“Some of those [in charge] were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be [in charge] unless one were cold. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling.” -Chapter 5 Grapes of Wrath
I have seen math used as a refuge from thought and from feeling. I have seen zero tolerance policies. I have seen hard deadlines built around a number that is inflexible because otherwise “it wouldn’t be fair.” I’ve seen data used to drive parents to enroll their kids in the high achieving school, when the low achieving schools had better teachers and a more caring culture. I’ve seen schools focus all their energy on fixing a number or finding a way to apologize for a number that some person decided was worth worshipping.
But numbers are rarely real needs. Real needs look like bread, like water, like community, like love. Our children, our teens have needs. Besides the basic needs of food, shelter, and safety, all children crave and need self-agency. It is in those moments of choice that children learn some of the most important lessons of adulthood: choosing between two goods, negotiating the gray, dealing with self-inflicted adversity, goal setting, community building, just to name a few. When young people don’t have agency they lash out. They find methods of control like choosing to ignore school-work, breaking home rules, breaking things, breaking themselves, making their mark… however they can.
About twenty years ago I sought a way to give my students complete autonomy, complete agency in a class project that was worth points. I created the 150 point project. You can read more about it, if you want, but long story short it was in many ways, an early version of what we call genius hour or 20% time. It worked well for many years, but there was always one little problem with the project.
Every year I would get some amazing projects and every year I would get some head-scratching projects. The straw that broke the camel’s back moment was when three honors students decided to bake a cake and turn it in as their 150 point project. I decided I’d had enough of those types of projects. I was set to quit giving these project, instead of quitting I talked to my friend Sean Ziebarth.
My friend and co-worker Sean Ziebarth decided to improve on the idea with his alt/punk idea the D.I.Y project. Sean’s Ten Improvements to the 20%time concept were just what everyone needed but I still wasn’t 100% in agreement with him until I participated in the Chicago Google Teacher Academy during the summer of 2013. At the event a lead engineer spoke to us about Google. At the end of his talk I asked him a question.
When people try and emulate the Google 20% time concept what is the one thing they get wrong?
He replied: “People think it’s just about free-choice and passion, the process is way more regimented, rigorous, and has several layers of accountability. The structure of the 20% spurs innovation rather than hinders it.”
When I came back from Chicago, Sean and I sat down to lunch. I talked to him about my experience and we knew right then and there that we needed to create a “turn-key” process for innovation. A process that any teacher, student, business owner could use to take ideas from conception to reality.
Being English teachers we needed a metaphor. Something that would work with all stages of the process. At first I was toying around with the idea of The Idea Factory. To me it evoked the alt/punk Factory records, but I didn’t like the connotation of a factory process. Innovation is messier and more organic than a factory.
Then the concept of Idea Farming hit me. We would help our student identify needs and then help them find a way to feed those needs. It turned out awesome. You can see examples of the finished process by gazing in our Innovation Reflection Pond. But the purpose of this post isn’t to show you the finished process it’s to explain via steps and lessons how to run your own Idea Farm in your classroom.
Image by Dorothea Lange
Early in the year you can have students just take out a piece of paper and write down the the following:
- I need/want;
- My friends need/want;
- My school needs/wants;
- My club/sport team needs/wants;
- My community needs/wants;
- My family needs/wants.
Make those wants/needs the headers on top of the paper or on a Google doc and let students write down as many as they can. Have them share those needs/wants. Ask students to identify common needs and uncommon needs. Have a class discussion around this. What you are doing is preparing the soil in your students hearts and minds. Making people aware of a need is a crucial step in solving that need.
Then spend some time, days, weeks, months (we’ll get to the time frame later) showing short videos, sharing short articles, having short discussions of the various needs that people have and the various ways that we can address those needs. Find videos that show simple solutions that inspire your students, that get them buzzing. I’ll share some of my favorites below. I actually created a Google+ community with my classes where they could share their own video finds of people solving problems in innovative ways.
Yes there are 256 people collaborating on this Idea Farm
Then one day find a way to introduce the idea of Idea Farming. That as a class, a group, or an individual, each student will find a need and a way to feed the need. Or you can do both of these steps together earlier in the year. Here is the Google Presentation I used this year to introduce the idea. It took about 55 minutes
And yes, in my class they gets points for this process and that leads me to my first Idea Farming side note.
SIDE NOTE #1 You Give Points For Their Innovation Projects?
Not for the project, for the process. While it would be cool if every Idea Farming crop turned out to be a prize winning crop, mother nature aka “life” is fickle. I can’t in good faith give out points for how a project turns out, but I can give points for each step of the process. Steps which fulfill so many college readiness and life readiness and life NOWness checkboxes. See there’s a little secret about grades that most people want to ignore.
Grades and points give students power. My fellow English teachers are always bummed out when we see students doing work for other classes in our class. Usually it is a worksheet or studying for a quiz or test. In a student’s mind, in a student’s home, points and grades carry weight. By giving my students points I am helping them justify the time they will spend on this project with their parents and their own personal sense of priorities. Do all students need this assistance. Of course not, but based on my experience and in talking to students, the points they can earn on the project help them stay focused through the project. Once again they get points for the process, not the finished product.
Image courtesy of USAID.gov
We’ve been doing Idea Farming for two years now. I made a big mistake in year one.
I started with the concept of innovation and shared some of the stuff I had done: edcampHOME, #CAedchat etc… and then I dropped a Daniel Burnham quote on them:
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.
Well… you know that was my motto for the Chicago Google Teacher Academy so it might as well be my class motto, right?
Big mistake. I set the bar so high that kids got kinda freaked out and I had to scale things back a little.
So when you talk about the project use the language of +1. We are going to find a need and maybe even some previous attempts to feed those needs and then we are going to +1 them. Make sure the crop is real, we all know that happened in the Simpsons when Homer got fancy with his crop farming.
Choices. One of the most important skills we can teach our children is how to make a decision between two good choices, or between two choices that both have a potential negative. I see this every year with my seniors. How can they possibly choose the right college and learn to accept and move forward with that choice without thinking about the choice they left behind.
Choosing an Idea Farming project is tough. I don’t want to show my students the past projects until they have had some time to think about it on their own. Idealy, if you have the time, introduce the project and just give them a few weeks to stew on it. But when it comes down to crunch time here are a few things you can try.
Cow Pie Kitchen: Crappy ideas can fertilize good ideas. Just like cow poop is used to give crops a boost, having your students engage in Cow Pie Kitchen can push some ideas to the surface. CPK is based on Kevin Brookhouser’s Bad Idea Factory. If you have the time and money I highly recommend his The 20time Project book. So basically you have kids pick a need and then they use construction paper or whiteboard space or heck you could use an iPad app to generate the worst ideas possible for solving the need. Something like fixing the phoniness of social media by creating a new social media app that works by holding your phone to your chest and taking an unfocused/uncomposed picture or video. The Cow Pie Kitchen takes away the fear of coming up with a bad idea and that’s the first step to innovation. Then students share their cow pies with each other. We laugh. We see that it’s okay to have bad ideas. And maybe, just maybe a bad idea helps a good idea germinate.
Idea Walk: I put students in groups or by themselves and just make them walk around the quad. Some students loved this right away, other students think it’s stupid at first. If it’s hot outside they might complain. They might want to stop. I made them keep walking. Some of them came up with an idea and thanked me. It was cool. I always get ideas when I take a walk. I wish we had a garden or forest to walk through near school.
Idea Drawing: I had some students who are still stuck start drawing on my whiteboard. They can draw anything they want. They can interact with each other’s drawings. They can talk. This proved fruitful for a few students.
Triangle Storming: pick some needs from the list your students brainstormed earlier in the year. Have students go to their desk and spend ten minutes listing ideas that could help feed those needs. They can listen to music if they want, but they must work alone at first. Sometimes when students brainstorm in a group they keep ideas to themselves for fear of what the group will think. If they can get their ideas on paper first, they might be more willing to share. Once they fill at least half a page match them up with two other students and have them share their ideas.
Iron Plan: Tell every student to take an object from their pocket or backpack. They get bonus points if no one around them has the same object. If you want you can also hand out cards that have a picture of an object that most students wouldn’t have in their desk. Then show students a clip from Iron Man 3 where Tony Stark improvises a solution to a problem using common everyday objects. Then show them a short clip of MacGyver doing the same thing. Then give them some of the needs they came up with earlier in the year. Put them in groups. Tell them that they can use any combination of the objects they have on their desk either the object itself or a quality of the object to help them solve one of the needs. Then have them present their ideas to the class. They only have five minutes! (Sometimes an impossible deadline really pushes the ideas out)
Gaze Into The Reflection Pond: The second to last step is to have them look at past ideas. We didn’t do this at first, because it can really limit outside the box ideas, but all good ideas are usually based on a previous idea, so looking at past innovation projects is not a bad idea.
Teacher Time: No matter what you do to generate ideas you will have 5-10 students who just HAVE NO CLUE what to do. So you take those students out and start interviewing them. You ask them what they like, what they are interested in, what skills they have, what bothers them. It’s a good conversation; it’s a painful conversation. You want them to come up with it themselves. Some of them really want YOU to give them an idea. Unfortunately you may have to help some of them more than you want to. Feel free to have a student or two help you with this process. Some students are really good at coming up with ideas.
Coming up with good ideas for 20time, Genius Hour, or Innovation Projects is tough. It may take more than one day. But these innovation exercises are great tools for your students to experience and add to their life tool belt.
Every crop needs some help to make it to the dinner table. Especially when it’s just a seedling. Having a good initial plan is crucial. In order to make sure your students’ Idea Farming plan is good you’ll need to send some crows to peck at it. Basically in Crows vs. Crops you pair up the members of the innovation team with some students who ask tough questions about the plan. Student must write down as much as possible about their plan before they put it in front of the crows. Here is my Crows vs. Crops handout feel free to use or modify as needed. Give the handout to the crows and let them start pecking. Hopefully a well-written plan will drive them away. If a crop gets eaten up by a group of crows ask the crows to help out the farmers in building up a better plan. Remind your crows that their job isn’t to make the farmer quit his/her crop, it’s to make the farmer triple check his/her plan.
There is one final step to this.
At this point create a spreadsheet with everyone in all your classes. Have separate sheets for each class. Create the following columns: Last Name, First Name, Partners, Project, Is it good to go? Will it need approval? Does it need funding? (These last two items will be the biggest obstacles)
Then meet with every single one of your students while they are working on something else. Meet them individually or in groups. Ask them about their project. Make sure it passes the sniff test.
The more you can do before they get started the better it will be for everyone.
The biggest obstacle to your student’s innovation, 20time, or Idea Farming projects will be getting approval from someone at an institution. The bigger the institution the more difficult it is to get approval. Working with your principal is tough, working with your school district is tougher. You need to get your students to find low road places for innovation. I had a student who wanted to paint a mural in a children’s clinic. They said no to a hallway, but yes to a bathroom wall. A student wanted to play music at a hospital, they said no. He got a yes from a rest home. Make sure they are aware of this when they are first thinking of ideas.
The second biggest obstacle will be securing funding or materials. Please discourage expensive projects especially if they will involve tons of fundraising, UNLESS you think the student is 100% committed to the idea and the work necessary.
Image modified from an image by the US Department of Energy
This is almost my favorite step. I get SO excited at this point. First, make a Google Slide deck that is editable by everyone in the class. Tell your students to create their slide in a separate slide deck and then copy and paste it into the master Google Slide deck. Sometimes a student or two will mess up the whole deck for everyone, but hopefully one of your other students can use the revision history to fix everything.
On a Friday bring up the Slide Deck and have the groups share their ideas one by one. Before they start sharing pass out post-its or have students fold and tear about 12 scraps of paper. Divide the class into quarters or thirds. For each Crop share have that part of the room write down at least ONE of the following:
I love this: because
You might want to try this: because:
You should talk to: because:
You need to know this: because:
I can help you with this: because:
Only that part of the class has to fill out the forms, BUT if there is someone dying to put down a comment for a group that is not their assigned group they can. Towards the end of the period have everyone drop off their notes and then give the groups time to go over the notes. If you don’t have time that period do it the next day. Make sure everyone puts the name of the group and their own name down on the scraps of paper.
Here is an example of the Share Your Crop Google Slides with FIFTEEN ideas for you to share
This is a wonderful day. Optimism hangs in the air and you can see that students in the class are curious about not only what will happen with their project, but what will happen with the other student projects. Some of the slides will be better than others. The quality of the slides is sometimes an idicator that a certain group will need an early intervention from you or they are still having doubts about their plan.
I’d like to take this moment to talk about time. So how much time should you devote to this project? When should you introduce it? When should it be due?
When I did the 150 point projects I would share it out at the beginning of 2nd quarter and then make it due the 2nd week after spring break. In my first year of Idea Farming we got going in the middle of 1st quarter and we had our Innovation Symposium at the end of May.
After my first year of trying this Sean Ziebarth thought it took away too much time from class. I agreed. So I thought I’d just start it at the beginning of the 2nd semester in February. Unfortunately I didn’t want to get it started until I wrote this blog post so that I could be sure I was doing it the right way. I kept delaying writing this blog post to the point where I felt it was too late to do the project at all.
Jon Corippo told me over a year ago that the problem with long term projects is that you just extend the time of “The Suck.” My friend Karl Lindgren-Streicher even wrote a blog post about The Suck. Jon thought you could do the whole thing in thirty, that’s right 30 days. I looked up “fast growing crops” and found that you can grow a crop of Lettuce in thirty days so I took a risk and we launched the project on May 1st. I said “Lettuce [Let us] Feed A Need In Thirty days.” Almost all of my students were able to hit the shortened deadline. We had to make compromises with the thirty day project. Projects had to be more manageable, long-term projects like Krimi Sweets or Park and Ponder went right out the window, which was too bad.
Next year I think I’ll do a hybrid. I’ll introduce the project after Back-To-School night so if students want to get going they can [I had some students tell me they were disappointed that I waited so long because they knew what they were going to do even before they started my class] but we won’t officially start the project until February 1st. This will give us enough time to plan the Innovation Symposium, which I didn’t do this year because of the last-minute blitz style of innovation. It was one of my biggest regrets of the whole year.
I did NOT give my students every Friday to work on their projects, but I did give them some class time and if we were quietly reading or writing and some students were done and they wanted to work on their project, then I let them work on their project outside, in the library, or in the hallway… quietly and professionally.
Lastly, because of the fast nature of our project this year I did not require them to have progress blog posts and social media shares, but I think both are crucial. Both are great life and job skills and they help me see where they are at in the project and afford them a chance to reflect and revise. I’d say you should require at least two progress share blog posts on either their own blog or a blog just created for their project and at least six social media shares WITH photos. They can use the photos from those social media shares in their final reflection.
PS: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a letter of recommendation for college or a job and linked to a blog post about an innovation or Idea Farming project. Students should take the opportunity to share what they are doing with the outside world. I think blog posts are better than a digital portfolio, because blog posts usually afford a better opportunity to reflect and provide a narrative story behind the share.
So we had an Innovation Symposium and Idea Farming Festival. It was AWESOME. We held it in our media lab and invited parents and other adults. If I ever do this again, I will invite admin, the district, etc… actually I’d love to hold it offsite at a local company headquarters like Hurley or Hyundai but I’ll have to make sure to get off my tush and make that happen. Could be cool for the company to see some potential future talent in action.
Every student ended up sharing their completed or incomplete project. They had three choices
- Share It In Class
- Share it at a table talk at the Innovation Symposium.
- Share it as a short TED style talk on the main stage of the Symposium.
If they wanted to present TED talk style they had to let me know ahead of time and they had to come in at lunch and show me what it would look like. We ended up with nine presentations. The entire event was about two hours. The table talks were open for ½ hour before and after the main presentations.
I made a simple double-sided foldable event program for the event that looked like this.
I created some posters for the event by grabbing screen grabs from our social media shares and putting them on one page of a Google doc, printing that page, and then taking that page to Kinko’s to blow it up to poster size. It only cost 2-3$ per poster.
I even put up a poster on the podium of the various project logos that students created for the idea farming/ what IF process. Speaking of what if, we used that phrase all throughout the process. Our class hashtag is #ideaFM. IdeaFM stands for: idea farming, idea broadcasting (FM), ideas Fueling our Minds, and the I and the F make me think of IF as in #whatIF which is a favorite phrase of mine.
Some of the table talk groups sold products or even sold cookies to raise more money for their project.
Click on any image to view a larger version of the image
Anyone who didn’t share at the ideaFM Festival (we called it both a symposium and a festival) ended up sharing in class. Those class shares were pretty cool too, especially the shares from the groups that couldn’t complete their project. Everyone learned something.
I felt humbled after the Idea Farming Festival. It was a big wake up call for me.
I learned that celebration is SO much better than competition. I think I’ve spent too much of my life trying to bring the heat of competition into my class. Competition is really overrated as an engagement tool and as a tool to bring out the best in people. I’m going to write a blog post about competition in the near future, but let me give you just two quick points.
I listened to Ronnie Lott, Michael Jordan, and Derek Jeter talk about competition at the highest level: championship games. All three mentioned that the greatest players do NOT bring something extra to that game, if anything, the key is to play like you normally play and not get freaked out. There is no 110% in championship games- that is a lie. In fact, high pressure competition usually brings out the worst in people. Additionally they said that they look for opponents who are freaked out, nervous, trying to hard, and they work at exploiting that player, while they stay calm just like a normal regular season game. So cut-throat high-stakes competition isn’t elevating anyone’s game, if anything it’s hurting the skill of the weaker players.
Point number two. People always talk about how real life is competition. Well in a classroom competition there is often just one winner. One winner in a debate, One winner in a BRAWL. A few winners are getting an A. This is not real life. In real life Apple, Google, Windows, Adobe, Facebook all compete against each other but there are TONS of winners. There are thousands of people working at these companies making great money doing what they love doing. And yet we hold up the SuperBowl, the World Cup as a reason why students need to best “the best” go to “the best” schools. Sports is NOT real life. In real life there are MANY winners, TONS of people get to celebrate their success at work.
I wish I had realized that earlier in my teaching career.
Lately I give out more As as a teacher, not because I’m softer or easier, but because in real life there are many As to hand out. In real life we reward people for what they do great. If I have a student who struggles at multiple choice tests but is a wonderful writer, if I have a student who struggles to speak out-loud in front of the class but reads a novel every two days and contributes to the class online and in small group why would I give that student a C? To teach them a lesson?
In REAL life that student will be successful because that student will be rewarded for what they do well, not punished for that one thing they don’t do well.
Tons of people doing A work every day in their jobs. Why do we feel so uncomfortable when too many of our students are successful in a class?
There are many ways to get students and people engaged in something and working towards completing a goal, here are a few:
- Coercement [fear and trickery] (Grades, Test Scores, College Entrance, Punishment ugh)
- Competition (this can range from bad when competition is based on a winner take all approach and great when competition takes the form of play)
I hope to find ways to use the last one more often in my class.
No learning activity is truly complete, is truly effective without reflection. Reflection (and constant intellectual curiosity) is one of the constants in great teachers. Even if you just ask yourself and your students:
- “well.. what did you think?
- What did we learn?
- What will we do next time?”
You and they will grow as human beings. You should do this at the end of each lesson, at the end of chapters, units, projects, and the school year. Reflection is where we put what we have learned into the cabinets of our mind and turn learning into tools that we can quickly use as needed in the future.
Here are just a few questions you could ask yourself or that your students could ask themselves during a reflection.
1. What worked well for you as a learner and creator?
2. What do you wish you had done or done differently?
3. How did you APPLY or plan to apply your learning?
4. What was/were your best question/s?
5. How did you make the class or your classmates better? How did you help them or push them? How did you collaborate?
6. How did you SHARE your learning or questions? What happened as a result? How did you become a part of the larger conversation on this topic?
7. How can I PROVE my learning to my teacher and my world?
8. What did I do to extend my learning beyond the classroom? What did I read, watch, write or think outside the class that enhanced what I learned in the class?
9. What did I CREATE?
10. What did I REVISE?
11. What did I PUBLISH?
12. How did my reflection show my learning? Did I do anything creative in my reflection? Did I DIG deep in my reflection? Did I strike GOLD in my reflection?
13. What specifically do you want teacher feedback on for this reflection period.
Here are a few of the student reflections on their Idea Farming:
Here is a wonderful observation on a project combining art and raising money for vaccines.
“Operation Sock Monkey was a project to raise funds for surgeries for children in third world countries with cleft palate lips, we thought it would be a good idea to combine my love for sewing, our love for sock monkeys, and our passion toward the great cause, and make it into something that can not only help those children, but also bring back that sense of childhood for others–making them smile through the wonderful, cute gift of a sock monkey just as it did for us in third grade.” (Cathy)
A great project reflection with a blog post and video on some students making blankets for neglected animals.
Project Kind: “I learned a lot about running a mini business and time management by doing this project. I think that it’s extremely important to be on task and not slack off at all because we almost missed our deadline by not getting enough orders in. I think that if we tried to advertise more, we wouldn’t have had such a hard time with selling our shirts. I also learned that running a business is not as easy as it looks, especially when you’re a high school student on a budget. Sometimes you will mess up and things won’t go the way you planned but that’s okay because in the end, everything will work out (usually). Despite running into quite a few complications, my team and I were able to get everything in order and our project turned out to be extremely successful, something that I couldn’t be more proud of.”
Honestly I have a ton more of these posts. If you want to find them on WordPress, Instagram, or Twitter just look for the hashtag ideaFM and you’ll find a ton. I actually saving one of my favorite shares for FallCUE15 and then I’ll post it here after I talk about it.
If you skip to the last 10 minutes of my FallCUE Keynote on Adventure you can see the best student reflection ever on 20time or genius hour.
I get asked about double dipping for the Innovation Projects. When I did the 150 point projects I was dead set against students using a church or club project for my class project, but now I allow it but they have to explain to me how they are +1ing or +10ing the original idea.
I’m also really missed working with Sean on this past project. He decided to discontinue the project after doing it for two year so he could focus on his Publishing House project. I hoping perhaps he’ll reconsider. If not maybe there’s an eternally optimistic local teacher who wants to take on this challenge, this adventure with me.
With all of the pressures of college-readiness and Common Core standards and pacing guide a teacher who is thinking about implementing Idea Farming, or 20time, or Genius hour can really feel like it’s them against the world. You just can’t see how one teacher, or one class can stand against a system that worships numbers.
“There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.” (Grapes of Wrath)
Here’s the secret to how you make this work in your class. How you conquer this big scary thing that has no defined rubrics and no fill in the blank papers, or easily assessed tests and quizzes. This journey into the great unknown.
“And here’s a story you can hardly believe, but it’s true, and it’s funny and it’s beautiful. There was a family of twelve and they were forced off the land. They had no car. They built a trailer out of junk and loaded it with their possessions. They pulled it to the side of the 66 and waited. And pretty soon a sedan picked them up. Five of them rode in the sedan and seven on the trailer, and a dog on the trailer. They go to to California in two jumps. The man who pulled them fed them. And that’s true. But how can such courage be, and such faith in their own species? Very few things would teach such faith.
The people in flight, strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever.”
Chapter 12 Grapes of Wrath
The faith we have in our children, in our students, is one of the most powerful gifts we can give to them… and to ourselves.
Have faith… all great things in life have unknown endings. Pick your adventure and live it.
PS: In the next few days I will break up this post into separate posts on my ideaFM.org site. I’m going to do that so if you want to share a specific step, lesson, or idea with someone you, and they, do not need to wade through this entire post again. I will link the posts back here under the various steps:
STEP ONE: The World Needs Farmers
STEP TWO: Picking A Crop
STEP THREE: Crows vs. Crops
STEP FOUR: Plant And Share Your Crop
STEP FIVE: Let it Grow, Let it Grow, Let it Grow…
STEP SIX: The Festival- Celebration Is Better Than Competition
STEP SEVEN: Reflection And Planning For Your Next Crop