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!



Publishing student work

Right at this very moment I am uploading Year 9’s collection of short stories to Blurb. OK, that’s a lie… right now I’m getting my password reset for Blurb because I’ve forgotten it… The last time I used Blurb was this time last year when I was publishing my Year 10 ‘Wild at Heart’ anthology of personal essays. You can read about that book here.

This year I’ve had greater success with some class projects than with others. I think that’s pretty normal, but it can still be anxiety-inducing for the teacher who wants everything to be a success… erm, me. Year 9 have been my most successful group when it comes to fully-realised projects that make me proud. Look, to be honest the kids probably don’t even know that we’re doing anything different in our class to the other classes, lol. In their mind what we are doing is just what happens in class… nothing special. Of course, I think it is special. Why? Well every project (call it a unit of work, I don’t really care) has had some meaningful audience and purpose. That can be a real challenge when you teach SIX different classes from SIX different years. This year they have filmed and performed poetry for their peers, run a 2 hour workshop on Shaun Tan with year 5/6 students, performed Romeo and Juliet in front of their year group and run an exhibition on ‘choices’ for a range of guests from inside and outside of the school. Right now (yes, it’s actually uploading as I type – totally changed my password, woot!) the collection of short stories they wrote for three classes of students (two from NZ, one from Aus) is being uploaded to Blurb. Their writing will be published in a book that each of the schools will receive. How cool is that? The students of the primary schools devised the characters and plots based on the genre chosen by the year 9 writer. It’s taken a while to get to this point – lots of revising – but it’s great to get here and I’m glad I didn’t give up!

I think that we can have grand plans for the projects we create, but sometimes it’s hard to achieve those goals for a variety of reasons. The one thing I’m taking form this year (a year of frequent failures), is that you need to give each class at least one chance to be published. Last Friday I set up an exhibition of year 10 images of war at our local library in preparation for Remembrance Day that was on Monday just gone. They worked really hard on those images and it was pleasing to be able to give them a public audience outside of the school. Year 8 had their poems exhibited in the same library earlier this year. Local institutions like libraries are really under utilised resources – we can totally capitalise on them for our projects!

Right now year 9 are working on their ‘Documenting the World’ project and will be making documentaries on local, national or global issues they feel passionately about. They will be sharing their documentaries with the world via YouTube (easy online publication) and with their peers at a screening in our school hall. They really have had a great year. And why not? Year 9 is one of the most fun years in high school, don’t you agree?

UPDATE: The book has uploaded and is available for download as a free eBook or purchase as a hard cover! You can see my Blurb bookshop here:

The transformation of a project from one year to the next

Tonight I’ve been working on redesigning a project that I ran with my year 9 students last year. It was a wonderfully successful project that saw my class connect with a class of year 2 students for whom my students wrote fantasy stories. The lovely little year 2 students came up with ideas for my students’ stories – such as plot, characters and settings. It was a true delight watching my students read their completed stories to their year 2 collaborators via Skype.

This year I have a different class of students and therefore my project needs to change. I asked them the other day what genre they most enjoyed and got quite a range of responses. I had the vague idea that the most popular genre would become the focus for our project, but then realised that this would be squashing my students’ voice and choice. After all, it’s not necessary for all of my students to be learning about the same genre. So, I’ve decided that they can choose to explore whatever genre they love the most. This meant that their audience needed to be more diverse than just year 2 students. Thanks to Twitter, I have enlisted five year 6 classes to be collaborators with my students via edmodo. The classes are from Australia and New Zealand. I know my students are going to be thrilled that their stories might go ‘international’!

Below you can see the original project outline, and the new project outline. They are similar, yet different. And yes, I’ve been naughty and not added any outcomes or other stuff. I kinda can’t though, cos I don’t know what the students will learn yet, lol! Really excited to launch this project tomorrow with some fun drama games. Will keep you posted!



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 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 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 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 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?


A project about conflict, C.O.D., The Voice and Romeo and Juliet

Yup. You read the title right. I’m going to allow my Year 9 students the opportunity to study all four of those topics … but of course, being the evil genius that I am, what I really want them to learn about is Romeo and Juliet. OK, that’s not entirely true. I don’t simply want my students to learn about Romeo and Juliet – why would I? Yes, it’s in the syllabus that my students are required to study Shakespeare in Year 9 BUT what I want for my students is a rich, revelant learning experience that will challenge them and their way of thinking about the world. Certainly Shakespeare provides us with a chance to examine ourselves and our world, but it can be so hard for young people to get past the complex language and unfamiliar context of Shakespeare’s plays.

My solution is simple: draw out of Shakespeare what is relevant for my students. My colleagues chose the concept ‘conflict’ to focus on – in the past I have looked at tragedy and love, both equally relevant to my 14/15 year old students. So conflict it is … and what type of conflict do my students engage with daily – family, friends, teachers, school, rules, adults in wider society – but it is also inherent in the texts they engage with, specifically video games and reality television. So that’s how I got to my driving question for this project: What can ‘Romeo and Juliet’ teach me about conflict that I can’t learn from C.O.D. and The Voice? I chose not to use the generic terms ‘video games’ and ‘reality television’ because it sounds boring for kids – I want to hook them in to the question and make it real world … and I know they will all have encountered both texts in some form in their lives.

The product for this project sounds boring – a personal essay. I don’t think it is as boring as it sounds – I’m a big fan of personal essays. Basically it’s an argument essay with a strong personal voice (including anecdotes, rhetorical questions, jokes, descriptive language) … it can whatever you want, really. Like a rambling blog post that ultimately makes a point about a topic. It should be fun to see what my students have to say about the parallels between a popular text from the early 17th century and popular texts from the early 21st century. They also have to give a mini-performance of a scene that they feel powerfully portrays ideas about conflict – I am envisioning a lot of teams recreating the death of Mercutio, lol.

I accidentally launched the project by allowing the students to watch all of ‘Shakespeare in Love’. Whilst I know it’s not historically accurate, they really enjoyed the film and it gives them a neat little introduction to the play and Shakespeare’s world. This week I will give them the project outline (see below) and start watching the Luhrman film version of R&J. We will read key scenes relevant to our focus – conflict – to examine the language and dramatic techniques used by Mr Will to represent different types of conflict on stage. As they read, students will complete one section of a baby lotus and then jigsaw with other students to complete the other three sections. I’ve done this before with films and it’s been really successful – they use these notes when planning their personal essay. My class is mixed abilities so I think this project provides opportunity for all students to succeed at their own level.