Learning To Save Time

This video documents an important step in my growth as a novice in this Soulcraft Cohort work, but the step isn’t shown in the video.  It happened about an hour before we ever hit record.

I had built three walls of the boombox, and had done all the acoustic panelling with the woodblocks, and I had arrived at the shop ready to work on the front piece. I knew it was going to be tough work and that I was going to be pushed to try things that I hadn’t tried. Volume sliders, a speaker panel, and some kind of lid mechanism were all called for, and I knew absolutely nothing about how to do any of it. They were just ideas, drawings in my head, and I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get my hands to carry it all out.

Peter was in the shop working on a new lamp, and he looked pretty engrossed in it. I didn’t want to bother him, but my project had hit a brick wall and I needed help. Having just felt something similar when the whole team was working the previous Saturday, I was very mindful to take the least amount of time from Peter that I could possibly take. My question had to be succinct, and lead him into a very quick and easy answer.

“Hey Peter.”


“I don’t know how to cut holes in wood when I have to start in the middle of the board.”

In order to cut the speaker hole, and the holes for the volume sliders, I knew I couldn’t use a band saw, chop saw, or table saw, but those were the only tools I knew how to work aside from the jointer and planer. Peter quickly showed me the drill press machine, and taught me that I could drill holes in wood with a special bit. After I drilled the holes, I could take a handheld jigsaw and finish the cuts I needed.

Easy-Peasy. Peter went back to work and I got started. Next thing I knew, I was ready to make the video.

The thing I learned is that it’s important to know when to ask a question, and how best to ask the right one.  I didn’t get Peter involved in my whole problem, which would have taken more time in discussion. Instead, I identified exactly what I needed to learn for the immediate next step, and then stated it to Peter directly. I think it’s also important that I didn’t quite ask a question, I simply stated my problem. In a relationship in which a design framework is understood with depth, I could rely on Peter’s facility with problem solving as a starting point to finding a solution, and I could trust that he’d take the next steps to design the best answer, in this case, showing me the drill press and handheld jigsaw.

Applied to teaching in a problem-based classroom, I think my takeaway is that it might be interesting to have students learn how to maximize time by leading not with a question, but a specific problem statement.  I’m not exactly sure what I mean yet, but there’s something to having students be mindful of the teacher’s time, especially as PBL work is quite a bit more time intensive especially during feedback conversations.

Soulcraft Cohort: Data Analysis

For the past few Saturday mornings a group of teachers here in the Cleveland area have been meeting to learn at Soulcraft Woodshop. Our cohort is an experiment in professional learning. We believe that by putting ourselves in the unfamiliar world of woodworking, and in the hands of skilled and passionate artisans as mentors, we can grow through the experience of working on a furniture project and use what we learn to help us in our day jobs as educators. So far it’s been a bunch of fun mixed with a bit of healing and a ton of nervous excitement. We talk alot. We joke with one another. And now we’re starting to build stuff.

The video below is a thirty-five second look at the first time our team was set loose in the shop to start building. I’d like to dissect the video and highlight the learning I see.  While only a brief look into our work, I think it illuminates why we’re so excited to experience and share our time together.

0:00-0:06 – This is Peter and Christie. Peter is one of our mentors. He was helping Christie (actually his educator-genius-sister) mill her first pieces of wood for the project. Christie had never operated a saw like this before, had been shown how to work the tool and what to expect, and was very nervous about the whole deal. Check out Peter’s attention to the process, and his perfect role as a guide-on-the-side.

0:09-0:12 – This is Morgan and Julie. Morgan is planing her lumber on a super loud industrial machine. Julie has planed lumber before, and has offered to help Morgan during her first couple goes at it. We’ll come back to them in a few seconds.

0:15-0:20 – This is Tom and Jeremy.  Jeremy is wearing blue jeans for the first time in over a decade (don’t ask).  He also has designer safety gear.  Joking aside, the two of them were in deep discussions about how to build a great standing desk.

0:21-0:32 – Back to Morgan and Julie for my favorite bit. This is a great example of formative assessment. Morgan’s goal is to wind up with planks of wood that are planed to the exact same thickness. I won’t get into the whole process, but the gist is that each piece of wood must be incrementally thinned in succession until all planks match the thickness of the thinnest piece. In these nine seconds, we see Julie and Morgan spot-check their progress and determine how to proceed. I wish I would have kept the camera on Julie for a few more seconds. At :33 we see Julie begin to give feedback to Morgan.

0:33-0:35 – Back to Christie and Peter as she finishes her first successful cut.

In project-based learning, the data looks different. Numbers and letter grades could never capture what this thirty-five second snapshot can tell us about the learning going on in this “classroom”.

(Follow along with our cohort on twitter via the #soulco hashtag. We’re sharing posts, photos, insights, and laughs.)

The Starfish Story and Why It’s The Worst Motivational Story Ever

If you’ve ever been a teacher in a professional development session anywhere in the past ten years you’ve heard this one. If not, go ahead and watch it right quick.

Touching, no?

I hope every teacher gets the chance to “make a difference” in a kid’s life.  Any teacher in this world will tell you that these are the moments we live for, these moments in which we impact lives for ever. “The Starfish Story” is a favorite of teachers because the metaphor is perfect: As teachers we are so often starfish throwers, and it’s wonderful to be that person in life, especially when everyone else thinks it’s such a small difference we make.

But what about why all of the starfish are washed ashore so far from the natural habitat they should be thriving in to begin with? How did the problem become so large that the only answer is to sort amongst the dead and dying? Are we supposed to be motivated by the small, but personally meaningful, impact we are having on a much bigger, and more dire, problem?

I never want to see “The Star Fish Story” again. I don’t want to watch it in a staff meeting, opening day convocation, or professional conference. Instead, I’d like to watch something that asks how we can all work together to tackle the starfish problem. I’d like to hear the story cast with The Wise Old Man from the story as the protagonist as he decides to join in with the young girl in the throwing of starfish. A story about how he got others to join him in helping the girl, until one glorious day, there weren’t starfish washing up on the shores anymore.

We’re not going to solve any problems in education by condescendingly telling people they should feel good about making the best of a bad situation.  Instead, we should be honest about the scope of our problems, and as professionals get inspired to do what’s difficult together.

Let’s replace “The Starfish Story” with something more like this. Let’s motivate one another to solve a great problem.

Why Creativity Is Important

“You’re doing what”?  This is the response I’ve been getting from my colleagues as my 9th grade physical science students begin the Cardboard Challenge inspired by Caine’s Arcade.  Little do they know that my students have been comparing and contrasting the engineering design process and the scientific method.  They don’t know they will  be discussing how force, motion, and energy play a role in their creation.  Why?  Because this isn’t how school is done.

I want my students to have the ability to dream.  I don’t want them to simply imagine a world that they can build, but actually build a world they can imagine.  I want them to take chances.  I want them to fail forward without be penalized.  These are the skills of entrepreneurs, change agents, and successful individuals.


Why creativity?

  • My world in education isn’t changing quickly enough and that’s a shame, however, the world outside of my classroom is moving rapidly.  That world needs people that adapt, problem solve, collaborate and communicate ideas.
  • Creativity creates jobs.
  • Creativity drives economic growth.
  • Creativity provides answers to problems in our communities.
  • Creativity fosters a growth mindset.
  • Creativity maximizes my students’ potential.
  • Research quoted in Newsweek says that children with high “creative self-efficacy” are better able to handle stress and are more “confident about their futures.”

Please join us on Saturday, October 11th at Lakewood High School as we celebrate my students’ creativity.  People of all ages can come out between 10am-1pm to play cardboard arcade games designed by my students or build your own cardboard masterpiece!  We will supply all materials all you need is your imagination!  


I think it’s time we stop thinking that creative play in the classroom is all fun and games.  Why?  Because our future depends on it.


Hope Does Not Disappoint: Some Reflective Grumbling

I’m thinking about teachers I know. I’m thinking about me. And I’m thinking about why it is so hard to convince people that the internet should have an effect on education.  It feels like convincing the last house on the block to go ahead and try out electricity.

If I had a nickel for every person who called what I believe to be new, and permanent, a fad…

If I had even a penny for every time I’ve been told that change happens one step at a time, and that we must take baby steps….

I’m thinking about how tiring it is to not only try to learn how to teach in the internet age, but to talk about it at the same time.  And for that talk to almost always be an argument, a barrier, and a beat down.

It’s not often I go to the Bible. In fact, it’s nearly never.  But I’ve got a preacher friend who gave me a few words that were meant to help in situations like this, when we’re all so tired, beat up, and yet enflamed.

“Hope does not disappoint.”

We have to keep hoping if we believe what we believe to be inevitable.

Hope, of course, is not enough. But I’m thinking of people who have run out of the energy to do anything much else but hope. There are so many teachers who have had to give up just to stay sane, and as many others who keep bashing into the waves of a society struggling to understand the capability of entirely new tools.

We didn’t get the chance to baby step into the internet age. That bird’s flown.

The printing press wasn’t a pendulum swing, it was a wrecking ball.

The Opposite of Fixed Isn’t Broken

Soulcraft Cohort 9/20/14
Soulcraft Cohort 9/20/14

The Soulcraft Cohort we started up just might be the most difficult professional development course I’ve ever participated in. Taking several educators and putting them together in a furniture design course taught at a local community makerspace is a direct affront to our perception of ourselves as educators.  After all, we’re in the education business, so we should be really good at learning, right?

The local educators who’ve signed up for this course are all really good at what they do. In fact, the roster is a greatest hits of my favorite colleagues, and it’s an honor to even know them. But you should have heard us talk about building furniture. To a person we admitted to being afraid and many of us said we weren’t very “gifted” when it comes to making things more complex than a sandwich.  We were out of our element, overwhelmed, and nervous. Teachers aren’t very good at not feeling smart, and I could tell right away that my biggest obstacle in this whole process is going to be my ability to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

Like Apollos Hester taught us this week, we grow the most when we work the most, and when we believe that the work pays off, not on the scoreboard, but in our souls. This professional learning community that we’ve created around our work at Soulcraft Woodshop is a response to a broken professional development model. It’s a networked and human response to a systemic and impersonal failure in our profession. We’re carrying the baggage of a fixed mindset, and by putting ourselves in a learning situation that none of us are good at, we aim not to fix the education system, but help it grow and shift into what it, and we, could be.

Other posts from the cohort this week include: The Properties of Wood by Jeremy ShorrSoulcraft Woodshop Cohort and My Fixed Mindset by Morgan Kolis and An Academic Curriculum Through Making? by Peter Debelak.


Does institutional change in education have to begin with the teacher contract?

I feel like I might be late to the party on this one, and I’ll admit up front that I haven’t done the research yet, but isn’t the way we write and think about teacher contracts a major barrier to any kind of systemic change in education?

Yep, the can of worms. The teacher’s contract.

Here’s what I’m seeing  in the situation we’ve got at present.  The teachers are contracted employees of a school district. They need a contract that will allow them to be the best teachers they can be, and need to be free of abuse regarding wages, time, conditions, and work load. I want to be clear that I absolutely think that teachers need a contract and that it should be of benefit to them. On the other hand, there’s the administrators, and their job is to make sure the work gets done, done well, on time, and for the right cost. This is especially important, because the administrators are the head public servants in a very big public service system.  They have been given the public’s trust and resources, and with that, comes the public accountability. Any school administration’s work is especially difficult right now because the money is tight, the hours required to make change are long, and the public demand for accountability in the form of testing , state mandates, and political rhetoric is at an all time high. And sometimes, the noble goals of both parties clash.

This is where the lawyers come in. In any dispute between the teachers and the administration, the written and signed contract becomes the focal point of all further conversation and action.  The contract is parsed and scrutinized, it is argued and amended, and it almost always becomes divorced from any sense of principle or vision of teaching and learning. In my district, we simply refer to the contract as “the language”, as in, “‘the language’ says we can’t have more than 30 kids in a classroom”.

If a document that is supposed to be built on principles of fairness, excellence, and helping children is instead turned into a semiotic legal nightmare divorced from any sense of a school’s true public mission, isn’t this one of the first things that have to change?

How can we think differently?

This is a pretty fresh thought, but I’m asking myself a few questions. I’d love to hear some comments on this post. I’m interested in some input.

– Could we write a contract that didn’t use classes as a fundamental unit in the contract?  (ex. current model states that teachers must teach 7 class periods a day, etc.)

– What if we didn’t define the start or end of the school day on a whole-staff basis, but instead allowed for individual flexibility based on class times and location (physical+digital)?

– What if contracts included statement of agreed principles rather than infinitely detailed potentialities?

– Am I thinking all of this because I’m naive and neither a lawyer, union leader, nor administrator?

– Are there examples of sensical teacher contracts? Any that could fit on one page? Wouldn’t that be better?

– Wouldn’t everyone have more time to get the job done if we didn’t have to spend so much of our time arguing about “the language”?

Like I said, I’d really like to hear what people think about this one. I’m not picking a fight, for sure.  I’m wondering out loud and asking to learn.

Learning at SoulCraft – A Proposed Learning Cohort in Northeast Ohio

I’d like to get a few educators in Northeast Ohio to join me for an interesting experiment in professional learning.

soulcraft piano

Here’s the idea:

I’d like to get some educators to take a woodworking course at Soulcraft Woodshop, a local makerspace in a fantastically cool building near W.49th St. and Clark Ave. in Cleveland. The course would have participants choose what they’d like to design, and then have group and individualized instruction that will lead to a finished project. (Ex. I want to build a WikiSeat. I sign up for the course and I get the materials and skills that will enable me to not only make this one wikiseat, but also begin a larger exploration of woodworking projects and ideas. )

On top of the woodworking course, I’m excited to think about how we could have a meta-level engagement as educators at the same time.  As we’re working on our projects, I’d like us to to think about and share what we  learn about design process, assessment, feedback, curation, and the host of other classroom applicable concepts we’d run into together. The cohort would be a way of learning about learning by doing. I could see us blogging about it, engaging more in the maker community, and bringing much of what we learn back to our day jobs.

As for cost, I’d want to keep it pretty low. $400 covers time and materials for a once (3hrs) weekly, 6-week course.  My aim would be to get the cost subsidized either through grants, districts, or a local organization. I’m sure we could get CEU credits applied with little problem.  I’d facilitate and participate with the cohort for the fun of it.

This is an idea that Peter Debelak and I dreamt up today while hanging out at Soulcraft.  We’re very interested in the potential, and think it would be a blast to give this a whirl.  If I can get at least five people to give this a go, I can begin working on trying to make it a free class. We’d start in October and we’d have to pick a night that works for everybody. Wednesday or Thursday evenings could be possibilities, as well as a possible Saturday AM group.


Please let me know. I’m looking at you NE Ohio’s #ohedchat gang. Ken Kozar, Julie Rea, Karen, and I all took the class as a group last year and it was a great learning experience for all of us. Both Jim and Peter are excellent people, patient teachers, and skilled artisans. This would be a really neat exploration.

For every 15 year old kid in the world who’s going to struggle with inequality today in school.

James Baldwin

I hope that somewhere a high school American Literature teacher is teaching this right now.

James Baldwin still has something to say to America. While this piece from, The Fire Next Time, was written about the experience of race in 1955, his message is equally applicable to any situation in which inequality and prejudice exists.

I’d like to offer the full text here and dedicate it to every 15 year old kid in the world who’s going to struggle with inequality today in school. Whether that inequality is due to  race, religion, your body, your mind, your gender, or your sexuality, it is important to realize that understanding our experience, having patience with our persecutors, and trying to have love despite the hardness of living, are the keys to making our country, and ourselves, better.

Dear James:

I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times. I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. I have known both of you all your lives and have carried your daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed him and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you have known anybody from that far back, if you have loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man. You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.

Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face, for behind your father’s face as it is today are all those other faces which were his. Let him laugh and I see a cellar your father does not remember and a house he does not remember and I hear in his present laughter his laughter as a child. Let him curse and I remember his falling down the cellar steps and howling and I remember with pain his tears which my hand or your grandmother’s hand so easily wiped away, but no one’s hand can wipe away those tears he sheds invisibly today which one hears in his laughter and in his speech and in his songs.

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No, this is not true. How bitter you are,” but I am writing this letter to you to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist. I know the conditions under which you were born for I was there. Your countrymen were not there and haven’t made it yet. Your grandmother was also there and no one has ever accused her of being bitter. I suggest that the innocent check with her. She isn’t hard to find. Your countrymen don’t know that she exists either, though she has been working for them all their lives.

Well, you were born; here you came, something like fifteen years ago, and though your father and mother and grandmother, looking about the streets through which they were carrying you, staring at the walls into which they brought you, had every reason to be heavy-hearted, yet they were not, for here you were, big James, named for me. You were a big baby. I was not. Here you were to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard at once and forever to strengthen you against the loveless world. Remember that. I know how black it looks today for you. It looked black that day too. Yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived, and now you must survive because we love you and for the sake of your children and your children’s children.


This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry.

I know your countrymen do not agree with me here and I hear them. saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.

Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words “acceptance” and “integration.” There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.

Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

You don’t be afraid. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man’s definition, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word “integration” means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.

It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton, dammed rivers, built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer, One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”

You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.

Your uncle,


– full text and credits found here.

Because it's time