September 13, 2014
Students speak to the importance of asking questions

I gave my 9th graders a little excerpt from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World, wherein he talks about the importance of asking questions - the implication being no question is too dumb to be unworthy of asking.  He closes the excerpt with a list of burning questions that still remain to be answered.  I asked the students to participate in a discussion forum in response to the reading, and whether they thought asking questions was important.  Here are some replies, including those by my Chinese students:

The Prompt:  Why does Sagan think it is so important to ask questions?  Is there such a thing as a stupid or useless question?  

 I believe that, if a question is a serious one (i.e a child asking about why stars shine to his/her mother) it is perfectly valid, no matter the content. However, if a question is meant to be but a joke ( a teenager asking sarcastically “Where do babies come from?” in the middle of a serious class) it is normally not only making a mockery of the teaching process, I feel, but just wasting everyone’s time.

In China there are many students like you said. But most of them become sluggish and quiet,They wont ask question anymore. It is bad for their development.I think we need to use the right way to handle these problems.Because i am an adult and i experienced,so i think it is necessary to say.

Carl Sagan believes all questions are important no matter how lengthily or wrongly worded they are. Each question has a reason, the person is looking for an answer. Therefore he claims no question is stupid. Even though some questions lead to another and some are unanswered doesn’t mean they can’t be answered. If someone never asks the deeper more I depth questions they can never be answered, and will remain unanswered forever. Science is basically the subject of questions in the way Sagan describes it. Each question has lead to a great discovery, and those that didn’t supported another discovery. We should push students to ask these questions. My previous history teacher was very good at getting good discussions. He used the metaphor that our main questions are on the top of the lake, we should be asking deeper questions because interesting things are at the bottom of the lake.

"Interesting things are at the bottom of the lake." I like that! 

This is the truth; Science is the subject of questions. Almost all scientific discoveries are made because of some question that someone has! Think about it- Ben Franklin windered what lightning was; Albert Einstein wondered what it would be like to ride a bicycle next to a beam of light while traveling at light speed. Both of the questions led to very important answers. And then these answers can lead to more questions, and then more questions get answered which, in turn, spawn even more questions! It’s really quite beautiful!

I think Sagan sees questions as importance for progression, in the sense that we could not get further as a society without asking questions. I feel like “dumb” questions are ones that the answer is already within your reach. Simple ones like “What page is it on” and “What paragraph am I reading” seem pointless and as a lack of respect, so why should these be in the same category as more pressing questions in society? 

In my opinion, Carl Sagan is unbelievable and he is giving me away.I still remember clearly that when i was a kid, I asked a lot of questions.  Luckily,my parents answered patiently.Indeed, there is no question stupid because each question is holding a piece of truth.  I consider that there is an wonderful example to explain.  Why we need to ask question?  How about encyclopedia?Everyone cant be knowledgeable and know everything.  So we need to ask question in order to deal with that.  In my middle school, my teacher always said one sentence-If you have trouble understanding the class, please ask me after the class.  I won’t laugh at the question that is so easy even ridiculous. Absolutely, it is true and plausible.  However sometime we may not do this especially Chinese students because of embarrass when we grow up.  We need to overcome ourselves.  If we don’t ask we cant learn new things.  Each question has its value so we wont worry about the questions whether easy or difficult.  Just do it!

Being a child, asking question and it will be “stupid” in adults world; Being a adult, not asking is “stupid” in children’s world. No matter your question is whether stupid or not, is just different world, different rules. It is your choice, to being stupid or not.

I loved this article because i really related to it.When I was younger i would ask millions of questions and i got the same response every time because god wanted it to be or because it wasn’t to be. Away after a teacher or a parent would answer i would still be wondering and say why does god want it like that or why is it like that. So as i got older i would be called the girl who asked annoying questions or couldn’t drop a subject and even some of my teachers thought i was stalling and trying to get them off track when really i was just wondering about life.So as you can guess i stopped asking questions and saying why and would be the silent lamb in the back of the classroom. Also my confidence went down a lot because i was sick of being made fun of. But then i was introduced to this thing called google i could ask as many question as i wanted and no one would make fun of me. So i got my confidence back and wasn’t afraid to ask questions anymore and started to speak up in class and say why is that bird like that or say explain in a different way.

When I was really young, I also got many responses just like “god wanted it to be” when I let my parent be impatient of my questions.At first I would continue to ask “why”, after a few times, I knew “god wanted” means I should shut up…I think most people had many “stupid” questions when was young, but when they growing up, they forgot those questions, and feel impatient when the kids ask them.

September 11, 2014

wow - another killer reflection.  feeling pretty good about things right now…


Self Evaluation

Appeal: I saw my own video as very appealing. It was on an easy access website with little effort required, it was efficient, it worked well, and it didn’t have any extra blank space crap to fill time, which in the general consensus of the internet sucks.

Hard Work: It’s clear…

September 11, 2014
Self Assessment

Always have to remember - it’s not the artifact that gets created that matters - it’s the experience!  Final self-reflection for the teaching project.


The Assignment Itself

This assignment was the most useful thing ever. That was quite the unprofessional sentence, but I’m quite the unprofessional person. Tying it back to the project, I felt very comfortable with this task. It showed me that being a witty, intelligent, and not so uptight person…

September 11, 2014

another student self-assessment.  What I loved about this is that she mentioned that she wanted to design a lesson with different learning styles of her potential audience in mind…


Well i watched my video many times before i could even start to give myself feedback. I’m very hard on myself is this i had to remember not to be to hard but not go super easy. So I put a lot of planning into my video i thought about all the different ways people learned and tried to incorporate…

September 11, 2014
The Mysterious Case of the Reappearing Curiousity

a student’s self-reflection after week 1 of the freshman course - love the detail on the self-evaluation, and I really love what he says about curiosity…



This baby is a good representation of what I feel right now. But first, business ho! 

Hard Work-

 Frankly, I worked my rear off to make my video. This isn’t an opinion, this isn’t a point of view- it’s a fact! I spent an hour and a half trying to make it look decent. Add an extra thirty minutes if you want to know how long it took me to get it to it’s current look! That’s not to mention the time I spent inserting music, my voice and things I don’t even remember doing but apparently did! This stuff adds up. Long story short, I know that I put hard work into my video. 5/5 for effort


I am very sure that my Prezi is useful, and I can prove one case of it working! I am a lousy chef, to say the least. However, my dad told me those instructions, and I can make rice like a pro. That aside, it is a very clear video. You can choose when to move the slides and you can both hear and see the instructions. Plus, it’s teaching you how to make rice. Rice is everywhere. I rarely go a week without seeing rice. Now, I do understand that some people may not really eat rice all that often, or just don’t like it. This video may be lost to them, but in the long run my prezi teaches  you, in just over two minutes, how to make rice and how to handle it. I think that that is very useful. 4.5/5 for usefulness


 This portion is the only one where I am a little iffy on. As you, the reader, might have figured out, I think that my Prezi is the cat’s pajamas. I think that it is great because it is simple, quick, professional looking and has elements that allow both those who learn through listening or reading to grasp the concept presented. But, a friend threw at me a query that caught me in the rear. “Why would people choose this video on the internet over another video on the internet that is just a person speaking with text coming underneath?” Because it has Jazz in the background? Because it looks neat? This question frustrates me because it’s true! Yeah, it looks all technological and it has cool music in the background, but is it really all that different from the other videos? I really don’t know.

Appeal- 4/5

Read More

September 11, 2014
How to Succeed with the Dreaded “Ice-Breaker” Project

I’m lousy at creating first projects.  I overthink everything and as a result they all take longer than I want and rarely come to a meaningful conclusion.  I once asked a 9th grader what I should do instead, and he suggested I give students a small task that will make them feel successful and that will end before boredom or confusion set in.

This year, I am not teaching a project-based class, but I am certainly incorporating elements of it into my classroom.  I want to make sure my students practice inquiry, collaboration, peer critique and reflection, and to always create with an authentic audience - and a legacy - in mind.

Thus, I felt it was important to begin with a small project that wouldn’t last more than a week, and would have the following purposes:

  • The students would be able to introduce themselves and ease into the process of learning to talk to each other in a “studently” way.
  • It would introduce them to some of the basic web tools I wanted to use this year - from production to communication.
  • It would get them thinking about presentation skills, the value of multiple drafts, and give them some practice with giving and receiving feedback and creating rubrics, as well as self-evaluation and reflection.
  • Most importantly, it would start them thinking about how they learn best.

I struggled with this, always seeming to come up with far-too-complex-or-simplistic ideas, but I was eventually nudged in the direction of having the kids practice teaching a short lesson.  In this case, I decided that the students would present a two minute lesson to their peers on a skill they knew well, or something that they loved that they felt they could speak confidently about.  This would begin as a quick, off-the-cuff exercise and would develop into a full-fledged, “professional” lesson, ready for the internet.

While every student had to teach, they taught in rounds - that is, they were divided into 3 groups and expected to teach the same lesson multiple times, each time to a new audience.  For instance, each member of group A had to stand in a different part of the room, and teach to members of groups B and C for two minutes.  Then the presenter would receive a new batch of Bs and Cs, and so on until every B and C had heard every member of A teach.  At that point, it was the Bs turn to teach to As and Cs, and then the Cs taught.  Each presenter thus taught the same lesson 3 or 4 times.

The subjects included minimizing anxiety by using pressure points, doing yoga poses, drawing cartoons, and even making rice or cooking an egg sunny side up.  I had a lot of fun watching them have a lot of fun teaching, and I could hear some of the more transferable skills being practiced out in the hallway after class had ended.   

In the following debrief we discussed how it felt to teach the very first time, and what changed for them after multiple iterations.  We also discussed what made an effective presentation - from enunciation and cadence to being able to convey enthusiasm and love for the subject.  

The real challenge came next - to turn that two-minute speech into a full multi-media presentation ready for a larger audience.  The students went home that night to set up blogs, and wrote reflections in which they discussed what they had learned about teaching, and how they would change their presentations accordingly.

That allowed us to create a rubric to guide the creation of the videos, after sampling some of the how-to videos already existing on YouTube.  The students collectively decided any presentation should appeal to the viewer, be useful - in that teaches something that can be immediately be performed, be accurate in terms of its information, and look as though genuine effort went into making it. 

The students were tasked to create a rough draft of this video lesson, using the rubric to guide them, and posted this version to their blogs.  The next day, we discussed some general parameters for peer feedback, after engaging with some of Ron Berger’s writing on the importance of critique.  We established ground rules for critique, and then moved immediately into feedback circles to review those first drafts using the rubric.  These rules were: to be mindful of being supportive, yet constructive, and to be specific where possible.  

The students then used that experience to go back and refine their initial presentations and post those final versions to their blogs.  I then asked them not to provide more peer critique, but this time, to evaluate themselves - to consider how successful they had been at driving viewer interest, at providing useful examples and commentary, at putting forth their best effort, etc.

The final piece of the puzzle was for the students to write a reflective blog discussing what they felt they learned over the course of the 5-day project.  I include some samples below.

"I’m really getting to learn how bad we are at doing some very important things"

"So I put a lot of planning into [this].  I thought about all the different  ways people learned and tried to incorporate that into my video"

"It taught me how to present something in a more condensed style, and a few more people in the world learned how to make rice. What’s not to like?"

"Something I will take away from this assignment is peer editing. I think it is important to learn how to give constructive criticism."

"I think the most important things I learned were 1: Sleep is important, 2: Good pictures are possible with almost any camera if you have a tripod, and 3: Stick with what you know if you’re not sure what to do."

While there is always room for tinkering, the students did get a good hands-on learning experience that was tied to something they loved, which allowed me to introduce some of the foundational skills for the class in a natural way.  I finally feel I’ve broken the opening project jinx.  

September 10, 2014
Trash and Art

I “interviewed” a fellow teacher and practicing artist yesterday, over a glass of outstanding local rye whiskey.  I wanted to know about how an artist begins to create a piece of work, as I’m thinking that may provide an interesting structure to parallel for the book itself.

I realize of course there’s no one singular process, but I am searching for inspiration.

He said the most important thing is to physically create something soon and quickly, and allow yourself to fail.  Then try again.   It put me in mind of what some of the artists Germany said about “knowing your tools.”  That is, to play around with what you have in front of you and become adept at that them, and that creation is the only way to become proficient and familiar with them.

On one level, that was the point of the first project - to get the kids to become familiar with classroom tools.  For me, that meant learning to develop a rubric from deconstructing a model, performance, peer and self-critique and reflection.  Technology, as well.  

But can we step away from the technology and create something by hand?  That is the point of the overall project.  And can that something perform as an exhibit w/r/t critical design?

We are about to go the process of learning inquiry.  I am having them look at pictures from the book Hungry Planet, wherein families from different parts of the world lay out their food purchases for the week.  The students will do thinking routines to explore all the components of the photographs, practice comparisons, and then practice developing questions that lead to possible investigations.  I am happy to be working with the librarian on this, and she is happy to have something concrete by which to teach the kids inquiry and research skills.

One upshot of this activity is to have the kids develop a “beautiful” blog post, replete with images and links, of what they find in their research.  but the artist mentioned that an old landfill exists close to the school that contains over a hundred years of trash, and that he has pulled interesting old bottles and other bits from the site.  And wouldn’t it be kind of interesting to explore the consequences of consumption as a continuation of their first inquiry and investigation?

Thinking further, I wondered what would happen if we then explored some of our current trash - take a bag, perhaps, spread the contents, and contemplate what we find.  There are a number of directions to pursue from that end - not least of all its service as an opener to the UnHappy Meal project.

But I was contemplating what the kids might do to exhibit our trash and confront our population with what we throw away…to play with this idea of critical design a little…

This is just a bit of stray thinking at this point, but I will see where this leads.

September 4, 2014
My First Teaching Experience: How to Break your iPhone

Outstanding student response to the first project of the year - the teaching challenge (more to come on that later…)


Hey all.

In my opinion, this exercise was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced. I am well aware that I probably chose on of the dumbest things to teach a lesson on, but still, it was fun.

But you still had learned to understand how many components there are to being a teacher. While I…

August 26, 2014
On conceptual versus other forms of art

My wife brought up an interesting point as I was talking about the theoretical aspects of the UnHappy Meal project.  I mentioned I was looking for a framework for the book I’m writing about the project itself, and that perhaps looking at the project as a process-driven work of art itself would be that framework.

That is - thinking about the challenge/experiment and its inspiration as an act of inquiry, then gathering the tools at hand, and then going through the multiple steps of refinement.

She said, “You know, this isn’t what most people think of when they think of art.  It’s usually the more traditional things - painting an object, modeling a sculpture, things that are more recognizably the art they are used to.  You are messing around in the world of conceptual art, which is more about exploring ideas, and people may not get it.”

I tried to make it plain in my pitch to the editor that this project’s artistic sensibility lies in thinking like an artist, rather than incorporating a specific art form.  But this does add a challenge.

I do not have an answer, but it’s worth thinking about as i go…

August 26, 2014
Learning Environment Challenge

So this is the classroom I’ve been handed down.  

The previous teacher appears to have vomited up a Jackson Pollock painting onto the walls.

I’ve taken some inspiration from the Third Teacher over the years, and always thought about creating a classroom challenge to remake our learning environment as a class.

In this case, we have a Hands-To-Work team whose job it is to prettify the campus (provide “curb appeal.”)   

I also have a 9th grade class that I need to teach the rudiments of challenge-based learning to.  It would also help to have them understand the importance of addressing an audience of more than one (the teacher) and of course, the importance of an authentic legacy for their work - something real they can effect that will live on after them.

It seems to me that the time has come to give them the challenge of recreating this classroom from the seizure-inducing, poorly done train wreck we have here to something that actually is conducive to learning.

I will let them do the research, make their pitches, and let the best argument win.  This will follow on the heels of another short assignment I’ve created to give them the chance to tell all of us a little something about themselves, to model effective teaching, and to practice rubric development and peer critique.

So far my intended curriculum is dropping further and further into the misty future in favor of immediate triage.

But this is all good, right?  If my goal is to model improvisation, then this may be the right instinct.  This is practical, physical and immediate…

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