PBL in the Math Classroom with Telannia Norfar
Telannia Norfar (00:00):
Most people are driven by WHY, not by WHAT, and the prerequisite skills that we think people need before we do something is a WHAT. But nobody cares about a WHAT. People care about a WHY.
Hello everyone. And welcome back to another episode of the ed tech classroom podcast. Today, we’ll be hearing from an incredible PBL expert Telannia Norfar. Telannia is a mathematics teacher at a public high school in Oklahoma City, OK. She has taught all high school courses including AP Calculus AB for 15 years. As a former journalist and account manager, she found that project-based learning was a viable method for teaching worthy mathematical concepts. She implemented and grew in implementation of PBL in her classroom during her first year of teaching. Soon into her career, she became involved and known by several organizations. She is a board member of the Oklahoma Council of Teachers of Mathematics and member of several organizations, including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, International Society for Technology in Education, and Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. She is a former Teacher of the Year and Rookie of the Year, and is a winner of the 2017 Oklahoma Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She is a former National Faculty Member for PBLWorks. She is president of Norfar Educational Consulting which provides professional development on student-centered learning strategies to schools across the United States. When she is not spreading love and hope to students and educators, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, especially her husband of 17 years. So Telannia, thank you so much for joining me.
Telannia Norfar (02:52):
I could not imagine being anywhere else. It is an honor to be here with you
Before we started recording, we were both chatting about how we have had pretty long weeks. It’s Wednesday right now. And it feels like it should be the weekend. [laughs] But again, I just really want to reiterate, it’s so exciting for me to have you on as a guest, you are an absolute expert when it comes to PBL in the math classroom. I just went over your bio for listeners, but I know they’d love to hear directly from you. So could you talk about your career path and what led you to implement PBL in your own classroom?
Telannia Norfar (03:32):
You know, it is so funny because I have a degree in journalism and what happened is I literally, I mean, from the time of, I was eighth grade, I had dreams of owning my own teenage magazine. I applied it at my high school courses, my college courses, like I figured it all out and I was going to have my own teenage magazine that represented the beauty of all cultures and races and their authenticity. By the time I was in my thirties, like I had it then of course, technology and the internet hit and the publishing industry really took a hit, and was changing in the nineties. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do and I was figuring it out. And at the same time I was approaching my 10 year high school reunion, which is a very humbling experience.
Telannia Norfar (04:27):
When you first have your first decade and a friend of mine, who was – I was the president of my high school class. And he was the vice-president. We were planning the reunion and he was just constantly at me about coming into teaching. And I was like, “Oh my God, Stephen, I’ll kill a kid. Like, this is not a good.” Now again, I’m like managing, still having this teenage magazine, but yet at the same time, I felt like I would kill a kid if I was a teacher. [laughs] So, the irony is definitely still on me. So I go ahead and consider it, cause I was like, you know what? I do want to impact teenagers. Maybe this could be my route. And again, I’m still thinking maybe I’ll just do the magazine through teaching. So I go ahead and decide, but I choose math because I was so frustrated with people being okay with being bad at it.
Telannia Norfar (05:18):
I had calculus in high school. Math was not a subject that was horrible for me. So I chose it because of trying to help people be better at it, as well as… One of the reasons why my high school classmate was really encouraging me was because there’s really a shortage of minority teachers in the educational field. And so I was like, okay, I should also choose a course that’s also very underrepresented by my minorities. So I did, it went to a school, a charter school – I had never heard of those before, when I came back and I was like, what’s that? – And, I went to school that actually his school that he was trying to get me to go to rejected me, passing me on to another charter school, that specialized in PBL. I went to their orientation.
Telannia Norfar (06:08):
I came from corporate world where if you go to an orientation and they tell you that this is what they’re about, that’s what you’re supposed to do. So they said they were project based learning school. They showed me a video. That was it. That was a trainee. And I was like, okay, this kind of resembles what I’ve been doing in the real world. Everything’s about projects and whatnot. And all of my professions. And at that point I was on like my eighth profession. So, I said, okay, let me do this. And I really felt like it was the right thing to do. And that took my journalism skills and started trying to study wasn’t much out there. So I did a lot of school of hard knocks. But I was sold from the very first year. Just weirdly, I’m 16 years or almost 16 years later, and I’m an expert at it or because I did a lot of things wrong. I can’t imagine teaching any other way, and I can’t imagine not being a teacher of teenagers.
Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that. It’s really cool to hear that you started off in journalism and publishing. I think that that’s probably pretty unique for a lot of teachers, so that really excites me about your background. And then it was neat also hearing about your decision of why you chose math specifically. You also said that you became interested in PBL during your first year of teaching. It sounds like it maybe was because you ended up working at a school that really prioritized it. But, thinking back to your experience and your first year teaching, was there a specific moment or a specific project that made you be like, “okay, this way of teaching works,” or “I’m really going to continue to implement PBL in my classroom?”
Telannia Norfar (07:56):
Oh yeah, and I don’t think there’s anybody who tries it and doesn’t have that moment. For me, it was actually an interesting way of having the moment. So I didn’t know what really teaching was like. They just kind of put me in a classroom and said, “go do it.” And then on top of it, I was supposed to learn how to do this PBL way. So I did it with my honors class and definitely air quotes on that, which is supposed to be the class that most of you think PBL is for. I just did it because I was sorta like, “well, I can’t hurt them.” So I did it. And then I had a student in that class, who wouldn’t be considered honors, but I personally never felt like I should turn any kid away who wants to deal with an honors course.
Telannia Norfar (08:46):
But she was not what people would consider an honor student. And I finally tried a project. It was about building a home. I used cousin as the client of the person who we were designing a home for, and this particular student – who again was barely making C’s up until this project – did an amazing job in the project. Well, she’s not an architect now. I’m sorry, let me go ahead and spoil the story. But at that moment, it had an inspired her to think about becoming an architect from that. I mean, she beat out the “A students” hands down. And so I realized that although I was horrible at it and I needed to get better, it was a strategy that truly can help everybody. And I felt like most of education, in my experience, wasn’t ever given a way where everybody would be able to shine or be supported. Yet that, to me, it was our charge as an educator. I’m supposed to have everybody rise to their level of success and excellence. And I was so with her. And then I just became more and more sold every project after that.
I love that you just shared that because that’s something that I really resonate with – obviously on a smaller scale because I am an elementary school teacher. But, what you just said about a student who typically struggles in class excelling for the first time during a PBL unit… that’s something that really excites me about PBL. I think another thing that excites me is sort of the reverse: where you see the “A students,” the kids who are typically excelling in the classroom, actually struggle for the first time. And so it’s neat to hear that from you because you’re an expert in this. So for you to have that a similar “aha” moment that I’ve had is really kind of neat for me to hear.
Telannia Norfar (10:53):
Wow, that means all “aha” moments are going to happen all over the place. Right.
Could you talk about an example of an early project that you did in your classroom? It doesn’t necessarily have to be the first year teaching. But, it could be earlier on in your career… a project that you did: either one that was really great or one that completely failed.
Telannia Norfar (11:14):
Oh my God. I definitely talk about a failure one, mainly because I think… At least I’m discovering in this profession, many people have not experienced failure a lot and don’t necessarily deal with it well. But I think the failures is the most important aspects of PBL and the road to PBL because in all of my failures, that’s when I grew the most. So it was this one project. I still laugh about it. It was so horrible. I really wanted to. And in every subject, math is not just the only one, but every subject, there are certain things that you’re teaching, where [PBL] just doesn’t work. It doesn’t lend itself to PBL. It doesn’t have the richness of the contextual under deep understanding that it needs to have. It’s just horrible content to use.
Telannia Norfar (12:16):
So, I didn’t realize that I picked [a bad] one. I felt like at the time you can make PBL out of everything. And, I really wanted to help kids with expressions. I was an Algebra I teacher at this time, and kids sometimes still struggled with operations and stuff. I named the project. “Expressions Everywhere.” This beautiful tagline, and I launched it. And, I had built a great relationship with my kids. They were with me on the project launch. They were okay, but by day two, they looked really like… their faces were horrible. And so I went to one who was always very blunt with me. I love the most blunt kid in the world. So I said, “well, how you feel about this?” He was like, “it’s horrible.”
Telannia Norfar (13:10):
“I think so too, let’s just scratch this.” So I scratched the project. It just didn’t have any weight. They were just basically putting things in a PowerPoint for one another. So I think accepting and being okay with things, not going well and using it as more of a reflection time. And what could you do differently? What can this show you rather than this doesn’t work, which I feel is what we do most of the time as an educator. If it didn’t work, then we dismiss the strategy, rather than thinking that it was just us needing to learn more. So that’s one of my favorite failures. Although, I fail a little bit in every project. All of them have something that I didn’t do well.
Yeah. I like hearing that you had this interaction with a student specifically. I think that’s a really great example of prioritizing student voice in your classroom, and making sure that you’re leaning into student interests. So I particularly liked hearing that. Now, fast forward, obviously you’re still a math teacher. You now have tons and tons of projects under your belt. I know you just talked about “Expressions Everywhere.” Right? Was that the name of the project? Your projects still have catchy names to them. I think I saw on your blog, you have “Parabolas for Profit,” right? Isn’t that one that you recently did?
Telannia Norfar (14:45):
So the funny thing is good names… that’s only what people know or what I put in the book and what we’re putting in the upcoming home, the coauthor and out of the book that you had mentioned at the beginning: Project Based Learning in the Math Classroom. It’s grade six through 10, but Chris and I are actually working on a K through second and third through fifth right now. Oh, wow.
I’ll have to check that out for sure.
Telannia Norfar (15:11):
I know right. I’m so excited about it. But the title thing is really a teacher thing. My kids never know the title of the projects. I mean, yes, they know the driving question, which is a very helpful tool to kind of keep them on track, but they typically mold that and morph it into their own too. But the project title was more for me. I communicated with teachers to help them sort of see what it means, but they never know the title.
Yeah, yeah, no, definitely. I’m the same way. When I talk about projects with other teachers at my school, we also use abbreviations for everything. I’m sure that’s an experience that most educators can relate to, but these recent projects that I’ve seen on your blog are really interesting. I’m not a math teacher, I’m not a high school math teacher. So some of it was a little bit over my head if I’m being honest. [laughs] But what are some examples of some recent projects that you’ve done with your students that really stand out to you?
Telannia Norfar (16:10):
So one of the things that I can’t wait to blog about. I haven’t had a chance to blog about this, but about how COVID has kind of jolted everyone, including me, who is seasoned at PBL. It took me a while. I’m just now really launching or doing a real in-depth project with my students this year and going to launch one with my geometry students next. And so the one that we’re doing right now is actually re-imagining school. My students are my honors Math Analysis, which is a very fancy way of saying pre-calculus. They are basically really doing a deep dive on what learning is and what it should look like and what it means to prepare me. And they’re going to write a proposal to the school and to the district, recommending changes of what will help them be successful.
Telannia Norfar (17:14):
The math actually in it is statistical analysis… They’re utilizing and they’re molding their thoughts and their opinions about what they should recommend based upon different strategies we’re doing in the classroom to learn. So it’s my first time having kind of a backwards in twist to projects where the math is sort of a sidebar, rather than the main entree. So I’m really excited about that because they truly are going to be listened to. They are excited about the district really taking their policies and their ideas seriously and same with the principal. So that’s a really cool project I’m doing right now. I love it when you can utilize the circumstances around you and then other kids can be empowered to do the same. The next one that I’m about to launch that I’m excited for in the Geometry class is a geographical information systems-based project (that’s a new upcoming technology career field where it’s mixing geometry and statistics together). This tool where you basically can map statistical data on regions and analyze them for inequities or possibilities. And so, my students are going to examine inequities in our community and [share that] to the city council.
Wow. These are such great examples of embedding authenticity into projects.
Telannia Norfar (19:15):
Yeah, it is it truly. And I wouldn’t say you necessarily need to like jump to such a highly authentic project if you’re new to this. That can be really daunting, but don’t stop that realness to any kind of degree. Kids will never, ever work to an excellent level for just [you]. You have to have someone that they’re really working for outside of you for their excellence to come out.
Yeah. They get excited about authentic projects. Again, I’m an elementary school teacher, so my students might be a little bit more easily excitable than yours, [laughs] not to assume, but just based off my experience, interacting with high schoolers. They get so much more excited when the project is authentic and when they hear, “Oh, my work is going to be shown here” or “I get to talk to this expert.” I think it’s a really great way to hook kids and get them interested in the project. And in a lot of ways, it makes it feel like they’re having fun and learning is just sort of a by-product of that.
Telannia Norfar (20:28):
Absolutely. But yeah, you’re not wrong in the fact that the older they get the more sarcastic and they don’t really get excited about much. It takes a little bit for me.
So we just mentioned authenticity, which as we both know, and listeners might know, is a core pillar of PBL. What would you say are some of the other key key ingredients to a high quality project in the math classroom specifically?
Telannia Norfar (21:04):
It really isn’t much different than any other area. The methodology that you do inside of it is different, but the elements are the same. And I was really fortunate to work with… it was called High Quality PBL or HQPBL.org, you can check it out there. I was really honored to be a part of a team of people. It was driven by PBLWorks, or Buck Institute of Education at the time. But it was networks from across the country, EL Education, High Tech High, and many organizations that have been doing the work of PBL for awhile. And we came together to kind of come up with a common framework, and as a math teacher and as a teacher representative in that, it was such an honor. But I was glad to bring out the role of the common elements regardless of subject, especially because I think so many times we’re like, “Ooh, well not with that stuff.” So I love the fact that I’m able to say “no, just like English, math needs this too, and both can coexist.” So it’s basically intellectual challenge and accomplishment, authenticity like you said, public product, collaboration, project management, and reflection.
Telannia Norfar (22:32):
Those are all great elements by themselves, but when they come together, it’s just amazing and it’s high quality PBL.
That’s great. Those are some great tips and also be sure to have HQPBL linked in the show notes in case listeners want to check out that resource. So, I want to shift gears slightly… I guess this is somewhat related in the sense that we’re talking about tips and strategies… but I’m really excited about your book. I think it sounds awesome. I mean, probably immediately after this conversation, I’m going to go purchase it. [laughs] Even though I’m not a math teacher, [laughs] but it seems like there’s a lot of… I mean, you just said this right in your last response, that there are things that can apply to multiple different subject areas. And in your book, you share really practical advice and strategies that have worked in your classroom. And what I like about this approach is that teachers are able to implement the tools and tips that you give them in their classrooms immediately. What would you say is a strategy that you might recommend to other math teachers who might be listening right now, who are looking to incorporate more PBL in their curriculum?
Telannia Norfar (23:54):
Yeah, that’s such a great question. And thank you. Yeah. When we wrote the book, we really, really wanted it to be practical. And although we even knew we wanted eventually a K-12 spectrum, we wanted each time, even if it’s specific to a grade level, that people could still get something out of it if they weren’t at that grade level. So although it’s 6-10, elementary really could still benefit from it. But you will benefit from it when the elementary book comes out too, so you could actually have both. I would say a key part for math – but it does cross somewhat other subjects too, but just math truly – I think it’s our Achilles heel of our subject, and that is: how to have a strategy that really helps kids discover the inquiry process. So, a strategy I love is the Workshop Model, and the reason why I like it is because it’s vanilla.
Telannia Norfar (25:00):
Like it’s plain. It’s just a just a structure. But you have to really think about what’s in it to make it beautiful. So it’s a mini lesson. So one aspect of that is that math people sometimes talk too much. So you can’t talk that much. You have to give them just enough to get started in the work, which is really you’re getting started in their own questioning and answering the question process. And then the work time is mostly dedicated to the students driving themselves through their learning process and then having them share out at the end. So there’s a lot of resources about the workshop model that, again, in my book, we mentioned it and we show sort of what that looks like, but I think the hardest part I ever, where I worked for like five years on it, of my PBL process is… How do you get kids to ask their own questions, answer their own questions, and come up with new questions? And keep cycling that. It’s simple to say, but it’s really hard to do. And in a math classroom, it’s completely foreign to us, when we are very used to telling them everything,
Something I’m wondering about, and this is actually probably a myth of PBL in the math classroom, but it is kind of related to inquiry. And I’m sure you can debunk this myth, which is why I’m asking. But you know, when I think about math, I think about how kids need to have all these skills, right? They need to learn how to do all these things. And then the PBL can happen. How do you use this workshop model so that it’s not like, “Oh, a student needs to learn X, Y, Z before they can actually do the project?” Basically what I’m asking is: how can they do the project to learn the thing, instead of needing to learn the things before they do the project?
Telannia Norfar (26:57):
Oh my God, you are literally bringing up every question I’ve ever had in any training that I’ve done across this world. Now that I think about it, I have gone to Columbia to teach too. I try before I give that answer, I think the thing that helped that needs to happen in a person’s mind is remember: Most people are driven by WHY not by WHAT. And the prerequisite skills that we think people need before we do something is a WHAT that nobody cares about. What people care about is a WHY. And so if I know why something exists, and now I care about what I need to do to get that to them. And so, the switches. It’s not that you’re not going to teach those things. You’re now gonna have them want to know those things in order to do the thing that leads to that.
Telannia Norfar (28:03):
So for example, and I’m thinking of it right now, because it’s what I’m teaching, but it’s one of those content areas that’s horrible for PBL: rational expressions. And so rational expressions has a lot in it when it comes to adding and subtracting and multiplying, dividing them. But if I didn’t really show kids that they wouldn’t realize the need for knowing, simplifying or knowing rewriting, which is what teachers would think they would need to pre-teach. So you don’t have to pre-teach anything you have to really concentrate in and just develop for yourself how things are interconnected and how can you go really above and beyond to create that need to bring everything along with it. And that’s how your project comes into force.
I love what you said about… and I wrote it down, because I loved it so much. You said “most people are driven by a WHY, not a WHAT. I think that that’s something that I’m definitely going to continue thinking about beyond our conversation, even in my own classroom. You’re so right. When I think about myself, I’m completely driven by WHY, right? Everything I do is because of a WHY, yet I think in my own mind, a lot of the things I say to students probably do oftentimes revolve around the WHAT. I’m realizing as you’re talking about this that that is a pitfall in my own teaching and something I’d like to improve on. So thank you for reframing that. Thank you for teaching me something. And for also debunking that myth
Telannia Norfar (29:50):
Kindergartners are always a great place to remember how to give background in teaching. I should clarify. I have no children, but I have a lot of relatives and the younger relatives always reminds me of what really learning looks like. Because you really don’t have to teach people how to learn. We do it well coming out of the womb. But you can tell just by thinking of anybody below five, 90% of their statements are WHY. So they learn how to use the word, WHY. They are driven by it and it will wear you out. “But why, why is that? Why is that?” Before that they’re like, “Ooh,” and they’re kind of figuring out for themselves. They’re driven by their own curiosity.
Telannia Norfar (30:47):
I just try to always look at them and analyze them and see how they’re evolving and growing. Like one of the recent things I’ve discovered. I have a little nephew. He’s not, he’s not five anymore. He’s a little older than that, but he’s been tripping me up since he came out the womb, singing songs at three. But, he is excellent at driving his own learning. He’s a video gamer, hardcore, and he’s only seven. He watches YouTube videos to get better at games. And because of his awareness of how experts are available online, he is very impatient with people who don’t show their expertise because he realizes he can get it from an expert and go and keep going. And so, he’s also the person that I probably will have to retire. It’s up to my age group. But he he’s taught me a new level of understanding that the world has experts. Many generations now know the experts are available. And so I don’t need to act like I’m an expert and people are fine. We’re going to go get expertise from people other than the people in the building. And I need to like, embrace that, empower that for people who maybe didn’t realize that it can happen in any arena and nurture that.
That’s a great example. That’s something I’ve thought a lot about this school year. I’ve had to help out in different ways than I have before. So I have been asked a lot of questions from students that I don’t know the answer to because I’m not an expert that area. So something I’ve had to practice saying is asking students, “I don’t know, but how can we find out?” And so teaching kids the skills to actually be able to find the experts to go to YouTube, for example. That’s something that I think is really beautiful about this next generation. They are so inquisitive and have access to all these resources at their fingertips. They can look up and find out. So I have one final question before we end off the interview. A part of PBL is giving students a safe environment where they’re able to fail. So what does this look like specifically in a high school math classroom where things like the possibility of going to college or the AP testing, all these things are sort of in the way? What does failure look like in your classroom?
Telannia Norfar (33:31):
And it’s such a good point and so timely. I have a student intern right now and we, and I also have a coworker who left because she got an upgrade in her position. And so thankfully she knew a student, a former student, who graduated college this past December and is willing to like finish out the year in her place. But I was talking to both of them about the necessity of safety in a classroom and how much even more needed it is at the high school level of math, because the safety has over and over again been lacking as they grew up over the years. They’ve had too many more experiences of sort of having remarks if they did try to speak out or being told what they’re not.
Telannia Norfar (34:28):
And so your ability to make them feel safe and comfortable is a challenge because you have to really work at it because they just have so much barriers. I think there’s a couple of key things to help create that safety that I think anybody could do regardless of your personality. And I think one is to constantly invite people, just trying and praising them to death for trying. So for instance, I don’t just tell them what the learning target is. That’s a very common thing in education. I think a lot of people are required to have kids know what the learning objective is to say it, write it on the board, all of that stuff. So I make it sort of an interesting guess. So I’ll make a funny phrase or connection and I’m like, “okay, you know, we’re talking about rational functions.”
Telannia Norfar (35:27):
“What do you think? I mean, by step up your game and what could it be?” And I encourage them, and every time somebody say something, I was like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing.” Oh, I’ll even make a point to say, “you know what, you know, I’m going to say, it’s amazing. You know what I want to say? It’s wonderful.” So just saying it is something that small starts to crack their foundation of feeling like, “well, I’m going to be ridiculed if I step out and say anything.” And then the other part is that you gotta be really intentional, but you could do is making reflection more of the goal than to get it right. So one of the things that I do with students, I call it a two for one cycle. Students get two days to wrestle and try to learn before there’s an assessment.
Telannia Norfar (36:22):
So the first assessment is one that they could still get help with anybody in the room. I just can’t be the person. They can even use [math tool], whatever they take, they can do it. But the key part is, and I make it a bigger part of the lesson the next day, is let’s see what happens. Let’s see what we need to do differently in order for us to get better, because it’s not about getting it right the first time. It’s really about realizing what we need to do to grow. Learning is really in our mistakes, not in our rights. And so praising or emphasizing, what you should do helps them not think about the mistakes and wallowing in that. It’s a process.
Telannia Norfar (37:19):
Those two things. I mean, I do more than that, but those two things I think are huge and anybody, no matter what your personality, which is kind of a pet peeve for mine, I think too many times in education, we think you have to have a certain personality. It’s not true. You just have to have certain things you do. There’s your strategies that work. It’s personality outside of that. So praise them for guessing and trying, um, make reflection a much bigger thing than the actual work. And you start to create that safe and comfortable environment that definitely is a requirement for PBL to work.
I think that praising and reflection are both really great strategies and examples for how you can provide students with a safe environment in your classroom. So thank you for those tips as well. How and where can listeners find you? How can they learn more about your work if they’re as excited as I am about all of the amazing things that you’re doing?
Telannia Norfar (38:27):
Well, a huge, huge thing. I am a huge Twitter fan. I do a lot of Twitter chats and I’m going to be back at tweeting every day. Instagram, I do both, where I try to share my classrooms on. @thnorfar in both of those platforms. So that’s a first level beautiful thing to do… to connect with me, but then I’m actually about to launch two websites, but my blog, you can still follow right now. And then when I launch my two websites, I’ll be announcing it on that. And that’s pbl-birdside – like basically get a bird’s-eye view of my classroom – .blogspot.com. So that’s like secondary for you to be able to like see an extended aspect of my class, but Twitter and Instagram, I do a lot of.
Perfect. I’ll be sure to have your Twitter, your Instagram, your blog, your book, all of that great stuff, linked in the episode description for listeners to check it out. Thank you so much for joining me on the show today. As I keep saying, you’re awesome. I learned so much in this conversation from you, and I know that our listeners feel the same. So thank you.
Telannia Norfar (39:53):
Thank you so much for listening to today’s episode of the ed tech classroom podcast with Telannia Norfar. I really enjoyed hearing Telannia’s perspective on PBL in the math classroom. If you liked this episode, be sure to write a review, give me a five star rating. You guys know it helps new podcasters like me so much. I’ll see you back here soon.
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