Relevance – when things come together

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I have a lot of things going on in my head. I’m sure you do as well. When a bunch of things come together, I’m a firm believer that we are supposed to take notice. Follow me as I take you on a six-part tour of my mind: a video, a podcast, a lesson plan, a conversation, a blog, and a crumpled note that let me to thinking about schools. Don’t worry, I’ll give you the links along the way; here we go!

My wife shared a video featuring Matthew Kelley of The Dynamic Catholic from a series called “Best Lent Ever” on what service can mean for us. Here is the part that stood out to me:

You know, we’re always reading these articles about how young people have self-esteem issues, or this generation has less self-esteem than the last seven generations, or all sorts of articles about these types of things. Part of the problem, I think, is that we’ve become very internally focused. And we perhaps raise children in our society to be very internally focused, when the reality is that self-esteem comes from, largely, a sense of identity, a sense that we are loved, a sense that we have value, and a sense that we are children of God. And the other thing is that we draw self-esteem by serving other people. This piece is radically missing in the development of young people in our culture today in many, many arenas.

Service is powerful and something that should be encouraged in young people. And when they serve other people in need, their self-esteem blossoms, because our self-esteem comes from knowing we’re children of God, and knowing that we can add value—that we can add value to other peoples lives, that we can help other people live more richly, or live more fully, in their daily lives.

When I look back at when my students are most engaged, excited, and empowered, it is when they have a chance to do something that makes a difference. Our students are craving this connection. They want to have a sense of fulfillment and helping others is a way to see that they are a contributing part of our society.

How often do students have a chance to serve in schools?


My sister-in-law, during a discussion on parenting, brought up a podcast called Goop with “some Wharton professor.” I realized this had to be Adam Grant, and I was immediately clicking download on my podcasts app. Here’s a quote (or as close as I could get with my typing speed):

Parents want to raise resilient kids. Kids need a sense of mattering. Other people notice me, they care about me, and they rely on me. I count. I make a difference to them.

Grant goes on to say how we’re very good at the first two, but that we come up woefully short in relying on our children. We save them rather than value their opinions. He tells a story about asking his seven-year-old daughter for advice before he had to give his TED Talk. She gave great advice about practicing as well as picturing the worst that could happen and telling yourself that it wouldn’t happen.

A few weeks later when she was nervous for her big speech, he could revisit that advice with her. She could see that her dad had relied on her, and, more importantly, that she could rely on herself.

How often are students taught that they are relied on for authentic reasons?


In junior English we spent a little over two weeks, thanks to Kelly Gallagher’s example, examining what can be done to stem or stop mass shootings. This was meant to be a place where we could all agree that school shootings need to be stopped. We would not, of course, all agree on how that could happen. There are many issues to consider, and we did our best to look at them with an eye towards learning.

One issue that was brought up as a way to combat mass shootings was to increase our focus on mental health in schools. Whether it was a need for more counselors in schools or that people should be more aware of how they are treating others, there was a concern for the mental health of our young people.

This goes far beyond the tragedies of Parkland, Florida. We have many students in our classrooms right now who are struggling with something. Some of them we know about, and some of them we do not.

How often are educational leaders making choices that will help with mental health?


As part of our school district’s innovations committee, we are looking at ways that we could reimagine what education looks like. We have discussed the ideas of having academies where students solve problems geared towards their possible future, increasing project-based learning, and adjusting school schedules.

One aspect that has been brought up by both students and teachers is a need to change the stigma of mental health. We could offer classes or seminars that help students deal with the pressures of school and society. I found an article from the New York Times, Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness that seems to emphasize the need for students to learn the habits needed to be successful and happy.

Insightful student voices who have shared their views of school. It isn’t pretty, but it sounds accurate. Lots of sitting. Lots of boredom. Lots of busywork. Lots of preparing for a test. Lots of shuffling from class to class. Lots of being tired.

There are bright spots when these students see relevance. They see passionate educators. They see people who care about them. They see the possibilities for change. They see times when they can explore their passions.

How often do we value a student’s happiness over the work they produce?


And finally, I read a post on Medium from Isabella Bruyere Why School Sucks (hint: it’s not because it’s “boring”). I chose this quote, but the entire view is definitely worth the click of that link.

School slowly became a place of memorizing facts just long enough to get the A, doing the bare minimum to get into the best college. Everything was just to get into college, to be better than your peers. Why help your classmate? Why not sabotage them so you have less people to compete with when it comes to applying to Harvard, Stanford, Yale. That is the mentality that I hate, yet it is the mentality of everyone around me, and maybe even myself.

It’s no wonder we need a class on helping make students happy!

The innovative education bill that was recently passed in North Dakota allows us to file a waiver to adjust the amount of time a student needs to spend in a class. Students could then learn at their own pace. But if schools are just going to help students get done with boring stuff faster, we are missing the point. We have an opportunity to change schools and make them places where students look back and think about the incredible value they got out of their high school experience.

Is high school a place of value or a stepping stone to college?


And just now, as I pick up a crumpled note that I had set on my unorganized desk. It read:

When it’s work, we want to do less. When it’s art, we want to do more.

– Seth Godin, Stop Stealing Dreams TEDx Talk

He challenges the idea that great performance in school leads to happiness and success.

How often do we inspire our students to do more?


Kids need purpose, a chance to be relied upon, and an opportunity to serve. We have a huge concern for the mental health of our students. And many of our students complain because of the pressures, the competitive mentality, and the irrelevance of some parts of school.

What if schools could do more than just treat the symptoms?

Or what if schools were part of the problem causing the symptoms in the first place?

Our school district had Dr. Ross Greene speak to us at the beginning of the school year. One key phrase stuck with me: “They don’t solve problems, and they don’t teach skills.” He is referring to the punishments that we often give to students in an effort to change behaviors. He refers to the behaviors as symptoms of lagging skills. The overall point is that if we are only going to treat the symptoms, we are never going to solve a student’s problems.

So what are we going to do in order to give our students a sense of purpose? How are we going to show them that we value collaboration over competition? How will we assess students in order to help them grow and learn instead of sorting them after the process is finished?

We know that schools should teach skills necessary in the world rather than knowledge that can be easily found with an algorithm.

We know that students will do amazing things then they find purpose and relevance in what they are doing.

We know that high school students should not start before 8:30 am.

We know that grades serve as a way to rank students and sort them.

Then we have the audacity to say how we are trying to help improve students’ mental health.

We have an opportunity to give our students a sense of relevance in their education, a purpose in their day. It’s time we step up and take it.

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How are we supposed to have failures already?

It is our goal in innovations class to be learning through doing, well, through failing to be more specific.

In order to celebrate failures, we completed our own failure résumés, an idea from Tina Seelig’s What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. Here is how Tina explains it on her website.

I require my students to write a failure résumé. That is, to craft a résumé that summarizes all their biggest screw ups — personal, professional, and academic. For every failure, each student must describe what he or she learned from that experience. Just imagine the looks of surprise this assignment inspires in students who are so used to showcasing their successes.

 

So I did the noble thing and shared a few of my failures to the class:

In junior English my first year teaching high school, we tried genius hour. I thought of it as “vague Friday projects,” but that name didn’t seem to have much staying power. Unfortunately neither did the system. I did see some passion, and one group did something pretty awesome, but there was a lot of wasted time and many voicemails to the CEO of Monsanto about school lunches.

Lesson – students need time to explore their passions. High school students need more time than just one day per week in order to create something that lives up to their expectations.

I was convinced as a high school senior that there was no way I could possibly be happy staying anywhere near home. I also have procrastination issues, leading to a late admission into the University of Wisconsin. I was not able to get a place in the dorms, so I ended up in a private residence hall, a hotel-like building where everyone had their own friends, or at least that’s what I decided. I got homesick and transferred, but that campus, the city, and the college atmosphere is something I wish I would have been a part of longer.

Lesson – get out and do something. Meet people. It is ok to put yourself out there. People won’t think you’re a loser.

There are more, of course (not getting a job I applied for, underestimating an opponent as a basketball coach, not walking a girl home when I clearly should have), but you get the idea.

My students enjoyed my examples, but when it came time to write their own, I found lots of blank looks and weak statements. That’s when Grace spoke up:

But all of your failures happened while you were in college or later even. How are we supposed to have any failures when we’re still in high school.

Wow.

Isn’t that the truth?

I paused for a second. Thought about what gave me the right to think they should do more than me. Then realized that if I don’t hope for more from my students, ask for more of my students, that I can’t expect them to go beyond what I did and learned. I had a high school career full of successes and absent of major failures. It’s no wonder why I took six and a half years to finish college. I’m not a doctor, by the way.

So I replied, “That’s exactly why we’re here. If we wait to fail until college or when you’re 25, or even later, it’s too late. Mistakes cost you even more when you’re older. If you choose a major and end up hating it, you don’t get a refund. We learn from our failures, and giving you the opportunity to fail in this class is the greatest gift I can give you. You won’t be punished for it; you’ll be rewarded with some of the best learning opportunities you can have before you graduate from high school. I want you to have goals that you don’t know for sure that you can reach, something that may seem out of reach, something that you care enough about that it doesn’t matter what happens because you know that you just have to try and see what happens. That’s why you’re in this class.”

That may not have been the exact quote, but in the film version of our class that is how it went.

Fail. Learn. Grow.

And as teachers, share your failures, show that it is ok to take risks, reflect on your failures, reward your students for doing the same.

Teaching satire – the real thing

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!

PBL, what a way to end the year!

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

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

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!

 

Pass the genius on

My innovations students love sharing what we are doing. This is one of the ways I have been able to see success in our innovations class, through the excitement that my students have developed about doing something. It is clear that their confidence has far surpassed where they thought it would be at this point. We visited with one elementary class, and after the visit everyone asked if we could find another class to go to. Now it’s my turn to share what happened!

For our second class visit, one Mrs. Freund, a second grade teacher, invited us in to help her begin genius hour. I sent her a few ideas that I’ve collected from other elementary teachers.

I would think that 2nd grade projects should only take 1-3 weeks at the start of the process. It is best to start small. Learn something, share it, move on to the next thing. Build their confidence in the process of learning and directing themselves.

Here is one interesting blog post about 2nd grade genius hour.

Here is an email from @BetseyMcIntyre, whose class we visited a few weeks ago:

“Okay, I started by showing some sort of short video every day for about a week to try to get them thinking. A couple examples are the Ted Talk Richard Turere: My invention that made peace with lions and Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation Documentary. After that, I introduced Genius Hour with a PowerPoint Tiffany Mannasau shared with me. Then we brainstormed. They had post-its and I had 4 categories on my bulletin board: learn to do, learn to change, learn about, learn to make.We spent a good amount of time brainstorming. We use that board now when we are ready to start a new project.”

Week two – our first visit

Five students from our class went to visit the classroom. We discussed everything that we thought was important and that the students wished they knew as they began their projects – coming up with ideas, current projects, biggest successes, biggest failures, and what we learned through them all. The hope is that the 2nd graders can see the possibilities and be inspired to do something awesome.

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Week three – now what?

After our initial visit, I heard from Mrs. Freund about how genius hour week three went. Kids had started planning and researching with their partners. She is already seeing some of the difficulties that come with genius hour – it isn’t that easy! We are asking students to start breaking the rules of school, and that is a little strange.

A few students want to make a poster to get people to stop smoking. One group wants to find out if the Sasquatch is real. And while interest is a big part of genius hour, these ideas just aren’t good enough. But how do we push students to go beyond the easy and the obvious?

My advice for the smoking poster group: your first idea is usually not your best idea. We train our students, whether implicitly or explicitly, to go with that first conventional and safe idea. Genius hour is to encourage students to try new things and maybe even fail. We don’t fail by doing what we’ve always done or what everyone else is doing. Here are a few ideas to prove that point:

  1. Tell students to line up in birthday order without talking. The best part of this one is to hear the initial complaints even though they aren’t supposed to be speaking. Eventually one students will start doing something, usually hand signals for months. They will get in an order then figure out days from there, and they’ll be mostly accurate. But the key to this is the conversation afterwards. “Why did you go with that strategy?” The answer is always, “Because it was our best idea.” Was it? Or was it the only idea? So often we just go with the first idea because it seems like the easiest or best, but we don’t spend the time to explore other options. Students could have written their birthdays on a scrap of paper, taken out their driver’s licenses, created a timeline on the floor and found their correct spots. What about singing? I said no talking. Break the rules! (taken from inGenius by Tina Seelig)
  2. Come up with a list of 20 ways to share your project or findings. How can you get students to move beyond the initial set of ideas, past the better set, and into the deeper stuff that is actually innovative?
  3. Ask questions. Ask enough to help students realize the potential their idea has and that a poster just isn’t good enough to realize that potential.

For the Sasquatch group whose topic doesn’t seem to offer much depth, ask questions, encourage, let them find out if their project has no legs. The excitement for learning is an important part of genius hour, and we don’t want to squash it. But we do have to help students realize the importance of a powerful question. Help this group discover what really interests them about the Sasquatch. Maybe they research for a day, present to the class, and move on. Maybe they find something that fascinates them in terms of conspiracies that they can learn about. They will hopefully figure out what makes a good project. This is where sharing with our classmates can be effective. What questions are groups asking in order to be successful? Understanding what makes a good project is an important skill to learn at any age.

These classroom visits have beneficial to the elementary students, of course, but so have mine. I’ve learned, and so have the elementary teachers. Genius hour is a great movement when we have dedicated teachers who are planning what is best for our students. It’s a pleasure for my students and I to be a part of the process!