What do we do when students don’t know seemingly everyday words?


When is the last time you encountered words (in English) that you didn’t know? How did it impact your understanding? How did it make you feel?

I encounter unfamiliar words once in a while, but I honestly can’t recall a recent example. The last time I was truly stymied by vocabulary was my sophomore year in college, in a poli sci class. I remember reading a challenging text and stumbling over words like “diaspora” and “hegemony.”

There were so many unfamiliar terms that I couldn’t make sense of the reading at all. I was so frustrated that I was nearly in tears by the time I got to my TA’s office hours.

Why write about this now?

In the past week, I’ve had several conversations about vocabulary with colleagues, and they helped me realize that I might be overlooking critical vocabulary deficits in my students. (This is caused by their lack of reading, but that’s another subject.)

Sure, I know that my AP Macro students don’t know what “expenditure,” “propensity” and “aggregate” mean. I know that my AP Psych students don’t know what “longitudinal,” “adaptive” and “conditioning” mean. We discuss and define those words in class; they are part of the explicit course content.

But what about more common words like “prior,” “preference” and “novel”? I’d like to think that high school students come into class knowing these, but unfortunately, many of them don’t. They see the words “novel stimulus” on a test about infant development, and they are baffled.

This deficit not only makes learning the subject more difficult — it makes students lose confidence in their abilities. What’s worse than realizing you are lost in a text or conversation?

So what should we do about it?

When I was in high school, English teachers always assigned us vocabulary workbooks – no doubt aimed at boosting our SAT scores. We had to define – and use in a sentence – all sorts of words we never used again, like “traduce”  and “unctuous”.

I promptly forgot most of them, so that doesn’t seem like the best approach.

Nor is it good enough to merely use the words in class. Too many students are willing to let unfamiliar terms brush past them – without asking – because it’s too embarrassing to speak up, and they’ve grown accustomed being confused.

One option is to simplify our readings and tests, like we do (quite reasonably) for English language learners. No one expects a new English speaker to know a word like “hinder,” so it’s fine to replace it with “make difficult.”

But if we do this over and over — for our fluent English speakers — we’re just contributing to their vocabulary deficit. When they meet any college text, they’ll be hindered, to say the least.

Nancy Fenton, a rock star AP Psych teacher at Stevenson High School in Illinois, includes a handful of words like “prior” and “novel” — words that appear on tests but aren’t necessarily psych terms — in each unit study guide. She’s taken the time to figure out which words show up frequently and really impede her students’ understanding. That’s a great idea.

Another strategy is to ask students to put unfamiliar words on Post-its or online Padlets to share anonymously, so they can ask for help without feeling self-conscious. I’m sure I’d be surprised by the words that show up, but at least I would be aware.

Then how do we get students to internalize and remember these words?

I might need to ask an EL or language arts teacher for help with that, but ignoring the vocabulary deficit is definitely the wrong approach. We can’t very well expect students to be successful if they don’t know what we’re talking about.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush


Let’s give our students better role models – and more ways to pursue ‘success’

Eddy Kwon (second from right) with MYCincinnati. Used with permission.

This was a difficult year at our high school. We lost two students and several recent graduates to suicide. The losses weighed heavy on our community, and students responded with petitions and other initiatives calling for less stress, more understanding, and more help dealing with mental illnesses, especially anxiety and depression.

The student newspaper ran an article headlined, “Does Mounds View have a problem?” — and I think we were all starting to think the answer might be yes. Many of our students are very driven, sleep-deprived and stressed out, and perhaps it’s gone too far.

But then the past few weeks happened. The shocking news that suicides are up 25% in our country since 1999 — and up 40% in our state. Then Kate Spade. And Anthony Bourdain.

And suddenly it seems the problem is not ours — not our school’s, specifically — but our nation’s problem, our culture’s problem. What are we doing to ourselves? Why is despair on the rise? Why are so many people living in misery behind their shiny facades?

When I talked with other teachers at the AP Economics reading in Cincinnati last week, they said their students are having the same experience — the same ramped-up ambitions, the same flagging high school spirit, and the same struggles with anxiety and depression.

Welcome to the hyper-competitive, unsustainable, empty-feeling 21st Century. I felt so hopeless. How can we change our schools and communities and combat this malaise? 

But then I found a ray of hope in Eddy Kwon.

Eddy, a former student, had reached out through Facebook earlier this year, and when I found out he was living in Cincinnati, I suggested we meet up while I was there grading. We had dinner, and he filled me in on his past 10 years.

Let me say first that Eddy was an amazingly talented high school student — a musician, an actor, a writer, an editor, an all-star at pretty much everything he did. Like many of our high-achieving students, he could have done anything. He went to the University of Cincinnati to study classical music and conducting, but he soon realized it wasn’t a good fit.

So he started doing other things. Playing gigs around Cincinnati. Engaging in social activism. Changing his major to jazz. His pursuit of a purpose led him to help found MYCincinnati, a free after-school youth orchestra in west Cincinnati, and he became the director in 2015.

The program — which uses music as a vehicle for social change — has grown from 11 students its first year to 120. The staff — once two people — is now 15. 

A few days after we had dinner, I got to see some of Eddy’s MYCincinnati students perform during a show called “Lost Generation” at Cincinnati’s Fringe Festival. The students’ music was beautiful, haunting and professional, and it was obvious that they adore Eddy.

More pertinent to the topic at hand, it was obvious to me that Eddy finds his work (and his life) deeply meaningful. Here is this stellar young adult, who had every opportunity to “get ahead” financially, build a huge resume and rack up big credentials in our society, and instead he’s built a life based on purpose.

He told me about the work his group is doing to give students a place to belong, help families achieve homeownership, and build community in Cincinnati’s underserved Price Hill neighborhood. He also told me that he’s worked long hours for many years for not so much pay, but that’s OK.

I asked Eddy what motivates him, and he said: “I’m motivated by the idea that ‘small is all’ — that, like fractals, the micro reflects and shapes the macro. There are many avenues of social and political change that I cannot access. But, through engagement with my own, personal creative practice, I can find a deep, transformative, and life-affirming peace. I can share this process with my students, and together, slowly, we can create the kind of community in which we want to live.”

That’s it. Eddy is one of the most accomplished, most content young adults I know — and yet none of what he is doing fits this checklist-for-success approach our teenagers have bought into. His life, his work, is the exact opposite of what our students think they want for their lives.

After our conversation, I wanted to box him up and bring him home, so I could share him with our school community (and the world). I want our students to hear his story so they can start thinking differently about success — and who they want to be in this world.

Eddy’s path isn’t for everyone. I know that. I’m not suggesting that the solution to our growing collective despair is for us all to renounce “highly competitive” colleges and professional careers and become community activists.

But I think his story has something to teach all of us — as teachers and parents — about how we talk to young people about their futures and who we use as role models. Success isn’t a TV show or a powerful position or a big paycheck or a fat resume. That’s clearer than ever. It’s finding something you truly believe in and dedicating your life to it, and Eddy has found it.

Learn more about MYCincinnati: Shostakovich ConcertSnatch Me UpZiyad’s Story.

End this year on a thoughtful note

woman wearing gray long sleeved shirt and black black bottoms outfit sitting on gray wooden picnic table facing towards calm body of water at daytime
Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

It’s the end of another school year, and that means lots of lists, lots of dotting i’s and crossing t’s.

Check in the textbooks. Box up the classroom shelves. Try to impose order on the chaotic school-year filing system.

Then, return the IEP/accommodation plan binders to the office. Turn in final grades. Report progress toward this year’s official improvement goals.

Check, check, check.

The end of the year always brings a sense of accomplishment and closure, but it also brings a roller coaster of emotions: sadness, exhaustion, irritation, impatience, relief. We love our students; we’ll miss them; and sometimes we’re tired of them, ready to see them go.

Somewhere in this process, we need space and time for a little more serious reflection on how this year went — and what we could do better next year. Rather than slamming the door on this year’s grade book and breathing easier once the most challenging kids leave for the last time, we need to actually stop, think and learn from our year.

Here are some questions to consider as you’re grading the late tests and shredding the old bubble sheets. Not as an administrative hoop to jump through, but just for you.

  • What was my greatest (or most surprising) victory this year? For me, it was seeing how much better my AP Macro students performed when I flipped the class and gave them class time to work through problems, rather than listen to me lecture. Also, I managed some fairly challenging parent emails without getting frustrated or flustered this year!
  • What was my worst mistake or biggest disappointment? I hate this question, but it’s necessary. I didn’t pay close enough attention to two of my senior boys, who were floating by just above passing. I was so focused on my overwhelmed freshmen that I didn’t notice quickly enough when these seniors started to trend lower.
  • Which relationships need more attention? Relationships with colleagues. I’m part-time, and I’m not in the building in the afternoon, and this is the first year I rarely made it to lunch with my department. I regret that because I work with great people, and I feel disconnected now. I miss their insight, as well as their humor. I need to make more effort next year.
  • What did I learn from my students? Among many things, I learned that performance doesn’t capture a student’s experience. One boy, who struggled all year, shocked me by thanking me last week for making Psych class so interesting. If it hadn’t been so engaging, he said, he would have stopped coming. He’s going to take it again in college, possibly even pursue it, despite the difficulties he had.
  • If I had it to do again, what would I do differently this year? This could be a long list. #1? I wish I would have used more team-learning in Psych and given them more opportunities to discuss and apply the concepts they were learning. That’s also on the agenda for next year.

I hope you have a wonderful end to the school year and a restful, recuperative summer!

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

Our students want to do work — when it’s work that matters


I love this story from last week’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune about North High students presenting research on social issues at a recent University of Minnesota symposium.

One student presented his research on police brutality. Another her work on disparate maternal mortality rates for black women. Other topics included domestic abuse, poverty and immigration.

The students surveyed their peers, researched the problems, and proposed their own solutions.

The article points out: This was “a rare opportunity for the students — mostly freshmen — to make their work for an audience rather than just for a grade.”

This is incredibly important and far too rare.

One of the best ways we can hook students — especially adolescents who feel disenfranchised — is to give them the chance to do authentic work, tackling real-world problems they care about. Then let them share their work with the world.

In research for my book, Beat Boredom, I found many incredible examples of this kind of work.

Students conducting their own inquiries into the quality of their local soil and water supplies.

Students (even in youth detention facilities) learning farm-to-table food preparation.

Students creating documentary films, collecting community history through interviews, founding their own service-learning ventures, developing underwater robots that can remove oil from a shipwreck.

In every case, the students were deeply motivated by the chance to do “authentic” work. And yet, these learning experiences still merit newspaper headlines because they are too few and far between.

If you’re not convinced this kind of work is valuable, consider the Academy of Information Technology and Robotics in Florida. The school recruited low-performing students and taught them all of their subject matter through six-week team challenges.

In one challenge based on the television series CSI, students learned about DNA, as well as learning trigonometry to help with blood spatter analysis, physics to help with bullet trajectories, and the history of the FBI.

At the end of every unit, students presented their findings to community members who work in related fields. By the end of freshman year, these students were surpassing their peers in other county schools; 97 percent scored in the midrange or above on the ninth-grade biology exam.

So don’t just read the North High story and smile and think of this teacher in isolation. Think about what we can do every day in our classrooms to make student learning both relevant and real. Think about how we can design science experiments, writing assignments and research projects that get our students out of the classroom and into their communities.

If we want our students to care about learning, we need to give them important problems to tackle. Not some day – but now.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush


Teaching writing is everyone’s job

(c) Can Stock Photo / thepoeticimage

Nothing is more difficult to teach — at least at the K-12 level — than writing.

You can teach kids vocabulary terms and math formulas and scientific principles all sorts of ways, both good and bad. You can lecture, assign reading, assign videos, hand out worksheets, develop experiments, create matching games.

But no one can learn to write by hearing about it, reading about it, watching videos, using flashcards or playing games. Every individual has to actually do it in order to learn how.

What makes this more difficult is that we can’t assess student writing using a multiple-choice test or even, if we’re honest, a finely tuned rubric. Evaluating student writing is always subjective, and it requires extensive, individualized feedback and hands-on guidance from a careful and reflective reader. Talk about time-consuming!

Unfortunately, our response to this challenge has been to assign less writing or to teach students writing through formulas, like the old “five-paragraph essay.” (My editor once told me this format is so widely discredited that no one is teaching it anymore — and yet, my students have all learned it. Hmmm.)

Or the new “claims-warrants” structure — which I honestly don’t even understand.

When I was in elementary school, it was “7 steps to a good report!”

The justification for these methods is “If not this, then what?” But every attempt to break down writing into a formula ends with students asking questions like:

How many paragraphs should my paper be?

And how many sentences in each paragraph?

Seriously? Is that what writing is? (How many paragraphs should a blog post be?)

How many times in your post-academic life have you been asked to write anything that fits this kind of formula? For most of us, the answer is “never.”

So what do we write — and how — once we get out of school and into a workplace?

For most professionals and many non-professionals, writing is a critical skill. At the very least, you have to be able to write a resume, a cover letter and clear, coherent, appropriately toned emails.

In many jobs, you also have to be able to write data analyses, research reports, proposals, contracts, promotional campaigns, persuasive sales talks, job evaluations and complaint letters. You have to be able to clearly express a point and support it with reasoning and evidence, in a whole host of different disciplines and venues.

I’m not arguing here that we should only teach “real world” writing in school. I value the humanities, and there’s definitely a place for teaching creative writing, poetry, and literary analysis. But we can’t only teach English-class-style writing, and we have to help our students learn to break out of that mold.

What’s the answer? I’ll take my cue from higher ed. At the University of Wisconsin, “helping students improve their writing skills is a responsibility for all faculty” (https://www.uww.edu). Similarly, teaching writing in our own disciplines — and helping students understand where writing fits in subjects like chemistry, math and economics — is a shared responsibility for all high school teachers.

I propose we each assign at least one full-on writing assignment each year. And that we be prepared to coach our students along the way, rather than giving them a fill-in-the-blanks formula.

Accept that it’s subjective. Accept that it’s a challenge. Do it anyway.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush 


Why I actually like AP season

pexels-photo-261909.jpegThere are a lot of reasons people hate the AP (Advanced Placement) program.

To start with, the stress of AP testing season, which is upon us. Then the fact that some colleges no longer give credit for passing AP tests, so it feels like wasted money.

Some people hate AP because they don’t believe high school is an appropriate venue for college-level classes. Some say high school classes can’t possibly recreate the college class experience.

Some hate the fact that privileged students have more access to AP programs than disadvantaged students. (I’m with them — I hate that too.) And finally, some people hate what they perceive as outside interference in school curriculum — the same reason they hate Pearson and other testing companies.

I’m not one of the haters, though. I know AP is far from perfect, and we need to make access more equitable, but let’s be honest — it’s one of the few forces driving us to actually provide rigorous high school experiences. Graduation requirements certainly aren’t doing it.

(Caveat: I am an AP grader and also a College Board consultant. I’m not writing this for the College Board, nor will they read it. I sought out these positions because I think AP is valuable — not the other way around.)

So, caveats aside, why do I like AP?

#1 It was great for me. I took 7 AP classes and tests back in the early 1980s, and those classes prepared me for college like nothing else. I felt sorry for my college classmates at Michigan who had to take Calculus I in gigantic lecture halls. I learned it from my high school teacher, Mrs. Duke, who knew her stuff AND cared about me. Same for my introductory bio and chem classes.

#2 It was great for our kids. Both of our sons took a bunch of AP tests, and both of them saved us money on college credits — which is no small thing these days. They also had no trouble moving on to higher-level courses based on their knowledge from high school AP classes.

#3 You might not like the curriculum or the test, but it IS written by a collaboration of college professors and expert high school teachers. These aren’t paid hacks just writing questions for a test bank. They know their stuff — better than I do. And because I trust them to set the right learning targets, I can focus on coaching my students to meet them. (It removes the temptation to water down the curriculum.)

#4 AP teacher workshops are (usually) not a waste of time. Teachers often complain about PD because it seems to focus on the wrong things — technology, grading and differentiation (which no one explains very well) — rather than on how to better teach students in our content area. In AP workshops, I’ve actually learned content and valuable teaching strategies. I’m trying to pay it forward now.

#5 Even if some colleges don’t give credit for AP, many more do, and that’s still motivating to many students. They are more willing to challenge themselves because of that AP score, and that means they build deeper understanding in the process.

I know it’s not a perfect system. I wish AP teachers had as much flexibility with our courses as actual college professors do, so we didn’t have to pack so much into a semester. I wish AP was more like International Baccalaureate, so we could reduce the amount of multiple choice and allow for more nuance.

I wish students were more willing to take challenging non-AP courses, which sometimes get overlooked. And of course, I wish the testing season didn’t cause students stress.

But when it comes to the long list of tests our students take — state tests, common core tests, final exams, ACTs, SATs, and so on — I still think AP tests are the most valuable. And I hope my students crush it next week.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

College admissions IS a mania, but that doesn’t negate the value of hard work

yale-university-landscape-universities-schools-159490.jpegIt’s college decision season, so the internet is filled with chatter about the insanity of the current college application process. The main themes are anxiety and frustration.

Anxiety driven by the fear that nothing short of a perfect GPA, multiple leadership positions, a resume full of volunteering and a patent will ensure college admission and future success.

Frustration in response to the reality that a hard-working teen can take every AP class, get a perfect ACT score, play cello and star on the basketball team and still not get into Harvard — or even a top-ranked state university.

A lot of commentators (for example, this blog from Thera-Mom) are pushing back against the rat race of college admissions and the high-achievement culture, saying it’s a mania, that it sends the wrong message, and that neither your high school GPA nor what college you attend really matters in the end.

The message is: Have more fun, relax, go to more school dances — and stop worrying so much about college.

I’ll be honest — I’m struggling with that response.

My own kids went through this process just a few short years ago — one ending up at a competitive private school, the other at a major public university — and I watch dozens of students navigate it every year, so I get it. The admissions process for elite schools is excruciating, and it creates widespread disappointment and disillusionment.

But have we really failed our kids by asking them to aim high?

Are we really working them too hard in high school?

And is it really true that none of this matters?

I think asking kids to aim high — to take challenging classes and work hard in them — is generally a good thing. We still have far more teenagers in the U.S. who are under-challenged in high school than those who are over-challenged. (The average American high school student does less than one hour of homework per night.)

We still demand much higher commitment from our students for their sports teams than their academics.

And most of those who challenge themselves academically, even if it doesn’t get them into Harvard, will reap lifelong benefits from their effort.

I have 70 freshmen enrolled in AP Macroeconomics right now, and I’m sure many people would consider that insane. Why work 14- and 15-year-olds that hard? Why push them to learn something they could perfectly well wait to study as 18- or 19-year-olds?

If you could visit my classes, you’d see 70 freshmen thriving, learning, talking about important issues — and finding meaning in their work. (And making Keynesian and Classical paper hats for fun.)

Many Macro students come back and tell me later that this class taught them how to study, taught them how to learn. For too many, it’s the first time they have ever been challenged in their K-12 education. Most value the experience, and not just for their resumes.

But what about the pressure they put on themselves to get into an elite school?

This is where the problem lies. The misguided belief that following a specific recipe or formula will get you into the “best” college. This is what we need to address. Of these 70 Macro students, maybe a handful will get into a highly selective college. Most won’t.

The truth is that every year, more and more highly qualified students are applying for college. (Ask anyone who teaches at a second-tier college, and they’ll tell you the quality of their student body is better than ever. It’s a spillover effect.)

There are just more amazing students than there is space at a few prestigious colleges. So what do we, as educators and parents, do?

I don’t think the answer is to tell our teenagers that none of this matters.

In fact, I think it’s disingenuous to say “it doesn’t matter if you go to Stanford” — and students pick up on that. There are advantages to attending a highly ranked college, like learning from incredible faculty members who are leaders in their fields. Getting recruited by firms like Google. Having roommates with incredible life experiences.

But getting into one of those colleges is about as likely as making it into the NFL or winning a free trip to Europe. Even if you’re highly qualified, it’s just not that likely. It’s not you — it’s them. And it’s not the end of the road.

We need to make sure kids know that and don’t make too much of the expected rejection.

Even more importantly, we need to change the narrative around hard work, discipline, and tenacity in high school.

We need to talk more about why building your knowledge and skills — your human capital — is inherently important, not just as a means to an end.

We need to make sure that when our students are working hard, they are doing work that matters to them and feels meaningful, not just as a letter grade on a transcript.

Hard work probably won’t get you into Harvard, that’s true. No one really knows what will. But hard work will take you a lot of great places in life, and that’s reason enough.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

The grading is the hardest part

(c) Can Stock Photo / thepoeticimage

For all the time we spend talking about assessment, we don’t spend nearly enough of it talking about time. I mean the time it takes to grade everything.

In an ideal world, our work would look like this:

Students learn a new concept, like the flaws of Keynesian fiscal policy.

Students have several opportunities to practice with the concept — for example, graphing crowding out, explaining the net export effect, and analyzing the pro-cyclical behavior of state governments — and receive feedback on their efforts.

Finally, students work on an authentic task, like evaluating the U.S. government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis, which the teacher can assess using a carefully constructed rubric.

At every step in the process, students are given multiple opportunities to show what they know and can do, and the teacher can provide meaningful feedback and, ultimately, a legitimate grade.

It sounds too good to be true — because it is.

I’m teaching part-time (four out of five classes) this semester, and I still have 120 students in my AP Macro and AP Psych classes. When on earth would this all get done? I do like to sleep, eat, exercise and spend time with my family.

In the past week (thanks to my commitment to using authentic assessments and problem-based learning), I’ve received 70 final draft research essays, 30 semester-long psych experiments, and 30 student-made videos explaining psychological disorders. That’s on top of daily formative quizzes and a pile of late work and developing new lesson plans — oh, and I’m giving summative tests in both classes next week.

It’s anxiety producing.

Teachers like me are justifiably skeptical of any innovation that threatens to put even more grading on our plates. What we need are sustainable solutions.

Here are a few tips that have helped me, as I’ve worked to make my assignments more engaging and meaningful — and my grading more useful and accurate.

1 – Keep on top of the little stuff. That means grading any quizzes and homework assignments first every day, just to keep the pile down. It’s good for me, psychologically, to check one thing off the list — even if I know it’s a small thing. And it gives students quick feedback.

2 – Don’t try to grade anything complicated during class. If you think you’re going to get two essays graded while students work on problems, you’re wrong. They’ll have questions, and you’ll get frustrated. Don’t try. You’re better off circulating, encouraging them, and offering targeted help.

3 – Do let students “exchange and grade” on low-stakes formative tasks. In AP Macro, at this time of year, we start class every day with an FRQ. Then we grade them together. Working through the scoring rubric as a class is a key part of their learning, and it saves me time.

4 – Figure out where and when you concentrate best, and save it for the most strenuous tasks. The hardest work I do is grading the research essays. I have to immerse myself in each student’s individual argument, evaluate their evidence, review their sources, and think deeply about their logic. I do this best when I’m cut off from any distractions — like when I’m on a plane or at a hotel. Barring travel, I need to read these at home, as early in the day as possible, with no one else around.

5 – Set reasonable limits. When I’m reading first drafts of essays, I can read six each day. That’s it, and then I set them aside. On second drafts, I can read ten each day. I stick to that. I also set time limits — for example, I won’t work on anything that requires focused thinking after 6 p.m.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the burden of grading. It’s easy to fall behind, leaving students with no meaningful feedback for days or even weeks.

It’s also easy to fix this problem by giving our students less cognitively complex assignments — like only multiple choice assessments. But that’s not preparing them effectively for college or the workplace.

We need solutions that work for us. And now I need to stop writing and dig into today’s batch of essays.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

Moving to PBL is a challenging (but worthy) task for teachers

DSC01337.pngChanging the way we teach is hard. At times, almost overwhelmingly hard.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I was invited to sit in with a terrific group of New Richmond, Wisconsin, teachers who are using my book (Beat Boredom) for a book study.

The 20 teachers in the book study are meeting for two hours each week (4 – 6 p.m.) to discuss each interactive teaching strategy, then trying new ideas in their classes. The group includes teachers from a variety of disciplines — from phy ed/health to agriculture to social studies to special ed — and they are clearly passionate about their work.

It was fun to listen as they shared how they had implemented new discussion techniques in their classes in the past week. One said that instead of writing learning objectives for a class discussion of a story, she let students generate the objectives — and they ran with it.

Another got his students to have a calm, reasoned discussion about Parkland, walkouts and gun control by asking students to list “what you are afraid of” and “what you really want” first, so both sides were more vulnerable and willing to listen.

But when we turned to the week’s new topic, Problem-Based Learning, everyone had more questions than answers.

What background information do we need to give kids?

What is the teacher’s role?

What if the students shut down?

What if they just want to listen and do worksheets?

How will we address all of the standards they are supposed to learn?

The research shows Problem-Based Learning, or inquiry-based learning, is one of the most effective ways to engage students and create deep understanding.

But the “how” is a major barrier.

How do I take a class where I’ve always lectured on fiscal policy or inflation calculations or graphing monetary policy, and turn it into some kind of authentic, student-run, real-world inquiry?

How do I — even with all of the reading and practice I’ve done in this area — advise a Spanish teacher or phy ed teacher or special ed teacher on how to do this with their unique content?

As I sat and (mostly) listened, I realized again the enormity of the task at hand. Embracing PBL means stepping back from all of our assumptions about what school looks like. It means letting go of our expectations about who leads, who follows, and how learning happens. It means diving deep into what matters about our curricular area, and having to let go of some things.

Honestly, I felt a little panicked when I wasn’t able to immediately offer suggestions. What would Problem-Based Learning look like in a Spanish 1 or 2 class, when students really just need to build vocabulary? I don’t know.

It wasn’t until I started writing this blog post, today, that I realized the irony here. Why would I, as an outsider, be able to easily solve this implementation problem? If this was easy, if it could be packaged into a curriculum and sold, it would already be happening.

Figuring out how to implement PBL is, in itself, a perfect, messy, real-world problem. The teachers involved are the ones who can and must solve it, just as their students must be the ones solving inquiries in class.

That doesn’t seem like much guidance, but I do have a few suggestions for those struggling with how to implement Problem-Based Learning. My first tip is to step back from your day-to-day curriculum and ask yourself the big questions, like:

  • What questions are  professionals in your discipline trying to answer?
  • What are problems facing society (or your school or your community) that students are interested in solving, and how can they relate to your class or content area?
  • How can your students use the skills they are learning in your class to solve problems they’ll encounter in the future?

These questions help us identify and frame problems for our students, like “Should we raise the minimum wage to $15?” and “Do teens need more sleep?” and “How could you explain a medical problem if you were on vacation in Mexico?” And that’s where we have to start.

My second tip? Don’t try to do it all at once. Think of one unit, or even just one lesson that you can build around an inquiry this year.

Try it, see how it goes, and make it even better next year. That’s what this learning process is all about. And that’s why it takes passionate teachers who are experts in their subject areas, willing to stretch themselves — and willing to work together.

If you want to learn more about using Beat Boredom for a faculty book study, contact Hello@NeverBore.org. 

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush




The teacher’s way is rarely the only way


Last week, I asked a few hundred of my former journalism students:

Did you ever feel like you received an unfair grade in high school? If so, why was it unfair?

I asked them to share their stories with me, and I received just one — from Alistair.

His experience is good food for thought, so I asked him if it was OK to share it, and he said yes.

Here’s Alistair’s grading story:

When I was a freshman in high school, I had a very stubborn math teacher who would consistently fail me on every assignment and test. This wasn’t because I answered the problems incorrectly, but because I almost never solved them “her way”.

The main reason I didn’t follow her exact method was that at the time my ADHD was untreated and I only paid attention to maybe 20% of the class. This led to me teaching myself how to do the math problems, which would very often differ from her ways (which in my opinion were often needlessly convoluted as well).

I would always answer the question correctly and show my work, but she would give me a zero based on the work I showed. Towards the end of the semester I was literally failing the class, however, I aced the final due to it being multiple choice without needing work to be shown. This bumped my grade up to a D- and caught the attention of my dean who later on notified the associate principal.

After the associate principal interviewed me, my grade was changed to what it would have been based solely on correct answers.

I was reminded of this experience when my math professor in college took me aside to discuss the method I used to solve a problem. Rather than treating it like my high school teacher, however, he praised my method, calling it “prestigious” and “very impressive” and encouraged me to continue to find multiple ways to solve his problems.

There’s certainly debate to be had regarding both teaching philosophies, but I’ve learned, especially in culinary school, that the teacher’s method is almost never the only way.

. . .

What strikes me most about Alistair’s story is that it exists outside of our conversations about grading practices. None of the popular new grading methods (which I wrote about last week) addresses this fundamental problem.

The issue here — and I don’t think Alistair’s experience is unique — is that his teacher was assessing him on too narrow a set of skills, rather than on the big picture: his mathematical thinking and reasoning ability. He was being tested on his ability to memorize a procedure, rather than on his ability to generate viable solutions to a problem, which is a far more valuable skill.

The grading mechanism wasn’t “unfair” exactly, but its priorities were wrong.

To be fair, there are many cases where specific procedures must be taught. It wouldn’t benefit my AP Macro students if I let them develop (and stick to) their own method of measuring unemployment. It wouldn’t help our English students if they never learned punctuation rules. We can’t have students doing science labs without safety protocols or the scientific process.

But we need to distinguish between these essential procedures and the lessons where we can, and should, encourage students to reason for themselves instead. Provide them the tools, and they can figure out so much for themselves — it’s the whole basis of Problem-Based Learning.

And then, assess students on their solutions and their deep understanding, rather than their compliance with our ways of thinking.

I know, it sounds difficult or maybe even impossible. But teachers are doing it, and they’re seeing incredible results. (You can read about Jose Garcia’s STEM classes and Mary Chin’s math classes in my book, Beat Boredom.)

The first step is just to realize that your method probably isn’t the only way — and open your mind to what works for your students.

The kids, like Alistair, will thank you. And the grade will be a much more authentic measure of what they know.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush