Thursday, July 18, 2013

My PBL Journey: Year 1

Yesterday, I was tweeting with Harry (@hblyleven) and Al (@alfredbie) about challenges with implementing PBL with math educators. This conversation led to me agreeing to blog about my own PBL journey. I think I will not only blog about my past but I will try to share my journey this year with implementing PBL and the new Common Core State Standards.

My journey began in 2005 when I switched from corporate to education. I was hired at a local charter school. During our orientation, the school CEO said they are a project-based learning school. She showed a video of a project where a student was studying marine life. I was intrigued while watching the video. I thought, "schools really have changed. I like this new way of teaching." After the video ended, the CEO said a few more housekeeping measures and that was it. My only training at that point was a video. Since I was wanting to implement, I asked veteran teachers once school started. I soon discovered that many of the teachers did not teach through projects but in the traditional way. Those who did complete projects where more about cutting and pasting then deeper learning like I saw in the video.

Despite this hit of reality, I was not swayed from my interest in how to do project-based learning. I put my journalism background to use and started researching. It was slightly difficult to find material in 2005 compared to today. However, I quickly found out that PBL had a few names. The most common name was project-based learning however there was also problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, authentic learning, etc. After reading a few articles, I discovered they were basically the same thing just with different names and styles of delivery. So I moved on to trying to find books that could help me implement the framework in my classroom. The first two books I found were How to Use Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom and a book where students build a city of the future (sorry, I don't remember the name). I remember how excited I was to have these books. The Problem-Based Learning book was great but lacked a step by step process that I was needing. The second book (authored by a teacher who completed it with his students) was a complete step by step. I was so happy to have directions given this was my first year teaching. I was still scared to implement so I tried it with my honors Geometry only.

Well, I wish I can say it was the most beautiful experience ever. Although it was not terrible, it did not have the outcome like the video. The students excitement about the project made me want to continue the journey. Here are my lessons learned from that first year:

  • A step-by-step process is more harmful than helpful. I realized that this is a learning experience and following directions is not a learning experience. If I did have steps, I needed to look at those steps as guidance only. What worked for that teacher and his students may not be exactly how I need to do it for my style and my students.
  • Work completed at home has varied results. I announced to the students that they were going to build a city of the future. I gave them a sheet that included the parameters and told them it would be due in a couple of weeks. For the next two weeks, class was just like normal with them working at home on the project. I didn't even teach anything that was related to the project. According to the book, this was a way to "check" to see if they got the information previously taught. When two weeks were up, I had an array of "cities". All of them were elaborate but definitely showed signs of only them working on it. I wish I could say this moment made me realize that I should have them work in class. It didn't. I just thought this is the result of projects and some will be good and some not so good. However, it did make me realize the next point.
  • Rubrics are a way of helping students know quality and expectations. I realized that I only had parameters not details of expectations. This made grading really hard. Out of guilt, I just gave everyone an "A" for effort. I realized that I probably should use a rubric in the future. 
  • Limited resources does not mean limited teaching/PBL. My first year of teaching was really interesting. In addition to finding resources to learn PBL, I was trying to figure out how to teach with limited resources. I had one class that did not have textbooks, a 100 copy a month limit, class sets of copies had to be submitted for approval (3 day minimum wait), a whiteboard that didn't wipe off, a teacher desktop computer and an overhead projector (yes, overhead not projector). Although I had almost nothing, I realized that I could teach with little or no resources. I found creative ways to help students learn. This experience made me want to learn more about inquiry and assessment. I wanted to learn if there is a way to incorporate these strategies into PBL. 
My first year was a huge learning experience. It gave me a lot of goals to make for my second year. So, please share your first year lessons.