A Start Toward Understanding

Having just returned from Project Zero Classroom, my head is exploding with thoughts; some clear, some less so. Project Zero Classroom is a one week professional development conference offered to educators by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. PZ has become so popular that it sold out within 3 hours of opening for registration. There were teachers from across the world. It was a great experience.

http://projectPZ Logozero.gse.harvard.edu/



So, before I hit a speed bump and have all of PZ’s wonderful knowledge fly out of my brain, I thought I would write some down.

From one perspective, Project Zero was an affirming experience. Many of the theories discussed and offered at PZ were consistent and aligned with approaches that can be found in my classroom and many others at The Galloway School. Interestingly, this “affirmation phenomenon” was shared by many of the experienced teachers at the focusconference. However, what PZ offered is the polished model for teaching for understanding. Before PZ, I had this fuzzy picture of what a great learning experience looks like, and some days maybe clearer than others, but never a truly focused version. Going to PZ was a little like going to the optometrist and finally getting a pair of glasses that brings into focus those experiences and ideas of good teaching.

As you can imagine, there’s no simple silver bullet in helping others or yourself to reach understanding. It is a set of processes, forces, and a culture that fosters, fertilizes and encourages thinking. Although there were several thought-lines, I just want to write about one idea explored at PZ. Artful Thinking. It is a lesson in time, perspective and collaboration. It is here where my experience in Boston went from an affirmation to a transformation.

The ideas here are simple enough: slow down, take your time, and take in many perspectives.

A group of about 15 of us walked to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. There, we were taken into a relatively small gallery of a special exhibit: Thoreau’s Maine Woods: A Journey in photographs by Scot Miller. After giving us a few minutes to meander and look at the 20 or so photographs, Heidi, our instructor, asked us to focus on one. She hmnh logosimply asked one simple question: “What do you see?” She did not suggest we find anything, but simple told us to let our eyes wander over the picture, slowly, up and down, side to side, slowly. We did this for about 5 minutes, maybe longer. She then gave us some paper and pencil and asked us to write some of the things we saw. Heidi was specific in not asking us for any interpretation. This process was repeated one more time we moved to look at the photograph from a different perspective. After a bit, we shared our “sightings” to a person next to us, then to the group. Almost everyone contributed and we discovered so many things that individually we missed. Our collective see list was enormous and rich.

Next, Heidi asked us to analyze the photograph, and she simply asked one question: “Why do you think Scot Miller took this photograph? What are your ideas?” Again, we were given time to think about her question, feeling free to think whatever we wanted to. There were no wrong or right answers, although she would always ask us, “What makes you say that?” So, if you said, it looks like “change or the fall season.” Heidi would want to know why you said that. We first shared our thoughts with another person, then with the group. Wow! Another voluminous set of amazing thoughts and ideas about the photograph.

But, apparently Heidi wanted more. She then asked us, “Pretend you are in the photograph. You can smell, touch, see, and taste. You can be a bug, or a bear, or a deer, or a moose. Now what do you see, smell, touch, or taste?” Changing perspective again created another tsunami of interesting and surprising observations and thoughts.

Finally, Heidi then gave each of and our partner a passage from Thoreau’s Maine Woods. Her instructions were clear: “Find a photograph that you think connects with the passage I gave you, then write a sentence or two adding on to the passage. And be prepared to tell the class why you and your partner picked that photograph to go with the passage. Evan, from Texas, and I found one we both liked, and we started writing the connections, and finished our passage. Each of us shared our experience with the rest of the class. It was phenomenal! But why?

Well, simple. I learned. I understood. I grew. I felt great. I felt more connected to other people and to the Maine Woods, and I was already pretty connected to those woods. But why? Because Heidi taught me that it is not important to have “An Eye for Art.” What is important is to have an eye for artful thinking. She taught me a process that I can use for the rest of my life that will help me appreciate beauty that much better. So, Heidi, thanks. No small gift.

As I look back at the experience, three things jump out at me: 1) TIME; 2) PERSPECTIVE; and 3) HUMAN INTERACTION. We were looking at and talking about one photograph for an hour. One hour. I was told that on the average people spend 7 seconds in front of each piece of art in a museum. That’s not going to cut it. You need time, reflect, then more time to share. Changing perspective opened another set of windows, allowing more data to fill our brains for later synthesis and mulling. And, collaborating with others, not to draw some specific right or wrong conclusion, but to add to the stew and to stir the stew. The human interaction triggers wonderful emotions of commonality and draws respect to diverse and unexpected visions. A wonderful culture of thinking existed in that little exhibit space.main woods



There’s more to understanding, and more that I learned at Project Zero. But for now, that was a good start.





Allow your students to raise the bar: The student-led classroom

Motivating students to do their best (especially in project or researched-based units), can be challenging. Traditional teacher-imposed methods are often ineffective, especially for middle schoolers. However, using academic leadership, student expertise, and peer-based teamwork can be an effective way to raise the bar. This requires you to evolve your classroom by transferring the leadership from the teacher to the students. Once students see what other students can do, and what other students can teach, you have grabbed hold of one of the strongest forces in middle school: peer pressure. But this is the good kind. For them, their peer group, not their teacher, is the most important influence in the room. So don’t fight it. Use the motivation of your students’ peers to improve the effort and quality of their projects. Here are a few examples on how to get started:

Technology Help

Projects and research units will likely involve many different implementations of technology. This can be challenging when you have 15 students asking you how to cite a video in Noodletools or how to access one of the library’s databases. Well, several years ago, a close colleague, Peter D., gave me great advice. Find the two or three “computer nerds” in Photo on 2-27-12 at 2.04 PM #2the class, (who, by the way, are usually less inclined to step forward and contribute to your teacher-led activities), show them how to use the application, and let them help the other students. Over the course of just minutes, the often quiet and reserved student turns into an academic leader, and finds a place on the team. They are now the tech experts of the project. Rule here: Give your helpers the recognition they deserve and never, ever answer another technology question in your class again. That’s what your new tech experts are for.

Written and Oral Presentation Projects

Boy_Reading_-_Cartoon_3In middle school, students produce written and oral presentations that vary from excellent to just awful. And, unfortunately, this variation has less to do with the students’ ability, and more to do with their ideas around what is expected. I have found that an easy solution here is to set the bar by having some of your high-achievers present first, allowing for the lower-achievers to see their work. Then make sure the remaining students have a little time to upgrade what they have done. For example, if you are asking students to write a paper, chose 3 or 4 of them to read their first draft papers aloud in front of the class on Friday. The final draft is due on Monday. Try it and see if the quality does not go up for the entire class. Do this several times, then begin to put your once struggling writers in front of the class. You are not only defining your expectations better, but you are developing academic leadership in the classroom. Rule here: Recognize your improving writers by letting them read their papers in front of the class, once you have given them a chance to improve the quality of their work.

Student-Led Class Lectures and Socratic Discussions

Student TeacherAs a geography and history teacher, I often give a reading assignment and then begin the class with a short lecture and discussion on the reading. I always require that students turn in short reflections on the reading, based on two or three questions that I assign. However, once the basic content is established, the teacher should step out of the way. On a rotating basis, assign the lecture and discussion to a student. Tell them in advance so they can prepare for the discussion. Give them a sample of one of your lesson plans. Ask them to prepare one, too. Here is what you will discover: One, as good as you think you are, there are better student teachers in your room. Two, in student-led lectures/discussions, the number of students participating in the discussion doubles. And three, your students will respect you even more after they realize that leading a class requires a lot of preparation. Rule here fight the temptation to correct or interject during the student led discussion. If you need to clarify or correct, wait until it is over, or do it by playing the role of a student and ask some leading questions.

Team and Collaborative Projects

Personally, I think students are in their best learning mode when talking with two or three other students about their ideas and discoveries. The problem is that this wonderful image often goes up in flames when you ask the small group to turn in a group project that requires them to meet after school. This is often when you get emails from your students or their parents about how they are doing all the work, or that Peter has done nothing on this project, or that the student has too many after-school activities to make time to meet with classmates.DSC02300

So, what is the answer? Let them collaborate, brainstorm, take notes, and research together in class. Of course, monitor their progress and assess their collaborating, brainstorming, noting, and researching. Then, have each member of the group turn in their own final product.

Like most things in my classroom, creating effective student-led learning experiences is a process. But each of the four examples described here is fairly simple to organize and initiate. And, I think each has helped me raise the quality and quantity of learning in my class. It all boils down to this: if you are going to call your classroom or school a learning community, then make it as egalitarian as possible.

Learnin’ the Trucker’s Hitch: A Lesson in Good Teaching

Over the years, I have observed many good teachers. As a learner, I have been part of a variety of both effective and ineffective learning experiences.  And, as a teacher, I’ve experienced great and not so great teaching moments. For many years, I’ve reflected on the process of learning and have become a believer in learning by doing or, to use the current lingo, experiential learning. But the experience must be part of a process, and each part of the process can have experiential components.

I just got back from a great conference in Boston, Brain-Based Learning for 21st Century Learners. There, many neuroscientists and their studies affirmed that the classrooms that produce the most learning do not look like traditional classrooms at all. So what does this new classroom look like? For starters, it is based in experiential learning. I think I can best explain it using the Trucker’s Hitch. It is a very simple, but effective knot for securing things that want to move to anchored objects.


Several years ago, a group of teachers (including me), attended an Outward Bound program – The Educator’s Initiative. Since we were going to hike and sleep outside for 8 days, they needed to teach us a few things. They started their instruction with the construction of a shelter, a tarp tied down tightly and close to the ground. Since we were going to sleep under tarps for 8 nights, the Outward Bound instructors assured us that a properly tied down tarp is as waterproof as a tent. Ha, right…. It turns out that this lesson seven years ago, and many learning experiences since, have me hooked on the following learning process:

The Introduction.  Make the lesson relevant and emotional. And, find a memory hook or two. In this example, the hook is “the trucker’s hitch.” Say it will a southern accent, and spit. It will help your students remember.  Emotion leads to attention, and attention leads to learning. So spit twice. The relevance of the trucker’s hitch is that if you don’t put up a tight tarp, you’ll die of hypothermia. Motivated now? Paying attention?

The Pre-assessment Phase.  Before you really know what to teach students, you need to figure out what they know. This can be done experientially. In this example, give each group of students a tarp and 5 lengths of p-cord. Engage them in determining important features (must keep you dry, be easy to disassemble, etc.). Then ask them to create the structure. Observe and take note of the skill sets you are working with. You may observe certain behaviors that can help your instruction later. Look for the “academic leaders,” observe the collaboration process. Also, notice how learning is taking place even before the real lesson begins.  When this exercise is done, ask them what they have discovered, what worked, what didn’t.  This will give your students the context to lead you into the next phase of learning.


The Skill Phase.  In this phase the instructor does a lot of the talking.  The student is introduced to the tools, the language and skills necessary to immerse themselves in the experience. New vocabulary maybe introduced, along with new tools, technology, and basic skills on listening and working with others collaboratively. Using my example, it is at this point that the instructors show us a tarp (vocab), with a hole in each corner for the p-cord (vocab) to be inserted. Then she carefully and slowly demonstrates how to tie a trucker’s hitch.* After the demonstration, we are all thinking, “What’s the big deal, just tie a knot and be done.” Having anticipated this, the instructor puts her full weight on the cord, and then easily releases it. She ties it again. Now the cord is so tight, that we are afraid it will snap. She picks up a long stick, and launches it like an arrow from the cord, launching it 50 feet in the air! Now we are thinking, “Cool. I want to do that.” But, she stops us. Despite the cord being so tight, the instructor walks over to it, and gives it a tug, and it instantly releases. Cool. (This creates more emotion, leading to more attention and therefore, more learning.) She now explains to us why it is such a great knot. (It is used to tighten things down: tarps, canoes, children, and it releases instantly with a good yank.) She shows us again, talking and repeating the same words. Then it is our turn to try again.

The Experience Phase†: With some skills and new vocabulary words, the students are ready to immerse themselves in the experience. What experience? The experience of taking a corner of the tarp and tying it to a tree with the p-cord using a trucker’s hitch knot. Each student helps the other, and some learn faster than others. After each student successfully ties two trucker’s hitches, then they experience tying all four corners and the middle cord to create the “A” frame type tarp. Wow! What an awesome tarp! We will stay dry and live!  Think of this phase as the glue application phase.

The Reflection Phase: There are many ways to reflect and assess your newly learned skill, but I find the best way is to use more experiential techniques that are directly relevant to the learning goal. In our case, our tarp group gets together, puts up another tarp, talks about what we can do to improve it, then puts the tarp up again. Each group will likely conclude that the key to a good tarp setup is how tight your trucker’s hitch is.  After they set up their second tarp, it is time for some real reflection.  Since teachers are omni-competent, the can create a rainstorm to test the tarp. (Or, just use a bucket of water.)

The Mastery Phase: Well, how will you always remember how to put up a tarp and use the trucker’s hitch? Practice. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something. Not quite that long for the trucker’s hitch. Even this phase is experiential and fun. Teachers, play the game of the weather god. Each tarp team must put up and get under their tarp in 5 minutes or be doused with cold water. Do it again, but in 4 minutes, then again, and again. By the time you get to 2 minutes, everyone will be wet, laughing and masters of the trucker’s hitch.  The glue is now setting. But remember, everyone’s glue sets or dries at different times. If some students need more time to master the trucker’s hitch, ask your new master students to work with them.

tarp shelterSome last thoughts:  It is my belief that teaching strategies that follow the basic elements of the process outlined here will effectively produce learning and learners. The process includes key principles required for learning: It is relevant to the students, and creates emotion. It requires student action, and therefore it is experiential. It is collaborative, requiring students to interpret and communicate what they have learned. It is reflective, assessed, and mastered. There is little room for any student to not master the skills and content.

*If you want to flip your class a bit, then you can have the students learn some knot skills at home. Have them watch your video or one out of the Internet. And since you are fascinated about the trucker’s hitch, here is a video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pe0-CMa1JOI

† Just because you are not it the “experience phase,” it does not mean that experiential learning is not taking place in all the phases of the lesson. Even the pre-assessment is experiential. The more action you can create by the student, the better.

Purposefulness in doing a mundane job right

I recently read an article by John Burke, CEO and President of Trek Bicycles. I realized that I share two things with Mr. Burke. Like him, my dad was my best friend. Over the years we talked a lot about business, and he was a wise, patient and thoughtful teacher.


The second experience that I share with John Burke is his description of his night shift job during a summer while he was in college. He worked in a factory making plastic containers. After his first night, he told his dad that his job was horrible and that he was not going back. His dad said: “You’re going back tonight, you’re going to work there for the summer, and you’ll enjoy it.” Reluctantly, Burke returned to work and made up his mind to do the best job he could. He tried to beat his record on how many containers he could make each night, and spent his breaks reading business magazines. He said that the job may have provided the best lesson of his life.

Between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I worked as a maintenance man in an apartment complex for older folks. There were three buildings, and each had three floors. Part of my job was to start at the top floor of each building and sweep off dust and dirt from the breezeway with a hand broom. Then I would move down to the second floor, then down to the first floor, and finally to the parking area. With a motorized power vacuum, I would then vacuum the fallen dust and dirt from the parking area. The whole process took about 8 hours per building, and my boss wanted it done every week. So, basically, I swept for 24 hours every week. I became very good at sweeping, but more important, I found purposefulness in a mundane task. I took pride in how those apartments looked, and enjoyed the compliments from many of the tenants.

Like Mr. Burke, that may have been the most important job of my life because it taught me to find purpose in everything I do, even the most boring and mundane of tasks. After those two summers, my perspective changed about long, repetitive tasks. I started to enjoy the time such tasks give you to think, and the satisfaction of doing something right. That is purpose enough.

As a teacher, I would like to think that the most important lessons can be taught in a classroom or during a field trip. But I think some lessons can only be learned by sweeping all day.

Here’s the link to John Burke’s article. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/01/jobs/trek-bicycles-chief-on-lessons-of-the-night-shift.html?_r=0

Generosity, Courage and Learning

On top of Mt. Washington

On top of Mt. Washington

At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, I was fortunate enough to be awarded the John and Pamela Smart Faculty Award. As the recipient of this generous award, I had the opportunity to use the money to take advantage of some learning opportunities. As it turned out, the Smart’s generosity provided me and others with invaluable experiences and observations.

I have been involved with a camp called Circle of Tapawingo. This camp was started right after 9/11 and it is for girls who have lost one or both of their parents. Each year girls between the ages of 8 and 13 go to Camp Tapawingo and spend a week having fun, and realizing that they are not alone or different because of their early tragedy. It is a time that they can speak openly and honestly about their parent’s death, and the challenges they face. After the girls go through the CIT program, they are encouraged to come back as counselors. They will be eligible to be a counselor after their first year of college. Well, that is where I come in. As part of the CIT/Counseling program, Circle Summit was started. This is where we take the campers, now seniors in high school, and spend a week backpacking and learning leadership skills in preparation to be counselors.

This year, we took seven of the Tapawingo girls to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. We summitted MT. Washington and MT. Jefferson, and backpacked many miles. We camped in tents, primarily in the Great Gulf Wilderness area. Climbing these 6,000′ mountains is no easy task, but the young women were fearless. I have taken many adults, young adults, and kids on adventures, but I can say that this group showed tremendous determination and courage. Often we found ourselves climbing on all fours, looking for hand and footholds on the sheer rock face. Together, helping and encouraging each other along the way, these young women concord the unknowns and challenges presented by the mountains. As we talked about it around camp, I told them how impressed I was with their strength and courage. We concluded that without a parent, or both parents, they have already faced many unknowns in their lives, and they have learned how to persevere against and through adversity. By using their inner strength and the strength of their friends, the challenge of the climbs proved to them just how strong they had become.

So, I used the John and Pamela Smart Faculty Award to pay and support this trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The trip reinforced my strong belief in experiential learning, and to take the classroom outside whenever possible. I also learned how important your friends and fellow students are to learning. Learning new things, the unknown, can be a little scary. Learning collaboratively with supportive friends can give each individual the strength needed to meet the challenge.

7 fearless young women

7 fearless young women

I think we can also learn how generosity and kindness can often have unknown and wonderful spillover effects. I am not sure that John and Pamela ever imagined that their gift would not only lead to a teacher’s personal and professional growth, but also would help seven young women see what fearless individuals they have become.

It’s productive to be nice.

hands helpI just read a New York Times article titled “Is Giving the Secret of Getting Ahead?” You may want to read it yourself.

About four weeks ago, I posted a blog titled “Keeping score…” That posting discussed how we could measure and encourage students to assist others. And, by assisting others, perhaps we will make the entire group or community a better and more productive place. Well, maybe I was four weeks ahead of my time.

Today I am reading about Adam Grant, a psychologist who studies group dynamics and is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton (age 31).

It appears that Dr. Grant has found that strategic altruism can be a strong motivator. In his book, Give and Take, he documents several studies supporting this thesis: When people are given the opportunity to help others, or if they can see how their work output will directly help someone else, motivation to be more productive increases, and consequently, so does output.

I know several people at Galloway who are driven and productive professionals. They are, perhaps, some of the best in their field. They are certainly some of the most motivated and productive people I know. As I think about them, one observation I can make about all of them: they are always doing things for other people. And, when they are not, they get pretty anxious about it.

Is altruism something that can be taught? Or are we born either a giver, a matcher or a taker? Read the article. It’s pretty interesting.

It’s good to connect.

I coach Middle Learning tennis. A couple of weeks ago we had a match against a public school on the south side of town. Unlike Galloway, the school is in a tough neighborhood and about 45 minutes away, and longer if you are fighting downtown traffic. I knew Coach Sam from last year, and I liked him then and now. Just a wonderful man. Anyway, last week, the match was scheduled for 4:00 p.m. Sam’s players did not arrive until 4:30 and we did not begin to play until almost 5. After playing, it was almost 7 p.m. before we got back to Galloway. We were scheduled to play Sam’s school again in another week.

The next day, I emailed the assistant athletic director and asked him if I could cancel the second match with Sam’s school. I explained to Josh their school did not end until 4:00, it was a hassle to drive down there, we would get back to school late, I had a commitment at 7:00 that night, they were not in our district for placement purposes, blah blah blah. Uncharacteristically, Josh emailed me back and simply said, “Peter, I would really like you to play them again. I’ll email them and ask if they can be ready to play at 4:00.” I capitulated and begrudgingly agreed to go back downtown to play Sam’s team in a week.

When we arrived for our second match, Sam, Xavier (his son and assistant coach), and all the players were waiting for us at 3:45 p.m. Xavier gave me a Kindle and tennis racket that one of my players left from the week before, and we started the match. They had some extra players, and as the matches ended the kids began congregating on the upper courts playing “king of the court.” I continued coaching and talking to Sam and Xavier about school and young people.

By the time the last match was over, I walked over to the upper courts and observed all the kids, from both schools, playing together, talking, and having the time of their life connecting with their new-found friends, laughing and enjoying a little unstructured time with their tennis rackets and a few tennis balls. It was now about 6 p.m., and despite the time, when I called out to load the bus they pleaded with me to let them stay a few more minutes. I said five more minutes. As they trickled down to the pavilion they asked me if they could come back next week to play them again.

As I said my goodbyes to Coach Sam and Coach Xavier, I told them what the kids said, how much they liked playing with their kids, and how they want to come back. Sam and Xavier looked at me and they knew that I finally got it. Xavier gave a hug, then Sam, and Sam says to me, “Peter, it’s good to connect.”

P.S. I think Josh, Sam, and Xavier knew exactly what they were doing. They also knew that a tennis match is not always just a tennis match, it is a chance for kids from very different backgrounds to connect, play, and laugh together. I am glad they guided me to see what they saw.