Friday, October 31, 2014

Helpful Ogranizer for Designing or Developing PBL

We've all been there. You sit down to create a PBL unit. You're inspired. You have big plans. You're ready to do this. Then you just stare at the computer screen. Where to start? Even if you're lucky enough to plan with a team, creating a PBL unit often starts with a case of writer's block. The team needs a push to get the ideas flowing. Here are four quick steps to use design thinking to create a PBL unit.


Download this planner  
(The above planner is inspired by Design, Make, Play)

These four quick steps work well if you have a general topic in mind (i.e. standard, unit). It also works well if you do not have a topic and simply want a project that connects to students' lives. If this is the case you will concentrate more on what is important or relevant to them, than what is important or relevant to the topic in mind.  

Step 1: Once you arrive on a general topic, give yourself or the team 3-5 minutes to brainstorm one of the top two boxes (characters or setting). When you finish, give yourself or the team another 3-5 minutes to brainstorm the remaining top level box. Capture each idea on a post-it or sticky note and organize by appropriate box.

Step 2: Using the characters and settings from the top boxes concentrate on problems that may be interesting and engaging. This is the box on the lower left. Spend a solid five minutes brainstorming problems that can be solved in this setting, or with these characters. Capture each idea on a post-it or sticky note and organize in the "potential problems" box.

Step 3: In the last box, write down exciting, engaging, and inspiring ideas related to content emerging from the first boxes. These ideas should be deep and complicated. They often pose difficult questions that do not have a right answer and can even be controversial in nature. Spend a solid five minutes brainstorming big ideas. Capture each idea on a post-it or sticky note and organize in the "big ideas" box.  

Step 4: Take a step back and examine the notes for each section. I find that completing the first three boxes helps give rise to very inspiring big ideas. These big ideas, along with information from the other boxes, make formulating a driving or essential question much easier. Once you create the driving or essential question you have the start of your PBL unit.


Here is an example brainstorm around the general topic: student lunch improvement   

Start first with a place or setting: The school cafeteria
Lunch line


Other vendors

Potential problems with this setting and characters:
Students organized in cliques
Food that is unhealthy
Food tastes bad
A lot of bullying goes on at lunchtime
Too little supervision
Too much supervision
Ugly cafeteria design

Big ideas to wrestle with:
Social interactions amongst kids
Tradeoffs in mass food preparation
Design ideals

Now time to make an essential question: (Here is my thought, there could obviously be a lot more): How can we design a school cafeteria for optimal student experience?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Too Much Positivity?

A couple people got me thinking recently.

First, I read a fantastic, reflective post titled The Downside to Being a Connected Educator by @pernilleripp. In the piece, she talks about how connected educators CAN:

  • feel the need to be perfect
  • get a big head
  • think there is only one right way

I was struck by the simplicity and honesty. There is truth in those words.

Second, I went to San Gabriel Valley Cue's Tech Fair. In a session led by @jenwagner, we talked about how teachers share. It was pretty wide open and the small group had some great discussion. Jen, a very connected educator,  wondered out loud if teachers on Twitter were trapped in a bubble, suffering from a bias of 'watch me, I am a great educator.'

Once again, truth in those words.

So, I thought about it for a few days. Are teachers being too positive when the share on social media, especially Twitter and blogs?

I thought about myself. I often share my greatest successes, best lessons, and exciting experiences. This doesn't mean I am the best teacher, I could never claim to be. I struggle. I fail. I have discipline issues. I am not very organized. I often get lost in my big ideas.

But it feels very good to not always concentrate on the hard parts of being a teacher. It is empowering to share my voice with others. It keeps me focused on the very best parts of teaching. I think we personally focus way too much on the little failures in the classroom. We rack our brains when a student doesn't complete an assignment, or when a kid 'misbehaves' in class. Sometimes we forget that the student who missed an assignment completed ten others to finish a truly amazing project. Sometimes we forget the student that 'misbehaved' one day, was engaged and interested the other four.

Sometimes we forget that we are doing a really good job.

It helps to see others doing a great job. It helps to see their successes and reflect on how I could be better.  Focusing on getting better seems a whole lot more practical than accentuating all the mistakes I make. Learning is all about failing and making improvements. When we share with other teachers, we acknowledge this process. Even if it is not explicit, most share because at one point in time, they weren't so successful. Maybe I will ask for more help on my mistakes, but in the end I am thankful to learn for all the educators I follow and read. They help me get better.

Friday, October 17, 2014

(For Students) It's Always About Next Year

Although I am no longer much of a country music fan, I came across this song recently. The tune is called, “What About Now?” by the band Lonestar. I apologize in advance if it is now stuck in your head for the rest of the day. That wasn’t my intent (well maybe it was). Accept my apologies.

What is Lonestar doing in a story about education?

If you’ve ever been around a group of students you have certainly heard the phrase, “what about now?” uttered more than once.  Students ask, “what about now?” all day long in response to statements like:

  • “you will need to know X to learn a more complex concept next year.” 
  • “you need to learn how to write this type of paper to get into college.”
  • “you might not use this now, but you’ll thank me in the future.” 
  • “my job is to prepare you for the next level of school.”
  • “this test score will impact what happens next in your life.” 
  • “you need to learn this basic stuff before we can start hands-on learning next.” 


Poor kids. They must wonder whether anything they are learning is of relevance and importance right now, in the present.

I don’t blame teachers. Heck, I am a teacher. We are part of the solution, trust me. I blame a school system, even a society, that doesn’t value kids as kids. We live in a system that values kids as performers, so naturally we have to prepare them for the next big show. Schools, as a system, continually insist we need to prepare students for the next level, the next stage, the next grade, the next concept, the next test. Its no wonder students don’t care about school right now.

Let’s start really thinking about skills students can learn right now to solve problems that interest them. What skills help kids to be collaborative, critical thinkers right now? Besides skills, how might this change the subjects or topics we teach? How can we make their studies more relevant to their lives right now? How can school curriculum benefit them right now? How does learning help build or improve their communities right now? How will instruction help them finish an engaging project, problem, or invention, right now?

Its not always about next year.

Let’s funnel our inner Lonestar. What about now? Chances are that if we focus more on the present, students will be prepared for the future as well.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We're Live: Support Our IndieGoGo to #ReImagineSchool with CrowSchool

Over six months ago, my team and I started working on a way to bring more project-based and creative learning to teachers and students. After much hard work and sacrifice, I am so proud to announce the IndieGoGo launch of CrowdSchool. 

CrowdSchool seeks to be the first online platform for teachers to crowdsource and share project-based Challenges. As I am still a classroom teacher, we need your help in building this. Support the campaign and join us in a journey to #ReImagineSchool.

If you think this is worthwhile please do the following:

1) Watch our great video
2) Back our campaign
3) Share on Facebook and Twitter  
4) We would love for other great teachers to blog and write about the campaign. Tweet me @Tim_Monreal or leave me a message in the comment!

Thank you so much for your support!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Next Time You Hear Kids are Lazy...Send This

This is what kids are capable of doing all the time. They care! They want to learn!

All we have to do is give them the opportunity. All we have to do is connect it with their lives. All we have to do is let them be the solution.

This is the definition of #EduAwesome.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


I stumbled across this Quora question:

What are the valuable skills that many young people are losing?


For the first 200 years of traditional public schooling, knowledge was the basis of education. How much knowledge could you collect? How much knowledge could you remember? How could we distribute the most knowledge?

Knowledge is still very important, but the internet makes the access to knowledge almost ubiquitous. With this realization, skills are finally getting their due. Think of the four C's of 21st century learning: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication. Those are skills, very crucial skills for the future. In fact, the four C's are needed to take knowledge further.

How can we create new knowledge? How can we use knowledge creatively?
How can we collaborate to evaluate knowledge, to create knowledge, to use knowledge?
How can we critically think about the quality, bias, and relevancy of sources of knowledge? 
How can we communicate about the knowledge we have? How can we communicate the most important knowledge?

Also, I encourage you to check out the Quora thread. It is fascinating. There are comments by teachers, professionals, parents, students, and young people. As an educator, it is great to get an understanding of what multiple groups and people think about this topic.