Project Context Matrix

Defining project quality in project-based learning can be a tricky thing to do.  What outcomes are we trying to measure?  What determines the effectiveness of a project?  New Tech Network’s Project Quality Checklist utilizes Adria Steinberg’s 6 A’s to determine if a project is ready to roll-out or to assess its quality after implementation.  BIE’s Gold Standard PBL offers an outline for the essential elements of project-based learning, as well as, for project-based teaching.  While both tools are vastly effective, many times we forget to evaluate the context in which a project lives.  Below, I provide a very simple project context matrix to examine what type of authenticity is embedded in your project.  No project is wrong in itself, but it is important to understand the role context and authenticity play in a project-based world.



Fake-Fake projects can sometimes be the most fun.  These projects generally live in the world of imagination and unfiltered possibilities.  Many times the context in which fake-fake projects live is outside the realm of reality.  As closely aligned, the authenticity provided is built upon creativity.  These projects can play a vital role in stretching the thinking capacity of students when it comes to moonshot ideas.  A great example of a fake-fake project I saw was examining ecosystems and our solar system.  Each group created a habitat for the life forms that were already living on a different planet.  Now we know that space travel and life outside of Earth is a whole different conversation, but the students knew that their ideas weren’t going to be implemented tomorrow.  However, the project was structured to stretch their belief of what was possible in relation to the world they knew.

Is there really life on Mars?


Real-Fake projects take a very concrete principle and set of skills and apply it to made up scenario.  In these projects, the context generally stretches our imagination and the authenticity is rooted in practical application.  A great example of a real-fake project was one I did my last year of teaching.  We used the book World War Z to guide us through a conducting a Model UN for the zombie apocalypse.  Obviously, until the zombie outbreak occurs, the context was made up (no, the United Nations is not currently trying to solve a zombie crisis), but the principles studied were rooted in foreign policy and how the United Nations works.  Students examined real global issues through the lens of the book and were even coached digitally by staffers in New York City.

Выступление Михаила Горбачева на сессии Генеральной ассамблеи ООН
The United Nations preparing for the next zombie apocalypse.

Fake-Real projects are generally rooted in a very real problem or issue.  But 9 out of 10 times, the students solutions are not realistically considered by the stakeholders involved.  Many fake-real projects will have a context rooted in working with actual community partners.  They might even go through the same process that varying entities go through to examine the issue at stake.  However, the culminating events in these projects are not always put into practice.  A great example of a fake-real project is a local one from here at New Technology High School in Napa, CA.  Students examined a local land dispute between a rock quarry and public park.  Groups took on the perspective of varying stakeholders groups and presented their recommendations to representatives from the community, the quarry, the park, and the city.  The project was very real and the context was unfolding before their eyes.  Whether or not the stakeholders put the students ideas into practice is yet to be seen.

New Technology High School students conducted soil testing at Skyline Park.

Real-real projects are at the apex of the project context matrix.  These projects live in a truly real context and hold an authenticity to be rivaled.  Real-real projects allow students to be a part of problem-finding, problem-solving, and solution design that is embedded in something that is actually happening.  These projects can be the hardest to plan and the hardest to find.  It wasn’t until I decided to try and rethink my approach to the traditional economics course that I understand how powerful a truly real-real project could be.  The Believe in Your Business project is an 18 week entrepreneurial economics experiment.  Students learned the traditional economic principles of opportunity cost, supply and demand, and fair trade, but they did it through the lens of creating their own business.  In working with a group of mentors, students used the lean start-up model to develop their ideas and then pitch them to investors.  Ultimately, a few businesses were selected each year to receive seed funding, small business supplies, and continued mentoring.  Multiple ventures are still up and running even years after the students “finished” the project and graduated.
The moral of the story is that all four types of projects have a place in a project-based learning environment.  As a facilitator, it is important that you are examining the ratio of your implementation (too many fake-fake projects can lead to lack of student buy-in; too many real-real projects can lead to burnout).  Wherever you stand, reflecting on the context and authenticity embedded in your projects can lend to a more fluid and consistent project-based approach to prepare students for living in a project-based world.


It’s All One in the Same

Innovation is a tricky animal by itself. Add education to the mix, and it gets even crazier.  You can find a slew of opinions and ideas around innovation in education.  I have seen hundreds of examples of amazing innovative school settings and practices; I’m even blessed to work in a real transformative school in New Tech High.  However, we must take a step back and really think about what is stopping systemic change from occurring. A lot of times we get stuck in the sameness of repackaging what we now or think we can do.  Here are a few barriers to systemic innovation:

School as School

One of the toughest parts of true innovation in education is school itself.  Many humans love to learn, but hate the idea of school.  The concept of school is to promote and foster this love in a purposeful manner, but many times it can get lost in conformity and hoops.  There is some great thoughts out there about “deschooling” education. Mindshift has a great article from my friend, Adam Holman, titled “How ‘Deprogramming’ Kids From How to ‘Do School’ Could Improve Learning“.  In the article, Adam shares a revealing comment from a student, “For the first time in my life I am trying to learn everything instead of just get a 70 [percent]”.  That is powerful and the hurdle from not seeing school as something that is done to us or a building we go to must shift for change to happen.

The Accountability Animal

We must ask ourselves always, “what does it mean to be accountable, what are we accountable for and who are we accountable to?”  We know that the fear of accountability can cripple innovation in education.  Both schools and educators alike are forced to constantly think about performance and meeting standards set out for them. But should this stop shifting the way we think about education?  We all know amazing examples of public schools and teachers that are both highly innovative AND perform well on accountability measures.  We also must admit, that we know, accountability is always a moving target.  And maybe that isn’t quite so bad.

Accountability can easily become a scapegoat in stopping innovative practices from spreading.  Teachers feel so tied to meet the standards in front of them or schools feel like they must do everything they can to focus on improving state testing metrics.  Factors such as tenure and seniority can also play a devious role in teachers outlook on implementing innovative teaching practices.


However, data shows, that even the teachers that fail to meet these “accountability” measures rarely get dismissed.  The National Center for Education Statistics have released numbers that show less than 2% of tenured teachers get dismissed for performance.  As well, the American Enterprise Institute looked at teacher dismissal in New York.  They found that from 1997 to 2007, only 12 New York City teachers were let go for incompetent teaching.

The point is that accountability is important.  But vary rarely will your school get shutdown or will a teacher get fired.  So why not try something new and outside the box?

Answering to Higher Ed

This might be my favorite one.  Still being relatively fresh to California, I was puzzled by the A-G requirements from the University of California for high schoolers.  Now I know in a state the size of California, it is important to have some metrics in place for what high school students need, but I was blown away by the influence it has over what happens in high schools.

As well as this, I recently overheard a conversation from one of my high school students about a college class they were taking.  The professor had stated to the whole class that, “high school students should be worried”, “he didn’t understand why they were allowed to take his class anyways”, and “they would probably fail because high school is easy and college is hard”.  It was hard for me to not chime in, but I wanted to find him and ask him who anointed him the gatekeeper of all education.

The point is, these are just two small examples of how high school must answer to higher education.  Data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that on average 30% of students that enroll at 4-year institutions don’t finish…at ANY institution.  Whether it be the SAT & ACT or even perceived elitism, higher education has a stranglehold on what happens in high school, many times without the accountability measures listed previously.  Preparing students for college is a vital component of a high school’s role; sometimes I just wonder why the institutes of higher ed have so much influence on us and it seems like the many innovative high schools out there have so little influence on their practices.

full_time_part_time.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeLimits of Humans

Lastly, being human is tough.  The energy, empathy, collaboration, and time necessary to be innovative can be draining.  Hell doing a crappy job can be even more draining!  We must recognize that as humans, we put many limits on ourselves.  We are confined to the practices we know, restricted to our opinions and beliefs, and resistant to change.  As we look at innovation in education, many times it is all just one in the same.  Taking the same box and painting it a different color, moving from a 7 period day to a 6 period day, or using the same ole sustained silent reading everyday are just part of those limits.

HOWEVER, we have seen and will continue to see we are capable of so much more.  When we remove the barriers to entry, we are able to see clearly and re-imagine the role that schools and education play in our communities.  In my next post, I will explore some potential avenues in which I believe innovation can help us re-imagine education, not just repackage it.  I am not saying throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I am saying lets not get stuck in this “it’s just all one in the same” and really think about what can be next for school, teaching, and learning.


Leading as a Parent

Now that I am almost 50 days into this journey called parenthood, I have had a lot of time in the NICU to think about what it means for me as an educator.  The saying is true, there is no love like the one a parent has for their child.  

As educator’s we are faced with the challenge of playing multiple roles with our students.  Now I know I still don’t quite know what it means to be a parent, but being in the NICU has made think more about the way some educators go about their business. Here are some new (and old) found thoughts on what it means to lead as a parent in education:

  1. We need to not be so hypocritical with the standards we hold people (especially kids) to. Don’t expect it, but then do the opposite.
  2. We need to not be so trivial with students. 9 out of 10 times you aren’t really teaching them a lesson.
  3. We need to teach for the future, not for yesterday. Please pay attention to how learning and life are shifting around us and what lies ahead.
  4. We need to do a better job of checking our biases, misconceptions, and false realities at the door.
  5. We need to stop feeling like “the system” is holding us down. I have met more newborns in the last 50 days that are facing far worse crises than we have to deal with when it comes to implementing initiatives or having 27 kids instead of 26. Smile and stop bitching.
  6. We need to remember that school might be the least threatening environment that a student faces that day.
  7. We need to remember that feeding their siblings might be more pressing than finishing your assignment.
  8. We need to stop making grades a definition of students. Not one doctor has called Cael a “C” student in here.
  9. We need to remember not every kid will take the same journey or path.  That’s ok, help them be prepared for whatever that path is.
  10. We need to be careful about stealing play from kids. Play in the real world and play in schools shouldn’t be as different as they are.
  11. We need to remind ourselves how powerful one word can be – it can either make or break a kid.
  12. We need to focus less on the weeds and more on the human. So many times we get stuck in the weeds of something that we forget to stay centered on the human aspect of what we do.


Collaboration vs. Group Work

It’s happened to us all.  We have all been in groups that have been challenged to do something without a defined process.  The trick is, I bet you or a group member had developed a toolkit to turn your group work into a collaborative relationship.  Flipping the script, many times students do not have the tools or developed the ability to activate prior supports to truly live in a collaborative ecosystem.  Just putting students at the same table is not enough.  I know I’m being a bit dramatic here, but further more, we must continue to examine how as educators we can swing the pendulum away from group work and more towards a collaborative nirvana.  Here are a couple thoughts around building a collaborative ecosystem in a project-based learning environment.

Getting Philosophical

I recently read an amazing blog post from New Tech Network literacy coach Alix Horton titled, “How to Get From a Rubric to Scaffolding“.  She outlines a very simple process to take a rubric indicator and transform it into an actionable activity.  I believe this is a great starting point for growing your philosophy on building collaboration.  Many times we forget the true value and role that skills play in promoting deeper learning.  By developing a “spectrum of scaffolding” you will be able to help facilitate students in moving from just working in groups to a collaborative team.

Spectrum of Scaffolding Cycle
Let’s take a deeper look at how a spectrum of scaffolding can work to promote collaboration.  We will focus on the collaborative skill and rubric indicator (Step 1 in cycle):

  • Acknowledges and helps clarify the ideas of others by asking probing questions.

There are a plethora of scaffolding activities that could promote building this skill in teams.  For example, at the beginning of a project, I could introduce teams to accountable talk stems.  Throughout the project, I could do informal data collection on how many groups are utilizing the stems to promote civil discourse (Step 2 in cycle).  As an extention of developing this skill, I might hold a Socratic Seminar or have 1-on-1 confrencing with each group to assess how the stems are leading to deeper questions (Step 3 in cycle).  Lastly, in planning the next project, I will want to reflect on the effectiveness of using accountable talk to promote probing questions in group collaboration.  I will examine how to extend this skill by potentially scaffolding the stems by having teams use the question formulation technique (QFTs) with accountable talk to develop questions (Step 4 in cycle).

Now of course, I know the above scenario isn’t perfect, but I hope you get the point.  When examining how to move from group work to collaboration, it is vital that you explore what specific collaborative skill you are looking to develop.  Then, in relation to the spectrum of scaffolding, how might you help students create a collaborative environment to move from indicator to action to reflection to refinement to integration.

Integrated Contracts

I have witnessed first hand in my own projects how easy it is for group contracts to slide into the dark abyss of meaninglessness. Heck, when was the last time you looked at your own contract? The creation of group contracts in PBL has long stood as a value collaboration tool.  It can set the team’s tone, layout productive processes, and create unity.  However, there are many elements that can and have stifled the value of this. Seriousness, time allotted, revisiting, and staleness are just of the few barriers.  It can be a very daunting task for educators and students alike to be inventive and impassioned with the same contract process over and over.

Standard Group Contract Template

What is the true purpose behind developing a group contract anyways? Is it to build a set of group norms? Is it to develop a culture of collaboration? Can it be both?

I recently saw a strategy from Belleville New Tech about utilizing agency logs for students to track progress in growth mindset and ownership throughout the course of a project.  This sparked my curiosity.  Why don’t we flip the script with what we call “contracts” with this same mindset.  Student teams can still set goals and norms in this process, but it is extended past the fill out this contract, maybe revisit it, maybe fire someone or get fired process you see so often contracts fall into.  The agency log concept makes me wonder, does the contract need to look like a contract at all?  Integrating the goals of a group contact into a process that is continuous and embedded might shift the value it can play in being a true living document for collaboration efforts.

Beyond the Google Doc

Google Apps for Education might be one of the most profound tools to support collaboration, so please don’t take this as an indictment.  My question is though, what percentage of the collaboration we wants students to do lives on Google Docs? It is by far one of the most powerful tools available, but in the connected world we live in, there exists a plethora of tools to support teams moving from merely existing together to taking their projects to a whole new level. To name a few:

  • Trello/Asana/Favro: these 3 are all project management tools that help teams navigate simple of complex projects.  Trello and Asana have strong reputations, while Favro is a relatively new player.
  • Slack: this is the online collaboration tool looking to bring all of your communication to one place.  We rolled it out in our admin team last year and are using it as a school staff this year.  I am already excited about what has come of it and potential for student use in collaboration.
  • Wunderlist: this is a simple task manager that integrates amazingly with multiple platforms.  It features both personal and shared to-do lists.

As well, strategies and resources such as scrum meetings, the Project Management Institute, human-centered design, and the innovator’s compass to can also be used in non-digital ways to shift from group work to true collaboration.  The point is, choose the right tools that will allow students to experience collaboration at industry standard levels.  You don’t have to memic “real-world” collaboration, you can create it.

The struggle is that some educators don’t ever move past basic Google tools implementation with teams because we are basic users ourselves.  Just as challenging is should you have students use one collaboration tool or multiple? I don’t know if there is a right answer, but finding the optimal balance and combination that meets students need is key to actually building a collaborative environment.

Avoid the Divide and Conquer

It is really easy to say “you do this” and “you do that” and “see you in 2 weeks” when working together. But many times, this strategy becomes group work and not collaboration.  Low and behold, someone will probably show up without their part done.

Now I am not saying divide and conquer cannot be effective when building collaborative skills.  But it is really important that there is a framework in place to support fostering that collaboration so it doesn’t become a destructive force.  Utilizing resources such as the following can be a starting point:

These resources are great starting points with students to help shift collaboration from something you do to something you live.  By developing a framework for what it means to be a team and how to interact with various personalities and roles, students can better understand how to develop internal strategies to avoid separation and promote inclusion in their work.


Collaboration can be a fickle peach.  It is evident though that taking the time to truly create a system that develops collaboration and doesn’t just hope it happens is vital to promoting the other skills we hope to grow in students.  Conflict will always exist when humans are working together, but by having a clear strategic approach, you can move from assigning group work to building a room full of collaborators with a toolkit for the future.


Start. Stop. Continue.

Well it is safe to say that this post was meant to go out in June.  I had officially finished my first year as a principal and this was fresh on my mind.  However, this little guy surprised us 10 weeks early.  I have been blessed to see Cael grow and fight as my Summer.

With that being said, I have really been able to reflect on the year and think about what I want to start, stop, and continue moving forward.


I really want to start being more strategic about how I spend my time on campus.  I have gotten really good at not spending much time in my office, but I feel like I learned a lot this past year about the “why” when being out and about.  As any one that knows me, I LOVE spending my time with students.  I not only get to know each and every one of them better, but it allows me to have a good pulse on the culture of the school.  However, moving forward, I really want to start not being so random with when and why I go into certain classes.  I have always had the goal to stop into every classroom at least once a day.  My goal for next year is to start to be more strategic about planning my time in classrooms.


I can easily say I gained even more respect for school leaders than I already had.  As a teacher (and even assistant principal), I never realized the 99% of things that I didn’t have to worry about because the principal protected us from them.  I learned a lot in year one about how to do this and even get more effective and efficient at allowing our staff room to iterate with a bias to action.

With that being said, I have always struggled with being an over-involved person.  I wouldn’t say it is as much a management thing, as it is truly my joy of contributing and collaborating.  However, I learned in year one that I need to stop spending time on things that I shouldn’t be.  As Todd Whitaker says, “when the principal sneezes, the whole school gets a cold.” I need to be considerate of how I spend my time, energy, and resources and continue to maximize the amazing wealth of talent we have in our school.

Sometimes I need to remind myself of three things:

  1. Some people will always take the principals involvement in something in a negative way or want you to have the answer if you’re at the table.
  2. Capacity-building will be vital to our success as a school and my growth as a leader.  I need to build the tools and foundation for people to do their jobs and keep students at the center.
  3. Administrative tasks can feel cumbersome, but are a necessary part of the job.  When and how much time we spend on them is what makes the difference.

In order to prevent that cold from happening, I need to start being more mindful of how these three things impact what I can do. The 80/20 principle can help me focus in on what 20% of my work actually produces that 80%.  Really digging deep into what I need to stop spending my time on will help me grow personally and help grow our school as well.


There is nothing that scares me more than someone doing crappy project-based learning and thinking it’s effective or someone misidentifying what they are doing as being truly project-based learning. One thing that I will continue being is a zealot for transformative PBL experiences.

Paying attention to shifts that occur in the world around us (whether it be in education or societal), will continue to be a driver for shaping my stance on the future of school and how to move to the next iteration of PBL. I want to make sure I continue rooting my beliefs in historically founded best practices (good teaching is good teaching), the current educational landscape and trends emerging, and foreshadowing the possibilities for the future direction and sustainability of “school”.

Check out Getting Smart’s “It’s A Project-based World Campaign”.

I will continue to be rooted in solid practices that inform teacher effectiveness, project quality, and measure student outcomes. But I also want to continue to push the envelope even further.  It is true that we live in an ever shifting project-based world and I want to continue advocating for deepening the way in which we prepare students for a project-based life.


Senior Signing Day

I was blessed as a teacher at New Tech Academy to have great colleagues.  One of them, Scott Brown, and I stumbled upon YES Prep’s Senior Signing Day.  We were moved and decided to replicate it at our school.  It was an amazing experience for staff and students alike.

Fast forward to today.  Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative has challenged schools around the country to continue to help ALL students reach their potential and pursue knowledge and growth after high school.  Today at New Tech High in Napa, CA, we celebrated our first Senior Signing Day.  We had over 30 students publicly pledge their commitment to the university or branch of the armed forces.


We believe that Senior Signing Day does two things:

  • It celebrates the success and perseverance of 4 years of high school
  • It sets a pathway and goal for underclassmen to strive for

The college application process is one of the most stressful experiences for any one person.  Filled with indecision, nerves, and fear, it can cripple the most successful students.  It also brings tears, joy, and the feeling of emptiness waiting for the acceptance letters.  Today’s Senior Signing Day allowed us to grab that process by the horns and celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2016.  It also created a benchmark for all underclassmen to strive for.  “Where do I start?  What questions do I have?  What do I have to do to get in there? Who do I talk to?” were some of the questions I heard posed after the event.  Now that is a cause worth celebrating.


Note: Please see here for a list of all the students that participated and the schools they have committed to. 


Redefining the Portfolio Experience

Portfolio’s in education are not a new concept.  The same thing can be said about the role of the portfolio here at New Tech High.  For many schools, pulling off a successful digital portfolio program can be a daunting task.  Over the course of time, New Tech High’s had grown to become a place for students to demonstrate proficiency and mastery in our school wide learning outcomes (oral communication, collaboration, etc.).  However, it was clear that something was missing.  For many students, portfolio become a box to check.

In working with students, the New Tech High staff began exploring what the goals of a portfolio were for our school.  We wanted it to be meaningful.  We wanted it to be reflective.  We wanted it to be holistic.  We wanted it to have longevity.


It is with this that I am excited to announce we have official rolled out the NEW version of portfolio at New Tech High.  Now it isn’t anything earth-shattering, but it’s a big shift for us, moving from a static web design to a blog as portfolio model.

Now, there is plenty of research that supports the use of blogs in education and in professional work.  Our portfolio task force (led by Lisa Gottfried and Andrew Biggs) was a group of students that got their hands dirty with the redesign.  They realized that by blogging, our portfolio could be a holistic 4 year journey for students.  The new blog as portfolio will allow students to highlight and reflect upon their work in:

  • Project and culminating event work
  • Developing school wide learning outcomes.
  • School and community service.
  • College classes and the college going process.
  • Internship and work-based learning.
  • Senior Project.
  • Personal passions and more.

Through scheduled blogging time and real time reflections, our portfolio experience will move from a static target to a 4 year journey.  The hope would be that students take a hold of their digital footprint and have a tool that they can truly use post-high school. The “I Can Statements” will help guide the way.


Current Seniors and Juniors that have not passed the old version have the opportunity to finish it or move to the new version.

We haven’t quite landed on an exhibition platform yet.  We envision that Open House or a Portfolio Showcase Night will be utilized in the future so students can share their work with families, friends, and community partners. We are excited to take a step into this new journey with our students.