• Blog
  • »
  • Podcast
  • »
  • PBL in the Mathematics Classroom with Telannia Norfar (Ep 50)

PBL in the Mathematics Classroom with Telannia Norfar (Ep 50)

/ Jason Sholl

Telannia Norfar is a mathematics teacher at a public high school in Oklahoma City, OK where she implements student centered practices like project based learning. She is co-author of Project Based Learning in the Mathematics Classroom and 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. Follow her on Twitter @thnorfar and visit her website at http://pbl-birdside.blogspot.com/.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Google Podcasts


Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo Podcast, I'm your host, Nathan Lang-Raad, and on today's episode, we have Telannia Norfar. Telannia Norfar is a mathematics teacher at a public high school in Oklahoma city, Oklahoma, where she implements student-centered practices project-based learning. She is coauthor of Project-Based Learning in the Mathematics Classroom and 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. I so hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did, as Telannia and I talk about all things at project-based learning. Telannia, oh my goodness, it is so great to have you on the show. I've been so looking forward to having you on. Thanks for being a part today.

Telannia Norfar: I couldn't wait. Thanks for having me.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: I say you and I go way back into the beginnings of, I think they are the beginnings, I feel like it was pretty new to me back then, but with project-based learning, and that's how our paths first crossed.

Telannia Norfar: Yeah. I would say it was the breaking point of everybody knowing about it. People like me who knew about it, but we didn't know nobody else knew.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: Well, when I met you, you were one of the experts, the model for PBL. You had it going on, you had done the work, you had all the examples, so you're the one that we all wanted to learn from so this comes full circle again because I get to learn from you again, because it's been five, six, seven years, so now we get to circle back around and see what's new, what's up since then.

Telannia Norfar: Oh my God, oh, you so right. Oh my God, the years go by. And the funny thing that I love about PBL, but it's also sometimes frustrating for certain people, is that you always feel like you're a beginner. There's never a time that I've done a project where I do not learn something new, something better, something like, "Oh, why didn't I think of that when I did this." Each and every time. So yes, I've definitely realized I'm an expert and I've been an expert awhile. I often laughed at first, because I'm like, "You should have seen what I did last week."

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: Do you also feel too, and I don't know if you ever get this, whenever you're describing PBL or project-based learning to someone, to a fellow educator, regardless of what their experiences, there's almost a nod to like, yep. I know what it is. I know what it is. But then, when one really digs deep into it, it's so much more beyond than, yeah, we did a project. It's something that, it's beyond the worksheet or it's beyond your normal lesson. It's this big unit that we do for two or three weeks but it's so much deeper than that. Do you ever get that kind of reaction?

Telannia Norfar: Oh my God. So, so much now. It's gone from what? To, oh yeah. Yeah. And then now, you got excited at first. There was several years ago that I would get excited that people said, yeah. And then they would come show me what they were doing. And I was like, "Oh."

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: Let me show you some work here.

Telannia Norfar: That's not what-

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: What it is.

Telannia Norfar: But I'm so happy because they tried. I was like, I have [inaudible 00:03:57], balanced it with, "Okay, you're on the road, but you not at the destination yet."

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: And then to think about it, we were all there at one point. We can be on this side saying, "Oh yes, I remember those days when we found a really cool science kit. And we were like, we're going to do project-based learning today. Or we found that really cool NASA activity, STEM Rover and we did it in our class like, okay, this is a project." I mean, we've all been there. And then whenever we did the deep dive into the true project-based learning training and being able to be the experts at it, we really saw how much deeper we could go with it.

Telannia Norfar: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And it's wonderful. It's wonderful eye opening experience but yeah, you're absolutely right.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: And then with you, especially you made the math come alive. I've always been a science and math geek. And I always, as a science teacher, I always felt like I had an opportunity to make lessons become more engaging all the time because the world around us was just open, was fair game, from brushing your teeth to breathing the air, to walking. I mean, we can make connections to gravity and molecules and in chemistry, I mean, I was a chemistry and physics teacher, but then when it came to math, there is this switch where it was about the algorithm and the formula and it was so extremely abstract and it was just, what trick can we memorize to get the answer? And I feel like it's really challenging sometimes to do really organic and authentic projects in math. And you are so good at it. I would love for you to talk to me and talk through, about some of the math projects you're doing and I know our listeners would love to hear some about work too.

Telannia Norfar: Yeah. And you're absolutely right. And I always get sad when I hear about how science is having so much fun and then math goes blah because and this is something that has stuck with me so long from... I'm a national board certified teacher now but when I was going through [inaudible 00:06:19], yeah, Oh my God. Well worth it. Everybody should do it, by the way, if you're still in the classroom. But one of my readers, she was science. And she said, "I always say, you can do math without science but you can't do science without math." And it stuck with me. But one of the things I realized is that I wish we would say that about math. I wish we could say that you can't do math without another subject. I think that's the first problem. I think math has been too separated from other subjects to the point where we don't realize it was the other subjects that made it happen. So many of the algorithms came from a science or a social science or just a phenomenon of life but for instance, exponential equations just didn't happen. [inaudible 00:07:15].

Telannia Norfar: Well let's just put two to the X. And let's play with that. And with truly exponential decay, growth, just the way things were replicating in life. How do you model that? And so, I try to encourage people to one, retrain yourself because unfortunately for too long in the United States, especially, it's not that bad in other parts of the world, but in the United States, we disconnected math from what's reality to it. And we got to get back to, why did we even figure this out? Why do we know this? And that's your project. That's what came for me for one of my really popular projects that actually got videotaped and it's on a PBLWork site called the Finance Project. And I used financial planner. And I knew that it was a lot of exponential logarithmic equations in it that I just didn't do because we have computers now.

Telannia Norfar: Why do I need to do math by hand like that? But I knew it was in there and I knew it would be a great enticement for my students who were juniors and seniors and looking at going to college and looking at being an adult and what that can mean. And although I'm not teaching Algebra II this year, and precalculus, which is subjects, I usually do it in, it's still just such a great project to do that's really real world and authentic, but start there, start with really reconnecting, why do we know this math in the first place? Not the, I call it beauty of math. Sometimes certain math things came out of just interesting connections, but most of it came out from some authentic world problem that we needed to solve and may have helped us solve it.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: I love it because it starts from the foundational need as humans for us to grow, evolve, solve problems. That's how we've been able to survive and succeed because of our ability to solve problems. And so, I think sometimes we get so stuck in the procedural part of math that we forget about this whole conceptual and then even beyond that deed, application of math to the everyday-

Telannia Norfar: Completely.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: It's compelling the way you've put that. Do you think Telannia that it's unrealistic to say that, do you have to connect every single lesson to an authentic real world problem? I mean, I know that sometimes and not that there has to be either a dichotomy where it's either this or it's that, or, we say either we're doing projects, everything's tied to real world or sometimes nothing is. What do you think as far as every single lesson, how many lessons do you need to tie to projects? How many projects a year? I mean, how do you think about that in terms of planning?

Telannia Norfar: Yeah. I can tell so much and I laugh all the time and I give the analogy, especially to people who are married because they can laugh about this, but I let them know. I was like, "Really? Does everything always happen the same all the time?" And it's like, "Do you have an anniversary every day? Do you have birthdays or different things every day?" I was like, "You're going to have sometimes where it's just you making it. And you're going to have sometimes where you're really growing." Teaching and learning is the same way. What needs to always be consistent is learning. The methodology that happens throughout it can be different, but you definitely don't ever want the learning to stop. And when you do something similar to the way your marriage or certain things that happen at certain times, because of what it is, the same happens in the classroom.

Telannia Norfar: So, I don't do project-based learning every day. But project-based learning has a culture of learning that's beautiful, that is always present in my class. We're always connected, which I think is an unspoken thing about project-based learning. It really has kids get connected with each other as people. We're always thinking critically, we're always wrestling with how to grow and how to overcome no matter what the topic is, but not everything is necessarily deep enough for project-based learning. Project-based learning requires the content to be rich and multifaceted and has a lot of ways to look at it. And just, unfortunately I think it's more an unfortunate thing because we just start in this society where we just got to have everything in the curriculum. We just throw everything in. Looking at things, sometimes I'm like, "Why are we doing this?" Nobody that is solving for X like this anymore. No one. Why do we put it in here? It is just a gatekeeper. You look like you're trying to get people to not come in.

Telannia Norfar: And so, you definitely want to really analyze your curriculum for what is meaningful, what is lasting and I just tell people, just think about three basic questions to decide. What's the big part of your State test, because you'll get shut down as a school now if you don't. So, think about what's big on your State test. Think about what transfers to other subjects. What does show up in another class besides math that's still this content, and what's really essential for the next grade level. And that last question is really hard because we want to make everything essential. And I'm like, "No, no, you could not know this and still go to third grade or you could not know this and still go to ninth grade." It's what is the thinking process or what is some content that is really helpful for people to have a working knowledge of when they go to that next grade level. If you got a trifecta of you can say yes to those three questions, then you got a project

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: That's perfect. This is such a great framework that you've just established for us to help make decisions, because we have a lot of things that's vying for our attention. We have a lot of possibilities for every lesson and it's a really good filter for us to be able to decide, okay, this would be a good opportunity to make a deeper, authentic connection. So, it's good stuff. I also, whenever you were talking, was really latching onto this concept of mathematics, especially in the upper level of mathematics. How often in the real world are we dividing polynomials? Like you said, it's why in the world are we still in this traditional mindset of this body of knowledge that we have to make sure that we're quote unquote, "Covering." Before graduation.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: And there is a national effort. I mean, there has been reform that's been presented to get high school math to look more like data science and looking at, and you've also talked about it too with it's more important, not that we memorize the algorithm, but the thinking involved, that students are able to reason through a problem and they're able to justify why they chose this particular strategy to solve a problem. And this is the evidence that they have to demonstrate success. I mean, that's what's most important. So I like the emphasis that you placed on the thinking and the reasoning behind the math.

Telannia Norfar: Yep, absolutely it is. I love Jo Boaler. She's doing a lot right now to try to keep pushing the data science piece and it is true. It is such a overlooked skillset that is killing people, literally, for their lack of not knowing it. And, there's so many other mathematical processes that we just don't emphasize like we should. It's like all roads only lead to calculus and that's just not the math of the 21st century. It's starting to, I think ice is breaking, Common Core made a big move with having statistics being much more of a prominent place than before, but we still like our algebra. We still like our X.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: Right. Well, and this because it's been so ingrained in our systems for so long. It's also higher education. It's engineering and science programs are both higher education and so there has to be a complete systemic demantling in order to really get to a place where we're focusing on the cognitive processes behind mathematics, instead of the certain procedures and concepts that we have to memorize and then for the test, and then we never do it ever again. And that's not what we want education to be about.

Telannia Norfar: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: Yeah. So let's talk more about you and your really awesome work. I know before we started recording, you were telling me about a new book that you are writing. You had written one previously around project-based learning, and you're doing another one. Love to hear more about your next steps and what this next book is going to be about.

Telannia Norfar: Yeah. So it was so funny. Just with the trainings I was doing over the last 10 years, people were just always like, "Is there a book? Is there a book?" And I was like, "Not really."

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: They were telling you something.

Telannia Norfar: Yeah, it was really loud. Ultimately, classroom teacher at heart and so I just wasn't thinking of writing a book, but thankfully I met another great national faculty member from PBLWorks, well, we were both former national faculty members. We were national faculty members and he was a math project-based learning teacher too and so we joined up. We wrote Project-based Learning in the Math Classroom and we discovered, we originally were wanting it for all grade levels. And our publisher was like, "Well, nobody does that. People don't really buy the whole grade level. They do it by their grade level." And so we were like, "Oh, okay." We're like, "Our biggest wheelhouse is grades six through 10, so we'll do that."

Telannia Norfar: And then they were wanting us to do a K through second and a three through fifth, which is also two grade bands that usually are separated. And I love it because I've been stealing from elementary all my life, elementary rocks. I just technically can't do the same kids all day long or else I would be an elementary teacher. I need the rotation of bodies that happens in high school level. So we're in the process of writing that. It'll come out in the Fall of this year. So excited about both of those and being able to support teachers more. So, it ended up still be called Project-based Learning in the Math Classroom but for the elementary, we really are being intentional about tying literacy and [inaudible 00:19:33], and really connecting it to the way they work similar to the way we connected it to the way middle and high school works when they look at pieces. So, I'm excited about, about that and about the work of writing it. It's been fun.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: That's excellent. Well, congratulations on that. I can't wait for the next book to come out and I know many teachers would love to see, I mean, it's just how we're wired. We want to see examples and exemplars and then because you write about this too. It sounds like it might be easy just to take a project that someone else developed and incorporate it into your classroom, but yes, it might be an inspiration, but it still requires a lot of planning and work and I'm wondering if you can share a little bit more about that. If a teacher takes, for example, one of the exemplars in your book and say, "Okay, I'm going to do this particular project." What advice would you give to that classroom teacher in order to make sure that it meets the needs of his or her students and is a good fit for the classroom?

Telannia Norfar: Yeah. That's one of the things that I think is sometimes difficult for teachers and I feel like, I do not know for sure, but I feel like one of the reasons why it's difficult is because we've been so textbook driven. Many teachers really haven't and this sounds horrible, but they haven't taught. They did the program off the book, but they've never really planned it with their kids and with their outcomes in mind. Now, thankfully, professional learning communities has built teachers to really talk together and work together and grow in that sense but I would still say math is one of those subjects that we're still very textbook driven. And the book does a really great job of helping teachers who are textbook driven to transfer that. But I usually tell teachers, okay, first start with what do you definitely really want the kids to know?

Telannia Norfar: And that's where you go to find a project is pick one where it said that it's really working on that same thing, but then think about really the people who are in front of you. I worked in an urban multicultural, there's over 30 languages spoken in my building. A mixture of middle-class to poverty student class. So, what my students are interested in and doing may be very different than a suburban or rural, or, anywhere in between type of setting. So the projects is about really the kids being engaged. And so, if you don't really think about what it is that moves them, then, you're going to fall flat. So make sure that the idea that the project has is the same idea your kids would like. And then from there, really, this is the hardest part of it but if you can get in a routine of always starting your day and ending your day with the kids' questions. Allow the questioning of the kids to drive the project in your lessons, you could be on a better road to doing PBL well.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: That's such a great advice. And I think it's a really important that we go back to those student centered practices and what do our students value? What is their prior knowledge like? And then also looking at just your community and, it wouldn't make sense, for example, I saw a really great STEM PBL project for a district in Washington, and they were looking at the declining population of salmon in the Northwest in the Columbia River system. I mean, it was very specific. And so it would not makes sense to just take that project obviously, and, do it in Arizona where it's a very [inaudible 00:23:57], nothing, nothing. And it's a tongue in cheek example, but we have to really... I think some of the best projects have been when there is a local issue.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: I know when I was an administrator in Tennessee, we were looking at solving a problem with the overpopulation of deer in the area and there were car accidents all the time. And so, yeah, we had students to develop, they were trying to find land reserves and look at the ecosystem of deer and they were trying to solve a problem where humans deer could live in harmony together, and that was meaningful. And because they had been in car accidents with deer and so it was something that was very visceral and emotional, but they also, we could take the concepts we were learning about in environmental science and in biology and apply those to this real world problem. And I think that's really important and our best challenges and projects were ones that were locally important and we can get our community involved too.

Telannia Norfar: Yeah. So true. So true. And I think people think that you have to also do these big grandioseness. Everybody in the community is moved and they changed the world type of things. But remember, you're just trying to change kids and more than you are necessarily teaching kids how to change the world. You're really working on your kids being better. So something small that impacts them, something just even in their own immediate world that can just be inside of their building is powerful too. I'm resurrecting, this has been a very eventful year. I'm sure many of your listeners are like, "I love all the things she's saying, but I'm in a pandemic."

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: Right. [crosstalk 00:26:02].

Telannia Norfar: I'm still trying to figure out how to put stuff online for kids to work. But you can utilize, the things that's happening to them and that's meaningful to them as an opportunity too, and so, we had to break it and stop this one project that we're doing, where the kids are actually going to make recommendations to the school of what changes needs to happen based upon these realities of the pandemic. What is it that we did as a school that they like, what did they not, what can we do differently based on data and based on qualitative analysis and quantitative analysis for them.

Telannia Norfar: And there's times that I've just even just exposed kids to meaningful things. Like I had students think about what it's like to own a business, what it would mean to choose the best price for our business. So, I always want to remind people that, yes, there are some amazing Earth shattering projects that you will or can do, but don't forget that the bottom line to all of this is about your students. And it's really about it being Earth shattering and changing them then necessarily you have to have it where you save someone outside in the world.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: And you never know, it's a good point, you never know those, those small successes will eventually end up impacting maybe it's something on a larger scale down the road. It's the skills, the empathy that you learned during a project, the communication skills that are built during your project, those will serve in larger, more grandiose ways one day. And so, we don't know what those opportunities might be, but we do want to prepare students for those opportunities when they come their way. So, that's a really good point.

Telannia Norfar: Yeah.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: This is such a good stuff. And I can't believe our time is already up, but-

Telannia Norfar: No.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: I know-

Telannia Norfar: Always happens.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: I can call you up any time and we can keep chatting. And I know our listeners will want to, if they're not already connected with you, they are going to want to find you, find your amazing resources, find you on Twitter. So what is the best way for our listeners to get in touch with you?

Telannia Norfar: True. Well, I am a huge Twitter person. I'm getting better about Instagram, Facebook too. Those are just two platforms I forget about, but my handle on both Twitter and Instagram is thnorfar, N-O-R-F-A-R. And then for Facebook, I'm getting better about it too, where I post and try to, well, especially now that we're back in person. It wasn't cool pictures when I was doing teaching online. So, watching a bunch of screens with my kids' emojis on there wasn't helpful. But, now that we're back in person, I'll be mixing the two worlds to see how you do it. So follow me with telanniahnorfar. But Telannia, it's not a name that you really see online a lot. So T-E-L-A-N-N-I-A, you'll get me.

Telannia Norfar: And then I'm blogging again. I'm actually a couple of posts behind. I'm doing a post pretty soon about formative assessment, but not how to just do formative assessments, but really how to take what you find out and change your instruction in the moment. I don't think we ever get told that well. We say do formative assessment and we say look at data, but how do you really use it to design your lessons going forward? So that is going to be on pbl-birdside.blogspot.com. And very soon, actually, probably when this is out, mathpbl.com will be launched. That's going to be a site dedicated to all things PBL and math. Some free resources as well as some paid resources will be out in March. So, I'm excited about launching that too.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: You are just a busy bee but doing lots of great work. So, I'm again, so honored that you-

Telannia Norfar: It sounds like what my husband says all the time. He's like, "When are you going to slow down?"

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: And you're like, "Never, that's not who I am. Thank you."

Telannia Norfar: Right. Yeah. Yeah. I love helping people.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: Oh, I can tell.

Telannia Norfar: [Inaudible 00:30:53], to do that.

Dr. Nathan Lang Raad: Thank you so much. This has been so wonderful.

Telannia Norfar: It was. Thank you. I would love to come back.