Just Ask: Strategies for Building Community Partnerships


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


A public audience is a crucial component not only for a PBL project, but also for authentic and relevant learning. We know that the quality of student work increases when we have students share their work with an audience outside of the classroom. We also know that it can help keep students accountable in getting the work done. While it’s powerful to bring in the experts at the end of a unit or project, having them there along the way is helpful in providing authentic feedback. Of course, bringing an outside audience into your classroom can be a challenge — not to mention finding them first. Edutopia recently updated its Building Community Partnerships resource roundup, which includes some great videos, blogs, and ideas on how to connect with members of the community in different ways. Here are some further strategies you might consider.

Just Ask
I know it may seem simple, but just ask! Sometimes there is a strange fear associated with asking. Yes, it can be a little awkward to reach out and connect with someone outside of the classroom, but we need to be willing to take the risk. The worst answer you’ll get is, “No.” The best answer could be, “Sure, and let me bring in 20 of my colleagues!” You never know what the possibilities might be. In fact, many businesses and organizations require that their members spend time doing community service or even specifically volunteering in a school. Start early — the sooner you think you might need an audience, the sooner you should contact that potential audience member.

Ask Parents About Their Work and Lives
Parents are critical partners in learning, and they are also experts in their own right. One strategy I have employed is to send a quick survey home to parents asking them, “What do you do in your work or career?” and “What are some of your hobbies or other areas of expertise?” This gives me a list of parents that have at least two areas of expertise I can address. In fact, the more teachers in my building who ask, the more experts I have on my list. I encourage you to build a comprehensive list at the grade or school level. This list can be organized and curated by a teacher leader or even a parent community liaison.

Be Specific
Instead of asking parents or community members if they can come in on a certain day, be more specific. Tell parents and experts exactly what you would like them to do. Do you want them to provide feedback? Do you want them to ask questions to probe student thinking? Both? Either way, having very specific tasks and objectives for these community partners is crucial to making their connection not only more valuable, but also more meaningful. Provide a rubric or give them questions or prompts to drive feedback. Don’t forget to give them a context for the visit. Also, offer time slots to make it more possible for a visit to occur. It’s much easier to find an hour or two, rather than a full day. Instead of asking, “Can you come on Friday the 8th?” say, “I have six 30-minute time slots where I’d like to have students receive feedback. Are you available for any of these times?”

Use Technology
Technology can be used to make the walls of the classroom and school more permeable by way of virtual visits and meetings. Use message boards and blogs to get feedback as formative assessment from experts. Record videos from experts and from students, and exchange asynchronously if you are having trouble scheduling synchronous time. Skype is another tool that you can use to get experts into your classroom virtually. If you aren’t able to visit the expert or parent at their workplace, then consider a virtual field trip. Even with minimal technology, teachers can connect with people outside of the classroom.

Have Experts Ask Their Colleagues
In your request to experts and parents, ask them to ask their colleagues at work. When one teacher was looking for a subject matter expert to support a wing design project, he asked his colleagues and got around 20 volunteers. Parents and experts have amazing connections through their friends, spouses, relatives, and colleagues. If you try this, you could build a network of audience members that you never thought possible.

Now, I’m not saying that these strategies will bring every expert or parent that you ask into your classroom, but it can’t hurt to try. In fact, you should be excited even if you get just a few people to support your work. It’s generous of anyone to donate his or her time to support student learning.

What are some of your strategies to bring outside experts and parents into the classroom?

San Francisco Bat Kid: A Model PBL Project


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


We have all been inspired by the San Francisco Bat Kid! To fully grasp what happened in that city in mid-November, watch these videos. It isn’t every day that you see so many volunteers coming together to make a child’s wish come true. In truth, creating that entire scenario for the San Francisco Bat Kid was a model PBL project.

A team at Make-a-Wish Foundation was present with this project, which in turn facilitated a Need to Know:

How will we coordinate appropriate volunteers?
What scenarios can we create?
How can we craft a costume for the kid?

I’m sure these are only a few of the many questions that a team had to investigate to make the child’s wish come true. The team collaborated, and its members were given voice and choice on how to craft the day for Bat Kid. And wow, what a public audience! Countless YouTube views, webpage views, and retweets! Not to mention the people of San Francisco who showed up to cheer on Bat Kid! What can we learn from this incredible and inspirational project as we implement PBL projects in our classrooms?

Partner with Charity and Service Organizations
Many great teachers partner with local, national and international organizations that are working toward serving others in need. A PBL project can easily be designed to work with these organizations. If you are wondering how to do this, I encourage to take this simple step: just ask! Often we perceive walls that aren’t there. “That organization won’t have the time to work with me.” “I’ll never get through to the appropriate person.” Don’t let these sentiments get in the way. Send an email, call the phone number, and try to get in touch. The worst that could happen is someone saying “no,” but the best just might be an amazing PBL project that can make a world of difference, not only to whatever population the organization is serving, but also in the lives of your students.

Integrate Service Learning
There are actually specific components to service learning that you may or may not know about. Part of service learning often includes place-based learning, where students can see intersections of learning by doing authentic fieldwork and partnering with community stakeholders. In addition, service learning has a specific and targeted connection to class content. Both inform each other — the content is learning to support the service, and the service learning drives the learning content. Service learning can support and develop student empathy and promotes a social justice ethic. Extend the learning beyond the classroom with service learning.

Real World Products and Services
It’s easy to default to a fundraiser or volunteering to support an organization, and while those activities are certainly a good start, we should consider more possibilities. Ask service and charity organizations how students can actually create products that would be used. These products might create awareness about a cause or issue, target demographic groups whose involvement would be beneficial, or even express emotions from the point of view of those being served. Think outside the box as to what your students can create. Wouldn’t it be amazing if students helped design something as extensive as Bat Kid’s entire day?

Consider how we could enhance PBL when looking at #SFbatkid as a project model. We can create projects that have real-world impact, develop empathy and caring in our students, and demand collaboration beyond the physical classroom and school. Don’t let the classroom confine you. Dream big with your students! How will you take your PBL projects up a notch?

Bringing Authenticity to the Classroom


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


Authenticity — we know it works! There is research to support the value of authentic reading and writing. When students are engaged in real-world problems, scenarios and challenges, they find relevance in the work and become engaged in learning important skills and content. In addition, while students may or may not do stuff for Mr. Miller, they are more likely to engage when there is a real-world audience looking at their work, giving them feedback, and helping them improve. This is just one critical part of project-based learning. However, maybe you aren’t ready for fully authentic projects. Where are some good places to start taking the authenticity up a notch in your classroom?

Authentic Products
Does the work matter? Does it look like something people create in the real world? It should. Much of the work we do in the classroom may not be like the real world. Wouldn’t it be great if it were? Now, I’m not saying you need to make every piece in your classroom completely authentic, but consider having your major summative assessments reflect the real world. If you truly want the work to matter, make your products not only look authentic, but actually be authentic. Follow this link for a list to consider.

Needs Assessment
How do you make the work be authentic? One way to is to conduct a needs assessment of your community. You can facilitate students to conduct this needs assessment by having them design the type of data to be collected, collecting and analyzing that data, and then developing action plans. These action plans can include real-world projects that you help your students align to curriculum standards. Paired with authentic products, the work now matters to the community and can make a difference.

Authentic Audience and Assessment
Edutopia has a great section on Authentic Assessment that you can use to get started. It goes over definitions, features videos, and includes tools to help make the assessment process more authentic. Part of this is having an authentic audience to give your students feedback. Sometimes that audience can be parents, but often it’s made up of people who, in their everyday lives, do the same or similar types of work to what your students are doing in the PBL project. So instead of just a public audience, make it an authentic audience. Remember, this audience doesn’t just participate at the end of the work, but is engaged throughout.

Authentic Tools
When you partner with an authentic audience that can give honest feedback about the work, they may also be able to provide you with authentic tools. These tools might be construction-type materials, or they might be technological. Different work calls for different tools, and having the right tools can help students do more authentic work. As you plan your work and projects, find those real-world connections, and ask them what tools they use.

Whenever I build PBL projects, I try to make them as authentic as possible, not only because it helps engage students, but because the students start becoming social change agents. Education shouldn’t stop at engagement in learning — it should be about engagement in our world in community!

Writing Effective Driving Questions: Part One


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


Driving questions (DQ) can be a beast. When I train teachers, they say the same thing, “Writing the Driving question is one of the hardest parts of an effective PBL.” I agree. When I am constructing a DQ for a PBL project, I go through many drafts. It’s only now, after implementing many projects and having coached countless teachers that I consider myself adept.

To get a better sense of this, I encourage you to watch some videos at the Buck Institute for Education’s “How To Do PBL” playlist on their YouTube Channel before we dig in.

Our Driving Question Now Is: How do we write an Effective Driving Question?
First, we need to understand why we have them. Driving questions are there for two entities, the teacher and the student.

For the teacher: A DQ helps to initiate and focus the inquiry. Remember the project shouldn’t be trying to solve the world’s problems. Instead, it should be a focused action, and focused inquiry; the goal is to ensure the students are focused. The teacher needs to help focus the teaching and learning, and the driving question help with that.

It also captures and communicates the purpose of the project in a succinct question. When reading the driving question, the teacher and student should be clear on what the overall project is as well as its purpose. Also for the teacher, it helps to guide planning and reframe standards or big content and skills. I will say more about this later, but the driving question should not sound like a standard reimagined in the form of a question. Instead, use the driving question to reframe the standards in ways that are accessible to both you the teacher and the student.

For the student: Ultimately, the driving question is for the students. It creates interest and a feeling of challenge so that even the most reluctant student thinks, “Hmmm, I guess that sounds kinda cool.”

It guides the project work. All work for the project, including the culminating project and daily lessons and activities, should be trying to help students answer the driving question. Whether it’s a lesson on commas, or implementation time, or drill-and-skill with math problems, the work needs to connect to the driving question. Why? The seemingly “boring” activities of the day-to-day have reason, relevancy and purpose, and then guess what? They aren’t boring anymore.

This relates to my next point. It helps student answer the question: “Why are we doing this?” This is the Golden Question that many administrators ask students when they are visiting. If your driving question is good, it can help connect that work so that students can articulate the reason behind daily lessons and activities.

My driving question is posted all over my classroom. It’s on worksheets, the project wall, and the online blog. It is continually referred to while we are working on the project so students are reminded of the purpose of the project and daily work.

The Tale of the “Snarky Kid”
I must tell the story about “Snarky Kid.” Snarky Kid is the kid who pretends to hate everything in school or your class, but still shows up and does work. In my class, we were doing some comma practice sheets in class right after a direct instruction lesson. Our driving question was: “How do we get a government official to preserve both casinos and the culture of local native peoples?”

My administrator, of course, came up to Snarky Kid, and asked, “What are you working on and why?”

Snarky Kid replied, “We are working on stupid commas.”

“Oh, I see,” said my administrator. “Why are you working on commas?”

“Because we are writing letters to the senator to make her change her mind, and we don’t want our letters to suck. We want her to read them, and not look bad.”

Fantastic, right!?! Despite the crass answer, Snarky Kid was able to articulate the immediate relevance of the task. I’d like to think that maybe the driving question helped that student to answer the administrator’s question.

In my next blog, we will explore different types of driving questions, look at some transformations from bad to good driving questions, and look are some further criteria. In the meantime, I’m leaving you with a task to practice refining driving questions.

Practice Refining Driving Questions
Watch the video on the Tubric, a useful tool to help create effective driving questions, and then follow this link to create one of your own. (courtesy of my colleagues at the Buck Institute for Education)

Even nerdy activities have their place in the classroom. (Can I get an amen?)

Next, use the Tubric to refine the poorly written driving questions below. It’s true, you have not yet received all the tips and tricks I have to share, nor do you know exactly what the PBL projects are that connect to the driving questions presented. However, you can still practice, and maybe come up with questions of your own around creating effective driving questions. (Hint: I’m modeling part of the PBL process in this exercise.)

Here are some driving questions for you to refine. Feel free to pick one and focus your work. I’ll be covering some of the tips and tricks to refine driving questions in my next post.

What is epic poetry?
How have native peoples been impacted by changes in the world?
How does probability relate to games?
Why is science important and how can it help save people?

PBL is Career, College, and “Now” Ready


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


Project-based learning (PBL) is rightfully touted as a way not only to create engagement in the classroom, but also to prepare students for their lives once they leave the confines of our classrooms. When given an authentic task to complete that is aligned to standards, students engage in an inquiry process, both as a team and individually, to innovate a solution. The task creates engagement in learning content and also 21st century skills. But let’s cut to the chase and see exactly what about PBL aligns to aspects of being career and college ready.

Public Audience

Every project in which students engage demands a public presentation of their learning. Similar to a board of directors presentation or a sales pitch, students are required to present their products to the public, whether through YouTube, a formal presentation, a podcast, or a portfolio. The audience usually comprises experts in the field. As in the work world, when there is accountability not only to ourselves, but experts, our level of work increases. Students will do the same. If you give them the opportunity to present to an expert, they will rise to the challenge and emulate a real-world experience.

Driving Question and Student Voice and Choice

These two foundations for PBL are closely related in terms of preparing students for college and careers. The driving question creates a feeling of challenge and interest in solving a real and authentic problem. It can be abstract: “How does who we are as teenagers affect who we become as adults?” It can be concrete: “How do we create an ideal outside classroom for our school?” Regardless, students create authentic products for an audience to answer the question, similar to a project in the real world. In addition, the question is open-ended and complex, and allows for student voice and choice in creating a product to answer the question. In college, although requirements are defined, there is often space for students to express their own viewpoint or method. As adults, we have complex and open-ended questions we answer in the career world every day. Students need to be given the opportunity to not “look for one answer” but solve complex, open-ended questions that allow for different ways of knowing in order to prepare for them for that post-secondary experience.

Revision and Reflection

PBL fosters a culture on ongoing feedback and revision. Students learn that it is OK to make mistakes and revise work. This is counter-paradigm. Some traditional teachers might demand a rough draft, but PBL creates multiple opportunities to revise and reflect on work before the actual due date. Like in the workplace, students critique each other, critique themselves, and receive critique from teachers and experts. It helps to prepare students to be independent in their critique and to continually seek feedback from peers and experts, a skill not taught explicitly at the college or career level, but nevertheless is needed and valued.

21st Century Skills

The Buck Institute for Education currently focuses on three major 21st century skills: collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. All are critical to being prepared for college or career. Whether it’s problem solving with teammates, being able to articulate work to a client, or analyzing a solution for effectiveness, all of these skills can be at practice in a PBL project. In fact, they can be taught and assessed. Instead of simply allowing students to experience these 21st century skills, PBL values them as part of the grade and demands teachers not only assess them, but teach them. They are just as important as the content that is being learned in the project.

“Now” Ready

One of the pitfalls to avoid with the idea of being career- and college-ready is just what the term can imply: “This will matter when you go to college.” “This will prepare you for college.” As Chris Lehmann in a recent TED talk espoused, “why can’t what students do matter now?” Why do we as educators default to the response that this material will help you later? For some kids, that idea of college and career is well out of their realm of possibility. The language of being career- and college-ready will not break through to them. However, when done well, PBL frames the content to be learned in a relevant and engaging current problem. With PBL, you can make students “now” ready. You can make the learning and project matter to them now, honoring them as critical to creating and innovating in the current world around them. Use PBL to not only make your students career- and college-ready, but also “now” ready. By making them “now” ready, you will make them college- and career-ready.

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