The Power of Publishing

Over the past few years, our middle school has emphasized Project-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a specific, inquiry-based model for teaching that has several distinct elements. One of the most powerful of Buck Institute’s Seven Essential PBL Elements is the final, “Public Product.” This pivotal, last stage of the project is where students share their work with the public by explaining, displaying or presenting it to audiences beyond the classroom.

Motivation to Learn

Sharing your work with a large audience can be scary for anyone but it’s also extremely motivating. Preparing a presentation or piece of writing for others creates a healthy pressure to produce your best work. This kind of pressure is distinctly different other classroom scenarios where the teacher may attempt to motivate the class by threatening to deduct marks or promising prizes for the best work. Under these conditions, the motivation of the students tends to centre on the teacher instead of their own learning. However, when students know that they will share their work with an audience beyond the classroom, they are more intrinsically motivated to make sure their best work is on display.

Supplying an authentic audience works to motivate students in a way that most of us are familiar with. Let’s say your boss asks you to make a big presentation at work. The task itself calls on you to put forward your best communication skills. You pour dozens of hours into your final product because you want to leave an impression on your audience. The classroom is no different. Who wants to write a story or make a book review just so their teacher can read it? What student wants to create a piece of writing that will be hidden in a digital folder or stashed in a pile of papers? The answer, of course, is that no one does. To make creative work meaningful, it needs to be shared with an authentic audience.

Storybird Student Publishing

Gathering an audience can be a tricky business but having the right tools is important. During the past few weeks, I learned about a publishing tool that gives students the ability to reach a larger audience with their writing. It’s a website called Storybird. Unlike many of the publishing platforms out there, Storybird is specifically focused on students.

How it Works

The website functions in a similar way to other educational websites. Teachers can create a class within the site and invite students to join. Before joining the class, the students need to create an account. If your school uses G Suit, it is really handy to have them create an account using their Google credentials. Once they have created an account and joined the teacher’s class, they can publish an Ebook or PDFs with beautiful illustrations for free. At first glance, it looks like students have to pay about $3.00 to publish these files, but once the students begin composing their story, they begin accumulating crowns that can be used to purchase a PDF or Epub file of their illustrated work. Students can also gather enough crowns to publish their work by having their parent sign up to receive communication from the website.

Publishing Formats

The Storybird website also has three different published products: Longform Books, Picture Books and Poetry. Due to the length of the stories that my class had already authored, I decided to have them create Longform Books. In the longform format, students can publish a written piece as one, long chapter or they can divide it into separate chapters. Although the Longform Books didn’t have as many illustrations as the Picture Books, there was an option to embed photos within the chapters. At the end of the composing and editing process, my students publish their stories as PDF file so that we could share them on the digital portfolio website we use called, Seesaw. Below, I’ve uploaded a few PDF versions of my student’s stories so that you can see what the final product looks like.

Although I was primarily interested in publishing a PDF file, because the affordability was appealing, there is also an option to order reasonably priced, printed copies on the website.

Storybird Publishing Considerations

  • It looks like the site is designed for students to pick a theme of pictures and write a story that conforms to those pictures rather than writing first and then finding pictures later. For example, the pictures are organized in themed packages and you cannot upload external pictures to add to your story. You also cannot pick illustrations from other packages. This is a limitation of the website that really matters–especially if you are creating Picture Books.
  • At the time of this post, there isn’t any clear way for writers to indent their body paragraphs. The first line of the first paragraph of each chapter can be indented, but I couldn’t find a way to indent the paragraphs that followed.
  • When composing Longform Books, students are required to publish their chapter before they create the next chapter. This was a bit confusing for my students because it looked like they were making multiple copies of their books. In the end, we discovered that publishing each chapter privately was just how the site worked to compile the chapters.
  • During the publishing process, it is a good idea to pre-buy download credits just in case someone has to publish their book twice–which happened to us a number of times. Buying the credits in bulk saves a lot of money. You pay $.20/download instead of $2.99!
  • I initially thought that my class would be able to share their stories with the other readers on the Storybird website, but as it turns out, student sharing is more limited than private accounts.
  • There are also writing lessons that you can assign your class on Storybird and I’m looking forward to trying one of the lessons with my class.

The Result

I wish I could bottle up the buzz in the air as my students composed their stories and send you a sample. The class was so proud to present their published products to each other and to their family and friends.

I’m still looking for ways to spread our stories to a larger audience through iBooks. If you have done something like this in the past, I would love to connect with you or read about your experience.

Math Projects that Matter

Math matters when it’s connected to authentic tasks and situations in life.  Doing loads of textbook questions that aren’t connected to authentic situations isn’t engaging for anyone.  This is one of the reasons I have shifted my approach to teaching math over the last few years.  At the beginning of my teaching career, my math class consisted of marching chapter by chapter through the textbook.  In the past few years, I have moved to a project-based approach that has benefited my students in many ways.  In this post, I want to share a few of reflections that I hope will move more educators in the same direction.     

Adaptable to learners at different levels

One difficult part about teaching math is engaging students at different levels.  Unlike the textbook-driven approach, math projects can easily be customized to fit learners at higher and lower levels.  Often this is because the task is more open-ended and can be more or less structured to fit the learner.  Instead of boring advanced students with a set of questions that they quickly motor through and become disruptive to the rest of the class, math projects are easily expanded or made more complex.   

For example, in my pool project last year, I had my students build a circular, model swimming pool out of cardboard to show their knowledge about the area of circles and the volume of cylinders.  I also gave them certain requirements for the pool, such as its capacity and the target audience it would be designed for.  I made sure the target audience included people with a range of heights so that their pool would need a deep and shallow end. Once the advanced learners had this information and we developed success criteria, they began working independently.  I knew a few of my students were very advanced and challenged them to design a pool with a graduated floor.  Others, who were struggling with the general concept of volume, designed two, joint, circular pools with a flat floor.  

This adaption of the project was much more efficient than the traditional textbook approach I had taken in the past.  This adjustment didn’t require research to find more questions and answer keys.  There were no fancy math websites needed for advanced students to stay challenged.  Separate tests or evaluations weren’t necessary. Nor, did it require dividing students into ability groupings that may have prevented the more advanced learners from helping their peers.  In short, the open-ended-ness, that scared me when I started, proved important for customizing the learning to fit my students.  

More side-by-side time

One disadvantage of project-based math units it that they require more time on the front end.   The learning maps, assignment guides or learner playlists are more like a little unit a syllabus than a lesson plan.  In my experience, inquiry-based units often take many more hours of preparation than traditional units.  However, this additional time at the front-end of the unit has also bought more time mid-unit to do mini-lessons with small groups, or work side-by-side with students who need extra support.   This is a huge advantage when you consider that many parents don’t know how to help their children with math at home and others simply aren’t there to help them.  Students need assistance delivered during school and teaching math projects has been extremely helpful for this.

Student choice and engagement

I didn’t actually think about how passive my math class was until I started teaching with projects.  The first large math project I attempted asked students to design their own vacation.  Not long after the project launch, I received dozens of questions from students about the design process.  “Mr. Mayer, will I need to rent a car?” To these questions, I often answered with a question like, “How close is your hotel to the activities you are planning?” My students weren’t used to being able to make choices in math.  Narrowly defined problems with a very specific scenario and a single outcome were the norms.  Giving students dozens of choices to create and design gave them a sense of ownership and pride while engaging them deeply in mathematical thinking.  Recently, one of my students was so proud of the trip she had planned to Vancouver Island that she suggested that her family actually go on the trip at Spring Break.  Her parents adopted the idea and she was able to experience the trip she planned and budgeted for.

Cross curricular and cross competency 

In a textbook-driven approach to learning math, it’s sometimes hard to find opportunities for students to communicate about the math decisions they are making or improve financial literacy.  However, teaching math projects gave students multiple cross-curricular learning opportunities.  For example, in my vacation design project, the students were required to write a travel itinerary for their trip and make a commercial on Abode Spark to “sell” their vacation package to the class.  Writing appealing summaries and video-editing are typically not skills that students associate with math.  In fact, there were a few competencies that seemed quite unique to a project-based approach.  Skills like:

  • Students generating their own ideas about how to solve problems
  • Students comparing information from different sources before completing an assignment
  • Students answering questions in front of an audience
  • Students justifying their financial decisions using math
  • Student presenting their findings to an audience

I think it’s often this lack of complexity and cross-competency work that makes math boring for students.  Working on bigger projects allowed them to use many different compentencies while building their number sense.

If you would like want to shift your practice toward a project-based approach, I’ve linked some of my favourite resources below.  Or, if you have some have a resources that you would suggest, please link them in the comments below.  

Suggested Resources