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.