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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It doesn’t have to be Genius Hour

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!

Google Presentation – So what am I going to do with it?

For a long time I have told myself that I need to get better at creating visual presentations. That I need to stop relying too heavily on my students’ listening skills and not properly supporting them. And that it is just more fun to have images to go along with what I’m saying.

I think I was probably a little afraid to be bad at presentations, and probably slightly overwhelmed. I have used a few SlideRocket presentations that were simple and interactive, but it wasn’t often enough. I just didn’t want to put up slides of words and read them to my kids – ever.

A session from the ND GAFE Summit immediately caught my eye – Breathe Fresh Life into Google Presentations with Mark Hammons. Yes, please! So let’s take a look at the ways this presentation on presentations is going to be my biggest change for 2014-15.

One of the goals was to use 40 words of less in a presentation. If we focus on using pictures, that will allow the presenter to tell a story, and that story has the power to resonate with the audience. We even got to swear like a Boy Scout, “I vow to tell a story and not teach what can be read.” If the audience can read it, why am I there?

If you do have a slide that must have words, that can be done in a creative way with a word cloud. This will avoid the reading of bullet points that does not accomplish anything, and keep the presentation moving in the right direction.

But let’s get back to pictures. We learned all sorts of tricks with color matching and photo editing that are going to make my presentations awesome. I’ll do my best to share them! It might help to take a look at the Presentation Playground that Mark had us use. That is my copy, so you can see the few slides that I created by following the directions, but feel free to make your own copy and practice!

Here’s the first example from Google Presentations:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.49.15 AMScreen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.49.28 AM

We used the research tool that is found under the “Tools” menu. Amazing. By searching for a famous person, you will get quotes, pictures, and links to websites that make creating a slide a piece of cake! Just click on “insert” and make it look great. We used a Chrome Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 11.01.41 AMExtension for that called ColorPick Eyedropper. This allows you to find the color hex number (an ID of sorts) that you can use to customize your background to match a picture (and much, much more).

Example #2:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.01.46 AMScreen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.01.57 AMThe power of pictures was something that stood out to me during this session. When a quality picture takes over an entire screen, it is an eye-opening experience. So we resized this image of Mark’s son pretending to throw up in order to fill up the entire screen. We can then insert a text box over that to get our couple of words in.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.16.39 AMTo make the text box a transparent color, click on the “Fill color” icon, go down to “Custom” on the bottom, choose your color, and adjust the transparency bar (the farthest to the right) to the level that works best. This will help your viewers to focus on the words as well as the great picture.

Example #3 – For some reason the most mind-blowing at the time:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.20.51 AMScreen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.21.06 AMThe ColorPick Eyedropper was great, but what do you do when you’re stuck with a picture that is straight up and down, but the background color is different from top to bottom?

Mark took a screenshot of the tiny sliver on the right side, being careful not to catch the finger at all. We then, following his example, inserted that screenshot into the presentation, resized it to fit from top to bottom, and stretched it all the way across the slide. Now we have a gray screen that is very similar in color to the background of the picture. So easy, but so cool!

Example #4:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.27.03 AMWe used the Eyedropper again, this time go grab the color from this great picture. Copy the hex number, change the color of your text to a custom color, and paste the number in the box on the top! Such a simple way to connect your text colors to your photographs.

And example #5 sums it all up:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.38.54 AMPresentations can be incredibly engaging – as long as we do them right! The most important thing to remember is that slides should help your audience connect with what you are saying. Make them funny. Make them personal. And make them great!

We can also begin to think of the power we can give our students to create when we teach them how to be confident and engaging presenters. These tools go beyond just the creation of an all-encompassing PowerPoint and require our students to deeply know the content of their presentation.

And if you want to dig a little deeper into the power of presentations with Nancy Duarte, check out this TED Talk.

The power of music

I’m fresh off of the North Dakota Google Summit this weekend. Nothing can energize me more than spending a few days learning amazing things with other passionate people.  And while I’m in no way ready to start to form a cohesive thought about all of the incredible things I picked up this weekend, I thought I’d share something that I talked about with a colleague while at the summit.

ImageMusic.

It is many of our students’ lives! They would sooner go without water than their iPod and their new Beats headphones. Music can change the mood of a person. It can change the feel of a classroom, and it can change the atmosphere of a school.

Because of Monte Selby’s advice at a Nuts and Bolts Conference, I decided that I would harness the power of music and use it to my advantage to make connections with my students, start class off in a positive way, and sometimes change the mood.

After starting my class with music for the past four years, I’ll never go back. Not only does the music give the students a chance to get themselves involved in the class, but it is also a signal for students that, when it’s over, it’s time to get started. Let’s talk about some of the details.

I start with some of my own music as well as older music. Students may complain that Frank Sinatra isn’t quite their style, but when they ask if they can bring their own music in, you know you’ve got them. Of course they can! As long as it is appropriate for school and under four minutes long, it’s good enough for my class. Monte’s advice was to not push them to bring their own music, but to make them bring it up.

“As a teacher, you cannot be the keeper of what’s cool.  Let them decide.”  That is a memorable quote from Monte, and it is so true. Student choice becomes a big part of the music in my class, but they have to follow the rules. I haven’t had many issues with rules being broken, but if they do play an inappropriate song or if a song is too long, we can go back to my choice for two weeks.

I allow students to bring in a song or find one on Youtube. My colleague had the idea of using a Google Form to submit song requests. This would eliminate the few times I experience frustration in waiting for a student to come up with the song title. We have the list of requests, move through them, and class runs like a well-oiled machine.

Now music is great just for the atmosphere and feeling of the classroom, but it also has value in building routines and signaling our class. During the song, there should be a few things that must be done before the song is finished. These are up to you, but here are mine:

  • Have a sharpened pencil with you as well as your English notebook
  • Respond to the following ___ in your journal
    (I rotate this with a question, quote, fun/interesting fact, and various other short writings)
  • Be quietly seated in your desk before the song is finished

Other ideas include:

  • Fill in your planner or schedule
  • Have certain materials out
  • Tell someone something positive
  • Ask a question about a topic that we are involved in

The main point is that with this routine built in, my students don’t feel that I’m immediately talking to them and starting class. It almost feels as if they have a choice and some time to breathe. But once that song is over, it is our time together. When the song ends, I greet them as a group and we begin our day together.

Another great part of the music is that I have a chance to greet my students at the door, take attendance, and do any other last-minute things before we begin together. This allows me to be fully prepared and not waste time. When we begin, we are focused together.

One story that I remember Monte telling us was about a principal who played music in between classes over the speaker system. The music would start out soft, giving teachers a chance to finish up their classes, then play until the fade out began, signaling that it was time for class to start again. He said that seniors would dance their way to class. Talk about transforming school culture!

And that is the power of music – whether it is changing a moment, making a connection, or shifting an entire school’s climate. Putting a smile on someone’s face with music can change their attitude, and attitude is everything.

Hey students, tell me what you think

A few years back I mostly stole an evaluation that Larry Ferlazzo has his students fill out at the conclusion of his class.  By “mostly stole” I mean that I changed one question. Let’s have a look at the questions and my 8th grade students’ thoughts. What good is an evaluation without reflecting on it?

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.26.29 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.26.40 PMAs an 8th grade teacher, I am fairly pleased to see these results. I want my students to feel that they have examined their own writing and worked hard to improve it. My focus in reading instruction is for students to build their own love for reading. We do this through reading books mainly individually and discussing those books.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.38.47 PMThat is 76% of my students who are doing what I hope to see, but there is definitely room for improvement here. I need to continue to find more strategies and activities that get students to engage with. Students try their best when they have authentic learning experiences and are depended upon by others. I’m at redesigning my blogging unit from individual blogs to creating group blogs. This would help those students feel like their work is important and necessary to the success of their group.

 

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Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.44.05 PMIt isn’t a surprise that students enjoyed creating a short movie based on their creative writing stories was the most popular unit. It also shouldn’t surprise us that the other two creative outlets, creative writing and poetry, were the most popular. Students like to have a voice! And if we can get them to use their creativity, those writing skills translate into all of the writing that they do.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.09.57 PMThanks!

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.10.15 PMI’ll take that, but there are always those students who it seems like it is impossible to connect. The answer? Try harder.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.10.23 PMI noticed as I looked through these that the majority of the some of the times came from my 5th period class. Either I find a way to take a nap during lunch, or I find a better way to energize myself and come back ready to be my best. And the moral of the story? Kids notice.

 

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I feel that I need to continue to build class activities and routines that are easily identified by the students. Not just so that they can be recalled on an evaluation, of course, but because I want my students to know what we are doing and why we are doing it.

I was pleased to see that my students valued the individual conferences we had on their writing pieces. This, along with writing in class, is something that helps students receive immediate feedback on their work. I value this time very highly, so it was great to see that my students valued it as well.

Looking back at the information that I gained from this evaluation, there are still some questions that I’d like to hear answers to.

  • What was the most memorable part of this year?
  • What do you wish we would have done more of? In some of the questions I asked during the year, I definitely already knew that students wanted to make another movie or create a class movie. I think we would have to offer a movie-making elective to focus on script writing and even more of the details that could go into that type of class. I’ll teach that class if my principal is reading this!
  • What, specifically, could we improve as a class?
  • What else could I do in order to be better? This is such a general question, and finding a way to narrow it down for students is difficult.

And even though this isn’t specific to my class, it is information like this survey from Grant Wiggins that is so useful to us as teachers.

I am still left without some information that would be valuable, but it is such a great experience to hear from my students. There are a few questions that only my students who are with me every day could be able to answer – not me, not my supervisor. We can use our students as valuable resources in order to become better better teachers, or we can continue doing the same thing and thinking that nothing needs changing.

I’ll trust my students.

Let’s start a school…

where one of our main goals is to engage students in a meaningful unit of study that is completely based on student interest and ends with creating something authentic to be used in the world.

One of the things that made me connect so strongly with Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner was the importance of authenticity in schools. These innovative young people were not innovative when completing their worksheets. They didn’t display their empathy for the world in the isolation of a simple report. The question or problem was one that the teacher did not already hold the right answer to.

SchoolThe teachers that were featured were outliers in the sense that they saw themselves as peers of the students in the creation and learning process. So how about we try that in our new middle school? Here’s what I’m thinking:

We create an interdisciplinary unit that is similar to the genius hour or 20% time. Every Wednesday (seems like a good day) we have the students working together in groups to investigate and solve their problem. Teachers are available in their rooms throughout the day for students to have a chance to get feedback and just-in-time learning if needed. The students are able to move from the science lab where they are creating something to the English room when they need to write a letter or prepare for a speech.

What are the questions or problems? Ed Carryer of Stanford’s Smart Product Design Laboratory has one problem for his students to solve in his course. The example from Creating Innovators was “The world’s most dangerous jobs.” Students designed boats for crab fishing that harvested the crabs and brought them back to the dock to unload them. The project had competition, innovation, and fun, or “whimsy” as Carryer called it. One group played the role of Greenpeace and tried to set all of the crabs free!  Here are some other examples from Stanford which are high level, of course, but it might give you an idea.

It might be a good plan to start our unit with all students working on solving a problem together in order to learn how to think this way. It takes a change of culture to get students to be more innovative. Any ideas of a problem or question we should use to start?

Eventually the students can identify their own problems that they want to fix. Let’s say that the chairs or desks that they are sitting on are uncomfortable. A group of students might choose to develop a chair that is more comfortable and still cost effective. Math and science would be necessary for the design angles and weight distribution as well as the costs associated with the chair. The English teacher would be a help in marketing the chair as well as writing any letters and applying for patents. And the history teacher, although probably not her area of expertise, could help in the research of chairs for inspiration. That last one might include the art teacher a little more, but go with me here. I imagine students pitching their questions/ideas like that one to the class and recruiting their group. When the project is over, students could create their own TED Talk to showcase their genius to the world!

Think of the engagement that a project like this would offer! To create something and make someone’s world a better place is the reason people want to learn and innovate. The hope is that our classroom walls are no longer the limits. I would imagine this would lead teacher to continue to expose our students to other parts of the world in order to see what the needs are all over.

This could be done as a competition where ideas and projects are presented to a panel. Picture Shark Tank or The Apprentice coming to your classroom. One class even presented to fourth graders to be their judges. Students receive feedback and continue to grow and learn. The best part? There are no wrong answers. We try and fail? So what. Try again!

When I mentioned a culture change earlier, failure is a part of our culture that needs to be looked at. Students feel like they failed when they know there is no chance to try again or to use what they learned in order to improve. This type of system encourages failure as a learning tool with feedback and time to try again. And when the end result is something authentic that can help others, there is a reason to keep trying.

A typical Easter conversation about grading

Over the Easter break I ended up in an interesting conversation with some family members. My brother-in-law (Bil) is a recent college graduate currently looking for a social studies teaching position, his girlfriend (Gal) is a college student majoring in business, and my father-in-law (Fil) is a school board member. Quite the variety of opinions!

The connection here is education, and the topic of grading and late work came up. These conversations can be a lot of fun because it is important to see different perspectives and philosophies.

I am a firm believer that the most important thing is that the student does the work and learns what is necessary. I do not knock off points for late work, and if a student wants to redo something and improve their grade, more power to them! I do give due dates for assignments, but if a student needs more time to finish there is no penalty.

Bil’s questions were along the lines of responsibility and expectations for students. He had experience teaching in a high school where students could wait to turn their assignments in at the end of a quarter, and some took advantage of that. That left the teacher in the position of grading a whole bunch of work to meet his own deadline. The argument was that if we do not have firm deadlines with penalties, we are not preparing our students for their future.

Gal’s point of view was different. She was thinking of this discussion from the student’s perspective, and a good student at that. She is upset when a fellow student, or competitor as she sees them, turns in an assignment late and still receives full credit. It isn’t fair that she has to work as hard as she does while other students have a free pass to slack off and get it done later.

We didn’t hear a whole lot from Fil besides encouraging this friendly debate.

To be honest, I hadn’t thought deeply about the point of view of a student as a competitor for college scholarships, awards, and all of the things that go along with grades. But that is where the whole conversation led me in my thinking: grades. What are they used for? Why do we have them? And what is the most important thing about them?

In the simplest sense, grades should be a report of what a student has learned and can do. Unfortunately we turn them into so much more. They have become all-encompassing measures of a student from their behavior, responsibility, and intelligence.

If we deduct points for each late day, or knock off a certain random percentage, what are we saying about the value of that assignment? Even worse, if we do not allow the student to receive credit for that assignment, are we saying that that learning was only valuable if it was done on this certain specific day? A student who proves he has learned something should get credit for that accomplishment. Just like when you pass your driver’s test, you can drive, whether it took you one try or ten.

But how do we account for the responsibility, especially in our competitive society that demands we have valedictorians and scholarship winners? Should this be left for our SAT or ACT tests to determine?

If we continue to grade the same way that we always have, it is safe to say that we will continue to have these discussions. When we start to assess student learning as an accurate measure against the standards, we are less likely to have to worry about everything that goes into a number or letter assigned by the teacher. Standards-based grading allows teachers to avoid all of the extra stuff that gets factored into a grade and focus only on whether or not a student has mastered a given standard. And if mastery of the standards becomes the focus, the assessments will change as well.

Will this help students learn responsibility? If we show the students the goal and allow them to prove that they have mastered it, they will be more likely to want to display that mastery and accomplish the goal. My hope is that they do learn persistence when facing a challenging task and a value of the work that we do in class.

Bil is going to ask me if I think this will work for every student. Probably not, but that is the case with most things. The next step is student engagement and authenticity, but that is a whole new blog post!