Month: February 2014

Is authenticity the key to engagement?

There is an obvious emerging trend in all of the project work I’ve seen with the High Tech High Deeper Learning Course: most projects have an audience outside of the classroom. While I have had some success with this in my own project planning, I am realizing that it is a an area of “deeper” or “21st century” learning that I want to focus more on.


Here is another project tuning protocol from a High Tech High teacher eliciting feedback on a project her students did: writing and publishing a book about the products they use everyday.

I think the hardest challenge I am finding as a new teacher is to find the time to plan these authentic projects, when most of my school experience was designed in an entirely different way. We, as teachers, draw on our most recent learning experiences, and it is unfortunate that we were not trained in this way as students.

This is why I actually love the work that happens through something like Cohort 21: we are in many ways unlearning how to “do school”. If we participate in personalized learning experiences, we will better know how to facilitate them for our students. Part of me wonders if the Deeper Learning experience should be around modelling this essential “real world / authentic” audience for us teachers so that we can go back and re-create it for our students.

How can we possibly reinvent the wheel if we don’t experiment with it ourselves?

Sample student work from Matrix of Connections

I want your feedback on my students’ work.

Here are two samples of how two of my students attempted to connect their chosen artifacts to The Book Thief. This, I should explain, is a learning task that helps students begin to see how two (seemingly) different topics can be connected together. The next step is for students to debate a resolution that uses evidence from both The Book Thief and Canadian History (their current unit in Social Studies).

  • How well do these students build connections?
  • What skills should I consider teaching in preparation for debates?
  • What feedback would you give each student?
  • How would you tweak the learning task to better support students creating and articulating connections?

Student Work Sample #1

Sample Matrix Work 1



Student Work Sample #2

Matrix Sample 2.1

Matrix Sample 2.2


Responding to one student at a time

Personalized Learning PostIt might take only a 4 second conversation with me to discover that I am preposterously passionate about personalized learning. Reading through Littky’s and Allen’s article about the MET school, an institution constructed on the bedrock of personalization, made me equally excited and jealous of the structures that are in place in this school that make personalized learning the norm.

The reality that struck me when reading this is that many teachers are working in systems that are not always conducive to personalization. I am blessed to teach in an independent school that celebrates a project based, inquiry, and student-centric approach. But how could teachers structure a personalized program in their classrooms when the system they are working is not personalized? It really seemed like the MET’s program worked in this article because it was the culture of the school; personalization was the air that they breathed. Could one personalized course change a student’s chances of success if the rest of their courses were more traditional?

Some basic notions I could borrow from the MET school and apply to my own teaching are to set personalized learning goals with each of my students at the beginning of the year (or contracts…I like that idea, Garth), generating broad curriculum goals that each student needs to demonstrate before the end of the year, and have students write statements about their passions / future dreams and aspirations / who they want to become oneday and use this as a basis for suggesting readings, building writing projects, finding out who they should send their writing to, or authentic purposes for generating creative expression.

Deeper Learning Mooc: Internships and students in the adult world

This week in the DLMooc, we are focusing on students in the adult world. Like Tim Flanagan, I wasn’t completely convinced that this week had a huge connection to my world as a Middle School English teacher, and so I wasn’t entirely on top of my viewing and reading and posting this week. But I’ve come to reconsider my position, especially after watching this Lens into the Classroom protocol.


The High Tech High students begin their internships in the 11th Grade: a stage of learning when students are normally starting to really consider what they will study in university and what challenges their adult lives will take on. While I don’t think that students in Grade 7 should be so narrow in their vision to absolutely know what they will be when they “grow up”, I do know that around the ages of 12 and 13, students are most certainly starting to articulate what they passionate about and what broad disciplines they are really curious about.

One High Tech High student said that internships are “a month to learn what you want”.

Perhaps the Middle School answer to “students in the adult world” is through field work (this idea shows up in the protocol from one of the probing questions in regards to what is the difference between field work and internships).

Could field work be the way that Middle School students get their feet a little wet in the adult world, solving real world problems, acting as a “think tank for community problems” as Emilo Torres suggested, and give students the chance to learn through their interests to promote deep engagement?

I’m wondering if there are other Middle School teachers in the larger DLMooc group that are also grappling with how “internships” or the “adult world” fits into their own version of school?

One cost of personalization


I think it is far too easy to jump on some form of bandwagon and not bother to look around and assess how this bandwagon is actually running, and whether this particular wagon is fitting your needs or not. In other words, I want to share some of my current day woes about this foray into personalization.

While students were charting their own course through the Mind Blowing Matrix of Connections  I noticed something rather quickly: when students had the chance to work at their own pace, this actually translated to students working slower than I had hoped for. In my mind, I was thinking that students could likely browse for one session, and have maybe one (or max two other sessions) to actually write up their brief paragraphs about connection. But no…I was rudely awakened to the fact that “at your own pace” might mean that students’ timelines and my own timeline are not necessarily in sync. I had designed the experience around students perhaps working more quickly (and thus the advanced and optional stages), but why would a student challenge themselves towards the “advanced and optional” stages if they had the chance to work slower and do less? I heard a lecture once about brain development and reading (although it really applies to any kind of learning) that our brains are set up to conserve energy, so yes, I can certainly appreciate where my students would be coming from. 


Which actually brings me back to a conversation the personalized posse (Aaron Vigar, Danielle Ganley, Brent Hurley, Carloyn Bilton, Alan MacInnis, Brad Bohte) had at the 3rd Face-2-Face session at MaRS: should more challenging tasks be “worth more” in terms of marking and grades?

If you take a peek at the Mind Blowing Matrix of Connections, you will see that the content on the grid is more challenging as the numbers increase (in other words, it is easier to connect a level 1 than it is to connect a level 7). There is no incentive for a student to try and connect a level 7 artifact to The Book Thief. Should I have created a gradient with this grid, so that if you looked at artifacts from the 1-3 range, the most you could score is a 2/4, if you went to artifacts from the 4-6 range you could at most score a 3/4, and if you challenged yourself to connect artifacts from the 7-9 range, you could achieve a 4/4?

Because this Matrix thing is but one component of a larger unit on The Book Thief, I’m not overly worried about my students not challenging themselves to their appropriate “zone of proximal development”, but rather I’m hoping to consider some of these mini-pitfalls and use my realizations to help me build better, more mind-blowing personalized experiences for my students in the future.

How have you, oh expert personalizers, accounted for differing speeds, conservation of energy, challenge levels, and zones of proximal developments with assessment of personalized learning?

The Mind-blowing Matrix of Connections

Presently, the Grade 7 students are around page 260 of the meaty text The Book Thief and last week, the Mind-blowing Matrix of Connections was launched. But first, some background information and context.


One huge take-away I had from the Klingenstein Summer Institute was the notion of structuring curriculum around the “big ideas” of my discipline. And, more importantly, the common shortcomings or misconceptions of a discipline. So if students continually struggle year after year with understanding the point and purpose of, say, writing reflections, then you should structure your learning around that idea, because it will be a skill and understanding that will benefit the student for years to come. Thank you Wiggins and McTighe. So far, this year in Grade 7 English, our units have been centred around the big ideas of “Expression”, “Reflection”, and now (with The Book Thief) “Connection”. The enduring understanding that I want my students to take away from this unit is that our world is a complex web of interconnectedness; articulating and uncovering these connections allow us to more deeply understand ourselves and the world around us. Just a typical day in Grade 7, right?

So to help my students begin to understand this, I wanted to design a personalized experience for them to wander / explore / play / grapple through. Enter the Mind-blowing Matrix of Connections. 

I was inspired by Garth’s explanation of personalized learning through an intricate “choose your own adventure” chart and I decided to create my own for my students with a set of stages that they could explore at their own pacing and leisure. Can personalized learning be on the “prescriptive” side as well? I had some clear goals in mind with my students for this learning task; should this be more “open-ended” or does the choice offered here give students the space to bring themselves to this task?

It is inspiring to see students having the chance to see something that they initially think is utterly separate from The Book Thief (Macklemore’s Same Love music video, for example) and notice what happens when they start to stitch those threads of connection between the two (“Oh…now I see that they both are showing different forms of bullying and how hard it is to not be able to change who you are…huh!”).  I love how forms of media that these students, in many cases, would just consume for enjoyment on their own time, are being woven into their curriculum. I also am excited to see students beginning to work ahead and try to figure out with their critical thinking skills what all the content in each of these columns (each an important theme in The Book Thief) has in common (Can you figure it out? Are you “smarter” than a 7th Grader?). The students are still crafting their connections, but I am planning on sharing some samples of student writing here (anonymously, of course) and some reflections on how well this learning task went.

But truthfully, I am most excited to see what happens when we have the students use the SAME matrix to connect the content they have been learning in Canadian History to these digital-artifacts. How is the Same Love video connected to the Acadian experience?

Is everything, in reality, actually connected?