The Makerspace Is Doomed

warningSchool districts are eliminating high school shop classes for a number of reasons, but the bottom line, of course, is money. The American secondary educational system pumps as many of its competent students as possible into college. At the same time, large numbers of marginal students are placed into special-education programs, which qualify for large amounts of Federal and state funds.

Unfortunately for those in the middle, who might want to make a living with their hands, not to mention those who might want to hire them to do a job, trade classes like print shop and wood shop and home economics no longer fit easily into the educational bureaucracy’s pattern of what constitutes a comprehensive liberal education for the 21st century.

The above, from a 1996 New York Times article sums up the decline of Shop classes in American schools since the 1980s.

According to this Los Angeles Times article from 1986, “The national education reform movement of the 1980s added a host of academic courses to graduation requirements, leaving little room for students to take electives. Because shop classes are usually electives, even students who want the classes have discovered they do not have the time.”

I checked out my old high school’s course catalog, which offered shop classes when I graduated in 2002, and found shop classes are gone there, too. But, the rumor around town is that they plan to open a Makerspace soon!

If you are unfamiliar with the Makerspace in schools, the most common type of Makerspace aims to both better expose students to STEM related fields and revive the lost art of making with one’s hands. Basically, it is Shop class 2.0. And like Shop class, the Makerspace is doomed. The Makerspace has five years left, ten if it’s lucky. Why? Two main reasons:

1. The Makerspace in education is a fad.

Check these out:

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The above pictures are from a Google Trends graph I separated for better viewing. It shows that the rise of the Makerspace coincides with the rise of Common Core (another fad). The Makerspace in school is the equal and opposite reaction to Common Core.

As Common Core begins to wane, so too will the Makerspace. Their fates are tied together, and since we will eventually fill the void in STEM related jobs, which in and of itself is being over-hyped, the next fad will take its place. That fad? I predict we will see the rise of entrepreneurship in schools because the robots are coming… but that’s for another blog post.

2. As always, money.

Makerspaces that focus on STEM are expensive to start and expensive to maintain. As with the previous recession, when times get tough, schools get hit hard. We go through recessions more often than you may think. Like the Times article said, money played a big part in the demise of Shop class, so too will it play a role in the demise of the Makerspace. When budgets need to be cut, how long will the Makerspace last?

Now before you hit send on the hate mail, understand: I love Makerspaces. But, what I love more is the Maker Movement.

Before I started working at my current school and created our Innovation Labs, I taught low-level high school English (called college prep, LOL). My kids were tough and often came to class with a defeatist attitude and hated school. I got sick of it, so I changed how I taught. I moved to a student-centered classroom model and it is the best thing I’ve ever done.

I stopped the lectures and cut way back on the direct instruction. Instead, I got an LMS, recorded myself, and blended my classroom. I gave students choice and voice in what they learned and not every assessment was a multiple choice test. I tried to make learning as personal, relevant, and authentic as possible. I got cross-curricular. I got kids out of their seat, moving around, being loud, and working together. I asked my students to become experts and share their knowledge with me, instead of getting it from me. My students thrived in the student-centered environment I created.

This is what I think most educators are failing to understand about the Maker Movement in schools: when you move to a student-centered classroom your students have no choice but to make. Making shouldn’t be confined to an elective or focused only on STEM; it should be the main way that we teach our students. We need to get our Makerspaces out of the library and into the student-centered classroom. It is a shame that a student must go to the Makerspace to be able get up, inquire, collaborate, create and take control of their learning. Every class, every subject, and every grade can and should be a Makerspace.

The Makerspace is doomed. When the Makerspace dies, I hope it is not because of unsustainability or the next fad has come along, but because we have moved away from our traditional, fact-based curriculum and embraced the spirit of the Maker Movement by moving toward a student-centered classroom.

Next post I’ll tell you how I moved toward a student-centered classroom. I’ve talked about the first half here, so I’ll double down on experiential learning and introduce another technique I use.

Until then,



Introducing: Kid Vision

Plugged In HeartEducators have shadowed students through the school day, but when was the last time we actually saw school through a students’ eyes? I think we can learn a lot if we could see what they see. So when I was invited by two of Fair Haven’s rock star teachers, Mrs. Raibick and Ms. Piotrowski, to join their third grade class for a Mystery Skype I thought it would be fun to see the lesson from a student’s perspective, so I strapped a GoPro on one of their kids head and off we went!

If you’re not familiar with a Mystery Skype or Mystery Hangout, it is when two classes meet virtually on either Skype or Google Hangouts at a predetermined time to play games similar to 20 Questions. I’ve heard of Mystery Animal, Mystery Number, Mystery Profession… you get the idea. In this Kid Vision video, students are trying to guess what state their counterpart is from. Our teachers prepped for days in advance for the Mystery Skype which was one of the culminating activities at the end of their unit on states and regions. From dropping into the classroom days before the event, it was easy to see that kids were working extra hard and super engaged as they wanted to make sure they guessed the state correctly. I asked Mrs. Rabick and Ms. Piotrowski to outline the steps they took to make this a success. Here’s what they said:

Steps for Mystery Hangouts-

  1. Incorporate the Mystery Skype into a geography unit or review of regions, climates, and bodies of water.
  2. Have questions prepared ahead of time for both parties to use, so you both know what questions are coming your way and how to answer them.
  3. Each student should have their own maps on a clipboard with them during the Hangout. Have each student color code the regions on their map ahead of time. They can use a pencil to cross off any states that they need to during the Skype. 
  4. Assign each student a question to ask and have that same student answer that same question for the other party (It’s best to have the questions and answers written on individual index cards for the children).
  5. Have a greeter and a closer. The greeters welcome and the closers thank the other party for the experience (make sure every student has some time of job and is involved).
  6. If working with early elementary students, assign them spots on the rug in the order that will be speaking.
  7. REHEARSE. REHEARSE. REHEARSE- Place tape on the floor where you would like the children to stand in front of the webcam. Have each student come up to the camera to practice making eye contact and speaking their parts (We started preparing and rehearsing with my class a week and half ahead of time).
  8. Do a practice Skype with someone in your district
  9. Come up with a hand signal for the children to give you when they have figured out where the other party is located.
  10. Have them reflect on this experience.

As a fun addition, these two classes plan on staying in touch through the year by becoming penpals!

Their are a ton of different types of Mystery Skypes and Hangouts and a growing community has sprung up to help educators connect. Check the hashtags #MysterySkype or #MysteryHangout on social media. Check out Microsoft’s official Mystery Skype page and the Google Mystery Hangout Community (the Mystery Skype community is stronger than the Mystery Hangout community right now) and Ms. Piotrowski said she’d be happy to answer your questions if you email her at

After recording the event, I sent it to the teachers for reflection. I also decided to ask for some student commentary! The morning after, I grabbed my subject and we recorded some reflective commentary about his experience with the Mystery Skype. Below you can see the video with commentary and the uncut Kid Vision video (the kids came up with that name!).

The video, to me, is a great example of effective teaching and the engagement an exciting lesson can deliver. I plan on continuing to expand the Kid Vision project to showcase the amazing things going on in our district and to learn new things about education when we remember to see it through students’ eyes.




First Reflection From The Innovation Labs

downloadWe are about a month into Innovation Lab, and even though that may sound like a lot, I only see each class once a week for an hour. In all, since we’ve had some days off since the start of school, I’ve only seen most classes twice. Not a lot, but between observations and collecting data, I’m starting to see some trends. So, in the spirit of the same Growth Mindset I hope my kids develop in the Innovation Labs, here is the first reflection from the trenches of the Innovation Labs.

Sickles Studios, our elementary school Innovation Lab is off to a great start. We take a more whole class and small group approach to tackling Computer Science and Design & Engineering than the more individualized approach we take at the middle school in Knollwood Labs. I’m lucky to work with two super-talented teachers in Sickles Studios and we’ve taken to doing some whole class instruction before breaking into stations for about forty minutes. A month in, and we have second and third graders in Google Classroom with their own accounts while first grade and kindergarten are using a general login. Once online, we started and I’ve been impressed with how quickly kids are picking it up. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks talking about algorithms and using a great, unplugged activity using paper airplanes to drive the point home. As the kids get better at understanding algorithms, we hope to teach them the types of commands they can give to a program using code. Combined with some Design lessons, we hope to eventually create a garden that is monitored in real-time by a Raspberry Pi the kids will help code. I also just got our radio station (Podcasting) up and running and I’m putting the finishing touches on our TV Station (YouTube) channel, so I’m hoping to have the kids do more inquiry, reflection, and demonstrations as our projects progress.

This is the first year for our Innovation Labs. Knollwood Labs is our middle school offering and will build on what our kids learn in Sickles Studios. Right now, though, Knollwood Labs is starting with nearly 300 5th and 6th graders who have little experience with CompSci and Design & Engineering, but that doesn’t stop them from coming to the Labs excited to learn everyday.

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As you can see, kids are pumped for the class. What has also been a pleasant surprise is the diversity of interests kids are bringing to the Lab. You would think a class where learning with Minecraft is possible, it would dominate their interests, but it is Designing that has captured most students attention.

I think I have an explanation for why that is. In the months leading up to the Labs the kids were stoked for Minecraft in school, but as a recovering English teacher, I try to choose my words carefully: In the Labs I let the kids know we learn with Minecraft. How we learn with Minecraft in school is not the same as how we play Minecraft at home. With MinecraftEDU I have turned off the violence, TNT, fire, monsters, and the Netherworld. Many kids were disappointed at first, but many are coming around to the idea of building instead of destroying and more than a few have told me they appreciate the fact that another student can’t come into their world and grief them. It has been shocking, even down the to the kindergarten level, how much kids want to destroy stuff in Minecraft. For now, Minecraft will remain a peaceful place to create. I’m sure there’s some learning that can come from explosions and burning everything to the ground, but I’ve yet to figure it out. I guess some kids just want to watch the world burn. :)

What may also surprise some is the lack of interest in coding. Only 6% of my kids are most interested in coding (about 60 kids are missing from the survey due to holidays). I think I have an answer to that, too. I think there is some fundamental problems with the way we teach coding in schools and what we expect from our kids. I plan on tackling this in my next post. I am happy to report, though, that a handful of students, about 15, have been brave enough to tackle some real coding. Most have started with Sonic Pi which allows you to code live music and change it instantly by rewriting the code as the music plays on the Raspberry Pi (I’m pitching a Sonic Pi section in the school band!). I’ve also had five brave students either start using Learn to Mod or enroll in Codecademy’s Python coding class.

To further spark my students interest in coding and to improve students’ learning overall, I’ve put out a call to our very talented parent community. Below you can see the responses and where our parent-experts talents are. By inviting parents into the labs, I hope to expose students to different career fields while they learn from parents’ real-world experience.

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I’m proud of the response the labs are getting from the educational community. Last week, the NJ DOE came to see our Labs and the other innovative things going on in our awesome district and they were so impressed with what we’re doing, they’ve asked us to present on Innovation at some upcoming conferences. This week, we are Skyping with Neal Manegold one of the people in charge of Minecraft at Microsoft. In the spring, he and other Minecraft for Microsoft folks hope to stop by the labs in person. I also shared an amazing world one of our students made with them and they are going to feature her work on the Minecraft blog! Additionally, our new friends at Polar 3D have donated a 3D printer to the lab and are looking forward to what the students will create. Google is dropping by soon to let us try out Google Expeditions and we’ve been invited to present at Barnes and Nobles’ Maker Faire, Tech & Learning Magazine’s New York Forum at the end of October, and the Young Innovators Fair in Pennsylvania. The buzz is growing and I’m excited to present with students, show off the great things our kids can do, and show how we can make learning more student-centered and student-driven.

I’m also excited with how well the Fresh Air curriculum is working. The Knollwood Labs site is the actual curriculum for the class. Students come in and begin working right away since everything they need is on the site. They can work at home too if they want. I’m noticing more and more students watching screencasts in the Armory or researching their own answers which frees my partner and I up to work more in-depth with students. This further cements my belief that every teacher should be blending learning. A class website and learning management system have a place in every classroom. On Friday, I shoulder surfed over a girl as she wrote up a Quest that she would like to add to our Quest Map and share with her peers. How cool is that! I’m totally going to add it, I love that kids are starting to make their own Quests to share with each other.

That being said, there’s always room for improvement. I have a few things I’m tightening up in Knollwood Labs. Only 62% of students have completed their first Quest Log — their digital portfolio hosted on Google Sites (using Site Maestro) where they talk about and show evidence of their learning in a two-week clip. I did a demo slam for each class last week, so I’m hoping that will help bring that missing 38% around, but I would have liked to have gotten off to a stronger start. I’ll know for next year to do a more formal, direct instruction in addition to the screencasts. –edit: happy to report that over 90% of students have worked on their Quest Logs now!–

I’m also not thrilled with Heroic Traits. Heroic Traits are the differentiated standards students self-select based on what they learned during a quest. For instance, during a Coding Quest a student might self-select a Heroic Trait that says “I can write a Loop statement in a coding language” as a measurement of learning. I’ve asked students to select three Heroic Traits per Quest, but my kids and I are having a hard time keeping track of which Heroic Traits they’ve chosen. I’m not going to make changes yet, but I’m considering either reducing the Heroic Traits required to one per Quest, scrapping them all together and letting students write their own Heroic Traits for each Quest, or some type of combination of both. Time will tell.

On the Gamification front, I’m torn on leaving up the single player component of the leaderboard or just focusing on the Class vs. Class and Grade vs. Grade aspect, but I think since students can redo their Quest Log until they’re happy with their grade, I’ll let the individual portion stand and see how it goes. I’ve also taken the redos out of the Item Shop where I use to keep them for my high school kids.

I’m worried about the frequency with which some of my kids are changing or finishing their Quests. I know I shouldn’t be. It’s natural for kids this early to want to try out a bunch of different things, but I’m hoping that as the year goes on they’ll focus more on depth instead of breadth.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference. The biggest little thing that is driving me nuts: storage! Students have flocked to the Deconstructors Raid where, as part of a group, they take apart a device, document and label the parts, and try to put it back together unlocking an achievement if it still works when/if they get it reassembled. Again, I turned to our community for devices to take apart and they’ve been amazing in getting me all kinds of awesome stuff to deconstruct (we built our first working computer from broken ones, this week), but storing the stuff before students work on it and storing it while students are working on it is frustrating. We are working in the back of our library and storage and space in general is tough to come by.

I’ve never been more excited to be an educator. My school, community, and kids are fantastic. I’m excited to continue trying to make our Innovation Labs a national model for student-centered, passion-based learning because while we are teaching “STEM,” any class, anywhere can and should be made into an Innovation Lab and in doing so, I think we’ll provide more authentic, meaningful learning opportunities for our students.

Fair Haven’s Innovation Labs – The unSTEM Labs


With the trust and support of my leadership team, I’ve been given the green light to design and co-teach the class of my dreams. Since joining Fair Haven last December, and through this summer, I’ve spent hours designing and beta testing a class that I believe will become a national model for student-centered learning. Our Innovation Labs, part of our Fair Haven Innovates initiative, is made up of Sickles Studios and Knollwood Labs. We launched last week and Monday was the first day students got to get their hands dirty and start on their Quests. I wanted to give an overview of the Innovation Labs and the ideas behind them, so I can dive deeper throughout the year.

The first thing I had to do to make the class run the way I envisioned was rethink the way we presented, and kids accessed, the curriculum and their work. For that,  I turned to my mega-talented partner in crime Ellen Spears. Ellen is our Curriculum Director and together we created a new style of curriculum. A new type of curriculum was needed because, as we both agreed, curriculum generally just collect dust in closets instead of being part of the teaching practice in the room. We wanted to create a living, breathing curriculum that grew throughout the year right along with the teacher, class, and the kids. We call our new creation the Fresh Air curriculum.

The Fresh Air curriculum takes the content from paper pages and moves it to web pages. We bought the domain as a portal for students and parents to access this new curriculum. Since it is on the web, everyday, whether from home or school, students and parents have access to the curriculum and can see what they are supposed to be learning and thanks to the ease of Google Apps for Education, it’s a breeze to update (check out that site history!). On top of all that, digitizing curriculum allows for differentiated, self-paced, self-directed learning. You can read more about the Fresh Air curriculum in this edSurge article and I plan on diving into specifics in the future. In the meantime, feel free to steal what I’ve done and use it or make it your own.

On top of the new curriculum, you had to have known there would be Gamification. While Sickles Studios doesn’t feature any Gamification, Knollwood Labs is totally gamified. Our Pioneers develop Heroic Traits as they work on Quests and unlock Achievements while they earn XP as part of our yearlong Class vs. Class and Grade vs. Grade game. Quests can be completed in single player mode, multiplayer mode, or as part of a Raid Team where students become problem finders. I’ll talk more about Gamification in the Labs and the modification I’ve made to my system soon, but you can see it on the Knollwood Labs page if you’d like a sneak peek.

So what goes on in the Innovation Labs?

Stuff like this:

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Stuff like:

Computer Science (Based on the national curriculum of the United Kingdom)

Design & Engineering (Based on dschool with a dose of Moonshot thinking)

Project-Based Learning (Based on Buck Institute for Education)

Problem-Based Learning (Based on a bunch of great resources)

Agency (Based on Harvard’s Agency By Design)

Fun (Based on being a kid)

Sickles Studios is our elementary school (K-3) Innovation Lab. In Sickles Studios, we take a Project-Based Learning, small group approach in helping kids to start learning about Computer Science and Design & Engineering. Whether through our Wonder Wall or Design Thinking based conversations, as a class we decide what projects to tackle as a school. We see every grade once a week for an hour per day. One of our first projects, with the help of my talented co-teachers, is going to be to design a garden next to the school. We will do a mock up of the garden in Sketch Up and play around with what shape the kid think would be best and why. We plan on giving each grade a section of the garden and then subdividing those areas to allow for experimentation (fertilizer vs. no fertilizer, for example). It doesn’t stop there, though!

Over the last year or so, I’ve fallen in love with Raspberry Pi. If you are not familiar with this single-board computer that has taken the CompSci world by storm, you need to be. You’ll be hearing a lot more about Raspberry Pi on here, so for now I’ll explain how we are going to  use the Pi to tech up our garden. We are starting the curriculum with all our students in Sickles Studios. Once they have a sufficient understanding of the type of syntax/thinking that goes into coding, the classes and I are going to write code for the Raspberry Pi that will allow it to monitor our garden in real time! For instance, I can imagine asking a class IF the garden is dry, what should we do? Well, obviously we will need to water it. On the Raspberry Pi, I can then write some code that will be able to predict the weather and if there is a < 50% chance of rain, let us know so we can water the garden, or even better the Pi can turn on the water for us. We can also keep a live updating Google Doc that tracks wind speed, direction, temperature, pressure, and the humidity of our Garden in real time. With this data we can decide what would be the best thing to do for our garden. That’s just one example of the awesome projects we are going to be doing. I’m playing around with the idea of building bird houses and attaching a Pi with a camera to it, so we can see what goes on inside a birdhouse during the winter.

In Knollwood Labs, 5th and 6th graders take a more autonomous and Problem-Based Learning approach to learning Computer Science and Design & Engineering skills. Whether through Minecraft(EDU), MakeyMakey kits, Raspberry Pis, Learn to Mod, CAD Programs, or true coding, students are given the option via their Quests Maps to add agency to their learning. Now that the class has been explained to them, students come into the Knollwood Labs and get right to work.

This sounds awfully lot like a makerspace or STEM lab!

Shhhhhhhhhh, we don’t say those words around here for two reasons:

1) Education is too fad driven. STEM and Makerspaces are the new fad right now. Remember classes like Wood Shop? I’d argue they were the first Makerspaces and they have (sadly) been on the decline since 1980s and are now all but extinct. In five or ten years, STEM will likely suffer the same fate as shop classes when we fill the millions of STEM jobs, the new fad arrives, budgets need to be slashed, or the pendulum swings back toward the importance of the Arts (I see you creeping in, STEAM). Even the move to Chromebooks from PCs in most schools is helping kill the movement unless more companies go Chrome/Cloud compatible.

Don’t get me wrong or write me mean emails, STEM and Makerspaces are great. I love them, but when I look at the Makerspace, I don’t see STEM. I see student-centered learning. Letting the kids lead the way and giving them choice, voice, and autonomy in what they do, no matter the subject, will look a lot like a Makerspace. Honestly, in my mind, our Innovation Labs are English classes (Plot Twist!). What happens in our Innovation Labs look a lot like how I taught my high school English class. I let the kids create authentic learning experiences (they could do almost anything they wanted) during which they wrote argumentatively during their Quests and reflectively after they completed them. Our Labs feature a ton of writing and students in both schools are expected to capture evidence of learning, reflect, then tell the stories about their adventures in the Labs.

2) When you call something a STEM lab or Makerspace, people have preconceived notions. They have an idea in their head of what it should look like and what should be happening in them. I don’t like that. It limits our ability to grow, adapt, and experiment. By branding the initiative Fair Haven Innovates, Sickles Studios, and Knollwood Labs we have the ability to grow and change with the times. Now the Labs look like X, but in ten years they can look like Y. We define what happens in our Labs and that ensures they will always have a place in our community.

Community is incredibly important to me. In a place like Fair Haven where we have amazingly talented, passionate parents, how could we not use them as a resource? By branding the initiative, it gives everyone something to get excited about and be proud of. Remember how I called my take on Genius Hour and 20% time the Be About It project? After just two years, even elementary school kids and people in the community without kids in the district would stop me to talk about it. Business owners offered their ideas and asked to get involved. That kind of stuff is important to me. By branding the Innovation Labs, I’m ensuring they will be around and relevant as long as we like and creating a program of pride in our district. 
I’ve never been more excited to be in education than I am today. This class is my baby and I’m excited to watch it grow along with the kids in it. I’m proud that the Labs are already catching the attention of many talented educators and companies who want to come visit us and believe in us enough to have made substantial donations to support the Labs.

I am hoping that our Innovation Labs will become a national model for student-centered learning. I think it will help prove the amazing things that are possible when we trust our students and let them lead the way. Everything I have and will design for this class is made with replication in mind. I want to be able to turn around and share my resources and methods with any educators who are interested, but I still have some kinks to work out, so stay tuned. Either way, strap in, it’s going to be an amazing ride!

On a personal note, I just got an email inviting me to be a guest lecturer at UPenn to talk Gamification in education. I’m only bringing it up because in high school, my counselor told me not to bother applying because I’d never get in. I listened. Now, I’m proud to be part of a group of educators who believe in kids.

Until Next Time,



Setting Up The Student Tracker System!

Plugged In HeartIf you’re already confused by the title, that’s OK. I wrote an article for edSurge about how I used Google Apps for Educaion to collect data on my students learning which I then used to drive my instruction and personalize their learning. Really powerful stuff. This is a companion piece to that article that will show you how to setup my Student Tracker System, or even better, give you the blueprint to create your own Student Tracker System! So, if you haven’t read Instead of Paying Thousands for Student Data Systems, Try This Free Option Instead read it, and then come on back! We’ll wait for you.



Welcome back! We missed you. Before you watch this setup video, a few things I want you to keep in mind if you decide to make your own version of the Tracker System (which I hope you do):

  1. The more you use the same rubric throughout the year, the more valuable this system becomes.
  2. The secret sauce is using the Student Tracker Formula to pull individual student data from the whole class data you collected with your Google Form rubric to their own, private sheet.
  3. Make your life easier by creating a Heat map on both the whole class database and the individual student sheets. Heat maps are a great way to get information at a glance. Use conditional formatting in Sheets to set the top of your grading scale to green and the bottom to red using Sheets (somewhat) new color scale formatting.
  4. Let the whole class database guide your instruction. If you see a whole lot of yellows and reds in a particular area, say thesis, you know what you need to teach next class. If you see all greens in an area, you know your students get it and you can move on.
  5. If you have older students, let the individual Student tracker sheet guide student-led conferences. I made time for my students by blending my classroom. Kids learned online, at their own pace, with me in the room for support. I took this time to work with every kid individually. I would talk to my kids at least once a week. Sometimes we’d start by pulling up the tracker and I’d ask a kid, what do you see? What do you need to work on? Keep notes about what your students say and revisit the conversation next week.
  6. If you have younger students, you can still let them lead conferences, but feel free to share the sheets with parents. As I mention in the video, with younger kids I’ve even used Form Mule to automatically generate an email home when a new piece of data, say daily behavior, was submitted to the student’s individual Student Tracker Sheet.
  7. Use the whole class data to assess yourself as a teacher. Could they all be doing so poorly in an area because I didn’t have the best lesson or explain a topic well enough? Absolutely. It’s happened to me and by assessing the whole class data, it made be a better teacher by forcing me to reexamine my lessons. Use the data as a reflective piece on your own teaching.
  8. This system is great for SGOs, PDPs, and all the other alphabet soup that requires us to show student growth over time.
  9. Pass this data on to your kids teacher next year, or at least write up a little report about what you learned from the data for their new teacher. This is super useful if you teach the little guys and are analyzing things like reading stamina or behavior. Share with guidance counselors, too, while you’re at it.
  10. Don’t just think you are the only one that can use the rubric. As mentioned in the edSurge article, I had Student Tracker Systems where I was filling out the rubric, students were filling out the rubric, and their peers were filling out the rubric about them. All these methods have their own value in helping students grow.

That’s it! Again, here is the link to the folder where you can play around and below is the video where I talk about the system and the power of data driven instruction. If you develop your own system, please tell me about it and share it with the world! I’ll even put it up on my blog so others can try your system, too!

Until then,

GLHF and love data.

How To Turn A Minecraft Map Into A Google Map!

Plugged In Heart<UPDATE> My proof of concept map is up and working perfectly! This is how students will receive quests in our new Innovation Labs: Sickles Studios and Knollwood Labs. Sickles Studios is under construction for a bit longer, but Knollwood Labs is pretty much ready for beta testing! Post explaining what makes our Innovation Labs groundbreaking is forth coming, but you can get a preview in this edsurge article!</UPDATE>

I have been hard at work creating Innovation Labs for my school district. I couldn’t be more excited! Our Innovation Labs are going to be a national model for student-centered learning. We’ll be learning all kinds of amazing stuff together in new and exciting ways. I’m working on a write up explaining our Innovation Lab and am designing it in a way that I can share it with anyone and they recreate or iterate on what we’ll be doing at Fair Haven. In the meantime, I wanted to check in and show you how to turn a Minecraft Map into a Google Map.

Maybe you want to design your town or school in Minecraft, then turn it into a Google Map and add historical Points of Interest. Maybe you want to import a heart into Minecraft using SketchUp then TinkerCAD, turn it into a map, and the label the parts of the heart using Python code to help develop your students STEM skills, or like me maybe you want to turn your curriculum map into an actual map and give students a years worth of quests that they can complete as part of a self-directed, self-paced gamified mastery learning classroom! Whatever the reason, the amazing things you can do when you build a world in Minecraft and then turn it into a Google Map, complete with points of interest, is only limited by your creativity.

In this video, I will show you how to do all of this using an amazing program called Overviewer and some Python code. Enjoy!

Here is a link to a .txt file that contains the Python code, or you can use this GitHub link. Whichever method you choose, you are going to have to write a little bit of code and probably fiddle with the code placement, but I believe in you.

I would say that I’m an above average coder. I’m self taught and still learning. If anyone has any feedback, thoughts, or ideas, I’d love to hear them. I’d also love to hear how you plan on using these goodies! If you need help, I’m happy to help to the best of my ability. I know just enough coding to be dangerous, which basically means I’m good enough to break things.


Until then




ISTE, A Reflection

2015-06-30 12.29.30With ISTE behind us, it’s fun to reflect on the event that was. I think my ISTE style is unique; I don’t attend sessions. The older I get, the less I can sit still. For me, ISTE is about making new connections or building on relationships with people I learn with online throughout the year. My PD comes form the conversations I get to have with these edu-rockstars. And while I was able to meet some amazing people at ISTE and have a ton of awesome experiences, my Poster session with my former students was something I’ll never forget. It was the highlight of my ISTE.

Paisley and Alanis killed it. They never cease to amaze me. I’ve become, over time, a staunch advocate for giving up control of the classroom to students. It wasn’t easy at first. It scared me, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done as an educator and our poster session reaffirmed that yet again.

Alanis, Paisley, and I met about three weeks before ISTE. We went over the topic we were to present on, Passion-Based Learning, but ultimately I left them in charge of everything; this was their chance to let teachers know why we need to level up the educational status quo. I didn’t know what our booth was going to look like, nor what they had prepared, until a few hours before we were set to present. When they unveiled their creation “The Death of Traditional Learning” and turned our booth into a crime scene…. wow. For two hours, our booth was packed with people who wanted to know what madness we were talking about. After, these people left fired up to bring Passion-Based Learning to their school. As the teacher, I told those who came by the booth: “I can tell how to implement Passion-Based Learning, but talk to my kids. They can tell you why you should implement it.”

So, in that spirit, I’ll let Alanis bring home our ISTE 2015 experience:


Early last spring, Mr. Aviles had approached me about presenting at ISTE 2015 during the summer. Seeing that the only thing I had planned for the summer was sleeping until noon, I said “why not?”. I visited the official ISTE website and scanned Google for information about the convention, yet, I still did not know what to fully expect. Sure, I knew that it was a meeting ground for teachers to connect and share ideas, but I did not really understand what that meant. How big would it be? What would these teachers be asking me? Is anyone famous going? What am I even supposed to be doing? All these questions clouded my mind as our presentation day (June 30th) grew closer.

Our presentation was titled “The Death of Traditional Learning” and we set it up as if it were a crime scene. Our whole scheme was to show the death of traditional learning and the birth of Passion-Based Learning. We wanted to show teachers that students can do amazing things if they are allowed to apply what they love to their education. Passion-Based Learning is about giving students control of their education and letting them succeed in their own way. During the presentation, we talked about our technology-based English class as well as the Be About It Projects that we completed sophomore year and the crowd funding campaign experience we had as we tried to redesign our classroom.

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The best things about ISTE was definitely how interested other teachers were in what we were doing. While Mr. Aviles would tell us that people would Tweet him about all the cool things we did, it never really set in how progressive we really were. Seeing real life people who wanted to emulate what we created was beyond awesome. It proved that we were making a loud change in the education world. I was being asked how others can recreate our Be About It Projects and how they can become more of a 21st Century teacher. Though I don’t really know if teachers are going to take the advice we gave them, it’s satisfying to know that someone, somewhere, might get a better educational experience because of what we preached. I mean, I had a gentleman from China ask to record me speaking about Passion-Based Learning in the hopes of convincing his school board to consider changing their curriculum. Another teacher took my picture and wanted to use it to show his all boys school that girls can use technology just as fluently as boys.

I had no idea what ISTE was going in, but coming out, I am so glad that I went. It was such a unique experience and I don’t think that I will ever do anything like it again. The teachers that I had the opportunity to speak with were so intriguing and it really gave me an insight on the educational status of the country. Some schools were struggling to afford textbooks while others had so much money they physically did not know what to do with it. It was a look at the world outside of New Jersey. If ISTE ever invited us back to speak again, I would do it in a heartbeat.


Until Next Time,

GLHF and let your kids lead the way.

The Impact of Passion-Based Learning A Year Later

IMG_0758This time last year, my students took the stage to talk about their yearlong Passion-Based Learning assignment: the Be About It project. In just a few weeks, some of those students will hit the stage to talk about their projects again, only this time it will be at ISTE and I’ll get to share the stage with them! Alanis reflected on her Be About It project experience for me last year and as we prepare for ISTE, I’ve asked her to do it again. From her fingers to your eyes, the importance of Passion-Based Learning:


I’ve forgotten most of the things that I learned last year. All those late nights of studying and memorizing pretty much went out the window. I probably couldn’t solve a piecewise function if my life depended on it. But the one thing I did remember from last year was the Be About It Project (BAI). The BAI was a project where we could do anything we wanted. We had no limits, no rules, and most importantly, no step-by-step direction. All we had was the end goal of producing something. Looking back, it was pretty intimidating. As an honors kid, everything in school has always been mapped out by very detailed and precise directions. Before this project, I was never given this type of absolute freedom. Now, I find myself thinking outside the box with projects. I search for loopholes in the directions in the hopes of making the project a more accurate reflection of me. Constantly, I am trying to find new ways to approach assignments that have most likely been given out for years. Some teachers love this creativity while others…well the others are not the biggest fans. But they’ll eventually come around.

My personal BAI was writing a short story and sending it out to free, online publishers. My short story, The Final Sunset, had received Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Editors Choice by Teen Ink magazine at the time of the project. I was completely content with that, seeing that it was the first story I had ever released to the public. But in November I received an email from Teen Ink with the subject line of “Congratulations!”. I opened it to find that they decided to publish my story in their print magazine! My little story was now being blasted to hundreds of schools and subscribers alike. Currently, the online version of the story has over 1,050 views.

I haven’t really stopped writing since the BAI. The project helped me to realize that writing is my one true passion. While I love drawing and graphic design, my heart belongs to the pen. Teen Ink recently awarded me with a VIP membership, which is only given to writers who provide them with consistently great pieces. My poem “third period physics” was also given the title of Editors Choice last month by the magazine. Stepping away from Teen Ink, I had won my town’s local VFW essay contest and placed third in Ocean County with it. I am also working on a chapter book of poetry, which will be completed by the beginning of July. It is around 21 pages and consists of over 15 poems. Hopefully, I’ll be chosen to have it published for free through Button Poetry’s annual publishing contest.

A year later, the BAI still proves to be the most influential project of my high school career. It helped me realize that writing is the thing that I want to do for the rest of my life. Without this project, I might be looking into law schools, getting ready to waste thousands of dollars on a degree that I am not passionate about. To any teachers who are considering doing a Be About It Project or something similar: please do it.  We students need to learn how to think for ourselves and find out who we are. Giving us numbered lists and directions will not help us to achieve that. Passion-Based Learning like the BAI is more than a project, it’s a life experience.



Come see me and Alanis and the rest of my crew at ISTE!

Until then,



The Skills to Pay the Bills

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Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

I believe that the future our students will inhabit is going to look much different than it does today.

Consider This:


College is becoming an unsustainable business model. Students are taking out bigger and bigger loans to pay for inflated college tuitions in a world where it is getting harder and harder to pay them back. Recently, many like Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News, and even Mark Cuban have been warning that the college bubble is set to burst like the housing market. When the college bubble bursts, the post-high school landscape will look much different. I think we’ll see fewer colleges (think about all the houses in foreclosure on your block) and fewer students attending them, as many colleges fail to prove they’re worth the price tag. Instead, we’ll see the rise of micro-credentials (badges), certifications, and endorsements.

I think the job market will look different as well. Consider this:

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The  above graph comes to us from a study done by Oxford University on the Future of Employment which says almost half of all jobs are in great danger of becoming computerized or automated in the next decade or so. For fun, check this out to see what may be coming to a job near you.

Of the jobs that are left, I think many of them will look much different than they do today because businesses are changing, too. Businesses are starting to realize that to attract the best and brightest, those who will be working the jobs that can’t be automated, they need to offer a work/life balance, perks, and other benefits. This is becoming a business’ culture and using this culture is how business will train employees to do things their way.

Take Google. Google has concluded what many in education refuse to acknowledge: GPAs and test scores are not an indicator of how successful a person is going to be. Instead Google finds driven, skilled people and teaches them to be “Googley” and embrace the Google culture. Many companies on Fortune’s list of best places to work offer their own version of culture to engage, train, and retain employees.

So if the future of college and jobs is uncertain at best and companies will put less and less stock in test scores and GPAs, instead looking for talented people they can train to do things their way, how can we better meet the needs of our students today so they’re ready for the world of tomorrow?


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Skills, like those above, never go out of style and are only going to become more important as the job market becomes more competitive and businesses, rather than colleges, choose to train employees to do things their way.

So how do we help children improve their skill-set in the classroom?

The first step is for we teachers to accept the fact that we are no longer the only vessels of knowledge out there. People used to have to go to the schoolhouse or college to learn because that’s where all the information was stored. In our brave, new world the entire body of human knowledge is accessible to anyone with a cellphone and an internet connection. Teaching facts is of little importance today when students can just look things up (teaching how to separate good sources from bad is an important skill to teach, though).

What more, in this connected world, anyone can be a teacher. If anything breaks in my house, I go to YouTube and internet forums and teach myself how to fix it. I’ve fixed everything from my sink, to my car, to my hot water heater, every time being taught by classroom-less teachers I’ve never met. These teachers have helped me save thousands of dollars all because they felt compelled to share their expertise, for free, out of the kindness of their heart. Beyond fixing things, with the help of these classroom-less teachers, I’ve taught myself things like coding, website building, and video editing which I’ve used to improve my classroom and my skill-set.

So, accepting the fact that we, the teachers are no longer the smartest person in the room and that a classroom is no longer defined by four solid walls will hopefully motivate us to rethink our fact-based curriculums and replaced it, or at least infuse it, with a skill-driven curriculum.

How can we create a skill-driven curriculum?

The future of education (and most things) is experiential. A skill-driven curriculum is one that provides genuine learning experiences, full of agency and reflection, for students. The best ways I’ve been able to create experiences to help my students to improve their skills is to ask them these two questions:

What problem do you want to solve? Problem-Based learning is the best type of teaching that we can do in our classroom. Tackling problems in the community or in the world is in itself engaging and taps into so many skills and tangential learning opportunities. Some of the most rewarding learning experiences I’ve helped create for my kids were times when I supported them as they tried to change a school or town policy, improve school lunches, or help solve global warming or animal abuse. In every instance, my students failed, but with Problem-Based Learning failure is reframed as iteration. If it doesn’t work the first time, you don’t fail. You do things like reflect, rethink, adapt, analyze, all skills that are important to their future success, and re-attack the problem until it’s solved.

To really take Problem-Based Learning to the next level we need to get better at helping students not to be problem solvers, but problem finders. This will involve helping students curate and understand big data. We must also embrace games and gaming as a serious way to provide engaging learning experiences that can help tackle big problems like, say, a Global Pandemic.

What do you want to do? For years, I ran a year long, self-directed Passion-Based Learning project called the Be About It project. During this project students could choose to work on whatever they wanted, with whoever they wanted. All I asked was that they get up on stage at the end of the year and tell people what they did, why they did it, and what they learned. My kids did all kinds of cool things, as you can see in the link. If you listen to the videos, especially when they explained what they learned, many of their takeaways are about the importance of skills, overcoming adversity, planning, failure, and realizing that most things in life are not a sprint, but a marathon.

I can’t shake this feeling that we are doing a disservice to our students by focusing more on facts than skills. I challenge you kind reader, to consider shaking up your curriculum. Find ways to infuse genuine learning experiences by incorporating Problem-Based and Passion-Based learning into your curriculum. Rethink the importance of facts and grades and instead focus on helping students grow the skills and attitude it will take to be successful in the world of tomorrow since a skill-driven curriculum is the best way that we can prepare our students for an uncertain future.

Until Next Time,



Of PARCC and Pivot Tables

Unnamed image (3)PARCC is finished in my district! It couldn’t have gone better. My Central PARCC team did a great job running the tests, the teachers were amazing, and the kids were fantastic. It was a total team effort and a smooth event from start to finish.

Now, to me, the fun starts. If you’re an avid reader of my site, you know I have a small obsession with data. So, after the first part of PARCC (PBA for those in the know), we made sure we surveyed all of our kids. It was important to me and my district to survey our kids because 1) we worried that the PARCC-peeps may not share their end of the year survey data with districts and 2) we wanted to make the best decisions we could for our kids as soon as possible.

The spreadsheet of responses for our Post-PARCC survey is 20 columns wide and 600 rows deep. Sheets like this use to scare me. Now, I love them. Why? Pivot Tables!

A Pivot Table is a data summarization tool found in most commercial spreadsheets (Google Sheets, Excel, etc.). I love Pivot Tables because it allows me to drill down into data and find meaningful takeaways to share with my school and community. With this PARCC data, I’m looking for takeaways that can improve the PARCC experience and instruction for my district.

Here’s an example of how I used Pivot Tables recently that will highlight their power:

One of our survey questions asked kids if they preferred to take the PARCC online or on paper. Here’s a pie chart of their responses:

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Without using a Pivot Table, I’d have to take this information for what it is, but what if I wanted to break this data down even further, say by grade, to see if I can glean anything that might make kids more comfortable with online testing. With Pivot Tables this is a breeze! Here’s how I setup a Pivot Table for a deep dive into this pie chart.

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First, Data -> Pivot Table. Then I set the row’s value to Grade and the Column’s value to the question I wanted to dive into. Next, I filled the Pivot Table with the answers to the question I wanted to dissect, and finally set it to summarize the values by COUNTA which is how you turn written feedback into numerical data.

Now, my Pivot Table looks like this:

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3rd and 4th graders favored online testing. 5th, 6th, and 7th graders were split. 8th graders preferred paper-based testing by a wide margin.

Now, conjecture! I wondered if 3rd and 4th graders preferred online testing because, for lack of a better way to say it, they don’t know any better. In New Jersey, until this year, they’ve been testing everyone on paper starting in 3rd grade. This is the first year that everyone has taken an online standardized test. Most people don’t like change, so maybe it wasn’t the online nature of the test 5th-8th graders didn’t like, but the fact that they weren’t use to it. I mean, 8th graders, who were the least into online testing, were the most use to paper testing. 3rd and 4th graders who preferred online testing have had the least experience with paper-based standardized testing.

I won’t be able to test this familiarity hypothesis until/unless PARCC releases the end of the year data, then I can look at change over time in test preference.

But as they often do, this hypothesis led to another. I started to wonder if student preference for paper testing had anything to do with a lack of device use. I mean, I would think that a student who was unfamiliar with how to use a device in an academic setting would prefer paper-based testing.

Luckily, with the help of a Pivot Table, I can dive even deeper into this question. Check it out:

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By adding the question and data, “How often do you use a computer or Chromebook in school” to the row section of my Pivot Table, I can make a Pivot Table that not only breaks students down by grade and shows me if they prefer online testing over paper, but also juxtaposes that with how often they self-reported using devices in school.

Here’s what the Pivot Table looks like now:

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Looking at the original Pivot Table of 5th, 6th, and 7th graders ambivalence toward online testing, and knowing that my students in those grades share Chromebooks, my original recommendation to my district probably would have been to get them more Chromebooks. Thanks to the Pivot Table, I can see that would have been a bad call. The new Pivot Table clearly shows my district does a fantastic job getting devices into the hands of our students. I may still recommend getting more devices for other reasons, but device use and preference for online testing don’t seem to be correlated.

That may not sound sexy, since I didn’t figure out why our middle grades weren’t thrilled with online testing, but not knowing the cause of something is just as important as knowing the cause. Instead of making the wrong recommendation, I can continue to explore the reason, if any, our middle grades were neutral toward online testing with the hopes of making the experience better for them.

This is just one recent way I’ve used Pivot Tables, but I encourage everyone to constantly survey students. Before I left the classroom, I surveyed my students every two weeks on a variety of things. I then used Pivot Tables to dive deep into their responses to refine my teaching practices. Now, out of the classroom, I’m using them to help my leadership team make the best decisions we can for our staff and students.

I’m an English teacher, so if I can do it, anyone can do it. Give Pivot Tables a try, they’re amazing.

Until Next Time,





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