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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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

Melissa Yeager's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you about the rubrics being the foundation a teacher should use to build the "unit" from...then teach the students the expectations ahead of time. Do you have some rubrics/units developed?
Melissa Yeager

I have not used this teaching approach recently, but when I taught 4th grade 7 years ago, I did. I feel I am a little out of touch. I don't think any of my current collegues use this approach, either.

Do you have any recommendations about where I should start?

K. Ryerson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to aggree with all of the postings. I teach middle school science find projects a valuable tool. My problem is that it is hard to find teachers willing to share in all the effort to create the project design up front. I have found some websites that contain lesson plans with already mapped-out projects, but it is not the same as working with a team of teachers face-to-face. I like the idea of cross-curricular projects. 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?

Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you that it is an excellent way to get other classes involved. I just recently had my kindergarten class put on a Q and U friendship play. Both kindergarten classes were involved and other classes participated. Parents and friends were invited and we had a reception that followed. It was great to see all the students and parents proud of the final project. I try to incorporate projects to align with our student centered learning. The students really enjoy this type of learning, and love to show off the final product. Does anyone have any good ideas for more project based projects?

Louise B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One of the best things about project-based learning is that every student can be successful. Allowing students a LOT of choices in their projects helps bring out the strengths in everyone. The challenge is helping students use new information they gain and carefully constructing projects that involve research and also cover the content standards.

The pride and ownership that students take in their learning certainly shines through when projects are presented. It's also a great way to get parents involved and into the classroom.

When I collaborate with my grade level team on projects, they are designed better and have more credibility. We can also assess together and my colleagues help me to see things that I would otherwise miss. It can be challenging to work with others, but it is well-worth setting those differences aside. And the more you collaborate, the easier it gets.

Andy Poore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have also started trying to develop projects for my Spanish classes. We have invented products, drawn posters of the product and filmed commercials to advertise it. The students get very involved in the process, but they always seem to reach above their means. I find that students often have trouble with slang. They have a difficult time using the vocabulary and sentence structure that they have learned, but would rather simply try to word things exactly the way they would in English.

It is amazing to see students get so involved with projects. Many students react positively to this process and always seem to want more. It becomes more and more difficult to come up with new ideas, but creativity comes with practice.

Andy P.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I often see missed opportunities to collaborate with teachers in other disciplines, usually when it is too late. For example, if we had done a better job, the Enriched English teacher and I could have collaborated on the novels we were reading, one in English and one in Spanish. We certainly did not share the exact same students, but we were reading the same novel. It would have been an excellent chance to connect the two language classes. It just seems that our lines for communcation are sometimes not there.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am working with a group of teachers to ensure that our students are involved in more project based learning activities next school year. We tend to remember and learn the best lessons from our experiences.

C. Fayall

Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading this blog. At the end of this year, our assessment team decided that each grade level should start planning projects together. I think making projects an intregal part of subjects is a great idea. At the end of the year I did a Geobots project with my students. They had to make robots using geometric shapes. The project worked great and I got the idea from a friend of mine who works at another school. This would have been a great thing for the entire grade level to do. I am happy that we as a grade level will start planning projects together. It will definitely let students show their many talents and provide a different type of assessment.

Bridget Dennis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I absolutely love your explanation of hands on learning through collaboration. I have had a rather hard time in the school that I work in as an English teacher. A history teacher and I have tried to develop an interdisciplinary assignment over the past couple of years. The problem is that not all of my students have this teacher for history class and not all of his students have me for English. We have tried very hard to get the other English and history teachers involved, and they all think it is a great idea. However, it never seems to fit into their plans. It is so disheartening that other teachers aren't willing to work together in this manner, especially when we are constantly telling students that writing well is not only important in English class. Although we have very big departments at my school, I would love if we could all sit down together and do as you say- "bring their all, their best" in order to reach a resolution.

Michelle G's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like the idea of collabarative cross-curriculum projects. I think that it can help students in many ways, one being what was mentioned, getting students who are uninterested in school, involved. I also would like to think that it could help improve a students confidence in herself/himself. It could also take struggling students a little closer to where they should be grade level wise and help challenge other students. I would be willing to try this in my first grade class because I have faith in my students to believe they could rise to the challenge.

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