PBL

Loving the homestretch: meaningful work and active engagement

Oh, these crazy days of May! As sure as the weather gets warmer, our students get antsy, lose their focus and challenge our well established rules and expectations. Attention spans wither and distractions bloom. But thanks to the engaging nature of PBL and student choice, I love my classroom in May.

Although my students know the year is almost over, they are (for the most part) fully engaged in meaningful work. They have invested weeks (even months) into final projects, and they know that due dates are right around the corner. They are proud of the work they have done and eager to see it all come to fruition in a completed, published form.

So instead of battling distracted students and misbehavior in May, I have the pleasure of circulating as they work, answering questions, admiring their progress, and enjoying the beauty of students blushing with pride as they show off their best work.

My 8th grade English students are putting the final touches on their magazines, a project that allows them to pursue a topic of interest to them, while also building their skills in essay writing, graphic design, media, advertising, target audience, and long-term project completion.

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Overlapping with the publication of their magazines is the completion of their digital portfolios, where they reflect on the work they have done this year, highlight their best pieces, and add symbolic images. Students spend the final class days presenting their portfolios to the class.

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My favorite part of their portfolios is the final piece: a gratitude slide, where students represent their journey with one final symbolic image and thank an adult on campus for their impact on their lives. Middle schoolers can be a bit self-absorbed, but with just a little prompting, they can see and appreciate how the adults in their lives have affected them. And it is through these final slides that we see not just the appreciation of teachers, but also counselors, administrators, campus supervisors, coaches, office and cafeteria staff. My students are fortunate to have so many inspirational role models across our campus:

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How do you keep your students engaged in meaningful work during these final, crazy days of May?

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It’s beginning to look a lot like #NaNoWriMo!

nanopostcardThe first time I introduced National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo) to my 8th graders, I was terrified. One of my teacher friends had said, “They’ll run screaming from the classroom in tears!”

Some students did later confess to a brief moment of panic (“I almost lost my lunch!”), but the end result was resoundingly the most powerful and successful writing project I have ever seen in my classroom. So before you click away in fear at the words “novel writing,” let me share what NaNoWriMo is and why you should offer your students this literary challenge.

  • what it is: according to the Young Writers Program, NaNoWriMo is “a fun, seat-of-your-pants writing event where the challenge is to complete an entire novel in just 30 days. For one month, you get to lock away your inner editor, let your imagination take over, and just create!” According to me, 8th grade English teacher, NaNoWriMo is the best writing project I have ever seen my students tackle, and it includes writing process, community, strategies, revision, and publishing. So how does NaNoWriMo turn students into enthusiastic writers?
  • challenge: we know that challenging our students to aim high can motivate and inspire them, but who would think challenging them to write a novel in a month wouldn’t just terrify them? I don’t think my typical student dreams of writing a novel, but here’s what I discovered: given a meaningful challenge, plus resources, support and lots of time to write, students will write with enthusiasm.
  • student ownership: my students do their best writing when they own the genre, topic and final product. With NaNoWriMo, students write the stories of their choice. Often they mimic the books that they love to read: dystopian worlds, wizard fantasies, historical fiction, teen romance, zombie gore. With guidance, they choose a challenging yet attainable word goal, allowing each student to be successful while tackling a significant piece of writing. I have spent many years devising clever projects to motivate my students to write, but for the first time in my career students came to class begging, “Can we please start writing now?”
  • online support: my students join the online NaNoWriMo writing community, where they create their own author page, upload a book cover they have designed themselves, share their book’s title, genre, summary and an excerpt, connect with other young writers, compete in “word wars,” track their daily progress towards their goals, and read tips from published authors.  As they encounter the inevitable writer’s block, they learn to jump to the writing community for productive distractions and genuine writing help. Bonus: the online NaNo community serves as a perfect avenue for teaching (and practicing) digital citizenship.
  • publication: one of the most exciting aspects of the Young Writers Program is that Best Linesstudents who successfully make it to their writing goal by November 30 are rewarded with the opportunity to publish their novel, receive five copies for free, and sell their novels on Amazon. (See my own students’ novels for sale here.) But there’s no need to wait until the month is over to start publishing. We publish our work in a variety of ways:
    • sharing one great line on a class bulletin board
    • posting a proud excerpt on the NaNoWriMo site
    • exchanging excerpts in a shared Google Doc
    • Author’s Chair at the end of class: reading aloud from our works-in-progress
    • sharing our work with the community: our local bookstore hosts Author Nights for students who want to read aloud from their completed novels
  • Common Core aligned: while “Common Core aligned” doesn’t really make my heart sing, the reality is that most of us must use curriculum that meets certain standards. Fortunately, the folks at the Young Writers Program provide detailed documentation of how NaNoWriMo does align with Common Core Standards, so if your boss, school board, community members or parents question the value of “30 days of literary abandon,” you’ve got back-up.
  • confidence and pride: I’m certain that the best way to build our students’ self-esteem is to give them opportunities to struggle, work through difficulties, and find their own voices in the process. My students validated this in their enthusiastic responses to the NaNoWriMo project. My favorite comes from Jessie, a girl who had been labeled below grade level in her reading and writing skills, and who was not successfully engaged in her own education:

“I just think this whole thing about writing a novel is really cool. It made me think that a lot of things could be possible in the world. I mean I am thirteen years old and I just wrote my own dang novel! How cool is that? I think it is honestly amazing. I loved the writing time and I wish it wasn’t over!”    -Jessie, 13

The actual writing of the novels starts on November 1, but free curriculum provided by the Young Writers Program of NaNoWriMo makes it easy for teachers to devote weeks (even a couple months) of valuable class time to the project. Go here to get started, and check out my own NaNoTeacher site for help bringing this awesome writing experience to your students.

Stay tuned over the next couple months for a few more posts on the NaNoWriMo project: getting your classroom ready, getting your students ready, assessing their work, and publishing. And please share your own NaNoWriMo stories below!

(originally published on edutopia.org)

Get off the stage, sage

I have a confession to make.  I don’t know how to write computer code.  I don’t know how to animate digital art.  And I don’t know how to create 3D architectural designs.

So how could I possibly teach a class in which my students are learning these skills?

If we waited until we had coding teachers and animation teachers and architectural design teachers, our students would never encounter these potential careers until college. So rather than make them wait, I decided to let my 8th graders take advantage of the online tutorials and free programs that allow anyone to teach themselves coding, animation, architectural drawing, and more.

If a 3rd grader can code and sell apps in the Google Play store, and a 17-year-old can become a millionaire by selling his own app to Yahoo, then clearly our students don’t have to wait for teachers to impart knowledge. They can go out and find it on their own. Just listen to Sam, Luke and Dakota talk about the coding journey they’ve been on in my Digital Media class:

It was 1988, my first year of teaching, when I heard that teachers should be less a “sage on the stage” and more a “guide on the side.”  And here we are, 26 years later, and teachers still need to be encouraged to let go of their role as the all-knowing sage and let students learn through hands-on projects and outside sources. With so much available to our students via the internet, why don’t we let them explore and learn through experience?

As Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org, says, the problem facing our future coders isn’t that coding isn’t cool. The problem is that coding isn’t available.  Let’s give our kids a chance to discover coding — whether as a hobby or a future career — but let’s not wait until we have coding teachers and coding classes.  It’s time to find ways to guide from the side. Time to get off the stage, sage.

They need to learn to yearn

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Programs like the Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School inspire me to keep looking for ways to give my students as much control over their own learning as I can. In my 8th grade English classes, students choose the novels they want to read, the genres of writing they want to tackle, and the topics they want to research. But it wasn’t until I started teaching a digital media elective class that I was able to give my students genuine control over their learning. I built a resource website and loaded it up with project ideas, program suggestions (almost all of them free) and links to video tutorials so that students could choose and learn on their own.

The result has been a learning experience for all of us: my students, as they learn to make use of so much freedom; and me, as my role as teacher transitions to one of resource, coach and guide.

As one would expect, some students thrive in this environment. They find what they’re interested in, search out resources to learn more, and take off. Other students jump from project to project, learning a little about one, a little about another. And then there are those students who struggle with the freedom. They shrug their shoulders, say “I dunno,” and are listless and bored without someone telling them what to do.

I’m pretty sure, though, that I need to gently push them to search out their own interests, take advantage of self-teaching resources, and create products of their own design. How else will they some day make decisions about high school classes, college majors, life hobbies, career options? Making all the decisions for our kids, whether it’s which sport to play or what to do in their free time, robs them of the opportunity to learn how to take charge of their own learning and their own lives.

A typical class for my digital media students starts with me sharing project ideas or tutorials, and then we pull out the laptops and off to work the students go, some continuing a project, some starting a new one, some solo, some in partners or groups. Here are some projects-in-progress this semester…

Lindsey uses an online tutorial to create 3D animations with Blender:

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Ryan plots his computer game, first on graph paper and then with AgentSheets:

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Andrea designs her own info-graphic resume with re.vu:

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Chris crafts a 3D sculpture with Sculptris:

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Jolene uses a Wacom tablet and SketchbookExpress to create drawings of her favorite characters:

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Hands are hard, especially backwards and knuckles:

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Jolene is also building a digital portfolio of her art work:

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T.J. and Isabella use Gimp to edit Minecraft stacks:

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Ernan works on a how-to-draw movie; Ian helps to get the camera angle right:

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Danielle uses SketchUp, a 3D architectural modeling program, to design a Japanese garden :

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Dakota, Sam, Luke and Greg have formed their own company, each taking on a specific role in the development of an app game. They have been teaching themselves how to code so they can build their app from scratch:

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Molly explores cartooning with SketchbookExpress:

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James films Miguel’s sleight-of-hand to make an intro short for our school news show:

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Sara uses WeVideo to make a book review movie for her English class:

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Domenic works on a movie to submit to the first White House Student Film Festival:

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Simon adds a car to his computer game that he is programming with the help of Alice:

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One of the best outcomes of my kids-in-charge classroom is that my students experience failure in a relatively risk-free environment. They have time to learn from their mistakes, revise, start over and abandon projects without the threat of a failing grade intimidating their learning.

In reflecting on his first movie, Jacob said, “I had to fail over and over again before I got it right.  I’m really proud of how it finally turned out.”  And when I told Dakota that he and his team of coders would need to document their journey, he said, “It will be full of our failures!” How often do kids smile when reporting on their own failures?  Dakota has learned that failures have been an important part of the learning process that is getting him closer to selling his own app game.

How do you give your students opportunities to learn to yearn? Are they choosing what to study? Or how to demonstrate their learning?  I would love to hear below how you put students in the driver’s seat of their education.

 

 

 

PBL conquers spring fever

One more reason to love project-based learning: as the weather gets warmer and the kids’ minds wander to summer, my students stay focused, working hard to complete projects that are due at the end of the semester.   Of course one reason they continue to work so hard in spite of rampant spring fever is that their semester grade depends on their performance on these projects.  But I know they are also working hard because they are engaged in meaningful work of which they are very proud.

This is how we stay focused and learning at the end of the school year in my 8th grade English language arts classroom:

The Magazine Project: my students have been writing, editing, designing, formatting, and printing their own magazines since February.  Along with learning to write academic essays, they are also building their word-processing, graphic design, and new technology skills.  Each student’s magazine centers on a topic of his/her choice, which helps them stay engaged in this semester-long project.  The final product is a glossy, multi-page publication that looks like a professional magazine.  The students glow with pride when they turn them in, and very few fail to complete the project.

Online Portfolios: rather than assigning a paper portfolio of my students’ best work, this year I taught them to build online portfolios using Weebly.  Not only does this digital project capture their interest, but it teaches them to create an academic portfolio that they can keep, add to, revise, and improve until their senior year of high school, giving them an application-ready portfolio worthy of sending to colleges.  The 8th grade work they post on their portfolios this year probably won’t make the cut four years from now, but the process engages them in an activity that builds their digital media skills while giving them real-world experience they can use throughout their academic careers.

Children’s Books: we ran out of time this year, but in past years my students have ended the spring semester by writing children’s books for schools in Uganda.  In addition to the writing and publishing skills gained from the project, my young teens are exposed to the poverty and lack of educational opportunities faced by children in another country.  I see their eyes opened and hearts broken by these innocent victims, and the book project gives them a very real way to make a difference in their lives.

Once the projects are complete, we spend our last couple class days of the school year sharing each other’s work.  It’s so much fun to thumb through the magazines and children’s books, and check out portfolios on the LCD.  And I’m pretty sure they enjoy that a lot more than wading through worksheets and gagging over grammar.  Uh, yeah.