Sunday, October 5, 2014

Strange Fire

The young man sat by the fireplace on an oaken stool, the left side of his face, red with the heat of the fire, the flickering flames dancing in the pupils of his eyes, eyes fixed on the wrinkled hands of the old man. 

On the other side of the room, the old man reached down into the earthen furnace and withdrew the glass sphere that he had earlier planted there.  The fierce fire had since cooled, and the glass bulb was black with tar.

The young man’s eyes suddenly widened with astonishment as the old man rubbed the glass with his work worn fingers. As the greasy blackness of the tar rubbed off onto his hands, there appeared a faint greenish glow from within, dimmed by the film of soot. The old man removed a rag from his pocket, and firmly wiped the side of the sphere, and all at once a bright shaft of light broke from the cleaned spot as if ten candles flickered within. 

The old man rubbed the whole sphere with a circular motion, and the smearing tar made weaving patterns of light and shadow on the ceiling of the hovel.  As he cleaned, the light in the room slowly grew brighter and brighter until it was as bright as day.

Satisfied with his work, the old man held up the sphere in front of his face and gazed at the stange forms within. The young man had moved his stool closer now, and was staring at the dancing, nebulous flames within the glass. He could not speak for some time.  Finally, he whispered, “What is it, sir?”

The old man paused, drew a deep breath, as if he were finally relieved of a heavy burden, and he spoke slowly, a faint smile spreading across his lips, “It is the fire…”  he drew another breath, his eyes fixed on the flames, “from deep within the world.”

*Reposted from my old writing blog, Kosmosis.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Top 2 reasons to get on Twitter right now

So, you're hesitant to get on Twitter.

Maybe it's because you're content with Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, We Chat or whatever.

Maybe you aren't on any social media sites because you feel like they are narcissistic, materialistic, artificial, anti-social, harmful, or simply a waste of time.

I can understand some of those feelings, and I'm not thrilled with some of the potential side-effects/hurdles of social media, but I still think you should get on them, particularly on Twitter. Here's why.
Twitter is the quintessence of the instant globalization of society. With the right #hashtag, I can instantly share with/contribute to the global community.

I can tell my favorite author (@ramez) how much I loved his book (#nexus).. and he tweets back.

I can tweet about my first #honey harvest (#beekeeping) and an expert beekeeper from new Zealand congratulates me and engages me in conversation about treatments for mites (varroa destructor).

I can chat, real-time, every Saturday morning with educators from around the world at #satchat.

I can instantly publish my thoughts to/interact with the world with the right #hashtag.

Amazing. Not since #Gutenberg has such a seismic shift taken place. And that's an understatement. I think the printing press was nothing compared to what we'll see as a result of the #internet. Imagine all of the ideas of all of the minds of all of the people of the world suddenly connected and building off of each other. That's what's coming.

Reason #2: As a high school teacher, it's a blast to interact with my students about #chemistry (#chemaeos), #biology (#eosbio) & #science outside of class.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Towards more responsive rigor

The headmaster sat across the desk from me and listened as I explained my predicament. I was a new teacher, and my students hadn't done so well on their first honors chemistry test. Should I lower my standard?

"Absolutely not," he replied, "Make them come up to your level."

Then he told me a story.

An old headmaster was asked by a parent what would be a good course of study for her son. The old priest answered, "Any course of study is sufficient, as long as it is difficult and at least a little unpleasant."

I think most of my chemistry students would say that I listened to that old headmaster. I've always thought that the most important part of my job was to act as resistance training for their minds. But too often I've ended up with large test adjustments and students slipping through the cracks. So though it's still my mission to be like a demanding athletic coach in the classroom, I've been trying to make my rigor more responsive.

The most common modern educational meaning of rigor is "cognitive rigor," which involves Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DOK) and/or Bloom's Taxonomy. Both of these basically say that it's harder to apply knowledge and evaluate alternatives than it is to memorize and describe, especially when applying and evaluating in different contexts. Solving equations in math class is one thing, applying them to solve a problem in chemistry is another. The high levels of Bloom's and Webb's have a lot in common with critical thinking, which is one of the "4 Cs" of 21st century learning, along with communication, collaboration, and creativity.

One cool thing about this definition of rigor is that ALL students can achieve a high DOK level. For some, this might mean using addition and subtraction to create a budget. For others, it may mean using statistics to design an experiment. Both are rigorous for that student.

And this is where I have significant room for improvement. It requires attention to the needs of individual students, the way a good coach monitors each runner, swimmer, or player to keep them continuously pushing the envelope of their individual ability with each new skill. Auto racing driver Danica Patrick expressed this well in Honda's excellent video, Failure: The Secret to Success:

"You're driving your car and you feel frightened a little bit. We bump up against that feeling as much as we can to try and push that limit further and get comfortable there and then push it again."

But this is difficult in a traditional high school classroom, so I've been working on differentiated alternatives: a project- and mastery-based geology class, and a differentiated biology class. My flipped chemistry class is a step in that direction as well. By allowing students choice and flexibility in pace, process, and product, you allow for differences in readiness and interest.

Then, by using a mastery model, which allows multiple attempts until the standard is met, and providing ample, personalized support, you enable every student to reach rigorous standards. Ideally, the outcome is twofold: 1) every student leaves the school as a competent critical thinker, communicator, collaborator, and creator, and 2) they learn perseverance (grit? a subject for a later post). In short, they are die-hard mental athletes, and you are their crazy coach.

And I think that was the message behind that old headmaster's advice. The content itself doesn't matter, "Any course of study is sufficient, as long as it is difficult and at least a little unpleasant." I'd just add one thing. It should be difficult because it teaches the student to think critically, collaborate, create, and communicate, because these are the skills they'll need to reach their potentials in the 21st century (and beyond). And it should be personalized, so that every student succeeds.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Content is not the point

Standing on a piece of Africa in CT
Controlled chaos is what it may look like (or worse). Or maybe sometimes it looks like laziness (God, I hate that word). Either way, it was my geology class. I call it differentiated, but really, it's an experiment--a dream, maybe. A new kind of school, maybe. A mistake, maybe, but I don't think so. And darn it, I'm proud of these kids.

They had lot's of choice, that's for sure. Every unit, an "assignment," with curriculum-dictated content-based objectives, but (and here's the key) open-ended products. Students can make presentations, write essays, build models, produce videos, posters, workout videos (more later). They make their own learning plans and set their own deadlines. (One got angry at me at first... about the no-deadlines part--wanted more structure. "That's fine, we can do that for you," I said.)

They need to get at least 60% on each assignment (graded by rubric). Otherwise, they are incomplete until they improve it (my attempt at the "mastery" model). I also tried to keep track of their progress on GLEAMS (social skills, goal-setting. etc.), but more on that in a later post.

But one day, earlier in the semester, I was doing some grading on a Saturday. I watched a video produced by a group of my students. They read from notes (*grits teeth*). At the end, they joked, laughed, swore... and forgot to edit it out. They learned nothing, I thought. What a disaster, I thought. My experiment is not going  well at all, I thought. I've failed, I thought. My ideas about learning are all wrong, I thought.

Then I thought... wait: but didn't plan it all by themselves? They may not have learned a ton, but then a again, didn't they? And do they learn more from the typical lecture? And they planned their own learning! They. Learned. By. Themselves. (With my guidance.) And what's more important? Filled-in-blanks-vocab or... this.

Since then, I went back and forth: Between...
  • worrying that we were not covering enough content... and enjoying myself,
  • worrying they are not working hard enough... and enjoying watching them learn,
  • focusing on "failures" (the guy who sleeps and "youtubes" away half the time, the boys who snapchat each other, the chronic absences of a couple of students, the cut-and-pasting from the web, the gaming of my system :-l )... and focusing on successes (the Earth cake, the awesome volcano art, the "Earth goes to the doctor" story, the innovative mountain-building models, the final project that nailed the reason gems are found in only certain places, the self-imposed deadlines being met, self-created goals being achieved, and the fact that they are learning to learn, the fact that they sat there every day (at least some of the time) planning, researching, producing. 
And that's what's important.

Content? Yeah... I think they're getting that too (as a bonus), but content is not the point. How many people know what a subduction zone is or can tell a metamorphic rock from an igneous rock. And really, what difference does that make in an age when we can Google the answer in a second. But what difference does it make if you know how to ask a question, find the answer, and learn?What difference does it make if you can set a goal, plan, and produce? All the difference.

And they did. Ten units. Ten projects. All individually planned & executed. I'm not bragging on me. I'm bragging on them.

Monday, May 12, 2014

What's in your bowl?

Bacon, chicken, & avocado salad (
If you're a recovering stress junkie, like me,  you're constantly playing crazy mental video games,  shooting down tasks before they reach you and it's game over. But how can you ever enjoy the present now, if you're always worried about the next now?

Imagine the present moment like a bowl of food. Future bowls are stretching off far into the distance. We can fill our "now" bowl with sweet things, fun, pleasure, socialization, rest, or we can fill it with hard things--studying, work, planning, and exercise. I tend to focus on worrying about future bowls, filling the now with work, so much so that I can't enjoy life. I don't want to focus too much on the present, because then I may not get as many future bowls.

But neither should I just fill it with stuff that is only "good for me"-- stuff that is only for the future. Why? Three reasons: 1) That future may never come. 2) How many missed "nows" until they outweigh the future "nows" I'm saving up for. 3) How will I ever learn to enjoy the "nows" of the future if I can't enjoy the "nows" of now.

No. What I want to do is fill my "now" bowl with a mixture of things I can enjoy now and things that are preparing me for the future. Maybe some kale, but also some bacon. Maybe some coconut milk, but also some honey. Maybe some carrots, but also some dark chocolate. Maybe one day I'll come up with an equation for what percentage of each moment should be spent enjoying and what percentage working on the next bowl. For now, I'll keep it simple: Next time I'm tempted to sacrifice now for tomorrow, stop and savor at least a bite of the present--every present moment, even in the midst of preparations for future bowls. Make sure every moment has a balance of hard and soft, rough and smooth, pushing myself and having compassion on myself, responsibility and relationships, protecting people and enjoying people, exhaustion and ecstasy, improvement and immersion, struggle and sweetness, justification and joy, roughage, risk, richness, rapture, relaxation and release.

Now, what's in my bowl? What's in yours? What's in ours?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The choice effect

Choice works. Case-in-point: Nursing homes. They can be dismal, depressing places. And I don't think it's because old people are dismal. I think they have awesome potential, just like all of us. I think it's because of how the places are run. As Robert Sapolsky writes, many nursing homes are "a world in which you are often isolated from the social network of a lifetime and in which you have little control over your daily activities, your finances, often your own body. A world of few outlets for frustration, in which you are often treated like a child."

But psychologists have found an interesting way to improve life for nursing home patients: Instead of doing everything for them, just give them more choice and responsibility. Some studies have tried this--control group gets same old stale, passive, totally controlled environment and plant-like existence. Treatment group gets responsibility (and freedom) to choose meals, sign up for activities, care for their own plants, etc. Treatment group gets more active, happier, and healthier. Mortality rates go down.

As I listened to Sapolsky's book, driving home from work, it struck me how much this sounds like school. High school students are a lot like nursing home patients--allowed very little choice and responsibility--"infantilized," as Sapolsky puts it. They are told what to do and how to do it all day long, while at school. I'll never forget one former student who remarked how strange it was to be a manager at Dunkin Donuts and then come to school and have to ask to use the bathroom. For many students, it's demoralizing. Prison-like. Depressing. Stifling. Growth-inhibiting.

We want them to become independent learners, right? We want them to become responsible global citizens, right? Then we give them no independence and dictate how and what they will learn and do every minute of every day? Fortunately, I think the tide is finally turning. For example, in order to score at the highest level of Charlotte Danielson's influential Framework for Teaching Evaluation, a teacher must design lessons where "Activities permit student choice."

Student independence, choice, and self-direction are even more prominent in the CT Common Core of Teaching rubric. And this all makes sense. For one thing, everyone is different, with different learning styles and interests, backgrounds, and levels of motivation and readiness. One-size-fits-all education can't work as well as individualized instruction. And secondly, we all learn best by doing. Giving students independence and responsibility teaches them.. well, independence and responsibility.

And lastly, choice is a lot more fun than dictum. I ran my biology class like this last year, giving students options for every assignment, and I'm building a geology course like this this year. So far, so good. More fun. More interest. Less stress for them. Less stress for me. Next step: Self-created learning plans. (Hopefully, more on that later.)

I've been telling my students for a few years now: "Never ask me to go to the bathroom--just go." This is symbolic of my intention to treat them like young adult human beings, with dignity, choices, freedom and responsibility. With a a good dose of training and guidance, maybe soon I can say to them: "Don't ask me what to do next," because they will have planned it themselves, like Starr Sackstein's students.

I'm willing to bet, with each increment of increased choice, there will be increased interest and happiness. Imagine that: a school full of happier, healthier, motivated, self-directed teens. A dream? Maybe.

Less likely than a nursing home full of happy patients? I don't think so.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

My Teaching Goals--Every Day

I asked him what it was like at his elite arts college. He had taken my AP chemistry class a few years before. He said college was "Less like a prison and more like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, where everyone walks around singing all the time."

It's that prison-ness, that same-ness and rote-ness and (too-often) uselessness of secondary ed that I want to get away from. And it's that Willy-Wonka-ness I'm going for.

So I needed a memory device, a tool to help keep me out of the rut of routine learning, the creativity-killing lecture-worksheet-quiz-repeat that is the path of least resistance I slip into more than I'd like to admit. I needed something to help me remember the techniques that work and the outcomes that are really important, so I can do them all every day. It is also something that will help me cover the bases in the Danielson Rubric (yes, kids, we have rubrics, too), which, it just so happens, is a pretty good guide to the kind of teacher I want to be.

So I started by asking myself, what do I really want my students to get out of school?  Then I tried to make an acrostic. GLEAMS is what I came up with. Sorry, it's a bit cheesy, but I think it kind of fits. And here's what it stands for:

Give globally - because that’s how to be happy, and so it's a great motivator. I want to encourage and help my students to make real, authentic contributions to people all over the world.

Learn to learn - because if students learn to be expert self-teachers, then they won’t need me anymore, and there will be no limit to what they can accomplish. We’ll start by training to ask 4 questions indicated by the sub-acrostic: WWHH--Why learn? What will I learn? How will I learn it? How will I use what I have learned?

Examine everything - because as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Only through constant evaluation and questioning of everything can we keep improving. This includes thinking critically about our own conceptions, our teachers' ideas, and the ideas of authority figures of all kinds. It includes honestly evaluating our own and others’ work and being open to admitting we are wrong and open to change. This is a lesson I learned too late in life from my son, who as a young teenager, refused to let me skirt around his tough questions.

Aim at (self-)actualization - because this is our highest need in life--to realize and develop our personal potential, purpose and fulfilment. This will differ for each of us, but it is within the reach of each one us. This involves setting the intermediate goals that will get us there, including learning goals for today.

Maximize your mindset - because only by having a growth mindset can we achieve self-actualization. Carol Dweck's book had a big impact on my thinking here, and I want to pass that on to my students every day. Brains can be trained and strengthened. Their growing, changing plastic, not stone. Failure is just the by-product of pushing the envelope.

Synergize socially - because only through social collaboration can we achieve all of the above. As social animals, we can't reach out true potential for achievement and happiness without others. Ideas having sex, as Matt Ridley so powerfully put it, is what drives human progress. And Hargreaves and Fullan have convinced me that  collaboration is absolutely central to effective teaching and learning.

It'll probably be a while before I can consistently work GLEAMS into every lesson, but that's the idea, and I think it is also scalable. In other words, A large scale global contribution project (G), like creating a wiki, could be spread over several days, and might include L, E, A, M, and S components, but I'm still working this out.

Nothing really new here, I know, but I need to boil things down for myself. Humans are so powerful, but so complicated, and there's so much going on in and around the classroom (and I'm so scatter-brained sometimes) that it's easy to lose track of what's really important. It's easier to allow myself to get sucked into playing prison-guard-professor than to empower future magical-chocolate-factory-designer-world-changers. But that kind of stagnation and incompetence is not where I want to be.

I know there's a better way for me to contribute globally (G).

I know how to learn these techniques (L).

I see that I am not there yet (E), but I'm aiming for self-actualization (A).

I'm not afraid of failure (M), and I can collaborate with colleagues and students to improve (S), so what am I waiting for?