The Educate For A Change Story


The Educate For A Change story begins in the staff lunchroom. Most of the teachers at Woodlake Valley Middle School take their lunch to their rooms where they can get paperwork done, and supervise students who have "tasks remaining".

I was teaching 7th grade language arts and choir, and at lunchtime, I needed to get out of the room and have interaction with adults. My lunch buddy, Ryan Sager was of the same mind.

Ryan came to Woodlake Valley Middle School to fill the vacant slot in 8th grade science. He taught in this assignment for a couple of years before the principal approached him to see how he might feel about taking over the woodshop class. In a series of discussions, Ryan and the principal determined that Ryan would leave 8th grade science and teach several "applied arts" classes, expanding our elective selections for 7th and 8th graders.

Ryan's schedule would have several woodshop classes, and courses in computer technology and robotics. Ryan's biggest concerns were in certain aspects of taking over the woodshop program. He came into the staff room one spring day and told me that he would be starting a woodshop program in the Fall. He said that he needed to create the entire program from scratch, as the retiring teacher had no real organization in place. He said that he knew how to teach the skills, but he was unsure about how to structure the curriculum, what to teach and when, and how to establish performance and grading standards.


Ryan came up with the idea of drawing on the traditions of the old world craftsmen's guilds. The idea was that if you were in the woodshop class, then first of all, you are there to learn to make, and actually produce fine wood products. From this premise we constructed the following guidelines:

1) Assignments will be sequential, beginning with fundamental concepts and skills upon which all subsequent lessons and assignments will rest. A number of essential lessons will be completed in the "drafting room" before a student is allowed to actually go into the woodshop. These essential lessons include knowledge of safety rules, and basic skills such as measurement and elements of design.

2) Each and every assignment must be completed at an "A" grade proficiency, before the assignment is complete, and before the student is allowed to advance to the next assignment.

3) Each assignment has a weighted point value. Time consuming assignments and assignments that require higher skills will be worth more points.

4) A student's cumulative grade will be based on the total points earned by completing assignments.

5) Basic to intermediate assignments will be mandatory, and all students will complete them. Advanced assignments will be chosen from a range of projects that carry varying point values. A student could select to do more low-point assignments, or choose to do fewer high-point assignments.

We turned this model over and around looking for errors and omissions, but we were unable to find defects in our reasoning. We thought we really had something, and we were anxious to see how it would work. The following Fall, Ryan implemented the plan in his woodshop.

Students were stunned when they learned that the only grade that would be given on any assignment would be an "A", and that they would have to achieve an "A" before moving on to others assignments. Their most common objection was: "What if it's too hard for me?"

Ryan's answer was: "It won't be too hard for you. We'll start with very easy stuff and you'll really learn it. By really learning the first stuff, the later stuff won't be so hard. I'll never give you an assignment that you can't get an "A " on if you apply yourself. Some of you may work a little faster, and some may work a little slower. That's o.k., as long as you're doing your best, you'll be successful!"

As the year unfolded, we continually discussed what was happening in Ryan's shop. It was very early on that we knew that the model was working. I will illustrate just how well it was working later in this account, but first I'd like to describe what we did next.


As the first year of implementation began, we were discussing it at every lunch. Almost immediately, our conversation turned from woodshop to general principals of education. We began to inquire, "If this works so well in a woodshop, how would it work in other subject matters? Or, in all subjects? If a whole educational system was built around these principals, what would have to change? What would stay the same? What innovations would have to be put in place?"

We began a five-year investigation into all things educational. The staff room became our think tank. No teacher who ate lunch in there was exempt from having their brain picked as we churned through issue after issue.

I would go home each evening and plow through literature and endless websites, digesting every possible commentary on the state of education today, and the last 50 years of innovations and interventions.

My weekends were filled with the same. The educate for a change folder on my hard drive is bloated with articles that argue for and against just about every practice or proposal in a half-century of American and international education. Each night of research led to new discussions with Ryan on the following day. Each fascinating factoid would serve as a springboard to an in-depth analysis of our model. We continually ask "If...then" questions. We constantly asked ourselves, "If this model was in place, what absolutely necessary components have to be added to make it work for all students in all subject areas?"

Without going into great detail, let me relate that there were dozens and dozens of ideas that we drew from the vast body of educational innovations literature. We would place them into our model and test them through logic based on our guiding principles.

In many cases, we would find that contemporary concepts had no place in the scheme. We determined that the fundamental changes we were conceiving didn't require the kinds of backup systems that were becoming entrenched in our schools today.

We did, however, find that new kinds of support systems would be needed for students to have a meaningful experience in school. ? Another large component of our discussions was the "What about...." questions. This included a long list of problems that educators are always grappling with. Here are few:

1) What about kids who don't understand English, or don't understand the language of instruction?

2) What about kids who enter our system ahead, or behind?

3) What about parents who don't or can't support their student's education?

4) What about chronic behavior problems?

5) What about physical and mental health issues?

6) What about motivation?

7) What about kids who don't respond under any circumstances?

8) What about accountability?

9) What about test scores?

10) What about curriculum content and teaching methods?

I'm sure there are many others in my pile of mental notes, but these should be enough to let the reader know that we made every attempt to leave no stone unturned. We worked through these questions multiple times over our 5 year inquiry period. We constructed, de-constructed, and re-constructed our model countless times. We would follow logical conceptual paths for days at a time, only to find some dissonance that demanded we pull out our cognitive erasers and take two steps back.

As it turned out, a big part of our work was to put contemporary ideas into our model and determine exactly why they did or didn't fit. Most of today's innovations simply didn't fit. We began to see most innovations and interventions as band-aids stuck on a hemorraging patient with a terminal illness.


We began to clearly see how fundamentally wrong our educational system is, and how a few major changes in the foundation would transform our students and our schools.

As we built the comprehensive model, we concluded that the model itself would virtually eliminate the vast majority of issues that have been addressed and unresolved over the last 5 decades. We often considered that for every rule there are some exceptions. We determined that a public school system should be conceived to satisfy the needs of the vast majority of students, and that the school system and other societal agencies should work together to address the exceptional needs.

It has become our opinion that our current system is so busy addressing exceptional needs that we have lost sight of our real purpose: "To really educate our students." In fact, we believe that our current system is creating many of the problems it continually struggles to resolve.

At the end of our 5-year work, we found ourselves looking at the model and desperately trying to figure out whether it was complete or not. We continually were asking ourselves if it was possible that we had finished the task. We kept asking ourselves: "What's missing?" and "What's wrong?"


We went into a phase where we were presenting the model to other educators and to parents. We constantly found ourselves answering the very same questions that we had wrestled with countless times. We found that our answers made sense to everyone we spoke with.

In fact, the only variable in our discussions with others was the amount time it took someone to step outside of the box, clearly see the model, and completely embrace it. We have found acceptance for the model in virtually every instance.

There were two negative exceptions out of over one hundred cases, and in both instances we were showing the model to people who had a very deep commitment to the status-quo. One was an educator who had tried and failed in his reform attempts. He was so bitter and pessimistic that he favored the end of public education and was now marketing himself as an expert in alternative education. The other was a university professor who had built up a following for himself as a champion of education reform through a "social justice" model. He was deeply committed to his path. You could even buy t-shirts and coffee mugs on his website.

We have determined that we are not going to target anyone who has a vested interest in the failing status-quo. Our message is for educators, parents, and business and industry leaders who are motivated enough to work for our goals. Among this group we have had one hundred percent success.


But back to a previous question: Is it working? What's going on in the woodshop? This can best be illustrated by telling an account from the Fall of 2007.

Ryan had four periods of woodshop at that time. He came into the staff lunch room, one day early in October and related the following: "I don't know what to do with my 5th period class. Not one of them has completed the preliminary assignments. They are all in the drafting room. Not one of them has "graduated" into the actual woodshop. Almost all of the kids in my other three classes have been in the woodshop for over a week now. I can't get the 5th period class motivated! What am I going to do?"

It seems that 5th period was one of "those" classes, where a disproportionate share of the students was underachieving in all of their classes. Suffice it to say that these students did not rank high on the motivational scale.

We discussed the dilemma and concluded that Ryan should do nothing other than what he'd been doing all along. Appropriate encouragement, reinforcing instruction, and letting the students work it out for themselves.

It's important for the reader to have a visual concept of the physical layout of the shop program. The class is conducted in two adjacent areas. One area is filled with large rectangular tables that are used for drafting. There are also two dozen laptop computers that are on a wireless network. These can be moved around the room as needed.

All beginning woodshop students start in this area. They must complete a number of lessons and projects involving shop safety and elements of design. They must complete every assignment at an "A" grade level before moving to the next lesson. Ryan's office space is located in between the drafting area and the machine shop area. When a student has completed all of their preliminary assignments, they actually pass through his office into the woodshop. This is seen by the students as a "rite of passage". Ryan and I liken it to a birth canal.

So here it was seven weeks into school and none of the 5th period students had made the trip to the other side. But that was about to change! Finally, one student in 5th period actually completed all of the preliminary assignments. He was about 3 weeks behind the average woodshop student in the other classes, but he entered that shop as a straight "A" student, in terms of his completed work to date.

Can you guess what happened next with the 5th period class?

That's right; Within one week of the first student moving into the woodshop, about one-third of the other students in the 5th period class finished all of their work, again at an "A" level, and made the trip through the birthing canal.

Another third made the trip during the next week. Finally a little more than three weeks after the first student's achievement, the last of the students finished the work and "graduated" to the woodshop.

There are several important things to understand here:

1) Ryan made absolutely no special accommodation for any of the students. He did not intervene. He provided the same instruction, reinforcement, and encouragement to every student. Students who needed additional instruction were given it as needed, but that is the norm in Ryan's class.

2) There are only two variables here. Educate For A Change believes that the only thing that all students need to succeed are adequate instruction and sufficient time. The amount of instruction and the amount of time are the variables. (One could argue that the "type" of instruction could also be a variable. We are taking that into account under the term "adequate" instruction. We believe that multi-modal instruction should be the norm, and that students should be given the resources to learn in their particular style.)

3) Every student completed their tasks at an "A" level. The tasks are designed so that no student can short-cut the system. All of the work is their own, and it must completely demonstrate proficiency in the knowledge, skills, and understandings that are required.

4) Now here's the most important thing of all. When that last student made the "rite of passage", (over three weeks later than the first), he was as proud, confident, and motivated as the first one. He was a grade "A" shop student, possessing all the learning of every other student in all the other classes. He was ready to perform in the woodshop as a budding craftsman. He now understood that only high-quality work was acceptable. In a word - he was "transformed"!

We ask you to consider, "What more can you ask of an educational experience?"

We have diligently constructed Educate For A Change to be applicable in all learning disciplines, not just woodshop. Won't you give Educate For A Change your most careful attention, and by all means, please question us, challenge us, and help us to make this most profoundly significant change in the art and science of education?



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