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Thursday, May 19, 2011

STEM Changed My Life!

Karla is an eighth grader at Perkins Middle School in Sandusky, OH.

Recently, she and her classmates were challenged to design a roller coaster for its amusement park:

To continue its domination as the “World’s Roller Coast,” Cedar Point design engineers need your help. They want to bring a new coaster to the park, one that will generate much publicity and many riders. What is your vision for Cedar Point’s new roller coaster? Where should it be built? What will it look like, and what will it be named? Who should be its target audience? How will the park finance it? How far can designers go with the ride and still keep it safe for riders? If you build it, what will make them come?

This was a STEM project, one focused on developing students’ abilities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Many schools across the country have adopted such innovative approaches, some in an effort to qualify for Race-to-the-Top federal funding.

Karla worked on a team with several other students acting as CEO, lawyers (Legal Eagles), architects, financiers and marketing experts. During their weekly meetings students had to solve many problems of design, safety, publicity and finance, e.g. “How close to the beach can you build and what kinds of permits are needed from OH?” “What is the g-force on a human body going 75 mph?” No easy task, especially if you were new to the roller-coaster improvement business.

But they had the benefit of experts in engineering, marketing, architecture, and financial planning. Imagine hearing about design principles from someone who actually designs buildings, not from a textbook, and then designing a model yourself!

According to many team members the most valuable aspect of this STEM project was an important 21st century skill, learning how to solve problems collaboratively:

Emmy: “Working together is most important because you all have to be on the same page and if you’re not, you get off task. .”

Nicholas: “The most important thing about STEM is TEAMWORK!!!!”

Sydney noted that “You have to learn how to deal with arguments” and those who do not participate.

Doug Reeves notes that in the future “performance will be measured not by the success of the individual, but by the success of the team. . .[helping] others learn is an essential process and therefore collaboration is essential.” (2010)

In telephone interviews several of the CEOs told me that they found the problem solving most challenging—finding solutions to problems required them to “think differently,” as Karla said, to be imaginative, creative and “think out of the box.” Carlee noted: “I like my team because we are able to bounce ideas off each other and work well to get everything done.”

This involved a lot of brainstorming new solutions, searching Google for ideas and narrowing ten ideas down to two or one. And then the CEOs would have to arrive a consensus, not an easy task by any means. They had to learn, for example, “how to incorporate other peoples’ ideas” into an agreed upon solution. Some CEOs worked for compromise, others made a final decision themselves.

Before a final presentation each team ran a dress rehearsal to get feedback from other students, as Grant Wiggins has advocated. Kids saw others’ ideas, responded, “That’s pretty neat” and changed some of their plans.

And Karla? At first she was bored, but she persisted and made the project her own: “I wanted to find some purpose for the project.” And she did.

“STEM made me actually start to do better in school and to start thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. . . I started to think differently because I realized it was time to become a better person and to grow up and to reach the expectations that my parents have for me and I have for myself.”

So, how did STEM projects compare with regular classes?

What pleased some students was learning “more ways to get things done, rather than just [sitting in class and] answering specific questions.”

There were “more variables” you had to work with, more points of view (others’ ideas) you had to reconcile.

During a subsequent challenge—building a colony on Mars—you had to “project consequences” of, for example, building this or that kind of structure and responding to a variety of “What if?” scenarios—suppose somebody gets killed. . ?

And, said Karla in conclusion, “You had to ask a lot of questions.”

What are the benefits of this kind of project?

Students thought there second STEM project--habitat on Mars--was superior because they had spontaneously used good problem solving processes--creating a challenge statement, brainstorming solutions and thinking critically about them to make decisions. They'd become better problem solvers and team members.

Some teachers noticed a transfer effect into their regular classrooms—students becoming more self-reliant, resourceful and focused on the tasks at hand. “We had to teach ourselves!” said one student.

Mary Darr, the faculty leader of these STEM projects, observed, “Unlike standardized tests, these challenges encourage students to work together in an authentic environment to generate something new, to figure out what to do when answers aren’t obvious. Here they have to pull everything together,” meaning apply knowledge from all subjects they’ve studied.

And Paul Dougherty, Director of Curriculum, noted that life for middle school students today is very “individualistic” and “social only within a cocoon.” STEM provides them with opportunities to create a product and persuade an authentic audience using logical arguments and good reasons.

No wonder Karla transformed her life.

(Photo left to right: Brandon, Karla, Kayla, Laura)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Students' Asking Good Questions

“What does the sun look like from other planets?” This question from Jasmin Ramzinsky’s 3rd grade class at Parkside Elementary School in Austin reflects how education can be turned around almost on a dime by simply challenging students to assume more control of their own learning.

How do they do this? By being encouraged to ask good questions about the content they are studying and then pursuing what International Baccalaureate calls “purposeful investigations.”

And how do we encourage students to get interested and excited enough to pose questions about a subject we have to teach?

First of all, teachers must be willing to model their own curiosities about the subjects we teach. If we aren’t curious, why would our students be? Modeling tells our students that we are inquisitive, that we don’t know everything and that asking good questions and searching for answers is very exciting! And this is what we do throughout life.

Second, we need to share with students subjects that are intriguing, sometimes full of mystery and puzzles to figure out.

For this unit Jasmin’s students read a short book and she wondered, “Why is Pluto no longer considered a planet? What is a `dwarf planet’?” These questions led off the unit with the guiding question Is Earth the only planet with life?

These teacher wonderings sparked other curiosities from students:

“How did the sun get into space?

How many galaxies are there?

What’s a nebula?

How big do asteroids get?

How many seasons are there in space?

Is it legul [sic] to color with markers on the moon?

And, my favorite, “What does the sun look like from other planets?”

Sometimes it takes a younger person’s questions to present us with entirely different perspectives on what we think we know a lot about, like the sun and the planets.

From these questions Jasmin helped her students find answers.

You can imagine their excitement, total engagement and purposefulness as they researched questions they wanted answers to.

Before Jasmin adopted this inquiry-based approach, she would assign students’ questions; they would then conduct the research and write a one or two page paper.

After completion of this solar system unit, Jasmin asked her students to

comment on how this new approach compared with what they did previously, answer questions she posed for them. Here are some of their comments:

"Mrs. Ram, that doesn't make any sense. Why would you ask questions about my planet. You weren't doing the research, I was."

"Mrs. Ram, I bet your kids kinda got bored with finding the answers to your questions."

"Mrs. Ram, How did you know what your kids wanted to research? Did you ask each kid before you wrote the list of questions?"

Indeed, why do we assume we can dream up the kinds of questions our students would be intrigued by? (Because we have stuff to teach, to “cover”?)

Why would we assume that the old approach would generate interest and engagement in the topic? (Because that’s what we’re used to?)

We have made and continue to make these assumptions throughout our educational system.

Teachers who afford students an opportunity to pose their own questions related to the designated content report that students become:

1. More highly motivated.

2. More engaged intellectually and emotionally.

3. More in control of their own learning and, thereby, more responsible for achievement.

As a matter of fact this problem-based/question-based approach led one student to tell her mom that now she was “in charge” of her own learning.

There are many, many Jasmins across this country who know the benefits and wisdom of challenging students to pose meaningful questions and conduct purposeful investigations about content that matters.

Inquiry that leads to problem solving and critical thinking are all so-called 21st century skills (as they were last century and the ones before that dating back to Socrates!)

One of the questions to pose and answer is “How do we know they’re getting better at these 21st century skills?”

Jasmin can see the growth of her students’ questioning in science, math and in reading dating back to November. All because she’s put a priority on changing the classroom dynamic from one in which the adult asks all the questions to one wherein both teachers and students are asking good questions, searching for answers and learning together.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bringing Mom to First Grade

There’s nothing “half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” said Water Rat in the Kenneth Graham classic, Wind in the Willows. The fun of just messing about in and around stuff.

The sheer joy of it all!

And there’s nothing quite like bringing your mom into first grade so children can get to know about her life, the times she lived in and what she valued.

I had this pleasure recently at the Mulgrave School in Vancouver, British Columbia. On a not too unusual cloudy February day, I brought pictures of my mother, Elizabeth Ferguson Barell, into Monique Vodrey’s class to model how one might challenge students to become good observers and questioners of folks who lived before them. They were studying change across generations and I’d already admired some of their family trees.

I showed the students six or seven photos of Elizabeth from age twelve to eighty-five and asked them to arrange them in chronological order. This they were able to do upon the second or third try. What distinguished one photo from another was my mother's height, “She’s taller here!’ and the presence or absence of her son, me.

Then I focused on one black and white picture, that of her standing next to a Model A Ford probably circa 1927, the first year of production. It was most likely her father’s black car and I’m sure he took the picture in front of their house in LeRoy, NY.

I asked kids to observe it closely and tell me what they saw: “the car—not like my Dad’s car at all!” and lots of comments about the car, the windows, so many, the hood, the tires without hubcaps, the running board and the roof. They were fascinated by the roof. They were curious about the windows, why so many, the car’s color, why black, and the spoked wheels.

The point was to help them become good observers, because inquiry starts with being keen observers of objects and experiences. Go here to view a video clip of students making their observations: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vg3j3-1wzwg

Next, I wanted them to pose good questions. I was sitting on a couch and held up a color picture of my mother and me when she was about 85. Then I said, “If my mother, Elizabeth Barell, were sitting right here, what would you ask her?” You can hear from the tape how kids asked questions about life when she was born and then they asked a question that really surprised and delighted me, “What was her life about? (View: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWMaYbM7l04 )

Wow! “What was her life about?” Behind me were all the pictures arranged in chronological order and one wonders what she might have said in response.

“What did she like the best?” one other student asked.

I think her life was about total devotion to her children, loving them, sacrificing for them especially when there was a family need. As a single working mom, she drove from Wellesley, MA everyday in her later life to work at Dana Farber Cancer Research Center in Boston as a researcher, then drove home, made my sister, Robin, a delicious meal, without ever, ever complaining, or asking Robin to make it herself.

But it was also about loving life. She was one of the most curious persons I’ve ever met. On her shelves, before she passed away last September, were books about Leonard Bernstein, nuclear physicist Richard Feynman, stories by A. A. Milne, and Ann Taylor and audio tapes of her favorite comics, Bob and Ray. And, scattered about the apartment were cross word puzzle books galore!

Now that she’s gone we miss her and find different ways to keep her in our lives.

At least first graders in Vancouver got to meet a lovely lady who once summed up the meaning of her life thusly: “Mind your own business! Because if you don’t, somebody else will.”

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Christina Taylor Green

Nicholas Kristof of The NY Times interviewed two brave women in Liberty Square, Cairo last week (2/3/11). Brave because they were out on the streets, surrounded by thousands of mostly male demonstrators, not concerned about their own safety and subject to the attacks of pro-Government armed men crashing in on horses and camels.

These two sisters Amal and Minna, “had their heads covered in the conservative Muslim style, and they looked timid and frail as thugs surrounded them, jostled them, shoute

d at them.”

But these two “stood their ground. They explained calmly to the mob why they favored democratic reform. . .”

“We need democracy in Egypt,” they told Kristof. “We want what you have.”

They and their brothers want what we too often take for granted: the rights guaranteed in those first ten amendments, guaranteeing us all the freedom to dare, to dream, to question authority and wonder about possible worlds we can create and inhabit, “here, th

ere and everywhere.”

Amal and Minna remind me of Christina Taylor Green, that all too young nine year old gunned down in Tucson as she stood listening to congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. All she wanted was to learn more about our democracy, how we can work together to live a good life, everybody potentially able to live out a dream.

She should live on in our collective memories as an example of childhood curiosity, wonder , trust and enthusiasm!

President Obama elevated her curiosity to national heights:

“I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

What were Christina’s expectations? That she could observe her government at work on the corner, that she could, if patient enough, someday participate at a state or national level as she was doing in her own school’s Student Council. That maybe she could be one of thos

e people who works to help others live as she had, growing up with loving parents, a splendid brother, a terrific school that challenged her to imagine life as full of possibilities and a community that cared about all of its citizens. She probably knew how fortunate she was.

Christina probably wanted what most of us want, to raise our hands with questions about something that is mysterious, intriguing, puzzling about our world—how people did or didn’t live in harmony, what was that "Milky Way" spread out so brightly over Tucson’s warm evenings, how do animals think, and what makes some music so weird!

With a grandfather and father in baseball, I imagine Christina loved the rough and tumble of various sports, playing them for the sheer joy of participating, dreaming of winning, learning to live with the losses, but always laughing up the thrill of being on a team.

I’m sure Christina loved reading, escaping with a good story that took her “lands away,” into Narnia, away with Charlotte into that web and way, way off to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

And I imagine she loved exploring the landscapes around Tucson, skipping, laughing and dancing her way toward what e.e. cummings called that

“. . .keen

city which nobody’s ever visited,where


Spring)and everyone’s

in love and flowers pick themselves”

God bless you, Christina Taylor Green!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"Simply reeks with class"

During a recent breakfast with my aunt, Anne Cooper, I learned of one of my mother’s favorite movies, “Top Hat,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.

One day during its movie debut, 1935, my mother, Elizabeth Ferguson, returned home with a girl friend simply roaring with laughter about one of Astaire’s lyrics. They saw him in top hat, white tie and tails before an entourage of over twenty similarly attired men, all sporting the walking cane dancing and singing about “dudein up” his shirt front, “puttin’ in the shirt studs, polishin [his] nails.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fizrfcAI13A)

But, according to my aunt, one line sent my mother and her girlfriend, both probably twenty years old and in college, into gales of laughter was the following: “I’m steppin’ out, my dear To breath an atmosphere that simply reeks with class. . . “

My mother loved that line about breathing in an “atmosphere that simply reeks with class.”

What did it mean to her, I wondered? What represented “class” to her in 1935?

Surely, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. FDR? Her father, the famous scientist? Her mother? Douglas Fairbanks?

Nancy and I wondered what we meant by that word and she offered this definition: “Some one with class has a personal style, is self-confident and performs with humility and without arrogance.” Others have noted that to have class means to be very respectful of all others and to have “an innate sense of appropriateness” in social situations.

I usually think of someone with class, like Astaire and Rogers, as performers on the grand stage of life, but surely one doesn’t need to be famous to have class.

We then considered who amongst us, past and present had class.

Here’s a brief list:

Cary Grant

Jean Arthur in any of her splendid movies

Audrey Hepburn

Admiral Richard E. Byrd treated me upon first meeting him when I was a young teen-ager and in awe of him as a member of his family. He definitely had class. See Quest for Antarctica.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Anne Frank

Abraham Lincoln

Former Senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel

Former Senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley

Former Congressman from Bridgeport, CT, Christopher Shays

Senator from Illinois Richard Lugar

President Barack Obama

Physicists Isidore I. Rabi and Richard Feynman

Astronomer Carl Sagan

All the Tuskegee Airmen

Marion Anderson


Joe DiMaggio, even on that one occasion when he kicked up some dirt at missing a home run. And, of course, Yogi.

Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics

Walt “Clyde” Frazier of the NY Knicks

Connecticut women’s basketball team (of 90 straight victories) coach Gino Auriemma after recently losing to Stanford, “I think they played an unbelievably good game.” Had to.

Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga who, on 3 June 2010, pitched a perfect game only to have the last out nullified by umpire Jim Joyce, who admitted he blew the call. Galarraga treated this terrible disappointment with class, no thumping around ranting and raving about “I was robbed.” A true gentleman and sportsman.

And who doesn’t have class, you ask? Any of the sports figures who feels it important to “hot dog” after making a routine play on the field—sacking the quarterback, scoring a touchdown or hitting a home run. Strutting around pointing to themselves, thumping their manly chests, all to their own greater glory.

Of course, I would also nominate Elizabeth Ferguson Barell, for courage during the darker days of her life. Simply reeked with class.

Whom do you nominate as a person who has or had class?