Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Busy Hands and Big Hearts Fill Empty Bowls

"One great thing about this "Empty Bowls" project is seeing the students and staff connecting and learning in a fun, naturally authentic way." - Erika Varela, NBCT - Family & Consumer Science Teacher

This time of year, for about as long as I can remember, our Chemistry of Foods students, and their teachers, create a variety of delicious soups, and serve lunch to the staff in their decorated kitchen classroom. Minestrone, chicken noodle, broccoli and cheese; faculty and staff pay a few dollars to eat some hot, tasty soup while providing aspiring culinary artists the opportunity to demonstrate their skills authentically. For a few dollars more, the diners can keep the ceramic bowl, also created by our students. Proceeds from the Empty Bowls project are donated to the Palatine Food Pantry. Service with a smile, and also a few tears, students take tremendous pride in presenting a check that will help feed many people in their school community.


"Empty Bowls is a highlight of our school year!", said Maria, as she added freshly diced carrots to a simmering pot of broth.

I asked the small, but busy group of students, "What makes this project so special for you?"

Austin, proudly cleaning his preparation station, "We get to do something challenging, that we enjoy, and people appreciate."

Mrs. Varela added, "The students are active, they are enthusiastic, and they're motivated. They receive immediate, authentic feedback for their recipes, and the dining experience they create. Today, they are rockstars!"


The unexpected can happen in a crowded, bustling kitchen. There can be spills, burnt biscuits, or as was the case early this morning, the realization that it was Ash Wednesday, and there needed to be a few meatless offerings for some of the diners. Students adjusted, adapted, and demonstrated the ability to think on their feet. Mr. Heitz and Mr. Skony helped keep things focused and organized as dining tables stayed filled to capacity. It's obvious, there is purpose and joy in this classroom!

On this frigid day, my bowl of chicken noodle soup really hit the spot. It was a special moment when a few students asked my opinion of the smell, flavor, temperature, and texture of the soups I enjoyed. They valued my feedback with a, "thank you", and immediately began discussing modifications to their recipes, and preparation processes. Self-assessment and reflection, right before my very eyes - authentic learning. For an educator, does it get any better?

These days, it's a rare thing for so many staff members to be able to sit and eat together. The spoiled diners provided an authentic audience for these passionate, and energetic students. I found the following educational themes clearly evident; self-directed learning, problem-based learning, hands-on learning, passion-based learning, makerspaces, social-emotional learning, and community service. In addition to math, science, and vocabulary, students also practiced their modern learning skills; communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

By nature, people like to be a part of something special. We gravitate towards winners. Empty Bowls is a day made most special by winners with busy hands, and big hearts. Help amplify purpose, was it merely the soup that satisfied our appetites, or was it something more?

Under what conditions do learners gain the most satisfaction?


** Thank you for your time and attention. Since you made it this far, here are the recipes featured in PHS Empty Bowls 2016.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

BattleBots and Survival Skills

"The primary goal of education at all levels should be to expose students to a wide array of pursuits and help them find what they love spending time on." - Most Likely to Succeed; Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era - Tony Wagner & Ted Dintersmith, 2015


"This has been the best school experience EVER!" - overheard from a team of robot builders

Knowing how much time and energy our robotics students had put into their BattleBot, I gladly accepted their invitation to attend a competition at Rolling Meadows High School, my alma mater. I brought my son, Trevor, thinking we would both enjoy this experience.

We were unprepared for the size, excitement, and mechanical expertise of this spectacle. Aside from the throng of students and their coaches, we met school board members, teachers and their families, district administrators, young kids, and college recruiters. Yes, representatives from engineering schools were there to meet young innovators in a fun, competitive setting.

In between battles, we toured the pit area. I asked the PHS competitors how their day was going. "We lost in the second round, but this is still the best high school experience EVER!", said Colin. Teammates, and competitors listening nearby nodded and fist-bumped in agreement. Seeing their enthusiasm with my own eyes, I asked the group for elaboration. They mentioned hands-on learning, problem-solving, teamwork, challenge, and an exhibition for the product. 

"Do you get a grade for this project?", I asked.

"You don't need a grade when you keep it real!", came the emphatic reply.

A BattleBot is a robotic assemblage of electric motors, gears, levers, aluminum, and Plexiglas designed to take extreme punishment from other bots. The BattleBot is operated by a driver with a remote control. To be competitive requires teamwork, mechanical fabrication, serious engineering, and a bit of luck. 

In his recent book, From Master Teacher to Master Learner, Will Richardson describes powerfully productive learning simply as "when the learner wants to learn more". These students frequently stayed after school to build their bot, they did their own research and design, established objectives, conducted tests, and found ways to collaborate on their project when they were away from the shop.


Because they wanted to be successful in the arena, these students learned as much about torque, rotation, force, and angles as they did in their more traditional, subject-based courses. Mr. Hardy, the Fremd High School Robotics coach said, "We make, we test, we battle, we win, we fix, and we win again - that's STEM!"

He told my son the cost of the parts to build a competitive bot was about $3000. 

I said, "It's worth every penny!" 

Trevor was wishing his school had this type of engineering program. We witnessed teams of students, boys and girls, challenging each other's thinking, analyzing video of their matches, reflecting on their performance, and planning future iterations of their bots.


Innovative schools are discussing. and implementing topics like standards-based grading, demonstrable competencies, and self-determined learning. In his book, The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner describes essential learning as "Seven Survival Skills". How many of them are included in this "best-ever" Robot Rumble experience?
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Effective oral, written, and multimedia communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination
For those who are curious, Fremd High School's Sidewinder defeated Boston-based, Donkey Teeth, to win the 2016 Robot Rumble championship. However, from my vantage point all of these kids were battle-tested learners, and winners today!


Shouldn't learners have many "best-ever" school experiences?

What can educators do to make them to happen?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Stories from NICEminicon 2016

Congratulations to the 300 - 400 educators who made a choice to sacrifice a Saturday morning for networking and professional learning. Yesterday's NICEminicon (Northern Illinois Computing Educators - mini-conference) was a shining example of how impactful a well-executed conference can be. A welcoming breakfast, engaging sessions, and attention to detail, our hosts, the folks at D219, deserve a pat on the back. In addition, the events don't effectively happen without the generosity of sponsors. It was terrific seeing so many of my PLN friends in attendance. Here are my takeaways and reflections from yesterday's outstanding experience.


Originally, I planned to sketchnote my thoughts, and backchannel my session experiences. Fortunately, the level of activity and engagement prevented this from happening. I used my phone to capture and share a few highlights to Twitter, but credit the session facilitators, our lead learners, with keeping the activity and interest level high. There was good variety offered in the scheduled sessions, and I appreciated the organizers efforts to save paper by delivering conference information digitally. Following a chocolate muffin, and two cups of orange juice, my day began with making stuff out of cardboard and tape, and ended with a discussion of authenticity through problem-based learning.

  1. Session One - "Building a MakerSpace out of Practically Nothing" - Katie Budrow kicked things off by asking us to suggest everyday problems that could be simplified or eliminated through innovation. She offered us a collection of cardboard, masking tape, string, rubber bands, and paperclips. We were tasked with "making" a device capable of mechanically stirring our breakfast oatmeal or morning coffee. It was interesting seeing the variety of iterations from the maker teams. We discussed the merits and challenges of classroom makerspaces, and there was time for a question and answer session. The hands-on lesson provided immediate engagement. Like many learners, my mind activates more readily with physical movement and collaboration.
  2. Session Two - "Game On: A Beginner's Guide to Gamifying Your Classroom" - Carrie Baughcum, besides being one of my favorite PLN pals, is also an excellent teacher. She personalized our experience by offering both digital and analog materials, she clearly stated the objectives of the session, and peaked our interest by sharing a story of how gamification has evolved in her classroom. We discussed the "why" of gamification, and after seeing Carrie's examples, we were asked to come up with our own gaming themes. It may take several iterations before arriving at an ideal structure, and even then student interest and competencies will dictate a degree of adaptability. Having clear objectives, flexible experience points, and a leaderboard, help amplify the gaming experience for students. I could have spent the rest of the day working on my gamification ideas. If Carrie ever offers either a half-day, or full day, gamification workshop, I will be one of the first to register!
  3. Session Three - "Authentic Learning for Authentic Audience" - Tracy Crowley and Sandy Mills did a commendable job of sharing examples of student projects, program materials, and references from experts in the field. I find the subject personally appealing. It's a challenge to attain much depth in fifty minutes. To their credit, they fielded questions skillfully, and the discussion grew organically. Once again, I could have spent the rest of the day learning more about their program and how to implement it in our own schools. Examples of student work, including videos, helped drive home the passion of their message. I believe the future of education will be based on the solving of authentic problems, and personalized, collaborative, experiences. This was an interesting session that energized my thinking.





Total disclosure, I skipped the closing keynote because I wanted some quiet time to process all that I had seen and experienced. I've recently being doing a lot of conference organizing and presenting, so it was nice for me to enjoy the day from a participating learner's perspective. My intention with this post is to transparently celebrate our learning, reflect upon my experiences, and keep the conversations going. 






Learning is great, learning with friends is even better! NICEminicon was a masterfully run conference experience, and a great teaser for the upcoming ICE Conference in February. I am looking forward to re-engaging with my PLN friends as we work to transform teaching, learning, schools, and education.