Using Defined Learning to Support Teachers with High-Quality PBL Professional Learning

When Angelina Rowden, principal at Sunrise School, says, “Our school is our community” she means both literally and figuratively. The school, which serves students in grades pre-k through 8 is 50 miles south of St. Louis and the only business in town besides a gas station. One side of the playground connects to a cattle pasture while the school faces a wheat field. Having a staff of 50 (including bus drivers and custodians) serving 340 students, has its advantages.

Angie Rowden is a former 3rd and 4th grade teacher and K-12 district curriculum director, and is now in her 7th year as principal of Sunrise. Her school is primarily white, with 45% free and reduced lunch, no English as a Second Language (ESL), and a special education population of 17%, above the state average. Rowden does not allow a small, rural school to limit the experiences of her students, however. She constantly wonders how the school can expose the students to the bigger world, other cultures and other languages. “We want students to grow up and make an impact in our community and, even larger than that, in our nation. What are we doing in our classrooms to build those experiences?”

Rowden’s other slogan is “Dream Big”. She is committed to providing teachers with opportunities and exposure to professional development that helps them think outside the box. PBL, which usually stands for Project-Based Learning, is more like Product-Based Learning at Sunrise. According to Rowden, “We don’t want the product to be a test or a worksheet. We need the product to be an experience. It’s the journey that matters most.”

As instructional leader for the school, Rowden sees her role as a support to teachers in their instructional strategies in the classroom. Her observations revealed that the staff was not equally experienced with PBL. They needed a frame and a toolkit. Once teachers have a foundation, Rowden hypothesized, their creativity and expertise would grow. Rather than overwhelming teachers, she sought a portal of resources to pull from, ideas already templated and made, so teachers’ creativity could be channeled toward transferring knowledge across content areas.

She looked for a professional development opportunity that would support teachers throughout the year, helping them understand the foundation of PBL and the standards it could support, followed by a second year of on-demand coaching. “We wanted someone to walk beside us” said Rowden.

After a long search, researching on her own and asking other districts what they were doing, nothing really fit Sunrise Schools. “Our teachers were there. They had the foundational pieces. They did not need to know why, they needed to know how, and with what tools. I talked about PBL in teacher evaluations, but I did not feel like I was delivering on my end.”

Then Rowden discovered the professional learning opportunities at Defined Learning. “Their cohort-based train the trainer model pulled me in. They would stay with me for years. We had no need for a 2-day workshop, never to hear from the trainer again.” The cohort model includes training modules hosted by Understanding By Design co-creator Jay McTighe. A live facilitator then helps teachers develop curriculum, observing them and giving feedback along the way.

Once cohort teachers heard about this model they were, “all in”, according to Rowden. The cohort began with just four teachers, but eventually those teachers asked their co-teachers to join in once they saw how much the students loved the products. As the cohort met, they quickly built rapport with the Defined Learning coaches. The coaches kept in touch with the teachers and followed up with the principal monthly. Rowden was stunned. “They are constantly asking, ‘What do you need?’. I couldn’t believe it! You’ll literally follow up with me monthly and not charge me an extra $5k?!”

One example that meant a lot to her: a middle school teacher loved a second grade unit and wanted to adapt it for older students. “The trainer said, yes, let’s dive in, let’s recreate this! The Defined Learning coaches are there to help us make this a successful year.” The Defined Learning coach also had teachers record their sharing sessions. It built that confidence in our teachers. Rowden says, “As an administrator, I’ve seen our teacher’s confidence soar as their hard work is recognized at the state and national level through what they are doing in their own classroom. Everybody is doing PBL, but what does it look like and sound like? What does the student product actually look like? I want our teachers to know: you do great work. Show it off!”

Rowden purchased Defined Learning for 3 years. While in an ideal world, it will take just those three years to be trained, Rowden feels the district may always subscribe to the Defined Learning platform. “As new teachers come along, the template is there. They feel comfortable, instead of creating from scratch. I envision Defined Learning as a program that can coach us throughout these first three years to build sustainability for our teachers so they can be creative.” 

At the end of this school year, cohort teachers are going to share their experiences with the whole staff. Next school year, all staff will have the opportunity to take the Jay McTighe modules (although Rowden plans to keep participation voluntary) with an eye toward full implementation within all core content areas by Year 3. “Teachers don’t always have the tools to complete the journey to the end product. Defined Learning provides and teaches them how important the journey is, because that is where the learning takes place.”

In the meantime, the school is already experiencing the effects of PBL. First grade did a push and pull lesson where students built a model of a playground. They invented and created equipment for the actual school playground, extending their thinking about what push and pull really is. According to Rowden, “In years past, teachers used LEGO sets to build equipment. Drawing your playground and actually inserting the equipment brings it to a different level of understanding.” Third grade students, new to 1:1 technology, created nature flyers. They started the year not knowing how to use Google Slides, how to insert text and images. They’d dabbled in computer class, but never created true products. “By November, our 3rd graders are making flyers that we’re sharing with the national conservation department and displaying in our halls. The products they can create, Defined Learning introduced. I don’t think we would have had our 3rd graders create a nature flyer for our area. A Defined Learning performance task titled Nature Center led us to this product.” Students had to map out how many days they had to work on the project and what needed to be finished within their timeline. They learned they can’t just spend all day looking at Google images. They needed to ask themselves, what do I need to do to get done in time? These life skills, like time management, will serve students well in and out of school.

Rowden advises teachers and schools not to choose tasks that do not align to student curriculum, especially now during a time of COVID and already feeling behind in learning expectations. The school did not create a new curriculum pacing calendar. Defined Learning is not something new to add. “It needs to embed in units you already have and teach. The journey to the end product, that assessment may look different, but it’s all the same vocabulary and concepts as the paper test. The options in Defined Learning are there. You get to choose what fits your community, what fits your instructional pacing and your lesson needs.”

While Sunrise hope to see evidence of end-of-year science and writing scores improving, the ultimate goal at Sunrise is to change how the students see the city, the state, the country. They want students to apply their skills to everyday life and hope to see a higher level of high school readiness through skill building, collaboration, and career skills. Rowden advises other schools and districts, “If you do nothing else, if you want sustainability, you’re going to have to give teachers the framework for what PBL looks like. The teachers creativity will then run and they can build their own projects. They’ll grow leaps and bounds in understanding project-based learning.”


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