October 5

STE(A)M vs Humanities: Does PBL apply to both?

Ginger Lewman is a dynamite speaker and workshop guru in the STE(A)M and Makerspace arenas. Check out her blog when you get the chance! I have yet to participate in one of her workshops, but can envision the energy and the “doing” going on as she leads students of all ages through a project. In many people’s minds, the idea of science, technology, engineering, and art all being “adaptable to” or even “led by” projects is reasonable.

I, on the other hand, am way more comfortable over in the Humanities house. History and Literature, yes! Some people have difficulty envisioning these topics being project-based. How do we learn all that content? What about commas and 5-paragraph essays? (Who ever uses a 5-paragraph essay in real life anyway? Especially one written in 25 minutes?) What about the names and dates of the many [dead white guys] of history? This must all be taught in a traditional, text-based, lecture-driven format, right? Wrong!

I was a participant in a  recent Twitter #PBLchat (Tuesday evenings at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time for those interested) where the topic was whether AP courses can be successfully taught using #PBL. The first question we were asked was “What common misconceptions about PBL ( &/or AP) lead many folks to believe you can’t use PBL in an AP course?” Dayna Laur replied “Content coverage is the common misconception. Memorization has traditionally been key. New tests changes have challenged that!” I said “[a common misconception is] PBL, cannot cover required content for Ss to do well on the AP exam.” “Misconception=>PBL is too ‘fluffy & fun’ for AP” was Theresa Shafer’s reply. “There is such a focus on content and strict time constraints” was Tammy Estes Fry’s reaction. Similarly, Jason Reale said “Not enough time to cover the content and do PBL.”

So, if we PBL practitioners believe these are misconceptions, what is the reality of  the learning necessary for students to do well on an AP exam? More generally, how can we effectively use PBL in the Humanities?

Dayna Laur’s book Authentic Learning Experiences tackles this question head-on. Two points she makes have stayed with me. Dayna emphasizes the importance of making PBL inquiries authentic. What does this mean? In a 2006 editorial in the Journal of Authentic LearningAudrey Rule writes that there are four characteristics which are regularly found in authentic learning experiences: “real-world problems that engage learners in the work of professionals; inquiry activities that practice thinking skills and metacognition; discourse among a community of learners; and student empowerment through choice.” In contrast to this definition, “projects” have often been make-work in disguise. “We have a project to make a poster…” “You will re-enact [dead white guy’s] life.”

The other point that struck me from Dayna’s book is that inquiries must be relevant to the students. The best real-world inquiry may flop if the students cannot relate to it.

Which brings me back to [dead white guys]. No student, regardless of ethnicity, cares about [dead white guys], unless he/she can develop a connection. So, why do we insist on portraying history as a series of “important” names and dates that consists of [dead white guys] students don’t identify with? We need instead to make it alive and relevant to them.

Our Meliora students are currently reading Genghis: Birth of an Empire, a historical novel of Genghis Khan’s early life and rise to power. Although their experiences are far removed from Genghis’ life on the steppes of Central Asia, the students are caught up in the adventure of the story. They can also identify with being a child and a teen. At various junctures, we ask our students what their reaction might be if they were in Genghis’ shoes. This requires them to reflect, and to compare the realities of life in Genghis’ place and time with the realities of life today, in the United States. We  also challenge our students to identify leaders they are familiar with, both past and present, who exhibit leadership characteristics similar to Genghis’. This helps them begin to identify patterns in history, and to come to their own conclusion that the past is relevant to today and tomorrow.

Although we do not teach an AP course, we can nonetheless draw parallels between what we do at Meliora and the expectations of the AP World History course. There are five themes which thread throughout the AP course. We  have extensively discussed two of the themes as we have journeyed through Genghis Khan’s early life — “State-Building, Expansion, and Conflict,” and “Development and Transformation of Social Structures.” We have not done this through a dry textbook and rote memorization, but rather through discussions around an exciting adventure story which we use to make connections between Genghis’ time and our own. We have also done in-class research when students lack clarity on a certain question or topic.

Another AP World History objective, as defined in the course overview,  is to “[l]earn to apply historical thinking skills including the ability to craft arguments from evidence; describe, analyze and evaluate events from a chronological perspective; compare and contextualize historical developments; and analyze evidence, reasoning and context to construct and understand historical interpretations.”

Our students accomplish this every year with the multiple projects they develop. For each project, they are required to define and argue a thesis, which they support with extensive evidence gathered from primary and secondary sources. Their argument takes the form of a written narrative, a spoken narrative, or a dramatic performance. To ensure relevance, we allow broad voice and choice in their topic, as long as they remain within the National History Day theme.

Throughout the project development, which consists of many iterations, we constantly challenge the students with questions like “why?” “how do you know?” “what about…” “where is your evidence?” The students ask each other the same kinds of questions during peer reviews. The requirement to think critically, and to communicate their understanding does not end in the classroom. At each increasingly competitive level of History Fair, the students must defend their projects before a new panel of judges. Not only does this provide them with a significant public audience, but it requires them to clearly communicate what they have learned.

An example of a project that substantiates PBL as an effective methodology for the Humanities has Michael Jordan at the center. Not surprisingly, the student who created this project is passionate about basketball. He started his exploration of the topic with the knowledge that Jordan had an enormous economic impact on Chicago because of his ability to draw fans to Chicago Bulls games. The student also knew that the popularity of Jordan’s merchandise gave a boost to the national economy. What the student did not understand was Jordan’s impact on urban renewal near the United Center (stadium). Prior to launching into this project, I don’t think he knew anything about urban renewal. However, due to his research into the topic, and in order to properly develop and support his thesis, the student had to broaden and deepen his view of the “Jordan Effect.” His project went on to become a national contender at National History Day.

You don’t need to take my word for it. National History Day reports that

“[i]n 2010, Rockman et al, an educational evaluation firm based in Bloomington, Indiana, finished a multiyear study that analyzed the impact of National History Day on student learning… NHD students outperform their non-NHD peers on standardized tests in all topic areas — including reading, science, and math, as well as social studies…NHD students learn 21st Century college- and career-ready skills. They learn to collaborate with team members, talk to experts, manage their time, and persevere…NHD students are critical thinkers who can digest, analyze, and synthesize information.”

August 13

Students looking for feedback – PBL and Environmental Science

I have been using #PBL with high school students to explore topics in Environmental Science. Two students have just completed an investigation into the Emerald Ash Borer and its devastating impact on ash trees in the United States. They would love for a broad audience to give them feedback on their work, which may be found at The Emerald Ash Borer: Tiny insect, huge impact. Please leave your comments on this blog post.

Thank you!


Based on your feedback, the students modified their website to reflect a more complete picture of the impact of the Emerald Ash Borer. Please visit their site again, as they would appreciate further feedback. They have also set up a Twitter account (@SayNotoEAB) and broadcast the link. They would appreciate a lot of re-tweets.

Thank you!


July 21

Connected Learning MOOC (#CLMOOC) Make Cycle #6 – The 5-Image Story

The theme of the final week of #CLMOOC 2014 is “the 5-image story.” As I browsed the examples provided by the CLMOOC team, I began to ponder how authors decide on the stories they are going to tell, regardless of the tools they use. I know for myself, the story needs to reflect something about myself; things/people I value, ideas that intrigue me, pursuits I enjoy, etc.

So, for my “big” 5-image story project, I decided to reflect an activity that has been integral to my life for the past several years. My 15-year-old son has become serious in his pursuit of basketball. Once a “dabbler,” he now plays with a travel league, and spends time off-season improving his skills and conditioning. He and I have spent hundreds of hours on the road, attending practices, games, and tournaments.

I have never played team sports, and am clueless about many of them. I know something about basketball, at least the basic rules. The nuances… not so much. So, I began this journey with my son as an observer and sometime cheerleader. I still fill those two roles, but have also acquired a better understanding of the game, and have established some fine friendships with other parents.

Therefore, I felt that highlighting basketball would reflect a portion of my everyday life, my love for and support of my son, and a sport that is relatively prominent in the landscape of our country.

basketball collage

Interestingly, I posted this collage of five photos in the #CLMOOC community, and the universal response was that my photo story emphasizes the vertical aspects of basketball. Wow! I did not consciously focus on this, so maybe my “mind’s eye” was guiding me?

In verbal terms, I was identifying some components of a basketball game: the huddle, the tip-off, individuality, moving the ball around the court, victory. I was trying to identify the dichotomy of individuals seeking to differentiate themselves, whilst also contributing their unique capabilities to a team effort.

In some respects, I find this illustration parallels the American culture. We identify with this nebulous ideal of “American,” including flag-waving and cheering on our favorite sports teams, while simultaneously asserting our right to be individuals, with divergent values and goals.

As I evolved my collage of five still photos into a more fluid story, I encountered the frustration of technology-that-does-some-good-things-but-not-others. I first tried ThingLink, but quickly became frustrated. I need to consult with my CLMOOC compatriots to figure this out. Maybe the lesson for me as an educator is to ensure I have a basic understanding of any of the tools I ask my students to use.

Then, I turned to Zeega. Initially, I was under-impressed, but continued to experiment. I figured out I could superimpose audio using Soundcloud, and that I could use Flickr images and Giphy .gifs to enhance my story. The chosen elements are layers that can be added, removed, and “faded out” with a few keystrokes. After a bit of a learning curve, I began to get the hang of the tool, and started to have fun.

The beauty of the many technology tools available to even the novice user is that there is instant feedback on one’s creation. I went through several iterations of adding elements, deciding I liked them (or not), then modifying my Zeega to correctly reflect the story I wished to tell. I chose and discarded elements with abandon. This was not a methodical figure-it-all-out-and-put-it-together, but rather a free-flowing trial-and-error approach.

My final result (http://zeega.com/167226) is not “perfect,” but overall it depicts my most important ideas about the sport of basketball. I would love to hear your reactions!

May 22

Tutoring, Mentoring, and PBL

This week, I participated in the Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference in Chicago. It was the 41st occurrence of the semi-annual conference, but the first time I attended. Organized by Daniel Bassill, it brings together people from many different organizations, and offers the opportunity to learn from each other, and to create new network connections with other people that participate in the tutor/mentor world.

Daniel and I “met” each other during a Deeper Learning MOOC, at which time he invited me to present a #PBL workshop at the conference. I must admit I initially had some questions as to whether/what attendees at this conference would like to learn about PBL, or at least from me, since I have limited experience in the tutor/mentor world.

After perusing the Tutor/Mentor Institute website, and after reflecting for awhile, I concluded that PBL applies to disadvantaged youth perhaps even more than others. These young people are struggling to feel empowered, to be recognized as capable, and to have control of their lives. The PBL model can be applied to a wide diversity of activities, not only those considered “academic,” so can be used in pretty much any environment that provides support and encouragement as learners seek to attain authentic, real-world goals.

So, I took the plunge and agreed to present a workshop on PBL. Dan and I interacted a few times about the conference, how many copies I should make of materials, etc. I also checked the registration list, to try and get a feel for the audience. Nonetheless, given I had no previous exposure to this audience, I felt unease as I marched in. What did this audience hope to learn? How could I engage them to the fullest? How could I add value?

At the beginning of my workshop, I asked each person to introduce themselves, and to state their purpose in attending this particular workshop. I was thrilled with the eagerness the audience expressed to better understand how to apply PBL to their work with young people; in after-school programs, in classrooms, in young-adult life skills training programs. Many already recognized that PBL provides authenticity and real-world value.

I especially appreciated the last segment of the workshop, when participants brought their questions and problems to the group, and the thoughtful responses they received. There was strong evidence of 21st-Century skills – communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity – in the way the group interacted. This group of committed adults will undoubtedly teach those skills to those they mentor.

To add to my elation, the keynote speaker during the luncheon was Eric Davis, the founder and director of GCE High School, in Chicago. This is a PBL school; a large percentage of the students come from disadvantaged circumstances. Eric stated that the school has ties into 200+ organizations that the students work with to acquire hands-on, real-world experience. Among the statistics on their website are: “College Acceptance Rate: 100%, First Choice College Selection: 100%, Graduation Rate: 100%.” This school is high on my list of places to visit!

So, thank you Dan, for inviting me into your world! I look forward to further collaborative efforts, and to ongoing #deeperlearning.


April 25


I am in the midst of my third MOOC. At the time I registered for #DLMOOC, I had already registered for History of the Slave South, offered through Coursera. My current foray is into Design Thinking, offered by Iversity.

The three courses are highly divergent in their content, presentation, and instructor-student interaction. As I reflect on my reaction to the various courses, I am trying to determine how and why I feel differently about them.

History of the Slave South is a modified version of a University of Pennsylvania course, presented by Professor Stephanie McCurry. It was the most traditional of the three courses. There was a syllabus, with precise deadlines (for those who wanted to receive a certificate of completion). There were lectures to watch (with short quizzes integrated), readings (mostly primary source materials), and weekly online discussions on a specific topic.

There were also five writing assignments over the ten weeks, which required careful analysis and synthesis of course content. In addition to writing, each student was required to peer review other students’ work, and evaluate their own work. The review process was structured; there were particular aspects of the writing that were evaluated (e.g. “what is the writer’s thesis?”).

Some students complained loudly about the peer review process, declaring that it was too much work. I thought it was a great aspect of the course, as I learned something from each of my peer’s commentaries on my work. I also learned from my peers’ analysis of the same materials I had read, given their insights were typically somewhat different than mine.

I thoroughly enjoyed History of the Slave South, as Professor McCurry is a knowledgeable and articulate lecturer, and the topics we covered were fascinating. The online discussions were lively, although I followed few of the thousands of posts. I also found it interesting to gain the perspectives of students living outside of the United States, of which there we many. This course fed my intellectual self.

DLMOOC was presented in a dramatically different fashion. Each week, there were a number of “readings,” although some of those were actually video presentations. There were online discussions through G+. Online panel discussions were scheduled once or twice a week, which could be “attended,” or watched later, in the archived course materials. Optional assignments were also defined, some of which I did, others I did not.

Early on, a variety of sub-groups formed, based on specific interests. The discussions that developed in these groups were free-form, with abundant sharing of information and ideas. Due to participating in some of these groups, I have expanded my #PLN, since several participants have expertise that will help me grow professionally.

The facilitators’ attitude, which they announced periodically throughout the course, was that participants were free to come and go as they wished, with no obligations, and no guilt. My personality being what it is, I couldn’t be so laissez-faire in my participation, but I certainly had weeks when I was “behind,” and times when I only gave cursory attention to the materials.

One of the (optional) assignments each week was to tweet about a particular topic. I thought this was clever; a simple, effective way to raise awareness in the Twitter world that DLMOOC was happening, and to give a glimpse into some of the topics we were exploring.

I derived a great deal of knowledge and enjoyment from DLMOOC. The formal presentations, and the less formal discussions, added to my existing knowledge related to PBL, and many other topics in education. The free-flowing format encouraged participants to share, including articles, experience, links to resources, etc. The fact the course materials and discussions are archived indefinitely adds to the appeal – I can return at any time to deepen my understanding. This course fed my professional self.

I’m in the throes of Design Thinking, and am struggling to enjoy this MOOC. The format of the course is short lectures, many of which are followed by short quizzes. For each lecture, there is also a discussion question. Most of the lessons also include additional (optional) reading material.

As I reflect, I think there are two major reasons for my discontent. The first is that the concepts that have been presented so far are ones I already know something about, so minimal #deeperlearning is happening. I am bored.

The second reason is that the discussions seem relatively shallow, and often esoteric. Maybe that is what causes me the most discomfort – although I greatly enjoy intellectual discussions, endless navel-gazing does not excite me. So, this course and I may not be a good fit. Nonetheless, I will finish it, because giving up is bad form, both for my sense of self, and in my role of modeling #lifelonglearning to the  students I interact with. This course is not feeding my artistic self.

As I reflect on what I liked and did not like, I wonder how today’s young students would react to these courses. I find I need to constantly put myself into their shoes, to remind myself how different their reality is from mine. Their world has always had the Internet. Living without some sort of hand-held technology device (smartphone, iPod, tablet…) is inconceivable to them. These are two glaring differences between their childhood and mine, but there are many others. This reality provides a good argument as to why we should include students in the planning process. We need to invite them to discuss with us what and how they think they should learn!

April 15

Deeper Learning #6

As I wrap up my reflections on #DLMOOC, I ask myself “what’s next?” In the immediate term, I have registered for the Design Thinking MOOC starting this week. After all, we lifelong learners need to always be learning, right?

I am also planning to visit Aaron Maurer’s  school for one of their PBL exhibitions. I hope to have a few minutes to pick his brain while I am there, to glean ways to improve my practice. He appears to be an educator that spends a lot of time experimenting with new tools and toys, so I want to learn how he approaches that (and finds the time!).

I have also volunteered to present a workshop on PBL at the Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference that Daniel Bassill organizes. I admire the work he does, tirelessly finding ways to help “youth and volunteers connect in well-organized, mentor-rich programs.”

I am fomenting ideas for additional PBL courses we could offer at Meliora, and am designing an Environmental Science course right now. For some time, I have been thinking about how to structure a course that examines mythology, progressing from classical through to urban mythology. What threads/themes do they have in common? What social/cultural aspects influence them? Do they always have a Hero? And, speaking of Meliora, we really need to revamp the website.

I am also mulling over ways we could offer online courses. How could we make that environment effective? What would it take to generate the passion and creativity exhibited by the student panels we watched/listened to during #DLMOOC?

In the middle of creating and editing this post, I figured out the easy way to insert links. So, I headed back and updated my older posts, to insert links everywhere a reader may want to reference to. A simple example of how learning is an iterative process. My first posts were adequate; I have been able to add some sophistication with #deeperlearning. At some future date, I am sure I will acquire further knowledge on how to use this tool to better or more fully express myself.

Oh, yes, I also need to schedule time to get my certification as a Google Educator.


April 10

Deeper Learning #5

Social media! Apps! Online “dailies!” All that technology jargon!

I began #DLMOOC with a Facebook account, a Twitter account I rarely used, a LinkedIn account that is current, and a Pinterest account I use for curating (mostly non-academic) project ideas. I had a vague realization that there were other social media platforms, but they were just a buzz in the background.

Over the course of the MOOC, I added Storify and Feedly to my social media vernacular, and just began experimenting with Feedly. I will try Storify soon, as it looks like a great tool for curation. I tried about.me, but found it requires a larger learning curve than I am willing for right now.

My #DLMOOC peers also introduced me to a number of apps that I have installed, but not yet played with. These include Magisto and Tellagami.

I have been intrigued by the several “dailies” that show up in my Twitter feed. Essentially an online newspaper, curated from articles, videos, etc. accumulated from across the web. My personal preference is the concise publications that focus on a particular topic or special interest of the editor/organization. Once I have a flow well established in my social media routine, I will check paper.li out more thoroughly.

The most significant immediate change I have made in my social media presence is in my consistent use of Twitter. I use it to share articles I find of interest, to participate in certain scheduled chats, in particular #PBLchat on Tuesday evenings, and to communicate with a few of my #DLMOOC peers.

I have also been mulling over the question “what’s the point?” I am sure the reasons for diving into social media vary, but for me it has proven to be an efficient way to browse the MANY articles of interest that are posted across the Internet. It is also a good way to broaden my PLN, or Personal Learning Network. A nice summary of what a PLN is, and its value, can be found at:


April 8

Deeper Learning #4

Another great concept I took away from #DLMOOC is related to academic mindsets. We had a week devoted to this topic, identifying the differences between a fixed (intelligence is static) and a growth (intelligence can be developed) mindset, and how to foster a growth mindset among students, AND in our own life and practice.

Eduardo Briceño, of Mindset Works, further refines the growth mindset into four learning mindsets:

A Growth Mindset: “I can change my intelligence and abilities through effort.”
Self-Efficacy: “I can succeed.”
Sense of Belonging: “I belong in this learning community.”
Relevance: “This work has value and purpose for me.”

Several aspects of the PBL (Project-based Learning) methodology foster these mindsets, beginning with relevance. Students have voice (express their opinions and desires) and choice in the real-world topics they tackle, and in how they transform their learning into a product they present to a public audience.

As students plan their projects, they develop a growth mindset, starting with taking responsibility for identifying the effort and skills required to complete their project. Project development is typically an iterative process, wherein the students’ work is reviewed at intervals, and they receive feedback from their peers and facilitator (teacher). Each iteration results in improvements, and also reinforces the idea that effort results in change of intelligence and abilities.

Projects are often implemented in small collaborative groups, thereby developing and reinforcing the sense of belonging. Each group member has specific tasks they are responsible for, and their individual work contributes to the overall quality and success of the project.

Self-efficacy shines during the public exhibition of completed projects. I believe, when at all possible, the audience should include not only other students, teachers, and parents, but also community members who are knowledgeable and passionate about the topic(s) being exhibited. What better way to reinforce to students that their learning has relevance?

I realize my tone here is serious. I really care about this topic. Mindsets, and the way PBL is an effective methodology to employ to develop the learning mindsets that allow all students to flourish.

The full Eduardo Briceño article may be found here:


April 7

Deeper Learning #3

During the #DLMOOC journey, I learned several things I plan to add to my practice. The one that hit me the hardest was a post by Justin Cook, a leader at the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools. He states “In order to make culture, we must immerse ourselves in culture with the right postures: critically evaluating and cultivating the cultural gifts history has given us and creating new culture that is inspired by a vision for flourishing.” The overall take-away for me is that schools should have a “story” that guides the students’ learning. Each student weaves strands into the story narrative with the work he/she undertakes. Traditionally, we have often called this focus a “mission statement,” but I much prefer the idea of storytelling.  Peoples (at least until recently) passed many aspects of their culture to future generations through storytelling. Once schools identify their story, they will be able to develop a culture in support of it.

I will be reading Justin’s post (and others he has done) many times, because I glean something new out of each re-reading. A link to the full post is below:



April 5

Deeper Learning #2

Back in December (2013), I began to receive tantalizing e-mails from the #deeperlearning people, inviting me to enroll in DLMOOC, “a massive open online course to learn about deeper learning.” Wowza! In my journey of self-discovery, I have become cognizant of the fact that lifelong learning is a value I hold very dear. Whereas many of my friends, family, and colleagues were very happy to shelve their last learning materials as they left college, I love nothing more than exploring new topics that I know nothing/little about.

So, I jumped in, registered, and promptly received acknowledgement, “Welcome to Deeper Learning 101, a survey course brought to you by High Tech High, Peer 2 Peer University, MIT Media Lab with support by Hewlett Foundation and Raikes Foundation.” A consortium of heavy hitters in the education reform arena!

More deeper learning opportunities soon presented themselves. The course was run on the Google Plus (G+) platform, complete with “communities” and “hangouts,” two tools I had not yet worked with. Fortunately, G+, as is typical with Google products, is user-friendly and intuitive.

Within a short time, the number of registered participants in #DLMOOC exploded, my first opportunity to feel overwhelmed! The final enrollment counted 1,854 people. How was I going to keep track of that many people? How was I going to keep track of all the POSTS?

The facilitators quickly began to assemble the gang into sub-groups, based on special interests. I joined the PBL (Project-based Learning), Lifelong Learning, and Independent Schools sub-groups, as they were of most interest to me.

In time, the DLMOOC forums became habituated by only a small number of the participants. Of those, I identified a few personal favorites, whose posts I read attentively. I added my voice to conversations where I felt I had value to add. The once-overwhelming MOOC structure had become a community (or more aptly, communities) where a wealth of learning was taking place.