Heidi Hayes Jacobs: Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World

On my desk yesterday sat an unwrapped copy from of Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ latest book “Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World” my monthly gift from ASCD. In all honesty, I immediately balk at most things labeled with the ordinal number “21” as a result of its saturated use in educational circles these days. Rarely does a memo leave the offices in Trenton without mention of this initiative or that program designed to incorporate the 21st Century in some manner.

I am just a little over the term, that’s all.

Being that today is a day of airports and the requisite time-suck that they, and the airlines, put you through, I knew that I’d have time to get through some of the book on the way down. My intent was to use some of it as a springboard for FETC, as some of the themes presented are concurrent with some of my aims at the conference.

The book is laid out in an interesting format, in that Jacobs is the editor, but the first four chapters are hers. Following her are chapters from: Stephen Wilmarth, Vivien Stewart, Tim Tyson (of Mabry Middle School fame), Frank W. Baker (who is also creating a ton of great content over that the Making Curriculum Pop Ning), Daivd Niguidula, Jaimie Cloud, Alan November, Bill Sheskey, Aurther Costa and Bena Kallick.

Since this is mid-flight, and I am nowhere near through the entire book, I thought I’d start with some reactions to the first chapter authored by Jacobs. The thrid through fourth chapters dealing with the structural change to schools and curriculum at the systems level, also Jacobs’ chapters, I’d like to treat on their own, especially after some of the sessions I plan on attending tomorrow.

“The good old days are still good enough.”

In chapter one, I enjoyed the three myths that she believes need addressing when talking about school reform, especially curricular reform. The first myth is a sentiment anyone involved in moving schools and districts forward encounters on a daily basis. Very much the same as the TTWWADI mentality, this one extends beyond schools typically and into the community that surrounds it. There are methodologies that are timeless in education, and there are those that are fleeting. Without careful examination and experimentation with these ideas, we lose the ability to know what works best in given situations. Schools or communities, Jacobs states, are “shackled by memories,” and many times paralyzed by the insecurity of change.

“We’re better off if we all think alike–and not too much.”

The second myth addresses what Jacobs calls “America’s love/hate relationship with being educated.” The myth, is as unsettling as it is hilarious. The glorification of the self-made man who rises out of poverty with little or no formal education to millionaire status is revered among the general population of the United States. Jacobs points to Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” here with its examination of the fracturing of American discourse into factional discord, whereby thinkers surround themselves with those who share their own ideas. This for is evidenced by the consistent battle between the viewers of Fox News and those of every other major media outlet. We now have the ability and what’s worse, the desire to surround ourselves, rather insulate ourselves with those who think like us. What is missing and necessary in any future of curricular change, according to Jacobs, is a return to active, open discourse between factional thinkers. We were founded amid chaos, and our students need to understand that disagreement is not disloyalty.

“Too much creativity is dangerous–and the arts are frills”

Even though we have much data showing the correlation between study of the arts and music and future academic success, as a society we marginalize the study of these disciplines in times of extreme panic or budget shortfall. Jacobs looks to Dan Pink to help characterize the future skill-set of the 21st Century worker (ugh, I used it as an adjective). Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as this: an original thought or idea that has merit. In that capacity it cannot be limited to the realm of arts and music. We don’t have innovation fields like accounting unless there is someone who sits in his or her chair and conceives of a whole new way to crunch numbers and manipulate their trade. Eliminating or denigrating arts as “frills” does a complete disservice to the students we teach today who will become tomorrow’s leaders.


I saw this exchange between Gary Stager and Miguel Guhlin late this evening after returning home from the senior awards dinner:


Last year at this time, I was doing a lot of writing about the creation of a class called Connections, a writing class aimed at critical thinking, analytic reading, and centered around the idea of transfer.  We had been working with teachers for a few months on the ideas behind it, but had no model for what it would look like.  During the last few weeks of school here, I am going to be meeting with those teachers to do some exploratory surgery on the class after one year of implementation.

One element that all of the nine teachers who taught the class this year seemed to center on, and something they all indicated generated the most interest from the students, was that of service learning.  What gave me pause was that most of the service learning projects we did all had to do with raising money or buying materials for the causes we employed (one group did raise money to make a series of Kiva loans, which was an interesting process).  Is that what our students are viewing as service learning?

Gary and Miguel’s brief conversation brought this out again for me, and in conversations with my boss lately we have been wondering if there is reason to shift any service-type project away from raising money, and more towards raising awareness.  Timely enough, ASCD released a brief meta-analysis of research on service learning projects.  According to the studies examined, projects with

the strongest effects have generally been found for service learning programs that have the explicit aim of developing active citizenship, in contrast with those that emphasize community service and character building.

So the question as I go into helping the teachers redesign their process is how can we capture the motivation that the students showed this past year for raising money, and harness it in some project that is civic-minded and has little or no connection to raising money and sending it elsewhere.  It jives very well with Gary’s line above.  Let’s see if we can take care of our own house in the hopes that it will make those around us better for it.

What is Summer Reading?


It’s coming to that time of the year for school districts around the world where we begin assigning our summer reading to our students.  In the next few weeks, PTO’s and other fund-raising groups will be competing with one another to raise money through the sale of every district’s summer book lists.

Concurrently, students and teachers are pondering the merits of the titles on the lists.  Students are wondering if there are Spark Notes or a movie for the books in question, and teachers are wondering which of the titles they have chosen, if any,  will resonate with students.

I am wondering about the reasons behind summer reading.

My office receives more calls about summer reading than we do about just about any other topic within curriculum, including honors placements.  Surprisingly, half of the calls are complaints about the fact we actually assign summer reading (students need a break), and the other half of the calls are just the opposite: that we don’t assign enough (sharpen the saw).  How do you win?

For some reason, summer reading has become the bane of my existence in that I can’t determine its role in our curriculum.  In looking at it, I see it as playing one of two roles:

  • Addendum to the curriculum, meaning that these are books within your curriculum that you cannot get to during the year, but are necessary to the successful completion of the course.  This is truly only applicable in courses where the curriculum is external to the school district, as in AP or IB.
  • Demonstrating to students that reading is not solely an academic endeavor, but a lifelong skill.  This model is not to prevalent in our schools today, but exists in communities that show the value of reading through their actions.

I’ve been looking at various models of summer reading, and I’ve asked the question several places, and what I’ve come up with is that in order for summer reading not to fall back on the drudgery associated with it, both from the students standpoint of reading (or Spark-Noting) the books, or the teachers who spend time assessing the work of the students in the first weeks of September.  I don’t know which is worse: having to write a paper about a book that meant nothing to you, or having to read a paper from a student about a book that obviously meant nothing to them.   What’s the solution?  I’ll present two that I liked from the many responses I got out there.  The first is employs the use of social media, the second, not so much.

As I said above, I asked this question of several people, both on Twitter and on the English Companion Ning, and the responses I got were insightful.  Kristin Hokanson gave me this bit of transition, which matched my thinking very closely:

summer reading2Her first post, which is the bottom image, shows how I view the traditional summer reading process, but the second one shows how her district is toying with the idea that there has to be something more to what the students do with the text; we have to allow them to read together.  In his Wall Street Journal piece from a few weeks ago, writer Steven Johnson describes that the future of reading will involve us reading together and having discussion write on the pages of the texts that are on our e-book readers, so that at any given moment I can discuss with colleagues, or look for discussions that others have had right on the very page I am reading.  Distracting, perhaps, but as an alternate assignment for some sub-groups of students it may work.  Seriously, if I had the ability to take time out and get some clarification while slogging through Jane Eyre as a sophomore, I would have jumped all over it.  That book nearly destroyed my desire to read.  Thank goodness for Holden Caulfield, who arrived swiftly in September.

Others, too, are turning to social media to help them facilitate discussion around summer reading as it’s happening, and leveraging the technology to make the assignments richer.  The English faculty at Fredericksburg Academy have all spoken up about their use of social media with their summer reading as a means to increase engagement.

Late last night, I received this from Candace Follis in response to some prompting:

summer reading3

and it changed some things.  Should summer reading include summer writing, and should that writing be in such a form that it builds communications skills around the text?  Can you have informed dialogue around why a novel is not in your top five?  Simply, can we tell a student that if they don’t like the book, they need to illuminate for us in some capacity why they didn’t love the book?  I am sure several hundred thousand English teachers have done this, but I like how Candace phrased it; it changes the way I see what we ask students to do in the summer.

Lastly, Dana Huff is really the impetus behind this thought stream, and her description of their program is below.  If you look back at some of the posts I wrote during the ASCD Conference this year, you’ll see that I hovered around one idea specifically: modeling expert thinking.  Dana’s school, The Weber School, includes an element in their September evaluation of summer reading that I feel does just that:

Students in grades 10-12 have the opportunity to read books selected for study by faculty members. Students will select which novel they will study prior to the end of second semester the previous year. During the first week of school, students will participate in seminar discussions led by faculty based on these selections. Students will be evaluated by faculty, and these evaluations will be part of the students’ grades for English during the first semester. Faculty members may request that students complete pre-discussion activities. Our goals are to encourage students to become life-long readers who read critically, insightfully, and enjoyably, to give our faculty and staff an opportunity to model the behavior of life-long readers, to familiarize our students with authors and literary works that include a range of genres and universal themes transcending time and place, and to challenge our students to grow, to reach, to stretch, and to broaden their experience of what it means to be human.

In the next few days, I’ll be posting about what we plan on doing here in our district, and appealing to all anyone who has ideas about making it work well.  Whatever we decide to do on the assessment side of summer reading, if we decide to do anything at all, I am going to use Brian Smith‘s post as my guiding principle:

summer reading1
“summer-reading-533.jpg.” Online Image. New York Times. August 7, 2008. May 13, 2009 <http://papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/07/recommended-reading/&gt;.

Great Pushback, From a Local Source

This comment appeared in my email inbox the other day, submitted by a teacher I work with in regards to my Attention, Engagement, Learning post from ASCD :

I really liked your “transfer of responsibility” model. But to a degree I disagree with the idea that students speaking/ interacting is a panacea for learning. I remember in my teaching classes we were drilled with the mantra “leanring is social”. But I think that’s just a new myth. I think instruction has to be differentiated. SOME kids are social learners and some are not. I frequently do partner assignments in Russian at the high school, and one of the consistent comments I got back on my survey was “less partner work”. My other class there ( I have two sections) seems to love it. I’ve also seen partner/ group work devolve into BS sessions or one person giving the answers to the other and the other kid not learning a thing.
So: not a panacea, just another tool to use appropriately.
I was blown away that anyone in my district actually reads this, but psyched to have some push-back from a local level where, to me, it matters most.  Here was my quick reply:
Thanks for checking it out; it was a great weekend where I was able to really get into excellent discussions about things that matter.  Here’s my take on your reaction.

Yes, some kids are social learners, some are not.  Some kids draw pictures, some are like me and cannot even begin to attempt that.  What the GRR model advocates is not “all social all the time,” but rather a mix of various types of collaborative and cooperative work.  Some of that will involve talking, some may not.

Plus, when you take a close look at what Kagan believes about the brain and what he believes about how we learn, the structures make a ton of sense.  In the model you gave me for your classes, how do you hold each student responsible for what goes on in the discussion?  If, as you say, it devolves into a BS session, what can be done to deter that?  The structures Kagan created all are built with a combination of group and individual accountability whereby, if done right, there is equal responsibility on the part of all cooperative partners.

From my perspective, we as teachers work very hard.  Can we begin to look at what we do not from the standpoint of teachers, but from the standpoint of learners?  If we did, I think we would agree that there is a lot of responsibility that can be transferred to the learner.  This is not just a tweak here or there I am talking about, but a whole paradigm shift in practice.

And, that was not all.  He came back today with another great insight:
My observations and criticism were directed more toward the PET scan and the concept that “the person doing the talking is the one doing the learning”. For me to buy into that model I would need to see more context for what specific events were occurring during the PET scan. For example, I”m sure that parts of the brain involved in registering the facial expressions and emotional reactions of the person one is speaking to are lighting up in that scan. But does that necessarily mean that that person is “learning” more of a particular content? What if we took two individuals and asked one to write a summary of  Romeo and Juliet and asked the other to retell it? Which brain would light up more? And what needs to be lighting up to demonstrate learning? To be mildly flip: I bet my brain would light up pretty brightly if I was about to be in a car accident. What am I learning (except that I”m screwed …:)
My point simply is this: I need more evidence to buy the notion that the “one doing the talking” is the one who is learning. This may be true for some social learners in some contexts but not necessarily in others (again, returning to what we both agree is the need for differentiating instruction).
I like and accept in principle the GRR model, especially in the broad principal/ thesis of moving the student from dependency to independence. I think that some of the failures I’ve seen of cooperative learning was that it kept students stuck in being dependent on other students for the answer/ learning, rather than using it as a means to wean them to a level where they can demonstrate/ perform a skill independently. So I think the concept if I do it-we do it-you (plural) do it-you (singular) do it is a good one. (Although not all kids will need to do the you plural one all the time in all situations…
These are the kinds of discussions that we should be having, and whether or not they are in person, at this point, I don’t care.  Eventually I would love that, but we have to start somewhere.
What do you think?

Radiohead, Mortenson, Illiteracy, and Visualizing

I’ve posted this before at some point, but in reference to my conversation with Greg Mortenson on Saturday at ASCD, it popped out in my mind as something I should revisit.  Mortenson points out that there are 110 million children in the world that are illiterate.  When you view this video, it begins to take shape mentally.  Much like Chris Jordan does with his work on visualizing waste, this truly pulls the illiteracy problem worldwide into focus.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


When you get into school either today or tomorrow, whether it’s on your prep period, or during a walk through the halls, take note of who is doing the talking in your schools.  Is it the students?  The teachers?  Take this one into consideration as well:

Brains are more engaged when people are interacting with one another.

Are students interacting in your school?  Are they placed within situations that promote safe conversations and high-yield accountability?  What happens when these answers are “no?”

Kagan shared with us this image that clearly shows the activity within the brain when various learning tasks are going on.  What do you see?
Here’s what I see.

The person doing the talking is the person doing the learning.

Yes, I understand that I just wrote that on Saturday in reference to another session, but it is so much more telling when looking at these PET scans.

Try taking your next lesson plan, your next department meeting or faculty meeting (please do this there) and incorporate some cooperative learning structures into the process.  In looking back at this weekend, I am noticing a connection between two specific ideas: the Kagan structures and the Gradual Release of Responsibility model espoused by Fisher and Frey.  Here is that image once again:


Notice this: your direct instruction is not lost; you can hang onto your chalk and talk.  It just lives in a smaller space within your overall lesson or meeting structure.  That area where Fisher and Frey delineate at Guided Instruction and Collaborative Instruction is where the learning structures of Kagan reside.  So the flow goes “I-We-You(plural)-You(singular).”

Image Credits:

PET Scans: “Kagan Structures Enhance Brain Engagement!” images adapted from Rita Carter’s Mapping the Mind.

Gradual Release of Responsibility.  Image taken from this slidedeck.

Kagan’s Structures

Just a heads up: these next few posts are going to all deal with my time spent with Dr. Spencer Kagan.  His generosity in sitting down to answer my questions led to a bunch of information that would be irresponsible of me to put into one post.

For the second time in two days, I’ve been fortunate to sit down and have a truly transformative conversation.  Dr. Spencer Kagan, a psychologist and author of hundreds of books about using cooperative learning structures in schools, sat down with me after his session and we talked about the primitive needs of our brain and how they wreak havoc on modern learning, embedded curriculum and the lack of a separate curriculum for “21st Century Skills.”

Kagan’s session was based on this idea:

“unstructured interaction does not lead to equity in the classroom.”

and it forces you to think for a minute about what equity is, and what it means to decrease the gap in achievement in your classroom.  For me, when I begin thinking of that, or when I listen to a teacher talk about a class with children of widely varying abilities, I think of how difficult it becomes to make sure that beyond helping a child reach a year’s growth in a year’s time, but also making sure that the gap between the high-achievers and low-achievers is minimized.  In his session, Kagan showed us some examples of data he’s collected in which classrooms that had a huge achievement gap and were given direct instruction aimed at raising everyone’s test scores actually did work, only the gap between the high achievers and low achievers remained constant.  He then showed the same situation with an experimental group of a classroom that implemented true cooperative learning structures, and that gap nearly disappeared within a year’s time.


Cooperative Learning is based on four principles, according to Kagan and others, that fit into the nice pneumonic PIES:

  • Positive Interdependence – occurs when gains of individuals or teams are positively correlated.
  • Individual Accountability – occurs when all students in a group are held accountable for doing a share of the work and for mastery of the material to be learned.
  • Equal Participation – occurs when each member of the group is afforded equal shares of responsibility and input.
  • Simultaneous Interaction – occurs when class time is designed to allow many student interactions during the period.

Again, and I apologize if this is becoming a trend in my writing, this session focused on a lot of doing, coupled with some amazing information on how the brain worked.  Doing, rather than just sitting hearing about the theory, makes all of the difference in learning.  This was Kagan’s message overall.  Throughout the hour and half, we interacted in several ways with both those we did not know and those we did.  We used touch, interview, and most of laughter, to get ourselves in a ready state for learning to occur.

Whether you are an advocate of this theory, which I am, or not, it was hard to deny that the activities we engaged in: Sage and Scribe, Celebrity Interview, Hagoo, Take-Off/Touchdown, and a quiet signal, did not focus our attention and put us in a position to be receptive to learning not only from Kagan, but from our new colleagues as well.


Kagan, S (2007, February, 8). Simple Structures to Reduce the Achievement Gap. NCCREST, Retrieved March 16, 2009.