A PBL post-mortem

Project-based learning (7th grade)

This past year I had the unique opportunity to run a project-based learning (PBL) class at my last school. While I structured the course around #ds106-like assignments for middle schoolers, I tried to keep as much choice open as possible throughout a few design lessons and several new media projects in image editing, sound editing, game-making, and coding HTML. Six of eight students completed hand-coded web portfolios. You can find them here:

A post dsecribing some of our work is here.

I’m happy that several kids discovered an affinity and love for code. A few even worked on programming in Processing with an Arduino board or two by year’s end. In between our game project and final code sprint – called “code camp” – we did do-it-yourself (DIY) projects, and kids found the Arduino during that DIY time. Other kids dove into DIY.org. We created “project playlists” for DIY time – short lists of one- or two-day low cost, low-risk projects in areas of affinity and inquiry. I really like the way the playlists structured kids’ worksflows during DIY time.

I am in the middle on relying so heavily on technology to frame kids’ work. I wholeheartedly believe that all kids deserve and need access to learning and resources that reflect the world as it is, not as schools say it was. However, thinking of Dean Groom here, I wonder if I couldn’t have pushed myself further to go where the kids are. HTML sometimes feels more like where I am than where kids are, but there isn’t a lot of programming or production where most of my kids began the year. Still, what would a text-chat reflection look like? Could we have just built a script to pump all our work into Minecraft? Should we have stuck to learning to code or otherwise build students’ dream-projects throughout the year, or did learning some specific skills lead to learning that wouldn’t have happened otherwise until kids had access to stuff that could inspire daydreams?

I wonder also if I could have gone further to engage some kids who lost steam during code camp. The end of the year, weirdly (or maybe not), doesn’t seem like the best time to complete or revise portfolios. I probably should have explored ways to do smaller code camps and revisions after each project to keep portfolios up-to-date with students’ coding knowledge. Asking them redesign their portfolios and change a whole bunch of formatting was not the best “ask” I could have made at year’s end.

Looking back, I would have asked kids to spend more time with me on the elements of design, as well.

Language Arts (6th and 7th grade)

Likewise, in my most traditional language arts class, I planned a pretty complex project after testing. I chunked it and paced it according to what I thought my kids could so, but the results of the project were wildly uneven. Maybe it should have been a three to five day sprint with a lot of direct instruction instead of a two-week affair. Nearly ll of the kids in this class figured out how to animate sprites, record and play sound, and keybind triggers and events, so I am happy they had the chance to use Scratch. A few got to incorporate a MaKey MaKaey into the works, and that really thrilled a few kids, so the project worked in that it taught me about my kids and where they are with mashing up the writing process, storytelling, coding, and physical computing. The mix of new media and traditional work in this class left me kind of unsettled about what to assess and how to assess it. Mostly, I’m frustrated with myself for failing, yet again, to find the grand theory of teaching everything awesomely, yet in purely interest- and inquiry-driven ways. It’s vexing. I feel kind of like Chris Farley on the Chris Farley Show.

Language Arts (8th grade)

In my inquiry-based 8th grade language arts class, I had another fairly rare opportunity in that I taught kids with whom I’d looped for two or three years. Moreover, these kids and I understood one another, our community, and what was possible to do and learn in it. Everybody did something different and no one wanted it any differently (I think). I am deeply privileged to have learned alongside the kids in this class. Some of the Web-published standouts of their PBL work include:

  • This Minecraft Controller, documented by a kid who denies being a reader or writer, despite also writing hundreds of lines of code to make this work.
  • This game (WASD, mouse-aim, spacebar):

  • And also this one (use the spacebar):

  • And this kiln:


In no particular order, here are some of the ideas I’m taking with me to my new school and civics classes next year.

For teachers:

  • Pursue your own professional development in new media and open-source, production-centered technologies. See #ds106, #teachtheweb, #learntocode, #clmooc, #makesummer, et al. Avoid professional development that trends towards apps and instructional consumerism as interventions.
  • Don’t think about helping kids master content; think about using content to help kids move along a continuum from teacher-dependency to independent inquiry. All sorts of scaffolding and instruction are needed every step of the way; kids will go as far as they can; serve them well.
  • If you have to grade, make the grades small; to the extent that time and circumstances allow, make personalized feedback and kids’ interactions with authentic audiences the vehicles of assessment in your classroom.
  • Put interesting things in front of kids and ask them to connect those things back to your content. Don’t think of your classroom as a content classroom; think of it as a wunderkammer.
  • Making, coding, and physical computing: if there’s no evidence of any of these things in your classroom or school, ask yourself and others why not.

For administrators:

  • Making, coding, and physical computing: if there’s no evidence of any of these things in your school or division, ask yourself and others why not.
  • Foster as much buy-in as you can into student-directed, inquiry-based, project-based learning across content-areas and grade-levels. This is not picking three projects from a tic-tac-toe sheet or doing the end-of-year research project. It takes a lot of instrutional- and adminsitrative-tolerance to let teachers and students build enough trust and common experience to see what happens when they ask questions and attempt projects of which they are not certain. Find a cohort of adults and kids who can support one another and resource and schedule them accordingly across the years. Real change is a marathon no company will run for us.
  • Be wary of putting the PBL class or portfolio into one or two teachers’ hands. PBL will be seen as their turf – something that others therefore don’t need to do -, and it will go away when those teachers go away if there are too few of them.
  • Establish pro-open and pro-production guidelines for technology adoptions or purchases: is this something open to kids? Can they make something new with this? Is there more to do here than consume or provide the right answer? Am I putting a closed product or an open platform into my kids’ hands? Can what’s happening on the screen connect to the physical world in any way? Can this work with what we have, or will we have to buy more or subscribe to more to keep it working in the near future?
  • Learn alongside teachers and kids. Try to make time to put together a student, parent, teacher, and administrator, F2F cohort for something like #makesummer. Practice transparent learnership.

That’s all I’ve got for now.

With thanks to

  • My family for putting up with my near-constant unpacking of what is and what’s possible in my work.
  • My kids, colleagues, and supervisors for letting me teach and learn with these classes as I did.
  • Mozilla, the National Writing Project, and their people, supporters, and partners for surfacing – inside and outside school – the kind of work of work to which I aspire.
  • The countless folks who’ve helped me figure out what I’m doing here through Twitter, #nerdcamp, and all the rest.

Stay tuned for Act II, in which kids teach me how all this works in a large, public-school civics classroom.