Thursday, February 11, 2016

Making Digital Citizenship Authentic Through PBL

The perfect storm

It’s not too often you can turn local disasters into something positive but in this case the recent Texas flooding opened the doors for something special. The storms caused numerous delays in our schedule and we were forced to cancel Carnival Day. A tradition for sometime, Carnival Day is typically a half day of shortened classes followed by fun and games for students to unwind.

As in many districts, these shortened classes are usually comprised of fillers and must dos, and in this case it was digital citizenship. Too often it seems that digital citizenship is being incorporated in this fashion. An afterthought more or less without the attention it truly deserves. Unlike simple table manners, digital citizenship can impact a person’s future indefinitely. A position we’d never want our students to be caught in.

The pitch

So when the day was canceled, I couldn’t resist the perfect opportunity to offer something authentic that would allow our students to take the wheel and drive. My first thought, cancel all classes for a day and introduce a project based learning experience. The challenge was going to be selling the idea. Being the new kid on the block didn’t make it any easier but oddly enough in some way it may have helped. Sharing some past experiences was enough to gain initial support from my principal and get the ball rolling. The final step was to convince the technology committee that this was the better option.

And so I immediately went into salesman mode, began my pitch and the rest is history.

Planning the process

Great, we’ve got the blessing from above but what makes this any better than some prepackaged curriculum? What’s going to make the students take ownership? We decided to drive the experience by questioning the issue itself. How do we make these students aware? Aware of the impacts their choices will have both now and in the future. And thus our driving question was established.

"How can we improve awareness of the impacts of our digital choices?"

The next step was making this as painless as possible for a staff with very limited PBL experience. The goal was to create a process that both students and teachers could easily follow. After we decided on the format, we shared the resources on a Google website. Each step in the process required the teachers approval to ensure the students were meeting the desired level of expectation. (A detailed overview of process and building the resources will be available in an upcoming post.)

The website included everything from detailed steps, grade level schedules to links for resources to help facilitate the process. To help minimize any technical hiccups, resources were shared through Google Drive using the Doctopus add-on. Each folder was shared with only group members and their corresponding teacher.

And we’re off to the races

So the day was finally upon us and the nervousness and uncertainty by all involved was simply intoxicating. “It’s happening,” I kept saying with a huge grin. Although my colleagues may not have had the same excitement.

The students began the day by reporting to their assigned group classrooms. A brief overview of the day was shared with the students including a video defining Project Based Learning. Students were then exposed to the Driving Question.

Groups consisted of teams of four students. Since many of our core subjects contain mixed grade levels, we determined it was best to group students through their advisory classes. We teamed advisory teachers to create larger pools in order to help make well rounded groups.

Team contracts were passed out to each group. One member was selected by the group as the project manager. The students selected a topic for their project and each group member then signed the contract.

Once the topic was selected, each group was required to create a minimum of 3 research questions to support their solution to the Driving Question. Samples and resources were provided on the website to help the process. Teachers facilitation was critical to ensure students were diving deep enough with their questions and research.

The groups then submitted a Project Proposal after all of their research had been completed and approved. Examples of the types of deliverables were provided to the students on the website. The students then began to storyboard and script their projects. They were given full autonomy and could use any format, digital or paper. The only caveat was regardless of the type of deliverable the groups chose, they still were required to create a video demonstrating it. The committee felt this would be the best way to ensure all projects were documented and easily fit within the allotted time available.

After obtaining final approval on their storyboards, the students were off and running creating their deliverables. The schedule was designed to allow for the most available time during filming and editing.

Once the groups completed editing and submitted their projects, each member was required to complete an evaluation. The evaluations consisted of a self, peer and project portion.

All the groups then returned to their classroom and the teacher showcased all of the final products.

The outcome

I’m biased, so of course the overall experience was very positive. However, in truth the learning was very real and authentic. There was a buzz in the building and the students were engaged everywhere. We even had several guests on campus that day. Members from central office as well as others visiting from other school districts were interacting with students and learning about their topics. What was scheduled for 45 minutes turned into a two hour trip for one of the visiting groups.

While the day itself was impressive, the student reflections were priceless. I had to keep reminding myself that these were middle school students because would swear the responses coached.

What did I learn about myself and my work ethic during this PBL experience?
  • I learned how to work with other people you might not want to work with.
  • I learned that it is important to listen to each other,respect each other's ideas and stay on task.
  • I learned that if I give it my best the outcome will be exceptional
  • That sometimes working with other people than your friends is not bad.
  • I learned that I'm not very much of a leader type person, and that I work better when I've been given tasks by others.
  • I get distracted easily.
  • I learned that when people work together and put their ideas to make a project, that project will be much more creative and interesting. It will also stand out from the rest.
  • I don't work that well with people, and prefer to work alone, despite how helpful my team was.
  • I learned that it's hard to work with others I don't know well. But I also learned that it's an important skill and I improved a lot throughout the project. I have a strong work ethic. At times I got tired, but I kept going until we finished.
  • I learned that working together is a good experience and I learned that if you work hard at something you can accomplish it.
  • I learned that sometimes you don't get what you want and that other people's ideas can be better than yours sometimes.

A week later, I was stopped by a teacher whom I never met at one of our feeder elementary schools. She asked if I was the responsible for the PBL and went on to share that her daughter, who participated, came home that evening and would not stop talking about the day. I informed her I'll be writing about it and asked for a comment.

"I enjoyed the PBL day for many reasons. I enjoyed getting to work with other students who I didn't know very well. My group did our project on hacking and viruses. In our project, we were able to research, make a poster, write a script, and make a video in our allotted time. Being able to work with others allowed us to work more efficiently because we kept each other on task and that lead to a great final product. Seeing my friend's projects was fun. I felt that I learned a lot from watching other student's presentations, almost as much as I did researching my own topic. Over all, I had a very fun day learning about computer safety.”

So what’s next?

As with any first attempt, there is always room for improvement. Many of the experiences and comments will help us improve the process for next time:

  • Brain Breaks for the students throughout the day
  • More completed examples for the students to preview beforehand
  • Continue to automate more of the processes

For me, the best part is we've opened the doors and created a foundation for others to venture off and include a similar approach in their classrooms. Currently we’re working on a Civil Rights unit with 6th graders. The project will span across the entire grade level and will conclude with class galleries to showcase the deliverables.

In the end, I couldn’t be happier with the experience. I will always be thankful of my principal and colleagues for believing in me and the process to make this a success.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Carl! I'm really looking forward to the Civil Rights unit next month.

  2. This is so awesome! Thanks for sharing the details, Rich. I feel like other schools could replicate this based on what you've shared here!

    1. Thanks, Amy! I'm working on a follow up post with all the resources.

  3. I'm extremely impressed and would LOVE to see how this was put together!

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