Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ten PBL New Year’s Resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Reflection on Semester Highlights

by Caleb Abshire
Grade 9, Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

Now that I have a few projects under my belt, I think I can finally pick my favorites so far.  All of the projects that I have undertaken so far have been a blast.  I’ve learned something interesting from every one of them, like how to streak a plate in Biology, or how to write a really good narrative in English. Projects have always been fun for me, but a little daunting, and going to a PBL school has helped me overcome that fear.

At first I was afraid, not so much because I thought projects would be time consuming, but because I was afraid of failing.  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be perfect, which I think is a big problem in today’s society. Society puts too much emphasis on grades and not enough on ingenuity.  PBL schools help kids get good grades because of their ingenuity, and that’s why I enjoy projects so much; I don’t have to be perfect.

And yet, while I don’t have to be perfect, I still want to put in a perfect effort.  I think that perfect effort and a ingenuity are the things that make or break a person in the world.  Albert Einstein flunked math, but with ingenuity and quite a bit of effort, he managed to come up with a lot of the theories that we use today.

While I like all of my projects this semester, I have a couple favorites, both individual and collaborative.  Individual projects are not the basis of PBL, but they do help us learn to manage our time and prepare us for individual tasks in the real world. My favorite individual project this year would probably be writing our English CRA. For that project, we had a choice between two books to read: The World Without Us or Ishmael. I chose to read both, and both are fantastic.  That project probably was the one that put the most stress on me, but in the end, I got to write a paper on my philosophies and how Ishmael supported them.  I love to talk about philosophy, and I love to read, so this project was fun. But it was also challenging because of the amount of work that I had to put into it, while balancing band and other activities.

Group projects are a much bigger part of PBL, and as such I feel I should also include my favorite group project. My favorite group project was designing a rainwater harvesting system for GEO/ IED (Geometry + Introduction to Engineering & Design.) In that project, our task was to create a rainwater harvesting system for our school garden without changing anything about the current method for diverting rainwater from the roof to the ground. This was a challenge because the current system left little to no room for improvement or modification. We settled on incorporating the placement of a garden shed into our design, and using the roof of that as the source of rainwater. I had fun with that project because everyone was working, and they were working well. We were working hard because we were practicing things that sparked our interest in a safe environment, and we could help each other.

I think that’s what everyone looks for in a project: an opportunity to practice what they love to do and hopefully increase their aptitude through doing it.  And I think that’s what all projects are about, and I don’t just mean school projects. These experiences prepare us for the “project” of life, and help us decide how we will contribute to mankind.  PBL lets us explore all the possibilities.

PBL is about so much more than just getting through the school day.  It’s not that students don’t get tired or don’t complain; it’s that they tire, and complain, while happy.  They’re happy because they are doing something they love and figuring out solutions for real problems. PBL is ideal for ambitious students to be pushed further and harder, and helpful for not-so-ambitious students to figure out what they want to do in their life.  PBL is a new method for a new age of scholars.  This new age of scholars will fix new age problems.  And it all starts with kids having favorite projects.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Project Highlight: This I Believe

by Heather Hester
English Facilitator, Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

The culture in our school has cultivated a closeness that is unparalleled to experiences I have had in traditional schools. Students trust each other. There is a sense of earned respect for one another, but they don’t always know what life outside of the school walls is like for one another. The combination of these factors creates an environment that allows for students to share some of their personal stories.

Seniors start the year with a PBL that requires them to submit an entry to the “This I Believe” essay contest through NPR.  The contest has been around since the 1950’s and features written work by famous figures as well as every day folks. The seniors are led through a series of workshops that encourage them to consider moments in their lives that have defined current beliefs. They ask for workshops to learn story telling writing techniques. Series of editing and revising are also necessary components to strengthen writing skills and polish essays before they are submitted.

Another requirement is that they present their essays to the class. They practice using their voice, eye contact and gestures to help tell the story of their essay instead of reading it inanely from the page. It is during these presentations that I find myself developing more empathy for my students than ever before.

Because of this PBL I hear from kids like Jacob Dunn who shared statements such as, “I grew up in an abusive home, and while I was never hit, spent my childhood breathing unhappy air.” He spoke about spending Christmas with no heat and eventually what hit home was when he said, “I think what truly changed me was being homeless. There is honesty in throwing everything you own away.” This story gripped my heart when he shared that his belief is that “living is the reward for staying through hard times.”

In another presentation I was compelled to laugh when Aaron Burton stood in front of his class to ask if we are “fans of the fan.” The sounds of his bedroom fan not only helped him sleep at night but drowned out the arguments that he didn’t want to hear. He had written his essay about the seriousness of appreciating the simplicity in life but so cleverly threaded his paper with his keen sense humor.

In yet another presentation, our class learned from Valeria Guerrero that despite suffering domestic violence, rape and poverty, she strives daily to get the education her mother wanted but never had the chance to earn. Her goal is to make her mother, her hero, proud. Her belief that no human should be made to feel less than any other is testament to her genuine maturity.

As a result of what started as a PBL using NPR’s historical essay contest as an externalized enemy, ended as one of the most powerful opportunities for honesty and understanding that my seniors will experience in this final year of high school.  I think Isaac Joyner encapsulates it best in his essay, “As the French say, ‘Ne craidriez pas la peur,’ which translates to ‘Don’t be afraid of fear.’” He encourages that “it is often in the face of fear that we do the most spectacular things.”  What begins as a scary, intimidating English 12 project ends with tears and hugs and understanding. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Project- Based Learning Enhances Collaboration and Interpersonal Communication

By Rawan Abu- Zaineh, Class of 2016

Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School is one of a kind. The nearly 400- strong student body has a wide range of different backgrounds, experiences, and frames of thought. Though there seem to be so many differences among us, we come together to create one large and supportive community that is not often seen at other traditional schools.

I have attended CSA since the beginning of my sophomore year. Before that, I attended traditional schooling and had never even heard of a learning environment like CSA’s. I can easily say the benefits of a Project Based Learning (PBL) school are unlike those of a traditional school.

The most undeniable difference between a PBL school and a traditional school is the collaborative atmosphere that pushes students to think outside of the box and interact with others in a constructive way.

It’s important to point out that even at a well- established PBL school, group work is still messy and occasionally dysfunctional. Like all schools, we have students who lack in certain areas and excel at others. From my experience, a typical project group is represented by these different types of group members:

  1. The Team Captain: immediately starts assigning roles and has the project planned out as the leader. Hopefully, he or she will be flexible enough to not get “tunnel vision” and will listen to others’ ideas.
  2. The Follower: may lack vision, but listens to instructions and completes his or her tasks as assigned, and is good with content.
  3. The Zombie: may not be aware of the goals of the current project, but is thinking about all kinds of things, probably creatively. If their creativity can be channeled, good things will happen.
  4. The Slacker: is often off task but eventually completes the assigned task (after much motivation from the team captain.) Sometimes, facilitators put a group of slackers together to see what will happen when there’s no one there to tell them what to do (and sometimes, it works!)

Most of the students at CSA initially experience growing pains with this system of groups, especially in their early high school years. It is a struggle at first, but the beauty of dealing with others so often is that we learn to correct ourselves early on.

We are taught to reply in positive and constructive ways whenever faced with a dilemma. If a group member is not completing his or her fair share of the product it becomes second nature for most of us to speak to our group mates honestly, yet kindly, to help them and the group succeed.

PBL has taught us to improve communication skills through collaboration in groups. However, communication does not only apply to group work. Speaking to one another is frequent in projects and thus becomes easy; therefore, friendships and relationships are built quickly. In a small and comfortable atmosphere like the one at CSA, we learn to help each other and have that culture of support and collaboration that some traditional schools do not have because of their lack of group work through PBL. The upperclassmen take care of the underclassmen and treat them like younger siblings. The jocks and the geeks come together over their love of competition (we have “Houses” that compete against each other like in Harry Potter- oh yeah!)

Our open atmosphere makes us more inclined to help each other with whatever problems we may face in and out of school. As a senior, I see CSA as one big happy family. Because of the open communication PBL has taught us, we have this amazing atmosphere of which I am so happy to be a part, and from which any school would benefit.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Freedom Comes from Knows and Need to Knows

by Heather Hester

The six years of teaching in a traditional school before crossing over to PBL taught me many lessons.  One of the most important was that no matter how well prepared I was, how many bullet points I used on my handout, how many questions I anticipated, I still did not know the answers to all of the inquiries my students would make on the day I introduced a new project.

My trusting leap into the PBL world led to all sorts of freedom, especially on the day of a new project.  A well-planned entry event should never lead the students to all of the answers, but rather to the questions I used to dread. Documents, scripts, letters and community partner visits should be sprinkled with the breadcrumbs (clues that hint at content and skills the kids will need to know in order to successfully complete the project) that will invoke curiosity and a true longing for information.  No longer do I need to worry about not being able to answer all of their questions. Instead, I worry if they do not ask enough of the right kinds of questions.

One of my favorite steps in launching a new PBL is the Know/Need to Know (K/NTK) list that happens as the students are processing the entry event.  This takes the pressure off of me, the facilitator, and allows kids to hover in the unknown, letting their imaginations run wild with the possibilities the new project work has to offer. Before, I needed to be able to answer all of the questions the day I passed out that handout.  If I did not know an answer to a question, I looked unprepared and incompetent.  With PBL, the teacher is no longer the key holder to all information but rather the coach that helps to guide the students to ask the right questions and find the answers on their own.  I now can step aside and let them list their inquiries.

Nearly every time I encounter K/NTKs, students have the same logistical questions. They want to know immediately how groups will be assigned, how they will be graded, how much time they have between benchmarks and the final due date.  In order to help them focus on the other important questions, I ask them to break their lists into three categories: skills, content and process.  Since they tend to focus solely on the process questions, categorizing forces them to search the entry events for the content tied to standards they will be learning as well as the skills they might be practicing.  

Sometimes extracting a N/NTK list can become cumbersome. Consider changing how you tackle this step each project to shake things up.

  • Encourage students to color code the entry document, marking it up with highlighters and looking for clues as they read.
  • Have students work individually, recording lists separately then share out as a whole class.
  • If you have already arranged groups, have the teams record lists together then share with everyone.
  • Project a document and have students facilitate as classmates share out.
  • Use sticky notes and have each student record K/NTKs on each note. Ask students to post each under the correct category on the board or wall. Have student volunteers process them by sharing out the notes with the whole class.

The understanding is that some of their NTKs will need to be answered immediately. Perhaps some questions must be addressed to set them on the right track or to settle some logistical details.   Facilitators need to be warned that students might express frustration by not getting all of the answers they want immediately and it is so tempting to tell them everything up front. The more projects students do, the more they will learn to trust that their NTKs will get answered.

A piece of advice that was modeled to me was the necessity of making these lists living documents throughout the entire project.  Keeping the list visible or posting in the classroom helps to remind both the facilitator and students how important it is to the PBL process. Beginning as early as the project launch, establish the routine of using these lists to have students create workshop requests. As you complete phases of the project, go back to them to see which items you can move from the NTK section to the K section so students can chart progress.  Throughout the project, students should be allowed to add new NTKs they have developed. Then at the end of the project while reflecting, students should be able to see what they have learned from their NTKs to determine success. 

Compiling Know and Need to Know lists will encourage students to engage in inquiry based conversations, take charge and drive their own learning, but most importantly, grant freedom to the teacher from being the know it all.

Heather Hester is an English Facilitator at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School in Columbus, Indiana. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Student's First Impressions of a PBL High School

By Caleb Abshire, Grade  9
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

            In some high schools, people complain about not having friends. People complain about having too much stuff to do, or not enough stuff to do. People complain about their work being meaningless, and therefore school seeming like a waste of time. When I thought about what I wanted when I went to high school, the main thing I wanted was for my work to count.
            So far, I can say that my work in high school does count. It does mean something, and not just to me.
            The projects we work on are a lot of fun and actually mean something. Just last week I worked on a project where we were making a video that was going to be shown in one of our other classes (Advisory.) It was a lot of fun, and also very fulfilling, to work on something that was meaningful to others, and to myself. 
           The friends that I work with are also very different compared to other high schools. At other high schools, social groups are formed, and these social groups can be very exclusive. At a PBL school, all of the social groups learn to be very tolerant of other people (they have to be,) because it’s a risk to work in a collaborative work environment. But it’s definitely worth it.
            The facilitators are also a lot of fun, and they get the job done great. We have a lot of laughs with our facilitators, and have a lot of questions for them as well; and in the end, it’s those questions that drive our lives forward.
            I am quite happy to learn lessons from my projects. At other schools people might laugh when mistakes are made, expecting perfection. It’s different at a PBL school. People don’t laugh at each other for making mistakes; they try to help one another learn from it so that we can laugh at it at a later date. We build off of each other, branching out to areas of life we might never have been able to reach in a society where the focus is on “who is better”, a society that asks questions like, “How good are your grades?” “Did you win the football game?” “Did you win the marching band competition?” These questions miss the point of why those competitions were created in the first place: to better each other. These competitions help us drive each other forward,  push each other to become better and better each day, to push past the mistakes we’ve made, and to better the lives of those around us. These awards recognize leaders, people that truly work hard to better the lives of people around them. PBL schools work to better the lives of people around them and teach high school students this value. Life is all about getting better personally as well as helping the world get better, and many schools may not teach that second part.
             Project- Based Learning is a very different educational experience than what I expected. Most of the projects that I worked with in elementary school usually only took about a week and had no impact on the people around me. That’s very different at my project- based high school. I used to question myself, asking myself what value I had in this world. I knew that I had value, but I had no idea what that value could be. PBL has given me a sense of purpose because the projects that you undertake have a direct effect on your friends and sometimes even your community. Each day is something new at a PBL school. The students are fun to work with, the facilitators are fun to work for, and the projects are fun to work on. While adjusting to it is a bit hard, the rewards we get in the long run, and the fun we have, working hard, are what make PBL fantastic. It is definitely worth it, for the real life experience, for the friends made, and for the lessons learned.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Low- Maintenance Entry Event Approaches

Labor Day weekend means a much- anticipated opportunity to take a breath. Already, the school year is five weeks old. For many of us, we’re in the second cycle of projects, which means that we have experienced what I think is the hardest aspect of PBL: the changeover. On the one hand, there’s the large quantity of culminating work from the just- ended project, which must be assessed fully; on the other, there’s all of the preparation for the next project. The result is stressful and can be overwhelming.
Over the years we’ve tried everything in terms of approaches to a project launch. Some of them are well- planned and carefully executed. Others are (sometimes for sheer purpose of survival) a bit more on- the- fly. This year, we’ve had a couple of project launches prepared on a short time line that I thought worked well and reduced the burden of many hours of preparation to get a project off the ground. Here are some examples.
     1)      Storytelling
Sometimes the easiest AND most appropriate way to get students thinking about a problem, situation or task is just to tell a story. Research has verified the importance of storytelling as a cognitive tool, so why not use this timeless approach to engage students into a new learning scenario?
In order for us to better learn about the perspectives that our students brought to our Environmental Studies/ English 9 course, we wanted students to write their “Personal Nature Narrative”. Lacking for any better ideas, we read the classic Dr. Seuss book The Lorax and followed it up with a debrief. There are different types of people represented in this book, and those differences represent us. After making sure that everyone understood why we read the story, we got into the logistics of their task.
In using this approach, students had something from which to refer in terms of a possible solution to telling their own story: a great fable about humans and their interaction with nature. The Lorax also happens to be the book that I read my six- year old more than any other; so the story not only helped they connect with the topic, it helped them connect with me at the start of the new year.

     2)      Community event as a project launch

One of the cornerstones of our school culture is our school garden.  We love using it as a learning tool for problem solving in math, science, engineering, environmental studies, and community involvement in general. Last year, we were a part of a “Community Garden Showcase” put on by our local Purdue Extension Office. It was a good event, with students there to talk about their biology research projects in garden ecology. To make a short story even shorter, we knew we wanted to do it again.

We scheduled it for August of this year without really knowing what the details of the event would
We made delicious Bruschetta from the garden tomatoes and basil.
look like, but knowing that we’d have a fall harvest at around that time. In preparation for the event, we introduced kids to the garden and spent time cleaning it up. We picked a harvest to share with the community. Even though these were new students, they quickly connected with the garden because- who knew- there was actual, real food there and because we were on a deadline to get the garden looking presentable!

With several students on hand at the Community Garden Showcase, interacting with Master Gardeners and neighbors, they saw the power and potential of a garden to create community; they didn’t have to wait until the end of the project to see this for their selves. It really gave them something to work towards as we planted a new fall crop. There will be a similar event at the end of the project where they showcase the food we grow and cook from it, and the research we do about making our garden a bigger part of the fabric of our community.

     3)      Jump in with an existing academic program

Is there any good reason why you can’t or shouldn’t use an existing frame work for a contest or academic competition to provide that authentic drive? This year one of my classes is building Scrambler cars, a classic Science Olympiad event, to learn and apply Newton’s Laws of Motion. The event has a rigorous set of rules and constraints, meaning I don’t have to create them! This ialso makes it conducive to a partnership with local engineers, as they are constantly meeting tight parameters and deadlines. Given that all of the contest details are already established, my job shifts to scaffolding the science content and helping them figure out the best ways to build this car. Ultimately I’d love for some of these students to get involved with the program, but whether they do or don’t, we’ll have our own Scrambler car competition judged by engineers, and they will have learned the content I need them to learn.

     4)      Turn a lab into an entry event
The Emerald Ash Borer has been identified in our county within the last year, having spread south from Michigan over the last two decades and infecting practically every Ash tree they encounter. It just so happens that we have Ash trees within a short walk of our building. So, a tree identification activity in my AP Biology class ended up (not by chance) at a White Ash. After the identification was complete, there was a (planned) teachable moment. We use this moment to compare notes about the Emerald Ash Borer’s history and economic impact, and for students to receive their challenge (to document Ash tree locations in our town, mathematically model their spread, and determine possible courses of action for the city.) Through this project we’ll learn community interactions, population dynamics, and evolution.

Not every hastily- planned entry event will be successful, and those who are die- hard planners might not ever take the advice I offer. But sometimes even a meticulously planned entry event can fall flat, either for lack of student “WOW” factor or, simply too much detail. The other thing to know is that there can always be a do- over. If students don’t get or respond to the entry event you present, there’s always tomorrow. They need to understand the task and its importance, so do that “Take Two” if you need to (in which case you KNOW it’s going to be on the fly! Embrace it!)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Back- To- School PBL Curriculum Map Checklist

 My sister- in- law, a kindergarten teacher, posted this clever and oh- so- true quote several weeks ago…

"Teachers are solar powered. They recharge in the summer."

Summer can work wonders. We garden, ride bikes, sleep, hang out with our kids, and…. we work.

I think that the most important work that teachers do in the summer (especially late summer) is reflect. What were the successes? The failures? How can I get better? What do I want to try this year?

And now, alas, summer’s almost gone.
When it’s time to put that reflection into action, the document that I pull up first is always the curriculum map. 

While curriculum maps are nothing new, they do have a different look and feel in PBL. In short, a PBL Curriculum Map has a row for each project or unit and columns for topics, driving questions, standards, approximate duration, potential community partners, project deliverables, and benchmarks.

It’s important to note that many of the details (i.e. scaffolding activities, entry event format, assessment pieces) will be addressed along the way in the school year. Some, though, need preemptive attention to make sure that you don’t a) run out of time, b) go crazy or c) decide you hate your curriculum in the middle of the year.

Here’s a back- to- school curriculum checklist for the PBL educator.

1.       Take a fresh look at your Driving Questions.

These are the bedrock of each project or unit that students complete. Driving questions are, by definition, broad and holistic questions that can only be answered with deep inquiry; that is to say, they are not yes or no questions or ones that begin with “what,” “when,” or “where.” They are also not specific to any one scenario or situation but are instead adaptable and

As an example, my AP Biology students will do a project where they analyze the impact of invasive plant species on our watershed and propose solutions. The overall topics are ecology and evolution, and while I may or may not choose to do this project again or even every year, my driving question for this project is constructed in such a way that give me the flexibility to choose.

           A non- example:

What are invasive species and why are they bad for ecosystems?

If this were a driving question for a project, that project might be over in 20 minutes. It’s not deep, requires no inquiry other than a Google search, and isn’t broad enough to encapsulate all of the topics of ecology and evolution.

A better, but still inadequate, example:

How do invasive plants impact the Haw Creek Watershed and what can be done about it?

This isn’t an awful driving question because it’s still fairly open- ended. It would require plenty of research and investigation. But it’s not a good driving question because it’s too context- specific. There are plenty of other facets of ecology and evolution that do not fall under the umbrella of this driving question. Therefore, it’s out.

The winner:

How do ecosystems exist in a state of balance, and how do disruptions to that balance affect species in the short and long term?

This broad stroke carries enough weight to drive a curriculum for an extended period of time (in my case, possibly a full quarter.)

The important thing here is that, from a planning perspective, having a set of good driving questions will help you budget your time spent on each topic, feel confident that you’re focusing on the right stuff, and give your course/ curriculum the year- to- year stability and consistency that it needs.

2.       Reexamine the logic of your sequence.

A “perfect” curriculum map would have all of the topics and skills presented in such a sequence that each project belongs precisely where you have placed it in the year. That is, each topic or skill should serve as a building block for what comes next in such a way that your curriculum is constantly “spiraling up”; in essence, this means that because each topic is a building block for future topics, it is revisited throughout the course (albeit in different ways and probably not necessarily re- taught.)

Naturally there are other factors at play, too. We do ecology in the fall because it’s still warm out and it would be immensely disappointing to do ecology exclusively indoors. Maybe there’s a cultural event like Ethnic Expo in October that would be a great focal point, celebration or curricular connection and you’d like to build a project to fit in with that event. Those factors are important, but are secondary to the logical placement of topics in a sequence. We all have done projects where we realize, often too late, that there were skills or topics that needed to come earlier or later and think, “Wow… how much better would this have been if the students had already learned how to do scale factors going in to this?” More important than fall weather for doing ecology and evolution is the fact that these are topics that are both foundational and broad; they are implicit to the rest of the curriculum; therefore, they come first.

3.       Check for round pegs being forced into square holes.

I had a conversation with a middle school science teacher earlier this summer who was implementing cross- curricular projects with her teaching team. The issue she was having was that there were some projects where her topic had to take a back seat to language arts and math (she had too little content), and others where she was super crunched for time to deliver a lot of science in too little time.

We looked at her standards next to her curriculum map and it seemed that not only was there an opportunity to take some of the pressure off of her time in the time- crunched project, but in fact, some of the content fit better into a different project (the one where she didn’t have enough to do with her kids.) A win- win resulted! She would have a better and more logical placement of content in her team’s curriculum.

Another peer had done a cool thematic project, also a cross- curricular one, where students designed and tested their own water filters while studying The Lost Boys of Sudan. She had included broad standards about global weather patterns and ocean currents in a project where all students really needed to know about water was a bit about its chemical makeup. While technically she had included “water standards,” they were non- essential and forced into a project (because, let’s be real… we’re expected to get them all in.) Nonetheless the conclusion we reached was that they needed to be taken out and given a more meaningful and authentic context (i.e. write a different driving question and design a different project.) It was indeed a good experience for the students and should stay… but it should be executed differently (in her case, social studies has more curricular ties to language arts than science did, it was decided that a proposal be made to her team to move it.)

When standards are forced into projects, things get weird. And with all things education, if it’s even remotely confusing to you, it will be downright baffling to students.

4.       Evaluate the impact of community partners.

The inclusion of adults other than teachers has an immeasurably important effect on the engagement and authenticity of projects. The best projects involve a community partner at many points along the way. If you ask students doing PBL, they’ll state the tremendously positive impact of these authentic partnerships.

Except when it’s not. Sometimes we have grandiose plans for how to include these outsiders into our projects and it simply doesn’t pan out; we wanted to have them come five times in a month and they could only make it happen once, or we thought they would just love being with us and interacting, but actually they were bored (or worse, unimpressed.)

A curriculum map should have a column for community partner ideas, even if they’re just brainstormed ideas. Many times we encounter potential community partners after a project is done and gone. As a Cubs fan, I know the adage all too well: there’s always next year. Revisit the names in that column and decide who you will call back, which names should be scratched and perhaps how to use certain persons or organizations differently and better than before.
It may be obvious to state this, but I’ll do it anyway. When asking community partners to provide feedback or instruction to students, make sure that a) they are operating in their domain of expertise and b) students are given sufficient content preparation prior to their coming. I’ve made the mistake of asking museum officials to give feedback on the scientific content in displays, falsely assuming the officials had a science background. And I’ve had many a time where I felt embarrassment on the behalf of my students because I hadn’t prepared them well enough for the community partner’s visit (or I did not provide the community partner with enough detail about what their background was.)

Also be mindful of fatigue on the part of your community partners. Sure, there are a few people that I contact every single year and they come in with abundant gusto. Others I know I should probably only ask every couple of years. It naturally stands to reason that if a community partner got a thank you note from a student after last year’s project, you’re more likely to get their help again.

5.       Budget variety.

Think about the culminating products that your students might produce this year. If you do have past years on which to reflect, ask yourself whether or not they did enough different kinds of things as PBL experiences. If what they did at the end of each project was a PSA or a slide show presentation, it may be time to think about how to incorporate more variety into your planning. While I am of the strong belief that it’s more about the process than the product, there’s a lot to be said for asking students to create final products that stimulate their imagination, build a variety of skills from communication to technology to collaboration, and give them a challenging goal to work towards.

There are some PBL projects that are truly authentic, where the work they are doing replicates the work being done by the corresponding adults in those disciplines. Clearly a great thing. My students participated as student scientists in a Purdue yeast biodiversity survey for the past two years and it was truly authentic and truly engaging because they were doing real work (they discovered new species, even.) There are also projects that sacrifice some authenticity for the sake of engagement. I’ve created complete mock- up crime scenes of cookie recipe thievery that were 100% fictitious, but also highly engaging. Both of these approaches serve valuable roles in the curriculum.

Finally, budget variety in the duration of projects. Not every project needs to adhere to a formulaic, “perfect” project length. If there’s a project that will take five weeks, consider following it up with a two week mini- project. Students get worn out, too. There’s some dread that happens when, coming off a huge project, you jump right back into another huge project.
The greatest thing about each new school year is that it’s a fresh start. The greatest thing about a good curriculum map is that you don’t have to completely start over each year. Curriculum maps should always be considered living documents that will evolve over many years… but while there will be elements that are “one and done,” never again to be repeated, there will also be pieces that bear the original ink from the very first drafting of the map.

Taken together, a new school year and a fresh revision of your curriculum maps will ensure that there’s a least a few bars in the battery at all times this year.

 If you need help creating a curriculum map, contact Magnify Learning for a discipline- specific thought partner and sign up for summer training in 2016!

Andrew Larson facilitates Environmental Studies and Biology at
 Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School in Columbus, Indiana.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Five Myths of Project- Based Learning Dissected and Debunked

by Andrew Larson

Seven years ago I became a brand- new educator for the second time. Though I was in a comfortable position in a well- established school of good repute, I needed something more, though, at the time, I didn't know exactly what that was.

Then, something came along at just the right moment. Our school corporation took a leap of faith by starting a Project- Based Learning program, a courageous move that has changed the educational landscape of our community and region.  I leaped, along with a group of trailblazing ninth graders and a small handful of educators hungry for change. We went all- in with an educational model that many had written off as a fad.

Along the way, I've had the most profound professional education I’ve ever had. I’ve become an immensely better instructor than I was in my previous ten years’ experience; I owe this to the special dynamic that PBL both requires and creates. I learned how to work with my incredible adult team and guide our awesome, curious and adventurous students through rich learning experiences.

It hasn’t all been pretty. We made plenty of mistakes, some resulting in students deciding it was “not a good fit” and transferring. Some staff members found the rigors of project planning completely overwhelming to the point that they either left our school or left education altogether. In the end, though, the journey has left me a staunch advocate for PBL. There is no model of education that can be implemented well without the right personnel, and PBL is nothing if not demanding of competence, flexibility, open- mindedness, and tolerance of failures.  But I stand, with a rapidly growing population of renegade educators, as cheerleaders for a method that works—as long as it’s done right.

There are misconceptions about PBL.  Some stem from those who have tried to implement it, most likely without adequate support or training, and crashed & burned. Others come from misinformed perspectives. Below I address five of these myths, from my own perspective, borne from a school and system that has successfully implemented PBL in an already successful school corporation.


“Project Based Learning isn’t for everyone.”

I’ve heard it many times: my son just needs a textbook. My daughter just needs to be told what to do. He can’t work with others. She just needs structure. All students have their own needs, and no one teacher or system is going to change that.

Project Based Learning doesn’t replace good teaching; it does, however, lend itself well to co- existing with research- based approaches. While there are most certainly a myriad of approaches that could be integrated with PBL, the one adopted by our district is Universal Design for Learning. UDL is a framework of brain- based instruction that benefits all learners regardless of ability or learner style. It may have started as a set of strategies for providing accommodations for some, but ultimately, all learners benefit.

It should be reiterated that this approach was not adopted by just our school, which is project- based, but was instead implemented on a compulsory basis by all schools in our district. It turns out that PBL in particular fits naturally (incredibly so, in fact) into two of the three categories: Engagement (students that seek meaning and motivation in their learning get that from PBL because of the authentic learning experiences that its presents) and Action & Expression (when students are given voice and choice with how their mastery of content is manifested in final products, they can communicate their learning in many ways, instead of a prescribed and possibly one- dimensional means.) The third category, Action and Expression, is squarely in the hands of the instructor. In other words, you have to be a good teacher and PBL won’t save you if you’re not.

The point is that PBL can’t be done well without sound pedagogy, whatever that pedagogical approach is. It can provide a range of options for students to express their knowledge and skills, and can provide meaning to the learning where there perhaps was otherwise not.

“I’m afraid that I won’t be able to hit all of the standards if I do PBL.”

It’s been my experience that I am no more likely to run out of time than I ever was in my previous teaching life; that is to say, covering (or, as we like to say, uncovering) the standards is challenging regardless of the setting. My approach has always been to prioritize and clump. There may be a standard or two or three that doesn’t get due justice in my classes, but rest assured, it won’t be a “power standard”; it will be the minutiae, the high- minded semantics and “pet standards” (the ones written by a person clearly with an agenda) that get slighted.

It’s true that there are processes involved in PBL that take time away from content instruction. For a given project, the “launch” and subsequent creation of groups, group contracts, etc. may take up to two days. At the end of a project, presentations may take a day or more. Reflection and celebration of successes are givens. However, meaningful project planning can result in better use of time if students are given skills in collaborating and have access to abundant, high- quality information. If a project is well- planned, students may work in a self- paced way and avoid wasting time waiting on others to catch up with them. Benchmarks provide the opportunities for instructors to assess which groups are ready to forge on, and provided the resources are in place, students may at the least test their ability to explore on their own and never be held back.

 “PBL is great, but it’s not really preparing them for the college learning environment.”

I couldn’t disagree more. The tendency for college work to involve more group projects is an emerging reality, but it’s the opposite end of the approach spectrum that creates more concern for me. There are those that feel lectures and traditional note taking have no place in a PBL environment. I am not among them. Never would I say that daily instruction should be done stand- and- deliver style excessively, but sometimes, every student truly and honestly needs the direct instruction. And truly, if we are not asking students to practice note taking and developing attention spans suited to listening for, say, 30 minutes at a time, we are doing them a disservice. The point is that there is no single instructional approach that is, quintessentially, PBL. Just like with any effective instructional approach, variety matters, immensely.

 “I’m not ready to give up all of the control in my classroom.”

Nor am I. There is no substitute for good instruction, and those of us that do PBL do not go forth carelessly, letting the kids decide what they will learn, in what order, and how they’ll be taught. It’s quite true that one of the greatest things about PBL is that students do assume more ownership in their learning, in terms of how best to communicate and apply content in ways and contexts that are meaningful to them. It should not be forgotten, though, that we are the content experts, not them. It’s our job to provide structure and sequence to a project in such a way that students move logically through a set of concepts, all the time applying their new knowledge to solve the authentic problem at hand. 

There is a change in dynamic that occurs as a result of a well- executed project launch, where students identify their “Need to Knows” about the problem, scenario, and logistics of a project. Those Need to Knows, coming from the students as they do, help eliminate the perennial question of, “Why do we need to learn this?” That is, because the students express a particular Need to Know, there is an implicitly closer identification of how the content helps them solve a problem.

That being said, students generally don’t know how to sequence and structure the learning of that content. That job belongs in the hands of a qualified expert (i.e. the teacher.) Giving up that control would be a big mistake. Never—ever—should a project be allowed to veer away from content standards for any extended period (though I cannot put a hard number on that exact duration.) If it does, we run the risk of improperly preparing our students for their next steps in school and life.
As a general rule, time devoted to standards in a project is equal to the time that would otherwise be given in a traditional approach. We cannot change the reality of time and minutes, so we must pace appropriately. If a project is allowed to languish in purgatory, no one is either happy or appropriately educated in the end.  This leads us to the last one….

“PBL isn’t rigorous enough.”

PBL, by my personal definition, is the application of content standards to solve a real- world problem that matters. Application is, by definition, and requires, by necessity, higher- order thinking and problem solving skills. Content standards are viewed as the minimum proficiencies. So how is that not rigorous?

If the quantity of information that students learn takes second seat to the quality, then I’m of the “so be it” mind. But again, it comes back to the original definition: standards are, truly, the minimum. My colleague Rachelle Antcliff likes to say, “I love standards; I look at them and ask, ‘Is this all I have to teach?’” In a traditional classroom, the answer is, “Yes.” In a PBL environment, the answer is, “Um, no. They have to learn the standards, apply them to the authentic context to solve a problem, 
communicate their knowledge to community partners in a number of ways, while working together as a team, struggling with decisions, and meet numerous deadlines along the way.”


So, am I biased in my dispelling of these “PBL Myths?” Perhaps, but only because seven years of experience has taught me what PBL can be, should be, and will be, for the rest of my educational career.  I know that PBL is a daunting change in mindset to undergo because I did it and have seen many others do so as well.

The only advice I can offer is (to borrow from Boromir from “The Lord of the Rings” and countless internet memes) “One does not simply implement PBL without the proper training and support.” Check out Magnify Learning for training opportunities and resources, and enjoy the journey.

Andrew Larson facilitates Biology and Environmental Studies at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School in Columbus, Indiana.