Just Listen: Kids Talk About Life at Home

“It’s kinda like I just had a baby,” Wedjeena told me, talking about her ten-month-old brother. “He’ll pull my homework, crumple it up. Eat it.”

As the winter holidays arrive, adults tend to think of youth as the receivers of our largesse. It’s easy to forget that many youth go home from school every day to shoulder the responsibilities of adults.

Whether it’s babysitting, doing household chores, or translating for non-English-speakers, their contributions matter enormously to their families and their communities outside school.

But they may be invisible to their teachers. What would you do differently if you knew the work that these four students are doing out of school? How might you celebrate and build on their strengths?

Take 5 minutes to listen to what they say. Then pass their voices along, and let us know what you think!

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Just Listen: Put Kids in the Learning Picture

Kids recognize on a gut level what cognitive science has shown: you can’t separate emotion from learning.

Carla knows she’s going to tune out when a teacher “follows all the rules” and “has no emotion.” And when a teacher shows lively interest, she realizes “we’re obviously going to have fun in this class . . . and we’re actually going to learn.”

Fun might seem like the wrong way to measure whether learning is happening. But the science makes clear that (along with other emotions, and not always happy ones) it can actually help material stick in our minds.

We can see Garlyn light up as she talks about learning the craft of beading with a group of her friends. We can hear Thomas’s pride at creating a graphic novel in his English class. It’s pretty clear that these students are excited by the learning process itself—because it’s fun.

At first it seems like Wilson is explaining a routine problem on distance and displacement. But then something changes. He imagines himself into the picture—and we can see his mind catch fire.

What can a teacher do with this, in planning for Tuesday?

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series of nine short clips. Then—especially if you agree with how Arielle sums them up at the end—please pass along what these kids say to others!

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Just Listen: Just-Right Learning Challenges

“I usually like a challenge,” Kenneth told me. But like other students, he looks to teachers to set tasks he expects he can reach.

That’s a key factor in motivation, it turns out. Too easy is just boring, students say—but too hard, and they won’t have the confidence to try. Part of that confidence, one student said, comes from his mindset going in. Success builds on success—and a teacher can help.

“They see what you’re able to be,” Arielle explained, “and they just make it so much bigger.”

“I’m still growing right now,” as Farhan puts it. “I’m grasping a new identity.”

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series in which students talk about just-right learning challenges. If what they say makes sense to you, please share it with others!

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Just Listen: How We See You, How You See Us

How do kids see their teachers, and how do they imagine their teachers see them? “I think about how they were as a kid,” one student mused. “If they thought the same way that we think, what they would do about certain things . . .”

If you’re a teacher looking for a midterm boost, Just Listen! Who you are and what you do matters to students and their learning. That’s backed up by research, but nothing beats hearing it from the kids.

Take a few minutes to watch the rest of this 8-clip series on how students view teachers and how they think teachers view them. If what the kids say makes you think, send it out to others!

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Just Listen: Kids Talk About Project-Based Learning

Hands-on projects get students interested in a way that regular schoolwork may not. Attacking a real-world problem, exploring an issue of personal interest, or just trying something that involves a little action — all these add value and increase motivation, kids tell me.

“I was like, ‘You know, that’s something I wanna do,’” said Rashaun about a documentary project his class took on. “There’s so much you can do with this. I’ma go all the way.”


Take 5 minutes to watch the full series in which students describe learning through projects.

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Just Listen: Students Tell What Makes Them Care

“It was cooler than a regular document that you’ll see in a textbook,” Amanda told me about a historical document she handled during her museum internship. “This is something I really wanna do and learn more about.”


In fact, kids usually care more about learning when they have some kind of stake in what they’re doing. Where does that stake come from? Just listen to the variety among these students’ answers!

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series.

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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!

A road trip to motivation and mastery

“I’d feel so much better about the world we live in if being ‘passionate’ or ‘inspired’ was a national standard instead of so much of the academic trivia that is mandated,” a high school teacher in Oakland, California recently wrote me.

Working with 11th graders in his capacity as college advisor and internship coordinator, he was helping them explore how their own interests or passions could lead to further study and possible career choices. In the process, he introduced some video excerpts from the public television series “Roadtrip Nation,” whose motto is “Define your own road in life.”

Roadtrip Nation began in 2001 when four friends just out of college set out across the country in a green RV to interview people who loved what they did. Ten years later, it’s a movement—including a nonprofit arm that creates curriculum to help middle and high school students expand their vision and explore their futures.

The basic idea: Young people find what they love, contact people that live a life that inspires them, gather a team to interview those people in order to learn from their stories, and share these experiences with others.

They start by browsing through a vast video archive of interviews other youth have conducted with people that inspire them. They build the skills of interviewing and producing digital media. And they carry out their own local Roadtrips, planning and conducting interviews with leaders in their communities.

At-risk students who completed the curriculum at a youth opportunities center in Long Beach, California spoke about it with enthusiasm in this interview by local TV. And an independent evaluation of the curriculum highlighted positive changes in students’ attitudes toward learning after they completed the “Roadtrip Nation Experience”:

  • 15 percent more students reported feeling interested in their class work most of the time
  • 20 percent more students felt very certain that the things that they are learning in school will be relevant for their futures
  • 18 percent more students reported that they had very often talked with someone outside of school about their futures

To lift our country out of the mess we’re in, the rising generation is going to need all the inspiration and support it can find. For anyone who believes that motivation and mastery are closely linked, Roadtrip Nation is a great place to start the sparks flying and the minds meeting.

Coaching mastery in a new media world

How might the era of digital games and media change the way we coach young people in the habits of mind and work that we value? I’ve spent my reading time this week exploring this question in the the separate (but equally intriguing) work of two pioneers in that area: Robert Torres and Nichole Pinkard.

First, I pored through the book Quest to Learn: Developing the School for Digital Kids, which sets out in great detail the design principles of the new school Katie Salen and Robert Torres helped found in 2009 as part of New York City’s “Innovation Zone.” Quest to Learn (Q2L) is now in its second year with grades 6 and 7, and will eventually serve grades 6 to 12.

Then I explored the extensive website links of the Digital Youth Network Continue reading

On seducing student interest

Faced with a classroom full of bored and disengaged students, many teachers try to wake kids up and draw them in with some zingy detail about the topic they are teaching.


“About 150 people are killed by lightning every year in the U.S.,”
a science teacher may start out at the beginning of a unit on electricity. She shows a news clip as an example, and the kids perk up, all right.

But there’s a big danger in that teaching strategy,
the cognitive psychologist Patricia Alexander reminded us in her lecture at Institute 1.

Those “seductive details” stick in the mind . . . but they typically do so at the expense of the core concepts. We’re seducing kids into pondering the wrong things. Later, when we assess what students really understand and remember from the unit, they remember that lightning kills. But they can’t explain the key principles of the science that’s involved.

How can we avoid sidetracking kids with seductive details? Don’t just strip your teaching of intriguing examples . . . but make sure they really illustrate the main points you want to get across.

You can find out if you’re on the right track simply by asking the class for feedback about what they are learning. If kids respond with the details but miss the main point, then you’ve found the wrong details to zing up your lesson.

Instead, you’ll need to explore the key material for better details—ones that illustrate the things you want kids to remember.

The “Fire-Starters” section of this blog collects teachers’ examples of how they whet students’ interest in ways that deepen understanding rather than get in its way. Why not send in yours? If we use it, you’ll receive a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind with our thanks!

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.

Licking the Envelope

My favorite teacher-blogger, Dina Strasser, reminds us in a wonderful post on The Line this week of the power of making her seventh and eighth graders send out their written work to an audience other than their teacher.

Getting to more authentic writing takes a single step, she has found: Make sure someone other than you sees it.

Here’s the rest of her post, reprinted with her permission. (My response follows in a twin post.)

Kids are now reflecting on altruistic experiences in their lives, choosing one, and articulating its deeper meaning for themselves (the “SO WHAT?” in Nancie Atwell language). They then write a friendly letter to the person involved in the memory– and, in all cases where it applies, addressing an envelope, putting the letter in, licking it closed, and SENDING IT.

“We’re SENDING IT?” they howl.

“We’re sending it,” I repeat, smiling. (Because I actually enjoy seeing them react like this; like watching a canary in coal mine, chances are that if I’m making them visibly uncomfortable, we’re hitting Vygotsky’s sweet spot.)

As they get over their shock (quickly– they’re resilient folks), a two-part realization hits me. One: that kids don’t do nearly enough of this kind of thing. My announcement should be boring them to tears.

Two: that kids, without malice or deviousness, come to count on the fact that you are their only audience.

Far from raising stakes or expectations, the knowledge that their writing products live, move, and have their being merely within the artificial bubble of school decreases those products’ value to kids—no matter how clever or challenging the work.

It also encourages the path of least resistance that we all tend towards.  Why bother to capitalize, think a sentence through, or search for just the right word, when the only person who cares about it is Ms. S? Doesn’t she live with the other teachers in the janitor’s closet anyway?

In contrast, the make sure someone other than you sees it approach has already garnered some of the neatest handwriting, the most complete grammar, and– most importantly– the most genuine thinking I have seen all semester.

And as I mention above, it doesn’t have to be complicated, technical, or even require a reworking of assignments you already have.

  • Photocopy final products and have the kids mail them home with a post-it.
  • Throw another set into a manila envelope and have the kids watch you mail them to the superintendent.
  • Circulate word-processed assignments to your colleagues via email.
  • Email some more to friends or family of the kids’  choice.
  • Put together an anthology for every homeroom.
  • Create a quarterly literary magazine (read: stapled double-sided copies).
  • Distribute homemade poems at lunchtime.
  • Or if you fancy it, use one of the multiple powerful technologies available to classroom communities: blogs, wikis, webpages.

Who the audience is or should be, of course, is a question deserving of its own post: pros and cons to all, from peers to parents to the Internet. For now, though, if there’s any dark side to this approach, the word of caution I would give is not to use authentic audience as a punishment or a threat. Speaking simply in terms of keeping the assignments real is going to go a lot further with middle schoolers than “You had better spell this right, or your mother will be ashamed of you.”

The second half of the year is looming, and as implied at the beginning of the post, I continue to wrestle with the balance between totally kid-generated writing, teacher-guided writing, and writing that is teacher-directed from A to Z.  Regardless of the writing’s generation, however, I am making a personal commitment to have every single product my kids create this year go out into the world in one way or another—and that the kids are active participants in that process.

It’s not a magic bullet. But it comes close.

—DS, in The Line

Students on “college access” – Part 2

In the last post, we heard big news from the “value added” data-crunchers: students themselves can actually tell us quite accurately which teachers best help them learn.

And this week, our Center for Youth Voice in Policy and Practice supplied a follow-up punch. We’ve just released “Hear Us Out,” an important new report on the other huge policy issue of our era: college access.

Its authors? Two dozen high school students whose findings ought to carry extraordinary weight in high places.

These young researchers obtained high-quality survey data from 5,000 peers in nine comprehensive high schools: five in Seattle and four in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tennessee. Another 225 students participated in videotaped student-led focus groups and individual interviews.

That alone makes “Hear Us Out” a sizeable contribution to both quantitative and qualitative research on college access. But what its respondents said matters even more. This study shows that they do not get the college-going help they need from schools until far too late in the game, if at all.

Three-quarters of the respondents named their families as the chief source of college motivation and support, even when their parents and guardians had not attended college themselves.

In contrast, almost a third said they had never spoken with a school counselor about college. Although that percentage dropped to 12 percent by twelfth grade, 28 percent of seniors said they had completed their college application mostly on their own.

Information like this supplies a grim counterpoint to the incessant shouting at the top about how all kids should get themselves to college, pronto. And there’s more important data in “Hear Us Out,” which you can download here (for the Executive Summary) and here (for the 37-page report).

Above all, don’t miss the videos in which students talk about their path to college. Who helps them get there—and who doesn’t—comes through loud and clear.

Why ‘do it again’ isn’t enough

We really love that Lewis Black is thinking about how you get really good at something. (In his case, being hilarious.) And his cranky-funny take on that has a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of broken-record truth to it.

But it’s not quite fair to us learners that Black omits certain key steps, which turn that endless do-it-again practice into something really good. Something deliberate.

Critique, for example, is more than “You get smacked.” It’s a certain kind of smack: in the right direction, toward just the right thing to try, the next time you get up and do it again. Critique works best when it comes from someone who both builds on what you’re doing right and puts a finger on just where you need work. A good critique gives you the courage it takes to get up and try it again.

“Don’t whine to me ‘it’s hard,’” Black growls. But a good critique erases whining from the picture. It creates a crucial expectation inside us that we can succeed at the hard thing, if we try again, a little differently this time. And our sense that the coach cares lends a high value to that seemingly endless next try.

Great teachers are doing that kind of coaching . . . again and again and again and again and again. They do it because they’re watching their students so closely. And the teaching and learning is going in both directions.

Why 'do it again' isn't enough

We really love that Lewis Black is thinking about how you get really good at something. (In his case, being hilarious.) And his cranky-funny take on that has a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of broken-record truth to it.

But it’s not quite fair to us learners that Black omits certain key steps, which turn that endless do-it-again practice into something really good. Something deliberate.

Critique, for example, is more than “You get smacked.” It’s a certain kind of smack: in the right direction, toward just the right thing to try, the next time you get up and do it again. Critique works best when it comes from someone who both builds on what you’re doing right and puts a finger on just where you need work. A good critique gives you the courage it takes to get up and try it again.

“Don’t whine to me ‘it’s hard,’” Black growls. But a good critique erases whining from the picture. It creates a crucial expectation inside us that we can succeed at the hard thing, if we try again, a little differently this time. And our sense that the coach cares lends a high value to that seemingly endless next try.

Great teachers are doing that kind of coaching . . . again and again and again and again and again. They do it because they’re watching their students so closely. And the teaching and learning is going in both directions.

What next?! Linking inquiry to amazement

As the days grow shorter and darker, here’s a great game that will light up students in grades 6-12 with learning that’s actually fun. It’s a collaborative competition called InterroBang – a new term for the combined punctuation marks at the end of “Isn’t this amazing?!” – and it looks first-rate to me.

An interdisciplinary challenge that focuses on culture, creativity, exploration, and science, InterroBang runs from now through January—perfect timing for those winter weeks when kids need a really fun project filled with choice, autonomy, problem solving, content knowledge, and creativity.

The rules of InterroBang are simple, but they contain all the elements of great project-based learning. Kids visit the InterroBang website to pick (or create) their own “mission” to carry on their own or with a team. (Strategic alliances are part of the fun.)

Depending on the complexity of the challenge they choose, they’ll get different numbers of points for completing it to the satisfaction of the contest judges (which includes other players and mentors at higher levels of the game, as well as a panel of experts).

The mission can be intellectual, technical, or artistic, but it has to involve physical action, not just thinking and writing. Students devise their plan, and then they go out and do it, documenting their actions with pictures, video, and audio. Once that’s completed, the mission becomes a “deed” – posted on the website for others to view. Then players can go on to choose another challenge, join a new team, win more points, and so forth.

To me, InterroBang’s beauty is the flexibility and creativity it affords participants. For example, here are five sample “missions” that kids might take up or adapt, each with a different focus area:

• ME, UNPLUGGED. (Focus: Culture) Use no electrical or battery-driven devices for 24 hours. Write a detailed diary of the experience (you may use a camera to document the day). (Level 1, 10 points)

• UNDERCOVER. (Focus: Exploration) Visit someplace you have been before, but dressed as someone who does not belong. Document how people talk to you, how they treat you, and have your collaborator take pictures. Write up your reflections on the experience. (Level 2, 20 points)

• TRESPASSING THE PAST (Focus: Exploration) Find a highly frequented building or place (a shopping center, a racetrack, etc.) and find out what used to be there. Indicate what the land was used for and why it was developed. Provide pictures of the before and after. (Level 2, 20 points)

• TINKER. (Focus: Creativity) Take a common household item apart and find out how it works. Putting it back together is encouraged. Making it into something new gets you extra points. (Level 2, 20 points)

• PAPYRUS PILOT. (Focus: Science) Either try to break an official paper plane record (duration, distance or wingspan) or do something truly amazing with paper planes. Either way, document plane fabrication and flights. (Level 3, 30 points)

This is InterroBang’s second year, jointly sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, Microsoft’s U.S. Partners in Learning, and Nuvana, a groundbreaking games company that wants to change the way kids learn in and out of school. (Motto: “Playing for real.”)

I’m so curious to hear what you and your students think of InterroBang that I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to anyone who writes in to describe your experience.

How’s that for amazing?!

Proof that intelligence is infectious

This morning I came across some wonderful evidence about the power of engaging students in math and science that has clear importance in the “real world.” (Thanks to the Educator Network ning for the tip!)

This project started with Andrew Conlan, a scholar at the University of Cambridge in England who wanted to mathematically model the spread of infectious disease in elementary schools. What better research assistants than local teenagers, he reasoned, to help create and administer questionnaires directly to the children involved?

Conlan already had access to students age 13 to 15 and their teachers through the Motivate Project, which uses videoconferencing to join dialogues between students and working mathematicians. It was just one more step for him to turn those conferences into work sessions in which students honed kid-friendly questions investigating how younger children’s socialization patterns affect the spread of everything from chickenpox to swine flu.

With their local access and their rapport with younger kids, the student researchers collected data that Conlan calls “unrivalled in scope, size and detail.” Together they sampled 75 complete primary school classes from 11 different schools, with nearly a 90 per cent response rate. After school and during lunch period, they processed the results. And they grasped the epidemiological concepts, too. At year’s end, they visited Cambridge to present their data before the Applied Math department there.

This all took place in England, home of terrific sites like the Motivate Project and “I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here” where working scientists interact with students. Here in the U.S., I’ve seen comparable collaborations with local university researchers play out at High Tech High in San Diego.

So let’s set out to prove that intelligence can be infectious! I’d like to start a resource list on this blog of sites where teachers anywhere could go to match up their students with serious research in the field. I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you send me a suggestion we can use.

Bomb scare

A pre-service teacher wrote us this week after her solo student-teaching day was interrupted by what turned out to be a bomb scare. After the kids had been standing around for about 20 minutes, she struck up a conversation about fire-drill protocols with a girl nearby, someone whom she had noticed wasn’t doing well in math class, and rarely spoke up. “She told me that fire drills only take five minutes,” wrote A.B. “I shrugged, and then I decided that this would be a good time to talk to her.”

Starting with how much she hated math, the girl gradually opened up to talk about her life–a couple of difficult years in middle school, a transfer, friendship issues. A.B. writes:

She had no plans to go to college but she really enjoyed cooking. Her specialty — all types of chicken. I told her that I really hate cooking. So, now, that is our thing. We talk about what she made and what she intends to cook. It’s amazing how that one conversation has made her open up to me more and ask me questions when previously she had not said a word to me.

Back in the classroom, A.B. began to make more time to talk with other students. One was a boy who often slept in class, never seemed to do his homework, but could rip through problems at top speed when he was awake.

I told him that I was very worried about him and his success. After some pushing, he told me that he was working 30 hours a week but not to say anything to anyone. One other teacher let him do his homework during classtime, and he was able to get an A. A local college agreed to admit him if he got a 2.5 this year, and he’s keeping a C average by turning in a few homeworks now. However, since that discussion, he has been much more willing to talk to me about how things are going with my class and other classes. He has started to participate more in class, but he is not turning in homework assignments.

“One of these students lacks the confidence and the other lacks the motivation,” A.B. wrote, wondering how to use the information that they gave her to get them to perform at a higher level. I am struck by two things about her situation:

One is how powerful it is for students when their teacher simply reaches out to find out what is going on with them. The second is how much skill it takes to adapt our teaching plans so that each student is taking the next steps that he or she really needs (as homework or as classwork).

The second can’t be done without the first. So, if it takes a bomb scare to get the conversation going, grab the chance! It could open up your best thinking and planning ever for “deliberate practice” that’s geared for the individual—and your students might just join that thinking with you.

We’re collecting great examples of how teachers do such planning, to use in professional development workshops and to post as resources on this blog. Please send us yours–we’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to you for sharing your best examples with us all!

Cultivating, and expanding, student 'interests'

I received a reflective note about “student interests” from a student teacher named Douglas Hampton, who left an industry job in mid-career, to get a masters degree in teaching. As he gets to know his students this fall, he notices that many have only a limited idea of what the world of work might hold–and that it comes mostly from their environment or the media. “How do you expose students in a meaningful way to all the possible alternatives?” he asked.

For example, I am teaching math and economics and most of the curriculum feels distant to my students. The breadth of the subject is so extensive that teachers are limited in their ability to develop relevant connections to the real world. In geometry, there are a number of professional careers that extensively use this field of knowledge but my students do not appreciate it. Geometry is used by civil engineers, physicists, architects, surveyors, software engineers and graphic artists, but the students do not see the connections. . . . High school should be the place to investigate areas of interest, explore possibilities and develop good work habits. How do I allow my students to have the freedom to generate that spark that will ignite their interests? Math and economics by themselves do not capture the interest of most students.

I like that Douglas is talking about investigation and exploration in the same breath as he mentions “developing good work habits.” In the Practice Project that led to the book Fires in the Mind, students sometimes invited various highly accomplished adults into the classroom, interviewing them about “what it takes to get really good” in their fields. They might not have all wanted to be a top surgeon or auto mechanic, but the answers gave them material that we could then analyze, to think together about what are the common “habits of experts” and how they come about.

On Dan Meyer’s blog, he has another approach: get kids to speculate about the whys and hows of the world around them, using the language of math. He’s always suggesting ways to get kids themselves to puzzle through questions they generate when you bring in interesting photos, video clips, and the like to the classroom. Taking that tack is another fantastic way to get kids thinking about possible future careers. Whether it’s video game design, an election, or a construction project, once you get interested in the math and economics of how something works, you can start to talk about your own future place in that work, and what you might have to know and be able to do in order to take that place some day.

Finally, schools where students go out to do internships in the community are offering one of the most effective ways to broaden and create new learning from their interests. Watching, asking questions, and playing even a tiny role in the “real world” helps kids see first hand the work that goes on there, and how they might fit in. The best internship programs in schools bring students together once or twice weekly in a seminar where they reflect on what they’re seeing in the workplace, relate it to their academic learning, and think through the habits of mind and work that they require.

Do you have any examples to offer of how you cultivate student interests, or expand upon them? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments that come in.

Cultivating, and expanding, student ‘interests’

I received a reflective note about “student interests” from a student teacher named Douglas Hampton, who left an industry job in mid-career, to get a masters degree in teaching. As he gets to know his students this fall, he notices that many have only a limited idea of what the world of work might hold–and that it comes mostly from their environment or the media. “How do you expose students in a meaningful way to all the possible alternatives?” he asked.

For example, I am teaching math and economics and most of the curriculum feels distant to my students. The breadth of the subject is so extensive that teachers are limited in their ability to develop relevant connections to the real world. In geometry, there are a number of professional careers that extensively use this field of knowledge but my students do not appreciate it. Geometry is used by civil engineers, physicists, architects, surveyors, software engineers and graphic artists, but the students do not see the connections. . . . High school should be the place to investigate areas of interest, explore possibilities and develop good work habits. How do I allow my students to have the freedom to generate that spark that will ignite their interests? Math and economics by themselves do not capture the interest of most students.

I like that Douglas is talking about investigation and exploration in the same breath as he mentions “developing good work habits.” In the Practice Project that led to the book Fires in the Mind, students sometimes invited various highly accomplished adults into the classroom, interviewing them about “what it takes to get really good” in their fields. They might not have all wanted to be a top surgeon or auto mechanic, but the answers gave them material that we could then analyze, to think together about what are the common “habits of experts” and how they come about.

On Dan Meyer’s blog, he has another approach: get kids to speculate about the whys and hows of the world around them, using the language of math. He’s always suggesting ways to get kids themselves to puzzle through questions they generate when you bring in interesting photos, video clips, and the like to the classroom. Taking that tack is another fantastic way to get kids thinking about possible future careers. Whether it’s video game design, an election, or a construction project, once you get interested in the math and economics of how something works, you can start to talk about your own future place in that work, and what you might have to know and be able to do in order to take that place some day.

Finally, schools where students go out to do internships in the community are offering one of the most effective ways to broaden and create new learning from their interests. Watching, asking questions, and playing even a tiny role in the “real world” helps kids see first hand the work that goes on there, and how they might fit in. The best internship programs in schools bring students together once or twice weekly in a seminar where they reflect on what they’re seeing in the workplace, relate it to their academic learning, and think through the habits of mind and work that they require.

Do you have any examples to offer of how you cultivate student interests, or expand upon them? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments that come in.