. It needs to make a difference.
  3. It teaches you how to work effectively as a group. Studying independently has its benefits, but learning how to work alongside peers is a valuable skill, especially when you start looking for a job.
  4. It allows you to think big. As in, “Yes, you should contact this super important person and see if they can show up to our event,” or “Yeah, there is absolutely a chance that you can make a new scientific discovery.” “You can compete in a national competition and win.” “You can have your work posted for the entire writing community to see and go perform in front of hundreds.” That kind of big-picture thinking always made me feel like I was more than just a high school student.    
  5. It teaches you other important skills, like time management, organization, and communication. (ESPECIALLY communication--talking to strangers is very hard for students like me!)


Making a good project requires creativity. It’s always a breath of fresh air when my facilitators make up their own projects, because that lets me know that they really care about the quality of the education that their students get. I can’t help but be excited when we have important figures act as our community partners, like when my English 12 facilitators recruited the help of the author, Michael Cart for a project about book reviews. It feels invigorating when projects take the class to different places, like a museum in Louisville where we set up exhibits that we created, and for some, the still-recovering areas of New Orleans where students literally helped people rebuild their homes. I love when projects force my group members and me to tackle building things that we’ve never tried even wrapping our heads around beforehand, like a freaking cardboard boat.

The way my facilitators have integrated real-world situations with the standards of education they are made to teach has impressed me, even to this day in my 6th year of participating in PBL. I hope that someday, all the teachers who’ve spent their time teaching from outdated textbooks are shown the wonders that PBL can create for their students. I know that from my experience, I have become a significantly well-rounded student as a result of it, and having the kind of education that I’ve received is so much more valuable than I realized after starting it.  


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ten PBL New Year’s Resolutions

By Andrew Larson
Science Facilitator, Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

The Holidays are almost over. This inevitably means that it's time to start thinking about school starting up again... just when your head finally stopped spinning.

Being a PBL educator sometimes (cough) leaves your head spinning a bit faster than the norm. There are so many matters to which you must attend, and even the best intentions result in some structural project pieces getting cast aside, neglected, put off. And that’s ok… we all realize that we can’t expect perfection from ourselves; we can, however, take time to reflect on the areas we want to revitalize with respect to our practice. Here are some ideas, in approximate order of importance, for PBL educator both new and old.

10. Take time to look back at your curriculum map. Was there content that didn’t get the due attention that it deserves? Sometimes, a project just doesn’t go as deep as you thought it would. From the point of view of an upward- spiraling curriculum, maybe this just means that the content will come back for an encore, with a bit more (or different) emphasis. Additionally, we have to ask ourselves whether all of the grandiose plans we laid out for the year are still realistic given all of the factors and obligations that the school year handed us. Now’s a great time to revise or adjust the curriculum to make sure it all gets done, and with integrity.

9. Anticipate the Snowpocalypse. For my Midwestern and East Coast colleagues, we all know that whatever happens in January and February, it’s going to likely be a mess. Whether the delays and cancellations are due to snow, freezing rain, flooding, or fog, learning is going to be a disjointed and interrupted affair. And when kids get the Snow Day Frenzy, they are distracted. Plan shorter PBL units during this time, or create plenty of benchmarks. That way, you’ll be closer to a natural stopping point when it gets crazy outdoors.

8. Anticipate future community partner needs. In looking towards the spring, are there people or organizations that you would love to get on board? It’s never too early (and, in fact, often too late) to reach out to a community partner for a collaborative experience with your students. I know for a fact that I will need at least two experienced carpenters in May, so I’m going to call them over the winter holiday to see if they can get a couple of dates on the calendar now.

7. Plan for testing. If there is a culminating, high- stakes test on the horizon, budget the time you’ll need in order to feel comfortable sending your students “to the wolves.” Anticipate that you’ll want a project deadline no closer than two weeks to that testing date, knowing that the deadline will probably be a bit closer to testing than that after you’ve adjusted for snow days, complications, and life in general.

6. Revisit your assessment practices. Do you wish that you’d given your students more opportunities to speak, write, or collaborate? Remember, it’s not fair to assess students on skills that they haven’t adequately practiced, so find opportunities to scaffold their growth in these areas. There should never be just a single grade for a communication or collaboration, because that implies that they didn’t get feedback in advance of a culminating presentation. Balance is everything, though; not every project needs a verbal presentation or a visual aide in a traditional format. Mix it up!

5. Publicize your students’ greatest successes. It’s never too late to showcase the incredible creativity, quality, and innovation that students bring to their projects. Sometimes, in the frenzy of day to day survival, we don’t adequately showcase those successes. Take the time to post a picture and accolades to your school’s social media sites, contact the newspaper, write a blog post or letter to the editor, or create a display case item.

4. Rethink your routine. Did any aspect of your professional life suffer at the expense of another? Did you spend too much time grading and not enough thinking creatively or getting ideas from your professional networks? Did your physical well- being suffer because you felt the need to finish everything? Create blocks of time in your week for things like thinking about new project ideas, collaborating with peers, cleaning your desk (a favorite Friday prep period activity of mine,) exercising, and yes, grading. And while on that topic…

3. Rethink grading. Nothing weighs on me more heavily than grading… you, too?  With respect to grading and numbers 6 and 4 on this list, really take a look at what you grade, and why. Yes, feedback is immensely important. Ask yourself, though… for what am I looking? Do I need to grade every question on every handout? Am I really just looking for evidence of effort, or for specific demonstration of content or skill mastery? Could you do more spot- checks and take fewer immense binders home in the trunk of your car? Think of the time you could re- assign to creative project development if you reduced unnecessary grading by 20% or more.

2. Thank your community partners. They are that “X Factor” that makes PBL authentic. If not for them, projects are not the rich experience that they should be. They need to know that, and hear our gratitude. So send them a note. Better yet, just make a list of people you need to thank and when we’re back in school, have your students send them a hand- written, sincere (and, naturally, grammatically correct) note.

1. Celebrate your successes! You’ve earned your winter break, and it's NOT, I repeat, NOT, over! Continue to indulge your guilty pleasures; you'll need to store up some of that recharging to get through February. Continue your leisure reading, video gaming, Netflix binging, therapeutic shopping, cuddling, spoiling your pets or kids, exercising, and sleeping. Happy Holidays! It's not over yet!