2017 New Tech Network PBL Chopped Recap

I had the honor of co-designing and MC’ing the first ever PBL Chopped competition at the New Tech Annual Conference in July. While this is typically a blog about math instruction, this experience welcomed all content areas and all grade levels, teachers, principals and instructional coaches. It was an absolute blast and the teams were incredible. It’s so fun to be an observer to this cross-curricular design sprint. Below is a recap, followed by a link to additional resources and commentary – geoff

ST. LOUIS, MO — The only thing more intense than the current of the Mighy Mississip was the sweltering PBL Kitchen. Eight teams entered the Steelcase room on an overcast Saturday afternoon hoping to design the “tastiest” of projects based on three mystery “ingredients.” These ingredients came in the form of three randomly selected standards from across the curriculum.

Each team had 20 minutes to design the outline of a PBL unit based on the following standards which were drawn at the time of the competition.

  • Natural selection leads to adaptation, that is, to a population dominated by organisms that are anatomically, behaviorally, and physiologically well suited to survive and reproduce in a specific environment. (HS-LS4-3),(HS-LS4-4)
  • Rearrange formulas to highlight a quantity of interest, using the same reasoning as in solving equations. For example, rearrange Ohm’s law V = IR to highlight resistance R. (CCSSM.A-CED.A.4)
  • Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.7)

As soon as the standards were drawn, the first round of the competition began in a flurry of ideation and activity. Teams scribbled on whiteboards provided by Steelcase. Participants. The end of the 20 minutes was punctuated by a “3…. 2….1… Markers down! Cooking time is over, chefs!” Exasperated from the intensity, participants – teachers and principals alike – let out a cry of triumph. While the design of a PBL Unit – with carefully selected and uniform standards – can take hours, competitors had come together to create an engaging, meaningful project in 20 minutes.


Sadly, only three teams could advance to the final round. This proved to be the most difficult part of the competition – for the judges. After some deliberation, looking through the eight project ideas, they identified the three projects that allowed their creators to advance to the final round. At this point, standards were drawn again:

  • ELA: Follow precisely a complex multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks, attending to special cases or exceptions defined in the text.
  • SS-Geo: Use geospatial and related technologies to create maps to display and explain the spatial patterns of cultural and environmental characteristics.
  • Sci: The complex patterns of the changes and the movement of water in the atmosphere, determined by winds, landforms, and ocean temperatures and currents, are major determinants of local weather patterns.

As before, 20 minutes flew by in a flash and the three teams developed PBL Units that would be uniquely engaging and meaningful to their students. They presented to the judges who asked them critical questions to get a sense of the scope of the project and the team’s understanding of the project.


After two rounds of high pressure, minimal time PBL design one team was left standing. The judges – after much deliberation and pained conversations – came to the unanimous conclusion that Scottsburg New Tech‘s final project was the one to take them over the finish line. They were announced as the winners at the next morning’s plenary session.

But while Scottsburg got to take home the lovely 2017 NTN PBL Chopped Trophy (which we can only assume is currently being prominently displayed in a proper trophy case), everyone who competed won something. Some teams walked away with a greater understanding and empathy for teachers of other disciplines. Some teams walked away with a greater camaraderie with their peers. Other teams walked away with an actual project that they promised to refine and implement in a cross-curricular experience.

So congrats are in order to the winner, Scottsburg New Tech, but given the creative explosion in the Steelcase room on that Saturday afternoon, congrats are also in order to the thousands of students who will benefit too, from PBL Chopped 2017.

(Note: in addition to the recap here, you can find additional information, commentary, and details on the New Tech Network blog. [link coming soon!])



Active Caring

I’m in awe of my son’s 3rd grade team.

Last year, when he was in 3rd grade, he had two teachers, a counselor, a GT specialist, a principal, and three specials teachers that cared for him. Not in a passive way, like a “my door is always open” kind of way. But in an active, give-him-hugs, come-to-multiple-parent-teacher conferences, “let’s figure this out” kind of way. One kid, eight adults just pouring love onto him. And he’s a kid that needs outward expressions of love.

As he enters fourth grade, he’ll have a lot of the same adults in his life next year as he did this past year, thankfully. I’m confident in fifth grade he’ll get that same level of care as well. Consider this blog post a partial paen to elementary schools that get that it truly does take a village.


A while back I critiqued myself for not writing about Social and Emotional Safety as I do Tasks and Facilitation. If I’ve evened out the ratios of those three elements, it’s only because I’ve written less on the blog in aggregate in the past year.

Nevertheless, I have been writing. And much of that has been about caring.

You see, we secondary teachers think we’re caring. I told kids they are welcome to hang out and talk after school. I left an open invitation for kids to come before school to get work done. I invited all students to participate. I said “good morning” at the beginning of the day. Shoot, I even greeted every kid with a handshake at the beginning of every class period. And, with a few students, I truly did have that special relationship such that I made an impact on their lives.

I showed passive caring. I opened the door and beckoned kids to come through.

Elementary teachers – at least the ones my son has – they show active caring. They open the door, beckon kids to come through, and when they don’t they’ll leave their room, grab them by the arm and bring them in. They don’t just invite kids to participate, they demand  it and make it a norm in their classroom. They don’t just say “good morning” at the beginning of the day, they hug my son, ask him how his dance class was, give him a specific word of encouragement, and then give him another hug.


I worry about the level of care it’s realistically possible to show a kid as he or she progresses through middle and high school. While it Takes a Village, kids graduate into an assembly line. They get 50 minutes with a Social Studies teacher, then they move down the assembly line to obtain their Science Parts. How many days in a row can a kid go without being shown care? I’ve talked to students who feel “invisible.” I’ve shadowed students that don’t get called on for an entire day.

Fig 1-2

I write about this in my book that will eventually be written, if I’d ever stop using the damn passive voice (see: this sentence). I was talking with a 10th Grade teacher who suggested, “maybe you should just call that chapter ‘Give a Crap.'” I laughed. And she’s right! While I don’t think I can get away with that title for a section (let alone a chapter), that’s probably the biggest differentiator between effective classrooms and ineffective ones.

Becca may have put it best:

I know it’s incredibly challenging for secondary teachers, who have limited time and expansive content to get through and, like, hundreds of students. But I’ve seen secondary teachers do it. And it’s absolutely a beautiful scene to behold, if only because it’s relatively rare in the hustle-and-bustle of the secondary learning ecosystem. I encourage you to show active caring, rather than just passive caring this year. Because that third grader who needs a word of genuine encouragement, still might need one in 10th grade.