Thinking Deeper

12 03 2016

I saw a “bumper sticker thinking” post recently on Twitter that said, “Teach from your feet, not your seat.” And at first, I nodded and agreed. It seemed to make sense. And it rhymed.

But then I thought about it for just a moment longer. And I’m not sure I can agree.

You see, I like to create student centered, democratic classrooms where the teacher isn’tScreen Shot 2016-03-10 at 11.46.36 AM.png the focus but that the work the students are doing is. That means that I may not be
standing and pontificating at the students hardly ever. It might mean that I’m sitting right next to them, talking closely and individually, based on what that child needs. It might mean that I’m an embedded participant in my own classroom. It might mean that because my students are truly engaged, I don’t have to walk and stand next to them at regular intervals to keep them on task. It might mean that our furniture is something other than desks in rows and I can pull a chair up next to almost any child in the classroom.

Do I wholly disagree with the bumper sticker quote? Not necessarily…and truth be told,  my ear likes that it rhymes. It’s catchy. And I’m sure there are situations where it is accurate. Who knows…I’m not even sure it’s meant to be taken literally…but I can only take it by the words that were used.

And that’s the problem with bumper sticker thinking: it’s not always accurate if you think a little longer beyond your first reaction. It feels good in the moment and we feel we’re actually doing something good. Woo! But where does that leave us?

So today when we see education quotes that come across our social media feeds, I encourage us all to think a little longer and to consider the words a little deeper. Let’s truly ponder the types of classrooms we want to have with the kids we currently serve. And let’s consider the educators we want to be for those kids.


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! 

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 2.42.52 PM

Sharing PBL is my mission.

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?


15 Common PBL Mistakes |mistake #7: treat all teachers the same

7 12 2014

Continuing the 15 mistakes of the PBL classroom, this week’s post is about treating all teachers as if they’re the same, with the same needs.

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.

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:

copies of teachersMistake #7: Continue to treat all teachers as if they’re the same and need the same things.

Problem: Currently, we feel that in order to be “fair,” all teachers need to be treated the same, when in actuality, there are very few teachers who have the same ability, experiences, or skills as others in the school. Likewise, their curriculum requirements are likely vastly different, especially as they begin to move toward applying the lessons of their content into real-world applications. Likewise, personally, everyone is traveling their own journey many of us know nothing about and teachers are no different.

Solution: Professional learning is best offered as personalized learning where a teacher has a great deal to say about what s/he learns to continue growing professionally. If teachers teach how they are taught, then leaders must support teachers as learners and our professional learning environments will mimic, appropriately, the modern learning environments in our classrooms. Pacing will be varied, as will the topics, and access to information and support.

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.  

%d bloggers like this: