Students Working Real-World Problems for a Real Audience

I’ve just finished the last section of the draft of my teaching memoir, which describes an incredible Problem-Based Learning experience my students had working for a Chicago law firm. It reminds me of how much I still miss my own problem-solving class, but I’m thrilled that I continue to encounter similar efforts occurring today. In Aurora, Illinois, the city partnered with the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy [IMSA] to offer the “Smart City Youth Design Challenge” for middle and high school students. More than 50 youth will be selected for a one-day challenge at IMSA to design Aurora as the smart city of the future.

The second largest city in Illinois, Aurora has much to offer already. The Fox River runs through a scenic downtown on its way back from recession, and the city is home to the famous and popular art deco Paramount Theater. From a news release from the city: “Poised to become a sandbox for innovation, Aurora is partnering with world-class companies and investing in smart city infrastructure to become a leading-edge urban development hub for the state of Illinois and beyond.”[1]

Working in small groups led by facilitators, participants will create ideas and design for what transportation, education, entertainment, community, energy and other parts of the city could be like in a city of the future. They will then get to pitch their ideas to a real audience at a special event with the city leaders.

“Our youth not only represent our future potential, but they also are a reflection of our present priorities,” said Mayor Richard C. Irvin. “What we do now to empower them can have a direct impact on our city, country and world.”[2]

I believe in learning opportunities like this. I have seen the ideas of students become reality when they are given a chance like this. I only wish these opportunities were commonplace instead of the exception. Every time we challenge our learners to work on a real-world problem for a real audience, we give them a chance to grow their skills and their self-esteem. For 17 semesters, my problem-based learning class did that. I miss it, and I hope that there are many more opportunities like it for students everywhere.


[1] https://kanecountyconnects.com/?s=aurora+challenges+students&submit=Search

[2] https://www.dailyherald.com/submitted/20190919/aurora-offers-programs-to-engage-youths-in-community

A Head Start for All Grade Levels

One of the education blogs I follow is The Principal of Change by George Couros. A Canadian educator and consultant, a former principal, and author of The Innovator’s  Mindset, he writes with passion and compassion. Like me, he believes in the central role of good relationships between learner and teacher. This graphic is his, and it accompanied a blog about how to start the school year with questions like these. He suggests that we each find the questions that would be most meaningful to our group of learners, because asking them and paying attention to the answers will be powerful in building the relationships requisite to learning.

I love this idea, and for several years I did start the school year with a set of questions like these. I asked students for written, signed responses, but I took it a step further. I actually invited them to ask a set of questions of me. I then printed a set of my responses to their questions comm, and I added personal notes responding to their comments individually. They knew they were seen and heard. They knew I was willing to invest time in them. They knew more about me than just the rumors that I was really tough!

I really liked this process, probably more than the students did — or at least more than they would admit! I’m not sure why I gave it up: probably time, since there’s never enough, and the need to experiment with other approaches, since I tried to find a way to begin each course with community-building.

But revisiting this concept reminds me of several points:

  • Teachers need time for community-building, regardless of the strategy they choose, and that time usually pays off in the long run.
  • The inch-deep mile-long lockstep curriculum, if it is unavoidable [sigh], would be well advised to build in time for this.
  • When teachers get to plan together, they are more likely to be able to generate powerful community-building strategies than when they work as lone rangers.

You wouldn’t build a house with a proper foundation; you wouldn’t pave a road without preparing the underpinning. Why do we blunder directly into instruction without laying this footing?

Learning to Sew: Lessons for the Classroom

As I scramble once again to finish garments for a jury deadline, I find myself reminiscing about my first experience sewing clothing for myself. As a woman of a certain age, I hark back to the binary days of applied arts in junior high: shop for the boys and home economics for the girls. All the girls in my seventh-grade home ec class had to make a skirt using the same pattern. Each skirt had the same pleats, set-in waistband, and side zipper. Our only personal touch was the choice of fabric. I loved the blue and green shadow plaid I picked, but the process and the product failed to inspire me. I wore the skirt a few times and put it away, along with any thoughts of making my own clothing.

Always passionate about fashion, however, I often thought of becoming a clothing designer [one of the dozens of careers I fancied in high school], conveniently ignoring my lack of sewing experience and skills. My parents’ housekeeper made my prom dress from a pattern and fabric I chose, and the summer before my wedding to a “starving” graduate student, I designed an entire trousseau, but she put it together. I would design; others would sew.

That summer my mother presented me with a sewing machine.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“You love clothes and you won’t have any money for them for a long time…” she replied.

“How do I use it?” I asked my mother, knowing full well that she didn’t even know how to sew on a button.

“I don’t know. Figure it out!” She smiled.

Figure it out I did. How hard could it be, I asked myself as I bought Impressionist print voiles and linings and made two wonderful shift dresses that I wore for years.

For a long time I remained self-taught, making all my clothing as well as our window coverings and bedspreads. I gave up sewing when I went back to teaching full-time, but one of the great joys of retirement was the freedom to sew without pressure. Sewing workshops and guidance from the wonderful mentors in my wearable art group elevated my skills. I had collections of garments made from vintage Obis in runway shows, and I even developed a collection called “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” whose color palette and use of vines as a motif was one of my favorite efforts. And here I am working on another collection.

I find myself thinking about the factors that changed my desire to learn:

  • A need to know, since sewing my own clothes was the only way I’d be able to have anything new for a long, long time
  • Some early success to encourage me to keep going
  • The chance to personalize my efforts and to use my own creativity
  • Following success and positive feedback, the desire to take it further, to elevate my skills and understanding
  • Excellent teachers/mentors who challenged and supported my efforts

I see these factors as impactful and available in the classroom setting. Relevance exists in our curriculum, and good teachers help students see that and give them a need to know. In my own field of literature, others write about its importance to hand down culture through stories, expand horizons, grow vocabulary, improve writing skills, and teach critical thinking. All these offer value, but I believe the most compelling reason to teach literature is the way it serves as a vehicle for us to explore the human condition and address the “big questions” about life. What does it mean to be a good person? Is man inherently good or evil or both? What are our responsibilities to each other? And on and on… Through our exploration of literature, we can consider these questions and even the answers provided by some of the authors. In those settings, outside of our personal experience, we can develop our own very personal answers.

Other content area teachers can make powerful arguments for relevance in their fields as well. I came to understand grammar and structure in English through my study of French and Latin. I make constant use of math skills whether it’s calculating ingredients or pan sizes or planning yardage for a garment or roughly adding up purchases in my head as I shop to follow my budget. History offers huge lessons that we should be heeding today. If we look at the rise of populist dictators in the past, for example, we have ample warning for what is happening globally and domestically today.  I use my understanding from chemistry to rethink recipes, from botany as I grow orchids and succulents, and from physics as I seek to understand how things work and how to solve problems. The relevance is there – as teachers we need to make it explicit.

We need to provide classroom lessons that allow students to achieve some success before we escalate our expectations of them, scaffolding their lessons. Starting with more accessible demands allows for those early successes, and then teachers can build upon them. Just as I began with a simple shift and have progressed to lined jackets and drafting my own patterns, students need easier tasks to accomplish before they move on.

Well-designed lessons can also encourage creativity and develop opportunities for students to personalize their learning and tap their own creativity. We need to stop thinking about one-size-fits-all instruction and encourage more open-ended experiences. Thanks to my predecessor’s model, my Advanced Placement English students worked in small groups to develop a director’s notebook for King Lear, transposing the play to another time and place, creating costume sketches and scenery, and explaining their choices. What better way to think about the timeless themes in the play and what they mean to us today? Given the chance to be creative in their approach to the play, students developed and articulated a deeper understanding of it.

 As teachers we can and should build ever escalating demands into the curriculum, as long as we’re there to support students if they struggle. Mastery of a give skill should be followed with the next most demanding level of that skill, whether it’s moving from a simple paragraph to an extended essay or narrative, or moving from simple short story analysis to deep reading of longer, more complex literature. We should start with accessible tasks but continually elevate our expectations. We need to be there to help students when they find those tasks increasingly challenging.

This kind of teaching requires a more constructivist classroom, a far cry from the bell-to-bell talking at students that I was trained to do. Problem-based learning helped me make that shift, and the students and I both benefited. But those factors can be embedded even in a traditional classroom approach if we put students’ needs first.

So I’ll return to my sewing machine and my looming jury deadline, grateful that I was able to make that shift before I retired, hopeful that teachers and students today will continue to make shifts like it, too.

More “Good News about Bad Behavior”

We recently had the opportunity to hear Katherine Reynolds Lewis, the author of The Good News about Bad Behavior, speak in person. I’d raved about her book in an earlier blog post, but I need to rave about her once again. She addressed the refrain from my friends still in the classroom that students just are different, and she proposed meaningful solutions.

Much of her presentation focused on parenting, but the principles she espoused speak to educators as well. Ms. Lewis asserts that kids are fundamentally different, so we need whole different sets of tools in our toolbox. Kids’ behavior is often problematic because we have a “crisis of self-regulation in kids today.” According to a National Institute for Mental Health longitudinal study, 1 in 2 will have a behavioral disorder or substance addiction by 18. Nearly a third have an anxiety diagnosis. 19% have behavioral disorders like ADHD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. 14% have a mood disorder and 11 % substance abuse problem. Some of these issues overlap. According to the Center for Disease Control, in the last 10 years, the suicide rate for children 10-14 has doubled, and it has gone up 41% for kids 15-19. These stats are frightening and explain disruptive behaviors in the classroom.

Three big changes in society that have helped cause this shift:

  1. Disappearance of childhood play [which inevitably leads to self-regulation]
  2. Growth of social media and technology – turns our focus externally, which is strongly correlated with depression
  3. “Childhood has become about performance and achievement and not about contribution.” But contribution gives people a sense of where they belong and how they matter.

All that felt very depressing when she shared it at a Glenbard Parent Series talk in February. But it helps explain why a lot of the tools we’re used to may not work and may even be counterproductive. Neuroscience tells us that the carrot-and-stick approach does not work, for example. I was profoundly excited about her talk, though, because she offered research-based tools that do work.  

Her three keys to help kids learn to self-regulate are:

  1. Connection between the adult and child
  2. Communication with kids about their behavior to build their self-regulatory ability: problem-solving, critical thinking, social and emotional management
  3. Capability-building

If we build connections with kids, we can help them self-regulate. Our physical presence can help kids calm down and eliminate symptoms of anxiety. A calm physical touch also can help kids get back into self-regulation. In the classroom [where touching has its own risks], we might give young children something to hug, offer just a light touch on the shoulder to older students. When we empathize and kids feel understood, they can calm down and self-regulate. Our modeling good self-regulation in our behavior helps, too.

How we communicate also matters. Reynolds urges that we “shift from goal of getting them to do what we want to getting them to do what’s needed in the situation to build those skills that will help them thrive in that moment and in life generally.” For example, when a student is distraught, we need to send the message that strong emotions are okay instead of dismissing or ignoring them. Then the student is more able to be effective in addressing the issue. We can encourage students about what they’re doing and the effort they’re putting in. We can reframe language to state the same issue positively; for example, she suggests that instead of telling kids at a swimming pool not to run, ask them to walk. We might give information about what we see instead of telling our students what to do. She suggested that a parent might say, “I see a Lego model on the floor right where people need to walk” because the kid will then realize it needs to be moved. We can ask more questions and be less directive. We can help students learn to plan and think ahead: executive function skills that allow our kids to make plans and to organize big projects are a stronger predictor of success in life than IQ, so we should help them anticipate what they need to do. When things go wrong, we should ask them to come up with plan. Reynolds insists that it’s important to give kids chances to rise to responsibility, a hallmark of a student-centered constructivist classroom. We need to allow kids to fail and get back up again. We need to teach them to recognize their own progress on a continuum.

Lewis talked about Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work —brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”[1] When we praise our kids for outcome and focus on the results of their actions, they can develop a fixed mindset [on how smart they are, for instance]. But if we focus on their progress, they can see themselves as having potential and being more capable.

Reynolds agrees that kids still need to have consequences, but we want them to learn from those consequences. She suggests four tests to be sure that consequences are learning opportunities:

  • Related to the child’s actions
  • Reasonable in scope
  • Respectful of the child and us
  • Revealed in advance

She also offers meaningful steps for negotiating agreements:

  • Share concern neutrally, not in blaming way
  • Invite kids’ perspective
  • Invite some solutions
  • Agree on a solution both of you think is going to work and the consequences if it doesn’t
  • Let the agreement play out

So my apologies to my colleagues for not having been more sympathetic and agreeable when their descriptions of student behavior sounded like whining to me. The bad news is that kids really have changed in ways that make it harder for them and for their parents and teachers. As adults, we need to change how we help them address their behavior. But the good news is that Katherine Reynolds Lewis offers concrete suggestions about how to do that.

P.S. The book goes into far more detail – definitely worth reading!


[1] Dweck, 2015

Role Models Who Mirror Their Students

A week ago the Chicago Tribune Sunday paper ran a front-page story about the unusual journey of a man of color to his current position teaching sixth grade at a Chicago public school.[1] His story feels compelling. The challenges he faces are all too familiar.

Two things really struck me, though:

  1. The research data that reinforces the importance of students having role model who looks like them.
  2. The value of social engineering to make sure schools have role models that mirror their populations.

According to this article, “the number of black teachers in Chicago Public Schools declined to 21 percent, while the number of students of color grew to 84 percent, including 37 percent African-American and 47 percent Hispanic… [yet] black students who had just one black teacher by third grade were 13 percent more likely to enroll in college and those who had two were 32 percent more likely.” I grew up in a teaching profession dominated by hetero white females like myself. How do we meet the needs of a diverse student body and provide them with role models they can relate to if our teachers don’t mirror the student population?

This teacher found his way to the classroom through the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program. “The mission of the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program is to prepare aspiring teachers for successful and long-lasting careers in urban schools.”[2] They offer a two-year Master of Arts in Teaching followed by three years of mentorship. That mentorship has helped their students succeed: “Ninety-two percent of UChicago UTEP graduates are still teaching in urban schools after five years compared to the national average of 50 percent.”[3] Although their mission doesn’t specify seeking diverse representation, the pictures of their students and alumni suggest a very diverse group. This program is one way to develop a pipeline of diverse teachers who provide students with role models who look like them. There should be others.

Social policy can shape outcomes for good. When my children were little and we wanted a primary parent raising them, the tax code of the time cut us a break financially that helped make that choice possible. Now parents can get tax credits help them pay for childcare. In both cases the IRS rules provide a kind of social engineering. Let’s use that kind of social engineering to grow a more diverse teaching population. Students need to see themselves in at least some of their teachers. Why not encourage more programs like the University of Chicago UTEP? Why not offer tax credits or other enticements to minority candidates for teaching? Let’s get a teaching population that mirrors the student body and has the skills to support and grow those students.

We say we care about children in this country, but we ignore much of what we know they need because it’s expensive and/or difficult to work to meet those needs. Programs like this one, programs that not only encourage diverse individuals to become teachers but also give them the support to succeed and stay in the profession, mean students can have role models they can relate to. If that increases the chances for success for those students, why aren’t we doing more to make it happen?


[1] https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-met-male-black-teacher-first-year-chicago-20190103-story.html

[2] https://utep.uchicago.edu/

[3] Ibid.