Erin Murphy on episode 164 of the 10-Minute Teacher Podcast
From the Cool Cat Teacher Blog by Vicki Davis
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Erin Murphy, the co-author of Hacking Project Based Learning, talks about leading project-based learning. She discusses principal-teacher relationships, evaluations, and common mistakes made in PBL implementation. If you’re working to help increase the amount of PBL in your school, this show will be helpful to you.
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Below is an enhanced transcript, modified for your reading pleasure. All comments in the shaded green box are my own. For guests and hyperlinks to resources, scroll down.
Leading Project Based Learning
Thursday, October 5, 2017
Vicki: So today we’re thinking about leading project-based learning. Erin Murphy @MurphysMusings5 is co-author of Hacking Project-Based Learning, and she’s an assistant principal. Now we will be doing a book giveaway, and I’ll also link in the show notes to Ross Cooper, who we’ve already had on the show and who is the co-author of this book.
- Listen to Ross Cooper “Get Motivated to Do Project Based Learning the Right Way” episode 146
How can principals supervise and evaluate a PBL classroom?
So, Erin, we know that it’s not just doing projects. But you know, I know in my own situation, I hesitate to do projects with my principal to come in and supervise, because how can they look and really understand what’s going on with just a glimpse? I mean, isn’t it a challenge to kind of encourage and help treat project-based learning as it happens?
Erin: Sure, and that’s actually such a good point, Vicki, because I think that one of the things we hear from teachers a lot is, you know, “It’s messy.”
And even there’s a graphic that we show the differences between a project and project-based learning, and one of the words that people often use to describe project-based learning is that it is “messy.” Teachers are sometimes afraid to have administrators come into their room and see a mess.
On the flip side of that, when we see teachers who do these amazing projects, and there’s community involvement, and it becomes a school-wide event, that’s also a little bit intimidating for other teachers – because they feel like, “If I’m not doing this grandiose project, then my administrator is going to think that this just isn’t good enough.”
3 Critical Parts of Being a Leader in Project-Based Learning
So, I sort of look at three critical parts of being a leader in project-based learning.
1 – Finding an Entry Point for Teachers
The first is really about finding that entry point for every teacher, and understanding that, just like for kids, it’s going to be different.
Some teachers are going to just start by wanting to redesign their classroom. Like maybe they still have a very traditional classroom where desks are facing the front in rows. It’s very teacher-centered, and maybe the first step, even for the first year is, “I’m going to redesign my classroom and really get kids talking to each other, more than adult talk.”
Give Teachers Permission to Start Small
That’s a beautiful step toward a more project-based personalized learning experience. Sometimes teachers need permission to start small. Sometimes just working in a design challenge once a week is a really good way for teachers to get started. “Maybe I just want kids to try designing a catapult, and see how that goes, and have a conversation. Maybe I want to get some feedback from a colleague or an administrator about that.”
What do teachers do in more rigid environments?
Vicki: Yeah, and I just want to interject right here. You know, I know teachers who – literally, when they come to school – somebody has put tape on their floor and told them, “Make sure that all of the bottom parts of the desks are lined up with this tape.” They are literally told where those desks have to go. So, an administrator can loosen up a little on the seating, maybe a little bit, to help get this started?
Erin: Uh, absolutely! Yeah, I definitely feel like…
Vicki: (laughs) It makes you cringe, doesn’t it…
Erin: A little bit, yeah…
Erin: I twitch a little bit when I hear things like that. It makes me so sad.
Erin: You know what, though, even administrators that are putting tape on the floor – I 100% believe that they are doing it because somewhere, somehow, they felt that that was the right thing to do. So they read something or went to a conference and heard about this one particular way to set up a room.
Every classroom is different
But you know, it really just goes back to the fact that we need to differentiate for our teachers just as much as we differentiate for our students. Every classroom has different needs as far as the setup and as far as our expectations for what the room should look like.
2 – There’s not just one way to do PBL
Vicki: Yeah, totally. OK, what’s our second one?
Erin: Sure. So the next one is understanding that there isn’t just one way to do project-based learning.
One thing that I see all the time on Twitter, in particular, is, “If all the kids’ projects look the same, then they are not doing project-based learning.”
That really strikes me, because, for me, the true difference between project-based learning and just doing additional projects is the process.
So in our book, we sort of follow this one particular project that Ross (my co-author) actually did in his classroom. His students designed and built working pinball machines. So every kid in his class ended that project with a pinball machine. I would be hard-pressed to say that that wasn’t project-based learning.
Every kid designed their own path on how they were going to get to that pinball machine. Through that process, they learned about circuits, they learned about forces in motion, on top of learning about collaboration, blueprinting, measurement, and all the other things that were the supporting standards in that project.
So I think that it’s important that we choose our words carefully, and we don’t want to speak in definitives about what is and what is not project-based learning because that creates barriers for teachers who want to get started.
Vicki: Excellent. That is an excellent point. I also want to go back to what you said at the beginning. A lot of people don’t talk about the intimidation factor for the people who do these epic things. So I think these are two fantastic pieces of this to give some freedom here.
Vicki: Are you ready for the third?
Don’t get PBL paralysis
Erin: Yeah, and I was just going to add one more thing. We actually call that “PBL Paralysis,” sort of a term that we’ve coined…
Erin: … the idea, when you get so fearful of starting PBL, we call that PBL Paralysis.
Vicki: Oh my goodness.
3 – Be present in the classroom and be supportive
Erin: So, yeah, I’ll share the third one, which is simple in theory but not necessarily in practice, because I know how busy we get as administrators. Being present and offering feedback is so important to creating the culture in our schools where teachers want to take risks. Letting them see you in their classroom, taking in what’s going on, and making it a very judgment-free zone. Be ready to have a dialog if the teacher wants to have that dialog with you. But really just be there to support them in whatever they are trying.
Vicki: Now I love this because I’ll tell you that when students truly create an inventive project that is theirs – it’s personal, it’s theirs – that to me, when my administrators come into my room and let the kids share that? That means more to me as a teacher than anything.
I mean, go ahead and evaluate me then, because the kids are actually being themselves. They will prove and show — by what they know about what they have created — that we have actually done something meaningful. If I could beg every principal to be there at that point, that’s what I would say as a teacher.
Erin: Absolutely. I think that something else – again from the administrative perspective that I hear often is, “I’ll walk into a teacher’s room and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh! You missed it by five minutes. If you were here just five minutes before…’ ”
Invite your administrator into your room
And I just always say, “Never hesitate to invite your administrator into your room.” Give them that invitation to come see what’s going on. If they do miss it by five minutes, they missed that awesome thing that happened, send a kid down to tell them about it. Take a video or take a picture. Share that in some way, because those are your shining moments as a teacher.
Unfortunately, teaching can sometimes be a thankless job, and we shouldn’t feel bad about bragging about the stuff that’s going well. I love when my teachers brag about the stuff that’s going on in their rooms because I’m super proud of them when I get to hear about it.
The biggest mistake with PBL: Thinking projects have to be big and flashy
Vicki: So, Erin, what do you think is the biggest mistake that administrators make when they are trying to lead project-based learning in their schools?
Erin: I really think it comes back to thinking that it looks one certain way. Sort of like those that have tape on the floor? We can’t assume that it’s going to look the same in every teacher’s classroom.
Vicki: But isn’t that hard?
Erin: (laughs) Yeah. It’s hard. And it’s hard because we see something on Twitter, or on the news, like “This school brought crayons to an underprivileged building, and that was their big project-based learning.”
You might want to see something big and grand, that kind of flashy thing when the press is involved. But you don’t want to discredit the teacher who really stepped outside their comfort zone, put their scripted teacher manual away for two weeks, and let their kids design balloon-powered cars that can transport things around their house.
Vicki: And I’ll say this… some of the greatest learning experiences in my classroom, we have quite a few faceplants along the way. We just do. (laughs)
Erin: Right. You definitely cannot be afraid of failure. If we as administrators are there with the, “Oh, I told you so,” face on when something does go wrong, then you’re never going to get people to try something new again in the future.
It’s really about embracing the change, but embracing those failures, and understanding that there are bumps along the way.
Vicki: So, remarkable educators, Erin Murphy and her book Hacking Project-Based Learning.
Check the show notes so you can find out more, because this is definitely a challenge. It’s a challenge for teachers, but it’s also a challenge for administrators who want to move in this direction. This sparks a fantastic conversation about what project-based learning is, and what it isn’t.
I think the biggest takeaway for me is that it comes in all different forms.
Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford
Bio as Submitted
Erin Murphy is co-author of Hacking Project-Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom. Currently, Erin has the pleasure of serving as the assistant principal of Eyer Middle School in the East Penn School District.
As a certified literacy specialist, she also coordinates the middle-level ELA department. Erin’s classroom experiences range from kindergarten through fifth grade. In addition to Project Based Learning, she also regularly consults with other leaders and learners regarding Literacy, Technology, and Leadership.
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