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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.

Project Based Learning, Session 3

Screen shot 2013-02-28 at 7.27.22 AM

Going into this session, participants had begun to draft their Understanding By Design Unit Plan. For some folks, that meant a complete document — for others, a sense of their essential questions and big understandings, but with the details yet to be filled in.

I intended this session mostly as a talk-and-work period, so the big resource provided was SLA’s Google Site of Public UbD Lesson Plans. This is a resource that our staff quickly put together earlier this year, after many (many) requests to share some of our complete unit plans.

We also had a brief visit from Meenoo Rami, who talked about integrating skill acquisition into project-based units. She emphasized that explicit skill instruction and doing smaller, partial versions of the culminating project are key to a successful unit, and that this can all be very explicit to students — you don’t have to keep the final work a secret from them. Buy in can actually be higher if they know why they’re doing x or y activity.

Tonight we had four distinct groups working through their ideas — elementary school science, middle school social studies, high school math, and high school English. One of the most complete plans at this point came from two teachers at the Philadelphia School for the Deaf in Germantown. They plan to turn their unit on the Underground Railroad “on its head” by having students do multiple field visits to the Germantown Historical Society, develop a line of inquiry around different artifacts, and then create a video-based tour guide for the site (right now, all of their tour materials are audio-based.)

Wow.

So, we’re doing some great stuff on Wednesday evenings. Next week we’re getting a crash course in project design and rubrics.

What new units are you planning before the end of the year?

Related posts: Project Based Learning, Sesson 1 / Session 2

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?

Screen shot 2013-02-20 at 7.27.24 PM

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:

Explanation

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

Interpretation

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

Application

  • 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)?

Perspective

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

Empathy

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

Self-Knowledge

  • 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