Friday, August 23, 2013

Decisions, Decisions

Running a start-up is hard work. Especially when your co-owners are 7- and 8-year-olds. We spent most of our time in meetings - very short meetings - and working in collaborative groups to develop our schedule, procedures, and organize our space. Ownership requires a lot of thought, communication and decision making.

We began the week working on our schedule. After identifying the things that could not be changed, we began to list all the things our business had to do and wanted to do. This resulted in a rather long list of academic subjects, but also included time for project-based learning, game-based learning, blogging and genius hour. I really didn't have to lead the discussion toward including these "subjects." They wanted to make sure there was time in our day for them. Ultimately, we settled on a fairly traditional schedule Monday through Thursday and left Friday for Genius Day - yes, they are spending 20% of their workweek engaged in projects they are passionate about. I couldn't be more pleased.

Procedures were addressed as the need arose. And by the end of the week, we still don't have a list of rules or agreements on the wall. That doesn't mean we don't have any, they just weren't the focus of the week. We did create procedures for having discussions, actively listening, and being a critical friend. We practiced them during the week as we dealt with the problems that came up. Funny how that worked out.

To facilitate our discussions, we needed space and our room was not set up to accommodate our need to gather in a common area. We had some desks in the way. This was our biggest problem of the week. I decided as Chief Learning Officer, that I wanted to have the flexibility to group in a square, rectangle, triangle or circle for discussions. We started our first project by addressing our spacial problem: I wonder if it's possible for 24 kids to sit in these shapes in our room; and how large would the space have to be.

This is the kind of authentic problem-solving activity I love to incorporate. We first had to determine how much space each child needed to sit. Using a yardstick, I took some random samples and created a line plot. Our data showed that 18" was the most frequent measurement, but we decided to use 20" so our knees didn't touch. They then set to work figuring out what the perimeter of the shape would have to be to accommodate 24 students in each shape. It was amazing to see them immediately get to work, taking meter sticks, graph paper and rulers to the task.

But the highlight of the activity was when three students arrived at a solution. The first to determine that we would need a square with 120" on each side wasn't the gifted and talented kids, nor the math boys or the right answer gang. It was two English Language Learners and one of the students who scored least proficient on last year's standardized test. These students fearlessly embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and took risks. I wish you could have seen the look on the faces of the class when these three students taught me how to find the perimeter of the square necessary to accommodate the class. It was priceless. I have never been so proud.

I wasn't just proud of the students who solved the problem first. The rest of the class was genuinely happy for their colleagues - even the competitive math whizzes, who realized that they had made a mistake early on and were able to explain how it had caused them to arrive at the wrong answer. (They started with 18" not 20.") They accepted their mistake, learned from it, and moved on. I realized then that the entrepreneurial spirit had taken hold.

Funny thing about giving student's ownership. They usually step-up to the task. Throughout the week they made meaningful decisions that directly effect how they are going to learn, what they are going to learn, what behavior is expected, and how they are going to work together. They solved problems in real-time. I'd say week one was a success.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Death of the Packet

I'm in a fortunate position this school year. I chose to loop with my class from 2nd to 3rd grade. I can't say that it was an easy decision; I really liked 2nd grade. But I really want to see what my first group of digital disciples can do with another year of maturity, greater awareness of their connection to the world, and improved academic skills. Also, if you read my previous post on the entrepreneurial classroom, I'm trying to introduce a new level of ownership. It's a big change and I think this is the year to test it. I have a great group of kids and understanding, supportive parents with whom I've already developed a relationship. Conditions are right for change. 

In the past I have sent home a packet of homework to be completed throughout the week. Most of the content on the pages should have been review and practice, but in reality, there were times when it wasn't. I justified this by saying that it gave me a chance to see who could figure out something new. I also communicated to parents that when this occurred, they should circle the item or leave a note on the page and move on. This policy was not perfect, but worked fairly well; although I know there were times when homework caused problems.

I also used standardized testing as an excuse for homework. Over the years I had built my packet around concepts that were going to be on the test in April. I'd given the test often enough to know. I'm not proud of this. I felt like a hypocrite; especially since I'm fond of saying that if you teach a child to think they will do. If you teach a child to do they will not think. You can quote me on that. 

So this year, I'm changing. Over the summer, I did some research and reflection on the purpose of homework and came up with the following policy on homework. 

Your child will not be receiving a homework packet this year. There is no conclusive scientific evidence that homework enhances student learning until fourth grade. (Marzano and Pickering, 2007) Most often, homework is the source of confusion, power struggles, and anxiety (both parent and child). Your child will have tasks to do at home when they are relevant to or enhance what is happening in the classroom. You will be notified when these situations arise. If you desire homework on a regular basis, I can provide resources for you to use.

Your child will be expected to read at least 20 minutes each night, recording their thoughts while they read. They are also expected to post a commentary on the book they are reading each week to I will send home a rubric to use to evaluate the blog post for grammar, punctuation, content and structure.

I may reduce the required reading and make a blog post due every two weeks instead of one. But one thing I do know. There won't be anymore packets.

Marzano, Robert & Pickering, Debra (March, 2007). Special Topic / The Case For and Against Homework [Web log post] Retrieved from

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Entrepreneurial Classroom

There's been an idea kickin' around in my head for over a month about organizing my classroom like a start-up company. The thought started after I attended a professional development seminar on using data to drive instruction. (See my previous post Data-Driven or Data-Informed) One of the presenters, a middle school principal, talked about student ownership of data. And how ownership lead to greater achievement. I'm all for student ownership. And achievement. Now the question is how to create a structure that creates ownership of learning, data and provides an intrinsic incentive?

My Entrepreneurial Classroom Logo
So here's what I'm going to try.

I've created the entrepreneurial classroom. I'll be the CLO - Chief Learning Officer - and the kids will apply for jobs in 5 teams: Technology, Logistics, Development, Creative, and Audit. My job as CLO is to engage in strategic planning, vision, and manage the environment - big picture stuff. I will also serve as coach and mentor and set performance goals and objectives.

The teams will be responsible for the day-to-day operations. Technology team will manage the iPad cart, wireless keyboards, headsets, conduct app research and troubleshoot. Logistics team will manage supplies, resources and schedule. Development team is tasked with project planning to meet standards and creating assessments. Creative team will develop presentations for stakeholders, promote the brand, and provide communications support. Finally, the audit team will be in charge of reviewing assessments, quality control and maintaining standards and practices. Students will be tasked with running the company to meet the objectives developed collaboratively. Sounds crazy, I know.

What about parents?

Here's the description I'm sending to parents.

Over the summer, I conducted research on creating a “start-up” mindset in a classroom. This mindset is centered on three ideas. First, the environment should be conducive to risk-taking, innovation and creativity. It should promote problem – solving and not focus on being first with the correct answer. In fact, it should embrace the wrong answer as the jumping off point for discussion, collaboration and learning. An entrepreneurial classroom is a safe place to make mistakes and learn from them.

The second idea involves ownership. In an entrepreneurial classroom, students take ownership for not only classroom supplies, behavior and consequences, but also for the creation of consequences, assessments, scheduling (to the extent possible), learning opportunities, content, and assessment data. They will be directly involved in the operation of the classroom and held accountable for decisions. There won’t be any surprises; students will know what is expected of them because they created the expectations.

Finally, the third idea revolves around non-academic skills necessary for success. Research shows that grit, perseverance, resiliency, empathy, curiosity and character affect student success to a large degree. Students who have learned to be optimistic and conscientious care more about how they are doing, are better able to accept criticism, and overcome real or perceived obstacles more easily. In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough compiles research from a variety of sources to argue that non-academic skills benefit children across the socio-economic spectrum. In an entrepreneurial classroom, "soft skills" are an essential part of the curriculum. 

Company Stock Certificate


Just giving the kids jobs doesn't promote ownership to the extent I'm trying to achieve. I want "buy-in", "what-ever-it-takes", "skin-in-the-game" ownership. To do this I've created shares of stock in the company. The value of each child's shares is equal to their scaled score on a standard assessment. Each child will know the number of shares they own. The only public number will be the number of shares in aggregate.

This was the most difficult aspect for me, since I'm not a big fan of standardized tests. But I do like data when it's meaningful, consistent and used to inform. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, standardized assessments have a purpose. When you want to compare something on an objective measure, then some form of standardized comparison tool is necessary. I needed an objective valuation model to make this work.

I will hold a bi-weekly performance review with each child on Friday to review their work, data and set goals for the next period. These meetings will also be a time for the child to reflect on how and what they are doing, and for me to get in some quality one-on-one time with each student, perform authentic assessments, and connect. In keeping with the entrepreneural spirit, Friday will also be 20% Time/Genius Hour all day long. Due to the success of  Genius Hour last year, I'm going all in and committing 20% of the week to student exploration of their own passions. 

That's the plan. I feel pretty good about it. I'll let you know how it works.