Up for Debate

Every year I poll my students about what they want to explore and accomplish by the end of the year. We create a list of class “goals” I post on the board and keep up all year long. I find by giving them some input, they work harder and are more interested in what we do. This year, for the first time ever, my classes overwhelmingly voted for debate as a platform for learning. They wanted to research, talk about and take positions on topics that were important to their lives. Well, we just started navigating those waters…

I started with implementing Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week assignment to get them thinking and writing about current event topics. It started a little shaky as students really just wanted to blast their opinions rather than looking at the arguments put forth and commenting on them using source material as evidence. I think fiery opinions are the challenge with implementing debate- students are very opinionated, but up until this point have not been asked to find credible sources to back up those opinions. After some modeled annotation and writing, students began to find their footing and the analytical skills necessary to argue against or for a position using evidence. In addition to Gallagher’s AOW, I began each class with a TED Talk that sparked an arguable position. This was a particularly fruitful exercise as most of the topics were not ideas or events the students had thought about. Below is my list, but there are myriad talks that would be useful depending on your students.

David Milliband

Duarte Geraldino

Noy Thrupkaew

Sir Ken Robinson

Julia Galef

Next up was to view “The Great Debaters,” not the full movie, but the pieces that showed preparation and presentation of debate with some journals about techniques observed in the movie. I found this movie to be invaluable in showing the students what true debate is and how to build a successful arguments utilizing different appeals. Following the first clip of the movie, I asked students to nominate their top five choices for classroom debate. The topics were similar to topics we had already discussed, but they also brought some new ones I had not introduced to them. Below is their list of top topics.

  • Gun Control, Immigration Policy, The Paris Climate Agreement, Funding/Defunding Planned Parenthood & Birth Control, Required Standardized Testing, Gay Marriage Rights, Taking down Confederate Statues, Universal Basic Income, Death Penalty and Freedom of Speech/Right to Organize

Now comes the work of helping students understand how to deeply research their resolved positions and put together the foundation of good debate. I enlisted the aid of my librarian. We are currently compiling resources and an approach to helping students utilize the research to develop various appeals for their side of the debate. Stay tuned!

Eating the Elephant


I realized this morning I have been remiss in my blogging efforts. I have retreated into my first love…writing in journals. There is something about a slim Moleskin notebook and my favorite pen that just gets me. I am of that generation where computers were just emerging and everything was still done old school paper and pencil. I use technology when it is important and helps extend something I want to accomplish, but I am not a “tool for the tool’s sake” user. Hence most of my reflecting and ideating exists only in my journal collection. Recently though, I have been asked about some of the interesting happenings in my classes and when I was looking for one of my blog posts to send links to, I saw I had not posted any of those thoughts or resources.

One of the projects I am known for in my school district is the 20 Time Project (Innovation Hour). In the past two years, it has continually refined. Last year was my most successful group of projects yet. I learned the importance of showing students what resources are out there and helping them figure out how to get them. Project-Based Learning is the darling of school focus right now, but I don’t think the powers that be often think about how difficult PBL can be in a public school. Public schools have very little monetary resources for anything other than testing and remediation, are mired into a lockstep curriculum and often have staffs not quite as willing to go maverick when faced with punitive backlash if test scores drop. There is the added layer that many of the teachers in public schools have been there a long time and are used to weathering the storm of new vernacular and hot approaches. Not to say there are not great administrators (I have been particularly lucky) and forward-thinking educators out there, but it is the exception not the rule. I also think teachers can get overwhelmed because they try to eat the elephant all at once rather than little bites at a time. Beyond the resources and regulation, there is the basic structure of a public school with its desks in neat rows, white walls, strict bell system and industrialized view of education. All of this from environment to curriculum stack the odds against the success of PBL in public schools. It can work, but it takes a lot of patience, planning and willingness to adapt everything…sometimes on the fly. It works for me, but that is because those requirements are pretty integral to my character.

So, you are probably thinking blah, blah, blah, where are the resources? In thinking about the 20 time successes and failures over the past two years and what I have seen thus far this year, there are some definite must-dos and some still sort of gray, maybe this will work with this group of students, maybe not areas. I think one of the most important things you can do to get this project off the ground is communicate to parents clearly about every aspect of the project. I send a parent/guardian letter home the first day of school. Here is mine (adapted from Kevin Brookhouser’s original).


The very next thing that has to happen is immersion of students into the world of what 20 time can be. I do this through TED Talks, examples of entrepreneurship, volunteerism, passion-based projects…just everything you can get your hands on. Below is a link to my Youtube channel for 20 time inspiration. Feel free to subscribe; I update it when I find or create a new resource for 20 time. There is also a link to a previous post where I outline TED talks I use and how I use each one.

Honaker’s 20 Time Youtube Channel

Resources for Innovation Hour project

Something new this year I really liked was speed dating during brainstorming. Basically, after a couple of weeks of talking about the project, looking at inspirational ideas and viewing advice from last year’s students, we made a list of a few of our ideas and why they were important to us and then we moved around the room with stopwatches. Each student rotated through each other with only five minutes to introduce their ideas and respond to each other. This got the creative juices going and by the time we came back together as a large group, they were excited. This led into them starting to think about their pitch proposals. Pitches are an integral part of the process because it forces students to think about the viability of the project and to start doing some of the research necessary to any project’s success. They must pitch “Shark Tank” style and also provide a hard copy of the outline of their proposal. Each audience member fills out a praise and possibilities feedback form as exit tickets.

Pitch Requirements:

  • Outline of Project- what are you doing?
  • Who will you work with
  • Why is this project worthwhile- personally important to you, beneficial to society, passionate interest
  • Who is your audience/client base
  • Estimated budget (must show you have researched actual costs)
  • Timeline- how will you complete your project incrementally (think backward design, what is your end goal, move back from there)

Often after pitch proposals, students adapt and change their projects. The next class after proposals, I teach them how to set up their progress blogs and for their first post they must respond to all the feedback they received. This allows them to take a deep look at what their peers, community members and teachers thought about their idea. At their hearts, many students want to make the world better and sometimes when I introduce this project, they think they have to do something service-oriented. This year alone I had conversations with three students who pitched projects that were altruistic, but I could tell their passion was not in it and this type of project is never successful if the student does not love what they are doing. This is the moment when you have to step in as the guide and make them really question their purpose for choosing a particular direction to ensure they land on something they will not hate after two months of working on it. My students use WordPress blogs because I am familiar with the format, but you could use whatever you are comfortable with. The blogs are incredibly important so you can keep tabs on student progress, give them feedback and see the cool stuff they are doing. Blog requirements are outlined in the attached parent/guardian letter.

Once you get to this point, it is pretty much smooth for the next couple of months. My students get every other Friday to work on their projects and I spend those class periods helping them write grants, reading and responding to their blogs and floating around to check in on their work. These are very self-directed classes so they offer lots of freedom for the teacher to have individual contact with the students. Around November students are required to compile a status report. I implemented that last year to alleviate the problem of getting to the end and finding the project will not work out. It is a sanity check for myself and the students. It also makes them take a hard look at challenges they faced, how they overcame or didn’t and where they are on budget.


Last year, I realized that shortening the projects to one semester hindered some of my groups from finishing what they started for a number of reasons. My first year students complained a full year was too long so I went to a semester with presentation in the Spring. When it started becoming apparent some groups would not finish in December last year, I adapted. The groups that finished before break could have their 20 time Fridays throughout January and February to prepare presentations and tie up final project requirements. the groups that needed more time could continue actual project work , but would need to complete presentation and final requirements outside class. It worked beautifully. The kids that needed more time to finish their Frisbee Golf Course (funded through a student-written grant) construction had it, the young lady working on zoo murals with 4th graders (funded through a student-written grant) had it and the group that completed their Out of the Darkness walk and fundraiser had time to wrap up their presentation and final requirements. The extra, flexible time allowed students to finish up whatever way made most sense for them. Projects wrapped the week of April 14th. Students turned in all final requirements and participated in our school’s Titan 21 Exhibition night to present to the student body, as well as faculty and community members.

20 Time wrap-up

Requirements for the end of 20 Time projects:

  • Final video reflection describing outcomes and advice to next year’s 20 timers, 3-5 minutes
  • Final presentation at Titan 21 night April 14th, must be interactive
  • Final reflection on 20 Time model- blog that outlines what worked and did not work about the project, not yours personally but 20 time in general (timetables, pitch proposals, class time, blogs etc.)

In two years through these projects, our community has gained a set of murals on permanent display at Mill Mountain Zoo, a Frisbee Golf course, two novels published through Lulu, a suicide awareness club at HV, an Instagram channel about the beauty of Roanoke and myriad other amazing accomplishments. This project continually shows me what school could be. Below is a link to my collection on Digital Is, an incredible website from the National Writing Project that houses resources for teachers. NWP awarded me my first grant for this project that helped buy our first video camera to record all this great work. I will be forever grateful!

Digital Is 20 time collection


Resources for Innovation Hour project

Sitting in my library looking out on the quiet street, my thoughts have turned to curriculum planning for next year, which is only a few short weeks away. I have thought a great deal about the 20% Time project for last year and started to develop some resources to help me stay more on track with this new crop of students I will meet shortly. As I implemented the 20 Time model last year, I found TED Talks, and Youtube videos to be particularly helpful along the way. Below are the links to the the resources I used, as well as a short description of how I used them.

“The Puzzle of Motivation” by Dan Pink

I used this TED Talk on the first day of class as an opener to talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, as well as a segway into discussion of the Innovation Hour project. I followed this up with Chris Kesler’s Youtube video “What is Genius Hour?“.  I will also show our own Innovation Hour video this year since I now have student examples.

Another important step to getting this project off on the right foot, is to provide students some real-world examples of people following their bliss and finding success. Last year I showed Apple’s ipad commercial, “Slow Roll,” that features a Detroit entrepreneur working to revitalize his city with bike tours. I also showed them the Holstee Manifesto– another great resource for people running a company with passion. I plan to include the “Ben and Jerry” story this year as well after seeing it on the factory tour- two guys making ice cream in a gas station because they loved it, what better inspiration can you get? The point is to get students to see the value of doing something that you love and how the passion you have for an idea can drive success.

The next step once students decide on an idea for how they want to spend their 20% class time, is the pitch proposal. Shark Tank has become an increasingly popular TV show and Business Insider wrote an article outlining some of the most successful pitches. I plan to use this as a resource this year to help students prepare to pitch their ideas to peers and administration. Most students are readily familiar with the show though, and you could just talk them through a pitch. I also plan to use a clip from “Thirteen Going on Thirty” where Jennifer Garner pitches her magazine idea to the think tank. It is a fun clip and focused less on funding, and more on concepts. This will help some of my students who plan less business-like projects.

The next few months are spent with students doing the actual work of the project. In January, we turn to presentation planning. After experimenting with a number of TED Talks last year, I have whittled down my list to what I consider the most important ones and students plan presentations. Here they are in the order I think they should be shown and discussed:

“How to Live Before You Die”– Steve Jobs

“8 Secrets of Success”– Richard St. John

“What Fear Can Teach Us”– Karen Thompson Walker

“Teach Every Child About Food”– Jamie Oliver

“Start with Why”– Simon Sinek

“Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce”– Malcolm Gladwell

I also like the videos on Toastmasters. They have approachable tips for students about public speaking, AND they will come and speak to your students if you have a local chapter and ask far enough in advance. Unfortunately, I asked too late last year and was not able to schedule a speaker, but they have promised to come next year with enough advanced notice!

Each video has something to offer for presentations, from structure, to catchphrases, to opening and closing effectively. Students are used to giving presentations to a comfortable group of peers, but many have never spoken in front of a large audience. This is scary, but happens a lot in the “real world” which makes public speaking an important skill for them to leave high school having acquired. Preparation and practice are two things I can’t stress enough. They need dry runs, videos of themselves to critique and lots of feedback before the actual event. I fell down on this some last year, but plan to be ready next year!

20 Time presentations and iSearch Papers


With all the snow, I have had some time to reflect on what we need to accomplish in my classes as we draw near to the end of 3rd nine weeks. It also gave me time to order a few things to support my students’ 20 Time projects. One of the great fears of most students is public speaking. Being able to communicate a message effectively to an audience is such an important skill to possess that I decided to spend some extra time on that aspect of the 20 Time projects. I am a huge fan of TED Talks and show them regularly in class as bounce points for discussion or journal writing. You can find a talk on pretty much any topic you might want to explore and there are new ones being added all the time. Preparing my students to deliver a TED-like talk will be a daunting task so I decided to order a couple books. I bought Talk Like TED and How to deliver a TED Talk to help me with my students’ public speaking skills. I deliver presentations to large audiences myself, so hopefully between what I learn from the books and what I already know, I can help my students craft great presentations.

I have come to realize that the model I set up with the 20 Time projects is too lengthy to keep students engaged. There was alot of excitement when we first embarked on these projects and some students have kept up with that drive to learn, but many are lagging at this point. When I changed the model to be just two blogs a month about progress and one day every other week devoted solely to the projects, I thought that would help students focus more on what they wanted to accomplish. I have come to realize now that this project should be more of a semester-long quest rather than a whole school year. The students that chose smaller ideas to pursue are starting to stall and the blogs reflect that stagnation. I think when I set this up next year, I will make it a semester pursuit, but will allow the option to continue on throughout the year for those it makes sense to. I will have to figure out how to incorporate it into second semester for those who want to continue, but that is something to think about over the summer.

I have also realized that two weeks of snow days really crunches trying to get these presentation in around Spring Break. My other impediment is the AP exam window in May. I know many of my students will be out those two weeks in May for various AP exams and it would not be prudent to try and plan presentations leading up to them or during the window since students will be spending all of their mental energy preparing for those exams. So, as much as I wanted to finish these in April, I am going to have to push them to the third week of May. The good news with that is two of my groups are doing school-wide activities as their culminating products, a “Keep Rec Sports Alive” football camp and a March Madness-style basketball tournament, “Gilbert’s Game,” in honor of a beloved faculty member with breast cancer to help pay bills and support her through her time of need. Both of these large-scale projects are happening in late April and early May so the students will actually be able to present on their full projects. I think next year I will also add a required research element to the projects, probably before the Pitch Proposals to add another layer to what we can explore with the projects and maybe give kids more ideas about what to pursue. The other thing I have been kicking around is a response element so students are actively looking at each other’s projects and maybe providing some feedback. They are always excited to hear about what others are doing when we talk about it in class, but few actively go out and read other’s blogs. I think a discussion/feedback element would aid in keeping the students excited about what they are doing.

In some of my senior classes (non-AP), my students have started an iSearch project. I read about iSearch papers a couple of years ago in Ken Macrorie’s book, The I-Search Paper: Revised Edition of Searching and Writing. I like the iSearch format because it gives room for a more personal approach to research. The paper becomes not just a regurgitation of what is already out there, but an avenue to add your own voice to that body of research. I find too, the narrative approach to research makes the inquiry more meaningful and relatable to the student’s life. So,I asked students to think about something they are interested in doing the year after graduation- career or personally- to spend some time researching and writing about. I widened the parameters more than I usually do and told them to think about ideally what they would want to do if given any option. Last year, I held it to just researching a career or college program they planned to enter. I realized as I was talking to them about their projects, that some had followed on to what they are doing with their 20 Time projects. I have students writing novels that want to be professional writers after high school and students working with animal care agencies that want to pursue Wildlife Biology and Veterinary Science after graduation. It was pretty cool to see this tie-in to what they have been pursuing all year. One thing I always require with research is a personal interview. I think it is important to talk to somebody who has walked in the shoes you aspire to wear.  It gives you a better idea of what it takes to be successful and the pitfalls you might face. I also realize that sometimes students don’t know where to start with finding an interview subject, so I always offer my resources to find an interview. I was able to hook up one of my students with a Wildlife Biologist for the State of Virginia and two of my writers with published poets. There is no substitute for interacting with people practicing in the field you want to be a part of. It is interesting to see how curriculum can become so interconnected when you make it driven by student choice and voice. It is not always easy as a teacher to let the control go, but the reward with the students is worth it.

It all started with a post-it note….


The fat flakes of snow are falling outside my classroom window and many students stayed home today. It feels like a good time to reflect on what happened in the classroom this week. It seems cliche but when the holidays come around I feel a need to get my students in touch with what we should appreciate but maybe don’t always take the time to. I did this personally with my daughter this week. I slipped a note in her lunchbox letting her know how beautiful I think she is and how lucky I am to have her as a daughter. She one-upped me by leaving the above note in my lunchbox. As I read it my heart warmed and I realized we don’t do this kind of thing enough- appreciating each other. Not just myself, but everybody. It made me think about how I could take this idea to my students. I started researching on the TED site and came across a talk that drew me in.   Candy Chang’s TED talk about discourse in public spaces caught my eye and then held my captivation. I knew after watching it I wanted my students to be inspired by it as well. Chang focuses her art on public spaces that have been neglected or abandoned. She invites the communities surrounding those structures to come together and share their thoughts and feelings in a public way.  Below is a picture from her website “Before I Die” depicting one of her public art spaces in New Orleans.


We watched Chang’s TED talk in class and then created or own public art piece to hang in the classroom for all my students to see. I was impressed by how much time each student took to decide what they wanted to write. I shared my sentiment on the board as well- to visit the 10 most unique bookstores in the world.

IMG_1164When we finished the students lamented how much they wished we could do this like the original and create a chalkboard space for the whole school to add to. I told them I would talk to administration and see what they say about creating a public art space for aspirations and dreams. So often we keep much of our internal thoughts and dreams to ourselves. I think projects like this can be unifiers. I saw that with my students as they read eachother’s private hopes. It brought us closer as a classroom community and sparked some great discussion about gap years and what we really want out of life.

Chang’s TED talk was a great segway into the other activity I wanted to introduce to my classes- Operation Beautiful. Our nation has experienced deep tragedy at schools across the nation over the last few years and much of it is attributable to bullying. Our school has experienced some of this tragedy first hand and we seem to always be asking the question “What can we do to help our students?” As I was planning this week’s activities, I came across the below news story about a girl from Calgary, Canada who was bullied and found a different answer for her bullies:

I love the message of this video and subsequent campaign and I wanted my students to think about how they treat each other and those people they encounter outside of my classroom. Sunday I went to my local Staples and bought all of the motivational post-its they had. The motivational post-it line has a quote on each note that imparts some sort of thoughtful message. After we watched the video and explored the Operation Beautiful website, I brought out the post-its and explained the task I charged my students with. Their assignment is to find some way to perform an act of decency for another human being between now and December 15th. I offered them the option of the post-its, suggested venues and talked about the different types of activities they could initiate to fulfill their task. Some planned to hand out inspirational messages outside of our local Rescue Mission, others have plans to go to the public library and leave notes in books and others went immediately out to start their acts. It was inspirational to see the conversations about the great things they could accomplish between now and December. Part of their assignment is to document their random acts of kindness in some way. On December 15th we will have a Humanity Showcase. I will make some goodies and the students will share all the beautiful things they have done over the month. I can’t wait to see what they come up with. So often as teachers we get caught up in the curriculum and the skills that we forget we are teaching humans. It is not part of the standards, but the greatest thing we can impart to our students is how to be humane.

TED Talks, 20Time, Writing Marathons and This I Believe

The cap is finally on this crazy week! Being a Yearbook sponsor, my life often feels like moments of pure chaos punctuated by drops of insanity as I run between rooms and try to juggle teaching my classroom students with the weird responsibilities of producing a yearbook. Shuffling around this week, I realized my students needed to stop and experience something inspiring…take a moment to think about the world they live in and the role they play. We went on a Writing Marathon around the school and spent some time thinking through our writing using difficult topics. The Writing Marathon is inspired by what we do at the Blue Ridge Writing Project each year as a cap to our Young Writer’s Workshop and ISI. At BRWP we run around VA Tech campus, write and share; for my purposes we ran around our high school, wrote and shared. The backbone of the writing marathon is you are given a prompt, you write for a few minutes and you share what you wrote if you feel comfortable, hut nobody provides any feedback. Then you move on to the next spot and repeat. Knowing we were moving into “This I Believe” essays, I created some prompts to get students thinking about decisions they had made and values they hold dear. They were slightly unnerved at first- not knowing exactly what we were getting into as we left the classroom with just notebooks and pens, but after my sharing at the first stop, they embraced the marathon. Not all of the students shared the writing with the group but I could tell the ones that did affected the group. One student commented later about the insight she gained from hearing another student’s writing. I use the marathon as a vehicle to inspire writing larger pieces or as a precursor to Harkness Discussions. When we got back to the classroom, we viewed the Holstee Manifesto– an awesome look at one company’s values and wrote our own manifestos using the marathon writings and Holstee as our inspiration. It was the perfect start to our  “This I Believe”  essays.

After reading journals last week and workshopping with the students on their 20Time blogs, I realized there was a TED talk they needed to see. Many of the students mentioned bullying or peer pressure in their journals and blogs. “To the Bullied and the Beautiful” is a spoken-word poem that went viral on Youtube a few years ago and TED invited the writer to present it at one of their conferences. The talk  is inspiring and so relevant to students. Shane gets at the crux of what it is to be a high school student and the pressures and pitfalls students face. The room was silent as he was speaking and when it finished, snaps ala a live poetry reading filled the space. We immediately wrote about what we saw. The pens were furiously moving across the page as students explored their own experiences relating to Shane’s talk. I asked for volunteer shares at the end but the room was quiet. I went ahead and shared mine and a couple of hands went up to also read. It made me feel like we are going to get there with that safe space community of writers. After all of the build-up, the students dove right into their essays. One girl wrote about Centerfield in softball, another wrote about looking people in the eye, yet another wrote about what their dog has taught them and on and on…Just great stuff! I look forward to some “Pimp my Write” and deep revision next week!