Thursday, November 14, 2013

Day 54: I Jumped Off A Cliff...

...and I have no parachute.

First thing this morning, a teacher friend linked me to an article about a teacher in Mexico who gave freedom to his students and helped them to accomplish amazing things.  It started me down a path of thought that branched off in odd directions.  Thinking also about the Passion Project that the amazing @leslie_su76 was kind enough to share with me, and by the time I got to school, I was speeding so that I could get inside and start changing my entire pre-algebra class.

Research has shown that students learn better when they are interested in the topic.  In previous years, I didn't care if they were interested and instead focused on the idea of "you have to learn this if you like it or not."  This year, I've been trying to make the required material interesting.  In geometry, I think I've been succeeding.  In pre-algebra, I know that I have not.

At the start of the year, I started looking into the idea of Standards Based Grading.  Yesterday, I talked about allowing students to create presentations of their knowledge however they can.  I spoke with several teachers from several subjects about how to design these assignments and got some amazing ideas.

Overnight and from the article this morning, I realized that I have an amazing opportunity.  Today, I received 11 new students in my 4th period class.  One of those students speaks minimal English.  I had originally thoughts about starting the new integrated class with a recap of the rules and expectations in my room followed by a lecture and/or silent individual work.  I suppose my thought was that with new students coming in, I needed to reassert my dominance over my classroom.

Even typing that now seems a little absurd in light of my complete attitude change this year.

Instead, I allowed my thoughts to run wild and by the time students got to school, I was excited, exhausted and terrified.  I asked my principal if I could do an experiment in my class for the next few weeks.  I used phrases like "pilot project" and "authentic experience" and "technology integration."

So what am I doing?

I'm letting my students decide what they want to learn.

The idea is that if they get to pick their own topics, they will work harder on them and delve deeper than if I were to pick the topics.  I started by asking them to list things that they wanted to learn more about.  They didn't quite understand at first and said they wanted to learn more about integers.

Really?? All of human knowledge at your fingertips and you want to learn about integers? That MAY be true, but I don't believe you.

Then they started getting into it.  I want to learn to play guitar.  I want to learn about Chinese culture.  I want to learn how to travel in space!  I want to learn about quantum physics. (seriously)

I explained my idea and also some of the major issues.  I explained that we were going to pilot this type of learning for the district and if we messed it up (because it wouldn't be they, or I, but definitely "we") than the district would be able to say that exploratory learning was a failure and we should only work on text books and worksheets forever.  If, however, we succeeded in doing something amazing, we may just be able to change how students in the district are educated.  I MAY have exaggerated a bit, but they got the point and understood the importance of the experiment.

I made a deal with them: If they found something they could be passionate about researching, and would research it passionately, I would find the math in it in a way that was real and interesting.

I then handed out a class set of iPads and let them loose! Their goal for today was to explore the iPad and the internet, looking for things they found interesting and would like to learn more about.  By the end of class, they were to come up with at least 4 topics that they might want to explore further.

Then I stepped back and let panic set in, mostly my own.  How could I just give up control of my classroom like this??  What happens if they don't learn anything??

I think 4th period (now with 2X the kids!) thought it was a trick.  Several of them tried to upset me by looking up videos about football, or music videos with Beyonce,  I turned it around on them.

Me: "What are you looking up?"
Student: "Watching football."
M: "Cool! What about football do you find interesting?"
S: "The players are cool."
M: "Nice.  What about that guy? He any good?"
S: "He's alright. He's not as good as Hines Ward though."
M: "Really? What makes someone a good football player?"
S: "...His stats?"
M: "Interesting.  Would that kid over there say that this guy was better than Hines Ward?  Is there a way that you could say for sure who was the best, even if they played different positions?"

As I wandered the room, actually shaking from nerves, I saw an interesting mix of reactions.  Several students were exploring the iPads, opening apps and testing things out.  A few played Wuzzit Trouble, and a few other math game apps.  I even sent a few to Math Munch.  In 8th period, several students laid down on the floor and began browsing the internet.  I walked around the room and sporadically asked "What are you reading?"

She was reading about blobfish.  Another student was looking up zoology and kept spouting off facts from the net.  Another was researching how to become a lawyer.  A few students were using iMovie to make some videos and I heard "That's awesome! How did you do that?"  Learning was happening.

There was not 100% engagement, but there was more than my typical lessons.  I have very high hopes for this, but I am scared out of my mind.

After talking with our literacy coach, I felt MUCH better.  She sent me some resources and we talked about how to focus the students.

I do wish that I had taken more time to plan this before jumping in with both feet, but I also know myself.  I know that if I didn't start this right away, I would ponder over it for weeks and it wouldn't get done.  That has happened with other amazing ideas that I had in the past.

Jumping right in will FORCE me to do it and my renewed work ethic will force me to do it well.  I've started working on a "Genius Hour" workbook so students can identify SMP for whatever they want to be learning.

It's an evolving idea, but it scares the crap out of me.

I've either done something amazing, or ended my teaching career...


  1. That's a lot of my world, teaching one-on-one. In fact, that's exactly what my low-level chemistry course is (tell me what you like, and I'll find some chemistry in it). It's terrifying. FLEXIBLE is your new key word. I keep telling myself, "no fear!" because the kids will smell it, and you'll be sunk. Start looking up random resources now with what you know (lists of football stats, habitat of blobfish, etc.), so you have them on hand.

    Good luck!

    1. Too late! I flat out told them how scared I was. I explained why and they got it. I think that may have been part of the reason why they were on board.

      At least for now...

    2. As long as they know there's some sort of end goal/project/thing, there's something to work towards rather than just wander aimlessly. And yeah... let them go for it!

  2. Glad it went well! ~Eva

    1. Thank you so much for your advice and help today!

  3. WOW! This was a huge undertaking! As I read through it, I can't help but be anxious for the year we actually go 1-to-1. I know that you'll do a great job with all of it. Just don't let the stress get to you too much.

    1. The advantage to being a "failing school" is that when you inspire the kids at all, they sort of let you run with it. Our kids will do amazing things if we only let them.

      I hope I can let go enough to let them...

  4. You are awesome! If you ever have a day that you think you can't handle, remember that there are lots of ways to prepare, including this one.

    1. haha so just wondering Justin do you own this website or just reply to comments like dont take this offensive im just generally wondering haha

  5. I love your way of getting buy-in: help them understand that we want to show success to the district.

    1. A student asked me about it today. He wanted to know if we could show the principal and superintendent what we were learning.



  6. Justin, what you are doing is terrifying, but sooo right. I heard someone today describe that type of learning as homeschooling done right. You know, the homeschool kid who delves deeply into a topic of their choice and learns really cool things, but also learns the required things along the way. But the big piece you need to make sure you have is an "authentic audience". If they show and tell what they learned in class it's one thing. But if they present their projects to your school board (or whoever your decision makers are) as evidence of the success of this new way of learning, then they have skin in the game and have to do their best.
    I hope you continue to blog about the strange, exciting trip you're taking. Or maybe your class can blog about it.

  7. This is fantastic! Do you want me to send you any of my project scaffolding documents? I find that if you make the requirements explicit, and then give them a workspace and a project checklist, they will do some amazing things.

    Zap me if you want any of these.

    - E.

  8. Justin,
    I am so happy for you and for your students. You have together found trust, resources, and passion. There is so much learning ahead, and growth.
    I am quadrupling down as your cheerleader. You have of course journeyed far already, but this is an amazing new first step---both in your head and in your classroom.
    In awe, and thrilled,

  9. This is an amazing, intriguing, terrifying idea! I have friends who send their kids to a school that is about self-directed learning with very little structure. I see both the potential benefits and failures of such a system. I'm wondering if your experiment is essentially creating a hybrid to incorporate the best of both worlds -- freedom with structure. That would be truly revolutionary!!!

  10. I'm so glad you jumped! This morning I walked into school ready to say, "Forget the lesson plans, what do you guys want to learn?" But then I saw that only two students turned in their homework and the inner struggle began... Do I go all strict schoolmarm on them and perpetuate the creation of timely cogs for the machine because they do ultimately need to take responsibility for themselves, or ignore the oversight and open the floor to learning suggestions?
    In the end, I went somewhere in between. After reminding them of their responsibilities, I told them that I decided to cut down our unit on nationalism from a week to a single day because experience has shown me that no student would be interested in Italian or German unification and although Otto von Bismarck is one of my historical crushes, they'll survive without learning about him and his awesome mustache. So we talked about what nationalism is, which led to a discussion about my veganism, and finished with a very intense debate about nationalism in America. I'm hoping that this will free up next week to try something like you're doing. Seriously Justin, you inspire and push me to be better. Thank you.

    1. I am humbled by your comments and I will do everything I can not to mess it up. I never thought that I would be an inspiration for anyone, let alone other teachers. Thank you so much.

      I want all of my students to be the next Steve Jobs, the next Elon Musk, the next household name that equates to genius. Part of me, however, recognizes that for most of them, that won't happen and they still need skills that will serve them well in the work force. Things like promptness, organization, following directions, etc. are still useful skills.

      Even as I typed that sentence, I realized that all of those skills could still be incorporated into this project, so maybe I have a chance of soaring off that cliff instead of ending up like Wile E. Coyote.

      Maybe you don't need to skip von Bismark. Maybe instead, just tell a story about him. I've found that I have the most student engagement when I am simply telling stories about topics I find interesting. Students ask amazing questions that lead us off in weird directions as well.

      It's days like that that make me wish I taught history. :-)

  11. Great post! You are doing a wonderful thing. Be sure to share your trepidation, as you are on the journey together with them. You are allowing them to discover what they are interested in and then helping them to become passionate about it. You should be passionate too. Bring your hobby to work. Share it. Show them what passion looks like. Connect their learning to experts. If a student is studying the pyramids, help them get in touch with an Egyptologist. What you are doing takes time, acceptance and good humour. At no point should you feel like you are not doing the right thing. You are doing what real teachers do. You are connecting. Well done and good luck.

    You might like this post I wrote.

    1. Heh. My hobby has become "trying to be a better teacher" and "not getting enough sleep." I bring those to work every day.

      Once they get a little more focused on their ideas, I will be sure to reach out to the community for involvement. The time an acceptance are things I struggle with. If it doesn't work RIGHT NOW then I have trouble getting past it. Annoying since I'm trying to get my students to be more persistent.

      It will be an amazing learning experience for me as well, even if it becomes a "what not to do" guide book.

  12. Wow! That is amazing. You've inspired me to do that in my class next year... Like you I'm freaking out just thinking about the chaos... whether they will learn everything they need. I suppose it's the co-construction I'm already doing, as well as with more free-reign and a bit of structured chaos. Thinking... :) Thanks!

    1. My suggestion is that you use Standards Based Grading to help direct students to show what skills you are looking for. I haven't done that yet, but I REALLY need to!

      Keep following and you'll see how I devolve into madness!


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