Archive for October, 2016

So, I’ve been thinking about collaboration. Sometimes you work so hard to get some particular collaboration going, set the ground work, spend lots of time meeting, work out elaborate schedules, etc. Other times, the project just falls into your lap or appears fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead.

Yesterday, I received an email from a new colleague in the lower school, subject line: Ancient Sumer. Do you not get emails with that subject line?

Hi Wendy,

We are going to begin our unit on Ancient Sumer.  I was planning on breaking the class into 6 groups and each group will research a different topic.  They will then have to create 2-3 artifacts that pertain to their topic and we are going to create a class museum.  Would there be a way that each group could print one of their artifacts on the 3D printer?

Let me know your thoughts!

I jumped at the idea. First of all, I used to teach that content, so I have a strange fondness for it, given that Ancient Sumer is otherwise an unusual favorite topic. Anyway, I started replying right away with details about the software we use, how we might have a class account to navigate the issue students under 13, and how 3D printing can go awry.

When 3D Prints go wrong. (CCO image by me)

When 3D Prints go wrong. (CCO image by me)

Then, a different idea popped into my head, and I switched gears mid-email.

Or, here’s another idea. My digital fabrication classes are getting pretty good at designing. Your students could make drawings or models of the artifacts and meet with my students (could be virtually by Skype or whatever) and my students could do the designing in the software. I have a few students who are really pretty good at it. Would the 5th graders like being able to “order” a piece? It might highlight the need for clear description and communication skills.

Well a few more emails and we were set. I am so excited.

I told one of my sections today that some 5th graders were going to be hiring them to design artifacts. I forgot to use air quotes when I said hiring, and there was some initial discussion of money changing hands, but I set them straight on their pro bono situation.

There are several things I love about this idea. First, it is an interesting way to have meaningful cross-division interaction. As a Prek-12 school on two campuses, we always want to build connections between students in our lower school and those in our middle and upper schools. Second, it is a real project. There are real-live students with a real-life need for these 3D-printed objects. My students will be able to see the museum exhibit that they contribute work to. Finally, if some of my students are considering taking our Engineering course in later years, this is a project is a great preparation or trial.

I can’t wait to get started.

(CCO Public domain image) My driftwood pile is already getting mixed in with my rocks and shells from elsewhere.

(CCO Public domain image) My driftwood pile is already getting mixed in with my rocks and shells from elsewhere.

So, I’ve been thinking more about the Project Zero conference (Learning Together: Leading Together) I attended a few weeks ago in Washington, DC. (I already wrote a brief post about this conference.) One of the final speakers,Project Zero researcher Tina Blythe, talked about finding your driftwood–that piece, that nugget to take back to your classroom and your practice. Well, I brought back a lot more than that. I will admit that I am a collector at heart and bring things back from pretty much anywhere.

Here’s a list of key ideas I am holding onto. The list got kind of long, once I started writing. That’s the way it is with a good conference.


The global outlook at the school and in discussions about art was noticeably different. I am thinking a lot about the potential for being more global, or maybe just more outward looking, as the ‘why’ for the interdisciplinary work my school is investigating. I’m not sure why it felt so different; it’s not as if we don’t discuss the world at my school. We do. I suspect that a lot of the difference was the international participants. Even though this is an area that is hard to quantify, I was struck by it almost immediately. Plus, I am definitely going to look into the Out of Eden Learn project where “walking parties” join journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek as he walks 21,000 miles retracing the spread of humans across the planet.


There was a lot of talk about the need to slow down and recognize the time it takes to think and wrestle with ideas. (David Perkins from Project Zero spoke about this, but others also referenced this need to slow down to think.) Thinking critically about complex ideas is easier said than done; we need to recognize this and help students enter and identify parts of the thinking process. In addition, we need to be aware of when we are taking thinking shortcuts (which we will need to do sometimes in the interest of time and return on investment), and what those shortcuts mean. One of the things I am thinking about with this is homework and quantity of homework. Are we assigning thoughtful work or just work? If it’s just work, what’s the point? All it does is get in the way of spending time really wrestling with something that is substantive. 

UNDERCURRENT (in a good way, not in a creepy way) of USE OF TOPICAL WORLD EVENTS

While this wasn’t THE focus for any session I attended, it a given in a lot of the work showcased. This connects with the global piece above. I saw a lot of evidence of effective use of very current events (spread of Zika, refugee crisis, etc) to focus class investigation. This kind of study necessitates an interdisciplinary approach as well as slowing down to learn about the issue from many vantage points. Victory! In this area we also saw evidence of student directed learning. Maybe this was in connection to events that were being studied, but there seemed to be a lot of this. It dovetails nicely with a lot of conversations we have been at my school.


This is a big Project Zero thing (Making Thinking Visible) and something that really interests me. As a former elementary/middle school teacher, using graphic organizers, color coding information, making charts and graphs is right up my alley. What I notice is that this kind of work often fades away in high school settings. These strategies are frequently seen as the supports that are used until students can just write about all of this in a paper. However, with complex ideas, it’s important, at any age, to break pieces apart, gather, group, and regroup information. The tyranny of text is real, in my opinion. Text is not always the best format or at least not the only format. The idea that we can support students in deep, slow critical thinking without helping to make thinking patterns visible is unrealistic. This works directly in support of deeper, more interdisciplinary, global study. 


At conferences there is often a feeling of teachers as a learning community. The people who attend are there to learn. However, another thing that was on display at the conference was schools hosting Exhibitions of Learning. These might be students displays but also might be teacher displays. I loved this idea that learning was on display by all members of the school community. In the session on teacher displays, the format was that teachers made 3-fold science boards, just like students do for science fairs. Teachers share an idea that they tried to implement, their results, and reflections. Others give them feedback on their work as the tour the learning fair. This was a big take away for me. I love to talk with colleagues about teaching ideas. However, I have my regulars with whom I talk. This exhibition of learning is a great idea for sharing across disciplines and promoting a culture of continued growth.

Finally, I was impressed by the seriousness with which WISC (Washington International School) went about incorporating Project Zero ideas and work into their community. Once they decided this would important school-wide, they committed to spending serious money and time with PZ researchers in their school for 2 years. They view it as a significant commitment; one they acknowledge they are still working to realize. 

Phew. That’s a lot of drift wood.

So, Ive been thinking about student ownership of and engagement in class discussion. I teach a section of senior English (the course is called Good Reads), and I do not want to lecture or have a forced march through each page of the books we read.

When I taught 5th grade, I did a lot of work with my class on gradually being more independent in discussions. I had all year to work on this. We started with much more teacher led discussions, did a lot of commenting on a blog for homework to get ready for discussion (wow did this improve the level of discourse!), moved to round table “Great Books” style discussions (teacher does not answer questions, only asks questions), then to students leading group discussion on the blog, and finally to students leading very small in person discussions. It was a lot of work to make that transition happen, but we did usually get there.

In high school, I think those of us who teach discussion based classes, sometimes imagine that students will just take ownership of discussions, be involved, see the bigger picture. (I have a vivid imagination and also like to imagine that there is time in the week for me to do all my work, have lovely dinner table conversations with my family over delicious, home-cooked meals, read for pleasure, exercise, and make art. HA!)

Here are a few things that I find get in the way of student ownership and engagement in discussion:

  • Other classes! It turns out students have work to do in other classes too and can’t devote all their time or energy to my reading. What?!
  • Bells and set periods. To do this well, I would like to have time to debrief, discuss not just the content and skills of English class, but also the skills and habits that lead to good discussion. 48 minutes goes by in a flash. By the time everyone arrives, we are down to 44. And, the big kids can have longer conversations once they get going, which is great. It leaves less time for that important reflecting work.
  • The reading is more complex. If students are going to be in charge of the discussion, the content has to be at a “take charge level” which is probably lower than a “listen and understand” level. (These are very technical terms.)
  • Grades. Ugh.

So, nothing on the list above is going away. I am forging ahead.

Last year I tried using some of the literature circle roles in small groups with choice books (I wrote about the set up and the entire experiment.) We did discuss what I was looking for in advance; however, it was more about the different jobs. Leading up to the small group discussions, I made a point to call out when I was dong one or the other job in the course of our discussion, but since the literature circle format (jobs etc) is not necessarily familiar to students, the jobs piece was too forced. The discussions themselves were mixed. Sometimes better than others. It was ok, but as I am thinking about it now, we had not practiced enough in a bigger group, and most importantly I did not follow up on the roles and expectations of the group. There ended up being too many competing interests. That’s on me.

Back to this year.

We are reading a number of books, but I decided that The Catcher in the Rye was perfect for student groups to lead discussions. First of all, I think it falls into the “take charge level” in terms of difficulty. We are also not worrying about the readers workshop/literature circle jobs so much as what makes for a quality discussion. Together we generated a bit of a list and I added some. Ultimately we ended up with this document, although the first time around I forgot the specific pages part.

Before early groups were in charge, I email the group to remind them of the general outline, that they can rearrange the room however they want, and offer myself to support however they need.

The first discussion was fine. Several people were absent and the group hadn’t gotten the “find a passage” reminder. They had some good questions ready and wanted to engage the group. I passed them a note part way through to encourage them to find a way to quiet one person to give others room to talk. However, they did not enter into the conversation much themselves. I later realized that this might be them copying what I do when we have a particular type of discussion. I do it because, as I have written about before, when I join in, everyone looks to me. So, before the second group I made sure to clarify that they did not have to be, and should not be, as removed.

The second group went last week. They planned a task to get the group going. It was a good opening option, but the class hung back. I finally jumped in with an answer/passage. This got things rolling. The group did a good job with questions and bigger themes as well as having particular passages that someone read aloud, and we then discussed. In addition, they managed to invite some quieter students into the conversation. Their discussion had legs.

I noticed that the groups have both chosen to have us sit around a big table, which is fine. Both groups have also mostly just lead discussions, no particular activities. So, at the end of discussion two, I reminded folks that an activity for part of the time was an option too.

Today, the third group guided our discussion. They had a theme around which they focussed our attention. It related to the section they were tasked with discussing, but also the earlier sections. The group of three took turns, engaged with the group, and had particular passages ready. The topic led the class to branch out and connect the book to themselves and what is going on in the world. Again, several of the more quiet students joined in.

Needless to say, I am very happy with how things are going. Not only are the students stepping up and coming prepared, I am able to participate in the conversation as another class member (almost). Maybe I can join in because we have other, assigned leaders. I’m not sure. The more I think about it though, I think that there are a number of things that have contributed to our success.

  • We talked about the parts of a discussion and made a list of what the groups were responsible for in advance.
  • I have been able to do a tiny bit of debriefing with the entire class after (sometimes days after) each discussion.
  • The content, in this case The Catcher in the Rye, is at a “student ownership” level.
  • They are having good conversations, which leads to more people being involved, which leads to better conversations etc. It’s a good cycle.

Now if only I did not have to figure out how to grade this.

So, I’ve been thinking about the digital fabrication class that I teach. It meets twice in a seven-day rotation schedule and is ungraded. I have two sections of 9 students each; we have three printers. Sounds like a very reasonable situation. Until it is not reasonable.

The first project for class is a catapult. Students have to design a catapult in parts and have it throw a ping-pong ball 10 feet. For a while, everyone is just designing. Then they start sending me the files fast and furious. The big, fast printer wasn’t working at the beginning. Ok. The other two are not fast, but they were working. And then there was one.

With a back log of files to print, I had to regroup.

Lucky for me I had an idea based on what happened with one student before the total mayhem began. One student had a base and an arm, but had not figured the space for the arm to move within the base correctly. But, it was a lot of printed material. In an effort to gain something from this version, I suggested he try to use one or both piece in some other configuration. He turned his base upside down, grabbed a lot of rubber bands and got to work. He may have used an arm from other student’s project. The result was not pretty, but it worked. I affectionately named it the Frankenstein monster catapult.

So, when my next class came in a few days later when we were down to one printer, I announced it was a Frankenstein make-it-work day. I told students to take what they had, use whatever cast-off prints they found around, look for other materials, and get that ping-pong ball 10 feet. The students went to work. Some used popsicle sticks to create missing pieces, others rubber-banded all sorts of whatever together.

There was a flurry of making. Students were more creative in their ideas. There was gluing, drilling, hacking. And, many ping-pong balls were flung. Energy was up.

By the next class, I will have more pieces printed. We are back up to two, maybe three printers. However, I think I will just call a halt to more printing.

There was also a design component to this challenge, which our “make it work” moment did not address. I may take one more period to have students consider the design and look of their creation and make a plan for a next version. However, I don’t think we will print anymore.

It turned out the constraint of the printers being out of commission forced the students to think more creatively, which was the point anyway. Given the numbers and printer limitations, I may put students in groups next time. Groups would cut down on the items to print and force some discussion and collaborating, which in a class that includes students from several grade levels, would be helpful.

Silver lining found.

Update: As soon as I published this, I read John Spencer’s post about duct tape and cardboard. I am definitely thinking about how to start my next project with these materials and THEN move to designing and 3D printing.

So, I’ve been thinking about professional development. My partner in tech coaching crime, @TeacherDebra, and I have been on the look out for some new opportunities. (I wrote about our desire to “Escape our Bubble”.)

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-5-11-18-pmWell, I did it. I attended the Project Zero: Learning Together, Leading Together conference in Washington, DC last weekend. It made for a jam-packed weekend since the conference started bright and early on Friday and went through Sunday mid day. I will write about some of the specific sessions later in the month.

The two key things for me were going with colleagues (some different colleagues than I have attended workshops with before) and going to a conference that had a different focus and therefore different attendees (I don’t think I saw anyone of my ‘usual suspects’ from conferences.)

Attending conferences with conferences as a team is totally worth the multiple registration costs, in my opinion. (see here) All those new ideas at conferences are great, but it’s helpful to have a home team person to help filter the ideas. Amy Poehler has written about the way women can make each other feel bad about motherhood stuff, and her advice is this: “Good for her! Not for me. That is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again.” I think this is a great mantra in so many areas of life. It’s great to hear about some amazing thing another school is doing, but it may not be right for my school. However, with the help of my trusty colleagues, I can think about how just about every session or workshop can offer up some nugget of wisdom. In fact one of the last speakers, Project Zero researcher Tina Blythe, mentioned just this idea when she suggested that we each needed to find our own “drift wood” to take home from the conference. Tina Blythe encouraged us to take this drift wood home, combine it with the other ideas at our own schools, and make something new. My traveling colleagues and I are planning a debriefing session or two over snacks–another thing I love.

I also loved having an entirely new group of people and ideas to think about. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing my regular PLN people at conferences and catching up with them in real life. But, it was exciting to find all sorts of new people to learn from. Of course, as an introvert, I didn’t meet a lot of them, but I made a few connections, and I’ve been adding people to my twitter lists. So, I’ll be getting to know them slowly and virtually. Plus,  finding this other community is awesome. The group was much more international than a lot of the events I attend and, given the topics, that fact added so much to the experience for me. Between the global piece and the thinking routines piece, there was so much to take away. Luck for me my Evernote notebook can accommodate a lot of drift wood.

On the ride home, I talked with one colleague. We were energized by our experience, even though it was a full weekend, and we were headed to school the next day for a day long professional development day on another topic. We were wondering why everyone doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to do this kind of thing. Our school is very generous in funding professional development both during the school year and in the summer.

I am excited to become a part of this new-to-me community, to debrief over snacks, and to make good use of my drift wood.