Purposeful PBL

Yesterday I walked into Mr. Rooke’s room to do something menial and simple. I walked away awed and inspired, and with a sense that we really are making a difference in our schools.

Mr. Rooke, our very deserving Teacher Of the Year, has a very non-traditional way of teaching Spanish. I’ve never seen his students filling out worksheets. I’ve never heard his students complain about unfair amounts of work, boring lessons, or tough tests. Mr. Rooke’s students go on to perform outstandingly in advanced Spanish classes, genuinely like Mr. Rooke, and treat him with the utmost respect. Mr. Rooke embeds language learning into study units that are of personal interest to the students, and that is what we discussed when I was in his room yesterday.

Students have been learning about Central America through movies, novels, and classroom discussions. They have learned about the role of poverty in the civil wars of the 1980′s, and the effects of intervention by outside powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union. Recently, they have been discussing MS-13, a violent gang that traces its origins to refugees from the civil war in El Salvador.

So, as the students are learning Spanish, they are also becoming aware of recent cultural and political events that are not covered in traditional Social Studies classes, and they are becoming very aware of how interconnected our world is. They are also learning about real people involved in events, not just learning about events in an abstract manner. This personal connection is crucial.

To reinforce these connections and foster empathy, Mr. Rooke has added another dimension to the learning. He has funds in an account with Kiva.org that the kids will award to applicants for microfinancing. To decide who gets the funds, students have selected loan applicants to research.  They are using Explain Everything and other tools on their iPads to prepare Shark Tank-style presentations for their peers. Then, as a class, they will vote on the top applicants and award the funds to them. When the loans are repaid, probably next year, the next group of students will be ready to evaluate a new set of loan applicants.

This project embodies everything I’ve always imagined for our G21 initiative. It is about the kind of learning that is not for the test. They are learning about people who live in places they have never even heard of. They are learning about the reality of life in these places. They are becoming aware of their privileged lives as citizens of the United States, and of the power and responsibility that comes with that privilege. The kids will always be able to point to this time in their lives when, as a class, they made someone’s life better. 

UPDATE: If you would like to help the students fund additional Kiva micro loans, make a donation at their GoFundMe site.

Learning On the James

This week we celebrate Earth Day, and our 6th grade students have spent the past few weeks learning about wildlife and water quality on the James River. Last Friday I joined the last group to participate in a field trip to Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.

We had perfect weather for outdoor learning, and the docents did an excellent job of engaging all students in learning. From sturgeon to solar energy, we learned about research, restoration, and protection. We discussed Kepone and its effects 40 years after news of health problems emerged. We learned about LEED building certifications and how they help keep Presquile clean and comfortable. Most of all, we had engaging conversations about the importance of the James River for all of us.

Over the next few days, I will be working with the 6th grade team to incorporate what we brought back from our field trip into our Earth Day celebration plans.

Presquile, a former peninsula, is now an island and a wildlife refuge.

Learning about blue catfish, an invasive bottom-feeding species.

An adult Chironomid fly. Its aquatic larvae are an important source of food for fish.

Pulling in a net, hoping for fish.

Pink and green grasshopper hiding in the tall grass.

Active, Engaged Math

“Well, of course you can do that in (fill any subject). Math is different.”

“I can’t use that tool if it does not have a built-in equation editor.”

“I don’t have time for that. My students need to practice solving math problems.”

I can hear these things a million times. I still don’t believe them. Here’s proof that we can have relevant, real-world, engaging learning activities in math class. And these are just three examples.

Cathy Yenca’s blog

Robert Kaplinsky’s lesson ideas

Mr. Orr’s blog


As Captain Picard Might Say…

When I tweet, I feel like I’m talking to myself and my words will simply come back to me in perpetuity as Timehop entries. Yesterday, my name was mentioned in a tweet and I got notifications about it all afternoon.


Dr. Gretz picked up that quote when I was discussing Phillip Schlechty’s levels of engagement. What I was saying to my audience was that assuming students are engaged because the classroom is quiet and everyone looks busy is not a good idea. Until you see what the outcome of the work is, you can’t know whether the kids were engaged or not. It is not just about observing the behavior. When students are truly engaged, they care about doing the best they can, not just meeting the minimum requirements set forth in a rubric. If students are constantly asking if the paragraph they wrote is “long enough” and you keep sending them back to their desk, they might be busy, but they are not engaged.

I’ve been pointing to Schlechty’s work for a while when talking to teachers in Goochland because, while we might know what engagement is, he puts it into words that can help teachers reflect upon their practice.

I believe engagement is made up of two separate components.  The first is the relationship between the teacher and the students. If you want your students to be engaged, you have to know them and you have to get along with them. You don’t have to be their friend, but you cannot lead students in learning if you have an adversarial relationship with them. The relationship between the teacher and the students is the main ingredient in the mix that makes up the classroom environment, and a toxic environment discourages collegiality and collaboration, which are so important to learning.

The second component in engagement is thoughtful and carefully planned instruction that is accessible and relevant to all the learners in the group. If tasks are too difficult, students will be frustrated, and if tasks are too easy, students will be bored. Allowing for some choice and creative flexibility lets students find the right combination of their own skills and the challenge in the task to be successful. Notice that there are tasks for the students to carry out. Instruction should be an activity in which the students are doing something, not passively listening or watching.

So how do we get here? Stop lecturing. Embrace project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, plan student-centered activities. Need help? Remember I’m just an email away.




Taking Risks

This morning I returned from VSTE and hit the ground running. When I stepped into Ms. Kass’s room to say hello, she showed me the projects the students were developing on their iPads. A few minutes later, I stopped by Ms. Potter’s office to let her know I was back in the building. The first thing she asked was, “Did you see the amazing stuff Ms. Kass and her students are doing?” Of course, I had just been there. Here is an administrator’s take on our iPad program and the learning environments it is helping us create.


The Quiet Kids

I recently received this link via my mom, who identified as a quiet student. She reminded me that I was quiet, too. The article suggests teachers think about quiet students and takes a few positions—seven in fact. She also writes:

The word “teacher” is a verb, not a noun. Hence this year, I encourage all teachers to break the barriers that separate them and their students and to create an inviting atmosphere where no student should hold back being themselves for fear of rejection. Teachers should aim to bring an accommodating atmosphere to the classroom where both extroverts and introverts can share their ideas and reach their potential without feeling pressurized. Your students might not thank you in- person, or write it in a card or note, but some day they may express their gratitude in an acceptance speech and thank you for giving the wallflower a chance to shine.

  1. Being quiet doesn’t make us any less smart.
  2. We are not a problem that you need to solve.
  3. The feeling that comes with [the] hearing the phrase, “Speak up! I can’t hear you.”
  4. Group projects can get really stressful for us.
  5. We are not going to speak when we have nothing to say.
  6. We have a personality.
  7. Just because we’re quiet, doesn’t mean you have to give up on us.

I thought I’d weigh in because I don’t agree with everything she says.

First, teacher is a noun.

Second, on problems needing solving. I agree with this, because I know some people are naturally extroverted and some are naturally introverted. You can move in and out and beyond those labels, however, too. If a student is so quiet that their thoughts are never heard or their opinions never voiced, then that’s a problem. We can help students, and it doesn’t necessarily mean we make them into loud, outspoken students.

Third, if a student is a soft talker, and they cannot hear, we might want to be sensitive to why they are soft talkers, but at some point we have to develop their communication skills. Aside from a comedy sketch on Seinfeld, sometimes there are situations where we have to step out of our comfort zones.

Fourth, group projects can be stressful for some, and not a preferred method for learning. Yet learning to work with others is an important skill. Teachers should encourage group projects, but be sensitive that some students need help transitioning to this style of work. Using self-selecting groups or groups composed with students with similar interests, learning styles, or learning preferences, might be a good idea.

Fifth, our teachers should set a classroom climate where students can speak and be heard when they have something to say. Sometimes this may not be out loud, but through private journaling, online discussions, or in group discussions that are less intimidating. Students should be encouraged to take positions, to think critically, and we need to develop these skills. And yes, not talking a lot isn’t a sign of danger or concern.

Lastly, I hope no teacher would give up on a student because they don’t hear a lot from them in class. Instead, I know our teachers know how important it is to develop strong relationships with kids and in that, we have to remember that each relationship will be unique and develop on its own velocity vector. We might really connect with some students through talking, through an online chat, through glances and praise, or through written feedback. I’m probably leaving out at least half a dozen other ways we can begin to establish positive relationships with students to show that we care, we want to help them with their goals in life and in school, and that the way they are–either quiet or even exceedingly talkative–is just fine.

How engaged is engaged?

Over the weekend I encountered two infographics on Twitter that related to a conversation I had with Mrs. Cantor on Friday about some of the theoretical models we’re looking at to help us with our one-to-one rollout, including SAMR, TPACK, LoTI, HEAT, yadda, yadda, and yadda. On their own these models (on technology integration, twenty-first century learning, engaged instruction, etc.) might look good and make sense. However in a larger context, a real-world one, they do not necessarily play well together. Central in our discussion was the role of engagement, which is, be definition, a big concept. You’ve no doubt heard from a lot of us that we want engaged students in our schools. Dr. Geyer has shared with me that this is a two-part construct: it’s developed through our relationships with students and also the design of instruction to be actually, engaging.

One of the best-known names in the field of student engagement is Phillip Schlechty. Both Dr. Gretz and Dr. Geyer and I have consulted his work before, for instance, when developing the walk-through look-fors for student engagement. But I like even more Schlechty’s distinctions of 5 levels of student engagement.

Levels of Student Engagement

This infographic by Dr. Rios is more comprehensive, and goes further to distinguish what an “engaged classroom” might look like, with a mixture of students at different engagement levels. I like that and know that is realistic. Anytime we attempt to think about “taking a temperature reading” for engagement, it’s one moment in time, and is a result not only of the content of a lesson, the relationship teachers have with students, but also the well-being of a student, their emotional state, and their level of anxiety (or interest in) the current activity. Furthermore, we cannot be fooled that engagement is a behavioral construct alone. To really try and measure engagement might be a foolhardy pursuit, when it is, at heart, a metacognitive state. I do think we can work with students to be mindful of being engaged, to recognize what it’s like when you’re engaged, and try and maximize the opportunities to foster engagement. We can do a lot to develop positive relationships with learners and designing instruction, for me, is all about personalization. I’ll save that for a future post.

But I did like the labels and created the above graphic to make these distinctions more clear. How might we describe the engagement levels of some of our students? Are they interested? Committed? Where is their attention?

Engagement, Hope, and Caring

How engaged are you with students in your classroom? Do you talk with your students, or do you talk at your students? Do you think your students believe you care about them? How important is any of this?

Goochland High School participated in the Gallup Student Poll last fall. Those of us in charge of logistics rolled our eyes, of course. How many surveys will we have to manage this school year? Despite my eye-rolling, I am glad we participated. It seems there is a lot going on with the data collected at the time. I do not have time to analyze the data myself, but there are smart people doing that, and other smart people writing about the important bits for us. KQED’s Mind/Shift blog has republished a blog post by Anya Kamenetz originally posted at the Hechinger Report.

 Gallup found that students who agreed with the following two statements: 1. “My school is committed to building the strengths of each student” and 2. “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future” were 30 times more likely to be engaged.

Our mission statement expressly states that we are to unlock the potential of every student. Our strategic plan has an entire section dedicated to engagement. And at every faculty meeting at GHS, Mr. Newman encourages us to care for our students, to get to know them and understand them a bit better. He certainly leads by example. Every morning as I walk in the door, Mr. Newman is surrounded by students waiting to talk to him. He knows their names and even a few details of what might be going on with their families.

When you take the time to know your students, it shows you care. If you care about them now, it is more likely you will care about them in the future. If you don’t care about them now, when you see them as often as you do, it is quite certain you don’t care what will happen to them after they leave your classroom. When someone cares, there is hope.

The Gallup survey also attempts to measure hope to find out how it affects student outcomes.

Gallup researchers have found in peer-reviewed studies that their “hope” measure was a better predictor of grades in college than SATs, ACTs or high school GPA. In a third study, students’ levels of hope accounted for almost half of the variation in math achievement and at least one-third of their variation in reading and science scores.

Yeah, that’s nice. How do hope and engagement affect my SOL scores? I don’t know. Maybe you shouldn’t care, either. As Ms. Kamenetz wrote in a post all about metrics in education.

Tracking outcomes is more complex than reporting test scores. It’s also more relevant.

Engaging Students

last week I got to spend time in Ms. Rogers’s Chemistry class. I really liked the way Ms. Rogers engaged the students in the discussion of chemical reactions.

After presenting some background information about a reaction she was going to demonstrate, Ms. Rogers asked kids to make predictions and write them in their notebook. Then Ms. Rogers mixed chemicals in a flask and let the kids observe. She let the students think of their own explanations and asked questions that made them think. Why do you say that? What would happen if instead we…? What does that tell you about this reaction?

Ms. Rogers also gave students interesting examples from the real world. Have you ever heard of blue people? Yes, people who have bluish skin and don’t have to pain themselves to go on stage.

Maybe students might have benefitted from hands-on activities where they mixed the chemicals themselves. However, this is sometimes dangerous or cost-prohibitive. But, by having a meaningful discussion where students think of answers rather than being given answers is a great way to approach chemistry.

To end the class, Ms. Rogers carried out one more experiment. She generated hydrogen by dipping sodium hydroxide wrapped in aluminum foil in water. She collected the hydrogen in a balloon, then held it over an open flame to watch it burn. It made quite an impression.

Here is a video clip of the explosion slowed down to 10% of its original speed.


Hydrogen Balloon from Bea Cantor on Vimeo.

Reflection on Zen

In full disclosure, I was asked to read Reynolds’ Presentation Zen for a course I am taking on data presentation. Other texts that came recommended were those by Nathan Yau and Edward Tufte. I like the topics all three folks focus upon in their writing. Zen is probably the best to speak of, and perhaps not for the most obvious of reasons.

So, to paraphrase how the book came about, and before that, simply the idea, picture a guy riding on a train. He happens to be in Japan, where they serve food different than what you’d probably get on a train here in the U.S. (go figure). He’s had a fulfilling day, and he pulls out his bento box meal. He looks outside, and sees a majestic mountain–Mt. Fuji. So far, you can probably picture all of this: sun setting with a mountain outside, a fast-moving train, business people around him, and he pulls out his meal, a bento box. You’ve likely seen them at a Japanese restaurant.

He looks over and sees one of those business men looking at a handout (education parlance creeping in) of Power Point slides. They are chock-full of images and bulleted text, and the guy looks awful. We can’t be sure why he looks tired and upset, but Reynolds assumes its the tedium of reading through a “deck” on paper of poorly-prepared slides.

Inspiration hits. “Presentations,” it comes to Reynolds, “should be like my bento box. It’s beautiful, and everything is in its place, and it’s just enough. It won’t over-stuff you, or cause stress. Presentations need to take on the zen of the bento box.”

And that’s the gist of the book.

So, Reynolds prescribes to not do all the things I feel I shy away from doing now: using clip art, using bullets, using small text, using illegible charts and tables, etc. He also believes the presentation is the speaker. Slidware, such as Power Point or Keynote, is there to support the speaker, who ultimately, should be a story teller.

Yes. I know this, and who knows how I assimilated these ideas years ago. It probably was through Reynolds, his blog, and those who liked what he had to say.

But I got more out of this than I thought. He shares the ideas of Ben Zander, whose TED Talk I loved. To wit:

Look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you are doing it… if the eyes are not shining you have to ask yourself a question… Who am I being when I am not seeing a connection in the eyes of others?

He’s talking about engagement and when you know you have it. Reynolds talks about rows of chairs (in a lecture hall) not lending itself to engagement. Yes! He is a fan of Steve Jobs and found a reason why he was a successful speaker: you knew he believed what he was talking about. He was authentic.

And he talks about stimulating curiousity in your audience. For an educator, that is your students.

the problem today in many schools is that the methods of instruction do a poor job of nurturing students’ natural curiosity. This is nothing new. Einstein said many years ago that ‘it is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiousity of inquiry.’

He goes on to say quote Kenichiro Mogi, a brain scientist in Japan. “By forgetting how to be curious we are losing something really valuable. Because curiousity is the single most important trait that brought us here today.”

Chapter 10 is the one on engagement and it opens with the photo of a classroom. Reynolds says “We praise the best teachers for being able to engage their students. With or without multimedia, engagement is key.” Reynolds goes on to suggest that emotions are the key to winning an audience’s engagement.

Finally (no not finally, there’s more good wisdom in the book than what I’m rehashing here) there’s a mention of Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want to Write which speaks of finding a way to maximize your creativity. I believe creativity is at the heart of all good education. Reynolds writes:

Harnessing this creative energy and being fully present is more of an intuitive activity, not an intellectual one. Brenda compares this kind of creativity and connection to a wonderful musical performance.

And with that, I’ll leave you with two TED Talks. The first from Benjamin Zander, which I referenced above, and the second about the importance of creativity (and I believe too, curiousity).

How important is passion?

When we speak about “engagement,” especially as it pertains to us in our work as educators, or in the tasks of students as learners, it’s obvious that the word can mean so many different things.

  • Am I having fun?
  • Am I paying attention?
  • Am I focused?
  • Am I dedicated to the task?
  • Have I just become more curious?
  • Am I being creative?
  • Do I want to speak and participate in a discussion?
  • Do I have something to contribute to the group?

We don’t talk as much about passion. In one sense, we hope many of our educators who work with kids do have a passion for the job or vocation. Just as you would like your teachers to have a passion for teaching, you’d hope your school leaders had (a) passion for… school leadership. And we could even say that the goals go beyond teaching and leading. You could find yourself in this profession because you simply want to make the world a more interesting and better place, and you feel the best way you can do that is through educating young people.

piano strings

But what about students’ passions in life? Is it our job (as educators) to worry so much about that? Or is passion something best left to a student’s parents?

We can talk about, as I already have, passion for a profession. But what about passions for other things? If we were to make a list of the passions of people we know, it would no doubt be varied and long. But what about some of our own? Certainly the list would be manageable?

I am willing to bet that if we could honestly list our passions, and then list how we spend our days, evenings, and weekends, we’d see one of several things.

  1. We spend a lot of time doing the things we have a passion for, and we’re happy.
  2. We don’t spend enough time doing the things we’re passionate about, and we long for more of it.
  3. We don’t spend much time at all doing the things we’re passionate about, and we’re miserable.
  4. We’re having a hard time coming up with what we are passionate about, and darn it, we’re not that happy doing what we’re doing, either.

I believe there is a type of magnetic relationship between passion and engagement. I would like to see more people saying #1 above, that they’re happy, and they’re doing the things for which they have passion.

One of my passions in life has been music. I am that general about it; I like listening to it, I like making it. There are many days I wish I was simply better at making it, as my love for making music has somewhat informed me that playing a major concerto on a stage with an orchestra must be fun. I’m never going to do that, but I can imagine having the sound around you, the technique to play overcome the challenge, and to hear the applause, must all be very awesome. It would be engaging.

While I believe a lot of different things may cause us to become engaged in an (educational) activity, I’d wager that one of those things, perhaps quite significant in comparison to the others we could name, would be passion.

Following your passion slavishly is not likely a good idea, however. I’m not saying we should all find our passions and devote ourselves to them shamelessly. Some passions could be harmful, destructive, or lacking in pragmatism. So…

We have a very definite passion about something, but following it leads to strife: either it’s too much of a good thing, or we’re simply misguided by the fact that we’re not very good at doing what we’re passionate about.

There’s a couple things I’ll say to conclude about this. First, the fact that #4 could exist for any kid growing up, to me, is sad. One of the major goals of growing up ought to be finding the things that inspire us, that instill passion.

Second, we ought to have opportunities to develop those passions into marketable skills. Every passion doesn’t need to be our vocation. If I had a passion for riding in speedboats, I could meet that a number of ways, including becoming a professional racer, or by becoming a successful businessman and buying a boat for weekend cruises. A K-12 education may not ever fully prepare us for transforming our passion into a career, but it should certainly give us opportunities to develop towards that goal, or else learn that the goal is misguided.

Third, and finally, our passions help define who we are. And if that really is true, then those same passions are a huge key to unlocking our engagement. Those passions will inform my values and my choices, and will help me to put myself into pleasing situations and take myself out of painful ones. Engagement, I believe, is a mental switch. I’m more likely to engage in something when it leads to what I’m passionate about. Conversely, I’m more likely to “tune out” when the activity doesn’t lead to my passion.

Which brings me back to #4. How engaged can I ever be, if I’m not even sure what I have a passion for? It speaks to me that schools should be:

  • concerned with the concepts of passion and engagement,
  • primarily focused on offering a variety of different types of opportunities in learning that reflect the interests and curiosity of young minds,
  • helping kids develop the skills and competencies in the things they want to try.

I’m being totally philosophical here, without citing any experts or research, but if any of this resonates with you, do at least this: Find out what the kids around you are passionate about and figure out what you (if you’re an educator) are doing about it. What might become of this challenge?

  • You strike up a conversation about the child’s interest, strengthening your relationship with that student;
  • You change a lesson plan to accommodate a passion;
  • You modify a lesson with differentiated options, so that students are not all doing the same thing;
  • You provide students time to think about who they are;
  • You talk more to parents, in an effort to try and learn more about their student;
  • You exercise leadership in joining a school committee to offer extra-curricular enrichment;
  • You take the time to share with kids at least one of your passions in life in an effort for them to better know you (improving relationships.)
  • We reflect on who we are, and what we’re about, and self-correct.

Piano Keys

Peer Presentations: How Can We Make Them More Meaningful?

As I wander in and out of classrooms, I am always thrilled to stumble upon student presentations. I enjoy this time and I think the students do, too, as they often want to present AGAIN if I enter AFTER they’ve already presented. (I just LOVE that!!)

One thing I’ve noticed, however, is that the “audience” is sitting idle in some classrooms I’ve visited during student presentations. Sometimes the audience members need to be quieted and other times they are just plain doing nothing.

And I wonder… Why is it that they are permitted to do nothing? Isn’t a student presentation a learning experience for all?

I taught high school for ten years and during that time, hundreds of students presented to me. In the early years, my idle students did nothing except lose points for not listening, be reprimanded for being inattentive, and/or continue to be shushed. This does nothing to aid in learning or even foster accountability!

As I progressed from a green newbie to a ripened veteran, I revised my teaching practice and student expectations. The major theme I kept in mind was ENGAGEMENT! I mean…for goodness sakes, I expected my students to be attentive and engaged when I was speaking, so why shouldn’t they be attentive and engaged when their peers were?

Engagement is KEY to learning. What have YOU learned while DISengaged?

Below are online resources geared to student presentations. Try giving the rubrics to your students so that they may grade their peers during presentations.

  1. Planning Student Presentations
  2. Rubrics for Grading Student Presentations
  3. Presentation Rubric

Along with the rubrics (or standing alone), you might want to have your students perform the following during peer presentations. The tasks below are easy and take minimal effort on your part!:

  1. Fill out the Presentation Target.
  2. Write a brief summary of the presentation.
  3. Draw a picture that symbolizes the presentation.
  4. Create 5 quiz questions about the presentation.
  5. Explain how the presentation relates to the classroom objective.

What Do GHS Teachers Think?

What do GHS teachers think … about engagement?  The recent publication of the Goochland Instructional Newsletter  featured short quotes from teachers on page 5 detailing what they thought about engagement.  One was from Jennifer Abbott, teacher of English at GHS.

When I asked her for her definition of student engagement, she wrote, “It’s so interesting that you should ask this because I introduced my students to Edmodo today, and I feel like the level of student engagement shot through the roof.  If a teacher can successfully engage his or her students, the majority of the battle is won in that classroom.   Engagement leads to less classroom discipline and more productive interaction between one’s peers and teacher.   Edmodo is offering just that.  It’s offering my kids a unique opportunity to interact with me and with one another in a way that they can not only understand but relate to.  They’re accomplishing the same thing that a worksheet can do, but they’re not fighting me the whole way.  They want to answer the question or complete the task.”  One way you can see her engaged ideas is through her blog. Ms. Jennifer Abbott uses active strategies to keep her students thinking, participating and writing; she enjoys the tools of technology and so do her students.

Another high school teacher, Preston Gordon, who teaches mathematics had thoughts about this subject as well: “Student engagement is the ability to provide a learning experience that allows a class to participate and enjoy instruction.   A teacher can evaluate the engagement of students by their performance in class through one-on-one questioning, group activity, class discussions, projects, along with numerous other activities that allows for student participation.  Teachers need to sell themselves, their class, and lessons everyday, so the students will have the best learning opportunity available.  I have found that being energetic and entertaining has helped me improve student engagement.”

Mr. Preston Gordon when on to say, “One of the best teachers that I have been around at GHS is Ms. Erin Yearout-Patton, and the kids love her along with her teaching methods.”  Erin is on the cover of our recent instructional newsletter.

Erin Yearout-Patton regularly presents lessons that model engaged learning.  She comes at teaching from the perspective of being a student herself.   “As educators, we too remain students, because many of us have a commitment to lifelong learning. As a student myself, I know I am engaged when the professor ends class, and I find myself wanting to continue the class discussion or activity. Sometimes, I will stay after class or email my professors because I am very interested in the concept.  As a teacher, I apply the latter to my own classes. When my students compliment the lesson, provide ideas to improve it, tell me how the lesson applies to a principle from another course, or an event in their daily life, I know I have made a connection. A more concrete example: students will send me emails or tweets on events they want to cover in class. They also send me copies of letters they write to their Congressmen, concerning legislation, and the response they receive. Last year, it was SOPA. They also enjoy bringing in political signs and banners to support their political ideas. Furthermore, I know they are engaged when I go to vote and they are working the polls, ensuring a just and fair election. This is exactly what the Class of 2012 did, thanks to our community partnership with the Registrar’s Office. Every year our students complete their Senior Projects. The Class of 2011 raised over $15,000 for charities. It will always be an honor to be a small part of the process that engages our nation’s future, our children, in creating superb and dedicated public servants!”

Finally, our secondary instructional technology resource teacher (ITRT), Bea Cantor, who helps teachers connect technology with their lessons, knows first hand what engagement looks like. “Students are engaged when they are learning by doing, when they are active in a meaningful task rather than repetitive busywork: using technology, collaborating with their peers, applying knowledge to solve problems. This engagement is most meaningful when students are aware that what they are learning is not just to pass a test, but something that will be useful somewhere beyond the classroom walls”  Bea Cantors blog reveals the many engaging lessons she assists with from the 6th through 12th grade.  She is also writing a eBook about the photography of insects.   All of us can learn more about engaging lessons from Bea Cantor’s blog, Tech Salad.

Invested… Stakeholders in Learning

In the upcoming newsletter from our schools, Explorations in Learning, one GMS teacher, Leona Barnes is quoted — “Student engagement occurs when students are actively invested in their own learning . . . they see themselves as stakeholders in their own learning.”

This statement is the tip of the iceberg for Ms. Barnes.  She is the epitome of the teacher/facilitator who works daily to keep ‘her kids’ involved in learning.   When she was asked to define engagement she wrote:  ”Tom, thanks for asking me.  It really allowed me to step back and analyze what I do with the students.”  She appears to reflect frequently about the way she teaches.  Her full statement describes her philosophy of engagement.

Definition:  From my vantage point, student engagement occurs when students are actively invested in their own learning.  In other words, at this point in the learning process, they see themselves as “stake-holders” in their own learning.  I feel like I’m in “teacher heaven” when this happens in my classroom. 

 As I was reflecting on this question, I realized that there were several strategies that I keep in mind to foster student engagement:

1.  Each unit begins with a big question.  Students have to view their learning with a sense of “wonderment.”  Giving them an opportunity to express what they would like to learn in relation to our unit engages them right at the beginning.

2.  Material is presented in small “chunks.”

3.  Students are given a variety of ways with which to work with these smaller pieces of information.

4.  Once students have mastered all of these pieces of information, they have to put it together to make sense of the whole. (Sometimes, I start with the “whole” and then we analyze the “pieces.”)

 Because the lesson was broken into smaller steps, students will arrive at #4 feeling a sense of confidence and security, so it’s easier to take risks when learning.  I’m also very careful as to what kind of feedback I give when students are engaged.  The feedback must always be stated positively, so that students will continue to feel confident and secure during this learning process.

Thanks Mrs.Leona Barnes for your exciting teaching and your visionary instructional leadership at GMS.

Learning from Tweets

David Warlick tweeted that he was watching project based learning at a middle school in Vermont.  This example included writing a script for a Wonder Years episode for the study of the 60′s era.  What a quick and easy way to connect; n this case, hearing about students engaged in a fun activity imbedded with learning!

As this blog embarks on exploring the engaged learning we hope to continue encouraging and providing in Goochland, a good source will be the tweets and links of so many experienced educators.   Another suggestion from David Warlick: TeachThought.

How do you activate the desire to learn?

I started reading a book that’s been in my library for some time, but up until now, I hadn’t had the time to read. It’s called Activating the Desire to Learn, and it seemed quite appropriate for our recent focus on relationships and student engagement. In fact, it’s perfect.

Alfie Kohn, from 1993:

Rewards for learning undermine intrinsic motivation.

Eric Jensen, from 1995:

Forget the use of rewards… Make school meaningful, relevant, and fun. Then you won’t have to bribe the students.

Sullo, the author, likes the theory by William Glasser called choice theory. It’s based on biological understanding, and tells us we have four basic psychological needs:

  • Belonging or connecting;
  • Power or competence;
  • Freedom (to make choices), and
  • Fun

One very popular quote from Sullo:

A joyless classroom never inspires students to do high-quality academic work on a regular basis.

Of the methods described later in the book, one that seemed very powerful to me was “class meetings” led by students. He also talks about the dynamics involved in bringing folks together in circles, instead of traditional classroom rows. I think if we’re going to truly address issues of student engagement with learning in our schools, we have to look for ways to:

  • further develop relationships with students to ensure they feel connected to their school community,
  • celebrate achievement and have conversations of how kids can apply newly acquired knowledge and skills,
  • give students choices about their learning and opportunities for personal development,
  • strive to make learning appropriately challenging for each student. Great learning happens between an intersection of curiosity, challenge, and confidence to succeed.

The GMS Microcosm

Goochland Middle School is a small place, but this does not mean it is lacking anything. Just today, following up on projects and working with teachers, I saw political activity, economic activity, social activity, and even foreign policy. These are all the activities fostered by our G21 framework.

First I saw the posters made by the anti-bullying brigade led by our counselor, Stacey Rainbolt. You can follow her and her #NoBullyZone campaign on Twitter.


Next I bought pencil sharpeners and pens at the student-run Eagle’s Peak store. The kids were gearing up to market their new Halloween-themed merchandise.


After lunch, I sat in a meeting with students who will be running a mock election with Mrs. Creasey (blog) to learn about the democratic process. The discussion centered around touch screens, voter fraud, and the differences between the political parties. And, as cool as I think this activity is, the best part was the interruption I had while I was in this meeting. A student interested in running for Student Council stopped by to ask about the best place to find Creative Commons images to use on his campaign poster. Awesome!

As it happens, I’m still in this meeting, and John Hendron is leading a discussion on the use of spreadsheets to analyze data. When I’m done here, I’ll be talking to Mrs. Barnes, our Spanish teacher. Her classes will be creating videos to share with students in Mexico. The students in Mexico, in turn, will send videos of their own.

Bad days are full of malfunctioning printers and missing files. Good days are full of activities that go well beyond the walls of the classroom, like today.

Is Your Main Thing the Main Thing?

Wonderful week in the life of our schools. Monday brought a variety of opportunities for professional development and collaboration. Several of our teachers enjoyed another outstanding session with Chuck at the Science Museum – we continue to be thrilled with that partnership.

Several of us enjoyed an outstanding session with Yong Zhao at the University of Richmond Thursday night. Using the backdrop of the current economic climate and historical perspectives concern education around the world, Yong challenged us to stop preparing students to become employees – and start preparing them for what global citizenship and success in today’s landscape really calls for: entrepreneurship and creativity.

Matt Covington, Erin Yearout-Patton, Sarah Rowan, Beth Ferguson, Bea Cantor, Peter Martin, Dianna Gordon and Board member, JD Wright, experience internationally recognized author & speaker, Yong Zhao at University of Richmond.

Dianna Gordon, Director of Elementary Instruction, offered an inspirational view of the Elementary Enrichment Day. Click here to learn about this exciting event and see a picture of Terry Hazelton, White Hawk Cafe, performing for your children!

As mentioned last week, Dr. Geyer delivered a fascinating look at GCPS numeracy & literacy achievement data in comparison to our regional neighbors, divisions in VA who spend the most per student delivering education, and those who spend the same as Gooochland does. We remain in the top two or three in every comparison. In addition, Goochland was one of 34 divisions out of the 132 in the state that met the new AMO’s (Annual Measurable Objectives).

From the BLOGS:

Last week I shared that Lisa Landrum, Supervisor of School Nutrition, had collaborated with the principals to develop a partnership with the Food Pantry. A student-led project at all five schools began this week in which students are able to share certain unused food items with the community. Mike Newman, GHS Principal, explains more below:

Don’t miss The Goochland Players’ production of Dracula, coming November 2-4 at Goochland High School. Liz Khuns, Director, and Neil Burch, Producer, invite you to experience this unique production. Find more information on Neil’s blog here – and make plans NOW to attend.

November 2-4, Dracula at Goochland High School!

I noticed yesterday ASCD is soliciting anecdotal essays about best practices for student engagement.  Click here for the details.

We’ve talked a lot about engagement here in Goochland. In fact, it’s becoming our first priority in so much as it is fostered in an environment of sound, challenging instruction and pedagogy. We aren’t the only ones having that conversation. Educators around the globe are gradually making the shift from emphasizing achievement scores to pushing (and measuring) engagement and intrinsic motivation.

We’re all beginning to see that setting up a bar on a given morning, then spending the next year celebrating the success with which we got kids over that bar – and designing complex intervention on behalf of those that missed it – is not the grand vision we signed up for.

When I asked our Leadership Team what impact they wanted to have, not one of them mentioned test scores. They certainly want them to be good. But that’s not the purpose to which we want to devote such a big chunk of ourselves. We want more. So do parents. And kids.

Engagement requires a relentless appeal to students’ interests and passions. Their individual strengths have to be important to us, which means we need to have relationships that have ensured that we know our students. In that context – only – we can begin to cultivate the propensity each student has to realize the unimaginable and to do truly great things.

Sir Ken Robinson has made the assertion that most of us have no idea what we’re really capable of doing – not just students, children, but adults. Too many children enter school creative and come out disconnected from their own creativity. How does that happen?

One way is to de-prioritize our children’s creative genius and make isolated literacy & numeracy skills our end game. The world for which we are preparing our students cares little about their ability to excel in those academic building blocks if they cannot apply them in complex situations that demand problem solving, innovation, and internal drive. In other words – creativity.

We have to stay more enamored with the big picture than with where kids – and teachers –  have colored outside the lines. Goethe said, “The things that matter most must never be subject to the things that matter the least.” That’s not always the case in public education – anywhere – unless the leadership is intentional about causing that to be the case.

Are children the only ones who get alienated from their creativity over the course of “doing school?” What about the rest of us, the adults? Do our innovative spirits stay in tact as we push through our various roles?

Again, how much more important are the important things than the unimportant ones? What does the division value?

Let me ask it differently. Do our mission and vision statements unite us to seek a common purpose that not only taps our creativity but encourages - even develops - it? Is your innovation central to our ability to move forward, or is it in the way?

Our behaviors reveal the true answers to those questions.

Accountability measures don’t crush creativity in children. Regulations and bureaucracy don’t rob adults of their entrepreneurial innovation. We aren’t automatically disengaged by things that don’t appeal to our creative genius. We disengage when the things that require the least from us are more valuable to the organization than the things that require our best. It’s the importance we place on those rudiments that can eclipse what’s meaningful, what’s really at stake.

We disengage when the things that require the least from us are more valuable to the organization than the things that require our best.


And therein lies one of the fine arts of leading others. Identifying what’s really important and ensuring it stays at the top of the priority list – when you’re building a budget & cutting checks, in the hiring process and evaluation meetings, during Board room discussions, and most especially in classrooms.

Define your Core, decide what you believe, know who you are – and live & lead accordingly.

As we press ahead towards the goal of defining our mission, who we are & what we believe – let’s keep the main thing the main thing.


Somewhat Reading Vs. Really Reading

As is often the case, NPR made me think this morning. First, I woke up to a story about Jane Austen, reading, and neuroscience. I had read the report earlier this year when a friend sent me the link to the Stanford website. I kept it open in my browser for weeks, hoping to somehow work it into a blog post at some point.

It turns out our brains behave differently depending on the purpose of our reading. We get to a point in time where we read unconsciously. We can hardly glance at a word without reading it. We can also scan documents and skip around books getting the general idea. And, while that is reading, the purpose is different from consciously settling down for concentrated, concerted reading. It makes sense that our brain behaves very differently depending on how much attention we pay to the text, how engaged we are with the text. 

Of course, there must be implications for educators in there. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’m sure not forming that habit of purposeful reading must leave a hole in people’s lives. I do tons of the more superficial reading, and get more and more distracted, especially when reading on a screen, or reading a text while in close proximity to a screen. I still value and enjoy the deep, engaged reading where, as one researcher said, the house could burn down and I’d be hard-pressed to notice.

I was still thinking about this issue, and how to ensure children do form that engaged reading habit, when I heard the interview with author Robin Sloan. He is well-acquainted with this distraction problem. He worked at Twitter, a great source of distraction for me. And he gets it. He really does.

“If you come from the Internet, as I do — I think of it as sort of my native country — there’s a lot of great things happening on the Internet, but one of the things, one of the feelings you just can’t escape is the sense that it’s really hard to keep people’s attention,” Sloan says.

In the audio, he even mentions what a feat it is to get someone to look at your website (or blog?) for more than 30 seconds, if they even look at all. If you’ve read this far, I win. You’ve spent more than 30 seconds visiting my blog. Yay!

So maybe our brains are changing, and maybe our students’ brains are completely different. The truth remains. If something is interesting enough, good enough, people will pay attention and engage. 

If you have time, listen to the full interview. Then, if you are in the classroom, think about how you attempt to engage students. Are the students distracted because they don’t know how to pay attention, or are they distracted because what you are offering is not holding them?


This morning, I know we’ll be asked in our leadership meeting to share a schooling experience from our past that demonstrated the concept of engagement. I’m always cautious about this word because in schools engagement is part of a recipe for learning success, but it’s not the only ingredient. And alone, it may be “tasty,” but it has to whipped, stirred, or kneaded in such a way that something greater than entertainment comes out of the mixture.

For me, the two examples I’d share are from my time in the Avon Lake Public Schools in Ohio. My eighth grade Spanish teacher Mrs. McCann was someone who always seemed to care for me — not just as a student — but as a person. This made me feel awfully special to know that someone outside my family was looking out for me. But I ultimately think it helped with engagement, too. That rapport she built with students and getting to know them as people helped us in our comfort level to learn. And that “comfort level” is akin to having the oven at the right temperature, or allowing dough to rest, for the correct amount of time, in a recipe.

Furthermore, I recalled my time as a member of the Avon Lake Shoremen Marching Band.

This was an extra-curricular activity. (And yes, although I won’t point myself out, I do see myself in that video from 1992, along with many of my high school friends.) The musical experience was engaging. But the part that was magic was the knowledge that we were good, and that after a halftime show, we’d accomplished something great. It was something any one of us alone could not accomplish. It was the satisfaction of knowing we worked together as a team to create an awesome show, a “wall of sound,” with the suicide line (trumpets and trombones), batons rising in the air set on fire, and herald trumpets purchased from the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Marching off the field on a Friday night was among the most engaging experiences I had as a high school student because of the experience of achieving something great as a team.

So, I’d pass the question onto anyone in our community. What truly engaging experiences did you have in your school experience? How can we do something simliar in our Division today?

A walk down Fairness Boulevard at BES

Visiting Byrd Elementary School (BES), this morning I was struck by the positive engagement of students with their lessons. Just walking into almost every classroom in the school to view what was happening on the Tuesday morning after Labor Day, our small team of administrators, witnessed good instruction in action.  We are talking more and more about going beyond the minimum, going beyond the standards, going to a place called “engagement” and active learning.  I will talk more about this in blogs this year, but I can say . . . you know it when you see it.

Of course, this is not good enough.  We need to be able to identify it, quantify it, describe it, talk about it, and duplicate it.  Engaged students does not just happen.  It takes good planning.  Much like the well-organized learning environment we found as we walked the halls of BES yesterday, teaching and leanning is obvious around every corner.


Hallways at BES have names and one of them, “Fairness Blvd” already has some student work posted on the wall.  Here again, good planning produces results.  Here is a sample