Monday, January 30, 2017

Why Project Based Learning?

Regular readers will recognize that I'm relatively new to the Project-Based Learning (PBL) method of inquiry outlined by BIE, but not new to the approach.  Looking back on the Cultures Projects my high school students completed nearly a decade ago when I asked them to research an issue currently facing a non-western culture, do something to help that issue by connecting with organizations working on it, and then present their research to our school community, I can see clear connections to the PBL approach in my earlier curriculum designs. Whether you call it project-based learning, authentic assessment, passion-driven inquiry, connected learning, or flipped learning - all of these approaches circle back to the idea that students are at the center of their learning. Students need choice in their inquiry topics and voice in how to share their work with a real audience.  Voice. Choice. Purpose.  These are the cornerstones of the project-based approach.

I have had the opportunity the past couple months to teach the PBL approach alongside my principal to interested teachers in my building during our faculty meeting time. We've crafted driving questions, discussed group dynamics, and brainstormed community connections for our authentic audiences. A number of teachers are getting ready to try their first PBL designed unit in the coming weeks. Excitement and anxiety are swirling. And not just for our teachers. This is not only a new approach for teachers in our building, but it is an entirely new approach for our students as well.

In anticipation of sharing the PBL approach with my colleagues, I designed a mini-PBL project for my tenth grade honors students as an example of what the PBL process looks like in action. In November, my students and I took a hike, circling around our school, wading through milkweed meadows and climbing pine trees.  Why? For our unit on texts focused on the theme of "The Natural World." We were looking for inspiration. Students read works by Barbara Kingsolver, Emma Marris, Walt Whitman, and more.  We used our texts as mentors to guide our thinking and inquiry. And then I presented our driving question: "What is a local environmental issue that you can address?"  We used our nature walks as inspiration to look carefully at what was impacting our local environment.  We noticed butterflies and bees, trees and bats, garbage and water pollution.  So we had to do something to help.

Why project-based learning?  Here's why:

Maddie, Camryn, Amanda, Trinity and Maddie researched and built bee hives with the help of their science teacher.

And, here's why:

Students have real purpose and real audiences for the research they took on. My students taught elementary school students, interviewed hunters, built beehives, made posters to stop littering and promote recycling, tested our drinking water quality, and so much more.

This is what learning should look like.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

One Word for 2017: RESONATE

At the start of the new year, even though school was not yet back in session, my student editors and I kicked off our literary magazine. But this is not your ordinary school literary magazine.  Instead, we were inspired to start a state-wide online and published magazine to showcase teen poets, writers, essayists, and artists in our great Mitten State.  We call ourselves MIteen Writers.  And to inspire the many writers in our state, we started an Instagram account to share daily writing prompts.

Our first prompt:
For the first day of the new year, let's start with just one word. Grab your notebook and brainstorm a list of touchstone words. Which will you select to be your #oneword for 2017? Your one word should serve as an inspiration, a reminder, as a call to action for your year. Share your word below, or better yet, snap a pic of your brainstorm and word selection. We can't wait to see what your #wordfor2017 will be!
When our classes resumed last week, I brought this prompt into my high school classroom. Unlike last year, when I had the students brainstorm in their notebooks and then share their one word on a sticky note tacked to the cabinets in my classroom, this year I had my students add their one word to an index card. Why the change? Because last year their touchstone words lived in my room. And they lived in my room for only a portion of 2016.  Come June, our words were stripped from the walls and tossed into the trash in order to ready the room for a new batch of students in the fall.  For a word, a resolution, or a mantra to have power, it must be present. It must be ubiquitous.

So this year, we added our words to index cards. We decorated our cards, shared them in a gallery walk around the room, and then we tucked them away.  Some students stuffed theirs into the folds of their wallet or the front pouch of their backpack.  Others asked for tape to add theirs to the inside door of their locker.  Still others planned to tape theirs to the mirror at home, pin it to the wall near their bed.

Mine - "grow" - stayed tucked in my writer's notebook for a few days.  I had made my list, just like I asked my students to do, and selected my word.  But I knew something wasn't ringing true. It didn't feel like my word quite fit.  It was headed in the right direction, but it wasn't a perfect fit.

It wasn't until this past Sunday afternoon, when the yoga instructor at the Y asked us to set our intention for our afternoon practice that I figured out what it was.  Sitting cross-legged on my mat, she asked us to let our intention rise as one word inside us. Let it resonate.

And that was it.  That's my word.


Grow was on the right track.  I wanted a word for 2017 that moved me into new spaces, into innovation. But my hope for 2017 isn't that I grab for a wild variety of ideas and watch them grow, hope they grow.  Instead, I needed a touchstone word that called for me to be intentional, to have vision, to ensure that my actions resonated with my priorities and that priorities resonated with how I was spending my time and energy.


It is a word that calls me to reflect on how I am helping my students' voices resonate in our world.
It is a word that asks to me pause, to consider what I am asking of others, what I am asking of myself.
It is a word that inspires me act with empathy, with compassion.

"Empathy is the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others. When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering." - Matthieu Ricard


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Getting our Hands on Nature

Emma Marris's recent TED Summit talk has me dipping back into Richard Louv's The Last Child in the Woods. I remember reading and connecting with Richard Louv as part of my summer institute experience with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. His book, asking how we can foster our future environmental stewards, remains vivid for me. Examples shared in his book of running through the woods as youngsters, imagination hand-in-hand with a do-it-yourself creativity, creating forts and capturing frogs, perfectly capture my childhood.

Back in June, I had the good fortunate of sitting just nine rows from the front of the stage to see Emma Marris share her talk in Banff, Alberta, at the TED Summit. I scribbled furiously in my notebook as she presented.  And there was this moment toward the close of her speech in which she mentioned the wild space growing on an abandoned rail trestle above the streets of north Philadelphia when it all clicked together.

I know this space.  I have driven by it without thinking of it many times.  You can see it when you are riding the Media - West Trenton train (although I still think of it as the R3 line). What Marris highlighted in her speech was the juxtaposition of all the life found in this abandoned space as compared to the concrete school playground that abuts the trestle.  And this got me thinking about my own students in rural mid-Michigan.

My students have a different awareness of nature compared to those students I taught in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  And yet, it is not quite as different as you might imagine.  Yes, the winters here are much more harsh.  My Michigan students are quite used to temperatures that dip below freezing and wind gusts that make it nearly impossible to see the road as a result of drifting snow.  Some of my students live on farms. In fact, there is a small farm on the campus of my school.  Students learn to cut the hooves of their goats, care for piglets, and even castrate the animals.  Many of my students are hunters or have family members that are. A good number of my students, boys and girls, know how to field dress a deer.  Teaching in the suburbs of Philadelphia for thirteen years, I know that I can count on one hand the number of students that had even heard of the term "field-dress".

But here's the thing. When I started my second unit with my current tenth grade students just a few weeks back, a unit focused on our relationship to nature, very few of my students reported spending a regular amount of time in nature on a weekly basis.  I asked students to think about how much time each week they spent in nature.  The response was overwhelmingly, "Each week? I'm not in nature each week."  But here's the thing. They are.  For as much time as my students report spending on homework, sports, video games, binge watching Netflix, they are also outside.  They are hunting on the weekends, waiting for the bus, practicing on the soccer field, running each afternoon on the country roads near their home.  My students defined spending time in nature as time that a person went hiking or visited the state recreational area near our school.  Nature was something that a person went to visit, not something found in our backyards. And my guess is that this is also true for how my previous students in the Philadelphia area would define nature.

This is the point that Emma Marris made in her TED Talk!

So as we started our second unit of study, we needed to get hands on with the nature around us.  And that started with a number of trips outside.  We walked through the milkweed meadow across from our school.  We played with the goats in the barn. We grabbed our writer's notebooks and went outside, exploring the impact our school structures made on the local environment.  Rather than focusing on dissecting the literary elements of the texts included in our unit's study, we opted to use our readings as mentor texts meant to help us explore our driving question: what is a local environmental issue that I can address? We turned our unit on the nature around us into a project-based learning opportunity that culminated in authentic research and local action.

It's research week for us, and we've been getting hands on with our research!  On Wednesday, our tenth graders used a Google Hangout to learn from Ms. Ondrea Spychalski, the Water Projects Coordinator at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. Then on Thursday, we used a Hangout to learn from Ms. Emma Marris (check out the videos below). Students also interviewed staff and volunteers at Ionia's animal shelter on Thursday as they volunteered their time. On Friday, we have a crew of students cleaning the vacant lot in town across from our McDonalds, teaching Rather Elementary students about trees and bees, and we have a group canvasing local businesses about their recycling habits. We are learning hands-on!

Connecting with Ms. Ondrea Spychalski from the West Michigan Environmental Action Council

Connecting with Emma Marris

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Mentoring Failure

I love these conference connections!

I am presenting at the Michigan Google Summit today at Lake Fenton High School on both teaching with TED-Ed and a session on mentoring passion.  I love the conversations that stem from my presentation on the work Christy Brennan and I did on our mentoring passion project, bringing together students of differing grade levels to share their inquiry experiences with one another.  In fact, I was hoping to scale this into a much larger project by putting together an online space to connect various teachers, students, and experts engaging in similar passion-driven inquiry projects across the country.  It was to be my TED-Ed Innovative Project.

But I failed.

Sharing my Mentoring Passion project with TED-Ed Innovative educators in June
I love this presentation, but so much of it is still in process.  It is not a finished project.  I am still reflecting on the role student ownership plays in the inquiry process. As I was presenting today, I revealed some of my pitfalls with my passion-driven inquiry projects and where I was still struggling. I need more time to reflect on where I am stepping into the student inquiry process.  I still spend too much time hunting down expert connections for my students, instead of facilitating opportunities to define and find those experts themselves. And as I shared, a conversation emerged that has me thinking more deeply about changes I want to make in the coming months to our inquiry projects.

Here is what I have learned: I need to open up more space in my classroom for students to talk about their failures. So much time is spent honoring the successes, the students who have done everything we have asked and have come to the conclusions that we expected them to have.  But what are they really learning?  Instead, I need to open up time and space for my students to share their struggles, like I did today, because the conversations that emerged from my admission of failure has moved me forward in my planning and thinking in important ways.  Imagine the power of those types of moments in our classroom.  Instead of teaching students to jump through hoops, we should be mentoring students on how to recover from initial failure.  This is a critical step in innovation. If we want to grow innovation in our classroom, we must open up spaces for failure.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Practicing Poetry

Flickr image the from TED Conference
I was fortunate to be able to attend both Eric Johnson's and Sarah Kay's poetry workshops at the TED Summit in Banff a couple of weeks ago. Both workshops invited participants to delved into the performance aspect of poetry, and for those of us in the classroom setting, consider how we might bring these lessons back to our students. I walked away from both sessions not only with a notebook filled of excited, albeit nearly illegible, reminders of the exercises both presenters lead us through, but I also left with a few drafts of new poems.

High school English teacher Andrew Simmons wrote about the importance of bringing poetry into the classroom in an article published not long ago by The Atlantic:
"Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes."
I couldn't agree more. Bringing perfomance poetry into the classroom, whether via YouTube channels like Button Poetry or through live performances, can help student voice and choice take center stage in our learning communities. Poetry builds bridges; it helps readers and writers to connect and empathize with the particular experiences that connect all of us. Poetry brings into focus our humanity.  So here are ideas I learned while attending the TED Summit workshops to help bring performance poetry into your classroom.

Erik Johnson's session began with Willie Perdomo's poem titled "Where I Live." Erik asked workshop participants to listen for the sensory details the words and phrases of the poem evoked. Using this poem as a mentor text, we then were asked to imagine our homes and make a list of what a person would see, smell, taste, hear, and feel.  I could easily picture this exercise being used in conjunction with George Ella Lyon's "Where I'm From" poem. In a similar way that I've used Lyon's poem, we created a list of concrete images and details which we then crafted into a poem, sharing our favorite lines aloud. The idea Erik presented was about giveing students mentors for their potential slam pieces and deconstructing those models into smaller chunks in order to give the novice poetry performer a place to begin.

Sarah Kay's poetry masterclass workshop also focused on the inclusion of sensory and figurative details in the craft of poetry performance. She started her workshop by inviting participants into a safe-space, asking that we refrain from engaging with social medial during the session in order to focus our attention on the stories unfolding in the room. Our writing began with a prompt which had us creating a list. Why a list? Well, most people don't spend hours each day crafting poems, especially poems for performance. It can be an overwhelming task to ask of students, or in our case, a crowded room of adults. But a list, a list is something we all know how to do. We don't need instructions on how to create a list.

We listed out three things we knew to be true, an activity she used to craft the piece she perfomed for her 2011 TED Talk titled "If I Should Have a Daughter." As we created our lists, Sarah asked us to be as literal as possible, adding in concrete details to help listeners understand the particulars of our truths. Here are mine:
  1. I know that teaching without heart is not teaching at all.
  2. I know that homemade pickles taste better than any pickle you will ever find on a store shelf, especially if the cucumbers are homegrown.
  3. I know there is forgiveness in gardening.
After sharing our favorite truths, Sarah walked us through why this type of list works so well as a starting point for poetry. Lists, whether they are about three things we know to be true or 10 things I should have learned by now, help us access and illuminate all that stuff that is just floating around in our brains. It is being able to toss a baited hook into our conscience and come back with potential writing ideas. Without that starting point, we're standing on the shore and simply hoping an idea will jump out at us. Writing rarely works like this.  A list gives writers a starting point.

So, you've got a list, but now what? Sarah lead us through a discussion and activity meant to elicit more sensory details in our writing.  It is those details and particulars that help readers connect to our writing.  This time we started with an abstract concept - regret. Sarah explained that regret, as a concept, can mean so many different things to different people.  Instead, she challenged us to think about what regret looks like, sounds like, tastes like.  Participants came up with such powerful metaphors to define regret. Regret looks like a trash can filled with crumpled notebook paper. Regret stutters, trying to grasp for words you should have known in the first place. Regret tastes like bitter chocolate. Challenging us to use more sensory details helped reveal a more particular and descriptive experience of an abstract idea. This same exercise could be used with any of those lofty ideals that emerging writers struggle to make sense of - justice, hate, love, sorrow.

After completing this exercise, Sarah had us dip back into our original list and select one truth to add sensory details to. I returned to my homemade pickles. As we added sensory details to capture what we knew to be true, Sarah paused to challenge us again, this time to try to include figurative language as well. How might our descriptions and metaphors do double duty? As I wrote about planting cucumber plants with my youngest son, I challenged myself to describe small moments in novel ways. Sarah asked us to picture a single moment. For me, it was the dirt collected under my son's small fingernails.  And that one moment is where I think my new poem will start:
The smell of earth collects under small fingernails, changing waning moons to full eclipses.
But Sarah's workshop didn't just include writing poetry. We also spent time talking about the art of perfomance. How do you get students comfortable performing their original work for others. This is not a simple task. In fact, the fifty or so of us gathered in Sarah's workshop all tightened our shoulders a little bit when she introduced that we would be standing to share our work.  However, what made it easier was the fact that we started with an improv game. Performance, Sarah stated, is anxiety-producting, but it should also be fun. These two feelings aren't mutally exclusive.  So we pushed our tables to the side of the room and stood in a large circle. She asked us to pick our favorite word from our writing.  Standing in a circle, we were to make eye contact with someone across the room, and at the same time as all other participants, we said our word to the other person. Then we all shouted our word at the same time. Gradually we added movement to showcase our word and send it across the circle. Because we were all shouting and moving at the same time, people in the group didn't feel nervous. It was a game; it was fun. Finally, we went around the circle and one by one shouted and acted out our word.  The catch was that after each person said their word, all other workshop participants had to do the same movement and say the word with the same intonation. However awkward we might have felt, all the other participants had to act it out as well.  And by starting our performance in this manner, we were able to talk about using our voices and body to impart meaning in a playful way.

I am grateful to both Erik and Sarah for sharing their expertise. I'm looking forward to bringing these ideas back to my high school English classroom in the fall.  I'm curious about how other teachers incorporate performance poetry into their curriculums. Please share your ideas and resouces!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Finding Time

I'll admit it. I'm guilty.

I'm a chronic over-planner.

Each class period starts with our opening routines and check-in, review of previous learning, daily lesson activity, and a launch to close the class period. I rely on routines to help my students move efficiently in our learning space and maximize our time together as a learning team. Like me, many teachers learned in our methods courses and classroom management classes techniques for grouping students; we were trained to manage how students interact with one another. A great deal of the art of teaching is managing how class time is used, how students move about the room, and how they interact. The classroom is a very structured setting.

But here's the thing, this might not be the best way to think about our time in the classroom. In fact, this might be one way that we are structuring students out of authentic collaboration.

Attending the TED Summit has me reflecting on the skills I want students to leave my classroom with at the close of the school year. And here's what I now realize: my micro-managing group work is stifling students' opportunity to truly connect and collaborate. Students will never become creative innovators if teachers continue to map out when, how, and with whom students connect. Ideas come in open spaces.

What I am most thankful for is the in-between spaces that this Summit allowed for. It was in the ample time given between sessions, after meals, and throughout the workshops that encouraged all the organic and energizing collaborations and connections. Moments of serendipity and innovation blossomed because we had time to reflect, to connect, and share our stories.

This is what I  hope to bring back into my classroom. Teachers must build in space and time for authentic conversation. No homework questions to answer or worksheets to fill out during a discussion, just space for the informal and the authentic. This is where connection happens, where innovation happens.

There were so many moments of serendipity at the TED Summit. The other evening while attending the cowboy dinner on a ranch in Banff, one of my fellow TIE teachers (we've started calling ourselves the TIE fighters) let me know that another attendee, Melanie, was looking for me. I've discovered this is not unusual at a TED event. Attendees are invested in connecting. When we found one another a few minutes later, it turned out that we had a mutual friend. We took a selfie together for our friend and ordinarily that might have been the end of the interaction, but neither of us had any place we had to be. We weren't eager to rush off. There was time and space to connect. Melanie asked about the TIE program, and I shared a bit about my innovation project for the program - Mentoring Passion. As I explained, I watched her eyes widen. "You're kidding!" It turns out that Melanie is also a high school English teacher, one who is passionate about helping students find their passion. We were able to talk a bit more about our shared passion and have plans to connect upon our return from the Summit.

We all have so many stories like these from the Summit.  In between sessions, we'd run into people relaxing on the lawn and discover a commonality. While in a workshop, we'd hear a presenter share something that we knew a fellow TIE member might also like. We shared our connections in order to build further collaboration. While in a workshop, my fellow TIE educator, Susan Herder, connected with a woman who works as an advisor to actors, athletes, and other creatives. Her role is to connect her clients to philanthropic organizations that support the causes her clients are most passionate about. In the open time between workshops, we were able to grab a picnic table and chat about her role in connecting her talent with the experts and organizations that her clients are interested in helping. It was striking how her work and my TIE innovation project are similar in a number of aspects. We each shared our process for helping people both understand their passion and then connect with the right people in order to learn more. She was able to help me thing through how best to build a network of experts willing to mentor students in the area of their passion. Her advice to look not for individual experts but for foundations and professional organizations with a diverse membership has helped to change how I am thinking about my project. And this connection happened because throughout sessions, in those in-between moments, we were encouraged to connect and to listen to one another's stories. We didn't need to rush between scheduled events; no bell to signal us to get moving. TED left spaces and time for connection. This is what I will take back to my classroom.

We do not honor student stories and ideas when we pack our class time tight with activities. Opening up time and space for students to share and connect is the fertile ground where ideas come into bloom. We need to consider how we are using our class time and spaces to foster collaboration and innovation.

I understand that secondary teachers are particularly limited by the amount of time we have with students each day. My 55-minute class periods are marked at each end by bells. I don't have the luxury of giving large blocks of time for open discussion each day. But there are a number of small changes that I can make in how I use my class time and space to foster organic connections and open up space for innovation.

First, I must consider the physical space and set-up of my classroom. Is my room arranged in a way to foster collaboration? Can students easily move about the room and find the supplies they need? Are there comfortable spaces for students to have small group discussions? Are there spaces for my students to work together on group projects?

Second, I need to consider how I am having students connect. How are students working in groups? Are groups engaged in purposeful activities that will lead to innovation? Am I opening up time for students to explore ideas?

Our class time with students is valuable, and we should be using that time to facilitate the activities that students cannot complete independently at home. Our classrooms need to be places filled with collaborative conversations. Our students need to learn how to speak with one another in order to grow an idea. We all need to make time for time. Let's make our classrooms spaces where students have time to make their own connections, collaborations, and creations.

Thank you to all of the TED community for inspiring me in so many ways this past week!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Framing Innovation

It happens at nearly every conference I attend.

"Oh, I recognize you! It's the glasses."

The thick black cat's eyes have framed my perspective for the last seven years. Sometimes the opposite will happen. If I am not wearing my glasses, students and even friends have walked right by me without a spark of recognition. These frames have become my brand, if you will. It is how people come to recognize and remember me, at least initially. But a conversation at last night's TED Summit dinner has me looking at my lenses through a new perspective.

Amanda Palmer, who happens to be here in Banff for the TED Summit, writes in her book about how her perspective was changed by shaving her eyebrows, a look that has become part of her signature style:
"I found to my delight, that it had the unintended side effect of causing people to look me in the eye. When you have creatively painted eyebrows, people will assume you're approachable and affable, and talk to you."
This has also been true of my black cat's eye frames dotted with silver stars in the corners. I have been stopped on the street and questioned in the checkout line. They are a ready made conversation starter. And as I am not the best at small talk or even introducing myself to strangers, my glasses help me connect immediately. There was the barista who had to know where I got my frames because they reminded her of a picture of her mother, which was a reason I was drawn to them as well. My mother wore a similar pair in her high school graduation photo. The mother who stopped me to share her love of the singer Lisa Loeb (again, me too). My frames are a way to form immediate connections, to share stories, and move beyond simply getting to know someone by asking what they do for a living. These frames introduce me before I even open my mouth to speak.

And last night at dinner, TED fellow Tunji Lardner helped me think through my lenses from a new perspective.

Over our first course, Mr. Lardner asked about the role of the new TED Innovative Educators within the larger TED community. I described the innovation projects that each of us would spend the next year working on. He asked about how we, those of us sitting around him, framed the idea of innovation. What is innovation? The conversation evolved to discusseing how elements of design and innovation are dependent upon a particular cultural lense. Innovation, real innovation, must then both acknowledge that frame and move beyond it. Our culture frames design, frames innovation. What then is innovation at a global level?
Photo by TED Innovative Education YauJau Ku

So now I'm thinking about how my glasses might also serve as a reminder. The fat black frame is always present in my periphery, serving as a reminder for me to check my perspective. I am always aware of the frame through which I interact with the world. My glasses tangibly remind me that I have a particular perspective and perhaps if I want to think outside that frame, I might need to remove my glasses.

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