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!

Yea, About That Charter School Thing.

Let me start by saying that I have never actually worked in a charter school. I have spent my whole career in public schools in high poverty urban settings. I have always spoken out against the charter school concept. It appeared to me that they cherry pick kids. If they don’t get to pick the kids they take, because of a lottery system, they get to pick the kids they keep, through a variety of ways. They are a threat to public education. That’s what I thought.

But lately more and more the schools that I see as doing things right are charters, or at least these schools have a charter component. Locally there is the Venture Academy. It is in the same extended neighborhood as the school in which I work, so it is convenient to my students. It is close enough that untill this year they used our gym for their after school sports program. My school looses a number of kids each year to this school. We rarely get kids that come to us from the Venture Academy. I don’t wonder why.

Yesterday I attended an edtech conference at Natomas Charter School in Sacramento, California. While I have much less experience with this school, it was evident from walking the campus, sitting in the rooms, and talking to some of the teachers who work there that they are doing a lot of things right. They aren’t cherry picking kids, and from everything I can see, they aren’t kicking kids out. They seem to be doing really great things in the classrooms.

I frequently ask my PLN on Twitter to recommend schools I can visit. The recommendations that come back are always charter schools. I have yet to have a person recommend to me an awesome public high school that is not a charter. Why is it that no one can recommend to me a public high school that serves a high poverty population that isn’t a charter? These charters must be doing something right.

So I am officially saying it. I was wro… I was wrrooon… Dang it, I was wrong. There I said it. I was wrong about charters. They arent a threat to public education. They are one of the few promises of public education. They have to compete for students, so they have to do a good job, or they can’t stay open. Because they have to compete, they can’t just do the same old, same old. They have to purposely do things to compete, to keep up. They have to keep up with the times, the technology, and the community.  And that is why I have changed my mind about charter schools. There. I said it.