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Make Project Planning a Collaborative Practice

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Moving from traditional teaching to project learning takes effort: You have to be willing to rethink everything, from classroom management to homework expectations to assessment strategies. And if you're the only one in the building who is teaching this way, it can get a little lonely.

Last spring, a high school teacher named Telannia Norfar decided to give the project approach a try with her ninth-grade math students. During the last nine weeks of the school year, she had students make their own movies about linear equations and the principles of triangles.

In her blog PBL Birdside View, Norfar describes that initial project: "There were some pitfalls, but overall, I have never seen the students more engaged. The students actually wanted to come to school and stay after to film. They managed themselves, and I looked on in amazement and wondered why I hadn't done this sooner."

During an online conference about project learning earlier this year, Norfar described the many real-world math projects that have followed that first effort. For instance, her students have put their geometry skills to work designing blueprints for a home renovation. They have used algebraic thinking to figure out how to choose the most economical cell phone plan. Hearing her describe how her students respond to this way of learning and how the projects help math concepts stick, I could tell she has become convinced of the power of project learning.

But one thing was still missing -- collegial support. She wanted to know how others have approached planning a cross-disciplinary project with colleagues. What helps move the team-planning process forward? How do you get everyone to buy into project learning?

Wouldn't it be great, she added, if we could hear that whole conversation unfold? I couldn't agree more, and by the end of that conference call, Norfar offered to provide a window to her school's experience with collaborative project planning. She set up PBL Birdside View to track that conversation.

Norfar is a thoughtful narrator for her team's journey into collaborative project planning. Her colleagues teach science, English, social studies, and special education. They are all part of a ninth-grade academy team with shared planning time. They bring unique perspectives, experiences, and teaching approaches. And they don't always agree. Designing a collaborative project is giving them the opportunity to learn more about one another's teaching practices, look for connections across disciplines, and consider technology tools to support the learning experience. It's also giving them time to focus on strategies for reaching students performing below grade level.

After discussing everything from standards to driving questions, the teaching team settled on a topic that's certain to generate a lot of student interest: cafeteria food. Student teams will explore everything from the food's nutritional value to the cultural relevance of menu choices. Experts from a local culinary school and a food co-op have agreed to let the students interview them. The principal will be a sounding board for student proposals for a menu overhaul, which adds more real-life flavor to the project.

A month into the planning process, Norfar posted this update: "The excitement for the project is increasing. We are beginning to see the impact the project can have on the students and the team. Our abilities as educators are increasing, and our students will be all the better for it."

The project launch date is fast approaching. I can't wait to hear what happens when students enter the picture. I'm also eager to find out whether this first team effort leads to more collaborative projects. Norfar and her colleagues may eventually look back on this project as the start of a stronger professional learning community.

Do you work with colleagues to design projects? What helps you work well together as a team? What are the challenges? If you could design your dream team for collaboration, who would you invite? Please share your experiences.

Comments (49)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Candice Coker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Have you tried searching the internet for units? I have found that I can pull several activities from various units and create a unit of my own. I always start with literature first because I can bring in newspaper articles, read alouds, or magazines. Once I narrowed the topic and found the literature, I work on incorporating the other disciplines. I also find or create projects that I can take multiple grades for that expand across the curriculum.

Tiffany Payne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The collaborative, project approach can only be successful if teachers are collaborating as well. The project approach allows for all students to develop and shine in their own way, highlighting their own interests and talents. Educators must be willing to collaborate openly and discuss successes and failures, which leads to better more effective teaching.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am one to really rely on projects to show what my students have learned in a unit or subject. I feel that performance assessment is an important way to show information gained by the students. The school system that I work for has collaborated and created notebooks that contain some activities and projects for our science units ( social studies will be integrated next year). This has been a wonderful tool for us this year, especially the new teachers. However, we as a grade level do not collaborate on performance assessments. I have banned together with several other new teachers and we have created our own projects to use in our classrooms. I feel that consistency across the board in a school is very helpful. I think that help from veteran teachers would have helped de- stress the first year.

Arien W's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Working collaboratively with other teachers is an excellent way of bringing each teachers curriculum to life. Our 6th grade team has been trying to collaborate a unit together but time has been the devastating factor.

Angela Kimberlin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like your example for the different math concepts review. I have not done much with project based learning. However, last school year, I found a lesson where children make geometrical shapes out of toothpicks and marshmallows. The kids loved it. They were so engaged and happy. I want to do more of this but I don't know how. How often do you do a project? Do you still have "traditional" lessons? Since they are collaborative, how do you grade them? I have so many questions. Do you have a favorite resource on the how-to's of project based learning?

Telannia Norfar's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

K. Ryerson asked the following question: Does anyone have ideas for how to bring colleagues who have taught the same thing for years on board with designing and carrying out new projects?

I believe I can really relate to your question. When I did my collaborative project, I was working with teachers who have 10 plus years of experience. Thankfully one of the members was a person who was open to trying out new things. Even though I believe this was a helping factor in getting others aboard, I also suggested doing a project after testing. Most teachers really don't have any plans after testing dates and they are open to trying something new. I told them my experience is projects has made the last part of the school year fly by and great for the students. I would suggest if you are up against a hard group, suggest doing it during a time they would be most open.

Sarah Marten's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Working collaborative with a group of teachers can be an exciting experience or an unforgettable experience depending on the make-up of teachers. I believe in order to implement project planning; teachers must display an willingly attitude, be open-minded, and communicate effectively with one another. If teachers are not on the same page with each other then the result of project planning could fail.

Chris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am not the most creative teacher in the world but I love teaching. Are there any blogs out there where teachers can share and build off each others project ideas? I know there are lesson plan sites but I am looking for something more interactive.

Keri 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with colleagues to plan lessons, field trips and celebrations but never anything as impacting as the project that Suzie took part in. I think it is wonderful how the teachers worked together to create a project which asked the students to work together as well. What a great example they were to these students! During college I had to experience to team- teach with a partner. However, what was supposed to be teamwork turned into individual work when I ended up doing everything. I believe that collaboration only works when all members of the team work together. Otherwise, this "team" really is not a team at all. My dream team would consist of the other teachers from my grade level at my school, my supervisor, parents, select students and teachers from different parts of the country or world. Learning different techniques and strategies would be the icing on the cake for a collaborative team such as this.

Keri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I liked how you put that teachers need to discuss failures and successes and not just successes. I feel that sometimes when I am working in a team the other team members are just agreeing with what I say to be nice. I appreciate some good constructive-criticism and think that sometimes we are too afraid of offending others by giving it.

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