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! 

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Sharing PBL is my mission.

The Time I Lived In a Residential Boys’ Home

22 12 2015

Filed under, I’m not sure you knew this about me:

In the mid-90’s and directly out of the Teacher’s College, I worked as a Teaching Parent at The Farm, Inc. This means I worked in a Level 5 group home setting with both boys and girls, aged 11-18 who were either designated as Children In Need of Care, or as Juvenile Offenders going into, or coming out of lockup. These kids were the best wake-up call to education I could have ever asked for. I worked as day school teacher (out of our dining room), public school liaison (IEP advocate), doctor liaison (and there were many), and social services liaison, making sure the boys met all their appointments and had their needs met there. I also helped cook meals, clean the house (with the boys), and basically tried to nurture and teach them life lessons and coping skills in the time we were living together in the group home.shadows

Meanwhile, at every single turn, the kids were teaching me patience, love, passion, caring, and tenderness, forgiveness, tolerance, and culture. There are kids there whose faces, names, and stories are permanently etched upon my heart. Some for their gentleness. Some for their troubles. Some for their growth. Some for their struggle to simply survive in a world that kept demonstrating to them that they didn’t matter. All these kids were brilliant, in their own ways. Most just were bad at making decisions. And some were there because they had parents who made bad decisions.

My Farm kids are now aged 31 to 40 years old — those who’ve survived. If I had a magic super-power, I’d peek into who they are now. Heck, I’d have been peeking all along, helping each I could at each moment I could. I know there are laws, but I also regret not being able to keep in touch with so many of them.

With Blue, who was a red-headed kid whose real name was blue and not a gang-related name, as we first assumed. With Phillip who tried mightily one day to get me to break. But I knew he was and just let it slide off me as I loved him more. With Andre who lashed out at me in pain, momentarily breaking me, and to the boys who rallied around me getting me water and a paper bag to breathe into. With the giant 14 year old who had size 14 shoes and the kindest heart who we sent to Alma with a watermelon under his arm. With Bruce who was struggling minute-by-minute to get back to his grandmother. With Ray who, at age 16 had 4 year old gang tattoos across his knuckles who worked so hard for his GED and a job so he could afford the laser tattoo removal process. Robert who worked hard doing whatever it took to keep others out of his personal space. With the 17 year old who had huffed enough inhalants to effectively melt his frontal lobe and so between bouts of extreme anger, we’d have to help him tie his shoes. And 50 other faces and names that flash by.

Funny. Right now I am 43 years old. Thinking back on the boys and girls, now come full-grown women and men, it turns out I was helping kids who were not much younger than myself at the time, but the gulf back then seemed so far apart. I’d finished my Bachelor’s degree and had experienced college life. They’d barely had a childhood at that point. It’s not that they were older. It’s as if they were frozen beyond being children and yet so very far away from adulthood. And I now realize that during all my own childhood, I was one phone call away from being one of these kids in a residential home.

Working here was the best 2 year training I ever received in being both a teacher and a real human being. When I left that job, I knew the “bad” kids were still just scared and confused kids trying to create some control and stability in their lives and that I could handle whatever a classroom teacher might see in her lifetime. And I thank these kids for more than they would ever know.

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…

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