Where to start? How to Finish?

I have been teaching at elementary school that teaches primarily through Project Based Learning (PBL) since 2014. I have created PBL units for students from kindergarten all the way up to eighth grade. I absolutely love what PBL’s bring to the classroom and how it can encourage students to develop their own creative ideas, rather than accepting the ideas of the teacher or fellow students. My goal for this post is to show you how I go about planning a PBL and how I finish a PBL with the students in my classroom.

Where to begin?

I am most likely not the only teacher that can’t turn off their teacher brain when they are not in the classroom. I can’t help but hear things or see things on the internet, social media, Reddit, and not think, “wow, that would be so cool to bring into the classroom!”. When I have these moments I quickly write them down in my notes on my iPhone or I save the link in a one of my brainstorming Google Docs. Once I have a good list of ideas of things that I want to bring into the classroom because I am interested in them and I think it would be fun for my students I turn to the standards. Let me say that again, I turn to the standards! I am saying this twice and bolded once, because I think there are some teachers that have forgotten to look back at the standards. Some teachers rely on the curriculum that their districts provide them to get ideas or think that they can’t get ideas anywhere else, but that simply is not true! Once I have checked the standards I think how to incorporate that cool thing I saw or heard to those standards. Sometimes it is as the entry event to my PBL or it is the overall theme of the PBL.

How it looks

When I was teaching kindergarten I heard a couple of people talking about a lost city called Singapore, Michigan and how it was located near the Saugatuck Dunes. I was interested instantly! I had no idea that there was a lost city so close to where I live and work. I did a quick Google search and found out that the lost city was buried by sand when so many trees were cut down to help rebuild the cities of Chicago, Holland, and Peshtigo after they had huge fires around 1871. After the Google search I looked at my Michigan Science Standards for kindergarten and found the following standards:

As soon as I looked at these standards I knew that I was going to be able to incorporate the story of Singapore, Michigan into a PBL unit. My entry event was going to be to go on a Saugatuck Dune Ride. During the ride over the dunes the guides talk about the lost city and how the shifting sands covered the area. Once I have an idea of where I am going to start and how it connects to the standards that I am teaching I look through the curriculum to see if there are any lessons that will help support the PBL. In this particular PBL I was able to connect some science lessons and writing lessons. The writing curriculum was focusing on the students expressing their ideas through pictures and labels. We collaborated with the middle school students to help at context to our pictures.

End Product

In any PBL there is always an end product. Sometimes, it is a presentation, physical artifact, or online post that shows the problem which was solved. The end product for the Lost City PBL was a book, which was written by the middle school students and illustrated by kindergarten students. We purchased a physical copy of the book to display in our school and we also sent a link home to parents so that they could purchase a colored copy or black and white copy for themselves. Another addition to Project Based Learning is connecting with an authentic audience. An authentic audience can look very different as you move across grade levels. At the kindergarten level our authentic audience is typically other classes within our school or family members. At the middle school level the authentic audience is typically an expert in the area that they are studying or a community member directly connected to the driving question or end product. The authentic audience can become part of the project at any stage. They can help kick off the entry event, give feedback during the middle where students need to bounce ideas off of or need additional support, and they can be the group that you present your findings too.

As you begin to plan your first or next PBL, don’t forget to start with the standards. Once you have connected the standards to a real-world problem or area of interest in your class then you can think about a potential end product. Be comfortable enough to fail and let the students explore their connections and ideas. If you want help thinking of project ideas to try in your class I recommend checking out the Buck Institute of Education website where they have a huge collection of projects done at all grade levels. Please feel free to contact me if you would like help thinking of project ideas or who an authentic audience may be for your grade level.

Image Attributions:
Kindergarten Standards:https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/K-12_Science_Performance_Expectations_v5_496901_7.pdf
Book Cover:http://www.lulu.com/shop/the-lost-city-of-singapore-michigan/paperback/product-23393012.html 

A New Mapping System

For those who may have forgotten, the five themes of Geography are location, place, human-environment interaction, movement, and region. This year I will be teaching the seventh grade Social Studies standards that have a major focus on Geography and Ancient Civilizations. As I was reviewing the standards and beginning to think about how I want to present them to my students, I took a break to visit the Twitterverse. As I was scrolling through the days tweets I saw a lot of Apple Distinguished Educators tweeting about Apple’s augmented reality capabilities. I found this technology to be very interesting and engaging for my students. Another thing that sparked my interest about augmented reality and mapping was an article written in 2015 by Rebecca Maxwell. In the article Rebecca mentions how digital maps are impacting how people travel and experience places they have never been.

In my Technology and Leadership course that I am taking to earn my Master of Arts in Educational Technology degree I have learned about instrumental thinking and missional thinking. Instrumental thinking is putting the tool or the technology first to inspire an ideas. Missional thinking is determining what the goal or large vision is and then fitting the best technology to that goal. I bring this up because I am worried that teachers will use Apple’s augmented reality in an instrumental thinking point of view. Just because the technology is available does not mean that it fits the goal or the vision. I want to help my students understand the five themes of geography and to develop a map of one of the ancient civilizations that we will be studying. It was be amazing to use augmented reality to enhance a map for the viewers experience, but would it be the best technological choice for my students? I am still in the middle of my missional thinking and trying to determine what is the most appropriate technology to integrate for my students to better understand ancient civilizations and the five themes of geography.

I would love to hear from you if you have any ideas about ancient civilizations or geography.

Image by Ian Kennedy on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clankennedy/13470471505

Connected Problem Solvers

I am about to begin my sixth year of teaching at ZQuest. Last year was my first year teaching at the middle school level. It was a dream come true to teach at the middle school level and to have a phenomenal teaching partner! With the new school year about to begin, my teaching partner and I are getting excited about the Project Based Learning (PBL) units that we are developing. Last year we were able to plan and execute eleven different PBL’s across the curriculum. One of the most exciting moments for me as a teacher is to see my students engaging with an authentic audience in the midst of trying to solve a PBL. In the past the students have been able to work with various businesses in the community to promote a water walk and work with the Mayor of Zeeland to plan a permanent art installation that would reflect the values of our community. It is truly amazing what is possible when students are given access to resources and the ability to connect with experts outside of the school setting.

Now that the new school year is getting ready to begin, my teaching partner and I are brainstorming ways to get the students more involved in the PBL planning process. We like to get ideas for PBL’s from current events or popular media. It is always easier to get students engaged when you connect the material to something current in their lives. So, this year we want the students to find their own problems that they want to solve. In order for this to happen they need to learn about problems that our community is facing.

During the first week of school my teaching partner and I will be helping the students create survey questions. The students will be working in teams to write questions to better understand problems that a business may face. The questions that the students write will be used to create a survey that they will use when talking to business owners or employees. Our goal is to have the students learn about a problem and to connect that problem to the curriculum we are studying. We are hoping that this will create more student buy in to the PBL’s and also help us connect with a larger authentic audience. Something that I have noticed when teaching middle school students is that they love being able to leave the classroom. By connecting with members of the community we will have more opportunities to visit the various businesses that we connect with during the first week of school and we can have more quest visitors come into our classroom to support our students along their way to solving real-world problems.

Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

Creating an Online Course

person holding pen point on blueprint
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Designing an online content management system (OCM) can seem like a daunting task when you’re in the brainstorming phase. When I was first brainstorming what I wanted to put on my OCM to help my students stay engaged and progress through the material I felt like Neo from the Matrix. If you haven’t seen the Matrix then you might not know this feeling, but it is like a waterfall of lifelong learning pouring directly into your brain. This may be a little dramatic, but it is truly how it felt. I first had to decide what course management system that I wanted  to use. I have been a Google for Education user for a long time now, so I considered using Google Classroom. I am currently using Haiku learning with my teaching partner and thought that it would be easy just to stick with what I am used to on a daily basis. After comparing the two different course management systems I decided to go with Haiku Learning because I use it everyday and because it was much more customizable. I wanted to create content for my course and embed resources from other sites and Haiku Learning allowed me to do that very seamlessly. Once I decided that I was going to stick with Haiku Learning I needed to think about how I want to use the course. In my everyday teaching I use Haiku Learning as a place to upload documents that students use in classroom lessons. I also use it as a place for students to turn in assignments to get their grades and feedback. During my CEP 820 course on Teaching Students Online I learned that an OCM can be a place that introduces students to new ideas and concepts as well as a place that helps students build on the knowledge that they gain in the classroom. I wanted my OCM to be a hybrid course that would assist students in a Project Based Learning Unit (PBL) that we will be doing before our class goes on a trip to Washington D.C. The hybrid course was designed to be a place that students would visit daily to engage in synchronous and asynchronous communication. The synchronous communication would mostly be done in the classroom when students were face-to-face and the asynchronous would be done on the OCM in class discussions or groups assignments.

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The idea of creating a synchronous and asynchronous environment for my students to collaborate in was a driving force in creating this hybrid course. Creating the course to house the “meat” of the Project Based Learning unit was intended to allow students to see how the  unit would progress overtime as well as provide students with all resources that they would need to complete the project effectively. Another driving force for my OCM was having the ability to adapt it on the fly. During the my CEP 820 course I learned how to use the Universal Design for Learning guidelines to assist students at all levels. Having a course that was adaptable allowed me to create sections for students who were working on different parts of the project or needed different resources. By studying the Universal Design for Learning guidelines I decided that I would also include resources that students could use to create a digital KWL chart to support them in visualizing what they already know and what information that need to learn to support them in the PBL unit.

As a new course designer and one that wants to continue developing content that is designed for all learners I want to give fellow and future course designers a bit of advice. One piece of advice that I have for current and future course designers is to find someone that can be a “test student”. I believe that my design process went as smoothly as it did because I would bounce my ideas off of my teaching partner. Sometimes as the designer you see the information the way you perceive it to be and it flows the way it did when you planned it in your head, however it may not come across that way to your students. Another piece of advice is to  try and recreate the teacher in the online course just as the students see in the classroom. Students need to know that the teacher they interact with on a daily basis at school is the same teacher that they will interact with in the online course. If you tell jokes in class then tell jokes on your course. If you share memes at the beginning of the week to engage students then post memes online to engage the students. The power of presence goes a long way in the classroom and it will also go a long way in your online course. Be true to yourself as a teacher and have fun designing a course for your students.


Questioning for Life

questions answers signage
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In CEP812 we focused on the book A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. Berger says that we need to step into questioning for the sake of learning how to ask the right questions to give us amazing answers. “Questioning is a classic case of the more you do it, the easier it gets. Innovators tend to get better, over time, at embracing the unknown and solving problems because they become confident through experience” (Berger p. 187). I am inspired by Berger’s words about questioning and how it is a practice worth pursuing for life. My goal as a teacher is to have my students become lifelong learners and to get them there I know I need to help them become great questioners.

I love being able to play trivia or watch Jeopardy when I have free time. I enjoy the randomness of questions and the rush I feel when I get the right answer. What I really appreciate about Jeopardy is that you have to word the answers in the form of a question. It is such a backwards idea, but so brilliant at the same time. It makes me wonder what school would be like if it were more like Jeopardy. What if we went through the whole day looking at answers and having to form questions out of them? This is kind of what I do when I plan a PBL unit. I know what I want my students to be able to do or understand, and I need to find a driving question that will lead them there.

When creating a PBL I start with the state standards and see if there are things that interest me or things I want to know more about. When I am interested in a topic and driven by ideas, I know my energy will inspire the students to want to learn it too. I have learned from books like Teach Like a Pirate and articles such as It’s P.Q. and C.Q. as Much as I.Q that bringing my own passions and curiosities into the classroom will not only energize me, but also empower my students to share their own passions and interest.  I have created a Prezi to show how I have used my own curiosities and passions in my classroom and how it has helped me become a teacher, questioner, and learner.


Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question: The Power Of Inquiry To Spark Breakthrough Ideas. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Friedman, T. L. (2016, January 1). It’s the P.Q. And C.Q. As much as the I.Q. The Opinion Pages. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/30/opinion/friedman-its-pq-and-cq-as-much-as-iq.html?_r=0


Finding Solutions to Wicked Problems


My collaboration team and I have been working on the wicked problem of innovation in education for the past few weeks. We began by researching the problem of Making Innovation Part of the Learning Ethic. We generated about fifty why questions pertaining to innovation in education to better understand why this problem is so wicked. Innovation is a term that gets thrown around a lot to describe fresh, new, and forward-thinking ideas or practices. These terms are not always used to describe the educational system. After we compiled our why questions, there were four that stuck out to us and required for more information to be gathered. I created an infographic to display these four why questions and how they add to the complexity of innovation in education.

As the team dove into the why’s for this wicked problem we began thinking about possible solutions and the stakeholders involved in the problem. We identified  educators, administrators, support staff, parents, students, and outside sources as being the key stakeholders that needed to partake in the design process of finding the necessary solutions. We created a survey to gain understanding of the stakeholders point of view in this wicked problem. The responses we received gave us great data to use for finding solutions.

After the team combed through the survey results, we were left with more questions. We started asking ourselves what if questions that could turn into possible solutions. What makes a problem wicked or complex is that there is no one possible solution or a solution that will fit the problem in every setting. With innovation in education specifically we know that the culture of every school is different. So, implementing PBL or STEM programs in one school might work well, but in another school it doesn’t. The team has created a multimodal presentation to show the process we went through in finding possible solutions and what those solutions could be.

Researching the wicked problem of innovation in education helped me realize that the most important part about complex problems is not finding the solution, but questioning why this is a problem, what if we tried this, and how can we make that happen. I learned from Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question that questioning and knowing how to ask better questions will lead to finding better solutions to complex problems. If you are wanting to be more innovative in your classroom or district I hope these questions and solutions can help.


Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question: The Power Of Inquiry To Spark Breakthrough Ideas. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Education Post. (2015). EDUCATION POST 2015 Parent Attitudes Survey. Retrieved from http://343jii21wly33h03em3o8es6.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Ed-Post-2015-Parent-Attitudes-Survey.pdf

Fothergill, Jo. (2010, February 3). SDC11127 [Digital Image]. Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/7G1gnp

Kelly, Heather. (31 Oct). Creating a Culture of Innovation in Schools. Retrieved from https://www.rubicon.com/creating-culture-innovation/

Pandolfo, Nick. (2012, 24 Sep). Education Nation: In Arizona Desert, a charter school competes. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/education-nation-in-arizona-desert-a-charter-school-competes/

Pandolfo, Nick. (2012, 24 Sep). Education Nation: In Arizona Desert, a charter school competes. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/education-nation-in-arizona-desert-a-charter-school-competes/

Stephanie, (2011, March 12). Safer Space [Digital Image]. Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/9sAN2u

Taylor, Samantha. (2018, March 25). 3 Musts-Haves During Virtual Meetings, Hangout, Chats, or Conference Calls [Digital Image]. Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/22K2mg9

Weller, Chris. (2015, Aug 4). A Peruvian billionaire contracted a world-famous design firm to remake his country’s private school system, and the results are stunning. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/innova-schools-in-peru-offer-great-education-for-cheap-2015-7

Weller, Chris. (2015, Aug 4). A Peruvian billionaire contracted a world-famous design firm to remake his country’s private school system, and the results are stunning. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/innova-schools-in-peru-offer-great-education-for-cheap-2015-7

Wicked Problem Survey

idea bulb paper sketch
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This week my CEP 812 colleagues and I have been working towards solving our wicked problem of innovation in education. Innovation in education is a wicked problem because there are numerous definitions of innovation and no precise way of evaluating if it is taking place or not. Through our research we have noticed that schools have primarily held the course in there design and implementation of teaching practices. There has been little change in how schools look and how things have been taught to students. Does education meet the needs of today’s students as it did in the past? This is an underlining question in our wicked problem. During our collaborative “think tank” my group and I developed four questions which we felt got at the hear of innovation in education. These questions included:

  1. Why innovate in the first place? Hasn’t school figured it out by now?
  2. Why aren’t more teachers and students given protection from potential failure with consequences when attempting innovative practices?
  3. Why is the apprenticeship of observation not broken when teachers go through teacher preparatory programs?
  4. Why are success indicators not adjusted to allow for innovation to be more central to the educational practice?

As my colleagues and I wrestled with these questions we began to understand that there were stakeholders who could contribute to finding solutions to this problem. Since schools have not undertaken a drastic transformation we want to understand why that change has not been made. We need input from these stakeholders to inform what things that can change to lead to transformations and finally how these transformations can take place. This problem can not be solved unless educators, administrators, support staff, parents, students, and outside sources partake in the design process of finding the necessary solutions. This is where you come in. We have created a survey that will help us understand the culture of innovation in schools. We want to understand your stance of innovation and if you feel supported in implementing lesson plans or seeking out professional development that would lead to innovation in your school. Please take a few minutes to complete the survey that we hope will inform discussions and planning for technology integration.