Meeting Notes

It was one of those days.

I had tired of the regular, beginning of the month department meeting (this was the 7th in 8 days) and for some reason, I felt the need to have one of those meetings where you check in with why you are doing what you are doing.  Whether it be a few parent concerns that have arisen, or questions from other departments, I can’t say exactly, but some of the resources that have been coming through my filters lately have really made me look closely at what we do here.  What follows are the notes from the meeting that I sent out to our Connections teachers on their Google Group.

As you all know, we just completed the QSAC process here, and with that we went through every shred of curriculum we have in the district (including those old PBL’s) to make sure we met the standards.  In doing that, so many thoughts about the next steps we need to take kept coming to me.  We are at the precipice of some very big change in the field of education, and at times I feel as if we are so far behind the steps that the rest of the world has taken in this regard.  However, as Dr. Richard Miller from Rutgers says in his address “when Gutenberg invented the printing press, we didn’t have Europe plus books, we had a whole new Europe.”  Well, when I look at what we are trying to do here, it’s not like this is teaching learning plus cool new tools, but rather whole new teaching and learning. (I used from 3:22 on)

The nature of composition is really changing.  My own two kids will not only have to know how to write, and write well, but they will also have to understand how to compose their message in ways that capture the visual nature of our society today.  That’s not only everything we had to learn growing up, but it’s also a whole range of design skills that we were never asked to put to use.  Here’s one of the graphics I used to start the meeting:

Looking at how we consume words now, can we legitimately give our students a print-dominated reading and writing experience?  I don’t think we can anymore.  Yes, they will have to know the parameters of how to construct good writing, but the finished product is going to look so much different from a term paper or an essay.  Composition is now beyond the paper.

And when our intake of words is dominated by three other sources before print, can the teaching of critical analysis skills be limited to just one medium?  Friends of mine in college used to joke that schools were missing the boat by not teaching kids how to watch television critically.  I sloughed them off as being to saturated with it themselves as they were all going into that field upon graduation.  Now, here I am almost fifteen years later designing classes in media literacy and connected writing in which that medium is one of the most talked and written about.

Listening to the stories about the projects you have undertaken with the kids, from multi-genre research papers to documentary films, all with an emphasis on providing multiple means of expression while still holding them to design standards, I can’t help but think we are moving a direction that our students will benefit greatly from.

Here are the links to the resources I used so that you may go through them on your own and form your own opinions.  Thank you for all the great conversation and the feedback during our meeting.  I look forward to hearing more from you regarding the conversation.

Single Media Schools…

Google Living Stories

Sports Illustrated Tablet

Rutgers University English Chairman’s address to the Board of Trustees
“The future is now”



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.

New Voice, For Me at Least

Today I have been searching for subject area teachers who use twitter, especially those who teach in the disciplines I am concerned with.  In doing so, I came across Brad Ovenell-Carter, who teaches in British Columbia.  His remix of Will Farren’s graphics from his “Insulat-Ed” post is fantastic.  Below is a copy of the message I sent to my Connections teachers:

Hope you all are preparing for a great New Year’s Eve Celebration.  I wanted to pass this along to all of you to see what you make of it:


  • What is networked learning?
  • How can we help our student create their own networks?

Over the last year or so, the network I have set up teaches me more and leads me in more interesting directions than I ever could have found on my own.  It’ not just about resources and websites, but rather ideas and learning when I want, and where I want.  Our students deserve this.  You deserve this.

Image Credit: Brad Ovenell-Carter

Filed under: “How Cool is This?”

This image, passed to me via Coolinfographics, is exactly the type of divergent thinking I envision our schools fostering now and in the future.  Oh.  It was created in 1823.  What are we missing?

Our Connections class is predicated on this idea.  We process and recreate information in ways that are meaningful to us and others.

And We’re Off!

Over the course of the last few months, I have been writing about the creation of a new class in our middle school called Connections which focuses on critical thinking and problem solving through multi-disciplinary writing.  Last week our middle school opened and the Connections classes began.  Below is the initial reaction from several of the teachers after that first day:

-I had a great day!  The kids are very curious about the Connections class and the use of technology within the class.  I was floored to see that I would say that about 90% of them said that they have cellphone.  I think it’s going to be a great year!

-Things went well, students are highly interested in Connections, although not completely sure what it is yet. They enjoyed learning about the Web 2.0 applications we will be using and can’t wait to use Google Apps for Education. I am glad we prepared in the summer for the first 2 weeks, it is making the beginning of the year much easier.

-The kids seemed really interested in the course.  The idea of podcasts and other multimedia projects definitely seemed to go over well.  I think some of the students were a bit overwhelmed, but I’m hoping that a gradual transition into our first unit will ease their anxiety.

-I totally hooked them with the survey! When I asked them to explain what the Connections class was, they really got it! They said they’d be learning how to think, use what they already know, use technology to demonstrate their understanding and other stuff I can’t remember because my brain is fried.

-They were initially hooked by the “no homework/no tests” aspect.  Once they heard a litttle more they still seemed eager to begin.  There was a mixture of excitement and fear, which is exactly what I wanted/expected.  I think they are ready for the freedom, challenge, and responsibility that Connections entails.

We are now a full week beyond these initial reactions and I have been popping into the rooms to see how things are going.  Initial reaction?  It’s difficult when you know in your gut that what you are doing is the right thing to do, but not too many people have tried it on such a large scale, so to see it in action was frightening for me.  Here’s what I saw:

  • The legs knocked out from under them: The students were confronted with a class that focuses on writing, yet does not grade for mechanics and spelling, only content, clear ideas, and connection to other subject areas.  In one class, the teacher was using Socratic Questioning to continually force the students to challenge their own assumptions and habits.  They were so uncomfortable!  Their cognitive dissonance was palpable and then she made them write about it.  Thinking through writing.
  • Ubiquitous technology: We really tried to hide the technology behind the purposes of this class, and so far it is just that.  They are using Moodle in spots, Google Apps in others, but all for the purposes of being connected to each other.  As the year moves on, and I try to keep connecting the teachers to others of you out there doing great things, I am hoping that our students will see that too.
  • Excitement: This feeling is shared by both the students and the teachers.  Our schedule rotates so that the teachers teach 5 classes, but only see them 4 times in a week.  On that drop day, we have students complaining that they miss what happened in Connections that day.  I hope we keep this up.

Data, My Good Friend, I’ll Need to See you Soon…

So, there I was, watching this great advertisement from Nokia:

during Darren and Clarence’s presentation at BLC (third link to both of them in three days–I promise I am not link-stalking), when things began to unfold.

I needed data for this.

We are opening the school year with our Connections class, a second language arts class focused on problem-solving and writing as a thinking tool.  What we are really having difficulty with is the fact that the students may struggle with the format of the class; getting an “A” will require strong habits of mind and a focus on proving that your answer has merit.  We’ve stripped out grading for grammar and spelling, we’ve focused our assessment on process thinking, cooperative group discussion, portfolio defense, and for lack of a better word, “out of the box” thinking.  Getting the students on board immediately is imperative for any class, but for this one, which they are already viewing as “2nd English,” is crucial not only for the success of this year, but also for the success of the program.

There is a part in the video, which I hope you took the time to watch, where the narrator talks about how the 3rd screen privatized our lives and learning, but the 4th screen freed us to venture outside and do the things we love.  My gears were cranking.  I’ve admired the work Darren has done with the use of imagery in math, but what really struck me about him was his outsourcing of the legwork of the photography to his students.  Two of my favorite things right there: atypical assignments and student-created content.

What could we do with this information? Well, here was my hook: How many of your students have cellular phones?  How often do you text per day? Does your phone have a camera?  Video?  Does your phone have the ability to access the internet?  What do you use more often in the course of a normal day: cell phone or computer?  How could you use your cell phone to help you learn?

The idea would be to have the students compile data using a survey tool like surveymonkey, surveygizmo, or our in-house survey software.  Once the data is collected, a whole slew of possibilities open up:

  • Compare our ownership stats to the nation, to the world (use this graph from
  • Use the texting data to demonstrate how we communicate most and discuss reasoning behind this.  Compare this to a survey of the teaching staff.
  • What does the data comparing the computer v. cell phone usage say?
  • What ideas do students have for the use of cell phones in class?

The ability to have students create the data, analyze the data and then let it “incubate” as Ewan McIntosh stated, make this one a go for me.  Very beta right now and as I look at the questions there, they are in sore need of some higher level revision.  The power of what is in their pockets is, as I remarked to my colleagues in our notes, game-changing.  Again, as I sit here and write this, I can’t help but think of the almost Draconian rules that exist in some parts of our buildings regarding the use of mobile devices.  This idea, aside from the student inclusion in the creation of the lesson, may serve to break down some barriers for us.  One can only hope….

Bill Pushed Me, Again.

I was just trying to respond to Bill’s comment on a previous post and then this happened:


As always, a great question.  I have to tell you, that very same question came to us very soon after we introduced this class to the department that would be teaching it.  The Language Arts department asked whether or not this class was a permanent class, or one that would be phased out after a few years (other changes had been made within the last two years to this department, and they were/are skeptical).  Your question goes at the very heart of the debate about state testing: if classes are designed around state standards, and state assessments are designed to reflect mastery of state standards, what happens when your students don’t perform well.

From reading your writing, I know you often struggle with this issue of having your students learn a great deal, but not perform where they are “supposed” to on the state assessment.  What we did when we designed this class was to remove that pressure from the design.  We still have standards, but we are using standards from every core discipline (and some others) that the state of New Jersey standardizes.  Only, we took the standards that we might call “Power Standards,” and used them.  For example, one of the science standards we chose to write our curriculum around is:

” Habits of Mind

1. Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of data, claims, and arguments.
2. Communicate experimental findings to others.
3. Recognize that the results of scientific investigations are seldom exactly the same and that replication is often necessary.
4. Recognize that curiosity, skepticism, open-mindedness, and honesty are attributes of scientists.”

We left these teachers with the ability to create a standards-based class, but give them a little leeway in their ability to cover broad topics and insert seemingly insurmountable problems into their students’ course of study.

So, to answer your question with a question, should low performance on state tests eliminate a class that is based on standards from every core discipline?  My opinion is that it should not.  In a perfect world, this class, aside from the obvious benefits of metacognition and critical thinking, would provide the students with an edge in the open-ended section of the tests–the section of the test that allows students to express their answers in a few ways, other than just filling in bubbles on a scantron.

This is what happens when you let really smart people see your thinking.  I am glad I do this.

Stress, Ambiguity, and Confusion are Good for You?

You betcha.creative confusion

When I sit down to create lessons for teachers, or help them create lessons for students, one of my most frequent points is how they are creating “good stress,” within their students. Without pressing, most know what I mean inherently: there is an amount or type of mental strain that permits the mind to flex around a new issue or concept in order to overcome it and create new knowledge.

Stealing this from George Siemens (whom I have been robbing a lot from lately)

bit of stress, a bit of ambiguity, and a bit of confusion are healthy
contributors to learning. As long as we have a feedback loop where
learners can contribute and faculty can respond and adapt, we have the
basics in place.

Connections are the starting point of all learning. It’s so
obvious…and therefore so often overlooked. We really need to think
about types of connections learners have with each other and
content…and ways that we can extend the learning experience by
critically analyzing and forming those initial connections.

In two places in the above quote, Siemens mentions the word “connections,” and when we sat down to begin designing the additional language arts course for next year that was focused on critical thinking and writing across the curriculum, I thought back to my days at Eric Smith School in Ramsey. They had a school-wide standards system called “The Quality Standards.” It was partially a gaff among the staff at the triteness of the name, but in actuality, it was sound. The standards were:

  1. Following Directions
  2. Presentation
  3. Supporting Details
  4. Connections
  5. Higher Level Thinking
  6. Evaluation and Revision

Designing this class forced me to think back to the most effective of those standards, and by far it was connections, and the name for the class was born. In light of reading Siemens post, and in conversations with the teachers of the class, I can see that the term fits. We need students to create links, both mentally and digitally, from what they know already, to what they are trying to know. We are stressing “cognitive leaps” and learning by doing as often as we can, but there are inherent problems with that.

The last time I had the group of teachers together who will be teaching the class this fall, I stressed the first two weeks of instruction. Sure, what a shocker; however, we are asking these students in grades 6-8 to do some things that there are not going to be used to. For example, by the time they reach middle school, a good percentage of students have already perfected the question “will this be on the test?” and have figured out that there is a formula to getting good grades: find the answer the teacher wants, and give it–case closed. Now, we are going to have them walk into a classroom this fall and tell them that there is no right answer, only the answer you can defend in writing and in your ability to argue it. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

One of our group had shared with me a document (which I am trying to get a copy of at the moment) that was a letter to parents informing them of what to expect from this class. When we are trying to move students away from “schooliness” and do some in-country “unschoolingsnails and scotch” we are going to hit some rough spots, from both students who are not used to being confused or stressed about school, and their parents who haven’t seen their child struggle with school before. As always, we will deal with those situations as they arise.

Image Credits: “Creative Commons = Creative Confusion?” from Joe Pemberton’s photostream

“Confusion” from Lithoglyphic’s photostream

Moving it Along

Although it might go against the very spirit of blogging, I think responding to Dina’s comment on my post about the “Connections” class deserves a little more attention.

This class sounds like a jewel in the making. I’d love to know nitty-gritty (length? scheduling? vertical alignment?) if you’re willing.

I wonder this too: it was recently at a meeting of the minds educational panel (2004 NYS Teacher of the Year, 2008 NYS Teacher of the Year, and a former National Science Teacher of the Year) that I heard this put forth as a pedagogical touchstone: “Who owns the question?”

I thought of this as I read the list of questions your colleagues have drawn up– truly exciting and challenging stuff. Will these ideas exist with the leeway for students to determine their own critical inquiries?

In other words– in your proposed class, who do you think will own the questions? I’d love to know.

Dina’s question has been sitting on me for a few days, possibly weeks, now, and it’s not that I’ve been ignoring it, but rather gathering some resources to include in my response.  One of the things I found was a recent post by Dr. Tim Tyson called Value Chain 2.0.  Dina had asked who was going to own the questions that these teachers were proposing as essential to the unit of study, the students or the teachers?  Tyson’s article asks a much similar question, but he refers it to “who owns the learning in the classroom: the teachers or the students?  It also raises questions for me in the area of responsibilities shared by students and teachers.  A while back I wrote about being impressed with Alan November‘s idea that teachers should “outsource” a lot of what they do to the students.  Tyson’s point about who is doing the thinking work in the class goes to that–are you doing all of the thinking, or are the students?

What I am struggling with, and I think it’s a struggle that all teachers and administrators will face in the coming years, is convincing and working with teachers to learn alongside their students, to model their practice for them, to fail in front of them, and to resurrect themselves in front of them.  The key point I have been trying to drive home with the teachers I am working with is that this class should be designed around topics that both you and the students want to learn about, and that this class has unbelievable potential for personal learning.  That being said, I like the idea that the ownership of both the learning and the questions be distributed evenly between the teachers and students.  Student-centered? Teacher-centered?  How about learning-centered?  or inquiry-centered?

As with anything we do in education, there needs to be some structural framework to all of this, and we are ramming up against that pretty hard as we write the curriculum.  Questions of assessment strategies keep arising being that we are stripping out all of the focus on conventions (spelling, grammar, mechanics) and focusing solely on thinking process and ability to express ideas.  We are also running into the issue of how to structure this class on a daily basis, how do we set this up technologically (please, any classroom bloggers out there, we need your methods and practices that have been successful!), and what do we do to convince students that writing and thinking are not drudgery?

Hello Again, My Fairer Self


OK, this is difficult to do. It’s like re-introducing yourself to someone you’ve already met several times, or speaking to a family member whose birthday/engagement/anniversary you’ve forgotten. But, in a fashion that characterizes much of my life lately, I am just going to start and rip the band-aid off rather than toying with it.

I am writing again.

Between several of the projects that are all coming due now, some graduate classes I have undertaken, and the mud puddle plodding I do with my kids, it’s been difficult to find not only the time, but also the mental acuity to dedicate to writing. And as I think back over the course of the last few years, there have been only two or three of these type hiatuses (shouldn’t that be hiati?) since I began taking my professional development into my own hands. I was due for a sabbatical from writing.

But, so much has occurred in my own little section of the world and I am feeling the need to reconnect to my network. The writing class that I hatched in my mind is now a reality. We are creating a class that is mandatory, taken by all students from 6th through 8th grade, that is solely focused on writing to learn and the practicing of critical thinking through the use of writing. My scope is limited, but I don’t see too many schools having the faith in their staff to do this, and trust me, when you see the topics that the teachers want to explore it truly brings the need for trust to the forefront:

  • From “Food Wars:”
    • What is the impact of food availability, production and consumption on an individual, a locality, and a society?
    • Why are there chemicals and packaging in my food? What are the effects of these on my body and the environment?
    • How are foods marketed?
  • From “Mental Fitness”
    • What is mental fitness?
    • How do I learn?
    • Am I mentally fit?
  • From “America and Beyond”
    • Is increased life expectancy a blessing or a curse?
    • What are your thoughts on physician-assisted suicide?
    • How has technology affected your generation compared to previous generations?

All questions that I have broached or attempted to broach with students in various ways throughout the last few years, except that was in the confines of a social studies classroom with a predetermined curriculum that I had to follow. This class is devoted to using these questions as framework to help our students critically write and read. I can’t tell you how jealous I am that our students have this opportunity. I thought I’d never say this, but I want to be in middle school again.

A while back, I quoted Wes Fryer’s post about the needs for our curriculum to reflect the following three things rather than what we deem important for success on high-stakes testing:

  1. Remix: Students need to regularly remix their learning to own the ideas.
  2. Deregulation:
    Learners need to be freed to take the TIME required for in-depth rather
    than shallow studies in problem-based, project-based constructionist
    and constructivist learning activities.
  3. Differentiation:
    Learning opportunities, challenges, and assessments must be
    differentiated to meet the needs as well as interests of a diverse
    array of learners.

I am feeling like the work I have talked about doing over the last few years is very close to showing some life. This class is a stab at what our students might benefit most from. As you can probably tell, a majority of my energy has been spent trying to convince and cajole the stakeholders into making this class become a reality. To their credit, the teachers involved have taken a huge leap of faith and risked splintering their department, as we are using English/Language Arts teachers to teach this class. They have created the ideas for the units and are truly beginning to grasp how this class can be successful.

It’s going to be a long summer…

Image Credit: “Rebirth,” from *Solar ikon*’s photostream