This school year, I'm beginning work on my masters degree in educational leadership. The first course in that program has just finished, and I thought I'd include two papers that I wrote for the class here.
The first is one I wrote in response to and article by Sarah Fine, where I discuss what I see as my next steps in developing PBL and helping it shed it's oppressive history. I read new educational theory as part of the pre-work for this class, and this paper helped me get my thoughts in order.
The second paper was my final paper for the class, where I summarize what I learned and how the class had developed my thinking. At the end of this course, we were tasked with a self assessment, something that I have never done before, but that I enjoyed and will probably adapt to use with my own class.
For teachers that are beginning to teach at a distance using videoconferencing tools (like me), my major takeaways from this learning were these:
1. Use small groups/breakouts as much as is appropriate. The best learning happens in small discussions. You may apply accountability techniques for what happens in the breakout room, but don't jump in unannounced, let the kids have some responsibility for doing the work,
2. Ask you class what they want to learn. If possible, only teach them things that they ask about. A good place to start it to give them something to do in your subject area and then see what questions they have about doing the work. This is much better then telling them everything you think they will need to know.
3. Related to #2, student voice and experience should lead as much as possible. Teaching to student questions is one way to do this. Negotiating about videoconference etiquette is another. By centering everything on the student experience you will avoid becoming the teacher you hated in school and motivated you to become a teacher yourself.
What if they all just copy you?
This is a phrase that I heard a couple times when visiting teachers would ask about my most recent project, Lakeview. While the kids are working, my complete prototype is hanging on the wall behind them. I use it a lot to show the class how I put something together or what size hole I drilled or whatever. While some might see imitation and copying as a problem, I see it as an essential part of learning.
One of the compromises I make as an educator is grading assignments. I really like all the other stuff that comes with teaching, but grading is something that wears me down and seems to be my least favorite part of the job. Usually I structure my classes so that I have the smallest amount of grading possible or so that grading is as easy as possible. I've noticed 2 effects of this on the students. First, they get the message that detail is not important. If their teacher is just going to breeze over it, then there's no need to be super careful or take too much pride in what they do. Second, their work is not important. If their teacher, who may be the only person to see this, doesn't give it much attention, then what's the point?
So I changed things this semester.
"I can't even begin to think about next semester yet."
I hear this often. Project teachers at this time of the year are usually very absorbed with planning their exhibitions. Issues and snags appear and they must react quickly to try and display all of the student work. They must make a lot of decisions and it's exhausting. There is not enough room to do all of this and also plan out a project for the next semester, even though a quality project takes a lot of time to plan. It is a cycle of decision fatigue
How to make sure your project gets moving quickly! or How to check that your project will work.
Sometimes when planning projects, it is easy to lose focus of what the class will be doing the whole time that you've set aside for this work. What will the day to day tasks be? For a project to be successful, it is necessary that students start with experience before moving on. Good projects also involve multiple drafts and revisions. The best projects will turn your classroom into a kind of cycling museum, with new stuff going up and being replaced and showing what the class is working on. All projects should end in a final deliverable or final product that the students are proud of. How can you be sure that you are doing all this and that your project is aiming for greatness? Make sure you have a First Friday Deliverable.
How do I scaffold complex tasks in an authentic and engaging way? or What is the day to day of PBL?
Earlier in my teaching I used to think that in PBL we were intentionally withholding information. It felt like we were asking students to discover concepts and skills that were well established in academics and I didn't like the dynamic that it created. My perspective has changed since then and thought I'd share.
So you are trying PBL, and you need your class to learn how to do something that is complex, like writing a comic book or building a glider. How do you scaffold all the skills that go into that task? How can you individualize the learning for each of your students? In short, you need to let them try it first, then fill in the holes over time. Here are my suggested steps for doing that. I'll give examples for a few different types of projects.
What are we really learning?
In the past I've had a hard time adding content to my projects. They usually involve skills, like woodworking and CAD, but not easy content pieces that I could point to to say "look what we've learned". I think that this is for 2 reasons: first is that my projects didn't require very much content. to build furniture for your school doesn't really require much knowledge of physics so it doesn't come up. In fact, for the Making Space project I finished the project early so that I could go back and fill in the holes for the students with more content. The second reason is because I never asked my students what they wanted to learn.
Part of what draws me to PBL is the removal of the fluff around teaching. When I'm showing students how to make something the class structure is focused and intentional. I give a lesson in the moment because the class needs to know it to finish this part of the deliverable. Where I've fallen short in the past is picking deliverable that require both content and skills.
With Along for the Glide , the class need both content knowledge and skills to complete the objectives for each unit. Built a kite that flies, build a glider with a high glide ratio, these require building skills and knowledge of aeronautical physics. But with such a huge topic it's hard to know what to start with. So, I asked the class. Once they had had a chance to build a kite and try flying it, I had each of my students write down 3 questions on a card and turn it in at the end of the day. I combed through these for commonalities and found 3 overall questions:
- What makes a kite fly?
- What makes a kite not wobble when it flies?
- How do you fly a kite?
The answer to all these questions gets us into topics of lift and drag and balanced forces etc. And the set up for these lessons is really authentic: "Ok class I had a lot of questions last week about how to make your kites more stable in flight so I'm going to give you some ideas." or "Some of you were really able to get you kites up high last week, so I'm going to have us share some thoughts on what might make the difference when actually getting a kite into the air."
Instead of positioning myself as only the deliverer of knowledge but a part of the collaboration, these lessons are way more fun for me and engaging for the class and bring everyone in, which is the whole point.
How do I record and assess what kids learn while doing PBL?
A big question to be sure. In my practice I don't give tests or quizzes. I find these to be inauthentic assessments of what students have learned and what's more they cater to a certain type of learner. Lately I've been tweaking an assignment that serves as an assessment, reflection, and documentation of what the student has been learning in a given amount of time. I call it the T.I.L. (Things I Learned)
This week, as part of the Pendulum Project Prototype I asked all the students to give a presentation regarding their experiences and plans for future paintings. To communicate my expectations for the presentations I planned to show them an example presentation and give them a model to work from. While this has worked in the past I wanted to try something that I heard from a colleague. The three level grading system.
The three level grading system is something that I saw while browsing Mike Amarillo's blog, another HTH teacher in Chula Vista. I saw that he had these descriptions of different "levels" of student work for presentations. Through a few emails he told me about the system that he uses. What I liked about it was that it clearly described expectations for student work in 3 levels of completion.
For example I used this for our presentations today as follows.
Basic Presentation: Key information included. All group members speak. Clear delivery
Advanced Presentation: Basic and diagram showing variable effect is high quality and well organized.
Challenge Presentation: Advanced and group shows expert knowledge by including calculations, answering audience questions, posing meaningful questions for themselves, etc.
After I gave my example presentation I had a discussion with the class where we categorized my work as Basic, Advanced, or Challenge. We talked about why it fit as one or another. In reality what I was doing was critique as a lesson, but what was different was that my expectations had already been outlined and so we were able to get specific very quickly.
Time Well Spent
I spend a ton of time planning out time with my students and making plans for projects. There's a cycle of Idea --> Predict --> Observe --> Improve. Because I have had a lot of practice with this pattern it comes pretty naturally to me. Lately I have been recognizing that being able to go through these steps is a skill as much as writing, building or public speaking so I have tried to give students chances to practice the cycle of ideas.
Lots of times I will notice students get distracted or off task when something had gone unexpectedly. Their measurements were wrong or they forgot to add something important. My interpretation is that they are skipping the Predict step and not getting into the Improve step. By not making predictions they don't see potential conflicts or issues in their idea and my not being practiced in making improvements they see their first failure as the end of the process and don't continue to try new things. To be the most help to the class I've been trying to give them lots of opportunities to practice and develop these skills.
"Children exhibit challenging behavior when the demands being placed upon them outstrip the skills they have to respond adaptively to those demands. The same can be said of all human beings."
The above quote is attributed to Dr. Ross Greene (as are the rest in this post), a clinical child psychologist who has been trying to help teachers and parents understand what they see as misbehavior from their children or students. The first thing that I like about the quote is that he expands the idea to all human beings. Something that I've learned while teaching is that it's no use at all treating my students like some subset of humans that have different dreams and desires and needs than myself.
This quote is in reference to the explanations traditionally given as to why people misbehave. If one believes that those who exhibit difficult behavior are doing so because they are manipulative or coercive or something then you will view them in a more negative light. However if one believes that everyone wants to do well, and that misbehavior is better explained as a lack of the skills to do well than there is an inherent sense of compassion. This is a much better place to start and a more helpful way to address the behavior than a negative place.
"When do you look bad? When you can't look good"
As above, the things that I'm learning about when I learn about my students are applicable to the rest of humans. The above quote is true of myself. I can remember times when I let people down, made an offensive joke, or embarrassed myself. In none of these situations was I trying to look bad, I just made a mistake or misread the situation. I must believe that the same is true of my students. People do well if they can. In this perspective misbehavior is nothing malicious but a lack of ability or skill to do the right thing. Greene says that from this perspective ones role is no longer trying to make a difficult person do the right thing but figuring out what's getting in that person's way and helping them get rid of it. This is a much more collaborative and compassionate perspective and the one I prefer to take.
From the perspective described above one becomes a partner in problem solving with the person that you are trying to help. This is already vastly preferred to being the teacher trying to make a student do what you want. As someone who is empathetic and compassionate and involved in helping solve a problem I feel way more engaged and helpful than if I'm telling someone why they're wrong or doing the wrong thing.
At the beginning of this semester I was looking for ways to improve in my teaching practice. I had had a fairly successful experience with my previous class though I hadn't collected much feedback from the class except for at the very end. I was asking a colleague how to know that I was doing a good job throughout the semester. What were some small metrics that I could keep track of that would indicate whether or not I was facilitating a good experience for my students? Among the advice I received then, one nugget of knowledge stood out and I have been thinking about it ever since. They said "Make sure everyone feels like they can be heard."
To address this I set out to try a technique called the "whip around". It's pretty straightforward and will get every student to respond to a question and helps get thoughts moving.
What: Start with a question that can be answered with a brief 1 or 2 word answer. These can be answers on a scale or yes/no responses among others. In this case I asked everyone to rate their sense of preparedness for exhibition, from 1 to 10.
Why: When I learned about this technique it was justified as a way to give everyone space to have their voice heard in the classroom. It's a low stakes, short response, and nobody needs to fight for attention. When I used this I told the group that it was important for everyone to hear the range of answers in how prepared we were so that they wouldn't feel bad about feeling behind, since there are others in the same situation.
How: Set up here is easy. The whole class is present, distractions away, and ready to listen. Give them the prompt and the scale. Before they responded I asked them to turn to the person next to them and discuss what their number would be. This is just another way to help people who might not feel comfortable sharing aloud plan out their response. Once they have a chance to chat for a minute, start going around with everyone just giving their number without a justification or explanation.
The value of this technique for me was in the follow up. Leading a reflective discussion was a great time in both classes, and I noticed a higher participation rate in this discussion than previously. Because they had all discussed their answers previously they seemed to speak up more. I asked the group to estimate the average preparedness based off of everyone's answers. I asked if they were surprised by group's answers or not.
To help everyone feel like they are able to be heard is a challenge. As a teacher or facilitator it isn't enough to ask good questions or keep everyone on time. One needs also to build in places where everyone is given a space to speak and create a culture of inclusivity. Activities like the above are helping me develop in this part of my teaching career. Like other aspects of teaching I've come pretty far and still have a long ways to go.
I can't remember to whom it is attributed, but I heard a great quote recently. "The only teachers are models and reflection." This quote gave voice to my convictions about PBL education. Everything I ask students to do needs a model, and an effective way to measure their growth is through their reflection.
In terms of social emotional learning, reflection is useful for building a sense of self-awareness too. Leading students to be reflective and examine their work and motivations helps to foster presence of mind in the future. Reflection can become a frequent act, occurring throughout a project or experience, until it becomes something like consciousness and presence of mind.
Honestly this is a goal for myself. Last semester while working through student reflections, I commented to a colleague that the students were more reflective that I had been in college, and that I hadn't been reflective at all during high school. "I just wasn't a reflective person in high school" I said.
"That's because nobody asked you to be" they replied.
Earlier in the semester I presented my students with a list of behaviors of learners. The list included things like "uses materials appropriately", "follows schedules" and "problem solves". We reviewed and critiqued the list as a way to be reflective about the class.
In reflecting on that lesson I realized that a few of the behaviors listed had anything to do with Social Emotional Learning, but those not explicitly. I wondered if I was building a culture that promoted empathetic learning and emotional management, but more broadly whether or not our school held those values for both staff and students.
This week I had conversations with colleagues centered mostly around conflict resolution. I asked them who they spoke with on campus when they felt frustrated or proud or needed help developing a relationship with a colleague. Mostly I discovered an informal network of supportive coworkers and not someone with a specific role related to SEL development.
Our school environment is built around what I have recognized as some tenants of SEL, such as decision making and self-management, though I haven't found structures which emphasize or promote things like social awareness or relationship skills. As a result our staff and student body are well able to work unsupervised and manage their time, though there is inconsistency in self awareness and relationship. Before one can develop a skill it must be named, so perhaps there should be one within our community who makes those skills which we can improve obvious and clear.
As a staff we do not deliberately spend time developing SEL skills. Its hard to say how this effects us because I generally feel that our staff is amiable and cooperative, though SEL is more than that. If we were to model for our students what it is like to collaborate and work from a place of developed social emotional ability, I wonder what changes might happen in our student body.
The following is a reflection on what it's like to use critique as a lesson format. I wanted to improve the quality of the writing in reflections that my students were writing, so I decided to show them examples of high quality writing and have them critique it.
Note on Format
Ever since I was exposed to the Launch, Explore, Summarize model of lesson planning I have been using it for just about everything. Whenever I need to deliver information to the class I try to collect it into those categories because I have had such success with it. This lesson was delivered in LES format and so I have chose to discuss each phase in this post.
I received Ron Berger's book "Ethic of Excellence" about a month ago but only read it over the weekend. I found it inspiring and centering as far as focusing on what parts of teaching I like the most. I collected my favorite parts of the book into Practices and Mindsets that I want to incorporate into my work.
** revisited after 1 year. Notes at end of post
For the last few weeks I've been hosting a type of lesson in my class that I'm really excited about. It has a lot of potential. Since I do these lessons once a week I call it Technical Tuesday. I don't always get it right. In this post I'm going to try and summarize what makes these lessons work and what slows them down. I've written two previous posts on the subject but after doing four I'm starting to get the hang of it.
Motivations and Goals
This is my 1st full year teaching physics. Last semester I gave it my best shot and felt that one of the biggest improvements I could make would be to expose the students to more formal physics. For this reason I set out to find or develop a lesson style that would give my kids both and intuitive understanding of physics content as well as exposure to more formal physics notation and problem types.
I also wanted to design these lessons to reduce the amount of time that I spent in front of the class delivering information. I'm not really good at that skill and don't feel that I make it very engaging to my students. In search of a more student centered approach I attempted to build a lesson values experiences over content.
Last week I gave a new type of lesson a try where I use groupwork and problem solving to introduce content to students. It wasn't as successful as I had hoped, so this week I tried again with some changes. I structured this lesson on the Launch, Explore, Summarize method.
This week I tried something new. I've been looking for a way to make lessons on physics content more rigorous and more student-centered, so I developed a framework for an inquiry-based lesson with my mentor and launched it Tuesday.
To start, with groups of 4 and 5 sitting around tables with markers and whiteboards, I asked the class to "draw what it looks like when a fast moving skateboarder hits a curb." This was not as engaging as I had hoped. Mostly the groups would let one or two people draw and the others were passive. I called attention to and celebrated detailed work like labeling and diagrams.
** 1 Year Later Reflection, see end of post
Something that I do well in my classes is consistently asking my students to be reflective. I've learned and discovered that the most authentic learning happens in reflection, thinking back over a completed project and thinking into the future about what you will do differently. I wish that I could say that I put as much effort into asking the students to practice their critical creative thinking. I hope to be explicit about leading a class that can defend and justify decisions and choices in projects based on evidence, research and experience.
Philip Estrada is a teacher at High Tech High Media Arts in San Diego California. He teaches Physics by having kids build things in a woodshop.