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?