Three things I wish I’d said to shift thinking about assignment deadlines

I’d asked for push back. Toward the end of my second keynote address in as many days at the Technology Integration & Instruction for the 21st Century Learner (TICL) conference in Storm Lake Iowa. I had the audience stand up, mix about, and share their thinking on what I’d just said.

The morning’s topic was “digital literacy” and I was highlighting projects I’ve designed as a teacher and completed as a student.

“What’s the ugly?” I’d asked, “What did you hear this morning that you don’t agree with.”

One of the participants raised his hand and said his partner understood the importance of choice, but wasn’t jiving with the portion of the writing project I’d described where students were allowed to set their own due dates.

He was a business teacher, you see, and in the business world you aren’t allowed to miss deadlines. Letting students set their own schedules would mean missed deadlines, and that wouldn’t do.

In the moment I agreed with the teacher. He was teaching a business class. If meeting deadlines was a skill firmly planted in his curriculum, then perhaps more freedom wasn’t the answer in that arena.

Since then, I’ve had some opportunity to think more on the matter, and my answer was wrong.

1. Most of the undesirable habits we say won’t fly in the business world probably will. I’ve heard enough stories from friends in the business sector of employees who don’t meet deadlines or need a bit of extra time on a project. Those employees, it turns out, don’t lose their jobs. “You won’t be able to get away with this in the workplace,” is teacher code for, “Because I said so.” While it would be easy to suggest that taking a more hands-off approach could lead to further reinforcement of bad business practice, you need only survey the current global business playing field to realize the strict hierarchical, authoritarian approach hasn’t led us anywhere good.

2. Make deadlines worth meeting. The auditorium wasn’t the place to have this conversation. If I’d been talking with this teacher in a breakout session or one-on-one it would have been an excellent opportunity for the difficult conversation around the goals of deadlines. In adults’ daily lives, if we’re playing the game correctly, we’re faced with requirements of our jobs that ask us to keep up with deadlines. We meet them because they are the terms of staying connected with something we’ve determined is important and valuable in our lives. Assignments and class deadlines often assume students are playing by the same rules and with the same intent. Often they aren’t. Assignment to a class or registration to fulfill a credit requirement isn’t the same as jumping administrative hoops as part of a job you’ve chosen and find intrinsically rewarding.

3. Learning is the goal. If students aren’t learning, the question shouldn’t be “How can I lock this class down so they have no choice but to complete the assignments?” It should be, “What’s going on in my instructional practice that’s turning kids off to learning?” It’s a more sensitive and ego-deflating question, but it runs a far greater risk of improving and increasing learning than racheting up the perceived punishments of coming to class.

Of course, all of this is contingent on whether or not the teacher in the audience was keen on a convervation or had decided this was the reason he was looking for to discount anything else that might shift his thinking.

I tend to assume the best in people, and I’m sorry I missed the chance for the conversation.

Class blogs should be open spaces

The walled discussion board almost feels normal at this point. As a tool, I can understand the use of a discussion board as a community builder and idea incubator. I’m a fan of those concepts.

I’m still calling wangdoodles when discussion boards are utilized for awkward or inauthentic purposes, but I can see their usefulness as an archive of correspondences for an online community. On SLA’s MOODLE install, all community members have access to a discussion forum that’s been live since the first year – SLA Talk. New freshmen are part of the fold, and their thoughts intermingle with those of the first graduating class when they were freshmen. It’s readable, documented institutional memory. An observer is just as likely to find a thread discussing student language use in the hallways as they are to find a debate about the latest movie release. It is a simple artifact of community online.

This semester, I’ve two courses implementing blogs as assignments.

For one course, a few students are assigned each week to post their thoughts on the reading leading up to that week’s class. Each other student is required to reply to one post per week with the option of passing on one week during the semester.

The posts have yet to be mentioned in class discussion.

In the other course, each person is encouraged to post weekly. The posts’ content might be related to the readings or simply to the topic for the week. No replies are required, and the posts are weekly referenced by the professor in discussion.

If blogging is to be required for a course, the latter instance comes closest to ideal practice – not required, but preferred; not for nothing, but tied to class.

In both instances, our class blogs live within the walled garden. The thoughts with which my classmates and I play will never find footing in a feed reader or enjoy comments from those who have reading lists contrary those chosen for us on our syllabi.

They should be public. Comments from anyone around the globe should be invited and commented. Our thoughts should mingle in the cyberether.

This is true for two reasons.

One, the refinement of thinking benefits from a plurality of opinions, and the Internet offers a cacophony that would challenge us to sculpt our thinking in ways we could not imagine.

Two, an open class blog asks participants to clear their throats and use their public voices while connected to a class setting in which they can find support when their voices are challenged. More than once, I’ve felt pushback when posting in this space. Early on, it was difficult to take. Sure, I wanted people to read what I posted, but how could they disagree with me?

Opening our blogs would give my classmates and I the chance to write with the training wheels of a cohort of support while enriching the experience by exposing us to the democracy of thinking on the web.

Walling a class blog runs the definite risk of students taking their opinions into the world untested and unprepared for criticism. It also robs them of the practice microphone a class blog could become.

Things I Know 362 of 365: Education bought a round of bad evaluations for the house

Nice! Compulsory feedback #fail

– Gary Stager

To register next semester, I (along with all other Harvard ED School students) were required to complete our Fall term course evaluations. One would imagine signing off on the student loan promissory note was enough to get the job done, but it turns out telling others how they did their job is one of those fine-print requirements.

I’m of a mixed mind about the process.

To not see the erosion of validity in mandatory course evaluations, I’d have to be blind.

Then again, my answers were truthful and honest, but I’d likely never have completed the evaluations if left to my own post-semester devices.

Realizing this puzzle, I’ve been trying to think of possible alternatives.

Evaluations for two of my classes were particularly frustrating because I’d been keeping a mental list all semester of comments and compliments about what worked and what didn’t. I’d been waiting for the chance to offer feedback. When the chance came, though, I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say. I remembered bits and pieces, but completing course work and getting assignments down on the page throughout the semester had taken precedence over keeping a running evaluative journal.

For another course, I wanted more than text boxes could provide. I wanted the chance to sit with the professor and say, “I know you’re brilliant. I know you understand more about this field than I can probably ever hope to understand. I’ve got a little game of my own when it comes to teaching. Maybe we could help each other out?”

I dig wordsmithing, but I just couldn’t find a way to put that sentiment judiciously in a course evaluation.

My thinking on course evaluations at any level runs parallel to my thinking on single-scoop standardized testing. The bulk of the work has been done, and the feedback is supposed to paint a picture of the learning and teaching as a whole. It just doesn’t work. Evaluations need not be mandated if they are meaningful to those on either end.

If students benefit from frequent and multi-faceted feedback, it stands to reason the same could be said of teachers.

It could be as simple as, “What would you keep, and what would you change from today’s lesson?” or “What are two things you would have done to make today’s class better?”

Not only would such thinking model a willingness for improvement, but taking the feedback seriously would likely improve the level of instruction in the class as well.

Few things are as lonely as those few moments after a class of students has walked out the door and a teacher is left in the vacuum between the lesson that has just concluded and the next lesson to be planned.

Things I Know 330 of 365: This is what I mean when I talk about authentic learning

The closer you stay to emotional authenticity and people, character authenticity, the less you can go wrong. That’s how I feel now, no matter what you’re doing.

– David O. Russell

I met my friend Andrew Sturm a few months ago at ReImagine:Ed. He’s about one of the most kind, thoughtful and creative people you could hope to meet. Among his other duties, Andrew was at Re:Ed to provoke by sharing his work with 5750 Dallas.

5750 Dallas is so named because there were 5750 men, women, and children who were homeless in Dallas at last count. Their goal is to reduce that number while guided by research that supports the idea that the best way to get people off the street is to give them a home and training rather than training toward a home. A model guiding by the organization Housing First.

Inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 5750 took to the streets populating public spaces with plywood cut-outs in the shape of homeless people holding cardboard signs with Dr. King’s words on them.

The signs also included things like:

A frozen yogurt store sells $250,000 worth of product every month. That could buy 500,000 meals for the homeless.


For what you spent on your iPod and music collection, you could buy 598 pairs of shoes for those in need.


On Super Bowl ticket gives you a seat for 4 hours. That money could give a homeless person a bed for two years.

The 5750 site has more information on the installation and accompanying next steps they organized for those moved to act.

This is amazing work that combines art, math, social sciences, civics, and English.

Why aren’t projects like this starting in schools? The creativity is there, the knowledge and resources are there. And I’ve  a hunch Sturm and everyone associated with 5750 Dallas would have been happy to work with teachers and students if they’d been approached.

These are lessons and unit plans waiting to be written. The algebra, research, persuasion and design skills here are all nestled snugly in the Common Core (though you wouldn’t worry about that if you were in Texas).

I’m blown away by the simplicity, beauty, and impact of the work of 5750 Dallas. Since I met Andrew, I’ve shared the installation with a few dozen people.

Think about it this way, what would students who designed and executed a project like 5750 Dallas know and be able to do when they were done? What would they feel compelled to do next? How long would that learning last?

Things I Know 329 of 365: Commenting creates space for teacher learning

If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn’t realize the teacher was saying, “Make it shine. It’s worth it.” Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It’s a new vision of something. It means you don’t have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!

– Naomi Shihab Nye

Last year, as I prepared the write-ups of assignments for my 11th-grade class, I would send them to the two seniors who were assigned as student assistant teachers in those classes.

Those e-mails often included the subject line, “What do you think?”

I knew what I was trying to get across with the assignment and had a general idea of what the final products would look like, but that doesn’t mean I wrote about it as clearly as possible.

A day or two later, I’d have their replies in my inbox with comments and questions that couldn’t help but make my instructions better.

They picked out pieces of the alignment to SLA’s core values or wording in the rubric that was unclear. They also told me when I asked a greater time commitment than my kids could spare at the moment. As close as I was with my students, my SATs were closer.

I’d imagine someting similar happened this semester with my professors and the teaching fellows (Harvard’s version of teaching assistants). When we had questions or concerns over readings or other assignments, they were the first line of defense.

It’s what led me to suggest a better utilization of technology in the handing out of assignments – Google Docs.

My favorite cloud-based word processing engine and yours started offering a new sharing option in docs a while back.

You can share a doc publicly and allow commenting, but not editing. I used it a bit this semester when asking for feedback on my writing, and the applications for teachers or professors and their assignments makes great sense.

I would handle it just as I had handled the SAT review process in the classroom, and add assignment commenting as another layer of refinement. Students would add their comments and questions about the work in-line. I’d have a clear course for making things clearer and a leg up on improving the assignment if I planned on using it again later.

Aside from sharing the load, making assignments more accessible, and refining our work; the thing that excites me most about this idea is the modeling of learning that’s involved. With all the chatter around teachers being learners and learning alongside students, we don’t often offer concrete examples of how that can happen. This approach honors the authority of the teacher while also honoring the process of revision. It says to students, “I’m doing the same kinds of work I’m asking you to do.”

Things I Know 327 of 365: The sweet spot is in the browning, not the burning

A life lesson from baking.

Yesterday’s cookie recipe included the following direction:

To make icing, melt the butter in a skillet over low heat and swirl the pan over the heat for about four-five minutes until butter begins to brown. Be careful, you don’t want to burn the butter—you just want to brown it! It will happen fast and when it does, immediately take the browned butter off the stove and pour into a mixing bowl.

My beliefs about butter were challenged. I’ve whipped butter, cut it in, and melted it. This is to say nothing of the more pedestrian spreading of butter. To my mind, I’d pushed butter to its limits.

This was new.

Melt it, heat it, take butter to the brink. The key, don’t burn the butter. Watch for the line separating making something new and making something useless.

That idea appeals to me.

Think differently about what can be done, what things and people are capable of, but remain mindful of the burning. For Icarus, the lesson came with flight. For me, it came with a cookie recipe.

Things I Know 323 of 365: Turns out I’m no huge fan of standardized running either

The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears or the sea.

– Isak Dinesen

After 10 years of running, I’ve tried a treadmill for the first time this week.

Once, in my first weeks as a runner, my friend Katy persuaded me to try running on a treadmill at the student recreation center. Though I was struggling with running half a mile without walking, I was already enough of a runner to know something seemed wrong about running on a treadmill.

The weather back home in Illinois has been a bit gross over the last week, so I decided to give the treadmill another choice.

Three times this week, I put Google Music on shuffle, punched in a program and “went” for a run.

I’ll not lie. I ran faster than I’ve been running as of late. I was able to keep track of my pulse whenever I wanted. I new my speed at all times. I kept running the entire time. I was protected from the elements. I had a full report of each accomplishment when I was done.

As helpful as all that information is, I miss running outside.

When I was done with each treadmill run, no matter how successful the data flashing on the screen told me my run had been, I hadn’t gone anywhere.

I was still in my mom’s basement – staring at the furnace. I’d gotten nowhere faster and more efficiently than if I’d run outside, sure. But nowhere was still nowhere.

While I might pause to walk sometimes while running outdoors, I have control of that stopping, and it’s up to me to set the goal for starting again.

Sure, I was sheltered from the elements and protected from distractions, but I hadn’t seen anything. I imagined if I’d been running on a treadmill exclusively in training for my first marathon. Each week, my training would have improved, racheted up mechanically according to schedule.

What a shock it would have been, footfall after footfall, to attempt to reach my goal on a course filled with imperfections and distractions. I would have trained perfectly efficiently, but have no idea how or experience in adapting to my surroundings.

To learn how to run in the real world, I needed to practice running in the real world. My success wasn’t in a computer read out, but in the sense of accomplishment of enduring freezing rain or discovering a new part of my neighborhood.

While I’m home during break, I’ll likely continue to use the treadmill from time to time.

Starting next week, I’ll be back outside. When you’ve learned to do something authentically, anything less than feels just that.

Things I Know 313 of 365: I was a bit of a jerk

In cleaning out my contents I found a folder containing my slidedecks from the first day of school of my fourth year of teaching. All was well and good until I found the class rules slide below.

Day 1 Per 3

Who wrote those two rules? When was I Severus Snape? The thing is, I had a decent idea what I was doing when I made this slide. I’d been in the classroom 3 years and came out of a decent teacher prep experience. The kids I’d taught the year before had taken the school from 47 to 81 percent passing the state writing exam. I had strong relationships with my colleagues, kids and their families. I’d headed up a partner student screenwriting program between our school and the local film festival.

Yet, there I was declaring war on cell phones and gum as though it somehow secured my power as teacher overlord.

Not only that, these were the first two rules I posted. Somehow gum chewing and the sight of a cell phone presented clear and present danger in relation to learning.

This list shows me what I told my students I valued on that first day of school, and it reminds me of how much what I said I believed stood in contrast with the beliefs I enacted as a teacher.

We do that, we get better at what we do, at being people with kids. If I had to guess, I’d say this authoritarian stance was a remnant of teaching students who were quite close to me in age and appearance. It was a stab at drawing a line between who I was and who they were. While I needed that line then, in the years that followed, I worked hard to erase it. I realized the way to teach was to connect, to become a person who mattered that asked students to do work that mattered.

It was a difficult lesson.

One I’m still learning. I’m grateful to younger me for sticking this slidedeck in the cloud time capsule to remind me how I’ve grown.

Things I Know 311 of 365: Schools need question portfolios

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.

– e.e. cummings

I stood in the snack food aisle today, in awe of what we can do to a potato. Beyond ridges or smooth, the modern potato chip can look like pretty much anything we want it to look like and taste like pretty much anything we want it to taste like.

Humankind has mastered the potato.

Take that, blight!

After the awe, I started to wonder. How do we do it? How do we make this batch of potato chips taste like dill pickles and that batch taste like prawns? When I buy ketchup-flavored potato chips, is it because they used ketchup or they found the chemicals necessary to make potatoes taste like ketchup? I had to start looking for the dishwashing liquid because the potato chips were too interesting.

On the drive home, I started thinking about potato chips and how we keep track of students’ learning.

Portfolio assessment has been around for a while and more resources have been devoted to its use and misuse than I care to plumb. What if we’re doing it wrong?

What if, instead of or in addition to student work, we were to keep a portfolio of the questions students asked?

Imagine a question portfolio that followed students throughout their time in school that reminded them and their teachers of the questions with which they’d wrestled as they learned. What would it look like if, attached to each question, was the latest iteration or the lineage of answers the student had crafted for that question?

What difference would it mean to create a culture of learning where parents were encouraged to ask their children, “What questions did you ask today in school?”

I have a suspicion that in valuing questions, we’d have no other choice but to make school into places where students had the space to answer the questions they thought most intriguing. It also seems likely to me that a student who has been taught the value of a good question and been given the support, resources, and space to seek answers will have no trouble learning anything that’s necessary throughout her life.

We do a decent job of telling kids there are no stupid questions, but a horrible job at showing them that the act of questioning isn’t stupid.

Once I got home, I remembered I’d read a passage about the science of potato chips in David Bodanis’s The Secret House. I found it on my shelf and started searching for answers to my grocery store questions.

What questions did you ask today?

Things I Know 295 of 365: The Street’s still got it

“C” is for “cookie!” That’s good enough for me.

– Cookie Monster

It was a blue plastic suitcase-looking thing. Open it, and you found a record player. Over and over again, if you entered my bedroom, you would hear Big Bird singing a song in which he mistook the alphabet for one word. I remember listening to it because I liked the song. I remember realizing what was going on in the song. I remember trying to sing the alphabet as one word. I never quite could. I’m still chasing the cool of Sesame Street.

I remember what must have been a re-run of “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” and how sad I was that Big Bird was so sad at the end.

I remember coming in from playing in the woods behind my grandparents’ house to sit on the couch after my grandmother passed me an old margarine tub full of apple slices and whatever was fresh in the garden. Then, I would watch Sesame Street followed by Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I met up with all the regulars, sang to 12 with the people who lived in the pinball machine, laughed at how the Twiddle Bugs didn’t understand how small they were compared to the rest of us and kept pulling for Super Grover (Grover was always my favorite).

I’m in the midst of finals and papers and tying up the semester here. It’s a world that’s far from learning to bring words together, the joy of rubber duckies, and that Oscar wasn’t so bad.

Then, tonight, I looked at the Facebook group for HGSE, and my friend Aaron posted the video below under the heading “Writing Break!!!” For 1 minute and 58 seconds, I was on the couch eating apple slices.

The Street’s still got it.