We focus on student learning, using Project-Based approaches to language acquisition, helping students become world citizens who communicate in more than one language, with cross-cultural competence, and who seek to make the world a better place.

PBL World last week in Napa

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT Co-Director East Bay WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Last week in my home town of Napa, California, we had the privilege of hosting the first ever PBL World Conference at New Tech High School. There were nearly 500 people in attendance, from all over the US and 8 countries, including Canada, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, among others. If you were there also, please post some of your impressions and reflections about the things you learned in reply to this post. I would enjoy learning from you what your take aways are from the conference!

As for me, I was thrilled to meet many of my special friends and colleagues at Edutopia, including Cindy Johanson, Elana Leoni and Suzie Boss. Suzie blogged each day for us, and you can read her posts here @Edutopia. Suzie captured many of the big ideas, so I don't wish to be redundant here. My special thanks to Suzie for all her hard work blogging so we can keep a record of our hard work at the conference. It was a joy to meet you, Suzie, and to discuss the exciting things we were challenged to explore at PBL World!

I really enjoyed our keynote speakers, but especially Yong Zhao. How about you? I have ordered his new book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students(link here). I appreciate his advocacy for what really works in schools, and his insights into global education. He asks us to think about the media stream which constantly tells us that our system is failing here in the US. He encourages us to move beyond the question of failure to ask questions about what we need to do in schools to meet kids where they are and to engage them meaningfully. American culture and business have been known for embracing the drive toward creativity and innovation by seeking solutions to complex problems. We must not succumb to the simplistic reactionary approach instilled by the testing movement. I am not opposed to accountability, even by testing if we must, but I do not believe we can meet the objective of supporting all students to success through "death by testing!" Rather, I prefer to pursue deep inquiry, significant content, 21st century skills, reflection, and meaningful assessments which help students pursue their own education. This is why I am an enthusiastic supporter of PBL!

Practically speaking, one of the highlights of the conference was the opportunity to work closely with my colleague and friend Lauren Scheller at BIE (@laurenbie on Twitter). Lauren, like me, is a French teacher, sold out on PBL. We have been collaborating on thinking deeply about what PBL looks like in the World Languages classroom. We began mapping a document to help in the planning of a linguistically and and culturally rich project in the PBL model. What we need to remember as language teachers is that our significant content is found in culturally authentic contexts infused with language acquisition objectives. We must also keep in mind that we have proficiency goals, and refer to our documents to make those choices, including our state or provincial WL standards, as well as to our national standards. Im the US, that would include the ACTFL 21st Century Skills Map for WL and the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. Other important documents to consider include the Common European Framework for Languages and your own country's documents. If you use something other than these which I have cited, please post the links to the documents you use in reply to this post! I would love to see what your state, province and/or country is using to formulate the significant content you seek to teach to your students. The point is this: an authentic WL PBL project will always have language and culture objectives in addition to the critical thinking, deep inquiry, collaboration, creativity and presentational skills objectives of the project. We need to plan for these just as much as we need to craft a strong driving question, rubrics and our know/needs to know lists.

Lastly, though certainly not least importantly, I enjoyed having the opportunity to meet other WL teachers from around the PBL world! We enjoyed getting to know one another, and comparing ideas and experiences on WL education from the various places from which we hail. Thanks for coming to PBL World and sharing your lunchtime with me. I will look forward to our on-going collaboration in the months ahead, and hopefully again next year here in Napa.

Until next time, best wishes to all for a fun and relaxing summer,


Comments (13)

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High school Spanish and social studies teacher in Ripon, WI

Hi Don, Thanks very much!

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Hi Don,
Thanks very much! Good stuff! And I'm fine with getting the process stuff -- I'm not generally and off-the-shelf product kind of person, but prefer to create my own content. I'm going to ask another question -- a bit of a doubting Thomas one, but please know I'm willing to be convinced. I figure if I don't put my doubts out there I won't have them addressed, and if I don't have them addressed I'm not going to go into this with the conviction and enthusiasm which generally undergird my most successful enterprises. I have a concern about the tech stuff and the projects that involve elaborate output in the form of movies, comic strips, etc. My experience of my own son is that he almost always makes movies for his German projects, and he'll spend 10 hours dinking around with the movie, not ten hours learning German. Yes, he's learning some things about making movies, but if he spent a comparable amount of time on the German he'd sure know a lot more, and I think it would do him more good in the long run than what he learned about movie-making. (Yes, this is a bias of mine.) I just feel like there's a trade-off between investing in fancy products like videos and investing in the language skills. Could you tell me how you see this? Is the creation of original output so motivating to your students that they are willing to spend more time overall, and you don't lose actual language learning time? Or do you feel that the technology is so important that you're willing to sacrifice language content for tech content? Or do you feel that given the cognitive and cultural realities of the current generation, bringing in a lot of technology is simply a given, an essential aspect of a class if kids are to engage? My colleagues who've been at this many more years than I say that each year, they seem to go a bit slower -- they can cover substantially less content than they could 10 or 15 years ago. They get really frustrated with the tech stuff because it seems to soak up enormous amounts of time while providing little forward progress in actual language skills. Since that has also been my experience, I have avoided it too. I have done some good, effective PBL-ish stuff in my 5th year class, but after a couple of disastrous experiences with time-consuming, poor quality, learning-minimal individual student presentations involving a lot of tech, I gave up on that aspect of it. Instead, I put a lot of time into working the vocab, having the kids learn to tell a whole story about our topic orally and in writing, having discussions on it, etc. They find the topics generally motivating and interesting (history of the United Farm Workers, history of the US-Mexico border, history of the Salvadoran civil war, the Mara Salvatrucha gang, maquiladoras and NAFTA, the femicide in Juarez, etc.) It is very teacher-led, to be sure, but boredom and lack of engagement are rare. Their outputs are generally in-class expository compositions on the topics we cover, and oral quizzes with me where I question them and see how complete and sophisticated a story they can tell. Or I may show them a photo that's new to them and related to our theme and have them describe it and put it in context. ("He looks like a Bracero or migrant worker, and he's working with a short-handled hoeing implement [the obvious noun I wanted to use here is not allowed on this site because of other meanings -- they weren't going to post my comment!] which means he has to bend over. Migrant workers and Braceros used to use short-handled hoeing tools a lot, but California eventually banned them because they were so damaging to workers' backs. In the background is a shack. There are no wires going to it, so it probably doesn't have electricity. It looks like there's only one window." etc. etc.)

So... any thoughts on how you see the trade-off -- if you see one -- between time spent producing fancy products like videos and time spent mastering linguistic skills?
Thanks for all your thoughts!

Co-Director East Bay WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center


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Hello Kat!

I LOVE your questions! So relevant to this topic. Let me take a stab at a response:

1) PBL does NOT have to use technology, but it is fun and engaging for kids. I have offered tech and non-tech options to my students for many projects. Those who love the technology can, and those who don't can opt out. Still, I find more and more that many students prefer to use tech tools because they offer more opportunities to be creative, collaborative and engaged.

2) You are so right about the need to keep the main thing the main thing. We are first of all LANGUAGE/Culture teachers, not tech teachers. Our significant content must come from our state standards, the ACTFL standards, proficiency statements and the WL 21st Century Skills map. We must have language objectives, deeply embedded in cultural contexts to address both communicative outcomes (listening, speaking, reading, writing at stage appropriate levels - novice, intermediate, advanced) and cultural understanding (perspectives, products, practices).

3) We can address the 21st Century Skills easily in the context of our projects. The four C's can be embedded in the unit plan, and should be a part of our planning to ensure that they are addressed, with or without the use of technology.

4) All that having been said, we can also help our students attain to the ISTE NETS-S for students by seeking to incorporate technology as we can. I think it is important to include tech instruction in all classes, not merely our own. This is a great opportunity to collaborate cross-curricularly. Perhaps your school could develop a technology infusion plan with specific tech tools to be rolled out at each grade level. For example, 9th graders could be expected to use Edmodo, Google Docs and perhaps a wiki as a digital portfolio for their projects. Maybe they could also use Glogster - a simple tool with wonderful visual supports - pics, videos, and text can all be embedded on a glog, which can in turn be embedded on a wiki to add to their portfolio. Each successive grade could add 3-4 new tools.

I think it is important that we seek to include technology as we can. Students do need tech skills. Many of us presume that students know how to use technology, however, they often to not know how to use it well or academically.

Another point to bear in mind is that we can choose to limit our use of tech to 3-4 excellent tools over the course of a year as well. Teachers do not need to feel pressured to roll out tons of tools. Not only do we risk losing some kids that way, but we can also feel overwhelmed if we do not know how to use the tools ourselves! Select the tools you are most eager to use yourself. Create products you can use for your own teaching, and use them as part of your instruction so the students have an example of effective uses of the tech tool you are using. Ask them to create a product with the same tool.

I think balance is key in this discussion! Keep focused on what we must do in our own classes, and seek to collaborate with other teachers in rolling out commonly used tools across the curriculum.This is a great way to address school-wide learning objectives.

I don't think I need to do any trade off this way. However, an important concept for me is this "less is more" - ie, going deeper on the essential standards, prepares students better than hitting everything quickly, like a survey, and never giving an opportunity for deeper inquiry. Kids really learn to swim in the deep end of the pool, even though they may practice at the shallow end safely. We know that they have achieved the objective when we give them opportunities for risk where the rewards are their own and more meaningful.

Keep thinking and sharing, Kat! I am thankful for the dialogue.


High school Spanish and social studies teacher in Ripon, WI

Hi Don, Thank you so much for

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Hi Don,
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and in-depth answers! I think we have a ways to go in our district in being more strategic and team-oriented in tech stuff. I think we are kind of all over the place, with some teachers doing a ton (perhaps too much) and some teachers almost none at all, and very little shared vision over how to do it best. I like your vision of carefully selecting a few tools to learn to use well over the course of a year. I also very much appreciate your closing thought about how kids really learn to swim in the deep end of the pool. That is so true! I will spend some time trying to apply all this to my teaching -- and I will also bring it up with our charter school team, suggesting that we limit the number of tech tools we try to teach in a given year, and collectively commit to doing a good job with them.
Many thanks,

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