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Monday, October 7, 2019

Upcoming Fall 2019 PD: Kentucky Digital Citizenship Academy & EdCampKY

I wanted to quickly share two upcoming professional development opportunities -- both of them FREE!

On Friday, November 1, GRREC (in Bowling Green) will be hosting the first Kentucky Digital Citizenship Academy, with educators across the region highlighting the importance of students engaged in positive digital learning.   If you are interested in presenting a session, there may still be time if you contact Amy Buss.  (I will be one of the presenters, so hope to see some of you attend!) Kentucky's Chief Digital Officer Marty Park, along with student Gracie Lile, will be the keynote presenters.  Be sure to register to get your free tickets.



On Saturday, November 2, Oldham County will be hosting EdCampKY for the first time, at its Arvin Education Center!  I'm sensing a "Captain Marvel" theme based on the logo.  While the opportunity for presenting will be available on site,  I highly recommend proposing a session early. Be sure to register for your free tickets, and follow on social media with the hashtag #edcampky.




Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Nearpod, SAMR, and Transitional Pedagogy

Welcome back to school!  Due to a new K-8 school being built, Shelby County went to a contingency calendar and our first day back for students was today.  So most of you have at least a few weeks head start on us.

Since my last entry, Edtech Elixirs has hit a happy birthday milestone.  My first entry was August 1, 2014.  That makes the blog five years old, with an average of a thousand views per entry (as of today, 141 entries and over 141,000 views)!  Not coincidentally -- as the blog began partially as a resource for Shelby educators -- I also had my five year anniversary with the district as well. As always, I thank my blog readers for giving me the audience to share my edtech findings and think-alouds, and I thank Shelby County for allowing me to follow my edtech integration passion.

And now onto today's topic focus . . .

Back in June, I attended the third annual Deeper Learning Symposium hosted by Jefferson County Public Schools.  One of the presenters was Danna Pearsall, who shared her knowledge on Nearpod.  I learned about a few new features, including the ability for students to take (and then download) notes while participating in a Nearpod Presentation.  These notes -- complete with the slides themselves --- can even be added to their own Google Drive!  (It should be noted that the notes feature is only available if the presenter gets the paid version of Nearpod.   More on that in a bit.)

An example page from downloaded student notes.  This is a premium "Gold" (i.e. paid) feature of Nearpod and needs to be enabled by the teacher.

Before I go any further, I should mention that Nearpod itself feels like an old friend that I actually first tried out back in my classroom teaching days.   When I came to Shelby, it was one of the earliest edtech tools I recommended to staff, and I wrote about our teachers using it in the first year of Edtech Elixirs.  As much as I admired Nearpod in the past, I continue to be impressed as it grows, thrives and improves in 2019 and beyond.

What is Nearpod?  Put simply, it is a teacher-paced, guided presentation tool with interactive elements that can help you assess your students in real time, as well as give you data reports to analyze later.    Although you can create a presentation from scratch inside Nearpod, most will prefer importing a finished one into the platform, and that is where I want to make a tangent before discussing more about the tool itself.  The real power of a tool like Nearpod is that it is a schema scaffold for tech-hesitant teachers to expand their edtech integration ability into the classroom.

How do we reflect on the deepness and richness of edtech implementation? Consider SAMR as a way of analyzing the net effect (pun intended!) of when technology is integrated into a classroom lesson:

  • Substitution is where new tech replaces old digital/analog tools, but the task is unchanged.
  • Augmentation is the same task, but there is more functionality and improvement of effectiveness because of the technology.
  • In Modification, you have redesigned parts of the task, and begin to see the transformative nature of the technology use.
  • Redefinition is the ultimate transformative experience that usually reaches an audience or collaborators outside of the four walls of the classroom.  Here, we design and create tasks previously inconceivable thanks to the technology.
One of the things I love about SAMR as a reflective tool is that the focus is on the task, not the technology.  There are no points earned in SAMR for mere edtech usage; it is all about integration and intentionality.  As an example of this, consider Skype.  When it first became a mainstream tool, it seemed like something out of a sci-fi show.  (On a screen or flat panel, Skype still reminds me of the Star Trek viewscreen on the bridge of the Enterprise.) .However, if you got a person to Skype into your classroom and just ends up a talking head that is remotely piloting a PowerPoint, how transformative is that compared to a guest speaker coming in person and droning on for an hour?  You are, from a learning perspective, breaking even at best.  If it is a non-interactive lecture, one would be better off with the guest shooting a video, burning it on a DVD, and mailing you the disc.  (At least you could pause a DVD!) As you can see, it is not Skype itself, but the use of Skype that has to be analyzed via the SAMR lens.  So it is with any technology you bring into the classroom: you need to first consider your task at hand and the academic objectives you want to meet.

The act of going from S/A to M/R means going from tech enhancement to tech transformation of what a learning experience can be, as well as going from a teacher-centered to a student-centered environment.  Who is making the tech choices? Are students creating or consuming?  Put another way, if the electricity and Internet go out, a S/A lesson can theoretically be improvised and continue ("I'll guess I'll lecture without pictures," or "I'll hand out a multiple choice quiz on paper instead") whereas a M/R lesson would be dead in the water.

Understanding SAMR is all well and good, and most teachers can make a Substitution move fairly easily, such as going from an overhead projector to a PowerPoint.   The struggle is finding a pragmatic way to get to "AMR" edtech integrations.  Here it is a question both of appropriate tools that stretch without overwhelming the educator, as well as finding a judgment-free way for the educator to grow their pedagogy.   While Substitution often (but not always!) is typical of a traditional pedagogical environment (i.e. direct instruction, lecture-minded, teacher-centered), it is unrealistic to assume an experienced teacher can or even should jettison all of their former skills and tools to move into a transformative pedagogy.   Indeed, there are times that Substitution (or no tech at all!) might be best, or traditional lectures and direct instruction may be necessary to properly meet the specific and contextual academic objectives at hand.   The only concern is being stuck in an instructional rut of always doing Substitution/traditional approaches when other ways might be more effective or impactful on learning.

And that is why a tool like Nearpod can be a powerful tool, especially for teachers just learning to grow their edtech practice.   Nearpod's original genius was its assumption that many teachers already have a storehouse of instructional material -- PowerPoints.   Nearpod makes it easy to import these pre-existing PowerPoints into Nearpod Presentations.   All that's left is adding interactive elements such as polls, open ended questions, "draw it" features, and quizzes.  When a teacher is ready, he/she turns the Nearpod Presentation into a live session.  A nice bonus: since the session will be pushed to the students' screens, you don't need a main projector or display.  A student doesn't need to create an account; the teacher's live session generates a unique code only good for the current event, and a student easily joins the session with that code and signs in by providing their name.  (While there are apps for Nearpod that makes it somewhat easier to join a session from a mobile device, any device with a browser and Internet access will do.)  The pacing -- that is, when the slides advance -- is completely in control of the teacher.  When interactive elements occur, teachers can see the data in real time, and even share a student answer anonymously to all the screens for the sake of discussion or highlighting a good model example.  At the end of the live session, a final report is generated for the teacher where you can review the data/answers from all the interactive elements as a PDF.   Thus, Nearpod's potential for Augmentation and beyond can be plainly seen.   Students are interacting with the teacher, content and each other in new ways; a teacher can use the assessment data to impact and change instruction in real time as well as for future planning; a student can think and reflect more deeply via the interactive assessments than a Scantron bubble test could ever reveal.  And imagine if, instead of Slides and PowerPoints, students created Nearpods to lead interactive presentations, or to gather data from a user group as part of a Design Thinking invention process! In short, Nearpod allows for genuine blended learning.

Here is a video which demonstrates how Nearpod led an instructor from his former mode of PowerPoint presentations and pushed him forward to a transformative classroom (1:13):



It should be noted that while the features mentioned above can all be done with the free Nearpod version, paid versions exist (currently $120 and up annually for an individual license) that give additional tools.  The licensing is based on a teacher, or "creator" account -- a student participating in Nearpods never has to pay or even make an account.   Additional features for the paid version include some additional interactive/inserted material elements (such as inserting YouTube videos), increased online storage space for your Nearpod Presentations (from 50 MB to 3 GB and up), enabling the student notes feature mentioned earlier, and perhaps most importantly, the ability for students to do a Nearpod Presentation "anytime, anywhere" (perhaps personalized to student needs!) instead of only when a teacher makes a live session.

If you are interested in pre-made Nearpod Presentations, there is an online store.  Thanks to a multitude of partnerships with companies such as Common Sense Media, Teaching Tolerance, CK-12, PhET, Newsela, and BBC Worldwide, the catalog is deep, with high quality lessons across a wide gamut of content and grade levels.  However, while some of these are free, many of them cost from a few dollars for a single lesson up to approximately $30 for a bundle.

Other features of Nearpod that have been added in the last few years include:


  • Google Slides Add-On.  There already was a free Chrome Extension (Nearpodize) that could take your Google Slides and convert them into a Nearpod Presentation.  However, you can now easily insert interactive material while creating your Slides, then upload it all to Nearpod.  From the Slides menu, choose Add-Ons > Get add-ons and search for Nearpod.  Read here for more details.
  • Nearpod 3D.  You have a gallery of over 100 three dimensional, manipulatable objects to insert into your presentation.  Students can rotate them and zoom in and out.  The gallery categories are Ancient Times, Amazing Places and Things, Environment, Human Body, and Microscopic.  Read here to find out more.
  • Nearpod VR.   Imagine taking your students on a virtual field trip and seeing a place in a 360 degree environment.  Nearpod has an extensive amount of VR Presentations in their store -- some free, some not.  Two things are outstanding about Nearpod VR.  Firstly, there are incredible choices across multiple contents -- even ELA and math! (Recently, lessons were added that incorporate Historical Perspectives and Literacy, which fits nicely with new social studies standards.) Secondly, Nearpod VR works fine on any device, including Chromebooks.  While phones in goggle headsets may make VR more immersive, Nearpod VR requires no special equipment or setup.  For more details, read here.

The Nearpod Google Slides Add On allows you to insert activities while composing your Slides, which then can easily be uploaded / converted to a Nearpod Presentation.  Note that some of these activity options only work with the paid version.



If there was a downside to Nearpod, it is definitely the price point for the premium features.  While I appreciate what you get for free, and that the paid licenses have likely enabled Nearpod to endure and improve for all these years, I just wish there was a tier between free and $120+.  Perhaps a middle option of $20-30 a year to allow student to take notes and teachers to give students Nearpod Presentations that are personalized "anytime / anywhere" lessons/homework?

Nearpod starts with existing edtech schema and pedagogy (PowerPoints, direct instruction, lecture) and builds upon it to create a deeper learning experience.  I could mention other edtech examples that do the same, such as Google Docs, which takes what teachers and students already know about word processor programs and has the potential to improve the task of writing itself (i.e., Google Docs allows students to have real-time collaboration and use Comments for more effective peer feedback).  The point here is that tools like Nearpod and Google Docs stand on the threshold between traditional and transformational pedagogy.  These tools are part of a much needed bridge of a larger transitional pedagogical framework, necessary for improving not just edtech integration, but the nature of teaching and learning itself.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Summer 2019 PD: IFL, Tech Teach Learn, KET Multimedia

Starting this summer, I made a personal pledge to stretch my professional development horizons and present and/or attend conferences I have never attended before.  Two of the three Kentucky conferences discussed in this entry fit that definition!   I left all three with some great takeaways.

Innovations for Learning


I have been attending IFL for several years now.  This free annual PD is organized by Fayette County Public Schools (Lexington) and happens every June.   IFL has some of the best presenters from around the state, and the educators that attend also come from all corners of Kentucky.  For the last few years, Frederick Douglass High School has hosted the event, and walking around the innovative building is almost worth the trip in itself.  I presented "Google Tools: The New, the Overlooked, and the Quirky."

Here are some highlights:

  • David Kitchen shared his experiences from the first year of flipping his classroom.  Kitchen's accountability structure is to have students watch a video at home (often with EdPuzzle, which provides tracking and assessment analytics) and do Cornell Notes (powerful reflection, and hard to "cheat").  His process of gradual release sounds very useful to emulate.  Kitchen first models what the flipped work will be like at home by showing a video while doing Cornell Notes in front of the class.   Next, he has students do Cornell Notes on a video while in class, providing feedback.  The last stage is having students do Cornell Notes on a video at home.
  • Kelli Reno and Louise Begley shared stories from the libraries and how they are addressing the new AASL standards.  Reno mentioned how FDHS clubs and organizations periodically "sponsor" a shelf in the library and provide book suggestions.  I love the way this gives the school community both ownership and voice!
  • Kelly Fischer introduced me to a free edtech tool for student content acquisition and assessment: Deck Toys.  Teachers can create an interactive lesson using an easy drag and drop interface, which creates a game-like "board" with activities and dashed line pathways.  For differentiation and personalization opportunities, you may give students multiple paths to choose from.  One activity can be a slide deck, either independently viewed or synched and controlled by a teacher's pacing (much like Nearpod); other activities include puzzles, crosswords, "Lock" (think mini-Breakouts), match, sequencing, and more.




Tech Teach Learn


TTL is hosted by Kentucky Country Day school in Louisville every June.  Anyone can attend for a nominal fee.  Not only was this the first time I have attended and presented at TTL, but it was the first time I have been on the KCD campus.  It's beautiful!  I have to give a shoutout to Sarah Shartzer, a teacher at KCD who is not only a leader of edtech for her own school (and TTL!) but presents far and wide.  This year was the first time that registration for TTL was sold out in advance of the event, and I can easily see that happening again as more people hear of this useful and impactful conference.  I led a workshop titled "From Bland to Blended: Best Practices for a Transformative Classroom."

Here are some highlights:

  • Ms. Shartzer shared edtech tools for accommodation and differentiation.  Several were new to me, including a particular standout: Visuwords.  It's a interactive way to not only see a definition of a word and its part of speech, but a webbed relationship to other words and concepts.
  • Jerry Broyles taught us about Google's geo-related tools such as My Maps, Google Earth, and Tour Builder.  Tour Builder in particular has a lot of potential for being a different way for students to share and present information that is location- or travel-based.



KET Multimedia


KET Multimedia PD Day happens annually in July, at the KET studios in Lexington.   Registration requires a small fee.  I have never attended before, and was flattered to be asked to lead a workshop on digital citizenship with the purpose of attendees revising and creating their own school/district DigCit curriculum.  The KET building is a fun, state-of-the-art facility to present and participate in a PD day. Special thanks to Brian Spellman for the invite!

Here are some highlights:

  • Emily Northcutt (our newest Shelby County librarian!) talked about the usefulness of KYVL, a valuable repository of tools and databases.  Like most districts in Kentucky, we pay an annual fee for staff and student access both at school and at home.  As a classroom teacher years ago, I was ashamedly ignorant of how helpful KYVL can be, and I need to do better to publicize its wealth of resources with our Shelby staff.
  • Vanessa Hutchison (a teacher at Louisville Central High School) shared her website full of resources and lesson plan ideas for students to create film projects on a limited or zero budget. 
  • Whitney York and Mechelle Morgan enthusiastically discussed makerspace materials and tools used by teachers and students in Murray Independent Schools.   One new find I'm excited to try out: Sphero Specdrums, which combine music making, programming, and possible accommodative assistance (for example, helping students who struggle with learning colors).




I look forward to applying and sharing some of my new knowledge and edtech, and hope to attend all three of these conferences again in the future!

Full disclosure: KET paid me an honorarium to present at their KET Multimedia PD, which I attended on a non-contract day.

Monday, July 8, 2019

BIg Transitions and Changes

It has been four months since my last blog entry!  I've had gaps between entries before, but that's a pretty long one.  I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what has been going on as well as look ahead to the future.

In order to be transparent in my sharing, I need to first flash back to July 2018.

April, my beautiful wife of 16 years (we have actually been together since 1995, if you're keeping score at home), was trying to schedule a procedure when her doctor's office stopped her in her tracks. 

"It says here you are over 40?"

"Barely," she replied.

"Well, you've never had a mammogram."

And I don't want to start now, she thought.  "I don't have the slightest symptom and I'm very healthy. Can't we just put it off for a few months and do this other stuff instead?"

"Nope.  Insurance won't allow you.  Sorry."

With that, April had her very first mammogram -- which discovered an abnormality.  Surprise turned to concern and disbelief as a biopsy revealed Stage 3 breast cancer.  And for April, myself, and our two daughters, the long fight began.

I am pleased to say that we are at a happy crossroads.  My brave, persistent wife -- one of the grittiest people I've ever met -- has recently completed treatment of chemo and radiation, and although we have a few surgeries ahead, we feel the worst is behind us.  It has been an agonizing, exhausting year, and I suppose this is a very long winded way of saying that as the school year wound down, I rationed my energy and I took a step away from things that could go into suspended animation -- like this blog. 

However, if you're not willing to give up on me, I'm not ready to give up on Edtech Elixirs just yet!  I know there will definitely be major reasons to blog in 2019-2020 on new edtech tools and the occasional pedagogical discussion.   To take one example, I'm sure I'll talk a time or two about Empower Learning, a new learning management system we piloted last school year and as of July 1 has replaced Schoology in our district.  However, Empower is much more than just another LMS.  Its ability to reference standards and track mastery learning for students over time gives us a powerful tool to help Shelby County Public Schools reach our competency-based education goal in 2022.

While personal interests of mine have previously crept into this blog, I imagine I will surprise most readers with sharing our family's struggle in such a public way.  For those concerned I will make Edtech Elixirs into an online diary, I promise that I will return fully to the world of edtech in the entries to come.   That said, I do want to end this entry with a sharing of gratitude as well as a plea.   Firstly, there have been dozens of family and friends and co-workers that have given our family such unbelievable support over this past year.  We simply would not have survived without you -- thank you from the bottom of our hearts.  Secondly, as my wife's story illustrates, putting off a mammogram, or any regular cancer screening, can have tragic consequences.  In a real way, we got lucky.  Please make sure you and your loved ones don't rely on luck to keep healthy!

If you are looking for cancer organizations to support:

Norton's Healthcare (serving Louisville and Southern Indiana) has been an incredible healthcare partner and resource in our fight against cancer.  Here's ways you can give time or money.

April is passionate about P.ink, an organization where tattoo artists donate their time and material to breast cancer survivors, particularly in covering up or beautifying mastectomy scars and breasts both unreconstructed and reconstructed.  More about their organization is here.


Friday, March 29, 2019

Google Jamboard

In the same way that it took a while for me to get around to Google Keep, I am a little late to the Google Jamboard party! Better late than never, I suppose.  This new-ish tool is a welcome and free addition to the Google Suite of tools.

How does it work?    Think of Google Jamboard as a digital corkboard, where you can add "sticky notes," images, and doodles.   Like most Google tools, you have the ability to collaborate with others on the same "Jam" in real time, and export the results as a PDF or image file.




You can add viewers/editors or create links to Jams -- here's a sample one I created shown in the pictures above -- but for Google Education or Business users, you can also share a Jam with others via a "Jam Code" which will only work with people inside your own domain. 





For a walkthrough of how to make a Jam, watch my screencast video (10:39):





How could you use it?  Students could use Jamboard as an informal discussion tool (much like a simpler form of Padlet), as a way to graphically organize notes, or to keep track of the planning and completion of a project.  It should be noted that the mobile app version of Jamboard allows for more features, such as the integration of Google Drive files, as well as making drawing easier with your finger rather than with a trackpad and cursor; there are also some options to integrate Jamboard with remote presentations

Downsides?  I have only a few quibbles.   The select tool does not allow you to choose an entire doodle for easy removal, which means you have to manually erase them if you are several edits down the line.  I'd also like to be able to upload images from my hard drive instead of only from Google searches, your Drive or Photos.  But for a free tool that is so easy to use, it's hard to complain!


What are some creative ways you could use, or are using, Jamboard?  Share in the Comments below!


Monday, March 18, 2019

KySTE 2019

Every March, I make my edtech pilgrimage to the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky to attend the KySTE Spring Conference.  It was a record attendance this year (nearly 2000 registered!).    It's been a few days since the close of the conference, and I wanted to share several highlights.

1.  I did presentations on Shelby County's Digital Citizenship curriculum as well as some recommended digital equity tools to help personalize learning.   I was pleased to get attendees for both, but in particular, I hope to continue conversations with several people on how we can collaborate on digital citizenship for Kentucky students in the future.

2. Much like I missed TodaysMeet and was thankful to find YoTeach, I have missed Storify since it shuttered, as it was an easy and useful curation tool...but now I think I have a replacement!  From Stella Pollard, I learned of a new tool, Wakelet.   It allows you to make "collections" that can consist of images, PDFs, texts, Tweets, YouTube videos, and of course hyperlinks.  Wakelet is very user friendly, and even allows the ability to search tweets and YouTube videos from within the tool much like Storify did.  A social aspect of Wakelet is that you can have followers, and there is a beta feature where you can collaborate on the same collection.  I created a profile page here.

3.  URL shorteners like Bit.ly and Tinyurl.com have three main issues: a) your audience has to type a complicated URL where upper and lower case letters make a difference, b) you can personalize the URL to make it more straight-forward, but the more simple it is the more likely it's already taken, and c) both A and B may seem like a lot of effort for what often amounts to just a one time hour-long presentation.   That's why Yellkey is fantastic!  Simply give the URL to shorten and choose the duration you need it, anytime from 5 minutes to 24 hours.  You will get a shortened URL in simple language, such as yellkey.com/computer. Note these are both disposable and reused; a few days or even a few minutes from now, yellkey.com/computer will point to something else. (Thanks Leslie Fisher!)

4.  As a former high school English teacher, it is easier for me to imagine a librarian to help collaborate with staff on literacy and not numeracy needs.  Obviously, I am short sighted!  One of the best KySTE sessions I attended involved Sarah Zender (math teacher) and Amanda Hurley (librarian) from Henry Clay High School (Fayette County).  They talked about their work together, and it was impressive: scavenger hunts, geometry animated STEM projects, Math Inquiries that connected personal interests (such as guitar playing, MMA fighting, and fantasy football), and involving students in library renovations.

5.  Last but not least, it was a highlight of not just the conference but of my career to receive the KySTE Outstanding Leader of the Year award for 2018-2019.



As I've already said in various social media posts, in a life there are hundreds of people who give you wisdom, teach you a lesson, or model by example.  Whoever I may be or accomplish is the accumulation of all of those people and moments.  Thank you to all of my friends, family and colleagues who I have had the privilege of sharing a part of my educational journey.  And of course, thank you to KySTE for the award!  I'll always treasure it.

I'll end this entry with a video of my acceptance speech.  Special thanks to Cyndi Skellie for recording it!



Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Project Blocks, Not Bells: PBL in an Expeditionary Learning School

I'm currently reading the last chapter of a book recently published by ISTE: Learning Supercharged: Digital Age Strategies and Insights from the Edtech Frontier (Lynne Schrum with Sandi Sumerfield, 2018).   It's highly recommended, not only because it shares helpful narratives of edtech integration by real teachers and schools, but also puts digital tools in the context of effective pedagogies and popular areas of focus such as gamification, STEM, digital citizenship, and Project Based Learning (PBL).

PBL has been a particular passion of mine since my first training on it nearly four years ago.  Schrum and Sumerfield correctly point out that PBL predates digital tools and access. Still, there is no doubt that technology enhances the depth and reach of such projects, and teachers should embrace it despite possible misgivings: "Although incorporating technological tools and online resources can often feel overwhelming, the use of digital resources can strengthen student interactive experiences, facilitate more complex thinking about challenging topics among peer groups, and often streamline the assessment of student progress for teachers" (103).   Precisely!  Since PBL is based on solving problems or questions that have more than one answer/solution, and therefore have culminating products that can vary in type, digital tools can make this more manageable and multi-modal.   That aside, the authors caution us to avoid simply creating a 'technology rich" end-of-unit project instead of an experience where students truly have agency, learn with an end in mind throughout, and create something to share with outsiders.  It is not transformative learning if the end result of PBL is merely a well presented aggregation of researched bullet points instead of a new idea or creation that shows real reflection and growth of student thinking.

Finding more ways to support teaching in an "edtech frontier" was mulling around in my brain when I recently went with several Shelby staff members to visit districts near Denver, Colorado.  A common denominator of the schools was their belief in a competency-based education system.  One in particular still sticks out for me even a month later:  William Smith High School, a part of Aurora Public Schools.  They are officially designated an "expeditionary learning" (EL) school; the defining characteristics of students in EL includes high quality authentic work, demonstrating proficiency and deep learning, and the importance of character and ethics.  On a more pragmatic level, that translates into WSHS having students experience learning beyond the four walls of their building and having a daily schedule driven by "project blocks" of PBL work, not bells.  All students had access to Chromebooks, but it was clear that PBL pedagogy, not technology, was the driver of their education.

The schedules of WSHS students are particularly innovative.  Grades 10 through 12 basically have two "classes" a day -- one block in the morning, one in the afternoon.  Student choice and needs keep the schedules unique and personalized.  (It should be noted that Freshmen began building their student agency culture and necessary "soft skills" to succeed in such an environment in the summer prior to starting at WSHS with highly structured "learning bootcamps."  Once school begins, they have a more traditional period schedule at first and gradually release into the same kind of block schedule as the upperclassman have by the end of their first school year.)  Some of these project blocks last as little as three weeks while others are as long as two months.  Not surprisingly, the project blocks are frequently cross-content, and the teachers and admin work hard to ensure that students choose their classes wisely in order to demonstrate mastery of all their necessary core standards by graduation.

But the innovation at WSHS isn't merely the logistics of their scheduling.  The project blocks themselves are classes you would beg to take if you were a high schooler.  Imagine learning exponentials and logarithms while living inside a "Zombie Apocalypse."  By building their own "Escape Rooms," students learn both geometry and art/interior design.  In "Wild Wild West," the study of transportation and weaponry teaches you both U.S. history and quadratic equations.   By reading non-fiction text and a fictional novel on climate change in "Playing God," students learn evolutionary and developmental biology while applying literary analysis and debate.   We were provided a list of project block choices just for spring 2019 that included these four classes and several dozen more, with most of the titles and class descriptions sounding more like college offerings than what you would see in a typical 9-12 school. The WSHS staff also made sure we knew that the classes offered are a constant reflection of the continual feedback of what both teachers want to teach and students want to learn.


Framed examples of past project blocks line a hallway at William Smith High School.

A closer look at the upper left section of "Bean to Bar." 

As you can see in the examples above, it is clear these PBL's are very well designed.  These PBL planning document "posters" include the following sections:

  • Class Description
  • multiple Connections (to Academics, Habits of Excellence, and/or Community)
  • what Field Work is necessary
  • what Experts will be consulted (in people and/or anchor texts)
  • what the Product in the end should or could be
  • Guiding Question
  • Sequence of Learning
  • Core Content Standards Met
  • examples of student work
WSHS were kind enough to provide a Google Doc example of one of their PBL "Project Panels" on Native American Studies, as well as a blank version that you can copy to your Drive and make your own.

As we met both staff and students at William Smith High School, it was evident that their structures were vastly different than the typical high school experience.  Student engagement was strong and palpable.  I was thankful to see specific, concrete examples of how innovative PBL can be to transform a learning culture, and grateful to meet teachers so willing to be pioneers in the frontier of education.

Note:  Buck Institute for Education facilitated my first PBL training highlighted in the blog entry linked above.  They have recently rebranded as PBLWorks, and remain a rich treasure trove of resources, workshops and articles on PBL.

Update 3/16/19:  I added the links to the WSHS Project Panel example and blank template.