Category Archives: Big Picture

Project Based Learning, Session 2

Photo on 2013-02-20 at 18.10Going into the session, folks had been asked to brainstorm what unit they would like to transform or create in the project-based framework, and maybe write a couple of essential questions that they thought would be useful.

Stuff From This Week

We looked at a few documents outlining key ideas behind Understanding By Design, including the “six facets of understanding” described below. People were asked to discuss: which of these are you already hitting in your classroom? Which are eluding you and/or your students?

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Next up, we looked at a cheat sheet of sorts — “question starters based on the six facets of understanding.” You can find the full list in this document; here’s a sampling:


  • Who_________?  What__________?     When _________?     How________?     Why_______?
  • What is the key concept/idea in ____________________________________________?
  • What might happen if _______________________________________________________?
  • What are common misconceptions about _______________________________________?


  • How is _______________________like ________________________(analogy/metaphor)?
  • How does _____________________________________________________relate to me/us?
  • So what? Why does it matter?


  • How and when can we use this (knowledge/process) ____________________________?
  • How is __________________________________________ applied in the larger world?
  • How could we use _______________________ to overcome ________________________  (obstacle, constraint, challenge)?


  • What are different points of view about _____________________________________?
  • How might this look from ______________________________________’s perspective?
  • What is the evidence for ____________________________________________________?


  • What would it be like to walk in ____________________________________’s shoes?
  • How might ___________________feel about _____________________________________?
  • How might we reach an understanding about ___________________________________?


  • How do I know________________________________________________________________?
  • What are the limits of my knowledge about ___________________________________?
  • How are my views about __________________shaped by ________________________ (experiences, assumptions, habits, prejudices, style)?

The real meat of the evening, however, was when SLA English teacher Matt Kay talked to us about his process for writing essential questions. He shared his process for the book “Kindred,” which he teaches to 9th graders. His Essential Questions for his unit are:

  • What is the relationship between who we are and what society expects of us? (What does society expect of us?)
  • Okay I didn’t get the other two written down… but they were good.

He tweaks his wording every year, as “after teaching for seven years, you get intimate with a novel.” His questions have also gotten longer, instead of shorter — he edits his questions to reflect the kinds of questions students themselves are asking. He also has a sort of floating Essential Question that he uses for creative prompts: “If you were this character, what would you be doing?”

None of these EQs, he noted, are skill-based. These the things they are going to be troubling with, and “never really find an answer to.” He builds questions that they can wrestle with — if not, it’s not a good essential question.

He doesn’t give them all three at once — introduces them as they appear in the book.

Q&A with Matt Kay

Do his students know the phrase “essential question?
Yes, although eventually wants to fool around with them creating their own.

What role do the questions play for his students?
As discussion starts, all of these can be prompts for class discussion. A class often starts with “what happened” in a book, but the questions can help draw the discussion deeper, and link between days. You want to make them okay with the idea that they’re reaching toward something that they’re not going to get — but they’re not feeling frustrated by that. It’s a puzzle that they never quite fix.

As for the six facets of understanding, “empathy” and “self-knowledge” are the two that you have to reach for. Asking the hard questions is the challenge — often for the teacher as much as the students.

What happens if kids go in a different direction?
Give kids power and agency — let them know they have brought up something new and interesting — it removes the barrier between teacher and student.

Essential questions are easy to apply to a classic, literature discussion. How do you use them for units based around skills and content?
Matt gave an example from his “grammar boot camp” unit — “How does someone’s language affect the way other look at them?” He shows papers from last year (with the names taken off) and asks what judgments they make about those students — are they smart? are they good students?

It’s about the “why” of the skill, and the dangers of not having it.

How do you know that the project-based inquiry model is working?
Who’s asking the question? You know it’s landing when students are asking higher-order questions on a regular basis. If you still have to ask all of the questions, they haven’t absorbed the intention of PBL and understanding by design.

I then noted that this version of “success” can get skewed — kids can ask higher-order questions all day but get nothing explicit “done” — so I asked: so how do you find balance?

Matt’s response to that: for PBL to be successful, kids take initiative on their own projects. Instead of asking “Can I,” they approach him with things they have stated. They gain a confidence to start things — even if they don’t have all of the skills in place. And they don’t always need a prompt.

Everybody went home with UBD Template instructions as well as a Blank_UbD_Planning_Template. The goal for next week is to have “Stage 1” planned out — at least a rough draft, so we can compare and refine during the next session.

Happy planning everybody!

Related post: Project Based Learning, Session 1

Working through school wounds.

This activity is a continuation of my write up from yesterday about getting students to identify what their “school wounds” are.

Once students had picked a category they identified with — numbness, creativity, compliance, underestimation, or the average — we handed out some blank paper and asked them to draw:

What was an experience that made you lose your desire to learn?

The results were sometimes predictable, sometimes unexpected, and often hard to look at and accept.

Wounded By School_Page_7 copyWounded By School_Page_9 Wounded By School_Page_8 copy       Wounded By School_Page_1

We talked a bit about where all this was coming from — many different places, obviously. If this was had been my English class, we would have been composing essays / digital stories post haste. As this was the spring of senior advisory, however, we took a more mellow, holistic approach, talking it out in groups.

We also followed up with a second, positive prompt:

When was a time that learning came alive for you?

Wounded By School_Page_3 Wounded By School_Page_2 Wounded By School_Page_6 copy Wounded By School_Page_4

I have to admit, I was a little bit relieved that several of the drawings kids created were directly related to school. I also liked this one, which showed a timeline of many different influences on learning, both school-based and self-chosen:

Wounded By School_Page_5

Our final push with this activity was along the lines of, “you’re going to college soon. You probably have four more years of “formal” learning in front of you, and some more hurdles to jump with school. How are you going to heal your wounds now, and get through this?”

Of course, looking at it now, I don’t think that line of thinking pushed hard enough. In fact, I think it was sort of cowardly — asking students to accept the poor structure of school at face value and just “deal with it.”

The question I want to ask now:

How could we all transform school, so that these wounds don’t happen?

Working to improve “the education sector.”

Screen shot 2013-02-15 at 10.20.07 AM

On Saturday, February 22nd, I will be speaking on a panel at the 2013 L.E.A.R.N. Conference, hosted at UPenn and organized by a few of their graduate schools (including the education school.)

According to the write up, the “View from Inside the Classroom” panel acknowledges that, “The voices of students, parents, and teachers are all too often not heard in policy changes for education reform.”

If you look closely, you might notice that, as of this writing, I’m the only person appearing on my panel. This is because they only recently created said panel. Neither parents, nor teachers, nor students are represented in any other section of the conference. (Okay, a school band is playing during lunch.) Our session is during the lunch slot, and by necessity of the schedule, 15 minutes shorter than any other panel.

Here’s the write-up of the organizing group, from their front page:

LEARN is the hub for those interested in improving the education sector.  Active projects include policy research, pro bono initiatives, and career development.  Our goal is to harness the expertise of today’s education experts to empower the education leaders, entrepreneurs, and policymakers of tomorrow.

I bristle at some of that language.

However, I’m excited to participate and push against the notions of some of the attendees (and expecting that they will also push against mine.)

Plus, I get to see Diana Laufenberg talk about technology.

How can you go PBL? With Inquiry to Action.

This evening, I will be attending Teacher Action Group’s Kick-off event for their 2013 Inquiry to Action Groups. Last year, I participated in an ItAG called “Context for Change,” and one of my big discoveries from those sessions was that I would do well to share content from SLA with the outside world. (Hello, blog.)

This year, I’m thrilled to facilitate an ItAG about project-based learning. The group already has a clear “action” in mind — design and implement a project-based unit in your classroom — but that will obviously look different for each person. Here are the all goals for the group:

  • Create a Project-Based Learning unit for your classroom
  • Gain a working knowledge of Understanding By Design lesson planning
  • Strategize on how to bring PBL to your learning environment
  • Collaborate and network with like-minded teachers
  • Develop a session for the 2013 Teacher Action Group Curriculum Fair

Going into this process, the big thing I am thinking about is how to meet educators where they are at — both in terms of individual knowledge and the settings in which they work. One misguided response we get to our work at SLA is “you could only get away with that here” — which couldn’t be any further from the truth! I am excited to help educators from around the city play with PBL and make it work for them.

The group will be meeting for six weeks at SLA. If you’re in Philadelphia, there’s still time to register for and attend the kick-off meeting. For those who can’t make it, due to scheduling or geography, I am going to do my best to blog our group’s materials and activities here. If you plan on following along at home, please let me know in the comments!

As a preview of what we’ll be up to, here’s a short video that introduces the basic tenets of PBL — chipper, but informative.

EduCon Resources: Standards Based Grading for Social Studies.

There was a lot of interest in my last post about Standards Based Grading and Reporting at SLA, so I thought I would share more from that session from different disciplines.

I should also mention that, while these standards were developed at SLA as a kind of pre-emptive response to Common Core, they were more heavily based on the written standards of our respective professional organizations than CCSS. English teachers, for example, pulled from the NCTE standards.

Additionally, we are in our second year of implementing standards-based systems at the school, and the process is definitely still being tinkered with (as all good educational systems are). Below are the five categories that our history discipline uses in their classes. Note that it overlaps two categories with English — “Discussion” and “Research.” Science uses “Research” as well. Should we streamline our language across disciplines? Or maybe make them less similar, to emphasize the difference in each version of the skill? Is it a problem that “research” is also one of our school’s core values, but other values on that list aren’t included as categories for standards?

Just a few questions to get your brain started. I feel very lucky to be in an educational setting where we get to tackle these ideas. Without any further ado:

History Standards

The SLA History department focuses on five main areas for the standards at each grade level: Sources, Research, Perspective, Discussion and Content.  Throughout the four years at SLA the skills gained in one grade spiral forward to the next course.  By graduation, the goal is for students to develop the ability to effectively analyze primary source documents, research independently, express the impact of perspective and bias in history, meaningfully contribute to classroom discussions, and evaluate the connections between the modern world and history.  Assessments for this work are embedded within the day-to-day coursework, as well as within the quarterly benchmarks.

Grade 9 Grade 10 Grade 11 Grade 12
Sources Student can analyze a variety of source documents including visual representations of information. Same  Same  Same 


Student is making progress in producing independent research-based projects. Student can construct independent research-based projects. Student can independently locate a variety of sources to effectively incorporate into research-based projects. Student can independently locate a variety of sources to effectively incorporate into research-based projects.
Perspective Student seeks to understand and fairly present the ideas of others, even when they disagree with the point(s) being made. Student can begin to express the impact of perspective/bias in history.  Student can express the impact of perspective/bias in history.  Student can express the impact of perspective/bias in evaluating political systems. 
Discussion Student consistently presents his/her own idea(s) in a constructive and useful manner.  In daily class activities, student can represent their ideas (all class discussion, online forums, small group, etc.) on history using sources to back up their contentions. Same  Same 
Content Student uses the content of the class to explore and expand their understanding of the world.  Student uses the class content as a medium to build understandings and make connections between both various systems and the past and present. Student can evaluate connections between the modern world and American History.  Student can evaluate connections between the modern world and the basic elements of political theory. 

EduCon visitors: What would you like to see today?

Here’s what I know is happening in SLA classrooms today:

Tim Best and his seniors are having a feast to celebrate the closing day of the “Science and Society” course — a big focus of their class has been the science behind modern food and nutrition.

On the 5th floor during both lunches (10:30 – 12:50, Room 506), students will be participating in Math Lab, getting help from teachers and each other, as well as taking standards quizzes.

On the 3rd floor during both lunches, Lit Lab tutors will be helping students with writing and reading. (Room 302b.)

In my room (505), student journalists will be cranking out the latest content for from 10:30 – 11:40. Starting at 12:55, Juniors will be peer editing their Prezis for their latest benchmark, about their personal reading history.

You want to see Spanish in action? Rooms 503 or 209.

Our Art teacher and Tech Coordinator might be busy troubleshooting for live streaming tomorrow, but Art class will still be happening in the delightful corner room with lots of windows — 301.

I have no idea what’s on the docket for Matt VanKouwenberg in his engineering classes — but as I understand it, that’s a part of the fun in room 304.

If you want to meet up with students in their natural habitat, try the ballrooms on the second or third floor, or the pool, or the cafe.

Looking for something else? Just wander into any room. Seriously.

At SLA, we like to share.

One day, during my first year of teaching at SLA, I walked into the office and announced that I had no idea what I was doing in my English class next period.

Of course, I knew what I was “doing”–I had a lesson plan written and all that–but I had no idea how I was actually going to make it work.

Zac Chase and Matt Kay were at the table, and they quickly tossed out a dozen different ideas at me. I don’t even remember what the material was, but I just remember feeling supported, and saved.

Sometimes, I forget how incredibly awesome this kind of open sharing is–and, sadly, how rare it is in many school settings. For one thing, many school administrations would have your head if you walked into the office and stated that you were pedagogically lost. So instead, people have to slink away to their classrooms and make the best of it. At least until they can find some open-minded folks to engage in the open flow of ideas.

I’ve got better footing now, but I’m still endlessly thankful for everyone who has helped and continues to help me. The good thing is that at SLA, it’s not a chore! And one of the best bits of this process sharing the accomplishments of our students.

They’re in on the game, too. Take the Digital Story “You Have Nothing to Hide From” by SLA Sophomore My Truong. She made it for an assignment in my class, and then shared it with Kay, which Lehmann saw and re-posted, and it gets retweeted by a bunch of folks, and I then wrote about it on this blog, and Meenoo Rami featured it on Ed Week Teacher — and I didn’t even create the project. The whole idea came from Josh Block, who started this assignment last year in his class.

So, if you’re joining us for EduCon this year, make sure you ask us to share some of our methods, or our projects. Or just walk into the office and announce that you’re lost. Somebody will look up and help you out.

Unit Plan: Independent Reading

Reading slide

After spending a month or so on Shakespeare, it’s time to set 11th Graders free with their reading. This unit is self-explanatory in its title, but the focus changes a bit each time.

Here are the essential questions for the unit:

  • What are my reading preferences, and what influenced these preferences?
  • How do I change as a reader when I read different books?
  • How can reading make me happy?

The unit also seeks to answer one of the three grade-wide essential questions, around the theme of change:

What causes systematic and individual change?

This unit really seeks to acknowledge that students are in very different places with both their attitudes and skills. The goal is to help them figure out where they’re at, meet them there, and help them improve.

When they arrive on the first day, students are met with the journal prompt displayed at the top of this page: What’s the last book you truly enjoyed reading? Why?

This leads into my slideshow of the Reluctant Readers Bill of Rights — which I believe is a must-share for any independent reading unit — and some discussion of my own current reading habits. Extra credit points in my heart go to any student who notices that one of those books is not in English.


Lastly, I introduce them to the idea of their “Reading Happy Place.” Is it a place? A time of day? A noise level? A state of mind? Sometimes we draw visualizations of what that place looks or feels like.

Students don’t always buy what I’m selling, at least not right away. Especially that part where the bill of rights says you have the right not to read. “What’s the catch?” They ask. “When are you going to make us do something?”

The beauty is that there is no catch. As long as they are reading and loving it, they’re doing the right thing. And if they’re not loving it, then it’s on them to find the time and place and book that inspires them.

Check out the complete unit here. I will also be writing up some activities and assessments from this unit in the coming weeks.

An EduConversation about Standards Based Grading.

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When it was time for SLA teachers to brainstorm sessions for this year’s EduCon, Standards Based Grading was a no-brainer.

SLA faculty has been building, tweaking, tearing down, testing, implementing, arguing, and also agreeing about standards for 2+ years now. As with many things at SLA, people sometimes assume, looking at us at a distance, that we’re an educational utopia and the learning here just magically happens. We will be happy to disabuse you of that notion, and give you perspective on what building your own standards-based grading system involves, and how we integrated that with project based learning. To give you a full sense of that picture, we have a representative from each major discipline — and we all came to standards from a very different place:

  • Mark Bey – Spanish
  • Roz Echols – Physics
  • Pearl Jonas – History (and a first-year SLA teacher!)
  • Brad Latimer – Math
  • Larissa Pahomov – English

Here’s our official write-up:

In the face of Common Core and increasing pressure from administrations, many schools are looking to produce more data about student learning. At SLA, teachers have responded to this shift by creating their own system of Standards Based Reporting. In this panel conversation, teachers from each discipline will discuss how they created standards language for their specific subject area, how they track student progress throughout the school year, and how they integrate the skills and reflection into their own classroom. The staff will also share the online system SLA uses to collect and report standards data with students.

If you have any questions or ideas in advance, we strongly encourage you to post them as a comment on our EduCon page — that way we can take it into consideration as we build our framework for the session.

How to prevent testing fatigue.

It’s simple: don’t test too much.

Seriously though. That doesn’t mean that you don’t prep. It just means that you get creative. I’ve written about lots of these tactics before:

Attack sample questions as a class. Teach them the structure behind the different types of questions. Send them on scavenger hunts in pairs. Have them write questions on their own.Let them be frustrated, and don’t forget to tell them that you love them.

The last thing you want to do is hit them on the head with multiple choice practice tests, day after day after day. It’s the educational equivalent of the assembly line. At some point, people get so bored that they quit. And you don’t want that to happen before the actual testing happens.

When kids start to say, “this is dumb,” I replace that with: “No, this is easy.” This is my adult equivalent of “it’s not that deep.” And I mean it.