To the Earth



I realized today, that 10 years of teaching means I’ve had over 1,500 students in my classes. I told this to one of my students in the gym, and she replied “OH MY GOD, haven’t you gotten bored?!” I replied “No way, every day is new.” It’s the students who keep it new. Every single one of them has had an impact on me…and so my teaching, and so each other, and so their communities. It blows my mind how amazing that is! Still, students say things on a near-daily basis that impact me.

For instance, today in Biofitness, students had an option to help out in the school garden. When I said I needed a team to water, several volunteered. When I said I needed seed planters, again, no problem – several volunteers. When I said I needed someone to pull weeds, a few kids stepped forward. After having pulled weeds for about 10 minutes, one student, I’ll call her “I”, said “Do we get to keep pulling weeds? I really like it, it makes me feel good. I feel relaxed.” Jet fuel for the high school Health/Environmental Science teacher’s soul!


I feel a deep need to be outside, to be around living things, in particular plants. I don’t know if this is just me, or if everyone else is happy with being primarily around cars, computers, and walls and I’m just in the wrong environment for my personality type. I suspect that other people long to be connected with the Earth too, though. To be breathing clean, fresh air, in natural light, and in the company of green thriving things.


Tomorrow is Earth Day.

I’ll be marching for science to downtown Napa with my family a few hours before the city’s Earth Day celebration to help Environmental Science students set up a booth – a booth they organized and initiated completely on their own. I’m doing the momteacher jobs of bringing the canopy, table & cloth, and proudly taking photos.

We anticipate Earth Day with enthusiasm in the Wolf household. It’s a chance to celebrate the unique planet of which we are a part, and revisit the things we can do to better live in tune with the beautiful web of which we are a part. Tonight, tucking my oldest son (7 years) into bed, I  said “Tomorrow’s Earth Party Downtown!”, he replied “Can we bring gloves and pick up some trash?”. That’s my boy.


This semester has been a challenging one to teach Environmental Science. The beginning of the year had great positive momentum – there was a feeling of being a part of a collective understanding that our long-used strategy of “burn stuff” for energy isn’t working out so well for our species, let alone the ecosystems on which we depend. The Paris Climate Agreement (albeit largely symbolic) gave us something to look to as we recognized the Tragedy of the Commons unfolding in many aspects of modern society around us.

Of course, in our own country, there’s been a shift since then. As a teacher, I abstain from sharing my own perspective on political matters. Science, however, has become increasingly political. How can I teach Environmental Science and NOT be political? I can’t. I gave that up. I decided to re-focus in on the power and impact of local government and grassroots movements. Where in the life science standards is this? It’s not. The standards are the “what”. The ethics are the “why”. I’m not a teacher of the “what” without the “how” and “why” – I call that a shallow concept tutorial. I’m a human, so I teach human stuff to humans.


In the PBL classroom we’re trying new things, basing projects on big questions with no clear answers, looking the scariest problems of the world square in the face and saying “I’m taking you on”.

We’re getting our hands dirty and tearing down the walls, one day at a time.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.
John Muir




Building Projects #3: Rethinking Content as Stories & Skills

Last time, in “Building Projects #2: What’s My Job?“, I define my role in the PBL classroom as a respectful and present cultivator of student learning. Next, off to define what type of learning to cultivate before I prepare the soil and select the seeds. What’s the content?

I see traditional subject areas as either primarily skill subjects or story subjects. Story subjects, such as biology, are based on a framework of understanding how interrelated parts connect, the understanding of the existence of relevant things, events, and phenomena and the application in decision making – stories of how things came to be, how they are, and where they might some day go. Skill subjects – such as math and languages – are tools for communication and organization of information to draw new understandings. Stories are communicated and documented using skills.

If we consider the following list to be traditional subject areas, we can sort them in to skill and story focused courses:

  • Math (Skill)
  • English Language Arts (Skill)
  • Foreign Language (Skill)
  • Fine Arts (Skill)
  • Physical Education (Skill)
  • Computer Science/Coding (a newly emerging “subject” in many schools that I feel deserves it’s own category) (Skill)
  • Making/Building/Measuring/Recording (Skill)
  • Social Sciences (Story)
  • Natural Sciences (Story)
  • Physical Sciences (Story)

I consider most of our traditional “subjects” be be skill focused, with the sciences (natural, physical, and social) making up the stories. Yes, there are skills involved in story subject areas and vice versa, but that’s because real life is interdisciplinary. In my perfect school, we’d design all projects off of the sciences (social, natural, and physical), and skills educators would build their scaffolding and skill development off of the sciences stories. This would streamline what the school day looks like and better support deep, focused, meaningful learning.

So, keeping this multidisciplinary approach in mind, I don’t want to design a project that is built off of one subject area’s content standards.When deciding content to build a multidisciplinary project upon, I prefer to start with stories from within my branch of science that are broader and more meaningful than one subject area’s content standards. I’m not saying projects can’t and shouldn’t be designed starting with the standards, or that it can’t be done very well, it’s just not my preferred method after having run projects that are minimally impactful on students and community, and the opposite.

Listed below are some theses to stories I want students to deeply understand and incorporate into their schema of the world that many of my natural sciences have been built upon over the years. This is living list. Projects I build are usually based on between two and four of these stories.:

  • Systems are made up of integrated, interconnected parts. There are patterns in systems that can help us better understand other systems.
  • Energy is everywhere, and is not created or destroyed.
  • Burning stuff isn’t the only way to access energy on demand.
  • There are specific strategies for designing and carrying out sound scientific investigations. Science is based upon empirical evidence.
  • There’s more than one way to be healthy.
  • The human body is made up of parts that we understand. The shape and function of these parts is impacted by our choices and behaviors, as well as by genetics and our environment.
  • Biochemical processes can impact our thoughts, behavior and decision making.
  • Neurons in our brains are impacted by our deliberate thoughts, actions, and practice.
  • Living things and their environment are interconnected as a part of a system – that includes humans (we’re not observers).
  • Individuals have a lot of choices, rights, and power.
  • Teams of diverse people solve problems with greater perspective and insight.
  • Real world problems are multidisciplinary.
  • All life on Earth has a common code, and we understand how to read and manipulate this code.
  • Natural systems minimize waste and utilize what’s available.
  • There’s a lot of decision making to be made regarding how individuals, communities, and nations interact with natural resources.
  • Citizen groups and local politics matter.

Any of the above story theses could be built upon to design a deep, multidisciplinary, standards-rich and meaningful project. It’s worthwhile to share these stories with other professionals in other fields and other staff to find common threads across multiple perspectives.

Oh…and here’s another reason I prefer to build projects based off of stories. Sharing meaningful stories feels good! I mean like sun on your back, seeps right down into your bones good. A story shared is like a warm collaborative bridge of experience between people through words, symbols, sounds, images. It’s connecting. When we build off of a meaningful story, in PBL often an open-ended story, we build off of a cross-cultural tradition that has sustained human knowledge and understanding for generations.

I leave you with one of my favorite stories (by Wangari Mathaii) to tell in our home: 

Reading to Boys

Building Projects #2: What’s My Job?

Last time (“Building Projects #1: What do you stand for?“) I posted about where I begin when building a new project.

It seems counter-intuitive to begin designing projects that are student-focused, engaging to students, meet students where they are and push them just far enough into that ZPD, personalized to individual students…projects designed for students, to begin designing these projects with a focus on the teacher. There are mounds of research that support this, however, including the oft-cited research on student learning presented by John Hattie. Look at the top, most essential elements for impactful student learning:

  1. Teacher Estimates of Achievement (Do we, teachers, believe in our students?)
  2. Collective Teacher Efficacy (Do we, teachers, believe in each other?)
  3. Self-Reported Grades (Do we, teachers, believe students can and should assess their own learning? Do we provide those opportunities?)
  4. Piagetian Programs (Do we, teachers, understand our students’ development and meet them where they are?)

As we continue down the list, it becomes increasingly clear – the teacher’s actions greatly impact student learning.

The 2nd step in my project design process is to revisit my own role. Now what is it I do again?

It sounds ridiculous, but yes, 10 years into teaching, I still have to pause when I’m thinking of designing a project and remind myself what exactly it is that I’m supposed to be doing. Wait, am a wellness coach? Career counselor? Curriculum designer? Performer? Edible landscaper? Ecologist? Artist? A data-entry bot? Top-secret half-Mexican equity-agent? Personal trainer/nutrition advisor/guardian from drugs-and-alcohol?

I may dabble in all of those things as a teacher, but when I clean it all up and focus in on my job, my role is to build respectful relationships, design curriculum that engages and challenges while making lots of room for fun, and monitor student progress so we’re doing all of this with intention.


Building Projects #1: What do you stand for?

I’ve encountered many different opinions about where to start in project based learning curriculum and classroom design. Many times, the advice is to start with the standards and/or learning objectives (which yes are very important and we’ll get to those!),  student goals/interests (these are so important too…I assure you these are essential as well!), or current events (which are also up there in the get to these soon!). I’d like to say that the best place to start is one of these three… but that’s not where I start so I’m not going to urge you to do that.

I start with my own values. I’m not suggesting that we start with our own interests – so I’m not suggesting that I think “I love running, so I should design a project about running”. We shouldn’t design a project that is supposed to pull us and our students through for weeks off of a teacher’s interest. I’m talking about core values – the big ones. Values are bigger than interests and bigger than beliefs.

High quality teachers make a profound difference for high quality student outcomes. Teachers matter, and how teachers teach matters. An engaged and motivated teacher is more willing to engage in continued professional learning (see page 19, “General Trends” for more information on teacher motivation to engage in PD) as they progress through their career, as it appeals to their sense of intrinsic rewards, and enables teachers to embed their existing belief system into their teaching practice in a positive way. A motivated, engaged teacher is (or becomes, with the experience and education they are motivated to pursue) a high quality teacher.

I do want to note that a motivated, engaged teacher can become the opposite if they feel they aren’t able to succeed  – that is teacher self-efficacy matters too. Teachers who are learning new methodology (such as PBL), working with a shift in student population, or are new to the profession need special support and encouraging guidance from administrators and peers.  Professional mentors matter. That’s another blog post.

An exercise to try is to write down 10 values that are most important to you (or circling from a list like this one). Then cross off 4. Then 3 more, and you’re left with your top 3. It’s also a great exercise to do with students, and can be a team builder when building community in your classroom. To really get into it, listen to Most Nights (above) before this exercise.

I personally almost always start from one of the following values:

  • Social Justice
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Wellness

Core values aren’t subject specific. They are simple and meaningful to you as an important human being on Earth. Revisiting my own core values each time I design, revise or launch a project provides a direct link between my core values and the effectiveness of my teaching, and that’s motivating.

What do you stand for?

C. (2005, November 1). Teacher quality and student achievement: Research review. (This document was prepared by Policy Studies Associates (PSA). PSA, based in Washington, D.C, is a research and evaluation consulting firm specializing in education and youth development. Its clients include federal, state, and local government agencies, foundations, and other organizations.)

Schieb, L. J., & Karabenick, S. A. (2011). Teacher Motivation and Professional Development: A Guide to Resources. Math and Science Partnership – Motivation Assessment Program, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

Dirt Under Your Nails

Have you ever been so excited to start gardening that you didn’t bother to put gloves on? Just dug your hands into the dirt? I do this…often. Pulling weeds while walking down the street and in parks. I later scrub the dirt out from my nails, but not too much…I’m proud to carry remnants of my to-the-earth hobby with me throughout the day. PBL is like this. Instead of dirt under my nails, I carry my filled to the brim, worn notebook and laptop – full of ideas, scaffolds, project launches, and essential community contacts.

Here’s a trade secret: PBL, even when done really well, is messy. I mean you left the gloves off and it just rained messy. You will get wet sitting in the front row, or even 10 rows back. This is because Project Based Learning is a hybrid of inquiry based learning and traditionally sequenced learning. Yes, there is structure to PBL, but it’s a loose structure. You know, like a garden. Do your research, sow the right seeds for the season with an objective in mind taking into careful consideration of soil, moisture, season, and lighting…and still the unexpected comes along. Master Gardeners, I learned recently, aren’t masters of gardening but masters of problem solving – “We don’t know everything about gardening, we just know how to figure it out.” (Master Gardner at Orientation September, 2016)

I’ve been teaching PBL for 10 years at New Technology High School – the flagship school for the New Tech Network which is now comprised of nearly 200 Project Based Learning schools worldwide. In that 10 years I’ve had some incredible learning experiences both inside the classroom and out – not least of which have come from the students I’ve gotten to know, my experience becoming a mother 3 times over (2x biological, 1x step mom), and my relationships with the unique adults I get to know in this line of work – the gurus, the academics, and the “I hated school, but sure I’ll help out” wild cards full of insight.

Every year I reflect and write down ideas for next year. Things to remember, the answer, the solution. A surge of creativity in the Spring – I revisit core teaching values. Next year will be streamlined, it will be smooth, I will sleep better and so will my students, I will finally be a Master Teacher!

Yet, year after year, incredible insights and tools in hand…it doesn’t get easier – it gets different.

Different kids, different world events, different community news, different tools…every year different. This year’s notes will give me a good structure to work from in the fall, but I still need to come to work alert and ready to adjust every day. There are some core strategies for PBL that do become more second nature with experience. Maybe being a Master PBL teacher doesn’t mean you know the secret to PBL…maybe it just means you have a plan, but also have the ability and willingness to strategize as you go and a willingness to re-design after meeting your students where they are. Even better, being willing to strategize with others. That’s the messy nature of this work, dirt under your nails. I can’t imagine doing it any differently.