If you're asking students to do rich, interesting work, you don't need to worry about copying

All project-based teachers have had this question about critique (especially model critique): "what if the kids just copy the model?"

The answer to this is, literally, "I'd like to see them try." 

Here's the thing: if you're assigning simple, rudimentary work, like, say, a fill-in-the-blank vocabulary worksheet. Copying a filled-in worksheet is fast, has a low cognitive demand, and you don't learn anything from the experience. So a teacher who's giving out a lot of fill-in-the-blank worksheets needs to police copying very closely. 

But let's say the assignment is to shoot a short film, and a student shoots a shot-by-shot recreation of the first scene of The Godfather. Copying a film scene shot-by-shot takes a long time, requires serious thought, and you learn a huge amount from the experience. 

So create assignments for students in which, were they able to copy it, you'd be astounded by their achievement. 

Also, convince your school to pay for one of the plagiarism-checking services that universities use. That makes things better for everyone and means that a kid who's on track to get busted and kicked out of college gets busted by you first, so you can help them understand the error of their ways. 

Project Idea: "They Work For Us"

In 2009, I interned as a researcher for Tom Steinberg, founder of mySociety.org, which was designed to help UK residents become more active citizens - it's hard to believe now, but there was a time not long ago when it seemed like the internet was going to be an engine for a more engaged citizenry and a more robust democracy. 

One of mySociety's websites was called "Fix my street" - anybody could use it to tell their local council about a specific problem. They also created "They Work For You", which was a website that collected all records of parliamentary debate and voting, and made them searchable. 

The project I'm thinking of is inspired by this, but totally non-digital. I'm thinking it would be called "They Work For Us", and instead of an essential question it would have a challenge.

Here's the challenge: Convince an elected representative to do something to improve the community

We'd want to partner with a nonprofit in order to do this, and study approaches to bringing about change that have worked in the past, and methods that are working around the world now. Then I think we'd plan a few campaigns (with different groups in charge of each one) and probably ultimately funnel them into one single campaign based on what seems most likely to be successful. 

Some more specific ideas for this:

  • Plot the addresses of all students on the team on a map (anonymously) so we can see where we live, and focus on specific geographic areas based on that
  • Do ethnographic interviews and interview various local stakeholders and experts in order to figure out what to focus on

Ideas for teaching "Outcasts United": learning about lots of different conflicts in one book without getting lost

I just finished reading Warren St. John's excellent Outcasts United, about the Fugees, a youth soccer team in Clarkston, Georgia, composed entirely of refugees, and their coach and founder, Luma Mufleh. 

I'd love to read this book with students, and while I'll need to re-read it and mark it up in order to develop all my initial ideas, I want to get a few written down now, while I'm thinking of them. 

In particular, the ideas in Talking in Class would lend themselves to teaching this - there are so many great "what would you do?" dilemmas throughout the book. 

But first, 'Backstory' lectures, which could use a better name. 

Many of the book's chapters focus on the perspective of a particular family of refugees living in Clarkston, and open with an explanation of the conflict that forced them to flee their homes. These are social studies gold, but English trouble, because they slow the pace of the book, so less skilled readers will get bogged down in them and have trouble figuring out how to get through the sudden onslaught of new characters and settings, while more skilled readers will be inclined to skim them in order to get back to the soccer (as, I confess, I was once I was about three-quarters through the book).

I have a few ideas for helping the class to track the various families on the team, and for becoming conversant in the history of the 20th century through some of the conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. 

Here's what I'd like students to learn from this aspect of the project:

  • Know the basics about what happened in a series of significant conflicts
  • Understand why these conflicts forced people to seek asylum in other countries
  • Understand the "semi-deep" chronology of events leading up to each conflict, and how they fit in the history of the 20th century relative to each other
  • Know where these conflicts took place on a map
  • Understand the role(s) that the US played in these conflicts, in order to underscore the broader point that America played a role in pretty much everything that happened geopolitically since WWII
Big world map
I'll put a big world map on the wall, and when we find out about characters who come from a particular country in the book, we'll put a pin there and label it. 

We can also do a quiz or two with a blank map of the world where students just need to indicate where the countries of origin are.

"Semi-deep" chronology
I'm using the term "semi-deep" because I want students to understand that countries don't just suddenly explode into genocide for no reason, but you can ALWAYS go deeper into historical backstory and I don't want to get bogged down. 

I'd like to put a timeline on the wall, with notecards indicating important events in the background to each conflict, so people can see the history visually, AND see that, for example, King Leopold of Belgium reigned before WWII.

'Backstory' lectures
Pairs of students will be responsible for giving a ten-minute lecture explaining the conflicts that are described at the beginnings of chapters. Different students will give the lectures on the day that we read a particular chapter. This lecture can draw on what's in the book, but should take more time on explaining everything.

As part of this lecture, the partners will...
  • put a pin on the country of origin 
  • put up notecards on the timeline as they explain them
  • set eight quiz questions for their classmates for the end of the week.
    • I'll add two questions of my own, and I'll also have the discretion to change the questions if they seem too easy, or incorrect 

Specialist spaces and equipment that a PBL school should have

The classrooms at my school are designed for maximum flexibility and maximum visibility: we use chairs that are easy to move and to stack, wheeled tables that can be easily combined to make larger tables, we have lots of glass walls, and most classrooms have one wall that can be opened to turn two classrooms into one big classroom.

For most of what we do at school, this flexibility is ideal. However, projects also need some specialist spaces and some specialist equipment. 

Here's my list of spaces and equipment that an ideal PBL school would have:

Specialist spaces:

Garden (designed with a few raised beds so you can have separate control and experimental groups)

Test kitchen

Recording/film studio

Some kind of lab (I'll be honest, I have no idea what a good science lab needs, other than flat surfaces that don't wobble - which I know about because they're surprisingly hard to come by at our school). 

Wood shop/Maker Space (personally, I would emphasize stuff like drills and table saws over 3D printers).

Black box studio theater with basic lighting.

Specialist equipment that doesn't needs a purpose-built space:

Musical instruments

Sewing machines



Computers with publishing, design, engineering, and audio and video recording and editing software.

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.