Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What is Important for Kids to Know? - PBL as a Clarifier

An advantage of teaching a class frontally, as most classes have been taught since time immemorial, is that you as the teacher has total control over what information is taught.  Notice that I said taught not learned.  We can never be 100% sure whether or not our students are learning, and we are often not even sure what we mean by learning.  However, we can be 100% sure that we have taught something, and that often provides comfort to us as teachers.  It is comforting to know that if our students grow up not knowing the function of a mitochondria or the purpose of a semicolon or the correct dates for all Jewish holidays, it is definitely not our fault, since we are sure that we taught them that information.

The problem with this approach is that it makes real learning into almost a non-sequitur.  Students tend to get so focused on the details that they miss the overall idea behind the learning.  How much of studying is about memorizing lists and flashcards - in other words, bits of information that can be easily digested in quick shots without taking the time to step back and appreciate the forest that all of these trees make up?

But are we ready and willing to make the sacrifice in the other direction?  Are we OK if students miss some details here and there as long as they are focused on the big picture?  I think that this is one of the key questions that one needs to consider when constructing a PBL unit.  If you are going to let students loose on information for several weeks, you could have them fill out homework questions and take quizzes every day or so, thus ensuring that they have at least written down every oh-so-important detail at least once.  Or, you can have them decide on their own (with some help and guidance) which details are essential to answering the guiding question of the project.  Yes, they might not be able to list every single part of the cell along with a seven word explanation of its function, but they will have a very solid comprehension of the cell as a whole.

And, let's face it, that is really all that they need.  I am not trying to minimize any particular discipline, and so I will take my own as an example.  I am currently involved in a PBL unit on korbanot (sacrifices).  When I taught the unit frontally, students needed to know every part of the altar in the Holy Temple and what function it served, among myriads of other details.  Now that I am turning the learning over to them and have decided to not give them small summative assessments along the way, I am risking that some of them may not know every one of those parts.  However, they are far more likely to have a deeper understanding of how the altar as a whole functioned in offering of the daily sacrifices (for the uninitiated, it is not so simple).

To take it a step further, if I am truly concerned with my students leaving this unit with some knowledge of the sacrifices and the role that they played in the religious life of Ancient Israel, do I want them clinging to fading memories of a few scattered details, or do I want them feeling that they have a basic understanding of this aspect of worship - and that they can go back and fill in the details later if they desire to pursue it further?  I am gambling on the latter option.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Revamping my approach to PBL

After my initial ventures into the world of Project Based Learning (PBL) last year, I have had several months to think about my experiences, to read up on how others approach PBL, to meet PBL rockstars such as Suzie Boss (@suzieboss) and to just generally consider in what ways I could alter and improve my Project Based Learning units.  A few thoughts as I am about to launch my first redo:

1) The projects should not all look the same.  When I launched my PBL unit on korbanot (sacrifices) last year, the basic structure of the unit was for the students to follow my original curriculum that I had used for the past decade, only to proceed at their own pace and with some high-tech enhancements (such as instructional videos that I created using Camtasia Studio).  I also included some extra material for some built-in enrichment for those students who wanted to push themselves a bit further.  Overall, I felt that it was not a bad plan, and the fact that the students generally took to the new approach seemed to justify that feeling.

However, when it came to the students' projects, I had a feeling that something was not as right as it could have been.  Most projects seemed to be variations on each other, with the main difference being students' various strengths in PowerPoint and their creativity in designing their presentations.  While I sense that each group did have a valuable learning experience, I think that it fell short of what could have been.

With that in mind, I am altering the unit this time in several ways.  For starters, I am expanding the range of materials that is open to the students.  While still guiding them towards certain key areas, I want them to come study those areas because the project drives them to it, not because the curriculum page tells them that they must.  As before, there will be the opportunity for some students to push themselves farther and some to  merely satisfy the requirements.

I am also making the project more open-ended.  On round one, the goal was for the students to envision what the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) would look like if modern technology was incorporated.  A creative idea, but ultimately somewhat limited.  The new version will ask the students to construct a convincing case for including this oft-neglected topic in the general curriculum, including presenting a sample curriculum outline.  I am enlisting several Jewish educators to serve as the panel to whom the students will have to present (if you are interested in being a part of this, please let me know).

2) Students need to be placed into groups.  For my first try, I stayed away from following this piece of advice, figuring that it would be easier for the students to handle the new modality of learning if they could at least have the comfort of working with a friend.  But, as they say in teen romance movies - "It's not you, it's me" - I think that I was more concerned about how the kids would react than I needed to be.  And so, I spent a few key minutes making groups that will combine students of different strengths.  I was not as concerned with who is friends with whom - one key 21st century skill is learning how to collaborate with all sorts of people, and being able to collaborate with a classmate who may not be your best friend actually seems like a fairly easy version of this.

3) Assessments.  One of the challenges of a PBL - actually, a double-edged challenge - is how to ensure that the students are learning as they go off on their own, and how to have enough "grades" during the period that they are working on the unit.  The easy solution for this would seem to be to have the students complete a series of small assignments such as homeworks and quizzes as they proceed through the materials.  while this makes sense from the teacher side of things, or at least from the bookkeeping side of things, it creates more busywork that does not in itself have much of an educational outcome.

A better use of everyone's time is to have the students create some living and dynamic document or product that must be updated on a regular basis.  It can be something as simple as a Googledoc or a wikispace page or a blog.  Whatever the medium, it should encourage students to reflect on what they have learned over the past day or two and integrate into what they learned previously in the unit.  In this way, their final project will gradually emerge, rather than being something that they have to put together at the end of the unit, looking back over weeks of notes (the way they currently study for tests or work on summative projects).  This goes to what I consider to be the heart of PBL, which is deeper and more meaningful learning every step of the way, not only because the students are responsible for their own learning, but because they become more invested in it.

Undoubtedly there are more changes and adjustments that I will be making as this unit moves forward.  Stay tuned.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Kids are Amazing - Reflections on the Superstorm

A few years ago, my seven-year old required emergency surgery - three days before my sister's wedding.  In the lead-up to the surgery, I asked the doctor if my child would heal in time to walk down the aisle.  An audacious request, but you at least have to ask.  Without batting an eyelash, the doctor replied, "Kids are resilient."  Sure enough, no one at the wedding would have guessed that one of the adorable nieces and nephews walking down that aisle had been under the knife just a few days before.

In turns out that kids are not only physically resilient, they are mentally and emotionally resilient as well.  This past week has been an excruciatingly trying time in the Northeastern United States, as Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy effectively shut down large portions of New York City, washed away parts of Long Island and the Jersey Shore, left millions without power for days (and some about to enter week two without electricity), and created gas lines reminiscent of the 1970's oil embargoes.  Many schools were shut for all of last week, and some remain closed this week or have had to open to alternate locations due to storm-related damage.

On an individual level, the week has been a taxing one.  For the millions of home without power and heat, staying at home meant coping with ever-dropping temperatures and having to read or play games by flashlight, something which is an adventure the first night but quickly loses its appeal.  Many people have taken up residence in the homes of family and friends, but the sense of being uprooted is never a pleasant one.  People have spent days in malls and libraries and Starbucks stores just for some warmth and some power for their devices.

And so after a week without school (I would never call it a vacation - it was anything but that), we opened our doors today, ready to deal with kids who had been without power for days, kids who might be going home to someone else's house, kids who have been through a week the likes of which most of the adults in the building have never been through.  And then, as they always seem to do, the kids came into school like almost nothing had happened.  Yes, they all had stories to share, stories that had happened to them or their neighbors or their relatives.  Yes, some of them are still displaced and had that look of waning hope that by the end of the day the lights would go on.  Yes, some were grateful that the school was providing school lunch for everyone, even those who normally bring from home.  But on the whole, today was a surprisingly normal day from start to finish.

It is said often that kids crave routines and guidelines and boundaries.  That as much as kids seem to want to be able to do things their own way, most of them want to operate in a world where the basics are clearly defined and there are safety nets around them.  Seeing our students today reinforced how true that is. As much as kids do not love the work or the tests or the rules, something in them appreciates that school represents a stable part of their lives, and after a week of instability they are happy to be back with their friends and even with their teachers.  They are indeed resilient, and the fact that they treat it as something so normal is perhaps the most amazing part of all.