Tuesday, April 8, 2014

If you make it...

People keep saying my son is going to grow up to be an engineer.  They say this because they see him playing with Legos, Snap Circuits, and Tinker Toys.  He builds bridges out of marshmallows and toothpicks. He loves putting together things as much as he loves taking things apart.  And he's constantly asking "how come?" (His version of "why?").



My son is not unique in his interests.  I had the opportunity to attend the Buffalo Mini Maker Faire just recently, and what I witnessed was nothing short of amazing.  There were hundreds of kids there, and every single one of them was completely engaged in learning through making.  There were some who were helping to construct a pirate ship using cardboard, twine, and tape.  Others were racing electric cars.  And still others were busy taking apart VCRs, TVs, and cassette players (along with a few other devices that were no longer recognizable).  Kids were everywhere, and they were learning about their world through hands-on, authentic learning.  And the best part? It was a Saturday afternoon...

This experience showed me the power of something we call Maker Ed.  Jump on Twitter, search for #makered and you'll find conversations about 3d printing, coding, Arduino, and Lego.  Makerspaces have been popping up in schools, libraries, and community centers.  Kids, and adults, love them.  Eric Sheninger, Principal at New Milford High School in New Jersey, mentioned in a recent blog post that their makerspace has been "overrun with students during their lunch periods, but teachers here have begun to explore how the process of making can enhance the learning experience for the students in their classes."  When was the last time you heard of students excitedly skipping their lunch period in order to learn?

Closer to home, a small group of students from a school here in Buffalo, NY are participating in a boat-building class.  In this class, they are learning how to design, and then construct their own sailboats.  They are learning to use complex math to determine the size of each piece of wood that will be used to shape the hull.  And if they make a mistake, it shows... literally.  But it doesn't mean they have failed, it just means they have to try again.

Makerspaces, and the maker movement, offer a glimpse into where we should be heading in education.  We need to start making education more authentic.  We need to give students a problem to solve or ask a question with more than one answer, and let them take ownership of the solution.  We must encourage the students to define what the answer will look like... Maybe it's a 3D printed object, maybe is a prototype of a future product, or maybe it's a plan for social change.  We need to encourage kids to make their answers, instead of bubbling them in.

Many educators say that in the current environment of testing and accountability, it's just not possible to engage kids in this type of learning.  I disagree.  It will be difficult, no doubt.  And it's risky to put the learning in the hands (literally and figuratively) of the students, but we must.  We need to stop covering content in our classrooms.  Instead, we have to engage our students in learning that is meaningful and gives them the skills and mentality necessary for success in the future.

I don't know if my son will grow up to be an engineer, but I do know that he will grow up a maker.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Easily distracted

My wife and I were recently discussing the fact that my son will be starting preschool in the fall.  During that conversation, we talked about his high energy levels and need for constant intellectual engagement.  Then the first report card... What to expect?  That conversation made me take a fresh look at the comments teachers use on report cards.  There's one in particular that concerns me enough to share my views, especially considering how much they've changed since becoming a parent.
Student is easily distracted
As a teacher (I taught high school science before becoming a school leader), I used that comment quite often.  There was always that student who was never on task, always staring out the window, talking to friends, or doing anything but the task at hand.  And no matter how many times you tried to redirect their attention, they were off task as soon as you turned your back.  Student is easily distracted... Seemed like a valid description.
I'd like to take a moment to examine the same situation through the eyes of the student...
I'm so bored... Why do I have to take this class? I wonder what John is doing after school? Ugh, it's only 9 in the morning? This day is dragging! #thisdaywillneverend
Before I go any further, I have a confession to make... I’m easily distracted.  Unless, of course, I'm doing something engaging... Then it's 100% focus on the challenge at hand. My three year old is just as easily distracted... Unless he's engaged in something creative, such as building circuits on his snap circuits set (more on that in a future post).  Then it takes a bullhorn to get his attention.

The point I'm trying make is this... Kids, and adults, are easily distracted, unless we are engaged in meaningful activities that give us the opportunity to explore our interests and passions. Think of your favorite activity. How many times have you been surprised to see how fast the time goes?
If we want our students to be more engaged and less distracted, we need to change their environment, not write a comment on their report cards and expect them to change.  We are the ones that need to change. We need to create learning experiences that are individualized, authentic, and intellectually challenging. We need to ask more questions, and give fewer answers. We need to encourage our students to take risks and learn from their failures. And can we please stop handing out worksheets?!!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Developing an Asychronous, Creativity-centered Approach to Curriculum (part 1)


Over the past six months, I have been working very closely with a science teacher to design and implement a new approach to the science curriculum. While many of the ideas we decided to use are not new, the combination of strategies creates an approach that is truly individualized for each student.


The first step on the path is planning: gone are the standard lesson plans that most of us have used throughout our teaching careers. In their place are learning experience plans that are designed for each learning goal. The plan is composed of four parts based on the Torrence Incubation Model for teaching creativity. For more information on the model, check out this great video from the International Center for Studies in Creativity

Learning Experience Plan:

Stage 1: Heightening Anticipation
This stage prepares learners to make connections between what they are expected to learn and something meaningful in their lives. It draws them into the learning opportunities to follow in stages 2 & 3.

Stage 2: Deepening Expectations
This stage works to sustain the motivation created in stage 1 and encourages deeper exploration of a topic. During this stage, it important that students are allowed to explore and discover. Information should not be disseminated through direct delivery during this participatory stage. Instead, students are given a choice of activities to participate in. Tolerance for ambiguity is paramount for both teacher and learner, as students must discover critical knowledge on their own terms.

Stage 3: Extending the learning
During this stage, students continue with individually chosen participation/anticipation experiences, but the tasks shift from discovery to application. Activities are designed to give students the opportunity to show what they have learned. Demonstration of understanding is individualized, determined by each student. The teacher is encouraged to provide a wide selection of activities for students to choose from, with the additional option of student-designed alternatives.

Stage 4: Self-evaluation and reflection, plan for the future
Self-evaluation and reflection will occur throughout the learning process, and will guide the students towards their learning goals. They will be encouraged to take ownership of their learning as they evaluate their own individual growth, then determine for themselves the steps they must take to move forward towards reaching their goals.

In order to facilitate an asynchronous classroom, learning experience plans for each of the learning goals must be completed prior to the start of a major unit of study. Students are encouraged to select the learning goals in the sequence that works best for them. They are not required to finish one learning experience before starting another.  This is a critical piece of the equation... Students need the freedom to direct their own learning, at a pace that meets their needs.

The next post in this series will look at some of the activities appropriate for stages 2 & 3 based on the Torrence model.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Exploring an Alternative to Expulsion

For the past 8 years, I have worked in an urban public school here in Buffalo, NY.  And in those 8 years, I have seen students expelled for a variety of reasons.  Each time it happens, I ask myself 
"was there something I could have done?  Did we do everything possible to help this student succeed?" 
Unfortunately, my answer is almost always the same... No.


At the end of last year, I decided to do something to make a positive change in the lives of the students who would otherwise find themselves expelled.  I enlisted the help of a martial arts instructor on staff (pictured above) to create a unique program affectionately dubbed "The Breakfast Club".  The program is designed to equip students who have been identified as disruptions to the learning environment with skills to help them deal with feelings of stress, anger, frustration, and fear. 

Starting this fall, students in the Breakfast Club will first learn basic breathing techniques, in order to begin building the bridge between their bodies and their minds.  Through this mindful connection, students will learn to channel otherwise uncontrollable feelings to a place where they can be calmed and rationally processed.  

Once they have successfully mastered the art of breathing, they will learn to focus their minds and participate in extended meditation.  During this mediation, they will learn to visualize their fears, their anger, and their frustration, and then how to work through each of those emotions.

The final stage of the process with be learning tai-chi forms.  Once the forms have been learned, the students will work together to create a set called Sailing Troubled Waters.  This set will represent their journey towards self-control, self-discipline, and self-awareness.  My hope is that they will be given the opportunity to share their set during the commencement ceremony this spring.

I named this program "The Breakfast Club" for a few reasons.  The first, and most obvious, is the fact that the students will be meeting before school begins twice each week.  In order to encourage healthy minds and healthy bodies, breakfast will be provided for all who participate.  Equally obvious is the fact that, like the movie, the participants are all on the wrong side of the law when it comes to following school rules.  And while these two reasons are more than enough to justify the name, there is a third reason that ends up being the most important.  

By the end of the movie, the disparate band of miscreants, knowing little about each other at the beginning of their detention, come together as a small community.  They depend on each other to get through the day, and they leave knowing that their lives have forever changed because of their experience.  We are hoping the same will occur with the students in our Breakfast Club.  We're hoping they will become a tight-knit community, looking out for each other, supporting each other, and ultimately ensuring that they will all survive and grow through the experience.  

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A response to the recently released NYS elementary test scores


Yesterday, NYS Ed released the 2013 test results for 3rd through 8th grade math and ELA. As predicted, the scores were much lower than what we have seen in the past. And when I say much lower, I mean just that... As in a 30% decrease in students scoring at the proficient level on both math and ELA.  And it happened in every district across the state. Commissioner John King responded to the scores with this statement:



“These proficiency scores do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college- and career-readiness in the 21st century,” King said. “It’s frustrating to see our children struggle. But we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by frustration,” he added, calling the dismal scores a “new starting point on a road map to future success.”

Read more: NY Daily News


This statement, while attempting to remain positive at a time when most are in damage-control mode from the dismal results, inadvertently points to some very concerning issues. The first is the assumption that tests can measure a student's readiness for college and/or a career. While there have been studies that have shown that students with better assessment scores have had higher success rates in college, I do not believe that they can accurately measure a student's readiness for success in the 21st century. In the test-focused educational environment that the new common core has created, educators feel they have little time to focus on the critical skills of a 21st century learner (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication). Instead, they focus primarily on preparing their students for the tests. And this practice is not just for the benefit of the students... Most teachers are also doing it for their own survival, with APPR relying heavily on test scores to evaluate teachers.

Please don't get me wrong... I'm all for raising standards, and assessing students' learning is a critical part of education, but s
tandardized testing and evaluating schools and teachers based on results is not the way to do this. We need the opportunity to create authentic learning experiences for all learners, and assessments that reflect these experiences. We need to give students the chance to showcase their learning, their goals, and the path they intend to take to achieve those goals. Finally, education leaders must give teachers the freedom and support to teach 21st century skills to all students.


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Link Between Mindset and Creativity

"the process of having original ideas that have value"
- Sir Ken Robinson, when asked to define creativity

Recently, I had the amazing opportunity to talk about one of my favorite topics in education at Edcamp Buffalo. As the facilitator of the session titled "Creativity, Mindset, and Risk-taking", I began the conversation by sharing the definition of creativity from Sir Ken Robinson shown above. I often start conversations about creativity and education with a quote from Sir Robinson because his words ring true with many educators and provide an important catalyst to spark discussions. I followed up the quote by asking the participants to think about that definition and how it relates to the mindset of our students and teachers. This required a discussion on mindset, what it meant, and how it impacts students.

According to Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, there are two mindsets: fixed and growth. People who operate within the fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talent are pre-determined... no amount of effort will alter these traits. The other is the growth mindset. Those who operate within this mindset believe that personal growth never stops, effort is critical, and failure is an integral part of the growth process. If you're looking to explore this topic further, I highly recommend Carol Dweck's book.

After a short discussion about mindset, I asked participants to consider the relationship between creativity and mindset. To me, creativity is highly dependent on a growth mindset. During the brainstorming part of the creative process, people are encouraged to suspend judgement when generating ideas. This suspension of judgement allows for the generation of a large quantity of ideas, many of which might be outlandish or obscure. If a person brainstorms with a fixed mindset, every idea generated is evaluated before it is ever shared, thus yielding a greatly reduced number of ideas. This evaluation requires a benchmark, and that benchmark is usually something that already exists. When comparing and evaluating new ideas against ones that already exist, it becomes very difficult to create anything novel or original.

The creative process requires a growth mindset in order to flourish. This mindset allows for the suspension of judgement, with participants safe in the knowledge that each idea, and possible failure, is an opportunity to learn and grow. Students, and teachers for that matter, that operate in the growth mindset believe that process is more important than product. They also understand that there can be many correct answers, not just one. And finally, they know that knowledge is gained and shared through the process of discovery and divergence, not through the process of scripted convergence.




- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Making a case for change in grading kids

If you are an educator, how do you grade your students?  What is the difference between an A and a C-?  How would you describe an "A" student?  

Grading is a very controversial subject.  Similar to methodology, teachers desire autonomy when deciding how to score their students.  They want to be free to determine what counts for a grade, the weight each assignment will carry, and how each assignment is scored.  Many schools have a "grading policy," yet teachers continue to find a way to make it their own.  

Teachers base student grades on many different factors: number of correct answers, completion of assignments, participation in the activity, effort... the list goes on and on.  The number of graded assignments varies as well.  Some teachers give assignments every day, others only once a week.  Still others will give one assignment for the entire marking period.  

Due date is another key factor in grading student work... every assignment has a due date, and each teacher has a "late policy" for assignments.  Some accept late work for full credit, others take off points for each day it's late, some won't even accept late work. 

What is the point of all of this?  What does a student's grade really mean?  

In our current model, grades serve two purposes: to rate and rank students.  In my previous post, I spoke of the four critical elements of learning.  Our current model of grading makes it very difficult to embrace those elements without contradicting the culture current grading practices have established.  

Collaboration and communication
In our current system, grades are used to rank students.  This need to know "who's number one" creates and nurtures a culture of competition and isolation.  It does not encourage collaboration, even when students are assigned "group work."  In that scenario, students are individually graded.  In cases where groups are graded together, those who want a good grade will often pick up the slack of those not motivated to contribute.

In addition, students are not encouraged to communicate with each other or the teacher in ways that are meaningful to them.  Instead, they are given specific assignments, with clear rubrics, and deadlines to follow.  Stick to the task, follow the directions, provide the correct responses, and you'll get a good grade.  The focus for students becomes centered on the final grade, instead of learning and personal growth.

Critical thinking and problem solving
I spoke about this in a previous post on teaching 21st century skills without technology:
The correct answer... We encourage our students to strive for the correct answer on tests and quizzes, on homework, even in essays and lab reports.  What if we started asking questions that had multiple correct answers?  Or had no answer at all?  Educators need to move away from the step by step approach to problem solving that is engrained in current practices.  We are so fixated on the correct answer (often in the back of the book or in the teacher's edition) that we avoid offering opportunities for our students to find the path to the solution for themselves.  

With a focus on grades in a traditional approach, students are encouraged only to find the correct answer to a problem.  Students are penalized for a failure to find the correct solution, and that failure can ultimately lead to receiving no credit towards advancement or graduation.  Risk taking is frowned upon, and students don't have the luxury of learning from mistakes.  They don't even have the luxury of making mistakes in the first place.

Creativity and Innovation
In a traditional grading model, creativity and innovation fall under attack on two fronts.  As with critical thinking, students are not encouraged to take risks in their learning, and being creative often means adding color to a poster or PowerPoint... We'll call it "safe creativity."  True creativity in learning requires risk, and risk often leads to failure.  In a traditional grading situation, failure on one assignment can spell certain doom for a marking period grade, which could negatively affect a quarterly GPA.  This could eliminate many top colleges and universities as options for post graduation studies.  Most students would not take that risk, nor would many teachers encourage it.

I have had many conversations regarding creativity in the classroom, and many teachers have expressed high levels of interest, but have challenged the notion with the question "how do I grade it?"  This question from teachers takes us back to the earlier conversation regarding finding the correct answer.  In a classroom that embraces creativity, there is often a period of divergent thinking.  Many of us would call this period "thinking out of the box."  When employing divergent thinking, students are encouraged to generate a large quantity of solutions unfettered by evaluative thoughts.  Quantity over quality.  In this situation, there are no correct answers, no restrictions.  You see, divergent thinking does not give us one correct answer... It gives us many possible answers.  

Following a period of divergent thinking and idea generation, there is a period of convergent thinking.  During this time, students begin to evaluate all the possible solutions that were generated, eliminating those that do not work, keeping those that might, until they have arrived at what they believe is the solution.  This might sound like an unnecessarily long, winding path to the answer, but what's critical is the process, not the answer.  The process opens the mind to possible solutions that are often hidden when the focus is on finding the correct response.  But the question of grading this work still remains.  How do you grade divergent thinking in a traditional model?  This question alone will hold teachers back from using creativity and innovation in their classroom.

What if we stopped employing the traditional methods of grading?  What if we eliminated the traditional methods of evaluating students and embraced a mastery model?  

Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a big fan of standardized testing and an even smaller fan of using standardized testing to evaluate teachers.  There is one thing I do like in the new APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) regulations... HEDI, which stands for Highly effective, Effective, Developing, and Ineffective (not a fan of ineffective... Doesn't really motivate a teacher to explore ways to improve).  This rating scale is used in the evaluation of teachers and principals within the APPR framework.  Used correctly, and without the associated punitive measures, this evaluation method can open a dialogue that could ultimately lead to high levels of personal growth for educators.  What if we used a similar approach to evaluating kids?  What if we eliminated punitive measures to evaluating kids learning and focused instead on open dialogues with each one regarding their personal growth in learning.  Students would be given constructive feedback in addition to the following ratings of progress towards learning goals:
- Highly proficient
- Proficient
- Developing
These ratings, when used with students as a way to open the conversation regarding personal growth, can give teachers and students a common starting point from which to discuss personal progress.  All three invoke positive feelings, focus of moving forward, and encourage learning from failure.  As a matter of fact, I believe failure should be a big part of all three levels, especially if Highly Proficient has no ceiling.    

Moving away from traditional grading could have profound effects on the culture of education in this country, from early elementary all the way to higher education.  The focus would shift from performance and the winner-takes-all mentality to individual growth and the development path of each child.  There would no longer be a need for standardized tests.  Most importantly, students would be in a learning environment driven by individual progress and passion and not by the rating and ranking of each child.