"Hurry up, but don't worry if you need to start over" - the peculiar pacing of project-based learning

As my students prepare to scan the drafts of their Absolutely True Comics and add lettering in photoshop, I find myself sending mixed messages. 

On the one hand, I'm urging students who don't yet have well-drawn drafts to pick up their pace, so they don't miss their deadline on Thursday. On the other hand, I'm assuring students who are receiving critique that if they conclude from their critique that they need to restart their draft from scratch, that's OK - and doing so won't set them back too much.

This is a peculiarity of project-based learning. One of its central tenets (at least, if you follow what one might call the "Ron Berger School" of PBL) is that in order to create "beautiful work" students need to be able to make drastic changes to their drafts based on critique, even to the point of starting fresh (at least in the first few rounds of critique). I believe this wholeheartedly - but I hadn't anticipated, until now, the strange position that puts me in. Essentially, my message is "hurry up and finish, but once you're finished, it's OK if you need to start from scratch." This leads to the obvious question "Well, if I have time to start again from scratch, and I already think my draft is going to be good enough, why do I need to hurry?"

I was talking about this with my director, and he pointed out that it's much quicker to redo something than it is to do it the first time - this is true, but not necessarily easy to communicate to anybody (teenage or adult) who is in the middle of a draft.

The Sultan of Summaries, and other alliterative titles

[Apologies for the bizarre numbering in this post - I can't get the numbers to behave normally, so there are lots of "ones"]


I started teaching high school with a classic university lecturer’s attitude to reading - that is, I had the following assumptions:

  1. The skills required to intuit a teacher’s reason for assigning a reading, comprehend an dassigned text, and take notes that allow you both to “hold your thinking” as you read and to return to the text and find key information and ideas without reading the entire thing again, are either already in students’ possession, or can be acquired purely through the act of reading an assigned text.
  1. Anything I assign will be read by my students because I have decreed it.
  1. Sometimes the reading will be followed up in class, and sometimes it won’t - but either way, the reading’s intrinsic value will be obvious to students.

Of course, I couldn’t articulate these assumptions when I started teaching - it’s taken me until now even to recognize that I was burdened with them. At the time I just thought I was free from the hang-ups of high school teachers (I wouldn’t have even been able to articulate that notion at the time, but it’s painfully clear to me now). I distinctly remember assigning my first reading early in the semester: an excerpt from the first chapter of Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, a guide to writing poetry, which I would have described as “accessible” before I started teaching high school. I now realize that it is “accessible to anyone with an undergraduate degree in the humanities who already likes poetry a bit, and lives in England” (the book is absolutely jammed with English pop culture references). After I’d handed out photocopies to everyone, a student asked “do you want annotations for this?” I had two immediate thoughts:

  1. “What on earth is this student talking about?”
  1. “This sounds like the sort of inauthentic task that leads to students taking notes in order to fulfil an extrinsic requirement rather than for their own use as a reader.”

So I told the student “You should definitely be taking notes, but I don’t care how you take them. Do it the way that works best for you.”

Now, if you’re a teacher, you’ve spotted what’s wrong with this statement: if you’re 16 years old, you probably don’t have a way of taking notes “that works best for you”. And even if you do have a successful note-taking strategy, it’s probably not one that stretches to popular poetry how-to guides written for English people. I didn’t think this mattered, because the reading had an “authentic purpose” that would be obvious to my students: they were writing poems about historical events for the “Poet Laureate Project”, and in order to write a high quality poem, they needed to understand meter (which was what the reading was all about). The limitations of word-count won’t allow an enumeration of everything wrong with this assumption, and in any case, it’s pretty obvious. Of course, when the deadline for the reading came around, it became pretty obvious that most of my students had given up on the reading partway through, and nobody had fully understood it.

This experience informed both my choice for the next reading, and the way I introduced it. First, I assigned Stephen Fry’s introduction to The Ode Less Travelled, in which Fry explains his approach to poetry, and, crucially, his belief that it is more worthwhile to learn the mechanics of writing poetry than to start out by trying to fathom what other poets “mean” with their poems - this is one of the key assumptions underpinning the Poet Laureate project.

This time, we started reading in class. I divided everyone in groups of four, and divided each group into the following roles:

  1. Sultan of Summaries
  2. Duke/Duchess of Definitions (this role required either a dictionary or a laptop)
  3. Prince/Princess of Predictions
  4. Count/Countess of Connections

The groups each were given a sheet of legal-sized paper (it would have been better with a bigger sheet of paper). I modeled how they should create their summary, based on my interpretation of a speech by Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. The “sultan of summaries” wrote a summary down the middle of the page, the Duchess of Definitions wrote definitions around the outside, the Princess of predictions drew an arrow from the end of the summary to a prediction about what would happen next. The Countess of Connections didn’t actually do anything because, as I realized when I made my model, I didn’t really know what “connections” meant in this context. You can see an excellent example of a student group’s summary here. This was the first time that I used a real structure for reading, and it worked pretty well, though I can see a few ways to improve it. For example, now that I understand how to make a “connection” when reading, I’d have students use a double-headed arrow to connect a point from the chapter to something else the Countess has read or seen, or to their own life. The other problem I discovered with this was that many students could not discern which unfamiliar words mattered and which did not. This was a particularly noticeable problem with this reading, because Fry spends a lengthy paragraph describing all the technical language you need to understand in order to become a painter or sail a sailboat. He only does this in order to make the point that poetry isn’t unusual in containing technical language, and you don’t actually need to understand any of the words in order to make sense of the article (since the point is that you probably won’t understand them). Nevertheless, several students dutifully looked up ten or fifteen words about painting and wrote down definitions of all of them. To address this, it would be worth having students read a passage with some new vocabulary and identify unfamiliar words that are “probably important” vs. unfamiliar words that are “probably unimportant”. Students could compare lists, and we could develop a shared criteria for judging the importance of specific words to overall comprehension.

I’m ashamed to admit it, that I never returned to this activity after we did it once. But at the end of first semester I realized I had a problem, because I didn’t know how to teach reading. I talked to my Dean, Spencer Gooch, who’d been a humanities teacher, and he llent me Cris Tovani’s Do I Really Need to Teach Reading?, which transformed my teaching. In fact, it’s striking to me now that the roles I invented for my activity (summary, connection, prediction, definition) are, for the most part, the same categories that I used when I started doing double-entry diaries after reading . So I obviously got them from a good source (I’m certain I didn’t make them up myself!)




Quotes I'm hoping to paint on the walls of my classroom

OK, that title's slightly mendacious. I'm hoping students will paint quotes on the walls of my classroom - I'll help. I'd like a combination of quotes I choose, and quotes they choose. Here are the quotes I've thought of so far:

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

-George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four


History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.

-Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending


The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

-Alan Bennett, The History Boys

Ever tried, ever failed, no matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. 
-Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho

Always, an ever-finer form is waiting to be found through patient and sensitive trial and error [...] A concept is the result and comes at the end. 
-Peter Brook, The Quality of Mercy (he's talking about the rehearsal process, and coming up with a "concept" for a production.

Other ideas welcome!

A thought occurred to me during my class tonight, and I found it oddly comforting...

In my class on teaching Reading and Writing that I take every Tuesday evening as part of my credentialling program, the following thought occurred to me, so I jotted it down:

In this job you're always neglecting something and someone, and you're always missing some trick that would make whatever you're doing smoother, richer, or more engaging.

It was good to recognize that when I feel this way it isn't an aberration, it really is in the nature of teaching.

How I introduced double entry diaries

This is more class work that I'm reposting. It is definitely a post strictly for you teachers out there - I can't imagine anyone else being interested. This is all about Double Entry Diaries, which I learned about from Cris Tovani's fantastic book, Do I Really Need to Teach Reading?


I want to talk about how I introduced double entry diaries to my class (you may know these as Cornell notes.

Here's what I did: I made a big (about my height) "double entry diary" on my whiteboard using blue tape. On the left I wrote "data (facts and ideas)", and on the right I wrote "questions, connections, and predictions". I had all my students make a double entry diary in their notebooks. For this first one I went heavy on the ceremony, instructing that they first fold their paper in half lengthwise, then carefully trace a vertical line up the crease.

At this point I started playing a podcast about the first paleoAmericans. I stopped it frequently, and had people come up with entries - I solicited lots of responses, so that one piece of "data" often had several questions, connections, and predictions attached to it. Because I wasn't the one reading, I was able to be "one of the note-takers". I think it would have felt very different had I been reading and then pausing to elicit notes from others.

For the most part, this introduction worked very well: students took to the structure very quickly, and the predictions drove interest in "what would come next". The problem was that it went very slowly, and if we listened for more than a few minutes, lots of key points got completely lost. I ended up listening over two days (one hour each) and it got tedious. It would have been better possibly to listen to it once in its entirety, taking notes, and then go back and listen to longer chunks at a time.

Overall, I really liked teaching reading through listening - it meant everyone was at the same pace and we were doing something communally, and it meant that everyone knewexactly where the notes were coming from - they didn't even need to flip to a particular page, because they'd all just heard the source material.

"Coding": a strategy for reading nonfiction (also, stuff about post-its)

I'm currently taking Tom Ferenbacher's class on teaching Reading and Writing. I'm writing weekly reflections for this class on a wordpress blog, and I'll be reposting them here. Here's the first one - in theory it's about exit cards, but it touches on lots of different aspects of teaching reading.


This week I assigned my first-ever exit cards. This feels a bit shameful to admit, since they've been a fixture in my own credentialling classes ever since the Odyssey, but unfortunately it is the case.

I assigned the exit cards on Monday. I have declared Monday "Reading Monday", and decided that every Monday we will focus on a bit of text, and a reading strategy. This was my second "Reading Monday". My first had been the launch of the first novel we're reading as a class, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie. We'd written a double-entry diary about the book's dedication, in order to generate interesting questions, build curiosity, and demonstrate how much you can find in a short, seemingly-innocuous set of words (you can read the class plan here).

For my second "Reading Monday", I wanted us to read a piece of non-fiction about American Indians (You can read my plan for the class here). This anticipated Tuesday's class, when I would launch our project, whose essential question is "Why is [the protagonist] Junior's life like it is?" During the previous week, students had been asking questions about schools on reservations on our blog, so I chose an article about a new Indian-run education department on a Lakota Sioux reservation. The article provided a different, more hopeful perspective on the potential for positive change to happen withinreservations (Alexie's attitude to reservation life is notoriously dyspeptic), as well as providing some insight into the history of education on reservations (in retrospect, I wish I'd directed students to key passages FIRST rather than having them read the whole article).

I used this session to introduce the students to "coding" - that is, using a set of five symbols to mark up a piece of non-fiction writing (you can see the symbols here - they are a modified version of a set of symbols I learned from Spencer Gooch). When the students came in, they were prompted to respond in their humanities notebooks to the prompt "what do you know about the reservation school in ATDPTI?") I don't know anything about their responses to this, as I didn't have time for any sharing-out (this semester, my classes are one-hour long). I'be been thinking about good ways to check in on students' writing to learn within the constraints of one-hour classes. One option is to read over students' shoulders as they write, but this only works for students who write pretty quickly, and I find it difficult to keep track of whose work I've read and whose I haven't). Another option is to collect notebooks at the end of the week. I'm increasingly learning towards doing this (apart from anything else, it will give students an extrinsic motivation for writing in their journals, which would, for some, be helpful). However, I'm balking because of the time this will take, and also because I'd like students to be reading over the weekend, and if they're reading, I'd like them to be holding their thinking in their notebooks!

So that was the "opener" writing to learn exercise. I then introduced coding (some students had used it in their classes last year, which meant I got a mix of nods and groans of familiarity). I'd printed out copies of the Lakota teachers article, and had students "code" on post-it notes that they could then put on a page in their notebooks and refer to in the future (problem with this is that it bulks up their notebooks and makes them unwieldy, and I post-its are not adhesive in the long term). However, I didn't want to print out 62 copies of the article, so this seemed like the best solution. I used a dot cam to model my own coding on the first page of the article. I then gave the students time to read and code, then get into pairs to share their coding with each other. I know that for a few students, getting in to pairs was critical to their understanding.

So now we get to the exit cards. On a post-it, I had the students respond to the following:

  • How well do you feel you understand coding as a method?
  • When do you think it might be a useful strategy for you?

I had them stick their post-its on the whiteboard, around the prompt. A couple observations about this:

  • I think it was a mistake to let the exit cards be anonymous - I ended up with post-its that said "I don't really get this", but I had no idea WHO didn't get it. If I had names, I could have helped kids individually during team time at the end of the day.
  • It seemed (and I'm only guessing, because they were anonymous) that the students who are most strategic about their learning immediately saw the potential for coding to help their writing, whereas students who had not developed the same resourcefulness saw coding as an artifice and a burden on them. I have noticed that in general, there is an inverse relationship between actual and perceived note-taking ability (that is, students whose note-taking is limited tend to think "I know how to take notes already, I don't need any extra structures", whereas students who take notes effectively already can tell that their note-taking needs improvement). I worry that the structure of the exit card prompt encouraged responses like "I don't think it's very useful" - that it put students' responses into a "consumer" frame, which is not a helpful place to be.
  • Having them on a post-it meant that I could literally read through them during the break between classes - this was very helpful. If they'd had names on them, I could have separated out the notes that expressed confusion and made sure I caught up with those kids by the end of the day.
  • I noted on the "sample writing to learn exercises" that "exit cards" are only one subgenre of "lesson reflections". I think it would have been good to include both a time for writing a lesson reflection in notebooks, and and exit card. However, I don't see how I can do this within a one-hour class. I noticed that in our reading on "Writing to Learn", Fisher, Frey and ElWardi recommend 10 minutes for writing to learn - meaning an opener and lesson reflection would take up one third of my class.
  • Kids go a bit wild with post-its. I ended up needing to pick up post-it scraps, balled up post-its, post-its that had been pulled apart and artistically rearranged - I need to build in some clean-up time when we're using post-its (again with the stuff that takes time!)

Wow. Well, that was long. What I need to do in the future is to continue to experiment with opening and closing prompts (given the one-hour limit, I don't think middle check-ins will be helpful to me this semester) and see which are more and less generative.

Short-ish activities I'll be doing with my students sometime soon(-ish)

This is a collection of activities I either read about, or had suggested to me, during winter break. They are all self-contained (though some have the potential to flower into something bigger and wilder), and they should all be doable in an hour or less.


25-word stories
I got this from Will Ferriter's Tempered Radical blog, of which I am a big fan. It really needs no explanation beyond the title. I particularly like it because 25-word stories are something of a "thing" (they've even been blogged about on the New Yorker, which is my personal guarantor of significance - not a view my students share, mind). But this means that students can read other peoples' stories, and see websites devoted to the genre. Incidentally, a cursory web search revealed that these are sometimes called espresso stories.

If you want to try this yourself, Ferriter provides a handout (it's a word doc).


Structured Academic Controversies ("Debate-and-switch")
I learned about these from Tina Chavez, but they appear to come from the "cooperative learning movement" (again, I got this from a cursory google search, and I don't know very much about it). You give students a controversial topic and some information, and have them craft arguments. They take notes on the other side's arguments, and then (this is the key thing) switch sides and each debate the opposite side, using their notes from the other team's arguments. You can read more about doing Structured Academic Controversies here.


Writing Prompts
Not just any writing prompts, but the "28 most tried-and-true" writing prompts on this tumblr. They are pretty awesome (and beautifully presented) (thanks to Dan Wise for the link).


The Alibi Game
This is one of several activities suggested by Helen Cox, who teaches in England and edits the New Empress Film Magazine in her spare time (and evidently owns that watch that Hermione used in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabhan). 

You announce that the school was broken into last night. In pairs, everyone in the class must come up with their alibi. One "suspect" leaves the room, while the other gets questioned by the teacher and the rest of the calss. If their stories dont' match, their nicked.


The Adverb Game
I'll quote Helen directly for this one:

Write adverbs (eg "angrily") on slips of paper (or whisper into student's ear) . Student has to act in that manner and the rest of the class has to guess which adverb it is.
If you want you can give the students a long list of adverbs and they can choose which one they think it is - this helps for kids with poor vocab / weak emotional intelligence.

The Aphorism Game 
In groups of 3-5, students construct aphorisms by going around the circle with each person saying a word. The only requirement is that the words need to connect grammatically. At a certain point, the group realizes that they have an aphorism. At this point “wisdom has been born” so everyone in the group strokes their chins and says “mmmmmmmm”.

At this point the group writes their aphorism on the whiteboard. To extend the activity, groups can explain the meanings of each other's aphorisms (it's generally funnier if they explain the meaning's of each other's than if they explain their own). 

Action stuff
I love activities that are heavy on movement and light on language - and (to be crude and reductive for a moment) neuroscience backs me up on this.

  • Clapping call-and-response (leader claps a rhythm, the class repeats it - but everyone does it with their eyes closed (from Helen Cox)
  • Counting to 5 in pairs, alternating numbers and gradually replacing numbers with actions (from Helen Cox)

"Who's Line is it Anyway?"
This is a treasure trove (recommended by Jo Pugh) 

Little Greetings at the start of class

  • The most obvious of these is the simple but effective "High-low" - that is, high point and low point of the weekend.
  • I also like "recognitions", in which you single out someone who helped you out in some way during the previous week for recognitions.
  • Another one I just found in my notes is "My name is _____ and I feel like ______ color today."

    Concerning the Sizzle and the Steak

    When we talk about exhibition at my school, there is always discussion of the "sizzle" and the "steak". The "sizzle" refers to the look of an exhibition - particularly the transformation of classrooms into unrecognizable, magical-looking spaces - while the "steak" refers to the actual content of the exhibition - the students' demonstrations of their learning.

    Sizzle and steak are normally presented as different, even opposing things, but I read the metaphor differently: when you cook a steak, the "sizzle" is the sound of raw material being transformed into something digestible. So "sizzle" strikes me as a defining feature of beautiful work - information shaped by students into something that is meaningful to visitors who attend the exhibition.

    What is of more concern to me isn't the "sizzle", it's more like non-edible cake decorations - stuff that looks nice, but doesn't have anything to do with the matter at hand. This year, our mantra for exhibition was "nothing goes on the wall that doesn't help us convey the information we need to convey. This led us to a relatively spartan exhibition, and one that caused consternation among many during the process of setting up the exhibition, but it was an approach that I feel good about. 

    Interesting problems: the different priorities of teachers and non-teachers who want to change education

    This is an ambiguous title, for which I apologize. It is meant to imply both "teachers who are interested in education" and "non-teachers who are interested in education". 

    Until this autumn, I was a "non-teacher who was interested in education", now I'm a teacher. On the morning that I'm writing this, I have regained some of the luxury of my old job, because today all of the first-year teachers at the chain of shools where I work are going to a "Winter Odyssey" to reflect on what we've all been doing so far. 

    As a result, at 7:56 in the morning I'm sitting at the kitchen table writing this, having been inspired to write it by the New Yorker article I was just reading. I had the extraordinary luxury of waking up at 6:15 (an hour later than usual) and today (a tightly-scheduled set of workshops in which we will be discussing our classes in detail, and sharing work that our students have created) feels, to every single new teacher I've spoken to, like a vacation. 

    What I'm realizing at this moment is how little time for reflection I have most of the time. Teaching is, to a great extent, and adrenaline-based reflection. It is one of those jobs, like acting, being a chef, and sales, where to be at work is to be be "on". These jobs are precisely the opposite of research jobs. 

    So now I'm reflecting. I've just been reading a New Yorker profile of education campaigner Diane Ravitch (paywalled, unfortunately), and one innocuous-looking paragraph stopped me in my tracks:

    One of the constants in Ravitch's thinking, throughout its evolution, has been a demand for a rich, challenging, and varied academic curriculum [...] for all students. In part, the education debate can now be seen as a clash between Bill Gates's technocratic notion of Americas needs [...] and Ravitch's humanistic ideal of the well-rounded citizen.

    I read this and immediately thought "it takes a WHOLE lot more than a well-rounded curriculum to develop a well-rounded citizen." Now, so far, "researcher me" and "teacher me" are in accord on this: we both believe that pedagogy is criminally undervalued in these debates in favor of "curriculum", and, pedagogically speaking, we are both advocates of project-based learning*. But here's where things change:

    Researcher me says "design powerful projects that different students can access in different ways, and then guide your students through the project, and they'll be on the road to becoming well-rounded citizens". 

    Teacher me says "OK, thanks, but three kids don't seem to have an access point for this project and aren't interested, one kid is continuing to struggle with organization and it's really making it hard for them to achieve anything else, several just keep seeming to fade into the background, and meanwhile a few kids are just making progress that's leaps and bounds beyond anyone else!" 

    Here's what teacher me's anxiety boils down to: "Whatever ideology drives my vision of education, whatever pedagogy I espouse, the progress that my students make is dependent on my ability to provide them with the structures and support that they all need in real time. When I was a researcher, the basic unit of time I focused on was the year (or, more fine-grained, the six-week project). As a teacher I design multi-week projects, I plan the week, I outline the two-hour class, but the most important unit of time is the minute - if not the second. Nothing feels more important than what the kids are doing, and I am doing, right now. And if my awareness is blinkered, or my judgment is off, I'm not helping kids. 

    Of course, the good thing about this is that if this moment is important, so are all the other moments, and I have plenty of opportunities to fix my mistakes. But what matters most to me now is not the big structural changes that I used to advocate for in schools, and which, I felt, were pretty much guaranteed to improve kids' life changes. What matters most to me now is what happens, in the words of Matthew Moss Headteacher Andy Raymer, "on a wet Thursday afternoon."


    *and student-driven enquiry as well

    Interesting problems: Passion and scale in teaching

    I've discovered a really interesting problem that's inherent in project-based learning: it's really 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 others' 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. I don't see a way around this. 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. 

    Before I started teaching, I thought of students (to my shame) as a fairly homogenous entity. In fact, this conception is implied by the term "student engagement" (not to mention "student body"). I imagined engagement as being a bit like chants at sporting events - everybody gets pumped up and joins in for pretty much the same reasons, and it feels good to be chanting 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 64 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. 

    I'd love to hear about other teachers' takes on this!