Dropping a Studio in the Mix: Introducing the “Song for Myself” Project


We’ve been talking about setting up a studio in a couple of abandoned closets at Design Lab Early College High School since early this summer, and I’m excited to say that we’ve got it set up and being used, finally,… sort of.

We didn’t want to install a studio for any kind of “Recording Arts” class or anything like that. At Design Lab ECHS, we’re in the early stages of exploring tools like our makerspace, green screen, and now, our recording studio, as useful in achieving the outcomes usually prescribed to seat time, homework, and test taking. We believe that our students learn the most when they are engaged in creative and/or problem-solving activities, and these new tools and spaces afford us a unique opportunity to make learning come alive in our building.

The studio also provides us with a chance to collaborate with amazing partners from the community. We are excited to begin work on the first such partnership in the form of the “Song for Myself” project.  I was fortunate enough to meet the hip hop group, Young Troubled Minds at an event hosted by Ingenuity Cleveland, and after some conversation about a shared passion for education and authentic hip hop, we decided to collaborate on a unique idea.  What if a group of students had the opportunity, in their senior year of high school, to record a “mixtape” as a final capstone project? What if there could be a live performance of the final results as part of graduation week? And best of all, what if each student wrote a song as if each student was the only person in the world who would be the audience for each particular song?  What would a song sound like that was written by and for only you?

With these exciting questions in mind, a few of us got together in the studio at Design Lab ECHS and recorded the following early conversation about the project, how we think it might go, and what we hope will happen.  Please take a listen as Chris, Harveen and Joccy from Young Troubled Minds sit down with Javvon, a 12-grade student at Design Lab, and I to kick a few ideas around.

Teaching With Humans

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By Meghan Paris(@MsParisDL)

As educators, we spend a lot of our professional lives thinking about what is best for the humans we teach. How do we help them grow into the people they should be? How do we help these students reach their fullest potential? How do we help them be happy? One thing that I rarely think about, as an educator, is how do I encourage and assist my colleagues, the humans I teach with, instead of compete with them or isolate myself from them?

Coming from a school that centered around test scores and students as collections of data, I thrived on the competition. I was good at teaching kids how to game the test, and that gave me great test scores. I was praised for these scores, given bonuses based on these scores, but the thing that fueled me was competing against my colleagues. Competition is a dividing force and it doesn’t create collaboration, but it was encouraged by my administrators as a means of gaining recognition for the school. I was a first year teacher being told that test scores made me a good teacher.

The next year of my teaching experience was spent isolating myself from my colleagues. I was the only History teacher in the network, meaning I had no school sanctioned opportunities for collaboration. Instead, my room became an island, where I taught the best I could and tried to create a culture of students showing me that they were learning. Needless to say, in a charter school that was quickly going under based entirely on the lack of high test scores, my efforts were less than appreciated.

This year, at my new school, Design Lab, I have the opportunity to truly collaborate with the humans that I proudly call my colleagues. Today, we sat in a room for 7 hours and had some gritty discussions about what it is that we are trying to do exactly. Project Foundry, a program that will enable us to further our work in transforming our school into a true makerspace, was supposed to be the topic of the professional development but it quickly devolved into a tense situation where all of our unspoken insecurities about our work found a voice. It’s easy to dismiss our colleagues based on our preconceived notions of who they are based on the interactions we’ve had. Laying bare those insecurities forced me to view my colleagues as humans, which is how we are taught to view students. It became apparent to me that I had been viewing my colleagues as I thought they were, not as individuals who have distinct needs and preferences for how they perform the act of teaching.

Our math teacher, a 22 year old TFA participant currently in her first year teaching, left the day frustrated and unclear as to what we are doing. She has never done something without striving for perfection and is forcing herself to accept the possibility of the school year not turning out as she envisioned it in August. As she’s growing, which is an inherent characteristic of being in her Taylor Swift year (22 years old), it is apparent that she is making a real effort to become a professional educator of people.  The English teacher, who is a third year teacher that has taught mostly in a rural district, sought clarification on the minute details of the language of project based learning (which is shocking from the English teacher) while making the occasionally off color joke to distract from the ever present professional risk that we are all taking by embarking on our making adventure.

Meanwhile, the 10 year veteran Science teacher, who may or may not be actually as laid back as he appears, and I exchanged what was, in my opinion, witty banter to mask our insecurities and frustrations while trying to lighten the mood in the room. Being in the situation of moving into a field of unknown possibilities and pitfalls with this group of people has laid bare the essence of who we each are as a person. As the tension and conflict amongst us ebbs and flows, real, authentic conversations are happening about what is best for the humans we teach.  If it weren’t for the math teacher’s need for a plan, we probably wouldn’t be doing as much planning as we should. The common vocabulary of our school would not be as precise if it weren’t for our duo of English teachers mincing and perfecting our verbiage. If not for the physical effort being put in by the Science teacher, our maker school probably wouldn’t be on the way to happening. I’m still not sure where I fit in other than I’m willing to go with what everyone else is doing.

Before you think I’m merely recounting the plot of The Breakfast Club, which may, or may not, have inspired this post, working with these humans who have no preconceived notion of what learning through making will look like at Design Lab Early College High School has helped me grow as a human. I’ve become less focused on competing with my colleagues and more intent on growing in my profession with them. Before today, I had been seeing the humans I work with in the simplest of terms, the perfectionist, the humorist, the linguist, the support. But what I learned is that each of us, in even the smallest way, is a combination of all of those roles. As we begin to see each other as humans first, teachers second, we will each be more effective at both.


Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

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By Meghan Paris(@MsParisDL)

Students are often taught that excellence is complying with directives and regurgitating facts onto a paper. As a matter of fact, until a couple of years ago, the highest honor a school district could receive from Rick Ross (the Ohio Superintendent of Education) was “Excellent with Distinction” and it was based almost entirely on standardized test score. The mindset that is then being bred into our students is that they can only succeed by doing the tests, regurgitating the facts, and complying with the rules.

When I was a student, I was good at school. I say good at school because I had the system figured out, I could pass tests, I could write a paper, I could regurgitate historical facts like no one’s business. I was praised and applauded for this ability. Then I became an adult. I left being a K-12 student in 2005, when I graduated from Scottsburg Senior High School. Since then, I have not really used any of my mad school skillz, even in college. Sitting in my first college class in September 2005 (History of Imperial Russia 1620-1918), the professor said something that completely changed everything I thought I knew about learning: “If my parakeet can do it, it doesn’t count as learning.” At first, we, the students, all stared at one another with disbelief. What was he saying about us? Then he explained “Naming facts, dates, and pieces of information on command is something a bird is able to do. If I ask you to do that, it’s dehumanizing.” There it was, my entire K-12 education was just called dehumanizing. All of my educational accolades had not prepared me to be a human. Luckily, I had parents who actively parented me and filled in most the gaps in my education, but I was extremely fortunate to have that. It took a few years for that to sink in, but I finally understood what that meant the day I stepped in front of a classroom of students.

I realized that in the age of being able to obtain all the information in the world through a device smaller than a Pop-tart, my traditional education that I received was irrelevant. I asked my class if they knew who Marian Wright Edelman was, and the response I received was mind blowing for me. “Hold on, Ms. Paris, I’ll google it.” Holy crap, was that jarring. They didn’t need me to give them information, they already had it. Now, two years later, I’m teaching kids to do. To make. Not to memorize. Not to regurgitate information.

Breaking the cycle of receiving information from the nice person at the front of the room is proving to be the real challenge of the year. Most students are excited to be involved in projects, but they still are not understanding that the projects are school. I had a student ask me today if he could “just have a worksheet” because he’s worried about passing my class. After explaining that we were learning about assembly lines and how it increased productivity during the Industrial Revolution through making seating in an assembly line, I saw him just get it. He was one of my students last year, when we were at a school that was all pencil to paper learning. He only said “Ok, that’s cool,” but returned later in the period to tell me that this is the first time he’s actually understood something that happened in history.

He then showed me he understood the concept by pointing out flaws in our assembly line design. He showed me. He didn’t tell me by bubbling in answer choice b. He actively participated in his education and showed me he understood by critiquing and analyzing. Those are words from the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, the words we hear so much about in professional developments on creating and delivering relevant instruction. Critiquing, creating, analyzing, refining. I witnessed a student who was consistently in the low middle of my class last year show me that he had learned this historical concept in an authentic way that mattered to him. My goal for the year is to have this experience with the majority of my students and continue having them actively show me their learning. Having students parrot knowledge isn’t learning, but showing me what they learned is real evidence of real learning. 

16 Habits of Mind: Students Reflect on Being in The Makerspace

It’s important for students to reflect on, recognize and assess not only their content acquisition, but also their growth as people who are learning how to learn. We used Costa and Kallick’s 16 Habits of Mind as a framework when we asked the 9th grade students at Design Lab ECHS to think about what happened regarding learning in the makerspace.


“The first time we went into the makerspace  was for the step-stool project, and I felt like giving up because I didn’t know how to work a drill and I broke one.”

“I was struggling with taking screws and nails out of the pallets, I tried harder, and pulled harder on the plank with the crowbar until it came up. When a plank took a long time to come up sometimes I did want to give up.”

Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision

“In order to understand what we were doing when we were working on the aerobic steps, we had to communicate and tell each other the things to do step-by-step.”

“I had to really focus on being clear and precise in the makerspace when I had to tell a team member that came late about what we were doing and what she could or needed to do.”

Managing impulsivity

“I felt like listening to music and just being on my phone but I didn’t. I decided to do the work.”

“I didn’t fool around because I knew how important it was to finish.”

Gathering data through all senses

“The boards were rough and you could get a splinter. But then when they got sanded they were smooth and you could touch them without getting a splinter.”

“I had to feel the pallets to make sure that they were done being sanded.”

Listening with understanding and empathy

“At first I didn’t really care what people had to say. Then I saw that you do really have to listen to your teammates and even the other groups.”

“When I was listening to the other groups’ ideas I tried to see it from their point of view and understand what they meant. Even in my group I was listening and understanding people, but I still wanted to see if my ideas worked.”

Creating, imagining, innovating

“I felt creative and imaginative when my group and I had to figure out how would we come up with the extra seating for the Ingenuity Festival and the idea was a bench that can fit about two people.”

“I felt the most creative when I was on a roll with great ideas and everyone kept using them.”

Thinking Flexibly

“My group had used boards that were too small and we had to think out of the box to see how we were going to get this done quickly and precisely.”

“I had to think flexibly because the ideas just kept changing into other ideas. We had to try to bend our way of thinking to find a solution to what we needed and what we wanted.”

Responding with wonderment and awe

“I was impressed with the chop saw and when I finally learned how to use it, I wanted to always be the one on it.”

“I would have never thought that I would build something for thousands of people.”

Thinking about thinking

“The final design of the benches really impressed me, and the ones who came up with the design really made me rethink my own creativity.”

“There were times when I saw something differently than somebody else. I had to to think about what they were thinking to come up with that idea.”

Taking responsible risks

“The risk I had to to take was using the power drill. I took that risk because I had to learn how to use it eventually. when I first started using it I was very scared, but then I got the hang of it.”

“I took charge of the pallets. I took the risk because the other students were scared of being in charge. It felt good be in charge.”

Striving for accuracy

“It was important to be accurate in the makerspace when making the aerobic steps because we had to make measurements to make the wood even.”

“It was important to be accurate in the makerspace when we were sanding. We had to make sure there wasn’t any wood poking out.”

Finding humor

“I was dancing on the step up stool that we had built. It was also funny struggling and trying to take nails out of the pallets.”

“Everyone has a different personality and that makes everyone fun to work with and interesting to work with. Everyone laughed at least one time in makerspace.”

Questioning and posing problems

“We had questions when we first started. We had to think of what it would look like and what pieces we were going to use.”

“Throughout this project we asked questions about this and that and it helped us to figure out a solution. It made us see things from a different angle and change our way of thinking.”

Thinking interdependently

“I found myself working with someone else to solve a problem all the time we were in the makerspace. It was better because more than one brain works better together.”

“It was better to work with my group because they had some ideas too. We put them  together and thought up something amazing.”

Applying past knowledge to new situations

“One time I went to a job with my uncle and cousin and we hammered in nails and took some nails out of some boards and I think that helped.”

“When I was making the pallets stronger and using the tools I already knew how to use them because my grandmother’s father had a workshop in his basement. I would be in their all day just making  things from the wood scraps.”

Remaining open to continuous learning

“I want to conquer these challenges and keep learning about design and building and creating and imagining things.”

“I am open to doing different kinds of challenges in the makerspace. Doing hands-on projects for a real audience is better than sitting in class and doing worksheets, so yeah, I don’t mind doing them.”

Delivering @ DesignLabHS


Think about how little of the work done in school winds up being used by people. Mathematicians don’t scour worksheets looking for insights into their work, authors and college professors don’t request the essays our students turn in, and history is rarely made by the students studying in.  But if the students in a school are tackling real world problems for authentic audiences of people who actually care about the solutions to those problems, then everything they do winds up being used by people in some way.

The Pallet Project, as we’ve come to call it, is the solution to a problem brought to us by Ingenuity Cleveland and it’s going to be delivered onsite to be viewed and used by close to 40,000 people this weekend.   The 9th grade students at Design Lab Early College High School in Cleveland have spent the past four weeks using a pile of donated shipping pallets to build a seating area on the festival grounds.  Students stripped pallets, repaired them, took in aesthetic considerations, wrestled with symmetry, figured out how to work in groups of their choosing, some of them used a power tool for the first time, laughed when things were funny and sweated when things got tough.  There’s a lot of talk about “grit” these days, but often it’s the grit associated with grinding out traditional schoolwork at a high pace and according to a predetermined rubric. Our students showed the grit that it takes to deliver their design on-time, well done, and ready for use.  Anyone who’s hiring knows that it is people who can do this that are crucial for the success  of most endeavors that involve deadlines.

Our students weren’t like they are now when they started. They aren’t professionals, they are petrified novices doing school in a whole different way and it’s hard. At first we couldn’t get the class to sit still and pay attention long enough to even tell them what the Ingenuity Festival is.  Then there was the day we spent 5 of our 6 hours coming up with team design concepts arguing or procrastinating.  What they did with that last hour, though, was the first inkling that our students could deliver when it counted. Up against a deadline, and knowing that we weren’t solving some made-up problem out of a textbook but a real live problem that mattered to people outside of our school who were counting on us, each group delivered a solid concept.  The groups did so well that the students decided not to pick a final “winning” design, but instead chose to combine elements of each group’s input.  Then we set to actually building the thing.

The kids started in on the pile of pallets with crowbars, hammers, and rubber mallets. There were arguments about who got to use which tools.  Stubborn nails became massive challenges and to see a student who had never touched a hammer figure out that the claw end was actually a lever that could provide enough torque to remove the nail with ease is something to witness. There were kids who wandered from task to task unable to fully engage and there were even students who chose to sit out for a time, unwilling to start and uninterested in finishing.  Difficulty was everywhere, and it took some time before all of the students were willing to at least try, but they got there.

As the days went by, the kids got better fast. It wasn’t long until students just naturally reached for a jigsaw, or grabbed a palm sander and smoothed a potentially dangerous corner. As this phase of the learning hit full peak, kids wound up finding that each new task involved figuring out how to solve new problems.  The cross beam support that was needed to finish framing a pallet became a lesson in why a piece of wood warps with water damage.  Students who had been working on a bench for the past hour had to find a way to have the next group coming in finish the work they had started. It seems that the most learning growth occurred when student were so deep into their work that they begin to see new problems within the larger task, the small problems that keep engagement constant and agile thinking at its peak. It’s when students begin to hit some sort of flow that, as a teacher, I really get a sense of the potential yet untapped and perhaps previously undiscovered.

This past week has been a bit slow for the students. We ran into the problem of not-enough-work-for-so-many-people and it kinda sucked the life out of things for a couple days.  Kids began to ask when they’d get to do worksheets and hear lectures again.  At one point I asked for a show of hands as to who was absolutely “done” with the whole pallet thing and every hand went up pretty quickly.  So just like in the design concept phase, we hit a patch in which we mainly argued and wasted time.  But then, yesterday, two days before we had to deliver onsite, the students suddenly grasped what was on the line and kicked into high gear.  The past two days have been a whirlwind and it’s certain that we’ve built something that we can be proud of. The best thing is that we’re only eight weeks into school, and if we’re starting like this, I know that our students are really going to be able to come through in the clutch by learning what they need to and working their tails off for the rest of their time at Design Lab ECHS.  Take a look.

In Their Own Words – The Ingenuity Festival Pallet Project


We need to understand that creativity and art are way more important than they seem., They’re imagination, design, hope and more . – Anysia

In the makerspace we are learning to make and design a step from pallets. it was interesting and fun until the boys in our group kept trying to take the tools and take over. We are using our math skills when we are measuring. We are learning social skills like how to work together as a team and listening to one another’s ideas. These skills are important because we will be using them as we get older. – Danielle

The most exciting part about building a stage and a seating area is that we are having fun while making it. I am feeling good about this project. – Daveona

I am worried that the stage and seats will not be good compared to everyone else’s creations at the festival. I’m worried that we will be made a fool of because we couldn’t finish in time. I feel like the class will be arguing and will mess some seats up and they will have to get chairs from the store to replace any that were built wrong. I think we could do it  but won’t have all the supplies to make it look really good, but you have to use what you’ve got. We will try our best and hope that it turns out just the way we thought it should look like. – Devin

I’ve never actually seen somebody cut wood right in front of my face. It’s fun to know that we are actually making stuff out of the wood pallets – Tristan

So far the makerspace has been fine. I like it so far. I like working together as a team and destroying useless wood and then working together to build  something else. This is different from my other school. We didn’t have a chance to get out and work on real world problems. I’m learning how to become more social. I also use math and science skills while I am in the makerspace. This is a way to learn and have fun while doing it. It’s interesting to have encountered failing. I learned that I have a mind for designing. We are being conducted like this to not be ready for the world, but be in the world itself. – Terriel

So far this experience is fun and challenging and takes some thinking. I like how we get to  use tools we never used before because I like to learn to do and use new things. I don’t like how the wood shavings gets everywhere and all over my clothes and stuff. I don’t think should be changed, for real. I like it how it is – Mydeion

I’m learning a lot in the makerspace because it teaches you how to work as a team.  If something doesn’t work, or go your way, you have to find a way to fix it, and finally you learn how to use power tools. – Kenyon

The problem that we are solving is, “How can we make seats in order for people to communicate?”.  Every one of us 9th graders will be divided into groups. Once we have our groups we will start to come up with a design plan. For a strategy like this , we will need thinking, focus, faith, honor, creativity and partnership skills. We need to know how much space we are taking up and what are we using. We need to make seats that can fit 6-8 people. Hopefully our creation will be a good conclusion. We would like to thank the IngenuityFest for giving us this chance to create with our hearts, mouths and mind. We hope they love our project and understand that we 9th graders did our best. – JoeNae

I am very excited to attend IngenuityFest because it will be a new experience for me to discover new things with hands-on learning. It is really testing our skills at a young age, making us independent and ready for the real world out there. It also helps us to find out who we really are and discover our true talents.  – Kiana

Design Ingenuity

Having the right tools doesn’t make someone clever, original, or inventive. Ingenuity stems from problems worth solving for a reason that matters.  Anyone driven to create something understands that we use what we have around to do what we have to do in order to deliver something that people find useful and enjoyable. It isn’t having a hammer, it’s having a reason to use it. and at Design Lab Early College High School our students have both a great problem to work on and the tools to design, build, and share their learning with the world.

It is only fitting then, that our students have the opportunity to partner with Ingenuity Cleveland, an innovative local organization that helps to fill our urban landscape with events and activities that meet at the intersection of industry, art, and creativity.  The hallmark of their year-round work is the annual IngenuityFest, and this October 2-4 the kids at Design Lab ECHS have the opportunity to design a small stage and seating area that will be viewed by close to 40,000 festival goers.  This is an ambitious project for our young design students, and is just the kind of early-in-the-year stretch opportunity that raises the stakes regarding our ability to live up to our potential as learners.

We’re a never ending source of real world problems. – Emily

Emily Appelbaum, the program director at Ingenuity Cleveland, has a bold vision for her organization, and a tremendous capacity to understand the vital role that her team can play in the lives of our young students.  While the testing machine that has taken hold of our education system grinds away, she and her team are a bright spot on the horizon of what is possible when we connect students to problems and solutions to audiences.  By partnering with Ingenuity Cleveland, our students get to swim in the petri dish of challenges that are involved in the work that Ingenuity Cleveland does around town, as well as connect to a network of artists, industry leaders, and science minded folks all engaged in deep learning in their own fields and who have a willingness to engage across the kinds of traditional borders that have caused learning in schools to be narrowly contained within the boundaries of a defined and limited set of content area subjects.  Emily and her crew have partnered with us because of a shared passion for developing agile thinkers who don’t shy away from problems, but engage them willingly, all as part of making something great happen in our community.

In the video above we get a glimpse of this partnership in action. The students were tasked with developing a seating area that fits within the footprint of the festival site while also making the experience of their design unique and engaging. While it’s interesting to hear the student take in considerations of entrance, egress, and free movement within the space, it is also important to note that this group wasn’t asked to come up with a digital model for their design. Every student at Design Lab ECHS has daily access to a Chromebook, and it was fascinating to see this group of students identify a great use for this digital tool as a way to help the teachers and event organizers envision what their final design might look like in three dimensions.  This kind of modelling, along with the numerous photographs, documents, and videos shared with an assumed ease between our digitally connected students and their professional peers, provide a clear example of the natural tendency of brilliant young people to use whatever tools they have around them to communicate what they dream to those who might help them in making their ideas a reality.

Teaching to Do, Doing to Teach

By Meghan Paris, 9th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Design Lab High School

Being a 3rd year teacher, I still don’t have the art of teaching entirely figured out. Contrary to popular belief, I rarely have the answer; instead, I choose to just roll with it so as to give the appearance of knowing what I’m doing. So far this year, teaching 9th grade History at Design Lab Early College High School, I’ve been doing a lot of just rolling with it. Surprisingly, I find myself feeling comfortable and enjoying teaching, which is something that has not yet occurred in my illustrious 2.38 year teaching career.

In order to appreciate how enamored I am with the work happening here at Design Lab, it would be useful to have an understanding of my experience. After finding myself unemployed with a B.A. in History and Pre-Law studies, I decided that I would succumb to the inevitable and just become a History teacher. After making the rounds in the Cleveland charter school circuit, teaching 3rd grade then middle school social studies for a couple years, I landed here, at Design Lab High School.

The past two years of teaching have been lackluster, to speak nicely. I came to work each day, did the grind of direct classroom instruction, the sitting and getting kind that was occasionally centered around an inauthentic project that was being created just for me to grade it. My position here, at Design Lab, was my last shot at teaching before I branched out and quit teaching.

Flash forward to now, the beginning of the 6th week of my first year teaching at Design Lab. Initially, I was wracked with trepidation (are they really going to give the same kids I taught last year as 8th graders power tools!?), but from that cocoon of cautiousness has emerged a butterfly that doesn’t dread coming to work. For the first time in my professional life, I enjoy the act of teaching. Most freeing of all, perhaps, is the feeling of not knowing exactly what I’m doing while actively doing it.

When I say not knowing exactly what I’m doing, it means that I’m participating in a process that is so much larger than anything that is thus far known to me. Before, in my classroom, I was the boss, the head honcho, the big kahuna in charge of all the learning that occurred. Now, I’m learning along side and in front of my students, which is a completely humbling experience. So far this year, I’ve failed and succeeded multiple times, in partnership with my students, and I’ve already done more authentic teaching in six weeks than I did in my entire last year. Teaching students while learning those same skills creates opportunities for shared learning between the teacher and the students.

I can attempt to articulate the exchange of learning that is happening in words, but the majority of the experience is something that can only be observed. I observed a student asking another student to teach him to change the drill bit. I observed students listening to each other’s ideas with empathy and compassion. I observed students being self sufficient while asking for guidance, and I hope to continue observing while not knowing exactly what I’m doing. When I completely know how to do what I’m doing, I’m no longer embodying the constant evolution that I expect from the students; being completely sure of what I’m doing, to me, is a sign of a past experience of the teacher that I’m shedding for something exciting and new that I’m becoming.

Flipping Something Out of Nothing

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Sam Seidel defined a version of genius that is playing out in Cleveland at Design Lab High School as 9th grade students were confronted with 100 shipping pallets on their first day of school and were told that the entire first quarter would be devoted to taking these artifacts of our rustbelt urban environment and making useful things out of them.  He called it Hip Hop Genius and defined it as follows:

Creative resourcefulness in the face of limited resources. Or as it is often said in the hip-hop community: flipping something outta nothing.

This year at Design Lab HS we have decided to take a deliberate step towards learning by making and doing instead of sitting and getting.  While this idea is not new to me and my work, implementing real-world problem based learning  with a team of 9th grade teachers who are each as entirely new to the school as I am, and with the new challenges of working in a large urban metropolitan district, is something that filled me with both an overwhelming excitement and a tremendous feeling of trepidation.  I knew we had to find a problem for our students to work on, and I knew that we had to start the year with  an early “win” to get some momentum going with the kids, the staff, the parents, and our community partners. What I hadn’t really considered until about a month before school started was that I was planning to do a making project and I didn’t have any material to work with.

Eric Juli, the principal at Design Lab High School, has been working towards this kind of design oriented learning throughout his tenure at the school, and he has thought very carefully about how to set up both the physical space and contextual framework that will allow progress toward a vision of what might be possible in an urban, tool rich, problem riddled, student-centered, and creative school.  He’s built a solid network of local and national education peers, and using them as both an inspiration and a guide, he’s launched us towards some very innovative thinking amidst all of the pitfalls that you can imagine await such an endeavor in a typical large urban district.  Thankfully the Cleveland Municipal School District is anything  but typical, and is among the few urban districts that has a strong vision, capable leadership, and an innovative approach to leveraging new ideas, new technologies, and a tremendous connection to the people, communities, and organizations that help make our city something truly special and our students worth working for.

Through a few awesome local connections involving a reclaimed furniture maven, the founder of a local community woodworking makerspace, and their connection to the good folks at Forest City Enterprises, Eric and I wound up with an opportunity to have 100 wooden shipping pallets gifted to us if we could transfer them from the shipping dock at the Terminal Tower in downtown Cleveland  to our school about 30 blocks away. We jumped at the opportunity and quickly rented a Uhaul to get these much needed materials with very little idea with what to do with them other than move them and plant them slap dab in the middle of the cafeteria floor.  A few days after that we were able to receive our shipment of tools for the makerspace we were hoping to create. All we needed then was to embrace our fear, dive in, and start asking around for problems.

Right off the bat, by asking our staff and talking to our growing network of interested friends, we were able to find two problems to work on that could be solved using the limited resources we had around us.  The big project involves Ingenuity Cleveland and the Ingenuity Festival.  They asked if our students could help design some seating made from the pallets that could be used by the roughly 40,000 people in attendance this October 2nd-4th. I’ll get to that in subsequent posts, but we’re working on it now and it’s going to be a great step for our students and teachers.  The other problem was much more local for us, and it came from Mr. Senor, our school’s Physical Education teacher.

Mr. Senor was about to start the quarter with a unit on fitness and the benefits of a good cardiovascular workout, and he told us that he’d love to have some equipment for the kids to work with. He suggested that it might be good for the kids to build aerobic steps out of a few of the pallets.  With a guarantee that the students would get to use their creations in class while learning how to solve the very real problem of health and fitness in our urban neighborhoods, we asked the 9th graders and their teachers to work together in using our stack of pallets to make Mr. Senor’s vision a reality.

This is the best day of school I’ve ever had. – Sa-Quan

The students were given the challenge and spent two days understanding the problem, considering the materials, and formulating a design that would be both safe and functional when used in class. One of the most interesting things about this project was that the students were their own audience, and they didn’t want their creations to cause them any safety concerns or break and splinter in the middle of their workouts in gym class.  The students worked in teams to finalize a design and we all headed into the makerspace for the first time.

What happened next is exactly what Sam Seidel is talking about regarding Hip Hop Genius.  Our students, both new to the use of power tools, pry bars and cordless drills in a school setting and without the inhibition and fear that characterizes most adults in such a setting, took to the project with a zeal for learning something new and accomplishing a task that was previously unmatched in our encounters with them thus far in the school year.  Leaders emerged. Tools were attempted, mastered, and put to use. Learning was everywhere.  The 9th grade students and their teachers spent roughly three days turning what had once been a weathered shipping pallet into something aesthetically interesting, useful, and a vehicle for very strong growth in academics, confidence, and cooperative problem solving.  By working with their hands, our students engaged their minds. And through engaging their minds, they were able to begin a redefinition of both themselves and what kind of thinking school is going to require of them for the next four years.

This is all too fresh to clearly communicate in any kind of concise and reflective summation. Any educator who has been involved in, and who has had the opportunity to witness, this level of engagement knows that the lessons to be learned for the next project are everywhere.  There were just as many failures during the process of building our aerobic steps as there were successes, but the finished project speaks for itself, at least in design terms.  We found a problem, we used what we had around us, and we solved it.

Do You Even Test?

do you even test?

While many might, and should, argue the political aspects of Common Core development and implementation, I’d venture to say that there are very few who would disagree with the actual standards viewed as a list of things kids should learn in school. I haven’t heard a raging debate about whether or not students should be able to identify verbs, write a paragraph, plot an equation on a graph, and determine the length of a hypotenuse. Any list of learning standards ever devised and that will ever be devised has to include some thing that has to be learned. We should continue to add and subtract things from the list over time, but the list as written, even in the Common Core, is usually agreeable on the whole.

Testing, however, is a whole different ball game. If it is good to have a list of things kids should know and be able to do, it is terrible to take the ability to assess learning out of the hands of both the student and teacher. The PARCC and SBAC tests represent a colossal misstep in the assessment of learning. and pervert it into something that is used as a tool of accountability instead of the growth and development of both the learner and the teacher. If we entrusted assessment to those participating in the learning, and if we documented growth on the acquisition of mastery of the standards using all of the digital tools and community resources we have available, we might find both the learning and accountability we are misguidedly looking for in these standardized tests.

The PARCC and SBAC claim to be valid assessments of standards acquisition. Not only do they fail to represent the learning experience and growth of a student, they are not even equipped to assess several of the more significant Common Core standards in the slightest. While I should know better than to announce a series of blog posts on one topic, I’m interested in finding more examples like the one below.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.6:  Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.

This isn’t tested on these tests.  There is no such thing as a “shared writing product” on the PARCC or SBAC tests. Students are not afforded the opportunity to link other information or flexibly dynamic information displays via a browser during these tests.  The closest they come is that they’ve often got a kid sitting at a keyboard typing in a text box or manipulating a cookie-cutter polygon creator.

This seems like a pretty important standard. I hope my kids are learning how to do all of this, even though it isn’t on the test.  And that’s the danger. I fear that things that aren’t on the test aren’t getting the attention they deserve within our school districts. We’ve gone data mad and numbers happy, pushing always for a better local report card score when the big tests get graded, and we’ve done so to the detriment of learning for too long already. If we are going to implement the Common Core, that’s fine by me. But let’s not buy into the idea that these massive tests that are sucking up all of our time and money are in any way capable of measuring all of the learning that could be taking place in our schools.

Because it's time