Apr 292011

Project-Based Learning Made Easy

By Bob Lenz


“Project-based learning is great but it is too hard for teachers to do well.” I have heard this belief stated more times than I can count. Is PBL really so difficult that only a select number of masterful teachers, innovative schools, and dynamic school leaders can pull off high quality projects? I don’t think so.

In the service of inspiring educators to embrace a performance-based approach to teaching, learning and assessment by highlighting great projects, I am worried that we actually dissuade teachers and leaders from using this approach. As learners we need to be presented with challenging yet attainable tasks in order to gain our full engagement. A bar set too low is boring and a bar set too high is daunting — why even start on this task if I will fail?

To dramatically increase the number of students and teachers engaging in project-based learning and performance assessment we need to highlight examples that are attainable. Rather than ask teachers to become master designers of curriculum, we should encourage teachers to tweak, or adapt, their current work to give it a more performance-based flavor. Here are a few examples from Envision Schools using a few of our design principles for instruction:

Academic Rigor — Ask a Question

In addition to mapping from state content standards, we use inquiry as driver for almost all projects, units and lessons. A physics teacher who has a solid lab unit on bridges need only change the focus. Instead of a recipe lab that produces structurally strong bridges, she can ask the students the question, “What is the best structural design to produce the strongest bridge?” She can teach the content as she always has but now students will need to apply that knowledge to their bridge design. Not all of the bridge designs will be strong but many will. Most importantly, the students will own the content because they applied it.

Balanced Assessment — Write an Essay with a Rubric

Like most tenth graders in the country, Envision Schools’ students read To Kill a Mockingbird. Unlike most tenth graders, their assessment of learning will include more than a test to measure their mastery of the facts about the novel. Our students are asked to write a multi-page textual analysis that requires the students to think critically about the novel by analyzing text, making inferences, and drawing conclusions. The student’s papers are assessed using a common textual analysis rubric that is shared by all English Language Arts teachers. Of course, this takes more time for both the learner and the teacher but the addition of an essay that requires critical thinking is not a huge instructional challenge for teachers.

Active Exploration and Adult Connections — Conduct an Interview

Envision students are required to write a proficient college-ready research paper to graduate. This could be completely an academic affair but with a small twist — students will be more engaged and learn important college and career skills. In a US History class, the teacher asked the students to interview an adult — not at the school — who was alive during the historical period or is recognized as a content expert, such as a college professor.

In addition to learning the research process and the history content, students learn how to locate a resource and set up and conduct and interview. We have seen the attention to detail and quality rise significantly with this approach — the students want their resource to be impressed by their paper.

Making a classroom more performance based can be as simple as asking a question, writing an essay, and conducting an interview. I don’t think that is too hard and the payoff will be significant for the learners and the teacher.

Related Resources

A great place to start!

Apr 292011

It’s a lengthy article, but well worth a read – especially if you are friending students in Facebook or are considering it…

I would agree that educators should never friend their students on Facebook. The best approach and the best way to harness the power of Facebook for your classroom is to set up a Facebook Fan Page for your classroom AND for your school. Fans and Friends of the same person will never see what’s on the other’s pages.

If you are a teacher, choose the ‘Public Figure’ option and as soon as you have at least 25 fans, you can create a simple, custom URL for your Facebook Fan Page to make further distribution easier.

Great article.

Apr 282011

The more curation that we can get for educational iOS apps, the better! Teachers just don’t have the time, patience (let alone the money to try many apps out) to wade through the ‘Education’ category and the hundreds of thousands of apps available in the iOS App Store. Sites like this are a great place to head before the App Store to find something for you and your classes.

I’ve heard good things about this site – I’ll be giving it a workout, and I’ll let you know how it goes!

Apr 262011

First off, let’s change the theme:

  • From the Manage window, click the Settings button on the top right
  • Under the LOOK AND FEEL section, click the ‘Edit Theme’ button.
  • At the top, scroll through your over 40 theme options. Click the theme thumbnail to preview your site with this theme.
  • If you’d like, click the ‘Customize’ option on the top left to tweak the colors and other custom settings available with the theme you have chosen.
  • I’d skip the ‘Advanced’ option for now…
  • When you are happy, click the big green ‘Save, I’m done!’ button on the bottom right.
The Bookmarklet:
  • Posterous has a great tool for QUICKLY sharing a page on the Interent to your site – including a snippet of the page and your comments about it.
  • When you get back to your classroom, add the bookmarklet to your browser’s quick-links bar by heading to this page: http://posterous.com/help/bookmarklet and dragging the ‘Share on Posterous’ button to your browser’s bar.
Some Posterous Email Posting Tips:
  • Email anything to ‘post@posterous.com‘, and it will be posted to your site.
  • Remember, attach anything you’d like to your email, and Posterous will figure out what to do with it.
  • If you are not ready for a post to be published, use ‘private@posterous.com‘, and it will be marked as private invisible to your visitors until you change the post to public.
  • If you are using tags, you can add those to your post in the email by placing ((tags:Tag 1, Tag 2)) after the post title in the email subject line – this works with the Bookmarklet title as well!
  •  If you have an email signature, use #end when you want Posterous to finish paying attention to what’s in the message. Anything after #end will not appear on your site.
  • If you are sending a particularly long post, use #more to create a page break – this keeps the important stuff visible on your main page and the details will be visible on the post page.

  • What you post to your site is important to you, your students and their parents. 
  • Ideally, students and parents would visit your page daily to see what’s new or what you’ve added.
  • In reality, this will not be the case. The solution to this is to use the Autopost feature of Posterous along with some other great services like Twitter or a Facebook Fan Page.
  • If you have a Twitter account or a Fan Page on Facebook, you can link your Posterous site to these services and when you post something to your Posterous site, links to your post will be pushed to your fans and followers.
  • In other words, they will get the information that you’d like them to have where they already spend a lot of time, making it a greater possibility for your information to reach your target audience.
  • Set up a Twitter account at twitter.com
  • Set up a Facebook Fan Page here.
  • Then, set up your Posterous Autoposting here.


    Apr 262011

    Very interesting… You could do this same thing via Twitter or TextMarks, I guess, minus the anonymous part…

    I tried to look for more information on what service they are using, and I found http://www.smscrimetips.com/ – but I could not find any sort of pricing information. It can’t be too expensive if a school is using it, can it?

    Apr 262011

    In case you didn’t know, SnipSnip.it is an easy way to share your favorite parts of videos you like.

    Here at SnipSnip, we believe that there are two kinds of people in this world… The kind that just snip videos and the kind that do more with those snips. If you fall into the second category, then you’re in luck. Soon, SnipSnip will allow you to do more with your snips.

    Until then, snip on!


    Excellent idea! What a great tool for educators who are integrating YouTube videos into their instruction – too bad it only works if YouTube is not filtered in the district.

    I wish that this site would go one step further and allow you to download your snips – but I guess that there may be too many copyright implications with that. Maybe they are hinting at this feature above???

    Apr 152011

    How to Use Cell Phones as Learning ToolsRegardless of your school’s cell phone policy, the reality in most schools is that students have phones in their pockets, purses, or hoodies. Why not get these tools out in plain sight and use them for good and not evil?

    Here are some easy to use strategies to use cell phones in the classrooms.

    Why Use Cell Phones as Learning Tools

    Cell phones are different from a computer lab filled with computers or a cart of netbooks because the cell phone is personal technology. Most students have invested a great deal of time learning about the features of the cell phone, how to navigate and the limitations of the phone. The other reason to really rethink the cell phone debate is because learning on the cell phone can extend beyond the walls of the school or the confines of a class period.

    Some people may want to ban cell phones from classrooms, but I disagree. We didn’t ban pens in our schools because students can pass notes during class. The pencils have also survived even though you could poke someone in the eye. And the amount of paper that is generated in most schools is almost criminal. This is a new time in education and with dwindling budgets , so we need to rethink possibilities, stretching every dollar. These mini computers are walking through the doors each day, let’s put them to work.

    Before you consider trying any of these ideas, make sure you understand the policies that are in place and your have checked with your administrator.

    Cell Phone Learning Strategies

    Recording Lectures: The “Flipped Classroom

    Many teachers are structuring their lessons in what is being coined “Flipped Classroom”. These teachers are recording their “lectures” using video or audio and students are listening to that outside of class as the homework and in class they are completing the practice and the teacher serves as a guide, re-teaching as needed. On most cell phones with a data plan students can watch a video of a previous lesson of an appropriate clip on You Tube.

    Use Cell Phones as Your Student Response System

    Using www.polleverywhere.com and your students’ cell phones, you can track instant answers from all your students. It’s free for classrooms of 30 people or less.

    Gina Hartman an eMINTS Instructional Specialist at Francis Howell School District in Missouri shared a fantastic new Web 2.0 site named http://wiffiti.com. The teacher creates a wiffiti screen and students can text in their opinions.

    One teacher used this to summarize Act 1, Scene 1 from Romeo and Juliet. They texted in the short summary and it showed up on the screen. In another classroom the students had think about the time period that Andrew Johnson was in office and text something into the wiffiti screen that would have been something he would have tweeted back then. I love this example, talk about engaging students.

    Delivering Materials

    As more curriculum materials are delivered digitally creative teachers are delivering materials directly to students on their personal cell phones. One such platform is School Town. This learning platform makes it possible for teachers and students to collaborate in discussion areas and chat with each other making blended learning a real possibility.

    Awesome Teacher Apps

    Dropbox: One of my most beloved apps is dropbox. Dropbox allows all my computers and my phone to interact together. So the photo I take on my cell phone can be put in my Dropbox app and now it is available on all my devices, love it!

    Evernote: Next in line of cool apps for the classroom is Evernote. This handy app lets you type a text note, or clip a web page. If your phone has a camera you can snap a photo, and now you can also grab a screenshot. Like dropbox it doesn’t matter what device you are on, they all sync together.

    Solving Common Problems Using Cell Phones in Class

    Students without Cell Phones / Smart Phones
    Other issues arise because not every student has a cell phone. The easiest way to work around this is to have students working in groups, collaborating and solving problems together. Now we only need one cell phone to report out the group work. If we get creative, any problem can be solved.

    Wireless Access
    Wireless access might be another problem. Smart phone users will usually try and find a wireless network instead of going through the provider signal. With all these added devices your network may be burdened. Also cell phone reception is an issue in many schools. If this is the case, you may want to focus more of the group work or homework-related cell phone strategies.

    Keeping Cell Phone Use Appropriate
    Thinking about using cell phone in the classroom we need to make sure we involve our students in the conversation. Let them teach us about how to reduce the fear of theft or inappropriate use. Every student should be reminded every day about appropriate technology use, and what to do if the rules are broken. We need to help students understand the ramifications of things like cyberbullying , sexting and posting things to social networking sites.

    Where do you stand on the cell phone in class debate? Share your thoughts or your creative ways to use cell phones in school in the comments section!


    Great article – I present many of these same strategies in my “Cell Phones Are NOT Evil” presentation. With planning and cooperation, along with some good classroom management, these amazing tools – that students are providing – can be leveraged affectively in the classroom.

    Apr 082011

    Google Forms is a great tool and I hope to use it more throughout this year. Take a look here for a more detailed introduction and guide to using and creating a Google Form ??? this was written prior to Google bringing forms into the NEW menu.

    I have created example forms for each of the different topics, follow the links in each of the ten sections. With help from a Googler I have included a link so that you can get your own copy of the form ??? click on the appropriate link and it should open in your docs home.

    1 ) Get to know your class

    Use this form to gather some indication from your new class about their likes and dislikes, their favourite lessons or after school clubs they enjoy. It will help you to build your relationships with children as you quickly learn more about them. Get your own copy.

    2 ) Emotion graph

    An emotion graph is a simple line graph comparing a range of happiness to sadness against different points (time) in a story or film. This technique of graphing the emotional ups and down within a story really helps children to visualise the whole story in a different way. Use a Google Form to gather the children???s responses to different parts of any type of linear narrative, written or visual. We used it here in a film narrative literacy unit. You can read a more detailed explanation of how to generate the line graph from the form here. Get your own copy.

    3 ) Spelling test

    For your weekly spelling test use simple 1-10 or 1-20 numbered form (with a name question too of course) and ask the children to type in their answers as you read out the list of words. Once these are submitted apply formula to judge if they are correct or not and it becomes self marking. Steve Kirkpatrick had this brainwave a while back so check out his excellent post for more information about setting up the spreadsheet. Danny also added in his comment about using the font Wingdings for smiley faces which is a nice idea although this font is not available in Google Spreadsheets. Get your own copy.

    4 ) Comprehension questions

    I spent quite a bit of time last year looking for some reading comprehension resources that could be used on a class set of laptops. A Google Form could be created as a way to collate the children???s comprehension answers in one place for any given text. You could also share the answers with the class so that they can review what their peers are doing. This could be a formalised assessment of their understanding of a text or something more informal to start class discussions. Again Steve has grabbed this idea by the horns and tried it with his kids ??? well worth a look, especially at his reflective comments and lessons learned. Get your own copy.

    5 ) Weekly reading record

    The children in our school have a reading diary that they use to record information about times that they read during the week. They take it home as well as using it at school. A form could be created by the children as a place to enter data about their reading. I hear ???I haven???t got my reading diary,??? so many times during the year, this way they have no excuses and can access it from any computer. Alternatively a class form could also be setup to gather together everyone???s record. Get your own copy.

    6 ) Maths data handling

    Perhaps the easiest to pick up and run with, the idea of using a form to gather together maths data handling information. The form could be a simple way of collecting information about the class ??? shoe size, eye colour etc. It is obviously about what you do with the data that counts but their is no reason why children couldn???t design and implement their own forms ??? with the attached spreadsheet for analysis ??? as part of independent data investigations. Get your own copy.

    7 ) Guided reading record

    As part of the old literacy hour in England we take part in small focused group reading sessions. They are guided sessions usually 15-20 minutes long and we talk and work on a piece of text that is relevant to the work going on in that unit. Sometimes small written tasks are completed or it may just be a speaking and listening activity. It is widely practiced in English primary schools and this form could act as a class record for those sessions. Get your own copy.

    8 ) Prior learning assessment

    Use a form to assess what the children already know about any given topic that you are beginning. The form could be a formalised assessment with specific questions about the topic or it could be more general and open for the children to explain what they know. Either way such an assessment would allow you to have a better understanding of the current level of knowledge the children have about a topic. This same form could be returned to at the end of the unit of work to help review what they have learned. Get your own copy.

    9 ) Library book review

    We have a little corner of our classroom dedicated to our library. There is a broad range of fiction and non-fiction books for the children to enjoy whenever they want. This form could be a simple way of collecting the children???s thoughts about what they read. The children in the class could use it as a reference to help them choose a book to read. A simple and easy way to collate book reviews. Get your own copy.

    10 ) Learning success

    This is one of the ten ideas I would most like to explore this year as we continue to use Google Docs as part of our tech toolbox. Use a form to assess the relative success of the learning that has taken place during a single lesson or after a series of lessons on a topic. Invite the children to assess their own confidence after practice of something ??? such as a lesson on one of the written multiplication methods. The form would collate the views of all of the class very quickly and allow you to make a quick judgement in terms of pupil feedback, about whether to consolidate what has taken place, to start afresh or in fact to move on. We make our learning targets for the lesson so clear these days, along with work scrutiny, dialogue with the students, a generic student response form would allow you to further judge the lesson???s success.

    This is very much dependant on the quick and easy availability of a computer in the classroom ??? this after all should be a small 2 minute task as part of a plenary. If the lesson involves the use of the computers then that is easier ??? but if it does not then perhaps a handful scattered at the side of the room for students to go to at the end of the task or as directed. Of course the students completing such a form as if it were second nature to them, would be what you aim for ??? so the laptop, form and technology disappear and you are left with a lucid evaluation from your students. Get your own copy.

    I hope that you have found something to inspire you here or perhaps you can use these straight away. If you have not had time to explore Google Forms it is most definitely worth a look. If you have time drop me a note saying how you got on with your own ideas.


    Here a more than 60 further ideas to keep you going.

    Similar Ideas

    Thanks to @tombarrett for sharing these great strategies for using Google Forms in the classroom. It’s another tool that made my head explode when I first learned about them.