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.

For learning or money?

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

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

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.

 

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.