Thursday, January 25, 2018

Community Partners at CSAM

By: Trisha Burns
CSA Central-Columbus Signature Academy Middle School
Columbus, IN

At any given time, students at CSA Central could have four different projects happening at the same time, two for 7th grade and two for 8th grade.  Our goal is to create authentic projects that benefit the community.  We have taken on the project based learning philosophy in our classrooms and are developing a culture where students understand that they are part of a community, both at school and at home.  Along with the content that we teach, we spend time helping our students develop agency and take ownership of their own learning. Part of healthy agency is impacting yourself and your community.  Through our projects, we hope the students understand, that whether big or small, their impact on the community can create positive change...even if it is for just one family or person.  Another goal of adding community partners into our projects is to see how professionals use content in their actual jobs.  Involving community partners helps students get ideas on careers or volunteer opportunities that they didn’t realize were available.

About a month ago the local newspaper came to our school looking for positive stories to share about local schools.  As I started writing about the different projects happening in our school, I realized how well we were meeting our goal of impacting our community.

In  the 7th grade Fairy Tale project, our students were rewriting famous fairy tales with a different cultural perspective for students who are at a first or second grade reading level.  After several rounds of feedback, students went to two local elementary schools to read their books in small groups of lower elementary students. This project focused on different cultural standards from social studies as well as the English standards of fiction and editing and revision.  Seventh graders enjoyed getting to go share their stories with the elementary students.  The elementary students loved that the seventh graders used some of their favorite stories and redid them.  Some of the elementary students were even excited about getting to write their own book!

In the other 7th grade project, Festival of Lights, students were analyzing costs and electricity usage to design a scale model and decorate a
homeless shelter for the holidays.  The school corporation’s energy manager came in and talked about energy consumption and ways to reduce energy usage, specifically light bulbs. While he was presenting, he also talked about the aspects of his job to encourage career exploration for the students. Toward the end of their research, the students had to present their ideas to the people who run the homeless shelter to choose which group’s ideas actually got to be used to decorate the house.  The seventh graders felt awesome about getting to go decorate the Horizon House.  It made them feel good that the people who live in the house would know that they hadn’t been forgotten over the holiday season.  It helped their temporary home to blend in with the rest of the community.  One seventh grader said, “You just never know.  Maybe we decorated the house for people that we know!”

In 8th grade social studies and science, students did a project called Life and Conflict. In this project students were connecting the lives of veterans and active military members of today to the lives of veterans from wars of the past (Revolutionary through Civil). Student groups created veteran initiatives that in some way supported the veterans in our community. Two examples of these were a Veterans Thanks Day of Service and a Military Family Carnival. During the Veterans Thanks Day of Service students traveled around Columbus helping do fall yard clean-up for veterans and active military members. The Military Family Carnival night in December was an event where military families were invited to come play games and socialize at Central Middle School. The students loved being able to raise awareness for local veterans and active military.

While the 8th graders were working on that project, they also raised money to purchase new books for the children of our community in the Literacy 4 Life Project. Students chose organizations in our community to donate books to, planned and ran fundraisers, and picked books to purchase with their money that would help their chosen organization.  Inside each book, the students created a bookmark or brochure that had statistics about the importance of childhood literacy and strategies to help parents at home.  They also included inferencing questions for the parents to ask while they read the book to help their children better understand the book. The math that was used in this project was slope and y-intercept interpretations as they were planning their daily goal for their fundraising efforts. They also used the surface area of the books so they could tell me how much wrapping paper they were going to need to individually wrap their groups' books. Overall the students raised $1650 and delivered 402 books to 9 different local charities and organizations for them to deliver as Christmas gifts to individual families that they serve.

It was a very successful quarter here at CSA Central, and it was based on finding authentic problems that our community needed help solving.  Finding authentic projects and community partners can be a barrier as you begin to plan your projects. Here are some tips to keep in mind to help overcome those obstacles.

1. Know your content. This seems obvious, but the more you understand your content the more you will see how you can use it to solve real world problems.
2. Know your community. Find out about different organizations and charities in your community and how they currently serve the community.
3. Know your community needs. Don’t be so focused on what you need to cover that you forget to ask what they can really use.  If you find out that their need can’t be solved using your content, share the project idea with other teachers or peer leader groups in your school to see if there is still a way to meet their need.
4. Know and empower your students. Allow students to contact community partners.  We use this method often when students have a choice on community partners.  We create a script and questionnaire together, and then allow students to contact people. We also keep a list of who has been contacted so the groups don’t repeat phone calls or contacts.
5. Think outside the box.  Be flexible.  Work with other subject areas rather than just sticking with what you know.  Find a group of teachers to brainstorm ideas with and to identify what community partners could connect with your content area.

Community partnerships add so much to a PBL classroom, and to the students who get to work with adults outside the school.  I love it when the students get the satisfaction that comes with doing something amazing for someone who needed it!

How do you use community partners in your classroom? How could your students use the content from your class to impact their community? If you’re interested in learning more about community partners and how to incorporate them in project based learning, then sign up for Magnify Learning’s FREE Community Partners Webinar at the end of January! 

Friday, January 5, 2018

“If at first you fail…” The Value of Project Revision

By: Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School
Columbus, IN

Once a teacher has taken a stab at a project it’s often the case that there are one of two prevailing sentiments. The first: “Never again.” The second, and hopefully more common one, is, “I can’t wait to try that again next year.” While there will be clear winning and losing components of the project, I find that there are a few recurring themes with aspects of projects that need a constant reevaluation. Here are five recommendations for taking a completed project and improving it for future years. 

1.       Reflect while it’s fresh. It is obviously vital to reflect with students. While there are a myriad of ways to do this the simplest may be to use a Tuning Protocol with students in one large group. Take notes and be sure to remember where you kept those notes when the time comes around to get back to project redesign. 

It is always surprising what students liked, disliked, or otherwise got out of a project. Recently, students remarked at how challenging they found a certain book that we read (this coming from our very best students.) While they always seem up for a challenge, it seems that this time, we reached too much. Does that mean we will remove the book from our rotation? Not at all; however, the next step of seeking a more middle- ground title for next time was identified as a result of the class reflection. 

A lot of good logistic next steps will also come out of such a conversation. Last year, our class hosted the Columbus Holiday Ride, a cold weather critical mass bike ride as a culminating event for our study of climate change and raised awareness of alternative transportation. Unfortunately (and ironically?) we had to reschedule our event as a result of inclement weather. That rescheduled date had to be produced more or less on the morning of and, as a result, attendance at the event suffered. Thus a key next step we identified during that class reflection was to have identified an alternative date at the outset of the project. 

2.       Increase the authenticity. Sometimes, especially when time is limited, I find that a project is fundamentally pretty good but has gaps with respect to the authenticity. Sometimes the community partner is not as involved as they could be. Other times, the final product may feel contrived. In some instances, the actual selection of the community partner may have been a little off. Then there is occasional realization that some community or seasonal event would fit in perfectly with a project and it would make sense to adjust the timing of the project.
I remember a project several years back where I badly misjudged the community partners we chose. The task was to design an interactive museum exhibit of a certain cell function. The curators from the museum were great at interacting with students but were ill equipped to give them feedback on the technical aspects of the exhibits, as they were not experts in cell biology. Again, while it would not make sense to scrap the project for that reason, there is a lot of logic in getting separate community partners that are, in fact, experts in cell biology to guide those designs. There again, it is not a matter of changing course entirely, but instead, adding a layer to an already good project foundation.

3.       Improve your assessment tools and realign the standards. You may know that feeling that the exhaustive list of standards that you have aligned with a project just feels like a pipe dream. Will you really address them all, and can you really expect proficiency from most or all of your students? I’ve had plenty of projects where it became clear that our exhaustive approach to a large bundle of standards was a detriment both to the authenticity and the enthusiasm for the project. For example, in biology, we always do some sort of food project for our macromolecules standards. We have always felt like the project was too big, too long, and too hard for most students. Furthermore, we were trying to force too much depth of content into a final project. This year, we simplified. We taught students just enough biochemistry to create a nutritious, delicious and interesting salad dressing for our Thanksgiving feast. There was plenty of content that was introduced, but not assessed, and we shifted some of that to the next two projects instead. The results were very positive.

For those of you tinkering with Standards- Based Grading, I think it would be a great idea to try this approach for a project that you feel has promise but wanted for effective assessment. Project- specific rubrics are very time consuming and tough to get right. If you have tried this approach and didn’t feel confident that your students hit the targets you set out for them, I suggest you take a year to learn about SBG, write (and get feedback on) SBG rubrics, and try them with a project that you are excited to try again.

4.       Increase the opportunities for practice and revision. Not all projects lend themselves to the creation and defense of a prototype… but then again, maybe they should. I am a big fan of practice presentations and feedback sessions both with and without community partners present. Presenting an incomplete piece, be it a physical prototype or rough written/spoken draft, is often more useful than feedback given on a completed product. To me, there is something really unsatisfying about a final presentation that really should have been a benchmark and chance to improve a piece of work. I have also found community partners to be extremely forgiving in their critique of student work, especially if we all know that it is an incomplete iteration.

5.       Bolster the incorporation of literacy. Every project should involve reading, period. Even if the class does not have a language arts component. Given that my class at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School does, we try to read a book with each project. It did not start out that way, though; that goal surfaced from the realization that there is always depth to be added from reading. Even if there is not a book that is read as a part of a project, there can be readings, examination of current events, poetry, and more, and that will always add depth of content and (usually) authenticity to a project.

On the topic of books, we try to have 2-4 titles for students to choose from. These will be differentiated by reading level, interest, or, occasionally, content. Students always appreciate choice in project products, so it’s no surprise that they will appreciate having choice in what they read as well. It is also true, though, that we never get to four title options in one year for the same reasons as everyone else: money. We may add 5-6 titles to our collection for the whole year, but that may translate to just one additional option for a given project. Or, perhaps you’ll read something a month after the project ended and lament how perfect it “would have been.” My teaching partner is great at keeping a running list of ideas for readings in projects. If you are not a list maker (as I am not,) find someone who is and have them help you to not lose it!

While some projects cannot be repeated because they are a snapshot in time (take the eclipse projects our students did,) most are adaptable and improvable. There will never be a project that a teacher can take, execute, and replicate exactly the next year. If you read this far into this blog post, I assume that is obvious to you already! Indeed, the best project almost always have endured repeated iterations and occasional (if not frequent) hiccups. Project improvement is an ongoing process. Never despair if things don’t go perfectly! Instead, get back to work for next time.