Monday, January 28, 2013

"What are you willing to get fired for"?

My favorite session at Educon was session 5. You won't find this title in program, but this is a snapshot of a great conversation that I had with Rob Grecko. He asked me: "What are you willing to get fired for? Poor test scores vs. refusing to teach scripted curriculum?"

Photo Credit: muffytyrone via Compfight cc

We all make compromises and do things that we may philosophically disagree with at times to work in a system called a school, district, or whatever. If we are always backtracking to obey district mandates it is a slippery slope. Where do we draw the line? When is enough, enough?

But I also have an addiction to food, clothing, and shelter (hat tip to Ron Houtman)  that my wife and children share. I need my job to live and I was raised to respect and obey authority figures. I think a not so subtle belief of my religious upbringing was that they have all of the answered figured out and everyone else is wrong, which very quickly leads to listen to their authoritative voice and don't question it.

If you know me, you know that I have shed the "don't ask questions part" but in truth I am a complicated mixture of rule follower and rebel and don't even know how to classify myself.

So the driving question haunts me because the truth is I am not willing to lose my family income for what I believe is the best for students. The truth is also though that I am not in a position where I have to make that choice.

But let's try an experiment in empathy. What if you WERE met by your administrator tomorrow and handed a scripted test prep curriculum and told that you had to use it the rest of the year and that your students had to reach a certain level on the state test or you would be fired. 

Which risk would you choose? Teach the test prep curriculum and hope you don't get fired from low scores or ignore the scripted curriculum in favor of meaningful student-based inquiry and risk getting fired for disobeying orders. Which risk has the better payoff? Which risk helps students?

What are YOU willing to get fired for?

National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day!

Today was supposed to be the launch of our school's greatest project ever including field trips to local factories. Unfortunately weather got involved and we had massive closings (our school buses in students from 20 different local districts) and our busing canceled the trip on us. We ended up with about 25% of our student body showing up so what should we do? Well when you are given lemons you make...bubble wrap!

On the way to work I heard that today is national bubble wrap appreciation day. So we took the protocols learned from Chad Sansing's Flying Schools Educon session and adapted them to this "special" day. Students went through the design process creating new applications for bubble wrap.
 They made boats that really float 


 Bow ties are cool!

Animal Clothing

Gun target with paint in it that "pops" out when it is hit.

A steering wheel that you can pop when you are stressed. 

If you didn't catch the reference this came from The Reichenbach Fall. 

All in all it turned into a good introduction to design thinking. We have a long ways to go in particular in the area of improving on our original ideas but it was a good first step and I look forward to implementing this kind of thinking into future projects.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Do you trust students?

I have been trying to be authentic to my beliefs about learning. Hence the students are working on projects of their own design around the Vietnam War and the Cold War. My one class has five groups of 2-5 students each building a Tumblr feed, making a game, writing a children's book, creating a rap video, and filming a documentary.

The other half of the class (about 20 students) is working together to make a Choose Your own Adventure style videos on YouTube. This is a very mixed group with students who have previously performed well and struggled in my class. Let me just say that they have blown me away. First of all a couple of them took charge and organized the group's research assigning everyone a topic which they then decided to make into a timeline.

Next on the whiteboard they started mapping out the paths of the "choices" in the video.

Later they divided into roles as writers, directors, actors, artists, props, editors, and computer designers for special effects. We are putting an addition on our school for next year and the construction workers put up a temporary wall as they literally tore off the outside wall over holiday break. What opportunity did students see with this wall?
A place to draw scenes for their videos.

Even after being so impressed with their efforts I saw some of them shooting some scenes outside. I watched them for a few minutes. They were not in costume. They were not organized. The video camera was sitting to the side on a stand. They weren't even using it!

They were obviously not using their time wisely. I went outside to redirect and Jake told me that he was using his phone since it had an app that added some special effects. I said ok and went back inside.

I guess I forgot about that part of the conversation because I started class the next day by complimenting them on their organization, their creativity, and their efforts. Then with the memory of them running around in a field yesterday, I gently reminded them to focus on the quality of their video. I told them their "process" of learning was great, but that all people would see would be their end product: the videos.

They quickly assured me that they were taking steps to address this including some costumes and props. A few minutes later they were begging me to come watch their movie trailer.

Once again they showed great things in what they were doing. I have blogged alot about giving students a chance to own their learning and they will do great things. The truth is that this project has been very hard for me for fear that the students will "fail" and not learn anything. It has not been easy to give up control.

My teacher eyes see kids running around in a field and I momentarily lose my trust in their efforts. Then they show me what they are doing and prove that they deserve it.

Letting go as a teacher is so hard...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Why I hated Philosophy

by steven n fettig
I want to play devil's advocate to my own post about open curriculum. So a short story from my younger days. In college I was required to take a basic philosophy class. Most students took it freshman year. I knew that it was going to be a "pie in the sky" class that I would hate. So I avoided it and saved it until my last year. I finally signed up for a once a week three hour class that I knew would be so painful.

The class started and I loved it. I have always loved math, logic, and arguing deep questions. In other words everything that the class was about. I seriously considered getting a minor in philosophy but I was too close to being done and did not want to stay in school any longer (later I considered going to grad school in philosophy).

So hopefully my point is clear. If I had never been forced to study philosophy I may never have been exposed to a great field that I find very interesting. (on the other hand I was forced to take a music appreciation course of classical music that I hated. The reason may very well have been the skill of the teacher).

So my question is should learning every be forced on a learner? If so when? What content is so important that learners should be coerced to learn it.

If not, how do we ensure that learners in an open system are exposed to varied and critical content for being a successful citizen?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Open Curriculum

I have been thinking alot about the conversation I am leading at Educon, #standardizethat and got involved in  an expanded discussion on Twitter about standards and curriculum. I was asked what open curriculum would look like. I have borrowed my ideas from too many places to mention including unschooling,  Postman, my own students, and my own children. So here goes my version of what a school with an open curriculum might look like.

At the crossroads by
First of all, the schedule would change. There would be no grades, sorting by age groups, bells, or set schedule. Students would work in a large room with different adult content experts in the room. The ratio of students to teachers should not exceed 25:1. Students would choose the topics and projects that they want to explore and would sign up to at least one adult to report their progress to. Projects would be encouraged to be cross-curricular and deep. Most projects would center on social studies and science as a general topic with ELA and math skills being addressed as they "naturally come up."

Students would research their topics and teachers would help develop their search skills and expose them to multiple forms of literature and multi-media to learn from. Students would publish their results in many different formats addressing writing and media skills. Students would work in groups and present their learning to each other improving their collaboration and communication skills.

Students would not be entirely left up to their own as far as what they study. Teachers would play an essential role by exposing students to interesting topics in ways such as field trips (which could be as simple as a walk outside to observe nature), experiments, museum like exhibits of interesting objects, compelling art including primary source photos, and interesting problems to solve. Current events would also drive curriculum. News events would be talked about and lead to explorations by students. Students would choose which of these demonstrations to partake in and which of them to pursue deeper.

The other essential role of teachers would be to help students make connections of their passions to new areas of curriculum. As content experts teachers would use student interests to guide students both to cross-subject area connections and to connections within subject areas. An important continuation of what good teachers already do is knowing their students. Teachers would spend lots of time getting to know students as individuals so that they can share relevant learning ideas with them.

Students would not be without structure or requirements. Ideally students themselves would build the structure and requirements themselves. One essential theme of the school would be that you must be learning at all times. Learning would be defined with the students but would be very open-ended. Students would also be required to make and accomplish their own goals about what they learn. Students would also be required to present their learning. This could take many forms but would include both written and verbal forms. This also means that students will be sharing with each other their passionate learning so that they are constantly being exposed to new ideas outside of their personal interests.

Aloe by Genista
For example I have a couple of students who are very interested in botany. They are bright, but literally do as little as possible in every class except science, because they find no relevance in it. In an open curriculum they would be free to study biology at a college level. As social studies expert, I would expand their interests by tying invasive species to the Columbian Exchange. Regulations around plants would lead to many government topics (legalizing marijuana, etc). Statistics would come up all of the time. They could also study the history of plants and medicine, especially Native Americans (one of these students is building his own wigwam at home in his free time). This would lead to topics such as western expansion, Manifest Destiny, racism, genocide, etc. The social studies topics we would address would be abundant, but we might not "hit every state standard." The difference is that the students would care about the curriculum because it is theirs and would engage and remember it.

This example is just one pair of students. Imagine how diverse the curriculum would be when you add in all of the students' interests. Without even trying topics that my current students are very passionate about include: immigration, gay rights, genetics, computer programming, art, poetry, women's rights, depression, mental illness, and theater. I am sure that the other content teachers see even more interests that I miss.

I am not saying that open curriculum will fix every education problem or that it would reach every child. But I do think it would be superior to most schools today. I am also sure that it would have to change and adapt over time and be different in different communities. Also I think students would have to be trained into it. Students who have been in traditional schools would drowned if just dumped into it. They would need to be gradually released to wean themselves from teacher dependence to independence. I also fully admit that some kids would waste time and choose not to learn. But doesn't that happen already all the time? I believe this would encourage the most learning from the most students and that the passion of authentic learning would spread to include reluctant students.

What's missing from this vision of a school? (Oh, don't say assessment and grades because those are missing on purpose. I am interested in learning, not comparing students)

Science models

One of my students, Torreyion, was so excited about his chemistry project that he asked me to post it on my blog. So here is a pic of some models that he made and the cool effects of the camera that he got: