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In Search of ... My Preferred Learning Environment.



Yes, JJ Abrams latest movie is Star Wars VII. But, I'm thinking of these scene in his version of Star Trek. About the future meeting the past.






Almost three years ago, I was asked to describe my preferred learning environment.  As we enter 2016, 3 years have passed since I wrote this proposal.  Looking back on the proposal, I'm still amazed at the support that I was given from all of my administration. I was even more encouraged by my students' willingness to change and their enthusiasm to try new ideas and run with them.


How would you answer the following questions if they were laid before you
  • Describe your preferred future environment?
  • What formative (short-term, less than 6 months) and summative (long-term, year-end, 2 years out) data can be used to demonstrate the impact of your preferred future?
  • How can you leverage initiatives currently underway (e.g. literacy, Art & Science of Teaching, etc) to better align your preferred future with the work of the district?
I wrote the following in the months leading up to spring in 2013 as a part of my proposal for change I would like to bring to my classroom.

My preferred future is one in which students in my classroom prove they have met the  learning objectives of a unit  not simply by answering questions on a test.  Project based learning provides  the model for how I am looking to redesign my physics curriculum and have students prove their mastery of objectives.   I would like my classroom  focus to be a balance between science content, science process, and 21st century skills.  In my desired classroom, students enter the lab with confidence in the purpose of what they are trying to accomplish.  Students will see not only how the activities meet the class objectives but how the concepts they are studying and the skills they are using  relate to the real world. Of students surveyed, only 15% believed the primary form of assessment should be tests.

Because this is a brand new model of instruction, it may be difficult to compare gains directly to previous methods.  But measuring scores on assessments which don’t simply measure content knowledge but also science process would be appropriate.  I am not sure where we are at in terms of a MAPS test for physics, but that seems to be one data driven way to measure these  gains.   I would also include student feedback surveys on this instructional format to measure success and show areas in need of modification.  

Just as important as this technological support and professional support, I would need the support of school and district administration.  This presents a great learning shift for many students.  As a teacher it will be my job to explain to students why this change is being explored.  But, I needed to be sure that my administrators are in my corner this endeavor as we make our way down this uncharted future.

The projects will be designed to meet the current content standards.  In addition, these projects will be designed to meet the Next Generation Science Standards. These recently released standards have a strong focus on the content and process of good science.  Although they have not yet been adopted by WI, they are a great guide to help inform instruction.  In the project based classroom, the power is taken away from the test and focused on students understanding and demonstrating the course objectives.  Through the project based model, students will be interacting with texts in the content area in addition to creating their own texts.  This ties in directly to the common core literacy standards in science.  Students will realize the content they are responsible for is relevant.

Reading over this vision today, I hold these same beliefs to my heart as strongly as I did then.  But, I think I see that I can go further and I have gone further than I originally set out to as I’ve grown to learn more.  I’ve grown to see that my preferred future does not just rely on a change in format of  summative assessment, it allows freedom on a daily basis in the classroom for choice in assessment.  What I have learned about personalized learning when applied through the lens of Universal Design for Learning is not simply about the expression of mastery.  Personalization is giving students choice in how they access and engage with content as well.  Although I may not have gone into my proposal with that in mind, the implementation of a project based learning model allowed for that to occur.
As far as measuring navigating the balance between content and skills, I am still finding my way on that course. Attending PBL World (an opportunity I never would have dreamed of back in 2013) over the summer of 2015, was a big eye-opener in terms of how to best handle this.  During the PBL 101 workshop there, we were advised to assess both content specific and success (21st Century) skills and hold students accountable for them.  The advice was, though, that content is assessed for each individual separately while success skills are a part of the group project.  This makes a lot of sense and has really worked well in practice for the projects completed in my classroom.

As far as support from administration is concerned, I shouldn’t have been worried for a second.  It is the district and building administration that has pushed me to take my ideas and put them into practice.  They have been my greatest champions in every sense.  They have supported my teaching and helped me go farther than I ever thought I would.  The positive feedback has led me to try more new ideas in my classroom without fear of failing.

In terms of standards, the timeline worked out differently than I had expected it to.  In fact, it worked out to my benefit.  Our high schools went through UbD work in the 2013-15 school years which helped the physics courses design a clear, manageable set of learning objectives.  This allowed for the more freedom in instructional practices since all students had clear learning objectives that were specific to what the outcomes were but not how students had to get there.  The writing of these powerful learning objectives has open the door to personalization more than I ever imagined it would.  

The second part of the proposal asked about resources
  • What resources (hardware, training, materials, space, release time, in/out of district professionals (e.g. Integrator, RRT, IRT, etc)) will you need to accomplish your preferred future?
  • How could you modify your plans if you are not able to secure all of the resources you desire?
If a project based classroom is going to work, all students need to be a part of the process.  In the real world, everyone is not working on the same part of a project.  Tasks are divided up.  So, each individual is doing their own part of a larger project.  In the classroom, students will need to function as a group working on their own part of the project as a true collaborative group.  In terms of technology, this will require a true 1-to-1 environment.  I believe the best technological tool for project creation is the iPad.  The iPad allows students to create many types of documents, taking photo and video, and editing videos.  In addition, the iPad has lab analysis tools designed by Vernier to help make the laboratory experience a personal one.  To help meet this goal of a true 1-to-1 classroom, I am requesting a class set of 28 iPads.  For each iPad, I would like to have a case and the following apps: goodreader, Video Physics from Vernier, Graphical Analysis, Physics coaster, algodoo and iMovie.

I have begun my investigations into project based learning and would still consider myself as an extreme novice.  So, professional development would be required before I dive head first into a project based learning classroom.  I am more than willing to put in summer work time without compensation in order to fund hardware needs.  But, I would appreciate being given the chance to get in touch with other science educators who are more experienced in the field of project based learning in the area and how they structure their classroom to support it. If the opportunity presents itself, it would be great to observe the process 1st hand.

I realize that 28 iPads are a great expense and fulfilling this 28 iPad request may prove to be difficult given tight funds.  According to a survey of my students at the end of term 3, 50% of students polled had personal laptops or iPads they could bring into the classroom. If these numbers hold true for future classes, in our current BYOD model, less iPads would be necessary.  In this case  15 iPads should come close to meeting the hardware requirements for a 1-to-1 environment.  This would ensure each group has at least one iPad to take photos, video, and complete editing with.The mix of laptops and iPads could be beneficial in some projects.   The students who would be bringing in their own device would just need access to the same software as the school provided tech.

If I don’t get the desired resources (i.e. no iPads), I could still go forward with my intended initiative of changing my classroom to a project based learning environment.  Rather than creating a 1-to-1 environment, I would structure groups around students who had their own technology devices for classroom use.  I would use the computer labs at our school when 1-to-1 is required.  If I was unable to procure the desired iPads, I would still need professional development and time to develop the curriculum.  So, I would still need to be put in touch with other science teachers in our area who are using project based learning to meet their course objectives.

When the proposal was accepted, I received a class set of 30 iPads and a cart for them as well as a host of apps.  It is interesting to look back and see how much has changed technologically in the last 2.5 years. Knowing what I know now, the iPad is still the best multimedia creation tool and I’m glad I went with it over Chromebooks for my classroom.  Our district is moving to a 1:1 Chromebook which will pair nicely.  The iPads have forced students to think outside of simple text presentations of information.  In fact, 2 years ago Google and iOS were very incompatible so we had to find other solutions for media creation. Time has changed and the Google Suite of apps work so much better with iPads.  I’ve discovered so many more great creation tools that allow students to put their voice and personal touch into what they create.  The one-two punch that students will have with iPads and Chromebooks will just be fantastic.

In the 2013-14 school year, our district began a pilot of Canvas LMS.  We have adopted it as our district LMS and it has allowed me to manage the  innovation I brought to my classroom in fantastic ways.  It has allowed for access to many forms of digital content and allowed students to submit a wide variety of products.  From my perspective, it has allowed me to manage the ability to provide feedback to students who are not in the same place at the same time.  By that I mean, students don’t need to all work at the same pace.  It allows for different paced instruction and allows for students to submit an assessment, get specific feedback, revise, and resubmit in a simple teacher and student friendly workflow.  It has made the “growth mindset” a reality in my classroom. 
Without the technology tools I was provided, I’m not sure how successful I would have been in being able to go further than what I thought was possible.  

The last portion of the proposal asked for information about the timeline.
  • Assuming a green light on your preferred future and resource needs, draft a timeline of events
Currently, I am designing smaller objective based projects in my honors physics class in order to get a feel for the process.  Our librarian has procured a project based learning book which I am using as a resource in addition to the Buck Institute web site. I have already begun to study the Next Generation Science Standards to see which apply to physics and identifying standards not currently being addressed.  

If I am given the green light to continue, I would focus on redesigning the curriculum for Honors Physics to a project based learning model.  If possible, I would like to travel to observe an area project based learning environment in action.  Over the summer, I would start from scratch and redesign the honors physics curriculum (there may be some minor changes to the schedule, but as of right now I am the only teacher with sections of honors physics) to meet both Wisconsin Model Academic Science Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.  The curriculum would be designed with an eye to the technology that would be provided by the district (true 1-to-1 or 1 device per group with additional computer lab time).   I envision going into the school year with all major projects identified.

My teaching schedule would determine when implementation would take place during the 2013-14 school year.  According to the most recent update, I predict I will probably be teaching 1 section of honors physics term 1 and 2  and 2 sections during terms 3 and 4.   Terms 1 and 2 will provide the first true implementation of this curriculum.  During this time, it will be important to keep clear reflections on what is working, what isn’t, with a strong ear to student feedback.  Terms 3 and 4 will provide the opportunity to reteach the curriculum with implementation of the changes prescribed by the first go around.

With AP Physics B being replaced by Physics 1 and 2 in the 2014-15 school year it is a distinct possibility  that honors physics could be on the chopping block.  At the end of the 2013-14 school year, I will need to evaluate the PBL  curriculum put into place in honors physics and see if it can be applied to either the regular physics classroom or the AP Physics classroom.  During the 2014-15 school year, I would still envision being  the only teacher implementing the PBL curriculum in physics due to the increased access to technology that would be specific to my classroom (if iPads are supplied).  In future years, I believe we will be at a point where we have a true 1-to-1 device environment.  This would make it easier to implement the PBL physics curriculum in all regular physics courses if the curriculum proves to be successful.

The question is how will we know if it is successful? I would still need to find ways to provide quantitative data showing the success of the PBL curriculum outside of student surveys.  I am unsure of the best way to do this, and would be open to any ideas administration could provide.

In my timeline, I used the phrase PBL quite a bit.  Looking back, it’s incredible to think that I would go beyond the PBL book from our library to actually be trained in the Project Based Learning model by faculty from the Buck Institute.  But I was able to which in the summer of 2015 which led to creating a more authentic project for students to complete.  During the 2013-14 school, there was great positive reception to the implementation of the PBL model in sections of Honors Physics. 
In the 2014-15 school year, some major changes happened to the AP Physics curriculum and I was no longer teaching honors physics.  But I was able to begin co-teaching a fully inclusive physics classroom with a special education teacher.  We used the PBL model to help make physics concepts accessible to all students.  We were proud of our work in the 2014-15 school year because we had individuals who never would have taken physics before. Although we brought project based learning to the class, it wasn't deep project based learning that produced true public products that were authentic.  The projects were engaging to the students, but as we learned more about "gold standard" PBL, we knew we needed to do more. I think our first term project did our best job of getting to what my vision was for my ideal learning environment.  The project was far from perfect, but it represents a dramatic shift towards melding content, success skills, and individual student interests.  Individual interests were something I hadn't considered in my proposal, but is key to authentic engagement and meaningful learning.  We look forward to bringing back this project next year with all we've learned this year.

Last school year, AP Physics B was converted to two separate courses.  In AP Physics, I began giving students options in summative assessment, but it was still very traditional in all other elements.   The 2nd half of the school year, 1/3 of those students went on to take AP Physics 2 with me. These students became more confident in choosing alternative means of summative assessment.  By year's end, I was impressed with the ability for the students to propose ways to demonstrate mastery of objectives.  This year, my AP students have much more choice in the activities they participate in to demonstrate mastery.  The iPads have been key to this.  App have created opportunities I never would have dreamed of 3 years ago with screencasts and infographics.   

As far as hard quantitative data is concerned, I could look at AP testing data to see my students performed above the global average (but only by a few percentage points.). The real indicator of success for me was the ability for students to demonstrate understanding of content in a format other than a test.  In addition, I saw demonstration of the 21st Century Skills I was looking for like communication, collaboration, and technology skills.  

I'm not sure what I will be teaching next year.  If I am teaching AP, I hope to incorporate even more choice in how students can demonstrate mastery.  Specifically, I would like to have students work on projects that encapsulate concepts from multiple units.  True understanding of physics at the AP level requires students to understand phenomenon outside of the traditionally defined units that the current structure dictates.  There is a clear divide between the desired structure of AP syllabi and the understanding students are asked to demonstrate on the AP test. I look forward to finding ways to fight the traditional unit structure next year. 

Hopefully, I'll be back in a few weeks with new student feedback.

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