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In this podcast, we are joined by Brooke Tobia and her two students, Olivia and Avery. Together, they've co-developed and written the book How to Teach Us: A Guide for Teachers Written by Students. Working in a PBL environment, roughly 60 6th grade students between Brooke and her co-teacher researched, wrote, and published this work which is available via Amazon. Within, you'll find slews of information, gathered from interviews with students, that explains how different students learn and effective teaching methods.
It can’t be stressed enough how authentically this work demonstrates the power of experiential learning. These students are engaged, motivated, curious, and acting purposefully. They see the power in their work and want to share it. They’re working cooperatively to help each other. And ultimately, they’ve built something together that can have a lasting impact. Maybe this podcast will spawn a wave of collaborative book publishing?
Brooke Tobia, a 6th grade STEM educator at High Tech Middle North County, who masterfully incorporates experiential learning into her courses. She’s joined by two of her 6th grade students, Olivia and Avery.
Chris McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I want to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's fantastic patrons. All of our work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast, is available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Ray O'Brien, Trevor Christian, and Connie Fletcher. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello and welcome to Season 3, Episode 19 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast, the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. In this podcast, we are joined by Brooke Tobia, a sixth grade STEM educator at High Tech High Middle North County in San Marcos, California, with her two students, Olivia and Avery. Together, they've co-developed and written the book, How to Teach Us, a Guide for Teachers Written by Students. Working in a PBL environment, roughly 60 different sixth grade students, split between Brooke and her co-teacher, researched, wrote, and published this work, which is available via Amazon. Within, you'll find a ton of information gathered from interviews with students that explains how different students learn, and how to effectively teach them. Let's just start off with a really basic question, which is, what was the impetus behind writing this book? Where did it come from? Was it a student-driven thing? Was it just an idea out of the blue? Where did it come from?
Brooke Tobia: Yeah. So I got the privilege to go to South by Southwest, the conference, last year, and was fortunate enough to sit in this meeting where we were talking about, if we were not even talking about innovation in education, instead of we just scrapped that, and we just talk about reinventing education, what would that look like? And what would it take for change to happen? It was really clear to me that in order for change to occur, students really have to be behind it. And when students' voice is present, and they're talking about it, and saying that these are the things that need to happen, educators really listen. They take the time, they stop, they listen, they hear it, and it's really hard to deny student voice. And so I really felt like there was a lacking of that happening in our education system, and we have this opportunity to work in projects. And so my partner and I, I'm the math science teacher, and then my partner is a humanities teacher. We got together, we had breakfast one morning, and we got to talk about what were all the things or the projects that we'd want to do that we would never be able to do, or that we'd really want our students to be able to take part in. And I said, well, I want them to be a part of the change that needs to happen in education. And so that was kind of about giving them a platform to have a voice on.
CM: Of the students that you have with you, Brooke, could you all introduce yourselves really quick on the podcast?
Avery: My name is Avery, and the student category that I was grouped in for this project was outgoing.
CM: That makes sense. You decided to come on the podcast.
Olivia: My name is Olivia, and I identified with being an overthinker.
CM: So to add a point of clarification on the students placing themselves into categories, how to teach us to subdivide it into different chapters, each showcasing a different type of student. So for example, there's autistic, class clown, creative, fidgeter, independent, outgoing, overthinker, as well as a few others. And each section then, each chapter, has that student or that group of students describing what activities they enjoy in school and what activities they don't enjoy in school.
BT: We had a discussion in class about what characteristics they identified themselves with, understanding that it's not just one characteristic that they identify with, but there's many. But if there was one that they were to choose that was the largest that they identified with, which one would it be? And so then students created a list of 20 different characteristics of how they identify themselves as, and understanding that they represent the student population, and then very similar to any school that they would go to, the students who feel the same way. And so based on that, then they grouped themselves.
CM: It's a really cool idea. It's very unique. And I'm interested more about how the process worked. Avery or Olivia, could you talk a little bit about what you did, what you liked about what you did? Say anything about the project that you would like to share.
Olivia: One thing that I really liked and that was really what we did, it really like, how do I say it? It was really like our main point on getting all the data was we went to other schools and we interviewed them. We were at middle schools and high schools and we interviewed them and asked them what they would identify with and what they just rated on these techniques that you would do in class.
Avery: I know the thing that I'm definitely really liked from this project was that it's kind of giving us more of a voice in the classroom. And that's not something I know when we first started like, well, this is something that I would not even think of doing last year or something new. And I just remember right at the beginning, Ms. Tobia asking us, okay, what do you want the teachers to know? And then that just pushed us off and we just kept rolling on it and it was just a really cool project.
CM: And that's really interesting to note, too, because for those of us that don't have a background with how high tech high is structured, is sixth grade then the first grade that students are introduced to this project-based system?
BT: No, we have a K through 12 system here and so half of our students, did either one of you go to high tech last year? No. We had one of these groups in the high tech last year, but it's a 50-50 split of students who are from high tech and students who are coming from just local community.
CM: Gotcha. So then my follow up would be Avery and Olivia, based off what you've learned from this project, now that you're transferring to a school that maybe is a little bit more focused on student voice than some others, why do you think it's important that teachers listen to you? Why does it matter in the first place?
Olivia: Well, I just want teachers, well, even just with this project specifically, one thing that really hit home with me is letting teachers know that this is how I learn best and this is how I would be most successful. I mean, because the best way that you can find out what a person likes or how they would better be treated is through, like from them. So most teachers just assume, oh, my kid liked this or, oh, when I was a kid, I liked that. But usually that's not the case. So I just really liked it that I got to tell someone this is what I would like and maybe you didn't know that, but this is something that would really help me in the classroom.
Avery: Yeah. And when teachers would recognize those patterns, like you were talking about that, like how worksheets is like a kind of wide, they don't, students don't like it, they can try to choose that, oh, yeah, let's kind of steer away from doing worksheets and try to use some other technique to do that. And another thing that I know that a lot of people didn't like was calling on random students. So we've been trying to, in our classroom, I've noticed that we've been trying to not call on people randomly anymore. Like every, we're like, we know that we're going to be asked questions. So it's not just like, whoa, I'm really nervous.
CM: Yeah. It's interesting to note too that I like the fact that this whole process treats you all as individuals. I think sometimes we tend to marginalize or push out people because we see them as younger and it's like, why would we listen to them? Because I don't want to like make you sound like super young, but you are in sixth grade. It's amazing really what all we can do. I mean, there are seniors that do this kind of stuff that maybe don't even have the opportunity in school to do so. So it's just really interesting to have this conversation and just realize that everyone has something that they have to share and it's usually very well put because you're the ones going through it. Brooke, shifting over to you for a second, when you were going about planning this and making this all come together and someone listening to this podcast that really likes the idea, they see you publishing this book, where did you even start? Like what was the starting idea point to make this all come together?
BT: There's a couple of different ways when you do a project. I think start with something that you're passionate about and that you would really hope that by the end of the year what you would want your students to be able to do. And so for us, that was something that we thought was really important. We would want students to make sure that they knew that they had a voice. And before they left sixth grade, we wanted them to feel like they can advocate for themselves. They know how to advocate for themselves within their home life, within their school life, within just politics and get that conversation going and spreading the word. So that was for us. And so it starts with an idea and a passion, but then also things to think about like when you're planning a project and then this one specifically was what was the end result? Like what do you want out of it? So sometimes it's a good thing to think about the product and how you would do that. Simultaneously, I think it's really helpful to make sure, I think high quality product based learning requires a tie to the community too. What is the authentic audience that you want to present to? Who are you helping? And in this case, it was educators. It was like, hey, we have educators all around that need to hear this. And so how can we get that word out there mostly? So this book is a really great way and we're also super grateful that you're able to share our story here so we can have other people hear it as well. So coming up with an end result, how the students can exhibit their learning really. And so just making like notes of those things, like who can you connect with in your community to help? Who, like what is that end result that you would love to have? And making sure it's really authentic and helpful, not just a craft piece, you know, make sure it's really meaningful and relevant to the students. And then backwards planning is like the best way to go, in my opinion, where you just start with that end result and then make sure that you backwards plan, including like constant reflection. Like we talked a lot about how we felt about the process and how we were, and making sure we weren't boxing ourselves in and conversation and this product brought forth a lot of interesting things for sure in our classroom. And then just backwards planning from there and making sure that we have enough time for all of it.
CM: So from a day-to-day standpoint, if I were to walk into the room and students were working on crafting this book, what types of things were students doing?
BT: Like there's many days where a lot of things are going on.
Avery: Yeah. So we definitely, so I think what we started by doing was the first thing we started doing was crafting our empathy pieces, which you'll find at the beginning of each chapter for each characteristic. And so we got together as a group, like for each characteristic, and we just talked about that question again, what do we want teachers to know about us? So like, and we got to put a lot of our personality into them, not just like an essay, but it's actually like, we're talking to those teachers, like, hey, we're outgoing students. This is what we want to tell you.
BT: And when we were creating the book, there was so much stuff going on, not even just the book. Like we also had like a website that kids were doing and there was like just so much stuff that went into it, that it was, now that I look back on it, it didn't seem like a bunch of stuff, but when you were actually doing it, it was, it was a lot. Yeah. I know for me, it was probably my most rewarding experience this year for sure. And a huge, it's all on top of my list in my teaching career. My teaching partner and I just stepped back and there's 60 students in one time in this open space and we look around, we're just standing back and everyone is doing something. And we have editors working on the editing of the chapters. We have painters working on our exhibition piece for exhibition. We have people setting up the room for exhibition. There are so many moving pieces all around. And what at first was difficult collaboration, like they really, it was like a squeaky wheel getting them in the beginning of this project to collaborate together, especially in certain groups where, for example, our independent group happened to be the largest group, which was really interesting. But at the end of it, students really were able just to like work together and make pieces that they felt really represented them well.
Avery: And I know another thing that this project definitely gave every like single student in our classroom, like a time to shine, whether it was like working on the chapters, like designing your page or like some people like creating the cover of the book like that the cover is student created. So like everybody worked on it, like has a bit of them in the book.
CM: It's fascinating. I love this whole conversation because this is, I mean, this is probably the most authentic representation. I mean, it's really cool. So from like the reflective nature of doing this work, Brooke, do you find yourself then changing how your own practice works, considering that you just spent an entire project gathering what students think? Like there's like a, there's a meta part of this book that's really interesting, which is like you're teaching students student voice while you're self receiving feedback for your students about student voice. So how has this changed the way that you look at your own classroom and how it works?
BT: Yeah. I really, really appreciated those empathy pieces that they wrote and read them several times and listened to them. And so just hearing that and just their perspective on how they see themselves was not how I saw them, to be honest, was like, oh, I didn't think of it that way. And so just giving the, just recognizing, and it's something that we know, but recognizing that, wow, you just ask them and just give them space to be honest and reflective. Like they will tell you. And so for me, that was really telling things like Audrey said, simple things like don't call on them randomly. It frightens them. It really frightens them. And they don't feel like, feel like it's the best to their benefit. And so we had a conversation about that and I said, well, how can I do that? Because I'm trying to like, see if you're on task, you know, like, are you listening or are you just doodling? Olivia is a big doodler, right? Like, Olivia, are you still like paying attention? So instead of calling on them randomly, like giving them a heads up, like, I'm going to come back and check on you in a little bit or don't assign seats. I know so many teachers have assigned seats in there and I go back and forth of that concept, but they really appreciate the autonomy and they want to see if they can make that decision on their own. And every single student, like in our classroom, you guys, I would agree. Like they said, let's try it. And if it's not working out, then I would love to have your feedback, Mustovia, and see like if there's a better spot for me.
Avery: It was almost like, like, like almost like a contract kind of thing. Like, okay, we're going to let you try this, but if you guys mess around, we're going to go back to like, strict seating. But I know that that just automatically made us like, stay on task more.
BT: Yeah, just like, just like this is their, this is their space to like, how can we all just enjoy it? So those things really helped me. And then it was interesting from a teacher's perspective of how it was just a really, the data show that it was just a really nice blend of the basic things in a classroom. Like super simple. It says, you know, in the first couple of pages of the book, it says to make sure that you have student choice included in the lessons plans that you have, like just a couple choices. Blend it with like computer work and collaboration and independence. So make sure that you're like thinking about that. So, you know, I go back to like my BITSA or my, when I'm first becoming a teacher days and you're writing all these lesson plans, I feel like I think about these things that the students are talking about more so than the other ways. It's like, how am I making sure that there's some independent think time in there? And how am I making sure that there is some collaboration time? Hands down, every student really appreciated it as a five-star rating on daily agendas. They like to know what to expect for the day. So making sure I keep up with that and it's on task and up to date. And then they all love hand-on learning, which can be PBL, but it doesn't have to be PBL, but they just like having relevance to the things that they're learning. So I take a lot of it in my daily lesson planning for sure.
CM: It also makes a lot of sense in the sense that you're having students do the things that they enjoy while they're actually crafting the book itself. As in the thing that they're writing that they enjoy doing is the thing that they're writing about in the book…Thank you for listening to the podcast so far. Are you interested in diving deeper into progressive education? If so, Human Restoration Project would love to serve as a platform to amplify your voice. We're seeking writers to help contribute to our magazine. You can reach me at chris, C-H-R-I-S, at humanrestorationproject.org to learn more. Now back to our discussion…Let's sort of not necessarily shift gears, but I'd like to hear more from Avery and Olivia surrounding their findings. So there's a lot of stuff in this book. If I just kind of flip through it, it's almost overwhelming because there's like a lot of different things I have to compare and contrast, and there's no silver bullet in education. There's a lot of different things going on. Based off of what you researched and who you interviewed, Avery and Olivia, what were some takeaway points beyond what we've already spoken about? What were things that stood out that you felt were super important that you would want educators to know?
Olivia: So I actually wrote the summary of findings in the beginning of the book. So I kind of did a little bit on just a little bit of a summary. But I mean, like you said, it is kind of overwhelming once you see it. But something that I found that was pretty cool is that a shy student, but also an outgoing student, kind of had this same idea or the same opinion on totally on like the same thing, which was kind of cool to me. Because, you know, like you're shy and then here's a person that like isn't. And it's like, oh, they have like the same opinion on something that's, I mean, I thought it was pretty cool. But even if a teacher, I mean, I can see how teachers can find it a little overwhelming if they are trying to use it in the classroom. So if they want to, I would just, I mean, it would be even cool to ask their students in the beginning of the year or sometime to just ask them, hey, how do you want to learn? How do you want to, how do you want this year to go? And how do you find that you will learn best?
Avery: So when we were doing the data collection, going to different schools for the interviews, we actually had this packet of questions that we did. And it was like this, it was like, How do you rate, as a shy student, how do you rate? Yeah, you like ask, you ask them what what kind of characteristic they were, then you ask questions for them. But like making sure you put emphasis on as this student, how would you answer, what would you put as this question rather than just them. So we can kind of narrow it down to more of that group rather than a bunch of different students. And then we actually have a little..
BT: That's the same interview. So we actually added that interview into the back of the book. So if teachers did want to give that to their students and ask the same kind of questions like Olivia was talking about, they can just go to that bit.ly that's there. And it's like bit.ly, how to teach us or something.
BT: And then they can give that same survey to their students and kind of collect the data for themselves too. But how would you suggest, Avery, like teachers use this?
Avery: So I think that it shouldn't, like, so they could use it as like, Oh, I'm having trouble with this shy student in my class. Let's look at the thing at the pages about them. Sure. But I think another main point they should use the book for should be like when they're doing lesson planning, like before they even get to those lessons, if they've like given their students that interview, they can just see that like before they start the lesson, what should I do to make sure the majority of the students in my class are successful with this project or assignment?
CM: Yeah, you sound like an education professor. That's awesome. Even though there isn't one way to meet every student's needs that kind of has to be differentiated amongst different students, how do you feel like PBL or experiential learning helps foster an environment that fits as many needs as it possibly can? As in how does like separating different roles, having all this different stuff going on, allow for all of these different students to learn effectively?
BT: That's one of my favorite things about PBL. Yeah, it's just one of the ways, like you said, right, that we can reach students. But I really take the opportunity that projects give us to let students shine and how they want to shine. And so I look at it more as an opportunity to support the whole child in learning versus just like this is the one thing that we're going to be learning through this project. It's kind of like it opens up perspective. It opens up possibilities to see things in different ways for all of us. And so it gives, especially if students feel the freedom and the respect and the safety to feel like they can express themselves in a project and there's not a right or wrong way, it really opens the door for a lot of students to be successful and to shine their genius, really. It's like we have a student specifically, Irie was mentioning about who did the cover of the book, and she's very much into design and digital design. And so what a great way for her to, she kind of led up the design department for the book and said, okay, this is the direction I think we should go. And she owned it. And it was really wonderful to see her shine in that.
CM: I feel like people that are listening to this are probably going to want to know a lot of nuts and bolts questions, even though they might not replicate the exact same project. I feel like just kind of knowing how everything is set up with just simple data helps a lot. So for example, how much time was spent on it? How long are students working on it? What does the schedule look like for it? How does all that kind of stuff work?
BT: So starting off with planning the project, give yourself about two to three hours, really, and dedicated time to plan a project. And that's like, what do we want our essential question to be? What would the end product be? And get that skeleton, and you can find a lot of that project planning templates everywhere. I know High Tech High has them on their websites too, but they're everywhere. And then from there, this was a nine-week project. And so we launched several times in different ways. So starting off the project, it was a day launch of going to a school and interviewing and talking about that. And then collecting the data, we did that for about four weeks, maybe even five.
Avery: And it seemed like a really long time. But then what's after it? It was like, what, what? We're done?
BT: So that would include, we had parent drivers help us out. And so we would go to schools and students would interview. We interviewed about over 700 students for this book in San Diego. And so that would include asking questions from one class, and then then those classes leaving, and then another class coming in, and fitting in as many classes as we can in the period of time. When we come back, that's when we would reflect with the students. And then the students would, we should see it. We have huge chart paper all over our classroom. And so the outgoing students would then correlate and put all their data on this chart paper. So they would organize the papers all together and say, oh, this is an outgoing student, this is a shy student, whatever. And then they would put all the data on this chart paper. And that would be this living document that would change. And every time we went on a field trip, we'd come back and reflect with that document and add to it. And then from there, you know, the students are... Teacher interviews. Oh, in the beginning of teacher interviews, yeah. But we would then from there do some writing and reflecting also in the humanities part. Matt and I, like a day or two. But then once they got their information, students peer edited several times, right? Several times. Lots of editing and revisions were made. And then we took about, I would say two and a half to three weeks preparing for our exhibition, which is still going. We had several exhibitions. We had one exhibition that was actually, we gave the professional, they gave the professional development for our staff. And then they did one for their parents who came. And then they have one coming up this Saturday at an actual teaching conference design camp. So they'll be presenting there.
CM: It doesn't get more real than that. And I'm sure the field trips are ultra engaging, just the ability to move around and leave. Anytime you leave the building, it's automatically exciting no matter what you're doing.
BT: There's not a lot of sitting down time. I'm sure that's a natural thing. There's nothing to do. Like I never in this project had to get students to like work on the stuff that they had to work on. It's just because it was about them and everyone's working at their own pace.
Avery: We were always like laughing and stuff, but we still got a lot done. Like it was surprising that we had so much fun, but still we made a book.
Olivia: And like the point that you made that I agree that like none of us really stopped and didn't have something to do. I think it was partly because a bunch of us, we were passionate about it. Like we wanted to tell teachers, this is how I learned. This is how like I want to see school. Cause you shouldn't like see school as like a burden or something. Like this will help make school more enjoyable for kids. So yeah, including me, like we were just passionate about it and it really helped make out our better product. That was cool.
BT: I think also knowing that you're going to be talking to teachers and presenting to that audience, like this is real. Like your voice matters. And both Guy, my teaching partner and I would reinforce that idea all the time and say like, this is your chance. Like, what do you want to say? Like you're giving an opportunity right now. So really make the most of it.
Avery: Yeah, makes the most of the opportunity. Like if you don't go to this school next year, you're never going to get that chance again.
CM: Yeah, this might be a really bad follow-up question, but I have to know, this is something I've always struggled with doing PBL in my own classes and many people that I work with, which is were there any students that didn't buy in? Like what strategies do you use to ensure that, if there's one or two or three students that are just like, I don't like doing this specific thing or it's just difficult for me to manage my time in a PBL environment and stuff like that. Did you run into any challenges that had to be solved?
BT: This is weird because I've done a lot of projects and that always happens. Always, there's always a couple of students, right? That I have to figure out another way to reach them. This one, I honestly can't say that there was. There were definitely students who worked at a slower pace. We had a slow characteristic, slow worker group and we have a chapter on that, right? And they were like, Miss Tobia, what do you expect? But it was more just, I never had a student here, I don't know if you guys heard, like say I didn't care about this or they didn't want to work on it.
Avery: The only time anyone ever said that was like a joke. There were some hard times, sometimes when we were interviewing, the people who were interviewing, I know one of the interviews I did, my partner was actually friends with the person when we were doing it here. So we didn't do any actual interviewing that day. And I know one day I was like, I can't do this anymore. I cannot do another interview. We have talks to people all day. And I need to stop. That day, that was a really hard one.
BT: Yeah, so I think talking about, did you want to say?
Olivia: I was just going to agree with Avery that on the interview part, I definitely at one point was like, just in the beginning, I was like, oh, we're actually interviewing people. And I would be, I mean, it's kind of different when you're with someone your age, because you're like, oh, okay, okay. So I mean, we're middle schoolers, we're socially awkward. So yeah, I was like, I didn't really want to do it. But then just seeing what the outcome would be, it just helped.
BT: Yeah. Yeah, and so I think that perseverance piece, like breaking it up too, helped a little bit. So we would only have project time maybe twice a week, and get interested in other things too, and then come back to it. Because we would have project time in the second half of the day. On periods four and five for us. And so that was the spacing it out probably helped a little bit there. And then also, if we saw a student who was moving like really quick, you know, and wanted some other work and was ready for some more stuff, we like there's so much to do and just really making sure that this is 100% of the students work and not something that we thought how it should be. And so I mean, the layout, like every single thing in here was the students. So they had a lot of work to do.
CM: I have one more nuts and bolts style question. And then I'll just kind of hear anything else that you would like to share. And that would be logistically, how did you actually design and publish the book? Like what were the software, the publishing service? How did you go about doing all that?
BT: Okay, well, I'm gonna head on to Avery because she was actually the one who did it.
Avery: So we use the Amazon publishing service, Kindle Direct Publishing. And that was, it was such like an easy format. And it was just like, it was all you had to do was like you had to, I know I had to like convert a couple of the files of stuff. Like we had to use a certain software to create the cover in order to have it be able to upload it to the page. And then-
BT: So we did, we had one running document, right?
Avery: One giant document like on Google that was just people were always continually adding to it. So it was like the glitchiest document in the whole entire world. There's 60 students, more than that, working on it. And then-
BT: Saved that as a PDF.
Avery: Yeah. And then the cover was done by Canva. Yeah, on the service Canva, which is just a lot of like just digital arts. I know a lot of students in our class love just playing around with it. Like we do everything on Canva pretty much.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanreservationproject.org.