Stealing Business ideas for my Classroom

“Project Managers, I need to meet with you in ten minutes,” I called out to the classroom.  “I need a progress report on your drafts, also on your posters.  Additionally, I need to know if your team is having any problems.”

It was time for our daily stand-up meeting.  After getting their teams going on today’s work, five students circled around me.

I’ve stolen the ideas that I’m about to share with you from my former wife.  She works as a Project Manager for a Silicon Valley software company.  Before I go further, this disclaimer: I’m sure I’ve got most of these techniques “wrong” in terms of real-life “Agile” management and “Scrums.”  What I’ve borrowed are simply my interpretations of these techniques as I’ve listened to the “How was your day…” conversations she and I had.  However, as “wrong” as I might be about running Agile project management in my classroom, I’m very happy with our results.

This is our fourth essay of the year.  When we worked on our first three essays, every student worked on the same topic: Roanoke; Anne Hutchinson’s trial; and, the Congressional Election in Philadelphia, 1794.

This time, I Jig-sawed the room.  Each table was working on one of the following topics:

  • Louisiana Purchase and the definition of citizenship
  • Sunday Mail
  • Cherokee Removal
  • Women’s’ Suffrage
  • Slave Narratives
  • Lowell Girls and redefining femininity
  • Texas Annexation

Each team needed to decide who would do each job.

  • Project Manager – the team leader who held ultimate responsibility for all aspects of the team’s project.  PM’s would meet with me each day at our Stand-up and brief me about how their team was doing.  They would tell me what the team had finished; what they planned to accomplish that day; and, if any team members were causing problems.  Project Managers had the power to influence their team’s grade.  If a PM told me that a certain team member wasn’t pulling her/his weight, then that person’s grade would suffer.
  • Senior Editor –the team’s lead writer.  The senior editor assigned smaller writing tasks to the group, made sure that each team member came through with their part, then edited and revised the essay to make sure it had one smooth voice.
  • Senior Analyst – While ever member of the team had to help with research and analysis, the senior analyst was responsible to lead this process and make sure that the evidence and analysis that the team would use in their paper was gathered, organized, and complete.
  • Graphic Designer – In addition to their paper, each team was charged to produce a poster, graphically representing what they have learned for the other students in the classroom.
  • Cartographer – Each poster needed one or more maps to help tell the story of the team’s topic.  The Cartographer was in charge to making this map and making sure that the legend and caption helped the viewer see the story the map was intended to tell.

The Daily StandUP

During the first week of the project, I had daily tasks for each team. I would ask  each manager if their team had accomplished the prior day’s work. Then, I would let then know what I expected their team to do that day. Finally, I would ask if the team was experiencing any problems, or if they needed any help from me. 

During the second week, I let go of control. I don’t think my managers even realized what had happened. Instead of telling them what I wanted their team to do, I would ask, “What is your team going to accomplish today?  Are there any problems?”

Sometimes… there were!

One team lost a member to three days if In-School Suspension. Undaunted, the team’s manager asked for a pass to the ISS room to check in with his team member, collect work, and distribute materials. I wrote an e-mail so our suspension supervisor knew to expect him.

On another day, another project manager looked angry as he walked out the door. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that he had completed his Analyst’s work for that day, because his teammate was wasting time. Spotting a teachable moment, I asked him how he could have gotten what he wanted. “I could have spoken up more,” he replied. “I could have also asked other team members to help me get _______ back to work.”

Running class this way takes a lot of trust, because I’m not micro-managing each student’s work.  I’m not grading everyone’s daily worksheet. There are no quizzes on Fridays. Instead, I’m counting on my project managers to keep me up to speed on any problems. It’s not a perfect system. One of my mangers discovered that his team member had been lying about getting work done over the past few days. That was another teachable moment. My manager learned to periodically check his team’s work.

Not all of our problems ended in teachable moments. On a Friday, one team’s graphic designer was out sick. The manager was perplexed. The team needed the graphic designer to work on their poster. “I guess I’ll drive it by her house,” grumbled the manager. Another team’s PM suddenly piped up. “My team member lives right next to her (the graphic designer).I’m sure she’ll drop the poster off.” Problem solved.

Last Monday, every team had a rough draft of their paper ready for editing and revisions. In my next post, I’ll share with you how our revision process went.

How about you? Have you ever tried applying business strategies to your classroom?

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  • JasonParker



    As an individual who often walks the line between my interests in education and work at CTQ and my volunteer involvement and former work life in the technology and life science startup sector in North Carolina’s Triangle Region, I super appreciate this post and that you’ve designed classroom experiences in this way. 

    One of my most valuable lessons during my “middle school years” was managing and operating (with staff/advisor support, of course) our school store. Doing so was an important experience, and launched me to run a business while in high school, as well. 

    Today, I volunteer with Startup Weekend, specifically around Startup Weekend: Education programs. These are 54-hour weekend events (Friday night – Sunday afternoon) and are essentially giant “design thinking” workshops where educators, developers, and business thinkers collaborate to form viable companies around ideas that are “pitched” on Friday evening. 

    We’ve got our next one coming up in February (20th-22nd), at the Hunt Library at NC State University. 

    …what would it take to get you and (some of) your students to the event? 

    • DaveOrphal

      Happy to Attend

      Hey Jason,

      I’ve got Feb 20-22 on my calendar!  Shoot me an e-mail at with more details about what you might like from me.

      I’ll talk to a couple of my project managers from this last essay to see if they might like to attend as well.  No promises, there though!  What sounds like nerdy-fun to me…  🙂


  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Real World, Relevant, and Really fun….

    Love!!! Talk about making an academic writing assignment real world, relevant and really fun! (3 R’s we should all strive for to suppport student learning :). 

    At the beginning of this school year we launched into an investigative journalism unit where students had to read, think, and write like reporters and I’ve been wondering how to make every writing assignment feel like that ever since — the 8th graders really took on the mindset of reporters during that unit and were able to understand how credible sources, primary vs. secondary sources, quoting sources accurately, etc. mattered in a really immediate way.

    I think they could totally thrive with this sort of project management set up and I want to test it out in my own classroom in 2015! Thanks for sharing! 🙂 

  • benowens

    Excellent Perspective!

    Thanks, Dave, for such a fantastic article! As a committed PBL teacher, I also try to being such best practices from the business world into my high school math and physics classrooms and find that they often translate very well in that environment. And while I appreciate the arguments against the “corporatization” of our schools, using any tool that improves student engagement, effectiveness, and depth of knowledge is something we in the teaching profession need to be doing more of – even if it means stealing them from the business community. Our students are obviously not widgets, but the examples you cited are clearly not unique to the private sector (one could also argue that a status quo still based on “Carnegie Units,” desks in rows, one-size-fits-all instruction, etc. is deeply engrained in a long-outdated business model, but I’ll leave that for a later discussion). The fact is that tools that help improve time management, streamline task planning and follow-through, and make for more efficient team meetings to accomplish a goal are just as valuable to a classroom teacher as they are for an engineer in Silicon Valley. 
    As someone who spent 20 years working in industry, most of it designing or managing projects in manufacturing facilities, I have a deep passion for making real-world connections between what happens in my classroom to what happens in the real world that my students will be confronted with in the not too distant future. We owe them every opportunity to make those connections in the lessons 
    and projects we create, as well as the techniques we employ with them in our classrooms. By doing so, we give each student an exposure to situations and tools that ensure they are well prepared to face the challenges of a global, knowledge-based economy, regardless of their intended career.
    By the way, my favorite technique in those you mentioned is the “stand up meeting.” I guarantee any meeting one want to run efficiently and quickly will happen if the chairs are removed and this technique is used!
  • Ericka Kirkland

    Great Example of Agile in the Classroom

    That is a great example of the use of Agile.  I think that its concepts add value to the conversation of project-based learning.

    I am currently developing a workshop of the same.  Your input would be appreciated.


    • DaveOrphal

      Happy to Chat

      Hi Erica,

      Thank you for the note. I’m thrilled about how this modified Agile management system is working. I’d be happy to chat about what you’re doing and the workshop you’re developing. Feel free to email me:

  • Ericka Kirkland

    Great Example of Agile in the Classroom
    That is a great example of the use of Agile.  I think that its concepts add value to the conversation of project-based learning.
    I am currently developing a workshop of the same.

    Your input would be appreciated.

  • Zaigham Khan

    Running category this manner takes plenty of trust, as a result of I’m not micro-managing every student’s work. I’m not grading everyone’s daily worksheet. There are not any quizzes on Fridays. Instead, I’m looking forward to my project managers to stay ME up to hurry on any issues Online Employee Management system.