Thursday, August 9, 2018

What do you mean by learning?

By Mark Heintz

My wife calls me an idea man.  I have ideas for everything and because of that, I use Pinterest. Yes, I use Pinterest. I use it to document and store a lot of those ideas, and I love it.  To add fuel to the fire, I perseverate a lot and will repeat the same idea over and over again, but with just a slight variation to make it worth repeating.  From time to time (ok, every day), I talk to my wife about my ideas for education.  I am very lucky to have her.  In addition to her, I'm fortunate to have a great support group in my professional community who are willing to listen and discuss my ideas.  But, as I enter my thirteenth year of teaching, I realize that I've had a lot of ideas I thought would be silver bullet fixes to problems in the classroom.  I thought that if I found the perfect curriculum or used the "best" strategy, then the students would learn at unprecedented levels. Early in my career, I dove deeply into standardized testing and data.  Then, I was an early adopter of the iPad and personalized technology.  Afterward, I flipped my classroom. If there has been a buzz-worthy idea, I have implemented it.  As I reflect back on those ideas, I wonder--what the hell do I actually stand for?

I know I am not the only one with a similar story.  Many teachers leave the profession.  Many more burn out.  It’s not for a lack of caring; often it's because we care so much.  But, I think the problem is that we don’t have a common mission or understanding of our core beliefs.  Because of a lack of a clear mission, we continue to make large sweeping changes almost every year.

What is the purpose of school? 

Seriously, what do I stand for? If I don’t have a clear purpose, then the buzz-worthy topics will continue to pressure me to adopt the latest trends prompting me to redesign the courses I teach every few years.  As I am sifting through my last decade of ideas, I come to one core belief that is above everything else: learning. I value learning.

As I reflect on all of the fads I've adopted and reworking of courses I've done, I wonder what my beliefs about meaningful learning are.  If I had a core understanding of my own definition of what meaningful learning is, would I have been so quick to make changes?

Now, the only ideas I am interested in are ones about learning. Because of that singular belief, I conclude that schools exist to create conditions that maximize learning.  But what do I mean by learning?

What do you mean by meaning learning?

I have struggled with my own definitions of learning.  It's not easy to come up with a definition of it that really holds any value. It's easier at the moment to adopt a new fad rather than define learning and develop a mission statement.  But for me, I'm at a point in my journey where I need to define it.  Here is what I have come up with. Meaningful learning is being engaged in the process of developing new understandings or skill sets that are useful in our lives.

While people can discuss at length what should be learned, there needs to be common understandings in a school community about what learning is for those conversations to be meaningful.  I firmly believe that a lot of energy can be saved in schools if people sat down and talked about their beliefs on learning.

What do I mean by engaged? 

Engagement is one of the major buzzwords in education and is used in so many different contexts.  Because of that, it's almost lost all meaning.  I don’t want to create a superficial definition that crumbles the second I doubt what I am doing.

Most of what we "learn" is lost.  As I think about everything I have "learned," or more appropriately, been exposed to in my lifetime, almost all of it is consumed and forgotten quickly.  How many times have I looked something up and forgotten it in a matter of hours?  The same goes for the students in the classroom.  I tell them things and most of the time within a day they have forgotten it! This is because true learning that is meaningful and lasting does not take place unless there is a personal agency in the new understanding that is purposeful beyond the moment.  This means that people must have a desire to learn the topic or skill.

Therefore, engagement means the desire to learn.  True engagement in learning boils down to desire.   If a person has a desire to learn the topic or skill, they are engaged.

What do I mean by useful in our lives?

The dreaded question: "Why are we learning this?"  I'm big on explaining to my students why I'm having them learn something.  I explain the role it has in the subject and the overall payoff.  Even when I am really good at setting the stage, I think most students "learn" for assessments, grades, projects, or the vague possibility of a future payoff because there isn't much personal agency in all of the things I am teaching them. I dictated the exact topic they will learn.  Over the past few years, I noticed that when I ask greater opened ended provocations, the students are more prone to exploring the topic in meaningful ways.  But when the learning is disproportionately for a grade, something is lost.  The learning has to go somewhere other than for school purposes for it to be meaningful and is most powerful when it is going someplace useful for their lives.

There is a natural curiosity to engaged learning that drives the use.  If the provocation is thought-provoking or there is a real-world problem to solve, the use is in the forefront.  The use then is to gain new insights into the world or to create a solution.  Either way, the engaged learner has an intrinsic purpose.

What if we don't have a common belief about learning?

Simply put, trust is lost.  Trust is lost between any combination of administration, teachers, guardians, students, and businesses.  When the stakeholders in a learning community don't share common beliefs about learning, we lose respect for each other.  For example, while we wonder why students aren’t learning a topic the students are wondering why they are learning the topic. We will continue to focus on niche items in learning or topics that distract us from our focus on meaningful learning.  Some of these topics are deadlines, discipline, social-emotional issues, implementing technology, arguing over curriculum, assessments, bell ringers, projects, and rigor.  But the focus should be on learning.

Call to Action

I challenge you to write down your beliefs about learning.  Do so without concern for assessment, curriculum, discipline, or your own educational experience.  Just write down what you believe about meaningful learning. I look forward to reading, hearing, and discussing your thoughts!

Thank You

A huge thank you to Kim Miklusak for editing this post and her constant willingness to debate, to my district for creating conditions for me to have great discussions with my colleagues and community, and to the Modern Learners community for pushing me to find my voice.

Friday, July 6, 2018

I feel terrible

by Mark Heintz

I feel terrible.

Another year of AP is officially over. The scores are released.  The data is tabulated. This time of year never brings out the best in me.  Let me state this: this year was amazing and my scores were great!  I documented the whole year (shameless plug, you can read about it here).  Yet, once I look at the data, I still feel terrible.

I feel terrible because I reduce a students experience to a score.
I feel terrible because learning gets reduced to data.
I feel terrible because I use the term "pass rate" to describe my class.
I feel terrible because I get excited about the number of 4's and 5's I get.
I feel terrible because I cheer myself up and bring my self down as I read through each kid's score.
I feel terrible because scores will change how some students feel about the year, for better or worse.
I feel terrible because I make excuses for myself as I read through the scores.
I feel terrible because I make excuses for the students as I read through the scores.
I feel terrible because I overly praise myself for scores.
I feel terrible because I compare myself to last year.
I feel terrible because I compare myself to other teachers.
I feel terrible because I compare myself to the national data.
I feel terrible because I see how much pressure I put on myself.
I feel terrible because I see how much pressure students put on themselves.
I feel terrible because the numbers mean so much to people.
I feel terrible because I know history means so much more than a test and a course.
I feel terrible.

Even the College Board does not place as much emphasis on the scores as I do. They just make qualifications based on the scores.  I know that is not exactly true, but still, I think we put too much emphasis on the scores.

I don't think I'm alone.  I wanted to put my voice out there because I care about my students, and because they are more than a number and so am I. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

More Writing in Math

By: Rachel Barry

In an earlier blog post, I shared my want to learn more about my students through writing.  I challenged myself to create more opportunities to allow my students to express themselves through writing.  After talking to various teachers (of various subjects, I might add), I decided to start journaling with my students.  I will be honest, a majority of my ideas for implementation were stole from US History teacher Saarah Mohammed.

The Process
Starting in Quarter 4, a prompt was posted on Schoology each Friday for students to reflect and respond to.  Students were given approximately 10 minutes to write, though when needed, students could take more time.  I started with prompts that I was curious about "Without monetary constraints, where in the world would you travel to?  Why do you want to travel there, and who would you take with you?"  Then, by Saarah's recommendation, I started using next years' Common App writing prompts as inspiration.   For example, I adapted "Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others." to "What is your proudest accomplishment?"  

The Effect
I was amazed at how open my students were in sharing some personal stories and feelings, and I loved the students reactions when they saw that the day's agenda included a journal.  I saw my students in a new light, as some who normally struggle in math were thriving in the world of writing, while others were more frustrated that they couldn't just get right to simplifying complex numbers.  

I learned so much.  I learned about a student who have overcome depression and suicidal thoughts, another who want to study abroad because they have never left Des Plaines or Elk Grove Village, a student who can't wait the fall to be able to go to their farm and help out with the harvest, one who shared being asexual and wants to educate others, a student who is working hard on his Eagle Scout project, another who is struggling to care for her younger sister when the parents are rarely in the picture, and so many students excited about their school activities.  I am eternally grateful for my students' willingness to share their stories with me, as I am forever changed by these relationships that I have built.

Next Steps
Now that I have opened this can of worms, I can't close it.  I know that I will start the year with my students journaling and continue the process throughout.  Starting earlier and building this process, I hope to also incorporate some academic self-reflection questions, such as "What grade have you earned?" (stolen from Mark Heintz), "How can you use the feedback from _ assignment/assessment to improve your learning?", or "Now that you have achieved your goal, what is your new goal?"  My goal is to build more metacognition skills as well as break down the barrier that we can only learn math in a mathematics class.

One of the things that surprised me the most was that the students who forgot their iPads and wrote their journals on paper tended to write more.  However, I wasn't able to keep a conversation going, as I did with other students in the comments section on Schoology.  I have debated the idea of each student having their own journal, though logistically this could be difficult, as I typically read these journals at home over the weekend.  If anyone has any insight into trying some of these methods, I would greatly appreciate any imput!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Deep Work: How to Find Focused Success

If you feel distracted in your professional life, you are not alone. 

Book Cover
Deep Work by Cal Newport was the subject of a recent book study sponsored by our EG Collab Lab.  When we approached teachers and introduced the topic–how to combat the rising sense of distraction in your professional life–we found plenty of people who wanted to talk.  Using Zoom, we were able to join with staff across our building and from other schools for a discussion over several weeks.

One point of lively discussion was whether we found ourselves “busy” or “productive,” and how email–certainly a necessity in our profession–can overtake more vital functions.  All of us admitted we could probably spend an entire school day on email, yet none of us would feel a sense of satisfaction at the end.  Our abundant new technology may offer opportunities for richer connections in some instances or perhaps push us toward shallow personal connections. Should we re-evaluate the quality of communication and ideas pouring through these new portals? 

Newport passionately argues that the most satisfying work is craft, a point when we use the full force of our intelligence, attention, focus, and creativity to solve problems.  This is where we humans often find deep meaning.  We cannot develop our craft without “deep work,” a term coined by Newport.

Newport also challenges us as professionals with stark advice to become more productive.  Newport argues that the will power to work deeply is not a momentary whim, but a routine investment in ourselves.  Newport gives a plethora of examples of how to eliminate shallow work and re-focus our energy on deep work.  His advice to embrace boredom rather than constantly filling an empty moment with a swipe of the phone resonated with all of us.  He challenges the reader to re-evaluate the use of social media by examining the value of random connections versus the high value connections we have in our personal and professional lives. 

Our discussion ended with an important challenge – how can we teach and encourage deep work in our students?  We certainly need to make changes in our own lives first.  Newport’s argument has clear implications for our classrooms and students.  Although he does not address the educational setting specifically, we certainly felt pulled to apply these ideas to our own students. 

“Deep work,” Newport concludes, “is a life well-lived.” We all agreed that we hungered for more of that in our lives.

Many thanks to Kim Miklusak, Quinn Loch, Mark Heintz, and Linda Ashida in our Collab Lab for facilitating the Zoom technology and helping us make this happen.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Shift This! D214 Connects and Learns with Author Joy Kirr!

By Linda Ashida

This year the Collab Lab enjoyed a new way to facilitate learning connections beyond our school walls using Zoom. Among other ways we used this technology to collaborate virtually with educators across the district and country, we also created a Virtual Learning Cohort to more intentionally foster our community of learning across schools.

The first 3-week Learning Cohort connected over 30 learners from across District 214 and beyond. You can read about it here:
A New Way To Connect and Learn Across Schools: The Collab Lab's Virtual Learning Cohort

We were so inspired by our conversations in the first Virtual Learning Cohort, that we decided to connect again for a second 3-week session. In the first cohort, we were fortunate enough to have one of our favorite Twitter PLN colleagues (and and "neighbor" in District 25) Joy Kirr, join us. Since in we were exploring ways to involve students more in their learning, it seemed only fitting to use Joy's recently published book, Shift This! to guide the conversation for our second Virtual Learning Cohort.  Joy graciously agreed to participate again and help lead the conversation.

Each week Joy kicked off our conversations with insights from her book as well as her current practice. She was candid about what worked and what didn't; we were so inspired by the way that, at heart, she is a learner herself, always reflecting and shifting her practice to do what is best for kids. Her examples and relfections served as a great springboard for us to share ideas for shifts in our own practice.

Across the two 3-week Virtual Learning Cohorts, The Collab Lab team connected with over 30 colleagues representing every District 214 school, neighboring school districts, and even with educators for other states! And students joined us too! Between our weekly meetings we stayed connected on Twitter and we also collaborated using Google Docs to curate and share even more ideas.

Using Zoom gave us a great new way to strengthen our professional learning connections across schools in our new Virtual Learning Cohorts; it was a new great way to connect, learn, and share!

We're looking forward to keeping our conversations going on social media.  And. . .  YOU can join the conversation too! Just follow the the hashtag #ShiftThis on Twitter.  You will no doubt be inspired and you can even jump in on some Twitter chats, like the one that will happen just tonight! 

And, to learn more about Joy's book, including information on how to get your own copy, check out this previous post: "Looking to Make Changes in Your Classes? Book Rec: Shift This!" 

A huge shout out to Joy for being so generous with her time to join us and inspire our learning, and to all of our colleagues and students who participated. We're looking forward to continuing similar collaborative learning experiences across schools in the year to come!

Friday, May 25, 2018

Part II: Giving Up Control - What Students Thought

by Quinn Loch

This Spring, my freshman biology classes worked on a whole-class project to design and start the construction of a pollinator garden. In part I, I shared my experience through the process and how "letting go" so students could drive their learning was a rewarding experience. In part II, I will share what my students thought of the experience through conversations, class discussions, and a survey.

Student Reflections During Planning

In one of my four classes, the students on the public relations and social media team decided to interview the teams in their classes and ask them how they thought they were progressing.

This was entirely uninitiated by me, and it was awesome to see. There were struggles early on, but students learned to work together better as the days went on.

Students Survey Results

After the project planning was completed, I asked students to take a survey via google form. Included in the questions was a chance for them to assess themselves and a chance to share their thoughts about the project as a whole. Below are some of the questions I asked and the word-for-word responses that I received from students.

  • What did you learn during the course of the project?
    • "Leadership skills. And even communicating with unfamiliar people."
    • "I learned that communication is really important and Agreement for ideas is One of the most important when working in groups"
    • "How to communicate better with others and it’s not very easy to make a pollinator garden"
    • "I learned a lot about plants that I didnt know before like the anther and other plant parts I also didnt know about the decline in pollinators at all and how much that effects humans."
  • What was difficult about this project?
    • "Communication between groups and also taking responsibility."
    • "We were not told what to do exactly so kind of starting your self in the right direction getting your self going and working."
    • "Setting goals and proper communication between groups. The deadlines also came quickly and getting everything done in time was not easy."
  • What did you like about this project?
    • "Being able to start something by ourselves"
    • "I like how we were kinda free to do anything we wanted and how we weren’t constricted"
    • "Being able to contribute to something very new and amazing, this whole project was a great idea and I am proud to be able to be part of it"
    • "That we got to move around more not just sit in a desk and learn what it was we needed to learn"
    • "What I liked about this project is that we had fun and I learned new facts about plants and why they are important."
  • How does the experience of this project compare to the traditional (normal) way we learned earlier in the year?
                                           1I learned less doing a project like this.
                                           5 = I learned more doing a project like this.
    • 1  - 0%
    • 2 - 1%
    • 3 - 16%
    • 4 - 45%
    • 5 - 38%
  • I would prefer to do more collaborative projects like this in my science classes.

                                                                      = No

= Yes
    • 1  - 0.5%
    • 2 - 3.5%
    • 3 - 14%
    • 4 - 41%
    • 5 - 41%
Students Discussion Feedback

The day after the garden proposals, I had each class sat in a large circle in the room and had a discussion. We discussed how problem solving outside of school and in the workplace involves multiple people that need to talk and share ideas. When I asked each class what the most difficult part of the project, the overwhelming answer was "communication."

The students felt that if they were to now work on a similar project, that they could do it in about half the time that they took for this project. They learned what worked and didn't work and how to work best with others - ever if they haven't worked with them before.

Sometimes I feel that by spending more time on large projects, I'm sacrificing content, but with the level of self-reflection and real world application, I feel that it is well worth the extra time.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

One Year in AP: A Year of Blogging (Week thirty-seven)

By Mark Heintz


I have two main focuses as I write this weekly blog. Two driving questions that I have in my mind while making decisions.  They are:
  • How do I know if my students know? 
  • How do I get them to know if they know?  
Whether that is a skill or content, I want to know if they know it.   I no longer think it is acceptable for me to guess or get a feeling on whether or not they know it. Getting the students to know if they know it is downright hard, but I am really attempting to get to a point where the students can recognize their understandings or progress on their skill levels and content knowledge.  Therefore, the purpose of this year of reflection is to see how I make progress towards these two goals and elicit feedback from staff, students, and hopefully people who follow along on the journey.  You can read how last week went here.

What did I learn?

What did I learn from writing my reflection on the course each week? I set out to focus myself on two questions:
  • How do I know if my students know? 
  • How do I get them to know if they know? 

Involve the Students

I learned that I need to involve my students more in the planning, feedback, and grading policies of the class.  After writing this blog for about fifteen weeks, I found the process so rewarding; yet, I began to wonder about its purpose.  Why didn't I have the students contribute to the blog?  If the reflection was so great for me, wouldn't it be even more valuable if the students reflected?  They would be able to give me feedback and at the same time reflect on their own learning.

Having the students write the blog served as a medium to find the answer to the second question: How do I get them to know if they know?  From their reflection, I received so much insight on what they thought and knew about their learning.  They gave me suggestions that I would not have come up with on my own.

Also, I was able to get an insight into the differences with what I say and put into practice.  I have certain mantras and sayings.  I set up the course in a way that I felt was equitable.  Even though I said I wanted certain things, sometimes their reflection told me I valued different things.  For instance, I always wanted my class to be about the learning.  However, I valued the completion of the checklists over that for most of the year. The day I wrote the post, I had students give me feedback on things they felt I should keep and get rid of.  It is humbling to read that some of the mantras concerning grades did not resonate with them.

Keep it Simple

I learned that I overcomplicate things.  Sometimes I have a convoluted way of saying things, or I teach the highest level of writing or bring in the most complicated document.  The materials or samples would confuse students with what they should/could do. This can make the process so complicated the students would try to mimic the complicated writing and lose the things they could do in their writing.  Or the document was too difficult and they had no way of accessing it.

Making small gains each day is better than trying to hit a grand slam every time.  It is hard not to speed the process up too much and lose almost everyone.  It feels so much more "academic" and "rigorous" to speed things up.  Due to the blog, I would often have students essentially translate some of the things I say back to me, and I could see that the way I laid out some of the materials were too confusing.

Even the way I present the content has been simplified.  While there are many different parts and nuances in the French Revolution, I simplify it so the students don't get stuck on the details.  They lose the forest for the trees if I didn't.  Simplifying the revolution allows students to grasp the ideas of the revolution.  Once they have the concept, they can read documents to go find the nuances and different perspectives. 

Less is More

I learned that I attempt to do too much in one class.  I use to give five or six documents at a time.  I would rush through them so quickly the students had little to no time to work through them on their own.  Often I would just tell the students how to analyze the documents just to get through it.  After switching and doing fewer documents each day, the students own more of the process and actually understand it.  At the same time, I can give students feedback on their progress and get student feedback when there is less and I am not so concerned with "covering" information.


I learned that writing is the best way to have the students work through their understandings of history and make thinking visible.  Writing is hard, takes constant practice to get better, and is a window into their mind.  It forces students to make decisions to develop an argument.  Words matter and if they don't fully understand a concept, their writing will reflect that.  I can read exactly what they are able to come up with and work through.  I have fallen in love with the writing mainly because there is not a right answer or an exact way for them to do it.  Because of that fact, I am merely there to help them reflect on the process and be clearer in their explanation.

Despite all of the great things about writing, I need to stop interrupting them.  I am so quick to give feedback or show an example, I stop them from just being and doing.  That is a goal for me for next year.  Let them be.


I learned students need to be more reflective. While I love to be a direct part of the feedback process, if the students can't recognize what is good or needs improvement, then they will consistently need me.  That is not the goal of the school.  School should help them become independent thinkers and learners.  One of the main goals of my class was for the students to be more autonomous, especially in recognizing what they know and can be able to do.  I felt that happened this year with the majority of my students.  They knew what they needed to work on and what their strengths were.  It took a lot of practice and me getting out of the way.  I felt at the end of the year they did not need my validation as much.  They had learned and grown.

I learned how to use Google Docs for portfolios.  Students created a document and shared it with me to organize their writing and receive feedback from peers and me.  It had the rubric on the document for the students and me to reference.  It was amazing and it is something I need to continue next year.

The Process

Weekly reflecting has been an incredible process, one I was not sure where it would have taken me or if I would have been able to keep up with.  I learned more about my values and what I hope for schools and my students. I have involved my students more than I ever have in the past.  I felt my students and I were learning together, instead of the normal hierarchy.  I felt that I know my students more than I ever have before. I made their thinking visible on a daily basis.

I hope to continue the reflection process, but more on a school-wide scale. I hope to have more teachers reflect so they can reflect on their practices and make the school a better place. As a final note, a question that really hit me while I was reading Building School 2.0 was, "what happens to your students next year?"