On Monday, June 27, 2016, Sarah DiMaria, Victoria Vanzura and I arrived at the Applied Learning Academy in Fort Worth, Texas and found our participants were already present, seated and ready to go. This was our first sign that this group was ready to learn about Project Based Learning (PBL). We opened up the session by introducing ourselves and telling a few stories about why PBL was a big part of our teaching style and why each found PBL effective. I talked about how I realized in grad school that I needed to work with younger students when a middle school student attending a Physics Circus session told me she was not going to consider Science as a career because she was too creative for Science. This experience convinced me that I needed to teach students before they got to college and I needed to teach Science in engaging ways that uncovered “how” Science knowledge is made. Victoria talked about being voted the Student Who Slept Most During Class in high school and how PBL has enabled her to design and facilitate learning experiences that might have kept even her awake in high school. She also recently had the experience of teaching her former high school teachers about PBL at an ARIE PBL training in New Braunfels. Sarah talked about how PBL has made her students more willing to communicate about mathematics and more game to try out complex mathematics problems.
During our first session, Project Launch, I really appreciated how actively involved the participants were in each of our activities and discussions. We had many volunteers share what they learned from the Compass activity and share interesting observations related to Kevin Gant’s TED Talk on PBL schools. While they created their Knows and Need-to-Knows, several groups painstakingly dissected the Project Challenge to develop very complete lists of Knows and Need-to-Knows.
During the Project Ideation session, many participants embraced the processes we used to backwards design project ideas. Some participants were a bit intrigued about the strategy of choosing and analyzing standards prior to brainstorming project ideas; they agreed to trust the process and sample our way of creating project ideas that are fully grounded in the standards from the outset. By early afternoon, each team had dissected their standards, brainstormed products, and crafted a driving question for their favorite product.
Prior to kicking off a peer feedback session, Victoria showed them a video about the power of peer feedback called the Austin’s butterfly video. The video showed how helpful and detailed feedback combined with multiple drafts can dramatically improve product quality. After discussing this video, Victoria introduced the Critical Friends sentence stems and set up a gallery walk in which participants provided written Critical Friends feedback to 3 other project ideation forms in the room. After this feedback was disseminated, we gave the groups time to use their feedback and the Project Challenge rubric to improve their product ideas and driving questions.
The last workshop we offered on Day 1 was Entry Events. After sharing the characteristics and tech tools for 4 different types of entry events, we gave the participants some time to brainstorm their entry events. Then I shared with participants our Critical Friends template that they needed to complete to present on Day 3. I walked them through the template and explained the key features of their presentation and shared when in the next two days we would provide more support related to each of the features. Thanks to the strong focus of our participants, we were able to facilitate a densely packed Day 1 of training while still releasing the participants at 3:30 pm instead of 4 pm.
Prior to leaving the training session site, Sarah, Victoria and I reviewed all their Know and Need-to-Know charts in order to prepare for tomorrow’s workshops. Also during Day 1 we found time to bundle and prep all our materials for the upcoming hands-on activities on Day 2 and 3. All in all, Day 1 was a great success. I think we built an early rapport between our audience, ourselves, and PBL by sharing our PBL stories. We were able to build on this positive momentum to guide our cohort through the Day 1 sessions. Really not bad for our first training session without our most veteran lead trainers, Stephanie Ehler and Steven Zipkes.
On Tuesday, June 28, Day 2 of Foundations Training kicked off with a workshop on Rubrics. In one of our rubrics activities, our participants posed as junior architects building model homes out of marshmallows and toothpicks. After some limited build time, the teams provided each other with feedback and then we had a debrief discussion about the importance of rubrics. Several participants were forthcoming about the pros and cons of using rubrics. One pro is that expectations are clear for teachers and students. One con is that the many constraints in the rubric can slow down team’s work progress.
For the remainder of the morning, we workshopped how to create standards-aligned and 21st century skills rubrics and gave time for participants to apply what they had learned by creating rubrics for their own projects. In the afternoon, we facilitated workshops on Scaffolding and Assessments. The participants worked diligently. By the end of the day, several teams had scaffolding pyramids and tentative calendars that included learning activities and formative/summative assessments for their project’s targeted TEKS and 21st century skills.
On Wednesday, June 29, we started the morning training by facilitating a workshop on Project Management. We had a great discussion about different project management scenarios and various teachers’ comfort levels with each. We gave participants time to set project management goals for their students in the domains of time, student work, people, and space/resources. Then we let the participants rotate through stations with mini-workshops on those domains. Many teachers asked a lot of questions during the mini-workshops and a few admitted to having some realizations that were making them feel more and more comfortable with implementing PBL in their classrooms.
For the second half of the morning, we provided opportunities for teams to use work time to finish their presentations / project drafts and to attend impromptu workshops based on their need-to-knows. Victoria led a workshop on how to support English Language Learners in PBL projects. Sarah led a workshop on how to use Twitter to network with other educators. I led a workshop on how to access resources that discuss how to create a positive student culture based on constructive critique.
In the afternoon, we broke up into 3 Critical Friends sessions and modeled how to run the Critical Friends protocol to provide detailed feedback on early drafts of projects and products. I was impressed by the creativity and the rigor embedded in the projects I reviewed. Many participants had a positive experience with Critical Friends and could think of several contexts to apply the protocol.
We closed out the day by discussing the importance of PBL celebrations and by staging our own closing ceremony for the participants. Sarah handed out certificates while Victoria and I headed up an Arch of Honor that grew as participants walked under it and then extended its length. The participants played along with our celebration and cheered heartily for each other and received their certificates with a lot of enthusiasm. This method of celebration was an experimental version that departed from our usual Cupid shuffle dance mob. Considering the physical constraints of our training room, I think the Pomp & Circumstance celebration was a nice fit for the space and our participants. I think Sarah, Victoria, and I might have enjoyed the celebration enough to carry and elevate everyone’s enthusiasm. It was such a sweet way to end a training filled with many hard working and creating educators.
Special thanks to Adriana Jacobi for hosting me throughout this trip, for introducing me to the really cheap, delicious authentic tacos, for the great restaurant suggestions (such as delicious cheap sushi for lunch on Day 2 and Curly’s Frozen Custard), and for all the great conversations. Also special thanks to Czech stop for having gas and ALL the tasty treats.