Posts Tagged ‘Project based learning’

        So there’s this other crazy teacher (MA) at my school and together we took a leap into the unknown this week.  With little planning time, uncertain supplies, and a crazy schedule we did something unthinkable.  We offered 25 students the chance to free up their Fall second period by taking a week long, intensive version of the class.  We were surprised by the overwhelming response: 18 students showed up Monday morning, two weeks before regular school starts.  I’ll say it again: 18 students were willing to give up a week of the last part of their summer. Whew! We were amazed.

       What is this class they were so willing to jump into? We called it Summer Pathways 101 to distinguish it from regular school year Pathways 101.  The content of the course is all about process. We have two standards: Students will be collaborative and quality workers and Students will be self-directed and life-long learners.  How hard could that be to teach, right?  No math standards, no writing standards; seems like that should be a breeze! 

     Um, no.  

     Think about a conference you may have attended that lasted three or four days all day long. Think about how intense that was and how you were both wiped out and energized at the end (if it was a good conference).  Now multiply that by 17 students who are also both energized and wiped out.  By the third day of five. 

     We started the first day by jumping right into a group challenge.  We split them into four groups, gave them each 2 sheets of 4×8 cardboard, 50 yards of colored duct tape, a utility knife, a meter stick, and markers.  With these materials they had to build an object that would float long enough for one team member to navigate a straight course.  We loaded kids and materials into a bus and traveled to a local beach where they designed and built cardboard boats.

     Did I mention that about half of the kids were interested in the Arts Pathway and about half of them were interested in the Marine Studies Pathway?  And that these two groups were pretty distinct within our school?  And that about half were freshman?  The real challenge for them was how to work with people they would not normally be grouped with.  It was great fun to see them get frustrated and then work through it.

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     We only had three goals and it was so hard to achieve them.  We wanted students to complete a group project, an individual project, and a draft personalized learning plan.  We were asking them to learn how to work in groups to solve problems, to work individually to plan and execute a project with limited resources and time constraints, and to understand this new-fangled personalized learning plan.


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Our school has a modified block schedule, with four 70 minutes classes per day. Most classes meet every day, although there are a few that meet every other day. We run for two quarters (about 18 weeks), then all classes change and we go another two quarters. This means that summer planning tends to focus on first semester classes and second semester classes get short shrift (is that really a word?).

This coming week, I will be joining a bunch of people to plan our Pathways classes.  What’s that?  Well, we are starting these focused course options in the hopes that we will better engage our students and our community.  The classes are project based, bring in community partners, are standards based and proficiency graded.  Classes are cross curricular, so that students can get two credits in core academic areas.  And students are not locked in; they will have the flexibility to move into or out of a pathway.  We started last year with Marine Studies Pathway to meet the needs of a community that is surrounded by ocean (yes, I live on island, but there is a bridge).  Kids in Marine Studies can elect to take the Skipper’s Program and earn industry certifications.  To introduce kids to the idea of a pathway, we also offered an Intro to Pathways.  Now we are adding an Arts Pathway, and we hope to offer a Healthcare Pathway in 2015-16.

Last year’s pilot was a little rough around the edges, since neither students nor teachers really knew how to do education this way.  So this year, we are requiring all students to take Pathways 101 before they can enroll in a pathways class.  Pathways 101 doesn’t have any required academic content, but it is designed to teach students how to learn in a project based class, how to collaborate, set goals, work with community members, and generally take responsibility for their own learning.  This will be a fall semester course.  We are also offering Marine Studies in the fall that offers language arts and biology credit and in the spring that offers physical science and math credit.  The Arts Pathway will be offering History through the Arts in the Spring.

Tomorrow, we start planning all the classes, including those that don’t start until the end of January.  It should be an interesting week.

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Marine Studies Spring 2014 starts on the 27th. I am not ready. We are not ready.  We are insane.  Three of us will be teaching a two block class.  In two consecutive blocks, students need to learn content for Ecology, for ½ of their grade level language arts (the writing half), math, and marine industry standards.  I am in charge of math for 16 students whose levels range from pre-algebra to post-algebra 2 and share responsibility for writing standards for four grade levels.

We have promised project based learning, which I have never done before this year. We have promised standards based grading (whew, I tried that last year, so it’s not completely new.)  We have the first project planned, sort of. Last summer we talked about other projects, but it is feeling very nebulous at this point.  We have weekly meetings, but otherwise only talk when we catch each other in the hallway.  There is a facilitator to help, thank god, but we just haven’t put enough time in.

I have my algebra 1 standards.  Kids at pre-algebra will get supplements to catch them up.  I have my algebra 2 standards.  Kids who might have taken geometry will get algebra 2.  Geometry can come next year.  But I don’t know what to do for my one post-algebra 2 kid.  It looks like stats.  Stats would be a good fit, since every project we do will involve looking at data. But I don’t have a scope and sequence for stats; and my text is not core aligned; and I have never taught stats.  Twitterverse, I hope you respond to the plea I posted.

I have until the 27th to wrap my head around the stats and generate a list of standards for the student (and me). Or maybe the 28th, since the first class is a planned field day. I really don’t want to have to make it up as I go along, but I can’t just follow the text either. Not in a project based setting. Did I say we were insane?

I hope to document this semester of insanity.  I’m afraid the load is going to be too heavy to allow time for reflection, but I think the reflection is going to be critical to keeping the course moving forward. At the least, I will be able to look back and say hey, remember when we tried that crazy course?

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Eleven days. 11. Only two more weekends.  Then it begins. Second semester.

Three teachers. 16 students. 4 content areas (three levels of math). Two and a half hours, five days a week.

When I put it in black and white, my stomach starts to knot up. How, why did I ever think I needed to be part of this?

On January 27, our second semester begins. On that day, Marine Studies Pathway (spring 2014) begins. The first semester (the trial class of one period, one content area, and two teachers), it wasn’t great. Now we have pretty much the same kids for second semester MSP.

In two and a half hours a day, five days a week, three of us have to teach them Marine Ecology, Marine Industry Standards (think Captain’s license), grade level writing (half their english credit), and Math. English at four different grade levels. Three different courses in Math: Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Trig, or maybe Stats.  Half the class with IEP’s (oh, sure, there’s an ed tech to help). And the syllabus is still. not. written. [do you hear me screaming in terror?]

All eyes are on us as we attempt this new program dreamed up by a crazy principal who thinks he can keep all his kids in school by making school more relevant to their lives.  No one thinks it can be done; except maybe the principal.  And the facilitator. Thank god for the facilitator and her organization skills.

Hours have been spent on the big picture. What do we want them to learn? What are the standards? Who are the community partners? How can we work with them to provide authentic projects to frame our students’ learning? How will we structure the course? How will we structure the class? How will we three teachers work together from our different content areas? These are questions we have struggled with.  These are questions we are still struggling with.

One science teacher, one marine trades teacher, and one math teacher (and an ed tech). I think all three of us must be slightly insane.

So in eleven days, this will happen. Ready or not, here they come.

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Friday was closing day for progress report grades and I should be working on my gradebook.  And I have a thousand other things to do. Well, maybe not a thousand, but that is how it feels.  That is how this year has felt every day so far.  With a new problem based course co-taught with a teacher new to the school and the area, my learning curve is pretty high this year.   But I love this class.  Even though we both feel like we are only one step ahead of the kids, it is still fun.

For our opening unit/project, we had students build a cardboard boat.  The boat had to carry one member of a two member team and be strong enough to paddle out to a buoy about 10 feet from shore and then back again.  We asked the students to predict their waterline, but didn’t give them any instruction before the first build.  They were restricted to 3 sheets of 4×8 cardboard and one roll of duct tape. Launch day was awesome.

IMG_0422            IMG_0302           IMG_0262           IMG_0268         IMG_0432           We used two pickups to get the boats to the shore and one of them was damaged pretty badly in transport.  That team pulled it together, borrowed some extra tape and regrouped with what they had.  Even though the resulting boat wasn’t that successful; we feel that the students were successful.  They had a challenge and didn’t let it stop them from moving forward.  There was some great problem solving going on.

The next few days were spent on the science and math behind predicting waterlines.  We looked at net forces and did a lab on buoyancy using coke and diet coke.  And we worked through the calculations for their waterline.  Most of them had a hard time visualizing one cubic foot spread out over the bottom of the boat  Even though the calculations weren’t that complicated, changing from cubic feet to depth in their boat was a huge leap.  But they all kept at it, because the relevance was clear to them.

After the direct instruction, we had them build again to see if they could better predict their waterlines the second time through.  This time, they only got two sheets of cardboard and they had to use all of it, even the little scraps.  Oddly enough, most of them used the same boat design as their first run.  They just built a little more carefully. Again, launch day was great fun.

Next week they will be writing about their successes and failures; I can’t wait to see what they say.  But first, we start the week with a field day to collect data on invasive green crabs, followed by a day of testing (NWEA’s).  Coming soon, we will dig up seed clams that were planted last spring and analyze the survivors.  There’s no time to catch my breath; before we finish one project we’re on to the next, and planning the one after that.

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