Being A Trailblazer: Part II

As we press on through the 21st century, it is apparent that students graduating from college are having difficulty landing jobs at an alarming rate. Graduates believe they will stride into a new position with a potential for growth and lucrative salary.  Little do they know that major road blocks are not far away. The road blocks they face does not come from hard skills, but rather soft skills that are lacking, including communication skills, collaborating on a team, and solving problems by identifying needs, and coming up with solutions. We are so focused on the technical skills that we forget those essential skills, such as the 4C’s of 21st century (Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity).

Erin Pianin from CNBC wrote that:

For instance, a survey by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community                College found that more than 60 percent of employers said applicants lack                          “communication and interpersonal skills” — an increase of about 10 percentage                points in just two years. Many managers also said that today’s applicants can’t think          critically and creatively, solve problems or write well. (2014)

In my last post on being a trailblazer, I left you with some suspense as far as what will save you time and increase engagement with students. I would like to add that what I am about to share will do those things mentioned, but also will help close the gap in skills college graduates are facing in today’s job market.

The magic pill- project-based learning (PBL). PBL is not exactly new. People from Aristotle to John Dewey have extolled it’s values . There is, however a steady increase in its use as an instructional strategy to boost engagement and develop those skills that future jobs will depend on. Teachers all over the US are seeing the potential gains that PBL is being credited for. EdSource writes about project-based learning on the rise in CA (Ellison & Freedberg 2015):

In addition to Santa Ana, school superintendents in Elk Grove, Garden Grove, Fresno, San Jose and Visalia, as well as the chief academic officer of Aspire Public Schools, a charter network with 35 schools throughout California, all said that their schools have either recently increased the time students spent on project-based learning as a direct result of the Common Core standards or redesigned existing projects to better align with the new standards. The voluntary Common Core standards, which cover math and English Language Arts, emphasize critical thinking and hands-on activities to help students master the subject matter.


We must be careful as we jump on board the PBL express expecting it to solve all of our problems. PBL is effective only if it is implemented right and supports are in place for teachers and administrators. PBL is a revolutionary way of teaching and learning and must be supported every step of the way from district-wide implementation to classroom support and staff collaboration. Without supports in place, PBL will not be effective, cause frustrations at all levels, and include a lack of progress from students.

If you want to know the differences between what PBL is and is not, check out this video. When PBL is supported at all levels, it is a game changer for students and teachers alike. As a school teacher, you might be thinking, “Ok. So PBL is great for kids. How in the world do I start over and design new lessons?” The answer is simple. You do not have to recreate the wheel! Teachers have amazing lessons/projects that their kids have done in the past. While you are acclimating to this new-to-you method, all you need to do in the beginning is take your lesson or project and infuse one element of true project-based learning. “Element of project-based learning?” That’s right! There are 8 project design elements according to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). These elements include:

  1. Key knowledge, understanding, and success skills
  2. Challenging problem or question
  3. Sustained inquiry
  4. Authenticity
  5. Student voice and choice
  6. Reflection
  7. Critique and revision
  8. Public product

Let’s take the classic 4th grade project in California that EVERYONE has done. We all know what I am talking about. The 4th grade mission project. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with studying the history of our California missions. However, what if we put a twist on the project and gave students more voice and choice (element number 5)? Could students have more ownership in how they show and display their learning? What if students were given time to collaborate with on another and could critique and revise each other’s work using new technology, such as Flipgrid?  Some example choices could include:

  • Students design brochures of a mission
  • A video tour of a local mission
  • Students design the 22nd mission
  • Writing and performing a persuasive speech about a mission.

Simply giving students a list of possible choices like the examples mentioned will bring you closer to true PBL. This is exactly what I mean when I say that PBL implementation does not have to be scary or overwhelming. Little changes to what you already do can make a big difference in your classroom!  Once you’ve got the hang of it and feel more comfortable with PBL, you can go on to designing a few full-blown PBL units in a year.  The beauty of this is that you can reflect and refine on your units to make them better each year.


Another example: What would math class look like through the lens of PBL? I remember my local district doing something like this just a few summers ago. My district had summer school for students that were identified as needing extra support in the areas of ELA (english language arts)  and math. I had the opportunity to collaboratively plan out curriculum that included the teaching of Math and ELA through the lens of science! In other words, investigations and labs were part of the learning that happened in math. Reading science texts with rich vocabulary was used to teach ELA. I love the idea of blended learning like this. What is great about PBL is that there is no set or specific curriculum you have to follow. The fact is is that you can use your current curriculum and “spice it up” with PBL as your guide on the side.

Another math coach I work with, Jarrett Meyers, once compared the curriculum to a flat bottle of soda. Sure it has all of the ingredients. What is lacking is the fizz. This is where the teacher brings in their creativity and personal spin to make the flat curriculum come to life for students. PBL can be your fizz!

If you haven’t guessed already, I am a huge proponent of PBL and very passionate about sharing it with others.  I have often wondered why we separate classes like we do. In the elementary grades, ELA is only from, for example, 8:30-9:50, math is only in the morning from 10:30 – 11:50, and science and social studies (IF we get to them) is only in the afternoons from 1:30 – 2:25 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In high school, maybe only period one is set aside for math and Period 2 is for ELA.  Stop and ask yourself, is this how the real world works?  If I walk up to a car salesmen and ask about the price of the car, will he tell me, “I can’t answer that right now. I can only answer cause and effect comprehension questions regarding the safety of airbags for the next 45 min. Come back at 12:30 for the price of the car, when I can talk about numbers.”  This seems silly, but in my opinion, so does separating all of our subjects. (Setting soap box aside)

Ok. Back on track.  If you would like to know more about starting PBL in your classroom, school, or district please locate the following resources to help you in your search.

  1. BIE website has a plethora of how to’s and the whys.
  2. Ross Cooper has a blog all about PBL.
    1. He also has a book called HackingPBL
  3. AJ Juliani’s new book- THE PBL PLAYBOOK
  4. I strongly suggest taking the PBL 101 course by BIE found here
  5. You an also reach out to me as I explore and implement PBL at my local school site. (Communicate! Collaborate!)

This week I will be hosting the first meeting of a 6-week professional development session on PBL with a handful of teachers that are interested in knowing more.  My goal is to share what I have learned and implemented in my own classroom and inform them about the benefits of PBL and the need for support in order to make it a success.  I am excited to share with them (and anyone!) what I learned from the PBL 101 workshop (hosted by BIE) I attended this past February. I’ve also learned many amazing strategies/ideas to implement PBL from Andre Daughty, John Larmer, and my professional learning network colleagues on Twitter.   

I look forward to sharing my journey with you.  Please reach out should you have questions or comments.  I’d love to hear from you…and secretly convert you to a PBL enthusiast.  #kiddingnotkidding

Until next time,



Be A Trailblazer

We all get stuck in routines.  The brain likes when everything is predictable.  However, I will argue that in the teaching profession, being flexible and willing to try new routines is what keeps teachers effective, engaging, and least likely to burn out.

Teachers are incredibly hardworking.  They face mountains of pressure to reach all students.  They have time restraints including deadlines for assessments, pacing calendars so as not to fall behind before the big test, trimester report cards, grading assignments timely, and on and on.  With all that said, I can see why some teachers choose to stick with what they know – the same lesson each year, the same instructional strategies they lean on, the same classroom layout. Why? Because those things are one less thing to worry about on their ever-expanding plates.


What if I were to tell you that there is a way to get back your time, still teach the core subjects and get to others on the back-burner, all the while engaging students like never before?  Right now you’re probably thinking that this is impossible or that you don’t have time to start something new. Well, you’re right in that this will be something new. It will require planning.  It will require collaborating. Will you need get new curriculum? Not at all. The current adoption your district has is a fine tool to use as a GUIDE, meaning you’re the professional that must bring your own creativity to the table.  If you’re a page turner day after day like I was in my first few years of teaching, then this will be liberating for you! Let me be perfectly clear here. You CAN use your current lessons and curriculum to meet the needs of this new strategy that will give you back your time that you deserve and need.

Can I ask you a question?  (Of course I can. It’s my blog!)  In the real world, workers use concepts from a variety of subjects at the same time continuously throughout the work day.  So why do we compartmentalize subjects in school? Why does math only have to be taught in the morning and not touched again because English Language Arts has a special time slot, so does History and Science (if you dust off the books and actually teach these subjects)?  Because there is so much pressure to get everything done in a short amount of time, wouldn’t it make sense to see where subjects can be combined? It’s a lesson plan BOGO!

What if I were to tell you that there is a way to get back your time

For me, the answer to these came in the amazing breakthrough of Project Based Learning.  This teaching strategy changed my life as a teacher, and I can’t wait to dig in deeper in my next post where I unveil the strategies that helped me to gain back time, engage students like never before, and love teaching again!

Until next time,


Is Your Workplace Positive and Uplifting?

At a recent business conference attended by my wife, the keynote speaker with positivity expert Shola Richards.  My wife was so inspired by his message that she had to share it with me that night.  She found this video, and we spent the evening watching and discussing the powerful message.  Shola talks about the meaning of ubuntu, an African word often translated as “I am because we are.”  Shola’s video was a catalyst for my own reflection of the leader I aspire to be.  I desire to be a leader that serves my team. I want to be known as a leader that is present, knowledgeable, and creates a positive learning environment where change can really happen.  

The culture of a school site, or any job for that matter, starts and ends with its leadership. There are bosses or there are leaders.  Please don’t confuse them.

Bosses :

  • Demand
  • Ridicule
  • Undermine
  • Intimidate
  • Lack vision
  • Have a top-down approach to authority
  • Lead from the back.

In contrast, Leaders:

  • Inspire
  • Have a vision
  • Build relationships
  • Value all employees
  • PRESENT on sites
  • Allow their workers to be creative, while holding them accountable.

Leaders are “guides on the side.”  Leaders are helping to pull the weight, humble enough to pick up a broom if needed or help out by taking a recess duty.  Leaders are never above doing what needs to be done.


Picture of a boss vs a leader

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.–Helen Keller

Let’s face it.  We live in a world that is very different from the 1950’s, yet some work places look and act as if we are still there.  Workers today are not the same as yesterday. Baby boomers are on their way out. Industries have changed and now desire different skill sets in employees than those of our parents and grandparents.  Soft skills are becoming more important than hard skills. They are realizing that these are the qualities that drive a successful team and, in turn, the business.

We must do better.  We have to do better.  And doing better means having the right leaders in position to make these necessary changes happen.  We cannot afford to have top-down accountability system anymore as research shows us time and time again that this approach does not work.

Michael Fullan touches on this subject in his book The Principal                    

The Principal_M_Fullan_2014

 Wrong headed accountability is like pushing a train by building up           power in the caboose. It is far more effective to pull humans than try         to push them.  This is why the better alternative to simply demanding       accountability is to aim at building capacity from the beginning, with       an explicit focus on results. (p.28) 

If your boss did not have his/her authority over you, would you still choose to follow that person?– Shola Richards

Leaders need the contributions of the team to make effective change happen.  I have been around both approaches to leading a team.  I have had true leaders that had a vision, they were clear, and passionate.  This kind of leadership had staff going above and beyond to see the success of the operation.  When your leader chips in, gets down on your level, shares their enthusiasm, and makes you feel like your ideas matter…that’s powerful.  It gets you excited to contribute and help everyone achieve something great.

On the flip side, in a past career life, I have experienced bosses that simply gave directions, lacked vision, and were not transparent with staff.  Little change or growth was made. If you only bark out instructions at your staff, belittle, demand rather than inspire respect, why would people want to go above and beyond?  This kind of leadership creates a negative work environment that is cancerous.

My goal is to be a leader people CHOOSE to follow rather than one they HAVE to follow.

It takes more than a title to be a leader.– Shola Richards

Let’s go back to the video that Shola Richards presented in at UC Berkeley.  In that video he pointed out that negative work environments can be salvaged with the right approaches from leadership.  One suggestion he mentioned was having a “no gossip Friday.” This would lead to employees thinking about their actions and its effect on others.  He also mentioned that high functioning teams bring a positive attitude to work every day habitually. Leaders ensure that drama does not make it to the workplace, either theirs or employees.  In any industry, a positive workplace is essential for the success of the customer. It’s hard work, however I believe it is worth

What are your thoughts?  

After watching the video by Shola Richards, do you have any takeaways?

Do you have a leader that inspired you?

I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,