Archive for Blog

Make Me Something–Anything: My Maker’s Space Debut


Today marked the debut of my maker’s space and the results were nothing short of stunning.  

Random, varied collection of art supplies

I had been gathering miscellaneous art supplies with no particular goal in mind other than to increase the number of options available for students.  I have duct tape, construction paper, post-it notes, paint, pens, crayons, glue and yarn.

Give them materials and set them loose

Today I wanted to just introduce them to the maker’s space and for them to get their hands dirty so to speak.  So, I didn’t want to put any parameters on the assignment requirements.  I would never have given this assignment years ago, I was too much of a control freak then.  But today, I turned them loose.  

Students Rose to the Occasion

I told them:  Make me something–anything–and then connect it somehow with something that we have read this year.  The kids really surprised me.  I made the following observations throughout the day:

  • 100% of the students were engaged from the first minute.  My usual slow starters were quick to jump in.
  • Student projects varied considerably–wide parameters spurred creativity.
  • Students were taking their time–no one was doing it just to do it.
  • Many students had ideas that involved time and resources out of class:  Stop motion animation, minecraft, video skits etc.
  • Students were accessing online resources to help with their projects.

Confirmed Truths

Overall this assignment was a tremendous success and it confirmed a lot of things I have learned this year:  Student choice is a powerful tool of engagement, Reluctant students can thrive with the right assignment and wide parameters is a creative spark.

The Power of Stories


Everyone Likes Stories.


I truly believe that–everyone.  Not everyone likes to read, not everyone likes theater, film or other media but I believe that everyone likes stories.  When there is a good story–it turns head–it gets people to stop and pay attention.  

This year, I have been experimenting with student choice during reading time.  I know some students like to be read to.  Some like to read on their own and other like to read in a group.  So I have allowed each student to choose what they would like to do during this designated time.

If You Read It, They Will Come

When reading time comes I simply go over to the corner and start reading as if I were reading a children’s book. I actually started the school year by reading a children’s book to all of my students in the corner of the room while everyone sat on rugs.  This idea came directly from Catlin Tucker who actually modeled this in one of the conferences I had the privilege of attending.  She made the point that everyone starts out enjoying stories (we all loved story time in kindergarten).  But, something happens to many of us by the time we reach high school to make us NOT enjoy reading.  I think it has everything to do with choice and nothing to do with narrative because everyone love stories.  

Get Out of the Story’s Way 

In the past I would have given a long preface to each book or story about how great a story is or a long exposition of the historical background or why it’s an important and influential piece etc.  As I endeavored this year to be as student centered as possible by not speaking to the class–I decided that I would forgo any such statements and just start reading.  I won’t tell them why the book is good or what to read for.  I just wanted them to read–experience the story.  I didn’t even tell them to quiet down because I was reading.  


On the first few short stories the narrative just took over.  It captured the audience.  For those students who wanted to listen to me, it worked well.

Good Stories are Timeless

Today, I started Jane Eyre–a longer novel with more archaic language.  But, one containing a great story.  Now the test–could the narrative shine through the text or would it fall on deaf ears and eyes.


Prior to reading time I did something unexpected but described in the agenda–I played a film clip from the movie version (I chose the 2011 version with Michael Fassbender) because it was available on netlix streaming).  I have no explanation, no introduction, no prefatory remarks to set the context.  Some students didn’t pay attention at first but after a few minutes most of the class was watching.  By the time young Jane was placed in the Red Room, all eyes were on the screen.  It was then that I stopped the video and transitioned into reading time.
I began reading in the corner and those near me engaged and attentive.  They had a visual context for the book we were to begin and, I believe, the narrative worked it’s magic.  I’m hoping the students are now invested into novel (or at least have a point of access), but time will tell.  Today, it was affirmed to me that everyone loves stories and If i can get myself out of the way of a good story–a good story will do it’s work.  

The Love of Reading and the Power of Choice


The Joy of Reading


I remember when I was in high school I NEVER finished a single book assigned by my English teacher–and I was a “good” student.  BUT, I was always reading–mostly Stephen King.  I devoured all of his novels growing up.  In fact, every summer I read a King novel to try to re-capture that pure love of reading I experienced as a youth.

The Agony of School Reading

In high school, I really liked reading but I didn’t like to be told what to read and when.  I actually attempted to read all of the assigned novels but the outside of class reading was extensive and I fell behind and could never seem to catch up.  I can remember one time trying to plow through “Arrowsmith” By Sinclair Lewis thinking This will be the novel I finish, but it wasn’t.  I fell behind like always.  Nevertheless, I did my work and took my “B” at the end of the day.  

The Power of Choice

Choice is a powerful incentive.  When I taught history my theory was that EVERYONE likes history.  Now not everyone likes history class or certain eras in history but EVERYONE can find something they like about history.  The same holds true for books.  I believe everyone likes stories we like telling stories and hearing stories.  What is a novel but a long story.  However, not everyone can easily access the story in the same way.  So I have decided to incorporate a greater amount of choice this year.


I am still choosing the novels.  But, now students have a choice of what reading format works best for them.  They can listen to me read in the corner, Or they can read in a group, Or they can read by themselves.  I even let them read outside under a tree.  Everyone is able to access the text in such a way that works for the.


I am also giving them choice in the type of assignments they do to show me that they have accessed the text. They can either do copywork:  Actually copy out of the text itself.  This is a basic level assignment and allows the student who would normally never read, have some engagement with the next.  The mid-level assignment involves taking a basic quiz over the content and the higher level assignment involves keeping a reading journal and interacting with the text through writing in such a way that shows they have process the text.


Let Students Catch Up

I tell the students if they fall behind that they can catch up by reading Sparknotes or Shmoop.  These are highly detailed summaries that will catch anyone up to speed so that they can go back to doing challenging work even if they fall behind.    Many students, even the best students, will give up if they get to far behind.

Now, I know that some students will not read and then go back and read Sparknotes–then do the mid level assignment.  That’s fine–they are reading at a certain level on their own time and are fulfilling the same requirements.  They will not earn an A doing this.  But, this may encourage them to jump back into reading the text–at least they will always have this option.


Furthermore, I tell them that if they love to read (as I did–and still do) and read outside of class that I will give them class credit–even if it’s Stephen King. I do want them to read certain things in my class but I want to make room for choice.  


Book Wall: If You Build It, They Will READ



IF You Build it They Will READ

I used to think that students didn’t like to read.  I was wrong.  I became aware of this fact when I built my book wall.  Now, I have to admit–the motivations for building my book wall were a bit selfish.  I needed an easy and fun way to decorate my classroom, but I needed more space to store my books.  I frequent thrift shops, used bookstores and library book sales and simply do not have room at home to store everything I want to buy and I had maxed out all the shelf space in my classroom.


Push Pins and Binder Clips

My wife told me about a teacher at CART in Clovis, CA, who used push pins and binder clips to hang books–simple and easy.  I just happen to have tons of binder clips so put up as many as possible–with no organization, rhyme or reason.  Then, something magical happened. Students started to ask me if they could borrow them.  What!?!  This wasn’t a part of any assignment I had given.  They didn’t need them for Silent Reading (our school got rid of that years ago).  They just wanted to read them.  


Plus, my students never asked me about my books when they were on the shelf!  Some teachers believe that books are not as attractive when only their spine is showing.  I think there is something to this.  We all know the old adage:  You can’t judge a book by its cover.  But, maybe an attractive cover can make the difference between being noticed and not–at least in a classroom. 

Choice is Powerful

Now, I make more of an effort to buy books students will be interested in–which has only increased the number of check outs.  Choice is a powerful thing.



So now If a student wants to check one out I have them fill out a 3×5 card with their name and book title.  Now, I will eventually incorporate this into my class formally-by giving them some sort of class credit for reading.  But for now, it’s really refreshing to see this.  

Good things happen when you don’t tell HOW


I Took A Big Risk 

Today, I took a big risk (for me) in creating an assignment for my students.  I told them to do something that I didn’t know how to do.  The students had to take a picture of an assignment from another class and upload it to Google Classroom.  The results were amazing.  I had students asking each other how to do it and there was an expert at every table.  I had one student show me how to do it and I learned something.  Last year I would not have even given this assignment.  


I used to think that I needed to be an expert in everything I was asking my students to do.  I assumed that they knew nothing and therefore, I, the disseminator of all knowledge and information (in my old TEACHER driven classroom) must learn and master the content so that I could show my students how.  

It’s NOT About Me


Even when I started to move to a STUDENT centered model I still felt the need to explain everything by giving step-by-step instructions that were two pages long.  This resulted in students not reading the instructions and asking one another or myself how to do something.  But, more importantly, it PREVENTED me from trying anything that I was not an expert in because I “Don’t have time to learn it.”


I ALSO have found that students are more creative when you loosen the parameters.  They find a way to do things, they use creative thinking skills, they do things you do not expect.  And, if given choice, they tend to go above and beyond your expectations.  They want to use color or add pictures or do a little bit extra because they chose the assignment and they feel like they have the freedom to do it their way.  


I used to HATE vague language.  I used to want clear, concise directions and expectations.  Now I like a bit of vagueness that spurs creativity.  I just tell them what I want–but NOT how to do it.  The results have been amazing.  


When Talking Becomes Droning

Kids are talked at ALL DAY LONG. I think we tend to forget this when we are the ones talking and “interacting” with students.  I’m an introvert but I love talking about my subject matter.  I used to pinch myself and say “Wow, I get to talk about World War 2 all day–what a job I have!”  And it was great fun…for me…and about 5 of my students.


It wasn’t until I observed other classrooms where the teacher just DRONED on and on as if they felt the need to fill up all the time from bell to bell, repeating, reiterating and listening to themselves talk, that it hit me.  THIS WAS ME.  But, because I was the one interested and talking, I didn’t realize it.  I thought I was interesting, I thought I was profound but…most of my audience wasn’t listening most of the time.  


I am also made aware of this constant droning in various meetings I am required to attend from time to time where the speaker or facilitator turns a memo into an hour and a half of listening to themselves talk.  I generally like listening to lectures BUT not when I’m less than interested.  Furthermore I am less likely to engage or participate IF I can’t discern the value of the conversation or if I feel like I’m making it last longer by contributing and just want to get on to someone else.  If I, as a mature adult, felt this way then I’m sure my students felt it times 100.  


I had kids act up, distract others or otherwise totally disengage.  So I would do things to try to prevent this like making them write it down and collecting it or testing them on it etc.  And I’m sure that some did this in order to earn a certain grade–but were they listening to me–highly doubtful.


So, last year I had a 5-minute rule.  I would only speak for 5 consecutive minutes.  But, I sometimes broke the rule because, hey I was talking about World War 1 or Macbeth so I fell back into some old habits.


This year I am in the process of placing a gag on myself–NO TALKING.  Well, no talking to the whole class anyway.  To the WWI junkie I can elaborate on the details of the Schlieffen Plan.  To the artistic student, I can tell him how to complete the assignment using Google draw.  And guess what–everyone is listening–and I’m still having fun and, I think, so are they.


It doesn’t have to be perfect in order to share…

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 10.23.56 AM

I had a blogging problem. The problem was that I wanted to do it but was paralyzed by perfection.  If my prose wasn’t perfect I didn’t share it.  Guess what, I ended up hardly sharing anything.  And as a result, I stopped blogging.  The whole process, which is supposed spur reflection and help others, became a burden.  I would have great ideas and interesting things happen in my classes but the thought of writing it up seemed like a nightmare of revision. Plus, being an English teacher, I felt the need to uphold proper grammatical conventions as if the sanctity of the English language was at stake.



So, I am doing something right now that I hope will prove liberating.  I will press the publish button without proofreading to prime the pump so to speak. Never again will I be paralyzed by grammer.  I must write and I must share.

I wonder if this is why some of my students hate writing…

5 Reasons “Traditional” Education is a Fiction

5 Reasons “Traditional” Education is a Fiction




I am just as nostalgic as the next guy perhaps even more so especially when it comes to education.  However, as I reflect on my childhood educational experience and try to glean lessons that I could apply to my 21st Century classroom I quickly discover that the traditional model of school I had revered so much in memory is a fiction–a fabrication of a mind that is quick view the past through rose-colored lenses and fast to blindly praise a system that produced me.  See, I turned out ok, I’m educated, I tell myself.  However, upon further examination I discovered other factors that perhaps played a bigger role in the outcome such as family support, household stability and access to books.  Therefore, it is erroneous to uncritically praise the system that one experienced simply because the end result is satisfactory.  When most people talk about “traditional” education they tend to mean the educational experience they themselves experienced growing up–because that was their “normal.”  Normal doesn’t exist, neither does the reality of what we consider “traditional” education.


Here are 5 reasons our notion of “Traditional School” is a fiction:

1.  Technology in education has always existed.

Many people put the notion of “traditional” education at odds with terms like “technology” implying that technology didn’t exist in the traditional system but is only a recent gimmick seeking to do away with our beloved tradition.  Just as in every other sphere of life, technological advances have taken place as innovative people try to create a more efficient way of doing something.  Imagine how your life would be different without factory made clothing or simple household appliances such as the washing machine.  Every innovation is first viewed with skepticism then later embraced as a necessity.  The field of education is no different.  However, when many people use the term “technology” they are talking about the latest technological innovation and neglect to consider all of the older innovations that they use unconsciously.  There was a time when the reel to reel projector was considered technology, so too the VHS player, Scantron machine, copy machine and even the overhead projector.  These too were undoubtedly met with skepticism when they first arrived on the scene but later became accepted due to their efficiency.  The white board replaced the chalk board and the video projector replaced the overhead projector.  Every innovation in education has always had its proponents and its critics in every generation.



2.  Teacher-Centered Learning is not necessarily “traditional” or better

When we think of traditional education many of us imagine a single teacher guiding the entire class through their lessons.  Perhaps we imagine a quaint one room school house where all eyes are locked on the teacher as they delivered the content.  Then we imagine our own experiences of teachers teachers reading to us in the primary grades and perhaps lecturing to us in middle and high school.  However, we tend to downplay the learning stations or the small group communities or the partner work we engaged in.  We forget about the packets we completed and the busy work that was dumped on us at every level.  We block out the wasted class time and the unending lectures, all of which were a dreadful byproduct of what we consider “traditional” education.  In the secondary years we may have had some positive lecture situations but I would challenge you recall some of the content you retain from these experiences.   I remembered the fact that I sat through a lecture every day in world history class.  I remember being bored by most of it (and I love history).  However, I vividly remember (22 years later) the content surrounding our trial of Louis XVI.  I don’t even remember the format or content on our tests but I vividly recall our group presentation on John Calvin and the multitudinous factors that brought about the Protestant Reformation.

3.  Applying the term “traditional” to the way we were taught downplays the innovation of our teachers.

Because we standardize our own experience as typical or “traditional” because that is all we have known, we fail to grasp how our teachers were breaking with the past and trying something new.  I would argue that each generation of teachers not only reflects the recent trends in education but also contains a variety of innovators that have employed unorthodox methods or used different strategies to reach their students.  However, if this is all the student has ever known then they will see it as normal or traditional.  The generation of teachers I experienced were trained to use the textbook and for many grade levels the textbook was the bible for better or worse.  However, I had a sixth grade science teacher who threw out the textbook and had us outside building model rockets and launching them off in front of the whole school on designated day.  I had no appreciation for how unique this was at the time and was shocked when I found out that other 6th graders at other schools were not doing this.


4.  Old methods are not necessarily better because they have been around for a while.

Education has always been in a state of flux.  Trends come and go.  What was tried 30 years ago and abandoned is sometimes resurrected years later under a different name.  Furthermore, what worked once is not guaranteed to work again for another generation.  Good teachers know this and will continually implement their lessons, reflect upon successes and failures and adapt then make adjustments for next time.  This should be an ongoing process based on the assumption that perfection is unattainable that one should strive for it anyway. What we experienced as students was simply a moment in time–a part of a single teacher’s journey and growth (or decline) as a professional.  Maybe next year their lessons were better, or maybe their methodology stagnated and eventually became ineffective.


5.  Only teaching the way you like to learn is like preaching to the choir.

There are several students in your class that already love learning for its own sake.  They will complete whatever work is given and they will learn it because they enjoy it or want to master it for the sake of earning a good grade.  Frankly, it doesn’t matter what you do, these students will learn the content.  There is a good chance that if you are a teacher, you were one of these kids.  Therefore, teaching your own students they way you were taught doesn’t mean that they will learn it that way.  They may not have had the support at home that you had or maybe they just don’t like school for whatever reason or, heaven forbid, find it boring.  It is a selfish teacher that only teaches they way they had been taught or the way that they learn best.  I know, I used to be one.  I initially loved teaching primary because I really enjoyed talking about The French Revolution and World War II.  I loved the content and really believed I could make everyone else love it just by talking about it with passion.  It worked–for about 7 students per class.  Now, I strive to use a variety of student-centered methods to reach as many of my kids as possible rather that simply providing a platform for myself to talk about content with the 7 students who want to listen.

Is the history of education worth studying?  Absolutely.  I’m not advocating a break from the past or anything we consider “traditional.”  However, I am calling for a realistic examination of the past to glean lessons for the future.  I am calling for an examination of the present to prepare our next lessons.  A byproduct of this will necessarily be a less than perfect portrayal of our childhood experience.  But the lessons gleaned and the process of critical reflection itself will pay dividend for our students today.


Getting Started with Animations Interview

My wife wanted to recreate a video similar to the Ken Robinson RSA video animation, thus she interviewed me about how I got started with simulations.  Embedded is the final product. If you’re interested in how she made it she blogs at

This process was actually a bit more difficult than the final product would suggest.  It takes some practice to maintain a conversational (not boring) tone while being economical with ones language–not to mention speaking in such a way that can be rendered visually.  But, this process, I believe, represents the future of education and the necessary adjustments I, as an educator, must make:

1.  Speaking in front of a microphone is vastly different from speaking in front of a class.  I had not realized how much energy one draws from the audience when speaking in public.  It is difficult to generate that kind of vitality in front of a microphone.  Therefore, we elected to go with an interview approach–which produced a more relaxed (and engaging) tone.  I’m thinking this has important implications in perhaps replacing a lecture time with a Socratic circle or a panel discussion.

2.  Economy of language, time and resources is essential–not only in today’s society but any society.  I think I would do better to edit myself often–to streamline my thoughts and language.  I am a good lecturer but no one wants to hear me speak for 45 minutes.

3.  Use of visuals–this comes not as a surprise but a necessary reminder for me.  The brain thinks in terms of visuals.  I need to be thinking of ways to represent what I say visually when  I am attempting to communicate in any format.




How to plan a game-simulation for the classroom

Whenever I sit down to write a game-simulation for my classroom I always seem to progress through a set of steps.  Here are a list of the steps that guide my thought process along the way.

I used the following example for a World History class when we were studying World War I.

1.  Determine Primary Objectives–I really wanted my students to get a feel for what the warfare was like but since it took place on so many fronts and literally all around the world I know I needed to focus my objectives.  I decided to focus on the Western Front, trench warfare and the stalemate that ensued for four long years.  I wanted the students to understand why the stalemate occurred and perhaps get a sense of what life was like on the Western Front.  I also wanted my students to sense the frustration involved in trying to cause a breakthrough in the enemy’s lines.  Furthermore, I wanted the students to be able to grasp the human toll on this type of warfare the resulted both from the tactics that were used and the modern weaponry involved.

2.  Determine Game Play, rules and conditions for victory–Based on by primary objectives listed above, I knew I needed a game that would simulate death on a wide scale and victory difficult (but not impossible) to procure.  I decided to divide the class into two teams or armies and send them off to opposite sides of the room.  The game would be played in a series of rounds. The winner of each round would be the first team to walk across the room and simply touch a designated desk in enemy territory.  This would simulate a flanking manouvre or a successful breakthrough in the enemy’s line. However, while the objective needs to be simple, the execution of the objective cannot.  Just as in World War I, the objectives were clear and simple but very difficult to achieve.

In order to make the objectives difficult to obtain and keep the casualty rates high, made death easy to come by.  Each side was given hundreds of pre-cut pieces of paper in three sizes:  Large (full sheets of paper); medium (two-inch strips of paper) and small (half-inch strips of paper).  The different sizes of paper are used to simulate the different weaponry involved.  The large pieces of paper represent artillery.  Since no one was out of range of the artillery on the Western Front, so too would no one be out of rang of a large, crumpled piece of paper.

I need to clarify the fact that I did not tell the students they had to crumple or wad the paper.  I simply told them that if they were hit by a thrown or projected piece of paper that they were “dead” and removed from the round.  I expect the teams to begin crumpling up the paper at first but, I also wanted to same room for innovation.  A wadded, full-sheet of paper would be able to travel the full length of the classroom and therefore simulate the range of an artillery shell.  A wadded, middle-sized piece of paper would simulate a simple rifle shot–able to reach across no-mans-land but not the back of the room.  Finally the small pieces of paper are designed not to be able to cross the mid-point of no-man’s land.  The small pieces are designed to simulate machine gun fire and are the only type of paper that can be thrown more than one piece at a time.

Each army would be able to designate two artilleriasts and two machine gunners.  Everyone else, it is presumed, only carrying a rifle.  Only the artillerists can fire the large pieces of paper (one at a time) and only the machine gunners can throw the small pieces of paper (as many at a time as desired).  It is at the discretion of each army, how they will utilize their man-power.  For example, they may choose to have two people just crumpling paper or maybe one person trying to figure out how to fold a piece of paper to make it more effective.

It is essential that this game encompass multiple rounds.  I want each side to quickly learn what works and what doesn’t work and be able to make adjustments from round to round.

3.  Give the students real choices–it is essential for the students to be given real choices.  They should be made to feel like they are being guided to a particular outcome.  If the pre-planning is done correctly, it doesn’t matter what the students do, their choices will approximate or imitate choices made by various groups of people on the Western Front.

Don’t give them a huge list of rules of what they can and cannot do.  Just give them a wide range of parameters within which to operate freely.

At first, I would tell my students that they needed to crumple the paper to simulate bullets, but later I left that up to them.  Sure, most of them did crumple but a few tried different things, like paper airplanes etc.  I even had one student build a paper airplane and load it with machine gun bullets.  His idea was to crash the plane on the ceiling above the enemy and rain the bullets down on their heads.  It is essential to allow the students to innovate.  After all, when the western front bogged down into trench warfare it caused both sides to come up with methods of breaking the stalemate (such as tanks and poison gas).

Also, I used to tell my students to build barricades or trenches with the desks on their side of the classroom.  But, this too, I left up to them.  They quickly learned that this was essential but, I think it was more effective for them to make the connection under fire rather than me taking this decision out of their hands.

4.  Determine Secondary Objectives:  Once the parameters for game-play have been worked out, it is now time to think about any secondary objectives that can be taught within the existing framework.  In other words, what can the teacher add or change during each round that may communicate a different reality of World War I.  This can be difficult because you do not not want to limit, much, the kids’ choices.  Also, you do not want to hinder their ability to learn from the failures and successes of the previous rounds.

For example, you may want to introduce the element of disease or trench foot. One round you could reduce each side’s ranks by a certain percentage and have them be casualties of disease.

Or, you could simulate weapon shortages by limiting the number of paper each side has.  Also, if you feel that the students are missing out on an opportunity you may offer up the suggestion of “what if we built something like a tank out of a desk and cardboard?”

5.  Determine method and timing of reflections.  An essential component of any game or simulation is a debrief or reflection time.  This is necessary for allowing the students to process everything that happened and make important connections between and to the objectives.  The question here is when while this time occur and how often (if multiple times).  For this simulation, I think it is best to have a large debrief session after all the rounds of the game have been completed.  An alternative, might be to have a small debrief session between each round but I fear that might break the continuity between rounds.  Of course, if one or both sides are completely missing some key component to the game, it is clear that they will not come up with it on their own then a short, between rounds clarification is necessary.  For slower, more methodically paced games or simulations (i.e. ones that last for a week or so) a daily debrief session is desired.

In this particular instance a longer debrief following the action is preferred.

A typical debrief session may include some general reflection questions that ask students to make connections between the game and the particular content objectives.  However, there may be other methods that could be more effective.  If students were asked to keep a journal of their role in the great war they could, perhaps come process the content objectives on their own.  Other debriefing activities might include have students produce a news cast or write a newspaper covering the events that occurred.  Another intriguing Idea, although it would take a longer time, would be conducting a trial for one of the generals for war crimes or, for one of the soldiers for cowardice.