What one student had to say about "We Chose Our Own Adventures"

Last year we published an anthology of student writing that we called We Chose Our Own Adventures. You can read all about the project here.

Here's what one student, Gabby Tam, wrote about her piece:

Recently we had to do a creative writing essay. At first I decided to stick with the topic and write a piece that was supposed to convince the public of the importance of keeping habitats to their natural environments. I worked on this piece for a good week and a half, adding more and more info to keep the piece interesting. Draft after draft it was coming along into a final piece but the day before the final draft was due, I read over it and I was bored. I asked my teacher if I could restart my whole piece but with an entirely different topic. My teacher gave me a topic that would be interesting to write about and with that idea the thoughts began to flow right onto the page. Within two hours I had the ideas down and my essay written. There wasn’t much that needed to be fixed thankfully and it was finished in time to be put into the book. The story I had written was very personalized and I believe it gave the readers a deeper understanding of myself. During exhibition I was chosen to read part of my story out loud, which was an honor. It was also nerve racking because I have never been a great reader and always hated being called aloud to read in class. I think this situation was different because it was something that I had wrote and it was easier to portray my reading in a voice that fit the feeling of my story.

The "pair-share lecture" - a structure from Tom Ferenbacher

Tom told me about this technique before I taught my first class, and I have yet to use it, but I like the sound of it.

Here's how it works.

1. Take a set of lecture notes, and split them into a series of questions that are sequential and anticipatory

2. Present the class with the questions in sequence. Everyone in class responds to the question in their notebooks and pair-shares.

3. Call on people to tell the group what their partner's response was, saying  "X, what did Y say?" Then ask "Y, was that right?"

4. Write important points on the board, and add to them.

I guess you could call this "constructivist lecturing", since you help the students to construct knowledge about what's being discussed - though the teacher remains the ultimate arbiter of fact. 

Teaching: it bears repeating

Today I introduced Kelly Gallagher's Real World Writing Purposes by, as Gallagher suggests, having my students look for examples of these in magazines (actually, Gallagher recommends newspapers, but what I had access to was a motley collection of magazines and journals including San Diego magazine, the New Yorker, N+1, and Lucky Peach, among others). 

As is often the case, I'm fairly confident that I learned more than anybody else. Specifically, I learned how far I am from being conversant in the "Real World Writing Purposes." I started one class by grandly declaring "Whatever you write will fall within one of these purposes." It took about three minutes for a student to point to a humor piece in the New Yorker and say "I can't figure out where this one fits." 

"Hmm," I replied. "It doesn't, really. I take back what I just said."

Soon afterwards, I realized that I really didn't know how to explain what an example of an article with the purpose "inquire and explore" would look like. 

Having taken a look at my students' "scavenger hunt" sheets, it's clear to me that for the most part, they have a tenuous grip on what the writing purposes refer to. Doing this again, I will need to provide more of a structured lead-in to the scavenger hunt, so that students are more clear about these. I might provide extracts from examples of each "writing purpose", and ask students to identify characteristics that identify it as part of this category. 

Here's the thing. I wouldn't understand any of this if I hadn't taught this class. It had all seemed so straightforward when I read Gallagher's book. And what this means is that the first time I introduce anything like this is going to be pretty rough. And, continuing this thought, I think I could make more of a concerted effort to have fewer "first times", by keeping a closer eye on what concepts and ideas I've introduced already that are now available to be revisited. 

Two things are keeping me from coming back to structures and concepts that I've already introduced: first, every teaching issue feels new when it looms in front of me, so my instinct is always to find a new solution for this issue, rather than going back through things I've already introduced. The second thing is that I'm inclined to think "Man, I don't want to revisit that, that was a total mess when I introduced it before." What I need to remind myself is that everything is a bit of a mess the first time I try to introduce it, because it's through introducing it that I learn about it. 

"Teaching Licks": Tiny strategies for managing groups of students effectively

When I was studying jazz saxophone, one of the things my teachers had me do was learn "licks" or "clichés" (not meant perjoratively), that is, little collections of notes that other sax players had used before me, that you could call upon spontaneously within a solo in order to connect your more original ideas together. 

When I began teaching, my own teachers offered a few "licks" or "clichés" to bring to the classroom - starting with techniques to quickly get a group quiet. Since then, I've been unofficially collecting these "licks", and it occurred to me today that I should put my collection online. So here's what I've got so far:

Getting students to be quiet quickly:

  1. Clap "Shave and a Haircut" - students respond by clapping "two bits"
  2. Shout "Mama Se Mama Sa Mama Ku Sa" - students respond in kind (from Bobby Shaddox).
  3. Say "point at the screen if you can hear me" (from Carol Cabrera).
  4. Count down from 5 - "quiet in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1" (get quieter as you count down).
  5. Say "Clap once if you can hear me… Clap twice if you can hear me…"
  6. Variation on 5: Just say "Clap one time… Clap two times…" (from Sonya Ramirez).

Regulating noise:

  1. Establish three consistent volume levels: Restaurant (everyone talking), Library (mostly silent, talk if you need to ask a peer for something), Outer space (total silence). You can tell students "OK, outer space for 5 minutes, then we'll shift to Library" (Bobby Shaddox and Allie Wong).

Calling on students to respond to questions:

  1. Have a box of popsicle students that students have written their names on, pull out a popsicle stick to call on a student.
    1. I often use these for students to read out what I've got onscreen in a presentation. I try not to use this to call on students to do something that's more cognitively challenging, because I don't want to freak kids out and I know sometimes this just leads people to freeze up. However, it's really important that kids get cold-called to do cognitively challenging stuff, so it's not always the same kids who do it! My way of handling this is to have kids pair-share before I pull a popsicle stick - that way, students aren't just saying what they are thinking, they're saying what "they and their partner" are thinking. 
  2. Call on students in threes - in other words, if five people are raising their hand, say "Mike, then Sarah, then James" (from Michelle Clark). 

Prompts for responding to reading

  1. Choose a "golden line" - that is, a line that really grabbed you. Then say why you chose it, or ask a question about it.

Questions to ask during critique

  1. "Does the writing sound like the person who wrote it? (from Carol Cabrera).

Interdisciplinary teaching

Last year I wrote a description of interdisciplinary teaching for my syllabus, and I really like it. 

This year, I'm taking it out of the syllabus, in an effort to make the syllabus as lean and mean as possible. But I still like it, so I wanted to post it here:

A note on interdisciplinary teaching

interdisciplinary (adjective): of or relating to more than one branch of knowledge (New Oxford American Dictionary)

At High Tech High, we do interdisciplinary teaching and learning. What that means for you is that you'll do projects that span across more than one subject – such as a project co-taught by Dr. Patton (humanities) and Mr. Leader (biology).

We still divide ourselves into separate subjects, because each subject has a unique set of skills and ways of working, and to some extent, these are easiest to master in isolation. But we work across these subjects whenever possible, because 'subjects' are, at best, a convenient filing system for human knowledge and once you leave school, nothing you ever do will ever divide neatly into subjects ever again.

My Notes on Tony Wagner's talk at the 2013 Deeper Learning Conference at High Tech High

This happened a long time ago, but I'm going through my notebook and I want to get these ideas down. 

Wagner gave the keynote speech at the Deeper Learning Conference, and it was awesome and challenging. Here are some points that stuck with me. They're out of context, which may make them look glib, but they're worthwhile anyway:

"The world doesn't care how much kids know. What matters is what they can do with what they know. 

According to Wagner, skills are "necessary but not sufficient" in the emerging workplace - what's needed is the capacity to innovate. 

Wagner's 5 Ways School Limits Creativity (& Innovation)

  1. Culture of schooling rewards individual achievement, which complicates incentives for collaboration
  2. School compartmentalizes knowledge and rewards expertise
  3. School rewards passive consumption
  4. Penalizes failure and rewards compliance
  5. Extrinsic reward & punishment

Wagner's three keys to education that encourages creativity

  1. Play
  2. Passion
  3. Purpose

Also, "bring whimsy into every assignment"

And finally - how do we convince students and parents that this is how it should be?

We need to talk to parents about giving kids competitive advantage when they're seeking jobs. When they ask about SAT scores and college, that's what they're really asking. 

As ever, the writing on the wall is written by Orwell

One of my students, Dean, has just painted a quote from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four on the walls of the classroom (I helped out by painting over the pencil marks in white). Here it is (it requires two photos, since it appears on two facing walls):

I could (and should at some point) say a lot about why I wanted this quote looming over everything that happens in the classroom, but for now I just wanted to show the photos, and to quote the two passages from Nineteen Eighty-Four in which it appears:

The first reference in the book:

The party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew thatOceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed--if all records told the same tale--then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.' And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.

The second reference in the book:

O'Brien was looking down at him speculatively. More than ever he had the air of a teacher taking pains with a wayward but promising child.

'There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past,' he said. 'Repeat it, if you please.'

'"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,"' repeated Winston obediently.

'"Who controls the present controls the past,"' said O'Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. 'Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?'

Again the feeling of helplessness descended upon Winston. His eyes flitted towards the dial. He not only did not know whether 'yes' or 'no' was the answer that would save him from pain; he did not even know which answer he believed to be the true one.

O'Brien smiled faintly. 'You are no metaphysician, Winston,' he said. 'Until this moment you had never considered what is meant by existence. I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?'


'Then where does the past exist, if at all?'

'In records. It is written down.'

'In records. And----?'

'In the mind. In human memories.'

'In memory. Very well, then. We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?'

'But how can you stop people remembering things?' cried Winston again momentarily forgetting the dial. 'It is involuntary. It is outside oneself. How can you control memory? You have not controlled mine!'

O'Brien's manner grew stern again. He laid his hand on the dial.

'On the contrary,' he said, 'YOU have not controlled it. That is what has brought you here. You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth."

-Both quotes are from the Project Gutenberg Edition

Yossarian's profound response to my "Returning to my Roots" post

When Posterous got cancelled, and this blog moved over to Posthaven, there was a stretch of time during which both blogs were operational. During that time, "Yossarian" (whose identity I won't reveal since she or he posted under a pseudonym) wrote an inspiring and challenging response to my blog post about "Returning to my roots". Unfortunately, that response disappeared along with Posterous and if you look for it now, all you'll get is an error message. But never fear, I'm reproducing it here. It deserves to stand alone as a post of its own anyway. And just to be clear, I'm not posting it because he said nice things about me, I'm posting it because "beware the undertow" is always, ALWAYS a pertinent warning.

Nice one Patton! I really like the humane culture you are re-inspired to create in the room ("Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Drucker?) and love the "10 ideas" quote, a great reminder to us all. Even my missus, that shadowy sceptic who is never impressed by anything, loved your post. A thought I have is how very far ahead you are from where I started in my first year: indeed, light years ahead. Beware the undertow, then, Alec: as you know full well, it is stronger in education than within any other institution on earth and do not let it slow your journey! "My class...my students...my whiteboard" from the man who helped give UK education the notion of "Learning Commons"? And you know that even if it takes a whole morning co-constructing ground-rules about mobile phone usage, the benefits will outstrip this investment within days. And you know that adult to adult discourse makes notions of ceding authority look ridiculous. I get it that learners are institutionalised too and there is a symbolic dance to be had between staff and learners, but please, please don't make it your classroom because then it can't be shared.

You're the great Learning Futures hope Alec, not quite the word made flesh, but certainly the theory in action. And them "getting what we want them to get" has always been a ridiculous goal anyway: most won't, but if we design well, with them, and provoke and coach and feed stuff in, then they'll get all kinds of amazing learning that THEY want to get. And you're the man to do it.

No pressure then Alec, but stay radical ("of the root"as Alfie Kohn reminds us). We need you to. So how great that "This post is about returning to my roots."

Get in there Patton. And keep up the fight.

Returning to my roots: some reflections on Deeper Learning 2013

School's back in session today - in fact, my prep period finishes in six minutes and then it's lunchtime, and I have about a million unfinished jobs - not to mention the fact that the school scanner seems to have a built-in roulette wheel, and once again I've scanned a student's comic and the scan looks TERRIBLE. 

But I'm feeling really, really good.

This morning I wrote "Welcome Back" on the top of my whiteboard. It's a small detail, but it's not something I would have done two weeks ago, and I'm conscious that I did it because I'm thinking about the sort of culture I want my class to have - and I want the "default setting" of my class to be kind, warm, and supportive. More to the point, that's how I want to be.

This post isn't about the pedagogical ideas I heard at the conference, though I'm thinking about it a lot after the Deeper Learning conference, and it isn't about authenticity in projects (though I'm desperate to start designing projects by going to local nonprofits and local government and finding out what kinds of challenges my students can help them with). 

This post is about returning to my roots. 

Nine months ago, I was an education researcher, writer, presenter, and teacher of teachers. Sometimes when people asked what I did, I said "teachers and school leaders outsource their reflection time to me." I looked at different models of 21st-century skills, I studied schools that didn't have school buildings, schools that didn't look like schools. My most frequent criticisms of "innovative schools" were comments like "The actual TEACHING that happens is pretty traditional." I cowrote a publication entitled 10 Ideas for 21st Century Education. Here's how it starts:

People make a lot of assumptions about education: lessons should last for about an hour. Mobile phones should be switched off during school. Pupils should learn in classrooms. And, fundamentally, pupils come to school to learn, and teachers come to school to teach. These assumptions are so common, because they match the way that most of us were educated

But this version of education was designed in and for a very different time, and there’s no reason to assume that it will meet the needs of today’s learners. In response to the challenges we face in the digital age, schools are starting to do education differently. Why restrict lesson times to an hour when half-day sessions allow pupils to delve really deeply into subject material? Many young people have smart phones, so why not allow them to be used as learning aids? Adults learn in the real world, why not let pupils? And, fundamentally, the best teachers are people who love learning, and the best way to make sure that you understand what you are learning is to teach. The schools that are taking this seriously are still in the minority. But across the world there is a growing global movement towards achieving the vision of 21st century education.

I won't take credit for those words (they were revised by several different people, several times, and i can't remember who actually wrote most of them) but when I read them today, I stand by them. However, something changed since "10 Ideas" was published: I started teaching. 

Today, a part of me wants to share this publication with my students - but another part of me says "Do I REALLY want to have a big discussion about cell phone use in the classroom? What about hour-long lessons? MY lessons last an hour! And going out in the real world is awesome, but it's such a hassle getting parent drivers..." And of course, my revolutionary attitudes about overturning teacher-student power structures are much less attractive now that I'm a member of the ruling class.

But my thinking has changed in another way: I keep finding out that other people have concerns about students that have never occurred to me before - a big one is making sure everyone has done a "fair" amount of work for the credit they're given (for example, if kids are making up work because they've been sick or travelling with their parents). I just don't care that much, and it seems too difficult to quantify to me (particularly because the amount of effort that a particular task takes a particular student is HIGHLY variable). 

Now, generally speaking it's important to talk to people with different priorities from your own. But when you're a new teacher, it's difficult to maintain your equilibrium and stay true to yourself, because you know that everyone around you has more experience than you, and you're doing a really, really complicated job that sucks up your weekend, so it gets difficult to think straight about big, foundational issues like "What do I care about? What's the purpose of my class? What do I want for my students? How do I know they're getting what I want them to get?"

There's a cliche about new teachers, that they come in idealistic, full of visions for how they're going to transform education, but once they're in the classroom they discover how crazy their fancy ideas were, and they hunker down to teach in the "real world". 

I think it's true that teachers tend to become more "traditional" than they plan to be (I certainly have) but it's not because that's the right way, it's because when you start teaching you are clutching for whatever structures you can find, and no matter how true it is that smart phones are the most extraordinary research tools ever to be subsidized by parents, knowing that fact will NEVER help you maintain control of a classroom. And control of a classroom precedes everything else: you cannot cede authority unless you have it to begin with.

This brings me to why I'm feeling so good: I went to the Deeper Learning conference during Spring Break, and it reminded me of what I believe about education and affirmed that my beliefs have a theoretical basis and some empirical data backing them up. It reminded me that when my ideas conflict with "how it's normally done", it's entirely possible that my ideas are right. 

I need this so much more as a teacher than I ever did in any other job. It's not easy to be true to yourself in this business, but events like Deeper Learning 2013 help.