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

I had an idea…and I like hers better

I have been dreaming of the blog post I would write to encapsulate and synergize the remarkably superb experience I enjoyed – and more importantly grew from – last weekend. Like pre-visualizing an athletic performance, I was imagining the words, the letters, the images, and videos. The text and subtext. The intro and the killer, kicker sentence that would cap it all. Then, I read @mmhoward’s post on the event and the learning…and I like hers better. I hope you’ll read it. It’s worth every nanosecond.


CFT Director Visits Synergy 8 for Two Days

Executive Director of The Center for Teaching Bob Ryshke summarizes his two-day visit to Synergy 8.


Unslumping Myself

For the first time in my life (hyperbole, but it seemed like a good intro), I disagree with Dr. Seuss. In Oh, the Places You’ll Go, he wrote, “unslumping yourself is not easily done.” I think it can be easily done. Just do something. This post is my “something.” And…I tweeted a few “somethings” this morning (early!).

I have felt that I am in a “blog/twitter slump” for a couple of weeks. Here are some of my excuses. Do any resonate with you about something you feel slumped about?

  • I am too busy. I can’t prioritize blogging and tweeting right now.
  • I don’t have time to write. I need to work on all the close-of-school and 2011-12 opening-of-school stuff.
  • I can’t think of anything good to write. I don’t want people to be disappointed in my posts or tweets. I want to say something profound.

Then, it hit me. I was slumped, at least partly, by a fixed mindset. If even a fraction of why I did not feel like writing was because I was worried what other people might think, then I had slipped into a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset [see Carol Dweck’s Mindset]. Hey, it happens to all of us. So…what to do? Just tweet. Just write. Don’t do it for any recognition, and don’t not do it for fear of failing. To quote the famous Nike adage, “Just do it.” So…this is my swing at the ball for this morning. I might miss. So what. I am writing. I am unslumping myself. Is there something you need to unslump yourself about? Pick one actionable item, and try. Ignore all the reasons not to try, and just do something. 

Some folks might say, “Bo, it’s just blogging and tweeting. What’s the big deal?” (Of course, few if any of those folks probably read any of this.) The big deal is this (for me) – blogging is a great way for me to think out loud. I get to see what I am thinking by reading what I am writing. And if that’s all that happens, it’s worth it. But sometimes, someone reacts or responds to something I have written. Then, a conversation can happen. And I can do this for others on their posts and tweets. A seed can grow roots and stems. For me, blogging and tweeting (tweeting is just blogging in shorter bursts)
has connected me to a community, a network, of learners for which I am very thankful. I have felt disconnected from this network for two weeks. I want to reconnect. This will help me get started. This may just unslump me. It’s worth a try. Excuses got nothing on the screen. Taking 10 minutes and a risk produced something so that I could see what I am thinking. And, who knows…maybe a conversation can start.

A Team of Learners Innovates Writing Workshop

On rare occasions, I sometimes think it would just be easier to go start another school instead of working on teams of educators trying to innovate curriculum and instruction that has a long history and tradition. However, each and every day (seriously) something or someone brings me back from that relatively irrational cliff face. One of the great hallmarks of my current school – my place of work for the past 16 years – is our regular practice and willingness to analyze and consider ourselves. And I don’t mean admiring ourselves, although all people and institutions can fall into that trap periodically. No, I mean “considering ourselves” in the sense of examining our practices and asking if we can do better for the learners in our care. No matter how frustrating some issues of static inertia or dynamic change may seem, I believe we are genuinely into continuous improvement.

A few weeks ago, the chair of the English department came to see me. He said he had been thinking about what PBL (project-based learning, problem-based learning, passion-based learning, etc.) would look like in a 21st century English classroom. Now this man is a great thinker, so when he said he had been “thinking about,” I knew he had put some serious time, research, reflection, and conversation into the effort. In short, his idea for 21st century PBL in English involves the complexities and integrated nature of publishing. An idea with genius and endless potential!

What to do with the idea? Well, we work in PLCs (professional learning communities) in the Junior High. While not everyone is formally involved – YET! – it is our developing way of working…our ethos of working and learning together. So…the idea was taken to the JH English PLC and, specifically, the Writing Workshop team. Several members of this team had been thinking about potential innovations to the Writing Workshop course and its intersection with Synergy and Economics, which are two more courses in a triad of classes for our eighth graders. Now a confluence of thinking and thinkers used Steven Johnson’s “coffee house” to swirl and rift on some possible manifestations of publishing in the Writing Workshop course. What a blessing that we have four hours a week built into our work days in order to collaborate in this way. May we never take for granted that we have a developing infrastructure to get us anywhere we want to go!

Largely because we could collaborate in PLC meetings, a proposal was quickly drafted and presented to a few administrators. Largely because we have a dynamic vision statement for our work as a school, a foundation existed that practically inspired this type of curricular and instructional innovation and improvement. This week, we were able to send a letter to parents of rising eighth graders explaining that Writing Workshop would be innovating for 2011-12 in order to utilize topical or thematic electives. Here is the letter that was sent:

Today, rising eight-grade students will hear about the innovations in group homeroom, and they will be able to respond to a survey which requests their desired topic of elective focus. Now, they have a choice much greater than that which existed before in this course. Now, they will be able to develop an authentic audience through publishing work. Oh the places we could go!

Possibilities and realities enacted through the passions and determinations of a team of educators. How fortunate I am to work with these teachers! How fortunate I am to work with these learners! How fortunate I am to learn with these learners! It’s about learning!