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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.

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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.

 

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!

 

It doesn’t have to be Genius Hour

6 Mar

Genius Hour, what isn’t there to love? And it is easy to see why – learning becomes a joyful experience that is owned by each student. Our classes become authentic environments where students choose what to learn. Of course this sounds great!

But I’m slightly afraid.

I love the idea of inspiring kids to learn by giving them ownership over the topic. I have been experimenting with Genius Hour/20% Time/Innovation Hour in my junior English classes this year, and let’s just say that I’ve learned a lot.

What happens if we ruin it?

My biggest fear is that I’ll have a group of juniors walk in to my room and moan because, “We did this last year,” or, “I never know what to do,” or, “This is boring,” – all sure signs that we ruined it. But it is so important that we do not destroy this experience.

In order to do my part in avoiding ruining Genius Hour, I decided to do something different with my sophomore English classes, something with a little more structure. We created magazines in small groups in order to address real-world writing purposes. It has been a great experience and has helped my students develop a sense of the audience they are writing for.

We still had the most important element in a project like this – student choice.

We created a magazine for each of the first two quarters, and there was some great work! But now it is time to switch things up. Students are going to create a blog or a video blog/YouTube channel on the topic of their choice. The goal is to build a following and create their own brand.

Our first brainstorming session had a great buzz. Students were coming up with great ideas, thinking deeper about those ideas and their potential audiences, and coming up with even better ideas. Some student were working together, and some were working in a group of up to three. There were even a few people who are going to do their own thing but be in the videos of another group.

One key that we discussed in the brainstorming process is that usually our first idea is not our best idea. If I were to sum up my inspirational speech of that day, I think it would sound something like, Get past that first idea, take it out of the mix. What else do you have? Keep building on something unique. Find you niche. What can you offer that others cannot? 

The highlights of my day were the few interactions that went just like this one:

Student: Mr. Sanders, this (a makeup blog) is actually what I want to do for my career.

Me: Yes, this is the start of your career! In a year you will be able to point to your blog and say that you have been doing this for a long time.

And the young man who wants to be a baseball scout will be able to point to his portfolio and show off how much experience he has.

There are groups doing fashion advice and makeup advice and spoofs on makeup advice with guys who are clueless. Food, hockey, tattoos and more.

Give students some choice and see the excitement build. Instead of prodding students to get going, you’ll answering the question, “Can we get started right now?!” Trust me, that’s slightly more fun.

It isn’t Genius Hour, but it sure feels genius to me!

Stop being safe, and start failing

20 Nov

Book drives, winter clothing drives, and canned food drives.

This was not what I had planned when I ventured into my Vague Friday Projects/Genius Hour. But you know what? I just jumped in. Am I failing? Yes, I’d say that I am.

Hey, at least I’m modeling failure for my students!

If I want to see innovation, creativity, and genius in my Genius Hour, I need to start getting kids to question what school is supposed to look and feel like. After one quarter, it’s time to do some reflecting, changing, and flipping upside down. Here’s what I wish I knew at the start of this process, and what I will work to change for my classes now:

Break the rules. Innovation is all about getting people out of their comfort zone. We have to get past the first wave of ideas, past the second wave of ideas, and get to something that is truly innovative. Book drives happen because students think, “I know this will work.” It is my responsibility to open their minds and keep going when the easy and safe answer is staring at them. Innovators do not follow rules. Know the rules so that you can break the rules.

Start with something small. Ideas are hard. If we are going to work on something for one hour on Fridays only, it is tough to expect all students to be ready with their idea in a short amount of time. Students should choose something that they are interested in, write a proposal for the length of the project, the amount of points it will be worth, and what they will accomplish. This will give them practice with the process and experience finding something that they care about. This first project should last three weeks or less.

Keep the groups small or work individually. So much of this type of project depends on students being passionate about learning something. If you get to the point where a group is choosing to do something because it sounds the easiest, it’s time to do some reflecting. Trust me. Some students may want to learn a certain skill, some may want to research a current event, and some may want to invent a new product. Just make sure that each student is following what he or she wants to do.

My next step is to break down the rules that I inadvertently created and start to encourage risk taking. I will use my failure and the reflection that I have done as a model for my students. We’re all in this together, and we don’t learn anything new without failing along the way!

Innovations Class

4 Nov

This year, for the first time in my English classes, we started using Fridays for 20% Time or Genius Hour. It actually started with an idea that a colleague and I joked was called my Vague Friday Project because I wasn’t sure exactly where it was going. This type of thinking initially came from Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators. This is such a great collection of various outlier teachers who put students in charge of their own real-life learning.

I was inspired to do that in my own room. It’s possible that being in the basement of my new school helped encourage that outlier attitude.

So I’ve been doing a little reading. Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level by Don Wettrick (@donwettrick) is a book that you MUST check out if you’re considering anything that has to do with teaching innovation. I found out that I’m definitely not the only one who is finding their way through the exciting and unpredictable world of Genius Hour.

I immediately became excited about the possibility of creating a new class at my high school. It is called Innovations Class and falls under our state board’s classification of Applied Communications. Thanks to Don Wettrick, I have a plan and a passion for creating this new learning experience for my students.

Here is how it works:
Students choose a problem that needs to be solved. They decide if they are going to work on that alone or in a group of up to three students. They propose a plan, their timeline, the point value of the project, and at least three CCSS English standards that they will master through this project.

Here is the basic class structure:

  • Brainstorming sessions every Monday – but not just the average ones, more directed and unique ways of brainstorming that come from inGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity by Tina Seelig and Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelly and David Kelly.
  • Working on projects Tuesday through Thursday – students choose a mentor (that isn’t the teacher) and meet or talk with that person for guidance. Students research their topic, carry out their plans, and build their proposals and presentations, and basically get the job done.
  • Blog/Vlog on Friday – reflecting on how their project is going, their struggles and successes, etc. This is a key to the innovation process.

When the project is finished, the students:
Present their project to their chosen stakeholders.
Argue for their grade and what they believe they have earned.
Choose another project to begin, create a proposal, and start innovating and creating.

One of the biggest parts of this is that we are preparing students for success in the real world. It should never be possible to hear someone question whether or not they will use this in real life. The mentor aspect opens the doors to students who would not normally meet someone in our community, state, or world with connections. Now our students will have someone that they know in the world, and that might become valuable down the road. Might? Okay, it will be.

How do you grade it?
Students determine their approximate point value for the project in their proposal. When they are finished, they will assess themselves and support their case. Talk about students being advocates for themselves! Blogs or Vlogs that are done on a weekly basis will be assessed for reflection.

“When you treat yourself like a professional, other people will do the same.” – Don Wettrick

This class is all about students becoming professionals, and I’m excited to be a part of it.