Thursday, October 8, 2015

Cardboard Can Save Education

My daughter loves school.  She loves her teacher, loves her friends, and loves being a Cricket.  Having said that, she is not the easiest person to get up in the morning.  There are few days throughout the course of the year that she shows up at my bed with that smile that melts your heart and indicates that she is ready for the day.  Those events are (in no particular order)...the first day of school, Christmas, and the day she gets to see her cousins from out east.  That’s it, folks...until this morning.  Today, she gets to show off.  She has been working hard with her partner on their Cardboard Challenge project and today is the day she gets to show that project to the world.  So, when that smile greeted me at at 5:45 AM, I knew what the excitement was all about.  Add that to yesterday’s cardboard boat challenge at the high school and it got me to thinking about the whole process of learning and genuine excitement in schools...all around cardboard projects.  The following clearly resonated with me when thinking about the last 2 days:

The Power of an Authentic Audience
My daughter knew her audience was bigger than the teacher today.
 Though presenting to your teacher is important, and she definitely values the opinion of the leader in the classroom, this was different. Like the other students in 3rd grade today, they created a game out of cardboard, tape, a few sticks, and paint.  They built it from the ground up.  They failed.  They fixed.  They kept working. All with the understanding that whatever they put together was going on display for their peers, all K-5 students, and parents during the event today.  The audience was definitely a factor in the work.  The teams competing in the cardboard boat race were in an even bigger pressure cooker! They had an authentic audience to come and see their projects, but those projects also had to work! My favorite quote came from a freshman… “All we got is cardboard, tape, and a bunch of hope!”
 Most of the boats stayed afloat for awhile, those that did not clearly understood what happened in their construction, but all knew they had a vested interest in the project as they were captaining the vessel. If it did they, and their peers/teachers/parents would all be there to see it.

When we know the work is shared with the world we clearly tend to take it more seriously.  Writing my dissertation was awful.  I had to find time to get to it and loathed looking through the edits.  I knew no one was reading it.  In fact, I placed a $10 bill on page 14 of my dissertation on display in the Cardinal Stritch Library in Milwaukee, WI.  I am certain that when I go back in 10 years to look, it will still be there.  The only audience was my committee.  Fast forward 3 years and I have co-authored 2 books.  I could not wait to work on those. The collaboration with Tony Sinanis, the conversations about how we could change practice, the idea that we could help change the narrative of schools...all drove me to want to write, improve, and tell the story to the world.  The audience was real...and when it’s real, it is easier to see the value in the words.

Ownership of the Learning
Both the 3rd grade kids and the HS kids had standards to attain as part of their project.  Having said that, they all went about the process in different way.  I think there has to be a balance between pure project based learning and essential skill development (specifically at the younger grade levels).
However, when it comes to a predetermined standard, I truly believe that if kids own the process of how they demonstrate said standard, they will put more effort into it.  As adults, we are the same.  Tell me that I have to learn something and spit it out on a piece of paper or online doc...I forget in a day.  Let me own the process and demonstrate that I have gained knowledge in a way that fits my interest and I’ll spend more time doing it.  I want to own it.  Kids want to own it.  The students I have seen in the last 2 days discussing their cardboard creations make it as clear as ever.
We, as district leaders, have a real chance to model this for staff and show them what the power of ownership looks like.  In Fall Creek, we try to treat professional development like Genius Hour or Passion Projects. Find your passion...and let’s help you develop in an area where you want to get better.  
In 3 years, we have never said no to a professional development goal.  We have helped people move through the process and sometimes we have to tweak some language, but if they find passion in their goal, we will help them find a way to make that happen.  Our issue this year was how do we measure those goals in an evaluation system.  Our answer...don’t worry about that now. We’ll deal with it find your passion, and it’s my job to find a way to measure it.  This year we are taking it a step further and allowing staff to demonstrate their learning in any way they choose.  We will still have the forms we have used available, but if there is a different way to show learning that resonates with them...GO! We have to trust people.  Some will put a tremendous amount of time into the process, others will not.  There may be a faction of a group that tries to skirt the process and doesn’t put as much time or effort into getting better. Spoiler alert, folks...the process you are using with them isn’t working either.  We are making decisions based on our best teachers...and our best teachers want voice and choice in the process.  Guess what, the gorgeous little girl who walked into my room at 5:45 wants it too, and I know she is in a place where that can happen.  Go Crickets.


  1. So glad I chose to read this before bed Joe. I'm sure to dream about hope, curiosity, and the smiles of students in Fall Creek, Penngrove, and around the world. Thank you for not only sharing your reflections but also for pushing me as a leader to constantly want to do better. Here's to many more 5:45am mornings.

  2. Phenomenal, Joe! The quote made it for me, "All we got is cardboard, tape, and a bunch of hope!”

    Not only did you talk about ownership of learning, you also got me thinking about a larger audience and personalized PD. Great post. Did anyone make it across the river?

    That project had me thinking of Caine's Arcade.

    Thanks for sharing Joe.