It’s About the Challenges…










With school beginning in a few short weeks, it was time to send a welcome email to my new families. I smiled as I created the new distribution list in my Gmail account, as I’ve had the pleasure of working with several of these families before, when I taught their older children. Shortly after I sent the email, I got a response from one of these families. They’ve had some issues with their little one, and wanted to pass along their feelings about the year ahead. The note said,

I hope he matures a lot this year, and learns to focus. He has a lot of potential if he controls his frustration and concentrates. He’s going to be a challenge, but I know how great you are at getting the best out of your students.

I appreciated the compliment, but also felt there was almost an apologetic tone to the note. Their older child was “easy” – very bright, very sociable, very responsible. It seemed they were almost feeling guilty that they were sending this “challenge” my way. They were clearly hopeful, though, both that I would recognize his potential and be able to help him grow this year.

I’ve seen this little guy come up through the ranks… I’ve noticed how bright he is, and more importantly, I’ve seen the issues that must be addressed before I send him on to middle school next year. I honestly can’t wait to have him in my class. I really want a shot at helping this kid. I think I can make a difference.

Then it struck me. Isn’t THIS what teaching is about? The challenges? There is no greater joy than when I can successfully solve the puzzle of a particular child and find a way to reach them. Would I even enjoy an entire class of “easy” students? How much work is necessary with a child who is already motivated, bright, and eager to learn?

No… Little guys like this are what make me look forward to each year in the classroom – the opportunity to discover the hidden gifts in each child, or help them work through difficult academic, emotional, or social issues. The joy in helping each child feel confident and capable. It won’t be easy… There will be some tough love, lots of parent contact… and no guarantee of success. But maybe this child is suddenly at that crucial time when things can turn around with the right balance of high expectations and loving support. I’m up for the challenge.

I AM A TEACHER. I love, I care, and I’m willing to take the time with your child to make this his or her best year ever. That’s all it really takes…

Wishing a rewarding year of challenges and joys to all of my fellow teachers across the globe. We are so fortunate to be able to do what we love, and love what we do…



Image courtesy of [image creator name] /

Never Stop Learning…

It all began in the fall of 2010, when I took part in the Powerful Learning Practice Connected Learner Experience. Not only was the experience a blast, but it transformed my way of teaching. I remembered seeing that graduate credit was offered for PLP, and thinking that it would be useful for my license renewal, I looked into it. I found out that I  could get credit for two courses at UWOSH, and learned about a Masters program focus entitled “Teaching 2.0″ – Now THIS was right up my alley!! Combining a study of 21st century pedagogy with technology integration was the perfect focus for my MSEd in Curriculum and Instruction. I jumped in, taking two classes per term, and have been hard at it ever since.

I am excited and proud to say that I completed my studies this term – and graduated with a 4.0!!




Aside from the many benefits of an advanced degree, I believe it is very important for educators to put themselves in the position of the learner on a regular basis. Working with a group of other students with a wide variety of backgrounds and abilities reminded me of the importance of individualized instruction, and how “life” can get in the way of a plan to stay on top of assignments!!

It was the busiest time of my life, and balancing my many commitments was incredibly stressful. I’m grateful though, for the experience, and proud to have achieved this milestone!

If anyone is interested, the UWOSH online cohort program was fantastic, and I highly recommend it.

Virtual Classroom Visits – A Great Opportunity!









Last night I took part in something both powerful and exciting… A Virtual Classroom Visit. I had received an email from Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) co-founder, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, asking me if I would be interested in being one of three “peeks” into classrooms implementing TPACK (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge). If interested, I would have to videotape a TPACK lesson in my classroom, upload it to YouTube, and write a description of the content, pedagogy, technology, and how inquiry was embraced in my classroom. PLP would post the video online, and I would respond to any comments or questions for a week. Then I would participate in a 30-minute webinar in Blackboard Collaborate where folks could come discuss the lesson with me and ask questions.

I was truly humbled by the request to be one of these three Virtual Classroom Visits, and yet I was a bit nervous airing a video of a lesson and opening it up to feedback from both strangers and people I have a great deal of respect for! Despite my anxieties, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to share what I have been working on since I completed PLP’s Connected Learner Experience professional development program two years ago – integrating technology in a way that cultivates connected learning in my classroom, and focuses on student-driven learning and inquiry. I chose a Mystery Skype session, and quickly set up a Skype call and recruited a videographer.

My Lesson

Briefly, Mystery Skype is a fun activity that supports our study of states and regions in 4th grade. Students receive a Mystery Skype call and use yes or no geography questions to determine the location of the other class. Students are in teams with different roles, and must use reasoning skills to determine the next question that will help them narrow down the class’s location. After the exciting moment when each class correctly guesses the other’s location, the students share interesting facts about their state.

The video turned out well, and I was excited to show others how I merely had to facilitate, and allow my students to drive. I couldn’t wait for folks to see their engagement and visible learning!

Despite this, I was quite nervous going into the webinar session. I had no idea how many folks would come, or what questions I might be asked to answer on the fly! Of course, my fears were immediately assuaged when I realized I found myself immersed in a wonderful community of dedicated, enthusiastic, and supportive educators. The thirty minutes flew by!

So What’s Next??

These Virtual Classroom Visits are unique opportunities to watch teachers in action, obtain information and resources about their lessons, and chat with them about the work they do. Next week, on March 14th at 8:00 p.m. in Blackboard Collaborate (Click Here), PLP will host another webinar based on the practice of middle school teacher Alan Fletcher. Alan’s lesson is packed full of great topics such as using technology to find and share current events, creating Google presentations to inform others, and the art of commenting on student blogs. Although he works with middle school students, the information and methods he’ll share are applicable to all grade levels. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the great things he does in his classroom.

One more session will be held on April 11th, with high school teacher Beth Sanders. So mark your calendars for these remaining two sessions. Make the time to step into some innovative classrooms, and learn from these great educators in only 30 minutes! In the meantime, if you missed my information about Mystery Skype, click here for information, resources, and a lesson plan.

My deepest appreciation goes out to Sheryl and to Lani Ritter Hall for this opportunity – They are brilliant leaders, inspirational educators, and they never fail to push me out of my comfort zone!


Image courtesy of [digitalart] /

Rethinking Content in the Digital Age

I recently read a blog entitled “Back to School: A message to high school students who hate high school; Here is why you hate it.” The author of this post, Roger Schank, also penned an article entitled, “No, algebra isn’t necessary — and yes, STEM is overrated” for the Washington Post Answer Sheet.

No surprise that Schank has received a wide range of responses to his strong opinions. Personally, I’m grateful he has put them “out there” because it has forced me to really think about how I feel.

What we’re talking about here is content. With the huge changes the digital age has brought, I think it is more imperative than ever that we re-think content.

I’ve already made some small changes in my 4th grade classroom. For instance, when teaching states and regions in Social Studies, I no longer make my students memorize state capitals. I would rather my students know the location, landforms, climate, historical significance, and resources of the states in our country than spend their time memorizing capitals that they can look up any time they need them (do we ever need them?).

I’ve made the tough decision to stop requiring cursive, and instead have made time for keyboarding instruction/practice. We have 1:1 netbooks in my classroom, and the students do not have a computer resource class, so I spend time talking about Internet safety, digital citizenship, Internet research, validating sources, and copyright. These are all changes to content that I feel are appropriate and necessary for my students.

How do we discover our passions?

But Mr. Schank is talking about high school, so let’s think about that for a minute. In his post, Schank systematically explains why most of the subjects taught in high school are completely unnecessary. Does he suggest alternative content? Not so much. His advice? “Know what matters to you. Learn that. Nothing you learn in high school will matter in your future life.”

While he makes some valid points in his article, I have a few issues with his approach.

My first question is this – How “deep” into a subject such as Algebra, Biology, Chemistry, or Physics do we need to go for students to identify a passion for the subject? If we stopped teaching them all together, would we have as many doctors and engineers? At what point do we allow a student to say, “This is neither a strength nor a passion for me. I don’t care to pursue this subject further”?

Schank’s “throw it all out” position to me does more harm than good. I think we DO need to consider whether students should be required to take upper level Math and Science courses in high school, but I feel his post does not encourage conversation about curriculum reform and passion-based learning. It is extremist and calls what we do “ridiculous” and “beyond silly.” That confrontational language will not encourage the dialogue that is so desperately needed to bring about a truly student-centered, interest-driven education system.

What happens instead?

Second: If we change the content in our high schools – if we drop requirements for certain upper level courses or for foreign language – what will take the place of these courses? What could we be offering to meet the needs of students who find their passion in the arts? Music composition and theory? Audio engineering? Script writing? What about athletics? Sports training? Sports medicine? What if students are interested in pursuing a passion that involves technology? Graphic design? Computer programming? Web design?

Third: When we learn certain subjects, we are not only learning content, but we’re learning a certain process or way of thinking. Reading good literature helps us identify what makes good literature. What does the writer do that makes his writing engaging? How can we use this in our writing? The methodology used by scientists or mathematicians is more important than the specific “facts” we ask students to memorize. How can we reform our instruction in these subjects to focus on the things that are most important to take away?

What’s missing now?

Finally: What should we be offering? What is missing? I believe we need entire courses created around Internet research, verifying sources, copyright/licensing, digital citizenship/Internet etiquette, creating an online identity/presence, and branding ourselves so that when we are inevitably “Googled,” it is clear who we are and what we believe.

Our so-called “tech savvy” students (in 4th grade or in 12th grade) are typically NOT well informed in these areas, and we would be negligent if we continue to send them out into the world — to college or the workplace — without this knowledge and skill set.

Students don’t need the “ammunition” in Mr. Schank’s article. High school isn’t going away any time soon, and I don’t advocate that students simply get on the Internet and learn about what interests them in lieu of a formal education. Mr. Schank does, however, give us food for thought.

We do need to make changes to what we teach and how we teach it, both in public and independent schools. We need decision makers to consider important reforms to the content we teach that reach well beyond the traditional curriculum or “common core.”

Change is made by developing a consensus, and I’m hoping we’re moving closer toward that consensus every day.


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Originally posted at Many thanks to my editor, John Norton for his brilliant editing and images!

Our Skype Adventures: Creating Connected Learners in a Global Classroom

students skype with IWB

This post was originally published at Powerful Learning Practice’s Voices From the Learning Revolution. Many thanks to my editor, John Norton for his genius that makes me look good! 


The familiar sound comes through our computer speakers, and instantly my 4th grade classroom comes alive.

“Is it him?”

“Can I talk first?”

“Can we turn off the lights?”

“Can I move so I can see?”

It’s a Skype call from a student in my class who moved to Hawaii at the end of April. The kids miss him dearly, and at 2:00 p.m. this afternoon (8:00 a.m. Hawaii time), Cody has just woken up and is Skyping the class to tell us all about his new home. The kids have questions galore about the time zone, the climate, the islands. We laugh, share what we’ve been up to, and enjoy a great visit with a good friend.

Skype became a new and exciting way to learn in my classroom this year. It began with Mystery Skype. Since our 4th grade Social Studies curriculum focuses on states and regions, I was excited to learn about this fun activity. Our class would receive a Skype call, but the caller’s location was a mystery. We took turns asking questions and sharing clues about geography, climate, history, attractions, and famous people before guessing the location of our mystery caller! With students on netbooks, asking questions, providing answers, writing information on the board, and manning the maps, all hands were on deck and engaged as we learned about states across the U.S.

I was hooked…

We continued to share and learn using Skype as we participated in the Global Read Aloud. Sharing a literature experience with thousands of students across the globe was exciting enough, but my students were on fire when it came time to Skype with another class and share our predictions about the story.

The students actually wrote their own comprehension questions to ask the other class, and then discussed their interpretations and feelings about the story. We found a class that wanted to Skype weekly to discuss the book, and started to build a relationship with them. It was magical.

When the opportunity arose to Skype with a celebrity for Anti-Bullying Month, I got on board! When other classes heard that we were going toSkype with Nickelodeon actors Nat and Alex Wolff from the Naked Brothers Band, my classroom filled with students from our lower school division. Nat and Alex were sharing music from their upcoming CD and talking to kids about bullying. Engaged? Totally.

Our further Skype adventures…

In February, I saw a tweet from Twitter friend Paula Naugle in Louisiana. Her students had completed research projects about Mardi Gras and were offering to share their presentations via Skype. Who better to learn about Mardi Gras from than students in New Orleans?! I purchased green, purple, and gold beads for my class, and we surprised Mrs. Naugle’s class by being beautifully adorned for Mardi Gras when they called! The students had also created glogs and embedded them on Edmodo. My students were able to backchannel with the students in her class using a “Skype Collaboration” group in Edmodo during the presentations, and view their glogs online.

Another Twitter friend, Jan Wells, “called” the other day. Her students had created “State in a Container” reports, and knowing that we were studying states and regions, she wondered if we would like to watch a presentation about Tennessee. How could I refuse?! My students learned a great deal about Tennessee as a creative and articulate fourth grader pulled items out of a guitar case. She explained that she chose a guitar case because of the strong musical associations in Tennessee — the Grand Ole Opry, and of course, Elvis! The kids enjoyed a great lesson, and I got a cool idea for a project next year!!

Skype is a magic window…

Skype enables students to connect, collaborate, and communicate with students across the globe. It creates an opportunity for students to learn from each other, to have authentic audiences for their work, and to meet musicians, authors, and others who can further their learning. Imagine reading a book and then Skyping with the author! Or inviting working parents into your classroom to talk about their careers, from their job sites. The possibilities are truly endless.

On May 16th, Skype announced that it is joining forces with Penguin Group, New York Philharmonic, Science Museum London, Peace One Day, and Save the Children with a view towards giving teachers educational content and access to expert speakers via video calling. This collaboration represents Skype’s latest attempt to reach its goal of connecting one million classrooms globally.

Skype in the classroom will now feature each organization’s content, projects, and available guest-speakers, with Penguin Young Readers Group connecting authors with students for discussions about books, reading, and writing. The New York Philharmonic will offer live interaction with musicians and educators. Save the Children and London’s Science Museum will have individual projects on Skype in the classroom by the end of the year. Skyping is no longer a novelty — a once-in-awhile special event. It’s becoming a routine part of being an effective 21st century teacher.

I look forward to finding more ways to create “connected learners” using Skype in the coming years. If you’ve had positive experiences or can share other ways to use Skype in the classroom, please share them in the comments here. If you want to give it a try, just let me know. Mrs. Grayson’s 4th graders are always eager to make new friends!

How We’re Using Our Own Private Classroom-Focused Social Network



Edmodo is a social networking tool for schools. It is especially designed to be a safe, Facebook-style community where students can communicate and share. Unlike Facebook, Edmodo is highly secure. A teacher can set up a class and obtain a group code for students to use to join the private class group.

I decided to try Edmodo last year, when I found out that I would be looping with my 3rd graders. I wanted to keep in touch with my students over the summer, and I thought it would be fun for us to have a special place to communicate. I set up our class and began by using some fun tools. Because Edmodo allows you to embed creations from other web 2.0 apps, I posted a WeeMee of myself to show them how to use an avatar instead of a personal photo for privacy on a blog or website. My first big post was a Google Mapof my upcoming summer vacation for my students. Later, I embedded this Glogster poster with pictures from my travels! Of course this wasn’t just “all about me” — it began to introduce them to the possibilities of an Edmodo community.

Instead of just posting a note, sometimes I used fun tools like this Ladybug Note Generator to tell my students that I’d added some fun games and sites to our class Diigo page for them to explore! (As you can see, we were already chatting away.)

I also posted the summer reading assignment (just in case any of them misplaced it), and used an Edmodo poll to find out which read-aloud book was their favorite from the year. Any time I found a fun tool or site, such as Wonderopolis, I could embed a preview and link in our Edmodo group and share it. The students could check it out and provide feedback, or talk about it amongst themselves. It kept all of us connected and gave the students an opportunity to share their summer activities and anticipations or ask questions about the coming year.

One of the great things our Edmodo space did over the summer was help introduce us to the new students that would be joining our class in the fall. The newbies were able to join the conversation and become part of our class family before the year began. It really helped them to make a smooth transition when they already “knew” the other kids!

Edmodo also helped us share experiences when we had an unexpected earthquake in August, here in Virginia. It was not severe, but for most Virginians, definitely a new experience! I immediately started a “What were you doing when…” thread, and it was great to hear that everyone was OK despite a few items breaking or falling off walls.

This year we began a 1:1 netbook program at our school. With their own netbook, it’s easy for students to use Edmodo as a regular part of their school day. For instance, as part of the Global Read Aloud, we joined the Tuck Everlasting group on Edmodo, and shared thoughts about the story with students from all over the world. Teachers could post comprehension or discussion questions for students, and students could respond to the reading and gain insight from others.

I also set up a sub-group within our class group for student book reviews. Here students can post mini reviews of the books they have read. If a student is looking for a good book to read, they can stop by and read some reviews, or ask a student about a book they have read. With their active daily involvement in Edmodo, students are learning to write thoughtful, grammatically correct posts, and to construct comments that promote online discussion.

Recently, we had a Skype visit with Paula Naugle’s 4th grade class in New Orleans. They taught us about Mardi Gras with student presentations. We joined the Skype Collaboration group in Edmodo and so we could “backchannel” and see the Glogster posters the students had created with the information from their research. Students were able to comment and provide feedback on the great work done by Mrs. Naugle’s class!

Forbes recently posted that Edmodo is now launching a third-party platform to publish education apps to Edmodo’s 6 million users and 70,000 schools. According to Forbes:

More than 35 companies are launching apps with the new platform. The basic apps will be free. Premium apps developed by publishers will require a purchase. Teachers also have the ability to connect the apps to existing Edmodo features such as badges, quizzes and assignments.

Examples of apps on the platform include an interactive graphing calculator that can send graphs to classmates, an interactive chemistry lab service, a print your own scantron application and social multiplayer math games. Applications include BrainNook, Schooltube, StudyEgg, Third World Farmer and GradeCam. In addition, textbook publishers have their learning apps on the new platform. They’re not textbooks, but “modular” pieces of content, Borg says, and not just text but also interactive content.

I look forward to exploring other ways my students can use Edmodo to support collaboration and instruction in the classroom. I’d like to hear of more ways to connect my students using this valuable tool. And I’d also love to hear from other teachers who may be using different platforms to create student virtual communities inside their own classrooms.

1st image: Salvatore Vuono

Originally posted at Many thanks to my editor, John Norton for his brilliant editing and images!

Creativity and Problem Solving – A 21st Century Marriage


Originally posted at Many thanks to my editor, John Norton for his brilliant editing and images!


It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Creativity is an invaluable tool in problem solving. In a digital age where innovation is highly valued, teaching creative problem solving is essential.

It seems everything I’ve been up to recently has been leading to a focus on creative problem solving. The convergence of these events has had quite an impact on my thinking and teaching.

In January, I went to EduCon . . .

I attended an EduCon session entitled Learning Environments: Rethinking K-12 Communication and Collaboration, led by David Bill, Director of Educational Technology at The Urban School of San Francisco. In this session, the goal of the conversation was to define the different needs and challenges facing communication and collaboration in a variety of learning environments and to identify solutions that could be implemented in our schools.

David facilitated our small group discussions by providing a problem-solving model for us to use. In this model, the groups worked to identify the specific problem of one of its members, brainstormed possible solutions, and then worked to identify and refine an idea that could be integrated at their school.  Good fortune was with me that day, and my problem was the one chosen to be solved by the group. But wait… It gets better. In my small group were none other than David Ginsburg, noted educational consultant and Ed Week’s Coach G, and the remarkable Holly Jobe, President of ISTE!

David Bill got us started by having me talk about my school and our issues with communication and collaboration. The group asked me questions and identified the main problem. From there, we began to brainstorm ideas. David encouraged us to get really crazy with these ideas – to go big. The kicker was that we could not discuss them. We could not judge them or break them down. This phase was for idea generation only. It took us a few minutes to warm up to this approach, but eventually we were building on

each other’s proposals, and we soon had plans to invite the entire school board to my classroom. Bruce Springsteen would be there via Skype and would perform a concert so they could see the benefits of connected learning and collaboration in the classroom. Pretty sweet, huh? J

In the next phase of the problem-solving model, we assessed our crazy over-the-top ideas, and began to narrow or refine them. We had to admit that the likelihood of getting Bruce to Skype my classroom might be a bit unrealistic. But was it possible to invite board members in to observe connected learning and collaboration in action? Absolutely. I was beginning to get excited. We talked about creative ways to extend the invitation and what board members would see. I had no idea that David’s session would not only help me think of ways to improve communication and collaboration at my school, but would also provide me with a very powerful problem-solving tool.

A week later . . .

My graduate classes for the spring term began. One of my classes? Creative Problem Solving. Kismet…

715 Current Trends in Curriculum & Instruction: Creativity & Problem Solving

In this course students will explore strategies to foster creativity and problem solving skills in the classroom. Students will gain an understanding of the habits of mind that lead to creative thought. Additionally, students will participate in authentic experiences as they learn a variety of problem solving approaches. Finally, students will identify opportunities within their curriculum to foster creativity and problem solving skills.

The text for this course, Creative Problem Solving: An Introduction, defines some of the methods that were now familiar to me, thanks to David’s session at EduCon. The text walks the student through “framing the challenge” (clearly identifying the problem) and then moves into the “generating ideas” phase. In this phase, you work to spin out “many, varied, and unusual” ideas. The rules are that “you must hold back judgment or evaluation of ideas during much of your work in this stage so you will be able to be as productive as possible. Do not react to them, judge them, debate their merits or demerits, or even discuss them.” The text provides some helpful generating tools such as SCAMPER and force-fitting.

As you may have guessed, what comes next is the “focusing” stage where these ideas get refined — and finally, “preparing for action,” where you complete specific plans for implementation. At this point, the value of teaching creative problem solving became so critical for me that I ordered this book for my students: CPS for Kids: A Resource Book for Teaching Creative Problem-Solving to Children.

Just when I thought the planets had aligned . . .

I read this blog post by my daughter, a Graphic Design major at Longwood University. In it, she talks about her process when presented with a new design project or job. I was astounded to see many of the same concepts. First, her rules for generating ideas – no stopping to judge or think!

I try to list words or images that I feel associate with the concepts I’m working with. Sometimes, while I’m making the lists, a few ideas will jump up. I try to jot them down and keep moving. If I stop to flesh out those ideas, I’ll likely get stuck with them and stop listing words.

She also uses what I learned as “force-fitting,” but she refers to it as “brute thinking.” She defines it this way:

Brute thinking is the act of forcing together two concepts or objects that aren’t normally associated. I always visualize it as two hands with a different word in each hand, crushing the two together like squishing a soda can. The actual process isn’t very different, honestly – you’re just crushing two concepts together and trying to make something from them. If the designer does a good job with this, they can often force the viewer to see the objects in a new light. Changing the way a viewer sees something is a powerful tool, because it makes the design memorable.

I am quite frankly amazed that I am just learning these concepts (although some of them are intuitive) at my “advanced age,” and am more convinced than ever that we can and must teach them to our students for them to be competitive in today’s world.

Do you teach creative problem solving? What tools or methods are the most useful? What projects can we use to develop these methods in our students? I’m looking to expand this practice in my elementary classroom. I know your ideas and suggestions can help. Let’s do some brute thinking together!

Dice image: jscreationzs /

Planets image: Dreamstime / licensed

Dig Deep with Project-Based Learning


Originally posted at: Many thanks to my editor, John Norton for his editing genius!

During my year with PLP, I heard Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach talk several times about student-driven, inquiry-based learning. I thought I knew what Sheryl was getting at, but it wasn’t until I took a graduate course this past term on Project Based Learning that I really began to understand all its implications.

PBL was never something I spent too much time pondering — just another way to assess learning, right? Instead of a traditional test, I allow my 4th graders to choose a project that demonstrates their learning. Choice is important – by differentiating, students can create something using an area of interest or strength. Incorporate technology? Even better! Got it. I couldn’t imagine what we would do for 14 weeks in this grad class. Simple as 1-2-3.

Well, I didn’t quite “get it.” Turns out PBL is not simply a culminating project at the end of a unit. It’s the learning experience that happens as students attempt to solve a problem or answer a question. For that reason, you will also hear the term “inquiry-based” learning.

If you want to see your K-12 students’ eyes light up with excitement and watch them approach learning with more enthusiasm than ever before, PBL/Inquiry-Based Learning is for you. I encourage you to read on…

PBL Online provides this excellent definition:

Project Based Learning is an instructional approach built upon authentic learning activities that engage student interest and motivation. These activities are designed to answer a question or solve a problem and generally reflect the types of learning and work people do in the everyday world outside the classroom. Project Based Learning is synonymous with learning in depth. A well-designed project provokes students to encounter (and struggle with) the central concepts and principles of a discipline.

Project Based Learning teaches students 21st century skills as well as content. These skills include communication and presentation skills, organization and time management skills, research and inquiry skills, self-assessment and reflection skills, and group participation and leadership skills.

Finally, Project Based Learning allows students to reflect upon their own ideas and opinions, exercise voice and choice, and make decisions that affect project outcomes and the learning process in general.

Combining these considerations, we define Project Based Learning as:

A systematic teaching method that engages students in learning essential knowledge and life-enhancing skills through an extended, student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.

When you ponder all of this, PBL becomes a daunting task! I tore through a fantastic text entitledReinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss. The book is published by ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education. I highly recommend Boss & Krauss if you’re considering making a commitment to PBL in your classroom.

In my graduate course, my culminating task was to create a PBL unit and implement it in my classroom. Suddenly 14 weeks seemed like nothing!

Fixin’ to Get Ready

A quick note here: Many teachers don’t like PBL because they feel their students don’t work well in groups. This is a significant issue in many classrooms, and is not something that will just “happen.”Students must be taught how to work together. From the beginning of the school year, exercises in active listening, role-playing of conflict resolution and teamwork can help students learn how to function as a group working toward a common goal. In today’s world we are not likely to work in isolation. These are critical skills to be developed and part of becoming a PBL classroom. There are websites that offer activities to help teach team buildingconstructive criticismactive listening,conflict resolution and to provide general information and activities to support cooperative learning.

The Planning (a Big Deal)

This heading might need to be in all caps, bold, and 72 point. Planning is the biggest part of a PBL unit. Creating one “on the fly” in the middle of the school year was hazardous to my health. My project was based on a 4thgrade Social Studies unit. The students were learning about representative government, and the roles of our three branches. Their mission? To create rules for the school’s common areas (playground, lunchroom, restrooms, etc.). They functioned as the legislative branch, meeting with constituents (students in other classes) and writing the proposed legislation. Our head of school was the executive branch, and had to sign the legislation into law. The teachers were the judicial branch, enforcing the laws once approved. I used a wiki to organize the project and was very happy with that format. Using the format recommended by Boss & Krauss, the project wiki is broken down into these elements:

  • The Project Framework. This includes the unit of study, learning objectives, 21st century skills, standards, NETS·S, and learning dispositions that will be covered in your project.
  • Evidence of Learning. This covers any projects, presentations, collaborative documents, or individual reflections that students will complete as part of the project.
  • Entrée to Project. Here is where you plan how to build student excitement/engagement by providing the relevance and importance of the project, and plan your kick-off event.
  • Project Sketch. This is a summary of the project, defining the stages, tasks, items produced by students, and a timeline for the project.

Time is necessary to ensure you have a project that is not too big or small, meets learning objectives, has the necessary rubrics to assess student projects/presentations/reflections, and is scheduled to be completed (preferably) in 3-6 weeks, depending on the size of the unit. If you’re planning to do some Google searches around PBL, a great website to start is the Buck Institute for Education. Their Project Based Learning for the 21st Century section offers information and a search tool to look for projects by subject and grade level.

The Payoff

Although my first real PBL project was far from perfect, I immediately saw the benefits in my classroom. From day one, my students were chomping at the bit. They would have been totally happy not to worry about any other subjects and just work on their projects all day. I was blown away. The key to this is a sense of importance and meaningful work. There was a real need for the rules they were creating, and they knew they would be implemented and utilized. Therefore they took their job seriously and were excited and motivated by the responsibility of creating something important for the school.

There were a few bumps along the way. I began by having each group visit every lower school classroom to meet with students and get ideas. This turned out to take a ridiculous amount of time. We modified on the fly and had each group visit three classes. I also had too many elements involved in my project. My decision to have them research rules in other schools, create a list of rules to post, present the rules for the school, establish a Google Doc where all the rules would be put together,and write reflective blog posts was simply too much for my 4th graders. There was no way the project could be completed in time. I definitely got carried away, and in my most recent efforts, I’m learning to limit the scope of my projects and manage my time more effectively.

Even though things can get a little stressful and chaotic in a PBL experience, what makes it all worthwhile is the learning. Students don’t remember the problems or pitfalls, they remember the excitement they felt as they solved a problem, and they remember the lessons (content) they learned while working. Why? It’s what Sheryl promised in those PLP webinars last year: Student-driven PBL projects push students to go deep into the content.

By “going deep” and taking an active role in their own learning, our students retain a great deal more than when we “stand and deliver” and they zone out — wondering how long it is until recess!

Image: Girl digging, Claire Bloomfield, Free Digital Photos

Feelin’ the Love in my PLC


Originally posted at: Many thanks to my editor John Norton for his brilliant editing and images!


Have you made the commitment to become a connected educator – a teacher or school leader who takes full advantage of digital tools and virtual networking to improve your practice and better prepare your kids for 21st century lives?

I’m choosing the word “commitment” carefully. It’s easy to find information about the importance of becoming connected — and the necessary “how-to” steps to get there. Need to set up a Personal Learning Network (PLN)? Google those three words and you’ll harvest a great heap of helpful hints.

What isn’t so easy is committing the time to learn how to use the necessary tools — to find the best folks to follow — to not only subscribe to blogs but actually reflect deeply on the understandings of other practitioners. Hardest of all: making the time to connect with education colleagues via Twitter, a Ning, Diigo, Skype, etc. and establish real communication.

Not there yet? For me, it took almost a year before I truly felt “connected” – but as you’ll see below, it’s been well worth the effort. First though, I’d encourage you to take two minutes to listen to an expert. Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice, recently made this brief but persuasive video entitled, “Why be a connected educator?”

Thanks to the support of Sheryl and many others, I have learned a great deal. Last May, after writing a reflective post about my PLP experience with my own school team, I was contacted by PLP editor John Norton, who wanted to post my piece in a new group blog written by PLP participants and consultants: Voices From the Learning Revolution (VFLR). I was then invited to become a regular contributor to the blog, which you’re reading right now. You have only to browse a few posts to see that I joined an amazing group of educators who are totally committed to shifting classrooms and schools in ways that put students in charge of their own learning.

True learning communities encourage us to grow

This loose but well connected group within my professional network meets my personal definition of a true Professional Learning Community (PLC). I’ve come to know these Voices folks a bit better than others in my PLN, and we connect more frequently via Twitter or email. We often comment on each other’s posts and we’re making plans to begin a regular Twitter hashtag group where we’ll invite all educators to discuss topics growing out of what we’ve written. I feel a kinship with these VFLR writers, and enjoy learning with and from them. Recently, we found that five of us will be attending the EduConconference later this month – I’m determined to meet them face-to-face!

Several weeks ago, something very powerful happened to me, as part of this community. I had been through a rough couple of months, and hadn’t submitted anything for the Voices blog in some time. Finally, over the holiday break, I was able to relax and do some writing. I crafted a post entitled “SHIFT: A New Year’s Resolution for 2012”. It was published on January 3rd, and I was hopeful that it would provide some simple, first steps toward change in the new year. It was a brief piece, though, and I admit I was nervous, wondering if it would have any impact.

The day it was posted, I received a direct message via Twitter, from fellow VFLR blogger Marsha Ratzel. Marsha is a profound and creative thinker about teaching. Her VFLR posts (and her personal blog) provide useful, specific examples of the shifted practices within her classroom. Here was her message:

This was huge for me. A brief message, which didn’t take but a minute of Marsha’s time, had an enormous impact. This, I realized, is a critical element in Professional Learning Communities. The support and encouragement we provide to other members of the community makes a difference. As simply stated by Sheryl, “We need more of this.” Teaching is not a zero-sum game.

In an effective PLC, members share freely, learn from one another, push each other’s thinking, and celebrate success within the community. Marsha reminded me that while our personal growth is important, the steps we take together in bringing about change are what it’s all about.

What does all this have to do with making the commitment to become a connected educator? Commitment is hard. Giving up outdated but comfortable ways of doing our work is hard. We all need encouragement to stay on course.

After reading Marsha’s uplifting message, I was encouraged to do more to support others in my PLCs who are working to make a difference. Finding time to read, shift, and share can be difficult, but if we are really committed to transformational change on behalf of kids, we can sure take a moment and let someone know his or her efforts are worthwhile.

Technology opens the door, but it’s the support and encouragement we find in authentic learning communities that connects us.

Image: jscreationzs

Appreciative Inquiry: Why I Choose to See the World through Rose-Colored Glasses

Rose-Colored Glasses by rnjtc1, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  rnjtc1


I hit a bump in the road last week, while traveling on my personal Connected Coaching journey. It was actually a bit more than a bump… Maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere and got a lost for a little while. Ok, let’s be honest here. I think I may have skidded off the road entirely, ended up in a ditch, and needed someone to pull me out! Regardless, thanks to an amazing community of leaders and learners, I think I’ve found my way back.  :)

I was really upset when I ended up in that ditch. I felt like I was the only one there, while everyone else was cruising merrily down the Connected Coaching highway. I was sure I was the only one who didn’t “get it.” I wanted to shut down. I started thinking that maybe Connected Coaching wasn’t for me. Holy cow – Is this similar to what my students feel like when they face struggles in their learning??? It was amazing how quickly my confidence was shaken. I was much like the students I teach – so wired for grades, performance, and success that “failure” of any kind became unacceptable and debilitating.

I lost sight of an important fact: In any learning experience, some bumps, wrong turns, and yes, even ditches can and will happen.

Time for some reflection… But instead of asking, “What went wrong?” I’ve chosen to don some “rose-colored glasses” and take an Appreciative Inquiry approach. This is new for me, and is precisely why I ended up in the Appreciative Inquiry Ditch!! In fact, I did some research on seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, and found some interesting benefits

So what went RIGHT, you ask? What an outstanding Appreciative Inquiry question! Here are the great things that happen when you end up in a ditch:

  • You figure out how you got there. Once you’ve assessed the immediate damage, you look back and try to figure out what happened. You thought you were cruising along just fine, and didn’t realize there was something important you needed to know to stay on track.
  • You cry out for help. I did this, in the form of a post on our Connected Coaches Ning page. I placed a “911” call to my learning community, and sure enough, someone came to my rescue with some resources to help.
  • You find courage, support, and validation from your community. In addition to the resources I received, I also heard from folks who said they had felt the same way. I wasn’t alone! Some others held me up, and encouraged me, or thanked me for putting my thoughts out there.
  • You might help others out of their ditches. Hence this post… If nothing else, I want you to know that once you get pulled out of that ditch, you’re better for it. You’re stronger, smarter, and better prepared for the road ahead.

More than ever, I want to strengthen my ability to use Appreciate Inquiry, whether with the teams I coach, or the students I teach. We can’t afford to focus on or wallow in our failures. Negativity is debilitating. Appreciating the positive aspects of our “ditch experiences” will help us to grow and use our strengths to move forward with confidence down the learning highway.