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.


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.



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.



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.


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!



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?


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!!

What did I learn on Day 1 of #pblworld?

I am very happy to be able to announce that I was not disappointed by PBL World. It absolutely lived up to my expectations. The people at BIE are so down to earth, genuine and caring that every attendee is looked after personally. The vibe was a nice combination of relaxed and focused – just my scene.

The day opened with me just managing to get on the shuttle bus without getting to eat breakfast. I may have not gone to bed until 2am the night before and overslept a bit. I did manage to get to ride way down on the back seat in a yellow school bus, so that’s one life goal complete! When I arrived it was just a short wait to register and then it was straight in to the keynote – the very inspiring and passionate Stephen Ritz, an educator from the Bronx and founder of the Green Bronx Machine. Ritz’ story about literally transforming his school through the humble plant truly is nothing short of inspirational. No hyperbole. You have to watch his TED talk to understand what I mean. He advocates for a STEAM approach to education – the added ‘A’ stands for Art, Aspiration, Advocacy. Listening to the swift pace of Ritz’ enthusiastic recount of the rise and rise of his student-led Green Bronx Machine really was a great way to start the day. As I listened to him speak, I took note of some of his general philosophies about education and PBL. Here they are: PBL is evolutionary; ‘I am the conductor of an orchestra, I can’t plan an instrument’; ‘connecting kids back to their inner lima bean’; from 43% attendance to 90% attendance; 100% of graduates attend college or are in paid employment; ‘my favourite crop: organically grown citizens’; ‘the biggest bully in school is junk food’; ‘it is easier to raise healthy children than the fix broken men’. You can follow them on Twitter too @greenBXmachine

After Ritz’s keynote, we all divided up into our selected sessions. I chose the Coaching Clinic for the three days because the alternative was PBL101 which was probably not appropriate for me, haha. The clinic is being run by two BIE’s ‘OG’ or ‘original gangsters’ as they laughingly put it, Charity and Tim. For the whole day they had all 60 of us in the room actively engaged in activities designed to get us thinking about and experiencing PBL strategies and ways to engage others’ in the PBL process. They are really great role models for how to run PBL professional learning – knowledgeable, laid-back but confident.

Since I’m not a coach (someone who works as a non-teaching role and is responsible for delivering professional learning to teacher, often called administrators in the US), I thought some of the activities and information might not be relevant to me. However, I was quickly assured by Tim and Charity that even though I don’t have a formal title, I’m still often responsible for guiding others through their engagement with PBL … which is totally true because I spend so much time blogging about PBL and tweeting about PBL and running workshops on PBL, I guess I can pretend that I’m a coach too! I thought I’d just use some dot points to outline what I have learnt so far (I’m getting a bit tired, lol):

– Chalk Talk Wall: giving students a chance to come up and write on the whiteboard their ideas and questions about a topic or lesson. This can act as a stimulus for discussion throughout the lesson (get them to write on the board whilst you hand out sheets or rearrange desks) or it can occur at the end of the lesson as a type of ‘exit ticket’. Students could put their name under their contribution to assist formative assessment.

– Norms: this is the American word for expectations or values. All schools have these (especially those doing PBEL) but it’s important that you establish class norms when doing PBL. Put these on a slide on the IWB at the beginning of a lesson or have them displayed on a poster on the wall. Make sure you establish these in dialogue with your students and return to them often.

– Need to Share: this is a blank piece of paper or space on a whiteboard where you and your students record things that are important to share for that lesson – like edmodo group codes, reminders etc.

– Traffic Lights: using coloured pieces of paper on table groups so students can quickly communicate that they are experiencing difficulty etc. Red = we’re really stuck. Orange = we’re wondering. Green = we’re good to go! Tim recommended that you let the students play around a bit and flip them to different colours to get you running around the place. This is a fun activity that gets them thinking about you as a support person – that you’re always there to help and will when you can.

– Socratic Seminar: basically these allow you to generate understanding through discussion anchored in a text or video. Like me you’ve probably used this strategy heaps, but Tim and Charity had some great strategies for making it awesome. The group was way to big to do just one seminar, so we were divided and one team went outside. Firstly, we were given a text to read which at the top had three reflection questions and a space to answer them. Putting them at the top of the text meant that we read them first and thus they framed our reading. Then we were given 15 minutes to read and reflect on what we had read. Charity then had us rearrange the furniture so as that we had a smaller circle inside of a larger circle. She then gave us numbers 1-4 with the fourth person given the title ‘Pilot’ – the other three were deemed ‘wing men’. Each pilot sat in the middle and behind sat their wing men. The pilots began discussing the text using a series of question prompts that were projected on the IWB is necessary – these were called ‘connectors’. (One BIE member snaps when her students use a connector – I’d throw them a lolly, haha.) After about five to ten minutes of discussion, Charity asked the pilots to talk to their wing men to get their ideas about the topic and any questions they would like the pilot to ask the other pilots. At this point a wing man might choose to hijack a pilot and replace them in the middle. The pilots return to the middle and continue discussing the text. I suggested that this could be improved by the wing men being given specific roles like question asker, summariser and note taker. Someone suggested that this would be a great activity to do with teachers after they have read a text or watched a video about a new tech tool or teaching strategy. Someone else suggested using it as a problem solving or problem identifying strategy with a group of parents and teachers.

– Connections protocol: this is basically showing a slide with four questions on it and having students give rapid-fire or popcorn-style answers – just yelling them out from their seats. I liked this activity and was really impressed that Charity just waited for ages if no-one responded so the silence was kind of awkward and a teacher broke it with an answer. This felt weird at first but makes sense because one big problem with question asking is that most teachers don’t leave enough thinking time for students to answer.

– 30 second chat: this is a really easy activity but super effective. Essentially they got us to go to the other side of the room and chat with someone we didn’t know for 30 seconds, explaining what we liked/wondered about the text we had read and the activity we participated in. We definitely all spoke for way more than 30 seconds!

– Gallery walk: this is where teachers post their draft projects up on the wall for others to view. Playing some soft classical music creates a ‘everyone be quiet and work’ vibe as the teachers walk around an add post-its to the projects giving ‘what I like’ and ‘what I wonder’ feedback on specific aspects of the project. This was a cool experience and I will definitely be using this strategy with my students when they’ve created drafts for posters, plot structures, designs etc. Really cool.

OK, whilst that’s not all that I learnt, that’s a good list of the main strategies I took away from the day. Take-aways are what are important with professional learning, I reckon – these are the things that you’ll actually take into your classroom. I’ll be using ALL of those! Oh, and the text that we read was great – got me thinking about how I interact with others. I highly recommend reading it if you’re in a position where you run professional learning sessions or if you’re a mentor: What are coaches good for? By Jim Knight. I can’t wait for tomorrow – don’t forget to check out the twitter stream using the hashtag #pblworld.