Make time for… relationships

This is the first in a series of posts about things to make time for in your classroom, even when you don’t feel like you have time!


Over-stuffed curriculum.

Testing schedules.

Pacing calendars.


55 minute periods.

Early release.

Assembly schedules.

All of these things can leave teachers feeling harried.  I constantly feel like there isn’t enough time to get to everything I want my students to experience.  The crux of it all is that there simply aren’t sufficient hours in the day to do it all.

Something has got to give.

Just make sure what you give up is something you and your students can afford to lose.

One thing I know is that you must make time for relationships.  Teaching is an interpersonal experience. It is a transaction in which the buyer (the student) has to decide if he wants to give up something of value (time) in return for what you are offering (knowledge).

Furthermore, students must be able to interact productively with their peers.  This also requires a positive, respectful, working relationship.  It is our job as a more experienced “relationship manager” to help them navigate these treacherous seas in a functional manner.  They don’t need to become Facebook friends and sit together at lunch but they DO need to be able to collaborate to create quality products that display depth of learning.

Regardless of other demands, always make time for relationships.

Clock image from lettereleven‘s flickr photostream

To whom are we accountable?

This is my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant on 9/25


As a husband, I am accountable to my wife, not to the county in which our marriage license was issued.

As a father, I am accountable to my children, not to the State.

As a teacher, to whom am I accountable?  Am I accountable to the State?  Or am I accountable to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction?  Maybe I’m accountable to the board of directors for my school district – aka, my employer?  Perhaps I’m accountable my superintendent or my principal?  Could it be that I’m accountable to my colleagues?

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “NO!”

I am accountable to the past, present, and future of each and every child who enters my classroom.

I am accountable to my students as learners and as human beings.  I am accountable to my students’ families.  Children are not vessels to fill with standards and 21st Century skills, but rather living, breathing people with immense potential.  My job is to nuture and enhance that potential.  Every interaction with a student is a opportunity to do this.

Every decision I make in the classroom must be guided by one ideal; the ideal that my students deserve the very best education that I can possibly facilitate for them, each and every day.

This means I must be willing to allow my students to hold me accountable.  I must take a step back, absorb their input, honor it, chew on it, and use it to inform my instruction.  Too often, we teachers hide behind The “State”, “The District”, “The Standards”, or “The Test.”  We blame poor instruction on these amorphous entitities.  We do this to deflect student and parent criticism.  We are human and it is hard to absorb criticism.  It is even harder to admit that the critics are right, especially when those critics are a room full of intermittently mature adolescents.


My students were venting to me about their classes  – and school in general – yesterday.  I regularly ask my students for feedback on what we are doing in class, so that we can adjust our course.  This is an important part of our classroom community.  Opening up the feedback can, though, sometimes leads to a discussion of larger issues.  Kids don’t often receive honest invitations from adults for feedback.  When they do get them, they tend to do one of two things, either (1) they don’t believe you truly value their feedback and clam up/ give superficial feedback, or (2) they  spew a litany of pent up complaints about anything and everything even tangentially related.

So I told them this: “education should be something done WITH you, not something done TOyou.”  They stared at me with blank faces for a silent eternity (okay, it was more like 5 seconds) before lightbulbs started to flicker on around the room.  Of course, several of them thought I was lecturing them to work harder and push themselves.  A few of them got it, though.

Hopefully, my democratic ideals haven’t ingited their anarchist tendencies…


I have all of the accountability I need; thank you very much.

Doing the absolute best I can for my students and their families every single day is all of the motivation I need.

My classes are held accountable by producing work for an authentic audience.  The transparency of our classroom, via student and class blogs, and via sharing our work publicly, keeps us plenty accountable.

Accountability comes from generating rigorous projects for a real-world audience. I am accountable to my students and their families. They are accountable to their audience, not to me.

Students are not motivated by “it’s on the test” or “the state says you have to learn this.” Students are motivated by engaging, rigorous content, real choice in how they interact with that content and what they create from it, and the opportunity to collaborate with peers. (Credit to Alfie Kohn, “Punished by Rewards).

By the way, this kind of accountability motivates students much, much more that either the carrot or the stick ever could.  Students who are driven by grades, will work extremely hard when they know they have an audience.  Other students, who have no interest in striving for ‘A’s and no fear of ‘F’s,  work much harder for an audience than they ever would for a grade.  That is accountability.

I am accountable to my students and their families.  I am accountable to myself.  I need no other accountability.

photo cc licensed from the flickr stream of R Kurtz

How to do inquiry Project-Based Learning (PBL Series Part 6)

This is probably the hardest aspect of PBL to describe.  How to explain how to do something that is inquiry?  How to describe something that, by nature, requires student involvement.  The key is the structures.

Honestly, this is very much a work in progress for me.  I’m learning how to do this as I go.  Call me a mad scientist; call it action research; call it whatever you want.  I learn by [informed] trial, error and reflection.  I want my students to learn that way too.

What structures, then, can one establish to support inquiry within project-based learning?

The hook

hookThis is where you get them.  Without a good hook, students will not want to inquire within the realm of the project that you have planned for them.  Great hooks can come from a multitude of places.  Pictures, video clips, artifacts, primary source documents, discrepant event demonstrations, play with a purpose activities, and the like can all make great hooks.  Use the hook to get them asking questions early and often.  Honor their questions and compile them into a class anchor chart.  Keep it present constantly.  Most importantly – resist the urge to answer their questions.  Get off the stage!

The driving question

You have 2 basic options here – teacher created or student created.  Of course, there are infinite variations from this theme.  Your firstquestionmark project should probably have a teacher created driving question.  This question recieves its moniker from the concept that it drives the entire project.  Thus, the driving question must follow a few key rules:

  1. Must not be a yes/ no question
  2. Must be worth answering and engaging to students
  3. Should have broad relevance across field of study, content areas, and walks of life
  4. Should address a big idea in your content area

Building Background Knowledge

Give students enough knowledge to inquire productively.  Give them general topical information, main ideas, representative case studies, segments of text, and more in order to build up some basic understanding of the topic.  Many basic knowledge-type questions will be answered here.  Let them use their favorite search engine or Wikipedia to knock off a few more of the basic fact questions.  There should be enough common experiences here to create a solid foundational understanding of the general topic.

Nurture student questions

Give students ample opportunity to brainstorm questions, to share them, to hone them and to investigate them.  Help them to delineate rich, complex questions from simple “Google” questions.  Nurture curiosity by allowing bunny trails do blossom into full blown discussions.  Keep a running anchor chart of student questions and encourage them to select one (or more) that they will investigate as a guiding question under the driving question.

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

Part 5 - Why PBL is good for students

Question mark photo cc licensed courtesy of Alexander Drachmann‘s Flickr photostream
Fish hook photo cc licensed courtesy of Lenore Edman‘s Flickr photostream

Why Project Based Learning is good for students (PBL Series Part 5)

Not only is the teacher’s life unique in the PBL classroom; students have a dramatically different experience in this model too.  They may whine and complain at times, especially when a project is nearing completion, but it is really good for them.  Here’s a few reason’s why:

Long-term focus

Many of my students can’t think ahead past next period.  Go read Ruby Payne if you don’t know why kids of poverty aren’t big on planning and organization.  Planning ahead is a skill that can be learned but expect growing pains along the way.  The long term focus of PBL helps students to learn goal setting, self assessment, creating a plan, monitoring progress, and time management.  How are kids to be expected to learn these skills if they are never taught them?

Embedded Skills

Many skills can be embedded within the goals of a project.  Rather than learning these skills in isolation or by doing trumped up projects, the kids learn the skills while learning important content.  This includes 21st Century (ooo-weee-ooo!) skills like research, vetting and citing sources, product creation.  It also includes timeless skills such as inquiry and reading/ writing skills.


Opportunities for differentiation are limitless.  Projects can be differentiated for content, process and product.  I was honestly never consistently good at differentiation until I started doing PBL.  Now I’ve constantly got kids all over the room working on different things (or similar things in totally different ways).  Hectic, yes, but it’s a blast.  I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Assessment for Learning

Assessment should be based around authentic products for a real-world audience.  Grades are not important in this type of task because the push is to present a quality product, not on “getting a grade.”  Because the teacher is not too busy “teaching,” they have time to mentor students, give personal feedback, have conversations about learning, and gather evidence about students that goes far beyond letters and numbers.  Now that’s good assessment!

Next post in the PBL Series – How to do inquiry-based PBL

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

The teacher’s role in PBL (PBL Series Part 4)

The teacher’s role in an Project Based Learning (PBL) classroom is unique.  I’m still figuring it out – and probably will be for years to come.  That being said, I’m confident about a few things the teacher must do to make PBL click on all cylinders.

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

Here are 10 things a teacher should do to facilitate PBL effectively:

  1. Find a hook and deliver it well.  Grab the students’ imaginations and leave them with lots of questions, wanting to learn more.
  2. Set an engaging, thought provoking driving question but leave plenty of room for inquiry.  If you set the driving question, let the students decide how they will answer it.  Better still, let the students generate the driving question.
  3. Gather materials that the students can’t get for themselves.  Nothing kills inquiry quicker than a curious kid not having any way to answer their questions.  This include resources
  4. Serve as a mentor for individual students and small groups.  Help them figure out how to complete their project.  Help them to see themselves.
  5. Facilitate whole class discussions.  When students are working in small groups or pairs for an extended period of time, there must be whole class activities as well.  This maintains the learning community of the group.  Use discussion protocols like socratic seminars, rotating fishbowls and the like to get eveyone involved.
  6. Provide sufficient structure and support so that students don’t get stuck.  Help them to plan, monitor progress, and assess their results.  Keep the students focused on the big picture.  Remind them often of the driving question and revisit milestone dates and final product dates daily.
  7. Help students to determine success criteria for each project.  Facilitate analysis of various models that will help them to see what an end product might look like.  If you feel a rubric is needed, have them create it.
  8. Provide descriptive feedback.  Don’t evaluate their work in progress but give them information to help them see how to move forward.  Don’t let them bog down for too long.
  9. Recruit an audience.  Students should be presenting their learning to an audience outside of the classroom.  Invite parents, community members, other staff members, district administrators, local university staff and students, local scientists, local business people  – anyone who may have an interest in what you are doing.
  10. Allow time for reflection, for students and for yourself.  Use that reflection to improve the next project for students and yourself.  Listen to the students very carefully and learn from them.
Photo of mathematician Ronald Graham juggling used under cc licence from the Wikimedia commons

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Why my instructional approach didn’t work (PBL Series Part 2)

You may remember, when we last left our hero, he’d enjoyed a subtle epiphany.  It went something like this, “I plan all this stuff and throw it at the kids.  They don’t think it’s as cool as I do.  Now what?”

kids need real choice, not just between the lesser of 2 evils

kids need real choice, not just between the lesser of 2 evils

There were 3 main problems with my old approach:

  1. Not enough room for student choice. I planned all of the lessons, labs and activities.  I directed the content, the process, and the product.  They were along for the ride.
  2. The connections that held the content together were all mine. It felt disjointed to them because I didn’t make the connections explicit, in hopes that they would discover them.  Too bad they couldn’t see into my scattered mind…
  3. Not enough room for inquiry. I was answering questions that they didn’t even ask.   I was answering my questions, not theirs.

So, having been properly epiphanized, I had to convert to a new pedagogical religion.  Enter project based learning (PBL).

This truly was less a sea change in my practice than a slight but critical shift.  All instruction must be about the end goal, aka “the project.”  The project, which is really about answering “the driving question.”  Duh duh DUH!

When it all boils down to it, I realized that I needed to plan less stuff for the kids to do and give them more time along the way to create a project.  I had to give them more choice about the project, the questions they were trying to answer and how they would answer them.

Next post – What PBL is and what it isn’t

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Photo cc license by degreeszero on Flickr

Whole Class Inquiry – Whirligigs

I like to kick the year off in physics with a light inquiry lab in which the students make and test paper whirligigs.  This serves two purposes – for me, a formative assessment of students’ inquiry skills; for students, a review of the inquiry process.  It’s fun and pretty light and serves it’s purpose but this year I want more.

how to make a whirligig

how to make a whirligig - thanks

I  show the students a model whirligig and ask them to figure out how to make the whirligig with the longest flight time.  We discuss variables to manipulate, and ones to serve as controlled variables.  I facilitate a student discussion and record their ideas on chart paper/ whiteboard.  They split up the variables by group and test them independently of each other.

It soon becomes clear that the data gathering is mostly haphazard and not likely to be meaningful. Sure, this lab is more about process than content but the primacy of data is critical to hammer home early and often. How to intervene and bring home the importance of data with something more engaging than a discussion or report?

Hmmm…. how about some Whole Class Inquiry (Dennis W. Smithenry, Joan Gallager-Bolos)? Money.

“Alright guys, here’s the deal; tomorrow, I’m going to hit you with a class challenge. You’re going to need good data to have any chance of success.”

The transition is better and faster than I could possibly imagine.  They immediately begin taking better notes and doing more trials. Data suddenly matters.

Ladies and gentlemen, engagement and urgency have entered the building.


The following day, I introduce the idea of Whole Class Inquiry.  I tell them that I’m going to challenge them to make a whirligig as a class with a very precise flight time (drop to landing) of 2.7 +/- 0.1 seconds (I know 2.7 sec is reasonable based on the times they were getting before; I have no idea if +/- 0.1 sec is reasonable).

I lay out the ground rules:

  1. Once we start, you will only be able to ask me 3 questions as a class
  2. You will have 30 minutes to come up the dimensions for a whirligig for me to make and drop
  3. You may do as many trials as you want as a class but the final whirligig will only get one shot (really an average of 3 trials)

Set the timer of the big screen for 30 minutes and say go. Take a step back.  Record observations and student comments.

I’ve rarely seen a class collaborate as a group with this level of engagement and sense of common purpose. They immediately blow one of their 3 questions on, “so we only get 3 questions?”  I say, “yes, and that’s one.”  After that they talk amongst themselves before asking any questions.  They lean on each other – not me.  They work together like crazy for half an hour; there is genuine laughter – but it’s on topic.  My principal wanders in on an unplanned drop-in and nobody notices but me.  They’re in the zone.

Yes, they mostly stray into trial and error, rather than planned and organized experiments but that is just a valuable point that I jot down to drive home after the activity.

At 29:30 (ish) one of the students hands me a diagram for a whirligig.  I measure it, cut it out and fold and staple as per their instructions.  We drop it 3 times.  The average is 2.81 seconds but I give it to them.  They literally cheer out loud.

To culminate, I read the observations and student quotes that I recorded.  They laugh out loud again – several times.  I give a few pointers about data gathering, sharing the labor and avoiding simple trial and error when possible.


One quote that I can’t get out of my head was the very first thing said after I said, “go.”  One of the senior boys said, “alright guys, let’s circle the wagons!”  So they did.  They all pulled their chairs together into a circle in the middle of the room and started discussing a plan of attack.

Maybe the community building by working together to achieve a common goal that they found challenging was the most valuable part.  I’m certainly going to do more whole class inquiry.  And soon.