Diving Into Project-based Learning: Sui Generis Genesis

project-based learningMy initial plans to dive into project-based learning this year stemmed from my experience during the Master Class with John Hunter last summer. On the last day of the class after we’d observed as John facilitated the World Peace Game all week, John and Jamie introduced the master class to the idea of sui generis, a Latin expression meaning “of its own, creator of its own kind.” Then, they challenged us to work together to create our own “games” for our curricula. I’d been considering project-based learning for a while and was ready to dip my toes in the water of the PBL pool, but I was still afraid I’d fail miserably.

As I talked with Jamie, John, and various members of the class about what I wanted to do, I realized I couldn’t just wade in to project-based learning. If I approached it that way, I could easily crawl out when I noticed the water was too cold. No, I needed a head-first dive into the deep end of the pool. I needed a coup d’etat over my fear of trying something completely beyond my comfort zone. I began designing a project-based learning unit for my 6th grade class centered around our study of civil rights.

My idea was to have my students create their own civil rights museum. (The National Civil Rights Museum is here in Memphis.) I wanted them to know and understand the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. I also hoped they’d consider how exhibits tell stories and find ways to tell similar stories themselves. I wanted my students to recognize their own privilege and do something that might benefit (in a meaningful way) those less fortunate. As Will Richardson and Bill Ferriter say, I wanted them to do work that matters. I decided we could not only create a museum exhibit, but also make it available to others.

As I shared the idea with my MC colleagues, one of them asked me if I knew the story of Hana’s Suitcase and shared with me the story. This inspired me to think more about how I might make our exhibit mobile, and I remembered someone (Bo Adams, was that you?) telling me about college students turning shipping containers into affordable housing. Then, I began dreaming about my students’ not only creating a civil rights museum but also constructing it in a shipping container. Then, we could run our mobile museum as a non-profit from within the walls of our school. I shared the idea with the master class, and they seemed excited about the idea, too.

I was so excited about the idea I asked for a meeting with my principal to discuss it. A couple of weeks later we met to talk about it. She was really supportive of the idea and even provided me with a few more resources as I began to hash out the details and decided to further research and explore project-based learning.

Unfortunately, the more I read and researched project-based learning, the more uncertain I became about my idea. I kept reading about the value of student voice and learner choice and I wondered if my having so much of the project idea formulated was because of my need to control the learning. Could I truly turn the learning over to my students? Instead of allowing them some say in the project, could I give them a full, robust voice? Could I set aside my idea (about which I was ecstatic) and let them fully design the learning? Was I really willing to dive into the deep end and be student-centered? I decided to try. So as we finished the two novels I’d selected to go along with our civil rights unit, I closed my eyes and sprung off the end of the platform uncertain what the water would be like below.

This is the third in a series of posts on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If you are interested in this series, you might want to read about my professional goal and my research and resources. I’d also appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you might want to leave below.

Running Thoughts: Fear And Setback

[gigya src=”http://boos.audioboo.fm/swf/fullsize_player.swf” flashvars=”mp3=http%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F933560-captured-running-thoughts-pamper-pole-and-rock-climbing-wall.mp3%3Fsource%3Dwordpress&mp3Author=Philip_Cummings&mp3LinkURL=http%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F933560-captured-running-thoughts-pamper-pole-and-rock-climbing-wall&mp3Time=08.20am+25+Aug+2012&mp3Title=Captured+Running+Thoughts%3A+Pamper+Pole+And+Rock-climbing+Wall” width=”400″ height=”160″ allowFullScreen=”true” wmode=”transparent”]

I’m writing this post while Evelyn attends a “Pump It Up” party. Excuse me if my thoughts make little sense, it’s approximately 50 degrees in here and the dance music is blaring.

I ran 3.11 miles this morning at a 9’35″/mile pace. It was a shorter run than what I had wanted to accomplish for my second run of the week. My second 5-miler is tomorrow morning so I decided not to push the distance too much. Lack of sleep and the 6th grade breakaway to Victory Ranch prevented me from running on Thursday or Friday as I had originally planned.

As I was running this morning, I thought about what happened yesterday at Victory Ranch. During the first activity my homeroom tackled the Giant Swing (not my favorite) and the Pamper Pole. While I found the swing physically painful, it was not difficult nor scary. However, the Pamper Pole was both. The pole is basically a telephone pole with climbing rings along the side to assist one in climbing the 30+ feet to the top. Once there, the challenge is to stand up atop the 10-inch diameter of the pole then jump out and grab hold of a trapeze suspended in the air a few feet out of reach.

After catching my breath from the giant swing, I made the climb up the Pamper Pole relatively easily. Standing up was a bigger challenge, but I was able to do it. Then, I froze. My knees locked up, and fear began to strangle me. The trapeze waited well beyond my reach, and the activity facilitator had one of my students move it further away! Paralyzed from the neck downhill, I shouted that they needed to move the trapeze closer. I was beginning to think I was never going to get down. (Normally, I’m not that fearful of heights unless I’m suspended upside down.)

Seeing that I was becoming somewhat panicked, one of my students came to my rescue. He called out, “Don’t worry, Mr. Cummings! You can definitely do this. I’m going to count to three, then you are going to jump. Ready?” Before I could argue, he started counting and I knew I had no choice. I took a deep breath. As he shouted, “Three!” I jumped out and snatched hold of the trapeze. Fear was conquered, and I was soon back on the ground.

Fear is a strange sensation. It paralyses. I’m continuing to think about how to redesign my reading class to mesh with my work from the John Hunter Master Class. Honestly, I’m terrified. I have no idea how to do what I want to do, and the dream is far beyond my comfort zone. However, just like I yearned to conquer the Pamper Pole, I long to see this dream become a reality. What will it take to overcome the fear? Will my students once again coach me through it? I’m not sure I have an answer to this, but I don’t want my fear to win.

The second activity required climbing a rock wall to the top of the Diamond Tower in order to ride the 700-foot zipline to the bottom of the hill. I watched as several of my boys clambered to the top. Then, I strapped on a harness and took my turn determined that I could scale to the top, too. I started strong climbing rather easily halfway up the wall. Then, everything changed. I couldn’t seem to get a strong grip on the wall. My forearms burned. My quadriceps and gluteal muscled screamed at me, but I wouldn’t be deterred. I reached, grabbed, and pulled myself another 6 feet up the wall. I was panting heavily. My energy spent. I reached out to grab a new notched in the wall, and I slipped. My left hand couldn’t hold on. I lost my footing and fell rappelling to the ground.

Embarrassed, I immediately wanted to try again, but I couldn’t. Boys were waiting in line for their turn, and I knew I really didn’t have it in me. I’d slept little all week, but even if I’d been rested I’m not sure I could have climbed the wall. Was it a failure? Perhaps. Something in me cringes at the term. It feels so definitive, so final. I prefer the term setback. True, I failed at climbing the wall, but I will rise to climb again. I’ll do some strength training. Get more sleep. Failing to climb the wall won’t define me. Instead, it’s a setback from achieving what I want. I’ll be better prepared next time knowing better what to expect. Failure would be not trying again.

Running Thoughts: Personal Records and Goal Setting

[gigya src=”http://boos.audioboo.fm/swf/fullsize_player.swf” flashvars=”mp3=http%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F906255-captured-running-thoughts-prs-goal-setting-and-chunking.mp3%3Fsource%3Dwordpress&mp3Author=Philip_Cummings&mp3LinkURL=http%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F906255-captured-running-thoughts-prs-goal-setting-and-chunking&mp3Time=07.32am+02+Aug+2012&mp3Title=Captured+Running+Thoughts%3A+PRs%2C+Goal+Setting%2C+and+Chunking” width=”400″ height=”160″ allowFullScreen=”true” wmode=”transparent”]

This morning I set personal records (PRs) for my longest run (1:27:23) and my farthest run (7.45 miles) according to my Nike+ Running App. While the run certainly wasn’t fast, I’m proud because I did complete it even though there were several times along the way that I wanted to stop. Somewhere around the 5-mile mark I became really fatigued, but I refused to stop. Instead I looked down the road and picked a marker telling myself I could make it at least that far. When I got close to that marker, I looked further ahead and picked something else as the new goal to reach. Finally, after doing this several times, I had reached my personal records.

How does this relate to my students?

  1. Goal setting is important. Too often people feel like they are wandering through life. I want to be a person of purpose and I want my students to be the same. Setting goals helps us create a vision for ourselves and motivates us to work to achieve that vision. Unfortunately, I have done a poor job in the past teaching my students about setting goals. I want a more structured approach to helping my students learn goal setting this year, but I’m not sure what this will look like yet. Personally, one of my physical goals is to run a marathon. At this point, I’m a long way from that goal, but I am motivated and working toward it rather than sitting on the couch.
  2. Big goals requires little steps. I want my students to understand that learning, growing, and achieving occur through a process. I want them to set smaller goals in support of their larger goals take steps each day in the right direction. I also want them to expect setbacks and failures, but know that success comes as we learn from these and try again. I started toward my goal by setting the smaller goal of completing the Couch to 5K program, which I did last summer. This summer, I have competed the Bridge to 10K program, but it was a re-do thanks to an injury from over-training this spring. I learned from it and am now able to run a 10K. Currently, I have already signed up to run a half marathon in December.
  3. Chunk it yourself. One of the thing I noticed observing the World Peace Game was that John Hunter gives the students an incredibly complex problem to solve, but he doesn’t break it down for them and tell them the steps to solve it. He doesn’t chew their food for them. The students found their own way to solve the problems and win the games. In our desire to not overwhelm our students, we break things down into smaller learning targets too often. Perhaps, what they need is to struggle with the complexity and break it down themselves. I’ve looked for the perfect half marathon training app to fit my needs, but I haven’t found one. So, I’m doing a mash-up of several plans, but I’m having to problem solve myself and it’s keeping me engaged in the process.

So what do you think? Does any of this make sense? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and I learn best through conversation.

By the way, a good online resource on goal setting is at MindTools.

Running Thoughts: Gratitude, Courage, and Sweat

[gigya src=”http://boos.audioboo.fm/swf/fullsize_player.swf” flashvars=”mp3=http%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F902625-captured-running-thoughts-gratitude-courage-and-sweat.mp3%3Fsource%3Dwordpress&mp3Author=Philip_Cummings&mp3LinkURL=http%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F902625-captured-running-thoughts-gratitude-courage-and-sweat&mp3Time=07.57am+30+Jul+2012&mp3Title=Captured+Running+Thoughts%3A+Gratitude%2C+Courage%2C+and+Sweat” width=”400″ height=”160″ allowFullScreen=”true” wmode=”transparent”]

This morning I ran 6.25 miles (with an additional .2 mile cool down). The weather was nice. The sky was overcast and I felt an occasional breeze.

Several ideas ran through my head this morning, but most of my thinking centered in the areas of gratitude, courage, and sweat.


I experienced a remarkable week of learning in the Master Class with John Hunter at the Martin Institute. Observing the World Peace Game in action gave me some ideas about what I might do with my own teaching, and I appreciate John and Jamie Baker’s facilitating the class. Unlike so much professional development for teachers, the class took a constructivist and conversational approach that allowed the learning to go deep and be personal. I also appreciate my colleagues from around the world for all they shared about themselves during the week. I miss them already and hope we will continue to stay in touch with one another.

A few days back we received a citation from our home owners’ association stating that we needed to stain the fence in our yard. Ugh. Fortunately, my neighbors Dave and Michelle, with whom we share a portion of the fence, offered to help us get it stained as my wife Debbie had made some curtains for Michelle already. Dave spent much of Saturday pressure washing our fence, and Dave, Michelle, Debbie and I worked for a long time on Sunday doing the actual staining. Once the stain ran out (but not the fence, unfortunately), we cleaned up and got together for a meal at our house. It was great to be together and I am thankful to have such great people living next door.


I’m still reflecting on the fears and shoulds that inhibit me from becoming all I can be as a teacher. This morning as I ran, I remembered a saying my students tell me they learned from our principal Mr. Fruitt (who, I think, got it from Ambrose Redmoon).

Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the recognition (sic) that something else is more important than fear. 

I bring a lot of baggage to my classroom in the terms of my fears and shoulds. I want to have the courage to not let these things hold me back from doing what I think my students need most. This is something that I’m going to be thinking about a lot as I prepare for school to start in just a couple of weeks.


As I was turning back toward home on my run, I noticed my eyes starting to burn from all the sweat that was running into my eyes. It was becoming a difficult to keep my eyes open and focus on the road. (Perhaps, the metaphor is a stretch.) I’m wondering what I might do as a teacher to keep the sweat, (the things that distract me from my mission) out of my eyes.  How do I stay focused on what matters to me most?

I’d love to hear your reactions or suggestions as they relate to these running thoughts. Please leave a comment here or you can always message me on Twitter, too.

#MCHunter Day 5: World Peace and Sui Generis

On Friday morning the students’ energy level was high. They could sense that they were close to winning the game and achieving world peace, but they still had a long way to go. They had 6 crises left to solve in addition to needing to out the saboteur and avoid the debt crisis in several nations. Yet, they knew they were close. As the children planned and negotiated, we teachers watched for the game to speed up (Does the deadline propel learning?), for further team development, and for the students’ reflective awareness of what they have learned. John did a skillful job keeping them focused, but most students didn’t require his help. They understood what they needed to do and believed they could do it. They could achieve world peace.

As the game played on, John reminded the students of the obstacles remaining in their way, and during negotiations the students continued overcoming hurdles. They recognized how much they needed one another, and altruism surfaced in all of them. They lay aside their differences. They exposed the saboteur. They were generous to one another. They did what we so often cannot do. They declared peace. Everybody won.

In reflecting on her learning, one student admitted, “I’m smarter than I thought I was.” Another confessed, “I learned that by working together, we can do anything,” while a fellow participant added, “I learned the value of negotiation rather than fighting.” Several kids gained an awareness not only of their own potential for evil (“I can be mean.”) but also their capacity for good. They loved playing the game. When asked what they would want their teachers to know about the experience, one boy responded, “That this (game) is fun and really makes you learn a lot.” Their reflections were moving.

During our afternoon debriefing with John and Jamie, we discussed the learning of the game and identified the following outcomes:

  • “flow”
  • collective success
  • critical and creative thinking skills
  • process and intention focus
  • real world relevance and knowledge
  • resourcefulness
  • engagement
  • confidence

Using some tools and inspiration from John and Jamie, we spent the rest of the afternoon considering the concept of sui generis, a Latin expression meaning “of its own, creator of its own kind,” and working with each other and our curriculums to create our own “games.” Through the reflective process and sharing of the week, we identified the things keeping us from reaching our potential as teachers and collectively attempted to address those problems. Then, we were given the time and tools to begin reinventing how we will take new risks and teach our students. As Jamie explained to me, the week was about renewal, reflection, and risk-taking, and I really appreciated how my colleagues opened their hearts, made themselves vulnerable, and worked together to discover and create unique learning opportunities for our students. As my colleagues shared their ideas, I was inspired by my colleagues creativity in re-imagining their curriculums.

I am immensely grateful to John Hunter and Jamie Baker for facilitating the Master Class and to PDS for allowing my to attend. I am also thankful for my colleagues–my friends–and all they shared this week. I look forward to hearing more about the changes they are bringing to their teaching and to their students.

#MCHunter Days 3 and 4: Coup d’etats, Negotiations, and Ideal Teachers

Day 3 of the World Peace Game in Memphis began with a coup d’etat. A Secretary of State decided that his country would be in a better position under his leadership rather than that of the current prime minister. The players rolled the die and the original regime fell. The former leader was exiled to another country and the new leader immediately began preparing to flex his newly acquired military muscle. When his country’s turn arrived, he announced he was ready to launch a nuclear attack. However, in his eagerness to take power, he forgot to secure the launch codes for his nuclear arsenal from the former leader who was now exiled, and had no way to accomplish his strategic plans. At the same time the idea of a staging a coup spread as cabinet members from other countries began plotting to overthrow their leadership as they grew frustrated that their voices and ideas weren’t being heard.

Over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, the students continued negotiations, teams realigned, leadership transitioned, and one group of deposed leaders joined forces to form a new nation and asked for UN recognition. (They made a brilliant move trading the desperately sought after launch codes for land of their own. A sense of altruism also began to emerge as players began making sacrificial moves in order to solve crises. By the end of yesterday, the player who initiated the initial coup d’etat realized he was what was standing in the way of world peace and abdicated his power. It was extraordinary to watch.

As adult observers, we looked for leadership (types and struggles), adjustment in collaboration, learning outcomes, and open space. I noticed how Mr. Hunter used his gift for listening and one-to-one communication to pull students aside and work with them as they struggled through the negotiation process. John plays to his strengths. Additionally, the amount of open space John gives his students is impressive. They make their own decisions. He lets them take risks. He later admitted that the students often make choices in the game that he doesn’t agree with, but he let’s them do it anyway. I noticed he doesn’t feel like he has to rescue them.

In the Master Class on Wednesday, we debriefed with John for a few minutes then spent time exploring our strengths, fears, and shoulds as teachers. (The shoulds are the internal and external expectations we have to cope with as teachers.) We identified them on sticky notes and posted them in the room for all to see. Then, we did a “gallery walk” so that we could read what everyone had written. We then discussed them as a group and spent some time categorizing what we listed. We also took time to watch the World Peace movie as not everyone in our cohort had seen it. (I’ve now seen it 4 times and discover something new each time I view it.) As homework, we received a visual to help us consider the philosophies, teacher roles, hard limits, and expectations that hold bearing on the game (teaching and learning). Our assignment was to think about our own teaching, consider the factors at work, and begin imagining what our own “game” might be.

After our short debriefing during Thursday’s class, John spent a few minutes talking with us about learning outcomes and assessment. I appreciate how he develops the assessment in partnership with the students and there is a major component of self-assessment and conferencing with each student. Then, we spent a few minutes imagining our “perfect teacher selves.” Then, we paired up and shared it with a partner and began asking each other hard questions about how we can grow into or become that ideal teacher. It was a deeply personal experience but one shared with a new, supportive colleague. Each pair then took turns introducing to the group the ideal version of their partner. The exercise was somewhat emotional but incredibly validating as we began the journey toward our ideals. The day ended with time spent relaxing and enjoying each other’s company.

Running Thoughts: Sore Spots, Soar Spots, and a Theme Song

[gigya src=”http://boos.audioboo.fm/swf/fullsize_player.swf” flashvars=”mp3=http%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F898507-captured-running-thoughts-sore-vs-soar-and-pbl.mp3%3Fsource%3Dwordpress&mp3Author=Philip_Cummings&mp3LinkURL=http%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F898507-captured-running-thoughts-sore-vs-soar-and-pbl&mp3Time=06.54am+26+Jul+2012&mp3Title=Captured+Running+Thoughts%3A+Sore+vs.+Soar+and+%23PBL” width=”400″ height=”160″ allowFullScreen=”true” wmode=”transparent”]

This morning I ran 5.5 miles, but I was totally wrapped up in my thinking so it was a relatively easy run–even in this crazy summer heat.

My thinking focused in three areas this morning. First, I considered further a reflection we did yesterday in the Master Class with John Hunter on our individual strengths, fears, and shoulds we have as teachers. Second, I processed how I might take what I’m learning this week, synthesize it with some other learning from this summer, and begin developing a new “game” for learning n my classroom. Finally, as I was cooling down I was struck by a song in my playlist that I am now considering as a theme song for the upcoming school year. (Perhaps, I slipped into channeling Ally McBeal.)

  1. Sore Spots vs. Soar Spots – As a runner my body is sore. I always have blisters on both feet, raw spots from friction, and a fatigued muscle or two. It would be easy to give in to my sore spots and stay in bed or just move to the couch. However, I also really love to run. I soar when I set a distance goal and reach it, when I know I’m taking care of my body, and when the endorphins kick in and I feel I could run forever. I get up and hit the streets because I love to soar. My teaching is much the same way. My sore spots consist of my fears. “What if I lose control of things? What if I what I’m doing doesn’t matter? What if I am not good enough? Am I just a big fraud?” Other sore spots come from the shoulds. “I should manage my class the way _____ does. My class should be quiet and working. I should give better feedback and more assessments. I should do what has a proven track record.” If I’m not careful (and I’m often not), these sore spots get in the way of my soar spots–my individual strengths as a teacher. One of the things that I appreciate about John Hunter is how he has used his strengths to make the students’ learning soar. As I think about this upcoming year, I want to focus on my soar spots and do my best not to worry about the places where I’m sore.
  2. Something New – I’m thinking about how to focus on my strengths in my classroom. I also trying to synthesize this thinking with some of the other thinking and learning I have done recently. Last school year, I spent time researching and investigating project-based learning. Then, I was fortunate to be able to spend time with my friend Bob Dillon hearing about the cool projects they do at his school. At the MI Summer Conference, I learned more about Bo Adams‘ and Jill Gough’s Synergy class. And recently, Hadley Ferguson has inspired me with some of her posts about PBL. I think this is where much of this week’s thinking may be headed for me, and I have an idea to use the Human/Civil Rights unit I do with my 6th graders as a platform to launch a PBL project to for my students to create a Mobile Civil Rights Museum that could travel to schools where the opportunity for field trips is limited. The idea is still in it’s infancy, but I’m pretty excited about it.
  3. A Theme Song for the School Year – I don’t want to get too much ahead of myself, but these ideas have me excited this morning. As I was cooling down Room for Two’s “Roots Before Branches” began playing in my running playlist. As I began listening to the words of the song, it seemed a fitting theme song for me as I approach the school year. In case you aren’t familiar with the song, here it is. Listen and enjoy.

So what do you think? What are your sore/soar spots? How might you create something new this year while focusing on your strengths? I’d appreciate your feedback or suggestions related to any of these ideas.

#MCHunter Tools for Creative Thinking

As our Master Class was debriefing yesterday on what we had observed in the World Peace Game, John Hunter began telling us about the “mental toolkit” he shares with his students to help them think creatively. We didn’t have time for John to share all of it, but it was interesting information and some of it was new to me.

The first tool John shared was teaching students how to use FFOE to assess their creative thinking. As a sample activity, John explained that he would show the students a coffee mug and ask them to brainstorm ways that the mug can be used other than as a container (i.e a door stop, a paperweight, a drum, etc.). At first they will find it hard to think this way, but as they practice, they will become better at it. FFOE stands for:

  • Fluency – producing as many ideas as one possibly can
  • Flexibility – producing ideas that demonstrate variety or different approaches
  • Originality – producing ideas that are unique or unusual
  • Elaboration – producing ideas with detail or enriched characteristics

Then, John shared with us his guidelines for brainstorming and his kinesthetic method for teaching it to his students. Fortunately, we captured his one on video:

The four guidelines are:

  1. Fluency – Produce as many ideas as you can
  2. Withhold Judgement – There are no bad ideas.
  3. Wild Ideas Ok – It is desirable to think outside the box.
  4. Piggyback Ideas – It is okay to have an idea that is similar to someone else’s thought or to expand on someone else’s suggestion.

Another tool that John uses with his students is something he calls a “Perspective Wheel.” I created a PowerPoint slide for my use that I thought I’d share. To use it, write the topic in the middle circle (yellow) then have the students identify four different perspectives that could be taken toward the topic (one for each blue quadrant) and explain how each perspective differs.This tool reminds me of the Visible Thinking Routine Circle of Viewpoints that I learned about at Project Zero last summer, and I think they might work well together.

The final tool John shared with us is the SCAMPER approach to creative thinking. SCAMPER is a mnemonic that stands for:

  • Substitute
  • Combine
  • Adapt
  • Maximize/Minimize
  • Put to Other Use
  • Eliminate/Elaborate
  • Reverse

This tool was completely new to me so I did a little searching and found a nice website that helps explain the tool and gives an example of how to use it. You might want to check it out.

In talking with Jamie Baker about teaching creativity I realized that I tend to get hung up thinking about creativity in terms of being artistic. Artistry is one type of creativity, but most creativity is really problem solving and learning how to approach something from a different direction. Jamie recommended that I read Michael Michalko’s Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius so I’ve added it to my Amazon Wishlist and will try to read it when I get through my current reading list.

What about you? What tools do you use to teach students to think creatively? What are your experiences using these or similar tools? Please leave a comment and share your ideas, experiences, and recommendations.

#MCHunter Day 2: First Day in Office

As regular readers of this blog know, I am taking a Master Class with John Hunter this week at The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence. John is the creator of the World Peace Game and featured in the movie World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements. One of the unique aspects about the Memphis class is that it there is a group of students who are playing the game each morning, and Master Class members have the opportunity to watch the game in action. Then we spend the afternoon debriefing and reflecting on our own practice with John and Jamie Baker.

Yesterday, the adult observers were encouraged to look for how to handle “unknowing,” team development, Mr. Hunter’s use of his strengths, and how learning happens. I attempted to keep these suggestions in mind as I watched the game unfold.

The game portion of today started with the students going over the day’s crisis report. The report identified the following 22 crises that Mr. Hunter has embedded into the game:

  • a border land dispute
  • an air defense scramble
  • a natural disaster
  • a rebel insurgency
  • religious tensions
  • endangered species
  • drone attacks
  • a territorial ownership dispute
  • an oil embargo
  • arms proliferation
  • a territorial waters dispute
  • a forced alliance
  • two separate global warming issues
  • ethnic cleansing
  • mercenary and rogue military actions
  • an oil spill
  • a toxic chemical spill
  • a Star Wars missile defense conflict
  • an undersea mining dispute
  • a sunken civilization artifact discovery
  • cyber-hacking
  • an ancestor burial dilemma
  • an oil well gusher blowout

How’s that for a to-do list on one’s first day in office? 🙂

I love the game’s complexity, and it was great to hear John’s philosophy on the need for complexity. Often, in teaching we divide the learning into smaller parts in order to make it simpler for the student to understand and master. As someone stated “we pre-chew their food.” The problem with this is that the world is incredibly complex and it’s rare that we are able to focus on just one individual task at a time. By designing the game with significant complexity, Hunter requires the kids to tackle multiple tasks at once and rely on their creativity as much as their analysis. He’s not teaching them to multi-task, but simulating the true complexity that already exists in the world.

As a group, we adults observed students responding in several different ways to this. Some seemed paralyzed by it all. Others were confused. Some slowed down and approached things carefully and methodically, and a few simply jumped in with their “to-do lists” and tried to accomplish something. It was an interesting dynamic. The room was full of activity and busyness, but I’m uncertain as to whether it was productive. I’m curious to see how the gameplay will develop.

Students approached their lack of knowing and understanding in different ways, and it wasn’t easy to know how they were doing without really knowing them personally. I think this really speaks to the need for strong relationships with students. I also noticed that John has a gift for one-on-one connections. He is very intentional about seeking out individuals to ask questions, offer encouragement, and make observations. He also has a way of expressing genuine interest in each individual. It’s quite remarkable.

During the afternoon our cohort debriefed with John and Jamie about what we saw in the game, and John shared with us some tools he uses with his students. (I’m working on a separate post about these.) then, we sat together and shared our responses to the “homework” questions. Teachers are extraordinary people. Listening to my peers share deeply about how they teach and why they do so was a beautiful experience, and I learned so much from them. And this morning, as I reflect on yesterday and this experience, I must confess I am extremely proud to be a teacher.

Running Thoughts: How Do You Teach? Why? #MCHunter

[gigya src=”http://boos.audioboo.fm/swf/fullsize_player.swf” flashvars=”mp3=http%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F895860-captured-running-thoughts-on-teaching-how-why-and-who.mp3%3Fsource%3Dwordpress&mp3Author=Philip_Cummings&mp3LinkURL=http%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F895860-captured-running-thoughts-on-teaching-how-why-and-who&mp3Time=06.50am+24+Jul+2012&mp3Title=Captured+Running+Thoughts+on+Teaching%3A+How%2C+Why%2C+and+Who%3F” width=”400″ height=”160″ allowFullScreen=”true” wmode=”transparent”]

I completed 5 miles this morning on my run even with a few app issues. This morning “Running Thoughts” agenda included my homework assignment from yesterday’s Master Class with John Hunter. At the end of the day, we were asked to reflect on the following questions for today:

  • How do you teach?
  • Why do you teach that way?
  • How are you intentional about building relationships?

Additionally, as a tool to help us think through the process we were given a copy of “Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs.”

How Do You Teach?

My teaching has transformed over the past few years. When I started teaching, I used mostly direct instruction and my classes were primarily teacher-centric. I set the rules; I established the procedures; I made the decisions. As I’m reinventing myself, I am moving to a more student-centered approach. I have implemented a lot of visible thinking into my instruction and I see my role as more of a questioner than answerer. I also have moved toward more inquiry (though I admittedly have a long way to go). Now, I am much more interested in giving my students a voice in how the class operates and functions and I try to do more listening than talking. I want to draw out their ideas and then ask them good questions to help them process or refine their learning. I am also making a larger commitment to having my students write because I think writing helps us formulate and process our ideas.

Why do you teach this way?

I teach this way because the world has changed and it is important for kids to learn how to think on their own. My goal is to teach students to think critically and creatively and to make deep connections in order that they might live an excellent life. I don’t want them to simply accept what they are told. I want them to ask good questions, consider alternatives, and weigh consequences. I also want them to do work that matters and, ultimately, to make the world better place.

How are you intentional about building relationships?

Actually, I think this is one of my strengths. I realized early on that good relationships require an investment of TIME. So, I invest time getting to know my students and my colleagues. I set aside time at the beginning of the school year to let my students do some inquiry into my classroom and my life. I also have the students create a bridge or metaphor about themselves then bring it to class and explain it to us. I work hard to learn students’ names, and I ask them questions about their families, their interests, and their hobbies, and I try to find ways that I can connect with them as individuals as I listen to their answers. I also set aside time to go to their ball games, to talk with their parents, and to be available for them as they need me. I firmly believe that good teaching and learning does not happen without good relationships so I am working continually to make lasting connections.

What about you? How do you teach? Why do you teach that way? And how are you intentional about building relationships?