and I'm all out of bubble gum…

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

This started out as simply a way of addressing my own personal predilections: I’m tired of trying to build a syllabus on a calendar (the calendar doesn’t present the syllabus in a useful view), or in a spreadsheet (changing dates becomes a chore), so I decided to separate the various issues out and automate as much as I could. The result is a Google Docs spreadsheet that I embed on my course web site, which allows me to think in terms of units and lessons, and which automatically sequences lessons on to class meetings and updates me with notes about those specific days (Moadim L’Simcha, vacation days, etc.).

This is an example of one of my syllabi as the students see it:

In Practice

This turned out to be some pro-level spreadsheet work. I like working in spreadsheets. Not everyone likes working in spreadsheets. This link takes you to a “scratch” version of one of my syllabi (you’re welcome to edit it to see changes — this isn’t live. The organization is thus:

  • There is a worksheet for each unit of the syllabus, named sequentially Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3, etc. (The best way to create a new unit is to duplicate an old one and replace the information).
  • On a unit worksheet, a few of the columns are automatically filled in. You just have to worry about editing the title of the lesson, the lesson description, and the assignment summary. Everything else is filled in automatically.
  • The integrated view of all the units, sequenced together and lined up to days with notes is the Syllabus worksheet.
  • The Meetings worksheet is just a list of days when the class meets (which I entered manually) and any notes about that day specifically that might be helpful for lesson planning.
  • There are a bunch of “working” sheets that you can look at, but don’t edit — they’re collating and organizing all of the units automatically.


This was way more work than it was worth for a single syllabus. But as a tool that I intend to reuse again and again, I’m pretty happy with it and feel good about the investment. It is mildly idiosyncratic, in the sense that it meets my specific needs. But it could be used as a model for other people’s style of syllabus design, separating the schedule from the concepts in a way that makes visualizing the lesson flow much, much easier.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Educational Technology, How To, Teaching, Useful Tools

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As part of my education technology role at my school, I am a member of our high school “Laptop Leaders” group. A few weeks ago, at the end of our first quarter, the Laptop Leaders were asked to document the work they were doing, to create a shared resource, both for themselves and for other teachers. Ultimately, this is preparation for more large-scale adoption of laptops and technology in general as teaching tools in the high school.

The teachers in this Laptop Leaders group were selected last spring, so I joined the group late, at the beginning of the school year and had, really, only a sketchy plan for what I would be working on. The outline (lightly revised) is below. My intention is to share my various write-ups related to this process in this space.

Collaborative Writing and Editing

I’m working with students to develop a class wiki as a collaborative information source, with students contributing class notes, screencasts and other updates and expansions on course content.


I’m working with students to use the class blog as a publication platform for ideas/questions relevant to the greater community in their discipline (e.g. develop [my class] blog into a discussion of [media and design] and related ideas in the outside world).

Social Bookmarking

I’m working with faculty (and students) to use social bookmarking tools (specifically Diigo) to create dynamic and annotated resources for each other (and for and by students).

Social Media

I’m working with faculty and students to develop personal learning networks that tie together all of these Web 2.0 tools to create an online identity and a group of “fellow travelers” studying and exploring the same area. In students’ case, we’re working on this as a class (blogging), but for faculty tools like Twitter (and personal blogs) may also be useful. Also looking at other sharing sites (e.g. Flickr) for use as collaborative tools.

Useful Tools

In the interests of sharing, when I was at my last school, I sat down and created an profile of the handy applications that I use day-to-day. I’ve added this to my profile [on the school wiki], along with a (slowly growing) list of tools that I’ve built for special purposes around school.

Updated November 22, 2009: I should mention that I have Bowdler-ized some of these posts to protect (at least a little), the identities of my students. When posted to our school wiki, there are a number of links to examples. If you pop me an email or a comment and identify yourself, I’m happy to share these examples. Just trying to do some due diligence with regard to my students’ privacy.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Educational Technology, Teaching

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Nate Kogan, writing about his plans for “classroom 2.0” collaborative writing assignments in his history classes in the coming year, notes student resistance to working collaboratively:

While many students seem to dislike group work, I think the resistance stems more from the fear of being saddled with all the work by one’s potentially indolent group-mates rather than from inherent resistance to collaborative work.

[Full disclosure: Nate is my brother-in-law, and I have been following his thoughts about teaching with technology with some interest all summer.]

While studying for my M.Ed., I found myself revisiting the role of student full-time after a decade-long hiatus: it brought me back to the classroom with fresh eyes. The process raised two big pedagogical questions for me:

  1. How do I teach my students to ask questions? Not even good questions, just questions. I realized that, as a long-time A student, I’d never spent much time confused, and therefore hadn’t had to spend much time figuring out how to get unconfused. Over the course of my studies, I realized that this might be the most important thing that I, as a high school teacher, might be teaching any of my students. And, never having been taught (or, at least, never having noticed being taught — merely encouraged to just do it) how to learn reflectively and ask questions that clarify and resolve my areas of confusion… I was (am) a little at sea about how one teaches this intentionally.
  2. How do I teach my students how to work collaboratively? This is, after all, what the real world is about. It’s vanishingly unlikely that my students will find a role for themselves in which they don’t have to work with other people toward a shared goal (okay, one or two of them may turn out to be costumed superheroes or reclusive, genius novelists… but the vast bulk are going to have to play well with others).

I think that these two questions are related: working collaboratively with peers creates a more free-flowing and less performance-anxiety-inducing environment than working independently and presenting to the teacher (and one’s classmates). Or, at least, it can. That environment could, if the stars align and sufficient support and guidance is provided, even result in an setting in which students are free to debate, critique and improve each other’s work. That is, they could learn how to reflect on what they’ve learned and ask questions of each other about that work and the progress that they have made.

In graduate school, I had a wealth of group project experiences. The least successful was my year-long “school developer” project that was, effectively, my master’s thesis with a group of four other students working with a local elementary school to develop a strategic plan for expansion from K-5 to K-8. Lord, this experience was miserable, partly because my Meyers Briggs profile was the complete inverse of my teammates, and partly because we had no idea what we were doing as a team and were thrown into trying to do things before we actually were a team. (It calls to my mind my panicky, parental feelings of inadequacy when my classes have to interact with outsiders early in their time together — I don’t trust them enough to believe that they’ll be presentable, and they don’t trust me enough to believe that I haven’t set them up for a fall or for boredom.) Long story short, the team suffered from terrible group dynamics, mission creep, lousy communication with our “client” school, confusing feedback from our peer teams and professor, and unclear end goals for both the class project and the school’s mission.

The most successful team of which I was a member was actually formed to write a single collaborative paper over the course of the semester. The professor, Janice Jackson — a former elementary school teacher and district administrator and all-around mensch — spent the first half of the semester devoting significant portions of class to not only teaching about group dynamics in the abstract, but giving us time as teams to work through those very dynamics as we learned about them. By the time we had any kind of work for which we were accountable, we were, quite honestly, a little tired of meeting and exasperated at Prof. Jackson. It all felt excessive. However, when we sat down to do our research and write it up, it turned out that all of our (very diverse) Meyers Briggs personalities meshed, that we each had clear roles within the group that we had explicitly negotiated, that we had clear expectations both of each other that we had explicitly stated and of what our end result should be (that we had proposed and had approved by Prof. Jackson, explicitly), and that we felt safe working through early drafts of our paper sections together and receiving what was sometimes drastic criticism and demands for reworking.

The process matters. It really, really matters. And that class with Prof. Jackson was the first time that I had ever worked in a group in an academic setting that had consciously set aside (or had set aside for it) time to figure out how to be a group. That that experience was bolstered by conceptual background in group dynamics surely didn’t hurt. Prof. Jackson gave us both the time and background to develop clear understandings of both the norms of our group and our own roles within the group. And this idea of understanding one’s role in the group, and trusting one’s collaborators to fulfill their own roles and responsibilities, is key to successful collaboration. Without that trust, one ends up either abdicating all responsibility (“yeesh, what a bunch of clowns — there’s no way we’re going to do well, why should I try?”) or striving to fill in all the perceived gaps (“yeesh, what a bunch of clowns — if I want it done right, I’ve got to do it myself.”).

So, how to develop this experience of a trusting, collaborative project with high school students? They’re certainly at a different developmental place than I was at 30 (well, I hope they are — mostly for my sake). I don’t think that loading them down with all the conceptual background and vocabulary that we received from Prof. Jackson will make a sale to them. But I do think that striving to develop that environment of trust and delegation among teammates, with clear understanding of roles is worthwhile.

I’ve tried to do this in a number of settings. When I was working at as an outdoor, experiential educator, I found that large group projects could be done well by delegating specific roles within the project to specific students, thus providing clear accountability for specific portions of the project. My preferred iteration is to work with the students to develop a top-down design (what Wiggins’ confusingly refers to as a “backwards design”) that parcels out the work into self-designed and allocated responsibilities. One iteration of this was to present a large question to the group (“How does human management impact the ecosystem?”) and then help each student develop an area of expertise within the larger question (water, birds, tourism, sound, etc.). The wrinkle is that no student can accurately predict a topic in which they will maintain an abiding interest throughout the project, and therefore slippage and shifting will occur and needs to be negotiated gracefully.

Another approach, which I used last year with my Application Design class as we were working to build a CNC lathe, was to break the project apart into modules with the class, and then solicit volunteers for small teams to tackle each module. We prioritized the modules, and each student was responsible for shifting from module to module as they were interested or the module needed development to support dependent modules of other teams. Students were encouraged to engage with other teams, and sometimes shifted from team to team based on changing interests, but there was always a core student or pair of students who was, at the end of the day, managing each module and responsible at least for rallying other students to that module’s cause.

In both cases, I found that developing clear (and concise — unlike this entry) roles for the students in collaboration with the students gave them significantly more buy-in. Students who engaged with the project were able to throw themselves into it without fear of having to “carry” their peers (each student’s contributions were documented along the way — automatically by Google Code, in the case of the CNC lathe project), and, in fact, over-achieving students tended to provide a catalyst for under-achievers: they asked thoughtful and critical questions, provided assistance and generally raised the intellectual atmosphere a notch or two. Simultaneously, the multiplicity of roles and modules provides enough overlap that if one or two students totally peace out, the rest of the team can gnash their teeth briefly and move on without being hindered or damaged. Where successful, I found that I had students who were pushing me to do more research to support their work and that I was relying on their work and questions to lead the class.

In both cases, I also took some significant time out both early on and throughout the project to step back, examine and work through group dynamics. Not necessarily conceptually, but pragmatically working to resolve issues and grudges (and, not insignificantly, to celebrate and highlight successes). While I strongly encouraged my students to hold each other accountable and to work issues with their teammates out with their teammates, I was also a consultant to individual exasperated students on how to do this, and a general-purpose umpire for the whole team, calling time-out when it looked like a brawl (or tears) was brewing. In my umpire role, I was also able to highlight particularly good or interesting work by individual students or teams for the entire class, providing a clear model of the desired outcomes and behaviors.

August 11th, 2009

Posted In: Teaching

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As we steam towards the end of the year here, I’m watching my next few weeks and, in fact, my summer start to disappear under encroaching project creep. Not that I object too much: most of the projects are pretty cool — in fact, some of them are projects that I’ve been dying to find time to work on during the school year.

I’m painfully aware of my propensity to put off inordinate amounts of work for my next medium-sized chunk of free time. My canonical example is the year in college that I put off about a dozen errands until my Thanksgiving break. Boy howdy, was it ever a rude awakening to realize that Thanksgiving break is only about three or four extra days on the weekend, and probably at least two to four of those days are chock full of commitments to family and friends. Not so much time.

With that in mind, I was fascinated by Steve Pavlina’s article on calculating your fudge factor: that ineffable amount that your horseback estimate of the time necessary for a project is off from reality. My fudge factor is approaching 1.0 for things like driving time — and has been for years. But for coding projects and curriculum development, it might be closer to 3-10 (as in, it takes me 3 to 10 times as long as I plan for).

I’m not convinced that I have Steve’s discipline, but I rather suspect that I can use old data to get some sense of how off I usually am in my time estimates. I have surely made lots of promises archived in my email and then documented my progress (and extensions) in that same medium. Sounds like an interesting project to work on this summer…

Although building an intelligent project monitor that used heuristics to identify project commitments and updates in my incoming and outgoing email and automatically calculated the fudge factor… Now, that could keep me off the street for days at a time. Or weeks. Depends on what my fudge factor is.

May 23rd, 2008

Posted In: Educational Technology

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Spring Break Projects
A rather substantial constellation of coincidental events over the past week has gotten me thinking about how we approach project-based learning: a course-planning conversation with the genial mad scientist whose classroom I share, happening to reflect on my experiences in graduate school last year as I walked past the Kennedy School of Government (not my alma mater), pondering a spring of senioritis, and trying to figure out which of many projects I most wanted to tackle myself over this break, ranging from budgeting curriculum development grants to grading to just plain building code.

Right now I’m starting to overhaul my computer science courses for the 2008-2009 school year, while simultaneously talking with my colleague about a potential joint course in 2009-2010. I have a strong personal preference for project-based learning as a teaching tool because I believe that it provides both an engaging and demanding environment in which students are challenged to learn more in order to do more (rather than just to keep me off of their backs). I also think that projects are an ideal forum in which to draw together the disparate strands of a student’s education — helping them to accomplish an integration for which there is rarely, if ever a formal structure at any level of education. (Perhaps the course on How to Make Almost Anything at MIT is the exception.)

Some of this is based on my experience working with summer programs where we pushed students — during their vacations, in the wilderness — to take on an ambitious personal project over the course of the summer. The outcomes of these projects reflected a great deal of real learning, as well as some very idiosyncratic fascinations. I worked with students who were mapping and analyzing the population of our program over the past three-quarters of a century, students who were focused on writing collections of place-based poetry and short fiction, students who were determined to build a new tool that the expeditions could use in years to come. Anything and everything. But the key was that, by and large, students were genuinely excited about these self-designed projects and put in far longer hours and more effort to complete these projects than they would with normal schoolwork (as I know based on some conversation with their school faculties). Engagement and the discovery of an intellectual passion are no trivial accomplishment for an adolescent summer.

Two summers ago, the faculty reading for my school was Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, a book which raises some interesting questions about the direction of education and economics (I suggest skimming liberally through the early chapters… I think it got interesting around page 600 or so). In large part, Friedman’s argument (which is not novel to the educational world) is that those who are able to integrate knowledge and create and construct new ideas based on that integration will have the whip hand in the world of tomorrow (a phrase normally uttered only in echo chambers).

Where in our schools do we offer those opportunities, practice or guidance for our students to integrate the knowledge that they have learned in each discipline. Certainly our instinctual tendency is often to “silo” that education, each discipline focusing exclusively on its own branch of learning, without substantial interaction with other disciplines, or alternatively engaging with other disciplines only as subservient tools of our own, intrinsically more important, discipline. (God knows I’m guilty of this: I’ll look at anything, so long as I get to write some code to work with it down the road.)

As we each start to move towards a project-based curriculum, rich with alternative assessments and challenges to individual student’s passions and interests… we’re going to burn the little puppies right out. This realization came to me as I walked past the Kennedy School, where I took a superlative accounting course last spring — the only course in which I did not have a final project. None of my final projects connected with any other final project, and several were in areas in which I had but marginal interest. This is not something unique to me: all of our students take classes in which they are only marginally interested, in order to fulfill requirements (yes, I’m starting to think about course selection advising as well!).

If every class is so well-designed that it uses the breadth of our pedagogical knowledge and the entire scope of our educational best practices, no student will be able to take a breath long enough to even start to integrate what it is that he or she is learning through this process. How much more powerful would it be for us to guide our students towards a grand, culminating project that required them to draw on multiple disciplines, integrating their knowledge and uniting their teachers as a team in support of this creative work?

Perhaps this is an overly idealistic rendering of the scene, but as I discussed curriculum planning and projects with my mad scientist friend, it became rapidly apparent that the most interesting projects were those that would require more than just one of us (and often more than just one or two of our friends and colleagues) to accomplish. This will require a culture shift at my school. But it will accomplish three major feats, if done well:

  1. Engagement. These projects will be truly fascinating, whether it’s developing a process for fermenting ethanol, building a room-mapping robot or carving giant toltec figures in the landscape.
  2. Authentic Challenges. These projects are clearly not artificial: students working on real problems (often with real professionals) are challenged to learn real things. With careful design, they might even learn the real things that we want them to learn!
  3. Integration. These projects will drive faculty to role model and guide students through making connections between distinct educational disciplines in new and creative ways, in order to accomplish the overall goal.

So why is there a picture of my cat on a table up above? Because I’m struggling with all of this at once and finding it fairly overwhelming. If you click through and look at the list of texts, you will either wonder if I’m trying to build SkyNet by myself, or if I have technology-induced ADD. I suspect the latter. But my hope is that out of this chaos, I will be able to start to bring first order, and then some new ideas for the coming year. And then maybe I can look at training the cat to stay off the table.

March 13th, 2008

Posted In: Teaching

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