The Last Piece of the PBL Puzzle



"Pieces of the Puzzle" from pixabay

“Pieces of the Puzzle” from pixabay

“Not all of the puzzle pieces of life seem to fit together at first, but in time you’ll realize they do, perfectly.” ~ Doe Zantamata

Although Zantamata’s quote is directed at life in general, I think it applies to my learning experiences in EdTech 542 as well. Building a PBL project is like putting together a 1000+ piece puzzle. At first you aren’t sure if everything will come together or not! In the end though, all the pieces came together to form a completed puzzle–I mean, project. Let me explain.

The PBL planning process is quite unique because it starts with the end in mind. This means the teacher starts with the desired results or goals first, then she determines the assessments; after these two phases are done, the teacher plans the learning experiences and instructional methods. Having little experience with the Backward Design Model, I was quite surprised to learn that the process actually works. In the end, all of the PBL pieces came together to create a thoroughly developed project: Heroes Rise. This design process helped me learn to love PBL.

What do I now understand best about Project-Based Learning? What do I understand least well?

Based on the introduction you might think that the Backward Design Model is what I understand the best about PBL. However, it’s not the only thing that has helped me learn to love PBL. The eight essential elements of PBL really sold me on the process and the end product. Projects developed with these elements in mind are not merely busywork; instead they involve meaningful inquiry that engages students’ minds (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2012). Learning about the eight essential elements made me realize that most of my previous projects were nothing more than busywork. Sure my students seemed engaged–more than likely though, they were simply jumping through the hoops because they wanted to pass the unit, or the course for that matter. I don’t think they really found these projects personally meaningful nor something they needed to know in order to rise to a challenge. Even though I know that authentic real-world learning is the crux of PBL, I still struggle (less now than before) with the implementation of these experiences while teaching provincial exam writing and reading skills at the same time. Providing public audiences outside of the school, encouraging role-playing and implementing adult tools or processes are definitely a step in the right direction. I think being more aware of these specific elements will make it easier to develop authentic learning experiences in the future. Of course some of the other elements like focusing on significant content, encouraging student voice and choice, and incorporating critique and revision have always been important aspects of my planning. Seeing how well these go hand-in-hand with twenty-first century learning and in-depth inquiry also reinforces the fact that planning should be rigorous and student-centred as much as possible.

What did I expect to learn in this course? What did I actually learn? More, less, and why?

I expected to learn what PBL is and why we should implement it in our classrooms. I also expected to see what PBL looks like in practice. The fact that I was able to see my peers’ projects develop before my eyes has helped me realize what PBL is and why we should implement it. For many of us this process was unfamiliar, and daunting at times; yet in the end, most of us have come to the realization that PBL will benefit both our students and colleagues. The Buck Institute for Education website and their PBLU site also exceeded my expectations. These stellar resources definitely assisted my journey through the PBL planning process. They also reinforced and supported everything we learned throughout the course. Furthermore, I respect BIE’s interpretation of twenty-first learning. Yes PBL is student-centred, but it also helps students remember what they learned for longer periods of time and teaches them to take responsibility for their learning while building confidence and improving problem-solving and collaborative skills at the same time (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2012). Now more than ever students need to take responsibility for their learning. We can no longer permit our students to be passive learners. This means the role of the teacher also has to change. Some of us find this frightening but this change is necessary. Teaching on demand appeals to me. Clearly we are still there to support and guide our students. However, I like to think of us as experts that students turn to when needed. That’s the key–when needed. Another thing to remember is that we are not the only experts. While planning my project, I really enjoyed the process of figuring out which experts to bring into the classroom. A question that I am going to ask myself from now on is this: How can I enrich my students’ learning experiences by bringing the outside world in? Teachers (and their schools) should utilize their communities more so. I know I do not invite the community in as much as I should. This practice must change. How can I prepare my students for the twenty-first century workforce if I don’t develop that much-needed relationship with our community? Of course, with technology we can cast our nets even wider. The other day I came across an American teacher who was looking for a teacher who was willing to have his students blog with her students while exploring the play Julius Ceasar together. Brilliant! Now that is twenty-first century teaching and learning!

What will I do with what I have learned?

Even though I haven’t implemented my first PBL project yet, I am already co-planning a PBL project with another ELA teacher this month. We decided to improve one of our grade 12 units using the PBL methodology. This all came about because of this course. I mentioned it to her and she said “let’s do it!” Both of us really like the fact that PBL supports Alberta Education’s Inspiring Education initiative as well. After planning the grade 12 unit, I would also like to develop a project for my grade 11 course. Because this course occurs year-long I will be able to work on this project later.

Now that the course is drawing to a close, I really appreciate the fact that I have an actual unit to use this fall. How great is that! I look forward to field testing both units while learning how PBL works first hand. This is a great learning opportunity for my students too. Together, we will truly complete the PBL puzzle!


Buck Institute for Education. (n.d.). PBL Essential Elements Checklist. Retrieved from

Larmer, J. (2012, June 5). PBL: What Does It Take for a Project to Be “Authentic”? Edutopia [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. (2012, March). 8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning. Retrieved from


Post Project Reflection




Rain Reflection Photography from

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” ~ Peter Drucker

The culminating event is over. The project presentations have been presented. Groups and peers have been assessed. Student reflection journals are in. Now what?

Well, it’s time to debrief–because PBL teachers need to reflect too.

Even though I have been teaching a long time, I always take time to reflect. All of my unit plans have a reflection component. When the unit is over, I add my reflective notes–the good (what stays), the bad (what goes), and the ugly (it isn’t pretty yet but it could be). Before I teach the unit again I read over the notes, then I “tweak” what needs tweaking. And go from there …

Thanks to Google forms though, surveying students for their feedback has gotten a lot easier. This application shares the survey with the students and imports their replies into a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet can be printed if you like. I prefer to read through the collected data and take summary notes. Like the end of the unit reflection process I record the good, the bad, and the ugly. Where possible I like to share these summary notes with the students so they know that I take their input seriously. They can read my notes as well. The fact that PBL educators encourage a similar process makes total sense to me. Which means … when my first PBL project (and the next of course) ends this is where the formal reflection process begins. I will survey my students, asking them for feedback on the project (this process encourages them to reflect on the project as well), then I will read the results and create summary notes. Afterwards, I will share these notes with my students. This way we can debrief together!

[Aside: I just found a blog entry on 20 end of the year reflection questions and one of my favorites is this one: What is something we did this year that you think you will remember for the rest of your life? I would love to add my version of this question to the PBL student reflection survey. P.S. Bianca Hewes already took these questions and adapted them for her PBL project. To learn more, please read her blog post on PBL reflection questions.]

Although student input is very important, reflection should also involve my peers–especially those who were part of the project. Because the Heroes Rise PBL Project involves librarians and other teachers, I would like to meet with them next and discuss what worked and what didn’t. This way we could improve the project and use it again the following term (or year). When I was a teacher-librarian I always appreciated it when the teachers I worked with involved me in their reflection process. It made me feel like I am an important part of the team. Besides, having an extra set of eyes is always beneficial–mostly because these eyes will see something you didn’t or they will see something negative in a positive way! And that’s a good thing!

Another group I would involve in the reflection process would be the ELA department at my school. I am very fortunate to have fantastic colleagues. We often bounce ideas off one another, so I would feel very comfortable reviewing the project with them. Chances are I would have involved them from the get go anyway. That’s how our department operates. We share resources, lessons, and projects all the time. We also seek advice and encourage feedback. You can see this process at work in the Gender Project debriefing video. To help them improve their project, the teachers eagerly shared their successes and “good mistakes” (BIE, 2005) with one another. (P.S. I love the good mistakes phrase. Don’t you?This expression definitely shows that reflection is a healthy but necessary process.)

As you can see, reflection isn’t a one-time tool for me. I feel comfortable reflecting on my teaching and learning experiences. I don’t see how you can improve or “grow” without reflection. Reflection should be healthy though. Sometimes we focus on the bad and ignore the good, and the ugly. Modelling reflection practices shows our colleagues and students that good mistakes are the best teachers!

“The goal is concrete, the intention has been set but if I don’t stop and reflect, there’s no point to it all! Teaching is reflective practice.” ~ Nicole Arndt


Boss, S. (2012, November 28). PBL teachers need time to reflect, too. Edutopia [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Buck Institute for Education. (2005). The gender project: The project debrief [Video file]. Retrieved from

Webneel. (n.d.). Rain reflection photography [Photograph]. Retrieved from

The PBL Teacher’s New Hat




Hat Metaphor (NLB 2014)

Most of us have a favorite piece of clothing—one that we wear again and again. Perhaps it is a beloved hat or a pair of shoes. When you wear your favorite hat—well—it feels like home. After repeated wearings, the hat fits comfortably. Although a new article of clothing looks beautiful, it doesn’t feel quite right. It needs to be broken in. New shoes are like that too. Sometimes you have to earn that first blister or two before the shoes begin to fit.

Teaching is like clothing, both old and new. Teachers have their tried and true methods. Their go-to strategies if you will. Although the go-to strategies work for the teacher, in certain situations they may not work for the student. Sometimes teachers have to test drive new strategies or adopt new roles. Fortunately, PBL encourages teachers to wear a new hat (or two). First, we must “relinquish the role of the dispenser of information” (Park, n.d.). According to Jackson (2012), the PBL teacher becomes both the facilitator and manager instead. “In facilitator mode, the teacher works with students to frame relevant and meaningful questions and to present logical arguments, guides students in seeking answers and researching, structures knowledge-building tasks, coaches necessary social skills, and assesses student progress.  As manager, the teacher directs small groups and independent work experiences.” (Jackson, 2012). In addition, Park (n.d.) recommends that teachers become metacognitive coaches, who think aloud with their students and practice behaviours they want their students to use.  As facilitators and managers, teachers still provide sufficient structure and support by helping students plan, monitor progress and assess results (Rice, 2010).

For the most part, PBL suits my teaching style. Being a facilitator and manager are natural roles for English-Language Arts teachers; we like being metacognitive coaches.  We want our students to ask meaningful questions and present logical arguments, and seek answers and research; therefore, we often model these techniques. However, there are still areas that need attention. For me, it is the self-assessment component. With PBL, students are expected to monitor their own progress and assess their own results. Fostering peer reviews and providing teacher feedback during the writing process (usually after the first draft is done) is routine in my classroom. However, I know I don’t encourage my students to assess their own work enough. This is something I must rectify. The fact that PBL places a lot of emphasis on formative assessment definitely helps teachers like me. With this kind of assessment, students can use checklists and their reflective journals to evaluate their own work. Focusing on self-assessment will also help students further develop their critical thinking skills because they will have to determine what needs improvement and why.

Another area that requires attention is knowing when to tutor or mentor individual students and small groups. I certainly do not want to interrupt work progress or work flow. Stevenson (2014) recommends holding team meetings on a regular basis to monitor progress and learn what the group (and the individuals within) needs. This way the teacher can adapt instruction, materials, and activities as needed. Likewise, Stevenson (2014) also encourages teachers to meet with a team representative in order to disseminate expectations. Because the team representative shares the teacher’s expectations with the group, trust is established and the group progress is not interrupted. Recommendations like these are practical and easy to adopt that’s for sure.

By addressing these two areas I will be able to monitor student competencies and skills while encouraging students to be more critical of their own work through self-assessment.  This is particularly helpful for those of us who tend to place more emphasis on the end product instead of the process. Because these approaches are user-friendly and beneficial to my students, I definitely feel more confident about implementing PBL in my classroom.

This hat might be new but at least I am learning how to wear it!


Jackson, S. (2012, April). The teacher’s role during project-based learning. Scholastic Canada Education. Retrieved from

Park, J. (n.d.). The Role of the Instructor. LDT Stanford University. Retrieved from

Rice, T. (2010, September 16). The teacher’s role in PBL (PBL Series Part 4). Wisdom Begins with Wonder [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Stevenson, I. (2014, March 25). Project management: The devil is in the differentiation! [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Avoiding Uncertainty, Surprises & Disappointment



from the film, A Serious Man (2009)

from the film, A Serious Man (2009)

FYI: My post is in response to Jamie McKenzie’s article, Scaffolding For Success.

The quote posted above reminds me of the precarious relationship we have with our students. We expect them to learn … to follow the plot … to discover the undiscovered. But do we really light the way? Sometimes we show them the buffet table and say “choose”. But we don’t really say why.

I remember an anecdote a colleague shared with me not so long ago:  “One of my students asked me why we have to do this. And I told him–because it’s on the diploma exam!”

According to McKenzie (1999), we should tell our students why the topic (or activity) is important and urge them to care about the topic as well. In fact, we want them to see the big picture in bold, beautiful colours! The “why we are doing this” is not supposed to be a secret.

[Aside: And I am pretty sure the answer “it’s on the diploma exam” isn’t going to help students care about the topic (activity). I know this to be true because I’ve said something similar myself!]

How do we help our students see the big picture? How do we help them care about the topic?

McKenzie believes scaffolding is the key.

There are eight characteristics of scaffolding. “Scaffolding provides clear directions; clarifies purpose; keeps students on task; offers assessment to clarify expectations; points students to worthy sources; reduces uncertainty, surprise and disappointment; delivers efficiency; and creates momentum” (McKenzie, 1999).

One of these scaffolding characteristics really captured my interest, and it is: “Scaffolding reduces uncertainty, surprise and disappointment” (McKenzie, 1999). McKenzie believes instructors should test each step of a lesson to see what can go wrong thereby eliminating distractions and maximizing learning and efficiency. This really isn’t a focus of PBL. However, if other scaffolding items are in place as they apply to PBL … well … it’s another story completely. PBL does reduce uncertainty, surprise, and disappointment. Let’s see how this is accomplished.

Because PBL clarifies its purpose with a driving question, which is posted in the classroom and printed on all assignments, the students should know what they are striving for. The driving question keeps the big picture in mind. Students know they working towards the answer to this question. Also, the emphasis on connecting learning to the real world ensures PBL provides students with a purpose. With my project I have the students drawing up a contract and working in teams, meeting real storytellers (novelists, reporters, photographers), and creating and sharing their own stories with a live audience. The real world is ever present.

Another important aspect of scaffolding is keeping students on task. PBL definitely supports this! This is achieved through the planning and prepping stage of the PBL process. Just this week I completed a project calendar and a teaching and learning guide. The calendar clearly shows the students what they will be doing when. The tasks are there. The due dates are there. The learning materials are there. If this calendar was shared with students, and mine will be, then there shouldn’t be any surprises. When a student is away, he or she knows exactly what was covered and what must be done to catch up. The teaching and learning guide reinforces this as well. Although the guide emphasizes what students need to know and the lessons and materials required to support teaching and learning, it also shows the teacher what must be prepared to keep students on task (and learning). This approach to planning also provides worthy sources (even resources). Because everything is prepped beforehand, students can clearly see what sources they will need to help them complete their work. Nothing is left to chance. Everything is organized and accessible. The project resources page can and should be shared. With PBL everything is out in the open. There are no secrets.

Assessment is also an important aspect of scaffolding and PBL. All assessments (both formative and summative) must be decided upon before the project begins. In fact, PBL starts with the learning outcomes (or standards) and the assessments first; the activities and products are developed afterward. There is a method to this madness that’s for sure. The teacher must make sure that each outcome can be assessed–so the checklists, surveys, and rubrics are developed first. More importantly, each and every assessment must be shared with the students so they know what is expected of them. Similarly, each rubric in my project includes the learning outcomes/standards covered via the assignment/activity. By clarifying expectations through assessment, uncertainty and disappointment are alleviated.

McKenzie (1999) also emphasizes the importance of clear directions in Chapter 19 with this statement: “Web based research units offer step-by-step directions to explain just what students must do in order to meet the expectations for the learning activity.” Likewise, the PBL teacher supports student learning by providing step-by-step guidelines to ensure students meet expectations. First off, the assessments (which are written in student friendly language) clearly indicate what must be done to meet provincial or state standards. Secondly, students must produce a high quality product. To ensure this, teachers are expected to make time for practice presentations and multiple drafts during the project. The project calendar reflects this practice.

Momentum is important too. Each step leads to the next. Expectations should build as students move towards the culminating activity. In PBL the project is launched with an entry event. The purpose of this event is to capture student interest. It also lays down the foundation upon which the project is built. For instance, my project focuses on heroes and the importance of storytelling. Through TED Talks I am introducing my students to two professional storytellers who clearly explain who or what helped them get to where they are today. They also stress why stories are important to us as human beings. Science and math related careers are often touted as being more viable, more realistic. Yet professional storytellers are everywhere. Students need to see that there are other possibilities! Even if they do not want to become professional storytellers I want them to see how telling stories is not only a very human thing to do but is also an extension of who we are. Each and everyone of us is a storyteller! The assignments and activities in this project take the students on a journey, and each step leads to the next until the students reach their destination and answer the driving question: why do we revere heroes in our society?

Scaffolding is an important component of PBL. With PBL, your bike always has tires (and pedals, and gears, and brakes)! Nothing is missing. The whole point of PBL is to help students undertake a successful journey. The planning and preparing process is intentional. Nothing is left to chance. There are no secrets. Everything is out in the open. Although PBL requires a lot of effort to carry out, it is worth it–especially if it reduces uncertainty, surprise, and disappointment. Both scaffolding and PBL provide structure. Structure nurtures security. In my case (and my students), structure nurtures the storyteller in all of us.


Buck Institute For Education. (n.d.). Project based learning: Planning forms. Retrieved from

McKenzie, J. (1999). Scaffolding for success. Now On The Educational Technology Journal9(4). Retrieved from

Authentic Assessment


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Formative vs Summative

Formative vs Summative

Sometimes my students believe learning should be easy—you snap your fingers and presto chango you’ve got it. However, real life is not like that. Sometimes you have to do things again and again until—you get it! Sometimes you also have to work through a step-by-step process to gain mastery. Clearly learning activities and assignments need to challenge—not too much, not too little—our students. The question is: how do you find the right amount of challenge for your students? Let’s look at Goldilocks and her quest to find the perfect bowl of porridge. Goldilocks tasted each bowl until she found the perfect one. She chose the porridge that was right for her, and determined which porridge was best based on her own requirements. Shouldn’t our students be able to do the same? If authentic assessment is to exist in our classrooms, the answer to that question is “yes”. In order to challenge our students properly we should include them in the assessment process as much as possible—either through contribution or awareness.

According to the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (2005), student performance improves when 1) the classroom culture encourages interaction and the use of assessment tools; 2) learning goals are established and tracked as the individual student works towards these goals; and 3) students are actively involved in the learning process. Similarly, the Assessment Reform Group (1999) believes student performance is more likely to improve if pupils are able to assess themselves and understand how to improve.

One of the best ways to involve students in the assessment process is to use formative assessments. The achievement gains associated with formative assessment have been described as “among the largest ever reported for educational interventions” (Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, 2005). Formative assessments can involve simple things like checklists, surveys, concept maps, exit tickets, journal entries, think-pair-share and the 3-minute pause. Students can help create these assessments as well—especially checklists, surveys and exit tickets. More importantly, these types of assessments can also be used for self-assessment. One of the best things about formative assessment is that it provides immediate feedback. Research reveals that “timely feedback has been shown to deepen one’s memory for the material assessed” (as cited by Whitman). Moreover, “students who knew they would get immediate feedback performed better on a task than those who were told that feedback would be delayed” (as cited by Whitman).

What Kids Can Do (2001) also provides a quick overview of what authentic assessment is:

  • Assessment is for students (has personal relevance, builds confidence, instills ownership).
  • Assessment is faithful to the work students actually do (notebooks, work-in-progress, routine presentations, reflection).
  • Assessment is public (includes student goals and a visible criteria for judgement eg. wall charts)
  • Assessment promotes ongoing self-reflection and critical inquiry (what is good work and how is it attained). (p. 12)

For Heroes Rise (a PBL project), I have included both formative and summative assessments. In the past I have relied more on summative assessments than formative. For this project I have intentionally focused on both types of assessments! The formative assessment checklists I have designed so far can be used in various ways. For instance, students can utilize the checklist to: set goals, stay on task, self-assess, and comment coach (peer assessment). The student contract and accompanying checklist is new for me; I look forward to testing it with my students this fall. Basically the contract handout helps students draft their own group contract and checklist based on team goals and interests. This is a great way to get students involved in the assessment process, plus it makes the group (and its members) more accountable for their behaviours and actions. The reflective blog checklist and rubric will allow me to assess student progress (formative) as well as student learning (critical thinking skills) once the blog is completed and the driving question is answered (summative). Students can also use the journal blog checklist to self-monitor their progress. In the past, my students have built rubrics for various activities or assignments, and I would definitely like to try that again—after the first run through perhaps! When students are not involved in rubric design, I always include the rubric with the assignment. I want them to know up front how they will be evaluated. I also like to provide student exemplars whenever possible. Our department often creates what we call “tutorial” rubrics. These rubrics often provide student friendly language below each descriptor / standard so students know what needs to be done when. Because Google forms are user-friendly, I will use one to survey the students about the project’s assessments (checklists, contracts, and rubrics) in order to learn what worked, what didn’t and why.


Assessment Reform Group. (1999). Assessment for learning: Beyond the black box. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, School of Education.

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. (2005). Formative assessment: Improving learning in secondary classrooms. Paris: OECD.

Earl, L. M. (2004). Assessment as learning: Using classroom assessment to maximize student learning. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

What Kids Can Do. (2001). Making youth known: Behind the video camera. WKCD News Series. Retrieved from

Whitman, G. (June 17, 2014) Assessment, choice, and the learning brain. Edutopia. Retrieved from

Additional Resources:

Formative Assessment Strategies:

Teach 21 Assessment:

Teach 21 PBL Tools:

Heroes Rise: My PBL Project



This week was a busy one that’s for sure. I can’t believe how much I learned in a short amount of time. As the week draws to a close I managed to come up with a project idea, a driving question (or two), 10+ sub questions, and a visual plan to boot! I have decided to call my PBL project: Heroes Rise. To me, the title reaffirms the idea that each us has the potential to become an everyday hero, or at the very least be able to recognize one in our community. Similarly, it supports the idea that we can create our own hero and share this creation with a public audience. Hopefully the driving question supports these ideas too.

Driving Question: Why do we revere heroes in our society?

The majority of this week’s learning focuses on driving questions. These questions are tricky little devils. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good challenge. And this assignment was definitely a challenge and a half… But I am not sure if my question meets the expectations of PBL. What if my question, perish the thought, is merely an essential question?! Miller (2011) explains that PBL involves three types of questions: philosophical or debatable, product-oriented, and role-oriented. He also states that “driving questions are just essential questions that are high on caffeine” (Miller, August 24, 2011). This means the question needs to be good enough not only to hook the student but to engage her as well. Philosophical questions interest me; however will such questions capture the student’s interest as well? That’s the six million dollar question isn’t it?! Like Miller says these questions are “the hardest part of PBL” and they unusually involve “many drafts” (Miller, August 17, 2011). As I write this reflection I am tempted to rewrite the question–again.

[Aside] Perhaps, “Should we revere heroes in our society?” is a better question. It might seem more “debatable”. What do you think? How about this one: “Why is hero-worship so popular in our society?”

Larmer and Olabuenaga (2013) recommend putting your question to the test. Is it Google-able? Can it be answered in ten minutes or less? If so, it’s back to the drawing board for you! My question passed the test but left me wondering are the second and third questions better? (see Aside) Miller (August 17, 2011) recommends testing your question on your students. I like that idea—it’s practical!


Although writing driving questions is challenging, I do like the fact that philosophical questions may not be answered solely by the products or activities planned. In fact, the products associated with your driving question usually do not answer the question directly (Larmer and Olabuenaga, 2013). This means students must use the products (and the process associated with each one) to help them explore the question and all the ideas that accompany it. Exploration is important if students are going truly grasp important concepts. A lot of PBL articles mention that reflection on the learning is necessary if “real” learning is to occur, especially when PBL is compared to lecturing or rote memorization.  Larmer and Olabuenaga (2013) believe that philosophical questions require reflection to ensure that the question is not only understood but is also fully answered. ELA outcomes support self-reflection as well so this approach makes sense.

With the first product, I want the students to be able to explore what a hero is and what traits he or she should possess. I also want them to be able to compare types of heroes as well as consider audience preferences. The first inquiry product (an expository group presentation) will definitely support exploration!  Furthermore, a jigsaw like activity should allow students to pursue their interests but also explore other avenues by viewing/listening to others’ presentations.

The next two products encourage the students to tell two completely different types of stories: one about a real hero and another about an imaginary hero. I like the fact that these two types of writing will allow students to experience real life writing as well. Likewise, each type of storytelling requires students to “exercise” unique skills in order to get the job done.

PBL & Organization

This course, in many ways, mimics PBL because our weekly assignments guide us through PBL process. We are answering the question: What is PBL? Recently, I learned that being organized is an essential skill because a PBL project will not work if a teacher and her students are not focused and on task. Students need to know where it all leads and teachers need to show them the way. This week we experimented with online visual organizers in order to plan our project. Visual organizers let the user see what puzzle pieces are present and which ones are missing. I have used and mindomo before but I must say popplet is very user-friendly. Viewing my peers’ organizers also made it clear that one tool doesn’t work for everyone. Choice is important. This means we must do the same for our students. That is why I provided different types of organizers on my project’s tools and resources page!


Larmer, J., and Olabuenaga, G. (September 14, 2013) Driving questions. BIE. Retrieved from

Miller, A. (August 17, 2011) How to write effective driving questions for project-based learning. Edutopia. Retrieved from

Miller, A. (August 24, 2011) How to refine driving questions for effective project-based learning. Edutopia. Retrieved from


The Effectiveness of PBL



Exploring PBL and how it works in any classroom has left me in a reflective mood lately. Mostly because I am wondering what it will look like in my classroom. Based on my research this week it seems like PBL could work with any age group, level of learner, learning preferences, or subject matter. Of course, certain elements must be in place for PBL to be effective, and the role of the teacher is extremely important in terms of project success. Clearly the best way to determine how PBL will look in your classroom or mine is to test its validity in a real classroom setting.

How Effective is PBL in the Classroom?

Holm (2011) delves into PBL effectiveness by asking the question: “What does current research say about the effectiveness of project-based learning at the individual classroom level?” In order to answer this question, she summarized peer-reviewed research on the effectiveness of PBL, over a ten year period, as it pertains to prekindergarten through grade 12 classrooms (Holm, 2011, p. 3).

What intrigued me the most about this article is that the author’s comparative study included different age groups, subjects, projects, and even countries. In the end, Holm concluded that PBL could be effective in any classroom especially if the teacher possessed certain skills and a positive attitude towards this kind of learning. Not surprisingly, Holm found that student achievement was higher when project-based ideals were aligned with school systems and policies (Holm, 2011, p. 10).

Moreover, project-based learning was perceived positively by students because it “fostered greater engagement with the subject matter” (Holm, 2011, p. 9). Also, students enjoyed “the active, hands-on approach to content, as well as improved perceptions of subject matter” (Holm, 2011, p. 9). Studies also showed that “the beneficial academic effects of project-based instruction were most pronounced for middle-to low-achieving students” (Holm, 2011, p. 9).

Holm also found that PBL is more effective or successful if the teacher possesses the following abilities: good classroom management skills, solid content knowledge, the ability to set clear learning goals, the ability to anticipate difficulties, willingness to support students on an as-needed basis, an understanding of individual differences, and a positive and encouraging approach to interactions with students” (Holm, 2011, p. 9).

Teaching Style & Effectiveness

Reflecting on Holm’s findings about the teacher skills required for PBL I realize that some of us, myself included, might question our own abilities. However, according to our class readings, PBL can be successful if the following three conditions are fulfilled: a strong teacher-student relationship, rigor and accountability, and student involvement.

As an English-Language Arts (ELA) teacher, I enjoy working closely with students. Because we explore human nature in-depth, ELA classrooms are community-orientated and relationship-driven. Exploration, discussion, reflection, and communication are front and centre in an ELA classroom; therefore, these aspects of the course demand that the classroom and the community within it feel secure enough to share their views as well as understand others’ views. If the classroom isn’t open and accepting, it is difficult to fully explore human nature. Likewise, in order to understand why people do the things they do, empathy is essential! This kind of approach would be difficult to achieve in an ELA classroom that wasn’t community-orientated and relationship-driven. Right?!

Rigor and accountability are also very important. Having taught grade 12 for numerous years I have experienced this first hand. At the end of the course students must take a government exam. This exam accounts for 50% of their overall grade. High standards and student accountability ensure better results. Moreover, I have found that student choice, consistent practice and revision, and constructive feedback (from peers and teacher) are also important components of student success when it comes to these demanding exams. Based on this experience and what I am learning about PBL, the skills I have already acquired should be advantageous when introducing PBL into my classroom.

Over the years I have changed my approach to teaching and learning. Lecture style classrooms were in vogue when I started teaching in the 1990s but I never really felt comfortable with that approach. Perhaps that is why I embraced project-based instruction and educational technology early on in my career. Nowadays some educators use descriptors like “guide on the side” (teacher role) or “student-centred classroom” to describe what their classrooms look like in the 21st century. I like to think that my classroom is more 21st century than not. Obviously, there are times when the teacher is not just a guide. Nevertheless, the ELA curriculum supports both student involvement and real-world learning. As I write this, the Inspiring Education initiative by the Alberta government [which focuses on cultivating engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit] is well underway. The best way to foster such thinkers or citizens is through project-based learning—isn’t it? Clearly, the government wants citizens who can adapt to an ever-changing world. How are you going to achieve this goal if students aren’t given opportunities to direct their learning and connect this learning to the real world as well?

PBL in My Classroom

Ideas, ideas, ideas …

Right now I feel overwhelmed … mostly because I am not sure what direction to take. It’s like the menu is too big, and there are too many tasty main courses to choose from!

Some of the projects I have explored focus on theme based concepts like resilience and choice. Their driving questions could be easily adapted to any grade or text(s). For example, the question “what drives our choices?” works with well with many texts, whether a play or a short story. The project example I found connected the driving question to the play, Romeo & Juliet.

Another teacher had students consider why poets write? Although I don’t care for the wording of the driving question (Why do emos write poetry?) the focus on the importance of self-expression is certainly appealing. It reminds me of my “What is art?” unit for ELA30-1 . So the potential is there as well.

The “A Hero in My Eyes” project also captured my interest. Although it doesn’t meet the 8 elements of PBL it certainly inspired me to ask this driving question: Why do humans need heroes, either imagined or real? Again … there’s another choice to make.

As you can see PBL ideas are everywhere … I just need to make a choice. No matter the choice though, I plan to use the Resilience Café assignment as a guide because it is very thorough and provides an excellent walk through for a PBL newbie like me.


Holm, M. (2011). Project-based instruction: A review of the literature on effectiveness in prekindergarten through 12th grade classrooms. Rivier Academic Journal, 7(2). Retrieved from


PBL in the Classroom



What considerations are important when incorporating a Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach into the classroom?

When considering PBL in the classroom, teachers need to understand:
A) What the qualities of a successful project are;
B) The issues that are specific to PBL instructional strategies; and,
C) What types of students will be successful in a PBL environment.

Describe the qualities of a successful project.

According to Larmer and Mergendoller (2012) a project is meaningful, and therefore successful, if it fulfills two criteria:

• Students must perceive the task as being personally meaningful which means the project should matter to them and be something they want to do well.

• The project must also fulfill an educational purpose (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2012).

To meet the criteria stated above Larmer and Mergendoller (2012) recommend that teachers consider the following 8 essential elements:

1. Significant content (involves important knowledge; ties concepts to standards)
2. A need to know (engages student interests; initiates questions)
3. A driving question (that is open-ended, complex, thought-provoking, and links to student learning)
4. Student voice and choice (allows student choices and personal expression)
5. 21st Century competencies (develops collaboration, communication, problem solving, critical thinking)
6. In-depth inquiry (involves investigating questions, discovering answers, testing ideas, and drawing conclusions)
7. Critique and revision (includes review and critique of personal/peer work; refer to rubrics; coach and provide feedback; emphasize high quality work)
8. Public audience (present work to an audience whether community based or online)

Hung, based on an analysis of successful PBL, proposes a model for designing projects that focus on content, context, calibration, researching, reasoning, and reflection, or 3C3R (Vega, 2012, Evidence-based components of success). This model asks teachers to match content to students’ research and reasoning skills, identify real life activities (that can be integrated into the project), calibrate project by examining possible problems and solutions, describe the task clearly to students, and allow for reflection throughout and at the end of the project (Vega, 2012, Evidence-based components of success).

Hung, Larmer and Mergendoller share common views as all of them believe that a successful project places importance on meaningful content, student accessibility and interest, in-depth inquiry, 21st Century competencies (collaborating, communicating, critical thinking, problem solving), and reflection.

What issues must a teacher consider that are specific to PBL instructional strategies?

The keys issues that must be considered when implementing PBL in the classroom are:

1. Time management

PBL can seem overwhelming to both teachers and students because it often involves in-depth inquiry, which means everyone involved must manage their time effectively. It is easy to get off task in the pursuit of answers or testing ideas; therefore, it is important to set goals, create a schedule and review it regularly, and establish team or individual benchmarks based on curriculum standards (Baron, 2010).

2. Communication problems within groups

De Graaff and Kolmos (2003) state that group work is important as it involves the development of the following skills: dealing with problems as they arise, showing understanding and respect for one another, reflecting on personal development, and strengthening communication and listening abilities.

However, problems arise when students fail to listen to others’ ideas and attempt to split work into individualized and non-interactive tasks (Vega, 2012, Avoiding pitfalls). Working in groups requires full attention and active listening, which means the teacher must model both skills and allow students time to practice these skills (Vega, 2012, Avoiding pitfalls). Regular feedback and review also helps.

Student created rubrics that focus on developing and strengthening communication skills within groups can enhance collaboration skills (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2012). Furthermore, Stalin (2008), as cited by Vega, recommends implementing team rewards or goals that are dependent on the growth of each individual’s skill and knowledge (Vega, 2012, Evidence-based components of success).

3. Student commitment

Because PBL is student centred some worry about student commitment to learning and the projects’ process and outcome. Students are more likely to commit to a project if they see themselves as part of the process and how this process relates to the school and their lives. Baron (2012) recommends that teachers share project goals and expectations with their students and let them know what they are learning and how it will come together in the end. If possible, provide exemplars.

4. Assessment

Critics like to point out that assessment of PBL is difficult if not impossible to assess. However, if the teacher creates rubrics for each major product in the project, and uses these rubrics to guide students the project will be successful. Of course, the teacher must include content standards and skills that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the subject matter and show competence in essential skills (Baron, 2010)

Barron and Darling-Hammond (2008), as cited by Vegas, state that the criteria for success needs to be clearly defined at the start of the project and should include continuous feedback, ongoing reflection and much-needed revision (Vega, 2012, Evidence-based components of success).

What types of students will be successful in PBL environments?

Based on the 8 essential components of PBL, it would seem that students should possess the following qualities and abilities:

• willingly ask questions and discover answers
• be curious and inventive
• be active listeners and good communicators
• actively participate in learning process (engagement and motivation)
• work collaboratively with others
• work independently, when needed
• manage time effectively
• possess research and reasoning skills
• set and meet goals / benchmarks
• be able to critique their work and the work of others (and revise it)
• embrace ownership of project
• willingness to demonstrate and share knowledge with others

Of course students, especially if the school has not embraced PBL, may not possess the above qualities and abilities. However, what is clear is that PBL, if done correctly, can develop and strengthen these skills. All classrooms have students with mixed abilities. That is a reality. However, if a teacher provides students with clear guidelines for success, using rubrics and examples that demonstrate the intended learning outcomes, then students should embody the above qualities, abilities or skills (Vega, 2012, Evidence-based outcomes for success).


Baron, K. (2010, March 15). 10 Takeaway Tips for Project-Based Learning. Edutopia. Retrieved from

Graaff, E. D., & Kolmos, A. (2003). Characteristics of Problem-Based-Learning. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(5), 657 – 662. Retrieved from

Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. (2012, March). 8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning. Retrieved from

Vega, V. (2012, December 3). Project-Based Learning Research: Avoiding Pitfalls. Edutopia. Retrieved from

Vegas, V. (2012, December 3). Project-Based Learning Research: Evidence-Based Components of Success. Edutopia. Retrieved from

PBL Resources

How does PBL work?
What is PBL?
Why PBL?
Project-Based Learning: An overview (video)
Work that matters

Wanting more and less


#DCMOOC Week 1 Post: Wanting More & Less

No doubt you have heard of the expression less is more.

Funny thing is … when you surf the net for information on digital citizenship you immediately come across the 9 elements of digital citizenship. Is it just me or is this number too high? No, I don’t want to debate which elements should stay or go … but when I think of creating a user-friendly yet effective digital citizenship policy I find the sheer scope and sequence of digital citizenship overwhelming!

(Aside: I explored how to own your digital footprints in 10 steps on my EdTech Learning Log. These 10 steps seem too much for adults never mind students?!)

Hence my foray into this MOOC. I am interested in digital citizenship and policy building (as it applies to students). High school students need a policy that is straightforward and user-friendly. How do I get my students to understand their rights and responsibilities as it applies to digital citizenship without sounding old fashioned or preachy or curmudgeonly? How do I get them to think and behave ethically in my classroom and beyond?

Furthermore, as I explored various publications to prep for this post, I came across this list of interesting facts. According to Livingstone & Haddon’s (2011) research:

• Only 36% of children aged 9 to 16 perceived that it
was very true that they knew more about the Internet
than their parents;
• 66% of children aged 9 to 10 say it is not true that
they know more about the Internet than their parents;
• 37% of students did not have the skills associated
with finding safety information online;
• 36% of students were unable to bookmark a website;
• Nearly 50% could not change privacy settings on a
social networking profile; and
• Over 50% were unable to block spam (p. 25).

Students are often referred to as digital natives yet based on the facts listed above we can clearly see that students are seriously lacking some basic digital skills!

So … what comes next?

How do we create responsible and active digital citizens? Obviously digital literacy is important … as an ELA teacher we are often expected to weave this into our already jampacked curriculums …

Which brings me to my second reason for joining this MOOC … I hope to explore the following questions: Is being a good role model and guide enough? Are my expectations in my classes enough? If not, how do I get other teachers to join the good fight? Many teachers simply want to ban cellphones and tablets in schools … but taking a step like this doesn’t educate students on proper use (moral or otherwise). This makes me feel like I am an island unto myself.

Hopefully … once this MOOC is done … I will feel more confident about what digital citizenship should look like in my classroom … especially when it comes to developing a policy and/or helping students become responsible and active digital citizens.


Barker, N. (2013, September 29). How to Own Your Digital Footprint in 10 Steps. EDTECH Learning Log [Web log post]. Retrieved from

School Technology Branch (2012). Digital citizenship policy development guide. Retrieved from Alberta Education website:




Working with Whitespace

Thesis Statement Formula 2

Thesis Statement Formula

Essay Structure Formula 2

Essay Structure Formula 2

Thesis Statement Formula

Thesis Statement Formula


Thesis Statement Formula 2

Why Formulas?

Based on the needs of ELA10-2 students both formulas should fulfill the following three components: 1) conciseness, 2) chunking of information, and 3) support prior learning. ELA10-2 students are more likely to achieve success if information is concise. These two formulas provide important information in a straightforward and simple manner. This makes them easy to use. Furthermore, the information provided is chunked in such a way that it should make the information easy to learn as well. Both formulas focus on three or less concepts, meaning both are well under the 7 plus or minus 2 rule mentioned in the previous module. Furthermore, each formula also reinforces prior learning. For instance, the essay structure formula reinforces the relationship between writer and reader just like the thesis analogy does. Secondly, it also supports the keyhole model as it indicates the function of each part of the essay (introduction, body, and conclusion). The second formula on thesis statements supports the thesis analogy as well as the opening activity in the unit because it emphasizes not only what a thesis statement is but why it is so important.


According to Hartley, space—if used correctly—should make it easier to access relevant pieces of information (Lohr, p. 274). Because of the nature of ELA10-2 students I wanted relevant information to be easy to access, so I simplified the wording and manipulated the whitespace to make the important content easy to read. The tricky part here is this: how do you truly know if you have the right amount of whitespace to support the learning. I hope I have made the information easier to access. Obviously using other design principles like alignment or symmetry and avoiding trapped space help but I still uncertain as to whether I have achieved this goal or not when just considering whitespace.

A second goal was to “create a balance between whitespace and other elements in the visuals” (Lohr, p. 275). This goal seemed harder to achieve than the first. If you look at the Essay Structure Formula, you can see that the content on the right hand side contains sentences that are not the same length. This means one side of the formula seems unbalanced. In the first example, I balanced the whitespace on the left hand side by using the same amount of space between each phrase (eg. Intro/Thesis and Body). However, the other side is not balanced in terms of space between phrases or sentences. Equilibrium seems hard to achieve when text is different lengths. The second example (which uses black whitespace) reverses the balance, making the right side balanced and the left side unbalanced. Which is better and why? This questioning makes a designer wonder how much time one should spend “contemplating” this issue and its impact on learning.

Comparison-Contrast & User-Tests

Although whitespace is whitespace no matter what colour you use (Lohr, p. 273), more testers seemed drawn to a black background (especially with the first formula). Most thought other colours stood out more and made the material easier to read. Ironically one user said the black graphic seemed to be more forgiving when it came to large areas of whitespace. For example, one user noted that the word Body in the first formula seemed to have less space around it when black was used as the background colour. Yet the space is the same size in both exemplars. I also tried aligning everything to the left in the Parts of an Essay section to lessen the whitespace around the word Body … then the arrows looked strange (whether the same size or not). Users preferred a smaller and narrower arrow; so I did keep the sleeker same-sized arrows in the end, mostly because the whitespace seemed to achieve equilibrium with a sleeker arrow (p. 275).

The second formula (Thesis Statements) divided users more than the first one. I left both exemplars identical except for the background colour. Some preferred the white background while others preferred the black one. I have to admit I like the white background more so but I cannot defend my choice when it comes to the issue of whitespace. Because of the division between users, it made me consider the following question: How much does personal preference (re: colours) affect learning? [I haven’t come to a conclusion yet.]

Most users thought this formula was balanced no matter the background colour. One noted the connection between the blue cross and the word effective, which made my day. Early on in the testing phase, the first user recommended that I enlarge the text font and make the symbols smaller because his eyes went to the symbols first and therefore they detracted from the relevant text. That was good advice. None of the other users said that the symbols were a distraction after I made the change.


Lohr, L. (2008). Creating graphics for learning and performance: Lessons in visual literacy (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson Education, Inc.