Monday, May 26, 2014

Rigor and Creative Learning in PBL

Rigor in PBL

One thing I keep getting asked as I employ project-based learning (PBL) in my classes is this:

But do the students write enough? Are they doing enough essays? Is PBL in general rigorous enough?

I understand where the concern comes from, and believe me, I'm on it. The students in my tenth and eleventh grade English classes have just finished a flurry of writing activity, a lot of it very traditional and as academically rigorous as any you'd expect in any English course.

A Doll's House

Example: in my tenth grade English class, students just finished revising a short piece analyzing A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen and then comparing it with The Merchant of Venice, which we read earlier this year. Here's a sample, a particularly good essay that Julia wrote:

A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen, is a play about a woman, Nora, who slowly realizes that her husband, Helmer, doesn’t treat her with respect. In A Doll’s House, several quotes show how a woman is considered lower than a man. In the play, Ibsen is socially critical of this view.
            In Act One, Nora is worried about the dress she is going to buy for a dance. When she tentatively asks Helmer if he would help her pick one out, he says to Nora, “Aha! So my obstinate little woman is obliged to get someone to come to her rescue?” (26). There are a few things about this quote that show how Helmer has no respect for Nora. First, there is the way he addresses her as “my obstinate little woman.” To him, Nora is a little, stubborn pet that belongs to him. There is also the way that he says “Aha,” as if he was expecting that Nora would need something from him eventually. Lastly, there is the overall sentence and the stereotype in which Helmer casts Nora, which is as a damsel in distress. He right away recognizes that Nora needs his help and escalates it to “rescue.” To Helmer, Nora’s requests are childish and small, so his responses back to her are mocking.
            In Act Two, Nora makes a work-related suggestion to Helmer. This time, Helmer is more aggressive in his belittling of Nora. He exclaims, “Is it to get about now that the new manager has changed his mind at his wife’s bidding?” (35). He implies how ridiculous it would be for a simple housewife to give input on a work matter. Helmer is also concerned with what people would think of Nora helping him. This proves that society as a whole viewed the idea of a woman doing more than household jobs as embarrassing and foolish.
            In Act Three, Nora finally rises above what society thinks of her and doesn’t let it define her. She answers Helmer, who told her she didn’t understand the world’s conditions, by saying, “I am going to see if I can make out who is right, the world or I” (69). She understands the way that society perceives women, but she no longer wants to abide by it. Rather than being the perfect wife and mother who would never abandon her family, she walks out the door to become independent. It is possible it will be difficult for her to adjust to her new freedom and that society will look down upon her, but Nora takes a big step by realizing she wanted the freedom in the first place. Though one could view her statement as her being unsure who is right, it could really be viewed as Nora knowing that she is right but wondering if the world can accept it also, or if she must rise above society totally on her own.

            In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare is also socially critical. Portia, the play’s heroine, must disguise herself as a man in order to become a lawyer, since women couldn’t have such jobs in Elizabethan times. In A Doll’s House, Nora disguises herself the opposite way Portia does. Rather than being her true self, Nora takes on the identity of the perfect woman society wants her to be. On the other hand, Portia pretends to be everything society doesn’t want her to be. At the end of The Merchant of Venice, Portia doesn’t need to disguise herself. She is sly and holds all the power over the men of the play. At the end of A Doll’s House, Nora takes off her mask and joins Portia in going against society’s stereotypes and becoming the independent woman she wants to be.

Sonnet Explication

Also in my sophomore English class, students are in the process of writing a 2-3 page essay on one of Shakespeare's sonnets. The students must include in their analysis at least two sources of literary criticism, one by Helen Vendler, who is, some would say, the foremost poetry critic in the US today. She teaches at Harvard and has written a comprehensive, Formalist analysis of the Bard's sonnets. Here is a student work-in-progress. In this version of the paper, Zach has written a short analysis of the sonnet he is studying and has included Vendler's take on the poem, though he hasn't cited her work yet. Recently, in edmodo, I posted a link to the OWL Purdue Writing Lab, which explains exactly how to cite according to MLA Standards.

Here is Zach's work:

The main theme in Sonnet 30 is recollection of the past. Throughout the sonnet, Shakespeare expresses the grief he feels as he “summon[s] up remembrance of things past” (2). One very prominent literary device the sonneteer employs in this sonnet is imagery. Shakespeare uses words such as “sessions” (1), “summon up” (2), “cancelled” (7), “expense” (8), and many others in order to make it seem as if his recollection experience is like a court case, and that he is ‘judging’ his past. Shakespeare divides the time frame of the sonnet into two groups. The first is the present, and the second is the past, which is subdivided into four more parts. While in the present Shakespeare stresses the fact that the grief he feels is new, regardless of the fact that he had already once grieved over the same grievances. He demonstrates this by contrasting old and new, (“with old woes new wail” [4]), as well as switching from locutions in which the second use of a verb or noun positively intensifies the first one (i.e. “grieve at grievances” [9]), to negatively (i.e. “new pay as if not paid” [12]). The four time frames of the past are the original neutral time pre-happiness, the happy time, the times of loss, and the time of stoicism where Shakespeare’s soul hardened, and he did not cry.

The concept that Shakespeare’s thoughts are successive and overlap is also demonstrated through the sonnet itself. The repetition in quatrain 3 of “grieve at grievances foregone” (9), “fore-bemoaned moan” (11), and “new pay as if not paid before” (12), coupled with the multiple phonetic concentrations of “thought-strings” (such as sessions, sweet, silent, summon, sigh, sought, sight, since, and sad) that are dispersed through all the ‘time periods’ of his life, both demonstrate Shakespeare’s constant overlapping thought process. Shakespeare even takes it a step further and portrays an increasing psychological involvement as the quatrains progress. The grievances go from general (“many a thing” [3]), to specific (“precious friends” [6]), to intensified (“grieve-grievances” [9]). These successive phases of feeling overlap because of the similarity in their lexical and syntactic concatenations as if they were all one long process each causing the next. This fluidity among time periods, thought processes, and feelings all relate back to the mentality of man, where Shakespeare is trying to show how man’s thoughts are constantly overlapping and build off of each other.

To illustrate how deep the learning goes -- and the material the kids are studying here is pretty traditional fare -- I'll share a conversation another student -- Jonah -- and I had as we worked on his sonnet together. Jonah is dissecting Sonnet 143, a mock epic which has Shakespeare comparing himself to a baby chasing after his mother who is chasing after a chicken. The farcical situation reflects a love triangle in which the poet finds himself in the "infantile" (get it?) position of not giving up on his crush, even though she clearly doesn't want him:

Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feather’d creatures broke away,
Sets down her babe, and makes all swift dispatch
In pursuit of the thing she would have stay;
Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,
Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent
To follow that which flies before her face,
Not prizing her poor infant’s discontent;
So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind;
But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,
And play the mother’s part, kiss me, be kind;
So will I pray that thou mayst have thy ‘Will’,

If thou turn back and my loud crying still.

After Jonah and I had noted Shakespeare's allusions to epic poetry and Chaucer as well as Vendler's comments on the repetition of words such as runs, catch, cries, and flies, Jonah remarked, as we dissected the simile, that just as Shakespeare feels excluded by his beloved, so he excludes himself from the sonnet, instead making most of the sonnet about the simile and not about himself. That's an AWESOME close reading, Jonah! Well done!

But Wait, There's More . . .

In a PBL class, however, there is more to learning than simply writing essays. Understanding the literature and showing mastery of the material in an essay is simply the first step towards a larger goal: creation of new content. For example, once students are finished writing their essays on A Doll's House, they have to post it on the Shakespeare website we created earlier in the year. Here is Zach's page which features his essay comparing how Ibsen and Shakespeare depict wealth and honor in their plays. And here is Sam's page which discusses law and mercy in A Doll's House and then compares how the ideas are developed in Ibsen's play and The Merchant of Venice.

Not only are students in my class motivated to revise their work for a better grade -- an opportunity I often offer them -- but I correct the essays with a different eye, knowing they can be seen in a visible place. Feel free to explore the bardofparamus website, where my fellow English teacher Rabbi Dan Rosen is also currently having his students post their work on The Merchant of Venice and where another Frisch colleague, Mrs. Meryl Feldblum, also had her students work.

Because the students organize their work around topics -- in the case of the Shakespeare website, for example, the topics connected with major themes of the plays and sonnets -- they become familiar with those ideas and spiral around them for the rest of the year, drilling deep into them as they see how they apply to all the works they read. Therefore, rigor ensues not only from essay writing but from using digital media to juxtapose works in surprising ways that attract the students' attention.


Last year, after a year of "un-schooling" my course, I wrote about the Twitter final that was a result of the class' desire to undertake a non-traditional assessment. This year, a year that was even more PBL-ed than last, my class felt strongly that they wanted to be creators of a final, not simply consumers of one. We've been working for the last two weeks on a collaborative project: a script for a video that will be a satirical look at our year in English, satire being a genre we studied repeatedly. We also focused on narrative frames consistently, so the students agreed to create one together and then break off into smaller groups to tackle various concepts we'd studied throughout the year (Take a look here at the syllabus, which did see some changes as the course unfolded organically). Since my daughter is in the class, the narrative frame became this:

My daughter Lila -- who is now married to a classmate -- and I are heading to a family reunion. We keep having flashbacks to her tenth grade year, with my remembering the serious study we did of texts and genres and her remembering what really went on in class!

The process of deciding what our final would be!
We chose topics and then applied the texts we studied to those concepts
I can't tell you how excited the students are to work on this project. They feel empowered about being creators and enthusiastic about their learning.

This group is focusing on stock characters and plot devices in works
throughout the year, even including Shakespearean sonnets in their script.
You can see the rubric for the final on the desk. As David said when he
saw the rubric, "The script really has to show learning, then." Yes, it does!
This group is satirizing the idea of how literature gives voice to the voiceless,
a topic we discussed at length over the course of The Frisch Africa Encounter.
Some ideas bandied about for their satire: Obama and the Nigerian president
call Frisch to thank us for our incredible and revolutionary work!
Also in the works: a song to "Under the Sea" discussing women's
traditionally having no voice in his-story.
In order to make sure real learning would occur, I created a rubric for the project, which you can view below. I love hearing the different groups discuss how to get their sequence into the 9-10 brackets. #gamifyingclass

I get asked a lot about rigor in PBL: as I said in my Google Hangout with Ken Gordon and Lisa Colton, when we spoke about passion-based learning in education, whoever thinks PBL can't be rigorous hasn't found the right resources. My go-to places are edutopia and Buck Institute of Education, and of course I've been deeply inspired by High Tech High in San Diego, CA. It's not a simple or easy thing to transform a course into one that uses PBL, but I guarantee, when you see students discover how deeply they can think about an idea or the power in being creators, that it's completely worth it.

Rubric for Final

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Celebrating Dyslexia

Learning Ally National Achievement Awards

This past weekend, Eddie Maza, a former student, a friend, and an amazing human being, was honored by Learning Ally for his accomplishments and achievements, one of which is being accepted to Yale. Over the course of his academic career, Eddie experienced the following:

  • He was told he should leave a school with a dual curriculum, since he would not be able to handle the work
  • He was made to stay in from recess to rewrite spelling words he had misspelled
  • He was told he should not attempt geometry
Eddie is dyslexic, and unfortunately the many indignities he suffered and obstacles he faced are common for a student like him. Over the course of the award celebration weekend, I learned just what kind of special torture school can be for dyslexics and how lost a child can be if s/he doesn't have a strong parent advocate.

Capitol Hill

Eddie was one of three top award recipients Learning Ally chose to honor for incredible achievement by a student with dyslexia. The award weekend took place in Washington, D.C., and on Friday, Eddie and the two other awardees -- Dustin Henderson and Maia Schumacher -- addressed congressional aides about their learning difference.

Maia Schumacher, Eddie Maza, Tracy Johnson -- a college and graduate school graduate --
as well as Dustin Henderson present at a meeting with congressional aides

Maia told the group that she was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was in second grade. Up until that time, she had been a bright and spunky kid, but her dyslexia held her back. She started getting extra help with her reading, but the experience didn't leave her feeling good about herself: "I knew I was smart, but I still felt dumb needing help from someone else."

Dustin had a similar experience. He started being pulled out of classes in about fifth grade, at which time he was taunted for being stupid and going to the classroom where the "dumb kids" were.

Eddie added, "School was a scary place to be. Spelling test day was a really scary day in school. When the other kids were outside playing, I was writing my misspelled words over and over again."

That image is a particularly heartbreaking one for me; Eddie is one of the most gentle people I know, and the idea of his enduring the humiliation of the "recess excommunication," to do a task he had no chance in succeeding in, is really painful.

Maia also made a poignant comment: "Schools are not set up in a way to help kids with learning disabilities. They hold us back."

The Power of Audio Books

Learning Ally -- which used to be called
Recording for the Blind and then
Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic --
has seen many changes in the technology they use.

Eddie's, Maia's, and Dustin's academic careers took an upswing when they were introduced to Learning Ally, an organization that provides audio books to those who are visually impaired and dyslexic -- the celebration marked the achievements of three blind and/or severely visually impaired individuals, as well. All the awardees, over the course of the weekend, spoke about how empowered they felt being able to access books on their own. They didn't need the support of tutors and readers as much -- parents who read endlessly on a daily basis to their children were a commonality, particularly among the three young dyslexic awardees -- and they were able to close the achievement gap between them and their peers.

Eddie's acceptance into Yale is an obvious sign that no type of academic achievement is off limits to a dyslexic. Maia is now in college, studying to be a nurse, and Dustin, who excelled throughout his school career in math and science and was valedictorian in high school, is now studying mechanical engineering in college.

Dustin's journey to college was not without obstacles, however. He discovered that no two colleges have the same set of standards when addressing the needs of dyslexic students, and so he had to pass up a few schools he was interested in because it didn't seem like he could be accommodated there.

Equal Access in a Least Restrictive Environment

It was a gorgeous day on Capitol Hill when the student award winners,
disabilities advocate and education experts presented to congressional aides

The three student panelists at the Capitol Hill meeting were followed by three experts in learning differences and dyslexia. The first was Lindsay Jones, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Emphasizing the importance of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) in granting those with learning differences equal access to education, she explained the need for early identification for dyslexics -- before the child has fallen behind his classmates -- and for an environment that's "least restrictive" for learning. Dyslexics shouldn't be automatically pulled out of a regular classroom because of their learning difference. Doing so denies them, as we saw with the awardees, the equal access to education they're entitled to.

Next up on the panel was Deardra Rosenberg, Director of Education at The Newgrange School, a school for children 8-18 with learning differences. She revealed that the majority of teachers trained today get little to no instruction on how to teach dyslexic students, who are grouped together with other learning disabled students who might require additional or different instructional materials than the ones dyslexics need. Ms. Rosenberg stressed the importance of professional development (PD) in giving teachers across America the tools they need to identify and work with dyslexics.

Dyslexia Simulation Session

Ms. Rosenberg's ability to provide this kind of meaningful and informative PD about dyslexia was on display over the course of the award weekend, when she led a Dyslexia Simulation Session. Adults in the room were told they were a class of Kindergartners who had to read a primer. Only the primer had symbols instead of words. Ms. Rosenberg's charming facilitation as the "teacher" didn't prevent the adults from feeling, when called on to read, "angry," "stupid," "hopeless," and "humiliated." One woman, who hadn't heard Maia at the congressional meeting, almost verbatim echoed her words, saying, "I know I'm smart, but I couldn't decipher the words and felt so frustrated."

Here's another type of dyslexia simulation

Competency-Based Standards

This famous cartoon reminds us why we need individualized instruction

The session, which included a slide showing about thirty young male brains that were all different, made the group aware of the importance of individualizing instruction and making sure all types of learners are accommodated in the classroom. In fact, Ms. Jones of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, is also advocating for a different type of standard in the classroom. She calls them Competency-Based Standards, which the US government discusses on a website:

Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, pace, or place of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include online or blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others.

To read more about these standards, visit the US Department of Education site here.

My Own Impressions

For the past nineteen years, I've taught only in Jewish day schools, so what I learned over the course of Eddie's award celebration is that it's not only Jewish day school teachers who often aren't properly prepared to address the needs of the many diverse learners in their classrooms. Ms. Rosenberg repeated many times that the entire educational system in America needs to be trained more effectively in dealing with students' learning differences. I personally think all teachers should have to partake in Ms. Rosenberg's Simulation Session. The feelings of helplessness they engender would make educators more sensitive in general to any student who learns differently and who is struggling to comprehend course material.

In my soon-to-be-released ELI Talk on passion-based learning,
I share my hope that one day my grandchildren will ask me what this is.
My answer will be "Oh, just something we used to use in education
in the 20th century!"

No one who knows about my passion for project-based learning and my desire to see education move from being about "seat time" to being about something a lot more meaningful and impactful is going to be surprised to hear me advocate for competency-based standards. What excites me is that these standards are being touted for diverse learners, showing that everyone benefits when education is about students getting out of their desks, being asked what excites them and how best they learn, and empowering them to be curious and active seekers of knowledge and socially useful action.

Eddie accepting his award

Eddie is not only one of the most special students I've ever had; he is one of the best human beings I know, and this award could not have been given to a more deserving recipient. I feel honored and humbled to have been a part of his award celebration experience and feel a renewed responsibility to advocate for him and others who might feel silenced or bullied -- or both -- in the classroom. We've all somehow been made to feel that learning should take place in a certain way, but the axioms we've inherited about school are slowly changing.

Moving Forward

I was struck over the course of the award celebration by the fact that the parents of the awardees -- and no doubt parents of many dyslexics -- faced an uphill battle in gaining the services their children needed. A Learning Ally staff member pointed out that when they need to advocate for their children, many parents resign themselves to having to "armor up" to deal with school administrators and teachers, but that's a really tough thing to have to do whenever your child needs something. Some parents may not have the strength to keep fighting, and that leaves their children at a disadvantage. Eddie, Maia, and Dustin made it clear over the course of the celebration that if it hadn't been for the tireless efforts of their parents, they wouldn't have achieved all they had.

But the truth is we're all parents, teachers, students, learners, and so we've all got to work together to make sure our students are enriched by us, by each other, and by what they're learning. Learning Ally feted its winners in a wonderfully meaningful and simply beautiful manner this past weekend. One winner put it well when he said, "I know Learning Ally was great, but I didn't know how well they could throw a party." So our duty now is to take what they've generously offered -- in its army of volunteer readers, its committed staff, its accomplished awardees, and its elegant and warm celebration -- and start truly appreciating what's unique about all our children, so that they can be educated and then shine in a way that's best for them.

Additional Resources

And . . .  

  • Did you know that at iJED, the Jewish education conference organized by the Schechter and Yeshiva University Networks this past February, participants could attend a Diverse Learners lab, which provided them with a deep dive into addressing the needs of diverse learners?
  • Shelley Cohen [full disclosure: we're related] has founded and runs The Jewish Inclusion Project, which, according to its mission, is "aimed at educating and inspiring rabbinical students and rabbis on the obligation, need, and methodology for leading the creation of more inclusive synagogues, schools, and summer camps that fully embrace the communal, social, and religious needs of people with disabilities and their families."
We know there are tons more resources out there and that many educators are doing great work in this area. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

MIT Media Lab Creativity Course: Peer Learning

I'm finally getting to dip my toes into the pool of the MIT Media Lab's Creativity MOOC. Week 4 tackled the topic of peer learning, one of the "P's" the course is focused on. The others are projects, passion, and play.

Here's a link to the video I watched, which made the following points about peer learning:

The Internet opened up a tremendous amount of information to the world, democratizing education, it's true, but also enabling us to connect with peers in heretofore unheard of ways. For example, we can undertake learning projects together. One of the instructors in the video mentioned an attempt he made with a few friends to take a psychology course online. The materials in the MOOC were unimpressive, but he ended up learning what had driven his friends -- all on different continents -- to want to study psychology. What began as an educational pursuit brought the peers closer in an emotional way.

Because the friends were without an expert, they didn't meet their learning goals, but they achieved something else. The video also went on to discuss what role an expert or facilitator might play in learning. Clearly, an expert is necessary -- as evinced by the failed attempt to learn any actual psychology -- , but if we think about the learning that did take place, then we can think about what a more fluid classroom might need and may decide that learning goals can be flexible and varied.

A facilitator, as opposed to a teacher or expert, for example, might need to show learners how to obtain information -- how we know is becoming as important as what we know -- or he/she might play the role of foster emerging collaborations. Noticing what learners are doing in the room and who they're learning with is key, then, for a facilitator, who doesn't have to be expert in a particular area in order to help people learn.

A final point the video made was that peers often drive learning outside the classroom. Friends frequently sign up for activities based on what other friends are doing -- a point that perhaps circles back to the initial one made about the friends who signed up to study psychology together. Those friends were adults, and adults may not be as driven to do what their peers are doing; often, younger learners -- those in elementary and high school -- sign up for courses or activities solely because "their friends are doing it." The influence peers have on the learning process, therefore, is worth pondering.

Of course, I'm a big believer in getting out of the students' way, so I can observe more closely what they want to learn and therefore help them get to the place they want to get to. The MIT Media Lab video deepened understanding of my role as facilitator in the self-directed learning environment and renewed my respect for peer learning, making me wonder how I can incorporate it more in the classrooms where I'm driving course material.

But the segment also made me think of JEDLAB, which lacks formal hierarchies and is all about peer learning. At the beginning of the video, when the instructor spoke of the fact that the foray into psychology simply brought him closer to his friends, I immediately thought of Ken Gordon's piece about the "I-Thou"-ness of JEDLAB.

Unlike the failed attempt to learn psychology, however, I do think we get an awful lot of learning done in JEDLAB, though it often seems to take the route of Woodstock in the old Snoopy cartoons, that is, it's non-linear. What seems particularly strong in the group, however, is the sense that we're on a journey of learning together, that we're peers bound by a shared passion for Jewish education and a desire to play with its forms and structures in a manner that today's new forums and media allow for in unprecedented ways.

So what I took out of my first foray into the creativity MOOC is that it's OK to take a meandering, circuitous path in learning. That meandering takes time and freedom, though. Standardized tests create an atmosphere that is the anti-thesis of the serendipitous and self-driven one we're advocating here, and the Jewish day school day is packed because of a dual curriculum. So my question is: How do we build time and freedom into the school day?