Design your ideal school: Using skills to complete a task

I have two PBLs going at the moment. This week, I will explore and reflect on the progress of the one in me senior English class. Mind you, these students are those that are quite disengaged with the whole school process. These are the kids who have not found much meaning in school. We go back and fourth about the purpose of school. What I have come to realize form these conversations is that they (and maybe us to a certain degree) mistake “skills” for tasks.”

They seem to think school should teach them menial tasks: write a check (When they say this, I draw a blank check on the board, show them what goes where, remind them that they likely will write fifteen checks a year, and ask if they will never again mention that writing a check is a skill.), how to change a tire (I show them a video on YouTube), how to do this and do that. The list goes on. And in the end, we have a talk about tasks versus skills.

Completing a task takes skills, skills that school teaches through the completion of given tasks. What many schools don’t do well is communicating the skills being used to complete a task and how those skills are used outside of that task.

My first PBL with these students is to design their ideal school (click and you will have access to the assignment and all necessary documents). If you look through it, you will see I make heavy use of the LAUNCH model. LAUNCH-CycleI chose the ideal school so that we could begin the year with an honest conversation about what they expect from school. Especially as they get ready to leave it. I want them the have an opportunity to realize the skills they need and use and have used in order to complete tasks of any levels are skills they will need as they move on.

Part of this is a language issue: I use the words “skills” and “tasks” at every turn with my classes. Along the way, students and schools seem to have confused the terms “skills” with “tasks.” Anyone can complete a task, it is a skill that requires refinement and development. Schools exist to facilitate the learning and acquisition of skills. It is up to the teacher and the school to remind students that the curriculum is naught but a vehicle to teach and utilize and reinforce a skill that can be used beyond math, history, science, art.

In my district, our superintendent has asked that we reinforce what he calls Jeffco Generations. These are closely related to 21st century skills, which many states and districts are tying into a variety of capstones and projects. What’s difficult is many schools continue to focus on “what” in a world increasingly dominated by “how.”  This is where so many of my frustrations come from: when we focus on content and not the skills, many students feel disengaged and lack empowerment.

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I just handed this PBL out a couple of weeks ago. While the PBL’s inquiry is quite structured, so far students are mostly engaged. Many are demonstrating the skills I hope to see. When I have to engage them in some activity outside of the PBL, they moan that they are not working on their ideal school. However, they have realized that the activities outside of the PBL are designed to support their PBL by providing necessary context in order to provide a more solid foundation for their inquiry. Moreover, these activities assist in the skills they should be using to complete the tasks both inside and outside the PBL.

As it wraps up in a few weeks I will post my reflections. Until then, please take a look at the assignment and let me know what you think. Is there anything I can do better? Please let me know in the comments.

 

STEM is a skill, not a curriculum

Occasionally, when thinking without a harness, there comes the time to rant, this rant is brought to you by buzzword creators everywhere. I am sick to death of people jumping on the STEM bandwagon. As a content, STEM means nothing. As a skillset, it means quite a bit as it is a process of “doing,” which utilizes various principles of design thinking.

All good teaching uses design thinking to a certain degree. Principles of design are in good art classes, English classes, history classes, sciences classes, math classes. Just good classes. STEM is not exclusive to the domain of left brain oriented curriculum, in fact, STEM thrives on the right side of the brain, which is why STEM is quickly becoming STE(A)M, with the inclusion of the Arts.

What worries me is when parents will ask a school if it is a STEM school, the principal might invariably say, “Yes, see the sign on the building, it says so right there!” The parent looks at the sign in glee as she believes her child will be given an education focused on a curriculum. And, I fear, that is how it is sold. And there will likely be nothing different offered in that school.

If the same parent asked my school if we are STEM, I would argue that yes, we are. The parent would like to see the sign, and I would argue that STEM principles are embedded in all that good teachers do. My school encourages our teachers to foster some sense of inquiry, and from there develop the principles of design thinking. As well, we are an International Baccalaureate school, which means those classes are developed around inquiry, the foundation of STEM. That, in fact, is the big difference between IB and AP in my mind: IB begins and ends with inquiry and skills, where AP has a tendency to focus on content first, skills and inquiry second.

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Students working on spaghetti towers. After, they reflected on how they used each of the 21st Century Skills.

If you have been following my writing, you know that I am a fan of the 21st century skills. So often, my students tell me that school doesn’t teach them anything they will need in the real world. When they say this, they are referring to skills like writing a check, paying taxes, balancing a check book. When they bring this up, I make a quick demonstration on the board of how these basics are done (with a few snide remarks), and let them know that these are not the skills that they actually need.

The skills they need in reality are not so obvious. The problem is that teachers often do a poor job of informing their classes of the skills they are utilizing in completing a task and what this skill means outside of their classes. If we want our students to be empowered learners, they need to know the skill they are utilizing in the completion of a task to understand content is necessary beyond the walls of that class. Content should be a vehicle to teach a skill that is used outside of that content.

When I had my students building spaghetti towers in class a couple of weeks back, one class got into a heated argument to define assistance. A group used materials attached to the ceiling to provide support for their tower. They argued that it was not different than using tape affixed to the table. Other groups argued that this violated the rules. So I gave groups time to develop their arguments and sought an impartial judge in the form of our calculus teacher, and they presented their arguments to define what is and is not assistance.

When we open our classes to the idea of using content to develop skills, these conversations with students become real and authentic. Students should realize that a class is not so much about the content as it is about the skill and what that skill means outside of that class. I try to be intentional in each class about the skills we will be working on and how these are used beyond the walls of my classroom.

Don’t get me wrong, I love everything STEM. What I don’t like is when schools place a label on their building and claim to be something outside of a normal high school. STEM is developed around skills, not content. Every school should be a STEM school. Even without the label.

Reflecting on recent TOK PBL

As I have noted, in TOK the ‘P’ in PBL is focused on a problem. As I develop my PBL, I think about Jaime Casap who says that we need to stop asking kids what they know, but what problem they would like to solve. And while these are strong students, they are not at the total free inquiry place yet. So I gave them the problem of looking at a root cause for mass violence in our society, and present a viable solution for that problem.

And as I sit here having evaluated their work, I feel like it went pretty darn well.

The highlight of the assignment was when I passed it out and one of my students raised her hand and said: This is not a TOK assignment! I was giddy that they are beginning to realize what is and is not TOK. As any TOK teacher might acknowledge, half of teaching the class is helping students recognize what is and is not TOK. So I led the class to the reflection essay, which is TOK thinking. With this settled, they got to work on their problem: to explore what they feel is a root cause of mass violence and present a viable solution.

I stepped back and listened in on their conversations and their understandings. Over the course of the project, they had been presenting and sharing articles they found which address issues of concern regarding behavior and our understanding of behavior from the human and natural sciences. From these articles, they made connections with causes of mass violence. As they worked on discerning a root cause to mass violence, they pulled some of these ideas out and began to make necessary, foundational connections to address a root cause of violence.

When it came time to present their findings, their biology teacher and our school resource officer were fully engaged. The students were empowered as they owned the learning. All instruction during the course of the investigation had been done, to a certain degree, by them. All learning was their own. So when they presented, the joy was in their voices and their faces.

But, as noted, this was not the TOK part. My goal was that if they had knowledge they produced using the skills of the human and natural scientist, then their TOK reflection would be that much more meaningful. It would have been had I constructed the knowledge question better and more appropriate to their project. The knowledge question I gave them for reflection was: How can language of the human and natural sciences lead to understanding of human behavior? While it is evident how this question emerges from the inquiry, the question was not effective in making the necessary reflection I had hoped. Regardless, they did well from a TOK perspective, though a few missed the “of” in the question, which fouled up their responses, but some made effective connections with their inquiry into mass violence. Others did well in exploring the knowledge issues of language in understanding behavior. Next time I will focus the question more explicitly to their inquiry.

In the end, I am happy with how the project went. When we return in the fall, they will do something similar with math. They will be reading The Universe and the Teacup and I figure they will follow some line of inquiry whereby they use mathematical thinking to derive a solution to a problem. Though this time I will put the inquiry into their laps. With some guidance.

 

Writing to reflect: For the Horde!

Confession: I drive a Subaru Forester. In Colorado this is about as common as a lodgepole pine tree is in our forests. I would be lying if I said I never walked up to another Forester and wondered why my remote wasn’t working to unlock the door. After one last frustrating moment of trying to locate my Subaru in a forest of Subarus (don’t even get me started on trying to find my car in an REI parking lot), I decided mine needed a marker of sorts. Actually, Felicia suggested I should mark it.

Felicia drives a Honda Pilot, which is not as common as a Subaru mind you, but common enough that she has walked up to the wrong car, and has been sitting in her car when another person mistook Felicia’s Pilot for her own. An awkward situation to say the least. So Felicia put a “Sailor Moon” window sticker on her car so as to easily mark it.

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Felicia’s Sailor Moon sticker

This has done wonders for both of us in locating her car in crowded lots. Each time it has been used or each time we would have difficult time locating my car, she would bring it up and tell me I should get a something to mark my car, too. However, I have always had a no sticker policy on my cars, which drove my deceased wife nuts, especially during political season.

But my policy has changed. After a frustrating moment trying to find my car in a forest of Foresters, I decided enough is enough. I spent a few days trying to decide with what to mark my car, and I decided on the symbol for the Horde from World of Warcraft (WOW). 

Before explaining why I chose the decal I did, I need to step back for a moment. I do my best to teach my students that writing to reflect is a process we do in order to arrive at a better understanding of a situation of an issue or ourselves. As our students are young, they have so little upon which to reflect. When we ask them to reflect, it is often thin and superficial at best. We have to remember they are still in midst of deciding their truths and their opinions. I think it was Hemingway who said something along the lines that you can’t write about Paris while you’re still in Paris. I still have a difficult time writing about my deceased wife as the experience is still being processed. Don’t get me wrong, I have written a bit here and there, but nothing I am still working on arriving at some truths and realizations since her passing four years ago. In other words, I am still in Paris.

So, when I decided it would a Horde symbol to mark my car, I thought and reflected on what my years of playing WOW did for me as a teacher and as a person. WOW provided me an opportunity to explore myself as a writer and a thinker. One of my former students, Ben Kendrick (he has no idea the debt of gratitude I owe him), would become a mentor for me as a writer. He was an editor for Gamerant, a website dedicated to video games. Over a few drinks at a mutual friend’s wedding, I told him that I played WOW and shared an essay I had written about it. A few months later, he asked me if I wanted to write a weekly column about the game for Gamerant. I took his offer and for a few years, I wrote a weekly column called World of Warcraft Wisdom (hence my Twitter handle).

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Is there any question as to why I need a sticker?

Those years writing that column shaped me in so many ways as a writer and a thinker. It gave me a platform to explore my thoughts and ideas on culture and the role games play. It helped me hone my skills as a writer. More importantly, it gave me an opportunity to practice what I preach to my students.

There is so much that goes into personal reflection and reflection writing. In so many ways, what makes it difficult for students to find the meaning in their experiences and their views is that they are still in Paris. For many, they hold their opinions and ideas on their sleeves with so little consideration as to where they came from because they are still developing these opinions and ideas. Our students can tell you what they think, but they have a difficult time exploring why they think what they think.

The set up for reflection writing is very important, so much of it comes from the questions we pose as teachers. It’s not enough simply to ask our students to write about a significant experience. I often structure reflection writing through a series of small questions that become larger, open ended questions. After some pre-writing activities and their answers in mind, they are free to put it all together and discern the significance and meaning from whatever it is they are reflecting.

In this essay, for example, consider the questions I have asked and answered about why I chose a World of Warcraft decal to mark my car. From the very simple (When did you play WOW? What side did you play?); to a bit more reflective (How did you get the writing gig? Why did you need a sticker?); to a bit more open ended and thoughtful (Why did you change your no sticker policy, anyway? You’re 49 years old, why the heck are you still identifying with a video game?). And these questions do not even include the meta aspect of this writing!

When I ask my students to write reflective essays after a project or an essay they have written for class, I often use a Google Form to collect their responses and thinking. Each question they answer on the Form gets progressively open ended. The assignment will dictate the questions I have them answer (either for pre-writing or post activity reflection). When they are done and we have conferred on their responses, they are ready to find the meaning of whatever it is that I am asking them to find. They are, in short, ready to arrive at a better, more clear and personal understanding.

When I finally decided that it was time for a decal, I had my choice narrowed down to two decals: the Horde and the Colorado Avalanche hockey team logo. The debate in my head was not too long. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Avs. In the hockey world the Avs are the good guys, everyone else is ok (and then there is the wild (I refuse to capitalize their name), who are just plain wrong). But when I think about what has played a more significant role in shaping who I am today, there was a clear winner. Mind you, I have not played WOW in quite sometime, but I still consider those years writing and playing formative in my understanding as to how popular culture functions in our lives and beyond us. I came to realize just how significant popular culture is in shaping us as individuals and as a people. I often wonder about the interplay between popular culture and reality and the push and pull of those.

In part because of World of Warcraft, therefore, I came into my own as a writer, a thinker, an observer, a writing teacher.

Tell me, how do you encourage reflection in your students? Leave a comment below.

The check box syndrome and why we value the process over the product

A couple of weekends ago I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton. I hold season tickets to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (a great value, actually) and this season’s package included Hamilton. For the past two years, Felicia and I have been to many shows and this one seemed a bit more crowded and busy than normal. We couldn’t quite figure out what it was as we had been to many other sold out shows since we started going on a regular basis.

Before the show, there was a larger than normal number of people taking selfies (any picture taking in the theater is forbidden). Mind you, these were not your run of the mill selfies. They made sure they covered all of their bases to prove where they were. They had selfies holding the program. They had selfies with the stage in the background. They had selfies with anything Hamilton in there.

And I asked in my head, how many of these people were at the show so they could do the metaphorical check list of things to do before one turns in this mortal coil. I wondered how many people that evening missed out on the full, honest experience of going to a show in order to check going to Hamilton off their list. As my classes tend to be on my mind more often than not, I wondered how many of my AP students are in the AP class in order to check taking AP English off their list and end up missing out on the experience of completing a project or a class.

If you have ever been to the Louvre in Paris, you have been rushed past the Mona Lisa. In doing so, perhaps you missed the Titian piece hanging behind it (this from the days when she was not in her own room). When we do something because it is what we are supposed to do, we often miss out on the honesty of the experience. By honesty of the experience, I mean that idea of taking it all in, doing something because we truly want to, not because it is what we are supposed to do. When I wrote my post regarding colonization, part of the question in my mind is if my students take my AP class because that is what they are supposed to do, they don’t seek the experience of growth, they seek the badge of AP. They seek the credential, the grade. All of this takes that metaphor of colonization a bit further.

This harkens back to my struggle with grades and grading. I have been working with my students this year to focus on the process and not the product. And for many students (and teachers) this is a tremendous leap in thinking and understanding (again, for both students and teachers). They have been brought up in a system that focuses primarily on the end product and the content. I am working the help my students realize that their education should be more about the process and the skill acquisition, not the product or the grade.

This is brought up by George Couros who quotes A.J. Juliani and John Spencer’s book Empower:

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.

This is where focusing on process and 21st century skills comes into play. By keeping our students and teaching focused on these two items, the hope is that students will see that school has relevancy beyond the classroom door. While I freely admit to my students they will never, ever write a literary analysis beyond the confines of a classroom (unless they become English professors or literary critics), they will, however, use the reasoning and critical analysis required to complete that writing throughout their lives in any endeavor (I will engage my students who work at Wal-Mart into role playing with me as the customer and they are helping me to decide a product. The rest of the class will explain the deductive and critical thinking skills the student went through to compare and contrast products). The same goes for math. The same goes for history.

Ask yourself as a teacher, what are the skills your students need to complete an activity and where are those skills used beyond your content and your classroom. How are those skills necessary in the process?

If we focus on skills and process, I hope that no class becomes a check box for a student. I hope that when they leave my class, they realize that it was about the experience. I hope that they are willing to look around when in the midst of checking a box to realize that there is so much more happening around them. As nifty as it was to see the founding documents at the National Archive this past summer, it was so much more fun to try and find those damn eagles placed around the room (I think Felicia and I missed one or two before we were forced out of the room).

What are some ideas you have in helping your students focus on the process? What do you do to focus your classes on the process and not the product? Let us know in the comments.

PBL in TOK: reflection and what to do with the knowledge you created

I have been working on adding a project based learning (PBL) component to my theory of knowledge class (TOK). The easy part in developing PBL in TOK (if you are in an IB school, acronyms are part of the process, and this last sentence is normal. If you don’t teach in an IB school, my apologies for the acronyms) is coming up with project ideas, the difficult part has been designing effective plans to meet the needs of TOK and provide robust, authentic projects beyond a presentation that lead to TOK thinking.

TOK makes up part of the core of the IB Programme. In order for a student to receive his or her IB diploma, that student needs to succeed in TOK. It is a class where students ask questions about knowledge as knowledge arises from real life situations. In doing so, students ask: What knowledge means, where it comes from, how it is acquired, created, produced, and so on. TOK, therefore, is a class that revolves around epistemology.

While I have been working out how to implement PBL in my TOK (and all of my classes, for that matter), I have borrowed heavily from John Spencer and  A.J. Juliani, their book Launch, as well as the Buck Institute for Education. In the process, I have been putting together a unit planning template from all those resources that also brings in IB requirements. I think I am finally nearing my first use of it all.

As I have been working on PBL in TOK, there has been a nagging feeling that something was missing. I have come to the conclusion that education is most effective when students take the necessary time to reflect on what they have done, what skills they used, and the impact those skills might have in and outside of class. This is essential in IB, as one trait from the IB learner profile asks that students be reflective. And so when it comes to PBL in TOK, I have realized the TOK thinking must happen in the reflection process.

Here is the way I see this happening: present students with a a problem as it  arises out of a real life situation (this is TOK language) from the world outside of school. Have the students use knowledge, information, and skills from one of their content classes to address the problem, go through the LAUNCH process, design a project, implement, present, and reflect. While this does not look so different in any for of PBL they would do in history or math (for example), TOK, therefore, must happen in the reflection and presentation. It is here where they will address the knowledge issues  they encountered during the completion of the project.

IB asks for students “to consider the world” and their “own ideas” in the reflection process. In addition, students are asked to reflect on their “strengths and weaknesses” in order to support their “learning and development.” Imagine asking students to add this to their reflections: “What can you create outside of TOK (or whatever class you might be using PBL and reflections) with the knowledge you have acquired from this project?”

And there it is. Without any real warning sign, I feel ready to implement PBL in TOK. The necessary reflection, which will include necessary ideas for TOK, such as an exploration of the knowledge issues they encountered in completing the project and other TOK themes.

What kinds of questions do you ask of your students when they reflect on a unit? How do you use this information? I look forward to an exchange of ideas in the comments.

Collaboration and the frame of mind

I am a fan of adjusting student groups in my classes. Of course, this drives my students up the wall, but the work I get out of them when they are in groups I set up can be wonderful. When I told my AP English Language and Composition class that I was putting them into groups, they balked and groaned. But, they moved to their assigned spot for the day.

With the students newly organized, I turned on my doc cam and projected a page from my notebook. At the top of the page I had written “What collaboration looks like.” In the middle, written in large letters, “A group of people gathered for a common purpose.” The rest of the page was empty.

I asked them what they feel like collaboration looks like. I poised my pen over the page ready to scribble. And I waited.

For 15 or 20 seconds the silence was deafening. I did not want to start this conversation. I wanted this list to be on them. Finally a kid chimed in: discussion. Good, I say. Tell me more about that, in a collaborative environment, what does discussion look like? A few students suggested some details about the idea of collaborative discussion in small groups. From there, the list took shape and the map filled up. We talked about the role that compromise, performing at the best of one’s abilities, leadership, and ego play in effective collaboration. Most importantly, we pulled this away from school and talked about what it looks like in sports, on a stage, at work, at home.

We talked about what usually happens in classes when they are asked to collaborate. They divide the work up between them, do their own part individually with little communication, and compile their work into one document. They agreed that this is not collaboration. They will readily agree that all they want to do is get their work done so they can move on to better things like Snapchat.

With the mindset established and roles assigned (scribe, researcher, and speaker), students collaborated in small groups with the purpose of using our unit question (What role do social institutions play in determining the level of power derived from authority?) in order to develop a stronger understanding of the arguments presented by Machiavelli, Thomas Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The conversations were insightful and productive. I wandered about my room and heard students seeking more depth from their peers as they pushed for deeper understanding in their responses.

From here, we switched to using their collaborative mindset to developing skills and approaches for the AP exam in May. Again, they collaborated and pushed for deeper and richer understandings in order to present a more compelling analysis.

I sometimes forget the importance of getting them in the right frame of mind for working in class. I teach in 90 minute blocks and to spend the first 10-15 minutes helping them to get into the right frame of mind is well worth it. As noted in my post on skills over content, if I want them to utilize these skills in class, then it is upon me to spend the necessary time in order to help put them in the right mindset for using those skills in class. So, rather than a bell ringer activity or whatever they might be called, I wonder if we would all be better suited by letting students know of the skill they will utilize that day and what it looks like.