Friday, 24 July 2015

Diary of Some Not-so-wimpy Project-based Learners

There has been a story brewing for some time that I am just now finding how to share.  It happened when I was teaching grade 7 last year.  I had challenged my students to "Address an Issue".  I share a bit about the experience in The Problem with Project-based Learning.  In "Addressing an Issue", the students were given the opportunity to choose an issue, either local or global, and decide on a way to address it. 

After completing the challenge, I asked my students to reflect on how they felt about this kind of learning. I have been keeping their responses and wondering how I could work this into a post.  I am now realizing that I don't need to work anything.  All I needed to do was to let the students share their stories.  What follows is what they came up with.  This could be called a guest post of sorts as these are student reflections about their own work and their own experience.  These are their own words and their own pictures: a view into the mind of a project-based learner.

Type 1 Diabetes

Our issue that we were working on is Type 1 Diabetes. We are working on Type 1 diabetes because I have Type 1 diabetes.  We made a PowerPoint to get people more aware about this terrible disease and how many people are affected by it every year.

We both enjoyed this project as I got to teach my partner about this disease and he got to learn a lot about what I have to go through every day for the rest of my life

Orphans and Widows in Ethiopia


The issue that we decided to address was the orphans and widows of Ethiopia. We chose this issue because both orphans and widows cannot provide for themselves. We partnered up with a local church to tackle this tough problem. To try and help the orphans and widows we have had a couple of fundraisers. We hosted an all ladies event at our church and we had a hot chocolate sale here at school. We raised almost $4,000 dollars, and we still have donations coming in every day. Also we have an anonymous donor who will double all the money we raise! The money raised will go to help build an orphanage (we need to get supplies and we will send missionaries there to build the orphanage).  The money will also be given to the widows so that they can start their own businesses and there by provide for their families. This experience was amazing; it was a great insight into the lives of orphans and widows. We were truly inspired by this project and hope to continue to help the orphans and widows in Ethiopia. 

We really liked the problem-based learning. We think that it prepares us for real life problems in a better way by challenging us to solve problems that we will have to deal with when we are older. In our opinion it is a great way to learn and we would recommend it to any school.
Our Niteo Experience

Our issue that we decided to address was something called the "Niteo" association project. Niteo is a foundation that helps children in Uganda learn how to read for pleasure. We are helping to solve this issue by coming up with a well thought out plan that was pretty simple to follow. A short version of our plan was to raise some money at a nearby church through a bake sale, then give half the money to Niteo,  and half of the money  for buying prizes for a book drive that would take place later on, then we would hold a book drive at our school. Once we had the books and money, we would drop them off to the Niteo central office in Kelowna.
We weren’t able to book an event at the church, so instead after we told the pastor what the money would be for, he got people to make some donations, and we got 45$ in total. We then went out and bought prizes for the book drive and waited until the date came for the event. Our plan was that every 10 books you donate you get one prize. After our book drive, we got quite a few books, it was over 45 books, and we were very satisfied! Now we must get the books to Kelowna, and our plan will be completed!
What we think about the project based learning is that we like it because instead of just doing one small assignment and being over with it, it seems like we get to do a project for a while and really get involved with it. We also like that with this project we got to take some action towards what we wanted to help fix, and actually get the students in the school and the people in our community involved. We also liked how not every group had to their project on the exact same issue, and how we all got to choose what we wanted to do.  This entire experience has been amazing for all four of us because we feel that this is very important, we feel that we have helped one tiny bit of world’s problem’s, and that makes us all feel very good! Now that this is almost all over, we are happy to think that someday a child in Uganda will learn to read for pleasure as we do! This has been truly an amazing experience!

The issue we are addressing is dog abuse. We chose this topic because dog abuse is a very serious offence.  People abuse dogs for no reason. There are many companies and organizations that spend countless hours trying to stop dog abuse!   We would like to help as well by spreading the word through friends, family and our community.  Our goal is that people will hear it everywhere.  Please call your local SPCA or 911 if you see any dogs being hurt or mistreated by someone.  It could be happening in your neighbourhood.  If you see a neighbour hurting their dog, please call 911 immediately!  You could save the dogs life!

Why there should be hitting in peewee hockey

We think there should be hitting in peewee hockey because people are getting hurt from retaliation.  For example slashing.  Then to prevent that from happening you can properly hit legally. 

I like this kind of learning because everything is a team thing and it's not all mine or others work.

Building a new pool for our city

Our project was about our city needing a new pool. The city needs a new pool because the old pool has too many problems. The pool is so old it has been condemned. Without a new pool our local swim team soon won’t have a place to practice and people in the neighbourhood won’t have a pool to use. It was a great project because our great creative plans showed a nice pool that would be safe, big and clean. It was hard though because the mayor wasn't able to reply to our message.  He was interested though and tweeting him was great. I think that the problem with this project is that building a pool is such a huge project that it will take years to finish.
World Hunger

For our presentation for addressing an issue we chose world hunger. We decided to have a bake sale to raise money to give to a company that helps people all over the world not just in Canada. After a while of searching for a company we found a company called The Global Food Banking Network. This company was just what we were looking for.

Once we figured that out, we planned a date to have the bake sale.  At first we thought we should do it on Sunday, but my mom thought that we should have it at school because who wants to sit outside in the cold and barely make $30 dollars!  So we had the bake sale on November 18th.  We thought the bake sale was going so well that we decided to have it the next day as well (the 19th).  And that was a good idea because we got even more sales than the first day!  Overall we got a total of $75 dollars!  After we got all the money we mailed it to The Global Food Banking Network.  Now more people can have food.

How can you help? You can help by learning more about poverty and donating money to The Global Food Banking Network. To learn more visit:

Thanks for taking the time to listen and consider donating!

Leatherback Turtle
Our issue is that the leatherback sea turtle is critically endangered which means it is very close to becoming extinct and only 1% of baby Leatherbacks will grow to be an adult due to the many threats that they have to face.
Although the Leatherback is almost extinct there are a lot of organizations trying to save and get the public aware of the Leatherback Turtle such as, Government agencies, Marine Conservation Associations, the WWF (World Wide life Fund) and even some fishing companies have installed TED Turtle Exclusion Devices, so turtles can escape if they were to get caught in the net.

We chose this topic because we are interested in learning about the Leatherback turtle and how we can help to make sure this amazing creature doesn’t go extinct. We created a PowerPoint presentation and presented to the class to try to get more people aware of this amazing creature and what they can to do help to help the Leatherback. We think that we accomplished our goal of getting the public aware of the turtle and now a lot more people know of it and what they can do to help.
The picture that we have chosen is of a jellyfish (since the chances of finding and getting a picture of a Leatherback Turtle are very rare). The jellyfish is the Leatherback’s main source of food as it can eat its weight in a day. This picture was taken at the Vancouver Aquarium.
We found PBL interesting and a new good way to Learn. We think that PBL (project based learning) should be taught more around other schools as it is a very engaging and fun way to learn!!!

(Before and After)
How did we feel about this addressing an issue project.  We thought this project was very interesting because we got to change people’s point of view about the use of electronics. The only down side we found is that we think it would be nicer to not have a due date with this assignment so we could play around, experiment and raise more awareness on our topic. We like project based learning, because we get to work together, and it’s more efficient than learning out of a textbook.
Our addressing an issue project is on how students all around the world are spending too much time in front of an electronic device. We wanted to find out how much time kids in our class spend on a device each day. The results from this survey were 4-5 hours a day. We believe that kid’s imaginations are getting weaker throughout each year because their imaginations are already brought to life for them in a game. We also believe that kids are getting less social because electronics are taking over their free time.
Mr. Robinson allowed us to introduce two days with no electronics in class to our fellow students. Through the two days we found it harder than you would think to not use any electronics. The big question after those two days was if the experiment made a different in our classmate’s weekends, in terms of using electronics. The results we got back were that 7 kids said they had more time on a device, 4 kids said less and 8 kids said they had no difference in time. 

Thank you for letting my class share their projects with you.  It is surprising to see how far students can go with three simple words "Address an Issue" and some leeway.  This venture has helped my students strive for real world gains in future projects as well.  One poignant comment to note is that several students mentioned that they wish they didn't have a due date.  Interesting.  Did I have to set a date for their presentations?  Could I have simply had them present their ongoing work?

Opening the door to project-based learning has been a turning point in my career.  It has been a great foundation as I develop Connections-based Learning.  Through it all, I have learned to never underestimate what a student can do. 

Thursday, 16 July 2015


I have a dream.

I dream that one day the dinner table conversation will start with: "I saw what you did at school today.  Love it."

I dream that a child will understand his mother a little better because he has read his mother's post and gets where she is coming from.

I dream that a brother will actually sit down and read his sister's thoughts.

I dream that family members can be the biggest fans of family members.

Here is one way that may get us closer to realizing this dream: #FamilyBloggingMonth

The guidelines.  There are only 3 parts: Challenge each member of the family to post something in the month of NovemberRead and Comment on each other's posts. Share that you did it.  Simple.

1. Challenge

Talk about it with your family.  "I heard about this crazy idea.  Family Blogging Month."  Talk about digital citizenship: what should a post include and not include, what kind of comments are helpful; what are the effects of hurtful ones? "What should we blog about?".  Three ideas to make the world a better place?  The best part of being in our family?  Our passions?  Our projects?

Riverside's Tech Appropriate Poster

Think up and down.  Think of your kids.  But also think of your parents.  Your parents' parents.  It's a chance to hear from your crazy uncle.  It's an excuse to get your father sharing some of his insights.  It's a chance to hear what makes your mother tick.

2. Post, Read, and Comment

Each member posts on whatever medium works: personal blog, professional blog, social media, lined paper.  But here is the kicker: each member reads each post from each member of the family and meaningfully comments.

3. Share

To the level of your comfortability, share the posts and comments tagged with #familybloggingmonth.  This might be a tweet: "Participated in #familybloggingmonth . Great way to share as a family." You might share each other's posts tagged with #familybloggingmonth . You might not feel comfortable sharing on social media at all.  That's okay.  Sharing on social media isn't the point.

#FamilyBloggingMonth is a reminder that the most important people we share with are our family.  It's a chance to know and be known better by the people who should.  It's a chance to show our closest that we seek to understand them.

There is no mark.  There is no grade.  Only feedback.

So join with me this November for #FamilyBloggingMonth . And if you have the same dream as I do and become a #familybloggingmonth champion at your school, place of business, or circle of friends, let me know.

[Cover photo, “Dinner at 'Lorraine' 1922“, by Blue Mountains City Library licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]

Thursday, 9 July 2015

What Relationships do for Learning

"No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship" - says Dr. James P. Comer, professor of Child Psychiatry, Yale University.  If you know anything about Dr. Comer, you would know that he worked with schools in low economic areas.  The schools were fraught with a lack of learning, frequent inattendance, and constant behaviour issues.  Starting with a viewpoint that it was the students' experiences and not the students themselves that resulted in a lack of success, Comer began to evaluate the students' school and home environment.  He found that although at one time the communities around these schools had been strong and connected, the connections had been lost.  The students were coming to school without the proper skills to be successful.  The strong social bonds that help students develop the proficiencies to learn were missing.  He created the School Development Program in 1968 to help schools recreate those social bonds--working with administration, parents, and teachers to foster student development.

Dr. James P. Comer on Development, Relationships and Learning

It worked.
The School Development Program caused a sharp increase in student achievement alongside a decrease in behavioural issues. This SDP model has been now used in over 1000 schools scattered throughout half of the states in America.  Each time, the stakeholders work together to foster child and adolescent development in the school.  Comer's quote illustrates how the development is based on the relationships fostered.  "It is the positive relationships and sense of belonging that a good school culture provides that give these children the comfort, confidence, competence, and motivation to learn." Comer (2005).

Fantastic, right.  You would think that with that kind of success, opponents would give up, schools would focus on relationships and we would move on. Tackle something new.

Not quite.

As Comer states 37 years after his ground breaking work with the New Haven schools:

Many improved practices in education that have been developed over the past two decades have been less successful than they might have been because they have focused primarily on curriculum, instruction, assessment, and modes of service delivery.  Insufficient attention had been paid to child and adolescent development. - Comer (2005)

Curriculum, instruction, assessment, and modes of service delivery.  Sound familiar.  It seems that once again focus is on the wrong place.

Providing engaging activities and maintaining high standards are important, but the effectiveness of these are maximized with positive teacher-student relationships.  Good connections help students learn.  It has been found to be true over and over again.  Emily Gallagher gives a whole host of studies that show this to be true in her NYU Steinhardt article The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students:

 Aligned with attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby, 1969), positive teacher-student relationships enable students to feel safe and secure in their learning environments and provide scaffolding for important social and academic skills (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor, Dearing, & Collins, 2011; Silver, Measelle, Armstron, & Essex, 2005). Teachers who support students in the learning environment can positively impact their social and academic outcomes, which is important for the long-term trajectory of school and eventually employment (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor et al., 2011; Silver et al., 2005). - Gallagher (2013)

Connections-based Learning: Understanding Together

Focusing on positive teacher-student connections is the basis to what I am calling connections-based learning.  You see, if I was going to base learning on anything, it would be the connections.  In connections-based learning I share several ways that students can learn through connections. But I believe the fundamental connection is the one with the teacher.  The teacher-student relationship is the place to start.

So how does a teacher foster positive relationships with the hundreds or thousands of students they work with over the years?

Sara Rimm-Kaufman, PhD, and Lia Sandilos, PhD, University of Virginia have a great article, Improving Students' Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning, that shares what positive and negative teacher-student connections look like plus some suggestions to cultivate positive relationships in our classrooms.  These include getting to know students by finding out interests, showing warmth and respect, and being aware of the explicit and implicit messages being sent.

I am not big into lists.  And my acronym skills are poor.  But here are some of the things I focus on as I build connections with my students.


Asking questions is a good place to start when looking to increase the connection with another.  And just as inquiry-based learning keys in on finding good questions, so good questions can help good connections form.  Parents know this.  The question, "How was your day at school?" solicits much less than "what was your favourite part of gym class?"  In the same way, asking students the right questions to promote connection is a bit of an art.  It requires a knowledge of students' interests and activities.  It takes knowing what is going on in their lives.  But I have found that these questions help me understand my students better.  Ask good questions.


A focus on understanding is important as we seek to build connections with our students.  When we seek to understand where students are coming from, we show concern for the student.  It actually helps us put into context what they do.  Understanding the child is shown to be a part of Ross Greene's Collaborative and Proactive Solutions approach.  In the article What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong, Katherine Reynolds Lewis (2015) shares "The CPS method hinges on training school (or prison or psych clinic) staff to nurture strong relationships--especially with the most disruptive kids--and to give kids a central role in solving their own problems."  Lewis tells how, in this approach, staff talk to (and believe!) the child as he or she shares the problem.  Staff seek to understand, then to help the student come up with a plan.  Isn't that what we all want: to be understood.  Seek to understand.


A class cannot be seen as a class.  It is a group of individuals.  Each student comes to you with their own conscious experience.  If the class has a great culture, the students might identify as being part of something, but WE ALL operate in our own personal headspace.  We forget that as teachers; I forget that.  We do not see ourselves as simply a part of a group; we are part of many groups: family, friends circles, different classes.  We don't have to individualize learning.  It IS individualized.  The focus has to be on facilitation of learning or we are simply lying to ourselves that we can actually make learning happen.  Treat as an individual.


Time needs to be set aside to foster relationships.  Bonds between teens and adults have always been a battle.  In the home, the battle for bonds have often been fought by campouts, dinnertime conversation, family events, time.  But the armies against bonds with significant adults have upped their game.  Notifications, insular online networks, addictive games, no time.  I am not saying that the battles are lost everywhere.  I am saying that generally the war is being lost on a large scale.  Time must be set aside to foster relationships. I have taught a K,1,2 split. I have taught Science and Tech 11. In whatever class I am teaching, time set aside to foster relationships has been worth it.  Take the time to foster relationships.

The acronym is QUIT. Oh well.

It is intuitive.  Good relationships better learning.  Good relationships better life.  We don't need to be convinced.  Just reminded. 

How do you strive to achieve significant relationships with your students?

Comer, James P. 2005. “Child and Adolescent Development: The Critical Missing Focus in School Reform.” Phi Delta Kappan. 86:10 (June 2005): 757-763.

Gallagher, Emily. 2013. "The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students" Applied Psychology Opus. Fall issue. Accessed July 2, 2015.

Reynolds Lewis, Katherine. 2015. "Everything You Think You Know about Disciplining Kids Is Wrong." Mother Jones. The Foundation for National Progress, n.d. Web. 09 July 2015.

Rimm-Kaufman, S., & Sandilos, L. (n.d.). Improving Students' Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning. Retrieved July 3, 2015.