How & Not What

Part 1: The Request:

The following hit my Outlook in-box yesterday morning from our district Public Relation specialist:


I have a tough ask, but I hope that you can help.

Due to the concerns of our students, staff and community around school safety and security, Jamie [Canandaigua District Superintendent] has authorized me to draft a Digest [Our District Community Newsletter] publication that will focus on the District’s response to the tragedy in Parkland, Florida and the difficult issues brought to the public debate in the wake of that crime. We know this is a very sensitive issue that requires real care from us.

Thus, the theme of the publication is that the Canandaigua City School District’s mission is to “teach kids how to think, not what to think”.

I want to develop a central article entitled “How, not What”, so I’d like to gather your perspectives on what “How, not What” looks like in the classroom. What are your thoughts on how skills such as research, inquiry, argumentation supported by evidence, etc. are taught as they relate to how to think, not what to think?

To help you, maybe you could include some concrete examples around such items as [And you’ll see these in the questions below]:

Part 2: The Q& A:

Andy’s questions gave me a lot to think about, and helped me to reflect on my practice. I’ve put his questions below and my responses to his request in red.

How appropriate research technique is actually taught?

If we are really going to emphasize “How, not What” then classroom spaces need to start with questions. Questions that come from teachers to model what good questions look like and then working with student’s to foster curiosity around topics, and develop questions that they want to seek answers to. This is the foundation of the curriculum in the IB, where all courses are driven by inquiry approaches where students are expected to ask questions, and work together to find answers. It culminates in the capstone project, the Extended Essay, which is supposed to expose the student’s ability to engage in sustained, independent research, and reflect what the student has learned about asking important questions and finding answers.

In English 103, students engage in semester long research projects developed around topics they are passionate about, and perhaps more importantly, we ask that these students take their research and work to make it authentic by sharing through creating informative websites, and then ultimately developing arguments written as, again, authentic texts: blogs, wikis, editorials, op-eds, speeches, problem-solving proposals. In this course, students are guided through research—preliminary phases, information collection, evaluation (more below), synthesis, creation. These students get something very similar in approach to what the IB students get. A course in how to conduct college-level research.

In “Media Maker,” student generation of topics and writing is at the center. There is no “content” in the course other than what the students bring. They are asked to ask questions, and then answer them in their blogs and 20-time projects. All of what students create in the course is driven by their own interests. Thus, they are “researching” all the time—through listening to podcasts, reading others blogs, newspapers, articles, following You-tubers.

Another important part of this, and one that I don’t think we do a good job at, is modeling our own curiosity, learning and research. Teachers need to show their students how they authentically learn.

  • how we have students learn about and develop primary and secondary sources?

I think we do a lot of damage with students when all we focus on is primary and secondary and tertiary.  These distinctions are only somewhat helpful to students when we are trying to get them to think about collecting information. Another damage we do is when we get students to think about sources as objects—when a teacher says I want you to collect 5 sources—an article, a website, a newspaper source—we’re having students think about information only in terms of where the information resides.

We need to get kids to think about sources as PEOPLE. Who is giving us this information? What is the person’s bias or perspective? Who does this person work for? What platform is this person publishing on? Who asked this person to create?

Additionally, we need to get students to think about sources not as primary or secondary or article or database, but in terms of their functionality. How is this source being used? How can I or how should I use this source? What about this source must be included or discarded from my work?

Tomorrow Jamie will be talking to all English 103 classes about his recent encounter with Channel 13. We want our students, who are currently working with evaluation of sources and thinking about fake news, to see what happened between what information he had and how it was portrayed. Their story changed the reality of the situation—they created something that is different from what is actually.

  • what we require in the way of “papers” and where those fall on the developmental scale?

Certainly, for many of our students, the academic essay is an important document to learn how to produce. However, we do a disservice to students when all we ask them to produce is a “paper.” When was the last time you wrote an “academic essay” or a paper. Your writing for Gradudates of Distinction, the article you are producing for the digest move outside of the boundaries of this genre. The pieces that Jeanie writes for the first day of school, the BOE presentations that Matt or Jamie create, the emails that come from Jamie—none of these are academic essays or papers. Many of our students are going to need to write leaving CA, and they’ll make arguments—in editorials, presentations, cover letters, blogs…when we think about the product of research only as a “paper” we’re doing damage.

  • how assignments/projects build to mastery and how that skill is reflected/assessed in subject examinations and short answer essays?
  • How we handle the specifics of the Bill of Rights?
  • How we handle discussion of current events in class?

I didn’t answer these questions. I won’t go into that here, but perhaps there’s another blog post in thinking about making some responses as these questions apply to the English classroom. 

Blow It Up

It’s raining.

For several days, I’ve been trapped while working on revising my opening unit of my IB English 11 course. The opening unit is on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Ur-text, A Handmaid’s Tale. It was a bad trapped. Like coffin buried six feet underground and running out of oxygen with mud seeping into the pine box trapped. I was ready to stop. I was ready to fall back on the old unit plan. I was ready to…yep, go all old school and traditional. You all know what that looks like: stand at the podium, point at them for a few questions, write words on the board or Smartboard, read assignments to them, collect to the in-basket.

But, this morning, my run postponed by some much needed rain falling across Upstate New York, I had that moment of clarity. Staring at the Chromebook, it finally came altogether. Maybe in the hero’s journey of unit planning and lesson design, I had the archetypal moment where the rain comes, purifies, and the sun rises on epiphany and enlightenment. Ha!

Old me did the classic AP/IB English teacher move: Pack it all in. When I taught Atwood’s book, my students studied “A Modest Proposal,” “Rape Fantasies,” “Siren Song.” We looked at satire and satirical techniques, tone, formation of tone through diction, imagery, details, language quality and syntax. We looked at conservative social movements in 1980s America. We had three essential questions that we looked at. We looked at feminism. Kids wrote a commentary and did a visual essay. We looked at current events like social movements in the Middle East and declining birth rates. Man, I was good at giving them all a lot of college level content.

After the last time I taught the book, I knew something had to change.

Oh, and I also wanted to add readings from Richard Wrangham’s Demonic Males and Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy. I loved all this stuff, and I was sure to impress upon my students how much I loved it. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t embracing the change.

I’ve had a lot swirling in my head around change: Starr Sackstein’s book Hacking Assessment, stuff from the Buck Institute for Project Based Learning, George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset. I was looking to leverage the power of Schoology, my desire to flip my classroom. How to bring in Edublogs to my IB students? And, I really wanted to bring sincere inquiry to the process of learning between myself and students in my room. My understanding of from all of this is for me to stop talking and give students the opportunity to do it themselves.

How could I combine all that great stuff that I used to do with all the new approaches that I wanted to embrace? Thus, the coffin-like stuck that I found myself in the past few days.

Then, the rain came, and my run was still postponed. I was in Schoology fiddling with the calendar, unit outline, essential questions. I stopped and deleted it all.

I had to burn it down. Blow it all up.

I made a simple decision. We would look at one question in this book. The essential question were going to focus on: Is satire an effective form of political commentary to promote social change?

From this decision, and really this moment of clarity, everything else is falling into place.

The first thing that came after that was the final project. Students will create some kind of satire of a social ill or problem that they’re passionate about. They’ll integrate satirical techniques. They’ll comment on each other’s work. They’ll pick a genre for their satire and a mode to display that satire in.

From there, I was able to start to backwards design the necessary lessons, calendar and timeline, and then figure out what needed to stay and what I could cut away. Then, I was able to design a Grading Outline to show students what needed to be completed to earn a grade in each grade band.

It’s still not all done, yet. I had my moment of clarity about 90 minutes ago, and then I’ve spent about 30 minutes writing this reflection and post. I’m working on it.

Anyway, rain’s stopped. Time to go log some miles!