Category: Student Engagement

Welcome to Durstopia!

The month of May on the school calendar represents grueling tests of will, perseverance, and endurance… and I’m just speaking for educators. If it is this great a struggle for adults, imagine what wanders through the young, developing minds of our students?

In my ninth grade Visions in Literature and Composition courses, May presents the final stage of freshman training. In attempt to maintain the attention of students (and the teacher), I save the popular dystopian literature unit for the end of the year. And traditionally, it delivers.

Last year’s freshmen were treated to a different approach to close the school year. I gamified the entire dystopian literature unit and presented the ultimate challenge: Escape from Durstopia! They were hooked from the outset, but when they began discovering new missions with links to next steps for success, they were locked in. I communicated from the InfoTech Hub (Google Classroom) and added slides to a shared Google presentation.

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Teams formed when necessary and individuals raced to conquer challenges. Students were slipping side quests to me before anyone else recognized the opportunities to learn or create. A group comprised of students from both classes even joined forces and stayed for hours after school to stump their peers with a coded scavenger hunt. Impressive. My students were doing more work and producing greater outcomes than I would ever consider assigning. Learners were not merely invested; they were immersed in our gamified literary universe.

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So why would I save this level of engagement for the final month when I have an entire school year to plan? Why not start the year in game mode and see where it leads?

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With a final pep talk from Michael Matera (I urge you to read Explore Like a Pirate and follow the action of #XPLAP on Twitter), Tisha Richmond, Adam Bold, Nick Davis, and Carrie Baughcam in June, I left University School’s Summer Spark with the vision and motivation necessary to construct my story for freshman English. Thus, Durstopia expanded from a single unit concept to a year-long experience. Plans are currently underway in my imagination and on dry erase boards in my office.

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The transition in planning is an invigorating challenge after years of teaching the freshman curriculum. I am restructuring the order of our department units (with common standards, learning targets, and assessments)—units I have helped create throughout the last two decades—to tell a learning story within the theme. Here’s what it looks like at this point in midsummer form (questions, suggestions, and brilliant insights are always welcome!).
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Visions, Voices, Creative Choices: Preparing Learners for the Future

What a week. By the end of an emotionally-draining, anxiety-ridden election week, many find themselves struggling to breathe, smothering under the weight of an insecure future. Each breath as shallow as the destructive rhetoric of intolerance forcing American voters to choose a side—a blade that cuts deeper than partisan politics. With respect to our right to have a voice in the democratic process, what message did adults express to a generation of impressionable children?

Rather than answer that question, I ended the week in the most comforting place I know—with my family. As the father of two compassionate, open-minded, respectful children, I maintain hope for the future. While I cannot protect them from all the realities they will encounter, I will continue to model empathy, encourage dialogue about their questions, and equip them with knowledge and courage to overcome ignorance.

Raising children to become critical thinkers and selfless citizens feels overwhelming at times, but parents are not alone. They have a support system and powerful ally in education. Together, we send a message of hope built on trust, protected by knowledge, and secured by an understanding that all lives matter.

Before closing the week by spending a quiet Friday night watching movies with my family, I attended a two-day conference: The 7th Annual National Convening on Personalized Learning. This year, The Institute for Personalized Learning focused on Preparing Learners for the Future, “to produce learners that work independently, are able to drive their own learning, and want to learn out of curiosity.” From one presenter to the next, all conversations challenged traditional thinking about the way we do school. In fact, every speaker inspired an audience of educators to rethink their vision of school. Breakout sessions shared models of success and struggle to personalize learning, while reinforcing the fact that personalization is not a pre-packaged educational program, initiative, or buzzword. It is a culture-shifting philosophy that puts learning at the center of all decisions, leverages student voice and choice, and empowers every student, every day.

Here are my notes and greatest takeaways from two days of rich dialogue, challenging thoughts, and memorable conversations with passionate educators… Continue reading

Writing With the Stars

We spend hours of our academic lives attempting to analyze and interpret the literary works of others. We strive define what an author’s text says, then determine what the writing means. While critical thinkers recognize the benefits of these literary discussions and classroom activities, occasionally we have to ask, “What does this matter?” Why dedicate so much time studying the words of authors whom will never share the truth? If we could simply ask Shakespeare if he intended to communicate what was recently Shmooped

The process is frustrating at times. It assigns students the role of the confused reader and authors as the untouchable expert. Learners in my high school English courses should consider themselves writers as well as readers. The most effective strategy I’ve used is to study our own work as literature. Here’s how. Continue reading

Clipboards and Conversations: PD with Purpose

I recently had the rare opportunity (and pleasure) to observe my colleagues’ classrooms throughout two school days. In total, I entered twenty-four classrooms and, after reflective collaboration with the rest of the leadership team, enjoyed conversations about nearly fifty observational rounds. While out on tour, my purpose was to collect data about the amount of differentiation and level of rigor our students experience in a typical day of high school to provide direction for future staff development. What I recorded on a clipboard may prove valuable; but what I experienced has already made a significant impact.

My greatest take-away is the need for all stakeholders to increase innovative thought in our vision of school–by students, teachers, and administrators. Students should spend more time creating, not simply doing, in a school day. Teachers should be coaching more than instructing. Administrators should attack the status quo, think big and ask, “why not?” All leaders should empower others by asking more questions than providing answers. We can make significant improvements to what we do and how we do it. So what holds us back? Continue reading

A Radiant Reflection 2015

Last year at this time, I committed to my one word for 2015: radiate. The time has come to check for accountability to see if I achieved the expectations identified in last year’s post. With humility and gratitude, I reflect on my opportunities for professional development and personal growth in 2015.

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Radiate: To move from one’s center requires taking action with direction. It is time to emerge, flow with thoughts, and take action to produce something useful.

In 2015, I resumed my endless quest to promote a culture of learning through innovative engagement strategies, healthy grading practices, and assessment for learning. After years of exploring project-based learning, differentiation, genius hour, feedback strategies, and the paperless classroom, I began working with a personalized learning model in high school communication arts. The process was challenging but the results were rewarding. The efforts of my students and support from colleagues, along with my transparency in documenting the journey, led to a surprising honor. I received the 2015 Herb Kohl Fellowship Award for “the ability to inspire a love of learning in students and motivate others, and for leadership within and outside the classroom.” While the recognition was gratifying, it became a motivator to raise my personal expectations and professional contributions to education. Continue reading

Challenging Thought: Wisdom from a Former Student

Thanksgiving receives plenty of attention for traditional feasts, shopping, and family time; but for teachers, Thanksgiving week means more than a couple days off of work. It represents the opportunity to reflect and reconnect with former students.

Yesterday, as if posted on the school calendar, a former student stopped by at the end of my prep period. He told me about his current studies and adventures as a college sophomore. We exchanged stories and shared laughs. These reunions are my reward–my holiday bonus.

But conversations with this graduate always go deeper than catching up on life and reminiscing about old times. He wants to know how systems work and asks questions about education that challenge my thinking. He has always been a genuine learner, urged by intellectual curiosity. And he possesses one of the most observant, insightful, brilliant minds I have ever had the pleasure to teach (even when he was a freshman). The limitations of a traditional high school structure were the only obstacles in his education at the time. He exhausted our school’s offerings of Advanced Placement courses and conquered all standardized tests with ease. As anticipated, he needed the independence of college to thrive and be challenged intellectually.

So why do we continue to lack vision of the possibilities and impede the potential of our learners?

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Accepting the Call to Adventure

The scene was set–a classroom in complete disarray. Tables overturned. Chairs stacked against the wall. Butcher block paper and markers at each station. The puzzled looks of students walking by and colleagues stopping to chat before school were priceless. What happened in here?

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Fun was only one bell away. After learning the background details of The Iliad and the events leading to the Trojan War, my juniors were about to embark on an epic journey. Bell. Cue the music.

Come with me now… Continue reading