Four days in to my first Project-Based Learning unit in my Geometry 1 class. So far I am pleased and I think the students are on board. Here’s a rundown of what has happened so far this week:
Day 1: I introduced the project, showing them a brief video about PBL and how it relates to the type of work they will encounter outside of school – teams, problem-solving – and how the learning can be more meaningful because they are taking charge of it. I gave them each a packet, and they perused them thoughtfully, pleasantly surprising me. Then I introduced the actual assignment, “Selling Geometry” – developing a presentation directed at teenagers, convincing them of the relevance of Geometry. (As I did this, I thought ‘Welcome to my world, kiddies!’) The students didn’t ask a lot of questions, but I think they were trying to process the big idea of what was in front of them, so different was it from anything else they had done before. We looked at the different rubrics, and although we didn’t go through them point by point, I highlighted the different ways in which they would be assessed – whether they were working mathematically (the practices are posted on sentence strips around the room), exhibiting knowledge and understanding of their content, functioning well in their teams, and creating/delivering effective presentations which evidenced mastery, creativity, and effort.
Once I had laid out the scenario of what our classroom would become for the next 4-5 weeks, I addressed the larger issues (in my mind, anyway) – what they hope to get out of this class (a credit, for most of them), what my expectations are of them in this class (that they actively participate in the learning process and demonstrate mastery of the material), and what type of classroom culture we need in for both of those things to happen. I let them know that responsibility for their learning lay with them as well as with me, and that I had confidence that this project was a way for us all to achieve our goals, while working on some additional real-world skills in the process.
As an exit ticket, they had to write down who they wanted to work with and why, as well as anyone they DIDN’T want to work with, and why. They took this very seriously (I was glad to see); I received some detailed rationales for their choices, and some amusingly frivolous ones (“He has good hair” was my favorite). Day 1 – a success.
Day 2 was team-building. I was able to create teams that gave each student at least one person they requested, and no one they rejected. Of course, 50% of the students in the class have attendance and punctuality problems; there was no avoiding that creeping into the groups. But I made sure that each team had at least 2 reliable attendees. The students then completed some Silent Puzzles in their groups – lots of engagement and focus! – brainstormed some team names (still in progress) and discussed possible formats for their presentation. I wanted to have a gallery walk to share their work, but we ran out of time. I think I need to bring a case of Red Bull to each class – getting teenagers moving at 8 a.m. is no small feat!
Days 3 and 5 were dedicated to technology. I loaded up our iPads with productivity and presentation apps like Educreations, VoiceThread, Doceri, Evernote, Prezi, Kidblogs and Haiku Deck. The first part of the period was spent exploring these apps; next week I am going to have the students make very brief presentations using the app of their choice; we will share these presentations to introduce the teams. I have also decided to use Khan Academy as a tool for differentiation and formative assessment – despite some of my issues with the website and the underlying implied philosophy of education, it might possibly be a no-brainer for individualized practice that I can monitor. I tested both the website and iPad app at home ( so I thought), and was somewhat confident I could implement it as a tool – even though documentation on certain activities (like creating a teacher playlist and assigning work to specific students) was hard to pull out of Khan Academy’s many resources (at least for me).
Well, the students had a lot of difficulty in class on two fronts – creating an account through the iPad app, and selecting me as a ‘coach.’ We had to bounce back and forth between the app and the website in order to accomplish this. Once we got everyone signed up and logged in, the students began working on the exercises (in Safari) I had assigned (geometric translations). But on some of the iPads, the questions, which involved dragging graphs around, became distorted, and the figures wouldn’t drag properly. In fact, those rigid motions were definitetly NOT rigid in some cases. And when a student is working on exercises, they can click on a video to watch if they are stuck on a question. But – oh, shoot – iPads don’t support Flash! Back out of Safari to the app.
I still have a lot of troubleshooting to do so that this tool reaches becomes as meaningful as I hope it can be. But the engagement was high, and I only encountered once instance of a student using the iPad in a manner in which he had not been directed to use it, and that student was easily redirected to his work.
Day 4 was a direct instruction day – we are going to approach congruence Common Core-style – through rigid motions, and began this process by learning about translations on the coordinate plane. Teaching up at the board for a good portion of the period felt odd after all the groupwork – easier for me in some ways (just talk about what I love), but more difficult as I looked out at a silent classroom, students taking notes, but waiting for ME to do the work – the Ms. Menard Geometry Show. I am hoping that as we get further into the unit, the days when we are engaged in whole class work will be livelier, the students more involved and confident as a result of the mathematical empowerment this project gives them.
I feel like I have set the stage for the student work I hope is to come, and that my job now is to effectively orchestrate the transition from all this groundwork to authentic learning and the production of project artifacts, which will of course include the appropriate grade-level geometry. I’m nervous that I can’t make it happen, that the kids will require so much scaffolding and direction that the learning I intend to take place might not occur, or that what they produce will fall far short of my hopes and expectations. And like my good friend @JustinAion, I feel that this is my responsibility – to bring my best game to this classroom of struggling and somewhat forgotten students.
So my work this weekend is cut out for me – I need to envision the path we will take as a class to move into the next phase of this project, model the process for my students, and somehow create the learning environment in which the work will happen.