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Friday, January 5, 2018

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

By: Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

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.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Teacher's Holiday Wish LIst

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

Being a teacher often means being one who accepts delayed gratification. Just yesterday at the gym I ran into a former student who had just graduated from college with a degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology and was immediately employed. I was touched when he said, “Thanks for everything, especially the technical writing!” The times that students reach out to us mean a LOT. I don’t need to remind anyone of the fact that it’s why we do what we do. But we also know that those thanks may take a decade or so to crystalize in students’ minds and only some of them ever reach out at all. I suppose all of that hard work that we make students do does not always feel like a “thanks” is warranted!

During the holidays, though, all is forgiven. Depending on the state of the economy, some holiday seasons find us inundated with cookies, chocolate- dipped pretzels, coffee mugs and maybe even a couple gift cards (fist pump.)

It’s all nice. It’s all appreciated. At the end of the day (and I suspect I speak for most teachers here) my list came back to what items most benefit our learning environment. (For the record, I will never turn away a gift card--- they are the only Christmas Bonus we’ll ever see, so now that that has been said, here is my wish list for this year.) But here is a personal list from several facilitators at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School in Columbus, Indiana.

1. Food. One of the most gratifying acts that I carry out regularly is offering students something to eat. It is almost always the case that when I see a tired or grumpy student, a bite of something will help. Every week when I go grocery shopping, on my list is always a couple boxes of granola bars and a big container of nuts. I keep these items in a drawer in my desk and students know that I will feed any of them, any time, no questions asked. By necessity, any gifted food will need to be of the packaged and portable variety, but even so, they do not have to be excessively sugary. I love introducing kids to protein and energy bars, nuts they rarely eat because they are expensive, and protein- fortified granola that provide far more nutritional value than the “cereal bars” they can grab in the cafeteria. Providing this particular form of aid for a student has a visceral and wholly gratifying feeling, and not only do they appreciate it, but their behavior almost always improves and our relationship grows as a result.

Another weekly ritual that we do at school is borrowed from the Swedes. Once a week we have Fika, a short break from the work to sit together and have a few bits of food and a warm drink. As a study abroad student during college, I learned to love Fika, which occurred twice per day, no matter the weather. Most Swedes will tell you that even though they love their coffee, it’s not about the coffee; it’s about the pause, the time together, and the ritual. For us, instead of coffee and chocolate, it might be a Dixie cup of hot cocoa or juice and a bit of scone or hummus and pita chips (again, another opportunity to introduce new, healthier food options.) I ask students to chip in on the cups and anything not perishable that we use. Fika supplies would also be warmly accepted as a holiday gift.

2. Magazine subscriptions. Their impact ripples through classrooms and beyond. Given that they can be saved, passed along, or cut up for collages, they make for a flexible gift. Educational titles such as Popular Mechanics, Time, and Scientific are a favorite of UDL Specialist Laura Burbrink. Facilitator Joe Steele also appreciates the subscriptions that speak to a common interest between he and a student, such as a Rolling Stone subscription. In addition to being a great source of leisure reading, it also builds relationships between teacher and student. And they last a year (or more.)

3. Houseplants. For obvious reasons, having plants in a classroom makes the learning environment better. In a good year, I like my room to feel like a jungle. Naturally, students should become the stewards of those plants and these jobs can provide that important responsibility and trust that, again, grows relationships between teacher and students. Houseplant care is a great skill to learn that can spill over into gardening, horticulture, landscape design or farming. Being generally easy to care for, students come to see that there is no real mysticism involved in caring for plants, and that simply knowing the care requirements and consistently monitoring & watering them can go a very long way. Given that plants need supplies (many of which may be languishing in the garages or sheds of my students,) I would also graciously accept new or used ceramic pots, bags of potting soil, and fertilizer sticks.

I prefer plants to classroom pets not just for the ease of care but also for their long life and the bond that can form between a person and a plant that they might find surprising. Also, there is something really cool about taking a really sickly, brown plant and nurturing it back to strength (with little real threat of tragedy if it does not work out.) Imagine if that plant is then gifted to the student that saw its return to health. Now there is a “regift” worth giving!

4. Clothing donations. At our school, we have a Professional Dress Closet that students may access for presentation outfits. It is an expectation that students look their very best for presentations, which at our school, happen often. Teachers regularly contribute gently worn shirts, pants, blouses, dress shoes, ties, and belts to the Closet, but even so, there could always be more; often students will hurry in to a presentation looking a bit “frumpy,” wearing pants that are clearly two sizes too big. We smile, offer a nod of approval, and wish we had pants for such a student that actually fit!

Once students learn the basics of professional dress (like having dress clothes, remembering to bring them, tying ties and tucking in shirts,) we then like to add more “advanced” topics, such as matching shoes and a belt, creating a mix- and- match wardrobe, and learning to iron. To take those additional steps means to have a more robust selection from which to choose. Knowing that only certain families have the ways and means to pass along extra (clean) dress clothing (on a hanger,) it is probably also true that those families are the same ones that would be bringing in cookies for us anyway.

5. Personal and handmade goods. Chemistry facilitator Josie Senko says, “I think the best types of gifts from students or parents are ones that are thought out and specific for the person.  I appreciate cards that talk about something they value about me, little trinkets specific to my content, or gifts that are homemade and help me connect to the student more.  One of my favorite gifts I received was a little gift box with lotions and such that the family of the student makes and sells.  It showed me what the student does outside of school and gave me a connection to the family that I may not have had otherwise.” I have received such handmade or personalized gifts that are not only sentimental but also practical; I can use them as scaffolds for content, like the Tangle toy that can model protein folding or the student- made clay cell model that is so uncannily accurate that fifteen years’ worth of students have picked it up with amazement.

For most of us, the holidays are a joyous time of year that offers us a chance to breathe and devote time to our families, hobbies, and other passions. We will all eat too much, so extra sweets as gifts are burdensome. Coffee mugs are great, but if they are holiday- themed (they will be,) then we will either tuck them away into an over- full cabinet or awkwardly use the mug year round. Handmade trinkets are special and sentimental, but for pragmatic teachers like me, I would prefer something that can create benefit for students in the future. But whether I get a pile of gifts this season or not, I will be back in January, with the rest of the teacher world, and we will keep doing the necessary work that will pay back society in a million invisible ways over the next half century and beyond.

Friday, November 24, 2017

What If We Taught Them Communication and Collaboration? Alumni from a Project- Based High School Reflect

Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

November 26th, 2017

What happens when you intentionally develop a common vocabulary and set of practices around collaboration at school? What if nearly everyone in a school community spoke with a professional, efficient, kind and productive lexicon? How would that translate for them later in life?

At Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School, we are very intentional about using language and developing practices that both emulate professionalism and increase productivity. Over ten years, it has become (though by no means original or patented) a trademark of our school that our students learn to speak with language that fosters clear and open communication with others in a professional setting. And while we claim no perfection, we hear from alumni that the language and collaborative processes that they developed while in high school set them apart and gave them leadership skills that their peers lacked.

Recently I was scrolling Facebook when I happened upon a thread involving several former students. All now out of college and gainfully employed or enrolled in post- graduate programs, they were musing over some of the phrases and practices that they use in their work and adult lives. I thought it would be interesting to elicit a bit more from them (via Facebook, of course,) asking, “What types of language and collaborative practice do you commonly use in your adult work life?” Caleb Warren, Class of 2015, reflects that, "I think that out of everything I've taken away, the most important is collaboration. I never knew how important it was until CSA, and whether I'm bringing it up in job interviews, work, or casual conversation, I always try to remember teamwork. It always makes the load easier and everyone happier."
Caleb Warren and Wyatt Tracy
CSA New Tech HS
Class of 2015

Here are a few of the questions and practices shared by graduates now out of college and making their way as adults:

1. “What are our goals?” While this seems like a fundamentally simple and perhaps obvious way to start a meeting, conversation, or project, I still find myself in meetings in my out- of- school life where this conversation never happens. We may start talking, and after ten rambly minutes, I find myself unsure of what it is we are trying to accomplish. When this happens, I feel inclined to press pause and ask the question. I am always glad that I did.

One of the habits we try to instill in students at the outset of any collaborative meeting, project, work session, or intervention is to lay out clear, concrete goals. It is also very helpful to set a time limit for discussion of topics, especially if there are many items on the list that need to be addressed.

“Can I ask a clarifying question?” A novel concept, again, but one that we try to be intentional about defining for all involved. These questions happen near the start of a complex topic to be discussed in depth, and are likely to be answered quickly and easily by the presenter. Generally, a more efficient conversation ensues. Some examples of clarifying questions are, “how many people do you think will be involved,” “how long you expect this project to take,” or “is there a budget for this proposal?”

Sarah Flores
CSA New Tech
Class of 2012
Similarly important for presenters is to ask, “Are there any clarifying questions?” Sarah Flores, CSA New Tech Class of 2012, is an Intervention Specialist at Turning Point Domestic Violence Services and says, “I CONSTANTLY ask if there are any clarifying questions whenever I’m presenting.”  

2. “What do we know, and what do we need to know” in order to solve this problem? Tessa Wilson, CSA New Tech Class of 2013, is a Cardiac Monitor Tech at Major Health Partners and says, “I’ve found that when we have a new policy at work or (something is discussed) in our council meetings to improve our patient satisfaction, I often use the “know-need to know” process for myself or to help educate other’s what they broadly know, and here’s an extra tid bit that they may need to know to improve of quality of care and efficiency of time.”
Tessa Wilson
CSA New Tech
Class of 2013

This is the very process that we use to dig into every project that we present to students, and is similarly used by our staff when we are grappling with something difficult. The act of taking inventory of prior knowledge and pinpointing the challenges or learning that needs to occur is so fundamentally important that, again, I find myself surprised when a similar process is excluded in adult meetings outside of school.

3. “What I think I hear you saying is…” The act of paraphrasing is a clear indication that active listening is occurring. When phrased this way, it sends the message that you (the listener) are definitely interested in clear communication and understanding. This can be used, of course, in a situation where the topic is somewhat uncomfortable, and can help the other(s) involved see a different point of view on an important matter.

4. “I am sharing you on a Google Doc right now.” Hah! It is clear that the world lags behind when it comes to the use of collaborative digital tools.  Hope Alexander, a Political Science Ph.D student at Northern Illinois University says, “Still being in school, I definitely still use a lot of the collaborative tools we were exposed to for projects. I often teach people about Google Docs or Box so we can work on one document together!”
Hope Alexander
CSA New Tech HS
Class of 2013

5. “What is our Problem Statement?” Again, a fundamental part of the Project- Based Learning process involves the creation of a Problem Statement that drives every facet of the work. Sarah Flores says, “Currently, the prevention team is reconstructing our narrative and mission statement for the agency, and we’re using a “how do we as (blank) do/create (blank) so that (blank)” driving question to help shape our ideas.”

6.  “What are our next steps?” and “What are our benchmarks?” These essential questions are brought to you by Emily Darlage, CSA New Tech Class of 2013 and currently a Program Associate in an Indiana manufacturing company. Emily says, “When we receive new business from a customer, we have a launch meeting and create a living document with our next steps and due dates of when they need to happen in order for our company to launch the program successfully.
Emily Darlage
CSA New Tech HS
Class of 2013

7.  “Who is responsible for what, and by when?” Alex Whirley, also a CSA NewTech graduate from the Class of 2013, is now part of a Digital Technology Leadership Program for a Fortune 500 company. She learned in high school that it is vital to have accountability and specific job assignments for the team members involved. “We also have roles in a lot of teams, similar to liaison and team leader like we used to have (in school,) just under different titles.”
Alex Whirley
CSA New Tech HS
Class of 2013

It is worth noting that before starting at CSA myself, I had approximately zero of these habits, as a ten- year teaching veteran. These skills are developed over time and with practice. And they do not develop in a vacuum, but rather in a system (school) where people learn to speak the language and live the practice together. It will take years to develop. If, though, the testimonials of these graduates reflect a broader trend of collaborative skill development in our students, it is all worth it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Why I Chose PBL By: Trisha Burns

What makes Project Based Learning the best learning environment for students? Let’s ask the experts!  Four students from Columbus Signature Academy (CSA) were asked to share about why they chose to be a part of a PBL school. CSA is a K-12 pathway where Project Based Learning (PBL) guides the learning process. Each of these students have different levels of experience with PBL and each one of them shares about those experiences below:

In years past at school, I would get very bored and not get involved in classes. From K-6 I went to a standards based elementary school. I liked it, but I love CSA! In my mind, the CSA
program has helped me to be way more involved in class. This is the second year that I have been on the CSA program. I think it has really helped me to become a better student as well as a better group member. The CSA program is all about Project Based Learning. If you don't like sitting in class, but you love projects then this is the way to go. CSA also teaches you to become better at public speaking. This helps you become a better student and helps you be able to get in front of the class. It also will help you in your future classes, especially if you choose to go through with the CSA program. CSA is all also about hands on learning. In CSA, you will be graded on the projects with the New Tech Network rubric. I liked my elementary school, but I love CSA better.
-Harley G. (8th grader)

I have been in PBL my whole school life. I have the most experience with PBL that I can get so far, which means I've become skilled in some of the things we do in the program. One of
the best things in PBL in my opinion is the projects. I recall one day my mother was doing a presentation for her work and had no idea how to use the presentation software. Me being the suave PBL person I am, I helped her set it up and added a few cool effects I’ve learned in the long run. It made me feel happy that I know I will use what I’ve learned to my advantage when I am an adult. Although, don’t let me forget how we make these presentations or should I say who we do it with. One of the most important things in PBL is collaboration; without it you would just be on a normal team. I’m not saying traditional teams don’t collaborate, but definitely not as much as PBL teams do. Working together can be hard, but it really gives you a bond and friendship with the people in your group. A project usually could last for 2 weeks or even a whole quarter. So, basically we are working with our peers for a long period of time where it’s very mandatory to work together in harmony or you get a bad grade. No one wants a bad grade, right? So you end up learning and knowing a lot about them and I don’t think I’ve ever not stayed friends with a person I’ve been in a group with. One of the things I like is how PBL prepares me for the future. I think PBL is the closest thing to a college and adult environment I can be part of, and this makes me excited and ready for the future. These are some reasons I choose PBL over anything else, and if I could personally thank the PBL program, as if it was a person, I would write a 30 page essay to be completely honest. I am so thankful to be apart of something greater than me.
- Karly H. (8th grader)

PBL is a very good way of learning because it is a way of having fun at school while learning. Picking the team,CSAM8, is probably the best choice of my life. I used to be the
shyest person in the world before I was in PBL. Then when I was greeted with the warm hearted teachers and students I became the social person I am today. Just a couple of weeks into school I started getting A’s and B’s. I don’t remember the last time I had a C on my report card. This last sentence is for the teachers trying their best to learn about PBL. PBL will give you the easiest time in the world at your teaching job. All the teachers at CSAM8 are amazing people because they taught me the most important life lesson and that lesson is never give up no matter how hard something is. These amazing teachers changed my life. Without them I wouldn’t be the A and B student I am today. So please future PBL teachers help more kids understand that learning can be fun and that you are there for them to push them to their best transformation.
-Nate C. (8th grader)

Why PBL works for me is because I learn best through projects.  PBL works best for me
because I like to collaborate with others so I don’t have to sit at my desk all day.  I get to talk with others.  Another thing that helps me is a thing called Kagan structures (these are protocols that help guide student discussion). We used it a lot in seventh grade.  It helps because you get to get up and do certain collaboration exercises.  I am glad I joined CSA and (can learn through) PBL. I can’t wait to go to New Tech High School after I get this 8th grade journey finished.  Every day brings a new challenge!
-Cory L. ( 8th grader)

 These four are a glimpse into the 220 different CSA Central student stories.  PBL teaches students to be more involved in class, how to collaborate, develop skills needed in jobs, how to persist through challenges, and gives them hands-on-learning opportunities.  As you can see our PBL program develops many skills in students, and we enjoy seeing them thrive in this environment. Consider bringing PBL to your school!

Trisha Burns is an 8th grade math facilitator at CSA Central Campus in Columbus, Indiana. She is a certified teacher and trainer through the New Tech Network and certified through ICPBL for project-based learning in Indiana. She has taught in the classroom since 2009 and facilitates for Magnify Learning in the summer. When she is not developing and implementing projects in her class room she loves to hang out with her family and scrapbook their memories!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Keeping Content in the Forefront: Standards- Based Grading in Project- Based Learning

Andrew Larson
Science Facilitator
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

Through my Project- Based Learning journey, spanning ten years, I have been challenged in every conceivable way. Whether the “Defi du Jour” (Challenge of the Day) is a workshop that fell flat, a community partner that had to cancel, or students that struggle to collaborate, there is always something to bemoan, “If only I had thought of…_____________ ." Most of these struggles work themselves out with experience, while others cannot be controlled.

Other, bigger, issues are truly never done. For me, in PBL, the biggest challenge I dwell on is assessment. For several years I admired the practice of Standards- Based Grading from the sideline, with the view that it seemed like a clear win for students. I hesitated to jump in with both feet because what I had seen and learned, in graduate- level coursework and at conferences, made me feel like I “knew just enough to be dangerous” with the practice.

Nonetheless I was convinced once and for all that SBG was a practice I needed to adopt by my friend and mentor Michael McDowell at New Tech Annual Conference 2014 (memorable conference and World Cup games.) He showed me how teachers in his district had successfully adopted proficiency- based rubrics for secondary content areas. These rubrics, which correlate to the key concepts and skills in a discipline (biology, in my case,) are the basis for all content- related assessment.

For several years I took what I absorbed in Michael’s one- hour talk, on the last morning of a three- day conference, and tried putting it into practice in class. I started developing rubrics for each standard for Biology I and putting them in front of students. During this trial period, many truths surfaced. I did not know how to set up my gradebook to reflect SBG and a “mastery” approach. Nor did my students know how to use the rubrics I was giving them to drive their learning forward on their own. Predictably, I ran out of time to develop SBG- based rubrics for the entire curriculum, so when we exhausted the ones that were made (let’s be honest, not that many) we reverted to more traditional assessment practices.

Nevertheless, I persisted. As one who takes the “slow cooker approach” to new ideas, I kept dabbling. A breakthrough, though, was what was needed. In one remarkably productive day this past summer, I managed to “finish” the job I started many years prior with my SBG rubrics. I sought feedback from many colleagues and along with my co- planning instructor and friend Cinde Wirth, was ready to give Standards- Based Grading a proper trial run.

Now nearly a semester in to an immersed “SBG in PBL” approach, many lessons have been learned. Here are some of the big takeaways from this semester.

  1. While the SBG rubrics we created remain a work in progress, their creation was essential and invaluable. It is essential because it grounds us in the Depth of Knowledge progression that we know students must move through (i.e. one must know the definitions of words before making the quantum leap to analyzing the related complex concepts and applying that knowledge to other contexts.)  Finding the time to revise rubrics, once one has the insight that they need revised, is obviously challenging. Alas, there is no doubt in my mind that time spent on SBG/ mastery- based rubrics is, indeed, time very well- spent. These rubrics will be used until the standards inevitably are changed (does that sound cynical?) and even then, the changes are not likely to be all that profound. Contrast the creation of SBG rubrics for project- specific ones and it's clear that the context of each project changes each year. Teachers that struggle to implement Project- Based Learning do so in part because they report that the focus on content gets lost in the necessary process pieces (collaboration, presentations, and more.) SBG keeps the focus on content in the forefront. I can use these rubrics every year. And, lest we forget-- SBG works in any modality, traditional, Project- Based, or other, because it is grounded in the content. That makes it immensely flexible.

  1. Students’ mindsets have changed in light of SBG. Because they have a path forward to learning the content that is transparent to them, they are empowered to follow that path. The first thing I do when we dig into a project or benchmark is give them the rubric and I make them physically embed that slip of paper in their notebook with pages reserved for accumulating notes, journal responses, data tables, etc. We set a date for an assessment. How they progress through their understanding of the content is more flexible than it ever has been in the past. Re- assessment and revision is always an option. Some students rarely need it, others do every time. Sometimes students ask, “do I have to retake it?” At first I would reply, “If you are content with your grade, no.” Now I reply, “If you have not demonstrated proficiency yet, then YES.” It cannot be understated how transformative the culture of revision that goes along with SBG can be as students are given a path to move forward and come to accept the mantra that “failure is not an option.”

  1. The gradebook changes are challenging for all of us. Parents need an education in SBG. They are used to seeing tasks like Homework 11/12/17 and Test Unit III with scores attached. In SBG every entry in a teacher’s gradebook shows up as a concept/ standard instead of discrete tasks. That grade is fluid to the end; if a student demonstrates just “emerging” knowledge in one project or unit, but later moves to “proficient,” the original, lower score will be replaced with the higher score. It remains a challenge to know what specific tasks are associated with each standard; we hear this from our counselor, Special Education department, parents, and students. The current approach we are trying is to use more descriptive tags in the gradebook (for example, “Std. 1.1 Developing Evidence for Gardening Research Paper” and “Std. 1.1 Developing Evidence for Climate Change Research Paper”) and simply exempting the original (presumably, lower) score at the end of the grading term. The philosophy centers on where a student ends up, and we do not expect them to be proficient until the end of a course. Another adjustment has to do with grading scales. We were told that we could implement SBG, but would be required to adhere to a traditional grading scale. However, it is well argued by experts in instructional practice that there is little value in a 0% - 100% grading scale. Our approach is to set the grading scale from 50% to 100%. We all know that if a student is sacked with an 11%, they are unlikely to demonstrate anything even close to hope or optimism about recovering. And at the end of the day, is there really any difference between a “high F” and a “low F?”  Sure, some students might not pass a term. But they can recover from a 50% far more than the 11%. However cliche it might sound, it is, after all, our job to help students learn to grow and, if need be, bounce back.

  1. Grading is far more manageable. My students know that there will be fewer grades in the gradebook. After all, it may take 1-3 weeks to completely unpack and show mastery of a standard. We still have as much homework and assignments as before; it is understood that those are necessary tasks for achieving proficiency. We do spot- checks for homework completion sometimes and that can go in the gradebook, but not as a content grade. Instead, if all that I am looking for is evidence of effort, I will assess it as such (see New Tech Network Rubric for Agency: Using Effort to Practice and Grow.) When we do presentations, it is almost always the case that I am assessing Oral Communication and not content (that will have already been done by the time presentations take place.) While it may be true that I have to grade and re- grade assessments that my students take, it is also true that I am more able to see the development of their knowledge through such an approach.

There are certain changes one experiences where the lasting sentiment is, “I’ll never go back.” In my career, there have been two. The first is Project- Based Learning. PBL creates rich and authentic learning that creates change in students and communities. Is there a better way? I personally do not think so. The second is Standards- Based Grading. When paired with PBL, this approach to assessment helps us all manage the tricky balance between focus on content, while developing workplace and life skills. I’m glad I finally leapt, and I’ll never go back.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Reading is Fundamental (in PBL)

Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

Project Based Learning can be pragmatic to a fault. Sometimes, students (especially those that have been in an immersed PBL environment for a number of years) begin to question any classroom process that they perceive as unrelated to project work. That mindset reflects critical thought and should be applauded. However, it is also true that students are not experts in pedagogy. The notion that instructors are “guides on the side” has its limits and it is important for us to find a balance between student voice and choice and rigorous expectations for student work.

One of the “Need to Knows” we get a lot in Magnify Learning PBL training sessions is, “how does one incorporate reading books into projects?” I went back and forth with this question in previous years of doing Project- Based Learning, but now I know exactly how I feel about it. Using books as content scaffolds in projects is essential. Whether literature or nonfiction, having students read a book alongside project work makes sense. Here are ten guidelines for using books in a PBL setting.

  1. Provide options. Our favorite projects in Global Science Perspectives (integrated English 9 and Environmental Studies) at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School have two to four titles from which students may choose. These are often differentiated by reading level or topic. Students may choose to read more than one book, and there is typically a title that is required for students choosing the English Honors path. For example, when our students are writing Dystopian short plays (performed and hosted by our local theater,) they choose from a number of titles such as 1984, Anthem, The Circle, and The Uglies. Some students will read only one short book (such as Anthem) and that might be fine for them; others can, and should, read more than one book.

  1. Choose books with thematic ties. It would indeed seem odd to everyone involved if we read books that were disconnected from the project themes we are studying. We put a lot of thought into the titles we order and offer to students. In our first project of the year, a sort of “get to know you” project, we have students write a personal nature narrative, where they tell the story of an experience in nature that left an impression on them. Accordingly, they choose from several titles that are also nature narratives, such as Into the Wild, A Walk in the Woods, and A Long Way Gone.  These books give us talking points not just about the experiences, but also the style of writing used by the authors and how students may emulate those styles.

  1. Use lit circles. Literature circles give students opportunities to lead, develop a strong classroom culture, make connections between the project and the content of the book, and to learn from each other. In a recent lit circle of Omnivore’s Dilemma, I sat in and we shared facts from the book that could serve as useful evidence for research papers. It gave them a chance to ask questions about complex topics (like organic food production) and share the connections they were making with their research topics like food security and healthy eating.

  1. Use books as direct sources for research. Right now we are in the middle of a gardening and local foods project, and are thus reading books that inform about the food we eat, where it comes from, how it is produced, and what is in it (such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma.) Students do not always recognize that such a book, rich with research, is an entirely appropriate book to cite in research papers. Given that the Internet is the default source of information for kids, having them cite a physical book is an important skill for students to develop.

  1. Rethink your classics. Some books are classics and should be read for that reason. But trying to create a project from a classic when there just is not one there can be frustrating and can cause students to question the value of the book, the project, or both. I have tried unsuccessfully to find a project that works with The Old Man and the Sea. That does not mean we will not read it; it may just mean that we will not read in in conjunction with a project.

  1. Use books to bridge content areas. I have seen some good examples over the years of using a book to support content in other areas. My favorite such example is using the novel Life of Pi to teach about world religions in our World Civilizations course. In English class, we can support the reading strategies and comprehension, while in World Civ, they can specifically unpack the religion content.

  1. Have students read with purpose. While it may not have to happen every day, giving students certain goals for reading that align with project work gives them a clearer sense of the authenticity of the use of books in a project. If they annotate as they read, they will then have specific evidence to refer back to in presentations, research papers, and other project products.

  1. Use books to help students see the real- life connections. Whether the book is a social commentary (think: The Circle) or a memoir about human rights violations (Zeitoun,) these books give students a broader lens for a project and gets them out of their own heads. I find having a book as a supplementary source especially helpful for when students get “tunnel vision” because they are so focused on developing a prototype, presentation or paper that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

  1. Use books in non- language arts courses. Our Environmental Science facilitator uses the novel Flight Behavior to help students see how climate change impacts not just animals and plants, but communities and local economies. In Biology, we use In Defense of Food to understand nutrition and navigated the overwhelming options we have when we choose foods to eat. Good novels, investigative works, and memoirs can transcend a textbook in value when they help students really see how an issue affects people on a personal level.

  1. Celebrate and model sustained silent reading. It is such a nice break from the cacophony of PBL to just hunker down and read in class. This should be considered vital time where students should focus on themselves as individuals. It goes without saying that instructors should model sustained silent reading as well, and hopefully with the same book that students are using, and perhaps even annotating as they go. I have been known to have read a book for the first time during the course of a project with students, and I love the element of transparency that it places on the process as we discover things about the book together. Make students do SSR; their group work will be stronger because of it, and so, too, will be the harried PBL instructor’s mental health!

Our students have come to expect that every project will involve reading one or more books as a part of the journey. For many, they have encountered types of books that they would not have otherwise and have been surprised to find that not only can they read these books, but they actually get into them! The connections with projects are often rich and rewarding, but I guess more than anything, I love that even in the pragmatic world of PBL, there is still essential value in digging in deep with a good book.