Learning is not quiet. 

“It should be quiet in here. You should be studying for the quiz!”

“Sit down and do your work, I want it quiet in here!”

I have heard these directions, and others like them many, many times through the years, and I just do not get it. When I am trying to learn something, especially something difficult to understand, I need to talk to people. I need to compare my understanding with another’s understanding. I think we all do. That’s why we have meetings! Can you imagine a staff meeting where the trainer said “I want you all to read this article, and study it. Tomorrow you are going to implement this new procedure, so study! Quiet!”

It doesn’t work like that. When we teachers are learning something new, we talk about it. A lot. We compare understandings. We argue about understandings. We challenge each other. We draw diagrams. We discuss. We get excited! So why don’t we let kids do that? It seems to me when kids are studying for a test the room should be noisy. Kids should be talking about the topic. They should be challenging each others understandings. They should be helping each other with clues. They should be giving high fives to each other. The room should not be quiet. Quiet is not the same as engaged. Quiet does not mean on task, and quite does not mean learning is happening.

 

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Breaking Stuff and Other Problems

I have a problem. My students are doing great work. So great they are working on projects and doing things none of my classes have ever done before. They are taking the projects we do  to places I have not seen high school students do before. It is a great problem to have, but I am not sure what we are going to do next week, let alone later in the quarter. I will have to come up with more advanced projects, or at least ask better questions.

When I ask myself why this year is so much more productive I can only come up with a few ideas. The students have not changed much. Sure they are older because I do not have freshmen anymore, but I do have a lot of sophomores. So they are older, but not by much. My classes are a lot smaller. In some past years I literally had to step over kids who were sitting on the floor for lack of anywhere else to sit. All the seats were taken, and if there was an empty space on a table you can be sure a kid was sitting there too.  Now I generally have an empty seat or two, and that counts for a lot.

But I think the biggest reason for the change is that I stopped focusing on the end product and instead focus on the process. More specifically, I began encouraging kids to to “do it wrong.”  I encouraged them to “see what happens if…” When they asked “should I click this” instead of a yes or no I respond with “if ya want.” I asked them to turn in not only the finished project, but evidence of all the mistakes and problems they had. I no longer hear “my computer broke, I can’t do it. You better not give me a bad grade ’cause its not my fault.” I get “Hey let me take a screen shot, no one got THAT error message before.” I even had a student ask a friend record a video so she would have evidence of what was going wrong. She thought it would be better that way than taking a series of screen shots. It is really fun to hear them talk about problems they are having and come up with theories as to why.

So what’s the problem?

I have been taught to think that all of the students in the class should be getting the same education, they should be learning the same things. I remember early  in my teaching career having “terminal measurable objectives” drilled into my head. At the end of the semester all students will be able to (fill in the blank with some task students will learn to do.) I can’t do that anymore. In this new environment, where I am expecting students to take risks, to make mistakes, and to even break stuff, I can’t say all students will be learning the same things. Some students are not finishing anything, but are learning tons! Other students churn out finished products, but are learning very little.  Finishing a project or assignment is not necessarily synonymous with learning. Similarly, not finishing an assignment or project does not mean no standards were learned. It might mean we ran out of time. Or it could also mean the idea/project was a bad idea to begin with! It doesn’t mean we didn’t learn!

I have a team of students right now working on building a Remotely Operated Vehicle; an underwater robot, as their SkillsUSA project. They decided they would design it on the computer then print out all of the parts on the 3D printer and assemble them. Yesterday they thought they had some parts designed just right, the first one came out perfect, so they sent five of the parts to the printer and went home. This morning they came in to find the parts done, but it was clear there was a problem, something had gone wrong and the parts did not fit in the housing they were designed to go in. There was some discussion as to what went wrong and why, and they set about to solve the problem- redesign the parts. One of the kids was gathering the defective parts and I asked what he was going to do with them. He said “I am keeping these. They are evidence that we redesigned them!” I had to smile, but I still have a problem.

I really like what is happening in room 17 this year. I see lots and lots of learning. Lots of really cool stuff. But how do I sustain it? How do I replicate it next year, and the year after? Projects we do this year aren’t going to work next year. There will be different kids, different interests, and different times. Tools we use now will be obsolete. There will be websites that easily do things we now spend lots of time on. I guess that is one way teaching is different now than it was, say 20 years ago; you have to move a lot faster just to keep up with the times!

Mom’s on the phone

mobile phones
mobile phones (Photo credit: phossil)

This year our school district changed a policy concerning cell phones used by students. While there seems to be some contradictions, my understanding is that it is ok for students to have and use cell phones on campus, as long as they do not disrupt instruction. While some teachers are still taking phones from kids I decided to try something new. I gave them an assignment and encouraged them to use their phones to do it. Then I told them it was ok to use their phones as long as they were not just texting, Instagraming, Facebooking, or what have you. I promised them I would not give them grief about their phones, if they kept it professional.

So far it has worked out well. Almost everyone has a phone, iPod, or tablet out and plugged in. They have their ear buds in while they are working, they take them out when I need to talk to the class. They take pictures of things they need to remember. They step outside to make audio recordings, and they compare apps for given tasks. And yes, they text. Every now and then I will see someone talking on the phone.  I tell myself it is ok. I asked a student who she was talking to on the phone. She said “My mom called.”

Yesterday I asked a girl if she thought she might be texting too much. She didn’t argue with me at all. She said “You’re right.” She turned to her friend next to her, handed her phone to the friend and said “put this in your bag and give it back to me after class.” No argument. No disruption. No referral. No calling campus security to search for a phone. Just kids doing their work. It looked and sounded a lot like a bunch of adults working in an office. I like this policy much better.

The Restroom Pass.

I was lurking this past weekend in a Twitter conversation about restroom passes in schools.

It is a fairly common pet peeve among teachers. We all have the correct restroom policy, and everyone else is wrong. We all know that kids use  “I have to go to the restroom” as code for “I am bored and need to get out of here” or “I need to call someone.” Rarely does it mean “I have to pee.” But still we give passes.

I teach high school. Up until this year I would tell the kids “if you have your big boy pants on you don’t need to go to the restroom. I have never had a high school student wet their pants.” Well, this year it happened. Someone wet their pants. I had to get a new policy. So I started paying closer attention.

Mine is a small high school, with about 250 kids. But there is only one restroom for each gender. During the passing period the restrooms are really full of kids; they are changing clothes for PE and making phone calls. They have to change in the restroom, it is required. So there are 15 to 20 kids in a three stall restroom changing for PE. It is crowded. Then their are the phone kids.  The restroom is the only place kids are “allowed” to use their phones, or at least it is the only place they can openly use their phone without risk of confiscation.  So what do you do if you have to, you know, pee? You go during class, because thats the only real option.



Astonishing Kids




“If you’re not astonishing the kids, they won’t be astonishing you back!” -Stephen Heppell


I came across this quote a few weeks ago on Twitter. It made me think about which of my kids are doing astonishing things, and which are not. The picture with this post is of my students giving a presentation to the school board. In the summer. After grades were turned in. They were finishing their project. I think that was astonishing. I have a bunch of kids doing astonishing things. 

But I have also been counting the number of kids who I am clearly not astonishing. Lets just say I do not have enough fingers to count that high. Even if I use my toes I come up far short. So I guess I need to, as my students would say, step up my game.

I teach a technology class, and am fortunate that I have a very wide range of curricular choices. I can really take the class in directions that most teachers can not. I do not have a district mandated pacing guide. I do not have an end of year standardized test. So I really have no excuses, no road blocks. I have a very supportive site and district administration- they will allow me to do what I think best. They trust my judgement. But still, looking across my room I see kids who are not doing astonishing things. 

I guess that means I have room for improvement. I need to be more astonishing.