Sunday, February 27, 2011

Snow Day + Facebook + Health Challenge= Eureka!

I received the call regarding our snow day the night before.  Pretty sweet-- I could sleep in a bit and plan out a leisurely day.  I'm not sure why, but I found myself musing about the stir of inter-disciplinary activities I was entertaining for my American Government class.  One of them, I have been contemplating for launch as early as April, 2011.  It's the notion of having student create political ads as a way of showing their understanding of media and politics.

The idea actually came to me from Health Class.  In one of our professional cluster group's we have been working on a CBL related to teaching the influence of media on health issues.  Mike Gruber made (at least in my opinion), a terrific suggestion for a challenge:  Use media to "counterattack"  negative media influence.

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure that this challenge is going to come off this way.  But it sent me in a different direction. I intend to assign the students to make campaign ads.  The instructional goal will be the same-- By using media, the students will understand its influence.  We will study some ads and then give the students' their mission.

All of this was in my head, the morning of snow day.  I even had the notion that I would have them develop two ads-- one attacking an actual office holder and the other promoting the fictional campaign of the challenge.  Yet, I also wanted this fictional campaign rooted in reality.  I was thinking of having the students "run" an actual person against the officeholder.  However, when I started to write down potential "candidates" the list was pretty short.

Enter Facebook.  I posted the following status on my wall:

Help me out? I am trying to think of famous living Michiganders for whom my students can design political campaigns. The catch? They can't be politicians. Folks like Dan Gilbert, Jeff Daniels, Mary Sue Coleman. Toss in a name and I bet my minions have designed a campaign ad for her/him by May.

Lots and lots of names.  Enough to assure me that I can let teams of maybe  2-3 students draw and then run their candidate for governor or senator.  Perhaps in the future I could try this at a higher technical level by teaming with another department.  In the mean time, I am quite pleased with my Snow Day/Facebook/Health Challenge collaboration.

Flickr CC Photo by EtanSivad

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Selling My Course and Reaping a Fortune?

Recently, I heard from a nice gentleman at Michigan Learns Online who expressed an interest in adding my bookless American Government materials to their online resources for teachers, administrators and students.  There would be a small fee involved, which is incidental.  I'd like to do it, but would need to add a few more pieces to the course and find the time to gather all the materials in order to "zip" it to him.

But the whole thing got me thinking more about shifting to a "hybrid" design for American Government.  That is to say, much of the core information for the course has been packaged for my students to be accessed 24/7.  We don't need brick and mortar meetings for "lectures", though of course I still want to use class time for questions and discussion.  Nevertheless, by placing less emphasis on information dissemination in the classroom, I would have more time for experiential learning.

Consequently, I have been floating ideas for projects with other teachers during our professional development meetings.  I call these "pipe dreams" at this point since we a months away from our 2011-12 roles at school, let alone in a position to plan course curriculum.  But here is some of the bait I am trying to use to hook the imaginations of others:

* I already use an elaborate legislative simulation which is technology intensive.  But the interplay among students is limited to our class.  We always include an immigration bill.  Could we possibly shift the game's focus entirely to immigration or Latino issues?  I'd love to collaborate with a Spanish teacher on this!

* One of our PCG teams is working on a media challenge.  It has gotten me thinking.  Wouldn't it me great to assign the students to create political ads?  Could I collaborate with a drama class for on camera talent?  Our "design" wonder-teacher, Susan Smith has already shown an interest in this.

* Our "Reimagine Detroit" team has produced a social justice challenge that Ann Lusch is going to use in her religious studies.  Hey, social justice?  Wouldn't that potentially be a great theme for an interdisciplinary collaboration?  The "Detroit" focus won't quite work for me, but this theme has legs!

* In the same way, our "right to life" group's focus on abortion is far too narrow for even my AP Government class curriculum.  But if we could broaden the life focus to include capitol punishment, end of life issues, or perhaps the social policies that contribute to or mitigate against the desire to get an abortion, I'd have a lot more room to operate in terms of connecting the project with the core curriculum.

My pipe dreams drifted over to my English courses too.  I have enough grounding in German or French films to feel confident in a film course collaboration with a foreign language teacher.  I also modestly believe that if I could convince the drama department to collaborate on Shakespeare, we might create one of the most popular courses in the school.

Do you have any ideas about a joint venture with me?  You certainly don't have to be a Mercy teacher to share a pipe dream or two with me.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Investing in Tools Rather than Craft

Even before I had any interest in promoting educational technology, I was astonished by how much more willing school officials were to buy tools  than invest in training for teachers to use the tools.  Typically, a technical expert or administrator who has never actually taught with  recent (or any!) educational technology will buy the latest gizmos for their buildings.

Then they wax astonished when it isn't being used. What is more, the check writers want to purchase cheap gadgets with little attention to ease of use. Consequently, when a school newspaper reporter contacted me recently for a reaction to the Detroit Public School's expenditure of $49.4 million of Federal stimulus funds to purchase 40,000 new netbook computers, I had this response:

I am very skeptical of the purchase.  A number of school systems have made enormous equipment purchases-- often based on price point, alone.  Then, somehow, the teachers and students are supposed to magically go about the business of learning how to compete in the 21st Century global marketplace.  Professional development and training are absolutely essential in order for the technology to get used.  Unfortunately,  investment in p.d. is gravely lacking throughout our educational system.

It is all too typical that the people who write the checks suppose that the gadgets themselves will change the instructional paradigm.  They have it backwards-- the people working with the kids have to be reeducated to see the incredible possibilities of the tools.  In terms of quickly moving DPS to higher tech, it would have been better to buy iPod touch labs, allowing the teachers and kids to get going with a technology they could master in 48 hours.  But it sounds so much more serious if the kids have "computers", never mind that support is lacking for their integration into the curriculum.

Am I being too cynical?

Flickr CC photo by

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Week in the Life of a CBL Addict

Last week was exhausting, but it was a good tired.  It had nothing to do with long meetings, tedium, or someone else's projects. Instead, it had to do with being engaged with Challenge Based Learning at a number of different levels.  So indulge me as I reflect back on the, applying only the slightest poetic license to the daily nature of the activities, since in the messy world of CBL, one activity sloshes into another

Monday - This was the primo Eminem and Me day.  The Chrysler Ad contributed marvelous stimulus to my sophomore's challenge to "Convince" Teenagers to Care about Politics.  We examined the commercial for its convincing nature.

Tuesday- This was a day to enjoy CBL in the trenches.  My sophomore teams were moving from guiding questions to guiding activities.  I enjoy brainstorming with them while the excitement is still fresh!

Wednesday - This was the day that I "surprised" my seniors with a request for reflections to two prompts.  I described this wonderful experience in The Power of Reflection.

Thursday-  My professional development role has placed me on Curriculum Council this year.  I used the opportunity to discuss Carolyn's shadowing experience (see Power of  Reflection).  Some department chairs have been leery of the way challenge projects would "fit" their departments' curriculum.  I hoped the anecdote would demonstrate the importance of giving the students opportunities to pull strands of learning together.

Friday - I had a chance to sit in with team which is participating in Apple's Official CBL Implementation study. As described in How to Launch a Challenge, Drawing 1, French 3, and Biology teachers have taken on the daunting logistical task of implementing their Use Design to Improve the Cafeteria challenge with a team taught approach.  Their enthusiasm and determination is highly infectious.

Saturday - I woke up thinking of CBL.  On Friday one of the professional development groups wrestled with a Religious Studies challenge.  Since the material was doctrinal the group was especially concerned about the students' freedom to pursue their interpretations and the complications that might be posed by publication of their viewpoints.  An idea occurred to me that I heard about in Dallas.  Why not have the students draw up a set of standards and apply them with "quality control" teams before publishing.  I shot off an email, glad that I could give us a point fo departure for the next session.

Sunday - I was reviewing my email and came across a principalship job posting at USC for a "Hybrid School."  I read about the concept-- online materials but face-to-face experiential learning -- and thought, hmnn, this is not too far removed from what I am doing in my bookless course.  It made me wonder if I could create a "hybrid" course.  Another challenge crossed my mind as well.  Since political science texts are in continuous need of updating, what if I formulated a challenge for my AP students to update a section of their ebook?

Tired? Yes.  Bored?  No.
Flickr  CC photo by jonanthan.youngblood

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Power of Reflection

With 1-1 technology a "surprise" student reflection can produce a plethora of benefits.  Ironically, I was feeling some despair over one of my CBL team's group dynamic.  They were brainstorming guiding activities, but I was getting a bad vibe from the group.  These were seniors and and they were working on a difficult health care challenge.  I spent most of the period with this team and felt as those I was getting a "whatever" kind of attitude from a couple of the kids.

Anyway, a planned "reflection" with surprise prompts took place couple of days later.  First question: "What have you contributed to your team so far" (Kids reassured they would not be 'graded' on answer).  Second question: "Which guiding question has served your team best so far". 

Kids were then dispersed to private locations to their responses with admonition not to consult each other about what they might say.  They were told to email their files and be back within 20 minutes.  (Mission accomplished with time to spare).

Carolyn's reflection floored me.  Unbeknownst to any of us she had missed school and shadowed a hospital social worker as she made her rounds with breast cancer patients.  This included a support group session with stage 3/4 patients.  

I had no idea this plan was in her head when I met with the group.  With her permission I asked her to share the experience with the whole class.  You could have heard a pin drop. Needless, to say, no "whatever" vibe.  It's changed the entire tone of our mission.

I give my ADE friend, Katie Morrow, the last word:

"We all know that hands-on, experiential learning results in a high return rate in learning... But had you assigned every student the task of shadowing someone, I would propose the results would not be as authentic or powerful as Carolyn's... The difference in my mind is that she directed her own research, asked her own questions, sought answers in a more personalized way. This is what happens in CBL that doesn't happen in traditional teaching and this connection makes all the difference."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

So Who "Teaches" Social Media"?

An interesting moment occurred in a recent professional development meeting.  We were agreeing that we all liked a student (CBL) challenge that began, "Use social media to convince . . . ."  This was direct, punchy, clear, actionable -- all the qualities that one could want at the heart of a Challenge Based Learning project.  But then I asked how the "social media" piece would be contextualized.  In other words, what kind of instruction about social media would the teachers give their minions before setting them loose.

It's fair to say there was an uncomfortable pause.

I think some of us  assume that the students have lots of savvy about social media. But in fact while many tool around merrily on Tumblr, Facebook, or YouTube, they have never been asked to market something or persuade someone using these tools.  They go as consumers for entertainment, photo-swapping, chat. One teacher wistfully hoped that 9th graders might be able to take a social media through a course.  However, I think most of us could see that something so pervasive as social media has to be addressed across the curriculum.

So we have lots more to discuss.  If you do as well, please join the conversation at the Drive-thru!

Flickr CC photo by Ivan Walsh

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What Counts?

As I mentioned in Customizing Professional Development . . . ., I began this semester with the plan to suit the activity of each of my four professional groups to the needs of the repsective members.  I used a survey to inventory the  progress and needs of each Challenge Based Learning team.  However, a couple of issues stood out across groups:  1) How to word the challenge itself (see Actionable Challenges).  2) How much should the CBL project count?

Hmnn.......How much should the challenge count?  I posed a thought problem in response:  CBL will cultivate critical thinking skills, intitiative, problem solving, collabrative skills, and technology skills.  Those skills should count, right?    We shouldn't ignore the acquisition of these skills simply because we "teach" a course subject like history or Spanish, should we?

So I asked the teachers to reflect on what presently "counted" in their courses.  I suspect that in many cases reading comprehension, note taking, information retention, test taking skills, and written communication count for a great deal.  It's also possible that friendliness, short term memory, and producing homework (whether the student did it herself or not) also "counts."  But my intention is not to automatically cast aspersions on the way that points might count for a grade in another teacher's class.  I think it is perfectly reasonable to weigh the educational experience of CBL against the other class activities.

If CBL is causing us to talk about what "counts", CBL has already been good for our school.
"abacus" Flickr Creative Commons photo by feck_aRt_post

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Eminem and Me

Wow, I've never hustled a television commercial into my classroom as fast as I imported "Imported in Detroit", the two minute Chrysler Super Bowl commercial featuring Eminem.

I used it with my professional development group.  This one featured a team that is working on "Reimagining Detroit".  I insisted that this would be the perfect launch for their challenge . . . . But then I confessed I had ripped off my own idea, second hour.  I used it for my "Convince Teenagers to Care about Politics" challenge.  How?  The focus was on convince.  We talked about how the worked to convince folks about the city and the car company.  They loved it and perked up when I said one of my former students was a famous documentary filmmaker.  I wondered if any among them might become masters of the medium.

Oh yes, I swept aside the day's lesson and used the ad in my film class too.  We watched it twice.  They had just studied Citizen Kane.  And boy were they ever ready to discuss the score, the editing, the script, the camera angles and the casting of this two minute masterpiece.

Thanks Chrysler, making me feel good about my community's potential and how I spent my day at Mercy.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Egyptian Moment

One of my colleagues from the Mercy's "Dallas" implementation team whimsically wondered if I wasn't re-living my past basketball coaching career through Challenge Based Learning.  This is in fact more valid than she could have realized.  When I mentor students (or teachers) with CBL, I focus on providing  providing energy and motivation.  And as the process moves along, knowing when to give a metaphorical pat on the back (or kick in the pants) is helpful

Before I launch a challenge,  I look for a theme to use as motivation, much like a coach looks for angles to get a team "up" for an opponent.  This week I am launching a challenge in my American Government class:

Convince Teenagers to Care about Politics

The kids don't know what their challenge is yet, but I've been telling them that it will be important and fun.  Then out of the blue, on Friday, I brought up the people's revolution in Egypt.  I was pleased to find that with a little prodding the students were able to sketch out the details.  I mentioned the regions' strategic importance to Americans.  I also pointed out how the situation reeked of our recent studies about natural rights, legitimacy, freedom, and order.  We agreed that most teens probably did not see a stake in knowledge about such matters  They were surprised to learn that young voters were notoriously disinclined to vote.  I told them that they had a chance to change that. 

A good pep talk does not guarantee victory.  But it sure doesn't hurt.
Creative Commons Photo from

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How to Launch A Challenge!

The Mercy Challenge Base Learning team came back from their training in Dallas and carefully plotted a terrific project launch.  Their ambition is astonishing.  They have decided to mix three extremely different classes - Biology / French 3 / Drawing 1  - into teams to tackle the following challenge:

Use design to improve the cafeteria environment.

Susan Smith (Art) began with the terrific challenge video that she feverishly edited the weekend before launch.  It featured graphic documentary evidence of our cafeteria's present plight, but also depicted inspiring designs which teased at possibilities.  Then Carol Shea (Language) clearly explained the approach of the project.  Finally, Cathy Riley (Science) started exploring the challenge with the students.  

The entire event was documented on video.  The team intends to make its experience transparent and hopes to demonstrate the value of CBL.  By the next meeting students were already recording reflections on their iPod touches.  I truly found myself lifted by their launch.

L to R - Cathy, Carol, and Susan challenge their minions.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Snow Day Heresy

I posted this on a staff forum, yesterday:
I am writing this during a "snow day", and let me begin by swearing, I like my snow day.  But a have a couple of thoughts that fly in the face at the intense glee with which my colleagues and students anticipate even the possibility of this and any snow day.

First, isn't the local news media due some blowback (pardon the pun) for the way it now hypes the possibility of snow fall?  I'm looking at about 5" of snow outside that was predicted to me nothing less than a weather event of Biblical proportion.  Isn't it irresponsible for media hype to contribute to a massive shut down of activity and productivity?  I admire employers who urge employees to work from home or arrive late when weather hits.  But at schools, we generally "lose" a day, and it is my impression that the media helps to bully administrators into closures. (Heresy, I know).

But the actual purpose of this post is a second, more subtle consideration:  Why do we like them so much (And remember, I do).  I don't think it's because we teachers and students hate school so much.  In fact, here's another heresy-- I actually enjoy working on a snow day.  But it's work I choose to do and like to do.  Today I have been working hard on professional development issues and course challenge based learning projects.  I have also been developing materials and plans.  I like it.  But I control it.  I have the freedom to start it and stop it.  I'm not as enmeshed in other people's plans and agendas, nor am I pinned down in managing different groups of persons who march through my classroom, S-7.

But I think the crux of the matter is freedom.  In fact, we are so sure that the students will be highly motivated by this freedom from "school" that they will sell thousands of dollars worth of Sweepstakes tickets as a school fundraiser and be rewarded with days "off".  (Strangely ironic that the off day would have such high status and that our tuition paying parents would tacitly endorse this use of their tuition!).  Oops,  total heresy.

OK.  Here's the real point.  I think the CBL gives us a crack at tapping this motivation to be free.  Sure, I might use the freedom to "goof off."  But what if I am enticed to pursue a deep passion or insatiable curiosity?  I think the challenge projects, anchored in the students' worlds of ideas and concerns, along with a mandate to make a difference- hold out the possibility for incredible motivation to learn.  I have seen students so engaged in cbls that their parents ordered them to lay off their projects.  These kids would no doubt plow (sorry) right through a snow day.

Flickr CC photo by Colin Purrington

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Actionable Challenges

In our professional development groups this past week we took hammer and tong to simple sentences: the basic challenge statements of our interdisciplinary teams'  Challenge Based Learning designs.  This task involved more than quibbling over semantics.  In some cases the discussion over wording exposed extremely different interpretations of the "big idea" behind the challenge.  In other cases it exposed an inherent reluctance to really turn the students loose on a genuine challenge.  We were using old methods to conceptualize a new design.  Consequently, the challenge was shaping into a service project or conventional research assignment.

I began each session with a series of statements about CBL, stressing that the challenges have to be

*real world
*student driven
*aimed beyond the classroom

Thus, our object was to make the challenges actionable.  I urged the teams to make theirchallenges rock.  The challenges need to be easy for all stakeholders to grasp and also carry emotional punch.  So we converted verbs like "learn," "appreciate," "know," "understand"  to "build," "create," "engage," "improve. "

Now of course, I am not opposed to learning, knowing, etc.  But there was a tendency to write curriculum goals into the challenges.

We really went after it.  For me this was hard fun, though I suppose some participants thought I was simply being obnoxious.  However, I have no intention of compromising on fundamental CBL elements in the pd sessions.  If our discussions inspire ideas for conventional assignments, I think that is wonderful.  But the design of teacher scripted lessons can occur elsewhere.  With our challenges, we are going to let the students do the scripting.

Flickr CC photo by simonech

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