Building a Positive Project-Based Learning Class Culture

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By: Kendra McPheeters, High School PBL Facilitator

Lowell High School

Lowell, IN


As the school year comes to an end, an important next step is to reflect on our year’s practices so we can celebrate our successes and consider what areas for growth we would like to tackle in the upcoming year. Through these reflections, we become stronger facilitators. One of the most important facets of my reflective practice is to consider how I built the culture of my classroom and how it developed throughout the school year. Did I do enough at the beginning of the year to establish the type of culture I hoped to have with my students? Were there enough opportunities to foster the growth of our class culture throughout the year? Did we finish the year as strongly as we all hoped when we began our journey together in August? Each summer, these questions help me to consider what adjustments I need to make to my teaching practice. Next school year will be my seventh year as a PBL facilitator and tenth year teaching. I would like to share how my learners and I build our class culture. Of course, each year the dynamic of students changes, and so a willingness to adjust to our students’ needs and ideas is paramount to a successful project based learning classroom.

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Meet & Greet on the First Day of School

On the first student day at my school, we have a shortened class schedule to accommodate a whole school assembly. Because this means we only have twenty-five minutes with our students, our first day of class is very much a meet-and-greet type of day. I do not use this day to pass out syllabi and describe the class to my students; instead, we take attendance in a ridiculous way. This gives students the ability to share something about themselves with everyone in the room, and it gives me the opportunity to put a face and quirky piece of information with each name on my roster. Before having the shortened schedule, we played “Two Truths and a Lie,” and students had to share three pieces of information about themselves–two that were real and one that was fiction. Afterward, we voted as a class on which one we thought was fake, and then the speaker revealed which one was the lie. Soon after my thought partner at work (a.k.a. my work bestie) and I started doing this in our rooms. It was then mentioned in a professional development session; so many teachers began using this ice-breaker that we both felt compelled to give our students a different experience. We came up with the idea of  asking students to answer a silly question instead of saying “here” during attendance, and we’ve both used that as our initial ice breaker ever since.

My go-to silly question is, “if you could be a kitchen utensil or small appliance, what would you be and why?” The answers range from the obvious– “a knife because I’m so sharp!”–to the completely unexpected– “a sleeping bag. I like being warm and sleeping.” This seemingly ridiculous question had unintended consequences that I now look forward to each year; students begin to make class friends not by appearance or clique but by commonalities in kitchenware. “Oh, I’m a coffee maker, too!” or for students struggling to find themselves in a drawer, “You are totally a whisk. You make sure everyone comes together.” This past year, I changed my answer from French press to moka pot because I have felt so overloaded between teaching and working on my Masters that contents are definitely under pressure–plus I love coffee. Like some of the other off the wall answers, that led to a discussion of what that object is and how it functions. My favorite answer is still the sleeping bag and how firmly my student defended that sleeping bags could be kept in the kitchen.

Developing Class Norms (Forming Ground Rules Protocol)

Within the first week of class, we also build class norms and participate in a protocol that helps to build a common language around our individual working styles. To build class norms, we use the National School Reform Faculty Forming Ground Rules protocol. I was trained to be a Critical Friends Group Coach by the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) in 2013, and their protocols have had a positive impact on my teaching. The protocols help to establish collegiality with my learners as they practice respectful interactions with peers in which they have to share the air, listen attentively, and collaborate. With the Forming Ground Rules protocol, we work in increasingly larger groups to determine what our needs are to work productively together. First, we individually brainstorm what our needs are to find success in our work. This includes individual needs (I need to be able to listen to music when I write.) to space needs (I need for the lights not to be so harsh for me to pay attention.) to peer needs (I need my classmates to let me think about my opinion before they decide without me.). After brainstorming our own needs, we meet in small groups to discuss what our needs have in common and write a list of statements that encapsulate those needs. Finally, we go group by group and type our list of needs in a master document projected for the whole class to see. Then we determine what needs can be grouped together or rewritten to combine ideas. We also try to word our norms as positive statements rather than negatives–what we will do instead of what we shouldn’t do.

An example of the evolution that our needs undergo before they become our finalized norms is linked here. The bottom numbered section is our first round of sharing our needs from our small groups. I like to have each group share one need at a time to ensure continued focus from my learners and move from table to table until everyone has shared all of their needs. The middle section is what can at first feel like the messy part of the protocol, and this can be handled in a number of ways. Some facilitators maintain whole group participation as students discuss what editing and condensing can happen to narrow our list to a manageable seven to ten items. Some facilitators choose to go back to table groups or regroup to have students make edits to the list and then propose their changes to the whole group. This is up to the facilitator’s preference and comfortability with the protocol. I keep us working as a whole class, but when I first started using this protocol I felt less comfortable managing the conversation and ensuring that no one dominated it, so we went back to tables before sharing edit ideas as a class. After edits are shared and reworded, the final list (the top, larger print version in my linked document) becomes the list of norms for the class. We then go through the debriefing questions named in the protocol and allow learners to immerse themselves in thinking through the ideal of the class while considering the potential pitfalls of abiding by these norms. Giving voice to the difficulties of trying to follow the norms allows us to problem solve before the problems actually arise during the school year.

Learning Our Needs & Work Styles (Compass Points Protocol)

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After introductions have been made and norms have been established, we continue to ponder our needs and work styles with another NSRF protocol called Compass Points. For this protocol, I linked the School Reform Initiative version because it has additional descriptions of the directions. This is by far my favorite protocol, because it allows participants to consider their own styles of working. Additionally, participants wind up with a common language to discuss differing needs and address potential frustrations before work begins. Within this protocol, students are asked to determine which of the four cardinal directions best fits their personalities. Norths are people who plunge headlong into work and ask questions as they arise. Easts are people who need to understand the purpose behind a task and know what the end looks like before they begin work. Wests are the detail-oriented workers who need the who, what, when, where, and how before they feel comfortable working. Finally, Souths are the individuals who ensure that everyone in a collaborative effort has a voice and cares for the emotional side of a group. After students self-select their direction, the protocol continues in like-minded groups with questions about the direction’s strengths, areas for growth, opinions of other directions, and what other directions need to know about them to work well with them.

The protocol culminates with each direction presenting their work and debriefing with the protocol’s questions as a whole group. This protocol establishes a way for group members to converse in the classroom so that frustrations among group members are diminished. (On a side note, this protocol should sound familiar to those who have gone through a PBL Jumpstart training with Magnify Learning. One of my fondest memories of this protocol in action with participants came when a co-facilitator was willing to admit that he is a North and that his enthusiasm used to be read as steamrolling by his co-workers. When he participated in this protocol himself, he realized why his peers felt this way. He was able to adjust how he approached others by starting a Google Doc of his ideas, sharing them with his co-workers, and asking if they could meet some days later to discuss his proposal. Other direction styles had time to consider what he was saying, process, and ask questions, while he had the ability to get his ideas out right away. This type of thinking happens in the classroom each time we do the protocol, too!

Participating in these protocols helps set my learners and I up for a successful year. I model how to hold people accountable to the norms, and we make it an expectation that learners should hold each other (and me) accountable to those norms, as well. One year this was particularly difficult, so once again I took a great idea from my work bestie. He made Norm into a class title and selected one person at random in the room to be in charge of monitoring norms for the day. I did it at the group level, so one person each day in each group was responsible for ensuring that the norms were being followed. This made it easier to call out students who were straying from the norms as well as made sure that the students whose behavior was going against the norms did not feel as though they were being attacked by a person for no reason. This helps to foster class culture as the year goes on and keeps the norms from being a printed document on a bulletin board that is never revisited. I also periodically go back to the norms, more frequently if we have been struggling with them, and ask students to consider and discuss how the norms are working for us and what adjustments need to be made.

Ongoing Classroom Culture

As the year progresses, we also continue to build culture through participating in improvisation games, much like the ones in Whose Line is it, Anyway?. I’ve used improv as a way to build culture in my classroom for years and love the results! Not only does improv help to foster oral communication skills as students become more comfortable talking in front of the class in a low stakes environment, but it also builds class collaboration. Because we establish expectations that this is low stress, that there is no wrong answer, and that the goal is to continue the game, students help others who are struggling by calling out suggestions when needed. We don’t allow anyone to flounder, and we don’t judge anyone for having a hard time because we learn quickly that our cleverness is much easier to access when we aren’t in front of the class. Continued participation in games like ninety-second alphabet, let’s make a date, interrogation, and press conference are fun ways to take any down time at the end of class or celebrations for jobs well done and also use them to foster collaboration and class culture. I presented on this topic at the Indiana State Reading Association Conference and presented with my work bestie at New Tech Network’s All School Conference (NTAC). The slide deck for this presentation containing links to game descriptions and additional information on improv can be found here.

Giving Students Ownership (Voice & Choice)

On a daily basis, one of the most important ways to build and develop class culture is by giving learners ownership of as much as possible. In my class, students typically have choice in the project’s benchmarks by reading the culminating product description and having the whole class brainstorm what benchmarks would be needed to successfully meet or exceed the criteria for the culminating product. They also pick the benchmark due dates, which makes holding them accountable to the dates a reminder of their timeline and not a punishment for not meeting mine. We also celebrate our success in the ways that are most meaningful to each class. For some classes, that might mean bringing in food and having a celebration buffet while we reflect on the completed project. For others, it means an extended period of doing improv games, watching a movie (if time allows, otherwise watching shorter video clips), or bringing in board and card games and getting to play them for a set period of time. Because I see my students once a week for 45 minutes and twice a week for 90 minutes, I’m willing to use that 45 minute block at the end of each project for celebration time. Finally, reflecting on class culture with students to get a read on how they feel the culture is developing is one of the most important ways to give students a voice and help them to feel that they have a real say in the culture of the classroom. Those honest discussions, which allow for students to feel like individuals whose opinions and emotions matter instead of like educational products we turn out to the world ,make all the difference in my classroom.

The “WHY” of Establishing Classroom Culture

We take class culture very seriously in my classroom. On this day, we realized that everyone in the class was wearing a hoodie, so we had to take a minute out of our AP Seminar work to document it.

We take class culture very seriously in my classroom. On this day, we realized that everyone in the class was wearing a hoodie, so we had to take a minute out of our AP Seminar work to document it.

Classroom culture is so important to me because I want students to feel that they contribute to our class individually and that education is something in which they can actively participate, not something that is passively done to them. I am an East according to the Compass Points Protocol, and knowing where I hope my students end up as learners, thinkers, and people is important to me. Developing a class culture where my students have a voice and can feel valued helps me to give students the opportunity to contribute positively to a group and develop confidence as well as competence. As teachers, we need to take the time to invest in creating and fostering culture within our classrooms so that our learners can feel safe, loved, and valued. In my classroom, these protocols and practices help me to invest in that culture. Over the summer, I hope you will think about ways that some of these tools might help you to develop a more collaborative and collegial atmosphere. With any protocol, it takes practice, modeling, and a willingness to fail in front of students and try again–but isn’t that what we want to teach our students?

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Kendra McPheeters is an English teacher at Lowell High School in Lowell, Indiana and facilitates trainings for Magnify Learning in the summer. Kendra was happy to earn her PBL teacher and trainer certifications through the New Tech Network and to be able to utilize her certifications not only at Lowell but at schools around the country for Magnify Learning. She has taught in a PBL environment since 2012 and in the classroom since 2010. PBL is very near and dear to her heart because she was also a student of PBL from sixth through twelfth grade in the Crawfordsville Community School Corporation thanks to the Tech-Know-Build grant through Purdue University (Boiler up!). When she is not immersed in PBL, Kendra enjoys spending time with her family and fencing.