Archive for April, 2010

Whose “Real World” is it Anyway?

April 25, 2010

This is in response to Aaron Eyler’s blog post “The Classroom Isn’t the ‘Real World'” –

I am interested in your opening paragraph and want to follow with a question – How can schools leverage “the real world” of its students to become less boring?  My blog is named “Calculus of the Classroom” to acknowledge my first encounters with the terms differentiation and integration.  In calculus terms, differentiation is when you break something up in to small parts that make sense and and can easily be described and manipulated – you imagine a circle as being a set of really small triangles with their apex at the center of the circle and their bases as close to the circle itself as possible, for example.  In calculus terms, integration is when you put these simplified pieces back together in a way that comes as close as possible to the reality with which you started.  What if we looked at these terms as they are used in education in the same way?

I like Phil Schlechty’s definition of authenticity (see
Authenticity, which refers to the possibility of linking learning tasks to things that are of real interest to the student, especially when the student is not interested in learning what adults have determined he or she needs to learn.

I believe the classroom should represent the “Real World” as kids know it, not as the adults know it.  A teacher who cannot teach a kid a subject through topics of their interest teaches subjects not kids.  There is a huge difference in saying “I teach math” and saying “I teach kids math.”  I think Chris Lehmann’s 140 Character Conference Presentation hit this point as well (see

Teachers of kids create resonance between what matters to adults (standards, objectives, etc.) and what matters to students (cars, other people, video games, art, music, Harry Potter, etc.)  I know my disciplines (math and physics) so well, I have yet to meet a kid with an interest I could not connect it to.  The question is not whether or not we should go after these connections, but how. 

In a teacher workshop I did several years ago, I asked the question, “How many of you do an ‘interest inventory’ at the beginning of the school year?”  All hands went up.  “Leave your hand up if you actually changed anything you did related to curriculum, assessment, or instruction based on the information you got back from the students.”  All hands went down.  The teachers thought the purpose of an interest inventory was to get to know their kids but they had not yet thought about using that information to change their curriculum, assessment, or instruction.

There are a ton of resources out there for learning how to think this way!  Check out Garth Boomer’s “Negotiating the Curriculum” and Steven Levy’s “Starting from Scratch” as starting points.


On “Broken Schools” and Confederate History Month

April 18, 2010

When I think about the term “broken schools,” I think about Larry Lezotte’s Effective Schools work and the questions of “effective at what?” and “effective for whom?”.  Before a school is labelled “broken”, perhaps we should ask, “broken at what?” and “broken for whom?”  What does this have to do with Confederate History Month?  The connection between these two topics is simply what our elected officials choose to deal with and how they choose to deal with it.

When it comes to public education, our elected officials have chosen to define success in schools and schooling by success on standardized tests ala NCLB.  In Virginia, these standardized tests are standards-based and the standards are recognized as being pretty good.  The tests are recognized as being pretty good as well and districts, schools, and teachers get pretty good feedback through the “Student Performance by Question” reports.  With all of this “pretty good” stuff, we still have schools in Virginia that are broken at some things and/or for some people.  The new governor of Virginia appointed a secretary of education, Gerard Robinson, and is looking at the charter schools movement and virtual schools as education strategies for Virginia.  Not all of the charter school efforts on the table made it to law this year, though.

The new governor of Virginia got a “do over” with Confederate History Month and this “do over” has gotten a ton of press, through traditional and social media, nationally and internationally.  While I wish the apology had been made and the proclamation totally revoked, that’s not how the Confederate History Month “do over” played out.  I am taking this opportunity to give the governor of Virginia my advice on a “do over” for education.

While I am in favor of charter schools as a strategy to explore new possibilities and push the envelop in education, I would prefer Virginia look to a statewide strategy that changes the face of education for all students.  In essence, I want a solution that charters all students.  The number one alibi for not differentiating content, process, product, and learning environment throughout the schools of Virginia and the nation is the required state-level testing that is imbedded in NCLB.  I would like the governor’s education “do over” to allow districts and schools to focus on standards that matter, not chasing trivia that begs for mere coverage and standardization.  This move to teaching what matters in deep ways would demand that the state tests become authentic and not pursuits of trivia.  In Virginia, the standards that are not assessed are those that are hard to assess in a multiple choice format.  The only fifth grade writing standard not assessed on the state writing prompt is ” 5.8 g – Use available technology to access information.” 

My advice to the governor for his education “do over” is to eliminate barriers to differentiating for all learners, beginning by looking at the SOL that are not tested and allowing districts to develop authentic assessments that focus on these SOL and other standards that represent the skills of learning in the future.  There can even be a design requirement that these assessments promote students demonstrating mastery of a subset of SOL from the ones currently tested.  These authentic assessments should substitute for the tests that are easy to score should a district chose to pursue this as an accountability model.

“Effective at what” should be answered by something much more worthy than “preparing kids for success on the multiple choice state tests.”  “Effective for whom” should be answered by “everyone” and not just “those who were accepted in to our special programs.”

Pursuing Passions in School

April 9, 2010

I ended my last post with a few questions that beg for deeper exploration, “How can teachers feed in to kids’ passions within the confines of the traditional school day and other structures? What would it look like for 25 8 year olds to simultaneously pursue their passions in a classroom? Is this possible? As teachers, how can we at least honor students’ passions and allow them a place in our classrooms?”  This post is intended to explore these questions.

What would “school” look like if it were designed to “feed passions” and not force conformity and boxed-in thinking?  Is it really necessary to have “classes” and “periods”?  Should we align passions to standards or standards to passions or neither to either?  Do kids need any period of “formal” teaching and learning or can they just dive right in to exploring passions at school as they do on their own time?  Should the role of school be to stretch kids’ passion-driven work to provide varied experiences without compromising deep, personal discovery?

One image I have encountered and not been able to shake is the one on this page – – it shows J.K. Rowling, Richard Feynmann, Lauryn Hill, Julian Schnabel, Mia Hamm, Colin Powell, Deepak Chopra, Jane Goodall, and Gary Larson sitting in desks in a classroom.  The context is an on-line “multiple intelligences” workshop that I used with teachers years ago.  “J.K., stop day dreaming and get to work on your five paragraph essay.”  “Gary, how many times do I have to tell you to stop doodling?”  “Mia, if you bounce that ball one more time I am going to take it away.”  “Jane, no you may not keep the class gerbil at your desk.”  How many phrases do we have on the tips of our tongues that just crush who and what kids come to us as?

Can we become more kid-centric simply by eliminating “killer phrases” from our vocabulary? What if every teacher made a “10 Killer Phrases” list and committed to eliminating those phrases from their vocabulary?  Would school still function?  Would kids be better positioned to explore their passions in schools?

What if every teacher on a faculty shared their list of 10 Killer Phrases and the school staff worked together to eliminate the rules and structures that contributed to them?  Would school still function?  Would kids be better positioned to explore their passions in schools?

What if every school list was sent on to central office and the superintendent worked with staff to eliminate the rules and structures that contributed to them?  Would school still function?  Would kids be better positioned to explore their passions in schools?

What if every superintendent sent their division list to the state Department of Education and they worked to eliminate the rules and structures that contributed to them?  Would school still function?  Would kids be better positioned to explore their passions in schools?

What if every state DOE sent their list to the US Department of Education and they worked to eliminate the rules and structures that contributed to them?  Would school still function?  Would kids be better positioned to explore their passions in schools?  Would we reach the point where no kid is truly left behind?

What would it look like for 25 8 year olds to simultaneously pursue their passions in a classroom?  It would definitely look like a room free of Killer Phrases and full of choices and kid-designed experiences.  Is it possible for 8 year olds to design their own paths to learning?  They already have 8 years of experience doing this on their own time, why do we assume they can’t possibly do this 7:45 – 2:30 180 days a year?





How Can Kids Pursue Their Passions in School?

April 4, 2010

Sitting around out campsite the other night, kids from all around the campground were gathered to play “truth or dare.”  They were all choosing the dares on the G-rated iPod app.  They were kissing rocks, licking bicycle tires, doing hand stands, and naming as many states as possible in 30 seconds.  The 12 year old girl who got the state “dare” proceeded to sing the song…”Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, California, Connecticut, Delaware…” and she kept going.  I was impressed as I stop at Connecticut and even for the purposes of this post don’t care much about going any further.  Hearing her do this brought back a ton of memories of, well, memorizing.

Let me just say that one of the quickest ways to kill my interest in something is to try to make me memorize something about it.  Want to know why “I don’t like (school) biology?”  School biology is all about memorizing names of things and definitions and labeling diagrams of things that don’t look on paper like they look under the microscope.  Want to know why “I don’t like (school) history?”  School history is all about memorizing who did what when and where.  (School) English is all about reading books you don’t care about and wouldn’t choose for yourself and answering questions about dress colors of supporting characters AND writing stuff that only your teacher will ever care about in complete, grammatically correct sentences.  And school math?  Don’t get me started on that one.  Just read

I know I have probably ticked some of you teachers off by now and have highly offended you by saying that your discipline is stuck in the first two level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Maybe I didn’t have you as a teacher, maybe I had the teacher next door.  Would he or she be offended by this or would he or she defend these scenarios?

I remember asking one of my English teachers if she was a writer.  She said that she read a lot but her creativity went in to baking.  I wonder how she survived school to become an English teacher.  I remember asking one of my high school math teachers if she thought she was doing more math or more performance, like an actor.  She said she already knew “all of the math” so she was more like an actor.  My notebook for these two classes was most likely filled with the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.”  When it came out in 1979, it became clear to me that I wasn’t the only one feeling like school was designed for other people, not me.

I did have a few teachers throughout the years that allowed me to feel as if school were designed for me, or could at least flex a bit for me!  My fourth grade teacher was a storyteller and while she was rumored to be 102 and had been the principal’s teacher when he was in school, she was constantly learning new things.  I would bring stuff to her – turtle shells and rocks – and we would examine them together.  She would always find something in these treasures I hadn’t found yet and she would always ask an “I wonder” question.  “I wonder if a turtle can survive without his shell?” or “I wonder if this is the kind of rock the Indians used to make arrowheads?”  Her amazement at the world and her “I wonder” questions always sent me off, determined to learn more.  See

I approached my fifth grade teacher some time in the first week of school and let her know that I knew all of the math she was teaching and asked when something new was going to come my way.  She basically allowed me to test out of fifth grade math and spend math time as a helper in the kindergarten classroom where my younger brother was.  The deal was that I would continue to work with my older brother, who had her as a fifth grade teacher as well, to learn what he was learning in math.  I loved this arrangement and I am certain had something to do with me becoming a math teacher.

My eighth grade English teacher picked up on my interest in poetry and loaned me a book from her personal collection.  I was thrilled.  I shared my poetry “black book” with her and she read every word in it and asked me questions about word choice and imagery and encouraged me to keep writing.  She went through her poetry unit outline and marked a few of the assignments I could be excused from.  Two of the poems that were in the collection she read were ones I shared with Gwendolyn Brooks when I had the chance to spend a day with her in college.  

My senior year, I enrolled in physics because my older brother hadn’t taken it and wished he had.  It was my one chance to possibly teach him something!  I walked in to class the first day and saw this man with a long beard and pony tail standing at the front of the room between a lab table and the chalk board.  He looked cool.  There were rockets and electronics all around the room and it looked cool.  He asked us if we were tired of not hearing real answers to “When are we ever going to need this math?”  He promised to spend the first two days of physics reviewing all of the math we had ever been taught AND would really need.  I was hooked.  He told us we did not have to memorize formulas, he expected us to understand them instead.  He never “gave” us a formula, he taught us how to derive it or at least make sense of it by thinking through simply situations or through dimensional analysis.

Did these teachers allow me to pursue my passions in school?  To some extent, yes.  However, they mostly validated me as I pursued my passions outside of school.  Like many kids, I felt like school got in my way and I picked and choose what to do with an eye on balancing staying out of deep trouble while not wasting too much time.  These teachers taught me to explore how I learn and what interests me.

@paulawhite recently blogged about Passionate Learning at – telling the story of two severely gifted “kids” coming together around technology.  This is an amazing read!  How can teachers feed in to kids’ passions within the confines of the traditional school day and other structures?  What would it look like for 25 8 year olds to simultaneously pursue their passions in a classroom?  Is this possible? As teachers, how can we at least honor students’ passions and allow them a place in our classrooms?  Looking back with a critical eye, I would say 4 out of 55 of my public school teachers did just that!