Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Critical Thinking: Not Just an Exercise

Los Angeles Times writer Sandy Banks recently wrote about a turnaround at Manual Arts High, the oldest high school in the sprawling—and struggling—L.A. Unified District. According to Banks, the school is starting to rebound with help from MLA Partner Schools, a nonprofit that works to “improve schools and empower neighborhoods.” MLA’s approach is to partner with schools serving disenfranchised neighborhoods rather than going the more heavy-handed route of taking them over.

This wasn’t the first I’d heard of Manual Arts. Last year, I got acquainted with an English teacher there named Antero Garcia. He had gotten his students to participate in something called the Black Cloud Project, an interactive, innovative game that prompted them to ask hard questions about the health of their local environment. In the process, many students got energized about what they could do to change their school and their neighborhood. Garcia shared some highlights of that experience, via Skype, during our session at EduCon last year. (He also shared some of the frustrations of trying to teach from behind a firewall in this story for Edutopia.)

So when I saw Manual Art High in the news, I went straight to Garcia’s blog for a reaction. I wasn’t disappointed. In this post on The American Crawl, he shares his students’ responses to the L.A. Times story. Their comments are not quite so glowing as the story Banks tells. Even Garcia admits he was “surprised by the vitriol.”

But they’re well worth a read. This is the kind of real-world writing assignment that encourages students to be critical consumers of media. Did the reporter get to the essence of what's happening at Manual Arts High, or miss the main point? Responding to that prompt invites students to think critically—about the media, as well as about their own lives.

What seems to have infuriated many students wasn’t the way that Banks described them and their South Central neighborhood (“Forty percent of its students are still learning English, and 20% live in foster homes. Even its name and mascot -- the Manual Arts Toilers -- suggest that ceaseless struggle is its legacy.”) It’s the lack of student voice in school improvement efforts.

I hope the partners at MLA are listening.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Growing Your School Garden

As school gardens gain popularity nationwide, it's a good time to consider how to make the most of these outdoor learning spaces. Lewis Elementary in Portland, Ore., has been expanding its garden gradually for the past several years. The Lewis Outdoor Education Center now includes raised garden beds, greenhouses, an outdoor classroom, composting bins, and more, as this Spiral Notebook post explains.
When I visited recently, natural builder James Thompson was helping kids construct a cob bench. Every student in the school participated in this wonderfully messy activity, and the finished project will no doubt be the launching pad for even more engaged learning in the months ahead.
Successful campus greenspaces require ongoing care. To exchange ideas with like-minded educators, check out the new group at Edutopia devoted to Green Schools. See you there!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ready for Prime TIme

One of my favorite nonprofits made it to prime time last week. KaBOOM! rallies communities to build playgrounds. "Parks and Recreation," the NBC sitcom starring Amy Poheler of Saturday Night Live fame, wove the nonprofit with the funny name into last week's episode. If you like the idea of rallying your community to build a new playground, check out the wealth of real-life planning resources at KaBOOM!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Thinking Like an Innovator

Imagine a straw that purifies drinking water, preventing the spread of cholera or typhoid. Or a solar-powered satellite uplink mounted on a motorbike that gives rural villagers access to the information highway. Or a prefabricated emergency shelter that biodegrades after use.
These aren't just wild ideas. They're practical, low-cost solutions already in use around the world, and part of an eye-opening exhibit called Design for the Other 90 Percent. The exhibit just came to Portland, part of the grand opening of the new Mercy Corps headquarters here.
The show is fascinating, but I came away from it wanting to know more about the innovators who come up with these inspired ideas. Do they typically collaborate, or work solo? Does inspiration come in a flash, or through extended trial-and-error? What can we learn from their examples and apply to our own problem-solving challenges?
Learning how to innovate may seem like a tall order. In this post for Edutopia, I take a closer look at the topic and invite teachers to share their strategies for encouraging innovation in the classroom. Please join the conversation.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What's on your top-10 list?

The start of a new school year is an ideal time to introduce new tools for teaching and learning. In assembling this back-to-school tipsheet for Edutopia, I highlighted newer tools, like Edmodo for microblogging, along with tried-and-true resources for collaboration, such as ePals. The tipsheet's available as a free download, and I've enjoyed hearing from educators around the world who are using it as a conversation-starter with colleagues.
Now, what would you add to the list?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Future? Find It Here

In latest issue of Educational Leadership, focusing on 21st-century learning, I argue that teachers need to update their own skills if they're going to help students prepare for the challenges at hand. "Managing Messy Learning" features advice from classroom experts who use real-world projects, along with the appropriate tech tools, on a regular basis. Check out practical strategies from Terry Smith, Antero Garcia, and others who understand why we can't afford to wait to introduce 21st-century approaches to our students. In their classes, the future's already arrived.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Teachers Tackle Their Own Summer Project

I recently had the pleasure of joining an online conversation with several teachers participating in a summer institute of the New York City Writing Project. Paul Allison and Shantanu Saha facilitated the 12-day NYC institute in which teachers were offered that all-too-rare opportunity: to be learners themselves.
By the time I caught up with them for a Skype conversation on Teachers Teaching Teachers, these teachers had spent several intense days learning alongside colleagues, exploring the potential of Web 2.0 tools to enhance writing instruction. Many work in New York's new, small high schools, designed to better engage diverse learners. One teacher, for instance, described his students as "overage and under-credited." Others teach in schools where the focus ranges from American studies to engineering to the construction trades.
What did teachers take away from the institute? One participant said the experience had caused him to rethink what "projects" are all about. Before taking part in the institute, he considered projects to be something that happened only at the end of a unit. Now, as a result of his own learning, he was getting hip to the idea that projects can be--and maybe should be--the centerpiece of instruction. Another had some fresh ideas for bringing graphic novels into literature studies, but worried that his request for a class set of Watchmen would never be approved by the more tradition-bound folks who oversee budget requests. I'm rooting for him--and for his students.
Thanks to Paul Allison for inviting me into this conversation, and a hat tip to all of the National Writing Project participants who dove into similarly challenging learning experiences this summer. What new ideas will you bring into your classroom this fall?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Kindergarten kids from NZ, Germany, Canada and Turkey tell their stories

Click on the chess piece to hear the storytellers.

Mary Ellen Lynch posted this Voicethread of tiny kids from New Zealand, Canada, Germany and Turkey telling stories together.

I had the pleasure of working with Mary Ellen last year when her school in Montreal and a school I coached in Eugene shared their experience raising painted lady butterflies in distinctly different climates.

Enjoy the lively reading of "Little Elephant"!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Open Your Eyes and Look

Think of the Reinventing PBL photos on Flickr as primary source material. Each picture is documentary evidence of what happens during project-based learning. Please explore, comment, join, post and caption, share and enjoy!


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Including Students in the Equation

Discussions about school change often leave out the perspective of those who should be at the center of the story: students. That's why I'm excited about a special event that Steve Hargadon has planned for The Future of Education. This Wednesday, June 3, at 5 p.m. Pacific/8 p.m. Eastern, Jane and I will be joining the conversation about "Student Participation in Building the Learning Environment." Among the student participants will be Justin Blau from The Meadows School in Las Vegas. He's the founder of one of the first high school microlending programs in the country. (Read more about The Meadows School MicroBank here.) It's a great example of what can happen when students pursue their passions. Please join us.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Start a Conversation

Meet Luis. At 18, he has a mature appreciation for what technology can do. The son of Mexican immigrants, Luis sees technology as "a better way to connect with families, connect with friends, a better way to help me improve my studies and find out information and use it for the community, not just for myself."
Luis shares his story in Edutopia's Digital Generation Project, a rich collection of content that was just released this week. Ten youth portraits are the heart of the project (although we adults get plenty of opportunities to weigh in, too).
This content is freely available for you to reuse--on your blog or school website, in class, at a parent or staff meeting, or wherever else you might want to take the conversation about today's digital youth.

Monday, May 4, 2009

PBL Buzz

Wayne D'Orio's article ("The Power of Project Learning") in the May issue of Scholastic Administrator takes a good look at the current PBL landscape and pushes readers to consider why more educators aren't using this real-world approach. One theory: PBL may be too hard for teachers to tackle without support. In a Q&A at the end, Chris Lehmann of Science Leadership Academy explains how schoolwide systems (for everything from planning to assessment to technology integration) set the stage for project success at his Philadelphia school. No arguing with that, but I continue to be impressed by creative types like Terry Smith (also quoted) who are determined to make PBL work, despite the obstacles. Seems to be a mixed landscape at the moment, with some excellent schoolwide models and some islands of innovation.
I'd be eager to hear more reflections from PBL advocates. What helps you move forward with this approach? What gets in your way? What more can we do as a community to advocate for what you need to succeed?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Students, Meet Aquaman

The first time I met Christopher Swain, he had just completed swimming the length of the Columbia River, becoming the first swimmer to cover all 1,243 miles of this great waterway. Throughout his treacherous journey, he climbed ashore to raise awareness of the Columbia's fragile health and the dislocated peoples whose culture is centered on the river.
This year, Swain is giving himself a new challenge: swimming 1,000 miles along the Atlantic shore. He jumps into the cold saltwater on Earth Day, April 22, at Marblehead, Mass., and estimates it will take 200 "swim days" to reach the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. He'll spread out those days in the water so that he'll have time to visit as many as 2,000 schools along the way. At each school, Swain--a father of two--will challenge students to come up with their own projects "to improve the health of our ocean planet." After years of environmental activism, Swain says, "I'm done telling kids what to do." Getting them to challenge themselves is all part of the deal.
If you want to bring Swain's dramatic story into your classroom, you can request a school visit at his Web site, Swim for a Healthy World. Or, follow his unfolding adventure on Changents, where he'll be uploading videos and updating a blog. He'll be using Skype and other tools, too, to connect with students who live far from the coast.
I'll be updating Swain's journey with occasional posts in Spiral Notebook (starting with this one). Let me know if your students take up his challenge.
Photo by Basil Childers

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Promised So Here Goes, Mom

"I, Suw Charman-Anderson, will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people do the same."
Suw met her challenge honoring Ada Lovelace's birthday today, and I'm helping take it over the top with my pledge to honor a woman in technology who I admire. She's my Mom, Kathy Krauss. Those who know her admire Kathy for everything but technology, so let me explain (save your eye rolls, siblings!) Mom is a scholar, mostly retired now, who she teaches one perennially sold-out course each spring called World Religions. Today we met for lunch and she asked me how to set up a community space on the Web where she, her students and guests could continue their conversations beyond the weekly class. After figuring out the functions they might require, I agreed to set up a wiki for them. (PBWiki has a new "comments" function that makes any page more blog-like; I think that's the wiki platform I'll use.) I told her to poll her class for the wikiliterate and to put someone in touch with me who could be point person, populating the site and helping students familiarize themselves with its functions.

I kind of bent the rules with this post-- Among the 1,000 women celebrated today, my Mom isn't likely to come in in the top tier of female technology innovators, yet she deserves a shout out for being solidly in the game. I'm impressed that Mom constantly wants to improve her teaching, and sees the value of connecting her students in new, significant ways. I'm impressed that she isn't daunted by the specter of new technology (but you'll notice I did a work around on having HER manage the site.) This is going to be a lot of fun.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Happy Spring

When First Lady Michelle Obama spent her Friday (the first day of spring) turning over soil for a new White House garden, I could imagine the smile lighting up Michael Pollan’s face. Author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and point man for eating locally, Pollan has been an outspoken advocate for converting some of that South Lawn to garden beds.

But best of all was the news that fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary in the District were on hand to help. They’re already green thumbs, thanks to their school gardening program. Their trip to the White House sounded like more than a photo opp. The students will be invited back to help with planting, and again to harvest and cook with fresh produce. Lots of learning opportunities ahead.

The Edible Schoolyard concept has spread far and wide since California chef Alice Waters got things growing at a middle school in Berkeley, Calif. Developing and sustaining a strong outdoor education program, including gardening—that’s takes ongoing effort. In my hometown of Portland, Ore., Lewis Elementary School has engaged the community in developing a multifaceted outdoor learning program that makes use of gardens, greenhouse, rain barrels, and even a covered outdoor classroom. (Hat tip to Principal Tim Lauer.)

Garden season has me thinking about what Pollan said during a lecture stop in Portland earlier this year. Convincing the new president to be an advocate for sustainable agriculture will require a strong push from the people, Pollan said, adding, “He needs to feel the wind at his back.” Maybe he just felt a little breeze from the South Lawn.
Photo by Tim Lauer

Friday, February 27, 2009

Reinventing PBL Flickr Group Reaches 100 Contributors!

Midnight Chickadee at Kang Chaio Bilingual School, Taipei (hat tip to Terry Smith)

I posted a query to Classroom 2.0 two weeks ago about computing environments and Greg Tracy contributed several helpful ideas. Several days later I announced that the Reinventing PBL Flickr Group was one member shy of 100. Greg was paying attention and now I'd like to give a hearty welcome to Mr. 100, Greg Tracy!
If you want to see and show others what PBL looks like in action, take advantage of this Group.
What ways can it be useful?
  • Look for projects to emulate or join.
  • Talk to contributing teachers about their projects.
  • Ask kids: What three photos would best tell the world what we're about?
  • Think about the stories projects tell, and how documenting them on the Web transmits their power to others.
  • Start a discussion with other pbl-minded folks in the group forum.
  • Set the pool pictures on "slideshow" and project the images as participants gather at your next staff meeting or workshop.
In what other ways can pictures of PBL inform, persuade and celebrate? I'm all ears. Please join the Reinventing PBL Flickr Group!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Art of Community Change

In "Passing Empowerment Down through the Arts," in the current issue of Edutopia, Bill Strickland tells me about the journey he began 40 years ago when an art teacher changed his life. He's been changing lives ever since, first in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa., and now in other communities across the country (and beyond). His unique vision combines arts and mentoring to keep young people engaged in learning, plus high-powered job training so adults can lift their families out of poverty. It's a potent formula for creating hope in the neighborhoods that need it most. Strickland also tells his story in this remarkable TED presentation, where jazz legend Herbie Hancock accompanies the artful storyteller. And if you want more details on how this all unfolded, check out Strickland's recent autobiography, Make the Impossible Possible.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Learning with Care

I came away from the recent Educon2.1 conference in Philadelphia with a kaleidoscope of impressions that make me hopeful about where education is heading (and I’ll be sharing some highlights in an upcoming Spiral Notebook post). But as I’ve been reflecting on what I saw and heard during those three days at the Science Leadership Academy, I find myself yearning for an update.

So, Principal Lehmann, what’s up with the prom bear?

This takes a little explaining. When colleague Jane Krauss and I arrived at SLA, we were greeted by two student tour guides. We couldn’t have asked for better narrators than Freda and Brett. They were drawn to this magnet school by the promise of challenging academics, energetic teachers, pervasive technology, and a world of possibilities. Both had the chance to travel to Liverpool, England, last year as part of a student exchange.

In this hothouse environment, SLA students expect to work hard. But their academic life is not just an exercise or simulation. Real-world projects get them accustomed to investigating their environment, thinking critically, and addressing perceived wrongs.

So when Freda noticed that a fundraiser for the school prom involved selling small stuffed bears, she got curious. Turns out the bears were manufactured in China. Knowledgeable about fair trade, she questioned whether a bear that might have come from a sweatshop was a good mascot for her school to be promoting.

And here’s where the prom story gets really interesting. Freda told us she fully intends to start a fair-trade initiative at SLA. But she decided to wait a few weeks to get started because she didn’t want to raise a ruckus on the eve of Educon2.1. “I think it might have stressed out our principal,” she said. Learning is serious business at SLA, but so is caring.

A couple days later, Jane and I led an Educon conversation about meaningful projects, the kind that prepare students to make a real difference in their communities. (Video and materials from the session are posted here.) That’s what SLA seems to be doing every day, across the curriculum—and beyond.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ideas Worth Borrowing, cont.

Here's another great idea that's free for the taking: In my hometown of Portland, Ore., ordinary folks with a passing interest in spider venom, say, or nanotechnology are gathering in our local brewpubs to talk science. Science pub nights, for the 21-and-over crowd, are the focus of this recent Oregonian article. Expert speakers guide the conversation, but the tone is strictly informal. As coordinator Nancy Lapotin explains, "It brings science to the people." Portland Public Schools is also hosting informal science cafes where teens can talk about science with experts. It adds up to a citywide conversation about all things scientific. Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, hasn't heard of any other communities where this is happening--yet.
Photo by Nic McPhee, Creative Commons

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ideas Worth Borrowing

Charlie Roy, blogging at Souly Catholic, describes how teachers and administrators have rallied to dramatically cut the rate of students failing courses at his Illinois high school. Their goal was an ambitious 50 percent reduction, but they're on track to do much better. So far, they have reduced course failures by 75 percent compared to last year.
The successful game plan starts with student support teams that include an administrator, counselor, and two teachers. As soon as a student starts slipping academically, the team responds with a fast plan of action that includes strategic interventions, measurable goals, and regular follow up. The individualized, student-centered approach seems key to success. As Roy explains, "The effectiveness of the interventions was tied to the strength of the relationship created between the team and their students."
Not only are students achieving positive results, but staff are experiencing the benefits of collaboration. Regular team meeting times and online collaboration (via Google docs) support ongoing conversations. They've shifted from worrying about kids to putting their collective energy into designing ideas that work, from mini-courses to peer tutoring. When you see staff members making friendly side wagers about their ideas, you know they're invested.