The Soul of the American School—Big Data or Meaningful, Engaged Learning?

Overheard at an educational conference, “Our new program allows us to track the data in such detail.”

Florence & Lyman Moore StudentsLater that spring I watched several middle school students engage in a lengthy conversation with Florence Reed, the founder of Sustainable Harvest International. They were sharing what they learned during their project for the Samantha Smith Challenge that addressed finding ways to solve hunger in their community. And… they were quizzing Florence about her work.

For me, the two incidents just put into perspective  the immense battle going on for the soul of American public education.  Do we spend our limited and precious professional development time reducing children to numbers or do we develop approaches that really revolutionize our educational system?  I say…Let’s use our time to create opportunities for students to explore topics that engage them in meaningful and productive ways. Let’s ignite our students’ curiosity and thirst for answers to big and small questions.

Watch this video!  Pierre did much of his learning on his own, but he brought his idea to school and involved many other students.

Pierre developed a vision of what he wanted to accomplish.  Do we take the time to help our students develop a personal vision for their future?  Would projects that impact communities in positive ways not be a far better use of educators’ and students’ intellectual talents  than to spend class time responding to artificial reading and writing prompts and or to use PD time to classify kids?

  • How much reading and viewing for comprehension did Pierre have to engage in to learn about hydroponics?
  • What kinds of math application do you suppose he had to use?
  • What skills of argument did he have to devise and employ to convince his school to let him build the hydroponics greenhouse?

I can hear readers remarking…

  1. What about accountability?
  2. Pierre was self-motivated.  Our students aren’t like that; they need structure. They could never do project or problem-based learning.
  3. Improvement in reading will only happen with carefully scripted lessons.

Have we forgotten about motivation and its role in improving students’ comprehension? What’s the point of knowing math algorithms if we cannot apply them in authentic situations? What about having students write for real audiences about topics they care about?  There are examples of this type of learning all over the country.  Here’s an example from King Middle School in Portland, Maine.

Another example is the Samantha Smith Challenge.  Over 500 students were involved this past year, and in several schools all students on a particular grade level participated in a project to address an issue important to them.

Images from the Day of Celebration for the Samantha Smith Challenge

Maine's First Lady, Ann Lepage, talks with students about their work.

Maine’s First Lady, Ann LePage, talks with students about their work.

Authentic audiences inspire students to work hard.

Authentic audiences inspire students to work hard.

These are not new ideas, but rarely does a school system use them as a vehicle for improving learning.  Why not?  Well, these days my cynical-self says, “There is no money to be made by big corporations when schools do this type of work.”

We’ve done No Child Left Behind and Race to Top and Big Data for too many years. It’s time to infuse our public schools with curriculum and instruction that galvanizes students into learning in ways that guarantee bright and sustainable futures for them.

Postscript: I realize this post is an oversimplification of issues facing American education. However, I believe, each educator has to decide where to put his or her stake in the ground. Is it closer to a vision of regimented, scripted curriculum with data points representing children  or closer to viewing classrooms as democratic, problem-based learning communities.  It’s not a question of either/or—I believe there is a continuum.  Each of us needs to decide where our stake is going to be driven into the ground and what we want for all of our children whether they live in rural Maine, Miami, Chicago, Scarsdale, Fairbanks, Honolulu, or Lubbock, Texas.



Perseverance and Stamina

1280px-Yosemite_El_CapitanTwo American rock climbers reached the summit of El Capitan this week by scaling the rock face with just their hands and feet. No pulleys, no ascenders, no spikes–just safety equipment in case of falls. An article in the Huffington Post describes the process that took 19 days. Talk about perseverance, stamina, grit—Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson accomplished an amazing feat that combined physical strength, mental acuity, and guts.

Always with my teacher’s hat on, I thought this climb would make the basis for a engaging exploration of the human spirit that would fit right into an advisory program. And then…I was reminded of Penny Kittle’s Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. For many adolescents, reading is their El Capitan.  They may struggle because of learning disabilities, but many just are not in the practice of reading books and therefore lack the stamina to complete challenging and lengthy pieces of literature or non-fiction. This phenomenon, not restricted to teenagers, has also grown in proportion to the popularity of the internet with its short, bulleted posts. Another reason, according to Kittle’s summary of the research surrounding adolescent reading, middle and high school students have been reading less and less on their own for the past two decades.

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 8.31.57 AMThe issue for high school students is that many will lack the stamina for the reading load of their freshmen year of college where they will be expected to read anywhere from 400-1000 pages a week. Kittle tackles this dilemma head on by discussing the pretend reading that goes on in many classes where students are able to maintain reasonable grades by picking up the “gist’ of a novel or text through class discussions.  According to Kittle, many teachers estimate that their students only read 20% of their assigned reading.  It is no wonder too many college freshmen struggle to stay afloat when confronted with hefty reading loads they are expected to internalize independently.

Anyone who has read Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle will feel right at home with Book Love. Kittle’s students, juniors and seniors not middle schoolers, also respond positively to the reading/writing workshop approach. Interspersing student anecdotes that inspire and instruct, Kittle shows the readers how she reaches out to her reluctant readers and opens the doorway to a lifetime of reading enjoyment and reflection. Classroom libraries, book talks, conferences and student reflection are the practices that shape her instruction.  However, the heart of her work is the relationship she builds with each individual student that allows her to guide them on their journey to seeing themselves as readers with a future.

Many of Kittle’s students successfully scale their personal academic El Capitan with grit and acquire the stamina that will help them work through future challenges. I have to say Book Love is an essential read for any English/Language Arts teacher and every administrator stressing about reading scores.


Attribution for image of El Capitan: “Yosemite El Capitan” by Mike Murphy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The Power of Student Choice

Nancy & NickAt a recent conference of the Maine Association for Middle Level Education, Nancy Doda, renowned expert on teaching and learning, shared her keynote podium with Nick, a ninth grade student. He explained to attendees how choice in the way he demonstrated his learning engaged him more deeply in his work. Listen to him in this video.


This young man was empowered and inspired to write an original musical composition to demonstrate the effect Samantha Smith’s life had on him.

Nick’s words make us think—What do we really mean when we use the words “Student Choice.” Is it simply…

  • You may read this book or that one
  • You can create a diorama or draw a picture
  • You can use whatever images you would like in your PowerPoint

Or, does student choice go deeper?  Does it involve student voice in the direction a unit might take?  Does it allow students the freedom to demonstrate their learning in ways the teacher has never considered? What is the role of student questions in the lesson plan?

Nancy Doda and Mark Springer speak of student engagement and empowerment on their Alliance for Powerful Learning website:

The need for empowerment rests on the premise that human beings are innately driven to learn and create.  So, recognizing and engaging young peoples’ natural curiosities and interests constitutes the initial level of empowerment. From this requisite starting point, when teachers shift the cognitive load to students, students are afforded far richer opportunities to develop the skills and capacities most needed to live well in our ever-changing world.

In other words, powerful learning best occurs when students have a say in what and how they learn. In powerful learning communities, students and teachers collaborate in making a variety of decisions. Optimally, comprehensive empowerment that involves students in every phase of the design, implementation and assessment of their curriculum should be the aim.

While there are numerous ways students might be empowered and engaged, powerful learning demands these conditions:

  • everyone respects the inherent dignity of each individual
  • each individual is committed to the welfare of the community
  • learning and decision-making are collaborative,
  • collaboration is ongoing and continuous
  • individual learning needs and preferences are honored,
  • students are active participants in the learning process.

Incorporating student voice and choice in a meaningful way is an act of courage in many districts these days. Despite pressure for standardization and compliance, we need to have more conversations about engagement, empowerment, and the role of the student in developing the plans for teaching and learning in our classrooms.

Listen and enjoy Nick’s composition.