James O'Brien of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School
Derek Lomas and the Playpower Foundation

Dennis Litky and the big picture of learning

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

We're still in the Teaching Change session this morning. "How do we teach, and how do we build curriculum?" asks Zolli.

For an answer, we hear from Dennis Litky (Pop!Tech bio, webpage), founder of Big Picture Learning, an organization which works to radically reform what education is. But before he gets going, one of his students gets up on stage and takes over, leading the room in a chant. Half of the room is chanting "Pop!Tech, Pop!Tech," and the other half chants "We can change!"

"We all know that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame," Litky says, quipping that being here is clearly his 15 minutes. He asks how many people in the room have been fired, and a lot of hands go up. "We've all done great work in our life, and then we get fired and we get known; that's what happened to me. When I got fired, they wrote a book about Dennis Litky and his fight for a better school." The book was Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School. NBC also made a movie, called A Town Torn Apart, which tells this same story. (Here's a review.)

The question, he says, is how to change the system and how to change what's going on inside the school. He'd been a principal most of his life, and thought he was done with that; he came to Brown University; and then he was asked whether he would start a school. "Only if we could do it exactly how we want," Litky said, not thinking anyone would say yes -- "and they said yes."

They asked 300,000 students to name one word that describes school, and they said "boring." So his plan was, let's create a school that's not boring. "That's why kids drop out," he said. "They're bored, they're not engaged. We really closed our eyes and said, we're not going to tweak around the edges. This is too big; we have to redesign. What would school be, if you didn't know there was such a thing as school?" If you were homeschooling your kid, would you make him sit and read a book for 45 minutes, then ring a bell so he could go to the bathroom, then make him do science for 45 minutes...? A lot of reformers, he says, are trying to make teachers a little better, or materials a little better, but really change needs to be about engaging students in developing their own personal learning plan.

"How do you find their interests and passions? Let them be with adults and develop those passions -- then go back to school, and you don't need those regular classes; let them put all those pieces together!" How do we get to the real stuff kids need to learn?

"Every kid in our school has a different curriculum," he explains. In his first year, a student comes in who says "I want to study death." That was a little weird, he admits, but he was supposed to be the cool principal and this was the new plan, so -- what to do? They said yes. Every 9 weeks, the kids exhibit their work in front of a committee of parents, teachers, and other students, and talk about their work. The girl in question stood up -- she'd been a hellraiser in middle school -- and it turned out she'd done 17 drafts of her paper before presenting it, she was clearly taking the work seriously. Her entire family had been killed coming over from Cambodia. She had to deal with that. So she talked about that, wrote about it, studied about it, thought about it, for 9 weeks.

"'90% of my life this has been at the top of my brain,'" she said, and now she felt that she'd been able to explore it and exorcise it and could move on. "I was so proud to be part of a school where she could do that. That's the kind of interest, be it good or bad, that you want to capture."

Another kid wanted to study the Vietnam War. He picked a mentor who was building a monument for the soldiers. "You build your own schedule," Litky reminds us, so the kid really immersed in it. He took a class for how to teach teachers about the Vietnam War. His senior year, Litky asked the kid why this had been his obsession, and the kid explained, "Ever since I was 5 years old, I've asked my dad about the war, and every year, he turned and walked away and never said a word." For his senior project, the kid took his dad back to Vietnam. The kid was 18, the same age his father had been when he went to war. "Did I care whether he knew about the Boer War? No! He learned something in depth! And he went on to become a history major and is now a teacher."

Right now, they have 73 schools around the country; and recently they started a college, College Unbound, "because [colleges] do a worse job [than high schools]!"

Litky brought a student, Michael Reeves (the one who began the session with the chant) who is now a college student and will give us some perspective.

"My story," Michael Reeves begins -- "hi Mom and Dad! -- I've never been one of those students to sit in a classroom, raise my hand, be at the top of the class." Though he hated being at the bottom of the class. All he cared about in middle school was being in the "in" crowd. While he was in school, the sitcom Nip/Tuck came out, and he decided, they make a lot of money; "I want to be a plastic surgeon!" Make a lot of money and also be helping people!

So when he heard about the big picture, having an internship, getting your own laptop, he took the dive; he figured he'd work with a plastic surgeon. Instead he wound up working with a cardiologist. He was fourteen years old at the time. He was allowed to watch a six-hour open-heart surgery. "I walked out of there and realized, plastic surgery is not for me, because I can't stand there for six hours like that!" That's how he knows the Big Picture high school was right for him -- he was able to find out empirically in high school that plastic surgery was not actually right for him.

So instead, he created a brochure answering the question of what happens to you while you're in surgery. He was able to follow his interest and passion and find a way to help other people with it. From there he thought he might want to be a psychologist, might want to be a chef -- and now he's found his true passion, working with youth, and he wants to be a social worker. In his senior year he started a ten-week program for youth, designed to help them work on self-esteem and their own personal power, to help them choose on their own which influences they want to follow.

For college, he decided he wanted to do something more traditional, but when he found out about College Unbound, he knew it was right for him. There are 8 other college students in the program. They started the college by doing a cross-country trip to LA, doing oral histories in each student's hometown, including meeting senators and governors. "It was a way of doing real-world learning." The college experience is a scary thing, he says, "because we're doing college in a new way... we as people have to change our mindset about what education is."

Litky returns to remind us that colleges are worse than high schools. Every 12 seconds a high school student drops out, and 89% of kids who are the first generation in their family to go to college don't make it. Only 11% of first-generation college students actually make it.

"What got me angry is, I think colleges need to say, 'we need to be more student-ready,'" rather than arguing that the students aren't ready to come to school. "There's something wrong with the institution," he says. Hence, College Unbound, a continuation of the high school program. "We work life-to-text, not text-to-life." So there are college kids working in architecture, advertising -- they're doing the work, and then back on campus the teachers make sure the kids have the reading and writing and analysis to get the job done.

When John Fetterman was talking yesterday about his town, Litky went up to him afterwards and asked about his schools. "In most small towns, the kids are sent outside -- and that's another thing that ruins the town's identity," Litky notes. "I told him I'd be interested in deveoping a K-12 system in his district, whatever he pays an outside district to take that kid away, I'd take that money." So change is already happening.

Since this session began at 9am, 800 students have dropped out of high school -- approximately the same number of people currently sitting in the Opera House. Litky ends his presentation with that sobering fact.