Living EduCon: Part I – Living Rubrics

There is no way to say it except that last weekend, EduCon was a transformative professional development experience. My job now is to close the gap between what is current and what is possible. So much of what I heard resonates with what I think education can and should be. There were many moments that stuck with me, thoughts I cannot shake. When someone said that the world has enough problems to tackle and teachers should stop making them up, it reminded me the value in grounding kids in the reality they are inheriting. The conversation about the difference between wonder and curiosity keeps replaying in my head. Do we strive for engagement or empowerment, or both? Words matter.

Kids matter. I have been an advocate of student voice and choice for a while now, but I had not really thought about the meaning. My first session was run by Senior Honors Seminar at Hudson High School in New York. Those students and their teacher, Grace O’Keeffe, spoke directly to me and their words have continued to resonate all week. The seminar is governed by real student choice, not selection from a few options the teacher provides. Students choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and how they will be assessed. These incredibly eloquent, genuine, and passionate students took charge of their own education. Decisions in the class are made by consensus. I translated that to mean Quaker process. I was excited.

I plan to propose a senior elective course for next year governed by the same principles, but I did not want to wait to test out the ideas. I am in the middle of a Pick Your Path unit on American Foreign Policy where students could choose to follow a more structured, chronological approach planned by me or do individual or partner research on a topic of their choice related to American Foreign Policy. We had not decided on the end product yet, so it was the perfect scenario for empowering students to create their own rubric.

Last class (with each of my two sections of US history) we spent our time working to create a rubric that includes the standards I will grade them on at the end of the unit. Students put forth their ideas about what would make a history project excellent, what was essential. I was not sure that they would invest in this and see it as valuable. I worried they would see it as a waste of time, a case of me not doing my job, and lost work time for their research. I do not think that was the case. We talked about how every type of assignment can have a thesis. We discussed what it would mean to understand a topic deeply. Students disagreed on the importance of having elements of the process in the rubric. Even students who are often late with work acknowledged the importance of deadlines. We discussed whether the top category should be one where expectations were met or exceeded. One group wanted to count effort, but when I asked them to give me guidance in how to evaluate it, they were stumped. There was some disagreement about how to provide the standard for sources. In the end, students had a very hard time nailing down precisely what the rubric should say. In  both classes, we wrestled with the question of creativity Рcould that be an element for everything, even an essay.

We are only partly done. I asked the students to go home and reflect on our work so far. I am hoping that we can complete a class rubric next class. It will not be final, I am sure. There will be things that do not work so well, and we will tweak them. I have faith that students will really own them, since they have crafted them. My dream is that having created them, they will be motivated to live up to them.

To be continued…




Thematic US History: Pick Your Path through US Foreign Policy

Moving ahead with the theme of foreign policy in US history, we decided to allow students to choose their own path. They could opt for a more structured, chronological approach where the work would be guided by the teacher. They could opt out and dive deeply into an episode in US history, such as the Vietnam War or the Bay of Pigs. They could work cooperatively with a partner or two to look at something a little larger like US relations with East Asia.

For the last several classes, I split my time between guiding discussion for the chronological group and checking in with the individual researchers. The kids were a little concerned about how it would all come together. I am frankly not sure what the end result will be – that is a conversation for next class. But I did see things come together a bit in the last two days.

Students came to class prepared to participate in an EdCafe – a student led discussion class modeled along the lines of EdCamp, with different sessions proposed and chosen by the students. I heard some excellent conversations, despite the fact that we are only halfway through the unit. When one student was leading a discussion about the Spanish-American War and began talking about how the Filipinos did not welcome the American presence, and the Americans seemed surprised, another student noted that his research into the Bay of Pigs indicated that the US was surprised to find that the Cubans did not welcome the invasion and actually supported Castro. There I saw the beginnings of the important connections students can make, even when they follow different paths.

Giving student choice seems to have created greater buy-in from many students. Tomorrow they will let me know how they want to be assessed, and we will create a class rubric. Actually, they will create a class rubric. Stay tuned.

Thematic US History:New Year’s Resolution

Just before Winter Break we completed the third unit in our US history course, the research paper, so coming back from break has meant new year and new theme. We are starting to look at US foreign policy.

Faced with launching the unit during the first period Monday morning, I started thinking about it over last weekend. I knew that I wanted to start by having the students generate questions they had, preferably essential questions, and events/episodes they wanted to learn more about. After that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. After deciding I wanted to have them exposed to different views on foreign policy, I was overwhelmed thinking about it. The challenge of not doing a straight chronological approach is that it opens up everything as fair game. After spinning my wheels for a while, I put out the call on Twitter. In response I received several ideas and links, which enabled me to put together a collection of primary sources for the students. We examined statements from Truman, JFK, Reagan and Obama. Then I had the students rate them on the scale of 1-10, with 1 being isolationist and 10 being interventionist. This prompted a good, if brief, discussion about why they rated the statements the way they did. They began thinking about the US role in the world.

Next, I took another suggestion I got from my PLN – to show The World Without US, a documentary on Netflix which examines potential consequences of the US pulling back from military involvement in the world. The reading following that is an article titled “Operation Diplomacy” arguing that we need to put more efforts into diplomacy with our involvement having become largely military. I am looking forward to that discussion next class!

So far, so good. The problem surfaced when the teaching team met to try to plan out the rest of the unit. We really struggled. After several false starts, we defaulted back to a chronological approach, beginning with the 19th century. Unable to plan quickly, we were prepared to forfeit the freedom a thematic approach affords. We were ready to end the meeting agreeing to contribute ideas to a Google Doc, assuming we would come up with some. The problem was an uneasiness and distinct lack of excitement on our part. We already envisioned kids zoning out, not doing homework, and engaging for the few parts they were interested in.

Just before the end of the meeting, a colleague threw an idea out that maybe some kids might want to opt out of the chronological overview and do independent research. Now, we were beginning to get somewhere. We talked later in the day to work through some possibilities. What we ended up with is a “Pick Your Path” approach.

There will be three options for students. They can join a chronological, structured overview that will be more teacher directed, although with some individual work required. Or, they can choose an episode and dive into it deeply. In that case, the teacher would be checking in, but the students would be directing their own learning and assigning their own work. The third option is to look at a few episodes comparatively, looking for patterns or contrast. They would be directing their own learning, but they would be able to work with a partner or in a group of three. In order to share their learning and ideas, I foresee a few EdCafe classes sprinkled in – maybe one on historical content and another on the big questions.

I will roll this out on Friday morning, and I have no idea how many kids will choose each option. I am hoping that choice will lead to greater engagement and stronger understanding. I do know that it did not feel genuine to ask students what questions they have and what they want to learn about and then ignore that  information or shoehorn it all into a single narrative.

What I am certain about is that opening the curriculum up challenges me to stay with it, honor the freedom, and deal with the discomfort. It is all too easy to put a new label on something without really changing it much at all. Under pressure, we can all default to what is familiar, even when we know it is not the best option.

A student asked if I had any New Year’s resolutions. At the time, I could not think of any. He said he just makes changes when he wants to. I think that is a pretty good approach. I do think that I have one, though. I resolve to try my best not to default back to methods I no longer believe to be effective, even when that means working through my discomfort and taking some risks.