Why School Sucks (hint: it’s not because it’s “boring”)

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Isabella Bruyere

(Google Images)

Read the title. Now notice that I said school, NOT education. Yes, there is a difference.

This fall I’m going to be a Sophomore in high school, and although I’ve only had one year of high school so far, I kind of hate it. It’s cliche really; the high school student who hates school, texts all day, goes to parties, etc. Well, really only 1 out of 3 of those things applies to me but let’s rewind for a second to when I didn’t completely hate school: kindergarten-5th grade.

Hate is a strong word, I don’t hate school. I’m only comparing my feelings now for the ecstasy of my elementary days. Back then I loved school. It was my favorite place, simply because I’ve always had a love for learning. I had a great childhood (well I mean, I’m technically still in my childhood, but let’s ignore that); I grew up reading every day, going on Zoo adventures to learn about animals, hiking up to the observatory to star gaze, visiting every museum possible, and etc. A seed of curiosity was planted in my mind at an early age, and continues to grow today. There is something about having a question and finding the answer that satisfies me, but what really excites me to the core is being able to do something with that answer. It’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

Now imagine little kindergarten me, sitting in a room (on a rainbow rug that only added to the excitement of it all!) where all (well, most) of my questions could be answered. I was able to learn how to read, write and count. I was able to understand things about different animals, plants, and the world. I was able to learn about my ancestors and the history of everything. Not only that, but everything was fun! Why just read about the different parts of the plant when you could label the construction paper parts and glue them together like a puzzle? Better yet, watch your very own plant grow! To me, school was some sort of paradise.

So how did my love for school change? Simple: school stopped being about learning. As I entered high school, and even middle school, everyone around me, teachers and students alike, had the mindset of “cram cram cram, A’s, A’s A’s”. They’ll shove useless information into your head as fast as possible, “it’s okay if you don’t understand it, just memorize it and get an A on your exam!” The exam? An hour in a room of no talking, just bubbling in multiple choice answers while bubbles of anxiety grew in your stomach. School slowly became a place of memorizing facts just long enough to get the A, doing the bare minimum to get into the best college. Everything was just to get into college, to be better than your peers. Why help your classmate? Why not sabotage them so you have less people to compete with when it comes to applying to Harvard, Stanford, Yale. That is the mentality that I hate, yet it is the mentality of everyone around me, and maybe even myself.

Why can’t school be a place where teachers taught slowly, treating their students as equals and engaging with them in meaningful conversations. I once had an algebra teacher yell at anyone who asked a question because “we are in algebra, we are supposed to be smart enough to know these things”. Why can’t school be a place that welcomes questions of all kinds, and actually allows time to ask them? I’m so tired of cramming for exams only to forget everything the next morning. In real life, we have unlimited resources. The internet, the library, our peers. Instead of sitting in a room for an hour bubbling in a Scantron, why don’t we get together with our classmates and use our resources to work through a complex critical thinking question that relates to the real world as well as the subject. That is how you grow minds fit to solve world hunger, and etc. That is how you engage students, and cause them to be enthusiastic about a certain subject. I’m not saying schools should take away testing and homework, I’m saying they should make it more about the learning experience, and more like real life. Testing should use a combination of critical thinking and prior knowledge; it shouldn’t isolate the part of the brain that memorizes facts, because half of the time students don’t understand them!

I too have fallen prey to this harsh reality. I’ll stay up late to study, knowing that I’m only going to forget everything after I test. I’ll get the A, I’ll push myself, but at what cost? I’ve fallen into a hole, developed anxiety and OCD, and if I don’t stop soon I can add depression to that list. School is encouraging me to continue to push myself, but how long is it until I reach my breaking point? These days the only things I do are homework and studying. I stressed out so much my freshman year, I not only landed in the hospital, but I didn’t read a single outside reading book all year, and to me, that’s even more tragic. I am only in 10th grade, and I feel like I’m barely clinging on.

So yes, school sucks. But that doesn’t mean that learning has to. I’ve made myself a promise that from this day forward, no matter what college I go to, no matter what job I end up doing, I will always love learning, and always strive to know more. And despite all I have said in this article, I still enjoy going to school, and I wouldn’t trade my education for anything. I have always been the type of person to read a book about ‘Ancient Greek Mythology’ or ‘A-Z animal facts’, simply because I want to learn, and I hope to continue being that person.

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A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry

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Students at Flushing International High School in Queens working on projects during a summer program. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

Few middle schoolers are as clued in to their mathematical strengths and weakness as Moheeb Kaied. Now a seventh grader at Brooklyn’s Middle School 442, he can easily rattle off his computational profile.

“Let’s see,” he said one morning this spring. “I can find the area and perimeter of a polygon. I can solve mathematical and real-world problems using a coordinate plane. I still need to get better at dividing multiple-digit numbers, which means I should probably practice that more.”

Moheeb is part of a new program that is challenging the way teachers and students think about academic accomplishments, and his school is one of hundreds that have done away with traditional letter grades inside their classrooms. At M.S. 442, students are encouraged to focus instead on mastering a set of grade-level skills, like writing a scientific hypothesis or identifying themes in a story, moving to the next set of skills when they have demonstrated that they are ready. In these schools, there is no such thing as a C or a D for a lazily written term paper. There is no failing. The only goal is to learn the material, sooner or later.

For struggling students, there is ample time to practice until they get it. For those who grasp concepts quickly, there is the opportunity to swiftly move ahead. The strategy looks different from classroom to classroom, as does the material that students must master. But in general, students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers. They get frequent updates on skills they have learned and those they need to acquire.

Mastery-based learning, also known as proficiency-based or competency-based learning, is taking hold across the country. Vermont and Maine have passed laws requiring school districts to phase in the system. New Hampshire is adopting it, too, and piloting a statewide method of assessment that would replace most standardized tests. Ten school districts in Illinois, including Chicago’s, are testing the approach. In 2015, the Idaho State Legislature approved 19 incubator programs to explore the practice.

More than 40 schools in New York City  home to the largest school district in the country, with 1.1 million students — have adopted the program. But what makes that unusual is that schools using the method are doing so voluntarily, as part of a grass-roots movement. In communities where the shift was mandated — high schools in and around Portland, Me., for example — the method faced considerable resistance from parents and teachers annoyed that the time-consuming, and sometimes confusing, change has come from top-tier school administrators. Some contend that giving students an unlimited amount of time to master every classroom lesson is unrealistic and inefficient.

New York City Department of Education officials have taken a contrasting position. The city has a growing program called the Mastery Collaborative, which helps mastery-based schools share their methods around the city, even as they adopt different styles. To date, there are eight lab schools, whose practices are being tested, honed and highlighted for transitioning schools. M.S. 442 is one of them. Some struggling schools hope the shift will raise test scores. But the method is also growing in popularity among high-performing, progressive schools, as well as those catering to gifted and talented students and newly arriving immigrants.

This fall, the Education Department plans to spread the method further, by inviting schools to see how the Mastery Collaborative works, even if they aren’t yet considering making the switch. They will be encouraged to attend workshops and tour schools, with the hope, one D.O.E. official said, that they will find elements that they can use in their own classrooms.

Several factors are driving this. The rise of online learning has accelerated the shift, and school technology providers have been fierce advocates. It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.

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Joy Nolan, left, and Jeremy Chan-Kraushar, right, co-founders of the Mastery Collaborative, with Lara Evangelista, the school’s principal. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

Mastery-based learning can be traced to the 1960s, when Benjamin Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago and an education psychologist, challenged conventional classroom practices. He imagined a more holistic system that required students to demonstrate learning before moving ahead. But the strategy was not widely used because it was so labor intensive for teachers. Now, with computer-assisted teaching allowing for tailored exercises and online lessons, it is making a resurgence.

Government policy has also contributed to its adoption. Under the federal education bill passed in 2015, states are permitted to forgo single end-of-year subject tests for nuanced measures. In the mastery-based learning world, this is largely seen as a positive move.

Joy Nolan, one of the directors of New York’s Mastery Collaborative, said the method gives students more agency and allows them to gain traction, no matter their level. “The mastery approach really puts the focus on you and your growth,” she said.

Some of the schools she assists — like the North Queens Community High School — came to mastery-based learning as a way to help disillusioned and at-risk students.

“It’s the narrative we want to change,” said Winston McCarthy, the school’s principal. “We want to change the conversation from ‘I’m not successful at this’ to ‘This is where you are on the ladder of growth.’”

Mastery-based learning, of course, has its critics. Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education, worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)

Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow at the American Principles Project who has written critically about mastery-based education, said she finds the checklist nature of the system anti-intellectual. While it may work to improve math skills, it is unlikely to help students advance in the humanities, she said.

Others question the method’s efficacy. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, contends that students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.

“Mastery folks don’t understand the fundamentals of what learning is about,” Mr. Soloway said.

In any event, advocates argue, the current education system is not working. Too many students leave high school ill prepared for college and careers, even though traditional grading systems label many top performers. Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school achievement test were deemed college-ready in English. In math, only 41 percent were deemed college-ready.

Even proponents say the system has its problems. Switching to mastery-based learning requires a great deal of coordination. “It’s not an overnight thing,” said Lisa Genduso, the math coach for M.S. 442. It can also meet with resistance from faculty members who aren’t keen on experimentation. The year M.S. 442 moved away from the traditional system, it lost seven teachers.

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A learning outcomes chart. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

But Moheeb defended his school’s approach. It encourages students to “work on what they’re struggling with,” he said.

“It’s different for different kids,” Moheeb said with a shrug.

In New York, where students speak more than 200 languages and arrive in classrooms with varying degrees of proficiency, some schools adopted the method out of necessity.

At Flushing International High School, whose student body is dominated by recent immigrants, mastery-based learning lets students concentrate on learning English. This gets them speaking, reading and writing as quickly as possible, while also rewarding them for picking up academic skills and knowledge. In a biology classroom, for example, lab reports are evaluated on the student’s understanding of concepts as well as on a command of scientific vocabulary.

The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria educates girls who may become the first in their families to go to college. In addition to fulfilling Common Core requirements, assignments are designed to help students learn critical thinking and workplace skills. Students engaged in a group history project, for example, may need to demonstrate that they have learned to collaborate and investigate. For a solo science assignment, they may be asked to demonstrate that they can innovate.

At Moheeb’s middle school, the approach has been transformative. In the 2013-14 school year, 7 percent of its students read at grade level, and 5 percent met the state’s math standards. Two years later, 29 percent were proficient in English, and 26 percent proficient in math, pulling the school close to the city average.

This year, all the eighth graders at the school who took the algebra Regents exam and 85 percent who took the earth science exam were marked proficient. The scores signified a high point for M.S. 442, teachers said.

To make the system work, teachers used New York State curriculum guidelines and Common Core standards to develop a rubric of every skill students needed before they could move to the next grade. In Moheeb’s sixth-grade class, there were 37 skills designated in math and 37 in English. They included the ability to add and subtract decimals; identify, understand and describe unit rate; recognize story elements; and discern what is important in a text.

In lieu of grades, students are assessed on a color-coded scale: Red means not yet meeting the standard; yellow, approaching it; green, meeting a standard; and blue, exceeding it. The scale is designed to be visually appealing and to encourage students to think of learning as a process. To meet grade level for each skill, students need to prove three times that they have acquired it. They may explain to a teacher their process for working through problems as a way to show they understand the material. Or they may perform well on an online test or a quiz.

Progress throughout the year is cumulative, meaning that even if students don’t grasp something early on, if they learn it by the end of the year, they will get a “good” grade. The school also has an online point system for behavior.

Ms. Genduso, of M.S. 442, said the approach was introduced at a challenging time for the school. A third of the students at the school require special-education assistance and attend classes that include a number of high-performing students. Even with two teachers (one trained for special education), it was difficult to engage everyone.

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A student at Flushing International High School in Queens working at her own pace to master a required skill. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

“We were not reaching all of these kids,” Ms. Genduso said.

In late 2012, educators at the school were trying to think big. Housed on the second floor of a sprawling brick building on Hoyt Street, M.S. 442 was 14 years old and struggling with low test scores and declining enrollment. It had done a poor job of attracting families from the neighboring brownstones, and many of the teachers were dispirited. The school shed its name, New Horizons Middle School, and introduced computers. Some teachers began using computers for in-class lessons. Another group thought it would complement the student advising system. The changes led to conversations about what had been happening inside classrooms and whether a new approach was needed.

Eventually, the school decided to switch to mastery-based education. Still, the move was slow. First, the school offered more hands-on group activities. For a seventh-grade math unit on ratios and proportion, for example, the class opened a pretend catering company. Students practiced their math skills as they figured out pricing and discounts for their menus.

The next year, the school transformed its mentoring program. Students set behavioral goals and logged online. They could determine to be on time more often, do their homework more regularly or talk less in science class. Their mentors noted their goals and the progress made. The platform was a hit with students and with teachers, who believed it empowered children to think about their growth in new ways.

In the 2013-14 school year, educators at the school came up with a list of desired academic outcomes. If students could be motivated by an online log to stop talking in class, perhaps a log would motivate them to learn to write an introductory paragraph or add fractions.

Engaged by the project, Jared Sutton, a 27-year-old algebra teacher, helped develop a software program for grading called the Hive. It’s the program that Moheeb uses, via his iPhone or a classroom computer, when he wants to check his progress, which he does multiple times a day.

Parents, however, remained skeptical. While students received end-of-year report cards with their mastery points translated into percentage grades (necessary when applying to high school), many parents were confused by the frequent progress reports detailing dozens of outcomes for each subject. Some simply wanted to know whether their children were passing.

“There can be a real concern that they don’t understand,” said Noreen Mills, principal of M.S. 442. “But once they understand, they get on board.”

On a sunny morning last spring, the new approach was visible in a sixth-grade math class. Signs around the room reinforced the school’s philosophy: “Failing proves that you are trying,” one read; another, “Being wrong is the key to being successful.”

Students in T-shirts and hoodies organized into four groups. At one table, they worked on a conversion problem, trying to determine when a dog owner would need to buy more dog food. The dog owner had 45 pounds of kibbles, and the dog ate 10 ounces a day. The problem tested a math skill they would need to master by the end of sixth grade: “I can convert from one unit of measurement to another.”

“He’s confused,” one boy said of his seatmate, who had circled the correct answer but was puzzled by the procedure. “But at least he got the right answer.”

“I don’t think we should leave it at that,” said Priyanka Katumuluwa, their teacher, who leaned over their desks as she pointed to the problem. Both boys looked up at her, then down again at the page. They were listening intently.

Little boat built by students in Kennebunk completes Atlantic crossing

6/27/17

‘The Little Boat That Could’ washes ashore in Scotland after traveling thousands of miles since January.

“The Little Boat That Could” has lived up to its name.

After 168 days and 12 hours at sea, a small sailboat built by high school students in Kennebunk washed ashore in Scotland after traveling thousands of miles. The boat had sailed across the Atlantic, then up and down the coasts of Portugal, Spain and Ireland before it was discovered Friday by a pair of Canadian tourists exploring a beach on a remote Scottish island.

“It really was a crazy journey,” said Leia Lowery, the director of education for the Kennebunk Conservation Trust who worked with the students who built the boat and documented its journey on Twitter.

The 5-foot boat washed up on Balivanich Airport Beach on the island of Benbecula, where it was found Friday by John and Angelika Dawson of British Columbia as they were walking their dog. The couple notified local police, who called the Scottish coast guard.

At first, no one quite knew what to make of the boat, which is covered with stickers from Maine groups and businesses. The blue and white sail is a bit tattered and the underside of the boat is covered in mussels, but the solar panel, camera and sensors appear to be undamaged. Even the tiny Lego pirate that had been the students’ mascot while they built the boat survived the journey intact.

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“Everyone was really excited to hear it was in pretty good shape,” said Ed Sharood, a teacher who worked with the students to build the boat and who informed them of its discovery via text message and email. Some students who had doubted the boat could make it were a bit surprised, he said.

After determining the boat was not hazardous, the Scottish coast guard moved it to a secure location while officials tried to contact the owner, according to a Facebook post from the HM Coastguard Benbecula. In an update, the HM Coastguard Benbecula said the boat has been handed over to Mari Morrison, a primary school teacher from North Uist. Morrison had previously been involved with the rescue and repair of a similar mini boat that landed in Scotland in 2016.

The boat project is part of an ongoing partnership between the students in the Kennebunk High School Alternative Education program and the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. The trust bought the kit to make the boat from Belfast-based Educational Passages using an $1,800 grant from San Francisco-based RSF Social Finance.

 

Even the Lego pirate on the boat launched by high school students in Kennebunk survived the transatlantic journey to Scotland. Photo courtesy of John and Angelika Dawson

 

Seven students from the high school program teamed up with the trust and The Landing School in Arundel to construct the 5-foot self-steering boat that is powered solely by wind and currents. Inside the boat – named “The Little Boat That Could” by students – is a waterproof pod that includes a chip that should have collected data from the sensors, along with information about the alternative education program, Kennebunkport Conservation Trust and items that tell about life in Maine.

Kristen Cofferen, one of the students working on the project, suggested the boat’s name after a classmate expressed skepticism that it would make it across an ocean.

“We thought it would be a good opportunity to engage ourselves,” Cofferen said in December when the students were finishing up the project.

Students in the alternative education program take classes for the first couple of hours each day, then spend the rest of the school day in the community working on projects and learning about career opportunities. There are seven students in the program, which launched in 2012 to serve kids who weren’t finding success in traditional classrooms.

Students handed the boat over to Educational Passages on Dec. 29 and it was launched near Georges Bank on Jan. 2 by a fishing vessel from the Portland Fish Exchange.

The students and their teacher tracked the boat on the Educational Passages website, following its progress as it initially made a beeline for Spain before veering south toward Morocco. It came within 100 miles of Portugal, then headed back out to sea.

“We laughed and said we’re the only ones who would send out a boat that would boomerang right back home,” Lowery said.

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The Maine students had hoped their boat would make it to across the Atlantic and that they’d be able to connect with students in another country via Skype. Now that Sharood and Jacqui Holmes, the other teacher working with the students, are in touch with the Scottish teacher, they’re planning to make that happen.

Sharood said Morrison’s students have been studying the ocean. During an assembly celebrating the last day of school Friday, Morrison plans to bring out “The Little Boat That Could” to show students. Sharood and Holmes plan to coordinate with Morrison to start a conversation between students in Maine and Scotland.

Sharood thinks his students will have lots of questions about Scottish culture and life on Benbecula, an island off the west coast of Scotland with about 1,300 people. He said they’ll work with the Scottish teacher and students to retrieve the data and make repairs so “The Little Boat That Could” can be relaunched. Sharood and Lowery also are dreaming of finding a way to get the Kennebunk students to Scotland for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to learn about the island where their boat made landfall.

“So many of (our students) thought the boat wasn’t going anywhere. They ironically named it ‘The Little Boat That Could,’” Lowery said. “I wish we could get these kids over there to teach those kids how to fix the boat and relaunch it.”

More information about the path the boat traveled is available on the Educational Passages website.

To Encourage Creativity in Kids, Ask Them: ‘What if’?

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Matt Richtel teaches children the “what if” exercise he used to write his book “Runaway Booger.”CreditHarperCollins Publishers; illustration by Lee Wildish

I was in a second-grade classroom recently reading from my new children’s book, “Runaway Booger.” After I finished, and the giggling subsided, several students asked a version of the same question: Why did you write about a humongous ball of mucus?

It was the question I’d hoped for.

I was using the reading session, at the teacher’s request, to get the children to think about creativity. Where does creativity come from? Are there tricks they can use to be more creative, or, for that matter, that parents and educators can instill?

It’s a subject I think about a lot, as a writer of newspaper articles, mysteries and nonfiction books, a syndicated comic strip and music. (It is sad but true: To accompany the booger book, I wrote a rock anthem called “Don’t Pick Your Nose.”) Scholars who study creativity say that stoking it involves helping children strike a balance between two dichotomous tools: the whimsy and freedom of a wandering mind, with the rigidity of a prepared one.

We need to help them be both “sensitive and assertive,” in the words of John Dacey, professor emeritus of education at Boston College. “Sensitivity means being open to new ideas, and very laid back,” he explained. Assertiveness doesn’t just mean being bold enough to express the idea but having enough experience and judgment to feel true authority about its value.

It means understanding a genre’s structure and form. That can take hard work, and years, but to Dr. Dacey, merely having a good idea doesn’t qualify as genuine creativity until it is matched with execution and follow-through.

“People think creativity is inspiration,” Dr. Dacey said, “but it’s mainly perspiration.”

To help the second graders inspire and perspire, I pulled out a red marker, and on a whiteboard I wrote two words: What if.

I explained to them that these two words are a kind of secret tunnel into the world of new ideas. In fact, I told them, I only came up with the booger story after asking myself: What if a family picked their noses so much that they create a monstrous booger? And what if the snot rocket rolled out the window and gained so much steam it threatened to roll over the town? And what if the whole story rhymed?

“Your turn,” I said to the class. “Who wants to give me their own version of ‘what if?’”

Before I relate some “what if” responses I’ve gotten from various classes, I’ll note that Dr. Dacey thinks the “what if” exercise is a great way to encourage a laid-back, nonjudgmental approach to open-ended thinking. Plus, this exercise helps children generate lots of potential ideas, and research shows that truly creative people tend to be idea factories. (Lest I take too much credit — or any — I recall coming across a related idea in a book about fiction writing called no less than What If?”.)

A few days after I visited second grade, I tried the “what if” exercise with a kindergarten class.

“What if you sat on a toilet and it took you to Egypt?” said a curly-haired boy sitting in the middle of the rug. Giggles ensued until I said, “Fantastic! Who can use ‘what if’ to say what happened next in the toilet story?”

“And then you sat on the toilet and it flushed you to outer space?” said another boy.

More hands shot up from eager contributors. I called on a girl sitting near the back of the rug.

“And what if you took a giraffe elevator from outer space, and it brought you back?” she offered.

This, it dawned on me, was a significant moment (even though I’m not sure what a giraffe elevator is). The importance of the suggestion was that it hinted at the other key aspect of creativity, namely, having experience and judgment to turn an idea into a creation.

What the girl was suggesting was that she wanted to create some resolution — to get the toilet-traveler back home. In some sense, she was rounding the idea into a story, a structure. Was she lucky, or brilliant, preternatural? Most likely, according to the scholars I spoke to, she had picked up the logic of life and form by being in the world and interacting with books, movies and other story forms. In fact, some scholars think that merely being engaged with the world is enough to learn structure, and that formal training is overrated. But not all agree with this.

KH Kim, a professor of innovation and creativity at the College of William & Mary and the author of “The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation,” for instance, believes that people can be truly creative only after they’ve had 10 years of real experience studying and playing with a given genre, say music, books or art. Along the way, though, she says students should practice creative flights so they can develop inspiration and perspiration in lock-step.

Ultimately, Dr. Dacey offered a nifty measure for how to know whether we’ve helped our child come up with something truly creative. When we see or hear or read the end product of true creativity, he said, we will experience four emotions: surprise, stimulation, satisfaction and savoring.

To my chagrin, there was not a word in his definition about being grossed out by the prospect of a massive town-threatening mucus balloon. Well, that’s O.K. I’ve got more weird ideas where that came from. Hopefully, your children will, too.

Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?

A few years ago, I was working with a group of student teachers. One of them—we’ll call him Eric—was teaching seventh-grade social studies. His class was studying ancient Greece. The standards for grade 7 required teachers to address concepts like the government, economics, and culture of this era. For his 5-day unit, Eric was going to focus on the “culture” part.

On the first day of the unit, which Eric developed with his cooperating teacher, students would read the chapter of their textbook that swept through three centuries’ worth of ancient Greek culture in about five pages. Then they’d write answers to a set of end-of-chapter questions. On days 2 through 4, students would create their own Grecian urns by wrapping balloons with papier-mâché. Once the urns were dry, students would paint them in a similar style to that of the Greeks, incorporating something personally meaningful as the main artistic feature. Finally, they would present their urns to the class. On day 5, they would be given a quiz asking them to match 10 vocabulary terms, such as comedy, tragedy, urn, and Olympics, to their definitions.

Feeling more than a bit skeptical, I asked Eric to show me the standards his unit was aligned with. He rustled through some paperwork, then pointed to this language from the state standards: Students will demonstrate an understanding of the complexity of culture by exploring cultural elements (e.g., beliefs, customs/traditions, languages, skills, literature, the arts) of diverse groups and explaining how culture served to define groups in world civilizations prior to 1500 A.D. and resulted in unique perspectives.

I read this out loud to Eric, then asked him to show me exactly how his plans taught or measured the standard.

For a long moment, he said nothing.

Finally, he shrugged and told me the unit was basically what his cooperating teacher had “always done for ancient Greece.” She’d told him the urn project was really fun, and that the kids loved it. The only problem was, it had nothing to do with the standards. Draping wet, gluey newspaper around a balloon has nothing to do with deepening one’s understanding of societies and cultures.

All Hands-On Tasks Are Not Created Equal

I wish Eric’s story was just a rare example, but in my work with student teachers, as a classroom teacher myself, in my many years as a student, and now as a parent, I’ve seen far too many “Grecian Urns”: projects that look creative, that the teacher might describe as hands-on learning, interdisciplinary teaching, project-based instruction, or the integration of arts or tech, but that nonetheless lack any substantial learning for students. What’s worse, because these activities are often time-consuming, they take away from other tasks that would give students the chance to wrestle with more challenging stuff.

In their groundbreaking book Understanding by Design, Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins describe this problem as the Sin of Activity-Oriented Design. Instead of focusing on the desired learning outcomes, this approach merely seeks out tasks that might be fun, or at least keep kids busy: “The activities, though fun and engaging, do not lead anywhere intellectually. (They) lack an explicit focus on important ideas and appropriate evidence of learning.”

To illustrate this, Wiggins and McTighe describe a 3rd grade unit on apples. In this two-week unit, students read about Johnny Appleseed, paint pictures of apples, do math problems that involve apples, write apple-themed stories, make applesauce, and take a trip to a local orchard. Students probably enjoyed all of these activities, and it’s likely that both teachers and students were charmed by how cleverly the theme was woven into so many different content areas. Throughout the unit, students probably seemed engaged, the classroom was full of colors and productivity and maybe even collaboration, but what valuable learning actually took place?

Let’s move our lens to the higher grades. Here, the Grecian Urns might involve no crafts at all, but still force students to ride along curricular tangents that, rather than inspire and ignite a passion for learning, lead to dead ends.

Take the math and social studies teachers who decide to co-teach a two-week unit on famous mathematicians. Math and history, right? Students spend most of the first week on computers, researching the mathematicians’ birthplaces, families, deaths, and contributions to the field (which most students simply copy, because the actual mathematical concepts are over their heads…how many eighth graders do you know who can explain the Fibonacci sequence?). They spend another three class periods creating PowerPoints or Prezis full of facts about these obscure pioneers in math, complete with neat-o animations and stomach-turning transitions, and another three days presenting these to the class…

For what?

None of the kids got any better at math, nor did their thirst for history grow. But to someone walking by, maybe even to an administrator doing a formal observation, this unit would look kind of amazing. Students doing online research! Cooperative learning! Technology! Interdisciplinary study!

No!

These teachers misunderstood and misapplied the concepts of interdisciplinary study, hands-on learning, and tech integration, and two weeks of precious instructional time were wasted because of it.

How to Spot a Grecian Urn

It could be argued that all lessons have some educational value, that any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning. With that in mind, think of “Grecian Urn” as more of a relative term than an absolute one: Few lessons will be pure Grecian Urns; almost any lesson will probably have some arguable educational value. Far more lessons will simply contain elements that are Grecian Urn-ish; we can make these lessons better if we try to minimize those elements.

The best way to identify a Grecian Urn is to look at a task and ask this question: Does it consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact? If students spend more time on work that will not move them forward in the skill you think you are teaching, then it may be a Grecian Urn. And it may need to go.

Here are some more specific ways to spot the Grecian Urns in your teaching, and what you could do to replace them:

1. Excessive Coloring or Crafting

If your lesson requires more time coloring, cutting, or pasting than meaningful work with the content you’re trying to teach, it might be a Grecian Urn. If you are a primary teacher and students need to develop their fine motor skills, then these activities have a clear place in your classroom. Everyone else should use these tasks more sparingly.

This doesn’t mean you should never ask students to color, cut, paste, sing, act, or draw, but every time you do, ask yourself if that work is contributing to learning. If not, there may be a way to cut down the time it takes. Suppose you want students to draw illustrations of vocabulary words. Adding visuals can work wonders to boost memory, so this is an instructionally sound decision. But is it necessary for these illustrations to be colored? On posterboard? Or hanging from a mobile? Would a simple line drawing beside each word on a regular sheet of paper serve the same purpose?

Now if your goal is true integration of the arts into your curriculum, I have two articles to recommend to you. Both of these really dig into what it looks like when teachers use art to really enhance students’ learning: read this post on arts integration from MindShift and this one from Edutopia to learn more about what this looks like.

2. Excessive “Neat-O” Tech

This is the tech equivalent of item #1: If students are spending lots and lots of time searching for images, making digital drawings, adding animations or effects to slideshows, adding sound effects or special titles to podcasts and videos, you are probably heading into Grecian Urn territory.

The key phrase here is lots and lots of time: Our students will absolutely benefit from learning how to combine text with images, manipulate presentations to make them more interesting, and make use of all the digital tools at their disposal. But when a student burns two hours listening to sound clips so he can make a photo of Langston Hughes zoom onto his PowerPoint slide to the sound of screeching brakes, well, he’s probably not doing much thinking about the Harlem Renaissance.

So when you’re assigning work that requires the creative use of tech, be mindful of how much time students are putting into the bells and whistles. Look at your rubric and make sure you haven’t required too many of these bells and whistles to begin with. And if possible, see if they can make the bells and whistles relevant: If students want sound in their slideshow about the Harlem Renaissance, have them add a Duke Ellington song, music that’s actually from that era, rather than a funny sound effect.

3. Low-Level Thinking

Most of the thinking in a Grecian Urn task is on the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. In other words, the task appears to be creative, but the primary academic work is rearranging and regurgitating basic facts or definitions.

Let’s look at two possible assignments for students to demonstrate their understanding of the Food Pyramid. In one class, the teacher has students re-create the pyramid as a hanging mobile. They write all the parts of the pyramid on pieces of colored paper and hang those papers onto a hanger or something. They might also be asked to draw or cut out magazine pictures of foods that represent items within each part of the pyramid. All of this work is at the Remember and Understand level of Bloom’s. Students are more or less defining stuff, and yet the task still takes an awfully long time to complete. Grecian Urn.

But what’s the point of teaching the Food Pyramid? Don’t we want students to learn it so they can make healthy eating choices? Here’s a different assignment: Have students write up a 3-day eating plan that applies the principles of the Pyramid. Sure, they can draw a border around it if they like. This will take five minutes. They can choose a cool font for the headings; that’s 10 minutes. But shouldn’t the real time-consuming work be put into deeply wrestling with the content itself?

4. Big Points for “Creativity”

An assignment might be a Grecian Urn if a significant part of the grade is based on “creativity” or “attractiveness.” And by the way, I’m a big design snob. I think presentation is important. But if more than 10 percent of a grade is based on these things—and I even think 10 percent is pushing it—we’re not measuring the learningthat’s supposed to be taking place.

The fix for this couldn’t be easier. Cut way back on the points you assign for creativity or attractiveness. And if you find that the projects you get don’t excite you because they are not colorful or pretty, it’s time to start planning projects that will excite you with their content.

5. Word Search

If the task is a word search, there’s a very strong chance it is a Grecian Urn. Some argument could probably be made for how word searches reinforce letter recognition in the very early grades. Fine. But if some form of letter recognition, decoding skill, or language development is not the curricular intent of your word search, then your word search is probably a Grecian Urn. If you are a teacher who doesn’t have time to do things like project-based learning or Genius Hour, but you have time to make word searches and have students spend time doing them? Drop the word searches and you just bought yourself and your students at least 30 extra minutes per week.

What Then?

So you have identified a couple of Grecian Urns in your lessons. What do you do about them?

One option is to cut them out. Just move those lessons out of your plan book and replace them with activities that will actually result in learning. Look again at your goals: What do you want students to know or be able to do by the time they’re done? And what tasks will help them get there?

The other option is to revise them. Let’s go back to Eric and his urns. Maybe instead of using up three class days on all that wet newspaper business, he could have students draw their urns on paper. He could build the historical relevance by providing students with images of typical Greek urns, have them choose one, then draw their own urn with images that parallel those in the original, but with a modern twist. So if the urn they choose depicts a battle, they might draw something on their own that represents a significant war or other “battle” that has occurred in the last century. Students could then add captions to their drawings, pointing out these details and the thinking behind them.

If you really like your Grecian Urn activity, you don’t have to completely drop it. But if you can tweak it to make it take less time and build in more curricular relevance, you’ve made it a lot less “urn-y” and, in turn, given it a more rightful place in your classroom.

The Fun and Sanity Loopholes

Having said all this, I think it’s important to note that not all classroom activities have to have a clearly defined, rigorous academic purpose. There will be times when a task that would be called a Grecian Urn in one context serves a completely different purpose in another.

The Fun Loophole
Building relationships with students, creating a family-like atmosphere, and making the classroom a place students love to come has incredible value. If I didn’t believe this, I never would have written something called When a Principal Whips and Nae-Naes. Some things should just be done for fun. If students absolutely love playing with the drawing app on their iPads, make that an option for free time. If students want to create a collage as a thank-you gift for a departing student, by all means let them.

The Sanity Loophole
At other times, you just need your students to be still and quiet. Maybe you’re coming down with a stomach bug or you just got bad news over the phone. Maybe the morning assembly left you with only 6 minutes of class time and you know you’re not going to get anything done. Maybe they have driven you to the absolute brink and you’re about to start throwing things. The best teachers in the world have days when they just can’t be on. At those times, good old-fashioned busywork is like manna from heaven. That’s when you have them color. That’s when you pull out the word searches.

When used for fun or sanity, these tasks are no longer Grecian Urns; they’re more like classroom management strategies. The important thing is to know the difference.

 

That’s what I tried to teach Eric as we revised his unit. We had him use some graphic organizer activities, where students did side-by-side comparisons of ancient Greek and modern-day cultural elements. Students then completed a lengthy questionnaire, where they took on the identity of a person in Ancient Greece. Each student chose a social rank, age, and gender, and wrote about what their life was like. Some questions asked them to describe their feelings about other people in their community and about social issues. They had to draw a few sketches of some of the artifacts in their daily life and describe why these artifacts were important to them. Once all students completed these questionnaires, they worked together to arrange them on a wall in a way that represented their social hierarchy.

The activity took three days. Students collaborated, used technology to research their person’s life, and even used a bit of color for their sketches. In the end, they understood a lot more about ancient Greek culture and about how culture influences who we are.

And they did it all without a single strip of gluey newspaper. ♦

What the Heck Is Restorative Justice?

With the right training and support, restorative justice can prove more effective than traditional discipline measures in building a stronger school community.

I’m going to simplify the new school management term du jour (that’s actually been around for awhile): restorative justice. Google the term and you’ll see restorative justice is defined as “a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.” It may sound like a term used in a prison. (It is, actually.)

But let’s state it in the way it is being used in our schools. In sum, restorative justice helps a student to own what she/he did, make it right for those hurt or affected, and involve the community in helping both the victim and the offender. Restorative justice acknowledges that those who do wrong need healing as well.

The myth is that restorative justice replaces harsher consequences. The truth is that restorative justice represents the steps that lead up to more harsh consequences, should they be necessary.

The Process of Restorative Justice

Sometimes in educational discipline we whip out the cannons of suspension first. But with the right training and support from all stakeholders, restorative justice can prove much more effective in building a stronger school community. And, let’s face it, the challenge of making amends is a task that, for many kids, is far harder than just staying home for three days.

According to Howard Zehr, a recognized founding father of restorative justice, the concept is based on three pillars:

  1. Harms and needs
  2. Obligation (to put right)
  3. Engagement (of stakeholders)

In other words:

1. Empathy for all and by all. There must be awareness that while harm was done to a victim — and possibly a larger community — there may also have been past harm done to the accused as well, and that harm may be a factor in his or her behavior.

2. A mumbled “sorry” is not enough. There must be a process, a moderated one, which helps the accused somehow right the wrong that was committed.

3. Everyone is involved in the healing. There must include a dialogue with all parties — victim, offender, and even community — in order to genuinely move on and have an impact.

How About the Term Restorative Justice?

While I think the strategy of restorative justice is one that many schools should be using, I think the term isn’t great. I don’t have anything against the individual words per se. After all, the words restorative and justice sound lovely by themselves. When I hear the word restorative, I think about building back one’s strength after a sickness. I think about honoring one’s dignity and helping to rebuild what was taken away. When I think about justice, I think about fairness, equitable opportunities, and using the strength of a system to stand up for what is right.

But somehow, when you put the two words together, they take on a different sound that does a disservice to the term’s intention. Why use such a loaded term? I think — and I’m just musing here — that it has to do with critics of “softer” discipline. I believe restorative justice is a term meant to instill toughness, while really meaning empathy and using more compassionate steps before utilizing more stringent ones.

But, the fact is, restorative justice is a vital component in any larger discipline plan. Schools must have strategies whereby they help students work out their differences and their arguments. Schools must play a part in helping students understand why they do things and how to think beyond their emotional impulses.

Restorative Justice Supports Student Brain Development

And this isn’t just fluffy thinking here. We’re talking about brain development and acknowledging that when we ask students to make good decisions, their brains might not yet be wired to do what we are asking of them. That doesn’t mean we don’t have rules or expectations. It doesn’t mean we don’t give consequences for not functioning within those rules. But it does mean that we must acknowledge that, as the book by the National Institute of Mental Health says, children’s brains are “still under construction.”

We know, for instance, that the part of the brain that houses impulse control is one of the last parts of the brain to become fully formed. And it doesn’t really finish its neural-evolution until the early 20s. We also know that poverty, hormones, andpoor nutrition and hunger can play a role in one’s brain development.

Heck, even a fight with your best friend can influence a decision that can put a kid on the naughty list. So for all of those reasons, we can’t assume “criminal” intentions of our students without providing the steps to help see them through the gloom that can simply be defined as childhood and adolescence.

Some, like me, may consider the term restorative justice a little harsh, but the goal of utilizing restorative justice before harsher methods of discipline is, for lack of a better word, just.

Ideas For Teaching With Cardboard in Makerspaces

Cardboard Creators: Reusing to Learn

October 25, 2016
Switching from high school science to middle and high school gifted students has reawakened that sometimes uncomfortable sense of discovery of new teaching, where so much seems imperfect … I’m working with the mantra of imperfection.

That’s a good mantra for my students as well. Some students have never swung a hammer, threaded a needle, or made a model that was not outlined on card stock. Common day experiences have been digitized in our world, and access to extra materials is extremely limited for others. My solution: create a makerspace in my classroom and offer design challenges students can do with little more than string, glue, and cardboard. Cardboard, my makerspace material of choice, is available in every home in America.

From mac and cheese boxes to a shoebox, cardboard is a material that puts students on a level playing field. It’s free. Students can cut thin stuff with scissors or score corrugated material with a pair of safety scissors, and tape is cheap enough that I can send a partial roll home with a student who needs it. Kids in families who cannot afford clay or craft kits or have little money for additional classroom supplies can still imagine something using materials that belong to them. That equals the playing field among students who ‘have not’ with students who ‘have’ adequate resources.

Sure, many educators say, but this is learning time. How can cardboard be transformed into learning strategies benefiting students across disciplines? Here are four sample cardboard projects to get started.

1. Three-dimensional thinking by building artifacts. While it may seem unusual to us as educators, take the time to ask students how many have been in a barn, gone to a zoo, camped in a tent, or taken care of an animal. So many readings describe experiences for which students have no background knowledge. For example, Finding Winnie, the winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal, is filled with unfamiliar venues. It took the illustrator, Sophie Blackall, over a year of research to visit all the places referenced in the book. My youngest middle school students are trying to build a single item model for just one scene in the book, ranging from an ocean liner to a tree to an antique car.

2. Imagining a Character. Middle school students love the idea of cosplay. Designing cardboard armor to imagine a warrior or superhero in a story is a simple way to use materials to portray their vision. The prompt can be as simple as, “Design a character to defend the castle.” It’s powerful to have the ability to create even an imperfect vision, instead of a project executed primarily by an overly helpful parent. Student processes are best remembered when the mistake or chance for failure becomes the driver for the learning.

3. Design thinking prototypes. The goal of design thinking is to solve a problem using a process of listening and developing empathy. Students struggle with this because they often design for themselves, rather than for a specific audience. After reading spooky stories that tie into both the Halloween season and the idea of justice, my students still struggled with the idea of putting themselves in another person’s shoes. How America is dealing with the idea of ‘liberty and justice for all’ is an example of a difficult idea. We used design thinking as the introduction to a conversation on empathy. Before the extended conversations at the end of the unit, I wanted to know if students could listen carefully. For one assignment, I asked them to set up a display prototype that combined scary elements from the stories and a building to contain a prisoner. While the artist of the classroom created a skeleton playing a trumpet by using scissors, this student didn’t follow directions, and his client (the teacher) was unsatisfied with the result. In contrast, the winner of the challenge created two ghosts out of cardboard shoulder pads and a turret out of thin cardboard, creating a powerful classroom lesson about utility versus perfection as well as listening.

4. Modeling. How does osmosis take place? What caused the creation of the universe? These are powerful questions, deep questions, and ones for which a teacher might not have the answer; however, they are just the type of questions my gifted students might ask. I pair students with an outside mentor via Skype or Google Hangouts by using the power of social media to find willing experts. To help students process difficult ideas, the Next Generation Science Standards recommend models as tools. Students often don’t think about making their own models unless teachers expose them to the idea as a strategy. Cardboard models are one way to go deeper in visible thinking and to augment visual notetaking. As described in Harvard’s Project Zero, initiatives like Agency by Design requires students to look closely at what they are doing to help discover complex ideas. When the students push back, I remind them of James Watson and Francis Crick, and how the cardboard models they created led to an understanding of DNA.

Tips on Creating a Cardboard Makerspace

  • Collect one or two plastic tubs of materials for your classroom.
    • In the first tub, start saving oddly-formed shapes of cardboard packaging from the IT department, or even toilet paper rolls. Corrugated cardboard is especially hard for younger students to cut. Resist the temptation to put full boxes in the box, or students will simply use them without modification (something I learned in this challenge).
    • In the second tub, place tape, string, and remnants of duct tape. I simply placed a box at my local church and asked for donations of half-used tape, white glue, and crochet thread.
  • Find donated materials. Reach out to close friends on Facebook, or check with a hardware store or custodian for unwanted materials.
  • Get a grant or donation from a big box store, or organize a campaign onDonorsChoose.
  • Build rubrics so students have a framework of expectations, but be willing to revise them as needed. The first creations may not be as rich as you expect, but this provides opportunities for further learning.

Building creations and making cardboard artists will also build memories in the journey of learning. Along the way, new skills and collaboration will help us become better learners.