A Journey into PBLs and DT

There is a lot of buzz around the world of education about teaching students 21st Century Skills. These skills include collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.  The trouble is that sometimes, traditional instructional methods don’t teach all of those things.

Educators are realizing that students need to be prepared for a future we can’t even really imagine.  Culture and technology are changing so quickly that the jobs my 8th grade students will have don’t even exist yet.  So I need to be preparing them not just with knowledge, but the skills to learn, to persevere, to think beyond boundaries, and to work with others.

The first time I heard of Project Based Learning was when I was taking courses for licensure in Gifted and Talented Education.  In that class, I had to develop a PBL unit and then implement it in my class.  It was hard.  My own thinking had to change, and the project I gave the students was big and challenging and beyond their comfort zone.

It was great!

For two years, I put PBLs into place in my honors class.  This year, I’m also developing them for my regular level classes.  In fact, our entire school is moving toward a Design Thinking Model — very similar to PBL, but with additional emphasis on empathy and creating prototypes.


This year, every class I teach will do at least one PBL / DT unit.  The honors class will work with our local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters to develop a advertising campaign for them — aimed at both kids who need Bigs and adults who might be interested in being a Big.

My eighth grade class is working on re-designing my 7th grade course.  They have to come up with books I can teach that will be interesting to the students in my class.  (In the photo, my eighth graders are interviewing fifth graders to find out what kinds of books they like.  This is part of the Empathize step of DT.)


And my seventh grade class will think about what makes a classroom a good learning environment — especially what kind of seating is best.  (Flexible?  Traditional?  I’m still making that decision myself, so they are going to come up with prototypes!)

The longer I teach, the more I realize that learning never ends.  I must continue to learn and adapt in order to bring my students the best education I can.  This is part of my journey.


Being Flexible

There’s a trend in education right now.  Flexible seating.  All the cool teachers are doing it, and if you spend any time on Pinterest, you can see dozens of beautifully decorated classrooms sporting wobble stools, standing desks, plastic rocker chairs, and inflatable seat pads.  These teachers swear that the kids are happier and more focused because they have more choices in their seating and because they get to move around more.

The classrooms look less like this:


and more like this:


(Okay, that last image might be a bit of an exaggeration.)

For a minute, I was sold.  I started looking for grants to purchase all this nifty seating and began planning for what I would buy and how I would arrange it.

And then I thought a minute.  Was I basing my idea to change my entire classroom on a bunch of snazzy photos and some blog posts?  Where was the research to back this up?

To be honest, I hadn’t seen any.  Even now, when I go to Google Scholar to look for research on flexible seating in education, there don’t seem to be a lot of research studies there.  This isn’t to say that anecdotal evidence is no good.  But when I have a classroom that functions pretty well, why do I want to mess with it just because some pretty pictures got me all twitterpated?

I needed to rethink.

Already in my middle school classroom, I do what I can to get kids up and moving.  On most days, half way through the 55-minute class period, I make the kids stand up and get out their wiggles.  I’ll have them stretch, march, take a lap around the room, or try some coordination activities (like rubbing your tummy while patting your head, but more advanced).  When students are reading on their own or working on writing assignments, I allow them to move around the room.  I have three comfy chairs they can use, and many of them like to sit on the floor.

All of this seems to work pretty well.  Why am I eager to ditch my desks?

Admittedly, my kids don’t love the student seating I have in my room.  The chair is attached to the desk on the right side, and left-handed kids hate it because when they write, their left arm is unsupported unless they twist themselves into a strange position in the seat.  If the short kids drop a pencil or book on the right side, someone next to them has to pick it up because the bar prevents them from reaching it.  The desks are small, and you can’t put them in pods because the writing surface is slanted and they aren’t flush when you push them together.

Still, is this a reason to toss them out entirely and replace them all with squashy couches and giant exercise balls?

The science classroom down the hall is getting lab tables to replace the desk and chair sets there.  Then, I’ll get those sets, which are nicer than mine; the desks are bigger and they aren’t attached to the chairs.  I can try pods and other groupings instead of the rows that seem to be the only workable solution in my class.  And as always, I’ll keep doing “brain breaks” to get my kids up and moving.

But until I see some really strong research supporting flexible seating, I’m keeping my standard furniture.

What do you think?  Am I crazy?  Stuck in the dark ages?



I used to be a huge stickler on late work.  When I first started teaching, I didn’t accept late work at all.  If you didn’t turn it in on time, I didn’t accept it.

After a year or to, I relaxed ever so slightly.  Work turned in one day late would be accepted for half credit.  After that, work was not accepted for credit.

I stuck with that rule for a long time.  Other teachers in my school had the same rule, so it seemed reasonable.

But then last year happened.

Last year, my seventh and eighth grade honors English class taught me a lot about stress and about what things really matter.  They taught me about being a middle school student in the 21st century in a small school in East Central Indiana.

I had about a half dozen seventh graders who were gigantic balls of stress.  And they had reason to be.  They were involved in volleyball, basketball, student council, 4-H, Future Problem Solvers, dance teams, and academic teams.  On top of that, most of them were taking at least one high school class, so even as seventh graders, they were worrying about maintaining a particular GPA for their college transcripts.

And I’m a tough teacher.  I have high expectations and a lot of rigor in my classroom.

Unfortunately, this was driving those students to the edge.  I needed to rethink some things.

I started to relax some of my rules.  Not the important ones, not the ones that maintain order in the classroom.  But the ones that, especially in middle school, really don’t matter.  And late work was one policy I really started to think about changing.

It started small.  I would tell a particular stressed out student, or a student who was struggling to finish a paper or understand a concept, to just take one more day.  “Just turn it in by tomorrow,” I’d say.  “I’ll still give you full credit.”  And that seemed to be okay.  It was a case by case basis, and no one took advantage of it.

By third quarter, I was thinking of changing my late work policy altogether.  Under the recommendation of my principal, I changed it with only my eighth grade classes.  That way, if it didn’t work, the seventh graders, whom I would still have in class the next year, wouldn’t know any different.  So for fourth quarter last year, I gave each student three late passes.  For the last nine weeks of school, they had three opportunities to turn in work one day late with no penalty at all.

This made me insane.  I would give a lot of time for a small assignment, and still have students ask to use a late pass.  I had a couple of students who used all three late passes in the first two weeks of the quarter.  I decided that didn’t work for me.

Over the summer, I read some articles that made me consider another plan, which I am trying this year.  Students’ grades have two parts.  Ten percent of their grade is for “On Time Homework.”  The other 90 percent is all the assignments we do in class.  If students turn in their homework on time, they earn points in the on-time homework category.  If not, they don’t.  However, even if the work is late, I will still accept it for no penalty on the work itself for up to two weeks.

I hope this will help not only my bright but anxiety-ridden high-ability students, but also my lower ability students who just sometimes need a little more time.

How was late work accepted when you were a student?  If you’re a teacher, what’s your late work policy?

Can time management be taught?


I have a group of students this year who seem continually stressed out. Admittedly, they have taken on quite a few challenges. They are middle school students who have been accelerated into more advanced math classes. Some of them are also taking honors science in addition to my honors English class. Most of them are also active in sports or dance or theater or music.

These students often bemoan the amount of work they must do, and they complain that they haven’t been given enough time to complete the work. I’ve really reevaluated the workload in my honors class this year. I admit that last year it was too much. But I scaled back this year, and I feel I’ve been more reasonable with my expectations. I’ve given a lot of time in class to work on big projects.

At the same time, I know that some of them spend far more time on assignments and quizzes than they need to. Two hours on math homework that should take fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes on a vocabulary quiz that everyone else finishes in five. Hours and hours on a social studies project that wasn’t even a big deal and could have been much smaller. I recently gave the students an assignment based on Benjamin Franklin’s “Plan for Moral Perfection” from his autobiography, and in the experiment they completed, many of those same students admitted to procrastinating.

I know these kids are young. They’re only 12 or 13 or maybe 14. I know they have many things to balance. In just my class, we continually have both long-term and short-term assignments to juggle. But it seems that some of them spend so much time on the little things that they then become utterly overwhelmed with the big ones. Or they become paralyzed when facing a difficult task. They want so much to do it perfectly that they don’t even know how to begin.

I want to help them develop skills to ease their anxiety. I don’t want students to be stressed out. I give them continual reassurances that it will all be fine and it doesn’t have to be perfect. I want to help them to figure out how to balance all the different things they have to do, but I’m not sure how to begin.

Can time management be taught? Can it be taught in the scope of a language arts class, or does it need to be done separately? I have asked the counseling department for assistance, but is there something I can be doing in my classroom as well?

Determining the value of traditional assignments


image via tablet-news.com

There is a push these days to use more technology in the classroom. And to a certain degree, I understand that. Tablets, apps, websites, blogs, podcasts, social media – these are now a huge part of our lives, and students need to know how to use them responsibly. Besides, that’s their culture. That’s what they relate to. My students have never known a world without cell phones or the Internet.

So I’m trying to integrate technology more into my classroom. Instead of just using our iPads on a substitutionary basis (uploading worksheets and having them complete the work in a PDF instead of on paper), I’m trying to be more innovative. So when reading Romeo and Juliet this year, I changed my previous assignment of writing a letter to Romeo or Juliet after they get married to having a text conversation. (The kids wrote the conversation on paper templates, but they were relating to the technology.) Another class is doing a project where they determine criteria for and then choose a candidate as Person of the Year. In addition to a written proposal, they must create a documentary about that person.

And I think these things are good. The kids enjoy them and I’m asking them to use 21st century skills. I wonder, though, about which of my old requirements should fall by the wayside, which should be kept, and which should just be tweaked.

The formal research paper is one. I typically have 8th graders write a research paper in the spring. But is there still value in that? Would it be better to have them create a website or a documentary or a podcast? When they get to high school or college, will it be enough that I taught them research skills? Or will they really need me to have taught them the format of a paper?

It’s a conversation I hope to have with the high school teachers in my building. I remember years ago hearing that traditional research papers would no longer be the norm soon – that instead of looking up information and reporting it, students would need to synthesize the information into something new. Is that now the case in colleges? Would my students be better served by working on a creative project as a result of their research? Or is there still value in the research paper with in-text citations and a works cited page?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

Remembering to Breathe

I should be used to it by now, but I’m not.  The beginning of the semester has been really rough.  For the entire first week back and school I felt upside-down.  I’ve been a little short-tempered and a little impatient, both with my students and with myself.  It has been hard to get up in the mornings and busy every evening.

I’m taking a graduate course (the first of my Master’s program in curriculum) and there is an absolute truckload of reading to do and I think I’ve already gotten on the professor’s bad side with some of the questions I’ve asked.

Seventh graders are reading The Giver.  More than in previous years, some have already read the book and some have seen the movie, making the risk of having spoilers that much higher.  And I have to figure out how to keep those students — the ones who’ve already read it — engaged.

Eighth graders are reading Romeo and Juliet.  A couple of them are totally getting it, but many (more than usual, it seems) aren’t getting it at all.  Most of them are where I expect them to be, but those on the extreme ends are very vocal, which makes me feel like I’m not doing a great job of meeting all their needs.

The honors students are doing a collaborative project, and it’s brand new curriculum that I’m still in the process of writing, so I’m trying to keep my head above water with that.

Middle School Student Council (I’m a co-sponsor) is having a dance this Friday, and Homecoming for the whole school (K-12) is the week after that.  The middle school is supposed to decorate a stairwell and make a banner for Homecoming, and typically Student Council takes charge of that.

I’m exhausted, and we’ve only been back at school for five days.

I’m feeling a lot like this right now:


Inhale.  Exhale.  I can do this.


School Culture


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about school culture.  As I reflect over the last several years, I remember times when I tried to escape complainers, times when I became a complainer, and times when I tried to stop complaining.  My focus, mostly, has been on myself — how other teachers’ attitudes are affecting ME.  And sometimes I think about how I affect those I work with most closely, or those I eat lunch with.

But I’ve been thinking more lately about the school as a whole.

In the past, I admit I figured it was the principal’s job to impact or change school culture.  And I do still think the administration plays a large role in the attitude and morale of a school.  For example, when I see administrators in the hallways, saying hi to teachers and students, popping into classrooms just to visit — not to do an evaluation or pull out a kid for a discipline issue — that’s when I feel like they really care about the nuts and bolts of the school.  When one of the administrators takes time to eat lunch with teachers, or to pop into a classroom after school just to see how a teacher is doing, it shows a willingness to connect and not just to be in charge.

But principals and other administrators have a big job.  I know that sometimes they get busy.  So I started thinking about what I can do personally to impact and improve school culture.

I spend way too much time on Pinterest, but it’s there that I’ve found some ideas that might work, and that wouldn’t take too much time or energy.  Staff Shout-Out boards in the faculty lounge, an easy opportunity to write a note of encouragement and stick it in another teacher’s mailbox — these things aren’t hard, and I could set them up myself.

Sure, maybe it’s not “my job” to do that sort of thing, but I’d much rather work in a place where people are happy than in a place where Grumble Pie is on the menu every day.

And maybe, if I take the first step, others will join in and start going above and beyond to help improve the school culture as well.  That’s my hope.  I want a happy school, and maybe I can help make it happen.