It’s not the 18 minutes

“It ain’t the six minutes, it’s what happens in the six minutes.”

This quote from the 1985 wrestling-themed movie, Visionquest, has stuck with me ever since high school.  It does have some pretty raw sailorish language within, so I chose not to embed it here.  If you are a big kid, feel free to check it out and gain a bit more context.  In the clip, the speaker of the line makes the point that although the duration of a wrestling match is a mere six minutes, what happens within can be enough to lift the human spirit.


I now implore you to take a few minutes of your day to check out a rather passionate professional, Princeton Professor of Molecular Biology, Dr. Bonnie Bassler Ph.D.  Dr. Bassler’s 2009 TED talk is worth watching in its entirety.  If you are a biology teacher, the content is crucial.  Even if you just happen to be mildly interested in the world around you- then this talk is for you.  It is for anyone.  To take it a step further, turn your analysis in the direction of public speaking of any sort.  Standing in front of a crowd… trying to make a point.  What do you see here?

If you’re going to stand and deliver

Ok…  18 minutes.

This presentation takes 18 minutes, not six.  18.  In 18 minutes, she conveys the passion for her work in such a way that it is hard to even look away.  The thing is, in just this amount of time, I would suggest that she delivers more information than you’d generally try to address in a typical class session.  I would also hope that we wouldn’t engage in such exclusively one-way forms of communication in our classrooms for even this long.  18 minutes of purely one-way communication in a classroom of 25 humans isn’t teaching as much as it is preaching.  However, here in her TED talk, it works wonderfully.

So what does this mean for us as classroom teachers?  Anything?

In my opinion, we must first agree on the fact that for students to actually learn the information brought forth by this presentation, we have to at least have a healthy set of conversations breaking up this body of teacher talk.  And again-  this is only 18 minutes.  How often have you seen (or delivered) a talk that went more than 40 minutes?  How did it go? How do you know?  In this presentation, she doesn’t really have time to address the prior knowledge of her “students.”  She doesn’t have the luxury of checking for understanding.  She doesn’t really have the ability, in this amount of time and in this format, to engage others to explain their understanding of the content.  Watching this makes me think about the skills required for delivering a mini-lesson.  Even though I am still inspired by this chunk of science content, I also have a pile of questions circulating in my head:

  • What role does passion play in the classroom?
  • What about the same for humor?
  • Science teachers are constantly in a quest to make the complex palatable.  Does she accomplish this?  How so?
  • This is obviously an example of a very powerful lecture.  What is the best-case scenario for this type of communication within secondary classrooms?
  • Notice how she wraps things up near the end.  Do you get the sense she’d love to have the audience do the review instead?  I do.
  • Should all science teachers continue to conduct some level of real science as a practitioner in some way?  Why so?  Is that realistic?  Can you guess why I’m asking this question?

And one last thing…   look how she shares the love in the final slide/minute.  Do we do this often enough for the people we work with?

The skill of teacher-talk

Perhaps it is odd to use the format of a TED talk to reflect on high school classrooms today.  The one-way mode of communication here is obviously rather different than it  -should be- in a classroom, considering the way most people actually learn.  However, at some point, we reach a time in our classrooms when a solid majority of our students are stuck with the same misconception.  At some point, we’ll have to stop the collaboration and conferencing with individuals and small groups.  At some point, we’ll have to quickly slam on the breaks and make something universally clear.  At some point, we all must deliver a well-timed, carefully-crafted talk to make something that is generally fuzzy, a bit clearer for our students.

Our approaches to pedagogy needn’t swing like a pendulum.  We can talk abut this.  It’s ok.  Eventually, even the most learner-centered classrooms require eyes and minds focused on the words and thoughts of one person.  All I’m suggesting is that when you get to be that person…  be ready.  Be passionate.  Remember what can be accomplished in only 18 minutes.  How might you assure that you will be?


Decisions: The Currency of Educational Action

Choices… decisions… education. Three simple words deeply embedded within my world. For years I have been amazed while reflecting on the cascade of decisions a teacher makes in even one class period with a typical group of 20 or so students. I felt compelled to ponder this subject a bit more after reading Dr. Dial’s recent blog post “Making choices through an educational lens.

united states currency eye

Teacher Decisions

The number of seemingly-small choices and decisions a teacher makes -in planning and on the fly- would melt the minds of many. I would further suggest that the more a teacher transforms the classroom environment toward one that features increased student leadership and freedom, the more complex the task becomes. A reasonably student-centered classroom (even in the world of NCLB’s accountability) is a far more complex beast than it seems. The teacher’s role in a traditional classroom might be looked at as the driver of a bus with holes in the floorboards. Though individual students might shift seats every now and again, they are all going to arrive at the same place upon completion of the trip… provided they don’t slip through a hole along the way. That’s a tough mission for sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the complexity of a more student-centered classroom.

In contrast, this elusive world requires in-depth discussion about what students already know prior to the introduction of new learning. It requires being attuned to not only the strengths and needs of the class… but of each individual student. It requires not only knowing but honoring the differing modes of communications preferred by each student. Mind you, I’m not necessarily speaking of “learning styles” here, but of communication preferences. I’m not going to get caught up in the “learning styles” debate in this post. In our world, we openly speak of preferences, allow students to work within those often… and then stretch everyone toward those modes that are outside of their preferences. Do we need to push some of our group toward more open, digital modes of sharing? Yes. However, this is not the primary goal of our time together. Our goal is deep learning that transfers beyond the classroom into real life.


That said, with a traditional classroom model, the volume of decisions is likely to be almost an order of magnitude lower. It’s no small number for sure… but compared to what goes on in the mind of an educator leading students through a workshop, or inquiry-based model of instruction… I just don’t think it compares. The more a teacher moves toward individually shepherding their students through a course of study- the more the classroom complexity raises.

In my opinion, the currency of these decisions is somewhat of a standard. Allow me to feebly attempt an explanation. What classroom teachers rarely get to see is the view from beside an admin on even a typical day. I’m betting even building admins rarely get to view the vista of a district admin. All three make crucial decisions, and yet, I would bet at times each thinks their perspective is the perspective. I might implore Dan Meyer to step in to propose an equation governing these interactions. I appreciate your creativity as a math teacher- what say ye, Dan? I know, it’s a tall order.

Here’s the deal: speaking from where I now sit, high school classroom teachers make decisions (of the whole-class kind) that impact anywhere from 20 to 180 students each. Building principals then make decisions affecting the entire student body that affect between 800 and 1700 students each. The district admin, in turn, makes decisions that impact the lives of thousands of students as well as their teachers. In the currency of these decisions, teachers are working with perhaps thousands of precious pennies each day, while the boss tosses dollars and the bosses of bosses place hundreds on any given choice.

I would suggest that none of these positions choose the next step lightly. I would assert that classroom teachers have precious little time and must make calls on a dime every time they turn around- if not more. On the other end of the spectrum, district admins likely get a bit more time to arrive at most decisions (without 20 kids ready to bounce down the hallway at the end of the period a mere five minutes from now) and yet many of these calls are made by filtering these same decisions through two layers of professionals at best. And don’t forget, any call here has reverberations throughout the entire system. The way I see it, the most crucial decision to make is the one sitting before you at any given moment, regardless of your position.

nervous system

Systemic action

Imagine, if you will, a school system as a human nervous system. Teachers sit at the fingers of the system. They man the digits that touch student lives at the most immediate of levels. District admins might then sit somewhere within the brain, making calls that influence the entire organism. Building principals would naturally then sit at some point in between, with ramifications that move an entire arm of the beast. This is the toughest for me. With the “fingers” of 50 to 100 teachers below them, each acting to move student learning forward… and district admins acting from the brain level above to direct the organization, it might be said that they make moves to push appendages in the right direction. This is where I may need some help with the metaphor. In a system not hitting on all cylinders, this might be the toughest seat in which to sit.

And yet, with a system that works, each might be informed from student action upward to create an organization (organism) that is efficacious in step and efficient in scope. Might I make the suggestion to actually sketch your local system as a nervous system? See what that does for you and yours. Do the signals usually come in from the best direction to move student learning? Furthermore, which is the best direction? In a living being, these electrochemical signals move in both directions for the ultimate well-being of the organism. Do they do so efficiently in your world?

Which is more crucial: nimble fingers or a receptive brain? I would suggest that in a living being, the answer is neither. If nothing else, 2010 is high time for honesty. Is this true for your school system? We should all strive, for the sake of our children, to be an effective and smart decision-making organism. If not, then wherein lies the disconnect?


*united states currency eye by Kevin Dean on Flickr.
*pedals by madmolecule on Flickr.
*Bartolomeo Eustachi: Peripheral Nervous System c. 1722 from brain blogger on Flickr.

What does the “Information Superhighway” really look like?

What highway?

Just what does the “21st Century classroom” actually look like?  Do you even know?  What do you actually picture when you close your eyes and imagine?  Does your classroom reflect this ideal?  What is the divide between the ideal and the reality in your school or district?


Here’s betting that these two classroom images are far from your vision.  Allow me to set these up for you a bit…

Ever so slightly more green

My district has an interesting embedded program known as Crayons to Computers.  A significant chunk of space is devoted to warehousing and categorizing materials donated from businesses and individuals that might have otherwise ended up in a local landfill.  While seemingly little more than a room of junk to the uninitiated visitor, in the hands and mind of a creative teacher, this program can be a godsend.  From notebooks, pencils, and crayons to beakers, books, and computers, this nifty little depot often has just what the resourceful teacher needs to complete a classroom project.   And perhaps even more importantly, every single instructional use of these items helps to turn a portion of the community’s refuse into educational treasures.

This past August, in the midst of our “New Teacher Institute” in the days before school started, the district’s instructional coaches took our bright eyed new hires on a tour of some of the more crucial components of daily operation in our world.  Sandwiched between mini-seminars on best practices, practical tours and nuts & bolts introductions done to help acclimatize our new blood to their new surroundings.  One stop along the way was C2C.

School Supplies

That day, while new teachers perused the bins, boxes, and shelves of our depository of donated items, I decided to play along.  Longtime teachers have had years to collect resources and to craft an environment for learning to their liking.  However, to early service teachers -with far less time under their belt-  this storeroom is a place to stock up on consumables among other things.  In a town that battles significant socioeconomic stressors, this storeroom is celebrated by many.

I picked up one item to keep that morning.  While rifling through a poster bin with one of my former students -now a biology teacher- I found a…   what might be the opposite of gem?  Turd, you say?  Ok-  fine by me, let’s go with that.

This poster, entitled:  “Millennium 2000,” reads:

Gone are the days of the one-room schoolhouse.  During the second half of the 19th Century, kindergarten was established and school criteria were changed to educate children as individuals.  The superhighway now passes through most classrooms, allowing children of the 21st Century access to the entire world.

Now there’s a sentiment worth repeating…  reform.  Change in what we do.  Change in the tools, the access and thus the mission of our schools.  Access to a potential global perspective.  Who doesn’t believe in this as a good thing?  In fact, such a change in access, coupled with reform, should produce profound differences within the classroom.  Right?


Poster study

Now study the poster.  What exactly are the differences depicted here?  The inset image should show the shift in reality in our schools.  Does it?  What is really different here?  Where is evidence of a change in curriculum?  Where is the evidence of the “superhighway?”  Which classroom is more inspiring?  Which is warmer?  Which is more engaging?  Which is more teacher directed?  Which is………..

Funny stuff, huh?  I thank those who have come before me in our district.  We have been blessed with a robust pipeline of digital data since before we knew what to do with it.  Though we are still mere babes in the woods of the read/write web, we are beginning to establish a long-range study and planning group.  We recognize the realities of a world that is changing faster than we can even measure.

Pony Express Statue

Real plans

I am excited for the future of schools in our little Midwestern outpost where the Pony Express began.  I’d like to think that we could recreate our vision and purpose along the same lines as this historical entity.  I would love to think that we could envision our local schools as the starting point for an epic journey of learning through rigorous, and often unknown challenges.

We might smirk at the poster mentioned above today, but are we planning to become the “Pony Express” of learning for the future -both locally as well as nationally?  I certainly hope so.

Artwork thanks:

*Pony Express Statue by Americasroof as posted on Wikipedia.
*School Supplies by Sergey Galyonkin on Flickr.

The Art & Science of Questioning (ok, mostly the art)


The art and science of teacher questioning is a powerful force in any flavor of direct instruction. Marzano and associates (2001) found a roughly 22 percentile gain in student achievement when skillful questioning was an instructional focus. Furthermore, a focus on maximizing student questioning can be even more powerful. However, when asking teachers to begin a focus on the practice of questioning in the classroom, it is best to begin close to home.

ten minutes of questioning

For this coming Wednesday’s job-embedded professional development, our principal asked each teacher to drag a colleague into their room to chart all questions asked in five or ten minutes of instruction. This will serve as a baseline for discussion in our PD session.

Coaching questioning

This blanket strategy of “questioning” is one I have been asked to work on with teachers from time to time. The enlightened teacher is one who realizes that only an objective and friendly observer can truly assess the goings-on of a classroom. In 2008, a teacher is charged with juggling a plethora of variables in the classroom at any given moment. Therefore, it is easy to miss some of the more subtle things that go on. As a generalist instructional coach in a high school, this is one area where my work with teachers frequently begins.

Ideally, this relationship will move from quick consultation toward more in-depth one-on-one coaching experiences. When a teacher enlists the ongoing services of an objective observer who possesses an eye for instruction… the gains can be rewarding for both teachers.

Enter: Bitstrips

As this latest round of questioning has approached the PD deadline, I have been asked in to do a quick assessment many times in the past few days. When several days of coaching feel the same, it tends to warp the mind. Trust me- rarely is one day the same as the next in this job. Thus the questioning cartoon. This one features none other than my wife- a talented and conscientious biology teacher. I can lay this baby out on the web because I know she can handle the parody.  I’ll let you guess who the coach is in panel number seven.

This artwork features the online cartooning software Bitstrips. This site has all of the characteristics of web 2.0. It is creative, interactive and often viral. It allows participation and recommendation to others. It is highly social and even allows collaborative remixability.  On Bitstrips, you can create yourself (as an avatar that can then be used for cartoons) as well as your friends, enemies and acquaintances.  How fun is that?  Can you imagine some sort of educational application for this webapp?

So today while I was sitting in Mrs. Nash’s classroom for ten minutes to chart all questions asked, I decided to share out the results (with her permission of course).  Today’s topic plays out amusingly as a comic strip.  However, the reproductive strategies of organisms actually do provide quite a valuable look into one of the major forces driving all animal behavior.  In fact, MO Biology CLE 3.A reads that students should be able to “Distinguish between asexual (i.e., binary fission, budding, cloning) and sexual reproduction.”  So from those ten minutes, you get a small chunk of questioning data, and a bit of classroom humor and fun in full cartoon color.  Learning about primitive animals, like sponges, isn’t always the most exciting thing.  Today, however, featured some great discussion.

Charting questioning

Lately I have taken to making my own classroom diagrams for teachers.  I hate feeling restricted by left-brained forms.  I wasn’t happy with any of the current forms I was using, so one day I just grabbed some printer paper and a tracing template I once used to help middle school gifted students with tesselations. I decided to do things a bit differently en route to a classroom last week.

Most generally, as soon as I take a seat in the classroom, I begin sketching out the lay of the land -so to speak.  Once the page is a customized black & white of the classroom, I scribble circles in the exact spots where students occupy a seat.  Looking at my watch, I jot down the time and begin to take in the classroom happenings for the agreed-upon time frame.  In that period of time, I trace an arrow from each person asking a question to the person they were addressing.

If the teacher directly asks Clint in table three a question, then the arrow traces from the teacher to that student.  If Katy at table two asks a question of the teacher, then the arrow points from Katy, directly to the teacher.  If Clint then directs a question toward Katy, the next arrow will be drawn directly from Clint to Katy.  The final piece of data would be to record teacher-generated questions that are directed to the entire class.  These are seen as hash-marks in the upper right hand corner of the sheet.

This type of exercise generates a mere slice of data.  Depending on the particular five or ten minute slice of time, you expect widely-varying results.  Therefore, it is important to take several slices of data of a period of time to see overall numbers and trends.


Even this brief glimpse by an objective observer can generate a valuable “Aha” for a teacher.  Comments I have overheard recently include:

  • “I didn’t realize I was carrying on such a one-to-one conversation with that student.”
  • “It looks like all of the questioning in my classroom is coming from me.”
  • “I wish they (students) would direct more questions to one another instead of relying on me so much.”
  • “I really did do a good job of engaging nearly all student at least once in that short time.”
  • “It seems like I don’t even pay attention to the left side of the classroom…  weird.”
  • “Jeeez…  I ask a ton of questions… but most of them are pretty short and easily answered.”

Again, brief samples of classroom questioning such as those highlighted above can be interesting and helpful.  However, the real deal comes into play when the teacher wants to take the relationship further and delve more deeply into the art and science of questioning.  Once the relationship between teacher and coach moves toward a longer-term, one-to-one relationship, great things happen.  With trust, and open mind, and several small successes early on, this relationship is one of the most productive and rewarding to be shared by education professionals.

Here’s to hoping my wife finds her caricature somewhat flattering when this hits the web tonight.  ;-)

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