Podstock is my favorite education conference. It’s in Wichita, Kansas, and is run by the Central Kansas Education Services Agency ESSDACK.
Keynoting this year’s Podstock was Mark Klassen. At 20 years old, Mark is an internationally known cinematographer. His parents, key teachers, and his Middle and High Schools were all instrumental in allowing him to find and pursue his passion. If Mark had been forced to spend his class time drilling for standardized tests, he never would have developed.
Did he learn math, science, writing, reading, history, and communications? Yes! Key teachers provided the encouragement, inspiration, and cover for Mark to develop his skills and knowledge by pursuing what will become his life-long project.
Did his teachers provide all the answers? No. When Mark needed to learn something in order to advance his craft, he took it as his own responsibility, reaching out through the Web and Social Networks to find answers, and then putting in the time to learn the skills he needed.
Was he exempt from all school requirements? No. Mark described how, after travelling across the US and Canada making films, he had to go back and take “normal” classes in his senior year. That’s when he almost crashed, as he learned how restrictive the educational system can be. Imagine yourself, with your real world experiences, going back to school and doing drudge exercises. But having tasted real, not academic success, he was able to bear through his senior year (with A’s, B’s, and C’s, because grades were not his priority) and respect the limits of the educational system, because he knew it was a necessary step.
What lessons can we take from Mark’s story? Mark had access to great parenting, inspiring and flexible schooling, and he had drive, skills, and luck. Mark is an exception, not everyone can excel in a field while still in high school, not everyone has the talent or drive that Mark has. Still, Mark shows the impact a caring teacher can have, the need for flexibility. And his experiences in his senior year highlight how restricting our schools systems can be.
Don Wettrick of Indianapolis led my last session. Don leads a class for students who do not want to be told what to study. Students start out by looking through the Common Core standards, and then devise projects that meet multiple standards and interest them. Students opt-in to the course, and perhaps 1 in 5 students cannot adapt to being self-directing, in which case the can go back to a more traditional class.
He students have created charities, started successful businesses, interviewed professional athletes (even gotten press passes for the super bowl), and they learn through pursuing what they are interested in with Don's guidance.
How does he grade and assess them? Don says, “If students can justify what Common Core Standards they’ve learned, they probably deserve the grade they want. But, Don’s students end up not caring about grades. As they say, “why would I care whether I got an A or a C in a High School class, when I’ve gotten 3 million people reading my tweets?”
Don points out, “I don’t teach, I float; I go where students need me.” He is not the sage on the stage. His students generally know more than he does about as they get into their projects. And his students often do not achieve their end goal. “Nobody fails like we do; we fail in such beautiful ways.”
Here is an example. One small group of students decided they would help the Downs syndrome students interface with the rest of the student body. They went to a local coffee shop, and had the shop teach the kids how to make and serve coffee. They then opened up a coffee shop within the high school staffed by the Downs Syndrome students. The parents were thrilled, all the students had a reason to interact, and the DS students felt they had a purpose. But the school shut down the coffee shop after a week, because they were afraid that cafeteria sales would decrease.
There is definitely jealousy within the school. Teachers complain that Don’s students tell them, can I skip doing these worksheets so I can go to Mr. Wettrick’s class for my meeting with the CEO of the X corporation? Don says, “The hardest thing to do is create culture.” And Don is setting up a micro culture within a school.
Here is your homework assignment.
Compare the Don Wettrick story to Mark Klassen’s. What can we learn from each that will allow us to improve the education system? I want a 5 paragraph essay that meets at least 4 CCSS standards.
Note that these pictures are by my friend Cynthia Garrety. I hope she doesn't mind.