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Project Based Learning, Session 5

During this session, SLA Science Teacher Tim Best shared six different project descriptions that he gives to students. A few are from senior-level elective courses, and a couple are from 10th grade Bio-Chemistry. In my humble opinion, these project ideas and write-ups are masterful. Here they are accompanied by my hastily-cribbed notes.

Food Project — students ultimately create an “SLA Cookbook” where the research different kinds of foods, and have to make their own recipe. The project is inspired by Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food.” It is a combination of health, environmental, social, and other factors. They also had to come up with a “Food Rule” and turned it into a graphic, inspired by the NYTimes.

Evolution Book Club — Tim described this as an “English project with science on top.” He has a collection of 10-12 different titles that deal with different aspects of evolution and its societal impacts. Seniors split into groups and set their own schedules. THey have different roles during the book club, and at the end they have to produce a half-hour lesson to teach the rest of the class.

Evolution Over Time — This project was co-developed with SLA Science teacher Stephanie Dunda. From the introduction: “The overall goal of your Q4 benchmark is to trace the evolution of a species over time, in response to a change in its environment.  You will select an organism that already exists on earth, research its evolutionary history, and then imagine how it might evolve if its environment slowly changes to something totally different.”

Anatomy “Specimen” Project — a project that teachers about the skeletal, digestive, and nervous systems. It asks students to follow their “specimen” — from infancy to ten years old — and then make a scrap book of its development, including its manufactured medical issues. An early part of the project involves picking unique anatomical issues out of a hat — something that sounds doom and gloom, but the students love.

Genetics — This one also co-created with Stephanie Dunda. From the write-up:  “You will collaborate with your team to research and present a genetic condition. Your work should demonstrate that you understand how traits are inherited, and how changes to our genes can affect the body. After researching a genetic condition, you will then teach the class what you have learned using a case study as an example.”

Here are some of the questions and comments from our discussion:

When you have a portfolio-style project, do you accept incomplete work?

Sometimes. If the work is clearly incomplete, students can take extra time to put in the last pieces — but then there’s always the risk that students forget to return things. The other option is to just accept everything and not do quality control in the moment the work is being submitted. You then run the risk of “discovering” incomplete when there’s no time for students to improve it.

Melissa shared the issue of having intermediate steps with papers — and what happens if students don’t do the outline first? And how do you balance the fact that some students don’t need that support, while others falter?

Tim said he does frequent check-ins for small point amounts during class — so students have some direct feedback about whether they are falling behind.

How do students know what your essential questions are?

Tim noted that he often doesn’t post his essential questions on his projects — in contrast to Matt Kay, who shares them constantly with his students. However, the group felt that this project still reflected a clear goal.

How do you maintain thorough scientific knowledge and research?

This came up while discussing the food research project. Tim described how he requires research of the ingredients in the recipe that the students pick. He guides them to useful sources, and ultimately they do a write-up.

How do you encourage working together?

Tim said that, this year, he is really encouraging students to do each piece of a project together — all sitting down and working on A-B-C-D instead of assigning each piece to a separate student (the danger being that they never look at each other’s work)

Tim also described a practice that Stephanie Dunda uses — each class period, a group has 120 points, and at the end of a class period they divide them amongst themselves as they see fit. This could serve as a good wake-up call to students who are slacking early on, as opposed to getting shut out or left off of the final project. It also requires the teacher to be more organized in keeping track of the points day to day.

How do you get kids to read the directions, especially on big projects?

For some projects, it takes students a couple of days to even really understand what they are doing. During a project like the “specimen” project, he has to remind students to write scenarios for their child that involve a clear reference to one of the anatomical systems they are studying.

How do you bring project based learning into science? How do you find the balance between knowledge acquisition and projects?

At SLA we would rather have students learn the underlying theory behind things rather than memorizing tables and sketches of the human body.

Some Summary: A good project has…

  • Student choice, where they decide what the focus of their research is. The choice can even be somewhat contrived.
  • Chunking the project into manageable steps.
  • Clear directions!
  • Multiple learning styles: something to write, read, draw, present, etc.
  • Collaboration / peer interaction.

Helping students identify their school wounds.

Last year I had the good fortune to read Kirsten Olson’s book Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing up to Old School Culture. So many of the ideas raWounded-by-School-9780807749555ng true, I immediately began brainstorming ways to share them with my students.

The activity I developed was for my senior advisees at the time, with the notion that, now that their secondary schooling was drawing to a close, unpacking it would be a useful task in preparation for getting through college.

Of course, why not do it earlier, and then reap the benefits yourself? My wake-up call about what students think of learning in my classroom has me itching to do this activity with my freshmen advisees. And possibly with all of this year’s freshmen.

Phase One: Identification

In this first phase, I read them a few passages from the book — the fact that she had been at EduCon that year didn’t hurt with the buy-in — and then students were presented with a series of statements pulled from the chapter “Kinds of Wounds.” The statements for each category were clustered on a table, and students had to tour the room and eventually pick a the group of statements that best reflected them. (The “categories” of wound were not included — I’m just putting those here for clarity’s sake.)

Wounds of Numbness

  • I feel detached from learning and zone out a lot in school.
  • I have lost interest in learning experiences I once enjoyed.

Wounds of Creativity

  • I feel like my original ideas lack value or are too strange.
  • I feel like everything I have do to has to “add up to something.”
  • I often I feel like I won’t be good at new things.

Wounds of Compliance

  • I worry that something will go wrong if I don’t follow the instructions or the rules.
  • I try not to stick out.
  • I do things because they will look good for college or my resume, not because I actualy want to.

Wounds of Underestimation

  • People don’t really know who I am in school — they just make assumptions.
  • People assume I am capable of less than I actually am


Wounds of the Average

  • I can only achieve so much in school.
  • I don’t feel like I get much attention in school, or that my work is valued.
  • Maybe I could do better, but people just expect me to be average.

Once they picked a group, students had time to casually share out: why did they identify with those statements? What were the typical or stand-out experiences that made it clear that’s how they felt? Had they always felt this way? If not, when did that wound form?

A lot of students picked “numbness” — senioritis was in full swing — and some self-identified overachievers gravitated towards “compliance.” “Underestimation” and “average” got some takers as well. Those last two groups were initially more reticent to share why they felt the way that they did — but once they got going, they had a lot to say. Perspectives I have never heard before.

The conversations were deep enough that this took the majority of an advisory period. I think we asked students to share out their history and current gripes with their wound, and this worked because our advisory family had four years of trust built-in by this point.

Part 2 of the activity — complete with drawing! — coming tomorrow.

What are students really “getting?”

Last year, Heather Hurst spent a year observing one of my 10th grade English classes as the field research for her PhD work at UPenn. Her focus was critical pedagogy in the classroom.

As a part of her research, she took complete transcripts of every class that she observed. She did me the very nice favor of sending these to me as soon as she wrote them up, which was an amazing (and sometimes mind-bending) view into my classroom and my practice.

This week, she sent me the draft of her dissertation. This gave me access to something new — the student interviews she had completed throughout the year. She asked a bunch of questions, conveniently listed at the end of her document. Here are a few that stood out to me:

  • If first interview: What do you think your English teacher’s goals are for her classroom? Are those goals important to you?
  • If second interview: In our last interview, you said you think Ms. [Pahomov]’s goals are ____________. Are there any that you would add or take away now?
  • Did you ever feel that your English class was preparing you to change anything in your neighborhood/community/city/state/country/society?
  • What could you use from English class to change the world you live in for the better?

You can probably imagine what I would hope their answers would resemble. That they would get some semblance of my emphasis on a mix of explicit skills and “big picture” ideas and theories that help them transform their reality. The 10th grade theme is “systems,” after all. Many of the units are designed to have students identify social systems around them and analyze how those systems influence the individual (often unfairly, often without them realizing it.)

On the whole, however, students saw the goals in my class as getting an A, learning how to write better, and generally not think about the “real world” outside the classroom. They did consider one of my big goals to be valuing different opinions and learning from each other — and they believed in that — but didn’t necessarily connect that to life beyond our class.

What a wake-up call. Today I am really thinking about what’s “clear” to me but opaque to students — and therefore only happening in my head.

Of course, sometimes students can’t speak on the things that are happening in their education — or choose not to.

Still, a change in approach is definitely in order. This is a piece of the curriculum that needs to be unhidden.

What needs to be “unhidden” in your classroom? Also, if you ever have the chance to have your classroom studied for a year, I highly recommend it!

Working to improve “the education sector.”

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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.

Project Based Learning, Session 1

On Wednesday, the first session of the Project Based Learning group that I’m hosting met in SLA’s Library.

Going into the session, people had already read a short intro essay about Understanding by Design. We started by introducing ourselves and describing our teaching environments. I’m thrilled to have people from all grade levels and disciplines, and even two people doing special instruction via a non-profit! A big goal of this ItAG is to help people create lessons that work in their environment, no matter what that is.

We then watched this short video, and then talking about whether the video confirmed or challenged our pre-conceived notions about PBL:

We then took a look at this short “cheat sheet” describing a few core pieces of PBL. I made a point of challenging the section labeled “21st Century Skills” (as if nobody ever reflected before the year 2000!)


Folks looked at the chart and read the accompanying descriptions for each skill, and had time to reflect on what they were already doing well in their classrooms, and what they were worried about.

Here are a few key questions that came out of that reflection, as shared with the whole group:

  • How do you deal with group work? Some kids will refuse no matter what. How do you get them to see the value? Extra time will be devoted to this in a future session.
  • Making it public is difficult. How do you do that?
  • How do you get projects to be above being a poster?
  • How do you get kids to take ownership? 
  • Getting them to go out on a limb – what’s the right answer? how many points is this worth?
  • How do you prevent them from shutting down? 

We then took a look at a Template PDF which introduced the basics of Understanding By Design lesson planning. I strongly recommend that you download the whole document, but here’s a snapshot of what we did.

The first step was looking at the template, where I told folks not to get overwhelmed by the number of boxes:

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Next, we looked at a “before and after” series, first looking at the “original” plan and discussing what we thought the essential questions for this project could be, and how that might change the overall design of the unit.

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Once we had teased that out, we looked at the “transformed” lesson.

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The second example was for a high school geometry class — a valuable discussion because we hit our heads against the conflict of what makes math “interesting” — the math itself, or the social implications of it? Several of us were very interested in the connections that the unit was making to geography and packaging, but were reminded (by the math teachers in the room) that this is often a flaw in “selling” math to students — that everything BUT the actual math is presented as the cool stuff.

A few other key understandings that came out of our discussions:

  • PBL is more about the “how” than the “what” — so the lesson plans should be focused on the process, not the final product.
  • Therefore, PBL can (and should) teach explicit skills to students — how are they going to create that what?
  • Explicit skill instruction is NOT forbidden, and often necessary in PBL. That can include looking at textbooks, or giving quizzes or tests. The point is that these activities are formative, not summative.

Lastly, the take-home task: pick a unit that you would like to make PBL — either one that you already teach, or a new one to design from scratch. If you’re feeling motivated, start to brainstorm what your essential questions would be!

If you are following along at home, please post your lesson plan in the comments, as well as any questions or thoughts you have.

Thankful and frustrated at the same time.

Screen shot 2013-02-12 at 1.19.33 PMLast week, I finally joined Donors Choose. My first project — books to be added to my classroom’s independent reading library — was funded in under 24 hours.

Needless to say, I was delighted. I’m thrilled that my students have more books to read.

But I’m also frustrated. I’ve still got a printer with no ink. We do have the money for paper. But we could use some new ink cartridges. Also, another Spanish teacher. And a Librarian.

Like I’ve said here before, teachers should not have to volley for resources that any school district would actually pay for if they had the money. And while individual donations do wonderful things for schools, sometimes the glorification of that charity shifts the focus away from the harsh inequities in school funding around our country.

While I write this, City Council is having a hearing on the proposed closing of 37 schools in Philadelphia. Members of PCAPS will be speaking, including Bartram High School Teacher Anissa Weinraub.

In her testimony, she will be making the specific recommendation that Philadelphia help raise funds for education by rethinking how it collects revenue from major city players, including “taxing major center city commercial real estate holders and corporations that don’t pay their fair share” and “by taxing the mega non-profits on their real estate holdings.”

Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. But whatever you do, don’t lose sight of the big picture. Because one day I would like for Donors Choose to become obsolete.

Related Post: I can’t grant write my way out of systemic inequality

Getting students to write about their writing.

I’ve already written a fair amount on this blog about SLA’s bi-weekly 2Fer essays. In brief, students in the 11th grade write a short analytical paper on any topic they choose, (roughly) every two weeks.

To emphasize the portfolio-style nature of this assignment, multiple 2fers live on the same Google Doc. When they finish one assignment and reflect on it, those reminders are the first thing they see when it’s time to start a new one. Then, in the middle of the year, we ask them to write a “Self-Reflective 2Fer” turning those reflections into a comprehensive thesis.

The instructions:

Your task this week is to write a 2Fer analyzing… your own 2Fer writing! The goal is to figure out HOW you can improve your writing, so your thesis statement should analyze a weakness in your composition.

Consider zooming in on one or two of the following focus areas: Thesis/Focus, Content/Development, Organization, Style, and Conventions.

One more thing… for this paper, the first person is allowed! Just make sure you’re not writing a long story about what distracts you from getting your work done. I want analysis of actual writing, not excuses why the writing isn’t there. You can and should quote:

  • — sections from your old 2Fers
  • — edits from your peers
  • — comments from Ms. Pahomov, both in your 2fers and at the end of each quarter
  • — your own “student reflections” completed after each 2Fer
  • — your edited papers that appear on the 2Fer Quarterly

Once students see that this is less work than a typical 2Fer, they relax. And then they get into it, looking at the four papers they have already written this year for patterns and trends. The goal is for them to really see how the five categories for feedback — thesis/focus, content/development, organization, style, and conventions — really connect. Here are a few choice quotes from this year so far:

“I like to take a clear stance on the topic I choose. A 2fer is supposed to do this, but I make it seem like it’s not even a topic that can be broken down into two parts. By this I mean, many of my 2fers are structured like, “The thing I support is so much better than this other thing.” Where by representing one side and one side only, I dominate one side of the topic and pound it into a bloody pulp.”

“When I get passionate about my papers, I look at it as a good thing, but it’s actually jumbling my papers up so that I list my opinions and it makes my paper biased.”

“The main problem with my writing is that I don’t know how to put the pretty bow on the top of it. And by that I mean, I don’t know how to write conclusions.”

A big advantage to doing this in the middle of the year is that their discoveries become their personal goals for the next semester — typed up in a big box at the top of their next Google Doc. The entire process becomes more customized — students know exactly what their weak spots are, and what steps they should be taking to improve. The peer editing discussions get more detailed, and the revisions go faster. This isn’t to say that they magically resolve their issues — but at the very least they know what they need to work on. Writing becomes a more transparent craft.

This post was inspired by Kate and Maggie’s Rinse and Repeat blog post. If you want more information about 2Fers, check out the slide deck below.

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: Creating The Ethic of Care.

Awesome notes courtesy of hellohomeroom.

Awesome notes courtesy of hellohomeroom.

The second session I was involved with involved significant less planning — but also somewhat more heart — than Standards Based Grading and Reporting.

Lehmann, Pia and I — and Mark Bey, and alumnus Mike Dea, and a smattering of SLA freshmen who all chose to be in the room just because — took folks on a meandering but meaningful tour through how care works in our building, and how we “care for” instead of just “caring about.”

Here are the prompts we used for the discussion:

  • What is the difference between care about and care for?
  • How can you (help teachers) make that transformation?
  • What are the challenges of this switch?
  • What are the tensions between caring for the adults and the children in the building?
  • How do you schedule care?
  • How can care be built into every structure and system that you have?

Here are a few general reflections from the session:

This process is not easy, and it’s never finished. SLA Spanish teacher Mark Bey talked about how his understanding of caring for students changed and expanded when he started working at the school — and now he tells his new advisory families that he is that child’s unconditional advocate in the building. They know that there is at least one person in the building who has their child’s best interests in mind.

Contact is key — and for us that includes Facebook, text messages, and hand-written journals passed back and forth, and random visits from graduates.

These procedures need space and time. We have advisory twice a week for 40 minutes, and advisory families stay together from freshman through senior year. We also have weekly planning time for all staff, which we sometimes use to conference in advisory groups, so teachers can plan curriculum, discuss upcoming events, etc.

That said — the shift to caring for can happen in small ways, without having your whole staff on board, and without a major shift in the schedule of the day. Three questions that Lehmann mentioned were key to treating students with care: What do you think? What do you need? And, when kids are in trouble, or upset, or in any kind of difficult situation: What do you need to say now?

We talked about situations where we have sat with a student and waited, patiently, without prodding, to hear what a student had to say about their life and their issues. Sometimes, proverbially speaking, we wait years. Sometimes they don’t even open up or figure things out before graduation. But we have some faith that part of the value is not in the immediate payoff (especially if there is none.) Sometimes, we get a glimpse of a delayed deposit for a student who comes back a few years later and has got it all under control and just wants to say thanks.

If you’re looking for more resources on how to integrate the ethic of care into your regular curriculum, check out my series on how to do test prep with heart.

EduCon Resources: Standards Based Grading.

I had the pleasure of being on the panel about Standards Based Grading and Reporting at SLA — we had a packed room, and when our session ended at 2:30 everybody was still in their small groups, digging in about what standards look like in each discipline.

EduCon tends to over-pack your brain with ideas — to the point where you sometimes lose sight of what you are bringing back to your home environment. On that note, here’s a round-up of tools and guides around the topic of SBGR.

Our presentation slides:

Here are a few more resources on that topic from my own classroom:
Slideshow of English Standards for Grade 10 – This is used at the beginning of the year to familiarize and remind students of the skills we look at.
Getting to know the English Standards – Grade 10 – The worksheet that accompanies the above slideshow. For each category of standards, students are asked:
  • Where is an area of success?
  • Where do you struggle?
English Standard Reflection Quarter 1 –  The survey that students fill out to reflect on how they have performed on standards in any given quarter — complete with both point by point questions and
And here is the list of standards for English. Notice that the six categories remain the same all four years, and the language only changes slightly from year to year.
Grade 9 Grade 10 Grade 11 Grade 12
Reading Comprehends a passage from an on-level text and masters strategies for deeper understanding and analysis. Same Same Same
Research  Looks at a source and identifies relevant material. Evaluates the quality of sources and identify relevant material. Uses an independent line of inquiry to evaluate the quality of sources and identify relevant material. Uses an independent line of inquiry to design and implement a complete research process.
Thesis Creates unique, insightful, and debatable thesis statement based on given topic and questions. Creates unique, insightful, and debatable thesis statement based on a given topic. Creates unique, insightful, and debatable thesis statement based on a self-selected topic. Crafts a formal independent research project from an original line of inquiry.
Grammar/Mechanics Demonstrates a developing proficiency of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and usage. Demonstrates a proficiency of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and usage. Demonstrates an advanced understanding of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and usage. Demonstrates an advanced understanding of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and usage.
Written Expression Develops a sense of voice and style. Develops a sense of voice and style across genres. Uses voice and style confidently across genres. Uses and blends voice and style confidently across genres.
Speaking  Communicates ideas and engages listeners effectively. Same Same Same

If you are looking for other resources — including for other disciplines — leave a note in the comments and I will connect you with the right person!