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.”

Lighting up ‘the dismal science’

economics illustrated coverA wonderful example of “deeper learning” by high school students is “Economics Illustrated,” a book self-published by 45 tenth grade students at High Tech High in San Diego. It consists of their short explanations of terms of art in the field of economics, accompanied by engaging articles that show how they relate to current events. Striking linoleum-block prints illustrate each entry, making the concepts even more memorable.

To make sure that every student understood all the economics terms and concepts involved, humanities teacher Dan Wise required each student to teach a lesson on the particular term he or she researched, with the associated writing and artwork as a handout. The student’s final grade on the project would partly depend on how well peers performed when quizzed on that material.

The accompanying artwork is extraordinary, developed with the coaching of Jeff Robin, High Tech High’s interdisciplinary artist and febrile teacher. Looking for a quick mental picture of how “adverse selection” works? Check out Maya Adkins’s affecting block print of a sick child home from school. A woman applying for a job, she wrote in her article, might not be planning to have a child, but “she is still punished because of asymmetric information” relating to the employer’s costs from maternity absences.

“Economics is called the Dismal Science,” commented one of the students, Kai Wells:

But with Economics Illustrated it was anything but. In this project we balanced writing, social science and art. Beforehand we may have had a basic understanding of economics, but nothing really beyond the clichés of the stock market. We learned about dozens of economic principles, ranging from everyday inflation to more cutting-edge regression analyses. We tried to get each article just perfect; my article on the Theory of Comparative Advantage is probably my most heavily edited piece to date. Some people had difficulties with the linoleum block carving, both in what to carve and how to carve it. In the end, though, we managed to create a stunning book that we can be proud of.

This book is a model in every possible way: for teachers, for students, and for anyone who’s looking to change the way schools organize themselves for learning. Check it out and make good use of it!

Lighting up 'the dismal science'

economics illustrated coverA wonderful example of “deeper learning” by high school students is “Economics Illustrated,” a book self-published by 45 tenth grade students at High Tech High in San Diego. It consists of their short explanations of terms of art in the field of economics, accompanied by engaging articles that show how they relate to current events. Striking linoleum-block prints illustrate each entry, making the concepts even more memorable.

To make sure that every student understood all the economics terms and concepts involved, humanities teacher Dan Wise required each student to teach a lesson on the particular term he or she researched, with the associated writing and artwork as a handout. The student’s final grade on the project would partly depend on how well peers performed when quizzed on that material.

The accompanying artwork is extraordinary, developed with the coaching of Jeff Robin, High Tech High’s interdisciplinary artist and febrile teacher. Looking for a quick mental picture of how “adverse selection” works? Check out Maya Adkins’s affecting block print of a sick child home from school. A woman applying for a job, she wrote in her article, might not be planning to have a child, but “she is still punished because of asymmetric information” relating to the employer’s costs from maternity absences.

“Economics is called the Dismal Science,” commented one of the students, Kai Wells:

But with Economics Illustrated it was anything but. In this project we balanced writing, social science and art. Beforehand we may have had a basic understanding of economics, but nothing really beyond the clichés of the stock market. We learned about dozens of economic principles, ranging from everyday inflation to more cutting-edge regression analyses. We tried to get each article just perfect; my article on the Theory of Comparative Advantage is probably my most heavily edited piece to date. Some people had difficulties with the linoleum block carving, both in what to carve and how to carve it. In the end, though, we managed to create a stunning book that we can be proud of.

This book is a model in every possible way: for teachers, for students, and for anyone who’s looking to change the way schools organize themselves for learning. Check it out and make good use of it!

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!

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 “value added” – Part 1

Way back in 1994, we learned from Gloria Ladson-Billings that the best way to identify great teachers is to ask the people closest to them: students, fellow teachers, and parents.

So in this era when the data-gatherers are pushing questionable test scores as measures of “value added” by teachers, it’s somewhat heartening to see students systematically questioned about their classroom experiences, and taken seriously.

It’s only one part of a $335 million Gates Foundation effort to overhaul the personnel systems in seven large school districts: Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas; Denver; Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa; Memphis; New York; and Pittsburgh. And, being Gates, those test scores are still paramount—the kids were asked just out of curiosity whether their responses would corroborate them.

The early results show that they do. “Kids know effective teaching when they experience it,” Harvard researcher Ronald Ferguson, who designed the student questionnaires, told the New York Times.

When most of a teacher’s students agreed with statements like “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” “In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes,” or “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class,” guess what? Those students also showed increases in test scores. (Dare I say “duh”?)

Even more important, the Gates findings show that teachers who prioritize test-prep drilling actually end up with lower value-added learning gains than those who systematically focus on key concepts in literacy and mathematics.

“Teaching to the test makes your students do worse on the tests,” Gates education director Vicki Phillips told the Times. “It turns out all that ‘drill and kill’ isn’t helpful.”

Billions of our education dollars are pouring into a testing industry with an iron grip on the everyday lives of students and teachers in our public school systems.

Why can’t we put those dollars directly into supporting teaching and learning those crucial concepts?

Why can’t that money also support a thoughtful large-scale system (like Finland’s) in which we assess student learning growth by watching and listening to students themselves?

And why can’t we trust students—along with teaching colleagues and families—to let us know which teachers help them most?

Stay tuned. In part 2 of this post, high-school-student researchers have some startling findings on what helps them get to college.

On cluelessness

“Tell me what you’re already really good at!” That’s the first thing I asked of the students in our Practice Project. It wasn’t just to make them feel good about themselves. Instead, it got us started talking about the process that goes into “getting good”—whether at baseball or cell biology.

Still, a lot of people ask me if my teenage collaborators weren’t exaggerating their own competence when they described how good they were. Given their youth, how could they really know where they stack up? They don’t even know what they don’t know!

Maybe so—but hey, aren’t we all that way?

I’ve been thinking about all this, while reading Errol Morris’s fascinating series of essays in the New York Times, on whether our incompetence actually makes it impossible for us to recognize our incompetence. (Speaking of which, the unpronounceable term for this “anasognosia” kept me away from the piece for days!)

Morris takes off from a scholarly paper by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” from a 1999 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He goes back and forth with Dunning, trying to make sense of it from several perspectives, including neurology, psychology, philosophy.

It’s a wonderful conversation from beginning to end (including footnotes and readers’ comments). But I kept wanting bring it down to the level of teacher and student, mentor and apprentice, school and community.

For example, Dunning could have been talking about my students—or about me!—when he told Morris:

People can be clueless in a million different ways, even though they are largely trying to get things right in an honest way. Deficits in knowledge, or in information the world is giving them, just leads people toward false beliefs and holes in their expertise.

College students with bad grammar, Dunning found, actually think their grammar is correct. In the same way,

The average detective does not realize the clues he or she neglects. The mediocre doctor is not aware of the diagnostic possibilities or treatments never considered. The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is out there. People fail to reach their potential … simply because they are not aware of the possible. This is one of the reasons I often urge my student advisees to find out who the smart professors are, and to get themselves in front of those professors so they can see what smart looks like.

It’s an invitation to look at ourselves as well as at our students. For example, Morris muses:

Of course, I’d like to imagine myself near the top, planted firmly in the upper quartile. But upper quartile of what? I could devise a test that makes me look smart. But what would I have to exclude?

School is over for the summer, and now we have time to dream a little. Why not take a dip into the currents of these questions, and come up with your own?

How will we know what next year’s students really know and can do already? How can we point them to explore the territory they don’t even know exists? And who’s going to do that for us?

I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the most helpful comments that come in on this!

What sticks with you from school?

As the school year ends in this “accountability” era, we’re pressed even more to test and summarize and analyze what students know and can do. But it’s also the season of high school reunions—and I’m always struck by what people remember most, 5 and 10 and 20 years out, about their learning in those adolescent years.

A friend passed along this email from her brother (class of 1992), who went with a few of his high school drama club friends to take a last look at their old auditorium, slated for demolition in a major renovation. “The evening proved to be much more emotional than I had expected,” he writes:

It didn’t hit me in the lobby, or even when I walked into the auditorium with the orange seats. But it started to hit me when I walked up the stairs on far stage right, the same stairs that G. walked up after he fell off the stage at the end of “You Can’t Take It With You.” It hit me when I walked backstage and saw that it looked almost identical … the toolroom in which something may or may not have happened between M. and A., the chaotic placement of wood in those shelves, the makeup room. … It hit me as I sat on the edge of the stage, with my feet dangling over, looking out to the orange seats and thinking about the crew meetings in which the honchos would be sitting on the stage and the crew would be sitting in the first couple rows of seats.

Later, I would walk around the mostly-unchanged high school, struck by how emotionless it was for me. (The only thing that moved me was how the student artwork in that first floor hallway was unchanged from when we were there.) But of course most of the high school was just a place where we took classes. That theatre was . . . not to be too cheesy, but that theatre was where I became the man I am today. That was where we channeled our passion, our energy and learned how to cope, how to negotiate, how to motivate, how to make something happen. That theatre was home, in some ways as much as [our family home] was for me.

Reading this, I thought about what kids like this are actually rehearsing in all those hours of absorbing “non-academic” activities—whether in the arts, sports, or other areas. What they learned, Ted Sizer used to say, constituted the “residue” of a high school education: what remains long after we have forgotten everything we studied for the tests.

How much higher could the stakes rise, than to show that kids know “how to cope, how to negotiate, how to motivate, how to make something happen”?

What did you learn in your high school years that made you who you are today? Please share your answer in the comment box below! I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comment we receive.

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?

Spring practice

This is the time of year that kids hate homework most! The weather is warmer, and the clock is running down to the end of the school year. Teachers get mad at kids who blow off their homework . . . and kids get mad at teachers who assign it.

So why, in certain schools around the country, are kids working harder than ever on after-school academics right now?

We see them staying after to work in the computer labs. We see them collaring teachers in the halls for advice. We see them asking other students to read what they’ve written and give their opinions on making it better.

Where does all that motivation come from? Here’s the secret: One day in May or early June, these kids have to get up and present what they’ve learned in front of others whose opinions they value.

That one factor makes kids their “spring practice” in academics as seriously as any baseball player going into spring training. As Bridget, one of our student contributors to the book Fires in the Mind, noted:

With a presentation, it’s not just the teacher who’s gonna be disappointed in you, it’s gonna be a whole audience. You have your peers judging you, and outside people, so you want to present the best of yourself. And that pressure creates a better product.

Performance assessment like these require students to practice all kinds of things that don’t usually show up on tests. For example, Brooklyn Prep, a small New York City public school, assesses end-of-year roundtable presentations largely on the “habits of mind” students can demonstrate.

Roneesha, an eleventh grader, explained to her panel how those habits influenced her final paper in history. She said:

I think it was mainly the habits of mind of analysis and perspective that helped me most. I already had the background information . . . the only thing was how to get it down on paper and choose my position properly. Mainly, perspective helped me see what was the question, and what was it that I knew about the question, and how could I put that, so I could write an essay that fully answered that question.

“It’s amazing to us to see the tone shift when portfolio presentations are happening,” one New York teacher told me:

All of a sudden students take it more seriously. We all felt like students were like really learning, just from going through the process of the presentation. Even just having a voice on other students’ panels — really assessing another student based on a rubric — had an effect on kids. I am so excited to do it again this month.

Quite a few schools do this kind of performance assessment, often called exhibitions, though we don’t hear enough about it in this policy climate of high-stakes standardized testing. But May is a good time to go see for yourself what kids know and can do! The Coalition of Essential Schools has declared National Exhibition Month, and schools around the country are inviting the community in as guests and panel members.

What are YOU asking your students to practice this spring? How are you asking them to practice it? Who are you inviting in to see how they’re doing?

Share your experiences with practice! We’ll mail you a free copy of Fires in the Mind if your comment causes others to reply!