Category Archives: Uncategorized

Innovative Math in 3 Acts


Last week I had the pleasure of working with an awesome group of fifth graders over at BBC. Their equally awesome teacher had contacted me on the rumor that I had a plan for a class to develop and film their own 3 Act Tasks. In truth, I only had about 5/8 of a plan but as I was also the one that started that rumor, so I was eager to close the deal.

The idea of 3 Act Tasks comes from Dan Meyer a math teacher/guru and blogger out of Oakland. In Three-Act Tasks, students are shown an image or video that depicts an interesting situation. Examples of elementary tasks might include an image of two sisters standing side-by-side, one taller than the other, or a video of candy being poured into a jar. A good task will suggest some mathematical features or relationships that children may wonder about. After viewing the image or video, students are engaged in asking mathematical questions, identifying important information that is needed to answer those questions, constructing mathematical models of the situation, and comparing their models to the real world.

(Dan Meyers collection   Graham Fletchers collection)

The activities are real world, engaging and require deep inquiry.  They are also beautifully simple in structure. Three short video clips, and a couple leading questions. Reasoning that if deep thinking is required for an outcome then equally deep contemplation must be needed for the creation we set up the perimeters with the class.

  • We used “old math,” concepts at least a grade level below their current work.
  • Teams of 4 or 5
  • A cast of hands and arms (No head or face shots in the video.)

The class had already seen several 3 Act Tasks in their daily grind but we watched a couple more with different eyes. This time looking for how they were laid out, trying to figure out what was enough info to raise questions without doing the work for the learners. As this was our first outing we looked for ways to mimic patterns without stealing ideas.

It was tricky keeping the groups centered on a single task. The temptation to create a 3 tasks was a common distraction. The realization that the work required both a problem and an answer was a bit of a disappointment to some.

The results:

For three days a group of 5th-grade students as varied and diverse as any in our district were actively engaged in understanding and explaining real-world math problems. (some of which involve candy)

The class was exposed to a new way of approaching any task by asking themselves not only what math is being asked of them but also the whys and hows of the request.

We all learned about the magic of video editing, and that first attempts are best designed to be explorations not a nominee for best educational short.

We will work on that nomination next time.


Making it in Education


Making it in elementary

It seems as though every couple of years a popular fad from outside academia leaches into the walls of education looking for a permanent home. Most recently, the DIY movement has tried to carve out a niche in the school halls branded as Makerspaces.

There is usually something of value offered in these new approaches and other elements that must be discarded to accommodate the differences between classrooms and the “real world.”

Makerspaces in the real world are a response to our visceral desire to tinker, craft, build, and create. It is of great value to recognize that desire in students and use its motivational power.

Makerspaces in the real world are also unrestricted by agenda or purpose or timelines. Classrooms are not. However, what making and the maker idea offers education is a built-in source of student agency. When the kids make something–anything–there is a sense of ownership inherent in that process.

The distinction that needs to come with that idea for teachers is that writing a narrative essay on a small moment you had over the weekend is not a ‘make’ in the same way that a Bob Ross painting-by-number is not art. On the other hand, asking a student to find a way to deliver a short, true story–and maybe a kid does it in the form of an essay–about their weekend is.

That change means teachers will have to provide options–audio books, graphic novels, video monologues, or blog posts–to the kids and help them work through writing that will necessarily precede the other parts.

That change will also mean the student has to make choices, learn individually, and still meet a clear standard.  

That change does not mean teachers have to master all those options.  It means they get to help their students explore them, try them, and learn from them.


Quit in exactly 300 words


As teachers, we talk a lot about developing grit, and teaching kids to fail, building stamina and rigor. Each of those qualities is important and each of them deserves more than 300 words of deep contemplation and conversation. Yet there is a hidden complexity for teachers that is related to all of those topics.  Quitting.

The truth is sometimes the smart thing to do is quit, and being able to figure out the when and how of quitting becomes more difficult as we get older.

I am not talking about giving up, but rather stopping an action that is unsuccessful and trying something else.

I am thinking of the second grader doing math on her fingers because she knows it works but is flummoxed by the need for more fingers.  It is endearing but, she needs to quit that to move on.

I am thinking of the fifth or sixth grader with friends he doesn’t really like and are not good for him, but, It’s not cool to dump a friend you have had for (enter almost any time frame here.)

I am thinking of the college kid taking classes to become an accountant even though she thinks its “super boring and just chose it to answer the what do you want to be?” question.

If you are over the age of 5 you can think of something you should have quit long before you did; a job, a relationship, or a bad idea you chased too long. If you are like me, you can think of something you should be quitting now.

On the Social-emotional flowchart, quitting is the action right between recognizing a mistake and learning from it.

Quitting can be a brave act. It can be as empowering and healthy a choice as rigor or grit.


In 2018 I resolve: An Essay in 300 words

screen-shot-2013-12-29-at-11-17-51-pmEvery January I am reminded, like clockwork exactly how much of a dork I am. I am a man that makes resolutions. I do every year. I am proud of it and no matter how much grief I get from my kids for it I will continue my customary drive to improve.

My daughter will tell you that my “resolution obsession is rooted in my unnatural love of failure.”

Not true! My love of failure is mostly natural.

My son will quickly volunteer his own insight “Your whole resolution issue is stupid, hokey, and lame, as well as a bit sad.” While he is mostly completely wrong about resolutions it is true that I embody 2 of those four qualities.

I found research in the journal of clinical psych that says that I only have a 14% chance of success, but that is because I turned 50. When I was grouped in the under 50 category and we had a 39% success rate. (Getting old stinks) But the way I think about it is not statistical. I figure I have a chance to be a better person than I was last year. It won’t cost me anything, it won’t hurt me, and even if I only manage to be improved for a couple month I am still better off than I was before.

That research also shows that will be more successful if I make small measurable resolutions, and if I make those resolutions public. So here you go:
• I will write and publish exactly 300 words every week. (this is the first of those essays)
• I will use Twitter to contribute to worthwhile conversations and not as an echo chamber.
• I will continue my streak of “Stupid, hokey lame” traditions in an effort to continue to improve and grow.

The Special Effect of Sound in Kinder Writing


Last week we had the opportunity to work with the kindergarteners at Fishers Landing. While I am not one of those gifted with the native talents of a primary teacher, I have spent enough time with its inhabitants to be comfortable with the habits and fluent with most aspect of their communication.

Kinders are a highly intelligent group; they are strikingly honest, deeply empathetic, and shockingly self-focused. In fact, it is not uncommon to witness all of these behaviors within moments of each other and sometimes simultaneously.

We were working with the students to develop their skills and understanding of story form. To do that we were recording unique variations of The Gingerbread Man story, as told to us by the students, with sound effects of student-chosen characters added in editing. The concept is simple enough. The classes had already read a variety of gingerbread stories and the kids had identified the common elements, such as the gingerbread character meeting three different characters before meeting its untimely end. From there, it doesn’t take much work to convince a five-year-old to create their own story; and for a student of the digital age adding sound effects seems like something that has always been a part of good stories.

All that was left was for them to write their script, or create a storyboard if they liked that idea better. It was nothing complex, or even wholly complete in most cases, just something on paper that kept them on track during the telling, something that showed the order of events.

To watch this writers workshop was to bear witness to 21st-century alchemy. The subtle yet sloppy mixing of graphite, grim and… something strangely sticky yielded pure gold on several levels.

Academically, the students offered strong evidence of understanding story sequence, rhyming, the power of iterations and patterns. They talked about and demonstrated the use of tone, voice, and inflection at levels they won’t be asked to reproduce for another six years.

Socially, the students were excited, engaged, and eager to share. Jimmy, whose face bore evidence of at least one sticky substance, had a four-page story with only a couple letters but plenty of heavily lined images that did not do justice to the epic adventure of a gingerbread ninja that fought off howling wolves, growling bears, and a hissing snake only to be swallowed by an alligator.

Eva’s story didn’t have the illustrative quality or intensity of Jimmy’s, but it was eight pages long and Eva wrote and then read every word, and became quite critical of using the “right cat sound.” Still unsatisfied with my efforts after four attempts, she took pity on me.

“I don’t think you can do it so how ‘bout I just make the sound and say them where I want them.”

We recorded countless riffs and covers of the classic lines “run, run as fast as you can…” some in the sugary sweet voice of a cookie and other laid out like old school rap. The students also felt free to use an animal from well beyond the barnyard standards. The resident realist wanted the sound of joggers chasing a cookie, only to be followed by the next storyteller who needed the sounds of a unicorn, mermaids, and a shooting star.

(Link to just a couple of student audiobooks)

Make no mistake, the product quality was low, the background volume high, and the running time was inconsistent, ranging from 11 seconds to 3 and a half minutes. It took us most of the first class to adjust and configure the lesson into something that was going to work. But it did work.  The audio stories added authentic and real academic discussions between kindergarten students.

It takes a little prep but no more than most new lessons. has a huge collection of royalty free sounds you can download. lets you copy/paste any youtube video into its page and converts it into a ready-to-use mp3 file because, unfortunately, soundbible doesn’t have a unicorn or mermaid sound. Youtube does. A unicorn sounds like a running horse with magical twinkling in the background, in case you were curious.

Audacity is a free sound editing software already on most teachers’ devices. It’s not super user-friendly but easy enough if you stick to the cut and paste to start with.

Rice is Not as Boring as it Sounds…mostly

On the bottom shelf of my pantry, next to the pasta but in front of the quinoa, there is a bag of rice. I think it’s probably brown rice, but maybe not, you cannot make good risotto with brown rice. Up until a month ago, that was probably the most interesting thing I knew about rice because, well, it’s rice–not the most exciting, engaging, or interesting of the staple crops. But, one day a teacher emailed us and asked if we had an innovative way of integrating the exploration of culture into her third-grade classroom.

We did not.

We told her that we would have an idea for her by the end of the week.

It turns out that rice is not only a wonderful medium for broth, garlic and parmesan, it’s also a stunning conduit through which students can explore culture, science, and several handy ELA skills. (Plus, we can easily toss in a wholesome helping of real-world math to taste.)

We broke our Innovative Cultural Exploration of Rice into three lessons.


Our rice lesson recipe:

Part one (fascinating fact about boring stuff.)

After surveying well over 150 3rd graders we have found that here in our little northwest corner of the world most of our students come to third grade complete with 3 solid facts about rice;

  1. You eat it.
  2. It’s white. Except when it’s not, but even then it kinda is.
  3. You have to cook it in water.

This means there is an abundance of great info patiently sitting out on the web waiting to be gathered and shared by rice expert wannabes.

Armed with a Chromebook and a trusted search engine like Kidrex the typical class will need just less than 20 min to come up with a board of sticky note facts.

-Rice is grown on every continent except Antarctica.

-The Chinese word for rice is the same word used for food.

-Rice is a symbol of fertility.

-Rice is an annual plant the grows 2 to 3 feet tall.20171205_122110

-Nearly half of all Rice students come from out of state.–It turns out not all facts about Rice are actually facts about rice, you have to think about what you are writing.


This activity is guaranteed to offer too many teachable moments for the typical classroom. Learning conversations about vocabulary, the difference between fact and opinion, culture, geography, and…fertility are all posted and ready to be harvested.

In the 21st-century information comes in myriad forms. So, the kids need to find facts in graphs, videos, pictures, and interviews with rice farmers.

Those other sources (especially the videos) sprout even more authentic questions, conversations, and learning. It’s funny how curious finding information can make a learner. Once given the chance to share a fact and seeing or hearing someone else share, the whole room wants to find something else that no one knew. That desire to share in what is learning is why we teach students about informational writing. None of the students read essays about rice. But all of them were exposed to a multitude of other ways we use writing to share information.

Now to plan for part two.  The STEMed rice challenge.


When You Ask the Right Question the Wrong Way


(Dave Thompson/PA Images via Getty Images)

Back in August, the Pew people published a study on how the world feels about the importance of teaching creativity and innovation in schools. The primary question of the survey was this: “Is it more important that the schools in our country teach students… basic skills and discipline or to be creative and think independently?”

In large part this survey confirms assumptions that would have been made without the data; people in advanced economies are more interested in creativity than those in developing nations. It seems likely that Maslow would have predicted that response back in the 40’s.

The survey went on to discover that in the more advanced countries those on the political right are more supportive of basic skills and discipline while the left is likely to embrace creative and independent thinking.FT_17.08.21_educationGlobal_ideo

I have been stewing about this stupid survey since it came out.

The Pew people have unwittingly promoted and substantiated the idea that these skills are independent of one another, that basic skills are not taught to creative types or that discipline and structure are not part of independent thinking.

Simply grouping those skill sets together implies some kind symbiotic relationship between basic skills and discipline as well as a natural segregation between them and independent thinking and creativity.  How would the results change if instead of grouping them as they did Pew had asked people, “Is it more important that the schools in our country teach students… basic skills and independent thinking or to be creative and disciplined?”

If education is going to have any role in bridging the political divide, (and I fervently believe we should take an active role), we cannot make presumption regarding what values complement each other.

If the last century of research exploring the makeup of human innovation and creativity has taught us anything, it is that they are the result of disciplined efforts and the divergent application of basic skills.


The Identity Crisis of our Origin Story

Part 2

Of Phase 1

The original idea was to fill a trailer with a bunch of stuff and a lot of tools to use on the stuff. The plan was to give teachers access to a makerspace that did not take up their space, to create a mobile makerspace.

The original rationale was that creating access to a makerspace gave schools and classroom a more authentic application to hands-on learning, a more robust opportunity to both create and innovate, and supply the resources for student-driven project-based learning.

For the record, I think both the original plan and rational are good.  I am proud of whatever ownership I can claim of either. Somehow, when we bounced up from a trailer to a school bus and went from a couple schools sharing the stuff to being a district resource we forgot to scale our rational at the same time. Specifically, we forgot to factor in that what one small trailer can offer two or even three schools is not the same as what one big school bus can offer 30 schools. The logistics change everything.

Recognizing this, caused a small identity crisis for us. We could not change the number of schools and we could meaningfully address the all the goals we had originally set for ourselves. Good PBL takes weeks, with 26 elementary and middle schools and 32 weeks full in a school year, at best we only had a single week to offer each school.

So, if we were going to be PBL district wide we were not going to be doing if very well.

That reality did not sit well with anyone.

We spent some quality time admiring the problem, then spun ourselves into deeper frustration by trying to redefine PBL. Finally, we went into meltdown as others pointed out the same issues we were perseverating on.

Firmly positioned between defeated, frustrated and mad we went to the PTB and explained the existential crisis.

She listened, and then offered the clarity we had been unable to find for ourselves

“Your role is not project-based learning. There is no way it could be with one bus.  Your job is to get teachers thinking outside the box. To explore new ways of doing and teaching that are more hands-on and innovative than what we have been doing for the last…. Forever.

Focus on finding ways to help students and teachers be more innovative, and leave the PBL to the experts.

Teach like a Caveman

Why I teach like a caveman,

It seems to me that two of the things that make humans unique on the planet is our need to share stories and our need to make stuff.

Way back before once upon a time time when we were trying to decide as a species if it was better to stay hunched over and not hit our head on the cave ceiling or stand upright32bc1bccc0e56ccadba74c45c80048d2 like all the cool hominids, it was those two traits that set us apart. Other animals gathered, and some seemed to have basic communication. But it was just us writing on walls to illustrate grand adventures. Several species were using rocks to break nuts and shellfish open, but we are the only ones and trying to fasten them on the end of perfectly good sticks to make spears.

Skip forward several million millennia and we are still inherently wired to tell stories and making stuff. That combination of story and make turns out to be an evolutionary one-two punch. They allow us to build off the works of the past and push the future forward faster and more efficiently with every iteration.

As an educator, I would argue that most, if not all, of what we do in our classrooms can be framed as learning the form, function, and applications of either story or making. Digging down to roots of subjects we teach it’s not hard to see how story and making are the bedrock of so much of what we do. The curiosity that has shaped us is almost always resolved with stories of why, deconstructing the what, or building upon old hows.

Recent shifts and shuffles of the educational fault lines have exposed those roots to new light and given us the chance to directly explore what making adds to how we learn. Apart from the obvious constructionist application and the important connection makerspaces have to STEM education, the opportunity to explore how things are put together offers students a chance to understand the parts and pieces of the world around them in the same way that that library of stories does.

A Small Educational Epiphany

(The Growth of a Small Epiphany)


Phase 1:

It doesn’t take much of a look into the ideas of Design Thinking, Project Based Learning (PBL) and Cultivating Innovation to see their value in a 21st-century classroom. But finding places where they fit into the curricula, the classroom and the schedule takes a bit more imagination.

In Education, we have never been shy about figuring things out as we jump into them (building the plane as we fly). No reason not to use that approach with makerspaces and PBL. Unfortunately for most of the elementary schools in our district conversations around these topics ran aground when the topic of space came on deck. It was therefore hard to move the idea of a makerspace forward without a viable space option.

On the other hand, dropping the idea of cultivating creativity and a problem based challenge because we lacked a creative solution to a real world problem seemed the wrong way to go.

Now, an epiphany, however small, is still a good starting point. So when the idea of a trailer filled with tools and supplies was suggested, the collective ‘hmmm’, was a place to begin. It turns out one trick for going from small educational epiphany to reality is getting the right people to go hmmm.  It also turns out that getting the right people to listen is an odd combination of luck, chutzpah, and repetition. In this case, we hit that trifecta back in June of 2016.

Here our origin story has more growth spurts, lulls, awkward steps and moment of brilliance than any middle schooler.  Limited only by what we could dream up we moved from trailer to retired school bus, with a custom paint job, and started to imagine what the gang from Overhaulin’ or Pimp my Ride would do in this challenge.75321764_47f3d5b6c2

Several times in that process we lost vision of our purpose and had to step back. (Sadly, as cool as an observation deck on top of the bus sounded, we couldn’t make a direct correlation between that and developing curriculum based problem solving skills so it had to go.) This brainstorming, imagining, even spit balling, of ideas allowed us to expand the concept as much as it forced us to define achievable goals. In the end, the goal boiled down to this:

Our mobile makerspace would provide classroom teachers with the people, plans, and parts needed to add project based learning to the curriculum they were already engaging with. Some of these would be projects that teachers couldn’t realistically do without “the bus.” Others would be ones they could but hadn’t thought of. We would be engineering ways to bring PBL into curriculum and classrooms.

The more jaded among us will simple smile knowingly as they read that the project lost funding before it even began, thus joining countless other good ideas never brought to fruition. Those more tenuous among us will smile and nod to read that sometimes the declarative statement “It’s not in the budget,” has a silent yet at the end that changes its meaning. In a system built with safety in mind rather than exploring, asking to tinker around with a custom fab school bus is not going to make the top of the funding, priority list without plenty of patience and pushing.   When our yet finally worked and money was found we were not exactly ready, but we jumped into action.