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The Creative Classroom with John Spencer

John Spencer is passionate about seeing schools embrace creativity and design thinking. In this podcast, he explores the intersection of creative thinking and student learning.

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John Spencer is passionate about seeing schools embrace creativity and design thinking. In this podcast, he explores the intersection of creative thinking and student learning.

Stephanie Higgs on How to Integrate Creative Thinking Into Daily Classroom Practice

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In this latest podcast episode, Stephanie Higgs shares how she has integrated intentional creative thinking into her daily routine with students. She also shares her journey from from working at a museum school up to her current role as a gifted education teacher and coach.

Listen to the Podcast

If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via  Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users).

https://spencerauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Stephanie-Higgs.mp3

About Stephanie Higgs

Stephanie Higgs is a passionate, energetic, and engaging educator whose colleagues describe as radiating contagious joy. Stephanie earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she then taught for six years at a museum magnet school and helped students achieve up to three years’ growth in reading in a single year.  After relocating to Nashville, Stephanie became a fourth-grade teacher, which had been her dream since she was a fourth grader herself! In 2019, Stephanie became a gifted educator and differentiation coach, where the staff quickly named her their Teacher of the Year. Stephanie knows that learning is not bound by the front and back of a textbook or the four walls of the classroom, so she offers engaging, enriching units filled with hands-on opportunities and community outreach to her students daily. Her primary focus is maximum impact on student achievement. Stephanie has presented professional development at the school, district, state, and national levels with a world conference scheduled for the summer of 2021. Her dynamic approach to empowering educators, with a focus on solutions to daily classroom obstacles, has helped her reach many teachers who impact countless lives. Stephanie currently divides her time between daily gifted instruction and coaching teachers to enrich and extend learning to meet the needs of their diverse learners. Her colleagues know that Stephanie thinks she has the best job in the building!

The post Stephanie Higgs on How to Integrate Creative Thinking Into Daily Classroom Practice appeared first on John Spencer.

May 31 2021

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5 Ways Creative Work Is Like Working Out

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Creative work is inherently fun. However, sometimes it’s also frustrating, slow, and difficult. In other words, it’s a lot like working out. We explore this connection in the following article and podcast.

Listen to the Podcast

If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via  Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users).

https://spencerauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Creative-Work-Is-Like-Working-Out.mp3

How Creative Work Is Like Working Out

I love creative work. I spend hours sketching out pictures, editing them, and transforming it all into short videos. I get up at four each morning and plug away at a book or a new blog post. I geek out on the revision process.

On the other hand, I hate working out. I have never experienced the so-called “runner’s high” that people gush about. I sometimes think that the people who refer to the “runner’s high” have never actually gotten high in their lives. For me, it’s like Magic Eye. I’m sure it works for some people but not for me. I don’t get pumped about pumping iron. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy hiking – though that’s mostly because I am consumed by the beauty of nature. If I could experience the beauty of it without having to exert myself physically, I might choose a lawn chair over a trail map.

In other words, the only way I enjoy exercise is if I’m completely distracted by the fact that I’m exercising. Whether it’s a podcast on a long run or a period of silence during weight lifting, my enjoyment comes from the distraction and not the exercise itself.

Don’t get me wrong. I work out five to seven days a week. But I don’t enjoy it.

I choose to work out because it’s necessary.

I feel the benefits of working out. I’ve lost nearly sixty pounds in the last two years and I can move more easily. I feel less stressed out. I’m sleeping better than ever before. Furthermore, I enjoy the deeper periods of silence when I can reflect and plan and come up with random ideas.

I’ve also noticed that exercise helps me in my creative work. I know, for example, that a long run creates a boredom-induced mental rest that often leads to creative breakthroughs. There’s a great exploration of this in the book Rest. I know that weight-lifting makes me feel less stressed and more energized. I am more productive in my creative work when I am also sticking to an exercise regimen.

But it has me wondering if there are actually some overlaps between working out and creative work.

Seven Ways Creative Work Is Similar to Working Out

I’d like to explore the ways in which creative work is similar to working out.

#1: Creative work requires routines.

My friend Josh Stumpenhorst runs every day. Every. Day. It seems unfathomable. If he’s on vacation he runs. If he’s speaking at a conference, he runs. If it’s the day after Thanksgiving and his body wants to hibernate and it’s already below freezing in Illinois, he goes out there and runs. This has become a habit for Josh and, while I think it’s somewhat bizarre, it works for him.

I don’t have a run streak but I do have a creative routine. I get up at early every morning unless I’m on a vacation and I devote at least one hour to writing and then another hour to some other type of creative project.  Sometimes it’s a sketch-note video. Other times, it’s a part of a course I’m teaching or a video for self-paced professional development.

I treat this time like a professional work appointment and I guard that time in my calendar. If I don’t show up, I feel the same disappointment that I feel when I’ve bailed on a friend or a colleague.

Sometimes the creative process is easy. I sit down and get to work and things just click. Other times, it’s a full hour of never quite getting into the groove. But the end result is nearly always a finished product that I’m proud of. And, more importantly, I have developed a creative habit.

#2: Creative work requires rest.

There’s an interesting study cited in the book Rest, where they looked at the productivity of professors who spent 10-60 hours per week on research. Those who spent beyond 30 hours a week on their research ended up producing fewer papers and having fewer creative breakthroughs.

Rest is vital for creativity. The down time we experience when we go for walks, exercise, or take naps allows our brains to process seemingly disconnected ideas. This mental rest also creates the space for us to solve complex problems in a relaxed way.

This is similar to the value of rest time in exercise. Recuperation allows the muscles to heal (the whole idea of muscle protein synthesis). It’s why people will wait 24 to 48 hours between workouts. Your body needs rest and I would argue that your mind needs rest as well.

#3: Creative work can feel uninspiring.

Inspiration is critical to creativity. Those little sparks of ideas often ignite a passion for a project. But then there’s this less inspiring element where you fan the flames and tend to the fire. You will hit moments of frustration and boredom. Your work doesn’t turn out right and you can’t figure out what you need to do to fix it. You make mistakes. Huge mistakes. And for all the talk of “embracing failure,” these moments still feel lousy.

You have days when you don’t feel like getting started. You have a show you can binge watch or you have to watch or dishes and it’s tempting to take the day off. In these moments, the creative work can feel like a run in the icy rain when all you want to do is wrap yourself in a blanket and read. These are the moments when creative work can feel like climbing a switchback without being able to see the summit. But it’s always worth it in the end. Because, although it feels amazing to be inspired, it feels more amazing to finish a creative task when you didn’t feel like getting started.

See, there’s a common myth out there that you should do creative work when you feel inspired. You get excited about an idea and then you throw yourself into the creative process until you have something you love. But creative work is still work. It’s fun. It’s enjoyable. But it’s also a discipline that requires hard work and follow-through, even when you don’t feel like it. I created the following chart to remind myself that writing isn’t about feeling inspired:

Some of my biggest creative breakthroughs occurred on days when I didn’t initially feel inspired at the outset. I’ve learned that the inspiration is often the result, not the cause, of getting started and doing the work.

#4: Creative work is difficult at the beginning.

Creative work is frustrating at first. You feel like you don’t know what you are doing and you constantly ask yourself if you’re doing it the right way. You’re also slower. You haven’t hit that place of creative fluency where you can spend hours lost in a task. Everything seems difficult. Chances are you’re not that good at it, either. So you are able to identify quality work in others but you can’t seem to pull it off on your own.

The same thing happens when you start lifting weights or running. You’re slow. You’re sloppy. Everything takes a long time. Progress seems painfully slow. You don’t have the capacity or the stamina. Everything seems new to you – but not in that cool, exciting novelty kind of way. You feel lost. In other words, the early stages in your creative journey can feel like the first few weeks of getting into running or weight-lifting or yoga. It’s painful. It’s confusing. Everybody around you seems to know what they are doing.

However, it helps to start small and build up over time. We often think about building creative habits but it’s more about building creative momentum. I make the distinction of habits and momentum in the following visual:

Note that consistency alone can help build habits. However, combining consistency with continual improvement can help lead to creative momentum. Slowly, you start improving and building up your creative endurance and eventually it gets easier to engage in daily creative work. Even so, this can feel isolating and you may want to reach out to a community. Which leads to my next idea . . .

#5: Creative work thrives when we are part of a community.

Individual sports are rarely as individual as they appear. For example, runners will join running clubs and participate in larger communities. They network with one another and geek out about what type of gels to use for refueling or how best to prevent shin splints. They realize something critical: even when you work alone you never want to be entirely isolated.

So back to creativity . . .

Creative work is often solitary. Even in collaborative projects, you will spend hours working alone. You will find that you need people to affirm you, challenge you, and share their insights with you. This is why I’m a big fan of mastermind groups. A mastermind group is a tight community where people share their creative journey with other members of the group. Typically, a mastermind group will do the following:

  • Share your needs with others and ask for ideas or resources
  • Share your frustrations (there’s a power to being vulnerable)
  • Share your success stories
  • Share your hopes and dreams that sound crazy to the world
  • Share your goals and your progress toward those goals
  • Share strategies with one another and solve problems together
  • Share the emotional aspects of the creative journey
  • Talk about potential collaboration options together

I’ve been a part of a mastermind group for about two years now and it’s been a powerful experience. If you’re not familiar with a mastermind group, here’s how it works:


A mastermind group is a self-initiated, democratic community with members who share similar goals and interests. Members meet together in small groups of 3-6 people to provide accountability, structure, and feedback. Often, they share strategies and ideas. Mastermind groups are used in in the arts, academic communities, in entrepreneurial circles, and in the non-profit world. When you join a mastermind group, you will share your journey and learn from others around you. Together, you will also share your ideas, prototypes, or work and give one another feedback. You will share your challenges and frustrations. It’s a chance to be vulnerable. As a member of the community, you will listen and provide empathy when others struggle. But you might also help others problem-solve and find solutions. Members will share success stories and celebrate those successes together. Mastermind groups can meet in-person but also online through video chats. I am a member of two mastermind groups focused on creative work. I find that the informal community has been a sort of “soft accountability” that keeps me going.

Gamify Your Creative Process

Exercise apps and fitness organizations have found success in helping people develop fitness habits by using elements of gamification. Think of it this way. Video games are designed to be habitual. Whether you’re playing a simple game on your phone or a complex game with rich world-building on a gaming console, there is something inherent in video games that draw us in. This is by design. Game designers have crafted the user experience to make gameplay habitual. And it’s not just game designers. Social media apps use notifications, badges, and metrics to get us to spend more time on their platforms. Health apps use these game elements to get people to get active and eat right. What if we used principles of game design to gamify creative habits in real-life? I explored this idea in sketch video:


By using elements of gamification, we can develop creative momentum. Here are a few ideas:

  • Make it easy to start. Games work because the barrier of entry is low. Similarly, in developing creative habits, you might want to start with an easier goal. So you might be ten minutes a day learning to play a new instrument or you might start out writing just 100 words per day. You can also start off with smaller projects that allow you to hit the finish line faster. There’s actually a strong rationale for this approach. By making our goals easier to attain and experiencing some “big wins” early, we gain confidence and are then able to stick with a habit over time.
  • As you improve, you can increase the challenge incrementally. Here you create “levels” for yourself where you can hit benchmarks and increase the challenge level. This allows you to keep the challenge level just above your skill level. According to the Flow Channel model, if the skill level is too low, you’ll often experience worry and anxiety. But when the challenge is just above the skill level, you are more likely to hit a state of flow.
  • As you go, you can track progress. You might have a progress bar or a series of tally marks. You might create badges for yourself. Another option is to use three jars with marbles and move the marbles from a “haven’t started” to “started” to “finished.” You can also create a streak that builds with each day you have participated in the habit. If you’ve ever played Pokemon Go, you’ve seen how they keep track of consecutive days. Runners will often do a “run streak.” The same can be true of writing, painting, or reading. When you keep track of a streak, you build momentum. As you succeed, you might even create small rewards or celebrations for yourself as you hit key benchmarks.
  • You might also need to create visual cues. On phones, we have alerts and notifications for games. But you can also create notifications by creating visual cues in your physical environment. For example, if you want to read 50 books in a year, leave books throughout your home; on the coffee table by your nightstand, by your computer and maybe a few other places, just make sure things are sanitary. You might also put a book in your car or in your backpack. The point is to put these cues everywhere. You might also use sticky notes with reminders of your commitment to a creative habit. Finally, you might want to join a community. Gaming often includes social interaction. As a maker, you might create a mastermind group with fellow makers who nerd out on their craft. This can give you a sense of belonging and help you take creative risks. In the end, there is no single formula for developing creative habits. By using elements of gamification, you help make these habits stick. What creative habit would you like to form?

What Does This Mean for Schools?

Ultimately, creative work and working out are both habits and even disciplines. And they’re both vital to life.

But they both require time and effort. If we want students to grow into creative thinkers, they need more time to hit a state of creative fluency. Creative work can’t be a culminating activity or a fun project you do once the “real work” is finished. Creative work is the “real work.”

Teachers can’t control the bell schedule or the packed curriculum map. But they can still infuse their units with creative thinking. Project-based learning and design thinking are content-neutral (or maybe content universal). We, as educators, can incorporate creative thinking into our lessons if we’re willing to reimagine our lessons and units to provide as many creative opportunities as possible.

When this happens, it won’t always be pretty. Students will hit moments of boredom, frustration, and confusion. After all, it’s a lot like working out. But that’s part of the creative journey.

Looking for more? Check this out.

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The post 5 Ways Creative Work Is Like Working Out appeared first on John Spencer.

May 25 2021

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Getting Started with Content Curation in the Classroom

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Content curation is a vital part of the creative process. In this blog post and podcast, we explore why curation matters and how we can help students learn how to engage in the curation process.

Listen to the Podcast

If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via  Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users).

https://spencerauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Content-Curation.mp3

We Need Critical Consumers

When we think of creativity, it’s easy to picture a person coming up with something entirely new, pulling it from thin air and making it from scratch. But if you watch people engaged in creative work, they are often critical consumers of the same type of work they create. There’s this ongoing cycle of critical consuming, inspiration, and creative work. As they create more, it leads to a deeper ability to consume critically, where they find more inspiration, and the cycle continues. It’s an idea I explored in the following sketch video:


Chefs enjoy great meals. Musicians listen to great music. Engineers make sense out of what other people have designed. The better they are at consuming, the more likely they are to be inspired to create something new.

So, if we want students to be makers, we need students to be critical consumers.

However, we live in a world of instant information, where ideas go viral without much thought regarding accuracy and validity. It’s a place where content is cheap. Cheap to make. Cheap to share. Cheap to consume. The traditional gatekeepers are gone, which is great for students. They can create and share their work in ways that were previously unimaginable.

But there’s a cost. The best stuff doesn’t always rise to the top and, if we’re not careful, we mistake the speed of consumption for the depth of knowledge. This is why we need students to learn the art of curation.

What Is Content Curation?

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise in popularity of a group of bloggers that specialize in content curation. Think of Brain Pickings, Farnam Street, or Open Culture. In a world of information saturation, curation has become a critical skill.

But curation goes beyond simply collecting items online. The best curators know how to find what is best by immersing themselves in a niche area while also making surprising connections between ideas in seemingly unrelated worlds. Curators find specific excerpts that are relevant at the moment but also timeless. They can explain the purpose, the context, and the necessity of what they are citing.

I’m drawn toward an archaic definition of the term. It originally had a much more earthy, even gritty, connotation. Some linguists tie it back to the Medieval Latin word curare, which meant “to cure an illness.” It had a connotation of providing loving attention and management. Other linguists tie the word “curator” goes back to the word curatus, which meant, “spiritual guide,”or “one responsible for the care of souls.”

Over time, this word morphed into a deep care and love for a particular subject, knowledge, or set of artistic works. Think of art curators who define the spaces of a museum. They know the works on a deep level and can explain the meaning and purpose in ways that make the work more relevant.

Some of the best curators are able to tap into that original sense of being “one responsible for the care of souls.” They care, not only about what the work means but about how it will make you a better person when you interact with it.

As teachers, this is what we do. We help students grow in wisdom. We’re curators.

But that’s also what we want with our students. We want them to have both an excited passion and a nuanced care for what they are learning. We want them to pay attention to context and purpose in the information they consume. We want them to make connections and provide their own lens.


What does curation typically look like?

The best curators are the ultimate geeks. They nerd out on key ideas, movements, information, and artistic works. Whether it’s a painting or a mathematical process, they find joy in the process of discovery. While there is an overlap with criticism, curators are more likely to geek out on the subject in a way that is explanatory instead of evaluative. This is often combined with a desire to make a work accessible to the public. On some level, both curators and critics are the gatekeepers of information (I know, I know, I mentioned earlier that the gatekeepers are gone). However, while critics are the ones shutting the gates, curators are often the ones who open the gates and convincing people to come inside. A true curator is someone who is both a fan and a critic. They are constantly celebrating but also critiquing work:

If all of that seems too abstract, here are a few things that are a part of the curation process:

  • Searching for Content: The best curators are the ones who can find content that not everyone notices. This is what makes Maria Popova of Brain Pickings so amazing. She has this way of finding content that people are missing, looking in places we’ve overlooked.
  • Geeking Out on Content: The best curators are able to collect and consume great content. It’s not mindless consumption. It is mindful and relaxed but also sharp and analytical. One of the things I’ve noticed about great curators is that they scribble notes all over the margins of books and yet they feel the complete freedom to skim and skip when necessary. They know how to find the information that actually matters.
  • Organizing Content: Curation often involves placing content into categories or themes. Often, students will try and figure out the “right” way to organize the information, because schools typically teach students an external organizational system. However, with content curation, the classification process is deeply personal and should mirror the way that students think. It’s a chance to engage in tagging and categorizing in a way that feels meaningful to the students.
  • Making Connections: The best curators are able to find connections between seemingly opposite artists, ideas, or disciplines in ways that make you think, “Man, I never considered that before.”
  • Finding Trends: This aspect of curation is a little more analytical. Sometimes it even involves picking apart data or crunching numbers. It’s the idea of looking at information across several spaces and finding specific trends. This is often where someone arrives at a different, counterintuitive conclusion.
  • Adding a Unique Lens: Curators rarely write in-depth explanations of the content. There’s typically a certain clarity and brevity in the commentary they add. When done well, a curator almost seems invisible, moving along the snippets of content. And yet, over time, you begin to appreciate the subtle personality and voice of a curator. If the critic and commentator sometimes falls victim to shouting their opinions, the curator is gently whispering a relevant idea to a distracted culture.
  • Sharing the Content: Content curation has the end goal of getting great content into the hands of a larger audience. It is deliberately others-centered, even when the curator is introspective. Sometimes, the goal is to provide a set of practical information into the hands of readers. Others are more about offering something intriguing, even if it’s not inherently practical.

Five Ways to Get Started with Content Curation

The following are five ways to get started on the student content curation process.

#1: Model content curation.

Notice that few students walk into class with curation skills. We live in a consumer culture that values speed and amusement over slower, deliberate thought that is needed in curation. It’s not surprising then, that teachers often need to model the curation process. Others might use spreadsheets or shared documents. Still, others might have students organize key information in sketchnotes and elaborate on their ideas in journals. I love the idea of starting with a private journal as a way for students to discover their interests and geek out on new ideas:


However, as they get into the journaling process, they can then share their curations with a larger audience. It might be something a visual curation process similar to what you might find on Pinterest. Or it might be a series of podcast episodes that they do. When I taught middle school, students often created their Curiositycasts, where they would explore a question and share their answers with an audience as a series of podcast episodes. It might also be a short presentation or video that they create. Or they might go with a more literal example of a curation and have students create their own museums where they find primary and secondary sources and display the information in an interactive way. Students can then invite the community to visit their museums.

Note that this is where librarians play such a critical role. They can help students with the process of finding, organizing, and sharing critical information. They are the true curators of the school community and the experts in developing information literacy.


#2: Let students geek out.

Curators are natural geeks. They get excited about ideas and topics within their domain. They engage in research in a way that feels like an adventure. If we want students to engage in content curation, we need to let them geek out. Tap into their prior knowledge and let them run with it. A great starting place here is Geek Out Blog project, where students explore their geeky interests and share what they find with an authentic audience. This is an extension of the notion of a Genius Hour project


The key idea here is that we truly provide permission to let students geek out on whatever topic they want. It’s truly based on student choice. If they love fashion or Minecraft or TikTok videos, let them run with it. This builds on student’s prior knowledge and their sense of autonomy. Along the way, it can create more buy-in and improve engagement. As a teacher, you can encourage students to go deeper in their topics by asking critical thinking questions and encouraging them to see how their topics connect to various systems, ideas, and communities. This can actually be a great way to help students build empathy.

#3: Spend more time on it.

Content curation takes time. Take a look at any master curator and you’ll see this commitment to time. There’s no way around it. If you want to see students curate, you have to carve out specific time for it. However, we can integrate curation into the daily process of information consumption. This can feel challenging in certain subjects, where we feel the time crunch and the need to cover plenty of content. However, the curation process is often about how students organize and select information. They can engage in curation as they read secondary and primary sources in social studies or as they read informational texts about concepts and ideas in science. They can curate math strategies and compare and contrasts process. They can curate as they engage in research in an ELA class.

When I taught social studies, I would do 2-day curation projects where students could ask questions and gather resources based on their interests. We would often start with a Wonder Day activity, where students asked a question, found answers, and summarized their findings.


The next day, they would engage in a curation. Students might rank the best inventions of the 19th century or select key figures from a war. They might curate examples of modern art or create a curation timeline of fashion. There so many ways for them to explore history through curation in a way that still aligned to the topics and standards they were learning.

#4: Begin earlier.

Traditionally, teachers wait until the end of the year to have students do research. It’s usually part of a multi-week project. If you begin at the beginning of the year, they will slowly learn the art of curation as the year progresses. So, going back to this idea of the time crunch, you are essentially scrapping the big research project and instead integrating research, curation, and communication into multiple unit plans you design.

#5: Let students own the process.

They should choose the topics, the questions, and the sources they find interesting. This could connect to research, silent reading, blogging, or Genius Hour. It’s also important to let students choose the platform. Curation can happen in a journal or a notebook if they want to keep it private. Or it could happen in a blog, in a podcast, or in a video series. In some cases, visual curation sites like Pinterest can work for students who want to organize things in a spatial manner.

You Are Already a Curator

People often say things like, “the teacher is no longer the source of information now that students can curate it themselves.” This is typically accompanied by the term “guide on the side” to describe a teacher’s role.

While I see some validity in this sentiment, I think it proves that now more than ever, teachers need to be curators. They need to be geeking out on their subjects. They need to help students figure out where to go. Yes, they might be “on the side,” but they are still guides, helping students navigate the terrain for the first time ever. And that’s precisely what a curator does. We curate so that we can help students learn the art of content curation.

Teachers are already curators. We piece together resources, research, and ideas as we develop lessons. We curate the content that we teach. This isn’t anything new or groundbreaking. It’s what happens when we find a great book or video and share it with our students.

But what if we take this art of curation and teach it to our students as well? What if we empowered students to curate their own content? What if we helped them grow, not only into lifelong learners, but into lifelong curators?

Get Started with Content Curation

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The post Getting Started with Content Curation in the Classroom appeared first on John Spencer.

May 19 2021

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Manuel Herrera on How to Use Visual Thinking for Deeper Learning

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In this latest podcast episode, I interview Manuel Herrera on the idea of visual thinking and how to make it a reality in the K-12 classroom. Manuel shares specific strategies and key insights to help you on your visual thinking and sketchnoting journey.

Listen to the Podcast

If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via  Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users).

https://spencerauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/M-Herrera.mp3

About Manuel Herrera

Manuel is an educator, a speaker, and an illustrator. He specializes in sketchnoting, visual thinking, design thinking and creative problem solving. Over the past 18 years, he has keynoted and led workshops at educational conferences like SXSWEdu, ISTE, TCEA, MassCUE, FETC & .EDU. Manuel has illustrated books, publications, and graphics for a variety of organizations, publishers and schools. Currently, he is the Coordinator of Learning Services for the Affton School District and an adjunct professor for Webster University. Both located in St. Louis, MO. In 2018 Manuel became a Google Innovator at LAX18, and in 2016 he was named the Midwest Education Technology Conference Spotlight Educator. You can follow Manuel on Twitter and Instagram at @manuelherrera33.

The post Manuel Herrera on How to Use Visual Thinking for Deeper Learning appeared first on John Spencer.

May 10 2021

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Geek Out Projects: My Approach to Genius Hour and 20% Time in the Language Arts Classroom

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There are so many different ways we can empower students to own the learning; from owning the assessment process to doing choice menus and choice boards to having students engage in project-based learning. In this article, we explore how Geek Out Blogs allow students to own their learning by choosing the topics for reading and writing. It’s an approach that’s authentic and project-based but also structured and aligned to the content standards.

Listen to the Podcast

If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via  Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users).

https://spencerauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Geek-Out-Blogs.mp3

Five Reasons to Have Students Pursue Their Interests in Class

A few years ago, I co-wrote the book Empower with the driving question, “What happens when students own their learning?” As a middle school teacher, I had seen how the biggest challenges I faced with student engagement were actually challenges with student self-direction and self-management. I worked with some amazing colleagues who helped redesign the learning experiences with a focus on student-centered approaches, including project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and service learning. We ran a co-curricular program called Project IMPACT and launched Social Voice, where students created blogs, podcasts, and documentaries. We took on the mindset of “PBL for all” and I got to participate in a STEM Camp for English Language Learners.

As a professor, I’ve gotten to observe teachers at every level, including early elementary teachers who launched student-centered lab experiments and social studies projects. But they also found subtle ways to incorporate voice and choice, like the way their students would compare and contrast math strategies or the times the way they incorporated choice boards into their learning. Over and over again, I have noticed that something powerful happens when students own the learning:



One of easiest ways for students to own their learning is by choosing the topics they pursue in the ELA classroom. In other words, instead of making the subject interesting, we empower students to pursue their own interests within the content area. The following are five reasons students should have opportunities to pursue their interests in class.


  1. Starting with student interests can help build student confidence. Certain students might struggle with a particular skill or concept. They might arrive to your class feeling like they are behind. However, when they pursue their interests, they build on their own expertise and gain greater confidence in your classroom.
  2. Starting with student interests sends the message that we are all experts in something. This creates a culture where students are able to learn from one another from day one. It’s also a chance to be humble and model the learning process for your students.
  3. Starting with student interests affirms their agency. As the instructor, you are saying, “I want you to share your expertise. I don’t care if people think it’s shallow or insignificant. Who you are matters to me. So, if you geek out about Hello Kitty or limericks or super spicy pepper jams, I want you to share it.”
  4. Starting with student interests can be a safe way to get to know one another. Not every student feels safe sharing their story. Starting with a personal biography or a comprehensive get-to-know-you activity can create situations where students re-live trauma. While vulnerability has a place in the classroom, it can take months to develop trust as a community, and students should have a sense of control over how much they are sharing. Furthermore, some students don’t feel safe sharing aspects of their identity. This is especially true for certain members of the LGBT+ community. However, everyone has geeky interests and sharing geeky interests allows students to share something personal without centering it on their story or their identity.
  5. By starting with student interests, you are able to create a bridge between the subject area you teach and each student’s world. As a result, they are able to see the subject area matter as inherently relevant to their lives.

In other words, when students are able to pursue their own interests, they have more agency in their learning. They are shifting from compliance and engagement into a place of true empowerment, where they have voice and choice in their learning.

Getting Started with Geek Out Blogs

Geek Out Blogs are based on the concept of a Genius Hour, where students get to chase their curiosity while they create something entirely new.

Genius Hour (or 20% Time) projects begin with a simple idea: give students a dedicated period of time to pursue their passions, interests, and questions in a creative way. It’s an idea popularized by Google but one that has existed for years in the technology industry. Here’s how it works:



With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey: They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditionally academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep sea creatures. They can then match these topics with topic-neutral standards. Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines. Students decide on the grouping. Some work alone. Others work in pairs or small groups. In the end, students figure out what they will make and how they will share their learning with the world. A word of caution: It’s not a free-for-all. The best Genius Hour projects have systems and structures that empower students to reach their full potential.

This is why I created Geek Out Blogs when I was a middle school teacher. With Geek Out Blogs, students pursue their own topics but they do so in a more structured way that supports reading, writing, and multimedia composition. Along the way, students learn information literacy, media literacy, and digital citizenship. They’re also developing vital soft skills, like communication, curation, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Geek Out Blogs work well as a get-to-know-you activity at the start of the year. However, they also work well as project you can do at the end of the year, where students get the chance to apply reading and writing skills they’ve learned in a way that ties into their personal interests. I’ve seen some teachers run Geek Out Blog Projects as a once-a-week activity that students do for an entire year. Here, they gradually add key ideas to their blog throughout the year. Others prefer to to take 2-3 weeks once or twice a year to run the project and then let students add to their blogs as an enrichment activity throughout the year. While Geek Out Blogs are generally an individual project, some students might choose to create partner or small group blogs with multiple posts from multiple authors. So, a small group might do a fashion blog or a gamer blog and that’s totally fine. I find that it helps to give students flexibility in grouping.

Phase One: Choosing Your Geek Out Topic

In many cases, students struggle with blogging because they haven’t actually read many blogs. They might have read some articles online and they might have access to magazines but they haven’t really seen how the blogging process works. For this reason, it can help to expose students to all types of blogs. As a teacher, you might curate a set of blogs relating to all kinds of interests. This list could include gamer blogs, sports blogs, fashion blogs, music blogs, foodie blogs, etc. I began my curation by reaching out to people in my own network who nerded out on different topics and I specifically asked for references that were inclusive and diverse.

Once you have your curation of blogs, you can place students in pairs and have them explore examples. During this phase, students can come up with a general definition of a blog and list the key features that they notice (a date, visuals, a catchy title, ideas that are broken up by headers, a first-person voice). From there, they can pair up again and compare their lists. Next, students can pair up one more time to analyze and evaluate the blog examples. You might have students grade the examples using a blogging rubric or do a t-chart with best practices and worst practices. They might select a group of blogs and rank them from worst to first using their own criteria. However, for a more open-ended and analytical approach, students could fill out a see-think-wonder chart where they select blogs that caught their attention and jot down what they see, what they think about the blog, and what they wonder.

I realize that analyzing examples of blogs might be time-consuming but the goal is to build their prior knowledge before launching into the project. From there, students can start to explore their own geeky interests. The following questions can help guide students along the way:


  1. What do you really care about? Why?
  2. What is something that you’re passionate about?
  3. What is something you know inside and out?
  4. What are some things you believe deeply in? What are some convictions you have about life?
  5. What do you love to do?
  6. What do you know a lot about?
  7. If you could invent your own course, what would it be?

I also created this Genius Hour prompt that provides students with a general sense of how the Geek Out Blog / Genius Hour approach works:



As a middle school teacher, I loved watching how diverse their interests were. In one class, students were all over the place. A girl chose Korean pop music while the girl next to her delved into issues of immigration. A boy across the room chose Minecraft while the kid next to him chose zombies (and immediately began writing about the seven amazing reasons why zombies would make great pets). A few kids wrote about their lives, their families or their cultures. Some students have even focused on the intersection between multiple interests.

During this phase, it can help to have students identify their potential audience. This is a great chance to have a conversation about privacy:

It’s also a chance to have students to build empathy as they explore who their audience is, what their audience needs, what questions their audience has, and how they will reach their potential audience.

Once they have a sense of their blog topic and their audience, students can create their blog. As a teacher, you will likely choose the platform students will use. However, they can create the blog name, the color scheme, their profile picture, and other blogging features. I love the way KidBlog works in terms of the layers of privacy and the management of the blogs from the teacher profile. However, I also like the way Edublogs for the rich features that mirror the WordPress platform. If you want students to publish their work to specific interest-oriented communities, you might check out Write About (which I helped co-design) which focuses on students publishing to an authentic audience within the platform.

Phase Two: Generate Ideas

Once students have created their blog, they can begin brainstorming ideas for blog posts they would like to write. The following activities can help students generate ideas:


  • Create a list of questions people might have about your topic. You might even pair students up and have them ask as many questions as they can come up with about the topic. This process will help students create an initial list of blog post ideas.
  • Have students engage in a quick research of existing blogs in that domain (i.e. sports blogs, fashion blogs, maker blogs, gamer blogs) and see what information hasn’t been written about before. What ideas haven’t been explored? What perspectives haven’t been considered? What groups have been left out of the conversation? This can help students clarify their audience and find their creative voice.
  • Ask students to find connections between their topic and larger trends. They might look at social, cultural, economic, environmental, or technological trends. For example, a student might explore fast fashion and its environmental impact or another student might look at the social and economic effects of the growing esports industry.
  • Encourage students to go back to the curation of blogs and explore what types of blog posts exist in different domains. Some of the most creative ideas happen when we borrow ideas from one domain and apply it to another. For example, you might take a “makeover” idea from a home improvement blog and use that approach with a gaming blog to reconsider how gameplay could be improved.

After students have generated a list of initial blog post ideas, you can provide them with a set of ideas that they can customize. I find that it helps to create sentence frames that they can use as their initial blog post title. This can help with students who need additional language support:


  1. Research your topic and find seven random things that you find fascinating. Create a post called “Seven Things You Might Not Know About _” or “Seven Fascinating Facts About _.”

  2. Think about a strong opinion you have about your “geek out” topic. Write a persuasive post on the topic.
  3. Write the story behind how you got into your particular “geek out” topic. What is it that you find so fascinating? Create a post called “The Surprising Story of __”

  4. Write a “how-to” post showing how to do something connected to your topic (i.e. how to do a kick flip in skateboarding, how to make a TikTok video, etc.). Write “How to _ in _ Easy Steps”

  5. Create a Q+A post on your “geek out” topic. Include questions that people would typically have. Write “Common Questions and Practical Answers About _”

  6. Do an interview with an expert on your topic. Write “(Expert Name) on _, __, and _

  7. Write an introductory blog post for people who are new to the topic. Share the key entry-level information people would need to know. Write “How to Get Started with _

  8. Write a history of your topic and include a timeline. Write “The History of _ from _ Until Now”

  9. Compare and contrast two aspects of your topic. It could be two bands and their respective styles, two approaches to a skill, two opinions, two brands (Marvel versus DC).  Write, “__ Versus _” or “How _ Compares to _
  10. Do a Best of / Worst of blog post with the sentence frame “The Seven Best _ in _” or “The Seven Worst _ in _

In this phase, some students will choose to work in isolation as they plan out all of their blog posts. Others will want to brainstorm with a partner or in a small group. They’ll bounce ideas back and forth and add to their brainstorm. Some students will map out an entire blogging calendar while others will keep a massive brainstorm and choose what they’ll write in a more spontaneous way.

Phase Three: Start Blogging

In this phase, you can blend together shorter pieces and longer pieces. For example, a student might do a 2-paragraph shorter blog post and then spend a longer time engaging in research, outlining, writing, and revision. Here, you can integrate direct instruction into the Geek Out Blog process. For example, you might provide students with sentence frames for questions and have them practice asking research questions. You can then do direct instruction and guided practice on the research process while allowing students to determine how they want to organize their research (a table, a spreadsheet, notecards, sketchnote). I developed the following structured research process for students:



This is also a chance to integrate mini-lessons and discussions about digital citizenship and digital ethics. Students can learn about copyright and Creative Commons as they select visuals. They can create digital ethics that they use as their norms for engaging online. You can also teach some smaller mini-lessons on visual design and cover the basics on how to create and edit audio, how to make slides / visuals that grab the reader’s attention, and how to edit videos. If you missed my recent interview with Clement Townsend, you should check out his ideas for how we can incorporate video and audio composition into our content areas. I really think there is value in having students design and embed multimedia elements in student blogs. In the past, I’ve even had students create anchor charts with design dos and don’ts.

In this phase, it can help to use a simple checklist that students use for each blog post:


  • My post has a title that is interesting and compelling
  • The title at the top and the heading titles are capitalized
  • My posts at least one visual (picture) that is Creative Commons compliant
  • I have broken my blog post down using headings
  • I used labels and/or tags that relate to my topic
  • My post is proof-read for errors in spelling, grammar, and any other mistakes that will potentially drive my teacher bonkers
  • I have shared my post with my teacher and my classmates. (Optional: I have shared my posts on social media)

It also helps to build in time for students to leave feedback on one another’s blog posts. Generally, I broke the feedback up into two areas. The first was the writer’s workshop, where students might use something like a 3-2-1 structure (3 strengths, two weaknesses, one suggestion) or a more in-depth 20-minute feedback process:



The second type of feedback is the feedback on student ideas. This is the public feedback students give to one another when reading their blog posts. The goal here is to engage in a deeper conversation in the comment section of the blog. I developed the following sentence stems for students who need additional support in leaving blog comments:

COMMENTS AS QUESTIONS


  • Why did you __?

  • What made you think of writing ___?
  • Have you considered ___?
  • Is it possible that __?

  • Have you considered the possibility that __?

  • I was wondering why __?



COMMENTS AS STATEMENTS

Agree / Disagree


  • I agree that __ because __.

  • I disagree with your thought that __ because __.


  • While I agree that _ I’m wondering _.


Clarifying


  • I was a little confused about __. Could you explain ___?

  • I noticed that __. I was wondering if you could explain how _?

Adding Your Thoughts


  • I really enjoyed __ about your post. (Add thoughts afterward)

  • You mentioned that __. This had me thinking __,

  • You bring up the problem __. I think a solution might be __.


COMMENTS AS PARAGRAPHS

Paragraph #1 – Agree / Disagree

I agree with ___ but I’m wondering if __ is also true.  I feel this way about __, because ___. What do you think about that?


Paragraph #2 – Questioning / Adding Additional Thoughts

I feel _ about your thoughts on___.  What you said about _ had me wondering about __. Have you considered _?


Paragraph #3 – Quoting the Post

You mentioned, “quote the post.” I agree/disagree with this, because ___.


Paragraph #4 – Adding Your Own Thoughts

I agree with _______. I also think (give your own thoughts).

Phase Four: Reflect on the Process

The Geek Out Blog project allows students to iterate on their work because they continually add newer blog posts. Many students will choose to edit and update previous blog posts. However, when it’s all done, they can also reflect on their process using the following questions:


  1. How did the blogging process go? Were you able to engage with a real audience?
  2. What did you learn about yourself based upon this experience?
  3. What part was the hardest for you? Why?
  4. What part was the easiest for you? Why?
  5. Will you continue to post to your blog? Why or why not?

What About the Standards?

Whenever I mention Geek Out Projects or Genius Hour, people ask, “How do you get away with teaching whatever topics you want? Don’t you have a ton of standards you need to teach?” People assume we have added an additional project to an already packed plate. But that’s not how it works. We aren’t adding anything. We’re re-arranging the plate in a way that honors student voice and choice.

The key is to tap into content-neutral standards. For example, in our Geek Out Blogs, my middle school students had to make sure that their blogs included persuasive and explanatory texts. Here are the two main standards we used.


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.

Students also engaged in research:


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

They moved through the entire writing process:


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1-3 above.)
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of Language standards 1-3 up to and including grade 8 here.)

They also published their work to the world, both in writing shorter and longer posts:


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

This project included nearly every single Common Core Writing Standard in the first few weeks of school. Notice, also, how none of those standards mention specific topics. These were all topic-neutral standards, which meant students could choose skateboarding or fashion or history or video games and they’re still learning the same standards. As long as they were practicing discreet skills in reading and writing, they could choose their own topics.

Note: This is a highly updated version of an article I originally posted on August 19, 2013.

The post Geek Out Projects: My Approach to Genius Hour and 20% Time in the Language Arts Classroom appeared first on John Spencer.

May 04 2021

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How Do You Teach to the Standards When Doing Project-Based Learning?

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It’s easy to remember the highlight reels of the project-based approach I used when I taught eighth grade. I think about the moment we finished our second mural and my students were so excited they started spontaneously cheering or the moment students asked thoughtful questions to our guests during the immigration documentary or the way students continued to surprise me with their blogging projects year after year or the creativity in their STEM-related engineering projects.

But for all the highlights, there are also a string of failures. I’ve made a ton of mistakes in my PBL journey. Big mistakes. Epic mistakes. I designed project-based units that were cringe-worthy; where I had to stop after a few lessons and say, “This was a bad idea. I tried something and it failed. We’re going to change this up a bit.”

One such project was the Great Linear Equation Debacle of 2011. As an eighth grade self-contained teacher, I wanted to prove that our math block could be fully project-based. After a successful statistics project, I decided we would do a “Linear Equations in Real Life” project. I challenged students to find real examples of linear equations and interview experts who used this skill in their daily life.

It tanked.

Students couldn’t find enough real examples, much less, experts they could interview. The project felt forced and the end goal was something they didn’t find relevant. To make matters worse, students struggled to determine linear functions while looking at a graph or to solve a linear equation using an algorithm. At first, I blamed my students. I viewed their disengagement as laziness rather than confusion. However, after four days of a failing project, I realized it was a design problem. On a fundamental level, those standards didn’t fit in with a project-based approach.

In my drive for authenticity, I had created pseudo-context. In my rejection of cookie cutter learning, I had turned the PBL process into something cookie cutter. At that point, we regrouped and focused on a problem-based approach with more scaffolding and some time for guided practice. We did 3-step math problems and more authentic word problems rooted in real-world experiences.

It was a hard lesson in how to align the content standards you have to teach with the project-based learning that leads to student voice and choice.

Listen to the Podcast

If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via  Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users).

https://spencerauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/PBL-and-Standards-1.mp3

When the Standards Don’t Align to PBL

There are certain standards that simply don’t fit well within a PBL framework. It’s not that these standards are less authentic or real-world. It’s just that they lend themselves better to other frameworks. In general, these are the standards that:


  • improve with repetition and daily practice
  • focus on discreet, measurable skills
  • require significant direct instruction and guided practice
  • tend to be individual endeavors

In language arts, these standards might include reading fluency, blending, and phonics work. In math, this might involve math facts and basic computational understanding. In social studies, this could involve discreet skills in studying maps. In art, PE, and music, these are often skill-based performance standards that simply require daily practice.

As a teacher in a PBL unit, you can integrate some of the skills practice into a larger project. For example, you might do a goal-setting and video project in PE that integrates performance standards or you might integrate map skills work into a larger PBL unit on World War II (a more topic-driven PBL unit). Other times, you might take 5 minutes out of a class period and simply practice a more repetitive standard. For example, in a language arts class, students might do blogging projects but take 5-10 minutes to do a daily fluency activity. The key idea here is to recognize which standards don’t fit well within a PBL unit and instead require drill, practice, or repetition.  However, often our standard do fit well within a PBL framework.

How to Align Standards to Projects

People often debate about whether we should be process-driven or product-driven in project-based learning. But I think there’s a third option. We can be learning-driven. In other words, we should start with the question, “What do we want students to learn?” and let that drive the process and the product.

At times, this looks very product-focused. Ask a student in the midst of a NaNoWriMo project (where they create a novel in a month) and they are focusing on that end result of a finished novel. True, the process is important but they might just deviate from it a bit. By contrast, a student in a design thinking project might begin with empathy toward a group and only later, after working through the process, hit a place of ideation and prototyping. But regardless, you as a teacher, will be focused on what they are learning through this journey.

PBL is not a license to ditch the standards or take a break from real learning. It’s not the same thing as a pizza party or Field Day. As educators, we need to make sure our projects lead students to a place where they can master the standards. But how do we actually accomplish this?

How do you do PBL when you have a ton of standards to teach?

Whenever I mention Geek Out Projects or Genius Hour, people ask, “How do you get away with teaching whatever topics you want? Don’t you have a ton of standards you need to teach?” People assume we have added an additional project to an already packed plate. But that’s not how it works. We aren’t adding anything. We’re re-arranging the plate in a way that honors student voice and choice.

The key is to tap into content-neutral standards. For example, in our Geek Out Blogs, my middle school students had to make sure that their blogs included persuasive and explanatory texts. Here are the two main standards we used.


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.

Students also engaged in research:


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

They moved through the entire writing process:


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1-3 above.)
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of Language standards 1-3 up to and including grade 8 here.)

They also published their work to the world, both in writing shorter and longer posts:


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

This project included nearly every single Common Core Writing Standard in the first few weeks of school. Notice, also, how none of those standards mention specific topics. These were all topic-neutral standards, which meant students could choose skateboarding or fashion or history or video games and they’re still learning the same standards. As long as they were practicing discreet skills in reading and writing, they could choose their own topics. This was an interest-driven approach to PBL.

Our Tiny House Projects, by contrast, required students to master specific conceptual standards with the freedom to use multiple modalities. We combined volume, surface area, and proportional reasoning with standards around budgeting and finance. This was a problem-driven approach with a tight focus on specific concepts.

A little nuance here. Even in a project-based learning unit, you might still need to teach some specific skills through direct instruction. I still had to demonstrate how to find the volume and surface area. We also practiced using proportional reasoning to solve spatial problems all around our school. However, I integrated direct instruction and skill practice into the project rather than taking a “teach first, project second” approach.

Students began this project with a specific challenge:



So, instead of working on an open-ended project, students engaged in a challenge-based project, where they had to design a product within tight parameters.

Connecting the Standards to the PBL Framework

Notice in the previous two examples how the types of standards required two vastly different approaches to project-based learning. That’s not a bad thing. There isn’t one single, perfect PBL approach. Sometimes, the best option is an open-ended topical project. Other times, it’s more inquiry-based. Still other times, you might choose an empathy-driven design thinking framework.

Check out the following table to see the connection between the types of standards you teach and the corresponding PBL approach.


Model
Flexibility of Standards
The Standards-Model Fit
Inquiry-Driven
Flexible Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards
The standards must allow for students to ask their own questions and find their own answers.
Interest-Driven
Content-Neutral Standards with Specific Skill Standards
The standards must allow students to pursue their own interests.
Product-Driven
Varying Flexibility on Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards
The standards must fit within the idea of designing a tangible product.
Problem-Driven
Specific Content Standards (with a Focus on Concept Attainment) with Flexible Skill Standards
The standards must allow students to engage in problem-solving.
Empathy-Driven
Varying Flexibility on Content Standards and Skill Standards
The standards must connect to creative design and empathy with an authentic audience

Note that sometimes you will use a hybrid approach. For example, I have combined elements of inquiry-based learning when I had students do interest-driven PBL. Many of our design thinking projects also had elements of problem-based PBL. And every single PBL approach had elements of product-driven PBL. So, there is always going to be some overlap between the models. However, the key idea here is the word driven. What is the key driver in the project your students are working on?

#1: Inquiry-Driven

Inquiry-driven PBL begins with a state of curiosity and wonder. It might be as simple as the sentence stem “I wonder why _” or “I wonder how _.” Students then have the opportunity to research, ideate, and create. However, it might also begin with an observation of a natural phenomenon. I recently wrote about biomimicry, and the way engineers often study nature for inspiration in their designs. It’s why geckos are the future of spacecraft and why birds solved the problem of noisy trains.

With the inquiry-driven PBL approach, you can have open-ended topics or you can have a specific concept-related topic and ask students to pursue their own questions within those parameters.

If you’re interested in an inquiry-driven PBL project, you might want to check out the Wonder Day or Wonder Week Project. These two projects walk students through the inquiry process, allowing them to answer their own questions and share their insights with an audience.

Check out the following sketch video you can share with your students. You can also download the Wonder Day Project Here.



#2: Interest-Driven

Another approach is the interest-driven PBL process. I alluded to the Geek Out blogs earlier. But another option is Genius Hour. Modeled after Google’s 20% Time, students get to choose their own passion projects and work through a process of discovery and creativity independently.

Check out the following video to see more about the Genius Hour process:



Here’s a Genius Hour video you can use with your students.



Note that Genius Hour still connects to specific content standards. However, these are skill-based, topic-neutral standards.

#3: Product-Driven

PBL experts often say, “Students should focus on the process and not the product.” But there’s also a time and a place for projects that challenge students to focus on developing a quality product. In these projects, the product has tighter parameters but the process is more flexible.

One of my favorite examples is the NaNoWriMo project. Here, students know specifically that they will create a novel. They might not know the audience and they aren’t necessarily focused on a question or a challenge. True, they will engage in inquiry and empathy at some point. But they are driven by the challenge of creating a novel in the month of November.

Similarly, when we created our Scratch Video Game projects, students started with the simple challenge of designing a functioning video game in three weeks. Although they focused on crafting for an audience and they went through an ideation process, it was product-driven. They wanted to create an awesome video game that people would actually play.

In product-driven PBL, students typically have tight guidelines on the format but looser guidelines on the topics. In this sense, it resembles elements of interest-based PBL, with a key difference being the emphasis on creating the product rather than on the discovery of new information. So, instead of students making something to demonstrate what they learned, the focus is on the making itself.

#4: Problem-Driven

Problem-driven PBL begins with a specific problem or challenge that students must solve. An example is our maker challenges that present a specific scenario that leads students into research, problem-solving, ideation, and a final product that solves the initial challenge.

Here’s an example of a Maker Challenge:



With problem-driven PBL, teachers typically begin with specific concept standards and then provide more flexible options of what students design and create. However, not every problem-driven PBL project has to include a tangible product. Sometimes students design a system or plan an event. Sometimes their creative work is merely a “pitch” to a group of judges from the community.

#5: Empathy-Driven (Design Thinking)

Empathy-driven PBL can have elements of the previous four PBL approaches. In fact, with the LAUNCH Cycle (a K12 design thinking framework that A.J. Juliani and I developed), we don’t always begin with empathy. Sometimes it starts out with a problem, a geeky interest, or a sense of wonder at a natural phenomenon. But even so, students begin to build empathy as they Ask Tons of Questions and as they clarify the audience during the Understanding and Navigating Ideas phases.

Check out the following video on the LAUNCH Cycle:



Note that the LAUNCH Cycle will often begin with a challenge, a phenomenon or a product idea but this will ultimately focus on empathy. That’s the critical component that leads to genuine design thinking.

Do a Choice Audit of Standards

When planning for project-based learning, it helps to do a choice audit of your standards. While some standards are content-neutral, others require you to teach very specific concepts, topics, and ideas. What happens, for example, when you have to teach about force and acceleration or linear equations or World War II?

In these moments, it helps to do a choice audit of your standards. Ask the following questions:


  • Is it possible for students to choose the topics or the content?
  • What choices could students have around the strategies they use?
  • Are students able to choose their own formats (multimedia, for example)?
  • Is this something that they can practice throughout the year or does it have to be confined to one particular unit?
  • Where outside of school might a student actually practice this standard?

While ownership is critical for students, all standards have certain constraints built into them. Some require students to practice certain skills while others are skill-neutral but require that students master a concept. However, these constraints can work as the creative constraints that force you, as a teacher, to find creative opportunities.

It’s the idea of thinking inside the box:



The Power of Chunking Your Standards

Once you’ve found the right fit between the standards and the PBL framework and explored the flexibility in the standards, you can begin to connect the standards. Some people call this “layering” or “chunking,” but it’s the idea of combining standards together to give yourself more time.

When a student reads, he or she is typically practicing four or five standards at the same time. You can’t make inferences without comprehending text. Nor can you cite evidence without knowing fact versus opinion. Because knowledge is inherently connective, our standards are less like a list of bullet points and more like a web of skills and concepts.

However, when we write lessons, we will typically include one standard. Often, we will have curriculum maps that move through a few “power standards” for a week or two at a time.

But, while the curriculum map tells us that the entire class must practice one specific standard, it never says that students cannot practice additional standards. So, when we think about student ownership and personalization, it’s feasible for students to work on different standards at the same time while still sticking to the common curriculum map.

Think of it this way: some students might take four weeks to practice and master making inferences but only one week on cause and effect. Another student might experience the opposite. But when students self-select standards that they need to work on, they are actually more efficient with their time. Here, they own the enrichment and intervention process.

This connective element is also why students can do a design thinking project for four weeks without it feeling crowded. The project isn’t covering one standard. It’s connected to six standards that are all interconnected with one another. So, the research, ideation, creation, and editing phases might all connect to separate standards — and that’s okay. That’s the beauty of PBL. It’s an authentic context for teaching multiple standards at the same time.

Why Teachers Are the Key to Making This Work

It is possible to teach with a PBL framework while also reaching all the standards. But this requires us to think creatively about how we teach. It can help to ask questions like: Where is the authenticity in this standard? Where outside of school might a student actually practice this standard? Is this a connecting skill standard? A process standard? A concept? Where is the freedom built into this standard? How does this standard fit with other standards? Where is the student voice and choice? For example, do they get to choose their own formats (multimedia, for example)? Do they get to choose their own topics? How do these standards work with each PBL model?

Ultimately, when this happens, students are able to master the standards at a deep level while also engaging in meaningful work and powerful projects.

Looking for More?

If you’re interested in getting started with project-based learning, check out my Getting Started with PBL page, complete with articles, videos, and resources. You might also want to check out my PBL toolkit, which includes a set of projects and mini-projects, along with a Getting Started with PBL guide and a set of assessment resources you can use within the project-based learning framework. I will also send you a weekly email with free, members-only access to my latest blog posts, videos, podcasts and resources to help you boost creativity and spark innovation in your classroom. Just sign up below!

You might also want to check out my PBL Master Course and use the coupon code Spencer to get 20% off. I have an entire lesson where I walk people step-by-step through selecting standards for their PBL unit plans.

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Apr 28 2021

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Seven Myths Keeping Teachers from Implementing Creative Projects

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Every year, I ask my pedagogy students about their most memorable learning experience as a learner, whether it was in school or out in the “real world.” Nearly every example involves a creative project. These were the moments when learning stuck and often it was when they fell in love with the subject. But these were also the experiences that taught them collaboration, project management, flexible thinking, and a growth mindset.

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Common Myths About Project-Based Learning

Many of my pedagogy students also describe courses where they never had the opportunity to create anything. The following are some of the myths keeping teachers from designing creative projects.

Myth #1: Creative projects don’t require structure.

Here’s a danger in doing a total free-for-all in PBL. Early on in my PBL journey, I would give students loose guidelines and then say, “Have at it. Make it work.” But they didn’t make it work. They actually didn’t do the work at all. Still, I felt like structure would squash the creative impulse and hamper their collaboration. It felt artificial. Authentic projects didn’t need structure. But then I realized that I always used structures in my creative work. I had systems that I used to facilitate my creativity.

The truth is, structures are vital in creating authentic projects. They provide the necessary creative constraint to push divergent thinking and they help facilitate the actual work of creative work. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned in researching collaboration and innovation is how often organizations, teams, and companies use structures to facilitate creative work. Pixar uses the Brain Trust concept and countless companies have used the Radical Candor structures developed by Kim Scott. If you haven’t checked out her book, I highly recommend it.

Nearly every discipline uses a framework or blueprint for their creative work; whether it’s a writer’s workshop structure, an engineering process, the scientific method, or a design thinking framework. However, these structures should inspire creativity and respect student agency.  If you’re interested in embedded structure within creativity, you might want to try design thinking. If you check out the design thinking toolkit at the bottom of this post it includes specific structures within each phase of the design process.

Myth #2: Creative projects work best with certain subjects.

When I taught self-contained (one class for all subjects),  I was skeptical about doing PBL in math. Sure,  it worked in history and social studies. But math? That was about drill and practice and analysis. But then, I began to discover creativity in the discipline. Students worked collaboratively to create board games and arcade game, which tied to the probability standards. They designed tiny houses using proportional reasoning, volume, and surface area. One of my favorite methods of skill practice was the Scratch game project, which reinforced the x-y axis and helped students learn logic. But I also saw the creativity in the more “traditional” math lessons. Students were being creative when they solved problems.

I love the definition  of creativity as “functional novelty.” This encompasses so many aspects of life. And yet, when you the word “creative,” you might think of a painter or a playwright or an author or a photographer or a filmmaker or a chef. In other words, you might think of people who make things. You might think of creativity as art. However, we need a bigger definition of creativity. Yes, creativity involves making things. But it can also mean mashing up ideas in innovative ways. It can mean geeking out on data and finding unique solutions to practical problems. It can mean hacking systems and tweaking things in unusual ways. It can mean exploring ideas and navigating information until you become an expert curator.

It can mean designing systems that empower the creative work of others. It can mean creating change in the world by speaking truth and leading movements and interacting with people. See, each of these creative approaches shape our world in profound ways.


I’ve seen others who view creativity and design solely through the lens of STEM. For them, design thinking is an engineering process. People think about design in connection to coding or robotics or 3D prototyping. But design is bigger than this. When students create blogs, podcasts, and documentaries from a place of empathy, they are engaging in design thinking. The truth is that PBL can work in any subject.  I used to teach photojournalism and STEM and although the disciplines were different, students engaged in a similar design process in both classes. The critical thing is to make sure that you have aligned your projects to the standards.

Myth #3: Creative projects work best with advanced students.

This myth is often alluded to rather than spoken outright. A teacher might say, “he’s just not ready for this” or “she should really focus on skill practice first.” Another variation is, “My kids aren’t ready for creative projects. They’re not far enough along.” Too often, schools prevent special education students and English Language Learners from accessing creative projects. However, there are accommodations we can provide for special education students, such as additional task analysis support, spatial-visual project management processes, more think time, and other strategies that content area teachers can develop in partnership with special education teachers. For ELL / ESOL students, it might involve sentence stems, grammar support, multilingual resources, visual scaffolding, and front-loaded vocabulary.

When all students have access to creative projects, everyone benefits because there are more neuro-diversity and linguistic diversity. However, this “all means all”  approach can be a challenge in collaborative projects. Too often in group projects, one member works independently while other members are dependent on the single member, merely filling in the gaps when asked to help. This is why it’s critical to incorporate interdependency. When students work interdependently, each member is adding value to the group project. Interdependence begins with trust, with each member depending on other members to complete their tasks. It can feel risky and even vulnerable, which is why it can help to establish norms or engage in team-building. This is also why, as an eighth-grade teacher, I often had teams work for an entire quarter on different projects before changing up the grouping.

Once you’ve developed trust, you can incorporate project tasks that build up interdependence. Take, for example, this brainstorming strategy used in the LAUNCH design thinking framework. Students actually benefit from listening to one another depending on each other for new ideas. Even the “low” student has something valuable to add to the group.


Or consider the following structure for inquiry and research within a PBL Unit:

  • Students generate questions independently. They might need sample questions or sentence stems, but they can all create questions.
  • Once they have their questions, they can send them to a Google Document or submit them on a Google Form. Or if you want to go old school, students can have chart paper and smelly markers. Seriously, Mr. Sketch markers are the best. I don’t care about being Google Certified or Apple Certified but if Mr. Sketch ever does a certification, I might just do it.
  • Students analyze the questions to see if they are actually research questions. Each member has a role. Member #1 answers, “Is this question fact-based?” Member #2 answers “Is this question on-topic?” Member #3 answers “Is this question specific?” Member #4 then focuses on quality control.
  • Members #1-3 can put a star by each question that fits their criteria. So, member #1 looks at each question and puts a star by questions that are fact-based. Meanwhile, member #4 is available to help and observe. Then member #4 double-checks all the questions with three stars and circles or highlights it if it’s an actual research question.

Note that a struggling student might still be able to do the job of member #1 or 2 while a more advanced student can do #3. Meanwhile, the group member who typically dominates and achieves at a top level learns to trust other members and wait and observe. However, they can still provide expertise as the quality control person who has the final say.

Myth #4: There’s no time for it.

When I first piloted creative projects, I started with culminating projects. I believed that creative projects should happen after students had mastered basic skills. Our projects always felt rushed. However, as I shifted toward a PBL approach, I realized that it wasn’t about adding something new to the plate. It was about reorganizing my plate.

The traditional approach to teaching focuses on isolating specific skills and teaching them systematically to students. However, with PBL, we can have students learn a concept while also practicing a skill. They can work on multiple, interconnected standards at the same time instead of going sequentially through each standard. When this happens, students move more slowly through the standards rather than going through the stop-and-go traditional methods.

One of the key differences between a culminating project and a PBL unit is that students should be learning through a project rather than learning first and then doing completing the project afterward.


A quick distinction here. Project-based learning is a framework for learning. It’s a pedagogical model (though it’s not a learning theory). By contrast, design thinking is a framework for creative work. Students use it to leverage the creative process through empathy and iterations. Students will often use design thinking as a process within a PBL classroom. Teachers will often use the key elements of PBL (voice and choice, research, authentic audience) but structure a unit around the design thinking process.

Myth #5: “I’m not very creative.”

I’ve seen teachers who say, “I would love to do creative projects. But I’m not really much of a creative teacher.” However, every teacher is creative. It’s just that we often have different approaches to creativity.

Here’s where collaboration makes a huge difference. When teachers team together to design and implement creative projects, they are able to tap into one another’s strengths in a way that wouldn’t be possible on their own.

Myth #6: Creative projects have to be high-tech.

Creative projects don’t necessarily require fancy equipment and high-tech gadgets. For example, kids can prototype on a 3D printer. However, sometimes the best technology to develop iterative thinking is actually duct tape and cardboard. Sometimes hands-on learning really should involve our own two hands.


Authentic PBL is human-centered rather than tech-centered. A student might create a digital work or a high-tech product. However, they might design an event or a system or a service. We used design thinking for STEM projects and documentaries but also for our service projects and murals. In many cases, students toggle back and forth between low-tech and high-tech, using sticky notes for ideation but choosing a tech-based platform for project management. This idea is at the heart of vintage innovation:


Myth #7: PBL is Too Hard to Assess

When I first began in my project-based learning journey, I graded student projects on creativity. Unfortunately, I found the category to be too subjective. How do you possibly rate student creativity? What criteria do you use? How can you possibly quantify something that seems like a personal preference? I soon ran into another issue. When I told students, “I’m grading you on your creativity,” they actually became more risk-averse. Creativity requires risk-taking and flexible thinking but when students are fixated on an external grade, they focus on compliance. Often, they slip into perfectionism.

And yet, we value what we assess. When we don’t assess something, it’s easy to push that idea to the side. Case in point: schools often talk about the role of life-long learning but when they focus their assessments on standardized tests, the school culture tends to emphasize student achievement instead.

So, how do we bridge this gap? On the one hand, assessing creativity can backfire. On the other hand, if we don’t assess it, we often neglect it. There are actually a few ways to assess creativity while also reducing risk-aversion:

  • Assess creative thinking as a process. In other words, break down down creativity into specific ideas, like problem-solving, risk-taking, ideation, research and development, etc.
  • Assess the product as a formative process. Teach students that revision is normal by embedding testing/revision into the design process.
  • Encourage students to engage in self-assessment and peer assessment. This helps boost metacognition awhile increasing student agency and autonomy.
  • Focus on growth and celebration.

Project-based learning actually provides an authentic context for student-centered assessment. Here, they can engage in deeper, meaningful self-assessment and peer assessment.


Curious About Project-Based Learning?

Are you thinking about getting started with project-based learning? If so, you might want to check out the PBL toolkit. It includes resources, a free eBook, and a sample project.

If you’re interested in learning more about PBL, fill out this form below and get the toolkit. You might also want to check out this PBL webinar or the PBL Master Course and use the coupon code Spencer to get 20% off.

Get Your Free PBL Toolbox

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The post Seven Myths Keeping Teachers from Implementing Creative Projects appeared first on John Spencer.

Apr 20 2021

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Clement Townsend on How Video Journalism Can Empower Students with Voice and Choice

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In this podcast episode, I interview Clement Townsend about the importance of journalism and multimedia composition in the classroom. Clement Townsend has valuable real-world experience in journalism as well as teaching and mentoring experience at the K-12 level. In this episode, he shares practical insights on how we can integrate journalism into our classroom practice. I’ve written before about how I view journalism as a class of the future and this conversation was a bold reminder to me about how journalism can improve ELA skills while also helping students develop critical soft skills.

Listen to the Podcast

If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via  Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users).

https://spencerauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/CLEMENT-TOWNSEND.mp3

About Clement Townsend

Clement Townsend spent close to two decades in front of the camera as a Sports Journalist including time spent on the local news, cable and the internet.  His career took him to several markets including San Angelo, Texas, Mobile, Alabama, Lynchburg, Virginia and Chicago Illinois.  Clement has covered numerous big events throughout his career such as the Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Game, and multiple college football National Championships.  Clement is the author of “How to Become a Broadcasting Star” and the founder of Broadcasting Career Mentor (BCM).  BCM provides media training for youth across the country.  BCM offers in person training and virtual media training through the Video Journalism Pro Online Course.

Website and Social Links

The post Clement Townsend on How Video Journalism Can Empower Students with Voice and Choice appeared first on John Spencer.

Apr 12 2021

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Every Student Deserves Access to Project-Based Learning

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Years ago, my friend Chad (who tragically passed away from cancer last year) started the 21st Century Classroom initiative in our district. Teachers would be part of six-person teams where they would attend professional development, receive state-of-the-art technology, and have a learning coach who would help them implement student-centered learning. Teachers had to apply to be a part of this program.

But this wasn’t a gifted cluster or an initiative for honor’s classes. This initiative was only available for teachers who taught the ELL classes. We focused our professional development on how to integrate language acquisition strategies into project-based learning, writer’s workshops, inquiry-based learning, and other student-centered approaches. Meanwhile, Javier and Sarah led the initiative to redesign a rote-based, skills-based ELL summer school into a creativity-infused summer STEM camp centered on project-based learning.

Our philosophy was simple. ELL students deserved access to the same student-centered projects that gifted students were already doing. Soon, another colleague Jen led the way with special education, showing how we could blend universal design with things like student blogging and podcasting. This 21st Century Learning initiative was a hub in an unlikely space with an unlikely group of students. Our ELL students and our exceptional learners had genuine voice and choice in their learning. They had access to authentic PBL.


And yet, this initiative was not the norm. In our district, it was more common for gifted students to use technology for project-based learning and inquiry-based learning. They used their devices to connect to authors via Skype and experts through email. Meanwhile, many of the ELL and Special Education students used an adaptive learning program that delivered digital worksheets for a reading intervention program. Instead of designing and creating and problem-solving, they spent hours in isolation doing leveled multiple-choice tests.

As I work with pre-service teachers, I continue to see this trend. Low-income students, ELL students, and Special Education students are less likely to experience student-centered projects – the kind of that truly empower them with voice and choice.

Listen to the Podcast

If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via iTunes/Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users).

https://spencerauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/PBL-for-All.mp3

Why This Is Happening

In some cases, the lack of access is due to implicit bias. I’ve heard some teachers say things like, “I just don’t think my ELL students are ready for something like project-based learning” or “My special education students are too low. They’ll just get frustrated.” Sometimes they referenced issues with classroom management but often it’s the idea that somehow projects are simply too advanced for certain students. This implicit bias reinforces the creative chasm. It’s the belief that that PBL is great for advanced kids but students with disabilities or students who are still learning a new language just need “the basics.”

Often, there’s a philosophy that students must attain basic academic skills first and then focus on soft skills later. Here, PBL is something you get to after the “real learning” has happened. Two decades ago, Howard Gardner wrote in The Disciplined Mind, that progressive education (including PBL) were not ideal “for disadvantaged children, who do not acquire literacy in the dominant culture at home.” For Gardner “a prescribed curriculum helps to provide a level playing field and to ensure that future citizens enjoy a common knowledge base.” However, this reveals a deficit mindest about low-income students and assumes that they have no prior knowledge or cultural assets to bring to the table.

Meanwhile, we know that PBL can lead to moderate increases in academic achievement but it leads to higher retention of information.  Meaningful projects can boost student engagement and increase student agency and self-direction.  However, even when a teacher believes in PBL and wants to launch a project with their ELL and special education, they often face external pressures.

When I first started out on my PBL journey, I faced the following fears:

I taught in a high-stakes environment. PBL sounded great but the state test was the 2-ton elephant in the room. Actually, it wasn’t an elephant. It was more like the Demogorgon in Stranger Things: dark, invisible, its claws pulling people to an underworld of isolation and disengagement.  We had a strong focus on academic achievement, which made project-based learning feel even riskier. In other words, sometimes ELL and Special Education students don’t have access to PBL because of implicit bias. However, it’s often an issue of external policies – whether it’s because students are being pulled out more often for skills-based interventions, teachers are stuck using a scripted curriculum, or the school is emphasizing student achievement as the top metric.

This creative chasm has long-term consequences. Students who engage in authentic project-based learning have increased agency and ownership. They’re often more excited and engaged in their learning. When this happens, they retain the information for a longer amount of time while also learning vital technology skills like digital citizenship and media literacy. However, they also learn vital soft skills, such as collaboration, communication, curation, and problem-solving. As they work through iterations and revise their work, they develop a growth mindset. Often, they learn how to seek out constructive feedback. This connection to the community can help them develop empathy.

Five Ways to Make PBL More Inclusive

The following are specific ways we can craft our units so that every student has access to project-based learning.

1. Teach students to self-select scaffolds.

Create tutorials and resources for all students and then allow them to determine when they need to use them.

By making things like sentence stems, anchor charts, and other resources available to all students, you reduce the stigma while teaching students how to self-manage and self-advocate. This might seem like “lowering the standards,” but think of this way. There’s a good chance that you’ve used curb cuts when walking on a sidewalk. You’ve also used Siri or Alexa or you’ve used voice-to-text while texting. You might run closed captioning on the television. In each case, they design elements were originally created to help people with disabilities but are readily available regardless of status.

I remember learning this lesson the hard way as an eighth-grade teacher. I gave my ELL students sentence stems to guide them during the peer feedback part of a project. At one point, a gifted student raised his hand and said, “I feel like I could use one of those handouts. Could I have one?”

I nodded.

Another student asked for one. Then another. Finally, I paused the lesson and said, “These are sentence stems. They’re sort of like templates for discussions. You can use them and modify them if you’d like. Think of them like a blueprint for your discussion.” I then set the sentence stems on a table in the back and about half of my students chose to use them.

Note that this doesn’t mean you need to require all students to use scaffolds. I made that opposite mistake by requiring students to use specific scaffolds in research, reasoning that it couldn’t hurt to require each student to use a specific methodology. However, certain students braced against these requirements. What I meant to be a scaffold felt like a cage to students who had already mastered the skills and processes. This is why I love the idea of having students self-select the scaffolds. It honors their agency.

2. Pull small groups.

Although it’s helpful to make scaffolding available to all students, you might still need to help certain students with key skills. For example, when doing our Tiny House Projects, I pulled some small groups for intervention in proportional reasoning. This allowed them to practice key skills within the project. Similarly, when students struggled with research, I pulled small groups to help students identify sources, make inferences, and summarize key information. However, the need for additional help did not negate the need for meaningful projects. With a few small group meetings, certain struggling students could have access to the skills necessary within the project.

I actually found it easier to pull small groups within a whole-class PBL project than in a traditional environment. With PBL, students were often working independently, which made it easier to pull small groups. I was also able to do one-on-one conferencing and quick check-ins.

3. Build interdependency into the projects.

Often, the default in a project is for one member to work independently while other members are dependent on the single member, merely filling in the gaps when asked to help. In these moments, it’s not uncommon for an ELL student or special education student to become marginalized. The solution is to have students work interdependently. If independent learning is fully autonomous and dependent learning involves students simply depending on another person, interdependence is the overlap, where students have autonomy but they must have mutual dependence on one another.

When students work interdependently, each member is adding value to the group project. Each member has something of value to add to the group. So, what does this look like? One example is the following brainstorming strategy. Notice that students must listen to one another depend on each other for new ideas. Even the “low” student has something valuable to add to the group. This is a core idea of interdependence. Each member has something valuable to add.


Similarly, when doing research, every student can add additional information to the group’s shared knowledge. They can read texts that are varying reading levels and interest levels and then share what they learn during an interdependent research debrief. However, as a teacher, you sometimes need to integrate differentiation into mixed-level groups. You might provide specific scaffolds for students, such as sentence stems or tutorials. You might even pull students aside for small group interventions or do quick direct instruction lessons for students who need extra support.

In some cases, you might assign roles that correspond to skill levels. When students move from inquiry to research, they often need to narrow down their questions to determine which ones will actually guide the research process. Here’s what the process looks like. See if you can spot the interdependency and differentiation.

  • Students generate questions independently. They might need sample questions or sentence stems, but they can all create questions.
  • Once they have their questions, they can send them to a Google Document or submit them on a Google Form. Or if you want to go old school, students can have chart paper and smelly markers. Seriously, Mr. Sketch markers are the best. I don’t care about being Google Certified or Apple Certified but if Mr. Sketch ever does a certification, I might just do it.
  • Students analyze the questions to see if they are actually research questions. Each member has a role. The first member checks to see if the question is fact-based. The second checks if it is on-topic. The third checks to see if it is specific. The fourth person is the quality control leader.
  • Members #1-3 can put a star by each question that fits their criteria. So, member #1 looks at each question and puts a star by questions that are fact-based. Meanwhile, member #4 is available to help and observe. Then member #4 double-checks all the questions with three stars and circles or highlights it if it’s an actual research question.

Note that a struggling student might still be able to do the job of member #1 or 2 while a more advanced student can do #3. Meanwhile, the group member who typically dominates and achieves at a higher academic level learns to trust other members and wait and observe. However, they can still provide expertise as the quality control person who has the final say.

4. Honor each student’s expertise.

In the start-up world, they often talk about your “unfair advantage.” It’s your core hidden genius that might seem easy to you but is hard for everyone else. I think the same is true for us in our creative work. My unfair advantage is that I’m a fast reader and I easily connect ideas between multiple sources. Although I still sometimes feel insecure about my ability to draw, I suppose my other unfair advantage when teaching, speaking, or blogging, is my use of doodles and visuals. By contrast, my friend A.J. is an amazing systems thinker and his unfair advantage is being able to navigate complex systems easily while also being deeply empathetic toward people.

Students bring their unfair advantages to the classroom as well. However, it’s easy for teachers to miss these hidden talents with students who are either exceptional learners or English Language Learners. Too often, in school, we focus on what students can’t do and we miss out on what a student can do. I remember an ELL student I had who was shy and quiet but who could solve complex problems easily. Because of her language status, we almost missed her hidden genius. It took this one teacher, Nancy, to recommend her for gifted testing. Another time, I had a student who struggled with blogging and podcasting. But then, we did our Geek Out blogs and he began to share how much he knew about video games. Suddenly, he had a space where he could excel. True, blogging was still a struggle, but he was willing to engage in our blogging projects because it tapped into his passions and interests. This is why I love Genius Hour:


Genius Hour begins with a simple premise. Give your students 20% of their class time to learn what they want. They choose the content while also mastering skills and hitting the academic standards. With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey: They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditional academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep-sea creatures They can then match these topics with topic-neutral standards. Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines. Students decide on the grouping. Some work alone. Others work in pairs or small groups. In the end, students figure out what they will make and how they will share their learning with the world. A word of caution: It’s not a free-for-all. The best Genius Hour projects have systems and structures that empower students to reach their full potential. Even so, there will be mistakes. You’ll have to experiment. But in the end, students are empowered to be self-directed learners, engaging in creativity and critical thinking. In other words, they own the learning.

As teachers, we can implement Genius Hour with all learners, regardless of their status. In the process, we send students the message that we value who they are and what they can bring to the table.

5. Partner with ELL and Special Education Teachers

This is the most obvious part but also the easiest to overlook. The best projects involve a partnership with ELL and Special Education teachers. It might involve taking a deeper dive into an IEP, 504 Plan, or ELL/ESOL documentation. But the idea is to seek out the expertise and advice from ELL and Special Education experts who can help you determine what accommodations you might need.

Some common ELL accommodations might be:

  • Front-loading vocabulary
  • Providing additional think time within group projects so that ELL students can process information
  • Providing translating help or partnering them with someone who is multilingual
  • Incorporating resources in their first language
  • Providing leveled sentence stems to help with discussions and writing
  • Providing mini-lessons on verb tense structures or providing verb tense formulas for complex texts within a project
  • Using visuals within the project to help facilitate language development
  • Incorporating technology tools such as the option to slow down videos or audio during the research components of a project (the x .5 or x .25)
  • Paying attention to a students’ affective filter and finding ways to reduce fear and anxiety they might experience during a project
  • Use structured listening/discussions within the project, including sample questions, scripts, and sentence stems

While the accommodations will vary even more with special education students (and you should always check the IEP), here are some examples:

  • Providing additional handouts to facilitate task-analysis and executive function
  • Pulling small groups for additional interventions
  • Differentiating the tasks within the groups so that each student can participate (see the example from interdependency)
  • Providing the necessary assistive technology
  • Teaching special education students how to access necessary tools and tutorials
  • Being flexible with deadlines and requirements around specific tasks

Ultimately, every student deserves access to meaningful PBL. However, it takes time and intentionality to make a PBL classroom truly inclusive. This is why it helps to partner with fellow teachers and collaborate on the unit planning process. It will never be perfect. There will always be room to grow and improve. But when we embody the ideal of “PBL for all,” we create a more inclusive PBL environment. By empowering all students in the present, we prepare all students for a lifetime of learning.

Curious About Project-Based Learning?

Are you thinking about getting started with project-based learning? If so, you might want to check out the PBL toolkit. It includes resources, a free eBook, and a sample project.

If you’re interested in learning more about PBL, fill out this form below and get the toolkit. You might also want to check out this PBL webinar or the PBL Master Course and use the coupon code Spencer to get 20% off.

Get Your Free PBL Toolbox

Get this free toolbox along with, members-only access to my latest blog posts and resources.

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First Name Email Address We use this field to detect spam bots. If you fill this in, you will be marked as a spammer. I'd like to receive the free email course. I WANT THIS! I promise we won't send you spam. You can unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit /* Layout */ .ck_form { /* divider image */ background: #fff url(data:image/gif;base64,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) repeat-y center top; font-family: "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; line-height: 1.5em; overflow: hidden; color: #000000; font-size: 16px; border-top: solid 20px #3071b0; border-top-color: #e6e6e6; border-bottom: solid 10px #3d3d3d; border-bottom-color: #8a8a8a; -webkit-box-shadow: 0px 0px 5px rgba(0,0,0,.3); -moz-box-shadow: 0px 0px 5px rgba(0,0,0,.3); box-shadow: 0px 0px 5px rgba(0,0,0,.3); clear: both; margin: 20px 0px; } .ck_form, .ck_form * { -webkit-box-sizing: border-box; -moz-box-sizing: border-box; box-sizing: border-box; } #ck_subscribe_form { clear: both; } /* Element Queries — uses JS */ .ck_form_content, .ck_form_fields { width: 50%; float: left; padding: 5%; } .ck_form.ck_horizontal { } .ck_form_content { border-bottom: none; } .ck_form.ck_vertical { background: #fff; } .ck_vertical .ck_form_content, .ck_vertical .ck_form_fields { padding: 10%; width: 100%; float: none; } .ck_vertical .ck_form_content { border-bottom: 1px dotted #aaa; overflow: hidden; } /* Trigger the vertical layout with media queries as well */ @media all and (max-width: 499px) { .ck_form { background: #fff; } .ck_form_content, .ck_form_fields { padding: 10%; width: 100%; float: none; } .ck_form_content { border-bottom: 1px dotted #aaa; } } /* Content */ .ck_form_content h3 { margin: 0px 0px 15px; font-size: 24px; padding: 0px; } .ck_form_content p { font-size: 14px; } .ck_image { float: left; margin-right: 5px; } /* Form fields */ .ck_errorArea { display: none; } #ck_success_msg { padding: 10px 10px 0px; border: solid 1px #ddd; background: #eee; } .ck_label { font-size: 14px; font-weight: bold; } .ck_form input[type="text"], .ck_form input[type="email"] { font-size: 14px; padding: 10px 8px; width: 100%; border: 1px solid #d6d6d6; /* stroke */ -moz-border-radius: 4px; -webkit-border-radius: 4px; border-radius: 4px; /* border radius */ background-color: #f8f7f7; /* layer fill content */ margin-bottom: 5px; height: auto; } .ck_form input[type="text"]:focus, .ck_form input[type="email"]:focus { outline: none; border-color: #aaa; } .ck_checkbox { padding: 10px 0px 10px 20px; display: block; clear: both; } .ck_checkbox input.optIn { margin-left: -20px; margin-top: 0; } .ck_form .ck_opt_in_prompt { margin-left: 4px; } .ck_form .ck_opt_in_prompt p { display: inline; } .ck_form .ck_subscribe_button { width: 100%; color: #fff; margin: 10px 0px 0px; padding: 10px 0px; font-size: 18px; background: #faac0f; -moz-border-radius: 4px; -webkit-border-radius: 4px; border-radius: 4px; /* border radius */ cursor: pointer; border: none; text-shadow: none; } .ck_form .ck_guarantee { color: #626262; font-size: 12px; text-align: center; padding: 5px 0px; display: block; } .ck_form .ck_powered_by { display: block; color: #aaa; } .ck_form .ck_powered_by:hover { display: block; color: #444; } .ck_converted_content { display: none; padding: 5%; background: #fff; }

The post Every Student Deserves Access to Project-Based Learning appeared first on John Spencer.

Apr 08 2021

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Dr. Lorea Martinez on How to Implement Social-Emotional Learning with the Heart in Mind

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In this episode, I interview Dr. Lorea Martinez about social-emotional learning. Dr. Martinez is the author of Teaching with the HEART in Mind: A Complete Educator’s Guide to Social Emotional Learning. She is a true expert in SEL and provides important ideas and key insights into how to make SEL a reality in every classroom. In this interview, she shares her own journey and offers practical strategies teachers can use in their classroom.

Listen to the Podcast

If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via  Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users).

https://spencerauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Dr-Martinez.mp3

About Dr. Lorea Martinez

Dr. Lorea Martínez is the award-winning founder of HEART in Mind Consulting, a company dedicated to helping schools and organizations integrate Social Emotional Learning in their practices, products, and learning communities. An educator who has worked with children and adults internationally, Dr. Martínez is a faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College, educating aspiring principals in Emotional Intelligence. Her new book for educators, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, is currently available. Previously, she was a special education teacher and administrator. Learn more at loreamartinez.com

Twitter: @loreamart

Facebook: loreamartinezSEL

About Teaching with the Heart In Mind

Creating better outcomes for your students sometimes means you have to challenge the odds. Academics and standardized assessments aren’t enough. You need to educate both their hearts and minds.

Strengthen your students’ resilience, spark their curiosity for learning, and encourage future success in college, career, and beyond. Be the best teacher you can be and infuse social emotional skills into your teaching of any subject.

In Teaching with the HEART in Mind, Dr. Lorea Martínez Pérez provides a comprehensive roadmap to understanding the psychology of emotions, relationships, and adversity in learning, while equipping you to teach SEL skills and develop your own social and emotional intelligence. Full of practical techniques for educators of all subjects, this is your guide for transforming your classroom through essential SEL principles.

You’ll learn:

  • How to create a safe, supportive school environment that encourages a positive educational mindset and better goal setting.
  • A three-step process to infuse HEART skills into lesson planning for every subject and grade level.
  • A full scope and sequence by grade, along with indicators of mastery for each skill in the HEART in Mind program.
  • Tools for teachers to develop their own social and emotional capacity for a more effective and resilient teaching focus.
  • Over 90 activities to implement SEL into your classroom—even virtually!

Empower your students to be their best selves. Get Teaching with the HEART in Mind today and plant the seeds for a more caring, equitable future through education infused with social emotional learning!

The post Dr. Lorea Martinez on How to Implement Social-Emotional Learning with the Heart in Mind appeared first on John Spencer.

Apr 02 2021

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Art Specialist

By Miss Pam Art Specialist - Apr 16 2020
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John came to Spectrum Progressive School for an astounding workshop in 2016. Magnificent.

Inspirational & Practical

By Conradclan8 - Jan 21 2020
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Always fresh, creative & inspiring 💡