Innovator | Features

Starting a Project-Based School

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After seven years as a fifth-grade teacher in Waller, TX, Todd Nesloney was recruited to head an underperforming school that was being reconstituted by the Navasota Independent School District. For his first year at the fourth- and fifth-grade campus, Nesloney hired a completely new staff and adopted an entirely project-based learning approach. Here’s how he plans to make it work.

THE Journal: What appealed to you about the opportunity to become a principal?
Todd Nesloney:
I’ve had my master’s and principal certification for four years, but had no interest in using it. I loved being in the classroom. But Navasota sought me out based on my Twitter and blog, which was really humbling. They knew I loved project-based learning, and they were offering me a school where I would be in charge of helping teachers do that for an entire campus, along with hiring my entire staff. That’s a dream job: to create your own school.

THE Journal: How did you come to embrace the flipped classroom and project-based learning?
Nesloney: I had taught for five years and had great test scores. But I hated what I was doing, because all I really knew was how to teach test strategies and pass out worksheets. Then a co-worker came to me and said I should check out the flipped classroom. I researched it, went to a webinar and fell in love with the idea. I started implementing it the next year … only to find out that when I implemented just the flipped classroom, the only difference was that I was now making videos introducing the material that they could watch at home. So I brought project-based learning in with the flip. That allowed me to have kids watch the videos and then come to a classroom where we were completely hands-on.

THE Journal: What would be an example of a successful project-based learning activity in your class?
Nesloney: The kids didn’t like the school lunch menu, so we looked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s preapproved lunch recipes that are online, and each group got to pick an entrée, two sides and a dessert. They took those recipes, which also had the nutritional facts attached, and had to figure out the calories and the fats for their meal. The recipes were designed in 50 servings, so they had to take the measurements and decrease them to 25 servings or triple them to 150 servings, converting the fractions to determine how much of each ingredient they would need. Then they created a presentation in which they made the case to the district’s food service department to put these items on the menu. Kids are entering a world that is full of collaboration and figuring things out. We have to be modeling that in our classrooms through projects like these.

THE Journal: You said you were approached about being a principal after catching the district’s attention through your blogging and Twitter activity. How have these activities enhanced your work?
Nesloney: My first year of blogging, I blogged every week about exactly what I was doing in class. Since then I’ve been writing more on my ideas about education. My Twitter account is about connecting with other educators and learning what I can from them. I’m only as good as the people I surround myself with, and social media allows me to surround myself with the best in the world. Having those conversations and building those relationships has changed my career. Several people I ended up hiring heard about the job because of social media, or accepted because of what they’ve seen me do on social media.

THE Journal: Social media was also responsible for a major expansion of your online summer learning series, right?
Nesloney: Yes! I wanted to get my staff learning before we even came together, so I decided to do an optional summer learning series, where every Friday I’d send out some challenges. The first one was all about getting your Twitter account set up and the value of using social media as an educator. Some people outside my staff found out about it and I was encouraged to write a blog post, and within six days we had 1,500 people from seven different countries signed up to participate. Since then I’ve utilized my connections on social media to have people from around the world create the challenges, for not only my staff but for all of the people participating.

THE Journal: How will you know whether your first year as a principal has been successful?
Nesloney: The biggest issue that this campus has coming in is a culture issue. We take the state test in April, and you’re not going to hear me mention it except for the day we have to take it. I’m more focused on getting those kids to know that they are wanted here, that they have a voice and that we care about them on a deeper level. If they love coming to school, I’ll know we’ve been successful.

About the Author

Dan Gordon is a freelance writer based in Agoura Hills, CA.