The best fun is hard fun.

Dr. Seymour Papert is one of my favorite educational thinkers. It's like he's in my head taking barely formulated thoughts and ideas and turns them into detailed, well articulated arguments that I might have never been able to get to on my own.

If you're not subscribed to Gary Stager's "Daily Papert," you should be. Little bits of Dr. Papert's work everyday, delivered directly to my Reeder. The May 25, 2011 edition contains this gem:

The third big idea is hard fun. We learn best and we work best if we enjoy what we are doing. But fun and enjoying doesn’t mean “easy.” The best fun is hard fun. Our sports heroes work very hard at getting better at their sports. The most successful carpenter enjoys doing carpentry. The successful businessman enjoys working hard at making deals.

The Marshmallow Challenge

In high school I'd spend hours in the back yard trying to perfect my curving corner kicks1, not because it was easy, but because it was something I enjoyed. More recently I've found myself drawn to other learning experiences that I undertake2 because I find them interesting- but often they take a lot of effort because when I start I don't know anything about them.

The traditional school curriculum more often than not misses this hard fun. Not because there's something inherent about what we learn in school that prevents it from being hard fun, but because designing hard fun learning experiences requires a bit more flexibility, a lot more student control, and a heckuva lot less "feeding" students the one right way.

I recently ran The Marshmallow Challenge with all my classes. For 18 minutes almost every student- and especially those students who will try to sleep through every class all day- were dedicated to building the tallest structure they could using spaghetti, string, tape, and a marshmallow. Half of the groups had a structure that was unable to hold a marshmallow off the ground- and most of these groups immediately wanted to spend the rest of class redesigning their structure and making it better. It was hard, but it was fun.

I've been greatly enjoying the work many educators have been doing recently towards providing students with hard fun in their classes. Notably:

  • Shawn Cornally's Inquiry Style™
    • He continually throws interesting situations at students and lets them take over. I love it. Take these investigations into oscillations, for instance. Killer.



  • Dan Meyer's new meme: #anyqs
    • I've been focusing on turning content into a narrative story whenever possible this year. Dan Meyer has been taking this to the next level in math, noting that, "good storytelling is a first cousin to good math instruction." I'd argue this is true for most any subject. Here's an excellent little series on sharpening pencils.

While I worry about the increasingly standardized nature of instruction in this country, I'm happy there are so many educators out there taking instruction to the next level and sharing with the rest of us.

Perhaps the best hard fun is designing hard fun for others. 🙂


  1. FYI: This was pre-"Bend it like Beckham"     (back)
  2. i.e. brewing beer, landscaping, fixing broken appliances myself.     (back)

What Can You Do With This: Snow Banks

I'm not sure I have the readership to pull this off as effectively as Dan has, but I've been thinking about this one for awhile and suddenly found a great example of it literally in my front yard¹.

Just to clarify: Those are the snowbanks flanking both sides of the driveway. When I shovel I throw equal amounts of snow on both sides of the driveway. See Dan's original post for the instructions and leave your ideas in the comments. View high quality images of the snow banks here and here.

UPDATE: To clarify further, when I was finished shoveling, both snow banks were basically the same size and shape. Two days later, when these pictures were taken, they weren't.

UPDATE 2: See comments below for more explanation. The additional picture below might help guide the discussion about why the right snow bank has melted significantly more towards talking about the position of the Sun and the tilt of the Earth.


¹ It seems like I've been using Dan's ideas a lot here lately. I swear I'm not cyberstalking- good ideas are good ideas. When I saw the snowbanks I couldn't NOT play along with the meme.

Annual Report 2008

I've taken Dan up on his Annual Report Contest this year. Luckily I'm just dorky enough to keep track of a few data sets of interest to me. I was also lucky to have a snow day today- otherwise these would probably not be complete. If they're a little hard to read click on them to view the full sized image.

UPDATE: I added a few of my observations/reflections in the comments. Check 'em out.

There you have it: 2008 in four slides. Feel free to make any inferences about my year from any of the data above. It'd be interesting to hear how clearly (or not) the data communicates aspects of the year. I'll point out a few things I found interesting in the comments in a couple days. Also, feel free to critique the design and such. I can take it.


Image Credits:

State Theater by william_couch (background for Movies)
This Pump has CLEARLY been on fire in the past by Jym Ferrier (background for Gasoline)

Rookie mistakes

I sat down to grade my students' chemical reaction primer artifacts this weekend. It didn't take me long to realize that as a class we weren't done with these projects yet. Clearly I hadn't built in the necessary support for the project's format. I seemed to do pretty well supporting the information (as described previously), but I made a few fatal errors:

  1. These freshmen have next to no experience citing sources. I required in-text citations and a bibliography. We went over this on day 1, but not too much more than simple reminders since then. Many students did either a bibliography or did in-text citations, but not both.
  2. Many students gave Google, Yahoo, or URLs as their sources for information or images. Again, we went over this on day 1, but with little prior knowledge of citing internet sources it's an easy mistake to make.
  3. I emphasized strongly that their artifacts should include lots of images related to chemical reactions. I didn't make it clear enough that those pictures needed to match up with the content being described. I can't tell you how many times I had pictures of chemical reactions with no explanation of what reaction it was or why it belonged in that spot.
  4. I didn't include a review and rewrite of their projects on the schedule. Especially the first time around, they really needed it.

Rookie mistakes, all of them. All easy enough to anticipate. Heck, I've even included reviews and rewrites in similar projects I've done. What was I thinking? Today, I created time for a review and rewrite. I graded the hell out of their artifacts knowing that I would give them time to fix them up.

I was pretty worried about class today. I was handing back rubrics with some very low grades on a project that was worth as much as a full-on test. I was very careful in how I opened the discussion on doing rewrites so as not to cause frustration, despair, or anxiety over the grades on the rubrics I was passing back. Here's what I did:

  • Created a positive (perhaps inspirational?) environment. I've been sharing short (~1 minute-ish) and fun videos with my classes all year. I usually don't start class with them, but I wanted to set a positive tone right up front. What better way than with 40 Inspirational Speeches in 2 Minutes?
  • Explained myself honestly. Because this was the first time they've done anything like this, their perception of what their finished artifact should look like is different than my perception- and that's okay. I told them it's my fault that I didn't do a better job explaining my high, even ridonculous expectations (went back to an old slide to illustrate), and that I should've scheduled a review and rewrite from the very start.
  • Ensured them the grade on the rubric wasn't binding. Once I decided to allow students to revise their artifacts, I toyed with the idea of not going through their artifacts and just explain to the class as a whole the issues I was seeing. I avoided another rookie mistake by diligently going through each student's artifact and grading it like I would if the grade would really count. I wanted each of them to see what specific things were lacking and needed to be fixed. It took 10 hours of grading this weekend. Morally, it was the right decision.
  • Maintained a totally positive outlook on their artifacts. I didn't want students to get the idea that I was disappointed or frustrated with their work and was simply having pity on them by giving them a do-over. I want them to know that revisions are a natural and necessary part of the work flow.

Dan Meyer noted that as your teaching expertise grows the technical challenges (i.e. designing and implementing projects, among other things) disappear and the real challenge becomes moral (will you put in the effort to ensure all are successful?). My technical challenges have decreased dramatically since year one. However, I'm not confident there will ever be a time when I don't mess up the technical stuff. What differentiates my mistakes in year seven from mistakes in year one is that now I can fix the mistakes.


Even though I messed up, it's amazing to me that some students still hit it out of the park. Here are two artifacts that needed little fixing:

Interesting Finds, Vol. 2 (dy/dan edition)

Forgoing the list of several items, this item deserves a post of its own.

Dan Meyer has posted his entire geometry curriculum online for everyone to see. He included his presentations in PowerPoint, Keynote, and .pdf format, and has .pdfs for all of his handouts. In my opinion, this takes some real huevos (if you know what I mean). He's opening himself up to major criticism on things he's obviously spent hundreds, if not thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of hours creating. I'm not even really into geometry that much, yet I spent a couple hours perusing his stuff (and thinking it quite good, by the way). For all the criticism he may have received over the years for not giving homework or being to much of a smart alec, regardless of your feelings you've got to give him some high marks for throwing his stuff out there for anyone to use.

This raises the obvious question: Why isn't everyone doing this? I realize not all teachers have the digital know-how to post their creations online, but it seems like an obvious thing to do. It makes me feel silly for not doing it.

I've created lots of material for classes in the last six years, and am constantly working on more. Perhaps I should work on finding a way to share more of that to the world.

Dan: I'm awed by your openness and dedication to sharing your knowledge with the rest of the teaching community. Bravo!

Ready for day 1

Despite the problems I've been having lately with my new position, I feel (mostly) ready to go for day one. As part of my continuing crusade against my previously poorly designed presentations and handouts, I decided to peruse what my blogosphere (the one in my aggregator) had to say about the matter. I found plenty of great stuff, which is nearly inevitable given the quality of educators out there sharing. Here's my plan:

Getting to know you

I've always felt teachers often spend too much time explaining who they are, or what the course is, or what the rules are right away on the first day. I knew my first day plans would focus first on who my students are, then work my way into expectations and procedures.

I vaguely recalled an old post on dy/dan where a beginning of the year "get to know you" activity was shared that struck me as not being stupid.¹  It took me awhile to re-find it (luckily Google Reader had a pretty good search), but upon finding it I knew I had something. I had to track back to his original post from 8 months earlier in which he posted the original blank document.

Here's my version of the document:

Silly Bus

I really dread going over the syllabus every year. It's boring. It's so not a good indicator of what the course is about. But, we're required to have them, so lucky for me, in the same post where Dan introduced the above activity, he shared his more interesting syllabus. It required student participation, it looked good, and as Dan mentions, is different from the 47² other syllabi they've received that same day. At minimum, I figure a different syllabus will earn a couple cool points with students on the first day of school.

Here's my effort (blank):

And then...

I believe my fellow teachers generally go right into lab safety³, so I figure I'd better follow their lead at this point, since I'm still the relatively ignorant rookie. Instead of just reading each of the rules and making students sign their safety contracts, I figure I'll split them into pairs/threes and have each group design and create a safety poster explaining a rule of the lab. Then each group can come up, explain their poster and the importance of their rule, and we're not all bored to death.

Good reading

A few (other) good reads regarding the first day(s) of school I've found:

  • FirstDay Wiki
    • created by the aforementioned Dan Meyer, it has several good ideas for opening day, and you can add your own if you'd like.
  • An Open Letter to Teachers
    • from Bud the Teacher, a motivational post on getting ready for the new year. Read it.
  • What's matter?
    • Doyle does such a great job of verbalizing (textualizing perhaps) science as a process. Science as not a set of memorize-able facts. This post on something he's done the first day of school regarding how matter isn't all we typically think it is makes me want to use his idea, but I'm not sure I could carry it out in the expert way he's described.
  • Do it the right way, not the Wong way
    • Tom in his typically cynical tone nails problems with the "classic" book The First Days of School by Harry Wong. This post in itself probably contains more valuable information for new teachers than the entire book.


¹ I guess I'm not a big ice-breaker fan. Perhaps it comes from my somewhat introverted nature. I've always hated ice-breakers.

² 47 may be a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea.

³ Communication between everyone teaching my classes has been pretty slim, so this is based upon my best guesses.

Interesting Finds, Vol. 1

I'm going to attempt to post interesting bits I've found recently, both as a way to share with the community things I've found, and as a way to reflect upon items I've found. I won't go as far to guarantee I'll do this weekly (I'd like to), but whenever I get together 5-10 interesting items, I'll be sure to throw them out there. Let me know what you think!

1. Practical Theory: Teaching and Shortcuts

  • Chris Lehmann, inspired by Dan Meyer's 8th episode of his dy/av series, asks that if "Herculean" effort is needed for teachers to be truly effective and great- are there things new teachers can do to help prevent burn-out and reduce the high attrition rate common among new teachers? The comments also contain some good ideas on how to keep good, hard working teachers in the profession. As a teacher that was hired one week before his first teaching job to teach brand new classes with no set curriculum, the humongous work load on new teachers strikes a chord with me, as does the problem of teachers who take too many "shortcuts."
    • Penelope of Where's the Teacher? adds to this thread as well as part of her critique of Hollywood teacher movies. Check it out.

2. The entire dy/av series

  • Dan Meyer decided to create a summer series of short videos on planning, working, management, and more. The series is probably more effective than 95% of new teacher orientation programs (in my opinion). Each week I've looked forward to the next episode, and will miss it when it's gone. Follow this link to the 10th and final episode, which includes links to the other 9.

3. Google Reader Preview Extension for Firefox

  • In Will Richardson's post on the new improved delicious, he quickly notes he's been using this preview extension for Google Reader which allows you to view the actual webpage in the reader window by clicking on a preview button. Why is that cool? It's cool because it means you can read and leave comments directly through Google Reader. No more having 25 tabs of articles whose comments you want to read and where you want to leave comments. I've been looking for something to allow this functionability through GR for awhile!! NOTE: You do need to install the Greasemonkey User Script Add-on to install the GR Preview Extension.

4. Science Teacher: A blog

  • I've been keeping my eyes out for them for awhile, and have just now found my first good one. I've been interested in reading another science teacher who blogs primarily on the teaching of science (as opposed to just edu-tech stuff). Michael Doyle's blog Science Teacher does just that. I'm hoping to do a little more science specific blogging, and I'm grateful for the model that I've found. Thanks to Clay for pointing him out.

5. World War Z

  • Maybe this goes better on a summer reading list, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading Max Brooks' zombie novel, World War Z. It's written as a series of interviews with individuals from around the world recounting the days leading up to and during the "dark years," or their wars with "Zack." Besides being just a good read, it also has some very subtle (but existent) social commentary on consumerism and our service based economy. One of the more interesting parts was the description of job training courses occurring in the midst of the Zombie War. The teachers were all former illegal immigrants, because 80% of the legal population was in the service economy, and didn't actually know how to do anything. Definitely a good read, even if you're not into social commentaries.

That uncomfortable place

I've just wrapped up a class in which I was required to participate in online threaded discussions. I was hoping for some good discourse on curriculum theory and development. Instead it turned into a lot of, "Why, yes, I agree with you completely," and "I couldn't have said it better myself." I found myself becoming purposely oppositional in my responses. How can any really good thinking and learning happen if there isn't a healthy dose of differing viewpoints? And, pray tell, was the  response to my opposing viewpoints? Silence. Last time I recall so many people with similar thoughts was 1984¹.

My classmates were just trying to be nice, which is understandable. It can be awkward and uncomfortable to deal with conflict. However, it's that dissonance in opinion where real meaning is made; that hacking it out between differing opinions, that purposeful attempt to sway people with differing views while they try to sway you.

Recently, in response to a new "top edublogs" list posted on a well-read blog, Dan Meyer and Darren Draper have expressed differing opinions on (perceived) motivations for blogging, what constitutes quality in a blog, and even "proper" Twitter use. I've found this disagreement extremely interesting to follow. I subscribe to both their blogs and find them both to be excellent at starting good conversations through their posts. They both create dissonance and then ask for their audience to weigh in with their opinions. While Dan tends to stir the pot² and Darren tends to ask quite nicely, they're both doing essentially the same thing.

It's been enjoyable to see these two heavyweights (they're 23 & 35 on the best edublogs list of all time, after all) discuss whose method is superior. While I don't think they're going to change each other's mind, they're laying some excellent framework for the edubloggers of the future. These types of public disagreements are important- perhaps necessary³- for hashing out what exactly it is to blog about educational matters. Think of it as a modern, blogging version of the Continental Congress.

Anyone care to disagree?

¹ "Why, yes, Big Brother certainly is a great leader!"
² or "[Dan's] just shaking the bee’s nest while covered in powdered sugar, a big ol’ grin on [his] face and [a] buddy taping the whole thing for some sort of amateur Jackass production."
³ As long as you jerkfaces don't turn it into nastiness and namecalling.

"Fun Facts"

I've taken to adding in "fun facts" to my class. I'm not sure if I got this idea from Dan Meyer in the first place, or if I stumbled upon it independently and then had my habit reinforced by his enthusiasm for a little fun unbound from the "standard" curriculum. They

Pro-crast-i-na-tion: I've seen all of my students do one of these at some point. I've done most, especially the "imaginary computer games with your furniture."

Kung Fu Bear : I used it as a pep talk for my students while they were working on a presentation project. When you go to the zoo to see a bear, it's pretty impressive. Bears usually are just lying around at the zoo, so it doesn't take long to get over the impressiveness and move on. However, this bear decided he was going to take his game to the next level (here's when I started the video). He wanted people to sit up and pay attention to him. People come from all over to see Kung-Fu Bear. People will watch him for hours. He's mastered his game. I then told students I didn't want their presentations to just meet the bare (hardee-har-har) minimums. Don't just be a lazy bear. Be a Kung-Fu Bear!

21 Accents: Some classes loved it, others hated it. I was badgered by one class to play it multiple times spanning through the end of that week. In another class, I was asked to turn it off about 15 seconds in and never play it again. It's amazing how different the personalities of my classes are this year.

I Love the World (The Earth is Just Awesome): I posted on this earlier. The class that hated the 21 Accents video loved this one. Wonder if there's some psychological reasoning behind that...hmm... My other classes enjoyed it, but didn't constantly demand to see it over and over and over and over...

666: I got the information for this from a RadioLab show (RadioLab totally blows my mind). Want to grab every student's undivided attention in a class (yep, even the ones who haven't earned a single credit since 3rd grade)? Throw up a 5 ft. x 5 ft. 666 on your projection screen- the room will almost assuredly fall eerily quiet. Here's the story I told 'em about their favorite numbers: It turns out the oldest known manuscript of the book of Revelations says the "number of the beast" is actually 616. Interestingly enough, this is the area code for much of west Michigan (where I spent my undergrad years). I've embedded the section of the show below where it tells the full story. Or you can visit the RadioLab episode site.

I'll try to update you with more good finds as I come across them.