March 15

Preparing for the adult world through the use of #PBL

I have an admission to make. I am living vicariously through my #Meliora students. A group of five teens has been crafting a documentary project for Chicago History Fair, with the goal of advancing the several steps that will take them to National History Day. This competition asks students in grades 6-12 to convincingly argue a thesis, a skill many students develop only in college.

The Meliora team’s self-chosen topic (a central #PBL tenet is to give students #voice and #choice in deciding what topics they #deepdive into) shines a spotlight on Colleen Moore, a larger-than-life, yet nearly-forgotten woman who was a top salary-earner in silent films; a significant influence on the evolution of American society’s views of women through her “safe” flapper lifestyle; and an investor maven, unheard of in her time.

Through a fortuitous series of events, the students located Moore’s grandson. I urged them to ask him for an interview, the goal being to have him provide them with additional evidence to include in their project. His initial reply to their email request was pretty abrupt, with edges of ice. He pointed them to a variety of existing sources that detail her life and influence, and said he would need to understand their “line of questioning” before granting an interview.

Fortunately, the students had already found and analyzed the sources he cited. I encouraged them to continue to pursue the interview, and suggested maybe his coldness was due to uncertainty around what questions they wanted to ask. I suggested they send him their interview questions, so that he would understand their “line of questioning.”

After receiving their list of questions, he agreed to a telephone interview, which was conducted by three of the five team members. When they actually got on the phone with him, he was friendly and forthcoming with information, and provided very intimate views of Colleen Moore from his viewpoint as her grandson.

It was apparent during the interview that the three student interviewers were feeling nervous. Notwithstanding, they did a stellar job, and obtained the information they were seeking. After they concluded the call, their relief was palpable, followed by laughter, and “That was great!’ They felt exhilaration related to the fact that this hard task they had never tried before had been a success.

This success led to increased confidence in reaching into the adult world. During a recent class session, the team made a series of phone calls to other potential sources in an effort to deepen their understanding and analysis of their topic. Some of the calls led nowhere, others bore fruit. As one of the students remarked, “This is fun, talking to all these people.”

This. Is. What. We. Want: Students. To. Learn. #RealWorld. #Skills.

The students’ project has advanced to the next level of competition), and they are currently in the process of improving it, based on judge feedback, readying themselves for the next level of competition. This iterative approach is integrated into #RealWorld design processes, another way #PBL helps prepare students for the adult world.

February 8

‘twixt and ‘tween childhood and adulthood (and how #PBL builds maturity), Part 2

A few moments after the agonizingly drawn-out note-writing experience I describe here, I witnessed (not for the first time!) the mercurial shift of these teens into almost-adults.

Each year, the history students in my #Meliora project-based learning (#PBL) practice create a project to submit to the National History Day (NHD) competition. This year, a group of five students is collaborating on creating a video documentary. The deadline to submit their work for the first round of competitions is eight days away. They have a lot of work to do, as is the case every year about this time, when students realize they are down to the wire.

This afternoon, I sat in on a revision process of the voice-over narrative the students are going to use. The objective of the narrative is to argue their thesis. The quality of their thesis and supporting evidence is what will allow them to advance to the next level of competition. Or not.

The assignment I gave them was to have one student read the narrative aloud while the other students listened. The listeners could stop the narrator at any point and jump in with suggested revisions. My observations:

  1. One student started reading the narrative, and was having difficulty staying focused enough to read smoothly. Another student stepped in to take over the task. The “hand-off” was done with a friendly, positive attitude by both students.
  2. Students were listening intently to the narrative flow.
  3. When students heard something they felt was lacking/incomplete/repetitive, they spoke up immediately and the whole group worked to find a solution.
  4. There was no defensive or argumentative behavior and they came to consensus efficiently.

These are the moments that inspire me to continue challenging students using PBL. In this one activity, which lasted for about 45 minutes, the students hit all of the touchstones of High Quality Project Based Learning:

  1. Intellectual challenge and accomplishment. At the beginning of the semester, they spent weeks researching and defining their thesis. Once established, my persistent question to them has been “how does this narrative support your thesis?” That was a question they returned to throughout their review today.
  2. Authenticity. They had complete choice over their topic, the two constraints being that it relate to Illinois history and that it fit the NHD theme, which this year is “Triumph & Tragedy in History.” This is a requirement of the Chicago History Fair organization, the regional level of entry into National History Fair. Due to this freedom of choice, they have remained highly engaged in conducting research and creating a convincing argument.
  3. Public product. The students will be presenting their work to a panel of judges in a public forum, which raises the stakes and their desire to create a high-quality product. The stakes (the intensity of competition) will continue to raise as they advance levels.
  4. Collaboration. Today’s task was completely collaborative. Throughout the project, they have worked both individually and collaboratively toward a common objective, which is  persuasively arguing their thesis.
  5. Project management. They students have been using Trello throughout the project process to identify, assign, and track progress on tasks. Finalizing the narrative is a task they must  complete before they can assemble the video documentary, so they understand the criticality.
  6. Reflection. They were actively and openly reflecting on the narrative composition that had been done to-date. Throughout the project development process, they are required to reflect on how the items they are researching, the books, images, video clips, newspaper articles, etc. contribute to their argument. They assigned team roles and responsibilities early in the project, and have continued to modify them over time, based on the interests and skills of each team member.

I have every confidence a week from now these engaged, enthusiastic students will have a well-argued, well-edited documentary to submit for competition. Because they care.

February 7

‘twixt and ‘tween childhood and adulthood (and how #PBL builds maturity), Part 1

Today was one of those days I was reminded (as if I could forget!) that adolescents are neither children nor adults, and that they are moving along a jagged path that will bring them to mature behavior ever more frequently. It was also a day that reinforced my commitment to project-based learning (#PBL) as a brilliant pedagogic methodology for preparing students to succeed in adulthood.

As part of our European History studies, we recently took a field trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. In addition to a docent-led tour of the main exhibit, we each experienced a virtual reality tour with Pinchas Gutter, the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. The viewer “walks” with Gutter as he shares his recollections of being transported by jam-packed railway car to Majdanek, a German concentration camp in Lublin, Poland. Gutter continues to tell his story as he accompanies the viewer through intimate views of the gas chamber and shower room where at least 78,000 prisoners (59,000 Jews) were killed.

Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center by Wikimedia Commons shared under a  CC0 Creative Commons license.

Understandably, the field trip had a strong emotional impact on the students. We “de-briefed,” discussing emotions and connections the students felt throughout our visit. I then asked the students to collaboratively write a thank-you note to the museum employee who organized our visit.

What should have been a five-minute exercise turned into a half-hour ordeal. There were discussions about who had the best handwriting. And how the card should be signed. There were laborious analyses of the correct phrasing to use. Finally, the card was done and signed.

Next, I share the grown-up side of these students that occurred a heartbeat after completing the thank-you note.

 

February 4

PBL = Good Business

The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU) recently published survey results collected from business executives (profit and nonprofit sectors) and hiring managers. In the executive summary, they state, “The college learning outcomes that both audiences rate as most important include oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication, and the real-world application of skills and knowledge.” [emphasis added] Furthermore, “[b]usiness executives and hiring managers indicate that participation in applied and project-based learning experiences—particularly internships or apprenticeships—gives recent college graduates an edge.”

The college learning outcomes that both audiences rate as most important include oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication, and the real-world application of skills and knowledge.

The “4Cs,” (critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication) have been embedded in high-quality project-based learning for many years. As students tackle “a challenging problem, an intriguing question, or multi-sided issue,” they engage in critical thinking, looking at the question/problem from many angles and conducting research. Defining possible solution(s) requires creativity; thinking outside the box, prototyping, learning from failure. Students collaborate with others, often peers in a team, as well as with subject-matter experts. As a final step in the process, they showcase their evidence of learning by presenting (communicating) their work to a public audience.

The best projects address real-world problems, and the solutions the students create are presented to real-world stakeholders. These are just some of the ways project-based learning helps prepare our learners for success in their adult lives.

January 24

“There’s a whole lot of talking he’s not doing”

“There’s a whole lot of talking he’s not doing.” This line comes from The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom. A character named Belle is quizzing another character, named Will, about a third character, Lavinia, whom Will has recently visited. Belle is asking what happened during his visit, and she correctly discerns that his responses express only a fraction of the whole truth.

Although there is ongoing debate about exactly how much influence each single component of communication has, it is universally accepted that non-verbal communication is more potent than the words we use. Landmark studies conducted by Albert Mehrabian in 1967 concluded that only 7% of our communication is related to the words we use. Mehrabian asserted the vast majority of what an interlocuteur “hears” is based on intonation and facial cues.

There are many criticisms of the exact percentages, and what exactly Mehrabian measured. However, even the most skeptic critic would acknowledge that nonverbal cues are more important than the words in a message. This particularly complicates communication in the digital world, where much of our communication is through text modes. How exactly should I interpret the “tone” of an email? But I digress.

Educators are typically in face-to-face communication with their students. So what, exactly, are we communicating to our students with our nonverbal cues? What are our facial expressions communicating? What does our body stance say? When the words are positive in nature, is our tone supporting that message?

Just as importantly, are we truly “listening” to our students? When Ashlee says “I don’t care,” what is her body language saying? When Jayden is unable to make eye contact, what is really going on? Are we taking the time to truly understand our students?

In a high quality project, students make their work public by sharing it not only with the teacher but also with each other, experts, and other people beyond the classroom. This occurs both during a project, as part of the product development and formative assessment process and at its conclusion, when the product is shared and discussed with an audience. ~ from A framework for high quality Project Based Learning.

And, what are we doing to help our students build their communication skills? Long identified as one of the 21st Century skills, and also identified by Tony Wagner as one of the 7 Survival Skills, it is imperative we help our students develop their ability to communicate clearly and effectively.

The high quality Project Based Learning framework (#HQPBL) recognizes this necessity, so communication is woven into projects. As students develop their projects, they are called on to communicate with each other, with subject-matter experts, a public audience, and with themselves through reflection. Another reason #PBL rocks!

January 18

Climbing Mountains, Part 1

Yesterday’s Memoir, Biography & Autobiography class was nothing short of exhilarating. We have been reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, and the students and I are enjoying it tremendously.

The students are raving about this adventure story and how they can hardly put it down. One student came to class after reading a few chapters and said, “he [Krakauer] is a walking dictionary. I had to look up so many words.” It struck me that the storytelling must be exceptional (it is) to propel a student to persevere through many unfamiliar words. 

I am always gratified when a mentor text generates such positive response, because students are much more willing to analyze the work. It is easier for them to identify the characteristics which make the story so interesting. These particular students are in the midst of a semester-long narrative nonfiction writing project, and an engaging text such as this one makes it easier for them to absorb the “tips” that will help them in their own writing.

To guide our discussions, we are using an adaptation of the Nonfiction Discussion Sheet detailed in Harvey Daniels’ Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. One of the steps in the students’ process is to create a sketch related to the reading, “a drawing, cartoon, diagram, flowchart — whatever.”

As illustrated below, some students are totally enthused about this part of the process, others not so much. Nonetheless, even the simplest drawing provides insight into something the student got out of the book, especially as they explain their sketch.

      

The most exciting part of yesterday’s class was the passion brought into the conversation about whether climbing Mt Everest was something the students would be interested in doing. Some would, some wouldn’t, and we explored the many reasons why (or why not). As one student described the thrill of rock climbing, another expressed their fear of heights. It is always rewarding when students feel comfortable to show vulnerability.

For me, the most enlightening (and disheartening) part of the conversation centered around the students’ perspective on why climbing Mt Everest, once a topic of high interest, no longer is. More on that in the next post.

January 14

Work Spaces, aka the classrooms we teach in, Part 2 of 2

A “squat, ugly, sprawling” 200,000 square foot structure, Building 20 was designed in a day and built on the MIT campus almost as fast in 1943, to house the Radiation Laboratory, a secret project during World War II. Tim Harford’s story of Building 20 resonates strongly with me.

Just the breadth of ideas that were incubated in Building 20 is mind-boggling. “It was the birthplace of the world’s’ first commercial atomic clock. One of the earliest particle accelerators was also constructed there. The iconic stop-motion photographs of a bullet passing through an apple were taken in Building 20 by Harold Edgerton. It was home to MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club, a wellspring of hacker culture… Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle revolutionized linguistics in Building 20… a young electrical engineer named Amar Bose, dissatisfied with a piece of hi-fi equipment he had purchased, wandered … [Building 20] acoustics lab. There, he revolutionized the speaker and established the Bose Corporation.” [p 94]

One of Harford’s central assertions in Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives is that, in general, our society values tidiness and aesthetic beauty, yet the evidence points to those characteristics as putting a major damper on creativity. He identifies several characteristics of Building 20 that made it so effective, none of which have to do with tidiness.

The disorganized labyrinth that constituted the space was inhabited by a motley assortment of departments and saw frequent re-configurations of the space. Harford states, “[t]his absurdly inefficient way of organizing a building meant that people were constantly getting lost and wandering into places they didn’t intend to go.” [p 96]

“If you ask the veterans of MIT what a creative space looks like, one building comes to symbolize all that’s best at the university… it was known only as Building 20… squat, ugly, sprawling structure… “ [p 92] ~  Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford

This last phrase immediately takes my mind to the Connected Learning MOOC (#CLMooc), an online collaborative community that I participate in. Each summer, this community defines a series of “makes” that participants are invited to engage in.

The makes have caused me to tear my hair out on more than one occasion. Not because someone is dictating what I need to accomplish (quite the opposite), but because I become intrigued by the challenge, and stretch myself to try new tools and technologies. Collaborators in the community act both as mentors and students.

I often encounter #failure, and have to alter my approach, or even totally start over. Additionally, the whole process is often #messy, less than “perfect,” and oh, so much fun! “Making” also broadens my view, and deepens my belief in “failure” as a great teacher.

Harford ends his ode to Building 20 by saying, “… the building’s inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority… to make changes, even messy changes.” [p 98]

Which brings us back to the ownership and agency piece I touched on in my last post. As a #PBL educator, I am accustomed to a lot of chaos. Some of the most creative ideas students have had stemmed from tangential and somewhat off-topic discussions. There has been trial-and-error. And frustration. And disagreement. And, yes, failure. These are all #realworld situations the students are learning to navigate and manage.

Do I ever want to intervene? Yes. And I do on occasion. It is most often the student(s) who request my help, but I also intervene at other time when I feel it is necessary. I don’t offer a solution, but rather ask open-ended questions that refocus the students’ thinking on what they are trying to achieve.

Although my classroom is not Building 20, it is nonetheless developing 21st century skills, including collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and (better) communication. In other words, #Meliora students are learning what the #realworld is all about.

January 11

Why I do #PBL

Sheri Edwards recently posted about how working on hobbies helps instill a desire for #lifelonglearning and a willingness to #struggle. She pointed to #GeniusHour as one way to incorporate student-centered hobbies during the school day.

Absolutely! In my #PBL practice, I put a lot of thinking, planning/designing and #reflection into finding ways to make the academic work the teens do as compelling as possible. I apply the High-Quality PBL framework to my designs. As part of that framework, I offer students a lot of #VoiceAndChoice in how they develop their projects and in how they present their evidence of learning.

I commit to implementing projects that challenge, engage, and support students as described by the six #HQPBL criteria.

Notwithstanding, there are times I get frustrated with what I perceive as a lack of enthusiasm, or a lack of devotion to their work. It is in these moments that feedback from an outside audience reminds me of how capable these students are.

At our student showcase in December, a group was presenting a video documentary. They encountered some technical difficulties related to projecting from a laptop to a large screen. With no apparent anxiety, they persevered in their troubleshooting and soon the video was smoothly rolling for the audience to enjoy.

At the end of the showcase, one of the audience members came up to me and said, “Wow, it’s amazing that they knew how to fix the problem! I would have had no idea where to even start!”

It is true that my students, through regular practice, develop a variety of technology skills. Since they use #realworld tools and apps, and sometimes know more about the technologies they are working with than I do, they become adept at figuring things out. When they encounter #failure, or a product works differently than they expect, they momentarily retreat. Then, they consult among themselves, look at YouTube videos, “ask Google,” and occasionally even ask me.

In other words, they are #problemsolving, one of the “Seven Survival Skills” identified by Tony Wagner in his work on transforming education. It is moments like these that cause me to recommit to the chaotic, messy, exhilarating process called project-based learning.

January 9

Team Formation

In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford discusses heterogeneous vs. homogeneous teams. He cites a 2009 study where college students were given the task of solving a murder mystery problem. Some of the groups were composed of four friends, others included three friends and a stranger.

The groups that included a stranger were much more effective at solving the mystery. 75% of the time, they came to the correct conclusion. The homogeneous groups correctly solved the problem only 54% of the time, while people working individually were successful only 44% of the time.

Interestingly, Hartford writes, the participants in the heterogeneous teams “didn’t feel very sure that they’d gotten the right answer” and “felt socially uncomfortable” [p. 50]. The homogeneous teams “had a more pleasant time” and (falsely) were more confident they had found the right solution. In other words, the team members’ perception of how their team performed was out of sync with their actual performance.

The diverse teams were more effective, but that is not how things seemed to people in those teams: team members doubted their answers, distrusted their process, and felt that the entire interaction was an awkward mess. The homogeneous teams were ineffective and complacent. They enjoyed themselves and wrongly assumed that because their friendly conversation was smooth and effortless they were doing well. Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford, p. 50.

The debate about team formation in K-12 education continues to thrive. In this Edutopia article, Ben Johnson argues both sides, but ultimately concludes students blossom more in homogeneous groups. In 10 Reasons to Use Heterogeneous Teams, Dr Spencer Kagan argues for only heterogeneous groupings.

In education, we often look at grouping through the wrong lens, wondering how effective it will be to put students with different abilities in the same group. My hackles raise with the term “ability,” since it is based on a questionably valid definition (and data) as to what “ability” means. It also assumes a steady state, in other words that a student will always have the same level of “ability.”

One way #PBL (project-based learning) shines is that it accepts (just like the #realword does) that each student has different assets to contribute to a team. When (heterogeneous) teams are formed, the key to success is in identifying which role(s) fit each member of the team based on their unique talents and skills. As they succeed in the given role(s), students develop confidence and a growth mindset, the understanding they have the power to become ever more accomplished learners.

January 7

Unfocused Attention

I’ve been feeling totally unable to stay focused, that my attention divided in so many directions that in the end nothing gets done. In addition to teaching my #PBL classes, I am working on some micro-credentials. My husband and I are also planning a cross-continent move in the next six months. And, since we have lived in the same home for 18 years, there is major decluttering to be done!

Tim Harford, in Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives reassures me that “…having several projects may seem distracting, but instead the variety grabs our attention - we’re like tourists gawping at details that a local would find mundane…” [p. 28]. He further states, “…while we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another…” [p. 28].

Which is perhaps what led to using picture books in my literature and storytelling class this past week. As I document here and here, I’ve been reflecting on how experiences with books and reading at an early age gives kids a huge advantage in their future success in school (and life!). Not only does reading with our children provide them with exposure to and modeling of the reading process, it creates a positive emotional connection to books and reading. As this Washington Post article points out, it also helps them become “empathetic citizens of the world.”

Study after study shows that early reading with children helps them learn to speak, interact, bond with parents and read early themselves, and reading with kids who already know how to read helps them feel close to caretakers, understand the world around them and be empathetic citizens of the world

So, I should not have been surprised when my teenage students expressed such glee when I assigned them close reading of picture book biographies. Perhaps they are also feeling the nostalgia of their younger years, being read to by a caretaker.