Friday, November 24, 2017

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

Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

November 26th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Why I Chose PBL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

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

Andrew Larson
Science Facilitator
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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