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Posted by on in Project-Based Learning

Multiple paths

When my kids get excited about school it’s a wonderful moment. This is especially true as they are teenagers who attended a Project Based Learning School. Those moments occured “only” (yes I’m being absolute) when the topics and outcome are connected to the world beyond school.

I share in my book, "So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide for Differentiation" that during my son’s freshmen year at Ardis New Tech High School, a Geometry-Art project focused on students creating soup bowls to be auctioned off at an event known at Empty Bowls. Local potters also craft bowls that are donated, like the students’ work, to the auction. The proceeds support the food pantries in the local area. The students learned art and Geometry concepts throughout the PBL unit. At the evening event, parents and community were invited to see the artwork and participate in a silent auction for the bowls of the local artists. Parents got first dibs on buying their child’s bowl.

The power of that experience remains today because students had a voice in their community. They understood the connections of curriculum and context with the world outside academia. As a parent, I see the growth this experience had for my child and value every opportunity that the school provides in this area. As a PBL consultant, I would like to see such experiences happen more often than the pretend scenarios that tune out students, including my own. Scenarios can be intriguing at first, but lose momentum when students realize that the work will go no where and to no one once it’s done. The results, like most traditional assignments, are submitted to the teacher for a grade—and goes no further.

Having an authentic audience and purpose has so much upside. Students engage into the work, sustained by the energy that the results are purposeful and awaited by an audience beyond the school. It snaps them out of the Checklist Mentality that I discuss in an Edutopia article. They connect the curriculum with real purpose, and not—as students perceive—just academic hoop jumping.

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Posted by on in Project-Based Learning

It is amazing what happens when kids start using their creativity and making something related to their learning. I had a bit of an epiphany today as I was responding to some questions a former student was asking as part of her Intro to Education class that requires 15 hours of teacher observation. The questions were basic questions, but they were triggering reflection while I was standing in my classroom watching my kids work.

Just so happened this reflective moment was happening during "that" class ... you know the class that just seems to be a bit more "active" than the other classes and maybe struggle a little bit more ... don't judge ... we have all had "that" class. Strange thing though; today, "That", class was not behaving like "that" class. Most of them were working ... like on task ... and seemingly enjoying what they were doing. What was different about today? They were working on their STEAM unit projects.

Over the years I have seen many examples where the kids who would be classified by testing data as "low" create some of the most phenomenal projects. This is one of the advantages of implementing Project Based Learning (PBL) as it gives the students an opportunity to express their newly acquired knowledge in a different, more creative fashion. This project is related to the novel Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (@ScottWesterfeld) and the kids had to create something in a Steampunk fashion that was inspired by the novel and somehow improves society or makes life easier for the individual.

The making process gives them an opportunity to do the learning. Many of the students were drawn to wanting to make hats as that was an example I used to illustrate how simple making steampunk products could be, but many were missing the primary objective of how their creation could improve their life or society as a whole. We used a clip from Meet the Robinsons where it shows the hat doing work for humans as well as some images of Inspector Gadget with his hat full of surprises and all of a sudden the lights went on all over the classroom and the kids went back to work.

A class that normally struggles to remain quiet and focused for longer than a few minutes were working independently on their projects. Kids were using the sewing machine, hot glue guns, painting, but more importantly they were designing. That design process happens regardless of academic level. Each kids has ideas rolling around their head. They just need the opportunity to put them into practice. Below are some images of the kids working.

Demetrius is constructing a model time portal in the shape of an octagon. Interesting fact, he has not yet officially learned about the angles of an octagon until now. That and he got to use a power tool when none of the other students did. 
Here some of my students are removing the legs from and old broken table so we can recycle them. They have been placed on the new table that we are building. These girls were so excited about working with their hands and knowing their work was going to make a difference.

You never know what will happen when you let the kids create ... PBL gets all the kids thinking, learning and doing. PBL is one of those activities that really does not care what the testing data says about the kid. Given the right support and opportunity all the kids will engage and soar!

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Posted by on in Project-Based Learning

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What is the role of a teacher? What kind of lasting effect can I make on my students? How can I spark curiosity and a love of learning? Age old questions that good teachers are constantly asking themselves as they prioritize classroom activities and lessons. Of course, I want my students to be good at Mathematics and for them to be able to write paragraphs with ease but I want more! I want them to be enthusiastic about learning, I want them to love coming to school each day, and I want them to be inquirers and researchers. I want them to understand that we never stop learning and that it’s fun to learn and fun to teach others.
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 Building time into our schedule for Passion Projects was one way I thought I could start to develop these qualities that I was looking for in my students, this unfaltering enthusiasm towards learning. So after doing a bit of teacher research I decided to get started straight away. I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage, eighteen different research projects, one teacher but I knew I could find support within the school and if I didn’t start now, would I ever?

It started off slowly, the children had so many ideas so we had to narrow them down to something researchable and then they had to come up with researchable questions. Finally it was time to research, to learn to research, we are after all talking about seven and eight year olds! I sought support, the librarian could come every second week and I was able to schedule a teaching assistant too! Although it was a little bit chaotic things were going well. Every time the students saw Passion Projects written on the visual timetable they would fist pump and shout ‘Yes!” It was so amazing to see them become so excited about their own learning. It made all the chaos worth it!

IMG_0049Finally it was time for them to decide how they wanted to present their information. Time wasn’t really on our side at this stage, Christmas was getting closer and I really wanted to have them finished before the holidays so I asked the parents to help create the final products at home. The results were wonderful and the parents loved being part of it, so many positive comments about the IMG_0106enthusiasm the children had about their personal project.

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Coding is as simple as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Or IS it?

I remember going to The Tech in San Jose (CA) many years ago and walking up to a silent docent at a table with all the appropriate ingredients. There was a paper on the table, explaining that all one had to do was give the correct commands to the docent “robot,” and it would make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

It was fun and much harder than I thought it would be! I recalled the experience when I was trying to craft a great into lesson for coding (The Hour of Code is coming up in December). That well-worn lesson plan (with some adjustments) would be a perfect way to introduce coding to my students.

First I found a talented and willing robot – in this case, my daughter Maggie. To add a technological element and enhance the Robot Maggie experience, we decided she should Skype into our classroom. The necessary materials were set up in the vice principal’s office: a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, a loaf of bread, a knife and a plate along with a Surface Pro 3. Donning goggles and a lab coat, Robot Maggie awaited a specific time to call The Room Nine Kids – giving me time to introduce the lesson, access prior knowledge and set the stage for that exciting sound of a Skype call coming in!

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Posted by on in Project-Based Learning

 

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Perhaps the best way to motivate and engage students is to challenge them to solve a real world problem. Project based learning is a powerful tool! while teaching skills and standards is important, embedding them within a meaningful task makes the learning last well beyond the assessment. The words of Will Richardson changed my teaching as he pointed out, "We spend way too much time on things that are taught "just in case" rather than helping kids learn "just in time".

If you are new to project based learning, but would like to give it a try, post this challenge to your students and watch them learn!

Can our class complete one week with a trash-free lunch?

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