Authenticity in Project Based Learning (PBL)

The case for Authenticity in PBL is a strong one.  The Buck Institute for Education has changed their “8 Essential Elements” to include Authenticity as part of the design qualities for Gold Standard level PBL approach.  The previously has used the term “Need to Know” in their 8 elements, but it’s been replaced by Authenticity, which I feel is a stronger element for student engagement and learning and it’s a much easier quality to measure.

In my experience with PBL, teachers, myself included, have struggled with the concept of teacher as sideline facilitator rather than the traditional role of teacher as center of the learning.  In regards to Authenticity in projects, teachers often struggle with the balance between swooping in and showing/doing/telling kids how their project can and should be Authentic and allowing them to find projects that meet the requirements for it to be so.

I have shared with my colleagues an article written by John Larmer titled, “PBL: What does it take for a project to be Authentic?” It outlines a clear path of four basic ways for projects to be authentic. John is careful to remind us in this article that projects should be judged on a “sliding scale.” Also, that when it comes to Authenticity, “some is better than none.”

One of the ways that I have brought authenticity to our school PBL program is to employ the use of mentors from our community.  After teachers have selected their topics in our PBL program and students have signed up for those topics, students then create a Driving Question and begin to design their project with the 8 essential elements. They have a project proposal form that they (with their supervising teacher) fill out to describe their project and how it will unfold. Students are encouraged to reflect on this proposal, re-evaluate and revise it throughout the semester as they go through their project.

The use of mentors from the community allow students to meet with, learn about and gain feedback from adults who are working in a professional capacity in the area that they are learning about.  A student who worked on creating a housing solution plan to address the homeless issues in San Francisco, for example, was able to meet with an architect who helped him to learn the necessary drafting skills to mark up plans for construction.  A student in an advertising PBL who wanted to raise awareness about literacy connected with a CEO of a literacy non-profit and was not only able to create an awareness campaign, but raised money for that company to put into use.

In our first semester using mentors in the PBL program, we reached out to parents and personal contacts through our school newsletter and personal crowdsourcing networks. We were able to collect about 35 names of professionals who came in to speak to groups or who were able/willing to work one on one with students on their projects in some capacity. Some were able to be Skyped in if they lived far away (a personal friend of mine who is a film maker in L.A. spoke to my class about his career and projects upcoming did so through a Google Hangout with students). We had a total of 105 student projects presented and hope to have an equal number of mentors as we move forward so that students have a 1:1 ratio of people resources they can draw on for their projects.

Using mentors is a powerful way to not only connect your community (parents, alumni, local businesses) with the school and students, but an incredible resource of knowledge and hands on learning. One of the ways that John Larmer says a project can be fully authentic is if it uses professional tools, processes or approaches that a professional in the field might employ. Inviting mentors in to talk to a whole class or work with your students is one way to gain insights into what they as professionals use in their daily work.


Music for Lunch

Lunch in schools is often noisy or at least it can be at times. Not because anyone is out of control, per se, but often just because it’s a happy, less structured time of the school day when kids are socializing and enjoying each other’s company. When conversations take up entire tables and the table next to you is doing the same, the decibel level begins to rise and lunch is noisy.  So, while some teachers are still scratching their heads over why kids can’t eat quietly with decorum like adults, I began questioning my students to start working on a solution.

Group Of Elementary Age Schoolchildren Eating Healthy Packed Lun

I found a couple articles and a study from 1999 about playing music during lunch periods and the benefits.  The study actually measured the decibel levels of lunchtime noise and counted the number of lunch duty personnel who had to intervene in student behavior problems before and after the implementation of the background listening music. The results were not huge, but still, quite significant. The decrease in overall noise and behavior issues was notable.  I began seriously not only contemplating asking our administration to look into this as a solution, but furthermore, I began formulating a Project Based Learning project from it.  Not only are the teacher frustrated with the noise levels at lunchtime, but students are as well. Maybe we could create our own study on the effects of implementing music during the lunch period?

As a member of an curriculum overhaul committee at another school (aptly names the  “Arts Task Force”) part of our research was to study best practices from other schools that matched our educational philosophy and demographic and that we considered “peer schools” and had performing arts programs that were similar to what we aspired to create. After several schools had been identified, our committee took a trip to spend some time in each.  This allowed us to not only see some “best practices” of successful arts programs in action, but also allowed us to see if these programs and schools were truly a good fit for a model of what were were hoping to achieve.

One such school in Los Angeles impressed us with their facilities, teaching staff and programming. We spent two full days there, learning all we could, gathering materials about curriculum and sharing resources. One thing that stuck out to me, however, was that the arts permeated nearly every aspect of their school culture. They had not only empowered arts education in their classrooms, but outside of them as well.  On their High School campus, they had a casual area for students to eat on the lawn or in chairs at tables scattered around in an open outdoor park type setting. At the center, was a place for student performances.  It was explained to us that a sign-up format was run entirely by students and that student bands, vocalists of both a classical and pop nature, guitarists and even comedians had booked the space for lunch time performances for months out. A clear set of guidelines was established by a joint advisory groups of administrators, arts teachers and students.

At their middle school site, students ate in a more traditional cafeteria setting, but as you walked into the cafeteria, you saw a large sign that stated “Today’s Music brought to you by Vivaldi.”  Upon entering the cafeteria, you heard a great deal of conversation, albeit calm.  Music played overhead and worked it’s way to the masses, calming them. It wasn’t music that kids would sing along to, but it was a gentle soundtrack that set a tone for how lunch should be; calm and reverent, but also inviting and interactive.

Some schools that I have worked in and visited, require that students are not allowed to speak at all during lunch and have to eat in silence. While I can see the benefits to the overall decibel level of a packed lunchroom as well as the mindful eating habits that kids develop through quiet eating, it just seems out of place to me. Children make noise. They talk to each other, they sometimes need to be reminded HOW to do so. Eliminating the choice to talk mildly doesn’t allow them to learn how to make choices. Is the expectation in these school that kids will grow up and eat in silence whenever they are eating in a group setting as adults? Of course not. So I have a difficult time understanding the benefits of doing so in schools.  Schools should be places where we prepare students to thrive as adults. I think sometimes schools miss the mark and instead create lessons and processes that are short sighted and only serve to teach children to be “good” students in school.

So, armed with these experiences and faced with our own school lunch issues, I am beginning to create some groundwork for students themselves to investigate how playing certain types of music at lunch might alter the decibel level, student engagement level, and the instances of behavioral issues.  I’ll be sure to share my results, but I am more interested in hearing from you in the Blogosphere!  What was your own experience like at lunch time in school?  If you are a teacher, what is the practice for your students and staff?  I’d love to hear from you!!!

Arts Integration for the Science curriculum

As a huge supporter of the STEM to STEAM movement and as a career Arts Teacher and Advocate myself, I think that Arts Integration in STEM subjects is a great way for schools and teachers to take the first steps and see benefits.  While Arts Integration into these subjects is not the same as a complete STEAM curriculum (with the A for Arts being given an equal place at the table for separate study and integration to it’s other counterparts), the benefits of how artists of all types think, design, collaborate and problem solve could be easily experienced by teachers and students who might not otherwise make those connections through a pure STEM curriculum approach.  Arts Integration is a way of connecting curriculum with student interest and creating higher levels of engagement. It’s a way to make deeper connections to curriculum, embrace differentiated learning styles and allow students to utilize divergent thinking or an artistic mindset. Whatever your school or classroom needs are, Arts Integration is a powerful way to make connections and engage students.

Since the resources on the web, lesson examples and ideas for this concept are limitless, I am going to leave you today with just a few examples that have worked for me. I have been meeting with the Science staff at my school and creating some plans for Arts Integration into their curriculum and so I will share some of that with you.  These are all ideas and plans that I have used myself, but the links are all to web resources and not my own.

DANCE and SCIENCE ideas and resources

As early as first grade, our science classes begin learning about the Solar System and how it moves. Teaching students a few basic dance steps and/or movements to re-create the motions and relationships of the planets, sun and other spacial bodies helps them to develop a better working understanding of our solar system. Not only that, is a great teaching and learning modality for students that are identified as preferred kinesthetic learners or who demonstrate strong bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (Gardner). Students can even create their own interpretive dance moves or routines to music to show understanding of concepts OR you can teach the class one big group dance that you create together to demonstrate the concepts you wish to clarify.

Other ideas are the use of their bodies and movements are: to show the differences between convex and concave, use large rubber exercise bands to show star constellations or the pull from magnetic poles that create the north and south displays of Borealis.

Some web resources and sample lesson plans:  Bates Middle School lesson plans for Arts Integration, ArtsEdge Kennedy Center for Arts Integration, an ebook titled, “Dance Integration: 36 lesson plans for Science and Mathematics” by Karen A. Kaufmann and Jordan Dehline

MUSIC and SCIENCE ideas and resources

The 6th grade science teacher at my school, my music teaching partner and I use common planning time together to develop a series of lessons for a larger unit where we teach students together about scientific principles of sound; how it is produced and how it can be manipulated to change, etc. We also as teach the traditional families of the orchestra and the newer, but more inclusive and specific, Hornbostel-Sachs method of classifying instruments. The traditional orchestral families system is based on history, the similarities in instruments and how they produce sound and is still used in modern orchestras today. Some downfalls are that it excludes many instruments that our students love (electric guitar, drum set, synthesizer) and many more than they should be exposed to (historical and ethnic music instruments, electronic and experimental, etc.). The Hornbostel-Sachs method, however, is based solely on how instruments produce sound, without exception, so you can avoid questions like, “yes, I know a saxophone looks like a brass instrument but isn’t in the brass family…” or “where DOES a piano go; percussion, strings or in it’s own category?” or “Why isn’t the guitar included in the string section of the orchestra” or best yet, “I saw a youtube video of a theramin…where does THAT go?” The Hornbostel-Sachs system is not only very inclusive of all instruments in existence, it also allows for theoretical instruments that might arrive at some point later. This is where your students come in. Once you have taught about air columns, resonating chambers, wavelengths, oscillations, string vibrations, and how each other those things can be manipulated, students can begin to design, plan and create their own “new” instruments. They can even write and play an original song on them. Create a rubric for the instruments to have a minimum number of pitches or sounds. Include a component for a written out song that uses actual musical notation as well as a performance for the class. Students have to also classify their instrument according to Hornbostel-Sachs and give it a new name. Maybe name it after themselves or YOU if you’re lucky?

Some web resources and sample lesson plans: ArtsEdge Kennedy Center for Arts Integration, Yale University Music and Sound Lesson

VISUAL ARTS and SCIENCE ideas and resources

In watching a very inspirational video on Edutopia about the successes that Bates Middle School has had after becoming an arts integration school, I sought out more information on a program that I saw there called, Artful Thinking. This program was developed by Harvard School of Education and public schools in Traverse City, MI and Bates Middle School uses it in their science classes. Seems wonderful and I want to know more.

Other great ideas for using visual arts to make connections with science curriculum are through Rube Goldberg Machines, environmental changes and “green” solutions, the science of color theory, pointillism, great works of art and many more.

Some resources and lesson plans: Wind Energy and arts, Rube Goldberg Machines and more, Bates MS and Artful Thinking.

DRAMA and SCIENCE ideas and resources 

Drama is a great way to create connections and show relationships in any realm….science is no different.  Each year when I plan my drama schedule for the school year, I try to make as many curricular connections as possible. Last year, our lower school students performed a play that was an “ecological fable” and centered around how a town had strip mined their natural resources and a once beautiful place had become a wasteland. This play was called “Treescape to Moonscape” and helped students to understand just how industry affects the environment. Of course, it was peppered with goofy characters, jokes and some silly dialogue that kept it engaging for actors and audience alike, but it also taught them the factual effects of our industry actions. Additionally, it gave some ideas for how they (we) as bystanders could help combat those affects (planting trees, writing letters, becoming activists).

Other great ideas for drama integration into science curriculum is using drama to tell stories about scientific relationships and changes such as photosynthesis, how atoms behave, the water cycle, the food chain and more.  You can use drama as an assessment option for students to demonstrate concepts and show understanding through skits, tableaus or pantomimes. Not only will your students thank you, but think of all those quizzes and tests you can watch instead of lug home and grade!

Some resources and lesson plans: Photosynthesis, Organic Chemistry, and the Periodic Table

What ideas do you have for Arts Integration in STEM subjects? I’d love to hear from you!

PBL and the use of Auto-Tune in popular music

One of the key tenets of Project Based Learning is “authenticity.” Authenticity is described by John Larmer of the Buck Institute as a sliding scale “which goes from ‘Not Authentic’ to ‘Somewhat Authentic’ to ‘Fully Authentic.’” Finding authentic project topics in the realm of music for 7th grade students may seem challenging, but is actually easier than you might think. It’s something I have have been striving to improve in my own Project Based Learning implementation. In past years, I developed a unit around the use of auto-tune in popular music and students have responded positively. After all, it’s a new technology that almost every recording artist is using and it is affecting the landscape of popular music in myriad ways. As I am learning more about Project Based Learning (PBL) myself, I decided to give this year’s unit an slight update and format it accordingly.

We began by holding a discussion about auto-tune and what they already knew about it. T-Pain and Jay-Z were both popular figures that came up.  Specifically, their feud in public news regarding auto-tune, it’s legitimacy, and appropriate usage. The app that T-Pain released to allow iPhone users to use auto-tune, as well as subsequent apps that came along afterwards were discussed. Artists who are suspected to use auto-tune in their music were brought up and discussed with varying and opposing degrees of support and artistic respect.  Ethics in popular music with regards to auto-tune were compared to the ethics of professional athletes who use steroids.  Freedom of expression and censorship were brought up and artists having “artistic license” to create music however they see fit. What makes music “good” was discussed and related to what makes music “popular” or an artist “successful.” Financial success as opposed to artistic integrity was brought up. Artists who dupe their fans into thinking they have singing talent, but then have an inability to provide good live concert performances to audiences were brought up. As a facilitator who did not participate in the discussions, other than to ask a guiding or clarifying question on occasion, I was pretty impressed that they hit such a variety of topics and connections. Students knew much more about this than I anticipated and felt pretty passionately about one side or the other. After all, this was “their” music they were talking about and not music that I was introducing them to.

I then set them on their path with a Driving Question: “How should Recording Companies address the usage of Auto-Tune in recorded popular music?”  I asked students to individually write down their personal stance on this issue in three sentences or less and to include a “why or why not” sentence or two to support it. When they were finished, they read them allowed and asked to group themselves into “camps” based on the alignment of their positions.  We had seven groups to start. These self-selected groups ranged in size from 2-5 boys. The boys were then asked to take on the roles of different special interest groups that could be aligned with their position (legal, businesses, artists, fans, etc). We then began researching stances and solutions for support.

This preparation would be for a culminating event in which we would hold a debate. Each group would present their stance and findings to a panel of Recording Company Executives who were looking at this issue the way the RIAA did when they instituted the Parental Advisory labels in the late 1980s after public outcry over rap lyrics. They would have a time limit to present their findings and each boy has to participate in the presentation. The fictitious Recording Company Executives would be comprised of adults from around the school community (parents and teachers). A winner would be selected, not by alignment with the particular stance, but by which group best supports their case.

Since we are still “in process,” I can’t tell you the exact learning outcomes or even who would win in our debate yet, but what I can tell you is that kids are excitedly engaged in research to find support for their arguments.

In regards to authenticity in PBL, some groups are already attempting to create an all auto-tuned song to present their thoughts as part of their debate (using the “I am T-Pain” app, of course).   Some are looking into how a special interest group would go about holding a hearing to get government intervention and regulation. Others are creating a tiered labeling system to propose for albums that would communicate to audiences how much auto-tune is used and where. Some are taking on the role of lawyers building a legal case; citing the First Amendment and supporting it with how many other technologies are used in altering the sounds and talents of musicians that have been around for years (drum machines, etc.). Others are also taking a legal stance and want auto-tuned music rendered ineligible for awards and a separate music charts system created. In addition to being very cross-curricular, arts and technology integrated, and a topic that is related to their world and that they are passionate about, it feels pretty authentic to us. I wonder what T-Pain would say?