What makes the pages turn?

To anyone who’s ever escaped into a book, it shouldn’t be surprising. Give kids the choice, and they’ll escape, too–into whatever worlds hold most appeal.

And if that means vampires or romance, sports or spies, there’s a book to satisfy that hunger piled in some brightly colored bin here in this NYC school where virtually every student is now an avid, and critical, reader.

The four in this video didn’t come into middle school as good readers. That’s pretty typical of the 550 very diverse students in grades 6 through 12 at East Side Community School, a completely unscreened public school in lower Manhattan.

But just listen to what these kids say about how their school changed all that. Mark Federman, its principal, decided early on that this school would be all about reading. And starting with the Principal’s Book Club (it’s packed with kids), every single adult in the school has found ways to make that happen.

Now students here are reading all the time–it’s just not cool if you don’t. And as they grow into young adults, they are poring over authors from Art Spiegelman and Louise Erdrich to James Baldwin and August Wilson.

It’s really too bad you can only hear a few minutes of what they say here, because they would talk about books into the night with you. But leave a comment after you listen . . . I promise, they’ll read what you say!

What if we made a robot?

If you had the chance to spend some time cooking up a cool invention with a bunch of your friends, wouldn’t you want to at least try it?

That’s what learning starts with, when kids get involved in robotics, a branch of engineering that merges math and science in what they call “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.”

Students all over the country participate in the big competitions that pitch their club’s robot against those of others. Usually they are part of a club, but sometimes their school creates a course that centers on building a robot and entering it in the contest.

As Molly and R.J. tell us in this video, it’s a great way for kids to overcome any bias against math and science and get their hands into the real thing. And the fun of doing it as a team gives them a lot of practice in collaboration, critique, revision, and all the other habits of expert engineers.

Please, write in and tell us when you’ve had this much fun! We’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best responses we receive.

Shut your eyes and pretend

Remember “Mad Hot Ballroom” — the movie about middle school dance contests in New York City? I’ve always wanted to get better at ballroom myself, so I tracked down a couple of eighth grade ballroom dancers to tell me what it took.

At Tysheena and Dan’s middle school, kids can take ballroom dance for their physical education class. (Their teacher was also the principal!) Once they get to eighth grade, they can try out for a school team that competes in the city competitions. The contest adds an extra thrill, Tysheena said, but it’s clear that she and Dan are also motivated by the sheer pleasure of doing it well.

So try this when you watch this video: Shut your eyes and pretend Dan and Tysheena are talking about learning some academic subject–say history, or English composition. What might a classroom teacher learn from the way they talk about rising from novice to mastery stage?

Send in your thoughts! If yours is the best comment that comes in, I’ll mail you a free copy of Fires in the Mind as soon as it’s off the press!

‘With all due respect’: How debate sharpens thinking

‎”I was always the one arguing with teachers,” said Posha, a high school debater from Newark, NJ. “You gave me an order, and I’m like, I’m not doing this!” But when she pushes back these days, debate has given her a new demeanor of confidence and respect. “Now it’s: I think you’re wrong because,” she said. “I have more information to back up my argument, instead of just yelling.”

Debate is growing fast as a practice to sharpen the minds and skills of urban youth whose voices have long been ignored. In this short video—one of WKCD’s “Case Studies in Practice” series—two Newark students describe how becoming debaters has taught them to do research and analysis, to speak up in public, and to disagree using words, not force.

“You pick a topic out of a hat and you just get up and speak on that,” says Michael, who was in trouble for fighting before the debate coach tapped him for the school team. “Everybody started thinking on their feet.” At first, he said, “I was obliterated.” But his competitive instinct made him work hard to nail the skills he needed: reading, writing, thinking, and effective speaking.

These young debaters take up serious subjects; this year, it’s the U.S. military and police presence in South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, and Turkey. Their practice room is lined with books and students pore over them intensely.

The Jersey Urban Debate League to which Newark’s team belongs is part of the Urban Debate Network, an initiative of the Open Society Institute. Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) currently exist in 24 of the nation’s largest cities, with over 500 urban high schools participating. Almost half of these offer a credit-bearing course in argumentation and debate, and some districts incorporate formal debate coaching throughout the regular curriculum. More than 40,000 public school students have competed in UDLs, the network estimates.

Results are clear. A peer-reviewed study of the Chicago Debate League suggests that African American male students raised their GPAs by 50% of a letter grade and were 70% more likely to graduate from high school than non-debating peers. Compared to their non-debating peers, African American male debaters were 70% more likely to reach the ACT College Ready benchmark in Reading and twice as likely to reach the College Ready benchmark in English.

Michael said his grades, too, improved tremendously. “The season’s over, my last year is over,” he mused. “But I got into that habit, and that work ethic is going to stick with me. It’s good for yourself to know these things. You learn a lot of stuff that people should be knowing about, but actually don’t.”

Just life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video “Case Study in Practice” talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

We learned a lot by eavesdropping on these middle schoolers, as they

• Look for math in real life
• Frame their experiences as word problems
• Try out ways to solve those problems, and
• Explain and share their thinking.

What does this suggest for what your math students are practicing? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll share your thoughts and experiences with us in a reply.

Learning on a different wavelength

You can hear the beats sounding loud from the open windows of passing cars on a balmy afternoon in downtown Oakland, and you may catch snatches of a radio host interviewing the guest of the hour, or a commentary you wish you could hear more of.

But you might never know, walking past the sleek four-story downtown Youth Radio building at 1701 Broadway, that just inside it young people from 15 to 21 are working at newsroom desks and in soundproof studios to send those voices and that music into their community and the larger world.

Since Youth Radio began in 1990, it has introduced some of the freshest voices in broadcast journalism to listeners who tune into local stations, National Public Radio, and, most recently, streaming Internet sites. It trains 1,300 youth each year to develop core competencies in audio, video, web and print and to produce the highest quality original media for the widest possible audience. An estimated 27 million people hear and read the often-overlooked perspectives of young people through Youth Radio’s work each year.

However, Youth Radio also provides a compelling example of collaborative learning through peer apprenticeships, whose effects reach far into the lives and futures of Bay Area youth.

From the moment they come in off the street to fill out an application, these young broadcasters start building and sharing their skills—not just in research, writing, speaking, and media production but in workplace interactions, personal relationships, and life management.

This video presents the powerful 4-part strategy through which Youth Radio strengthens those skills through deliberate practice. It’s worth studying closely, through the voices of two young participants, Denise Tejada and Shaw Killip, whose lives it changed. Send it on to a teacher who needs a lift this week!

The hole in the wall

I’ve heard of Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall series of real-life experiments from New Delhi to South Africa to Italy, in which he gave kids self-supervised access to the web and saw results that could revolutionize how we think about teaching. But the images in his TED talk really underline for me how much curiosity and the shared interest of a peer group drive our motivation to learn.

Mitra concludes with, “education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.” What does that mean for how we should be setting up our formal learning environments? Shouldn’t we be setting up a “granny cloud” of mentors such as Mitra describes? Shouldn’t classrooms be much messier, livelier places, driven by mystery and inquiry?

If so, we’ll have to learn in another culture altogether—one that tolerates and even promotes the chaos of youthful energies when they are going where they want to go. What conditions make that possible? I am waiting to hear your ideas!

P.S. I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best responses that come in this week.

Pick up the baton!

Watch 3-year old Jonathan joyously wield his conductor’s baton to the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and you just have to ask: What happened here?

How many times has he listened to this music, making its rhythms and phrasing part of his physical and emotional world? Whose encouragement led him with baton in hand to express his whole-hearted glee? How often did he observe other conductors on the stand, soaking in and imitating their movements? And how often did he repeat his own rendition, fine-tuning it consciously or unconsciously each time?

In the answers, we might learn something about what contributes to building other skills that we hope our children will develop. Wiping his runny nose as he bounds through Beethoven, Jonathan overflows with innocent joy in his exploration and expression of the conductor’s craft. And the video’s last seconds, as he collapses in helpless laughter on the rug, vividly show the glorious stretch we feel when going to the limit for the next great thing we can do.

Unless we don’t feel that—because frustration or humiliation bring us down. Someone helped Jonathan get there, freeing him to celebrate every step and take another. Just think what our kids could do if we figured out how to be that person for them!

Starting today, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on a parent’s role in practice–whether our kids are practicing music, or athletics, or schoolwork, or getting to bed on time. Calling on your contributions as well as the research about cognition and development, we’ll create “A Family Guide to Practice” with ideas for parents and close-in caregivers. Please write in your questions and experiences—and stay tuned!

Get kids to chart their progress

“Interviewing is my challenge,” said the high school student you see in this video, as he began his journalistic internship at Educational Video Center (EVC) in New York City. To chart his progress, his teacher gave him the camera and asked him to document how he developed the art of asking questions.

One of the finest examples of “rigor and relevance” in the world, EVC workshops not only provide students with academic credit and professional skills; they give them the chance to express themselves and be heard. Teachers learn, too, about how to use videography as a means to develop critical skills and content across the curriculum–and incidentally, as a way for kids to chart their own learning.

This student’s 2-minute piece, made as a “practice video,” is just the beginning of his journey. At EVC, even students who have never succeeded in school before often go on to win awards and scholarships and to work in the media industry. And they start with just such small steps as this: asking questions that matter (“What does it take to get good at interviewing?”) and documenting the answers, as new skills build on each other right before our eyes.

'Only I can determine who I am!'

The pain and passion in these students’ voices bring into stark relief all the ways in which our current national policy obsession with testing and standardization strips youth of their motivation at school. How much more effort and practice they have clearly poured into making this performance piece! How powerful those energies would prove if our students could use them in their academic learning!

‘Only I can determine who I am!’

The pain and passion in these students’ voices bring into stark relief all the ways in which our current national policy obsession with testing and standardization strips youth of their motivation at school. How much more effort and practice they have clearly poured into making this performance piece! How powerful those energies would prove if our students could use them in their academic learning!

A launch worth watching

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Shared curiosity, persistence, and the joy of learning shine out like a spotlight from “Homemade Spacecraft,” a 7-minute video by Luke Geissbuhler about his eight-month scientific adventure with his elementary-school-age son.

The film shows the climactic day of their mission: “to attach a HD video camera to a weather balloon and send it into the upper stratosphere to film the blackness beyond our Earth.”

We see the boy and his dad test out their return parachute, and tuck their iPhone and the boy’s “reward if returned” note into a jerry-rigged lightweight orange insulated “space capsule” (smaller than a shoebox). Then they launch their helium-filled balloon, with camera, on its merry way. Their text explains what the journey entails:

Eventually, the balloon will grow from lack of atmospheric pressure, burst, and begin to fall. It would have to survive 100 mph winds, temperatures of 60 degrees below zero, speeds of over 150 mph, and the high risk of a water landing. To retrieve the craft, it would need to deploy a parachute, descend through the clouds, and transmit a GPS signal to a cell phone tower [from an included on the launch]. Then we have to find it.

“Needless to say, there are a lot of variables to overcome,” this dad notes about their project. “Be responsible is the biggest.” They built their craft to meet FAA regulations for weather balloon payload, and launched it far from city air space. Their R&D stage took seven months, for both scientific and safety reasons:

The lighter it is, the faster it will rise and the less helium you have to put into it and so the more it can expand into the oversized balloon, hence the higher it will go. It also has to be able to shred in a jet engine, which isn’t easy. There are density requirements and you can’t use any cable or tie that won’t break with 50lbs of weight among other things.

At the climax of all that work, we see the magic of this balloon ascend into space, hear the whoosh of wind currents, gaze at the awe-inspiring curve of Earth through its camera’s lens.

I can’t help but think of all the kids who would be itching to do science, if science learning could only look like this. An interested adult, a compelling idea to explore, and then hours of meticulous effort together . . . that’s what lights fires in the mind, and keeps them burning years later.

Do you have stories like this to share, from the wide world of learning outside school walls? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

Practice, performance, pride

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What a work of art these young performers have created on a street corner in Oakland! I can’t help but think of the hours they must have spent collaborating, breaking moves down, looking for patterns, using familiar moves in new ways, critiquing, revising, persisting, taking up new challenges . . . and a very public performance to take pride in at the end.

In short, they’ve been practicing an “expert process” that will serve them in many other contexts. Whatever it took to get it going, we should be studying it!

Singing Pythagorus


Anyone who remembers the periodic table via Tom Lehrer’s wonderful song “The Elements” (below) will also appreciate this musical mnemonic ditty about the Pythagorean theorem, composed by a high school boy from Pendleton County (KY) High School. Does anyone else have a great one to contribute? (If you send yours in, we’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind.) And tell us: Does this kind of practice work for your students?

The rhythm of joint action

Sports teams that warm up together before a game usually do it to heighten camaraderie and spirit. But synchronous exercise of that kind also seems to increase not just their motivation but their ability to pursue joint goals successfully, says a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

This might mean, for example, that kids who practice Double-Dutch jump-rope, or ballroom dance, or playing in a band—anything that involves moving together in time—are actually getting sharper at accomplishing anything they try that involves cooperation, perception and reaction to a partner’s actions.

A little “action research” by teachers and students is worth a try! Science class after gym class, anyone?

Bait the hook for math thinking

In his wonderful TEDx talk, Dan Meyer, a high school math teacher in Santa Cruz, CA, explains how he gets students who are “mathematically and conversationally intimidated” to formulate math problems themselves — based on their genuine curiosity about the world.

Meyer presents kids with everyday phenomena (like a hose slowly filling a big container in the school courtyard) and asks them simple questions (“How long will it take to fill up?”). Instead of memorizing formulas (or copying them from already-solved examples), his students practice “patient problem-solving.” Slowly, steadily, in small groups, they check out their intuitions and formulate their own reasoning.

Meyer recommends five rules of thumb for math teachers, including “Ask the shortest question you can” and “Let students build the problem.” He asserts: “The math serves the conversation, the conversation doesn’t serve the math!”

It’s another way of saying that Motivation + Deliberate Practice = Mastery.

Constructing wings to fly with


“I can figure that out!” That’s the message that comes across in the how-to videos in the current online issue of Edutopia — showing how a challenging hands-on project can create a culture of steadily increasing motivation and mastery. My favorite shows ninth graders from Seattle whose science teacher drew them into a long term project to engineer from papier-mache a light-weight wing construction that works. I had to agree: “It’s hard–but once you’re on the inside, it’s fun!”