Why Maps?

We all know about maps, right? You know, Google Maps. We all use Maps to figure out how to get somewhere, what’s the best route, or how long it will take. I remember that first time, at a Cue Conference, when a collegue showed me that if you type “nearby pizza” into Google on a phone, you would get a map to a nearby pizza place! I have been hooked ever since. But do you use Google Maps in the classroom?

Last week I was working with some high school Social Science teachers in a professional development session on integrating technology into the classroom. The subject of Maps came up. “Why would you use Google Maps in the classroom? Where is the curricular standard in finding the quickest route to San Jose?” The teacher raised a legitimate question.

I had a simple answer. Social Science teachers are concerned with events that happened in the past. Every event that ever occurred, since the beginning of time, happened someplace. Every event had a location, and that location can be displayed on a map. And maps that show where events occurred tell stories. Why not have kids write these stories, collaboratively? Why not have kids share these maps with each other and the world? When kids make their own maps of events they can then see trends and relationships between the events, acquiring a deeper understanding of the events, and having an opportunity to write also!

We then spent some time collaboratively building some maps. We started with a Google sheet. Whoa there Mr. Hall you may say, I thought you said maps, now you are talking about spreadsheets! Yeah, we built a spreadsheet, one column was the name of a WWI event, the next column had the coordinates of that event, and the third contained a description of the event. This is where the students do their writing. Directly in the spreadsheet. All of the teachers were writing in the spreadsheet at the same time. It worked wonderfully. Then I imported the spreadsheet into Maps, and boom, we had a map!

I can’t wait to see the maps these teachers students create!


Now that I have been in my new job for a half of a year, it is time to start getting back to the blog. One of the things that bothered me about being a classroom teacher was the isolation. A teacher never gets to go out and see what other teachers are doing. Sure you can go to conferences – I did that often- but that is not the same as going to other schools and seeing what is actually happening, what are teachers doing, and what are kids doing. So it is really difficult to have a sense of where you are at in the bigger picture. I thought I was a rather innovative teacher, but really, I had no idea. I had nothing to compare what I was doing with.

Now that I am out of the classroom I have the opportunity to go and see what is happening in the schools throughout the district. With some 2,000 teachers spread out over 53 schools I have some opportunities in front of me.  I  have seen some cool stuff so far. I loved seeing some second graders using Google Slides to give a career awareness presentation.  It was a blast watching some 8th grade kids work on building a prosthetic arm. I got to see a bunch of high school kids pound on the door to get back into school – on a Friday afternoon, on a holiday weekend! They had work they wanted to get done. It wasn’t “due.” They just wanted to work. They didn’t see how school being over had anything to do with it. They wanted the dang door unlocked.

In reflecting back on these experiences, there was a common element in all of these, and it was the teacher. In all of these experiences, the responsible teacher was visibly passionate about what his or her students were doing. In thinking back on what I know about learning, what we know about high performing- high poverty schools, it is the role of the teacher that is most important. The teacher must believe in the kids; they must be passionate about the kids and learning. They must do whatever it takes to bring an interesting and engaging lesson to the kids. When this is done, the kids respond. They pound on the doors to get them open.

I am looking forward to seeing more passionate teachers, and helping others to rekindle their passion.

Project Management

This last week our school held our first-ever open house, followed the next day by our expo. The open house was an opportunity for people in the neighborhood to come see what our students have been doing. Really it was a recruiting event; we are a school of choice, no one comes to our school because they have to, they come by choice. We need to recruit students so that we can pay the bills. By showing kids what our students actually do those that are interested in doing that will come.
The second event, the Merlo Expo, is an opportunity for our students to share their work with local business and industry leaders, and for those leaders to provide feedback to the students. The local Chamber of Commerce recruits volunteers to come hear the student presentations. This year we had about twenty-five volunteers come and work with our students and leave them with written feedback on their projects. It was amazing.
In looking through the feedback, a common theme emerged, this one from Facebook-

Wow. Just attended the Merlo Expo as students prepare for the SkillsUSA State Conference next weekend and wow! I saw some amazing projects and project management skills that would put these young leaders in jobs in a heart beat! -Jonathan Buyco

Project management was a common theme. The business people consistently said that the students demonstrated great project management skills, and how important that is. It was a little eye opening because I had never thought of that as a goal. We talk about time management, but that is a different thing. There were no comments about time management, which is a standard we specifically address. Folks were talking about project management.

Our new free little library all stocked up!

A photo posted by Merlo Institute (@merloiet) on Apr 3, 2015 at 8:35am PDT

These projects are all different. They are all student-designed projects that came from the question “What are you passionate about?” I couldn’t possibly manage all of these projects. One group published a book about Ballet Folklorico, and another built an underwater robot. One group published three children’s books, and another created a “Little Free Library” for the school.I could not manage these, there is not enough time in a day, nor do I know much about these topics. They needed to manage the projects. I need to remind them that is a job skill they have. In the future I need to be sure all of my students develop these skills and know it!


Final proofs for #SkillsUSA Career Pathways #SkillsUSACA2015

A photo posted by Merlo Institute (@merloiet) on Mar 19, 2015 at 11:58am PDT


This year I am taking on the #youredustory blogging challenge. The short version is one blog posting a week about a suggested topic. Or you can use your own topic, just share once a week. Oh, and comment on other peoples’ posts. Sounds like something I can handle, so here goes!

The topic this week is “What is your “one word” that will inspire you in your classroom or school in 2015?.” That for me is easy. My one word is “Do.” As in do something. Just do it. Or, as Yoda said, “Do or do not, there is no try.” (I think that is what Yoda said, I am not a sci-fi kind of guy at all.)

Too often I find I think about the thngs I might try, or I should try, or I am going to think about. I find my to-do list getting longer and longer. I find I am always encouraging my students to do something, or make something, but that advise does not always come back to me. I need to change that.

Recently I came across a blog posting where it was argued if someone is going to teach a subject they need to be a practitioner of that subject. (Sorry, I can’t remember whose blog it was- I am sure I will be reminded shortly!) If someone teaches English, they should be a writer; if they teach welding they should be a welder. I think that is true. So this year, when I give an assignment, I am going to do it too. With the students, in front of the students.  I am going to do.

But I don’t know how to do that!

One of the things that I have noticed changing in class recently is the student response to a new project. In the past I would hear a lot of “but I don’t know how to do that” as an excuse for why a student was participating. There were a lot of versions of the same thing; “I am not good a computers,” “I am not creative,” “why can’t you just give us a work sheet?”  But that has changed this year, for the better.  Now, when a new assignment is given, more often than not I get a “Hmmm.” And a long pause. And then, eventually, “I know what I am going to try…”

Part of the change is because I stopped giving grades for assignments. I still have to put a grade on a report card, but instead of a grade on an assignment I put comments and I ask questions. I encourage them to try again. And again. And I spend a lot of time talking with kids about their work. In fact, I spend almost all of my class time now talking with individual kids about their work. Those individual conversations have changed everything. Now I think the students feel safe to try something they don’t know how to do.  It is OK to try over and over until they understand the concept, and they aren’t going to fail the class because of it.

I always thought the “I don’t know how to do that” comments were odd. Of course they don’t know how. Why would I ask my students to do something they already know how to do? This is school! We are here to learn new stuff, and how to do new stuff!  I think we have trained kids to “do school” instead of learn at school. I think it is the result of ten years or pacing guides and workbooks. Find the answers. Fill in the blanks. Copy and paste. Copy the notes from the PowerPoint.  We lost the learn. We stopped creating. We kicked “I wonder” out of class. Lets bring those things back.


Why Can’t They Start Now?

It was one of the last days of the school year and Alex, one of our seniors, said it: “I just can’t wait to graduate high school, go to college and finally work on what I want to be in life.” He was so excited. As he talked to his friends it became apparent that he viewed high school graduation as the end of learning the things he was told  to know, the end of jumping through pointless hoops, and college was where he could take control and do the things he felt relevant.

While I was happy for him and the rest of the graduates, I felt like a failure. Why can’t we have a school where kids can work on their passions? Where kids know the connections between their courses and the rest of their lives? Sure the state dictates what courses students need to take. But there is really no reason school can’t be a place where kids are preparing for their future, the future they see for themselves.

It has been done before, we have examples of how to do it.  There are schools where kids are excited to go to school, where kids are in control of there learning, and it works. It is hard to break the paradigm, but it is not impossible- it’s just difficult. We have the chance for a new beginning with the transition to CCSS. So lets make it so. This year.

Trying never works

I had the opportunity to spend the last week in Redlands, California, at the headquarters of ESRI  learning about spatial thinking. In the last several weeks ESRI announced, as part of the ConnectedED initiative, a billion dollar donation of software to k-12 education. I spent the week better learning how to use that software in the classroom. It is pretty amazing stuff. For those of you that are into maps, I strongly suggest you look into this stuff. For those of you that are into things other than maps, I offer the same advise. It is not about just what is where, like many people think of maps. It is so much more than that. It is the why. It is big question, higher order stuff. And if you have any geek in you at all you will love it. And face it, if you know about this blog, you have at least some geek in you! And best of all the software is free, all you have to do is ask. But that’s not the point of this post.

One afternoon this week I was working in the auditorium completely immersed in figuring out how to show a correlation between my data points when I heard someone on the stage say “My name is Jack, and I’d like to talk to you all for a little while.” Looking up I saw it was Jack Dangermond, President of ESRI, the guy who just gave a billion dollars to education. He gave a little talk and then asked us, the eighty or so educators in the room, what we thought he should do to change the world. It was a fascinating conversation, but one part stood out.  One member of the audience offered his thoughts, and finished with “…so that’s what I am trying to do.” Mr. Dangermond responded, “Yea, the thing about trying is trying never works. I need people who will, people who do.” That really hit home with me.

Many times my students say “Ima try my hardest.” Or “Next time I’ll try harder.” How many things do I say I am trying to do? I am trying to build a better grade book. I am trying to make more engaging projects. I am trying to provide better feedback. I see that Jack is right. Trying never works. So this year I am making a better gradebook. I am building more engaging projects.  I am providing better feedback.  Because trying never works.

Stuff Changes

My wife and I both love doing yard work. Really, we do. Give me a weed whacker and a compost pile and I am in heaven. When we moved to our house over 15 years ago we had a 10 year plan to make our home the most wonderful garden we ever had seen. Well, in our minds it would be wonderful anyway. So you would expect our gardens to be finished, right? Well, no. Because stuff changes.

Last year, for example, we got a new next door neighbor. Steve is a nice guy. He is very friendly and likes to chat. He also has horses. Nine horses, to be exact. In late summer those horses make a lot of dust. That wonderful view we didn’t want to block with trees was now a pathway for dust! We are in the midst now of a new landscaping plan. One that includes a lot of dust trapping trees and shrubs along the eastern edge of our property. The wonderful view of the sun rising over the Sierras will be gone. Its not that our original plan was bad, or wrong. It is just that stuff changed.

Curriculum is like that. There was nothing wrong with how I was teaching five or six years ago. (Well, ok, I had lots of room to improve, work with me here.) But I cannot use those lessons anymore. Those projects kids spent a couple weeks on? There’s an app for that now. You can do those “projects” in about 5 minutes on your cell phone. And the kids know it. I could “make them do it, and most of them would. But that would be kind of pointless. I am supposed to be preparing them for the future, not simply keeping them busy. So this summer, between planting new trees and going to lots of edu-conferences, I will, once again, be revamping my curriculum. Because stuff changes.

You Want Me to Teach Like a What?

A few summers ago I learned about teaching like a rock star. I took a drive down Highway 49 and spent a couple days at Minarets High School, met some amazing people, and continued to change the way I think about what I do in the classroom. If you have never gone to one of these camps, I highly recommend them. They sell out fast, so you have to sign up quickly.  About a year ago I read the book Teach Like a Pirate. I love that book. It really takes what I try to do to another level. No, I do not dress up in costume like the author does, but I do try to make the day interesting, relevant, and even fun for the students in the class. School should not be boring. Really, it shouldn’t.

Now there is a new movement taking shape: Teach Like A Feral Pig.  I have never met a real rock star or pirate that I know of. But we have feral pigs in the area I live. They are not considered good things. But then, neither are pirates. I surely do not want to live next to a real rock star- I have heard about those parties! But back to the pigs, they are usually big- real big. They like to dig things up. We have a friend whose yard is constantly being ripped up by feral pigs. He can’t stop these things. They know what they want and they don’t let pesky things like fences keep them from their goal. They are downright disruptive!

We teachers should be like that. We should be disruptive. We shouldn’t do things just because that is how it’s done. Rock stars are rock stars because they don’t do things like its always been done. Pirates were pirates because they were rebelling against the establishment. (OK history peeps, don’t jump me on that one, I’m making a point here.) And feral pigs are feral because, well, at some point they busted out of the fences the farmer had them in!

I am going to spend my summer planning on how to be a feral rock star pirate pig! Whose with me?

Showing Student Work in Public

I have long been a believer in students making their work public. When I started teaching my school was working with some of Ted Sizer’s ideas, and “public exhibition of mastery” was an important one of those ideas. I came to believe that when students control their learning and  are expected to show the results of their learning in public they do amazing things. So I have tried over the years to create just such an environment. I have learned that it isn’t an easy environment to create. Sure we can have students write blogs or create web sites. These are not too difficult to create, assuming the web filters aren’t overly restrictive. But my experience is these digital public venues, for all their strengths, just don’t pack the same punch as a student standing in front of a perfect stranger, looking them in the eye, and explaining some piece of work the student has done. Something really magical happens when these are the expectations.

This year we decided to create a new public exhibition event at our school. We participate in SkillsUSA, and we decided that students who go to the state competition would participate in our own event before the state event. Our local Chamber of Commerce recruited a couple dozen volunteers who have some expertise in the projects the students are doing. We bought the volunteers breakfast, invited the school board and top administrators, and suddenly we had our first annual Merlo Expo! Our school secretary said it went from a backyard bbq to a full blown Quencieta! It got complicated quickly. But our school community stepped up and made it a really special event. Our leadership class and their teacher really did an outstanding job with the details. The whole office staff did a great job with the logistics. The support from the whole school really made it a fantastic event.

The results were simply amazing. We have a couple dozen new industry supporters who think highly of the school. We heard nothing but fantastic comments about our students and their work. Our students were really excited about the feedback they were getting on their projects. Many of the students have already begun adjusting their projects in preparation for next weeks SkillsUSA event. That is something that has never happened before; in the past the state event was the first, and often last, public viewing of the projects. The students are considering feedback from a variety of real people, and making adjustments based on that feedback. One student called me over in the afternoon and told me one of the industry people told him his project would be better if there was an app for it. So he started sketching out plans for an app. That is simply awesome.

I think of equal importance is that the district administrators were able to come and interact with the students and see what the students are actually doing and learning. I don’t think we let them do that enough. We like to complain that district admins only care about the numbers. But when do we give them something else to consider? They see the numbers; they see the test scores and graduation rates and attendance and all the rest of the data. We complain that there is more to learning than that, and there really is. But when do we invite them to come and see the learning? I, for one, intend to invite them more often.