The Middle School View: Project Based Learning with a Tech TWIST

This article was written by Michele Langhans, an 8th grade science teacher at Lanier Middle School.

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Students busy on a PBL project at Lanier Middle School.

How do we meet all of our curriculum standards, provide authentic experiences, and use technology in our schools today? For me, I use project-based learning (PBL) with a twist. And when I say twist, I mean TWIST: Teamwork With Innovative Skills and Technology. This is our PBL program at Lanier Middle School. By using PBL, I can meet the needs of all students. I am not going to write about the “how-tos” of PBL–Buck Institute and Edutopia have already beaten me to that topic, and they have done it very well. Instead, I’ll focus on how I use technology to do PBL in authentic ways. (Also see the PBL Communication Center in eCLASS C&I.)

We all know that the students we teach now are not the same students of just a few years ago. Today’s students do not know of a world without the internet,  much less the internet in the palm of their hands. They are digital natives, and adults are not. However, if we do not try to keep up with the ever-changing world of technology, we as teachers will become obsolete and ineffective. Thus, I do my very best to keep up with my very active middle schoolers.

Once we started TWIST four years ago, we knew that infusing technology would be a large portion of how we would work with students. Thus, we started with Google Apps. All of our TWIST students received their own Google Apps e-mail addresses and access to all Google Apps. That started our push into using technology. We use Google Drive for pretty much everything thing that we do. We set up TWIST folders that students regularly access.

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In the picture above, you will see that we set up TWIST: Edit and TWIST: View Only folders. These folders are then shared with the students. Inside of these folders are where students can find the various projects, information, and resources that they can access from anywhere in the world.

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Within the edit folder above, students enter in their Google Apps e-mail and links to their personal TWIST websites. Students maintain their own sites and continually use them to reflect on their own work.

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In the view only folder (above) , students can access various help folders for Autodesk and Google Sketch Up as well as TWIST Documents and Projects, which are used with every project (you can see a view only version of the folders here). The TWIST contracts and project proposals that each team must make a copy of, rename, and complete live here.  Every team must complete a contract and a proposal prior to beginning their project.

Once the contract and proposal are complete, then students may begin their projects. Inside the project folder, we place everything the students will need: the entry event, a timeline of activities and due dates, project overview, all of the standards, resources, and rubrics.

All of our Google Apps can be linked in eCLASS, our school district’s learning management system, by using either a shareable link or by embedding it into a widget, course content, or discussions.

Google is not the only technology we use for PBL. In order to truly move students into a PBL environment, I have flipped my classroom. As students need more help, I find or create video tutorials on how to use different technologies that are required. Students then have the option to watch and learn on their own or find another platform for their projects.  

To get students into their projects quickly, I use Sophia.org and Blendspace. 

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An image from the Sophia video hosting site.

Sophia is an online platform that was set up by Capella University to provide reasonably priced college courses to the public. Other universities now are a part of the system. It is also a free platform for educators to host videos. Why did I chose Sophia instead of Youtube? Accessibility. YouTube is blocked in my district for students when they are at school, so I needed a hosting site for my videos (at the time, we did not have eCLASS yet). I made my own tutorial videos using my laptop, Screen-cast-o-matic or Camtasia,  

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An example of Blendspace, embedded into our school’s learning management system.

I also discovered Blendspace. It is a visual bookmarking system that goes way beyond just websites. Blendspace allows me to  bookmark a wide variety of activities for students to use as they see fit: to extend, to remediate, or as to use as reference material. 

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Student reflections written on a Padlet and embedded into Ms. Langhans eCLASS course page.

Finally, throughout the project students practice reflecting. One way that my students reflect is by using Padlet, an online corkboard, and I embedded it into an eClass discussion page. This allows students to continually monitor their own progress, stresses, and successes.

As you can see, we are very active in middle school! Students are always using technology in a variety of ways from the beginning of their projects to the very end with reflection. My use of technology comes from two places:  I feel the need to keep up with students and what technologies they are using and will be using in the future; and  I actually enjoying pushing myself as well. Modeling life-long learning to students is very important.

PBL: The Real Thing!

This article was written by GCPS 2016 Teacher of the Year, Trisha Connor.

Have you ever daydreamed of a classroom that nearly runs itself? Have you wished for student engagement at such a high level that management is not an issue? A classroom immersed in well-planned Project Based Learning (PBL) is just that. I recently immersed my fifth grade students in a PBL unit. Inspired by an article we read about alternative energy sources, our driving question was, “How can we improve the safety of wind farms for birds and bats?”

The students generated a list of Need to Know questions, grouped them by topic, and divided into research teams to seek out the answers. Each group chose how to share their new information with the class as the class took sketchnotes on the information. Once students shared the new information, they realized they had even more questions. I had them help me draft a tweet on my Twitter account in search of an expert in the field. We had an amazing Skype session with a professional from NextEra Energy Resources. The students were able to ask questions and deepen their understanding of the problem. This expert also connected us with other experts in the field, including a professor from Texas Tech University who is leading the research on the issue of the environmental impact of wind turbines.  

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The students created scale drawings and models of wind turbines and sketched plans of possible solutions to the problem. They created persuasive presentations to share with industry professionals.

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They were mesmerized by the information from leaders in the field and shared a feeling of importance and pride to be working on a real-world problem. We set up a display at our school’s Innovation Fair event so that the students could share their learning and solution ideas with community members.

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The students could not wait to work on this problem and would express frustration any time we had to forgo this work for other reasons. They truly owned their learning–and I was learning along with them, not leading the way. It was a beautiful, REAL thing!

If you want the REAL thing going on in your classroom, I would start by checking out The Buck Institute for Education at www.bie.org for videos of Project Based Learning in action and resources to get your lessons started.  Edutopia also has lots of wonderful videos to allow you to see PBL in action, like this Introduction to Project Based Learning.  Our own Project Based Learning Communication Center in eCLASS C&I links to these and many more resources.

Quizlet Live–Fantastic Formative Assessment

Quizlet Live: An Overview

How can we know what students really know about the lessons we’ve been teaching? Aren’t quizzes and major tests enough for teachers to evaluate where students are? Absolutely not! Formative assessments allow teachers to quickly check where students are during the learning process, enabling the teacher to meaningfully modify the lesson (if necessary) so students can master the concepts they’re supposed to be learning, not just being assessed on and moving on to the next lesson.

There are many formative assessment strategies out there, both low tech and high tech. We recently put Quizlet Live to the test. Quizlet Live is a new twist on a beloved tech tool that allows both teachers and students to understand what the students do and don’t know.

Quizlet Live utilizes already existing Quizlet sets to create an engaging assessment for students. It’s teacher and kid friendly and is easy to set up in a few steps. To begin, teachers choose a Quizlet set for the topic the class is studying. After logging into Quizlet, teachers can either access others’ Quizlet sets or create their own. A join code is provided to share with the class, and students are randomly assigned to teams. Then it’s time to move! Students physically move to join their randomized teammates and bring their devices (laptops, phones, tablets) with them.

The game is ready to start as teams compete for the ultimate bragging rights. Since students are able to see the leader board as they are playing, they know exactly where they stand. But students have to be careful….one wrong answer makes the team start over at 0 and begin again. This encourages students to be thoughtful and deliberate when choosing the correct answer– it’s better to be correct than quick in Quizlet Live. The game ends when the first team has a perfect score. Students can play again in the same teams to try and make it to the top of the leaderboard, or teachers also have the option of shuffling the teams so new groups of student can try to make it to the top.

From elementary students to high school students to even adults, the feedback is the same–they love this engaging formative assessment tool. For a demo to see Quizlet Live in action, click here.

Quizlet Live with Elementary Students

Third graders in Ms. Roberts’ class at Mulberry Elementary were up for the Quizlet Live challenge this past April. In an effort to pinpoint specific vocabulary the students needed to review to prepare for Milestones testing, Ms. Roberts chose several Quizlet sets. The topic for review was famous historical figures in the 3rd grade social studies curriculum. In a few clicks, Ms. Roberts created the Quizlet Live set and shared the code with the students. Using a variety of technology devices including laptops and tablets, the students were ready to begin.

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The excitement in the room grew as students watched the leaderboard to see where they stood compared to their classmates. Groans of frustration could be heard if a team answered incorrectly and had to start over at zero. However, these talented students persevered and began again. Since students have to work together by talking about the answers and looking at each other’s devices to search for the correct answer, every student was engaged and on task. The collaboration and communication among the groups was amazing, and they supported and encouraged each other to reach their common goal.

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Quizlet Live with High School Students

Middle and high schoolers love a good review game just as well as elementary students, which can be seen in Ms. Radloff’s ninth grade biology class at North Gwinnett High School. Students had recently studied viruses and bacteria, and Ms. Radloff wanted to make sure they were ready for their test in a couple of days. She took the Quizlet set she had used with the students, followed the steps found here to create a Quizlet Live game, and students were immediately engaged by getting up and forming their teams. See the students, along with some guest eCLASS Instructional Specialists, play below.

Ms. Radloff had the students play several times with several different Quizlet sets to touch on all the terms they needed to know. Not only did the students see what they didn’t know, they also had the chance to learn by repetition the things they hadn’t quite mastered yet. By working in teams, they discussed the merits of one answer over another (quickly!), clarifying why an answer was or wasn’t correct within the team.

Additionally, Ms. Radloff was able to look at the data provided by Quizlet Live to see what students missed the most so that she could re-teach those concepts before the summative test. In the end, she said, “Students fared much better than my other classes had in previous years.The information in that unit is usually very hard to grasp, but they had it down pretty well. They had so much fun that we played Quizlet Live the rest of the year before tests.”

Quizlet Live has proven to be an easy-to-use, engaging, and useful formative assessment tool that gets high marks from both students and teachers!