Two Sides of the Same Coin

This image of a spinning coin reveals not only that it’s possible to view both sides of a coin simultaneously, but that it’s lovely. Reading and writing are two sides of the same cognitive coin. Carol Booth Olson’s book,  The Reading/Writing Connection, has helped me teach reading and writing skills hand in hand for years. Similarly, as I pursue my Innovative Educator Certificate with CUE, I realize that Exploring and Sharing are both sides of a different coin called Learning. So, as I explore, expect me to share with my cohort colleagues in social media and in this blog as well as the one I’m creating for my e-portfolio, not just to document my learning but to expand it with the comments of others. I’m already finding that, as I spin and blend the sides, it’s lovely.


Why isn’t PBL everywhere now? Or Grandma’s Lasagna


Photo source:

My students have had tremendous success with 20% Time Projects aka Genius Hour, a variant of Project-Based Learning. Research has documented the benefits of learning this way and increases in standardized test scores. So why isn’t PBL everywhere now?

This article lays out a sensible description of the barriers and suggests changes. It’s a bit self-serving, but the author’s not wrong. His metaphor of Grandma’s lasagna is perfect. How can you expect people to want to make lasagna from scratch if they’ve never tasted it, much less possess the time or desire to work that hard when no one around them is doing it? PBL is delicious! Share it with your friends. Make your own.

20% Time — Igniting Passion — Week 1

You know how everyone seems to think working for Google would be career nirvana? (If you don’t, watch The Internship starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Or not. It’s pretty silly.) Free food, free haircuts, on-site health care, and the list goes on.

But the most relevant Google perk to my classroom is 20% time, which has exploded into a revolutionary educational movement, even as Google itself seems to be backing away. At Google, employees are (were) encouraged to spend one day a week working on projects of their own choosing, a policy which resulted in Gmail and Adsense. It’s based on the premise that knowledge workers are most valuable when granted protected space in which to tinker.

In education this has morphed into the notion that students learn best when granted protected space in which to explore. First, this is NOT “let students run wild in the classroom one day a week.” Rather, it is choice-driven learning in “protected space” that includes guidance, resources, collaboration, and authentic accountability. For more details, see the myriad of resources from thoughtful and experienced educators such as Joy Kirr, Kevin Brookhouser, Kate Petty, here and in your own Google search.

Two weeks ago I alerted my students and their parents (at Back-to-School Night) about our 20% Time plans; this week three sections of my juniors and seniors began the process with brainstorming and freewriting. I elected NOT to show them samples of completed projects because I didn’t want to stack the deck in favor of videos or websites or other forms of products. I want each student’s product to emerge organically from the research and learning. My choice resulted in awesome “pros” and predictable “cons.” Some students remain befuddled about the purpose and endgame. The notion of CHOOSING what to learn as opposing to BEING TAUGHT was utterly foreign. I have yet to ignite the passion that will drive their exploration. But for those who were already obsessed with anime or photography or cars or “I’ve always wanted to. ….”, well, they were positively giddy.

So far my students plan, for example, to build a car (in process, will document his learning from this point forward); to create an art book of original poetry, drawing, photos and songs; to learn how to and to knit a collection of scarves, probably Harry Potter-themed; to develop a yoga web site with information tailored for individual body type and goals; to make a YouTube channel and graphic novel in the style of an admired artist; to write a song and have Beyonce perform it; and to cure cancer.

Admittedly, the last two are ambitious for one semester or even one school year. But the assessment of success is not in the actual PRODUCT (cure for cancer), but in the authentic learning PROCESS (as documented in blog posts, weekly check-ins, productive use of class time, interaction with mentors and with other project participants). So, if my aspiring songwriter publishes his work on Soundcloud and receives some authentic positive feedback from musicians other than Beyonce, that’s wonderful. If my ambitious cancer cure seeker learns from organizations she believes are on the most effective track for a cure and helps with fundraising, she’s on the right path.

My project for a greenscreen kit funded and we just received it. Instead of setting it up in my crowded classroom, I took advantage of our librarian’s offer to keep it in a collaboration conference room in the library that has IdeaPaint on the walls. I brought my students there to inspire them to incorporate videos with creative backgrounds into their products and just to play with writing on the walls. One girl wrote out a poem she’d written last week which inspired a group to join her in creating a book of original poetry, art and music. I just got out of the way….

Next year, I will probably introduce the process of creating a blog and collecting research BEFORE brainstorming ideas. My blog lesson is next week, but some students have already collected websites and images and writing about their learning process that they will need to transfer to their blogs. I dislike wasting time and energy this way.

Please let me know if you have any thoughts or ideas as we move forward with our 20% Time Projects.

My First Project!

Subject: Help me build a better classroom

Hi Friends,

I want to make sure my students have the materials they need to succeed, so I just created a request for my classroom at

Make Stuff and Share — Digitally with Chromebooks

Give to my classroom by September 3, 2014 and your donation will be doubled thanks to Just enter the code INSPIRE on the payment page and you’ll be matched dollar for dollar (up to $100).

If you chip in to help my students, you’ll get awesome photos and our heartfelt thanks.

Thanks so much,

P.S. If you know anyone who may want to help my classroom, please pass this along!

Be. Here. Now.


(This post originally appeared in my experimental blog on July 20, 2014, before I decided to reactivate this one.)

I just returned from my silent meditation retreat in the high desert, refreshed and re-energized. My wonderful experience affirmed a truth shared by many spiritual traditions (and education), that is, the importance of being fully present. In education we call it “student engagement.” It’s that magical zone where students lose track of time, where they look up and ask, “can I work on this at home?”, where their challenge just slightly exceeds their skills so that they are in FLOW and learning happens. I wish it were possible to be in this state more often.

“Be” means to exist, not to plan for the future, not to act or to move, not to reflect on the past, not even to think. It actually encompasses all the senses as well as the mind.

“Here” refers to this exact place. Once again, not somewhere in the future (like the college you want to attend) or in the past (that year when you were the best on the team), not another place (a different classroom or home or city), not another spot (closer to the stage or further from a noxious smell). THIS place is what “is” real as opposed to imagined or desired.

“Now” refers, of course, to the present moment, not longing or yearning for the past, not expecting or projecting into the future. It’s stopping to smell the roses instead of focusing on earning a ticket to get another ticket to that perfect experience that society has told you to desire. “Now” is our reality at every moment. “Before” is over, and “later” may never come.

That’s it. I have no treatise on the meaning of life. I have no concrete activities to share or research to cite. Just a statement on this day following this experience — a reminder always to:


Days 2 and 3 of CUE Rockstar Teacher Camp – What – How – Why


So much to distill down to a manageable blog entry! Here it is: What – How – Why And above is my distillation in the form of Sketchnotes.

On Day 2 of CUE Rockstar Teacher Camp in Manhattan Beach, I attended Jen Roberts’ session on Writing and Citing with Google Tools and Victoria Olson’s session on Screencasting basics.

1 – I’ve said it before — Jen is a goddess! The beauty of her session was that she focused on our primary task (critical thinking and writing instruction),THEN identified some uber useful tools and demonstrated their use. Granted, we didn’t get to create as much original material in her session as in others, but we got access to Jen’s stuff and, more importantly, got to PICK HER BRAIN! All of us were happily late to lunch. 😉

2- Ironically, I had uploaded almost all the tools Victoria listed in her session description, but never learned how to use them. She, too, provided the What and How, by modeling with us how she introduces the process to her little guys with Explain Everything. (I’d love to be one of her students!) We got to make something simple on any topic we wanted for our first project – mine was about Knitting, of course (this is the YouTube version of it). Then she practiced more advanced techniques and had us make a second project we could use in class. (Mine’s not finished, but I didn’t want that to stop me from posting this.)

On Day 3, I focused more on “How” and especially “Why” in sessions by Karl L-S on 20% Time and by Moss Pike on Design Thinking for Innovation.

3- Last year I had dipped my pinkie toe into the world of student choice in long-term content creation by having my AP English Language class make TEDtalks after AP Exams concluded. Karl’s materials confirmed that it’s worth diving into the deep end with #20TIME. It leads to incredible engagement and learning. I love that Karl is so transparent – he explained his lessons learned from his missteps as well as his successes. His materials also gave me a great start in putting on paper (well, in a Google Doc) concrete plans for my classes later this month. (gulp!)

4- Moss introduced me to a new way of looking at problem-solving and critical thinking, at  “why” we teach, or going “deep.” My biggest takeaway is that INNOVATION IS A SKILL, a muscle we all have that we can exercise and fine tune to address future questions and problems we haven’t yet imagined. Our small group tacked Teacher Time Management. We identified the key parameters of our “wicked problem,” but, sadly, didn’t have time to come up with permanent solutions. Just collaborating was a fabulous start, though. I was STILL mulling over design thinking as I was going to bed. It’s that powerful.

More on “why” — the day began with a lovely, inspirational video called the First Follower – Dancing Guy about leadership. Interestingly, it ties to a video Moss showed at the end of my day called “Moonshot Thinking” about nurturing the human impulse to dream and achieve.

CUE Rockstar Teacher Camp nudged me more on that path as I help my students do the same.

Storytelling and Connection

On Saturday (while watching poor Brazil lose to Netherlands for 3rd place in the World Cup) I read a tweet from one of my favorite educators on Twitter, Amy Burvall (or @amyburvall): “Big ideas from Jonathan Gottschall’s “Man, the #Storytelling Animal” @johnkao”

Storytelling Animal

So, of course, I had to click the link, then, of course, I had to download a sample chapter of Gottschall’s book for my Kindle, and, of course, I had to order the book itself. Essentially, it posits that humans make meaning through stories. This resonates with me as a reader, but also as a literature teacher and writer. Ironically, though, I spend much of my teaching and writing time presenting ideas or conclusions in lessons and essays, not stories.

What this brief, but pithy, episode on the internet reminded me is to make sure my students hear my stories and CREATE their own stories or, at the very least, CONNECT the ideas in my lessons to their own stories.

I can’t wait for the fall!