What if we learned about our students differently?

When I started teaching at SLA, there was a standing assignment for 9th grade students. It had begun with the inaugural class and had continued into the second year when I picked up my teaching load. Me Magazineswere a way for students in their English classes to get to know and share about one another as they started a new year in a new school. As SLA draws from myriad middle schools around Philadelphia, it made sense for this new cohort to have a chance to share and get to know one another.

I don’t share this with any illusions that Me Magazines were avant garde or broke any molds of creativity. I’ve been around enough to know the Me Magazine was of a family of activities teachers ask of their students at the start of the school year. There’s the Where I’m From poem, the I Am poem and any number of derivations. Instead, I’m sharing about Me Magazines because I wish I hadn’t assigned them.

They started my year off on the wrong foot. It was in that gray area that looks like augmented student agency. It tiptoes around authenticity. “The students are writing about themselves, their lives, and their experiences,” you might say, “How is that not agency and authenticity?”

Well, for one, their doing it in a way that says, “This is how you share about yourself in this space. I want you to talk about yourself and consider where you’re from, but I want you to do it in the way I tell you to.” While the content may be specific to the student, such assignments are often a more creative version of telling students they need to make a PowerPoint presentation and it needs to have N slides with X on Slide Y, etc.

To redesign the assignment, my question is always to return to the purpose of the task and experience. What, at its core, are we attempting to do when we assign these get-to-know-you openers to the school year?

  1. We, as teachers, want to know who these fresh faces are and how they talk about themselves.
  2. We want to students to have a forum to share pieces of their histories with their peers.
  3. We want to see what they can do as a baseline in writing when give familiar content.
  4. We want to create a sense that this space is one where it is safe to share.
  5. We want to position the class as one where agency, voice, and authenticity matter.

So, let’s take a turn at opening up the assignment so that we are adding structure to the experience, but not necessarily the final product.

  1. Instead of building in your questions for content, open up the assignment for students to share the aspects of classmates they think it’s important to know and share. Compile a brainstormed list as a class and then give students (maybe in groups) a chance to elect one question to priority status, so it’s built into the assignment. This is also an opportunity to work on building consensus.
  2. Open the format of the presentation of learning to student choice. “What’s the best way for you to share who you are with this class?” This not only opens up student agency and choice, but it will help you see whom among your students decides to perform and who decides to build or code.
  3. Explain your purpose as a teacher. The learning shouldn’t be a secret. Yes, you’ll open it up to students’ chosen presentation formats, and you’re looking for some specific understandings as well. If this is an assignment that is meant to help you understand students as writers, then tell perhaps whatever they design must include a written component. Or, if you want to keep the thrust of things open, say the one thing you’re going to require is a reflective piece of writing explaining why they made the choices they did and how they think those choices affected the outcome.
  4. Have options at the ready. As was the case in my classroom, you’re going to have students who are overwhelmed by choice. Have pathways at the ready to help these students work through selecting the right format for them. This is where you might drop in Diana’s speed learning activity. You might pair students who are stuck with parents who immediately stand out as wealths of ideas. And, in the rare moments all this doesn’t help, you’ve got those formats mentioned above at the ready to be modified to fit whatever the class has decided is important.

Making these tweaks to the traditional assignment moves us closer to our goals for the experience while also adding in elements of collaboration, student inquiry, and making the classroom a more transparent place.

Cross-posted on Medium.

Dispatch from Pakistan #1 – Hitting the Ground

empty tea cupI arrived in Lahore, Pakistan 3:30 AM local time April 13. I’ll be here through April 23. I’m trying to capture my thoughts and experiences in this series of posts. They will be imperfect and fail to convey all the complex truths of this place. Think of this only as a container for my thoughts.

Initial perceptions. When I first traveled to South Africa and Kenya to work with teachers through Education Beyond Borders, all I had as a comparison were neighborhoods evoked by what I saw in those countries. Such is my similar experience here in Pakistan.

An unfair comparison, to be sure, my mind looks for what is similar to other places I’ve been in the world and then tries to puzzle those comparisons together to make sense of the foreign.

It doesn’t do the place justice, and it’s all I have. The more I’m here, the more I can reject the false comparisons in favor of the truths I’ve see here on the ground.

I’m staying with six teachers here to attend the weeklong workshop. Two are from Malaysian schools in the Beaconhouse network. Four are from schools and district offices in Karachi.

All of them are extremely dedicated to doing right by children. They are studying technology. They are enthused about project-based learning, they have been reading up on inquiry-based learning. It’s the same as you would expect from any group of teachers trying to get the mix right in American schools.

And yet it’s a bit different. When we talk about the issue of security in Karachi, the tone changes slightly. The people setting off bombs, the people kidnapping, the people who make fences and checkpoints necessary. “These people are not representative of Pakistan,” everyone I meet here is quick to point out.

From what I’m seeing (and it’s myopically limited based on only 10 days in-country), this is a country much different from what we see on the news. It turns out, only the bad news makes it out of Pakistan to the American media. No one has reported on the peacefulness I’ve seen here. Nor are they interested in the eggs, toast and jam on the table each morning when I come down to breakfast.

These are the pieces of ordinary daily life. The comings and goings of a people that aren’t worthy of report in papers and on the news networks.

It’s a mix of this. It’s the ordinary with the extraordinary. Daily life lives alongside a subtle shadow of actual insecurity. As a visitor, I’m trying to get my mind around it.

135/365 Teachers as Co-Enjoyers


I had the chance to go bowling today.It was a mixed bag. Adults, adolescents, elementary school kids.

Three lanes, three games, mixed- ages. The three youngest kids were in the same lane together with one adult. I was in the lane next to them. It was quite the scene. Because we’d arrived early, much of the bowling alley was ours to disrupt with celebrations and good-natured chiding.

At some point, I started to pay more direct attention to the game beside mine. We’d been celebrating the small successes of the younger kids throughout. My attention, though, became more direct.

Their game had started with the bumpers up on the lane and an assistive apparatus that acted like a metal slide to help the ball build momentum and be aimed down the lane. A few frames in to the first game, the two youngest kids decided they didn’t want to use the slide. They looked at the games happening around them and realized the older folks were throwing the balls independently. I’m guessing this pushed them to try the same thing.

Once the slide was gone, it never returned. They could do ti without the added help. The bumpers stayed up throughout both games. Either the kids never realized they were optional, or they decided they wanted to keep them.

Either way, they realized they were getting more help than they needed with the slide, and could perform the task to their own satisfaction without it.

This is key, and I needed to remember it in the middle of the second game. The kids were able to perform the task to their satisfaction without the slide. They weren’t worried about whether the adults around would praise or chastise their performance. They set to doing what they wanted to do and were allowed to shape their experience to their own terms insomuch as they were in control of the environment.

The part I had to remember became apparent when the third grader stepped to the line to throw midway through the second game. It wasn’t my turn in my lane for a few more players, and I was struck with the idea, “Well, maybe I should help him learn to throw the ball better.”

Luckily, immediately, my better judgement got ahold of me. Had he asked for help? No. Did anything I might have to say have a chance of improving his experience? No.

Most importantly, was he learning to adjust to the task at hand to meet his needs without any word from me? Yes.

I didn’t offer any “help” because he was helping himself. He had figured out the thing he wanted to do, and he was doing it. My task was to sit alongside and co-enjoy the experience.

Even coaching from my chair was unwarranted. I didn’t need to be the quaintly and condescendingly-phrased “guide on the side.” My job was to co-enjoy the learning experience. I took a pause to watch what was happening, register the victories and defeats, and enjoyed the learning in pursuit of an internal goal.

Perhaps our classrooms could do with more co-enjoyers.

43/365 Assign Projects

Alex transferred to SLA in his junior year from one of large comprehensive schools in Philadelphia after it closed. Toward the end of the first week, I asked him how SLA compared to his former school. It was similar, he said, many of the same classes he’d seen where he came from.

“But that learning, though…You guys are way ahead of us on learning.”

It took time for him to become accustomed to the way of doing things at SLA. The transition was a culture shift, and it wasn’t one he’d asked for.

If we had administered test, I’m sure we would have found gaps in Alex’s literacy and math scores. In conversations in class, he would often ask for clarification on historical ideas that were common knowledge to his classmates.

Using these pieces of assessment, we would have enough data to draw up a deficit model of Alex that fit him somewhere in a remedial class in a traditional school.

That wasn’t the philosophy of the school.

If you want a dipstick along the way, use a quiz or test. If you want to know what a student has truly learned, assign a project.

Throughout his first quarter with us, Alex was assigned a joint project through his English and history classes. He was to find a named building in his neighborhood and research both the building and the person for whom it was named. That done, he was to tell the story of both.

Alex selected a middle school near his house and decided a video documentary would best convey what he found.

The physical structure of the school, Alex found, had been under contract for sale to a local business. Though the contract had fallen through, it hadn’t fallen through before the district installed a new heating system as part of the deal.

Alex found the heating system hadn’t been connected or made operational. It sat in the basement unused while the inefficient system the building was built with limped along.

Then, Alex found something on the tour that changed the story he was telling. In the school’s library, he found bare shelves and was told the school hadn’t purchased a new book for the space in more than five years.

When he returned to SLA, he was impassioned. Recognizing the injustice he’d uncovered, Alex approached the editing and production of his project with new intensity. He had found something real through the asking of authentic questions, and worked to marshal all of his abilities to make the best product he could.

While Alex’s case is not the norm for all projects, it does highlight what can happen with projects at their best. Because he had been givent he scope and charge to build something of meaning that required dexterity with primary sources, interviews, storytelling and myriad other skills, Alex created something that blew the possible deficit understanding of his learning out of the water.

The video narrative he created laid out in stark relief the images he’d captured of the heating system and juxtaposed them heartbreakingly with his images of the library. After the viewing in class, his classmates gave him a round of applause and peppered him with questions, hungry to better understand what he’d uncovered.

As teachers were able to assess his discrete skills through quizzes and other assessments and and offer Alex help in augmenting the areas in which he was weakest. Because of the project, though, we were able to see the best of what Alex was capable and, in turn, she the best of Alex.

Things I Know 222 of 365: I want to build stuff

Teachers would have to be knowledgeable about experience, academic knowledge, and learning, knowing these territories as well as mountain guides knew theirs.

– David K. Cohen

I haven’t built anything in a while.

My friend Vanessa is in the Technology in Education program here. Each of her classes is shaped around a semester-long project in which she and her classmates work together to complete a project in which they build an education object for use or consumption in the bigger world.

My semester is shaping up to be consumptive.

I’ve read a couple hundred pages of scholarly work in the last few weeks and written a few briefs analyzing and reacting to what I’ve read. My brain is exploding with ideas, questions and intense moments of “Oo, I want to try that right now!” As I said in my last post, it’s pushed me to put all this thinking down on the record for when I’m able to put it into practice – a sort of daily diary or my reading diet.

Vanessa’s is shaping up to be iterative.

She’s pitched projects, formed groups and started building wireframes of the project she’s heading up. She’s working on leveraging funding for the pieces of the project that exist outside her wheelhouse and finding a home for it in the wide world when all’s said and done.

I just finished reading “Teaching Practice: Plus Que Ca Change…” by David Cohen from Contributing to Educational Change: Perspectives on Research and Practice. Cohen examines Deweyian educational reforms and why they appear to have stalled or gone sour since the 1950s. In his analysis, Cohen writes, “…teachers must take on a large agenda: helping students abandon the safety of rote learning, instruct them in framing and teasing hypotheses, and build a climate of tolerance for others’ ideas and a curiosity about unusual answers, among other things.”

Various pieces of Cohen’s list of necessities for “adventurous teaching” are in place, but I wonder where the building and teasing of hypotheses will come in.

Vanessa’s cohort is building real things. They’ll be creating, failing, taking apart and re-building all semester.

I’m curious as to how much of that I’ll be doing outside of the sterile protection of case studies.
Ideally we’d be building the institutions we all had in mind when we applied in the same way a student would learn math and design by building structures with authentic purposes.

At heart, I realize the difference between Vanessa’s program and my own. If any of the groups in her classes fails, it is to the detriment of their portfolios. If those in my cohort were to fail at any type of authentic adventurous learning, the impact would extend beyond our own personal failures.

Still, we got in the door. And, for almost a decade, I’ve been trusted to experiment and iterate responsibly with my classroom as a playground without harming the students in my charge.

Let us build schools or systems of professional development. Start by letting us ask the questions that lead to the problems. Then, guide us in forming both the structures and understandings surrounding the solutions of those problems.

Some of this comes from the stagnation I feel in not creating unit plans or working to help run a school this semester.

All of it helps me to understand how it feels for students of any level when we ask them to put down what is real in their world’s and trust us when we promise that what we ask them to do will be important in the future.

Things I Know 195 of 365: Projects for projects’ sake are fine by me

For those of you playing the home game (I’m looking at you mom and Debbie), you’ve noticed my posts this month have been a bit fractured in their, well, posting.

While I’m certainly no slave to the rules, it is driving me slightly batty that I’m not able to get something up every day.

It turns out not having a wireless connection everywhere I go out here restricts my ability to post.

The whole inconsistency of access has started to frustrate me.

It’s what caused my brain to flag this tweet from @kealyd when it rolled through my feed the other day:

#eduphilosophy affirmation day 4 projects for projects’ sake are not PBL

I think they actually might be.

I’ve got no end game in mind once I document 365 TIK. The whole decision to begin this project was made in a matter of seconds and prompted by the fact that Ben would soon be finished with his 365 Questions Google Can’t Answer.

It seemed to me like someone should keep up the mantle just for the sake of doing it.

We call projects for the sake of projects play in children and hobbies in adults.

I see nothing wrong in giving students time to read in class or unguided time to write. I see many things right in it.

What I think might be a more perfect statement is that not all PBL learning should be projects for the sake of projects.

I sit and write this post for me and the sake of some self-imposed goal. Later today, I’ll be building a podcast delivery system, writing a newsletter and prepping for a conference call. Each of those projects come with ends in mind. I’ll know where I want to go before I get there and the route will be straightforward.

In this space and in this moment, I’m playing with ideas toward the end of having played with ideas.

While Lewis and Clark had an overall goal to their expedition, they didn’t wake each morning to write their learning objectives on the board or else consider themselves failures. No, they were explorers.

January 1, I didn’t write down a list that said somewhere, “Refine your thinking on project-based learning.” But here it happened. As a learner I know when I am learning with purpose and when I am learning for the joy of learning alone.

Allowing the breathing room for crazy random happenstance means I feel better equipped to move toward objectives when the time comes.