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.

Asking For Help

Asking For HelpHe’d surpassed his frustration level. I was working with another group when I glanced over and noticed his head in his hands. He was desperately trying to cover his red face and the tears streaming down his cheeks. We only had a few minutes left in class, and he had been diligently working to map out his group’s reading plan for the next few weeks.

I’d provided a sample plan. We had twice discussed how he could pattern his group’s plan after the sample I’d given them. And yet, he was still confused and couldn’t seem to make it work. His partners weren’t helping much. He had enthusiastically taken the lead on developing the plan, and they had let him do it. Why wouldn’t they? He’s a hard-working student–an extremely “high flyer” in a room full of soaring stars. Having him in their group all but insures they will all do well. However, at this point he’d reached his limit. He couldn’t figure it out and was certainly not going to finish it before the class ended. Crushed and falling apart, he slumped in his seat.

I quickly made my way over to him and threw my arm around him. “Let’s take a walk together,” I stated as I instructed the class to tidy the room before leaving.

When we reached the small office next door, I said, “Talk to me. What’s wrong?”

“I can’t figure it out. I tried and tried, but it doesn’t make sense, and they were counting on me. . . and not really helping,” he admitted.

“Okay,” I said. “Don’t worry about the plan. I’ll be happy to help with it. It is really confusing the first time you do it, and I’m sure the example could have been clearer. We will figure it out, okay?”

“Okay.” He relaxed and immediately appeared relieved.

“Can I ask you something though?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you get the other guys’ attention, tell them you were having trouble, and ask them to help you figure it out?”


“Aren’t they part of your group, too?”


“Isn’t that what partners are for–to help us learn?”

“I guess so,” he reluctantly admitted.

“You have so much to offer your group. You work hard in class and strive to think deeply about our books. And I also appreciate that you want to lead your group, but leading isn’t always doing it yourself, right? Leading is inviting other people to help carry out a task and helping them do their best, too, right?”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“You know asking for help is okay, right?”

“Well. . . I guess so.” He bowed his head as if ashamed to admit he might need help occasionally.

“I know how you feel. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn, too.”

A #LeadershipDay12 To-Do List

Today is #LeadershipDay12, a day identified by Scott McLeod to celebrate both Connected Educator Month and the 6th anniversary of his blog. Dr. McLeod is currently serving as the Director of Innovation for the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency. He is also the Founding Director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE) at the University of Kentucky. The goal of the Leadership Day 2012 is for educational bloggers to share ideas with school leaders about how “to use, think about, or be a leader regarding digital technologies.”

I am no expert in leadership or digital technologies, but I have learned much as an educator through my immersion in educational technology over the past few years. For this reason and thanks to some prodding from my friend Bob, I decided I’d contribute a post to the discussion. I hope someone finds it useful. For what it’s worth, I hold an M.Ed. in School Administration and Supervision from Freed-Hardeman University, and I serve as a 6th grade reading teacher in a 1:1 classroom.

Immerse yourself in reading. The world has shifted. We are educating today’s students for a world that is unknown. We’ve yet to discover the problems they’ll need to solve, and the jobs they’ll have do not yet exist. The way students learn has changed, and teaching and schooling needs to change, too. As a school leader you must inform yourself about educational innovation, learning technologies, and instructional leadership. You cannot lead that which you don’t understand so start researching, reading, and reflecting. If you aren’t already, start using an RSS reader to subscribe to blogs written by people who challenge your thinking and the status quo. Google Reader is my RSS aggregator of choice, and I like it because I am able to access my subscriptions on all my digital devices. (If you need some help getting started with this, please let me know. I’ll be happy to help you.) Do you need help finding blog subscriptions to follow? I subscribe to hundreds of blogs, but here’s a short list (in no particular order) of some that regularly challenge me:

I could go on and on, but these blogs are a great place to start.

Share what you learn. It’s not enough to research, read, and reflect. You need to talk about these ideas. You need to write about them. You must share what you learn in order to truly own it. There are many ways to do this. You can use Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google+ to connect with educators around the world and exchange ideas. Consider starting your own blog as a place to reflect. More importantly, start discussing these ideas with your faculty and administrative team. Talk about them over lunch, in the hallways, and at meetings. Learning about innovation and technology is great, but change won’t happen until these ideas begin percolating in your school.

Try something new. Don’t wait for district leadership to send down the next initiative. Make some changes now. Pilot a 1:1 classroom in your building. Ask a teacher to create a class blog and have her students publish their learning to the world. Unblock a social media site and encourage a few teachers to use it in their instruction. Work with a teacher to design a class using Project Based Learning. Forge a partnership with a school on another continent. Flip a few of your faculty meetings. Take a risk. Many teachers and administrators want to innovate, but they feel they need permission first.

Lead the way. You are in a unique position to radically reshape your school. Be bold. Lead.

Learning From The Lego Story

One of the favorite toys around my house is Lego bricks. We are pretty big Lego fans. My wife and I have been to the Carlsbad to visit Legoland twice. We even took the kids with us once. 🙂 For our vacation this summer we only made a quick trip to Atlanta, but our first stop after dropping our bags at the hotel was the Lego Discovery Center. And we stayed until it closed.  It’s funny. The boys and I hate going to a mall, but as long as there’s a Lego Store it’s all good. So, you can imagine my excitement when I came across a post on GeekDad about Lego’s 80th birthday. The best part of the post is “The Lego Story” animated short. If the history of Lego intrigues you at all, I highly recommend you take the time to watch the video. It is seventeen minutes long, but it’s well done and worth watching.

As a teacher and dad, I found the following important ideas in the video that I think warrant consideration:

  1. Resilience – The Kristiansen family faced numerous obstacles on the way to building the Lego company, yet they never stopped bouncing back from the setbacks. They were resilient people. Certainly, there were times when they were down, but they never considered themselves out. They didn’t quit. When their original wholesaler went bankrupt, Lego founder Ole Kristiansen didn’t give up; instead, he decided to take it upon himself to sell his toys. When the company workshop burned down, Ole’s responsibility to his family and employees inspired to rebuild the company and fight their way back into the market. We, too, mustn’t let disappointments force us to quit. We must press on and view problems as hurdles to overcome rather than permanent barriers to achieving our goals.
  2. Risk-taking – Innovations occurred because the Kristiansen’s took risks. Ole purchased a plastic moulding machine even though it was expensive and their previous toys were all wood constructions. Godtfred Kristiansen, Ole’s son, took a chance by adding system to the Lego bricks allowing children to build toys for themselves. The system of play became so popular that Lego was able to sell the toys outside Denmark. Additionally, he took a risk to build an airport and eventually decided to go all out and build a whole Legoland, which welcomed 600,000 guests its first year. Growth requires risk-taking. We mustn’t rest on our laurels or become complacent and satisfied with things as they are. We must venture into new areas and take chances if we want to develop and mature.
  3. Embrace the E’s – Kjeld, Ole’s grandson, is now the vice chairman of the board at Lego, and I love the vision he (via his animated self) shares at the end of the video. It’s one we should embrace as parents and educators, as well. He seeks to encourage children to “explore, experience, and express their own world–a world without limits, and we are still convinced that only the best is good enough (excellence) because children deserve the best.” Isn’t that what we want for our children and their learning? If we are “educating for the unknown,” as David Perkins suggests we should, I cannot imagine a better preparation than for students to explore their world, to experience humanity, to express their understanding, and to do it with excellence.

What do you think? What jumped out to you about the Lego story? How do we help our children become resilient risk-takers? What do you think we’d be missing if we educated for the 4 E’s? I’d love to hear your thoughts.