We’re the adults in the room, it’s time to act like it.

Tim keeps the supplies in his classroom for the math department. He finds joy in being the person to anticipate and provide for our daily dry erase marker and mechanical pencil needs. Tim is a caretaker. 

On a Tuesday some years ago I quietly entered his second period to grab a few black and purple dry erase markers. It had to be a Tuesday because during first period, every Tuesday, Tim would descend from the math department’s perch on the top floor, to the basement on his weekly resupply mission.

On this Tuesday in particular, I grabbed my markers and a fresh green 0.5mm Pentel mechanical pencil, as mine hadn’t turned up over the past week of desperate searching. Normally, I’d endeavor to duck in and out as efficiently as possible but on this day I was stopped, caught by the answer being given by a freshman in Tim’s algebra class. Her hands moved, rotating and shaping the space above her desk (row 3, column 4). I didn’t know the student, but let’s call her Jane. 

Jane searched for words while her hands engaged the space in front of her. Jane did not have the vocabulary to contain her idea, but her hands sure did. Jane’s mind and hands knew that a positive and increasing rate of change must produce an increasing curve, whether exponential, polynomial, or otherwise. Her hands manipulated the air above her desk, artfully demonstrating what must be true about curves with increasing rates of change, but her mouth never found the words. 

I was transfixed… Rooting for Jane to say that thing which she so obviously understood so she could feel the validation she longed for, if she could only explain in words what she meant.

Perhaps her mouth would have found those words, if Tim hadn’t stopped her.

“Put your hands down, just tell me what you mean. You’re in high school now.”

-Tim

The moment gone, her hands retreated to her lap, and her cheeks started to flush. A few more sentences fell from her mouth, but the shame of engaging inappropriately was too much. She received Tim’s rebuke – delivered by this caretaker who sincerely believed he was helping her. And why would she question him? She knew him to be looking out for her best interests. This is high school after all, time to get serious.

I’m haunted by those twenty seconds. More than ten years have now passed since that Tuesday, and I have more than once been moved to tears over this interaction and the massive iceberg below the surface that it rests atop. 

Our American High schools largely reject concrete representations. They drink from Piaget’s cup of convictions about human stages of development and have determined once and for all that using our hands, engaging with manipulatives, and interacting with physical objects is literally child’s play. 

Yesterday I watched the beautiful documentary of Cas Holman, entitled, “Design For Play.” This documentary is an episode in season two of the lush and beautiful Netflix series: Abstract: The Art of Design. 

Cas understands something fundamental about learning that Tim doesn’t and neither did Piaget. Learning doesn’t present in strict stages, nor in a predictable, desirable, repeatable progression. Concrete representation is not child’s play, any more than abstract reasoning is reserved for adults. 

MIT understands this; it is their motto and organizing principle. “Mens et manus.” “Mind and Hand.” They know, as Seymour Papert did, that our notion of separating the two keeps us from real and contextualized understanding. Learning, the argument goes, cannot occur when we ignore our body’s desire to connect the mind and hand.

“I think of sketching as an extension of my brain. I have an idea and can’t really figure it out until my hand is helping. So sometimes I have an idea in my head but it’s usually not finished until I get it on paper. I don’t find words as useful as images.”

Cas Holman: Design for Play (Netflix)

What would it look like if we, American public education, embraced the concrete? What if “Mens et manus” was our creed? Imagine a high school like this with me for a moment…

You’d enter and quickly notice all the things you don’t see happening. You don’t see rows, you don’t see classrooms, you don’t see teachers conducting. It’s okay that your eyes are drawn to what’s missing—that’s an essential step in the process as your eyes adjust, and don’t be concerned if it takes a while—it took me a few years.

You then begin to notice things you’d never expect to see in a classroom where kids are serious and focused and really learning. You see cell phones, everywhere. You see kids playing. You see kids reading, watching, talking, laughing, making stuff. At first, you don’t see learning—that’s okay, it’s just your eyes adjusting.

You look for the adults, who, in this place, aren’t always easy to spot. You find them, sitting with kids. Some are engaged in a task with their students, some are talking, some listening. It occurs to you that you don’t see them teaching—or at least not in the way you expect it. They aren’t professing, or performing their knowledge. They aren’t managing a group of teens in a common task.

Your experience as an educator didn’t prepare you for an environment that looks like this. If you’ve only just spent a few hours here you’ll likely leave unmoved, unsettled, or both. You may not have experience engaging in a learning community like this and what you’ll probably think is something like, “kids are just having fun.”

And you’d be right. And you’d be wrong. You’re right, in a sense, because students are mostly having fun—though it’s often of a very different quality—it’s hard fun. You’re wrong, in a sense, because when you say, “just,” as in “kids are JUST having fun,” maybe what you really mean is that you don’t think real learning can be fun in this way. Your experience with high school students tells you if they are truly this relaxed and engaged, they must be “off task.” You believe this because you don’t yet know that when we embrace the concrete, it becomes incredibly difficult to tell the difference between learning and fun. You believe this because no one has helped you experience it for yourself.

What if high school wasn’t something to be endured? What if it weren’t a mold into which we expect students to fit themselves? What if it weren’t a “rite of passage,” or “preparation for the real world?” What if it WAS the “real world”? What would Jane’s hands be doing in a school like this?

Jane’s hands would be building, creating, coding, cutting, stretching, shaping, forming, compiling, compressing, congratulating, twisting, holding, helping, writing, pointing, tapping, typing, hammering, sewing, sawing, soldering… making. Jane’s hands wouldn’t be in her lap—there’s way too much for her to learn.

I’m honored to have worked in a school like this, filled with students like Jane. Students who found voice, purpose, and passion in their school work. Students who learned and showed their learning by making. 

Our community is hungry for school like this. Will we build something new together committed to playful making? 

Let’s be the adults in the room, and go play with our students. 

Reflections on the Great Idaho STEM Together

On Tuesday & Wednesday August 17th and 18th, I participated in the Great Idaho STEM Together conference here in beautiful Coeur d’Alene. These fantastic experiences impacted me.

Opening Keynote

Eli Luberoff, Founder & CEO of Desmos, opened the conference with a joyous and playful keynote. A gifted storyteller, his good-willed irreverence for American public school traditions hit me right in the feels. What a joy to hear such skepticism toward technology designed to think for us. Eli bathed us in examples of student & machine collaboration. The result? Real learning for students.

This dude gets it.

I’m not used to finding such kindred spirits among math educators. So rarely, in fact, that at one point I very seriously considered rushing the stage to bear hug him. I’m a little bummed I didn’t. I did however clap VERY LOUDLY in support of a particularly moving story of students & technology working together. I hoped others might join in my manual endorsement, but it wasn’t to be. Story of my life.

I already loved the desmos calculator, but am VERY LATE to the desmos activities party. Have you tried any of them? Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time when you try out marbleslides and Taco Truck.

Exploring the Standards for Mathematical Practice

My Teaching Partner Rick Biggerstaff and I Presented how we explored the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP) at Riverpoint Academy throughout the past few years.

Our presentation this week built on that first year, and extended into a time of storytelling, highlighting the beauty of what can happen in an interdisciplinary high school environment. When we stopped looking for math problems and began finding problems that required mathematical thinking, the SMP came alive. As it turns out, the SMP are EVERYWHERE, ironically most often outside the traditional math classroom.

Field trip to Gizmo

Gizmo is many things: non-profit makerspace, training center, a hub for collaborative problem-solving, and an evolving education provider and teacher training center. In my role this year as the Innovative Educator @ Gizmo, I’ve been charged with engaging preservice and inservice teachers in learning Maker Mindsets and bringing hands-on experience into the classroom.

The term “Maker” has gained popularity in the past 10 years, but, as is common with popular education jargon, it has also lost meaning. We claim the title of “Maker” at Gizmo and align with FabLearn, MakerEd.org, and UTeach Maker in making Seymour Papert’s Constructionist pedagogy our foundation. Do you know about Papert, Constructionism and its relationship to Piaget’s Constructivism? Would you like to learn more? Read this, starting with the crucial foreword by Dr. Paulo Blikstein

Gizmo hosted a Field Trip for 20 STEM Together teachers. In a whirlwind two hours they toured, made, reflected, planned a lesson, struggled, and reflected again. Our hope was to give teachers a crash course in making, and the power of reconnecting “head” and “hand” as a means to uncover new learning and thinking. Most of our participants experienced it as Hard Fun

In our first activity, we asked participating teachers to engage with making a concrete representation of an abstract idea. They were encouraged to choose one of the following three prompts to stimulate their thinking…

We then gave them a single piece of white paper (or more if they wanted to iterate) and asked them to make.

Conversation, body language, and teacher affect were varied. Teachers found themselves in a place they often put their students, a place they themselves artfully avoid: confusion and uncertainty. Kudos to our tired participants for engaging in this challenge on a hot afternoon.

Teachers placed their artifacts on a table and circled around it. Each teacher described how they were thinking & feeling during this exercise. The open-endedness of the discussion created a needed release valve for these teachers.

Our second activity engaged teachers to design an activity for their students where they would make something in order to learn about a particular learning target. You can see activity details here.

The reflections following the activity inspired me. Many expressed the difficulty in designing an activity for students where making wasn’t the “thing at the end,” but rather the mechanism for learning. Participants also expressed how they struggled in trying to do something they’d never done before. “I need examples!” one teacher passionately shared. We were just getting to the good stuff when time ran out.

I’m optimistic that these teachers will engage in our upcoming Professional Development sessions, or will seek to borrow equipment from our Lending Library equipment checkout. You’ll see our flyer here.

Stay tuned for more updates from Gizmo in our adventure to equip teachers to transform their classrooms.

Reflections on “What School Could Be”

I finished reading “What School Could Be” by Ted Dintersmith on our family vacation earlier this week. I needed it. He breathed life into my teaching soul as I’ve been struggling with the loss of my beloved Riverpoint Academy which despite great community support and a focus on doing better things, was closed due to budget cuts.

I’m hurting.

I left a far more progressive school district in Spokane with a long track record of innovative programs to work at RA. I gave six incredible, (and incredibly challenging) years to it, and it’s just… gone. Promises made to “suspend” the school and to build a “Task Force” to determine how to best make something new for kids, have been left behind. Most recently we were told to wait and see if our replacement levy passes before beginning discussions on what’s next. This, was of course, a measured and safe choice on their part, but also demonstrated a lack of urgency. My heart is broken.

As our staff is working through this depressing post mortem, we’re asking lots of questions about why we were really closed. Were we not truly meeting student needs? Was our district not really ready for us? Does our conservative community not see the need for us? Did we do a poor job telling our story? I’m guessing the truth is an uncomfortable amalgam of these and more.

What can I do, now?

I think Dintersmith has answered me in his conclusion to “How School Could Be.”

“…as I learned so emphatically on this trip, once someone sees what
school could be, there’s no turning back…”

I am fueled by an overwhelming feeling of obligation to serve public school students and their families. I have experienced what school could be, and I want you to experience it too.

I’m devoted to public schools. I think this American institution is a beautiful mess, and needs people like me (and there are many others out there) to give everything we have to make it better.

What I’m doing:

An Interview with Scott Swaaley

Scott Swaaley is one of the High Tech High teachers in the film Most Likely To Succeed, from Ted Dintersmith. As I finished Dintersmith’s book: “What School Could Be”, this week I was reminded of when my colleague John Marshall and I interviewed Scott a few years back.

We first met Scott through our colleague, Riverpoint Academy’s founding teacher, Regan Drew. Regan and Scott are Allen Distinguished Educators, and their collaboration brought Scott to RA. It was amazing to have the chance to see our school through his eyes and talk shop — the literal and metaphorical kind.

Scott embodies the “Do Better Things” idea of what school could be that Dintersmith is advocating for in “What School Could Be.” Scott is a creative tinkerer and iterative thinker. He is the Founder and CEO of MAKESafe Tools, makers of the universal power tool brake. I had the chance to test an early prototype, it’s rad.

As you’ll hear in our interview, Scott’s passion, candor and enthusiasm are contagious. John and I had the chance to talk with Scott about all sorts of logistical, practical and philosophical components of teaching in a project-based learning environment. We recorded our conversation with Scott over four years ago, but we think it still holds up. Will you take a listen?

Doing Better Things AND Doing (Obsolete) Things Better

Ted Dintersmith makes a clear and compelling call to our American education system in “What School Could Be.” He bemoans “doing (obsolete) things better,” in favor of “doing better things.” I had the privilege of doing better things at Riverpoint Academy (RA) for six amazing years. More on that in a moment.

I love this book. I love Dintersmith’s clarity and focus, but I think he is missing some nuance in how we go about navigating this “entrenched system” at the classroom level. As fate would have it, I read Dintersmith’s story of his interactions with Sal Khan and the KA staff in Chapter 7 of his book on the same day I read his indictment of Khan Academy on Twitter. As a result, a few things came into focus for me. Here’s the quote from Chapter 7:

Start a lab school where kids take on open-ended meaningful challenges, drawing occasionally on KA for “just in time” learning. Complement KA’s library of lectures on low-level procedures with a repository of meaningful math-based challenges, something I called “Khan Exploratorium.” Establish a center — the Bell Labs of education — to spark global innovation.

To bring an Exploratorium to life, I described the best math challenge I’ve encountered, which was in a middle school social studies class. Huh? Students were challenged to come up with ways to predict the world’s population in the year 2100. Work alone or in small teams. Use any available resources. Computer it with paper and pencil, calculator, or spreadsheet, or write your own code (some did!). Present your work to classmates, addressing their questions. When others present, ask informed questions and offer constructive suggestions. Then, discuss the implications of each projected population (which ranged from 0 to 30 billion) for their future world. Unlike math that kids do in school, this problem requires creativity. There’s no right answer. Kids learn point concepts (curve fitting, extrapolation, eigenvalues) in a meaningful context. Often, “bad” math students thrive, while “gifted” math students flounder. In contract, our current math track has nothing to do with the creativity and conceptualization that make for a great mathematician. Students never learn to apply math to real-world challenges. Everything would be different if our K-12 schools taught math that matters, instead of symbolic arithmetic.

On my way to Sacramento, I reflected on why Sal’s outstanding team had prioritized on test prep (SAT, MCAT, GMAT) over real innovation. I though back to our first conversation, “Sal, why produce hundreds of lectures teaching kids how to do integrals by hand? They watch your video on a device that performs these operations instantly, perfectly. Let computers do the mechanics and teach kids how to solve real problems using math — something school never gets to. Help our kids leverage technology, not compete against it.” To which a staff member offered, “We need to focus on where today’s market is.” — an odd priority for a nonprofit aspiring to improve education.

My teaching partner Rick Biggerstaff and I are dissatisfied with American public school math, and at RA we had the chance to mess with it. We were cautious though because our “market” wasn’t looking to buy what we were selling. We had to find time in the school day to support efficient student mastery of the math skills valued by their parents, school board and the colleges many would attend — in spite of our conviction that these were wholesale the wrong things to focus on.

So, we did what many innovative educators do: we did what we had to do, so we could do what we wanted to do, and at RA we navigated this challenge without losing teaching souls. It required doing our job twice. We did the math our community expected, so that we could do real math in a way that was challenging, personalized, and contextualized.

This line is hard to walk, and requires more than twice the work we once did as traditional math teachers. I’ll admit that on some tired days, I found myself pining for the simplicity of being the content expert performing his knowledge for his students. This extra work paid off though: RA saw two years of SBAC scores on par (year one) with the two big box high schools in our district and outperforming the big box schools by nearly 10% (year two).

Now, on to the fun stuff.

What we did

The Common Core standards are split into “Content” and “Practice” standards, though most high school teachers are largely unaware of the Practice standards. They are named the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP) and they are beautifully written. Yes, really. They detail in eight strands what it’s like to think as Mathematicians do. Used well, they empower students to become mathematicians. Yes, really.

Rick and I love are in love with the SMP. We saw in them a way to do real math as we’ve been inspired by the Computer Based Maths organization to do. We engage students in writing code, playing with data, making & defending arguments on topics they care deeply about. Our hunch was that if we got out of the way of our students, they would naturally exhibit the SMP. They played with the structures and tools of mathematics that can be experienced by students as beautiful curiosities if we embrace technology as a creative tool, rather than a 21st century slide projector.

Our trick was to use the Wolfram Language. It was perfect for three reasons:

  1. It has a notebook based environment in which students can mix plain text, code input, and code output all together. It’s truly a sketchbook for mathematical thinking that has spawned very popular open-source alternative: Jupyter Notebooks
  2. It has an I N S A N E amount of real data, baked right into the language. If you’ve done any data science, you know that you spend most of your time cleaning the data before you can do anything cool. Wolfram solved this problem, yes really.
  3. It is a functional programming language. This is arguably the most important reason because it allows students to see the structure of their code and the structure of mathematical statements as the same thing. It truly removes the arbitrary barrier we erected between Math & CS. Actually, we should blame technology for creating this problem — functional programming has been around for along time but was for a long time too computationally expensive (Read: SLOW) to be practically useful.

We told our story at the Wolfram Technology Conference in 2017 and we are proud of this work. Would you like to see & hear it? Wolfram Videos: Authentic Computational Thinking in a Project-Based Public High School We also wrote some follow up, you can read that here.

Everyone is doing the same thing at the same time

Q: Why do we assume that all students within a class period should be doing the same thing at the same time?

A: Because reasons…
– That’s how we’ve always done it
– That’s how we’ve always had to do it (we were hired as experts in content knowledge and distribution)
– Its easier for us as teachers (because reasons)
– It’s how we were trained as behaviorists
– It’s how we experienced classrooms as a student

Q: But what if we take an honest look at how access to resources has changed? How would that affect the constraints upon which our pedagogy and praxis are formed?

I was hired in 2004 and these were the expectations placed upon me:

  • Be an expert in the content of high school mathematics.
  • Be an expert in classroom management (behaviorism)
  • Collaborate with other educators (very loosely defined)
  • Take attendance

I used to refer to my former teacher self as, “an expert content delivery mechanism” by which I could artfully take what I worked hard to learn and make it accessible to students. I was the benevolent keeper of knowledge and I could impart it upon them.

Things have changed.

If I were hired today my content expertise is just as important as its ever been. In fact, I can argue its more important now as we think about managing 30 students in 30 different spots at the same time.

I must be an expert in differentiated instruction in my content area.

Differentiation is HARD. So hard in fact that it almost never happens for more than a few students at a time in a traditional classroom because its not possible to keep all the kids together doing the same thing at the same time while also creating a personalized experience for each. THEY ARE AT CROSS PURPOSES!

We all like the idea of differentiation but let go of it as merely an aspiration because we haven’t had the support we need to make it a reality.

Until now…

Enter Khan Academy. In my classroom Khan Academy (and certainly other tools too) allow me to let go of the content delivery mechanism. The enable differentiation because I become a content coach alongside my students.

If I only knew how to teach each piece of math content in one way, I would be worthless in this type of blended classroom. I would be ineffective as a coach for students because of my shallow understanding of the interconnectedness of mathematics.

A sad number of mathematics teachers themselves have not had the experience of mathematics as coherent Because of this they cannot approach a concept from a variety of perspectives. And this inability makes them deeply ineffective as math coaches.

We’re all math coaches now.

Or, maybe we aren’t. Maybe most of us can’t do this.

What if we just put kids in front of computer screens and hired classified (non-certificated) employees to manage them as they are trained by a machine?

How do kids lose?

The last day

I couldn’t leave, but didn’t want to stay. The ice cream was nice, and so was the lounge chair in the shade. I had a nice nap and I’m not hungry. I’ve got the weekend to myself and could literally do whatever I like.

I’m seated at my machine, organizing and feeling the joy of control… but something sits just below my chest. Sure, my stomach is still a little weird but that’s not it. It’s… over.

The job I desperately wanted and endeavored to enjoy each day. The community we built and gave so much of ourselves to…gone. Where can I put these feelings? There’s no one here to share them with, which, I suppose is for the best as all I can yet muster is a rambled muss.

I’ll grab a burger in a few minutes, drink some wine, and play some cards. I’ll insulate and distract myself for a while but on Monday… It will still be over.

“Penny wise and pound foolish.” Nailed it.

How long do I wait? Do I expect some mythical force to generate a sense of urgency for our district? How to help them see how far they have to go?

Do I serve a system like this? Do I give myself for it’s good? What do I need to see and receive and feel in order to make that sacrifice worthwhile? Am I to go without so that some students and families can be made whole and finally be served by a system that doesn’t even see them now?

Is Gizmo running away? Is running away okay? Am I kidding myself by thinking I’ll keep my foot in the door by this leave of absence? Do I want to keep my foot in the door? Will I be able to know that things are moving forward if I’m playing with Robots in CDA?

“What am I supposed to do without you?”

A bit dramatic, to be sure… but damn it sometimes the random iTunes selections really capture a feeling.

I have a lot to give, and I’m optimistic that very quickly I’ll return ready to give it and pour my excitement into experiences that are great for kids. But right now?

Nope.

This sucks.