Students as Thought Partners

Our most recent project is coming to end at just the right time to start a project on the upcoming presidential election.   We had been exploring various ideas.  Below are some of the notes we made.

  • Get involved in campaign
  • Take surveys–of peers, used to predict youth vote
  • analysis of youth vote over the last several elections to understand and predict outcomes
  • How is public opinion influenced? What factors sway public opinion?
  • should the US maintain the electoral college and two party system?
  • how big a role does money make? role of non-elected groups
  • rational argument and evidence rather than emotion or faith: script for civil ad
  • youth issues?
  • presentation to parents or other voter: consider an environmental issues (energy, natural resources, diet and health concerns, agricultural) Living planet–take any recommendations or concerns and creating a survey around that an issue of choice

As we spoke of these, we thought any of them could be interesting, but nothing really sang to us.  It could have been the quality of the ideas, but I think it had more to do with the fact that we had, as an ideal, the notion that we would get student input for the design of the project.   We had yet to coordinate our schedules with students’ to allow for that sort of collaboration, and in the interim, we had tried to work it out anyway.  See how well it worked?

This last Thursday, we finally coordinated with some of the students to talk about the project.  It was great and fascinating to hear them talk about what interested them about the election, and we quickly started going down the rabbit hole of the Citizens United ruling, and the role of super PACs in the election.

One of the most noteworthy features of the conversation came from the fact that they are now in their third year of doing PBL, and they knew the questions to ask.  “How are you going to incorporate the Environmental Science?  What are we going to read?  How do they all tie together?”  

And then came this comment from a student: “We need to make sure that we start with the standards.   We don’t want a theme-based project where you then later jam in standards, trying to make it fit, and the teaching doesn’t really help us complete the project.”

Are you kidding me?    This is the refrain I used over and over with teachers who I coached, and now I am hearing from students?   Brilliant. Awesome.  Fantastic.  It reinforced for me that getting the students to the table for project-design is the way to go.

We ended up thinking a lot about the upcoming debates, and the ads that are assailing Americans.   With an overriding value of wanting the efforts of the students to be real, in a way that could affect the election, we came up with an idea of, “When a candidate says ____________, it means _________”  The idea here is to borrow a statement from the debates or an ad, about some issue.    Then create some sort of electronic visual (a video?  An infographic?)  that connect the statement to:

  • Who the candidate is likely targeting with the statement
  • Who has funded that candidate, and is likely to have influenced that statement
  • The Party Platform
  • Recent Events
  • Longer-term history
  • Objectively-verifiable facts
  • Possible effects on Electoral College outcome (which goes to that first item of targeted audience)
If each group generates something on a couple of statements, then we could post the visuals to a website where voters could take a look, and understand the complex nature of simple statements from Presidential Candidates.
For our part as teachers, we make sure that students identify at least one statement that has to do with environmental concerns – likely it will be energy policy – and one statement where there is clear overreach in the attribution to the executive branch for some accomplishment.   (“If I am elected, I will repeal this tax!” or “If I am elected, I will add this tax!”)
Some questions remain:
– What is the best way to incorporate statistics?  Seems like looking at polling stats is a good idea, so confidence intervals could be helpful.  The challenge:  haven’t even really dealt with normal distributions, or probability yet.
– Is this enough to create a need to know about the workings of the electoral college, and the extent of power of the executive branch?
– What do they read for English?  Do we look for fiction, or no?
Despite the lingering questions, the fact remains that we have found  a project idea that we love, and we couldn’t have done it without student input.


A "Draft" for Group Members

One great thing about teaching now is that I get to try all the things that I suggested to teachers whilst I was a coach.  One that I continually got excited about was the prospect of students having to “earn” their way into groups.   I had envisioned students keeping a sort of resume, where they kept their collaboration grades, and any other evidence of their ability to do well in a group, so that they could effectively “sell” their services to other group members.  With this most recent project, we wanted to try the idea.

For this project, students are:
  •  Identifying an issue that addresses biodiversity  (like species extinction, or loss of habitat, etc) 
  • Identifying a non-profit that supports something like that issue, and contacting that org to work with
  •  Developing a policy statement and  legislative strategy with and for that non-profit
  • Using a correlative study to support their position on the issue


We started the project by looking at species extinctions starting in 1900, and had them look at this data.   They were tasked with using the data to extrapolate, making predictions about the number of species that disappeared from the earth by 1957.  Then they had to make predictions for 1989.    Most came very close to the actual number for 1957; using linear reasoning, they came to an agreement of somewhere around 49 or 50 species (I was using just animals), and the actual number is 51.
They then had to guess for 1989.   In general, in the class, they guessed around 78 extinct species.  Actual number:  127.    Showing them the actual number, as I had hoped, shocked them, and created some good discussion, which led into a conversation about  “Should we be concerned about this number?  Should we consider advocating for the preservation of species?”  – and both questions led eventually into our driving question:     Why and how should we advocate for the preservation of biodiversity?
We asked them to talk to each other, and start a list of questions that they would need to have answered in order to answer the driving question.   (Thank you, Nadirshah Velasquez, for this idea).   From there, we pushed them into a learning log, where each student wrote down the questions that he or she had, and explored for a while.    We did 2 or three rounds:  Research & record in the log (15 min), then share out (5 min).
Here’s an example learning log.  This is not live – I made a copy of a student’s, so that anyone can view, and that student doesn’t feel like he is being spied upon.
All of that is background.    Back to this idea of “earning” the possibility of being in a group.  Students worked on their learning log, exploring questions of their own for a class and a half, in the hopes of identifying some issue that they could start to address with the help of a non profit.  As more students seemed to hone in on issues that piqued their interest, they were given the opportunity to apply to be a “group captain”, like the captain of a team.
Those that had clear ideas for their issue applied, and became captains.  They pitched their ideas to the rest of the class, so that there were 10 different groups to possibly join.    The rest of the class then came the next day, with hard copies of their learning logs, one copy for every  group that they hoped to be picked for.   Most kids brought 2-3 copies.   Before selection, we laid out signs for each issue/idea on the table.  Students dropped their learning logs (scrubbed of names) on the issues to which they were drawn, and then went on to continue research.    With the stacks of logs ready, captains then read through the logs, and prioritized who they wished to invite, based upon the quality and content of the learning.
Once they were ready, we chose in rounds, each captain choosing one log at a time.    After each choice, we identified a log by the first question, and all other logs that were the same, but in other stacks, were then discarded, to avoid the same person getting chosen twice.


How did it work? There were a couple of students not chosen, and we found that a tad troubling – but we met with them at the end, and they joined a couple of other groups, or formed their own group with a new idea.    In the end, we all had groups where people were chosen by (mostly) the merit of their initial work.
We posed a few questions to the students along the way:
“Is the learning log useful?” – Universal response:  YES

“Was choosing groups a valuable process?”   Some responses:  “I liked that it was anonymous.”   “I liked that it was based upon the logs.”   “I felt awkward about the leftover kids who weren’t selected.”

Doing this again:  Lots of lead time about the selection process, with a Google doc with a going list of issue ideas almost from the get-go, so that there are plenty of captains to begin with, to avoid the lack of selection.   But we’re doing this again, to be sure.   We found that the initial structured research has paid dividends throughout the project, and students are studying their topic deeply, in part, we believe, because there was some choice about the issue they are approaching.

Interestingly, a couple of groups found that they needed to change their topics mid-stream; one started out as wanting to create legislation to fund the search for dna of extinct species, and bringing the species back from extinction.   Not many non-profits out there that could help out with that, amazingly enough!  They changed to reintroduction of the Mexican Gray Wolf to southern New Mexico.

An Introduction to the Blog

First – about the name of the blog.   It’s not “Ed.” as in “Edward” or “Edwin”, but Ed as in “Education”.  The blog title is perhaps audacious, but we need audacity. 
We are two teachers, embarking on an endeavor that’s simultaneously risky and (I hope) exhilarating.   And when I say risky, I’m not kidding.    I’ve left a job with the New TechNetwork as a School Development Coach, to come back to the classroom to teach Seniors at nex+Gen Academy in Albuquerque NM.  
After five years of working with principals and teachers, beating the drum of Project Based Learning, positive school culture, and smart use of technology, I am now feeling the pressure to put my action where my rhetoric has been.    They might not say so, but I get the feeling that some of my colleagues at NTN are watching.    Also, I’ve missed teaching terribly – it would be a bummer if it isn’t as good as I remember.  Heh.
My teaching partner, Megan, is upending her life, moving to Albuquerque, and teaching with a new partner, in a new school, with a population she’s just becoming familiar with.   
All for what?  We’ve laid out a challenge for ourselves regarding this coming year.    The school is now in its third year of existence, and we are assigned as the core teachers for a rather small Senior class – only large enough to justify two core teachers, and part of an elective teacher’s time.   Nex+Gen is part of the New Tech Network of schools, (of which there are about 100 across the country) where the schools focus on fostering enduring skills of their students, employ Project Based Learning, and attend to school culture very carefully.  At nex+Gen, all the students are issued laptops, but like other NT schools, the computer is only a tool; most learning is done collaboratively.
At nex+Gen, I will be the teacher of record for Statistics and Ecobiology, and Megan will be the teacher of record for Econ, Gov’t, and English.    I use the phrase “teacher of record”, because our plan is to blur the boundaries of our teaching assignments.  We intend to teach a series of projects where all the content – math, science, social studies, English, and maybe even digital media – are integrated in the projects.   I have described it to others as Projects-Not-Classes.  We’ll have the same group of seniors all day.     Megan’s description is more apt, I think.   She says, “It’s like elementary school, for seniors”.
This blog is meant to be chronicle, sounding board, and sharing space.   This year is experimental, so intrepid we must be, and I want to record what we do.   I’ll be posting some of our thinking, planning, philosophizing about education, etc etc etc, all in service of creating and teaching this course.  These courses?   See?  We already need to adjust our colloquialisms.   
Maybe I should rename the blog, “The Year of Adjustments”.

Finally – I should mention that this was a post that wrote right at the start of the school year, but only now am I getting around to creating the actual blog and publishing it.   We are seven weeks into the school year.  That’s pretty indicative of the intensity of the work thus far – but there’s some good stuff coming in the next couple of blogs.