PBL-An Empathy Builder for Teachers… Who Knew?

I have to admit, when I considered using The One and Only Ivan as my first core novel in 5th grade, I was a little worried. I know that most kids love animals and I thought that would be motivating for students to launch into a PBL on some aspect of animals; however, I, myself, am not a huge animal lover. I mean, I have two cats, I had a cat growing up, my dad had dogs and I loved them, but I just was never one of those kids who wanted to be a veterinarian, nor was I a kid who had folders for school with little kittens on them. I am embarrassed to admit this actually because it makes me seem a little hard core, but so be it, “I yam what I yam!” as Popeye says.  After I had children of my own, my love for animals also decreased a bit. Not sure why, except to say that my primary love became all about my kids.

But, I decided I could fake it. Did I have to have this huge amount of empathy and compassion for animals to teach this unit? I hoped not. One thing I didn’t expect to happen, was the change that occurred and is occurring within me! The more I learn, the more empathy I have for animals, and animals of all kinds! It seems so silly when I look at it now. Of course the teacher also learns while teaching! I am not, nor have I ever considered myself, “Teacher: All Knowing and #1 Person in Charge!” I am co-learner, chief facilitator, but first and foremost, co-learner. Project based learning has been an incredible vehicle to teach my students, but most surprisingly, it has taught me more than just content. It has taught me about my own heart.


Why Blogging Needs to Be in My Curriculum and Why My Students Need It!

The day before yesterday, I brought my students to our computer lab to blog again. It was so wonderful to see them so excited about writing! 

It has taken me a few years to develop a system of how to teach students to blog. It has also taken me a few years to effectively incorporate writing skills I usually taught in other ways into a blogging curriculum. And, I hesitate to even use the word curriculum because I think it is only the beginnings of one. I have also not done this alone. With the help of fabulous technology teachers, Andy Hanes and Jennifer Robinson, we really are starting to make it come together for kids, and ourselves!

We began the year with showing students what blogs were: what was the difference between an article and a blog? I then asked my students to make a list of what they would like to read about. My colleagues and I responded by making a Mentor Mob list of blogs that fit their criteria and were safe for them to read. After giving students about two 1/2 hour periods in the computer lab to simply browse and read, we began to have discussions about questions they had regarding the blogs. Some questions were: How can we tell if the information is coming from a reputable source? What do we do when information is really mixed in with opinion? Can we use blogs as sources for research? Why do some blogs have pop up ads or ads on the screen and some don’t? What formats do we prefer…the writing on the right side of the page? The left? Do we like pictures on the page at the top? Is the page too busy for us or too boring? They commented on being annoyed when someone didn’t capitalize the word “I” or put too many exclamation points. They loved it when someone was able to tell a clear story and put lots of details in. 

We are taking part in the Student Blogging Challenge on Edublogs, but using KidBlog to blog. As a teacher, the ability to check my students’ writing before they post, as well as approve comments before they are posted, is extremely important to me. For the challenge, students needed to first write an introduction of themselves so we checked out a couple of examples and talked about which one we liked best and why.

This brings me to our class we had two days ago. Students were so excited to write and read other classmates’ blogs! During class, I was able to individually conference with students who had finished and submitted their blogs for review. It was differentiation at its’ best! I could help students with their specific writing difficulties and build on their strengths. Some students needed to understand how to appropriately use colons, some needed help with organization and learned how to cut sentences out and move them to a different place so that it made more sense, some students just wanted reassurance and praise. Yes, there was time to individually praise students! We are learning about compound subjects and predicates and next time we blog, I can have them copy and paste a favorite sentence into a Word Doc, or better yet, something collaborative, like Pirate Pad. We can then highlight subjects and predicates using their own writing. We can also take that opportunity to share why they love that particular sentence they wrote the best!
When my colleague, Jennifer, who was working with me at the time, asked students why they loved blogging, their responses said it all:

Because it’s fun!
Because real people are going to see it that aren’t us!
Because when I make mistakes, it makes more sense when I have to fix it!
Because we get to learn more about our classmates and people we
don’t know!
Because it isn’t made up, it’s real.

My students need this kind of writing. They need it because it means something to them, it motivates them to learn and be better readers and writers. They need it because it builds on their interests, taps into their creativity, invites them to be collaborative, and begs them to think critically. What more could you want as a teacher?

The One and Only Ivan Global PBL

I should have written this post a long time ago. Actually, I wrote a post and some how, the whole thing got erased! Anyway, I was inspired to write again, by someone on Twitter. So I must thank her.

The One and Only Ivan is a story based on the true story of the gorilla, Ivan, who lived in a circus-themed mall for 27 years alone in a cage without ever seeing another gorilla. After National Geographic featured Ivan in a story, “The Urban Gorilla,” there was public outcry to help save him and put Ivan in a better situation. Katherine Applegate learned about Ivan and wrote a beautiful, simple story about Ivan. This novel promotes empathy in a way that is simple yet poignant and also brings up many issues dealing with the capture and caging of animals.

I attended PBL World in Napa Valley this past June. As part of my attendance, I created this project based learning unit with the help of many incredibly talented teachers and also the help of the National Faculty of Bucks Institute of Education. Now, John Scott, my friend and librarian, is helping me teach this wonderful story.It is listed as a project on the Global Classroom Projects wiki. Here are the goals of this project:
Students will read the book, __The One and Only Ivan__by Katherine Applegate.
Students will engage in self directed learning by researching the question, “Do we have the right to capture and cage animals?”
Students will engage in a project that employs and builds their empathetic skills.
Students will collaborate and communicate with each other, and with students from cultures around the world.
Students will create one book together by answering the question, “Do we have the right to capture and cage animals?
Students will decide as a global community which wildlife organization they will donate all proceeds made by the sale of the book.

The beauty of this project also includes the opportunity for teachers who want to try PBL but do not know quite where to start and would like to support from others who are doing the same thing! We will all work on the same driving question and if teachers want or need the support of resources, they are right there on the project page to utilize. I also used 21st Century Fluency Project to plan the unit and those who join are also able to use it.

I believe in project based learning to teach students in a way that is meaningful and motivating, and the learning that happens is far reaching beyond what traditional teaching can accomplish many times. I believe in global collaboration as a means of teaching students empathy and not only tolerance, but a true understanding and appreciation of people that are different from them. Global project based learning has the potential for unbelievably, powerful learning! I hope other teachers and students will take the plunge with me!


Yesterday, we held the first ever Project Learning Swap Meet 2013 Baltimore! For the last month and a half, I planned and planned and with the help of Bianca and Lee Hewes, the originators of this beautiful unconference, my husband Andy Hanes, my two incredibly supportive colleagues, Frannie Morrissey and Jennifer Robinson, I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off! The day began with a video message from Bianca and Jim. Their enthusiasm about PBL and mission was inspiring to say the least. 

Although we had a small number of participants (only 12), we had a great conversation about what we thought PBL was and what we knew it wasn’t. Everyone at the Meet were pretty new to PBL, but enthusiastic to learn more about it. After a short break, we gathered in a classroom to Skype with Suzie Boss! Suzie had just returned from a trip to Turkey at 2 am in the morning, Portland time. She generously woke up early in the morning just to Skype with us. This was such an incredible part of the day! Participants were able to ask her questions and get ideas, a lot of ideas, to use directly in their own classrooms. It was like a personal tutoring session about PBL from an expert! So, so cool!

Although some participants weren’t able to stay, we gave resources and offered our Edmodo group again as a space to share our PBL journey and also, most importantly, get and offer support. After that, we ate lunch and chatted about what we thought we wanted out of the rest of our day. We then helped participants form driving questions for their projects and plan a bit. I loved watching new connections happen between people and also watching new enthusiasm about PBL grow. 

A few of us have talked about doing a second PLSM14 in February or March but holding it on a weekday so that more people can attend. I look forward to sharing and growing from our new PLSM13 Baltimore community on Edmodo and hope it continues to grow and grow!