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.
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.”
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:
- Project-based learning methods to support student learning in real-world, meaningful challenge-driven projects.
- 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.
- Culturally-relevant instructional strategies designed to engage and support students who are traditionally under-served by public schools.
- Vertical alignment and calibration of expectation and rigor K-8.
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.
As we wrote earlier this year, “Among the many challenges facing us in education one of our most formidable foes is the comprehension gap, across all content areas, between students of low socioeconomic status and those of high socioeconomic status.” The multi-year project Opening Classrooms to Close the Knowledge Gap‘s goal was to enhance students’ ability to develop literacy across the diverse content areas. In the first post, we shared how teachers at School for the Future in New York City had addressed students’ ability to work autonomously through Peer Assistance and Review seminars that took place after school.
In this post, we’ll look at how the project worked to build a school wide culture of Teacher-Led Professional Learning Communities.
A professional study group around lesson analysis
To support the goal of building this teacher-led culture, School for the Future teachers engaged in a professional study group around a shared text, John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers. This book challenged their thinking and pushed the teachers into incorporating many of the exercises into their own coursework. A specific example from the book gave instructors a simple three-step process to analyze their own lessons by looking specifically at the learning intentions.
- What is the outcome I am tracking progress toward?
- How do I track progress toward that outcome?
- How do students track progress toward that outcome?
In establishing the learning intentions the teachers looked at two things; skills necessary for participation in a democratic society and skills necessary for success in secondary and post secondary school.
Improving feedback on persuasive writing
What did teachers choose to focus on? Persuasive writing.
Although the teachers understood the need to zero in on writing performance, the students were somewhat harder to reach. To assist, teachers established another simple method of tracking student progress that included a common rubric that was used on every persuasive writing task and an online grading platform accessible to students, teachers, and parents.
Every participant teacher constructed a video that encapsulated how participating in the study group enhanced their professional practice. During the first year, only 11th and 12th grade teachers participated while in the second year it was expanded to include 9th and 10th grade teachers.
After the first year each of the participating instructors constructed a video encapsulating what they gained from participation and how the study group improved their professional practice. In this example, Scott Chesler, Inclusion Teacher, explains the impact of the teacher led professional development community.
In the videos teachers spoke how the group led them to alter how they gave feedback to students, leading the students to get to know more about themselves as writers. Teachers noted in their annual report that they are attempting this change from the bottom up rather than the top down. For example, teachers like Stephanie Van Duinen (9th grade social studies) asked students for feedback about the course and then analyzed the information. When she learned that a signifigant group of students needed more feedback, she worked with her professional learning community members to form an action plan for providing “in the moment feedback” so that students could use the information to improve their work as soon as possible.
This was a highly rewarding experience as it forced me to reexamine my beliefs about my own personal practice and think not so much about my methods of teaching but about their effectiveness.
-Stephanie Van Duinen, 9th Grade Social Studies Teacher
School of the Future, Manhatten, NY
One teacher reported that the course helped him realize that student expectations have a high effect on performance so he reimagined his course to track individual student goals, regularly meeting with the students as he coached them forward. Jessica Candlin, 11th Grade English Teacher, presented how she used commenting features in Google Docs to support enhanced feedback for student writing in the slides below.
Teacher-led collaboration creates powerful connections
Although there was a certain amount of trepidation when new teachers were introduced into the program during the second year, the collaboration ultimately led to powerful connections between educators. Teachers reported they could have started earlier in the year to complete the project. While it seemed like March would be an ideal start time, as most teachers have “settled” into their schedules, it made it difficult for them to get their video materials together in time for the deadline. In the future, the teacher led professional learning community will be able to draw on the important learning experiences from this project and continue making an impact on student literacy.
Explore the following articles about teacher-led learning communities to learn more.
- Redefining Professional Development as Teacher-Led Professional Learning – NWEA 2013
- Teachers, Learners, Leaders – ASTD 2010
- When Teachers are the Experts – Education Week 2009
Quote Posted on Updated on
[Our] projects are outstanding in their conceptual sophistication, their real-world significance and their collaborative focus. Our newly funded projects help students achieve Common Core Standards, but also go beyond the standards to develop innovative contributions to their communities.”
-Sarah J. McCarthey, President
McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation
- Common Core and Disadvantaged Students (edweek.org)
The McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation is proud to announce the 2013-2014 McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation Funded Projects. We have included a project summary so you can learn a little bit more about them! Congratulations to the awardees.
Academic Enrichment Grants
ESD: Sustainable Education Through International Understanding
Merinda Davis Lakeridge
Junior High School, Orem, UT
Getting students interested and invested in the environment is a great way for them to connect with the world on a more global scale. After all, the state of the environment affects all of us, not just students in this country. Integrating sustainable education through international understanding helps grow a students world view while teaching them lessons that will apply to their daily lives. This is what the team behind ESD (Education of Sustainable Development) at Lakeridge High School aims to do. Students and staff will have opportunities to observe, analyze, evaluate and integrate sustainable perspectives and practices into all facets of their lives. This grant will allow the team to work cross curriculum, especially with science teachers, through seminars and workshops enabling educators to incorporate the sustainability lessons into their own lesson plans, seamlessly. By the end, all participating students will have produced video documentaries, PSAs and sustainable based community service projects.
Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization
Billy Lane Lauffer Middle School, Tucson, AZ
It’s no secret that students involved in music tend to excel in math and reading learning rhythms and decoding notes and symbols. Billy Lane Lauffer Middle School aims to take advantage of this by implementing a Mariachi program at their school. As it stands there are no programs like this anywhere close to their district, and with a primarily minority student body, a mariachi program will give many students a chance to connect with their roots and culture. One of the aims of this program is to broaden its reach within the student body. Unfortunately, the trappings of a Mariachi do not come cheap. Students are required to provide their own instruments and uniforms (called “Traje de Charro”), and while a few students may have some of the required items passed down to them, many students simply do not have access. With the help of the McCarthy Dressman foundation, this program hopes to broaden the students access to instruments and uniforms so that more students can participate in this important cultural tradition.
Teacher Development Grants
The Workshop Model: Building Students’ Self Esteem and Ability to Think Mathematically
Poudre High School, Ft. Collins, CO
The goal of The Workshop Model, implemented at Poudre High School, is to educate teachers and give them a new approach to how they teach their math curriculums. Teachers will guide students to engage in mathematics by collaborating with their peers to solve specifically designed problems and then presenting their solutions to one another in a “math expert” type role. The most important part of this model is the peer review. Teachers in the program participate in a lesson study with colleagues within and at other schools. After developing a lesson together, one teacher teaches the lesson while the other educators observe. Afterwards, the teachers reflect on the lesson to discuss what improvements should be made prior to the other teachers teaching the lesson. Workshop Model teaching engages students in conceptual learning, procedural fluency, and application, which are the three requirements of math instruction in the CCSSM (Common Core State Standards Mathematics). Teachers will be trained in creating lessons that require students to engage with mathematics daily, classroom management, questioning techniques, formative assessment tools, and reflection designed at improving future instruction.
West Elementary School, Manhattan, KS
With much higher CCSSM standards being adopted every day by school districts across the country, teachers are realizing they will need to rethink their approach to mathematics. For this reason, Project RENEW will emphasize the development of deeper content knowledge among teachers, as well as pedagogical knowledge aligned with standards based approach to content teaching. This project is being spearheaded by three rural districts in Kansas with a mind of taking it statewide. The project is a three tiered approach to rethinking mathematics education. The first target is teachers’ content knowledge and understanding of the tools that are essential to effective teaching. Second, teachers will be asked to participate in summer seminars to expand their knowledge base and will be offered teaching feedback the following year. Finally, a increased focus will be put on collaboration between districts and schools so that the more isolated teachers will have a network of other educators to reach out to and help tackle problems together. This will greatly aid teachers in rural districts who find themselves increasingly isolated.
Rebecca Guerra, New Mexico State University
Katherine Leung, The University of Texas at Austin