>PBL (Camp) Debrief

>I never did the whole summer camp thing as a kid, but I’ve been to enough retreats and meetings to be somewhat familiar with the drill.  For the past few weeks I participated in Edutopia’s PBL Camp online, and it was quite a rewarding experience on several levels.  Four weeks was a rather short time to take a project from conception to completion, but I think we made a great start.  In the works now are The Pandora Project, which I’ll be using with my biology students, and a project focusing on the Gulf oil spill that I’ll be doing with my OGT Boost students.  (I’ll try to blog or post links for these separately at some point.)  Both fall under a larger project model I developed with the STEME (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and English) team that I joined. 

The STEME model connects students from different classrooms who serve as experts in a particular field collaborating to address an important, real-world issue.  In a sense, the process of developing the STEME project has been a meta-project itself.  We have two members who teach at the university level and three high school teachers of math, science, and an alternative program that covers everything under the sun.  We also have very different levels of experience and comfort with PBL and the technology that makes our collaboration possible, and in my view that’s been one of the biggest benefits of this camp.  It’s always great to bounce ideas off other people, and as much as I love interdisciplinary curricula in theory, I simply don’t have enough familiarity with other content standards to feel comfortable claiming that title on my own.  With multiple perspectives contributing, we can truly integrate the project rather than just “reading about science” or “writing in math class.”  In order to participate as fully as possible, I had to step out of my comfortable, Google-based universe and use things like Skype, Diigo, and Wallwisher.  After jumping in with my new friends and colleagues, however, I felt a lot better about using the technology and even creating content on my own.  This is exactly the type of collaboration I want my students to experience, so I’m thinking about how best to foster this in the classroom.

I don’t have time or room to explain everything about project-based learning (PBL), but it’s an educational framework in which I have keen interest.  During my winter field experience and student teaching placement, I crash-tested PBL at the high school and middle school levels in biology and physical science, respectively, and ultimately wrote my master’s capstone about it.  During my first go-around at a suburban high school, I learned a lot about project management from a teacher perspective as well as the importance of securing support from other teachers and administration.  When I went back to the project model in the spring with my middle-schoolers, I was much better at managing the different aspects of PBL and my mentor teacher was also very supportive.  I did not, however, anticipate the issues I would have with student motivation and ability to participate, so I had to hack through those as well. 

I hope I’m not making PBL sound like this terrible thing.  The essence of PBL is student-driven learning and the production of relevant, tangible artifacts and knowledge, and that is always going to appeal to me.  It is certainly more difficult to manage than more traditional instructional methods, and sometimes you run into administrators or colleagues who don’t see it as “real teaching.”  To address both of these issues, here is the process I have adopted, which is modeled after backward design, if you are familiar with that.

  1. Formulate a driving question, the answer (or answering process) of which is your ultimate desired result.
  2. Identify relevant content standards and skills.  This is not only to appease the higher-ups (as I once thought, unfortunately) but to ensure that I am actually doing what I’m supposed to be doing!
  3. Determine acceptable evidence of learning.  These are the culminating products and artifacts of the project, as well as more traditional methods of formative and summative assessment.
  4. Plan learning experiences and instruction to bring students to where they need to be to complete project tasks.

In my first PBL experience, I neglected step 4 and assumed that students would already know what to do.  (Their response: “YOU THREW US UNDER THE BUS, MISS D!!!”)  I also had a difficult time with step 3, which resulted in somewhat haphazard instruction and assessment.  If at all possible, steps 1-3 should be done before instruction begins to lend coherence to day-to-day lesson plans and grading schemes.  In my second PBL experience, I muddled through steps 1 and 2, which resulted in students having quite a bit of fun building hot air balloons but not really learning a whole lot about heat, density, or scientific inquiry.  So now I see the importance of doing all 4 steps well, though of course it’s not entirely linear or set in stone.  And because I am an INFJ, I make color-coded charts to go with everything:


I had planned my first week with fairly transposable setting-the-classroom-culture lessons, but was running into a mental block when it came time to start content.  Since I have no real curriculum to go off of for either of my preps, having a big picture of what I’m going to do throughout the semester makes me feel a lot better about planning.

Yesterday we had our culminating webinar and different teams got to share their projects.  I realized that seeing some sort of final product (even if it’s a work in progress) is a very important part of any collaborative work.  I can’t tell you how cool it was to see what other people have been working on, get lots of encouragement for my own work, and look forward to the next step.  On Sunday I’m going to a staff retreat for my new school and I can’t wait to start building professional and personal relationships with my colleagues there.  (And maybe persuade others to jump onboard my PBL crazy train!)


3 thoughts on “>PBL (Camp) Debrief

  1. Suzie Boss says:

    >Hi Jennifer,What a pleasure to read your reflections about PBL Camp! Your students are in for a fascinating year as you put these ambitious plans into action. Please continue sharing updates when you have time. I'm eager to hear how it all goes.Best wishes,Suzie

  2. >Jennifer, how great to find another pbl AND life science teacher blogger. Love the 4 steps. Very helpful. I'm posting at the link below for the Take Action Project. It's tried and tested for a couple of years now and the activities to get them to competency for all the skills they need to complete are there. Lots of the sheets can be used in different contexts. Specially the project management stuff. That's at http://www.takeactioncurriculum.org Looking forward to reading more of your posts. The kids are lucky to have you 🙂 Sue

  3. DGlass says:

    >Good luck! I really enjoyed hearing your ideas at the final PBL Camp webinar and really like your 4-steps. I am trying to plan my own PBL for 6th grade science and reading about your experiences, good and bad, is helpful.

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