Monthly Archives: May 2012

Summer Reading: Reinventing Project-Based Learning Part III

My final thought about Reinventing Project-Based Learning is that the book spent a little too much attention on exceptional projects. I actually would have preferred to read about average PBL instead of exceptional. Many of the projects referenced in the book were incredibly specific to the community. While I can see the value of eventually building a project like that, at first it seems more practical to do something a little more general. A few exceptional projects would have been great, but I also wanted examples of projects that failed – so I could learn from them.

There needs to be a book with specific instructions in designing projects, specific problems & specific solutions. I’m a firm believer in creativity and doing things differently. However, I also think you need to learn the rules before you break them.

Anyway, the book was decent overall….I’m just a big critic!

Summer Reading: Reinventing Project-Based Learning Part II

I liked the second half of this book slightly more than the first. It was a little more specific. One thing I was struck by while reading through the second half is how much PBL and modeling instruction have in common. For example, both emphasize asking good questions. Modeling recommends Socratic technique while PBL seems to advocate for complex, content-rich questions. Either way, the intention is to promote higher order thinking.

Another similarity between modeling and PBL is that both are extremely student centered. In both, teachers act as facilitators instead of sources of knowledge. In both, students are tasked with actively constructing meaning instead of passively consuming. Additionally both seem to sacrifice some breadth for richness and depth.

However there are some differences too. Especially for subjects like physics, chemistry, and math modeling offers one core methodology and curriculum instead of the seemly vast forest of resources for PBL. Both philosophies have advantages, but especially for the new modeler it’s nice to have access to a source of materials that are always high quality as with modeling. The other advantage of the core curriculum is that it is constantly being improved not just by a few physics teachers, but hundreds of physics teachers (I’ve even contributed a few small things). The more un-structured approach to curriculum materials for PBL does offer ton’s of variety though!

Summer Reading Thoughts: Reinventing Project-Based Learning

I’m about half-way through Reinventing Project Based Learning by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss. I’m not sure how I feel about it. The book is clearly well written, it’s probably more practical than most, and has some interesting interviews with teachers. Here are a couple of my favorite quotes & reactions so far:

“Teach Less, Learn More.”

-The Motto of the Ministry of Education in Singapore

Why don’t we follow proven educational leaders like Singapore and Finland?

“I’ll never go back….to the way I used to teach.”

This seems like a very persuasive argument in favor of investing in PBL. Modeling instruction in physics is similar – of all the teachers who learn/try modeling very few ever return to traditional instruction.

“Both teacher and students had to navigate news ways of working together as a the project unfolded, but it didn’t hurt that students saw their teacher trying new approaches and taking risks as a learner.”

Why do teachers always have to be right? I think it’s good for students to occasionally see teachers fail.

For a “field book” it’s still a little too theoretical for my tastes. One example is when Boss & Krauss talk about the importance of maximizing opportunity while minimizing risk. This is a well known strategy in everything from making money in stocks, winning football games, and successfully choosing a career. The hard part is knowing how to do it. Reinventing Project-Based Learning falls flat here – there is no actual advice about how to maximize opportunity while simultaneously minimizing risk for PBL.

When I first started reflecting on what to write in this post, my thoughts were almost all positive. Reinventing Project-Based Learning is certainly interesting enough. However, when I tried to think of the specific things I learned from this book, I couldn’t come up with anything concrete. In my opinion, that’s damning. I hope the second half is more specific!

Global Digital Citizenship: Elementary Physics Project Part I

I had a hard time coming up with an idea that incorporated global digital citizenship in a physics curriculum meaningfully. Ultimately I had my students work in small groups to plan and teach 20 minute lessons to small groups of lower school students. I had considered this idea initially, but was skeptical that it was practical. I owe a huge thanks to Roxanne Warner for putting all of the logistics together!

The planning stages of this project were very interesting. I wanted to ensure that my students were teaching meaningful physics vs. just playing with the elementary students. In that sprit, I let students know that a part of their grade would depend on the elementary students learning at least one thing from their lesson. They immediately bulked at this idea. What if their students didn’t pay attention or worse purposely sabotaged the lesson? As a teacher, it was great to see my students realize that teaching might not be as easy as they thought.

The lessons themselves were very successful – the elementary students loved them. It was fun to watch the elementary students experiment with and explain simple physics concepts. My students enjoyed the experience too. We used four class periods to complete the project  (two planning, one peer editing, and then the actual lessons), but I feel like it was time well spent. From a physics standpoint, my students were learning as they taught. I was also pleased when I heard my students say things like:


This [teaching] is hard.

You do this for five periods?



Global Digital Citizenship: Elementary Physics Project Part II

Global Digital Citizenship still feels like an abstract hodgepodge of all the other fluencies wrapped in one to me. The 21st century learning site even states:

All the 21st Century fluencies are learned within the context of the Digital Citizen, using the guiding principles of leadership, ethics, accountability, fiscal responsibility, environmental awareness, global citizenship and personal responsibility.

As my students saw, teaching is almost the embodiment of this fluency. My novice-teachers solved problems, interpreted and manipulated information, thoughtfully used media, and worked collaboratively/creatively while planning and executing their lessons. Several of the guiding principles including leadership, ethics, global citizenship and personal responsibility were also key to our success. I especially like the fact that my students bought into the project as something “real.” I think it is very hard to encourage characteristics like personal responsibility or leadership in venues that seem artificial to students.

I was glad that this fluency was our last – I feel like it was great closure for our journey through 21st century fluencies this year!

Effective Tech for STEM

I learned about this pretty neat STEM technology resource today. Definitely worth checking out!

information fluency: judging a book by its cover…a good thing?

Information fluency is the ability to unconsciously and intuitively interpret information. Now that we are at the end of the year, I am not so surprised at my kindergartners abilities.

We were studying animals (of all habitats) and classified them by land, water, and or air animals. The question about jungle animals became popular and intriguing. My students wanted to know exactly which animals do live in a jungle. Some of them were surprised to know that there are zoo animals that come from the jungle! Before we were able to gather that information, the students had a research journey!

A boy remembered that we read a cool book on animals, so the class thought that this book would give all the answers to our questions about jungle animals. Once the kids looked over the book, they decided it wasn’t a good choice. They quickly commented on the cartoon-like pictures, which told them it may not be real information. Then, a girl remembered an app she used on the iPad. Once she checked out the iPad, she realized it had tons of animals and that it didn’t give information about jungle animals. After a few more books to check out, a child finally shouted, “Hey, let’s go on the internet!” This was the first time my students actually asked and needed my help, (I was impressed with the sense of solution fluency happening so far!) and so I helped them by typing on google while they watched on the SmartBoard. Since we had found so many cartoon-like pictures and books about all kinds of animals, they helped pick out the words we needed to use to search with. I displayed my best digital citizenship by making sure we had no inappropriate search results for these young eyes!

My kindergarteners quickly identified the best resources online by noticing “real” photographs of animals along with text about the jungle specifically. I found it very interesting that the process of elimination of our resources ended up being based how everything “looked”. Was it pretty? Was it cartoon-like? Once we started finding real information, they were able to call it the “real deal” because they could see actual photographs that were taken, and assumed the text with it was true also.

Information Fluency by definition involves a process, and I feel my students (without my direction) went through the process. They asked good questions and went through a fun series of resources to access and acquire information. Each resource found was analyzed by the students based on its “looks”…which, at 6 years old, is a good first step! They applied the information they got with each resource to help them find the next. We then assessed as a whole group the good information we found. I found it most interesting to see how they judged the resource and used their words to explain how useful or not the information would be. Such good learners I have! I think this is a very healthy and developmental stage of the learning process for this age. I was impressed with the initial demonstration of information fluency the kindergartners displayed.

Solution Fluency: The Cambridge Card Trick Challenge

“This is very stressful!” “We don’t have enough information!” “This is heartbreaking!” “This sucks; I wanna know so bad!”

These were the sounds that filled the classroom the day I introduced a lesson on solution fluency. The problem they were being asked to solve was to determine how I did a card trick. Before we began though, we brainstormed on the board examples of problems they had faced in the past and overcome(learning to tie my shoes, building a catapult in my backyard, passing my driving test, etc.) and what strategies they used to overcome said problem (got help from someone, kept trying and trying, studied and practiced). Armed with the successes of the past, I split them into pairs and gave each pair a deck of cards. They were given 20-25 minutes to solve the problem. While they worked (I informed them that I would not be giving them assistance), I walked around observing and recording. I noticed some roadblocks that prevented some students from preserving through problem solving:

1) Perceived predisposed weakness. When I told students that this card trick was taught to me by a Cambridge math professor, and that there was a math equation that showed how it worked, one girl said with dismay, “Oh, Math! I’m out!” She believed that because she wasn’t a “math person”, she wouldn’t be able to succeed. (yet interestingly enough, she was the first of all my students to solve the trick!).

2) Lack of creativity.  Since the first part of the trick involves flipping cards over face up, when I saw one student flipping cards over face down, I intervened and reminded him that the trick won’t work if he flips the cards over that way. He stopped and stared at me incredulously, arguing, “But how else can I flip them? There’s no other way!” The inability to see something in a new light prevented him from moving forward. This reminded me of how linked all the fluencies are (creativity fluency, where are you? We need you now!) Strategies attempted were very limited and mostly involved guessing the card at random over and over again and puzzling over why it wasn’t working. On the flip side though, I did hear a few choruses of “Let’s try it again and see”, while students tried one different strategy after another such as “thinking about the trick backward” “look on YouTube”or “find a pattern”.

3) Other people’s success. Often when one pair/student was successful at solving the problem, it led to a general decline in other students’ willingness to keep trying. Many pairs just quit completely at that point. One student wrote on the follow up survey to this experience that the most frustrating part of the whole thing was “not getting the answer when other people were”. Rather then seeing their peers’ success as an invigorating indicator that the task was indeed achievable, students tended to view it with a “game over” mentality, as in a video game where one player wins and ends the game for everyone else.

Overall, this experience reaffirmed what I already knew: students need more practice solving problems in an environment where it is okay to fail and try again. An environment where the teacher doesn’t rush in to “help” all the time but patiently let’s them squirm till they find their way out of an uncomfortable yet productive place of uncertainty and into a solution they found, rather than one we delivered to them.

Movie Trailers

My first venture into project based learning has been very interesting. I asked my film criticism students to create a movie trailer using iMovie. I felt that it allowed creativity within a framework that could be managed by 7th and 8th graders. I tried to give only a few restrictions, and I provided them with the tools that they needed to be successful. I told them that the trailer had to be for an existing movie, and only one group could use a genre so we didn’t have the same format and music over and over. We have seven groups with three people in a group. I tried to mix grades and genders to create a group that could work efficiently. I provided them with their notebook of terms to check and match with the iMovie requirements, access to a computer, and a great technical support person, my mentor Ami, to help answer questions. The initial reaction to the assignment- stunned silence and blank looks. After a few questions, and one eager student, I finally got a reaction to the project, and it was not what I expected. My “digital natives” did not have a clue how to approach the assignment, and several students expressed reluctance because although several of them had experience with iMovie, they didn’t think they could handle this specific program.
I then realized that it was not the technology, or the project itself- they didn’t know how to get started or organize their tasks. So we took a big step back and practiced some basic techniques of problem solving. It was fascinating to see how differently each group began their preparations. One group storyboarded their entire trailer by drawing it out frame by frame “just like Hitchcock did with his movies”- I was so proud because they obviously paid attention during that unit. Other groups made lists, divided responsibilities, tried to do every aspect together, and even had a few creative differences. The filming process challenged them artistically, and we learned how to use a green screen, and be patient enough to do several takes. We are watching the finished product on Monday. I suspect that the real lesson learned has more to do with the process than the product. If that is the case, I will consider this first project a success.

Media Fluency: Schoolhouse Rock has Lied to Us!

This week we’ve been practicing our media fluency skills by spending two days watching documentaries and answering questions on a viewing guide before, during, and after viewing. I thought the lesson was over and was ready to move on to a grammar review I’ve done in the past using Schoolhouse Rock clips. Again, there was a viewing guide that went with it. For the first three clips I wasn’t asking them to challenge the information they were receiving. It was pretty much just information gathering which we would later apply to a part of speech exercise. But then I threw the a curve ball to see if the two previous days of media fluency emphasis had made a difference. I showed them the clip “Verb: That’s What’s Happening” (1974) but prefaced it with the following information on the viewing guide:

According to The Little Brown Handbook, “Verbals are special verb forms such as smoking or …to win that can function as nouns (smoking is dangerous) or as modifiers (the urge to win)” (245). In other words, if it is in the infinitive form (to____) or ends with an -ing, it is NOT functioning as the verb of the sentence but rather a noun or an adjective. With that in mind, note any errors you find in the following cartoon meant to teach children what a verb is. What is the cartoon actually teaching?

Having warned them beforehand that the following clip was going to be delivering them incorrect information, and after going through what verbals were with them, I was surprised at how many students still failed to pick up on the errors in the video (posted below for your nostalgic viewing pleasure).

Only 24 out of 64 students identified the errors in the clip (using infinitives and gerunds as verbs). And of those 24 students, only one student recognized that what was actually being taught was verbals, not verbs. If a three minute clip from the 70s featuring an animated superhero misleading children about verbs can still outweigh a warning from the teacher and a printout stating the correct information, how much more work must we do to get students to analyze what they are viewing and not take everything at face value? And what happens when there’s more at stake then a grammar mistake?