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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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

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.

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?!

Practice, performance, pride


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!

Homework and the middle-school mind

My guest today is Dina Strasser, who teaches seventh grade English in upstate NY and whose blog The Line I depend upon for consistent and thoughtful insights on life in the middle school classroom. Dina’s taking my previous post on homework another welcome step here, as do several other teachers who comment on my original homework post here. Keep your ideas coming!
HOMEWORK! I think I may struggle with this morally more than other teachers, as my formative experience with assigning work outside of school came from my eight years as an ESL instructor. I started to call it the Second Shift Principle. If an ESL kid couldn’t do the homework around a parent’s absence due to a second job (or the student’s own “second shift,” often a load of housework and child care), then the homework wasn’t worth doing.

I transferred this philosophy to my new mainstream English classroom three years ago, and am deeply influenced by the complementary work of Cathy Vatterott at ASCD—her book Rethinking Homework is essential reading. My school, also, has a “no zero” policy, and de-emphasizes homework in the calculation of grades. I myself explicitly assign homework very sparingly, and grade homework minimally (5-10% of a grade), and only for completion. As Nicholas says so poignantly in Fires in the Mind, you don’t want homework to be like “a test that comes at the wrong time.”

As an English teacher, in fact, the only homework I assign on a regular basis is—you guessed it—reading. However, my reading follows the recommendations of Nancie Atwell; it is a pre-set time of 30 minutes per day, to be completed anywhere at any time, on the book or reading material of their choice. I like this kind of work because it solves so many homework issues right off the bat: it is (hopefully) enjoyable, flexible in how it can be completed (who doesn’t read on the bus once in a while?), and automatically differentiated for the kid.

Here, too, however, I struggle with some completion issues. Even self-directed reading, in a book a kid will enjoy, sometimes plays second fiddle not only to the scheduled lives our kids lead outside of school, but to much more sexy technological reading. In addition, and in a complicated twist on the information in Fires in the Mind, I find that if my kids don’t get some kind of grade on the reading, they have trouble seeing its worth. This is even if I explain every single day (and I do) that reading is just like free throws—it has to happen in order for it to improve. This is a shadow side of teaching middle school kids. They’ve been conditioned for several years by a learning culture which pins total value on extrinsic motivators such as grades, and they may not know how to articulate their desire for choice and meaning otherwise, like the older kids in Fires in the Mind.

So, as a middle school teacher experimenting with homework, I would be especially sensitive to the fact that while your kids are conducting “triage” based on what’s graded or not, what they’re actually expressing is a desire for the meaning and impact of the work to be clear. I hope to improve on my own homework in the coming year by asking for short reflections on the daily reading which we go over in conference weekly, targeted to what the kids individually feel they need practice on in reading, and including text and email options for turning those in. I am also excited to explain the differences between tech reading and “slow” reading for them, and validate them both—maybe by including a week’s worth of deliberate on-line reading practice for them each month. I’m sure that will get done!

Summer learning for kids

In a neighbor’s kitchen last summer, I noticed a couple of colorful handwritten checklists, each with about 25 items, which her two kids had posted on the refrigerator door. In big letters at the top they had printed, “Things I want to do this summer!”

Those dreams were filled with energy and exploration—from “make $ to buy a new bike” to “sleep out in a tent.” Okay, some were pretty clearly daydreams, but others could be carried out with only modest parental time and resources.

And if the right supports are there, it’s plans like these that make summer a time of enormous opportunity for growth and learning.

But with youth programs getting the ax and summer youth employment at an all-time low, by this week plenty of parents are worrying about what their kids are doing during these long hot days.

Camp, enrichment programs, or summer school aren’t in the schedule for three out of four schoolchildren nationwide, according to a new study by the Afterschool Alliance—even though more than half of their parents would send them, if they could.

We parents have seen for ourselves the consequences of a summer spent sleeping late and whiling away the lazy hours with television or video games. And the research backs that up: Without effective summer learning opportunities, most students fall more than two months behind in math between June and September. Low-income children also lose two to three months in reading every summer—so that by the end of fifth grade, they are nearly three years behind their high-income peers.

Part of the solution for worried parents is to push national, city, and school district officials to prioritize high-quality summer opportunities for students. A bill is now stalled in the U.S. Senate that would provide $1 billion over ten years to fund 350,000 summer jobs for teenagers and young adults ages 14 through 24.

But parents can’t wait to solve the immediate problem that faces them over the next seven or eight weeks. Over my next several posts, I’ll propose some practical activities that can keep kids active and stimulated, learning and growing, on their own or with others.

Step 1: Sit down with your kids to brainstorm their own list! If you listen with interest and don’t put down their ideas, at least some of their dreams will intersect with real-world possibilities. The goal: By summer’s end, they’ll be able check off at least some of the items they post on your refrigerator door.

Watch for the suggestions coming up in my next posts. Meanwhile, leave your own ideas in the Comment column! I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is one of the best suggestions received!

What we can learn from that ollie

Most days in my New York City neighborhood, as I walk down the sidewalk under the ramparts of the George Washington Bridge, I stop for a while to watch the skateboarders practice their ollies. A group of kids from about 11 to 15, they hang out on a little-used strip of asphalt across from the bus station, working on their moves in a way that seems at once fluid, social, and intensely focused.

Even when they seem to be taking a break, not doing anything much, they’re actually watching each other closely. Sometimes they exchange a few words of critique or advice. Then they’ll go back and try something new, again and again.

Like Dan Coyle in The Talent Code and many others, for the last couple of years we at What Kids Can Do have been digging into the cognitive research on what’s really going on beneath that bridge—and in other places where kids are getting really good at what they do.

The kind of practice that really moves us ahead – “deliberate practice” – requires explicit elements, I’ve learned — and those elements look a lot like what those young skateboarders are doing as they work at their ollies under the bridge:

• They see something excellent that they want to know and be able to do.

• They go after that thing at a challenge level that’s just right for them.

• They break the challenge into parts and rehearse each move in a focused, attentive way, at intervals, until it comes easily each time.

• Someone notices their mistakes and helps them adjust what they’re doing.

• They savor the small successes that come along — and then they look for the next challenge.

It’s what every good teacher wishes were happening in the classroom. But it takes time and persistence — the famous 10,000 hours we’ve read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and other books drawing on that same research about achieving high performance.

And as our WKCD team documents the lives and learning of adolescents, it fascinates me how many of those 10,000 hours for kids happen “outside the lines.”

Kids spend about 5,000 hours in high school alone: six to seven hours a day, 185 days a year, for four years. Homework adds to that time, at least in theory. But when I ask kids where they experience “deliberate practice”—using the criteria we’ve spelled out above—they’re more often talking about skateboarding than about science class.

We’re going to use this space to explore with all of you who care about kids — teachers, parents, coaches, caregivers — what can bring that kind of practice into all the places where we interact with youth.

The kids under that bridge are showing us that it’s a way of being, not a curriculum. It’s at once playful and purposeful, and its result is high performance.

In this space, we’ll focus our discussions by watching and listening to kids themselves. We hope you’ll tell us what you’re seeing and hearing as you work with youth—and also share what you’re wondering and trying.

I’ll mail a free copy of Fires in the Mind to the best post I receive on this in the next week. So let’s go—it’s time to practice!

For reference and discussion, download What_Is_Deliberate_Practice? (PDF)