What do you want to create today?

Transformers by Mary Kim SchreckMore than a few years ago I had the opportunity to dig deeper into the ideas of creativity and creative thinking thanks to the wonderful Mary Kim Schreck. She was thinking about, writing about, and sharing her ideas about creativity in her book, Transformers: Creative Teachers for the 21st Century. She had been thinking about creativity so much that she was about done with the book! But she asked me to contribute a chapter about technology in the creative classroom.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been thinking about creativity most of my career! I taught music and most people segregate musicians into a small, select group of “creatives,” that includes visual artists, actors, dancers, writers and a few others. But creativity is not the purview of the few. Everyone can be creative, and in fact, we need more people to be creative in their lives and in their work, now more than ever. I appreciate that Mary Kim gave me a reason to dig deeper into my own ideas about creativity and to compare them to others. It was a valuable experience and, luckily, I get to keep thinking about creativity.

The Value of Performance

I cringe a bit when I see or hear the directions “be creative” in an assignment, because usually this is followed up by using crayons, markers, or different backgrounds in a slide deck. Students are encouraged to “be creative” without ever teaching them what that means. And what does that mean in, say, science? Or math? It’s not the same as in my class. What few teachers realize is that we folks in the creative fields had content standards we had to address, and just like every other class, some of our standards promoted creative thinking, some did not. The important message here is, yes, science, math, and all the others have standards that promote creative thinking.

As a former high school band director I often reflect back on what was then a somewhat routine conversation that has turned out to have significant impact on my life. I had been through my annual observation with my principal, something all teachers go through. My principal, Dr. Barry Beers, was great to work with and full of ideas that pushed and stretched his teachers. I didn’t realize how valuable that was at the time. During our follow-up conference he said to me, “John, I really appreciate how you move from whole group, small group, to individuals, and back and forth whenever you need to. You’re customizing your instruction to the needs of each student.”

I replied to him, hopefully not too snarkily, something like, “Dr. Beers (I still have a hard time calling him Barry), I was just doing a rehearsal. That’s what musicians to do get ready for a performance. Nothing special.”

He tried to help me see the importance of what was going on, but I didn’t really understand his statement until later. Because everything my students did in my class eventually led to a performance, he tried to help me understand how a performance can only be successful when all of the students can play their part, literally. He reminded me that by working with all of the students individually and in groups during rehearsal that I knew who was ready and who still needed work. Then he challenged me.

Learning-Driven Schools by Barry BeersDr. Beers asked me to help teachers in other content areas understand how they can help their students learn how to “perform” their content. Whether math, science, English or whatever, Barry wanted me to help other teachers in other content areas understand how to help their students rehearse so they’d be better prepared to perform in a more authentic context. He enlisted all the Fine Arts staff, and I collaborated with a social studies teacher one year, English the next. It was a challenge, but it helped me to see connections I hadn’t seen before. So, thanks Barry, for thinking creatively about teaching and learning back then.

You can find out more about Barry’s work in his book Learning-Driven Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Principals from ASCD.

Performance in All Classrooms

Recently, perhaps in reaction to the horribly mind-numbing compliance mentality promoted by federal education policy, the education community is once again seeing the value of performance. I saw this in the release of new college-and-career standards both at the national and state level. New standards in the core areas and the arts definitely push students to work towards levels of creative thinking in their domains. And now, in many states, students demonstrate higher levels of learning through performance.

The best performances are not compliance. They’re not mechanical. They’re not simply the replication of what someone has done before. They’re not multiple choice. The best performances give people a chance to be creative—to pull their knowledge and skills together—to address a real problem or situation in or across content domains.

In this way, creativity is a cumulative skill. I liken it to the top level of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. You can’t get to the top without working you’re way up. You have to have the foundational knowledge and skills of any domain you plan to be creative in—whether that’s writing, speaking, visual or performing arts, or science, or engineering, or even legislation. You have to know what the accepted strategies and processes are before you can change them. In other words, you have to know the rules before you can break them.You have to understand what work has come before and to analyze and evaluate information in order to provide a creative solution to address a problem.

Revised Bloom's Taxonomy

One interpretation of the cognitive process dimension from the revised Taxonomy of Learning by Anderson & Krathwohl (2001)

Ideas that don’t build on a foundation are not creative. They’re simply novelty. And novelty wears thin fast and falls apart. Creativity has weight, value, and lasting appeal.

The most creative ideas can live a long time—in an individual, a group, or society, but everyone can be creative as we are all faced with authentic problems that are routinely found in the real world. We need creative solutions for providing affordable housing to everyone no matter where they live. We need creative solutions on how to ensure our planet will be able to sustain us. We also need creative solutions to simply provide the best education to each generation of students.

Creativity: Imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value.

Sir Ken Robinson
“Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative” (2001)

What do you want to create today?

I’ve been given another chance to continue my musings about creativity. I’m very honored that Dell and Advanced Learning Partnerships have asked me to share my ideas and some of the work we’ve done in districts across the nation around promoting instruction and assessments that encourage creative thinking. Dell is calling these events, appropriately enough, “What do you want to create today?”

We’ll talk a bit about creativity and why it’s important, but the main plan is to co-create ideas of how creative thinking can be promoted in all classrooms—not just a few. We’ll explore performance tasks—something I’ve been immersed in for years (like this one a creative teacher from Lake Travis ISD just Tweeted out), but we’ll also explore how preparing kids to perform (in math, or English, or whatever) has deep implications for all curricula.

At these events I’m looking forward to hearing from district leaders from across the country who are promoting creative thinking in their own schools, and we’ll share ideas on how we can help every student in every classroom experience learning that helps them develop critical and creative thinking and perform what they’ve learned. I look forward to hearing your ideas whether you can attend one of these events or not.





Rethinking Rubrics: Rubrics that Make You Think

In 2010, my colleague (and mentor) Dr. Sharon Harsh was presiding over a meeting with staff from the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center (ARCC—our organization) and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), with whom we had collaborated for five years. She was summarizing the trends in education from the past decade or so and going out on a limb by making predictions of trends that were soon to influence education. She hit them right on the head, especially with one prediction: learning progressions will become prevalent and guide the work educators do at all levels.

Simply put, learning progressions describe the most likely steps people will take when developing new knowledge and skills. For example, before students can combine fractions with different denominators, they have to recognize what fractions are and understand what they represent. They have to know that a larger number in the denominator doesn’t mean it’s a larger fraction. Later they come to understand how different fractions are related—focusing on how to express two fractions with equivalent denominators, then unlike denominators. There’s more, but that’s a portion of the idea of how some concepts related to fractions progress.

Sharon got this so right! Learning progressions strongly influenced the way new standards were developed. And state departments of education, including VDOE staff in the present, are developing and sharing the learning progressions behind their standards so teachers can better understand how students master standards within and across a grade level. Teachers, too, are developing learning progressions at a finer grain that help them understand how students develop skills and knowledge within a single standard (like the idea of combining fractions above). I find learning progressions really intriguing, but I’m a little geeky like that.

Applying Learning Progressions

I’ve long used rubrics to support my instruction and to score student work. In the graduate class I taught, every activity used a rubric, and the students got all of the rubrics on day one and were encouraged to use them as they worked through activities. I’ve never really given multiple-choice tests. Ever. I’ve also helped a lot of teachers develop rubrics, especially when they need to assign some sort of score or grade to complex problems or projects. In many cases, a multiple-choice question isn’t the best option.

Below is an example of a rubric I created in the past. It’s typical of many I’ve seen. If you’re a student who wants to score well, you don’t make mistakes. As you make more mistakes, your score is lower. It seems logical, at first.


Learning Outcomes

Novice Developing Approaching


Grammar and mechanics of language The product contains numerous (7 or more) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or 3 or more errors in spoken language. The product contains several (4-6) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or 1 or 2 errors in spoken language. The product contains a few (1-3) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or no more than 1 error in spoken language. The product contains no errors in grammar, punctuation, or capitalization of written text, or no errors in spoken language.
Solve multistep problems with fractions The student does not show his/her work, presents incomplete work, or inaccurately presents work in regard to the guidelines. The student designs a solution that has more than one error in calculation. The student designs a solution that has no more than one error in calculation. The student designs a solution that meets the guidelines with no errors.

While this is a pretty typical rubric, it isn’t really very helpful for promoting learning. Why? It’s not the number of errors that’s important, it’s the kind of errors that students make that’s most important. If a student makes two or three errors, but there’s no clear pattern to them, it may just be a mistake because of a lack of time or sloppiness. That doesn’t tell me anything about what they do or don’t understand or how I need to re-teach them. But when a student makes consistent errors, like using “its/it’s” incorrectly over and over, or writing too many run-on sentences, or confusing larger denominators with larger fractions, then I know what to focus on. I needed something that showed me common errors, as well as that progression of how learners move from being a novice to mastering the standard.

Improved Rubrics

I’ve finally been able to connect that sage prediction that Sharon Harsh made with my own practice. Since standards are based on learning progressions, we should be monitoring where our kids are along those progressions. This helps not just teachers, but students too! Both can see what skills and knowledge they’ve mastered, where they need to go, and even suggestions as to what steps they might take to get there. Some might recognize that this is also a critical component of using formative assessment strategies to support learning, especially as proposed by Margaret Heritage (e.g., Where am I going? Where am I now? How do I get there?).

So over the past couple of years, I’ve been pushing myself to improve my rubrics. Instead of just counting errors, which tells me little about what my students truly know or can do, I’m now designing rubrics that describe the progression of learning students go through when mastering a content standard.

Please note: In the examples, the scoring categories are labeled as Learning Outcomes, but many teachers will recognize that the language used is drawn from actual standards, in these examples, the Virginia Standards of Learning, Common Core State Standards, and a WIDA ELD standard. So, in this way, the rubrics are actually standards-based. In fact, they’re probably more standards-based than any forced-choice assessment can be, at least for sophisticated learning outcomes.

Now when I work with teachers on complex problems or performance tasks, we co-develop rubrics that describe learning progressions. See the examples below created recently with some great teachers from the Crestwood School District in Dearborn, Michigan. These are rough drafts, but even at this stage I can see the progression learners go through for each of these learning outcomes. I learned this from these teachers, but every time I do this, the discussion we have about learning progressions is great.


Learning Outcomes

Novice Developing Approaching


Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.  The student’s product does not contain a clearly stated opinion or goes off topic and there’s no evidence. Possibly no reasons. The student’s product does include a clearly stated opinion, but lacks support through reasons that are expanded or supported by evidence from the texts. The student’s product does include a clearly stated opinion with some evidence, but the reasons lack coherence, may not be clearly sequenced or organized. The student’s product contains a clearly stated argument (or point of view) with reasons supported by evidence drawn from the texts and is clearly organized and coherent.
Students read informational articles on globalization to consider its impact on their lives (e.g., Internet, mass media, food and beverage distributors, retail stores).   The student’s product includes an opinion but does not include information from the articles. There’s no indication the student has or can read the articles. The student’s product contains phrases or some keywords from the articles but may not be explained or connected to a position related to their lives. The student’s product includes some examples from the articles but they may not support their position as it relates to their lives. The student’s product includes citations of examples from the articles that support their position and relates those citations to their lives.
Make a line plot to display a data set of measurements in fractions of a unit (1/2, 1/4, 1/8).  The student’s product does not create a line plot or creates something different from a line plot. The student’s product contains a line plot with simple fractions (e.g. ½ and ¼), with fractions out of order (because of denominator). Something’s out of order. The student’s product contains a line plot with points inaccurately plotted, so it does not match the data, though the fractions are in order. The student’s product contains an accurate line plot that displays the appropriate data and the fractions are in order.


Summative assessment is just one use of this type of rubric. Now that we’ve described learning progressions for these standards, these rubrics have multiple uses. Teachers can hand them out at the beginning of any unit, lesson, or activity that uses these learning outcomes so students know what they can do to get the grade they want. It saves teachers time because they don’t need to create rubrics for every activity, just for each standard. More importantly, students can use the rubrics to monitor their own progress. Schools wanting to move towards mastery learning or standards-based report cards can also use these types of learning progressions to truly describe what the difference between an A or a B (or other two grading categories) really means. It’s not just a score, it’s a point along mastery. Finally, this type of rubric is helpful when talking with parents. When parents want to know, “Why didn’t my kid get an A?” teachers can show parents exactly where their child’s current performance is along the progression and where they need to get to master the outcome (and get that A!). Maybe in the future, parents will ask, “How can I help my kid master the standards?” Maybe.

A Tale of Two Epiphanies

‘Tis the season and all, but it’s not really that kind of a story. Not that kind of epiphany. Or maybe it is. I guess it just depends on what’s important to you, and for some people “the” Epiphany is a big deal. And since teaching’s important to me, this story of two epiphanies is pretty important personally.

Our story starts in now what is rapidly becoming last month. I’ve worked with several school districts over the past year or so on curriculum development, which should make my alma mater happy since that’s what my diploma says I can do. I got a toehold in that door by first helping develop what Wiggins and McTighe would call performance-based tasks in their model Understanding by Design. I like the notion of a performance-based task as it really says what it’s all about. Students have to perform some sort of task, and by doing so, teachers have an opportunity to determine whether students have mastered certain skills and knowledge.

Coming from the music world, performance is second nature to me. It’s not like I graced the world’s stages nightly with my talents, but kids in my music classes performed again and again. The whole class is geared towards that next big performance. I remember after the final football game my first year teaching high school when I thought, “Whew! No more halftime shows!” Only to realize that a holiday concert was right around the corner and I hadn’t even started to prepare! And so it goes.

In music, and other performance-based classes, the show’s the thing. And it doesn’t matter if you have the timid freshman clarinet player in the same band class with the senior All-State trumpet player. They all have to work together and that work is usually a performance. But that’s not the case in English, or social studies, or many other classes.

 The Wise Man’s Vision

I’m fortunate in that for my teaching career I worked with two good principals. The first not long enough, but Dr. Barry Beers and I had seven good years together at my second school. He’s since published Learning-Driven Schools for ASCD where others get to learn from his wisdom, or experiences, or well, let’s face it, my experiences with him! I like to think I’m responsible for at least a couple of his battle scars.

Anyway, Barry used to observe my class, as principals are wont to do, and would talk to me afterwards and say things like, “You do such a good job of going from whole-class instruction, to small-group instruction, to individualized instruction. I wish I could get more teachers to do that.” I’d probably quip back some smart-alecky comment like, “That’s what we call rehearsal, Dr. Beers.” See? He didn’t get that book for nuttin’.

“No,” he would argue, humoring me, “it’s more than that.” What he was wise enough to realize was that I was providing differentiated instruction. I was providing individualized instruction. It came naturally to me because that’s how I had come through the system. My directors and music teachers had done it for me so I was just doing what I knew. I always have a goal at the end: that performance. Whether we’re performing at Lincoln Center (which we did) or at the local senior center (which we also did), there was a performance at the end and I had to make sure everyone knew their part and could do it well.

He would tell me that he wished we could figure out a way to help other teachers bring more of this “rehearsal” style into their classrooms. We tried a few things every year, but we didn’t come up with a good solution during our time together. I think I’ve found a way, though, and that is through performance-based tasks. (He’s got some more ideas, so check out his book on ASCD.)

 Away on Yonder Star

Flash forward to the future (or not-so-distant past) and I’m working with teachers from a region of districts on the idea of performance-based tasks. Yes, it was cold. Yes, there was snow. But it was very warm inside and we didn’t have to worry about scratchy hay or dodging camel droppings. This was a two-day workshop, which is a luxury. Often districts want to try to squeeze in what amounts to a sea change—if you actually implement it—in a half a day or a day at the most. It’s a long-term process and can challenge teachers in many ways, including philosophically.

I say that often, but I finally have the proof to justify it. I won’t go into the whole process, but essentially it’s a complete curriculum design process that amounts to an overhaul of what most teachers do in their practice. Or maybe, it’s just more of being strategic and efficient. You start by analyzing—really trying to understand—what your content standards are asking your kids to do. From there you come up with true essential questions (which is harder than it sounds). Why is this important? Why do I need to know this? And then you design some real-world task in which the kids spend significant time doing whatever it is that shows them why it is important.

The task comes at the end of a reasonable period of time, like the end of a unit or the end of a grading period. And it usually takes some time to complete. Depending on the task, it can span 1-to-5 class periods. But because of this, it’s important to then work your way backwards to make sure all of the lessons and activities you do leading up to that task, your performance, include sufficient opportunity for students to master the task. That’s the backwards part.

You start with the standards; they tell you where to go. You determine the essential questions that really make it relevant to the kids. Then you design the task—the performance—and then work backwards to make sure you’ve covered all the bases. We had covered this process broadly on day one and had day two planned to spend quality time on developing these tasks and thinking about prerequisite activities and lessons. (The accompanying image is an attempt to wrap that all up in a graphic. It’s better when you see it animated.)


Curriculum Design Process
Repeat the sounding joy

On day two, I asked the teachers I was working with to recap the process we were using by telling me what—if anything—they had learned from day one. This was a good group of teachers. They had met in the past to discuss curriculum. They really worked hard and had some great ideas. They took to the idea of developing performance-based tasks and already had some good ones started. (Can’t wait to see them in action this spring.)

The first epiphany came when one of the teachers shared what he learned from day one. I have not been in this teacher’s class, but I have the feeling he is a good teacher—one you’d want to send your kids to. That’s the barometer I use. He’s very knowledgeable about his content and we had some good conversations around his table throughout the workshop. What he said was, “I’ve never really thought about this working backwards idea and making sure I’ve covered all the standards. I mean, I use the standards and know I have to cover them, but I’m usually so pressed to finish up one activity and get started with the next. I’ve never really thought about how they all work together.” That was his epiphany.

Mine was a split second later. “Wow! You’ve never thought about this?!?” No, I didn’t say it out loud. But, wow! Here’s probably a really good teacher and he’s expressing exactly what I’ve been grappling with. My professional friend Dr. Chris Corallo first shared this idea with me a few years ago when he noted that he believes schools don’t have curricula. They have standards, pacing guides, projects, benchmarks, and a range of other tests, but no real curricula. Add on the pressures of high-stakes tests, and teachers will actually tell you they would like to do your fun little tasks, but they have real work to do. They have to “cover the curriculum,” which is something I’ve actually had teachers tell me.

I’m so grateful for this teacher who shared what I consider a very brave and raw statement. He was laying it out on the line. What I interpreted he was saying was that although he probably does a pretty good job with what he’s doing, he might be spending more time “covering” the curriculum rather than actually teaching it. And maybe he’s not reaching every kid as well as he could. That’s what covering is about. You just have to get it done. Quality isn’t the issue. Neither is relevance nor effectiveness. If you cover it, you get a checkmark.

I was surprised to hear some of the other teachers echo his statement. I told you this was a good group of teachers—very insightful. One noted that she and her partner had been so quick to jump to the “activity,” that they lost sight of the real goals. They wanted to design a fun activity, but once they stepped back and focused on what was essential, they came up with a much more relevant activity, that still sounds like a lot of fun.

And so if I haven’t mixed enough metaphors already, I think I’m going to take on this notion of coverage head on this year. It’ll be my first resolution. We have to help teachers realize that curriculum design can make them more effective and efficient, something that’s not happening just with coverage. And it’s something every teacher can do. It takes some time up front, but there are payoffs in the end. And like this teacher, recognizing this is the first step.

Here’s to all of us being brave in 2013 and tackling change!

My Great Day! (at PHES)

Yesterday was such a great day that I wanted to share. I helped to pilot a new fifth-grade performance task at one of the elementary schools I’m working with. This is one of those events that can go well…or not. While probably not the intent, recent trends in education have been pushing teachers away from student-centered instruction. If you haven’t bought into it, it can be challenging . There’s definitely more activity going on, and if you like a pristine,  quiet classroom with kids in rows all doing the same thing, you can find the buzz of activity a little disconcerting. More importantly, if you’re not used to it, it can be challenging at a philosophical level.

The school and district administrators and I had talked about this last point. In previous visits, we observed what I see in a lot of classrooms—teachers so concerned about their students being successful that they don’t give them opportunities to struggle and even fail. There’s little challenge, as sometimes teachers do all the work and students spend their day copying. These teachers must be exhausted by the end of the day! But their students are just bored. I hope these performance tasks are a way to help teachers understand that student-centered instruction is possible, manageable, and a lot more fun—for students and teachers. I think we saw some of that yesterday.

The task

The performance task was intended to target key skills and knowledge the fifth-grade teachers covered in core content areas during the first nine-weeks grading period. It’s not a multiple-choice test, though, because those overarching skills oven require students to analyze and evaluate information and then create something. That’s hard to do when you’re selecting which bubble to fill in.

I unpacked and reviewed all the standards from the first nine weeks and described characteristics of the task. I spoke with the school administrators to identify a relevant topic. They talked with the teachers and came up with the idea of comparing white and wheat bread, because the kids are not happy about the switch to wheat bread in school lunches this year (as part of the new USDA guidelines for school lunches). Because a simple comparison—of cost or health benefits—didn’t reach the rigor of the standards, I ended up expanding the topic and had the kids create the best sandwich possible.

Without going into detail (but I’ll post the task), the kids were introduced to the topic through the guidelines their own school cafeteria faces. They have to create lunches that meet certain nutritional guidelines but that also have cost limitations. We simplified a few things and rounded out some numbers, but the final goal was that students had to design a healthy sandwich choosing from a number of ingredients and then design a product to convince their teachers, the school principals, and the other fifth-graders that it was the best solution. The total lunch had to cost less than $1.75, be less than 650 calories, and no more than 1/10 of the calories could come from saturated fat. Look at all that math! The presentations just had to be awesome—and some truly were.

Lunch TrayThe day

Teachers were prepared—both mentally, emotionally, and with resources—by the building leaders. They did a good job both logistically and professionally in setting up the day. The students had 2 hours to complete the task and had access to laptop carts, videocameras, posterboard, and other materials. Unfortunately, one of the teachers was absent, but it resulted in a fortuitous learning opportunity. The substitute teacher gallantly went on with the task. If designed correctly, the students should be able to complete the task on their own, so we (me and the building leaders) observed with interest to see how that class would work out.

The most striking observation was that the students in the class with the substitute immediately got down to work on the task and needed little guidance. The substitute introduced the task and let them at it! She gave little more direction than what was provided to the students in the task documents. The kids stayed on task pretty well throughout and we had a variety of PowerPoint presentations, some hand-drawn posters, and even a video-based commercial—all completed entirely by the students.

In comparison, in the other three classes, teachers were a little more reluctant to let go of control. Some of the teachers worked through the math components with the kids (so we don’t really know if the kids could create multi-step problems on their own, which is one of the standards). Some were prescriptive about what the students should create (limiting student input on creativity). Others controlled the pace of the class and wouldn’t let students begin until their work had been checked (preventing us from determining how well students could use their own problem-solving skills), with one teacher taking 50 minutes to review the task until gently prompted to let the kids get started. In one class, one young girl urgently repeated, “When can we get started?”

Ultimately, I think the teachers discovered that the students could work on their own on their projects. I certainly observed that. Some students, of course, needed support from teachers, but it appears to those of us observing that most kids were authentically engaged in the task and stayed on target throughout. After a quick review, the products from the class with the substitute weren’t substantially different from the other classes, but we decided we might find some middle ground in which the teachers provide some attention to the task requirements but without being so prescriptive. And the students in that class started finishing up after about 90 minutes, while some of the other classes took almost 3 hours. That’s a pretty telling piece of data on it’s own.

What’s Next?

I’m waiting to debrief with the principals after they have a chance to chat with the fifth-grade teachers. Were all the student projects wonderful? No, not really. Some did the barest minimum and others were so caught up in finding images and playing with backgrounds and fonts that they missed some of the critical details they were supposed to provide. But that’s valuable information, too.

The students had little or no problem searching the Internet and putting together PowerPoint presentations. And there were a couple of videos that kids did on their own. Incorporating technology more strategically during instruction and using it as a resource for solving problems is a logical focus moving on. But no one could deny the kids had a blast! One young man couldn’t control his excitement about sharing his solution he presented on a poster that he made up a song for it. There were several ingenious solutions, and lots of variety.

I’m hoping the teachers felt good after it was all over. They handled it well. Like I said, it can be hard to let go of the reins, but as we build more of these opportunities into the curriculum I’m sure they’ll do fine. And by the end of the year, I’m hoping they (and other teachers in their school and across the district) begin building their own tasks. When done well, these tasks can help students see the connections of why they’re studying something. It’s no longer just something to do for the teacher or for a grade. This was relevant to the kids and they not only expressed their opinions, but backed them up.

We identified our favorite top 10 and the kids are going to vote on the best presentations. I’m hoping the cafeteria actually makes some of the winning sandwiches! Talk about real-world application. Now I’m off to make a sandwich of my own. That task made me hungry.

Please…Stop Boring Our Students!

I recently had a nice dinner with a colleague of mine while on a business trip. The food was good and the place a little eclectic. Conversations with her are always good, but that night’s was especially poignant. The conversation ended up that way from chatting with our server, a very pleasant young woman who had just started going to college, when she summed up much of what we have been working against in schools. She said she was really enjoying college, despite what she had expected. In her words, “I just thought it was going to be boring like high school.” Sigh.

Unfortunately, I have to agree. I have been doing school visits and working with schools for more than a decade. I’ve done appraisals and audits and lots of professional development in real school in many different states. I’ve met lots of great teachers with exciting and successful classrooms. These teachers aren’t limited by grade or content area, and I’m just as likely to meet one while sitting on the reading circle carpet in an elementary classroom or walking the halls of a giant high school. Many of these classrooms have similar characteristics, including what I like to call “the hum of learning” that is the natural byproduct of interesting and engaging learning. I love that sound.

The flip side, however, is that more often than not, I am in classes that are quite the opposite. Students are quiet. Seated–yes, usually in rows–working on their own and for the most part are simply compliant. Teacher talk predominates, unless there’s a three-day movie extravaganza going on–with the lights out, of course–or students mumble or barely reply to teacher questions. Often students have their heads down or are flat out sleeping. But I have to ask, who can blame them? I’ve observed classes where I’ve been so bored that I can barely hide my yawns. (Yawning is not something that gets you asked back.) Luckily, I can get up and leave, but not those poor kids who have to sit in that class day after day. Sometimes, when I see the looks in their eyes, I want to sneak them out with me.

These are the same teachers that repeat many of the same lines to me. Statements like, “You don’t understand our kids,” even when I’ve been working with those same kids for more than a year, or I’ve met their kids or kids just like them week after week in school after school. Are your kids really that different? Or when pushed to try something more engaging, I really (honestly!) get comments that I thought were an urban teaching legend, like, “That’s all well and good, but I don’t have time to do any of that stuff. I have too much to do to cover the curriculum.” I’m sorry, but distributing worksheet number 9,654b and playing a recording of the textbook to your class isn’t covering your curriculum…or other things more personal.

So for kids everywhere, kids like that young woman who is having a great time in college and is finding learning challenging and engaging, I have the following suggestions if you want to stop boring your students and make learning more important to them. Please, your students deserve it.

Get out of your chair. After I left the classroom to go back to school, I quickly put on 20 pounds. I wasn’t really eating differently or going in for wild college binges with age-appropriate beverages. I just wasn’t on my feet as much. It got worse when I got a job at a non-profit and sat most of the day. I’m still trying to work that off.

In the exemplary classes I visit, teachers rarely sit down. They may be up at the board for a while, but usually they’re all around the room. They check in with individuals and groups and spend more time getting students to perform or “do” the work than completing handouts and reading silently. It’s not uncommon, however, for me to visit schools where when I walk through the halls and look in to classrooms, 9 out of 10 teachers are sitting behind their desk. I’ve often thought of doing an informal video poll and just walk through the halls with my cell phone recording what’s going on in each classroom. O.K., I’m not going to win any favors there, but what an easy and interesting piece of data any administrator could collect.

Know “Why.” Last summer I was working with a history teacher who noted that her entire curriculum was about different wars. I asked, “Why study war? Why is it important?” We chatted more about standards and activities and I asked again, “Why is it important to study war?” I asked that question at least four times over the span of an hour and never got an answer from the teacher. Nothing about the nature of conflict and how it’s a basic characteristic of people and society. Or that it’s often a complex decision that has to be made based on weighing a variety of factors. That would’ve been a starter. It happened again recently when I asked a group of math teachers, “Why study geometry? Why is it important?” No answer there, either.

If you don’t know why your content is important to your students, why are you teaching it? Last year I had a different math teacher tell me that it was important for students to know the content being addressed that day because they had to take a test on it at the end of the year. Really?!? That’s it? I remember my high school math teacher, Mr. Edson, who probably deserves sainthood for putting up with me, because I was the one that was always asking, “why do I need to know this?” Mr. Edson could tell me and so should you.

I defer to one of the most important teachers in my life, my saxophone teacher Doug Graham. After completing my senior recital I told him I didn’t know what I would do next without being able to come to saxophone lessons. He set me straight. He told me, “All this time, I haven’t been teaching you how to play the saxophone. I’ve been teaching you how to practice.” Wise man. I tried to keep that in mind with my own students and now with the teachers I work with. I’m not teaching you how to teach, I’m teaching you how to learn.

Keep it real. If you review the Common Core standards, which I’ve been doing a lot lately, you’ll notice the phrase “real world” crops up often. The other one that shows up a lot is “create,” but that’s often a harder place to start than “real world,” perhaps because we actually do live in the real world every day. Or I hope so. Every week, if not every day, you should be helping students to understand how what you are doing in class is important in their “real world.” I guess this is a corollary to knowing why, but knowing why and acting upon it are two different things in my book.

My colleagues and I have had a deluge of work recently around creating, as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe would call them, performance task assessments. These are tasks that require students to apply foundational knowledge from any content area (and sometimes several) in a real-world setting. Better yet, they should require students to “create” something–a solution or an actual product–so you get to the goals of the Common Core with one activity. At first glance, they may look a little scary, as if they require a lot of work. But after you’ve developed one, you’ll see they’re not, and that they’re based on things you can find every day. But you do have to try, and not just make excuses about covering your curriculum while you head to the photocopier.

Generally, you can pick up a newspaper or magazine, or watch a news show, or read a blog with current events and find a real-world problem that has some implications for your content area. Dan Meyer has a bunch of these in his “three-act math” series that you can download for free. They can be short, like a bell ringer, or take up from one to several class periods.

As an example, I received the most current Newsweek in which the cover story by Megan McArdle story is, “Is College a Lousy Investment?” (You can see a video on the topic here.) What a great question, and how more real can that be for kids? It obviously involves the social sciences but the research aspect is really what science is all about. Remember the scientific method? What if kids did a research project about it? And it certainly involves math concepts, like slope. I bet you can probably regurgitate the formula for slope, which you needed to pass a test at some point, but now you can actually use it. In the real world. And depending on what your students create–a position paper, an infographic, a podcast, or a dossier they use to have a conversation with their parents–language arts, communication skills, and many different literacies obviously come into play.

So, ask your students. Is college a lousy investment? Or ask them something else that’s real to them. In fact, that’s what I’ll be doing soon. I’ll create a performance task on this topic for free download. Check back soon.