Game ON – How kids want to learn

Game ON – How kids want to learn by John McCarthy, Ed.S.

chess by a girl

This past spring my two teenagers got me involved in playing Clash of Clans. It’s a game played on smart phones and tablets. It’s free, which is a major criteria for my cost-conscious kids, followed by if it captures their attention. Clash of Clans hooked them and me with it’s strategy and world building aspects. You build mines, storage, and a town hall, while also developing an army to attack other fortresses designed by players or an IA (the computer). Defenses are developed such as walls and cannon to deter other players from a raiding your fortress.

Building the various types of equipment costs resources and takes real time–many days–to become operational. Meanwhile, players form teams called clans so that they can provide protection and conduct wars against other clans–hence the game title.


What’s interesting is that there are many game titles from a variety of genres that are free to play:

My teens spend many hours playing these games in between their other tasks in a busy schedule. Like other educators I’ve wondered how to harness this energy and drive. It’s something I’ve explored regarding Constructivist Learning in a State Standards/Common Core Environment. So when I proposed the idea of a project where students could play games as homework so that they can do research and analysis for designing and publishing new strategies to help other players–my daughter said, “That would be the best class ever!” So with the help and inspiration of my teens, I’ve created a project based unit that addresses learning standards for English Language Arts.

It could expand to other subject areas, which I’d love your thoughts as to what might be added.

It’s intense work, vetted by the target audience, and something that students would enjoy doing–and they’ll learn content standards. I’ve used a template by the Buck Institute for Education. I may revise this as more ideas and suggestions are made.

Project Based Learning Unit: GameOn

My son already has me thinking about another gaming project based learning unit that would include standards in English, Math, and Economics. Stay tuned…

Education is Like Yoga IV: To Error is to Grow

This post was a long time coming. The quote that starts this post was packed with so much meaning for me regarding the needs of students. I needed time to reflect on what path to take with it. That, and I was in the midst of a 6 part series on Differentiated Instruction for Edutopia (See my publications page to read those articles). There is sometimes a conflicting message in Education. One says that students learn at different paces, yet teachers might succumb to the pressures of “coverage”, leading to unintentional sacrifices to learning. Hopefully this post about embracing mistakes as growth opportunities will help to empower teacher voice for what’s best for students.

Follow and dialog with me on Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook about all things education for what’s best for ALL students. Contact me at Opening Paths for the latest in articles, resources, and support.

Education is Like Yoga IV: To Error is to Grow by John McCarthy, Ed.S.

“The strongest students are not those who appear to have ‘mastered’ a pose.  The strongest students are those who are willing to show their vulnerability and fall out of a pose– and then begin again.  Namaste!” –Yoga Instructor


Some yoga sessions, I get frustrated from struggling to do a pose that I performed well in the past. It’s self-defeating to brow beat myself, and yoga practitioners would advise me to let go of the thought and focus on my breathing. The real issue about making mistakes is pride and impatience. I want to close the gap with those amazing participants who do so much more with their bodies and mind. This thinking fails to accept that there is no end to the poses. Just when I think I’ve mastered a movement, there is another level to strive for, and some skills may take years to attain if I’m dedicated in my practice.

Learning in Education is similar. The current trend towards national standards, such as the Common Core (CCSS) and initiatives in Texas (TEKs) and Virginia (SoL), set levels for depth of understanding of a range of skills in the different content areas. Knowledge might be quantified, but mastery of skills and concepts is fluid. When teaching writing craft, focusing on persuasive and argumentative essays leads to varying levels of mastery. In this example, CCSS ELA.Writing.01 is addressed at different levels by grade. What a 12th grader’s level of competency with such essays is different from that of a 9th or 8th grader. So when a 9th grader demonstrates mastery that exceeds the quality level expected of him, what is a teacher’s obligation?

Education is like Yoga in that we stretch that 9th grader to new levels of growth. We provide a learning culture where he does not compare himself to others and think, “I’m fine where I am, because I’m ahead of everyone else.” We coach him towards 1+ year growth—as we do with all of our students. Through struggle and embracing our imperfections we learn a great deal about ourselves—leading to developing a stronger core and a wider range to our skills.

In life and Yoga, learning happens through self-awareness and collaboration. When I reach to the ground from a standing position, I flex my knees, hold my core, and keep my back straight. I’d love to straighten my legs while gripping my toes, as others in the class do with ease. It’s not yet available to me. I work on doing correctly what I can perform so that when one day I straighten my legs I have good posture and core strength. I could hunch down to grab my feed just to say I did it. The result would be to ingrain bad habits. Every so often I feel the steady hand of the Yoga Instructor down my back to remind me to keep my back straight and to show me how much further down I can actually reach.

In Education, students learn from their mistakes and success only when they know what to look for and practice. When teachers give the gift of time, students learn skills with proper structure. Coaching helps students to reflect on what made their successes happen, especially in the midst of what may appear to be a setback. Mentors also help students see their growth at times when they may believe none exists. Time for learning must trump coverage. Otherwise the student get’s so lost in the yoga flow or the academic lesson that frustration forces a mental shutdown-an end to participation.

When my students do not succeed or underperform, I look first towards my practice. What did I do? How could I communicate and support differently so that the students find success? I diagnose the students’ work to determine what they have accomplished so as to build support that extends from the point of their current skill base. This avoids unnecessary repetitions, and acknowledges their accomplishments. I seek advice from peers who I believe will either tell me what I need to know, even if it may be hard to receive, or ask me the questions that empower my uncovering the answers for myself. In Yoga, this happens constantly through the flows that participants do and the voice & touch of the Yoga instructor.

At the end of class, students should leave with a feeling of accomplishment that they’re leaving in a different place in their learning then when they came. They should feel refreshed, even when mentally exhausted from your rigorous learning experiences, so that they privately look forward to coming back—to repeat the cycle.


ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – Give the Gift of Time

My kids inspired me to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. They kept sharing  videos of people participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Their interest and respect for how people were contributing to a good cause led me to ask myself, “How am I demonstrating support for worthy causes, other than saying it’s good to do?” It was time for me to get off of the sidelines and act on my beliefs.

I’ve challenged a few friends to get involved. Great people: The Deadwood Writers, a great group of writers, and some AMAzing educators: Dayna Laur, Eric White, and Andrew Miller 🙂

I’ve been entertained by many videos of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. My favorite is Patrick Stewart. Captain Picard has class and humor.

President George Bush taking part and then challenging President Bill Clinton symbolize a cross-the-isle relationship that seems a lost art at the moment.

Giving the gift of time and taking action to help others feels energizing. I wish the same for you on giving time to what you believe in.

I will give one hour of online coaching support on an education topic to the 1st three educators who share a link of a video recording about their commitment to give extra time to assist students or a colleague.

Consider accepting the invitation to donate time to a community cause or give support at a school. Share your commitment of time in the comments below or on my Twitter @jmccarthyeds.

Give the gift of time…

40+ E-Portfolio Resources


40+ ePortfolio Resources

e-Portfolios empower students to be reflective about their learning. Sifting through their work, they find artifacts that best represents their deep understanding academically, personally, and professionally. There are different uses for e-Portfolios:

  1. Demonstrate learning targets from a unit.
  2. Reflectively monitor their academic growth in a course or regarding skill-sets.
  3. Archive quality experiences and work products to showcase themselves for entrance into a post-secondary school or job.

In each case, student involvement in what is included becomes imperative. Empowering students to be reflective about what they select to include, and to make changes to what’s added, builds for them confidence in themselves, and strengthens retention of learning.

In this age of cloud computing and social media, e-portfolios are more powerful in it’s ability to be shared for constructive feedback, learning assessment, and professional review. Provide are resources to support and guide you toward establishing powerful student voice through their e-portfolios. Please share via comments or @jmccarthyeds on Twitter other e-Portfolio resources that could be added to this bounty.

e-Portfolio References & Resources

The first steps for developing a system is to develop the vision and purpose. Why does the e-Portfolio exist? How will is serve students? What role will students and teachers have in developing and using the e-Portfolio? Here is an initial planning form: docx/pdf. These references can help you craft the initial design.


When designing an e-Portfolio it’s helpful to explore how others have done it. Why reinvent the wheel if others have created a map of their own navigation? With that said, it’s also important to know what others have done so that you can test new waters for your own innovations for students using e-Portfolios.


Once you have the vision, purpose, and guidance by others for what your e-Portfolio will do, it’s time to decide on the platform. You may use a combination of several tools as listed below. Also review some of the resources in the other sections as several authors share their approaches. These are many possibilities depending on how public or private you want the e-Portfolios to be.

Examples of Student Portfolios

Assessment Strategies & Exploration

Here lies the key to a successful portfolio. Assessments should be multifaceted and done by the students and the teachers. Reflections, journaling, and dialog help to clarify meaning and purpose behind the artifacts that are included in the portfolio. Guidelines, checklists, and rubrics help structure the reflective process of the portfolio being used to collect assessments and to be assessed.

Example Assessment Tools

Education is like Yoga III: Starting School Right

My yoga practice is erratic because my work takes me on the road to many locations. So when I make the most of the classes that I can attend. Yoga is sacred time for me. It’s time for myself to let go of all concerns, needs, and demands for one hour. It’s not too much to ask of myself to be present in Yoga for an hour, that leaves me dripping in sweat from a rigorous workout. Yet, I always feel rejuvenated. Teaching workshops and coaching on good instructional and leadership practices gives me the same exhilaration. Given the responses to the posts–Education is like Yoga–I’m committed to continuing this as an ongoing series, at least once a month, sometimes more.

Join me through this blog on Opening Paths, especially the resources and follow me on Twitter @JMcCarthyEdS for open dialog about what our students need, and what we as professional learners can do so that ALL students succeed. Contact me for dialog, coaching, and to inspire your staff along their pathways to helping all students learn and achieve.

Education is like Yoga III: Starting School Right by John McCarthy

“Yoga is a journey that goes through yourself to find yourself.” –Yoga Instructor


Today’s practice was tough. But every session is tough, according to my yoga instructor. It’s the only way that we progress into our new selves. Knowing what we can currently do, and then pushing past those limits, while always remembering to breathe, is exhilarating–just like the epiphanies that students have when understanding clicks.

With schools starting all over the country, it’s a time of self-renewal to our practice. Educators work with a fresh group of students, building a community and culture that supports academic growth and learners’ confidence in themselves. The school year is a journey for teachers and administrators to grow their practice beyond the boundaries of school years’ past. Just as with yoga, I did a balancing pose that was not available to me before. Yet today, I silenced the voice of caution, weighted down from the past, and rose from a half-moon to a tree pose.


The key to a successful school year is beginning with the reason we become educators: Do what’s best for all students so that they can succeed. Silence the voice that raises obstacles such as state and federal mandates, large class sizes, limited instructional or planning time, a constricting curriculum, or other issues that you may have no control over. Do what  you can. Work within your sphere of influence, and do what’s best for your students’ learning. When the yoga instructor runs the class through a flow of poses, I do what I can, and stretch for what’s just beyond my reach. I can raise my legs high. But getting them over my body so that my feet are above my head? Hmm, no. I just do what I can today, and maybe in a few classes I’ll get my legs even higher. I can also increase my practice by attending more classes or using videos as a guide. That could train my mind and body “quicker” to do more; just as in education, I can build my professional network through getting involved with respected organizations such as ASCD and Learning Forward, professional learning networks (PLN) such as #SATChat, #PBLChat and #SBLChat, readings from Edutopia, Ed Leadership, and JSD, attend conferences and take courses. The result is that the more in touch and involved I am in what makes education successful for students with like-minded professionals, the greater my impact becomes in my classrooms, my schools, and my districts.

cartoon risk taking

Such a journey of personal growth and widening influence is how educators find themselves to be stronger and different from their past selves. To adapt the words of a wise yoga instructor, begin with the lens of what’s best for all students, and then Education, likeYoga, becomes a journey that goes through oneself to find oneself.

Start the school year with a renewed commitment to find your new and more empowered self so that students benefit is powerful. What will be your commitment to students first (#students1st)?


6 Good Tools to Differentiate Instruction

I wrote for Edutopia a six-part series that’s spanned two months. What a great experience it’s been to share ideas. The response by readers has been amazing. As I send to Edutopia the final article in the series, I found that several of the strategies needed greater detail than I could do with the word count limit. So what follows is that deeper dive. Here’s an article that goes to the heart of student choice.

See the updated version of this article.

Join me through this blog on Opening Paths, especially the resources and follow me on Twitter @JMcCarthyEdS for open dialog about what our students need, and what we as professional learners can do so that ALL students succeed. Contact me for dialog, coaching, and to inspire your staff along their pathways to helping all students learn and achieve.


6 Good Tools to Differentiate Instruction by John McCarthy, Ed.S.

The secret to Differentiated Instruction is that there is no such thing as “differentiated strategies.” Yes, there are sites and books that promote lists of “differentiated strategies,” and what is provided are tools to use in classrooms. The problem comes when those resources are placed in the hands of well-intentioned educators who are looking for a plug-in to make their lessons better for all students, but perhaps lacks an understanding the differentiated instruction is based on good classic instructional practices–something I address in an Edutopia article and on this blog regarding the Formative Assessment Cycle.

Differentiated Instruction Lens on Learning (DILL) defined:
Use formative assessment data to diagnose learning gaps and needed higher challenges, and craft learning experiences using the various strategies in your toolbox.

So if any strategy can be differentiated based on student needs, why am I about to share an annotated list of “differentiated strategies”? The ones listed here have student choice embedded in them to meet needs. They are most effective when the DI Lens on Learning is applied:

Think Dots

This strategy offers 6 activities that students must complete. Each activity is best structured around a learning profile, so that learners explore the concepts from different perspectives. Students roll a six-sided die to determine the random order that the activities are completed. For example, if a 5 is rolled first, then the 5th task is completed. Then with the next die roll of a 2, the second task is worked on. This process continues until all assignments are completed. Note: For schools that ban dice either use a randomization cube or have students pick the order in which the activities are completed.


Here are some examples + template.

Make two or more versions of the Think Dot to address content at different readiness levels. Now it targets students grouped by those with common skill gaps and those needing greater challenge.

Task Cards

As a cousin to Think Dots, this strategy places activities on laminated index cards. Punch a hole into the cards and placed them on a circular keyring or lock carabiner. Where Think Dots are usually in sets of 6, Task Cards can be made of any number that the teacher needs for the learning activity. No dice required. Students go through the tasks in order or randomly based on teacher directions.

Learning Menus

I just had dinner with my son at the Salt & Pepper Savory Grill in Holland MI (Yelp – TA). Great menu choices from Appetizers, Main Dishes, and Desserts. Learning Menus have the same savory categories:

  • Appetizers are 2-3 options that students choose from to do as a warm-up activity.
  • Main Dishes offer 2-3 options. These may be structured to allow students to pick from, or be assigned to groups of students based on their readiness needs (skill gaps and need for greater challenge).
  • Desserts give learners 2-4 options to extend their learning. Not all students finish their main dish with enough time to have dessert. Those who do finish their meal with time to spare choose from the dessert options as fun activities that provide greater challenge–appropriate to their readiness level. Desert keeps everyone on task during the remaining work time.

Curry School of Education (Charlottesville VA) offers a great resource. The Teaching Channel offers a video.

Learning Centers

This approach is widely used at the elementary level, and less often as students move up grade levels to high school. It’s such an effective strategy that can be effectively used into the college level. Each station has a task to be completed. Some options to consider are:

  • Students choose which stations to complete such as 3 of 5 or 4 of 6.
  • Students complete tasks based on their readiness level. Each station has two or more folders that are coded by color or some other symbol. Students open the folder that matches their assigned color or symbol. Use a different coding each time so that students do not feel pigeon-holed in on specific category.
  • Do a combination of the two options above.

Here’s a video that provides more details. Also more resources are on my Edutopia blog about Readiness.

Think-Tac-Toe menus

Students complete tasks that are 3 or 4 in a row, depending on the size of the tic-tac-toe matrix used. Following the same choice style as Think Dots, students complete tasks of their choosing in whatever order that they desire. Sometimes the guidelines are that students much complete a task in each row so that they explore different concepts. In this case, it’s less important that the choices be “in a row” but rather students pick any task in each row. (Example from Curry School of Education)

Frayer Model

This strategy looks at a concept in four different ways.


This example has non-traditional topics for a Frayer Model to illustrate how the 4 options can challenge learners to think about a concept in unique ways. Here is the frayer model template. Typically this strategy is used for vocabulary building.

There are more strategies that can be differentiated, which I will share in later posts. Although, my six part series on Edutopia proves a wealth of ideas: Post 34, 5, and 6

Share in Comments:

What are some of your favorite strategies that when differentiated helps students?

Student Learning Preferences Quick Surveys

In my travels visiting many schools, I learn about and share strategies that help students learn. That’s the best part of my job–giving and receiving ideas that educators take back to their staff and students, while carry forward new ideas to the next group of passionate educators. Here is one such strategy that I developed and have had the pleasure of getting positive feedback about it’s use…

Join me through this blog on Opening Paths, especially the resources and follow me on Twitter @JMcCarthyEdS for open dialog about what our students need, and what we as professional leaners seek to understand. Contact me for dialog, coaching, and to inspire your staff along their pathways to helping all students learn and achieve.

Student Learning Preferences Quick Surveys by John McCarthy, Ed.S. The more we know about our students think and process data and complex concepts, we can be more effective with supporting their learning. “Ignorance is bliss” may be a cliche that satisfies some, but educators cannot afford such beliefs in our work to ensure that students have the best learning opportunities.

The Student Learning Preferences Quick Survey is a collection of charts that students complete during a 5 to 15 minute period. It’s different from the strategy: Learning Profile Cards, which is a more individualized approach. The quick survey provides a group snapshot of the learning culture. The timing depends on the number of charts use. My Learning Preferences Quick Survey posters includes three charts. Each represents elements of thinking styles.

Here’s how this strategy works:

1. Post the posters set on a wall For letter sized posters, you may need to post a second set on a different wall for every 15-20 students. This will allow for readability and data collection when the activity is done.

2. Describe each of the learning profile elements Use student-friendly language. Explain each element in terms of how the student might use it or experience it in their daily life. For example, practical thinkers want to know how a concept or skill is used in something they do outside of school. A visual thinker may give directions to a location as they see themselves taking the journey.

3. Have students place their initials on each chart Students will place their initials where it best describes their way of thinking. Spatial placement is as important as the category they choose. Some students are more strongly one type, while others have more combinations of different thinking styles.

Once the charts are completed, they are useful for getting a balcony view of the student group. You can use or adapt strategies to meet learner needs based on the chart results. Make a copy of the chart to review the results for your instructional planning.

One teacher who used this strategy said that before each class started, she reviewed the charts for that session. It reminds her of the learner culture dynamic for that specific class.

Another teacher said that she once took down the charts because she needed the space for something else. The students demanded that the charts be returned to the wall. They liked to remind themselves of the learner culture.

Student Learning Preferences Quick Surveys provides important data for meeting student’s needs. Helps teachers to differentiate for content, process, and products to improve student learning. Students also benefit from the experience as they learn about themselves and others.

My Project-Based Learning Experience

I credit my middle school Social Studies teacher for my love of History. I often cite one of her projects for how I built deep understanding of the pre-Civil War era and connected the political stratification in the mid-1800s to the challenges of gridlock in government today.

My classmates and I were given the charge to become Senators and analyze issues from the 1800s and search for a means to resolve the big event of that time: Avoid the American Civil War. Students were assigned one of four roles: Southern moderate or extremist and Northern moderates or abolitionists.

During the course of the unit we studied issues of that time, debated and sought votes on legislation. Before and after class, students gathered in corners or next to lockers, either to strategize or cut deals. At first, the moderates from both sides came up with solutions through compromises, which might have led to peaceful resolutions. Yet these bills were voted down because the Southern and Northern groups at the opposite ends of the spectrum lobbied hard to change language in bills or to keep party moderates tied to their regional allies. As a Northern abolitionist I worked successfully to block legislation that went against the interests of my voting block. Most votes went along regional lines, and so little was accomplished.

The meetings became so stagnant that frustration rose on all sides as to getting anything done. Finally, the Southern Senators  voted to succeed, and ending the social experiment. I remember that moment as the only time that everyone agreed with the result–the Southern Senators claimed victory in that moment of defiance and the Northern Senators believed that History was on their side.


During this project the teacher provided instruction in a variety of ways. Readings, lectures, and research occurred weekly. I know of no one who was bored during this time. Everything we did we knew was preparing us for the back hallway strategy sessions, Senate debates, and voting. The outcome of war may for some be a failure because the students were unable to find middle ground and compromises that might have averted the Civil War, or delayed it as was the result of the Jacksonian Era. The experiment was a resounding success because students understood content and the challenges for building common ground when rigid ideology becomes an obstacle to progress.

If done today, I believe that teacher would have refined her PBL tools further. The final product would evolve into making connections with the Senate of the 1800s to the U.S. Congress of today. Students may have written letters and used social media to propose idea to convince their representatives and constituents that poor communication and minimal collaboration solves no problems, nor promotes any progress that moves the government and the nation forward.


I wonder what project experiences stay in the minds of others. What are yours?

Breathe in, Breath Out: Education is like Yoga II

I founded Opening Paths to advocate for the voices of students (1st) and educators. A mixture of pedagogy, instructional strategies, and educational concepts, this blog seeks to make you go “hmmm…” as I do, during my travels along pathways to explore new ideas and old challenges. Join me through this blog, especially the resources and follow me on Twitter @JMcCarthyEdS for open dialog about what our students need, and what we as professional leaners seek to understand. Contact me for dialog, coaching, and to inspire your staff along their pathways to helping all students learn and achieve.

yoga sitbone pose

Breathe in, Breath Out: Education is like Yoga pt. 2 by John McCarthy, Ed.S.

I attended Yoga on Sunday morning, having missed two weeks prior. To be honest, I dreaded going. It’s a slippery slope when you miss classes. Whatever strengths you gain are quickly lost due to lack of practice. The teacher was late, and I considered using her absence as an excuse to roll up my mat and slink away. But that would have required me to walk past everyone to get to the door.

Two minutes late, the teacher arrived and started the class. She started us, as she always does, with a focus on our breath. Breathe in, breathe out. Long slow inhale, followed by a long slow exhale. From warm-up to and every movement placed into a flow we were  reminded to breathe. The workout was as I feared, and as I came to embrace, immersed in sweat and unable to do everything at the same level as the other participants–except breathe in, breathe out. Deep inhale–when possible–deep exhale.

The world of education, and business, is the same. In schools, students and their parents bring along the baggage of home, along with there perceptions about their possible success or failures. If we’re to accept psychology regarding the developing minds and emotions of those who we teach, teachers expend lots of energy absorbing the crushing waves of learners’ NEEDS, while fighting against the undertow that strips away patience and understanding. How is such focus and strength possible? Breathe in, breathe out.

The cold, clinical truth is that educators must leave their baggage at home or in the parking lot. When they enter the building, all that matters are the clients’ needs. Professionalism is being present for those who we must help find their way to achievement and personal growth. How? Deep inhale, and deep exhale.

Let’s not ignore the challenges that administrators must overcome within themselves as they lead the development of culture that nurtures students, involves parents & community, and nurtures the health and compassion of staff. Administrators carry huge weights on their shoulders to keep perspective on these needs–students first is supremacy through loose-tight leadership. Staying calm, open minded, and a thoughtful servant leader requires thick skin and an open heart. Solution? Breathe in, Breath out.

Yoga flows can be full of strength poses or, harder still, poses that you must hold for long chunks of time. Yoga can push a person to their limits. The body strains, the throat constricts, and muscles scream for release. When the pressure nears a breaking point, I realize that I’ve been holding my breath. I force myself to breathe–deep inhale, deep exhale. Muscles spasms ease up. The constriction in the throat relaxes. Drenched in sweat, I find that I can go a little longer.

Sometimes in the school environment, the stress catches us by surprise by how much has built up. In those instances, it’s okay to step in the hallway, close the office door, gaze out a window, or just close your eyes for a minute. In Yoga, this is going to child’s pose for a breather. Collect yourself, before resuming the fast past world of education, where needs from multiple people in different directions can threaten to overwhelm. That minute taken to refocus may be the difference between increasing the anxiety or anger of students, or reducing frustration and reigniting hope for learning. There is little that we truly control. Success increases if at our core we remember…

…to breathe in, …breathe out.
Read the other in the series:

3 Degrees of Connecting to a Real World Audience

Day one at PBL World, the educators I’m working with explored designing Project Based Learning units. A major detail, and concern, is identifying a real world audience, and then getting in touch with them.

Engineers, mechanics, university professors, authors, or __________________ –Where do you find them, and enough of them, to work with students? Most people are familiar with Six degrees of separation, the idea that everyone is connected to each other by a chain of people we know. For example, one teacher in VA shared how her best friend is good friends with Oprah Winfrey. My grandmother (101 years old) knows someone who is friends with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who works with U.S. President Barak Obama.

3 desks

These examples illustrate a new theory of mine, which is 3 Degrees of Connection. In today’s technology integrated world, with pervasive social media networks, we are all within three people of connecting with anyone in the world. Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and other tools reduces the barriers for reaching out to people who were otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to reach. I’ve been fortunate enough to make contact with authors and major names in Education by Twitter communications. It’s amazing what networks we can tap into just by who we know, who knows someone, who knows someone else we want to talk to.

Classroom teachers are often concerned with having a real world audience because they imagine that they need to recruit the entire panel who will listen to the students’ presentation, talk about their expertise, and coach students as they develop, reflect, and revise their work. The truth is that teachers do not need to recruit everyone they need. They only need to find one to two people who have access to networks of an abundance of experts. In this video about the Wing Project, the teachers worked with an engineer who recruited about 20 other engineers to support the students’ work. The teachers found 1 engineer.

Staff Activities to Find Experts

Option 1: Survey parents and guardians about the skills and expertise they could share with students. Put the list into a database or spreadsheet. Use this wealth of information to create and support PBL and lessons that are authentic learning experiences for students enhanced by the experts available.

Option 2: At a staff meeting:

  1. Have each person generate a list of 5-7 people they either know or knows people who knows others in various occupations.
  2. Share and discuss at each table the list of people.
  3. Report to the rest of the staff 2-3 people that the table team shared as possible contacts.
  4. Collect the lists and record them into a school-wide database or spreadsheet. Participants should cross out anyone on their list that they do not feel comfortable contacting, i.e. Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama were not available…at this time.
  5. Use the list to assist staff with needs for experts to support the students’ PBL experience.

Good luck! You’re only three people away from connecting to valuable expertise and real world student learning experiences.