Embracing the Struggle – Students Wrestling with Real-World Issues

Late last spring, a team of Writing Workshop faculty took a very deliberate plunge into the commitment to “Do Different” (see last few blog posts for reference…if you need to). As a team, they redesigned the 8th grade course called Writing Workshop. In brief, they created a suite of courses from which students could choose – Environmental Studies, Screenwriting, Journalism, etc. All sub-categorized writing workshops would build on the common ground of strong writing. However, students would now possess a more powerful voice in choosing the theme or topic about which they would problem find, problem solve, and…write.

About 30-40 students chose to focus on Environmental Studies. More specifically, they decided to explore global climate change. The teacher-facilitators combined sections so that they could team teach and collaborate more efficiently. The entire cohort utilizes multiple lenses through which to study the issue, and they remain committed to the particulars of writing about global climate change – how we use writing and complex communication to build understanding and/or persuasion around the issue.

In Linda Darling-Hammond’s book Powerful Learning: What We Know About Teaching for Understanding, she explains five core characteristics of project-based learning. Among other traits, PBL is “authentic, by posing problems that occur in the real world and that people care about” (35). Global climate change is such a problem. Public misunderstanding and controversy surrounding global climate change is such an problem.

So…the student learners take on these problems and struggle with understanding them. Kudos to them for DOING so. As a team, the teacher learners and student learners are contributing to and maintaining a class blog. Through this tool, the teacher-facilitators have expanded the teacher roster – those people who can participate in the learning progressions of the student learners and the team. Last week, from an authentic blog trail of responses and reactions, the class established a Skype session with James Hrynyshyn. On Tuesday, Hyrnyshyn wrote about the Skype session on his own blog.

I think this is SO COOL! For these students, the learning they are doing about the environment is integrated – science, math, history, writing, etc. are blended disciplines, mixed together in the genuine stew of real life. Technology is not the topic of discussion, rather it is merely a tool through which access to conversations and information is made possible and pursue-able. The learners are not limited by the people in the physical room. Walls are torn down in the name of leveraging tech tools to learn from those who know and participate in the problems in the world outside of school.

The pedagogy and content used in “Writing Workshop: Environmental Studies” is NOT a substitute for the pedagogy and content that used to be “covered” in the course. To think of it as such would make us worry about “what is not being covered” that used to be. This is new and it is important. Critical content, essential skills, and requisite knowledge is being constructed for these learners – in the wonderful messiness of real life. The teacher-facilitators are leading from an emerging future, not from past experience. After twenty years of being a professional educator, I imagine this course is something that the student learners will more deeply remember and call on when they are older. Our future depends on such transformation in schools.

The students could be writing process papers detailing the directions necessary to build a PB&J. Or they could be wrestling with real-world issues and embracing the struggle of finding the “truth” and building upon that solid foundation of learning. I appreciate the choice they have made…a choice to Do Different.

RECOMMENDED: Related post at Wright’s Room blog by Shelley Wright

“Learn from Mistakes” Student Devotional at MMM 8-22-11

A few years ago, the Westminster Junior High School added “Monday Morning Meetings” as a regular community occurrence for our approximately 560 middle-school students and 80 faculty. The 15-minute, weekly assembly is lead by middle schoolers – at this time, the leadership team is composed of our student Honor Council. Much of our thinking involves this simple principle – if you want to teach leadership, students need an authentic thing to lead.

On Monday, August 22, one of our students provided a superb devotional about “Learning from Mistakes.” With great fortune, I had my Flip camera, and I had pressed the record button!

Thanks to the Honor Council and to “K” for a superb beginning to this year’s student-led Monday Morning Meetings. K’s opening message provided the ideal sentiment for starting a year that should be full of exciting learning – the real-life learning that is full of mistakes from which to learn and grow.

“Being Our Best Selves” Guest Post: Leslie Ann Little

On Friday, August 19, Dean of Students Leslie Ann Little delivered a devotional assembly about being our best selves. Our audience is 561 middle school students and 82 faculty and staff. With Ms. Little’s permission, I am sharing her assembly notes below – she provided an excellent message about understanding our two selves – our worst self and our best self – and about striving to be our best selves.

Psalm 139

New International Version (NIV)

Psalm 139

1 You have searched me, LORD,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, LORD, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

We, each of us, possess but one self and yet we often see ourselves as two: our best self and our worst self.

When I was your age, my best self would offer to take out the garbage without being asked, would help my sister with a project for school, though being four years younger, even my best self could have made a mess of it. But at least I didn’t set my hair on fire trying to recreate the effects of a forest fire.  Who knew Styrofoam was so flammable?!  Yes my best self consoled a friend, or spoke up when someone was spreading gossip no one knew to be true.

But don’t get me wrong. My worst self walked hand in hand with my better self, and in truth, often led the way.  My worst self snapped at my mom, “I said I would do it!” My worst self teased my sister when she developed acne first, made many a snarky comment to even my closest friends and certainly could become engrossed in the latest gossip.

I would love to tell you that I have conquered my worst self, but that would not be true. I haven’. It’s a challenge I face each day. I will tell you what I have done…I have come to understand something.

You see, we all know our worst selves better than anyone.  We spend an inordinate amount of time with our worst self. In fact, we spend so much time dwelling on our worst self you would think we were best friends. We know when we have made a sarcastic comment, we know when we should have stopped to help, and we know when we forwarded on or contributed to the rumors swirling around someone.  And if we are not careful though, we spend so much time with our worst self, fretting over our shortcomings, we can become convinced that is the only version of ourselves.

What of our best self? We see ourselves as two, but we often believe that to be our best self means we have to be perfect. And when we naturally fall short of that perfection, we can become overwhelmed by  how imperfect we are.  We spend so much time tearing ourselves down that we forget to lift others up.  We can become so worried about what others think of us that we forget to think about others. If you consider what Mr. Adams said about looking out for our herd, because we sometimes only focus on ourselves, we lose sight of others and become a herd of one…and we are not even very fond of the one.

The psalmist reminds us that God knows us inside and out, best and worst self.

You have searched me, LORD,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, LORD, know it completely.

While I am not proud of some of the words that have been on my tongue, the psalmist goes on to say  in verse 14 that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  My WHOLE self!

We can even go all the way back to Genesis 1. As God looks at all of creation, God declares it to be very good.  No translation that I could find said that it was perfect.

So when we catch our worst selves looking back in the mirror, we need to offer ourselves the grace that God offers us.

Micah 7:19  reminds us that You will again have compassion on us; You will trample our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

So when we catch our worst selves looking back in the mirror and see the person who lashed out at a friend, the person who sent the mean text, the person who thought she was too busy to stop and help clean up because she hadn’t made the mess, the person who laughed at someone for being different…instead of fretting in self-absorbed self-criticism because we are not the perfect self, we need to remember God’s unfailing, everlasting and unchanging love, God’s grace not just for the whole of our lives, but for each and every moment that makes up our lives.

When we do, we let our better self step forward. Our better self will have the courage to apologize for lashing out, we will stop to think about the person at the other end of the internet message before we press send, we won’t worry about who might have left the mess, we will see the person who needs our encouragement, some we can learn to laugh with and not at.  We will take care of our herd.

Yes, I am still of two selves, but I do believe that the God of grace, loves my whole self. Yes, God forgives even my worst self so that I might too…that I might better hear the still small voice that daily calls me not to be perfect but to strive to be my very best self, the same voice that calls all of us.

At the Crossroads of Honor and Technology

At the start of every school year, the Junior High School details the community expectations of our Honor Code. One step in this detailing involves our Junior High Honor Council advisers reviewing the processes and protocols with the faculty. This year, because of an unexpected time constraint, we experienced less division-meeting time. Undaunted by this unanticipated time constraint, advisers Thomas and Fry employed their developing tech skills and leveraged their tech learning to produce the following (shared here with their permission)…[KUDOS to them! And how nice that I can share with others…including our parents!]

Good morning, wonderful faculty!

Mr. Fry and I, in addition to each of the 17 members of this year’s Honor Council are so excited to serve our community by helping preserve and uphold our Honor Code in the Junior High.

Our main goal is to EDUCATE and assist in the learning process, and we hope that we can begin by offering these few reminders to you in the enclosed video.  We had planned on sharing face-to-face time with you during Monday’s Faculty Forum division meeting, but alas, time ran out.

And so, in the name of trying and learning something new, we hope this video can be a helpful reminder for both now and throughout the year.

You can either access it via youtube here:

You can also access a written version of these reminders, along with the video posted on my blog:


Please know we are always here for you and your students, and we anticipate a magnificent year ahead!

With love and thanks,
Carter Thomas and Adam Fry

In the upcoming days, our student-led Honor Council will present the Honor Code and community expectations to the entire student body. I know they are already working on a great presentation of their own!

#day1wms (Day 2 Really) iMovie Trailer…MacBooks & LEAP

Started filling with Flip camera at 8:20 a.m. Caught several clips. Built trailer in iMovie. Published. So fun…so easy. Enjoy…