How To Add The Amens

This page, photographed from the Trinity Hymnal, struck me as funny when I first saw it, then eventually I thought it was sad. Since then I have rested on this page as a reminder. Someone thought adding Amen to the end of every hymn was good, and that it needed to be done well, so they did research and found best practices on how to add amens. This page reminds me that there is always going to be a tension between pure creativity and pure, structured, research based, strategies. To hold this paradox we need occupy, at times, both worlds. The option that strikes me as least interesting and effective is ignoring both ends of the paradox and trying to walk the middle. 

How many hits on YouTube should a student video get?

For the last unit of physics this semester we worked with the local utility to produce a list of businesses that had used municipal dollars to reduce their energy use. The students then went out in groups to interview the business owners and had to make a short video promoting the energy saving changes the businesses made.

I am a physics teacher. My goal was not making videos, my goal was awareness of the program and the rather active community of energy savers our small town has. I wanted awareness for my students in the context of their study of energy and awareness for the community at large. The project also dovetails with a local video contest going on. So instead of all kinds of rubrics about the quality of the video my co-teacher and decided that one of the standards for the unit would be, "Students video will get X hits on YouTube." We negotiated X with the students. We opened with 200, and they talked us down to 90.

I found this to be a remarkable tool. In many of the conferences I had with groups making videos I would say things like:
  • Do you think people will want to watch it to the end?
  • Do you think your title is good enough to make someone watch?
  • Would you want to watch this 90 times to achieve the standard?
  • Would you watch a YouTube over 3 minutes?

All of the crazy detail questions that you get are answered by the students when you put it in practical terms. I loved how this turned the conversation immediately to things that great video makers do and away from my standards as a teacher. Plus now I have had people in the community talk to me about their energy use and how it can change.

Some notes: I know they could do the 90 views themselves. In this case go back to one of my goals, that the student be aware. If they watch their video 90 times, they will be aware. Even if they take the effort of putting it into an automatically rotating play list. Most achieved 90 by posting to their Facebook with they please watch this my teacher made me get 90 YouTube views. Meets my goals and theirs.

What makes you groan during lab presentations?

One of my other hats has me thinking about the professional development of all of our teachers 7-12. This is a really fascinating job that is challenging in so many ways I cannot begin to describe it. As a part of that I am part of a group exploring how to better teach writing at the secondary level in a technology rich environment. Once a month this year I am learning about Writers Workshop with a group of volunteers from our faculty.

In the workshop model students are expressing themselves within a context that the teacher provides but in their own words and their own context as well. To translate to the physics audience they create their own data from their own questions and then apply general techniques to analyze that data. It is really cool.

So one of the coolest parts is all the research that teachers of writing have done on giving feedback and actually getting kids to learn from that feedback. Some highlights:
  • limit the negative (Seriously, many recommend stopping after finding two problems. If you find more and even point them out the students wont bother to even fix two. So if you go on and highlight more they will not learn anything, but if you do less and stop highlighting they will at least learn the two things you point out. I cannot tell you how powerful this insight is.)
  • be specific with the positive (good verb, not good job)
  • talk to students rather than write
  • give as much feedback as possible before the final product
  • spend very little time on the final product (once you grade it the process is done therefore the learning is done)

So here is how all this work with writing has changed my physics class. Every inquiry unit ends with a presentation of the research the students have done. I have put very limited requirements on these presentations, but I do provide an increasing long list of guidelines. I thought to myself,  these presentations have not been changing much over the years in spite of me providing this list. So this past unit instead of just spending time going through the list again and giving some time in class to work together on their presentations I picked the two that annoyed me most. Bad procedures and bad graphs. I made a mini lesson about procedure (no more than 7 minutes) and then set them to applying what they learned to their data. Next day same thing with graphs.

Results: actual improvement in the quality of presentations. Students even pointed out the improvements in other students work. So here is my question to you: what makes you groan during lab presentations and how can we work together to make a list and improve them, one skill at a time?

Twenty-first Century: Now is the time to increase capacity, everyone's capacity.

The last two days I spent a lot of time listening to a consultant from ISM. I really know very little about ISM, it was a gift opportunity. I also know little about consultants, I am rather new to the administrator gig and in fact still teach physics for one period a day. So what this all leads me to say is I am not sure what grains of salt to put on what parts of what I learned. I will say this, consultants can say whatever they want and that in and of itself is fun.

He started with a presentation on twenty-first century skills. I think about this a lot because my school and my classroom are places where people think these skills are developed. He had a lot of lists of the skills, the most intriguing one was from a presentation that I had delivered a while back that was buried on our website. He did his homework. He went on to say that he thought that twenty-first century skills were something different. They were less skills, because as he pointed out, everyone in the room full of administrators had most of the twenty-first century skills without having been educated then. He thought that the expectations were different in the twenty-first century.

I have some thoughts on some of his list, but first he said that the rule for the twenty-first century academic administrator is to build capacity in their faculty. As is so often the case I had never heard it put so succinctly before, but I think this is true. As a Technology Coordinator before and an Instructional Specialist now I have been building capacity in teachers for a long time. However, I wondered in my reflection on the point if it was not broad enough. I wonder if we must all be capacity builders in school, and really in all of our life.

All of us need to increase our capacity and the capacity of those around us. Somehow somewhere even those of us who went to college have lost or not maintained the ability to increase our capacity. We want to be told what we need to do to get the job done. I spent probably ten years as a good teacher not changing too much, reflecting for sure on what went right and wrong but not really doing much more than tweaking around the edges. The last few years my curriculum has been new each year and probably not repeatable. This year I am spending time developing units that I know will not be compelling to students next year. I am confident that the experience of making lessons that are reactive, local and relevant will be and awesome tool and open the doors I need open for future classes to succeed. I am building my capacity to respond to the people around me and support them where they are at. Never done. All can improve. No finish line.

Schools needs to be a place filled with capacity builders. Administrators need to imagine what their teachers and students could be and support them to be that. Teachers in turn tended to ask their administrators for help building capacity. They need to spur their colleagues on to better capacity and they need to build it in their students. Teachers need to build capacity in their administrators by supporting their work, and helping where needed. Students should be expected to build capacity in all the people around them as well; other students, their teachers and administrators. We will know we are building capacity into our students when they start to build capacity into us. School should be a place where everyone improves.

"It is very difficult for a set of metrics to fully measure what you value."

This talk from Adam Mosseri about being data informed is great. It is worth the thirty minutes. At 13:00 in he says the line that makes this post's title. He then shows two examples from Facebook where the data sent them in wrong directions. These are my summaries of the reasons:

  1. Most of your data is generated by your power users, so if you aim for increasing pure engagement you will market to this group only.
  2. When you optimize for one piece of data you will eventually ignore anything that is not measured by the data.

I think that both of these points contain great truths for teaching.

Bonus quote, "The greatest risk is taking no risk at all." (29:20)

UPDATE: Forgot the link.