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.