Thursday, October 18, 2012

the seductiveness of the interwebz

Never underestimate the power of the Web to rock the social-cultural-political-economic boat. Here are some customer reviews that have recently emerged on the Amazon website for the

Avery Durable View Binder with 2 Inch EZ-Turn Ring, White, 1 Binder (17032)

It strikes me that as the Web invites this kind of creativity, in fact, tantalizes us to join in, it also gives us a place to expand our creativity, smooth those ole' rhetorical moves. No wonder the Web gets blocked in schools-- just think of what our kids could do with it.

Photo: Occupy DC (Freedom Plaza) by Daniel Lobo via CC BY 2.0

Monday, October 1, 2012

More than Kvetching: A Letter to the Secretaries

I read Diane Ravitch's blog post from yesterday, Ten Years of NCLB: A Student Says, “How Sad.” Her Teacher Agrees and got inspired to do a little letter writing. Here's a copy that went to Jason Snyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and School Turnaround in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. A similar version went to Arne Duncan. 

You can find more names from this office here. I followed the model of Duncan's email address, 

Dear Assistant Secretary Snyder,

I have the privilege of teaching pre-service English teachers in an M.A. program in the teaching of English. Several days ago, one of my former students wrote the blog post I have included, below. As the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education with a particular focus on turnaround schools, you are the leader who would most closely understand this teacher's concerns. Your response to his closing question would be very helpful. 

You may respond in the comments section here: Alternatively, I would be happy to directly convey your response to this teacher. 

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


So . . . I've started my first year of teaching here. A quick background: I'm teaching freshmen at a school in ________. The student population is mostly black, a little Hispanic, very few ELLs. Most are on free lunch. It's a vocational school, so most of my students are boys (I'd say it's 90-95%), three of my classes are literature, two are grammar, classes are forty minutes long, I have no books to use (and so make a lot of photocopies and write a lot on the white board), zero technology in my classroom (not counting the lights) and very limited access to it elsewhere (unless you count a TV with a VCR and an overhead projector, but I use neither since I have PTSD of teachers wheeling those out in front of the class when I was in school), my classes sizes are 30-34 per and my room is small, which has proved highly prohibitive to any arrangement of the desks that doesn't constitute rows. So my students are sitting mostly in rows, rows which have such narrow aisles that are otherwise clogged with backpacks and feet that they prove difficult to walk down if I wanted to, say, tap on a student's desk and ask him to please get his head off the desk. Or if for some reason I didn't want to constantly have to stand in front of my students and wanted to stand in the back. And so, you know, group work's hard to do for purely physical reasons if not for all those typical, sometimes confounding and always frustrating reasons stemming from teenagers being pathologically repulsed by having to do any sort of academic work with someone whom they don't know and on whom they scent the faintest whiff of difference, low-grade coolness, whatever. I taught ESL in _______ in the Peace Corps for two years and taught in school rooms with broken desks and bare shelves and chalkboards, packed to the rafters with students who were so different from myself that the only common ground we seemed to have at times was that we all breathed oxygen and this  . . . this hardly feels different. 

Additionally, I am constrained by a department-wide curriculum map that I'm not opposed to on principle, but that I have little faith in for a number of reasons. One, it's extremely uncreative and uninspired. As best as I can tell it's been copy and pasted together piecemeal from the NYC DOE and Common Core, most apparently in what texts I'm to be teaching my students. And so with little regard for my particular population of students and their background, or what they might respond to, or our (the teachers') own taste in literature (I can teach texts I'm not enthusiastic about, but I can't teach boring texts I don't care for), the creators of this curriculum map have cribbed the canonical suggestions from the DOE and the Common Core and slapped them on there. We are to teach those poems and short stories and novels and teach them together at the same time. (Absurd for reasons I don't need to elaborate on.) And the suggested end-of-unit projects or papers and even what of the texts we're to teach are equally dry, bleak and uninspired and clearly test-driven. When I asked how much we can waver from these circumscribed units, I was told not very, but that if I chose to teach a poem or a short story outside the map, I was to get approval from everyone so that we can all be on the same page. (Why, exactly, we need to be on the same page, is beyond me.) And which leads me to the second reason why I have little faith in the curriculum map: I'm almost positive none of the other freshman academy teachers are following it closely. I've seen print outs left out on the copy machine, peaked into the rooms and the lessons are almost never centered around texts from the curriculum map. And these deviation from the very teachers who shut me down during the department meeting when I meekly challenged the circumscription of the maps. It's all for show. I know it, they know it, and no one wants to admit it out loud. And three, the curriculum map isn't teaching my students what I believe they actually need to be learning. Last week some mentor group came in and wanted to talk to the boys to try and recruit some of them for this after school program. Leaving aside the fact that these guys were young and black and were from the same neighborhoods as my students and I was lamenting the fact that I'll never be able to speak to my students in the same way these guys do (or connect, I should say connect) (and same goes with most of the other teachers, too, who are mostly older and black or Hispanic and have a certain rapport with the students I simply will never have and while I am mindful of the fact that, yes, I have something else to offer my students all I see when I see them seeing me is them seeing a teacher who is basically from another planet and so cold comfort my own particular "uniqueness" is), I was looking at my lesson on the whiteboard behind them and it was about sonnets or some other such bullshit and I nearly had a break down because I was thinking to myself Jesus Christ this is not what my students need. It does not matter that they learn what the "rules" are for what makes a sonnet. Even further, it doesn't really matter that they're able to identify what the "theme" (yuck) of the sonnet is. Sure, there are skills associated with finding those things out that help my students academically, but so many of them seem to need so much more help in other non-academic areas (focusing, getting organized, staying on top of the work) that teaching them what a Petrarchan sonnet is feels absolutely ridiculous. And which is not to say that my students are throwing desks at the window and standing up and telling me to suck their dick and eating nachos in class, because they are all very nice and seem to like me and respect me and want to do well, and so it's not like I'm working with the worst of the worst here, but focus and attention and being organized and actually doing the work are daily mountains to climb nevertheless. And so I bring up the "sonnet" thing merely to highlight how in yet another way how constraining the curriculum map is because if it were up to me, I'd have designed an entirely different poetry unit that would have engaged them (I believe) on a deeper, more important, more relevant way that didn't just answer the what and the how of the literature, but of the why. (Though a current professor eased my mind by wisely offering the counter argument to this which was that "the WHAT is important foundationally, and/or the WHAT develops certain capacities and habits that are missed by an exclusive focus on the WHY or even the HOW. And might it be the case that the WHY is lovely for readers who have certain luxuries to begin with (such as time and resources outside of school), but that other readers (including the more left-brained) really can benefit from a focus on the WHAT?" which helpsAnd in fact I did, but was told I couldn't use it. So. 

As a result of all this--what I feel is a bad curriculum, little pedagogical autonomy, zero access to digital technologies, overcrowded classroom, little physical space--I feel very strongly that I am failing. Class management has become an issue, most especially for one class (if not two), and while that may have to do with other factors, I also think it has to do with how little I am able to engage them and vary the instruction. I'm finding myself standing in front of the class for almost the entire period, either lecturing or calming every one down because it's so so so difficult to get them to focus. A lecture that I imagined would run 5 minutes, with an reinforcing group exercise I imagined would take also five minutes ends up taking the entire class. Group work has proved fruitless. I find it impossible to go around and make sure everyone's working or everyone's understood the concept simply because most of my time when I send them off to do individual work) is consumed with a few students who are talking or refusing to do work. I do not want to be the center of my classroom. The only time I have success with that is when they do journaling (which they're better at some days than others; I've been experimenting with prompts) or independent reading, but that's new, and I'm only using it in my grammar classes. I don't want to result to simply handing out worksheets and asking the students to do them individually, but I don't know what else to do. 

And so . . . the big question for you, the veteran teacher, and one with a lot of good ideas and a lot of good advice . . . what do I do? Given what I have and where I am, what in the goddamned hell do I do?

Image by Tomas Hellberg Used via Creative Commons license BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The 5 Cs of the Classroom Web: Connect, Collaborate, Create, Crap-Detect, Commons-Sense

I just re-discovered a video I made in August using Screencast-O-Matic and thought I'd share it. Why? Yesterday, meeting for coffee with some of my #literacies Tweeps (AKA, Literacies Live), a young teacher at another table keep turning to listen to our conversation about web-based tools in the classroom. She shared some of her frustrations with using VoiceThread with her students and I was reminded, one again, how it's not the tool, it's the pedagogy, and even more important, the mindset you have about bringing the Web to school.

Maybe this video will offer someone a helpful perspective, or maybe it will muddy the waters. Please let me know! 

After I discovered Screencast-O-Matic this past summer I needed a little project so I could learn it, so I joined my class in completing the final assignment. It was the kind of assignment that makes students crazy: wide open, but I still argue that this is the most valuable kind of assignment. Here it is, cut & pasted from the course wiki.

Inquiry Project
As the class has progressed through Web-based experiments, theories about digital learning, and more technology bloopers than I have ever experienced, you know enough to see how much there is to learn about this digital world. I believe that you also have discovered a bit more about yourself as an explorer-risk taker, and you have honed questions and larger concerns about the place of technologies in teaching and learning. The purpose of this final activity is for you to inquire into a question, issue, curiosity, or goal that is of interest to you, and, as a result of the inquiry, to contribute to the class Commons a product that has the potential to add to the knowledge, skills, questions, perspectives, etc. of your colleagues.
  • Description of your inquiry or goal and what inspired it.
  • Discussion of the research, theories, examples etc. that have guided your thinking about this inquiry.
  • The product that emerged from your exploration. This must not be physical in nature, i.e., no paper, plastic, or other materials may be used.
  • A description of the path you took-- what kinds of issues, questions, new ideas, etc. did you have to consider as you proceeded? (In other words, what would you want fellow explorers to know before they start-- or, what do you wish you had known?)
  • You'll share all of the above elements as part of the final product, which, again, may not be paper-based.
I encourage you to use many modes, sources, resources, etc. to explore and/or represent your ideas. Your final product does not have to be fancy, flashy, a gazillion pages of alphabetic text, just an honest reflection of your mental work and your collaborative efforts. And if you end your project with more questions than you started, that is fine-- those questions can be part of the product. 'Failure' may also be part of the product.

Not acceptable:Shallow thinking, minimal effort, letting other people do the work, giving up.
Use your imagination. Have fun.
A little background information for the video:
The "Commons" is a term that describes an ethos of the Web as a place where information is freely shared, thereby making it possible for people to create new knowledge, art, literature, etc., in order to better humans & the world.

In our class, we talked about the importance of using Web-based tools in our classrooms within a larger framework (i.e., vision). We talked about Henry Jenkins ideas of Participatory Culture, and used Five Cs as principles around which to design opportunities for learning: Connect, Collaborate, Create, Crap-Detect, Commons-Sense. This list was influenced by Howard Rheingold 's wonderful work, which I remixed a bit for the class.  You'll see some of Jenkins' & Rheingold's ideas in the (teensy) white text in the last slides. I hadn't planned to share the video publicly, so my BIG apologies for not incorporating credits for all pieces of it.

I'd be interested in knowing what you think.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Project-Based Learning: Being the Change

By Indy Kethday
It's a sunny fall day in a parking lot at the head of a town nature trail. The community service project, that students proposed and planned is underway. The students are building a bridge. Well, they are supposed to be, anyway.  This morning, they are bickering. One boy is ordering others around. You can see the resentment rising off the others. (You can hear it in some of the language that rises, too.) The number days allotted to this project is dwindling fast. The town parks and rec director expects that there's going to be a bridge installed. The requirement for credit is that there's going to be a bridge installed. These are seniors in high school. Their first quarter grades will go into their college applications. There's got to be a bridge installed.  

As the deadline looms, you cannot forget that parents, already unsure of the wisdom of allowing their child to attend an alternative program, see you as THE Teacher, the Responsible One. By the end of the year, they will see things differently. But not yet, not this early in the year. What if that bridge doesn't get installed? You begin to wake up at night in a small panic. 

This was one of my early experiences with project-based learning. It was valuable, for sure, but a tough process to go through. Here are some things I wish I'd known.
  • Expect drama. Not intentional drama, but whenever you do something differently, people-- students and teachers-- can become unsettled. Students get mad for a variety of reasons: they have to think, they have to think for themselves, they have to interact meaningfully with others, they have to do meaningful work that adds to the whole effort. They can also get really excited, in a Mt. Vesuvias sort of way. This is not always popular with other teachers. 
  • Prepare for angst-- your own. True project-based learning means letting go of typical ways of planning for classes, interacting with students, grading. This also means devising new practices. This is easier said than done, because new practices emerge from transformed beliefs, usually about the purposes of school, your subject, the role of the teacher, etc. 
  • It's OK for students to fail. Really. One motto at our school used to be Failure is just feedback. The real question was, what worked, what didn't, and what will you do differently next time? And/or, what will you do now to make it right? It's exciting when kids start to see how their choices and attitudes come home to roost in the quality of their learning, their work, their relationships with classmates. Writing as a tool for reflection makes a great standard practice.
  • Help kids learn how to learn-- the metacognitive aspect of learning is an essential part of project-based learning. Reflection is an essential part of that.
  • Set clear boundaries from the beginning. Why? Because when kids hear a good reason for a fair policy or expectation, they can accept it; eventually the policy/expectation becomes not a weight to bear (or resist) but another way for them to engage in learning how to learn-- if you set it up this way from the start. (No, I do not ask kids to make class  rules, usually because it's a meaningless process unless the kids will be an active part of dealing with the outcomes of broken rules.) These are tiny examples of a system that will stand up under those moments when failure seems imminent (see #3 and #1 above):
    • Rules for discussion. Mine are, one person talks at a time. Why? Because everyone has something to bring to the table therefore everyone deserves to be heard. (The corollary of this is, the project needs everyone to succeed, so everyone has to find ways to bring their best stuff to the table.) I start with a raise hands policy, but it doesn't take long for students to propose other ways of doing things. Fine, but there has to be a check-in about how that method is helping the class achieve its goals. 
    • Completing work: handed in via a box on my desk or online by a specific time, or, according to what a project team decides. Why? If I collect it, that makes me responsible for it. In the real world, if you're late for a plane or train, that's not the pilot's responsibility-- that plane takes off, that train still leaves the station. 
  • Be very clear about your expectations from the start, everything from behavior and ways of treating each other to the quality of work.
  • Ask yourself, over and over, who owns the learning? How does your project structure support that? 
So, what will you do? You could step in and facilitate a discussion. You could sit back and wait for the situation to come to a head in its own time. You could suggest a couple of specific steps they might want to consider and hope that gives them something to focus on.  Would you let them miss the deadline?  If they miss it, what will you ask the kids to do-- will they be the ones to meet with the parks & rec manager? To speak frankly with parents about what happened? 

<-- You Are Here by Jeremy Price
I think I tried to "steer" them toward effective action. That may have gotten the project completed, but I now think that all it taught them was that they really couldn't  be responsible for their learning. I had not yet learned #3. 

Today,  I'd probably call a meeting and present them with what I observe, my concerns, and ask i f I could help in any way. I would tell them some ways I could help and then I would let them decide. I would also be very clear that it would be up to them to talk with parks & rec manager, parents, anyone else involved, about what happened.  And, I would probably write Incomplete on the report cards until the bridge was done-- because, no matter what, it would need to be finished, on their own time if necessary. 

Project-based learning has the potential to be a game-changer, if we make changes in our expectations, approaches, beliefs, etc. I fear that otherwise it's just a different way of doing the same old thing.

Photo credits: 
Indy Kethday, used via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
<--You Are Here by Jeremy Price used via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Monday, August 27, 2012

Project-Based Learning: Gimmick or Game-changer?

This is the second of several reflections on project-based learning. 

I.  A question of values

What are you teaching toward

I don't mean what are the goals or objectives for a unit; I certainly don't refer to the so-called "Essential Questions" of a well-known curriculum planning template. 

I'm asking you to describe the vision of the world for which you are preparing your students. I'm asking what you believe they need to know, and why you believe that.  I ask because curriculum theorist Eliot Eisner (1994) writes that in education, values and beliefs are what shape ideas about what schools "should teach, for what ends, and for what reasons" (p. 47). These values are expressed thru decisions about curriculum, evaluation, teaching, etc. 

"Well, duh," I can hear you thinking. But Eisner's not talking only about elements of schooling that you can see, i.e., a course catalog. He's also talking about the elements we're so familiar with that we don't even think about them. Ways in which schools organize time, physical space, daily operations-- all of these emerge from certain ways of seeing or thinking about the world; in turn, they become powerful conveyors of cultural values, with long-term implications. 

For example, schools organize children by age, moving them in age cohorts from grade to grade. Eisner (1994) writes that this orderly practice
reinforces the idea that the task of being a successful student is to learn the content of the grade, a condition that results in promotion to the next. It also reinforces the idea that knowledge is fixed and tidy, that smart people possess it, that textbooks contain it, and that the aim of schooling is its orderly transmission (Jackson, 1986). (Eisner, 1994, p. 55)
Eisner is asking us to think about a specific practice, yes, but he's also asking us to consider that practice as a metaphor for aspects of a larger cultural system. 

Think about the powerful lessons to be found in spelling and math (and standardized tests): the important aspects of school have single, correct answers; the teacher knows these answers; the student's main responsibility is to learn them. Eisner again:
The school creates an environment that does not put much premium on imagination, on personal spirit, or on creative thinking. It emphasizes a form of rationality that seeks convergence on the known more than exploration of the unknown. It emphasizes the virtues of hard work. It limits the degree to which personal goal setting can occur and it rewards conformity to correct outcome more than it rewards productive idiosyncrasy. [My emphases]
Leaning heavily on Eisner, my question asks you to consider what values or beliefs shape your world. Because that world that you carry within you, that's the world you are teaching toward. 

II. How does the question relate to Project-based Learning?

PBL is not just a different, 'cooler', way to cover academic content. Its purpose isn't primarily to "engage" kids, or to "make learning fun,"  even if these frequently are outcomes. Nor is PBL just a different way to do the same old curriculum.

Ultimately, the most effective PBL is built on a different way of seeing the world and the teacher has simply structured class around this way of seeing. 

For example, students are seen as capable and independent. We can tell this by the ease with which students 1) ask questions, 2) talk about their mistakes not as failures but as cues they can use to determine their next move, 3) decide for themselves what they think.  

Students own the learning. We can tell this because they are active in planning and doing, in assessing the progress of the group and themselves as individuals, in problem-solving about the nature of the project's structure and overall organization-- often to the point of expressing more opinions or ideas than the teacher. The teacher talks with students how to do all these things effectively. And, the teacher seems to take his/her cue from the students; s/he appears to be responding rather than initiating or directing. 

The world that students from this classroom are heading toward is not a world where single answers to problems exist, or where people wait for someone to tell them what to do, or where an individual will work alone to accomplish something. 

In other words, the 21st century. 

It's exciting to see/hear the buzz of excitement about project-based learning. But I hear Eisner's caution-- and invitation-- when he says, "As long as we remain oblivious to the values that animate our intellectual life, we will be in no position to modify them" (p. 51). Implementing project-based learning without reflection has just as much potential to be the new gimmick in town, the flash and dazzle that dresses up the same old thing as it does to be a game changer. 

So, you're thinking about trying project-based learning. What are you teaching toward? And, more important, why?

Eisner, E. (1994). The educational imagination : On the design and evaluation of school programs (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan .

Image credit: Universe in a Magic Drop by h.koppdelaney is used via Creative Commons License BY-ND 2.0

Friday, August 17, 2012

Project-Based Musings: A Beginning

watch it
The upsurge in conversations hashtagged #PBL-- Project-based Learning-- streaming through my Twitter feed has been fun to watch. I'm interested in the current surge of interest in PBL because I spent most of my secondary teaching career as the Language Arts teacher in a year-long, challenge-based experiential program for high school seniors. And while I love reading about and hearing some of the experiences people have had with project-based learning, I  also think that some important things either go unsaid or get glossed over when we strive to step-- or think-- outside the box that education has become.

For the next period of time, I want use this blog to reflect on some of these unsaid, glossed-over, invisible things. I do this in part as a way to think through some aspects of my dissertation, in part as a way to reflect on the course I just finished teaching, and in part because, well, aren't we supposed to feed the Commons? (Is that Howard Rheingold's phrasing?) IOW, if I have experience that might benefit another educator, let me put it out there.

In the challenge program I mentioned above, I developed and taught the Language Arts 'curriculum' that wove through the different segments of the program, including backpacking, extensive community service projects, and long-term career internships. Other colleagues focused on Social Studies and Environmental Science, as well as related electives. Together my colleagues and I co-planned the experiential aspects of the program and facilitated the students' processes through them. We were guided by our beliefs, and others', that when students confronted and had to work through challenges, they would develop the confidence and dispositions with which to build meaningful adult lives.
Adirondack Mountains 2003

In other words, when the students were backpacking, so were we. When the time in the school year came to do something tangible for somebody else, we coached the students on how to identify a need, devise ideas to meet the need, contact someone in the community, etc. We taught kids to write resumes and make cold calls; they interviewed for and secured internships in careers they wanted to explore.

Me, I asked them to write. A lot. All the time. On mountain-tops, on the job, in a class meeting. We wrote, shared our writing, wrote some more.

Through each experience, we asked students to set personal goals and reflect on what they had done to achieve them, as well as to work through the barriers in their own thinking that had held them back. "You can do more than you think you can" was like a mantra humming in the background of everything we did. And the students could, and often did.

For that matter, so did we. Because in any project-based learning experience, everybody is a learner. And that can be a very humbling experience for a teacher.


watch it by emdot used via Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.0
Adirondack Mountains 2003 by Karen LaBonte 


A few PBL-related resources that splashed across my Twitter stream: