Monday, March 21, 2016

Cultivating Genius: The Book

When Melissa Hellwig and I give presentations and professional development sessions about 20% Time, Genius Hour and Project/Problem Based Learning, we usually have a curious and receptive crowd. We try to be thorough about WHY schools need to change to incorporate personalized learning and also show the template of our own program. Toward the end of our talk, we get questions about incorporating this philosophy into other situations and a call for more information on the subject. Most of the school districts where these teachers work do not provide any PD on 20% Time or PBL so these teachers are on their own to find relevant information. Teachers often want to be secure in what they are doing before taking that first step.

Because of the constant call for more information, I wrote Cultivating Genius: The Why and How of Creating a 20% Time Learning Environment. Last summer, I assembled all of the material that Melissa and I created and wrote the book in two parts. The first part is the "why" of 20% Time. It explores what schools have traditionally been and why we need to change education. The second part of the book is the "how" of 20% Time. It represents a step-by-step template of our own program that teachers can use as a model. I included the forms that we created and use and I also explained how everything works during the course of the year. Melissa contributed to the book as well. I included a powerful blog post that she wrote and she also created many of the documents that appear in the book. It is our hope that this book can be a springboard for more teachers to embrace the 20% Time model and ignite the passion for learning in their students. You can find the book here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Student Ingenuity and Project Based Learning

Every once in a while, a student will do something that makes you shake your head while at the same time remind you about why things must change in classrooms. Recently one our our teachers sent an e-mail to the rest of our social studies department. It read:

Just a heads up some one named bigchuck_427 created a quizlet with our answers on our study guides. Another student name (name deleted) used it as well.

This e-mail was instructive to me for many reasons. First, like most study guides, if you fill it out correctly, it comprises the actual test. Second, the student mentioned in the e-mail, though it is not what we may want from our kids from an honesty perspective, displayed ingenuity by using technology to allow others to access the completed study guide. Third, the traditional assessment model lends itself to this cat-and-mouse game that prizes information over problem-solving and creativity.

Since assessments are information-based, then there is a "body" of information that is regarded as important. It is this valued information that kids must write on a test in order to be judged proficient. Of course, when so much value is placed on a body of information, then some students will do whatever it takes to make sure they have the right information, even filling out a study guide and making it available on an app that all of the kids can access.

In our PBL classrooms, our assessments look different. They are not paper/pencil affairs that value certain information. These assessments, if done correctly, demand that the kids use the information that they have learned to solve a problem, take a stand, or make a judgment. The kids have a great deal of latitude in the project assessment because they create it in order to satisfy the learning goals. For example, our assessment for the Greek section of our social studies class was comprised of one question: We have looked at many aspects of Classical Greece: art/architecture, government, warfare, philosophy, and culture. Your charge is to decide which of these things was the most important one that we have taken from Greece and incorporated into our own American society. You must analyze what you have learned, research more information about your chosen topic, and create a presentation (paper, video, slideshow, etc) that demonstrates that your decision is the correct one.

For a project like this, there is no study guide. Each project will be different. Each child will have a different judgment and will have to build a case in order to back up their judgment. A project like this incorporates research, analyzing information and building a creative way to communicate the ideas. It is a qualitatively higher-level assessment that includes various secondary skills that a paper-pencil, information-based assessment does not. Let's face it, kids are going to have careers that are based on problem-solving. The more problem-solving experience and training we can give them, the better we prepare them for the future.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Student-Led Conferences

Each spring, our parent conferences take the form of student-led conferences. As kids get more and more used to taking responsibility for their own learning, student-led conferences become a natural extension of that responsibility. Kids are in charge of their learning and now have an opportunity to share that learning with their parents. The structure of student-led conferences is vastly different than traditional parent-teacher conferences and the preparation for students is much greater as well.

At the beginning of second semester, just after winter break, we introduce the subject of student-led conferences. Kids are now looking for learning artifacts and performance events that they'd like to share with their parents. In the middle of February, we begin building the kids' portfolios, which make up the bulk of the discussion during the conference. This year, we decided to create websites as portfolios. Most of the kids used and some used Google Sites. A few even used As kids built their sites, we asked them to create pages for English, social studies, math, science, 20% Time and "forms". Each page will have two projects linked. One of the projects must be one that the teacher required and the other project can be one that the student feels shows their best work. The "forms" page houses all of the forms we ask the kids to fill out, from "My Goals for Second Semester" to "How I See Myself as a Learner". The folder of forms is linked here. The week before conferences begin, we make sure that each student has their website created with all of the appropriate pages, links and materials.

The evening of conferences usually runs quite smoothly. We schedule four student-led conferences simultaneously and each conference lasts a half hour. In our four-hour conference period each evening, we can get 32 conferences done. We coach the kids on proper etiquette and have a script of bullet points taped to each conference table in case the kids get lost during the conference. The script just highlights things the kids should talk about. At some point during the conference, Melissa and I visit each conference to see if there are any questions that the parents have for us. For the most part, the parents have had all of their questions answered by their child. We have an exit sheet for each of the parents to rate how their child performed during the conference and we ask each parent to write their child a note telling them some positives about their conference. All in all, it is a great experience that allows the kids to present themselves as learners in charge of their education and allows the parents to see their children in that light.