Accountability and Projects Time

This post is the second in a series about Projects Time. Here’s a link to the first.

Unless people saw it in action, Projects Time could be hard to explain.

Colleagues at my own school understood, pretty much. They had given my students years of similar experience in younger classes, that helped them be ready to make longer-term choices, and choose on the basis of activity more than work-partner. They sent me students proficient in physical problem solvingprojects tsongas canal adjustment cropped, making things work and getting a kick out of the effort. They sent me students with their natural curiosity and creativity still very much intact, full of the energy and momentum for inquiry. (Museum teachers–here at the Tsongas Center in Lowell–always marveled at the hands-on cleverness and persistence of our students.)

My colleagues also sent me students who knew a lot about working with each other. By the time they reached me, most students already knew how to exercise individual creativity in the service of a group effort—contributing ideas, but not needing to have them adopted by the group every time, and increasingly able to listen to each other.

buildersIn Projects Time, kids could show leadership in many ways. For one thing, they could help to support collaborative working skills for their classmates who needed more time to develop that particular skill set. (After all, nobody has an aptitude for everything.) Year after year, I could count on finding at least one child who would be especially helpful to students brand new to the school–who didn’t know everybody yet, of course, and typically had had fewer opportunities to practice both group skills and hands-on problem-solving.

I loved watching what could happen with minimal adult intervention. I could exercise my care mostly in the background, choosing the groups at the beginning of the year with particular mindfulness, providing appropriately-leveled background reading, giving the most inexperienced students the comfort of a group of two.

In these small interventions, I followed the example of the colleagues from whom I had learned how to teach. Projects Time used and stretched skills the teachers of younger classes had been building for years, in both kids and adults. So they understood it—teachers and students both.

projects out mini buildingsTo the left, a group of students have been exploring construction techniques, ways of supporting weight for example, by creating miniature buildings with natural materials from the slope near our deck.

Still, people who didn’t see it in action found Projects Time perplexing. Parents new to the school sometimes expressed bafflement, until they had an opportunity to join us–or until talkative kids came home bubbling over. If new administrators never came to observe, they might be reassured by the testimonials of other staff, or by reading my parent letters–or they might not.

Most challenging of all, though, for me and for them: teachers from other schools might never have observed projects learning, let alone our situation of groups working parallel on different activities. When I talked with them at conferences and workshops–or family reunions, train rides, all those informal workshops teachers create for themselvesthey said, projects giggling group“Wait– if kids are working away from you, in a small group by themselves or with another adult, how can you be sure what they’re learning? If they’re not all following the same activities, how can you control what’s happening? What do you put on tests?”

projects marble chutes editIn the early years, faced with questions like these, I had to work hard not to get defensive. (It didn’t help that I had no idea how to explain serious playfulness. I just knew it felt right, and worked.) Then, as I developed more and more confidence in my students, I struggled to suppress anger at what I saw as lack of respect for kids.

Eventually, though, I felt sympathetic. As years went by, I increasingly wanted to do one of two things.

  • I wanted to wave a magic wand and give these other teachers my opportunities for knowing students well. My class size, for starters—never more than 18, and more typically 15. Also, my self-contained class, together and with me for most of the day, except for specials and in some cases math. We shared a continuity, richness, and intimacy of group experience increasingly uncommon in the school lives of ten-to-twelve-year-olds. I could know both individuals and the chemistry of a groupknow them really well—and that let me sense the ways I could trust them, and then build on that.

  • projects river model0001Sometimes I just wanted to loan out my inquiry-proficient students to these other teachers, as an example. You have to watch kids who are accustomed to belonging to themselves (like Mister Dog in the wonderful Little Golden Book by Margaret Wise Brown) in order to realize what they can do—what challenges you can give them, and what motivation they will bring to open-ended opportunities.

We did have in place a number of routines to keep me informed about how things were going, for groups as a whole, and for individual kids, and for the other adults in the situation.

  • Whenever possible, I built in freedom for myself to move from group to group, for at least some part of every time block, taking both notes and photographs as I went. (Otherwise, would I have this treasured shot of Lucy Candib and her group digging a hole under the deck, in which to bury various materials, which next year’s class would dig up again, in an ongoing year-after-year investigation called What Rots?)

  • projects Lucy burying rotprojects volunteer notesI asked assistants and volunteers to fill out a quick question sheet at the end of each session, to help keep me informed. (They had time to do this while I led the final wrap-up.)

  • projects Fermi question notes editStudents took notes and made sketches during Projects Time, and then wrote more afterward, summarizing what they’d learned, making additional drawings, listing questions. Sometimes I saw this writing over their shoulders, as groups shared at the beginning of the next session. Sometimes I collected students’ writing, to look for growth and for areas of confusion that needed support. When Sally Kent told me about lab notebooks with carbon sheets that could be torn out, we began using those, and kids could keep the original in their notebook for future reference, and give me the copies.

Still, our ways of observing and guiding students were premised on trust, meant to help us support students in their learning, not grade them on it. (Here’s more about that.)

Looking back, in the light of the current obsession with accountability, I realize that skeptical questioners were asking, ‟How do you keep the kids accountable?”

We worry about holding people accountable when we don’t think they’re likely to stick to their side of a bargain, or approach their part of a task conscientiously, or own some effort. We worry about accountability when we think people are likely to cheat—and people cheat when they don’t feel ownership of the results. Many things can lead to that lack of ownership—some of them outside a teacher’s power to intervene. People cheat when they’re depressed, when they’re overtired, when they lack confidence in what they can really do. There’s a lot to understand in that vicious circle, but demands for accountability don’t change it in any useful way. Or that’s how it looks to me.

Recently, I reread an essay in The Atlantic about why it’s so hard for American educators to understand the success of Finnish education. The article, by Anu Partanen, quotes Pasi Sahlberg, speaking to an audience at Teacher’s College in New York City in 2011. ‟Accountability,” he said, ‟is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” 

I keep mulling that over. I still have questions about Projects Time, and plenty of ideas for changes I’ll make and new things I’ll try if time travel ever becomes available. Still, Sahlberg’s statement helps me understand why Projects Time worked so well almost all the time; why my structures and routines for staying informed were secondary, in fact, to the most important part of the dynamic.

In Projects Time, students were genuinely responsible to each other. They were mutually responsible for the thoroughness and spirit, the seriousness playfulness, of their own groups’ inquiries, obviously. Beyond that, because they so often carried out different inquiries, in parallel, they were learning on each others’ behalf. They put creative thought and boundless energy into the ways theyprojects transportation wheelcha would demonstrate their methods and summarize their outcomes. For example, often they set up stations for other students to try out. To the right, a skit created by a group who’d been researching transportation access issues for people with physical disabilities.

And then there were the puppet shows about water power, or future careers in transportation planning, or… 

transportation puppet shows

So there it is: Irony Alert. The same five-ring circus, the same level of complication that stretched the adults’ ability to be everywhere at once, meant that we didn’t have to.

We didn’t have to hold them all accountable, minute to minute. We held them responsible, instead, and they rose to that, for themselves and for each other.

And, as Robert Frost would say, ‟that has made all the difference.”

For this post, I’ve scanned in some older photographs I found when I went hunting for artifacts from the early years of Projects Time. These kids are now very grown-up grown-ups–finishing med school, having babies, beginning careers in agricultural engineering, as many stories as people. I look at the photographs and grin, and feel–for the millionth time–how incredibly lucky I was to know them when they were prototypes of the energetic, engaged adults they’ve become. So, all of you, thank you again.

projects at the beach

Overviews: The World In a Grain of Sand

Think, for a minute, about ways of getting or creating an overview of a bunch of experience or information.

sketching time sample map cropped to squareMaps can do that–geographical maps, but also the very local maps-of things-to-be-built-in-the-future called blueprints, or the webs that some writers like to call concept maps.

Planning curriculum, mulling a big unwieldy thing, I found that it helped me to use charts made on pages with boxes. overviews first weeks edit“Those box things” students called them–and blank versions freely available worked really well as a note-taking strategy for kids who needed to see an overall structure as they took their notes, rather than waiting for that to emerge.

overviews sample outline editI sweated and swore over the classic outline, whenever I had to produce one as a student, especially in the days before computer word processing’s friendliness to second thoughts. Still, the classic outline, with its indented Roman numerals and subcategories, works well as an overview for some minds. (To the left, the sample in the report-writing guidebook for the Voyage of the Mimi animal behavior reports.) I never required a full formal outline, but some students found them helpful and made them voluntarily.

Linnaeus’s biological classification scheme–groups nested inside groups, as in the classic outline–provided an overview of all life that helped biologists begin to grasp the whole of it. Library classification schemes like the Dewey Decimal System reach out to hold a giant organization of the universe, living and non-living: turtles / planets / novels / kinds of dump trucks / religions.

Overviews can constrain or even warp how we see what’s inside them, but they can also help us consider more than we could possibly consider without them.

Now think of synecdoche, the Greek word used to refer to one of the literary devices we use frequently in everyday conversation. An example: Let me give you a hand with that. We never mean, when we say this, just the hand. The hand in that expression stands for so much, including the ways we can stand beside someone, and reach into his or her project, helpfully.

In synecdoche, a part stands for the whole. It’s the story told at a memorial service, or the story told in a progress report, that captures a person’s character better than any list of characteristics abstracted. It’s the photograph that can take the place of a thousand words, or images and poems that hold emblematic moments.

tracing watershed pathway croppedRecently Terry Lunt teased me about how many times I’ve used a particular photograph, of some kids working together with her at projects time. “Well,” I said, “it’s a great photograph!” What do I mean? I meant that much of what I want to celebrate–and propagate–shines in that photo. (Not naming those things; just giving you the photograph again.)

Here’s William Blake, on what the human imagination can do with tiny details, giving them the meaning of the whole:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Like Blake, like so many others of my species, I want to hold the world in “a grain of sand.” Still, I also want the classification scheme, the map that can convey directions to some specific neighborhood within a big picture.

When I first began writing this blog, I gave myself huge freedom, both challenging and delicious. I knew I wanted stories, not abstractions; the power of experience, not the power of arguments. I rarely planned ahead what I would write next. I let things sneak up on me, and addressed them helter-skelter, in no rational order, inspired by students’ work as I uncovered it in my sorting, or by the comments of past students, or by curriculum materials. Although I sometimes made rough outlines for individual posts, I absolutely did not have or follow any outline for the blog as a whole.

But then, a month or so ago, I realized that I had come to a lucky difficulty: I had written so much that I couldn’t remember all of what I had written about, or figure out easily what was still waiting for me. I couldn’t see the whole of my year to think it over, in either way, either overview or emblematic glimpse.

sal blue heronA side detour back to the Linnaean classification scheme, the one with families and classes and orders, groups nesting inside groups. It’s still useful much of the time. But sidle up to Steve Gatesy, Touchstone parent and paleontologist, and say, “I just found out that birds are actually reptiles!” and he will answer, “Well, actually those categories aren’t considered very useful any more.” Grin bravely as swaths of patiently constructed curriculum wash into the gutter. (At the left, an amazing photograph my sister took of a blue heron. In certain views, a heron really does look like a snake gifted with flight.)

In any case, my reading supports Steve: most biologists now prefer to think about clades, groups of related species each consisting of an ancestor and all its descendants, a single “branch” on the “tree of life”. (The Wikipedia entry is helpful.) The category of reptiles is not a clade.

I wasn’t thinking about biological classification, but somehow I decided to assemble groups of posts that had something like a common ancestor. Now, over the past few weeks, I’ve created five overview pages to hold together those clumps.

page names under the butterflyIn the world of my WordPress template, the names of pages, acting as links, always show, in a row up toward the top of the blog–in my case, just underneath the butterfly. This stands in contrast to posts, which push each other down a long scroll, so that only one shows on the screen at any given time. (You’ll only see the pages listed below the butterfly if you read the blog on the website, however. They don’t show if you’re reading a post in an email.)

In order to think over what I’d thought over (!) I took the huge unwieldy blob of everything I’d written so far, and I read and reread, and watched myself return again and again to certain themes,

Then I tried to figure out something short and snappy to call each of those recurrent themes. That was its own kind of torture, necessary if all of them were going to fit across the page menu. Like any eleven-year-old, beginning to watch myself learn, I observed the way arbitrary structure had imposed a useful, meaningful limit.

On each of the overviews, I wrote a summary or teaser or even slightly philosophical introduction, and I constructed links to the posts that seemed to me to clump together under a particular theme. I had fun choosing photographs or illustrations–emblematic glimpses for each post.

So now, here are the names and sequence of the five clumps so far:

Even if you’re reading this in an email, it should work to click on the link I’ve just constructed for each clump’s short and snappy formulation. (Short and snappy for me, at least.)

I hope all this will prove useful. Already, for what my high school guy friends called “me, myself, and I,” this process has helped me notice gaps I want to fill.

It has also helped me re-envision my purposes. I do want to be useful to others, to keep serving the educational vision that has motivated me for more than a quarter of a century. So I’m glad to see, from my backstage statistics, that some readers have already used the overview pages to explore the strands / clumps / clades of the life depicted here.

green turtlesFor the time being, though, I’ve had enough of metablogistry. I’m ready to write about turtles, I think.

Or maybe dump trucks.




Being a Student Again Myself, at The Joiner Institute

One night last week, when I wanted to go for a walk, my husband asked, “Have you finished your homework?” I hadn’t. I sat back down at my computer.

For many years I’ve wanted to attend the annual writers’ workshop at UMass Boston, at the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences. That title encompasses intense and formative experiences in my life. I’ve wanted to meet the other people gathered there, and wanted to see what I would write within that influence.

Always, though, the first week of the workshop has overlapped with the teachers’ last week at my school–the week we met to debrief the year ended, and cleaned up our classrooms, and began to plan the year ahead.

This year, my year to think it over, is different. And man oh man have I been living up to that title.

A few things I’ve learned so far, in no particular order:

  • How to get to UMass Boston on the Red Line and shuttle bus. I already knew how to take the commuter rail from Southboro to South Station, thanks in part to field trip adventures with students. (I’ve found another reason to be glad about my new senior status: a Senior Charlie Card that gives me a dramatic discount on travel by T and commuter rail.)
  • That the art of collage was born out of fragmented cultural and political experience–and some ways to think about applying a collage process to the writing of poetry.
  • That there are two dozen ways, in Vietnamese, to talk about I and you–and that the speaker’s or writer’s choice conveys information about age and gender which can go otherwise unstated.
Vietnamese writers cropped

The field trip comes to us: Nguyen Ba Chung, second from the left, a research associate at the Joiner Institute, director of the Rockefeller Residency Program, and coordinator of the center’s cultural exchanges with Vietnam, facilitated a panel of visiting Vietnamese writers.

  • That the Vietnam veterans who began the Joiner Center writing workshop 27 years ago have found some peace of their own by reaching out for reconciliation with Vietnamese, leading to the translation of Vietnamese poems and stories into English.
  • That those same Vietnam vets, and others, now feel a special mission to reach out to more recent vets from the Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan. The writing and comments and songs of all those vets, all ages, have been my best help for my own mission–partly because I am so moved by their courage in facing their darkest and most perplexing shadows.Richard in his uniform edit

And what’s my mission? I came to the workshop wanting to write about my father’s experiences in World War II, including being captured and held as a prisoner of war in Germany. I’ve wanted to write also about the impacts of those experiences on both my father’s life and our life as a family.  My childhood began only a few years after my father’s  war ended. He barely talked about it, but it was there in every moment. The phrase “war and social consequences” has very personal meaning for me.

Facing that challenging material, I have to work hard not to close down or slide away–and that turns out to be true even with all the support in the workshop’s environment, from generous peers and amazing teachers.

Still, some seeds have been sown, and in my poetry life I tend to count on a long growing season. I’ve written some drafts of new poems, and worked again on poems still in a years-long process of revision. I have a list of approaches to try, and quick notes on possible personal starting points, from a workshop with the poet Martha Collins. Like every other participant with whom I’ve spoken, I am profoundly grateful for the safety of the writing environment the Joiner Institute provides. I keep taking apart the word encouraged, to be its first meaning. I am given courage by my mentors and fellow students–including those who are roughly a third of my age.

And yes, we have homework. My small group workshop leader, Fred Marchant, whose poetry I’ve been reading for years, and whom I knew already to be extraordinarily kind, proves to be also both mischievous and wise, in ways that sneak up on me again and again. He also states in no uncertain terms his expectation of new work–at least one recent or brand new poem, every class meeting. So I have written drafts of eight new poems and one co-translation in the past week–an unheard-of rate for me.

Some links to my teaching life:

Thanks to Marjorie Weed, I myself have made collage art–not sentimental collections of kitties, but art in which the individual elements are fully repurposed into a new composition with its own meaning. Fred Marchant says, “Consider the liberation you can find in fragments!” and I hear an echo of Mrs. Weed saying to her whole roomful of students, young and older, “Trust in happy accidents!”

(Meanwhile, I remember myself as an earnest and obedient seven year old, who didn’t have Touchstone Community School to help her take herself lightly and fly. I conclude that she is lucky to have grown up, and has followed some fortunate paths.)

Hooray for public transportation! Have I written about our work with that theme? I’m not sure. This is post number 49–and I still haven’t found a good way to index my own output.

I’ve been getting to know a Chinese-American fellow participant. We’ve been sitting near each other, both of us gravitating toward the front of the room in presentations. (In my case that helps me focus on the main show, instead of all that other fascinating stuff going on in the room. After all, I’m used to looking at students, not at a teacher!) In our conversation on Wednesday, Judy told me that her father moved to this country when he was only 12, and that he is one of the speakers in the oral history available at Ellis Island, one of the voices heard by lifting up phones in my favorite exhibit. Actual shivers fizzed down my spine, as I remembered the rapt look on the faces of kids listening to those taped voices.

Circles coming round.

Recently a dear friend asked, “Is it really going to be just a year to think it over?” I know that the post previous to this one may have sounded like I was signing off.  In fact, though, I still have a list of things I want to write about: transportation, projects time, the miracle of parent volunteers, a few more. So no; there’s at least a little more to come. Who makes these rules that say you have to obey your own title?

For right now, though, I’m not thinking about being a teacher. I’m feeling incredibly lucky to be, yet again, at my thrillingly advanced age, with so much to think about, a student.

Here’s one more photo of my dad, 93 this spring, helping to plant jasmine.

Richard planting cropped


Skywatchers and Magicmakers

Sometimes place-based education is about the town or state or watershed where a group of students live. Sometimes it’s about a thing all humans share: our place in the universe, and how it works, and what it’s like to live here.

time Maui people on globe

Finding the book you’ll see below was like stumbling on a time capsule. Suddenly, and so vividly, I had traveled twenty years into the past. People who are now 31 or 32 (some with children of their own) were 11 or 12 then. Shorter, younger kids have grown, some of them, to be the tallest in a new group picture, if we had the chance to take it.

time Maui photos at end 2

We made Slowing Down the Sun as the culmination of work by a school-wide mixed-age group that met for several sessions–three, maybe four. A few members of my regular class stayed with me, but most had gone to other groups, and were replaced by younger kids I knew less well but got to know much better. (I can’t remember the school-wide theme, but maybe a past colleague can help.)

So much of what continued to be important at Touchstone shows here. Storytelling often helped us begin thinking about the questions examined by science. Making models and drawings, and acting out stories together, helped us clarify and express understanding. Working in partners gave students a way to draw on many strengths, especially within a mixed-age group.

In this case, students wrote the sections of the text working in pairs, often older paired with younger. They did the illustrations individually.

Color copying cost a fortune back then, and it would be many years before Touchstone had its own color printer. I’m sure I couldn’t give copies to every participant, and in fact it’s possible that no other copy of this book still exists. But it’s a treasure! So I’ve decided to reproduce almost all of it, thanks to the humble miracles of scanning and internet magic. I’ve hidden full names from the text, but left first names on the drawings.

For me as teacher, holding this book I am carried back into the true miracle of work with students who rise like the sun itself, who are on fire with energy and curiosity, and who take it for granted, day after day, that their student job includes reaching to hold complicated and mysterious things.

Like so many of these posts, this one is an extended thank you note.


time Maui cover page

time Maui intro text


time Maui beginning drawing

time Maui beginning Liz and Matt 2


time Maui had an idea drawing

time Maui had an idea 2


time Maui sun-earth-moon
time Maui rope-to-catch Joelle and Jessica

time Maui net-the-sun

time Maui and Hinna

time Hinna and hair

time Maui sun-net-down

time Maui Adin and Patrick

time Maui david-sun

time Maui sun in cave

time Maui slow-sun-hinna-hair Lauren and Heather

time Maui addie-sunset

time Maui photos at end 1

time Maui beginning drawings


I’m experimenting with adding a contact form to some posts. The format makes it seem as though a comment is required, which is crazy, of course. If you have a thought that would be good for others to hear, be brave and go public, using the other comment function. But if you want, you can use this to reach just me.