“They’re just playing…”

I was recently listening to a conference session by Katie Sellstrom. During the talk, she made a statement that was so simple, it was brilliant. And needs to be repeated. It paraphrases like this: “Yeah, I mean, okay. Maybe you’re only taking this kind of data because the law requires you to. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to make the experience awesome for your students.”

Katie was speaking of in-class assessments and formative data and MTSS structures and stuff like that. The stuff that plays into what a lot of people are lamenting about the modern state of education. Education is currently a world of standards, learning targets, data goals, and accountability. I think those are good things. I think that schools should be expected to do a good job growing every single kid in their school. And if they are doing a good job for every kid, they shouldn’t be offended by being asked to prove it. And if they can’t prove it (either because they aren’t keeping track, or because they aren’t doing a good job growing each kid), we shouldn’t be okay with that.

But, we can’t lose sight of what drives change. The ultimate goal is for all students to achieve at a high level. Not simply to do their best, but to change their best and then do the brand new best. And in order to do that, it should be a foregone conclusion that we need the students to come to school. Everyday. All year. Every year. And not simply because the law makes them.

Side note: the data on the negative effects of dropping out are intense and not in dispute and yet, in light of that, many kids see it as a reasonable choice compared to coming to school. So, it should satisfy NO ONE that we have to require kids by law to come to our classrooms. Why aren’t they flocking to them by choice?

Well, for one thing, when the accountability systems started tightening the screws on everyone, many schools (particularly those who need the most growth) decided it was time to buckle down and get to work. #NoMoreFoolinAround Which is completely understandable, but…

… it seemed to often come with a corresponding reduction in the stuff that makes the classroom environment enjoyable. And the concern over that isn’t simply fluffy “kids-should-be-kids, shouldn’t children be happy?” stuff. Not at all. It’s economic. We need those young people to come to school. Enthusiastically, if possible, so that our systems can help them grow. If the learning environment is regularly uninspiring, then we are going to lose our target audience. And everyone loses if that happens.

So, what to do? Well, perhaps we could consider designing academically-meaningful tasks that were also enjoyable. Tools like Desmos, Formative and EdPuzzle (among others) help a lot in creating flexibility in lesson design that can bring a variety of potentially enjoyable elements into core activities. But beyond that, take a look at the two pictures above at the top of this post.

Here, I’ll show you one more.

JustPlaying3

I visted this school in the midst of their “Oral Language Groups.”

It was collaborative play time. (That doesn’t look as good on a master schedule). But it isn’t “just play time.” First things first, the students were all actively engaged. Secondly, about 90% of them were collaborating actively with a classmate. Third, they weren’t all doing the same thing. The students could pick which group they wanted to be at. And fourth, they all seemed to be really enjoying themselves. Behavior issues were low. Students wanting to brag about their work was high. So, can it be aligned to anything? (This is an important question. All activities should fit in with the broader goals.)

Common Core ELA: 

CCRA.SL.1 – Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasive; CCRA.SL.6 – Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks…

Common Core Math:

SMP3 – Construct viable argument and critique the reasoning of others, SMP5 – Use appropriate tools strategically, SMP6 – Attend to precision

Next Gen Science Practice Standards

Planning and Carrying out investigations, Analyzing and interpreting data, Using mathematical and computational thinking, Constructing explanations and designing solutions

Some of those are a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea. Strategic play time isn’t “just” play time. Just like maker space time isn’t “just” maker space time. These environments can be built to create academically supportive learning experiences.

Notice: “can be built”… it requires strategic design to make it valuable. So, here are some thoughts I have about how to take “just” play time and make it meaningful.

  1. Have a goal for your students during your play/maker time. What type of learning are you trying to get? Do you want the students to collaborate? Communicate? What do you expect that to look like in this type of setting? How do you intend to communicate those expectations to your students?
  2. Don’t let your goal be an excuse for reducing student autonomy. This isn’t a cookbook chemistry lab. This is play time. And many of the growth pieces that you are hoping for with your students are cut out when you start micromanaging the play. Skenazy and Haidt put it this way: “Gray’s main body of research is on the importance of free play, and he stresses that it has little in common with the “play” we give kids today. In organized activities—Little League, for example—adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood. In free play, ideally with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That’s teamwork, literally. The little kids desperately want to be like the bigger kids, so instead of bawling when they strike out during a sandlot baseball game, they work hard to hold themselves together. This is the foundation of maturity.”
  3. Take data during the play time. The students are playing. You are not. Your job is to figure out if this thing is working toward your goal. So, decide what data you are going to take. Take it. And monitor their progress. Remember, data isn’t always quantitative.
  4. Have the students reflect a bit. Having a bit off a “show-off something cool” time will give the groups a chance to describe to the class what they made, tell a story about it, and gather ideas for next time while listening to the others.
  5. Be reasonable about how much time you have to devote to play/maker time. It’s possible that given the “have-to’s” of your situation, you can only make this work out once per week. That’s okay. Do the best you can. But please, please… whatever you do… please. Don’t turn this into a reward for learning fast. Planning these in as a reward for behaving and passing assessments sends the exact wrong message and sends that message to the group of students most likely to benefit from the play/maker time. (The message: You struggle in school, so you don’t get to have fun. Stop struggling, then we’ll let you have fun.)

Rushton Hurley says “it isn’t our job to entertain the kids, but if we do our jobs in an entertaining way, then they are much more likely to come along for the ride.” I endorse that message, because them coming along for the ride is exactly what we need them to do. Remember, if we are going to grow them, we need them to be in school. Everyday. All year. Every year.

Let’s start thinking about creating the kinds of environments where a young person would voluntarily do that.

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#EdTech problems can also be the solutions

Here’s the thing: every trait has positive effects and negative effects. This was the basis for the Roth’s Divergent Series actually. Honesty is a virtue that risks becoming harshness if it’s not paired with kindness. Courage is a virtue that risks becoming cruelty if it isn’t paired with wisdom. Book-learning is a virtue that risks becoming arrogance if it isn’t paired with humility.

Many educators in these modern times want their EdTech companies to be open, free, and independent. This risks the negative effect of creating companies that lack stability. Open, free, and independent companies often change quickly (see Newsela and Formative) or end up having to alter their independence (see Minecraft and YouTube).

However, open, free, and independent often creates the positive effect of companies being nimble and responsive, both to the behavior of their competitors and the feedback from their clientele. Desmos sets the gold standard for openness to discussion with their clientele, if you’re asking me. But EdPuzzle showed me a little something this week that impressed me.

A week or so ago, I lamented out loud about the Zaption going the way of MySpace. I’d like to think that my blog post was so powerful that the folks at EdPuzzle read it and decided to offer me a bit of comfort.

That’s probably not really how it happened (although they did tweet directly at me after that blog post went out… just saying…) but nonetheless, the #EdTech marketplace being what it is, EdPuzzle saw an opportunity and it’s going to work out okay for us former Zaption users.

By following this link (edpuzzle.com/zaption), EdPuzzle will directly import all of your Zaption video activities directly into your EdPuzzle account. The whole process takes, like, 4 minutes.

There are natural trade-offs in everything. HMH or Pearson are very, very stable providers of educational resources. It’s also a serious challenge to get anyone at either of those companies to return your e-mail or update their resources. (“Can we get a bit of closed-captioning on your online video examples?)

On the flip side, there are some very small, nimble, open companies that are dealing with serious challenges to their long-term sustainability. We learn to love them when they are start-ups, but they can’t stay start-ups forever. And the transition can, at times, be very inconvenient for the users of the tech.

But, for the time being, EdPuzzle has reminded us that in the EdTech land of instability, when users suddenly become free agents looking for a new team to sign with, an open and flexible company can be there to provide the pick-me-up when another provided the let down.

 

Gallons and Gallons of Pennies

Sometimes, “real-world” problems just go ahead and write themselves. And I say take advantage. Why be creative with the actual world can do the heavy lifting for you, right?

This floated across my Facebook feed. Pretty sure you’ll see where I’ve made some edits to the original texts.

Pennies Problem

Sequels could potentially include:

If Ortha wanted to exchange them for quarters, how many 5-gallon jugs would she need? You could do the same with nickels or dimes.

What would be the mass of each penny-filled jug?

What do you think? What other questions could come off this wonderful set up?

NPR wants to advise your pizza order…

Quoctrung Bui from NPR says that there are at least 74476 reasons that you should always get the bigger pizza. (The article has an awesome interactive graph, too!)

If we could mix the article with a math exploration, we could provide an awesome opportunity for a math-literacy activity that can combine reasoning, reading, writing, and some number-crunching all in the same experience. That’s a nice combination. Also I suspect the content hits close to home for most students. (The leadership in our district is often looking for opportunities to increase authentic reading and writing in math classes. This seems to fit the bill quite well.)

Here’s an activity:

Although without fail, the menus from a variety of local pizza joints will probably be a bit more engaging. (Look for an update coming soon…)

Shauverino Pizziano

But the big question is why?

According to Bui: “The math of why bigger pizzas are such a good deal is simple: A pizza is a circle, and the area of a circle increases with the square of the radius.” 

Yup… that’s pretty much it.

Perception and Reality – (Lean not unto thine own understanding…)

In Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell tells a story about a decision made by a New York politician who was attempting to address the homeless problem in New York City. The politician noticed that most of the people who were homeless were also not very wealthy. The politician moved forward with the idea that the apartment rent prices were simply too high for these people to afford a place to stay.

So, he decided to cap the rent prices… and the homeless problem got worse. How could this possibly be?

Well, according to Dr. Sowell, lowering rent prices, while making the apartments more affordable for those in need, did the same for everyone else. The suddenly cheaper rent prices decreased the rates of young folks sharing apartments. Also, people who have several places they call home throughout the year might not have found it reasonable to pay a high rent price to keep a NYC apartment that they might only stay in a few times throughout the year. Lower rent prices made that seem more reasonable.

Evidence also suggested that there was an increase in apartments being condemned. Lowering rent costs meant that landlords found themselves with fewer resources to maintain buildings, repair damages, pay for inspections, etc.

While the decision made the apartments more affordable, it also made them more scarce. There was a disconnect between a decision-maker’s perception of a situation and the reality. That disconnect led to a decision that ended-up being counterproductive.

I may have just done the same thing… maybe.

Perception-Reality

 

Sometimes things make so much sense. If we did this, it would HAVE to produce that. It make so much sense. How could it possibly not work?

This perception was in place among some in my community. It led me to decide to try The 70-70 Trial, which I’ve been at for about 10 weeks now. The perception in place goes like this:

a. Formative assessments prepare students for summative assessments.

b. Students who struggle on formative assessments are more likely to struggle on summative assessments (and the inverse is also true.)

It’s with these two perceptions in mind that we assume that the if we can ensure a student achieves success on each of the formative assessments (regardless of the timeline or the number of tries), we improve their chances of success on the summative assessment.

The 70-70 trial did what it could to ensure that at least 70% of the class achieved 70% or higher proficiency on each formative assessment. (There were four.) This included in-class reteach sessions and offering second (and in some cases third) versions of each assessment. With all of those students making “C-” or better on each formative assessment, how could they possibly struggle on the unit test? That was the perception.

50% of the students scored under 50% on the summative assessment. That was the reality.

Now, I am not an alarmist. I understand that one struggling class in one unit doesn’t discredit an entire education theory. But it sure was perplexing. I’ve never seen a test where, after 8 weeks of instruction on a single unit (Unit 4 from Geometry), half of an entire class unable to successfully complete even half of the unit test.

And when you consider that this class was the one class I had put the most effort into defeating just that kind of struggling, well it seems like the intersection of my perception and the reality wasn’t nearly big enough. I just got a better view.

And I’m having a hard time making sense of what I’m seeing.

Feeding The Elephant in the Room

I am going to ramble a bit in this piece, but as you read, keep a specific thought in your mind:

When our students have graduated high school, we will know we educators have done our job because _____________________.

Now, onto the ramble:

So, a lot gets said about the struggles of American secondary education. Recently, Dr. Laurence Steinberg took his turn in Slate coming right out in the title and calling high schools “disasters”. Which, as you can imagine, got some responses from the educational community.

Go ahead and give the article a read. I’ll admit that education is not known as the most provocative topic in the American mainstream, but Dr. Steinberg has written a piece that has been shared on Facebook a few thousand times and on twitter a few hundred more. It’s instigated some thoughtful blog responses. You have to respect his formula.

He starts with a nice mini Obama dig.

Makes a nice bold statement early (“American high schools, in particular, are a disaster.”)

Offers a “little-known” study early to establish a little authority.

Then hits the boring note and hits it hard. High school is boring. Lower level students feel like they don’t belong. Advanced students feel unchallenged. American schools is more boring than most other countries’ schools.

Then he goes on to discredit a variety of things education has tried to do over the last 50 (or so) years including: NCLB, Vouchers, Charters, Increased funding, lowering student-to-teacher ratio, lengthening the school day, lengthening the school year, pushing for college-readiness. I mean, with that list, there’s something for everyone

Like it or hate it, that is an article that is going to get read.

However, there isn’t a lot in the way of tangible solutions. The closest Dr. Steinberg comes is in this passage: ” Research on the determinants of success in adolescence and beyond has come to a similar conclusion: If we want our teenagers to thrive, we need to help them develop the non-cognitive traits it takes to complete a college degree—traits like determination, self-control, and grit. This means classes that really challenge students to work hard…”

Nothin’ to it, right? It’s as easy as making our students “grittier”.

Now, I will repeat the introductory thought: When our students have graduated high school, we will know we educators have done our job because _____________________.

That blank gets filled in a variety of ways from the area of employability, or social responsibility, or liberation and freedom, or social justice to a variety of other thises and thats that we use our high schools for. We are using our high schools as the training ground for the elimination of a wide variety of undesirable social things. We’ve used our schools to eliminate obesity, teen pregnancy and STIs, discrimination based on race, gender, or alternative lifestyles. We have allowed colleges to push college-readiness to make their job easier. We’ve allowed employers to push employability to make their jobs easier. The tech industry feels like we need more STEM. There’s a push-back from folks like Sir Ken Robinson who feel like it’s dangerous to disregard the arts.

And they all have valid points. I’m certainly not mocking or belittling any of those ideas.

However, very little is getting said on behalf of the school. We are treating the school as a transparent entity with none of its own roles and responsibilities. It is simply the clay that gets molded into whatever society decides it should be. Well, since the 60’s, society has had a darned hard time making up its mind about what it wants and so the school has become battered and bruised with all the different initiatives and plans, data sets, and reform operations. Reform is an interesting idea when the school hasn’t ever formally been formed in the first place.

So, we have this social institution that we send 100% of our teenagers to in some form or another and we don’t know what the heck its for. No wonder, as Dr. Steinberg puts it, “In America, high school is for socializing. It’s a convenient gathering place, where the really important activities are interrupted by all those annoying classes. For all but the very best American students—the ones in AP classes bound for the nation’s most selective colleges and universities—high school is tedious and unchallenging.”

Public enemy #1 needs to be the utter and complete lack of purpose in the high school system. We are running our young people through exercises… why? For what? What do we hope to have happen at the end? When we decide the answer to that question, then we eliminate the rest. It isn’t lazy to say, “I’m not doing that, because that isn’t my job.” It’s efficient. If you start doing the work of others, you stop doing your work as well.

We’ve never agreed on the work of the American high school, but I suspect some of what we are asking it to do should belong on the shoulders of something or someone else. I suspect as soon as we establish a purpose and simplify the operations around that purpose, we can start to see some progress on the goals that we have for our schools, which will spell success for our students and start to clean up the disaster that so many feel like the high schools currently are.

The Equity of Extra-Curricular Education

It goes without saying that the role of the educational communities extends beyond the final bell of the school day. In most communities where I’m from, schools provide a variety of extra-curricular activities that are athletic, artistic and academic in nature. In general, most of these clubs are small and get very little publicity for their efforts.

Equity isn’t an issue in many of these clubs and activities because boys and girls can participate together. Clubs and activities like robotics, art club, drama, quiz bowl, for example, typically don’t deal with equity issues (at least not based on gender) because the main factors of inclusion tend to be interest, ability, and availability.

However, there is one huge area of extra-curricular activities where gender segregation is standard operating procedure: athletics. Within this realm, there are male sports (e.g., football, wrestling, baseball) and female sports (e.g., volleyball, softball). There’s sports where both genders can play, but they each have their own teams (e.g., soccer, basketball, golf, lacrosse). There’s also sports where technically the teams compete separately, but typically schedule, practice and travel as if the teams are co-ed (e.g., cross country, track and field, bowling).

Just so we are all on the same page, I’m going to state the obvious: institutional segregation of any kind is asking for some extra scrutiny. That does not mean the segregation is wrong or harmful, but it does mean that we need to be sure that the methods, reasons, and relationships between the segregated groups are arranged deliberately and equitably.

An article written by Graham Couch appeared in my local paper on May 27, 2013, that addressed this issue of gender equality in dealing with extra-curriculars.

As I stated before, almost all extra-curricular clubs and groups are low-publicity groups whose non-participant supporters tend to be parents of the participants. In mid-Michigan, there’s a small handful of exceptions to this. Fine arts clubs (theatre, choir, art, band and orchestra) tend to draw big crowds and certain athletic events: typically basketball and football. These events are advertised in the newspapers, they have billboards, news reporters are on-site during events along with lot of spectators.

To add an additional level of complexity to this, money is involved in a few of these. Big ticket fine arts events are normally free for spectators (theatre being the exception, and if you include the marching band performances at halftime of the football games). Schools also charge admission for big ticket sporting events like football and basketball.

The issue of money isn’t a small issue. Theatre departments can be expensive clubs. Continuing the program is dependent on filling the auditorium with paying spectators for every performance. Also, most schools depend quite heavily on revenue from football and basketball games to balance their athletic budgets. So, it would make a ton of sense to schedule these events carefully to maximize their attendance. Football owns Friday nights in the fall.  Theatre performances tend to be multi-day weekend events. Thursday-Saturday in the evenings and a Sunday matinee. No gender equity issues, right?

What about basketball? Both boys and girls play it. In Michigan communities, boys basketball is typically much more popular to spectators than girls basketball. That is, it draws bigger crowds. That is, it makes more money. So, schools have worked hard to keep varsity boys basketball games on Friday evenings to maximize admissions revenue. Seems reasonable… right?

Well, there’s a civil right complaint going through the Michigan Department of Education right now that’s forcing us to deal with that issue.

From the article: “There is no perfect way to schedule girls high school basketball. There never really was and there might never be. It’s a matter of meshing equality with what’s best for student-athletes and what’s accepted by communities. And those three ideals, most places, don’t work in concert.”

Things we’ve tried in Michigan:

  • Girls’ basketball season to be played in the fall to avoid direct conflict. Courts ruled in several years ago that fall scheduling was an unnecessary detriment to female athletes getting recruited to play at the college level as most of the recruiting work was done in the winter.
  • Girls’ being played on different days. But this added bus trips and made scheduling within conferences more complex. Especially considering that the gyms in most schools are also being used in the winter for volleyball and wrestling. Plus each basketball program has at least a junior varsity team, and many have freshman teams.
  • Replacing the typically slot for JV boys (right before the varsity boys) with varsity girls on Friday nights. But, as Couch puts it: “The argument against that schedule, however, is the girls game feels like a JV game.”
  • So, we’ve tried alternating the schedules, putting boys varsity games first followed by girls’ games. But, as Couch puts it: “When the girls play second… many fans leave as they’re warming up or beginning play. And the athletes notice.” He continues: “Is it equitable to have your fan base walk out on your girls game on a Friday night?” Fulton AD and CMAC president Chad Podolak said. “Maybe it is, because you’re playing on a Friday night, but the girls I’ve talked to just feel terrible about it.”
  • How about both varsity teams play the same nights, but at opposite locations. So, the same two schools are competing just one school hosts the girls games and one school hosts the boys game. Well, as Couch puts it: “And, if the teams are instead separated — one on the road, one at home — the fan base is split, but not equally.”

So, it there seems an equity issue. But, I am concerned that this might be bigger than high school sports.

Consider that Michigan is a fantastic sports state. The fans are enthusiastic and loyal. Michigan supports six major programs (Red Wings, Lions, Tigers, Pistons, Spartans, and Wolverines). Not all of these teams are good all the time. In fact, the Lions are almost always frustratingly poor. The Pistons have been one of the worst teams in the NBA the last three or four years. The Tigers have gone through several stretches where they have struggled mightily (although right now, that is not the case). There has never been any talk of these teams leaving Detroit. You never hear that. Ever.

The Detroit Shock were a WNBA team that started in 1998. In the first twelve seasons, all they did was make the playoffs 8 times, the finals 4 times and won three WNBA championships. (If the Lions supported those winning percentages over their existence, they’d have won 11 super bowls by now.) In 2009, The Shock franchise moved their team to Tulsa, hoping for more enthusiastic support from its local fan base.

From Couch: “The issue, and often proverbial elephant in the room, comes down to this: Basketball is the only spectator sport in which girls and boys go head-to-head, in high school or college. And it’s a sport built around height and athleticism, one where the physical differences in genders are pronounced.”

So, here’s my question: To what degree is it the individual high school athletic departments responsibility to help solve this social preference? The athletic departments, conferences and schedule-makers are contorting themselves to no end to try to balance out a social imbalance that seems to exist beyond the scope of the school. Do we really think that schools are responsible for causing the issue?

And before we explore the issue of schools having the responsibility to solve this problem, let’s first discuss is local school districts have the ability to solve this problem?

Let’s get back to what extra-curricular activities of all sorts are designed to do: give young people an additional way to be engaged by the school curriculum to support the overall educational experience for their 13-run from kindergarten to graduation.

Does forcing girls’ basketball to bear the civil rights burden in a way that the girls bowling team doesn’t make it a better educationally-supportive activity for the students? Are the schools (whose lack of adequate funding is always used as a political tool) at fault for trying to maximize their revenue? At what point are the schools simply called upon to create equality of opportunity and the community is on it’s own to respond? Do these problems all go away if we outlaw charging admission at games? Might the loss of revenue make the sports go away, too?

I don’t know. And it seems that I’m not the only one asking these questions.

From Couch: “The question is, at what age or level do these realities matter? When does it stop being strictly about educational opportunity and begin to morph into spectator-driven sport?”