One Step Further down the PBL Trail

Last April I came across a great post by Rhonda Hill titled, How Districts Help Teachers See Stepping Stones to Project Based Learning. The title caught my eye, as I am in the process of helping teachers shift their practices to be more student centered and authentic through the use of PBL units.

Reading through Rhonda’s advice, I came across a phrase that totally shifted my thinking and my approach to coaching teachers:

PBL is more of a dimmer than an on/off switch

In theory PBL makes perfect sense. Have a read through Edutopia’s elevator speech to see what I mean:

PBL is the act of learning through identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution. Kids show what they learn as they journey through the unit, not just at the end.

The difficulty comes when trying to think through a full blown PBL unit that takes hours of pre-planning and a huge paradigm shift. Hence the reluctance to jump in head first.

At start the year, I presented an intro to PBL at orientation that was built around the idea of ‘turning up the dimmer.’ Instead of our original idea – jumping into the planning of a PBL unit – my team and I decided that we would first show that many of the eight essential elements can already be scene in practice throughout the school.

At the end of the workshop, we had great feedback! Teachers were asked to complete the phrase “I used to think ___ and now I think___” about PBL, as our formative assessment and their exit ticket. Here are a few responses:


Wrapping up the GCC Project

If I had to choose the most valuable thing I’ve learned through my COETAIL journey, it would be the power of community and the ways to stay connected through space and time. Through the courses I have found great satisfaction and development from cultivating my PLN, and this is the learning that I want most to share with colleagues and students.

My Course 5 Project, called Together in the GCC, has been a great way to show participating teachers and students the power of connecting people, near and far, to work towards a common goal. This was the second year I’ve led the project; the first time was last year when Alexis Snider and I built the project in Course 1. The project has come a long way this year, and you can read about the big changes in my post called Collaboration in the GCC.

Below is a visual of the project and it’s 3 phases that culminated with teams of students collaborating to create a train route connecting the 6 GCC countries (Oman, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar). One of the best changes to this year’s project was the emphasis on digital communication during Phase 3. We initially had thought we could partner kids from different schools to complete the Google:My Map, but because of timing issues, we ended up teaming kids from different classrooms within the same school. It turns out that this was a great place to start and allowed teachers to better support the students’ digital communication and collaboration. Since the project outline will be the same next year, as well as most of the teachers, we may attempt to build a couple teams with students from different countries; but most will be more successful to begin this learning working with students within their school. Here are links to the Team Agreement, Collaboration Rubric, and Train Project Rubric that we used in Phase 3.

GCC Project Overview

Since the project lasted 9 weeks, and involved so many people, it was difficult to show all the great products, pictures, and video interviews with the students and teachers. Although I couldn’t fit it all in, I was glad that I was ‘forced’ to capture so much of everyone’s thinking and reflecting during and after the project. All the conversations have led to many great ideas that will undoubtedly make the project better next year. It also gave teachers a voice and sparked many conversations and therefore ownership over the project. My hope is that the project will carry on long after I have moved on. Thanks in advance for your feedback!

Homework Disruption

Warning – Hot Topic!

Picture courtesy of Woodleywonderworks via Flickr
Picture courtesy of Woodleywonderworks via Flickr

Homework, especially for elementary students, has been under heavy scrutiny lately in the media. There are articles about schools who have discontinued it altogether, data that shows limited or no positive effects, suggestions of how to make it more authentic and choice based, and even warnings of how homework kills students’ love of learning.

As part of the Elementary Leadership Team (ELT) at my school, I suggested to the group that we rethink our homework practices mainly because I am the parent of two elementary students who absolutely hate homework! I knew if I – a teacher who had always believed in the value of responsibility and practicing skills at home – was now questioning my longtime beliefs from ‘the other side of the fence,’ there must be other dissatisfied parents who fight the daily battle of homework for no evidence of its benefit.

In discussion with the ELT, it was determined that there were many reasons we needed to reevaluate our homework as an elementary school:

  • Inconsistency:  Across the grade levels, and even within a grade level partners, we knew there were inconsistencies in the amount of homework given; homework being assigned on weekends or holidays; homework packets or online accounts (i.e. IXL or RAZ Kids); some paraprofessionals grade homework and hand it back; some teachers mark homework themselves and provide feedback; some teachers rely only on the data provided from the online accounts; some teachers made students complete unfinished work at recess; others sent notes home or took away class points; others did not have a consequence.
  • Research: We are aware of a growing body of data that questions the effectiveness of homework in elementary grades.
  • Parent Complaints: Our principal confirmed that she had been fielding a growing number of complaints from parents about their frustrations with homework. Some parents felt it was too much and their kids were unable to participate in after school activities. Some complained that they never saw the packets come back to determine if they and their child had done it correctly. A few even asked for more homework. Some families with multiple children or twins, noted many differences between the class policies and practices around homework.
  • Does it Support our Beliefs: Most importantly, we decided to take on this hot topic because we wanted to make sure that our homework guidelines and practices support our beliefs around student centered education, standards based assessment and reporting, relevancy and authenticity in education, and the development of the whole child.

We have a school wide ‘Guiding Document’ about homework that is actually pretty solid and leaves room for teachers to personalize their homework practices, while still following the general guidelines. The problem is that we need to do the work that must happen in between the rules and the practice in order to make it attainable for the teachers. While there are already many differing opinions at my school, admin has made it clear that discontinuing homework is not an option.

IMG_4081The ELT team decided that we would use the Design Process again, similar to the way we had redesigned our ePortfolios last year. In order for us to get past our own ideas, The Design Process works well for our team to rethink ‘sacred cows‘. To begin, the Empathy Stage forces us to examine our practices through the eyes of our customers – students and parents. In our first session of ‘Re-Thinking Homework’, we gathered in groups comprised of colleagues from different sections (i.e. early childhood, grades 1-2, grades 3-5, Arabic, and specials) and went through several scenarios that depicted a range of parent and student issues around homework. Here are two examples:

Child One is a native Arabic speaker, and for Arabic homework, the student must read each day for 15 minutes, journal once a week, and occasionally practice spelling words. Parent One feels this is very important work, and doesn’t want to cut back on Arabic homework. Child One has homeroom homework to read for 20 minutes, as well as practice pages and/or website problems in math, and sometimes writing. Most of the time the child is able to do the homework independently, so the parent is unsure how the child is doing on the homework. Child One is very active in after school activities and sports, but after the drive home, it is now 5:30. The family finds it very difficult to get the child’s homework done, eat dinner, get ready for bed, and get the child to sleep by 8. This schedule also leaves no time for Child One to choose to play outside, a game with the family, Legos, or watch a show.

Child Two is naturally inquisitive, often looking up information on the internet about various interests and reporting back to his parents and teachers all that he’s learned. Child Two is very interested in gaming and computer coding. He has been learning how to do these things at home on his own. Parents fight with him daily to do his homework, and although the homework is very easy for the child, he’s unmotivated to do it. Child Two is very active and is often up moving around the room, speaking out of turn, and needs redirection to return to tasks. At school the child is required to stay in at recess to finish the work.

As they read through all the scenarios, the teams determined wants and needs of the parents and students, and wrote them on sticky notes – one idea per note. After the teams had read through the scenarios, we sorted all the ideas into groups (the Define Stage). The major ‘wants and needs’ identified were:

  • Differentiated
  • Guidance and support
  • Communication
  • Feedback
  • Flexible Timings
  • More choice and interest
Ideate Stage

In our second session, we did a carousel activity to add practical ideas to accommodate the wants and needs identified in our last session. After everyone had the chance to add their ideas, we also heard from a couple teachers who were already trying some new homework strategies with their class. One teacher shared several easy strategies that were used to meet the wide ranging needs in her class. For example, she posts her homework each night to her webpage and links the assignments to the external programs that differentiates by readiness and reports valuable data without her marking anything. She also always assigns a time limit, rather than a problem limit; some students might complete 10 problems in 15 minutes and other might only get through 5. The next teacher, from grade 5, had recently started to use passion projects for homework. He showed us the contracts and instructions he had developed, and also reported great success and enthusiasm from his students.TweetDeck

In our next session, keeping in mind our results from the previous stages, grade levels will develop prototypes of our homework plans. We will participate in another carousel to provide “2 Stars & a Wish” to give each other feedback or even gain a few more ideas.

Changes are already being tested! Photo courtesy of @DeidraWest3 via Twitter
Changes are already being tested!
Photo courtesy of @DeidraWest3 via Twitter

I have always thought that big changes were best tested at the end of a year so that I could come back in the fall with a solid plan. Similarly, the elementary teachers have agreed to put in place their prototypes for the month of May (Test Stage!) and gather feedback at the end of the year from both students and parents. The whole elementary school will also meet at the end of the year to discuss our findings in order to inform a “official” and more detailed elementary homework agreement.

This process has been lengthy and, at times, uncomfortable, but I know it’s been worth it. For the most part, all of the teachers have been excited about this process and agree that we can’t ignore this issue.  Youki Terada of Edutopia says it perfectly:

The question isn’t about homework vs. no homework; instead, we should be asking ourselves, “How can we transform homework so that it’s engaging, relevant, and supports learning?” 

I look forward to reporting back on our final agreement.

Connections and Communication in the GCC

My Course 5 Final Project is a regionally collaborative project involving classrooms from the 6 Gulf countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This is the second year we have ran the project, but this year we made many adjustments to enable more communication and collaboration between students. In order to facilitate interactions between 188 students, I knew we would need to improve communications between the 10 participating teachers (plus any support specialists). 2016-04-06 12-02-36

Last year to accommodate communication between teachers, we relied on Google Hangouts to chat in groups or just pairs. This year, with plenty of positive interdependence built in, I knew we would need a forum where we could all initiate conversations, post resources, and ask or answer questions. I decided to create a private Google+ Community called Together in the GCC. I liked that I could create a closed group, and although I could have done the same on Facebook, I knew all the teachers were at schools using Google Apps for Education.

2-Together in the GCC Educator Community Community GoogleThis forum has worked well for our project. It was easy to quickly poll teachers for input or majority decisions, and it was also great for me and other teachers to pass along resources needed for the project.

The biggest challenge was getting teachers to participate in the community. For the most part there was one main teacher from each school that was active, and of those half only responded to questions within a days time. With a tight timeline already, this issue will definitely need work at the beginning of the project next year if our aim is to truly go through the project together with our students relying on each other’s research and presentations in order to create their final project.

To address this, I think it would help to email out a ‘Welcome Video’ that included a short tutorial about the community. The tutorial would need to go over tips to be an active member like: setting up a notification email to see when others post, how to post and reply, the importance of using the ‘+1’ button, places to find members and their emails, and how the feed is organized. 2016-04-06 12-05-23In addition to introducing features of the Google + community, I will also include an overview of what is housed in our shared Google Drive Folder and how participating teachers can add their resources to be shared by all.

I have also kept the initial Weebly website updated, which I created when the project was first launched last year; it’s also called Together in the GCC. This year, the intended audience became the students, rather than the teachers, as it was last year. I think the site was less utilized this year because teachers didn’t need it for project resources; and instead of students accessing the materials there, most teachers passed them to their students through email or Google Drive. For next year, I think it would be a good idea to continue to use the Weebly site for students, but pay for the ‘premium’ account in order to allow other teachers edit the site, including the home page blog roll with messages to/from students. 2016-04-06 11-33-39

Google+ Communities is not a perfect tool, however, and I would really like to see them add an archive section to quickly access all the documents that have been attached to posts; much like Facebook has a place to scroll through all the photos attached or tagged.

Overall, I really like Google+ Communities and have plans to use it in my role as the New Faculty Coordinator to answer questions, provide necessary information for their transition, and to facilitate communication among incoming teachers. I’m hoping that through the use, they might be inspired to use it with their students, especially in the secondary school.

I’ve been happy with the choice of the Google+ Community, and with more front loading about how to use the tool effectively, I think it will provide the opportunity for more communication around ideas, resources, shared decisions, and progress; all of which are needed to maximize our students global collaboration.

Collaboration in the GCC

Image courtesy of SpLoT at en.wikipedia
Image courtesy of SpLoT at en.wikipedia

Last spring, after the culmination of my Course 1 Project, Together in the GCC, I asked the participating teachers to reflect on what they would change our next time through the project. The feedback gathered was very similar. The main things that needed attention was:

  • Shortening the length of the project
  • More authentic opportunities for students to collaborate and interact
    • scheduling in time and creating a purpose for students to read and comment on each other’s blog posts
  • More depth to what we were learning, possibly decreasing breadth
  • Flipgrid was not the right tool for our group and purpose
Picture courtesy of Werner22brigitte via Pixabay
Picture courtesy of Werner22brigitte via Pixabay

Although all felt this project taught students and teachers lots about the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and it’s member countries, it still felt like we were doing a line dance together rather than a tango. A line dance require everyone to be stepping and moving side by side, not touching, and letting the music dictate your next move, not your partner. A tango on the other hand, must be done together. You must communicate, read, and rely on your partner to make you look good and vice versa. To me, this positive interdependence is what I had to get right the second time around.

I decided to take a Project Based Learning approach to the re-planning of the the project. I met with fellow CoETaILer and teammate, Fiona Al Rowaie, to brain storm a possible authenitic end goal for the project. A GCC train has long been in official and unofficial talks around the Gulf, so we landed on the idea of students deciding on 10 train stations within the 6 GCC countries. The driving question (DQ) being: Which 10 cities would best be suited for hosting a GCC trainstop in order to benefit the people and economies within the GCC countries?

From this question and authentic project idea, we worked backward to plan the first 2 phases of the project. Pulling apart our DQ, we knew the students would need a strong understanding of the GCC, including it’s purpose, benefits, and structures. Also to be successful in the final project, students would need to learn about the major cities within the 6 GCC countries in order to make informed decisions in the train station locations.

The new Together in the GCC project outline came together as:

  • Phase 1: Learn about the Gulf Cooperation Council and it’s member countries.
    • At the end of the research, students will compete in a Kahoot GCC Trivia Game over Google Hangouts.
  • Phase 2: Learn about and present on major cities within host country, specifically considering the cities’ geographical interests, cultural interests, population, industry interests, historical interests, and environmental interests.
    • At the end of Phase 2 students will post their presentations on a blog. Students will provide each other with feedback on their presentations, as well as use the information learned to decide which 10 cities to choose for the GCC train stations.
  • Phase 3: Use the information gathered in Phase 2 to create a Google: My Map of chosen locations for the GCC train route. Teams will also create a screencast using Google Hangouts to present their train route, along with evidence that supports their choices. Ideally we would have students in groups from different schools to give students the chance to collaborate, much like the teachers have been throughout the project. 
    • At the end of Phase 3, students will post their presentations on a blog and comment on their peers’ projects. Students and Teachers will choose the top (2?) presentations to be part of the final Together in the GCC video we share with our school communities and possibly news agencies in the GCC countries.

Although happy with the end goals in sight, there is much to be done in order to implement this learning in 10 different classrooms, across 4 different countries, facilitated by 10 different teachers, for their 188 students!

Below is the unit planner I provided the participating teachers and used to email and recruit potential classes to join the project.

RVISioning for 21st Century Success

My school has had 1:1 laptops from 1st grade on since its inception 7 years ago. We aren’t strangers to using technology in our classrooms, but at times we have lost sight of how to use it to enhance teaching and learning. I think we became complacent, as we were ahead of the pack from the very beginning, simply because we had the tools. However, in the last few years we have begun evaluating our technology usage and innovative practices – which we now refer to as RVISioning – to ensure our students learn the necessary 21st century success skills. Below are details about some of the ways my thinking, teaching, and coaching has changed as a result.

Photo courtesy of Georgia Southern via Flickr

Learning is Active

One of my best shifts, with bonus ripple effects, is that I now lead workshops or lessons with two objectives in mind. First, that I want the teaching style or technology tool I’m using to be a lesson in itself for teachers to use right away; and second, is of course, the content. A good example is when my team had returned from a visit to Shekou International School and I was tasked to report to the faculty what we had decided about our beliefs around technology integration. I could have made a long powerpoint with images and stories of what we had seen their teachers doing – but I knew that might put some on the defensive, rather than give them ideas. I decided instead to ‘practice what I preach’ by involving them in the lesson with a game and getting them to think about their experiences as students. I introduced Kahoot and asked true or false questions starting with the phrase, Did your best learning experience include. Here is a sampling of the questions that got them thinking (Check out the full game here):

  • You were given the choice of which group to contribute to or which topic to learn about
  • You learned about the topic in a collaborative and social setting
  • You were called out for checking your Facebook or Instagram
  • Your team worked towards a common goal that was real world relevant
  • Your leader listened and gave you meaningful, thought provoking feedback during the training
  • You had to sit and listen, perhaps following or being read a powerpoint, for 20 min. for more
  • Your leader expected and trusted organized chaos in the learning environment
  • Your instructor was obviously excited and passionate about the topic and task

My underlying message, that I hope was obvious, is that it’s not about the technology tool, it’s about our teaching practices. If educators could try to keep in mind how they learn best, rather than using common ‘teaching’ practices used on them during PD days, our kids would be much more engaged. Luckily, I have an easy going, reflective admin team that thanked me for “raising the bar.”

Photo courtesy of Jennifer3266124 via
Photo courtesy of Jennifer3266124 via

Learning is Social

To promote more peer teaching across the school, we’ve agreed to use Twitter to share articles and ideas we come across (#RVISionaries), as well as to share what we are doing in our classrooms. Also, along the line of making our practices transparent, last year I led several sessions on screen-casting which has resulted in lots of ‘bite-sized’ lessons from Google Extensions to ELL tips posted on our faculty website where teachers can refer back as needed throughout the year.

One of my projects this year is to help learn and disrupt our Personal Growth Plan model. The elementary principal asked 5 awesome teachers to work with me on this project and allow me to observe their classroom practices in order to get a feel for how the model works as is. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from COETAIL is that learning is collaborative, and therefore I feel like such an important process should be bigger than a few observations and reflections between a teacher and an administrator. With this in mind, we are going to trial more of a Critical Friend Protocol – especially because what’s missing now is the peer observation and peer teaching piece.

Photo courtesy of Sal via Flickr

Parenting with Technology is (relatively) New Territory 

Another project in the pipes is a Parent Workshop about technology use in school and at home. I’ve been fielding lots of parent emails dealing with either preconceived notions or a lack of information about our school’s technology use. This need has been building since we have gone to mostly online homework and a BYOD environment from grades 6-12. We are addressing many of the concerns in school by providing digital citizenship lessons across the school, but our next step must be parent education – especially since many of the negative behaviors start at home.

With a team of teachers, counselors, administrators, and hopefully some students from across the school, I am going to plan and offer a variety of sessions that parents can choose from. Thanks to @jodeejunge and the high school team leader (@brywilks), we already have a great start to, what I’m positive will be, a lot of learning for all involved. Check out the ‘skeleton’ plan below and watch for more details this spring.



Course 5 Project Plans

I went back and forth about what to do for this project, as my aspirations for originality warred with my need to check off a goal for my school’s use of technology. In the end, I knew that learning and implementing MinecraftEdu was what my school needed and therefore made my choice obvious.

Even though I won’t get an originality prize, I am excited to offer this club to kids (and teachers) at school. I have been offering coding as an After School Activity (ASA) for a few sessions now, but they kids are always begging for Minecraft. Similarly, at home, my two kids do their best communicating and collaborating when they are building in a world together.

After my friend @jodeejunge and I learn how to use this as a teaching and learning tool, we are also going to offer a workshop to other teachers across the school and invite them to come see how the kids are using the tool and let the kids teach them how to move around, dig, and build. ASA is an ideal starting point because there will be more teachers available to come and learn implementation of the tool and the pressure of not wasting a classroom minute is far less.

Another bonus to starting in ASA is that we can get a school set of servers and accounts with the activity fee; we all know how difficult it is to get approved for purchases in the middle of the year! After reading several COETAIL Course 5 project reflections about Minecraft, I found Alex Guenther’s post that talked about how he created numbered accounts for his grade 7 students. From there we found a helpful tutorial that showed us how to number the accounts and attach them all to one email address.

With so many fantastic resources from educators who have been right where Jodee and I are now, I feel confident that we can make this a powerful learning experience for ourselves, our students, and other teachers at our school.