WILL MAY BE ‘MORBID’ OR ‘MAGICAL’?

May has been an educational ‘dead zone’ for years.  Because of our national obsession with standardized test scores, teachers–particularly in low income areas–spend class time showing students how to guess at answers, giving practice tests, and even teaching children how to fill in bubbles for the standardized, multiple choice ‘bubble’ tests that await them.  These activities come with a huge opportunity cost for students, because they are of no educational benefit whatsoever and probably set their learning back; for teachers, they are an insult to their profession.  And school districts spend billions of dollars buying, administering, and grading the bubble tests required by their states and the federal government.

When I was reporting I occasionally heard people  complaining–in song–about  “the morbid, miserable month of May,” riffing off an old Stephen Foster tune, “The Merry, Merry Month of May.”  As I recall, the expression surfaced in 2003 or 2004, which is when the unintended consequences of the 2001 federal “No Child Left Behind” law became apparent.  Because NCLB penalized schools that didn’t achieve what it called ‘adequate yearly progress’ on standardized tests, many districts eliminated art, music, drama, journalism, and even recess in order to concentrate on ‘the basics.’ 

That’s when the month of May became a ‘morbid’ dead zone, educationally speaking. 

I don’t remember where I first heard the expression. It might have been in the suburban North Carolina elementary school that held ‘pep rallies’ in advance of the upcoming state exams, or in Richmond, Virginia, where a veteran middle school teacher told me “Teaching and learning are done; now it’s all test prep.”  Or perhaps it was the Chicago high school teacher who confessed that he vomited in his wastebasket when he saw his students’ scores, or the custodian in a Success Academy charter school in New York City who said he rinsed out classroom trash cans every night because students regularly threw up in them during testing.  Another possibility is the Washington, DC, parent whose young son couldn’t sleep because his teacher said she’d get fired if they didn’t do well on the tests.  

The good news is that May 2020 does not have to be ‘morbid,’ ‘miserable,’ or ‘malignant.’  Because schools are closed and state standardized testing has been cancelled, May is a blank slate–and an opportunity for us to make it ‘magical’ and ‘memorable.’   

News reports indicate that many parents are unhappy in the role of ‘teacher at home.’  (They are also coming to realize just how hard it is to be an effective teacher!)  Teachers are frustrated because nothing in their training prepared them for teaching remotely.  And so, because the March-April experiment in ‘remote learning’ hasn’t been a rousing success and because May is a tabula rasa, let’s embrace ‘out of the box’ thinking. Stop thinking like educators whose jobs depend on high test scores.  Think differently!

(An earlier blog post about librarians, swimming instructors,  highway engineers, and gardeners is here.)

Imagine for a moment that you don’t have a captive audience (because right now you don’t).  IE, think like a librarian. Public libraries are different from schools in one important way: they do not have required attendance. But even though no one is forced to attend the library, library usage continues to climb.  To survive and prosper, librarians have had to identify their audiences and find ways to draw them into their buildings and electronic networks.  For the most part, they’ve succeeded without pandering.  That’s what’s called for in education at this moment.

With school buildings shuttered, students do not have to ‘attend’ anything.  They can log on to classes to get credit for ‘being there,’ but there’s no way for the teachers to know who’s paying attention and who’s FaceTiming friends.  More than 25% of students in Los Angeles, for example, aren’t even bothering to log on, and even parents who are monitoring their children’s efforts cannot be certain that they’re paying attention.  

So the parents and teachers might consider asking questions, instead of simply giving assignments: 

          What would make this material appealing to you? 

          What would persuade you to invest your energies in this subject? 

          What else are you interested in?  

For example, perhaps focusing on one subject at a time might be more appealing than trying to study five subjects every day.  The block schedule of 50-minute periods may work inside school buildings, but that doesn’t mean it can transfer to the home.  What if we compressed the semester of American history or American Literature into the month of May? Would a series of deep dives be more engaging?  For openers, try asking the students.

However, students shouldn’t get to make all the decisions about what they’re studying.  After all, a central purpose of the early years of school is the transmission of knowledge, and so the basics are also part of the deal.  Children need to learn spelling rules (“I before E, except after C”), the multiplication tables, how to divide and carry, and other basics. They need to know that letters have sounds associated with them (i.e., Phonics and Phonemic Awareness).  Someone has to teach them that, if you put an E at the end of words like ‘ton,’ the O sound changes from ‘short’ to ‘long.’ While that may seem like heavy lifting for parents who haven’t trained to teach, they can relax.  Free resources like the Khan Academy, ReadWorks, and Zearn are available to help children and parents with basic skills. Resources are plentiful: PBS is making all of Ken Burns’ documentaries available for screening, and former first lady Michelle Obama is on line, reading stories to young children, to cite just two examples.

Young people must be deeply involved in setting the learning goals and in figuring out how results will be measured.  It makes no sense to wait for bubble test results.  Teachers, parents, and students should assess progress frequently, take a clear-headed look at the results, and adapt accordingly. That also means that leadership must abandon the all-too-prevalent “Gotcha” attitude toward teachers. The new thinking has to be Assess to improve,” and not “Test to punish.”

Plan teaching with that in mind. Don’t take it personally when the student/your child doesn’t get it the first time, or the fifth. Explore the reasoning behind the error, but not punitively. Celebrate wherever possible.  Parents can teach their children valuable skills through family activities like cooking, playing board games, and planting a spring garden.  Above all, parents should recognize that they are learners too, because that makes it perfectly OK to say, “I don’t know, so let’s find out together.”   And leave plenty of time for play……

Accept that it’s a journey.  Be comfortable making mistakes. Teach children that failure is a huge part of learning–and learn along with the kids. 

Projects, done alone or with other children, are an important part of learning, but in May 2020 projects are essential, because they give working parents extended time away from the kids.  While creating the projects will take some time, once underway, the children can work alone, or with their friends and classmates on Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts.   For some suggestions about worthwhile projects, go here, here, here, here, and here

If they are connected to the internet, that is.  The huge gap in material resources that existed before this crisis is now front-and-center.  By some estimates, more than one million California students do not have connectivity.  While some tech companies are stepping up to provide broadband access to low income communities, more needs to be done because all students have to be able to connect with the world beyond their homes.  

While traditional school involves a lot of consumption of information–like memorizing state capitals, the Periodic Table, or the formula for the volume of a cube–the suspension of standardized testing has created a tabula rasa for the rest of the school year.  It’s an opportunity to turn young learners into producers of knowledge. Not video game players, but creators of Apps. Not watchers of films, but producers of their own documentaries.  Not drudges, but dreamers.

Education is much more than knowledge transmission. Much of what goes on in the teenage years in particular is the development and creation of the individual.  What Jacques Barzun called “Building a Self” involves discovery and trial-and-error, and that journey becomes much more interesting when kids are creating knowledge, not just giving back the right answers in order to get good grades.  

So, how should learning be assessed while schools remain closed? California flirted with the notion of giving all students A’s but abandoned that when its higher education system objected.  “Pass/Fail” may end up being the popular option, although hard-working students and dedicated teachers will object, because that ‘one size fits all’ approach discounts their efforts.  Randi Weingarten, the sensible President of the American Federation of Teachers, believes teachers and students should design ‘capstone projects.’  “We’ve got to trust educators and students to come up with meaningful projects that demonstrate student learning, and to do so in ways that minimize the inequalities of the digital divide,” she wrote in an email. “Before the pandemic, most students had seven months of learning, so let’s end the year with meaningful projects.” 

Will we resume our obsession with standardized testing once the Covid-19 pandemic begins to fade? Certainly there will be pressure to return to “business as usual” from entrenched economic interests and the powerful ‘school reform’ lobby, but it should be obvious that ‘business as usual’ just ain’t gonna happen in education or in a lot of other activities.  I hope we come together to reject the current ‘test to punish’ approach and replace it with systems that ‘assess to improve.’  Schooling cannot be a ‘gotcha game’ or a sorting system.  We need all hands on deck to rebuild our shaken economy.

As we plan for a better future, let’s stop spending billions of dollars buying, administering, and grading bubble tests and use the money instead to lower class size, improve access to technology, and raise teacher salaries.  

I believe that education’s “New Normal” has a good chance to become child-centric. This is our opportunity to create schools that pose a new question–”How Is This Child Smart?”–and then ensure that the answers determine how she/he is taught.  

This isn’t a pipe-dream of a feverish mind going bonkers in isolation.  The brilliant Andy Hargreaves has also been speculating about education’s post-Covid 19 future:

“Well-being will no longer be dismissed as a fad. Before this crisis, there were murmurings that student well-being was a distraction from proper learning basics. No more.  It’s now clear that without their teachers’ care and support it’s hard for many young people to stay well and focused. Being well, we’ll appreciate, isn’t an alternative to being successful. It’s an essential precondition for achievement, especially among our most vulnerable children.”

Before Covid-19, parents might ask their children, “What did you learn in school today?”  Going forward let’s ask, “What good questions did you come up with?  How’s the search for answers going?”

The goal of education, wherever it’s occurring, is not to get correct answers. The end game is life-long curiosity.

 

To Succeed in Teaching, Think Like a …..

Because the pandemic has exposed the fundamental inequities in our education system, there’s lots of ‘Big Picture’ thinking going on about American public education.  For example, Paul Reville, the former Massachusetts Secretary of Education who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, hopes that this pandemic will be education’s “Sputnik moment.” 

I hope that he and others who are looking ahead are right and that we will fundamentally overhaul our approach. Because I have written about this in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education, I want to focus here on succeeding RIGHT NOW.  Not next year when schools have reopened, but tomorrow and next week, when teachers and parents are struggling to achieve ‘home learning.’

Four pathways to success: 

  1. Think like a librarian
  2. Think like a swimming instructor
  3. Think like a highway engineer
  4. Think like a gardener

Librarians do not have a captive audience. After all, no one is required to attend the library.  To survive and prosper, librarians have had to identify their audiences and find ways to appeal to them, to draw them into their buildings or electronic networks.  For the most part, they’ve succeeded, and without pandering.  

With school buildings shuttered, students do not have to ‘attend’ anything.  They can log on to classes to get credit for ‘being there,’ but there’s no way for the teachers to know who’s paying attention and who’s FaceTiming friends.  And we know that more than 25% of students in Los Angeles, for example, aren’t even bothering to log on. Even parents who are monitoring their children’s efforts cannot be certain that the kids are paying attention.  

So the adults must ask students the librarian’s questions: 

          What can I do to make material this appealing to you? 

          How can I persuade you to invest your energies in this subject? 

          What else are you interested in?  (Because knowing that might allow you to teach this important material at the same time,)

For example, perhaps focusing on one subject for a month at a time might be more appealing than trying to study five subjects every day.  The block schedule of 50-minute periods may work inside school buildings, but that doesn’t mean it can simply transfer to the home.  What if we compressed the semester of American history into one month, American literature into another month, and so on? Would a series of deep dives be more engaging?  For openers, try asking the students.

Swimming instructors are measured by results. If wannabe swimmers don’t learn to swim, the instructor cannot claim, “I taught them effectively, so it’s not my fault that they cannot swim.”  No, he or she has to find new ways to teach swimming, because the instructor owns the failure.  In my experience, many teachers already think the way competent swimming instructors do. But not enough!  Every teacher and parent has to live by the mantra, “If they’re not learning, then I am not teaching.”   

And I don’t mean waiting around for bubble test results at the end of the year (or later).  Teachers need to assess frequently, take a clear-headed look at the results, and adapt accordingly. That means asking for help.  That also means that leadership must abandon the all-too-prevalent “Gotcha” attitude toward teachers. The new thinking has to be: “Assess to improve,” and not “Test to punish.”

Highway engineers–the men and women who design our roads and streets–have one important goal in mind: to get us safely from Point A to Point B.  Because their data and their own life experience tells them that drivers’ attention wanders and cars sometimes stray and weave, highway engineers build roads whose lanes are about one-third wider than the cars that travel on them.  Without that extra room for predictable error, we’d have many more highway accidents. Instead, nearly all of us arrive at our destinations safely.

Apply that to teaching and learning, and we will have an education system that treats failure as nothing more than an opportunity to try again.  Let me trot out the story of WD-40 one more time. If the chemical engineers who developed that ubiquitous product had been penalized for failing, work would have stopped after their first try, which they conveniently labelled “WD-1.”  Instead, they tried and failed 38 more times before hitting on a formula that worked!

Plan your teaching with that in mind. Don’t take it personally when a student doesn’t get it the first time, or the fifth. Explore the reasoning behind the error, but not punitively. Celebrate wherever possible.

Gardeners understand that what they are involved in is a work in progress.  And works in progress take time, faith, work, and love. The last thing a gardener would ever do is pull up the emerging plant or flower by the roots to see if it’s growing.  Nurturing is essential. That’s true whether or not schools are open.  

Gardeners know that roses demand one kind of attention, which is different from what green beans, tomatoes, and hydrangeas require.  “One size fits all’ doesn’t apply to gardening or to teaching and learning. The educational equivalent of the gardener’s mind are the questions, “How is this child smart, what is she interested in, and what can I do to nurture her interests?”  

What’s more, gardeners don’t hover over their seedlings; they pay the appropriate amount of attention and then walk away, leaving nature, the sun, the earth, and the seeds to do the work of growing.  

To be like gardeners, teachers and parents cannot hover; they cannot expect students to be ‘on task’ all the time.  In fact, in these awful times, play and free time have never been more important.

Those are suggestions for successful teaching and learning now.  Looking down the road, here are three thoughts about how the system must be changed:

  1. Most likely to succeed are those school districts that have been encouraging teachers to work together and have given them the time to watch each other teach and to grow professionally in other ways.  Districts that have empowered teachers to use technology for exploration and production are better suited to today’s new reality.
  2. Least likely to succeed are districts that either are technology-poor or habitually use technology for control (counting and measuring) rather than exploration and production.
  3. The current model of teaching in most American public schools is one of ‘Crowd Control,’ and not teaching and learning.  Simply put, many teachers are assigned too many students for them to be able to help more than a handful. Sadly, things haven’t changed all that much from when I taught high school English in the mid-60’s. Back then, I was responsible for five classes of roughly 25 students each, a total of 125 high school 10th, 11th, and 12th graders.  Because I believed that students needed to write and rewrite regularly, I was reading and correcting 250 short (1 page, written in class) papers every week. I could handle this because I was 22 and fresh out of college. However, I know now that I couldn’t have kept that up for long. In fact, I left teaching for graduate school after two years–two wonderful but exhausting years.

 

SOME TRUTHS ABOUT TEACHERS

Last week in this space I posted an almost entirely fabricated** article about faux “research’ I claimed to have done by hitchhiking while posing as a retired teacher, CPA, doctor, et cetera. Although the piece was posted on April Fools Day, a fair number of readers took what I wrote at face value.

Why would smart people take me at face value? I think it’s because my phony research supported their core belief–teachers matter–and they simply couldn’t wrap their brains around the notion of anyone poking fun at that.

Teachers Matter” is a core belief of mine as well, so let me be serious for a moment, because what many teachers are doing during this awful pandemic again demonstrates their value.  

Our teachers are stepping up big time, judging from news reports and from the stories I’m hearing from family and friends.  In some communities teachers have organized ‘drive throughs’ of the neighborhoods where their students live, so the kids can come outside and wave hello–from a safe distance–to their teachers.  Here’s one TV report about how teachers in California are staying connected with their elementary school students.  

A high school teacher I know well is working with some of his students–at a distance–making PPE for three local hospitals.  He bought sheets of plexiglass, and they are cutting and bending it, then attaching straps, to produce the face shields that protect First Responders from the virus. 

Many educators are delivering meals or handing them out at schools because they understand that, for many low income students, meals at school might be the only food they got that day.  In fact, the nutritional needs of children is the reason politicians like New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio delayed in closing their schools (a decision that has cost New York City dearly). 

Here’s an excerpt from a report from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (a newspaper I urge you to consider subscribing to): The New Kensington-Arnold School District, where all 1,975 students qualify, is handing out to-go bags with breakfast and lunch items from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays at seven locations for all students 18 and younger. The district asked parents and older students to fill out a survey to indicate continued participation in the meal program to improve efficiency and waste as little food as possible.

And the Oil City Area School District in Venango County, where more than 90% of the students are eligible, said anyone from 1 to 18 years old could receive a bagged meal that would include lunch for that day as well as breakfast for the next day. The meals are available from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Seventh Street Elementary School or at the high school.

Steel Valley, one of the school districts with 100% reduced lunch eligibility, gave students backpacks of free food on a Friday to get them through the weekend and said it will continue to serve meals to students on weekdays during the shutdown.

Since 11,000,000 American children–one out of every seven–live in ‘food-insecure’ households, what teachers and school districts in Pittsburgh and elsewhere are doing qualifies as ‘life-saving’ work.

Equally important, some teachers are making ‘house calls’ via phone or Skype and other apps or they’re sharing their email addresses, making themselves available for questions. That’s an experience our grandchildren and the grandchildren of friends are having. 

Stepping up for their students during this pandemic has taken a toll, including the ultimate sacrifice, as the newspaper Education Week is reporting.

The pandemic has also revealed the fault lines in our education system and society at large, including pervasive economic inequality.  Online learning is literally impossible when students cannot get online because their homes don’t have wifi or because they don’t have the devices. “Nearly one in five students between kindergarten and 12th grade do not have computers or speedy Web connections, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center in 2018, the latest available, which said this “homework gap” disproportionately plagues low-income families and people of color,” The Washington Post reported recently.

Two weeks ago in this space I wrote, “(A) lot of school systems seem to be reflexively behaving as if they could simply transplant school’s routines to the home.  Some are emailing or posting lesson plans that they expect students (and parents) to follow.”  It may be worse than I thought. Apparently most school districts hadn’t thought through how to respond, and so they’re simply trying to impose school’s routines on American homes, with class periods and worksheets, the whole nine yards. 

“Same old, same old” isn’t working, as The Los Angeles Times reported recently.  Profiling senior Emilio Hernandez, an honors student taking AP calculus, physics, design, English, engineering and government, The Times writes, Now, with a borrowed laptop from school and family crowded in the living room, he’s struggling to make school feel like, well, school. He has trouble falling asleep and finds himself going to bed later and later — sometimes as late as 3 a.m. “Assignments that would normally take me two hours or 30 minutes are now taking me days to complete. I just … can’t focus,” he said. “I don’t have anyone giving me direction. It’s just me reading and having to give myself the incentive to do the work.”

Think about that: An honor student who is taking an incredibly demanding schedule hasn’t learned–or been expected–to strike out on his own.  To me, that’s the bitter fruit of the top-down, standards-based, test-centric approach to ‘education’ that so many politicians and so-called ‘school reformers’ have embraced.

Superimposing school on the home is not working for students at all levels.  LA reports that on some days half of students don’t bother to log on–IE, they’re skipping school. New York City is having trouble getting kids to participate, and, of course, no one knows whether kids who do sign in are actually paying attention.  Basically, given the opportunity “to vote with their feet,” kids are (electronically) walking away from school as they know it.

That’s precisely why this is the perfect time to rethink public education.  State standardized tests (given to meet federal rules) won’t be required this year.  Many states have already relaxed their rules requiring 180 days of classroom-based instruction, but now it’s time to go further.  Randi Weingarten, the wise leader of the American Federation of Teachers, has some suggestions for evaluating the work that students are doing at home, including a ‘capstone project.’  She writes, in part: There are many ways outside of state accountability systems to show student learning, as teachers can attest. They just need the freedom to use their professional judgment. Teachers do this throughout the year — administering tests and guiding students on projects and portfolios. We know that students love to show what they know to people who matter to them. We need to trust teachers, in consultation with their principals and colleagues, to design meaningful, educationally appropriate tasks.

However, this will be harder than it sounds, because for at least the past 30 years teachers have not been trusted with student evaluation and curriculum development.  Instead, those at the top have devoted years and millions of dollars to creating “teacher-proof” materials, a concept that should boggle the minds of everyone who cares about learning.

Teachers who have gotten accustomed to being told what to do may have trouble adjusting to new freedoms and responsibilities–not to mention adapting to the new experience of teaching on-line. 

When Edutopia brought about 500 teachers together (electronically), much was learned, including “Less is More.”  Here’s an excerpt: If your district allows it, you should plan to do less. Students won’t be able to work as productively, anyway—so if you can’t scale back you’ll be sending them work they cannot do—and your own life and family need added care.  “Feedback from students and families over the last 10 days in Italy is ‘less is more,’” commented Jo Gillespie. “Consider that parents are trying to work from home, and siblings are vying for computer and Wi-Fi time. … And (Stacy) Keevan, the teacher in Hong Kong with weeks of experience, confirmed that time and distance play funny games during a crisis: “What would normally take you one class period to teach in the classroom will probably take you twice as long.”

The AFT’s Weingarten suggests a “capstone project” for all students, giving each the opportunity to shine.  I think the goal should be ‘knowledge production,’ and not the spitting back of information. Project-based learning is a good way to encourage knowledge production because when children explore their interests, they acquire and create knowledge. When children DO, they learn.

Interestingly, some commercial interests are responding to the pandemic by doing things that will make it harder for students to become producers. For example, Google is opening up its gaming venues for free–as if today’s kids needed to spend even more time playing video games.  The goal here is to set the hook even deeper, to keep everyone consuming.  

As I wrote last week, In the age of Covid-19, we ought to be encouraging children to ask good questions.  Home Learning entails the search for answers.  Before Covid-19, parents might ask their children at dinner, “What did you learn in school today?”  Now, let’s ask, “What good questions did you come up with? How’s the search for answers going?” The goal of education, the goal of Home Learning, is not the right answer. The end game is perpetual, life-long curiosity.

What changes should be made in public education once the pandemic passes? What are the lessons of this pandemic for public education?  Kiah Duncan has some suggestions

  • Remote learning days should be embedded throughout the school year once or twice a month.  School Improvement days should become remote learning half days. That would help teachers improve their digital teaching skills by working together and give students regular practice so that it is easier for them to do on their own at home.
  • Each state should ensure that all students have a device that they can use and replace any devices that are not returned.  If any state is willing to implement remote learning, they should be accountable for ensuring that each school has the necessary amount of access.
  • All teachers should be required to have a technology element integrated into a lesson that is formally or informally observed each school year.  The only way to effectively assist teachers that may require more help is by knowing what they are doing and giving them the opportunity to improve before it becomes mandatory.

Just as important, we need to reimagine public schools and teachers must be deeply involved in this process.  I write about what schools could be in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.  We simply don’t have enough young people to continue with the current “sorting” approach to education that picks out winners and losers. Instead, we have to ask of each child, “How is she smart?” instead of “How smart is she?” and proceed accordingly.

Ironically, schools need to become more like most American homes, instead of trying to superimpose their tired routines on our households.

————————————-

**  It wasn’t entirely fabricated. When, at age 21, I hitch-hiked around the country, a lot of drivers (men and women) accosted me; however, I am not writing an autobiography called “In the Car Where (Might Have) It Happened.”

A WEEK LATE….

HITCHING AND LEARNING

I began hitch-hiking out of necessity, but before long it became an obsession, and then a serious research project.  It all began last fall when I took a job as an unpaid Media Advisor (really a PR person) for “No Nails Left Behind,” a small non-profit in the upper reaches of the Bronx that provides jobs for formerly incarcerated residents of the Borough. 

(The organization’s name was a play on the wildly successful, much admired education program, “No Child Left Behind.”)

Basically NNLB’s workers scour construction sites for damaged nails, which they collect and then straighten out for resale. I thought it was a great story that more people should know about–and perhaps contribute to (because the income from the sales of one-used nails alone, we feared, might not be enough to keep the program operating).

The public transportation from our apartment in the upper east side of Manhattan to the northern edge of the Bronx was inadequate and time-consuming, and so I ended up taking a Lyft or Uber twice a day, five days a week. I couldn’t justify that expense, and so I decided to hitch-hike.

Standing on the corner of 79th and 3rd–for what seemed like hours–was beyond frustrating, and so, in desperation, one morning I made myself this sign:

IMG_1963

Within minutes I had a ride!  I think on that first day it took three separate rides to get to NNLB’s office with only about 10 minutes of waiting.  Getting home was equally easy.  So that’s how I traveled to work for the next few weeks, saving big bucks and working on schemes to publicize NNLB.

Unfortunately, that all came to a screeching halt when one morning the organization’s Director called us all together to say that she had to close the operation.  It wasn’t the nails sales, she said. It was the fact that seven nail gatherers had been arrested the previous day; it turns out that going on construction sites at night was illegal, something no one had thought of.

So I was out of a job, but the effectiveness of hitch-hiking intrigued me. I always asked the drivers why they had picked me up. What was it about my being a retired teacher that led them to stop?  I heard great stories and began taking copious notes, not sure of what I might do with the information.

It was my wife who suggested a comparative study, a way to measure the status of teaching versus other professions.  Viola! I began making signs:

IMG_1964That’s just one.  I also posed as a Retired CPA, Doctor, Lawyer, and Politician.  The results were stunning. Whenever I displayed the “Retired Teacher” sign, I got a ride within minutes.  By contrast, most drivers ignored me when I self-identified as a retired lawyer or dentist.  

Posing as a retired dentist got me a mouthful of nasty criticism of my profession. 

EVERY driver who saw my “Retired Politician” sign seemed to speed up; a few gave me the finger. In 40+ days of trying, I didn’t get a single ride!  

This complex chart shows the average number of cars passing me by, per occupation. 

CARS PASSING ME  TEACHER CPA LAWYER MD DENTIST POL
     25-100+                    X
        21-24       X     X
        17-20   
        13-16   X
        9-12   X
        5-8
        2-4     X
        0-1

I also kept track of time, devoting one hour of hitching to each profession every day. I went “off the clock” while in a car, and I limited the rides to about 10 minutes.  I carried both a stopwatch and a clicker to keep count of passing cars. I used the audio recording app on my smartphone to keep track of results.

A sophisticated Chi Square analysis of my research results shows statistical significance to the 99th percentile, meaning that if one repeated this experiment 100 times, it would produce the same results 99 times.  A longer and more formal version of my peer-reviewed work will appear in the highly regarded quarterly Annals of Digital Mobility (ADM) this October. 

I have no doubt that, had I pursued a career in academia, this research would have resulted in my being awarded tenure.    

That’s why, when the pandemic passes, I will continue my research project, which I’m calling ‘Thumbs Across America.’  This research involved only New York City, but I plan on doing field research in the entire Lower 48, if my wife will allow me to hitch-hike around the country.

I am certain that I will discover that all of America cares about public school teachers as much as New Yorkers do.

NO FOOLING TODAY: TEACHERS MATTER

Although I left reporting more than four years ago, my blood still boils when people like Betsy DeVos, the supremely unqualified Secretary of Education, Senator Rand Paul, Representative Steve King, Laura Ingraham of Fox, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, convicted but pardoned felon Dinesh D’Souza, and other uninformed public figures blast public school teachers and public education.  

Because I’m retired, I have time to dig for the truth.  And so, to find out how real Americans feel about public school teachers, I decided to go to the grassroots. Do ordinary Americans respect teachers more than they respect lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants, and politicians?

I’ve devoted the past seven months to original field research on this subject, and I am releasing the results today.

A quick summary: Americans care deeply about public school teachers.  And at the bottom of their list: politicians!

A second and entirely unexpected finding: Americans seem to have regained their moral compass, this despite the White House being occupied by a man who has paid off porn stars and boasted of grabbing women by the genitals.  More about that below.

(A side note to those expecting my annual attempt at tomfoolery: I jumped the April Fools Day gun when I published “No Glove Left Behind, Season Two,” a misguided attempt to lift the gloom created by the debacle of the Senate’s so-called ‘impeachment trial,’ early in February.)  

This column, however, is serious.  To test Americans’ feelings for teachers, I did 40+ days of field research in seven states.  This involved hitch-hiking short distances, sometimes at service areas on Interstate Highways but mostly on local streets in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, California, Texas, and Missouri.  I did my field work in September, October, and November well before the current pandemic and have spent the past few months analyzing the data.

A sophisticated Chi Square analysis of my research results shows statistical significance to the 99th percentile, meaning that if one repeated this experiment 100 times, it would produce the same results 99 times.  My work has been peer-reviewed, and a longer and more formal version will appear in Annals of Digital Mobility (ADM) this October. ADM is the ‘gold standard’ in the field, I’m proud to say.

I have no doubt that, had I pursued a career in academia, this research would resulted in my being awarded tenure.    

By the way, this was not my first extended experience with hitch-hiking. In the early 1960’s I spent five months thumbing my way from Kansas to Florida to San Diego, up the coast to Seattle and then across the country and home to Connecticut.  Back then, I was just a 21-year-old wandering around and exploring his home country, but this time was different. 

My research design was simple.  Whenever I stuck out my thumb, I displayed a sign that identified me as a retired teacher, dentist, politician, doctor, lawyer, or accountant. I made different signs and alternated among them.  I kept careful count of the number of cars that passed me by before one stopped to offer me a ride. 

IMG_1963I also kept track of time, devoting one hour of hitching to each profession every day. I went “off the clock” while in a car, and I limited the rides to about 10 minutes.  I carried both a stopwatch and a clicker to keep count of passing cars. I used the audio recording app on my smartphone to keep track of results.

Regarding teachers, the news is good.  Whenever I displayed the “Retired Teacher” sign, I got a ride within minutes.  By contrast, most drivers ignored me when I self-identified as a retired lawyer or accountant.  

IMG_1964

Posing as a retired dentist got me a mouthful of nasty criticism of my profession. 

And EVERY single driver who saw my “Retired Politician” sign seemed to speed up; a few gave me the finger. In 40+ days of trying, I didn’t get a single ride!  

This complex chart shows the average number of cars passing me by, per occupation. 

CARS PASSING ME  TEACHER    CPA LAWYER DOCTOR DENTIST EX-POL
     25-100+                    X
        21-24            X
        17-20       X   
        13-16   X
        9-12   X
        5-8
        2-4     X
        0-1

I’m doing another pass through the reams of data, this time to develop a reliable, valid measure of how strongly Americans feel about the professions, using a 0-10 scale.  Some ratings are pretty obvious, of course: When a driver said, “My 8th grade teacher saved my life,” that’s a 10 for Teaching.  Likewise, the driver who complained, “My fucking accountant cost me $35,000,” that’s obviously a 0 for Accounting.  It’s the gray area that creates the challenges.  For example, I don’t know what rating to assign to ‘Lawyer’ based on what this driver said: “I love my wife and she loves me, but she won’t agree to a 3-way for my 40th birthday, and that’s all I want. She told me that it’s illegal in our state unless two of the three are men. What do I do now?  Goddamn lawyers!”   

I expect to publish my measurement system, the “Citizens’ Ratings of Affection for the Professions (CRAP), perhaps in the Spring issue of Annals of Digital Mobility.

But I don’t want to lose sight of the central finding: Teachers count!  What our public school teachers do day after day matters to most Americans, and I hope Secretary DeVos and others will take note. 

A second finding that may be of interest to those who believe that America is in moral decline.  Although this was not part of my original research design, I can conclusively state that Americans today are less sex-obsessed than they were 57 years ago.   

Here’s why I can make this statement with such certainty: When I was 21 and hitchhiking around the US, I probably hitched about one thousand rides, and every fourth or fifth driver (men and women) propositioned me for sex

Having dozens of attractive older women caressing my upper thighs was unnerving to a naive 6’2”, 180-pound 21-year-old with a serious girlfriend, but I was able to handle these situations by just saying NO (to most of them, anyway).  

J b&w w shades

More unnerving were the advances and attacks by men.  My worst experience was when a long-haul trucker gave me a ride. After a few minutes he told me that I had to get up into the sleeper compartment behind the cloth barrier because it was illegal for him to have riders.  That seemed reasonable, so I complied. A few minutes later, he reached in and handed me what he called ‘some reading material.’ Well, it was porn unlike anything I’d ever seen, and I got so engrossed in my own education that I failed to realize that the truck had stopped. Suddenly he was climbing into the sleeper compartment, scaring the bejesus out of me.  I kicked him in the throat, clambered over him, grabbed my stuff, and ran like hell!

(If you want to read more, please pre-order Volume One of my autobiography, ‘In The Car Where It (might have) Happened,’ which will be in bookstores this fall.)

However, I’m older now and not quite so nimble, and therefore I was quite anxious when I began my experiment. While I am happily married to a wonderful woman, what would I do when attractive women, lusting after my body, began caressing my inner thighs? Would I have the moral strength to turn them down?

And when younger men came on to me, would I–at 78– be agile enough to jump out of a moving car, or strong enough to fight them off?  

Well, I am happy and relieved to say that America’s collective out-of-control lust-driven libido seems to be under control, because not once in 40+ days of hitchhiking did any driver, male or female, proposition me for sex

Why was it safe for me to hitch-hike in 2020 when I was at risk in 1962?  What has changed in 57 years?  

thumb_IMG_9376_1024

The only explanation that makes any sense to me is that most Americans, repulsed by Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” attitude, have embraced the fundamental decency that exists inside us.  Trump said he’d MAGA, ‘Make America Great Again,’ but, ironically, our immoral, narcissistic sociopath President is unintentionally MAMA, ‘Making America Moral Again.’ 

Thanks to Trump, people like me can hitchhike safely without being sexually propositioned.  

That’s why, when the pandemic passes, I will continue my research project, which I’m calling ‘Thumbs Across America.’  I plan on doing field research in the entire Lower 48 and then publishing more CRAP, which will attract the attention of struggling universities like Brown or the University of Lower Southeastern Oklahoma that are hoping to make a name for themselves.  At the age of 81, I will become an Associate Professor of Digital Mobility Studies, known on campus as “Dr. Thumbs.” Then, at age 85 when I become the oldest person in history to be awarded tenure, my phone will ring, and it will be Jeffrey Brown of the PBS NewsHour, asking for an interview.

Not long thereafter, The White House will invite Joan and me to have lunch with the President and her husband….

In the meantime, smile.  Thank teachers. Reach out to those you love.  And stay safe….

 

Please Don’t Call It ‘HOMESCHOOLING’

Now that nearly all public schools have closed their doors because of Covid-19, about 50 million school-age children are being ‘Homeschooled,’ and parents are being told that they should be dividing their children’s days into time periods for academic subjects and following lesson plans. That’s how The Today Show approached the subject recently, giving parents a step-by-step map, the first step being “Set Up School.”  That’s exactly the wrong advice, in my view, a recipe for failure on every level.

Unfortunately, it’s not just The Today Show, because a lot of school systems seem to be reflexively behaving as if they could simply transplant school’s routines to the home.  Some are emailing or posting lesson plans that they expect students (and parents) to follow. Distance Learning and on-line instruction are all the rage, but most of this seems to be “same old, same old”–the straightforward presentation of information.  While these may be understandable responses to the crisis, they’re not particularly helpful in my view.

While anxiety is understandable, it’s healthier to look for the opportunities that Covid-19 is creating.  Let’s begin by abandoning the term ‘Homeschooling,’ because no one should be trying to turn homes into schools.  Schools are organized for crowd control and group instruction, which is why they have established periods of time for individual subjects, bells, and lesson plans in order to run smoothly. Homes don’t need bells, et cetera.

But don’t take my word for it, because there’s plenty of sensible advice out there, including this: “Learning doesn’t have to take the form of worksheets and spelling tests. Young children have such a strong desire for knowledge. If you can trust them to lead the way, you may be surprised by how they choose to spend their time and where their curiosity takes them. 

So, if it’s not Homeschooling, what should we call it?  Should we rename it ‘Home Teaching,’ a new name for an old concept?  After all, parents have always been their children’s first teachers, and Home Teaching simply means they are stepping back into that role.  Home Teaching is often spontaneous and responsive to what a child is curious about (“Why is the sky blue?”), but some lessons are determined by what children need to understand to stay safe: “Don’t touch a hot stove” and “Look both ways before crossing the street” are two obvious examples.  

However, from my perspective, Home Teaching implies a one-way transmission of knowledge from parent to child, and what’s happening today is more complex, more interesting, and more valuable.  Much of traditional school involves consumption of information and knowledge: memorizing the state capitals, the Periodic Table, the formula for the volume of a cube, and so on.  What Covid-19 offers us is the opportunity to redefine education, to turn young learners into producers of knowledge. Not video game players, but creators of Apps. Not watchers of films, but producers of their own documentaries.  Not drudges, but dreamers…

So I propose that we embrace this experience as Home Learning, because parents who embrace this challenge will learn a great deal–and not just about dividing with fractions!

But learning how to divide fractions and other basics are also part of the deal, because a central purpose of the early years of school is the transmission of knowledge.  Children need to learn spelling rules (“I before E, except after C”), the multiplication tables, how to divide and carry, and other basics. They need to know that letters have sounds associated with them (i.e., Phonics and Phonemic Awareness).  Someone has to teach them that, if you put an E at the end of words like ‘ton,’ the O sound changes from short to long. That’s heavy lifting for parents who haven’t trained to teach, and many are going to be anxious about trying to teach these concepts.  Relax:  Free resources like the Khan Academy, ReadWorks, and Zearn are available to help children and parents with basic skills. PBS Education has tips for teachers that parents can steal for their own use!  

Always remember that “you don’t need a degree in education to teach your children valuable skills through family activities:

  • Play board games
  • Do puzzles
  • Cook together
  • Plant a spring garden
  • Use butcher paper to draw a life-size family portrait.

Above all, parents should recognize that they are learners too, because that makes it perfectly OK to say, “I don’t know, so let’s find out together.”   

Accept that it’s a journey.  Be comfortable making mistakes. Teach children that failure is a huge part of learning–and learn along with the kids. 

Parents committed to Home Learning should not establish 50-minute periods for each subject.  Some structure is essential because children are accustomed to–and benefit from–a sense of order, but it is neither necessary nor desirable to drum up ‘lesson plans’ for each day. Instead, Home Learning parents can work with their children to create learning goals for the week.

This can be fun.  For example, to teach how adverbs work, give your children this sentence, “Charley ate the chocolate cake” and then ask them to put the word “Only” somewhere in the sentence. Then discuss how placement of “Only” changes the meaning. “Charley ate the only chocolate cake’ does not mean that ‘Only Charley ate the chocolate cake’ or that ‘Charley ate only the chocolate cake.’

To give yourself some time off, ask your children to create short stories that provide the back story. Why didn’t Charley eat his vegetables? Were his parents away?  What kind of kid would eat the only chocolate cake, and how did Charley get away with it? And so on….

Projects, done alone or with other children, are an essential part of all learning, but projects are essential for Home Learning because they give working parents extended time away from the kids.  While creating the projects will take some time, once underway, the children can work alone, or with their friends on Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts.

The huge gap in material resources that existed before this crisis is now front-and-center, and some companies are stepping up to provide broadband access to low income communities, for example. Internet access is essential for serious Home Learning, because students have to be able to connect with the world beyond their homes.  Free resources abound, including here, here, and (for children under 5) hereMuseums are a great resource. 

For a laugh, click here.

Now let’s focus on encouraging children to become producers of knowledge.  That’s actually easier than you might think.  Many Home Learning projects will involve smartphones, the most ubiquitous of technologies. 

For openers, I suggest children interview their parents about their lives and make short films.  Not full-scale biographies, but small subjects like “Tell me how you met?”, “Tell me about your first train/plane trip,”  and “Tell me about your favorite movie, and why it’s your favorite” are good starter subjects.  

Some hints for how to proceed.  

  1. Saying “Tell me about….” is more effective than asking direct questions.  When I was reporting I also found it very effective to say “Tell me more” or “I’m not sure I understand.”  
  2. Another approach is to use some family photos to get the conversation started, then push for details.  
  3. I suggest the recording should be audio only so that the child can concentrate on listening.  Trying to capture video requires real concentration, which makes it difficult to listen to what’s being said. 
  4.  Editing audio is pretty straightforward
  5. When compiling the documentary, use pictures of the parents, old photos, film clips, et cetera, as b-roll.  
  6. Writing the script is an important challenge, and parents should remind the young writers of the importance of clarity.  Our rule at the PBS NewsHour was to overwrite to make sure we answered the fundamental questions (Who, What, When, Where, and Why). It’s much easier to pull back, cut words, and let the pictures and the audio tell the story.
  7. Create a YouTube channel so everyone in your school class can post their films.
  8. Create a chat room to discuss techniques.  Keep learning. Make more short films.

Here’s another example of knowledge production: Young kids can plant seeds in small pots and make videos of their growth. Vary the conditions (not enough sun, too much sun, not enough water, too much water) and record what happens. Edit the video into a short documentary that the child can narrate, explaining what she has discovered about plants.  And why not do this in conjunction with other kids in the class?

Projects that explore what children are interested in may be the best way to acquire knowledge, because when children DO, they learn. The bottom line is “What’s the most effective pedagogy that results in increased curiosity about the subject at hand, and not merely acquisition of a specific body of information?”

Take ‘state capitals’ as an example.  I still know most of the state capitals because I was forced to memorize and regurgitate, but I had ZERO curiosity about why a particular state–even my home state–chose a particular city. That changed when–in my 60’s–I happened to learn that California had six capital cities before settling on Sacramento. Suddenly I wanted to understand how that happened, and why.  When we moved to New York, I wondered about Albany, the current capital, and learned that five other cities were once New York’s capital.

I suggest parents (perhaps working together) create a unit whose goal is understanding the state capitals and state government. But, instead of memorizing, children could dig into a number of states to find out how, when, and why their capital cities were selected. What was at stake? How were decisions made?

This can easily segue into research into national capital cities, also a fascinating subject. You may know that the United States had EIGHT previous capitals. Eight-year-olds would have a field day with that, particularly when they learn that wherever the US Congress happened to be automatically became the nation’s capital…and that the Congress was on the move during the War of 1812. This is great stuff for children to DISCOVER. Would they retain it if their teacher assigned some reading and gave them a test?  I seriously doubt it.

(Regular readers of my blog, themerrowreport.com, know that I devoted four recent posts to project-based learning, with lots of specific suggestions and that quite a few readers added more good ideas.)

But education is much more than knowledge transmission. Much of what goes on in the teenage years in particular is the development and creation of the individual.  “Building a Self” involves discovery and trial-and-error, and that journey becomes much more interesting when kids are creating knowledge, not just giving back the right answers in order to get good grades.  

In the age of Covid-19, we ought to be encouraging children to ask good questions.  Home Learning entails the search for answers.  

Before Covid-19, parents might ask their children at dinner, “What did you learn in school today?”  Now, let’s ask, “What good questions did you come up with? How’s the search for answers going?” The goal of education, the goal of Home Learning, is not the right answer. The end game is perpetual, life-long curiosity.

As awful as it is, the Covid-19 crisis  also represents an unprecedented opportunity for children to take responsibility for their own learning. Remember, schools basically look at children and ask ‘How Smart Are They?’  Now you can ask ‘How Is My Child Smart?’ What’s he interested in learning more about? What does she wonder about?

Follow those pathways….  

We will need public schools when this crisis is over, so let’s set an example to encourage educators to follow as their own reset opportunity.  

Meantime, onward with Home Learning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Off the Grid…but First…

Before I go off the grid for ten days to go kayaking in the Sea of Cortez, I am asking a favor. If you believe that students deserve challenging educational opportunities, and if you believe that the most important question an educator can ask is ‘How Is This Child Intelligent?’ (instead of ‘How smart is this kid?’), then please share these five links with everyone who feels the same way, or who should feel this way.

Part one: Why Project-Based Learning (PBL), plus a project to measure water use in their schools and communities;

Part two:  A project to study air quality that elementary students can do at their school;

Part three:  Projects that get students out in their communities show the general public the good stuff that schools are doing;

Part four: PBL means students are creating knowledge, not merely regurgitating; here are two great examples;

Part five:  This covers the important issue of evaluating project-based learning, plus two more examples of successful PBL.

Basically, these posts are about the significant benefits of PBL.  First of all, students become producers of knowledge, not mere consumers of information that others decree they must know.  They own what they learn, and they reap the satisfaction of possessing expertise. Moreover, they develop (or sharpen) skills the adult workplace values: the ability to work with others, data-gathering and assimilation, serious inquiry, public speaking, language and math, and more.

Here’s another way to think about this:  Countless generations of parents have asked  their children, “What did you learn in school today?”  This line of seemingly harmless inquiry actually reinforces spitting back stuff, which conditions youngsters to fall in line.

A better approach, which good PBL fosters, is to ask a child Did you ask good questions today? or What good questions did you ask today?

That approach supports, encourages, and rewards inquiry and curiosity, traits that most successful adults exhibit.

Thanks……

Project-Based Learning, the final chapter

At its most basic, education is about ownership.  Students are not just studying History or algebra.  They are engaged in ‘building a self,’ which is the only company they will have for the rest of their lives. 

The ‘self’ that each individual student is building (with our help) must include more than test-taking, listening to lectures, and spitting back what the teachers and the textbooks have put forth.

Done well, project-based learning is a wonderful way to ‘build a self.’   It gives students more control over what they are learning, engages them in the process of creating knowledge, teaches teamwork, leadership, and other interpersonal skills, and reinforces the basic underpinning of a quality education: reading, writing, speaking, and working with numbers.

I’ve been writing about this for the past four weeks, and now I want to try to answer  questions about evaluating projects: How are projects graded?  Because it’s a group effort, does everyone get the same grade? What if a couple of students aren’t pulling their weight?  What if the project fails?

But before I go there, one more point: Projects can be entirely classroom-based, or they can take students out into the world.  Two quick stories.

1.  After deciding they would survey the community about its pressing needs, fourth graders in Yellow Springs, Ohio, built a portable kiosk, which they set up in a central park downtown.  From that booth, they proceeded to interview Yellow Springs residents.  They began with questions designed to put the adults at ease, like “How long have you lived here?” and “What’s the best thing about our town?”  Then they cut to the chase, asking the adults what they considered to be the town’s most pressing problem.

When ‘affordable housing’ ranked at or near the top, these fourth graders began studying the issue: how many square feet should a home be, how should it be laid out, how much would it cost to build just one home?  Would there be economies-of-scale?

Next, these fourth graders proceeded to design some possible homes….after which they built a large scale model of one design, which they planned to take to a City Council meeting.  I saw the nearly-finished model and heard some students practicing their presentations–which they later made to the City Council.

Talk about empowering education.  Wouldn’t you want that for your children or grandchildren?  I sure would.

My second example comes from my own teaching.  As a rookie English teacher in a rigidly tracked high school, I was assigned the lowest track students, basically the kids that weren’t the school’s priority.  I was assigned to team-teach with a History teacher.  Accustomed to years of insignificance, our 11th graders were completely indifferent to literature or History, to anything remotely ‘academic.’  She and I flailed daily.  Flailed and failed.  What we were doing wasn’t working….

In desperation, we decided to challenge them to write an original play. They could tell whatever story they wanted and they could create the plot and characters, while we would teach them about the arc of a story, the need for structure and complexity, the importance of language, and so on.

They took the bit in their teeth. The plot they concocted involved some ‘greasers’ from the wrong side of the tracks–kids like them–being accused of shop-lifting cartons of cigarettes from the local store.   They knew–but could not prove–that the real thieves were two students from the top academic track and the good part of town. In fact, the thieves were the school’s head cheerleader and the captain of the football team!

I can still remember the enthusiasm in that double-period class, as the students argued back and forth about plot twists and language.  And because it was a play, they had to visualize the action and make it credible.

In their play’s denouement, two of the ‘greasers’ caught the thieves red-handed, then alerted the stationery store owner. Justice was served!

Before long, they told us that they wanted to build the two sets, a run-down clubhouse, and the stationery store.  However, that required the permission of the school principal, so my colleague and I told our students that they had to invite the principal to class and convince him, with a thoughtful presentation.   Now we were also teaching public speaking, and rhetorical techniques of argumentation.

Of course he agreed, and our class moved to the auditorium.  The kids built sets, blocked out the action, and then began acting out the parts.  Lots of fits and starts, and lots of helpful criticism from what was now a real team of learners.  They owned what they were doing, and they were also learning all the stuff–speaking, writing, thinking, arguing–that had rolled off their backs till then.

Our 11th graders put on their play for the rest of the school, and suddenly our heretofore undistinguished and largely invisible students were heroes (well, maybe not to the kids in the top academic tracks).

Somewhere I still have a letter from Joey Levy’s mother, telling me that, until he was assigned to our class, her son was very close to dropping out.  Before that class, he hated going to school, and now he can’t wait to get there.  Now, she wrote, Joey wants to go to college.

Finally, how is project-based learning evaluated?  Here are two quite different reports from two classroom teachers. What these approaches to evaluation have in common are high expectations, high standards, and transparency.

One teacher I know well and about five of his students created a remarkable project last year: They took an old pickup truck with an internal combustion engine and set about trying to convert it to electric!  I asked him how he evaluated the project.

He wrote: The first test of the project is pretty obvious: You turn the ignition key and nothing happens. What steps do you take to figure out where the problem is?

Ideally there’s no grade, as with the truck project, which was and is motivated by pure enthusiasm.  However, some sort of assessment is helpful. In the case of the truck, everyone ought to have an understanding of how it works, what’s connected to what, et cetera.

Of course, the teacher can cook up a quiz to test for this sort of knowledge. A much better way of measuring learning, however, is an assessment that requires transfer of knowledge from our small pickup to other vehicles: What size battery pack would you need for a 20-ton semi, and what would its range be?

The most valuable assessment, and my preference, is to give students some materials (wire, magnets, nails, bearings, springs, et cetera) and ask them how they would make a rudimentary electric generator?  Would it generate AC or DC current?  Then let them try.

Groups can be a challenge if some kids aren’t pulling their weight.  I assign the laggards specific responsibilities and make it clear that I will be grading them.

(In case you’re curious, the project was a success.)

Esther Wojcicki, the English teacher in Palo Alto I wrote about here, explained how the publications her students produce are evaluated:

The students collaboratively set up the rubrics at the beginning of the year. They may modify them during the year based on the group input. Everyone has a say, including me of course.

Students recognize that they are building on a long tradition of student publications, and so they try to honor the hard work of previous students by keeping up the standards–or even improving on them. 

I evaluate group projects in the following ways:

1. We evaluate the overall quality of the product each production.   I evaluate it and the kids also evaluate it. Evaluation is done orally and in writing.  We strive for honesty, transparency, and respect.

2. The kids evaluate each other’s performance on each edition—their writing, collaboration, design, and participation 

3. The activities are awarded points, not as a threat, but as a way to show the kids the importance of each part.  They can change the points awarded by revising or being more collaborative. 

4. Every student can earn an A, if they have a good attitude and revise and improve their work.  We focus on being members of the community and striving for excellence. 

I hope that you are convinced that project-based teaching and learning ought to be an essential part of all school curriculum, part of every student’s experience in school. 

Please share these five reports with teachers, administrators, and policy makers.  School should be challenging and interesting, not tedious or ‘rigorous.’

 

Project-Based Learning, part four

I am convinced that the very best schools ask the right question, “How Is Each Child Intelligent?”  Moreover, the educators in these schools follow through by allowing students more control over what they are learning. 

Very often, this means project-based learning, where teams of students work together to create–not spit back–knowledge. You can find the first three parts of this series here, here, and here.

In these schools, it is the students–not the teachers–who are the workers, and the work they are doing is meaningful. What they actually do–their ‘product’–depends upon their ages and stages, but the concept doesn’t change. 

And what about the teachers?  In these schools, they are conductors, directors, supervisors, guides or docents. This observation flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that teachers are workers whose job is to produce capable students. That antiquated thinking is further bastardized when ‘capable’ is defined by test scores, until we end up believing, “The work of teachers is to raise student test scores.”   No, no, and no!

Here are two examples of outstanding project-based teaching and learning that I came to know first-hand when I was reporting: A 12th grade science class in a public high school in Philadelphia, and a journalism class at Palo Alto (CA) High School.

The Philadelphia 12th graders were serious workers. Their 2-part assignment was equally serious: to design age-appropriate toys for babies and infants that would not only amuse them but also stimulate their brain development. Stage two of the task: create an advertising campaign to sell the toy they designed.

That’s a serious project with a real product. Science teacher Tim Best designed it in broad strokes, with some clear goals, including learning a great deal about brain development. By 12th grade, students at this school were accustomed to working together on projects and holding each other accountable, although Mr. Best also monitored their progress.  Tim Best and other teachers at Science Leadership Academy told me that projects were designed to teach both content and process.

Like any worthwhile project, there is no one ‘correct’ answer.   However, projects can have wrong answers.  In designing toys based on neuroscience, those students might get the science wrong, or they might design something that an infant or toddler could not manipulate or might swallow. Answers to Question Two might be impractical or inappropriate, such as an advertising campaign for the toy that featured sexy naked people draped over sports cars.  For sure, the class discussion of that campaign would be a major teachable moment.

Process matters a great deal. Students get to try out their ideas with each other (and their teacher) during the project. Falling short–failing–is a huge part of the learning process.

Tim explained, “Although I learned by memorizing science words, I don’t ask my students to memorize science words. I’d rather have them experience the science and learn science by doing science, and, therefore, they’re learning science process in addition to science content. And the process of science, you could argue, is almost more important for the general person who is not going to be a scientist.” 

He added sagely, “‘Reading Chapter Two and answering the questions at the end of the chapter is not teaching either science or process.”

I think the journalism students at Palo Alto High School must be among the luckiest kids in the world. Their teacher, Esther Wojcicki, and her talented colleagues give them the opportunity to produce meaningful journalism in a number of formats: a newspaper, radio programs, a daily television program and five magazines.

This is real-world work: The print publications are advertiser-supported, and none can come out until the students have the signed advertising contracts in hand. “This is not selling Girl Scout cookies,” she told me. “This is how the real world works.”

With opportunity comes responsibility. At Palo Alto High, the journalism students hold each other accountable, the faculty is paying attention, and–most powerful of all–their work is public. Among Esther’s former students is actor-painter-writer James Franco. Recalling her class, he wrote, “(T)he important pedagogical aspect of working on the paper, that I understood subconsciously then, and that I understand explicitly as a teacher now, is that my work was being seen by a public, and that that changed the work. I wasn’t writing for a school grade as much as I was writing for independent readers.”

What’s essential in all project-based learning is the absence of a ‘right’ answer or ‘right’ product. Project-based learning truly is a journey, one which may also teach the instructor a good deal. Projects that have a predetermined ‘right’ answer are merely recipes, not a journey of discovery.   In ‘faux projects,’ the work quickly loses meaning, and most students do not retain what they were supposed to learn. They may absorb material and regurgitate it successfully on tests, but that’s not genuine learning. Good journalism is by definition an inquiry, because journalists are supposed to ask questions whose answers they don’t necessarily know. 

Those students in Philadelphia and Palo Alto are engaged in what’s called ‘blended learning,’ a mix of technology and human teaching. The machines and the teachers are interdependent, truly blended. Think of a chocolate milkshake, as opposed to putting oil and water in the same container.

Project-based learning is sometimes called “Learning by doing,” but that is an incomplete thought, a phrase lacking an essential object. Doing WHAT is critical. In the schools I described, kids don’t get free rein to do whatever they feel like doing. Adults design (or help design) the projects, and they monitor progress. Teachers help students formulate questions and give guidance when they go off track or get discouraged.

By the way, “Time on task” is another incomplete phrase that some educators throw around. What’s the task? Is it meaningful or trivial? Are students memorizing the periodic table and the major rivers of the United States, or are they measuring air or water quality in their neighborhoods and sharing the data with students in other places in order to make sense of it?  Many educators make the mistake of focusing on the amount of time students are spending on the assignment (believing that more is better, of course) but fail to think critically about the tasks they are assigning.

The adults in charge of the classrooms I admire were not obsessed about control. Sadly, too many schools focus on regurgitation of information, a process that is encouraged and rewarded by the focus on scores on standardized tests. 

Next time in this space I will conclude this series by trying to answer a question some readers have raised: How on earth does a teacher grade project-based learning anyway?

Feel free to post your thoughts (and your suggestions about grading!) on the blog itself, below….

 

Project-Based Learning, part three

Recently in this space I have been praising project-based learning, because it enables students to become producers of knowledge, not merely consumers (and sometimes regurgitators).  As noted earlier, the best projects are ones where the teacher or teachers do not know ‘The correct answer’ because they also are engaged in the journey of discovery. 

In the end, students own the work they have done; school is no longer just about tests, test scores, and the question teachers dread, “Will this be on the test?”

The first two projects I wrote about involved water and air; this one gets students out in their communities, which means it will also introduce adults who don’t have school-age children to the wonders of what is possible in public education.  

Done well, this work enables young people to develop at least six skills that will serve them well throughout their adult lives.

          1) working together with peers;

         2) communicating across generations;

          3) specific production skills;

         4) making value-based judgments;

         5) making difficult editorial choices, and;

         6) meeting ‘real world’ professional high standards.

I’ve given this venture a name: “The Poetry Project.”  Each team of 3 or 4 students will need a video camera (the one on a smartphone will be fine), a tripod or some other firm support for the camera, paper and scotch tape, an editing app, and some willing adults.

How it works:  A team of students, probably middle schoolers, picks a poem that they can relate to.  This is important because they may have to ‘sell’ it to the adults who are going to be asked to perform/recite the poem on camera.  The adults may have to be taught to read with energy and conviction, and having enthusiastic students (now the producers) will help.

Students first print the entire poem in a large font size.  Then separate by obvious verses/couplets for individual readers.  When ready to record, tape the selected verse/couplet to the bottom lip of the camera lens. This way the participants don’t have to memorize anything.  They will be looking at the camera and their lines at the same time. Although many participants may memorize the words, they will be more relaxed knowing that the ‘crutch’ is there if they need it.

Which adults are going to participate?  I recommend the sole criterion is that they do not have kids in school (which is about 75% of adults in most communities, by the way).  

For the sake of clarity, I’m imagining the kids have chosen Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.  

Mrs. Andrews in Apartment 9B:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?

When filming, frame all participants from the shoulders up. Ideally, all readers should be sitting or standing in front of a non-distracting, solid color backdrop.  Consistency matters, so frame every adult in the same way. They should look into the camera when reciting their lines. 

Mr. Young of Mr. Young’s Cleaners:

To die, to sleep,

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to …

Tell them to continue looking into the camera until you say ‘Cut.’  Make sure the audio quality is clear and coherent. As we say in the business, “TV is really just radio with pictures,” which means that quality sound is essential. Once completely and fully satisfied with the audio, check it again! 

Kimberly Wong in Apartment 17C:

… ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream …

Because producers need options, each adult should be asked to read his/her lines several times. 

 Augie Ramos at the local Deli:

… ay, there’s the rub:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause – there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

And because most adults are not accustomed to performing, student producers have to gain their confidence, perhaps by giving their own reading and talking about what it means to them.

Angela Packer, a trainer at the Y:  

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office …

It gets interesting when adults give a lousy reading and have to be coaxed into a second, third or fourth effort.  That’s when these 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds–who are directing people old enough to be their parents or grandparents–have to learn how to criticize constructively. 

Jacob Epstein of Epstein Jewelers:

… and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin?

 Because bad readings are guaranteed, it’s crucial that the team role-play this situation in advance, in front of classmates, so they can develop strategies for success.

Building Manager Joe Carris: 

Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

One rule that cannot be broken: The readings have to be excellent. No cutting corners and no compromising on quality just to squeeze in an adult whose reading wasn’t good enough but who is friends with the principal or somebody important.  Only quality matters!

Clothing store owner Alice Gotteswold:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought … 

Producers have to make all sorts of decisions, always keeping in mind that the goal is the best possible production, in this case the most emotionally accurate reading of Hamlet’s soliloquy.

Richie O’Connor, Building doorman:

… and enterprises of great pith and moment,

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action. 

The fun–and greater rewards–begin when the production is posted on the school’s YouTube channel and perhaps broadcast on local news.  That’s when all of these adults start talking about the film, sharing the link, and pulling out their smartphones and showing it to friends and customers.  They’ll be saying, “Did you know what they’re doing in school these days? Sure makes me wish I could go to school all over again.”

For students, school has become more valuable and interesting. With luck, their enthusiasm will rub off and carry over into other aspects of their school experience.  They will become better and more discerning consumers of education precisely because they are now producers.  And, in my humble opinion, this is one way to ensure that our children become confident, productive and creative adults. 

Next time, a classroom-based project for high school students.