George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Marc Briller: Project-Based Learning

November 1, 2001

Marc Briller, staff professional developer of The Mott Hall School in New York City, describes this laptop school’s approach to professional development, computer maintenance, and other logistical issues.

1. How has the laptop program affected Mott Hall's approach to curriculum?

We have to look at our curriculum to really see how we could then fit the technology, the laptop, into the curriculum. Not the curriculum into the laptop but rather the laptop into the curriculum. And we began to see that the type of lessons, the type of philosophy of teaching that would allow students to really apply and sort of mimic the real world, was a constructivist form of learning, which is project-based.

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2. How does classroom activity change when projects are the focus?

It becomes an environment of learners. Teacher, parents, students -- anyone who enters the room -- is learning. And in a constructivist classroom, you find these elements where decisions are being made, where problems are being solved.

And it revolves around the project. It's not just project learning, it's really problem solving. It's decision making. It's the opportunity to present your ideas, to evaluate your ideas. And there are rooms that you can walk into, and it looks like chaos. It's rooms full of kids, moving in all directions, sharing work, but it's very productive. It's productive noise. It's noise that's focused. It's noise of ideas being shared, of products being produced. There's an excitement in that type of classroom.

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3. What is Mott Hall's approach to staff development?

We've tried to create a very multifaceted staff-development program. It's really a model that's evolved from Mott Hall. I can't say we can point towards any one model. A great deal of the staff development is embedded. It's within the school. These are teachers who work with teachers. At staff development days, we feature and highlight exemplary units that teachers have created. And we have teachers who are willing to share that within the school. We have teachers who are willing to accept other teachers into their classroom so that they can observe. This is sort of modeling lessons.

Outside of our school we have courses at city college, numerous organizations that are willing to work and do very specific training on programs, on the Microsoft Suite, Professional Suite. There are also online opportunities. I know that one of our teachers is now -- through Microsoft -- applying for her certification to network. It's a yearlong program online. So that when you talk about staff development and keeping the system going, you really have to be resourceful and look to many, many, many factors. And learn as you go along.

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4. Who maintains the laptops?

We've created what might be compared to the old audio/visual squads. We've developed teams of students who are now skilled, and they can troubleshoot and assist within the classroom, assist other students and assist the teachers within the classroom.

We also had received a very small grant that allowed us to work with parents on Saturday mornings and create a troubleshooting team of parents who will come in next year and assist us in installing software, anti-viral programs, configuring Ethernet cards, and really helping out so that we're now training and we're most appreciative of them.

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5. What steps has Mott Hall taken to ensure students' safety as they travel with their laptops?

With the upper graders -- with our seventh and eighth graders who take public transportation -- we had issues of getting students onto public buses, coming off the bus, and then coming to school. And we stressed with these students the importance of coming directly to school and not hanging out on the street. ... Once students are on a bus coming to school -- a public bus coming to school -- we've recruited a parent who has in all the months of the year been standing on Amsterdam Avenue and 131st Street as students get off the bus and escorting them, waving them, up to the school for security purposes.

We try. We've also instructed our students that if there are any issues on the street -- anyone who is demanding their backpacks -- that they are to give it up. They are not to resist in any way. And, you know, we're very fortunate. We've never had an issue. We're now into five years, and we just have not had any issues.

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