The Struggle is Real – Content Time vs. Project Time

I work at an incredible private school in Atlanta.  Our mission (which includes college-readiness for all students) is bold and I love that our leadership is not only willing to step outside the box to improve education, but they are leading the way in completely breaking the box that holds traditional American education.  I was eager to come to this school because of the mission, vision, and mindsets. I knew this was a place that valued both research-based best practices as well as innovative teaching practices.  This is discussed in more detail in our (i)Plan 17.

I knew in coming to this school, I would not only be encouraged to move away from traditional math instruction – teacher lectures all class, students sit silently in rows and take notes, homework is 30 drill & kill exercises – it would be the expectation that my class rarely, if ever, looked traditional.  This energized me as I had already moved away from traditional teaching in my previous school.

My first year we did the “Poverty Project.”  It was 2-3 weeks (I forget which) where students were given time to work on addressing a real world issue in connection with a local organization.  The normal schedule was modified to include time for this project.  There were definite positives in this project, but also a lot of struggle as we went through this process as a school for the first time.  I saw many students quite engaged in the organization we were working with, but I heard that wasn’t the case in many of the other organizations and student groups.  This type of group work was difficult for our students, but that’s ok.  We often have to struggle at first to truly learn something new, and these are skills our students need to learn.

The next year (last year) we did a more extensive year long Capstone Project, which we shortened internally to TDed for Transdisciplinary Education.  9th & 10th graders had the topic of GMOs while 11th & 12th graders had the topic of Land & Water issues. We used a Design Thinking framework as our guideline for progressing through the year.  In November, all teachers included the appropriate topic in their classroom teaching.  For example, I taught my data units in November and taught them through the lens of GMO research and articles.  In addition, we had various schedules throughout the year that gave students time during the school day to work on these projects.  Students were instructed to come up with projects that would “make a dent” in their assigned topic area.  We had a week of “unschool” where students grouped up and pitched their projects for approval, a la “Shark Tank.”  We ended with year with an Expo where all student groups presented their projects on tri-fold boards set up throughout the school.

For the upcoming year, we are doing something similar, but not identical to last year.  It’s being called the (i)Project because we are a school of Innovation, Inquiry, and Impact. Projects will need to be categorized, for the most part, by one of those “I”s. Students will get to choose their topic, so it’s a passion project, and can be in groups of 1-5, meaning they can work individually.  I had the privilege of being on the summer team working to plan this year’s project, and I truly love how we have changed the project.

Here’s where conflict & struggle come in for me – Why? Why are we doing this? How do we know this will work? And what does “work” even mean? With the various schedule changes, I will see my students for 51 days in the Fall Semester (not quarter, semester) and 48 days in the Spring Semester.  I didn’t count the first 1/2 week of school or Final Exams to get those number of days.  And we aren’t on a block schedule that gives us long class times.  Some of those classes will be 55 minutes, some 60 minutes.  Those few extra minutes aren’t enough to get into new material.  I would prefer to meet more often for a 45 or 50 minute class.  How on earth will I address my Learning Outcomes when seeing my students on such few occasions? How can I use inquiry in my teaching when I know inquiry takes longer? How will our AP students be successful on their AP tests?  How can I do cross disciplinary learning with other content teachers when that takes longer? Where is the research that this works? Hattie’s work has PBL at 0.15 effect size.  I know that PBL can have a larger effect size when it’s used not for initial learning, but for deepening learning.  That’s all good.  But does good PBL have to reduce content time to this degree?

I feel pressured to have to go to a more traditional style of teaching just so I can do my job of math instruction.  This isn’t why I came here! 

In addition, I’m a new co-chair of our school’s Pre-12 Math R&D Team.  I’ve spent the last week pouring over our Alg1-PreCalc Learning Outcomes, comparing to each other and the new SAT topics.  How can we reduce our Learning Outcomes so that we still meet the math educational needs of our students & they are prepared for the SAT/ACT, which is part of them being college-ready?  Am I qualified to do this?

I just don’t think we have to reduce class time so much to increase engagement or have students involved in projects or to meet our mission.  We can do interdisciplinary & cross-disciplinary work just by allowing teachers to do it on their own.  I’m so freaked out by this loss of content days that I have no desire to work on lessons with other teachers this year.

To be clear, I want this to all work out phenomenally.  I want our students to learn both the content they need and the real world skills of doing projects.  They will be reaching out to professionals, collaborating with teachers & other students, presenting their findings – the MV Mind at work!

And so, this is the long-winded reason of why I was asking on Twitter about reducing Algebra 2 Learning Outcomes! The struggle is real people, the struggle is real.


11 thoughts on “The Struggle is Real – Content Time vs. Project Time

  1. awkytle

    You so eloquently put into words one of the primary concerns that all teachers have when embarking on a new way of doing things. The great news is that you are eager and willing to embark despite the questions, angst, and disagreement (if one could call it that). I hear and feel the concern of not having enough days and time to “cover” your math concepts. Still, the constructs of time and days and coverage are ones that we impose upon ourselves as teachers (and unfortunately are imposed upon us by administrators, politicians, etc.).
    The wonderful news is that you are in an environment where living in the uncertainty is celebrated and viewed not truly as uncertainty but discovery. Utilize your colleagues and mentors around you. You are blessed to have the right type of environment to work through this! And the right people! Remember your norms– fail up, have fun, share the well, etc. They will sustain you throughout your journey.
    If I may, I encourage you to reframe a few things to help you “find” what you are seeking. Consider not trying to find content days or content time. You know your content so well, and I am confident that you can “find” it within the projects you work on together as a faculty with students. Content time and project time may very likely be one and the same by looking through a different lens. Ambiguous, I know, but you can do this (and that’s coming from a former math teacher!).


    1. romathio Post author

      Thank you! I don’t know if it was eloquent, but I’ll take it! I also appreciate the reminder to seek out those I work with, because I work with incredibly talented administrators and teachers. I don’t have to bear the full weight of this alone.


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  4. boadams1


    Thanks for this post. I so appreciate the tension you feel — the tension many of us feel. A creative tension, we hope, for exploring different approaches to deep understandings of our world. Certainly, the typical organization of school provides one of those approaches – a discipline, or subject-area point of origin to seek understanding. Of course, outside the years of grade schooling, we rarely, if ever, prioritize this approach. In much of our lives – before, during (beyond 3:30 p.m. usually), and after school – we rely on project-point-of-origin approaches to learn and understand. We need to do something, address a challenge. Or we get curious and excited by something. And so we dig in. And the wonder drives the need to learn through different lenses. And 9.99 times out of 10, this thing is multidisciplinary in nature. In fact, without traditional school as history, I wonder if we would even call it “multidisciplinary.”

    I’m really excited to journey deeper into the mission and vision we’ve collectively set as a school. A mission that demands us to be a school if inquiry, innovation, and impact. And in so doing begs the question of “How might we provide time and structure for our students to inquire, innovate, and impact?” And I am grateful to work with you on how we might find the synergies among discipline-point-of-origin understanding and project-point-of-origin understanding. Your commitment to such endeavors is inspirational and perspirational, and I am so thankful to have you as a model and teammate.

    One connection that occurred to me (among many) — High Tech High. A very intriguing story of PBL and exceptional results on standardized testing.

    I also think there is an interesting connection here, in this 5-min TED talk.

    I love what Full says at the end: “So you never know where curiosity-based research will lead….”


    1. romathio Post author

      Thanks for commenting and your kind words Bo. I hope it’s apparent how much I respect the team at MVPS. As I was posting, I thought of you, Emily, Krista, and Kristyn. People charged with a huge task who I may not always agree with, but people for whom I have deep respect. Grateful for where and with whom I get to do this work.

      I’m so glad you mentioned High Tech High because I was planning to ask to go there for PD next summer! Now, the door is opened. 😉

      Getting ready to head in, will check out the TED talk later.


    2. Pinya

      I too have looked into High Tech High some last year for my history project, HMW Change Projects. It’s a really interesting place, and I think it shares a lot of common goals with MVPS.


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  6. Pinya

    It’s really interesting to hear about the Capstone Projects from a teacher’s perspective. It sounds like next year is going to be interesting at MVPS. I’m excited to hear more about what you guys came up with. Thanks for sharing!


    1. romathio Post author

      Hi Anya! Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree, this upcoming year will be interesting. There are many things I’m excited about, and as you can see, a few I’m nervous about too!



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