January 28

What is story?

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” ~ from The White Album, by Joan Didion

This epigraph is found at the beginning of one chapter in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, the book my teenage Meliora students are currently studying. We spent a short time talking about “what is story?” in class, then I asked the students to further explore the question in written essays.

What’s your story by Pixabay shared under a CC0 Creative Commons  license.

Their analysis reinforced my belief that young people are very insightful! A few excerpts from their work:

“They [writers] seek to find meaning and then express it in a way that others can read or hear it and nod, to possibly see through that person’s eyes a degree of their view of life.”

“We tell ourselves stories to find the moral lessons in each tragedy, adventure, romance, and every other form of genre.”

“A story is fiction or nonfiction told to entertain.”

“The beautiful thing about stories is that no two people interpret a story in the same way.”

“People can change the world with the stories they tell or the stories they hear.”

“We strive for people to give us advice through books, so we don’t repeat history.”

“There’s always multiple perspectives to every story, and individuals, such as myself, enjoy hearing all perspectives. In the end, this allows you to get a more complete, in depth story.”

“Not everything happens for a reason and that’s okay, sometimes you’re not sure how to understand what is going on in your story or what is going on in the world but take the time to process it.”

“It makes people ask questions and look for answers in their own lives and inspires new generations of passionate storytellers.”



January 25

Assume Positive Intent

I have been invited into a newly-forming all-female improv house team. You can imagine our level of excitement, combined with uncertainty. We are all as green as can be. In a recent team meeting, we spent some time exploring group norms, where, among other things, we talked about how we will undoubtedly get hurt by others on the team as we work together. Not on stage, but in off-stage interactions.

I raised the idea of “assume positive intent.” This is a touchstone for Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. She asserts that when we give people the benefit of the doubt, and make no judgments about what they say, it is far easier to listen “generously,” and to delve deeper into the detail of what the person is saying. We’ll be more apt to respond in a positive way. Then, the other person will respond to our positivity by engaging more fully and openly with us.

Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, ‘Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.’ ~ Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsico

An improv exercise that has been helpful to me in expanding this notion is “This is important because…” The way it works is two players face each other and one person makes an opening statement, “I’m so mad at Mom…,” “You are my angel…,” “Today is the best day of my life…” It doesn’t matter what the opening line is, the other player then comes up with three responses as quickly as possible that all begin “This is important because…” Some of the many responses to “I’m so mad at Mom” are “This is important because Mom is also mad at her,” “This is important because Mom just went to Florida,” “This is important because Mom is tired of babysitting for her.” And so on.

Outcomes of this exercise include improved listening skills, becoming quicker on our feet, and being able to look at verbal statements from many perspectives. These qualities are just as applicable to our everyday lives as they are on the stage.

In the classroom, instead of regarding our students as “trouble-makers,” and “knows-all-the-answers,” and “is-(dis)organized,” we need to see them as Adam and Chloe and Tyler, and recognize each of them has important information and stories to share with us.


January 24

“There’s a whole lot of talking he’s not doing”

“There’s a whole lot of talking he’s not doing.” This line comes from The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom. A character named Belle is quizzing another character, named Will, about a third character, Lavinia, whom Will has recently visited. Belle is asking what happened during his visit, and she correctly discerns that his responses express only a fraction of the whole truth.

Although there is ongoing debate about exactly how much influence each single component of communication has, it is universally accepted that non-verbal communication is more potent than the words we use. Landmark studies conducted by Albert Mehrabian in 1967 concluded that only 7% of our communication is related to the words we use. Mehrabian asserted the vast majority of what an interlocuteur “hears” is based on intonation and facial cues.

There are many criticisms of the exact percentages, and what exactly Mehrabian measured. However, even the most skeptic critic would acknowledge that nonverbal cues are more important than the words in a message. This particularly complicates communication in the digital world, where much of our communication is through text modes. How exactly should I interpret the “tone” of an email? But I digress.

Educators are typically in face-to-face communication with their students. So what, exactly, are we communicating to our students with our nonverbal cues? What are our facial expressions communicating? What does our body stance say? When the words are positive in nature, is our tone supporting that message?

Just as importantly, are we truly “listening” to our students? When Ashlee says “I don’t care,” what is her body language saying? When Jayden is unable to make eye contact, what is really going on? Are we taking the time to truly understand our students?

In a high quality project, students make their work public by sharing it not only with the teacher but also with each other, experts, and other people beyond the classroom. This occurs both during a project, as part of the product development and formative assessment process and at its conclusion, when the product is shared and discussed with an audience. ~ from A framework for high quality Project Based Learning.

And, what are we doing to help our students build their communication skills? Long identified as one of the 21st Century skills, and also identified by Tony Wagner as one of the 7 Survival Skills, it is imperative we help our students develop their ability to communicate clearly and effectively.

The high quality Project Based Learning framework (#HQPBL) recognizes this necessity, so communication is woven into projects. As students develop their projects, they are called on to communicate with each other, with subject-matter experts, a public audience, and with themselves through reflection. Another reason #PBL rocks!

January 21

Sea Lions and Trusting Relationships

I spent much of today wandering through Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Like all the major museums in Chicago, it is world-class, with intriguing exhibits showcasing the many critters that live in the waters around the world.

As part of my outing, I also visited the “Aquatic Presentation,” featuring Pacific white-sided dolphins, and several “guests” such as a red-tailed hawk. Of particular interest to me was a sea lion named Cruz.

He is blind, due to gunshot wounds to his face when he was a pup. In the wild, he most likely would have perished. Instead, Shedd Aquarium adopted him, and he lives with a group of other sea lions. His trainer has used a long-handled rattle and auditory cues (including some words) to teach Cruz how to navigate his world (and how to wow the crowd!).

Shortly after Cruz’ arrival at the Shedd, his trainer stated, “[h]e has a fearless personality and eagerness to learn…” Wow! That sounds like any number of students who are eager to learn, yet are struggling in school because of circumstances or experiences we don’t know about or don’t understand. Instead of writing them off, we need to seek to understand.

Cruz’ trainer further elaborated, “[b]uilding trusting relationships is the cornerstone to providing the highest-quality care for our animals…” Wow! Another statement that could also be applied to humans. Building trusting relationships with our students will help us better understand what they need in order to learn well. It is only as we have strong relationships with them that we can become effective as their guides, mentors, and biggest supporters.

He has a fearless personality and eagerness to learn…

January 19

Climbing Mountains, Part 2

In our literature discussion yesterday, I asked the #Meliora students whether they and their peers would be interested in climbing Mt Everest, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air . The students’ interaction around that question prompted one of them to observe, “people don’t talk about climbing Mt Everest very much anymore.”

I asked them why they thought that was. The nearly-unanimous conclusion was that people, especially of their age, are too caught up in entertainment, gaming, and social media. “They aren’t interested in going outside for an adventure.”

This analysis made me sad. So, I decided to delve into the topic a bit, to see what the evidence says. I’m feeling happier now! In their 2017 report, the Outdoor Foundation reported that participation in outdoor recreation actually grew modestly between 2015 and 2016. 1% more boys between the ages of 6 and 17 participated in outdoor pursuits, although conversely 1% fewer girls in the same age range did so.

Looking at the longer-term trends, the participation rates have stayed relatively stable for the past decade. Somewhere between 48% and 50% of the American population has gone outdoors for an adventure at least once a year, and in 2016, “[a]lmost half of Americans were moderately active in outdoor recreation, getting outside between 12 and 103 times per year.”

[Linksters grow up as] overprotected and suffocated youths during a secular crisis; matures into risk averse, conformist rising adults; produces indecisive midlife arbitrator-leaders during a spiritual awakening; maintains influence (but less respect) as sensitive elders.

Likewise, in a fascinating analysis most recently updated in 2006, Ron Watters argues that there are four generational cycles that follow a (mostly) predictable pattern. These patterns apply to outdoor adventure-seeking as predictably as to other domains. He identifies the “Linksters” (or Generation Z) as part of the “adaptive” generation, and asserts this generation grows up as “overprotected and suffocated youths during a secular crisis; matures into risk averse, conformist rising adults; produces indecisive midlife arbitrator-leaders during a spiritual awakening; maintains influence (but less respect) as sensitive elders.”

Now I can simultaneously feel guilty about how I raised my sons (technically, my oldest is a millennial), and also know that trends are forever in flux.

January 18

Climbing Mountains, Part 1

Yesterday’s Memoir, Biography & Autobiography class was nothing short of exhilarating. We have been reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, and the students and I are enjoying it tremendously.

The students are raving about this adventure story and how they can hardly put it down. One student came to class after reading a few chapters and said, “he [Krakauer] is a walking dictionary. I had to look up so many words.” It struck me that the storytelling must be exceptional (it is) to propel a student to persevere through many unfamiliar words. 

I am always gratified when a mentor text generates such positive response, because students are much more willing to analyze the work. It is easier for them to identify the characteristics which make the story so interesting. These particular students are in the midst of a semester-long narrative nonfiction writing project, and an engaging text such as this one makes it easier for them to absorb the “tips” that will help them in their own writing.

To guide our discussions, we are using an adaptation of the Nonfiction Discussion Sheet detailed in Harvey Daniels’ Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. One of the steps in the students’ process is to create a sketch related to the reading, “a drawing, cartoon, diagram, flowchart — whatever.”

As illustrated below, some students are totally enthused about this part of the process, others not so much. Nonetheless, even the simplest drawing provides insight into something the student got out of the book, especially as they explain their sketch.


The most exciting part of yesterday’s class was the passion brought into the conversation about whether climbing Mt Everest was something the students would be interested in doing. Some would, some wouldn’t, and we explored the many reasons why (or why not). As one student described the thrill of rock climbing, another expressed their fear of heights. It is always rewarding when students feel comfortable to show vulnerability.

For me, the most enlightening (and disheartening) part of the conversation centered around the students’ perspective on why climbing Mt Everest, once a topic of high interest, no longer is. More on that in the next post.

January 15

More on spaces

I’ve been reflecting on my most recent post and the one before, which discuss work spaces, including classrooms. As I write this, I am in the midst of preparing our home to be sold. To make it more appealing, we have recently updated bathrooms and the laundry room. We are painting the walls to neutral colors. Not my preference, but what buyers want to see.

As I have made decisions on various elements, I have been apathetic. “Is the granite beige enough? It will do.” “Is it a faucet? Does water run through it? Sold.” The updated rooms look fresh and current, so are a success. At the same time, I have no particular attachment to them, as I expect to be vacating this home in a few months. And, since I didn’t improve the spaces for my own enjoyment, the changes don’t reflect “me.”

In contrast, my experience when we remodeled our kitchen several years was joyous. It was thrilling to choose countertops, cabinets, appliances, paint colors… I still love my kitchen.

This small personal example reinforces the various points Tim Harford makes in his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. People want control of their work spaces.

My colleague Sheri Edwards zoomed out further on this discussion. As she puts it, we need a “thoughtful pedagogy” that focuses on learner-centered design. Classroom design is just one part of the picture.


January 14

Work Spaces, aka the classrooms we teach in, Part 2 of 2

A “squat, ugly, sprawling” 200,000 square foot structure, Building 20 was designed in a day and built on the MIT campus almost as fast in 1943, to house the Radiation Laboratory, a secret project during World War II. Tim Harford’s story of Building 20 resonates strongly with me.

Just the breadth of ideas that were incubated in Building 20 is mind-boggling. “It was the birthplace of the world’s’ first commercial atomic clock. One of the earliest particle accelerators was also constructed there. The iconic stop-motion photographs of a bullet passing through an apple were taken in Building 20 by Harold Edgerton. It was home to MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club, a wellspring of hacker culture… Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle revolutionized linguistics in Building 20… a young electrical engineer named Amar Bose, dissatisfied with a piece of hi-fi equipment he had purchased, wandered … [Building 20] acoustics lab. There, he revolutionized the speaker and established the Bose Corporation.” [p 94]

One of Harford’s central assertions in Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives is that, in general, our society values tidiness and aesthetic beauty, yet the evidence points to those characteristics as putting a major damper on creativity. He identifies several characteristics of Building 20 that made it so effective, none of which have to do with tidiness.

The disorganized labyrinth that constituted the space was inhabited by a motley assortment of departments and saw frequent re-configurations of the space. Harford states, “[t]his absurdly inefficient way of organizing a building meant that people were constantly getting lost and wandering into places they didn’t intend to go.” [p 96]

“If you ask the veterans of MIT what a creative space looks like, one building comes to symbolize all that’s best at the university… it was known only as Building 20… squat, ugly, sprawling structure… “ [p 92] ~  Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford

This last phrase immediately takes my mind to the Connected Learning MOOC (#CLMooc), an online collaborative community that I participate in. Each summer, this community defines a series of “makes” that participants are invited to engage in.

The makes have caused me to tear my hair out on more than one occasion. Not because someone is dictating what I need to accomplish (quite the opposite), but because I become intrigued by the challenge, and stretch myself to try new tools and technologies. Collaborators in the community act both as mentors and students.

I often encounter #failure, and have to alter my approach, or even totally start over. Additionally, the whole process is often #messy, less than “perfect,” and oh, so much fun! “Making” also broadens my view, and deepens my belief in “failure” as a great teacher.

Harford ends his ode to Building 20 by saying, “… the building’s inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority… to make changes, even messy changes.” [p 98]

Which brings us back to the ownership and agency piece I touched on in my last post. As a #PBL educator, I am accustomed to a lot of chaos. Some of the most creative ideas students have had stemmed from tangential and somewhat off-topic discussions. There has been trial-and-error. And frustration. And disagreement. And, yes, failure. These are all #realworld situations the students are learning to navigate and manage.

Do I ever want to intervene? Yes. And I do on occasion. It is most often the student(s) who request my help, but I also intervene at other time when I feel it is necessary. I don’t offer a solution, but rather ask open-ended questions that refocus the students’ thinking on what they are trying to achieve.

Although my classroom is not Building 20, it is nonetheless developing 21st century skills, including collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and (better) communication. In other words, #Meliora students are learning what the #realworld is all about.

January 13

Work Spaces, aka the classrooms we teach in, Part 1 of 2

A chapter of Tim Harford’s book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives that has stuck with me discusses work spaces. In a 2010 experiment, subjects were placed in one of four office spaces. The first was lean, in other words spartan. The second started as the lean space then was  enriched with some decorative elements. In the third case, the subjects had the same enriched space, but were invited to arrange the decorative elements to their liking, including having pieces removed if they wished.

In the final case, the subjects were again invited to place elements where they wanted, but then the experimenter went in and re-rearranged everything to the original enriched layout. The researchers labeled this fourth case as the disempowered office, as it was the space that engendered the lowest productivity and lowest morale.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the third case, where the occupant had control of the space’s arrangement, was the most productive, the empowered office. Subjects in the empowered space got 30% more done than in the lean office, and 15% more than in the enriched space.

Those in the disempowered office expressed many negative reactions, including boredom, physical discomfort, dislike of the work they were doing, and dislike of the company whose work they were doing.

The results of this experiment give me pause as I think of how we control the physical space our students work in. We often decide some pretty major things, such as what goes on the walls and the seating arrangements. We use our perfect penmanship to write directives on the whiteboard. The classroom is the students’ primary work space, yet they have no voice in deciding what it looks like.

In 12 Ways to Upgrade Your Classroom Design, Jennifer Gonzalez explores the question of classroom design, and offers specific ideas on how to improve the appeal and effectiveness of classrooms, all with little or no budget. The first of the twelve points? “Ask your students.”

January 11

Why I do #PBL

Sheri Edwards recently posted about how working on hobbies helps instill a desire for #lifelonglearning and a willingness to #struggle. She pointed to #GeniusHour as one way to incorporate student-centered hobbies during the school day.

Absolutely! In my #PBL practice, I put a lot of thinking, planning/designing and #reflection into finding ways to make the academic work the teens do as compelling as possible. I apply the High-Quality PBL framework to my designs. As part of that framework, I offer students a lot of #VoiceAndChoice in how they develop their projects and in how they present their evidence of learning.

I commit to implementing projects that challenge, engage, and support students as described by the six #HQPBL criteria.

Notwithstanding, there are times I get frustrated with what I perceive as a lack of enthusiasm, or a lack of devotion to their work. It is in these moments that feedback from an outside audience reminds me of how capable these students are.

At our student showcase in December, a group was presenting a video documentary. They encountered some technical difficulties related to projecting from a laptop to a large screen. With no apparent anxiety, they persevered in their troubleshooting and soon the video was smoothly rolling for the audience to enjoy.

At the end of the showcase, one of the audience members came up to me and said, “Wow, it’s amazing that they knew how to fix the problem! I would have had no idea where to even start!”

It is true that my students, through regular practice, develop a variety of technology skills. Since they use #realworld tools and apps, and sometimes know more about the technologies they are working with than I do, they become adept at figuring things out. When they encounter #failure, or a product works differently than they expect, they momentarily retreat. Then, they consult among themselves, look at YouTube videos, “ask Google,” and occasionally even ask me.

In other words, they are #problemsolving, one of the “Seven Survival Skills” identified by Tony Wagner in his work on transforming education. It is moments like these that cause me to recommit to the chaotic, messy, exhilarating process called project-based learning.