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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 a substance that acts like a liquid, and can be poured, but that acts like a solid when 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.

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.