Sir Ken’s Corollary

For those of us who cut our virtual teeth on BBS culture, usenet,  and a world of online debate that consisted of very few graphics, massive scrolls of text, protracted argument, and multi-thread flamewars… “Godwin’s Law” is probably old hat. For those not steeped in the lore of Lynx-era geekery, Godwin’s Law basically says that as an argument intensifies and grows more protracted (specifically in the online space), the chance of Hitler analogies being used approaches 1. Basically: the longer people argue, the more likely someone is eventually going to compare the other side to a bunch of Nazis. Godwin’s law inundated the online screamfest for years with people invoking it as a victory flag e.g. “Haha! You compared us to Nazis! I invoke Godwin’s and have won the argument!” The whole point here is that certain cultural touchstones well up as people discuss things. When people argue, Hitler becomes a cultural touchstone synonymous with “evil.”

I’m now proposing a corollary to Godwin’s Law. And that is the “Sir Ken Corollary.” On my commute I have started listening to a lot of podcasts (Teachthought, Adam Jones Education Podcast, TeacherCast), I’m looking at you. As I’ve listened to them all, I’ve realized that there is a common touchstone in the educational space. That touchstone is Sir Ken Robinson. In my own world as I’m talking about education, I will eventually get around to talking about Sir Ken. I thought I was uniquely obsessed with Ken Robinson, but I’ve realized that everyone in education is obsessed with him. Additionally, people throw Sir Ken out there at varying levels depending on conversational partner: Examples

  1. I’m talking to a fellow educational disruptor who has been in the game for a while. I can probably casually mention in passing, “Ken Robinson’s TED talk…” and know that they’ll immediately get the reference.
  2. I’m talking to someone else in the “current’ ecosystem. Here, I’m working with an assumption that they 1) Are familiar with TED talks and 2) Are familiar with some of the larger issues facing education. The mention might sound like, “Have you seen Ken Robinson’s, TED? Oh man! You should really check it out. It’s really important.”
  3. I’m talking to someone who has zero online native status. At this point the conversation goes something like, “There are these great online vidoes you can watch where a bunch of really interesting people share ideas in 20 minute segments. It’s called TED. Just google it. By the way, check out Sir Ken Robinson’s ‘Why Schools Kill Creativity” first!”

The common touchstone is that I’m going to be recommending Sir Ken Robinson in all three scenarios. Therefore, I propose the Sir Ken Corollary to Godwin’s Law. “As a conversation about education (or TED) progresses, the chances of Sir Ken Robinsons TED talk being mentioned approaches 1.”

And this is all for good reason. After all, he has the most viewed TED Talk of all time, logging in at around over 13 million views and counting for “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Charting all the times I’ve show it to students and colleagues, I’m probably responsible for a few thousand of those.

Moment of confession: this is all a really long winded way of telling you all: I’m going to see Ken Robinson at Big Bang in a few months! I couldn’t be more excited. As the post proves, I think that he is, literally, at the epicenter of the educational paradigm shift on Planet Earth.  If you’ve never seen his video, check it out.

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When someone says it better..

One of the issues of living in the information age is attempting to formulate some idea or thought, throwing it out there, then finding someone who has done it better. If you had any interest in what I wrote about yesterday, I encourage you to check out this great post on the Personalize Learning blog.  The author eloquently describes a continuum of student engagement from compliance to flow and provides a nifty illustration of behaviors illustrated along this continuum.

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Continuum of Engagement TM by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on work at bit.ly/continuumengagement.* Graphic design by Sylvia Duckworth 

The irony here, of course, is that as students become MORE engaged, the learning environment becomes louder and messier and the teacher seems to be doing much less traditional “teaching.”

This is a nice reminder for me, as an administrator, to let our staff know that we expect “curious” classrooms with a bunch of messy learning taking place, not compliant classrooms with a teacher delivering content in front of a compliant audience.

From Compliance to Curiosity

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As I progressed in my educational career, I noticed that my students’ behavior improved. Their completion of assignments improved. Their compliance with my educational whims steadily improved. I’d give myself a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Of course this was all improving… I was becoming a better teacher.

Or was I?

In conjunction with my movement toward “veteran” status at my school, I also moved from teaching inclusion English and literacy intervention classes to eventually landing in the “cushy” instructional utopia of concurrent college composition classes. Was the improved behavior and “learning” of my students a result of my improvement as a teacher? Or was the “type” of student enrolling in my classes just more educationally compliant?

I’m pretty sure that it’s the latter. The fact is that kids in upper level courses understand how to play the game of education. They know how to jump through the hoops we put before them. I don’t want to claim that teaching AP and College-enrolled students is easy. There are a whole host of other issues that may come along with those kids (helicopter parents, grade mongering, savvy academic dishonesty, feeling one’s own intellectual inadequacy with truly intellectually gifted students who may be eager to make you feel that way), but very few of these issues directly relate to discipline. That’s because, even though they may roll their eyes, talk about you behind your back, and dish out a fair amount of snark, “advanced” students are for the most part compliant.

But does that mean they’re learning? Does that mean they’re curious? I submit that I often confused compliance with curiosity. They were completing my assignments. They were doing a good job on them. But were they inspired by them? Were they challenged by them? Did my classroom make them curious?

And here’s the beauty of curious students… students can be curious whether they’re in an AP class or a remedial English class. And if they’re curious, a lot of those non-compliance issues and discipline issues that exist in the lower level classes have a way of melting away. So what’s the key to inspiring curiosity in all students?

Firstly, I think we must be curious about them as learners. Once they know we actually care about their interests and want to help them explore those interests, half the battle is won. The other half is in showing them how their curiosity, our mentoring at school, and the real world intersect. That point of intersection is the starting point to move students from compliance (or non-compliance) to curiosity.

Thanks to http://brianaspinall.com/compliance-vs-curiosity/ for the image.

Unity of vision

As we look to the core values and practices of Future School, a few key components of the school day stick out.

  1. An advisory program
  2. Partnerships with a network of community mentors.
  3. Project based learning

Anyone who has spent any time in education will recognize these three components. In fact the local paper just wrote an article highlighting the advisory programs of various schools in Northwest Arkansas. There’s also been a lot of publicity lately about private/public partnerships between schools and regional industry leaders.  And don’t get me started on PBL. It’s so well known that it has it’s own TLA (Three Letter Acronym).

So what sets Future School apart? How do we differ from others if all we’re doing is following a lot of “best practices” in current educational theory? While I think each of our programs is unique in implementation, one fundamental difference exists. They are part of our foundation. Many of these programs at traditional schools have been tacked onto preexisting programs and are part of a string of mandates and chasing the educational pendulum that has left many teachers exhausted and cynical about the adoption of new programs. What sets us apart is that we’re founded on these principles and programs. They infuse our core values. When teachers come on board with us, they know what they’re getting. They know what we believe and how we do business, because we’re completely upfront about it. If they want to be a part of our team, then they know what that means. So here is what these programs look like for us:

Advisory: This is a true advisory program based on the idea that a student will share an advisor with 14 other students of Future School. They will have 90 minutes each day to work with this group. The advisor is responsible for bringing the family of the student into the community. They’re also the person who the student will propose her internship to. The advisor also helps the student to create a personalized learning plan, listing goals growth measures, and project implementations for the academic year and beyond.

Community Partnerships: as I visualize a school, I continue to run a scene through my head of a classroom full of kids in a red brick school house and see those bricks slowly melting down into the ground, leaving a group of kids surrounded by a community. The kids are free to get up from their desks and wander out into the community. Members of the community are equally free to enter into the “classroom.” As kids wander, they are inspired by what they see and bring it back into the school where their teacher helps them to clarify their thinking, target new areas of study, and plan the next steps of their journey before they set out again. While we’re certainly going to have walls and a “school,” I think the visual serves to communicate how we see our students interacting with the community of Fort Smith.

Project Based Learning: the main idea behind our projects is that they’re intended to be authentic and meaningful. Playing off the community partnerships, we want our projects to be based on real world problems that have true impact on the students. The products from their projects should be tangible and publishable in some way so that they, too, can travel beyond the classroom and out into the community.  A perfect example of this type of project is the recent Spring Break App Academy that is currently taking place in Fort Smith.

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Students taking hitting the streets to get feedback for the App Academy

 

Start Up Culture and Education

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I recently read a great interview with John Maeda, a major player in the STEM to STEAM movement. In it, he talks about how Start Up Culture has influenced him as an educator:

I love watching the start-up people. They have changed me. They’ve taught me how little I know of the world and how it behaves. One start-up entrepreneur told me she is always hustling.’ At first, I thought that sounded like a bad thing. Then I realized that I don’t know how to do that. I’ve been in the Ivory Tower for too long. I need to learn how to hustle.

My own experiences echo his. In the last five years or so of my life as an educator, two pivotal events involving start up culture changed my viewpoint on education.

  • My wife took a leap and opened her own business, Shindig Paperie. While I’m not directly involved with the business, her venture exposed me to the “real world” of creating a business and how the “hustle” can be both exhausting and invigorating. Don’t get it twisted here, as I honor the fact that teachers pour their heart and soul into teaching. They “hustle” in their own ways. Yet, that way is markedly different from the way people hustle in the world outside education.
  • I also took a group of students down to the first ever High School Start Up Weekend (which I’ve blogged about in the past). Here I was exposed to even more people working in the start up world, and I was able to see some great models of how profoundly capable students can be in that world. They weren’t just playing at the start up “game.” They were genuinely engaged in contributing valid business ideas and innovations to society. This treatment of students as authentic agents for change is picking up momentum as evidenced by such colocated educational environments as IowaBIG. It’s also at the heart of both Noble Impact and Future School.

Looking back on my roots as a traditional educator in a college town, I’d probably been overly suspicious of the private sector and its engagement with education. While I still don’t believe that the sole purpose of education is to cater to the workforce needs of industry, I do believe involving community allies from all sectors makes for a more relevant and current education to our students.

Visiting Big Picture Nashville

Our Future School team recently took a trip to Music City to check out Big Picture High School there. My favorite experience was the student panel, where we heard from seniors at the school about their time there. Some highlights from that panel:

  • Lydia had experienced three different LTIs (Learning through Internships) during her time at BPHS. Her first was at an elementary school as a freshman. She quickly decided that she wasn’t as interested in becoming an elementary teacher as she’d originally thought. Her sophomore year found her working with a band director as she’d always loved music. At the end of that year, she once again knew that this career was a dead end. She’d not anticipated how much time the band director sits at her desk instead of actually working with students and music. During her junior year, she began working with a non profit focused on getting parents and the community more involved with schools. She’s since dedicated the last two years of her high school career to this internship. From that, she’d built up a network in the non-profit sector, attained access to scholarships for her higher education, and acquired an impressive portfolio and toolbox of skills.
  • Another student was Misha who had worked in a daycare for one of her LTI experiences. Since then, she’d moved into dentistry and dental hygiene. Not only was she able to work at a dentist office through her internships, but the school’s partnership with an institute of higher learning allowed her to pursue the coursework for her dental assistant’s licensure. Not content to just explore her career, she also worked with a non profit called the Venture Program whose goal is to build water systems to go to Kenya. She’s doing all of these things before even graduating high school.
  • Danny’s passion is politics. He knew he wanted to be in politics all his life. He’s an extremely bright student who would qualify as an “AP” kid at a traditional school. He chose the BPL model school because it allowed him to devote more time and energy to his true passion, really creating an deep, focused exploration. All of his LTIs have involved work in politics: a campaign for mayor, a campaign for governor, and a campaign for congress. Currently, he interns with a political consulting firm that works on policy matters at the national level! This is the sort of access and experience that just isn’t traditionally available in schools.
  • Another student was a late transfer to the BPL school. Robert had lost his mom early in life, and he spoke eloquently about how this school had become like a family to him. He came in wanting to focus on basketball. While he still plays basketball and would love to play at the “next level,” he now understands that education is his ticket to a successful future. I was moved by his insight into his LTI at a daycare where he attributed his popularity with the children to the fact that many of them had few male role models in their lives.

One of the students probably put it best when they said that Big Picture High School had given her “the opportunity to make my own future and the tools to do so.”

On Building a Community and Youth Empowerment

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One of the pieces I’m appreciating in this process is the community building that is necessary in creating a school. In a traditional public school, there is an assumptive, built-in clientele. Everyone, basically, opts in to their local school district unless they choose to opt out (through homeschool, private school, or enrolling in a charter). Here, though, we must build our “customer base” and deal with such issues as marketing, advertising and promotions: unfamiliar territory for a life long educator.

What isn’t unfamiliar territory, though, is community building. I built communities in my classroom and in my school each year. It’s a neat dovetail with the Future School philosophy to extend that perspective beyond the classroom and out into the students, parents, and community leaders that we’re working with. After all, Future School is all about extending learning beyond the barriers of the classroom and into the real world. I’m also blessed to have a coworker who is an absolute genius at community and coalition building.

We recently hosted a Diversity Dinner at the Fort Smith Boys and Girls Club. Now, when I say “we,” I’m actually referring to the Future School Youth Advisors who organized the event. In keeping with our philosophy of being student centered and empowering youth, we (meaning the adults) stepped back and let the kids take charge. From publicizing the event to organizing entertainment to budgeting and fundraising, two of our youth advisors put together the entire event. If you’ve ever relinquished the reins and allowed teenagers to take charge, you’re probably aware that it can be a discomfiting experience. However, the reward in the end is incredible as you witness the kids developing real skills in front of your eyes. As one student said during their speech to the guests of the dinner, “We got to meet the mayor of our town as we put together this event. Not many other kids I know can say that.”

 

The only constant is change

 

For those that know me, it may come as a surprise that I’m helping to start a charter school, Future School of Fort Smith.

Here are a few reasons:

  •  I’ve becoming increasingly frustrated with the constrictions of the educational establishment. Let me first say that I believe that the vast majority of people from teachers to administrators to politicians to policy wonks have the best of intentions when it comes to education. That being said, the behemoth of education has become completely overwhelming, especially at the scale at which I was formerly working. From staff size to student population to school culture, I needed a fresh start. While I’m under no illusions that we’re creating an educational utopia at Future School, and I’m fully conscious of the myriad battles and difficulties we’ll encounter in this endeavor, I’m embracing the opportunity to create something from scratch. And that excites and invigorates me.
  • I love a good challenge. I’ve often written about my enjoyment of the constant cycle of rebirth each school year. I’ve also written about my love of constant professional growth and learning. Heck, this blog is called “A Constant Learner”! Well, this is a whole new world for me that I’m entering, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Starting a school at this scale and staff size from the ground up means that I get to have my hands in every single piece of this pie from RFPs for FFEs (which I spent a good while googling to figure out what that even means– Request for Proposal for Furniture, Fixtures, and Equipment) to APSCN/Triand to overseeing professional development to developing a discipline policy, etc.. etc. The list goes on, and I get to learn about and deal with all of it. At times it makes my head swim, but it’s also extremely exciting.
  • It’s a model in which I believe. The most important piece to this equation. In recent years, I’ve often complained about “kids these days” as I saw who wandered the hallways of my school during class. The disengaged learners who didn’t seem to care about what was happening at school. Then I started trying to see education from their perspective. Suddenly, I saw them as symptoms of weaknesses within our system. We were spending extraordinary amounts of time and energy to help these disengaged learners, but the very fundamental system in which we existed was disenfranchising for them. This model of Big Picture Learning will, I believe, start to address some of those issues and help to make learning relevant and real for kids who might have previously just been going through the motions.

I’m going to try to keep this blog as a record of this experience. If you’ve ever thought about starting a school and wanted to see how that works (I’m pretty sure that audience is pretty small), then you might want to check back in from time to time.

Interestingly, the above quote isn’t from the actual historical philosopher, Socrates, but rather from a character named Socrates in the book The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.

What’s new?

I’m excited about a new year here in my classroom. Our new superintendent, in his keynote address to the district, highlighted one of the true beauties of the teaching profession in that we’re constantly getting fresh starts each year. Few professions get that privilege. We get new kids, new buildings, new colleagues, new curriculum, new assessments, new acronyms. Okay, all of those “news” aren’t necessarily good news for teachers, but overall the idea of new beginnings presents us with an opportunity to become reinvigorated with our profession.

For me, I received a new textbook with my Early College Enrollment Freshman Composition class. I’d been stuck in a rut in  my classroom for the last couple of years, and last year I really felt myself go into autopilot mode. I decided to take the intervention of a new textbook as a chance to revamp everything. So I’ve done it. New essay assignments, new readings, new methods, new commitments to the type of classroom I facilitate. Right now, and I know I’m only a week in so check back with me in a month or three, I’m feeling my passion for education rekindled.

I also committed to making my classroom paperless. I’d love to say I made this decision for environmental reasons. I admit, that’s part of the reason as there’s an intrinsic appeal (possibly trendy) to going paperless with my assignments. Plus, in a budget crunch, I’m sure my administrators and the building bookkeeper will appreciate the reduction in copy clicks. Mainly,though, I feel that teaching kids to work in a mobile, digital environment is a life skill that will serve them well in the future. The process and practice will become a big part of the pedagogy.

In future posts, I plan to outline how I plan on going paperless with a tool called….Doctopus.

Best wishes to all my colleagues all over the country who are starting another trip around the sun with a new group of scholars. May we be our best and bring out the best in them.

 

 

Opposition to the CCSS makes for strange bedfellows

As the debate over the Common Core State Standards has matured and become more public, I often find myself engaged in conversations about them. My problems with the CCSS center on their implementation, not their substance, as well as the way that implementation is being used as a tool by moneyed interests to profit as well as push their own educational agendas. In both online and face-to-face conversation, I’ve realized that there’s a whole other segment of people out there who object to the CCSS for entirely different reasons. Salon.com has a very nice article today that interviews someone who has been researching the opposition to the CCSS. I highly recommend reading the full article if you’re at all interested in understanding the political landscape in which we’re working. I will say that while I have issues with the CCSS, I’m uncomfortable allying myself with some of the arguments these people are making. In fact, I think that these arguments are actually dangerous for public school teachers because at the core of many of these people’s belief is a distrust of and even disdain for public education in general.