The Child & The Curriculum – Everything Old is New Again, Again

“Extreme depreciations of the child morally and intellectually, and sentimental idealizations of him, have their root in a common fallacy. Both spring from taking stages of a growth or movement as something cut off and fixed. The first fails to see the promise contained in feelings and deeds which, taken by themselves, are uncompromising and repellent; the second fails to see that even the most pleasing and beautiful exhibitions are but signs, and that they begin to spoil and rot the moment they are treated as achievements. What we need is something which will enable us to interpret, to appraise, the elements in the child’s present puttings forth and fallings away, his exhibitions of power and weakness, in the light of some larger growth-process in which they have their place. Only in this way can we discriminate.” John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum, p 13-14

So in my latest reminder that nothing is new, reading John Dewey’s 1902 The Child and the Curriculum exposed that Dewey defined fixed and growth mindsets in educators more than a century before these concepts exploded into TED talks and Twitter. Dewey begins the text by examining the “old education,” which views children as unformed adults in need of improvement, and the “new education,” which views children as complete beings capable of revealing the world to themselves through open, unstructured inquiry. This, distressingly, sounds familiar, as well.

As Dweck’s growth mindset gets battered about in the social sciences research wars, I’ve been considering what makes growth vs. fixed/entity mindset so powerful for me as an educator. As a social constructivist, I am sure that we learn from one another, and that the deeply implicit belief that others around me are learning and can learn, even if it’s not what I wish them to be learning, creates the conditions for growth. By believing in growth as a process, adults can “get rid of the prejudicial notion that there is some gap in kind (as distinct from degree) between the child’s experience and the various forms of subject-matter that make up the course of study” (Dewey 11).

Degree presents a key concept for the educator in this regard. In the top quote, Dewey emphasizes discrimination of the child’s progress toward an end, a place on a continuum between novice and expert, not-knowing and knowing, a near infinite series of degrees of capacity. Discrimination places an onus on the educator to at once know what mastery of a given subject looks like and to know the child’s mind. Understanding mastery allows the teacher “to know in what direction the present experience is moving, provided it move normally and soundly… defining a present direction of movement” (Dewey 13). Again, Dewey anticipates Understanding by Design and contemporary curriculum methodology, probably because those authors, brilliant as they are, read Dewey closely.

In this light, Dewey defines teaching as “continuous reconstruction” between the present state of the child and expertise in a subject area (11). The curriculum sets a frame for defining mastery, especially when teachers are asked to serve as a “More Knowledgeable Other” across multiple disciplines daily. Believing in growth as a natural process and the experience of the child as “fluid” exposes for Dewey that “the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process” (11).

The process, of course, is growth. The adult guides the growth; however, Dewey, in characteristic prose, points out that “Guidance is not external imposition. It is freeing the life-process for its own most adequate fulfilment” (17). Dewey defines three levels of a child’s fluid experiences as they dabble in and explore their world: “waning tendencies, ” “prophetic” experiences that suggest future courses of growth, and “signs of a culminating power and interest” which “selected, utilized, emphasized, they may mark a turning-point for good in the child’s whole career; neglected, an opportunity goes, never to be recalled” (14). That’s a great parsing of the teachable moment.

Dewey cautions the educator not to overvalue or celebrate the waning tendency, lest a child become stuck, or to ignore the prophetic in favor of conforming to a different task, lest a child start a million short journeys, always tasting and never eating. Character education, all the rage, suffers from periodicity in this manner – not so much a framework for addressing teachable moments on character in light of a school’s stated values, but more often a means for either judging developmentally appropriate behaviors too harshly as they might wane, thereby fixing them, or dabbling in brief lessons, apropos of nothing, and suggesting that the entire concept of character is mutable and lame.

Clearly, within subject area study, skill and knowledge outcomes, core concepts, and areas for examination must be deeply understood by teachers to allow them to react. Dewey writes that “What new experiences are desirable, and thus what stimuli are needed, it is impossible to tell except as there is some comprehension of the development which is aimed at” (19). Reflective, engaged practices connect the teachable moments to a chain of inquiry leading to more and more growth for the child.

The same is true for adults honing their craft. Without a vision for and models of exceptional teaching practice, how can anyone be expected to improve? Some will reach out in the absence of vision or models, particularly with socially networked PLCs or in professional coursework, but left to our own devices or applauded for minor victories, “nothing can be developed from nothing,” Dewey warns us (18). We need a framework.

So here’s my thing: so many of the outcomes of a modern curriculum point to externally examined courses as culminating events – those minor achievements that Dewey warns about in the top quote – or “college & career readiness,” which smacks of dispositional or personality tracking. Often, well-meaning educators fall into prediction and judgement based on some narrow evidence of performance from a subject area in a given time frame. As Dewey writes:

“The child’s present experience is in no way self-explanatory. It is not final, but transitional. It is nothing complete in itself, but just a sign or index of certain growth tendencies. As long as we confine our gaze to what the child here and now puts forth, we are confused and misled. We cannot read its meaning.” (13)

A growth mindset requires that we hold one another, adults and children alike, as works-in-progress in our learning communities, which demands a tremendous amount of grace on the parts of us all. Ours is not to narrow a child’s experience or to communicate limiting judgments to the child, locking her into what Jo Boaler terms “psychological imprisonment.

Growth mindset at once asks the educator to believe in growth, to recognize degrees, and to remain fluid oneself, not fixating on a single moment in the child’s development as a way to understand, once and for all, who the child is, now and forever. A living curriculum creates a framework for learning in which the teacher can make meaning of performances and behavior to suggest and guide future growth toward ever more useful, powerful knowledge and expertise. In this sense, a curriculum provides an epistemological framework for teachers to build a knowledge of learning founded on growth.

Rethinking Passion Projects, Genius Hour

At some grade levels in our school, students are offered time to pursue passion projects in “genius hour” flexible time, often quite generous chunks of time over a number of weeks. Often, this time is presented as preparing kids for self-guided inquiry or the like. Several years ago, at ASB Unplugged, students gave inspiring TED-ish talks about the fruits of genius hour labor in a high school math class, including a smart trash can that separated recyclables from garbage, as I remember. The creativity and service embodied by such projects were awe-inspiring.

By the same token, I once heard a description from a parent of her student’s passion project focused on perfecting the bacon weave. When I delivered the graduation address for my cohort at Western New Mexico University’s Gallup Graduate Studies Center, I spoke eloquently (gorgeously, even?) about my drive to perfect an omelette, so far be it for me to critique this student’s passion. My speech about making an omelette made the point that it doesn’t really matter what we learn to do (within reason), but that we keep learning. In this vein, weave your bacon.

In another vein, school provides a time and place for more focused learning, and decisions are made, ideally by children and adults, about what to learn, when, and for how long. Passion projects implicitly teach that following our passions is a highest purpose, but that feels pretty wrong, fairly narcissistic. Maybe, we should teach something else instead. In fact, one needn’t search long before finding quite strong evidence that perceived success and well-being arises from a sense of being needed and useful to others. Indeed, the folks at 80,000 Hours suggest “you can develop passion by doing work that you find enjoyable and meaningful. The key is to get good at something that helps other people.”

That’s been my impulse for decades, and it’s nice to see it spelled out so succinctly. My confirmation bias is assuaged.

What, then, might a genius hour look like with young kids who, for the most part, have yet to develop professional-level competency in any areas from which others might benefit? How about a “Strengths for Service” hour? Kids could consider what they do well, thinking liberally and creatively about their strengths. Next, a crash course in design thinking like this one from Stanford University’s d.school could equip students with tools they can use to learn something real about people, places, or situations.

If kids used their Strengths for Service time to engage intentionally with their world, they may well find passions beyond football or creative meats that could begin making a difference today. The minor tweak to genius hour here is an outward focus, seeking to do well for others in a way the others need or want. Serving the needs or desires of others is as much altruism as entrepreneurialism, so this seems like a way to develop skills for life.

On Innovation vs. Regeneration

Innovation – we want some. Let’s do the new stuff, re-envisioning the old to make something better! I saw a graphical version of this blog post recently, an argument centered on torquing Dweck’s “growth” vs. “fixed” or (my preference) “entity” mindset concepts past their core purpose in order to “go beyond” to an innovator’s mindset. This argument means well, but sort of misses Dweck (imo) and focuses on an implicit value in new! shiny! that has some flaws.

From Juicero’s failed $400 juicer (expensive juice packets not included) to this little gem that popped up this week in my feed – Teamosa (#innovationnamingconventions) – a $399 tea kettle (early bird just $239!!!) that uses “ultrasonic extraction” to amp up antioxidant… oh, never mind, you get it: Innovation is often underwhelming and focused on selling us something we already have at a new, improved, higher price.

Recently, I worked with a colleague to refine an existing rubric for an essay to include specifics about the modes of exposition and rhetorical strategies that students would be expected to use. I realized that this process of reworking the rubric, refining for specificity and clarity of outcomes, was an inquiry for the teacher himself. We were digging into what good looks like on this sort of essay in response to a specific unit of inquiry into text and personal beliefs. We discussed lining up exemplars, as well, to really nail down the rubric and expose the expectations for the assessment.

None of this was new, really. But it was better. Better for student learning, better for teacher learning, so therefore better for instruction, better for assessment. By engaging in a process of regeneration, we built together on the good that existed in this rubric and this unit of study, standing on the shoulder of giants like Grant Wiggins in the process. I don’t think this is innovation, because we’ve got nothing to sell to anyone at the end of the process, and we aren’t done at the end of the process. We reflect, refine, and start again at the beginning of the process, which is a lousy product and a precious learning experience.

Regeneration guides authentic teacher learning by doing and, ideally, inquiry into learning evidence. Just as schools teach content – so out of fashion – like texts or mitosis or Reconstruction, schools teach teachers how to best guide learning through working on the work, regenerating and refining what is already good to be better. Just as students can’t think deeply without rich, relevant facts and content to dig into, neither can teachers build ever more effective skills, practices, strategies, approaches, skills, or theories on what’s best in all of the above without something real to work on and improve.

Innovation can look like anything, really, and can certainly be good, at least for a while. One of my mentors, the inimitable Julie Horowitz, told me once that kids are not experiments, which is right. We needn’t be stuck repeating the follies of old to play it safe, though, but should lean on expert teachers and well-founded evidence of what works. Teachers, like students, need the “more knowledgeable other” of Vygostky to guide their continued growth as practitioners across the multiple axes of good teaching. Happily, that can be anyone with expertise and care enough to share – that degree of “more” knowledge or skill in a given area.

Regeneration honors what is good and old – Dewey, dialogue, Duvel – by re-conceptualizing, reinvigorating what works in order to know and be able to do it. Students coming to a deep conceptual understanding of how and why the quadratic equation works aren’t inventing anything, but are at once learning real content and becoming experts in the process of gaining expertise itself – the learning process. Teachers inquiring into their work and refining it to become demonstrably more useful for students in the process of learning themselves are learning by regenerating.

 

Classroom Routines – For Whom?

In the early days of a new school year, I’ve found myself reflecting on and talking a lot about classroom routines for all sorts of management and learning needs. Optimism abounds – setting routines at the beginning of the school year is an investment of time that can turbo charge learning experiences later in the year.

But how? Routines for thinking, like the simple (yet profound!) examples shared by Project Zero, can build the toolbox of thinking strategies students employ during different stages of learning. “Connect-Extend-Challenge” is one I recently shared with a colleague during unit planning. He asked how often kids should use this routine, and we spoke about perhaps leaning on this initially as early research happened and as kids inquired into a variety of journalistic articles on a given topic, then offering an alternative or two, and perhaps a “free choice” of routine to use as a way of engaging with and beginning to process a complex text or set of ideas. Repetition with coaching-style formative feedback lets kids gain expertise and confidence in thinking routines, but they shouldn’t become the one hammer we use every time we encounter a nail (or a Jello mold for that matter, but that’s for another post, perhaps).

Structures for discussion, like Text Rendering, for example, can also become routines that keep the action of learning student centered, which are one domain of classroom routines.

Another domain of classroom routines are those that belong to the teacher. These teacher-focused or driven routines can’t really be handed over to kids, but rather serve a need of the teacher. An example from our Upper School right now is that classrooms school-wide have instituted a routine of storing student cell phones in a pocket organizer at the beginning of every class. This routine serves a legitimate classroom management issue, but isn’t likely to become a routine students engage in independently. Bell-ringers or other warm-up routines to begin class might fall into the teacher-driven domain of routines, but with an aim pointed at student learning and classroom management, to ease the transition between classes and to begin focusing students on learning in this classroom context for the given time period.

What I’m realizing is that student-centered routines that serve as transferable learning strategies should take priority in the early days of the middle and high school year because they are an investment in time, intensity, and engagement for students. Such routines also place the teacher’s planning focus on what kids are doing during classroom time, how kids might manage themselves and their learning between the bells. Teacher-centered routines are perfectly appropriate, and planning these thoughtfully gets us out of the realm of habitual practice, which is always good.

So who are your classroom routines for? Is the balance of the scales tipping in the student or teacher-centered direction? Will a second wave, third wave, fourth wave of routines build upon these routines, instilling learning strategies in students as they become ever more independent learners? Or, do routines get locked in during the first weeks, or, alternatively, set, and then progressively ignored as other concerns take priority? Is it time to mix it up? If so, follow a link above, choose one that might fit, and give it a go!

 

Redesigning PBL Curriculum for Collaboration & Service

After five years of successful, exciting work with my Digital Journalism 1 -3 curricula, I was ready to take on some challenges to improve learning and engage with more opportunities for authentic learning. Many years ago over a beer in Prague, my friend Suzie Boss challenged me to include meaningful service opportunities for students through this course. Additionally, last year my students were more diverse than ever, and in individualizing the course to best meet their needs, I lost track of collaboration as a core driver of the course. Time to revise!

Over the past year, I had focused on crafting inquiry-based, ideally project-based curriculum for my AP Literature & Composition and IB Language & Literature Standard Level courses both alone and with a team of colleagues respectively. PBL to address external standards clarified for me – more and more, I found ways to craft narrow skill and content outcomes through broad, rich project-based units of study. It was a great year of professional learning.

This summer, I redesigned Digital Journalism with a central focus on teamwork. I am 75% happy with the current product in this respect. Teams work together to plan coverage, help each other reach deadlines, workshop each other’s media and writing, and celebrate each other’s successes. Additionally, both teams and the class as a whole are working together to create all of our rubrics based on news examples from all over the English-speaking world, a practice I’ve leaned on since my first Masters research, and which leads to co-constructed understanding of task demands. I presented this new curriculum at my CFG last week, and got solid feedback that should lead to further improvements, especially in terms of offering authentic, inclusive teamwork for a very diverse group of learners from 9-12.

Suggestions after our Issaquah protocol were:

  • Find a truly authentic goal for each team to share in. This is a bedeviler, as our student newspaper is a club project, and because of our schedule, IBDP students cannot take the course (which means most of the editorial board are out). I am pursuing other publishing opportunities and perhaps subeditor structures to pump up the authenticity.
  • Add roles to the teamwork, especially those that occur in journalism. Hopefully, this can marry with the above and be a win.
  • Connect with professionals through the lens of teamwork – what roles are necessary, and how do they contribute toward producing quality journalism?
  • Ask students clearly what they hope to get from the course and use this information to organize teams. Just a simple, great idea. Not sure why I haven’t done this!

But wait, there’s more!

The second part of the redesign involves service opportunities, built into our investigation unit and final exam. Last year, I got multiple points of feedback that stated there was too much time to work on assignments – surprise! So, students will either complete two investigations in the final unit or one investigation followed by a service project to address or ameliorate a problem uncovered in the first investigation. Alternatively, this project can serve as the basis for the final exam which is a choice menu of smaller projects. I’m excited about the possibilities, but time will tell how this pans out.

Between my new AP Seminar course co-taught with my excellent colleague Rob Friesen, continuing work on expanding and embedding the Global Citizen Diploma at our Upper School, promoting inquiry- and project based learning and curricula school wide, supporting professional development among my colleagues in giving feedback amongst other skills, working with my CFG as an empowering PLC, providing invigorating outdoor education with a great team in our Whitewater Kayaking Club, and rocking some solid teaching five days a week, there’s not much time for other focuses. However, my first goal this year is improving my classbuilding and teambuilding approach in every class, every day. As Rob says, “Iron sharpens iron.” To maximize learning, kids need to work together effectively and to leverage each others’ strengths. If you see that in my new Digital Journalism curriculum, please leave a comment and let me know!

The Sorting Hat

The function of a school should play into the manner of feedback provided to students. Grades are shorthand for feedback, but what I think most educators recognize is that grades are more of a communication shorthand between the school and stakeholders like parents or universities. We say grades are a representation of learning, or symbolic of learning achievement, but unless they are differentiated student-by-student, they resemble the Sorting Hat.

In fact, there is great hunger for a Sorting Hat. Doesn’t everyone want to be a Gryffindor, or perhaps, if Type B, a Ravenclaw? We need an accurate sorting tool, and apparently, some people are willing to go 122 questions deep to find the answer.

Conversations about grading today reminded me that if grades are demanded, they should represent individual progress toward personally meaningful and important goals as co-determined between teacher and student, or between teacher-student-family, or between teacher-student-family-community. Grades that follow well-designed rubrics, but that require a fixed mark today miss the point of learning – that it is a journey.

If a student is not mastering content today, it doesn’t mean she won’t tomorrow, or next year. Breaking learning down into manageable chunks is essential and requires expert teaching. Students should ideally be free to explore their interests, but in a negotiated educational community, like public schooling, having fixed marks for successful outcomes is fair.

What is unfair is to decide arbitrarily that today is the day, and your performance today is what will determine your grade label with no recourse for improvement, and that your label will likely correlate to future labels, and that the aggregate of your childhood labels will directly impact your future educational and professional opportunities (class advantage and disadvantage notwithstanding).

Grades suck – this much I have known for some time. Grades are a major warping factor in all facets of school and of learning communities.

If we must have grades, embracing them as signifiers of individual learning rather than as labels to help Princeton discard 9/10 of its applicant pool automatically seems essential. No school has a mission to “Sort the wheat from the chaff, and let the hollow husks of 2.2 GPAs lay rotting in the fields.”

I don’t want to be in the business of judging kids; grades for sorting are just that, even when operated under “best practices”. Grades for individual learning progress opens the door through which to escape the sorting hat.

What Can You Drop Today?

I never seem to lose much weight during the holidays; in fact, I have been known to pad on a few extra pounds, even kilos. When it’s time for resolutions to drop weight, the difficulty begins. When there is so much good, what do I choose to give up?

This is like most institutions or organizations, I’m sure, which layer on Good Ideas like paint. It’s hard to argue against a good idea. Think of student learning! This new process will streamline our processes. This will replace that.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Thanks to Mark Dilworth for the quote

But I have experienced precious little replacing. Instead, we add, add, add, until Good Ideas compete and swirl like currents in an estuary, each contorting the next. Some Good Ideas become Not So Good Ideas. Some Good Ideas become forgotten, obscured, or lost. In the wash, values can shift without our notice.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the power of a Good Idea like Yokohama International School’s “Global Citizen Diploma.” Things to love about this Good Idea include a foundation on digital portfolios, a liberal focus across skills in the outdoors and arts and so on, and service, to name a few. I dare say that any student who completed the demands of this program would be prepared for university success at least.

But this Good Idea also relies on a minimum score in the International Baccalaureate Diploma of 38. I have no question that this works well within the existing structure of this fine school, making the IB and its vagaries like CAS blend into a system that speaks of the school’s values more specifically.

As I imagine what this would look like in my own school, I wonder what Good Ideas that others have worked hard to develop and that members of the community have bought into would have to drop away or suffer a death by starvation? Duke of Edinburgh? Advanced Placement courses? Our cool Mission 10 projects? Our existing service learning structures? The degree to which a new Good Idea integrates into existing structures is important to grasp, as is the impact on those existing structures. So often, one contorts the other, leading to change intended or otherwise.

Perhaps, if the idea is good enough, it can supplant something like the IBDP. This, of course, takes courage and buy-in, but why not? Credentialing organizations beget only further credentials. IBDP > BA/BS > MA/MS > certifications/PhD/specializations. A portfolio of citizenship and engagement in the world should be an easy extension into showing evidence of and reflecting upon progress toward learning goals. Legacy echoes like IB/AP can drop away in favor of a richer learning environment centered on the student.

I may be wrong, but that sounds like a pretty Good Idea.

Interest-Based Learning – Readings & Reflections from “Learning Creative Learning” MOOC

That learning should be interest-based is, to me, obvious; I base the curriculum of several digital journalism courses solely upon students following their interests. Of course, as a teacher, I also do my damnedest daily to wallop kids with material they will not only not approach with interest, but be bored by in large percentages. Such is the lot of the literature teacher in a traditional sense (there’s room for change here, but I’m only scratching the surface).  Still, plenty of stimulation from the readings and videos arose, and my short reflection is here, numbered by question:

  1. What did you find most interesting or surprising in the readings?
  2. What did you disagree with or have questions about?

1. I’ve written about Living and Learning With New Media before here and here. I love it, particularly the “hanging out, messing around, geeking out” heuristic. Providing the time, space, resources, and social opportunities for kids to work together or independently on chasing personal interests and to produce media (in my courses’ cases) based on it is my favorite part of my current job. Blending this heuristic with Mitchel Resnick’s brilliant creative spiral of Imagine Create-Play-Share-Reflect-Imagine provides the foundation for providing supportive learning environments for students to explore their own and shared creative processes.

2. However, what I found surprising, if not totally so, was how hard Joi Ito jumped up and down on school and his experience in it. Almost nobody goes broke in America these days by excoriating school; I also didn’t enjoy most of it, which is why I teach. Still, the degree to which academics beat up K-12 school is disconcerting to me and is a drumbeat that grows particularly tiresome, if not obviously hypocritical. (/soapbox)

1. Of course, as Joi Ito alludes to rightly in his talk, Mimi Ito loved books and structured her learning narrative around them – this works because reading is what school is largely based upon. A learner like Joi is destined to suffer if he is not a bibliophile. As Joi wrote on his blog, education should be more flexible and responsive, particularly by trusting the value of children’s interests – even when they are video games, etc, that stuffy adults almost reflexively distrust. But even as MOOCS start ruling the world, his experience echoes my own, in that as our interests get more and more focused and based on experience, we may also “find [ourselves] increasingly reaching out to formal education institutions for the rigor and depth that [we] need to explore [our] areas of interest.” Finally, I loved “Dubai & Knowing the Unknowable” because it was an excellent explanation of why I have spent so much of my life abroad. Learning has many forms, and most are valuable.

2. The power of pull – I love it. How do we embed literacy instruction and guidance to shepherd younger students toward positive centers of gravity and away from, for example, the pull of Reddit’s found porn communities? I can’t be part of fostering such interests, nor can I value them at all. What is the role of guiding and modeling positive ethics as we offer opportunities for exploration, via messing around and geeking out?

The Slide, or The Problem With Rules

Think of the rule that you never enforce. Maybe it’s hats, or gum in the classroom, or cell phone use in the hallway, or eating outside the cafeteria, or using a black pen on Tuesdays, or whatever. There’s one, the bridge too far. The beginning of The Slide.

In general, I detest rules. It’s congenital. Of course, boundaries are the essence of society, and we must have them. I like setting my expectations at the upper limit, with a few ground floor expectations for consistency’s sake: Respect, Responsibility, Cooperation, Preparation, Engagement. I’m sure that’s a few too many; it could begin and end with Respect.

But the rules. Oh, the rules. At our one-to-one school, there was a laptop-free lunch several years ago. Then, we opened the top floor for the desperate. Then it spread downwards. Now, lunchtime is a battlefield of spell-casters and Gossip Girl-heads strewn prone throughout the campus, slackjawed, staring. Conversation, when it happens, revolves around which demon to slay, which is a step up from TV induced silence. Digital Natives, living in their Brave New World? Not exactly.

Let’s ignore, for now, the students’ free periods. (JOKING)

And there’s food strewn about, and litter, and hats, and halter-tops, and cell-phones, and a bunch of stuff that I don’t enforce regularly, mostly because, you know, come on, right? nobody is, and what a hassle, and are you kidding me? and so on. This is The Slide.

Straight-up – I am a guilty participant in The Slide, the loosening of rules and expectations, and witness first hand the bleeding over of one loosened rule into the transgression of many others. This is the essence of any society or institution: We’ve got to agree on a few boundaries, or the boundary I care most about will be transgressed, just as the ones I don’t care about are transgressed before me.

Schools often have too many rules. Those that we choose should be essential, and five or less in number (probably). We should model said behaviors. This is obvious. However, discarding the rules that we can live without is a foray into a dark barn of sacred cows, lit differently for each student and teacher by culture, background, and values, particularly in an international school. To halt The Slide, though, this is exactly where an institution must go, examining our shared values and laying them on the table for all to see.

Of course, it’s all theoretical for me. I have been nowhere that actually went through an open process of reexamining the detritus of the years, leftover rules and concepts to which some adhere and of which others know nothing at all. I wonder what it’s like. Tough as it may be, hard conversations about priorities and the inevitable give and take seem like a way to reset, or to halt The Slide.

Badges for Student Choice – Not Revolutionary (Yet), But Positive

One informed risk I’ve taken this year is the introduction of badges in my AP Literature and Composition classes. After a semester,  the reviews are positive – many students appreciated the opportunity to branch out and try something a bit different.

These badges replaced an outside reading requirement and allowed for student choice of both material and assessment type, something difficult to accomplish in an externally moderated course like the AP or IB. While the badges may not have provided whee-fun! responses per se, the respect afforded by choice improved the classroom environment in what can sometimes be a bit of a slog through content and repetitive writing types.

Less than five students chose to read outside of class for their badge. Far and away the most popular badge was the Internet Enlightenment badge, and it led to great discussions with students about their social media presences. As an “edtech” wonk, the depth and breadth of these conversations was surprising; I couldn’t predict student responses. Kids obviously chose this badge for its ease, which is perfect, because it made them change their behavior online, or at least change their privacy settings.

One concept that repeated through the conversations was the idea of “parking” social media personas for later use in life. If a kid isn’t using Google+ today, she sees that she may in two years, so she wants to keep that space “clean.” Pretty informative perspective, really. Spaces like Facebook are useful in the same way that my daughters’ playroom is useful for containing the mess in our flat, but the girls will outgrow this space someday.

The coolest badge was clearly the Starving Artist. I received beautiful digital art from a student on one of my favorite novels, Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Students made paintings and drawings based on all sorts of novels, including Kafka on the Shore, which impressed me. One student even made a dress of white chiffon with a belt made of real chains spray-painted gold on the basis of her outstanding reading of “The Lady of Shallott” by Tennyson. This young lady arranged a model and blew my mind with the rigor and specificity of her analytic argument, connecting throughout to the text specifically. Her rationale is a stellar example of literary argument.

While she wasn’t happy with the final result of the dress, she made it, and it was cool. Additionally, she reflected specifically on what she would do differently next time. All of this made my day, but it’s the display of fine literary argumentation produced through the pursuit of the badge that makes me so happy. Self-selected, this assignment rang true and captured the student, leading to excellent, meaningful practice. This didn’t happen for every student, but it will in other assessment contexts. When it happens once, I’m stoked.

Other students extended the classroom into other directions, resulting in learning that I value, and that many of them valued. If the badges doesn’t advance toward our AP Lit goals, I’m okay with that. In terms of the partially successful requirement that these badges replaced, I’m happier with the greater proportion of success created by the badges so far.