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.



Writing From Models – Even Cooler Than I Thought It Was

Last week, I had a discussion with one of my Digital Journalism 2 students about using a rhetorical question as a lead or nut graph in opinion or feature writing. Generally, I hate the rhetorical question lead.


Because the answer to the question is the lead, or the nut. But I guess it works sometimes…

Then, I was struck right in my tender opinion that very evening by Pete Wells’ viral, scathing review of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, written almost entirely as a series of questions:

What exactly about a small salad with four or five miniature croutons makes Guy’s Famous Big Bite Caesar (a) big (b) famous or (c) Guy’s, in any meaningful sense?

Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are? If you hadn’t come up with the recipe yourself, would you ever guess that the shiny tissue of breading that exudes grease onto the plate contains either pretzels or smoked almonds? Did you discern any buttermilk or brine in the white meat, or did you think it tasted like chewy air?

It goes on.

I shared the piece with my student, along with a critical take on media coverage of the Broadwell – Petreaus affair from Hanna Rosin in Slate, in an attempt to expose the role of tone in writing opinion. Needless to say, she got it.

At the same time, I delivered a “challenge,” something I give the kids from time to time in order to guide the learning environment.   It looked like this:

Challenge 2: Some of you are writing, some are doing photography, others video, some graphic design, others marketing; most of you are doing a number of task types. Choose one facet of what you have been or will be doing and find a GURU. Be prepared to share what you find.

  • Dude, What’s a Guru?
  • A Guru in this case is someone who does the task that you are doing or want to be doing – and someone who does it brilliantly! Bring an awesome example to share and discuss.

Some students are looking at PSA videos, others are reading Mike Royko, others looking at Pulitzer Prize winning photo essays. This student decided to mimic the style of Wells’ piece to express her frustration with the SAT. The piece poured out of her, from


first draft to published in 48 hours. I provided a touch of feedback on organization, leading to a small expansion of two paragraphs. Otherwise, all her. Writing from models is powerful.

I was so impressed with the piece that I tweeted it as an example of writing from models. Within a few hours, someone even favorited the tweet.

It was Pete Wells. The student’s response? “WOW!”


Student Centered Grading

This is a work in progress, building off of my work over the past eight years with students writing rubrics for performance tasks, but I’m examining student-set goals and measurement of progress this year in my Digital Journalism 2 course. So far, these kids have done incredible work in the first six weeks of school. Together, the students have made inroads into a variety of social media – check out Instagram #zispeaceday – and published a vastly improved, though still quite flawed, student newspaper. In a small class of seven, each is following individual interests, asking me questions I’ve never heard in 12 years of teaching English: Hey, Mr. Hoke, I was thinking of writing a piece on mobile phone use in school. Is that okay? Is it okay to write? 


Of course, we’ve created rubrics for features, but there’s other stuff: managing social media arms, formulating marketing campaigns, managing peers, publishing photo essays. This week we’ll sit down individually, and students will share what they want to be graded on, and how. I already know they’re learning and that they are making improvements to the products they are creating, but we need to make the learning transparent via their blog-based portfolios and get some reflection going, leading to future goal setting. However, I want the students to feel flexible, able to respond to needs as they arrive, which makes goal setting a tricky prospect. As long as time frames are loose, this should be no big deal.

We’ll see. I’m sure there’s plenty I can’t anticipate right now, but I’m not cynical about the possibilities. This won’t get gamed because the students care about the product, the outcomes. I will have to push them toward professional-quality work by sharing models found online, but together I hope we can spiral up toward better and better products sensibly.


Yeah, it’s pretty obvious. I list toward Blazing Saddles as a cultural touchpoint for the unnecessary nature of stinkin’ badges, but it comes, apparently, from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I feel a little like someone must feel when they find out that the inspirational sayings so often misattributed to world leaders in fact are, rather obviously, misattributed.

Even so, I made badges.

Last year, my AP Literature and Composition course lacked fun. I’m not sure these badges are fun, exactly, but they could be a bridge to engagement. I think they’re definitely not an “addictive learning experience,” but they could be a tool for improving the learning community in the class or beyond. Today I even invited the entire faculty to partake in an Infinite School Year, which doesn’t mean a year of eight Februaries (teacher joke!). The deal for kids with these badges is that they offer a choice of doing something I believe is important in return for a reward that they value. All the students must complete one badge per semester. After the first badge, students get a grade boost per completed badge up to two more per semester, the criteria for which is laid out in a rubric for each badge. The rubrics are far from perfect, as is the lame grade connection. Also, the choice is limited. I can imagine offering a Mystery Badge that allows a kid to design a project, or others like a Context Builder Badge that prioritizes historical research behind a novel like Slaughterhouse Five or Beloved. However, it’s a start.

Toward what? I’d like to establish a different dynamic in this course. I feel compelled, of course, to provide a curriculum based on the AP Lit exam, which often feels like a walled garden. To that end, project based learning is quite difficult to design – or at least it’s hard for me to design. I wonder if these badge projects that give kids an opportunity to boost a grade are classic lipstick on a… not a pig, per se, but maybe a golden retriever?  Lipstick on a golden retriever. Or is this a step toward meaningful projects in this course?

Gamification: Bad Design, Good Design

I was struck today during a portfolio conference with a student who was laboring under the perception that we were adversaries, that her job was to guess my mindset and reflect it back at me, fool me into believing she had learned something or improved her writing. She declared that she thought I might be refreshed by honesty. After a dozen amazing conversations with kids about their writing, I was rather stunned. Just prior to this conversation, I proctored a final exam. After the exam, a student squealed repeatedly about all of the “C” answers on the multiple choice – he had changed some because it seemed like too many Cs in a row to be correct.

So I believe this about gamification: When grades are on the line, design the game or be at the mercy of an implicit, insidious game.    Inherent in school’s current design is this game; we cheat to win games, to gain advantage. Shortcuts in games may win us some upper hand. When I was an offensive lineman, I was a master of holding, which is a penalty if caught. In fact, any decent O-lineman can tell you how not to be caught, just keep your hands inside and let go if they spin or get separation. Cheating in this case is built into the game play – defensive linemen learn how to get loose, “break the hands” off the jersey. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the design of the game, though, because a certain type of holding gets penalized 95% of the time (hands outside the body).

In school, shortcuts save time or effort, and cheating more so. However, this isn’t built into the game play of school, because when kids cheat or take shortcuts, they lose. Granted, when we offer nothing of value to students, maybe they don’t lose. They do, however, develop odd superstitions like Skinner’s pigeons and erase a few Cs when all signs point to C. As I reflect on my own gaming of school as a teenager, I suffered from arrogant self-perception (likely do still, after all, I blog). The choices I made that cheated me out of learning or experiences like speaking another language hurt me. I like to believe that by being open and transparent, by giving students control over their learning and the expression of their learning as in this portfolio assessment, they will take some ownership and do something that displays growth. Many do, some don’t, and I’m focused here on the negative.

What is the solution to breaking the implicit games of school? Relationships first, transparency second. Third and fourth, choice and authenticity. If I can design a curriculum that is open, student-centered, and constructivist in nature, most students will come along. Designing a framework in which students can learn language skills by doing isn’t even that hard, but it sure looks different. Good design, thoughtful design, is important, because otherwise we stay victim to the implicit design and fight the same battles, again and again as the gamers lose. At the very least, we could try to design in some more fun.