Chalk Dust Torture

I think of my humanities class as basically a project based course.

I rarely give paper and pencil tests.  Partly because I hated taking them when I was a student, partly because I hate grading them as a teacher and partly because I just believe there are better ways to demonstrate understanding.

flickr photo by topgold shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
flickr photo by topgold shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Even the Google Educator Certification exam I recently took (and passed) was primarily project based.  Sure there were some fill in the blanks and such, but mostly the course teaches you to use the tools and therefore you must demonstrate your use of them to pass the exam. Makes a lot of sense.

I also stay as far away from lecture and straight text book reading as I can. Again, I suffered the torture of chalk dust and lectures for far too much of my own education. I prefer to have my students research, build their knowledge and then find ways to demonstrate that knowledge.  In recent years I’ve gotten better at this as well.  I reached my threshold on posters and slide shows and have begun challenging students to find different ways to present their learning.  I want them to feel challenged, to reach a level of satisfaction and then push them to reach a little further.

This year, we’ve started a class blog (it would be awesome if you would visit and leave a comment) and the current project in class is culminating with a Google Hangout on Air (November 16 & 17 if you’re interested) where the students will debate if their event was truly a revolution.

Slowly I’m figuring out ways to add more authenticity to student projects.  

I feel bad for and would like to formally apologize to the hundreds of students who have passed through my classes and turned in projects that were destined to live about the counters of my room and eventually be recycled or simply tossed out when the dust covering them became too much to bear.

I found inspiration in fellow COETAILers posts this week as I began to write.  I whole heartedly agree with Brad Evans point that project based learning means students taking risks and finding the courage to fail.  I applaud my students for not completely balking when I told them we would use GHO on this project.  They were excited and eager to see what they can do.

flickr photo by giulia.forsythe shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license
flickr photo by giulia.forsythe shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Then Joceyln Sutherland shared a fantastic example of a project making a difference in the local community which struck another chord with me as our school continues to push us to implement service learning into our classes.

So, as it should be, I’m still learning.

I love that these courses and the cohort around me continues to push my learning and my teaching with new and exciting challenges.  Some of them I’ve been dabbling in for years and still trying to figure out how to get them right, others are brand new.  All of them are keeping me on my toes and eager to head into the class and say to my kids,

“Alright, you guys want to try something new?”



  1. Stephanie Thompson says:

    Hi Ryan
    Something you’ve touched on in your post is this idea that the learning should be purposeful. As educators we tend rush quickly to the what and the how, yet the question of the disengaged child is always the same. ‘Why are we learning this?’ If you haven’t already, I suggest you look at Simon Sinek’s start with the why. There’s a great book and inevitably a TED talk as well.



    1. Ryan Harwood says:

      Thanks Stephanie. I’ll look forward to checking out these resources. I do believe that learning should be purposeful. Its something that I continue to work on. I often tell my students I’m more worried about helping them learn to think critically than to remember names and dates. I feel that becomes more and more true as the information becomes increasingly easier to access.


  2. Pana Asavavatana says:

    Gosh how I wish you were my teacher back in the day! Ohh…I remember the chalkboard lectures where my teacher began the class at one end of the board and very meticulously outlined the lesson across the board as she spoke throughout the duration of the period. I mean, definitely a lot of effort put into summarizing the entire lesson and laying it out beautifully on the board! I don’t think I could achieve that sort of chalkboard layout/design!

    Moving back to the present day, I applaud how you have continued to push yourself to find new ways to challenge your students, push their thinking, and apply their understanding in different ways. I also think it is very important to always be trying new things with and for your students.

    Yes, CoETaIL has the wonderful effect of creating these mini cohort communities within a larger community, isn’t it great?! These are the people that will continue to push your thinking and the way you teach…the great news is, the community will only get bigger so your sources for inspiration will be endless! I am so happy that CoETaIL has performed it’s magic once again! 😉

    Your students are very lucky to have a teacher like you!



    1. Ryan Harwood says:

      Thanks for the kind words Pana. I remember much of the same. Or later, the entire roll of overhead film being used up as the teacher sat and wrote and talked and wrote. Miserable.

      I love trying new things with my students and I feel like they truly appreciate it. Hopefully it helps them build a sense of comfort in the class to try new things on their own. I don’t have hard research on it, but I can hope.

      As for CoETaIL, yes it is magical and I look forward to someday meeting some of the amazing people involved. I’ve enjoyed my experience so far and often encourage others to check it out.


  3. Matt Fron says:

    After seeing the title I just had to read the post; after reading the post I just had to comment. One of the big advantages to your approach of using authentic assessment (or PBL, PBL, CBL) is the intrinsic motivation sparked in the students. With more options for how to express themselves, and an authentic, contextualized project, students will think more and try more. Rather than, as Trey sings, wanting school to “wait ’til I’m old; can I live while I’m young?!”, school BECOMES living. I think a good gauge of the success of a project is if students can’t stop talking about it: to their peers, to their parents, to the world on social media. That helps ingrain the skills and problem-solving strategies a bit deeper, and helps them overcome future challenges. Who knows? Like Phish’s Gamehendge (, perhaps a class project will go on to be performed decades later.


    1. Ryan Harwood says:

      I think the idea of properly contextualised projects definitely encourage students to be more engaged. It is still difficult to find ways to catch them all, but lots of choice and self direction seems to be helping. It isn’t always easy, I don’t claim to be an expert, but it certainly is a lot more fun than many of my classes in school. And, if one of my students ended up performing a project developed in my class at sold out arenas I would retire a very happy man.


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