Exhibition: PBL To The Max!

Exhibition

This year, my sixth grade class prepared and presented our school’s first Exhibition. As an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program candidate school, it was an opportunity for me to research project-based learning, put into practice the guidelines established by the IB, and for our students to experience a culminating project to conclude their elementary school lives.


DLMOOC

The timing of the Deeper Learning MOOC, a massive open online course dedicated in large part to Project Based Learning, could not have been better. A host of organizations were introduced and resources shared and discussed, as well as models and frameworks that I could use to inform and enrich my role as a facilitator and coach.

During the Week 9 Participants Panel, moderator Rob Riordan remarked to me, ‘If you want to get engaged in deeper learning, a good way to start is to schedule an exhibition.’


His words reminded me of a quote by the prolific composer Duke Ellington: ‘I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.’


If an exhibition is the overall objective of a school year, I discovered that it provides a strong structure on which to practice skills and pursue inquiry. But more importantly, it provides a deadline to complete a project. Deanna Mascle recently reflected in her post, Why Project-Based Learning?, ‘In project-based learning (PBL) the project is the learning – and the teaching and learning take place through the project.’ The trick for facilitators is to maximize, document, and curate the learning throughout the process.


Designing the framework

My own experiences with project based learning as a learner and facilitator have taught me the importance of choice. For a project to totally engage a learner’s interest, it must be self-directed. However, every project has arbitrary expectations and goals. The IB PYP Exhibition Guidelines are an ideal reference for designing an environment that balances student choice with general expectations. By connecting with and learning from several experienced Exhibition teachers, in particular Sam Sherratt and Kristen Blum, I attempted to design a learning and working environment with enough structure and support to set up students for success, yet with enough flexibility and freedom to empower students with agency for authentic action.

My solution was to use individual wikis as ‘home bases’ on which each student could document all aspects of their inquiries according to an outline of requirements. As they worked, we held regular consultations to discuss and document the formal elements, such as applications of academic skills and conceptual understandings, of their projects.


Looking back, I should have done more to structure these formal elements on a calendar. For example, while reflection with a teacher or mentor is important, it would have been more effective to schedule activities in which students cooperate to assess and discuss each others’ projects-in-progress by focusing on particular elements in each session.


Setting expectations

While students selected and pursued their inquiries independently, one design success was to require certain tasks. Specifically, every student was required to complete an expository essay, a persuasive speech, and an expressive work of art.

Limiting the scope of the products was very effective for increasing student agency, although in the future, I plan to focus on each as an assessment task by itself during the school year to develop applicable skills.

Rubrics were also a key feature for setting expectations. These were created collaboratively as a class early in the process and were based on the model that we have used throughout the year. By clearly defining success criteria for the formal elements, I believe that we maximized opportunities for students to exercise choice and direct their own learning.


Synthesizing the theme


In December, we began specific preparations for the Exhibition by discussing and synthesizing a theme title and description. As I wrote in the post, PYP Exhibition Theme Synthesisour theme needed to integrate aspects of all six PYP transdisciplinary themes and unify students’ inquiries and interests under a common conceptual theme. My solution was to play poetry magnets. By mixing and matching, the students were able to cobble together a theme description that, with a little semantic help from me, includes everyone’s contributions and provides general context for all of our work. How we interact  is our theme title, and I have noticed that when students’ inquiries have wandered astray, referring them back to our theme has been very valuable to help them refocus or reorient themselves.


BYOD

One of the most successful features of our project was a temporary Bring-Your-Own-Device policy. Normally, our students check their technology at the door during the school day, however, in order for our exhibitioners to take ownership of their learning and projects, I petitioned the parents and administration to allow students to utilize all of the tools at their disposal.


The result was increased motivation and efficiency as students learned how to apply the fluency they have gained with their ‘smart’ devices to their academic learning.


Weekly reflection

The only required ongoing tasks were two reflections per week: One blog post and one video. Surprisingly, while at times entertaining, this was one of the least successful activities in terms of student learning.
Why? The early reflections went as expected. Blog posts were recountings of activities. A culture of listing day-by-day even grew organically as a method to organize. Videos started giggly and progressed to more sober as the Exhibition became imminent.

Unfortunately, few reflections were ‘deep’. They generally lacked emotion and personal connection. This is my greatest challenge for future long term projects. How can we utilize technology for formative reflection more effectively?

One idea is to provide prompts for each reflection. Similar to the documentation process needing more structure and opportunities for peer-interaction, I think that the reflection process needs more scaffolding, at least in the beginning. There are rich possibilities, such as choosing prompts at random or me, as a coach, writing prompts that become increasingly complex and challenging.


If the project is the learning, then formative reflection and self-assessment is the most important facet of its documentation. This is an area that requires significant attention and a line of inquiry that I am excited to pursue and would welcome collaborators!


Cognitive dissonance

Personally, I believe that a culminating project, in this case the PYP Exhibition, is a rite of passage. Please see my post, PYP Exhibition: A Rite of Passage, for more details and to view my attempt at an inspirational and provocative video.

The resolution of the cognitive dissonance students experience occurs when they assume responsibility for their learning processes, agency for their choice of actions, and ownership of their learning artifacts.


This seemed to occur at various times and to varying degrees of intensity. While it is difficult if not impossible to assess or document, another of my driving goals for the future is to optimize opportunities for cognitive dissonance and resolution during the Exhibition. Again, I believe more activities to stimulate students to reflect on their beliefs about themselves would help.

Enjoyment

Finally, to mediate the stress of concentrating on a long term, transdisciplinary project, we had fun. From research like the findings reported in the Wall Street Journal article, The Inner Workings of the Executive Brain, it is clear that while deadlines and schedules may be good for short term motivation, over time they cause changes in the brain to the detriment of creativity and productivity.

One of the best decisions we made was to schedule a field trip to an amusement park to ‘kick-off’ formal preparations for the Exhibition. Everyone’s mood flipped that day, and I noticed renewed focus and seriousness in the weeks that followed. I highly recommend such an activity to anyone pursuing PBL with their class.

Students were also free to manage their time independently, including taking breaks and playing games. I also planned some team-building activities that were enjoyable. Most often, I found myself reminding students to take breaks and suggesting that they go outside for a stroll to refresh their minds!

Verdict

Project Based Learning is fun. My goal for the future is to plan and schedule a little more to provide a more stable foundation for students’ projects. This planning stretches to the beginning of the school year, as it is important to ensure that all students have had opportunities to practice the skills they will need to recognize and report on their learning as it is happening.

I’m curious to know other PBL facilitators’ strategies for supporting your students’ inquiries!


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Hanami 2014

Viewing the plum, almond, and cherry blossoms in Japan is a social, aesthetic, artistic, and philosophical activity. Hanami (花見) means ‘flower viewing’, and is a highly anticipated and enjoyed activity here.
Photographing the blossoms is a very serene way to enjoy the warming weather.

Of course, the blossoms mark the beginning of Spring. In the post, Plum Blossom, I started this photographic inquiry and began to bid farewell to the Winter. 
April is the beginning of the Japanese school year, as well as the time during which companies typically reorganize and reassign employees. People tend to relocate and renovate their homes at this time, as well. Renewal is carried by the wind along with the pollen and refreshed demeanor of the people.
Spring is a time for noticing. Whether it’s the change of temperature, smell, mood, or indeed, the apparent return to life of the trees.
I was lucky to visit a few parks this year and continue my inquiry into visual literacy through photography.
Needless to say, the cherry blossoms are extremely photogenic. Being virtually impossible to take a ‘bad’ picture of, I challenged myself to capture images with stories, conflict, and emotion.
Exploring the photo editing suite from Visual Supply Company was another way to enhance the drama in the photos. For more of my work, please visit my VSCO Grid or Instagram Profile.
Thankfully, the overriding feeling of the blossoms is joy. My wife, Yuka, a much more accomplished photographer than me, shared her work in the post, Special Spring Gift, including the heartwarming photo below of a fallen cherry blossom our son gave to her.

Visual Literacy Achievements Unlocked!

My final projects for the Visual Literacy COETAIL course are a slide presentation to inform my school community about our first PYP Exhibition and a video to inspire my Grade 6 students as they prepare their Exhibition, a self-directed and collaborative research and service action project.

Inform

As detailed in the post, Exhibition pre-Zen-tation, I struggled to transform my text-heavy, visually dry slides into a more engaging and thought provoking accompaniment to my speech.

The process was mostly subtractive. I deleted nearly all of the text and replaced it with carefully selected Creative Commons licensed images.

One of my most important lessons from this course has been the importance of audience. With that in mind, I shared the second draft of my slides and received very insightful comments, which led to the final version.

Introduction to the Exhibition


I was very happy with the presentation and meeting, and I believe that these slides inspired thoughtful discourse and discussion, rather than simply delivering information. For the latter purpose, I simply shared my notes on Google Drive and embedded them in our class blog for accessibility.

Inspire

In the post, PYP Exhibition: A Rite of Passage, I detail the process of creating an inspirational video for my students and other students preparing their exhibitions.

As with the slide presentation, I sought critique before completing the final cut.

My favorite step was composing the music. In the ‘remix’ spirit, I arranged samples from one of my class’ collective improvisations into an innocent, dreamy loop. By adding a simple string pad and energetic drum tracks, I tried to capture the mood and drama of the Exhibition from meandering innocence, through cognitive dissonance, and into catalyzed momentum.

Prelude to the Exhibition

My most significant understanding from completing this project is that deeper learning needs plenty of time and freedom. Tinkering and iteration are essential to constructionist learning, and I spent many late evenings and early mornings wrestling with the unfamiliar tools I needed to complete my projects.

It’s important to consider that students need time to explore the technological tools we invite them to use in order to achieve their full potential and quality of expression.

PYP Exhibition: A Rite of Passage

Several weeks ago, I began an inquiry into visual literacy. Feeling that visual communication is My Greatest Weakness, it’s been an exciting challenge to spill this can of worms and start stomping. It has been easy to find opportunities to practice and apply new skills and understandings in the classroom.

Purpose

My students have begun preparing their PYP Exhibition. It’s our first in every sense: as individuals, as a class, and as a school. I have researched extensively about elementary school Exhibitions around the world and have been trying to approach the process from a design perspective.

Metateaching

The essence of metateaching is knowing students well and designing an environment in which their learning can thrive.
For Exhibition, that environment consists primarily of independence, yet it is important to introduce the project in a way that helps inform and inspire the process.
When I was preparing the presentation I would deliver to the school community about Exhibition, the Exhibition pre-Zen-tation, I intended to provide information about what we should all expect during the coming several weeks.

I blogged about the meeting in the post, Exhibition Week 0. It was successful, but there was something missing. From the perspective of visual literacy and storytelling, I realized that my efforts could accomplish much more if I aimed to persuade rather than inform, or, to use Seth Godin’s terminology, ‘persuade’ rather than ‘convince’.

The presentation and slides are effective at delivering information and provoking thought, ‘convincing’, but they wouldn’t inspire anyone to join the adventure. They don’t ‘persuade’. They lack emotion.

What I needed was a video.

My own inspiration

To inspire my video, I pondered the Exhibition. The objective is for students to demonstrate mastery of the IBO Primary Years Program through self-directed and collaborative inquiry. It occurred me that it closely resembles a traditional rite of passage, a ritual marking the transition from one state or status to another.
In this case, the students are moving from elementary school to secondary school. They are presented with a challenging task and provided limited assistance and expected to use what they know to organize and take action. They are intended to cause cognitive dissonance, the resolution of which is both the process and product of the experience.
This led to the conceptual framework for the video. It would start with an introduction to rites of passage, then invite the students to engage in the inquiry process through video footage of other schools’ exhibitions.

I do everything the hard way

At that point, things became ugly. Or interesting, depending on your perspective. I was trying to learn several different technologies, as well as visual literacy concepts and skills, all at the same time.
First there was searching for Creative Commons licensed images and video to remix. Next, learning how to use iMovie to organize and edit them, as well as adding the text. Adding text involved searching for an interesting font, a process in which I became totally lost for most of an evening. Finally, I hacked together a scratch music track with audio from one of my class’ collective improvisations for keyboard percussion. Unfortunately or fortunately, I’m really not sure, technological misunderstanding prevented the audio from being included in the uploaded YouTube video.

Without further ado

I decided to share this version of the video because part of my personal inquiry is to be more collaborative. I have always had a very thin skin when it comes to critique and criticism, something I am working to improve. 
Please view my video and tell me what you think!

EDIT 19 March 2014 – View the final video in the post, Visual Literacy Achievements Unlocked!.

Exhibition Week 0

School Community Meeting


On Thursday evening, we held a presentation and meeting for students, parents, and teachers to learn about and discuss our school’s inaugural PYP Exhibition to be held in about two months, on 26 April during our International Children’s Day event.

I began the meeting by reviewing the description of the Exhibition on the International Baccalaureate Primary-Years-Program website and the directing everyone to the Exhibition Guidelines for further details.

Next, I delivered a short presentation. Here are the slides and notes:






I was happy to field many questions, which made it more conversational than a typical presentation. It was also an indication that the ‘zen’ of my slides was effective at stimulating thinking rather than simply containing information, a goal I set in the post Exhibition pre-Zen-tation.

Exactly the kind of energy we’re looking for during this collaborative adventure.

After the presentation, we visited the JIES Grade 6 PYP Exhibition Wiki. All of the students’ preparations and presentations will be linked to that web page, so it is important that everyone know how to find and make sense of it.

I could see relief in the parents’ and administrators’ eyes when they saw an organized way to document specific learning during what is, by necessity, a very nebulous ‘assignment’.

Finally, we discussed and agreed to our PYP Exhibition Essential Agreements.



These were created collaboratively in class. Please note the inclusion of all of the PYP Attitudes. Everyone seemed satisfied with them as they are, so we agreed and adjourned the meeting. In the interest of transparency, all materials were posted on our class blog in a post similar to this one.

I’m most excited to see how the students react to having the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy. My hope is that being trusted to use their tablets and smartphones will inspire them to truly integrate the technology and connectivity into their learning, even if only after a bit of goofing around.

Very excited to get started on Monday and hope that my colleagues around the world will share and reflect online during this special time of the year for so many PYP students.

Pottery Field Trip

My class had an outstanding field trip today, in connection with our unit of inquiry into the effects of changes in science and technology. We recently completed a modeled inquiry into 3D printing, introduced in the post, Modeling Inquiry. Having delved into the future of manufacturing, a visit to Uzumako Ceramic Art School was ideal to provide perspective by experiencing one of the world’s most ancient crafts, pottery.
Student hands dig into wet, spinning clay

My own visceral reaction to wet clay covering my hands, but more importantly the focus and creative energy emitted by students, was all I needed to know this was a deep and invaluable learning experience.

The two ‘creative’ cups on the left were mine…
The teachers at Uzumako were patient and knowledgeable, and fluent in Japanese and English, so it was truly ideal.
For inquiry, experiencing this ancient technology through our hands illustrated a connection to the past that can’t be explained with words. Perhaps that’s a good definition of Deeper Learning, that it can’t adequately be expressed with language.
Students’ impressive creations!
Seeing students with clay-covered hands, satisfied smiles, and creative sparks in their eyes is enough to make the day of any teacher. If you have a chance, I highly recommend visiting your local pottery and ceramics class!

Fotomania

Playing at the window after a snowstorm
As part of my inquiry into Visual Literacy, I have taken up photography as a hobby. I think that hobbies don’t get enough credit as deep, informal learning experiences!
In this photo, my first of an artistic nature, I tried to capture the wonder my son expressed as he felt the sunshine and surveyed the snow-covered rooftops all around outside after Tokyo’s heaviest snowstorm in more than forty years.
If you are interested in following my new fotomania, please find my photo feed on Instagram.