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.

Wanted: Non-thinker; must be able to color

Imagine the jobs of the future. What are they going to be? Sure, there will still be doctors, lawyers, and even a few Indian chiefs, although the latter has a pretty limited applicant pool. But what kind of doctors and lawyers? There are now so many specialized fields within fields. It’s hard to imagine how traditional jobs will evolve or change.

And then there are new jobs. When my grandmother was born in 1901, no one was thinking about growing up to be an astronaut, a physical therapist, or a systems analyst. And then there are some that have evolved in my lifetime, like forensic scientist or nanobiologist. Not to mention some of the careers my younger family members have, like game designer, digital artist, and a specialist who develops algorithms to emulate textures in the backgrounds of digitally animated movies. I don’t know what to call that job, but my nephew’s having fun doing it.

Even developing and delivering online professional development wasn’t something I dreamed about doing as a kid, although I’ve done a good bit of it. It’s not what I went to school to do. But the opportunity availed itself and what it came down to was that I drew on what I did know and then added to those skills by learning new things. So, in a way, my job was to be a learner. Didn’t see that on the application.

Being a learner is the one thing that all educators can tackle with their students. And it’s the one thing that’s going to prepare those students for those future jobs that have yet to be developed or even dreamed of. Being college and career ready is far less about knowing a limited set of facts and figures than it is being able to find and evaluate new information and being able to use it to address problems. But that’s not what I see happening in classrooms today.

Job Ads of the Future

A few years ago I was attending a conference in Virginia Beach. I was in the hotel lobby waiting for some colleagues when I overheard the manager talking to an employee about the current round of interviews she was conducting. She summed up her method of evaluation as, “Hire the smile, and I can train the rest.”

It may be a simplistic comparison, but really, how can we teach our students all the facts they’ll need to know to be successful in college and career? We can’t. And nor should we. But teachers are trying! This manager wanted someone with basic communication skills and at least a little personal autonomy. The “how to” of the job was something she could take care of. I’ve heard similar stories from those in all kinds of careers. “Just give me someone who can think on his feet!”

The push for students ready for college and careers is intended to encourage teachers to promote students to think, to persevere through challenge, and to develop skills to solve problems—some that we don’t even know exist, yet. But measuring that intent with a barrage of multiple-choice tests and somehow equating that to job performance has done just the opposite. Despite our best intentions, in many schools, we’ve done more harm than good.

I visit a lot of schools across the country and have done so for many years now. Unfortunately, what I see most consistently is the force-feeding of students trivial information out of context. Very often, the same content is presented over and over, year after year. I’m just as likely to see students coloring the same or similar maps from kindergarten through high school. I saw the same basic lesson about simple machines in a second grade class recently that was covered in a sophomore physical science class, and probably had been covered at least every other year as those kids went through school. Coloring, copying, cutting, and pasting are not preparing our students to become learners.

Few students are challenged to think or struggle or even allowed to “fail.” Pressured by a litany of low-level tests, teachers are doing all the work for their students, but they’re doing them no favors. How are these kids going to solve the financial crisis—ours or the ones they’ll encounter? Or ensure potable water for everyone on the planet? Or…

So imagine those jobs in the future again. What are they going to be? Micro-political analyst? Digital forensics comptroller? Extraterrestrial tourism promulgator? Based on the skills I see our students learning today, that job ad will most likely have to look something like this:

Wanted: Non-thinker; Must be able to color

Position available for a docile non-thinker. Must be able to color, copy, cut and paste. Neatness not an issue. Ability to fill in the blank a plus. Should be tolerant of repetitive tasks that have no consequence. Sleepers will be considered but those able to sit for hours without disturbing others preferred. To apply, copy the given resumé and add your name in the highlighted, underlined, space with the red circle around it. Individuals with personality need not apply.


Inaugural Digital Learning Day

My Wild Self

My Wild Self

I celebrated the first-ever Digital Learning Day in about the best way possible…working with teachers on planning for digital learning! I’m working with a group of talented and skilled K-12 teachers from a single school district and we’re beginning to craft a new technology plan for the district. Whenever I visit districts, I am often seen as the “tech guy,” so I really tried to make sure that we focused on students and learning and making sure our tech plan supported the needs of the district and any initiatives they had underway. In order to do that, we started the day with a student-oriented activity.

Design A 21st Century Student

To open the day, teams of teachers divided themselves into groups and worked together to determine what a 21st Century student needed to be successful. They then had to design a visual representation of that student in some way. We had posterboards and markers handy, but I’m very proud to announce that all of our submissions were digital. Some used their iPad to draw, others combined images they found online, but most opted to use a site I mentioned that was the origin of the idea called Build Your Wild Self. This site from the New York Zoos and Aquarium was recommended to me by one of my graduate students (Thanks, Shenette!) who teaches second grade. She used it for a best practice lesson on habitats, because the “wild self” you create comes with a wide range of options on body parts and accoutrements, but you have to justify why you used them. We did the same with the 21st Century student.

The future selves the teachers created, whether with the site or not, came with some great justifications. Truthfully, I had only budgeted 30 minutes for the activity as an ice breaker and to get creative juices flowing, but we took a whole hour. I believe it was worth it. In the end, the teachers noted that our 21st Century student needed some of the following:

  • Antennae because they’re always networking, but a need to understand how to connect networking to education
  • Wings because they are often connected and may rely on mobile devices, especially wireless devices
  • To come out out their shells and develop social skills in a variety of settings, including face-to-face settings
  • A device to support knowledge: they need to know how to access, assess, and apply knowledge
  • Wide eyes because they are often visually stimulated and enjoy a wide range of stimulation
  • Devices they relate to so that their different learning preferences can be addressed
  • Wings because the teachers want them to soar over adversity and to rise to their potential
  • Big ears because they’re probably always listening, although teachers need to help them develop the skills to be critical listeners
  • Powerful hindquarters or fins because teachers want to push or propel them to success

This was a great start to a long day full of lots of hard decisions and analyzing different forms of data. Please feel free to use it yourself, and if you do, let me know how it worked. If I get permission, I’ll post some of the examples from the teams, but in the mean time, my own wild self is presented below.