Thursday, June 25, 2015

VPA Leaders Conference, June 25 2015


Get Things Moving: Theory Into Action Steps
VPA Leaders Conference
Berlin, VT

"Schools are often cultures of 'add.' Initiatives pile on, one after another until people reach the breaking point and the core mission and values begin to drift. 'Time in schools' can be reclaimed to unlock innovation and even, yes, promote civility!"


We want to move things forward in schools... but we often think and do things the same way. Business goes on, as usual, and things don't change. Many innovative changes are often an 'add' and they struggle to maintain motion.



Here are five ways below to start changes in motion. It'll build collaborative time, creative time, promote socialization, and start to unlock traditional barriers to innovation.

They're simple. They don't cost anything. They create motion you can build on.


Summary notes:


1. School Schedule: Unlocking PD. Included, not added


2. Master Schedule: Understanding the 'Student perspective'


3. Choice Time / Day / Interdisciplinary projects: Interdisciplinary, connecting


4. Advisory: Done well, it has many positive ripples


5. School lunch! We can do better


I've been helping many schools explore these threads and how they relate to their special circumstances. Here are some other posts called 'What Are We Teaching and Why? that will help conjure some ideas and debates!




Let me know if I can help!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Teach kids not Subjects

A person asked me once...

"Why invite all this student inquiry into the educational process? Don't you think that we know what's best for students?"

I thought about this for 10 seconds or so and then answered.

"We ask our students to do their best learning by sitting in uncomfortable furniture under bright florecent lights while depriving themselves of food and water for long periods of time while studying compartmentalized subjects with very short breaks in between. We often feed them sub-standard carb and sugar laden food in short periods of time during that daily process. Throw in some homework, which is often an elitist practice with no governance and often driven toward penalties which discourages kids to learn and experiment. It often punishes kids with less than ideal home lives. 'School' keeps getting busier and more demanding with little thought toward quality.

So, no. I don't."

We sat there staring at each other for a bit.

"Wow," the person said while rubbing their face. "Good answer. I guess I really haven't thought about school from the perspective of a student in a long time. I've been thinking about my teaching my subject."

"There's a world of difference between 'I teach math' and 'I teach kids math'," I said.

Food for thought for the coming Summer break work toward teaching kids next Fall.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Domestic Terrorism, A Hate Crime in Charleston, South Carolina


The shootings in Charleston, South Carolina were an act of domestic terrorism. They were a hate crime. Let's hope the modern media stops labeling this as simply a 'tragedy.' There's more to it.

Chris Lehmann puts it eloquently in his recent blog post:

"We can not afford, as a nation, to treat the continued hatred, prejudice, and violence against those who do not neatly fit into the dominant paradigm – racially, sexually, religiously – in this country as isolated incidents. To do so is to perpetuate the myth that there’s nothing anyone can do to stop the violence and make a better, more just, world."
...
"Today, I have tried to use social media to speak to the hurt and anger I feel, not because I think I have much to add, but simply because I want all SLA students and families — especially our African-American students — to know that I stand with them. In a moment of tragedy, I would never want any student — especially our African-American students — to have to question for a moment where I stood or if I cared. And I am writing this now in the hope that students know that I never think it is enough for me to exhort them to action, rather that they understand I, too, will use my voice to demand a world where being black no longer means fearing for your safety anywhere you go — even in sanctuary – in church."

As usual, Jon Stewart nails something our modern media refuses to acknowledge.


We must delve deeper into the worlds hate. We must expose it, speak up, and strive to change it. And we must do so relentlessly. More people need to speak up against the acts themselves, and how they are reported in the main.

As Stewart mentions, let's put a magnifying glass on South Carolina, who still flies the confederate flag, who still heralds the name of racists on it's roads and monuments. What could such an inquiry do to expose hatred and it's symbolism?

Speak up and challenge media outlets. Speak up at schools about this horrible crime. Believe you can make a difference by speaking up about it.


Friday, May 29, 2015

What are we teaching and why? Start overhauling tired learning spaces



Let's face it... there are some tired learning spaces out there. Education offices too.

Far too many are steeped in clutter, storage housing more clutter, bad lighting, and uncomfortable furniture all floating in old school / mental institution high gloss beige.

It's the hope that schools could look like spaces people actually want to be in and work in.

It would be great to build a new building... but don't wait. Start pulling together ideas and making small changes until the new dream building somehow, some way becomes a reality.

Understanding flow

I do understand designing around classroom flow. But...

What if there isn't a good flow in the classroom?

What if the space is so confining that 'flow' isn't possible?

What if the current space is all lecture driven?

I took the challenge myself in 2005 where I used to teach and have been helping teachers over the last 10 years refit / rejuvenate learning spaces and offices.

There are a few simple steps that can happen to change things in the right direction. Sometimes some simple changes can get things moving.

Move / eliminate that teacher desk!

Make the classroom peer learning centric rather than teaching centric.

This will be a good challenge to your work in teaching students. Sit with students. Sit in the back. Sit in the middle. Move about day to day and let the stage define itself.

Challenge yourself to get your teacher desk out of the front of the room. Challenge yourself to eliminate it altogether!

Remove clutter!

Remove 'stuff.' Get the shelves clean, get stuff off the floor, get it off tables and desks. Don't just put it somewhere else!

Toss it!

Identify what you 'need' from what you might want.

Get. Rid. Of. Stuff. You. Don't. Use.

Remove unnecessary storage!

I visited a classroom recently and the teacher mentioned they didn't have enough storage. When we went over what was being stored in the room... 90% of it was unnecessary as in never used or fell into that category "we might need this someday." The entire classroom was like a giant kitchen junk drawer. Students hated it, and sadly the person who taught in the room did too. We gutted the room and went minimalist, by moving essential and frequently used items into one cabinet. Classrooms should be work spaces not storage centers. Get that seldom used stuff out!

Wash!

Make it a school effort. Ask students to help. Polish. Don't take no for an answer. Get the grime off the windows too!


Paint!

Introduce a color palate... other than school athletic colors and institutional white, light blue, and... beige!

Tips:

Stay away from high gloss. Win that argument. Make taking care of the walls a school priority.

Softer tones of... green, orange, yellow, blue can go a long way. Nature based color palates work extremely well. Take a look at the modern workspaces online like Google, Dealer.com, and some others. Get inspired to make some changes.

Accent walls. More than one color makes it interesting.

Develop a catalog of colors for the school. 20 colors?

Get teachers involved. Get rooms painted. 10 rooms per year could cost $2,000 - $3000.

How would new paint and a modern color palate change the 'feel' of your school?

Whiteboards

Get some large whiteboards up to unpack ideas. Large sheets are easily mounted, easily framed and far, far less expensive than the expensive alternatives.

Many schools have whiteboards that are not used often. Find them and repurpose them into high use areas and spaces.

Multiple white boards in different spaces? Why not?

Get things moving

Convincing yourself and students that desks and tables can be moved around is very liberating. Circle one day, groups another. Many hands make light work.

The school as an art gallery... Start in rooms, then take on the building

Curate student art!

Get the art dept involved in displaying student work and get projects going with college and community artists to work with kids to add murals and shapes to walls. It's amazing what life this can breathe into tired old facilities.

Start down the furniture path

It's time. Get rid of these...

If you don't believe it... try becoming a student for a day.

It's expensive to change furniture. But it's also fun. New furniture can be moved to that new building you might build someday.

Best advice: Choose things that have great warranties and are comfortable.


So...

Changes like this can lead to positive morale shifts. It can stir up pedagogy. It can stir up some innovation. It shifts energy. It gets people buying into the thought that "we can redesign our learning spaces."

We can face the reality that it doesn't take much money to reduce clutter, eliminate furniture, and paint!

<<<

Links to the full 'What Are We Teaching and Why? series:

8. Start overhauling tired learning spaces
7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What are we teaching and why: #educolor and literary choices


At long last, I've been looking through notes from #EduCon 2015 in January, and recently on a session facilitated by Jose Vilson and Rafranz Davis (filling in for Audrey Watters) called The Privileged Voices in Education. The discussion turned in that session toward something I've been discussing in schools for some time...

If you look over a standard high school literary curriculum you'll find...

  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Macbeth
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Julius Ceasar
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Lord of the Flies
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Hamlet
  • The Great Gatsby

One thing stands out... they are great books.

Two more things do too... they are authored by white (1) men (2).

As I researched this more around the web it's been written about a lot and discussed a lot. Many have posted variances of that list.

What I'm not finding though are a lot of schools that have shifted from this predominately white centric literary practice.

Don't get me wrong, they are great books. But... what if we helped many more students identify with a wider, more diverse array of authors as part of required courses and not electives?

What if we...

  • Required a few less of these 'traditional' readings
  • Required more ethnic and gender diversity
  • Encouraged more teacher and student choice by 'what resonates'

and we asked for...

  • more reading and reflective discussions on topics of social justice?

Here are a few examples I've seen some schools require as I've looked about:

  • Not Without Laughter, Langston Hughes
  • Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Langston Hughes
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • House of Spirits, Isabella Allende
  • Chronicle of Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Famished Road, Ben Okri
  • America is in the Heart, Carlos Bulosan
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
  • Makes me Wanna Holler, Nathan McCall
  • For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, Notzake Shange
  • Assata, Assata Shakur
  • Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I'd love to hear recommendations for others to include in this list.

I've had many discussions on this over the years. Some say that more diversity should be introduced into 'the classics.' Some others say that classics should stay as is and another course should be required introducing more diversity.

I feel like the latter is, once again, an add.

There's got to be a better balance.

Traditions often get in the way of need.

from The Transition Network, Washington, DC

My upbringing consisted of mostly white, male authors. I did learn some great lessons there with the encouragement of some very good teachers. Star Trek, the original show, was the first shift to introduce any diversity discussions into my life. From there I challenged myself to step outside that mostly white, and male writer genre was I able to see the world in far broader terms.

It's time for more discussions in education on white privilege, racism, hate, oppression, and gender equity and the call toward social justice.

Perhaps this is a good way toward these conversations, and perhaps not. I'd love to hear your ideas.

So... is your school having discussions on this topic? Are you / is your school rethinking the time we spend on traditional 'classics?'' How is your school promoting more discussions on diversity, social justice in literacy? 

What if more schools truly made greater strides to promote diversity... beyond Martin Luther King Day, and 'Black History Month?' What if promoting social justice was a core value in schools?

It's tough for some schools and teachers to take this on. Its uncomfortable. It requires discussions that are open, honest, challenging... and ongoing. And that's just what we need.

I certainly don't feel like I don't have the answers... but I'm getting involved more deeply in the discussion and hoping got push ideas forward.

If you have references for places / people who've changed this practice, please do send them my way. Add a comment to this post or send me an email. I'd love to speak with them.

<<<

Links to the full 'What Are We Teaching and Why? series:

8. Start overhauling tired learning spaces
7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What are we teaching and why? The positive and challenging impact of student topic choice programs


Student choice programs can be disruptive to traditional education structures and mindsets. Personally, I've always seen that as a good thing if such things are done thoughtfully.

Having started and mentored a program where students choose their own topics to study, I've learned a thing or two. In 9 years we covered over 1000 projects and made connections with professionals around the globe.

Opening Multidisciplinary Doors


The simple rubric above was developed as an entry point with students to begin and develop interdisciplinary ideas. Students drafted each stage of the rubric and kept revising through the entire process their own evaluation criteria on what they perceived as beginning through expert work. It's simple but it proved very successful over the years.

Many teachers from different disciplines started to stop in the Lab to help students or made themselves available to Lab students by appointment. Many of those teachers started to have conversations with me about introducing more student choice into their own courses.

Many discussions started brewing about how multidisciplinary courses could be scheduled. As usual, time and conventional schedules proved to be the biggest obstacle.



Expanding Thee 'Course of Studies' 

When the Lab started quite a few students chose to pursue extensions of existing 'tech centric' courses and 'tech' themes. i.e. Digital Photography II, Advanced Digital Design, Architecture II, etc.

Things got interesting when students wanted to pursue course extensions in other departments. The school didn't offer an AP French program and a student came to the Lab with aspirations to conquer this AP course, self paced, with outside mentors. With some reservation, the school administration approved the project. The French department assisted in mentoring, and we hooked the student up with online resources, a local french speaking mentor and two abroad. All said and done the student aced the AP French exam in one semester.

Then things got interesting.

Three more students requested the opportunity to take AP French in the Lab. A few others came forward and wanted to take existing courses in language, and mathematics courses at a self-directed, faster pace. The school administration intervened. Students would not be allowed to take existing courses in self paced fashion in the Lab. Additionally, the interest in AP French spurred the French department to create a new AP French course offering. Students could no longer take AP French in the Lab.

While progress was made... traditional structures and battles over territory did as well.

Of course, some students would choose conventional courses... but what about students who would like other options? Should students be denied such opportunities?

"Student inquiry into the educational process"

To create some scaffolding into project based learning I asked students to work collaboratively on three projects: How has technology impacted the news, healthcare, and education... the latter we called 'Education Revisited.'

The work in the education project often stirred up the most intense debates. We started out the project by asking students what their strengths and weaknesses as learners were and devised strategies to improve. We dove into cognitive learning theories, and then on to school structures. Many students saw immediately that how they learned best might not always fit in with traditional school structures, and the strengths and weaknesses technology brings to the table. From there, students examined current practices in their school compared to innovative schools around the globe. Putting all the pieces of that puzzle together helped a lot of students take deeper strides into their learning motivations - or lack thereof, and buying into their own pursuits.

It was challenging to existing systems and practices at the school, especially ones that the majority of folks felt didn't make sense or had lobbied to change for extended periods of time. That's a good thing, a healthy thing. Inviting student inquiry into the educational process is important. Why do systems work as they do? Have these systems or practices been evaluated from the student perspective?

As a result of this 'Education Revisited' work, students often made proposals to improve systems and options within the school.

The Student for a Day Project 


BBA Student for a Day Project from Adam Provost on Vimeo.

The Student for a Day Project was one of our most successful and certainly the highest profile group projects in the Lab. When we were discussing 'the school schedule' and how it impacted families one student simply asked, I wish teachers could see this schedule from our perspective. "Great idea," I said. "How can we do that?"

Through class discussions we decided to invite teachers to become students for a day. We'd do pre- production interviews, run time during the event, and post production interviews... with the story told through the participants words. Students in the Lab chose teachers, setup schedules, gathered materials, and arranged all the shooting and editing work.

It proved to be great PD for all involved, students and adults alike. Many teachers came forward and asked to participate when we did the project again. Many discussions started on school start time, class duration, transition times, lunch time allocation, and workflow.

We've passed the full production notes on to many schools. If you'r interested in discussing the project just let me know.

So...

Opening the door to student topic choice and inquiry into the 'educational process' will create ripples. It will challenge traditional school structures.

What would your response / will your response be to some of these challenges? How many traditional hurdles will you clear? How many will you continue to stumble over or just ignore for more 'business as usual?'

<<<

Links to the full 'What Are We Teaching and Why? series:

8. Start overhauling tired learning spaces
7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What are we Teaching and Why? Student Topic choice programs: Common roadblocks



Why don't more schools offer student topic choice via courses or capstone programs?

Here are the most common roadblocks I've run into thus far.

School Size is Often a Factor

Many smaller schools that struggled to provide diverse course offerings went student choice courses / capstone routes long ago. Far less mid sized to larger schools have created personal choice threads for students.

Shifting programs in larger schools often creates many other ripples. Room scheduling, personnel shifts, etc. Unfortunately many larger schools stop there rather than seeing the changes through.

Union Labor Issues

'Union and labor issues' came up as a significant roadblock in some school struggling to create capstone programs. Their common questions they were debating were:


  • What discipline are these teachers teaching? 
  • What certification do they have?
  • Are they teaching something outside their certification?
  • How many students will they be supervising as part of the contract? 


Compartmentalized departments, carnegie units, student to teacher ratio have all been rethought by so many schools running successful capstone programs.

If union issues are the most significant roadblock, please go see a school with a robust course based / capstone program and their organizational structure to make it work. I can help you make contacts.

Finding Someone Willing to Mentor (Almost) Everything

Finding a teacher to 'teach anything' can be daunting. Don't think 'teaching a subject.' Think mentoring interests.

What skills do some of the best capstone mentors I've seen have? Here are a few:

  • diverse tech skill helps, no doubt
  • ability to develop / mentor personalized learning plans... in most any subject area
  • pedagogical development understanding / skill
  • mentoring skill
  • communication skill
  • writing skill and writing mentorship skill
  • good sense of humor
  • a growth plan

In 8 years in the open lab where I taught offering student topic choice I learned... a lot. I was determined to offer student choice... and to never let my inexperience in a given subject limit anyone. Learning along with students taking on projects for the first time was key, and endlessly interesting.

Mentoring over 1000 student projects and covering an incredibly diverse array of goals I've learned a lot. Each project I mentored in solar energy provided me with more and more resources to pass on. But... I wasn't the only one who passed on ideas and materials.


Students Build Off Work of Their Peers

In the topic choice courses I mentored students contributed their work to an archive for future students to build upon. Each student could choose if they wanted to publish to a worldwide audience, but publishing in the class archive was not optional.

Growth was often exponential. I absolutely loved this element in the Lab.


Connect Students with Professionals

We too often limit students to only studying what we have expertise for 'in house' or what's in the 'course of studies.' Imagine...

"No, you can't study solar energy until we have an expert on site."

Yup. Sounds crazy to me too. Especially when they can connect with experts outside school.

Connect students with experts! Break down the school as a citadel model.

Marvin Minsky, professor emeritus from MIT explains eloquently...

"Never worry about solving a problem. Just find the right person."

Promote students to connect with mentors in the real world in their field of interest. Promote collaboration outside school walls. There's a long list of benefits. Create some scaffolding to facilitate this or borrow from many schools that have already have it.


Wait, How Will this Appear on a Transcript?

I visited a three schools who said they didn't promote student choice or capstone programs because they couldn't settle on how it would appear on a transcript.

A lot of schools struggle with crafting course titles for college admissions. Here's are a couple  suggestions I've seen that work well:

Title the course well on a transcript:
Tech Research: PROJECT TITLE
ie. Tech Research: Independent Study, Solar Energy

If you're School Management System has character limits related to course titles, here's what colleges I interviewed (27) labeled unanimously as most effective:

Capstone: Solar Energy


Making the Choice: Course/s or Capstone?

I've advised some schools who proclaim they are on the fence to start with topic choice based courses that allow students to pursue personal choice. Offering the course multiple times per day is best... it will make it available to more students and you'll really be able to gauge interests.

The rLab model I developed and worked in featured 2 semester classes and two year long classes that met every other day all year.

Why choose one model or the other? Why not do both? Create a course based model as a pre-requisite to an advanced capstone program? I always felt the student choice lab I started could / would / should lead to a robust capstone program.

How valuable would this two phase approach be... compared to some of the requirements we have in place?

Valuable. Very valuable. Challenging. Rewarding. And the students in the program will constantly try to help it evolve.

Next up... some challenges you'll see in offering student topic choice.

<<<

Links to the full 'What Are We Teaching and Why? series:

8. Start overhauling tired learning spaces
7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes