Monday, September 23, 2013

The Secret To Doing PBL in a Real School

OK, so I got your attention and you came to read this because of the title of the post. Well, to be honest, if you understand PBL and the inquiry process there isn't any secret to making it happen in a "large comprehensive middle school" like mine.

And I can tell you what needs to be in place to have successful inquiry and the pbl process happening throughout your school. Why am I so confident? Because we are heading in the right direction at my school.

No, we aren't there yet. As a matter of fact there are only between 10% and 25% of our teachers who are comfortable with pbl and the pbl process. After this week all of our core content teachers will have been pbl trained. But only a handful will be running projects next week.

Before I discuss why that is I want to give you three reasons why I believe you can do it.

1) Collaboration is King -  We, as a district, are pushing collaboration as a key component to successful teams and schools.  During the week we have all of our core content teachers meeting with me a minimum of once per week for planning. Teachers are using Google Docs and are discussing content in their meetings. They aren't discussing the latest football game or an upcoming concert.  That's for times outside of the school day and/or at happy hour.

2) Backwards Design is the Norm - We use a curriculum guide called CSCOPE that gives our teachers a framework, including a pacing guide, for curriculum planning. We look at each of the unit tests and the standards being covered in those tests. We take time to see the verbs in the standards and how each question is worded. We look at how our school and our district performed on the previous year's standardized tests. We look at screening data for math and reading.  We put that all together and we plan out a unit. Then we get together and discuss the week that is coming up. We look at what standards will be covered and what small group activities will be held each day.

3) You Can't do Small Groups if Big Groups Don't Know How to Act - We spent the first four weeks of school, in every content class, creating an atmosphere of learning. We taught our students what is expected when a teacher is working with a small group of students. Most (not quite all, yet) students know that when the teacher is working with students, the teacher is not to be bothered. They don't ask questions. They don't ask to go to the bathroom. They don't ask where a handout or a web page is located. They don't interrupt the instruction. Period.

When teachers are working together and are planning lessons using a backwards design process, then good things will be coming from the teacher in the classroom.  When students can be self sufficient so that teachers can work with their classmates, good learning will be happening in the classroom. When the teacher is sharing good stuff and students are learning good stuff and the students are getting their needs met through small group instruction, then all of the members of the class are ready to operate as a PBL classroom.

Start with the end in mind? You bet.  Allow for inquiry and student led learning? Yes. Most of our teachers have never planned and executed a project in their classroom. But when I hand them a Project Planning Form and they realize that all of the systems we have in place are there to help make running a project an easy process, then they will feel better about this thing we call PBL.

We are in our second year of bringing the PBL process into our school of nearly 1000 students and 50 teachers.  We have added 1:1 iPads this year. We are implementing new processes for planning and backward design. We are even putting in a positive behavior plan. There are so many new things that many of our teachers are ready to snap from the stress.  But we're going to be OK. Our teachers are going to do this because we are all in this together.

Most of our teachers are not "doing PBL."  But students are grouped in the classrooms and teachers are working with the groups. Teachers are writing driving questions for each of the teaching units. Teachers are keeping the end in mind. Teachers are even thinking about products that can be created in the teaching units.

Don't tell them, but they are almost "doing PBL." I'll work on getting them to realize this later. I'm enjoying their success right now.