It is Never Too Early to Start Productive Habits of Mind



Southwest Baltimore Charter School

Southwest Baltimore Charter School

Ten years ago I helped start Southwest Baltimore Charter School in my neighborhood. As the current board chair,  I’ve learned a great deal from the dedicated K-8 teachers and administrators who work there.  SBCS is an Expeditionary Learning School where students engage in hands-on extended projects as they work their way through the Common Core curriculum.  I’ve found that the practices that SBCS instills in its students, especially EL’s Core Practices, would serve college students as well, especially in a general education context.  You can find the practices below and read more about Expeditionary Learning here.

1. The Primacy of Self-Discovery

Learning happens best with emotion, challenge, and the requisite support. People discover their abilities, values, passions, and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students undertake tasks that require perseverance, fitness, craftsmanship, imagination, self-discipline, and significant achievement. A teacher’s primary task is to help students overcome their fears and discover they can do more than they think they can.

2. The Having of Wonderful Ideas

Teaching in Expeditionary Learning schools fosters curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.

3. The Responsibility for Learning

Learning is both a personal process of discovery and a social activity. Everyone learns both individually and as part of a group. Every aspect of an Expeditionary Learning school encourages both children and adults to become increasingly responsible for directing their own personal and collective learning.

4. Empathy and Caring

Learning is fostered best in communities where students’ and teachers’ ideas are respected and where there is mutual trust. Learning groups are small in Expeditionary Learning schools, with a caring adult looking after the progress and acting as an advocate for each child. Older students mentor younger ones, and students feel physically and emotionally safe.

5. Success and Failure

All students need to be successful if they are to build the confidence and capacity to take risks and meet increasingly difficult challenges. But it is also important for students to learn from their failures, to persevere when things are hard, and to learn to turn disabilities into opportunities.

6. Collaboration and Competition

Individual development and group development are integrated so that the value of friendship, trust, and group action is clear. Students are encouraged to compete, not against each other, but with their own personal best and with rigorous standards of excellence.

7. Diversity and Inclusion

Both diversity and inclusion increase the richness of ideas, creative power, problem-solving ability, and respect for others. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students investigate and value their different histories and talents as well as those of other communities and cultures. Schools and learning groups are heterogeneous.

8. The Natural World

A direct and respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit and teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and cause and effect. Students learn to become stewards of the earth and of future generations.

9. Solitude and Reflection

Students and teachers need time alone to explore their own thoughts, make their own connections, and create their own ideas. They also need to exchange their reflections with other students and with adults.

10. Service and Compassion

We are crew, not passengers. Students and teachers are strengthened by acts of consequential service to others, and one of an Expeditionary Learning school’s primary functions is to prepare students with the attitudes and skills to learn from and be of service.




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Mock Trial a Genuine Success



This spring I staged a mock trial in “Everyday Lives,” my general education social history class.  I have tried these exercises in past years with mixed results, but this time around it really worked. The twenty-five students in the class were prepared and engaged, and they learned something about 1830s New York City. I attribute the success to the set up. Here are some steps you can take to make an experiential learning activity go smoothly in your classroom.

1. Provide students with background information

In this class students read The Murder of Helen Jewett  by Patricia Cline Cohen. This examination of the 1836 murder of a young prostitute includes lost of information about social history, legal history, and the sexual mores of the day. Students used the information in the book as their reference as they prepared for trial. They did not have to do additional research; they simply had to analyze the materials in the book. Everyone was on the same page.

2. Give students options

Two weeks before the date of the trial, we were about half-way through the book. We had met most of the characters but had not seen the report of the trial proceedings. I handed out two identical character lists and asked students to lay claim to one of the actual historical figures. Students chose to take on the characters of prostitutes, young male clerks, the coroner, policemen, or members of the legal teams. This array of choices worked well in this general education class filled with freshmen who planned to major in criminal justice, forensics, jurisprudence, business and history. (I’m not sure if the game design majors found compatible characters.) After the lists went around I compared them and negotiated with the students who had both picked the same character. This method allowed students who wanted to take on more responsibility to sign on as attorneys on the legal team; the students who chose these roles really rose to the occasion.

3. Hold students accountable

One week before the trial I asked every student who was a witness to post a character profile on the discussion board of our course management system. This exercise showed students how to use an index in a scholarly book and also helped the legal teams craft their argument. The firm deadline of this requirement also allowed me to acquire some hard data I could use when grading the entire exercise.

4. Keep everyone busy

Two days before the trial, I sent the entire class to the library. Students who would serve as witnesses were required to find a secondary source that would give them historical context for their character. They had to summarize that source and provide a citation. While they were working on that information literacy task, the legal teams circulated among them asking them questions about the testimony they would give later that week. Although they were doing different things, everyone was occupied in a worthwhile venture.

On the day of the trial, I asked the witnesses to write a summary of the trial proceedings from the point of view of their character. These in-class writings demonstrated that they had learned about the person they were portraying and understood the concept of loin of view.

5. Make expectations for grading clear

Process is important for professors, and in these experiential activities grading may seem secondary. But students need grades, and to be graded fairly they to know the basis for their evaluation. In this exercise I graded witnesses on their witness profile, their source for historical context, their in-class point of view written submission, and their testimony on the stand. The legal teams were evaluated on their line of questioning and mastery of the facts of the case. The legal teams did not have to submit anything in writing. Two days before the trial one student told me he had a conflict due to a doctor’s visit, but on the day of the trial every other student came to class.  As Darien Ripple, my colleague who came in to act as the judge, can attest, every student testified accurately and all were able to answer questions without hesitation. I gave high marks to everyone for their testimony.

6. Keep a strict timetable

I have tried the Anne Hutchinson trial from Reacting to the Past and although I liked it in concept, the actual execution over five weeks seemed too long. In this class we started reading the book on the second week of class and we held the trial in the fifth week. Students were only working with their character for two weeks. The time crunch made them more efficient and they did not have time to lose interest in their characters.

This exercise reinforced most of UB’s general education goals:

  • communicate effectively in many different modes
  • gather, synthesize and critically evaluate information
  • make ethical and evidence-based decisions
  • understand systems and think systemically
  • negotiate divergent and competing perspectives

I would definitely stage it again.


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Redefining Faculty


simpsons professors

A number of years back when I left academia to return to industry, I had one condition for my soon-to-be partners: under no circumstances would I manage other people. I’d be willing to do just about anything for the new company – in a startup, that’s the very definition of “employment”—but when it came to management, in the immortal words of Meatloaf, “I won’t do that.” ( )

I’d spent 12 years running a digital agency and almost 3 years as serving as the founding Dean of a school of design and media at a small university in Philadelphia, I knew that while I could muddle through reasonably well, “manager” wasn’t in the top 5 (maybe not even the top 10!) of my “things I do well” list. I’d grown to understand that while I was pretty good at coming up with creative ideas, interacting with clients, and selling the company’s services to prospective clients I just didn’t have the detail-oriented temperament and organizational skills it took to really excel at managing people. And I was OK with that as were my partners who were more than willing to take me on so that I could contribute using the skills where I did excel.

In the end, it worked out pretty well. One of the founders, it turned out, was pretty good at managing people and he and I worked out a mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship that accentuated our individual strengths and compensated for our individual weaknesses. He did what he was good at, I did what I was good at, and everyone was happy (and successful).

I thought about all this recently when I read this article ( on Inside Higher Education about a new report ( (PDF download) from The Delphi Project at the University of Southern California Earl and Pauline Pullias Center for Higher Education. The report, entitled “Adapting by Design” looks at the current state of faculty roles and faculty work in higher education in America and how those roles and work will play out in the future of higher ed.

While the report examines a number of issues beyond the “adjunct/non-tenure-track faculty vs. tenure track faculty” debate, much of its focus is on this issue. But rather than delve into ground that’s already been covered in many other places (e.g. the value of tenure or the exploitation of adjuncts), Delphi’s effort is focused on the problems of where we are today in order to offer potential solutions for where higher education needs to go tomorrow.

The core of their argument is that the notion of what faculty should do – while once fairly well defined and respected—has devolved into a conflicting mish-mash of roles and responsibilities that serve no one – students, institutions, and the faculty members themselves—well. The result is the current situation of inequitable compensation, over-reliance on poorly paid itinerant adjuncts, financial mismanagement, organizational malaise, teaching that often doesn’t meet the needs of today’s students, and increasing difficulties in producing high-quality scholarship.

The end-game, the report asserts, is that by having to meet an ever-widening sphere or institutional demands, faculty “ will either sustain the gradual decline of [their] profession, or [they] will invite frustrated policymakers and outsiders, who lack the appropriate perspective to effectively direct change, to recreate faculty careers and roles.” In other words, things are going to change one way or another, and faculty either need to take charge of the situation or risk having the situation take charge of their futures.

While the report doesn’t offer a singular answer, it does suggest a number of intriguing models for reforming the system that seems to be broken (or in the process of breaking) in Chapter 7 of the report. But rather than go into detail on each one here, I do think it’s important to draw out the one element that they all have in common: we (and by “we” I mean the “collective we” of faculty, administrators, and other stakeholders) need to be willing to take a hard look at the University model in the light of today’s economic, societal, educational, and professional realities and be willing to ask one very hard question: what should faculty really be doing…and is there a single answer to that question?

Ernest Boyer identified four key aspects of faculty roles: discovery, integration, application, and teaching. Right now, faculty are expected to engage in all four. But what if the definition of “faculty” didn’t involve integrating all these activities into one job? What if faculty could move back and forth between these four roles every few years? What if some faculty were able to engage in one (or some) of these four roles every few years but were considered equal to other faculty? What if teaching involved a combination of faculty from different disciplines who combined forces to bring one or more aspects of the faculty role together to teach a single subject? What if it were OK to turn to others (in particular non-faculty “paraprofessional” specialists) to assist with one or more of these aspects in the course of doing one’s job? What if faculty weren’t expected to be good at everything at once?

I think that few would argue that today’s faculty are under an enormous amount of pressure from the pile of mounting responsibilities they’re asked to tackle. And few would argue, I believe, that it doesn’t seem that the pace of change – and the need to respond to that change—isn’t slowing down. Shifting demographics, economic pressures, technological developments, and the challenges of educating students with a variety of developmental needs are all combining to make the job faculty members face harder every day. It seems that unless we’re willing to take a hard look at ourselves and our professions, we’re not going to be able to face the challenges of today or the unknown challenges facing us in the future. The answer may not reside in this new report from Delphi, but it’s definitely worth the read for anyone who’s interested in asking the hard questions as we continue the conversation about the future of higher education.

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Dear Student: No, I Won’t Change the Grade You Deserve


Dear Student: No, I Won’t Change the Grade You Deserve

Stacey Patton posted the question to various individuals associated with higher education on how to respond to a student requesting a grade change in a “C” paper because the student claimed to work very hard on the assignment. I was attracted to the article because the situation has seemed to become common in the past decade. I do not know if I am just getting older, or as the article suggests there seems to be a new generation of students that have a sense of academic entitlement. I am not going to lie, in that I found myself smiling and acknowledging some real truths regarding teaching and learning in the responses presented to the hypothetical “C” student, although at the same time the responses tended to be snarkish and condescending. In some ways the discourse revealed a clear divide in the lifeworlds of students and educators. A divide that should prompt institutions of higher education to further explore possible disconnects in the process of teaching and learning.

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Simming: Simulation as a Pedagogical Tool




Does this photo make you uncomfortable? Can you detect power relations in this situation? How do you feel about the white man wearing antebellum clothing standing over kneeling people of different races?

This image was captured during a public history experience called “Follow the North Star” staged by the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Indiana. Participants, who sign a waiver, are involved in a pedagogical technique called “simming,” where guests engage in simulations of historical experiences.  Since the participants are college students and adults who are prepped in advance, the Conner Prairie organizers feel they can take a real risk by putting them in an extremely uncomfortable situation: visitors portray escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. At the beginning of the evening, they are left in a vacant field in the dark where they hear gun shots and barking dogs. A museum staffer appears to guide them through the night where they meet other interpreters portraying sympathetic Quakers, helpful free blacks, and slave catchers. They discover that even some allies harbor racist views: people who want to help them escape encourage them to make their way back to Africa. Participants encounter complex scenarios that most likely challenge their received celebratory narratives of the Underground Railroad. Some visitors react emotionally. Many report feeling real fear, and one young man actually punched a museum staffer who tried to separate the man’s girlfriend from the group.

Probably that young man will remember his experience in the Underground Railroad for a long time. Studies show that when adults enter a “discomfort zone,” they actually learn more. Most of these studies looked at museum visitors, but professors could also incorporate simulations in their classrooms. Reacting to the Past has had great success with this approach. Later this month, my students in a general education history class at the University of Baltimore will stage a mock trial of the murder of Helen Jewett. The classroom will be filled with prostitutes, brothel owners, young male clerks and legal counsel from the 1830s.  I’ll let you know how it goes later this spring.


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Service-Learning & Civic Engagement Proposal Deadline


Save The Date

The Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Conference examines the latest thinking about how colleges and universities interpret and advance their civic missions and how service-learning and civic engagement can strengthen the capacity of Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. campuses to create and sustain community partnerships.

Friday, February 6 - Service-Learning & Civic Engagement 2015 workshop proposals are due. The conference will feature concurrent workshops led by faculty, staff, students, and/or community organization representatives. Find out more and submit a proposal Contact: Corinne DeRoberts (

Friday, February 6 - Service-Learning & Civic Engagement 2015 award nominations are due. Know a community service superstar? Have a favorite CBO? Submit an award nomination. Contact:

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Are Baltimore City Schools At Risk?


This January 28th Baltimore Sun editorial states that Baltimore City schools are expected to lose millions in state aid. “That’s not a reduction in the expected increase, it’s an actual honest-to-God cut, and it is in dollar terms more than six times greater than what any other jurisdiction is experiencing.”

The proposed fiscal cut to public education is multifaceted and we don’t have a crystal ball to see the consequences, if fully executed. But one could infer that laying off teachers, increasing the student to teacher ratio, and slowing school construction may result. Baltimore’s four-year graduation rate is now nearly 70 percent (still not on par with the national average, but a steady improvement over the past decade), according to the Maryland State Department of Education. Do these proposed cuts make sense just as Baltimore City schools are finally starting to rebound? What could the impact be on academic innovation, student success, and educational access?

What do you think?

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Syllabus Design Aimed at Meeting Deadlines

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  Why do some students fail our classes? Usually, in my courses, students don’t pass because they don’t complete all the assignments. It is possible that the work is too hard for them, but in most cases students fail to turn in a paper … Continue reading

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Best of SoTL Articles


Dr. Maryellen Weimer from the Teaching Professor Blog has compiled a list of top SoTL articles from her constant scan of pedagogical resources. You might not find all of these journals via our campus library, but they are worth looking for. Here is her list and rationale for why you should take the time to read each:

Boud, D., Lawson, R., and Thompson, D. G. (2013). Does student engagement in self-assessment calibrate their judgment over time?  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38 (8), 941-956.
Why read it: Despite its importance, self-assessment is not a skill that’s taught explicitly in most curricular programs. What more can we be doing?

Burgess-Proctor, A., Cassano, G., Condron, D. J., Lyons, H. A., and Sanders, G. (2014). A collective effort to improve sociology students’ writing skills.  Teaching Sociology, 42 (2), 130-139.
Why read it: Five faculty members decide they can do more to improve student writing collectively than they can individually.

Burkholder, P., (2014). A content means to a critical thinking end: Group quizzing in history survey.  The History Teacher, 47 (4), 551-578.
Why read it: Offers a quizzing strategy with substantial impact for learning and raises questions about content that we aren’t asking often enough.

Carmichael, A. M. and Krueger, L. E. (2014). An examination of factors and attitudes that influence reporting fraudulent claims in an academic environment.  Active Learning in Higher Education, 15 (2), 173-185.
Why read it: Prepare to be stunned by how easily and readily students reported making up excuses.

Corrigan, H. and Craciun, G. (2013). Asking the right questions: Using Student-Written Exams as an innovative approach to learning and evaluation.  Marketing Education Review, 23 (1), 31-35.
Why read it: Students write their own exams using a well-designed approach that grades their questions and answers.

Offerdahl, E. G., and Montplaisir, L., (2014). Student-generated reading questions: Diagnosing student thinking with diverse formative assessments.  Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 42 (1), 29-38.
Why read it: Want your students doing the reading and asking better questions? Here’s an approach that accomplishes both.

Rublee, M. R. (2014). Rubrics in the political science classroom: Packing a serious analytical punch.  PS, Political Science and Politics, 47 (1), 199-203.
Why read it: Rubrics can do so much more than expedite grading. You don’t have to teach political science to benefit from this article.

Seidel, S. B. and Tanner, K. D. (2013). “What if students revolt?”—Considering student resistance: origins, options and opportunities for investigation.  Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 12 (Winter), 586-595.
Why read it: Find here a veritable cache of wisdom on dealing with student resistance.

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Risk and Innovation: The Most Important Elements of Honors Education


imageI’m attending the National Collegiate Honors Council annual meeting in Denver today, and I just participated in a workshop on faculty development in honors. Honors directors from across the US and Europe asked ourselves “How do we communicate what honors teaching is?” “How can we convince our faculty that honors teaching does not mean more, it means different?”

Workshop leaders Donnie Nobles, of Auburn University-Montgomery and John Zubbizarreta of Columbia College, South Carolina distributed a list of elements involved in learning-centered teaching:
Intellectual Engagement
Motivation, Self-Direction
Experiential Learning
Challenge (quality and process over quantity and products)
Risk, innovation
Discussion-based classes
Undergraduate Research
Freedom and flexibility

The honors directors in the room agreed that the most important element, and the most difficult one to implement, would be risk and innovation. These notions challenge both students and instructors. Students want to maintain a high GPA, so they avoid risk. Professors need good student evaluations, so any new assignment is inherently risky. Both groups are uncomfortable with ambiguity or even chaos.

How can we encourage risk-taking in our classes? Possibly by assigning ungraded activities that encourage risk? Possibly by encouraging peer review for professors so less emphasis is placed on student course evaluations? Maybe by embracing a culture of freedom and flexibility?

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