Project Based Learning

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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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.

 

 

 

Fighting for the dream, continued

This was my very first blog post, written in 2011, in response to my growing frustrations and fears over NCLB.  I had met and spoken with Stephen Krashen, who encouraged me to start blogging, to get my voice of experience out there for others to hear.  Although our ongoing battles in education may not compare to the historic (and ongoing) struggles for civil rights, we do know that inequality in the schools contributes a great deal to inequality in opportunities: opportunities for higher education, income, job security, health care, etc.  While NCLB may be on its way out, the Common Core and its Smarter Balanced Assessments are on their way in.  And so the struggle  continues…

Ten years ago [now 13], President George W. Bush, in whose symbolic shadow our children now shiver, signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of children who had been seared in the flames of educational injustice. It promised a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their inferior education.

But ten years later, many children have indeed been left behind. Ten years later, many children’s minds are still sadly crippled by the manacles of under-funded schools and the chains of standardized tests. Ten years later, many children still live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Ten years later, many children still languish in the corners of American schools and find themselves an exile in their own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

When the architects of our education system wrote the magnificent words of every state standard and the questions and multiple-choice answers on every state test, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all children, yes, all children of America, would be offered a quality, rigorous education. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her children and schools and teachers are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its children and schools and teachers a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of education is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of learning and the security of education.

I know that not all of my students come from homes where parents have read to them, fed them nutritious meals, engaged them in healthy activities, sat together at the dinner table and spoken with them.  I know that many of my students come to my classroom from places of great trials, homes that are cold, kitchens that are lacking family meals, walls that do not hold shelves of books, conversations wanting in warmth, support and a rich and varied vocabulary.  But I continue to work with the faith that I, a middle school teacher, have the power to make a difference in the lives of my students.

Let us not wallow in the valley of No Child Left Behind.  And even though we face the difficulties of mandated textbooks and standardized tests, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of the American school system.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that although all children are created equal, and although all children have the right to a quality education, this does not mean that all children should have the exact same books and the exact same lessons and the exact same assessments.”

I have a dream that one day children will learn to read by reading literature of great variety; that teachers will read to them from great books; that children will choose books to read that ignite great passion and that inspire them to read even more; that reading will be made a pleasure for all children, not a task, not a race, not a recitation of meaningless sounds and chunks of meaning.

I have a dream that all of my students will one day attend a school where they will not be judged by the bubbling of a test answer but by the unique demonstration of their talents and abilities, of their knowledge and understanding.

I have a dream that one day even the state of California, a state sweltering with the heat of overflowing classes, sweltering with the heat of one-size-fits-all curriculum, sweltering with the heat of annual assessments that tell more about a child’s parents’ income than about the child’s learning or the teacher’s teaching, yes even the sorry state of California will be transformed into an oasis of authentic assessments and project-based learning, a refuge of writing workshop and reading for pleasure, a sanctuary of art, music, woodshop, cooking, theater, languages, film making, journalism and life-long learning.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, in Washington, D.C., with Education Secretary Arne Duncan having his lips dripping with the words of “merit pay” and “data-driven” — one day right there in Washington, D.C. teachers will be able to join hands with one another as sisters and brothers working together to build the best schools for America’s students based on the knowledge and experience and wisdom and practice of the teachers who know children and curriculum better than any fly-by-night CEO whose only education experience is playing basketball with the students of his mother’s after-school tutoring program.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every child’s accomplishments shall be exalted, and every so-called-researched-based scripted curriculum shall be made low, the cash-strapped schools will be fully funded, and every library will be staffed with a credentialed librarian where the shelves will overflow with books; and the glory of a quality education for all shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is my hope, and this is the faith that I go back to my classroom with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the benchmarks of despair a student-designed project of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of API and AYP into a beautiful symphony of respect for the teaching profession. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to read together, to write together, to experiment together, to design, build, create, perform together, to stand up for education together, knowing that all children will have the opportunity to learn one day in classrooms fully funded where respected professionals are empowered to do their work.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of America’s children will be able to learn with new meaning, to write for understanding, to read for personal growth, to explore their interests and feed their curiosities.  This will be the day that my dream of enthusiastic, joyful schoolchildren taught by empowered, professional educators in classrooms stocked with books and paper and technology and dreams and opportunities and joy will become a reality for all.

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.