Tag Archives: PBL

Thinking about Student Voice and Choice

This note refers to an article posted on Edutopia at this link. It originally was posted on the P21 Bloagazine.

My friend from #LangChat and ACTFL conferences, Marilynn Mansori, has posted a great article on Edutopia! I recommend it to you. The link is posted above.

A quick summary of her note follows.

These four ideas can help teachers start building student voice and choice into language learning.

  1. Use an inquiry approach to language instruction.
  2. Employ personalization strategies that allow students to see themselves in what they learn.
  3. Make the learning relevant to the students.
  4. Invite students to make local and personal connections with the language they study.

To these four points, I would add a 5th, which Meriwynn agreed, is also important for an inquiry-based approach to language learning.

#5. Choose themes of global importance.

Students want to know that they can make a difference in the world. How can we create units which shift the traditional WL curriculum from the typical units of family, food and sports, to more challenging global themes such as world hunger and nutrition, or healthy living in diverse communities?

I love the power of collaboration. Thanks Meriwynn for an inspiring post!


learner centered George


Upon further inquiry on the topic of voice and choice, I came across this excellent infographic by George Couros, and a blog piece by him at this link, on his website, The Principles of Change.

George states:

As I think that leaders should be able to describe what they are looking for in schools I have thought of eight things that I really want to see in today’s classroom.  I really believe that classrooms need to be learner focused. This is not simply that students are creating but that they are also having opportunities to follow their interests and explore passions.  The teacher should embody learning as well.

George advocates for a new kind of classroom interaction and learning, one in which these eight characteristics are visible and normal:

  1. Voice
  2. Choice
  3. Time for Reflection
  4. Opportunities for Innovation
  5. Critical Thinkers
  6. Problem Solvers/Finders
  7. Self-assessment
  8. Connected Learning

That’s what PBLL looks like, and why I love it! I recommend these resources, and there will be more to come. Stay tuned!





My PBLL Webinar on Infusing Culture for the NFLRC at University of Hawaii


Driven to Distraction

This article also appears on Edutopia at this link

In a recent post on Edudemic, author Leah Levy suggests “7 Ways to Deal With Digital Distractions in the Classroom.” I appreciated her ideas, and wondered if anyone in our community has other ideas for things that work?! So what do you think? Have you tried something that works?

Personally, I am not keen to “fight the fight” that many of my colleagues choose – not that I blame them, nor am I suggesting that they are wrong to do so. I simply don’t have desire to spend the time or the energy to stop the cultural shift toward tech devices in every hand, 24/7.  I may be guilty of the same thing anyway!

Rather, I prefer to accept that the devices are in hand and in class. I have decided to lay out a set of common agreements, which we all must embrace, including me. We don’t hide them under the table. We use them out in the open in honest, appropriate ways, for academic purposes. I tell my students that I am choosing to trust them, and that if they want me to continue to do so, then we need to keep our agreements. For most students, this works very well, but I must admit, there are times when it does not and I am disappointed.

Then again, there has never been a time in my 32 years of teaching that everything went perfectly 100% of the time! Why should things be any different today? And are the technology devices really any more of a challenge than things in the past? I really rather doubt it.

Your turn now. What have you tried that helps you keep your cool, and your sanity? No ranting here, please, just frank discussion about how we can “psyche” ourselves into shifting in good ways, so we stay the course.

I look forward to your thoughts!



Wonders and Challenges of a High-tech Learning Environment

This post also appears on Edutopia at this link

Because of the great generosity of the non-profit NapaLearns.org, and the Napa Valley Vintners who sponsor them, I have a lot of technology in my French classroom, and in particular, a class set of netbook computers, tables and chairs with wheels, and a large interactive whiteboard. Learning a language is a very different affair with the support of technology! I have been taking stock lately of the wonders and the challenges of teaching in this blended environment. Here are some of my observations.

Let’s start with some of the wonders…

1) Students LOVE having tables and “wheelie” chairs (read here, Freshmen boys and chair races!) so that they can re-configure the classroom at will. The chair races are fine with me, as long as they take place before or after class. It is amazing how many fewer tardies there are!

2) Students can work at their own pace, and make choices about what they view and re-view, including videos, readings, explanations, activities, games… as often as they want or need to do.

3) The computers offer more support for collaboration, and opportunities to think critically since students are more engaged. Every student has his/her own tool to explore, interact and share what he/she is learning.

4) Students like the cool learning platforms available. Not only are textbooks changing, but the need for a static, one-source of learning materials, is no longer limiting us in what we have available. The world has come to us!

5) There are some really cool language learning games out there, but my students really enjoy DuoLingo in particular. The developer, Luis von Ahn, has developed a free learning platform that students really enjoy. Students collect badges as they achieve levels of competency. I have decided to offer credit for the badges students earn. They are turning in a print screen of their badges as they earn them.

6) Students have many more tools to creatively display what they are learning! Opportunities for creativity are much more engaging and meaningful, since they are personally more relevant!

Well, what about a few of the challenges?!

1) One student said to me last week, “I hate how everything we do is making us go on-line more and more. It’s like the Internet owns us.” I have to admit, she has a point! I am very proud of her for thinking critically about  how her engagement with technology is affecting her life. I offered her the option to suggest ways she could do some of our learning activities in other ways. I care about more about her learning than the way she learns. I also suggested that she weigh what she thinks is essential for her to do online, and what she can choose to do otherwise. I learned a lot from her comment!

2) My preparation time has changed a great deal. I can’t “wing it” as much as I used to do. Organizing agendas with links, with specific steps so students don’t get lost as they bounce from one link to the next, and reconfiguring my thinking to ensure I keep all learning activities student-centered, with occasional “workshops” where I give some input and explanation, and lead class discussions to scaffold inquiry. My role in the classroom has changed considerably. That is a good thing, given the results, but it is a challenge to shift.

3) To come at point 2 from a different angle, I have had to learn how to manage my time to allow room for more curriculum development, curation of resources, and support materials. I spend less time on the kinds of assessment that I used to do. I don’t check as much student work either, because I have developed rubrics which students can use to self-assess more. I do check that they have assessed themselves well – I find that they are often more hard on themselves than I would be. On the one hand, I like this shift, because I now spend more time creating projects, curating content, and just being creative. On the other hand, I am spending more time on work! I love my work, but the 7am to 9 pm workdays are a real challenge. I suspect that in time, this will become more streamlined.

4) With this blended approach to learning, my colleagues and I are doing more planning in collaboration. I enjoy collaborating with my colleagues, but we are not always on the same page. Sometimes it feels like I have lost a lot of my individuality and personal space. There is a need to give a great deal. I don’t always come away with what I really need since the collaborative groups are not frequently narrow enough to focus on the specific courses I teach. Even so, I work with wonderful people, and it is a privilege to have built in time to work together frequently. There are more creative ideas in collaboration than in isolation.

What about you? Do you have a blended learning environment? What have been some of your wonders and challenges? I would enjoy learning about your experiences as well. Thanks for sharing!

Best wishes,


Reflecting on How to be Innovative with PBLL

This article also appears on Edutopia at this link

As I have sought to implement project-based learning in my French classes, I have often set aside time to reflect on the units I have designed in order to modify them for various reasons. Sometimes, it has been to make the pathway of inquiry more accessible to the diverse range of my students’ abilities and skills. Often, it has been that my students have had great suggestions on how to alter the unit, making it more engaging and interesting for them — that is particularly rewarding, because it is tangible evidence that they are hooked! Other times, it is because I have discovered that what I thought was important, turned out to be not as much so for my students. I have wondered how can I ensure that my project plans are innovative enough to capture students’ attention in such a way as to make them the drivers of the PBL wagon, and not me.

In my mind, one of the most important benefits of PBL (and which won me over, as it were) is that students are actually engaged in their own learning of significant content as they acquire the skills they need to be successful in life. For many years, my biggest struggle as an educator has been to battle apathy! My own driving question has been this:

How can I, as a World Language teacher, engage ALL my students in meaningful work that demonstrates all of the following:

  • linguistic proficiency in three modes, oral and written: interpretive, interpersonal, presentational
  • cross cultural sensitivity and appreciation of the diversity of humanity
  • global and digital citizenship
  • their own real-world learning journey

Tall order? Probably, But I suspect many teachers have high expectations of themselves to deliver quality learning opportunities to their students.

My next step is to review all my pbl-aligned units to see how well they line up with my DQ (i.e., driving question). I wonder how I am doing in my own inquiry? I also wonder how I can be more innovative than I have been so my students can also be more innovative? For example, in world languages, we always have one or more units connected to food and culture – how can one separate those?! ≪C’est impossible!≫ However, I don’t want to settle for a simple food project. How can I make that unit more meaningful and significant?

I decided that we should to a project on world hunger and food distribution, a topic of inquiry which is very meaningful in the Francophone world, since three of every five native speakers of French live in Sub-Saharan Africa, where hunger is a real life or death issue. The question is why is that so, and how can we, as globally aware individuals in North America, help to solve this problem? How can we make a difference? How will it change us as well? How can we contribute to healthier living, for ourselves and for others?

My aim is to be much more innovative so my students can also be innovative, as they seek to engage in important work. I am excited to see how we can achieve that goal!

How about you? What are some ways you are looking to innovate your units for the new school year? I would like to invite you to discuss this with me and with others as we take time to reflect this summer. I look forward to hearing from you!

Best wishes,

The Value of Reflection

This post first appeared on Edutopia at this link

One of the more challenging aspects of PBL is keeping kids on track with the details of the project. Rubrics help a lot, however, students don’t always understand rubrics the same way we do. We need to work on making them more student friendly, for example by using ‘I can’ statements under each category and level of achievement. Even when we design excellent rubrics, students do not necessarily read them attentively. My Spanish teacher colleague and I recently designed a reflection tool to give to students to evaluate their own work, as well as each of their group members. We had some positive results from using this tool, so I thought to share the idea with you to consider for your own purposes. The reflection tool contains the rubrics for the given project – in this case, the first rubric was for first year French students who had to create a menu for a restaurant serving the cuisine of a Francophone country of their choice. The menu had to include at least five categories and twenty-five items, priced in local currency, with an appropriate address, phone number, a few pictures of food items, and laid out in a manner typical for a menu in the target country. The second rubric was for a speech based on the menu. Students were asked to play the role of the owner of the restaurant they had created. I gave them a template as an example speech since they needed guidance in creating the presentation, and were invited to make the speech on their own by adding in relevant personal observations, as well as appropriate details from their menus. Students were asked to describe their menu offerings, the prices of some items, and to make some recommendations. They also needed to welcome their clients, and invite them to enjoy the meal. Naturally, we also have rubrics for the four C’s of PBL – creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. Students have an on-going need to reexamine these rubrics as well, to help them internalize the expectations of their learning objectives in PBL. The students were asked to rate themselves according to the rubrics. They were also asked to rate each member of their group, but only on the speech portion of the project. Although their evaluations were not necessarily the same as mine, it offered an opportunity for deeper discussion of the standards, of academic rigor, of quality product, of exemplars of each of the four C’s. etc. In addition to the rubrics, I wanted the students to think about their time management, their work ethic, and their attention to details, so I added in some questions to answer on this matters as well. Overall, I think the tool was very effective, so I plan to keep using it for several projects over the course of the school year. Even so, it it important to remember that the objective is the learning, not the teaching. I am more concerned that students grow over time, than that they know every specific detail I have possibly taught. There is no guarantee that students will internalize every word or verb form I have shown them. However, the skills they have learned will remain much longer. That includes reflection, in addition to the four C’s, and communication skills in French in appropriate cultural contexts, such as going to a restaurant in Québec, Tahiti, Paris or Dakar. What about you? Have you tried some type of reflection tool to help your students think about their own learning? Please post a comment below and share your ideas!

Until next time, Don

4 Tools to Help Structure a Reflective Teaching Practice

This article also appears on Edutopia at this link

While I was in the process of preparing for National Board Certification about ten years ago, I realized I needed to develop means to carry forward the most important thing I learned from the certification process–reflection. I wanted to ensure it would become a regular and normal habit of my professional journey. I resolved to reflect regularly on my teaching practice by putting into place a structured means to ensure I was without excuse to reflect easily and often. I decided to set up a few tech tools, outlined as follows. Evernote Firstly, I use Evernote, as they say, to “remember everything!” Evernote is an amazing tool which works on all my devices, whichever one I have underhand when I need to record something – talk about being without excuse to record my thoughts, ideas, intentions and resolutions! I can use the apps on my phone, iPad, and laptop, or I can use a browser on the desktop computer in my classroom. I can email a note to my Evernote account, and clip webpages for later use, as well as articles to read later. I can take photos and easily add notes about what I have captured visually. I use Evernote’s Clearly to format articles for easier reading, and Evernote’s Skitch to mark up a pdf or a photo with comments. I recently purchased a Jot Script pen from Adonit to use with Evernote’s Penultimate app which allows me to draw or take handwritten notes, if I am tried of typing and think I can read my penmanship when I return to the note! Penultimate, Skitch and Clearly all save my notes to my Evernote account. I can capture just about anything I want, and add notes as well as tags to help me sort my notes later into notebooks by categories. Evernote is great! Diigo Diigo has quickly become one of my very favorite tools. I use Diigo to bookmark resources on the web, rather than in my browser. Why? I have a few reasons. Firstly, my bookmarks are available wherever I am since they are stored in the cloud, not just on one machine. Not only that, but I can attach a note or comment to any bookmark I save, then share it with others, and tag the bookmarks for later sorting. Additionally, I can share the bookmark with a group, and post an idea or strategy to use the resource. Other group members can share ideas with me as well. I love the ability to reflect collaboratively about ways to use the resources in my lessons. I also like to use Diigo to annotate readings for my students with highlights to draw their attention to certain details, and sticky notes with questions and/or prompts to guide their reading and elicit deeper engagement with the text. Diigo generates a shortened link to my annotated page, which I then share on Edmodo with my students. Twitter That leads me to Twitter, which has easily become one of the primary tools I use for reflection. As I share resources with my PLN, and they with me, many of us have engaged in discussions about ways to use them. I like following others’ blogs, and leaving comments or questions to open up a reflective conversation among peers. I know when my colleagues have posted something when they tweet it out. My teaching has been so very enriched by these exchanges! Edutopia Finally, I come home to Edutopia. I have so enjoyed the opportunities to collaborate with the good people at Edutopia, many of whom I have met since we are so close. Though I have been to the ‘ranch’ only a few times, I have collaborated via Skype, email and Twitter, as well as met with my colleagues at conferences here and there. More importantly, however, I have access to all those who stop by the site to read an article, and leave a question or a comment, which I hope many of you will do in response to this very post! I think we live in such an amazing time when we can collaborate virtually across the globe on common points of interest. So how about it, friends?! What are your thoughts about reflective practice? Have you structured means to engage in reflection alone and with others? Do you connect with others which works well for you, and which you could share with us all here on Edutopia? I look forward to your ideas and comments. I may find another tool to scaffold my thinking this term, and so might you! Wishing you all great reflection opportunities, and a Happy New Year as well! Don