Let's Change Education

Challenge. Discover. Lead. Change.

Month: December 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Challenge: Project 180, Day 72

To get better. To rise. To grow. To learn. To go above. To go beyond. All require a challenge. In the P-180 classroom, challenge presents itself in the form of commitment, not compliance. In P-180 classroom, challenge equals responsibility and ownership. When I presented my kids with an “A” 72 days ago, I did not set them on a path paved for success; indeed, I placed them on the rocky road of responsibility. In truth, the “A” was no gift it all. It was, instead a burden to bear, the ultimate challenge of facing oneself on a personal journey to get better, to rise, to grow, to learn, to go above, and to go beyond. Over the last week, two kids have taken a look within, facing that challenge. Here are their stories.

I thought he was on his way back from getting a tissue when I whispered, “Love to see an essay, kiddo.” And he barely nodded a “yeah” as he made his way back to his seat. I took his response as embarrassment for not having an essay in to me. Turns out he was not embarrassed, he was frustrated–maybe angry. He had not been over to the shelf to take care of a sniffle. He had left me a comment in the comment box.

“I don’t want to write summaries about the movies we watched. I want to write about something that interests me.”

I knew it was his comment because he is the only one in the class who writes in cursive. So, when I pulled the card and read it, I knew I had misunderstood our earlier, brief interaction. Ordinarily, I save student comments for “The Voices Within” post on the weekends, but I decided to handle this one differently, especially since I knew who had written it and had a better sense of what was going on. Here is what I wrote on the back of the card in response.

“I hear you, and I am sorry that you are frustrated. But I think it is an oversimplification to say that we are writing summaries about the movies we watched. The true intent here is to give you an opportunity to demonstrate proficiency with analysis, an opportunity for me to give you feedback to help you grow. In the end, the movies don’t matter, but your ability to analyze does, so if there is something else you want to write about to show me an analysis, I am all for it. Please let me know.”

I put it in an envelope and handed it to him yesterday. As class ended, he walked by and I just said, “Hey, dude. I just need you to show me you can analyze. I don’t care what you write about.” He smiled and said, I have an essay coming. The challenge? Doing what he didn’t want to do. It’s a challenge when we are young; it’s a challenge when we are old. And he has accepted the challenge. I’m not suggesting he’s happy about it, but I am suggesting that he will be better for it.

Next story. For nearly two weeks, she had avoided making eye contact with me. I knew why. “Operation Email” had brought Mom and Dad into the game, and she wasn’t pleased with our meddling. So, for the last several days, conscious of her stress level, I did not engage or push her. Yesterday, she stayed after class. She began by apologizing for not getting her essay into me yet. And then she let me in. “Here’s the deal, Sy. I am a procrastinator, but I am also a perfectionist, and the two do not make a good pair. I am nearly done, but I’m not turning it in till it’s perfect. I will have it to you tomorrow.” Honored that she had opened up to me, I let her know that I was sorry for the stress and that I was glad that she was making her way through it. As she was leaving, I told her that her parents and I just cared, and she gave me the famous, yeah-I-know-but-whatever teenage smirk. She, as he above, though not happy, will be better for accepting and facing the challenge of that which often presents the biggest hurdle of all–oneself.

Happy Friday, all. Off for two weeks now. Looking forward to the break.  See you back here in January. Happy Holidays!





Sound of Silence: Project 180, Day 71


We’ll step into the middle of Night today with our second discussion. Last week’s discussion went well, but ever-searching for a way to make things better, I asked the kids for some feedback, and they obliged, so we will do things a bit differently this week. Here are some of the things they asked for.

  1. More time. Granted.
  2. More people contributing/participating. Random selection no more.
  3. More Syrie. Not necessarily. Wishing to avoid awkward moments of silence, many asked me to help “fill the air” during these moments. And I’m torn. I want them to fill the air. That’s the goal, and the moments of silence are a but a means to an end. Moments of silence are moments of thought. Constant noise is not always a sign of deep discussion. He or she who talks the most does not always say the most. Sometimes she or he who says the least does. We should listen to silence, too. Oh, I will help today. But when I fill the air, it will be my asking probing and clarifying questions, not giving answers. #sorrynotsorrykiddos

We will continue with the no-hands approach this week. Kids did a great job with it last week, especially for the first time. Funny how many still raised their hands. All good. They’ve been conditioned to do so. It was kinda fun to playfully rebuke them for raising their hands. I’ll have more fun today.

Happy Thursday, all. Stay warm and safe.

A Year Later…Project 180, Day 70

1 year. 235 posts. 117,500 words. 24,624 views. Happy Anniversary, Let’s Change Education!

Though the “official launch” took place in January, the unofficial hop into the world wide web happened last December 14 with a “Morning Minutes” post, in which I discussed my last minute scramble to get my independent learning project done–this blog–to present to my kids.  And that was how it started. A year ago, my student Megan Lavin challenged me to do my own independent learning project along with them, and…the rest is history.

At the time, I just wanted to create a forum for discussing educational issues among all the key stakeholders: teachers, students, parents, administrators, and the public. But as we went along, people weren’t really contributing to the conversation, but a lot of people were logging in to listen, so I spoke, and I kept speaking. Many of my initial posts targeted grading practices, which seemed to resonate with a lot of folks, and from there the conversation continued, eventually leading to my decision to go gradeless, giving an unexpected birth to Project 180.

Never imagined that I would have landed here a year ago, 70 days into a journey both filled with delight and fraught with doubt, my beautiful burden. But it is neither a burden borne nor a beauty beheld alone, I’ve had you. Some of you every single step of the way. And this gives me the strength to face my doubt and the spirit to share my delight. And with that, thank you. Thank you for joining me. Thank you for understanding my struggles. Thank you for celebrating my successes. Thank you. Couldn’t do it without you, so don’t leave me now. Long road ahead. Gonna need ya.

Happy Wednesday, all.

Learners into Teachers: Project 180, Day 69


Had a chance to praise “John” and his performance in front of his peers yesterday. I was pleased to hear him share that really his success was due to his using the model I provided as a guide for “stepping up his game.” I wasn’t pleased because it was my model; to be sure, I was pleased that he found success with a mentor text. I was most pleased that his peers heard him share this. I hope that it sinks in. The resources are there, but outside my 55 minutes a day, I cannot help students with what is perhaps the most challenging task they will encounter in their learning: writing. So, I try to provide mentor texts to help them in my absence. Consequently, the exemplary essays I have taken in thus far have all shown signs of using the provided mentor texts. Of further consequence, is the fact that the mentees will now become mentors as I use their texts to help other young writers “up their own writing games.”

Happy Tuesday, all. Slept in a bit, so I give you the gift of a short post. Tomorrow is my  blog’s one-year anniversary. Celebrate with you in the morning.


Turning the Corner: Project 180, Day 68

Felt like we turned a corner in 211 last week, and I owe it to parents. “Operation Email” produced the influence I hoped it would, opening up communication between parents and me and motivating more students to do their work. And even though it resulted in a heavier workload for me this weekend, it is the work I expect and accept as part of my duty, my dedication. It is also the work that is absolutely necessary for student growth. Learning requires doing. Learning requires feedback. Learning requires work–for all three corners of the triangle. For the kids who are experiencing the most success, all three corners are in play, each corner meeting its respective obligation in this partnership of shared responsibility.

Still, there remain a few for whom Project 180 is not producing the results that I hoped it would, the few who seem to desire a return to the tradition of the compliant classroom. On one level, I get it. It’s produced “results” in the past, and it’s producing “results” in their other classes at the moment. It’s a system that they have been conditioned to respond to, and in its absence, conditioned compliance is not working. Commitment to their learning is not enough. They need a grade to influence their motivation. And I get it. Sort of.

On another level, I don’t get it. The few who are critical of what I am doing right now seem to believe that if I returned to tradition, then I would all the sudden step into the role of effective teacher, that what I am doing right now is not creating the condition their children need to be successful. But here’s the deal. Even if I returned to a traditional-grading approach, it would not change how I conduct business. It would not change my belief that the path to proficiency requires practice, feedback, and performance opportunities.

Further, based on my experiences past and present (I have 2 sections of senior LA with traditional grades) and based on my near-daily conversations with colleagues, kids’ completing work is no-less the reality in the traditional classroom, and if it’s a little better, then generally it’s kids only doing the bare minimum just to pass. In reality, I believe it’s probably a wash. So, what’s the difference? Why take the 180 approach? This is the 180 difference. Kids do work out of commitment to their learning, out of commitment to themselves. It gives kids an opportunity to learn about themselves as learners, to take greater responsibility for their actions, and to develop a sense of self-efficacy as they work to grow,  and not just work to complete the give-me-a-grade transaction.

That’s the difference. For some, that difference has not been realized, and sadly it may not happen for them this year. And I am neither blind nor unresponsive to that. In fact, for the two parents who have called me onto the carpet, I have offered to personalize a traditional approach for their children if they feel that is what is necessary to motivate them. They are neither interested nor impressed with my non-traditional approach, and that’s fine. I get it. But I wonder how many traditional teachers would offer to personalize a non-traditional approach in their classrooms to meet the needs of their students and parents for whom tradition was not working? Not many.

For several others, the 180 difference has been realized. Yesterday, as I was poring over a pile of papers, one gave me pause. Great pause. In fact, it prompted me to quickly log into Skyward, find a number, and call a parent–at home, on a Sunday. I had to call. I had to share how impressed I was by what her son had done. John (name changed), up to this point, had generally done all the work and had generally demonstrated that he was capable with the standards, but I was concerned that he seemed to be content with merely going through the motions. I expressed these concerns in the midterm portfolio, and I also expressed them to John in my feedback on his first film essay, challenging him to step up his game on the next.  Challenge accepted. Performance delivered. I was so excited by his turnaround, I had to call home. I had to share that he had written an exemplary essay. I had to call home and thank the parents for being involved and thank John for doing the work. Doing the work. That’s the difference. Learning requires doing. Learning requires feedback. Learning is work, for all of us. So proud of John for owning his learning.

Happy Monday, all. Thank you parents for doing your part. We have to do this together. Have to.

The Things We Carry: Project 180, Day 67


Slept in a bit this morning. Decided to share some of the “thought bubbles” that perpetually spin ’round my head. Blessed that some of you can see them, that you can see me. Thank you for your support. Special shout out to my best friend Josh Kleven who sent me the image below this morning. He’s always seen me.

Have a great weekend, all. Stay warm.

Blessing and curse our why’s. The power and burden of our purpose. Real or imagined. No matter. We carry it forth. We have to.


Tears, Icebergs, and No Hands: Project 180, Day 66

Tears. Finished “reading” a film today. Ran out of tissues. As with our other Holocaust films, The Book Thief and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Life is Beautiful exacted an emotional cost from its young viewers. But unlike the other two, the entire film was in Italian, so we read the subtitles; we read the film. And now, the real work begins.

I use the films to create context. If kids are going to develop empathy and remember, they have to have some context first. But the content of that context requires a critical view. These films are Hollywoodized versions of the Holocaust, and their use in the classroom is being questioned. So, I am now going to ask the kids to be critical evaluators of using the films as a means to learn about the Holocaust. Hattie, author of the book I shared yesterday, suggests that critical evaluation should be a central purpose in education. We should desire a citizenry of critical evaluators. To that end, I have created a situation that takes kids beyond enjoying a series of films in class to evaluating and judging whether they should even be watching them in the first place. When we return from break, they will work through this very question in their fall semester performance task.

The films have taken time. But it has not been empty or wasted time. We did not watch the films for the simple sake of “enjoying a movie.” The kids knew from the beginning that they would ultimately have to take a critical look at the use of the films. And along the way, the kids have had an opportunity to develop their analytical skills, looking at the films through the lenses of historical accuracy, point-of-view, and audience impact. And importantly, it has given me an opportunity to give them feedback (0.75) and help them grow in area that is difficult for most: analysis. Hard to think of it as a waste of time when I see growth in this challenging area occurring before my very eyes.

Icebergs. Time for another page in the kids’ learning stories. Learning Log time, and also time for the kids to check in on the health of their A’s (1.44). Earlier, as we were working through growth mindset, I had the kids consider the “success is an iceberg” metaphor, considering all that is not visible of one’s personal struggle towards success. I now want to revisit that metaphor using the above graphic that my lovely wife, the art teacher, created for me last night. I will ask the kids to write the current chapter of their learning stories in the space of the A-berg. Excited to see what’s beneath.

No hands. Inspired by an idea from one of my college kids this past quarter (thank you, Sarah), I am going to do an experiment with the kids today during our class discussion (0.82) on the first third of Night.  We are not going to raise our hands as a signal of wanting to speak. In the “real world” adults don’t raise their hands. In my professional, collaborative meetings, we don’t raise our hands when we wish to contribute to the conversation; we find polite entry points into the discussion. Want to try this with the kids today. I’ll let you know how it goes. It’ll either be brilliant or disastrous. Only find out if I give it a shot. I’ve never been one to shy away from a chance to challenge convention. And today, I dare challenge the sanctity of the raised hand! Gonna get my rebel on.

Happy Thursday, all.

The More I learn: Project 180, Day 65

I did not start the 180 journey because I had the answers. I started down this road because I wanted answers. I wanted more and better out of education. I wanted more and better out of my students. And I wanted more and better out of myself. So, I set out to make some discoveries in the hopes that when I returned I would arrive more knowledgeable and better suited to give more and  better to my profession and my kids. I’m a long way from home.  And while some days, I fear I’m lost out here on this lonesome road, I find hope in knowing that when I return, despite the challenges both faced and yet to come, I will return, and I will have learned.

And so, I walk. I march forth, seeking to learn from my mistakes and my successes, looking for ways to learn and grow. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of John Hattie’s work around influences on student achievement. It caught my attention as I was scrolling through the Twitterverse, and I paused to take a look. Essentially his years of work is a super-mega meta-analyses of the research literature, which presents the effect size of practices that influence student achievement. Intrigued, I looked a little further and followed a link to his site, Visible Learning, which presented the top-ten influences (by effect size) on student achievement.

  1. Student self-reported grades

  2. Piagetian programs

  3. Response to intervention

  4. Teacher Credibility

  5. Providing formative evaluation

  6. Micro-teaching

  7. Classroom discussion

  8. Comprehensive interventions for learning disabled students

  9. Teacher clarity

  10. Feedback

At the bottom of the page, was a link to buy the book. So, duly intrigued, I clicked, and the book arrived Monday. Last night, I cracked it open. And while it certainly reads like a textbook–as the reviews indicated–and is sufficiently stat heavy, it presents a comprehensive look at statistically significant practices that influence student achievement. And this morning my head is buzzing  with the fresh dissonance of newly discovered information. Noise. But necessary noise, for I know when it settles, I will have learned. I will have made progress. I will have gained more to be better.

Importantly, Hattie doesn’t offer the book as a prescription or program; he offers it as means to develop a frame of mind, a way of thinking about practice and how it influences that which matters most: student achievement. And I am all in. And I am learning. And that is what 180 is about in the end. Not to arrive. I’ll never arrive. But to journey. To boldly go. To learn. To grow. That’s my journey.

But, I am not alone. Lonely, yes. But never alone. I have my supporters, and I have my critics, and I couldn’t do it without either. To my supporters, thank you for seeing me  and believing in me. You give me heart. To my critics, I am sorry that you can’t see me. And I think it is not that I hide. Truly, I put myself out there every day. I am not hiding in the woods. I am walking down the middle of road. I want you to see me. I need you to see me. You feed me. Fire away. I grow stronger every time you do. Thank you.

Happy Wednesday, all.

Memory and Responsibility: Project 180, Day 64


Yes, we read Night to know.  Of course, we read Night to empathize. But most of all, we read Night to remember.  In the end that is what I want from and for my kids; I want to give them the opportunity to honor memory–Elie’s memory, every memory from the Holocaust. And for that, I want their commitment. For this, especially, I do not want their compliance. Sadly, it was not always so. For even as recently as last year, I sought their commitment through compliance, giving a difficult final to reward the compliant and punish the non. Alas, I own the sins of my past. But this year is different. Vastly. No test. No compliance. No grade. Only commitment.

Last week we began our experience with Night by focusing on the above passage from the preface. I asked the kids to be witnesses to memory, to honor the gift of Elie’s testimony. Yesterday, I presented the “Memory Pledge” as a means to influence my kids’ motivation to read the book. In the preface, Elie speaks, too, of responsibility, sharing that he was often asked about the response to Auschwitz. He said that he did not know.  But what he did know is that “response” is in responsibility. And, as a witness, it was his responsibility to testify, to share his memory, so we would not forget. And so, now, we too have a responsibility. To read. To remember. We read Night to remember.

And it is for that, first and foremost, that I ask for my kids’ commitment. But I ask for more, too. I have asked them to keep dialectical journals as they read, journals that we will use to generate our discussion after each third of the book. I will also ask them to write an essay at the end of the unit. And I have asked them to begin thinking of a Memory Project idea that they will complete as a team to honor the victims of the Holocaust. They have their work cut out for them, but I hope they see beyond the chore. I hope they embrace the responsibility.

Happy Tuesday, all.

Tests: Project 180, Day 63



Had a chance meeting with a parent this weekend. As I was walking out of the Holiday Bazaar at the high school on Saturday with two wreaths from the CHS choir, a lady jumped out of her van asked me if there were more wreaths available inside.  I told her yes, and as we moved to go our separate ways, we both realized we had met before. Open house. I have her son John (name changed) in class. And with that, we both momentarily suspended our separate ways and paused to talk.

We only talked for a moment. I began by thanking  her for her signature and comments on the  recently returned portfolio. And she continued by sharing a discussion from earlier in the day with John regarding school and the role of choices and character. Unhappy with his present performance, she shared her parental frustrations with me, hoping that I would see a turn around with his commitment to his learning. Seeking to reassure her and ease her feelings of frustration, I intimated that I believed he would find his way. Truly. And with that, we shook hands, thanked each other, and resumed our days.

It’s funny how when I engage parents–formally and informally–about their kids it rarely has anything to do with matters of curriculum. More often than not, our discussions focus on matters of character, on matters beyond the scope of my language arts curriculum. We generally talk about the qualities of character that their teen is developing as he/she grows, matures into adulthood.

Now, that is not to say that this is true for all parents. To be sure, some strongly believe that my job is to teach LA and only LA, that character is out of bounds, beyond my purview as a teacher. And I get it, and I agree–to a point. My job is not to teach the qualities in the graphic above. I am not sure they can or should be taught in the traditional sense. No test over that at the end of the semester. But there will be a “test” eventually. For each.

And so, as I prepare my kids for school tests, I also prepare them for life tests, trials that will that call into action the various traits on numerous occasions over the course of their lives. But the “preparation” I provide is not didactic; I do not “teach” them resilience. I provide them with opportunities to discover and develop that part of their character. I suppose on some level that happens in all classrooms, even traditional, learn-from-the-grade classrooms. But, I think the 180 difference brings into clear focus that which should be at the center: the kid. Yes, I want them to learn LA and I will work hard to that end (that’s part of being a dedicated teacher), but I also want them to learn and to discover themselves. And so I give them opportunity to find and foster those qualities. For down the road, I believe that is what will truly matter.

Happy Monday, all.

Older posts
%d bloggers like this: