Tim Gunn & the role of a teacher

As mentioned in previous posts, I've been spending a lot of time reading research and thinking about my Master's Project. I'm working on a self-directed learning1 unit in which students choose their own specific topics of study within a broad category (i.e. climate change) and follow their interests and passions while documenting and publishing their learning as they go.

Through all of this, my biggest struggle has been working out exactly what the ideal teacher's role should be in this type of environment. There needs to be guidance, scaffolding, and assessment, but how does a teacher do those things effectively in a self-directed learning environment?

I knew regularly talking to students and discussing their progress and understanding of their topic and learning was a must, but I was struggling to picture how that looks.

Then it hit me.

I've watched a few episodes of Project Runway2, and though I'm not really big into fashion design, I did realize there was something relevant going on here. For each episode, contestants are given some design challenge (i.e., make a more fashionable postal uniform) and given a limited time frame in which to complete their outfit. After working for awhile, Tim Gunn (one of the hosts) goes around and talks to each of the contestants about their designs. It's brilliant.

Conversation, questioning, and critique: Clip 1

Tim Gunn goes around to the contestants asking them how they're doing and to explain their design. He'll point out things that don't look right, offer suggestions for improving the design, praise designs that are well-developed, and overall do what he can to help and support the designers without interfering too much with their particular senses of fashion. Tim Gunn doesn't force his will on them but he does learn a great deal about who they are as a designer and their ideas behind the design. The best part? At 1 min 25 sec: "I don't want you to ask me that. I want you to ask yourself that." Pushing for self-assessment. Nice.

Joining a community of practice: Clip 2

In this clip Tim is more forceful. Wendy (a contestant) designs clothes for lower-end/more practical uses. However, the focus of the show (and that of the judges) is definitely "high fashion." Tim takes her aside, validates her viewpoint as being important and necessary, but goes on to suggest that if she wants to be successful on Project Runway that she rethink her viewpoint. In essence, Tim is trying to help Wendy join the "high fashion" community of practice.

Notable differences

The designers on the show are already members of a community of practice. They want to be fashion designers and, for the most part, they are familiar with what it means to be a designer and are motivated to pursue that route. In my 9th grade science class not all students will be as interested in the material. Those that are interested in the material are probably not familiar with what it means to be a scientist or act scientifically. Fix? More support. Tim Gunn stops by once or twice in a 4-6 hour design session. I'll have to be constantly circulating and talking to my students. Giving them stronger nudges than he does & providing more guidance.


Teaching students to be able to regulate their own learning and follow their own interests will probably be more challenging than it should be in our schools. Students have been trained to expect the teacher to tell them what to study, how to study it, and when to study it. It will take time and support to help students begin to take control of their own learning. To do that, the teacher is going to have to step back from the lead role, and start a role similar to Tim Gunn's. Talk to individual students or groups. Give feedback, offer suggestions, but allow students to express their personality and follow their interests.


  1. hat tip to @msansonetti for helping me discover that name (self-directed learning). I found lots of great research using those search terms.  (back)
  2. Wikipedia article for Project Runway if you're unfamiliar.   (back)

On programming and standards, part 1

There's a lively discussion going on over at Ben Grey's joint related to whether programming should be something students are required to encounter during their time at school. This discussion started at the Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute (CMK09)- which I was lucky enough to attend. Several speakers at the conference stated that programming is something that all students should do. I tend to disagree with this1 , but for me it quickly raised a larger question.

This larger question came up during discussion with participants at CMK09 when discussing our views on mandating students experience some programming in the classroom. There is no doubt that programming can help students learn many valuable things (see Alec & ColleenK's comments, for example) and that including it as part of a school's regular curriculum isn't outlandish. However, many of the valuable aspects (collaboration, authentic engagement with math, creativity, usefulness in real life, etc.) might also be gained from students taking a woodworking class.  Why should programming be mandatory when woodworking isn't? This then led to: How do schools decide which subjects are necessary and which aren't?

This question almost seemed silly to me at first. "Schools teach classes that meet the state standards, duh."

Wait. a. minute. The more I thought about this the deeper down the rabbit hole I went:

"How are state standards determined? What is their view of the purpose of education? How does that purpose affect the standards that are chosen?"

And then: "What purpose do the standards themselves serve? How does having predetermined standards affect the education of our students?"

Your local state board of education would probably say that standards are used to make sure that every student in the state gets the same quality of education. I'd argue that standards do more to prevent real learning from occurring- especially experiences that might help students learn to become better learners.

During both my junior and senior years in college, I was required to do research on a topic that interested me in geomorphology and structural geology. This was not supposed to be the type of research where you read a bunch of articles and report back what the articles say. I was supposed to generate new knowledge, not simply reorganize old knowledge.  I actively struggled with this. In my experience as a student thus far, I had been expected to show that I knew what the standards said I should know. Brian Silverman at CMK09 noted that he marveled at the attitude of his professors toward their research. The professors got excited when their experimentation told them that what they thought was happening was wrong. It meant there was something new to learn that hadn't been discovered as of yet.

State standards make learning a checklist. In my experience as a student, I was good at figuring out how to check items off that list. However, I was a bad scientist (and a bad learner). I was uncomfortable when asked questions that might not have neat and tidy answers. I had yet to learn how to be a true learner.

How can we mesh standards with helping students become life-long learners? Can standards be made flexible enough for students to be able to engage in activities that might take them (and their teachers) down unforeseen and unpredictable paths? I don't have the answers here. I just know that standards-based assessments in areas like science, programming, or wordworking won't create students who think like scientists, programmers, or master woodworkers. Students who are instead given a challenging task (i.e., discover what food ants like best, program a kitty door to snap a picture everytime it is opened, or build a chest of drawers) and the support to help them figure things out as they go seem much more likely to have a love of learning- all the while gaining knowledge in the content area.

[UPDATE: Read Part 2 of this post]


  1. I'll save my comments specifically on this topic for Ben Grey's post since the conversation's well established over there(back)

When frustration is a good thing

I keep waiting for that day when I look at my curriculum and am happy with what I see. You know, that point where it's really good and perhaps only needs a few minor changes each year.  After years of constant tweaking, improving, and overhaul it seems like that day should be right around the corner.

Instead, the more I learn, the more I tweak, the more I realize how imperfect my curriculum really is. To be sure, it has improved dramatically from my first year teaching, and I'd even say it's gotten better every time I teach. Yet I'm still discontent. I'm still frustrated that the level of student engagement and rigor I'd like to have doesn't match the engagement and rigor that actually exists.

The last two weeks my frustration level has been pretty high. We're not doing enough work in groups. We're not doing enough meaningful projects. We're doing too much question answering. I'm talking in front of the class too often and not spending enough time talking with students. I critically tear apart my teaching technique and the way I present the content.

I'm confident that the curriculum I'm using and the way I'm presenting it is at least "good." My frustration comes from knowing that it's not the best. It's the difference between completing a marathon and winning a marathon. Completing a marathon can be pretty a pretty major accomplishment for a recreational runner like myself. However, if you're an elite runner with the talent and training to be able to win a marathon simply finishing isn't a major achievement.

While I don't mind my status as a recreational runner I'm not happy being a "recreational teacher." I have access to the knowledge and skills required to be an "elite teacher." As such I expect myself to constantly strive for "elite" status.  I analyze my teaching and curriculum like that elite runner watching a video of herself in slow motion; trying to find inefficiencies in her stride that can be eliminated.

My frustration (I've only recently come to realize) is simply a manifestation of my desire to improve.


Image Credits

Towards a more open curriculum

I've been busy working on a small project for the last several weeks. Initially it started as a way to easily share the resources I've been using in my class with other teachers in my building. It quickly morphed into something more. As long as I was organizing things in this manner, why not just publish it all online?

I believe education related materials should open and available to use by anybody who has a use for them. Materials that are locked behind stringent copyright regulations or locked up on a teacher's hard drive aren't always able to be used by students, educators, parents, or others in ways that they may like.  If someone finds what I've created useful I want them to be able to use it in whatever manner they find it the most useful. Alec Couros has done a lot of thinking about what open teaching is all about, and I've come to take many of his ideas a challenge to think about how I choose to control the materials that I create (see his recent posts: Visualizing Open/Networked Teaching and it Revisited). The way I control media- and mentor that to my students- should reflect the values that I hold.

A timid step

Towards becoming an "open/networked teacher," I've decided to release my curriculum resources to the internets. Curriculum Science is a wiki I've set up where I'll be posting all my handouts, presentations, and projects under a GNU Free Documentation License (hat tip to Dan Meyer who planted seeds he posted his full geometry curriculum). Though it won't matter to many people, I've also aligned them with the Connecticut standards for 9th grade Integrated Science. It's a work in progress that will be updated as I make my way through this semester's curriculum. Not all the material I would categorize as "my best stuff," but it is "my real stuff."

A little help

I don't have this whole teaching/technology thing figured out. I've spent a lot of time considering how to be the most effective teacher possible, but that requires constantly revisiting what it is that I'm doing and how it is that I'm doing it. A few things I'd enjoy hearing my readers thoughts on:

  • Is the GNU Free Documentation License the way to go for this? Would a Creative Commons license be a better match? I'm a little fuzzy on the specific definitions of the various licenses.
  • If you have ideas for how to get at the content in a more effective manner than I've done in my curriculum please let me know. Lately I've been feeling that my ideas for new materials have been stale and not as effective as I'd like.
  • If you use or remix anything I've created it'd make me happy to hear back on what you thought of it or how you changed it.

The Resources

Curriculum Science

Follow then fail

I haven't posted for 25 days. Yes, the holidays played a decent part of that hiatus, but it's also been the result of the binge of artifacts I had students create just before winter break. In short, I was so excited to break away from the traditional teaching style that I probably stretched myself too thin.

I previously taught at a small high school in Michigan. If you were in 10th grade at Whitmore Lake High School, you had Mr. Wildeboer for Earth & Physical Science. I was the only teacher who taught Earth/Physical Science since it was introduced in 2002¹ (my first year). This situation meant that I was solely responsible for the content of that class. I developed all of its lessons, projects, labs, and activities myself.

I was given the freedom to experiment, create projects, swap out exams for cumulative projects, cut back on breadth and focus on depth, and do pretty much whatever I felt would be best for the students. Freedom to do what I personally saw as best was the advantage of being a "lonely" teacher. The disadvantage was that I never really had anyone to work through ideas and struggles with. Sure, I could talk to other teachers who could provide valuable feedback, but it's something different entirely to collaborate closely with another teacher while developing lessons or other curricular materials.

This year there are three other teachers who have the same classes I do. When I was hired, I was quite excited at the prospect of being able to collaborate with other teachers. I knew that might mean I wouldn't have the same degree of freedom as I had enjoyed previously, but I figured I could live with the trade. I didn't start the year working with the other teachers very well (several old posts explain why), but that was more the fault of Central Office than anything. As time when on however, I found we weren't working together as closely as I would've liked. At lunches and meetings we'd talk about what we were currently on, where we were going next, and what supplies we each needed. Unfortunately, that was about it. We shared a little back and forth, but I wasn't thrilled with the worksheets being sent my way. I would take some time to tweak them, then use my own presentations (which were shared, though I don't have reliable intel that they were ever used outside my room).

I tried to replicate what the other teachers were doing as best as I could while only making design and other minor changes to improve the quality (IMHO) of what I was setting down in front of students. This was frustrating. In hindsight it seems foolish.  I provided what I consider sub-par curriculum materials to my students because I wanted to stay at the exact pace of the other teachers. I did this even though we really weren't collaborating with each other, and looking back, I realize that I was really replicating was teaching style². No wonder I was frustrated. What I was doing was trying to do was suppress the style I had developed over several years of practice, research, and experimentation. It was foolish of me, and I now regret it.

Coming soon: What happened when I decided to stop worrying about keeping up...


¹ Interestingly enough, due to changes in the state curriculum, the school decided to switch up the science curriculum starting the year after I left. The class I taught was replaced with something different- meaning the class started and ended with my tenure.

² I don't mean to suggest here that the other teachers were ineffective. I have a certain reperatoire of activities and projects that have proven to be effective and mesh well with my personality. I'm happier when I teach within my personality, and happy teaching leads to happier students.


Image Credits:

Power Law of Participation by Ross Mayfield
Streeter Seidell, Comedian by Zach Klein

Don't worry (Just fake it)

New school, new district, new state, new region. I was hired at the end of May and moved to Connecticut the end of June. In mid to late July, I started my attempts to contact my new high school to get information about my new position. What is the curriculum? Who am I teaching it with? What are the school's expectations?

My first teaching job saw me getting hired only one week before students rears hit chairs in my classroom. As a rookie teacher lacking in experience, I found that extremely intimidating and overwhelming. I was excited that for my new position, not only would I be bringing six years of experience, but also that I would have most of the summer to prepare.

Brick wallMy calls to the high school rang without being answered. I stopped by the high school once to seek out someone who would help me. Upon entering the building, I felt I should've been wearing a hard hat. There was heavy construction throughout much of the building. The offices were gutted. Besides the gruff looking workers, I couldn't find any administrators or anyone else in the building to help.

This week I started the "Teacher Academy" for new hires. School starts next week Thursday, and I was excited to get in and finally get some information on my curriculum and who I'll be teaching with. As a fairly experienced¹ teacher this time around, I felt I still had plenty of time to effectively prepare for the school year. Arriving at the "academy" on Wednesday, I was dismayed to find no time set aside to find our rooms, go over our curriculum, or meet the colleagues we'll be teaching with. In fact, there was no official plan at all for getting the new teachers access to our rooms, curriculum, or colleagues.

Red tapeWe were all told all about the district improvement plans, the data teams that meet to help improve instruction, and on, and on. The district's plans for improvement sound really good. I'm excited that they've made a serious commitment to make their schools highly effective for the students. But...how could they possibly overlook the fact that we haven't even seen the curriculum yet? I've seen my room once. I have a textbook for the classes I'm teaching only because one happened to be laying around and I took the initiative to snag it. The only reason I've accomplished either of these things is because a few of the high school new hires got together and more or less "demanded" a meeting with someone at the high school to give us a clue what was going on.

My favorite quote of the entire teacher academy, in response to my (and others) inquiries into what scope and sequence the teachers teaching the same class as me use:

Don't worry, take some deep breaths. All you need to do is make it through the first two days of school, then you have the long weekend to figure out what to do next. Remember, whatever happens, you'll get paid every two weeks in American dollars.

O.K. I've ranted enough, and I'm sure you've gotten the point by now. I am excited to work in this district (really!). I'm excited that this time around in a new position I have skills to bring to the table. I sincerely hope the lack of foresight I've seen so far is localized in the central administration and isn't systemic. To look for the positive in the situation, I've already overcome my fear of questioning the status quo and have learned that I may need to make a more conscious effort to push for change in this district. All I want to do is be the best teacher I can be for my students, my colleagues, my school, and my district. I sincerely hope that desire doesn't fly in the face of the professional culture here.

I just want to be like Akeelah, an achiever.

- Common, "The Game"


¹ If you consider six years as having much experience

Image sources:
Brickage by Asten
Challenge by amsterdamfan