Why “off task” is OK

By McQuinn https://www.flickr.com/photos/mcquinn/2302823476/in/gallery-38392447@N05-72157623450240233/

By McQuinn https://www.flickr.com/photos/mcquinn/2302823476/in/gallery-38392447@N05-72157623450240233/

My friend Russ tweeted this quote (questioning it):

“Every spare moment in our classrooms should be packed full of engaging, learning opportunities.” from The Edvocate.

I replied that I’m ok with students being off task sometimes. You see no one is always “on.” We all get distracted sometimes and we also need brain breaks. This may not have been the point of the post, but I often hear people talk about students like they need to make sure that they are working hard on what they are “supposed to be doing” every second of the day.

I think that there are a couple of dangers with this attitude. For one the teacher can become a taskmaster that is always policing the room. The teacher then is seen as an adversary by students, rather than someone to learn with. I think this kind of teacher often rarely reflects on the types of activities in their class and whether boredom is the cause of the off task behavior.

Secondly we miss the opportunities to teach students self management. Rather than worrying about whether students are on task we should focus on teaching students to set deadlines and meet them in regards to their projects and work. Successful students already so this and are viewed as “good” students by many. I wonder how many of our “struggling” students are really just students lacking organizational and time management skills?

In the past I have not done enough to seek out the reasons why students are not meeting deadlines. This year I will conference more with students who fall behind and facilitate a conversation to help them figure out how to keep up in class. I will support them in organizational skills as needed.

Finally, sometimes it is ok to just have fun in class for no specific reason. As Dean Shareski always says we need more joy in schools. Sometimes that does not look like a learning experience, and that is ok. Humor, joy, and relationships are the building blocks of trust that will allow deeper learning later. Humans were not designed to always be working. We need to remember our students’ humanity.

If we really want to close the achievement gap

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raylawni_Branch

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raylawni_Branch

What drives me crazy about conversations about the achievement gap between minorities and whites is that we don’t talk about the causes. Before we get to solutions we should look to why the achievement gap exists. The thing is, that conversation is uncomfortable. I see three main historical reasons that are intertwined racism, poverty, and segregation.

Everyone knows that during the Jim Crow era, blacks were forced into separate schools that were inferior in every way to white schools: resources, buildings, money, teacher training, etc. Segregated schools were definitely not equal and put blacks at huge disadvantages. Segregated schools contributed to huge income gaps (along with institutional racism such as redlined housing and unfair hiring practices). So today we have a legacy where many blacks live in poverty and still attend defacto segregated schools in urban areas due to white flight to either the suburbs or private schools.

So how should we proceed based on these historical causes of the achievement gap? Well there actually is evidence (and here) of some successful ideas to close the achievement gap through integrating schools by busing minority students to white suburb schools or other ways of desegregation. Unfortunately there is about ZERO support for this type of program. Why? Partly because of the costs of the busing, but mostly the vocal complaints of white parents who don’t like it.

Researchers know that integration leads to all kinds of positive effects for blacks and also does not “harm” white achievement (I would add that it would have many benefits for white students being more understanding and empathetic of blacks).

The other thing that we could do as a society is address the wealth gap and actually do something to help people make a living wage and get out of poverty as we know that socio-economic status is the most important factor in measuring student achievement. Of course, blacks are disproportionately poor due to the same historical factors of segregation and discrimination.

Why don’t we address integration of schools and poverty? Well for one they would require the government to actually do something and many whites would oppose these actions with thinly veiled racism. These problems are outside of the control of local school districts and would require state or federal involvement.

If we really want to leave No Child Left Behind, we could start by fixing the causes of the achievement gap instead of blaming urban schools, teachers, students, and their parents. Instead we punish failing schools and closing them we could integrate schools and address the problem of poverty.

Pitch Perfect



I had the privilege of joining Michigan Educator Voice Fellowship and attending their convening last week. I wasn’t 100% sure what I was getting into, but I really enjoyed the two days. As it turns out the purpose of this organization is to support teacher leaders and to amplify their voices. Pretty cool! The best part was meeting and connecting with other leaders from across the state of Michigan.

My favorite part of the convening was a session on creating pitches to use when talking to state legislators. Creating a short, powerful pitch is not something that they teach you in pre-service education or anywhere in education that I have seen. I loved the emphasis on stories that connect people to your message. I struggled a bit with the initial hook part, but after seeing an example from Melody Arabo it quickly came to me. We practiced our pitches taking them from two minutes down to fifteen seconds.

As I reflect on the importance of a good pitch, I see it as a vital skill that teachers should use all of the time. We should be “pitching” the new projects to students with great entry events tied to a story. We should use pitches to parents to help them understand how our classes are different from the school they went to and why. Having a pitch to share a new idea with colleagues, administrators, and school boards could be very effective to gain consensus. We should be able to pitch our class projects to local business and community partners to motivate their involvement and support.

Sometimes educators feel they need to be humble and servant like and pitching feels dirty to them. The truth is that teachers need to stand up and speak out for what is best in the classroom and for their kids. Pitching shouldn’t be about promoting yourself but about promoting your students’ work and about the best kind of schools that we can create. When considered in that light, one can be humble and pitch important ideas at the same time. I would go for far as to say that we have an obligation to start pitching positive stories about education to change the negative stereotypes in this country.

Break Protocols with a Purpose!

blog pics.002

blog pics.001

Teachers love to establish protocols at the beginning of the year and in general it is a good practice. We need structure in schools but I feel like there is often an overemphasis on rules that is based on administrators trying to control teachers or teachers trying to control students (same exact phenomenon really).

I have spoken out against standardization and structure at times, but it has a time and place. For example when I drive my car I am very happy that we have rules about driving: which side of the road, how to signal and make turns, and slow drivers in the left lane!!!!! Without these protocols I would probably be dead. Protocols around safety make sense and are imperative. In the classroom we need protocols to establish safety for our students and this is especially important for their emotional safety.

The counter example is a chef. There are protocols for proper cooking techniques. There is a science to how to prepare food properly so that it is safe and delicious. My wife and I often watch Chopped. The format of the show is that it is a competition where contestants are giving 4-5 mystery ingredients that they need to turn into appetizers, main courses, and desserts. The chefs on the show never make the same dishes because cooking is also an art. If they do the science wrong, then the dish can be a disaster. But if they do the science right, but don’t personalize it into a unique dish then the food can be bland and boring.

Teaching is like being a chef. It is an art and a science. There is a science and a structure behind good teaching (PBL is my favorite structure :). I do not believe that teachers should just show up and “wing it” everyday. On the other hand, if we truly believe in student voice and choice then we need to have some flexibility in our classrooms. Protocols and rules need to be able to change and adapt to the students’ needs in our rooms. If you haven’t started school yet, then you have no relationships to build protocols on. Too much structure and protocols can stifle creativity and learning.

I love comparing the African proverb with the Picasso quote at the top. Breaking protocols for no purpose makes no sense. But when you really understand what you are trying to accomplish then you will start to recognize when protocols are getting in the way. My thermometer is to ask myself if the protocol limits student learning through voice and choice. If yes, then I need to consider other ways to structure learning.

Final thought: build protocols with your staff or students. Don’t force structure on them!

How Do You Plan to Trust Students This Year?

hall pass

From http://www.efestivals.co.uk/forums/topic/164728-t-minus-and-counting/page-74

I have been thinking a ton lately about the start of the school year including what I want to do on the first day, but especially about building culture.

I really think many teachers underestimate the importance of culture in schools and classrooms. In my opinion everything about the experience is culture: what we say, how we say it, what we never say, architecture, furniture, lighting, tone of voice, body language, what we do and don’t do, what students do or aren’t allowed to do. Every interaction and activity is a part of our culture and creates the “norms.”

Many teachers have shifted from a syllabus and the “rules” the first day of class to community building and things like designing social contracts together. I applaud this, but it is not enough! If we all agree to be responsible, but you never trust students then you are undermining the culture. If we agree to respect one another but then you micromanage every part of the class then you don’t really respect your students.

What students need from us is trust. Too often we start off the year with an assumption of negative behaviors from students that we need to cut off before they happen. Students will be off-task, misbehave, and waste time. The truth is that they probably will sometimes. But the danger of starting the year with this assumption is that it starts with a negative expectation. The other truth is that students will do amazing things that you never expected and teach you things, if you let them. Let’s try focusing on this instead the first day.

An example from my room is that I always tell students (10th grade) that they are not allowed to ask to go to the bathroom or get a drink in my class. I always say it in my most serious tone with a dramatic pause. Then I say, “Just get up and go if you have to go. I am not here to babysit you for basic human needs.” My starting point is assuming trust and responsibility.

I understand that this example might not work for your specific situation, but what can you do to communicate a starting position of trust, respect, and responsibility rather than expectations of poor behavior?

The Best Project That We Will Do This Year!

My pastor was talking about exploring your passion today and played this viral video-a tribute by passionate fans asking Foo Fighters to come to their little town in Italy. I have been wondering how I want to start off this year and this made it all click for me.

The first day in class I am going to share some videos of young people doing amazing things that they are passionate about. I haven’t figured out which ones yet, but definitely want young people doing things for the good of others. If you have a great suggestion I would love to hear it in the comments.

Then I will share with the students about the best project that we are going to do this year:

I want to tell you guys about the best project that you are going to do this year. It is going to be so incredible and life changing for the audience. It will change your lives too as you make sacrifices and make a differences for others. I can’t tell you very many details about it today though. It is kinda a secret. Not so much a secret from you, but from me. 

You see, the thing is, I can’t tell you more about it because I don’t know anything else about it yet. Last year you did some incredible projects like design tools to help refugees and made documentaries to honor WWII veterans. You were in your first year of PBL and those projects were designed by your teachers. You are no longer freshmen.

This year the best project will be when you take over this class and decide to do something amazing. The teachers are not going to come up with the purpose, product, and audience. You are. This is your year to take charge of your learning and to do something to change the world. The “real world” is not some future place but is our classroom and you will change it starting now.

We will spend a lot of time the rest of the first week building culture in our class and establishing the need to be a critical analyzer of bias. I know the culture that I want to build with students, but this first day is all about setting up proper expectations.

My expectation of my students is that they will be passionate and want to be active citizens who make a difference in the world.

Once students understand this then I can’t wait to be amazed by what they decide to do!


Come Work with Me at a Great School!

My teaching partner is changing careers and leaving education. So there is an opening at my school for 10th grade ELA (must be ELA certified in Michigan or equivalent) in an integrated American Studies block. The bad news is that you will be my partner :) The good news is that I teach in an incredible PBL school that is fun to work at. So if you want to teach in an out of the box, PBL school that is student centered, check it out!

Job Posting link


ELA and Math should NOT Drive Curriculum!

Photo Credit: Bryn Pinzgauer via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Bryn Pinzgauer via Compfight cc

Everyone knows that ELA and math are the focus of standardized testing so hence the focus of the majority of schools in this country. Reading, writing, expressing oneself well, computing, and using logic are all extremely important skills that every student needs to acquire to be successful in life. We definitely need to make sure students are mastering these skills.

But that last word is very important. ELA and math classes and standards are built around skills. The content of these classes are almost exclusively skills that can be applied in many different contexts. Curriculum should not be built on skills but on content that is relevant to students because it is authentic, motivating, or personal.

That is why I thing schools should focus their curriculum on science and social studies. These classes hold the interesting ideas, problems, and concepts where the ELA and math skills can be developed. Any good science will lead to experiments that require logical thinking and mathematical computation. Social studies requires extensive reading, writing, and analyzing skills. To be honest ELA skills should be integrated into every class. That is why we see movements like reading and writing across the curriculum.

To be clear I am not saying that there is nothing of value or interest in math or ELA as they stand alone. But I fear in isolation these classes only appeal to students who love literature, writing, or algorithms. I think there is a danger to our silos of curriculum that focus on ELA and math test prep that is boring and irrelevant.

If we want all students to be motivated to develop ELA and math skills we would do well to design curriculum around science and social studies issues into interesting PBL projects. Then we will give students authentic reasons to use the ELA and math skills. We might be amazed at how students would grow when given the chance to do “real” work right now, instead of some day when they are old enough.

On Being Foolish

In A Whack on the Side of the Head, Roger von Oech recommends being foolish to stimulate creativity:

Look at the problem before you and say, “It’s not what everyone thinks it is,” and then give a different interpretation of what’s going on. Deny that the problem even exists, or maybe solve a different one. Doubt the things that others take for granted. Ridicule your basic assumptions. Expect the unexpected. Ask the stupid question that nobody else seems to be asking. Do whatever you can to shatter the established way of looking at things. You’ll find that it will stimulate your creative juices.

Where in school is there room for this kind of thinking? It won’t help kids on standardized tests. It might lower their grade on an assignment. Some teachers might feel disrespected or irritated.

It also might lead to new understandings of content and life. Students and teachers might come up with imaginative solutions to problems. As a side effect students might not be bored and might find school fun and relevant.

What does PBL look like in U.S. History?

I team teach American Studies, an integrated class of U.S. History and 10th grade ELA in a full time PBL environment. We have a daily, two hour block and students get two credits for it. This past year was our third year of this class. I often get asked about scope and sequence of the class. So I made a table overview of our class projects to give other teachers ideas of how to teach a thematic, PBL social studies class.

This is not meant to give out every detail of the projects, but rather to give ideas of themes, DQ’s, products, and audiences that others can adapt to their own local situation. I have also included some links to blogposts and other resources about certain projects. This is also my projects from last year only. My projects for next year will have some repetition and some new ones. I like to keep projects that go well and especially ones with good community partnerships. But I don’t like to keep everything the same as that gets boring for both me and students. Also the students change every year and there needs to be voice and choice each year.

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or@mikekaechele onTwitter.