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.

January 11

Voice

A year ago, I dipped a toe into improv performance. Then dove in. More on the backstory another time. My thoughts today are on voice.

The diverse group of players I practice and perform with often use a variety of accents to help define their characters. Regional, continental, whatever comes to mind.

I feel more than a little inept at accents, but have begun playing with different voice registers. In practice some weeks ago, I dragged out a deep voice, as deep as I could make it. The reaction of my scene partner was startled shock. I used it on stage recently, which elicited chuckles from the audience, and some playful behavior on the part of my scene partner.

Last night at practice, I decided to use as shrill a voice as I could muster. It brought the house down. (My throat still hurts today.)

Sound Wave Voice by CSTRSK shared under a CC0 Creative Commons  license.

These experiences caused me to think about “voice.” We often speak of finding our voice, and encouraging students to find their voice. Which is valid and true.

Now I’m thinking we all have many voices. Even everyday interactions support this conjecture. The way we speak to a baby is very different from how we address our colleagues. Not only in the tone we use, but also the vocabulary and formality of language structures.

All of our voices have different things to say, and provide us with opportunities to explore different facets of who we are. What remains constant is the throughline, our authentic self.

January 9

Team Formation

In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford discusses heterogeneous vs. homogeneous teams. He cites a 2009 study where college students were given the task of solving a murder mystery problem. Some of the groups were composed of four friends, others included three friends and a stranger.

The groups that included a stranger were much more effective at solving the mystery. 75% of the time, they came to the correct conclusion. The homogeneous groups correctly solved the problem only 54% of the time, while people working individually were successful only 44% of the time.

Interestingly, Hartford writes, the participants in the heterogeneous teams “didn’t feel very sure that they’d gotten the right answer” and “felt socially uncomfortable” [p. 50]. The homogeneous teams “had a more pleasant time” and (falsely) were more confident they had found the right solution. In other words, the team members’ perception of how their team performed was out of sync with their actual performance.

The diverse teams were more effective, but that is not how things seemed to people in those teams: team members doubted their answers, distrusted their process, and felt that the entire interaction was an awkward mess. The homogeneous teams were ineffective and complacent. They enjoyed themselves and wrongly assumed that because their friendly conversation was smooth and effortless they were doing well. Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford, p. 50.

The debate about team formation in K-12 education continues to thrive. In this Edutopia article, Ben Johnson argues both sides, but ultimately concludes students blossom more in homogeneous groups. In 10 Reasons to Use Heterogeneous Teams, Dr Spencer Kagan argues for only heterogeneous groupings.

In education, we often look at grouping through the wrong lens, wondering how effective it will be to put students with different abilities in the same group. My hackles raise with the term “ability,” since it is based on a questionably valid definition (and data) as to what “ability” means. It also assumes a steady state, in other words that a student will always have the same level of “ability.”

One way #PBL (project-based learning) shines is that it accepts (just like the #realword does) that each student has different assets to contribute to a team. When (heterogeneous) teams are formed, the key to success is in identifying which role(s) fit each member of the team based on their unique talents and skills. As they succeed in the given role(s), students develop confidence and a growth mindset, the understanding they have the power to become ever more accomplished learners.

January 7

Unfocused Attention

I’ve been feeling totally unable to stay focused, that my attention divided in so many directions that in the end nothing gets done. In addition to teaching my #PBL classes, I am working on some micro-credentials. My husband and I are also planning a cross-continent move in the next six months. And, since we have lived in the same home for 18 years, there is major decluttering to be done!

Tim Harford, in Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives reassures me that “…having several projects may seem distracting, but instead the variety grabs our attention - we’re like tourists gawping at details that a local would find mundane…” [p. 28]. He further states, “…while we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another…” [p. 28].

Which is perhaps what led to using picture books in my literature and storytelling class this past week. As I document here and here, I’ve been reflecting on how experiences with books and reading at an early age gives kids a huge advantage in their future success in school (and life!). Not only does reading with our children provide them with exposure to and modeling of the reading process, it creates a positive emotional connection to books and reading. As this Washington Post article points out, it also helps them become “empathetic citizens of the world.”

Study after study shows that early reading with children helps them learn to speak, interact, bond with parents and read early themselves, and reading with kids who already know how to read helps them feel close to caretakers, understand the world around them and be empathetic citizens of the world

So, I should not have been surprised when my teenage students expressed such glee when I assigned them close reading of picture book biographies. Perhaps they are also feeling the nostalgia of their younger years, being read to by a caretaker.

January 4

“Digital natives?” or something else?

I have been dabbling with Flipgrid this year, so far (mostly) successfully prodding students through one assignment. I asked them to develop and record two-minute biographical stories, choosing from a selection of well-known Eastern European leaders. Their recordings were then peer reviewed by their classmates and me. Based on the feedback they received, they were asked to revise their stories and re-record them.

The reaction to using Flipgrid has been mixed. Some students embraced it, others completed their assignments begrudgingly. When I have asked them what they dislike about Flipgrid, I get responses such as “I liked writing the story, but didn’t like recording it,” “I don’t like my voice,” etc. What most of the reluctance seems to be tied to is discomfort with communicating using this app.

What I find surprising about this reaction is that these same teens are fully launched on apps such as Snapchat, where they communicate with their friends through a video medium, complete with goofy stickers and other embellishments. (Flipgrid has a few of those, too.)

So, what is the difference? Do they perceive Snapchat as “not real?” Or is it because the Flipgrid assignments are “for real,” since the other students and I watch them and provide feedback? I don’t have a definitive answer on the reasons for the student attitudes, but I do know asking them to create Flipgrid videos is a good way to build their competence and confidence in communication.

There isn’t an online world and an offline world, there’s one world… ~ TEDxVictoria – Alexandra Samuel: Ten Reasons to Stop Apologizing for your Online Life

In this 2017 article, Alexandra Samuel debunks the idea of today’s teens being “digital natives,” and argues there are three different categories of technology users arriving in adulthood. She identifies them as “digital orphans,” “digital exiles,” and “digital heirs.”

“Digital orphans” have grown up with a lot of tech access, but very little guidance on appropriate use and consequences. Samuel sees this group as having a hard time meshing their online and offline lives, and in forming healthy face-to-face relationships.

The flip side of the coin is the “digital exiles,” who have minimal, limited access to online environments, highly controlled by their parents. Samuel sees them as heading in one of two directions when they gain access. Either they will go crazy with social media and find lots of ways to get into trouble online, or they will follow their parents’ teaching and become “neo-Luddites.” The question Samuel raises in regards to the second group is whether their day-to-day surroundings will be able accommodate their rejection of technology. (Have you tried booking an Uber ride without a smartphone?)

The third, and most balanced category Samuel identifies is “digital heirs.” They have had access to technology, combined with guidance from parents and teachers. They understand how to be responsible digital citizens. They have learned how create content across a variety of mediums. They will be prepared to navigate #reallife, whatever it looks like at the time.

Samuel’s assertions validate my belief that part of my purpose as an educator is to help students develop digital/media literacy skills. They also need practice with a variety of technology tools so that as they step into adulthood they will feel competent in #realworld responsibilities and careers.

January 4

Mind the Gap

At the end of each semester, I have my teen students reflect on the whole semester, their work, skills development, and my effectiveness as a teacher-facilitator. One tool we used popped up repeatedly as “disliked:”

“Not using trello, it didn’t serve us much purpose.”
“I learned how to use Trello, even though I don’t like it.”
“I like the course, I just really don’t like trello.”

As a project-based learning (PBL) practitioner, one of my objectives is to help students develop project management skills. This is one of the central elements of high-quality PBL. Not only are these skills useful for PBL, they are valuable in real life and the real world.

This is the second year I have integrated Trello into my courses. In prior years we used paper calendars to identify tasks and due dates. This provided some rudimentary information, but Trello provides much better depth, such as helping identify dependencies between tasks and flagging problem areas.

Trello by Wikimedia Commons shared under a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

This is also the second year Trello has met with resistance from some of my students. As I think of ways to overcome this, I am reminded of one of the principles I learned last summer in the Bright Morning Art of Coaching workshop. Elena Aguilar has studied resistance in adults, particularly among teachers.

Aguilar’s general belief is that when people are resistant, it is not because they are unwilling, but rather that they have a gap in skills, knowledge, capacity, cultural competence or emotional intelligence. She has created a tool called “Mind the Gap,” which helps coaches identify the real reason people are resistant.

In the case of Trello, my hunch is my students have a gap in skills or knowledge. Although we do a low-stakes skills workshop at the beginning of the year, I suspect it was not effective for some students. So, back to the drawing board.