George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Alisa Rourke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a art teacher and I would like to collaborate more with my colleagues at school. As I talk to them about what they are planning in their classrooms I always think about how I can connect it in the art room, even if it is a common language. The art teachers in my district collaborate all the time. We have an on-line lesson library that everybody can access. We store lessons, visuals, assessments and even interesting web sites. The best thing about teaching art is that a lot of the projects are project based and they are easily differentiated for the students. I finding the time where everyone can meet has been the biggest challenge. The classroom teachers have common planning time each week. I would love to attend their meetings but they are usually scheduled when I have a class.

Mary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too am looking for project ideas for middle school. Did you have any luck finding sources?

Marc Callan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Like you, I wanted to collaborate with other teachers in my school, and found it extremely difficult from a number of angles. Not the least of these was the school's schedule which put grade level teachers on prep when I was teaching. I also found that most of my colleagues fell into one of two categories. They were either completely resistant to the idea of collaboration because they didn't want to sacrifice valuable instruction time for Art, or they basically wanted to throw the entire thing in my lap and say, "Can you plan this activity or project?" True collaborative dialogue was extremely difficult to find.

As the verb tense might indicate, I am no longer teaching. Sometimes I really miss it. Perhaps if more schools were like the ones featured here on Edutopia, I would miss it more.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


winwilric's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Taking a tech course and just learned about - it might help you all too.

Kerry Dickinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm interested in how the cafeteria food project went. Did anyone do a write up on it? If so, is it available to the public?

Diane Cote's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading about Norfar's efforts to do a cchoolwide project with her colleagues and the cafeteria project is certainly one that would involve all the students - after all we all love food and can always find ways to make it more to our satisfaction. When I think of creating a collaborative school-wide theme, I go back to the days when the entire school participated in "I Love to Read and Write Week" and to our school wide them which we do to a certain extent. Last year was fabulous with our "World" theme and everyone could make it relative to the "curriculum and standards" for which we are all responsible. Finding time to plan with colleagues is near to impossible for me without the school providing release time to do this. Maybe technology can help us find better ways to collaborate together.

Pat Childress's picture

I agree that the enormus emphasis that has been placed on assessments and the recording of data has placed a road block in teacher collaboration. However, I do believe that it can be accomplished at least several times a year to establish an internal support for the novice teacher to that of the more seasoned teacher. We all can learn from one another in order increase our expertise and to focus more on creating a cohesive learning environment that will support and engage students in learning across the curriculum.

Corby Arthur's picture
Corby Arthur
3rd Grade Teacher, Synchronized Swimmer, Swimmer in Los Angeles, CA

Collaboration: My two third grade colleagues and I are joined at the hip in many ways. We share our plans, worksheets, other materials, and ideas on almost a daily basis. We do not always do exactly the same projects or lessons, but we often find ourselves inserting what we learned from each other into what we are doing with our students. I tend to do more PBL, and by my modeling of the process, I notice that they are doing a little more of that each year. Many times, I initiate the project and they do it their way. Then, we share what worked and what didn't.

PBL: This is a meaningful approach to learning and application for what students have learned. There has to be a certain amount of choice for student and the student needs to feel responsible for his or her role - especially if it is a group/team project. Most importantly, my students feel that learning is fun.

A dream collaboration for me would be to work on big ideas and connect them to the standards that we teach - particularly social studies. I would love to work across grade levels as well as at one grade level. We have a sweet school and the staff is caring, but there really is no overall vision like I saw on the Forest Lake video.

Interesting thing to note that the principal mentions having snack at the collaboration meetings. Our school also has a little snack at our meetings and regular monthly treats. I think that makes a more friendly environment.

Claudia Griffin's picture

Looking for information on how school-bases approaches to professional learning communities are handles at different schools?

Janet Kremler's picture

I am trying to implement some level of project based learning into my kindergarten class. I'm not sure how to start! Time is extremely limited and expectations for reading and writing are high! I need to connect this to my social studies and science curriculum. Should I pick a topic or ask kids what they would like to learn about within the theme?

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