Category Archives: Teachers Demonstrate Leadership

Do Your Students Treasure Answers or Collect Questions?

One of the brightest minds I know is a guy named Evan Sharp.  I had the chance to meet Evan at Educon this year and his drive to wrestle with big ideas was instantly contagious.

At one point over the last year, Evan shared this cartoon with me.  

Go ahead and read it.

I’ll wait.

Really.  I want you to read it.

It’s interesting, right?  And it has me thinking this morning.  In fact, it’s stirred up a bunch of provocative questions that have been sitting in the back of my mind.  

Here’s just a few:

Do school cultures teach kids to treasure answers or to collect questions?

We know the answer to this one, don’t we?  Knowledge driven curricula and high-stakes, fact-based end of grade exams have placed a high priority on answers and a low priority on questions.

Need proof?

Ask the kids in your classroom two questions.  Tell them that you are going to grade the first and the second is just for fun.  See which one they tackle first/work hardest on.

#sheesh

How will a “treasuring answers” attitude towards learning help and/or harm students in today’s world?

I’ll admit it:  I’m SUPER skeptical about the “treasuring answers” approach to learning that we’ve taken in the last few decades in American schools.

I think it was a function of easy accountability instead of an attempt to truly prepare students to be successful in life.  And I think kids who treasure answers will struggle with the one skill that Seymour Papert identified as essential for being competitive in today’s world:  Knowing how to act in situations for which you were not specifically prepared.

Treasuring answers feels like rehearsal to me.  “What am I going to be asked — and how do others want me to answer those questions?”

Collecting questions feels like discovery to me.  “What can I find that no one else has considered before — and why are those new discoveries important to me and to the people around me?”

But IS there a place for treasuring answers in school?  SHOULD we be preparing kids with a solid foundation of basic information that they can draw on and from?  More importantly, is it possible to ask good questions if you don’t have a solid foundation of basic information to draw from?

What’s the right balance between treasuring answers and collecting questions?

What steps can we take to create learning spaces where the questions that kids ask are perceived as just as valuable as answers that they give?

Maybe this is an easy fix.  Maybe teachers should just create time and space for their kids to ask and answer their own questions in class.  Kind of like the Wonder Question project that I started tinkering with last year.

Or maybe we need to begin educating parents — who often have traditional views of schooling based on their own experiences in classrooms decades ago — about the tension between treasuring answers and collecting questions.

Maybe we need to do a better job identifying (and eliminating) the nonessentials in our curricula to create time and space for questioning.

Or maybe we should start grading questions.

(That was a joke, people!)


Related Radical Reads:

What Kind of Students is YOUR School Producing?

Wonder = Joy (And Joy Should be Shared!)

More on the Challenge of Wondering in Schools.

Is Your School Producing “Copy and Paste” Kids?

Something special happened to me last week, y’all:  I was at school late on Wednesday trying to get myself above water after three days with a brand new group of sixth graders.  I was equal parts exhausted and frustrated.  Schedules were wonky, the air conditioning in my room wasn’t working, and I had a thousand signed parent information forms to file.

That’s when Stephen walked in.  

He’s a senior in college now.  Going to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — one of the toughest schools in our state to get into. Majoring in finance and set to make a bazillion dollars over the course of his life.

But he’s got the same energy and spirit and smile that he had when he was my student almost a decade ago.  A kinetic energy.  Constantly moving.  Constantly thinking.  Constantly riffing on ideas and finding humor in situations.  Constantly questioning — questioning rules and limits and expectations and ideas and people.

I’ve always loved that energy and spirit — and I knew it would make Stephen remarkably successful someday.  But it didn’t make him all that successful in school.  Instead, it got him in a ton of trouble with teachers who didn’t see value in a kid who couldn’t sit still and who was just as likely to blurt out 37 times a class period as he was to turn in a piece of work that showed a depth of thinking far and beyond grade level expectations.

I watched teachers try to crush Stephen — and it broke my heart.

They’d sign his behavior tracker for talking out of turn.  They’d call him out in front of everyone when he wasn’t sitting down.  They’d grumble ABOUT him and grumble AT him, wishing that he would “just follow the rules.”  I’d point out that everything that he’d blurt out in class was brilliant and they’d point out that blurting is disruptive and disruptive kids should be punished.

One woman was more than a little open about her dislike for Stephen, going as far as to argue that tolerating his actions would send the wrong message to all of the rest of our students about “what is acceptable and what is unacceptable” in school.  To her, he was intolerable — and she wasn’t willing to apologize for her opinion.

That sucks, doesn’t it?

But it’s a sad fact:  Kids who don’t conform — who aren’t quiet and well prepared every day and willing to raise their hands and take their turns and walk in straight lines — can become outcasts in our buildings pretty darn quickly.

I asked Stephen if he remembered the teachers who had such antipathy for him — and more importantly, if their actions had left him with a bad taste for schools.  He laughed.  Wanted to know WHICH teachers I was talking about.  Turns out that in Stephen’s mind, MOST teachers had a sense of antipathy for him!

And then he shared a piece of slam poetry with me describing his take on his time in classrooms of all shapes and sizes.  His argument:  School is mostly a joke.  A trial.  A test of conformity instead of creativity.  Some people commit to playing the game and they  “succeed” — if obediently producing and repeating thoughts, meeting other people’s expectations, and answering other people’s questions is what you mean by “being successful.”

Stephen wasn’t buying it.  Never was.

Here’s what he wrote*:

COPY AND PASTE

Who are you?

If you answered, they wouldn’t listen

You’re given your name and identification through the perpetual system

Where you’re not you, you don’t exist, and you have no personality

You’re nothing but a name on a piece of paper, a product of formality

For individuality is the fatality

Of conformity’s brutality, it’s the new reality

Where they don’t care about your past, present, future, and they don’t know your face

They just do their very frickin’ best to press copy and paste

To breed and grow you like the rest, what they believe works the best

But nevertheless this is why we get depressed

Because our creativity’s suppressed, our ingenuity oppressed

Because you’re not going anywhere if you don’t know how to test

Now, I must confess, this is a particular skillset that I possess, I study a little less, and get lucky when I guess, but nevertheless I still don’t believe we should attest our success

To our ability to retain and return the bullshit facts that we learn about things we don’t care about – and in ten years won’t know about – but I digress

Learn to love powerpoints, forget about hands-on

Turn on the radio, you’ll keep hearing the same damn song

The world’s foundation is falling, we have nothing to stand on

When everything you are lies in a bubbled-in scantron

This is our handicap, not just something to rant on

If they heard my words they’d laugh hand a tampon

Some of you might too, because you’ve already been stamped on

Our anthem is void, it’s now nothing but a phantom

Damn son, you may say, you seem pretty upset, I say

Upset? I’m frickin’ livid, given the world in which we’re livin’

Where we’re missin’ the frickin’ point, back practicing fast facts and cold religion

Where we’re told not to speak and only to listen,

Where teachers laugh at unique ideas, diss ‘em and dismiss them,

Where school isn’t a place of learning, it’s a clone factory and prison

Where we all get tested under the same curriculum

The rules have been set for you, and you better learn to stick to them

It simply makes me sick, we’re replicated and sent through the reticulum

You try to picket the system? Ridiculous, that’s it, your done

Just find the sum, write the essay, circle C, prepare for test day

Busy work and study dates, up until we graduate

But my friends, that’s not the end, only one cycle complete

Go back to school, go back to rules, apply, dry, rinse, repeat

And then get a job, stabilize, work every day from 9 to 5

Then go home to your kids and wife, don’t disagree, it causes fights

How has it ended up where we all live the same life?

It’s because we’re taught how to find x, and told not to ask y

I couldn’t stress how much potential we waste

When we highlight, right-click, and select copy and paste

When we generalize instead of work case by case

This will be the downfall of the human race

I mean, sure we’ll survive, maybe we’ll even evolve

But if you don’t live your own life, did you really live at all?

Learn your lesson, society, you’ve really dropped the ball

You can either pick yourself up, or continue to fall

But you’ve committed an unspeakable sin, murder in the first degree

For you killed individuality when you pressed “control c, control v”

Stephen told me that he’d written his poem for a college class.  Just something that he’d whipped up because he was tired of the parade of PowerPoint presentations that substitute as learning products in class after class, year after year.  He figured he’d mix things up a bit.  Challenge the norm and watch what happened next.

#awesome

As he recited it for me with all of the cadence and rhythm and emotion that defines a master poet and artist, I couldn’t help but wonder what his university classmates and professor thought when he stood in front of them “presenting” a product that they’d probably never seen before.  Did they respect the risk that he took?  Admire his willingness to stand out — or maybe even apart — from them?  Did they see his choice as foolish — why poetry when PowerPoint was good enough?  Did they knock points off of his grade because he didn’t do what was asked of him?

I also couldn’t help but wonder what the teachers who had tried to squeeze him into their boxes so many years ago would have thought of his poem.  Would they have finally seen him as a deep thinker?  A kid with opinions worth listening to?  A person of reason and rationale instead of as a person who just couldn’t follow the rules?   Or would they have been offended, realizing that he was poking fun at the traditional classrooms they’d created?

But most importantly, I couldn’t help to wonder if we are ever going to get to the point where our schools value something other than creating copy and paste kids.

That’s a question worth asking — and I’m so glad that Stephen is willing to ask it.

#wrestlewithTHATchat

 

*I’ve asked Stephen to record himself reading this for all y’all, Radical Nation.  Leave him a comment down below to let him know how much you would dig that.  I don’t think he realizes how powerful his words can be!


Related Radical Reads:

Can the Quirky Kid Thrive in Our Schools?

Too Many Kids ALREADY Hate School.

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

 

Three Tips for Throwing a Solar Eclipse Viewing Party for Your Students.

I’m sure that by now, you’ve heard that on August 21st, a total solar eclipse will cut a path across all of North America for the first time in over 100 years, haven’t you?

That’s HUGE, y’all.

While eclipses — including total solar eclipses — aren’t all that uncommon, because the path of a total solar eclipse is so narrow, they are typically visible to less than one HALF of ONE percent of the earth’s surface.

What does that mean for educators?

If you have ANY students on your campus on August 21st, you’ve GOT to take some time to teach them a thing or two about eclipses.  And if you are ANYWHERE in the path of the eclipse, you’ve GOT to get your kids outside to see the eclipse as it happens.

Want some help pulling some plans together?  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

You’ve got to buy approved solar eclipse viewers NOW:  It won’t come as any surprise  that looking directly at the sun for any prolonged length of time can cause significant damage to your eyes — so if you plan to watch the eclipse at all, you need to buy solar eclipse glasses that are certified as safe for solar viewing.

There’s two hitches here.  First, there are tons of companies selling knockoff glasses that LOOK safe, but haven’t been certified as safe.  Second, companies making eclipse viewers are rapidly selling out, as most of America gets in on the excitement of a once in a lifetime event.

Viewers aren’t terrible expensive.  You can get them for somewhere between $1.50 and $3.00 a pair, depending on how many you plan to order.  But ONLY order them from companies that are reputable and certified.

You can find a list of reputable vendors here on the American Astronomical Society’s website.  And you can find a list of vendors who’s lenses have been certified as safe by NASA on their eclipse safety website.

Give kids chances to practice making scientific observations:  Solar eclipses are awesome opportunities for students to practice their scientific observational skills.  Not only will the moon slowly block parts of the sun from view, temperatures and amounts of light drop, shadows cast by objects become darker and more clearly defined, reflections of the eclipse can be seen in the shadows cast by light passing through the branches of trees, and the behaviors of animals — who are confused by the early onset of night time — change.

Consider asking students to make systematic observations of these changes throughout the observational period.  Being deliberate about observations, spotting changes over time, and keeping careful records of just what is being observed are core practices of successful scientists.

Here’s the observation sheet that I’ll be asking my students to fill out.

Don’t forget to incorporate some social studies instruction into your viewing party:  One of the lessons that I always like to teach to my students is that early civilizations were just as curious about the natural events happening in the world around them as we are — but they didn’t have access to the tools and technologies necessary to fully understand those events!  That led to some interesting explanations for natural events.

Take solar eclipses for an example:  People in India believed that a headless demon named Rahu was swallowing the sun during an eclipse — but because he was headless, the sun would fall right out of the back of his throat every time that he swallowed it!  Similarly, the Chinese believed that a Celestial dragon was swallowing the sun and the Norse believed that wolves were chasing and eating the sun during an eclipse.

Because all cultures knew about the importance of the sun, eclipses were a source of great fear for them — and in many places, residents would pour out into the streets to try to save the sun from attack by those mythical creatures.  They’d scream at the sky, bang pots and pans, shoot arrows and even fire cannons in an attempt to save the sun from attack.

Why not teach kids about that mythology?  Here’s a great National Geographic bit with some of the best myths from around the world.

And better yet, why not have your students develop their OWN chant designed to save the sun from attack on eclipse day?  Maybe consider modeling it after the haka chants used by the Maori people of New Zealand to scare away perceived enemies?  YouTube is full of great videos of the New Zealand rugby team dropping hakas on opponents before games.

And then, have your kids drop their own hakas during your eclipse viewing party.

How much fun would THAT be?!

They can learn a bit about mythology, understand the connections between mythology and early scientific understandings of natural events, and have a heck of a good time all at once shouting at the sky together!

Whatever you do, DON’T miss out on this once in a lifetime chance to experience one of our universe’s most remarkable events. Science is about observing the world — so get your kids outside and learn together. 

#truth

 

What IS the Ultimate Goal of Schools?

I was poking through my Evernote collection today and I rediscovered this great Fast Company bit about the role that design thinking can (and should) play in schools.

In it, author Trung Le said something that resonates times about a thousand with me:

(Click here to view and/or download original image on Flickr.)

Slide - Outrank Other Countries

Trung is right, isn’t he?  

Outranking other countries on assessment tests ISN’T our ultimate goal.  Instead, our ultimate goal should be to leave kids better prepared to tackle the kinds of borderless challenges that our towns, our communities, our states and our nations are forced to wrestle with.  Whether we like it or not, issues like poverty, drought, access to healthy foods, and pollution in all of its forms are in need of solutions.

What if, instead of spending every bit of our professional energy preparing students to pass assessments of all shapes and sizes, we invested that same professional energy into helping our kids to master the skills necessary to solve complex problems with no clear answers?

Fifty years from now, our world ranking on international assessments isn’t going to mean very much, y’all.

But fifty years from now, the kids in your classrooms right now are going to be leading the world.  How can we best use our time today to prepare them to make a real difference tomorrow?

That’s a question worth asking.

#trudatchat

If you are interested in learning more about incorporating global challenges into the work you do in your classroom, check out Bill’s book, Creating Purpose Driven Learning Experiences — which is currently on sale for $5.00.  

 

 

Presentation Materials – Solution Tree PLC Institute

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working alongside the super motivated educators at Solution Tree’s PLC Institute in Orlando and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The goal for most of the participants will be to find ways to polish their collaborative practices in order to help kids learn.  Together, teams from individual schools will study everything from the core beliefs that support learning communities to the nuts and bolts of making collaboration more efficient and effective.

I’ll be delivering three different breakout sessions at the Institutes.  Here are the materials for each session.  Hope you find them useful:

 

Digital Tools Can Make Differentiation Doable

Slides for Session

If schools are truly working to ensure success for every student, learning experiences need to be customized and aligned to student interests, needs, and unique learning styles. The challenge, however, rests in making differentiation manageable. While few teachers doubt the importance of differentiating, many struggle to make customized learning spaces a reality. William M. Ferriter introduces a range of digital tools that can be used to track progress by student and standard, provide structure for differentiated classrooms, and facilitate initial attempts at remediation and enrichment.

 

Small Schools and Singletons: Structuring Meaningful Professional Learning Teams for Every Teacher

Slides for Session | Handouts for Session

The PLC concept resonates with most educators, but making collaborative learning work in small schools or for singleton teachers can be challenging. Participants explore four models for building meaningful professional learning teams for singletons and teachers in small schools: 1) creating vertical teams to study skills that cross content areas, 2) using interdisciplinary teams to address the engagement levels of at-risk students, 3) designing class loads that allow teachers to teach the same subjects, and 4) using electronic tools to pair teachers with peers working in the same subject area.

 

Our Students Can Assess Themselves

Slides for Session | Handouts for Session

In the spring of 2012, Canadian educational change expert Dean Shareski issued a simple challenge on his blog: “I’m wondering if you’re ready to let your students assess themselves. Not as some experiment where you end up grading them apart but where you really give the reigns over to them?” Shareski’s challenge resonates with William M. Ferriter, who has always been dissatisfied with the grade-driven work in his classroom. He introduces participants to the tangible steps he has taken in response to Shareski’s challenge to integrate opportunities for self-assessment into classrooms.

 

For more information on structuring high functioning Professional Learning Communities, check out Bill’s books — Building a Professional Learning Community at Work – A Guide to the First Year and Making Teamwork Meaningful.

And don’t forget:  You can read all of my PLC related posts on the Radical by clicking on this link.