Rethinking School

This page is devoted to examples of rethinking school. I want to collect examples of new ways of “doing school.” From entire programs, like Science Leadership Academy, to new ways of developing curricula, to classroom examples of teaching, learning, and assessing. I welcome suggestions for additions to this page, please feel free to leave a comment or email me with links and information about learning that is beyond the cutting edge.

Bill Shakespeare comes to Facebook

Rodd Lucier (Blog, Twitter) “a teacher who has used media and other communications technologies to connect with learners for more than 20 years,” highlighted this project at his blog The Clever Sheep. The post includes a podcast interview with students involved in the project as well as a link to the lesson that spawned the student work. In this activity, students took on the personalities of characters in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They developed Facebook profiles within the context of those characters and maintained their pages based on their progression through the play.

The Alice Project

Over 6 weeks, Christian Long (Blog, Twitter) challenged 57 students to analyze Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — via their copies of The Annotated Alice — by publishing their questions and reflections in real-time on a very global scale.  All student progress was transparently shared with anyone who visited the project blogs. While Mr. Long was available for one-on-one/small group consultation upon student request, he did not formally lecture or analyze the text in class. The goal was for the students’ learning/discovery experience to conceptually mirror Alice ‘finding her way’ through Wonderland.  Instead of directing the curriculum in a traditional manner, Mr. Long shifted to the role of ‘publisher.’  All entries and comments were moderated by Mr. Long, but students were expected to take responsibility for co-editing each each others work to ensure quality submissions.   ‘Audience’ & ‘voice’ was always a central focus. Each student joined a team of 3-4 peers to co-publish a team blog, sharing responsibilities as ‘editors’ and ‘authors’ both in and out of class.  Each student was challenged to publish a minimum of 12+ individual blog entries (of two 7+ sentence paragraphs) and to comment at least 15+ times on the other 12 student blogs in order to be guaranteed a “gentleman’s C” at the end of the project.  Additionally, each team was challenged to explore various web 2.0 tools (Prezi, CoverItLive, VoiceThread, etc) to showcase various ideas and conversations, as well as to re-design the team website thematically. Finally, each student had access to his/her own wireless laptop, allowing the classroom to become a fully dedicated writing lab and publishing studio.

Rappin’ for Science

“It can be difficult to get students excited about the intricacies of developmental biology. But Tom McFadden (Twitter), an instructor in Stanford’s human biology program, has done for cell differentiation what School House Rock did for the conjunction’s function.” (Stanford Magazine May/June 2009)

How can a single fertilized egg turn into a full-fledged organism? The two rappers at Stanford University provide the answer in the above video: “Regulatin’ Genes.” I’m happy to present it there, both because it’s so well done and because it’s yet another in our collection of songs whose lyrics include “polymerase.” (Although this one doesn’t include “polymerase chain reaction,” as Lab readers managed to do in response to “The P.C.R. Song.”)

The rapper on the left is Derrick Davis, a junior at Stanford. The rapper on the right is Tom McFadden, an instructor in the human biology program there. “While the lyrics are original,” Mr. McFadden told me, “the song is actually a parody of Jay-Z’s “Money Ain’t a Thang”. In their video, they have so much money that they flip through it, throw it up in the air, throw it out of moving vehicles. Since we just had midterms, I’m projecting some wishful thinking in the video – that there are so many A+’s on the midterm that we can just throw them in the air.”

And just in case you don’t follow every nuance in the video, like the Hox reference, here’s Mr. McFadden’s non-rap summary of the biology lesson:

Since virtually all cells have the same genome, cell specialization (for example: whether a cell becomes a neuron or a skin cell) is largely controlled by which genes are actually transcribed in a given cell. This can be controlled by transcription factors – proteins which bind to DNA and interact with the cellular machinery to control gene expression. An important family of transcription factors are Hox genes, which control which body parts grow where.

Hox genes control where legs, wings, and antennae grow in the fruit fly (so mutating them leads to some strange creatures). These same Hox genes have been highly conserved during evolution, and control vertebrae specialization in mice and humans. This helps to bring home a main lesson of developmental biology: that creating different body forms isn’t so much about what genes you have, but how you regulate them. (New York Times, March 2009)

Another of McGadden’s lessons in rap:


(As of publishing this page, this project is currently ongoing, past tense is for future consideration) Christian Long (Blog, Twitter) is challenging his students to undertake a unique reading of George Orwell’s classic 1984. Students were given a ‘recommended’ reading list — see: syllabus — that they could use as a guide.  Mr. Long never asked his students to prove that they are ‘caught up’ along the way.  Whether or not they were ‘keeping up’ with the reading on a daily basis was their decision to make.  The design of the project encouraged students to move forward ‘at the speed of curiosity.’

As students discussed the “Guiding Questions,” Mr. Long took daily class-by-class notes on the “1984 Project” blog (and occasionally asked students to be note-takers as well). The project team (teacher and students) scheduled several planned CoverItLive ‘chat’ sessions in the evening to discuss specific themes related to 1984.  These on-line conversations were archived so that any student who could not ‘attend’ would be able to access the details.

Each student completed 3 (of 5) ‘optional’ reading quizzes (all quote analysis short essays).  These were scheduled on the class calendar.
There was a midterm exam that only covered 1984.  Mr. Long told his students, “Whether you keep up with the ‘recommended’ reading list daily or not, you should probably be ‘caught up’ by the time the exam rolls around,” . . . “and the exam will demand a careful review of quotations, not just plot summaries of chapters.”
Each student completed the “Post-It Note Graphic Novel” project (included: rough draft and final submission).

Science Leadership Academy

The genius of Science Leadership Academy can be found in its Mission and Vision:

“How do we learn?”

“What can we create?”

“What does it mean to lead?”

These three essential questions form the basis of instruction at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a Philadelphia high school that opened in 2006. SLA was built on the notion that inquiry is the very first step in the process of learning. Developed in partnership with The Franklin Institute and its commitment to inquiry-based science, SLA provides a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship. Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.

The structure of the Science Leadership Academy reflects its core values, with longer class periods that allow for more laboratory work in science classes and performance-based learning in all classes. In addition, students in the upper grades have more flexible schedules to allow for opportunities for dual enrollment programs with area universities and career development internships in laboratory and business settings, as well as with The Franklin Institute. At SLA, learning is not just something that happens from 8:30am to 3:00pm, but a continuous process that expands beyond the four walls of the classroom into every facet of our lives.

Marcie Hull is the technology coordinator and the digital arts teacher at Science Leadership Academy (SLA).

One of the most innovative aspects of SLA is the Capstone project every student completes to finish their senior year. The Capstone Project at Science Leadership Academy is an opportunity for students to show the scholars they have become. It represents the culmination of four years of intellectual growth towards an independent and self-directed learner who can contribute meaningfully to his or her community, whatever that means to the individual. It will enable the student to focus his interests and curiosity into a coherent representation of how he thinks and what he believes as he leave high school. The capstone represents a synthesis of the SLA mission and vision as students attempt to answer the questions: “How do we learn?” “What can we create?” and “What does it mean to lead” through a self-selected and designed independent project.

8.5×11 | A PowerPoint Book

Christina Jenkins (Blog, Twitter) works in three New York City public middle schools designing meaningful strategies for tech integration in the classroom. She is also studying for an MFA in Design + Technology at Parsons, with an emphasis on educational media. This video is an abbreviated version of her midterm presentation in 2009. It moves the design language of PowerPoint – backgrounds, transitions, sound and animation – into a physical book. “8.5×11” examines the themes of sameness and disruption in the context of the classroom, and this presentation is an experiment in breaking presentations.

Tinkering School

A software engineer, Gever Tulley (Blog, Twitter) is the co-founder of the Tinkering School, a weeklong camp where lucky kids get to play with their very own power tools. He’s interested in helping kids learn how to build, solve problems, use new materials and hack old ones for new purposes. He’s also a certified paragliding instructor. I can’t embed his TED Talk here due to limitation of using a free WordPress account. View his other presentation over at TED, “Gever Tulley on 5 dangerous things for kids” and visit the Tinkering School Blog.

From the TEDxAtlanta (May 2010) site, “Gever believes that we need to stop thinking about education as something that we do to people. Tinkering School can be seen as one alternative, but there’s something deeper that needs to be considered, and it may need to start earlier. The “study” habits that are being taught in grammar and high school are antithetical to auto-didacticism, and the resultant losses of creative and innovative initiative have already been well documented and spoken of at TED. But Gever’s feeling is that unless we figure out how to teach children to become life-long voracious self-directed learners, we’ll never develop education patterns that are resilient to strife, poverty, and ideology while still producing deeply passionate PhD-level students. Educational infrastructure is being targeted in conflict zones, education funding at the state and national level is being slashed, and the result is a continued disenfranchisement of another generation of apathetic learners. He thinks we can do better, and he thinks he knows where to start.”


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