My Secret Confession About KWL Charts

4 08 2015

I have a confession: KWL charts make me feel like a failure as a teacher. I know I’m supposed to love them. I know they’re Good Teaching 101. I know I’m supposed to use them — I’m told so in nearly every professional learning event I attend.

But I just can’t do it. And I find, in secret workroom conversations with colleagues that I’m not alone. In those furtive conversations whispered in the early morning or late afternoon workroom, we confess that we all nod knowingly in inservices about the value of KWL, but then as we go into our classrooms, we feel such guilt about how much we feel disconnected from those magical KWL charts.
Let me explain.

Let’s see. KWL means:
•    K – what do you know?
•    W – what do you want to know?
•    L – what have you learned?
And we have kids fill this out at the beginning of learning and again at the end of learning. And it’s good teaching strategy.

Simple enough. However, I confess…that’s not how it goes in my classroom. Not at all. Here’s how it goes with my kids:

•    K – what do you know? Nuthin.
•    W – what do you want to know? Nuthin.
•    L – what have you learned? Ok, here’s where I’m the worst teacher in the world…I NEVER get back to this step. At the end of the unit, the KWL charts are so lost and we’re so over them… ugh. I know. Fire me now. I’m a horrible teacher.

But what I do use is KWL-like — trying hard to fit into the “good teacher” mold — even if it’s not perfectly done.

And this modification works. And it works really well in my Project Based Learning classroom.

I use a chart that asks the class:
•    What do you KNOW about the challenge/question?
•    What do you NEED TO KNOW to learn in order to answer the question/complete the challenge?
•    What RESOURCES do we need to find the information we need? (people? websites? videos? books?)

And at first, as the kids are starting the chart, the “need to know” column feels random and is a bit short. But we leave it posted on chart paper or on the white board in the room. And then periodically, we revise the lists and cross out what we now know and add to what we now need to know in order to keep moving forward.

What I do find is that the second column grows to gigantic length as kids’ curiosities continue to add to the learning. And the deadline looms. So now we get to practice prioritizing what we NEED to know, based on the time we have to collect our work into a solution or presentation.

Anyway, my kids do good work with this modified chart. I won’t lie and say they love the process, but I do see them begin to learn how to self-manage and start to self-solve some truly ambiguous PBL challenges. You see, I want the chart to be a way to digging in to PBLrole model how we think and logically attack problems. And using the chart this way helps keep me organized and stay focused on the bigger picture as we dig into a PBL unit. We start pulling out new info, and generally make a learning mess as we dig in. And then we continue actively using the chart through the process as it helps us make sense of the mess of learning we’re creating.

If you have trouble loving the traditional KWL chart, you might consider this variation, especially if you’re in a Project/Problem/Passion Based Learning environment.

Let me know how it goes!





15 Common PBL Mistakes | mistake #15: a strategy that’s THE panacea

27 01 2015

I have the best job in the world. On a regular basis, I’m given the extraordinary fortune to talk with teachers who are embarking on a PBL journey with their students. To dig into the smaller, everyday details of how to make this type of learning environment work. To answer the tough questions about sustainability, rigor, behavior management and then take the questioner further…that’s like chocolate to me! I can’t get enough.

Over the years of starting my own PBL school and learning in a baptismal fire, I’ve been able to find a way to talk with new or reluctant teachers about their concerns. Additionally, there are things that excited, energetic teachers might want to consider as they take their first steps into the PBL fire as well.

In the next month or so, I’ll be publishing a regular series to include 15 common mistakes that educators make and some solutions they might consider. Here’s the next one in the series:

Mistake #15:
Think that PBL is another strategy, when applied, will solve all problems.

Problem: Have you heard educators say any of the following?

“This too, shall pass.”

“I’ve seen all sorts of things come and go. And if I wait long enough, this pendulum will swing the other way again. All I have to do is keep in the middle with my head down and I won’t get hit.”

“Just tell me what to do and I’ll be sure I’m doing it when they come visit my room.”

Each of these represent a professional who has been “strategy-ed” to apathy. And it’s also represents a professional who has found a way to become ritually compliant. Interestingly enough, many of our students have the same attitude toward their learning. Why? Because this is all we’ve asked for in the past. Just do what I ask you to do and that’s all I’ll ask for. We’ve done this to them.

Solution: When we believe that teachers teach how they are taught, we begin to rethink what professional learning might look like. How do we begin to mimic what we’d like to see teachers doing in their classrooms? How do we value them as individuals? How do we help them find their own learning, their own passions? How can we create a need and a value in their eyes in order for them to see a need to contribute to the greater Good? How do we stop blaming them and reexamine our own practices? Again, it will take some teachers longer than others, but if we continue to treat them as individuals with unique (and valuable) skills, the ones who want to do the right thing by kids will come around. And I believe there are more of those teachers than we might imagine.

Want to learn more about Project/Problem Based Learning and how to support it?


In 2006 with 12 years of traditional classroom experience and 2 days of formal PBL training in her pocket, Ginger Lewman started a middle school, grades 5-8, that was a 1:1 laptop and Project Based Learning environment. Five years later, the middle school had doubled in population twice and had expanded to include PBL in grades K-8. They were also in the process of opening a PBL high school the next fall. Ginger now works with school leaders in helping them learn how to support the PBL shift, and inspires their teachers to take the leap. Meanwhile, she also continues to co-teach with K-12 teachers in the training process, keeping her own teaching chops sharp and ready.  





Pondering the Complexity of “Mastery” Assessment

31 12 2014

I’m pondering a little bit today. I’m imagining a bit about what it might be like to see a multiple choice test for the first time…stepping into my “time-n-place” machine…

I’m “time-n-place” traveling back to where people learned things by working side-by-side with someone who had more experience. This is a place where tests don’t measure what you know or what you are able to do. Demonstrating a thing you make, or a process you follow, or a piece of the whole that you finish is how someone can tell if you know your stuff or not. “Doing” is the way you show mastery — the way you move from apprentice to master.

Now consider, if this is your mindset, putting a multiple choice test in front of a person that laid out parts of the process or the vocabulary used in the job. And as with all multiple choice tests, there is no talking, no explaining of answers. You’re either right, or you’re wrong, depending up on the choice you select and regardless of the subtleties or intricacies of the process you’re “proving” you know. Pondering PBL assessment

How difficult that must be. How incredulous the master would be to even consider that as a worthy substitute for actually just SHOWING what you know.

But the test-maker wants to be sure there’s no confusion on the multiple choice test, so he creates questions that are clearer. That are less confusing. That have an easier right/wrong response. And maybe, for the more intricate explanations, you’re allowed to write essay or short-answer responses.

What do we lose in that “refining” of questions? Complexity? Subtlety of angle? Pressure? Nuance of response? Might it just be easier and more precise to just show the process? To do the thing you’re trained to do? Because if that thing is the actual thing the master cares about, why ever would she waste time creating — and refining — a test that doesn’t really do the process justice?

What do we gain with the multiple choice option? Mass standardization. The ability to have multiple people “demonstrate mastery” at the same time. The ability to say, “Yes, ALL these people have mastered that thing, that process and are now ready to be masters themselves,” when, in reality, that’s simply not true. It’s a mere shadow, if even that, of true mastery.

Pondering, pondering, pondering…





15 Common PBL Mistakes | mistake #10: ignore your community

22 12 2014

I have the best job in the world. On a regular basis, I’m given the extraordinary fortune to talk with teachers who are embarking on a PBL journey with their students. To dig into the smaller, everyday details of how to make this type of learning environment work. To answer the tough questions about sustainability, rigor, behavior management and then take the questioner further…that’s like chocolate to me! I can’t get enough.

Over the years of starting my own PBL school and learning in a baptismal fire, I’ve been able to find a way to talk with new or reluctant teachers about their concerns. Additionally, there are things that excited, energetic teachers might want to consider as they take their first steps into the PBL fire as well.

In the next month or so, I’ll be publishing a regular series to include 15 common mistakes that educators make and some solutions they might consider. Here’s the next one in the series:

Mistake #10:
Fail to connect with the community, sharing why we’re doing this.

Problem: Our wider community has been watching our schools recently and have quite a bit to say about what we are or aren’t doing for their kids. Sometimes school leaders err on the side of keeping the peace by not communicating all changes, especially if we’re not 100% confident in the process. And as we’ve discussed already, PBL isn’t a simple strategy to just apply when needed. Eventually, our children are motivated and engaged in learning beyond what traditional classes have ever done. But in the process of unlearning old behaviors and relearning new realities, some families see that teachers aren’t teaching (at least how they’re used to seeing worksheets and lecture) and students, who may have never struggled before, are now struggling with some aspects of their learning.

Solution: We must talk early and often with families and the wider community about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Take families on tours (virtual or otherwise) to other schools that are implementing PBL. Help them realize that the world is different and the futures for their children are unlike anything that previous schooling systems have ever had to prepare students for. Be honest that it’s a significantly different approach to learning and things may be in flux for a while and we’d appreciate their gentle and honest feedback because their children, our students, deserve the best we can offer. These conversations will need to occur several times before school starts, then again several times throughout the year. And we truly need to listen and respond to the hearts of parents in our quest, regardless of the sharpness of their words.

Want to learn more about Project/Problem Based Learning and how to support it?


In 2006 with 12 years of traditional classroom experience and 2 days of formal PBL training in her pocket, Ginger Lewman started a middle school, grades 5-8, that was a 1:1 laptop and Project Based Learning environment. Five years later, the middle school had doubled in population twice and had expanded to include PBL in grades K-8. They were also in the process of opening a PBL high school the next fall. Ginger now works with school leaders in helping them learn how to support the PBL shift, and inspires their teachers to take the leap. Meanwhile, she also continues to co-teach with K-12 teachers in the training process, keeping her own teaching chops sharp and ready.  








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