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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.

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