Category Archives: education

10 Revisions to 20 Percent Time

If you’re unfamiliar with 20% time projects in education, you may want to read this brief overview before continuing with this post.

CC image by flickr user Norehearsal

1) Beware of scheduling obstacles
Before you launch a 20% time project for your students, double check your calendars and consider the havoc certain activities can wreak on the projects. With my English classes last semester we ran headlong into AP testing. Obviously, I knew they were lurking in the future; we’d been preparing for them! But during those two weeks, everything comes to a screeching halt. Projects included. Understandably, many of the projects suffered as they took a back seat to AP testing and studying.

If I had a nickel for every time a student said, “But then AP testing hit and I couldn’t work on my project” during the final presentations I’d, well, I’d have a lot of nickels. It was painful. I don’t like excuses. They’re like armpits… Not a complaint, a lesson learned. So beginning next year, I’ll be launching the projects during the first semester.

2) Make it memorable, make it matter
As we brainstorm for the next round of projects, my battle cry will be MIMM! Make it memorable/matter. Either create a project that has that certain je ne sais quoi like a Beatles-themed garden and blog, or a jog/bike-a-thon called Going the Extra Mile One Penny at a Time, or create something that matters like a book-length collection of essays about life in high school, or overhaul the swim and dive team room. Better yet, do both like a choir concert called Songs for Sisters to raise money for ankylosing spondilitis.

These were the memorable projects, probably because they mattered to more than just the students themselves. But there were a few that mattered less. I won’t name names or pinpoint projects, but let me just say this, the project can mean a lot to a student, but if means a lot to more people, or if there’s a community built around the type of project a student decides on, the project seems to take on a life of its own and the student will be more inspired to work hard on their project.

For great insight on this topic, read “The Golden Ticket” by my friend and colleague David Theriault.

3) Don’t focus on failure
One of the biggest benefits of a 20% time project is giving students the space to learn from their failures. Too often students are taught and shown that failure is bad, but such attitudes and environments stunt their learning. The option to fail is critical. However, based on student feedback it seems my reiteration of failure as an option backfired.

One student reported, “I understand that not everyone will succeed on their projects, but constantly reiterating that failure is an option may discourage students from working hard.” Another said,”Mr. Z gets us to think more thoroughly but he’s openly said he’s ok with our DIY projects being failures, which can’t be good for morale.”

I will continue to allow for failure, but I will focus my expectations on the attempts and the exhausting of possible solutions to problems.

4) Revise Project Pitches
For our pitches, students introduced their projects in TED style presentations. They were great. Parents showed up, people from the district showed up, other teachers showed up. The pitches really encouraged students to think through their ideas and the scope of their projects, shaping them into concrete creations.

The problem with the pitches? It was hard to squeeze them all into one class period and once we had finished with our final presentations, I realized the pitches and finals were too similar. A couple of solutions I’m considering include pitching projects to small peer groups and focus on giving and receiving helpful feedback and a poster session (as Kate Petty, a 20% Time guru, does). I would love to have the poster session coincide w/ another school activity: possibly Back-to-School night?

CC image by flikr user marmset451

5) Rethink blogging requirements
In a project evaluation survey I conducted, 45% of students reported that the required weekly blog posts on the process and progress of their 20% time projects were not important in helping them formulate, reflect on, and complete their projects. That’s an ugly number. And frankly, I don’t know if I can trust that number. My gut feeling is that students just don’t like the blogging portion of the project. It’s more work. But I think the blogging component is the best way to hold students accountable to their projects. An E.M. Forester quotation is apropos here:

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

If, like Forester says, he learns from his speaking or writing, students will learn from their blog posts. And it’s the best way I can keep track of what the students are learning and experiencing throughout the duration of their projects. Not only does their blogging hold them accountable to me, it helps students connect to an audience that’s bigger than me. And ultimately, this is a writing class, so we’re gonna write!

So how do I improve student perception of blogging? Here are the ideas I’m considering: back off weekly requirements. Maybe cut the blogging assignments in half, to twice a month. Or perhaps I can ease back on other assignments or blend the blogging requirements into other writing assignments by using specific prompts for students to address. Another thing I want to do is to tie the project grade to student blogs and perhaps have two grading periods during the project to encourage students to keep up on their blogging. Because getting behind on their blogs is a sure-fire way to kill student enthusiasm for their projects.

6) Just say no to subs
In a year-end student evaluation of our 20% Time projects only 26% of my students said that I kept them excited about their projects, 53% kind of agreed I kept them excited about their projects, and 21% disagreed. I don’t like those numbers.

I know exactly what I did wrong—I missed too many project days. A big reason for my absences was beyond my control: my family had quite a health adventure a month into the projects. But I also found myself planning or attending meetings on our project day just because it was the easiest day to plan for a sub.

Don’t give in to that temptation. Your students need you there for your encouragement, guidance, inspiration, coaching, support. They’ll hit roadblocks and you need to be there to help clear the rubble. One common roadblock is up next:

7) More scaffolding needed
While some students thrive on managing their own time, other students flounder hard. This is to be expected. For far too long students have been trained to act, think, and do only after their teachers have given instructions. When offered the opportunity to direct their own work and learning some students feel adrift at sea.

Consider the variety of student responses regarding our project days:

I felt like our class was an ordered chaos; it was chaotic at times, but we got things done. // For the DIY project, class time may be wasted by some, but utilized efficiently by others. It ultimately depends on the project. // DIY days are the least productive days out of the week. DIY projects usually take place outside the classroom! // I like how even when we have free time people are still being productive.

The students who felt our project days were the least productive days of the week, probably just didn’t know how to be productive. Kate Petty uses an implementation guide to help students schedule out their projects, but some students will need more scaffolding than this guide provides. I’ll be designing a 20% time menu, a guide to help students choose from a variety of activities they can do to help them push their project forward in ways they may not have considered. As Petty says we have to train students to constantly ask themselves what next?

Some of the menu items can include: check out library books on your subject, or ones similar, as reference guides (students automatically use and the web as reference, but these often just scratch the surface of complex projects or topics), search Twitter and blogs in order to build and connect with an online learning community of people involved in similar projects, research and practice photo and design skills to help students create more professional looking blogs, promote your blog/project through social media.

As you can see, use of the internet is often required for these activities, so I’m especially interested in coming up with offline activities. Please leave your ideas in the comments!

8) Get everyone online
Stop! Drop! and Roll. Stop writing this post, drop whatever else I’m doing, and roll out a Donors Choose campaign to finance a classroom set of Chromebooks. If each student had consistent access to the web during our project days the quality of the learning environment and student projects would improve exponentially.

9) Spend 15 minutes prepping for 20% time the day before
If you want students to be prepared for their project days, don’t wait until the day of to inspire and prepare them for their 20% time. I often found myself taking too much of their time to share ideas, examples, models, and stories of success. Next year I’ll plan out a good 15 minutes at the end of the period the day before to get everyone ready. That way on project days I won’t need to even begin the class: when the bell rings students will know exactly what they’re doing.

My goal is to begin a majority of class periods this way on regular days. EVERY project day should begin automatically.

10) Passion may be too strong a word
One of the many benefits of genius hours or 20% time projects is the deeper, sustained learning students experience as they explore something they’re passionate about. But there’s one minor drawback for some students: they don’t know what their passions are. Some students even report that they don’t have passions. Instead of brainstorming possible projects some students sat around fretting that they didn’t have a passion.

So when I introduce my 20% time project next time I’ll temper passion with other words like interest, inspires and curious. After projects are completed, students will have had the space to explore their possible passions, getting close to what they’re truly passionate about by process of elimination. Maybe they thought they were passionate about photography, but after five months of practicing composition, lighting, Photoshop, etc. they’ll realize, nope, they just like to Instagram.

Bonus Read: Since you’ve made it all the way through this post, go ahead and have a peak at my students’ responses to the project evaluation survey.

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates and the symphony resounds.”  — Rebecca Solnit

Re:Framed Re:Mixed: Solutions to Student Blogging Issues

[cc image by flikr user: web4camguy ]

I’ve been blogging in one form or another since 2001. I started my first blog as a place to publish playlists for my weekly radio show on KUCI. A few years later I started a music blog called with a few college buddies. We were one of the first music blogs and for a while we were regularly reaching 80K readers a month.

So once I started teaching, it was only natural for me to use this technology in the classroom. Two years ago, before I had read or researched anything about 20% Time Projects, my senior English classes were using blogs as a way to demonstrate their learning in their classroom, and their DIY or Do It Yourself learning. (I gave them time to study and learn whatever they wanted; they just had to track it on their blogs.) This is the blog I used to communicate with my students during this project.

Then my former 5th grade classmate, master teacher, mentor and education rival, David Theriault, started a really great blogging project called Re:Framed with his Sophomore Honors classes this last semester. This week he updated his post on student blogging with student feedback and a reflection. Based on the success of his project and the fact that I will inherit many of his students next year in my AP English Language classes, I’m going to continue the Re:Framed project. Of course I’m going to change the name. While I like the name Re:Framed, the idea is too neat and linear for me, like everything needs to be confined by four walls or barriers. I want to promote a more fluid or marbling concept to my project, so I’m going with Re:Mixed. (Speaking of remixing, have you heard the Beastles yet?)

So while Theriault and I collaborate and scheme together a lot, I thought I’d make this brainstorm more public. I want to respond to his reflection and hopefully offer a helpful perspective to some of the issues he faced with student blogging this year:

 [borrowed and modified from]

PROBLEM: Writing deadline/schedule

You’ve pretty much nailed the solution here. Stick with a solid deadline. I also teach print and broadcast journalism at our school and deadlines are not only crucial to each class, they’re an integral college, career, and life skill to practice and learn.

PROBLEM: Pinterest was the WORST way to spend your time promoting your site.

I learned many important marketing concepts while working for a small record label before I began my teaching career, and one big one is this: go to where your audience is. I just read today at Spin Sucks how this is still the case. Moms and brides-to-be are the ones using Pinterest the most. Don’t waste your time there. I’d argue Twitter isn’t a very useful platform for high school students either, not yet at least. Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram is the Holy Trinity of virtual high school hangouts. Promote your blogs there.

PROBLEM: I need to do a better job teaching students how to develop and explore an idea.

Mr. Theriault, you already model this very well. Have your students study your blog posts where you literally use a book, film, or album to frame your thoughts. Another thing to do is  study and practice the rhetorical modes and encourage students to use 3 to 5 different modes in each post. Knowledge of the rhetorical modes will help students consider and explore their ideas in different ways.

PROBLEM: I need to make sure that every group member has the power and ability to use WordPress well.

It sounds as if your students watched as you walked them through the steps of starting up their WordPress blogs on the overhead. They need to be watching and doing at the same time. Schedule a couple days in the computer lab to launch their blogs. I’d also suggest using a checklist of things to do on their blog (ie: find a picture, post a picture, make it a feature picture, etc) and let them work at their own pace. When your blog-savvy students finish their checklist, they could back you up and help train their peers.

PROBLEM: Failing to teach a big idea

I definitely suggest training them to find their own big idea. Reflecting on this year, I need to  teach students how to read subtext, an idea an author is exploring without talking about that idea directly. It’s all about inference. You could also suggest students follow other big idea blogger types like our faves: Austin Kleon or Brain Pickings. Or if you wanted students to share a big idea, what about starting the week of with a common reading or writing prompt, like those from Luke Neff?

[cc image by Telstar Logistics]

PROBLEM: I need a regular blogging workshop time.

My father who teaches 5th grade gave me some great teaching advice early on in my teaching career, advice I’ll never forget and that I always turn to: the more you (the teacher) do, the less they (the students) learn. My suggestion here? Assign different WordPress, blogging, or other social media tools and techniques to each group and have them train the rest of the class.

CONCEPT TO THINK ABOUT: Some students said that I should require all students to follow each others’ blogs.

I remember you telling me that you’d rather follow more people than be followed by them on Twitter. I think the same applies to student blogs. Just because they follow each other doesn’t mean they have to agree with or even read each others blogs. I imagine these blogs to be an extension of the classroom. Don’t we expect students to respectfully listen to each other during discussions? Following each others’ blogs is a respectful form of listening. Whether or  not they reply is up to them.

Speaking of replying, did you offer an award to the best conversationalist? The student who made the most helpful or insightful comments on other blogs? I think this is key.

CONCEPT TO THINK ABOUT: I really like the idea of a YouTube channel and an iTunes U channel for the blogs.

How very 21st century of you! I whole-heartedly agree. These are the skills our students need, but it takes A LOT of time to train them to use audio and video effectively. Trust me. I spend an entire week before school begins training my incoming video production students and it takes them a good semester of daily practice before those skills begin to sink in. Imagine how much more we could accomplish if we weren’t worried about standardized testing!

Parting thoughts: I’ve been thinking about using blogging in the classroom a lot while reading Thomas and Brown’s A New Culture of LearningBlogging is a big part of this new culture and a perfect way for English classes to participate in this way of learning. I think the way you incorporated a sense of competition and sport in the classroom is a key to your blogging’s effectiveness and something I’d like to explore further.

Editors, Deadlines and Networking: Why Student Newspapers Matter

Talk about a blast from the past.  Audrey Smilley, a band whose music I reviewed early in my college career, contacted me out of the blue last week about an upcoming reunion show. They just completed a modest Kickstarter campaign to fund the digitization and remastering of their original recordings. Hoping to get a bit of press about their reunion show, the band contacted the paper I used to write for, Student Review, who in turn contacted me for my perspective some 22 years later.

Reviewing my review, my perspective is this: I’ve come a long way as a writer. That’s to be expected. Writing for the Student Review was the first time I’d ever written for a real audience. Or at least a wider audience. Teachers, friends, girlfriends had all read my essays, letters and notes, but the Student Review published me first. (They’ve published many better writers. Trust me, I’m nothing special.)

It’s much easier to have your work widely read and viewed these days through blogging and social media, but having your work combed over by an editor ups your game exponentially. Sure people may read your work on a blog, but they’ll consume it quickly and may not even read the whole piece. Very few of those readers will comment on the quality of your work, offer suggestions for improvement, push you to write better, more effectively.

That is why if a student wants to write, or just wants to improve their writing, they should join up with their campus newspaper pronto, post haste. Working with editors and deadlines are crucial components to a writing education.

Writing for a school newspaper also provides ample opportunities for networking. You’ll meet and work with a wide variety of people on campus and in the community. My career in the radio, then record business, correlated directly to my experience with the Student Review.

It should be obvious why and how much I love my job: teaching writing and journalism to high school students. I didn’t get involved with my school paper until college, so I missed out on a few key years of writing instruction and a chance to rub shoulders with people I probably should have rubbed shoulders with.

A couple side notes:

The first tip I’d give to my younger self: use stronger verbs. It’s not until paragraphs two and three that I use verbs like yield and surface, which aren’t even all that strong. And the title is begging for a verb that would actually draw people into the review. “Audrey Smilley Reviewed”? Yeah, so what?

The first tip I’d give the band: don’t send half your members to another state to promote your music. Stuff everyone in a van and hit the road.

Yes, I reviewed a cassette tape. This was 1991 folks.

Everything is interesting

Somebody somewhere came up with a list of habits to help one navigate life. This somebody calls these Habits of Mind (THIS somebody, me, should do some homework and give credit where credit is due. But if I did that, I’d have to stop writing this and I’m not going to stop writing this).
One of these habits is Responding with Awe & Wonder. What a wonderful habit to have, to see the world around you as though your seeing it for the first, not five-hundredth, time.
Then another someone, Kerri Smith (I can pull her name right out of the ol’ memory bank because I own one of her books: Wreck This Journal), wrote a whole book about this habit. She calls her book How to be an Explorer of the World: A Portable Life Museum. She offers a list of ways to respond with awe and wonder:
How to Be an Explorer of the World:
1. Always be looking. (Notice the ground beneath your feet.)
2. Consider everything alive and animate.
3. Everything is interesting. Look closer.
4. Alter your course often.
5. Observe for long durations (and short ones).
6. Notice the stories going on around you.
7. Make patterns. Make connections.
8. Document your findings (field notes) in a variety of ways.
9. Incorporate indeterminacy.
10. Observe movement.
11. Create a personal dialogue with your environment. Talk to it.
12. Trace things to their origins.
13. Use all of the senses in your investigations.
I try to teach these to my students everyday of my working life. It’s not easy. I’m gonna turn this into a poster and hang it in the front of my classroom so my students see this day in and day out. One or two of these tips just might stick. I mean, I memorized the Big Mac’s ingredients in third grade because the lyrics to a jingle were taped up near the pencil sharpener. Unfortunately, they stuck, while  Shelley’s Ozymandias has mostly slipped away.