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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!

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