Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Keep Moving Forward...

... the rLab, 2013.
Moving forward is best done with some reflection.

After a six-month sabbatical, I've decided it's time to move on to new challenges and to pursue promoting personalized learning plans and technology innovation in different venues.

We did some groundbreaking work here in this lab from 2005 to 2013. Work that, as it turns out, was a pioneering effort in blended learning, personalized learning plans, and project-based education in Vermont and abroad. 

Here's a view below under the rLab (aka Tech Research) hood... the innovation, and the challenges to traditional school systems and to me personally.

Work in the Lab over these nine years was individualized toward the needs of each student on how they approach learning at this time in their lives, and how that vision can evolve into the future. Each student created a personalized learning project here by choosing a project of their interest. Students pursued learning in 81 different categories and over 1000 projects. Some worked solo, some in pairs, and some even in small groups. 

There were a lot of interdisciplinary elements we 'spiraled' into this work.

We used the technology itself as a lens to explore the world, their place in it, and the goals of learning how to learn, or as I often said to students on the Lab, to "find out what makes you tick." What were students good at? What were their pitfalls in learning, their Achilles heel? How can those strengths be built upon? How can those struggles be analyzed and conquered?

'Blended learning,' or my thoughts on 'Spiral Curriculum' (J. Bruner) stemmed out of these key areas:

Improvement: Demonstrate that you are seeking strategies and resources to move your thinking and skill forward in the following areas below. Students identified their current skill levels as part of this and debated/collaborated (and sometimes argued) how to articulate these goals to move forward in building their own rubrics toward improvement. Without a doubt, this encouraged self-awareness and improvement.

  • Pursuing a project of your interest with interdisciplinary elements.
  • Ideation/Design Thinking
  • Project Management: Learning to move ideas, curiosities, and problems forward
  • Collaboration/Consultation/Communication skills (seeking help/ideas/mentorship)
  • Leadership
  • Writing skill
  • Research
  • Graphic and Digital Design
  • Personal voice
  • For projects: Interdisciplinary thinking/learning: math, science, humanities, history, etc.
There are two other assessment areas, perhaps overarching, we discussed, too:

  • Building self-confidence
  • Learning how to learn

We explored three large class topics to introduce 'project-based education,' and collaboration: How technology has impacted the news, healthcare, and education. There's some soul searching involved in those topics, and potential for great philosophical and ethical debates - all relevant to the world now and into their future. Students were actively encouraged and prompted to debate these topics with their families and in class with each other. Guest speakers were introduced through video chat as well. Along the way, we built up folks research and collaboration skills, proficiencies in the tools we used, and presentation and public speaking skills. It also helped people look at the potential of technology, and the pitfalls.

We had a series of smaller activities that reinforced certain aspects of this 'blended learning' approach. One example was our 'impromptu speeches' that helped develop research, prototyping, collaboration, and public speaking skills (and promoted self-confidence!). These speeches also exposed students to new things, new people, and helped them make connections to the richness of the world... so they told me. Students picked a random topic out of a box, had three to five minutes to research, and conjure a short and engaging speech. We discussed and recapped the research process, the prep/design cycle, framing up a speech, and introducing 'character' - how to present to engage, and ideas to engage an audience.

Then we got to the salt of the course where students were asked to choose their own projects to explore. That's where things got interesting.

Topic choice is a healthy practice and I've always thought it's one too rarely explored, especially in high schools, especially back in 2005. Students are often conditioned in traditional models in education to be great at being told what to do and how to do it. The rLab courses were placed philosophically and very intentionally far on the other side of that more traditional educational spectrum.

Students pursued over 1000 individualized/self-designed projects here in nine years, covering an incredibly diverse array of topics. Focusing efforts on topic choice led to 55% female enrollment in 'tech classes' here in the Lab. Learning along with them was challenging and exhilarating at the same time. As a mentor to all these threads, I learned exponentially faster than at any time in my life.

Each student project had to last a minimum of three weeks. It was a sufficient time frame to figure out if you liked what you were working on. It allowed some immersion, some tests to overcome some initial obstacles and to make some connections. Students often did one or two projects per semester, mostly one. Many projects extended over multiple semesters and even years. One student took the course five times during their high school career.

I always thought, as these digital tools we use constantly increase our ability to communicate, then we must work on increasing collaboration and communication skills. Within those motions and in our media study, many explored how technology was impacting their lives, their learning and friendships. We discussed algorithms that were leading what we see, how that may influence our perceptions how that trend will increase in the future - and what the ills societally it could lead to on that path. We actively discussed how to find the truth' in the news and the importance of viewing multiple sources. On the better side, Students were also asked to connect via social media in the field of study and with community consultants as part of their projects, professionals outside the school, who could help drive all this learning forward. Over 3000 professionals outside the school became mentors. We built a database of those people over time which made it easier for new students to make connections. 

This was key: A transformation idea sparked by MIT OpenCourseWare... I chose to have students archive all their project growth, struggles, and contacts within them for their peers to build from and upon. If students chose a topic of study that had been done before they could use the work of their peers to move further. Seeing and hearing about the struggles other peers had in learning can pretty powerful. The good, bad, and ugly of every project could be used by peers to build upon. One project that took, say, 15 weeks the first time was used by a new student... who covered that same ground in 10. The next time 8. Almost every project went further each time as people built off their peers work.  Students, so they told me, found immense value in this practice. Game changer, no doubt.

To understand their own learning, students made inquiries into cognitive psychology (the 'isms', behaviorism - get some directions, cognitivism - understand thinking on complex problems, constructivism - doing and design thinking, and 'connectivism' - working with others, teaming and exploring collaboration and mentorships) and then how you use these tools and insights at hand and resources available to carve a path into the future.

We explored and debated Gardner- Multiple Intelligences; Bruner- Spiral Curriculum; Reggio Emilia Children early childhood education - art focus, hands-on, and inquiry-based; Science Leadership Academy - Assessment and PBL; High Tech High - PBL; Bolman and Deal - Project Management; (and) MIT OpenCourseWare - Archiving and shared knowledge philosophies were all huge influences explored in this the rLab discourse.

For many students, it was the first time they looked at how they learned and could pursue something they were interested in. It was the first time many had not been told specifically 'what to do.' For some, learning how to learn and why they felt the way they do about education was the most important mission and ultimately the most rewarding. There's a phrase that floats out there I've always liked... "good learning is messy." I agree. Inquiry-based learning is most often the focus outside of school, and it takes practice.

Then came the challenges to the course structure, school, and personal struggles.

Assessing so many individual projects and students individualized growth curves within them within them was a challenge... but I learned the chops to keep it moving and to provide individualized feedback. I experimented with spreadsheets, grade books, wikis, Google Docs, and eventually, a CRM system was the answer. Each student was challenged individually to make strides in their self-motivation, develop interdisciplinary learning ties, how they learned, their struggles, approached their work and to keep building something meaningful, document it, archive it, and develop it into a professional blog/website of some sort. Managing over 100 independent projects and learning plans within them each semester took... some trial and error, and I made a few mistakes. I botched grade entries for two students in the volume aka wrong entry on the wrong line. The reception to that error was, to say the least, surprisingly severe. The school here used narrative comments and frequently. In combination, each narrative run I wrote over 30 pages of feedback in total. Often 250-500 words per students for those who needed very focused feedback was common. Parents and students loved it. The writing style created challenges to the overall report card length I was told. Discussions started brewing about why some teachers wrote more than others and what was being written as in generic vs analytical comments across the school. The solution that was presented - was for me to cut back on the amount of feedback I gave. 

Another system challenge: An essential element in the lab overall, as we developed systems and assignments in each course, I asked students to challenge them / revise them with me each semester. We all learned from one another. Like the top of the blog says here... "a self-organizing system." We wrapped up all presentations in the rLab 'before' exams. To prep for the final exam itself, students were asked to evaluate the course, the opportunities we explored, and refine and/or create proposals for new assignments. The feedback was thoughtful and led to incredible changes. I'd keep evidence of how assignments were refined each year to show students that their ideas made a difference. This exam practice in the rLab met with a significant amount of resistance internally in the school as I wasn't issuing 'traditional' exams. Debates on the topic evolved, practices of other teachers on how they approached exams came forward, and this debate, fortunately, moved forward. 

Another topic of debate about the Lab was 'personal days' I gave students as part of their work. The rationale... it's a project-based class, and helping students learn to plan, schedule, calendar, and prioritize is a core function. I issued and tracked three personal days per student per course to take as they needed to study other things with one exception: guest speaker days were mandatory participation. In a personalized learning construct, I felt these personal days made a lot of sense. If a student had an incredibly important test next period, if you are involved in a demanding after-school activity and needed some extra homework time, feedback on a paper, take some time and do the work you need to do, you could plan these days accordingly. It promoted long-range planning, communication, and overall, relieved stress. Students reported they valued these personal days immensely and so did parents/guardians in discussions. In my own research, a lot of teachers made this part of their courses but didn't advertise and track it openly as I did. It was a strategy I used in the lab over seven years and surfaced as a controversial discussion in the school during the last two in regard to traditional class expectations, 'why', and 'noise it generates' in other areas of the school.

Then traditional visions of 'school' began to kick back.

Of course, this interdisciplinary focus created challenges to regular constructs of academia: Traditional course restrictions and complaints that I was 'teaching/mentoring out of my 'subject area' surfaced from some academic departments. Students desire to take on a subject self-paced and with professional mentors created enrollment issues for other departments. Over time, some students were not allowed to take on a subject in the Lab as an extension of work in another department. That decision proved debilitating in many ways, unfortunately. Students became locked in in some department to the traditional course offering in a particular time slot - and it's traditional absence of self-paced learning.

Another item that surfaced was 'when' students entered a Lab course. On many occasions, as students were struggling in other classes, I was asked to enter/enroll students, sometimes as late as 3/4 of the way through the semester or year or even later. On one occasions I was asked to enroll a student and give them 'a project' with two weeks left in the semester - when we were actively involved in final presentations. It presented incredible challenges in course flow with this workload. As bookkeeping and narrative assessment goes and ramping up project-based skills... this also proved an immense challenge as it increased in frequency. I was too accommodating with it all in hindsight - an effort to help students, but to enable the school to dump students failing other courses in at the last minute.  

In all, these were timely and a necessary debates and issues in education, especially on the impact personalized learning plans can have, and one that continues to evolve globally I hope.

Our discussions on how technology was changing education revealed opportunities to look at how we were doing 'school' as a 'school.' The work in the Lab went beyond projects though and toward the well being and learning opportunities within the school itself. Student lobbied for their rights, technology access, food service changes, and school schedule changes.

Here's a link to some of these proposals which led to some great educational growth here at this school and many others. The Lab work also played an important part in the philosophical growth at the school to be much more student-centric with technology.

Perhaps our largest class project, one that resulted from a discussion where students wanted to propose changes to the master schedule, was the 'Student for a Day' (11-minute video documentary short). Teachers became 'students for a day' and explored the schedule from the student perspective. This class project was viewed over 100,000 times and featured in many other blogs and journals like Dangerously Irrelevant, and MindShift. I've lost track of how many schools and individuals inquired about this project and how many we've passed the notes toward. It's well over 100 at this point, and that's encouraging. I've always felt that debate and exploration are essential to avoid stagnation and the train ride of 'business as usual,' especially in education. This project drove thoughtful changes to the schools master schedule (a couple years later), and also promoted these discussions in other places across the country.

The BG Light
Other courses in the rLab? e-Design was a popular graphic design course that had students build design skills and learn how to learn through the use of Photoshop, Gimp, and digital photography, research, and address digital archiving now and in the future. I readily promoted students to other students who had 'figured something out.' This practice promoted peers to learn from each other, build confidence and skill to do so, and get to know their peers better. Building design skills, and addressing the challenge of building their own websites to highlight their personal voice, developing art skills, and interests was key.

Another course, 'Social Media: Senior Seminar,' was a course designed by two students in an rLab project and promoted to the administration for approval. The course helped students explore the challenges emerging in the news, social media, and learning to communicate more effectively. Guest speakers were brought in on a wide variety of topics to help students build interviewing skills and to make professional connections. 

The Hardware and Networking course featured a Student Help Desk, building skills to manage home networks, security, devices, mobile phones, operating systems, and did equipment refurbs for students and families in need also was highly successful. 

We hosted 49 visitors in the Lab from other schools. It was great to hear that many visitors have built upon our assignments, proposals, and spirit of inquiry to make shifts at their own schools. Making the work enduring and having an impact on other schools in this fashion is something I'm proud students here were a part of. This work here informed what became the Winooski iLab, Mt Abraham Horizons Program, and informed Vermont legislation called Act 77 - Flexible Pathways so I'm told.

It's my hope that the notes here, evolutions, innovations, and student accomplishments help schools and districts on their path to plps, interdisciplinary learning, and the challenges and opportunities they bring.

In all, it was a great ride, and one in so many ways I'm going to miss.

After having these concepts of interdisciplinary learning reinforced on my sabbatical, and some soul searching, I know it's time to move on. Hey, I have to do something with all that sabbatical research, right? Helping other schools explore the potential in this work is my goal. I decided a couple days ago to take a position at Burlington High School and District in Vermont in Technology Integration and to participate in the Partnership for Change Initiative, Statewide development work, and to dive into more consulting and Adjunct teaching opportunities. I'm setting my sights on new innovation positions in education, and community development.

We'll see where it all leads.

My sincere thanks to the incredible students I've worked with here, to Burr and Burton, Wendy and Barry Rowland, so many peers, the project consultants - the experts called on by the students in their project work, visitors to the Lab, and the incredibly supportive communities here. I'm truly privileged to carry so many lasting friendships into the future.

As with all teachers, it's great to see your students go on and pursue their passions. Something I wished I'd tracked here more diligently is how many students pursued their project choice into a profession. I've lost count.

It likely wraps up over 20 years as a head coach in High School Baseball as well, the last six years here at Burr and Burton. It's time to watch and participate in my own children's athletics for the coming years. Assembling the help of many, we helped rebuild the youth programs in the town, repaired the relationship between the school and the town toward upkeep of the shared facility, built new training infrastructure, grinded out the most wins in school history over a six-year period - so I'm told, and evolved into making the State finals three times in the last six years. I had a lot of fun with a lot of great people doing this work.

(coaching update added here in 2014)

rLab (II) 8/2005 - 8/2013

I like this picture of the rLab above... a little rough around the edges, minimalist, modern, a super-hero cutout, student-designed diverse workspaces... truly a self-organizing system that constantly evolved based on student feedback and design (as it's always said on the top of the blog here since we started). We rocked a lot of projects there - and kept it minimalist and modern neat.

We made the whole process transparent day-to-day here on this blog over eight years and readily gave the assignments, rubrics, and scaffolding away to many. I'll continue to do so as people request materials. It's been amazing to see how many people and schools have visited this lab over these eight years and then adopted personalized learning plans, and set up programs based on these ideas. I've lost track of how many schools have told us our class proposals have helped them in their journeys as well. We took the motto at the top of the lab seriously... 'A self-organizing system.' Students were empowered to learn how to learn, to make connections to their passions, and inspire change. Students publishing real work to a live audience… we win. 

It's tough to close up shop sometimes... but it's also exciting. If I always preached "keep moving forward," to students, I guess I had to heed the same advice.

So keep learning, achieve new levels of collaboration, and please do keep in touch. I'm easy to find on the web ; ) 

If you want to talk about building opportunities like these or others, let me know! I love exploring and helping others build and explore these innovative personalized learning lab constructs and how they can help schools evolve systems. Sharing the good, bad, and ugly of it all has immense value. It was a learning process for all involved. It pushed the boundaries of traditional school and systems in thought-provoking ways. Pursuing more consulting opportunities to help build these ideas and promote growth in other places in these areas is one of my goals.

I always did love the iconic sign-off from the late CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite. I always felt it was a fitting way to end the day and time here that now moves into history...  "And that's the way it is," the close of my role in the rLab at BBA, Friday, August, 23rd, 2013...

On to new and exciting challenges and to develop this work further in more places.

To all the students and peers who dove in here to explore something different... we did something incredible and I hope, sincerely, that it helped you build your future.

Thanks for tuning in,


(hereafter at creativeStir.blogspot.com)

Friday, January 18, 2013

To Boldly Go...

The first semester has flown by and it's time for me to head off on this exciting sabbatical trip.

"The world is not in your books and maps… it's out there!"—Gandalf, The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

And just that. I'm off to see these great schools and educators I've chatted with and learned from over the years. I'll meet many new people, catch up with friends, and explore the world. I'll have some time to reflect, invent, and renew... in 8 countries. A fine recipe for the future. 

And while I'm away...

Paul Molinelli steps in to work with folks here in the Lab, and I couldn't be more excited about that coming to fruition. Paul brings a wealth of experience to the mix and it's been great to get to know him better over the past month. Paul will be smithing this Lab blog here over the semester with students too. There are some great threads in motion already.

Tony Cirelli will step in to mentor the baseball program this Spring, and the players and families are in good hands. I've had the privilege of competing against Tony over the years when we coached at different schools and also to work with him to build this baseball program. Tony's a very competent and dedicated coach. This years Varsity team is a special group and it was a tough decision to step away from them this Spring. Ultimately though all those strengths and the tremendous character of the team made the decision easier. 'The Ship,' as in competing for a championship, is once again within reach.

My thanks to all the students, colleagues, and friends who have wished me luck and safe travels on this journey. Of course, this wouldn't have been possible without the generous support and visionary thinking of Barry and Wendy Rowland. Words can't express the gratitude I have for the Rowland's support to send educators out into the world on adventures.

I'll be blogging for Edutopia as this trip unfolds, and posting updates on my personal blog, CreativeStir, as well (there's a bit more about the logistics of the trip posted there already). I'm looking forward to the challenges to smith these journeys into some good stories and all the personal reflection and deeper thinking it brings.

Gandalf: You'll have a tale or two to tell when you come back. 
Bilbo: Can you promise that I will come back? 
Gandalf: No, and if you do, you will not be the same.

Step out your door...

Keep moving forward...


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Student for a Day Video

In a class discussion about 'how technology has shifted school,' the discussion got pretty heated.

Students thought 'school schedules are often organized by adults.'


What is the school schedule like through the eyes of a student?

Do school schedules meet the needs of students educationally and socially? 

How can the 'student experience' be improved?

How does the school schedule effect families?

Five teachers became a 'Student for a Day' to find out. Here are their thoughts on the experience (and some good humor) in the full video below.

Their experiences lead to some timely questions to answer in education. 

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject too. Feel free to send me a note.

Thanks to all involved in this great project, especially our dedicated A block Tech Research class who conjured up this great idea. Special thanks to Meg Kenny, Assistant Headmaster (and also a 'Student for a Day' in the video).

We had a blast working on it and hope you enjoy it.

Thanks for tuning in, AP

BBA Student for a Day Project from Adam Provost on Vimeo.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Student for a Day Project Video Trailer

After proposing the project, a schedule delay for Hurricane Sandy, editing, and a holiday break... at long last, here's the trailer for the 'Student for a Day' project!

We'll post the full video in a day or two.

Stay tuned!

Trailer from Adam Provost on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ripple Effect

Hurricane Sandy moves over the East Coast, United States. Image Credit: NASA GOES Project

The threat of Hurricane Sandy making it's way to Vermont, especially in the wake of the devastation Hurricane Irene brought to the area last Fall, was a study in preparedness.

And justly so.

Preparing for disasters like this is key. Reacting to such disasters is when things get very messy. One look at what's going on in New York City and Atlantic City will show you why.

Looking at the news over the last few days, it looks like some folks planned to the best of their ability. Others simply went into denial about the coming storm. Some, the thrill seeking type, even went out for jogs, wake boarding, and went out to take pictures when the worst of the hurricane landed.

Some others simply couldn't do anything about it. When the devastation is that large and wide spread, sometimes... you simply endure. I've heard many people on the news over the last few days saying things like 'I just can't believe it was this bad.' It's a study of what went on here in Vermont last year.

Now that the Hurricane has moved on from this area in Southern Vermont, it's easy to say 'we over prepared.' If the storm turned east toward Vermont though... my guess is we'd be singing a different tune.

My hope after watching Katrina years back overwhelm the Gulf Coast, Irene's tromp through New England, and now Hurricane Sandy... is that we'll lend some serious thought to how, where, and why we build things in the future. And how we can orchestrate disaster plans most effectively. Error on caution... good idea.

This event once again led to some great discussions in class, and we're all watching in hopes that the places rocked by Hurricane Sandy can dig out.

With school canceled here Monday and a delayed opening Tuesday, we postponed our 'Student for a Day' project and rescheduled to next week.
We'll have updates soon.

Resting up. Preparing. Moving forward.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Teachers being a Student for a Day

We've been collecting books for our 'test subjects.'

In Tech Research class we stir up a project called 'Education Revisited' where we look at how technology has challenged and shifted learning, education... and schools.

... and a discussion on 'what is it really like to be a student?' quickly evolved into 'Teachers becoming students for couple of days.'

We've proposed some great things over the years in the Lab to administration and this idea took off like a rocket in discussions.

We drafted up the idea that three teachers become a student over two days, along with with all appropriate expectations each student has placed upon them. We polished it up a bit and presented the idea to the administration. The school's Executive Team discussed the issue and approved a schedule where 5 teachers would participate for one day instead.

Modified... but approved!

Teachers were hand picked to reflect diverse subjects taught and at different stages of their teaching careers. Here's a list of of the teachers who will be 'Student for a Day.'

Oct 30th:
Scott Clausen, English
Meg Kenny, Administration
Mary-Rita Manley, Math
Pete Nicholson, English

Oct 31st:
Dave Miceli, Social Studies, Psychology

Students in Tech Research designed full academic schedules for each participating teacher and also the following guidelines:
  • Pick up their class schedule in the Lab the day before their assigned student day
  • Teachers must negotiate getting the appropriate supplies for their classes
  • Park in the assigned student parking lot in the morning
  • Attend all classes and advisory as a regularly scheduled student
  • Eat in the cafeteria with no special privileges aka cutting in line and must pay for their lunch before eating
  • Attend an extra-curricular activity and participate in some way for the full duration
  • Be assigned an equivalent amount of homework in each class and prepare it for the next day to hand in
  • Report on their perceptions of the student day (see Project Goals below), and on the hours spent after school to complete tasks/work and balance home life to their peers

Project goals:
  • Is the school schedule designed as effectively as it could be for learning?
  • Are the duration of classes, transition times between classes, advisory time, and lunch time / scope structures appropriately meeting the needs of students?
  • Open up discussions on the demands and expectations placed on students during the school day and also in their personal lives: Understanding the length of the overall 'school day'
  • Encourage discussions on the purpose and role of homework
  • Reminding teachers of the demands of 'having 4-5 different subjects (jobs / classes) per day,' and an extra-curricular activity, and homework of new material
  • Encouraging reflective practice on teaching students and not just subjects

When we started to bounce the idea around on campus with teachers to get their feedback the idea spread VERY rapidly. Many teachers expressed disappointment they couldn't participate in this round and have already asked if they can be included in the next.

Also... MANY students and teachers have been dropping in with ideas to consider for the future... and they are all excellent.

  • Run the experiment for two days
  • Run the experiment for a week
  • Incorporate a 'game day' where an athletic team has a game where the demands of students participating are stretched further
  • Build in a part-time job for a few participants after school
  • Do this again in the Winter... which has a much more chaotic extra-curricular activity schedule

I think we're on to something ; )

We'll be reporting how it all moves along.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Way Things Work

We took a break from our Education Revisited assignment in Tech Research A block class and dove into a recurring assignment here called 'The Way Things Work.'

The mission:

Bring in something that's broken or no longer used, dissect it, discover how it works, repair it (if applicable) and then put it back together, and then tell your peers what you discovered.

On occasion we need some parts to repair things. Makes me wish we had a 3D printer ; )

Discovering how things are manufactured, what's under the hood...

Who knows where those skills could lead.

A broken digital camera, photo printer, and dvd player were our first missions.

Can we fix a digital camera? Erin dives in to find out.

James and Russell explore a DVD player that won't read discs that are slightly scratched.

A printer that won't feed paper? Andrew, David, and Matt begin testing.