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The best gift

Little blue gift box

The best gift that we can give our students is the gift of self-actualization. Every day, every hour, in every class and every school we should be asking ourselves, “Is this an environment in which our students are discovering and nurturing their interests, skills, and talents to become their best selves and make a positive difference in the world?”

Image credit: Little blue box, Shereen M

Is the emphasis in your school on punishment and compliance or autonomy and dignity?

Deluxe teacher grading kit

When I was in high school, we didn’t have an ‘open campus.’ We were supposed to stay at school and eat our lunches in the cafeteria. Many of us would drive off anyway, hoping that we could make it back in time for our next class. We often were late because of the distance between our school and the fast food joints. But since I ran with a crowd of ‘good kids’ who got high grades and were heading off to college, we could stroll into class late – sometimes with coffee or an ice cream cone for our teachers – and suffer no adverse consequences. At the time I was blissfully unaware of the privilege I enjoyed simply by being a white, male, middle class, high-achieving student (or that I ‘earned’ by being mostly compliant).

Fast forward thirty years… Today we see a number of ‘no excuses discipline’ schools – particularly in urban school districts – that punish students for the slightest noncompliance. Tardy to class? Shoelace untied? Not walking quietly enough? Failing to follow the taped line in the hallway? A stripe on your sock? Slouching? The wrong color undershirt? Not raising your hand with a straight elbow? Rolled-up sleeves on your school uniform? Not tracking the speaker with your eyes? ‘Willful defiance,’ however arbitrarily defined? Yelling, shaming, assignments that get ripped up, public tracking charts, demerits, detention, suspension, expulsion, and numerous other academic and disciplinary punishments await…

Critics of these schools note that the children who attend them invariably are ‘other people’s children.’ They’re not the children of the white middle class. They’re typically black, brown, and poor. And the folks who often are the strongest advocates of these kinds of schools would never, ever send their own children there. But, you know, ‘those children’ need more structure. ‘Those children’ need that kind of discipline because they don’t get it at home. Hey, don’t blame us, those parents ‘chose’ that kind of environment for their children. And so on…

But here’s the thing: educators and parents who are aghast at these ‘no excuses’ schools need to recognize that most traditional schools aren’t much better. The discipline may be slightly less draconian for most students, but the heavy emphasis on punishments and rewards remains for virtually all students. In most schools students lack significant agency, are told what to do nearly every minute of every day, rarely have meaningful choice or input into their own learning environments, and are punished by teachers and/or administrators if they don’t comply with whatever is demanded of them. Students can tell you how disrespectful, disempowering, and apathy-inducing these environments can be. It’s pretty stifling to have so little choice in what you learn. And it can be soul-killing to be 17 years old and still need permission to use the bathroom. So, yes, like for myself, the ‘good kids’ may be afforded a smidgen of leeway and autonomy that seems utterly lacking in the ’no excuses’ schools. And, yes, traditional schools – back in my day and now – may be a little less worrisome because the penalties usually are slightly less severe. But when it comes to our disciplinary practices, we need to climb down from our pedestals because the differences are mostly a matter of degree, not orientation.

My University of Colorado Denver faculty colleague, Dr. Manuel Espinoza, has been talking with us about the concept of student dignity – about the idea of affording students basic, inalienable rights of autonomy and respect. Not because they comply with our demands. Not because we bribed or forced them. Not because the economic need for self-directed workers has never been higher. But simply because our children are human beings – precious, unique individuals – who deserve to be cherished and treated as such rather than as mere objects of our desires for control and order (no matter how well-meaning our motives are). To quote Manuel, “What would it mean for schools to treat children as if they were of supreme value, of invaluable exchange?” And, no, this doesn’t mean chaos and anarchy in our schools…

Learning environments that empower students as meaningful contributors and choice-makers – that recognize and treat students as worthy of basic dignity – look very different than those that view students as unable or unwilling partners and/or problems to be managed. Which views predominate in your school system? And before you answer, ask yourself 1) what alternatives to punishment/reward disciplinary systems do you see around you, 2) how many times a day and in how many ways is a student’s basic dignity disrespected, 3) what happens when a student disagrees or doesn’t comply with a classroom or school behavior policy, and 4) who gets to make and enforce the policies in the first place.

Joziah Grimm shares his Iowa BIG experience

I’ve written about Iowa BIG before. What I love about the school is that you can’t tell the 4.0 student from the student who was struggling academically back at his ‘mothership’ high school because at Iowa BIG they’re both doing amazing work. Joziah Grimm shares his story below. Happy viewing!

Technology questions to ask students during advisory period

Question mark cookies

Here are some questions that you could discuss with students during a 20- to 25-minute advisory period. These might be particularly apt for middle and high schoolers. If each advisory took notes and then you compiled the responses at the school level, I bet that you would learn some interesting things about the youth that you serve and spark some useful conversations with your teachers and administrators.

  1. What are some interesting or surprising ways in which you use technology at home to connect, share, and/or learn? (examples might include making videos on x topic, participating in a learner community around y topic, posting stop motion films, hacking their Minecraft server code, setting up and selling items in their own online shop, sharing their original artwork or music or writing or photography, participating in community or charity or political work, highlighting their athletic or crafting skills, gaining skills in a new area of interest, or…)
  2. How is your technology use at home different than your technology use at school? Which seems more empowering to you and why?
  3. How is your technology use different than that of the adults around you?
  4. How can we close whatever gaps exist between home uses of technology and school uses of technology?

What would you add? Let me know if you do this!

7th grade genius hour at Cascade Middle School

Dave Winters sent me a very nice message today thanking me for my TEDxDesMoines talk, Extracurricular Empowerment (Getting Beyond Fear). But what was even more fun was getting to see the compilation video of his students’ genius hour projects at Cascade Middle School. This is a touching, inspiring video and is a great idea for any school that wants to capture and share the enthusiasm that can accompany student-driven learning. Happy viewing!

DaveWinters

Seed-to-table at Gilmore City-Bradgate

Child gardening at Gilmore City-Bradgate Elementary School 01

[Want to be the Seed-to-Table Manager here? Read the job description and then email the superintendent.]

Shovels busy at work, three young children dig and cut through the earth, turning over the rich black soil underneath. They have a long planting row to create, but the sun is out and the weather is perfect.

Their female classmate, in her blue-striped jumper and pink flip flops, carefully pats dirt around a seedling. It’s one of many in her grade’s row. Another student will be by shortly to make sure that it’s watered.

Walking tenderly to avoid the young shoots, a boy carries a few small boxes with new plants to be added to the garden. Apparently he’s a bit chillier than his t-shirt-clad peers since he’s wearing long sleeves and a down vest.

Inspired by their teachers’ visit to the Muse School in Los Angeles, elementary students in the Gilmore City-Bradgate School District in Northwest Iowa are diving deep into the seed-to-table movement. The early childhood and daycare kids are in charge of the onions, radishes, spinach, lettuce, peas, and potatoes. Kindergarten has pole beans, bush beans, tomatoes, and peppers. First and second grade has zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, and beets. Third and fourth grade has kohlrabi, eggplant, and some more beans. The fifth and sixth graders do the heavy lifting with corn, cantaloupes, and watermelons.

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There’s a small shed for tools and equipment. Over on the side is the herb garden, where the students are growing chives, oregano, dill, basil, and cilantro. Old pallets are being re-used to make compost bins. The tree stumps constitute an ‘outdoor classroom’ where students and teachers can sit, talk, and learn together.

The produce will be used both in the school district’s food service program and to help the food insecure in the local community. Families and staff will receive vegetables and herbs as well. And there are plans to get involved in the local farmer’s market…

Achieving science, numeracy, literacy, and other instructional outcomes while being connected to both nature and the community? Awesome.

What could your school do to reconnect students to the natural rhythms of the earth and the people around them?

Gilmore City-Bradgate CSD garden diagram

3 killers of student creativity and ownership

Three killers of student creativity and ownership:

    1. The teacher and textbook are always right.
    2. There is a correct answer and it’s your job to find, regurgitate, and/or comply with it.
    3. If you question either #1 or #2, you get in trouble.

(these apply to behavior too, not just learning)

The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores

The latest results are available from the annual Gallup poll of middle and high school students. Over 920,000 students participated last fall. Here are a couple of key charts that I made from the data:

 2015 Gallup Student Poll 1

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 2015 Gallup Student Poll 2

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The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. The disenfranchisement of our youth continues to happen in the very institutions that are allegedly preparing them to be ‘life long learners.’

See also

Personalizing every student’s level of success

Milkmachinefreelibrary

The Van Meter Schools have long been an incubator for innovation. Van Meter was one of our earliest districts to implement a 1-to-1 student computing initiative and also was one of the first districts in Iowa to be named an Apple Distinguished School.

More recently, Van Meter has been diving deeply into project-based learning, standards-based grading, competency-based education, and flexible, modular schedules in which students can exercise some choice and determine how much time they need to spend on their various learning endeavors. Van Meter’s work in the area of student competencies is especially impressive. Eventually, the district hopes to identify a comprehensive, interdisciplinary set of standards that all high school students need – plus an additional 6 to 10 competencies or dispositions – and these will become the district’s graduation requirements. Students will be able to take multiple pathways to get there, including projects, traditional coursework, online classes, and anything else that feeds into the district’s profile of a graduate. The hope is that most students will be able to complete these by junior year and then will be able to spend their senior year taking college classes, getting professional certifications, diving deeper into areas of interest and passion, and engaging in internships and service learning projects.

Teachers are in on the action too and rarely participate in whole-school learning contexts. Instead, classroom educators take a competency-based approach to their own professional learning and, through identification of the skills that they have and need, are able to personalize their professional growth. A badging system to track teachers’ professional learning is in the works.

What I like about Van Meter is that, in the words of Superintendent Deron Durflinger, they “often have a willingness to take risks and try things that other districts wait for. If folks out there are doing cool stuff, we’re not going to hold back on trying it out.” This orientation toward risk-taking allows Van Meter to live at the cutting edge of leading educational innovation movements and to iterate quickly toward new opportunities. Initiatives that many other districts consider to be organizational stretches are thought of by Van Meter as just part of how it does business.

Van Meter also has framed its work appropriately. Instead of each initiative being a stand-alone, disconnected program within a traditional school setup, everything that Van Meter does is woven together and oriented toward the ultimate goal of personalizing student learning. For instance, when asked what they are most excited about, administrators will say that at the top of their list are the types of questions that teachers are asking about how to better help individual students and their educators’ willingness to reexamine and alter current practices as needed.

The district is in the process of building a new school that will create different and varied kinds of learning spaces for students. I am sure that this new building will be amazing. But the district’s long-term impacts on students will be a result of its ongoing willingness to reorient its instructional practices and its organizational support systems that facilitate more robust forms of learning and teaching.

Is your district leading for innovation?

Image credit: Free library made from a milk vending machine, Van Meter Schools

Rethinking learning time in Clear Lake

ClearLakeMiddleSchool07

Clear Lake Middle School (CLMS) knew where it wanted to go. It just needed to put some new structures in place to get there…

Teacher learning. Many organizations have ‘20 percent time’ initiatives, which give employees time and permission to learn and work on new topics of their choosing as long as they have potential benefit to the organization. CLMS took that idea and ran with it, substituting ‘teacher genius hour’ for some of its traditional professional development. Today teachers are investigating a variety of interest-based professional learning topics, including essential questions in the classroom, rethinking grading in math class, flipped classrooms, screencasting, and gamification. All of these filter back into educators’ classrooms and improve student learning experiences.

Student learning. Last year CLMS began implementing P3BL blocks, which emphasize passion, projects, and problems. Every day the 6th graders get a 42-minute block and the 7th and 8th graders get an 84-minute block. Sometimes teachers create the projects, sometimes students do. Example student projects include ‘upcycling’ and repurposing of old furniture, working with media and marketing companies to create an advertising campaign that sells Clear Lake to outsiders and airs on television stations and billboards, and a ‘Shark Tank’ initiative in which students pitch innovative product ideas that improve people’s lives and their community. Students also are involved in a number of projects with the local fire service, including an awareness campaign that teaches local citizens about fire and carbon monoxide safety, creating maps of rural water sources in the county that can be used to refill fire trucks, and mapping local business building layouts that then get uploaded to the fire department’s Active 911 app.

Makerspace. This year CLMS also has implemented a makerspace called the Sandbox. Different challenges are set up for the students, who have 10 days to complete them. Hours are flexible, supervision is minimal (as are discipline issues). Students work on projects when they can, often logging time as early as 6:45am and as late as 5:30pm. Nearly a third of the school signed up for Round 3 of the challenges. The school’s Sandy Awards in May will honor the best designs of the year. And in early February the school’s Sandbox specialists (students, of course) will be hosting visually- and hearing-impaired peers to introduce them to some making/tinkering projects.

As teachers and students drive more of their own learning, the impacts on CLMS have been substantial. Energy and enthusiasm are high. Students who previously struggled with the traditional school model are finding their niches of expertise and success. A school that used to work for a few students now gives all of its students a chance to shine and have a voice.

How could you shake up your school day to create time for student (and staff) inquiry?

Image credit: Clear Lake Middle School

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