Friday, October 4, 2013

Student use of communication, collaboration, and publishing in Web 2.0 applications

             As educators in the world today we are surrounded by technology and initiatives to use educational technology in our classrooms.  Our students are adept at using this technology, even if we are not.  If you spend any time in a high school, or even travel to the mall, all you see our young people with their focus divided between their friends and the phone in their hands.  Students today have grown up using technology, and want its inclusion in the classroom.  By using Web 2.0 activities, teachers allow students to use the resources they use every day.  By purposefully incorporating these activities into the curriculum, teachers meet the needs of their students by allowing them to become digital citizens, and providing opportunities for students to use the technology that they have come to incorporate into their daily lives. 

That being said, I am left thinking about what is an educator in this digital age to do?  The answer to my question was provided when I came across the National Educational Technology for Students (NET-S) guidelines for “digital age learning.”  These guidelines, developed in 2007, layout six expectations that students should be able to accomplish.  These categories are:

1. Creativity and innovation         4. Critical thinking, Problem solving, and Decision making

2. Communication and collaboration                       5. Digital Citizenship

3. Research and information fluency,                      6. Technology operations and concepts

These six categories point us educators towards the categories that are deemed valuable to students in the 21st Century.  If technology is to be used the classroom, it should be based on and fit with one of the six categories listed above.  These general suggestions are furthered refined by the NET-S student profile.  This profile is then broken down by grade levels and provides suggestions for experiences with technology and digital resources.  These suggestions are then aligned with the guidelines I referenced earlier.

                I have found that the best way to incorporate these technology standards into my curriculum, is not to follow my district mandates, but to incorporate Web 2.0 activities.  While ActiveVotes and being forced to create a website, CAN add to student engagement, in reality they only provide a meaningless hoop for teachers to jump through.  Only through authentic integration of technology into the classroom is actual learning and 21st century instruction going to take place.  Only when the teacher WANTS to integrate technology into the classroom, are the best most authentic means activities used and created, meeting the standards laid out in the NET-S. 

                Web 2.0 resources, like Wikispaces, Edmodo and Google Docs allow for instantaneous communication and collaboration by students from anywhere in the world.  The use of these resources together allows for students to actively collaborate outside of the classroom.  When I presented my students with the challenge of designing a wiki, I have found the results that are produced are often times greater that I could have ever imagined.  The extra time to collaborate and share information through these resources, and the creativity provided often triggers students to do more than is required.  Besides this enthusiasm for learning, these products when complete, meet requirements in all six of the categories of the NET-S.  As an example of some of these criteria that this project meets, just look at the NET-S student profile.

1.       Select digital tools or resources to use for a real-world task and justify the selection based on their efficiency and effectiveness.

2.       Employ curriculum-specific simulations to practice critical-thinking processes

  1. Model legal and ethical behaviors when using information and technology by properly selecting, acquiring, and citing resources.
  2. Create media-rich presentations for other students on the appropriate and ethical use of digital tools and resources.

5.       Configure and troubleshoot hardware, software, and network systems to optimize their use for learning and productivity.

In just this one assignment the students are able to meet all six guidelines for technology use in the classroom, and hit five specific goals in the student profile.  With just a few projects scattered throughout the year students are able to actively engage with the learning, by assuming the role of teachers to their peers and others in the community with the publishing of their work.

                While I have mentioned only one project and three sites, there are countless numbers of projects and resources provided for educators.  As our society becomes more and more technologically dependent, we owe it to our students to work to incorporate these technologies into our classrooms.  We are not only going to provide them with a more authentic lesson, but we might, and I stress might, just spark their imaginations and set them off on a path of learning that is driven by their imagination and interests.  After all, is that not the goal for all teachers? 

Questions and Concerns of PBL in the classroom

                As I sit here, reflecting on PBL and how to best implement this teaching strategy in my class, I am consumed by many different emotions.  These emotions range from excitement to fear at the prospect of what my classroom will look like, but more importantly what will my students actually gain from this process. 

                The challenges that I foresee, leading to my sense of fear, are around the students themselves and their willingness to go along with the process.  We all have those students who will do anything we ask of them and those that would stop breathing just because you told them to take a breath.  My fear is based around those students who are either so put off by school that they are completely apathetic or are so angry that they will not be willing to try something new.  How then can a teacher who has five classes of 32 students motivate the one or two students a period that fit this category?  These students provide a challenge, not only to me the teacher but to their group as well.   If they choose not to participate then the group they are with will be resentful towards the project, because they will have to pick up the slack for others.  This snowballing affect is the biggest struggle that I foresee during this process.  Those students that are engaged should not be penalized because another in their group is not.  How best to deal with that issue is what I struggle with as I get ready to introduce a PBL activity to my classes.

                I know that along the way numerous issues will pop up that I will not be prepared for.  However, in teaching I find that most days the students come up with questions and comments that I had not thought of or anticipated.  For that reason, my confidence level in trying something as radically different as PBL is high, in regards to the management of the process.  I also have the luxury of being a new teacher in my building, so if something does not go smoothly I can always blame it on being new. 

                The final, and obvious, management issue is time.   Yet, this is not going to be the big issue that others might have to face.  My administration wants us to implement at least one PBL activity a semester.  This means that the time needed to work on these projects is already understood by the administration, so no justification is needed for a long thought provoking unit. 

                While I have many fears as to what can go wrong with this unit, I am focused on the positives that can come from the projects successful completion.   These benefits, which have been proven through research, are pushing me forward into changing my classroom and my role as an educator.  I am positive that the teacher I become, as a result of this experience, will be one that allows students to express themselves individually and will surprise and shock me at every turn.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Problem Based Learning in the Classroom

In an effort to better my teaching practices I stumbled upon some really valuable teaching articles that I think everyone needs to be aware of.  Each of them deals with PBL, or Problem Based Learning, and provides specific examples of projects that were used as well as the role of students and teachers in the process.

What is PBL?

To me, the greatest aspect of PBL, is that the students are the ones providing the direction for the project.  In one example in an article entitled, “More Fun Than a Barrel of . . . Worms?!” a class came up with a project on cystic fibrosis. This was adopted as a project when the students, “Became concerned about one of their classmates frequent trips to the hospital.”  The class researched the disease, asked experts and then raised money, which was donated to cystic fibrosis research.  As the mother of the student said, “I think it has given the children a better understanding of what my daughter has to go through on a daily basis.”

In another article, “Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning,” the teacher lays out the guidelines for the project and the actual product that is produced is up to the students to create.  In this instance the students need to develop a school for the year 2050 that fits within the criteria laid out by the teacher.  What the school looks like, how it is laid out, even the landscaping are up to the student to create and validate the reasons for their choice.  Just as before, the students are the ones driving the direction of the project and the final product that is produced. 

As a teacher I was left wondering how does someone assess a project that can take on any form and have any outcome.  Well, that was answered when Eeva Reeder, the teacher in charge of the school design project I just mentioned, stated, “Many forms of assessment determine the grade each student receives.”  She is saying that in order for a teacher to accurately assess what is going on during these projects, constant feedback and suggestions must be provided throughout the experience.  This to me was a relief as an educator, as I hate placing a tremendous amount of points on a final summative assessment.  As all teachers know, some students just do not test well. 

Inside the third article I reviewed on PBL, “March of the Monarchs,” the need for technology is brought up as they discuss the migration on Monarchs from Mexico. “Students at more than 6,000 schools make observations and report their sightings to create a digital map.”  The students are able to collaborate with students throughout the country using a website that traces the migration of the Monarchs as they fly north.  Without this technology, the project would be impossible to accomplish with the same sense of community and instantaneous feedback.  As with the project on cystic fibrosis and the design of the school, technology makes the projects more authentic for the students. 

Also a key component of each of these three PBL projects was the inclusion of experts in the field.  The Journey North website is linked with scientists who work with the students and take questions throughout the migration.  The students working on the cystic fibrosis PBL were able to ask two representatives from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.  Finally, those students who designed the school were able to meet with actual architects who donated their time to come and meet with the students to provide guidance on the project.

In all of these examples certain circumstances and principals were in common.  First, a problem was clearly identified, but the solution to that problem was left open ended for the students to solve.  Second, assessment was used throughout the process in order to get a true gage of students understanding and work levels.  Third, all of the research and work was driven by the students themselves and not the teacher.  This is the opposite of what a traditional project is, as the teacher has the end project in mind, but in PBL the students determine the end.  Fourth, student’s use of technology allows for a deeper more meaningful experience.  Finally, each of these PBL experiences use experts to further the learning of the students and bring the community into the classroom.

Student Impact

This is all fine and great, but how does it impact student learning.  I know that my district is really pushing us towards standards, especially Common Core.  Every lesson needs to address the standards is a mantra that my administration pushes on us all the time.  So as I read through these articles it was with a lens towards how this will benefit the students.  In one PBL, about a stock market , the teacher, “Fulfilled twenty-four state standards . . . including estimating and measuring weight and mass, writing effective narratives and explanations, using evidence to support opinions in oral communication, investigating and understanding the interaction of plants in an ecosystem, and communicating through application software.”   As one PBL teacher states, “We've got to know our curriculum.  We’ve got to know the standards inside and out.”  This focus on real world applications that are rooted in teaching standards impacts the students in tremendous ways.

At a Virginia school, “Between 1997 and 2000, the percentage of fifth graders passing the Virginia Standards of Learning test increased from 35 percent to 65 percent in math, from 52 percent to 79 percent in science, and from 53 percent to 65 percent in English.” For those students in the class that design the school building, the teacher reports that, “She consistently scores the highest retention rate in geometry classes in the math department.”  To me what this boils down to is this: When students can see the meaning and real world application of what they are doing, they are more interested.  This leads to higher engagement, which in turn leads to a deeper understanding and as a result higher achievement on assessments.  This increase in knowledge, in real world settings allows for the transfer of knowledge or as a student stated, “If you find it yourself, it stays in your brain.” A parent of a child using the PBL approach summed it up best when they stated, “It gets these kids excited about a subject both inside and outside of school.  There’s actually a visible hunger to learn.”  With the desire to learn and with it “staying in your brain” the students are able to take what is learned in one discipline and apply it to other areas.  Again, I think back to the teacher who hit 24 standards in one lesson, and am amazed at the potential for growth that could occur if I adopted this strategy in my own room.


For a PBL project to work the roles of the both the teacher and the student must be clearly defined.  Again, these articles provide a clear understanding of what is expected of both.  For the teacher, it is necessary to, “create a program that meets student’s academic, emotional, and creative needs.”  It is also important to provide the students with the scoring guidelines and the start of the project, allowing them to tailor their project to the standards being assessed.  Finally, this type of assignment requires, “Flexibility and the ability to take a kernel of an idea and set it off in a productive direction.”  Basically, the work that a teacher puts into a PBL project is very front loaded, allowing the students the creativity they strive for inside a clearly defined framework.  I know that for me, my biggest fear in this process would be for the students to produce something that truly has no value, or does not meet the standards that you envisioned.  However, the process in which to engage the students and prevent this from happening is also laid out.

The role of the students is defined by Sylvia Chard, a professor at Canada’s University of Alberta.  She lays out three phases for the students to follow in a PBL classroom.  “Phase 1 involves engaging children in an initial discussion of a topic, allowing them to share any experiences that relate to the topic, and coming up with a list of questions they want to investigate.  During phase 2, students do field work, meet with experts, gather information from the Internet and other sources, and them compile the information in a variety of forms, from written and picture portfolios to Web pages and computer-generated brochures.  Phase 3 concludes with a presentation.”  By having the students follow these three phases they are able to produce a product that is their work and fits the standards of the assignment.  However, the most important part of the process is the reflection.  As the teacher in charge of the school design stated, “We learn by doing and by thinking about what we’ve done.  It’s like learning twice when you reflect.  It unquestionably deepens understanding.”

By having the teachers adequately prepare the project by doing the amount of work to clearly define the goals, standards and expectations of the students, the students will know what is expected.  This is further reinforced by providing students with the scoring criteria at the start of the unit.  Armed with this information the students are able to take their creativity and explore the assignment within the guidelines that have been established by the teacher.  As the students conduct their field work they are depending on themselves and their partners to come up with the answers.  Finally, the students need to reflect on their work providing the reflection and last area of learning for the project.


After reading this post, I hope that you have come to the conclusion that PBL is worth implementing in your own classroom.  It provides students with an opportunity to be creative in a structure in which they can also be creative.  As a teacher the standards you are assessing are clearly defined and the project to the students is more real.  However, the best part of PBL is that it provides an honest assessment of the students understanding.  This is achieved because you as the teacher are monitoring and providing feedback throughout the entire process, and not just focusing on one project at the end of a unit.  The most important thing is this, when students are interested in what they are doing, their engagement increases, and as a result, so does their learning.


Armstrong, S. (2002). Geometry students angle into architecture through project learning.  Retrieved from

Curtis, D. (2002). March of the monarchs: Students follow the butterflies’ migration.  Retrieved from

Curtis, D. (2001). More fun than a barrel of… worms?!  Retrieved from



Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What was I thinking!!

So for some reason I decided to transfer jobs, start a masters program, agree to be the head coach of a team, adopt and use RTI in my classroom and be evaluated on a new teacher evaluation system that tracks student progress.  Honestly, what was I thinking and doing to myself? 

It's not like I am bored at home, I mean I have two young children that keep me more busy than I ever thought was possible.  I know I told myself I changed jobs becuase it was no longer a challenge for me at work anymore, but honestly, what was I thinking?