Synergy: Selecting next projects

Our team has over 300 observation journal entries from which to brainstorm questions and projects. See Synergy: Complexity~Simplicity, Collaboration & Brainstorming for the beginning of this work.

After Monday’s work in class, our learners were prompted to use a quick-write to reflect on the process of narrowing the project ideas using the idea wall as shown in the Synergy: Complexity~Simplicity, Collaboration & Brainstorming blog post.

The prompt:  Do you think our Synergy team’s project possibilities are accurately and fairly represented? Why or why not?

“I think they are accurately represented because it’s easy to see and understand, as well as find one in a group of many that you are passionate about. I think we should have a survey. I think they are fair to everyone’s choices, and I like that everyone got three post-it notes.” ~ BM

“I think our Synergy team’s project possibilities are more accurately and fairly represented with the idea wall system, because we thought of what projects we were most passionate about, and then as a class they were organized into groups on the wall, according to their topic. With the other system they were categorized under tags that each of us individually had tagged, in our own language, and five out of 300+ of our tags were represented with that system. I think this left out a lot of other project possibilities that many people in our class feel passionate about.  In my opinion, both of these systems were flawed, but I am excited about many of the projects, and with both I was able to see one or two projects that our class had identified, that’d I’d love to start working on.” ~ OK

“I think that the project possibilities that are represented are fairly represented but we have more ideas that we can add to the wall. Also I think the tagging system was very complicated and hard to understand, but we did a good job of cleaning it up and getting everyone to use the same tagging language to tag their posts.” ~ MB

“I believe that our Synergy team’s project possibilities are mostly accurately and fairly represented, but I don’t think that’s true for everyone. Every team member has put there idea up on the idea wall, but everyone does not understand what each idea means.” ~ OV

“Everyone definitely had an equal say in what we have so far, so I think it is apparent that the data we have is fair. I think the idea wall represents our project possibilities accurately, but the Posterous tags do not. I think the idea wall works because it represents what stuck with people. It specifically represents PROJECT ideas, while the tags also represent random observations that projects cannot be done on.” ~ FS

“I don’t think that our Synergy team’s project possibilities are accurately and fairly represented through our Posterous Idea Wall. I don’t think they are accurately represented because we have over 300 posts and there are bound to be posts that are as equally important to us that we forgot about. Others aren’t represented well, because they are thrown into a miscellaneous category. When something is put in a category like this, people tend to skip over it and ignore it. For example when people are choosing project possibilities that interest them, they will probably skip over the “Other” categories and head straight to the ones that have titles. Although there are some down sides to our wall, like the ones I stated above, our Synergy class has made significant progress through this exercise.” ~ DJ

“Well, I did but now I have realized that they really aren’t. Before, I thought that they were because of the sticky notes and Posterous posts, but now I think that they are not. Today at the end of class, we tried to decide on a number of project ideas for the poll. I thought that we should vote because the final numbers were 8 and 12. Someone suggested that we use 10 because that is between 8 and 12 but some people weren’t satisfied.” ~ CC

Based on the feedback from our young learners, we have learned that we need to work with our team to create a better understanding of the “folksonomy” aspect of tagging our observation journal posts in Posterous.  From Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss:

“Folksonomy” refers to the social taxonomy or classification system that evolves as users collectively make sense of what they find on the Web.  Users associate “tags” or keywords to the content they bookmark, and they can see how others have treated the same material.

The easiest way to understand the power of bookmarks and tagging is by using it.  [p. 22]

We are working to develop a common language with our tags.  We are learning by doing as recommended by Boss and Krauss.

After more work and reorganizing the Post-it Notes from the idea wall, the team decided to use Poll Everywhere to formatively assess the team’s thinking and preferences.  We (Bo Adams and Jill Gough) created the topics for the poll based on the top 10 tags from our Posterous blog.  Our learners decided that these categories, shown below, were similar to the categories from the idea wall.

As you can see, we definitely need to work on developing a common language and understanding of tagging.  School, for example, is a pretty broad topic for project selection.  There were 82 posts tagged with school in our Posterous observation journal site.

Here are the results after the first poll.

Our learners discovered that their categories were too general.  If you wanted to work on the KP Challenge, did you select school or cafeteria? If you were interested in organic food or obesity, did you select environment, cafeteria, or health?  Fortunately, the Post-it Notes contained more details.  Our learners then asked to eliminate the general categories where they showed no interest and add more specific categories to eliminate some confusion.  For a quick glimpse into their discussion and work, we offer the following iMovie*.

Here are the results after the second poll.

Serving as their coaches, we now had to intervene.  PowerPuff does not meet the standard of project or problem for our course. We want our learners to work on projects or problems that effect more than half of one grade in our division.  Our learners were assured that we would help them work on this project outside of class if they are serious about pursuing this as a community issue.   One of our learners made a motion from the floor to poll again with the category PowerPuff removed.

Again, there was discussion coupled with questions.  Could the KP Challenge and Line Cutting choices be grouped together?

In groups, our learners’ next task was to use the technique of brainwriting to share, connect, and contribute to the team’s ideas of the selected topic.

Learners are now working on project concepting using a worksheet we adapted from BIE.

For the projects where there are less than 4 teammates, how will they cover the internal, team “leads” for each essential learning needed? Will these teams choose to push forward on the project they have selected, or will they choose to join forces with another team?

[Cross-posted at Experiments in Learning by Doing]
[*NOTE: iMovie video effects have been added to the movies because of a new school policy about student images on faculty blogs.]

Synergy: Complexity~Simplicity, Collaboration & Brainstorming

Our Synergy team is at the halfway mark, time wise, of the semester.  For the past 9 weeks we have been recording images, questions, and thoughts in our observation journals.  We use a common space, a Posterous group, to communicate, collaborate, and connect ideas.

The challenge now upon us…What data mining strategies should we employ to uncover community issues that, as a team, we want to study, investigate, problem-find and problem-solve?  We have over 300 posts.  It seems daunting, almost overwhelming to sift through our data.

Via his talk at TEDGlobal 2010, “How complexity leads to simplicity,” Eric Berlow was our “guest expert” to help us think about and learn that “complex doesn’t always equal complicated.”

A couple of key insights that stuck with us include:

[Use] the simple power of good visualization tools to help untangle complexity to just encourage you to ask questions you didn’t think of before.


The more you step back, embrace complexity, the better chance you have of finding simple answers and it is often different than the answer that you started with.

Here is a quick trailer and then approximately 4 minutes of video from Monday’s Synergy learning experience to show one of our attempts to find simplicity on the other side of our complex task of data mining for new projects.

  • If you facilitate project-based learning, how do you empower students to determine the team projects?
  • What other methods would you recommend to us for putting students in “that driver’s seat?”
  • How does assessment for learning change when immersed in PBL?
  • How would you assess the various learning demonstrated in the video?

We would love your feedback.

[Cross-posted at Experiments in Learning by Doing]

Synergy 8 Update – Week 3

Last week in Synergy 8, our team of 26 established and integrated our triad of foundational course-communication tools – Schoology, Posterous, and WordPress. After all, a learnopolis needs an infrastructure for advanced communication. Additionally, we began utilizing and practicing our #1 tool in Synergy – the observation journal. In the upcoming weeks, our team observations will allow us to develop projects of our choosing that address community needs about which we are curious…and about which we care.

This week, on Monday, August 29, we began Synergy with this short piece:

We wanted to use a compelling hook for enlisting the students in a prototypical project. By engaging this project as an “alpha project” for this semester’s Synergy 8  team, we could “learn by doing” within the context of a project – a project started by last year’s Synergy 8 crew. After watching the video, we coached the team through a process of determining methods and action steps for researching the perceived problem of keeping Malone Dining Hall clean. Based on the team’s gamestorming, we focused on four possible methods: 1) direct observation of Malone, 2) interviews with homerooms regarding KP, 3) interviews with Malone staff and director Robert Nash, 4) student body survey.

On Tuesday, we used Poll Everywhere to explore how we might operationalize our teams. Based on the results, we decided to jump into a “spontaneous lesson plan shift.” If we were playing football…we called an audible. We used the results to walk through eight mediated journal prompts created on the fly. We explored graphical analysis and numeracy, and we examined some misconceptions about what the Poll Everywhere data were telling us. The data revealed some teamwork issues, too, and the team members proposed solutions to the issues. We then implemented a solution and retook the Poll Everywhere survey.

Now, the Synergy 8 team is distributed in sub-teams, and we are working to develop the action steps needed to implement our community problem-solving. Before jumping in too deep, though, we paused to read Dan and Chip Heath’s Switch chapter on “Finding the Bright Spots.” We believe there is so much to learn from the example of Dr. Sternin and the Vietnamese-nutrition project. Now we plan to:

1. Enlist the community as partners in the problem-solving process, instead of swooping in and acting like we have all the answers.

2. Study the bright spots of what’s working and strategize how we can do more of that good stuff.

3. Empower the community to sustain the change needed to improve the situation.

Through this alpha project – the KP Challenge – we are addressing a serious community issue, we are bridging the work begun in Synergy 8 2010-11, and we are modeling a project process that can frame future projects that we undertake in Synergy 8. All the while, we are integrating content and skills that are typically distributed and segregated among various “departments.” We are engaged in a scientific process, we are collecting and analyzing data, we are discussing human psychology and sociology, we are drafting persuasive pieces and developing interview questions and protocols.

I cannot wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Reflecting from aFAAR

In the Junior High, tis the season of conducting Student Course Feedback and, for some, it seems, completing Peer Visits – two of the five components of our Faculty Assessment and Annual Review (FAAR) process. Additionally, a third component of our formative assessment plan – Admin Observation – has been occurring all year. After seeing the note “re-review and process Synergy 8 SCF” on our respective to-do lists for months, Jill Gough and I have finally spent five meetings of second period reviewing and reflecting on our Synergy 8 student course feedback (SCF). Not only did we re-review the feedback to reconsider how things went during the first-semester course, but we also revisited the data in May so that we could pre-plan more effectively for the next iteration of Synergy 8. As we returned to the SCF and discussed the results, we remembered connections in the data that linked to things we read in our peer visit summaries and admin observation notes. We were reminded that student course feedback does not exist by itself. The components of our FAAR process are not intended to be isolated, siloed pieces of professional learning. They can be wonderfully integrated and whole. Also, they are not intended to be summative or evaluative – they are not judgmental pieces of professional evaluation. They are meant to be formative…lenses through which we can view our teaching and learning so as to grow and develop as educators…so that we can adjust our course.

What’s more, by reviewing and reflecting together, we enhanced our field of view and gained richer understanding from the blend of each other’s varied perspectives and reactions. During each of the five periods that we engaged in this collaborative work, we would independently review the data and write to the prompts on the narrative summary tool (“option #2”) for reflecting on one’s SCF – one reflective prompt at a time. Then, we would read and discuss each other’s responses. While this took more time than working through the reflection alone, we both believe we benefitted immensely from the writing, sharing, and dialoguing. We missed things in our individual reflections, but very little fell through any cracks by canvassing the feedback as a team of critical friends.

To share our system of feedback, we decided to use an online, cloud-storage, sharing tool called “Box.” By using Box, we could design some simple webdocs that literally show and archive the connections among the feedback and reflections. Box has a number of great features, including the ability to tag documents post comments. To view our Box-stored system of feedback, please visit the “Synergy 8 – FAAR” folder.

Soon, our next collective endeavor will be to prepare our 2011-12 Goals and Self-Assessment (a fourth component of FAAR). Because we co-facilitate Synergy 8, we intend to employ the critical friends process again as we continue to prepare for our next team of Synergy learners. The manner in which we reviewed and reflected on our system of feedback has set up and primed our ability and enthusiasm to enhance the Synergy experience for the upcoming school year.

In addition to our course-specific questions, we are also engaged in thinking about some critical learning questions for ourselves and our FAAR process (and they may be good questions for you, too):

  • Can you learn more deeply reviewing feedback with a colleague? How can we assist each other in learning more deeply?
  • Have can we build a common understanding of the needs of our learners?  How can we find a richer understanding of ourselves as teammates and co-facilitators?
  • Do you have a team of critical friends? What feedback are you collecting and considering so that you can grow?
  • Would you learn more by sharing the results of your feedback with another for reflection and co-interpretation?  How will we grow and learn together if we are not sharing our struggles and our successes?
  • What have we learned from this process that we can facilitate for our younger learners next semester? How can we model and implement a richer reflection and critical friends system as part of the course?
NOTE: This post is cross-posted at Jill Gough’s Experiments in Learning by Doing.

Interesting Follow Up on Summa Cum Laude

On Tuesday, February 22, I published a blog post (Junior High End-of-Year & JH Celebration 2010-11) announcing several changes to the end-of-year schedule for Junior High, including details about transitions from “JH Honors Day” to “JH Celebration.” On Tuesday, that post received 831 “hits” or views.

At the time of this writing, the post has received 958 views in total. However, not one viewer has left a comment on the post. (The comment listed is simply a tweet mentioning the post – a “ping back” of sorts.) Not even one viewer commented on agreement with or disdain for the decisions and changes. Over 1300 parents and educators were sent an email with a link to the post. Not one comment. I find that fascinating.

Nevertheless, I have received other forms of communication about the changes to Honors Day – now called Junior High Celebration. Approximately 55 people have communicated with me about the changes:

  • Overall, I would characterize the communications as mostly positive. About 40 contacts have expressed appreciation and agreement with the changes. About 5 contacts sought clarity about how summa cum caude is calculated. About ten contacts have expressed concern. I appreciate that people are using email, phone calls, and face-to-face opportunity to provide feedback. Some communications are more respectful and tactful than others, but I appreciate that people are communicating. Even if I disagree with what they communicate, I appreciate that they are communicating. If people don’t communicate, it is terribly challenging to know what folks are thinking and feeling.
  • Yesterday, however, one parent used the phrase that people are “up in arms” about the changes. This alarmed me and surprised me. I certainly don’t want people to be “up in arms.” What shocked me is that my “recon” tells a very different story.
    • Not one person left a comment on the blog.
    • Of the 55 communications I have received, about 40 have been positive and supportive of the changes.
    • None of the grade chairs have reported any upset or disagreeing parent communications.
    • Only one teacher has reported a conversation with a student who was concerned with the changes.
    • Two PAWS (Parents Association of the Westminster Schools) representatives have communicated to me that people are upset. From what they tell me, though, I feel like there is confusion about the summa cum laude decision.

Consequently, I want to try explaining the summa cum laude decision another way…

  • For as long as I have been at Westminster (16 years), we have designated an Honor Roll and a Merit List. Summa cum laude, in some ways, is simply an extention of this long-standing system.
    • To earn Merit List distinction, a student must maintain a GPA of 80 or higher, with no grade below 75.
    • To earn Honor Roll distinction, a student must maintain a GPA of 88 or higher, with no grade below 75. [During my time, this GPA requirement rose from 87 to 88 with virtually no challenges to the change.]
    • At the end of semester one, 480 students achieved Honor Roll. 56 achieved Merit List. 23 did not receive either distinction. This is a fairly typical spread. However, the change in policy last year to “no zeros” has had a slight effect.
    • During the year of discussions about honors and awards, teachers and parents and students communicated that the Honor Roll does not seem “discerning” enough. Many wanted a “third tier.”
    • To my knowledge, we have never had a strong parent objection to the existence of an Honor Roll/Merit List system based on GPA. There is some faculty concern about the existence of this system.
  • For as long as I have been at Westminster, Junior High Honors Day has recognized just 6 students (one from each grade and gender) for “Highest Academic Average.” In most cases, the difference between receiving this honor and “finishing second” has been caused by just hundredths of a point. And grading practices among teachers are not perfectly uniform. With the summa cum laude system, we can have multiple “valedictorians” from each grade and gender group. Just as with Honor Roll and Merit List, if you earn the grades – through hard work, solid assessment performance, diligent effort – then you are eligible for the distinction. The standard for achievement is clear and visible. It is no longer a behind-the-scenes, head-to-head competition for hundredths of a point. We have ended the sense of “there can only be one.” If we had had the summa cum laude tier last year, about 40 middle school students would have earned the honor.

Below is a simple poll. I hope you will take a few seconds to provide some feedback. [I will blog about the change in departmental awards ASAP.]