Learning Styles Revisited

After my first post about learning styles appeared, I heard from a number of past students and their parents, who affirmed the good things our learning styles work had done for them. I’m so glad!

I also heard from Anne Powell, coauthor of the book that’s been my learning styles bible, How Your Child Is Smart. Annie said, “Write more!” and then filled me in on some of the ways the terminology has continued to evolve. For example, Dawna Markova’s approach to the subtleties of individual learning, what we called “learning styles” in my class, is now more commonly referred to as “Mind Patterns.”

I love that term, mind patterns. It evokes streams braiding together in a delta, or lines of music, or people dancing to weave the ribbons of a maypole–or the braiding together of different states of consciousness, in the way we do almost anything.

learning poster 1All the illustrations for this post come from my archival set of learning style posters. For each student, we brainstormed evidence in a class discussion, and I took notes (in apparently very variable handwriting) to help the class keep track of what had been said, and to create a recording of the discussion that could be given to the focus child.  For each poster, I’ve cropped off the name at the top, and also the letters representing students’ hypotheses about Mind Patterns that could fit the evidence.

All day long you cycle among different states of mind, with various kinds of alertness to your surroundings, or attention to your own internal processing.

  • Sometimes you’re fully conscious: alert, systematic, able to attend to the world’s detail and organize it, comfortable with the view from the front porch of your personality. (Just in the way I describe all this, I inadvertently manifest my own pattern, by talking about a view from a porch. For some people it’s more like hearing all the strands in the flow of a conversation, or grasping the physical processes in the workings of an engine, or…)
  • In the blink of an eye, though, you can switch to the state of mind Markova calls subconscious, where input and output are more balanced, where you question and process, perhaps continuing to pursue an interesting thought instead of listening to a musical performance, or distracted by something you see off on the edge of what you’re meant to be seeing, or continuing to think of ways to solve a challenge in building something. You mull things over. You are less efficient, less systematic, but more intuitive than in your conscious channel. Your processing has the motion, the flow between poles, that can lead to new insights, fresh approaches, good decisions.
  • You also cycle through moments when you are in a state Markova and Powell referred to as unconscious–although they didn’t mean asleep, or in a coma. They meant that loose place, that fuzzy place, where you are “in another world,” much less aware of detail and much more aware of essence; where you are your most intuitive, your most receptive–but in a way you can’t easily organize or control–so you’re also vulnerable.

These three states of mind, described much more fully in How Your Child Is Smart, have become increasingly associated with brain wave patterns, in the ways Mind Pattern people talk about them.

  • learning poster 6Beta waves predominate when you’re conscious, in your front channel.
  • Alpha waves characterize the middle channel, what Markova called the subconscious.
  • Theta waves, trance-like, characterize the back channel, the unconscious.

(I’m simplifying this considerably, to get where I want to go with it.)

The Mind Patterns schema also thinks about types of experience, both receptive and active.

  • Auditory experience involves both listening (passively) and speaking or singing (actively.)
  • Visual experience involves both seeing–landscapes or charts or people’s facial expressions–and also creating things to be seen: drawings, presentations, maps.
  • Kinesthetic experience involves both feeling, receiving sensation–and also building, moving, acting out a story, transforming things by changing their position or connections or condition.

Mind Patterns analysis says that these three states of mind (conscious, subconscious, and unconscious) and the three realms of experience (auditory, visual, and kinesthetic) tend to interact in interesting ways, triggering each other. Nothing’s absolute, but for each of us visual experience, for example, tends to trigger a particular state of mind. Also, given a new experience, each of us tends to process it in a relatively predictable pattern or sequence.

Those interactions and patterns affect, for example, not whether we see but with what kind of attention–not whether we speak, but within what kinds of safety–not whether we feel, but with what kind of access to our own feelings.

learning poster 3Another italics interruption, to marvel at these recordings of kids’ comments about each other. Some comments are pretty blunt, as in “sometimes brags”, to the left. (I’m surprised I wrote that down–it’s possible that the kid himself said it!) Overall, though, the comments are both astute and kind. Within our community, we regularly affirmed that none of us were perfect, that all of us were figuring out how to be both true to ourselves and respectful of others. Reading the posters, I’m struck again by the safety these kids created for each other.

In class with my students, when I got to that point, having explained the three kinds of consciousness and the three realms of experience as seen within this schema, and having gotten the kids to help me list examples within the categories, I wanted to help them see how it all comes together, and sometimes I began with myself.

learning poster 4By the time we were doing this–never at the very beginning of the year, in spite of public demand–the kids knew me pretty well. They knew that my ability to see what was happening in the entire room could be kind of spooky. They knew that I wanted to see their faces while I read aloud, so I had learned to grab big chunks of print in quick looks down at the page. They knew that my particular kind of visual attention let me do that back-and-forth, back-and-forth, between the print and their faces, almost any time–unless I was too tired or too emotional about the book.

They knew that I tended to process anything unresolved by talking or writing about it; or getting them to talk or write. They knew that I depended on hearing every voice in the class–which meant side conversations within a group meeting could throw me off. I wanted to hear everything, but I couldn’t sort and organize what I heard as quickly or comfortably as with visual information.

They knew that active kinesthetic experience was exciting for me–bicycling! canoeing! building things!–but often a little out-of-control. Almost everyone talks with their hands. I talk with my entire arms, and bystanders have been known to look for helmets. I’m trying to sketch, in the air, the thing I’m talking about, to make it visible, and that can get messy.

My students had also experienced me as a person with very strong feelings, sometimes surprising to myself, revealed to me, often, only by the intercession of language.

learning poster 5None of this is about what I like most or least, or what I do more or less well. It’s about relationships between states of mind and kinds of experience.

Most of the time, I tend to use the VAK pattern (visual consciously / auditory subconsciously / kinesthetic unconsciously.)

Like each of the six patterns, VAK has many variations, and it has its ups and downs. VAKs drink in the visual world, and love to create things to be seen. We tend to be eager and compliant students, for whom the traditional classroom setup actually works pretty well. In an active classroom, we can easily become overwhelmed by kinesthetic experiences and demands–but they are really helpful for us, long-term, if we’re given support from our friends.

Reading the advice for parents of a VAK child, in How Your Child Is Smart, and reaching a part about helping your VAK child understand “how long it takes her to do anything,” I burst into tears. “Oh,” I thought, “if only they could have!” They were doing their best, like most parents. Still, if they’d known how to help me understand my slowness, I might have avoided years of considering myself useless for anything practical, that really mattered.

Here’s the fundamental fact: no one of us can be everyone.

learning poster 7So we put up big pieces of paper on the walls of the classroom, and brainstormed what we had noticed about each student’s patterns–with the focus child getting to put in his or her own two cents, with huge competition for who would be next, with gradually increasing clarity about the whole business. It was fun–

–and it was also an indispensable part of what our school called “the social and emotional curriculum.” As we explored these ideas together, kids could discover and experience for themselves, in a very direct way, Markova’s and Powell’s central insight: there are many ways to experience the world and join in its creation.

In the previous post about our learning styles work, I wrote about the ways my understanding shaped my teaching, my sense of individual needs, and my sense of appropriate (and sustainable) ways to respond. (Short version: I invited them in, to be “their own best teachers.”)

The learning-styles work was never about alibis, giving kids reasons to try less hard when faced with challenges. All of us can grow and become more balanced versions of ourselves, more receptive to the insights that aren’t native to us, more active in ways that take greater effort or practice.

Still, none of us should be made to give constant attention to what is challenging for us. We need to encourage each other–in schools, in our families, in our workplaces, in our communities–to live in the happy momentum of our strengths, to give with joy whatever is ours to give.

Vive la difference!

Get Out!–and Find Four Things

Someone on the radio said research had shown that the typical American kid spends an average of just 7 minutes each day outside. “Yikes!” I thought later, as I walked under oak woods and tall white pines, past a beach still covered with snow. I couldn’t have heard that right.

What happened to the outdoor recess that should be every schoolchild’s right? Even in winter, it had to be really cold and windy to keep us inside. Kids conducted unscheduled experiments with snow and rocks and mud, learned how to approach a group and join it, invented complicated variations on gym games and argued about the rules; shouted each others’ names under the sky, and learned how to run in a long chain, or backwards–or how to conduct a complicated conversation while walking at full speed.

We could read the importance of this outdoor time, in experiments conducted by nature. Even a few days of pouring rain took their toll on kids’ patience, stamina, confidence and social skills.

get out playground-sprinkler-runMy father died a few weeks ago, a long, slow, mostly peaceful death. I kept seeing him, in my mind, in one of his boats, following the bends of a creek in no hurry to reach open water.

The mortality curriculum, I used to call it–something we would never go hunting for, or plan into the life of a class–something that would find us, one way or another–not an experiment of nature, exactly, but a reality.

Reading and writing can give us ways to think about endings, and the place they have in stories. That’s part of why we send our students there. Taking a break from blog posts, I gave myself the kind of assignment I used to give my students, and wrote a version of my dad’s story, going back to think again about the impact of his war on his life.

Beyond that, spending a lot of time outdoors was always the most important way we held onto huge, hard-to-manage realities–and it remains that for me now. Because my father always spent as much time as possible outside–gardening, shooting baskets, working on boats–it’s a way to think about him even without thinking. I’m walking a lot these days.

Richard working on boatAs I watch the spring melt (finally) pouring over the steps of the channel downhill, I keep worrying about all those kids indoors too much. What about sitting outdoors at dismissal? Walking or bicycling home from school?

garden studying compostFor that matter, what about outdoor learning? At Touchstone, we deliberately encouraged curriculum that could be carried outdoors, or actually required the outdoors– outdoor sketching, perched on stools in the gardens; outdoor biology directly related to the school grounds, for example, studies of the macroinvertebrates to be found in our compost.

What about quick unaccompanied runs around the school, and the invaluable discussions of the ground rules needed to guard against people hitting the ground?

Finally, what about outdoor homework? We asked kids to follow the run-off water from their back yards, or pace off the distance from the front door to the nearest rock bigger than a loaf of bread (rarely a long distance, where I live, in the glacial debris field of New England.)

But maybe the most important thing we did, to preserve kids’ free time outdoors–emphasis on the word free–was our homework policy, limiting homework strictly, faithfully, including a generous amount of reading time within the limit. (Almost every year, at some point, my class had a conversation about kids’ favorite places to read outdoors.)

Minn Holling Clancy HollingHere’s a game, or an assignment, or a meditative practice–take your pick. It’s based on something Holling C. Holling says in the feast of marginal notes in his rich, sprawling, problematic and wonderful classic of American geography, Minn of the Mississippi. 

As he’s following a snapping turtle down the river, Holling says that a miniature natural history museum could consist of just four things–a pebble, a leaf, a feather, and a button. Something mineral, for geology / from a plant, for biology / from an animal, for zoology / made by a human, for anthropology.

Minn was published in 1951. We might organize those sciences differently, now–and I was always tickled by the kids who said, “But humans are animals, too. Why are they made separate here?” Still, I come back again and again to the task of finding Holling’s four things, when I’m walking,

Here’s a collection from a recent walk at  Hopkinton State Park.

find four things with feather and shard croppedEarly on, in my career of using this exercise, I swore that I wouldn’t pick up cigarette butts, although they are almost always the easiest human artifact to find. That day, I found two human-made things that intrigued me: a piece of crockery, and a tiny woven cord. For my final collection, I chose the crockery.

That day, as almost always, the hardest thing to find was the animal thing. The melting snowbanks were strewn with dog poop, but I wasn’t going to pick that up and carry it away.

mole wine cellar croppedRodent tunnels disappeared into the remaining snow, and I thought of the mole’s wine cellar I found at the family farm in Maine, crabapples crammed and fermenting in a tunnel beneath the snow, revealed when the snow melted away. I’m just guessing that the critter was a mole. In any case, that too defied being carried anywhere.

Unless you’re at the beach, it takes very careful observation to find a feather, or a shell, or a bone, or a bit of hair or fur snagged on a thorn. Mostly, animal remains get hauled off to be eaten, or processed by beetles and bacteria pretty quickly. They disappear. But this day, I found that tiny feather where the snow had just melted.

get out four things collectionsFind Four Things made a wonderful assignment for homework outdoors. (Here, to the left, are most of the collections of a recent class.) We said that kids could do this in their backyards, or in other outdoor places, but should skip things found indoors–so, for example, no shells from Florida, sent north by cousins.

We took plenty of time sharing these collections, hearing about where they came from. Then we left them set up on the table–a museum of miniature museums.

What’s learning without arguments? If you can’t find any animal remains at all, can you count a souvenir of animal activity, for example an acorn bearing obvious toothmarks, or those channels of tiny micro-arthropod travel inscribed on the inner surface of tree bark? Is it a human artifact, or a plant thing, if it’s something humans made out of wood? But isn’t everything mineral in origin?

I’ll let you imagine all the productive channels those discussions could follow.

Sometimes I bring home the set of four things I settle on. But I’m here mostly to practice gathering and letting go. I stand outside, under an enormous sky, and hold enormous things in my small and always aging heart. All the living beings of the natural world–not just we humans–dwell in the compost pile of what has been, and in the seeds and (often invisible) eggs of what will be.

As I lay down my collection, gathered from that dear rubble the melting snow reveals, I think of all those children trapped indoors. I really don’t believe that thing about seven minutes. Still, just in case, I mutter to the air at large: Let my people go.

“That Thing with the Letters”: Working with Perceptual Thinking Patterns

Kids who’d heard rumors from older brothers or sisters often sidled up to me in the first days of school, to ask, “You know that thing with the letters–which one am I?”

How your child is smart“That thing with the letters” referred to Perceptual Thinking Patterns, PTP’s, a system for thinking about the diverse ways people receive the world and respond to it. The PTP schema was first developed by Dawna Markova, and interpreted by Anne Powell, particularly for parents and teachers, in a book called How Your Child Is Smart. (Conari, 2011.)

In class, we usually referred to the patterns as learning styles. The terms “learning styles” and “diverse learning approaches” are occasionally used in writing about education as  euphemisms for different levels of ability. That’s not what PTP’s are about. They’re also not about what activities you like best. nate with tube and vortexInstead, Markova and Powell ask people to think about their uses of various modes of perception–visual, auditory, kinesthetic–and then think about how those modes are linked with the states of consciousness they trigger or require for each person.

Alhambra new luke and deanThey ask, “What mode brings you to your most alert awareness? Within which mode are you less efficient, less in control, but perhaps more intuitive? What are you comfortable doing for an audience, and what will you need support to do in front of an audience? What would you rather do unobserved, in more freedom? Where are you most active? Most receptive?”

The PTP schema offers subtler ways of thinking about learning approach than the conventional shorthand, which says things like, “I’m a visual learner.” That’s crazy! We’re all visual learners! But–exploring just one dimension–some of us become more alert when asked to draw something with detail. Others paint in bold color with wild freedom. Still others scrutinize and create maps to ask questions and sort out possibilities, to hold a kind of conversation. We all use visual perception and visual thinking, but in different ways. StefanIn fact, we all use all the modes of perception, one way or another. If we think carefully, though–about when, and how, with what support, and to what effect–our answers to those questions will vary considerably.

At my school, we were introduced to PTP’s by a Touchstone parent, Peter Senge, who had written an introduction to How Your Child Is Smart. Anne Powell visited the school to do workshops with staff and parents, and spent additional time in my classroom, videotaping me as I worked with students, and helping me interpret what I saw when I watched the video. She also did detailed PTP analyses for some of my students.

Farm School 2012 mine black lambMarkova’s and Powell’s insights clicked for me, so much that I drove my family a little crazy, applying PTP’s to family interactions, conversations overheard in restaurants, even political campaigns. Markova and Powell spoke to my own convictions about the very diverse ways people learn and make sense–a diversity which had fascinated me since childhood. Years later I continue to be most excited by what I see as Markova’s and Powell’s fundamental message: We experience the world in very different ways, and the world needs all those ways. 

We are lucky to be so diverse in our approaches to learning and thinking and doing, lucky for the sake of our survival as a species, and lucky in the resultant richness of our culture.

Learning style diversity may be a wonderful thing in the world, but it can also be a deal-breaking challenge in a regimented, industrialized classroom, with too many students for any teacher to know each of them well, and all of it warped by constant testing and grading.

river group recording some editsConsider something as fundamental as taking notes. If you are taught just one approach to note-taking, and graded on your use of that method, it’s chancy whether the outcome will show the learning you could have experienced, if you’d been given an opportunity to choose between several methods, or invent a variation that works for you. One size does NOT fit all.

On the other hand, does this mean that a teacher has to hand-tailor completely individualized assignments? Or six assignments, one for each of the six basic Perceptual Thinking Patterns?

Heaven forbid, as my grandmother would say. Life is too short. (And there are too many variations on each of the patterns.) projects marble chutes editIf we want to honor individual learning styles, do we have to forgo the enormous benefits of kids learning in groups, and send them all back to their corners to learn in individualized autonomy?

I can’t describe here all the ways we found to make room for individual learning approaches within a busily collaborative classroom. (That may be the most important preoccupation of this whole blog.) Many of our methods came down to this: handing both power and responsibility to each child. We encouraged children to observe themselves and each other, in order to come to tentative understandings of their patterns. We modeled–and let them model for each other–many ways of approaching new material, and many ways of making it their own and sharing it. We gave them realms of choice within which they could try approaches and methods, and see what worked. We consulted with them, asking them to describe their processes and assess their results.

Above all, we said that being active in their own behalf, being “their own best teachers,” was part of their job. And it worked. transportation projects hauling sand editSometimes, after I refused to answer the “Which one am I?” question, the sidling-up child would ask, “And what are you?”

Me? I’m a VAK, although I wouldn’t say that for a ways down the road, knowing that I make a pretty good guinea pig for kids who are learning about this stuff.

Hooray for all the connections that led from Dawna Markova to a child who had struggled all his student life, who arranged his portfolio according to the perceptual thinking pattern with which he’d come to identify.

Hooray for the difference it’s made in my own life, to understand my VAK-ness. I’ll explain what that means, and tell more about the ways we worked with learning styles in class, and how students responded, in my next post.

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

The Alhambra Banquet

The Touchstone Common Room has been transformed into a palace courtyard, with twinkling lights, a mylar fountain, and carefully painted scenery.

Alhambra new scenery 4Wearing the loose, richly decorated clothing of long-ago centuries and far away places, kids stand tall and proud, representing people whose achievements still shape our lives, even though their names have been forgotten.  Alhambra Caroline and IsyAfter the presentations, gathering around low tables with their families, kids try foods they wouldn’t usually touch with ten foot poles–because in this case, after all, they helped with the cooking.

It’s all magic, magic we made together.

Audrey ShabbasIn designing our version of the Alhambra Banquet, I found both inspiration and practical help in resources assembled by Audrey Shabbas at AWAIR, Arab World and Islamic Resources. As part of a workshop I attended at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Shabbas described a new approach to the study of medieval Europe, which would include the vital role of Arab Spain, often omitted. To engage students with this hidden history, she had conceived of a banquet in the Alhambra Palace in Granada.

I’m going to quote from a letter I wrote to parents:

[From the Alhambra] we look back to the 700 years of Muslim Spain, in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in relative peace and prosperity; and in which all three religions co-existed comfortably with advances in science, technology, and culture that were largely unknown in the rest of Europe during the same period.

We look out to the world of the Mediterranean, where trade and the common language of Arabic created connections between many cultures; and where the Arab enthusiasm for paper,  an invention brought from China, resulted in an explosion of publishing and translating and an unprecedented exchange of ideas.

Shabbas asked classes like ours to imagine travel through space–the entire Islamic world of the time, around much of the Mediterranean, but also beyond, including the rest of Europe. We also imagined travel through time. Students represented artists, architects, rulers, Sufi mystics, rabbis, Christian nuns, Muslim philosophers, librarians, book collectors, poets, physicians, mathematicians, and astronomers, from across seven centuries of the medieval world.

In our imaginations, in a grand triumph of serious playfulness, all these ancient people came together for a glittering, century-transcending, multicultural, multi-generational dinner party.

Alhambra new wide view of Common Room

When I set out to design the way the AWAIR curriculum would unfold for us, I found inspiration also in the creativity and intellectual ambition of Touchstone students, and in the generosity of their parents’ involvement in the classroom. I knew that we could handle these rich, challenging, unfamiliar worlds and concepts in hands-on ways that would make them real for us.

First, we set our sights high. Literally. Up above the whiteboard at the front of the classroom, I posted Essential Questions for this study:

  • If we could hold an imaginary banquet in about 1400 in Spain, and invite people from past centuries and the whole world known at that time, who could come? What could they talk about?

  • How did life in Al Andalus look and feel and taste?

  • How are we still influenced by the religions and cultures represented at this banquet?

  • What can Al Andalus teach us about the ingredients of successful multicultural societies?

In the light of those questions, we got down to work. During the four or five weeks leading up to the banquet, each student became involved in five different efforts:

Alhambra Nate pointing#1   As a whole group, we learned about the background history and geography. We arranged big file cards into time lines by rearranging our own bodies in a line. We created a giant map of the Mediterranean world in the gym, each person representing an important city. I vividly remember Kate Keller describing the evolution of the mathematical idea of zero, and how that idea found its way from India to northern Europe, by way of Arab Spain. In their classes, our Spanish teachers helped us think about the history of Spain as part of a larger Mediterranean history, and as a hinge between worlds. Taking it slowly and carefully, I found ways to explore Ibn Rushd’s sense of the relationship between revelation and reason–and marveled at the ideas with which these young students could engage.

Alhambra new Don on floor#2   Through a process of choosing from among various professions and roles, each student took on a historical figure to represent. (Adults sometimes filled in gaps. I’m not sure who was being represented by Don Grace in the year of most of these photographs, but the kids did a great job on his clothing!)

Alhambra honored guest listWorking hard to understand challenging sources, students found it exhilarating to take on the identities of people such as Ibn Sinna, known in the West as Avicenna, who brought scientific methods to the study of medicine and healing; or Zubaidah, a queen of Baghdad who set new standards for public works, particularly a series of wells, reservoirs and artificial pools that provided water for Muslim pilgrims along the route from Baghdad to Mecca. It’s driving me crazy not to describe all the people we called back to life. But you can click to enlarge this fairly representative list from 2011.

Alhambra new luke and deanIf a student represented someone well-documented in resources available to us, he or she had to set priorities for what would be included in a two minute presentation. For figures about whom we could find very little, even making careful use of resources on the internet, students branched out to include more information about the person’s areas of work or interest, using resources that would explain monastic life, or Islamic architecture, or the history of mathematics.

Each student checked in with one or two partners, with whom they could share and compare, and stand together in front of the banquet’s assembled audience.

Alhambra new sewing# 3   To help students enter the spirit of these representations, parents worked with them to create special clothing, decorated with magic marker “embroidery” using the motifs and styles of medieval Islamic design.

alhambra matt

#4   Students also prepared scenery and decorations for the Common Room. In our own microcosm of cultural evolution and preservation, we saved some of these murals and columns and window-top decorations from year to year, so any particular class knew that aspects of their work would last, and be built on by future classes.Alhambra new old scenery reused#5  Finally, what’s a banquet without a feast? Some typical foods of Arab Spain could be prepared ahead by the students during projects time, and frozen in home freezers. Other things–vegetarian kufti, chickens roasted with dried fruit, flan–were cooked at home and brought in by parents the night of the banquet–along with pillows to make it easier for all of us to sit on the floor at low tables, and potted plants to help us simulate the lush gardens of the Alhambra.

Alhambra new scenery 2 Alhambra new onion overdoseThrough the weeks before the banquet, kids rotated through projects time groups working with wonderful parent helpers along with teachers and aides, to create clothing, scenery, and food. They read background text related to the clothing, food, and design of medieval Arab Spain. They practiced taking notes, shared what they had understood–and then chopped up tremendous quantities of onion or garlic, or crawled all over the floor collaborating on complex designs.

Alhambra painting sceneryThroughout this entire process, and by the end of the banquet, all the adults involved were captivated and stunned–by the students’ hard work and accomplishments, and by the content they worked to share with us.

What did students get out of it all? I wanted to document this with excerpts from their own reflective writing as we went along, and afterwards–but I’m writing out of a blizzard zone, and can’t find those right now. So I have to try to summarize.

Because these students were so young, almost everything we learned in this study was new. Thinking back, I see faces scrunched up with the effort to grasp strangeness, and glowing with the satisfaction of making sense. Conceptually, they reached far, reached deep, and felt the strength of that reaching.

They also shared my satisfaction in their nitty-gritty skills growth: in note-taking, in handling unfamiliar words and other aspects of challenging texts, in interpreting maps and timelines and other charts, in oral presentation, in giving each other useful feedback.

Alhambra max croppedAbove all, students loved the way most of the learning we shared at the banquet was new to their families–so that their sharing had real focus and purpose. Students felt important, and powerful. I have memories of kids putting on the special clothing they had made (from recycled bed sheets transformed with love and patience)–then straightening up with an amazing light in their eyes.

All of us remember with wonder the physical world of the banquet, so much a product of grand collective effort–but all of us, both students and adults, remember even more the passion in student presentations, the miracles of stepping up, the deeply personal pride.

And, of course, the wild exultation when they were done.

Alhambra cheerI’d be thrilled to hear from past Alhambra Banquet participants, or to help others create their own Alhambra Banquet experience. You can write one of the usual comments, for others to see, or send something directly to me using the contact form below.

Finding the right game

My father, 93 this year, barely speaks now. During the three days my sisters and I recently spent with him, he said little more than yes or no. Even for that he mostly nodded or shook his head.

The exceptions touched us deeply. When our father’s wife asked me to play their small organ, and we three daughters sang together, our father joined in for parts of “Dwelling in Beulah Land,” smiling broadly.

Before every meal, as we held hands around the table, our stepmother prompted our father to say grace. Sometimes he used words we’d heard throughout our childhood (until he and our mom separated and then divorced, and we saw him much less often.) Sometimes he used different words to request the same blessings, ‟living kindly in each others’ lives,” where the original grace asked that we be kept ‟mindful of the needs of others.”

Mostly, though, he listened to us. Sometimes he raised his head at a name, or to watch when one of us grew animated telling a story.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThrough our childhood, and for many years after, our father was the most powerful talker we knew. A church deacon who sometimes filled in for the minister on Sunday, he helped to broker peace in a fractured congregation more than once. He sat on the school board in our town, helped build support for a new school, became a leader in his professional organization.

Later on, farm boy turned Green Revolution advocate and diplomat, he spoke persuasively to ministers of agriculture and heads of state all over the world.

We were immensely proud of him, and lucky ever to get a word in edgewise. In fact, the last five years we’ve been glad to have him dominate the conversation less, glad to have him listen more effectively and more appreciatively.

napkin foldingNear total silence felt different, awkward, heart-breaking. That talented, challenging, proud man sat at his dining table, folding a paper napkin along the diagonal and then throwing it into the waste basket. Then he started with another, and folded that one in half the other way, midpoint to midpoint, and then half again. He lined up his knife with the pattern of the tablecloth. He adjusted the position of a box of tissues, making it align precisely with the table’s corner. Looking at a stack of photographs, he positioned a smaller photo under the lower border of a larger one. Then he picked up another napkin and used it to measure the place mat, putting down a pointed finger to hold his place. All in silence.

Without meaning to, I watched my father through a math teacher’s eyes. I thought, ‟He’s practicing spatial reasoning.” Practicing, doing the same thing again and again, to do it well.

I thought back. Our father’s professional and community roles depended heavily on his verbal persuasiveness, but strong kinesthetic and spatial intelligence has also shaped his life. Before I was born, he played basketball, and sometimes refereed. (Years later, reading John McPhee helped me appreciate the way a really good basketball player knows where every other player is, and where the ball is, moment by moment.) All of us had watched our father build boats, plan and create gardens, play pool, dance.

As I watched him now, adjusting objects edge to edge, experimenting with fit, I thought about pattern blocks, math manipulatives beloved by many of my students, which they used occasionally in math, and often during rainy-day recess.

pattern blocks and kidsWhere could we get some? On an errand at a nearby mall, my sisters and I saw a toy store. No pattern blocks, but we found something called Imaginets, from MindWare. Small flat wooden shapes painted in five brilliant colors, with magnets on the back, filled a wooden suitcase lined with shiny white magnetic surfaces.


The set offered cards with designs to reproduce. By unanimous consent, we hid those right away, sensing in them an invitation to fail. That afternoon we just took out the box, and opened it on the table where the four of us sat together. After some fuss opening the plastic packages of shapes, one daughter set a purple rectangle in the middle of the white space. Another added to that shape a blue semicircle, lining them up the way our father had been lining up place mats. The third daughter added a green shape that became one of my favorites, an irregular pentagon.

We all held our breath. Would our wordless father join in?

With the exquisite care of a ferry pilot approaching a dock, he steered the piece he’d chosen into the position he had chosen for it. When we oooohed and ahhhhed with appreciation, he beamed.

imaginets and rGradually, as we kept playing, our father joined in with increasing confidence. He had his own sense of fit and appropriateness, in this completely non-competitive, non-verbal, intuitive game we were all inventing together. Until recently, we realized, he might not have been able to do anything this loose, this unconcerned with winning. Here he is, to the right, with one of our completed designs, which fulfilled our goal of using every piece in the set.

When we started letting the curved shapes be tangent instead of fitting closely, he went along for the ride. We grew more and more relaxed about taking turns, particularly after our father added seven shapes one after another, in a run of brilliant yellow, and looked up, pleased with his own sophistication.

I turned away, not wanting him to see tears. Transcending everything that made it hard for us to communicate, we were having a kind of conversation. A man in hand-to-hand combat with dementia, losing one capacity after another, our father was learning.

I wrote the first draft of this post riding north again on the train (a happy little link to the previous post about riding trains with my students.) As I watched the eastern seaboard slide by, creek by creek and cove by cove, I kept mulling it over. My daughter, by phone, suggested the string of words I might use for an online search about spatial / kinesthetic / sensory experience for the elderly. (And I’d welcome leads from any of my readers.)

R using imaginetsAlready, I can say this much. Unlike the students I observed and fell in love with and learned to support both verbally and non-verbally, my father does not have years of growing and learning ahead. He’s in his last chapter, no matter what right games we find. But he, too, needs and can savor the experience of learning. He is still one of us, a human, seriously playing.

In today’s email, I found a photograph our stepmother had taken, shown above, in which our father builds designs with the Imaginets on his own.

hands and imaginetsThis photograph, taken by one of my sisters, captures the image in my heart. I wanted to focus this post on my father, but I come to the end of it needing to thank not only my father but also my funny, creative, wise sisters, and my brave and patient stepmother–all the hands in this photograph. Also our mother, blessing this visit from her distance, and our families, giving whatever they can to the dispersed village we are together.

I think also of my students, from whom I learned so much that is still with me, about all the ways to be alive and aware–and learning–in this world.

The Great Train-to-Boston Public Transportation Adventure

For two weeks I’ve been trying to write about field trips to Boston during our transportation thematic studies. (This continues a recent post about Projects Time activities connected to transportation.) I keep coming back to two cautionary tales.

#1  I once heard of a class of eleven-year-olds studying metric units of measurement without any access to meter sticks. For that matter, no actual measurement going on, in a unit about measurement systems. Meters and centimeters had become mere abstract notions.

transportation field trip train entering stationAt my school, we were all about real. If we were going to study physics, engineering, history, economics, and public policy, all through the lens of transportation, we would have the visceral, hands-on experience of transportation in all sorts of ways, from silly to sublime.

We would design and draw towns and streets on a white-board-covered table, and then play on them with little cars and trucks, gleefully adding back-up beeping noises.

On individual field trips in our own neighborhoods, we would carry clipboards, stand on busy corners, and tally the passing cars–on the basis of how many people were traveling in each car. All those engines–almost all of them burning fossil fuels–how well or efficiently were they being used?

transportation field trip on subwayChildren who can’t legally drive are denied access to transportation in many rural and suburban areas–along with the elderly, the physically disabled, the poor. So we would spend a day using all the forms of public transportation we could get our feet on: commuter rail, and several different subway lines, and buses–reveling in the power we gained through these forms of access. transportation field trip hubway lineup

We would ride on elevators and escalators, and moving walkways if we could find them–and be thrilled by a line-up of Hubway bicycles.

transportation field trip inner harbor ferryWe would cross Boston Harbor with our faces into the wind, on one of the ferries that is a part of the MBTA. Our happy hearts would agree with Robert Louis Stevenson: For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.

.transportation field trip medium rare on escalatorWhat did all this require? The head teacher (me) had to get control of her exaggerated but unfortunately earned fear of accidental injuries. I had to trust that my students would follow instructions, think carefully in these unfamiliar environments, watch out for each other, and have a blast wisely. (Only a small stuffed animal, known as Medium Rare, would tumble down the escalator for the sake of our video script.)

It helped that the conductors and drivers and transportation planners with whom we traveled or met were absolute saints. For example, below, Stephanie Pollack, associate director of the Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in Boston, talks with us about the role of public transportation in reducing transportation’s heavy impact on global climate change. transportation field trip orange line map with stephanie pollack croppedBefore our first trip, Maureen Trainor at the MBTA spent a long time with me on the phone, giving me ideas, helping me figure out the best way to buy tickets, and suggesting T-shirts that would carry our message. When we arrived on her sidewalk, she took us in to tour the MBTA dispatching facilities, then whirled us through a Silver Line bus (so we could say we’d been on a bus), and personally conducted us back into the subway, to make sure we wouldn’t get lost. That year we traveled during National Public Transportation Week, and there could not have been more earnest public transportation enthusiasts, or kinder guides, anywhere.

It helped most of all, though, that teams of wonderful parents joined us. Some had extensive experience with Boston’s public transportation system. One was a confirmed Hubway bicycle user, and could tell us about that. Another had a special connection to the person in Mayor Menino’s office in charge of promoting bicycling. Every parent contributed what he or she could, including reassurance at moments of uncertainty. (See below.)

Cautionary Tale #2   From a colleague: Two children are on a field trip. One says, “Ooooh! This is so cool!” The other says, “Don’t act too excited! They’ll make us write about it!”

transportation field trip girls on train-001 Almost all my students liked writing, in fact, but I always hoped that what we did would be textured and various enough to work for everyone. We would all have great fun traveling to and around Boston–I knew that–but rich learning experiences would be less rich if I didn’t ask them to capture their observations in language, one way or another.

So, sometimes the pre-writing, before the trip, took the form of posters, in which a little language goes a long way.

transportation poster transportation projects poster bThe trip book, a booklet I had created and copied for every child and adult, included invitations to sketch rather than write, along with opportunities to write lists rather than paragraphs, and also ways of recording observations by circling things on a pre-made list. (That’s a good solution for kids who get carsick if they try to write in a moving vehicle.)

transportation train tunnel sketch transportation field trip list cropped more

transportation things to seeThe last trip, much of our pre-writing (and research) went into the script for a video to be made with still photographs. You can see the finished product here.

transportation field trip Medium Rare and Hubway mapOn the day itself, we accidentally left our main character, Moosey, in South Station. Oh, no! On the spot, walking down the street, we revised our script to allow for a new main character, Medium Rare (posed to the right.)

transportation field trip moosey lost and foundAt the end of the day, we revised our story yet again, to include an ecstatic reunion with Moosey at the station’s Lost and Found. (Both group bonding and creativity thrive on the unexpected.) Certain student voices, muttering in my ear, remind me that we missed our train back to Grafton that year. But we had a lot of South Station fun while we waited for the next train.

transportation technology systems worksheetWhat did we carry away from all this? No matter how much fun there is in hands-on projects in general, and field trips in particular, it’s important to ask what gets learned, what gets known and understood and used. Facts, yes, many; but also a sense of the interconnected dynamics of large systems, expressed here in an NESEA (Northeast Sustainable Energy Association) worksheet.

That first year, Stephanie Pollack, working at that time with the Conservation Law Foundation–and never a very tall person, no matter how distinguished–stood on a table in order to be heard over the lunchtime bustle at South Station. With fire and passion, grounded in research, she told us about the damage wreaked on the environment by a car-centered transportation system.

As we walked away from South Station in little clusters, all still talking about it, I asked Troy what he thought. “Oh,” he said, holding his head in a familiar gesture, “I don’t ever want to get in a car again.”

Kate and I looked at each other. We knew the field trip had worked, to get us thinking about connections and impacts and large systems. We also knew that our debrief would have to include some discussion of moments when we felt uncomfortable–because none of us could instantly make the changes in our lives to follow what we’d just heard.

transportation field trip uncomfortableBack at school the next day, a student note-taker captured, a little chaotically, a discussion that wound up imagining reasons why a person might have to make change slowly. We were in this together: absorbing new understanding, so important it would change our lives.

We only bought the special t-shirts the first year, but every time we were following their slogan: learning to make good transportation decisions, and learning that together. I wear mine to bed whenever I want to have brave dreams.

transportation tommy and dad on train

Transportation Projects

transportation projects comparing human-powered wheeled edit2When I think about transportation projects, I remember Kate Keller rounding up approximately a million human-powered wheeled vehicles, so we could try them and compare them and consider the relationship between function and design.

transportation projects humanpowered wheeled wagon and office chair

Transportation involves the movement of people or goods, so these small human-powered examples count, even when powered by very small humans. (See below.)

transportation projects design and function notes cropped

Why do wheels help so much, when we need to move things (or ourselves)? What design modifications help a wheel work well? What about handles? What about the way the weight of the goods is balanced?

transportation projects humanpowered wheeled chartmaking cropped

Kids had time to think about all these questions as they were actively trying out several vehicles at each station, comparing wheelbarrows and garden carts, or several kinds of strollers, dollies for working under cars, wheeled suitcases, even wheeled desk chairs. Then they had time to think about what they were noticing, and add to their notes or charts, before rotating to their next station.

In this activity, unlike some projects time set-ups, everybody tried everything. We would not have been forgiven by the people who didn’t get to try the scooter. Also, we wanted to avoid any suggestion of girl stuff and boy stuff.

transportation projects human-powered wheeled b edt

When I think of transportation projects, I’m bound to think of this photograph of Troy, experiencing the enhanced mobility provided by his very first car, in the form of a paper plate.transportation projects village simulation hWe added cars in the third round of a simulation of the relationship between transportation and trade, usually referred to as “the villages.” A Touchstone alum turned transportation planner (my son, Colby Brown) heard that we’d gotten a grant to develop curriculum about transportation. He said, “You have to do this Touchstone style. You have to model the interactions with a simulation on the playground.”

transportation projects village simulation a editSo Kate Keller, resident genius at translating complex concepts into compelling experience, designed a simulation in which students pretended to live and survive the seasons in three villages, widely spaced on our school grounds–under the gazebo out front, at the back of the rear playing field, and at the bottom of the slide. transportation projects village simulation b edit2

Kate put special care into making sure that none of the villages could be seen from the others, so transportation was also the only route for communication, true to most of human history. In order to conduct a trade, the traders had to travel. transportation projects village simulation c edit

We imagined each village having its own geography–mountains, woods, or a lake in the form of the playing field, which students pretended to cross by pulling saucer-sled boats.

Each geography had its own resources to offer in trade, for example cattails from the lakeside, wood from the forests, or cloth woven from the wool of mountain-tolerant sheep. At first, the villagerstransportation projects village simulation d edit had nothing but their own bodies to carry their goods, but in the second round each group had some additional transportation, such as a wheelbarrow.

Here’s one student’s writing, evaluating how that day’s experience had worked:

transportation projects village simulation eI kept the little note at the side, saying that trading was interesting, because that was such an understatement. The students were wildly excited about trading. In one debriefing conversation, a student said, “It’s hard to take part in the simulation and learn as an observer at the same time, because I get so excited about the trading.”

Looking back, I appreciate more than ever the engagement and thoughtfulness, the serious playfulness at its best, that gave rise to such astute observations about what we were asking students to do. I appreciate also the ways students supported each other in being both participants and researchers, reminding each other of our questions: What impact did the transportation have on the trading? What impact did the need for trade have on the need for transportation?

Village culture evolved very quickly, so magic stones and medicinal pieces of bark were also traded, and one student, writing up the day’s events, wrote as the History Keeper

transportation projects village simulation history keeper edit In the third round, after class discussion about where to take our simulation next, we introduced transportation that involved motors–individual private cars, a toll bridge, and a train route in the tunnel through the mountain of the school. As it played out, students were surprised at the expense of private transportation, at least in this simulation. In one of the replays of the curriculum in later years, a student yelled in exasperation, “This car is making me go broke!”

It’s torture to leave out everything I’m having to leave out. I want to describe just one more of our transportation projects. Later in the unit, we split into groups working parallel and reporting to each other–about transportation access issues, or about what it’s like to make a transportation plan. For example, one group designed a bike path from West Upton village to our school.

transportation projects 140 plan editAnother planned several bus routes. No bus could pick up all our students, from the many towns in which they lived. But when we had mapped all our own class member locations, at the beginning of the year, Kate and I had noticed how many families lived near the state highway very close to the school. The bus route planning group spent a lot of time with maps on which they located all the school families involved in the clustering we had noticed. They made two lists, the one I’ve shown, and another of families who lived south and east of the school, in Milford and Hopkinton. Then they designed routes.

transportation projects 140 plan b editOne of the students pointed out that parents might or might not be willing to let their children ride a bus, even a school-sponsored bus. She might have heard about the parent-organized bus to Worcester that ran for a few years, with continual difficulties around poor communication. So she designed the questionnaire to the right.

transportation projects 140 plan cThe bus route planning group had several final products to share, including maps made on Topo software, annotated with the proposed routes, and an article which ran in the school newsletter.

transportation projects 140 plan d

Although the bus routes never did materialize, those Very Young Transportation Demand Forecasters had learned lessons almost impossible with anything less connected to their own experience.

That was true, of course, of the whole deal. In the next post I want to write about the transportation field trips, giant projects time sessions on many kinds of wheels.

Two extra notes:

#1  This post is the third in a series. The first post in this series about Projects Time describes some logistics, considers the social benefits of this format for hands-on inquiry, and takes a flyover of a typical afternoon of outdoor projects. The second compares accountability and responsibility in the context of Projects Time.

#2 Our hands-on explorations of the physics, history, public policy issues and fun of getting from here to there were the Projects Time side of a curriculum called Transportation Choices, which Kate Keller and I developed with the help of funds from the U.S. Dept of Transportation, administered by the University Transportation Center at Assumption College in Worcester.

One of several university transportation centers throughout the country, the Assumption center focused specifically on K-12 learning about transportation and the environment. When the center closed, its website documentation of the various curricula developed by grantees disappeared from public view–but I’ve saved most of what Kate and I produced to record and evaluate our own work, including curriculum plans and maps and a bibliography. I was able to return to that material and use it in subsequent explorations of the transportation theme.

I’ve written elsewhere about Kate Keller’s gift for developing hands-on developmentally-appropriate activities about complicated ideas. You can find more here.

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…”