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.

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


from blogdailyherald.com

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.