Praxis: Putting Theory Into Practice

OK, so I’m taking a deep breath before I write this post because I know it is going to be a long one… apologies in advance if I’ve ‘suggested’ that you read it, cos I don’t think it’s going to be a quick read, well, it will be if you skim it, and by all means, skim it! This post should have been written a week ago, when the project it is about was still fresh in my mind, but, alas, life is life and I am only getting to it now, prompted by a colleague’s request to see my program for the project… which, of course, I did not have to share.

Praxis – what is it? Well, apart from being one of my favourite words in the world (I have a Major in Philosophy, which surprises most people since I am, um, me… and I discovered the word at uni thanks to that legend, Plato) it is the name I have given to a series of week-long immersive enrichment projects that I’m running with year 7 students at my school. Basically, I love PBL, and I want an excuse to do it deeply with a bunch of super motivated kids once every term – we all have our ways to manipulate the system to get what we want, and this is mine. This post is about the first official Praxis Project that I ran in week 3 of this term. This post is (hopefully) going to outline the planning I did before the project, as well as the different stages of the project itself. For each key stage (divided by the days of the week as this was a full week project) I will identify how it meets specific PBL elements, our school’s reporting proficiencies that are essential contemporary learning skills, our school values, Quality Teaching Framework elements, Kaplan and Maker Models of curriculum development for gifted and talented learners, and which disciplines are being touched on (this project was for Maths and Science, but also touches on Geography, PDHPE, TAS, and English). Now that I’ve written all of those down, I’m realising just what a huge task I have set myself. I think I might go make myself a cup of chai before I begin…

Before project preparations…

  • Project Outline: The idea for this project came from my husband’s obsession with rope-swings. When I asked him what the project should be about, he joked that it should be about rope-swings, and then together we came up with the idea of rope-swinging into Curl Curl Lagoon. The real-world context of a project is super important, as is the authenticity of the problem that students are confronted with as this gives their learning a purpose, and thus significance. I created the project outline below (keep scrolling!) using Canva which always makes things look pretty. Note that the project outline is quite loose, and not too detailed, as it is essentially a prompt for students, providing them with the overall structure of the project, but allowing scope for their own inquiry, and creativity. I printed a colour copy of the project outline for each student, plus an A3 colour copy that I laminated for our project wall. I also added a digital copy of the project outline to our Edmodo group.
  • Experts: All projects definitely need the support of experts from outside of the school environment, but Praxis Projects especially need it as these are curriculum enrichment projects run by a single teacher (a PBL expert – me, haha) and not a ‘content’ expert. Students are thinking above and beyond any content prescribed by a syllabus for their specific age or stage. The intent is for students to engage with adults throughout the project in a way quite different to the traditional teacher-student relationship. I knew I needed an expert on the local lagoon, so I contacted the local council and was super lucky to get some great resources emailed to me AND to organise for the council’s environmental officer to speak with the students down at the lagoon (Jason Ruszczyk – such a legend). I also organised for two of my friends to be available via Edmodo to chat with students – Joseph Stephens (a science teacher and former environment officer), and Simon Borgert (HT Maths). Finally, I needed experts for the final presentation – as a panel is essential to have students respond to questions from experts – and was lucky enough to find a number who were keen to participate: Tom Davidson, a geology enthusiast, and Silvvy Choi, a STEM educator working at Sydney Uni, plus two representatives from the Curl Curl Lagoon Friends group. Finding experts is really hard, probably one of the hardest parts of PBL, but it is also one of the most important – so stick at it!
  • Participants: the Praxis Project is open to 20 year 7 students – five from each of the four core classes. I visited each class and spoke with them about the project, and handed out application forms. Students had to be passionate about and/or gifted in Maths and Science in order to apply. I also spoke at a year meeting about the project, and asked all year 7 Maths and Science teachers to identify their top five students and from this list I tapped a few kids on the shoulder and suggested they participate. In the end we have 16 students in total – many students showed interest, but did not want to miss a week worth of school, and others are keen to participate in the next Praxis Project instead.
  • Learning Space: For PBL to be effective, it really is best done in an open learning space. Our last project was run in the staff common room which is about the size of two regular classrooms, and has no furniture set up – it was awesome. This project ran during HSC Trials, so the only space I could book was a computer room. I did my best to make the room spacious by removing a couple of the big tables (there are 8 big tables in the room), and moving the remaining tables towards the back of the room, freeing up space at the front for our ‘arc’ which is essentially our meeting space (think the waterhole). Whilst the students found a way to make the space their own – one student finding it comfortable lying under the computer table – we all thought a bigger space would have been better.
  • Resources: Ensuring you have quality resources organised before the project is essential. Ensure you have a lot of stationery on hand, but these are must-haves: Post-Its, coloured markers, Sharpies, blank paper (like a paper roll from Ikea, or butchers paper), BluTak, and scissors. Project packets are folders or containers that each team can keep all of the key resources/paperwork in – yes, I am referring to paper stuff, not digital stuff cos kids do mindmaps, plans, sketches etc – I bought some cool mini cases that cost $2 each from Kmart and in them I put their project outlines, some blank paper, and handouts about the lagoon that were emailed to me by the council. I also printed off in A3 and laminated a copy of the years 3-5 BIE rubrics for collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and innovation, and presentation, one for each team. I organised with my husband’s principal to borrow 16 lab coats – one per student – and made name badges for each student e.g. ‘Dr Max, Dr Levi, Dr Xander’ etc. These small touches really transform a project into a memorable learning experience – they are the things that make a difference for me when I’m at a conference, and I know my students appreciate them too.
  • Organisation: I used Edmodo as the place for online communication, creating small groups for each team, and adding Joe and Simon in as co-teachers. I created folders with key resources and digital copies of the BIE rubrics. Students also elected to use Google Slides and Google Docs to collaborate on their presentations and planning, and I put these into a Google Drive folder that we could all access. I also discovered how easy it is to use the Google Drive app to upload photos and video from my phone to share with the kids – amazing!

Monday…

Hook Lesson (also know to some as the ‘project launch’):

The first thing students did as they entered the room was put on their lab coats, and their badges. They were VERY excited about this! I love creating a super psyched environment right from the beginning – the students are basically engaged from the start, and it challenges me to keep this type of mood for the duration of the project. Once all students were in, I asked them to sit in the ‘arc’ and then I showed them a couple of videos – the first one was of epic rope-swing fails (I edited a YouTube video for this, cutting out those that were incredibly dodgy, or that had swearing, and adding a soundtrack), and a Science of Stupid video looking at the physics of tree-climbing. The students loved watching these, and made lots of remarks about the people in the videos. After the videos I generated some discussion with the group about their experiences with rope-swinging, focusing on the locations at which they did it, what the location (including the water) looked like, how successful they were at rope-swinging and why. We had six other teachers in the room during this activity – the year 7 advisor was filming us, one DP and my principal were there, plus three teachers from Wallsend HS who were visiting to check out PBL in action.IMG_6852IMG_6854

QTF: Connectedness. Narrative. PBL essentials: Challenging Problem or Question Kaplan: Present content that is related to broad-based issues, themes, or problems. Focus on open-ended tasks. Maker: It should focus on concepts that are important to several academic areas, with the goal of integrating rather than separating what is learned.

Project Introduction:

After we watched the videos and had a chat about rope-swinging, I handed out a copy of the project outline and read it out loud to the students. This generated further discussion, but I resisted answering any questions students had, even basic ones about the project, answering them with ‘That is an excellent question, I wonder what the answer might be’. This is an essential step, because PBL is all about students asking questions, and then using resources at their disposal to answer them. Following this initial introduction to the project, I had students go off to the tables (prepped with required resources), to write things they already KNOW that will help them with the project (content knowledge, skills, and basic information about the project) on blue Post-Its, and things they WANT or NEED to know about the project in order to be successful – and these were expected to be in the form of questions – (content knowledge, skills, and basic information about the project) on pink Post-Its. They were challenged to write as many as they could in 15 minutes, and then add their Post-Its to a poster on the wall that had the headings ‘Want to Know’ and ‘What I Know’, with columns for skills, content, and project information. This process is required for all projects, as it forces students to think critically about their prior knowledge and skills, as well as generating a whole range of questions to help them launch their inquiry. Once the students had written as much as they could, they were invited back to the ‘arc’ to discuss what they came up with. I had immediately identified two very outgoing students in the group of 16, and selected them as the two ‘presenters’ who would read through all of the know and need to know Post-Its to the group – this activity allowed them to identify where students were thinking similarly and differently, and to critically evaluate the quality of their questions. During this process, I typed up (on a Word doc projected to the group) all of the ‘need to know’ questions that the group agreed on as being serious and necessary to the project’s success. By the end of this process we had well over 20 different questions that the students felt they needed answers to – pretty neat! We chatted in an informal way about how they could find out the answers, but I wished that I had done this in a more formal way, as I think it would have helped scaffold/structure their inquiry a bit better – this would be the H (how) in the KWHL table. With a focus on this very long list of questions, I asked the group to identify which questions they felt might be answered by a site assessment of Curl Curl Lagoon, and I highlighted in green all of the questions they selected – these would guide them when we visited the lagoon later in the day.

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Following this I had students select the teams they would like to work in, with the suggestion that 4 would be the perfect number. We ended up with two groups of 4, one of 5 and one of 2. Maybe we only had 15 kids participate? I don’t know, haha. Anyway, typically with curriculum-aligned PBL (that is projects run with your actual classes) I suggest that the teacher always picks the groups, but as this is a one week only intensive project with a group of young people I do not know, I allowed the students to select amongst themselves.

Finally, we spent about 10 minutes as a group creating a project calendar that was an overview of the week, identifying what needed to be done each day in order to successfully complete the project – this was just written in text on a piece of paper, and it was noted that each team may end up at different stages depending on where their ideas take them.

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QTF: Connectedness, Engagement, Narrative. PBL essentials: Challenging Problem or Question Kaplan: Present content that is related to broad-based issues, themes, or problems. Focus on open-ended tasks. Maker: It should focus on concepts that are important to several academic areas, with the goal of integrating rather than separating what is learned. Proficiencies: Demonstrates strong organisational and time-management skills.

Discover:

The group was now ready to really get into the ‘discover’ stage of the project – which meant our site assessment of Curl Curl Lagoon. The first thing I had them do was identify what roles each team-member would be responsible for when down at the lagoon, as I didn’t want them just rambling around directionless. We identified four key roles and responsibilities: water-testing, catching specimens of marine life, taking photos/mapping the lagoon, and identifying suitable trees or locations for the rope-swing. Each team decided on who would be responsible for each role, and then I created a list so I could hand out resources (water testing kit, nets, camera, etc) to the appropriate students.

We walked down to the lagoon, which is only about 5 minutes from school, and met Jason Ruszczyk and one of his colleagues, who then took us down to the lagoon (well, a part of Greendale Creek actually) to discuss its current health, and some of the factors contributing to it. The lagoon is VERY unclean – and this was immediately noted by the students when they saw it. Jason was exceptionally knowledgeable, and shared his expertise with this group, allowing them to see how he uses technical equipment to assess the water quality. I was super impressed by his vocabulary – so many scientific words I didn’t know the meaning of but was very keen to learn. I think he was quite amused by the students’ driving question, and felt pretty confident that rope-swinging into the lagoon isn’t something anyone would want to do any time soon. The students asked thoughtful questions, and discovered that the health of a catchment is very complex in an urbanised and industrialised area. After Jason left, we continued to walk around the lagoon, testing the water quality ourselves at a range of places and recording the data, as well as taking a lot of photographs, and considering the suitability of the trees for rope-swings. Students also tried to catch specimens of marine life, but failed as the water is so deoxygenated that virtually nothing can live there. This was a really fun part of our project, and many of the students commented that they would have liked to return to the lagoon later in the week to think more critically about it – I know one team actually did meet there in the morning before school!

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On return to school we looked through a resource on the science of catchments (I learnt the words eutrophication and benthos) and the history of Curl Curl Lagoon that Jason shared with me via email, as well as excerpts of a long document on site inspections relating to water quality for recreational swimming. These resources were shared via Edmodo, and supplemented by students’ own research into catchments, and water quality. As students did their independent research, I added all the new words we learnt to our ‘word wall’ – this is a way of helping students track what they know, or should know, to be successful with the project. That ended the first day of Praxis! Phew! (Only four more to write about, haha – I can DO this!)

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QTF: Deep knowledge, Deep understanding, Higher-order thinking, Metalanguage, Explicit quality criteria, Engagement, High expectations, Social support, Students’ self-regulation, Background knowledge, Knowledge Integration, Connectedness Proficiencies: Demonstrates critical thinking about information, ideas and problems PBL Essentials: Authenticity, Sustained Inquiry, Key Knowledge and Understanding Kaplan: Integrate multiple disciplines into the area of study. Develop productive, complex, abstract, and/or higher level thinking skills. Develop research skills and methods. Maker: It should include process skills such as higher levels of thinking and problem-solving as a separate scope and sequence that is integrated with the development of content understanding. It must include input from scholars and researchers in academic areas regarding the importance of principles, concepts, skills, and values.

Tuesday…

Discover:

Students began the day in the ‘arc’ where I introduced them to the BIE rubric on ‘critical thinking’. The BIE have a range of rubrics that are free to download, and I have used all of them – from the K-2 rubrics, right up to the 6-12 rubrics. For year 7 I quite like the grades 3-5 rubrics, as they are thoughtfully categorised but not too dense on detail that they lose meaning. The 6-12 rubrics can be very difficult for students to use effectively for the first time. I spoke with students about the different categories (which nicely reflect the discover, create and share stages of a project), and the different aspects of each level – below standard, approaching standard, and at standard. I used examples from what I saw students do the day before, and pointed out aspects I would like to see them address that day. Given more time, I would have made students use the rubric to self or peer assess their current critical thinking, but as it was we just used it as a tool to focus their understanding of what it means to think critically during PBL.

Students were then directed to work in their teams to brainstorm everything they learnt the day before, using textas on a blank piece of paper. Teams then selected a person to share  with the group the five most important things from their brainstorming – this led to a great discussion/reflection on the previous day, and helped clarify some ideas for different students.

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The focus for Tuesday was to apply their new understanding of the science of catchments to the project, developing a proposed solution for the water quality issues at Curl Curl Lagoon. To help with this, I had them return to the document on assessing a site for recreational swimming, drawing their attention to a table that identified all of the aspects to be considered (PH levels, aesthetic quality, physical hazards, bacteria levels etc), and set the challenge for them to identify the ideal conditions for recreational swimming, the real current conditions at Curl Curl Lagoon, and their suggested solutions. This information was to be presented that afternoon to a panel consisting of myself, the principal, a PE teacher, and a prac teacher. This was essentially a formative assessment – it allowed me to see what students knew about the science of catchments, and their presentations skills. In the three hours leading up to the presentations, I saw students being very creative in their approach to research, with one team approaching a visiting rep from the CSIRO for his ideas, and seeking assistance from a science teacher. The presentations were held near the end of the day, and as I watched them I wrote down ‘medals’ and ‘missions’ for each team, which I then spoke with them about afterwards to help refine their presentation style, and the content of their presentations.

QTF: Deep knowledge, Deep understanding, Higher-order thinking, Metalanguage, Explicit quality criteria, Engagement, High expectations, Social support, Students’ self-regulation, Background knowledge, Knowledge Integration, Connectedness Proficiencies: Demonstrates critical thinking about information, ideas and problems PBL Essentials: Authenticity, Sustained Inquiry, Key Knowledge and Understanding Kaplan: Integrate multiple disciplines into the area of study. Develop productive, complex, abstract, and/or higher level thinking skills. Develop research skills and methods. Maker: It should include process skills such as higher levels of thinking and problem-solving as a separate scope and sequence that is integrated with the development of content understanding. It must include input from scholars and researchers in academic areas regarding the importance of principles, concepts, skills, and values.

Wednesday…

Discover:

Once again the day began in the ‘arc’ – this time we rewatched the Science of Stupid video on tree climbing, as well as three other videos – one on the physics of swings, and two on the physics of rope swings. I had found these videos the day before, as well as a range of other resources that I shared with the group via Edmodo. I’ll just remind you all that I am an English teacher, not a Physics teacher, and at no point did the students see me as an expert in Maths or Science. My job was to create the context for which they would need to discover and apply a range of scientific and mathematical skills and content. Many of these kids genuinely understood the ideas explored in these videos, but some needed it explained to them by their peers. The focus for this day of the project was to get students thinking about the maths and science of rope-swinging, and I knew that some would take this further than others, just like some had immersed themselves in the science of catchments more than others – that’s the whole purpose of a curriculum enrichment project, to allow students to push in the direction that most fascinates them. In saying that, I do think that this part of the project would have been enhanced had I organised for a physics teacher/expert to come and speak to the students in person about the problems relating to rope-swinging – and the students themselves identified this as a small weakness in the project also. I blame my disorganisation, plus also my genuine fear that if I invited in a teacher they might think that they needed to run a two hour teacher-centred lecture (so lots of prep), or that they might have talked down to the students, or argued that year 7 students aren’t able to deal with this level of maths/physics… so yeah, teacher fail from me.

QTF: Deep knowledge, Deep understanding, Higher-order thinking, Metalanguage, Explicit quality criteria, Engagement, High expectations, Social support, Students’ self-regulation, Background knowledge, Knowledge Integration, Connectedness Proficiencies: Demonstrates critical thinking about information, ideas and problems PBL Essentials: Authenticity, Sustained Inquiry, Key Knowledge and Understanding Kaplan: Integrate multiple disciplines into the area of study. Develop productive, complex, abstract, and/or higher level thinking skills. Develop research skills and methods. Maker: It should include process skills such as higher levels of thinking and problem-solving as a separate scope and sequence that is integrated with the development of content understanding. It must include input from scholars and researchers in academic areas regarding the importance of principles, concepts, skills, and values. It must not restrict the students’ opportunities to purse accelerated content, processes, or products.

Create:

Hmmm… at some stage we identified all of the problems associated with the rope-swing that needed solving (weight of swinger, height of swing, length of rope, depth of water etc), and then they got to work in their groups on their preliminary rope-swing designs, calculating the maths of their designs, and researching the physics they needed to know.  We had one team outside throwing ropes out of a second story window and measuring the angle at which is would swing, with the assistance of a PE teacher, another group was creating a prototype out of clay, whilst another was coding the rope-swing physics in Python (no kidding, this kid is amazing), and another drawing, and then designing in Sketch-up. This was all a bit messy, but I think that’s OK cos students need time to just try to work things out themselves. During the last period of the day they spent time with one of our DPs, who is a Maths teacher, whilst I was on class, and I am assuming that during this time some of their calculations were checked etc.

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QTF: Problematic knowledge, Explicit quality criteria, Engagement, High expectations, Social support, Student direction, Knowledge Integration Proficiencies: Applies creative and innovative thinking to learning. Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best. PBL Essentials: Public Product, Critique & Revision, Student Voice & Choice Kaplan: Encourages the development of products that challenge existing ideas and produce ‘new’ ideas. Encourage the development of products that use new techniques, materials, and forms. Maker: It should include process skills such as higher levels of thinking and problem-solving as a separate scope and sequence that is integrated with the development of content understanding. It should include an emphasis on development of types of sophisticated products integrated with the content and process.

(Preliminary) Share:

Wednesday is sport day at our school, but it was cancelled due to wet weather, so students chose to stay in Praxis and keep working on their project – I thought that was pretty cool! During this time they continued with their research, and preliminary designs, and I created a list of all the things they needed to include in their final presentations on Friday (I posted this to our project wall), and informally pointed these out to different students, who shared this with their peers.

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QTF: Narrative, Student direction, Social support, High expectations, Explicit quality criteria, Substantive communication Proficiencies: Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best PBL Essentials: Public Product, Reflection, Authenticity Kaplan: Encourages the development of self-understanding, i.e. recognising and using one’s abilities, becoming self-directed, appreciating likenesses and differences between oneself and others. Evaluate student outcomes by using appropriate and specific criteria through self-appraisal, criterion references and/or standardised instruments. Maker: It should focus on concepts that are important to several academic areas, with the goal of integrating rather than separating what is learned.

Thursday…

Create:

Beginning in the ‘arc’ again, the day’s focus was on ‘creativity and innovation’ and ‘presentation’ skills – as with Tuesday’s morning session, we read through the BIE rubric, and discussed the different aspects, and informally assessing each team’s progress through this discussion. I spoke specifically about the different types of presentations – informative, imaginative, and persuasive, and gave examples from the Jason’s presentation at the previous night’s Curl Curl Lagoon Friends meeting that I attended, along with a couple of the Praxis students. Students appreciated that a great presentations is informative, imaginative, AND persuasive, and this was reflected in their final presentations the next day.

I then had each team brainstorm the ‘maths and science of rope-swinging’, and once again had them share the top five things they need to know. This was really helpful for a couple of the groups who needed some extra information about this, as they could identify the teams from whom they could learn the most, and planned to spend time with them later in the day. I created a big list of all of the key terms students might need to know, and put this list on the project wall for students to see. I was VERY impressed with what they discovered, and really enjoyed being taught about it from a few very enthusiastic students!

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QTF: Problematic knowledge, Explicit quality criteria, Engagement, High expectations, Social support, Student direction, Knowledge Integration Proficiencies: Applies creative and innovative thinking to learning. Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best. PBL Essentials: Public Product, Critique & Revision, Student Voice & Choice Kaplan: Encourages the development of products that challenge existing ideas and produce ‘new’ ideas. Encourage the development of products that use new techniques, materials, and forms. Maker: It should include process skills such as higher levels of thinking and problem-solving as a separate scope and sequence that is integrated with the development of content understanding. It should include an emphasis on development of types of sophisticated products integrated with the content and process.

Share:

Students spent the rest of the day working on their rope-swing models and presentations. All teams chose to use Google Slides for their presentations as they could easily collaborate on the slideshow in real time. One team had taken it upon themselves to get help from the TAS faculty, with the HT of TAS generously giving up his time to help them build a scale model of their design – this was a group of four girls, and seeing their beaming smiles as they returned with their finished product made me hopeful that they will pursue TAS subjects when they get to choose electives in the later years of schooling.

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One student helped me to design invitations for parents, teachers, and selected year 7 students to attend the Praxis presentations the next day, and he also created a thank-you card to be given to teachers who helped them during the week, and the panelists attending the presentations.

QTF: Narrative, Student direction, Social support, High expectations, Explicit quality criteria, Substantive communication Proficiencies: Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best PBL Essentials: Public Product, Reflection, Authenticity Kaplan: Encourages the development of self-understanding, i.e. recognising and using one’s abilities, becoming self-directed, appreciating likenesses and differences between oneself and others. Evaluate student outcomes by using appropriate and specific criteria through self-appraisal, criterion references and/or standardised instruments. Maker: It should focus on concepts that are important to several academic areas, with the goal of integrating rather than separating what is learned.

Friday…

Share:

Students spent the morning session putting the final touches on their presentations, and their visual representations of their rope-swing. We then headed off to the presentation space (our school library) to get it set up – furniture was arranged including seating for guests, and a table for the panelists. The panelists each got four copies of the audience feedback sheet provided online for free by the BIE, and I made sure that there were stickers and some small toys for one panelist’s young daughter who would be attending also. I ensured the students negotiated resources with the librarian, and that they were responsible for the setting up, not me. Students set up their food on a table for refreshments, which was a nice touch also. Each student also signed the thank-you cards, to be given with a box of chocolates to the people who supported them in their learning during the week.

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Ideally each team would have run through their presentation, but there simply wasn’t time so all I could do was cross my fingers and hope for awesome… and boy were they awesome! It was so inspiring to see these young learners stand up there in front of a pretty tough panel, and pitch their designs and solutions as a team. Each presentation went for approximately 10 minutes, and all teams had to respond to questions from the panel at the end – and let me tell you, this panel wasn’t asking easy questions, especially relating to the practicalities of their proposed solutions, and the science/maths of their designs. I was scared for them, but they all responded confidently, and with good humour! I loved that their presentations were all original, and that they had considered how to be informative, and persuasive, as well as engaging. At the end, students joined their invited guests for light refreshments… a super successful event!

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QTF: Narrative, Student direction, Social support, High expectations, Explicit quality criteria, Substantive communication Proficiencies: Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best PBL Essentials: Public Product, Reflection, Authenticity Kaplan: Encourages the development of self-understanding, i.e. recognising and using one’s abilities, becoming self-directed, appreciating likenesses and differences between oneself and others. Evaluate student outcomes by using appropriate and specific criteria through self-appraisal, criterion references and/or standardised instruments. Maker: It should focus on concepts that are important to several academic areas, with the goal of integrating rather than separating what is learned.

Reflect:

Whilst it’s easy to think that once the presentations are done, that a project is over – but it’s not. It is SO important that you give students time to reflect on their learning, and on the project itself. After lunch, we re-grouped in Room 127 – a space that had become a second home for us all – and I had them complete the BIE project reflection sheet. This helped them think about their learning, what they enjoyed, what they found hard, what they would have liked to have done differently, as well as make critical comments about how they would have liked the project itself to be different. This can be hard for some teachers to read, but it is what we need to know in order to refine our practice. Students were also given an opportunity to read through the comments from the panelists regarding their presentations, and this produced some lively conversations within each team as they argued out whether they were correct or incorrect points being made, haha.

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The last thing we did as a team, not sitting in the arc, but sitting haphazardly around the room, was to go back through the 20 or so ‘need to know’ questions that they had generated during our first morning together… it was fun to hear them shouting out their answers, and knowing that they HAD actually found out the answers to the questions. As we packed up the room, a couple of students tried their best to keep their lab coats on forever, and many asked to take home small mementoes of Praxis – their name badges, posters from the wall, etc… that was pretty cool. Oh, and somewhere in there they wrote and sang me a thank you song… yeah, that was pretty cool too.

Proficiencies: Monitors own learning, and applies feedback to achieve personal best PBL Essentials: Reflection Kaplan: Encourages the development of self-understanding, i.e. recognising and using one’s abilities, becoming self-directed, appreciating likenesses and differences between oneself and others.

I just spent a week learning with 11 year 7 students… and it was brilliant!

Last week I facilitated a week-long project with a small group of year 7 students, and it was an experience that really reaffirmed my commitment to a project-based learning environment for all students. After having watching the documentary Most Likely to Succeed in the lead-up to the Future Schools conference a couple of weeks ago, I was beginning to get despondent about my current attempts to introduce PBL into my new school. I worked really hard last year to try to give my students authentic learning experiences using PBL as my methodology, but despite my best efforts I found myself dealing with frustrated students who did not enjoy these experiences, complained about the lack of teacher direction, the amount of work, the accountability, and the fact that they felt they weren’t spending enough time focused on high-stakes assessments. There were, of course, some wins in there – some great moments where students really did inquire, create and present their learning in ways that challenged their own expectations of what it is to be a learner… but mostly I felt that they didn’t really ‘get it’, and by the end of the year I had many students telling me they preferred not to do PBL next year. Bummer, huh?

However, I’m a determined kid, and sometimes you’ve got to trust the education literature, your years of teaching experience (and that of others), and the vision you have for your own children’s education… so I have persevered, because I know that the first step to change is resistance, and I am committed to ensuring the young people at my school get the learning experiences they need to thrive in our crazy, crazy world. Seeing what Larry Rosenstock has achieved at High Tech High, I am completely inspired, and also quite intimidated. I WANT that learning environment for my kids (not just my two sons, but all of the kids I teach), and I know it can be created, if only in small amounts to start.

So, about a month ago our school was invited to participate in the cross-campus GATS project for year 7 students. All of our students are GATS, right? It makes it hard to choose who can be involved – we just didn’t have the time or resources to have it a whole year-group project, and to be honest that approach would not have been ideal… we need to start small with these things, and nurture a mood/culture of awesome that others are desperate to be a part of in the future. In the end we decided that we could have up to 5 students per core class (we have four classes) and that students would need to ‘apply’ to participate. We ended up with 13 applications, which is pretty good considering they had 3 day’s notice to get their application in. When the first day of the project rocked up, we were down to 11 – one decided to opt out (oh peer pressure, we’ll never erase you), and another was unwell. I decided that I would run the project in my free periods, plus during my year 10 periods which were covered by my DP; I chose to teach my senior classes and during those periods my DP supervised the year 7 students.

The night before the project as due to begin, I created a project outline to help guide my students’ inquiry, and provide a lose structure for their week of learning. I didn’t decide on the concept (this was determined by our college’s HTs T&L) which was equality (which should have been equity, as pointed out by my friend Tomaz, and my 14 year old son), and from that I developed an overarching driving question.

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Below is a super quick overview the project…

Day One: The very first step in all projects is the hook lesson/entry event – my favourite part of every project. For this one I used a modified version of the famous ‘blue eyes, brown eyes‘ experiment by Jane Elliot. I got the students together and randomly handed out 6 orange badges, and made the students put them on. These students were invited to help me set up a small ‘party’ with lollies, chocolate biscuits and cans of softdrink. They were told repeatedly not to eat anything. I then invited the students without badges to come and eat/drink, and asked the orange badge students to sit down on some nearby chairs. After this, I had the orange students set up a 5 chairs in a circle, and then 6 on the outer of the circle. I had one students set up some music and they began to play pass the parcel – however when the music stopped on an orange person they had to hand the parcel over to a non-orange person who got to open it and keep the gifts inside. The orange students had to pick up the rubbish (just newspaper) created by the non-orange students. Once the game was finished, I invited all of the students to sit down in a semi-circle, and we discussed what it felt like the be told you couldn’t participate in something fun, and had to do chores instead. The kids immediately picked up on what the project was about – well, they said discrimination, but we quickly got to the word ‘equality’, and we had a great discussion about why the non-orange people behaved the way they did (none of them stood up to defend the orange people, or offered them food or drink, or a prize) and what the orange people behaved the way they did (they were all compliant, even if they were visibly unhappy). The whole ‘party’ only lasted 20 minutes, but I could tell it was an experience that got them thinking.

The next session was all about introducing the project outline, and establishing what they needed to know to be successful with the project. To do this I gave them each a copy of the project outline, and a bunch of blue and pink post-it notes – on the blue they had to identify what they already knew (skills, content, project stuff) and on the pink they had to identify what they needed to know in the form of questions (skills, content, project stuff). They then took these and stuck them to butcher’s paper divided into K and W columns. I selected the most outgoing (read ‘potentially off-task/distracted) student to be in control of reading out each post-it, and deciding whether the know/need to know what a skill, content knowledge, or general project stuff – he also noted any repeats, and just kept one of them. This left us with a complete set of need to know questions – content to discover, skills to master, and practical questions about the project. As the students were working on their first stage of inquiry, I wrote up all of their need to know questions on butchers paper, and put them up on the wall as their learning goals for the week. Oh, and we also created a project calendar for the week, to help keep everyone focused! IMG_2885

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The following session saw students brainstorming all of the different factors contributing to inequality in our world, things such as gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, appearance, etc. You can see the results of the brainstorm below. From this, each team had to identify four contributing factors they were most interested in, then conduct some online research about each one, to be presented to the whole group the next day. The purpose of this was to help the students make an informed decision on the type of inequality/inequity that they would like to focus on for their team’s project. They were given time the following day to complete their research and create their presentations. This session ended with a big ask for these kids – reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and then discussing the gaps we see in our world between declared rights, and the received rights. The students were pretty shocked that this document was from 1948, and still many of the rights are not fulfilled. We also discussed the fact that sexual orientation is not explicitly stated, even if it might be implied, and we considered the consequence of this for many people.

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We spent the final session watching some YouTube videos to help them better appreciate the origins of the concept of ‘equality’, and some of the key thinkers that shaped how we see equality in our world today. The videos are below.

Day Two:

We met in the morning in our ‘arc’ which was basically 11 chairs arranged in an arc, facing the corner where all of our project stuff was on the walls. During this teacher-led session, we read through two of the BIE rubrics – collaboration and critical thinking. We needed to focus on both of these skills today, as they would be spending the whole morning session researching their team’s choice of four types of inequality. All teams chose to present their information using Google Slides, as this allowed them to collaborate as they worked. We spoke about the importance of verifying the sources, using a range of sources (not just the first three sites that come up on a Google search) and triangulating information. Both rubrics really helped students to focus their learning, which is great. (Oh, as an aside, whilst I was on class, my DP had the students peer-assess their team-members using the BIE rubric, and identify who they believed was the best collaborator in their team and write it on a post-it note which was given secretly to the DP. It was interesting to see the variety of responses!)

After recess, each team presented their preliminary research to the group. I encouraged the audience to give feedback using medals (things you did really well) and missions (things you need to improve) and this proved very effective – students noted that consistency in presentation slides was important, that information needed to be accurate, that too much written text was distracting, and that bright colours and images were appealing.

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The afternoon session was focused on each team selecting their focus area (they ended up with choosing inequality relating to gender identity and sexual orientation; religion; and appearance) and developing an inquiry question. I talked to them about the features of a great inquiry question by using the analogy of the houses – one storey, two storey, three storey with a sunlight – which I discovered when teaching ILP last year. The actual writing of the question was tough, and what they ended up with were pretty incredible for 11 and 12 year olds!

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Day Three:

Wow, it feels like this blog post will go on forever, and I guess that gives you an insight into the intensity of this learning experience for my students, haha – we were powering through! The third day was a shorter day (as students went off to sport after lunch), and saw the teams really begin to start some serious project work such as asking more questions about their chosen focus area, researching, making phone calls (to libraries, the council, the local mosque), visiting the principal, writing surveys and interview questions, emailing authors, storyboarding, etc. A huge day, with only one teacher-led activity: reading and discussing the creativity and innovation rubric to make sure they understood what it means to produce truly beautiful work.

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Day Four:

This day saw students continue with their work from yesterday, but also consider how their initial plans may need to be modified/adapted based on their research findings, and the work they did (or didn’t) complete the day before. This day was awesome because I did not need to run any teacher-led lesson, rather I just got to sit and chat excitedly with my students about their learning, and the work they were doing. It was a super fun day – a bit chaotic with students creating stop-motion films, taking photos of us all holding whiteboard messages, creating websites, cutting out paper people, and a whole lot more. By this stage the students had made the common room their home – and they chose not to leave it during recess or lunch, preferring to stay in and keep working than go out into the playground. Total. Win.

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Day Five:

Presentation Day! Students spent the morning working in their teams on their final products, and their presentation slides. I had organised for each student to bring in some food or drinks, and so we spent a little bit of time setting that up, as well as setting up the room. Each team also did a very quick run-through of their presentations, however we did find that we got stuck for time, and spent most of the time checking that the tech was working well. In hindsight I would have liked to have dedicated much more time for this rehearsal – probably a couple of hours. I spoke with the students about the importance of setting up the space to show the audience that this was an important event – we had a table set up for the judging panel (year advisor, HT welfare, both DPs, the principal and one of our PE teachers, who also brought along his year 10 class to watch as they are studying ‘difference and diversity’) with rubrics for creativity, and critical thinking, some whiteboards with question ideas, glasses of water, and the audience feedback sheets. We also put a copy of the audience feedback sheet on every chair, so the audience knew they were participants too. We made sure there were comfy lounge chairs at the front for the parents who were attending – parents are special people!

Each team got up to present for about 10-15 minutes, and at the end of their presentations they had to respond to questions from the panel, and the audience (including parents!). It was really great to see these 11 year 7 students step up and defend/justify/explain their ideas about equality to a whole room of adults, and peers. In fact, I got a bit teary listening to them, and watching the videos they had made. They impressed me so much – and it was lovely to be able to celebrate their learning with so many people. I gave them each a little certificate to say how awesome they were, and we got a team photo… I just don’t have a copy of it, sadly! Anyway, I hope you can tell that this was an awesome project, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them all present at our combined college presentation evening on the 6th April!

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Building bridges and learning about team work

One of the things I always tell people when I do PBL presentations, is that it takes ages for students to learn the skills to be really good at project work. It’s pretty foreign to them to spend the majority of class time working collaboratively with their peers. School just isn’t designed for collaboration (the furniture tells us that) and therefore they find it hard to get out of the routine of sitting and listening… um, passive learning! I like to spend the first week of school giving students the opportunity to develop/sharpen some of the skills needed to be a successful team member.

There’s heaps of suggestions for team building activities online, just google ‘ice breakers’ and you’ll find heaps. When I was looking for an activity to help my year 7 experience the difficulty of team work, I used the lazy person’s google – twitter. I was recommended a cool website that lists heaps of hands on team building activities by Kyla Uribe:

Screen shot 2014-02-03 at 7.59.03 PMFrom the site I found a cool activity that has students working in small teams to create a 1metre bridge from basic materials – you can see it here. I didn’t have many resources at home, so I decided that students could only use 2 x A3 pieces of paper, 5 large paper clips, a blob of BluTak and two strips of sticky tape. I tweeted out my plans to get feedback from my peers,

Screen shot 2014-02-03 at 8.02.04 PMWithin a couple of minutes I received a great tip from one of my twitter colleagues, Bryn Jones. His feedback changed my strategy for awarding points:

Screen shot 2014-02-03 at 7.58.55 PMI also decided that I would have students complete the activity as a mini-project, to help them become familiar with my discover/create/share approach to PBL. I created a quick project outline – complete with driving question – for the activity. Our driving question was ‘How can we make a strong one metre bridge from simple materials?’. I don’t have a copy of the project outline at home right now – I’ll try to post it up tomorrow. Essentially it explains the task and telling students how they will earn points.

Students were given about 30 minutes to design and build their structures. When the time was up, I went around and ‘tested’ each bridge using the different weighted objects – a lead pencil, a whiteboard marker, a pair of scissors, a calculator and a stapler. I was surprised that all but one bridge survived the weight of the objects put on them – these kids know how to design! That meant all teams but one were on the same points. I also told students at the start that I would be awarding a bonus 5 points to the team that works best together – everyone contributing to the goal of the mini-project. That mean one team was out in front by 5 points. Finally, I took a photograph of each bridge because points will be awarded for attractiveness. That’s where you come into play… I told my students that I would share their designs on Twitter and take a vote on which bridge was the best looking. They were only allowed to use the basic materials given… so bridges with writing on them don’t get considered for the bonus points. Below is a photograph of each bridge… we’d love your feedback on which you think is the most attractive!

photo(27)photo(31)photo(30)photo(29)photo(28)I REALLY enjoyed this activity, and so did my students… you could hear a pin drop in the room when we were testing each bridge! My students will be writing a paragraph reflection on their experience of working in a small team to achieve a shared goal. I think they learnt a lot in a very short space of time!

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Hey you corporate bastard who’s never taught a class in your life, get the fuck out of my classroom!

I’m mad. I’ve been mad about this issue for a while. If only you could be a Daddy Long-legs on the wall of my home sometimes, you’d hear just how mad Lee and I are about this. It’s an anger that needs to be expressed in a public forum beyond Twitter. And this is as public as I can get, being a lowly teacher and all.

Me and my crazy educator buddies on Twitter have been experimenting with technology to assist our students’ learning for many, many years now. Some experiments have succeeded, others have failed dramatically (like me trying to use wikis, lol). This blog has been going since 2009, which is when I started using Twitter to connect to those other crazy educators like me. It’s always been a place to reflect on and share my learning and the learning of my students. I’ve always been happy to share resources and ideas – just like the hundreds of other Aussie teacher bloggers out there. There’s never been anything behind this sharing other than learning. It’s never been from financial profit. We’ve always had fun watching each other grow and learning from our shared journeys. But this wholesome way of learning is being poisoned by some less than scrupulous humans and it pisses me off.

In the last five years there has been a disgustingly rapid increase in the number of humans wanting to profit from my learners, your learners, all learners. In the early days when ‘edutech’ wasn’t even a noun or adjective, there was simply a range of web-based tools and software that we teachers used or experimented with to support student learning and to give them an audience. These tools weren’t ‘marketed’ to educators, they were ‘found’ by us and used to enhance our students’ learning experiences. You know, and I know, that this is NOT the case anymore. Our freedom to think and choose and experiment is under attack. Why? Because the people in power in our schools (and sometimes our colleagues or even we ourselves) are being taken in by the edu conmen, the snake oil sellers, the homeopaths of the eduworld. Our schools are being bombarded daily via phone, email, social media, the post and in person by salesmen promising the latest in edutech ideas, gadgets, platforms, software and teaching strategies. They lure their victims with the soft caress of inviting phrases like ’21st century learner’, ‘neuroscience proves’, ‘60% of all learning is visual’, ‘the plastic brain’, ‘multiple intelligences’, ‘online automated assessment’, ‘student engagement’ and ‘online learners’. There seems to be no escape from these purveyors of promises.

So what’s my beef? You may be asking yourself, ‘Why are you so angry, Bianca?’ Well here’s, why, because these dirt bags haven’t even spent a single day teaching in a classroom. None! They sit in their little offices, brightened by multi-coloured furniture (think beanbags the colours of lolly pops) and think up ways to make money from those ‘gullible teachers’. They see us and our students as potential dollars in their account. They see us as tech dinosaurs needing to be saved by their revolutionary product. They PRETEND that they know something about education BECAUSE THEY WENT TO SCHOOL ONCE! I kid you not. It’s embarrassing that adults could believe that having been to school as a student (or being a parent of school-aged children) gives them the knowledge and experience to design products to improve education and then sell them to us. Um, no. You can’t. They even stoop so low as to invade our online PLNs with the sole purpose of getting our assistance to improve their products – you know, the products that they’re then going to try to sell back to us!!

Will this post solve this problem? Hell no. Of course it won’t. I’m not saying that I don’t want people innovating to enhance education – that would be daft. I’m saying that if you are an edutech start-up or whatever, think about enlisting humans with actual teaching experience – not in a ‘can we have a chat so I can pick your brains’ kind of way, in a genuine employee way. You know, if you value teachers enough to wanna ‘solve their problems’, then maybe you could have some working on your team for real. Better yet, why not spend a few days or weeks working closely with teachers.

Oh, and finally. If you have never been a teacher, don’t take a job in a field that you know nothing about. You can only lie for so long. Teachers are smart. We’ll smell the snake oil and make you look like the charlatan that you are.

PBL: Managing the Mushy Middle

Yesterday I had the privilege of spending the day with 30 extraordinary educators. It was our second ever Project Learning Swap Meet and it truly was wonderful. The focus for this Swap Meet was on the ‘how’ of project-learning whereas the first Swap Meet had been focused on the ‘what’ and ‘why’. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about when I say Swap Meet, you can read about it here.

The day started in the expected disorganised style that is characteristic of me and Lee … we were creating ice-breaker activities as we drove into the city and once we made it to the Powerhouse Museum we rushed to set up the space and harass the very generous Peter Mahoney into printing off some stuff for us. It was pretty chaotic by the time the Swappers started showing up, haha. I found myself out the front unintentionally and crapping on in a poor attempt to entertain those who were on time whilst we waited for those who were not. I did manage to think up a vampire metaphor for people’s PBL experience to match the stickers I had to give out: the newbies (no projects attempted yet) are ‘no fangs’, the amateurs (one or two projects attempted) are kittens with small fangs and the pros (those who do PBL full-time) are fully-fledged vampires who ‘bite’. It made me laugh, anyway.

Well as soon as most people had arrived, we started discussing what everyone felt they still ‘need to know’ about project-learning. Everyone pretty much agreed that what was troubling them/challenging them was the process of running a project. Mike made the insightful point that many know what happens at the beginning (the project launch and the DQ) and the end (the celebration of learning) but many are still fuzzy about what happens in the middle. I nicknamed this the ‘mushy middle’ and it became a repeated metaphor that we returned to throughout the day. It’s great that the talk naturally turned to this, because really that was the focus for the day anyway- managing the process of PBL. The loose driving question that we came up with for the day (which we didn’t return to enough unfortunately), was ‘How can we make the PBL process killer for our kids?’ (Can you tell that Lee came up with that? His is a much cooler adaptation to my original question, ‘How can I best manage the PBL process to support my students’ learning?’)

Before the Swap Meet, I put together a small booklet of my ‘go to’ resources for managing the mushy middle of project-learning. As I said to Malyn today, even though these are resources that I have created and/or used for many projects, different resources work better with different students. It’s always about context – just try something with your students and if it doesn’t work, evaluate why and then try again or try something different. I wanted to share those resources with those of you who might similarly be struggling with the question, ‘How does PBL work day-to-day in the classroom?’. I sense that this concern is mostly to do with managing team-work (which is really bloody hard and I certainly don’t have the answer … just ask my students!) and the nature of assessment. There really isn’t one way to approach either of these issues – as I said above, it’s very much about trial and error, taking risks and being confident to discuss the problems with your students. I know this is very hard to do, but it is necessary to embrace the fact that PBL is essentially a messy process where the best thing a teacher can do is step out of the way and let kids work things out for themselves. Letting go can be very stressful for teachers, but nothing can replace the sense of liberation you will experience once you do, I promise.

NOTE: These resources are not in any particular order … just in case you read into how I upload them, lol.

Goals/Medals/Missions: I’ve written heaps about this in the past. This is a formative assessment strategy developed by Geoff Petty in response to the research of John Hattie and Black and Wiliam. You can google their names and find out cool stuff about assessment if you so choose. I use GMM in three different ways to help support my students’ learning. Firstly, as a daily learning reflection method. Students keep a simple journal in the back of their workbooks where they record their personal goals, medals and missions for that lesson. I don’t use this with all classes, all of the time. Often I forget. I am human. Secondly, I create checklists for the product being produced (poem, performance, speech, essay, story… whatever) with students identifying what must be included. This checklist becomes their self and peer assessment tool and students identify M&Ms at the bottom of the document for the work they assessed. You can download an example here: personal-essay-checklist. Thirdly, at the end of a project, I collect students’ individual project folders and I give them M&Ms for the skills and content I was targeting for that project – e.g. collaboration, presentation, creative thinking, knowing poetic devices, essay structure, narrative techniques etc. Always give more medals than missions – super important tip!!

Team contracts: When I first started doing PBL, I thought these were completely naff. I didn’t use them for years. Now, I think they’re really important documents for my students. Signing that piece of paper means you’ve committed to your team. It means that if you fail to do your bit, your team can justifiably by annoyed and there can and will be consequences. You can get a good team contract from the bie.org freebies section. It’s always best if students create their own contract, of course.

Project Management Log: This is another BIE document that I ignored for years in my attempt to avoid paper in my classroom. Just recently I’ve discovered the power of a management log whilst working with my Year 9 students. It takes time to fill this document in, but it is really worth the time. Like the team contract, it allocates responsibilites to each team member, but it also helps students to become more independent each lesson as they have direction in their learning. It’s as much about time management as it is about role/responsibility allocation. You can get a copy of the project management log document from the bie.org freebies section.

Learning spaces and metalanguage: The best project classroom is going to be a flexible space. I know we don’t all have those rooms with cool bright furniture on wheels, but we all do have access to open spaces like ovals and quadrangles. Make the most of them and get your kids outside when it’s appropriate. A great tip I stole from the peeps at New Tech High is using staircases as presentation spaces – the audience sits on the stairs and the speaker/performer stands at the bottom. This is the type of creative use of existing space necessary for a successful project-learning class. As you know, I think metalanguage is powerful and have adopted the names of spaces used at NBCS, inspired by an essay by Thornburg. You can read about my thoughts on metaphors for learning spaces here.

Project packets: The term ‘packet’ for a bundle of worksheets it so American – we just don’t use it here in Australia. When I say ‘packet’, I mean ‘packet’ in the Aussie sense – a bunch of stuff in a container. For me it’s an envelope of documents. Of course it doesn’t have to be an envelope (I bought plastic document wallets for 50c each at Officeworks), it can also be a plastic tray or a plastic sleeve folder. It is one packet of information per team. It contains only the essential documents required for project success: project management log, team contract, project calendar, project outline and supporting documents to guide them through the inquire, create and present cycles of learning. These stay in the classroom in a central space that students can access each lesson. They don’t go home – if they did they’d never return!

Project walls: A project wall can be physical (an actual wall space in your classroom), or virtual – online somewhere like a weebly, glogster or blog. It is a space for key project elements to be shared. It’s similar but different to the project packet. It keeps students focused and organised but also showcases the learning that has occurred so far. Essentials for the project wall are: project outline, driving question, student-generated ‘need to know’, project calendar, key project vocabulary and the lounge roster (in-joke, lol!).

SOLO Taxonomy: This is just another strategy to help students self-assess and monitor their learning. I’m not a SOLO guru but I know there are heaps of them online, so go find and follow them. Our mate Tait Coles is the gun when it comes to incorporating SOLO into a project-learning-style classroom. I really like SOLO and my students have had great success with it. Their honest self-evaluation can be enlightening and terrifying for teachers.

Punk Learner rubric: This is a piece of genius created by the aforementioned Tait Coles. He created this rubric with his students and passionately encourages you to steal the idea of a punk learner rubric, but to create one with your students instead of just using the one him and his students created. It’s all about context and significance. My Year 11 students used this rubric to self-assess post half yearly examinations – as with SOLO, the results are enlightening and terrifying!

Team work rubric: Similar to Tait’s Punk Learner rubric, this is about students self and peer assessment to start a conversation and reflection about their contribution to team goals etc. I had a great time creating a team-member rubric with my Year 9 class after some students failed to be effective team-members in the previous project. You can download pre-made rubrics from bie.org freebies page which is a great place to start.

Blogging: I think getting your students to start blogging really allows you to follow their individual experience of each project. It’s such a cool way to get into their heads and can be extremely enlightening! My Year 11 students have successfully used the think/puzzle/explore blogging protocol this year. You can read about that protocol here.

Need to Know: This is essentially a list of questions that students decide that they need to have answered. You can use a KWL table for this or just get them to sit in teams and generate a list of five things the definitely need to know in order to be successful with the project. This is a kind of sneaky activity because often you (as the teacher) know what kinds of things they will identify – but that’s what differentiates the typical classroom experience from the PBL experience – it’s about students identifying what they need to know and how they will discover that. I love putting these questions up on the project wall and returning to them each week to monitor learning – students like being able to cross questions off the list and it helps them see that they are learning.

Project calendar: I think this really is a PBL staple. It’s so normal and expected in the ‘real world’ (love that phrase cos it makes me laugh, is a school an unreal world? lol!) that we plan our projects, that we look to the future and organise our time in advance because we want to be successful and know that we need to negotiate time, money, space, people etc in order to be successful. I love the BIE project calendar – you can’t beat it. Download it from the bie.org freebies page.

Rubrics for products: I wouldn’t say that these are essential. After years of doing this PBL caper, I’m kind of getting suspicious of rubrics. I find them too prescriptive and constrictive. But that’s me coming from a place of much experience with using them in the classroom. I personally think that students don’t like using them and they don’t use them well. A check-list is better. If you are going to use them, create them with your students and make sure they are written in student-friendly language. You can use Rubistar to find pre-made rubrics as a model for what you and your students can create. I used a rubric created with my students for assessing rap-battles earlier this year. You can see it here.

Formative assessment strategies: You need HEAPS of these, and really a number of them are in this list anyway. Be creative with your formative assessment – use a variety of online, face-to-face, recorded, team and individual formative assessment strategies to provide your students with feedback on their learning. I wrote a post once asking for people to share their favourite formative assessment strategies – maybe you’d like to add to it?

Will a three-week project on Romantic poetry appeal to Advanced English students?

Here’s a project that might make it possible. There are a range of questions to consider when setting a project like this, including:

– individual or team work?

– how much time should be devoted to ‘explicit instruction’ vs independent inquiry?

– should the teacher ‘model’ poetic analysis BEFORE setting the project?

– will students work hard at the project if they know the only part that is formally ‘assessed’ is the listening task at the end?

What are your thoughts? Would your students take the challenge or demand solely teacher-centred instruction?

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Day 3 at #pblworld

Currently I am on the Texas Eagle train zooming across the US from LA to San Antonio, Texas where I’ll be meeting up with my educator mates at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference (#ISTE13). It’s been an eventful two days since Day 3 of PBL World – let’s just say that it involved 14 hours of driving and a wedding in Vegas (not my wedding, that of my mate Jess Melkman!). This truly is one crazy adventure we’re on!

The last day of PBL World was very different from the first two. It was a lot more student-directed … basically the day revolves around us working on our products, ready for the final presentation – just like our students experience in PBL. The first two days was mostly spent working on our projects through activities facilitated by our instructors (I described these in my posts about Day 1 and Day 2) however the last day we, as students, were much more autonomous, as it should be once we’ve grasped the main skills and content necessary (through guided team-work) to be successful.

The keynote was Ken Kay who is a BIE board member, a key player over at http://www.p21.org/ and CEO of EdLeader21. Kay was organized to speak on the third day of the conference because this was the first day for the PBL Leadership Academy. His message, whilst at times relevant for the teachers in the room, was mostly directed at the leaders who are responsible for supporting teachers and coaches as they implement PBL. I enjoyed Kay’s message that teachers should not simply return to their classrooms and begin to implement PBL. We should take on a leadership role within our schools and wider community – including online communities. PBL teachers need to be willing to inspire and encourage and support other teachers whose students may similarly benefit from a pedagogy that directly engages students in the ‘4 Cs’ that Kay champions – Critical thinking and problem solving, Communication, Collaboration, Create a Community Consensus.

There were times during Kay’s keynote that I felt compelled to tweet my objection to how students were being represented as passive receptacles waiting to be filled with our knowledge about the 4Cs. I think this was unintentional from Kay and that I am quite defensive about young people who I value immensely. In summary, I want students viewed as active agents in their world now, not as future employees and citizens.

But maybe I was dissatisfied with Kay’s keynote simply because it didn’t tell me stories. Being an English teacher, stories are in my blood and strengthen my bones – I sometimes think I am made of stories. This trip Lee has even coined the phrase, ‘It’s all part of the narrative’ to help us deal with things that don’t go as we expected. Our boys chant it like a mantra, lol. So Kay’s failure to include stories of his own experiences as a leader left me feeling hungry for something real and true. A little later as I sat in my Coaching Clinic session participating in the ‘say something’ activity, my mate David Ross (one very important BIE dude who is also very cool and genuine) came and grabbed me so I could meet Ken Kay in person. Funnily enough, Ken and I realized that we’d been chatting on the bus in the morning as we headed in to PBL World. I was feeling kinda awkward cos I’d challenged some of his keynote ideas and thought he’d be defensive or aggressive (I’ve experienced this before and it was very unpleasant – some of you might remember who I’m vaguely referring to here, lol).

Thankfully Ken is nothing short of a remarkable, passionate and pleasant guy who really wants to engage in a true dialogue about education. From my ten-minute discussion with him, I could see that we were on the same page. Ken understood my concerns about seeing students as ‘future somethings’ rather than human beings living and breathing in the present with the capacity to act now. I definitely learned from him that the best way to engage leaders, parents and community is to focus on the 4Cs that students probably already have but need to strengthen and more importantly USE productively in the here and now as well as in their futures. It’s no good trying to engage leaders, parents and community about pedagogy, trust that they trust that we are the professionals who can select the appropriate methods to facilitate and enable young people to use the 4Cs for the good of themselves and their community – local and global. David’s decision to get me to have this dialogue with Ken just reinforces my faith in his wisdom as a BIE leader and teacher. Thanks David and thanks Ken for ‘getting’ me and my concerns as a teacher who too often sees adults treating kids as though they are living in a mandatory limbo for 13 years until they are deemed ‘ready’ for the world.

OK, so back to the rest of the day. Some great protocols and activities were shared by Tim and Charity, once again. As always, I’ll just rush through them for you – each one is definitely applicable to professional learning AND learning in the classroom.

Four square: nope, this is not the check-in app that my hubby so loves. This is an activity that encourages students to demonstrate and refine their understanding of a topic. Tim had us do this activity straight after Ken Kay’s keynote as a bit of a debriefing task. Four large pieces of paper are placed on a big table in the middle of the room (you’ll need quite an open space for this – so maybe outside or in the library would be best, Tim said doing it on the floor works well with students) each paper has a concept or key word on the top. The class is roughly evenly divided into four teams. The person at the front of the team has a coloured texta (marker for those US readers, lol) and each team has a different colour. The facilitator sets a timer to three minutes and then each person in the team takes turns to write a word or short phrase related to the word at the top of the page. So for us we had teacher, leader, vision, practice – Tim said it’s good to have opposing concepts if you can. The person at the front of each line writes first and then goes to the back of the line and the new leader writes their ideas. This continues on the one sheet of paper (each team has their own paper, I hope this makes sense, lol!) until the time is up. When the timer goes off, the teams revolve so as that each time is front of a different piece of paper and then the timer is reset and the activity repeats. If you can’t think of a new idea or word to write, you can put a star next to someone else’s idea that you think is awesome. My mate TJ came up with the idea of star stickers and limiting the number stars each student can use – this forces students to think of something original to write. When every team has written on each paper, then the teacher facilitates a class discussion about what has been written and these pieces of paper can then be posted to the walls as stimulus for students’ writing etc. Loved this activity!

Say something: This is just plain clever! When you want student to read an article that is lengthy and you want them to take time to think critically about what they’ve read, this is the activity for you! Tim gave us a lengthy article about PBL and every three or four paragraphs it had the words ‘SAY SOMETHING” printed in between the next paragraph. When you reach that point, you chat with your partner for a couple of minutes about what you have just read. If someone is a faster reader, they should take notes or write a couple of thinking questions whilst they wait to discuss. At then end of the discussion, the pair record one or two key points of discussion that arose from the paragraphs they read. I enjoyed this activity immensely as it made me put into words what I was thinking about the article – it didn’t hurt that the article was super validating regarding my ideas about PBL enabling and empowering young people to act now in their communities, lol.

Critical Friends Protocol: this is, I believe, a kind of ‘official’ BIE protocol for PBL. As in, I think they coined it but I’m not sure. I’ve always associated the idea of critical friends to BIE and it once again reinforces why I think their method of PBL is superior to others … it values the process of feedback in learning about pretty much everything else. The critical friends protocol is essentially a teacher protocol for refining project (a very cool process that was experienced by the those attending the PBL101 course) but I use the idea of it with students when they’re working on individual products. It means that although they are working towards an individual goal, they are still appreciating the importance of team-work in the guise of feedback. I just love the term ‘critical friends’ as well – I tell my students that we all want critical friends, they’re the friend that will tell you if your bum looks big in your pants or if your breath smells like garlic, haha. You can check our the critical friends protocol on the BIE website.

To end our time with Tim and Charity, we all created posters of our mission statements and action items. We posted these to the walls of the room and then participated in a Gallery Walk where we gave warm and cool feedback in the form of ‘I likes’ and ‘I wonders’ on Post-It notes. I received so much positive feedback and really useful constructive feedback that I got a little teary, I’ll admit it.

I ended up leaving PBL World a little early because of a nasty headache and missed the Ignite Sessions which is a bummer because I heard they were awesome. I also had to miss out on the last two days of PBL World because of my detour to Vegas (which was awesome and I have no regrets, no regrets) … the things about this conference (which truly isn’t a conference at all, it’s like a PBL love-in with hundreds of new best friends) is that you don’t want to leave and when you do you feel sad and suffer withdrawal, lol. You wanna come back. And next year, after lots of saving up and threadbare clothes, I probably will!!