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.

 

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.