Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wolf Den and the last wolf of Connecticut

"In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."

-Aldo Leopold, Thinking Like a Mountain


I wonder if old Israel Putnam thought that way as he dragged the last wolf in Connecticut out of Wolf Den. And today as I sat there, I thought about that last wolf, and then I thought about how transitory we all are compared to the rocks that form the den, rocks that watched not only the extirpation of wolves, but generations of ancient oaks and humans come and go. And I thought about time and perspective, and how limited mine is.

But Putnam's short-sighted perspective doesn't have to be mine. It doesn't have to be ours.

We can think like a mountain.

A rubric for a New Year's resolution?

My wife was telling me about her New Year's resolution last night.

Immediately putting on my administrator's hat and told her it needed to be more specific and measurable. You can't just say, "Do x more." You need to provide yourself with specific times, days, and criteria.

Maybe a rubric would be helpful. Something like:
4. Exceeds resolution
3. Masters resolution
2. Working towards mastery of resolution
1. Just getting started on resolution
Of course, you'll want to replace the word "resolution" above with specific criteria.

My daughter was listening and said, "This is what I get for having teachers for parents."

OK. Maybe a rubric is taking it a bit far, but I guess it depends. If you're like me, dealing with a to-do-list addiction and incipient S.M.A.R.T. goal overdose, maybe the last thing you need is more check-boxes and rubrics. Maybe you need an anti-resolution, something like, I am going to stop making everything into a check-list, spreadsheet, or rubric.

I've had a page in my bullet journal for a couple of weeks now entitled: "Stop Doing List." I read about it online somewhere. I'm supposed to make a list of things I should stop doing, so that I'm not so busy and distracted by things that crowd out my priorities. Unfortunately, I haven't thought of anything to put on it yet.

Sometimes I think I need to quit doing to-do-lists, like James Altucher suggests in his thought-provoking post, TO-DO LISTS ARE RUINING THE PLANET!

Maybe I need to stop trying to quantify everything.

No, that can't be right. Quantification is not the problem. Maybe I just need to be smarter about it: Shorter lists. Fewer goals.

The "one word resolution" idea making the rounds on the web is interesting. Maybe mine should be "fewer."

Now let's quantify that...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The cure for conflict

"Conflict at work is often due to a person's feeling defensive out of a fear of losing face. To prove himself he sets certain goals for how others should treat him, and then expects rigidly that others will fulfil those expectations. This rarely happens as planned, however, because others also have an agenda for their own rigid goals to be achieved. Perhaps the best way to avoid this impasse is to set the challenge of reaching one's goals while helping the boss and colleagues reach theirs; it is less direct and more time-consuming than forging ahead to satisfy one's interests regardless of what happens to others, but in the long run it seldom fails."

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

And of course this applies to all of of life. Amazing how Csikszentmihalyi can distil it down to its essence.

The source of all of our conflict is our own expectations, and the sooner we can step outside of ourselves and our own agenda and see things from others' perspectives, and help them reach their goals, the sooner we will be happy ourselves.

What we need is symbiosis in the place of survival of the fittest, compassion in the place of competition. We need to realize that we're all in this together, and that's actually really cool.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Thoughts on Gravity and humanity

Can't believe it took me this long to see this mind-blowing movie full of (not perfect) physics and plenty of hard-core survivalism, but I'm glad I did (thanks to my son's request). The survival-in-space theme reminded me of one of my all-time favorite books (The Martian by Andy Weir--soon to be a movie--can't wait--def. see that one in theatre--should have seen Gravity in theatre, too), and it made me think of a few things:
  1. It's amazing how adaptable humans are. I mean, they're floating around in space, for goodness sake. Simply amazing. I can't wait till humans get to Mars (2023, hopefully). Can't imagine setting foot in that red dust. To adapt and expand our horizons is part of what makes us human, I think.
  2. The drive to survive is powerful, but it's really not just about surviving, it's about really living. In fact, the drive to survive is trumped by the need to enjoy life, I think. As Viktor Frankl wrote in that life-changing book: “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.”

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Taming teenage psychic entropy: Flow and school, part 3.

"Lifestyles built on pleasure survive only in symbiosis with complex cultures based on hard work and enjoyment. But when the culture is no longer able or willing to support unproductive hedonists, those addicted to pleasure, lacking skills and discipline and therefore unable to fend for themselves, find themselves lost and helpless." 

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

This is how the famous psychologist and originator of the flow concept wrapped up his section on the importance of being able to "tame solitude"--to use time alone constructively and enjoyably by filling it with flow-generating experiences.

This is not easy, but it is critical, and more so every day in our increasingly information-based society, where literacy and mastery if information are becoming absolutely essential. Which is why it's so critical we help young people to master this as early as possible. In Csikszentmihalyi's words:
"Learning to use time alone, instead of escaping from it, is especially important in out early years. Teenagers who can't bear solitude disqualify themselves from later carrying out adult tasks that require serious mental preparation. A typical scenario familiar to many parents involves a teenager who comes back from school, drops the books in his bedroom, and after taking a snack from the refrigerator immediately heads for the phone to get in touch with his friends (My update for 2014: takes his phone out of his pocket and opens Snapchat). If there is nothing going on there, he will turn on the stereo (My update: pop in his earbuds) or the TV (update: or PS4)."
Of course, this could just as easily be describing an adult, but let's continue..
"If by any chance he is tempted to open a book, the resolve is unlikely to last long. To study means to concentrate on difficult patterns of information (emphasis mine), and sooner or later even the most disciplined mind drifts away from the relentless templates on the page to pursue more pleasant thoughts. But it is difficult to summon up pleasant thoughts at will. Instead, ones mind typically is besieged by the usual visitors: the shadowy phantoms that intrude on the unstructured mind."
Again, teens are not alone in this struggle. That's what the #mindfulness movement is all about. The struggle is the same, though the content of worries may differ:
"The teenager begins to worry about his looks, his popularity, his chances in life (Me: Wait, did I say my worries were different? Hmm...). To repel these intrusions he must find something else to occupy his consciousness. Studying won't do, because it is too difficult. The adolescent is ready to do almost anything to take his mind off this situation--provided it does not take too much psychic energy. The usual solution is to turn back to the familiar routine of music (Mine was Pink Floyd), TV, or a friend with whom to while the time away."
Amazingly insightful passage, I think. Makes me think about how I can help my students learn the skills they need to focus and study independently. Right now I'm honing in on two key phrases of Csikszentmihalyi:

  1. "To study means to concentrate on difficult patterns of information," and
  2. "Studying won't do, because it is too difficult."
Can we scaffold this process of learning to concentrate and study by providing simple tasks at first for them to master independently, like rote memorization, and slowly working up to more difficult tasks, like reading for information, summarization, independent analysis, application, and evaluation?

In any case, as teachers and parents, we can't assume they already have these skills. heck, we can't assume we have them. And there's a lot at stake here.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The paradox of work

He calls it the paradox of work.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, people report more flow at work than during leisure, yet they're much more likely to wish they were somewhere else while at work than while at leisure. In other words, most of us don't like being at work, even though we're actually happier there. Funny.

We obviously don't know ourselves very well, or what makes us happy. And according to Csikszentmihalyi, that's flow--that state of being focussed on a task just challenging enough to match our current mastery. It brings order to our consciousness, he says, and leads to the feeling of enjoyment.

For me, the concept of flow solves a dilemma I've been mulling over for several months. I'm a big fan of Tim Ferris (4-Hour Workweek), who advocates spending as little time as possible at work so you can enjoy more leisure time. But I'm also a fan of Seth Godin (Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us), who says there's no reason to worry about boundaries between work and personal life if you find your passion and fulfilment in your work.

These two seemed to contradict each other until I noticed how Ferriss spends his leisure time: he systematically masters activities like kickboxing, tango dancing, Japanese language, and gourmet cooking. Both Ferriss and Godin are simply advocating filling your time with flow experiences.

The take home message is this: Don't spend your time doing something that's not challenging and enjoyable. Either find ways to find flow in what you currently have to do, or do something else.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Flow at school, part 2

The basketball player typically knows immediately and exactly how well she's doing, as do the chess player, the gymnast, woodworker, runner, writer, and the artist. And this is apparently one of the key components of a flow-generating activity: immediate feedback.

It's also one of the biggest challenges of teaching.

I've been trying to give students more rapid feedback. Automated quizzes on Moodle, for which students get multiple attempts at mastery, help with this, but Moodle can't yet automate formal lab report or biology project grading (though it can automate the grading of short (20 words or less) written answers).

I think the reason many recoil at the idea of automated assessment of written work is they feel it will be missing something--the human element. I see their concern, but I'm confident that hurdle will eventually be overcome as more intelligent systems are developed. And the feedback we receive from flow-generating activities is not often in the form of human comments anyway--it's a ball bouncing off the backboard, the loss of a queen, or words that just aren't flowing.

And that last example brings to mind another possibility: If we can help students master self-assessment, then they can get the same immediate feedback that amateur and professional writers get as they write. Or we could make better use of peer-review. Or how about using more informal and immediate feedback, instead of always issuing formal ratings and grades. This idea of replacing grades with feedback has been the subject of conversation on a new Facebook page: Teachers throwing out grades.

Either way, it makes a lot of sense that immediate feedback is key. The typical high school student waits days or even weeks for feedback on a major assignment. Imagine tossing up a basketball and not knowing if it went in until two weeks later. This can't help with motivation and mastery. Instead, it sends the message that the real goal is not improvement, but evaluation. if the goal were improvement, we'd give feedback immediately.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Flow at school, part 1

"Again, the importance of personally taking control of the direction of learning from the very first steps cannot be stressed enough. If a person feels coerced to read a certain book, to follow a given course because that is supposed to be the way to do it, learning will go against the grain. But if the decision is to take that same route because of an inner feeling of rightness, the learning will be effortless and enjoyable."
                                                             -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

Wow. This guy just nailed it.

If we don't focus on this essential first step, student autonomy and buy-in (and meaningful standards), the whole process becomes unpleasant and ineffective.

This quote is from the chapter on the joys of mental pursuits, and in its closing section, he sums it up:
"Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or fourteen years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been manipulated long enough from the outside by textbooks and teachers, and they have counted graduation as the first day of freedom."
And the end result of all this? Not only will they miss out on the joy of learning, "But a person who forgoes the use of his symbolic skills is never really free. His thinking will be directed by his neighbours, by the editorials in the papers, and by the appeals of television. he will be at the mercy of 'experts.'"

There's a lot at stake here. Radical change in education is long past due.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Some thoughts on mindfulness

If you remember that awareness of whatever occurs is meditation, then meditation becomes much easier than you may think.

-Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

Read this passage this morning in The Joy of Living. It's pretty much the whole  #mindfulness concept/practice in a nutshell.

Amazing how just paying attention to something can make such a difference. My foot fell asleep while I was sitting this morning, and I decided to focus on that sensation in my foot. I had never noticed what it really felt like before--a combination of pressure at certain points and that more familiar prickling sensation. Kind of strange to meditate on your foot, I guess, but surprisingly relaxing, nonetheless.

Or maybe it's the feel of the ground under my feet, or the tension in my muscles as I stretch, or the coldness of the water in the shower, or the texture of the steak, or the sound of the tea china rattling on top of the fridge, or ticking of the clock, or my own breath in my lungs.

But by far the best part yet has been noticing my own thought patterns--selfishness, insecurity, frustration. Mingyur Rinpoche likens our thoughts to a monkey jumping around inside a house, looking out all of the windows. And he says that just watching the monkey jump around is a form of meditation.

It's hard not to get caught up and carried away in the jumping and fretting--become the monkey. But the whole process does have a calming effect, and it's been teaching me to start noticing these thought patterns as they arise and just watch them go by, rather than always hopping around with them.

It's also teaching to to accept my thoughts, my actions, and whatever, and take "the blame," without worrying about it threatening my self-image, because I can see that monkey fretting about it, and I know he's just a monkey.

That awareness and willingness to know and accept everything just as it is is freeing. (It reminds me of  one of my favorite songs, by Tiesto: Just Be.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why I like to perform at our annual holiday show

Today was our annual holiday show at the high school.

A bunch of teachers put together a show every year--a variety show with singing acts, dancing, and just downright silliness.

We have a blast, and many students seem to appreciate it.

For me, it's about relating to students, and sending a message.

I love to dance. For me it's a sort of celebration of life, and it's a privilege to share this with them, even if it means wearing an elf suit and tights. And I want them to know it's OK to make a fool of yourself.

And I love to sing. Music is a language that penetrates deeply into whatever it is that makes us human. When I sing, I like to pick songs I think they'll relate to. This year was Apollo. I can't hold a candle to Amba Shepherd, but I love the lyrics, and I love to see them listening intently as I sing.

And I really am singing to them. Sometimes as I sing, I'll look out into the audience at a student listening intently, and I wonder if they are taking this message personally. I hope they are. I want them to know that I'm human just like them, imperfect, struggling, just like them. I want them to know I'm their equal, their friend, that we're in this together, and that I care.

And I want to encourage them:
Just one day in the life
So I can understand
Fighting just to survive
But you taught me I can
We are the lucky ones
We are, we are
Oh we are the lucky ones
We are, we are

Monday, December 22, 2014

Rough sketch of a delevelled high school science class

So here's my rough sketch of a tech-facilitated delevelled high school science classroom:

I envision a single chemistry course (not counting AP) offered for students regardless of previous "level" or readiness.

The basic structure is a menu of activities, projects, online videos, readings, and formative assessments in each unit, ranging from a basic to advanced level. For example, the atomic structure unit could include videos/readings on protons, neutrons and electrons on up to solving for the masses of isotopes and writing balanced equations for fission reactions. Students could progress through the material at their own pace, skipping sub-units if they already knew the material.

Performance tasks and adaptive online assessments would measure their level of mastery of each unit, with student performance rated on a 5 point scale something like this:

1. Developing (student has not yet mastered basic practical chemistry concepts)
2. Basic (student has mastered basic practical chemistry concepts)
3. Proficiency (student has mastered college prep-level chemistry content)
4. Mastery (student has mastered advanced college prep-level chemistry content)
5. Expertise (student has achieved extraordinary mastery at the advanced level))

I envision one classroom with this full range of students, all working on this menu of activities, projects, and online resources in small groups or individually, with guidance, help, assessment, and direct instruction from the teacher, as necessary. They could work at their own pace, but a schedule of units for the year would be provided to act as a pacing guide.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Holiday busyness is not the real problem

Me having fun playing the "elf-off-the-shelf"
Why are the holidays so stressful?

Is it just that there's so much to do, or the stress of tense extended family situations? Is it connected with seasonal affective disorder, or just the effect of adding a bunch of social events and obligations to an already packed schedule?

Probably a combination of all of these, and more.

Last night was the second annual holiday bash we've hosted our our house. I noticed myself getting really stressed out yesterday preparing for it--a by-product of a packed week with no time to prep until the last minute (and an embodiment of holiday stress syndrome).

But, you know what? It was worth it. I can't wait to do it again next year. It was so much fun to catch up with family and friends I haven't seen for months or more, spend quality time with those I see often, and just celebrate and have a blast with everyone.

The things that make me busy over the holidays are not the problem. It's just that I have too much other, less important stuff in my schedule.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Is compassion a skill?

This tweet this morning on #satchat got me thinking. She followed it up by saying maybe "passion" would be a better word than rigor. But it got me thinking...

What if we could teach compassion with rigor in the sense of depth of knowledge or cognitive rigor.

Part of me says, "But it's a feeling, not a skill."

But a bigger part says, "But then how do I become more compassionate? Can I? Can I help others/my students become more compassionate?"

Recent readings in Mindfulness and The Joy of Living make me think compassion can be cultivated, and that makes me think it's a skill. And if so, isn't it an important skill?

And then I thought, "Wow. What if our graduation standards including things like compassion?"

Of course, then we'd have to measure it (maybe?). And that could be complicated (to say the least). And I doubt the cognitive rigor framework can be applied to social emotional skills. But we could certainly develop a rubric for the so-called (misnamed?) "non-cognitive skills." (Or maybe some less rigid sort of self-assessment or reflection would be more appropriate.)

Either way, part of me thinks, "That's crazy!"

But the bigger parts thinks, "But what if we could do it?"

Friday, December 19, 2014

The education flywheel

"Right now, the flywheel is at a standstill. To get it moving, you make a tremendous effort. You push with all your might, and finally you get the flywheel to inch forward... You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster. It takes a lot of work, but at last the flywheel makes a second rotation... It makes three turns, four turns, five, six. With each turn, it moves faster, and then—at some point, you can’'t say exactly when—you break through." -Jim Collins

I love the flywheel concept from Good to Great: Breakthroughs seem to happen overnight, but they're really the result of a slow build-up of momentum.

The chick breaks out of the egg all of a sudden, but only after weeks of development. Big changes take that kind of patient, consistent, undaunted work.

That's been my goal these last several days: Through failures and setbacks and obstacles and opposition and hurdles and negativity and pessimism and fear and resistance from within and without, to keep pushing ahead.

But I've been seeing what Collins meant about the importance of faith.

I believe we will breakthrough, and every student will succeed.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Does flunking students teach them a lesson?
Does flunking students teach them a lesson?

It almost sounds silly as I write it.

Obviously, if they fail, they aren't learning the material.

But are they learning "a lesson"? Are they learning that there are consequences to their actions? Do zeros teach responsibility?

Not in my experience.

All F's do, all zeros do is slam self-efficacy, further destroy confidence, squash any last glimmer of interest in learning, and send kids further down the doom spiral.

And yet we persist in pushing the curriculum through, by, and over these kids, stream-rolling them underneath it, if necessary, as long as we can say we "covered" it. In the end they fail to learn at all... and we fail.

How about this? It's not about the curriculum. It's about them.

But let's take it a step further. Let's make the curriculum about them--about what they really need to know and be able to do, starting with honest-to-goodness meaningful standards (no, I don't think that's a contradiction in terms), and backing them up with whatever time and support it takes for them to master them.

The curriculum should not be a filter, filtering kids out of school and society. For goodness sake, it's supposed to be for them, isn't it? Aren't we?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Musings from a high-rise

I stepped out of the elevator on the 19th floor of an office building in Hartford into a lobby looking out at the city... and the hills around it... and it hits me: It would be nice to work in a place like this. And then... someone remind me why I got into teaching...

But then I remembered. Skylines and skyscrapers are awesome. But so are kids.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Technology as the hedgehog accelerator
According to Jim Collins, technology is never the cause of going from good to great. Instead, companies become great because of a the right people, a disciplined culture, level 5 leadership, and dogged devotion to a clear, simple, central crystallized purpose (a "hedgehog concept") and then ask which technology (if any) could help you facilitate that. Tech can accelerate change, but it doesn't cause it.

I see his point. No use having rockets if you don't know where you are going (or if you don't already have the right culture and people). And it is a good reminder not to rush into tech for tech's sake in the school and classroom. Instead, as I've written before, technology is not about new gadgets (or apps) for the sake of new gadgets or apps (as cool as they are). It's about making old things easier and new things possible.

But Collins' ideas adds another layer. Get your hedgehog concept right first.
Hedgehogs, after all, operate on one, excellent, effective principle. Danger=roll into a ball.

What's mine? Not quite sure yet. At this point, it's got something to do with every student succeeding. I'm hoping to avoid the trap of letting tech distract me from that.

Our jump into Moodle may have jumped the gun just a bit, but we started using it to bring online learning to E. O. Smith, and it turns out that's a great facilitator of differentiated instruction and a promising component of a system in which every student can succeed.

At this point, I think online tech will play a key role as an accelerator of change in education. But it's not about the apps, it's about the hedgehog.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Who says, don’t be their friend?

Who says don’t be their friend?

What else am I, their enemy? Their tormentor? Am I for them or against them? Am I here to support them or help destroy them (actively or passively)?

False dichotomy? I don’t think so.

I want to say to them: I am your friend, not your enemy. I am here for you, not against you.

My goal is, unconditionally, your success.

My job is not to filter you out, but set you free.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Let's get rid of ability grouping

Came across this great post today by Susan Fitzell about the evidence against homogeneous grouping in schools, and it further convinced me that we need to get rid of levelling in schools.

(Among high school-level teachers, this kind of thing is liable to get me burned at the stake, but here it goes.)

I once made the argument that offering various levels of the same subject (general, college prep, and "honors") was a form of differentiation. I can still understand this argument to some degree: It's sort of like differentiating according to readiness and motivation, but with one BIG difference: The kids are not together.

The students with lower levels of readiness and motivation are grouped with kids with lower levels of readiness and motivation. The students with more are grouped with the students with more. While this may make it easier for teachers, for students, it's more like:
"For whoever has, to him more shall be given... but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him."

Could students struggling with motivation benefit from being around students with high motivation? Could students with low readiness benefit from being around students with higher readiness? Could students with poor social skills benefit from being around those with great social skills?

Seems obvious, and there is research to back up this heretical idea of delevelling.

And philosophically, I think we need to ask ourselves what we are all about. Are we here primarily to make sure the "best and brightest" are well served, or are we here for all students?

Not that the most advanced students are not well served by heterogeneous grouping. According to Marzano, any effect of heterogeneous grouping on advanced students is tiny. And that's assuming differentiation is being done well.

The needs of the many shouldn't be sacrificed for the needs of the few, and the needs of the few needn't be sacrificed either.

I may be a dreamer, but I think it can be done, and well, with every student appropriately challenged, together.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Next time, gather more data before it's too late

I can't believe how long I have been teaching like this--giving big summative assessments without really knowing if they were ready or not.

When my students turn in a test or formal lab report and it becomes clear they haven't mastered major objectives, I have no one to blame but myself.

Had I known they were missing key pieces of the puzzle, I could have adjusted, re-taught, added more practice, or changed the summative assessment.

Instead, I didn't find out until it was too late.

Next time, Bill, gather more data before the big one.

After all, your job isn't to measure ability, but to increase it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What looks like laziness...

"What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity...
What looks like laziness is often exhaustion...
What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem."

-Chip & Dan Heath, Switch

These three keys to driving change have become my mantra as a teacher.

And number 2 comes home especially strongly every Friday.

When I find myself reacting to students' apparent lack of motivation, especially on Fridays, I have to remind myself how ready I am for the weekend. I have to ask myself if it's realistic for me to expect them to be as driven as I am.

I have to ask myself if it's realistic to be as driven as I am, period.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The power of a teenager

For years I have been telling my students about their potential--that they are selling themselves short, that they can accomplish so much more than we adults give them credit for--than they give themselves credit for. I tell them stories about Ben Franklin, Oprah Winfrey, and Richard Branson, examples of teens who didn't wait until they were "grown up" to get started on their dreams.

I want to tell you about one of my former students who embodies that ideal. She was in my biology class two years ago. She did well, but her heart was elsewhere. Her passion was fashion, and she had tremendous independence and initiative. She decided to withdraw from her brick-and-mortar high school and enrol in an online high school so she would have more flexibility. She literally began working the New York City fashion scene at 16, modelling, styling, blogging and reporting.

I had run across her posts and blogs on Twitter, and was amazed at the maturity, creativity, and insight she showed. She's not only a great writer, but she has such a unique personality and voice that it's no wonder she's been published on Parade, Lucky, Rachael Ray, and HuffPo Teen. Her awesome fashion blog website is a model of style, authenticity, and electric energy.

It takes real discipline, courage and grit to successfully leap from traditional schooling to an independent online education. No teachers constantly reminding you of what must be done, telling you what notes to take, and spoon-feeding you information.  You're on your own. It takes real independence and self-discipline to pull off online education. (That's why it sometimes gets a bad rap.) She has not only done it, but done it well, and all while building a real career, one many adults would envy, while in her teens.

I don't tell my students that they have tremendous potential despite their age. I tell them they have tremendous potential, especially because of their age. Creativity and energy are at their peak before age 30. It's exciting to see a young person taking her abilities seriously, taking real risks, doing real things, in the real world, with such charisma, originality, and power.

I had a blog once called Escape Adolescence. It was devoted to helping teens see their real potential. Alexa didn't need me to tell her. She had a clear vision, a clear passion, and the grit and courage to make it happen. I wish her all the best, but I don't think she needs my wishes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Motivating kids in the mastery model

One of the big concerns over the mastery-based and no-zero models is that students will have no motivation to work diligently or hand in their work in a timely manner if there are no hard due dates or penalties, or if they can always resubmit their work.

I understand the concern. Student motivation (or lack thereof) is one of the biggest challenges of teaching. The question is, how do we motivate them? What can we do so that they will be self-motivated? I don't really think the threat of punishment (a zero or grade penalty) is a very good motivator. If Daniel Pink is right, we're all motivated by 3 things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

So today, I started with a pep talk. I asked my students, "What are the two purposes of these assignments that I give you?"

One student answered, "To give us something to do."


Another student: "So that we learn?"

"Right," I said, "I want you to learn biology by doing these projects--and what's the second?"


Me: "I want you to learn to learn independently. I don't know if you've noticed, but you are doing a lot of independent learning in here. You learn by watching videos or reading or doing your projects--you are getting lots of practice at the learning process. In college you will have to do a lot of independent learning. In fact, no matter what you do in life, you'll need to learn. My goal is that you'll be ready for that."

Maybe I just imagined it, but I think some of them hit their work a bit harder today.

Though there were a few struggling to stay focused. They were having difficulties with the software they were using for one of the assignments, and it had become an excuse to chat.

I don't have hard deadlines, since I don't issue late penalties or zeros, so instead of threatening them with penalties, I simply said, "Maybe you should choose a different project option, because you are on Assignment #11 and we are staring #14. I don't want you to get bogged down here."

A few minutes later, I overheard one of them (the one who thought our assignments were just something to do) saying to another, "What assignment are you on, are you on 13?" Was that concern over falling behind? Sounded like it. Still not the best motivator, but I'm hopeful we're moving in the right direction.

There are still trouble spots, and they're different every day (sometimes I feel like I'm playing whack-a-mole), but I really believe that backing off deadlines and pressure actually leads to greater engagement. Maybe it opens a door to a new kind of "school": No, this isn't some sick game. No, it's not about hoop-jumping for penalties and rewards. It's about mastery, autonomy, and purpose.

And it's really not like whack-a-mole. It's more like making lots of adjustments to something that I hope will turn out really beautifully for all of us.

The realm of possibility

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, tells the story of his wife's decision to win the Ironman:
"When Joanne set out to win the Ironman, she did not know if she would become the world's best triathlete. But she understood that she could, that it was in the realm of possibility, that she was not living in a delusion. And that distinction makes all the difference. It is a distinction that those who want to go from good to great must grasp, and one that those who fail to become great so often never do."
I believe that reaching every student is within the realm of possibility.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The dream of reaching every student

"You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope some day you'll join us..."

-John Lennon

Maybe it's just a pipe dream.

Maybe some students are just unreachable.

Maybe there are some we just can't help.

Maybe our responsibility is the kids who want to learn.

Maybe the unmotivated, resistant ones don't count.

Maybe their failure is not our fault.

But I don't think so.

I think if they fail, we fail.

I think everyone of them counts.

I think their motivation is our responsibility.

I think everyone can be reached. Everyone can be helped.

Progress may be slow, and none of this will be easy, but it'll be worth it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Single-mindedness, faith, and failure
"This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

-Jim Stockdale, quoted by Jim Collins in Good to Great

That kind of perseverance and faith is tough sometimes, when every step seems like you're trudging through knee-deep mud. But I know that's where dogged determination comes in--that indifference to myself, and that single-minded focus on a goal that I'm shooting for. That's the level 5 leadership I'm after.

After all, I'm not after "success" in terms of approval, or ego boosts, or credit (at least I don't want to be). I'm after something much bigger. Harry Truman said, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." And we could expand on that: It's amazing what you can accomplish if you're not focusing on yourself. & It's amazing what you get when you're not focused on yourself.

Of course there will be resistance. Of course there will be setbacks... and failures. But as Michael Jordan said in his awesome commercial:

"I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
 So let's keep going.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Why I'm excited about tech in education

I'm excited about tech in education for seven reasons: the power of tech in collaboration, communication, contribution, augmentation, facilitation, automation, and foundation.

Collaboration - With Google Docs, collaboration is amazing, and students LOVE it. The first time they see their classmates' colored cursors moving across the screen, they get excited, and for good reason. This kind of real-time, parallel-writing collaboration has never been possible before.

Communication - We live in amazing times. Since when can I send a quick message to my favorite author and get a reply? And since when can a teenager instantly publish her work to THE WHOLE WORLD? #awesome

Contribution - Did I mention making a global contribution with 140 characters and the click of a mouse? Link that Tweet to an original video, animation, or essay, and the stand back, because you may just start a #revolution.

Augmentation - We may not have robotic exoskeletons or neural implants yet, but the only thing between our brains and the internet's 4 zettabytes of information is a mouse and a screen. And for students with dysgraphia or short term memory problems, or who can't speak, technology levels the playing field.

Facilitation - Differentiation in a traditional classroom is hard. try delivering 4 different mini-lectures to 20 different students, all at the same time. But with online learning management systems like Moodle and Google Classroom, es muy facile. And have you used pivot tables yet? Data analysis is essential in our (finally) increasingly clinical discipline, and now we all have powerful tools at our fingertips.

Automation - One of my favorite things about Moodle is it's quizzing capabilities. There's nothing like giving students instant feedback after a formative assessment. And messaging an entire class? Easy. Checking for plagiarism? Easy with Google. Even easier with

Foundation - Here's where it gets really exciting, because every time we develop a new technology, it's like developing a new skill. Each new tech leads to more possibilities. It's like a tree, where each new development is like a bud, forming the foundation for more branches. Each new skill is a foundation for new skills. Just as there wasn't much need for civil engineers in primitive societies, there was no need for genetic engineers before the discovery of DNA, and there's no need for long division today, when many students are taking calculus in high school. Each new technology is a platform. And who knows what new abilities are being built on today's technologies?  Imagine what's being built on the internet as we speak?

Technology is not about new gadgets (or apps) for the sake of new gadgets or apps (as cool as they are). It's about making old things easier and new things possible. It's about the human drive to explore, to improve ourselves and our lives. It's about collaboration, communication, contribution, augmentation, facilitation, automation, and a foundation for whatever's next for us.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The (not so) patient teacher

I'm thinking patience may be the single most important trait for a teacher to have.

Today I was grading some written work, and as the mistakes and  deficiencies piled up, I began, as usual, to feel a mixture of irritation, frustration, and disappointment, vacillating between blaming them for not working hard enough and blaming myself for not forcing them to work harder.

Then I realized something. The things I'm asking them to do (summarize Lynn Margulis' endosymbiotic hypothesis, explain why drinking your own urine leads to dehydration, and producing a formal report on a laboratory experiment) are not easy for them. They are second nature to me, but I have the benefit of decades of repetition and experience in science and learning. And while my knee jerk reaction is to assume they just need to work harder, I need to remember the Heath brothers mantra:
  • what looks like laziness is often exhaustion,
  • what looks like resistance is often lack of clarity, and 
  • what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

And if these skills are important, then it's worth my patient, relentless effort to help my students acquire them. They didn't draw the cells they saw under the microscope with sufficient detail? Then let's do it again. They didn't write a clear enough explanation of Margulis' theory? Then let's do it again. As Julie Sherman, my former boss and mentor used to say, "If it's not worth teaching well, it's not worth teaching."

And then I thought of something else. What makes the difference between these  students struggling to learn the basics of science, and my most advanced students who don't even need me to help them master college level chemistry?

Sometimes it seems like learning is exponential, and these struggling students just haven't gotten beyond the knee of the curve... yet. Learning a basic skill, like reading, provides the foundation for the learning of countless new skills. Learning about multiplication provides a foundation for algebra and geometry, which provide the foundation for not only calculus, linear algebra, and statistics, but physics, chemistry, engineering, and finance.

Without those foundations, you're stymied. With them, your growth is not just linear--adding one skill on top of another, it's exponential, because each new learned item makes possible not just one, but a whole new array of new items.

And what about non-cognitive skills like self-control, concentration, and grit. What is the potential once these skills have been acquired? And what's the difference between students who master these in elementary school, and those who are still missing them in high school?

And so I have to be patient, realizing that my students are all at different places in their trajectories, and before the "knee of the curve," progress can be slow. But if we keep at it, it may not always be so. They need lots of help and patience before the knee, but if they get past it... they'll leave me in the dust. And that will be worth the effort.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Data, teaching, and education

"I love teaching, but I hate education."

-A veteran teacher

I heard a teacher say this today. I think she was referring to the new teacher evaluation system, which requires us to set quantifiable goals for student performance and then rates us according to whether we meet them or not.

While I think the current system is a bit misguided in it's emphasis on accountability as a driver for improving education, I doubt improvement is possible without a data-driven approach. Looking at the numbers, the "brutal facts" as they are called by Collins, is difficult, but it's the only way to know if we need to change. And we do.

This week I looked over the results of my latest chemistry test and realized that 25% of my students failed it. I also realized it was my fault. It was my failure. But we conducted what Collins calls an autopsy on that failure, and that opened the door to improvement. Next time, we'll do things differently.

I understand why many teachers recoil from the new system. But I think their fear (and that's what it is) may come from too narrow a focus. I think a focus on what I get out of teaching is the wrong focus. The right one is a focus on whether kids are learning (and whether they are all learning). That is, after all, my job. And that's education.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A better driver than accountability

Today I had planned a test on Chapter 3. It was supposed to be all about osmosis, the cell membrane, and all the parts of the cell--endoplasmic reticulum, golgi apparatus, lysosomes, and all that stuff. But I could tell yesterday that they were not ready. So I had two options:

  1. Tell myself it was their fault. They had not been working hard enough. They hadn't studied. They were not serious enough about this. Etc. Etc. And give them the test anyway. Let the chips fall...
  2. Acknowledge that maybe I had not provided enough time or the right experiences to help them learn the material, and postpone the test.

But there was another consideration. Some of my students had been less motivated lately. I'd noticed a bit more off-topic conversation and iPhone activity than normal. And part of me wanted to use the test to try to motivate them to try harder and use accountability as a driver. (If you've been following my blog, you can see where this is going here.)

That's when the third option occurred to me.

Give a short version of the test--a quiz, as a formative assessment, one that they would be able to retake for a better grade. I had noticed that they seemed to think they knew it all already, because they had studied the cell in middle school. This way, they could see where they stood.

So they came in today and I said all this, that I didn't think they were ready, so we'd put the test off until next week and just take a quiz today, and that they would have multiple attempts, and that they could get back to work on their cell projects when they were done.

Boom. They took the quiz, were surprised by how much they didn't know, and got right to work on their projects with renewed vigor.

When I returned a couple of projects to those students whose motivation had been waning and told them they had to revise them, they were all ears. After I clarified what I need them to do, they went right to it.

Amazing what happens when I stop worrying about holding some artificial line, stop trying to motivate with accountability, and start focusing on my students and what they need to master the subject.  

They want to master it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Zebra envy

It's not uncommon to see teachers  huddled like zebras under attack, passionately attacking CT's new teacher evaluation system. I've been one of them. But it makes me think about the the way that fear hinders us--how it stops us from growing.

Zebras don't get ulcers, at least according to Robert Sapolsky, and here's why: Because they don't fear the lion until they scent her, hear her or see her.

People get ulcers--they experience chronic stress, because our big frontal lobes extend our sight into the distant future, and we see countless lions-that-could be lurking in the grass of the future.

And it's worse than that. There are no lions. The disapproval of our peers turns into a life threatening predator in our subconscious, and failure at work or school is a lion in our minds. The possibility of a bad rating on a teacher evaluation rubric taps into our primal fight-or-flight response, and we respond as if a cheetah were on our tail.

I've been in a few potentially life-threatening circumstances, but none of them had to do with rubrics. I've displeased some people, and failed lots of times, and it's never really warranted the stress it caused me.

Fear is usually a sham--a glitch in the system caused by this combination of the threat-detection system we inherited from our pre-primate ancestors. Unfortunately this is a big glitch, because fear makes us huddle, hide, tense up, shrink back, and bare our teeth, when we should open up and move forward. We end up with missed opportunities, stagnant lives, organizations, and relationships, hostility of all kinds, and who knows what else.

Sometimes I wish I were a zebra. Then I could just enjoy the grass and the breeze and the sunshine until there really was a lion. Of course, then I wouldn't be able to write this blog post or contemplate the mystery of existence either. I guess I'll stick with the cerebral cortex and just learn to see fear for what it usually is: a figment of my imagination, and watch it float by like a dark cloud on the sky of my mind. Then I'll allow myself to be open to new perspectives, open to criticism and improvement, open to change and challenge, open to whatever life has in store.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Goal: Level 5

When he analyzed great companies for his book Good to Great, Collins and his team were caught off guard by the common characteristics of the companies' leaders. They weren't the stereotypical charismatic superhero types we associate with CEOs of extraordinary firms. Instead, they were characterized by a quiet humility and a "intense professional will." This is cool, but challenging.

“Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious–but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”
I'm not sure where I am on the leadership pyramid, but this is my goal, and it resonates with my recent thinking-blogging. There more I can keep my eyes off myself--become disinterested in myself, the more successful I will be.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Conversation with my former self on grading

Bill (2014): Bill, I noticed your test averages are usually around 75%. Do you scale them up to that average?

Bill (2010): I do. I guess I figure the performance of the students should roughly follow a normal distribution with an average of 75.

Bill (2014): Why did you pick 75?

Bill (2010): I don't know. Isn't that the historical concept of average? And if it's normally distributed, then that would put the high at 100 and the low at 50, so I'm ensuring that the best students are challenged.

Bill (2014): OK, so the best students set the standard, and you are measuring the others relative to that. So you're really using the grade as a measure of their relative ability. Is that what you intend?

Bill (2010): Not really. I guess I'm trying to measure their mastery of chemistry, but also trying to ensure that I am setting the standard for mastery high enough.

Bill (2014): Why not decide what skills and concepts they really need to master, and then measure their mastery of them?

Bill (2010): Hmm... that would make sense.

Bill (2014): And why not shoot for 100% of your students mastering them. Why does it matter how they compare to each other?

Bill (2010): I see your point. But how do I ensure they are all challenged?

Bill (2014): Why not ditch the whole percentage grade thing and use a different sort of scale--one with "Mastery" at one level (and that's your goal) and something like "Extraordinary" at a higher level.

Bill (2010): So some students will just shoot for Extraordinary just for the sake of being Extraordinary?

Bill (2014): Sure. Wouldn't you?