Recently we hosted a teaching team from Enloe High School at Vernon Malone CCA. The purpose of the visit was to see Scrum and our integrated PLT in action. Grace Jackson, the leader of this group, was asked to write an article on the experience for the WakeEd Partnership newsletter. I was also asked to write a complimentary article that would provide a "behind the curtain" look at how we've intentionally created a culture that fostered collaboration, transparency and improvement. If you are interested in reading Ms. Jackson's article to hear her perspective you may find it here. Below you will find my article "Failure as a Pathway to Success."
Failure as a Pathway to Success
By Michelle Woods
Vernon Malone CCA
At the heart of Vernon Malone College & Career Academy is a mindset of failing forward. Establishing this mindset was intentional when we started our school in 2014. During the first year, the entire staff worked collaboratively to establish our core values and priorities that included how to capitalize on failure as a pathway to success. To do this we needed a process, a roadmap, that would keep us accountable and also promote collaboration, transparency, and improvement.
Due to our commitment to improving our practice through collaborative learning and structured interactions, we use Critical Friends, a program through the National School Reform Faculty. We call these structured interactions protocols, and we use them consistently in meetings and in the classroom. Each member of our staff is formally trained in this work. Because we’re committed to improving our practice through collaboration, we have two days a month established for the use of Critical Friends. During this time we work in small or whole group teams to seek feedback on projects, analyzing student work, dilemmas, brainstorming, and consensus building. This is what Grace and her team witnessed on the day of her visit. The work of Critical Friends is an integral process for us. It was inspiring to hear this experience made an impact on the Enloe teachers. It’s another example how collaboration has the power to drive change and innovation.
From a coach’s perspective I can say that every teacher on our staff has gone through a professional transformation from traditional teacher to a Project Based Learning facilitator. This work is demanding, and in order to keep the momentum going we needed to be intentional with our planning cycle. This is why we design and implement projects on a quarterly basis. Each year we establish an expectation that every quarter teachers will implement a new or revised project. During a cycle teachers receive 1:1 coaching support, planning time during Monday team time, and time for reflection at the end of each quarter. This year during our 3rd and 4th quarter we are designing and implementing a school wide project that will answer the driving question, “How can VMCCA inspire change in our community?”
Grace mentioned the original purpose of her school visit was to see how we systematically used Scrum to support PBL. In addition to using Scrum in the classroom, we use Scrum every Monday during our team time. During Scrum teachers stand up in small teams and report out the work they accomplished the previous week, what they plan on accomplishing in the current week, and express additional support or resources needed. If they have needs, it’s reported out to a coach for an appointment. Although Scrum provides an avenue for accountability, it also provides a process for celebration and reflection. With each validation of a task, the team celebrates successes and continuously sets goals for the next week.
Behind the scenes we have several processes to ensure we are on our path for success. A culture of failing forward propels us, but in the process we are intentional about accountability, collaboration, transparency and improvement. This level of work isn’t easy, but at VMCCA we’re committed to these processes because it leads to the success of our students. We are role models. Our work is intentional, and as a result our students learn the importance of failing forward by seeing opportunities for growth that comes from perseverance, reflection, and goal setting.
Both articles were originally published in WakeEd Partnerships Insight Newsletter
How can we ensure that students master the content in PBL?
As a PBL Coach this is a question I’ve been asked a lot lately. In fact, I’ve recently presented this topic at RTI International's Peer Networking Event. If you’re a PBL implementer you’ve probably struggled with this issue. No worries, I think it’s all part of the learning process and better yet there’s a solution. The answer is what I call Intentional Planning.
To understand Intentional Planning you need to first conceptually understand the difference between a project and PBL. The graphic here shows the difference.
When you understand that the process in a PBL looks and feels different you also need to plan with this change in mind. As project designers we need to ensure that our entire PBL plan allows for every student to process, transfer and .demonstrate mastery of content knowledge.
What is intentional planning?
Intentional planning is ensuring all parts of the teaching and learning are mapped out before a project begins. When you typically plan a project using the documents provided by BIE you focus on the design elements. This is fine, but we can't forget to plan for the day-to-day that includes instruction/assessment/and feedback. A great place to start is backwards mapping the assessments and after filling in the instruction and feedback for students. This is best done with an instructional map. Here are three examples of what I mean by instructional maps.
Web Developers Project
Exponential Outbreak Project
What do you notice in each of these instructional maps? Each of these teachers spent time prior to the project launch establishing the teaching and learning required for the project. In addition, each map has specific formative check points to inform the teacher of each students' knowledge transfer. Sometimes is important to think about “instructional tights” when planning. As an example here is my list:
How can checkpoints, formative assessments, and feedback inform the work?
Simple, checkpoints are your touch points in the project. They should be used to gather information on each student. During this time, you should ask questions like, "Is the student making appropriate progress?" "Are groups working well together?" "Do I need to offer workshops or whole group instruction?" If done well, these checkpoints should force you to focus on the process of learning not just the product at the end. Honestly, if you wait till the end you'll often find that students didn't meet your expectations or mastery of the content was never achieved.
How can you apply this concept still allowing for Voice & Choice?
Well, that’s determined by how much control you need. If more control is needed, you as the teacher establish the driving question, instructional expectations, product etc. On the other hand, if you hand over the learning process to the students how can they establish their own checkpoints, assignments and due dates? I’ve seen both scenarios played out in my own school and both approaches were successful.
The bottom line, every teacher involved in PBL needs to have their projects planned out BEFORE a project begins. The instructional map, a continuum of learning, is a great place to start.
Other questions to consider when planning:
I am not going to lie, this was a difficult year. After our October flood and being displaced we were exhausted. After we returned in January we were flooded again. It was minor but it took a toll on our momentum. Nonetheless, we held strong and plowed forward as a team and finished our year.
On our PBL journey this year we witnessed several gains. Several teachers had unbelievable growth in their students academic achievement, we were able to advocate to district leaders about PBL, and businesses are beginning to call on our students to present about their learning experiences. We are indeed a leader in our school community.
As you know, the work is never done. As we strive to work toward a Gold Standard model of PBL we've decided to focus on our intentional planning of the project. After our Advanced Ed review and several other indicators we realized we needed to focus on planning with an increase in formative assessments. The outcome: to ensure all students master the content.
As we look forward to a new year we continue to refine the structures we've built that includes Scrum, Critical Friends, and our integrated PLTs. The exciting part is that we believe this work will lead closer to what BIE calls the "North Star," the Gold Standard.
With only a few days left in our first quarter Hurricane Matthew hit Raleigh NC. In its wake it left our beautiful school, which was only 3 years old, under water. Due to the severity of the damage we were forced to relocate. With few options at our disposal our small school of 350 students were separated and placed on four different campuses. Imagine the logistical nightmare of scheduling, transportation, ensuring our dual enrolled college students continued their college courses, student services providing emotional and education support, and all the other details required to function under these circumstances. Our administration was magical and did an amazing job coordinating all the details with the full support of our district. Teachers were also challenged with unexpected commutes, separation from students, and forced to transition their classrooms into blended learning experiences. Regardless of the challenges, and there were numerous, we were united and pulled off a successful quarter.
After the holiday break we were able to return to our home on 2200 S. Wilmington Street and celebrate our homecoming. Upon returning to VMCCA we held a faculty meeting where we captured the lessons learned from our experience during the flood. It was our first step in refocusing for the work ahead. At the conclusion of our meeting we were left with “20 Lessons We Learned.” Beyond these lessons I think we each walked away from the experience gaining a deeper understanding of who we are as VMCCA and the importance of the culture we’ve created that continues to make us strong, #VMstrong.
So you might have heard that our school experienced significant flood damage from Hurricane Matthew. It's true we did, but it could never prevent us from reflecting and celebrating our first quarter accomplishments. To prove it, let me share some of our success.
I mentioned in a previous post we have a school wide instructional focus on PBL and Questioning for Learning. Questioning for Learning was a strategy teachers choose to focus on this year with a goal to improve teacher and student questioning. Inspired by the Questioning for Learning Edition of "Educational Leadership" Magazine teachers were given a choice of two strategies to try. They were given the choice of the Q-Chart (see below) and also the Question Formulation Technique. The expectation involved using one of these strategies in their classroom while being supported through coaching and reflection. In addition to coaching we used Scrum to stay accountable to work.
During the quarter I saw teachers combining the Q-Chart with the Questioning Technique as shown here in both English and Drafting. I saw the QFT being used for an entry event, building background, and as a pre-assessement. Our teachers got creative, shared ideas, and continued to improve their teaching craft. It was impressive to see the work they were doing.
Let’s not forget that in addition to Questioning for Learning the teachers were also working on PBL. As you can see from my project board there were 15 projects going on by the mid point of first quarter. By the end of the quarter there had been 22 projects implemented among 23 teachers during the first quarter.
Despite everything that changed after the flood we have a reason to celebrate. We're working diligently at VMCCA to not just achieve our instructional goals but to create positive learning outcomes for students. It's why it's not just a hashtag, but a statement for who we are and what we're committed to do.
We are #VMstrong
For the past 2 years I've spent coaching the teachers at VMCCA. Every year I've seen significant growth in everyone's teaching capacity and implementation of PBL. These teachers are an amazing bunch to work with and learn from. This year is proving to be another stellar year. I've already seen and heard evidence of teachers committing to wall-to-wall PBL, taking on new initiatives, becoming self directed, an most importantly becoming a part of our shared leadership model we've worked hard to achieve. I am excited for our third year and being able to celebrate as we set a course for success.
So what are we going to accomplish? Based on the feedback I received last year teachers wanted more differentiated training and support during our PBL planning days. So this year during our Monday PLT I've designed workshops that teachers will be able to self select and attend based on their instructional needs. The same is true for our PD for the year. Each session teachers will be able to decide what strand they want to participate in. We'll reflect after the first quarter and see how this plan is working. We'll also continue using Scrum in support of our Tier 1 instruction. I've created a stand up protocol to ensure we're staying focused on our instructional strategies and keeping ourselves accountable to our goals. There is a lot of work to accomplish, but this team is ready. Cheers to the start of a new year.
How can schools better reflect the business world? What framework or models exist that can be applied in schools to better student outcomes? Can we use these frameworks to ensure student readiness for college and career?
In July I had the opportunity to visit Dude Solutions and meet with Josh Anderson the Agile Project Manager. This ended up being my first encounter with Agile Methodology & Scrum. Immediately I saw the connection between Scrum, project management and PBL. At the time it was exactly what we needed as teachers to help our students manage the projects they were working on.
Agile is a framework used mostly in the computer software field, but can be adapted elsewhere. Basically, it's a project management tool that allows teams to produce a workable or sellable product in short period of time. I was so excited when I saw this demonstrated for me I wanted the VMCCA teachers to see it for themselves and arranged for a site visit. Teachers saw the immediate application of using Scrum in project management and we agreed to try it in our PLT and classrooms.
This semester both our Art and Earth Science teachers collaborated on a project titled "Earth Wonders." Students researched earth's layers applied the content by making their own chalk, collaborated with art students to create a mural, and designed a website to document the process. Below are some of the questions students answered. If you're interested is seeing the website that documents the student work please visit here.
Light bulb moments. Mindshifts. Where time stands still and clarity settles in. It's an awareness that leads to deeper levels of learning and transformation. This is what author Peter Senge calls "Presencing" in his book "Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future." (great book) These are the moments I live for, because I know they lead to my own transformation. In this case, it produced a shift in my coaching mindset.
During 2014-15 we were a first year PBL school. Our goal starting in the second quarter was to implement one PBL project per quarter. So I lead the teacher team with a focus on designing projects. During second quarter we brainstormed, mapped, tuned, and implemented. Our first project products were a mess, epic failures actually. From what I saw it was obvious we needed more reflection and checkpoints. During third quarter we focused on using a Tuning Protocol with more frequency and also inserting more formative checkpoints for better products. Our team started to see growth and improvement, but we still weren't getting the products we wanted. Fourth quarter our team focused on using more "voice & choice" to increase motivation and several teachers started seeing success, but products were still mediocre and I was a bit frustrated.
In April I attended the Buck Institute for Education's PBL coaches workshop in Atlanta Georgia. It was on the first day that we discussed Gold Standard Project Based Teaching Practices and how they "expand on what it means to implement PBL well, beyond designing the projects." (Larmer, John BIE 2015) The moment I heard this mental brakes were applied and I had to ask myself "Wait, what did I miss? To do PBL well what's beyond project design? All year I had focused coaching project design and like I said projects were mediocre at best. So what was I missing? A fellow coach sitting next to me spoke next. She turned to me and said,
"The learning outcome is not in the product, it's in the process."
It was that moment I recognized that my focus as a coach was all wrong. I had put too much emphasis on student products and none on the learning process. I immediately went back to school and shared my reflections with Ms. Downey the Biology teacher. Our conversation just so happened to coincide with the end of her project, and just in time to capture her students reflections. She prompted her students to reflect on the process and then we used the reflections to observe the learning that took place. We were pleasantly surprised by their comments.. The following were taken directly from their written reflections.
"I learned to actually ask for feedback during the project to kinda get some ideas on how to make it better."
"Next time we present I want to be more organized"
"I really like the creative freedom"
"I feel like I learned a lot of content during the creation/planning of the project. "
"I should have gone over my lines more for our skit because now that I am watching our video of our guidance counselor session, it looks like I am just reading from my skit most of the time."
"I learned a lot from this project, maybe not content wise, but for future presentations. I know now that I have to own what I do."
Looking at these with the teacher reiterated what I had learned. Learning is in the process not the product. It was a ginormous lesson and one worth working all year to learn. I am reminded too that even though the learning is in the process the product is still important and should be measured against a list of criteria. We just can't forget about what Suzie Boss calls the "messy middle" in her book "Real World Projects." It's messy for a reason, but it's the place,when PBL is done well that the real learning occurs.
Are you in need of a few new PBL resources? Last week I started to sift through my Pocket and sort the resources I think may be the most helpful. Let me know if you find them useful.
If you're searching for PBL project ideas check out the Buck Institutes PBLU site where you will find not only project ideas, but also the project plan and other essential documents needed for the project.
Do you need a one-stop-shop for PBL information? Check out the New Tech Network Daily where they've complied blogs, twitter feeds, recent articles, videos worth mentioning and other resources. You can even subscribe to stay current on their updates.
BAMRadio is your connection to educators radio. If you're looking for resources for parents, teachers or students look at the Pod-casts & resources this website has to officer.
Voice & Choice
With an emphasis this quarter on Voice & Choice I've used these articles and resources with my team to guide us in writing our PBL projects. First, I used the step-by-step plan which I found most helpful in thinking through the process. I used Danez Smith's TEDx talk to introduce the need for Voice & Choice and also StuVoice as an additional resource.
My Favorite Find
My favorite find this week was a 5 minute Film Festival called "Freedom to Fail Forward." It's a playlist of videos that showcase examples of failing forward. Whether you're highlighting Carol Dweck's Growth Mindset or just teaching the importance of failure, these are a must see. Here is my favorite.
Teacher, leader, curious observer, explorer of the world and everything in it, passionate about new experiences, and making connections with people.