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PODCAST EPISODE 4  |  8.10.2020

This Teachable Moment


Teachable Moment

In the conversation today, Laureen, Stanley, and PBLWorks CEO Bob Lenz discuss how this current pandemic is impacting the present and the future of education and Project Based Learning, and what educators can do to support their students during this time. Bob speaks about the importance of finding joy in the midst of these challenges, and how parents can get their kids involved with PBL over the summer.

Learn more about This Teachable Moment ebook.

About our guest, Bob Lenz

CEO Bob Lenz joined PBLWorks five years ago. Before that, he was the co-founder of Envision Education, a charter school network which puts into practice a highly successful redesign model that opens a path to college for underserved urban students in three Bay Area high schools. Bob is recognized nationally as a leader in high school redesign, Project Based Learning, 21st-century skills education, and performance assessment. He is the author of Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards, and most recently the eBook, This Teachable Moment: Engaging Our Kids in the Joy of Learning.

Full transcript

Laureen: Today on The Project, we're here with Bob Lenz, our CEO at PBLWorks. Bob joined PBLWorks five years ago, before that he was the co-founder of Envision Education, which put into practice a highly successful redesign model, that has opened a path to college for underserved urban students in three Bay area high schools.

Stanley: Bob is also recognized nationally as a leader in high school redesign, Project Based Learning, 21st century skills education and performance assessment. He is the author of the book, Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards.

Laureen: Stanley and I actually worked together at Envision Education with Bob, before we came to PBLWorks. And I remember when I first came on board, which was, I think around 2007, part of the professional development for new to Envision teachers was to actually experience Project Based Learning, which I thought was phenomenal. It really modeled building a culture of collaboration and inquiry. It's something that we learned by doing, so that we could apply it with our students. And I loved that.

Stanley: Yeah. You're talking about the Angel Island project.

Laureen: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Stanley: Yes. Yeah, I do remember that. That was a very specific memory about my first year as at Envision Schools. Also, along with Laureen, I've known Bob since probably around 2003, because he was one of the people that I worked with to be able to help start CDRs and technology in high school. And also, I believe that Bob was one of the people that convinced our principal, John Oubre, to be able to convince me. So I have a lot of debt around just the experience which allowed me to move to San Francisco. So it's a lot of things there connected through our experience.

Laureen: So, awesome. Welcome, Bob.

Bob: It's so great to be on with you and especially to be working with you all once again.

Stanley: Yeah, once again. It's great. I've always appreciated our work together. And so I'm actually going to start off with the first question. Can you talk about how you and our organization are experiencing this moment in terms of the pandemic. What's on top of the mind for you right now?

Bob: We at PBLWorks, we have a racial equity imperative and what's really on top of mind is the challenges that this pandemic is putting on our communities of color and our communities that are dealing with poverty. And now that it's just growing exponentially and that how the educational divide is being even greater exploited through this challenge, a lot because of our technology divide. And so I'm thinking a lot about that and how as we're developing our products and our services in this time of COVID, that we're able to think about how we're going to get these resources and supports to the teachers who are serving Black and brown students, in our communities. And even more so is, or not even more so, but just as the same as, Laury and I are working on a book for families, we've just out now, how do we make sure that the families who technology isn't native to them, they have access as well.

Laureen: So Bob, you just alluded to a few ways that this remote learning is changing the landscape for Project Based Learning, but how else is this impacting the future of Project Based Learning or the present of Project Based Learning?

Bob: Yeah, I think, if I look forward, and I don't think I'm the only one right now, and we look into the whole, the summer of no or limited summer camps and youth camps and youth centers being open for students. And then a school year in 2021, which will not be normal. Whether it's all online again or some hybrid of some time in school and outside of school or possibly any other options that might come. But I don't think it's going to be back to business as usual within the next two years.

Project Based Learning is going to be critical for teachers to have the tools and the resources they need to provide these types of experiences to kids, because we hear the reports of the PBL schools. While it's challenging for everyone, the students who have been involved in doing Project Based Learning, over time, are much more self-directed, know how to manage a project, have developed their tools of curiosity, the disposition of curiosity and inquiry, which really allows them to get engaged in learning, whether they're teachers in the room or not.

And I think strategies that require a tone of compliance. And I think often in schools, we've misunderstood engagement, which is actually compliance. And if we go through a whole school year next year, which I'm really celebrating, where probably we are not going to have any more standardized tests for another year. And we're not going to have traditional seat time. And there's probably not going to be traditional grades. And those are the tools that schools have used to keep kids compliant. So the question for schools and teachers is like, "How do you engage kids in their own learning?" Not how do you make sure that they complete worksheets and online quizzes based on the reading that they've done.

Stanley: I really like what you said about how to be able to engage students and kids. And it really connects to the next question I want to ask around, what PBL-friendly changes might happen in education as a result of this pandemic, what do you think educators might be or should be rethinking?

Bob: Well, I think the PBL-friendly changes that might happen in education are, there is more flexible time for learning. Because I think everybody's having to figure out how to do that right now. And teachers who spent their whole career making sure that they were in control of the situation in their classroom, have to let kids go. They have no choice right now. And so I'm hoping that if they can continue to embrace that, whether they're back in the classroom or they're at home, they can start to think of things in bigger chunks of time, were kids are either in small groups or on their own, engaged in research or synthesis of that research that they do, testing things out, creating products, preparing for presentations, connecting with outside experts.

I think there's a lot of things that now have become a little easier and possible for PBL type practices, that always seemed like a really big barrier, like connecting kids with adults outside the school, having enough computers that you could do that. But now that can be what a teacher's doing as their prep is, instead of doing a lesson, is finding adults who are willing to get on online and critique some kid's work.

I've been really wondering, like if we actually are in classrooms next year or the year after, but we have to keep social distance. How do you put kids in groups to collaborate on projects? So once again, technology actually is the winner there. We can put kids in Zoom breakout rooms. And it might even be the fact that kids have to put their headsets on in the classroom and do it that way and meet in their groups over a computer. But it's possible.

And I've been fascinated with our first two PBL 101s online, that the quality of the feedback and the ultimate plans that teachers are making for projects are higher quality than we had in person. And so I would imagine it's going to be the same for students as well, that they'll be able to give even deeper and more meaningful feedback and improve the quality of their product and consequently, the products that they're learning.

Laureen: What's some advice, the top one or two things, that you would give to a teacher or a leader about how to support their students during this time?

Bob: Well, I'd advise right now, that in this time, I would advise teachers and leaders to prioritize engagement and motivation to learn as the highest priority for students as they're having to shelter-in-place. I think the academics and the content knowledge will follow. And as we know, all three of us, is that high quality Project Based Learning is based in content areas and disciplines. It's intellectually challenging and that's what's motivating the kids.

But we need to start and be, even more so, be relevant, make learning relevant for young people, so that there are experiences and moments during a pretty bleak time, especially for young people, that they find some joy in the midst of this challenge. And the academic learning will follow from that. I mean, we've always believed that, but even more so now that we have to keep kids in the game. And so we need to be relevant and authentic, culturally responsive and engage them. And we really engage them in trying to address the challenges of our world and our communities. They're readily aware of these challenges and how do we give them agency to feel like they have a chance to deal with them?

Stanley: Yeah. I really liked what you were talking about with finding joy in the midst of challenge and really focusing on the engagement and motivation to learn. I think that's such an important thing to remember right now, especially in this time. Speaking of this time, I know that there is a lot of parents that are really struggling right now because of the current crisis in COVID, balancing work and kids at home, anxious about whether their kids are engaged in their learning. Or concerned that their kids don't have access to learning right now. How do you think educators can support parents in this time?

Bob: For educators to support parents, like what types of learning, experiences and challenges can they provide to kids that they can take on, on their own on because there'll be motivated and interested in it. I think, distance learning, especially for younger students, there's no way you're going to do something that's going to take up six to 12 hours a day. And that's about what parents really need their kids to be engaged. But I don't know, Laury, if you had about an hour or two, where kids were engrossed in what they were interested in, that would be an hour or two that you don't have right now.

Laureen: Right.

Stanley: Yeah.

Laureen: So what might it look like for parents to get their kids started with PBL over the summer?

Bob: As you know, our new book, This Teachable Moment just went online, on our bookstore and on Amazon, as a free ebook. That's for our families all over the world, with 21 projects, so they can get started with Project Based Learning right now over the summer. We think the book and the projects will serve families well beyond the summer, but there's 21 ideas that are age appropriate, can be adjusted for ages, as you know, you design the projects for all ages. And a short little bites that can get kids engaged in small chunks of time, while they're learning and engaging with content that matters. It's intellectually challenging and it's highly engaging.

It will involve some time for the parents to help guide the learning because there's not going to be an educator there on the screen with them. But it will be a lot more fun working with your students on creating a recipe book than getting them to fill in a Rocket Math worksheet.

And so we're also hopeful that parents will really take to heart this idea that this is a teachable moment, both for them to grab it with their kids and engage them now. And when they see the power of Project Based Learning and armed with some of the content from our book, we hope that they use that to advocate for Project Based Learning for their learner and all learners in the virtual learning space, as well as in person.

Stanley: So our audience might not know that Laureen is not only just a host on The Project, but she is also the collaborator with Bob on this book, This Teachable Moment. So I know, Laureen, you've been working on these 21 projects with Bob, can you share one or two of them?

Laureen: One is around creating a cookbook or cooking show of family recipes, which Bob just mentioned. So it's --

Bob: I love that project so much.

Laureen: I love it. So it's trying to answer the question, how can food connect us? And it's researching family recipes and asking family members their stories or memories connected to those recipes. And then the family, however many people are involved, it could be siblings or cousins, or he may be just one person in the house, can either compile a recipe cookbook or do like a YouTube cooking show, which is what we're going to try out.

So we tried to make sure that there's zero, low, maybe high-tech options, but a range depending upon what people have access to.

And then the other one is kind of a riff on a project from our project library, which is making space for change. But it's, how can we redesign a space for the collective benefit? So we're all home, we're all trying to work.

Bob: That's awesome. 

Laureen: We're all trying to figure out where our little corner is in the house. So, that's something that we're going to start tackling as soon as we finish our cooking show.

Bob: Not only are these really great projects for parents to try out, they're home tested by Laureen Adams and her family.

Stanley: That's amazing. I was actually just thinking, because actually over this entire quarantine, I actually, I've been calling my mom to get recipes. So that really resonated with me because I've been connecting with her about some Korean recipes that she always cooked but I never had the time to be able to do. So I love that idea. That's awesome.

Laureen: All right. So Bob, we're at our last question, what's your hope or your vision as we wind down this school year, head into the summer and prepare for the next school year and all the unknown that surrounds that?

Bob: Well, my hope is that, to use our book title as the frame of this, is that this is a teachable moment and a turning point around education that heads us in a direction of Project Based Learning and having a high quality Project Based Learning experience. Whether that be in person or at home is an expectation for all learners in our world. And especially in our country. Especially Black and brown students. And if that's the way we head because we could head back, I'm cautiously hopeful that this is going to be a little opportunity or a huge opportunity actually, to reset towards a future where engagement and motivation and cultural responsiveness is the order of the day and not a focus on test-based accountability.

Stanley: Bob, thanks so much for taking the time to be here with us today and for sharing your PBL stories.

Bob: My pleasure. It's so fun having a conversation with you guys.

Stanley: Yeah, it's great. It's like we're in the office except not really.

Bob: That's right.

Stanley: And we are just hanging out by the water cooler and talking about projects.

Bob: And we're such dorks, that's what we actually like to do.

Laureen: Right.

Stanley: That's actually true. This is the thing that we just talk about on a daily basis. And so it's nice to have it in this space where we can share it with others. So I appreciate it that.

Bob: That's right.

Laureen: Yes. Thank you so much.

Bob: Thank you.