Most Likely to Succeed

Yesterday, I was fortunate to attend a screening of Most Likely to Succeed, hosted by the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI). The film is a thought-provoking documentary about our education system with a look at project-based, student-driven learning at a charter school in San Diego.

After the film, our CEI hosts asked the audience to think about where we stand on a one-to-ten scale for keeping the current teaching model or scaling the High Tech High model across the U.S. public school system.

As a parent, the film hit me emotionally, and my answer is conflicted. But as a human being, I wanted to transport myself to High Tech High and relive ninth grade.

I have a seventh grader. Next fall, we will be looking at high schools, helping him decide where he would be happiest, and then applying to a mix of private, public and parochial. In the back of my mind, I favor schools most like the one I went to. I know that there he will read plenty of Shakespeare, survive Calculus and have a strong grasp of History. All the teachers will know him by name. I will get to know most families.

But will that school – the school of my childhood – inspire him to engage wholeheartedly in learning?

What I do know is that I was happiest at school when I was connecting the dots between classes, working on projects, or deep in debate with my classmates. I remember what I learned in 8th grade Social Studies because I can still see the poster my friends and I created about the 1960s hanging on the classroom wall. I remember getting excited about our ideas, working together, and worrying that our teacher would be mad that we burned a flag. I will never forget our independent Senior Project, when six of us wrote and performed a musical. I still have the script in a ratty green folder.

At High Tech High, the ninth graders are tasked with creating a group engineering project that illustrates their views on why civilizations rise and fall. They built a floor-to-ceiling masterpiece on exhibit for the entire community after working in small groups for months. Imagine what they will remember 30 years from now.

What impressed me was that High Tech High is teaching a love for learning, igniting curiosity and creativity, and empowering students to collaborate and lead. I am not sure that the more traditional approach achieves that for most kids, but I still see it as necessary because it did for me.

On a philosophical level, Most Likely to Succeed asks us if the role of the classroom is to teach our children equations, trivia, maps and stories? Or is it to inspire them to think and give them the tools to pursue the life-long education that makes them want to keep on learning? Can you do that without a strong baseline of knowledge? Does the fact that answers to almost anything are on the Internet change what we have to hold in our brains? Can you take any kid, drop them into High Tech High and watch them take off?

As a former student successfully educated under the old model with dips into project-based and experiential learning, I am tied to that tradition. It is my comfort zone. It is what I expected to pass on to my children. But then, if I could go back to high school, I would go to High Tech High in a heartbeat.






How History Enters the Mind of a 13 Year Old Boy

This morning’s news celebrated the release of ten U.S. sailors held captive by Iran. So when my seventh grade son asked me if I remembered the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, when approximately 60 US citizens were held captive for 444 days, I was impressed.

He seems to teach himself things in a stream of consciousness approach to learning, his path twisting and turning randomly as bits of information catch his fancy. It’s a cool way to learn, even if it distracts from his homework.

“I do remember.”

“Well, do you remember that they broadcast the Super Bowl so the hostages got to watch it? I wonder how they did that.”

Of course! Football!

He actually had not yet read the news about the U.S. sailors. The question on this day was completely coincidental. As a football trivia junkie, his reading about the NFL connects him to a broader history. A few days ago, he wanted to know if Richard Nixon was a good President. I talked through his foreign policy skills, China and Watergate. The important fact, it turns out, was that he “was not a good play caller.”

In school, we often use the art or literature of an era as a way to help us understand the past. He uses sports. Reading about past Super Bowls, looking at old photos of athletes and teams and stadiums, and a close following of the NFL timeline all lead to non-football discoveries. He digs into what that event was, or if people liked that President, or why there were hostages, how long they were there, and what people like me remember.

And the next time the Super Bowl comes up with an unsuspecting friend, he will ask, “Did you know that during the Iran Hostage Crisis, they broadcast the Super Bowl so the hostages could watch? How cool is that?!”


Personalized Learning Dudes Keep Movement Going in Colorado Springs

This is not my typical blog post, but I had a great interview with two educators from Colorado Springs, and while a shorter version was published in Fresh Ink (the online version of the Colorado Springs Gazette), I wanted to share the more complete article because they are so enthusiastic and doing really interesting work in the schools just south of my stomping ground.

Colorado Springs School District 11 sent 70 teachers, school leaders, and administrators to the Technology in Education (TIE) Conference early this summer. Many were there, following the self-named Personalized Learning Dudes, to learn more about how they can embrace the concept of personalized learning in their classrooms.

I interviewed Dudes co-founders Greg Wilborn, the District’s Personalized Learning Coordinator, and Scott Fuller, Project Coordinator for the $1.1 million DoDEA grant that is facilitating implementation in seven District 11 schools. They had just returned from four full days of presenting at TIE, but their excitement about the potential for Personalized Learning had not dimmed.

Wilborn and Fuller have presented to more than 200 teachers in the last month alone, and they claim that what has been most exciting is hearing those teachers walk out of their presentation in June saying they cannot wait to get back into the classroom. (Please watch the video testimonials from teachers who have embraced Personalized Learning.)

And it’s not just our Colorado teachers who are taking an interest. Two teams from other states have flown in to see Personalized Learning in action in District 11, and a team from Kentucky (which earned top dollars in the Race to the Top funding) arrives this month.

Wilborn left a career in sales in 2000, so that he could teach high school business classes. “Right away, I realized the education system was behind the times,” he said.

He taught for six years, tweaking the system, before taking on a grant-funded position three years ago to implement Personalized Learning in Colorado Springs schools.

Wilborn brought Fuller on to manage the grant from the Department of Defense Education Agency, which is funding implementation of Personalized Learning in classrooms for seven elementary and middle schools with a population of at least 15 percent military families.

An additional five schools have joined the movement since the District received a significant grant from the Colorado Legacy Foundation, which is helping to promote the concept nationwide. The grant empowered District 11 leadership to direct money into classroom innovations including technology, curriculum and more. According to Fuller and Wilborn, the CLF funds are being used in their first high school classroom project, where they are “trading out traditional desks for more flexible tables and chairs, a few stand-up stations, and a set of computing devices to enable 1:1 access for students.”

The CLF has also provided a model that schools and districts can customize to their student and teacher communities and their needs. It has adopted as its dual role both educating multiple stakeholders and facilitating collaboration to enlarge its circle of influence on schools’ ability to successfully implement their own models of personalized learning.

When asked how the CLF has been most helpful to District 11, Fuller and Wilborn point to how effectively the Foundation has been facilitating opportunities to collaborate with like-minded colleagues. They said, “There is incredible power and motivation in bringing together a group of educators who are solution-focused and passionate about their work. This type of cutting-edge work toward change is difficult and at times lonely. The collaboration opportunities supported by CLF are invaluable for recharging your batteries and maintaining perspective.”

While their job is to manage the implementation of programming, Fuller says it is also to sell the idea to teachers, school administrators, funders, parents and students. So being able to draw on the research done by the Colorado Legacy Foundation to educate others has made their job easier. As Fuller explained, “A lot of people confuse it with more technology.”

In fact, during his first two weeks on the job, he received lists of technology orders and “where are our iPads?”

Personalized Learning is about much more than that. While iPads and increased access to information help, the real idea is about changing how teachers view their role and how they define learning in a way that goes beyond the classroom.

I asked how prepared the teachers of District 11 are for a personalized learning approach, in light of the highly publicized results of a recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality. According to the Wall Street Journal, it gave teacher training programs a low grade.

“Teachers are very self-reflective people and very hard on themselves. The ones that latch on to our message are frustrated. They know they need to try something different in their classrooms, but they cannot picture what that is, “ the Dudes agreed, “until they see how well this approach is working.”

They added that current teacher training programs celebrate those who are in the most control at the front of the classroom. But that approach is not preparing students for today’s work world, and it does not address the wide range of interests, learning styles and skill levels in a given student population.

Personalized Learning at its core is about teachers giving up power as the providers of prescribed information and becoming facilitators who empower their students to access information that matters to them. It leverages approaches from art education, expeditionary learning, traditional instruction and technical training depending on the student – not the teacher.

“If Rumpelstiltskin woke up today and walked into one of our classrooms, would it look any different than it did fifty years ago?” asked Wilborn. “But the world we are preparing our students to enter has changed tremendously.”

Although Personalized Learning is not a new idea, it is a complex one. For each school, a customized adoption of Personalized Learning requires some, or all, of the following: changing the ways in which teachers see their role (no more “sage on the stage”), revamping classroom and school layouts, effectively leveraging what technology they have, expanding learning time, going out into the community, embracing student-directed learning, embedding an ongoing assessment of skills, and more.

But the Personalized Learning Dudes of District 11 are ready for your questions.

To learn more about Personalized Learning, go to the Colorado Legacy Foundation or watch this presentation on why education needs to change to meet the needs of our future workforce.

Education on the Farm

This summer, our family spent almost two weeks on a farm in western New York, where we all learned a few important things not included in city life or academic lessons back home. Please feel free to read my article published on Yahoo.

The Young and the Bookless

I love to read, and that began for me before I was ten. I read Little Women and several other Louisa May Alcott books, the entire Little House on the Prairie series, Nancy Drew mysteries, and the biographies of Helen Keller, Florence Nightingale and Amelia Earhart ten times each without ever being assigned them. The Secret Garden. A Little Princess. The High King. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I remember them better than some of my more recent favorites.

So I am puzzled when my ten year old rarely picks up a book for pleasure. If I suggest it, I get the dramatic eye-roll and “all you want me to do is work, work, work!”


The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about the high number of young people who do not read for pleasure. It seems it’s an epidemic, but the article failed to address the reasons why. The following is my attempt to think about why, so that I can do something about it in my house.


To Request, or Not To Request

I wrote this a few weeks ago, trying to decide whether I had any requests to make regarding teacher choice and friend-mix for my boys in the 2013-14 school year. Possibly for the first time ever, I did not make any requests… and of course, it is gnawing at me a little. 

Every spring, parents begin to worry about their child’s class placement in the fall. Which teacher will he get? Will she be with her friends? And…

…Should I make a request?

My boys’ teachers have made good decisions for them. But there is always this nagging feeling that if I don’t make a request regarding on placement, they will have a disastrous next year in school.

What if his creativity is squashed by the teacher’s discipline? What if he flounders because the classroom is too loose? What if the mean kid decides to pick on mine, because everyone else has requested that their kid be in a different class? What if they separate him from his friends? What if he gets the easier teacher and is not prepared for the year that follows?

What if he hates school because I failed to make the request?

With my oldest, who is very reserved, I want to lobby for kids in his class who make him feel comfortable and safe enough to join in. I want the teacher most likely to adore him. Even though I assume his current teacher will look out for him in this regard, I cannot stop myself from reminding her how important that was to his success this year.

With my middle child, his friends are everything. If he has boys he likes, and a few who he enjoys competing with academically, he will shine. And while he has never been demonstrative toward his teachers, he needs a teacher who thinks he’s a great kid. But he can shut down if not inspired. I worry for him next year, as I will every year.

Who knows what I will want to say to the future teachers of my youngest son. But I know I will want to say something about class placement. Like the parents of all of their classmates, I hope their teachers think carefully and care deeply for my kid before setting next year’s classes in stone.

Some parents say they never make requests. Their children have to learn to deal with diverse personalities and with adversity. “Why not start with their teachers?”

Some parents say they are saving their request for that year when they really need it, so that the school takes them seriously.

And others make a request every year. “It can’t hurt to ask.”

Since I want the best for my boys, and am constantly struggling with whether to tell their teachers my opinion, I have created some guidelines for myself:

• If you have a gut feeling about a teacher, do your research. Talk to parents whose kids have been in that class. If their feedback confirms your gut, let the current teacher know what you are excited or concerned about.

• As long as you don’t make unreasonable demands, your request or concern will be treated with respect, even if it cannot be addressed. So it cannot hurt to ask.

• If the mix of kids is what’s nagging at you, ask the teacher if there are students who push your child to do better or who inspire him to be at his best. Even if they don’t divulge names, that list will be in their minds when making placement decisions.

• If you are worried about the effect another child is having on yours either academically or socially, let the teacher know how you feel. Ask that, if she can’t separate them, then she inform next year’s teacher about your concerns and provide some guidance on how to navigate the issues. Again, your concerns will be in her mind at decision time.

• Unless there is a dramatic reason for making a placement demand – like bullying or you have already had bad experiences with next year’s teacher – do not do it. The teachers are trying to address the needs of more than 40 children. They have to make some tough decisions. Respect that.

• Do not feel guilty about advocating for your children… ever.

• If you have no requests to make, then feel good about it. You are not a bad parent. Maybe this year, for your child in this grade, you can’t go wrong.