Schools Making A Difference: Films and Discussions

The Portland City Club is continuing its educational series Schools Making A Difference: Portraits of Excellence, Engagement and Equity – films, panel discussions and participant dialogues.

Though economic realities pose significant challenges for our education system, when schools and communities work together with a clear vision and heroic effort, they can achieve stunning results. Exemplary schools provide high expectations and opportunities for all students to succeed. They also provide real world learning experiences that prepare students for college, careers and citizenship in the 21st century. They do this through an engaging curriculum that recognizes the diverse talents and needs of their student populations. Join fellow citizens, educators, and students for any of four evenings of films, panels, and participant dialogues that offer portraits of such schools in our region and around the world.

The series continues Feb 8 at Mission Theater with a screening of Robert Compton’s “Two Million Minutes” followed by panel discussion. March 5th: “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System” by Robert Compton. (Hollywood Theater) The final forum is March 14 How Important Are the Arts and Civic Education for Our Students’ Current and Future Lives? featuring the film “Paper Clips” by Elliot Berlin & Joe Fab. (Hollywood Theater)

I attended the first session which featured the film Lessons from the Real World. Bob Gliner, filmmaker, as well as local educators offered an engaging follow up discussion with the audience. The film highlights project-based learning in greater Portland region schools. It’s a fascinating look at K-12 schools that weave community and societal problem solving through their curriculum.

Oregonians will have another chance to see the film which is screening on OPB Plus Sunday night, Feb. 12 at 7 PM throughout most of Oregon. More on “Lessons From the Real World”

Many people feel our public schools are failing, or at best, muddling through. What to do about this critical issue has almost exclusively focused on the efforts of No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top legislation to improve test scores in core subjects like math and reading. 

Lessons From the Real World, contends, like many educators, that focusing on test scores to improve student achievement is looking in the wrong place.

Learning to read, do math and other subjects will come if students care about what they are learning, rather than drilling them with subject matter largely divorced from their real lives, and the community and societal problems which often impact those lives.

In Portland, Oregon, teachers at a wide range of schools are putting this idea into practice. While this is their story, it can help point the way to rethinking how schools everywhere can be successfully transformed.

Complex City: Student Designed Animated Maps

Complex City

I recently featured a guest post from High Tech High’s David Stahnke and Margaret Noble that detailed their award-winning student multimedia exhibit “Illuminated Mathematics.”

Margaret is back with another student project, partner and guest post.
Text by Rachel Nichols and Margaret Noble.

Complex City: Animated Maps of San Diego
Project and student exhibition developed and coordinated by High Tech High teachers – Rachel Nichols (English) and Margaret Noble (Multimedia).
Link to the Complex City exhibit site with additional student work.

Our Essential (Guiding) Questions

San Diego’s military bases drastically outnumber the facilities meant to help veterans with post war trauma. ~ Tobi Brik

  • How do we help students to become more aware of their surroundings, in order to foster an educated, ethical, and empathetic community?
  • How do we facilitate opportunities that help students translate experiences, investigations, and ideas into artistic renderings that effectively communicate new knowledge?

We devised an experiential project, “Complex City” in order to help students think critically about their communities. In asking them to map an area of San Diego that had significance to them, we wanted them to step back from the familiar aspects of their community and city, and translate those aspects into a visual map. As part of this project, students researched, interviewed, and investigated their city and community in myriad ways. What they once thought was familiar suddenly became very unknown. By compiling their work and making collective and idiosyncratic maps of San Diego, they have been challenged to rethink what they understood to be the reality of the built environment around them, as well as to accept the new knowledges that their classmates contribute. They have become more invested in their own community because their new knowledge implicates them as involved citizens. These maps collect particular versions of this place (versions not always visible to others, or in traditional maps) as we see it in the fall/winter of 2011.

Student Assignment

From pursuing this question my love for marine life grew and my desire to help raise awareness for San Diego’s waters grew … I have a responsibility to get reckless boaters to be more cautious. ~ Jasmine Thomas

In this project, you will be making an animated map of San Diego based on your wanderings, interviews, research, and experiences. In short, you will be creating a map of San Diego that collects particular versions of this place (versions not always visible to others, or in traditional maps). Using Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City as one model, and our own creative explorations as another, we will be collecting data in the form of sounds, photos, historical information, interviews, and ephemera, and we will be compiling this data to make a series of complementary, contradictory, confounding or even contestatory maps of San Diego. We will be looking at Infinite City in detail, as well as working with archivists, historians, and community members to think creatively about mapping.

Bench Marks
Research Paper Outline, Story Board of Map – Oral Presentations
Rough Research Draft Paper, Map Draft 2, Final Research Paper
Map Animation Draft 1 with Critiques, Map Animation Revised with Critiques, Final Animation
Public Exhibition – Projection Art and Research Presentations

Complex City Public Exhibition
Complex City Public Exhibition

Three Essential Components:

1. Research Audio: 2-3 interviews relating to the theme/topic of your map. Each of these interviews will take the final form of a 2-3 minute piece, edited down from a 45-minute interview. Also record ambient noise and sonic data from your theme/topic. See example at The Soundlines Project.

2. Textual: a. One 6-8 page final paper per group (double-spaced; between 1500-2000 words). This draft should be divided into sections that include historical information, relevant current facts and anecdotes, and a critical analysis of the map and its meaning. The draft should be clearly marked as to which member of the group authored which sections. We will critique and workshop these papers.
b. Type a transcript from each of your interviews to turn in with final paper (due November 18th)

3. Visual: design, cartography and photography relevant to your project inquiry.

Project resources courtesy of Rachel Nichols and Margaret Noble

  • Gem City Atlas Rebecca Solnit’s work with students at the University of Wyoming
  • Gap Minder– A non-profit venture- a modern “museum” on the Internet – promoting sustainable global development and achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
  • Excellent interactive map that details the 2010 census. Plug in your zip code and see what you find.
  • GeoCommons is the public community of GeoIQ users who are building an open repository of data and maps for the world. The GeoIQ platform includes a large number of features that empower you to easily access, visualize and analyze your data.
  • Strange Maps showcases very cool maps and map ideas.
  • Mike Wirth Art Samples from a very creative designer who makes fantastic infographics.
  • Great mapping ideas at radicalcartography
  • Grassroots Mapping – founded by a group of activists, educators, technologists, and community organizers interested in new ways to promote action, intervention, and awareness through a participatory research model.
  • Motion based collaging ideas from Streaming Festival

Images and videos supplied by Margaret Noble

Studio H Classroom: Design. Build. Transform. Community

Studio H: Design. Build. Transform is a new exhibit that just opened at Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft. It offers visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in the design process.

While touring the exhibit, I was struck by how the Studio H exhibit embodies the key elements of project-based learning. The PBL approach engages students with the chance to think like professionals while solving real-world problems. Studio H gives PBL added impact by inspiring and empowering student as change agents in their community.

High 5 Studio H
High 5 Studio H

Student-designed solutions that empower people, communities, and economies.

In contrast to PBL, the traditional classroom conditions students to listen to teachers lecture – a one-way flow of information from teacher to passive recipient. And then, if there’s time, students might have a chance to “apply” what they’ve “learned” in a “canned” project (often over-managed with worksheets and a teacher-defined product). But that’s not how we experience life. We encounter challenges that become the catalyst for us to “figure things out.” Thus problem fosters research, analysis, solution, and reflection.

The MoCC’s Studio H exhibit re-imagines the gallery as a laboratory and teaching space. Visitors get to see how students were taught a non-linear design process in a more authentic learning environment that grows out of a dynamic interplay between research, ideation, development, prototyping and building.

Farmers Market prototype
Farmers’ Market Prototype @MoCC

Educators will find the exhibit to be an inspiration and template for using the PBL approach to motivate students with challenge, autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Studio H: Design. Build. Transform
Research: Gather relevant contextual precedent and sociological information.
Ideate: Generate large amounts of seemingly crazy ideas in quick succession.
Develop: Refine promising ideas using functional requirements real-world constraints.
Prototype: Build working versions and test their feasibility.
Build: Execute and test the prototype in real-world conditions for human interaction dreams.

Farmers market
Farmers’ Market – Complete

“A piece of me in every part of this building” ~ Erick
“I’m proud of the market and myself.” ~ Jamesha
“In 30 years, I’ll say I helped build it.” ~ Colin

The exhibition asks viewers to reflect on how that process can teach the next generation of designers to transform the world for themselves. Artifacts from the studio classroom in rural Bertie County, North Carolina (where Emily Pilloton, and Project H partner Matthew Miller, teach design thinking to high-school students) are on display and illustrate how a socially engaged design process can result in significant and positive solutions.

Farmers Market in operation
Farmers’ Market – In Operation

The MoCC exhibit highlights the products and process of the first year of the Studio H program. It features two design challenges – chicken coops and a farmers’ market pavilion. Both projects required students to design and build for real-world human (or chicken) interaction. Each project was firmly rooted in the agricultural context of Bertie County, but each looked closely at the local economy and fostered a more sustainable food solution – in one case offering an alternative to the local Perdue-scale chicken agribusiness and in the other, facilitating the production and sale of fresh local produce.

Emily Pilloton exemplifies an emerging generation of designers who believe that design has the power to positively change the world but that new design strategies are required to effect those changes. Pilloton is the founder and director of Project H Design (design initiatives for Humanity, Habitats, Health and Happiness), which connects design to the people who need it most and to the places where it can make a real and lasting difference.

Pilloton and Miller moved to rural Bertie County, North Carolina in 2009 to engage in a bold experiment of design-led community transformation. Through a design/build high-school shop class called Studio H, Pilloton and Miller exercised both minds and bodies while bringing design strategies and new opportunities to the poorest county in the state. In August 2010 they began teaching their first class of 13 students.

We need to go beyond “going green,” Pilloton says, and enlist a new generation of design activists. We need big hearts, a bigger business sense, and the bravery to take action now.

The Studio H website is loaded with photographs, videos, student reflections and great curriculum ideas. The site describes the curriculum as follows:

Studio H is a public high school “design/build” curriculum that sparks rural community development through real-world, built projects. By learning through a design sensibility, applied core subjects, and industry-relevant construction skills, students develop the creative capital, critical thinking, and citizenship necessary for their own success and for the future of their communities.

Over the course of one calendar year, students earn high school and college credit, and are paid a summer wage to build the community project they have spent the year designing and prototyping.

Studio H is a different kind of classroom. We design, build, and transform.

The Museum of Contemporary Craft is sponsoring a Craftperspective Lecture by Emily Pilloton at ZIBA Auditorium 810 NW Marshall Street in Portland Ore on Dec 2, 2011 at 6 PM. Arrive early – it will be packed! More info


Note from Peter: I’ve had some discussions with the folks at MoCC about offering a January teacher’s workshop. “Studio H and Getting Started with Project-Based Learning.” Stop back for more information.


Image credits:
High Five by Studio H
Farmers’ Market Complete and In Operation by Brad Feinknopf.
Prototype @MoCC by Peter Pappas.

Big Ideas and the Relevant Classroom


I just finished reading a provocative NY Times Op Ed piece “The Elusive Big Idea by Neal Gabler. 

Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world… The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.” … In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world … Bold ideas are almost passé. … Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show.

Big ideas have given way to 140-character tweets just as engaging interdisciplinary learning has been annihilated by the monotonous factoids of test prep.

My thoughts quickly turned from Gabler’s thesis to its implications for teaching and learning. Certainly our assessment mentality has narrowed the curriculum. In many classrooms, instruction has moved away from engaging and open-ended investigations to the monotony of test prep. Interdisciplinary projects have given way to measuring student achievement on routine standardize tests. Guess we can’t blame the loss of big ideas all on Twitter – NCLB is helping to stamp them out as well.

I can still remember a warm June day back in the mid ’70’s. I was in the final review for my 11th graders about to take the NYS Regents exam in American Studies. As I worked the blackboard trying to pull it all together, a student in the back row finally made some connections and blurted out something like, “I get it now, all those southern and eastern European immigrants came to the US to work in the new factories!” I publicly congratulated his “insight,” but inside I realized that I needed to stop the relentless parade of historical facts and focus on better connecting my students with history and its relevance to their lives.

One change I later made was to begin the course by administering a survey of a broad array of questions on issues such as civil and criminal rights, gender, social class, environment, economy, public policy. We would tabulate the results to reveal that we had different perspectives on many issues. First, we respectfully discussed them in small groups, then whole class. Eventually we looked to see how these perspectives had come to influence US history.

When it came to time to study the debate over the ratification of the constitution, my students didn’t have to ask the question – “why do we need to study this?” They realized that they were looking at “Round 1” of an ongoing debate over how strong the central government should be.

“Big ideas” flourished in the form of timeless historic questions that gave my students a connection to a more relevant, engaging history. With a more personal connection to history, they also developed a greater mastery of content and shifting historic perspectives. PS – they also scored well on the state tests. 

For more ideas see my post and downloadable Slideshare,  ”The Student As Historian – Resources and Strategies.”

Image credit flickr/nhuisman