Purposeful PBL

Yesterday I walked into Mr. Rooke’s room to do something menial and simple. I walked away awed and inspired, and with a sense that we really are making a difference in our schools.

Mr. Rooke, our very deserving Teacher Of the Year, has a very non-traditional way of teaching Spanish. I’ve never seen his students filling out worksheets. I’ve never heard his students complain about unfair amounts of work, boring lessons, or tough tests. Mr. Rooke’s students go on to perform outstandingly in advanced Spanish classes, genuinely like Mr. Rooke, and treat him with the utmost respect. Mr. Rooke embeds language learning into study units that are of personal interest to the students, and that is what we discussed when I was in his room yesterday.

Students have been learning about Central America through movies, novels, and classroom discussions. They have learned about the role of poverty in the civil wars of the 1980′s, and the effects of intervention by outside powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union. Recently, they have been discussing MS-13, a violent gang that traces its origins to refugees from the civil war in El Salvador.

So, as the students are learning Spanish, they are also becoming aware of recent cultural and political events that are not covered in traditional Social Studies classes, and they are becoming very aware of how interconnected our world is. They are also learning about real people involved in events, not just learning about events in an abstract manner. This personal connection is crucial.

To reinforce these connections and foster empathy, Mr. Rooke has added another dimension to the learning. He has funds in an account with Kiva.org that the kids will award to applicants for microfinancing. To decide who gets the funds, students have selected loan applicants to research.  They are using Explain Everything and other tools on their iPads to prepare Shark Tank-style presentations for their peers. Then, as a class, they will vote on the top applicants and award the funds to them. When the loans are repaid, probably next year, the next group of students will be ready to evaluate a new set of loan applicants.

This project embodies everything I’ve always imagined for our G21 initiative. It is about the kind of learning that is not for the test. They are learning about people who live in places they have never even heard of. They are learning about the reality of life in these places. They are becoming aware of their privileged lives as citizens of the United States, and of the power and responsibility that comes with that privilege. The kids will always be able to point to this time in their lives when, as a class, they made someone’s life better. 

UPDATE: If you would like to help the students fund additional Kiva micro loans, make a donation at their GoFundMe site.

Taking Risks

This morning I returned from VSTE and hit the ground running. When I stepped into Ms. Kass’s room to say hello, she showed me the projects the students were developing on their iPads. A few minutes later, I stopped by Ms. Potter’s office to let her know I was back in the building. The first thing she asked was, “Did you see the amazing stuff Ms. Kass and her students are doing?” Of course, I had just been there. Here is an administrator’s take on our iPad program and the learning environments it is helping us create.


The Mechanics of Understanding

How do we learn? Pick your favorite answer. We learn by doing. We learn by repetition. We learn by teaching others. We learn by…

We learn when we are challenged and supported, when we have something to aim for and the goal is attainable. We might compare this to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of entering a state of flow.

There is more to it. Being aware that learning is happening and understanding how the learning happens leads to better outcomes. The research on the effects of metacognition is cited liberally in the National Academies Press report on 21st Century Skills.

Yes, it is a huge, dense book. It is full of very useful stuff, but teachers’ time is a precious commodity. And, of course, it is often more effective to cite a notable example involving someone we (or maybe just me?) love.

Joel Achenbach has written a beautiful piece on Carl Sagan for Smithsonian. You can read about his documents at the Library of Congress, the Cosmos reboot, and too many other interesting topics to list here. There are many quotes throughout, all worded in that beautifully-recognizable Sagan style. There is one particular quote that jumped out at me and made me think of teaching and what we are trying to achieve.

I think I’m able to explain things because understanding wasn’t entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding.


When I think of Carl Sagan, “brilliant” is the first adjective that I assign to him. He did not see himself as brilliant, but he saw this as an advantage. He was aware of what, how, and when he learned, and we are all aware of his achievements and his influence on scientific culture.

As part of our push for Deeper Learning, we must help our students develop metacognitive skills.  A good way to start is to let students talk through their learning. Having students explain how they work through a process is very helpful. In explaining, students have to justify everything rather than guess when they are stuck. And when they are stuck, they have to figure out why, then look for an answer or ask for help. This learning out loud also gives teachers an insight into what has been learned, what has been misunderstood, and what is missing altogether.

If you have access to iPads (and if you are in our school division your answer is probably yes), think about using Explain Everything to let students talk through their learning. The app combines visuals, animation, and audio. Students get the opportunity to listen to themselves and share with others, too. If you have not seen Explain Everything, take a look. If you are interested in using it with your students, let me know. I’m here to help.