Thursday, August 25, 2011


Watch this:

I felt like the blog was getting a little too serious. We need some happiness. Learning is supposed to be fun. I bet that as you watched the video above, you at least cracked a smile. It's our natural human response. And when we smile, we can actually elevate our mood.

More importantly, if we are smiling. those with whom we interact are more likely to smile, and therefore, experience happiness. So, that old teacher advice to "never smile before Christmas" is actually a destructive policy, designed to create an atmosphere of compliance, rather than learning. In an industrial economy that rewards compliance, there might be merit in teaching this way, but in our society which rewards creative thought and personal initiative, we want to promote joyous learning.

That begins with our greatest super-power, the smile:

I hope you smile everyday in your classroom. I hope that you create an atmosphere of happiness in your classes that is so powerful that you and your kids can and will always want to bounce back to the default position of a smile :)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 5. The Focus of Class

This post is part five in a series in which I offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching. 

#5- We Can transform the focus of classes from Content-Memorization to Skills-Development.

Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants. -John W. Gardner

I want to start by saying that I'm in no way suggesting that students don't need content. Whenever I find myself going too far out on that limb, I remind myself that I became a teacher because I love English/Language Arts content. I love the Romantic poets, the works of Shakespeare, the act of writing, and the role of rhetoric in how our society works. From my point of view, students need to experience great works of art. They need to learn to express themselves clearly through the written word. They need to learn how their words can affect others, and how others' words can affect them. 

In order to analyze literature or win a debate or write a compelling story, students need to be able to speak the professional language of my content area. It's hard to get a kid to improve his writing if he doesn't have the vocabulary of sentence structure and voice. It's hard to get a kid to break down the appeals of a political speech if she isn't familiar with the basics of rhetoric. It's hard to help a kid analyze a poem if he doesn't have an understanding of metaphor, diction or form. 

So let's begin with an agreement that the long traditions of content (in any subject area) are important to a deep understanding of the topic, as well as being important to the students' ability to contribute to the future expansion of that subject. I want my doctor to have an expansive and nuanced understanding of medicine. The same is true for my mechanic's knowledge of cars, my attorney's understanding of common law, the actors in my local theater's knowledge of stage craft, and my representatives in Congress' understanding of statesmanship. 

That said, I do not believe that content is all there is to learning, and frankly, the model of learning that has held sway over the past century has placed a premium on content accumulation over skills-development. It is often perversely more important to a child's grade that she know that a red flag flying over the Globe Theatre meant a history play was being performed than for her to be able to analyze the play for theme, characterization, or historical accuracy.

Before the advent of the World Wide Web and 24/7 media exposure, this was a little more defensible. People whose jobs required access to wide reserves of knowledge were at an advantage if they could learn a great deal of content and commit it to memory. Being erudite meant being able to command content knowledge from across the curriculum. As access to information has become as simple as a quick search on a smart phone, the need for a shared collection of cultural knowledge has diminished, partly because so much more information is available, and partly because the discussion of what is essential cultural knowledge is complicated by our pluralistic society. 

Meanwhile, in the academic world, the forces that create the canon of content in any given field tend to respond to the laws of inertia. It is maddeningly difficult to get new ideas into the canon without a grinding debate about what content will be sacrificed. Thus we end up with academic standards that bury teachers in too much discrete knowledge to cover and textbooks that weigh so much that students are showing up in pediatricians' offices with backpack-related injuries. We'd rather struggle under the weight of too much to teach than let go of content in favor of deeper learning.

Don't believe me? Suggest to a group of high school English teachers that we could forgo Romeo and Juliet in the freshman year, or that the research paper as it has traditionally been understood might be adequately replaced with a video project, and you will see a whole herd of sacred cows wandering through the conversation. Suggest to a literature professor that teaching Tolkien or J.K. Rowling can serve the same purposes as teaching Dickens or Hawthorne and watch his or her biases rear-up. I know because I am guilty of this as much as anyone. 

What I need to remember is that I want all of my students to find a passion for my subject and to develop the skills they need in order to have a rich and ongoing experience after they've left my classroom. It is less important that I cover any particular content, and more important that I help them develop the ability to engage with any and all content that they select on their own. If I can better engage my students by studying Sondheim instead of Shakespeare, or by creating websites instead of term papers, or by analyzing the symbolism in music videos instead of Frost, then I should embrace the opportunity. 

Most importantly, though, I should understand that my job is to help kids conduct reliable research, write compelling, clear and accurate prose, analyze any text and reach rational conclusions, persuade others in conversation, and find the personal wherewithal to confront tough problems, imagine and test solutions, and grow through self-reflection. Some call these abilities "soft skills" as opposed to the hard skills of measurable content (do I know how to identify genre, write a sonnet, define a "slippery slope" fallacy). Personally, I would prefer that my children be well-trained in the soft skills, so that they can apply them to whatever content they find enriching and useful to their lives.

I have to be willing to accept that not every student will (or needs to) become a great literary critic, writer or speaker. They don't need to love Whitman the way I do. They don't all need to write a novel, publish a poem, or maintain a blog. They don't all need to read Faulkner, Angelou, or Camus. They need to find their own path in life as happy and capable people. My best shot of contributing to that is to understand that I have a greater responsibility to the students in my class than to a particular author or piece of knowledge. If I focus on helping kids learn to use their brains, then they will do so in ways that are relevant to their lives. If I focus on teaching them a specific set of talking points, they are more likely to find my class irrelevant and are less likely to be capable of discovering its relevance later.

My best friend is an attorney. He's very good at what he does. He's one of the best thinkers that I know. He's also interesting. He is a talented musician. He reads poetry and sends me poems he thinks I will like. He contributes to the community through membership on a number of boards. He can install a ceiling fan. He is an amazing and creative cook. We also play trivia several times a year. Some nights he is on fire. He knows the most random stuff. Other nights, he doesn't contribute as much. Still, he is better at recalling information than most. He is a loving parent and a virtuous citizen.

How much of this description is directly tied to what he studied in school? How much comes from the calculus class, the German textbook, or the historical documentary? On the other hand, how much is the result of the influence of caring teachers, professional associations, friends and parents?  A reasonable person would have to conclude that all are important. But there is one significant difference between the content skills (cooking, fixing, trivia) and the soft skills (creativity, virtue, civic responsibility). His ability to learn to cook, read a poem or understand legal precedent as significant to his life is directly affected by his curiosity, his ethics, his ambition, and his problem-solving skills. Good teachers helped him develop those. If all he had been taught was how to cook, fix lights and master trivia, he might never have added anything else to his list.

Friday, August 19, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 4. Our Definition of the Classroom

Image: nuchylee /

This post is part four in a series in which I offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching. 

#4- We can transform our definition of the classroom from “Set in Time and Space” to “Anywhere, Anytime.”

We do damage to learning when we define school as separate from "the real world." We are constantly learning as human beings, but often the types of learning that we do in schools are less engaging than the types of learning we choose for ourselves outside of school. If we carelessly treat learning as only what happens in schools, we risk creating negative associations about learning in the minds of our students.

There are a couple of ways to combat this problem: The first is to make the learning that goes on in schools as organic and engaging as it is on the playground. That means creating opportunities for students to self-select their exploration, allowing students to learn socially, and encouraging students to express themselves creatively. Beyond that, however, we can actively work to blur the edges of our classrooms so that they are not locked in place and time.

One of the strangest results of the 20th Century model of education is that we spend so much time placing student learning in boxes. Students go to 1st period class and are asked to think like scientists in isolation from everything else. Fifty minutes later a bell rings, and our students move to a new box in which they are asked to think like historians in isolation from everything else. Another bell rings and they switch to math mode or reading mode, and at the end of the day another bell rings, and students leave our box and enter a world in which learning is cross-curricular and not limited to discrete time packages that occur in a prescribed order.

It seems to me that it is time for schools to align themselves with this more natural model of learning. We need to break down the walls of time, space and curriculum whenever possible. Our students need to perceive that school can happen anytime and anywhere, and that the learning we do with them isn't limited in value to the time they spend in our presence. We need to connect our students' personal learning with their academic experiences, and we have a responsibility to make sure their academic experiences can inspire personal learning. Finally, we need to create opportunities for our students to connect with us and their classmates virtually and asynchronously. 

Additionally, we need to free ourselves from the expectation that a classroom looks like this: 

Image: criminalatt /
Instead, classrooms could look like courtrooms, coffee shops, laboratories, production studios, and public squares. My friend Missy Feller did an outstanding job this year designing her classroom so that it feels like a space for organic learning. She created a living room type space for conversation, nooks and crannies that encourage independent inquiry or small group collaboration, and a forum space for whole group learning. She also hung original art on the walls, brought in hand-decorated furniture that pulls the eye away from the more industrial furniture provided by the school, and filled the room with plants, rugs, framed art and knick-knacks that make the space feel more like a home, and less like a box. Here are just a few photos from her class:

Finally, we also need to change our own definitions of the classroom to include the world beyond our doors. Access to the Internet and tools like Twitter, Skype and Google+ should mean that we begin with the assumption that we can learn globally and that no resource is beyond our borders. The work of the next few years will be to make sure that all students have access to these tools, to make sure that we, as educators, allow these tools to improve learning, and to make sure that we help students learn to use these tools with wisdom and expertise.

Admittedly, re-imagining the classroom at this level requires that we have some hard conversations, that we slay some sacred cows, and that we free ourselves from the inertia of the system, but every time that we make a choice to conceptualize the classroom differently, we create examples of how learning can be better.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 3. The Act of Learning

Photo by Tim Wilhelmus
This post is part three in a series in which I offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching. 

#3- We can transform the act of learning from Solitary and Independent to Collaborative and Social.

The product of learning is highly personal. We each have our own learning journeys, our own prior knowledge, our own deeply-held opinions based on our environments and experiences. We also are each uniquely wired with genetic pre-dispositions, talents, gifts, struggles and limitations. I cannot deny this. I fundamentally agree that each learner's path (and subsequent worldview) is unlike any other learner's in terms of its particulars.

That said, the act of learning is highly social. We learn best when we challenge our ideas through exploration and experience with others. The act of reading is a social act that includes the author; the act of watching a movie is a social act that includes the director's vision, the actors' interpretations, the editor's choices; even the act of metacognition is a communing with the self that requires objectivity over subjectivity.

We are social creatures who understand the world in terms of others. Our language locks us into an assumption of otherness. Choose any adjective to describe yourself, and it only has meaning in relationship to others. I am tall, intelligent, or distracted in comparison to others. Thus, real learning involves a social context, even when we do the learning alone behind a locked door.

My students read a novel, and by themselves, they manage to have a social learning experience that might include the author and themselves, but also includes their parents' ideas, the ideas that are currently floating around their physical and virtual social networks, and the lessons they've picked up in the media. Already, their learning is done in a social context. But then, I ask them to share their ideas in a class discussion, and they discover that the learning conclusions they had come to on their own are very different from the learning conclusions that their classmates have come to. Pretty soon, we are embroiled in a passionate discussion that is shaking several people's foundations, including mine.

The energy in the room escalates quickly, and it is clear that we are hitting on some core beliefs. Tectonic plates inside our brains are shifting, which feels uncomfortable, but also very real. We are learning from each other, even if at the end of the day we have to agree to disagree. This open exchange of ideas is the kind of learning that doesn't end with the bell. It carries over into lunch, then the class discussion board, then my students' lives. These are the learning moments that we revisit later in the year.

The problem is that in too many classrooms, the act of socializing is stymied at every turn. We ask kids to shut down their natural tendency to want to share their thoughts, and implicitly, we suggest that their thoughts are not welcome in the learning environment called school. We de-value one of the most fundamental aspects of learning as disruptive, dishonest, and/or frivolous. We insist that our students disconnect from their personal networks when given a learning task at school, when in the rest of their lives it is their personal networks that lend vitality and support to their learning. We too often assume that students who help one another with assigned work are taking the easy way out, instead of commending them for problem-solving together. And we fall victim to the destructive assumption that when a kid is texting or instant messaging with others, he or she cannot be engaged with the work at hand.

Managing social learning isn't easy for all teachers, but learning socially feels really easy for kids. Social learning requires that teachers let go of the microphone and let students learn from each other. It means that learning is open-ended, instead of narrowly prescribed. The collaborative environment drives learning because it challenges the individual to see things from different perspectives. It also allows students to benefit from the collective experiences of the group. Perhaps most importantly, though, a collaborative environment teaches students to value and take responsibility for their own thinking, instead of blindly accepting the authority of others.

When I think about this, I imagine moving from a classroom in which students are expected to think, act and be judged alone (poor Johnnie sweating over a worksheet, hoping to check the right box) to a classroom in which the students and teacher are working together to solve problems and grow through the process. A friend of mine tweeted recently that school should be more like CSI and less like Jeopardy. I believe we can make this happen.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 2. The Role of the Student

Image: Adam Hickmott /
This post is part two in a series in which I offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching.

#2 We can transform the role of the student from Content Sponge to Content Creator.

I'm sure that we've all heard the adage that if you want to learn something really well, then teach it. I know that is true in my life. I really only solidify what I know when I take the time to mold what I know into a form that I can share with others. There are three things that I have to do, if I am going to teach something: I have to assess my own knowledge critically (to guard against "makin' stuff up"); I have to consider the path I've taken to come to this knowledge so that I can attempt to create a similarly useful path for others; and I have to "own" the knowledge so completely that I can speak from a position of authority.

The first act, assessing my own knowledge, involves critical thinking, evaluation, research, and in many cases, collaboration. The second act, involves problem-solving, organization, principles of design, analysis, communication, and interpersonal skills. The third act of "owning" knowledge requires metacognition, leadership skills and critical self-reflection.

Put that way, teaching sounds like a lot of work. I would argue, though, that most teachers would describe it as a lot of fun. The hard work of teaching is fun because it is engaging to our whole selves. How and what we teach is wrapped up in our emotions, our cognitive abilities and our physical selves. We love teaching the way we teach, because we love learning the way we learn. And as teachers, we have traditionally had at least some autonomy in the forms that teaching takes in our classrooms. In part, this helps to explain the slowness that characterizes the act of transforming the classroom. Those who succeed in traditional classrooms go on to teach in traditional classrooms, the story goes.

I contend, however, that the deep forms of learning that we do in our professional lives as teachers are exactly the deep forms of learning that our students need to be engaged in if we want them to love learning as much as we do. I hope we are not so selfish as a profession that we would choose to keep the best learning for ourselves.

My friend Jon Carl teaches a class he designed called "Feel the History" in which students create documentary films on local history for our area public television station. Jon spends very little time curating information and delivering it to kids. His classes are too busy doing the work themselves. He doesn't have time to teach them history because he is teaching them to be historians. And his kids obviously know the joys of teaching a whole community about itself.

So, I hope you will accept this challenge. Ask yourself with every unit or lesson you design, will your students have the deep pleasure of mastering the content and skills that you teach on their own terms and be challenged to share their learning beyond themselves, or will you simply ask them to reflect your learning back to you?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 1. The Role of the Teacher

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /
Over the next few days, I want to offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching.

#1 We can transform the role of the teacher from Content Provider to Learning Sherpa, Literacy Swami, Exploration Coach, Lead Learner.

There are a few ideas here that I would like to focus on. First, in today's world, information is cheap, and honestly, I don't think that we should be telling kids anything that they can find out for themselves via the Internet. I did not always feel this way. 

When I was in fourth grade, I had a teacher who refused to tell students how to spell words. I'd ask, "How do you spell 'photosynthesis'?" and she would point at the dictionary cart and say, "You know where to look." She may or may not have had the smirk that my memory is supplying, but the point was clear. Do it yourself. I remember finding her steadfast refusal to help maddening. After all, she was a teacher. She was supposed to help. I needed help, she knew the answer, but instead I had to go through the much longer procedure of getting a dictionary, searching through it for the answer based on my best guess for the spelling, and confirm that the pronunciation and definition matched my expectation for the word I was trying to use. Grrrrrr. What I didn't understand at the time, was that she was teaching me the skills it takes to learn on my own.

My wife had a similar experience last year with her students. She switched to a project-based model of teaching that placed the ownership of learning squarely on the shoulders of her students. She provided them with an entry document, placed them in teams, and refused to tell kids anything that they could learn themselves. She was there to listen, offer advice, and ask the types of questions that could nudge kids toward success, but only when they were really stuck or needed to be protected from their own bad judgement. 

At the beginning of the year, only a few kids embraced this type of learning. It was not the model of learning that most were accustomed to, and it was hard work when the teacher could have made it easier. Some of the students openly accused my wife of teaching this way because she didn't want to do any work. 

This is what we've done to kids. They perceive any work beyond rote learning to be the teacher's job. Their job is to jump through the hoops and collect the grades. No wonder kids are bored. They are being asked to grab the low-hanging fruit, and are being told "good job" for doing it. And no wonder many teachers are bored as well. We signed on because we are passionate about learning. We are not passionate about grading 30 McWorksheets, delivering the same PowerPoint over the course of 35 years, or arguing with kids about a single point in the gradebook.

However, as the year progressed, my wife's classroom transformed. There were still small pockets of resistance, but most of her students much preferred the project-based model. The engagement was obvious, and the collaboration, authentic learning and choice that her students experienced helped to prepare them for a world in which there is actually very little low-hanging fruit. The rewards were obvious. Kids became better thinkers. The learning was challenging, but fun. Discipline issues were easier to handle. Her relationship with the students was collaborative and joyous.

If you had asked my wife what was hardest about this process, she would have told you that it was letting go of the control. We all have the impulse to help kids be successful, but that impulse can be destructive when we lower the bar for success, micro-manage the direction of learning so that everything is standardized and personally irrelevant, or refuse to allow students to make their own mistakes (or worse punish those mistakes with grades that depend solely on achievement).

When we act as content provider. Or when we draw a too-narrow and too-simplistic path to success, we aren't teaching. We are no better than a textbook. We're actually worse than a YouTube video,  in that our student's don't view our information critically (they trust us to be the font of knowledge) and they didn't select us as teachers (usually) based on their own design for learning.

Our role as teacher needs to be that of learning sherpa. We've done the learning. We know the information. We've already walked the path. We can help our students do the same safely and more wisely. Thus, our contribution to their learning should include guiding students away from unsafe learning behaviors, developing students' powers of critical thinking, challenging students with real work for real audiences, giving students honest critical feedback, encouraging students to follow their own learning interests, and helping students develop skills such as leadership, collaboration, communication, curiosity, and problem-solving. This can be done in any content area, and should be done in every classroom.

I look back to my fourth-grade teacher with appreciation. She made me use my brain in her class. She gave me the opportunity to believe in myself as a learner and a problem-solver. I hope our students will say the same of us one day.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"I Won't Sit Down, I Won't Shut Up"


Thanks to my friend Michelle Green for this amazing bit of inspiration!

Looking for the Good

Image: photostock /
School begins in a few days in our school corporation, and I am looking forward to it. The first day of school is an amazing day. It seems like everyone is optimistic and willing to believe in the possibility of their own success and power to learn.

Kids are excited to be here and are curious to learn what their classes will be like, what their teachers will be like, and which of their friends they'll be able to see throughout the day. Frankly, teachers are no different.

We all dress up a little more, prepare a little more fully, get up earlier to start the day. We invite our students to imagine the year ahead with excitement. In short, we bring our best selves to the task. Students do this as well.

I've come to realize that great teachers are the ones who manage to maintain that sense of optimism and possibility over time, and more importantly, manage to inspire it in their students. It's not easy to do, and it requires purposeful effort to avoid the cynicism inspired by the political climate in which we work.

Someone once told me that to be a successful teacher, one needs to find joy in every student and find something to celebrate in your work every day.  I hope that the teachers my children have this year will subscribe to that philosophy.

I ran across this video yesterday on TransLeadership by Tony Baldasaro. It's lengthy, but if you find yourself in need of a reminder of the optimism you started with this year, I hope you'll take the time to watch it:

We all need to re-examine our core business, and remember that education is meant to further the fundamentally human and social act of learning. It should bring us joy, and we have a responsibility to nurture the same joy in our students.

I hope everyone has an amazing start of school that kicks off a year of powerful learning.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I am a Playground Advocate

Image: Tina Phillips /
If you've spent any time in your life with kids on playgrounds, you know that the ways in which they experience the playgrounds equal real learning. I've blogged about this before at length.

What I want to see happen is that the types of self-directed, collaborative and joyous learning that happen on the playground, happen in our classrooms as well.

I believe that a focus on skills-based learning that is highly personal, highly-social, and highly-flexible will help us to prepare students to live happy and enriching lives in a world that is increasingly global and connected.

I believe that real learning happens when we are choosing our own path, traveling at our own speed, and wrestling with problems that we care deeply about.

I also believe that we smile while we're doing it.

This blog is about transforming classrooms from an industrial model of education to one that is relevant to the iGeneration, using the tools that are available to us in our information age, but it is also about returning to a more fundamental understanding of learning that is organic and natural to us as human beings.

Hopefully, this will be a place to find inspiration as well as practical ideas for nurturing real learning for kids. I invite you to travel with me in this process, to share your ideas, and to help move this idea forward.