This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Lee Cristofano
This past Spring, I was invited to co-facilitate a workshop for some colleagues regarding a piece of technology that teachers might use in their classrooms: a camera that captures 360° photos and videos. I received my camera courtesy of the Carnegie Mellon CREATE Lab’s Fluency Project two years ago. I remember leaving that meeting and running all over the campus of CMU, taking dozens of pictures with this new camera like a tourist in a strange land. I couldn’t wait to get home to download all the pictures to my computer and explore. Struggling through typical Parkway West traffic would be especially bothersome.
I have used this camera for quite some time both at home and in the classroom, so I had no hesitation in accepting the offer to facilitate. The CREATE Lab team set up a time for a conference call so we might review the expectations for the workshop. In the days preceding, I did what I thought any responsible teacher should do: I planned to prepare lessons, make some handouts, anticipate technical issues and create several final products to show my colleagues.
And then we had the conference call. The objective of this workshop was, in fact, not to have every participant be proficient with the camera after an hour-long session. Rather, the objective of this workshop was somewhat the opposite: Let the participants play! Let them be curious as to what this strange piece of technology is. What does it do? Where do I even turn it on? What would happen if I push this button? Why is it blinking? What does this flashing icon mean? How do you take a picture, and where does the picture go? Now what? And ultimately, where might I use this in my teaching? In education speak, we would be taking a constructivist approach to learning.
Reflecting on our conversations, I had two new thoughts: First, a favorite book by Richard Feynman titled The Pleasure of Finding Things Out popped in my head. About winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, Feynman wrote, “The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery…” Secondly, I remembered all the fun I had running around campus, taking pictures, rushing home to get them downloaded to the computer to see exactly what I managed to create.
Had I followed through on my original plan, demonstrating the camera’s workflow, showing my own work and implementing a rubric of what a satisfactory, good or excellent finished product should look like, I would have denied my colleagues the pleasure of finding things out. The joy of figuring out how something works on your own. The intrinsic joy we all feel when we master a monumental task, and the joy of learning how to use a new tool in your own way, not just the way someone else thinks is the “proper” way to use it.
After teaching for 25 years, I wonder… Have I designed my classroom instruction for optimal efficiency, delivering maximum content in minimum time? Have I spoon-fed my students all the knowledge they would need just so they could meet curriculum goals and pass assessments? Have there been times where I denied my students the pleasure of finding things out?
This is the first of hopefully many blog posts by a partnering cohort member.
By: Zac Shutler
Hard Skills to Learn: LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner says the biggest skills gap in the US is not coding
As a school superintendent in the state of Ohio, I get the opportunity to attend numerous conferences that stress the importance of “preparing students for careers that don’t yet exist.” These conferences are led by many intelligent people from the state education department and by various officials from universities across the state. When they begin these lectures and they use that phrase about preparing students for careers that don’t exist, two thoughts immediately come to mind. The first is: “It is impossible to prepare someone for something that doesn’t exist.” And the second thought is: “Isn’t this a challenge that our society has always faced?” I believe that is why this article by Simone Stolzoff resonated with me.
Prior to entering the administration side of education, I was a high school social studies teacher. My role was to discuss issues of the past with our students and connect those lessons to our modern lives. One example is how Guttenberg’s printing press changed the way that books were consumed and put many calligraphers out of work. Another example is how prior to Carl Benz inventing the first automobile and Ford’s assembly lines making the vehicles affordable, city streets were over crowded with the horse and buggy model of transportation that came with pollution problems of its own. A more recent example would focus on how the internet and Amazon have changed the game for traditional retailers. What I am saying is that public education did not specifically train students to create these technological shifts, nor did they prepare people to fill the jobs that these new industries created. What the combination of formal education and supportive parenting did do was give our kids the social and emotional capacity to adjust and meet whatever challenge or change the world had to offer.
When I reflect on my time as teacher fifteen years later, I see how understanding our past validates my belief in the ever-evolving nature of technology and how the education system and more importantly, families, have instilled timeless principles into the next generation. I believe that it is a growing concern that the standardization of the American education system and the toxic stress that many students face at home is threatening our ability to meet the next wave of challenges. In his book, How Children Succeed, author Paul Tough details the importance of “non-cognitive skills” or, as the article refers to them, “soft skills.” These skills can also be referred to as character traits or grit. Whatever we want to call them, research shows us that these principles can be taught, and we are missing the mark in education if we don’t make the concerted effort to educate the “whole person,” especially for our students who are immersed in “toxic stress.”
In closing, I would like to share a brief story that started me on a path of personal growth. First, I was blessed with supportive parents that modeled leadership through their actions. Not every child is born into a situation that lends itself to a strong foundation built on universal principles. Even though my parents modeled personal leadership, I did not think about it, study it, or realize I could improve as a leader until I took a course during graduate school at Franciscan University. I can’t remember what the title of the course was, but we mainly studied Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In short, it changed my life and improved me as a person. A story that always stands out to me from one of Covey’s books is the story of the ship and the lighthouse. The ship is on a collision course with what the captain believes is another vessel and the ship’s captain is desperately radioing for the other object to change course. The light house represents universal principles that are unchanging. They do not move and are effective in any era. Principles like: Commitment, Courage, Generosity, Initiative, Listening, Integrity, and Teamwork. Modeling these principles at home and within our educational system will prepare the next generation for the “careers that don’t yet exist.” They always have and if we are vigilante, they always will. Modeling universal principles and teaching social emotional intelligence to students who are lacking those skills is imperative.
One of my favorite authors, Ryan Holiday, summed up the importance of these skills with a powerful message. He wrote, “To whatever we face, our responsibility is to respond with: hard work, honesty, and by helping others the best we can. Duty is beautiful, and inspiring, and empowering. That’s all that has been asked of us. No more and no less. Sure, the goal is important. But never forget that each individual instance matters. The whole isn’t certain, only the instances. How you do anything is how you do everything. We can always act right.”
This is the sixth in a continuation of guest blogs by the CREATE Lab Team.
By MaryLu Hutchins
Qualitative work has always been the hallmark of good schools. With the advent of shared digital data, numerical data points have taken a larger role in learning systems. Subsequently, multiple policy attempts to impose a modified business model of effort and yield pushed the educational use of numerical data often resulting in constrained applications. The Fluency project attempts to re-emphasize the qualitative language of learning, because learning about: 1.) self, 2.) caring for and about others, and 3.) function(s) in larger systems (including educational systems as a primary factor) is and has always been an intensely human experience. Complementing numbers with narratives serves as a force for creating equity across all school settings. The beauty of The Fluency project may be in balancing the process by honoring the importance of both quantitative and qualitative understandings in educational contexts.
The Fluency Project often challenges narrowed purposes of educational measurement by promoting concepts and practices to establish, foster, and prioritize student agency. This is supported by instructional decision-making that co-powers students by combining technology as a contributor to, and a nurturer of, student voice. The Fluency Project is unique to the education world because we seek participant commitment via long-term dedication to personal professional growth, which we believe may result in more opportunities for establishing both student choice and voice in learning processes. It is also uncommon to the technological world as we prioritize being responsive to student needs and serving identified needs with opportunities to embrace technology rather than reacting to, and reinforcing, a competitive motivation for technology implementation.
We are working in service of others, whether to extend the CREATE name to empower teaching and learning, affirm the value of the potential of “learners as producers” in our larger society, open the minds of children to possibility, and/or encourage teachers to take risks with using technologies to help students understand their unlimited capacities. Specifically, we expose teachers to CREATE emergent technologies as well as non-CREATE tech exploration, including but not limited to, students functioning as citizen and social scientist researchers. While researching ideas and solving problems, students develop stronger identities, learn dynamic roles, and begin to think of others responsively. Furthermore as active learners, students are encouraged to present their synthesized works to specifically chosen audiences. In the process, teachers are learning how students use multiple thinking strategies in the spirit of inquiry, which is open-minded, and constructive learning work. John Dewey, the father of modern progressive education, shared this original vision and contemporary educators still seek to preserve wholeheartedness in learning.
In my practice as an educator, a deep and abiding respect for our full humanity outweighs all other forces. Commitment to our collective dream of educational equity is worthwhile and drives my effort. As teachers, we work far beyond the hours we should, we teach from the heart, and we affect the future. There is no “mission accomplished” in education. If we stop learning, we stop growing. When that happens, we are no longer effective in supporting learning for others, from Pre-Kindergarten to the university level. Perhaps, if everyone adopted the “no mission accomplished” attitude, The Fluency Project becomes our collective legacy.
This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Kristen Fischer
“Easy reading is damn hard writing,” noted Nathaniel Hawthorne, and I have to agree. Whether one is writing with images, with words, or multimodally, writing well is not easy.
Technology is rapidly contributing to new genres of communication; yet, as most teachers and students can attest to, the language arts classroom hasn’t changed much since the days in which perhaps a pencil was considered technology. Resources, training, time, philosophies, and fears contribute to the stagnancy, and the focus remains on the study of traditional texts, with occasional editorial cartoons thrown in. I count myself as guilty. An added concern: We know it isn’t enough to simply study and consume texts and that our students must also produce them. Thus, if we struggle to integrate the study of multimodal texts into our classrooms, it is no wonder we struggle to integrate opportunities to compose them. Our Fluency Project readings and conversations have foregrounded student voice and student empowerment, and surely to prioritize both means to teach our students to be creators of meaningful new media. This is undoubtedly challenging to do in a traditional English class, though I’ve had a few successes (one being the modern-day witch hunts infographic project in conjunction with Miller’s The Crucible, which I generated during the first summer weeks of The Fluency Project).
My photojournalism elective, however, has presented an opportunity for me to foreground multimodal composing, and for the past 12 weeks, students have engaged in a variety of small challenges and a few larger “photo essay” projects. In this class, students aren’t “just” taking pictures. The focus on images doesn’t preclude the possibility of rigor. The photo essay assignments in particular--as I’ve framed them--have required students to brainstorm, conduct research, and construct arguments that rely on both words and images. Consequently, I’ve observed Hawthorne’s remark to be just as true when writing with pictures as it is when writing with words; either way, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
In addition to affirming that there’s always potential for rigor in composition assignments, regardless of the medium, here’s some other reflections from my immersion into the world of teaching multimodal compositions:
1. Never underestimate the importance of model texts: I realized this when we discussed captions. Students have read captions, but they aren’t sure of what to do when tasked with writing them. Students must scrutinize the dynamic between words and images to understand the role each is playing; in a multimodal photo essay, the pictures don’t simply reiterate the words, or vice-versa. Each adds something the other is less adept at communicating.
2. Just because a picture can be snapped in a fraction of a second doesn’t mean visual composing is quicker or easier than verbal composing: Sure, my students have taken many snapshots, but only a handful of them have been any good. Most quality shots, they’ve learned, are the result of planning, persistence, skill, resources, or a combination of those factors and more. At the end of a project, I usually require a reflection on their best shot. The experience of reflecting on how a compelling shot or argument came about affirms to students that most effective communication is the result of deliberate planning. I’m confident the students who composed the essays on weightlifting and tattoos would confirm they required a lot of revision and numerous hours to compose.
3. It’s going to take longer than you think: I have years of notes by now on how long it takes for me to guide students through the personal essay and the research project; I have notes on the challenges we will experience with resume templates and works cited pages. When it came to these projects, however, I underestimated the time students would need to produce their essays by about 5-7 days. Most of our additional time was spent on the brainstorming at the start and on the polishing at the end, but it’s also important to account for the—wait for it—inevitable technology hiccups.
4. The product may be different, but the struggles will be similar: The student who struggles with generating a topic will still struggle with generating a topic. The student who doesn’t proofread well will still not proofread well. The student who needs the assignment chunked will still need the assignment chunked. Most students will feel frustrated and relieved at various points. The process of composing verbally isn’t that different than the process of composing visually: planning, arranging, polishing... these happen in both.
5. Yes, you can grade this, and yes, I still teach writing: I’ve read articles and blog posts that celebrate the promise of multimodal assignments, yet bemoan the difficulties of assessing such non-traditional products. I’ve also read plenty that fear the integration of images means the death of the written word in classrooms. But if I make the rubric and the assignment, I decide what to require and how to measure its quality. I can choose to prioritize writing quality even though photos happen to be a part of the assignment by choosing to grade the media-rich components for completion and the writing more heavily--or vice versa. I can promote quality in written expression by grading reflections and proposals for organization, detail, clarity, and conventions, while still inviting creative and effective multimodal communication. As long as I’m transparent and clear with the students about our objectives and criteria, I can weigh elements in a variety of ways.
Communicating well is for most people a challenging task; the cognitive demands are high, and a conscientious composer is constantly debating how to best accomplish a goal, given an audience. Just because the medium is images doesn’t mean the rigor has been lost. Sure, writing a verbal essay is different than writing a visual one, but instructors can creative multimodal assignments that value features shared by both and that challenge students to practice skills relevant to multiple avenues of communication.
This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Wendy Steiner
In the spring of 2016, our school board voted to eliminate the librarian position. One of the reasons given for this decision was that the library was simply not being utilized by the students and staff. Many of us felt a sense of disappointment at the decision, but it was hard to justify staffing the position when the number of users did not support the need. Financially, it did not make sense to keep a full-time librarian. The 2016-2017 school year opened with the library officially closed as there was no one assigned to check the books in and out.
Time for Change
Walking past the empty library made me determined to find a way to revive this space and transform it into the heart of the building for students and staff. I had the desire-what I needed was an idea. I am a member of The Fluency Project at Carnegie Mellon University and during the 2016-2017 school year, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel with the Fluency team to Chicago in December of 2016. During this visit we toured the YouMedia room at Chicago Public Library. YouMedia was bright, active and engaging. The staff was energetic, engaged and knowledgeable. The space was designed with stations scattered around the room focusing on topics including photography, video games, fashion design, nail art, model train building, vinyl cutting, and tinkering. It is important to note that books are central to the YouMedia space and were displayed in an inviting way on cool, metal bookshelves on wheels. Cozy reading nooks in window seats that looked out on the streets of downtown Chicago invited students to grab a book, sit down, and read.
YouMedia was the inspiration I needed! I returned from the trip energized and pitched the idea to our principal, Michael Loughren. He was immediately supportive and we began to investigate ways to generate funds to convert the space. Lisa Rowley, the grant writer for the district joined the team along with Laura Begg, a high school history teacher. The four of us were able to utilize about $12,000 left over from a grant to begin purchasing materials for our as yet unnamed space. We had to meet a deadline of June 30, 2017 to have all materials on site. We were able to purchase tool chests, a variety of seating options including stools and bean bag chairs, a flat screen tv, vinyl cutter, laminator, poster maker, sewing machines and a gaming system. We also purchased area rugs, a new computer and work lights. Now, we had to decide what to do with the books, furniture and bookshelves in the library. We also needed a name for the space.
Everyone agreed that the carpeting needed to be ripped up, the bookshelves needed to be removed, the walls needed to be painted and the furniture needed to be relocated. As the English Department Chair, I was also concerned about what would happen to the books since the space did not have anyone assigned to check books in and out. I did not want the library raided and the books to disappear into classrooms or people’s homes; I needed a space to store the collection. I eventually found the perfect spot in the back of the library in a large room that used to house film strips and overhead projectors. The room had a door with a lock and metal shelves along the walls. It was the perfect spot to keep our collection safe until we could make the books available to students again. We set a tentative opening date of January 30, 2018.
Our next step involved choosing paint colors and deciding on a name for the space. We picked a nautical blue and a lime green color combination to brighten up the drab walls and give the place a fresh vibe. After many discussions, “The Shop” was chosen as the name of this new area to reflect the connection between the ideas of making and entrepreneurship. The ultimate goal of the space is to provide an opportunity for students to develop and test ideas for their products or original designs. A local company, Image 360, was hired to create signage that would redefine the space. We worked closely with the design team to create the artwork that covers almost the entire back wall. The finished product is featured in the photo on page one. Once the walls were complete, we turned our attention to the floor. Dennis McDade, the head of maintenance, found a company that would polish and finish our concrete floor to give us an industrial vibe.
With the basic features of the room complete, it was time to set up the stations. Using the supplies we purchased with the grant money, we organized the space into 13 different stations. The photos show how the room was finished with the equipment; the only thing missing is the students!
The Shop at Carlynton High School officially opened on Thursday, April 12, 2018. This is later than we had originally planned, but it will be worth the wait. We are hosting an open house on Monday, May 21st from 1-4 during Remake Learning Week, and all are invited to stop by and see The Shop in person.
This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Brett Slezak
Although the young people of our nation have a long amazing history of leading change in our country, in the past month youth voice has been re-jettisoned into the spotlight and schools are re-learning how to define and support youth voice. Maybe it has been the past 20 years of a narrowing focus on standardized testing that has left schools complacent in thinking about how to handle student voice. Maybe it’s due to a relatively long time period of events that haven’t compelled students to activism. Maybe it is a combination of a lot of things that have left schools wondering about how to support all of their students’ voices. However, what we are currently seeing in the media is centered solely around protesting, marching, 1st Amendment rights, and headlines meant to grab attention. While there is no doubt that these are important parts of student voice and pose serious challenges for school to tackle, it is important to understand that student voice is confined to only student protests. A true culture of youth voice doesn’t normally just grab headlines; it's a school culture that allows students to engage in the world on their own terms.
In our work in the Fluency Project, we have spent a lot of time dissecting and reconstructing what student voice is and how it plays out in schools. Spend some time in any school building and you’ll see examples of student voice everywhere, from Kindergarteners expressing themselves through “Who I Am” projects hanging on the walls, to student council elections at the high school, to digital portfolios that let students share their work with teachers, classmates and parents. These are the types of things that we expect to see in schools that elevate student voice. However, creating the right student voice culture in K-12 schools is about more than just providing outlets to display work. Fostering student voice is more about actively bringing students into a process and then giving real weight and value to their ideas and thoughts. Often you will hear that student voice is “giving kids a seat at the table,” which I agree, is part of student voice, but usually just giving students a seat at the table ends in one of two ways:
Scenario 1: Students are asked to be part of a committee that is made up of teachers, students and administrators. There are lots of “focus group” type activities to capture thoughts and ideas. At the end of the process, the decision makers give great lip-service to the students about how insightful and wonderful they are. But the students’ voices are never given any real consideration, a decision was made before the committee was even formed, and the students (and even the teachers) are left feeling disenfranchised because it was clear their voice was not important in the final decision.
Scenario 2: Think about the same committee, but this time the teachers and administrators are so overly excited about their student involvement that they don’t give enough structure or support to help students refine and discover their own voice. While I would certainly rather have this happen than the first scenario, often times these projects are not as effective or impactful as they could have been, because the adults have completely removed themselves from the process and the students haven’t fully developed all their “voice” skills.
I believe that a school culture that truly values student voice is rooted somewhere in the middle of those two scenarios. It is a framework in which the school operates out of that gives real weight to student voice without being dismissive but also not being overly permissive. The most important part of all of this though is that students are supported in having their own ideas, and the adults in the building help students to refine their own voice in ways that are productive, appropriate and impactful. There are countless ways in which people can express their voice. It is our job as educators to help students understand who they are so they can make decisions on how they can express their own thoughts, their own solutions, and their own voice.
It is easy to go down the rabbit hole of all the different ways in which a 100 year old, assembly line, educational model is designed to repress student voice. I think it is healthier to ponder all of the places in a school today that can be used to elevate student voice. Immediately today, we can think differently about our instructional practices. We can provide more choices to students in their classes in how they engage in their work. We can let student inquiry drive the learning that takes place. We can involve students in the decisions that impact the building they learn in every day. We can ask students to design their own learning spaces with simple furniture rearrangements. We can give students real problems to solve and allow them to come up with real solutions. None of this costs a thing, except the adults in the building relinquishing the work of learning to the students.
So as we continue to see more youth protests, marches and students exercising their voice, I will continue to take interest in seeing how youth voice plays out in our country. But I can’t help think that people resort to protesting when they feel like there are no other option for their voices to be heard or valued. Maybe, just maybe, if we create a national school culture that truly values the voices of our students everyday, they wouldn’t have to feel the need to protest to be heard.
This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Kristen Fischer
I’ve started writing and stopped writing this blog post no fewer than five times. I couldn’t come up with a satisfying idea of what to write about. Seeking a spark, I shuffled through my papers and thought about our Fluency readings and trips. I started then dropped ideas. Interestingly enough, while I struggled with a topic for this blog post, my students struggled with topics for their photojournalism projects. This is a reflection, then, on the quest for topics.
For our most recent assignment, the class has spent six days asking questions--generating inquiry. We started with observations of sights, sounds, and smells. Results included sleeping in class, dressing “bummy,” and yelling in the cafeteria. From there, I modeled how any topic could become a subject for inquiry. My observation had been the smell of coffee. In class, we started by generating a list of questions about coffee that could be investigated, and our launching points were the typical ones: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Our first questions were mundane, like “Who drinks coffee?” and “Where is coffee made?” but eventually we generated some that were genuinely interesting: What are the different reasons that people drink coffee? Is is for caffeine or comfort? Is it a habit or a socialization opportunity? How many students habitually drink coffee, and when did they start? How does this coffee consumption--often motivated by sleepiness--perhaps contribute to insomnia at night and then create a problematic cycle of dependence on caffeine sources and sleep aids? This then sparked conversations of social media addiction and its role in student fatigue. (Sidenote: From this conversation, I learned that today’s teens text in the shower.) It was fascinating to see the evolution of the conversation--from a general, mundane topic of coffee, to a variety of specific and relevant real-world issues, spanning from the challenges of small business entrepreneurship to adolescent health.
We then collaboratively workshopped a topic from each student. With a small class size, this was doable. This, however, wasn’t my original plan. I had allotted two days for brainstorming and peer and teacher conferencing. This turned into six days of brainstorming, which included whole-group inquiry, peer conversations, teacher conferencing. This is definitely the most time I’ve ever invested for students to seek out a topic on any single assignment.
Compared to our last project, where the topics were often--but not always--general and inconsequential (“friends,” “my cat,” “basketball”), these new pursuits seem promising. One pitch has the title of “The Languages of Friendship.” Another might investigate the changing landscape of the high school job. Another is looking at what coaches and students view as the purpose of high school sports and how that view might impact participation rates.
However, for our last project, I had also pushed the students to go beyond generalities of friends, cats, and basketball, and they had mapped out more ambitious paths; we had used post-it notes to map out issues and topics of personal importance,however, upon submission, most projects reflected little of that follow-through. So, I’m concerned about the possibility that once again, many will give up on these promising topics and retreat back to their original generalities: “friends,” “jobs,” and “why people play sports,”, and the others like “nature” and “people’s styles.” On our class planning day, I could already see a few of them trying to do this, despite our pages and pages of fresher, edgier, more authentic, more specific, and more relevant ideas collectively generated, and I tried to encourage them to persevere rather than retreat. I think about student voice here, and what my role should be. If I explicitly say NO to their retreats, I have--in a way--silenced and stifled them. But if I never encourage them from those comfort zones, I haven’t fulfilled my role, either, because I’ve let them stifle themselves.
I think they see that some topics are better than others, so I also have thought a lot about why the students tend to retreat, despite these pages of alternative and fresher ideas. I wonder if they feel those ideas aren’t really “theirs.” I wonder if they feel intimidated by the authenticity of the work involved. I wonder if they perceive these topics as “too real,” and beyond their ability to explore. I wonder if they’re just retreating to those general topics out of habit. I wonder if they just get exhausted by the thought of an unfamiliar challenge, and fall back on something that seems more like a “sure thing,” despite its mundanity. I’m familiar with surrendering to constraints.
The quest for a topic often can’t be completed in one day (which I too often allot for my classes, though the curricular constraints are tighter). Even six days might not be the ideal amount of time to complete the job. In my quest for a blog post topic, I definitely have been reminded that the commitment to an idea at the outset isn’t the end of the challenges, and that once engaged in the act of working with a topic, the initial idea must often transform, for better or for worse. Thus, the quest for an idea goes beyond what’s conventionally seen as the planning stage, and deeply permeates the action stage.
It has also made me reflect on my regular English classes, and my own secondary education. I wonder how often high school students are invited to grapple with the challenges involved in generating topics, and I wonder if they see brainstorming and prewriting as something that’s fluid or fixed.
I know the temptation to just “get it done” exists. I know the way real and imagined constraints of time, uncertainty, resources, know-how, motivation, and comfort level can tear away at once-great intentions. These are the constraints we face as educators, and our students face them, too.
I hope the students will pursue some of these riskier and more authentic topics and eventually complete photo essays reflecting the ICMA model that show the level of creativity and engagement operating in their minds, but even if these grand ideas fail to come to fruition, I hope they’ll have seen the potential they have to uncover and investigate relevant and fresh topics. Generating topics and starting points will never be easy, but maybe if this phase of a project becomes more familiar, this phase will no longer be the main barrier; there will be new ones to tackle, but we will have made progress anyway.
This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Sue Mellon
As a member of the initial Fluency cohort, I spent a great deal of time thinking about ICMA or “Inquiry - Case Making - Advocacy.” Instead of having students select a topic for research, it was an obtainable leap to engage students on a path of inquiry. In terms of case making, the Pennsylvania standards include opportunities for argumentative and persuasive type writing and so the start of case making is there. For me, the notion of students as thought leaders and real world advocates was a new and promising consideration.
As I participated in the ICMA work with my Fluency cohort, I ventured out to see what other educators might be doing to promote youth voice. I read about Harvard’s Project Zero with specific interest in the “Agency by Design” project. I loved the tagline “Empowering Young People to Shape Their World.”
My Fluency cohort visit to Detroit to learn about Allied Media Project’s work with “Humanizing Schooling” convinced me of the importance of students connecting learning to their life. I loved the videos that the students created on the water crisis in Detroit. The honest stories regarding the purpose of education mural with troubled teens were inspiring.
Project Based Learning or PBL was another reoccurring result of my searching for what educators were doing. I agreed with the statement on Buck’s Institute for Education site, a site devoted to PBL, that “Projects enable students to solve problems and address issues important to them, their communities, and the world.”
So when the opportunity to learn more about PBL through a grant funded training arose, I immediately applied. It was a wonderful two days with other educators who care deeply about student success. Our summer work was followed by an externship visit with a Pittsburgh company and we had another group meeting to share with each other the things that future employers want in the individuals that they hire. We were asked to try PBL and report back.
Well, if I was going to try PBL in my teaching, of course, it needed to include the fundamentals of my Fluency experience. I decided that a project using the Speck monitors would include aspects of both technology and data fluency that I desired.
PBL has a central theme or focus and I chose the following: With the hope of optimal health for the AVSD community, what information about indoor air quality (IAQ) is valuable?” Because of my position supporting gifted students, I find myself frequently reading the Pennsylvania standards for English Language Arts and mathematics. I knew that many aspects of PBL work had a place to help students develop their proficiency in English Language Arts.
I spoke with several members of the English department at my school and it seemed that 11th grade English was a good time and place for PBL work. The English teacher for juniors, Kelly McConville, was more than positive about working with me on this PBL. We quickly decided to work 100% inclusively which meant that we had learning support students and advanced students not in AP working side by side. This decision for 100% inclusion was an integral part of our planning. The idea that everyone’s ideas had value was paramount.
Since November, we have been meeting for “PBL Thursdays” and are about halfway through our project. We just completed first presentations and I am pleased with the level of student engagement. It is truly time consuming to plot and plan this PBL. I find that most of my time outside of school is devoted to thinking and creating materials for the next phase of our work. In terms of reflections, I am only just beginning.
In the grant reporting out process, I was questioned on how PBL, Speck monitors, and English class can go together. So, you can understand, please view our focus and standards document with this link.
Finally, the work going on with AVSD PBL was featured in this article regarding the grant funded training through ASSET, Inc.
As an educator, this experience has been one of highs and lows. I have felt fear at times. I know that my PBL partner, Kelly, shared her night time ruminations before the first presentations with me. For other educators, I think that honest communication about this emotional roller coaster from PBL is valuable. The true test of this adventure or edventure will be changes in the students’ skills and attitudes. My partner can evaluate the ELA skills. For my part, I have already given a pre-project survey regarding youth agency and plan to administer a post survey at the end of the year. It is my hope that these juniors view themselves as true agents for change in the world.
This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Lindsey Lamm
As professionals in the education field, we’ve all experienced the satisfying subtle crackling sound of the brand new textbooks being opened for the first time. We’ve all marveled at the shininess of brand new teacher’s manuals with no frayed edges, dog-eared pages, or coffee rings on the cover. We’ve looked longingly at the most beautiful sets of math manipulatives, all in brand new plastic, ready for kids to use. We’ve even sat in the meetings for choosing these resources, thinking of all kinds of ways this particular resource is “better” than the one we currently use. Don’t even get me started on the absolute bliss that is brand new Chrome books, iPads, or laptops in the classroom.
Notice that, not once, did I mention analyzing these resources as to how they will best benefit our students. In education, we are on textbook cycles, and obviously, new things are the best things, right? At times, this is absolutely true. However, those new resources also come with a pacing guide and suggestions for how to teach with the new materials. In order to implement with fidelity, we are expected to use these resources. Again, there is nothing wrong with that. However, somewhere in this process of implementing new things, we forget the tried and true methods that actually work in education. We like to rename and “tweak” those practices and fundamental ideals that have guided education for the last century, while throwing out anything that seems dated. I read recently that, “Students should not be entertained by education. Students should be engaged in education.” I wish I had a better citation for this, but it was mentioned in a Twitter chat by Alice Keeler. I am unsure of the origin. If our only goal in education is to entertain children, we are going to throw out so many fundamental skills necessary for a productive adult to be successful in the world.
My goal is not to debate educational pedagogy here, but instead throw out the idea that maybe a marriage of many different resources is the best way to truly craft a curriculum that WORKS in our school systems. Things that work in my classroom will not necessarily work in my teaching partner’s classroom, let alone in another school or district. In education, we like to latch onto the newest ideas whole-heartedly, which is essential for truly trying proper implementation. However, we neglect to reflect on the successes and failures, and we do not spend nearly enough time analyzing the failures and planning ways to fix them. I think it’s hard to do that because those resources that cost a district at least six figures should fix things right? They claim to be research based and the sales people do a phenomenal job of showing exactly what the products can do. I just think we need to do a better job of marrying the old with the new.
Perfect example. I recently attended a math workshop through Carnegie Mellon led by Maisha Moses of the Young People’s Project. Though I took so many ideas from her on how to make math accessible to all of my students, the one that stuck with me was the Flag way game. My students struggle with the relationships between numbers and inverse operations. This game was another way to show them prime, square, and composite numbers while practicing in a new way. Students are engaged in the game, but still learning and practicing basic number principles. Are the kids overly entertained by the game? Some are. Others, eh, not so much. However, all the kids are engaged in the game and their team, which makes for meaningful learning and practice.
We’d be here all day if I shared all of my examples like this one. Sometimes, though, I wonder. If we took all of these “square” ideas and whittled off the parts of the idea that don’t necessarily fit in our current classrooms, could they then fit into the round holes that need filled to help better our educational system? I’d venture a guess that the answer is a resounding YES. Reflection on our particular student, school, and district needs could help us reach that goal. Let’s make a goal to spend some time truly reflecting on what is important to us in education and what avenues we can take to make it happen. We’ll all be better because of it.
This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Wendy Steiner
Cougar Collaboration Center at Carlynton Jr./Sr. High School.
Photo by: Wendy Steiner
Start with Shared Values
One of the many ah-ha moments I had during the FLUENCY Project occurred while participating in an activity lead by Lauren Zito which asked us to deep dive into the choices we made when setting up our classrooms. This activity was so valuable as a source of self-reflection that I was given permission by my principal, Michael Loughren, to lead a professional development session and use Lauren’s process as a guide. I reached out to Lauren to let her know that I would be modeling her activity, and also to ask for some guidance on how I might approach this with my colleagues. Lauren’s suggestion was that we first generate a list of shared values which would help guide our discussion and our focus when we began looking at design choices. The FLUENCY cohort had a list of eight values that served as our compass while we navigated understanding and practicing FLUENCY. These shared values were: Safety, Relationships, Numbers & Narratives, Power, Inquiry Based, Transparency, Choice, and Equity. I would turn to these values to guide me as I focused on the work I was doing with my students, and I knew the benefits of having the teachers generate their own values list.
I started the professional development by asking the teachers to work in small groups of 3-5 people and generate a list of three “shared values” for our building. Afterwards, we created a master list of all the values that were listed. Examples included: learning experiences, choice/ownership, safety (with technology & in the physical space), positivity, clear expectations, and extra-curricular options. Any values that were listed multiple times had a number next to them to indicate how many times the value was mentioned. Using the master list, we identified the three most repeated values as: Choice/Ownership, Positivity and Purposeful Technology.
Consider the Current Spaces in the Building
I asked teachers to think outside the box and identify any other spaces where students are encouraged to be creative and was pleased to see the inclusion of the weight room, the chem lab, the senior mural and the nature trail. The gym was identified as an area of collaboration in addition to our newly renovated Cougar Collaboration Center. It was interesting to see that no one included their own classroom on their list. Next, the teachers were asked to identify areas in and around the building that have untapped potential for student engagement. They were then asked to list ways that these areas might be transformed into space that elevates student voice and increases student engagement. Overwhelmingly the teachers selected the walls and stairwells as areas of untapped potential.
In a time when money and space are at a premium, these are easy areas to convert into a meaningful space for kids. One of our elementary principals, Marsha Burleson, took these underdeveloped spaces in her building and created comfy reading nooks, colorful collaboration spaces and quiet corners for students to gather and work with their peers. Her vision allowed the educational spaces to extend beyond the classroom walls and provided opportunities for students to collaborate and be creative in a non-traditional setting.
Faculty members were then asked to spread out and find some space where they could write and reflect individually. Our shared goals were listed on a large Post-It Note and teachers were asked to keep those goals present in their minds as they were writing. First, teachers were asked to imagine the “perfect day in their classroom” and to write a response describing what was happening in the room during that perfect day. They were to give examples of what the students were doing and also to describe what they were doing. Then, they were asked to answer the following questions:
Wrap it Up
The session ended with teachers creating a wishlist of items that would help them achieve the classroom goals they set for themselves. This could include everything from choosing a paint color to alternative seating ideas. After teachers created their wish lists, they were introduced to the grant writing boot camp. Teachers were lead through the process of filling out the grant form for our Education Foundation and were also given time to set up a Donors Choose account. A teacher who has had over 12 projects funded on Donors Choose spoke about the process and gave a few tips to teachers about submitting a grant proposal. A representative of the Education Foundation spoke about the types of grants they fund and which information teachers should include on their application.
Teachers completed a pre and post survey on the activities. These surveys will help guide future professional development planning.