Inspiring the Writer in everyone

The Window activity was taught to me by Sally Jessup, my close friend and colleague. She had a gift for recognizing in others a capacity that they did not always see in themselves. The Window activity, as she designed it, is a powerful tool for inspiring writing in all people. She understood that writing skills are a constant struggle that many people grapple with, primarily because of their own negative self perceptions regarding their capacity. To understand the value of the Window activity, context is needed regarding the complex challenges that remain mostly uncovered in education.

Writing is a challenge for students. The writing process, particularly revision and reflection, is the elephant in every classroom from Kinder to college. Most teachers say that students need to use the writing process to become skillful writers, but few take the time to teach the craft, or do not know how. Through my teaching career, I’ve discovered that many students do not see themselves as good writers. For some, the fear of writing is nearly phobic.

 

A further complication is that many teachers who teach writing do not view themselves as writers. During some of the workshops I facilitate, I survey the staff: “Raise your hand if you view yourself as a writer?” The number of raised hands has been consistent: 10% or less.

When I worked on my Masters in English, I’d taught three years as a History teacher. Early on my graded papers were returned drenched in red inked corrections. This discovery that my writing was not as good as I thought was sobering. I’m thankful to those professors who (with extended patience) helped me realize I had work to do, and then when I showed a desire to improve–I was going to become an English teacher after all–they set me on a path towards lifelong development of my writing. Disclaimer: the red ink drenching worked for me but could shut down others.

That graduate school experience startled me with an epiphany that has stayed with me ever since: Writing is a muscle that gets stronger with thoughtful practice. Without development or usage, writing skills atrophy. The good news is that it’s never too late to improve one’s writing. Great writers are not born (sorry Stephen King), they work relentlessly and thoughtfully at their craft.

Sally Jessup understood the need for thoughtful practice. She also understood that writing needed to be purposeful and engaging. The Window activity provided the opportunity for all of these factors. A value added is that the Window activity opens conversations with students to mediate their negative self-perceptions as a writer.

 

The Window Activity

I’m including the directions for the Window activity in this link. Before you read the linked file that you’ve just clicked (if you’re like me) or watch the video version, I invite you to learn about the Window Activity by doing it. What follows is an example that I encourage you to experience for yourself. Try the writing exercise after each step. It’ll help you understand the anxiety and the benefits. Let’s begin…

Focus of activity: Celebrating Independence Day

Driving Question: How might rituals for celebration (like Independence Day) strengthen a community or nation?

Step One: Introduction

You are in an empty room. It has no door. The only light comes through the blinds of a single window. In a moment, I will raise the blinds so that through the closed window you will see a scene. Be ready to study the scene.

Blinds

 

Step Two: Brainstorming

I’m going to raise the blind. When I do, study the picture…

Describe what you see. If you run out of ideas from one part of the scene, look at a different section of the picture and continue to add details to your description.

Use the Fastwrite approach

Write without stopping–pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Set timer for 4 minutes. Start it and write. If you get stuck on an idea, look at a different part of the picture for more detail ideas. While you look repeatedly write the word: rituals.

For this activity, rituals is the trigger word. A trigger word relates to the theme or a concept of the activity or project that keeps students thinking about the reason behind the work.

Study the picture below,

        start the 4 minute timer,..

                 and begin writing…Now…

Insert picture through a window.

July 4th 2010 Parade in Cayucos, CA - an exhibition of Americana

Step Three: Communicating through the Senses

I’m going to open the window. This lets in the breeze and other senses. Describe details in the picture using sensory details: sound, smell, taste, touch, and sight. Try to use mostly the senses other than sight where possible. If you like a challenge, try to include many taste details (Note: taste sense is closely related to smell details).

Use the Freewrite approach

You may take pauses during writing to think about how you want to choose words for the sensory detail. Set timer for 6-8 minutes.

Study the picture below

       start the 6-8 minute timer,…

                and begin writing…Now…

July 4th 2010 Parade in Cayucos, CA - an exhibition of Americana

 

 

 

Step Four: Becoming part of the scene

You are being transported through the window and into the scene. Choose your location and role. Write in narrative format as if you are part of the scene. Use sensory details as part of your narrative. Writing in 1st person perspective is recommended. You may use fast or freewrite format for 5-10 minutes.

Study the picture below…

         start the 5-10 minute timer,…

                  and begin writing…Now…

July 4th 2010 Parade in Cayucos, CA - an exhibition of Americana

 

 

The next step is to have participants share their 2nd or 3rd writing piece with 1-3 others. The expressions of pleased surprise at the quality of the writing is common. I never get tired of seeing people having the epiphany that they can write better than they thought.


Please post your writing from step 3 or 4 in the comment section below. It will be great to see what you craft, and how you might use this with others. The excitement and confidence in writing that this activity generates is exactly how Sally Jessup (RIP 2012) had intended. So lets inspire others to discover the writer inside them.

Blinds

Communication = Voice

Student voice in learning is a reoccurring topic for me. At every workshop I do, voice becomes an integrated action item that teachers grapple with. This was the case during my sessions at the PBL World Conference in Napa, CA. Fostering student voice is a critical key to enabling them to effect their learning experiences.shutterstock_97877219

The concept of student voice presented itself in realtime for me with an incident while on my way home from the conference — at San Francisco International Airport’s security line. It shed a light about communication = voice. Or in this case,

communication ≠ voice.

A mother struggled with her 5 year-old son in front of me at the security check. I don’t know why the boy was upset. Perhaps he was antsy or a little cranky. Of course, what 5 year old wouldn’t be antsy from the excitement of an airplane trip or cranky from being anywhere at 5 a.m.? I know that I was tired from getting up too early in the morning.

As the boy bawled, his harried mother seemed to talk to herself about how the 5 year-old’s behavior could repeat itself each time they came through the airport. I wondered what went through the boy’s mind? For him to reacts so strongly with tears, what were his unsolicited thoughts about the “airport trips” or the security line? Could the simple truth be that the mother’s emotions were affecting the son? It reminded me of being a teacher coming to work each day. It’s so important for educators to put themselves into a positive and supportive frame of mind when meeting with students. Students may come to school antsy, cranky, stressed or even upset about baggage from home. So how we treat them can either put them at ease or cast grease on fire. Students respond well to their needs being understood and when their voice is respected.

With the 5 year-old in full crying mode, the mother asked for his backpack. The crowded security line moved slowly as security people shouted reminders about emptying pockets, shoes and belts off, and laptops placed in a separate bin. The noise probably did not help matters for the boy or his Mom. He gripped his backpack, twisting back and forth like a running back protecting the football from a defense looking to force a fumble. Only in this case, there was only the mother. Time must have felt short standing by the conveyor belt–Faces, and some stares, everywhere. Without words or explanation of purpose or need, she pulled the pack from his clinging hands and placed it on the conveyer belt. Watching the bag move away from him, the boy cried harder and tried to grab for the bag. The mother blocked his every move. He seemed to think that the pack was going somewhere without him. In this case, that was partly true. When it disappeared into the x-ray box it seemed like the boy was forlorn. Once through his own security mini-cave, he sought out his pack, fingers clinging to the grill that prevented him from his prize.  Could this entire scene have been avoided if the boy was told what happens to the bag as it traveled into the x-ray box? Would he be reassured if told that he’d be rejoined to it on the other side of the security checkpoint? If his antsy behavior was recognized as a need for understanding and acknowledged as legitimate concern, could his energy been channeled without hard words or silent reproach? Perhaps if the boy was allowed to share his thoughts about the trip and was allowed to help put the bag on the conveyor belt, he might have behaved differently.

In schools, teachers get to know their students. The good teachers use that knowledge to help students to play a constructive role in their learning. Sometimes this feels hard when time is short and students ignore our “authority.” Sometimes it appears easier to try controlling a student’s behavior by denying them their voice as an equal partner in problem solving the issues or collaborating on productive end. Sir Ken Robinson offers a great gardening metaphor about teachers nurturing students:

 

Unfortunately, there are some adults who knowingly press a student’s buttons, which escalates negative drama until the young person has a predictable explosive reaction.. Yet the resulting work is much more difficult and can spin widely out of anyone’s “control.” Everyone loses in that situation

During the Differentiated Instruction workshop, the participants explored how students’ lives outside of school become important data for supporting them in the classroom. One elementary teacher shared a story about one of her students. During work she noticed that a boy was not paying attention. He was drawing pictures that depicted anger towards himself and his home life. When she tried to engage him into the work he was unresponsive. She then asked him, “What would you like to do right now?” He wanted to learn about legends. So she focused the lesson on legends. The boy actively participated with the rest of the students, and the learning objectives were still met.shutterstock_97781975-1

Crisis averted.

Allowing the student to have a say in what he needed was a critical awareness. Also powerful was the teacher’s adaptability and openness to foster the student’s voice to bring him into the learning. Think of what future ripples of effect that could come from that experience for the boy, and the unspoken message to the rest of the students.

Communication = Voice

But only if the relationship matter…

Hip Hop Genius Innovates Education

PBL World 2013 is meeting the highest expectations as conference that redefines thinking about learning. Today’s keynote, Sam Seidel, talked about how the business of education can be re-invented, and he showed how it’s being done.

Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius, shared his life’s passion for Hip Hop, and how he combines that passion with engaging students into curriculum. How? They communicate through the language of Hip Hop messages and products intended to move people to take action. Now some would say, “Creating rap songs to demonstrate content is done all the time. What’s the difference.” If I’d not seen Sam’s examples or heard him tell his stories, I probably would be saying the same thing. Having students write rap songs to tell content, has seemed to be over done, unoriginal, and most of all lacked any real purpose than to provide an alternative means to express traditional school work. But,…

Sam Seidel talked about an amazing school in St. Paul, MN called the High School for the Recording Arts (HSRA) where students create music — based on content knowledge — to make a difference in the world.

Here’s an example of a project the students did for State Farm Insurance about education. The work was connected to an English course. This is part of a campaign called 26 Seconds where every 26 seconds a student drops out of school.

The Other Side by The Groove

Wishing on Stars by Molly

The school exemplifies what it means to educate students and not be fettered by chains of…

“I don’t have the resources…”

“My kids can’t do this…”

“I have standards to cover…”

” ________________…”

Sam Seidel’s message was a wakeup call to all educators that a key to education is to innovate learning opportunities so that students can succeed. He gave three guiding ideas: Make project units real world so that the work has real value to others; the work is real to students, not just playing school by doing assignments for its own sake; and that the work be relevant for today’s needs.

The only obstacle to making this type of experience happen are the ones that we as educators put in front of students. It’s time to change that. Begin with a new beat…

To learn more:

High School for the Recording Artists – Student Voices – School History

Sam Seidel – TwitterHip Hop Genius – Article by Suzie Boss

Differentiated Instruction through the 8 Elements of Project Based Learning

On June 20th, I’ll be presenting at PBL World on Differentiated Instruction (DI). As I immerse myself into that process, I thought this would be a good time to make several posts in the theme of DI. What follows is a way to kick things off…

Project Based Learning (PBL) is an efficient structure for Differentiated Instruction (DI). Here is a breakdown of suggested means to differentiate within the 8 elements of PBL. Additional references are at the end of this document.

1.     Significant Content
Scaffolding content and skills based on students’ readiness is important when differentiating content. The Project Teaching and Learning Guide is a necessary tool for breaking down the concepts and skills learners must acquire. Based on this analysis, teachers design scaffolded lessons for supporting learning in case students do not succeed with the 1st or 2nd attempt.
Suggested strategies:
Tiered activities, Think Dots, Graphic Organizers, media that represents content differently, RAFTs, Homogenous study groups, Guided Reading, Mini-Workshops, Multiple Intelligences (such as Robert Sternberg), Readers Apprenticeship

2.     21st Century Skills
Skills such as Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Innovation are important learning tools as well as global skills. Effective teams help each other grasp content and think critically in a thoughtful manner. Assessment should be a varied mix of approaches such as written, oral, and media-based. Evaluations should include feedback from the students about themselves and each other. These practices support development of 21st Century Skills, learning content, and foster more accurate outcomes.
Suggested strategies:
Teaming heterogeneously and homogeneously  jigsaw, fishbowl, tiered activities, learning contracts, learning profile cards, Critique groups, Writer’s Workshop

3.     Driving Question
The DQ is a focus for the PBL unit. Students must answer the question by the end of the project to demonstrate understanding of the key concepts. Students find content purposeful when a DQ is targeted for an audience beyond the classroom or building. Often generated by teachers, students can generate their own so as to focus on their interests within the unit. DQs can be framed to address different levels of content complexity.
Suggested strategies:
Tiered composition, RAFTs, Self-generated, Mentors

4.     In-Depth Inquiry
Deep research and understanding of content is essential to critical thinking and analysis. We coach students, sometimes with scaffolds, to help them practice thinking tools. Metacognitive skills help learners make sense of targeted outcomes.
Suggested strategies:
Mini-workshops, Tiered activities, RAFTs, Fishbowl, Socratic Seminars, Graphic Organizers, Jigsaws, Multiple Intelligences (such as Robert Sternberg)

5.     Need to Know
Relevance and purpose are critical factors to learn something. How we connect the concepts and skills to students’ schema for what is important or related to them leads to deeper roots of comprehension. Entry events and entry documents when combined help build the initial buzz for a unit when strong relevance is made apparent. Relating the DQ to daily lessons helps students to understand how what is work today connect to the final product or presentation at the end of the unit.
Suggested strategies:
Multi-media, Field Trips, Guest speaker, simulation, team-based activity, on-going connections to contemporary world of students, multiple intelligence (such as Robert Sternberg)

6.     Voice and Choice
Students build interest when they have choices. They have buy-in when they have voice in their learning. The “Need to Know” activity fosters buy-in because students determine when content is sufficiently addressed. Having an open-ended product, aligned to clear criteria, encourages students to express themselves in whatever medium that allows them to best demonstrate understanding. Choices are good when teachers need to maintain a narrow scope for student responses. Voice promotes deeper understanding, driven by the curiosity and interest of the learner.
Suggested strategies:
Frayer Model, Think Dots, RAFTs, multiple intelligence (such as Robert Sternberg)

7.     Revision and Reflection
Learning how to review, reflect, and revise work and thinking helps students to make deeper connections with content. Coaching students on how to have constructive conversations ties neatly with developing 21st Century Skills and In-Depth Inquiry. These PBL elements work together seamlessly.
Suggested strategies:
Critique groups, Writer’s Workshop, Reading Circle, fishbowl, Socratic Seminar, gallery walks

8.     Public Audience
Having an authentic audience builds meaning and context for learning. Sharing their understanding helps students more deeply root the content and critical thinking. As with 21st Century Skills, students communicating their learning in an engaged session with others is an effective way for them to get what they need in achieving academic goals.
Suggested strategies:
Multiple intelligence (such as Robert Sternberg), multi-media, mentors, gallery walks, mentors.

References

Carol AnnTomlinson. Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching. ASCD (2003)

John McCarthy. The Learning Classrooms. http://learningclassrooms.pbworks.com

Making the Invisible Visible: Scaffolds

I love watching the show, “So you think you can dance.” A show about “amateur” (emphasis on the air quotes) dancers who perform on a televised stage in the hopes of either winning or staying in the competition long enough to get noticed. When the contestants dance in their style of choice their movements appear effortless. Sometimes when a dancer flops on to their back or stands up without using their hands, the movements are so fluid, my thought is, “I could do that.” A moment later reality reasserts sanity. Like dancers, the movements by athletes in sports demonstrate amazing skills that inevitably leave spectators gasping. Some fans might think, “I could do that.”

Athleticism is hard work. It takes years of practice for skills to become second nature, embedded into muscle memory. One challenge that some of these great dancers, as with other athletes, is that they struggle as coaches. Their gifts of athleticism are so intuitive that they may not know how to breakdown the skill components for their students. What does it take to pirouette 15 times with perfect, fluid form? Or make 10 of 10 basketball free-throws? Or conduct solid research using only online resources for an argumentative essay/presentation?

A major chalhelpinghandslenge in classrooms for teachers is to breakdown content and skills so that students can do the work. Often times, such as with research or collaboration skills, students are expected to know how to use these skills. It seems so simple because “we” can do it easy enough.

A friend of mine shared a story about a research assignment that their child had to do for a Science project in elementary school. The teacher’s directions was to choose a topic from a list of options. Students were to research the topic based on content guidelines. The child, who had demonstrated academic ability by virtue of consistently earning high grades, struggled. The parents helped their child with the research while explaining what they were doing. The research got done, but the child might still be developing those skills. Now some would read this and say, “Well of course an elementary student should be coached through the process of researching. No one should expect anything different.” I have been in enough high school classes to see teens having the same struggles.

1. Design scaffolds during the lesson planning
Based on the lesson objectives, when designing the learning activities, it’s important to break down the skills or activities so that all students can make connections. Try picturing the students who you suspect will struggle and customize for them. The result will be useful to many of the students. For example coach students on using graphic organizers or mind maps to help them collect and organize data from research. Provide guidelines with examples for how to determine if a website is a valid source of information. Incorporate multimedia as a way for students to explore content and their understanding through different mediums, i.e. videos, podcasts, faqs, study groups. When coaching basketball free throws, I used a variety of activities for modeling, practicing, observing, and student self-monitoring. The same is needed in academia.

2. Always, always, always coach students to follow your support system

What gets monitored gets done.data_collection

I’ve built extensive support systems for my students to use. The scaffolds helped them develop the skills needed to be more effective. An open secret is that not all students will just go along with your thoughtfully laid out plans. At least not immediately. I and other educators who’ve devised effective support systems found it necessary to constantly monitor and coach students through the steps until they either completely bought into the process, or they followed the system because it was the only way they would be left alone. Students do not always get why they have to follow the carefully crafted support system just because you say it’s good. They’re not being difficult for a bad reason. Adults feel the same way when a supervisor puts in place a new policy. Unless it’s thoroughly explained and then followed through adult workers will most likely ignore it as unimportant. What gets monitored gets done. Students may do parts of the scaffolds, but also cut corners on steps that they may view as unnecessary or overly time consuming. Thus important elements are lost.

3. Plan opportunities for students to reflect on their learning

Support scaffolds are only effective if students learned what they needed as a result of following through. During the lesson, plan 2 to 3 reflection opportunities. These can be group conversations like a think-pair-share, or be done individually like a journal entry or an ungraded quiz. These are opportunities for formative assessment (feedback) that can be used to adjust the lesson as needed. Reflections report what students actually understand about the objectives at a point in time. Without this element, scaffolds and the lesson may be empty promises of learning because students will perform the tasks but get little or nothing from them–and the teacher will have no idea of the lost opportunities.

Lesson planning for a project or unit is a meticulous process. The planning is time consuming, and thoughtfully preparing the details of scaffolds can seem to some as teetering over to being excessive. In the long view, upfront planning of scaffolds is a huge time saver. Without thoughtfully planned scaffolds that anticipate learner needs, students who struggle either practice dancer1skills incorrectly or shut down. Once these problems are identified, much time is consumed getting students to unlearn bad habits or coxing them out of their frustration, rebuilding their confidence, and convincing them to try again. Competing on “So you think you can dance” is not in my future. Not with my lack of flexibility and creaking bones. But I could learn dances from different genres if I have a good teacher who understands how to break down the skills based on what I bring to the table. With practice and coaching I could possibly someday challenge for the Mirror Ball trophy on Dancing with the Stars. Well at the least, I can dream like anyone else. It’s the scaffolds that help make some dreams come true.

3 p.m. Remembrance: Learning about Memorial Day

Bivouac Of The Dead by Theodore O’Hara

THE MUFFLED drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last tattoo;
No more on Life’s parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On Fame’s eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards, with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.

(complete poem)

I’m not a veteran. I have family and friends who are, which–I suspect–many families share a memorialdaysimilar connection. Some more deeply than others. It is this shared bond that makes such days of remembrance as Memorial Day an important part of the fabric that is a nation or global citizen. Memorial Day was something started after the American Civil War. At that time, May 30th was the annual date for honoring those who died in service. The date was chosen because no previous war was started on May 30th. It was called Decoration Day for many decades. What started as a time to honor the dead from the Civil War, after the first World War expanded to all American soldiers from any war. The name, Memorial Day, was established in 1967 by President Johnson. The day is now honored on the last Monday of May.

3:00 p.m. Local Time — National Moment for Remembrance

Before continuing, here’s an important fact about Memorial Day: At 3 p.m. local time across the country and the world, a person or family or friends take a moment to remember someone or any who died in war, to honor their greatest sacrifice made for the United States.

Memorial Day is something that can be explored by students as an integrated part of their curriculum, and as an understanding of it’s presence in the fabric of American culture. At a university graduation I attended, six ROTC graduates had the honor of being the final students to walk across the stage to get their diploma. The applause for them did not stop until they walked the long path to the back row, and took their seats. No other person received such an out pour of appreciation. Hopefully they someday retire from service and raise families. Every person in that arena understood that these graduates would most likely be in harms way in service of the country. For this reason, and there are many others that you could come up with, it’s important that Memorial Day is explored in schools so that it’s not seen as a time to go on vacation and have time off from work or school.

Rather, during the time we spend with family and friends on an extended weekend at cookouts, sporting events, or other fun activities, at 3 p.m. please take a moment to remember those who died serving us. And give back to them a portion of the enjoyment we have on this day.

Memorial Day Resources

Here’s a list of some sites with interesting facts and supports that can be used for learning experiences at home and school. If you have one, would love to have them shared in the comments. Thanks.

Not your traditional projects: Three Understandings about PBL

A big open secret about Project Based Learning (PBL) is that it’s a great structure for designing possible_thinkingunits of study. But many educators struggle with this understanding. It’s no wonder when you think about the concept of project carries so much historical baggage. As a student, I remember doing school projects that were fun and engaging, like book projects, where I got to tell other students about a novel that I enjoyed. Unfortunately, it had little relevance to my learning something new. Or the curriculum objectives could be better communicated. What if the project was teaching skills in understanding plot, characterization, and author’s craft? The end result could be a published review of the novel that addressed those 3 criteria, and the final product artifact could be a paper, multimedia report, or something else that is student generated. Now that’s something with substance.

Yet many traditional projects–not all–started after the final test, when learning had already taken place. We might call them enrichment activities or as one teacher told me:

“My students and I worked very hard in the last unit. This project is a break for us, before we start on the next important unit.

The value of traditional projects is that students get to demonstrate what they’ve learned from the unit where they–not the teacher–crafted their ideas into some product of their own design. One problem is that the project work was “extra”, after the completion of major assessments. Often they are assigned to be completed outside of class time. One has to ask, if little to no time is provided during school, how important is the work to what students need to learn? Homework might be assigned from the project. Such assignments are based on work done during the classroom time so that the work feels job embedded. PBL, unlike projects, embeds the work inside the instructional time so that it is job-embedded for students.

There is  value in the process and experience for students and teachers alike. Teachers want students to be engaged in learning, participate fully, and develop the skills needed to be a successful and productive member of society. Students want schooling to be interesting, purposeful, and successful. These interests are not in opposition, yet the means to transform education that satisfies everyone remains a complex puzzle for many. PBL is one solution that meets everyone needs if we can come to a common understanding about what it is and how to start.

1. Have PBL become the Unit Structure

Make PBL the focus of the unit objectives, and students will link all the skills introduced to the final performance or presentation. Teachers can use any instructional strategies in their toolkit to guide learning. Those tools are used in context of PBL.

Which would students rather learn about:

  • Show understanding of the geography themes as they pertain to the United States regions, such as physical features, culture, and economy. Write a report for your teacher. Or…
  • Design a challenge race segment for a new cable pilot called Amazing Race US Edition. Contestants will need to participate in challenges that incorporate physical features, culture, and economy so that audiences and the participants learn about geography teams as they pertain to the locale. Create a multimedia pitch that includes a sample of the segment. Yours may be sent to the producers of Amazing Race.

Sometimes teachers express apprehension through wanting to wait on introducing the project until foundational knowledge is established through a series of lessons that may take 3 days to 2 weeks. The concern is that students can not do the project until such foundational knowledge and skills are developed. They are right about students being unable to complete the project without the instruction. No one expects students to design the final product on day one of a 2-5 week project. Think about projects given to adult workers. I remember being given the charge to provide Differentiated Instruction (DI) support to the 34 school districts in the county as needed. I had classroom experience with DI, but I researched the concepts and studied under some of the best in the DI world, Carol Tomlinson, Susan Allan, and Marcia Imbeau. I took my experiences and learning and crafted highly successful professional development for teachers in the county, and eventually nationally.

When PBL becomes the unit structure, it expands the possibilities for involving students into their own learning, by embedding strong communication, as the next understanding makes clear.

2. Communicate the project finale on the first day
A_MAZEStudents need to know on day one what will be expected by the end of the unit. This enables the teacher to connect each day’s lesson with the ending in mind. Helps students understand the connections of the skills and concepts in context with what they are crafting by the end of the unit. Students stop asking, “Why do we need to know this?” Or the teacher or students can answer that question because each lesson ties into the final product or performance. The conversation might sound like this…

Student A: “Why do I have to research demographic data regarding ethnicity and cultural values in Michigan?”

Student B: “Because when design our Amazing Race segment we’ll need to build a challenge that teaches about that stuff. You know, recreation in the Grand Rapids area is different from Detroit, or the Upper Peninsula.”

Speaking for myself, I find productive meetings stake out clearly what are the outcomes that participants must accomplish. The agenda items breakdown steps that map a sensible approach to meeting the goals. At meetings where the objectives are fuzzy or not communicated effectively, the agenda steps seem without clear purpose, and one can feel like they are underwater trying to hold their breath for as long as they can. When a PBL unit introduces the project outcomes on the first day, and then proceeds to connect the dots each day back to the ultimate purpose, students get lost less. They have a road map by which to communicate with the teacher and other students for help and support.

3. Involve students in shaping the PBL experiences

Student voice is a powerful engagement tool that can lead to rich exploration of content that goes far deeper than when a teacher assigns the work. In a previous blog entry, Generating ideas for meaningful projects, I talk about how students can come up with their own unique way of epiphanyexploring and representing what they know when given the chance. Consider what makes a job fulfilling so that you look forward to going to work, and are willing to spend time “outside of work” thinking about the tasks or challenges?

I like that relies on me to design a proposal or solution. When teachers provide clear academic criteria, students can run with the project, design a solution, and develop an artifact that demonstrates their understanding of the criteria. Students have ownership and find it challenging to figure out solutions or new proposals in collaboration and alone.

Students of all ages are the same. Given clear criteria of what the final product or performance must include, let them figure out what the want to do and how they will get it done. For the Amazing Race US Edition project, teams of students design their own race segment that incorporates challenges in formats that they conceive. So long as the academic criteria is represented, the students can design however they choose.

When PBL becomes the unit, teachers can still use the tools that they have found useful to supporting learning. Some of the tools may be used in different formats. For example:

  • A lecture may be provided to a portion of the students who need it, while other students are working on related tasks.
  • Formative assessments might include observational data collection or Exit Cards (5 minute non-graded questions at the end of a lesson).

Support becomes more easily provided because in a PBL unit students are pro-active and expected to do more of the heavy lifting around learning. Teachers provide strategic small group and individual support, in addition to traditional strategies such as lectures, whole class discussions, and individual desk work. If we want students to take ownership of their learning and be proactive, these PBL understandings make a difference. To be successful, teachers need to consider that when PBL becomes the unit, it meets the needs of students. How can we do more?

Adjusting for Success

Defense wins games; rebounds wins championships.

Bullish on formative assessmentsAs a sports fan and a former basketball coach I’ve seen this to be a truism. Take the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. Michael Jordan was the leader who could will a victory from games that should have been lost. While an offensive force, he and Scottie Pippen lead a team defense that when unleashed left opposing teams in tatters. Both would consistently win Defensive honors and 3 consecutive championships from 1991 to 1993. Their second 3-peat championships from 1996 to 1998, was again driven by defensive wizardry as Dennis Rodman joined Jordan and Pippen to become a three-headed monster. Rodman dominated the boards for rebounds.

Phil Jackson, coach of the Bulls, is the other critical factor to the Bulls’ Championship success, but also for 3 championships under him by the Los Angeles Lakers. Winning and losing is a game of adjustments. Phil Jackson is a master at making adjustments throughout a game that helps his teams win. There are games remembered as great upsets that were examples of the effective execution of adjustments: Duke win over UNLV (vid: 1991), Giants over the formerly undefeated Patriots (vid: 2008), and the US  defeating the USSR in the Winter Olympics (1980).

As a high school coach, I’ve experienced this process. Coaches and players assess action on the field of play, looking for weaknesses of the other team to exploit or protect their own that are exposed. My teams have won games on buzzer beaters with plays devised in a timeout, and lost games because the other team adjusted to us more effectively then our response. Whether it’s a hail mary pass or a calculated plan unveiled as the game progresses, success is based on data analysis and how the coaches and players execute the plan to great effect.

In classrooms, adjustments are made every day in each lesson. Each course and/or content lesson is like a game where effective teachers make adjustments based on the continuous flow of observational data from students’ progress and/or struggles. A well planned unit includes lessons that prepares for students who succeed to easily and for those who will struggle. Anticipating how students will respond, as with athletic coaching, enables the teachers to plan scaffold supports and enrichment extensions so that all students are stretched. But as with any plan, once implemented, things can and will go awry.

Successful teams make adjustments to the game plan based on the situation. Often quoted in football by quarterbacks and receivers regarding success is: “We take what the defense gives us.” Rarely does a team do well when the coach refuses to change a plan that’s not working, or makes adjustments on poor or inaccurate data. The same is true with instruction and learning. If students fail to meet the lesson objectives adjustments need to be made.

Differentiated Instruction (DI) is a critical strategic approach to successful adjustments towards student achievement. There are two phases to include if all students have a chance to stretch and grow.

Phase One: Formal Differentiated Instruction

Formal DI happens during unit and lesson planning. One guaranteed prediction for education is that students enter a learning at different levels of understanding and skills. A plan targeted to a specific group, typically the lower middle, fails to meet the needs of those who struggle and students who already know the content. Devising such a plan is the first step. Then…data_collection

  • Create additional layers, or paths, that attend to the other students, from scaffolds to enrichment.
  • Include students on collaborative teams and individualized processing activities. Learners need chances to digest information and concepts.
  • Use learning styles data to help shape activities. Collect data from students through inventories. At a minimum, using learning styles provides variety in learning activities, which can maintain attention; and at best, students make stronger connections because they resonate with the activity processes.
    Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Multiple Intelligences
    Meyers Briggs
    True Colors
    4 MAT
    Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences
  • Plan assessment checkpoints to track student progress. Often this occurs at the end of each lesson. It’s also good to have 2-3 processing activities during the lesson for informal check-ins. Students could be summarizing ideas in writing or in small groups, sample the class with questions to see how they are responding, or use a learning signal, such as thumbs up (I understand), thumbs to the side (I think I understand enough to continue), and thumbs down (Stop! I don’t get it. I’m lost.).

(Additional resources can be found at a DI website I developed.)

Formal DI does take planning time. Yet it reduces the surprises that can derail a lesson because you’ve anticipated much of what might and could go awry. It makes informal DI feel less chaotic and more targeted to students’ needs.

Phase Two: Informal Differentiated Instruction

Informal DI is something that most teachers are very experienced at doing. Remember, adjustments are always going to happen regardless of how well you plan. When a good plan is prepared, those changes on the fly will be more seamless because whatever could go wrong, you’ve already anticipated during the formal planning process. The key to informal DI is to use the assessment check points (see 4th bullet in Formal DI) to determine adjustments for the whole class or individuals. When collaborative teams are working independently, that’s a great time to provide coaching or customized support to one or more students sharing common needs. Some adjustments may get planned for the next lesson. In that instance, help students to finish the current lesson with a feeling that support will arrive just in time at the next meeting or through communications.epiphany

A critical key to successful coaching is to have plan that has multiple layers. Anticipating how a lesson might go well or fall apart leads to layers of support that are ready to implement if or when needed (Formal DI). No one feels good about being caught flat footed when something unplanned happens. With a strong plan, the real-time adjustments will be mostly anticipated, which leads to strong responses and greater confidence by the students (Informal DI). When something unpredicted happens, well, we remember to take a deep breath, draw from our experience and do the best that we can for the student(s). Sometimes the solution can still be found inside the thought formal plan.

In the end, all students learn. That is the true victory.

Generating ideas for meaningful projects

In the adult world projects are a way of living life. It’s amazing to me how much I do that is project-based bothLiving in Projects professionally and personally. Opening and maintaining a consulting business is a major project. There is much to do and things that I learn along the way, such as how do I effectively communicate my national expertise with instructional design such as PBL and school improvement. Last week my family hosted a graduation party for my niece. The planning and preparations, along with the collaboration with her and family from out of state, lead to the culminating event.

My kids love to play open-ended games like Sandbox, Terraria, and Minecraft. They watch numerous videos of other players playing these games to learn about the environment, geography, and strategies. They download mods that enable them to build towns and terrains in collaboration with other players who share a similar passion. This sounds like game based learning, a topic for another time, but what is really happening is that they are embracing projects of their own choosing. Just as others take the project journey to earn their drivers license, get a summer job, or craft stories with dolls or action figures, project based learning occurs for all ages.

What is amazing about both the adult and children examples above is that if we reflect on the activities, we can identify skill sets from different content areas that are represented.

I invite you to pause. Choose an example or choose one of your own life projects. Brainstorm 3-5 skills from at least one discipline. Bonus bragging points if you identify skills from 2 or more disciplines 😉

Pause……………………………………………

meditation1

 

The point of the stories and the reflective exercise is that as teachers, we can generate many projects that makes the curriculum content engaging and meaningful to students. Ideas fit into at least 3 lens:

  1. Solving a problem
  2. Exploring an idea
  3. Pursuing a passion

Lens 1: Solving a problem

There are challenges, puzzles, or conflicts that need resolution. In business, society, and personal worlds, there are problems to be solved. Frame one or more problems that students seek solutions. Include criteria that requires them to incorporate needed skills either explicitly or as background.

Media saves the beach

Lens 2: Exploring an idea

Experimentation is a great way to explore ideas. Whether the idea revolves around science or social issues, for example, students are given or choose an outcome and then figure out how to get there or come up with an entirely different destination. Designing a roller coaster or community skate park can lead to in-depth understanding of Mathematics, Science, English Language Arts, and Social Studies–just to start.

Courtyard Redesign

Lens 3: Pursuing a passion

Teachers are often hesitant to have students study an issue that is close to the instructor’s heart. Yet when students see the teacher’s passion about the topic it interests them. Consider when someone told you about a movie, book, or restaurant that “you’ve just got to check out!” Their eyes sparkle with energy as they tell you in vivid detail about the experience. It’s hard not to get drawn in. There are schools that cultivate students’ passions into curriculum skills and standards.

Kinectic Art

However you develop the project idea, think about how the idea will manifest by the end of the project. The final experience should be meaningful beyond the classroom walls. Students should be told on the first day of the project what they will solve, create, or pursue by the end of the unit. If possible, give students flexibility with the final product/presentation so that they can differentiate themselves from the others. Any idea can work. Just begin with the framework of the three lens, and you’ll soon have a project based learning experience that has rich potential to address content standards and connect for students the content to life context.

Welcome to Opening Paths

Hello and welcome.

This is a space for dialog about exploring ways to help learners be successful. Whenever there’s a social gathering of educators the conversation finds it way to how education would be so much more effective if we, insert sub group of educators, could “really” run things. I always feel sorry for the spouse or date who tagged along and is not an educator. This is a passionate conversation that takes place around many a coffee potNewPaths or dinner. Despite what is sometimes portrayed, educators are very passionate about the profession and genuinely want to meet the needs of all students by whatever means necessary.

But there are obstacles, perceived and real, that must be tackled and windmills that must be tilted. Here, I will attempt to explore and take on those needs and challenges. For every need there are solutions. There are roads either less traveled or unseen because of the many and sometimes conflicting initiatives that demand an educator’s attention. Yet there are possibilities by finding and exploring these paths, worth fighting through the bramble that catches at feet to trip or leave deep scratches from attempting to push through. With courage and a vision-based compass, we can uncover paths to the better world for learners.

Come. Join me on this exploration for opening paths…