Critiquing Uptown Funk Teacher

So this video by a teacher and school in the New Tech Network went viral this week. I can’t help but make some criticisms. Where is the content in this? How does this relate to the Common Core Standards? What are students learning? How is this preparing kids for college and careers? How is this activity helping students on their test scores?

Actually I realize that it is a theatre teacher and he is doing his job here (although shouldn’t we cut arts and humanities classes and spend more time propping up math and ELA skills).

So why, if this does not meet all of the things that teachers are constantly being told we must do has this video gone viral?

Because this video is about connecting with students, sharing passions with students, being weird with students, and having fun. It is about relationships with kids. The only videos about standards and testing that would go viral would be people critiquing them.

I guarantee that Scott Pankey’s students love him and I would gladly have my children in his class. So I say congrats to him and A. Maceo Smith New Tech High for showing the world what learning really can and should be!

Teaching as Influence

Disclaimer: This is my path. As I talk about old dreams and how they no longer matter to me, I am not critiquing the people who choose these paths, but rather hoping people see less glamorous roles as important too.

Photo Credit: Reese Chance Photos via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Reese Chance Photos via Compfight cc

I had an interesting conversation this week on Twitter with Josh Stumpenhorst, Michael Doyle, and some others on the topic of whether or not you need to leave the classroom to have a great amount of influence. It brought to mind my focus in my teaching career right now.

I used to be a middle school technology teacher and all I wanted was to get out of the classroom and become an ed tech coach. I really wanted to teach teachers how to integrate technology in their classrooms. Instead I ended up at my current, amazing PBL school teaching social studies and math. I also get the opportunity to lead workshops on PBL. What I know now is that I want to stay in the classroom.

There are many types of influence for educators from social media to presenting at conferences around the country and world. I used to think that I wanted to be the one traveling around giving keynotes. I used to think that bigger was better and I wanted to be a leader in changing education in this country from a stage.

circles.001Now I see influence differently. I see it as concentric circles. For me it all starts at the center where my heart and soul is: in my classroom. My number one priority is to create great learning opportunities for my students in my class. They are the ones that I have the greatest influence on. I especially want them to learn to think critically from multiple viewpoints, dissect bias in sources, and have a sense of empathy. I make this happen through PBL that is student-centered with tons of student voice.

From projects that my students do in my class, influence ripples out to the rest of the circles. I have a strong voice in my school to encourage other teachers to use PBL effectively. Our projects lead to community connections that influence both parents and partners by showing them that school can be done in a better way. I share my projects with the local media helping shape a positive story of education locally. I have had student teachers to influence the next generation of teachers in student centered, inquiry learning.

The next circle is social media. I blog and tweet to share what my students are doing. I participate in amazing communities such as #miched and #sschat. This leads to sharing my students’ work at conferences. I have never been a keynote but I have had many, many amazing conversations with educators over the years where we have learned together. The collective power of a group such as #miched is leading to other opportunities. Many #miched participants including some of my colleagues from school are currently meeting regularly with the Michigan Department of Education. Influence is moving to the political level and I don’t have to be in the room to be a part of it. I am part of the community.

My next circle is PBL workshops. I lead three day workshops on how to transform your teaching to student-centered PBL. This is my favorite PD ever because rather than leaving inspired by a passionate keynote and some fun new web tools, I am able to shift teachers’ pedagogy. That is what really matters to me. I know that every time I lead a workshop that I can permanently shift teacher practice. It also means that I stay in the classroom so that my workshops are based on proven concepts that I am doing. It again goes back to the center circle as I inspire teachers with the great things my students are doing.

My final circle is national. I do care about the federal education policy in this country. I am not connected in any way to political leaders, but I am in a school that is part of the New Tech Network. Through the size of this group of PBL schools, their leadership is able to act as a publicist for my students’ work and a lobbyist for student centered education. They have the connections that I will never have. My students give them the stories to tell about how education could be better.

In summary, I influence my kids, first and foremost. By allowing them freedom to do meaningful work in PBL, my students give me stories to tell to broader audiences: parents, colleagues, community, media, and politicians. First I influence locally, but then it spreads way beyond our schools’ walls.

If I am advocating for anything, it is for more teachers to stay in the classroom. We need good administrators, ed tech leaders, and conference presenters, but sometimes I feel like position becomes more important than real influence. I believe that teachers can be powerful influencers because they should have the best stories because they work with kids everyday.

That being said my challenge for you is how are you an influence? My circles are very intentional, not accidents. I can not pursue every opportunity that comes along. I choose the paths that are meaningful to me. I think everyone should have their own, unique set of circles and like ripples in a pond we will all collide.


We lost a student this summer. He was tragically shot from the back seat while driving his car. The shooter claims that it was an accident and the one other passenger supports his story. Friends and family don’t believe it and the truth will probably never be known.

This happened just days before Mike Brown was shot in Ferguson. It has been heavy on my heart this year, but felt too personal to blog about. This holiday season has really hit me with how many of my students and their families are suffering, rather than celebrating.

It would have been his 18th birthday last week. We had a moment of silence and shared some good memories of him. Many of his friends have really struggled this year to deal with his death. I teach them in a senior math class. There have been days when they break down and can’t work at all. At first I got frustrated by how often that it started occurring. Then I realized that the students needed help. We got them some counseling and they are starting to deal with it in a healthy way.

I haven’t really been able to help these students much. But I am there for them, listen to them, and show up to everything that they do to remember him. I care and they notice. They asked me to help make a memorial (out of concrete, of course) for him at the school. They are afraid that he will be forgotten. We won’t let that happen.

There are many other stories from many other students who are hurting this year. I can’t fix them, but I care and love them.


I am not actually this old. From Seattle Municipal Archives

I am not actually this old. From Seattle Municipal Archives 

I played “varsity” basketball at my small, Christian school. I was a starter in 6th grade, not because I was any good, but because our team was awful and have of us were 6th graders. I loved basketball and it was my life at the time. Thirty years later I don’t remember hardly anything about it except the following two stories.

We played other small, Christian schools but most were larger than us. Two schools that we played was all juniors and seniors that were good at basketball. It was literally men against boys. The first one beat us 104-11. Yup, 104-11. Of all of the athletic things that I have participated in my life that is the only score that I can remember. They also called the radio station and had it reported. They ran up the score on a bunch of middle school kids and never let up. We were humiliated. I was humiliated. I hated that school.

The other school was probably better than the first and also beat us easily. I don’t remember the final score. What I do remember is them letting me drive into the lane and telling me, “You’re open. Shoot it!” They didn’t block my shot even though they easily could have. They were kind. I respected that school.

I know Maya Angelou’s quote has become cliche, but it is still true:

At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.

How will your students remember the year that they spend with you?


IMG_3254 (1)Placed Based Education (PBE) is the idea of embedding learning in a local, authentic context. It is community centered with students addressing local issues. A great example would be this school in Canada. PBE does not ignore bigger, “world” issues, but rather seeks to have students find entrance into them through their own community and local contexts.

I recently went to the Great Lakes Placed Based Conference and it was much more science focused than on any other subject. PBE seems to target science and the environment, but social studies fits it too with a focus on local history. I think the emphasis on science comes from its origins in the environmental movement and it is now expanding to a broader focus. Another key part of this is the idea of uniting science and social studies together instead of siloing the subjects.

Our water project is one example of PBE that I have experienced. One thing that I can definitely affirm is that the local connections and purpose to the project made it more “real” to students than any other project that we have done. I brought a couple of students with me to the Great Lakes Placed Based Education Conference and we shared the project with them.

Some thoughts and observations about PBE:

  • There are many schools doing incredible things in PBE, but the majority of them are not publicizing their projects.
  • Social media is mostly absent of the PBE concept. I don’t see blogposts, tweets, or chats about it. One theory I have about this is that PBE people are more “outdoor” focused than “tech” focused. Not that these things have to be mutually exclusive, but it seems like they are in practice.
  • PBE is heavy on science, but is expanding into social studies.
  • PBE is not really unique. It is a “flavor” of PBL, just like service learning or passion based learning can be (depending on how it is done).

So on the one hand I think PBE deserves more exposure, especially the great projects that schools are doing, but on the other hand I wonder do we really need it as a separate movement from PBL? How many different labels do we need?

“Tap dancing and farting”

The title comes from this great post by Chris Baker Understanding Without Design. Go read it now as it is a great post!

I want to respond to this post that I agree with 100%. The thing is, that although I agree with its philosophy, I don’t often teach like this. I plan out most things in my class from entry event to the culminating product. I already know most resources and workshops that I will do before we even start the project. I do allow plenty of time for research where students discover their own things on a given day and I love it when that happens.

So I guess that I am torn between what I believe and what I often practice. Somehow I feel like there must be some kind of nuanced balance between tap dancing and farting on the one hand and planning on the other hand. Left to themselves some students would do amazing things and others would waste time playing games or texting.

Sometimes what I believe about education seems utopian. Sometimes I feel like I am a prisoner to state standards that I am supposed to teach. Sometimes I wish I had the guts to teach a whole year without plans or curriculum. I know that students would learn and do some amazing things. I also know that we would “hit” most of the standards anyway. But I also fear that some students would slack and not do much. In the system that we work in there is no room for that kind of failure and I would be blamed for lack of structure.

So how do we balance planning with tap dancing?

#MyParty14 Results

The #MyParty14 election project was a great success. Our students participated in the political process by creating their own parties around issues that mattered to them. We had a “primary” at our school and the top ten commercials were shown to local congressmen along with a two minute stump speech.

My students came in second place in the state wide competition, but I know that we “won” because I watched the students get excited about politics and issues that matter to them. Getting students to realize that they have a voice if they choose to use it was the best part of this project.

Here are a couple of news articles about the project: Huffington Post and School News Network. 

Why I am proud of “unpresentable” projects.

In PBL we often talk about the importance of an audience to drive students to produce high quality work. But I think that we need to consider the goals for each project. I believe there is a time and place for a polished, final product and a time for more of a “rough draft,” conceptual, final product. We need to consider the learning goals behind each final product rather than judge it by how shiny it is.

A case in point was our American foreign policy monument project that we just completed. We spent five weeks on this project building up background knowledge that we will refer back to for the rest of the year. Even though we spent weeks on the project we only gave students one week to design and build their monument. We did have an authentic audience of architects, engineers, and designers come and look at the pieces while students explained them.

But the thing is, most of them weren’t pretty. They looked more like craft projects than careful designs. To be clear, I am not criticizing the students here. They did exactly what we wanted them to do. We focused very intently on symbolism and looking at American foreign policy from multiple perspectives including a non-American point of view. We were ok with designs that didn’t look perfect as long as they had some depth in symbolism to them. The picture below is a great example.

Hands for Humanity

Hands for Humanity

It is not all that impressive visually, but if only you could listen to the students who made it. It was one of my favorite pieces and the students showed a depth of understanding of how America acts in the world. Check out their artist statement:

Our monument is inspired by Greek architecture, the WWII fountain, and the 9/11 memorial. Full scale, our monument would consist of marble pedestals, granite benches, bronze inscribed plaques and bronze hands. Our proposed location will be in the Ellipse Circle, in front of the White House, where it can be a reminder to future presidents of both the triumphs and mistakes of their predecessors.  The hands in the fountains represent the US foreign policy, a fist for brutality, an offering hand for kindness, a thief hand for greed, and a hand holding a flag representing the peoples’ nationalism and America’s want to spread a democratic government. The fountain is symbolism for the US having equal parts of both the good and bad things we’ve done. Inscribed on the fountain are various quotes: (Bold emphasis mine).

You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it. -Malcolm X

Maybe we ought to consider a Golden Rule in foreign policy: Don’t do to other nations what we don’t want happening to us. We endlessly bomb these countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us? -Ron Paul

Foreign policy is like human relations, only people know less about each other.   -Joe Biden

Many American pundits and foreign policy experts love to depict themselves as crusaders for human rights, but it almost always takes the form of condemning other governments, never their own. -Glenn Greenwald

We did not talk about any of these quotes in class. The students went out and found them. These students understood the nuance that we were trying to communicate that America is neither a hero or villain in the world, but a country that sometimes does great things and sometimes makes horrible mistakes.

I would argue that this “rough draft” monument is amazing, not because it looks great but because it represents a deep understanding of America’s complex relationships in the world. So rather than focus on the shiny, focus on the purpose that you have for the project.

Recycling Old Projects

"Two sides of the same coin" One side shows 9/11 and the other side shows American acts of aggression.

“Two sides of the same coin” One side shows 9/11 and the other side shows American acts of aggression.

Sometimes old projects can be repeated and sometimes they need a makeover. In the past we did a 12 week study of American foreign policy starting with the Spanish American War (SAW) and ending with Middle Eastern conflict today.  It was too long and students could not see the relevance of the SAW part until the end. So this year we did one project combining SAW and 9/11.  We also read Ender’s Game to tie it all together.

We have always struggled to bring relevance to SAW as it is obscure and not given much space in most classes. We believe that it is vital in showing the beginning of American policy of intervention around the world, often by imperialistic means. We had students explore whether the United States was motivated more by Manifest Destiny or Imperialism through out the past 100 years in specific interventions.

IMAG0220 (1)

“Two hand, one gun” Perspective on our relationships with Iraq

The final product was a monument as “Speaker for the Dead” (from Ender’s Game) where they had to represent American foreign policy from multiple viewpoints including a non-American view. They also needed to have symbolism reflected in their piece. Students were challenged to look at America as not always “good” or a “hero” but consider the complexity of our actions and realize that we have made both good and poor decisions through out our history.

"America's shadow" The shadow of America is on Palestine but as time passes it shifts to Israel representing a hope for balance in our actions there.

“America’s shadow” The shadow of America is on Palestine but as time passes it shifts to Israel representing a hope for balance in our actions there.

Previously students made monuments only based on 9/11 and many of them looked similar. By giving them more options (yeah voice and choice!) we had better variety and deeper analysis from students. We are definitely happy with the results of these “recycled” projects. Sometimes we fail in our first attempt on PBL but often we just need to re-package it in a more student friendly way. Student voice and choice is always important to making this happen.

Do you re-use projects? How have you successfully (or unsuccessfully) recycled a project?