Friday, November 22, 2013

Reinventing Classroom Learning

Last Spring I was hearing a lot of hullabaloo about Project Based Learning.  Most of what I was reading and hearing was coming out of Stockbridge, Michigan.  So last April I made the 45 minute trek north.  I met with Principal Jim Kelly, and he set me up with several students that would guide me throughout my visit.  As I posted last Spring - PBL - Leave Your Comfort Zone and Try Something New I strongly believe Project Based Learning (PBL) and Genius Hour can be the answer to the CCSS shift.

On this particular visit I was reunited with old friends Josh Nichols and Steve Trosin.  As I toured the elementary and talked with students I was blown away.  Teachers had taken a step back, the voices in the room were student voices.  Students were asking questions and investigating for answers.  Mr. Nichols and Mr. Trosin were facilitating and observing, not dominating the learning.  This created personal reflection...I thought back to my years in the classroom.  I remember walking into the teachers lounge after school and seeing exhausted teachers...I thought, this is wrong, why are the teachers exhausted...shouldn't the students be more tired than the adults?  Who's doing all the work?

As I refocused on what I was watching, I saw underwater robots, reassembling of musical instruments and the growing of plants in various conditions.  Most of what I saw was not brain surgery; these were hands-on activities that created thought, discussion and student engagement.  Here is a clip that Brad Wilson - @dreambition created:

Over the last several weeks I have had face to face conversations and online conversations that have a united message.  The message I keep hearing is that educators are feeling burned out.  I've heard it from colleagues, friends, acquaintances and even strangers.  At first I believed a positive attitude could fix it. But the more I listened and the more I attempted to fix, the more I realized this isn't going away.  So I ask the question, is it time to reinvent classroom learning?  At the end of the day who is working hardest, the students or the teacher?

Just this week I watched this classroom video, and it inspired this post...check it out:

As a teacher I was fortunate to have the ability to create and try new things.  Two lessons still vividly stand out for me:  The first was an activity on Speed & Velocity.  I had brainstormed the idea to order Lego tubs from our local ISD.  They supplied me with the Lego boxes and I then went to work creating a rubric. Students were then put in groups of two or three.  They needed to build a vehicle that would go down a ramp and along a designated grid.  Students then asked a variety of questions that reaffirmed I was doing a pretty decent job of teaching.  Students asked about surface, friction, weight, mass, obstacles and other variables.  One student brought up Newton's Laws of Motion. I simply stepped back and turned them loose.  Students used learned knowledge to design and create their vehicles.  The final projects were really cool.  It went so well that the next year I did something very similar with one big wrinkle...I wrote a grant for solar powered vehicles.  Students painted and designed their vehicles, and now they were also learning about solar power.  These projects still stick in my head.  Students were fully engaged, I had very few behavioral issues and the learning was constant.  I went home each day energized and excited to see where the students would take the learning.  As I look back, I wish I had more experiences like this.  Project Based Learning has always been around, but we are smarter now. We've learned valuable information on how to enhance the process.  

If you are feeling defeated, tired, burned out or simply exhausted I encourage you to think about reinventing the learning in your classroom.  Here are a few simple steps - 

1)  Start Small:  Brainstorm a project or read a bit about Genius Hour

2)  Create some guidelines and expectations

3)  Be willing to let go of complete control

4)  Take pictures, praise the engaged learning!

5)  Don't Fear Failure:  Try not to fear messy or boisterous noise

This Week's Big Question(s):  How are you feeling as an educator?  Is it time to re-energize yourself? Is it time to re-invent the learning in your classroom?  


Monday, November 25th:  LifeTouch will be in the building doing candid shots
Monday, November 25th:  Tech Meeting
Tuesday, November 26th:  9am TEAM meeting at Warner
Tuesday, November 26th:  After School String Team at SAU
Wednesday, November 27th:  Happy Bday Laura Smith
Wednesday, November 27th:  No School, Thanksgiving Break

Check out Brad Wilson's @dreambition Thanksgiving Symbaloo

Articles Worth Reading:

Got Forgiveness? @joykelly05

Read and Connect @JennaVDixon @ErinMastin

Are You Teaching Kids To Fail Less and Fail Slower? @ideaguy42 (MUST SEE Video in this post!)

Videos Worth Watching:

What truly Motivates us? (11 min)

How To: Screen Record Your iPad (3 min) @techsavvyed 

Difference Between Dogs and Cats (3 min)

Hilarious Clip! (2 min)


  1. Thanks for sharing, Ben! I, too, have heard a consistent message from teachers this year that they are exhausted and being asked to take on more and more. It almost makes me feel guilty for trying to get them excited about trying new things. Almost.

    But I have to remind myself that every teacher still has choices...choices about the priorities they set in their day. What they prioritize with students and HOW they reach the goals and demands that are being placed on them.

    And I believe that if teachers place a priority on interesting, engaging and fun (EVENTFUL) learning... like what you and I have seen at Stockbridge and beyond...that the anxiety starts to shift. Because when learning becomes more Eventful, other pressures begin to become less relevant. Of course it's not "easy" can't just wave a magic PBL wand, but the energy generated from the student engagement has a positive ripple effect on the teacher.

    The memorable experiences that you describe here are almost certainly memorable for your former students as well. I hope more educators will start to think back to the most enjoyable teaching or learning experiences they've had...think about what made it so memorable and design those elements into your upcoming lessons. It'll be FUN!

    As always, I appreciate your weekly blog! -Brad @dreambition

  2. Thanks for reading and taking part in the discussion. I always appreciate your positive nature and your ability to encourage and support learning.

    You are correct, you can't just wave the magic wand, it takes the desire to want to make things interesting, eventful and engaging. As I've stated before and I'll state again...regurgitating is not learning. We need to make learning meaningful.

    I'm grateful for your continued support Brad!

  3. Very interesting, Ben. Are there any teachers willing to try it at Warner?

  4. Morris, thanks for reading and joining in on the conversation. There are several teachers that have started to investigate and try out Genius Hour. The beginning responses encourage me that the movement will continue. I believe it is crucial for educators to share the positive experiences that they have had, this will encourage others to take the risk. Change is never easy, but through teamwork all things are possible.