What College Means to Me? New Tech High Edition

College and Career readiness is a key part of who we are at New Tech High.  Many times though, it is hard to pinpoint what it exactly means to be “college and/or career” ready.  Throughout the year, we have challenged our students, especially our Seniors, to think about what college means to them.  Here are a few great examples:

Sandra Correa Saenz

Going to college has always been a certainty for me. College to me, means so much more than school. It’s going to be another chapter in my life that will progress me towards my dream job. Knowledge is power and the knowledge I will retain is something no one can take away from me. My parents migrated to the United States with hopes that the educational system here would better our lives in the future. Even though my parents never received a college education, by bringing us to the United States, they gave us an opportunity that will benefit our own families and future generations to come. I look forward to pursuing a career as a Neonatal Nurse as well as minoring in Ethnic Studies with hopes of implementing an Ethnic Studies K-12 program. This new chapter of my life is only beginning.

Angel Maldonado

My parents first migrated here in pursuit of a better life with other family members. My mom studied in the United States but only went to college for a year.  My dad followed this same path.  Although they have a successful life, they don’t want me to go through the struggles they did to reach happiness. For that reason, I have been pushed to follow education because they know how much more valuable you can be when you study. I see college as a gateway to a more beautiful life. I want to live happy and knowing that I’m stable financially because of my degree will make it all worth it. College has always been my next step from high school and although it’s another few years of school I know it’s worth it and I cannot wait to start next year.

Christa Rico

What college means to me: it is a fresh start. I am going to be the first one in my immediate family to go to a four-year. My brothers had other passions that didn’t have to do with college, so they took different routes. But mine does. What I mean by a fresh start, is being able to make new friends, and make some changes in my life. With my college degree, in either Psychology or Early Child Development, I want to stop the misdiagnosis of ADD, ADHD and any other mental disorders that develop in young kids. I want to help schools and districts learn how to help a student properly before they self-diagnose a child wrong. Personally, I have had two children who are in my life, been accused of having ADD only because a certain action they do. College to me means that I get to follow what I love and help make a difference.

Denning DeFur

College means a lot of things. What it means to me is my future. I have worked hard throughout my high school years and being able to go to college makes it all worth it. I don’t know what college entails for me but I believe my experience will answer some very important questions for me.  College also means to me making my family proud. My dad started on a pig farm in Indiana and now he is very successful private banker for Wells Fargo. If I can work as hard as he did, I know college will hold endless opportunities for me and there is only success in my future.

What does college mean to you?

PB”What the hel”L?

There is nothing more scary to me than bad PBL.  It can almost have a more negative impact on student learning than bad traditional instruction.  Now, I have spent my entire career in project-based learning.  As a teacher, as a coach, and now as an administrator, I am constantly trying to examine what is next.  As buzzwords like “future ready” and “deeper learning” are making us think about the road ahead, I reflect on what PBL means to me and why I believe quality implementation is the driver into that unknown world.

Process Over Practice

PBL truly is a process.  It’s a process for schools to fully understand how to implement with fidelity.  It’s a process for teachers to learn how to create meaningful projects.  It’s a process for parents to learn how it’s different than how they learned.  It’s a process for students to move from the what to the why.  But it’s a process.  For decades education has been dominated by practices.  Whether it be rote memorization or test preparation, these practices have defined student success.

via Getting Smart, October 8, 2013

My own education was a product of this.  In high school, I learned to memorize Spanish phrases and linguistics to be able to pass the AP exam (don’t get me started on the success rate of passing AP exams).  Once I was done, that practice was no longer meaningful to me and now I find myself trying to relearn the language.

PBL provides the context and process for which any content or problem can be accessed.  I come to find many colleagues and students applying this process outside the confines of the school building.  My friend Kevin Gant taught me that there is a project in everything around us.

In talking with many former students, almost all of them talk about how learning through PBL has made college easier to approach (not easier).  By having a process in which content, culture, and skills are married in a certain context, they find it more applicable whether it be in a large lecture hall, a group project, or securing an internship.  USA Today just recently published a great piece on connecting school and the real world.  This is PBL and it’s not a practice to implement, but a process to live by.

Model the Model

As a school leader, I truly believe it is my job to model everything that is in our core.  If my school preaches trust, respect, and responsibility, but those don’t guide my actions and decision-making, then why the hell am I here in the first place. PBL provides a framework in which I, as an adult learner, can actively participate in what I am asking students to do.  Just recently, I have begun a series of focus groups with students over key issues at our school.  First and foremost, the data collected is invaluable in helping inform decision-making.  However, I have found that as my process more closely aligns with the phases of a project, the feedback I get goes much deeper and leads to more tangible solutions.

For example, we have been discussing our school-wide learning outcomes (SWLO) and the relationship between scaffolding and assessing these skills.  Instead of just talking about them, we approached the problem with a driving question and knows/need to knows.  Modeling the project cycle allowed us to go deeper into what scaffolds were already in place and what the missing pieces we needed to explore more to create a more consistent approach to how we were supporting and assessing the SWLO’s.  Our next steps are to know examine what our culminating product looks like for moving forward.

This is just one example of how modeling the PBL process has allowed me to activate a deeper connection to something not related to a classroom project.

Students as Drivers

Student voice and choice is a valuable part of project-based learning.  However, so many times that voice and choice is confined to extent at which educators are capable of providing it.  It is sometimes hard for us as educators to think outside to confines of what we have in front of us.  I truly believe though that a quality implementation of PBL can take this voice and choice to new levels.  I have forever been a believer in the 6 A’s framework from Adria Steinberg.  I think that the correct marriage of the 6 A’s and student voice (no matter what the content is) can turn students into the drivers of their learning.  Concepts like 20% time or Genius Hour have taken a step in the right direction, but many times, these philosophies are instituted as a piece of the puzzle, or in addition to the regular work that happens.  True fidelity to project-based learning means that educators are willing to share the role as drivers with students (and not in the controlling driver’s education way).

The schools in the New Tech Network have done an amazing job of providing the framework for allowing students to be the drivers of their learning.

  • Mike Kaechele and the staff have Kent Innovation High have set a great foundation for student-led learning.  Mike share’s here, how students took over a water project looking at the Grand River in Grand Rapids, MI.  They went far deeper than the educators ever could have imagined.
  • Central Coast New Tech in Nipomo, CA recently held a Youth Startup Weekend.  Following along from a far, you could tell that this event was student driven.  The amount of time, depth, and energy that the students put into their ventures was clearly recognizable.  Students were at the center of the work and the focus of the work.
  • Aaron Brengard and the staff at Katherine Smith School in San Jose, CA have re-imagined what the college and career mindset in elementary age students.  The social impact they have made on their students is indescribable.  They are allowing students (K-5) to develop their own thoughts on what their future looks like, not dictating it for them.
  • At my own school, Napa New Technology High School, our Communication Studies (English 9 and Drama) facilitators allowed students to connect with a tragedy that struck our community.  The Napa earthquake last August impacted many of our families.  In partnership with Family Services of Napa Valley, the students were allowed to express their feelings by turning rubble into art.
NTHS students working on their earthquake rubble art.


So what the hell is PBL?  PBL in its simplest form is a process in which students have a model to drive their own learning.  So many times, as adults, we sabotage or hijack this for our students.   It is not easy to engrain ourselves in a project-based mindset, but I think for us to truly deepen the meaning of learning and create future ready schools, than quality implementation of PBL has to be at the forefront of the next phase of education.


Professional: Development vs. Learning

I recently read 3 related blog posts. First, Scott Bedley’s take on PD gluttony (find here). Second, Karl Lindgren-Streicher’s response (find here).  And third, Travis Phelp’s reflection on both (find here).  Reading all 3 got me thinking about my own views of professional development.  I can relate to all 3 perspectives.  Like Karl, I have experienced some career-altering conferences that have left me on fire.  Like Scott, sometimes I wonder why I go to certain PD opportunities and what is my limit.  For me, the conversation really is about development vs learning.

Professional development seems to resonate in a negative way for many educators.  It is something we HAVE to do or are FORCED to do.  Professional learning to me is rooted in connecting Scott’s desire for personal growth, Karl’s hunger for learning, and Travis’ desire for real interaction.  But sometimes I think the format in which PD is delivered is the missing link.

Don’t get me wrong, one of my major goals from attending events and conferences is to hear and learn from people way smarter than myself.  However, I struggle that many PD experiences are the exact opposite of the types of learning experiences that we hope to create for our students.  So many times, PD is a listening experience. We all know that experiential learning is best for students, but many times, PD isn’t modeled in this way. 

Now I know, most adults will say, “well that’s just how kids learn best,” but we all know that is bs.  As a learner, I want to get my hands dirty and make a mess!  I think our PD has to be similar experiences.  Listening plays a part, but doing is far more important.

I am a huge fan of the Edcamp model and I believe it gives a solid framework for changing the PD structure. However, I have been to amazing Edcamps and I have been to hijacked Edcamps.  These are the ones that end up mirroring the traditional format: sessions with”agendas”, in crowds, and lots of listening.

For me, if we want to push our students thinking, then our own thinking about professional learning has to change.  More importantly, how we structure it has to change!  There will always be a place for large conferences like ISTE and CUE and most of the educators I talked to that went to CUE walked away with a positive experience.  Most of that had to do with the connections they made and who they learned with, not necessarily how they learned (Travis does a great job of highlighting how he learned).  In relation to this, I have also heard some amazing educators share their learning.  Michael Fullan was just at my school last week and it was a valuable experience!  However, I think this has to be just a piece to the PD puzzle.

In conclusion, I think I am somewhere in between Scott and Karl.  I don’t have a burning desire to be at the large conference scene (but I accept it’s value), but I am not ready to separate myself from those types of learning experiences.  I am blessed to be a part of a Voxer group called “LeadWild”.  It is a group of crazy rockstar educators from all over the U.S.  There is one thing I can tell you, I have learned more from that group than any PD or conference I have gone to this year!  They have pushed my thinking, given me tools to put into practice, and allows me to reflect on my learning by doing.  I need to push myself to make sure all of my PD experiences do the same thing, I just want to make sure I can get my hands messy while doing it.