Teacher Collaboration Creates Real World Learning and Assessment at San Francisco Community School

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Students working on their projects while being overseen by an instructor.
Students working on their projects while being overseen by an instructor.
Collaborative Planning for Project Based Learning

Teaching, despite being surrounded by literally hundreds of human beings on a daily basis, can be a very isolating profession.  An educator could be likened to being a single island in an archipelago.  While they are a part of an entity larger than themselves the vast gulfs that separate them keep them from fully benefitting from each other’s resources.  Coupled with the daily slog through textbooks, homework, and testing, it’s easy to see how a teacher’s passion for education could wane.  Is collaboration with other teachers a way to improve teaching and learning? The educators at San Francisco Community School (SFC) proposed exactly that in the Collaborative Planning for Project Based Learning project funded by McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation.

What exactly is Project Based Learning (PBL)?

According to the Buck Institute for Education PBL is “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.”  You can learn more about types of PBL from John Larmer at Edutopia. Put more simply, it’s learning by doing.  PBL is a model that shifts its focus away from a teacher-centric approach and emphasizes student directed assignments. With a focus on relevant assessment and real world relevance, PBL is a very exciting alternative for both students and teachers to traditional classroom learning.

Students working on an agriculture based project.
Students working on an agriculture based project.

What are the benefits of PBL for teachers and students?

According to the National Education Administration, PBL “makes learning relevant to students by establishing connections to life outside the classroom and addressing real world issues.  In the classroom PBL gives teachers an opportunity to build relationships with students by acting as their coach, facilitator, and co-learner.”  In the past few years the increased access to technology in schools, even underprivileged ones like SFC, makes this type of learning much more accessible.  The large format of the projects also lend themselves to being easily shared between teachers and with parents who are invested in the student’s learning process.

How are the educators at SFC implementing PBL?

It’s not an easy approach, especially if you have limited resources and time.  According to the original proposal by Jessica Fishman, who is spearheading the project, “The Collaborative Planning Project (CPP) will allow SFC teachers to work together for three days in summer study groups to establish essential learning objectives, develop long-term project-based curriculum and develop common learning strategies for the coming year.”

Students observing sea lion behavior for a project about marine life.
Students observing sea lion behavior for a project about marine life.

The teachers used the text Understanding by Design by Wiggins & McTighe as their guide as they work through the ideas of backwards design and the building blocks of project based learning.  The teachers were also be divided into groups based on grade ranges so that, when sharing, they could manage and engage each others needs and expectations as students moved through the school.  This collaboration will create essential bridges between educators so that ideas and proposals may flow more easily between them.

After two years of implementation, where are they now?

Jessica Fishman was happy to report that the project met or exceeded all the goals they had set.

According to the proposal the goals were as follows:

  1. Project-based learning methods to support student learning in real-world, meaningful challenge-driven projects.
  2. Teachers will identify and develop performance-based assessment opportunities and rubrics that are aligned to the projects and indicate the extent to which students have mastered the essential learning outcomes.
  3. Culturally-relevant instructional strategies designed to engage and support students who are traditionally under-served by public schools.
  4. Vertical alignment and calibration of expectation and rigor K-8.

    Student projects about volcanic eruptions.
    Student projects about volcanic eruptions.

By working in their individual grade level groups the teachers created concrete plans for their fall cycle. Not only did they create a solid collaboration plan, they created a set of assessments along with K-8 vertical integration and alignment.  The problem they’ve run into both years was that very few teams had time to do initial planning. As a result, many teams were forced to meet again over winter break to finish their planning for the spring.  The extra time spent in each others company only strengthened the personal and professional bonds between their educators.  Now, with the project plans in place, it’s a much smoother transition for new teachers joining the project.

When teachers are able to truly collaborate it opens up worlds of opportunities, not only for the students, but for the educators as well.  There is no reason to cease learning, especially when one is a teacher.  The benefits of project based learning are clear, but the added collaboration between educators will only amplify that effect.

Further Reading

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