Thursday, December 27, 2012

Seriously. Can a LEGO rock my world?

In my eSTEM-ation, LEGO® robots really can make STEM education come alive!  In early September, FIRST LEGO® League (FLL) quickly established itself as one of the most popular Scale-Up grants in Northwest Iowa.   This grant provides registration fees, a specially designed LEGO® robot kit, a team computer and more!

It is interesting to note that many of the STEM educators that applied for the FIRST LEGO® League grant were from outside of the traditional school system:  non-formal educators including Girl Scout leaders, 4-H Club coaches, and after-school program instructors.  

In our region alone, nearly sixty thousand dollars in FLL grants were awarded.   The Governor's STEM Initiative has made it possible for hundreds of kids in Northwest Iowa to explore their creativity,  ingenuity and academic passions.  FLL uses robotic technologies to allow young computer programmers to solve problems, overcome obstacles and work toward continuous improvement using an iterative design cycle.  

The FLL State Championship will take place at Iowa State University in Ames on January 19.  Read More.

In my eSTEM-ation, LEGO® Rocks!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Personalized Learning

One of my favorite esoteric bumper stickers reads, “Heisenberg May Have Slept Here”.  It is a fairly ineffective bumper sticker, since only a few people on the planet actually get it—and they mostly spend their days in physics laboratories, rarely giving much time to driving in cars and reading bumper stickers.  Heisenberg was a theoretical physicist who postulated that the more precisely one measures the location of a particle, the less precisely one would know its momentum

Lately, I’ve come to realize that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies to education reform plans—we’re throwing a lot of photons at Iowa’s educational systems, in an attempt to precisely pinpoint the problems.  Unfortunately, the more precisely we determine the exact location of an educational flaw, the less we know about where it’s going.  An examination of an educational system is a slippery job at best—and a whole lot of poking and prodding simply tends to make the machine unwieldy, uncooperative and wholly unpredictable.

In terms of physics, the Uncertainty Principle has profound implications.   Heisenberg stated,

Adapting the idea to educational reform initiatives, Heisenberg would remind us that we will never be able to completely describe either what works or doesn’t work in the present educational system.  Assessing and re-assessing our students to look for deficiencies still doesn't allow us to calculate the future!  The measurements themselves change the outcomes.  In my opinion, standardized assessment is the flawed premise of our worn-out experiment.
          What if today’s education system thinkers learned a lesson from quantum physics?  What if we embraced quantum uncertainty, and allowed each and every student to carve out his own pathway to educational success?   What if we didn’t classify, categorize, label and measure and test the life out of our learners?  Heisenberg wasn't afraid of a little uncertainty. He said, "the path comes into existence only when we observe it.  We must begin with uncertainty."
          I like that.  It is time to personalize the education experience for each and every student (and every teacher too, for that matter).  What works for some won’t work for others.  That’s OK.  Just as technological advances have allowed scientists to move forward in their description of the quantum universe, technology aptly applied will finally allow teachers to manage the burdensome data points associated with personalized learning.  Technology is the reagent that will make this new educational equation into a sustainable pathway, for both learners and teachers. 
          For some classical physicists, the Uncertainty Principle and the chaos it implied were untenable.  Likewise, some classical educators will insist upon well-ordered classrooms, look-alike transcripts and neatly categorized kids.  But some of us are ready to make the quantum leap.  

Remember, the path comes into existence only when we observe it.   
We must begin with uncertainty.  

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Growing Good Things in Iowa

This article is also posted at CompetencyWorks  --- a site dedicated to Competency Based Education Pathways for our nation.

In Iowa, we know how to grow things.  Plant the seeds, add a little sunshine and pretty soon, you can feed the world.  We grow a lot of corn, a lot of cows, and, lately, we are growing Competency Based Education (CBE) as well. 

I have been a part of planting a few CBE seeds.  The ground for growth is fertile in our little school district.  In 2010, our community supported a 1:1 technology initiative, voting to put a MacBook Laptop in the backpack of every kid in town, grades five thru twelve.  That decision was like opening a sci-fi portal to the planet.  Suddenly, students in rural Northwest Iowa can interface with the highest quality educational resources in the world, from anyplace of their choosing and at any time.

Spirit Lake is not alone in Iowa.  One-to-One initiatives have sprouted across the state, growing from just a handful of districts in 2009 to well over one hundred in 2012.  As 1:1 technology sweeps across fields of green in Iowa, Competency Based Education (CBE) is spreading in its wake.  Mandi Bozarth noted in her recent post that groundbreaking CBE work in Iowa is co-mingling with other education reform initiatives like Project Based Learning (PBL), online coursework and blended teaching and learning strategies.  These are good seeds to plant together, actually, since CBE emphasizes the transfer of knowledge, and PBL is a methodology that requires the higher order work of creation, synthesis and evaluation.  In our district, we are writing competency statements that facilitate a progression of learning to climb the new Bloom’s Taxonomy hierarchy.  Mix in 1:1 technology and you will have planted a robust new hybrid with a 21st Century twist, incorporating digital learning and personalized pathways of study. 

Educators in Iowa have a green light for CBE innovation, thanks to the hard work of folks like Sandra Dop at the IA Department of Education.  The DOE guidelines for PK-12 CBE will be a roadmap for frontline innovators in the state.  Competency Based Education recently gained a huge legislative victory in SF2284.  In short, Iowa school districts will no longer need to apply for a Waiver from Carnegie Unit in order to explore Competency Based Education pathways.

With the ground tilled and the seeds planted, small-town Iowa educators like me can get into the field!  Last week, Spirit Lake Community School District presented our plans for a 9th grade CBE project that we call The Core Academy to the IA State Board of Education.  Jason Glass, Iowa’s Director of Education, supports CBE work at the district level--and there is little doubt that districts making the leap from policy to practice need plenty of support!  There are some significant rocks in the CBE field that could de-rail an unsuspecting tractor or uproot a carelessly planted seed.

Still, Iowa educators are embracing the growing CBE opportunities.  Follow the Twitter hashtag conversation at #IACompEd, to see an evolving understanding of both the definition and practice of CBE in Iowa.  Groups of teachers and administrators are convening to begin writing competencies aligned to the Iowa Core.  In Spirit Lake, the “ink” on our 2012-2013 district goal is still not dry, but it will look something like this: The district will investigate and implement Competency Based Education pathways to increase personalized learning opportunities for students in grades K-12

The corn in Iowa will be “knee high by the fourth of July”—but how tall will our CBE work be by mid-summer?  We need to write competency statements in the Core disciplines, plan for the data-management that will accompany a transition to self-paced learning, communicate with stakeholders, figure out professional development strategies and put some solid foundational expectations for student accountability in place.  That is a lot of work to do while at the same time trying to steer clear of stepping in the muddy waters of GPA concerns, transcript questions, re-assessment options and class rank debates.

Still, I look outside my window at a freshly planted cornfield, and I know that Iowans are up for the hard work of CBE implementation—and the sooner the better as far as many are concerned.  Good things are growing in Iowa, in the fields and in the classrooms.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Across the Street from Yale

Across the street from Yale’s ivy-league campus, there is a single story white brick building that was once an auto machinist storage area. The building sits in sharp contrast to the tall, austere stone structures that house the scholars of one of America’s most acclaimed institutions of higher education.  Still, the teaching and learning that happen day-by-day across the street from Yale may ultimately shape the landscape of America more profoundly than what emerges from Yale itself.  Each month, nearly six hundred boys and girls walk into the little building on the corner for free tutoring from the volunteers at New Haven Reads.  My daughter Audrey has worked there for the past year, coordinating tutors and scheduling sessions for the kids of the inner city.  Audrey works to find tutors willing to bring kids off of a waiting list which is hundreds of names long—a list of kids who want to learn to read but have no one to teach them, right across the street from Yale University.

 I have never really thought about knowledge as power, or education as the banner of an exclusive club.  I have always believed that anyone can learn, and that a free, high quality public education was both the right and responsibility of every American child.  Yet, many kids in New Haven are starved of literacy, just across the street from the students and professors at Yale.   That is difficult for me to reconcile. 

I find myself wondering about the food that we are feeding our own chubby school children, the scholars of Spirit Lake.  It seems that eating a steady diet of math and English, science, social studies and electives will feed the intellectual mind quite well—but there are other nutrients that I am realizing are just as important.  Spirit Lake boasts, “All kids will learn and become responsible citizens.”  How do we guarantee that?

The Universal Constructs of the Iowa Core are a beginning.  Identified by the Department of Education as essential to 21st century citizenry, these constructs may indeed be the missing ingredient in the American education recipe.  The Core plus the Constructs.  An ACT score and much more. We neglect at our great peril the critical thinking, complex communication, creativity and collaboration that will build essential bridges between those who have and those who haven’t in today’s educational landscape.  Perhaps we might even add another “c” word to our list:  compassion.

As Audrey and I walked away from New Haven Reads, we bumped into a Yale undergraduate student, who dedicates hours each week to the New Haven Reads program.   Audrey introduced me to Dan, saying “He tutors five kids each week.”   Dan corrected her, “Eight, actually.”

There is hope.  Great hope.

Monday, April 9, 2012

CBE and Dr. Suess

“You have brains in your head.  
You have feet in your shoes.  
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”  
Dr. Suess

We were biking into a (very) tough headwind on our way to Jackson, MN when we passed this sign by the side of the road.   We had enjoyed an incredible push with tailwind on Hwy 4 to the east, but now every mile north was an effort.   I realize that Dr. Suess might tell me, “Kari, you’ve got a head in your helmet and wheels on your bike.  You can point yourself any direction you like.”  True.  Still, a person has to be willing to take the headwind every once in awhile, just to get where she is going.  “All tail wind, all the time” doesn’t make for strong legs.

I wonder if Dr. Suess would be someone who would advocate for the personalized learning of Competency Based Education?  I am guessing the answer would be “Yes.”  His books are generally about individual empowerment, advocating for the voice of the tiny “Who” from “Who-ville”.  Suess doesn’t see kids as Thing One or Thing Two.   And in the Suessian world, even the Grinch is redeemable.

Whenever I get muddled or confused about the massive changes being proposed for the public school system, I can generally find my center by looking past the educational jargon.  From a simple “Suessian” perspective, I think Competency Based Education makes a lot of sense.

Our school is a place for kids of all sorts
We don’t batch them by age or by likely cohorts.

Each kid can learn, no matter how slow
And if they want to move faster we help them to grow.

The kids in our school will work harder than most
Each kid must learn-- no one can coast.

In our upside-down school, we hear teachers say,
“I didn’t speak a word, but I just listened all day.”

Kids will build things and make things and learn more than the Core
And learning won’t stop when they walk out the school door.

Anytime, any place and any pace, all day long--
No matter how, no matter who:  how can that be so wrong?

Dr. Suess is right:  we do have brains in our heads and feet in our shoes.  And at long last, educators are finally ready to steer in the direction kids choose.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Try, We Must

It is possible that Yoda was completely wrong when he told Luke Skywalker, “Do or Do Not.  There is no Try.”   I had always figured that Yoda must be right, since he is a Jedi Knight.   But now that I am older (and wiser?)  I am realizing that he had it totally backwards. Some days, perhaps most days, I think that the only thing that matters is Try.

Education has largely followed Yoda’s first methodology.  Whether it is levitating a spaceship out of a swamp or solving a physics vector problem, we have told our students that their choice is “Do” or “Do Not.”   I can remember congratulating a student who choked out a “D” in chemistry, “You got the credit!  “D” stands for done.  You are done with chemistry.”

More recently, I had a conversation with a student who was clearly choosing “Do Not” in most of his classes.  “Why don’t you just hand a few assignment in?” I begged the kid.  He answered, “Mrs. Webb, if I tried and still failed, I would feel rotten about myself.  But if I don’t try, it doesn’t feel as bad when I fail.”  It is tough to argue with that logic.

Last week I met with representatives from a few Iowa school districts that are considering Competency Based Education (CBE) pathways.  There are pockets of innovation emerging all throughout the state.  Ideologically, CBE makes a lot of sense, and it may be an idea whose time has come.  Computing technologies make personalized learning (finally) possible in terms of data management.  Individualization in student demonstration of mastery for common learning goals isn’t as overwhelming in 2012 as it was a decade ago. 

So, where do we start?  We Try.   Next year at Spirit Lake High School, there will be teachers who decide to Try.  Chemistry and Physics will be competency based.  The ninth grade team is actively pursuing competency-based pathways for English Language Arts, Science and Social Studies.  Digital animation will be online, allowing flexibility in scheduling and pacing.  Other departments are opening doors to CBE and finding that the perceived barriers are not so hard to clear away.

We are asking the questions that go along with Competency Based Education pathways as defined by the Iowa Department of Education.  How do we devise learning outcomes that emphasize application and creation of knowledge?  How does our schedule adapt to students who advance upon mastery instead of seat-time?  What exactly is a competency, and who defines it?  How do we utilize technology-enabled solutions to provide rapid, differentiated support for students who fall behind or become disengaged?

It might seem too hard to decide to Try until you realize you are a part of a team.  Jedi warriors travel together, employ the mentor model of teaching, and capitalize on each other’s strengths.  If you think that you might be ready to join the rebel forces, we have a light saber and a Jedi robe in just your size.

We are all just Padawan learners when it comes to Competency Based Education.  But, we will Try.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Who Moved My (Nacho) Cheese?

In case you missed the huge announcement last week, I want to be sure that everyone knows:  Taco House has re-opened for the 2012 season.  Let the grease begin.

As residents of the Lakes Area, our lives are intensely seasonal.  The crowds come and (thankfully) go.  The snow-birds return, the docks go in, and then just as suddenly, the docks come out.  We mark the changes with our own quirky traditions, as reminders that in the midst of the change, the important things (like Taco House and nutty bars and roller coasters) stay the same

We biked down to Taco House yesterday to join the crowds.  I wasn’t as hungry for Nachos Royale (hold the onions, add extra guacamole) as I was for the nostalgia and the tradition.  As I pedaled, I thought about seasons and the inevitability of change.  As teachers, we work in a profession which is certainly as much or perhaps even more seasonal than tourism at the Lakes.  Every year, we fall in love with a new set of students.  We adjust to new schedules, new curriculum and new people.  And, in the midst of the change, the important things (like kids learning and growing and becoming) stay the same

Do you remember the summer when Taco House was threatened?  Taco House became the icon of summer back in its glory days, with a prominent location on Highway 71.  When the city decided to widen the road, it was declared that Taco House would no longer be on the highway but would be tucked away several hundred yards to the West.  I worried about Taco House that summer.  I worried that the change wouldn’t be good for its business, and that it might never be the same.  I lost weight due to the absence of grease and nacho cheese in my regular summer diet. 

You can imagine how happy I was when Taco House re-opened again after the Highway Project was complete.  I vividly remember sitting outside on the picnic tables, munching nachos with joy.  “This is amazing!” I exclaimed.  “How did they move Taco House without changing even one thing?  The concrete tables are exactly the same, the potted plants, the little brick wall, and even the booths and the interior of the restaurant are completely the same!  I can’t believe they were able to move Taco House without changing everything that I love about this place.”

James sat silently as I marveled about this engineering mystery.  Finally, he looked me in the eye and said slowly, “Kari, they didn’t move Taco House.  They moved the highway.”


I had wasted a lot of energy worrying about something that wasn’t even real.  My fears were based on imagination, and mis-information.  My reflexive response to change is generally one of doubt and fear and uneasiness.  But what I learned from Taco House that day was this:  change is inevitable, and beyond my control.  But fear is not.

James smiled at me and we started to laugh and laugh and laugh.  We still haven’t stopped laughing.
“You should worry less and bike more,” he said.  And he was right.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

"C'mon, [Hu]man!"

This week, the medical clinic in our little town lurched forward a couple of decades.  The doctors were handed laptops, and dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.  The idea, of course, is a very good one:  EMR, Electronic Medical Records. Why should patient information (complete with illegible doctor’s notes and typewritten dictations) be kept in manila folders, hanging in the hallway with patient’s names hand- written in permanent marker?  It makes me feel like laughing, “C’mon, man!”

Still, from the doctor’s perspective there is room for concern.  One of the most important things that a doctor does everyday is to listen.  Listen for the hurt, listen for the subtle clues, listen to the doubt and the questions and the pain.  Listen to the joy and the hope and the whispered fears.  What if the doctor’s primary focus shifts away from the patient to the damnable machine?  What if, in pursuit of filling in boxes on a screen, both the doctor and the patient are robbed of the humanity behind the art of medicine?  No measure of technological efficiency would be worth that cost.

I have heard educators echo similar concerns as computing technologies redefine teaching and learning.  We (rightly) protest two-dimensional digital learning which flattens, deadens or de-humanizes the educational experience for our students.  Instead, educators and doctors alike must find ways to practice their professions in an environment that is at the same time both “high tech” and “high touch”. 

Technology is meant to extend the human potential:  telescopes to reach the distant stars, motors that let us fly, and sonar to plumb the depths of the earth.  Technology opens avenues of human exploration, probing the limits of the universe and pushing past the barriers of time and space. 

Doctors and teachers both use technologies with the sole goal of extending the human experience:  seeing, reaching, exploring, investigating, creating and finding new answers to human’s greatest questions of life and health and learning and living.  For both professions, it is our duty and privilege to be pioneers in the use of technology, safeguarding always the well-being of our patients and students.

Meanwhile, if you happen to catch your doctor scowling with his face two inches from the screen of his new computer, or maybe even grumbling at the unfamiliar keyboard, be a patient patient this week.  You could even go so far as to feel sort of sorry for the doctors:  they had to choose PC instead of MacBook, for obvious reasons….
They couldn’t take the risk that the old saying about Apples and doctors just might prove true. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Big Spirit

The scary part about biking on thin ice is that, well, you are biking on thin ice.  With the bright sunshine and temps nearing 40oF, the snow on the lake today was just squishy enough to allow the fat tires of the Moonlander and the Pugsley to make their way across Big Spirit.  One nice thing about biking on a lake is that there is very little traffic.  Oh, and you can’t really complain much about the hills.

Still, it is unnerving to think about what lies beneath the soft white snow.  The waters of Big Spirit are deep, and cold.  Every once in awhile, we would hear the loud cracking of the ice, and I would pedal faster.  My hope was that if I biked fast enough, the Moonlander tires would float just long enough to wheel me to safety.

Lately, my mind tends to spin in circles just like the pedals on my bike as I think about the many different reform directions that institutional education finds itself being pulled.  Brain Research Shows that too many options can lead to “decision fatigue” from information overload.   As educators, we’ve been invited to an “all you can eat” buffet of school reform initiatives including Project Based Learning, Competency Based Education, Blended Learning, technology integration, flipped classrooms, Core Curriculum, Career and College Readiness, Value Added Measures, 21st Century Teaching and Learning, PISA, Waivers and Charter Schools—and that is just the beginning of the Governor’s Recommendation for the ever-elusive World Class School.

In some ways, I wish there was a clearly marked road to follow.  I wish someone, somewhere had figured out exactly how to deliver the best possible high quality public education for every kid, every day.  I wish I could just Google the words “Perfect School”, and then bookmark it, tweet it, blog it and do it.  I would buy everyone a ticket on the Perfect School Train and we would all jump on board.

On the other hand, maybe I don’t wish that.

As I biked across the frozen lake today, in the stillness of the snow and the almost blinding brightness of the sun, I realized that the magic of this experience was the incredible freedom of biking without boundaries.  No roads and limitless directions to choose from.  No stop signs, no rules, no trails and no maps—just a warm wind at my back and a world of possibilities.  Along with that freedom comes risk.  The risk of making a mistake, of falling, or of growing tired before the ride is complete.  Maybe even running into open water, dark and deep.  But it is worth it.

Oh, it is worth it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Machine

“I felt like a science geek today, Mrs. Webb.” 

After spending an entire day at the Rube Goldberg Competition, I can see why.   The judges (physics profs and engineering students) wore matching purple t-shirts and carried clipboards.   The Minnesota State University (Mankato) hosts were easy to identify because they had balloons wrapped around their heads.  The students at the competition were focused and intense as they painstakingly prepared their Rube Goldberg machines for the three trial runs.

A Rube Goldberg machine is an engineer’s delight:  hundreds of moving pieces, and mind-numbing complexity.  The task for this year’s competition was straightforward:  blow up a balloon and pop it in at least twenty steps and two minutes.  Simple goal, but circuitous path.  When you think about it, a Rube Goldberg machine is sort of like the American education institution:  grow up a kid and educate it in at least forty-eight credits and four years.  Simple goal, but circuitous path.

I am beginning to think that a lot of what Americans have accepted as the institutional standards in a student’s education may in fact be a part of the unnecessary complexity of The Machine we call School.  Forty-eight credits lined up in a row:  if one falls out of line, we mark an “F” on the transcript, and wait for the cascade.  Each semester, the kid at the center of The Machine must juggle hundreds of points, manage countless deadlines, and coordinate a complex schedule to complete dozens of unrelated tasks.  The growing kid is bounced off of walls, swung by pendulums, strung up with pulleys, launched off of ramps and funneled through tubes as The Machine moves him like a rolling marble toward graduation. 

The longer I study The Machine, the more I find myself getting hungrier and hungrier for simplicity.  The industrial model which pushes kids through the school factory via an assembly line of curriculum and testing doesn’t need to survive another century.  The Mac in every backpack may let us walk away from The Machine and open the door to something refreshingly different.  No bouncing marbles, no falling dominoes, no push-me-pull-you system.  Is it possible?  Perhaps.

This past January, I think we caught a glimpse of what school could be like in the absence of The Machine.  I am not sure what the future of education holds, but I have a feeling it will look something like what we created for Spirit Lake last month.  Passionate, engaged, eager students.  Collaborating, guiding, motivating teachers.  Differentiated, rigorous, relevant learning goals.

At the end of the Rube Goldberg Competition, the kids disassembled their machines, tossed the broken pieces into the dumpster, gathered up the marbles and drove home.

It was time for something new.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

We Rocked The B.H.A.G.

I have never been a part of a BHAG before. Last Spring, we set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) for ourselves, and Monday night will mark its completion. Think about the difference between what you have accomplished and the sort of goal that a school usually sets for itself:
“A predetermined number of grade 11 students will demonstrate higher levels of proficiency by achieving at or above the federally mandated, nationally measured 41st percentile ranking on a standardized test given at ten o’clock on a Thursday morning during the dead of winter while seated at a desk in a straight row, as measured by the number of correctly darkened bubbles on a scanned sheet while using a #2 pencil.”
While this S.M.A.R.T. goal is (arguably) laudable, I cannot honestly say that I find it to be particularly inspirational. Contrast the proficiency goal with our January LIVE BHAG:
“Every student and every teacher in our high school will simultaneously engage in real-world Project Based Learning, fully immersed in rigorous, creative, transformative work which will extend beyond the classroom to make a deep and lasting impact on our students, our teachers and our community.”
That is a BHAG: a big, hairy, audacious goal! When it was first proposed, many of us shook our heads wondering if it was even remotely possible. And now, at the end January, I am shaking my head not in skepticism but in amazement. The crazy thing about this BHAG is that you didn’t just reach the goal—you rocked the BHAG! You led expeditionary learning adventures in foreign lands, and the Florida Keys. You contracted with community partners to build an enormous sculpture that will outlast us all. Your students can design housing developments, create fashion shows, and produce a 1940’s murder mystery drama—in Spanish! You released your students to become regional experts with marketable skills in the utilization and application of animation technologies and professional recording software.
Perhaps most audacious of all, nearly half of the graduating class of 2012 has become a part of the business and professional landscape of Spirit Lake. In partnership with their Workplace Mentors, our senior interns have designed websites, engineered new streets, developed marketing strategies, cared for patients and so much more! Our students can now proudly report, “We are Spirit Lake!”
So, we rocked the BHAG. Strangely enough, I predict that we will ALSO rock the proficiency goal! If we shoot for the stars, we’ll reach the moon, too.
Spirit Lake High School students and teachers like a challenge: go ahead, give us a BHAG.
We will make it LIVE.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Fresh Snow, New Trails

There is finally enough snow for cross-country skiing at the Hogsback. We’ve been waiting (with increasing impatience) for winter. The skis and boots and poles were already lined up in the front hall by the time I got home from school on Friday, and I hurried to pull on snow pants, scarf and mittens. Fresh powder and new possibilities!
There is something magical about being the first to blaze a trail through the quiet of the winter woods. The first snow of the year was just deep enough to give a good glide, yet sticky enough that I had to work hard. When you are the first one on a new pathway, you expect to encounter sticks, rocks, uneven ground and unexpected detours. You fall a bit more often. And you laugh a lot louder, too.
January LIVE has blazed new pathways through fresh possibilities for Spirit Lake High School. In that first week of January LIVE, we encountered a few snags, skied over a couple of rocks, and a few of us felt like the whole month was going to be an uphill battle. By the second week the ground was leveling off, and together we found the right combination of push and glide. Most importantly, it seems like we learned how to fall, to struggle, to change direction, and to help each other get back up. The tracks we laid in the snow tell the story of our journey. When you are blazing a trail, it is good to glance back and appreciate how hard you have worked to get to where you currently stand.
My favorite part of the Hogsback trail is Farmhouse Hill. At the top of a gentle climb, the trail opens up to a rolling meadow, which is almost always bathed in warm sunshine. I like to stand at the top and catch my breath while I gather my courage to ski down the “black diamond” slope of the Hogsback. I have fallen down this hill more often than I would like to admit, and a few of the falls have been epic. I generally try my best to land softly, but sometimes, I cannot avoid a hard face-plant into the snow.
So, I wasn’t really happy to find that I had an audience on my first time down Farmhouse Hill this year. Two guys on snowshoes with their big, happy dog were tromping up the hill just as I was heading down. I doubt that they realized that I couldn’t steer, couldn’t stop, and wouldn’t be able to prevent a three-person-two-skis-one-dog tangle if our paths intersected. Thankfully, I swooshed past without incident.
It’s tough to have an audience when you are trying something risky. January LIVE drew a crowd—visitors from all over the region called and asked to watch us fly down Farmhouse Hill on our first run out! Even the Iowa Department of Education came to see what Project Based Learning looks like in Spirit Lake. It would have been easy to say, “No! We are still making mistakes, and we haven’t figured everything out yet. Come back when we have PBL perfected.” Instead, we answered, “YES! Come watch us fly, watch us fall, and watch us get back up again.”
The trail out at the Hogsback was machine-groomed yesterday. The track is now smooth and the pathway is packed down. It’s easier now, and ready for more people to enjoy.
Still, it was fun to be the first one through the woods, over un-touched snow.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Growing Things and January LIVE

I don’t really like to grow things. I like rocks better than plants, because you know precisely where you stand with a rock. A rock doesn’t change, it doesn’t grow and it demands very little by way of supervision or maintenance. Consequently, I was a little nervous when I opened up one of my Christmas presents and found that I had been given a amaryllis plant bulb. I read the directions on the package at least seven times before I was brave enough to dig a hole in the dirt and jam the hard, dry, dead-looking bulb into it. I added water and a little sunshine and I waited with skepticism.
Growing things change. They need a lot of attention and a fair amount of optimism and encouragement. January LIVE, as it turns out, is a growing thing. It looks different every day, and requires an inordinate amount of energy to maintain. January LIVE burns a billion calories a day, yet it is always hungry. Like most growing things, January LIVE is unpredictable. It was conceived and birthed in a sterile environment, but now that the cord is cut, there is no telling where it will go.
Project Based Learning compared to traditional learning is like the difference between reality TV and a sitcom. A sitcom always resolves in 28 minutes and three commercial breaks. Reality, on the other hand, is messy and tangential and sometimes both gut-wrenching and exquisite in the same moment. Some January LIVE projects have been loosely organized chaos—just visit Rube Goldberg, the Art of Welding or I’ve Got The Music in Me. The Servant-Leaders are finding that serving involves the heart as well as the hands. CSI students search for clues in fingerprints and footprints while Environmental Psychology students are tracing the subtle and not-so-subtle footprints that humans leave as they occupy places and spaces. Far away in Florida, our January LIVE students are leaving muddy footprints in the Everglades, while learning to become stewards of this fragile world. Our senior Interns are making their own footprints in the world beyond the schoolyard. As we watch them work, we’re both proud and nervous.
This New House began with designing homes for vacant lots south of the school, and grew to include homes designed for Haiti. Project Runway made dresses for Haitian children before making their own and Service Leadership is collecting shoes. Spanish Drama is raising funds for Mexico. As I write these words, some January LIVE kids are living with host families in Costa Rica. It seems like our global perspective may just be growing right along with January LIVE.
Meanwhile, the plant on my kitchen counter has been growing all month long. I haven’t had to do much except to stand back and appreciate its growth. That, plus a little water, sunshine, optimism and encouragement.
I didn’t know how beautiful it would be.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Upside Down

Upside down.

We all knew that January LIVE was going to be turning our world upside down for the month. We knew that worksheets, power-points, lectures and multiple choice tests would move to the bottom of our “bag-of-teacher-tricks”. We knew that rubrics, group-work and project management would bubble to the top of our lists. But, something bigger than just mechanical change is emerging. After one week of school-wide Project Based Learning, we are upside down, backwards, walking on the ceiling, and eyes to the skies!
So, what does upside down school look like?

  • Students are at the center of the learning experience. Teachers are listeners, observers, recorders and supporters, while students take the stage, plan their work and engineer their projects.

  • Students overcome diversity barriers with ease. January LIVE class lists are a jumble of ages, abilities, and academic histories—but the students don’t seem to notice or care. In fact, the upside down nature of January LIVE learning has resulted in a massive leveling of the playing field. Skills in construction, manufacturing, technology, project visioning, communication and critical thinking emerge in the classroom “marketplace” from new and surprising student-leaders. Peer collaboration, coaching and even whole-class peer instruction has developed naturally, as our January LIVE classes have unexpectedly become “one-room” schoolhouses.

  • Students are working with such enthusiasm and passion that some teachers have expressed concern that, “I can’t get my class to take a break!” After three to five hours of focused work on projects, teachers report that our upside down students want more, asking to return early or stay late.
  • Every teacher in the building in our upside down world is teaching as a “first year” teacher. We have gone together where no one has gone before. Tomorrow’s lesson plans are still in progress, and each day brings unexpected detours. Teachers are using Google, Twitter, Edutopia, etc. as “just in time” professional development tools to network with instructors from all over the world as they forge new pathways in Project Based Learning.
  • Parents get text messages, phone calls, and photos from their kids--about school! In this upside down world, kids call parents to talk about their projects, share pictures of their work, and literally glow with pride in their accomplishments. When you ask students about school this January—watch their eyes shine and listen to them tell you how much they love their classes, their teachers, and their learning.