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April 4, 2016
A Tale of Two Conferences (Part One - Deeper Learning)

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

I’ve been to a lot of conferences in my career in education, as a teacher- attendee and since 2001 as a representative of BIE. We’ve found that presenting a session to a roomful of people, sometimes accompanied by a booth in the exhibit hall, is great way to draw newcomers to PBL, share what we create and learn, and connect with veteran fellow travelers.

But it didn’t always used to be a roomful of people. From 1998-2006, BIE mainly focused on creating problem-based curriculum units for high school economics and government. In that benighted decade of the early 2000s, deep in the shadow of NCLB, we felt like we were carrying the torch for PBL with only a few followers still with us. I remember going to various far-flung state conferences for social studies teachers, like one in Lansing, Michigan (in mid-winter, a California boy without proper clothing) where I had fewer than 10 people in my session. Since 2010, of course, interest in PBL has taken off, and now BIE’s sessions are usually overflowing, SRO events.

In the last two weeks I’ve hit the road again to attend two very different conferences, each of which has told me something about the state of PBL in our union. One was the Deeper Learning conference at High Tech High in San Diego, California, March 22-24, and the other (where I sit as I write this) is the ASCD Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Deeper Learning conference at High Tech High was a gathering of educators from schools in the Deeper Learning Network and those who wanted to learn from them. Representatives from most of what I think of as the “progressive” wing of the school reform movement were there, including New Tech Network, Big Picture, New Visions for Public Schools, Expeditionary Learning, Envision, plus several innovative schools (good to see our friends from Eagle Rock in Colorado) and other like-minded organizations. This event has grown rapidly, like BIE’s PBL World, from a few hundred attendees just a few years ago to almost 1000 now. But like PBL World, the event still has a homemade flavor that reflects the style and values of its host.

At High Tech High, we were treated to rousing keynotes from the leaders and students from the High School for the Recording Arts (HSRA) in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Our friend Sam Seidel, who has keynoted PBL World and authored the great book Hip Hop Genius, worked at the school.) The theme of the conference was equity, and HSRA Executive Director Tony Simmons, a lawyer who co-founded the school with David Ellis, spoke about his personal journey to deeper learning and how the school turns lives around for the students it serves.  Here’s how HSRA describes its mission:

HSRA is a project-based, public charter school that operates within and around a professional recording studio. Students earn time in the studio by completing academic projects in the core learning areas of English, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies. HSRA encourages students who may have dropped out or been expelled from traditional schools to complete their diplomas through a love of music and the music business.

Simmon’s talk was followed by a performance by rapper Talib Kweli from Brooklyn, NY. (We had also been treated to the rockin’ sounds of the Deeper Learning Band, composed of teachers from various High Tech schools, who composed original songs for the occasion – nice work folks.)

The next day’s keynote was given by David “TC” Ellis, who told of his love for hip-hop and rise through the music business (he worked with Prince!) and what led him to co-found HSRA:

Through musical work with a number of young black men who had
dropped out of high school, David discovered these young artists
would often ask questions about how to copyright and publish
their work. Guiding them through the process, Mr. Ellis realized
that these youths could engage in educational processes while
pursuing their career in music.


Ellis was followed by two talks -- with performances -- by HSRA students, poet Carli Willis and rapper Lewis McCaleb, who powerfully demonstrated the effectiveness of HSRA (and PBL) in transforming the lives of young people. The audience was on their feet!

(This tale will be continued in a post tomorrow - too much to tell in one sitting!)


Do you have questions or comments, or stories to tell if you attended the DL conference? Please enter them below.


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