Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Developing an Asychronous, Creativity-centered Approach to Curriculum (part 1)


Over the past six months, I have been working very closely with a science teacher to design and implement a new approach to the science curriculum. While many of the ideas we decided to use are not new, the combination of strategies creates an approach that is truly individualized for each student.


The first step on the path is planning: gone are the standard lesson plans that most of us have used throughout our teaching careers. In their place are learning experience plans that are designed for each learning goal. The plan is composed of four parts based on the Torrence Incubation Model for teaching creativity. For more information on the model, check out this great video from the International Center for Studies in Creativity

Learning Experience Plan:

Stage 1: Heightening Anticipation
This stage prepares learners to make connections between what they are expected to learn and something meaningful in their lives. It draws them into the learning opportunities to follow in stages 2 & 3.

Stage 2: Deepening Expectations
This stage works to sustain the motivation created in stage 1 and encourages deeper exploration of a topic. During this stage, it important that students are allowed to explore and discover. Information should not be disseminated through direct delivery during this participatory stage. Instead, students are given a choice of activities to participate in. Tolerance for ambiguity is paramount for both teacher and learner, as students must discover critical knowledge on their own terms.

Stage 3: Extending the learning
During this stage, students continue with individually chosen participation/anticipation experiences, but the tasks shift from discovery to application. Activities are designed to give students the opportunity to show what they have learned. Demonstration of understanding is individualized, determined by each student. The teacher is encouraged to provide a wide selection of activities for students to choose from, with the additional option of student-designed alternatives.

Stage 4: Self-evaluation and reflection, plan for the future
Self-evaluation and reflection will occur throughout the learning process, and will guide the students towards their learning goals. They will be encouraged to take ownership of their learning as they evaluate their own individual growth, then determine for themselves the steps they must take to move forward towards reaching their goals.

In order to facilitate an asynchronous classroom, learning experience plans for each of the learning goals must be completed prior to the start of a major unit of study. Students are encouraged to select the learning goals in the sequence that works best for them. They are not required to finish one learning experience before starting another.  This is a critical piece of the equation... Students need the freedom to direct their own learning, at a pace that meets their needs.

The next post in this series will look at some of the activities appropriate for stages 2 & 3 based on the Torrence model.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Exploring an Alternative to Expulsion

For the past 8 years, I have worked in an urban public school here in Buffalo, NY.  And in those 8 years, I have seen students expelled for a variety of reasons.  Each time it happens, I ask myself 
"was there something I could have done?  Did we do everything possible to help this student succeed?" 
Unfortunately, my answer is almost always the same... No.


At the end of last year, I decided to do something to make a positive change in the lives of the students who would otherwise find themselves expelled.  I enlisted the help of a martial arts instructor on staff (pictured above) to create a unique program affectionately dubbed "The Breakfast Club".  The program is designed to equip students who have been identified as disruptions to the learning environment with skills to help them deal with feelings of stress, anger, frustration, and fear. 

Starting this fall, students in the Breakfast Club will first learn basic breathing techniques, in order to begin building the bridge between their bodies and their minds.  Through this mindful connection, students will learn to channel otherwise uncontrollable feelings to a place where they can be calmed and rationally processed.  

Once they have successfully mastered the art of breathing, they will learn to focus their minds and participate in extended meditation.  During this mediation, they will learn to visualize their fears, their anger, and their frustration, and then how to work through each of those emotions.

The final stage of the process with be learning tai-chi forms.  Once the forms have been learned, the students will work together to create a set called Sailing Troubled Waters.  This set will represent their journey towards self-control, self-discipline, and self-awareness.  My hope is that they will be given the opportunity to share their set during the commencement ceremony this spring.

I named this program "The Breakfast Club" for a few reasons.  The first, and most obvious, is the fact that the students will be meeting before school begins twice each week.  In order to encourage healthy minds and healthy bodies, breakfast will be provided for all who participate.  Equally obvious is the fact that, like the movie, the participants are all on the wrong side of the law when it comes to following school rules.  And while these two reasons are more than enough to justify the name, there is a third reason that ends up being the most important.  

By the end of the movie, the disparate band of miscreants, knowing little about each other at the beginning of their detention, come together as a small community.  They depend on each other to get through the day, and they leave knowing that their lives have forever changed because of their experience.  We are hoping the same will occur with the students in our Breakfast Club.  We're hoping they will become a tight-knit community, looking out for each other, supporting each other, and ultimately ensuring that they will all survive and grow through the experience.  

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A response to the recently released NYS elementary test scores


Yesterday, NYS Ed released the 2013 test results for 3rd through 8th grade math and ELA. As predicted, the scores were much lower than what we have seen in the past. And when I say much lower, I mean just that... As in a 30% decrease in students scoring at the proficient level on both math and ELA.  And it happened in every district across the state. Commissioner John King responded to the scores with this statement:



“These proficiency scores do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college- and career-readiness in the 21st century,” King said. “It’s frustrating to see our children struggle. But we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by frustration,” he added, calling the dismal scores a “new starting point on a road map to future success.”

Read more: NY Daily News


This statement, while attempting to remain positive at a time when most are in damage-control mode from the dismal results, inadvertently points to some very concerning issues. The first is the assumption that tests can measure a student's readiness for college and/or a career. While there have been studies that have shown that students with better assessment scores have had higher success rates in college, I do not believe that they can accurately measure a student's readiness for success in the 21st century. In the test-focused educational environment that the new common core has created, educators feel they have little time to focus on the critical skills of a 21st century learner (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication). Instead, they focus primarily on preparing their students for the tests. And this practice is not just for the benefit of the students... Most teachers are also doing it for their own survival, with APPR relying heavily on test scores to evaluate teachers.

Please don't get me wrong... I'm all for raising standards, and assessing students' learning is a critical part of education, but standardized testing and evaluating schools and teachers based on results is not the way to do this. We need the opportunity to create authentic learning experiences for all learners, and assessments that reflect these experiences. We need to give students the chance to showcase their learning, their goals, and the path they intend to take to achieve those goals. Finally, education leaders must give teachers the freedom and support to teach 21st century skills to all students.


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Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Link Between Mindset and Creativity

"the process of having original ideas that have value"
- Sir Ken Robinson, when asked to define creativity

Recently, I had the amazing opportunity to talk about one of my favorite topics in education at Edcamp Buffalo. As the facilitator of the session titled "Creativity, Mindset, and Risk-taking", I began the conversation by sharing the definition of creativity from Sir Ken Robinson shown above. I often start conversations about creativity and education with a quote from Sir Robinson because his words ring true with many educators and provide an important catalyst to spark discussions. I followed up the quote by asking the participants to think about that definition and how it relates to the mindset of our students and teachers. This required a discussion on mindset, what it meant, and how it impacts students.

According to Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, there are two mindsets: fixed and growth. People who operate within the fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talent are pre-determined... no amount of effort will alter these traits. The other is the growth mindset. Those who operate within this mindset believe that personal growth never stops, effort is critical, and failure is an integral part of the growth process. If you're looking to explore this topic further, I highly recommend Carol Dweck's book.

After a short discussion about mindset, I asked participants to consider the relationship between creativity and mindset. To me, creativity is highly dependent on a growth mindset. During the brainstorming part of the creative process, people are encouraged to suspend judgement when generating ideas. This suspension of judgement allows for the generation of a large quantity of ideas, many of which might be outlandish or obscure. If a person brainstorms with a fixed mindset, every idea generated is evaluated before it is ever shared, thus yielding a greatly reduced number of ideas. This evaluation requires a benchmark, and that benchmark is usually something that already exists. When comparing and evaluating new ideas against ones that already exist, it becomes very difficult to create anything novel or original.

The creative process requires a growth mindset in order to flourish. This mindset allows for the suspension of judgement, with participants safe in the knowledge that each idea, and possible failure, is an opportunity to learn and grow. Students, and teachers for that matter, that operate in the growth mindset believe that process is more important than product. They also understand that there can be many correct answers, not just one. And finally, they know that knowledge is gained and shared through the process of discovery and divergence, not through the process of scripted convergence.




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