Friday, December 20, 2013

Pre-Break, Perfect Project-Based Learning

Just before Thanksgiving break, we dropped everything and PBL-ed for two days. This idea takes different shapes in schools, with some schools even terming the experience as "minimesters" or "X-term". For us, we focused on a day of #Mandellcreates followed by presentations. The guidelines simply required students to create something, in their chosen mode of learning, that either represents or enhances our school's mission and culture. This is how it played out...

Pre-Experience: A Sneak Attack for Grouping
Prior to PBL day, we had students fill out the Google form survey below which asked them to identify an activity they would choose if they were able to spend the entire school day doing it. The categories included dreamer, builder, helper, artist, and explorer. Students selected a first choice, second, and third; we specifically did not share with them the purpose of the survey as to avoid selection of group by friends rather than by activity. From there, we formed multiage groups, and in this case we were able to place all students into their first choice learning mode.

In teams, our teachers then worked on a flexible schedule with suggested time table and a rubric. These were very high level and allowed for a wide range of application. The schedule included time for brainstorming, goal setting, designing, creating, and presentation preparation. Teachers split into teams to lead the groups, with each teacher selecting the activity best aligned with his or her passion and preferred learning mode as well.

PBL Day:

working on a mural proposal
On this day, students reported to their homerooms and then split into their groups. The sessions started out with brainstorming activities to generate ideas in an open discussion and sharing forum. Students then grouped together based on interest and generated ideas to bring the idea to fruition. Here’s how this looked in the various groups:

Artists: Our artists chose from the various forms of art we learn at Mandell, and then focused on creating something representative of our school community within that art form. For our visual artists, they tackled the task of constructing 2D and 3D pieces to beautify our physical space and visually convey the values of our community. One other group chose to focus on musical creation, taking on the task of re-imagining the Mandell song.

Dream Makers: In this group, students started by finishing the question, “What if…?” related to Mandell. They then walked around the displayed ideas and checked off ideas of particular interest to them. Based on this, students discussed their proposals and grouped together to form a plan. The plan had to include the goal, objectives, resources, and people necessary for implementation.

using the 3D printer to
make a machine component
Builders: For our builders, the day began with taking a look a materials and generating ideas on what to create together. Many of the students engaged in electronics or a combination of physics related design and electronics. It was a day full of trial, error, and rebuilding. In the end, they built some astounding and truly creative machines, including two Rube Goldberg style spirit machine and one homework collection robotic dog whose main role was to mandate students to “Turn in your homework, now!” and bring it to the teachers.

Explorers: The explorer group worked on ways to extend learning outside the four walls of the classroom, drawing up field trip proposals for each subject. Some students focused their proposal on an exploration that could take place during the school day yesterday, such as a trip to the Apple store, the exploration of neighborhood environments, and the measurement of lockers spaces. Others worked on proposals for later in the year like a trip to the Intrepid (history) and one to the New York Hall of Science (science).

Helpers: Our service learning group started the day by brainstorming how they could help our community in a direct way during the day. They began by traveling around the neighborhood to do a clean up and collected four bags of garbage along their way. They then transitioned to a few projects within the school, drawing up proposals to extend the experience.


At the end of the day, we asked students to reflect on their experiences at the end of the day, and for the most part, students reported enthusiasm and high levels of engagement. We did find more success in certain groups, especially those for whom the experience required very hands-on and experiential tasks. The builders, helpers, and artists all experienced high levels of both. For the dreamers and explorers, we had varying levels of engagement. One take away by the teachers was the need to incorporate immediately actionable tasks.
Presentation Day:
The next day when the groups presented, the experience took on an entirely new meaning. The pieces of a larger puzzle fit together, and a shared sense of pride was palpable in the presentation room. Students manifested their agency, took pride in their own creative outcomes and in the work of their peers. The most exciting observation has been the follow up community excitement surrounding the proposals and the plans to bring the ideas to fruition.