Friday, April 14, 2017

Students Create Infographics with Impact

An infographic that hangs in my doctor's office.

Infographics are everywhere: on social media, in magazines and newspapers, even at the doctor’s office.  Web applications are making it easier and easier for anyone to create an infographic that looks professional. However, a well designed infographic has to do more than just look good.  Ms. Farrar’s 9th grade students at Green Mountain Middle High School found that it takes intentional and thoughtful work to create a strong infographic.

It all began when Ms. Farrar decided to extend her students research projects beyond the explanatory essay.  Infographics are well aligned with the elements of strong argumentative writing and she thought they would be an ideal venue for students to explore how authors create effective arguments, in this case using text, images and statistics.  Ms. Farrar’s students had researched world hunger, focusing on different continents and causes.  Working collaboratively to create an infographic for each continent would allow them to make meaning together, digging deeper into the root causes.
Annotated infographic

"These are more complicated than they look!" - 9th grade student

Students analysed strong examples of infographics, annotating the elements that made them effective: text, images, statistics, design.  We were able to print infographics on a large scale printer, leaving space in the margins for annotations, but the same idea could work using a projector and a whiteboard.  What did the students find?  
Student created infographic

Here are the qualities of a strong infographic they identified:
  • A hook that captures the reader’s interest
  • A thesis statement that outlines the author’s intent
  • Claims that are supported by evidence
  • Visual elements that lead the reader through the content
  • Color, images, icons and background images that support the message
  • Credible sources identified

Students used these same criteria to guide their work when asked to create compelling infographics about their research findings.   Ms. Farrar says that this forced them to work harder at synthesizing because they had to represent their thinking verbally and nonverbally.  “A lot more inferencing has to happen when you create an infographic,” explained  Farrar.  Students agreed that this structure forced them to be more intentional about their work. Instead of cherry picking facts and content, students worked on creating a coherent argument and using the visual structure to communicate key information.  

Students returned to the criteria when they were asked to self-assess and give each other feedback on their work: identifying areas of strength and areas needing improvement:
  • Is there a hook that draws the reader in?  
  • Is the thesis statement easy to locate and understand?  
  • Are the claims clearly supported by evidence?
  • Does it flow visually?  
  • Are the visual elements congruent with the message?
  • Are the sources clearly identified?
Receiving feedback can be challenging, but students used it to revise and create impactful infographics that effectively communicate their arguments. The pride they took in their work was evident, as one student said, "I've never made something that looked so good while saying so much!"

Here are three infographic creators GM students love:

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Ask the Learners

How do we know what classroom conditions support meaningful learning?  Ask the learners!  I began the year doing just that with my Research Into Action students.

Several years ago I was asked to think about a time I had done my best work and to really dissect the conditions that led to it.  As group of educators we used the Constructivist Protocol for Adult Work (see below) to reflect on our own "nailed it" work stories, share them with a partner, and create lists of the common conditions that supported our work.  It was a powerful experience that allowed me to be metacognitive about my efforts.  I adapted that protocol for use with my students (see below) and the conversation that followed was informative and engaging and led us to an excellent list of class norms.

Art by Justin Diak
Students shared a variety of stories.  One student took a blacksmithing course this summer and talked about the open-ended nature of the class.  The instructor set goals for students but allowed them to try out different strategies and techniques and to learn by doing.  Another student talked about a class project while studying in China.  At the beginning she was nervous about presenting, but she became so intrigued by her topic (Ai Weiwei) that her anxiety disappeared- she was confident in her knowledge and thus in presenting to an audience.  An artist in the group shared a story about creating a portrait using stippling.  He added too many dots and felt like he needed to start over but his mom suggested he just add even more dots.  He keeps the resulting work with him to remind him to build on his mistakes instead of starting over.
Other stories were about taking risks that are still safe and learning through experimentation.  Our resulting list of conditions that support meaningful learning:
  • Collaboration- learning with others helps
  • Motivation- sometimes we are motivated alone, but sometimes other peoples' excitement motivates us
  • Persistence and perseverance- practice, practice, practice!  keep working at it!
  • Use mistakes as learning opportunities- learn from failure
  • Playful, fun, creative, experimental
  • Passion, satisfaction, and interest help
  • Learning builds over time- this leads to mastery
And the norms we decided could ensure that our learning community provided those conditions:

I love learning about learning from learners!

Constructivist Protocol for Student Work

Adapted from Jennifer Fischer-Mueller's adaptation of Daniel Baron's Constructivist Protocol

Individual Writing (5 minutes)
Write about a time you learned something that was meaningful to you.  Choose something complex, not just a list of facts, but something that required you to learn to mastery and something that you are proud of.  It can be something you learned in school, but it could also be something you learned outside of school.  Focusing on that one learning experience, use these questions to guide you as you write:

  • What did  you learn?
  • Why did you learn it?
  • Did anyone help you?  How?
  • Was it hard? Risky? Safe? Joyful?
  • What motivated you?
  • How did you know you learned it? What did mastery look like?
  • Did you know that you learned it right away?  Or did you figure it out later?
Small Groups (15 minutes)
In small groups (3-5 students in each group), students take turns sharing their learning story.  As each student talks, the other students listen actively and make notes about the conditions that led to learning.  Each student has 3-5 minutes to share their learning story.  While they are talking the rest of the students listen without interrupting, asking questions, or building on their story.  

Full Group (10 minutes)
In the large group students share the conditions that led to learning.  Facilitator lists conditions on the board and uses these questions to guide the discussion:
  • What is the condition?  
  • What does it look like?  
  • How does it support learning?
Class Norm Setting (10 minutes)
Given the list of conditions that led to meaningful learning, what norms do we need in this class to make sure that we can learn together?  Brainstorm norms and decide as a group what norms you all agree on.

Debrief (5 minutes)
How did it feel to go through this process?  What worked? What didn't?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Reflections on a sabbatical well spent

When I began this fellowship I thought I would be spending my time finding the answers to questions.  How do you change school culture?  How do you empower students to be truly engaged? How do you build curriculum that is relevant, rigorous and responsive to student interests?  I selected texts to study, sites to visit, and learning opportunities in hopes that they would help me craft answers to these and other questions.  What I’ve found, however, is that instead of answers, I now have better questions.  In the book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It Ian Leslie argues that puzzles can stoke curiosity, but once the solution is found the curiosity is sated. Mysteries, because they have no one answer, can create an enduring curiosity. I find that my questions are mysteries that I will continue to ponder. Here is a concise accounting of them.

How do we grow mindsets?
Visiting High Tech High brought the power of growth mindset into distinct focus.  At HTH growth mindset is not just a theory, it is a practice. Students and staff routinely engage in learning about and acting on Carol Dweck’s theory.  The work of Dweck, Camille Farrington, and others has deepened my interest in shifting mindset at Green Mountain.  I believe positive academic mindsets are essential to developing lifelong learners.  The how is a little messier. HTH makes it look easy, every article written on growth mindset makes it sound simple, and Carol Dweck wants to sell us all a canned online curriculum.   I find that there is value in exploring this question with TRSU and GM faculty.  Digging into mindset as a group leads to staff buy-in, a common understanding, and ideas for how to grow mindsets in OUR setting.  This has been a rich line of inquiry for me and I’m delighted to share it with my peers.

How do we stop thinking the way we always have?
Early on in the fellowship I had the opportunity to take a “Design Thinking for Educators” class through the Henry Ford Learning Institute.  The design thinking model takes participants through a user-centered process designed to help them think beyond constraints. It encourages creativity, problem solving, and active listening all while focusing on the needs of users. It forces designers to think beyond boundaries and to go big and bold with brainstorming.  It requires teams to prototype and gather feedback and iterate.  It has changed the way I think about problem solving. Instead of returning to GM with solutions, I am facilitating conversations and processes that encourage full participation and out of the box thinking. The TRSU Professional Development Committee is using the design thinking process to reimagine district in-services.  A group of GM staff and students will start using this process in March to rethink how we deploy technology at our school.  

How do we have courageous conversations about difficult subjects?
The Rowland Fellowship has allowed me the time to deepen my collaboration and facilitation skills in innumerable ways.  This year I am co-facilitating a Facilitative Leadership Seminar where we have been digging deep into what responsive facilitation looks like. I stepped up to lead a small group at SRI Winter Meeting and learned so much from facilitating trained facilitators.  I’ve attended facilitation trainings with GM’s YATST team and worked closely with them to develop their skills in preparation for their work with students, staff and community members. During district in-services I plan and facilitate protocols and activities with a district-wide group of teachers and administrators where we explore complex issues and construct collective understandings. Whether we are exploring personalized learning, the disparity in teacher and student perceptions, or growth mindset, my experience as a facilitator has helped me welcome difficult conversations instead of avoid them.

How can we engage students in school transformation?
Last fall I was certain I wanted to transform GM by increasing student engagement.  Enter Helen Beattie and YATST.  Now I am watching and learning as a group of engaged students are working through a school transformation process. Watching Sadie, Skylar W., Hannah, Kaitlyn, Heather, Lexi and Skylar D. immerse themselves in the action research cycle is inspiring.  They have created surveys (one for staff, one for students), collected responses, and analyzed the data. Watching them present the survey to students and staff, and seeing the way both took it more seriously than they otherwise would have, was a revelation.  I’m reminded strongly of the Gandhi quote: “the end is inherent in the means.” Working with these students has been an amazing reminder that the way to student leadership is to let the students lead.  

How do we engage students in meaningful work?
In the fall a team of 4 teachers, myself, and my principal traveled to San Diego for an introduction to Project Based Learning by the High Tech High staff and students. It was an eye-opening experience for the group! We have continued throughout the year to work on creating opportunities for students to do meaningful work.  We give each other feedback on projects, we debrief completed projects, we plan for exhibitions, and we welcome the rest of the staff to join us in this work.  Some outcomes have been entirely practical: a large format printer for printing exhibition quality work, plans for interesting and beautiful ways to exhibit the work, and professional development around PBL for staff.  The most important outcome is harder to measure: a team of passionate educators dedicated to working together to bring this question to the center of what we do.

How do we foster the habit of being interested?
Providing opportunities for students to pursue their passions is central to my proposal.  [Oh how I hate the word passion- it is too strong.  Yet interest seems too weak.  I have not yet found the Goldilocks word for this concept.] Tony Wagner writes about it, Sir Ken Robinson talks about it, advocates of Google hours and 20% time outline how to make space for it in the classroom.  The missing piece, for me, knowing my students: how do you help kids figure out what they are passionate about?  I pursued this question doggedly- reading William Damon’s work on purpose, Daniel Pink’s book on motivation, visiting sites with Capstone projects and independent study programs, Googling wildly.  Breakthrough thinking came from a rather personal place: my gratitude practice. Every morning I write down three things I am grateful for. The more I do this, the more I notice all there is to be grateful for.  It occurred to me that passion/interest works on the same lines.  It is a habit of mind.  By pursuing interests, you become more interested.  I was asking the wrong question.  This new question felt like a revelation, another mystery to pursue! 

I cannot begin to express all that this fellowship has meant to me (and continues to mean to me!). The financial support for digging in to this work has opened so many doors.  The self-assurance that has emerged as a result of the endorsement of the Rowland Foundation has changed me. The learning from and with the talented members of my cohort has inspired me.  Most importantly, the time afforded by this opportunity has allowed me to dig in wholeheartedly. Without it I would find these questions exhausting, with it I can try to follow the advice of Rainer Maria Rilke: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

Turkey Land Cove

Shadow Selfie

I've been spending this week on Martha's Vineyard at Tree House 2 thanks to the Turkey Land Cove (TLC) Foundation.  TLC is a non-profit that provides "motivated" women time and space to do important work. And boy is this space motivating! Far from the distractions of everyday life, Tree House 2 has many lovely work spaces and comforts.

My Primary Work Space

View of the Turkey Land Cove

I spend my mornings writing and organizing my curriculum for the spring. In the afternoon I clear my thoughts with a walk on the beach or along a dirt road. Late afternoons and early evenings are for reading and sunsets and planning. The amount you can accomplish in an environment like this is astounding!

Library Nook for Reading

I am inspired by the mission of the TLC Foundation. In the spirit of Virginia Woolf, they offer women a refuge that honors their soul and their work. They nurture women creators of all sorts: novelists and poets, artists and dancers, entrepreneurs and small business owners, and educators. I'm so grateful for my time here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What's the Tech at High Tech High?

When I think of schools and tech I think of what we commonly call educational technology: computers and tablets, software and internet, printers and cameras. High Tech High certainly has this kind of technology and more.  There are drills, saws and power tools in classrooms (not just in shop classes). There are some more cutting edge technologies being used: 3-D printers, laser cutters, and microcontrollers. But as I have been reflecting on my visit there I am more and more convinced that this is not the technology that fosters engaged, deep learning.  So what's the tech at High Tech High?


A core belief of HTH is that all students can learn. They don't just believe this, they teach it. Using Carol Dweck's Fixed and Growth Mindset model, teachers engage students in thinking about learning.  Learning about the brain and it's impact on learning empowers students to change their learning behaviors.  HTH continuously asks students to be metacognitive: to think about and reflect on themselves as learners.


Each year 2,000 educators from around the world visit HTH.  Classroom walls are made of glass, visitors are welcome to roam freely, and classrooms are open. Teachers post their projects online and students have public online portfolios. It sounds like a great way of holding the staff accountable, but I believe that employing transparency at HTH is really about celebration.  When visitors are welcome students and staff receive the message that the school is proud of the work they do.  It is not the strong arm of accountability that drives deep learning, it is the celebrating of the work.
Transparent Classroom Walls at HTH


At HTH students not only receive feedback, they learn to give it. Critique is an important part of the project-based learning cycle. Giving useful feedback is a skill students learn over the course of their school career and it reinforces the idea that there is always room for improvement, there is always more to learn.   They give feedback to their peers, their teachers, and even to participants in HTH's professional development workshops.
Students Giving Teachers Feedback


I heard more than one teacher at HTH say that if a project can be done on the first try, it is not hard enough. Quality work demands multiple revisions. Students use feedback from their peers, from teachers, and from community experts to improve their work and deepen their learning.  In one classroom I saw the words of poet Wesley McNair in large print on the whiteboard: "The capacity to revise determines the true writer. Suspect the finished poem. Your evil twin wants your poem to be finished." It was evident that at HTH revision is important across disciplines.


Projects are generally structured for group work and teachers at HTH are very deliberate about how students work together.  Students are graded for their individual contribution, and they evaluate their role as well as their teammates.  Because projects are frequent, students gain skills and facility with group work through sheer volume. Students work with grade level teams, but they also collaborate across grade levels and even with community members. Meanwhile, teachers model collaboration for their students.  All teachers work in interdisciplinary groups on integrated projects.  Collaboration is at the heart of HTH.  Larry Rosenstock, cofounder of the school, says "I would be most disappointed if people came to school, checked their mail and then worked in autonomous isolation for the rest of the day."

Authentic Audience

All projects have an audience at HTH. Exhibition of student work happens in school and all over the community.  One HTH student said, "all projects have an audience and a life when we are done with them."  Cofounder Ron Riordan encourages teachers and students to think of projects as gifts and the audience as recipients.  An authentic audience- be it bank customers for a principles of economics project or art patrons for a kinetic poem- increases student investment in their work.  Ask yourself which would you work harder on: a project only one set of teacher eyes will see or a project that will be hung in a public location?


"When you can choose what your project is about you learn more," said one HTH senior. Teachers are encouraged to bring their interests to school and to teach that which they are passionate about. Teachers  build choice into their instructional design, providing multiple entry points for students: content, artistry, and process. When asked about homework, one HTH student said she didn't have homework.  When asked how she spent her evenings she said, "I work on my projects!"  Passion transforms work to fun and deepens the learning experience.

My task is to work with my school to broaden the learning technology infrastructure.  We can deepen student learning by increasing the bandwidth in places where we already employ these strategies, thus building on our strengths.  We can engage our students by updating our operating system, introducing those strategies we haven't tried yet.  It's going to take a growth mindset!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Gamestorming" about Personalized Learning

Our district Creativity and Innovation Project Team met again on Monday.  One of our areas of
What drives you?
interest is personalized learning. Rather than start with implementation, we decided to think big and try something new: Gamestorming!

Gamestorming is the practice of using strategies and structures to help you try out new thinking, expand on ideas, or create otherwise unknown connections. You can learn more about gamestorming and explore a variety of games by visiting

Here is how we used the Make a World Game to expand our thinking:

1. We got inspired with a Ted Talk: Sir Ken Robinson asks us to "disenthrall" ourselves, to "put aside common sense," and to "think anew" about the education system.  Gamestorming provided a great structure for doing this!

2. We reviewed the rules for brainstorming: These norms are borrowed from the HFLI design thinking process and they help us stay focused and think big.

3. We looked at our topic: Create a school where students can uncover their talents and passions.  What might a school where all students flourish look like?

4. We broke into three groups and started brainstorming: Time was limited and participants had to think fast.

5. Each group built a prototype to make their thinking concrete: Available prototyping supplies included clay, pipe cleaners, paper, glue, scissors, post-it notes, markers and index cards.  Both materials and time were constrained. 

Learning to bring our passions to life
6. Groups created a slogan for their world: a tag line to summarize their thoughts.

7. We shared our work with each other: we toured each "school," listening as the builders explained their ideas and concepts.

8. We discussed the emerging themes: what ideas could come back to our schools with us?  How had our thinking changed?  

9. We debriefed the process: participants loved the constraints of time and materials.  They also appreciated the opportunity to think beyond the constraints of our actual schools.  Everyone was enthusiastic about the process- it opened the door to new thinking, allowed teams to construct new understandings collaboratively, and was just plain fun.  

Looking at the brainstorm sheets I was able to find a lot of common themes among the three completely different models:

  • A Community of Learners: All members of the school are learners, including the staff.  Students and staff work in teams to learn together.
  • Passion: Teachers are passionate about what they teach and students are encouraged to find their passions.  Risk taking and discomfort are expected- that is where real learning happens. There is a lot of time to go deep.
  • Transparency: Parents are welcomed, the community is involved in the school as an audience and as experts, the school is a part of the surrounding community.
  • Student Voice, Empowerment, and Engagement: The school is run in a democratic fashion. Students are designers.  Everyone is an expert about something.  Ideas about what it means to be smart and successful have been challenged.
  • Variety of Learning Spaces: Indoor and outdoor spaces (including pools with zip lines and trees with tree houses!), comfortable cozy spaces, community spaces, labs, studios, theaters, research facilities, spaces for projects and play.  
  • Authenticity: The work that students do has an authentic audience, it is exhibited, and it is real work.  Students and teachers have a sense of purpose, relevance, and ownership over their work.
  • Customization: There are varied pathways; students have the opportunity to choose their own path to reach a goal.  Teachers serve as coaches, working one on one with students to create learning goals and plans.  Teachers also have learning goals and plans.  Support services are integrated and students have a lot of autonomy.
  • Flexibility: Students are grouped in multi-age groups, and these groups change over time. There are no bells and time is used flexibly.  The system is not linear, and is open to change. Content is interdisciplinary and teachers teach students, not subjects.
Now that sounds like a school I would love to work in! And the teachers and administrators in the Creativity and Innovation Project Team are people I love to learn with!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

High Tech High: Introductions and First Impressions

When I first heard the name High Tech High an image quickly formed in my brain: a hybrid Disney movie high school where all of the students are wearing Google glasses.  My imagination did not do the real HTH justice. High Tech High is actually 12 schools (high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools). And while HTH students use technology, HTH is all about learning and technology is just one of the tools students use to learn.

HTH Design Principles
Classroom at High Tech High

  • Personalization: HTH schools are designed so that students and teachers really know each other. The Point Loma campus has three high schools and two middle schools within shouting distance of each other and this is intentional- it keeps the schools small (about 400 students at most in each) so that meaningful relationships are possible amongst all members of the school community. HTH values student voice and seeks to make learning student centered.  Teachers build on student passion to fully engage them as learners.  One student said "when you can choose what your project is about you learn more because it is more interesting." It has a strong advisory system and advisors even visit student homes to strengthen family-school connections. 
  • Common Intellectual Mission: There is no tracking at HTH schools and no AP classes. Once again this design is intentional.  It is built on the belief that students perceptions about their ability shape their educational experience and that all students learn better in diverse classrooms.  HTH focuses on habits of heart and mind and seeks to challenge all students.
  • Adult World Connection: Field studies, internships, community projects, mentorships, and online connections are central to the HTH experience. All HTH projects have an authentic audience and often call in experts in the field to assist with project development. As one HTH educator says, "if we want kids to do real work, we need them working with real professionals."
  • Teacher as Designer: HTH has a shared leadership model: teachers work alongside school directors to make decisions.  "We want the voices of our teachers to be heard just as we want the voices of our students to be heard," said one director. Teachers are also learners, collaborating with each other to create projects and do projects, and are encouraged to share their passions and interests.
My Impressions of HTH

Student Work
  • Quality Student Work: When you walk through a HTH school you are bombarded with student work: it is hanging on walls and ceilings, displayed in cases, even sold in re-purposed cigarette and snack vending machines.  The quality of the work was exceptional- beautiful and beautifully displayed, comprehensive, and rich.  There was evidence of deep learning everywhere you looked.  And teacher work- namely the project objectives, goals and rationale, was displayed with the work.  There is a culture of excellence at HTH.

Students working collaboratively on math
  • A Culture of Respect: HTH gives tours but it also encourages visitors to observe in classrooms and tour schools on their own. Students call teachers by first names and teachers greet students at the doors of their classrooms.  Often it is hard to spot the teacher in the classroom- they are working alongside students.  I saw teachers giving direct instruction but I also saw students working independently. The environment oozed respect and shared responsibility. 
  • Students are Valued Contributors: Students have authentic work to do at HTH.  There is a core of student ambassadors who give tours of the campus and talk about their educational experience.  Students served as panelists in our workshop- sharing their work and answering questions- they were experts in HTH and in project based learning.  
  • Projects have an Authentic Audience: Here are just a few examples.
    • 11th grade students write original songs about the history that does not show up in text books for 2nd grade students to sing for a CD that will be sold locally (think student created School House Rock).  
    • Chemistry students make soap, package it, sell it and donate the profits to a non-profit organization.
    • Economics students illustrate and tell a story that explains an economic principle.  These are then printed as posters and hung in banks and credit unions around San Diego. 
Student Art Vending Machine
More to come- I have two more days to spend in this awesome environment!