Dec 11

Make the Work Worth Doing

So… let’s start with a basic premise — on a warm day, I’d rather be outside playing Ultimate frisbee than in a classroom. I’d imagine that some version of that statement is true for most students as well. So we have to accept that there is some level of compliance to school – we all have to be there. But that doesn’t mean that we have to make the primary motivation of school compliance-driven. We can work to make school matter far more for kids than it currently does.

A simple thought: Given that we all have to be together – we should work to make the time as meaningful as possible.

We do that by thinking deeply about what we ask our students to do – and work to create the conditions where what they do matters.

There’s no one way to make that happen – and no one I know succeeds in doing it every day for every kid – but we can ask ourselves some smart questions that push us to get closer to that ideal every day.

So with that… some questions we can ask ourselves to push ourselves to think about how to make the work we ask kids to do worth doing:

  • Does the student have the choice to personalize the work to reflect their own ideas?
  • Does the work have an audience beyond just student to teacher?
  • Does the work lend itself to a performance task that gives the student a chance to create a unique artifact of their learning?
  • Does the work look different for different kids in the class?
  • Does the work empower the student to look at the world we live in today differently?
  • Does the work enable the student to do something in their world today?
  • Does the student understand how the work improves their ability in a skill they care about?
  • Does the student understand why the content is of value to them as a citizen of the world today?
  • Does the work give the student the opportunity to challenge or dig deeper into an idea or a belief that the student has held?

If we can ask ourselves these kinds of questions before we ask our students to do the work of our classrooms, we can create the kinds of classrooms where kids are asked to do authentic, meaningful work worth doing on a regular basis. And while we have to own that it’s probable that not every assignment will inspire every student every day, we can make sure that our students understand the “why” of what we do every day and, more often than not, believe in that “why” and work hard in service of our shared goals.

Sep 01

Project-Based Learning and Real Life

[Our book Building School 2.0  will be released in one week! Pre-order it today!]

Now it's real. On the shelves in seven days. http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1118076826/ #school20

My copies of the book that Zac Chase and I wrote arrived today. Not the PDF proof… not the galley print… but the thing. The actual book.

It is an incredible feeling — to hold a book you wrote in your hand. And it actually caught me by surprise how meaningful the moment felt. I mean, I’ve been showing people the galleys for a few months now… it’s been on Kindle for a few weeks… but this is the real thing. It’s really going to happen. People will be able to go into a bookstore and buy the thing that Zac and I created.

And as I was holding it, I thought back to the first time I met Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High. It was during the planning year of SLA, and he gave me a copy of the book that his students published that year. The pride and excitement he had about what his students created was palpable and inspiring. And I don’t think I fully got it then – what it meant that his kids had created something powerful and of value that was real in the world.

Over the last ten years at Science Leadership Academy, I’ve seen kids build, make, create and do in incredible ways. I’ve seen kids take incredible — and justifiable — pride in what they’ve done. It’s an incredible thing… to see people get such obvious pleasure and pride from creating something that they are proud of… that is uniquely theirs (even, yes, when it’s a group project.) And sometimes, it’s easy to forget that feeling… to forget why it’s so important to make sure that we just don’t “do projects” in school, but instead we create the conditions by which our kids can do real work that matters to the world.

I hope people read the book Zac and I wrote. I hope educators and parents sit down and talk about it together. I hope it helps people who care deeply about students and school to evolve their institutions in powerful ways. And today, I held this project I did in my hand, and I felt that sense of excitement that this thing my friend and I did together might just make a difference in the world. And I want every kid at SLA – and beyond – to know that feeling… to know that they can do real work in the world that matters. I want every student to have that moment of accomplishment of seeing a project through to completion, but more importantly, I want them to have that feeling of knowing that finishing the project is actually just the beginning.

Nov 18

Don’t Make Presentation Day the Worst Day

When I was in the classroom as a project-oriented teacher, I always struggled with Presentation Days. You know those days… it’s at the end of a long cycle of project-making when the students get up in front of the class, one after the other, and present their projects.

And, let’s face it, it often bores the living snot out of the kids — and the teachers.

And the frustrating thing is that can happen even when the projects the kids created are really cool. But too often, Presentation Days consist of 8 to 10 (or more) groups coming up and giving very similar styled presentations about their projects, each about 5-10 minutes long, and before you know it, your class and you have sat through a period or two of being talked at from the front of the classroom. As a teacher, I did this to the kids more times than I’d care to admit.

And the funny thing is, I’d never make my students listen to lecture for that long from me.

Presentation is a skill — and it’s not one that schools teach all that often explicitly. And before we subject our students to another day of half-listening to their peer’s projects, we should think about how we frame the act of presentation, the art of listening, and thoughtful presentation design that minimizes boredom.

Some thoughts on creating meaningful end of project cycle experiences, then…

Class structure:

There are ways to have students get the full effect of other students’ work without a parade of PowerPoint presentations at the front of the room –

Read-arounds – where each group/person has to read the work of two other groups/people and write a response. Using a learning management system can make this process transparent for everyone as well.

Teach-in stations – where students go from station to station and at each station, students are presenting work and doing a poster-session style presentation. Do this in thirds where there are three rounds of poster session and each group presents once and walks around twice. You can have students fill out exit tickets of things they learned from other students’ presentations – again, if that’s done online, it can then create a shared compendium of student learning and reflection.

Critique / Gallery Walk- take a page from the art world, and have the work either digitally or physically available to all members, and have them go from piece to piece and give feedback. (Even digitally, this can be fun to do in physical space so that students can get up and move around.)

There are ways to make the front of the room more exciting too – and there will be times when you want every student / group to do a presentation to the entire class:

Ignite-style: A sense of urgency is an awesome thing, and the Ignite style presentation (20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds) makes for a fast-paced, fun presentation that communicates ideas powerfully with a sense of energy and purpose.

Multiple manifestation of presentations: Give students the options of how they want to present – skits, simulations, videos, even PowerPoint, poster – there are many ways to communicate ideas to a crowd, and students should have the opportunity to experiment with multiple modalities. Often, SLA teachers still have students hand in a more comprehensive paper with the presentation so students can go into more depth as well.

Mini-lessons: If one of the purposes of having students present their projects is to teach their classmates, then why not have students actually create a lesson plan on how to teach their material? Students can create more progressive lesson plans for how to teach their students about what they have learned, complete with creating learning activities for their fellow students.

These are just some of the many ways to make the presentations of student work far more powerful as learning moments than having students lecture their classmates. I’ve seen SLA teachers and students create incredible learning experiences for each other using these techniques and many more. Much like every other part of project-design and inquiry-driven curriculum-design, thoughtful planning of Presentation Day on the front end will make for far more powerful learning when the day arrives.