Do You Know What You’re Looking For?

22 12 2015

Often, I get to do walk-throughs with Principals who are looking for guidance with supporting their teachers who are trying to embrace Project, Problem, or Passion-Based Learning. I say I get to do this often, but I don’t think it’s often enough because in nearly every single workshop I give, I hear the same general fears from teachers who have bought in to PBL.

They beg me.

“Would you please tell my administrator that this is what s/he should be looking for? I keep getting dinged on ______.”

Sometimes it’s that they’re literally off-script from the colleague down the hall or across town. Sometimes it’s because they’re not using the lesson plan template that all teachers K12 are required to use in the district. Sometimes they’re not posting the learning objectives on the wall each day, effectively uncovering the mystery (read as: learning) for the kids before they even get to dig in to the day’s work.


Working with teachers and students together are always the best days!

But before you get too excited about me bashing the PBL-newbie administrator, I also get to see walk with terrific administrators to visit teachers who are absolutely dead-sure they’re fostering a PBL setting for their kids when in fact, they are not. I hear the voices of too many teachers echoing the same things:

“Yeah, we do PBL. We’ll start the project right after I teach them the basics because I want them to have a good foundation so they don’t struggle or fail. And then we’ll practice the standards. And then after I know all the kids have the learning in place, we’ll start this project. I’ll give them lots of checklists so I can be sure every single kid is getting the exact same learning experience, because there are things they just not able to “discover.” But of course all the kids can take my — I mean their  project as far as they want to. And yes, I ask the kids questions to guide their learning. Of course. What teacher doesn’t? Besides, the kids don’t like it when I ask them things that are too abstract or that they don’t have an answer to. Because parents. Because college.” 

Right. That’s not PBL. It’s maybe fun. And it’s maybe something your kids do well. It might be “doing projects,” but baby, it ain’t PBL.

And so I’ve decided to borrow an idea from McRel’s Power Walkthrough and change it up to fit the specific — and flexible — needs of the PBL classroom.

Not familiar with the Classroom Instruction that Works walk through advice? Check out the first minute or so of the following video:


Let me be clear: I’m a big fan of administration getting into classrooms on a regular basis. I’m also a fan of the administrator being the a curriculum and learning leader for the community. So toward that end, I have fully bought into the 5-minute walkthrough concept. Go in often. Look. Take observations. Then talk with the teacher.

But I’m also a fan of curriculum coaches doing the same thing.

And I’m also a fan of colleagues observing each other, especially in a PBL community. And especially cross-curricular colleagues. Let’s get into one another’s rooms, for a purpose, with an objective tool to help guide the conversations that will drive our own professional learning — and application — deeper.

So toward that end, I’ve created a PBL walkthrough Google Form based on my past 10 years of experience as a PBL teacher and consultant/keynote, working to support budding PBL students and educators across the globe with the LifePractice PBL curriculum.

A couple words first:

  1. In order to get the best experience with the form, both the observer and observed will want to be fully PBL trained. If you don’t have a common understanding of why and what it looks like, the conversations could really go off the rails.
  2.  If you’re wondering why I didn’t include _____ (fill in topic of your choice), look again. It might be there, included within another concept — hence, the need for high-quality PBL training (more than a 1-day drive-by). I’ve designed the form to be brief. A snapshot. After all, you’re in there for only 5 or so minutes. It’s not an evaluation. It’s meant to capture a snapshot and then spark further discussion.
    Full disclosure, this is my 3rd attempt at a comprehensive walk-through form. The previous two got to be so cumbersome, I had to cut them loose. I think I found a good combo here.
  3. This is intended to be used on a mobile device with grades 3-12+. I believe that PBL works well at a primary level. It simply looks a little different. If you’re interested in a primary-level PBL walkthrough form, please let me know in the comments.
  4. I would expect that the observer would make his/her own copy and collect the data into a spreadsheet. If the info needs to be sent to the teacher, a quick screen-capture of the form before submitting could be sent before hitting “submit.” (thanks for that idea, Kevin Case!)

My last words of encouragement here:

There are many, multiple ways to do Project/Problem/Passion-Based Learning right. Don’t get stuck in tunnel-view as you’re visiting classrooms. Are the students learning by doing? By answering a big question? By solving a big problem? Then they’re doing PBL.

Please take a look at the LifePractice PBL Google Form here

Contact me if you like it and want your own copy of the editable form.

And please, if I am missing something, please leave a comment and let me know!

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.  Her book, LifePractice Learning, is coming out soon! 

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Sharing PBL is my mission.


Lingering Thoughts on a Popular Theme: we’re not helpless!

14 10 2015

As one does, I ran across a very popular picture quote on Facebook the other day. It had been shared quite a bit and it was getting a lot of positive comments. So of course my eye was drawn to it. It was a Diane Ravitch quote that someone had pasted onto a graphic. In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (2010), Diane asks the following:

“Can teachers successfully educate children to think for themselves if teachers are not treated as professionals who think for themselves?”

What a great question! Vital. Important. You see, if no one lets us be professionals… if we’re not given permission to … If they continue to demean and demoralize us … if we were only allowed to … we ought to be treated better … PowerFist

whew! I can see why educators would share that widely!

But as you might guess, I had some follow up thoughts:

Yes! I agree! How can we do our jobs unless we’re given the freedom to do so. And so if we’re tired of “not being treated as professionals who can think for ourselves,” then let’s do something about it! If we’re tired, then we as teachers are obligated to pick up the mantle of the responsible, proactive professional and become education leaders. We’ve got to offer suggestions and ideas. We’ve got to experiment. We’ve got to take risks.

Because if we want to continue to play “victim to the system” then we’ll always get what we’re given.

What are you tired of? And so then what is your first step to do something about it?

Are You Starting a K5 Library MakerSpace?

26 08 2015

As part of my job, I frequently field questions from teachers in the trenches about PBL, technology integration, high-ability learners, and more recently, makerspaces.  Occasionally I’m asked a question where I know the answer will benefit others. In those cases, I ask if I can publish the Q/A results. Here’s one recent conversation about elementary makerspaces:

A librarian in our district has been asked to build a library makerspace with k-5 students who they come into her library once a week!

How do I help her organize her activities, materials, and time? In my very limited experience I see two options:

  1. same theme with different tools for K-5
  2. stations rotated every other week or month?

What are your thoughts?

As you know, the role of librarian is going through a shift for the past few years. In a modern learning environment, the librarian is no longer the lady who constantly shushes you while stamping or shelving books.

Nope. Today’s modern teacher-librarian is truly an information and media hub specialist. And modern libraries across the US are dedicating at least some of their spaces to create a center of making, tinkering, building, thinking, and doing. In other words, they’re embracing the makerspace movement.

A Librarian’s Guide to Makerspaces (a great resource)

So when we’re starting to build and structure that space inside the reality of budgetary restrictions, and with limited weekly time with kids, what should we have the kids doing? How do we get them in there and structure their time? I believe that’s what the question above is asking.

I also want to add that this question comes at the beginning of the school year from a librarian who’s not ever done this before. So I’m guessing we’re looking at a blank canvas. Do we have time, budget,STEAMmaker Camp or the guts to go all out and build a perfect space? Or would it be better to start small, add on a little at a time, based on the growth of the students, the teachers, and the courage of the librarian?

Even if she’s won a $10k grant, I would still encourage the slow growth of her program, simply because it’s too easy to get “tool-blind,” buying the coolest toys and gadgets while missing a bigger picture of who the kids are and what they’ll respond to.

You know how that works, right? Have you ever bought a kid a cool (read as “expensive”)  present and watched glumly as she played happily with the box? Yup.

My first piece of advice is to go slow.

Put one activity out for each class to experience. And yes, while a true makerspace has kids coming in and building whatever they want to, I stand strong in my belief (based on several years’ experience) that we want to walk both kids and staff into this “independent learner” thing. The reality is that very few of our kids get to experience true independent learning in their regular classrooms, so when we look at a group of kids and say, STEAMmaker Camp“What do you want to do? You can do anything!” They look at us as if we’ve sprouted a tail and spoken another language. And IF they do anything right away, the result is often poorer quality (to their own dissatisfaction), or they dawdle and just waste expensive supplies.  Psst: If you know that scenario is true, say “yes” out loud right now. It’s ok. No one near you will look at you.

Pro-Tip: The learning is in the process of “kids doing” with makerspaces. What I mean is that as they build and make stuff, they’re learning. So we want that process to always be shifting from helping kids  where they currently are (dependent upon teacher guidance) toward developing independence in thinking and learning. And yes. We do have to meet them where they are at first. 

As a consequence, we will want that first activity to be active hands-on for the kids. We want to get them where they’re building something exciting and fun! But we also want that process to be pretty darned teacher-guided (I give you permission). Your kids will have better success and you can begin to let go of the reins as they gain more experience. And by “more experience,” I mean by the end of the first project.STEAMmaker Camp

So what are some great projects for littles to make?

My second piece of advice is to start small.
Disclaimer: “slow” and “small” depends upon the teacher’s comfort with risk-taking and the students’ and supporting teachers’ readiness to experience independent learning. Apply this as you might apply a fungus cream: as needed. 

Ok, so let’s say you don’t have a lot of money (the reality for most educators). There’s still stuff you can do for mere pocket change. Start there. Know that more money can come later. Go to Donor’s Choose or Go Fund Me for help from a broader community. I’ve seen many teachers get their cool maker projects funded there.

Or maybe you do have a nice chunk of change; it’s burning a hole in your pocket and you’re impatient to get started. I get it, if you don’t use it, you might lose it. But the first piece of advice is to start slow and the second piece of advice is to start small, and there’s a reason for it. I’ve seen too many people go out and blow their entire budget on a cool set of gadgets only to be disappointed in them when they weren’t what was promised. I’ve also seen educators do a space make-over and be very disappointed with the tables, chairs, storage, and other equipment they bought.

We want to understand that building a makerspace is less about the “stuff” and more about the process of learning. You can have kids building something out of donated cardboard or styrofoam (see Kevin Honeycutt’s Styrosaurs). Or you can start them out with coding videogames. Or maybe they’re building rockets, robots, or hacking their notebooks.

You see, in our STEAMmaker Camps, I help teachers learn what a makerspace can be, what things and challengesSTEAMmaker Camp kids can do, how to manage the space and materials, and how to support engaged, empowered independent learning. We’ll often have 10 modules going for the first few days, then by the end, every learner (up to 60 or 70 participants at a time) is working in small groups or individually. It’s a rare teacher who can successfully launch that magnitude of complexity on her first try.

A great way to start K5 could be with one “station” where kids make a bristle bot. This activity can be done with Kinders and be ramped in complexity all the way to 5th grade and beyond. The truth is that at first, there’s probably not a lot of “ramping up” that needs done since even the older kids have probably never done anything like this before. Regardless. 

If the teacher-librarian starts with one project, the next week, she can leave that project up, but leave it over to the side of the room. After 2 or 3 weeks of running a new project and helping kids learn how to work in this type of environment, she might be able to begin asking kids how they might “mashup” the stations they’ve already done. She could design a challenge that kids could choose (or not) to use something from each of the previous experiences to solve her challenge. Eventually, by the end of the year — or first semester, depending upon her kids — the students are making their own challenges. Voila, a fully functional makerspace has been born!

3 boys Hummingbird Another great place to start is with one small project station that teaches skills or a project station that can be added on to with advanced interest. Leave that station up for the next visit, but add on another station, related or not. By the end of the semester, she’ll have a slowly-built makerspace that kids will understand. Each weekly visit, she’ll want to leave time to allow kids to actively consider how these stations could work together. She could encourage kids to come in before/after school to start to make those connections by making their own interesting stuff. Again, her library has become a hub of activity where kids are exploring, tinkering, building, and learning.

And her smart colleagues will get in a hurry to collaborate with her to extend their own classroom time/space to do hands-on work that relates directly to the content back in the regular classroom. And hopefully soon, those same colleagues will be bringing in their own ideas, or taking her ideas back to change their teaching and learning processes too!

There are other things to consider as well. Should she rotate stations? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe we could begin by developing fewer stations with finite products and instead spend time developing more stations that are about skills and actions. Maybe there’s a construction space. Maybe there’s a video production space. Maybe there’s a robotics arena — and we can find our Social Studies, Science, Math, Language arts, etc supported in each of these stations. Perhaps after all, it’s more about the learning we do there and less about the stuff.

Veteran maker-librarians: what am I missing?
Newbie-makers: what questions did I not answer?


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!

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