May 13, 2012

Challenge Based Learning

Boy, what an adventure this has been.  I will start by saying that #CBLearn is amazing.  It is one of the most versatile programs I have ever known about, and I am lucky to be involved. There is so much about our project that I want to write about, but to really understand the ups and downs, would have been to experience it with us.  However, I'll try my best...

In October, my AMAZING Technology Curriculum Coordinator, Jen, came to me with an opportunity: iCamp for Challenge Based Learning.
What is iCamp, you ask? "Project iCamp is a collaborative hardware funding effort...designed for teams consisting of a classroom teacher and two students, one general education student, and one exceptional education student, in Challenge Based Learning."
The iCamp expectations were that myself, and two (Jen and I took 3) students attend two full-day Saturday sessions to learn about Challenge Based Learning, iPads, Macbooks, iMovie, iPhoto and Garage Band.  Once we had completed the Saturday sessions, the students and I recieved two iPads and a Macbook Air to use for the project.  Seriously, we did. 

iCamp was fun, challenging and eye-opening all at the same time.  Sometimes, my students were brainstorming and coming up with amazing ideas.  Sometimes, I was having to poke them to wake-up during a training session.  Sometimes, they were enjoying their selves and sometimes they bugged me every three minutes to ask how much longer we had to be there. After both of the sessions, I took them to one of my favorite places, Yogurtology.  That made it all worth it for the kiddies.

iCamp got us all pumped up to bring the project into the classroom.  Let me rephrase that, iCamp got 3/5 of us excited.  At iCamp, the students had come with our challenge.  They decided on, "How can we help those that struggle to afford food?"  Cool, right?  The students thought of many ideas that pertained to them and their peers: behavior improvement for students in the program being one of them.  However, we all decided the "Hunger Project" would be the best choice for us.

Because I like to sign up for almost anything people ask me to, I had another project going on around the same time.  This project was also with the 7.5 students, so we had to put the Challenge Based Learning project off for a little while.  I would get questions every now and then about when we were going to start the Hunger Project, but for the most part, we had separated ourselves from the whole iCamp experience for a couple months.

As a new semester began and my other project had ended, it was FINALLY time to come back to the Hunger Project.  Wahoo!  Now, where do we go from here?

Jen and I sat down and rough drafted some dates and goals for the students.  I'm not going to lie and say that I wasn't a little bit hesitant.  I really felt iffy about how the students would take to the project, but knowing it involved computers and iPads, I was sure we could at least get their attention.

Oh, whoa whoa.  Backtrack - I forgot to mention the Challenge video that Jen and the three students we took to iCamp put together to introduce what our challenge was.  They did the video soon after iCamp.  Take a look:

Pretty cool, you think? 

A note on grouping:  before we started on the project, I had to group the students.  Because I wanted to avoid the fuss and complaining about who they were grouped with, I needed to use a method to keep them happy and keep my sanity at the same time.  At the end of the period, the day before the project, I sat a Post-It pad on the front table of my room and told the students that they were to find a partner and write both of their names on the Post-It if they wanted some say in who they were grouped with.  I told the students that if they did not put their name on any Post-It, then it was totally up to me who they were grouped with.  I then took the Post-Its (with two names on them) and matched them up with another Post-It.  Ta-da, groups of four!  In theory, I loved this strategy.  In reality, it was...meh.  I couldn't get the groups exactly how I wanted them, I had some students absolutely refuse to work with people in their groups and I had some groups that did nothing except gossip.  For the most part, it was alright.  Lastly, at least for my kids, this project made me realize that groups of four are too big for what we were trying to accomplish.  Groups of three were PERFECT!

I'll try not to sidetrack anymore.  Groups were formed, challenge video was complete, and our timeline was ready to be tackled.  On the first day that we brought the project into the classroom, we watched the challenge video, discussed what guiding questions were and then broke into groups.  In their groups, they discussed some solution ideas and guiding questions that would accompany their solution ideas.  The groups got to record their ideas and brainstorming on the iPads and MacBook Airs.  They loved that!  We worked in the groups for about a week.  The groups had to choose one solution idea and run with it.  They came up with guiding questions, details, and a "pitch video," explaining their idea in detail and why the other students should vote for their idea.  I was so pleasantly surprised with some of the ideas I was hearing.  I honestly thought I was going to hear a lot of "canned food drives" and "volunteer at a soup kitchens."  Instead, I heard ideas like bake sales and book sales to raise money to dontate to a shelter.  I heard ideas like a talent show where people had to donate cans to buy a ticket.  I heard some really creative, some a little unusual, but great ideas to help those that struggle to afford food.  Remember, now - the students did this all on their own!

After the week or so of group work, the students spent a day watching all the group "pitch videos," and voting on the idea they wanted to actually implement.  Up until this point, I don't think the students actually believed we were going to go through with whatever idea they voted on.  Once they realized this was actually happening, the whole mood changed.  They all got so excited, the motivation was so enthusiastic. 

We went through the votes that afternoon and the winning idea was, drum roll please:

Hoops for Hunger Basketball Game - to collect canned food items

Once the students had decided on their project, we have to seriously buckle down and get it done (we had to have this project done by the end of February and this was all happening early/mid February).

We started by meeting with our principal to get the basketball game approved.  Because it was pretty last minute, we decided it was best that we only open the game up to the students on our MSAP team.  The students were nervous when they pitched the idea to our principal, but who wouldn't be?  She loved the idea and was very supportive.  She knew what this opportunity would mean to my students.  Second to the principal, we needed approval from the coaches to use the gym for the game.  Thank goodness they have a common planning period.  While I typed the e-mail, students took turns deciding exactly what we should say to the coaches.  We signed the e-mail with "Thank you so much, the MSAP students," and waited to hear back.

This is where it started to get a little tricky.  I had three classes working on one project.  So, for things like sending e-mails, I would start with one period and then the other two periods would "edit," and add   other information they thought was necessary.  It actually worked out better than I thought it would.

The coaches sent back an e-mail to the students and let them know that they project was a go!

Next came the to-do list.  They had to: make posters, make tickets, ask teachers on planning periods to help coach and keep score, find boxes to collect the cans, find a place to donate the cans, and figure out who was going to play in the game.

To share resources about where to donate the canned food, Jen asked our Social Worker to come talk to the students about any information she had.  She introduced the students to 211 Tampa Bay. The students were able to search this website for all the places in the area that help those that struggle with hunger and the places that take donations.   This might seem silly, but I was really happy that the students were being exposed to this website just in case they needed the resources our community offered now or in the future.

The students decided that to play in the game a MSAP student would have to bring in three or more cans, but to "buy" a ticket to the game a student only needed to bring in two cans.  We collected cans for four days, which turned out to be plenty of time.

So much happened in just a few quick days - it almost seems like a blur at this point.  I have to say though, it was so much fun working with the students like this.  They were coming up with ideas and BEING RESPONSIBLE for those ideas.  For a week, they weren't my students, they were my co-workers.  The best part - I had no disciplinary issues that week.  None.  Zip.  Zero.

Most of the girls worked on posters to hang in all the MSAP teachers' classrooms.  Some of the boys went to teachers and asked them to help us coach, referee, and keep score.  A couple students decorated the box for the cans.  And other students researched more places to donate the cans.

The days flew by and the day had come.  I was a nervous wreck!  The basketball game was scheduled for the last period of the day, so the students spend the whole day finalizing details.  We got some posters hung in the gym, the students decided who was going to take pictures during the game and who was going to film the game, one of our original iCamp students had to decide what he was going to say to welcome all the students, and I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

The Hoops for Hunger game was flawless.  Yep, I said it.
The students entered the gym to see two basketball teams (made of ten MSAP students), two coaches (our health teacher and life-skills teacher), a score-keeper (our LA teacher) and two referees (our science teacher and one of the PE coaches).  The student behavior was wonderful.  I may have threatened them with referrals, but nonetheless, their behavior was great.  Some of the counselors, teachers on planning period, Jen, our principal, and our Curriculum Coordinator, Aubrey (who we couldn't have done this without), were right there with the students to watch the game.  The game was so exciting.  The students were having so much fun.  Finally, I felt relief as I could not stop smiling.  Seriously, couldn't stop.  The teams might have been a wee bit unbalanced, as the final score was 34-11, but nobody seemed to be too upset about it. We dismissed the students from the gym and walked over to our faculty meeting.

The game was such a rush and then, all of the sudden, it was over.  We had done it.  They had done it.

At our faculty meeting, the principal recognized Jen and I for the project and what we had just accomplished.  Still smiling.  Really, I smiled the whole way home, probably while I was sleeping that night too.

The next day, we still had work to do.  Obviously we had to make a new to-do list.  I love lists.  Now the students had to: make thank you cards, count the cans collected, and figure out where in the world we were going to donate all of this food!

Finally, all three classes agreed to donate the cans to the St. Petersburg Free Clinic Food Bank.  One of the students called and set up a date and time for a representative to come pick up all the cans.  I thought it was pretty cool that they picked-up.  That way the students would be able to experience the satisfaction of watching the donation happen.

A couple days later, two men from the food bank came to pick up the food and were beyond grateful.  They kept telling the students thank you and were surprised by the amount of cans they had collected.  The men called us later to let us know they had collected 211 pounds of food.  211 pounds!

As the students reflected on the whole project, they were proud of themselves and excited about what they had accomplished.  I don't think they fully understand that they did this, not Jen, Aubrey and I, but them.  I'm pretty sure I told them I was proud of them about 3464352 times.

I am still so proud.  I always will be.  Once again, my students proved that they are better than the labels they are given.  Take that, labelers!


  1. Congrats to you and especially to your students! You are proof that kids can make a difference and can lead the learning when we take off the ceiling a bit. You should consider adding your Challenge to the CBL Community ( and see if any other schools and students take on the challenge and create their own solutions as well. Regardless, thank you for sharing this narrative and this great story with the world!

  2. Loved reading about your project. This is what challenge-based learning is all about. Once a meaningful authentic problem is found, it is amazing to see what students will do with it. This should be what education is all about. Not only did they learn, but they also made a difference in their community. Congratulations!