Monday, December 26, 2011

Four Posts to Get You Ready (part 4 of 4)

(Part 4 of 4)  You have read and re-read recipes for success in a PBL unit.  You have gathered the standards and you have the scenario ready for the entry event.  You have selected how you are going to assign groups and you have an outline for each day of what you want to accomplish.  What other things do you need to think about?

If you haven't already thought about the skills required to successfully understand the standards you are covering then you need to do so now, before the project starts.  While you are monitoring groups you will see that some students will not have a firm grasp on what you are expecting them to learn.  There will be learning gaps.  There will be misconceptions.  You need to step in a teach to fill in the gaps.  Here is another great thing about PBL - you really can do individualized instruction while the rest of the class is working.

What we will do is get a feel for how many students are struggling with the concept.  Is it most of the class?  Is it half the class?  Is it 3 or 4 students?  If you are noticing half of the class struggling with the concept then you need to hold a whole-group session.  It won't hurt those who do understand to hear it one more time and it may eliminate some misunderstandings that you didn't catch in your walking around the classroom.  If it is just a handful of students you should announce that "in 10 minutes I will be having a workshop on _______ at the front of the room."  You then need to make sure that the students, who you know are struggling, attend.  A simple walk by with a quiet "you need to be at that workshop," should be all you need to do to get that student to the workshop.

The next thing you will need to do is assess the students for understanding.  Just because it's PBL doesn't mean quizzes and tests go away.  If this is a time when you need to have a major test then you need to fit that into your plan.  If it is just a quiz then you just have to remember to give your students time to finish it.  One thing I like to do is have a test over the material being learned during the PBL unit on the day before their presentations.  That way the students will know what you consider the most important elements of the learning and they won't be surprised by the questions being asked of them during their presentations.

A less formal assessment of knowledge can come in the form of a poll or a "ticket out."  There are multiple ways of gathering the poll information from clickers to phone apps to google forms.  Or, you might just have them complete the following sentence stems and hand them to you on the way out of class:  (1)  What I now know about (the subject) is ______________  (2)  What I would like to know more about (the subject) is ______________  and (3) What I am still confused about (the subject) is ________  .    That simple step really helps you plan your next day's work day and workshop requirements.

Something that you may not anticipate in a PBL classroom is students learning things that you didn't know or that you learned a long time ago when you were in college.  But wait!  YOU are the one in the classroom with the most knowledge of the subject matter.  That does not mean that you know everything about the subject matter.  In PBL there will be groups that will go way beyond what you have required of them.  They might just learn something that you aren't comfortable teaching because you've never had to teach the subject to the level they need.  This is when you need to suck it up and say, "let's learn this together."  There's nothing wrong with asking that group to stay after school or come before school or come during your lunch so you can all go over the information together.   That small amount of time will be the most important thing you can do for your students and yourself.

I'll follow that last paragraph up with a word of advice - listen to your students.  They know when a PBL project is working and when it isn't.  They know if you blew it and didn't consider all of the possibilities.  They also know when you have hit a home run and they have not only learned what they were supposed to learn but they have gone way beyond what you had hoped and they enjoyed the learning process.  That's right they enjoyed learning.  Isn't that what you like to do?

Don't you hate boring, meaningless, professional developments?  Isn't it fun to walk out of a PD and say "wow I really learned something and I can use it in my classroom right away?"  That's the same way our students are about their learning.  It needs to be enjoyable.  It doesn't have to be "fun" every day but the students should want to come to class and learn.  That is what makes a PBL classroom so much fun to teach in.  So listen to them.  Ask them for feedback after you finish a project.  Ask them for concrete things that went well or didn't go well at all.  Then, when you get to this point next year, you can either create a whole new project to cover those standards or you can tweak this project so that it is more effective.

There, you are ready.  You will have great days.  You will have not so great days.  But I can guarantee that once you and your students have become PBL learners you won't go back to the old way of teaching.  You, and your students, are about to discover that it is OK to learn stuff.  And, you might just have some fun along the way.  Now roll out that Entry Event and get going.

Four Posts to Get You Ready (part 3 of 4)

(Part 3 of 4)   You've gotten yourself in over your head and you have decided that you are about to do a PBL unit with your class.  Well, how long does it need to be?  How do you start it going, how do you complete it, and how do you give it pushes to keep it going if momentum is lost in the middle?

     Since this is your first PBL unit, you need to be successful.  And what I mean by that is that you need to succeed AND your students need to succeed.  So, I recommend a maximum of 2 weeks for this first project.

     A plan for each day of the 1 or 2 weeks will help you and your students focus on what needs to happen at each stage of the process.  The first day will need to have an Entry Event, the last day you will need to have some sort of presentation and you know that there will be times in the middle where you will have to have direct instruction (what we call "workshops").  Depending on the number and complexity of the standards you are encompassing you may need to plan on 2 or 3 days of direct instruction during this two weeks.  So, we start with 10 days.  We subtract 1 day for the first and last day and let's say 3 days for instruction that leaves about 5 days as "work days" for the students.

     Work days are NOT sit at your desk and play with social media or pull out a deck of cards and play solitaire.  Work days need to have a set product for the end of the day.   This product might be a blog post, it might be a quiz,  or it might be a written list of research that was conducted.  Most students will need guidance and input from you.  Most groups don't automatically have great discussions amongst themselves about the learning process.  They DO have great discussions about a recent sporting event or the latest music.  So plan on walking around the room listening and inserting yourself in their conversations - when needed.  Don't automatically tell them what they should be doing.  Instead answer their questions with guiding questions like "have you thought about ___" or "I wonder if you could _____ . "

     This gets to the point that over half of the time spent in a project will, normally, be in group work.  Group dynamics must be taught.  This is especially true for the first couple of projects of the year.  The students need to know what you expect from them.  They need to know what roles they will fulfill and what requirements there are for each of these roles.   So here are some ways to assign groups that I have used over the years:  (a)  Just a random selection, (b)  Rank them academically and put first with last in a bottom-top rotation, (c) Pick group leaders and have them leave the classroom and select their groups while you work with the rest of the class,  (d) Use the academic rankings to put the bottom  3 or 4 together - someone will have to rise to the top of that group.

     There are many more ways to group.  Just try different things and change them after each project.  Your best groups, with the least problems, will want to be together for the rest of the year.  Force them to work with everyone in the class so that they can see the strengths and weaknesses of every student.  Some guiding thoughts can be found on Jerry Blumengarten (cybraryman)'s site under cooperative learning  and  collaboration as well as on the BIE site and Edutopia.

     You have your plan and you have your group assignments.  Now you need a "hook" to get your students thinking about what they will be doing for the next two weeks.  We refer to this as an Entry Event (EE) or Entry Document.  EE's can come in the form of a written document, a video, a live demonstration or skit, or a "call-in" from an expert via Skype or the phone.  All of the reference sites I've already mentioned can give you suggestions but here is the archive from one of the twitter PBL Chat's we had on Entry Events.

     In my last of this 4-part series I'll cover odds and ends that need to be thought about during any project. By now you are ready to do this and I look forward to hearing from you about how that first project went.  You can do it!  See you in Part 4.

Four Posts to Get You Ready (part 2 of 4)

(Part 2 of 4)  "I don't have a good imagination!"  "How do you get started with PBL?" "Do you have to start with the standards?"  These are all things I have heard when talking PBL with teachers.  And, like writing a letter (or a blog post), it is that first step that is the hardest.

Because you are a good teacher you know what needs to be taught next in your yearly plan.  Therefore you need to keep in mind that the standards that you are planning to teach will need to be covered in your next project.  Simple right?

Starting with the standards is all some teachers need to create great projects.  Others like to think of a potential project and they see what standards can be taught within the project.  This will come down to your personality, most of the time, and will be forced due to the need for certain standards to be taught other times.  What is it that you want to teach next?   If you truly are new to PBL then there is no harm in looking at other project ideas from places like the Buck Institute or Edutopia.

For example, you want to teach the concept of perpendicular lines and the slope relationship in perpendicular lines.  You know that the state standards give you the facts that must be learned, now what?  Well, where do you find perpendicular lines?  How about where floors and walls meet?  How about where there are intersections of city streets?  How about irrigation canals?  Does it have to be something that is exactly perpendicular?  What about light bouncing off of a mirror?  Now you can talk about terms like angle of incidence and angle of reflection.  They aren't in your math standards?  NOW you are seeing the power of  PBL - you introduce a project that has students measuring angles of light and they are learning terms that they will need to know in physics.

Let's run with this idea.  The students start by measuring the angles of light being reflected off of a mirror.  Then they can create the equations of the lines by having the place where the line comes in be the origin of an XY Coordinate System.  And, if they draw a line on the mirror what would be the relationships of the light "line" and the line in the mirror?  Is there anything unique about the equation of the line that bounces right back to the flashlight?  Hey that's a 90 degree angle?  They are perpendicular.  Is there a relationship there between the two equations?

To make this scenario really work the students will need a "Driving Question."  The driving question is quite often in the form of "How does a  _____ do _____ by _____ ?"  So, for this previous question you might use the question,  How does a physicist know that a laser is shining in the right direction by moving the beam along a reflective surface?   The driving question must be something that you can come back to over and over again.  This helps the students answer the "why are we doing this?" question.

I think you get the idea.  You brainstorm ideas that might demonstrate the concept you are wanting to cover.  Then you tweak it so that the students have to know particular facts (your standards) to be successful.  Suddenly you are being asked to teach them how to calculate slopes of perpendicular lines. They have used inquiry and have come up with a level of knowledge they want and you are providing them the knowledge.  It is THEIR knowledge now.  They are using it because they want and need it.

Sometimes this brainstorming works best when you are with a friend/co-worker.  You might even try asking your "friends" on Facebook or Twitter to help you brainstorm.  This might be a good time to start coming to the weekly #PBLCHAT on twitter.  It happens every Tuesday night at 9 PM EST and there are lots of PBL folks on there who are more than willing to help you brainstorm.  Next time we'll look into your first Entry Event and how you will plan groups for your first project.

Four Posts to Get You Ready For the PBL New Year

(Part 1 of 4)  2012 is going to be the year!  You have been thinking about using PBL.  You have been reading about it and/or there's a teacher in your school  using PBL in the classroom.   But where to start?  My suggestion is to treat it like a recipe.  The first thing you will need to do is gather the ingredients and, maybe, read some other recipes about PBL so you know the basics of the process.

Let's give you some places to find PBL methods.  First, let's look at the Buck Institute.  If you are a visual learner then their YouTube channel will be a great place to start.  And, if you are already using Edmodo then I recommend their video about PBL and Edmodo.  But there are other videos from "What is PBL?" to example projects done using PBL.  If you want written help then, by all means visit their Tools Tab for free usable items to help with the PBL process.

Next you can look at the Edutopia website.  On the right side of the page you can join the Project Based Learning Group.  This will give you access to other teachers using or thinking about using PBL. Another good place to find links to information, and a source I go to for information on any (and every) thing education related is Cybraryman's blog.  Jerry Bloomengarten (Cybraryman) is a keeper of the information and he has dozens of links related to PBL.

You have reviewed the process and you know the basics of what is needed.  Let's gather the ingredients.  These are from my Edcamp Plano presentation last Spring:  (1)  Start with up-front planning, (2) Add standards to taste, (3)  Mix in a pinch of imagination, (4)  (optional) Add friends/colleagues,  (5) Fold in experience and, (6)  You may need to add more planning.

As you can see these ingredients are the same basic ingredients that go into a batch of "Good Teaching."  You need to spend time up-front planning because when PBL is done right and you have planned for all contingencies then the process will (almost) take care of itself.  [NOTE:  You WILL have to monitor, monitor, monitor during a normal day in PBL - you can't sit on your butt!]  And, you can't avoid any standards that you are expected to be teaching.  What will help is an understanding Curriculum Department in your school and district.  You may (and quite often will) need to rearrange the sequencing so that the project you are planning makes sense to your students.

Next time we look at some ways to start your projects and look for other posts in this series on grouping, managing groups, and final products.   Bon Appetit!

Maybe 2012 Is The Year

     This morning I opened my laptop and within seconds I was reading a thought-provoking blog post by one of the hundreds of educators I follow on Twitter.  When I clicked on the link I didn't know whether it would be silly, serious, strange, or salient.  But, because it was posted by someone in my circle of "friends" on twitter I clicked that link.  And poof,  I was transported to a learning portal.  

     When I finished reading the post  I went to twitter and tweeted " I love the fact that I can open my laptop 365 days a year and learn things from people here on twitter."  Within seconds a teacher friend from the Dallas area tweeted, " @cfanch i was just thinking the same thing."  And, without leaving my home I could feel like I was sitting in a coffee house discussing the morning news with a friend.

     These people are my friends, my co-workers, my peers, my professors, my students.  They are all of these things separately and all of these things collectively.   I can comment on a post and discuss a topic like I am talking with a co-worker about how we will use it in the classroom.  Then, they can become a subject area expert and I am learning from them as though I am sitting in their classroom.  Without blinking an eye a comment might spark a related topic in which I am the expert.  Back and forth we go teacher becomes learner becomes teacher.

     I have suggested that fellow teachers join me on twitter to no avail.  Yes, there are about 20% of our teachers with a twitter account.  But, I would say that less than half of them are active on twitter.  And, I know of no one who uses it like I do:  for personal and professional growth.

     Maybe this coming year I can get 2 or 3 others to investigate twitter.  Maybe this coming year I can get 1 or 2 to investigate the various "chats" that are so powerful for finding and sharing relevant items of interest.  Maybe this coming year our staff can investigate topics that have been discussed on twitter and which improve what we already are doing in the classroom.  Maybe....(sigh).. but I doubt it.  I've been talking about this for over 4 years and most of them just shake their head and laugh.  But, I refuse to give up.  Maybe 2012 is THE year!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Keeping The Holiday Spirit

     Tonight I am happily home with my family with no sign of student/teacher "stuff" laying about me.  I have just finished A Christmas Carol (with Alastair Sim) and am now listening to KMFA which is doing their annual Festival of Carols.  The tree is trimmed and the lights are hung and it just feels like Christmas.

      In another 11 days I will be turning 54 years old.  Between now and then we will celebrate Christmas day and we will have plenty of family time.  This year, as in the last few years, I will be pursuing something new during the week after Christmas dealing with getting in shape.  Two years ago it was starting a work out regimen at the local YMCA.  Last year it was buying and reading The Four Hour Body followed by a work out schedule including the addition of a vitamin regimen.

     This year's physical plan?  I will be meeting with a woman on the 28th to look into starting Crossfit.  I'm not sure what to expect but I do know I have seen some amazing results from the three women I work with who have being doing crossfit for a few months to a year.  And, unlike many workout regimens, these women really look like they are happy with their crossfit family.

     When you are my age you don't just jump into these workout "fads" lightly.  I sent a LONG email to the woman who will introduce me to the crossfit world.  It outlined the fact that I am about 60 pounds overweight.  I told her I have bad knees and am worried about all of the squatting that takes place during crossfit workouts.  And, I told her my age.   Sprinkled between the lines of woe were assurances that I had completed 5 marathons and innumerable shorter distance races.  And that I played college lacrosse and college ultimate frisbee.  I didn't even mention my 20 years in the Navy and Navy Reserve because, to be honest, it didn't require being in great shape to stay in the Navy for a career.

     So, on this quiet and contemplative night I am glad to be alive.  I'm glad for being with my wife for the last 24 years.  I'm glad for my two kids who are pretty darn good.  And, I'm so thankful that I can do something as crazy as signing up for crossfit.  I may be a fat old guy but I still have the drive to one day fit back into my Navy uniform and to one day run another marathon.  As long as I'm dreaming - I'd like to finish an ultra-marathon.  I think I have the mental toughness to do it.  Now I just need the body weight to make it happen.

    Happy holidays to my faithful readers (both of you) and I hope 2012 lasts for 365 days and next year, at this time, we are getting ready for 2013.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Manor Plays the State Assessment Game

     Today I attended our district's meeting to lock in details for how the state's new End of Course (EOC) exams will effect our students.  We met to discuss key issues concerning how we would convert the scale score to a grade and how (or if) these exams would effect the Grade Point Average (GPA) and Class Rank.

     Before I say anything further I want to say that I was very impressed with how we really attempted to interpret "suggestions" by the Texas Education Association (TEA) regarding these topics.  This was really made evident when we heard anecdotal accounts of what other districts in the area were considering for their answers to the same questions.

     What was frustrating, for all, was that fine line we kept treading between what is best for the district and what is best for our students.  We looked at how tests would be perceived by students.  How students AND parents would view the results of the tests.  And we discussed whether we needed to have the results effect class rank (which lead to thoughts of parental and district law suits over said results).

     The first item of business was to decide how we wanted to convert the state scale score to a graded score to be averaged into the student's grade.  This seems minor but in previous meetings we had, pretty much, decided to no longer award 0.5 credits for completion of each semester and just award 1.0 credit for completion of the entire year.  As for the grading score we had to start with a fictitious scale score because the state hasn't created one yet.  And, each test will have a sliding score along that scale for passing and failing.  By the end of the meeting we had agreed to a set score for the categories of  minimum, satisfactory, and advanced.  What we all agreed to not do is have a graduated scale but one set score for each of the  categories.

     What we ended the meeting with was discussing what the minimum score would be.  We never locked in a value but we are definitely willing to hold our students more accountable to the results of the test than other districts in the area.  One district, it is said, is considering having a score of 100 for a satisfactory score and a 70 for anything below that score.  So, no matter how their students do on the test, they will pass it.  Sign your name?  You passed.  Are you kidding me?  We never came to consensus but let's say we are willing to go below a 70 for scores below that mark on the state scale score.

     An interesting phenomenon occurred as we were in this discussion.  We, as educators, are willing to fight for the rights of those kids in "the danger zone," (just at passing going into the EOC) but we don't always think about how our top tier of students will do on these tests.   We were able to have some good thoughts on how these scores would effect GPA and Class Rank.  We came to consensus that the tests would be included in these two areas but we didn't just gloss it over.  We really took our time considering all of the angles.

     It is worth noting that a definite feel of affluent districts versus less-affluent districts came out of our discussions.  It really seemed to most of us that some districts are doing things in anticipation of lawsuits and are almost daring the state to create mandates that are worthy of bringing forth litigation.  Many of the other districts, like ours, are trying to give a good faith effort to impose changes that will reflect the intentions of the TEA.  We will be ready in January to present our decisions to the school board for their blessings and, come May, our students will have a system in place to convert their score on the EOC exams to a grade that will be averaged in with their other grades for the year in that subject.

     Once more I am pleasantly surprised at how our school district is able to come to consensus while letting all sides present opinions.  I think we can all agree that TEA really hasn't been able to think through with this albatross they've strung around our necks.  But we don't plan on drowning.  We're treading water and moving towards the high ground.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Why Are You Trying to be Like Us?

     Too often I hear "Can you teach me how to do PBL?"  Or, "I would love to be in a school like your school."  But PBL is not the same in every school.  It's not even the same in every classroom in my school.  PBL is a way of teaching that should, no must, be taught by a teacher who is willing to put their own stamp on what is being done in the classroom.

     Now, can PBL be done wrong?  Absolutely.  As a matter of fact it is that fact that lead me to write this post.  Whenever I see a group of teachers learning the basics of PBL I see some who are frustrated and confused.  I feel that many teachers would just like a recipe for success that they can take into their classroom and, poof, they have a PBL environment.  It just isn't that easy.  I would venture to say that all of our teachers are struggling with how they are doing PBL in their classroom.  Some of them are teaching in their 5th year of PBL and came to the school with instruction on how to plan and lead a PBL classroom.  But they are still tweaking their presentation.  They are creating new projects every year.  And they continue to request Professional Development by others, outside of our school,  on how to be a better PBL teacher.

     So, getting back to the original question, yes I can teach you how to do PBL.  As a matter of fact I plan on doing that in about an hour during my Conversation at Educon 2.4 next month in Philadelphia.  If you, or your school district, wanted to pay the money you could attend our district's Think Forward Institute which gives you 4 days of intense PBL training.  Or you could talk with a representative of the Buck Institute to get instruction.  They can point you to some wonderful training.  But I'm here to tell you that the training is just the beginning.

     To be an effective PBL teacher you must hone your skills each year.  You need to be a reflective teacher.  You should be willing to have an outside observer critique your teaching and ask you tough questions.  As a matter of fact if you take PBL out of the first sentence then the rest of this paragraph would just be telling you what you need to do to be a good teacher.   And that's my underlying theme - you need to be a good teacher first.  Incorporating PBL is just another tool in your tool belt.

     PBL is about getting students fired up about their learning.  PBL is about students wanting to delve deeper into a subject.  PBL is about students being able to unlock their creative juices.  And, PBl is a chance for teachers to lead their classes to a place that no one anticipated when they set out on the journey.  It is NOT a culminating "project" where students get to take what they've learned and create something related to that learning.

    PBL is like a recipe that mixes a question to be answered with a set of standards.  The amount of standards that gets mixed may end up being different than what you anticipated when you started "cooking."  You may have been able to make a dense, rich concoction with more standards than you thought could fit into the recipe.  Or, you may have had to cut down on the standards because you realized that the original recipe called for too much of that ingredient.  If that is the case then you will need to incorporate the unused standards into a later recipe.

     It really is just like cooking.  The best cooks know the recipe but are willing to change amounts based upon how things are mixing.   And, you must always be looking at the batter to understand how the end-product will turn out.   This leads to one of the best parts of PBL.  On each day I get to observe learning going on.  Is it going the way I anticipated?  Maybe not.  If things aren't going well then I need to redirect the students in a new direction.  But sometimes they are heading in a direction that will force them to ask to be taught something new.  Even better, the students might learn something that they can teach me.  Now, we are all learning.

     Can I teach you how to do PBL?  That's like asking can I teach you how to bake cookies.  I can give you recipes.  I  can show you where the measuring cups and spoons are and where all of the ingredients are located.  But until you step into the kitchen and put that apron on you can never really start cooking.  When you take out that first batch you are going to taste them.  Is there something you could have added to make them better?  Could you have cooked them longer or shorter?  Could you have adjusted the temperature because your oven is a bit hotter than average?  These are all questions that you will have to answer the NEXT time you cook.  But next time you may be working with a recipe for a cake.  How will these very similar ingredients react to the way you mix them and cook them?
      You should stop trying to be like us and try to be the best you can be.  That may end up being much, much better than us.  And, more importantly you will be like - YOU.