Don’t put words in my mouth!

Photo Credit: CarbonNYC via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: CarbonNYC via Compfight cc

I was contacted by an organization that promotes teacher advocacy. They wanted me to join them as they represent teachers across the country. They are very connected politically and have some some big money behind them. The pitch was that they would amplify my voice by getting more media exposure to my writings and get my message in front of state and national politicians.

I immediately loved the idea of this. I am passionate about helping make our education system better. I want to see a decrease in testing and standardization with a shift to personalized learning that is student centered. A grassroots organization that promotes teacher voice in the media and among politicians is definitely a need in the U.S.

But of course there was a catch. The “focus” for this year was promoting the Common Core. Ugh. Not a topic that I am a fan of. National curriculum is low on the list of things that I believe will “fix” schools. I really don’t believe “content” is the problem in schools, pedagogy is.

But what really rubbed me wrong is that this organization is branding itself as “teacher voice” but only if we support their agenda. This “grassroots” movement looks strangely like top down strategy that needs some teacher pawns at the bottom.

When you want to LISTEN to my opinions about how we can change education first, then maybe we can talk. I won’t have anyone putting words in my mouth. I have plenty to say by myself, thank you.

How to get students to own their learning.

In previous years we have started school with a week of orientation. We did team building activities, had a huge, crazy scavenger hunt, and had students on a high ropes course. Although we felt those were successful approaches to the start of a new year we decided to do something different this year. So we started by continuing the Water Project that we ended with last year.

The Water Project was our best project ever because of how much ownership the students took of it. But this was a new class of kids whose only connection to the project was seeing it in the hall. How would we get them to buy in?

On the first day of school we brought in two guest speakers from LGROW, a local agency of our city government that works to promote good management practices of the Grand River Watershed. They shared who they were and the needs of their organization. We also did activities to teach students about watersheds and management of them.

Students brainstorming poster designs

Students brainstorming poster designs

By the third day students were looking at local problems and proposing solutions. At the end of the day they selected one of three “realms” to be a part of: Helping LGROW, working on our local campus, or working more broadly on a watershed where they live (our students come from all across the county and live on many different local watersheds that all feed into the Grand River). Once they were in these groups, they broke down into sub groups of things like making professional posters, promotional videos, and designing a social media campaign for LGROW. Other groups are designing a rain garden and a rooftop garden to grow vegetables for our school. They were calling local businesses for information and networking with the culinary and Ag science programs on our campus. The third realm groups are designing projects around their local watershed and some have already brought in water samples.

Student leaders are emerging in all groups. These kids are skilled and passionate about doing these things. One of the really cool things to me is that I had no preconceived ideas of who the leaders would be because I am just trying to learn their names. So I don’t know their academic history, but it feels like all kinds of kids are finding their niche and rising to the challenge. Yesterday one of the members of LGROW came back to school and the students pitched their ideas to him for feedback. He loved them.

This project will be unique for us in that students will work on it every other Friday for two hours for the rest of the year. It will be the first time that we try to sustain a project over time. One of the advantages of this is it gives the students time to do real work and develop relationships with the community and businesses that is just impossible in a 3-4 week timeframe.

Last year ended with students taking over and owning their learning. This year we are starting off with students taking over and owning their learning. I am very excited to see the real work that my students will do this year. Instilling this culture to start the year is so powerful! I am confident that they are going to surprise me this year.

So how do you get students to own their learning? Challenge them with real work for real people for a real purpose. And then quite honestly get out of the way. Teachers are still there to guide, but we must not control the project. One of my strengths is a lack of organization. So I dream big possibilities and give them to students. My lack of planning everything to a T gives the students space to take over and run the project. Sometimes all it takes is less of us so that there can be more of them.

What have you done to let students own their learning this year?

Stories > Data

We had one of those inspiring, motivational speakers to launch our new school year. I am not a huge fan of these types of events, but I did agree with his overall emphasis on telling stories to change the public perspective of schools. The idea of this image came to mind so I made a slide. Presentation slides I like (1)Feel free to share and use. It has Creative Commons license (like everything on this site).

Ferguson vs. Boston

The tragic event of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri have led to protests and rioting against police brutality. It brings to the surface (again) the institutional racism that has always been in our country. I think white privilege causes some to look at Ferguson as an excuse for criminal activity rather than a political protest. A friend of mine tweeted a comment about the looting comparing it to the Boston Tea Party. I made this image.


I think this leads to many questions:

  • What are the similarities between the events?
  • What are the differences?
  • What are the issues that each side is upset about?
  • Why did the people in Boston dress up as Native Americans?
  • What stereotypes does that show?
  • What stereotypes do people have about the way the man on the left is dressed?
  • What is institutional racism and how should it be addressed?
  • Why is the image on the right called a “party”?
  • The event on the right has been mythologized and treated as action by heroes. Do you think the event on the left will be?
  • Should the people in either picture be considered heroes or criminals?

If you choose to use this in class, I would encourage you to have students generate their own questions before you ask them your own. This will both engage them and if you pay attention to what they ask you will be able to gauge their viewpoint on the events in Ferguson. I also would encourage you to follow this up with research of the multiple perspectives of what is happening there.

Common Core won’t double the dropout rate.

Alexander Russo published a post “documenting” that the implementation of the Common Core will double the dropout rate from 15% to 30% according to the Carnegie Corporation. The argument is that higher standards will lead to more students failing and falling behind and eventually not graduating. This argument seems pretty simplistic to me and the claims rather exaggerated.

Credits are based much more on grading practices of individual teachers than the actual content being studied. Teachers will most likely adjust their expectations of what “mastery” of the standards is and how they grade. I suspect that the amount of students passing and failing classes will remain relatively stable to what it currently is.

I would argue that dropout rates are usually based on factors such as boredom, lack of success, lack of purpose in school, and outside of school pressures. So although I don’t believe that the Common Core will have much of a negative effect on graduation rates, I also don’t think that it will have a positive effect either.

If we want to improve graduation rates we need to move beyond WHAT is being taught to HOW it is being taught. We need to change pedagogy more than content. A shift to student centered learning with caring adults is the change that this nation needs rather than a top-down set of national standards and the ridiculous testing that comes with them.


“We do remember. We remember the things that flatter us…Can a state create the kind of memory that say a mother has of a child? You know, a brother has of a sister? When you love somebody right? But you don’t think that they’re perfect but you would, you know leap in front of a truck for them never the less. Can a state have that kind of patriotism? Can that kind of love of a country actually exist? Or is the only kind of love of country where no, no we’re the best, we’re better than everybody else, and you know we’ve never done anything wrong; and if we did do anything wrong, you know, our everything about [us is] good so clearly our best so we don’t even need to talk about it.”     Ta-Nehisi Coates in an interview with Ezra Klein (around the 41 minute mark).

Ta-Nehisi Coates articulates what I have been trying to say in my reflections on my trip to D.C. I think Washington D.C. is just like our textbooks in that they both act like it is un-American to question the morals of our country’s actions or to admit that as a country we have done bad things.

You're not to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face realityThe truth is that America has done horrific things in the world, but is still a great country. We need to get kids to be able to grasp those two things at the same time. This is definitely a focus in my classroom and hiding the ugly side of America is no way to do it.

18m4nhsh16v9jjpgKids engage more with American History when they see it as a complex story of multiple viewpoints instead of as a comic book where America is always the superhero that saves the day.

This is from a long interview about Coates’ great piece on reparations in the Atlantic (a must read before you watch this interview).


Making Heroes-American Style

I am going to do a series about my reactions to a family trip to Washington D.C. These are kind of social studies posts, but they are really about how America portrays herself. So I think they are really about what it means to think critically about citizenship and our “American image and values. Part 1 Memorializing War.

A big part of what Washington D.C. represents is American heroes. From politics to science to human rights we try to remember and honor some of our most important citizens. Just like with the war memorials, I think who we honor and how is revealing of who we are as a country and how we try to portray our values to the world.

20140629_191857Most of the largest (therefore the most important right?) memorials are of presidents. Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson are the big three. What these monuments have in common is their enormous size and visibility from anywhere around the National Mall. The FDR Memorial is large in a more spread out way, but not as ostentatious as the other three. The size and location of the “big three” scream to tourists, “we are the most important Americans ever!”

20140629_180301The MLK Jr Memorial is very large also and has the symbolism of him breaking out of a mountain that I really like. But it is not in a central location and can not be seen from the National Mall. It is kind of hidden, just like how we would like to hide the ugliness that necessitated the Civil Rights Movement. I do like that it is across the lake from Jefferson. That seems appropriate as Dr. King helped fulfill Jefferson’s ideals.

The other place for heroes in D.C. is the U.S. Capital. Every state gets to send two statues of its heroes to be on display through out. I found these fascinating and much more diverse. States are also allowed to exchange these statues if they want to. There were Native Americans, scientists, and even Southern generals of the Civil War.

20140701_132343There is only one statue that was not commissioned by a state, but by Congress: Rosa Parks. The reason is that they did not want her to ever be removed. The irony is that she sits in a spot formerly held by the statue of Robert E. Lee, who was moved to the basement of the Rotunda.

Broken pieces of Berlin Wall on the bottom.

Broken pieces of Berlin Wall on the bottom.

The other statue that made an impression on me was Ronald Reagan. He is in a place of honor in the main rotunda room. If you look closely you can see actual pieces of the Berlin Wall at the bottom of the statue, perpetuating the myth that Reagan was the reason the wall came down. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (wall comes down two years later when Bush is president). A classic example of how we remember “history” how we want to instead of how it actually happened.

So I was fascinated by who we remember and how. All of them are so perfect and majestic. But they are also so sterilized. Where is the Malcolm X or John Brown Memorial? Why do I know that these will never be made? I also found this piece which has the great idea of telling the “rest of the story” (H/T to Paul Harvey) of our heroes. I love the idea of subversive memorials that tell the complete picture of the complicated individuals that we call “American heroes.”

So what messages are we sending to our citizens and the world?

  • Americans are lead by perfect heroes.
  • If you aren’t perfect then you can’t be a hero.
  • We are the founders and source of democracy and freedom.
  • Telling the myth of American exceptionalism is more important than the actual facts of history.

I think these values are also reflected in American History textbooks and most classrooms. I think that we can do better.

Fight Negativity in Ed!

How to fight the negativity in education? Do something!

Trebuchets made at Chinese exchange student camp

Trebuchets made at Chinese exchange student camp

I used to have to work every summer just to pay my bills. I now have enough years in education to make a living wage (not to mention that my wife has an excellent job). So even though I am not “working” this summer I feel like it has been my busiest summer ever.

Why? Because I keep getting involved in sweet projects. So far I have…

  • Planning our school conference NovaNow
  • PBL workshops with districts
  • Chinese exchange student camp
  • Adding math to my teaching schedule next year
  • Having another student teacher
  • Getting more involved with #miched including
  • Presenting at EdCon for MASSP and
  • Launching the #MyParty14 election project
  • three other major projects that are in “top secret” brainstorming stages but should launch this year.
  • Today I went to the first meeting of Groundswell, a local collaboration with Grand Valley State University and schools working on watershed projects. We are teaming up with them to take our water project further next year.

So basically I am involved in so many formal and informal amazing projects that I can’t be negative about anything in education. I am excited about each partnership, program, people that I am working with, and most of all the student impact that I am super pumped right now.

So my advice if you are feeling discouraged? Find ONE (not a dozen like me) project that you can passionately be apart of with your students this year. There are so many opportunities out there if you spend a bit of effort looking. The extra work will be worth it when you see your students complete meaningful work.

AND as you do that good work share it broadly. Let your administrators, parents, community member, and local media know. Showcase your student work proudly! That is how we change the negative conversations about public education in this country.

Jumps off soapbox…

It’s Time to Party Again!

Copyright by New Tech student Adrian Harris

Copyright by New Tech student Adrian Harris

This one goes out to all of my friends that teach in Michigan (although if anyone wants to “copy” and use in another state feel free and please let me know). We are bringing back the election project this fall. It will be called #MyParty14 and will focus on Michigan students designing their own political parties while studying the Gubernatorial election.

After picking the issues that they are passionate about, students will create their own political party, party platform, and make a 30 second commercial. Participating schools will host “primaries” to determine their school winner. School winners will compete in a state-wide election hosted by the New Tech Network and #michED.

More details will be forthcoming, but for right now reserve time in your class calendar for this project in October. There will be many resources and optional activities associated with project for you to choose the depth that you want to go. We also encourage schools to collaborate with each other through things like an online debate. Watch the #MyParty14 hashtag for details.