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Making a Difference


Student-Centered Learning: Meaningful Work

Project-based learning that is student-centered works if it is meaningful work. According to the article “Seven Essentials for Project-Based learning” on Education Leadership:

A project is meaningful if it fulfills two criteria. First, students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well. Second, a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose. Well-designed and well-implemented project-based learning is meaningful in both ways.

It doesn’t matter the age of the learner, every learner gets more involved in the process if the task at hand means something to them and there is a purpose for their work. Let’s look at purpose.

  • Teacher one gives an assignment for their students to write a paper. Usually, the student hands the finished paper in to the teacher who then spends the evening reading and grading the papers.

  • Teacher two shares a topic or asks students to find a topic that is meaningful to them and write why it is meaningful. Students generate questions about their topic, come up with an opinion piece, and then share their writing with their peers who provided feedback. They use a rubric to grade each other and themselves.

Which do you find more meaningful and engaging?

Wanting to know more
Students come to school curious about the world. They want to know more. If the teacher can let students pursue their interests and what they are curious about, then the classroom changes. How about the teacher bringing in a photo or local topic like a polluted nearby creek and letting students discuss it? Then they could go to the creek, take pictures, do research about the creek, interview water experts, etc. What they could find out is that they can make a difference somehow. They can research the problem, find out how a polluted creek like this one could impact the environment and life in the creek, get the right people involved to clean up the creek, and even pick up trash around the creek themselves.

What about the standards?
When I work with teachers they are told to meet the standards, follow the pacing guide, and use the textbook. When you are moving to a student-centered classroom, you are slowly changing the way you teach. You can still meet the standards and cover most of the curriculum. Instead of trying to “cover” everything, there may be another way to involve your students as co-designers of their learning.

  • Show your students the standards — right from the beginning. Explain that they will need to meet these standards with the project. Projects also cover multiple disciplines. If you focus on creeks for 4th grade (CA Science – Earth Science – Water), then you are also meeting Investigation and Experimentation, Language Arts > Writing Strategies > Research and Technology) and probably more.

  • Tell them that you need their input as co-designers so their learning is more meaningful to them. Mention that you normally teach the lesson like this but would like to have more of a student voice. Have them review the topic, the standards, and come up with questions based on this information.

    Good driving questions help focus the project
    We are all born curious. Most children want to learn something by first asking a question. “Where does rain come from?” “Why does a hummingbird flap its wings so fast?” The questions lead to more questions. If you think about the creek and pollution, maybe some of the questions might be “how did the creek get polluted?” or “why do people throw their trash in the creek?” or “how does the pollution affect the fish and other life in the creek?”

    A good driving question gets to the heart of the topic or problem. The creek is polluted. Life in the creek is impacted. The environment is affected by the pollution. Sometimes a good driving question is a call to action. “What can we do to stop the pollution in the creek?” The other questions asked before supported this question.

    Students working in groups
    This is the piece that teachers find difficult to manage or coordinate. Do you let students choose their groups or group by topic or do you choose the groups for them?

    The first time you ever do a project-based learning activity, be kind to yourself. First time, you choose the groups. Each group will have roles for each person but you decide on the roles. Let them choose who will do what. Some students will take on multiple roles and help each other. Some may not.

    I’m going to go into more detail in later posts about how to set up groups, designing questions, etc. The main thing I wanted to get across in this post was to focus on meaningful work and purposeful projects. If your students, no matter what age, feel they can make a difference, they are more motivated to learn, to share, to write, and to present.


What's your Normal?

I shared a poster this morning on Facebook about being normal.

Some questions arose:


  • what does normal mean to different people?

  • If everyone were the same, would they have the same normal?
  • How do you teach people who have different normals?

Think about your normal, how you were raised, and what seems just “normal” to you. Your normal may be to be quiet, be safe and secure, not take any chances, and enjoy each day. You may like to “smell the roses” and meditate. You’re just happy to wake up each day.

Another person’s normal may be to get up early and take on the world. Their mantra is “to make a difference” every day. To challenge everything and take risks. They rarely take time to sit. Every minute needs to be scheduled.

Is one of these normals you? Is one wrong and the other just perfect?

To personalize learning for each student, we not only need to understand their learning style but their normal. The one thing that is difficult to not do is judge someone’s normal.

  • Can we teach that?

  • Can we teach how to accept people as they are?
  • Can we teach how to be tolerant of people’s differences?

A great addition to our curriculum would be to teach empathy and compassion. Figure out your normal and understand other people’s normal. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.


Personalizing Learning so You are Youer than You

Dr. Seuss Logo
Dr. Seuss is brilliant. Let’s learn from Dr. Seuss. He knew that each person is special and unique. I was going through his quotes and realized he got it way before we knew how important it was to personalize learning for each learner.

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
How better to say it than this? One size that fits all doesn’t work for learners today. I like this quote how it focuses on the importance of you and believing in yourself.

“And will you succeed? Yes indeed, yes indeed! Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed!”
Believe in yourself and you can do anything. When learning is focused on you, your interests, and passions, you are more motivated to succeed.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

Traditional school that is “one size fits all” doesn’t work for everyone. Some learners feel discouraged because the system is focused on learning objectives that may not even have anything to do with them or have no meaning for them. Personalizing learning for each learner means they take ownership of their learning.

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those that matter don’t mind and those that mind don’t matter!”
When you know who you are and focus on what you believe in, what you are passionate about, and are in a learning environment that lets you take risks, be innovative, and creative, anything can happen.

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”
When you are in a creative learning environment that is open to questioning and critical-thinking, you never know what you will come up with. I still consider this quote of Margaret Mead’s when I think about thinking: “Children must to taught how to think not what to think.”

“Think and wonder, wonder and think.”
When you are open to questions and search for wonder, you will find amazing things. Open your classroom so learning is anytime and everywhere.

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
Each person is born as a unique and amazing individual. Every child comes into this world having endless opportunities to do whatever they believe they can do. Traditional schools don’t allow creativity or you to stand out. Personalizing learning encourages each child to find and share their unique characteristics and stand out.

“You are you. Now, isn’t that pleasant?”
Celebrate YOU! Every day celebrate who you are. Personalized learning encourages each child to use their strengths and talents as they learn a concept.

“You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!”
So today is your day! Enjoy it! Celebrate it! Have a wonderful time finding ways to make your day the best day so far!


Rethinking 21st Century Skills

Most schools today are not able to make the necessary changes they need to make to be a 21st Century school. It’s not just about technology, teaching, and learning.

Here’s what I see:

    • Schools putting in wifi and maybe enough bandwidth for one device per user.

    • Training teachers on the specific devices and software with a few examples for the classroom.
    • A few schools going 1:1 at school. Very few school-home connections.
    • Very little community and parent involvement at the school.
    • Most funding for 1:1 is soft money with little available for ongoing support.
    • Top down mandates and decisions about types of technology allowed.
    • Firewalls and blocking software that do not give access to most Web 2.0 tools and social media.
    • Focus on increasing student achievement (i.e. raising test scores).
    • Lots of talk about student-centered learning with only pockets of best practices.
    • Cuts in arts, physical education, counseling, libraries, and technology.
    • In-flexible curriculum where students have no say in their interests or passions.
    • No emphasis on the skills and values employers are looking for in their employees. See post.
    • Most educational conferences still focus on testing, technology, and status quo and not on real change in the classroom. Talking about the future is sexy but teachers don’t think it’s doable in their classroom.
    • Teacher education programs are subject-specific silos and tenure-driven organizations. [source]
    • Collaborative planning time, if there is any, is mostly used for lesson plans tied to textbooks and tests.

Change is difficult. Everything is changing around us. Our children are not prepared for today. Just ask your neighbors who have their children who graduated from college who are not able to find work. This is a national crisis. Media and politicians point fingers at schools and teachers as the problems. This is not right. Everything is changing. All of us need to pull together and look at how society is changing. It is all children we are putting at-risk now. Teachers need to be valued instead of blamed for all the ills of society.

I work with public and private schools — high poverty and wealthy schools around the country. Change is slow no matter what type of school.

High poverty schools keep trying different strategies. One year it’s the technology. Another year it’s professional learning communities. After that, something else. The problem with high poverty schools is bigger than one thing. Teacher retention is an issue. Social issues in that community play a big factor. Families in crisis is such a big issue that children get lost in the system. They come to school barely able to function. Teachers can only do so much. Class sizes are too large and many teachers are inexperienced to deal with many of the issues they children face.

With wealthy schools, the test scores tend to be high so parents and teachers don’t see a need to make changes. In fact, there is a concern about taking some risks then seeing scores fall. The issue for these schools is not academic achievement, it’s more of a social issue. The students from wealthier schools have issues they are not talking about: drugs, eating disorders, pregnancies, depression, wrong career choices, children graduating and not finding jobs, etc.

Nothing will happen if the school or district doesn’t support change and talk about the real problems at hand.

Science Leadership AcademyI am looking for schools that really want to make change and address the real issues that are happening with their students, teachers, and the school community. I know a few making some amazing strides where students shine and show entrepreneurial skills like the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the Duke School in Durham, North Carolina where the university, teachers and students design innovative curriculum together.

I’m going to look for examples, interview people, rant, yell, shake up some systems. It’s all about our kids now. I challenge myself, you, and all of us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. It’s time to plan and develop a vision for local communities so their students can be global citizens of the 21st century.

Are you ready?


Building Community Schools to Save our Children

We are educators. All of us. If one child drops out of school early, the whole community suffers.

We need to create the conditions that value all children especially our at-risk children. In Oakland, I saw how devastating the dropout rate was long ago when I was writing Digital High School grants and mentioned my concern. Young black boys were dropping out before eighth grade and it’s worse now.

Today only 30% of African-American males are graduating from high school in Oakland. This is wrong. We spend more money on prisons than educating our children. This is more than wrong. We need to start early educating, mentoring, and building community to raise our children — all children. Jean Quan, Mayor of Oakland, who was on the school board and understands the problem was on the panel of Class Action this morning (9/4/11) with Christopher Chatmon and Mitchell Kapor.

If children dropout and there are no jobs even for educated youth, what happens to these boys? Oakland Unified School District is taking action. They formed a task force called African-American Male Achievement with Chris Chatmon taking the lead. They are starting young with community schooling opening the schools and gyms with programs like Math and Science Academies. Mitchell Kapor from the Mitchell Kapor Foundation wrote…

“We will all lose if we persist in doing business as usual. Our state cannot continue to claim the mantle of innovation if we continue to ignore the human capital that exists in our communities. We cannot remain competitive in the global marketplace by investing more in filling up prison and jail cells – with disproportionately more poor people and people of color – than in creating an educated workforce.”

Read more:

Oakland Boy DrawingChris Chatmon said on Class Action this morning: “The school system was not set up to meet the needs of black and brown boys. The street culture is stronger than school culture. We need a process of engaging and motivating by taking them through a value education.” Jean Quan is coordinating schools and the community. One big thing is keeping the libraries open.

I love Oakland. I have worked with Oakland schools for years and saw the potential in every child. I am very excited that Oakland Unified School District has this task force and is working with the city and community leaders to make a difference in our children’s lives.

Here’s my take on it:
If we want to keep brown and black boys in schools and help each child reach their fullest potential, schools have to change. The schools still have top-down management issues. Doors are closed. Teachers are lecturing and teaching to the test. I walk through the halls and see kids not connecting and drifting off. They get bored and in trouble. Then it starts spiraling down. Like Chris mentioned: we need to make them co-designers of their learning so it is relevant to them. They not only need more role models, they need to find a purpose, a passion that gives them some hope that their lives will be worth something.

I see these kids. They are smart. But they are told they are not smart. We need to look at what “Smart” means. It is not how well they do on a test. We need to find different methods of assessing what they know and can do. I believe in these kids and am passionate about saving each one. I am only one person but there are more like me out there who want to help make a difference. I have seen the best teaching in Oakland and I work around the country, but teachers are caught in a bureaucratic system that keeps them from innovating. Unless there is a grant, there is no money to help build a new type of curriculum. Unless we “think out of the box”, we continue with the same prescriptive curriculum that does not engage our children.


How about creating a K-12 Innovation community school in Oakland where all learning is centered around each child? Each child is part of a team similar to Finland.

Each child is with one teacher for K-3 and this community has parents, mentors, and community members part of the team for that child. Bring in a teacher education program from a local university and create teams Then another teacher can be assigned as advisor from grades 4-8 so there is consistency to monitor progress. Collect artifacts of learning and reflect via portfolios. Design new learning environments that foster creativity and inquiry. For 9-12 each teacher is an advisor for 20 students who guides them in the portfolio process and finds support in the community for internships, shadowing, interviews, building resumés and interviewing skills, and counseling on career and college readiness. Check out my post on Skills and Values Employers Want.

These are just a few ideas that can help all children and especially those at-risk.


Skills and Values Employers Want

When you do a search for “What Employers Want” you do not see high test scores anywhere on any job descriptions. We are training our kids for the types of jobs that are not there anymore. If you look at the world now, everything is changing: business, government, banking, and education. We are in a transitional period with many of us kicking and screaming afraid to go where we have to go. The world is going to change if we like it or not.

I still hear “if it was good for me, it’s good for my kid.”

Kids Coming HomeThis is unbelievable! That kid is going to be living on that parent’s couch when they are in their 30’s because there will not be any jobs for them. Wait a minute! That’s happening now. Read this article “Is there a doctor in the house?

So what are the skills employers are looking for? Skills most sought after by employers according to Randall Hansen, Ph.D and Katherine Hansen, Ph.D are:

  • Communications Skills (listening, verbal, written)
  • Analytical/Research Skills
  • Computer/Technical Literacy
  • Flexibility/Adaptability/Managing Multiple Priorities
  • Interpersonal Abilities
  • Leadership/Management Skills
  • Multicultural Sensitivity/Awareness
  • Planning/Organizing
  • Problem-Solving/Reasoning/Creativity
  • Teamwork


No test scores here!

Kelly Services listed the same skills. Everywhere I looked the same skills.

Check out the 12 Hot buttons from

    1. Results – they are less concerned with your past experience and responsibilities. What did you accomplish?
    2. Figures and numbers - did you increase revenue at your last job? did you underpromise and overdeliver even if you worked at a non-profit or volunteered?
    3. Awards and accolades – share if you have received any awards or been recognized for excellence.
    4. Blog or website – this shows you have good communication skills, but make sure your website looks professional.
    5. Staying Power – be careful of changing jobs that don’t last two years or less.
    6. Up-to-date skills and education – be on top of all the latest technology and innovations in your field.
    7. Ideas and initiative – Be ready to hit the ground running and solve problems without waiting for someone to tell you what to do.


  • Attitude – be enthusiastic, flexible, and postitive.
  • Leadership skills – be willing to take on more responsibility to improve a product or process.
  • Growth potential – go beyond the job description.
  • Creativity – ability to think outside the box and solve problems.
  • Hobbies – be passionate about something outside of work.


No test scores here!

I’m still looking. If universities base their admissions on high test scores, then maybe we need to rethink higher ed. Uh oh! I’m touching on something here that could get very messy.

How do you teach creativity and passion?

Found an article on Ambition: The Fire in the Belly Employers Want by Jane Genova.

“Those hiring and promoting learned from the downturn and intense economic volatility that’s it’s no longer enough to do ‘just a job,’” says Michael Francoeur, Dale Carnegie Training instructor and executive coach. “Employers now know that what kept their business growing or even saved it were the employees who saw beyond their job description. They pushed to do whatever was needed at the time. Often their most important contribution is persistence. The ambitious stay with a project, no matter how bad things seem. That’s usually because they have the confidence to believe in themselves. The less ambitious would have become discouraged.”

I see that ambition similar to finding someone’s passion. When you are passionate about something, you fight for it. There are no punching time clocks. I’ve watched game designers work way into the night so excited about this or that. Maybe there is that passion about finding a cure for a terrible disease or a new type of transportation that is economical and safe for the environment. Maybe we need this type of passion to come up with strategies to fix our economy or climate change.

So I decided to look for top personal values employers look for in employees:

  • Strong work ethics
  • Dependability and responsibility
  • Possessing a positive attitude
  • Adaptability
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Self-motivated
  • Motivated to grow and learn
  • Strong self-confidence
  • Professionalism
  • Loyalty

No test scores again!

I’m putting this out there to you — teachers, parents, professors, administrators, students. Maybe our whole system needs shaking up. Are we teaching these skills and values?

Students will need to graduate with these skills:

  • The ability to act independently and solve problems on their own.
  • Strong interpersonal written, oral, and social skills to collaborate with colleagues.
  • Strong global literacy to understand people around the world.
  • The ability to acquire the information they need to do the job.
  • The ability to learn new skills as corporations change strategies to stay competitive.

The CEO of UPS wrote: “ We look for employees who can learn how to learn.”

So what does school like if we teach these skills and values and teach our students to learn how to learn?


Fail Better

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Robert F. Kennedy

For the past decade, we have been teaching with the idea of only one right answer. Failure was and is not an option. But the real way to learn is to try, fail, and try again. We learn from our failures. We also predict the future based on our past. However, we can learn from the past and all the failed predictions.

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time, more intelligently.” Henry Ford


Let Go and Let Learning Happen

Barbara Bray writes about teaching and learning. It is about kids, their lives and letting go so they can learn. Stop teaching tools and testing them about facts.

Read more

Who dunnit?

I cannot even tell you how exciting it is to work with teachers who are so passionate about teaching and coming up with ways to motivate and engage their students. This last week was like that. I am working at two middle schools in Oakland who just finished testing.  Madison Middle School is preparing for a Math/Science Expo on June 7th. I love this!

It’s all about teamwork, collaboration, inquiry, roles and responsibility.

Think CSI. The eighth grade kids came up with the title “CSI Oakland” and we’re putting together five crime scenes. Shhhhhh! We cannot let all the crimes out of the bag yet. Think money stolen — window broken — locker vandalized and more. We have fourteen suspects. Cannot tell you who they are, but they have mugshots with prison numbers, sour faces, and aliases. Read more


Getting Back to Learning After Testing

I work with several public middle schools who are in the middle of testing. The mood and morale is awful. Students are complaining of headaches and some are skipping school. Teachers are asking me to help them create projects now so as soon as they stop testing, their students can get back to real learning that is connected to what is relevant to them.

Students need to be part of the design team developing questions about what means something to them. One topic we are working on is a six week project on Global Climate Change. We took a template of an existing project and cloned it. That was easy. Now the hard part.. designing group activities where each child has a role and responsibilities. The product they will create in their group is a 30 second public service announcement (PSA) about a topic involving Global Climate Change.

We brainstormed ideas for activities:

  • class will view a video on Global Climate Change.
  • the class will brainstorm ideas for topics about climate change using Inspiration.
  • students will group by topic (4 to a group).
  • each group will mindmap ideas and questions about their topic. They need to come up with at least ten questions. Refer to Developing Questions for Critical Thinking using Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.The will post their questions around the room and on a comment on the website.
  • group roles could include: researchers, actors, director, camera person, graphic artist, writers.
  • each group will be responsible for a category with questions and answers for the jeopardy game.
  • groups will research their topic on the Internet and find the causes, effects, and how people can change the effects.
  • each student will calculate their carbon footprint.
  • all topics will be pulled together as the jeopardy game and played in class. The jeopardy game will be embedded in SlideShare and the project website.
  • the class will Skype with a local TV meteorologist about weather and the climate. Each group will choose one question to ask and discuss with the meteorologist. the Skype session will be recorded and saved to the website.
  • each group will then write a paragraph (100 words) about their topic and hand it to another group for feedback.  Questions to consider:
    Is it informative about the topic?
    Is there a call to action for the audience?
  • each group will use the feedback to create a storyboard with no more than 8 scenes and present to two other groups for feedback and approval.
  • each group will design or find the graphics, costumes, charts, etc. for each scene and practice each scene so the PSA is no more than 30 seconds.
  • each group will film and edit their PSA.
  • groups will show off their PSA to each other.
  • class will showcase their PSAs to school and parents.

This is big. It will take six weeks but these 6th grade students will always remember what they did and be proud of it. My job is in the background. This is too much for a teacher to do alone if they have never done anything like it before. I’m their coach.

This is so much fun. I want to do more. I am working with several other teachers to design different projects, playshops for teachers and more. One cool project is a CSI project. I’m working on that today. I wish learning could be like this everyday where students own it. Teachers are pulled in so many directions and spending months to prepare for tests that impact the school not the child. This is very upsetting to me. It should all be about the child — the learner.

In the future, we’ll look back and shake our heads for taking creativity and critical thinking out of schools for a whole generation of kids.  It’s time to bring joy back and make learning relevant to the real world.