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Archive for June, 2011

Become a Team That Teaches Effectively With Project-Based Learning

“In this study, Wieman trained a postdoc, Louis Deslauriers, and a graduate student, Ellen Schelew, in an educational approach, called “deliberate practice,” that asks students to think like scientists and puzzle out problems during class. For 1 week, Deslauriers and Schelew took over one section of an introductory physics course for engineering majors, which met three times for 1 hour. A tenured physics professor continued to teach another large section using the standard lecture format.

The results were dramatic: After the intervention, the students in the deliberate practice section did more than twice as well on a 12-question multiple-choice test of the material as did those in the control section. They were also more engaged—attendance rose by 20% in the experimental section, according to one measure of interest—and a post-study survey found that nearly all said they would have liked the entire 15-week course to have been taught in the more interactive manner.”

Source: Bright Futures: A Blog for Middle Level Education

So when teachers say to me, “Oh, you don’t understand high-stakes testing—I just can’t do that right now,” I say, “Oh, yes you can.” It’s not about ignoring the testing, the core curriculum, or the standards. It’s about allowing them to pick an entry point they’re really excited about…. When I was leading a small school in Georgia where we used this teaching approach, our students had to perform well on the state accountability tests if we wanted to remain open. So we would devote three weeks or so before the test to look at what we were learning through more of a multiple-choice, facts-based kind of lens. Our kids did great on the tests and then we got back to the kind of teaching and learning we all loved.

Many middle grades teams are intrigued with problem-based, project-based or challenge learning because they believe students will have to think more deeply and thus will develop critical and creative thinking skills more fully.  They also suspect that students are internalizing the content knowledge and skills, but they are afraid to transform their units into this type of engaging and rigorous curriculum and instructional approach for  fear standardized test scores might go down.  These days in too many states lower test scores mean bad evaluations for teachers and possible dismissal.  So despite both widespread anecdotal evidence and long term research results, many schools are unwilling to address student disengagement, poor attendance, and lack-luster achievement through the revision of their curriculum and instructional methods that invite active student participation and original thinking.

Should your team be willing to explore PBL but are unsure how to proceed, you will find many resources online to guide your work. In an earlier post I mentioned videos and the  How-To Guide on Edutopia. Another really good approach is the Critical Skills Classroom Program from Antioch University-New England. There is a training involved with this program, but you can read an overview of the methodology  on their website and access a bank of challenges created by classroom teachers–loads of great ideas here with supporting documentation including assessment tools.

I participated in a training many years ago and still rely on many of the strategies I learned.  What I especially found helpful was their three tier approach to introducing PBL to the classroom. There are three different tiers of challenges; each  becomes more complex and more authentic.  A teacher would probably get his/her feet wet with PBL by beginning with an academic challenge.  Here’s a brief overview:

1. Academic challenges

  • students have a problem to solve
  • problem comes from the unit under study
  • the purpose is for students to more fully understand the concepts involved
  • there is a public product
  • an example: create a website that explains the water cycle so that 2nd or 3rd graders can understand it

2. Scenario challenges

  • students have a problem to solve which replicates an authentic issue from the field of study
  • students assume roles that exist(ed) in real life–past, present, or future
  • students stay in the role as they research and problem solve
  • purpose: students delve deeply into content and learn how it connects to authentic issues
  • students present their solution to an audience, often including folks from beyond the classroom
  • an example: You are President Lincoln’s Cabinet and you need to make recommendations to him about slavery in the conquered areas of the Confederacy

3. Real-life challenges

  • students are given a real problem that needs a solution
  • students will need to go beyond the classroom
  • students hope to have an impact on their community
  • purpose: while working on a relevant and authentic issue, students learn through active inquiry
  • students have to present their solution/ideas to an authentic audience–school board, town council, local Congress person, etc.
  • an example: the young people in the community would really like a skate park–the challenge is to draw up a proposal (costs, design, etc.) and present it to the town selectmen

There are schools all over the country using PBL.  They may not label their curriculum as such, but it is.  I did a workshop at the Detroit Service Learning Academy and learned about one of their projects.  Many of their students suffer from asthma and the harsh institutional cleaning products used at the school exacerbated their health issues.  Students worked with local scientists to develop new products that would not make breathing problems worse. Think about the reading, math, and science skills and content the students had to master in order to solve this problem!

Other online resources to check out:

One last thought–what if PBL was used with school faculties to solve school issues?

Promoting Student Resiliency

One of the major benefits of teaming is that teachers are able to work together to create an environment that supports all students. One of the challenges that many teams often face as they work to maintain a supportive team culture is violence in the school.  Mary Callan writes a thoughtful post for the Bright Futures blog on a recent study about violence prevention programs.  She reports the discouraging results of the study — violence prevention programs are not working in middle schools.  We all know that fear, whether from physical or psychological threats, impedes learning.  Obviously then, team teachers have to look beyond the school’s violence prevention practices to build the team environment that promotes learning.

Dr. Callan, a former middle school principal and current adjunct professor, wonders in her post if the anti-violence programs incorporate ideas from the research on the conditions that promote resiliency in children.  She mentions six factors that are imperative if we  want to help students develop the capacity to be strong in the face of adversity and the ability to bounce back from difficult situations (http://brightfutures4me.wordpress.com/):

1. Academic efficacy:  Every student needs to feel that they are able to learn.

2. Academic self-determination:  Every student needs to have choices and control over their learning.

3. Behavioral self-control: Every student needs to feel that they have the ability to control their behaviors.

4. Positive Teacher/student relationships:  Every student needs to have a positive relationship with their teacher.

5. Positive Peer relationships: Every student needs to have positive peer relationships.

6. Positive Home/school relationships:  Every student needs to have positive relationships between home and the school.

These six factors are certainly reflected in the major literature and research findings about effective  practices for young adolescents.  A team would not go wrong using these six factors as guiding principles for their work together. They center on developing students who are focused, responsible for their own actions and decisions, and able to interact positively with a variety of people.

Some folks may throw their hands up and shout, “But you haven’t mentioned academics!”

My response…These capacities of a believing in one’s ability to learn, managing one’s own behavior, and dealing well with others are not addressed in isolation.  Of course, an intellectually stimulating curriculum based on high standards is the centerpiece of a team’s work. However, by looking at academic programming through the lens of these six factors of resiliency,  team teachers can collaboratively plan an instructional approach that helps develop flexible, strong, respectful, and academically accomplished students.

FILM Clips: Fabulous Resource

It’s early June and many schools are still in session. As the weather warms up and thoughts of summer fun tease at our students’ imagination, it becomes more challenging  to engage them in thoughtful consideration of their lessons. Wouldn’t it be terrific if teachers could tap into a resource that offered a novel way to introduce a lesson, stimulate deep conversations, or provoke critical thinking and self-reflection?  State testing is done for the year and teacher observations are over–it’s a great time to explore new instructional approaches.

We all know that various types of media engage students–they have grown up surrounded by a collage of sound, image, and text every day of their lives. Imagine having access to film clips from popular movies like Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar or Forrest Gump or Finding Nemo that you could share with students as a part of a lesson or advisory? Just the novelty of viewing popular media in their classroom will intrigue students and provide that extra “umph” needed these last few weeks to help keep kids focused.  Then think about…if this resource resonates with kids in June, what might the potential be the rest of the year?

The resource is FILM Clips for Character Education (http://www.filmclipsonline.com).  It’s not free–I have to be up front about that.  However, and it’s a BIG however–right now there is a 2 week FREE Trial available!  Therefore, teachers can try out this resource at no cost and no obligation.  You might be thinking what comes with this trial offer?

  • Access to 89 clips–they are just clips.  There are no captions, no messaging.
  • A synopsis of each clip
  • A pdf study guide that suggests an overarching question and some follow-up activities

These clips are streamed so all you need is a computer, internet connections, and an LCD projector.

What are the topics encompassed by the term “Character Education”? That language sometimes raises a red flag for folks.

  • bullying
  • active listening
  • anger
  • being a good neighbor
  • caring
  • being different

When I started my free trial my mind immediately went back to my classroom.  I watched a clip from Shrek where Princess Fiona asks Donkey to keep a secret.  I thought of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Stacey keeping the secret about who actually cheated on a test.  He took the blame and received the consequences. I thought what a great way to make that scene come alive and spark student reflection on the positives and negatives of keeping secrets.  Another clip I watched was from Liar, Liar and concerned telling white lies.  I made the connection to WikiLeaks and thought about using the clip in social studies.  It seemed to me the possibilities of using these clips are almost endless.

It’s important that our students think deeply about actions and their consequences, whether they be their own actions or those of their community or country. Sometimes it’s difficult for young adolescents to see the relevance of such discussions.  Using a concrete example like a film clip helps them make the connection between the theoretical and the here and now.

Fantastic Summer Opportunity for Middle Level Teams!

Nancy Doda talks with participants at MLEI

There is never enough time for teams to accomplish all of their goals during the school year:

  • Create interdisciplinary units that address critical standards across the curriculum
  • Collaborate to teach necessary study skills
  • Create an effective plan to incorporate literacy, numeracy, and digital fluency across all of the classes
  • Refine the advisory program to include hot topics like cyber-citizenship and cyber-bullying
  • Spend time to build your capacity as a high-functioning team

The Middle Level Education Institute held at Thomas College in Waterville, Maine provides the opportunity and the atmosphere for reflection and fresh ideas.  It is an uniquely middle level event where everyone in attendance loves working with young adolescents and desires to develop learning experiences that address their cognitive, social, and physical needs. Furthermore, participants never have to explain to others why they enjoy working with this age group!!!

  • Participants’ questions and concerns drive the program.
  • Large chunks of time are set aside for teams to work on their own projects.
  • Each individual or team has a knowledgeable consultant as a coach and go-to person.
  • Sessions model exemplary middle level practice.  This is not a “sit and git” type of professional development.
  • Technology is integrated seamlessly with a lot of Individual help for attendees wanting to learn more.

Join us this summer, August 1-4 for a professional learning experience you will refer back to all next year.  Visit our website at http://mleimaine.net/  

3 Graduate Credits Available


Mikaela at campusevents@thomas.edu

Jill at jillspencer51@gmail.com

Come with a mission and  we’ll help you fulfill it!    Look who’s on board to work with  you!


1. Your Leadership Team wants to tackle a challenging school issue.

Chris Toy

  •  consults internationally on developing leadership capacity
  •  teaches graduate classes in leadership and school law
  •  received A+ Administrator Award from NELMS

Bill Zima

  •  helped his school develop effective behavior plan
  • experienced with proficiency and standards-based learning

Nancy Doda

  • works internationally in the area of school reform
  • acknowledged as an expert on young adolescents
  • received Lounsbury Award–NMSA’s most prestigious honor


2. Your team needs to develop its plan for implementing RTI (academic and behavior).

Cathie Tibodeau

  •  worked all over New England as NELMS Teacher in Resident
  •  presided as NMSA’s president 2009
  •  consults nationally on math instruction and differentiation

Chuck Saufler & Stan Davis

  •  work across Maine and the country with schools to improve school climate
  •  acknowledged experts in bullying prevention and restorative justice
  •  help schools address cyber-bullying issues

Jill Spencer, Carol Duffy, Barbara Greenstone, & Nancy Doda

  •  over 100 years of combined experience with both print and digital literacy


3. Your team desires to reinvigorate your curriculum in order to engage your students.

Phil Brookhouse & Barbara Greenstone

  •  help teachers across Maine integrate technology  (MLTI)
  •  teach practitioners the basics of inquiry and challenge based learning
  •  are up-to-date in the latest innovations in digital learning

Mark Springer

  •  presents nationally on integrative curriculum and the democratic classroom
  •  coaches schools as they revise their curriculum and improve their instruction
  •  writes highly popular books on curriculum and instruction Watershed & Soundings

The MLEI Team would appreciate your help in spreading the word about MLEI–Please share with your social network via Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Thanks!!!!

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