Managing the Mess – Team Teaching Edition

Many times in project-based learning, it is called the “messy middle“.  This is the time after the project has been launched, students identify need to knows, groups develop norms, and scaffolding has commenced.  Now, this framework will focus on strategies team teachers (two teachers, two content areas, one class) can use to design a coherent approach to scaffolding student success, but can be used by any project-based learning facilitator.

Before We Start

Planning in a team teaching environment can be just as much a marriage as it is an intense business negotiation.  Each teacher needs to make compromises, swallow some pride, and become experts in their counterpart’s discipline.  Before even thinking about the project planning process, it is vital that the team teaching pair create a shared set of agreements and norms. (see example below)

Now I know some team teachers will say, “we get along great, we don’t need to write it down” or “this is a waste of time, let’s just get started”.  However, this process will provide a centralized reference point for when things get difficult.  It becomes less about the other person’s opinion and more about the agreements each partner has committed to.

The Overview

Research shows that teenagers have very short attention spans.  This data should inform the way we structure the scaffolding supports we offer students, but many times our actions go against the research.  By approaching the “messy middle” through the lens of learning modalities instead of by activity, will allow team teachers (and all teachers) to adequately design scaffolds that fit the type of modality they wish students to engage in. Many times, team taught classes can have 50+ students in the room and that can be a daunting challenge for even two teachers to tackle.  The following framework will help the teaching pair think through their approach to project design and implementation.

Learning Organization Modalities

Now you can create fancy names or themes to plug these modalities into, but for the time being, I will be straightforward about outlining the options.  With that being said, I will not address both entry and exit opportunities for students, as those are valuable, but are exclusive of this conversation.  The following five structures can help you better organize your approach to creating opportunities for student voice and choice, develop sustained inquiry over time, and assess both individual and group contributions to the project.

Learning Organization modalities for.png

  • Whole Group

This modality should only be used when necessary.  This is when all students are engaged in the same activity at the same time.  One pitfall we encounter with the whole group modality is teachers generally rely on frontal instruction or give unstructured work time.  Here is a great piece from Rigorous PBL by Design author Michael McDowell that highlights the need for direct instruction in PBL, but warns against confusing it with frontal instruction.

  • Split Class

This modality is when one teacher takes half the class for an activity, the other teacher takes the other half, and then the groups switch.  This modality allows for equal focus for each teacher to support all students.  No again, let’s not get this confused with each teacher taking half to go lecture and then switch.  The scaffolding activities in a split class setting can be of a wide variety.  For example, one teacher might lead a workshop on citing resources, while the other teacher guides students editing their videos for the culminating event.

  • Stations

Stations can be an effective way to organize multiple scaffolding activities into a single learning opportunity for students.  In the station modality, 3-5 station activities are created for students to engage in moving forward with their need to knows to answer the driving question.  Teachers can take on a variety of roles during stations.  They might facilitate a station, serve as a coach for a scaffold, or rotate around the room from station to station. Here is a great post from educator, Catlin Tucker on shaking up the rotation station model.

  • Breakout Workshop

In this modality, targeted instruction or scaffolding is provided to a specific group of students for a very specific purpose.  Breakout workshops can be optional or mandatory.  For example, during the first benchmark of the project, team teachers might have identified 15 students that need additional support on applying ecosystems to the project context.  One teacher stays with the larger group, while one teacher facilitates the breakout.  Here is a great resource from MindTools with things to consider when planning a breakout workshop.

  • Conferencing

Last, but not least is conferencing.  In this modality again, one or both teachers might conference with individuals or groups to provide feedback.  Conferencing is a great modality to use when groups are prototyping or applying their learning.  Depending on if one or both teachers are conferencing will impact how you would want to design and what tools you give the rest of the groups to use to progress through the specific phase of the project.

I know that this is not an exhaustive list of modalities to use when managing the “messy middle” of project-based learning.  However, it is important for team teachers (and all teachers) to have a coherent structure to navigate what modality best serves the need to knows students have at that point in a project to successful engage and deepen the learning that occurs in a project.


Creating Adult Connections in PBL

One of the worst things about school is that it is school. For many students, it becomes a place they have to go as a buffer between childhood and the real world.  As educators though, one of the most rewarding (and challenging) aspects is to create meaningful connections to adults outside of the school environment. Below is a helpful continuum (and some tips to get started), but not exhaustive, to think about the depth of the adult connections you are creating for your students:


No Adult Connections

This one is pretty straight-forward.  An entire project cycle commences with zero interaction to adults outside of the teacher.  No bueno.

Scenario-based Connections

Scenario-based connections can be powerful in done correctly.  In this level of adult connections, community partners are used in a “mock” or “scenario” setting.  For example, a teacher might have TV producers come show students how a TV show is made for their fake segment  OR students might solve a real issue, but the community partner is used in a false reality.  In both of these situations, the adult connection is still valuable, but not rooted in solving a real problem.

Guest Speakers

This is the most traditional way we see adults brought into the classroom.  Students might be learning about the legal process, so the teacher has a lawyer come in and present about the work that they do.  Many times these guest speakers provide very valuable insights, but there is little or no applicable connection to the project work besides the topic covered.

Panelist or Evaluator

Another common way that we see community partners used in project-based learning is a a panelist or evaluator.  In this level, the students work on the scope and sequence of the project and then the adult comes in on the final day(s) of the project.  An example of this is where students might be drafting solutions for sustainability in the local watershed.  A group of ecologist come in to hear presentations and give feedback on their ideas.

Project Designer

This can be the most time consuming level of the adult connection spectrum.  Here, community partners are co-creators of the project experience.  They work hand-in-hand to design the driving question, problem, and scaffolds to drive the learning.  An example of this could be that a local non-profit is looking for a documentary to be created covering a topic of interest.  The teachers works with their executive director to design the project experience for students.

Scaffolding Support

In this level, adult connections are made continuously or periodically throughout the development of solutions.  Adult connections serve as mentors, resources, and critical friends for project groups.  For example, students are working in an Economics course to design start-ups.  Throughout the course of the project each group has a mentor that comes every week to give them feedback on their design.

Solution Seekers

The pinnacle of the adult connection continuum is solution seekers.  These are businesses, organizations, non-profits, etc. that have an authentic problem that needs a solution.  The project is guided by developing potential solutions and the adult connection actually implements a solution or mixture of solutions when complete.  A solid example of this would be an engineering course working with the local downtown development organization to design the layout and function of a new public space.  The organization then takes the student ideas and works with a design firm to finalize the plans to go to the city for approval.

As you can see, there are a variety of ways to get started with building adult connections in a project-based environment.  Obviously level one of the continuum is the only unacceptable one.  Where do you fall in your current practices?  Do you find yourself falling back to one level as a constant safety net?  What does it take to build in more authentic adult connections to your projects?

Tips for Getting Started:

  • How to Reach Out

Reaching out to potential community partners is much liking searching for project ideas. Places like the local newspaper, community non-profits, or your Chamber of Commerce are great starting points.  My rules of thumb are:

  1. Make sure the ask is very clear and precise
  2. Create outreach templates, but don’t send mass emails. Personalize each outreach.
  3. Reach out to 5x the number of adults you are looking for (if you need 4, reach out to 20). You can always bank those additional connections for later.
  4. Be thoughtful to your community connections and their lives.  There is no perfect formula, but consider how far out is too soon to reach out and how close to the start is too late.
  • It Takes a Village

Does your school have a database of community partners and staff that are most closely associated with those partners? Start now. If I know that Mrs. Right has a connection at the Environmental Agency, I can connect with her before I reach out.  Keep track of successful outreach efforts and unsuccessful. This will also help organize communication efforts and reduce the number of staff having multiple similar asks of the same partners.

  • Digital World

Think about how you can leverage digital connections. It’s not the same as in person, but just as valuable. Tools like Nepris can help with this. Also, Twitter had provided to be an invaluable tool In reaching out to the digital world. As a teacher, I was able to create a weekly Skype session with 5 staffers at the United Nations all because of one tweet.

  • Combination of Levels

There is no rule that you can not have multiple adult connections or multiple levels of the continuum in the same project. For example, you might have local mental health workers come in and work with teams during the scaffolding phase, but then have professional psychologists evaluate the project.  As well, you might design a project with a local company and then they come back in to evaluate the final products.  There are a variety of creative ways to mix and match the adult connections you create for students.  It takes time, but dip your toes in the water sooner than later!


Transformational Culture

New Technology High School celebrated our 20th anniversary in 2016-2017.  It cannot be without great energy, focus, and effort that a school as unique as ours can sustain and grow for two decades.  At the heart of our work is our students.  And at the heart of our students is our culture.  Ask any visitor that has come over the past 20 years, and it will be one of the first things they point to and one of the first things our staff and students are willing to open up about.

Transformational Culture

However, it is not without great persistence that our culture has been developed.  Like any organization or collective of people, it is vital to protect, organize, and transform.  In her 2006 work, Anthropology and Social Theory, UCLA professor Sherry B. Ortner dives deeper into how cultures evaluate their existence.  She writes, “Every culture, every subculture, every historical moment, constructs its own forms of agency, its own modes of enacting the process of reflecting on the self and the world and of acting simultaneously within and upon what one finds there.”  I find this profound when reflecting upon our own work at New Tech High.  What forms of agency and reflection do we have in place to truly examine the validity of our culture?  Here are a couple of ways, I believe we can continue to transform our culture:

Knowing vs. Living

Our schools culture is built upon trust, respect, and responsibility.  Nearly 200 schools in the New Tech Network that have come since the opening of New Tech High have built their pillars on this same foundation.  However, to truly transform culture, we must move from KNOWING what our culture is to manifesting how we LIVE our culture.

For example, a simple Google search can tell me that respect means to have a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.  But what does that look like in action?  How do I interact with someone that I might feel doesn’t deserve my respect?  Being able to articulate how we know our culture into actionable actualizations of it is key.

As well as this, to truly transform culture, it is important that I empower people to have the autonomy to act.  What if one person breaks my trust?  Do I create a rule that the other 99.9% must follow now?  Not putting up barriers to living out the culture is important to create opportunities for cultural growth to happen.

Resting on Your Laurels

One of the hardest parts of having a powerful school culture is not resting on our laurels.  In examining this, I will highlight a few points from the 2012 HBR article, “Cultural Change That Sticks“:

  • Honor the Strengths of Your Existing Culture – not resting on your laurels doesn’t mean you throw out what has been working.  It is important to highlight the core components of your culture, the people that exemplify it, and create opportunities to deepen it.
  • Match Strategy and Culture – one of the trickiest things to do when not resting on your laurels is making sure the strategies you are implementing will produce the cultural outcomes you desire.  Change is hard, but as time goes by, it might mean that strategies and structures need to evolve with it.

There is no end point in school culture.  There is no end point in innovation.  There is no end point in creating amazing educational experiences.  It is hard work.  But when done right, a school can go from resting on what has worked in the past to transforming it before toxicity can creep in.

School vs. Class vs. Self

Is everyone in your organization culturally aligned?  How do you know?  School Culture Rewired by Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert has some powerful tools to help you measure your school’s cultural health.  Why is this important?  Many times, the norms and policies our schools have in place, classroom expectations set out by teachers, or individual behaviors and beliefs get in the way of transforming culture.


One good example of this was our school’s cell phone policy.  We promoted a culture of openness, student ownership, and modeled after the workplace.  However, our cell phone policy was punitive and counterproductive.  In working with various stakeholders, we transformed the policy to mirror the cultural outcomes we desire.  Was it an easy transition?  Did everyone buy-in?  Of course not.  However, it is vital that policies, mindsets, and beliefs at the school, class, and individual level are aligned to those overarching cultural outcomes for a culture to thrive.

PBIS Policies

What Comes Next?

As the world transforms around us, it is vital that we are constantly examining, evaluating, and protecting the culture we have created.  Recently in re:Work, a group from Google examined the role psychological safety plays when people work together.  Continuing to grow our culture where EVERY adult and student feels comfortable learning from failure, sharing ideas, and innovating off of one another must be at the forefront of our work.  Our most recent California Healthy Kids Survey let us know that we have a lot of work still to do.  Many of our students experience depression, deal with or know someone that deals with personal substance issues, and for some, “school” is the only stable part of their lives.  It is imperative that we help make the transition for acknowledging that our culture is unique to creating new avenues for people to live out the transformation that is possible.