Everyone’s masterpiece is different

19 Feb

Henry, my two-year-old son, loves cars, racing, and pretty much anything that involves throwing projectiles across the room. It was no surprise when he used his little brother’s Pack ‘n Play as a ramp for his Hot Wheels. One by one he shot them high into our bedroom wall with no regard for the paint on either the walls or the floorboards.

In order to spare our paint job, I suggested he might have fun racing them down the ramp instead of up, and, to my surprise, he loved the idea! He called out, “Marks…set…go!” and began flinging cars wildly towards the middle of the room. Hey, at least they stayed out of the air. That, my friends, is a parenting victory.

After the five-car race, Henry stood back, looked at the Hot Wheels strewn about the floor, surveying the landscape of destruction in front of him. With his hands on his hips, and his chin up high, he proudly exclaimed, “This is my masterpiece!” Or “massapiece” if you want to get technical.

A few thoughts crossed my mind: first, he sure is proud of a car race. Second, how often do I put my hands on my hips like that for him to be copying me, and do I actually look like that when I do? And third, is this what my students feel like when they do something new?

We ask our students to do new things all the time. We also ask our students to do the same things all the time. When we grade, we’re not making a distinction.

As human beings, it is natural to feel proud when we do something we never even thought about doing, things we didn’t even know we could do before we had been given a chance. It is easy to forget that, as a teacher, we have seen and done much more than our students in many cases.

Just over a week ago we held our first ever Human Rights Museum, an event open to fellow students, teachers, and the public. This project was in conjunction with a variety of books centered around the question, “How do we promote and protect human rights?” Students had a choice of novels: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, All American Boys, The Help, Just Mercy, Ghettoside, and The Hate U Give. We read of human rights issues across our country and the world and determined what we could do in order to create something to make our audience think. Students had to think big in order to create something original that got their point across. They worked to expand their creativity and many students said they got so far past their first idea and into ideas that they were extremely proud of.

There was no recipe, no rubric, no limits. We joked that this type of project would often lead to a large poster to be narrated by the creator, and I modeled the conversations that would likely happen if we didn’t push beyond our first ideas. What should we do? Hmmm… How about a poster? We could put pictures on it? I have a color printer at home! We could title them with cool writing. I love to write! Lets do it! Poster!!

Why do students get so excited about a poster? Because they know it works. It’s a thing that happens in school. It’s safe, easy to do, correct.

Fear of living without a map is the main reason people are so insistent that we tell them what to do.

– Seth Godin, Linchpin

But students can do so much more if they are challenged, supported, and given permission to do great things. And we owe it to students to help them build those skills.

The problem comes when we begin to assess things like this. Skills. Real-life, important skills: thinking times ten, considering and communicating with an audience, being creative, and working cooperatively with a group are important skills we worked on.

One group had to call a bus company in order to get a bus seat that could be painted to demonstrate Rosa Parks’s courage and how people still show courage like that today. The hardest part? Making the phone call, real-life skill.

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One group member arranged meetings with five people at a local coffee shop where she photographed them in front of a blank wall with stereotypes and harsh words projected around them. This student came back to show me the pictures, and we talked about certain phrases and what they would do or not do to her audience. She revised a few and took a few new photos. Considering an audience and revising her work, a real-life skill.

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I am like many other teachers in that I hate grading. Feedback during a project, I love it. Conferencing with students, absolutely. These actions give students something they can do right now. Grading feels so final. So judgmental.

So when Miss Lewis, the English teacher who worked on the museum with our class, came to me to ask about grading these projects, it was a difficult conversation filled with back and forths. This project had so much effort put into it. These girls were here for hours after school. Even though it might have been the most creative, it was way more creative than they thought they could be.

So how do we grade things that are creative? How do we grade things students have never imagined they could do before they started this process? And maybe, just maybe, why do we even grade anyways?

In our Human Rights Museum, we had goals of building teamwork, leadership, creativity, and initiative. Those are tough to score on a rubric, and that is why they are so important to be taught!

So when a group of students came up with all kinds of ideas way beyond what they thought they could, but they still just have a poster, what does that mean? When a group gets the viewer to think about their best and worst features as they look in a mirror, then go to the reverse side of the poster board to see, “No matter if you’re short, tall, fat, skinny, pretty, or ugly, anyone can be sold into sex trafficking,” what does that mean? How do we grade them?

If the argument is that we grade to make sure that the students do the assignment, then we might have to look at what we are doing for the assignment. Not one student asked me how much this project would be worth, how it would be scored, or what the minimum they could do to get an A was. I can’t tell you how refreshing that was!

So what would happen if we stopped grading?

What about the group who worked for hours after school to research and map terrorist attacks in the United States in order to show that we cannot label one group of people terrorists. But they had only a poster. How much does their hard work factor in? How about how much they learned? How about how much their opinions developed and changed?

What grade do they get?

What if we lived in a magical world where the public exhibition of their work was enough? A place where the feedback from the audience and everyone who visited their piece was what mattered. A place like the real world. A place like High Tech High.

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My students gave me feedback on the unit. Many students commented that we should do more work in promoting the event to the public to ensure their work is seen. Zero students commented on anything to do with grades.

The culture of schools tells students to do things for points. This is not something that we inherently have from birth. Schools train students to work for grades, but this focuses on the minimum rather than the possibilities.

Avoiding mistakes is valued over trying something new. No mistakes = 100%.  This is why we end up with posters. But mistake-free work rarely turns into something amazing.

The culture of schools right now tells students that they must be rewarded. How can we make learning the reward? How can we give our students the audience that their work deserves? Public feedback should have a much greater emphasis than one teacher’s opinion.

So let’s stop having to grade things. Let’s start changing the culture.

Let’s reward students through feedback from peers and the public and create positive pressure to do great things.

Everyone’s idea of a masterpiece is different. When our students look back on their best work, something they never imagined they could do, it is a transformative experience. We must continue to help our students to see the possibilities and push the boundaries, grow, and develop skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.

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For learning or money?

13 Dec

school-testIt happened. I was hoping it would never come to this, but it did. It seemed innocent enough. Our student council cabinet was starting class and doing their usual round of “Today was a good day because…” It was the last student, a great kid, someone I would never expect this from. But she said it.

“Today was a good day because I found out that if I pass my AP test, I get paid a hundred dollars.”

NOOOOOO!

Please do not send our school district on a path that emphasizes tests over learning, that uses carrots and sticks, that teaches test-taking skills over life skills. Please, don’t do it!

But it’s not her fault. I see the reasons why students take AP classes, but most of them are because they want to look better for college and not because they love learning. And that’s what scares me.

It’s not even our district’s fault. North Dakota has a huge amount of money to give away thanks to ExxonMobil’s $13 million donation because, as stated in the linked article, “The success of North Dakota’s industries depends on the quality, ingenuity and diversity of its workforce.” But what type of workers will we get through creating more great test takers?

At the North Dakota Governor’s Summit for Innovative Education this past June, we heard three speakers who encouraged the possibilities of what education in North Dakota could look like. The first presenter, Ted Dintersmith, implored us to see North Dakota as the next Finland, a magical place where creativity, collaboration, and just being a child are celebrated.

Because of it’s size, North Dakota could be in a position to build skills rather than take tests, to learn rather than be assessed.

The final speaker of the day, however, was from AP. He talked about getting more kids to take AP, having money from ExxonMobil available to pay them, and finally imagined North Dakota as the next… wait for it… Alabama.

Alabama?

I’ll be honest, I know nothing about the education system in Alabama. But after hearing this session, it sounds like there is a lot of AP and teaching to a test.

This says nothing about the downfalls of AP, and how Dartmouth, for example, is no longer giving credit to students for their AP scores because they find that the students are not prepared for the next course. And a majority of other top colleges are restricting AP credit as well. We know how tests work: study, take the test, forget most of the information.

At it’s best an AP class is a challenging dive deep into a curriculum and our most rigorous curriculum. At it’s worst our advanced classes are teaching strategies to “game the test in a way that gets kids to pass it” as one student told me.

Let’s pause here to add the fact that now our AP teachers are going to be paid for each student who passes the AP test as well. Incentivizing the test score rather than the learning or performance in the class can only lead to overlooking the potential of the AP curriculum for a majority of our teachers in favor of focusing on a test. Teachers are hired because they are professionals who will do what is best for kids. This monetary reward is saying that if teachers just had a little more motivation, they would work a little harder for their students. Maybe this is true in some unfortunate cases, but what happens when this money disappears in a few years?

The student from above went on to say that “many AP classes are completely focused on passing the test. Even the textbook, is made specifically on how you can pass the AP test. It’s not even about the history or whatever the class is. It’s really frustrating that that’s what they’re deciding to focus on and not on student learning.”

And we don’t think this is going to just get worse now that we’re paying teachers and students to pass?

Out of curiosity I searched for Alabama’s education rankings. According to US News and World Report’s best state rankings, Alabama is 47th. The good news is that they are number one in the growth for AP scores. So I guess it depends on what your goal is.

But this is not a place to come and bash Alabama. Saving $47 million in college tuition is a big deal. This is the system we are working in. We have to make choices in what we value. Getting kids to challenge themselves is not a bad thing; however, handing out monetary rewards for high test scores can’t be the best we can come up with for student motivation.

If the point of school is to be good at school, then we’re missing the point entirely. If good test takers and compliant students are what we want, imagine what we are going to get.

Here are two students’ comments overheard this school year:

Student A: My parents and I were just talking about how I need to start getting ready for the AP test.

Student B: I was just talking to my mom, and we’re so excited about making this Culture Fair happen.

Student B is a student in my innovations class, a project-driven class where students find and solve problems. She and her group proposed and carried a culture fair for over 1,000 students featuring food, dancing, henna tattoos, Green Card Voices banners featuring local stories of New Americans, and more. Her group worked with members of the community to receive donations, sell t-shirts, and promote the event, and it all came together for an incredibly successful day. She found the problem of a cultural divide in our school, she proposed a solution, and she carried it out.

The skills these students built during this experience go far beyond correct answers. They marketed to an audience, fundraised, connected with community members and businesses, designed and created t-shirts, planned and replanned, spoke to audiences, met with administrators, managed a budget, talked to the press, and everything else that goes into an event like this. Those are great skills, but just imagine the lessons she learned about herself along the way.

There are all kinds of students who go the be-good-at-school route. Do well on tests, be complaint, don’t take any risks. But there is another way. Do something amazing. Be who you are and be awesome at it. Find a passion and live it. Now. And if you think you have one, and it doesn’t work out, at least you found out in high school!

If we continue down the path of focusing on tests and not skills, we will never change the culture that emphasizes knowledge over skills.

Imagine hearing a student say, “Today is a great day because I am living my passion.” A hundred bucks sounds great now, but the experiences and possibilities that are out there are worth much more than that.

Teaching satire – the real thing

2 Dec

Before a teacher, especially a middle-school or high-school instructor, sits down to plan a course, he or she should ask the question “What can I reasonably expect that students will retain from this course after a decade?” – Alfie Kohn from With Rigor for All by Carol Jago

What do we want students to know ten years from now? In the past as my junior English classes began Huck Finn, I have always mentioned that Mark Twain intended for his work to be a satire. Ok, let’s move on.

At least that’s what it felt like. Will my students have an understanding of satire that they will remember in the future and can apply to their lives? Not unless they had a teacher who did a better job than I did! So this year we did something a little different.

The first step was to listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast on satire. As students listened, they were to use the following questions to guide them: What is satire? When does satire work? Click on the picture below to check out the podcast.

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Short version: we use satire to make fun of people’s stupidity in politics and current events, but the quality of satire, especially in the United States, has greatly deteriorated into comedians going for the laugh over proving their point. In other countries this is not the case; satire is pointed and thought provoking.

As Gladwell addresses, Tina Fey’s role as Sarah Palin is one of our most famous memories of political satire. We might even remember the fake Palin better than we remember the real one.

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Saturday Night Live is our most well-known criticizer of politics, but, as explored in the podcast, there is far too much “going for the joke.” In a recent Time article, “SNL Actor Michael Che Agrees With Donald Trump That Show Is ‘One-Sided,’” Michael Che responds to Donald Trump’s criticisms with exactly what our class was looking for.

“But comedy should take both sides,” he said. “No matter who is in power, we should be making fun of them.”

Exactly the problem, and my students were quickly able to see it. While other countries are using satire to accomplish a goal, one of our most-watched satirical programs is making sure we can make fun of everyone.

We then applied our new understandings about satire to the SNL skit on the third presidential debate. Was this an example of satire to prove a point, or was this simply a collection of goofs on both candidates intended to get the laughs?

Armed with our knowledge with what satire truly is, my hope is that is much easier for my students to connect this idea to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and to their own lives. Who knows, maybe even for ten years!

When we need to recharge

10 Nov

What happens when you hit a rut? In the 180 plus days of school, it is bound to happen. The mid-semester innovations slump seems to be upon us here in the basement. We have had a few failures, a few successes, but now it is time to take what we have learned and do something amazing.

As I sit and listen to an unusually quite room here in innovations class, it is clear that my pre-blogging speech inspired some reflection today. So what do we do when we need to be inspired?

Reexamine your passions

Why are we even here? What are we good at? How can I align those passions and skills with a problem that lies ahead? On Monday for our brainstorm activity, we made a list of our passions and skills. We then narrowed them down by grouping them together in order to find “the sweet spot” where our passions intersect. We then made a list of problems we have seen around us. How can our passions and skills help to solve those problems?

Take a look at the video below to see what we did at the start of the week.

The next step is for those who were unable to determine a problem they cared about in that session. The assignment over the weekend will be to start a “Bug List” in the notes app of their phone.

Put yourself and your beliefs out there

When we are challenged, we have to determine whether we will stand behind our beliefs or want to disregard them. Blogs help us do to this. My most important example came from innovations class last year. She and I each tweeted her blog post about sexual assault and a discussion with a teacher. The responses she got were rude, offensive, and ignorant. She came to class and asked, “What should I do? Should I take it down?” What we learned was that when trying to make a change, we often run into resistance. This is the time when we determine how strong our beliefs are. That resistance meant that she hit a nerve and needed to keep going. After seeing that response, the student had a renewed commitment to her project and her ultimate goal of educating her fellow students on sexual assault and rape culture. If our beliefs go unchallenged, it can be difficult to find the dedication and determination to make something happen.

Collaborate with trusted peers

When we work with others whom we respect, we have an opportunity to grow our thinking. Even more important is the energy that comes from a great sharing session with a group. We have a chance to be that source of energy for others each day. Think about the last time you met to talk about a great idea, great book, or great speaker. When we have something to discuss that truly matters to us, it is energizing to share that sense of community and build ideas together. Be an energy creator, not an energy vampire!

My hope is that our innovations class continues to see the potential in their ideas and the world around them. Looking back at these three ideas, I find that I use them in my professional life, and that is what makes innovations class so important. If these students can build these skills in high school, they will be far ahead of their peers as they head on to their next steps in life.

Knowing and addressing this slump is an important step on our road to big successes.

 

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PBL, what a way to end the year!

28 Sep

So my English class is not exactly traditional. The “rules” about what to teach and how just don’t seem to prepare students for their future. That’s why instead of writing a final paper at the end of junior year, my students participated in a project-based learning experience. It was the best end to a school year that I have ever been a part of.

Here’s a quote about the project that I’ll never forget, “We’re actually, like, doing stuff in this class. That’s so weird for the end of the year. Usually we don’t do a whole lot.” And let me tell you, that is pretty enthusiastic approval from a junior! So project-based learning will make a return to junior English this year, that’s for sure.

Schools tend to breed question answerers. We want students to be able to recall information and use it to display their knowledge. This is no longer enough in our world where information is so readily available to those who wish to find it. It is the thinking that matters.

The next step is to help students to become problem solvers. Apply available knowledge to solve a problem. But even that is lacking something. We need to train students to look for problems and find them if we want to help students become independent thinkers and have the chance to innovative.

Enter project-based learning.

First of all every project needs to have a driving question, one that asks students to truly solve a problem. Here was ours:

How can we, as a PR firm, positively influence the perception of Red River High School?

Students have to evaluate and discover where the problems with perception lie in our own student body as well as in the public. Are these perceptions related to RRHS or to students/teenagers in general? Should effort be focused to influence our own student body or the community?

The students ranked their preferred roles and were assigned one of the following:

  • Presentation coordinator – Leader of presentations, creating slideshow, notes/script, gathering information from other team members and generating one document, coordinate a schedule
  • Video coordinator/Field coordinator – Script writing, film director, set up, planning and execution of strategy
  • Communications coordinator – Publish work , promote positive public image, contacting resources and individuals in the community, gathering resources

The groups then proposed and carried out their project ideas. We had greeters at our doors in the morning (and one day even the band was playing), we had random acts of car washes (students would find their previously dirty car now sparkling in the parking lot), and we had Cuts for Mutts (mowing a lawn after receiving pledges for donations to the humane society). We had a music club with students with special needs and musical performers, an ELL pen pals group, interactions with elementary school classrooms, a book drive, a revamped system to nominate classmates for positive actions, and many more.

But the part that really added incentive to the project was that each group would present their accomplishments as well as the impact that it had to a panel of judges. Our principal, associate principal, a technology partner, our activities director, and our school district’s communications director each generously gave up their time to choose a winner from each class.

Because of this final presentation, students had to learn how to give an effective presentation that did not involve mindlessly reading bullets in a slideshow. They had to truly engage with their audience. And that’s just the presentation part. While carrying out the project, students had to engage with members of the community or school administration in order to carry out their plan and change perceptions. If you want to take a look at one period’s collection presentations, here is the link. What you’ll find is that students actually had to present, a skill that is sometime lost when creating presentations.

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What many groups began to discover was that they wanted to build community in our school, then the public would see more positive students. Instead of just being given a problem, these students had to determine what they actually wanted to address then formulate a plan to make a difference. Some might say that isn’t really “English,” but I’d argue that these skills are the skills these students need in their future. And that’s better.

Instead of watching Netflix, I just read now

16 Sep

YES!!!

When a student chooses a book over Netflix, it’s a victory. When a student tries to read straight through from before the bell rings through my instructions, and into reading time, it’s a victory. And when a student is already on his fourth book just 15 days into the school year, it is a huge victory!

For the past two years in my classroom we read on Mondays. It was a great way to start the week, give students time to read for pleasure, and build reading stamina. But in the interest of improving, I had to move out of my comfort zone.

This year we are doing it a little differently. Each class period starts with 10 minutes of reading. Being the time protestor that I am, there are days when we go 12. I admit it. But I do my best to stick to a quick book talk to start class (2-3 minutes), independent reading (10 minutes), then our instruction for the day. The shift was a little different for students right away, especially those who had been expecting full reading days, but it seems like we have gotten ourselves into a nice groove now.

Here’s what I notice:

  1. I never have to wake anyone up. We start first period at 8:00 am, and there were times when students would fall asleep. I get it. It is a lot to ask of a 17-year-old kid to be awake enough and engaged enough to read for 40 minutes at the beginning of a day on only a few hours of sleep. This problem is no more. I once heard someone say, “You can do anything for 10 minutes.” Even students who see themselves as nonreaders. My hope is that I can even trick a few students into becoming readers through these painless reading sessions.
  2. The pace of class is much faster. Everything we do has to be done with a sense of urgency. Instead of taking an entire hour to write, we have to get things done quicker. Instead of me babbling on a tangent, I have to be focused and know where we need to get to during the class. One piece of feedback I got in my first year teaching high school English was that the pace needed to increase. I finally feel like I have done it.
  3. It is not as hard to get into a book for a short time. To start the year I have been reading at the same time as students. I was a little concerned after the first class because I had a little trouble settling in and getting going. This went away after a few sessions. Now when we get to reading, the room is quiet within a few seconds and everyone is reading. They know that there is only 10 minutes, so it isn’t nearly as cool to waste time now.
  4. When I begin conferencing with students in the next few weeks, I will be forced to be focused with my questions and discussions. The goal will be to get to 3 students each day. My note-taking sills will need to be sharp so that I am prepared and make sure each conference builds on the previous one.
  5. Having a book talk each day right when the bell rings gives students insight to the possibilities that are out there. It is building this idea that books are important enough to talk about every single day.

My hope is that by reading every day our class builds a culture that is centered around reading and a celebration of books. When I over heard a junior girl say, “Instead of watching Netflix, I just read now,” I have to say, I felt pretty good about the culture we have here in the basement.

Just shut up already

9 Sep

Sometimes as a teacher I think I have to keep guiding, pushing, and leading my students. Let’s do this. Let’s talk about this. Here’s what you need to know.

In my innovations class everything is so new. We have to break some of the traditional rules of school, rules that students have followed for up to eleven years. Much of our success depends on how quickly we can get past those, get into something new, and create and design experiences.

Funny that I tried to teach them to break the rules by following those same rules myself.

Yes, there are things they need to know. Yes, we have to have the basics. But when I finally made myself just shut up and let the students go, it was the most energizing class we have had so far.

Here’s where we started this year. We did a brainstorm on day one of what we care about – passions, interests, what gets you up in the morning. Those tend to be big ideas, but when we dig deeper we can narrow those down. A number of students took some of those ideas and found inspiration for their first project.

To start week two we did a gripe/dream session. You complain to your partner who takes notes on everything the griper/dreamer says. When that is done, the recorder asks probing questions to see where the two of them can come up with potential project ideas. A note on this is that it is tough for students to get past the initial complaints, but that is what I have to teach.

That’s when I finally got out of the way. My last piece of advice about choosing projects was to make sure they chose something small enough to not overwhelm themselves. What happened? Exactly what was supposed to happen.

Groups came up with great ideas. Visiting an elderly-care home and interviewing residents about their experiences. Making dog beds and treats for our animal shelter. Blogging using art and film inspired by and for domestic abuse. Learning how to edit videos and create something using GoPro. Cooking those cool Facebook videos and reviewing them.

Will they all be huge successes? Who knows? But the key is that we are starting. And once we start, we can learn. Fail or succeed, we are going to start, reflect, and grow. That is the only that we can move towards innovation!