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.

Don't get me wrong, the books on the list above 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 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

The plight of Native American Indians? Immigrants coming to the United States?

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.

Regardless, 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. 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. I did learn some great lessons there with the encouragement of some very good teachers. 

It's clear we need more challenging and thought provoking discussions on equity of all kinds.

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.


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