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!

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

The refrigerator door

Gary Stager has a beautiful article in the current issue of Creative Educator, celebrating the “genius of print” and the “beauty and value of paper.” Especially as the year ends and kids take work home in bulging bagfuls, it gives me hope. The high-tech-heads in education are not forgetting the heirloom quality of student work–the kind children and families can hold in their hands, page through with grandparents or younger siblings, display on the refrigerator door.

Stager writes:

As teachers, we often promote the idea that process is more important than the end product, yet it is often the product itself that provides context and motivates students to learn.

And he emphasizes the quality of the work:

While every project may not generate an objet d’art, we should assume that every project we undertake has the potential to do so.

In a related earlier article, he advocates raising the bar for student projects, to include the highest standard of all: Does the project have a chance of enduring? Like Ron Berger in his classic An Ethic of Excellence, Stager wants a set of goals in which teachers and students embrace “the aesthetic of an artist or critic.”

It’s easy, Stager warns, to get distracted by the technology, forgetting about whether the work lives up to its larger purpose. His goal for a successful project: We just can’t bear to take it off the refrigerator door.