Equity in Education & PBL with Victoria Thompson (Ep 46)

March 08, 2022/ By

Victoria Thompson is a STEM Integration Transformation Coach at Technology Access Foundation--a nonprofit leader redefining STEM education in public schools--and a consultant for Ignite EdTech. She has been in education for five years and began her journey teaching fifth and sixth grade math and science in Summerville, SC. After completing her masters degree in curriculum and instruction she moved to the Seattle, WA area in 2018, where her career has pivoted to focusing on STEM integration in schools, K-12 mathematics instruction with research on decolonizing mathematics curriculum for teachers and learners, creating inclusive math environments, and using technology to bridge equity gaps in math education. Follow her on Twitter @VictoriaTheTech.

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Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo Podcast. I am Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad. And on today's show, we have Victoria Thompson. Victoria Thompson is a STEM integration transformation coach at Technology Access Foundation, a nonprofit leader, redefining STEM education in public schools, and a consultant for Ignite EdTech. She has been in education for five years and began her journey teaching fifth and sixth grade math and science in Summerville, South Carolina. After completing her master's degree in curriculum and instruction, she moved to Seattle, Washington in 2018, where her career has pivoted to focusing on STEM integration in schools, K-12 mathematics instruction with research on decolonizing mathematics curriculum for teachers and learners, creating inclusive math environments and using technology to bridge equity gaps in math education.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: In this episode, Victoria talks about equity in education and the process for designing curricular units in a project-based learning environment. I hope you enjoy the episode as much as I did.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Hey, Victoria. Thanks so much for being on the show.

Victoria Thompson: Yeah, of course. Thank you for having me.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I absolutely love following you on Twitter. As we were talking about before we started recording today, I just love the transparency. The messages that you put out there, just so transparent, vulnerable, and courageous. So I know that educators really appreciate kind of that very real insight into education.

Victoria Thompson: Oh, thanks. Every time I tweet or every time I blog or every time I say something, I always wonder, "Has this got a little too far? Is this something that people actually want to hear?" But I find that with a lot of the education circles that I run in, a lot of it is distilled and a lot of it is just kind of happy, positive, all that stuff. So I try to bring a very real spin to everything that I do because the work that I do is real. And it's not pretty, it's equity, it's, anti-racism, it's edtech and sometimes there are bumps, but I think that's totally fine. Let's bring the authenticity to education.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And I think that really is resonating and attractive to so many educators, because even though there's a lot of good and positive things happening, sometimes we need kind of that jolt of realness and to think about, "Here are my current circumstances and is there a way out of it? How can I problem solve this?" I think that this perspective that you give often help teachers kind of see lots of real kind of concrete ways and strategies to kind of tackle those. So I think it's much appreciated.

Victoria Thompson: Definitely. Thank you.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. So I love that the work that you do and before we started recording today, we were talking about your work in STEM and I also, as a educator, was really into STEM. Of course, I started off as a high school science teacher. So I'm really interested in... Because you have this role called a STEM coach. And so, I'm interested in how kind of the world of STEM and the world of coaching blended together to create this exciting role.

Victoria Thompson: Yes. So I'll preface this by saying that I call myself a STEM coach, but my actual role is much longer. So my job title is actually STEM integration transformation coach, but for brevity, I just say, "Okay, I'm a STEM coach," right? So what I do when I go into schools is I specifically look for ways to uplift STEM, regardless of discipline. So whether you're humanities, right? Whether you are math, I mean, math is part of STEM, right? But a lot of the STEM gets kind of concentrated in the science and technology. There's not a lot of that engineering and there's not a lot of that math.

Victoria Thompson: So if I think about my role and my specific job duties, I go and I make sure that folks understand, first of all, what STEM is, that's important. I also leverage and use project-based learning as a vehicle for equity and also with the problems within project-based learning, right? So if I think about going into a school and using PBL, we have a driving question, we're working with teachers to create that driving question alongside students. So I'm making sure that it's more of a collaborative effort. I guess, I can't talk today, but [crosstalk 00:04:45].

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: You're doing a great job.

Victoria Thompson: Thank you. But when I think about my role when I work with teachers and also when I work with students, the STEM part is less about science, technology, engineering, and math. And it's more about what is the actual scientific method, research method and process. Because if I have things in STEM specifically, then that already kind of pigeonholes me into an area where only certain subjects are being highlighted. What my job is, is to go in and say, "Look, STEM is for everyone. And so are their principles."

Victoria Thompson: A large part of that is educational technology, which is my jam, right? I am VictoriaTheTech on social media. And I love edtech and I love technology. A large part of that is also using that project-based learning, again, as a vehicle for equity. I know I've already stated it, but I think it bears repeating because my school site that I work at, we have traditional assessments, but a lot of the larger ones that we do are all project-based and they're all problem-based. So if you like projects, this is your jam. If you like activities, then this is a great place to be. It's not just paper, pencil, tests all the time.

Victoria Thompson: So my role is a bit different, specifically because instructional coaching is mostly just... I mean, the way to say it really is just teaching teachers how to be better at their craft. And I don't mean to sound crass saying that, but a lot of the role of an instructional coach is, "Hey, I observed a lesson and this was really cool, but this might need tweaking. Are you interested in collaborating and maybe figuring out how to make it a little bit better?" So for my role with STEM, it's that taken up to the 10th notch, right? Because I'm looking at equity in education, I'm looking at project-based learning, I'm looking at inquiry, I'm looking at driving questions and I'm working with teachers to just make this a better experience for our students. And that's what it's all about.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Victoria, can you talk a little bit more about... Because I'm fascinated by... I'm also a very big believer and proponent of project-based learning and how that incorporates STEM. And it sounds like you're saying that STEM is really a vehicle for learning. It's more about the process. You've also talked about, a couple of times, which is fascinating with equity and its connection to project-based learning. Can you unpack that a little bit more and talk about how can equity be more of the conversation as it relates to project-based learning? Or by going through the PBL process, how does that help create more equitable experiences for students?

Victoria Thompson: Yeah, absolutely. So I first think that it's important to differentiate between equality and equity because those two things often get muddled. So equality means that everybody has the exact same thing. So if I were to use a very benign example, everybody gets a pint of ice cream and that would be wonderful, right? So I have my ice cream, you have your ice cream, we all have the same ice cream, right? But if I think of equity, equity is different from equality because everyone in equity essentially is going to be having what they need to be successful. And that's going to look different student-to-student, teacher-to-teacher. So one of my cornerstone presentations that I give is equity in educational technology.

Victoria Thompson: And the definition that I specifically give for equity in education, is that equity is often taken to mean that essentially no one is denied a proper education for belonging in a group that really has historically been marginalized. So I think Black students, brown students, LGBTQ, homeless students or houseless students, maybe students that are economically disadvantaged, so equity essentially means that we are giving these students opportunities, but without thinking that they have these barriers and challenges. And I think that's where it gets really sticky because equity looks all fine and dandy on paper, but when we actually try to enact it, there are all of these different things that are going on.

Victoria Thompson: When I think about, again, how PBL is a vehicle for equity, I think about how project-based learning, whether the context of an authentic problem that students create and are student-centered really breaks down some of those barriers. And I have to deflect back on my teachings as a math and science teacher in South Carolina. And then also as a math educator here in Washington, right? So when I think about what I did when I was in schools, a lot of the stuff that I was given was curriculum driven, not to knock the curriculum that I was given from my district, I think that it was lovely, but at the end of the day, it just wasn't student-centered. What I got was, "This is what you're supposed to teach. Here's what the kids are supposed to do, have fun." And they didn't really get a lot of agency and voice into what they were supposed to be doing at that time.

Victoria Thompson: So when I think equity with project-based learning, that's where student voice and agency really comes into play because for my school's model and also the model that I work for within my workplace, students come up with the guiding question, which we call a driving question, right? That's not teacher created, that is student created. Teachers set the parameters, that way kids don't go rogue, right? So if the driving question is, "How can we analyze prison statistics in our local neighborhood?" That way we don't have a kid over here in the corner talking about ice cream or brownies or whatever, but teachers are there to kind of be the guide on the side, instead of the sage on the stage. And that's equitable to me because kids are getting a voice and they're getting a choice. And also, it's working within the confines of the curriculum.

Victoria Thompson: Because we know it's not all roses. There are going to be issues. There are also going to be restrictions that we have. But at the end of the day, if we give students a chance to speak up, that's where equity comes into play. So for me as a student, I would be learning about the hero narrative within the context of the driving question that I create about food insecurity. Or I am being an active participant in learning about natural disasters with a driving question that I've created alongside my math and science standards. Kids get a choice, kids get to say, it's never going to be perfect, but it's at least more equitable. And that's where I find a lot of joy in the work that I do.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. And I think you're right. I think giving students that voice and choice does inherently ensure that everyone's voice is a part of the classroom. I'm also wondering too, so besides the driving question and the topic, because that's some work that I also did in a school was, we would... We called them home grown challenges, it wasn't a project from a kid or it wasn't someone else's project. It was a question that we wanted to solve in our community. And so, we had voice and choice, but I love giving the idea for students to create that. What other ways within the project are students being able to display agency within the process of solving a problem?

Victoria Thompson: Yeah. So the whole project cycle in particular, when it comes to PBL, I kind of think of it as a wheel. And if anybody who's listening is interested, PBL works as a wheel. Literally. It's a gold standard wheel. It is literally gold. But it's seven essential project design elements that I always advise for teachers, even pre-service teachers to check out. Because it's just a lot of fun. So when I think about, especially our learning goals for students, there are three. We need to understand the content knowledge, we need to not only understand but demonstrate competency of the key knowledge that's being presented, and we also have to be successful in delivering that product. So sustained inquiry, right? Authenticity, reflection, critique, and revision. And then the biggest thing is definitely sharing and creating that public product.

Victoria Thompson: So for me, as a student, when I was in K-12 and when I was in grad school and undergrad and all that stuff, a lot of my stuff kind of culminated in this public product, whether it was a paper, PowerPoint, project, reflection, just something where I could share and where I think PBL really sets itself apart from all the other spaces is because with PBL, the public product is being presented in front of an authentic audience. Not that my professor or my teacher or my classmates aren't authentic, but they often bring industry professionals and also volunteer folks into the space to learn about it. And I just love that, because then they get authentic feedback from people that are actually in the field, right? And of course, that's end-stage blah-blah-blah. But along the way, leveraging that inquiry, leveraging reflection, right? Reflection is a really big part of this, critique and revision, student-to-student feedback, teacher-to-student feedback, even teacher-to-teacher.

Victoria Thompson: If y'all are working on the same project and if one class is over here doing this thing, and the other class is over here in this corner, what are each respective class doing at that time? I think that's also important to talk about. So my answer non-answer is that there's a lot of different ways for you to incorporate this into your class, but at the end of the day, it's all about having students speak up for themselves and really be an active part of this process.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. And I feel like you... And PBL works as a great resource. I'm glad that you mentioned-

Victoria Thompson: They are wonderful.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: They really are.

Victoria Thompson: They are absolutely phenomenal.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And I think additionally, you talked about the students being in the driver's seat throughout the process and I especially liked the part about the students being able to decide, "How will I create my product and what will my product look like?" And so, just of course, a quick point for WeVideo, I've seen students create videos instead of maybe a Google slide deck or a poster, they will create a PSA, for example. They're giving the students a choice. You can create a video, you can create a movie, you can create a website. I mean, allowing them to choose the medium through which they feel their voice is best amplified. And that's another exciting kind of option to give students to ensure that there is equity embedded into the process.

Victoria Thompson: Right. And actually, so my school sites, specifically, they do a couple of different student exhibitions to show student growth and progress. And one of the things that we're thinking of, especially in the remote environment, because it's a pandemic, we specifically have not been back to school since last year and we have no plans on going back yet. So my mind is just reeling with all of these different things that we can do with our teachers and our students. WeVideo and other video apps as well, is definitely one of them.

Victoria Thompson: So to give context, the way that we used to do this at my school site was that sixth and seventh grade would be old school science fair. They'd have a little tri-fold poster board, folks would come around to their table and they would share what they wanted to do. Eighth grade and high school was more of PowerPoint, Sway, those kinds of tools-based. Now, that we are specifically fully remote for the time being, I am just thinking about how much of a disaster it would be if my kids, who are six and seven, did a tri-fold over Zoom, right? Or over Google Meet or over Teams. It's hard enough to see all that font when you're face-to-face, right? How chaotic would it be if I'm on a Zoom or if I'm on a whatever and the tri-fold is all the way in the back of the room, then the student would have to explain it.

Victoria Thompson: It's just too ridiculous and not to discount the work that our students do, but we want it to be accessible. We want it to be viewable. And we also want to make sure that the audience, right, because this is an authentic audience, is getting the most out of the presentation.

Victoria Thompson: So my admin team, we've just kind of made an executive decision and we're like, "You know what? Tri-folds, all that stuff, they could be supplements, but the main product has to be something that folks can view and do again and again, and again, and again, and again." Right?

Victoria Thompson: So, of course, we're kind of looking at different platforms to do that, but the video recording has been instrumental for so many of my students. Ones that are totally afraid to get up in front of the class and speak are so empowered when they can record and then press play. And that's one thing that I feel I've really taken from all of this. There's been a lot of weird stuff going on with education because of the pandemic, but I think a really good positive too, is we're finding ways to be innovative with technology that we normally would not have thought to be.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Agreed. And my hope is that we will continue on with these tools as we get back to in-person or a hybrid model or whatever that looks like whenever we are able to finally move past this pandemic and depending if it goes away and getting back to kind of in-person instruction, which hopefully we will this coming school year. But I think about what are those tools and those processes that we felt we'd like to carry on, that worked during the pandemic. And students finally felt like they had a voice now, they had opportunities to be their most creative selves.

Victoria Thompson: Absolutely.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And so, yeah, I'm glad you're asking those questions now, so we can start to plan for how we can continue this process throughout the next school year.

Victoria Thompson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep. I always think, too, moving forward, right? What worked? What didn't? What are positives? What are challenges and what can we do to overcome those challenges?

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Definitely. I have another question about the role of content areas inside of a PBL unit. When I'm working with teams, I often get questions about, "Well, when do we teach the lesson on decimals and fractions?" Or, "When do we teach ratios and positive and negative integers? And how do we teach that in the context of this overarching project?" Can you talk about kind of the role of maybe what some would call direct instruction or maybe explicit instruction? These concepts that are probably going to be tested, which has a whole set of challenges and thoughts around, but you can talk us through kind of that aspect of PBL and the integration of concepts.

Victoria Thompson: Right. So personally, I think that the largest mindset shift has to come from thinking that PBL works alongside our academic content and it's not necessarily a one-off. And that's one of the largest questions that I get where it's like, "Well, how do I do both at the same time?" Right? You can do those at the same time. You can totally do both at the same time, but it also requires a mindset shift where you can say, "I can do both at the same time." We stop asking why and how and we start saying when. That's one of the biggest things for me.

Victoria Thompson: So if I take a look specifically, for content areas, for example, there are different areas and disciplines of PBL. So there's single discipline PBL, where maybe I'm working with another math teacher and he and I are collaborating and we work on a project together. There's double discipline PBL, where maybe a science and a math teacher are working together with the departments. They're doing that. Then at the very top of the pinnacle, that's going to be full level discipline PBL. So that's when you're working with every single person in your grade level and y'all are just making it work.

Victoria Thompson: So to give you an example of something that happened at my specific school site. One that I thought was just super cool. There was a project where they were collaborating on the hero's story arc with food insecurity. From the science perspective, they pulled in asexual and sexual reproduction, right? When it comes to plants and animals and how that might impact food insecurity in different areas. If I don't have a lot of crops then I don't have food, right? If there are no animals around me and if I'm not a meat eater then I don't have any of that stuff and that's kind of frustrating. When it came to math, they talked about ratios and also exponential growth and decay. And then when it came to humanities, which would be the ELA social studies, it was all about food insecurity years past, as well as the hero's journey when it came to literature. This was a team effort. And this definitely took months of planning on their end to have it come to fruition.

Victoria Thompson: So PBL didn't operate in a vacuum. They collaborated with me, they collaborated with other folks. But what happened essentially, was they said, "This is a project we're going to do. And this is what we have to do to get it done." And they worked with each other and the project was phenomenal. And they also had an edtech integration element where they used StoryJumper. I don't know if you've heard a StoryJumper because this was certainly my first time learning about StoryJumper. I'm more of a Book Creator girl, but they did use StoryJumper to show the journey of the hero that was going through food insecurity at that time. Super neat, super cool, but definitely did not operate in a vacuum. It needed a lot of work and also a lot of planning and preparation.

Victoria Thompson: So if I were a teacher first starting out, I see a lot of these knockout projects and I'm thinking, "Oh, my goodness, this looks so cool." But it takes so much time and planning and preparation. I always caution folks, "You don't have to go to the moon on the first try, start with single discipline." If there's a math teacher that you jive with, or maybe a ELA teacher that you're buddy-buddy with, see if you can maybe co teach or do a co-lesson. Then once you're there, you can move up to double discipline, "Hey, ELA and social studies. That's kind of a natural fit. Same with science and math." What can you do to make it fit naturally?

Victoria Thompson: And I remember when I was a classroom teacher, I co-led a lot with math teachers with science, but when I was just science at the time, I eventually switched to science and math, but we did a lot with just combining our subjects and seeing the relationship between science and math. And then once you feel comfortable, then you can move to that full discipline. All of these projects that you see in all these different areas. It can be done, but it's not going to be snap your fingers and you're there.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I really appreciate you sharing the process. I think that the collaborative process of planning for these PBLs, the more disciplines that you integrate, the more challenging collaboration becomes because you have to ensure that what we're doing fits into the scope and sequence of this subject. And we have to ensure that we have to create expectations. So if I'm the science teacher, maybe I agree that the tangible concrete parts of the product are worked on in my class. While, the math teacher is going to teach the math concepts in order to answer the driving questions.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: So it takes a lot of coordination, but I think the importance is that it matches what students will do outside the walls of the school. And we know that when students are outside the walls of school, life isn't segmented into subjects and problems don't get coded as science or social studies. It just gets coded as real life. And we have to be able to make these connections on our own as students and learners. So I'm really happy that you outlined the process so we can all get to a point where we're doing these full disciplined integrative PBLs.

Victoria Thompson: Yeah. Thank you. And it's crazy because, true, a lot of folks don't really think it's going to be that difficult, but when it's actually put into practice... Actually, maybe difficult isn't the word that I should use. It's just time consuming because you want to make sure that you do it right. I've also been in situations where there's PBL, but I can't identify a driving question. I don't know what the final product is. And for that, it's just a project versus PBL. So we always try to make it as inclusive as possible, right? Making sure that folks know what the expectations are. It does take time, but it's time that's not wasted. It's time that's absolutely worth it because it gives alternative assessments for our kids and it makes the playing field more equitable for them.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. And speaking of time, I know that you're a very important person, have to run off to get conference planning done. So before we let you go, tell us how we can connect with you if we haven't already done so.

Victoria Thompson: Yes. Well, first of all, I just want to say, thanks, of course, for having me on. This was awesome.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, my goodness. This has been amazing. I wish we could go for longer.

Victoria Thompson: I know. We're going to have to do round two. Where it's just more educational stuff with edtech, right?

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I'd love that.

Victoria Thompson: How I got to Seattle, how I became a consultant. I just have so much to say.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: All that, yes.

Victoria Thompson: Yeah. I am by far, most active on Twitter. So you can find me on Twitter @VictoriaTheTech. that is where my website is linked, as well as the conference sessions that I hold, my comprehensive work history. I also keep a blog on educational musings. So I did a series on exploitation of empathy, as to how teachers should protect their peace and energy and time. I have another one coming up quite shortly on just leaving an abusive workplace and what that looks like as an abusive workplace and what you can do as an educator, again, to protect your peace, time and energy. So y'all can find me on there. You can also find me on LinkedIn, where I'm less active, but I'm in Seattle now. So everybody has LinkedIn and it's just my full name, Victoria Rose Thompson. You'll see my headshot. You'll see my work as an edtech consultant. That's how you know it's me. So linkedin.com/victoriarosethompson. That is where you can find me.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. Victoria, this has been fantastic. You're such a wealth of information, experience and I'm looking forward to continuing our conversation. Thanks again for being on the show.

Victoria Thompson: Yeah, thank you for having me.

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