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:


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.

Digital Citizenship Agreement

I worked with two elementary teachers from my school, @jodeejunge and @Deidrawest, as well as two elementary teachers working in the UAE, @tanyaleclair and @kdao.

We went back and forth as far as the structure, but agreed that we wanted a more positive message to come through about digital citizenship. This turned out to be a difficult task, because as we were researching and writing bullet points to go under the Learner Profile traits, the list seemed to narrow to specific rules and expectations about the use of technology and the social media tools.

Photo by Randi Wilkinson
                             Empowerment = Continued Work                                Photo by Randi Wilkinson

I think the final product is good for teachers and schools who are just beginning to learn about and teach digital citizenship to their students. However, as my school continues to teach digital citizenship and shifts from fear to empowerment,  I hope to transition to more simple and empowered agreement like Angela’s and Christy’s Empowered RUA. At this point the teachers in my school will appreciate the details on our agreement for as they learn about digital citizenship.

Like with any agreements and rules, we must be proactive to prevent problems. This is where the Digital Citizenship Curriculum and 21st Century classroom management techniques comes in. Within the Digital Citizenship lesson plans, I have specified which Learner Profile Trait it connects to. Hopefully teachers and students will begin to see that Digital Citizenship is just Citizenship.

My next step is to build on this agreement for the Middle School and High School, and continuing to develop the rest of the Digital Citizenship Curriculum.

Lead the Way

I think student empowerment begins with teacher empowerment. It is up to mentors, teachers, and parents to expose children to the transformational power of online communities. As Derek Muller explains in his new clip called Learned Helplessness, school has become something kids have to endure and therefore kids develop a learned helplessness around learning. Many students do not see learning and achieving their passions as something that they can do for themselves. Watch the clip below:

I’ve always been energized by collaborating on projects and working off each others’ ideas to create better ones. However, all of my experience until now has been face to face. Global collaboration is new to me and I’m wondering How’d I not think of this before?!

There are several projects and professional learning happening this year at my school that has shown teachers the power of connecting to a greater community using the web:

  • Our 1st and 4th graders participated in the If You Learned Here global collaborative project. It was an exciting experience connecting and contributing to a project housed in the cloud between participants. Our students enjoyed sharing about their school, as well as learning about other schools around the world. Recently the 1st and 4th graders met up to peruse the collaborative ebook that served as the project’s final product, and the prideful buzz in the room was contagious.
  • Our 4th graders are in the middle of a project called Together in the GCC and it has led to making connections with teachers and students from Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. The kids eagerly gather research each week in preparation to create videos and share their finding with the GCC community. Equally enthusiastic are the teachers, who collaborate each week to share ideas and tips. When first starting the project, I found participants through Twitter, as well as emailing schools and asking that they forward the project description to their 4th grade teachers. We began communicating via email and Google Hangouts, but now easily converse about the project using Google Chat. We have formed a powerful partnership and hope to continue the project and make it better each year.
  • I recently helped plan a unit with Jodee Junge for her 3rd grade class to learn about human migration. We will use Flipgrid to gather migration stories from teachers, parents, and Jodee’s and my PLN. By hearing of others’ migration experiences, we think it will evoke empathy within her students and enable them to better internalize the concepts and causes behind migration.
  • This year I have taken on the roll of New Faculty Coordinator and am utilizing my new skills and ideas for online collaboration. I am using Google Classroom to facilitate discussion, share tutorials, and even create assignments such as Make a Twitter account, connect with each other,  and follow your new school.  I shared Jeff’s Twitter tutorial, as well as a clip of him talking about how the internet is a mass of communities.  I also shared the recent Where There’s Smoke Podcast about Communities that included Jeff as the guest speaker. It gave many of the teachers, most of whom are beginning their first international teaching post, a sense of calm in knowing that the pulse of the community is not where it was created, but in the hearts of the members and that the community can still flourish even if it is apart. I also surveyed the teachers to get an idea of their experience with the Google Education Tools, which you can’t live without at our school. Knowing what they need, I have been creating and sharing short screencasts showing them how to effectively use Gmail, Calendars, and Drive. The best part was that a few of the teachers responded with other tricks and tips and agreed to create a screencast of their own. Little by little, these new teachers have ‘friended’ me on facebook and are sending me emails and opening up with their fears, anticipation, and excitement. I am getting lots of great feedback and am confident that we are creating strong, supportive bonds without ever having met.
Photo Courtesy of Mike via Flickr
Photo Courtesy of Mike via Flickr

These projects and learning experiences have opened me and many others at my school, to new ways of creating student centered approaches to learning. It is important to show teachers and students the possibilities of connecting to other learners around the world. Once we allow our learners to be back in the ‘driver’s seat’ of their learning process and goals, we can leave Learned Helplessness behind.



Classroom Management in the 21st Century Classroom

Surprisingly, my school has had 1:1 laptops from 1st grade onwards since its inception, 7 years ago, but has never had a digital citizenship curriculum or common agreements around the responsible use of the internet. I think it’s wrong that we have given students access to a digital environment, but have not taught them the skills necessary to  successfully consume, contribute, and create online.

As I have gathered resources to build a K-12 Digital Citizenship curriculum, I kept thinking back to those few teachers who don’t even feel comfortable letting their kids use the computers, let alone teaching lessons on how to interact and create an authentic, purposeful audience online. What I have realized is that our classroom management training, procedures, and expectations are outdated. Those teachers who are reluctant about technology, are the ones desperately clinging to control, rather than embracing what learning looks like today. Then it hit me that along with a Digital Citizenship curriculum, we need a common understanding of effective 21st century classroom management strategies.

Photo by MC Quinn via Flickr
CC image courtesy of MC Quinn via Flickr

Annoyingly, I could not find many resources devoted to this topic, and the suggestions that came from searching ‘classroom management strategies’ were very outdated and suggested primarily reactive (and creativity crushing) ways to insist kids raised their hands before talking, stayed in their seats, finished their homework, etc. All very authoritative methods that provide very win-lose situations for kids who are already struggling with big questions like “Why do I have to learn this,” “How will this ever help me,” and “Why do I have to come to school anyway?!” Talk about a recipe for behavior problems.

CC image courtesy of Chris Sloan
CC image courtesy of Chris Sloan

Managing 21st Century Classrooms, written by Jane Bluestein, wrote that ‘uncooperative student behavior’ is one of the biggest reasons cited for teachers who leave the profession! I found this almost hilarious because I wager that ‘uncooperative teacher behavior’ is one of the biggest reasons kids mentally, sometimes even physically, check out of school.

Remember Logan LaPlante’s Tedx “Hackschooling Makes me Happy”?  This is why students are pushing back. Teachers are so entrenched in what they have to cover, they miss what the students want and need for their futures. Check out one of the comments by ItsHawkable to Logan’s talk that got 199 likes: School teaches nothing, its about passing not learning. I am 14 years old and I am a developer for minecraft mods and plugins and general java applications (Which is funny cause he mentions it in the video). Without focusing on school, I learned Java fluently in 3 months and I hope to one day go on to become a software engineer, and school hasn’t taught me a damn thing about my profession. I want to go to college where I can focus on my studies, where I can focus one what I love and want to do for the rest of my life.

CC Image courtesy of Southern Arkansas University on Flickr
CC Image courtesy of Southern Arkansas University on Flickr

Clearly, kids still need teachers and school. The revolution, as Derek Muller explains, needs to be the way teachers connect to students and make school relevant again. He also explains that, “Luckily, the fundamental role of a teacher is not to deliver information. It is to guide the student in the social process of learning.” Don’t be afraid of coaching; our kids should be expected to achieve more and dream bigger than us! So teach how, but then get out of the way.

Now we’re back to the issue and need to teach digital citizenship and responsible, powerful ways to use the internet to learn and make connections. I worked with our librarian on this project and we decided in Grades K-2 to simply build on the Scope and Sequence provided by Common Sense Media and building in extra resources we knew of, such as videos from BrainPop and free tools for research and citations. In grades 3-5, as kids become a bit more independent, teachers will utilize a blended approach using lessons from the scope and sequence, in addition to the Digital Passport program. In middle school and high school, the advisory teachers have 3 choices (or even better – a combo that lasts through the year): they can use the Digital Bytes program, the scope and sequence lessons (see here for HS plans so far), or join the globally collaborative projects through Flat Connections called Digitween and Digiteen.

Now that I am nearing completion of these units, I will shift my attention to the changes that need to happen in classroom management in order to facilitate 21st century learning. Several teachers at my school are comfortable with this shift and have embraced new ways of teaching, which may be a good place to start. If a think tank can be convened around the topic of 21st century classroom management agreements, then maybe we can begin to show all teachers win-win strategies so that students and teachers alike don’t feel the temptation to leave school.


The Creative Commons Art Class

Jeffs airplane pic - Awesome!
Jeffs airplane pic – Awesome!

There aren’t many things to dislike about traveling, but one thing that annoys me is that my photos never seem to do my experience justice. The same thing happened when my kids were babies; I would take a ridiculous amount of photos, never seeming to capture what I saw with my own eyes.

Flying into Hong Kong - so beautiful in my memory, not so much in this picture.
For comparisons sake – my airplane picture. Boo.

My good friend and art teacher, Jeff Pabotoy does not have this problem. His pictures always seem to look better than the real deal and he expertly manages to infuse mood into his final products. He obviously doesn’t realize what a gift he has because when I approached him to co-teach a unit on Creative Commons licensing and mobile photography/editing, he was surprised I’d asked.

As educators, our goal is always to first intrinsically motivate the students to learn; this can usually be accomplished by making the learning personal. Obviously teenagers enjoy taking photos and getting recognized – but most are only aware of sharing their work on social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter – queue Flickr accounts! Additionally, the task of convincing teenagers that stealing digital information is wrong and unethical (especially when it’s so easy), is addressed because they will now be the creators whose work may be stolen.

Jeff and I did a little review of Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons ourselves using the following resources:

  1. The Educator’s Guide to Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons
  2. Teaching Students about the Creative Commons
  3. Copyright Flowchart by Langwitches
  4. Copyright and Creative Commons Explained by Common Craft video

After talking with Jeff we decided our unit would go like this:

  1. Copyrights and the need to site both written and visual materials
    1. Copyright Flowchart by Langwitches
    2. Copyright and Creative Commons Explained by Common Craft video
    3. A Fair(y) Use Tale because it’s so fun to watch
  2. Creative Commons: What is it and why should we use it
    1. Introductory slide show explaining Creative Commons Licenses
    2. What Students Need to Know About Creative Commons” Slideshow
    3. Collection of videos about Creative Commons
  3. Sign up for Flickr
  4. Understand the different CC licenses and create one
  5. Learn how to take and edit photos that your FB friends will envy
    1. PicShop Lite
    2. Piclay
    3. Photo Editor by Aviary
    4. Split Pic Editor & Blender
  6. Upload and tag photos in your Flickr account
    1. How To Add Tags
    2. How to add photos and tags video tutorial
  7. Learn how to search for creative commons photos and attribute the creator
    1. How to Attribute a CC photo
    2. How to Cite a Photo
  8. Where to get CC photos
    1. Search Creative Commons
    2. Google’s Advanced Search
    3. Photosforclass
    5.  (one free photo per day)
    7. Flickr Advanced Search
    8. Morguefile
    9. Open Clipart Libary

I’ll report back with our ups and downs after we begin the lessons. I’m expecting a win-win learning experience for all, especially the days when Jeff teaches us about photography and editing right in time for my summer flights and travels!

Seriously, Now I’m Scared?!

Admittedly, this is an annoying topic for me. In my work as a technology integrationist, fear of the internet is one of the hardest battles I fight.

That said, I have actually come to understand the fear much more after reading this week’s articles. Infact, I find myself now way over-analyzing my social media posts and how they might be perceived by others, going so far as to give up and not post at all. Just as I thought I was beginning to be more comfortable with my online voice and brand, I’ve been scared into overthinking what other’s might think about me. If I can be scared into not posting, what will these messages do to our youth who are already struggling with the obsession of what other’s think of them.

Like I argued in my last post, First Impressions, this is one more reason the social media rhetoric needs to be mostly positive with firm warnings sprinkled throughout.

The ‘biggies’ that I will be spinning into positive messages and working into the digital citizenship curriculum for our middle school and high school students are:

  • Where the World Can Get to Know You (vs. There’s No Such Thing as Private Online):
    Photo by Paško Tomić via Flickr
    Selfies are not the only way to “show” yourself.  Photo by Paško Tomić via Flickr
    • Positives: There are many ways to build your personal brand that can help you as a student, and later as an adult, by building, learning from, and contributing to a professional learning network.
    • Warnings: Discretion and responsible use is needed to protect your personal information and the personal information of others. When you post possibly damaging photos on social media sites, even when the settings are ‘private,’ there is no guarantee that your parents, teachers, or possible future employers won’t see it – so protect yourself and your friends by showing restraint and always getting permission before posting pictures.
  • Promote Your Unique and Creative Thoughts and Achievements (vs. your reputation is at stake)
    • Positives: Promoting your causes and passions indirectly promotes you as good person. Ever have a conversation with someone who talked nonstop about themselves? This is no different from the person on social media who posts their every move, meal, haircut, hiccup, etc. To improve your reputation, as Ben Parr explains, try posting about causes and issues that you are passionate about, rather than about yourself.

      Photo by @kjackemerson
      A friend of mine doing volunteer work she cares about. Posting and bringing awareness to an issue shows what a great person she is. Photo used with permission by @kjackemerson
    • Warnings: There are sites like SimpleWash that can help you delete posts, but once things are out online, they are nearly impossible to completely remove. Also, there really is no difference between your online self and your real self – both reputations have the potential to help or harm your real self’s goals.
  • The Internet is Getting to Know You (vs. your clicks are being watched, followed, and recorded – Yikes!)
    • Positives: HTTP Cookies make it possible for me to go back to my GAP online cart and still have my items; authentication cookies are useful for a website to know that it’s really you logging in; tracking cookies are used to try to make the ads on your browser relevant. Sites like the New York Times and Facebook use the data to personalize your experience and make reading suggestions, explains Ethan Zuckerman in his article The Internet’s Original Sin. Although there are ways to turn off your devices’ GPS tracking, your calls, posts, and electronic money transactions make it possible for others to track your location – which does freak me out a little too – until I think about the usefulness of tracking down kidnappers or other dangerous people.

      Photo by Georgie Sharp via Flickr
      Yes, this part is a maze and it’s hard to know what’s around the corner. Photo by Georgie Sharp via Flickr
    • Warnings: One of the biggest risks, as Ethan also points out, is that a personalized web experience can make it hard to keep an open mind and learn from other perspectives. Be on the lookout for anyone or anything that tries to pigeonhole you and keeps you from discovering and learning more. For convenience and customization we agree to companies’ conditions and allow them to collect information about us. Check out this infographic to compare who is tracking what. Educate yourself and read the privacy policies before just clicking ‘agree’. Look into alternatives like DuckDuckGo, which as privacy becomes more and more of a hot topic, there are likely to be more of.
  • Respectful Agreements (vs. Beware of your “friends”’ phone cameras!)
    • Positives: Social media has made it possible to keep in touch with or even meet new friends. It’s also made it possible to learn from other experts around the world.
    • Warnings: As a respectful and caring friend and user of social media, agreements need to be understood and followed. Before you photograph, post and tag other people, it is essential that you get their permission. And, just like with other social pressures, it is okay to say no to having your photo taken if you don’t think it will reflect you positively. After all, your future job could be at stake.