A great lesson ruined by a faux pas

Today I tweeted this:

But before I tell you why, I will first outline my lesson.

My students were asked to sit in a campfire arrangement with me and the IWB as their focal point. On the IWB I had our Young Inquirers edmodo group displayed. I explained to them that we were about to embark on a new PBL journey and that they would be given their Driving Question (DQ) this lesson. I wanted to ensure that they had each developed their own personal response to the DQ before they met with their group and considered the parameters of the project. I labeled this unmediated response to the DQ their ‘hypothesis’  (an idea borrowed from my prac student @laurenforner).

Students each devised their own hypothesis responding to the DQ ‘What makes an individual powerful?’ and posted it to the ‘wall’ of their edmodo group. These responses popped up in-real-time on the IWB for all the class to see. We had a great chat about the varying ideas posed regarding what it is that makes an individual powerful. These kids are insightful. They understand power.

I then handed out a copy of the assessment task aligned with this project. I blogged about it yesterday, see here. The students were intrigued by the year-group wide competition element of the task and I explained that this task would require them to work in design teams.

I have recently been very inspired by the Gamification group on edmodo and their discussions about using a gaming structure to engage students and power their learning more in the formative stage. At first I was resistant to this edu buzz-word, and despite having used a competition table element in my last PBL project with Year 10, I still didn’t see myself as falling for the fad. I resisted referring to the points by the gaming term XP (short for ‘experience points) but have found myself won over by the passion and innovative ideas of the Gamification group members. I think that the fact that edmodo introduced badges for students is also a VERY big draw-card for me. The fact that I can create badges (or use those shared by teachers in the edmodo community) makes it heaps more exciting for me. I know my students are going to LOVE being awarded badges – it’s going to make it more competitive in that the students are competing with themselves, not just each other. I haven’t got to the stage of ‘levelling up’ yet – but XP points are there. I told my students that during the project each individual would be able to earn a certain number of XP points for classroom behaviours (skills) and for mastery of content. When they reach a specified number of XP for a skill or content mastery, they are awarded a badge relevant to that skill or content. At the end of the project, the design team with the most XP total, wins a special lunch. Let me tell you – my class was stoked on the idea!

So, it came to the time to tell the students what design team they were in. I had selected the design teams based on a couple of reasons. And I told them what these reasons were.

And this is when my faux pas occurs…

I created the groups based on ability level and gender. The latter is a non-issue. The last two projects had been mixed gender and mixed ability groups. The students worked well in these groups after a little bit of jousting to start with … personalities are such a fun thing to play with in a class room! The decision to create ability level groups was based on our text: Shakespeare’s Macbeth. There really are very different ways in which students can access the work of Shakespeare. I feel that teaching his plays requires differentiation. From my six years of teaching Shakespeare, I know that ALL students can access and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays – to some extent. I also know that if you stick with a teacher-centred one-level approach to teaching Shakespeare that the more capable students miss out on his language, rhythm, subtle nuances etc. They get stuck with a plot, character, theme study. The weaker students get drowned by the language and teacher-talk.

Differentiating PBL groups when tackling Shakespeare is straight-up genius in my mind.

Telling the kids that I differentiated the groups … just plain foolish.

Immediately the boys placed in the ‘lower’ group showed signs of embarrassment. They disengaged in the next task that required them to pick a team name. I felt like they wanted to hit me in the face. And why shouldn’t they feel that way? I tried my hardest to explain to them that they’d be OK – it would benefit them. I explained that the group choice was more about organisation than skill – they had more stuff going on at home than other kids. But really I was just saying ‘blah, blah, blah’. All they heard me saying was ‘I think you’re dumb’.

I’m going to be working hard to overcome this hurdle. Getting hit down like that in front of your peers is really hard to come back from.

I’ll keep you posted.

Teaching in the round …

OK – so it’s not really ‘the round’ … cos I’m not in the middle … but there is a circle!! ;0)

On Monday my new prac student started after quite a hasty, last minute email request to supervise her. I didn’t get time to rearrange my classroom to feign a thoughtfully organised classroom layout. I just had to fly by the seat of my pants … again. So driving in to school on Monday morning I had to remind myself of the units I’m teaching for all classes whilst simultaneously ensuring I change to the correct gears, check my twitter/fb feed on my phone and answer my 6 year old’s incessant questions about the moon, earth, aliens etc. (Who said multi-tasking is a fraud?)

So what did I come up with? Something basic that I have found to be wonderfully flexible and effective for all of my classes. This image below kinda shows what I did:

Essentially I have created a space where the class can come together and discuss, present and listen (our campfire) as well as spaces for group work (wateringhole) and (when we get there) individual work (caves – hopefully). Here’s how it’s working for my classes right now:

Year 9: We sat in the ‘campfire’ circle to chat about their test results and the features of ‘persuasive texts’ that they were struggling with. Then they moved to the desks (wateringhole) to work on their projects … some more successful at this than others. See here.

Year 10: We sat in the ‘campfire’ circle to read ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and discuss what the novel is teaching us about ‘resilience’.

Year 11: We sat in the ‘campfire’ circle to read ‘A Property of the Clan’ and discuss the focus question ‘Should Art Imitate Life?’. Students then moved to the desks (wateringhole) to work on a mini-group task based on one of the Five Elements of Writing – these were then shared in our cyber-space campfire – edmodo.

Year 12: We sat in the ‘campfire’ circle to read ‘Notes on Nationalism’ by George Orwell and discussed the similarities between Orwell’s world and our own. Our discussion led us to the recent killing of Osama bin Laden and how the celebrations of the Americans reflected their nationalism.

It’s been so cool to stumble across a style of classroom layout that is flexible but not as messy as rearranging the furniture each lesson. Ah … one day in the future I’ll laugh at this post because schools will actually be designed for the 21st century learner.

Project Based Learning … struggling …

Well I’m feeling as though I am officially ‘back’ at school for Term 2. Last week just wasn’t making me feel down about myself or my ability to teach well.

Today on the other hand …

The day started at a brisk 7.30am with a meet and greet with my new prac student (who is very lovely by the way and I hope to rope her into a guest blog post at some point) and then my double Year 11 class. The class was great – kids were funny, engaged and completed the tasks set for them. Showing Lauren (the prac student) around the school was a breeze as well – in fact, quite fun seeing a new teacher’s reaction to a playground full of students and a maze constructed from concrete and bricks.

Anyway, it wasn’t until the last period of the day that I really started to hit panic mode. My class are in the middle of doing (what I think) is an interesting, engaging and fun project – the students have to work in small groups to create a book trailer. These guys needed to persuade me to want to rush out and buy the book. They needed to draw on all they know about persuasive devices (you can guess what year group they are now, right?). I have included all of the elements that I ‘know’ are elements of a great task: the students could select the book they based the trailer on (they had just finished reading it for literature circles) as well as the other students they worked with, they could select the programs they used to make the trailer also. Tonnes of student-choice and flexibility. That’s what great tasks have, right? Each lesson I have given them a goal setting sheet to complete at the beginning of the lesson as well as a reflection sheet to complete at the end. (I hate that these are ‘sheets’ and not just jotting down goals etc on edmodo – but I accidentally copied too many from a non-netbook class and didn’t want to waste the paper. I hardly think that paper vs. electronic recording of goals/reflection is the root of my problems with the class, but I’m happy to be proven wrong! I would LOVE an online tool to help with the goal-setting/reflection I use in this PBL-style of teaching … but that’s for another post!)

So why have I now spent three lessons with students poorly planning, chatting off task and getting minimal work completed? I am frustrated by this group as being an extension class I would imagine the task would be engaging and something they could do well. I know it’s the group work element and I’m struggling to work out how to improve it. I was so excited about this task, thinking how it will help them improve their understanding of persuasion, audience and purpose as well as shaping meaning within a text. All I seem to have done for three lessons is cajole them along through humour and tactile, external rewards (of the sugary, sweet variety) to get them to make a small dent in the task.

I’m doing something wrong. Maybe I need to start smaller. Perhaps I have not given a strong enough scaffold for the task … I did show exemplars … I gave a rough marking criteria (perhaps this is my flaw, needs to be tighter/clearer/more explicit?) … the audience is even ‘real’ – as the book trailers will be uploaded to youtube with the one getting the most views the winner. The prize is respect. If I was 14 I’d find that cool. But, I’m not. I’m 31 and a complete geek. Hmmm …

Having my mini ‘I am doing it all wrong’ melt down in front of my new prac student isn’t very professional. But it was real. Do I get brownie points for that?

Can you point out what I’m doing wrong? I kinda feel like I better go back to chalk and talk with these guys … maybe they need to be thrown into the cave for a little while. But really, it’s not about me – it’s about them. Maybe they just don’t learn this way? Maybe constructing knowledge with their close peers isn’t their ‘style’? Help!