Please Share My Passion For Education!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Rigorous Engagement for a Community of Learners

The following is a guest blog post by Starr Sackstein, one of my favorite education bloggers. Starr is an ELA/Journalism teacher in New York and true innovator and leader in the field of education. I am honored to have Starr's contributions to this blog as she is an extremely insightful educator who understands how to prepare students to be successful. The concepts Starr shares are important aspects of ComPassion-Based Learning, as she explains how to promote a culture of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as well as teaching them to become self-directed learners. Building this culture is a critical element in empowering students and allowing them to "make a difference".

I recommend following Starr's blog at:  and following her on Twitter @mssackstein

Rigorous Engagement for a Community of Learners
by Starr Sackstein, NBTC
World Journalism Prep School, NY
 Students in my AP class work in groups to create modern day comic strips of scenes from Hamlet. I assigned the scene and they did the rest. How they want to present, how they want to create, completely up to them. As you can see in the picture, kids aren't in seats, but working wherever it works for their groups.

Some may say that it takes a room full of type-A kids completely motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic prizes to create a community of learners.

I say, we can create engaged community by supporting authentic choices to share responsibility for learning in a classroom for all kids, all the time.

Shake off your image of traditional classrooms: desks in rows, kids silently working to signify engagement.

And now consider a noisy, multi-tiered room where kids are working on similar skills but are choosing the means through which they show what they know. They work alone or in pairs or groups, whichever suits the learning best.

It’s a little chaotic, but completely worth it.

Building a classroom like this takes some effort. First you have to reset norms and erase years of traditional learning.

As a teacher you need to consider that a quiet classroom is not necessarily a productive one. Productive noise shows real student engagement, so remind kids that you want them to participate and that will sometimes mean working in groups or alone, moving around, talking and/or using technology.

If learning is truly going to make an impact, they need to understand why they are learning what they are and have some kind of investment in it. So invite them to help make decisions about projects and class lessons and even what they read and who they work with.

A teacher who wants to be facilitating a truly rigorous environment maintains high, transparent standards and offers multiple ways and time for each student to meet them. Provide them with not only choice in content, but also choice of mode of presentation. Show them models and explore possibilities, most of all, make them hyper-aware of what they are doing.

Teach them about their learning. Let them rewrite standards. Let them set the goals and decide when they feel they have reached them. Support them through their authentic journey by making yourself available during class time and outside of class for conferences and answer questions like it’s your only job.

Realize that you don’t have to know everything they do; you just have to know how to support them in their pursuit of learning. Be honest and humble and learn with them, to truly be a part of the community.

A classroom that shares responsibility: takes risks together, pushes each other and creatively engages all kids, most of the time.

Not learning isn’t a choice.

If you see a child, not choosing to participate, engage them. Ask them why. Work with them to develop a strategy that works for them.

My Mixed Media class gave me a challenge at the start of last year. 10th graders with learning challenges from all over the spectrum. If it wasn’t an elective class, I would have had a second teacher in the room with me. To add insult to injury, my class was first period and many of them were repeaters. 32 students, almost all who didn’t want to be there.

“I didn’t choose this class. I’m not interested in journalism.”

At first, I ardently tried to follow my curriculum map to no avail. We talked about media and the messages that media conveys segueing into the presidential election which I was assured of that non of them were interested in.

By November, they all knew what was going on. They could all write news articles about political coverage and they were interested in who would win.

But it didn’t stop there. Then came Hurricane Sandy and the break in learning was hard to rebound from. But rather than stick to the program, I decided to take a visual approach moving into a photojournalism unit.

The kids responded to the visual - well, even better than expected. They did project after project and became really good at writing cutlines and creating compelling images to tell stories.

But the best success of the year was when I cut the reins completely. I told them that they would design their final projects: write the assignment, create the rubric by which they planned on being graded, do the assignment and then reflect on their learning based on the standards. If they completed this process, they could NOT, would NOT fail.

The whole room looked surprised, but took on the challenge not realizing that it was harder than it sounded. I knew it would be harder than anything I could create for them.

You can read about the whole process here.  (once on my website, you can see some of their work in different posts)

Overall, what the students produced far exceeded my expectations, even the kids who didn’t work all year.

Giving the students the opportunity to take control of their own learning paid off big time and despite our disagreements at the beginning of the year, almost unanimously, kids thanked me at the end, wishing they would have me again next year. This was a huge change from the beginning when the mass exodus tried to happen.

Human beings are inherently engaged when they have choices over what they do and the appropriate help to be successful. Give it a try. If you’d like my help, I’d love to collaborate.

 Students in my AP class work in groups to create modern day comic strips of scenes from Hamlet. I assigned the scene and they did the rest. How they want to present, how they want to create, completely up to them. As you can see in the picture, kids aren't in seats, but working wherever it works for their groups.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Going from Me to We

The following is a "guest post" by Erin Quinn who is an outstanding teacher at Samuel W. Shaw School in Calgary, Alberta.  Erin is someone that I have had the opportunity to learn a LOT from through her blog at and through twitter, where you can follow her - @luckybydesign.  This post, about their "Me to We" Club and the heartwarming stories that accompany it, is absolutely amazing!!!  This is great evidence that our students can truly CHANGE THE WORLD if we give them the opportunity!  This is an excellent example of ComPassion-Based Learning

Going from Me to We
by:  Erin Quinn

Compassion is built through service. When students have the opportunity to be active participants in building a strong global community, their empathy and understanding of others increases. I have never seen this exhibit itself so powerfully as I did this year in our school's first Me to We Club.

Me to We is a simple concept: switching from a selfish mindset to one that cares about others. Isn't that what compassion is all about? In September, a couple of colleagues and I decided to form a Me to We Club at Samuel W. Shaw School in Calgary, Alberta. SWS is a middle school, and we wanted to give our students an authentic opportunity to be the change they wanted to see in the world. So we put the call out to students in grades 5 through 9, and got about forty shamelessly idealistic kids at our first meeting!

Me to We Club

Our Me to We Club partnered with Free the Children as our platform for change. Free the Children's story inspired us - when he was twelve years old, Canadian Craig Kielburger was flipping through the newspaper and learned about a boy named Iqbal Masih from Pakistan who was sold into slavery at age four and who spent the rest of his life weaving carpets. At age twelve, Iqbal spoke out against child labour. Shortly thereafter, he was killed by those trying to silence his protests. Craig Kielburger read the story and was deeply unsettled by it. He knew that it was wrong, and so he stood up in his seventh grade classroom and asked others to join him. With a small group of classmates, Craig started his Free the Children club, and the roots of the organization took hold. Now, Free the Children works in 45 different countries to transform the lives of people worldwide. First and foremost, Free the Children aims to empower young people in developed and developing countries alike to be change-makers in their communities and around the world.

We Day

Our club of forty dwindled down to a core group of about thirty kids who were passionate about their role in changing the world. The kickoff for them happened in October when they got to go to We Day. What's We Day?

Exciting, right?! Free the Children holds We Day in cities across Canada, the United States, and the UK. We went to We Day at the Saddledome in Calgary with 20,000 other students. The stadium was packed with kids excited about taking action to create change. The stage was shared by entertainers, speakers, and Craig Kielburger and his brother Marc - all talking about how much they care about local and global issues. We got to hear Martin Sheen talk about activism, and Larry King talk about people he's met through his talk show who have inspired him. Performances from the bands Marianas Trench, Hedley, and Lights were interspersed with speeches from Free the Children speakers Molly Burke, an inspirational young woman who lost her sight in her teens and persisted through bullying, and Spencer West, who lost his legs to a genetic disorder when he was a toddler, and who has since climbed Mount Kilimanjaro by walking on his hands. Our students left We Day feeling empowered and impassioned.

Note: The We Day website has great videos and resources to use, even if you don't have a We Day near you.

Me to We Campaigns

From there, our students committed to doing at least one local and one global action during the school year. Free the Children makes this easy for teachers as they have organized campaigns that can be used and adapted to suit your students' needs. They even have curriculum developed for activities and lessons that can enhance the campaigns.

Here's what our Me to We Club organized throughout the school year:
  • We Scare Hunger. In addition for trick-or-treating for candy, many of our students trick-or-treated for donations to our local food bank. Students also brought in other items to school for our food drive. The students were able to raise over 1000lbs of food for the Calgary Food Bank!
  • We Are Love. Instead of selling candygrams for Valentine's Day, the students sold buttons. Students could send a button to a friend, and all proceeds went to support Free the Children development programs. We raised about $130 through this campaign.
  • We Create Change. This was the biggest and most successful campaign. Since the Canadian government was phasing out the penny, we launched this campaign to gather up all the pennies we could! Each classroom had a big water jug in it, and kids would collect pennies and drop them off in their classrooms. Then, we transferred the pennies to bags provided to us from Free the Children. Each bag was worth $25. In the end, our school filled 37 bags, or $925 to provide clean water in developing countries. $25 brings clean water to one person for the rest of their life, so we were able to give clean water to 37 people! The kickoff to this campaign was what made it so successful. See below for more information about our first SWS Water Day! Here's a photo of the bags of pennies in my trunk, on their way to the bank:

  • We Are Silent. Our club members, and other students who chose to participate, pledged to spend April 17th in complete silence, and stand in solidarity of those who do not have a voice. Each student who participated chose a cause that meant something to them, which ranged from things like child labour to girls' access to education to bullying. Students collected pledges from friends and family to sponsor their vow of silence. Our school raised $1300 to donate to Free the Children! (I did it too! I spent an entire 24 hours without talking. Let me tell you: teaching a class of grade 8 students was really challenging without being able to talk! I had my lessons all planned in advance and the students came in, found their instructions on the board, and got to work. I had to use a lot of sign language and nodding and shaking my head yes or no.)
As a side note, you may be wondering what Free the Children does with the money we raise for them. Their international development strategy is called Adopt a Village. In this model, Free the Children uses five core pillars to end poverty: Education, Water and Sanitation, Health, Alternative Income and Livelihood, and Agriculture and Food Security. Free the Children works on developing all five pillars in a community to ensure its sustainability. We love Free the Children, too, because they use only 6% of their overall budget for administration costs. The rest goes directly to their work in international development.

What I Learned

The two most successful campaigns we did were We Create Change and We Are Silent, and the reason why these were successful was because students experienced activities that helped them become emotionally involved in the cause. You know those ads on TV that have starving children with distended bellies? They're sad, right? But they're just images, and they don't allow us to connect with the cause.

In our We Create Change campaign, we kicked things off with our first SWS Water Day. Attached are the instructions we gave teachers. Please feel free to adapt them to suit your own school if you'd like to give it a go. In a nutshell: each student in the school randomly drew a ticket, which determined if you lived in Country A, Country B, or Country C. 80% of students were from Country B, with 10% each in Country A and Country C. This corresponds to the world's access to water. The Country you were "from" also meant you were Two Cookie People, One Cookie People, or Zero Cookie People. At break, students received their allotted amount of cookies. Yes, that meant that some students received NO cookies! Students also received a cup. Country A people had a big red Solo cup. Country B people had a small dentist cup. And Country C people had a small shot glass. Two water jugs were set up, one way at the far end of the school, and one more centrally located. Country A people could fetch their drinking water for the day from any water fountain and any water jug. Country B people could access either of the two water jugs. And Country C people had to go to the furthest water jug to get water. Yes, this was a bit disruptive to learning that day. That was the whole point! In this simulation, students experienced what unequal access to clean drinking water felt like. To further reinforce the message, all students played The Country Game in Phys Ed that day. Again, feel free to download and adapt as you wish.

In We Are Silent, students experienced how difficult it was to spend their day in silence. They understood how frustrating it would be to be a child somewhere in the world whose rights were taken away. They knew what it felt like to be misunderstood. They knew what it felt like to be ignored. And this just made them more passionate about social justice and service.

What's Next

Next year, we are trying out a Me to We option class, which will enhance the students' global citizenship. I am planning on incorporating much more of the experiential learning described above to connect students to the issue and help them feel the importance of the work they are doing. I am really looking forward to building upon the amazing work the students did this year to create a world worth living in!




Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why Students Do Not Like School

I've never let my school interfere with my education.                                    - Mark Twain

A large percentage of students do not like school.  There are polls that show that over 60% of students find school boring and about "dislike" school.  Why?

We are in a country in which you are granted an opportunity to receive an education.  We believe in public schools and that every child has the right to attend these schools.  On average we spend about $9,000 in tax money per year per child (not quite the $29,000 per year we spend per prisoner per year).  There are many countries in which children are not guaranteed an education, in which education is a privilege.  Considering this, you would obviously think that students would be grateful and proud of this opportunity and make the most of it.  WRONG!  I have been teaching for over 10 years, read education articles and books constantly, and network with many teachers.  This is not the general attitude of the students.

I asked one of my classes this past year how much it costed them per year to go to school for a year (11th & 12th grade students).  

The class stared at me.  The first person to speak said, "nothing".  

I replied that they were somewhat correct that they didn't have to pay anything, but I explained that education costs money.  We have to pay for schools, buildings, teachers, books, technology, heat, electricity, etc...  Where does this money come from?  

They stared at me.  "Taxes" said one of the students.  

"Correct".  I asked the class how many dollars it costed (in tax money) for them to attend school for a year.  

The class stared at me (for a long time).  One girl raised her hand and said "$150?".  

"Okay", I said.  "How many people think it is more than this?"  About 5 raised their hands.  "How many think it is less than this?"  About 2 raised their hands.   "Why didn't the rest of you vote", I asked. 

The class stared at me.  One boy replied, "...because I don't know".

It was a good answer.  They didn't know.  They didn't even realize the value of the education they were receiving (which I found quite odd).

So what is the problem?  Are these selfish young people that do not understand respect and opportunity?  Are they too young to really grasp the concepts we are teaching them?  Why do so many students:
     *  Think school is boring?
     *  Dislike school?
     *  Drop out of school?
     *  Show no signs of engagement?
     *  Put forth little effort and receive poor grades?

Is it there fault?

I vote NO.  I do not think this is there fault.  Our school system has been around for over 100 years, yet it has barely changed.  The model that we currently have, in my opinion, is greatly outdated and inefficient.  Our school systems revolve around bells, isolated subject areas, discipline, conformity, "correct answers", standardized testing, lectures, content memorization, etc.....

What are we doing?  What are we preparing students for?  Why do we continue to overload our students with irrelevant content information which they memorize for a test and then forget a week later?  What are we doing?

Businesses and communities are begging for people to learn collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and other skills relevant to today's real world, yet these topics go untaught in the vast majority of classrooms around the country.  This is a disturbing trend.  Are we really providing a strong "education" for our students and preparing them for the future?  I have to look my students in the eyes every day, and it is getting increasingly more difficult, because I am afraid we are not.

.......I am off topic.  Why don't students like school?  Why do they think it is boring?  The answer:  IT IS BORING.  Students do not see the relevance in school, they are not engaged, and they are not doing anything that is improving the world.

So how do we change this?  My suggestions:

Relevance in school - we should make school more relevant.  Teach students HOW TO LEARN.  How to do research, how to communicate, collaborate, be creative and think critically.  We should teach them things they will need for the future and explain to them why they will need it.  They will most likely not need to know Grapes of Wrath, the Calvin Cycle, Algebra, or the structure of the ocean floors.  What are we teaching?

They are not engaged - I have been at plenty of conferences for teachers, faculty meetings, etc... and every time we are required to "sit and get" information and take notes, everyone complains.  That is hypocritical.  Many of these same teachers act as the "sage on the stage" and spout off information to their classes on a daily basis.  They tell kids what they should know, but not why they should know it, and that they should write it down and remember it for the exam.  Engage the students.  Let them use their creativity.  Let them do hands on activities.  Let them fail, and learn from their mistakes.  Let them explore something they want to explore.  Stimulate their minds!!!

They are not doing anything to change the world - every human being, children included, searches for significance.  This is one of the basic motivations of life.  We want to "MATTER" as Angela Maiers so brilliantly says. They want to make a difference.  What are you doing to allow them this?

in conclusion...........

THE ANSWER:  ComPassion-Based Learning - PLEASE (for the students sake) make the content more relevant.  Why do students leave high school having to know the Kreb's Cycle, Stages of Mitosis, Calvin Cycle, Cell Organelles, yet do not learn about how to grow a sustainable garden, how to be more energy efficient, how to make change at the grocery store, how to ask a doctor relevant follow up questions about your health, etc.......

Use the concept of ComPassion-Based Learning.  Teach the kids relevant information, give them autonomy and the ability to explore things that they think are interesting, even if everyone in the class thinks something different is interesting.  While they are "exploring", teach them to communicate, collaborate, learn how to learn, be creative, think critically and solve problems, etc.....  Through all of this, teach them content, because now they will be open to learning content because it matters to them.

In the end, challenge every student to use their knowledge, passions, skills to change the world.  Do projects that improve the community (whether local, state, national, or global).  This could mean providing opportunities or workshops for younger kids, sending food to a country in need, or trying to raise awareness for sustainability.  Allow the students to use their abilities to make a true difference in the world.

Every student deserves the chance to make a positive impact on the world.  I believe STRONGLY, that if we allowed students to work on more projects like this, that they would receive a much better education that would prepare them much better for their futures.  In the meantime, millions more people would be working to make the world a better place.

Why wouldn't we try this?  At Communities in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, we have been doing it for one year, and I have never felt so confident that I am preparing students to succeed in whatever they want to do.  In the meantime, our students had some extremely positive impacts on our community and walked away educated, empowered, and confident.

Check out some of the things we did this year.  Please let me know if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions.  I would love to help make this dream a reality.

Oliver Schinkten
Communities at ONHS
Twitter:  schink10