February 24

Haptic, Tactile, Sensory, Motor: Crucial to #DeeperLearning

My friend Terry recently wrote about using his mind as a “fulcrum” and physical writing instruments as “levers” for analyzing and annotating (physical) texts. This led to a whole flurry of responses, with many wistfully recalling the “old days” of writing in books, doodling, scrapbooking, etc. There was a unanimous yearning to return to some of those old habits.

This discussion led me to explore (again) the evidence that haptic feedback is a vital, integral part of being human. I first thought of the sensory and motor homunculi, grotesque-looking representations first created by Dr Wilder Penfield in 1937 that illustrate the quantity of grey matter devoted to various body parts. The hands take up a highly disproportionate amount of space, suggesting we are meant to use our hands often and well.

Sensory and motor homunculi by Dr. Joe Kiff shared under a [CC BY-SA 3.0] license.

Smashing Design, an online magazine for web designers and developers, argues in Designing for the Tactile Experience that new and evolving technologies must be mindful of incorporating tactile and motor interactions. Several times, the author emphasizes that meaning is found in our experience of the world, not only in how we act in it, but how it acts upon us. If we are not physically interacting with the world, our experience is being very limited.

In 2016, NPR reported on a 2014 study that showed college students taking lecture notes by hand did better on “concept-application” tests, wherein they were required to apply the lecture information to an open-ended question.The difference in results held true even when the students were given time to review their notes between the time of the lecture and the test.

The need for a tactile relationship to #deeperlearning applies even (more?) at young ages. A 2012 study of preliterate five-year-olds tested the recall of children who were assigned to one of typing, tracing, or printing letters and shapes. fMRI scans showed that a letter recall task recruited the “reading circuit” area of the brain only in the children who had handwritten the letter.

There is a growing recognition within K-12 education that “making” is not only fun, it also aids learning. In addition to the general trend toward “makerspaces” in schools and communities, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education has a Project Zero initiative underway called Agency by Design, which is “investigating the promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning experiences.”

I say a hearty amen to Terry’s “Theoria (thinking), Poiesis (making), & Praxis (Doing).”

February 22

My heart breaks, because we are a broken society

This year in my #Meliora literature and storytelling class, we are exploring narrative non-fiction, focusing on memoir, biography and autobiography. Over the months, we have been examining print books, graphic novels, and films.

The most recent selection was My Friend Dahmer, by Derf Backderf. This is a graphic novel non-fiction depiction of Jeffrey Dahmer in his middle- and high-school days. Dahmer and Backderf were classmates, and although not truly friends, ran in some of the same circles.

The students all gobbled up this story. I think this was a result of both the compelling story Backderf tells, and the larger-than-life (not in a good way!) character Jeffrey Dahmer was.

In our discussion about the biography, the students acknowledged the historical context (1970s) and that some things were quite different at that time. They were nonetheless outraged that none of the adults in Dahmer’s life (parents, teachers, neighbors) lifted a hand to help him as he openly and consistently abused alcohol and demonstrated aberrant behavior.

The students further asserted that today these red flags would result in adult intervention, counseling, reaching out to help him. But would they? Just over a year ago, Nikolas Cruz went on a shooting spree that took the lives of 17 students and staff and injured 17 others.

A South Florida Sun Sentinel article dated today blares “Teachers feared Parkland shooter a year and a half before the massacre.” The article details teacher and administrator unease with Nikolas Cruz’ behavior, some of them stating they were afraid of him. Mental health counselors made visits to his home a year-and-a-half before the shootings, but found Cruz did not meet the criteria for hospitalization.

The most harsh criticism the article offers is that information gathered by a number of people in the school and community was not shared with law enforcement or mental health authorities. Just weeks before the shooting, a caller told the FBI of her fears that Cruz would shoot up a school. The same woman also placed calls with the Sheriff’s office.

In another article, the Sun Sentinel describes the erratic behavior exhibited by Cruz over much of his life, including the violence toward his mother and brother that resulted in 23 calls to the Broward County Sheriff’s office over a span of ten years.

Then.his.mother.died. Cruz and his younger brother were taken in by a former neighbor, but Nikolas was kicked out because of his objectionable behavior. Another Parkland family then took him in, and he remained with them until he shot 33 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

So, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. A lot of the post-Parkland focus has been on gun control. I contend the real focus needs to be on building community, and on being willing to take action. There were so many alarm bells going off related to Nikolas Cruz, yet it seems everyone involved was waiting for “someone else” to actually “do.” Perhaps the community (friends, neighbors, teachers…) could have intervened, insisted on Cruz seeking mental health treatment. Perhaps the gun store where he bought an AR-15 would have known not to sell to him. Perhaps…

I don’t have pat solutions to propose. My heart simply breaks when I see/hear/feel the pain that surrounds me in our fractured society. We.need.to.change. We.need.to.regain.our.humanity.

 

February 8

‘twixt and ‘tween childhood and adulthood (and how #PBL builds maturity), Part 2

A few moments after the agonizingly drawn-out note-writing experience I describe here, I witnessed (not for the first time!) the mercurial shift of these teens into almost-adults.

Each year, the history students in my #Meliora project-based learning (#PBL) practice create a project to submit to the National History Day (NHD) competition. This year, a group of five students is collaborating on creating a video documentary. The deadline to submit their work for the first round of competitions is eight days away. They have a lot of work to do, as is the case every year about this time, when students realize they are down to the wire.

This afternoon, I sat in on a revision process of the voice-over narrative the students are going to use. The objective of the narrative is to argue their thesis. The quality of their thesis and supporting evidence is what will allow them to advance to the next level of competition. Or not.

The assignment I gave them was to have one student read the narrative aloud while the other students listened. The listeners could stop the narrator at any point and jump in with suggested revisions. My observations:

  1. One student started reading the narrative, and was having difficulty staying focused enough to read smoothly. Another student stepped in to take over the task. The “hand-off” was done with a friendly, positive attitude by both students.
  2. Students were listening intently to the narrative flow.
  3. When students heard something they felt was lacking/incomplete/repetitive, they spoke up immediately and the whole group worked to find a solution.
  4. There was no defensive or argumentative behavior and they came to consensus efficiently.

These are the moments that inspire me to continue challenging students using PBL. In this one activity, which lasted for about 45 minutes, the students hit all of the touchstones of High Quality Project Based Learning:

  1. Intellectual challenge and accomplishment. At the beginning of the semester, they spent weeks researching and defining their thesis. Once established, my persistent question to them has been “how does this narrative support your thesis?” That was a question they returned to throughout their review today.
  2. Authenticity. They had complete choice over their topic, the two constraints being that it relate to Illinois history and that it fit the NHD theme, which this year is “Triumph & Tragedy in History.” This is a requirement of the Chicago History Fair organization, the regional level of entry into National History Fair. Due to this freedom of choice, they have remained highly engaged in conducting research and creating a convincing argument.
  3. Public product. The students will be presenting their work to a panel of judges in a public forum, which raises the stakes and their desire to create a high-quality product. The stakes (the intensity of competition) will continue to raise as they advance levels.
  4. Collaboration. Today’s task was completely collaborative. Throughout the project, they have worked both individually and collaboratively toward a common objective, which is  persuasively arguing their thesis.
  5. Project management. They students have been using Trello throughout the project process to identify, assign, and track progress on tasks. Finalizing the narrative is a task they must  complete before they can assemble the video documentary, so they understand the criticality.
  6. Reflection. They were actively and openly reflecting on the narrative composition that had been done to-date. Throughout the project development process, they are required to reflect on how the items they are researching, the books, images, video clips, newspaper articles, etc. contribute to their argument. They assigned team roles and responsibilities early in the project, and have continued to modify them over time, based on the interests and skills of each team member.

I have every confidence a week from now these engaged, enthusiastic students will have a well-argued, well-edited documentary to submit for competition. Because they care.

February 7

‘twixt and ‘tween childhood and adulthood (and how #PBL builds maturity), Part 1

Today was one of those days I was reminded (as if I could forget!) that adolescents are neither children nor adults, and that they are moving along a jagged path that will bring them to mature behavior ever more frequently. It was also a day that reinforced my commitment to project-based learning (#PBL) as a brilliant pedagogic methodology for preparing students to succeed in adulthood.

As part of our European History studies, we recently took a field trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. In addition to a docent-led tour of the main exhibit, we each experienced a virtual reality tour with Pinchas Gutter, the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. The viewer “walks” with Gutter as he shares his recollections of being transported by jam-packed railway car to Majdanek, a German concentration camp in Lublin, Poland. Gutter continues to tell his story as he accompanies the viewer through intimate views of the gas chamber and shower room where at least 78,000 prisoners (59,000 Jews) were killed.

Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center by Wikimedia Commons shared under a  CC0 Creative Commons license.

Understandably, the field trip had a strong emotional impact on the students. We “de-briefed,” discussing emotions and connections the students felt throughout our visit. I then asked the students to collaboratively write a thank-you note to the museum employee who organized our visit.

What should have been a five-minute exercise turned into a half-hour ordeal. There were discussions about who had the best handwriting. And how the card should be signed. There were laborious analyses of the correct phrasing to use. Finally, the card was done and signed.

Next, I share the grown-up side of these students that occurred a heartbeat after completing the thank-you note.

 

February 4

To grit or not to grit

I just finished reading this article, entitled “What’s Missing When We Talk About Grit.” The thoughts shared by the author, Luke Reynolds, echo some of the reflections I have done recently. He describes the fervor with which “grit” was embraced, how it became the panacea for all ills related to disengaged and under-performing students.

As Reynolds sought to employ grit as a motivator in his 7th grade classroom, it didn’t always work. What he discovered is that relationship is what mattered most. Once he established a strong connection with students, then the tenets of grit kicked in. I have similar thoughts about the importance of building trusting relationships with our students, as I describe here.

Reynolds continues his reasoning by discussing the impact of inequality, and steps we all need to take to help rectify this within our communities. In this post, I discuss some of these same ideas, that when students’ needs are not being met in the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, they are unable to function well academically.

[we] need to get to know every child’s story—to truly understand the context and the struggle that each child lives through

The final point of Reynolds’ argument is we “need to get to know every child’s story—to truly understand the context and the struggle that each child lives through, rather than making assumptions based on generic attributes.” As this article declares, “Why is storytelling so important to the world? It’s our TRUTH.” I explore the question “what is story?” here. The conclusion I draw is that stories tell us many things, and are open to many interpretations, but most importantly, they connect us to each other!

 

 

February 4

PBL = Good Business

The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU) recently published survey results collected from business executives (profit and nonprofit sectors) and hiring managers. In the executive summary, they state, “The college learning outcomes that both audiences rate as most important include oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication, and the real-world application of skills and knowledge.” [emphasis added] Furthermore, “[b]usiness executives and hiring managers indicate that participation in applied and project-based learning experiences—particularly internships or apprenticeships—gives recent college graduates an edge.”

The college learning outcomes that both audiences rate as most important include oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication, and the real-world application of skills and knowledge.

The “4Cs,” (critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication) have been embedded in high-quality project-based learning for many years. As students tackle “a challenging problem, an intriguing question, or multi-sided issue,” they engage in critical thinking, looking at the question/problem from many angles and conducting research. Defining possible solution(s) requires creativity; thinking outside the box, prototyping, learning from failure. Students collaborate with others, often peers in a team, as well as with subject-matter experts. As a final step in the process, they showcase their evidence of learning by presenting (communicating) their work to a public audience.

The best projects address real-world problems, and the solutions the students create are presented to real-world stakeholders. These are just some of the ways project-based learning helps prepare our learners for success in their adult lives.

February 3

(Human) Connections

Yesterday, a friend posted on Facebook that her brother had just passed away from a massive heart attack. She said she debated before posting, as she intentionally estranged herself from him when her oldest child was born 20-odd years ago, because she did not want her brother influencing her children.

As I read her post, I felt sad on many fronts. Sad for this middle-aged man who was in such pain that he used substances to numb himself. Sad for my friend because she had to make a very tough decision all those years ago. Further sadness for her because I am sure she loved her brother, so she has been grieving his loss for decades.

I also asked myself what her purpose was for posting this history and loss in such a public way? I concluded that she, like all of us, seeks human connection, and she is reaching out for support.

individuals with the lowest level of involvement in social relationships are more likely to die than those with greater involvement

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a branch of the National Institutes of Health, says studies consistently show that “individuals with the lowest level of involvement in social relationships are more likely to die than those with greater involvement” and that this holds true “even when socioeconomic status, health behaviors, and other variables that might influence mortality, were taken into account.”

Human connections are just as important in the workplace as they are in purely social settings. Which brings me to Professional Learning Networks. I am grateful for the many other educators I have the privilege of connecting with, especially those I’ve “met” as the result of my participation in the Connected Learning MOOC.

My friend Sarah knit me a hat (and a Christmas ornament!) and helps me better understand what is happening in the UK. Karen faithfully corresponds, and has offered sage advice on more than one occasion. Daniel keeps up the fight against inequality by bridging the divide between those in need and those who can provide tutoring and mentoring services. Kevin abundantly shares information useful for improving my practice, and is always ready to lend a helping hand. Sheri, like me, loves project-based learning (PBL), and offers great insights, both directly and indirectly, into how I can become a better practitioner. Terry’s dissident thinking and reflection require me to think and reflect more deeply. Kim’s lovely photos make me yearn to return to southern California. Susan is another PBL geek who offers authentic critique of my work, and her fabulous art continually delights me. Wendy informs me how hot it is down under as we are freezing here, and creates (along with several others listed here!) magical music. Ron inspires me with his writing of children’s stories, which he does in addition to his “day job” of designing medical education. Simon is another who provokes me to think more deeply, and to aspire to learn all the cool things that can be done with digital art tools.

These are but the tip of the iceberg of my many PLN connections. If you’re not included here, it is because I ran out of time. Thank you all!

 

February 1

Where #Maslow and students intersect

A couple of days ago, I was ensconced in my home in the Chicago suburbs, where overnight the temperature with windchill dropped to nearly -50℉ (-45℃). I am extremely blessed, because my home was warm. Power stayed on. No pipes froze. I had plenty of food to eat. The internet was out, but I have a smartphone (and a tablet!), so was easily able to stay “connected.”

With this abundance of resources, and essentially a forced “retreat” in my home, I should have been efficiently working away, knocking things off my “To Do” list. Instead, I was hanging out on social media, sharing information and photos of this unusual weather event and how it had impacted me. Commiserating with others in similar straits.

As I reflect on this, I am reminded of the importance of trying to understand our students’ out-of-school environments. If I, a mature adult with plenty of resources, had a hard time focusing during an unusual and uncomfortable event, I wonder what it is like for a child who is often hungry? Or who lives in fear of harm from a caregiver? Or who is required to “look out” for another family member? Or who has no heat in their home? The list of “or who” could go on for some time.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by Wikimedia Commons shared under a CC-BY-SA Creative Commons license.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, generally accepted as a sound model, states that one can only achieve the next tier of the hierarchy once all the needs in lower tiers are met. Physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest) are the lowest level. Feeding America reports that at the end of 2017, there were 13 million American children (one in six) living with food insecurity. Two of the consequences, as identified by the World Hunger Education Service, are “impaired physical and cognitive development.”

Maslow’s second tier consists of safety needs (protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, etc). Child Trends reports that in the United States in 2016 there were approximately 672,000 maltreated children, a rate of 9.1 per 1,000. “Maltreated” refers to neglect and abuse. If we include other factors, the numbers are much higher. Kids Count reports that 13% of American children live in communities with poverty rates of 30% and above. Among other patterns in high-poverty neighborhoods are higher rates of crime and violence, so even when children living in these areas have a safe home environment they may feel unsafe in their neighborhoods and at school.

I have only (briefly) discussed the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Levels three and four include love, belonging and esteem. Cognitive need only occurs at level five of the hierarchy. In other words, unless our students have their needs consistently met in those first four tiers, they are unable to care about knowledge and understanding. We have millions of children in the United States that are in this situation.

Our challenge is to take actions that ensure all students climb that hierarchy not only to tier five, but to the top. This Edutopia article provides some specific ways we can work towards that ideal.