Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Malcolm London's "High School Training Ground"

Last night's TED Talks Education on PBS was a showcase of some of America's greatest thinkers in education. If you missed it, take the time to watch. It is well worth it. It expanded my vision of education and reenergized my professional commitment.

I was particularly entranced by Malcolm London, a 19-year-old poet from Chicago, who is a teaching artist with Young Chicago Authors. I was not previously familiar with his work and was immediately taken with his confidence and ability to reflect on how America's educational system effects the lives of students.

As a visual learner, I needed to see what he was saying. I felt as if I was missing a nugget of his wisdom. So, here's a video and transcription of his poem, "High School Training Ground." He edited this version for his TED talk, but the impact is the same.

High School Training Ground
by Malcolm London

At 7:45 AM, I open the doors to a building dedicated to building yet only breaks me down.
I march down hallways cleaned up after me everyday by regular janitors, but I never have the decency to honor their names.
Lockers left open like teenage boys' mouths when teenage girls wear clothes that covers their insecurities, but exposes everything else.
Masculinity mimicked by men who grew up with no fathers.
Camouflage worn by bullies who are dangerously armed, but need hugs.
Classrooms overpacked like book bags.
Teachers paid less than what it costs them to be here.
Oceans of adolescents come here to receive lessons, but never learn to swim.
Part like the Red Sea when the bell rings.
This is a training ground.

My high school is Chicago, diverse and segregated on purpose.
Social lines are barbed wire.
Hierarchy burned into our separated classrooms.
Free to sit anywhere, but reduced to divided lunch tables.
Labels like honors and regulars resonate.
This is a training ground.

Education misinforms.
We are uniformed.
Trained to capitalize letters at a young age.
Taught now that capitalism raises you, but you have to step on someone else to get there.
This is a training ground.

Sought to sort out the regulars from the honors.
A reoccurring cycle built to recycle the trash of this system.
I am in honors classes, but go home with regular students, who are soldiers in a war zone in territory they don't really own.
When did lives become expendable?
CPS is a training ground centered on personal success.
CPS is a training ground concentration on professional suits.
CPS is a training ground.

One generation is taught to lead.
The other is made to follow.
No wonder so many of my people spent bars, because the truth is hard to swallow.
The need for degrees has left so many of my people frozen.
The educated aren't necessarily the educated.
I have a 1.9 GPA.
Got drunk before my ACT and still received a 25.
Now, tell me how I'm supposed to act.

Homework is stressful, but when you go home everyday and your home is work, you don't want to pick up any assignments.
Reading textbooks is stressful, but reading doesn't matter when you feel your story is already written, either dead or getting booked.
Taking tests is stressful, but bubbling in a Scantron doesn't stop bullets from bursting our direction, hasn't changed.
When our Board of Education is driven by lawyers and businessmen, only one teacher sits on that Board.
Now, tell me what does that teach you.

I hear the education systems are failing, but I believe they are succeeding in what they're built to do.
To train you, to keep you on track, to track down an American dream that fails so many of us all.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Exploration into Project Based Learning

Winterboro High School
Last week, teachers from my school visited Winterboro High School to explore the incorporation of project based learning (PBL). We are interested in students taking responsibility for their learning in a more engaging environment. During our visit, we were impressed with how students from a low socioeconomic area utilize their resources to problem solve real life situations. Our students have access to any needed resource, but do not delve into such in-depth problem solving and critical thinking. We were a little ashamed of what we offer our students.

We did have some concerns with aspects of PBL. A few Winterboro teachers discussed the amount of time required to plan for PBL. Time for collaboration in elementary school is limited and we are unsure of how to manage this time constraint. Winterboro teachers were also concerned with covering required content, although their test scores show that they are meeting all necessary benchmarks. Our students may have a more meaningful and in-depth experience, but they may be missing some areas of the content. At Winterboro, projects were mainly completed at school. Most nights students do not have homework. Winterboro teachers are concerned that their students do not have the resources to complete their projects at home. Our concern is that our parents will complete the projects for the students if they are sent home. Most of the Winterboro teachers were in the first six years of their career. With a completely tenured faculty, we are concerned that we may be too set in our ways to make an easy incorporation of PBL.

After we visited a few classes, many of us felt that we were already using PBL. We all incorporate projects as part of student learning. Then, one teacher explained how the projects drove the students' exploration. In our classes, students are taught the necessary material and then, assigned a project at the end of the unit to assess knowledge. In PBL, students feel driven to learn the concepts, so that they can solve a problem. For example, in a collaborative math and music class, Winterboro students were composed musical ostinatos using found sounds by formulating one and two step mathematical equations. They were taught pre-algebra concepts and rhythmic notation as they were needed to complete their project. Here's their composition:

A distinction must be recognized between PBL and project oriented learning. This video clearly explains the difference.

Students commit to graduate
Winterboro has a clear commitment to student success. When students enter their freshman year, they sign a commitment to graduate. Since utilizing PBL, graduation rates have improved, college acceptance rates have increased, and the drop-out rate has dropped to zero. On our visit, Winterboro students were the tour guides. They were well spoken, engaged in our discussions, and quick to answer questions. I see great success in their future! Graduating seniors are honored for their accomplishments. One bulletin board displayed each graduating senior's picture along with a dialogue from one of their teachers. What a meaningful sendoff!

A tribute from teachers to graduating seniors

Obviously, our previous understanding of PBL was not accurate. We are utilizing some parts of PBL, but we need to fill in the gaps. For example, I collaborated with a classroom teacher on a poetry and songwriting unit, where students wrote their own poems, which developed into a song. This project could easily be transformed into PBL with the addition of a driving question and a public audience. This checklist could help direct us in the right direction when revamping current projects using a PBL focus.

PBL is an exciting focus to explore in the coming year. How do you incorporate PBL? What were the best resources when you began your PBL journey? What training do you think is absolutely necessary?