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.

Memorializing War

I enjoyed Washington DC with my family a few weeks ago and have seen most of the famous monuments. We spend time in class looking at the DC monuments during our 9/11 project so I already had certain ideas in mind, but I wanted to see for myself. We went out our first night to see them in the dark.


WWII Memorial at night

The biggest, showiest monuments are right across from the capital and the National Mall: Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and WWII Memorial. They are the pride of our country, centrally located and spanning two miles. These ones are huge and majestic representing the importance of these presidents. The WWII is also “showy” with its central location, fountains, pillars, and lights. Signs ask you not to wade in the pool to respect the WWII vets who are called the “greatest generation.”

Vietnam Memorial at night

Vietnam Memorial at night

On the other hand the Vietnam Wall was dark and hidden and could barely be seen at night. If you didn’t know better one could walk right past it without even realizing it. It is not centrally located. It is in the ground and looks like a “scar” in the hill. The Vietnam War was a national embarrassment and the vets are stereotyped as homeless and alcoholics.

20140628_222203Yet the wall itself has all of the names of those that died that can be touched. It is personal.

Korean War Memorial

Korean War Memorial

20140628_215737The Korean War Memorial is my favorite war memorial. It has amazing statues of soldiers walking. It too has a wall, but instead of names it has soldiers pictures engraved into it. It is powerful, yet beautiful in simple ways. It definitely looks sweet at night. The Korean War has been forgotten by many as a minor conflict of small significance.

So we want everyone to see and admire the WWII Memorial. It is a celebratory place of victory over the evil of Nazism and the hated Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But the Vietnam Memorial has a total different feel. It is somber and does not generate a sense of pride.

This is how America tells the story of these wars.

Is it accurate, fair, or helpful?

Are WWII vets better than Korean War or Vietnam Vets?

Did the U.S. have more selfish motives in all of their conflicts? Should we be proud of war?

How can we separate honoring soldiers from glorifying war?

I respect all veterans but wonder if we are doing them a disservice by how we remember both them and their deeds?

Side Note: I also find it odd that there are not large memorials for the Civil and Revolutionary Wars or the veterans of them.

 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.

Direct Instruction in PBL

I took my daughter to class today. It was the first one of what I expected to be a “hands on” class. But she had to sit and listen for a half hour before she did anything. It was an archery class, and before the instructor was going to give over a dozen, upper elementary students weapons in close corridors, he was going to make sure that they understood all of the safety rules.

Archery is supposed to be fun, shooting at targets, instead she had to sit and listen to some direct instruction. There is a time and place for direct instruction and in this case it was a matter of safety. She did get to shoot later and next time she will get to shoot more.

20140715_101256I am not a fan of direct instruction. I rarely use it in my class, preferring to give information out to small groups in conversations or lead guided discussions. That said I created a “wheel” diagram to show the cycle and relationships of the multitude of causes and consequences of the Great Depression. I taught a twenty minute lesson as I drew it on the board and had students copy it. At the end of the year when I asked students to share their favorite things from the year some of the students brought that up and said that it was really helpful.

You see, the thing is, as much as I believe in student inquiry and learning along side students, I do have more knowledge and understanding than them on most social studies topics. When it comes to difficult concepts such as economics that they have not had a class in yet, they need some help that I can give them. A good lecture can help frame the big picture for further student inquiry and help clarify complex topics.

There is space in the PBL framework for direct instruction when appropriate. The key is to realize that it should be used sparingly and lead to student inquiry afterwards. Otherwise it would be like going to an archery class and never getting to pick up the bow.

My PBL Pet Peeve



Andrew Miller wrote about his four PBL pet peeves. I thought I would share mine:

Shifting to PBL and student-centered learning means that I give up all structure in my class and it turns into a “free for all.”

Of course teachers don’t actually say it like that. Instead I hear things like “how do I make sure that students learn all of the standards” or “in PBL teachers are ‘guides by the side’ so they don’t ever ‘teach’” or “how do I make sure that students are always ‘on task’” or “what if students choose not to learn about math (or whatever the subject is).”

Teachers in traditional settings are comfortable with control and order. They have standards to teach and a textbook to use. Many even have district mandated curriculum and pacing guides. All teachers have different comfort levels in the classroom as far as noise, order, and structure. For those teachers who are “type A” personalities, at first glance PBL is scary because it sounds like the teacher is losing control and students are taking over. While we do want students to take ownership of their learning, PBL is a framework for it to happen. By definition, a framework is a structure. PBL can be very structured (and I recommend a high degree of structure when first implementing and introducing it to students) or it can be looser to fit the style of any teacher.

Examples of the structures included in PBL include the entry event, driving question, and authentic audience. These are created by the teacher and frame where the project is headed. The teacher can decide which assessments will be formative and summative. The teacher also provides workshops when necessary and appropriate and can do them whole class or in small groups for differentiation. The teacher can also introduce other elements of inquiry into any project to bring up important ideas that students might “miss” on their own. Critical friends is an important structure for both teachers and students to provide feedback on their work.

When I first started using the PBL framework, I went very free and unstructured. My students were new to PBL and couldn’t handle it. They needed support. They came to me begging for it so I gave some structure to them that I gradually removed the rest of the year. Through this I learned that we need to ease kids into PBL and over time they will take more and more ownership and eventually tell you, “we got this, we don’t need facilitators to do this.”

In a nutshell, PBL is a structure for student centered inquiry, the opposite of a “free for all.”


Don’t Personalize Learning-a response

Benjamin Riley wrote a post criticizing personalized learning. Dan Meyers agreed. I would like to offer a response. First Benjamin criticizes two “definitions.” I will consider them in opposite order since I agree with his second argument as he presents it.

The second definition he calls personalization of “pace” where students control how fast or slow they learn. I too oppose this if it means students sitting in front of an adaptive computer program and learning at their own speed. I also think that using the same mandated, sterile, and boring curriculum but letting students progress at their own speed will not work. So looked at in isolation, I agree with Benjamin that personalization of pace is not helpful and probably only “works” with students who are self-motivated, high achievers. I also agree with Benjamin that technology is not some kind of magical solution that will motivate kids.

Where I disagree with Benjamin in his argument is his first point of personalization by “path.” My overall critique of this argument is that he seems to make some assumptions that I think are untrue of a good, personalized learning environment. First, the learner is on her pace and path in isolation. I have watched students work in my colleague’s chemistry class where they often are allowed to design their own experiments to test what ever they want. Students form groups of their choice based on the experiments that they are interested in. They work together constantly. They also share with other groups their work and results. Through the public sharing students are exposed to other areas that may not be their “passion” and also see how multiple perspectives fit together to form the bigger principles of a discipline. I have often been asked to come down and watch their results. They are definitely excited and engaged in their learning.

Second Benjamin implies that the teacher is not involved or has no influence. He uses the following quote as his main “evidence” against path personalization:

There is a large body of research which shows that not all learners prefer nor profit from controlling the tasks and that forcing such control on them can be counterproductive…The reason for this is that learners do not have or do not know how to utilize appropriate strategies when they are left to themselves to manage their learning environment (i.e., they do not have the capacity to appraise both the demands of the task and their own learning needs in relation to that task in order to select appropriate instruction). In other words, learners often misregulate their learning, exerting control in a misguided or counterproductive fashion and not achieving the desired result.

(Paul A. Kirschner & Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer (2013) Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education, Educational Psychologist, 48:3, 169-183.)

This quote is accurate in regards to many of my students. They struggle to stay focused, manage time, and many lack research skills. But this is not an argument against “path.” This quote assumes a situation in which kids flounder on their own with no guidance from adults. It is a strawman argument. Teachers should be experts learning along side students. They should be asking questions and yes “pushing” the learner both forward and challenging their assumptions. Personaliztion does not happen in a vacuum but the learner is engaging with the teacher, classmates, and outside experts. The same chemistry teacher, at times puts limits on what science concepts that they need to test. A social studies teacher (like myself) comes along side students researching their personal interests and uses his background knowledge to tie the specific content into the “larger” history context.

Specifically, in regards to the quote, teachers need to teach management skills to students (unless we assume they are all going to work in a factory where they are told what to do).  Students not having these skills is NOT an argument against students controlling their learning path. Our job is to teach students these strategies. We also have to detox students from teacher-controlled classes where they have no voice and choice. Students need to be gradually released into personalized learning and given scaffolding to support them especially in areas of literacy, research, and organization. Just  because students don’t “prefer” it does not mean they shouldn’t be pushed to learn how to learn on their own. I consider teaching these skills to be one of the most important parts of my job.

We have been “doing school” the structured, teacher-controlled way for over a century and it works for a subset of students. Although I would argue against even that statement because grades and test scores does not equal thinking citizens who can think and learn on their own. But a large group has been left out this entire time and it includes the children of color and poverty that Benjamin is worried about falling behind.

Finally whenever research is used to “argue” I wonder what they are measuring? Test scores? I am not interested.

The problem with PBL

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I did a PBL workshop with a local district last week and I have been thinking about the speed of the spread of PBL in schools. I think there is a strong grassroots movement toward student-centered learning, but everything from politicians and the powers that be is toward a controlled focus on student achievement (test prep).

I realized a big weaknesses of the PBL paradigm is that the curriculum is unstructured. Note I did not say that the process is unstructured, which is a misunderstanding that many have. But what students actually study or do is personalized to that group of students in that time and space. So groups like New Tech Network and Buck Institute do a great job selling training and tools for PBL, but you don’t see PBL textbooks or curriculum for sale because that is not how PBL works.

So PBL doesn’t really work for Pearson or other major education publications. They can’t sell thousands of PBL textbooks or “units.” It doesn’t package nicely as test prep. I am sure that New Tech and Buck generate money but nothing in the scale of the major publishers of textbooks or standardized tests. So the publishing giant’s paid lobbyists are not trying to get our politicians to move toward student-centered learning because it is not beneficial toward building their market.

On a personal note when I lead a workshop, my fee is much less than a keynote speaker. I am not getting “edu famous” and I don’t say that many catchy phrases that are tweetable. But unlike most keynotes that excite and encourage for an hour and wear off in a few days (how much can you remember from any keynote even your favorite one? If anything I bet is good stories that they told) when I finish a workshop I feel great knowing that I leave teachers with a framework and a set of tools to permanently shift their teaching from teacher to student centered learning. The intrinsic rewards of spreading PBL to shift pedagogy are very fulfilling.

If only PBL didn’t focus so much on local, authentic, student centered learning and could support an easy way to make lots of money off from students and school systems.

The Water Project


Last spring as it became apparent that Grand Rapids Whitewater’s plans to return the Grand River to a more natural state (removing and lowering dams to restore the rapids) for ecological and recreational reasons were going to come to fruition we decided that our students HAD to get involved. A colleague and myself went to some open meetings last summer to make connections and find a way for our students to participate but failed. We sought out contacts all year and were unsuccessful. So we decided to just do it anyway.

The Water Project was a sophomore project combining American Studies, Chemistry, and Geometry where students would work in one whole class group to redesign downtown Grand Rapids around the proposed changes in the Grand River. Yes, this project had ONE group of 80+ students working together. We made a big announcement to launch it and then students explored three options to pursue: design team, ecology team, or public relations team. Ecology looked at the effects of the changes on the river considering both endangered and invasive species. Design was in charge of redesigning the riverfront which was broken into sectors. Public relations had to research the issues and create a survey for public opinion. The final product was to be a 3D model of downtown GR.



The task required the three teams to be in constant communication with each other. The third day of the project we went downtown and walked the whole stretch of the river dividing the class onto both sides. Students took pictures and documented their assigned sections. It also helped them dream what could be there instead. The PR team surveyed people that they met.


When we got back to school the PR team reported that they had only surveyed 16 people because it was early morning and there were not that many people out. They asked if they could post it on Facebook and promote it there. We said sure.

This is when the project took off. Students took over. Kenzie put it on Facebook and contacted all of the local media. Some of the media posted it. By the next day we had over 300 responses on our survey. Later we had over 700! Next students created their own Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts for the project. We now had a social media branch of the PR team. They targeted news and local people involved in the Whitewater project. There was a buzz among the students as they started making connections and getting attention toward their project. Student leaders emerged and met to discuss issues.


A favorite moment was during a meeting of self-selected leadership team when Ben said, “Wait, we really don’t need facilitators for this. We can handle this ourselves.” Students had truly taken over and “owned” the project. I think it is important to point out here that the reason that these things happened is that the teachers did not over plan the project. We had a big picture idea and some structures in place, but we also allowed flexibility and as the students came up with ideas that branched off from it we just told them to go for it.

Meanwhile the final product had grown to include the 3D model, a website, posters showing details of proposed changes, and an overlaid map of all of the changes in Google Earth. All of these additions came from students as they took over the project.

20140530_103553 (2)The icing on the cake was presentation day (which also was the students’ idea; we hadn’t planned one because we had no audience). Guests included one of the two founders of Grand Rapids Whitewater, people from the Grand Rapids museum, DEQ, and others actually involved in the River Project with the city. All of these contacts came from the social media campaign by the students. Where we had failed to make connections, students made it happen! I have never seen students more motivated! This is the power of a truly authentic audience. Students will respond to work that is real and for a real purpose.

Students learned and demonstrated so many of our SWLO’s (school wide learning outcomes)-collaboration, communication, public speaking, research and information, critical and creative thinking, and agency. Kenzie summed it up, “I feel like when I do projects like this grades don’t matter.”

Here is an album of pictures showing the progress of the project.


I’m an extroverted introvert.



First John and then Trevor wrote about introverts. So I thought I would weigh in also. We were joking at lunch the other day about the fact that we have a large number of introverts on our staff. My principal asked everyone who thinks that they are an introvert to raise their hand. A bunch of us did, including myself. I felt like some people were looking at me funny, like you are not an introvert.

I feel like extrovert and introvert is a false dichotomy. The truth is that sometimes I like to be with others and am loud and opinionated. Other times I crave solitude and my own thoughts. How I act is much more dependent on mood and situation than my personality.

I am a morning person, but I like it to be quiet. In college my roommate and I would get up at the same time, get ready, go to the cafeteria and eat breakfast together. The first words spoken were “See ya” when one of us left for class and that was perfect. Generally I get up and am out the door before my family gets up. On days when they are up I feel stressed by the noise.

At parties or in unfamiliar situations I am silent and in a corner. I like to be around people, but don’t like small talk unless it is about sports. I would prefer to talk about deeper issues like justice, ethics, or philosophy, not exactly dinner party topics.

But in my classroom or with friends and family I am very talkative and sometimes even dominating. I should probably step back and listen more.

I feel like most people are like this. Rather than extroverted or introverted I think most people swing between the two depending on their mood and the situation. I agree with Trevor though that we need to make spaces in our classes and schools for both situations and realize that some students may need a different environment dependent on the day and what is going on in their lives more than their personality.