The Daily Texture of Progressive Education

My Year to Think It Over took almost two years, actually. Every week or so I looked through my overflowing boxes of teaching souvenirs, revisited twenty-five years of life in an extraordinary learning community, and returned to these questions:

  • What did I learn, over time, about collaborating with young adolescents?
  • What learning adventures were particularly memorable, and what seems to have helped them work?
  • What am I still learning from the comments of past students, now adults?
  • What can I give back, out of the gift of all that time doing what I loved best?

Alhambra Caroline and IsyWhen I started the blog, I had stopped teaching. Finally I could write more: savor wonderful moments, and reflect on them; give credit to people who deserved it; give voice to ideas and practices that had guided me; honor students whose descriptions of their experience had transformed mine.

I began writing posts one by one without any realistic schedule–I really thought a year would do it!–and without any overall plan. Very soon threads of continuity began to emerge, willy-nilly, and those stretch across the screen up at the top, below the butterfly.

If you click on those headings, you’ll find an introduction to each strand, with links to posts exploring that strand. You can also click on the topic headings below.

reading on floor croppedPower in Literacy   I worked mostly with kids who were 11 or 12 years old. Often, in our mixed-age class, I spent two years with students. Across any time we had, students developed real and flexible fluency as readers and writers. With increasing confidence, they used reading and writing to explore the world and their own emerging identities. This heading title includes the word power, because that’s what I saw: I watched kids–in a world and at an age in which they can so easily feel powerless–taking up the effectively magical powers of literacy with contagious pleasure.

Journey of Man portraits 2 editedBeing Human   Within an interdisciplinary approach, we could draw on both science and social studies–and anything else–to explore our human evolution and the voyage leading to who we are. We could grapple with issues our species still struggles to work out, about how to live together. Eventually, students often dragging me along, we arrived at questions this basic: “Can we come to see each other, all over the world, as cousins? Over time, could that change the way we view the notion of race? Or the costs of war? Or the goals of economies and governments and communities?” If you give them the chance, young adolescents will tackle amazing things.

Our Places Max 2bA Sense of Place  What do we mean by “a sense of place” or “place-based education”? What can kids gain from exploring and coming to know the places they call home, and the places they share with others, including school? How far can a vivid sense of place reach, and what skills support that reaching? How can we respect and honor–and take responsibility for–the places that nourish us? These posts explore the teaching and learning of geography in its largest meanings.

Serious Playfulness  Here I gathered posts about our explorations of mathematics, projects river model0001various branches of science, and some related matters. Obviously “serious playfulness” is my own wacky term, but it means what it says: we were serious in our goals, but the ways we pursued them were playful oftener than not. Playful didn’t mean games based on television quiz shows. It meant true inquiry; open-ended questions; working together, taking risks, and getting dirty; discovery and surprise.

playground sprinkler run croppedTogether  This overview gathers posts that explore social and emotional learning: learning to care for each other, learning skills for working in a group, learning both kindness and resiliency. This strand also includes a series of posts about not using grades, because, in our experience, other kinds of assessment worked better to support authentic collaboration and community.

average 2010 betterWhen I first began this blog, and composed the About page, I wrote out of that clarity that can come from life in the trenches. “The world is full and busy and loud with ideologies about what works in education. I want to revisit some real experiences that worked for real live students, and think about why and how.”

It would be thrilling if my school’s approaches became–soon!–the norm not only in published research results, but also in mainstream practice. None of us should hold our breath. In the uphill battles we still face, I’m going to keep these posts available as long as they seem to be useful. Rereading, I’m deeply grateful for both experiences: to have lived that richly challenging and rewarding teaching life, and to have taken the time to “think it over” afterwards. I’m grateful to everyone who felt that this was an important thing for me to do, and said, “You can do it.” (Alex Brown, you’re at the top of that list.)

hands and imaginetsThrough this writing, things I’d learned from teaching reached forward into my present.  Attending writing workshops at UMass Boston’s William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, I felt again how overwhelming and exhilarating learning can be for the learner. Visiting my dad as he slipped further into dementia and spoke much less, I watched him learn to play a game oriented around spatial relationships. My math teacher self talked to my daughter self, helping her.

Am I done here? I’m not sure. I haven’t explored some topics, or told some stories that feel important. But at this point I am more involved in other adventures.

Meanwhile, however you’ve found this blog, I’m glad. I feel like the host of a fabulous potluck feast. In effect, I’ve spent years working with wonderful cooks. Enjoy! Be emboldened! You can reach me, if you want, at the most obvious email address for someone named Polly Brown. I don’t like to write it out, because robots search for such things–but you’re very unlikely to guess wrong. Or you can share a comment.

From my new adventures, I wish you well in whatever you may be exploring or daring to try, in your own learning life.

The Evolution Treasure Hunt

I get a huge kick out of a Facebook group called I Homeschool and I Teach the Science of Evolution. In their posts, members ask each other, “How do you approach concepts like evolution? What about the Big Bang?” They trade recommendations for resources, including, for example, Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s incredibly rich BioInteractive resources, or the Big History Project.

When I started exploring evolution with ten to twelve-year-old students in 1991, the resources available to me were few, but fabulous. Our experience as students and teachers of evolution began with The Voyage of the Mimi. Published by the Bank Street College Project in Science and Mathematics in 1984, this sequence of video story episodes and documentaries engaged students with fundamental biological concepts by focusing on the evolution, physiology and behavior of whales–and kids ate it up. Aspects of the series feel a little dated now, thirty years on–but the Mimi remains an excellent platform for evolution studies, for children even as young as five or six.

Below, in a photograph from the student book published to accompany the series, Ben Affleck, one of the actors, meets with a scientist at the Smithsonian Institution:

evolution ben and whale fossils

The right books and videos can be such a boon–especially if children and adults are able to explore them together, working at a pace that allows for plenty of mulling and questioning. Still, if you stop with just reading and watching, talking and writing, you’ll miss the benefit of more active, hands-on learning. In order to construct their own real understanding of challenging topics, kids need chances to build, create, arrange–or jump up and pretend to be a jellyfish. If you’re going to tackle understanding our strange and wonderful universe, you need some serious playfulness.

The Evolution Treasure Hunt took a hands-on approach to the history of life on earth. Working together, we created and set up a series of stations–some in our own classroom, some in other classrooms (by teachers’ consent) or in public areas of the school. (I imagine a network of homeschoolers going from house to house.) Weather permitting, we located some stations outdoors. As they moved from station to station, students followed a series of innovations affecting body-plan, reproduction, metabolism, and behavior, over the past 3.5 billion years.

Here are four kids in the Common Room, learning from the Land Arthropods station, about the radical innovations of breathing air, and flying.

evolution treasure hunt learnersThe power of this experience lay largely in the kids’ role in its preparation. I did put together some of the stations, often using materials generated by students in previous classes. As many stations as possible, though, were researched, designed, and created anew, by groups of students in each class.

Here’s the sequence from one year:

evolution treasure hunt chart 1

evolution treasure hunt chart 2

If you’ve read much of my blog–or if you were there!–you can guess that we worked on the station displays in projects time. The chart also shows that we ignored plants that year, which is sad–but teachers and students are always having to leave things out, in order to explore other things in satisfying depth.

What could work as a display? Even at the beginning, we tried to do more than just point to some target classification of plants or animals and say, here, this came next. (In fact, that could be a misleading thing to say.)

The simplest display consisted of representations of the target group of plants or animals, and the approximate time of that group’s first appearance, along with a brief written summary about particularly important innovations for surviving and thriving.

Here’s a group of students at the reptiles station, with Bili the dinosaur, one of the class mascots, reading along.

evolution kids at reptiles

This version of the text for the reptiles station came from a year when I was responsible for it. (I’m mixing and matching evidence from different years, because that’s what I can find!)

evolution treasure hunt reptiles0001

Sarah Stein’s Evolution Book served as a spirited and comprehensive reference for all this history of life on earth. At first, I assigned full sections of the book as background reading. Then, in a year with a somewhat younger class, I created simplified versions of the text by copying, cutting and pasting–a lot of work, but worth it, to make this excellent resource usable for my students.

Each group, in turn, created their own very simple version, with their sense of the high points, for their station in the treasure hunt. Below, one of those cards I kept reusing for later classes.

evolution treasure hunt bac card(Yesterday, when I exchanged messages with Addie Kemp, one of the writers of that card, she was holed up in a cafe in Austin, Texas, writing the proposal for her thesis in anthropology and evolutionary biology. I’m not kidding. She actually can’t remember doing the evolution treasure hunt–but maybe it had some kind of subconscious influence?)

Each student read several pages of challenging text very carefully, with small group support. Then they worked as a group with that chunk of information, to summarize it on behalf of the full class. During the treasure hunt, each student observed and interacted with the displays, read a summary for each group of animals, took some notes on a specially designed chart, and also collected, station by station, a set of summary cards to keep.

Here’s one group’s poster about some crucial characteristics of sea arthropods.

evolution posters bThis might have been the year we had a live lobster present, thanks to parent volunteer Carol Liasson. A favorite memory, from a projects time sharing: drafting enough other students to make it work, the sea arthropods group embodied the jointed appendages of a lobster, bending and swaying in articulated splendor.

Another group showed fish in a tank, along with drawings of important characteristics of fish such as the swim bladder. Beyond that, though, they had made a model with wooden blocks and pipe-cleaners, and invited treasure hunt participants to play with the model and feel for themselves how a jointed spine could help a fish maneuver more quickly and flexibly in search of prey, or avoid becoming prey. This might be their fact card:

evolution treasure hunt fish carIn order to create an effective display, a group had to understand the payoff for the evolutionary development they were representing–and they had to figure out how to make that evident to other students.

evolution jelly fish jelloAlmost always, groups came up with displays that provided for active viewer participation: a model to manipulate, or a microscope view of water from Julie Olsen’s swamp tank, full of protozoans; or jello to touch, as evidence of the state of matter, somewhere between solid and liquid, of jellyfish.

Early in the evolution of the Evolution Treasure Hunt, students convinced me that I couldn’t call it a treasure hunt without some kind of treasure at the end. So we munched on animal crackers from individual boxes, while holding the invaluable end-of-treasure-hunt debrief. I asked, “What new ideas stood out for you? (In other words, in your new-formed opinion, what are some surprising moments in the history of life on earth?) What were some things you especially admired in other groups’ displays?” To make sure everyone got to be evolution critic for a day, I usually went around the room, kid by kid. As always, their synthesizing comments were the very best part of the whole shebang.

Other experiences helped students think about other aspects of evolution, including the mechanisms and processes by which it happens. Other books and videos helped them, and me, arrive at clearer and clearer understanding. Maybe I’ll come back to that?

A last photograph for now. One year, after the treasure hunt was over, we compressed simplified versions of all the stations onto the largest available bulletin board. So here’s a partial view of that colorful grand parade of life, for sure and certain a cause for celebration.

evolution posters all together

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

Projects Time

As an incubator for serious playfulness, nothing worked better than Projects Time.

vortex gazersTeaching “big kids”–young adolescents waking up to the world in new ways–I wanted to give them the choices, hands-on experiences, and purposeful collaboration in small groups that would keep them engaged and alert and cooking. Projects Time evolved as a way to frame all that.

It also grew out of adult behavior that can’t ever be taken for granted:

  • Adults made choices about the guidance they offered based on what worked for each particular group of kids, in their individual and group uniqueness–by listening carefully, with a sense of learning targets in our minds, but with the reality of the present always uppermost.
  • projects compost dirt grandmotherAdults dove into hands-on, messy, authentic experience (almost always potentially risky to our dignity.)
  • Adults worked together, as teachers and assistants and committed volunteers, and got a visible kick out of our own collaboration.

Put all together, Projects Time was a bit of a miracle–a twice-weekly, home-grown miracle.

graphing voicesAs we got better and better at running this, we could see the effectiveness of having different small groups working simultaneously on different projects, and then sharing with each other. For example, in the photograph above, a group who’d been investigating sound set up instructions for other students in an end-of-sequence “energy fair”, and two students are trying out the set-up.

Below, in a sharing session at the end of one day’s Projects Time, a group uses their own bodies to demonstrate the arrangement of the states in New England.

bodies as New England states editA little more about logistics

Students and adults came together for Projects Time in two fairly long time blocks—a total of almost three hours every week. Tamara, the teacher who moonlighted as the school’s scheduling wizard, knew that I would accept any other strangeness in my class schedule, in order to preserve those long Tuesday and Thursday afternoon time blocks.

A series of inspired part-time assistants joined us for Projects Time, even when we had no other aide time assigned for the class.  Each year’s volunteer parent coordinator helped me recruit and schedule parents, often well in advance.

Within the nourishing nest of those pre-arranged rich conditions, the students and I could choose our challenges. To begin each sequence, we brainstormed a list of ideas for projects which would make use of various materials and opportunities in and outside of the classroom–and would meet various learning goals.

Some activities, typically, related to our current whole class theme. In the fall and spring, we planned for as many activities as possible to happen outdoors. (For example, in the photograph below, a group discusses a redesign of a water feature in the garden below our deck, taking into account the way water travels downhill.)

projects side gardenA particular week’s list often repeated some of the topics or activities from the previous sequence, because kids wanted to try things they’d seen other students do. “That thing building electric circuits looked like fun–can that be on the list again?”

After we had settled on a menu of possible projects for the next round, each student wrote three or four choices on a sticky note, ranked them, and gave the note to me. (Thinking all this over, it always seems important to me that students were choosing activities, not work partners.) Choosing is hard for some kids, and I let them write down “anything” if they really meant it, but encouraged them to think it through, and predict how different activities would work for them.

Later, I arranged and rearranged the sticky notes to form groups. Usually I started by seeing what would happen if I gave all the students their first choices–and sometimes the groups made themselves immediately, just as easy as that. More often, I needed to give some students their second choices, in order to provide for variety in work-partners and types of activity, both of which felt important to all of us, kids included.

Students’ choices committed them to at least the two blocks of a single week, and sometimes a third block, or even a fourth, in response to popular demand. Longer sequences allowed more time for exploration and follow-through, and students found that rewarding.

projects temperature investigations grinWith very few exceptions, everyone who took part in Projects Time for any length of time felt that it worked, in a unique and exhilarating way.

river group recording some editsStudents experimented and observed and simulated and dramatized, and also had a great time. They took concepts they’d learned from reading and applied them. In the follow-up writing, they speculated about what had happened and why, and what else they might want to try.

There were social benefits, also. Working together in small groups, students got to know each other better. They became deeply involved in inspired arguments. For example, in the photograph below, students conducting a simulation of the effects of transportation argue about a proposed trade.

transportation argument editI’m going to use the next few posts to explore some particularly memorable Projects Time sequences, including the activities Kate Keller designed for our Transportation Choices unit, and some work on A Field Guide to Touchstone.

I also want to share some questions I’m still mulling over. One involves the perennial conflict between coverage of material and effectiveness of student learning experience. Obviously, the Projects Time model isn’t necessarily the best model for covering every detail of content on a long list of state or federal or Common Core standards.

Another persistent and possibly related question involves accountability, a big buzzword in American educational policy right now. Again, it’s obvious that Projects Time wasn’t designed to maximize accountability.

I’ll come back to all that. For now, having given you some snapshots of individual projects, I want to take you on a fantasy helicopter ride, to get a sense of how everything was happening at once.

From our point of view, hovering above the school grounds, we can see a group with a dissecting microscope, at a picnic table behind the main building. (Hooray for extension cords.) The students not currently using the microscope are looking for things in a nearby garden, including creepy crawlers from the compost, to examine when they get a turn. One student sits at the picnic table making a detailed sketch of a flower she found, using a jeweler’s loupe to get a good view of the structure.

Out in front of the school, some kids are measuring the temperatures on top of stones in the wall along the road, comparing with the temperatures they found in the wall spaces underneath those same stones, thinking about the idea of very micro microclimates.

Seth and Ben marble chutes editAnother group, working under the portico to take advantage of a long bench, uses a stopwatch to time their latest marble chute run. They’re trying to maximize the length of the run by maximizing friction, without letting the marble come to a full stop.

Meanwhile, another group is up on the deck outside our classroom, working on a puppet show about water power, in which a dragonfly puppet has become an authority on the differences between overshot and undershot water wheels, and models have been made to demonstrate them.

Somewhere down there, a lucky teacher moves from group to group, carrying her clipboard, with its note-taking sheets about individual students, and its list of stuff to track down for next time. She also carries the camera she wishes she’d used even more.

Although, really, what it needed was video, to capture kids saying, “What if…?” and “Let’s try it again…” and “That is wicked cool…”