Saturday, December 8, 2012

How to win a war.

Last week I lost a war. This week I was determined to do better. The first thing I did this weekend was to actually complete the Venn Diagram assignment myself. I realized many weaknesses of it including poor design and poor choice of texts. I should have created structure before the assignment to help them understand the texts before asking them to compare them. The Library of Congress also did not really address the topics in the way that I wanted. 

So Monday morning I apologized again for the assignment and told students I was not grading it. I explained my intentions and goals of what I had hoped to accomplish and acknowledged how the assignment failed in its execution. I introduced a new challenging read related to the essential questions, but in this task did not ask them to do anything extra with the text, just understand it.

The rest of the week students chose a part of the story of the Spanish American War to tell and started developing materials for their videos. Students like this better, but it would be a stretch to say that very many of them are excited about the project.

Your Choice from marfis75
My larger solution is coming at the end of the project. We are planning the next project on the Cold War. I created a Project Briefcase with the standards and the topics of emphasis: McCarthyism  Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. My temporary Driving Question is "How do you all want to study this?"

I have not planned how we will do this project, the audience, or what our final product will be. There will be no fancy entry event. Students are going to help design this project from day one on what they want it to be. I have given lip-service to this idea before but it is time to put my money where my mouth is: student designed projects. #winning

The one thing that we are planning for this project is a detailed simulation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We feel this is worthwhile because the students have asked us multiple times including last week to do more simulations. Also it is taking a ton of time to research and set up on our part so there is no way that we can wait to start putting it together.

We are looking at this next project as a pilot for turning over our entire curriculum to the students. We have some concerns but it is time for students to take control of their own learning.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

I lost a war this week.

I lost a war this past week. My partner and I designed a PBL unit around the driving question "...cuz MD?" for a unit on the Spanish American War. We plan on having students each tell small parts of the war by creating short Common Craft style videos. At first students were hooked trying to figure out what "MD" was. But after they did our project seemed "destined" to failure.

We have found that when students have a good basic background on a topic such as WWII or 9/11 that they do a good job on inquiry. When the topic is more difficult students tend to focus on basic "what" questions instead of deeper "how" or "why." On top of that they can not even ask good "what" questions unless we lead them to the topics. This is logical when they lack background knowledge, so we end up creating fairly structured activities to "guide" them. In the past if we do not do this they miss many important concepts on their own.

So this past week we created a number of structured assignments to "help" students. We created an activity where they compared Howard Zinn's description of the Spanish American War with a more traditional approach from the Library of Congress. They were supposed to make a Venn Diagram comparing the similarities and differences of the texts. Students struggled with the reading level and with how Zinn's writing was not structured like a normal textbook. They had not read Zinn before and could not recognize the "big story" that he was telling of the struggle of women, labor, and minorities as a counter to big business and government. This was the first time we have asked them to compare texts like this. Our selections were too long, too unfamiliar, and the task was too unstructured for the first time attempting it.

The next day we had students analyze the poem "White Man's Burden" (not an easy read). Again this was the first time that we have looked at poetry this year and we mostly asked them to do it on their own. Students were not curious or engaged. They were bored. We were looking at primary sources that were not easy reads and students gave up because they had no buy in in the project. They called us out on it on Friday. (The irony was I was proudly wearing my new shirt for the first time.) They called it irrelevant,  "busy work," and "worksheets." They called it "vomiting up information." They said they saw no point in what we were doing. They were struggling and frustrated. It hurt because it was true.

One student reminded me of promises I had made in the past not to teach like this and gave examples of better learning that we had done in the past. Once students find their voice you can't take it away from them. I listened and did not immediately respond. That alone is really difficult for me. I processed and talked to my partner. We recognized mistakes we made in not showing students the relationship between the assignments and the essential questions. We apologized and explained the connections to the class. We went through the essential questions with the class and checked off the ones that we had addressed. It was also clear that students have a good understanding of the key concept of Manifest Destiny after the week's activities.

We communicated the objectives more clearly to them and it ended on a good note. Students left feeling less frustrated. Problem solved.

But it hasn't really resolved for me. I was boring. I sucked. I have to do better. This represents my deepest struggle with teaching to the standards. I am not happy with this project and never have been. I am teaching it because I have to for the standards. I recognize the lack of relevance to students but was unable to come up with a way to make it matter to them. We have no authentic audience for the videos and choose them because we thought they would be fun for the students around this boring topic to them.

 This tension between what I have to teach and what students want to learn has been the biggest internal struggle for me this year. To be continued...

Sunday, November 25, 2012


by meehanf

I have been thinking about food alot lately. You could blame it on Thanksgiving but it has been on my mind for much longer. We started a family garden a couple of years ago and that started a shift toward paying more attention to what we eat. Right now I am reading Fast Food Nation which although slightly dated is a really interesting take on how American eating patterns have influenced our culture. Then to top it off my pastor preached about the concept of the table today and immediately after much of the same things were said by Michael Doyle on his blog (to summarize them both, every living thing depends on the death of other living things to survive).

But what has been going through my mind lately is how enjoyable food and eating is. Steak, mashed potatoes, apple cider, dark chocolate, fresh fruit, I could go on and on. We have to eat or we would die, but it doesn't have to be such a great experience. Food could be like gas in our cars and have no flavor or worse taste bad. But no we have tons of choices of foods and flavors. Breathing is necessary too, but we rarely even notice it. Mostly only when the air is bad or we are out of breath. Breathing is not usually enjoyable. But food is enjoyable. It is required at parties, celebrations, and holidays around the world. Each culture has specific foods for certain seasons and celebrations.

So I know from my viewpoint that it is no accident that the body function of re-fueling is such an important part of being human. So I am thankful for my Creator making such simple daily rituals to be so pleasing. I will leave you with a link to Perhaps the World Ends Here by Joy Harjo which says better than I how much of life revolves around food.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why social studies should teach empathy

I have seen some teachers argue against teaching empathy in social studies. I admit I don't really get their point of view, but in danger of simplifying it, it sounds to me something like "it is not our job to teach students how to feel about a topic" or "you are presenting history in a (liberal) bias on this topic."

I totally disagree. It is our job to teach multiple points of view. And to be honest almost all history textbooks are extremely biased towards WASP viewpoints (aka the "winners" of history). That is why I use Howard Zinn in my classroom to show the other side (but of course not exclusively). My other argument is that every person, every source, and yes every teacher is biased. Therefore just by the materials the teacher selects she is making a biased decision. The best option is to give multiple sources from multiple viewpoints and PBL takes it one step further by encouraging students to go out and research and find these different views.

The problem with student research sometimes is that it too is biased. Students often lack the historical background to start their research and identify different viewpoints. My approach to this is that during "work time" I give them specific articles, primary sources, etc to steer them into interesting questions and alternative viewpoints for their topic. Then I encourage them to continue to research on the topic and go deeper. Then we come back in a class discussion or Socratic circle and they can discuss different aspects of it.

Case in point is the 9/11 project we are currently working on where students will design a monument commemorating that time period. Students immediately gravitated toward the American victims/heroes side of history. But our driving question was "Why did 9/11 happen and how should we respond to terrorism?"
We read Ender's Game and used the concept of "Speaker for the Dead" to shift students to think of 9/11 and the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from a Middle Eastern perspective. After researching all of the American Interventions since the end of the Cold War students were able to see (but not justify) the motives of terrorism. Looking at the events post 9/11 such as the civilian casualties in the wars, Abu Graib, Guantanamo Bay, and abuses of the Patriot Act students were also critical of many of our responses to 9/11. Now students are designing much more complex monuments that are not just American "hero worship" but actual critiques of history.

In reality I believe we do our students an injustice if we do NOT ask them to be empathetic and look at history from the viewpoint of its "losers"-the weak, the down trodden, the humble citizens who are just trying to raise their families and live the best they know how. Because that is ultimately the category that most humans (including myself) fall into as few of us will ever be famous or huge centers of power. I also think most of the greatest heroes humans in history such as Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Theresa, and Nelson Mandela fall into the "loser" category but rise above through humility, justice, and love. And isn't that the goal of social studies? To teach students to be responsible, critical thinking citizens? But what good is critical thinking without an empathetic heart to go with it.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Stopping students from "cramming"

by Alex. Schultz
So it is the end of the quarter and the past two weeks I have been bombarded by students "re-assessing" their standards. We use standards based grading and students can re-do any of their assessments until they meet the standard fully. It is supposes to be a process of student submitting work, getting feedback, and then refining their work and understanding. This is happening with some students, but what has happened this week has been more of an "Oh crap" moment of poor grades from students and/or their parents. So then they quickly write up and re-do as many standards as possible, often of questionable quality of work.

With the new quarter starting Monday I am instituting two changes to try to correct this gaming of the system and to encourage students to really wrestle with the content without focusing on grades. First of all to prevent the wait until the last minute attitude, students will be required to initiate a re-assessment of a standard within two weeks of the first assessment or they forfeit the opportunity to re-assess. With a re-assessment attempt they will gain another two week window to continue to work on the assessment. By this I hope to encourage students to begin re-assessment immediately and build in a habit of doing and receiving feedback and doing again and of course eliminate waiting until the end of the quarter to cram.

The second thing is also quite simple, but I think that it will be powerful is I realized an easy way to withhold grades from students. I think many teachers realize that as soon as a grade has been attached to any assignment students have been conditioned to view it as "done" and are not motivated to continue in it. We use an LMS called Echo(similar to Blackboard or Moodle) where students submit their work and we assign grades. What we normally do in our class is have students submit a link to a Google Doc where the actual work is done. We then add comments to the GDoc and put a score in Echo. The change I plan to make is that I will not "publish" the grades in Echo. Therefore students will not be able to see the score I have assigned to it. Instead I will tell the class that I have read their assignments and left them comments. I will give them time in class to look at the comments, revise their work, and re-submit. By not showing them their scores I eliminate the student who says, "I have a 70% (or a 80% or even a 100%) and that is good enough for me." In a way I can force the first cycle of feedback/re-assessment without the students thinking about the grade. Hopefully they will continue to fix things even after I finally hit publish.

Of course if neither of these changes prove helpful I will adapt and look for other solutions to encourage students to always view their learning as a process rather than something that they are "done" with.

#edcampgr PBL presentation stuff

Slides of overview of PBL

  PBL Project Outline Form

Monday, October 29, 2012

Marketing Our Classrooms

This is a blatant self-promotion post. The local news did a nice story about the #MyParty12 election project which you can see here.

Side question: Why do I feel uncomfortable promoting what we are doing? Why don't teachers share more the good things happening in their classrooms?

Side note: At my current job at the county level, we have a marketing department of three employees. They are the ones with the connections to get the media in our school. How many districts have marketing staff? Should they? How can we change the education conversation in this country without sharing what we are doing?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Student-created Political Parties

So here is the follow up to the What My Students Believe about Politics post. For phase two students formed groups based on common ideas as discovered from Students then created their own parties including name, slogan, logo, campaign platform, and 30 second commercial. They then premiered them this week in front of state representative along with a 2 minute stump speech. Overall they did a great job and I feel like the energy and interest in this project was the highest I have seen. Students definitely made an impression on the representatives. Check out their commercials and their party platforms are linked in the YouTube descriptions.

Which one is your favorite? One of these is going on to our network wide competition.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

MEAP Me Maybe

A local school made this to "pump" kids up to take the state tests this week called MEAP in Michigan. My daughter was shown it before she took her tests.

Most disturbing lines:
"I'm crazy worried"
"I fill the bubbles in and hope that it's right. I can't sleep at night."

Most accurate lines:
"MEAP, Since you came into my life I didn't miss you that bad."

There is so much about this that is disturbing to me. Why should elementary students be stressed by high stakes testing? Teachers are reaching at anything to motivate students because of the over-emphasis on these one time tests.

As for my own children they were not even allowed to read books or draw when they finished testing. They just had to sit there.

When the testing was over for the week they did have time to watch a Disney movie. Sigh

What on earth did they learn this week?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why we have trouble mobilizing our voice.

This post is a response to Scott McLeod's post Why are we educators having so much trouble mobilizing our voice in ways that are effective.

Scott's post really resonated with my thoughts this week. I want to share a personal story that I think addresses Scott's questions.

I teach in a PBL school that is part of the New Tech Network of over one hundred schools. Our class is participating in the #MYparty12 election project across our network. Students are creating their own political parties and voting on them based on their platforms and campaign commercials. Students are also watching the debates and tweeting about them, inviting in state politicians, and collaborating with other schools in different ways.

Yesterday I received an email and later had phone conversations with a producer of a national TV program that is interested in doing a story about the project. We are very excited about the possibility of this happening although it remains only a possibility at this point.

What I would like to share is the effort it took to get to this point. I was at New Tech training that they provide for us this summer and met many of their amazing staff. I also volunteered to do an Ignite talk at the conference which led me to develop closer relationships with both New Tech personnel and other New Tech teachers. I also network with many educators both in and out of New Tech through this blog and Twitter. While at the conference I had the crazy idea of a network wide project centered around the election. I immediately shared it with these teachers and staff.

We all agreed to make this happen and over the summer and into the fall we had numerous emails sent, virtual meetings, and created many documents to share with other teachers. The classroom teachers worked hard to develop the project and the supporting materials and dreamed up crazy ideas to implement it. This was a lot of work and time consuming but we would have done this work for our classes anyway.

Here is my main point: New Tech Network made this project huge in ways we never could have by ourselves. Three of their staff have committed considerable time and energy to this project: a professional marketer, a social media expert, and a person who has just organized the collaboration and done all of the "dirty work" behind the scenes. By myself I never would have had the time, energy, or connections to pull this off and then "advertise" it to get the attention of a national network. I am busy teaching my students in my classroom.

I blog; I tweet; I share at state and local conferences. But I do not have the ability to influence the national policy on education. New Tech Network does. And it has professional marketers / lobbyists who are making the connections in the media and in Washington D.C.

I am not saying that New Tech Network is going to solve all of the education problems in this country by itself. What I am trying to show is that the average classroom teacher, me, does not have the ability to have a loud voice in isolation. The power of a large network of schools is that we can mobilize large projects and have professionals market them. If I was to pick from Scott's choices of why we are having trouble mobilizing our voices I would say we are being outspent and need to do a better job of marketing.

My conclusion is this (which I have said before) I think we need lobbyists in DC who represent progressive, student-centered inquiry as a model of education. We need money and someone who can build connections with both Congress and the Department of Education and "sell" a better way to do school than test prep and standardized tests.

Any takers??? I would donate $50 for that person's salary and if everyone on blogs and Twitter that says they care about these issues pitched in I think we could afford a few lobbyists.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Strewing vs. Standards

By Mag3737
A tweet led me to a term that I had never heard before "strewing." This post gives a nice description of this homeschool concept: as "leaving material of interest around for our children to discover." Google says the verb form is to "scatter or spread (things) untidily over a surface or area." Basically strewing is exposing students to interesting books, objects, places, etc and letting them choose where to take their learning path. Strewing is also the design of a quality museum.

I have definitely used this idea with my own children and have had it in mind when I picture teaching in my ideal classroom. But seeing it spelled out was the perfect articulation for what I don't like about the Common Core or any "standards."

Standards control learning and kill curiosity. Strewing on the other hand allows the strewer (probably just made up that word) to influence the learner without controlling her. That is how I envision the perfect school. Master learners creating interesting experiments and simulations that apprentice learners will want to become invested in out of their natural curiosity.

I want to strew but standardization fights against it by requiring that every child learns the same stuff. Hard to guarantee that if students are allowed to wander all over in the subject. Definitely will be thinking about how to subvert Common Core to allow maximum "strewing" time in the future...

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What My Students Believe About Politics

This past week we finished "phase one" of the #MYparty12 election project. Students explored their personal opinions about political issues and the historical backgrounds of the two primary parties. Here I would like to share how students explored issues and then started to identify with different parties.

Our "entry event" was to have students write their name on a scale of 1-10 on a huge banner paper on two issues: healthcare and concealed weapons (click through to see how we framed the issues). We picked these two issues because of our students interests (guns) and we also wanted an issue that involved a belief in both the responsibility of government and budget issues (healthcare). We also picked our issues from the topics on the site After we described the positions students wrote their name on the spectrum where their position was.

Next students read the arguments and statistics at ProCon and discussed it in groups. Then students re-wrote their name if their position changed or circled their name if it stayed the same. This led to a discussion of changing your beliefs and also what your beliefs are based on.

We also were very deliberate to only use the 1-10 scale. We avoided the words "left," "right," "liberal," and "conservative" because we did not want them to be biased according to what they thought they believed or had been taught by their parents.

The following class students brainstormed a long list of issues and then each group researched on in the style of In other words they had to find arguments and research that supported both sides of the thesis statement they created. Next students had three minutes to present both sides of the research and then every student got up and stood under the banner to represent their views. We intentionally had the "liberal" view on the issues go to the left side and the "conservative" view go to the right, but still avoided using these terms until after they were done.

Students stood under this banner to represent their views
Afterwards students reflected on how much they stayed in the same general spot with the different issues or moved around. We also had a big moment when I "rephrased" a student thesis. The original was "Illegal immigrants should not be allowed in the country." Almost all students agreed with this statement in the "10" or  "conservative" side of the spectrum. I changed the wording to something to exempt children who have lived in the U.S. most of their life here and there was a large shift to the "left." We talked about how pollsters frame questions to manipulate how people vote on issues.

We then spent a few days researching FDR's New Deal and Reaganomics to understand the historical origins of the basic beliefs of the two majority parties. And finally students took the survey at I really like this site because student are matched to candidates based on their opinions about the issues. It lets a person rate how important each issue is to them and gives multiple nuanced choices for each question. For example on abortion instead of just Pro Life or Pro Choice you can choose things such as "not after the first trimester" or "only legal in cases of rape or when the life of the mother is at stake."

The best part of the site though is that it matches you to minority party candidates such as Gary Johnson (libertarian), Jill Stein (Green), and Rocky Anderson (Justice). The students ended up pretty evenly divided between Obama, Romney, Johnson, and Green. Students were surprised by these answers and that led to some great discussions. Some were also upset and claimed that the site was rigged because they did not like who it said they were matched with. Many of these students scored high for both Obama and Romney and did not understand how that was possible. This lead to a nice discussion about what it means to be an "independent" who agrees with both sides on different issues.

All in all this was a great process that led to great conversations about both the issues and later the parties and candidates. After watching the first debate this past week students are starting to get excited about politics and the election! This week students will create their own political parties with names, logos, slogans, and platforms. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

All kids are born geniuses.

Check out this short interview with Michio Kaku about how schools and standardized testing destroy the natural curiosity towards science that we are all born with. As the father of two blossoming scientists I care a lot about this.

"When we hit the danger years. The danger years of junior high school and high school. That's when it's (scientific curiosity) literally crushed out of us. 'Every little flower of curiosity' said Einstein, 'is crushed by society itself'."

Watch it all.

We need to reverse this trend! Let students DO science and not just rigged labs that the teacher knows the results. Let students apply scientific method to problems they care about and attempt solutions.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

What to Obsess Over

I stole this title and post from Seth Godin's blog today. He writes about businesses focusing on direct marketing techniques instead of customer satisfaction. Here is an excerpt that I have edited for schools:

"I think for most businesses schools that want to grow improve, it's way too soon to act like a direct marketer politician/edu-reformer and pick a single number (standardized test score) to obsess about.
The reason is that these numbers demand lead to that you start tweaking cheating. You can tweak cheat a website test or tweak cheat an accounts payable policy students by test prep and make numbers go up, which is great, but it's not going to fundamentally change your business school.
I'd have you obsess about things that are a lot more difficult to measure. Things like the level of joy or relief or gratitude your best customers students feel. How much risk your team is willing to take with new product launches projects to personalize instruction. How many people parents recommended you to a friend today...
What are you tracking?"

Sunday, September 2, 2012

I hate standardized testing, so why am I choosing to start the year with a test on the standards?

I want to share our first "project" in American Studies and the philosophy behind it. First of all, it will not really be a project at all. When the students and I started looking at the standards for this year we noticed that there was a ton of overlap with last year's standards for Global Studies. In particular both classes include WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. The standards do have a bit more of a domestic focus but some of them are practically identical. These standards are also a big chunk (approximately 25%) of the "power" standards for this year.
by cobalt123

I felt like my students did a very nice job with WWI and WWII last year and have a good understanding of these events. Their level on the Cold War was not quite as deep though. So we decided to start the year by reviewing WWI, WWII, and how WWII led to the origins to the Cold War. We will return to the rest of the Cold War later this year. We will spend only two weeks on this and end with a test. Of course the test will be like last year's test: open internet and collaborative.

Why are we doing this? Quite simply I hate standardization but I am forced to teach the state standards. So to paraphrase a story told to me by a colleague about a conversation he had with Dennis Littky of Big Picture school. At their school students are encouraged to study their passions. My friend asked him how they deal with standards. Dennis told him, "You do what you have to do." So they cram all of the standards in at the beginning with students knowing that they are working hard so that they will have space in the year to explore their passions later. So that is my motivation here.

We are going to knock out a big chunk of standards at the beginning in order to create space later in the year for students to dig deep into their individual (or group) passions related to being an American citizen. Since this is our second year together I already know what those interests are for most of the students. So this is why I have a vague idea of how this year will end but am extremely excited because I expect my students to decide to do some amazing work to make our world a better place.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Student Designed Curriculum

Piles of sorted standards
Last year was my first year at a new PBL high school. Before school started I created a year-long scope and sequence of what topics our projects would be and what the final products would be. The projects gradually went from very specific teacher designed to more open ended ones. I included lots of student choice along the way and ended the year with open ended products such as our art fair.

I knew from the beginning of last year that I would be teaching the same students for two years moving up with them for this year. One of my goals was after students understood the PBL process to invite them to help me design projects. So at the end of the year I asked for volunteers and got around 10 per class (out of 50 students).

We set aside a time to meet during work time at the end of last year and I showed them a list of this year's state standards. I had the standards all cut out into strips and asked students to sort them by topic which they had fun with. Then we spent another hour talking about project ideas, products, and authentic audiences.

So this year I have a very general scope and sequence based on the students suggestions. I have specifically designed the first three projects (the first one is not really a project, but a review technique that deserves a separate post, the second is the #MYparty election project which had to be planned since it is being implemented around the country, and the third is a more open-ended one on 9/11) but the rest of my year is fairly wide open.

I plan to continue to gauge student interests and get their help in planning the rest of the year as far as project ideas, driving questions, products, and authentic audience. Once again I do not want to limit students' motivation, interests, or creativity by imposing all of my ideas on them. I am excited by the unknown paths that students and I will discover together this year. I truly believe that this is the most important part of any good curriculum: allowing it to be student-designed and focused.

I leave you with a quote from Postman and Weingartner "Unless an inquiry is perceived as relevant by the learner, no significant learning will take place."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Copyright by New Tech student Adrian Harris
I am part of a massive PBL project with the New Tech Network centered on the election this fall that I thought I would share with everyone. Joe Urschel and myself brainstormed the #MYParty12 project that asks students to not just follow the political banter this fall but to evaluate what they actually believe in themselves. Our main goals of this project include (but are not limited to):
  • Have students understand the history of political parties and the election process in the United States
  • Have students think about what issues are most important to them.
  • Show students how they can have a voice in this country.
  • Challenge students to develop persuasive arguments to support claims (Common Core)
  • Have students explore the civility of politics.
So we created a project that focuses on these points but is flexible enough for teachers and students to take in unique directions.

Every participating school will have students create their own political platform and then a 30 second video commercial. Schools will have primaries based on their own voting methods and the winning video from each school will be entered into a New Tech Network election. All of the schools' entries will be narrowed down to the top five who will participate in an online debate leading up to the presidential election in November. On election day there will be a Network vote for the winning party.

But that is just the minimum requirements. Students and teachers can take this starting point and go in many directions according to their interests and class. We have made a Google Doc jam packed with resources that you need to get this project started and other suggestions of activities and how to implement it. Also check out the Election tab of my livebinder for other resources. Some of the suggestions include debates between different schools, having students develop their own civility rubric, skyping in state politicians and others involved int the election process, and having "debate parties" at school to watch the presidential debates live and tweet out thoughts with the hashtag #MYparty12.

Obviously this project is perfect for an American Studies (integrated U.S. history with ELA) or Government class, but is not limited to those subjects. This project could be completed in a stand alone ELA, digital media class, or adapted by any teacher. We are using the hashtag #MyParty12 to send out info. and to promote student work. 

I know that you may not be part of the New Tech Network of schools but feel free to follow our hashtag and watch the students commercials when they start to post them on the New Tech Network home page. Or better yet borrow from our ideas and set up your own collaboration with another teacher in another school.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I just finished the excellent Teaching as a Subversive Activity  by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner tonight. I could probably write twenty posts about different topics in it, but why steal their words? You (any educator or person who cares about education) should read this classic yourself. It is not new but very little of the book is dated. You are probably familiar with many ideas from this book such as the often tweeted/quoted phrases such as "crap detection" and that a "teacher should never ask a question that they know the answer to." It is radical and contains a lot of pedagogy arguments for a shift in schools but is also highly practical at the same time. The overall focus of the book is shifting to a student-created, open-ended curriculum based on inquiry about things that students care about. It is full of "tweetable" lines, but for this post I want to talk about one topic (I could have chosen dozens).
by Mike Licht

Postman and Weingartner talk about judging in relationship to grading. They recommend keeping track of your negative and positive judgments for a few days to become more aware of how judgmental you are.   "Once we judge someone or something we tend to stop thinking about them or it. Which means, among other things, that we behave in response to our judgments rather than to that which is being judges. People and things are processes. Judgments convert them into fixed states. This is one reason that judgments are commonly self-fulfilling."

I found these statements so true. Our judgments are final in our own minds and we like to label students. We need to be conscious of this at all times and remember that all of our students are works in progress and that none of them have reached their potential yet and find ways to push them mentally in positive ways daily. I know that I can be a very judgmental person at times in life and I need to keep this habit out of the classroom. I will take their advice and judge every student as a success story waiting to unfold!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

When Leadership Loses Control

When I think about leadership in my mind I compare the various administrators I have had over the years. In my current job as part of a PBL school I think my administrator has some great qualities that could be valuable to everyone. The most important one is that she empowers, first teachers and then students. Last spring as a team we started a new school. For most decisions we discussed and came to consensus as a staff. In this world of top down mandates this was such a refreshing change. I know that I had a real voice as I advocated for things such as school-wide standardized grading system and open filtering policy.
by Boudewijn Berends

When it comes to technology she is capable but not necessarily "networked." Once again she does try to limit what teachers and students do with technology to what she is comfortable with. She trusts us as professional experts with open internet to use online tools for learning. She always advocates and supports students and learning rather than worrying about controlling.

My curriculum is wide open as long as I addressed the state standards. There is no judgmental oversight and I am encouraged to be innovative and creative. I sometimes come up with crazy ideas and she supports and encourages me to try new things. There is no fear of being judged as a failure for trying something different. I know that this kind of openness and freedom is not the norm in education in the U.S. today. But I can tell you that I have never felt more professional and enjoyed teaching as I have this past year.

At first appearance these may seem like small things but I think this country needs more of this kind of leadership: trust of teachers and their professional judgement. I think administrators need to be more "hands off" in dealing with their teachers and more "hands on" in resisting outside forces demanding standardized testing and cookie cutter curriculum.

The payoff for this is huge. As my administrator relinquishes power and control to me, I do the same thing in my classroom by giving power and choices to my students. Just like me they enjoy school more than ever! Students are treated as responsible and given the opportunities to be creative in their learning.

Politicians and ed reformers need to spend less time trying to get everyone to be the same (control) and trust more in local teachers and students to creatively explore passionate learning.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why the Common Core and Standardization are Evil

So I received an email that someone had posted a comment on a discussion I had started awhile ago about Standard Based Assessment on the #SSchat Ning. It came from Mary Lou Buell and she agreed to let me publish it here. Below is the comment in its entirety:

I will look and see if I can find that old list. But I have to confess, you are bringing up a sore subject for me. After a decade on the job, I thought I have finally hit on a great system. The skills. The skill progress chart, etc. made the subject so much more meaningful for me and the students. I used the world history subject content to assess the overarching skills which were like "explain how economics is a driving force in history." So, it put events from the Opium War, to the Unification of Germany, to the Persian Gulf War into perspective. It really gave the students some direction and focus, instead of just learning "facts" about the events. It was a great way to generate discussions too. And the best part was that just like in life there were no "wrong" answers on tests, only unsupported answers.

Unfortunately, due to pressures from RTTT and the new evaluation system our department needed to standardize the curriculum. We have no state history test, and if we ever do get one it won't be in world history. So the department took a vote and my way lost out to multiple choice tests with questions copied from old NY state regents exams, and I believe the AP world history test. We also have new department "standards" with things like "attainment of rights" and "democracy" and "industrialization" which I don't mind as much, but there are only a few of them and they are broad it's hard for the students to really focus. We also have standardized essential questions which are great (well, ok...I had my own that I like better, but these are ok)---BUT the multiple choice tests don't really address the EQs. 

I really struggled last year, and am having a hard time this year getting my planning going. Sorry to be a downer, but I am not looking forward to another year of this curriculum and not being able to teach it how I want. I will go through my old files and see if I can find some helpful examples of what I used to do.

by Connor Tarter

So an inspired teacher with a wonderful curriculum is being shut down by the hierarchy that comes down from NCLB, RTTT, and the Common Core. I don't believe this is an isolated story (I also have a friend who teaches MS science and developed his own curriculum where he taught the history of science chronologically and won a state Science Teacher of the Year award only to be told he could not teach that way anymore for the same exact reasons-standardization across the district), but will become the "norm" unless teachers find some way to resist. 

We need to start reframing the conversations to focus on quality instruction instead of this cookie cutter nonsense!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Meandering Learning is Anti-American

James Paul Gee in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy goes into great detail explaining how video games have built into them ways to force players to explore their surroundings. He uses Metal Gear Solid games as an example that if you try to directly attack your enemy you will quickly die. The game forces you to be sneaky and to explore side passages where you discover hidden objects that help you in the game.

Gee then compares this style to his preferred learning style stating his cultural biases that were challenged as the following statements:

"The final goal is important, defines the learning, and good learners move toward it without being distracted by other things' and 'Good learners move quickly and efficiently toward their goal.' I also hold other models: 'there is one right way to get to the goal that the good learners discover (and the rest of us usually don't)' and 'Learning is a matter of some people being better or worse than others, and this is important.' (173)
...For one last example, I held a model like: 'When faced with a problem to solved, good learners solve it quickly, the first time they try or soon thereafter. If you have to try over and over again, this is a sign that you are not very good at what you are attempting to learn." (p.174)

A straight path is not always the best. Photo by chasingtheflow

Video games usually punish rather than reward this kind of learning, encouraging players to explore and discover how to solve problems through trial and error. His statements echo the way that most teachers and schools work. Standards based grading helps with some of these by allowing students to re-assess and learn at different paces.  PBL also gives students some freedom to explore the curriculum in non-linear fashion according to their interests. I like to go on "rabbit trails" when students are engaged in fascinating questions that may or may not be directly related to the standards. But as a teacher I still feel myself driven by making sure students meet the standards (efficiently) and rushed by the amount of curriculum we are supposed to learn (quickly). So much of American culture is built around speed and efficiency that schools fall prey to this same thinking.

So how do you build into your class ways for students to "meander" as they think their ways through problem-solving? How do we fight the culture that says "faster is better or smarter" and focus on deeper, non-linear learning?

PS: And this is one of my major problems with the Common Core. Standardization leads to vanilla classes inevitably preparing for "the test" leaving no time for authentic meandering.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Giving Students New Identities

Last year I made my goal "to love my students." I think focus point is probably a better term than goal because it is not really something that you measure or accomplish. This year I will be looping with the same students (along with a few new students to our school). So we are not starting from scratch but already know each other. I think this year will be so powerful because my students already understand the PBL process, my style, and most importantly I already have relationships with all of them.

So my focus for this year comes from Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. Not word for word but based on the ideas in chapter 3 about identity. Gee goes into great detail about the different identities a player takes on in a role playing video game and then compares those identities to learning in any context. So every student who comes into the classroom already has an identity in relationship to school or maybe even a separate one for your class. Students see themselves as successful, bored, a failure, a clown, or able to get by. These identities are based on their past experiences, culture, and beliefs.
by Esellee

I am primarily concerned with struggling students. Gee says, "To repair damaged learners in any domain, there must be some such story (i.e. a level of success to motivate continued effort), though the stories will be as various as the learners." So basically as a teacher I need to motivate students by helping them create an identity of success in my class. Gee does not see motivation as external such as points or badges in the gamification movement but rather as intrinsic as a student creating an identity of success as a learner. He sees the real motivation in video games as pride in identifying with your character as something that you created.   The trick to students having an identity of success in school is that it works differently for every single student.

Gee goes on to give examples in the science classroom of students seeing themselves as scientists. I got to thinking what identity would I ideally like students to have in my class. The obvious answer is historian. I should want students to think, research, analyze, and write like historians with primary documents and from multiple perspectives. Of course I do want students to learn these skills in the domain of history, but very few of my students will be historians or even work in a historical field. So I don't think this will be an intrinsic motivation for most of my students.

I have decided that a better identity for most students is an active, engaged citizen of the world. A citizen who cares about people, human rights, justice, and making earth better for all. This is an identity that is appealing to students and is unique because each student can personalize what citizenship means and what issues are most important in their life. With this focus they can then study both history and current events to become a critical thinking citizen of the world.

So my focus for this year is to build upon my existing relationships to push every one of my students to be a critical thinking citizen. I also want to connect with each students passions to motivate them to have an identity of success in my classroom. For some students this will be natural and easy, but for others it will take a consistent effort to grow relationships and re-build negative school identities that they have of themselves.

So just like last year I ask you what are your goals for this year?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Getting "Meta" with Video Games

by Libraryman
I have started reading What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee. I am only twenty pages in but I highly recommend this book. I am interested in using gaming ideas in my classroom coupled with PBL. Not the gamification kind of stuff, but the idea that video games are self-motivating activities just like authentic learning is. This book is not anything about gamification (at least not so far and I do not think that it will be) but is really a work on literacy and learning.

Gee argues that "literacy and thinking--two things that, at first site, seem to be 'mental' achievements--are in reality also and primarily social and cultural achievements." (p.5) He explains that it is impossible to learn or think in a vacuum because every individual constantly interprets according to her own culture, history, and perspective. Each "genre" of literature has its own literacy in order to understand it. Gee is using literacy very broadly here to include lots of experiences including music, art, and yes video games.

I have been thinking about getting students to think about their learning processes after a great session about teaching students to analyze by Kevin Gant at the New Tech Annual Conference. I really think we need to create experiences to intentionally get students to think about their own thinking. They need to be taught how to reflect and ask questions such as "what is learning?" and "when am I analyzing and what does it mean?"

In PBL we encourage students to "present" their learning in multiple methods to demonstrate their learning. We also talk about things such as digital or visual literacy. My students appreciate the choices in their learning but I am not sure they really understand the why of it. Gee does a great job at the beginning of this book explaining a broad definition of literacy. I decided that I want my students to understand the reasoning and importance of why they are given different ways to demonstrate their learning. So I created this presentation that I plan to show the class and have them write down their "answers" individually and then discuss in small groups.

Then I will share this presentation with them to discuss in their small groups.

I hope to start a conversation and to get students to see the importance of being literate in multiple modes. What do you guys think? How do you get "meta" with your students?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

#standardizethat live

Here is my ignite talk. If you ever get a chance to do one, go for it. It was both one of the most horrifying, best experiences of my career.

The script and slides are posted here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Unauthentic, Imaginary World Math

Photo by Cowboytoast

"Real world" and "authentic" are two of many educational buzzwords overused right now. What if instead of making sure that everything has a truly "real" context we give students a creative opportunity to explore the "unreal."

The inspiration for this post comes from a new blog by Randall Munroe, author of xkcd, called What If?. In this blog he answers hypothetical questions by doing the actual math to answer them. So far he has shown things such as how much force does Yoda have? and what would happen if you gathered a mole (unit of measurement) of moles (the small furry creature) in one place? These questions are not real or authentic but the math and science is.

But these questions are fun and interesting! Students love to talk about fantasy and science fiction such as zombies and vampires.

So why not expose your students to a few of these kind of questions and have them try to "prove" their answer. Afterwards show them what Randall Munroe came up with. Then have students come up with their own questions and write out their reasoning and solutions. This activity would tap into their creativity but also demonstrate their mathematical computations and more importantly their mathematical reasoning. It also would be a literacy task in math. Finally and most important in my opinion it may also be an avenue to engage a student's passions in math class that Jeff de Varona has been asking about.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


The video of this talk has now been posted and you can watch it here.

Today I gave an Ignite talk at New Tech Annual Conference. It was intense. I will share the video later but I wanted to share my script and slides here:

#standardizethat by Mike Kaechele
This talk is dedicated to all of the politicians and ed reformers who think we can standardize our way into improving the American education system. I would like to share the things that I think that they should focus on standardizing instead.  

You have probably heard the saying that “weighing a pig doesn’t make it fatter” so what then is the real purpose of the “standardization” obsession in this country? It is about comparing. School vs. school, state vs. state. We are now obsessed with comparing children with each other while we race to the top to leave no child behind.

Standardization is also about conformity to someone’s ideal of what an American citizen should be. We need everyone to know the exact same stuff and to be able to demonstrate it in the exact same way: bubble sheets and 5-point essays.

I would measure school differently. My main measurement of effectiveness would be “Do students want to come to your school or class?” Is your school a real community that students want to be at. Community.

Our students wake up at 5:00am or earlier to catch long bus rides to arrive at school before 7am because they want to be here. Why? Relationships.

Parents comment that they don’t have to fight with their child to get out of bed to go to school because they want to go to school for the first time ever. Schools that are places that care about students. Love.     

Students who love life, learning, and people. Students who share happiness with all that they meet. Joy.

The one word students use to describe our school is “family.” Our students come from 20 districts across our county including urban, suburban, and rural. They represent many ethnicities and previous levels of success in school. Family.

Students who work with all kinds of people not just their friends and build upon each others’ strengths. Students who work together to solve big problems impossible to achieve alone. Collaboration.

Mary created a fun memes page on Facebook about our school and later a freshman survival guide video. No, she didn’t have to. No, she wasn’t graded. Creativity.

In problem based learning students think deeply to solve authentic problems. Students also direct their own learning through voice and choice in what they study and how they present it. Choices.

We ended the year with a world simulation where students took over and “ran the world.” They made treaties, fought wars, negotiated and called a world conference on their own. They came to me before and after school to tell me their strategies. Problem-solving.

I watched my students get concerned about injustice in the world such as the Holocaust, genocides, racism, women’s rights in the Arab Spring protests, and the effects of war.
Students who care about democracy, human rights, and justice. Empathy.

You see I care more about my students being caring human beings than their test scores. Caring.

Students learning how to speak in public about what they are learning and what they care about. Communication.

In PBL students can demonstrate their learning through creative ways. One pair of girls made a mock up of glamour magazine critiquing society’s worship of women’s bodies. Fighting stereotypes.

Students are controlled in schools. Don’t touch this. Don’t talk out of turn. Don’t..bla,bla, bla... At our school students can eat and drink in class, and move freely without a pass. Students are the ones who created the norms for how everyone should be treated in class. Respect.

Students are not some kind of widget that can all be taught the exact same way like a part is fashioned on an assembly line. Students need to have their individual needs met. Personalization.

My son wants to be a geologist and loves rocks. This year he had no science until 2nd semester because it is not a tested subject. Students should be given freedom in the curriculum to explore their passions. Passions.

I gave a collaborative, open internet test. You know the way real historians work. Peyton said, “ I wrote a lot. This test was fun. I hope we do this again.” Love of learning.

Anna on Facebook said, “People count down the days until the end of school, but I count down the days of summer! Look what this school has done!!!! It makes me dread summer!!!” Acceptance and belonging.

Hey politician and ed reformer, you want to make sure no child gets left behind?
Community, relationships, love, joy, family, collaboration, creativity, choices, problem solving, empathy, caring, communication, fighting stereotypes, respect, personalization, passions, love of learning, acceptance and belonging.
#standardizethese for every child in every classroom and you will not have to worry about the rest of their education.