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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!

Friday, April 6, 2018

College and Career Readiness: What Should it Really Look Like?

Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

The modern American high school is busy preparing students for the future, yet we have no idea what the future holds. Has this always been the case? Not to the extent that we are now realizing. As automation replaces some jobs and paves the way for new ones, the new worker needs to be ready for whatever opportunities the future presents.

What, then,  does college and career readiness mean today? I reached out to those for whom the memory is fresh: alumni from Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School, our Project- Based Learning school in Columbus, Indiana.

I asked them what they most appreciated and most lacked as they moved into the college and career phases of life. Their comments are a good reminder of what matters most in school, as well as a hint of what is hopefully the future of American schools. Here is what they told me.

I was shocked. The college workload is relentless (as most of us recall.) Mason Nowels, Class of
Mason Nowels
2013, went on to study Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. “
I found that I was not prepared for the amount of work I got. At all. I can't count the number of nights that I have spent working until 11 or later. I also wasn't prepared for bad grades. I was a straight A student in highschool and after the first test in Calculus 1 I called my mother freaking out because I thought I got a C.  You have to work REALLY hard in order to get all A's in college. Also going to your professor and complaining that something is too hard won't work. They will offer to help you learn it, but they won't make it easier. If you want to pass you need to know the content.

There is no getting around the “shock and awe” that college freshmen experience. However, as with all things in life, what matters is how we react to those shocks. One of the attributes of success seems to be possessing a Growth Mindset. Having a growth mindset means finding the value and lessons from failures, remaining open to feedback and not viewing it as a threat or insult, and understanding that you will not be good at everything, notat first.

PBL, as a model, emphasizes growth mindset and as such, has measurable benefits for developing persistence in college. According to the New Tech Network Student Outcomes Report for 2016, NTN graduates that went on to a four- year college persisted at a 92% rate. In the age where being accepted to and starting a college education does not mean finishing it, this is an encouraging statistic.

With practice comes growth. Will it be hard? Yes. Will you struggle? Definitely. Will you make it to the finish line? With a growth mindset, you have a much better chance.

Katheryn Henderson
Katheryn Henderson, CSA Class of 2014, remarks that she lacked confidence in high school. Thankfully, her growth mindset and interpersonal skills have taken her far in her career at Indiana State University. "I have great oral communication skills, but I couldn’t make a phone call to ask for donations or sponsorships (while my boss listening) without freezing up. Now one year later, I can make phone calls with no hesitation. My confidence finally paid off when I made the Dean’s List for Fall 2017.”

Education needs to be personalized. Josh Gray, Class of 2013, found a rigidity in our educational system that he wished were not there. Coming from Josh, that is a strong statement as he sought out one of our district’s vocational pathways (in which he thrived) and finished his high school career in a paid School- To- Work internship in mechanical engineering. He remarks, “I wish we, (the
Josh Gray
school as well as the students) had more of a focus on roundness….by that I mean being more capable in a variety of areas instead of extreme focus in one area.  I had to learn skilled trades such as plumbing, welding, machining, etc, in addition to what I knew already about engine theory, in order to be as useful as others, most 10-15 years older than I. Allow kids to seek a pathway they choose and enjoy...a self led education but with the addition of curricula that helps them be competitive and well rounded.” Josh also references growth mindset and communication skills as a key factor in his high school education. “A huge part of my success career wise has been my ability to communicate and remain fluid in capability.”

Adulting is hard. Shella Moss, Class of 2014, experienced the difficult reality that you just have to figure out so much on your own. For her, personal finance was most challenging. “I honestly wish that there would have been a class or project to help you manage money. School debt, credit cards, car loans. How much to put into savings how much you should
Shella Moss
spend on groceries, how to coupon to save the most of your money, etc.! I have learned all this with time and have used online resources  to guide me in the right direction.” Shella is not the first student to make this remark, and in response to this feedback, we have recently added a Personal Finance course for seniors and it has been very well received.

My takeaways from these student comments are very much that they seem to point towards a skill set that combines the best of all worlds. We need to strive towards a future where content fluency is balanced with flexibility. We need to continue to equip students with the communication skills and approach to challenging situations that will allow them to navigate them well and succeed. Last, we need to do everything we can to help students realize that high school is a “practice run” for adult life, but it is, at best, a poor simulation of reality.

In the end, though, Mason advises that it will work out for the person who approaches the workforce with the right mindset. “As far as careers go, all I can say is DON'T PANIC. Employers expect a learning curve for entry level positions.”

Being ready may, in fact, be a relative term. College and career readiness may, in truth, be a paradox. There may be no such thing as ever being truly ready. But alas, it will come. When it does, we hope that the skills we work on in high school are the right ones for the workforce of the future.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

It’s “Element”ary, but it’s Middle School Math

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

As a math teacher, I feel the same pressure that other math teachers feel when it comes to high stakes, standardized testing. No, testing isn't the only think that I focus on. I want my PBL students to develop employability skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and to have a growth mindset. However, similar to any other teacher, I have to focus on the math standards the state of Indiana says all eighth graders should know and will be tested on before the end of the year. 

So starting back in the summer, when we begin to think about projects and planning, I knew that I wanted to review the critical standards (scatter plot, Pythagorean theorem, slope-intercept form, computation word problems) I had already taught students earlier this year and focus my time on solving equations standards.  In science, it was time for the students to begin learning their chemistry standards.  So after some brainstorming, we decided to do the project, It’s “Element”ary. This project was done last year as a science/English integrated project, so it needed to be adapted/modified to make it a math/science project. Last year students created lessons or “ learning experiences” for elementary students which had to relate to the “hot” topic they chose in their research. The English part of the project that we took out this year was an individual research paper on a current science topic in the news. 

The problem the students defined at the beginning of the project was elementary classes don’t always have the amount of time they would like to have to teach science.  Most of the elementary day is focused on languages arts and math skills, which limits teachers from spending time implementing some of the interesting and fun aspects of teaching science.  Mr. Paswater, a teacher at Taylorsville Elementary sent the students a video where he discussed his daily schedule and some of his time limitations. Then after students discussed their memories of science, they decided they wanted to make sure elementary students got to experience the fun, educational science they remembered having as students.  The students had to find ways to give these experiences outside the normal school day.
The students began to individually look through the Indiana standards for elementary science and completed a tournament bracket with their favorite standard in each grade level.  After they had individually chosen their favorite standards, they took a survey on their top and second choice of topics. This is the process we used to choose groups.  Their groups would need to design a 10-15 minute science lesson plan that would teach the students the science standard while giving the elementary students the best demonstration/learning experience for the topic they chose. For the complete solution criteria, you can check out our rubric.

As far as the content introduction, we had them play Periodic Table Scrabble.  This helped them become familiar with how to read a periodic table and learn what the different symbols meant. I wanted to be able to add some math review to the worksheet so, I had them find percents of solids, liquids, gas, radioactive, and artificial substances.  This helped them review how to find a percent to prepare them for the multi-step computation word problems, which are a critical standard for Indiana.  Then after they created a word in the scrabble game, they used the Pythagorean Theorem to find the diagonal of the blocks they used to create their word.  This wasn’t needed for the project at all, but it was a small place I found to review another critical standard.  

While the students were creating group contracts and deciding what they wanted their “science experience” to look like for the elementary students, myself and the science facilitator separated content workshops.  While the students were balancing chemical equations and learning the basics behind Chemistry in science class, we also reviewed and continued to build on our understanding of equations in math.  So although the equations weren’t a direct necessity for the project’s final product, it was great for the students to see the similarities in the two classes through both the vocabulary and the steps to balance equations.  In fact, I’m going to say that this was the first year that most students caught on and began using words like “coefficient,” “variable,” and “constant” while talking about solving equations in math.  

Some groups knew from the very beginning what experience they wanted to develop; however, some groups needed more scaffolding. So we had those groups research the different options that would effectively teach the standard they had agreed to when we grouped them by their topic of interest.  Then they created a decision matrix to decide what would be the best experience to teach the specific science standard. 
Presenting science lessons with
 students in an
after school program.

Part of their solution criteria for the project was to conduct an in-class experiment that created the BEST experience possible for the elementary students based on collected and analyzed data. The groups had to create a proposal for us to approve with their synopsis of what they wanted their experience to be and what experiment they were going to do in class to help create the best experience possible.  This was a great review of their science experiment standards, which we had covered earlier in the year.  Students thought of all kinds of experiments to do! A couple of my favorites they came up with were for a moon phase demonstration using Oreos. They experimented with how long different Oreos hold form when dipped in milk. They wanted to make sure they used the most durable Oreos when doing their moon phase demonstration for the elementary students.  Others tested which parachute created the most drag for their remote control car. Another group measured the time it took for density cubes being dropped from different heights to sink in oobleck, a substance made of cornstarch and water. (Oobleck is an substance that acts like a liquid, and can be poured, but that acts like a solid whey you apply force to it by pushing it or squeezing it.) They had to make sure their experiment would have two pieces of numerical data, so they could make a scatter plot, find a line of best fit, and make predictions based on graph.  They learned their manipulated variable would become their independent variable and their responding variable would become their dependent variable.  This was a perfect time for us to review how to graph a line, how to write an equation of a line of best fit, and how to use graphs to make predictions.  Here is a sample of the math paper the students had to complete after their experiment.

During science workshops and while the students were conducting experiments, they worked on the chemistry behind their experience.  Each group was required to complete a science paper by the end of the project about the chemical composition of the items utilized in their experience.  They had to include items such as where the elements were found on periodic table, the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons, the electron configure model, the dot diagram and an ionic or covalent bonding drawing.

Focus groups testing out the
science lessons. 
We use UDL (Universal Design for Learning) as our instructional framework in our district.  We had a UDL facilitator for an elementary school in the district come give the students a crash course in teaching lessons to elementary students.  The students had to brainstorm and then show evidence in their lesson plan as to “WHY” the information they were teaching the students was important to them as elementary students, “WHAT” they were going to teach (using multiple representations), and “HOW” the elementary students were going to be able to express that they learned what they were supposed to.  While the UDL facilitator was there, she met with some groups and gave individual feedback on their lesson ideas.

Once the groups had created their lesson plans, and they were approved by either myself or the science teacher, they needed time to practice and teach their lessons in front of a focus group.  We used 8th graders for some focus groups, but for some we used 6th grade students who came to our building to tour and see our program in action.  

The students had a choice on their community partner, so we had groups going at different times on different days.  Since their final presentation for elementary students were so spread out (at almost a month between the first and the last group), we had plenty of content workshop times to continue to review and develop our skills needed to master the critical standards.  In fact, to keep the theme of the project during content workshop days, I gave different groups of students different topics and had them create a 5 minute lesson plan to teach their math topic to the rest of the class using the principles of UDL they had learned in the project.

Students present science lessons
at the Boys & Girls Club.
I figure before the end of this project, over 100 elementary students will have a data-driven experience that was designed by these 8th grade groups.  Some groups went to the local Boys and Girls Club Friday night program to teach their science standard through an engaging experiment.  Other groups went to an after-school program at the neighboring elementary school. Other groups were able to go to the elementary school during the day to give their lesson and provide a science experience.  I would say overall this project was a success since I know 100% of my students can confidently answer the driving question: How can we give elementary-aged students a data-driven, engaging science experience?

I often get asked how I find projects that connect to the math content that I teach.  I wish I could say I have an idea for 100% of my content, but I don’t...yet.  However, you just need to keep your eyes open!  We tell our students that math is everywhere and that they will need it their whole lives.  As math teachers, we need to believe this too.  The math is there; we just need to find it! 

Friday, February 2, 2018

How PBL Changes the Teacher

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

At the end of this school year I will have finished my twentieth year in education and my tenth as a facilitator of Project-Based Learning. Practicing PBL as my “day job” has changed me in many ways that I absolutely did not expect. And I am not just talking about improving as an educator. So even though my PBL time is half of my career, it is definitely the case that far more than 50% of my personal and professional growth have occurred during the past decade.

I am not alone in this sentiment. My colleagues report similar types of impact from having been a facilitator of PBL. While this post does not offer a money back guarantee, here are some surprising ways that PBL will, over time, likely make you a different person than you are now. 

Taking more responsible risks in life. I can rattle off several responsible risks I’ve taken, which I believe are directly attributable to my PBL practice. The first is becoming a PBL instructor for adults in trainings run by Magnify Learning. While I always have felt like I had classroom practices and knowledge to offer other educators, having experience with the PBL model struck me as a fundamentally new approach that I absolutely believe in. So  I felt both empowered and obligated to share that knowledge. The same can be said for my career as a writer. While I did not start by writing about PBL, nor do I stick to that subject exclusively, something about being on the cutting edge of education back in 2008 empowered me to stick my neck out and put my work in the public eye. 

My fellow colleague and math facilitator, Josh Giebel, remarks,"PBL has made me far more aware of my own mindset. I've always been a reflective person, but I think PBL has magnified that reflection and has given me the tools to further analyze the results of the reflection. PBL has allowed me to search the endless possibilities and utilize every response to ask a new question. In short, PBL has ensured that I never become complacent in anything that I do.” Josh is the first person that I see each morning at school and his statement is evident in his state of constant revision of ideas. He is constantly on the hunt for ways to improve. 

This week, my wife and I closed on our first investment property-- a huge and terrifying, yet also immensely exciting, undertaking. I cannot help but believe that the confidence I have developed over the last decade of facilitating PBL led me to this next step. In my current role, trying new things is not just what is expected; it is also what is necessary.  As educational researcher and scholar Sir Ken Robinson remarks, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” In our PBL facilitation roles, as we try crazy new things, we are wrong all of the time, but along with those failures are some great classroom successes. This mindset of risk taking in the classroom has spilled over into my personal life in a big way, and for that I am thankful.

Everything becomes a project. To some extent, I think most PBL educators start to view everything as a “project.” My good friend and humorist colleague, Rachelle Antcliff, is fond of saying, “Let’s make it a PBL” to practically everything from making a better cup of coffee in the morning to redesigning our master schedule. All jokes aside, the process that learners follow translates broadly to life challenges. Social studies facilitator, Matt Baker, remarks, “Facilitating in a PBL environment has made me a much better problem solver outside of the classroom. I find myself going through the PBL steps when problems arise: what am I trying to solve?, what do I know about the problem?, what solutions should I try and in what order?, what are my next steps?”.  Matt and I talk a lot about home improvement over lunch, and I have found him to be an ever- resourceful individual, always striving to learn and “DIY” whenever possible. He relishes the challenge and the satisfaction of building skills and being a lifelong learner.

Improving communication skills. The ability to interact with all types of people is an immensely valuable skill that, for most of us, takes practice. We practice speaking and listening to others in diverse ways at school, and the benefit is reaped by students and staff alike. Learning support specialist, Matt Morrill, reflects that “PBL allows access and equity in the classroom for all students, and it seeks ways to let students employ their natural strengths. As a special educator, the same is true for me. I can seamlessly interact with anyone” (in and out of the classroom.) Matt is such a gift to students because of his easy rapport and ability to motivate. Outside of school, he has that same effect on those around him. 

I know that my day- to- day communication with my wife, children, friends, neighbors and total strangers is stronger than it was before I embarked on my PBL journey. As a basic function of group work, students must learn to do “active listening,” share air space, paraphrase, and much more. We encourage students to always have clear goals for meetings and those next steps that Mr. Baker alluded to in moving forward. As a result, I find myself using those skills by default in everyday life. Perhaps my favorite example of a communication strategy learned at school, and now employed in as many settings as possible, is the 24- Hour Check- In Rule. The essence of it is simply that if a person says or does something that rubs you the wrong way, you are obligated to either a) address it within one day if possible or b) let it go and refuse to allow it to become a grudge. My wife and I use this guideline, and we would not have it any other way. 

Increasing community involvement. This is a big one. Because so many of our projects involve interacting with the community, organizing events, and networking, I constantly have my eyes open for new project ideas and partners with whom we can connect to bring authenticity to our work at school. As a result, I have forged many friendships and positive professional relationships and have also increased my participation in community service and the nonprofit sector. For the first time, I served as a board member for the Columbus Bicycle Co-Op and became involved in coaching youth sports in our community. While by no means does one need to do PBL in order to become more involved in civic life, for me, PBL was the catalyst for doing so. 

We all know that teachers are happiest when they incorporate their personal passions into their teaching. Personally, PBL added the spark to incorporate all of my favorite things into our content. Most of my colleagues will tell you that it is not that hard to find the connections between the content standards and personal passions. Over the years I have seen math projects that incorporate quilting, Spanish projects that involve dancing and physics projects where students learn to do electrical wiring, all with a focus on community involvement and engagement. Most recently, we hosted the Columbus Holiday Ride, a cold weather critical mass bike ride open to the public, where we promoted bicycling (a personal passion) as a means by which to impact climate change. 

Let me reiterate that by no means does one need to become a PBL facilitator to experience the kinds of personal growth that my colleagues and I have during our journey. However, it cannot be overstated how much the authentic and rich experiences that teachers bring to their students through Project-Based Learning will invariably impact themselves as well. PBL touches far more than students; it changes teachers as well, for life. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Community Partners at CSAM

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

At any given time, students at CSA Central could have four different projects happening at the same time, two for 7th grade and two for 8th grade.  Our goal is to create authentic projects that benefit the community.  We have taken on the project based learning philosophy in our classrooms and are developing a culture where students understand that they are part of a community, both at school and at home.  Along with the content that we teach, we spend time helping our students develop agency and take ownership of their own learning. Part of healthy agency is impacting yourself and your community.  Through our projects, we hope the students understand, that whether big or small, their impact on the community can create positive change...even if it is for just one family or person.  Another goal of adding community partners into our projects is to see how professionals use content in their actual jobs.  Involving community partners helps students get ideas on careers or volunteer opportunities that they didn’t realize were available.

About a month ago the local newspaper came to our school looking for positive stories to share about local schools.  As I started writing about the different projects happening in our school, I realized how well we were meeting our goal of impacting our community.

In  the 7th grade Fairy Tale project, our students were rewriting famous fairy tales with a different cultural perspective for students who are at a first or second grade reading level.  After several rounds of feedback, students went to two local elementary schools to read their books in small groups of lower elementary students. This project focused on different cultural standards from social studies as well as the English standards of fiction and editing and revision.  Seventh graders enjoyed getting to go share their stories with the elementary students.  The elementary students loved that the seventh graders used some of their favorite stories and redid them.  Some of the elementary students were even excited about getting to write their own book!

In the other 7th grade project, Festival of Lights, students were analyzing costs and electricity usage to design a scale model and decorate a
homeless shelter for the holidays.  The school corporation’s energy manager came in and talked about energy consumption and ways to reduce energy usage, specifically light bulbs. While he was presenting, he also talked about the aspects of his job to encourage career exploration for the students. Toward the end of their research, the students had to present their ideas to the people who run the homeless shelter to choose which group’s ideas actually got to be used to decorate the house.  The seventh graders felt awesome about getting to go decorate the Horizon House.  It made them feel good that the people who live in the house would know that they hadn’t been forgotten over the holiday season.  It helped their temporary home to blend in with the rest of the community.  One seventh grader said, “You just never know.  Maybe we decorated the house for people that we know!”

In 8th grade social studies and science, students did a project called Life and Conflict. In this project students were connecting the lives of veterans and active military members of today to the lives of veterans from wars of the past (Revolutionary through Civil). Student groups created veteran initiatives that in some way supported the veterans in our community. Two examples of these were a Veterans Thanks Day of Service and a Military Family Carnival. During the Veterans Thanks Day of Service students traveled around Columbus helping do fall yard clean-up for veterans and active military members. The Military Family Carnival night in December was an event where military families were invited to come play games and socialize at Central Middle School. The students loved being able to raise awareness for local veterans and active military.

While the 8th graders were working on that project, they also raised money to purchase new books for the children of our community in the Literacy 4 Life Project. Students chose organizations in our community to donate books to, planned and ran fundraisers, and picked books to purchase with their money that would help their chosen organization.  Inside each book, the students created a bookmark or brochure that had statistics about the importance of childhood literacy and strategies to help parents at home.  They also included inferencing questions for the parents to ask while they read the book to help their children better understand the book. The math that was used in this project was slope and y-intercept interpretations as they were planning their daily goal for their fundraising efforts. They also used the surface area of the books so they could tell me how much wrapping paper they were going to need to individually wrap their groups' books. Overall the students raised $1650 and delivered 402 books to 9 different local charities and organizations for them to deliver as Christmas gifts to individual families that they serve.

It was a very successful quarter here at CSA Central, and it was based on finding authentic problems that our community needed help solving.  Finding authentic projects and community partners can be a barrier as you begin to plan your projects. Here are some tips to keep in mind to help overcome those obstacles.

1. Know your content. This seems obvious, but the more you understand your content the more you will see how you can use it to solve real world problems.
2. Know your community. Find out about different organizations and charities in your community and how they currently serve the community.
3. Know your community needs. Don’t be so focused on what you need to cover that you forget to ask what they can really use.  If you find out that their need can’t be solved using your content, share the project idea with other teachers or peer leader groups in your school to see if there is still a way to meet their need.
4. Know and empower your students. Allow students to contact community partners.  We use this method often when students have a choice on community partners.  We create a script and questionnaire together, and then allow students to contact people. We also keep a list of who has been contacted so the groups don’t repeat phone calls or contacts.
5. Think outside the box.  Be flexible.  Work with other subject areas rather than just sticking with what you know.  Find a group of teachers to brainstorm ideas with and to identify what community partners could connect with your content area.

Community partnerships add so much to a PBL classroom, and to the students who get to work with adults outside the school.  I love it when the students get the satisfaction that comes with doing something amazing for someone who needed it!

How do you use community partners in your classroom? How could your students use the content from your class to impact their community? If you’re interested in learning more about community partners and how to incorporate them in project based learning, then sign up for Magnify Learning’s FREE Community Partners Webinar at the end of January! 

Friday, January 5, 2018

“If at first you fail…” The Value of Project Revision

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

Once a teacher has taken a stab at a project it’s often the case that there are one of two prevailing sentiments. The first: “Never again.” The second, and hopefully more common one, is, “I can’t wait to try that again next year.” While there will be clear winning and losing components of the project, I find that there are a few recurring themes with aspects of projects that need a constant reevaluation. Here are five recommendations for taking a completed project and improving it for future years. 

1.       Reflect while it’s fresh. It is obviously vital to reflect with students. While there are a myriad of ways to do this the simplest may be to use a Tuning Protocol with students in one large group. Take notes and be sure to remember where you kept those notes when the time comes around to get back to project redesign. 

It is always surprising what students liked, disliked, or otherwise got out of a project. Recently, students remarked at how challenging they found a certain book that we read (this coming from our very best students.) While they always seem up for a challenge, it seems that this time, we reached too much. Does that mean we will remove the book from our rotation? Not at all; however, the next step of seeking a more middle- ground title for next time was identified as a result of the class reflection. 

A lot of good logistic next steps will also come out of such a conversation. Last year, our class hosted the Columbus Holiday Ride, a cold weather critical mass bike ride as a culminating event for our study of climate change and raised awareness of alternative transportation. Unfortunately (and ironically?) we had to reschedule our event as a result of inclement weather. That rescheduled date had to be produced more or less on the morning of and, as a result, attendance at the event suffered. Thus a key next step we identified during that class reflection was to have identified an alternative date at the outset of the project. 

2.       Increase the authenticity. Sometimes, especially when time is limited, I find that a project is fundamentally pretty good but has gaps with respect to the authenticity. Sometimes the community partner is not as involved as they could be. Other times, the final product may feel contrived. In some instances, the actual selection of the community partner may have been a little off. Then there is occasional realization that some community or seasonal event would fit in perfectly with a project and it would make sense to adjust the timing of the project.
I remember a project several years back where I badly misjudged the community partners we chose. The task was to design an interactive museum exhibit of a certain cell function. The curators from the museum were great at interacting with students but were ill equipped to give them feedback on the technical aspects of the exhibits, as they were not experts in cell biology. Again, while it would not make sense to scrap the project for that reason, there is a lot of logic in getting separate community partners that are, in fact, experts in cell biology to guide those designs. There again, it is not a matter of changing course entirely, but instead, adding a layer to an already good project foundation.

3.       Improve your assessment tools and realign the standards. You may know that feeling that the exhaustive list of standards that you have aligned with a project just feels like a pipe dream. Will you really address them all, and can you really expect proficiency from most or all of your students? I’ve had plenty of projects where it became clear that our exhaustive approach to a large bundle of standards was a detriment both to the authenticity and the enthusiasm for the project. For example, in biology, we always do some sort of food project for our macromolecules standards. We have always felt like the project was too big, too long, and too hard for most students. Furthermore, we were trying to force too much depth of content into a final project. This year, we simplified. We taught students just enough biochemistry to create a nutritious, delicious and interesting salad dressing for our Thanksgiving feast. There was plenty of content that was introduced, but not assessed, and we shifted some of that to the next two projects instead. The results were very positive.

For those of you tinkering with Standards- Based Grading, I think it would be a great idea to try this approach for a project that you feel has promise but wanted for effective assessment. Project- specific rubrics are very time consuming and tough to get right. If you have tried this approach and didn’t feel confident that your students hit the targets you set out for them, I suggest you take a year to learn about SBG, write (and get feedback on) SBG rubrics, and try them with a project that you are excited to try again.

4.       Increase the opportunities for practice and revision. Not all projects lend themselves to the creation and defense of a prototype… but then again, maybe they should. I am a big fan of practice presentations and feedback sessions both with and without community partners present. Presenting an incomplete piece, be it a physical prototype or rough written/spoken draft, is often more useful than feedback given on a completed product. To me, there is something really unsatisfying about a final presentation that really should have been a benchmark and chance to improve a piece of work. I have also found community partners to be extremely forgiving in their critique of student work, especially if we all know that it is an incomplete iteration.

5.       Bolster the incorporation of literacy. Every project should involve reading, period. Even if the class does not have a language arts component. Given that my class at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School does, we try to read a book with each project. It did not start out that way, though; that goal surfaced from the realization that there is always depth to be added from reading. Even if there is not a book that is read as a part of a project, there can be readings, examination of current events, poetry, and more, and that will always add depth of content and (usually) authenticity to a project.

On the topic of books, we try to have 2-4 titles for students to choose from. These will be differentiated by reading level, interest, or, occasionally, content. Students always appreciate choice in project products, so it’s no surprise that they will appreciate having choice in what they read as well. It is also true, though, that we never get to four title options in one year for the same reasons as everyone else: money. We may add 5-6 titles to our collection for the whole year, but that may translate to just one additional option for a given project. Or, perhaps you’ll read something a month after the project ended and lament how perfect it “would have been.” My teaching partner is great at keeping a running list of ideas for readings in projects. If you are not a list maker (as I am not,) find someone who is and have them help you to not lose it!

While some projects cannot be repeated because they are a snapshot in time (take the eclipse projects our students did,) most are adaptable and improvable. There will never be a project that a teacher can take, execute, and replicate exactly the next year. If you read this far into this blog post, I assume that is obvious to you already! Indeed, the best project almost always have endured repeated iterations and occasional (if not frequent) hiccups. Project improvement is an ongoing process. Never despair if things don’t go perfectly! Instead, get back to work for next time. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Persistence in PBL By: Cory Vasek

My PBL journey began many years ago and has been very difficult but totally worth it....

17 years ago, I read an article about PBL that peaked my interest and then spent nine more trying to find anything I could about this practice but without much luck.  That luck changed when I spent a summer at Georgetown for my James Madison Fellowship.  The first person I met was Cathy Alderman who teaches American History at Anderson New Tech High School in Redding, California.  We got to know each other and after a couple of weeks, I casually mentioned I wanted to use PBL.  She responded that was all she used.  A year later, I travelled to California to observe her class and judge if PBL was for me.

I saw students who were independent, yet worked cooperatively, used critical thinking, and acquired problem solving skills.  The process of a project was important, but students were also learning history as well as working on today’s issues.  I was going to use Project Based Learning no matter what, but now I had to find a way to get more training.

That opportunity came in the summer of 2014.  I searched long and wide for a place to get additional training.  I came into contact with Bob Abrams who at the time was working for an organization called Economic Opportunities through Education by 2015 (EcO15), a workforce development/education initiative, funded by the Lilly Endowment, that operated in 10 SE Indiana counties. According to Bob, "the initiative embraced PBL as an effective model for supporting students to success at tough STEM subjects". After talking to Bob, I decided the closest and best option was the PBL Academy at Jac-Cen-Del High School in Osgood, Indiana.  My school was willing to pay for my registration fee, but I had to pay for my transportation and lodging.  After being trained by excellent teachers like Andrew Larson from CSA New Tech in Columbus, I was ready to try my first unit.  I ran it that fall.  The unit was on Immigration in my American History class.   It went well, but I needed to revise it so I went back to Indiana the following summer for additional training and have been going back to the PBL Open Workshop every summer since.  I have also added a unit on democracy (I won an award the first year I taught this!) and will be using a media unit later this year as well.
Me accepting the Strengthening Democracy award from my Community Partner (Nebraskans for Civic Reform) for the work on my Democracy Unit.

What has made my transition to PBL difficult?  Besides the money/travel I mentioned earlier, I am the only one in my school to use it.  There are not really any cross curricular opportunities because of that.  My administration accepts me doing this but is not overly supportive.  Because of this, converting to a total PBL culture in my class has been difficult.  I also coach two sports, lead an annual trip to Washington D.C. and help with its fundraisers, and am working on Nebraska’s civic improvement initiative.  So having the time available to plan and run a total PBL conversion has not been an option.

I don’t want to sound like I am complaining because I am not.  It has been a difficult transition, and I will continue to teach PBL and convert more units until I use PBL “wall to wall.”  For anyone that is struggling with the decision to convert or to continue using PBL, stay strong.  You can do it.  Is it hard?  Yes.  Is it worth the struggle?  Absolutely!  When I feel tired or think it would be easier to go back to a more traditional model, I always come back to what this country needs from education at this moment and going forward…cooperative learners, critical thinkers, and problem solvers. The best option to develop these kinds of students is Project Based Learning. 

Cory Vasek is a 7th and 8th grade history teacher at Mary Our Queen school in Omaha, and has been teaching for 22 years.  He has been implementing PBL since 2014.