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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

J. Edwards's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Having started out in education as a shop teacher, having ended up as a high school English teacher, for me, seeing the application of collaboration projects between student and teacher in a hands-on environment, is an obvious thing. I've devised a "minds-on project" that demands real collaboration between all participants. I believe this might provide some insight into effective collaboration among teachers. My basic unit plan starts with an "object", which could be a claw hammer or "Hamlet". I imagine the object on a table in the center of the classroom surrounded by students. I pose the simple problematic, essential question: "What is this object? I'm not going to tell anything, because I don't know everything -- you will do all the work of finding out -- but we will spend the next ____ period of time examining the object -- how it came to be, what is it made of, what are some uses for it, how might it be improved, is it useless or useful, is there something about this object that hasn't been figured out yet?" Some of the objects are brought to class by students, and the same process occurs. Remember, this is the broadest interpretation of "object". Teachers could use this approach to collaboration: assume that there is no single best answer, yet all are focused on the object and the process demands that all participants bring "their all, their best" to a resolution.

T. King's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You have to investigate and experiment to find projects that meet your content standards and objectives and teach skills that are assessed on standardized tests. Not every project is a hit, but you learn from the experience, try others, and you will find great projects that are fun and educational. Remember, it does not have to be elaborate or a hugh project to be of benefit. Good luck!

T. King's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You are on track about students transferring knowledge. Their learning is on so many levels, too. They must apply and synthesize their basic content knowledge and that shows real understanding of the topic. Plus, you get the added benefit of being a mentor/facilitator, not just a lecturer, and that really enforces a relationship with the students. You get a chance to learn their individual personalities and help them address weaknesses and use their strengths as you work closely on the project. It is so much better than lecture notes and recall test items.

Mark Woolsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have used projects in the classroom for five or so years now instead of the traditional paper and pencil assessment. I teach Japanese at a high school in Kahuku, Hawaii. I discovered that the students learned far more with a project that inspires speaking together than writing. The vocabulary words are important, but no one really wants to learn a foreign language to be able to read and write it. They want to speak.

Projects that involved computers and cameras were especially helpful. Making a commercial that required technology and spoken words was fascinating to the students. They discovered they had a knack for something and it made sense to them. Since this project, I've tried many variations for different levels. They all seem to work together and help solve problems, both language and technology related. It really gets them interacting in the language, the ultimate dream of a language teacher.

Michelle T's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Project based learning allows teachers to see the entire picture of a students understanding of the concept. I have found and created numerous project based activities for Language Arts in my third grade classroom. The children really benefit from these activities. For some reason I am having difficulty developing project based learning activities for math. If anyone has any ideas to share on this topic, it would be greatly appreciated.

Aurora's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Have you found any projects that are fun to do? In college, the projects that we did were at least a month long. Currently, I do units that are about two weeks long. but I would not classify them as the project approach. If you have any that you have done and would like to share I would really appreciate it!

Jen S's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The school district that I teach within is reforming. This year alone we have moved to a block scheduled (84 minute classes) and are creating Project Based Lessons as our forms of assessment and teaching. The shift has had rocky points but for the most part is now running smoothly. Students are students - the majority of the students love the hands-on experiences, the project that their creativity and minds can shine through; however, there are some that will always hate the system.

As a special education teacher I was origionally hesitant on how PBL and block scheduling would effect the special needs students. As my school district moved to this new model, the special education students were not considered. The special education staff was never questioned about direct effects that could be placed on our resource and inclusion students. Luckly the change has been for the best. These students who do not posses strong reading skills or math skills are learning various topics 'doing' not being lectured to.

I have not, in my research to date, heard of Telannia Norfar. However, I will be researching her. Her ideas sound like many that I have found and many that I have listened to. I will be interesting to hear her thoughts.

In regards to common planning, as a resource and inclusion teacher I have common planning with the teachers that I work with on a daily basis. During this time we co-plan lessons that will fit the needs of the regular education students and the special education students. The co-planning has been a key factor in allowing the transition of the high school reform to run smoothly.

Stacey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I see how interested my students are when I do project based learning in the classroom and it is even better when it becomes a cross-disiplinary project. Planning a project with teachers in other areas of education can bring a new perspective to the project. Collaboration is invaluble especially when teaching an activity that may not be in your expertise. It is always good to bring an expert into the planning process. For instance, when I teach my students about sound I work with our music teacher who is able to bring different music instuments into the activity so that the students are able to see how sound is made.

Abi L's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have just begun to introduce collaborative, project based learning with my students this year. It has been difficult, since it does require a different level of thinking and planning than the traditional method.
Through consulting with other colleagues, I believe I have an engaging math project that you can try with your younger students. First, divide your class into groups of four or five. You will need a piece of chart paper and writing utensils for each group, as well as a timer for the class. Each piece of chart paper should include a math concept that you have already taught the children. For instance, one paper may have the heading "Multiplication with two-digits by two-digits." Provide an example on the paper. One group will create problems similiar to your posed example. Allow approx. 15 minutes at each station. When the buzzer goes off, the students must rotate to the next station, where they will work on a different math concept. However, now they must solve the problems created by the previous group of students as well as create additional problems. In other words, each group of students will practice solving problems created by one group then proceed to create thier own problems for the next group to solve. Once all the students have had a chance to engage in all stations, bring the class back together as a whole group. Students share thoughts about each station as well as review the problems created and completed. I have found this activity to be a motivating and exciting lesson for the students. It is also a great math test review! I hope this helps.

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think your idea for incorportating cross disciplines is excellent. What other resources do you start with when teaching a unit like this? Do you have favorite materials?
I am interested in this concept, but do not have a lot of experience.
Melissa Yeager

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