Sunday, June 22, 2014

I pledge to not allow "Pump & Dump" - You should too

 So I was doing some reading on education and ran across an article on terrible learning habits (3 Terrible Learning Habits You Probably Picked Up In School)  and it discussed 3 ways that are poor ways to learn new concepts.  It discussed re-reading, cramming and catering to your "learning style."  Instead of arguing about if they are or are not "good" I found myself really thinking about why these methods are prevalent.  Why are students just rote memorizing, dotting i's and crossing t's, not really learning and understanding.

Because students do what is required.  They are trying to survive and when educators allow ways for students to "get-by" without learning material but simply by regurgitating it - that is what they typically do.  And it is not the student's fault, but the teachers'.  And the simple fact is many educators feel that is the job of teaching - making drones able to spew facts with no idea of what they mean or how to use them.  Because it is not what you say as teacher, but what your students can do.

I often talk about how when I was a student that I simply cleared the bar, as a young man I did whatever the minimum required was to make the grade.  I was not interested in knowledge or being prepared for the world, I was interested in just completing the course and moving on.

When teachers raised the bar, I raised my performance.  If I was allowed to memorize - I did - which I now affectionately call "Pump & Dump."  And I talk often about the fact that we do not "Pump & Dump" in my room, we study, learn and use.  We do not turn math into 4,000 rules to memorize but talk the language of math and its interconnections.  We do not use it once and forget it, but have recursive practice on all math concepts they have learned.

We do projects, write and struggle - not as much as I want, but it is part of what we do where I teach.  

I often joke there needs to be changes on how we teach and our expectations, that I work for the student; the 27 year old student not the 15 year old student in my room now.  And that I just talked to the student's future self and they want me to be tougher, to make them into tenacious problem solvers.   

I also joke that we are learning how to learn and problem solve, not memorize math.  Actually there are only a couple of rules in math -- all expressions must remain equivalent and that all equations need balance.  That's it.  So when I hear of students memorizing rules and formulas I wonder what bar they are hopping over, and how high is it?  Are they better problem solvers because of it?  

Unfortunately hopping over the bar sometimes makes them better students -- but rarely better problem solvers.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Teaching for Sustainability through Green Initiatives

Note: This draft was submitted to Community Works Journal  ---  See edited story here!

The job of educators is to prepare students for the world, so they can have a real impact.  Yet we rarely practice those skills in high school.  The true passion, problem solving and perseverance are often vacant from the assignments we do with our young adults in high school.

But it does not have to be that way! Project based learning offers a variety of ways for students to have a true impact in their community and their world.  That impact is often not constrained by the students but by educators and administration.  What happens when student are posed the assignment - complete a project that helps the school and community AND that project needs to have a true global impact?

Amazing things happen.

The assignment started in the fall of 2011 with my thought that my Physics students needed more exposure to real world problem solving. Problems where you must persevere, where there is no correct right answer, but the thought of what it should be and how to assess what was accomplished seems daunting – until you tell them “Select a project that will help the school/community and the world and make it happen.  I don't want a report or essays or papers, I want steel and concrete – I want tangible results.”

And then I sat back and watched the students struggle, some sat around waiting for orders. But I kept repeating to come up with a plan – it quickly led to true brainstorming and the idea that we could reduce Juda's carbon footprint thus reducing our energy cost! Daunting project, you bet; time consuming in class, sure; but the learning was amazing.
There are many avenues, many ideas, and many methods to making that goal. So the students made teams and defined deliverables (I had some input there – if you work you deliver). They did research. They contact vendors, suppliers, talked with staff, thought, reflected, thought of ideas, checked their ideas – failed – and tried again. But they were learning that a dead-end was simply a step to the solution, they were not guided by a predetermined lesson plan. They were working only with the constraints of a real world project – payback, ROI and need.

And all of that is more important than the results, but results are what were assigned – or should we say demand; demanded by the students – because it becomes their goal and project. All of sudden you don't need to make assignments – you simply need weekly update meetings. You don't have to hold students accountable their peers do – because it is their project.
Results happen because students are given the latitude to accomplish their goal!

At Juda, students chose green energy as the method to meet the goal and divided into solar and wind research teams. Researching ways to install either a turbine or panels, doing the bids, the Return-On-Investment (ROI), the financing – calculating how, why, what and where.

So where did my first team of students get to in 9 months, September 2011 to May 2012 – from inception of their idea to the end of the school year is not very long. The students had done all the research, competitively bid solar and wind, selected a preferred solar supplier, obtained permits, discuss the project with administration and our school board, worked on achieving ROI – and that is where the first group left the project. Now often it would end there with a bid, but the key to PBL is to continue the previous before starting the new!  So this became a legacy project -- because that is what the world does!  It reassigns projects - moves around team members.  This was just a pause in the project versus its end.

One problem initially with my rural school is that Physics is offered every other year.  So a team of students who had taken Physics the previous school year watched on grants and financing outside of an 'assigned class' during the 2012-2013 school year.  

 Then Wisconsin Focus-On-Energy money became available in the summer of 2013, and this was the last piece of the puzzle for the first project.  We had worked on financing, discussed finding business partners and this Focus on Energy grant with other local business support allowed the project to proceed. It then became the Physics class of 2013 job to do the install, and starting in September 2013 Juda was generating over 5 kW of electricity for our school . Meeting the original goal of positive community impact along with a global impact – but that was not enough. Because as that assignment was completed, it was now 2013's Physics class turn - you complete the prior project, now start yours! 

That is how project based learning comes to be a cultural change, the learning becomes perpetual.  The students not only want to be part of the team on the previous project but literally demand their own project.  

 The 2013-2014 Physics class's project is to make 10% of the school's total power be generated greenly on school property, really ambitious when the 5 kW solar system is only 4% of the schools power.   They have already installed another 12 panels increasing the systems capacity by 50% to 7.5 kW.  They have started conservation projects, such as lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).  

And now this project is being moved onto to the next team in the next school year. Plenty has been accomplished – nearly 7% of the school’s power is green now.  And I feel confident that the next class will get to 10%.   But that was not enough for the previous class they also want to roll out the PBL Green Initiative model to other schools – every school should have students working on a 5 kW green energy system – even if you already have a solar array or a wind turbine!  This story is my part of their project.

We want you to take on a green initiative with you and your students.  We are offering ourselves as guides, myself and my students - take the plunge. We want contact with you, email, call, snail-mail, even by carrier pigeon.  Let the chaos ensue – let the real learning occur!
Tap the resources in your school that is before you, make your students your workers - and watch them practice and acquire the skills the world wants from schools – passion persistent problem solvers!

It takes a certain level of courage as educator – you must be willing to pick great projects over good material.  You need the belief that covering an allotted number of chapters does not create problem solvers. Problem solvers are created through real problems and practice (and textbooks & e-books rarely have problems, they're filled with exercises).

And as the students reflect on their accomplishments, this project is truly one of the most memorable, permanent things which they have done.  It shows them what persistence, research and resilience can do.

So when you think about how and what you teach, know this is one of the things that I consider untouchable. 

Submissions should be sent by email, as an attachment. Most word processing formats are acceptable. Minimal formatting is suggested. Word count maximum is generally 1,600 words. Please contact us if this is a problem. In some cases we will edit for length with the author's request. An exception to word maximum may be the inclusion of information on a resource of significance to the article.
The author's name and email must be included.
Community Works Journal
PO Box 6968  l Los Angeles, CA 90602 l 909-480-3966

- See more at:
Submissions should be sent by email, as an attachment. Most word processing formats are acceptable. Minimal formatting is suggested. Word count maximum is generally 1,600 words. Please contact us if this is a problem. In some cases we will edit for length with the author's request. An exception to word maximum may be the inclusion of information on a resource of significance to the article.
The author's name and email must be included.
Community Works Journal
PO Box 6968  l Los Angeles, CA 90602 l 909-480-3966

- See more at:
Dr. Cathleen Becnel Richard is an Assistant Professor at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. She earned her doctorate in 2010 from Northcentral University in E-Learning and Teaching Online. Her research interests include academic advising, distance learning, reflective learning, and service learning. - See more at:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Homework - How much does it matter?

So it is final exam time at my school, we are coming into summer, so it is summative assessment time!  So I will start grading finals shortly (or my student teacher will) and it will indicate how Juda is doing with respect to math education - according to the world (I measure myself and my students by a whole different set of metrics - basically performance following HS.)

When I started teaching eight years ago, I taught how I was taught.  We reviewed homework, graded homework, introduced a concept and started homework.  I was the boss, it was their job.  And what they could recall for final was typically not good.  But that was teaching, then - now.... 

Now I never take homework problems in class, no grading, no chasing - homework has minimal value.  And if I gave 2014 finals to my students of yesteryear only a few would pass.

I get over 7000 minutes per year to teach math to a student (42 minutes/class * 170 classes).  How much time is needed to teach Algebra or Geometry?  Some practice must occur outside of class but how much?  Is 10% enough - that would be only 5 minutes per class period of homework, maybe 30% - that is only 15 minutes.  So when I hear of an hour of homework I think about how brilliant of students they must be.

But it is the summer that shows what the student has really learned, what they really know.  The first assessment on "old skills" in September with little to no review shows what they truly know and understand.

And what do they know after a summer off?

My old students doing lots of homework needed lots of review -- basically an entire quarter.  The students where I started bell-to-bell teaching, extremely limited homework and time outside of class is doing projects (essays, powerpoints, etc) - get just a couple of weeks.   And they perform well.

So I am sitting at the end of year and the start of summer of curriculum planning where I must reflect on the question "How much does homework help students?"