Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Smashing PBL Success (with an assist from Twitter)!

As a teacher, there are few moments in your job than when your students not only reach but actually exceed the expectations and hopes that you have for them.  Over the past two days, and really over the past several weeks, I was privileged to have one of those moments.

Every year, my 7th grade Chumash (Torah) class learns a unit on kashrut, the laws related to keeping kosher.  It is one of my favorite units to teach, and one of the students' favorite units to learn.  In addition to the Biblical text, I bring in a wide range of articles, videos, pictures, and other materials that discuss recent issues in kashrut, ranging from how we determine if buffalo or turkey is kosher, to problems that might arise when ordering coffee at Starbucks.  If any unit was ever primed to be turned into a Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit, this was certainly it.

However, in preparing the unit I ran into my usual dilemma.  I had plenty of materials ready for the students, both posted on a class wiki and copied and placed in a filebox on my desk.  I had arranged for the students to have daily use of the school's ipad cart during our class and sporadic access to the computer lab.  I had divided the class into solid working groups.  But I needed a project that would drive their learning and would lead them to produce something more than a simple spitback of the material (see this post for more on this problem).

I wanted my students to create visual presentations of the laws that they were studying, but I wanted them to present them to people who were not knowledgeable of those laws.  My goal was to find a class of Middle School students who knew little to nothing about the details of the Jewish kosher laws who could serve as the target audience for my students and their presentations.  My thinking was that since the other students would not be familiar with any of the terms of details of the subject matter, my own students would have to prepare assiduously to be able to explain virtually any word that they would mention.  In other words, spitback would not be enough - they would have to fully understand every single aspect of what they were presenting.

So I reached out on Twitter looking for an audience.  Within moments, Tyler Amidon (@mramidon), a friend from #Edchat who I have met in person and correspond with frequently (see the story of our live meeting here) replied that he felt that he had a class or two who could participate.  Tyler is principal at the Highland Ranch campus of Denver Christian Academy, and he put me in touch with Tim Zieste, who teaches 7th grade history.  As luck would have it, Tim's classes recently learned what my students would refer to as the Chanuka story, specifically the restrictions that the Seleucids placed on the Jews, which included restrictions on keeping kosher.  I had hit paydirt.

So now the project proceeded on two fronts.  In the classroom, my students were running like well-oiled machines.  They entered class every day, opened their iPads, and set to work on the material.  Some groups tackled each item as a group, others split the material up among themselves.  I asked every group to create a Google Site as a place to take notes, which gave me the ability to monitor their progress.  For the actual presentations, I allowed them to use any presentation tool that they preferred, which resulted in a collection of Powerpoints, Google Presentations, Prezis, and one iMovie (out of eight groups of students).  Once in a while, class ended with a Socrative quiz, which allowed me to further gauge how each group was progressing, which sources and materials they were using, what help they might still need from me, and if they had gone beyond the materials that I provided to seek out new sources of information.  In total, I spent less than one period over the course of over three weeks doing any real frontal teaching, and that was to learn a source that was not essential to the unit as a whole but that helped provide a important way of thinking about the entire system of kashrut.

At the same time, Tim and I were in contact to work out the details of our collaboration.  Over Skype, we discussed the nature of what we each teach, the nature of the project, the size of our classes, and the particular timing of the presentations.  That was following by several days of emails back and forth nailing down the logistics of how we would connect our students.  We decided to use Skype, as that provided my students with the chance to share their screens while speaking to Tim's students.

And, finally, showtime!  I broke my class into two groups - four project groups in each one - so that they could spread out in the computer lab and not disturb the other groups.  Four groups presented yesterday and the other four today.  With the help of the amazing computer faculty at Yavneh (and especially our IT man Emyll Almonte), we figured out the best way to set up the students so everyone could speak and hear without disturbing the other groups in the lab at the same time (if you're wondering - audio headsets with splitters and snowball microphones which allow students to speak in indoor voices).  I gave my students some brief coaching on how to introduce themselves, to give an overview of their projects before diving into the nitty-gritty, and to make sure to stop and ask for questions every once in a while.

I would like to say that my students did me proud, but I would be selling them short if that would be all that I said.  They were, in a word, amazing.  They were poised and articulate and very well prepared with their material.  Most groups kept a second computer open with additional notes to help them explain their points or answer questions.  While I could not hear what the students in Denver were asking, I was able to here my students respond and I was duly impressed with how much they had learned.  And remember - I taught them none of this material.  Said differently, I did not lecture this material to them.  I brought the material to them and allowed their natural curiosity and desire to turn out a good product drive them through this entire unit.  The students in Denver proved to be an excellent audience, asking many questions which kept my students thinking.  Most groups spent a few minutes after the formal presentations concluded schmoozing a little about their different schools and different lives.  Amazing Amazing Amazing.

Now what?  For starters, our official post-PBL pow-wow in class tomorrow morning will include food as congratulations for a job well done.  Tim, Tyler, and I have scheduled a post-game schmooze to discuss any further takeaways for students on both sides.  I emailed the parents to let them know what a fantastic job their children did.  I am getting at least one easy blogpost out of this.

For my students, I hope that they appreciate how many skills they worked on over the course of this project.  They had to collaborate with their partners, which were chosen by me.  They had to decide on an effective approach to researching and curating material.  They had to step outside of themselves and think about all of the little things that they take for granted but that others may not understand in the slightest - and then figure out how to explain it. They had to create presentations that were ready for prime time, since they could not guarantee that their audience would be as forgiving as I would be. They had to really think about what Jewish law looks like to someone who does not live it, and be prepared to explain at some level why they do live it.

I gained a tremendous amount from this unit as well.  As I get more comfortable with iPads in my classroom, I continue to learn new apps and new ways of deploying those apps to help instruction.  I have become more sensitive to the need to stay on top of what the students are doing, and having them share a Google Site with me proved to be an excellent way to do that.  During the presentations, I discovered some content areas that I do not always cover but that really matter to Middle School students (such as "what happens if you don't keep kosher?").  And, of course, I learned that it is always important to test every aspect of your technology with time to spare before you go live.

I was also privileged to have many of my colleagues stop in to watch the presentations.  As we work to expand the practice of PBL in our school, sometimes showing it in action can be the best way to encourage someone who is considering PBL to actually give it a try.  Yes, it is a big leap to trust your students enough to take control of their own learning.  But with the proper preparation, structure, and constant guidance, the results can be, well, simply amazing.