Our Students as Creators, Part 2

In the first post on this topic, I introduced the need for what I called “Creator’s Lessons”.

I neither defined this term, nor did I support it in any detail. I intend to do both those things as we go through this and the next couple of posts. But, I’ll start with a graphic that explains where I’m coming from.


First, a few comments on each of those distinct parts.

  1. Students and teachers should…

a.  … feel accomplished and satisfied with the work they do in schools.

In some ways, schools have never been more effective at doing their jobs. More kids are learning more math than at any point in human history. Literacy rates are likely similar. I mean, I know that we don’t necessarily compare other other countries as well as we’d like, but we compare to the USA of 100 years ago extremely well, or at least as far as the basic measureables go.

On the other hand, satisfaction with our schools appears to be at a pretty low point. There are lots of people who feel like schools need to “be better”… whatever that means. And it’s coming from the political left and the political right. A lot of this has to do, I believe, with unsettled goals. In the 100 years that our schools have been improving, the disagreements over the goals of our schools have been widening and becoming more intense.

And I think this plays out in a lot of ways. Primarily, families, students, teachers, supporters of education often wonder (at times with legitimate anxiety) whether the time or young people spent in school is productive or meaningful. Well, quite frankly, it shouldn’t be that way. I suggest we set as a formal goal that teachers and learners will be satisfied with the time they spend in the classroom just as often as possible. I’m not saying “inspired” or “energized”, I’m saying “satisfied” — as often as possible, up to 5 days a week. It would be nice if the teacher and student could reflect at the end and say, “Yup, that was a good day.” This leads us to part 2 of this discussion:

b. … have those who hold them accountable be satisfied with those accomplishments.

This is all for naught if the student and teacher are going to wipe their brows and feel satisfied only to have the parent and/or the administrator look at it and think it’s a waste. Or a step in the wrong direction. Or not see the value in the steps taken. This part requires collaboration to get goals aligned. Asking the tough questions and being willing to humbly give up control at times. There are a lot of pressures governing this scenario. The teacher who makes the lesson plan has to know that if lessons regularly don’t support the school improvement goals, the administrator CANNOT support it. The admin has to know that if the teacher hammers away at test prep day after day, the kid will stop wanting to come to that class. The parent has to know that the teachers are going to have to make decisions that cannot possibly take each family’s value set into account. The student is going to have to give the teacher the benefit-of-the-doubt when they need to something that feels a little school-y.

This is a community-wide vision sentiment. We need to make it a priority to get our admins, our teachers, our learners, and our families on the same page. Any one of those parts being out-of-sync has potentially ruinous effects for the ability of the school to do it’s job. And I’m not simply talking about deciding who is the most valuable among them and letting them call the shots. (Depending on the school community, any one of those people might get to sit on the throne.) Rather, I’m talking about aligning the goals that each of those groups have. Teachers want some autonomy, support for the daily struggle, and some flexibility. Admins tend to have productivity goals based on measurables that often they don’t get to choose. Students want to know that they are partners in school. They want to be challenged, inspired, treated like real people who have their own goals. Parents want to know that their kids will be valued, challenged and supported – kept safe and won’t have their personal home values undermined by school policies.

This the launch point from which I’m going to build the rest of thoughts. In my next post, I’ll unpack the second box. I’ll discuss how, from my seat, teaching and learning research, anthropology (and some anecdotal story-telling) can support how this lofty goal can get met.

Our Students as Creators: My initial Thoughts

I wanna share this with you because I been thinking about it for a while now. In 2014, I began working in classrooms as a Instructional Tech Specialist, which is a bit of a misleading title, because instructional technology isn’t a thing to specialize in. Instruction is a thing to specialize in. And I’ve learned a ton. And it’s been difficult for me to make sense of all that I’ve seen and heard. But, I’m ready to try.

During this time (plus a bit before), I’ve heard and read a lot of really smart and well-researched people say a lot of things about teaching and learning. They are saying and writing some really good stuff. Among the people that I’m referring to are Kathleen Cushman, Angela Lee Duckworth, Christopher Emdin, John Hattie, Rushton Hurley,  Robert Marzano, Dan Meyer, John O’Connor, Sir Ken Robinson, Conrad Wolfram, and Gregory Yates. Some of these folks are specialized. For example, Dan Meyer once responded to a question that I asked with “I’d prefer to stick to offering my help to secondary math situations because it’s where I feel most qualified.” (paraphrased). Other folks area extremely general. John Hattie, for example, has advice to give on practically everything.

And I’ve had conversations with other educators who favor some of these educators over others. In our areas, “… because Marzano said so…” or “… because Hattie said so…” are becoming cliches and it is weakening the credibility that those two researchers have among many educators. I think that this is a critique that is best directed toward those attempting to apply the research more than the researchers themselves. (That said, I have heard some criticisms of both of these guys that are directed toward them.)

But, I see a few issues with “this researcher vs. that researcher” thinking. The primary issue that I see is that teaching and learning is really complex. Like… really, really complex. It’s hard to generalize and even once it’s generalized, it a second difficult task to execute it well. And it’s an even more difficult task to maintain excellence in that execution over an entire school year. So, while it may seem that Hattie and Sir Ken Robinson are disagreeing, it’s more likely that they are seeing different elements that are equally valid components of a complex whole.

There’s also my experience that I’m having a hard time ignoring. That I’ve seen some really effective teachers and some teachers who really struggle. And that is true of teachers of all types. I’ve seen teachers who are trying to “do STEAM” in their classrooms and their students don’t seem to be thriving. I’ve seen teachers who create the most dynamic, effective learning environments “doing STEAM”. Likewise with more traditional setups. I’ve seen teachers whose students learning at a very high level using a very traditional set up. And I’ve seen teachers who just can’t get this right.

What’s the difference? And more than that, is it a difference that can be taught? The quick-and-easy answer is “relationships.” And that does seem to be a big deal. A teacher who builds strong and productive relationships with students seem to have a leg up regardless of their teaching-and-learning style. But, here I’ll turn it over to my colleague Nate Stevenson:

I take that to mean there are still best practices that will maximize your students’ potentials. Relationships alone won’t do it. Neither, perhaps, will all the right teacher moves. There’s a marriage there. Like so many things, there’s a complementary nature between the two differences. Not one VERSUS the other, but the two coming together to make each other better.

With this in mind, I took to exploring the aforementioned educators thoughts and ideas and wanted to see if there was a way I could characterize quality education that took into account all that they were advocating for. I wondered if each of them was trying to describe a central reality from their own imperfect perspective. (And that isn’t a knock. There is only one perfect perspective, and none of those educators is God.)

That having been said, here’s my best, first try from my imperfect perspective. I requires me to classify two types of lessons. Activities and lessons where the students are primarily CONSUMERS and activities and lessons where students are primarily CREATORS. And my thought right now is that there needs to be a balance between the two. For each activity the students spend consuming new knowledge, they need an activity where they create within that content.

The researchers seems to make a handful of points quite consistently:

Teacher-student relationships need to be strong because…

  • students need to develop the ability to be pushed in a safe environment, learn to make mistakes and patiently grow rather than quit. Trust is key here.
  • students learn best in learning communities in which they feel valued and are making an active contribution.

Lessons and Learning Activities should (as often as possible) include…

  • Goals targeting both the knowledge and the actions. (What will they know AND be able to do?)
  • Effective direct instruction of new material to support the learning goals
  • flexible, yet predictable processes and procedures
  • An opportunity for the students to collaborate with each other
  • Options for demonstrations of student learning


Disclosure statement: I want to stop right here and say that if anyone has used this language before, I am haven’t read it. I’ll gladly yield the floor and give credit to those who have written on this before. Any overlap is very much unintentional.

I’m going to spend the next couple posts laying out my thoughts around this topic.

Next Vista for Education – What can video do for your students?

Usually the conversation about “videos for instruction” get relegated to the tired conversation about whether or not students learn best from a video or their live teacher #flipclass.

This isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about students producing the videos… starring in the videos… scripting the videos.

Stuff like this:

How the Unit Circle REALLY works: http://www.nextvista.org/unraveling-the-unit-circle-using-spaghetti/

How-to Complete the square: http://www.nextvista.org/completing-the-square-2016/


Now as you watch those, it’s fair to ask the question, “yeah but the students are simply going to watch an instructional video for a single skill, right?” And from a student learning perspective from the side of the CONSUMER, that’s likely true. And when you go to Next Vista’s website, you’ll see that it’s fairly simple to find videos, but it’s also that there’s lots of opportunities to submit videos. That’s where this conversation turns. When you see this from the side of the CREATOR, you get a whole different view.

Rushton Hurley (the founder of Next Vista for Learning) has a line I’ve heard him use a couple of time: “When your students know their classmates and community will see their work, they want it to be good. When they know their teacher will be the only one who sees it, they want it to be good enough.” And I think that platforms like Next Vista can provide the space for students to invest their time and effort into learning math to the level needed to record videos that can help others learn the math that deeply, too.

That’s something we’ve learned as math teachers. When you don’t know what you are talking about, that becomes a problem when you are trying to instruct someone else on that topic. By exploring creative outputs for our math learner, we are operationalizing that same truth. In order to create effectively to support learning, you have to have deep knowledge of the content yourself.

And the prospect of deep math knowledge for our students is enough to get my attention.


A couple new ways to visualize the math

What could we do if we gave the students more control over how they presented their learning to us?

A simple Google search for some random geometry topic… let’s choose angle pairs… reveals a whole collection of visual images meant to serve as posters, visuals, flash cards, etc.

And most of them are really, really boring. Our students could do better than that. But they might need a tool to do it. Here’s two.


Adobe Spark


What I love about these two tool is that they are really, really easy to use. Free to get started (and, quite frankly, perfectly satisfactory without leaving the free version) and easy to share.

Now, you might be asking, “why would we want our students to spend time making this stuff?” Fair question.

Remember, to make something helpful to others, they need to learn it themselves. And for some students, being able to make something awesome-looking can help to add some motivational value to some bits of content that are difficult to jazz up. (Angle pairs, for example.)

Thinking of something like this…

My Post

And, of course, it won’t work for all students. So, you can keep the quiz handy for the students who would prefer to show you what they’ve learned that way.


Thoughts on Reading from @roddreher

I’m currently reading How Dante Can Save Your Life by Rod Dreher, which is a super compelling read. Great story-telling and wonderful personal insights into struggles that I’ve sort of had, but in a much different way.

From an educator’s standpoint, one quote stood out completely.

Books, even works of fiction, can be do it yourself manuals for people searching for the wisdom to fix their lives. Some of the best self-help books are not shelved in the self-help section. But don’t think that reading is the same thing as doing. When thinking about action as a substitute for taking action, reading is an obstacle to getting better. Reading a recipe and learning it back-to-front is not the same thing as baking a cake. Read certainly. But make sure you take time to contemplate in stillness and prayer (if you pray) what you have read and implement it in your life. The best books offer a window into life and truth, but their lessons only become alive and true for us if we take them into our hearts and by force of will turn them into action. The key is to know when to turn off the analytical mind and when to engage the will. (From about the 3:49:00 mark of the audio book version (sorry. I don’t have the page to reference.)

I suppose this quote resonated with me because from the time I was a young professional I wanted to improve my teaching and there are many books that I’ve read about it. I know many people like me who have used a similar strategy. But I suppose that I need to be reminded that you don’t get better simply by reading. You get better by reading, taking a moment to still your mind and contemplate and pray. Then making a choice and implementing through force of will (as Dreher puts it.) “Force of will” is an important phrase here because there’s always inertia that makes it easier to keep doing what you are doing, even if you know there’s a better way.

But keep reading and keep encouraging your students to do the same. But don’t think that you are naturally improving anything simply by the act of reading. Once you’ve read, what are you going to do next?