Monthly Archives: May 2013

“Craziest History Class Ever!” #PBL

On Friday, my students met in their two Museum Shop groups to begin the conversation on what items they would create to best represent an exhibit on Europe from 1400-1600. (Introduction of this PBL project)They had already gone to the Museum of Modern Art’s online gift shop and explored the kinds of items that they had for their exhibits. They loved it and found it totally amazing and energizing, as I had hoped they would.

I created roles and tasks for each member of the group, to clearly divide the work and to be able to identify who was responsible for each part.

1. Store Manager
Daily Check-in with each member of the team on her progress
General oversight and encouragement of the team
Final oversight of creation of the store with the architect

2. Architect
Leading discussion of the parts of the store.
Creating a floor plan for the space with each area clearly laid out
Final oversight of creation of the store with the manager

3. 2 or 3 Area Managers – Areas to be decided after items decided upon, such as Children’s section, History Materials, Audio-Visual
Leading discussion of the arrangement and organization of the section
Working with other area managers and architect to create a well-organized store

4. 2 Advertising Managers
Leading discussion to identify the theme and slogan for the campaign
Creating a color sheet and choosing font for campaign
Daily oversight of the store sign, advertising campaign, store signs and business cards

5. Business Scout
Investigation of competitive stores
Research into museum store websites for new ideas

6. Store Maintenance
Organization of daily clean-up of material and storage
Supervision of breakdown of store after final exhibit
(I am the least satisfied with this role, but I ran out of ideas. Any suggestions are welcome!)

For this conversation, I had the Store Managers run the first part of the conversation, leading a conversation that discussed what each member of the group had researched and why that person or event was significant. Then the Architect in each of the two groups had each student discuss what item she wanted to create and why it was a good way to communicate the facts she had learned. The other students were encouraged to help each other by providing support and new ideas. Together they looked at the items and decided what categories the items fell into and then what areas they wanted for the store – the reason why the Architect was leading the discussion.

There were focused and thoughtful conversations in both groups, that I mainly sat back and watched. Not from behind my desk, having already learned that lesson, but on a desk in between the two groups. I threw out a question now and then or made a suggestion, but for the most part, it was student-led.

Then came the “Craziness”! It was time for the Advertising Managers to take over. It was their job to lead a conversation that led to each store having a store name, store colors for the campaign and a slogan. I reminded that that they wanted to develop an umbrella idea under which all of their ideas could fit. I told them to first quietly brainstorm for 5 minutes to allow each student individually to develop some ideas; then I turned it over to the Advertising Managers.

The energy and sheer joy in creation was electric. The Advertising Managers did a great job of helping each student to be heard, but they had so much to share. They are experts when it comes to being consumers of advertising. They know good campaigns when they see them, and each group was determined to develop the most catchy slogan around and to have the most interesting name that would draw customers to their store.

One group named their store The Story, since Europe from 1400-1600 is full of stories of change. Their slogan was “New Ideas from the Past; But our Treasures: Make Them Last!” They were working on a logo that would connect the past and the present.

Another group decided to call their store Explore the Old; Find the New, which is more like a slogan than a store name, so they will probably have to work on that. Their slogan was “Europe’s Exploration through the World of Innovation.” They were clearly working on combining ideas that were rich and engaging.

The energy and the learning continued!

Scaffolding – Supporting Student PBL Work

After starting the PBL last week, this week was the week for researching, a time for the girls to build their initial understanding of their individual topics. What independence they showed as they searched for facts about the topics that they had chosen! Most of them moved easily between books and digital resources, recording their information and creating new research questions.

At times, they became frustrated with the complexity of the information, but there was a deep commitment to reaching understanding and mastery. I worked on sending them to less complex sources for the initial work and then to return to the more difficult ones. When they needed a break, they took a short walk to help them refocus, a strategy that I have them use regularly in my class, or they shifted their work to the memorization piece of the project.

As part of the scaffolding for the project, I had given them a list of 25 people from Europe from 1400-1600 to memorize. As I explained to them that these were people with whom any well-educated person would be familiar. Their job was simply to learn why each person was significant in 5-7 words. The list ranged from Martin Luther to Michelangelo to Prince Henry the Navigator. I had two reasons for having them memorize this list. The first was simply to broaden their understanding of the time period and provide a bridge to some of the other topics about which they weren’t personally studying. I also wanted to give my students who struggle with the challenges that independent research presented a single task over which most of them have control. They have learned through the course of the year the strategies that work for them when they need to memorize information. It gave them a sense of being capable and in control as they worked on their research, which was more difficult.

While they worked with almost total independence this week, I simply wandered the room, available to answer questions and make suggestions when needed, but largely an observer. They were the ones at work, setting goals for themselves each day and tackling each with an amazing amount of focus.

One thing I noticed right away, however, was that they needed me present. While I wasn’t standing at the front of the class, writing an outline or posing questions, I was still very definitely setting the tone of the room. I quickly learned that if I went to check my email or do some other work, the mood in the room changed. My lack of focus on their work meant they could shift their focus, and it was challenging for them after that happened to get back to the same degree of commitment that they had had before. I had given them a completely wrong message by shifting away from their work. They needed me to honor their effort with my attention. After learning that lesson the painful way, I set about staying in the moment with them. I wandered between the desks, asked questions when I saw something of interest. I gave suggestions when I had them and learned new facts as they identified them. It was easy to make it clear to the students that they were becoming the experts, and I wanted to learn from them.

When I provided the support, they did the learning! It was their project and their work, and they wanted to do it!

Building Curiosity – PBL Week 1

After having the investigation of museum items that I wrote about in my last post, I gave the students time to explore in a variety of sources to see what happened during the time period about which they are learning, Europe from 1400-1600. They looked through both textbooks and online sources. This step was initially very hard for them. They wanted me to tell them what was important and on what they should focus. I resisted the impulse to jump in and name my favorite artists, thinkers and explorers. I just let them wander through the sources for awhile, getting their own initial impression of the time.

“Wow! A lot happened!”

“Didn’t the Muslims do this before? Didn’t we learn about that earlier?”

“I wonder where he got the idea for that?”

I told them to just skim over the information, looking for patterns and topics that might interest them. I suggested that they think about people and activities that interest them in general. Do they like to ride horses or paint? Do they want to be an architect or politician? I suggested that they let those interests guide their search. For the students who continued to struggle with the breadth of the investigation, I had created a list of 40 or so important people and places. I quietly gave it to the students who had gotten stuck, simply unable to enjoy the process or to connect with any of the aspects of the time period. For them, it provided a scaffold that they needed.

The next step was to have the school librarian come in and give a lesson on how to develop effective research questions. She taught them about “inch, foot and yard” questions, as a way of identifying if they had a broad enough topic for their research. Inch questions are ones that can be answered with a single fact and usually can be found in a single source. Foot questions require more investigation and are answered with a combination of facts. Yard questions require the gathering of facts and then synthesizing them to develop an deeper understanding. They practiced labeling questions and then developing their own.

Now it was time to identify what areas they were interested in investigating for their research. Each student identified three topics on which they wanted to focus. They then wrote 3-5 sentences about why each topic was of interest to her. Then she wrote three research questions for each topic. I told them to present a clear argument for why she should be given a specific topic to investigate. I wanted to try and build their connections with the topics. Luckily, they had all found different aspects of Europe from 1400-1600 that were of interest to them, and I was able to give each one their first choice by dividing up some of the most popular topics, such as I split da Vinci into his scientific work and his art.

I divided them into groups of 8 or 9, larger than I have ever done before, to create the final museum store together. I wanted to have them work on larger collaboration skills. I had created a group in Edmodo, and divided it into two sections, one for each group. Since they were doing independent work for the first part of the project, researching their topics, I wanted to begin to build a sense of connection between them, sharing interesting facts and their ideas about the project. For their first post, I had them blog about why they were interested in their topic and the research questions that were of interest to them. I created a schedule for commenting, so that each student received a comment for each post. I then went through and left comments after the students commented.

At this point, it felt like we were truly launched! The students were engaged and excited. They felt in control of their work and ready to start their research. Since they had already done two research projects this year, they simply created a new project in NoodleTools and began their investigations. They were off!