Tag Archives: Teacher Action Group

How to Enrich Publich Education.

I’m happy to be the co-signer of an opinion piece that ran in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Here’s a key section — as the representative for Teacher Action Group, I can say that we were particularly keen on expressing this sentiment:

When it comes to learning readiness, it’s important to acknowledge the violence of poverty and its impact on children. Children from families that are proximate to poverty have diminished learning readiness. The solution is to provide safe neighborhoods, sustainable employment, and access to health care. Poverty, however, is outside the direct purview of teachers. It is a societal responsibility. The challenges we face in school are a result of an anti-intellectual, anti-democratic economy that maintains the violence of poverty and vilifies teachers in the process.

I fear that too many people assume that teachers don’t deserve to be a part of the larger discussion about quality education — or that we’re too busy making lesson plans to even think about these matters. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Thanks to Gamal Sherif and Teachers Lead Philly for inviting TAG to co-sign the letter.

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 4

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Most of this session was centered around Brad Latimer, Math teacher at SLA. He shared a downloadable collection of lesson plans and materials with us, which included project descriptions and rubrics for both Algebra 2 and Calculus projects. And then we peppered him with questions for an hour and a half.

What makes group work happen?

  • Classroom set-up matters. In Brad’s class, students are always in pods of 4 or 5 except when quizzing. At the start of a regular class, they work on their warm-up in groups, and are also assigned to occasionally present the warm-up in those groups. They are used to doing structured class work and presentations all year, so getting into group projects is less of a challenge. By the time they get into projects, they know who they do and don’t work well with.
  • You have the flexibility to both have students pick their own groups and pick for them.

How do you deal with the group work “disasters?”

  • At the first day of a project, he asks students: Have you ever done a group project? Have you ever worked in a group where someone hasn’t carried their weight? Students then talk about what makes a good partner.

Do your projects have clear roles for each group member?

  • The short answer: Sometimes. Most of the time he lets people figure out their own roles, so they figure out how to best work together.
  • You can be surprised about what tasks might “wake up” a student, so that can be an advantage to not assigning roles.
  • It can be great to have a project that relies on individual work that is then combined into a group final product / presentation. There’s more interdependence.
  • But there’s also a struggle between giving students independent autonomy and also getting them to deeply collaborate with each other. Too much freedom can encourage students to just create in separate bubbles and slap it together at the end, without integrating and proofing their work.
  • For one project, Brad had an 80/20 point value split for group/individual points in a project — so students were individually motivated, but the majority of the grade still relies on the group project.
  • From Jaimie: One way to help track progress is to have students self-assess on a chart each day: what do they think the goal was, and how well did they meet it during that class? The teacher can then do a quick check-plus check-minus on the day. This also becomes a part of their process grade for the project, so they are motivated to hold on to it.

How do you scaffold students who are new to group work?

  • Very, very carefully and with repetition!
  • For freshmen, big projects usually have a clear deadline after each class of work. Sometimes the master plan for the project isn’t even revealed until halfway through the work (or even later) to prevent students from the “sticker shock” of a big project that they think is insurmountable.

What would you do differently? What are project based traps?

  • Try to give out the rubric quickly with the project description. THey need to see exactly how it’s going to be scored and what the point breakdown is.
  • Break the project down into intermediate deadlines.
  • There is a lot to be said about showing examples from previous years. There are different ways to do this — share it briefly, let them peruse for a set period of time, or longer, but let them know you know it well.
  • Do the project yourself!
  • Be flexible with changing projects mid-stream. Or seeing a glimmer of good work for the next round of pojrects. Or tossing one when it really didn’t work for students.
  • Let students pick three students they’re interested in working with, and the option of a “no go” list for people that would be bad matches. This gives them freedom while also giving you the ability to control for productive groups.

Next week, we will be sharing and peer reviewing our draft lesson plans.

Related posts: Project Based Learning, Sesson 1 / Session 2 / Session 3

Project Based Learning, Session 3

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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?

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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:

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

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.