May 2011

Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen are the most heroic teens of contemporary literature: I know you all know Harry, but if you don’t yet know Katniss you will soon, because her adventures in The Hunger Games will soon be feature films.

The lives of these heroes are at first glance and to many ways of looking at them, simply, miserable and horrific.   Harry, we all know, spends his seven years of school fighting to save his life and reputation from the death-eaters and from he who shall not be named.

Katniss must fight for her life in her society’s fatal, fight to the death version of teenage Survivor: a wall of fire overwhelms her as she is trapped in a tree;  she is stung all over by killer tracker jacker bees; she has hallucinations of ants boring into her eyes; and she is attacked by horrifying mutant mutt-wolves.

Why do these heroes generate so much fascination?  Surely there are many reasons, but among the most important is that we envy and are admiring of their struggle.  How can that be? How can that be? How can we envy their struggle?

Remember that feeling hiking and rock climbing at Mt. Lemmon, looking up, and thinking how am I possibly going to do this?  Remember feeling the pressure of your major English paper on MacBeth and Flannery O’Connor, or preparing for the great debates of your Civics class.   How did you feel as you faced these challenges, and how did you feel when you completed them?

The New York Times last week published an article which posed the following questions:

“Why did couples go on having children even though the data clearly showed that parents are less happy than childless couples? Why did billionaires desperately seek more money even when there was nothing they wanted to do with it?”

The article explains that the University of Pennsylvania professor of Psychology, Marty Seligman, who is the guru of “positive psychology,” has revised his analysis of what is most important to pursue in life:

[It is] the feeling of accomplishment which contributes [especially] to what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, which roughly translates to “well-being” or “flourishing.(more…)

It is my great pleasure to share this piece from Fred Roberts, St. Gregory’s long-time Dean of Students.   St. Gregory has a lovely, longstanding tradition of Senior Dinner, an event for faculty members and graduating seniors two nights prior to graduation, and at which a veteran faculty member delivers his or her own “last lecture,” something it has been designated since even long before the legendary Randy Pausch “last lecture.”

I was deeply impressed with this piece, which argues for the importance of self-understanding via struggle, and includes, if you read on, wonderfully engrossing anecdotes about genuine struggles.

The take away quote:

This is about meeting the expectations of the person that matters most, your expectations. It’s about living a fulfilling life, and where does the fire live?

It comes from your struggle.  This is an individual exploration into one’s rock bottom core and finding out what is there.  It is about peeling away the layers of protection, lifting each one to see what is below.  In doing so the lessons are self taught, the experiences profound, and you discover an inner strength that is your core; your ‘it’.  First, however, you must find your struggle.

Finding your struggle.

Today we are doing more with less, going higher with out jumping harder, moving faster with less effort, and finding more success with just enough preparation.  We are told our financial problems are the fault of others, and with a toll free phone call you can be debt free, make thousands from the comfort of your own home, and take a vacation at the end of the week. It is now easier to upgrade, supersize, maximize, multi task, leverage, and over achieve than ever before.  We are fulfilled, our map is before us, and all we have to do is get on board. All of us in this room, as Mr. Creeden often said, won the genetic lottery.  We are in the top 5% of humankind in terms of wealth, health, security, and potential. (more…)

Good afternoon Graduates, Students, Trustees, Parents, and Friends: welcome.We are very happy you are all here to share in this celebration of the accomplishments and unique qualities of the 35 fine members of our graduating class of 2011.Let me begin by quoting one of our graduates sitting in front of me today, from a KGUN Channel 9 interview last September at the Tucson Ethnic Extravaganza
we are here to advocate for all students being able to learn about an ethnicity and its history: this is about a privilege that I enjoy at my school, St. Gregory,  and which I feel every student should share: the freedom of knowledge.
For this purpose and ideal, Aubri Romero and Jacob Valdez, advised by Dr. Berry,  took the initiative to make a difference for our community by organizing a community-wide rally downtown. They had to overcome significant challenges,  but they persevered and did it the way they believed they could make the most difference, and it was a great success.What is especially meaningful to me about this particular action is what they were fighting for:  better education for all.   They sought to empower fellow students, and to improve our society, by influencing what and how their fellow students learn.They know that Education empowers; learning matters.Yes, this always been true, but it has never been more true. (more…)

“Are you going to make us craft as homework a home-made California mission in middle school and high school?”  


Sometimes when educators speak about project based learning (PBL), parents, students, and other educations think that what we mean by project based learning are at-home activities which kids are assigned as an extension of their classroom learning, and which parents often bear the burden of.

As regular readers know, I am passionate about the importance of project based learning as a core component of 21st century learning and of “becoming a school of the future.”   But I am equally passionate about the importance of being more precise about our definitions of and standards for high quality PBL, and carefully distinguishing it from learning extensions or enrichment via “activities.”

So I am delighted to see the fine educators of High Tech High, which is proudly a high quality PBL school, offering videos to clarify further what is and what isn’t high quality PBL.   In one video, entitled, What PBL isn’t, teacher Jeff Robin explains carefully what PBL isn’t is Project Oriented learning.   (I really wish I could embed these videos here, but I could not get the video embed code to work.  Apologies, but follow the link).

Project oriented learning looks something like this: First, teachers decided they need to teach students everything they need to know, getting all the basics down first, and then they ask students to do a project about what they learned.

“All right kids, two weeks to go in the semester,” the teacher says “ok,  kids let’s make a project.” The project is oriented toward the things the kids have been learning in class.  Then the kids do the project and then do the exhibition or presentation.  There might be some smart things in there, but it is not PBL because  the kids did not have to learn all these things to get the project done,  the project didn’t run the semester: the semester ran and then kids did the project.    (more…)

[excerpted from a longer post, 8 Suggestions for Graduation Remarks by Principals, published at Connected Principals]

School-leaders and educators preparing remarks for upcoming graduations do well, I think, to draw inspiration from and take quotations from recently published and current books which speak to the way the world is changing and how we all can better be effective in these fast-changing times.   This is not to say that we shouldn’t also draw from ancient “wisdom” writings: I do often, especially from the Greeks.

Below is a list of ten titles published in the last 12 months that are well suited, I think, for inspiration and quotation in class of 2011 graduation talks.

1. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas.  This title is short, wonderfully readable, and entirely inspiring: there is a world of learning available to us who choose to pursue it.

  • Learning in an Age of Constant Change simply never stops.  In the new culture of learning, the bad news it that we rarely reach any final answers.  But the good news is that we get to play again, and we may find even more satisfaction in continuing the search.”

2. Poke the Box by Seth Godin.  This is his most recent, (I think; he is so prolific that maybe I missed one), but you would do fine if you chose one of his other recent works, such as Linchpin or Tribes.  I spoke last year at our school graduation about Tribes, and it was very successful.    Godin is enormously quotable, and wonderfully provocative.

  • Please stop waiting for a map.  We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them.”

 3.  Do the Work by Steven Pressfield.  See Patrick Larkin’s recent post about this book.

  • A crash means we have failed. We gave it everything we had and we came up short. A crash does not mean we are losers…A crash means we are on the threshold of something new.”

4.  DIYU: Edupunks, edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamentz.  The title speaks for itself. (more…)

Over the past few months we have at St. Gregory conducted a comprehensive search for a new Librarian and Director of Information Literacy.   As part of the search, we requested of candidates that they prepare and submit an essay on “Reinventing the 21st century library,” and we received nearly fifty applications and accompanying essays.

Below are excerpts from some of the best essays submitted (with the author’s permission).  If you read onto the end, you’ll find the last has a particularly fun style, written as a day in the life of a reinvented 21st century librarian.

My great appreciation to all of these fine 21st century librarians, and to all who submitted.  Enjoy:

Jennifer Arnott

The rapid pace of technology change means that many librarians and educators constantly feel behind. There’s always some new tool, some new idea, something we haven’t read yet. My goal as a librarian is to be aware of the options, but to take a step back, and look at what is most effective for this community, right now.

For example, if we look at seeking out information, each of us has our own preferences about how we interact with information: some people prefer print, some love reading on a screen. (more…)

In a recent post I shared a guest post by a visitor writing about  the excellent use of the block schedule format by teachers at St. Gregory.   In that same vein I want to share my observations of a terrific 75 minute period I enjoyed last week in the classroom of Corinne Bancroft as she taught 6th grade English.

Sadly, this is all too rare an event, my spending an entire period in a single classroom, but I give credit to Ms. Bancroft for her persistence and warm enthusiasm in encouraging me to visit her classroom.

The 75 minute period was divided into three parts:

  • students worked in groups on a project for 35 minutes;
  • Ms. Bancroft facilitated a group book discussion for about 20 minutes;
  • and students worked individually on their laptops on an essay they were writing for the class while Ms. Bancroft individually conferenced with them for 20 minutes.

Class began with the direction to work in groups on their major end-of-year project, the Gathering Blue project based on the book of the same name.  Ms. Bancroft developed this herself, derived from her classroom discussion of reading this YA novel (for more information you can follow the link or see at bottom, where I have pasted it into the post.) (more…)

[cross-posted from Connected Principals]

Step aside Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere.   For an up-close and analytical film about building a world-class education which thoroughly prepares all students for careers and citizenship in the 21st century, take the 62 minutes to view the new film from Tony Wagner and Bob Compton: The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System.

Whether it will be “surprising” for all is something I question: indeed, the lessons learned from Finland align themselves so closely with the best educational thinking of the past several decades, and to my mind most particularly Ted Sizer and Tony Wagner himself, that it is legitimate to wonder whether this film finds too much of what it was looking for and projects itself too greatly upon its own subject.

One genuine surprise in this film is that it comes from Bob Compton, the film-maker of 2 Million Minutes and 2 Million Minutes, the 21st century solution.   (more…)

St. Gregory has proudly had a block schedule (4 blocks a day, 75 minute blocks) for seven years, and it is my belief that block scheduling is nearly a necessity for 21st century learning.   I have written about this before here on the blog, and it is something I believe passionately: for students to have the time to experiment, pursue their passions, collaborate, and study topics in depth, a block schedule makes a huge difference.

One of our fine “sister schools” here in Arizona is Phoenix Country Day School, which is taking the plunge for next year to convert to a block schedule, and we at St. Gregory are having the good fortune of welcoming a series of visiting teams of faculty members from PCDS, who are observing our classes in session to take note of how we effectively use the longer blocks.   The following is a guest post from a PCDS teacher, Kelly Butler,  who visited last week, offering her observations of our school in action.  My thanks go to Ms. Butler for writing this fine observation.

Overall, my experience at St. Gregory was enjoyable and a definitely worthwhile.  I left feeling confident about our transition into the block schedule next year and also walked away with some valuable insights.  It was apparent that your teachers are able to challenge their students, diversify instruction, and most importantly develop critical thinkers within the block.  Also, it made it abundantly clear to me that the block enables good teachers to truly shine and supports placing student needs first.  


Suzie Boss, co-author with Jane Krause of Reinventing Project Based Learning with Technology, visited St. Gregory for the past two days, and it was a great pleasure to share our school with her and discuss together project based learning with technology at St. Gregory.  Her presentation to our faculty (to reiterate, it is  Suzie’s presentation, not my own), is above, and it stimulated conversation for several days.

I have listed links to  the resources she shared in her presentation below at bottom (click more).

After her presentation to the full faculty, she then was kind enough to spend the next day and a half visiting with small groups of teachers for a block at a time; in each block teachers shared with Suzie for her feedback projects either already implemented or already in development.  I am intending in a near-future post to share some of our teachers’ “take-aways” from these conversations.

Project Based Learning with Technology has been identified by the National Association of Independent Schools Guide to Becoming a School of the Future as a core “Unifying Theme” of Schools of the Future.   Many in 21st century learning, including the Partnership for 21st century skills, High Tech High, and New Tech Network Schools emphasize PBL-T as an essential vehicle for students to better actively learn and master skills such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communications– the skills we highlight as essential goals for our St. Gregory students.

I didn’t participate in most of the faculty sessions, but I enjoyed a sequence of dinners and lunches with Suzie and various others, and over the course of two days’ conversation several key themes about PBL emerged for me.

1. We need to be cautious about the idea that PBL can be effectively deployed as a primarily at-home/homework event. (more…)