Want Engaged Learners? Sign PBL Contracts

(Originally published at gettingsmart.com)

There was a time when my sole purpose for living and breathing, my ultimate dream, was to sign a contract — a contract to play professional baseball. I simply wanted the opportunity to work hard in order to create a better me for the entire team. “Give me that pen,” I remember thinking. “I’ll sign for a Coke and a smile,” I told anyone who would listen. That day never arrived.
Thanks to two amazing educators and baseball coaches, William Booth of Hartselle High School and Joe “Jabo” Jordan of Southern Union State Junior College, I learned the meaning and value of sacrifices and team rewards. These two, highly positive and tough teachers challenged me to surrender selfish goals in order to accomplish a larger vision, one that benefited the entire team.
Ironically, however, one of their shared techniques for molding a greenhorn baseball student into a selfless teammate was to set up a creative, engaging, and rigorous learning environment that highlighted my various strengths and weaknesses. It was not uncommon to complete a multi-hour practice only to wipe away the diamond dirt and grass and reveal a truer self. Afterwards, I knew what I could do. I knew my talents. I knew my faults. I knew my place on the team.
Although I often marvel at the fact that many of my greatest classes and lessons as a student were encompassed by chain link fences and boisterous team supporters whose loud cheers were muted only by the demands of two, farsighted leaders, I try my best to create a similar environment in our Language Arts classrooms. Only without the dirt, the grass and the fences. So far, the most masterful lesson I have to offer is one that is predicated on signing a contract — a problem/passion-based learning contract.
An American Literature Contract
Recently, our American Literature class began a contract-based, project-based learning (PBL) assignment by determining the required literature and accompanying standards, while offering all students a chance to demonstrate their mastery through any appropriate project of their choice.
It’s as simple as this: The standards and literature are mastered while students ultimately learn about their talents, interests, strengths and weaknesses through student-prescribed projects that challenge, engage and invigorate our team learning environment.
Students often choose to create songs, parodies, video mash-ups, green-screen newscasts, thematic websites, fictitious products, slideshow presentations, and live drama skits. For tech projects, our creative gallery of technology links is shared via a Symbaloo webmix on my teacher page. For any non-tech project, I revert to Coach Jordan’s simple, but powerful, field directive, “Find a way to make it happen.” We do just that. Whether raiding the drama department’s closet for character clothing or bringing in our own props, students in Studio 113 are encouraged to make no excuses while finding a way to make their vision a reality.
Co-Authoring the Contract
After introducing the literature sections, related standards and literary terms, students are encouraged to suggest the structure and guidelines of the project. The decision to include the students during the drafting of the contract is powerful. By giving students a creative voice throughout the entire process, the classroom-learning environment is shared. All present are stakeholders. With their priceless input, we agreed on the following sections for the contract:
  1. An abbreviated list of the standards/literary terms
  2. An assigned literature section with matching numbers for associated standards
  3. The project and presentation grading criteria
  4. A larger area for a handwritten project proposal
  5. A contractual agreement that solidly sets a foundation for each team’s attitude, project appropriateness, responsibilities, and collaboration
  6. Materials and/or additional help needed
  7. Names of team members and their mutual responsibilities
  8. The due date
  9. A link to our Symbaloo webmix of technology resources
  10. An area for the teacher’s and students’ signatures of agreement
The Sacrifices with PBL Contracts
Anyone who says project time for students affords teachers time to catch up on grading must be a superhero. Maybe it’s my inquisitive nature, but I continually found myself involved in riveting discussions with individual teams about their shared vision for the original project.
It seems with each new seat I took, I was allowed to share in the excitement and strategic planning of a new rap song, a dramatic rendition of a Puritan love poem, or a silent film set to colorful placards. Simply put, I witnessed the inner workings of creativity. But to be perfectly honest, I would be misleading you if I didn’t list my sacrifices, all of which I will gladly relinquish for a classroom of ecstatic learners:
  1. The illusion of classroom control: On any given day, I would rather manage students’ creative energy that originates from an engaging assignment than to discipline minor classroom infractions that stem from boredom.
  2. The pressure to be the creative leader: Need a spark for a new lesson plan? Take a look at your students. They will provide the ignition for a real-world project. Just ask them.
  3. The door lock: I quickly realized last week the classroom doors were going to be virtually invisible during our project. The day after announcing the assignment, students were beating down the doors before, during, and after school. To my amazement, we had a team of three come to an afterschool help session immediately after a two-hour softball practice. How could I lock the door on such dedication?
  4. Time: Whether eating a five-minute lunch, staying after work a few hours to help students, or communicating with parents to invite them to the upcoming presentations, your time will be affected by a challenging PBL assignment.
  5. Inflexibility: Yeah, you read that one correctly. However, let’s drop it like it’s hot. Isn’t it quite challenging to work so hard on developing a golden lesson plan for several years only to have it challenged by students’ creative directions? Well, don’t hold on too long lest you get dragged. Besides, the students’ end result will be better than you could ever imagine.
As I ponder the above sacrifices, I am again reminded of my two, kick-butt, hard-nosed teachers who taught me the values of maintaining a selfless attitude in hopes of success for all. When presentation week begins, there will surely be technology glitches, unfulfilled responsibilities, and clarification of the assigned standards. In a nutshell, there will be problems. I am not worried. I’ll coach them through it.
I’m just pumped I finally got to sign the contracts, and I can’t wait to see what our team produces.

5 Apps to Lower Teacher Anxiety & Raise Student Voices

Originally published at gettingsmart.com on August 30th, 2012.

The art of teaching sure has changed since I nervously stepped into my first class of thirty-two, energetic students fourteen years ago. I remember feeling pressure from the prescribed sage-on-the-stage pedagogy. Fortunately, I soon discovered that not only was I far from an academic scholar, but I also wasn’t the most important factor. The students demanded they be a vital part of the classroom and curriculum creation. That was okay with me. Opening up the pressure valve a tad never hurt anyone.
Now, as an experienced educator concerned with implementing the new Common Core Standards, differentiating and blending instruction, collecting standards-based data, growing as a professional alongside the new TKES model, and with balancing my family life amidst the rigorous requirements of a successful classroom, my blood pressure can climb to a level that potentially mutes the very reason I chose to teach: listening to the students’ voices.
In a nutshell, leading six, fifty-minute, high school Language Arts classes (four of which are Honors or Advanced Placement) is a daunting task, especially with one, fifty-minute planning period. It is the type of scenario that has many educators feeling like they are required to be superheroes in the classroom. There is no need to worry, though. All educators have access to a superhero’s toolbelt of time-saving gadgets that lower teacher anxiety while elevating students’ voices. I like to think of them as technology sedatives.

Relax and Let Google Drive Work for You

Although I arrived a bit late to the party, I recognized the power of Google Docs (now called Google Drive) two years ago when a tech-savvy colleague persuaded me to let Google Drive collect any information I deemed important. This media center specialist walked me through the power of this free web resource and showed me how a simple shared survey would morph into an organized spreadsheet of invaluable data and information while I went about my normal day.
Her most influential, persuasive line? She said, “Create the form or document, share the link, and let Google Drive work while you go about your daily duties or while relaxing. Heck, even while you sleep.” And out of that ten-minute tutorial, I hired my trusty assistant, Google Drive, free-of-charge. Here are a few uses.
  1. Create a survey asking students to list problematic standards while offering possible learning alternatives and strategies to master those very same objectives.
  2. Embed a form on a teacher page requiring students to locate and curate content for a list of study terms.
  3. Share a slideshow presentation with students while giving them access to add/edit multimedia examples that augment the lesson plan.
  4. E-mail or share a spreadsheet link asking students pertinent questions that relate to project/passion-based learning. (i.e. students’ talents and interests, access to technology at home, ownership of smartphones, favorite technology tools, project ideas, etc.)
  5. Share a link via Twitter that “kicks” students to a webpage that allows them to rate/score their peers’ performances in real time during classroom presentations.
  6. Post a QR code that sends students to a list of writing prompts. After students have submitted their responses via smartphones or other mobile devices, go to Google Drive, print out the spreadsheet or simply use the Google Drive App on your smartphone or tablet to walk around the classroom while discussing the students’ replies as they work on other class assignments. Believe me when I say, “Google Drive really makes it too simple.”
The only dilemma with using Google Drive is how students will access and record the information. Whether choosing to e-mail a link, embedding a form on a teacher page, directing students to the shared document via Twitter, or by simply writing the address on the board and allowing students to take a cell phone picture, allowing Google Drive to work for you takes hardly no time to set up and share. See how easy it is here.

Use Socrative for Easy Standards-Based Assessment and Feedback

Socrative is a website that allows students to complete assessments via any internet-connected devices. Of course, the main catch with students is their ability to complete a class assignment from their smartphones. It is especially easy with the Socrative teacher and student apps.
While I am still exploring the burgeoning creative ways to use Socrative, one rock solid purpose is the traditional assessment. By taking advantage of the Socrative template to transfer a pre-made quiz from a Word document into an Excel spreadsheet, Socrative is immediately programmed with the testing prompts and answers. Students are given instant feedback when they take the quiz.
Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of this powerful and free website is the feedback. Socrative provides teachers with an Excel spreadsheet that color codes all correct and incorrect responses. By manipulating the columns, teachers get a glaringly obvious representation of the students’ learning and the effectiveness of the lesson. This makes it an efficient tool for formative assessments.
For example, after learning the vast majority of my AP Language students failed the “chiasmus parallelism” question on a recent quiz, a revamping of that particular lesson was much needed. The time spent determining students’ knowledge and my teaching effectiveness in the years past would have taken two or three hours. With Socrative, improving the classroom learning environment is just a downloadable, color-coded spreadsheet away. See it in action here.

Use Polleverywhere to Elevate Students’ Voices

My most valuable uses:
  1. Use as a backchannel during a class discussion. This elevates all students’ voices, even those reluctant to speak out loud.
  2. Use as real-time criticism for project presentations. Students rate classmates’ performances according to grading criteria. This real-world criticism is visible via a projected screen and encourages standards reinforcement from the audience. I promise your final presentations will be better than your first, especially if presented on different dates.
  3. Have students vote for collaborative projects and class direction. Why not encourage students’ input when planning the next unit?
  4. Analyze the writing process by posting students’ samples.
Polleverywhere is downloadable as a PowerPoint slideshow and as a .CSV file for Excel spreadsheets.

Increase Your Audience with Voicethread

Students don’t get too excited about expressing themselves to an audience of one. By sharing a Voicethread link, invite other classes from wherever to contribute to the discussion prompt. Parents and students from other classes and schools can contribute to the shared content. Before you know it, your assignment has grown into a viral lesson, but you only need to score your students. To do so, click on their profile pictures and listen. (Click here and let’s talk possibilities.)

Screencast to Teach Colleagues…Just Once

If you have a tech skill to share, whether it is tracking changes in Word or teaching colleagues how to create their own Voki class avatars, use screencast-o-matic to record your tutorial and share with interested co-workers. Teachers can click “play” as many times as it takes to understand, while you relax and let the technology sedatives work for you. All of these free gadgets should allow you to concentrate on hearing what matters most—the students’ voices.