Leaping Into PBL Waters

 

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I always purchase a few Christmas presents for myself. Usually, these gifts turn out to be books floating around on my to read list. So, this Christmas, I decided to treat myself to a new Hack Learning Series book.

Project based learning has a long history in American education, dating back to John Dewey and other early advocates of learning by doing. The project approach has gotten a second wind over the past few decades, as a key strategy to engage diverse learners in rigorous learning. I remember the first time I implemented PBL in my classroom. Our real world problem for my third graders was one that a student discussed in her blog and led to a classroom discussion. She was scared to ride a roller coaster over the summer. Her friends continued to tease her about it. She was hoping to learn more about roller coasters to ease her fear. Her question in her blog was simple, “How can a roller coaster car even stay on track?”.

 

 

With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to have my learners design and build their own roller coaster during our force & motion unit for science. Although I had never designed a PBL unit, I had done quite a bit of research to assist with my planning and understanding of implementation. My students collaborated together, discussed ideas, and researched how best to design their roller coaster. We viewed Disney Imagineering videos, interviewed an engineer from Hershey Park and were so fortunate to have a parent (and engineer) come and assist with our designs. Their hands on exploration of potential and kinetic energy, as well as friction, carried over into other areas. My learners were writing about their trials and errors, reading about clothoid loops and even tied-in math when comparing times of their car launch with each design. Did it go smoothly? No, not even close. Was it a learning experience for both learners and teacher? Yes. Did it stop me from implementing PBL into my classroom again? No way. As I look back, I wish I had a step by step outline to assist. I wish, at the time, I had the book Hacking Project Based Learning.

 

 

In the book, Hacking Project Based Learning, Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy discuss how to over come challenges that PBL may possibly pose for teachers and students. One of the scariest things about implementing a project based learning approach with your learners is letting go; letting students take ownership of their learning. Even the most creative teachers, who have taken the leap into the PBL waters, continue to find it difficult to let go of their role as teacher, despite having the best intentions for their learners. One reason a teacher may be reluctant to let go of the reins, is the fear of losing control, or that the class may go off in some random direction.

Cooper and Murphy discuss the importance of how to create a vision for a project, and setting the stage for an authentic learning experience. PBL provides an opportunity to help our learners make authentic real world connections. Each morning my learners entered our room, enthusiastic and ready to discuss their ideas. They were eager to share valuable insight with their classmates, and get right to work.

Instruction and learning is different in problem based settings than traditional instruction. Problem based learning provides challenges for evaluation and assessment. Hacking PBL provides a plethora of ideas such as a Progress Assessment Tool and how to evaluate group and individual work. Each year my learners reflect on their PBL project and each year my students’ reflection provides a new piece to the puzzle on how to make the unit better.

“If we want the emphasis to be on the learning and not the grading, we ultimately want to give our students a tool that helps them to self and peer assess throughout the PBL process.”

~Hacking PBL

I have been a huge proponent of Project Based Learning both in my traditional brick and mortar classroom, and the modern cyber classroom, I teach in now. Although they look very different in each environment, my PBL units continue to emphasize solving highly complex, real world problems. PBL requires that students have both fundamental skills (reading, writing, and math) and 21st century skills (teamwork, problem solving, and research). With this combination of skills, students become directors and managers of their learning process. The old school model of learning facts, and then reciting them out of context is no longer sufficient to prepare learners to perform in today’s world. If you’re thinking of implementing PBL into your classroom, do it! Project Based Learning provides a rich learning experience, one that your learners will eagerly devour. Oh, and do yourself a favor, read Hacking Project Based Learning. It is a critical, and necessary component to a successful PBL launch.

 

 

 

 

Focus on Hope

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So many posts about the election results on social media today. It was too depressing to even log on. So many people crying, complaining, wringing their hands of what’s to come and worrying for our children and the future. I am worried about our future. I am worried for our children. But it’s not Trump that worries me. It’s the way we are modeling change that we don’t agree with.

I was quite shocked at behavior that was shown during the election, but I guess that is the state of society nowadays. We scold children for being mean to others but, it’s perfectly normal for adults to say horrible things to friends that don’t have the same political views. We tell students to persevere through difficult times. But we throw out how we should move to a different country and abandon ours. We tell children to not be a spoiled sport, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. And yet, here are grown adults voicing over and over again that the “winner” – our President Elect is a –  “loser”.

Trumps degrading words, attitude and phrases that he uses scare me. Yes, I will not lie. I am not 100% on board. But I refuse to stoop to his level.

I know I influence my children and my learners more than Trump ever could. What scares me though, are the adults, parents and friends that have been using similar degrading phrases back at Trump. Do you not see the similarity? You are modeling his behavior. Would it be ludicrous to say maybe our President Elect will change his ways? It’s possible. I’ve seen it.

I remember one school year, my administrators called me into the office to discuss a learner I was to receive the following year. They sat me down and shared some information. He was a tough kid. He did and said some not so nice things. He was being placed with me. I remember thinking “How am I going to reach him? How am I going to have my learners accept him? How am I going to embrace him?” Now, many teachers would probably have persuaded administration to not have him placed in their room. I enjoy challenges. I can deal with change, I knew it was going to be okay.

As I look back, I don’t remember how it happened or when it happened. I just know that by working WITH this learner, by accepting him and his faults, by modeling compassion and empathy…he began to change. He began to blossom. He was invited to a friend’s house and later in the year a classmate’s birthday party.  We embraced him and he followed our example. I didn’t change my love for my students. I didn’t show my frustrations or anger. I didn’t change myself in anyway. I lead the change with the love that was in my heart, the passion that I have for my learners and learning. I met my learner where he was. I accepted him and because I did, he learned a valuable life lesson and so did I.

Can we meet President Elect Trump where he is? Can we model the change that we hope to see? Maybe this lesson is a life lesson of acceptance and compassion for you, maybe it’s for the President Elect, maybe it’s for all Americans. Can you lead the change with your heart? Will you?

When things don’t go our way, when we hit a snag in the road; we need  to think of other things that we have overcome. We need to think of how we can turn a negative situation into a positive. We need to model compassion and acceptance. As Americans, we need to focus on hope. Isn’t “hope” what America is all about?

Small Packages Lead to Great Innovation

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“There’s so many pieces of candy to choose from!” Sarah said excitedly. “I’m not sure what to pick! I’m getting all confused!”

Every new school year I try to incorporate a new idea, unit, tech tool…something…into my lessons. I’ve realized that for me and my teaching…new is a must, I am not a rinse and repeat teacher; I like taking risks.

This year I signed up for George Couros’ Innovators Mindset #IMMOOC course. I had constructed a unit over the summer, Creativation, and thought the course would be a perfect opportunity to try out my unit.

My inquiry based unit infused DeBono’s  Six Thinking Hats method to assist learners in a debonohatsgreater understanding of their critical thinking and problem solving skills. When I studied DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats in college, I automatically connected with it. I am a thinker. I use these hats when putting forth an idea or discussing a concept. Naturally, my lessons and created units emulate this as well. By using this model, it will require my learners to look at a problem with different types of thinking.  Each type of thinking is represented with a hat color, and at the end of the discussion, learners should have a better understanding of the problem from different approaches in order to reach a highly creative and innovative solution.

My unit revolved around issues, dilemmas and problems that would arise from my children’s everyday life. For example, my daughter Sarah continues to get monkey bar callouses; how can we construct monkey bars to alleviate this? Change the design or add a garment to wear? The assessments were formulated, the lessons were constructed, the materials were gathered and made, and I felt confident in my plan. I was pumped…then the #IMMOOC course started.

When George Couros does something…he does it BIG. Go BIG or Go Home must be his motto. There were over a thousand people signed up for the #IMMOOC course. He also had assistance from Katie Martin, a passionate educator and Director of Professional Learning at the University of San Diego. I signed up to every #IMMOOC  Facebook page and even an #IMMOOC group on Voxer. I received constant updates about the course and various challenges from George and Katie. The highlight was tuning into their #IMMOOC YouTube channel for guest interviews, words of encouragement and ideas.

There were a plethora of ideas. Ideas were coming at me so fast, and so furiously, my head was spinning. I was reading blogs, watching the videos and listening to other’s ideas on Voxer. The more ideas I came into contact with, the more I doubted my own unit and plan. The more I read, the more confused I became. This confusion led to more doubt. The more I doubted, the more I hesitated to proceed. The more I hesitated, the more I began to think and re-think my work.

athis My question then became, can large group collaboration hinder innovation?

When innovating, is it best to innovate independently at the start, then after some time, bring forth ideas to a small group of others?

Is there something to be said about innovation and small group work?

When I think of innovation, I naturally think of Steve Jobs.  Many see him as an inventor, however I do not. He began with an idea to make something better, and from that idea, asked others to assist with his product. He didn’t invent the technology for his products, but he found ways to use the inventions of others to bring forth innovation that could benefit everyone. He worked independently at the start, then consulted with his tribe. Does innovation have an independent side?

I greatly enjoy the podcast, Coaching For Leaders with Dave Stachowiak. In his post, “This One Process Change Will Drive Innovation“, he mentions how beneficial it can be for participants to brainstorm independently, and then (after a few days) release their ideas to a small group. He continues to say that there is less immediate judgement; that everyone’s ideas are heard and discussed. Because of this, there are more diverse contributions. There isn’t a “run with this one idea and leave the rest behind” moment. All ideas are considered.There are many avenues, but one main road to focus on.

As I continue to reflect on the #IMMOOC, I realize I became lost. There were so many wonderful ideas and interesting viewpoints, I could not keep up with them all. As a learner, I was overwhelmed; hence my lack of participation in the course. My take away is simple; innovation needs collaboration, but in small doses. This small group needs independent time to think, brainstorm, and construct ideas. Once all ideas are presented, that small group can elaborate, and even collaborate with other sub-groups, before considering all input and choosing a clear path. It’s difficult to state an idea, have hundreds of others add to it, then know what direction to go. I will continue on with my unit. I will ensure my learners have independent time to brainstorm and reflect, as well as contribute to their small collaborative group.

This #IMMOOC course gave me a better understanding of the importance of collaboration and innovation. It helped me to understand that great innovation comes in small packages.

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Building Bridges

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Directions were given. Materials were handed out. I walked quietly as to not disturb them.

Our learners were working in groups. They had numbered materials and images of various bridges. Their task sounded simple; create a bridge connecting 2 tables in the room.

Some groups began brainstorming ideas, other groups began construction immediately. There was one group…the second grade/third grade group…who had questions. I proceeded to assist.

Can we build from the floor up?

No.

Can we use pre-existing structures?

No.

Does it have to be a certain length?

No.

What if we run out of materials, can we have more?

No.

Can we choose more than one bridge design and blend them together?

Sure.

Is there a weight requirement?

Yes.

“We’re done!” I hear from across the room. I walk over to see their bridge. This group of fourth grade boys used 2 sheets of paper taped together to reach the other table, no support of any kind underneath. They mentioned it was “pavement”. I noticed the group of boys fooling around as I examined it. How would you lay the pavement down if there is nothing, not even land, to support it? I asked. They looked at each other, unsure of how to answer. “Keep thinking my friends”,  I said.

I proceeded to the fifth grade group which consisted of all boys. These boys partnered up within the group. Unlike the fourth grade group, the two pairs seemed confident. Each pair were discussing ideas and occasionally would share info with the others . They constructed a rope and wood (popsicle stick) bridge. The bridge seemed well constructed but the group had difficulty deciding how to attach it securely to the ends of each table. They decided on tape,  one piece of scotch tape at each end. They asked for the weights to see how they did. The rope and wood bridge held one weight. However, when a second was added it fell between the center of the two tables.”Don’t be discouraged, you all showed great thinking, keep working on it”, I said.

I watched my second and third grade girls work on their woven truss bridge. They used popsicle sticks for the base, that spanned the length of two tables. They wove Wikki sticks…like a woven basket… and attached them to the sides. “I think we need to add arches underneath for more support” one student said. “If this was a real bridge how would they know how much it would hold?”  another student asked. “They probably would just drive cars over it to make sure”, another answered. “Nah, I think they use some sort of math to figure it out” someone else said matter of factly. “How could we make sure this bridge stays in place? Tape isn’t strong enough for this!”, a member chimed in.

This second-third grade group does not ask for assistance. They do not rush. They are on the floor, on the table, upside down and viewing their bridge from every angle. They were thinking out loud, experimenting and trying various ideas. They were accepting of ideas and willing to take risks. They discussed and talked throughout.

As I observe these groups, I can’t help but think of the different approaches each group took. I can’t help but think how, as teachers, we can fall into similar groupings. Some teachers will rush just to be the first to try out the latest idea or buzz word. These teachers hardly ever collaborate, only because they see collaboration as competition, they may also feel intimidated by others. Inevitably, they will also have to back track and reteach alone. Other teachers will construct and execute good solid lessons with a partner. Their lessons are student centered and teacher driven, but they may have missed the target on an area or two. Two is better than one mentality can bring success as well as oversights. Other teachers will work together as a team to examine all avenues and ensure success. They communicate and share ideas; they take risks and work through problems. Most importantly they continue to question it all, seeking answers together.

I’ve been apart of these groups during my career in education. I’ve been on amazing teams. Teams that worked together, each of us playing a pivotal role in our grade level’s success. I’ve partnered with another teacher. This partnership of helping and guiding each other through new curricula, a new frontier. This partnership can be non threatening, simple and so powerful.  I’ve also worked alone, not by choice. I worked alone because others did not feel the need to progress or to seek change. Choosing to abide by the status quo. This isolation is the most difficult to bear. I often wonder why teachers would want it this way.

If there is something I believe in when it comes to collaboration, I believe in this…

“The greatest resource that teachers have, are other teachers”

 

But sadly, teamwork and collaboration are not commonly found in schools. What keeps teachers from supporting their team and being a team player? Building a team based culture requires administration to set aside time and emphasize the importance of teacher teamwork instead of simply suggesting that it occur on its own. These meaningful conversations can open doors for sharing, for encouragement and insights while establishing the empathy that drives all great schools. Teamwork should not be optional.

With all the change that teachers are implementing in their classrooms, isn’t now the time to increase collaboration opportunities, be they formal or informal?  Does your school make space for teachers to engage in deep conversations about teaching and learning? Where and when do your best conversations with colleagues take place? I think the time has come to build bridges between teachers to strengthen their teams. How else can our students use us as their support structure?