Project-based learning at scale

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Most schools that dive deep into project-based learning tend to be smaller charter or magnet schools that have the ability to hire new educators and create new schedules and instructional paradigms from scratch. Bettendorf Middle School, in contrast, has been around a while and often resembles other large middle schools across the nation. With over 1,100 students and about 70 instructional staff, a move to a project-based learning paradigm meant shifting legacy structures and mindsets rather than creating from a blank slate. Nonetheless, the school took up the challenge…

Exposed to some faculty from High Tech High a few years back, the school decided to go all in. Most of the staff now have visited the original High Tech High campus in California and the decision was made several years ago to incorporate project-based learning into every Bettendorf Middle School course at least twice a year. Projects at the school range from two to twelve weeks. Teachers put together proposals and then have to pitch their projects to a panel of teacher peers AND students. Together they all use Bettendorf’s project tuning protocol to make the projects meaningful, relevant, and of high quality. All projects incorporate essential curriculum standards to ensure that students are addressing critical learning outcomes. Students hold community exhibitions twice per year to show their learning.

Projects are numerous and varied. For instance, an English teacher had her students investigate the question, What is essential?, which ultimately led to the creation of three separate 9’ x 15’ tiny houses. Students designed, built, and decorated the homes themselves and incorporated essential ELA standards into their work as they wrote and reflected about their attempts to do various tasks within the homes. In another class, students worked with a local senior citizens home to interview residents, write biographies, and create an abstract piece of art that reflected each interviewee’s life. As you can imagine, the unveiling and gifting of these student-created products to the residents was incredibly moving and emotional.

Another project involved creating a community garden. Students worked with a local landscape company to create ten garden plots, write by-laws, create logos, engage in marketing, and build support structures such as a shed. Every garden plot was quickly rented out by the community. Students in another course investigated the question, What is true survival? Although that question initially revolved around outdoor survival techniques, by project’s end student investigations and writing had turned toward such diverse topics as mountaineering, homelessness, food insecurity, and divorce.

Most of this instructional planning, assessment, and standards coverage work is addressed within traditional professional learning communities (PLCs), with some additional assistance from the school’s three instructional coaches. The emphasis is on robust, hands-on and minds-on work and on developing powerful essential questions to frame students’ learning.

Bettendorf Middle School is moving forward in exciting new directions, including a recent global project involving the essential question, Is revolution justified?, that involved 1,000 participating students from nine different schools around the world.

What could you do at YOUR traditional school?

Image credit: Bettendorf Middle School

Personalizing every student’s level of success

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The Van Meter Schools have long been an incubator for innovation. Van Meter was one of our earliest districts to implement a 1-to-1 student computing initiative and also was one of the first districts in Iowa to be named an Apple Distinguished School.

More recently, Van Meter has been diving deeply into project-based learning, standards-based grading, competency-based education, and flexible, modular schedules in which students can exercise some choice and determine how much time they need to spend on their various learning endeavors. Van Meter’s work in the area of student competencies is especially impressive. Eventually, the district hopes to identify a comprehensive, interdisciplinary set of standards that all high school students need – plus an additional 6 to 10 competencies or dispositions – and these will become the district’s graduation requirements. Students will be able to take multiple pathways to get there, including projects, traditional coursework, online classes, and anything else that feeds into the district’s profile of a graduate. The hope is that most students will be able to complete these by junior year and then will be able to spend their senior year taking college classes, getting professional certifications, diving deeper into areas of interest and passion, and engaging in internships and service learning projects.

Teachers are in on the action too and rarely participate in whole-school learning contexts. Instead, classroom educators take a competency-based approach to their own professional learning and, through identification of the skills that they have and need, are able to personalize their professional growth. A badging system to track teachers’ professional learning is in the works.

What I like about Van Meter is that, in the words of Superintendent Deron Durflinger, they “often have a willingness to take risks and try things that other districts wait for. If folks out there are doing cool stuff, we’re not going to hold back on trying it out.” This orientation toward risk-taking allows Van Meter to live at the cutting edge of leading educational innovation movements and to iterate quickly toward new opportunities. Initiatives that many other districts consider to be organizational stretches are thought of by Van Meter as just part of how it does business.

Van Meter also has framed its work appropriately. Instead of each initiative being a stand-alone, disconnected program within a traditional school setup, everything that Van Meter does is woven together and oriented toward the ultimate goal of personalizing student learning. For instance, when asked what they are most excited about, administrators will say that at the top of their list are the types of questions that teachers are asking about how to better help individual students and their educators’ willingness to reexamine and alter current practices as needed.

The district is in the process of building a new school that will create different and varied kinds of learning spaces for students. I am sure that this new building will be amazing. But the district’s long-term impacts on students will be a result of its ongoing willingness to reorient its instructional practices and its organizational support systems that facilitate more robust forms of learning and teaching.

Is your district leading for innovation?

Image credit: Free library made from a milk vending machine, Van Meter Schools

Dreaming big at Iowa BIG

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Do you know about Iowa BIG? Co-located with a corporate startup accelerator at a former brownfield site of Iowa Steel, Iowa BIG is a project-based learning option for Cedar Rapids area high school students. Students spend half of their day at their traditional, ‘mother ship’ high school and the other half at Iowa BIG. Local businesses, nonprofits, and city agencies pitch proposed projects to the students, hoping that talented youth will take up their challenges. Students pick from the project pool and then work with school and community mentors to accomplish the work, achieving curricular standards and other learning outcomes – like 21st century skills and Iowa’s Universal Constructs – along the way.

The work done by Iowa BIG students is quite impressive. Example student projects include transforming the Bever Park Zoo into an interactive and educational urban farm, co-researching the evolution of grapes with the University of Northern Iowa, creating a one-handed keyboard for amputees, and redesigning a local elementary into a STEAM magnet school. Other examples include development of a waterborne drone that measures plastic waste in oceans, designing arthritis-friendly utensils, creating a documentary of Linn County’s first medical examiner, designing and testing an aquaponics system in North Africa, developing a recycling bin that tweets to the Internet what gets recycled, and initiating a young women’s entrepreneurship community and conference.

Iowa BIG is up to nearly 100 high school students this year and its approach is expanding to other schools in the Cedar Rapids area. Recent data confirm what we would imagine: students are much more engaged in their learning and seem to be doing better academically than comparable peers. When students are voluntarily working on their projects over the summer and talking about coming back to the city to ‘keep doing this kind of work after we graduate from college,’ you know something is going right.

Are you underestimating the work that your students could do?

Image credit: Bethany Jordan

East Campus: Uncovering the brilliance in every student

High school student Jeff Bliss famously said in 2013, “If you would just get up and teach them instead of handing them a freakin’ packet, yo. It’s kids in here that don’t learn like that. They need to learn face to face.” Unfortunately, too many alternative high schools are just about worksheet packets and self-paced online courses. East Campus in Muscatine, Iowa takes a different approach, one that is paying enormous dividends in terms of student engagement, academic success, and high school completion.

Hydroponics, East Campus, Muscatine Community School District

East Campus has a strong emphasis on hands-on academic activity. For example, students learn about metal absorption, evolution of plant species, and trait adaptation in science by engaging in real-world hydroponics and phytoremediation projects. They partner with the University of Iowa and Muscatine Power & Water to do this work, learning about cell biology, ions, and molecular polarity along the way. Similarly, they’re learning about urban renewal and the environmental impacts of human behaviors through the lens of bicycling, applying their English / Language Arts skills as they evaluate resources, write grant proposals, utilize social media, and engage in marketing techniques to advocate for more bicycle-friendly areas in their community.

Students also are investigating molecular structures by testing sugar substitutes and seeing which configurations taste better; the end goal is to create a book or video that places a culinary lens on the subject of chemistry. They’re working with a nonprofit that makes hand-powered bicycles for people who have lost the use of their legs, analyzing different countries and cultures to determine where the need for such transportation is greatest. Most students are learning to code, and nearly all of them are incredibly active in their community’s Blue Zones initiative, helping the food insecure grow healthy vegetables and making commercials that promote healthy behaviors. They work with Monsanto to understand the seed production process. They make documentaries with local survivors of heart disease for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. They’re using scrum boards and other project management techniques. Their video production work is so fantastic that they participate in national media conferences and get asked by out-of-state businesses to make videos and commercials. And so on…

The work that East Campus students do isn’t sitting at a desk regurgitating facts from a textbook. They’re not just answering a few short essay questions based on a teacher lecture days before. Instead, they’re engaged in challenging, real world work. Their assessment is in the quality of what they do, not just recalling minutiae that can be found in five seconds with a smartphone voice command. Are your high school students doing this kind of complex, authentic work on a regular basis? Are your local youth making a positive, meaningful impact on their community and the world around them?

In his most recent TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson notes that our best alternative education programs are “very personalized” and often “involve students outside school as well as inside school. And all the evidence from around the world is – if we all did that – there’d be no need for the alternative.” East Campus proves that every day, reclaiming students’ brilliance that too often gets lost in our more traditional systems.