Project Idea: "Science Vs. Parents"

The Gimlet Media podcast Science Vs. is a great model for student enquiry. It starts with a clear-cut but open-ended question, such as "do detoxes work?", then defines its terms (in the case of detoxes, looking at four specific types of detoxes) and its standard for evidence (peer reviewed research and interviews with university-based researchers). Also it's funny, weird, and gross. 

I was thinking that students could produce podcasts based on the Science Vs. format, but I know that coming up with a question is really difficult in this kind of project, and everything rests on the quality of the question. 

Hence "Science vs. Parents" because our parents tell us lots of things, and we may be eager to disprove them (though of course the point isn't to disprove, but to find out the truth). 

Off the top of my head, here are questions that I could pursue:

  • Will taking arnica help with pain?
  • Will a shower take care of my headache?
  • Do I need more sleep than I'm getting? 
  • Can deep breathing help me get to sleep?

An immediate problem that presents itself is that I don't want to make a podcast that's going to make my mom feel bad (Science Vs. actually involved parents in the episode on chiropractors, and the producer's parents took it in good humor, but not all parents will be like that). 

Anyway here some resources I could use to stitch together with this project:

  • When we first come up with "stuff parents say that we disagree with", we could use the 2x2 boxes that Kelly Gallagher uses to teach argumentative writing, where you write down their arguments and your arguments.
  • George Hillock's "Evidence and Warrant" structure and his point that you start with evidence and then make the argument that the evidence demands you make, rather than starting from the argument and finding evidence to back it up, will be helpful too. 


Teaching chronological history. Ideas.

I don't know a good way to teach chronological history in a PBL classroom. The only people I know who do it well are teachers who started in a more traditional school, so just have the resources they need at the ready, and know how to "do" chronological history teaching. They, as far as I can tell, shrink that aspect of the class into a day or so a week, and integrate it into the class.

I don't have that. I'm once again thinking, as I do every year, of John Green's Crash Course History videos. There are some problems:

  • John Green can be pretty insufferable on camera, and his comedy definitely comes with diminishing returns
  • He talks so damn fast
  • Because he, not I, will be in charge of the content, I can't tailor the chronological narrative to what we're doing in class (except through selection of videos).

On the other hand (and I think I need to be explicit about this with students) writing lectures takes a whole lot of time, and there isn't time to plan a weekly lecture AND manage a project. Here's a concept I'm kicking around:

  • On Monday, there's a history question for the week. I suck at coming up with these sorts of questions, but I'm thinking like "would you rather have lived as a Roman or a Mesopotamian. Bear in mind that you can not choose your social status, you will get it at random)." Or maybe a question that links more explicitly to the project, like (if we were doing "Why does the US have troops in __", it could be something like "Is the conflict in your country more like the Trojan war, or more like the war between China and the Mongols?"
  • On Monday or Tuesday, we watch the John Green video (and maybe I do a second viewing with discussion at lunch for kids who want it. Also, kids can obviously re-watch it as much as they want, and look at the transcription if there is one).
  • On Thursday or Friday, there's time for small-group discussion or a socratic seminar about the question.
  • After the discussion, kids write up their argument, thereby practicing the argumentative essay. They highlight their evidence and warrants within the text, so that A) they're thinking about it, and B) it can be assessed more quickly. 

Project Essential Question: "Why does the US have troops in _____?"

This essential question is inspired by the Intercepted Podcast episode "Legacy of Blood- The 55-year US War against Iraqis". Before I listened to it, I knew about the US's 1980s support for Saddam Hussein but I had no idea that he was one of the key movers in a CIA-backed coup in 1963, against Abdel Karim Kassem, a leader who promoted education and women's rights, but was definitely a dictator. This, on its own, was not a problem for the CIA, but he wasn't enough of a clear-cut anticommunist for the Kennedy administration, so they supported Saddam Hussein and his Baathist allies, who executed Kassem after a show trial broadcast on the radio, and then murdered thousands of suspected communist sympathizers, using lists provided to them by the CIA (The New York Times did a piece about this in 2003).

This all blew my mind, and it got me thinking that there is always a rich, fascinating, and usually disturbing history whenever the US has troops stationed in a foreign country. Hence the essential question, "Why does the US have troops in _____?"

(The seed for this question was really planted in October, when I read about the US soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger. My first question when I heard about it was "Why does the US have troops in Niger?")

Mystery Piece

This question lends itself to a "mystery piece", a component that has too-often been left out of my projects. I'm imagining doing a world cafe, gallery walk, or jigsaw, with print-outs of maps and charts, in order to generate observations and questions.

Some resources for the mystery piece:

I'm anticipating that a lot of students will be shocked by how many countries we're in, and will feel aggrieved that we seem to be "the world's policeman". Some students will also have personal connections, either because they have family members deployed in some of the countries, or because they have family from those countries. And some students will be curious either because they hear about a country in the news a lot, or because they don't.

So I'm generally expecting consternation from across the political spectrum about the scale of US involvement in other countries. This will provide a launchpad for questions about moral responsibility, along the lines of "if this current situation is partly our fault, what is our responsibility now?", and these serious moral discussions will be enriched by in-depth study of the history that led to the present situation in each country. 

Why would a kid care about this question?

A fair number of kids will have a personal stake, because they have family members stationed overseas, and/or are thinking about joining the military themselves. Also, a lot of kids feel a basic frustration that the US invests so much money in fighting abroad, rather than investing domestically. This came up a lot when we studied the refugee crisis, so I assume it will come up here. There's also a bit of a "secret knowledge" element - finding out about covert cold war CIA stuff will allow them to laugh knowingly at relatively superficial TV news coverage, which is enjoyable. 

Content that kids could learn through this question

I'm planning for students to choose a single country to focus on, either on their own or in pairs. So if a pair chose to go in-depth on Germany, their question would be "Why does the US have troops in Germany"?

This question shows one of the dangers of this project, which is there are a whole lot of pieces to the puzzle, so that kids will face a cognitive load choice between a load that is way beyond their ability to carry, and one that is pretty much effortless. In other words, it will be hard to plot a course between the incredibly superficial ("Germany lost WWII so they weren't allowed to have an army. We're done, can play basketball for the next four weeks?") and the overwhelmingly messy and complicated ("Berlin was divided up between the allied powers after WWII, and also Germany split into two countries on either side of the Cold War. The US agreed to essentially provide West Germany with a military, plus Germany became the most clear-cut "front" of the cold war, so the US and Russia both packed their sides with troops. OK, so what happened after the Berlin wall fell? Why are there still so many troops?").

Ideally, kids will be able to explain the history of conflict in the country at least since the 1940s, identifying the different players, both colonial and postcolonial, and the way(s) that the country fits into regional and global power structures (which is to say, both political/military, and economic), focusing particularly on the role that the US has played in the country's history since the 1940s.

I think a constant pressure in this project will be kids trying to find a clear-cut answer to the question "how can we fix this country so we can get our troops back home?" which is a great question, but will tend to kids trying to find simple answers in order to get past the unease of living in doubt. 

What adults can be involved in this?

I'd love it if everyone interviewed one person who has been stationed in this country, one person with expertise on the country (an academic or an intelligence expert) and one person who comes from this country.

What could they make? Who would be the audience?

Parents and families strike me as the most powerful audience for this, because it should trigger (and enrich) lots of substantive discussions. 

A podcast is an obvious product, since I was inspired by listening to a podcast. The issue with a podcast is that it's hard to follow chronology, particularly if you're explaining shifting allegiances over time (the Intercepted episode works in part because it's focusing on the US's role (and, even more specifically, its misdeeds) in Iraq. If it was also explaining the interplay of relationships between the Iraqi government, the Kurds, Sunnis, Shias, Iran, the Yazidis, etc., it would be utterly baffling.

A Ted-Talk style lecture with graphics might work well, as would some kind of beautiful infographic. A Youtube video (again with graphics) might also work. 

A play along the lines of The Great Game could be really effective (a promenade piece would be especially cool) but in order for this to work, the team would need to choose a country, or maybe 2-4 countries as shorter pieces taht weave together, and making these choices tends to be a nightmare. 



    Teaching the art of writing a description that defamiliarizes the familiar

    When I taught theatre at the University of Sheffield, I taught students about the Bertholt Brecht's "Alienation" effect. "Alienation" is an unhelpful word for it, because it's got nothing to do with either Freud, or Marx's "alienation of labor". There was a better word that we used, but I've forgotten it. In any case, the basic concept is that it causes you to look at something with fresh eyes, casting aside your assumptions about it. 

    "A Typical Day" by Zack Bornstein does this really well (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/26/a-typical-day). 

    I'd love to use this as a model text for students. Here's how I think I'd do it: 

    1. Divide up the text and give a section to a group of 3-4 students with no explanation. Let them puzzle out what it's describing.
    2. Bring the full class back together to popcorn out ideas about what the text is describing
    3. Go back to small groups to "translate" their section into more familiar language
    4. [At this point, I think it would be good to call it a day]
    5. The next day, start with groups reading out the full translation - possibly reading Bornstein's passage followed by the translation
    6. Students start writing their own descriptions of their own lives

    Stuff students can learn from this:

    1. Decoding text, close reading
      1. In order for this to work, there needs to be some kind of accountability for the quality of the translations. Possibly we could have the group verify that the translation is correct and adequate, but this will take a long time, so we might want to split up the performance of the original text and the translation.
        1. Another possibility would be to have one person act out the scene, while another person narrates what's happening, and their inner monologue
          1. Example: you could act out 8-8:05 by having a phone alarm go off, with the actor lying down, who jerks up and looks around. Meanwhile the other performer narrates their inner monologue: "wow, that was a crazy dream. What's that sound? Oh yeah, my alarm clock. I've gotta get up." Then the actor hits the phone, tells it to shut up, general stage business until the phone goes off. 
    2. Specific descriptive writing (albeit in an eccentric form)
    3. Looking at their own life and recognizing its absurdities - a key to both amusing writing, and self-knowledge ("the unexamined life is not worth living, and all that)
    4. If students are able to go deeper, they can also notice how the apparently dispassionate description contains a lot of pathos, as well as social commentary (the products made by children, the misery of an office job).
      1. I'm not great at teaching this, so I'm not quite sure how it would come out. Maybe by drawing attention to those moments and saying "why does the author include this?"
        1. Students could write about their own lives in ways that makes a social commentary purely through observation and defamiliarization (Brecht would be proud).

    "Keeping the Receipts" and teaching citation

    The first time I heard the term "receipts" used to mean evidence (I think it was when we all found out that James Comey had been taking detailed notes on all his conversations with Donald Trump. (https://www.hercampus.com/news/james-comey-has-receipts-prove-trump-tried-stop-fbi-investigation-michael-flynn)), I was disheartened by it. And, as a person who wishes we didn't treat commercial transaction as our reference point for research, and more generally wishes being "consumers" wasn't so central to our identities, I still am. 

    However, as a teacher, I'm kind of excited about it, because it's such a clear and familiar metaphor for research and evidence. 

    You could start out by asking students for stories about when they've tried to return things, and what happened. Some students will have had infuriating experiences with inflexible clerks, some students will have returned things that they probably shouldn't have. Out of these stories, we'll tease out some important points:

    1. If something doesn't look new, you probably can't return it (this is irrelevant to the discussion of research but it will come up)
    2. Generally, you need to show evidence that you bought the item from the store - a receipt, or they may be able to find your credit card.
    3. The more a store stands to lose, the higher the burden of proof they will put on you as a customer 

    From here, we'd want to investigate something immediately compelling. I think it'd be nice to use a graphic organizer with actual "receipts" on it, where you cite your sources. I could see a few approaches to this:

    • A counterintuitive claim about a book we are reading as a class (say, "Junior is actually the villain in ATDPTI") with quotes and page number citations (this is inspired by the classic "Johnny's the real hero of  Karate Kid" video (https://nerdist.com/is-johnny-the-real-hero-of-the-karate-kid/) but I don't think I'd bother showing that video in class, unless of course we'd already watched Karate Kid. 
    • A shocking, true, historical claim ("George Washington wore dentures made out of human teeth")
      • The problem with this one is that everyone will google it and find the same source. But if groups of 3-4 students all investigated different claims (and perhaps we had a few false ones thrown in too) they could "show their receipts"
    • A "Document-based Question" (DBQ) - the old AP History standby. These seem ready-made for this kind of task, but possibly not instantly compelling
    • An "Encyclopedia Brown" mystery

    Students could then use their "receipts" graphic organizer to write up an argumentative essay, using the receipts to make either footnotes or parenthetical notation.

    Idea for starting the first day of school

    Start with the Dan Wise “sit by day of the month you were born” game

    Everyone has an envelope taped to the bottom of their seat. Inside is a sentence from chapter one of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Each envelope also has instructions for the concentric circles.

    For homework, an open ended write/draw/record yourself assignment to introduce themselves to me and the class the way Junior introduces himself.


    Teaching The Hero's Journey: The "call to adventure" vs. the "call to heroism"

    I often get tripped up by the hero rejecting the call to adventure in the "official" hero's journey, since in so many of the examples I can think of, the hero is champing at the bit to start the adventure. 

    I can illustrate this with the two films I'd like to show in class to introduce the hero's journey, and map it as a class: Stardust and Moana. Neither of the heroes of these stories refuses the call to adventure (on the contrary, they chase it with a zeal that encroaches on foolhardiness).

    In Stardust, Tristan is so eager to get to the "extraordinary world" that he successfully gets past the man whose family has been guarding the gate for centuries. 

    In Moana, Moana is so eager to start her adventure that she nearly gets killed attempting to sail past the reef early in the film (Maui refuses the call, and one point I'll want to draw out in Moana is that every story contains multiple heroes' journeys, and would be very different stories if different people were put in the center of it). 

    As I'm typing, it occurs to me that Finding Nemo is a good example of a hero reluctant for adventure, but the "reluctant hero" definitely feels like a (mostly comic) subgenre.

    So anyway, here's what just occurred to me: having an adventure is not the same thing as being a hero. Tristan is eager for adventure, but it takes him an incredibly long time to give up on kidnapping a star (making him actively villainous) and instead become a hero. Moana is thrilled to go on an adventure (and unlike Tristan she is morally driven from the start of the film) but when things get really tough she stops believing she CAN be a hero, and literally refuses the ocean's call to heroism. 

    How I will teach this is to ask students at the start of class to write about a time they had an adventure, and a time they did something heroic, making it clear that they don't need to be the same incidents. Then we'll discuss the difference between "having an adventure" and "being a hero" and introduce that nuance to the hero's journey. 

    How the Hell did it Come to This? A Reading List


    How the Hell The Right Came to This

    "How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind" by David Wong (Cracked.com October 12, 2016) - the title is classic misleading clickbait. This was one of the most insightful pieces I read during the campaign. The fact that it was published on the online platform of a Mad Magazine ripoff boggles my mind.

    "The Great Republican Revolt" by David Frum (The Atlantic, January/February 2016) - this was written over a year ago, and it was one of the first pieces I thought about after Trump won. Basically its about the difference between Washington conservatives and the Republican base. 

    "Why Nobody Cares the President is Lying", by Charles Sykes (New York Times, February 4th 2017) - Charles Sykes is a former conservative radio host who saw the way conservative media was changing from the inside. 

    "Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology" by David Roberts (Vox, May 19th 2017) - This is an analysis of why facts don't matter much at the moment.

    The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter (The Atlantic, 1964) - this is over fifty years old, but Hofstadter nailed it.


    How the Hell the Left Came to This

    "How the Left Lost Its Mind" by McKay Coppins (The Atlantic July 2, 2017) - an account of the left's own hyperpartisan, conspiracy-obsessed media landscape. The writer makes it clear that it's dwarfed by its counterpart on the right, but it still exists and it's not good. Also the graphic (a tinfoil pussy hat) is pretty clever.

    "Fairfax County, USA" by Matt Karp (Jacobin, November 28 2016) - an analysis of the Clinton campaign's unfortunate strategy of winning the presidency by appealing to wealthy, college-educated moderates




    When I found my words on someone else's website. A story a tweet and two emails

    I demonstrated Turnitin.com to my students by submitting a draft chapter I was writing for a book about project-based learning. 

    This wasn't a great move: the submission lit up like a Christmas tree with incidents of "plagiarism" - most of it was self-plagiarism, because I had copied chunks of previous work into the doc to use as guides. 

    But a few lines all came from a South African education website, all from a post about project-based learning. The lines all looked familiar - I double-checked, and sure enough, they all appeared in the book I wrote in 2012, Work that Matters: The Teacher's Guide to Project-based Learning.

    I did this sleuthing during class, while my students were posting their own papers on Turnitin, waiting for their results, and comparing scores. 

    A few of my students were fascinated by my unfolding plagiarism drama. One student documented this sleuthing, and tweeted it:

    It took a day before I wrote the "strongly worded email". Here's what I wrote:

    Hi _________


    I was looking at a post from Schoolnet SA, and I recognized some of the material in it from Work that Matters: The Teacher's Guide to Project-based Learning, which I wrote for the Innovation Unit in 2012 (for example, in the list of essential questions, and the information about check-ins).

    Work that Matters is a free resource, and it's great to see it being used around the world. I also know it's been used in lots of other resources, not always with credit, so it's entirely possible that you've never seen it before! 

    I'd be grateful if you could acknowledge as a source on the page.

    All the best
    Alec
    A few days later, I got a reply:
    Hi Alec

    Thanks so much for writing and apologies for not replying sooner. 

    Thanks for pointing out the resource Work that Matters: The Teacher's Guide to Project-based Learning. What a superb booklet - your writing ability is excellent. I don't recall seeing the booklet before but I wrote the post a few years back. I apologise profusely for not acknowledging your resource (or the resource where I took it from). How embarrassing! I have now acknowledged your resource, hopefully in the appropriate places. Thank you very much for pointing this out so pleasantly.

    Warm regards

    The page in question has been updated. So, happy ending!

    The tension between “personal” authenticity and “real world” authenticity


    It's surprisingly difficult to reconcile work that engages every student's passions with work that leads to outcomes that are meaningful on a scale that goes beyond students and their families.

    Here's what I mean by that: if students are doing a project that connects with what is meaningful to them personally, everyone will be doing their own project. I'm a big fan of this, and kids still work collaboratively when they do this, because they critique each other's work.

    What this work lacks is scale - when everyone's doing their own thing, you can't so something like run a big science experiment. If you're doing meaningful, cutting-edge science, you need everyone working on what they're commissioned to work on. This means that you're going to be doing work that doesn't resonate with everybody - or rather, you might be able to find a piece of the project that resonates with everybody, but there will be a lot of work that people need to do that they don't find innately interesting. This applies equally to teacher-led and student-led projects: even if you are doing a large-scale science project that's student-driven, it will only work if it's driven by a few students, with everyone else getting on board to help realize their vision.

    This means that you need to help individual students find their own “entry points” into a project that will make it meaningful to them.

    There are moments (such as the project launch and the exhibition) where every student gets pumped up and joins in for pretty much the same reasons, and it feels good to be working as one big group. But full-group enthusiasm is ephemeral. It doesn't get you through a six-week project.

    When you're talking about the project (as opposed to the project launch day), engagement is much more like trying to pass a bill through congress - every single person has their own particular interest that you need to appeal to. And the very fact that one group of people is excited about a project will be enough to make other people think "ehhh, this probably isn't my thing."

    This isn't really surprising. Imagine going up to a group of fifty adults and saying "Hey, you all live in the same general vicinity, I'd like you all to work on a complex and important science experiment together, over the course of several months." It just wouldn't fly.

    The extraordinary thing is the extent to which most students, most of the time, are ready to go out on a limb and give something a try, even it it's not the thing they would personally choose to do with their time.