Project Based Learning: Day 7

We started class with a Check In meeting. I’ve noticed that many of the students are liking this way of starting class. It gives them an opportunity to connect with each other and to transition more effectively.

I had two tasks for them to complete today. First, I wanted them use the results from the Skill Set Survey that they produced to create groups of mixed abilities, learning styles, and personality types. If they had time left, I wanted them to get in their groups and begin brainstorming ideas in response to the driving question.

To avoid any chance of manipulation, I made copies of the Skill Set Surveys with the student names removed from each class. Then, I had 10th grade analyze the surveys from 9th grade and vice versa. I refrained from telling the students how to organize the groups. Instead, I had students volunteer to lead  the discussion while I coached them throughout the discussion process.

LeadershipIt was interesting to see the approaches that each grade took. The 9th grade class classified each survey according to their primary and secondary skills. From the results, they found Builder, Artist, and Writer to be the three basic skills. They used a grid to rank each survey and created mixed ability groups representing all three basic skills. The 10th grade class did something a little different. They classified each survey using 9 to 10 different categories. Then they realized how complicated that would be to create groups based on so many categories. They also noticed that some of the categories could merge into a broader category. Ultimately, they reduced their categories to four different skills: Leader, Builder, Artist, and Writer.

With the time left in the period, I had the students break up into their groups and begin thinking about the driving question. I wrote the driving question on the dry-erase board and encouraged them to begin wondering. This might be a small point to share, but I’ve been very intentional in the vocabulary that I use with the students. For example, I’ve purposely used words like wander, imagine, create, develop, and explore to inspire divergent thinking.

As their homework assignment, I asked them respond to these two questions:

  • What is your group’s plan? If your group doesn’t have a plan yet, what have they talked about?
  • What did you work on at home tonight?

I’m still considering other options for homework. From my research, some Project Based Learning programs de-emphasize homework. I’ve considered doing the same, but I also think it’s important for students to develop their metacognitive awareness. I plan to continue researching this before making a final decision. Any suggestions would be most appreciated!


Project Based Learning: Day 6

Collaboration 2

Instead of starting class with a Check-In meeting, I decided to start class with a collaborative activity. I had all the students silently redesign the room to accommodate a class meeting. They were not allowed to talk to each other, but they could write notes to each other and use hand signals. The caveat was that they could not make a sound or else they lost the challenge. I did this to drive home the importance of communication and collaboration. They completed the challenge and did so successfully. After starting the meeting we reflected on the activity and they all really enjoyed it, especially what they learned from it.

The night before, I asked students to respond to the following two questions:

  • Imagine a unique and creative way that you could document all that you’ve experienced and learned throughout the Project Based Learning process. Describe, draw, and/or design your idea in order to present it to the class on Tuesday. Use any medium that you wish, as long as your idea is unique and creative.
  • Research different PBL activities online and find (5) unique project ideas that you would have a lot of fun doing. Your (5) project must be described in your own words (i.e. copying from the internet will not be acceptable). If you found the project idea online, provide the url somewhere in your description. To receive full credit, your (5) project ideas must be different from everyone else’s. How you all decide to compare project ideas, I’ll leave that up to. If you decide to create a document of some sort on Google, I’d ask that you share that with me.

I had all the students take a seat and share one of their project ideas. I premised this by telling them not to present their idea, but to sell us on their idea. In other words, I wanted them to consider us to be their potential investors and they had to convince us to invest in their idea. Even though they listed five project ideas for their homework assignment, I had them share one of those ideas so that I could model how the students to question or comment on each other’s ideas. As we went around the room, I engaged each student with questions to further explore their ideas.

After going around the room once, the students gained a better idea not only of how to sell their ideas, but also how to respond to the other student’s presentations. I gave them a few minutes to review their four other project ideas before having them share these ideas with the class. The students who seemed to struggle most with this part of the activity were encouraged by their peers to share whatever came to mind. Taking whatever the student said, the class brainstormed the idea to give the student something to explore.

Genius HourAt this point, the students were curious why we spent so much time recording and sharing five unique project ideas. This is when I introduced them to the Genius Hour (related to the 80/20 principle). Essentially, Genius Hour is a time set aside in the schedule for the students to actively pursue their own interests and explore their passions. While most of my students were absolutely excited about the idea, I noticed that a few students seemed a little stressed out about it. They felt that it lacked the structure of a regular classroom. They were also concerned that whatever they chose to pursue would not meet my expectations. I realize that much of this stems from their response to years of learning within structured environments. So, I structured it a little more for these students to help scaffold their transition to this other type of learning.

We had about 10 minutes left. For last night’s homework, I asked the students to brainstorm different ways they could document their Project Based Learning experience. I felt that they could probably share out some of their ideas and they could vote on the best way.

Some of the ideas they suggested were:

  • Picture poster/wall
  • Scrapbook (tangible or virtual)
  • PowerPoint presentation
  • Class PBL website
  • Class PBL blog
  • Notebook (similar to a Lab Notebook)

After discussing the merits of each idea, the class made two decisions. First, a small group of interested students would develop a class PBL website, documenting each group’s progress. This small group would attend weekly website develop workshops that I would host during their lunch period. Second, each student would be given the freedom to choose how they document their Project Based Learning experience. The only restriction is that they must consistently update it and somehow show me their updates.

So far, everything has been working out great with these past few days dedicated to introducing the students to Project Based Learning. I’ll be researching Genius Hour and developing a guide for that as I go. Stay tuned for updates on that! Also, if you have any ideas or suggestions for rolling out a successful Genius Hour session, please share!

Here are some of the websites that I’ve been using to research about Genius Hour.

Project Based Learning: Day 5

Day 5 – Introductory Week

Diverse Circle Of Colorful People Holding Hands, Symbolizing Teamwork, Friendship, Support And Unity Clipart Illustration GraphicAgain, I started out class with a Check-In meeting. When we got to the tasks for the day, I wrote them out on the board. Essentially, there were two tasks that I wanted the students to complete: (1) Take the Skill Set Survey and (2) participate in a collaborative activity. The Skill Set Survey took most of the students about 10 to 15 minutes to complete. After the survey, I introduced the students to the collaborative activity. The collaborative activity is actually more of a challenge. I divided the class into three groups and distributed their materials. Then, I gave them the directions that they must construct a table from the materials provided that stands at least eight inches tall and could withstand the weight of a textbook. This was actually the first challenge. With the possibility that one or more of the groups could surpass this challenge, I created two more challenges. The second challenge requires their table to withstand the weight of three textbooks, while the third require their table to withstand a three feet book drop.

As the students worked on the activity, I circulated around the classroom, keeping a reasonable distance away from the groups. I wanted to avoid the path of becoming a “helicopter” teacher. I was excited to see how engaged each student was, but I also wanted to let them learn. I could see how this can be challenging for teachers. We’re so used to wanting to jump in, but in this moment, I learned that it’s far more beneficial to let them learn from each other. Hence, my role has begun to change from that of a “content master” to a “learning facilitator.” To be honest, I am absolutely okay with this change. If anything, it highlights my importance in helping my students along the process of learning and not necessarily on the product. Intermittently, I would step in and engage one of the groups with a series of critical thinking questions. I generally used these to help the group consider the scientific and mathematical reasoning of their design.

At the end of the activity, one group passed the first two challenges, another group passed the first challenge, and the third group was still building their table. I didn’t want to have the students leave class without considering what we just experienced, so I led them in a quick reflection. I asked them the following reflection questions:

  • How well did your table do?
  • How well did your group talk to each other?
  • How well did your group work together?
  • How could you improve this next time?

One of the things that was mentioned by a student was the need for student jobs. With the few minutes we had left, we explored all the areas of responsibility that would need to be addressed and created a list of student jobs.

Student Jobs used with PBL:

  • Crew Leader (1 student) – Ensures that all students workers are fulfilling their responsibility.
  • Assistant Crew Leader (1 student) – Assists the Crew Leader in all duties.
  • Supply Supervisor (1 student) – Organizes supply storage facility.
  • Supply Recovery Team (3 students) – Retrieves all supplies distributed and delivers to Supply Supervisor.
  • Project Storage Team (3 students) – Transports projects between the work tables and the project storage facility.
  • Facilities Management Team (2 students) – Ensures that the PBL environment is neat and clean upon entering and leaving the room.

Since we have a marker board in the classroom, I’ve been using that to write down a list of their daily tasks. I’m thinking of creating a PBL Resource Board with calendars, task lists, and other useful resources. I’ll take a picture and post it here as soon as I’m finished with it.

Project Based Learning: Day 4

Day 4 – Introductory Week

feedback_for_teachersI started the day by leading the students with a Check-In meeting. During this meeting, I modeled how to start with a quick question (like “How’s everybody doing today?”) to get a feel how people are feeling and what energy level they’re bring to the start of class. After the opening question, I moved on to the acknowledgements section. I feel it’s important that the students learn how to identify and acknowledge strengths in each other’s work. Plus, who doesn’t want to hear that they’re doing a good job? Following acknowledgements, I open the floor for anyone to share suggestions or vent frustrations regarding any group’s or any student’s work performance. Before starting this at a meeting, I introduced this strategy to the students clearly explaining that for this to work, we would all need to have an open mind. It actually helped me talk to the students about the concept of constructive feedback. For feedback to really be constructive, the receiving party must be open to seeing the feedback as an opportunity for growth. This is when I introduced the students to the benefits of a Growth Mindset (an idea discovered and developed by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University).


Finally, we got to the main part of the meeting, the peer review process. This process is critical to developing a strong Project Based Learning program. I distributed copies of each group’s rough drafts and had the students read the first form. As they read through the form, I advised them to make notes of parts that they liked and parts that they thought could be improved. For the parts that could be improved, I asked them to provide suggestions for possible changes to the text. Once everyone got to read the form and make any necessary notes, we went around the room and shared with the group what we liked most and what we thought could be improved. During this time, I instructed the group, who authored this form, to follow along and take note of each student’s feedback. We did this for all three forms (the Group Contract, the Peer Reflection Form, and the Skill Set Assessment). By then, the period had already ended.

Even though we’ve been focusing on developing the foundations for Project Based Learning, all of the students are engaged. What’s especially important is that they’re involved in every aspect of the learning experience. They know that their opinion counts. In four days, I’ve already seen students developing a stronger presence in the classroom, taking more and more ownership of their learning.

By the way, here’s a sample agenda of a basic Check-In Meeting:

  • Opening Question/Activity
  • Acknowledgements
  • Constructive Feedback/Opportunities for Growth
  • Task(s) Overview

It’s a simple agenda and will probably be altered later on, but for now it serves its purpose.

Project Based Learning: Day 3

Day 3 – Introductory Week

I started the class off with a Check-In meeting. While I modeled the basic order of the meeting, I also wanted the students to experience a sense of urgency. Unlike the Check-In meetings I modeled the past couple days, this meeting moved at a much faster pace.

During the Check-In meeting, I went around the room and asked how the students were feeling. It sounds simple, but it’s always a good idea as a group to know how everyone is feeling at the start of any endeavor. I followed by acknowledging some of the great things that students were doing yesterday and addressed any concerns that I had. Finally, I reviewed the day’s tasks and ensured that all the students understood what needed to be done and when each task needed to be completed.

Ultimately, I want the students to take ownership of this class and be agents of their own learning. In order to encourage a Project Based Learning experience in its truest essence, I thought it crucial that the students be a part of the creative process. So, I had them consider what we needed as individuals, as groups, as a class, to function effectively and successfully. They conducted research and discussed their ideas with their peers before sharing the following three items:

  • Group Contract – A contract for each student within a group to sign in agreement with the expectations set forth at the beginning of each project. (Initial Accountability)
  • Peer Reflection – A form that allows the students to assess their group members’ performance as well as their own. (Ongoing Accountability)
  • Skill Set Assessment – A form that assesses each student’s learning style, skill set, and personal preferences. The results from each student’s assessment will be used to create heterogeneous groups of mixed abilities.

When asked to provide reasoning for deciding on these three items, the students said that they were most concerned about group dynamics and individual accountability. They felt that both areas were essential to successful collaboration.

With those suggestions, I assigned them the tasks of completing rough drafts of each by the end of class so we may present them for peer review the next day. I divided the class into three sections (designated by each of the three forms) and directed the students to choose a section that they were most interested in creating, with the condition that all three sections must have an equal (or near equal) amount of students.

Student DiscussionAfter the students moved into three equal groups, they began the process of creating each of the three forms. I circulated throughout this time, keeping a fairly comfortable distance so the students wouldn’t feel like I was hovering over them. When necessary, I engaged a group with questions to help drive their thinking.

Within the last five minutes of class, I called the students together and led a Debrief Meeting1. I asked the groups to provide updates on their progress and had the students reflect on the process of collaborating. Some of the questions that I asked were:

  • What did you notice that worked well?
  • What do you think could have been improved?
  • How could we improve that next time?
  • Did we have the right tools?

They struggled a little bit with these questions, so I helped provide a few examples to get them thinking and reflecting.


  1. Debrief meetings are extremely beneficial in providing students with an opportunity to engage in reflection. They also provide a great way for the teacher to check for understanding. Throughout the semester I plan to introduce my students to different methods of debriefing. As I do, I’ll share each method on my blog for future reference.

Project Based Learning: Day 2

Day 2 – Introductory Week

Today, I had the students gather in a circle in the middle of the classroom and I engaged them in a discussion of the following questions:

  • What is Project Based Learning?
  • What does a Project Based Learning classroom look like?
  • How is Project Based Learning different from group projects?
  • How have other schools integrating Project Based Learning?
  • How are tests used with Project Based Learning?
  • How is learning assessed with Project Based Learning?
  • What are some examples of Project Based Learning activities?
  • What is the student’s role in Project Based Learning?
  • What is the teacher’s role in Project Based Learning?

Prior to this discussion, I distributed this list of questions to all the students and encouraged them to learn what they could about Project Based Learning using these questions to guide their investigation.

Colouful speech bubblesSince I want my students to feel more empowered, I started by coaching one of my students to lead the discussion, while another student kept record of all that was said during the discussion. (We later defined this role as the Discussion Leader.) As the students explored each question, I already saw a difference in engagement. Instead of two or three hands, I saw every hand raised up in the air when a question was asked. I saw an eagerness to share ideas and express creativity. The discussion even led to a few more questions we wrote on the board to explore further. For example, the students were interested in clearly differentiating between projects and project based learning as well as between project based learning and problem based learning.

Throughout the discussion, the students also shared a few best practices, i.e. using group contracts, peer reflections, and project calendars. With three designated work areas, I assigned each area with one of the best practices and asked the students to sit down in the area they would like to develop. I gave them the timeframe for working on each of these items, and gave them some space to brainstorm, research, share, and create. After 25 minutes, I checked in with all three groups and already saw rough drafts of each item. I alerted them that they have 5 more minutes to work on this and that rough drafts should be ready to share during tomorrow’s class for the other groups to review.

From what I’ve already learned about Project Based Learning, I feel that these two days have been very productive. The students have been showing so much excitement and have already been thinking about ways of making this experience an absolute success.

Project Based Learning: Day 1

296After reflecting on all that happened during the first semester, I decided to take on the challenge of adopting a different approach to teaching, i.e. Project Based Learning. Before even introducing the students to the different approach, I spent some time having them reflect on the past semester. We listed about 9 or 10 different items on the board that contributed to their struggles, narrowing it down to a single culprit that caused most of them to fell the pressure: Procrastination. Instead of stopping there, I had them delve deeper into the reasons underlying their need to procrastinate. They cited reasons such as having too many distractions (i.e. wanting to do something else or socialize with friends), feeling lazy (i.e. feeling the need to wander), or not understanding the material (i.e. not knowing where to look for the right information).

Then, I asked them, “What if I told that you we could address each of those needs if only we took a different approach to learning?” They were absolutely intrigued. I shared with them an example I created in Biology for creating a 3-dimensional version of the animal cell. The students would then be split into two groups, the offensive and the defensive groups. The offensive group would have to design a virus that were capable of successfully infiltrating the cell and defeating its defense mechanisms. The Defense group would have to redesign the animal cell, improving upon its defense mechanisms, to protect it from any possible viral attacks. They became more and more excited as I describe the challenge and were already asking me questions about the challenge. Some even asked if they could compare this situation with what happened on Return of the Jedi and take notes on what happened in the story. In a matter of minutes, I saw students that weren’t jaded by the hint at more work, but were excited and engaged!

Before jumping into the project, I wanted the students to learn a little bit about Project Based Learning. As an educator, I feel it’s important that my students understand the strategies used and reasons behind using these strategies. So, I shared some of the research on Project Based Learning with them. We starting reading a few articles and discussing the benefits and the challenges of Project Based Learning.

Tomorrow, we’ll finish our discussion on Project Based Learning and I’ll start the students on a simple project of redesigning the classroom to be more conducive to Project Based Learning.

Instructional Strategies: Project-Based Learning

PBL 2Project-based learning (PBL) is another student-centered model of learning that emphasizes 21st century learning skills (i.e. communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking). According to the West Virginia Department of Education, “When engaged in standards-focused Project Based Learning (PBL), students are working in teams to experience and explore relevant, real-world problems, questions, issues and challenges; then creating presentations and products to share what they have learned.” There are many ways to implement PBL, but they all begin with problem situation. From that situation, the students analyze the situation provided and investigate possible solutions. They gather more information through research and assess their findings. Together, they develop a solution and prepare a presentation to share with the class.

PBL is not unique to mathematics education. In fact, PBL can be used in many content areas. Using PBL in mathematics education allows students to explore mathematical concepts in a more engaging way than working through a series of problems. Project-based learning provides a means of engaging students through social interaction, while providing a way to formatively assess the students’ understanding of the material. This is particularly important in mathematics, where students easily grasp the calculations, but struggle with the language used to explain the concepts and read the problems given to them. By increasing the amount of time students spend communicating and collaborating with their peers, they are simultaneously developing their critical thinking skills and their mathematical literacy.

Teaching Philosophy: A Reflection on Continuous Learning

The last time that I sat in a mathematics classroom, I remember imagining how I would teach the lesson if it were my classroom. All through school, I would analyze how teachers delivered their lessons and would think of ways that I could improve the lesson. When I felt that a lesson lacked in engagement, I first considered the content of the lesson, but usually tended to focus on the teacher’s method of delivery. At first, I thought that the teacher’s role was simply to bestow knowledge on his/her students. Over the years, I came to realize how stagnant that description of teaching really was. Instead, I began to see teaching as an increasingly dynamic role in education. The teachers that were more engaging were normally more entertaining. Their lessons did not consist solely of lecturing to their students. They delivered lessons in multiple ways, even offering different ways of explaining the same concept. They shared their excitement for the material and challenged their students to do their best.

Quote - PhilosophyMuch of what I observed as a student is evident in my own philosophy of teaching. In mathematics, there is more to address than simply showing students how to solve problems. Mathematics is not only a subject that is fundamentally sound in logic, but it provides a catalyst for exploring and appreciating the nature of other subjects. Consequently, the beauty of learning mathematics is in seeing how profoundly it describes the world we experience. Likewise, learning mathematics allows students to reflect on the complex processes of their thought as a series of interrelated logical steps. Thus, teaching mathematics requires more than providing students with the opportunity to apply concepts to real world situations, it requires the teacher to inspire students to see mathematics in every aspect of the world and better understand the mathematical reasoning of their own thought.

Vector Tree In order to inspire students to think mathematically, I need to integrate opportunities for students to engage mathematics at different levels and modalities. Experiential learning provides students with the opportunity to engage mathematics kinesthetically by having them apply mathematical concepts to real-life situations. Performance-based tasks allow students to critically analyze mathematical situations in collaboration with the efforts of their peers. This collaboration drives peer learning as students engage a particular task and work with their peers on developing an optimal solution. Even though mathematics may not seem to be the most likely subject for including English language development, it does provide an excellent means for developing English language proficiency while fostering mathematical fluency. Using collaborative models that thrive on problem-based and project-based learning are ideal ways of engaging students through social interaction, while providing a way to formatively assess the students’ understanding of the material. As I continue to develop my skills as an educator, I will always need to update my knowledge of current pedagogical trends, explore opportunities for collaborating with other educators in the same content area, and be consistently open to engaging students in mathematics through a process of learning that not only teaches them mathematics, but inspires them to think mathematically.

Integrating Filmmaking and Mathematics: The Life of Zero

The Life of Zero is a collaborative film project that addresses an abstract mathematical concept through a theatrical display of performing arts. The movie associates the positive and negative undertones of the number line with real life conflicts that students face every day. Almost entirely conducted through interpretive dance, the students were able to combine movement and dramatic display as a way of translating the discordant nature of the positive and negative integers. The students that participated in the film project were involved at all levels of production from conceptualizing the story and designing the storyboard to creating props, designing the sets, helping with choreography, providing lighting and special effects, and acting.