Reflect and Connect- Witch Way to the 5K Challenge

One of the key pieces of the Critical Skills Classroom is the parallel nature of the learning experience.  Kids and teachers are co-learners, engaged in the same cycle and experience, with kids focused on learning content and skills and teachers learning this new way of teaching while they continue to learn their kids.  The teacher cycle begins earlier (in planning) and lasts longer (with reflection on the entirety of the experience- often on the drive home from school.) I’m happy to share Monica Quirk’s reflection on one of her first challenges with her 8th grade FACS students. She’s a student in my Instructional Design class and graciously allowed me to share this.  Our school has a huge race every October to raise money for technology.  I have my students for about 15 days and then I get a new group, so I do not have time for a challenge that will take several weeks for them to solve.  I thought this would help with community building and our use of technology.

Dear 8th Graders, I am the Witch Way to the 5K coordinator and need your help.  The race is quickly approaching and as you know, all the money earned goes directly to our Technology Fund.  Last year we raised over $35,000.  We were able to purchase several Chromebooks and Laptops, as well as a Poster Printer.   I would like to display posters printed from our new printer for the racers and the spectators to see.  These posters should promote healthy lifestyles, including eating healthfully and staying active. I have heard that your FACS classes are learning about the 5  food groups and the 6 essential nutrients needed to promote good health.  I would like you and your team to come up with a poster design by Oct. 22. The posters will be viewed museum style and voted on by a panel of judges.  The three posters will be displayed at the Witch Way to the 5K race on Sat., Oct. 25.  Good Luck!

I just finished my challenge lesson and had a few minutes before my next group.  I thought I would reflect while it was fresh…. This group that came in was very excited to help out with the race, but a bit disappointed they weren’t cooking today.  They definitely bought into displaying it so the town could see.  One boy even said we should post them along side the roads in the community so the racers will know what to do before the race :) So I was walking them through the brainstorming sheet to guide them toward a plan.  I noticed right off that they could communicate well with each other and had a lot of ideas but no one was writing down the ideas.  So I quickly shifted my focus from collaboration to planning as my disposition. (Note from Laura: Remember, Critical Skills Classrooms always focus on not only content learning, but also practicing carefully targeted skills and dispositions.)  I gave them examples of what I was hearing and how they could list those ideas to help them stay on task, that they were actually planning, not just “winging it.”  I did let them wing the sketch prior though.  As I said they should have a sketch first, they quickly reminded me that using the technology would be easier and they could find images and ideas as they researched – so smart!!  So gone with the sketches.  I observed who was participating and adding information.  I had never used the Brainstorming Sheet front the Toolkit page 1.  I really liked how the kids have to identify the problem (top box), and we set up the criteria together  (bottom box).  They used the middle section to put notes found and ideas discussed.  Great tool. Laura, thanks for helping me think through ONE skill.  I guess we all teach multiple, but to truly focus on one feels less overwhelming for me and the students.  They were on task and had few difficulties.  Another thing I liked about this challenge was the students were able to complete a real life task without taking up weeks of precious class time. The challenges don’t have to be long and involved just relevant.   They did decide to finish what was left outside of class, so they could cook the next class!!  They added to their plan sheets what needed to be done by who and when.  Cooking is a great incentive too!! A bit of encouragement for those just starting PBL, it takes time to let go of the original plan, to make messes and go the direction of the kids but it really pays off. It’s amazing how much they can do when you let them! The thing I love most about this is that it’s not perfect.  Things didn’t go exactly to plan and the teacher had to adapt and adjust as they did, which means she had to be totally present and aware of what was going on. This teacher was willing to step to the side a bit, let her students make the challenge their own, and work with what they were bringing to the problem (rather than insisting they work within her framework) Learning is messy, no matter which side of the desk you’re on, right? Thanks for letting us see into your thinking!

Getting to the Emulate-ability of Deeper Learning

So this article in EdWeek peaked my interest this morning. I’ll share the quote that grabbed me before I go any further.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which funded the reports and some of the learning networks that were studied, defines deeper learning as education that emphasizes core academic content, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, effective communication, self-directed learning, and an academic mindset.

Now,  it’s not rocket surgery figuring out why I found this interesting. This is exactly what the Critical Skills Classroom does so I was pretty much ready to do the happy dance.   So when I read this further down:

“it’s not a set of findings that say let’s run out and emulate what these schools are doing, because the schools are not all doing the same thing.”

I wanted to do this:



I get that it’s hard to “emulate” when people are doing different things- particularly if by “emulate” you mean “push everyone into single, lock-step curriculum and step-by-step pedagogy” (which I’m assuming hoping praying isn’t what they mean but I’m a wee bit cynical jaded experienced with this sort of thing so pardon my temporary straw man).

However, emulating a PROCESS by which teachers plan for the kids they have in front of them, using experiential methods that we know work because they reflect what we know about human development and learning theory and the way brains work? That seems INFINITELY emulate-able.  It’s down right emulate-alicious. Because this:

On average, students at deeper learning schools had better test results and people skills, the studies found. They were also more likely to graduate from high school on time and enroll in four-year colleges.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s time for some serious emulation.

Guest Post: When the wheels come off


We tell lots of stories about amazing Critical Skills Challenges that rock kids’ worlds and bring powerful, meaningful learning to all kinds of classrooms.  What we *don’t* do very often is tell the stories of the times that things go a little pear shaped, when they go off the rails, when the pedagogical wheels completely come off.  This fall I’m teaching the Instructional Design class at Antioch.  It’s part of our Critical Skills Classroom/ PBL Concentration, so we get a mix of students who are in the program and students who are just beginning their Critical Skills journeys and want a bit of guidance as they start out.  As you can imagine, we have a lot of conversations about less-than- perfect outcomes because that’s what learning is all about in Critical Skills Classrooms- try, reflect, learn, plan, and try again. Today I have a great guest post about an absolutely BRILLIANT First Attempt In Learning from Morag Bradford, Arts Integration Specialist at Creative City Public Charter School in Baltimore, MD.  

So I’ve been thinking about Challenges and, following a trip to a field of sunflowers last Sunday, decided to jump right in…spot the not-so-deliberate mistake that made this challenge go down like a lead zeppelin. (This was with my most easy going and cohesive first grade class.)

sunflower+field-2The sunflowers were amazing- as big as your head and as tall as the kids. I had never stood in a field like this (it went to the horizon!) and wanted to share what I could with my students. So back to school with a bunch of giant sunflowers, photos of the field, a poster of (one of) Van Gogh’s famous paintings and some oild pastels. The kids loved the flowers- were amazed and loved that they got to see them up close and touch all the parts. We talked about the size and the color and the shapes and the textures and we looked at and discussed projected images of the field and of Van Gogh’s paintings. All was well. I told the students, “We are going to work in teams to create life size images of the flowers with oil pastels!”

20140925_160608_1_ The students generated quality criteria- not a new activity as I often create process charts and have the students create the rubric for a lesson as that really solidifies what I am asking for and how the students will know if they are successful ( and if they are finished- goes some way to saving me from the ‘I’m done!’ after two minutes of drawing).

Good quality criteria- all was well. I did a quick demo on the use of oil pastels (hard/soft pressure, blending, qualities of line) and then divided up the students into groups by counting around the group 1,2,3,4.

By the time I had finished counting the first students could not remember which number they were.


Recount, sending children to their tables (four groups of 4 or 5) as I said their number. This is the point at which the wheels came off completely. Right away there was shouting recriminations, loud crying, quiet crying and screaming! The classroom aide and I went from table to table to try and ‘fix’ the situation but there was too much dischord to be able to get anywhere. The noise level was a real problem!

After a few minutes of trying to get everyone to calm down we called all the students back to the rug and adressed what a disaster it was. I noted that the assignment was not going so well and asked how I could have better prepared the class, and what we as individuals and as a group could do differently.

This morning I was reading more of the K-3 Coaching Kit and came across Elizabeth Reid’s statement; “Never mix a new process with new content.” 


So back at the drawing board I am am thinking that my options are;


  • Read Camille and the Sunflowers to give some more student-friendly background on Van Gogh and his sunflower paintings.                 ,
  • Have students experiment individually with oil pastels.
  • THEN- either ask students to work in pairs and have a conversation about how each pair would decide who would draw what- OR have each student create a sunflower and put them all together in a community vase.

 She did *exactly* what Critical Skills teachers are supposed to do.  When the wheels come off (and they will, have no doubt, it happens to everyone), she made the right call when she brought the group back together to talk about what was working, what wasn’t working, and what she could have done differently to make it work better next time (way to model reflection!) She took the time to reflect individually and to take a look at the at different resources (man, those Coaching Kits are are GOLD MINE, aren’t they?) and combined that new information with what she’d learned from her students in planning for the next go ’round. 

You see what she did there? Morag made an Experiential Loop for herself AND herSnail students! It wasn’t the loop she expected, but it was a dang good loop nevertheless!  

Well done Morag!

(And thanks for being brave enough to share your experience with us!)

This is what AUNE’s EdTech and PBL/ Cri

This is what AUNE’s EdTech and PBL/ Critical Skills Programs teach you to do! Mazlow’s needs for students using technology for learning | CLOUDUCATION

Building a Classroom Community that supp

Building a Classroom Community that supports Collaborative, Problem-based Learning via @leadingedgejack #CSP #PBL

If you’re a teacher and live or work ne

If you’re a teacher and live or work near Estes Park, you should check this out. @EagleRockSchool: CFG Seminar

What is Your Story?

I’m happy share a guest post today from Jason Finley, Work-Based Learning Coordinator Randolph Technical Career Center and 2009 Rowland Fellow (Inaugural Cohort)

This was originally posted on the Rowland Foundation blog.


While the Rowland Blog is a piece of our Professional Learning Community, the following is largely a personal take on our individual and collective work. It is part of my story.

What is your story?

You’ve heard me say this before, and I’m sure that you’ll hear me say it again, “Collectively we are our own best resource.”

What does this mean for our work as Fellows? I’ve tried more than a few ways and have searched ad nauseam for the best means to gather, curate, and share the tremendous amount of collective wisdom and resources that our group holds. I’ve done this, however, while ignoring a basic tenet of education.

You know it and practice it as the new “3 R’s” of Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. What’s known in principle, however, is only valid if used in practice. Let me begin this post with a sincere mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Rigorous content and academic concepts can only be addressed after we have determined how to connect these in ways that are purposeful and Relevant to an individual or group. And, we are unable to adequately determine what is Relevant to an individual or a group without first developing a strong and meaningful Relationship.

It’s common best practice in our classrooms, isn’t it? We all know that community building is paramount to a successful year. Regardless of who the group of learners is, it is necessary to first spend the time necessary to develop relationships.

It’s always about putting people first. It’s about taking the time to learn someone’s story to understand who they are and why it is that they do the things that they do. Beyond statistically significant data points, beyond what the research tells us, beyond studies in current best practices, what experiences led each of us to where we are at today? That’s what is really important. Right?

So, how did you forge your past experiences in shaping your work as a Rowland Fellow? What is the story of why you do what you do?

Dr. Uri Hasson with the Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University gives us some insight into the importance of this when he shares, “A story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.” Stories connect ideas. Stories connect experiences. Stories connect us.

Stories allow us to make mental associations with, find relevance in, and give context to the ideas and experiences of others. They address an intellectual need to make meaning while providing opportunities for deeply emotional connections. This gives stories the powerful ability to inspire us to take action.

Rodger Dean Duncan says this better than I can. Here are his thoughts, slightly abridged and modified, on storytelling.

“Stories have enormous potential to inspire and connect, to open eyes and to affirm. For too long, schools have relied on offering ideas of improvement, change, and reform only by supplying data, numbers, and statistics. There is, however, a recent revival of the use of simple images and one line concepts to support verbal storytelling. TED Talks have carried this practice forward and with world-class speakers who speak in simple narratives, using stories and powerful imagery to convey their message.

This is because stories powerfully connect us to each other. When we share our own real-life stories or the stories of others it provides the opportunity to get to know one another as authentic people – real people who have struggled within the traditional paradigms of education and figured out how to overcome them.”

This fall and winter we will be sharing the stories that have led us individually to where we are today in an attempt to better inform each us of the stories we will write tomorrow. It will be an opportunity to come out of our silos and lean across the fence for a while to share some time and ideas with friends.

I strongly believe that through the simple act of storytelling, relationships will be developed in ways which allow for a deeper discovery of shared relevance. And, through exploring those common areas of knowledge and interests, we will ultimately develop more rigorously defined, researched, and developed processes which lead to even greater outcomes for our work.

Collectively we are our own best resource. Knowing each other’s stories will help us to write a better version of our own.

What is your story?

Jason Finley, a 2009 Fellow, is the Work-Based Learning Coordinator at Randolph Technical Career Center and Co-Chair of the Vermont Work-Based Learning Coordinators Association.
“At the Randolph Technical Career Center (RTCC) I help students to become both career and college ready through work-based learning experiences which build confidence through competence, promote a sense of pride in work well done, and teach students the perseverance and grit necessary to manage obstacles while valuing the effort it takes to turn challenges into opportunities.”


Sometimes Learning is found not in Individual Experience, but in Common Reflection. Photo & Quote ~ Jason Finley

Rodger Dean Duncan quote from “Tap the Power of Storytelling”