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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Starting the Year off with Success By: Trisha Burns

If you have taken a glance at a calendar lately, you will notice that the summer is passing quickly. Have you thought about how you are going to start your school year? We know that it is best practice to train the students on your expectations for a successful classroom as you begin the year. One of the practices I have found successful during my 8 years of facilitating a PBL classroom is to begin the year with a culture-building project.  Basically you use a PBL project to teach the expectations and basics of your classroom process.

When I taught in a traditional school and students came to me without any PBL experience, I started with a project called “What is PBL?”  I launched this project with a letter to the students from me. Normally, I would want the letter to come from a community partner, but in this case I was their community partner because the final product was for my classroom.  In this one week project, the final product was a poster of the expectations for each of the 4 group roles that we use in our projects throughout the year (Facilitator, Liaison, Team Tutor, and Recorder).  As with all of my projects, I had a rubric that I created for the benchmarks and the poster, which was the final product. While we went through the 6 phase problem solving process, I made sure the students knew which phase we were in. They also began to notice how their “need to knows” planned the next steps of the project for us. It was a safe project to start with as I was beginning my PBL journey and as they were beginning theirs.  Since there was no content in this project, the students and myself were able to learn together and see how the PBL process works.

Another culture project idea is to have students design a team t-shirt as a final product. The potential project scenario is for the students to design a team t-shirt that represents who you are as a school or as a class.  In order for them to be able to choose and design a t-shirt, they need to learn what sets apart your style of teaching and culture from what they are used to in a traditional classroom. An additional idea for a short culture project would be for each student to create an “I Can” block to put up in the hallway.  With all the “I Can” blocks designed and created, you can easily organize them to become a “We Can” wall.  

Last year my school, Columbus Signature Academy Central Campus, did a project called “Go for the Gold.”  We launched it by introducing all of the teachers for both our 7th and 8th grade team as students' “trainers.”  The problem the students explored was how they were going to "go for the gold" throughout the year and master our different learning outcomes (Agency, Collaboration, Written Communication, Oral Communication).  As part of their workshops they learned about our expectations for the building, for the classroom, for our technology, and for working in a PBL environment.  All of those aspects became answers to how they would “Go for the Gold” during the school year.  Students were put into teams where they designed a flag that had symbols and specific colors on them.  They had to write a paragraph about how the colors and symbols represented their team.  Then at the opening ceremonies, we had a “Parade of Teams” that was to simulate the Parade of Nations for the actual Olympics.  We also did a torch ceremony where the 8th graders started outside and ran through the hallways, up the stairs, to the auditorium where they “lit” up a fake torch we had created.  

We showed the whole relay live so everyone could see it from the auditorium except for those involved.  We finished the day with team-building games that the 8th graders put together for mixed-grade teams to participate in.  This project really built our school culture and got us started on the right foot.  Although we don’t want to use the Olympics this year, we are thinking maybe we could tweak the project to mimic training for a marathon.  

Another idea that I haven’t used to begin a school year, but I can see has some serious potential is to connect with Pinwheels for Peace. In this culture project there would be a part of the final product where each student creates a pinwheel with their words of peace.  The other idea I have thought about is to train all students on being tour guides or to know how to talk to visitors that we have come through our school.  In order for them to be able to intelligently talk about the program, we would need to teach them about its various aspects, and they would need time to explore the school and what it offers.  Again, neither of these ideas have been developed, but maybe they can help trigger the creative juices you have!

Regardless of how you decide to build the culture in your classroom or in your school, make sure to start the year off with a solid project!  This will help the students learn your expectations without the risk learning content can sometimes create.  

How do you build culture at the beginning of the year? We would love to hear your ideas! If you would like more information on any of the project ideas that my school has tried or to see PBL in action, you can follow us on Twitter @csantcentral.

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

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Power of Feedback By: Trisha Burns

How do you get to the end of a project and know confidently that your students will do a great job presenting their final products to your community partners? How can you hold students accountable to meet benchmarks throughout the course of a project? How can you create a culture in your classroom or school that says it’s okay to make mistakes, take risks, and support each other? There is more than one answer to any of those questions, but the one answer they have in common is providing students opportunities for feedback throughout the process. Here are four ways that my 8th grade project based learning team provides opportunities for feedback.

Teacher Check-off

Even towards the beginning of the project, before it gets “messy,” “expensive,” or takes a lot of valuable class time, you should have some sort of benchmark, or checkpoint in the project, that gives the group (and the teacher) the confidence that students are on the right track.  The group should describe the “possible solution” they have chosen to the problem presented to them in the project. This description can be in an outline or a proposal of some sort.  At this point in the project, I find it helpful for teachers to give the feedback and give a green light of approval to continue.  If it is an individual classroom project it is easier to manage, but when you try to integrate projects with one, two, or even three different classes, it is nice to be able to have all teachers give their feedback and “sign off” that they give the “green light.”

On our team, we also promote reflection throughout the year and especially at the end of the year.  Our students wrote “PED” Talks  (Presentation of Educational Development) to show how they used a growth mindset to improve academically, personally, and socially throughout the year.  They had to create a very general outline that included how they would use evidence to prove this growth.  As a team of four teachers, we wanted to make sure we were all on the same page with these outlines. As we were working on another project, they had to get all four of us to approve their PED talk outline.  

What did this do for their final products? One, it helped the students make them more specific.  Without this feedback we would have heard the same presentation 100 times. “I studied harder so my grades went up. I practiced presentations so now I can speak in front of people. I was a better group member than last year so I grew socially.” However since they needed four teachers approval and we were all checking in on them, we were able to encourage them to be more specific and make it their own. So instead I heard things about building churches, volunteering in the community, overcoming tragic family situations, and yes, we still heard about how grades improved, but we saw the evidence.  We saw students include their reading levels from the beginning of the year, or a screenshot of grades from seventh to eighth grade.  By taking the time to talk to the students, we were able to help them truly reflect on how they were gold medalists this year instead of being generic in their reflections.  

Feedback Carousel

Do you have a brochure, flyer, PSA, or some sort of “stand alone” piece to your project? If so you could try a feedback carousel or a gallery walk.  These two ways to provide opportunities for feedback can get you the same outcome, but the way they are facilitated may change how the students engage in the activity.  

We used the feedback carousel recently in our Carnival for a Cause project where the students had to raise money for ASAP (Alliance of Substance Abuse Progress).  
One of the pieces of the final product was to create a PSA (Public Service Announcement) about drug abuse awareness. They posted these at their carnival booth . Most students chose a flyer, but we had one group make a video and two of the PSAs were shared by being wrapped around prizes or even being the stick they put cotton candy on.  About a week before the project was due, we could tell the students needed some focus time on their PSAs.  They looked more like research papers, but there are only so many times teachers can tell them that.  So we conducted a feedback carousel. All the groups hung their PSA on the wall (and the video was on a laptop on the counter). We sent 4-5 people to each PSA with several post-it notes and a tiny sheet that had the PSA solution criteria on it.  The students then had 2 minutes to look at the PSA (because let’s get serious, no one is going to spend more than 1 minute looking at a flyer at a  carnival!) and write feedback in the form of “Plus”, “Delta” or to give them next steps.  Students drew a “+” sign on top to give positive feedback, “delta,” a triangle, to list things they would change, or wrote “next steps” that the group could use. After the two minutes, we rotated clockwise and those 4 students gave another group feedback.  After about 10 rotations, we gave them 5 minutes to roam to other PSAs that caught their eye and give them feedback.  

This provided three huge advantages for our groups.  
  1. They were able to “compare” their quality of their PSA to the others that would be represented at the carnival.
  2. They became more familiar with the actual solution criteria that they would be graded on.
  3. They were able to get some “fresh eyes” to give them some feedback.

As much as I would love to have a school culture where students naturally ask other groups for feedback, we are not there yet so giving them time to do this is powerful! Here is another idea to help facilitate a feedback carousel in your classroom...

Gallery Walk

A very similar way to give feedback is through a gallery walk.  A gallery walk can be used as a final product display, but you can also use it for feedback time before community partners come to see final products.  We did this also in our carnival project with the actual booths.  This time we invited high school students (who had done this project with us when they were here) to come and play the games and give feedback.  By having this set time to be ready for “external enemies” to come and give them feedback, the students had almost the same pressure to have it completed before this deadline (instead of staying up all night the night before it's due). It was impossible for students to wait until the last minute to create their game because we did the gallery walk a week before the carnival was open. This gave them time to, not finish their work, but to make it better.  It was nice for the students to hear “next steps” from the high schoolers as opposed to their teachers. This also worked really well as a practice set up time to make sure our carnival was going to fit where we had planned for it to be.

Shark Tank

One of the most fun ways to give feedback is a Shark Tank style presentation.  We also did this in our carnival project.  At the beginning of the project we watched an episode of Shark Tank. The students developed the solution criteria for the presentation they were going to have to give to the “sharks” (teachers) to see if we would approve their booth to be in “OUR” carnival.  After watching the show the students saw that they needed to have an emotional tie-in in addition to data and statistics, which didn’t break my heart as a math teacher! They also realized they needed their game and prizes ready for us to demo as well as be able to discuss the process in which they created their booth.  We did the Shark Tank presentations on a Friday before our Tuesday carnival.  This gave the students time on Monday to make the changes we needed to see in order to approve them.  This was a really fun way to give feedback.  It became almost a celebration day because all the groups got to watch us (the sharks) play the different games.  Since we had so much other feedback built into this project, we were able to “fine tune” their booths without any major surprises.  As we were giving them feedback, one of us was creating a “Next Steps” list for them to have to work on Monday.  It was very helpful for us to see and experience what the carnival would really be like.  How did they do their data and statistics? They had to find the expected value of their game to predict the amount of prizes they would need and analyze how many people would need to play their game to meet their goal amount they wanted to raise.  But again, if teams took advantage of checking in with me beforehand for feedback, there were no surprises here on Shark Tank day either.

Seeking feedback is one way for students to be agents for their own learning. However, we as teachers are responsible for providing them these opportunities during class and helping them develop a mindset that we hope they take with them through all aspects of their lives.

There are a few things to remember about running feedback protocols in your projects.

  • Make sure students understand the solution criteria. This helps them give higher quality feedback and gives them a chance to refresh their minds on what is expected in the project.
  • Fishbowl the protocols for the first time or two. Students (even adults) do not naturally have a good critical friends group to give them feedback on their work.  It feels awkward at times, but facilitating the protocol in a small group as the larger class observes helps the students see the benefit of the protocols.
  • Debrief how feedback was given. Yes, I’m asking you to have your students give feedback on getting feedback.  It is important for students to hear how their feedback was received.  Even as a class, it is okay to talk about poor feedback given and find ways to improve it for the next time around.
  • Make phrases like “I Likes” “I Wonders” “Next Steps” “Clarifying Questions” “Plus” “Delta” part of your and your students’ vocabulary.  This really helps create the culture of feedback that you are trying to cultivate.
  • Build feedback time into your projects by making it official benchmarks.  It is easy to push feedback to the wayside when your community partners come in three days and your students still need work time. However, if from the beginning of the project you and your students know that it is an official project benchmark and it has a set date, you are more likely to make time for it.  It will also push the students to have their rough drafts done sooner so they can get feedback on them.  

So as your summer is starting, and you begin to think about your projects for next year, how will you implement feedback sessions in your projects? What are some ways you have found feedback successful in your PBL classroom? Let us know!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Scaffolding Your Way to a Decision By: Trisha Burns

We’ve all been there, right? We are facilitating this classroom full of teams with different ideas on what makes the best final product.  How do your groups decide whose idea is the best? Is it the person who talks the loudest? Or the one who talks the most? Is it the person’s idea who everyone knows will do the majority of the work in the project anyway? Or how do you keep a group from choosing a solution before exploring several options?  Let me introduce you to how my students make these decisions.This is the decision matrix.

My students used this tool as they were deciding which attraction they wanted to create and lead at our annual carnival. First off though, let me give you a little context for the project before I share how this tool came into play. We launched our 8th grade, 4-subject integrated project (math, science, social studies and English), “Carnival for a Cause,” by giving students the entry event and doing a know/need to know chart.  Then we began to brainstorm the different aspects of a carnival through a virtual chalk talk.  Once we summarized our chalk talk, we noticed that there were three types of booths at a carnival.  

After an organizational meeting, we decided we needed 17 games/attractions, 3 food booths, and 3 “other” groups that would run the ticket booths, sit at an information desk, and be “gophers” for anything else that needed to be accomplished that day.  To organize groups, students answered two questions on a post-it as an exit ticket.  They decided what type of group they wanted to be in (food, other, attraction), and which group role they wanted to be (philanthropist, quality control, construction worker, carnival operator).  Teachers went through these post-it notes and created teams based on what the students wanted.

Now that the students were in groups, it was time to start thinking about what would make the best final product.  Based on the entry event, the final product needed to include an earth-friendly aspect and make a profit. Students were also required to create a PSA (public service announcement) to educate others about the cause. So as we began to develop solution criteria from our group contract and content workshops, students were beginning to brainstorm several ideas of what they would want to do. Each group had to come up with an answer to the question, "How will you know your booth was successful?" They had to agree upon it, and include it in a written statement on their contract.  On the same day they worked on developing the answer to this question (along with the rest of their student-created group contract), they were exploring possible booth ideas in another class.

It was now time to choose a solution (Step 4 in our Problem Solving Process), and as you can imagine, the ideas were flowing.  There were several great ideas from each group.  How did they decide which idea was their best? The decision matrix.


When you look at the decision matrix, you will notice the solution criteria at the top is blank.  Each team filled this out based on their answer to the question, “How will you know your booth was successful?” They broke down their answer into 4-5 different solution criteria.  They took their top 4 possible booth ideas and wrote them down the first column.  Then they had to rate each booth idea 1-5 based on their solution criteria at the top.  They added up their scores, and the highest score was their “perfect” solution.  Once they had their solution chosen, they had to sign up to ensure we only had one of each type of game or attraction.


As we observed the students going through this decision-making process, we heard things like, “This wasn’t supposed to score so high…” or “but I didn’t want to do that one…” However, knowing how much time they had invested in their brainstorming phase, the group issues were minimal.  Most of the groups recognized the value of the decision matrix and went with the “numbers don’t lie” attitude.

How can you use decision matrices in your PBL classroom? There are several ways.  The first way would be similar to what we did during our “Carnival for a Cause” project.  Students create the solution criteria for their ideal solution and rank each person’s ideas based on the scale.  Another way is that in a project with more specific solution criteria given by the community partner or teacher, the class would use all of the same solution criteria at the top.  Once you have gone through your rubric or checklists for what you or community partner will be looking for, students would generate the list of 4-6 different criteria, and you would design your decision matrix with those listed on the top.  Decision matrices actually work any time in a project when a group gets stuck.  It may be a three days before final presentation day and the group can’t decide on the background color of their slides. They can create a decision matrix to help make the best choice for their group.

As you think ahead to the fall and are developing your PBL projects for the start of a new school year, consider where and how a decision matrix could help. The following are some of the benefits I’ve found by using a decision matrix with students:

  • Your teams work together more cohesively
  • Your students think through possible solutions more deeply
  • Their final products more resemble the expectations laid out for them
  • You can more easily facilitate group disagreements in the “choosing a solution” phase of your project.

Let us know how it goes! We would love to hear your success stories with decision matrices in your PBL classroom! And as for our “Carnival for a Cause” project, it is in full swing with a Gallery Walk and Shark Tank style presentation happening before the carnival day. We already have 320 students signed up to attend!

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

Project Ideas are Here, There, and Everywhere! By: Trisha Burns

Before we leave for the summer, our team gets together to review our curriculum map for the following year's integrated projects.  We make sure we know what standards are going to be matched with our team teacher during our 9 weeks of working together.  Then the fun begins!

The social studies teacher and I knew we would be matched third quarter, and he wanted to cover Westward Expansion.  I needed to cover word problems, Pythagorean Theorem, and review scatter plots and graphing lines.  We looked at each other confidently, smiled, and said we would figure it out. However neither of us were fully convinced we would have an authentic project that would include both sets of standards.

Fast forward to October when our school had a lock-in with break-out rooms.  In a break-out room, groups, in this case students, work together as a team to solve puzzles in order to escape the room within a set time limit.  I sent my soon to be co-teacher a text and said, “Break-out rooms could make a great project.” 

In late November my co-teacher and some of his friends went to Escape 812, a new local business that provides escape room experiences. They had one hour to solve the puzzles that would allow them to accomplish their task and escape the room. He came back from that experience and said it was a lot of fun, and maybe this is where we could find an authentic project.  We continued to research and began conversations with Escape 812’s owner about the possibility of creating a project around the design of break-out rooms for his business. 

Now it’s March 9. My co-teacher and I listen to Escape 812’s owner announce to all of our students that he was so impressed with their ideas. He tells them he is pleased to announce the launch of his third room will be compiled of their puzzle ideas for Westward Expansion! When he sorted through their packages he discovered:

  • An original room scenario using their literary devices from English class in addition to cited, historical research of their Westward expansion themed room
  • Three puzzles and solutions
  • A bill of materials
  • A return on investment graph
  • An argument using a cost versus complexity graph on why their room was his best choice

During the project students did an active exploration with the computer game, Lemonade Stand, to experience being a small business owner. They used scatter plots to predict their sales if the business were to continue. They also used the Pythagorean Theorem to prove why companies made more money by building the railroad using zigzags instead of building in a straight line. When it was all said and done, we not only covered our planned standards, but many more including English standards.

So how do you come up with a great project idea? Your first step is to know and be confident in your content.  You cannot convince your students that your content has real world applications until you are convinced.  Go through your standards. Think about who needs your content today, and why it is important for them.  Then look around your community. Listen to community radio, or read the newspaper.  Project ideas are everywhere. Are you willing to take risks? Where can you find connections? How will you make those connections?

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