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PODCAST EPISODE 3  |  8.10.2020

PBL bloopers: stories from the PBL trenches


In this episode, PBL veteran teachers swap stories about some of the early challenges they had to overcome in their PBL journeys, and lessons they’ve learned through mistakes that they’ve made. They also share the best advice they received early on in their PBL careers. If you’re just starting out on your own PBL journey, you won’t want to miss this conversation!

About our guests

Ellie Foust has been an educator for over 20 years and has created a STEAM interdisciplinary-based curriculum for seventh graders. Most recently, she has started a new role teaching high school AP environmental science and chemistry. 

Eric White currently provides professional development and coaching for school districts full-time. Before this, he was a PBL instructional coach and lead teacher of PBL at the secondary level. 

And last but not least, Telannia Norfar is a mathematics teacher at a public high school in Oklahoma City, OK, who has been using Project Based Learning since she started teaching. She has been recognized as a Teacher of the Year among other accolades and is also the co-author of Project-Based Learning in the Math Classroom.

Full transcript

Laureen: Today on the project, we're here with our guest Ellie Faust. Ellie's been an educator for over 20 years. She's created and taught STEAM interdisciplinary-based curriculum with seventh graders and has recently started a new role teaching high school AP environmental science and chemistry.

Stanley: We also have Eric White. Eric currently provides professional development and coaching for school districts full time. Before this, he was a PBL instructional coach and lead teacher of PBL in secondary schools. Eric has deep experience with PBL in alternative settings and career academies. He was also instrumental in establishing multiple school-within-a-school PBL programs.

Laureen: And we have to Telannia Norfar. Telannia is a math teacher at a public high school in Oklahoma City. She's been using Project Based Learning in her teaching since the very beginning. She's been recognized as the Teacher of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and received the 2017 Oklahoma Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, and she is a coauthor of a book, Project Based Learning in the Math Classroom. Welcome to the project.

Telannia: Hi.

Laureen: Hey.

Stanley: Hey. Well, we're really excited to have you all here because it's just an exciting thing to be able to talk about things that happen in a project based classroom, right? We all don't start off as perfect practitioners, and so when I think back a little bit more to what things happened and the things we should anticipate, and wonder and think about as we start to start a PBL journey. So even before that, let's start off with thinking about why you do PBL. So what's your why? Why don't we start with Telannia?

Telannia: Oh, so my why keeps growing. Every time I interact with a kid, it gets bigger and bigger, but the basis of it is that I reach everybody and I don't think you could say that with a lot of different strategies, but with Project Based Learning, I truly reach every kid because you intentionally plan for every kid. And I can't stop doing it.

Laureen: Great. Thank you. Eric, what about you? What's your PBL why?

Eric: I think my biggest why for PBL is that it just makes work more enjoyable. I just love coming to school and being around students and engaging in that type of work when PBL is at the forefront. I won't give any names, but I remember a teacher who I taught with and on his whiteboard he had a countdown of number of days until summer break. And when I first saw that, that was kind of funny and I understood what he was doing, but at the same time it really made me think about, "Well, do I just want to count down the days until summer? Those are a lot of days. There's something that can be done with those." And so I didn't want to live a countdown experience as a teacher. And when PBL is going on, I'm out of bed, I'm ready to go, and I noticed the kids feel the same way. So I think it's work worth doing, and it really motivates me to stay in the profession and hopefully for students to come to school and enjoy the work they're engaging in.

Stanley: Ellie, what about you?

Ellie: Yeah, I absolutely agree with Eric. It's where all students, I really believe they deserve the type of education that Project Based Learning provides. And as a science teacher, I really think about it allows us to get back to our natural way of learning through curiosity and inquiry. And I really believe, and I don't say this lightly, that it saves all of us, teachers and students, from the current issues that our school system has and allows us to get back, like with what Eric was saying, to that enjoyment in learning together.

Stanley: What I think it's really interesting about everything that you all said, it seems like it's not only thinking about students, but it's also thinking about teacher passion. It's connecting back to what teachers are in the profession for.

Laureen: So now we're going to ask you to share some of your own PBL stories. A lot of the folks in our audience are just getting started with Project Based Learning, and as we all know, you don't become a great PBL teacher overnight. So we're going to ask you to share some of the challenges you might've overcome early on in your PBL journey. So Ellie, let's get started with you. Tell us about a PBL blooper that you've had and how you overcame it.

Ellie: Oh, this is a good one. So I am the type of person where I jump full force into something. If I believe in it, I'm going to jump full force headfirst. I don't know if it's three feet deep or 20 feet deep, but I'm going to go for it. And after my first PBL 101, I started incorporating some of the components and I feel like some were definitely better than others.

I was really good at student voice and choice, and what they were looking at. And so being a chemistry teacher, I was going to have students really delve into a lot of these chemistry concepts. They were going to adopt an element and create this book for younger students. But one aspect that I wasn't quite keen on yet, because I was a younger teacher, was really asking for help and getting those experts and authentic audience members to come in throughout the project. So I thought that I could possibly get away with having me be the guest speaker.

So here I come in as a young 20 something teacher, and I dress up as a French chef. And what I decided to do is, I had the chef hat, I had a mustache that I glued on my face because I didn't want it falling off halfway through the lesson. I had the apron, I had the whole spiel and I was talking about how in chemistry, there's a lot of chemistry in food and mixtures and all the different types of mixtures. And I thought I was killing it. And I noticed in the back, I have a student who is not happy. All of a sudden he's coming up, and you could see the anger in his face, and he starts speaking. Well, for me, because I was a French chef, I had to go back and talked about this, I was speaking a little bit of French. So I had taken French in high school. So I knew enough to cause trouble. Right? And so people like, "Oh yeah." Most of the kids knew that it was me.

This kid did not know that it was me dressed up as a French chef. He thought I was really this French chef who was giving them this whole spiel. And I was giving a little bit of sass with it as I was thinking like, "Hey, I can do this. I can get away with it. I'm a guest speaker." And he got really angry and he started speaking in his native language back, and he was not happy. And I was like, "Oh no, I'm upsetting this kid." And so I say, "Hey, come out in the hallway. Let me talk to you." And he's like, "No, I don't want to talk to you. I want to talk to Ms. Faust." And so I said, "Okay." So I rip off my mustache. I take off the chef hat, and he's like, "I don't like that man in there. He is not a good person."

So I learned, at that point, I was like, "Okay, I cannot skimp on having actual experts come in." Because I was not an expert. I was making it seem like I was an expert, but I obviously upset some students because it was not what he thought. But he really did think that here was this person who thought that they knew everything that there was to know about mixtures and chemistry, and he just wanted me to teach him. Moral of the story is that it's really not that difficult. My very next project, I just called... Because I was scared of hearing "no." I was scared of people who knew more than me to come into the classroom. Because you're losing that control, and once I learned to lose that control, it ended up being way better for all of us involved.

Stanley: That's pretty amazing. Hey, Eric. Let's follow you up. So what's a blooper? What's something that you want to share?

Eric: Certainly. Well, Ellie, thanks for going first. It makes things much easier for me. This will be a bit of a cathartic moment for me as well, but when I was a first year teacher I decided to do a project. I had no formal PBL training. I only knew what had been done to me, but I did know my bosses were both PBL advocates. And so wanting to impress my bosses, I launched my first project. And just for listeners at home, I don't know what your anxiety level with PBL is, you will not do worse than this. So there's a little bit of, hopefully, optimism that you'll see in this story for you.

But we had just finished our ancient civilizations unit. We had just taken our tests and I decided that we were going to do an ancient civilizations project, which I'm using the word project even loosely at this point because it really wasn't, but it's what I knew at the time. And so I had students get in teams. They asked if they could choose their partners. I said, sure. And so they got together and I told them their final product would be a tri-fold presentation on one of the ancient civilizations they just learned about. I told them they'd have two weeks to do it, and then to make it really rigorous, I told them it would count for two test grades, just to throw that out there at them, and off they went. I told them they would have the first two days of class to work on it, but after that, they'd had to figure it out on their own.

And I just said, remember, "Two Fridays from now, two test grades, we're presenting." And throughout those two weeks, I checked in and said, "Hey, how are things going? Any questions? Remember Friday, presentation day." Students were giving me blank stares or cursory nods, no questions. And so I felt like everything was going good. So I went to my assistant principal. I knocked on her door and she waves me in and I invited her to presentation day. I didn't know a lot about PBL, but I knew a bit of a public audience may raise the stakes for that day. And I remember she looked at me and she kind of wagged her finger at me, just ever so slightly and said, "I'll be there." And that sent a shiver down my spine, and I run back to the kids and I say, "Okay, tomorrow the assistant principal's coming. Two test grades. Are you ready?" And they said, "What?" I said, "Well, the assistant principal's coming." And they said, "Why did you do that?" I said, "I don't know, but she's coming now. And so just be ready."

And so they kind of scurried together in their teams and prepared themselves. Then Friday came and then kids don't want to walk around with those tri-folds all day. So when the first period bell rang this convoy of just really horrid looking tri-folds come through the room. Glitter is getting all over the place. I don't know what to do other than just kind of keep going. And so I set a table up in front of the room, students start presenting, and it is that kind of death-by-presentation feel. Students are just reading the board. Some of them, the audacity of the plagiarism was kind of insulting. They didn't even take out the blue underline hyperlink to the Wikipedia articles they slapped on the board, and it was just a comedy of errors.

And there was one group of students. They were presenting, they were best friends. They were a little rough with one another, but I let them be in that group. During the middle of their presentation, I hear these high heels coming down the hallway and it's my assistant principal. And I'm starting to really freak out at this point. I'm hoping they'll finish up, but they're still in the middle of it when she enters the room. She saw how bad things were going, and I thought she'd maybe just give me a little nod and walk out of the room. But no, she was a former history teacher herself. She wanted to ask follow up questions. And that's when the kids got into the blame game. They started pointing fingers at each other, "That wasn't their part, it was your part." So they get into this big altercation so much that the assistant principal has to escort two of them out of the room.

So as a first year teacher doing his first project on presentation day had an altercation break out in front of his direct superior. And it ruined my weekend. I came back on Monday. I was still hot as a pistol. And you know how the kids are, they don't even necessarily always know how they impact you. And they said that, "Hey, how was your weekend?" I said, "No, no, no. No talking. How could you? You embarrass me. No more projects." And we threw them all away in the dumpster. I felt like I had committed a crime, so I had to get rid of the evidence. I had to change my route to my car to avoid my assistant principal. It was just the whole thing.

But the good part, at least as the story is that my assistant principal was a mentor and she was a bit of a cognitive coach. So she sent me through a series of questions to help me debrief. And I learned a lot from that experience. I think I errantly blamed the kids first because I thought it was their fault, but I realized that I did not prepare them in any way to be successful. I didn't formatively assess, I gave them homework disguised as a project. There were a million things I did wrong, but it took a really bad project before I could do a really good one. But that first experience was, it was quite a bit to handle and almost burned me on PBL, but just thankful that I had a leader who stayed with it, and stayed with me, and believed in me.

Stanley: Thanks, great. It reminds me just real quick of my first project. When I just said, "You have four weeks and you have an hour and a half each day. Go ahead." And it was like, "Oh no, I actually you need to give some benchmarks. Some different things."

Laureen: All right, Telannia. Ellie and Eric kind of set the stage. We'd like to hear from you. Tell us about a PBL blooper.

Telannia: Okay. Well, definitely, maybe I can help chill us out. So, one, I want to mention to people I'm still messing up today. I could tell you a blooper today. I want to tell my blooper from my first year because I think that is the common thing that you're going to do, but I want to encourage people you can mess up now. I am now 15 years into this, I realized. I started in 2005 and I am still jacking up stuff, but it was a really bad jackup in 2005.

So back then, again, that feels so ancient now. It's 2020 and 2005 feels like yesterday, but then it wasn't a lot of materials. I had this horrible book that I read to do projects and I was using it as my guide. I had no clue. It was a house project in geometry. I was teaching geometry at that time, and I was having kids design a house for a local family. I'm all pumped up that I'm about to have these kids do a real project, but I had no clue of anything. None of the elements, none of the pieces. I'm just doing this horrible book's guide, which was not that much information.

So they had to make a blueprint. Now, granted again, I'm horrible. They didn't do the blueprint in class. They did the blueprint on their own and they had to make a 3D model. And one of my students who was way below average, she was not the stellar student, came in with a blueprint that you could have gotten from an architect. And I can't curse on this episode, but if you can imagine all of the curse words that would happen in your mind when I saw her stuff, and then I looked at all of these A students messed up stuff. It was barely anything decent and I'm looking at hers and she's just quickly telling me, "I promise you, Ms. Norfolk, I did not do anything with help. My dad just coached me because he's a construction manager, but he refused to do it for me. He would just coach me." And I was like... She probably said some more stuff, but I was too busy cursing at myself about why she has this really great stuff, and now everybody else going to look a mess compared to her. And what could I have done? I didn't even have a clue that this was going to happen.

So I was like, "Oh my God." I was like, "Your dad is in construction? What?" And she was like, "Yeah, I promise. You can call him right now. I did all of this." I was like, "Oh my God, this is so amazing." And then of course I'm trying to keep my face straight because I can't show... But everybody in the room is looking amazed. It's not like it's a secret. And I can see the A students trying to put their stuff on the side, and trying to join her team. I mean... it was just, oh my God.

And so immediately I was sort of like, "Oh my God, well, I thought a bit..." I mean, this book didn't tell me, but I thought it would be a great idea to bring in a person who owned a construction company, an architect. I had those different speakers, but it never hit me to do critique and revision, to have checks inside a class. I was just, "I'll do it at home." That was what I thought you supposed to do. And then I was doing these boring lectures during the day.

Still, critique and revision is something that I am always working on, but that permeated in me and the reality of how much kids can truly create wonderful work if they're guided through critique. Her dad showed me the power of just someone walking you through, who's been there to help you get better and better. And so I'm still working on it. I could give you a blueprint that happened today, but that one is phenomenal and it's the one that I think everybody still hiccups on. It's probably our common thread of all of our stories.

Stanley: Telannia, I really appreciate it. From what I hear, it sounds like you just really exemplify this lifelong learner, right? That the bloopers and the mistakes you make are things you learn from, and that you continue to work with as you continue to be a PBL teacher. So actually I wanted to ask you, in that vein, what do you think it takes to become a PBL teacher?

Telannia: Never stopping. I think it is so common in education that we arrive and that we become this masterful person with different things that we do. But the biggest part about being a PBL teacher is following the cycle yourself. I am reflective, I have inquiry, I am driven by questions, I am constantly thinking of my voice and choice and matter. My own personal life cycles through PBL as much as I cycle my students through it. And I tell everyone, I was like, "I have not arrived. I see the horizon all the time, but I'm on the road." And the biggest thing is to realize that it's a road that you stay on, and you get better at, and you get better at. And it's a road that's beautiful though. The scenery is great. I've personally seen other scenery and it's boring. No, PBL is wonderful. Each time I go down a different path, it gets more and more beautiful.

Stanley: I literally just wrote down in my notebook, "I have not arrived, but I am on the road." Because that is such a great way to put it. Thank you.

Laureen: Yeah. I love that. All right, Eric, what do you think it takes to become a PBL teacher?

Eric: Well, one of my favorite quotes is from a former football coach named Herm Edwards. And he said, "A goal without a plan is a wish." (Note: Originally from Antoine de St Exupery.) And kind of going back to my blooper story, I had no plan. I had a goal, I had some ambitions, but I failed to truly understand the planning aspect of PBL. It's one thing to have an idea on paper, it's quite another when the students actually show up in your room. So have that plan, work through that plan, feel empowered to put that plan in front of students or your colleagues to see if it looks right, and it feels right. So plan away because great projects usually don't happen by chance. They usually happen by design. And so we still, as teachers play a major role in the success of PBL.

Stanley: Thank you. Again, another quote. "A goal without a plan is a wish."

Laureen: Right.

Stanley: Herm Edwards. (Note: Quote is originally from Antoine de St Exupery.) Filling up my notebook. Thank you. Ellie. What about you? What does it take to become a PBL teacher?

Ellie: Yeah, I'm going to tell you right now none of what I'm probably going to say is quote "worthy" like the two before me, but we can try. I really do just believe that to truly let your passion and love for teaching shine through in those projects that you're creating, and really having a willingness, and allowing yourself to learn and laugh through the entire process with your kids. Because I have always said, especially because I've been teaching middle school for way too long, I love it, but it's either you learn to laugh or you're going to cry. And I'd rather laugh with my kids than cry.

Stanley: I think that's going in my notebook too. Thank you.

Laureen: That's awesome. Thinking about the advice that you kind of shared about what it takes to become a good PBL teacher, let's flip it around and think about what was the best advice that you actually received when you were first starting out with your PBL journey? Ellie?

Ellie: I think the best advice that I had received was to have a hard start and a hard deadline, end date, but to really make sure that we include... So you're planning, right? But you need to include that wiggle room in your calendar and those middle messy days for those unforeseen fire drills, assemblies, snow days, random... We actually had a cougar outside of our building one day believe it or not. You just never know when that's going to happen. So make sure that you do allow... Have a hard beginning and a hard end date so the kids know, but allow for those wiggle room days because you just don't know. You may need an extra reteach day.

Stanley: That's great. Thank you. So how about Telannia? What's the best advice you received when you were starting off as a PBL teacher?

Telannia: So my advice is more for the people who might've been like me, where you really don't have anyone. When I first started out, yes, I was supposed to be at this PBL school that showed me this video that was two minutes long. And they were like, "Go do it." Which is a horrible way to help somebody on the road. So I would say the best advice I got was actually books. My first book, that was good, not the horrible one I mentioned earlier, was PBLWork's first manual on Project Based Learning. And then now there's so many videos that I go to.

And so I want to share with people who don't really maybe have someone in the room or a crowd around them, that books and videos can be your best advice and a constant reminder. I mean, I sleep beside Project Based Teaching practices right now, and Leaders of Their Own Learning, and videos on teaching channel and PBLWorks. They are my constant advice when I don't necessarily have someone. So if you're feeling alone, you don't have to be alone. There's a ton of resources that can be a whisper to you at different times.

Laureen: All right. So Eric, can you tell us what the best advice you ever received starting as a PBL teacher? Eric?

Eric: Yeah. When I was at High Tech High, that was my first formal experience with professional training with PBL, and I was able to corner one of the teachers there and we started chatting. I was sharing my project idea with him, and I told him, "I don't even know if this is rigorous enough. I don't know what even the final product is going to look like." And his advice to me was, "Well, do your own project." And I found that to be really helpful because that's exactly what I did. I went home and as much as possible did my own project that I was assigning, and it really helped me understand... Well, it helped me gain empathy for my own project and what students might go through to look for where I might need to offer some scaffolding, what quality work might or might not look like. So as much as possible, sometimes depending on the project you designed just isn't as clear as a path, but I'm a heavy advocate for trying to do your own project to really gain a full sense of what you're asking students to do.

Laureen: Right. Love that.

Stanley: Eric, Ellie, Telannia, thanks so much for sharing your story and joining us today. I got a notebook full of quotes. It was awesome. Really like hearing stories.

Telannia: This was so much fun.