Could Brand New Just Have Unearthed the Next Big Educational Trend?

“Start your own band,” cries Jesse Lacey at the end of every recent Brand New concert. Here’s how crazy this is: unbeknownst to him I am a 28 year old teacher who has been a fan of his since he started his own band, who went to school near the band’s hometown, and who grew up chanting the angry yet eerily poetic lyrics of songs such as “Seventy Times Seven” and “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad”. I, like every other fan of Brand New as well, have been anxiously awaiting the release of their newest album in six years, and I’ve been closely following all the recent action with the release of the band’s first new songs since then, “Mene” and “Sealed to Me.” So, I’m watching set videos of Jesse singing these songs for the first time at the band’s recent shows, and hear it once: “start your own band.” I hear this phrase once and realize that this simple phrase encapsulates the entirety of what I’m trying to do with my educational career, and what I believe every school in the country should begin focusing on helping students achieve.

Start Your Own

It’s not completely based on music. “Start Your Own Band” is really just a call to this generation’s attraction to starting one’s own anything. It doesn’t actually matter what it is. The only rules are it has to be real, and it has to be scary. I like to tell my students, “if something you’re starting isn’t scary to you, then you’re not thinking big enough.” We built the entire computer science program around this concept. The goal from day one is to prepare students to build their own internet companies out of their garages, like so many of the stories we hear. The reason these stories are told is because they’re true, and if students were just helped towards a skill set needed to develop these products, then they could join in the action. Our model in computer science works, and in just the second year of study for students we’ve had products collect over 100,000 hits per month.

This phrase is a call to action for a young person. The purpose doesn’t have to be academic for the lessons a student learns in the process of “starting their own” to be deeply rooted in academia. The goal doesn’t have to be complicated, buzzword filled, and composed of edu-babble to have deep reaching effects and provide a rich and valuable learning experience. I find it ironic that most of the standards we write into things like Common Core and Vision of the Graduate-type documents are in language that students don’t relate to, considering that they’re the people who these documents are directed at. There’s a reason young people relate to “start your own band” much more than “students will demonstrate critical thinking skills while reading a persuasive essay.” It’s because of the language used to write it, and the appeal it has to something everyone wants to do.

Measuring this is easy as well. Did the student make a valuable contribution to their product’s targeted community? If the answer to this question is yes, then the merit of an exercise such as starting your own anything is proven. Many students will graduate high schools without ever accomplishing this task. How could we possibly say that we have provided students with a good education if they leave high school without ever starting something that has a positive impact on someone else?

A Framework for #StartYourOwn

If I were to implement this in a school, here’s the framework I would use. The goal is simple. Start your own anything: band, company, app, small business, service, anything. The rules are also simple:

  • You must finish what you start
  • You must advertise what you start to your peers
  • You must make money by either selling your product/service or by writing for a grant for your product/service
  • You must blog weekly about your journey and what you do on your product each week
  • You must create a website for your product/service
  • You must present your findings at an end of year expo
  • Your product must have a positive effect on its targeted community

That’s it. So many projects involve having students design analogs for real products in class, and you know what? Kids are sick of that. Kids don’t want to hear, “in the real world, it’s not actually done like this, but it’s pretty close.” Young people want to impact the real world. They don’t want to feel important, they want to be important. I think it’s about time our schools gave them a chance to, instead of preparing them for college with increasing futility.

Have a #StartYourOwn story to share? Tweet us @SlateAndTablets or reply in the comments! I’d love to hear insights about how you’ve guided students through creation of their own products.


Success Academy’s “Success”

Success_Academy_Charter_Schools_logoIn case you missed it, the NYT was granted a rare but fantastic look into the Success Academy Charter School environment, one that has publicly toted its high test scores and is perhaps the most successful charter school network in the country, certainly the state. This article is an unbiased (rare) look at the environment that produces these test scores, and provides a lot of meat to chew on for any person remotely interested in the cost-benefit analysis of high stakes testing. I’d like to offer some of my thoughts.

I first need to underscore that there should be nothing but positive vibes flung towards this charter school network. Look; I disagree wholeheartedly with the teaching philosophy at this school, and would never work there, and am still unsure where I stand on the whole charter vs. public school battle. However, objectively speaking, you must congratulate them for setting a goal, planning a pathway to achieving that goal, and then executing what is a difficult and unpleasant strategy. Creating a school culture as strict and regimented as Success Academy’s takes a lot of effort, nobody likes doing it, and it requires courage to execute it in the face of harsh criticism and backlash from students, parents, and teachers alike. This deserves congratulations.

There’s also something to be said about high exam scores. We’re lying to ourselves if we think that exam scores don’t matter. They do. Do they matter to the extreme that Success Academy takes them? Both intuition and science proves that this is not true for the general population, but then again, Success Academy does not serve the general population. SA serves the minority population, who are often left out of the practices that enrich a student’s experience beyond the classroom. It serves students who typically are not tended to by their parents after school, who typically do not read, and who typically are not held accountable for their grades and actions. Perhaps that last sentence should be changed to “It serves families,” because with many of these students, it’s their whole family that needs lessons in academic accountability, regiment, and discipline. By providing this rigorous structure at any cost, SA is able to boast rigorous exam scores.

We must be careful in evaluation of this model, however, because this approach, designed to narrow the achievement gap, may not actually do anything. There’s a reason the highly regimented method of schooling has fallen out of favor in the last two decades: it’s because it doesn’t prepare students for the world they grow into. As I wrote in my piece for 1776, the job market today requires technical skill and critical thinking, none of which are capably evaluated by standardized testing. SA’s model won’t work on students who can receive education in these important skills elsewhere, however we must again remember the target market. The other option for SA students is the NYC public school system, which in many of the areas served by SA is woefully ineffective at educating these types of students in anything. That’s not a knock on the NYC DOE; most of these families don’t have the capability or knowledge of how to usher a child through school without the immense structure SA provides, and the public school system simply doesn’t have the resources. For these students, academic discipline and rigor will, at the very least, prepare them for a chance at success in higher education. This is, again, something to be praised, not criticized as harshly as it is.

Perhaps there are also lessons to be learned from SA’s model in executing a plan in a school. I think the most important facet of their system is the amount of administrative involvement from the principals and department heads of the school. Since the school’s executive branch takes care of most administration, the administrators at school are free for far more frequent observation. While I don’t agree with the style of observation portrayed in the article at all, I do think it’s critically important for the administrators at a school to be as involved as SA’s administrators are. Teachers associate administration in their classroom with evaluation far too much, and it’s detrimental to the process of creating a school culture. To do their job, administrators must be present in the halls and classrooms so they know what actually goes on in these places. When they’re stuck in an office, they don’t know.

There’s also the link between student behavior to parent accountability. Parents are required to serve in school suspensions with their children at SA. This may seem barbaric, and I think might be a little too extreme, but it certainly bangs home the point that parents are responsible for what this child does in school just as much as schools are, which is 100% true.

I could not possibly teach at an SA school, and do not agree with many of their teaching practices. As a results-based individual, however, you simply cannot argue with their relentlessness. They set out to achieve high test scores, and accomplished this goal, which is a feat that many schools have a lot to learn from. Before we brush off their barbaric practices as ineffective, it’s important to examine which of these practices offer lessons for our own schools, because whether or not we agree with what they’re doing, as their name implies, they’re certainly successful at doing it.

The “Game of Thrones” Metaphor

I am a little bit behind pop culture. Case in point: I only just started watching Game of Thrones a few weeks ago, but I am hooked. I am not usually one for patience in my entertainment, but the characters are so well developed and interesting that I don’t care. As my brother commented on my Facebook earlier last week after I expressed my excitement for the story, I am like the pop culture god of 3 years ago. Jokes aside, I love the series for its bravery in letting the bad guys win and patience in allowing the story to bloom, and on a serious note, I see a lot of interesting tidbits regarding education in the new phenomenon of on-demand internet TV series.

Let’s rewind a few years ago. Netflix was making waves as a provider of movies online so you didn’t have to rent them from the video store. This coincided with, and some argued sparked, a monumental shift in the entertainment industry to an on-demand streaming model. TV Shows have only recently engaged with this model, and have had great success. While the model of consumption remains the same, the content couldn’t be more drastically different, since TV series are often marathons of hour or half-hour episodes that require a viewer’s attention to plot and story points. Does this sound familiar? That’s because it’s a lot like school. We expect students to attend half hour to one hour long sessions of course content that they have to pay attention to.

But here’s where the metaphor shines. While watching Game of Thrones, the consequence for missing a plot detail in a previous episode is that you don’t understand the story in a future episode. In school, you simply get the question wrong on that detail and lose points, then move on like nothing happened. In Game of Thrones, you can go back and re-watch any scene or episode you missed or wanted to see again. In school, no such ability is available and you have to even make an appointment to see a teacher for “extra help”. There have been many attempts to implant this feature in schooling, such as with the flipped model or MOOCs, and these have mixed successes for many reasons. I find the main reason why such “revolutionary new classroom models” are unsuccessful can ALSO be extracted from our Game of Thrones metaphor, and it lies within my brother’s Facebook comment just a few days ago.

“You’re a pop culture god of 3 years ago.”

These TV series become a part of pop culture. We talk about it with our friends, our families, and ourselves sometimes. Our discussions enrich our knowledge of the stories, their meanings, and their inspirations. When a child attends school, that is their pop culture, and the discussions they have about their courses, their teachers, and their classmates, both bad and good, also enriches their experience and is a vital part of the academic endeavor. As anyone who has ever participated in an online discussion can tell you, there is simply no substitute for in-person discourse. If communication was solely about the words we craft, then we wouldn’t need body language, inflection, and emotion.

The problem herein, then, is that the MOOC movement has not transformed the education industry because it is only capable of solving one portion of what makes schooling important, and in fact exacerbates another. The flipped classroom model fails in a similar way, in that it worsens one issue while improving another. With the Flipped model, the content is worse because the production value necessary for a teacher to create a high quality and interesting video is generally beyond the means of most educators. Not to mention, the organization and platform on which to build an on-demand offering of whatever course content you need takes far too long to build teacher-by-teacher for any revolutions to happen in the near future. The Flipped model does get the discussion part right, however, using technology to free up valuable in-person class time for discussion that is more logistically difficult to execute at home.

Could it be possible that a new classroom model which improves both of these crucial aspects to schooling emerges? I think that should a tool emerge which provides a teacher with superior production abilities to make more varied, high quality content to provide via the flipped model, then that really has legs. Unfortunately, there are too many tools that accomplish singular tasks right now, and they’re not helping the cause.

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