Tagged: PBL

Project-based Learning: Questions and Need-to-Knows

project-based learningA couple of months ago I had an email conversation with Mary Ann Stoll, an education and technology coordinator in Arizona. Mary Ann provides professional development for teachers on how to incorporate project-based learning. She had read through my “Diving into PBL” series and was interested in my reflections on using need-to-know lists to drive projects and in what scaffolding I used to help students with questioning. She wanted to know what I did differently the second year to improve our learning and research. Specifically, Mary Ann asked:

  • How do you guide the uninitiated student group to even start asking need-to-know questions? 
  • And then, how do you nudge them along until they’ve explored their knowledge, skill, and information gaps sufficiently?

Here’s a portion of my response to Mary Ann:

I always start from the first day using thinking routines to help my students learn to ask questions and show their thinking/understanding. Before we narrow our topic we use Question Starts to come up with list of questions we have about the larger concept. Our concept was human rights in the second year, and I started by simply introducing the Declaration of Human Rights, and discussing what we thought they meant. Then, the students generated open-ended questions they had about the individual rights. We use Question Sorts with those questions to eventually narrow our topic. Then, we drafted our driving question together. (I really had to steer them in this. In their previous PBL/design thinking challenges the question was not student-created.)

Once we had our driving question, we used Think-Puzzle-Explore to start developing our “Need to Knows.” The students worked in small groups to generate their T-P-Es, then we shared them to the larger group and wrote the best ones on our IdeaPaint wall. I transferred those to a Google Spreadsheet and shared it with the class giving certain students editing rights to help me track our learning on the spreadsheet. (This was a good idea, but I didn’t execute it well.) Those students could add new questions to the list, mark questions as answered, provide links to related articles, etc.

We used a Diigo group to curate our research, and I assigned students rotating roles (stolen from this Bill Ferriter handout) for what they had to do as we began reading and learning about our driving question. They had to bookmark, annotate (using a modified ladder of feedback), and share what they were reading and learning with the rest of the class in Diigo. Then, they had to perform their rotating roles to help us evaluate our research, clean it up, and make sure we were considering multiple perspectives. (I’m attaching a couple of images that hopefully will help this make sense.) We used SweetSearch as our starting place, and then I worked to find other resources to help them as we went.

Finally, I had students keep an individual Peel the Fruit Map that they updated every day so that I could track individual student’s understanding. We spent way more time on research the second year, and I felt my students had a much deeper understanding of the topic. That said, due to time restrictions, I finally just had to call an end to our research and move on to the how-do-we-share-what-we’ve-learned-and-do-something-about-this-issue phase.

The thinking routines and the social bookmarking roles really helped me provide the scaffolding my students and I needed. I had several teachers visit my classroom to watch how it worked, and I was really pleased with how the students responded. It was a HUGE improvement over year one.

Mary Ann found my response helpful but was still having difficulty visualizing the Peel the Fruit. She asked:

  • Do you happen to have a diagram of such a map?  Is it a general concept map or concentric circles?

I responded by sharing a few more ideas:

Understanding MapHere’s a PDF of a blank Understanding Map/Peel the Fruit and a better picture of a class one…During the last few minutes of class, I would stop the students and ask them to pull out their individual maps and add something to it—a question, an insight, a new discovery, etc. I’d collect them or walk around and glance over them to see where kids might be and who I might need to focus my attention towards. I also encouraged students to use post-its to add “their best thinking” to the class Understanding Map posted on the wall.

The map is set up to be a concept map, but we definitely felt the questions overlapped. I liked it because if a specific question wasn’t being addressed, I knew to push our thinking in that direction. For example, one class had a tough time considering other perspectives, so we took a day and did the Circle of Viewpoints and Step Inside routines.

Again, I mainly used the map to help me track our collective progress as well as see individual student’s progress. I found it a good accountability tool, too. (If someone’s map wasn’t filling up, I’d wonder how they were using their time.)

That’s what I did with my students, but I’d like to know what other teachers using project-based learning do. How do you teach students to ask good questions and develop their “need-to-knows”? How do you formatively assess individual and class understanding throughout the process? How do you monitor student research and know when it’s time to move on? If you have any ideas or experiences, I’d love to hear from you.

An Unexpected Class Visitor

The Fruit of Making Thinking VisibleMy sixth graders and I recently began our student-driven inquiry and project-based learning on human rights. This is my second year to use project-based learning into my classroom, and I hope everything I learned from last year’s Dive Into PBL will merge with my growing expertise at making thinking visible to help my students better explore and understand the topic.

I have several drafts about our learning and the second iteration of this inquiry in my queue, but I’m not ready to share them yet. I need a few more days to reflect and write before publishing. Never fear though, friends, I have a goal of returning to reflect, write, and share on a regular schedule again soon. So…

A Little Background Information

This week my school with The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence and CASIE is hosting Project Zero Perspectives: How & Where Does Learning Thrive? As part of the conference, we invited educators to visit PDS during our regular school day to see how we have integrated ideas from Project Zero into our school. My students and I are in the middle of our research and inquiry, but we were expecting visitors to stop by our class this morning.

Over the past few days we have used several thinking routines to help us design our learning and explore our chosen topics. Specifically, we’ve used question starts and question sorts to find our topics and write our driving questions. We used  a modified version of think, puzzle, explore to decide on our knows and need to knows. Then, we began researching. We’re using Diigo to bookmark and annotate our resources, and we make our thinking visible about the resources by writing comments on them using the ladder of feedback. We also have specific roles for our annotating (PDF) thanks to my friend Bill Ferriter.

An Exciting Day

Peel the Fruit #photo365 #PDSmemToday, my class spent time working on our personal understanding maps and sharing some of our previous thinking (wondering) on the class map. The boys then jumped into their research and annotating roles. We had a limited amount of time, but the boys worked hard and had a few minutes to share with the class and our visitors what they learned from their personal research today. The boys then went back to their individual maps to peel the fruit of their own understanding. They also shared new understandings on the class map. (See above.) During the few remaining minutes of the class we reflected on our learning with the compass points routine and shared those reflections. Near the end of our class time, Mrs. Susan Droke (my administrator) and Dr. Ron Ritchhart (PZ researcher and author of Making Thinking Visible) visited my class, and they were able to see a bit of what we are doing. I felt honored and humbled to have Ron in my room. I’m not sure I can fully explain how much his work has affected mine.

After class I raced across campus to enjoy lunch and conversation with our visitors (completely forgetting about my lunch-time duties). I also participated in a brief panel discussion with several of my PDS colleagues before racing back to my room just before my next class arrived. I had given up my prep time to interact with our guests, and I still had several things to do before the boys arrived. Fast on my heels, another of our administrators arrived to let me know that Dr. Ritchhart was on his way to spend the afternoon in my room. “Yikes! An unexpected class visitor!”

The afternoon was fine. The boys in the afternoon class did a good job, but our time allotment was different so I modified some elements on the fly. I also felt a little scrambled because I had not taken down the work from the morning class and I had to carve out time for a Valentine’s Day celebration. Nevertheless, it was an exciting and productive day of learning, and I really enjoyed the interaction I had with Ron about the thinking and learning in my room. I’m also a little starstruck. While Dr. Ritchhart may not be famous by Hollywood standards, in D218 at PDS he’d receive a star on our walk of fame. I was so excited about the visit that after texting my wife, I had to contact my friend and visible thinking/inquiry pal Edna Sackson just to share the news.

Seeing, Thinking, & Wondering About Today

Seeing:

  • I saw Dr. Ritchhart observing everything happening in the room very closely.
  • I saw him pull out his iPad and record my giving instructions and facilitating the learning.
  • I observed Ron asking questions about Diigo and our annotating roles.
  • I observed him taking notes, snapping pictures, and writing down observation as the class progressed.
  • I noticed boys reading, researching, and tackling their selected roles.
  • I saw boys needing redirection back to the assigned tasks.
  • I watched two boys get frustrated with one another and my having to step in and referee.
  • I saw boys making great progress in their understanding.
  • I recognize some boys didn’t fully understand how to do their roles well.

Thinking:

  • I think my room was more chaotic than it would have been had I had just a few minutes more notice.
  • I think Ron is genuinely interested in our PBL and how I’m using PZ routines and protocols in designing of the learning.
  • I’m gathering that PZ hasn’t focused much on technology integration.
  • I think Ron showed interest in how and why I designed the learning space the way I did.
  • I think he appreciates my efforts to have a student-centered class with student-driven learning.
  • I think he appreciates my students’ thinking and questioning.
  • I realize some of my students need better scaffolding or modeling.

Wondering:

  • I wonder what he wrote in his notes and what he’d say if I asked him to do a ladder of feedback based on his visit.
  • I wonder specifically what his suggestions would be.
  • I’m curious if there will be opportunities for further interactions this week or in the future.
  • I’m curious about his own experiences teaching with project-based learning and inquiry.
  • I wonder if he noticed the freedom my students have to move.
  • I wonder why he chose to re-visit my room of all the classrooms in my building.
  • I wonder if he noticed how nervous I was. (I got over it.)
  • I’m curious if he noticed how much I modified things on the fly.
  • I wonder where this new connection could lead.

It was a full day. There is more to consider, but it’s late and I have several big days of learning ahead. Thank you, Edna, for the push to write about today. Hopefully, someone will find this post beneficial. I’ll do my best to get back on schedule soon. As always, I’d love to read your reaction and/or comments.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Reflections

project-based learningNow that the project is over, I admit diving into project-based learning was beneficial. The students and I learned a lot, and I don’t think I would have taken away as much had I chosen to simply dip my foot in the pool. Not long after we completed our project, my principal asked if it was worthwhile and if I would do it again. My first response was “I don’t know…maybe.” Planning and managing the project was really challenging, and the daily classroom chaos stretched my comfort zone significantly. And yet. . . project-based learning engaged my students. They felt a sense of ownership toward their learning that I hadn’t really seen before. So yes, I’ll be doing it again. In fact, I’ve already submitted my professional goal for next year, and it’s once again focused on project-based learning. (I’ll share more about that later.)

In addition to accomplishing my own professional goals related to PBL, I want to do the following things next year:

  • Partner with another teacher so that I am not the only teacher providing feedback and guidance throughout the project.
  • Have my students identify and define the driving question for our project-based learning.
  • Provide more time and opportunity for presentation, peer feedback, reflection, and revision.
  • Spend some time early in the year teaching my students the social media skills I want them to have. I want to turn them loose with our class Twitter account, their own blogs, and perhaps even a class Pinterest account and let them promote their own work and learning.
  • Be extremely purposeful and thoughtful in identifying the “needs to know” to help guide the students’ research.
  • Identify a person or group that my students can formally present their projects to that will serve as a more authentic audience.

I also had hoped to have several students write guest posts about our dive into project-based learning. Several boys agreed to do it, but unfortunately, the end of the school year and sixth grade graduation prevented them from getting posts together before we parted for summer. Without the guest posts, I decided to offer the next best thing and share some of the comments they made about their work on our Google Feedback Form.

Here’s what the students had to say:

What was the most challenging part of the project? 

“The most challenging part of this project was finding what we were going to do for our project.” – L. L.

“The presentation, I had to restart and do the entire PowerPoint all over.” – J. P.

“To me, the hardest thing was making posters from scratch and not copying off another image from the internet.” – G. B.

“I think the most challenging part was when we kept thinking of different pages or ideas and where we should put them. Also, we had to wait on the other groups to finish their projects.” – W. M.

What are three things you did during this project to help your classmates or your team?

“1) I researched the matter and did what was to be done. 2) I showed others how to do this or that and showed them sites for research about their project. 3) I stayed on task about 90% of the time and used my time wisely.” – T. M.

“1) I tried to come during Flex time to work on the project for my partner. 2) If my partner was struggling, I helped him do his part. 3) I cleaned up the messes that we made while doing our project.” – S. S.

“I edited all the videos. (Insert imaginary bullet in head) I overlooked all the presentations, (wrong things, grammar, spelling, etc.) I also interviewed many people, and set up some more interviews.” – H. D.

“I made all the emails we sent to organizations. I made our presentations. I brought the group together to stop arguing.” – A. G.

What made the biggest impact on your learning during this project? Why?

“Finding out all that I did about homeless people during the research part of this project, and how many homeless people are really out there. It just completely changed how I thought of these people, before that I did not think that there were actually that many homeless people out there, but now I am more than happy to help out as well as overwhelmed by how many people who are out there that are actually homeless.” – A. J.

“It is finding that so many people today are still affected by racism because there are still groups even in America that are still as racist as they had been in the 1800s.” – J. H.

“The research made the biggest impact on my learning during this project because it taught me more about sweatshops and how it affects the people who work for them and their families.” – T. H.

“Working as a team I could not do it all by myself.” – P. M.

“I used to think that homelessness was just a small portion of the world and just happened in 3rd world countries. But from research, I realize now that it is everywhere.” – H. P.

If you could go back in time and start this project over, what would you do differently?

“I would go back and change the way we formatted the website. I do like our design that we have now though I think the pages could have been in a different order and we could have taken out a few.” – J. M.

“Work more on my research.” – H. U.

“Come up with a better slogan, I don’t think the ones I came up with were my best.” – L. A.

“I would have done more research for Diigo, and I would have learned how to cite my photos before I found a lot of them because I lost 5 photos and a lot of my time because I did not cite them right when I got them.” – W. P.

“I would have spent more time working on my research. I think I could have commented more on other people’s bookmarks.” – R. C.

“I would organize our priorities better and manage time better.” – A. C.

What is something you accomplished during this project that makes you proud?

“This project is going to a fantastic cause. It will truly help the people who are less fortunate.” – A. R.

“I think that I made something that will teach someone else about sweatshops.” – W. S.

“The one thing that I accomplished during this project that made me proud was actually trying to do something other than raising awareness. We found a chance to volunteer that really did make a difference in someone’s life. I have never done that before, so it really makes me proud.” – W. Q.

“Finishing the video made me proud. We had worked so hard to finish filming and find facts and the song we used at the end.” – D. B.

How did you apply what you learned from your research in your project?

“I applied the stuff from Diigo to help with our website design, and I used the facts page to put lots of facts on our page. I also used the quotes, pictures, and much more.” – J. F.

“I applied most of the facts and stats from our research into our infographic to make it as detailed as possible.” – C. F.

“I used my research in my project by making my logo. The cycle in the logo I came up from the research I did. Chronic unemployment is a cycle which is hard to stop, so we want to stop the cycle.” – E. N.

This is the eleventh (and final) post in this series on my “Diving Into Project-based Learning.” If you want to read more about my first experience with PBL, you should read about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric designour need to knowour inquiryour innovationfeedback friends and going public.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Going Public

project-based learningOne thing that interested me most about project-based learning is the idea of student’s sharing their work with an authentic audience. Most of the work my students have completed through the years has only been seen by me. In fact, the only reason they bothered to complete it was because I was going to give them a grade. Other people weren’t going to read those research papers or view those book projects. I can think of a few wonderful exceptions like our Wikipedia project at Millington High and the year my eighth graders performed Shakespeare at Harding’s Renaissance Fair but at least 95% of the learning my students have accomplished has never been seen outside my room.

My students created everything during our project-based learning unit with the plan to share it online. They even scanned the original, hand-drawn artwork into PDF format so that the students could share them on the websites they built. They wanted to share their  projects with the world, and we had grand plans, too. Unfortunately, time got the better of us, and we didn’t finish several of the projects or didn’t transfer the work to the real websites. I stretched our project-based learning two weeks beyond the end of the trimester, but I wasn’t willing to give it any more time.  (The third trimester is already pinched for time.) We left for spring break and really never found the authentic audience we’d hoped to find.

One of the things I wanted to do was to have my students tweet about their projects from our class twitter account. Unfortunately, I didn’t start the year teaching them how to effectively use Twitter so that I could turn it over to them. I failed miserably here. Next year, I want to do a better job of having my students share their learning via our class account and not trying to do it myself. It’s another thing I need to let go and allow the kids to do. A second thing I wanted to do was to connect the boys with non-profit leaders in our area so that they could present their projects to local experts. Unfortunately, I got too busy trying to manage the day-to-day, and I completely let these plans slip. Another fail. So some of the students’ work made it online, but it wasn’t really finished and we didn’t publicize it like I would have liked so it never really found an audience.

In all honesty, I still struggle with sharing work that is still in progress. That’s an area where I need to take more risks.  So I guess this is another area that I really need to refine in the future. I wanted an authentic audience for the students’ project-based learning, but finding a public was more challenging than I anticipated.

What do you think about going public with student projects? What has been your experience with promoting student work outside the classroom and school? What other ways might we create authentic audiences for student work? I’d love to know what you think.

This is the tenth post in a series on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” I’ve planned one last post to share some final thoughts on this first “dive” into PBL, and I’ll include some student comments and reflections, too. I should have it ready to go next week. I will spend the  rest of this week on the Martin Institute Conference. If you are there, please track me down and introduce yourself. If you want to follow the conference online, you can follow the #MICON13 hashtag on Twitter. If you want to read more about my first experience with PBL consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric designour need to knowour inquiry, our innovation, and feedback friends.

My Summer Reading List – 2013

Summer Reading 2013Last summer I was a little too ambitious in my plans for summer reading. While I did get most of the books read, it took me through Christmas break to get through the list (and I did skip a couple of the books altogether). This year, I am more realistic. I have picked three professional learning books and four young adult novels, but I’m also planning to use the audio versions of a couple of the books to keep me company this summer while I train for the my first marathon, run errands, chauffeur my kids, mow my yard, and complete other daddy chores. I’ll also continue reading blogs and tweets along with new issues of Phi Delta Kappan, Mac|Life, and Runner’s World.

Here’s my summer reading list (as it now stands) and why I’ve chosen each book:

  • An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students by Ron Berger – I picked this book based on Suzie Boss‘s recommendation, but Berger has worked with Project Zero, which holds a lot of weight around these parts. I’m especially looking forward to reading more about the topics of chapters three (work of excellence) and four (teaching of excellence).
  • Thinking Through Project-Based Learning: Guiding Deeper Inquiry by Jane Krauss and Suzie Boss – This book is part of my ongoing professional development connected with project-based learning. I’ll explain more later, but I’m continuing to refine and redesign my class to use PBL, and I hope this book will help me on my journey.
  • The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School by Grant Lichtman – Jamie Feild Baker recommended this book to me last summer before I’d met Grant and host him in my classroom. Unfortunately, I haven’t read his book even though Bo and Jill refer to it all the time in the posts so I feel like I’ve read it. Soon, I’ll truly be in the know.
  • Inexcusable by Chris Lynch – I picked this book because it was a National Book Award finalist and apparently is “an interesting companion piece to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.” The subject matter is disturbing, but Speak moved me so I’m interested in reading this book, too.
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart – I’ve had this book on my shelf for several years, but I’ve never read it. Recently, I’ve noticed it recommended on several lists of good “read aloud” books. I’ll let you know my thoughts after I read it.
  • Sway by Amber McRee Turner – I was in the middle of this great story in April when my life got crazy and I dropped everything to take care of family business. I just found time to pick Sway up again this week. It’s wonderful so far, and I think you ought to read it, too. Full disclosure: I went to school with the author and consider her a dear friend.
  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia – This is another book that I’ve had on my shelf for a while, but just haven’t taken the time to read. It’s won tons of awards, and I’m betting it will fit well in the Civil Rights unit that I teach.

What about you? What’s on your summer reading list? What feedback do you have about the books on my list? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Feedback Friends

project-based learningAs a teacher, I found project-based learning incredibly chaotic and difficult to manage. I had four classes each investigating a different topic. In each class I had 7-9 different projects in development, and each project was unique. I wanted to help my students–finding resources, asking questions, suggesting options, but as soon as I focused on any one group another would demand my attention. Instead of feeling every day was a productive, meaningful day of inquiry, I left school most days overwhelmed that the classroom looked disheveled, the learning seemed scattered, the students appeared distracted, and I felt disorganized. Were we accomplishing anything? I knew project-based learning was going to require a paradigm shift on my part, but I didn’t expect to feel so beat up by it. I needed some quality feedback, and I knew from conversations with Mike that the boys needed feedback from their peers as well.

At the end of many days I found myself sitting on the couch next door in Alice’s room bemoaning the way things were going and trying to re-design plans for the next day. I needed a partner, someone with whom I could collaborate and troubleshoot. I also needed an extra set of eyes and hands. I didn’t feel I couldn’t give a group my full attention because I was so busy trying to make sure everyone was on task. Unfortunately, Alice was teaching the fifth grade at the time. Even though Alice was willing to listen and make suggestions, she couldn’t offer first-hand observations about what was happening in my room. She simply wasn’t there, and I needed someone who was.

Fortunately, my friend Jill Gough had scheduled a visit to my school. Jill and Bo Adams are famous (at least in my mind) for designing and implementing a project-based class called Synergy at their former school, and I had relied heavily on their work in designing my classes’ projects. Jill spent two days visiting PDS, and I had several opportunities to pick her brain about her experiences with project-based learning. (The image at the top of this post has my notes from lunch with her.)

Jill gave me some fantastic suggestions that I tried to carry out immediately. First, Jill suggested that I have the students complete a survey/reflection and give me some feedback on their own learning. My first plan was to give them a handout to complete that would encourage them to reflect on their learning and evaluate what they’ve done. I showed the handout to Jill and she gave me some great feedback on it. She also suggested that I use a Google form and not a handout to collect the data. You can view the Google Form I used to collect feedback here. Jill also spent about an hour in my room observing as I interacted with the boys. She took the time to point out to me all the good things that were happening and how engaged the students were. I needed to hear it. She gave me some constructive feedback, but she also built me up and offered specific examples of how quality learning was happening in my room. Sure, it was active and noisy, but it was still learning. Jill’s observations and encouraging words gave me the shot in the arm I needed.

In addition to the idea for reflections and the feedback on the class activity, Jill shared with me how, with Bo, she would have students do Ignite-style presentations on their products and allow other students to offer them feedback. Jill suggested “Ignite Lite” presentations (4 slides, 30 seconds per slide) to allow plenty of time for feedback in our shorter classes. I liked the idea and decided to combine it with Mike’s suggestion of using “critical friends” and the Ladder of Feedback from Project Zero.

I have Ladder of Feedback Anchor Chart that I use with students in my room to guide us through the feedback process.

LadderOfFeedbackAnchorChart

For our Ignite Lite session, we used the Friends’ Feedback Ladder handout below to record our feedback on each presentation so the presenters could refer to it as they began revising their products and presentations.

Feedback Friends LadderHere are the PDF versions of the handouts: Ladder of Feedback Anchor Chart, Friends’ Feedback Ladder.

I walked the students through the process and kept reminding them to use the language the anchor chart and handout provided to keep the feedback positive and constructive. We’ve use the Ladder of Feedback all year, but I think it’s too easy to fall into the mode of being critical (meaning negative) and not more constructive. I also wanted to make sure we celebrated the good in each project. the boys really were doing some great work.

Once the boys had presented and received feedback, they began revising their projects and making them better. They weren’t required to make every suggested improvement, but they had to consider the feedback. Overall, I know our project-based learning improved because of the Friends’ Feedback/Critical Friends process that I got from Jill and that the boys gave each other. Now, I’m beginning to think about how I can use this type of feedback into other aspects of our learning.

What do you think about the friends’ feedback/critical friends process? what experience have you had with it in your classroom? What other ways might it be useful? I’d love to know what you think.

This is the ninth post (I know, right?) in a series on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If you find this post interesting, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric designour need to knowour inquiry, or our innovation.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Our Innovation

project-based learningAs the boys began learning more about the injustice issues they had selected and researched for our project-based learning, they began thinking more specifically about what they might do to make a difference. As the started problem solving, they truly began innovating. They started coming up with unique ideas for how they would address the problem and raise awareness.

I knew from talking with Mike Kaechele at Educon that the students needed to develop some type of team contract to get their ideas on paper and develop a working plan. Fortunately, Mike was willing to share his contract template with me (thank you), and I only needed to make a couple of minor tweaks before sharing it with my 6th graders. The contracts consisted of 5 parts: member information (name, email, roles/responsibilities, self-identified strengths and weaknesses), project goals/tasks, team agreements, an accountability plan, and member signatures. Once again, some boys wanted to skip the contract writing phase, but no one could do without submitting a completed contract.

Some groups decided they needed seed money get started and make an impact. I discussed this with my supervisor and we found a great solution. If a group needed “start-up money” for their project, they had to provide a written grant proposal to our Assistant Headmaster for Teaching and Learning and ask for a formal meeting with her to secure funding. (I had some instructional money set aside for this.) I required that each grant proposal include the following components:

  • A summary or abstract (names, need, goals, methods, and costs)
  • An introduction to their team and their project (what they bring to team and basic objective)
  • A problem or need statement (clearly describes the need to be addressed)
  • Objectives (“measurable” accomplishments or outcomes)
  • The methods and activities (the project details, timetable, plans to gather and/or use data)
  • Plan for evaluation (answers “How will you know you’ve succeeded?”)
  • A budget (a cost breakdown and what the donor will be paying for)

The grant proposal served two purposes: 1) helping the boys plan their work and 2) having them create a writing sample related to their project. Several groups saw the grant proposal as a huge obstacle so they sought new, creative ways to attack the problem without securing funds. These groups chose other options for their required writing component (scripts, data summaries, brochures, abstracts, etc.).

Once the groups mapped out their plans, they began developing their products and started innovating further. Many of the products involved the use of technology, and I used my knowledge and experience with certain tools to help them.  However, some products required tools beyond my expertise, and I was able to use resources gleaned from my PLN (Personal Learning Network) to help the students find tools that might help them. Once again, I gave the students the choice of what tools they wanted to use and explained that they would have to become the expert at whatever tool they chose. I might or might not have been able to troubleshoot problems for them.

Working together, the boys developed some unique products in their attempt to address the issues they’d selected. All their ideas weren’t innovative and original. In fact, some groups defaulted to the same types of products they had created for past products. At the same time some of their ideas were truly inventive. One of my favorite parts of our project-based learning process was when the students began sharing their work and providing one another feedback. I’ll write more about this in my next post, but I loved how more creative students began pushing their peers to take greater risks in their projects.

This is the eighth post in a series on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If you find this post interesting, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric designour need to know, and our inquiry.  As always, I’d appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you have. I find feedback really helpful.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Our Inquiry

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As we sprang into our project-based learning, the students and I began our inquiry looking for answers to our “need to knows.” I wanted to keep up with what they were discovering, and I wanted them to evaluate and share their resources with each other as they went along. I decided to use the teacher console on Diigo to create groups for each of my classes. I used  handouts and tips from Bill Ferriter’s Digitally Speaking Wiki to get everything set up and explain to the student how I wanted them to find, annotate, and share resources and information. (I highly recommend Bill’s resources. They saved me a ton of time.)

The students had used Diigo for research on a project during a previous school year so I thought with Bill’s handouts and the boys’ previous experience we were in good shape to begin. I soon learned differently.  We have a 1:1 laptop classroom and the boys have a natural tendency to head straight to Google any time they have a question, but it was obvious after the first day that they weren’t finding the quality resources they needed. Additionally, some boys still didn’t know (or forgot) how to share to a group while others didn’t know how to write a quality annotation. I had assumed too much. They needed what Mike Kaechele calls a “teacher workshop” on searching for information and on how to use Diigo. They needed me to model what they should do.

We spent a little time talking about how search engines work and why Google’s search algorithm wasn’t the best option for this project. I also introduced them to SweetSearch, DMOZ, iSeek, and the Library of Congress site. Then, we talked about how we should assess the trustworthiness of the site and try to recognize biases in content providers. Then, we talked about the need to summarize a page’s content and how Diigo make it easy to highlight, capture, and share that information. Not all the students listened and learned from the workshop, but several did.

As I stated before, I wish I had done a better job developing a better list of “need to knows” because some of the boys had a tough time determining what to look for. At times they seemed to lack focus and some were easily led down rabbit trails thanks to  web links. I also had difficulty getting some boys to spend time researching. Some of them just got so excited about the product that they jumped in, and I had to coerce them to stop, back up, and do the research first.

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Ron Wade from HopeWorks, Inc. speaks to my class.

Of all the classes, the one studying chronic unemployment seemed to struggle the most with finding quality information. Fortunately, I have a friend who leads a non-profit organization that works with the chronically unemployed. (My years in development still come in handy.) I called my friend Ron Wade at HopeWorks, and he agreed to come speak to my class and help them learn more about the issue.

I was really grateful Ron was willing to help my class. One of my biggest struggles throughout our entire project-based learning unit was feeling like I didn’t know enough about the topics we were studying to truly be helpful to the guys. Having been a traditional English teacher for so long, I am comfortable being the content expert in the classroom. With project-based learning that isn’t necessarily the case anymore. I find that unsettling.

Another internal conflict I had with our research and inquiry was with deciding when we had researched and learned enough to move on toward developing the products. I wanted the research to be ongoing and fit the needs of the individual projects, but I also wanted to make sure the boys had enough general knowledge and skill with the topic to speak intelligently about it. How could I know we were ready? I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge about these issues to speak intelligently about them. (I’m still not sure.) How does one decide that? Fortunately, I know now I’m not the only teacher who finds this difficult to figure out. Eventually, I decided arbitrarily it was time to move on. We could always circle back as needed.

This is the seventh in a series of posts on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If you find this post interesting, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric design, and our need to know. I’d appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you may have. Feedback is both desired and helpful.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Our Need to Know

project-based learningOnce the students had selected a topic from our over-arching theme of civil/human rights, and I had a rubric, it was time for the real work to begin. We started our project-based learning by making a list on the board of things we know about the topic followed by a list of things we “need to know.” Basically, we completed the K and W of our KWL chart (PDF).

We completed this quickly and looking back now, I realize we really should have slowed down and spent more time here. I should have had each team create their own KWL and perhaps even added it to the rubric as part of their reflections. The students were eager to get to researching and creating, and I was excited for them to begin, too. We should have slowed down this step in the process. We should have been more thoughtful and purposeful here. Hindsight. Instead, I allowed the boys to rush through the process so that they could begin creating their group contracts and planning their projects. We didn’t spend the time we should have on identifying what we needed to learn, and their inquiry and projects suffered as a result.

Once we started researching, some of the guys lacked direction. Some didn’t know where to look beyond a simple Google search for information. The more I consider that, the more I believe some of those struggles resulted from an inadequate list of things we needed to know. It wasn’t that they didn’t know where to search, but that they didn’t really know what to search for. We’d rushed through a crucial step, and it limited their inquiry. This was one of my biggest mistakes through this dive into project-based learning, and one I don’t plan to repeat when I try again next time.

This is the sixth in a series of posts on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If this series interests you, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resources, or the genesis of this ideaour project brainstorms, or the rubric design. As always, I’d appreciate your comments, questions, or suggestions.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Designing the Rubric

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Perhaps the most difficult aspect of project-based learning for me was figuring out how I was going to assess it. I’m sure some teachers love assessing and marking student work, but honestly, I’m uncomfortable with most grading and scoring. I appreciate feedback and I  don’t mind giving feedback, but I hate reducing it to a letter, number, or score. To me, it undervalues the learning. I’m skeptical of objective tests because of what those assessments leave out or mismeasure, and I’m suspicious of subjective evaluations because they are, well, subjective.

Nevertheless, most schools required teachers to report student learning in a systematic way, and my school is no different. My school also encourages the use of rubrics to help students, parents, and teachers assess evaluate the learning. I wanted students to understand the expectations for the project, and I needed to insure that they approached the project in a balanced way. I could tell from their enthusiasm that they were eager to get started creating their projects, but I knew it was vital that they really spend some time researching and inquiring about the topics before getting started on the project itself. I also knew I wanted to assess writing, reflecting, and presenting as part of the project-based learning.

I developed the following rubric for the students to use as a guide and for me to use for assessing their work:
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You can download the PDF by clicking: Injustice Issue Project Rubric

(Note: For the 6th graders at my school, we assign two types of grades–traditional grades on a 100%/A-F scale and standards-based assessment using a 3-1 proficiency method with three being the highest score.)

I wasn’t completely comfortable with the wording of the rubric even as I shared it with the students, but we needed to get started. Together as a class, we discussed the rubric in detail, but I still worried that the boys’ understanding of the rubric was very different from mine. Nevertheless, this iteration of the rubric would serve as our guide.

What do think about the rubric? What feedback can you give about it? What would you change?

This is the fifth in a series of posts on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If this series interests you, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resources, or the genesis of this idea, or our project brainstorms. I’d also appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you might want to leave below.