PBL video conferencing

The 11th grade English teachers were excited about the project they’d planned.

It was their first PBL 101 workshop from PBLWorks, and the team from Eastridge High School just outside of Rochester, NY, was inspired by the New York Times series Overlooked, which featured long-delayed obituaries of remarkable people, many of them women and people of color.

The teachers launched their project with the driving question, “Why is it important to tell the stories of those who have been overlooked?” Students read about people who have been forgotten by history, then accepted the challenge to find and tell, in podcast form, the stories of other unknown people whose accomplishments should not be overlooked.

Students had just finished studying the 1619 Project podcasts as an exemplar of the genre when, like schools all across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, Eastridge suddenly shifted teaching and learning into virtual space.

Top of mind for this group of English teachers, along with how their students were coping with the stress and uncertainty that the disease brought along, was how to help their students see their projects through. The people that students had been researching—everyone from a local woman who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel to a gorilla protector in the rainforest to the inventor of the common electrical socket—had become important to them. The students wanted to tell the stories they’d set out to tell.

Since the podcasts were intended to be shared beyond the classroom, the teachers knew that critique and revision was critical.

That’s why critique and revision is an Essential Project Design Element. Students expected feedback as they worked to develop their podcasts, but they were used to face-to-face peer critiques, having their teachers look over their shoulders at drafts, and impromptu problem-solving conferences. Shifting to remote teaching changed that paradigm.

However, the teachers have since found several digital tools that are so helpful, they’ll likely continue to use them when school buildings reopen.

Eastridge students have laptops and the district was able to supply hotspots to students who didn’t have internet access at home, so the primary feedback tool these teachers are using is comments or suggestions in a cloud-based shared document.

Available through Google, Microsoft, and open source resources such as Etherpad, shared documents enable multiple people to access the same document, slide show, or data management file either simultaneously or at different times. Teachers can coach students by inserting comments or suggesting revisions by changing the document’s settings from “editing” to “suggesting” if it’s a Google document or from “editing” to “reviewing” if it’s a Microsoft document. The teacher or peer’s suggestions will show up in a different color than the original work, making it easy to distinguish the feedback.

What looks like a great deal of individualized work can actually be made more efficient through the tech tools so many of us are using daily now.

Start with the key criteria for success that are often co-generated during a project. For example, the students and teachers at Eastridge analyzed podcasts, coming to understand what makes a podcast different than other methods of telling stories. Among other criteria, the students noticed that podcasts are “hosted,” that they don’t necessarily tell stories from beginning to end, and that they incorporate music and other sound effects to deepen the listeners’ understanding.

Teachers can pre-plan or collect actionable feedback statements that are aligned to the criteria. For example, in this case they used statements like “explain more about how this music enhances your message,” or “how will you help the listener understand that you are starting at the end of the story?” and saved them for use in Google Keep, OneNote, or Evernote. For fun comments, you could use the Bitmoji extension if you’re using Chrome as your browser. After building a set of useful comments, providing most feedback is just cutting and pasting the right feedback into the right place.  

If you’re looking for a tool that lets you provide your feedback orally, you might consider Flipgrid, which allows you and your students to make, store, and share quick videos. You might provide mini-lessons on Flipgrid as a response to common errors or areas of growth, ask an expert to create a video to share ideas, or have students volunteer to show and explain specific things in their work that could serve as models for others, or have students leave each other feedback. Flipgrid works on smartphones as well, so if internet access is a challenge, this might be the tool for you.

The Eastridge teachers are also using videoconferencing to support their students, but learned quickly that protocols could strengthen the interactions that were occurring.

PBL Works offers a terrific Critique Protocols Strategy Guide that helped. As you engage your students in virtual peer feedback, you’ll want to prepare them to provide what Ron Berger, chief academic officer of EL Education, calls “kind, specific, and helpful feedback.” Ron explains these ideas in this short video

Overall, the teachers noticed a remarkable benefit to supporting their students through videoconferencing, which can also be done on phones. The Eastridge students are offering more peer feedback now than they did when they were together in the same classroom.

“In our last virtual meeting, students really helped a classmate solve a problem she was having structuring her podcast,” said Lauren O’Grady, one of the Eastridge teachers. “Their responses to her challenges were really thoughtful. I know if we’d been in the classroom instead of on Zoom, they would’ve asked me for help. I think this has something to do with the way Zoom organizes all our faces. I’m just one of the little boxes -- they are seeing each other as much as they are seeing me. It makes me wonder about the power of this tool long term.”

Here’s an example podcast by Eastridge junior Madison Blythe, created using Microsoft Sway, now shared with the most authentic audience of them all.

You might just want to launch the Overlooked Project with your students -- most everything you would need is linked in this blog.  Enjoy!

Cheryl Dobbertin, National Faculty
Cheryl is a teacher, coach, and administrator who became passionate about PBL when she saw the impact of an authentic audience on the quality of the work of her high school English students.