Choose Your Friends Wisely (My 2017 PDS Commencement Speech)

choose your friends wiselyThe following script is from my commencement speech on choosing friends wisely that I delivered to my graduating 6th graders at Presbyterian Day School on Friday, May 26, 2017.

Mr. Hancock, Ms. Glenn, Mr. Fruitt, members of the board of trustees, colleagues, family and friends of our graduates, and boys of the Presbyterian Day School class of 2017,

I am honored and grateful for the privilege of speaking with you this morning. I’ve been struggling for weeks trying to decide what I want to say to you today. After all, today is an important day, and I felt pressured to deliver a speech that would impress even Kemp’s late great-grandmother. So with Nan-Nan in mind, I asked myself, “What parting words do I have for these boys? What can I say to inspire them and set them on a path to greater success? What should I tell them that they’ll always remember and hold dear to their hearts?”

I considered it. I wrote down a bunch of ideas and found some inspiring quotes to share, too. I watched several excellent commencement speeches trying to figure out what I might say to challenge and motivate you, but none of the topics seemed the right fit for you and me and what I believe you most need to hear today. So, I kept on deliberating.

As I was brainstorming, I reflected on my sixth-grade graduation–way back in 1983, and the wisdom shared on that glorious morning. And I remembered…well, nothing. In fact, I’m not one to forget things, but I can’t even remember who spoke to my class that day. Not only that but as I thought on my high school graduation in 1989, I couldn’t remember who gave that commencement address either. Nor could I recall the points he made that night.

So I guess the pressure is off, huh?

As I reflected on my elementary school graduation and the years that followed, I realized that it wasn’t long after sixth grade that everything started to change for me. Oh, I’m not referring to puberty, but yes, that happened, too. What shifted as I became a teenager was who my primary influences were. In elementary school, my parents and teachers mostly swayed my thoughts, feelings, and actions. However, in junior high, their hold gave way to the influences of my friends. Sure, my parents continued to be a significant part of my life. They still are. But as I look back now, I realize it was my friendships that shaped so many of my thoughts and decisions. I’m incredibly thankful I chose good friends. A large part of who I am today is because of their positive influence on me.

Boys, my message this morning is simple: choose your friends wisely. The man you’ll become is going to be strongly influenced by your choice of friends. You are starting a new chapter at a new school next year. Many things will change. Some of you will attend schools where everyone is new. Others will enter situations where you’ll feel as though you’re the only one. Regardless, it’ll be a new start for each of you, and you’ll have the opportunity to meet many new people and build new relationships. Choose wisely the people you invite into your close-knit circle of friends. Your good friends will have a vital role in what happens to you over the next ten years and beyond. As Proverbs 13:20 says, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”

So, what makes a good friend?

First, a good friend is loyal. Through our seven virtues, you’ve learned that a true friend leaves no man behind. He should be there through the joy, the grief, your successes and your failures, and everything in between. Being there is important, but it’s more than just being present. A good friend should be trustworthy and willing to call you out gently when you’re in the wrong. And he should forgive you when you blow it and make of mess of things, too.

Melissa was my first girlfriend way back in the fifth grade. She was a cute and fiery redhead, and she liked sports. What more could an eleven-year-old want in his first crush, right? Things didn’t work out for us romantically that year, but we stayed close friends from middle school until today. As you guys know, my mom died when I was in the 6th grade, and I went through some tumultuous peaks and valleys as I worked through my grief over the next few years. Melissa had a front row seat to view much of my struggling, and sometimes she bore the brunt of my hurt and pain. Somehow, through it all, she never turned her back on me, and I’m thankful that her loyalty and her forgiveness has allowed us to remain friends for almost 40 years.

Find a friend like Melissa––someone true, who’ll stand by you to the end.  

Second, a good friend is kind. He’ll treat you with respect. He won’t put you down or do things deliberately to hurt you. He’ll help you see the good that’s in you and encourage you to be true to yourself.

Kelly is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Back in school, he was the guy that everyone wanted to have as their friend. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying he was Mr. Popularity. He wasn’t ever the life of the party, the best athlete, or the funniest guy in the room, but he probably was always the kindest. I can’t remember anyone ever talking badly about Kelly, but then…Kelly never said anything bad about anyone else either. He was always humble, thoughtful, and kind. I liked being around Kelly. Hanging around a bunch of guys can be exhausting with fellows picking on each other and trying to “one up” each other for laughs. It makes it tough to let your guard down and to be honest about who you are. I don’t ever remember feeling that way around Kelly. I never had to pretend around him. He wasn’t that kind of friend.

I hope you find a friend like Kelly––someone considerate, who you can be your genuine self around.  

Third, a good friend makes you want to be a better person. He’s not only someone you trust but also someone who brings out the best in you. His character is one you want to copy. He wants to do what’s right and inspires you to want to do right, too.

Kevin is one of my oldest and closest friends. Back in school, Kevin was known for being an excellent soccer player and for having a great sense of humor. Sometimes he’d do the most unexpected and hilarious things. But Kevin was also known as a hard worker, and he was very active in our church youth group. If our youth minister scheduled a service project like raking leaves or working at the community food pantry, it was a good bet Kevin would be there helping right in the middle of it all. Often, I’d join the work team just because Kevin was going and I liked hanging around him. Kevin was that guy. We don’t look like each other as much anymore. He’s still pretty skinny, and well, I still have all my hair. But back in high school, we had similar features and were often seen together. People would occasionally get us confused. I’d get called Kevin by mistake, but it never bothered me because Kevin was such a stand-up guy.

Find a friend like Kevin––someone who helps you become the very best you can.

Finally, a good friend prioritizes the friendship. All relationships require an investment of time, and a good friend makes himself available. Life through junior high and high school gets busy with school work, church activities, family obligations, sports competitions, extracurricular ventures, social commitments, community service, and yes, gentlemen, the pursuit of girls, too. A good friend should make time to hang out, to have fun, and to talk. If not, the friendship will never fully develop or will merely fall by the wayside.

Eric is a free spirit and a dreamer. He’s been a good friend to me through middle school, high school, college, and into our adulthood. One of the things I appreciate most about Eric is how he’s always demonstrated that our friendship matters to him. Eric was the friend who’d come over unexpectedly. He’d ask me to do something after school or to sit with him at lunch. In college, he’d frequently invite some guys and me to his room to play Tecmo Super Bowl or to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with him. I’ve never wondered whether Eric wanted to be my friend because he’s always shown that our friendship matters. Even now, rarely a month goes by that I don’t receive a text from Eric checking in and asking when we are going to get together.

I wish for you to have a friend like Eric–someone who places great importance on having you as a companion.

That’s my challenge for you as you leave PDS, guys. Choose your friends wisely. Choose people who are loyal and individuals who are kind. Find friends who make you better and who think spending time with you is important. Choose wisely, my young friends. But maybe, before you start picking who you want to have as friends, reflect on what type of friend you already are. Then, choose to be the friend that you want to have. Be a wise friend, gentlemen, and choose your friends wisely. I love you.

Thank you.

Here’s the video of the entire commencement as PDS shared it on Facebook. My speech came after an excellent speech by one of my students. Kemp’s talk begins at the 29:00 mark. My speech follows at the 37:20 mark.

Helping with Math Homework (When You Don’t Understand)

Math HomeworkThis post was originally written for and published on the Presbyterian Day School blog.

Generally speaking, my wife and I take a hands-off approach to our kids’ homework. We certainly want our four children to do well in school. We want to encourage and assist them along the way, but Debbie and I also want them to be independent and resourceful so we think it’s good for them to struggle sometimes. Therefore, when it comes to our kids’ homework, we avoid being too helpful and encourage them to figure things out on their own.

For the most part, this approach has served our family well. Our children usually complete their homework independently, and homework rarely results in any familial trauma–but not always. Occasionally, we have homework agony when one of our kids struggles with an assignment they just cannot understand–especially when the endeavor involves math. I’m an English language arts teacher. My wife teaches the visual arts. Neither of us feels particularly proficient when it comes to math.

Here are five things we do to help with math homework (we don’t even understand):

  1. Watch the teacher’s tutorial or read through the student’s notes with our child. Then, we ask our child to explain the lesson in his own words. I’m amazed how often this solves the problem as my child sees or hears something he missed during the initial instruction. Additionally, if my child can teach it to me, he’s most likely going to understand and remember it.
  2. Check out a different video tutorial. Sometimes my child just needs the concept to be explained in a different way than the way his teacher taught it. Fortunately, we live in a time when one can learn just about anything through the internet. Two places we’ve tried for math tutorials are PatrickJMT and Khan Academy. Both provide quality videos on many different math concepts.
  3. Plug the problem into an online computational problem solver. Both Wolfram Alpha and Discovery Education’s WebMath are immensely useful tools. They not only answer problems but also provide explanations so my child can see how the problem is solved and have another explanation of how to approach the question.
  4. Have my child phone a friend. In the wise words of The Beatles: “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Indeed I do and my kids do, too. Everybody needs help sometimes, and it’s important my kids learn how to ask their peers for help. (We’ve been known to ask grandparents, aunts, and uncles, too.) In college, I always made new friends and exchanged phone numbers with other students in my classes. Then, if I missed a class or needed homework help, I had friends I could call.
  5. Have my child email his teacher, ask his question, and move on. I have my child send the email in order to take ownership of his own learning. And believe it or not, I’ve found most teachers to be helpful, reasonable people. While they may not respond to the email immediately, they’ve always taken the time to help my child understand the concept with which he’s struggling. Then, we move on. If my child needs additional help, he’s responsible for talking with his teacher or joining the next help session.

Having made an attempt to do his best, my child can leave for school the next morning with looming questions about last night’s math homework. That’s perfectly okay. As parents, Debbie and I are less concerned that our kids get all the right answers and more concerned that they learn to ask questions, seek help, and find creative solutions when they struggle.

Lennon, John, and Paul McCartney. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles. Capitol Records, 1967. Vinyl recording.

My Professional Development Goal for 2014-2015

Professional Development

Professional Development Goal: Every year each teacher at PDS participates in a yearlong conversation with his/her administrator and colleagues that includes the following components: reading and research, reflection, goal setting, planning, collaboration, implementation and feedback.

As part of this process, each teacher will identify a professional development goal that relates directly to classroom teaching and learning. It should have practical application and impact in the current year, and it should align with the school’s broad institutional goals and/or institutional philosophies about teaching and learning. The goal should be measurable. Teachers who fully achieve their goal will earn $500.

Goal: Work together with the other members of the 6th grade team to transition from our departmental approach to reading, social studies, and English to an interdisciplinary approach to humanities that will merge the essential skills and understandings from the original classes.

Steps to Achieve Goal:  (Please include a list of books/articles/ videos that you plan to read or view during the summer.)

1.    Read the following texts to decide their appropriateness as reading selections for the course:

2.    Meet as a Humanities team 2-3 times this summer to plan for the upcoming school year.

3.    Meet weekly as a team during the 2014-2015 school year to continue developing curriculum, to check our progress, and to make revisions.

4.    Coordinate our plans with the STEM team to ensure seamless implementation and begin considering how reading and writing can be threaded into science and math instruction also.

Final Product: Our product will be ongoing observations and conversations with Susan and the team with a culminating discussion at the end of each trimester about the progress.

Note: I submitted this goal to my administrator in May before the end of this past school year. I’m just now getting around to posting it here as I attempt to re-establish my writing practices. Two of my teammates share this goal with me, and we are working on it together. I’m posting this on my blog for my own personal documentation and accountability. I also hope to track my personal progress toward the goal by blogging about it over the course of the 2014-2015 school year.

 

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.

How are you going to be brave?

This song has rolled around in my head for weeks ever since Pernille Ripp shared it on her blog. (You can also view the video here.) It’s my hope that my students will be brave in all they do and say so today we are using this video as a reflective writing prompt. How are you going to be brave in what you do and say? How would you respond?

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.

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

project-based learning

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.

project-based learning
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.