A Shameless Holiday Unplug

One of the most powerful units we ever worked on in our 11th grade English coursework was the Transcendentalists' Unit. Through Emerson and Thoreau, we gained some powerful insights into our sense of self , our "hobgoblins", and what living deliberately is all about.

After reading Thoreau's Walden, we took on personal projects in which we chose a way to "Simplify." The choice was up to the individual. Some gave up their cell phones for 24 hours, some for a week. One student opted not to speak for a month, instead choosing only to listen. Another student abandoned video games and television for a weekend. Still another only sat on the floor or stood.

Then, they wrote about their experiences.

Many of them noted an increased awareness of not only themselves but of others. All noticed an increase in productivity in coursework because, as one student put it, "I didn't have anything else to distract me, so I just did my homework."

As adults, we may smile indulgently and probably with a hint of superiority at this. "Of course you get more done when you don't sit there on that computer all night! Tsk."

Tsk, indeed.

What are we doing? Are we not also iTethered? Are we not also pinning, tweeting, posting, liking and commenting as though our lives depended on it?

I'll be unplugging for the holidays.

No Facebook, no Twitter, no Pinterest, no blogging, no emails. No educational videos on YouTube, no TED Talks, no Google Hangouts, and no checking stats or replying to comments on this blog (at least not for a week or so, please still comment!).

I'm a little freaked, and I haven't even started. : /  Come January, I'll let you know what happened.

In the meantime, I wish you all peace and ease of stress. I wish you joy. I wish you happiness and health. But most of all, I wish you contentment--a commodity so much harder to come by.

Oh, (here's the "shameless" part) and if you get a chance, please Like our Facebook page: Transparent Teaching of Adolescents. Even better, if you've read the book, please consider rating/reviewing it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Get the word out that there is a way to work happily with teenagers!


Rights, Responsibilities, and Teaching

Always Prepped, (@alwaysprepped), an awesome ed tech site, recently tweeted this question to followers “Why do you teach?”  This is my response.

I can tell you that I did not become a high school English teacher because I love children. I do love children, but that’s not the reason why I do it. Nonetheless, it’s a solid reason, and I’m very glad some teachers have it—children, particularly teens, need to feel that love. Nor did I become a teacher because I love my subject. I do love reading and writing, but that’s not it either.

Maybe the question is too poignant in light of the tragedy in Newtown because I keep returning to thoughts of responsibilities and rights.

I teach because I feel that it is my duty to help people, particularly young people, become aware of unrealized potential, to share a perhaps previously unconsidered perspective with them, and to let them know that they are accepted (tattoos, piercings, zits, silliness, weirdness, and all). 

Sometimes, it seems like a one-way street, though, this teaching gig.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m shouting into an abyss (not unlike blogging, really). That’s why I try to make sure that whatever I’m shouting is worthy because it might just “stick”.

For example, Einstein reminds us that “We must realize that we cannot simultaneously plan for war and peace.” 

That’s a discussion worth having with the next generation of leaders. It’s also an analogy worth dissecting. 

Planning for war seems to be something our country does well. Can we even plan for peace? How? Why? What does it look like?  What do our rights have to do with peace and war? Are our rights inherent or bestowed? Who decides? Why? Where do they end and begin? We have the right to go to war, but what is our responsibility for doing so? What is the criteria? Why? If it is our right to have peace, then what is our responsibility for doing so?

Where does a 'right' end and a 'responsibility' begin?  

It was Mrs. Lanza’s right to own a gun and her responsibility to use it wisely and teach her son how to use it wisely. In that, it can be said that she met her legal and ethical responsibilities, her end of the deal. She taught well. Adam, her student, tragically, did not do the same.

But what was she planning for? 

I teach because I want to hear my students' answers and thoughts.

 Reference: Albert Einstein in an interview with Michael Amrine.  Published in Decision magazine and The New York Times Magazine in 1946

Mindy and some of her former students recently published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. 


The Unfairness of "A"

As I sit here, waiting on my essay to be returned from the online writing lab before submitting my final project, I'm struck by the unfairness of my grade in my higher-ed course. Oh, I've got an A coming, but that grade is solely due to the fact that I have a great deal of a precious resource at my disposal:  time.

It's why I decided to return to grad school, actually--because I have the time. Thus, my papers and discussion posts and comments and replies are all spiffy nifty sharp and on-topic. I have fun with my assignments. I relish the reading. And, as I discovered of an online course, time = A. Time = better work, better learning, more creativity, stronger connections to the material.

My classmates, who are desperately submitting things at all hours of the night, do what they have to do simply to get it done. They meet the goals, sometimes barely under the wire, sometimes late. I can imagine they have to skim the multiple chapters from the multiple texts we've had to read each week. I came to the conclusion that my A isn't fair.

Is it fair that we will all be assessed with the same criteria, when we don't have the same amount of time at our disposal?

For that matter, is it fair that we assess our students on the same criteria, given that they are coming at any given assignment with a host of individual needs? Now, I'm not talking about the kid who doesn't have a job (although I don't know too many high schoolers without one) or the kid who has all the latest gizmo gadgets.

I'm talking about that one kid, who, if he didn't have to go to school all day and work part-time so as not to be a financial drain on his family, would be submitting creative, powerful work. Or those who lack other resources, such as family support or access to a computer. This student is submitting the bare minimum to get by. What about him?

Is it fair to assess him by the same criteria, if he doesn't have the same resources?

We could argue of my classmates that they should know what they're getting into. These classmates are full-time teachers, and how they'll ever get the time to complete our huge final project, I'll never know. It has taken me upwards of thirty hours or so, on top of the regular classwork. 

Putting myself in their shoes, I see my work as ostentatious overkill and hyper-organized. I color-coded a fifteen page template, not because I was required to, but because it looked more visually pleasing to me. (I went right-brained nuts with it is what I did.) It's feverishly detailed, but compared to those individuals who are straining simply to input the required information, I'm either setting a bar or I'm showing off. Either way, it's got to be frustrating and annoying to look at.

How does that student feel who knows that if he had the time and/or resources, he'd be doing higher-level work?

"They just need time-management," some may say. "We give them enough time to complete their work."

Do we?

Do you have thirty some-odd hours free over the course of two weeks, plus your eight-ten hour days at school, plus your regular reading and outside work to do the project you've assigned to your students?

I know we want students to be creative. I know we want them to experience success. So, how can we allot them the resources they need to level the playing field?  Or, how can we better address the inequity of resources with the assignment criteria?

I admire those who put forth effort in the midst of their maelstrom.

Mindy and some of her former students recently published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation!



Motivating Teens to do Research

Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) found that student achievement can increase when teachers show the relationship between an increase in effort to an increase in success. However, at the adolescent stage, the explicit illustration or discussion of this topic would most likely disengage at-risk learners who deem themselves (or have been deemed as) low-achievers. The condescension of the topic is off-putting, particularly for upperclassmen. In order to avoid coming across as “preachy”—which is very unproductive with teens—the secondary educator has to think more peripherally.

In order to support an upper-level learning environment, high-school teachers must consider the foundation of what drives effort or creates it in the first place: intrinsic motivation . Without intrinsic motivation, effort is merely compliance; thus, motivation must come first. Easier said than done with a group of adolescents who’d really rather be playing video games. How does one build intrinsic motivation in teenagers, particularly in a project that spans weeks of preparation and looks suspiciously like a research paper?

Research Paper FrustrationOne way to implement the strategy may be found in ourselves as “Teachers with high self-efficacy create mastery experiences for their students. Those beset by self-doubts construct classroom environments that are likely to undermine students’ judgments of their abilities and their cognitive development” (Gibson & Dembo, 1984; Woolfolk, Rosoff, & Hoy, 1990 as cited in Pajares & Urdan, 2006, p. 11). How's your self-efficacy level these days?

In a Research Paper Unit, then, it stands to reason that I should parallel the students’ efforts, working alongside them from start to finish. I.e. Completing my own research project, warts and all. Schunk (1991) echoes this thinking: “Classroom models—teacher and peer—are important sources of vicarious efficacy information; observing others succeed can convey to observers that they too are capable” (p. 216). Determining a problem that I really want to solve and working through my analysis of what causes the problem will help them see that not all ideas work right away nor will I necessarily be successful at all I attempt. Further, watching the messiness of research and problem-solving will help undercut the strange notion that some students have that everything should be “perfect” right away. Rather, it’s the thinking that matters, first, followed by a polishing later.

Another approach to consider in a research unit is the integration of a reflection component of the project.  To understand their self-efficacy, teens have to figure out where they are, where they're going, and where they want to be.  Collins (1982) found that “self efficacy predicts motivation and achievement across levels of student ability” (as cited in Schunk 220). Thus, how the student judges his or her ability directly correlates to the success of the outcome and the depth of learning.

Additionally, tapping into the students’ perceptions of self-efficacy as it pertains to their projects would help them see that they are, indeed, making progress as Schunk (1991) advocates: “Motivation is enhanced when students perceive they are making progress in learning (p. 209). Identifying the more difficult performance tasks and providing a booster shot of motivation/self-efficacy right before those tasks may help offset potential issues with laziness, apathy, or dwindling self-efficacy.

Addressing failure, what I call the “elephant in the room”, connects to all of these topics of effort, motivation, and self-efficacy. Failure has a bad reputation in the classroom, and dispelling it as such may actually contribute to effort. Kapur and Bielaczyc (2012) found that under different conditions a teaching method that involves invention and productive failure is more effective than direct instruction. The method requires students to struggle to figure out how to solve novel problems before they are given the solution. In their abstract, they note:

Despite seemingly failing in their problem-solving efforts, [productive failure] students significantly outperformed [direct instruction] students on the well-structured and complex problems on the posttest. They also demonstrated greater representation flexibility in solving average speed problems involving graphical representations, a representation that was not targeted during instruction. (Kapur & Bielaczyc, 2012)

How to deal with failure or the usefulness of failure, as a discussion, as opposed to the value of effort, may engage adolescent learners more authentically. It is a life skill and, most likely, would work best right after a student reflection on initial self-efficacy and before moving into research.

Although reward for effort and recognition of effort are effective strategies, in general, I do find that with teenagers, the act of doing so is not unlike walking on a tightrope. Things may go well at first, then, the wobbling starts. What then? The weakness to the strategy is found in what it doesn’t do: help students embrace intrinsic motivation. In his powerful TED talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, Dan Pink links motivation for performance to an economic model, but his findings can easily relate to students and speak to the weakness of the strategy.

Depending on the task, Pink (2009) asserts, the incentive may not work and may cause harm. For 21st Century tasks, which require less narrow and more abstract, right brain, conceptual, creative thinking, incentive slows workers down. If/then rewards work well for simple tasks and easy rules because “rewards narrow focus and concentrate the mind” (Pink, 2009). If the person can see the goal—incentive works. For a more complex, multi-step problem, rewards as motivation narrow possibilities. Given that a research project is not a simple or narrow task, providing concrete symbols for recognition may not work and may negate the effort.

Schunk (1991) also found that performance-contingent rewards for solving a math problem resulted in enhanced motivation. However, task-contingent rewards, such as participation, didn’t (p. 219). Again, the narrowness of the task seems to make a difference in the choice to include any sort of incentive as a motivator. My goal is for students to find or arrive at a sense of self-motivation and self-recognition as well as an enhanced self-efficacy. I don’t want them to think with blinders on or to “get” the trinket (whether symbolic or tangible). I want them to recognize their own effort.

All in all, I know the strategy of recognizing effort is worthwhile. However, its application for today’s adolescents requires a bit more tact and precision than presented in Marzano et al. (2001).


Glucksberg, Sam. (1962). The influence of strength of drive on functional fixedness and perceptual recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63 (1), 36-41. doi: 10.1037/h0044683

Kapur, M. & Bielaczyc, K. (2012). Designing for Productive Failure. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21 (1), 45-83. doi: 10.1080/10508406.2011.591717

Marzano, R., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. (2001) Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Pajares, F. & Urdan, T. (2006). Self-efficacy beliefs of adolescents. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Pink, D. (July 2009) The puzzle of motivation. [Video file]. Retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

Schunk, D. H. (1991). Self-efficacy and academic motivation. Educational Psychologist, 26 (3& 4), 207-231.