Sometimes we need to color outside of the lines to read in between them

Tips for facilitating effective project based learning units

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I am a huge fan of projects and project based learning.  I love how PBL is about the process of learning and not the process of compliance.  I love how PBL is about questioning and not following.  Most importantly, I love that when implemented correctly, PBL acts as a vehicle for students to acquire knowledge while simultaneously strengthening their skills and deepening their understanding.  The results of successful project based learning units include student autonomy, deep inquiry, and organic engagement.

To achieve such desirable results, however, mindful planning and strategic facilitation are necessities.  I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on my own practice and collaborating with other teachers about their PBL experiences.  What I have found is that often times while well-intended, project based learning attempts do not garner anticipated outcomes.   Why is this?  For the longest time the answer to this question eluded me.  But, then I started to see patterns and it seems that there are three primary reasons why project based learning attempts sometimes fall flat.

Stumbling block  #1:  The unit requires that the end-product look  pretty.

In 2001, I began my teaching career and assigned a project to my social studies students. “Create a poster or diorama depicting something from World War II. Posters must be on a poster or tri-fold board.  Dioramas must be three-dimensional.”

Looking back, I am happy to see that I offered my students some “choice”, but I quickly remember why in subsequent school years I strived to create project based learning opportunities for my students that did not require specific materials.  While the criteria I used in 2001 guaranteed that some of the projects would be visually appealing, this project also ensured two other things: 1) many of my students focused on the end result and not the learning process, and 2) many of my students felt stuck and disengaged as they were asked to demonstrate their learning in a way that was not suitable for them.

Try this instead

  • Use your relationship and personal knowledge of your students to help direct them to a specific area of interest within a unit of study.
  • Offer differentiated product options.  You can differentiate product type (poster, podcast,  TedTalk) and product requirements (length, group make-up, medium).
  • Suggest materials and mediums instead of requiring them.
  • Conference with students to find out how they would ideally like to show their learning (written, using technology, creating something tangible). Then, work with them to determine specific criteria for their product.

Stumbling block #2: The structure of the unit is compromised.

The suggestions above will work best if stumbling block #2 is avoided.  PBL in its purest form encourages students to solve a problem or delve deeper into a topic of interest. Students are encouraged to work together to determine the best way to do this. Conversely, traditional project assignments give students a road-map to follow. Unfortunately,  with either of these approaches we run the risk of losing our students.

Try this instead

  • A hybrid of PBL and projects: allow students to choose  a specific topic within a broader category (i.e. choose an industry in which to start a business).  
  • Differentiate the structure of the project for student groups based on need (some groups can be given a daily goal while others are given a weekly goal, and other groups determine their own goal).
  • Remember that PBL is not an instructional strategy.  Research based high-impact instructional strategies need to be embedded into PBL units.  Appropriate content (subject matter, accessibility , format)  should be selected for different learners.

Stumbling Block #3: Students must follow a predetermined schedule or format for the unit.

As an assessment for learning enthusiast, this is the obstacle that I work most diligently to avoid.  I admit there were many times that I felt the need to provide my students with project timelines complete with a day-by-day agenda and due dates. The natural way to avoid this was for me to just give my students a final due date.  I constantly had to  remind myself that If I did either of these things I was jeopardizing my students’ learning needs and not showing respect for the integrity of the learning process.

Try this instead

  • Determine what standards and/or skills are being assessed.
  • Create a solid structure that allows for students to have flexibility in acquiring content and moving at their own pace.  I like to create phases of projects  (i.e. reading, writing, speaking).  Each phase includes  different “parts” that assess different skills or standards.  
  • Use appropriate formative assessment to monitor students’ mastery level of the skills and standards. Students can work through the phases at their own pace until they show mastery of each standard assessed.
  • Embed small group and individual conferencing that provide students with actionable feedback.
  • Give timely, non-attribute feedback frequently (instead of “great job” or 100%, try something that restates the learning objective: “You have selected two relevant texts about entrepreneurship in the tech space.  I can clearly see both experts perspectives with the text evidence you state.  Now, determine which perspective would be most helpful to you as you write your business plan and why.  Then, share your next steps for additional feedback.”)


I hope that you are excited to try some of these suggestions! If you want a thinking partner I am here to help you. I am happy to share any of the project based learning units I have facilitated or collaborated on with colleagues. I welcome your questions and feedback as you embark on this process.


Dynamite Data Dashboards

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I truly believe that (if used correctly) data can help students learn and teachers teach best. Teachers have always used various forms of data to make decisions. Data Dashboards efficiently visualize this data for teachers and allow them to focus on decision making and teaching.

I am excited for the future of data as more and more educators are seeing data as a way to ensure they have a clear picture of each student as an individual.  When we look at the whole child (learning style, prior knowledge, ability, interests, aptitude, etc.) we can better align our instruction, scaffold assignments, and give options for assessment.  Thank you to @DennisWPierce of eschoolnews. com for including my voice in his article “What teachers want in a data dashboard“.

If you are looking for additional information on Data Dashboards, Malia Herman’s article “Data Dashboards a High Priority in National Ed-Tech Plan”  published in EdWeek is one of my favorites.  Malia identifies the six golden rules for using data dashboards and they are spot-on!  The rules are listed below and the article explains the rules in detail.  Happy reading!

Golden Rules of Using Data with our students

  1. Understand the audience.
  2. Master the Purpose
  3. Connect Dashboard and content providers
  4. Choose Data with Students in Mind
  5. Organize Data into logical groups
  6. Start simple, then Grow Sophisticated




Student Portfolios: A new take on an old tradition

create-student-portfolios-003In the age of blended classrooms and digital learning, the popularity of student portfolios has exponentially increased. Digital student portfolios can continue to be used for their original purpose of highlighting work that the teacher or student is particularly proud. Parents will no longer have to take up closet space or secretly dispose of paper portfolios when their children go to sleep (no judgment, parents- I get it).

Using student portfolios as a tool to help increase student learning in addition to showcasing final projects is a relatively new take on an old tradition. Try one of my 5 favorite ways to maximize student learning with portfolios.

1. Student Goal Setting (.5)1

Back to the basics. Have your students use data to determine 3 skills-based/standard-aligned goals for each of the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Goals should be skills-based in order to make them applicable to as many content areas as possible. Students can then document their rise towards meeting their goals in all of their classes by adding examples of work that show growth.

2. Teacher Student Feedback (.75)

As you assess your students’ work, add items to their portfolios with actionable feedback. For example, you have a student who struggled with a portion of an assignment. You can star this assignment and add the item to the student’s portfolio with your feedback, “You seem to be struggling with comprehending this text. What other strategy could you try?” When the student tries another strategy and succeeds you add the new item with new feedback, “Performing a focused read really seemed to help you comprehend this text. What do you think was the difference?”

3. Student self-reporting of grades/mastery level (1.44)

Have students assess their own work using a rubric that you have co-created with them. They can do this digitally, on paper and upload, create and upload a video, or use a variety of other mediums to add their self-assessment to their portfolios.

4. Examples of mastery learning (.58)

When students are able to see examples of work at different levels (approaching, meets, exceeds standards, or A,B,C, D) they are able to better understand what is expected of them. Use this year’s student portfolios to help inform next year’s students of expectations.

5. School-home communication (.52)

Student portfolios can promote the school-home relationship as they provide more than just a grade. Student portfolios become the vehicle for driving parent/teacher conferences and furthermore encourage constant and consistent conversation between parents, teachers, and students.

This list is by no means a comprehensive compilation of ways you can use student portfolios. These are provisional examples that can be tweaked to best work in your classroom. Try them out and see what you think. Please consider sharing your experiences using portfolios with your students; we would love to hear your success stories!

1. Numbers indicate effect size of on student learning as researched by John Hattie of the Visible Learning Institute in his synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement. Criteria that score above a 0.4 are considered to have a greatest impact of student learning.

This blog originally appeared on the Otus Student Performance System features blog.

Time is more valuable than money

sharing-bookshelf-resources-01“Time is more valuable than money. You can get more money, you cannot get more time.” – Jim Rohn

As an educator, this quote really hits home. In fact, in a survey of 20,000 teachers, 76% said that if they had to identify one thing that they wanted more of it would be time.1 Time to plan. Time to assess. Time to instruct.

Lost instruction time is one of the obstacles teachers diligently try to avoid, but inevitably encounter. The lesson plan was succinct. The materials were copied and organized. The lesson should have gone off without a hitch. But, then the notorious timesuckers reared their ugly heads. The copies were missing a page. Johnny and Susie could not remember their passwords. Mikey did not seem to have the faintest idea of how to access the online textbook. That leads us to wonder just how much instructional time is lost due to transitions in the classroom? The answer is (on average) 10 minutes a day. Played out over a school year 10 minutes a day equals a whopping 1800 hours or 6 full school days.2

One tool that has been useful in our school district is Otus.  The Otus Bookshelf gives teachers the gift of time. Gone are the days of taking instructional minutes to direct students to the right webpage or delaying part of a lesson because more copies are needed. Otus streamlines the process of sharing materials and eliminates wasted instructional time due to website navigation and password issues. Students can access third party content (Khan Academy, Actively Learn, Newsela, Raz-Kids, etc.) as well as access shared articles, videos, and any other shared content.

Let me paint a picture for you. On Sunday afternoon, with your last few hours of the weekend ticking away you sit down to lesson plan. You start to surf some of your favorite websites for materials. You find several resources that you want to share with different groups of students. In the past, you would save/email the resource link to yourself to print and copy the next morning (average 7 minutes) or share the link via email or other method with the appropriate students (average 4 minutes). But, now you have the option share resources using on The Otus Bookshelf (average 30 seconds). If you replace printing and sharing via email with the Otus just once a week for an entire school year you gain approximately 3 hours of time. If you do this once a day for the entire school year you gain approximately 5 full school days!

This blog originally appeared on the Otus Student Performance System features blog.

The Purpose of Flexible Grouping

group-students-005Flexible grouping is one of the hallmarks of high-quality and effective differentiation. As esteemed educator, author, and differentiation expert Carol Ann Tomlinson explained, “[an] important principle [of differentiation] is that of flexible grouping… you need to systematically move kids among similar readiness groups, varied readiness groups, mixed learning-profile groups, interest groups, mixed interest groups, and student-choice groups.”

Otus enables teachers to implement the tutelage of Tomlinson. Otus gives the user complete control of the arrangement and quantity of groups. Using our colored flag system, teachers assign multiple flags to students (LE, gifted, tactile learner, etc). Then, teachers choose a group type (similar readiness, varied readiness, learning style, etc.) to group and regroup students as frequently as needed.

Teachers can create groups using custom criteria. Additionally, classroom and assessment performance analytics within Otus can be used to inform and assist group creation. Once groups are created teachers can push out differentiated materials, activities, and assessments to the appropriate groups with ease. As students’ and teachers’ needs change, teachers can easily add or remove students from groups. Otus helps make flexible grouping efficient and effective!

This blog originally appeared on the Otus Student Performance System features blog.

Tracking Student Behavior

track-student-behavior-004Studies show that schools that successfully implement positive behavioral intervention systems (PBIS) are proven to have significantly lower rates of bullying and higher rates of academic success. The key word in the previous sentence is successfully.  As an instructional coach, I have worked with teachers to successfully use the Otus Student Performance System to help quantify positive outcomes of the PBIS framework. We have done this by collecting and analyzing data (using Otus) on the four basic criteria of PBIS.

1. Set clear expectations.

With Otus’ Recognition function you can customize the behaviors you would like to track for your class or school. Students are able to monitor their recognition and see their progress. Many schools use the three Rs (respectful, responsible and ready) approach and specify the behaviors within each category for example, “Be Ready: Bring All Needed Materials to Class”.

2. Teach Social Emotional standards.

Otus can be used as your warehouse for your social emotional curriculum whether it is a curriculum developed by you or purchased by your district. You can share materials and administer assessments through Otus. The assessment data for each student will be housed along with their recognition data.

3. Implement a rewards system.

Otus’ Recognition points also can be given as reward to students. Students will strive to achieve the goal behaviors to see their points rise.

4. Use data to inform decisions and track growth.

Otus allows you to have all of your data in one place. This allows for a comprehensive view of each student and helps to more accurately track growth.

The functionality that Otus provides for tracking student behavior is just one example of how you can implement a proactive, positive approach to achieving desirable student behavior. There are many ways to use the PBIS framework in your classroom or school that will work for your needs.


This post is an adaptation of a post that originally appeared on the Otus Features Blog.