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Three Days in the Valley Part 3

The morning of the third and final day of PBL 101, I was feeling kind of thought full. I think you may know what I mean. You have absorbed so much new knowledge that you don't have the ability to take on more before some time this reflect and break it down.  For those of you who have had a health course, think about how your liver handles alcohol in the blood. The liver breaks down alcohol in the bloodstream. But sometimes the liver can't keep up with the concentration in our bloodstream and this leads to the intoxicating effects of alcohol.  

I say this to point out that I was feeling a little overwhelmed coming in to the last day I'd be attending PBL World.  The feeling quickly changed from overwhelmed to extremely engaged when I discovered that Alfred Solis was giving the keynote.  Ok, in all honesty it occurred when I learned exactly who Alfred Solis was.  A couple of years ago when I first tried to learn about what PBL was and how it tied to physics, I came across a series of very elaborate projects in which students did lots of designing and constructing to demonstrate understanding of physics content.  Although these projects all looked fantastic, they seemed to be beyond what I thought I'd be able to do in my classroom.  I didn't feel like I had the resources or know how to institute these projects. I quickly realized most of these projects were coming from High School High.  More specifically, they looked to be coming from one teacher.  I realized during the keynote that teacher was Alfred Solis.  This is the website for his projects Below you can watch his invigorating keynote.

So while my brains was thought full before the keynote,  the presentation self felt so personally tailored that it allowed for some major reflection time I began to see how the pieces fit.  More importantly, I realized how far I had come as a risk taker. I could imagine my students doing some of those projects that I thought would have been too daunting 2 years ago.  

Students may approach a driving question that is so open ended that it seems daunting, and they end up aiming low.  As their teacher, it is important that I lead by example.  As I transform my classroom to a project based learning environment, I can't allow myself to aim low with projects that don't take me out of my comfort zone. Everything I ask my students to do, I should be willing to do the same. I should be creative with ideas by renovating past projeccts.  I should be critical when looking at the rigor of a product. I should communicate and collaborate with professionals in education and those professionals in the areas my students are studying.

Simply put, the process of PBL should require students to be thoughtful in their thinking not thinking they are thought full of content.

PBL 101 Day 3

Each day of PBL 101 had a major focus.  Day 1 was designing projects. Day 2 was assessing projects.  Day 3 was managing projects.

The start of any project should have a truly engaging entry event.  By an entry event, I mean the activity that will kick off the project. The primary goal of the entry event is to engage learners emotionally and intellectually.  It is not a time for content delivery.  It is a time to create a need to know more.  

A entry event will vary based on the project but Jesse shared with us several different forms it could take.  These include a field trip, guest speaker, puzzling phenomenon, piece of art, or a lively discussion.  The key again is to think of it as a kick off. I was going to put in a kick off video from a Badger game at Camp Randall, but couldn't find one with appropriate language. But, if you've ever been to a Badger game, you know how exciting the opening kickoff is and how everyone is on the same page with keys jangling and voices chanting in unison.

Another great piece of advice Jesse gave us was that if you have an expert come in and speak, have the professional end her comments by saying, “We need your help!”  It’s pretty powerful for students to know that their work will really be helping professionals.  This will not be another dumpster project.  Jesse also mentioned that for longer projects, interests may begin to wain.  So, it’s not a bad idea to have additional video clips or professionals ready for a refocusing.  In a refocusing, it’s important to remind students why they are doing the project.

At this point on day 3, we learned what was probably my favorite tool for critique and revision.  It was called the Critical Friends Protocol.  This process did not involve breaking up the groups, but forming triads of groups (groups took turns being presenters, audience, and timekeepers). I could imagine this being done with just two groups if it got too big.

Before we even began the protocol, each group briefly outlined their project on a single sheet of paper. Basically writing brief notes explaining how the project addressed each of the following areas:
  1. Key knowledge and skills
  2. Challenging problem or question
  3. Sustained inquiry
  4. Authenticity
  5. Student voice and choice
  6. Reflection
  7. Critique and revision
  8. Public product
It was fine if all of these were not fleshed out.

The protocol follows the following steps.  

Step of Process
Who speaks
What is said
5 minutes
Presenters explain their project to listeners.
1 minute
Audience and Presenters
Audience asks very specific follow up questions about project.  Presenters respond.
At this point presenters turn their backs to the audience
1 minute
No one
Audience members silently evaluate the project based on the project design rubric.
This evaluation will drive the next 2 steps.
“I like…”
3 minutes
The audience discusses what they liked about the project as the presenters listen.
“I wonder…”
3 minutes
The audience discusses areas of concern or shortcomings in project as the presenters listen.
“I have…”
3 minutes
Audience shares ideas or resources that would be helpful to the presenters.
At this  point the presenters turn back to face the audience.
3 minutes
Presenters share how the audience feedback has changed their thinking about aspects of the project.  The presenters do not provide answers to concerns brought up by audience.

When one group is done with the cycle, the audience and presenter switch roles.This critical friend protocol was great.  We did it outside on a bench in the courtyard.  It was very well structured but not threatening in any way. It is a very positive and powerful tool for feedback and reflection.

In the afternoon session, we went deeper into sharing ideas for good project management.  Teachers have a considerable amount to manage in any product from big picture to individual moment. Let’s start with the first days of the project.  The PBL 101 course identified a series of things that should be done on the first days of any project to help insure success.
  1. Engaging entry event
  2. Identifying driving question
  3. Identifying the final product
  4. Some method for students to generate a “need to know list” could be content and/or logistics that can be addressed by the teacher or checked off as project progresses.

The next step of the process is team formation.  This is something we discussed in depth with teachers sharing a little of their own experience.  There were different thoughts about how to form a group but one thing that was made clear is that groups of more than 3 members were not nearly as collaborative as those with 3 members.  So, I learned my lesson and will start forcing groups of no more than 3 and not let arbitrary resources and friendships drive group creation.  Once groups are formed, there needs to be discussions within the group of what the norms and expectations will be, including consequences.  The signing of a contract is recommended with penalties for breaking the contract clearly stated.  The first consequence should never involve the teacher, it should be resolved within the group.  At the first team meeting, it is important that as a group the members create a task list to help organize the work and roles.

In terms of what documents a teacher should present the students with, there is a variety of possible forms that will assist with the project the following three are just a start:
  1. Project info sheet (and overview - only one page) containing driving question, major product, duration, deliverables for each project day (it is important to require something be completed on each project day to keep groups accountable), possible online resources for all, evaluation criteria
  2. Project calendar will show what is going on in class each day.  
  3. Rubrics that include both individual evaluation and group evaluation. The Buck Institute has a host of rubrics for assessing success skills.

While in motion, a project wall helps the teacher to quickly focus groups to key aspects of the project.  A project wall is where important project documents can be posted for all to see.  Important documents include the driving question, the need to know questions students generated, key terms and concept list, project calendar, rubrics, learning objectives, and sample products. It will be up to the teacher and students to determine what pieces are most beneficial to display on the project wall.

During the project, it is up to both the teacher and student to manage progress.  The teacher can plan everything for the timeline out, but it is important that content delivery is not bunched on the first few days before project work has started.  It is important for the teacher to create a need to know if content learning is to occur during the project.  A project roadblock will build in a need to know content.  But this may come at different points for different groups.  So in some cases, more than having a scheduled that is detailed to the letter, teachers should be ready to present important content at a moment’s notice.

Just as any project has its first days, every project has its last days.  This is where self and peer assessments take place.  Other important pieces of the gold standard come into place in the final days.  Those of reflection and celebration.  The celebration is the presentation of the product. It is important to set a day for the public audience after the project has been presented to the teacher for summative assessment since the public presentation should not be stressful.  It is the exciting part.

It is only fitting that the last days of the project were discussed in our last minutes of class.  But like any good project we ended with a reflection on our experience over the course of the 3 days of learning.  Before I began PBL 101, I thought I could implement project based learning on my classroom without anyone’s help.  The PBL 101 experience taught me that teaching PBL requires collaboration.  It requires help from others to make it authentic.  Whether that collaboration comes from professionals as a part of an entry event or parents and community as a part of the celebration and public presentation of product, gold standard PBL projects are not intended to be shared just between the student and teacher only to enter the real world via a garbage truck.  So, I have my own driving question that my students will pose to me.

How can you implement the gold standard of PBL in a physics classroom?       

I can't speak highly enough of my experience at PBL World and specifically the PBL 101 course. I'd like to thank the Buck Institute for putting on PBL World, Jesse Wade Robinson for her excellent instruction, as well as the Elmbrook School District for funding my venture, and my co-teacher Andelee Espinosa for her willingness to collaborate take on this challenging mode of instruction with me. Andelee, do I need to sign a team contract? The Buck Institute has some here.

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