Student voices across the curriculum

no bells

I am braving the cold of Minnesota to deliver a follow-up report to the National Writing Project on the $20,000 No Bells, No Walls Innovation LRNG Challenge grant that has helped fund our KTV Broadcast Media program at my middle school. The grant has contributed to the creation of our new media classroom after we moved our student-produced TV show from a before-school club (of about a dozen students) to a dedicated elective classroom. Now we have 64 students participating in the production of a daily, multi-media news show that is broadcast across our campus and archived on YouTube for the community to enjoy.



Fourteen different teacher-teams were awarded a $20,000 LRNG grant, and thirteen of them shared their work today in roundtable sessions at NWP‘s annual meeting. The room was abuzz with stories of innovative, exciting work that is engaging students across the country: from STEM labs to action research; maker rings to passion projects; game design to digital storytelling. As the conversations moved from one table to another, a common theme emerged: one of the most powerful ways we are engaging our students in meaningful learning is by giving them a chance to find their voices, to follow what interests them, and produce new work that comes from their own passions.

As an English and Digital Media teacher, I think it’s pretty easy to give my students opportunities to find their voices: they choose what to write about; they choose what digital projects to pursue; they plan, film and produce their own movie projects. But what about other subject areas? The one that stumps me the most is math. How do math teachers ignite passionate learning and help students find their voices in math class? I would love to hear from any teachers out there who are actively trying to give students unique opportunities to find their passions and voices within their academic work.

Also: now’s the time to apply for the next round of $20,000 grants! Check it out here.

50% means it’s time for a box castle

My students have been working on their novels for a couple weeks now, and as November 15 approaches, they know it’s time to get to 50% of their word goal. When they cross that halfway line, they choose a NaNoWriMo button to wear proudly on their hoodie:


But many of us are starting to feel like we’re running out of steam. The story we were so excited about in October is suddenly boring and annoying, and we need some inspiration. According to writer and pep-talker Robyn Schneider, it’s time for a box castle:

We don’t have room in our classroom for cardboard boxes, blankets and pillows, but we can take Robyn’s advice that a change in location can help vanquish our suck dragons and move us into another great scene in our novels. And we know that just one great scene can lead to another and to another…

So we move outside, or we curl up on carpet squares, or we just roll over for a different view of the classroom. And of course we string up lights, because it isn’t a box castle without lights.







How do you celebrate that magical 50%? And what is your favorite version of a box castle? Where do you go when you need a change of writing scenery?

Our best ideas = your best lessons

What’s the #1 complaint from teachers when attending a conference, workshop, training, or professional development session? Besides not enough chocolate, near the top of my pet peeve list is presenters who are not classroom teachers. Even trainers who were once in the classroom lose a bit of their credibility when I find out they’ve been out of the classroom for a few years. Today’s classroom is an ever-changing place!

The same holds true for books and curriculum: I need teacher-authors to write those books so that I know I am getting tried-and-refined curriculum and strategies that will succeed in today’s classroom. And that’s why I’m excited to be part of the launch of a new series of books for teachers, The Best Lesson Series, which is the brain-and-heart-child of Brian Sztabnik, high school English teacher and Talks with Teachers podcaster.


Brian reached out to English teachers across the country, asking if they would contribute one chapter on one really great literature lesson that has been successful with their students. I was happy to share one of my lessons that helps my students develop their literary analysis skills, but even better is having access to 14 more lessons that have been developed, tested, and refined by boots-on-the-ground, face-to-face-with-students, innovative classrooms teachers.image1

The timing is perfect to check out the first book in the Best Lesson Series, try a chapter for free, and then grab a copy for yourself. You just might find the lesson you need to get you and your students through the holiday craze, another brilliant strategy to welcome them back in January, and 13 more that will energize your teaching for months to come.

Thanks to Brian for putting this all together, and to Todd Finley, Dave Stuart, Jr., Susan Barber, Jori Krulder, Dan Ryder, Heather, Wolpert-Gawron, Josh Stock, Joy Kirr, Amy Rasmussen, Shanna Peeples, Brianna Crowley, Gerard Dawson, and Ruth Arseneault for sharing their best literature lessons.

Now get out there and do what resourceful teachers have always done: steal other teachers’ best lessons!

Do you speak NaNoWriMo?

Today is November 1st, which means WriMos all over the world are silencing inner editors, tackling plot bunnies, vanquishing suck dragons, building box castles, pantsing or plotting, striving for that ever elusive word goal and the bragging rights of winning as they NaNo the night away in Write-Ins with fellow WriMos. They rely on caffeine, sugary snacks (thank you, Halloween), the Dare Machine, Pep Talks, fellow WriMos (both online and in person), Word Wars, NaNo Stats, and an ever growing online community of WriMoVloggers.

Do you speak NaNoWriMo, or did I lose you at “plot bunnies”? Either way, you are sure to be bombarded with NaNoVocab, as your WriMo friends clutter your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram feeds with their daily word goals, #amwriting, word count celebrations, and woe-is-me-I-didn’t-have-time-to-write-today sob stories. To help you understand all things NaNo this month (and possibly entice you to join), I offer you a glossary of NaNoVocab:

NaNoWriMo: the vision that started it all, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to writers everywhere to pen 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in the month of November. The student version from the Young Writers Program allows students to choose their own word goal and write towards it in November.

Young Writers Program for student WriMos.

Young Writers Program for student WriMos.

NaNo: verb; to participate in NaNoWriMo; to write; as in, Did you NaNo today? How much NaNo-ing did you do over the weekend?

WriMo: noun; person who participates in NaNoWriMo; as in, Are you a WriMo? Did you see all those WriMos in Starbucks?

Word Goal: noun; the total number of words a WriMo will try to write in November; also the number of words a WriMo needs to write each day in November. Not to be confused with a complete draft of a novel, a word goal is simply a target. As experienced WriMos know, reaching the magical 50,000 words on November 30 does not give one a complete draft of a novel, especially if one reaches 50,000 words right in the middle of a sentence.

Day 1 of NaNoWriMo and this student is well on her way to winning!

Day 1 of NaNoWriMo and this student is well on her way to winning!

Pantser: noun; person who writes without planning or plotting ahead of time; as in, Are you a WriMo pantser? Do you write by the seat of your pants? Pants: verb; to write without a plan. Due to the tight time frame of NaNoWriMo, pantsers can learn from plotters (below) so that when they get writer’s block, they can go back to their plan for inspiration.

Plotter: noun; person who outlines, plots, and plans his/her novel before writing it; as in, I outlined my entire novel, but it took a turn I didn’t expect, and now I have to start all over, plot it again, and start writing again. I’ll never win! Due to the tight time frame of NaNoWriMo, plotters can learn from pantsers to just write from their guts without needing to follow a plan.

Winner: noun; one who reaches 50,000 words by midnight on November 30; NaNoWinners receive no prizes, but they do earn bragging rights forever (or at least until the next November, when everyone’s word count is reset to 0). Participants in the Young Writers Program who reach their self-determined word count goals by November 30 are also crowned winners, and along with bragging rights, they earn five free copies of their novel published through CreateSpace, and they may (like some of my students) sell them on Amazon. Of course, this means these young writers must also complete, revise, and edit their novels for publication.

NaNoWriMo winners, 2011.

NaNoWriMo winners, 2011.

Novels published by some of my 8th grade students.

Novels published by some of my 8th grade students.

Inner Editor: noun; often the bane of every writer’s existence, our inner editor can lead to writer’s block, as it sits on our shoulders and nags us, pointing out every mistake we make, every awkward sentence, every plot hole and inconsistency. While an inner editor really comes in handy in the revision and proofreading phase of writing, we need to silence that nag during the rough draft phase. Since we need to write a lot (and fast) in order to win by November 30, we need to let go of that need to write perfectly and beautifully, and heed the wise advice of novelist John Green, who says, “NaNoWriMo gives me permission to suck.” Yes, get those English teachers off your back, silence your inner editor, and write that sucky first draft! Plenty of time to entertain that inner editor after you reach your goal on November 30.

Box Castle: noun; cozy place to curl up with your writing; place of WriMo inspiration; cardboard box or table+blanket fort or pillows in your closet. Inspired by NaNoWriMo Pep Talker Robyn Schneider, your box castle just might get you past the mid-way point in November when you aren’t quite to the mid-way point in your word count. My students were inspired to write in their classroom version of box castles:

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Plot Bunnies: noun; story ideas that invade your brain and must be written into your novel. Ignored plot bunnies will badger you until you do include them. While they may seem to be bad ideas, plot bunnies can benefit the WriMo because (1) they will add to your word count, and (2) they can surprise you by breathing new life and unexpected twists into your story.

Suck Dragons: noun; issues in your story that get in the way of its success, such as lack of plot (there is no problem for your protagonist to solve) or structure issues (such as boring scenes or pacing problems). WriMos facing writer’s block can break through it by going back and vanquishing suck dragons from earlier in their draft.

WriMoVloggers: noun; WriMos who vlog (a.k.a., video blog, or make YouTube videos) about NaNoWriMo. Since writing is very hard work, many WriMos discover that it’s much more fun to make videos about writing than to do the actual writing. The online community of WriMos on YouTube is an enthusiastic, devoted, and very silly group of vloggers (and procrastinators) who are available to inspire, motivate, and chastise you to get back to your writing instead of wasting time watching videos on YouTube.

There is no shortage of tips from NaNoWriMo Vloggers.

There is no shortage of tips from NaNoWriMo Vloggers.

Write-Ins: noun; community events where WriMos gather together to work on their novels. Held in coffee shops, bookstores, gymnasiums and basements, Write-Ins offer writers the chance to write with other writers, but often lead to more community building, game playing, coffee drinking, and plot planning than actual writing. While writing may be a solitary, lonely endeavor, we often get more writing done when we are alone. But, hey, even writers need a break. And friends. And fun. So get thee to a Write-In!

Word Wars: noun; timed writing events that challenge writers to write more words than another WriMo in a brief, timed race. While Word Wars may not produce the best writing, the desire to beat an opponent can blast a writer out of writer’s block and back into the game of writing. Word Wars may happen face-to-face during a Write-In, but more often they take place online via chat rooms or Twitter.

Dare Machine: noun; tool to combat writer’s block. The Dare Machine dares writers to incorporate random plot/character/setting/conflict suggestions into their novel. Similar to plot bunnies, the dares might be ridiculous suggestions that don’t make any sense in one’s story (e.g. “include a dog who steals underwear,” or “have someone eat poisoned food”), but they can also take a WriMo’s story on an unexpected path that leads to an actual plot goldmine.

Combat writer's block with the Dare Machine.

Combat writer’s block with the Dare Machine.

NaNo Stats: noun; online graph of progress toward one’s word goal. Plot, character development, and conflicts may be central to the writing of a novel, but during NaNoWriMo it’s all about writing 1,667 words per day to reach the magical 50,000 by the end of the month. To help motivate WriMos, the NaNoWriMo sites offer visual tracking of each writer’s progress. And sometimes updating one’s word count and seeing that bar graph move up is the only thing keeping us in our chairs (or box castles) and writing.

How much did I write today? How much more do I need to write? Will I make it to my goal in time?

How much did I write today? How much more do I need to write? Will I make it to my goal in time?

So there you go. Now when your friends post #amwriting and over-share their NaNo progress, you can reply with the vocabulary of someone inside the NaNo circle of WriMos. Or you can hide them from your feed until December 1st. We understand. Really, we do.

Want to know more about NaNoWriMo? Check out:

Happy NaNo-ing, all you WriMos!

Learn innovation from the heart of American innovation: The Henry Ford

Why should you apply for the Henry Ford Teacher Innovator Award? You might think the title and accolades would be nice, and of course you’d be right. Even better, a beautiful award crafted in the glass blowing shop in Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village sure beats the suitable-for-framing document usually given to teachers. But the real reason you should apply is for the week-long, all-expenses-paid, innovation immersion experience given to the 10 first place winners. Three months later and I’m still reflecting back on all that I learned from that week, planning for our some-day trip to return to The Henry Ford for more inspiration.

Maker Faire Detroit 2015 at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich. Sunday, July 26, 2015. Gary Malerba/Special To The Henry Ford

First Place Teacher Innovator Awards from The Henry Ford (photo credit: Gary Malerba/Special To The Henry Ford)

I’ve always known that Henry Ford had a significant role in America’s identity as an innovative, risk-taking, hands-on, problem-solving country, but I had no idea how much of his philosophy extended to education. A week at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan opened my eyes to not only Ford’s legacy, but also to the power of teaching our students to be innovators themselves.

After arriving in Michigan (all flight, transportation, hotel and meal details arranged and paid for by The Henry Ford), our week started with the Maker Faire Detroit, a “three-ring circus of innovation. Robotics, electronics, rockets, food, music, fashion, science — if somebody makes it, we’ll find a place for it at Maker Faire Detroit.” It is a living example of the power and creativity of innovation, and an inspiration to those of us wanting to find ways to bring innovation to our students.

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The Maker Shed at Maker Faire, Detroit, Henry Ford Museum.

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A maker in action (Maker Faire Detroit, Henry Ford Museum).

When I heard we would be touring the Henry Ford Museum, I pictured an institution honoring the work of Henry Ford in the automobile and factory industry. What I didn’t expect was to discover that Henry Ford himself created the museum because he wanted to honor the innovation and ingenuity of Americans. He was so fascinated with this work that he collected examples of American innovation every chance he could. And he saw innovation in more ways than his assembly line might suggest: while that was an innovation of process and product, Ford also honored innovation of ideas. His museum is there not for his own glory; rather, it is a walk through generations of genius in America, including the innovative thinking that challenged the social status quo of sexism, racism, and classism. Included in the museum is the American progression of automobiles, furniture, appliances, etc., as well as artifacts of innovative thinking, such as the founding of our country, women’s suffrage, and the Civil Rights Movement, including the very bus that Rosa Parks occupied.

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Engineering is art (Henry Ford Museum).

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Rosa Parks’ bus (Henry Ford Museum).

If you have spent any time touring California colleges, you have probably heard of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s philosophy of “learn by doing.” I didn’t know that clear back in 1929, Henry Ford established a “learn by doing” school on the site of his museum. The children studied in the actual museum, exploring and using the contents as part of their education. There is still a school in the museum today, where students learn through “real-world experiences that focus on innovation and creativity.”

Our week of innovation immersion at The Henry Ford was spent with curators, archivists, and historians, passionate experts in their fields, who led us on tours of Ford’s legacy of innovation, including:

  • The Henry Ford Museum: nine acres of space dedicated to documenting the “genius of ordinary people.”
  • The Benson Ford Research Center archives: an astounding collection of American ingenuity and enterprise, such as Thomas Edison’s patent models, folk art and paintings, the personal and business papers of Henry Ford, domestic textiles such as quilts and coverlets, and couture fashion and accessories.
  • Greenfield Village: 80 acres dedicated to recreating an American village from the 19th century. It includes 83 authentic, historic structures, from Noah Webster’s home, where he wrote the first American dictionary, to Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, to the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law (even Sonoma County is represented there, as Ford brought Luther Burbank’s office and garden spade to the Village). In Greenfield Village, you can “ride in a genuine Model T or ‘pull’ glass with world-class artisans; you can watch 1867 baseball or ride a train with a 19th-century steam engine. Greenfield Village is a celebration of the people whose unbridled optimism came to define modern-day America.”
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Henry Ford and Thomas Edison often visited Luther Burbank at his experimental gardens in Santa Rosa, CA. In 1928, Burbank’s tiny office building was moved to Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.

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America’s 19th-century farms, operating now just as they did then (Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford).

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The Wright Brothers Cycle Shop (and aeronautical laboratory) in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.

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Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.

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Skilled artisans practice authentic period crafts and trades with techniques and equipment that are, in some cases, centuries old (Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford).

  • The Ford Rouge Factory: we saw the Ford assembly line in action, learned about the factory’s history, and heard how the current ownership endeavors to further innovate the factory workplace. No pressure, Bill Ford, great-grandson of Henry!
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The history of Ford automobiles (The Ford Rouge Factory).

  • The Henry Ford Estate: although closed to the public for restoration, we were treated to a tour by the curator who is in charge of identifying every rug, painting, wall color, window trim, book, and bedding that would have been in the original estate. True to Ford’s belief that hands-on is the best way to learn, the restoration plan allows visitors to choose a book from a shelf, pull up a chair, and enjoy reading in Ford’s library.
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The Henry Ford Estate.

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Library in the Henry Ford Estate.

As if the expert-led tours weren’t enough, our week also included workshops to help us teach our students to be innovators. Instead of asking students to memorize and recite back, curriculum from The Henry Ford helps teachers inspire their students to be the same kind of innovative, risk-taking, hands-on, problem-solving people that made America so great.

On Innovation curriculum from The Henry Ford.

On Innovation curriculum from The Henry Ford.

I can’t recommend this experience highly enough! I encourage all you innovative teachers out there to apply for next summer’s Innovation Immersion experience.

See a quick promotion here: 

Get application information here:

Let me know if you have any questions! This application is well worth your time.

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Henry Ford

When teachers gather together

giantsI’ve learned that when attending an education conference, it’s a success if I come away with two, maybe three great new ideas to try in my classroom. The conference experience is so overwhelming, both inspirational and exhausting, that it’s easy to get lost in the flood of creativity, innovation and enthusiasm from all those amazing presenters.

I’m not sure how that sage advice applies to a weeklong innovation immersion experience at the heart of America’s own history of innovation: The Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, Michigan. I am one of ten educators enjoying a week of tours, workshops and innovation challenges, and I’m afraid I’ll be so overwhelmed that I won’t remember any of it when it’s over.

But after just 24 hours with the other nine teachers, I can tell you this: put the ten of us in a room together for a week, and the innovation and creativity will fly so fast and furious that we’ll all be renewed and inspired no matter what was outside that room. These are some amazing educators! Like Saba Ghole and her innovative NuVu Studio School in Cambridge, MA. Or Texas teachers Lyle Crossley and Joe Morris, whose high school students have designed, built and raced solar cars in competitions across the country. Or Mark Suter, who has turned his students’ budding interests in technology into an entrepreneurial club that creates film promotions for local businesses in Ohio, generating donations that are reinvested back into their work.

Just give me a couple hours with Hawaii educator Wrayna Fairchild, so I can hear all about her fellowship in New Zealand and her work aboard a research ship. Or an afternoon with Donna Gradel, whose environmental science students from Oklahoma designed, built and tested aquaponics units — sustainable food production systems used to raise fish and cultivate plants — for a remote district in Kenya.

Elementary school teachers Jamie Ewing (Seattle, WA) and Melissa Collins (Memphis, TN) have earned so many awards and recognitions that I feel like I’ve been dropped into the who’s who of Olympic educators. While early elementary teachers are told to focus on raising their students’ reading and math scores, Melissa’s students wear lab coats, answer to the title “junior scientists,” and engage in experiments that turn them into critical thinkers and problem solvers. Jamie has turned the traditional science fair on its ear, moving his students’ projects to a digital science fair space where they can share and view projects from other students around the country.

We even have a preschool teacher among us, and she is leading the pack in pushing back against the academic pressures that have trickled all the way down to our precious toddlers. Linda Reimond’s students thrive in an environment that encourages art, play and exploration, and we know those students move into the K-12 system well prepared for an authentic, productive education.

Yes, the immersion in history and innovation at The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village is going to be an incredibly powerful experience, both professionally and personally, but the nine extraordinary teachers I’m hanging out with will surely give ol’ Henry a run for his innovative money.

21st century collaboration: put ’em on wheels

After just one day with our new furniture, I experienced one of those “ah-ha” moments that I’m sure resulted in a light bulb photo 1 (1)exploding over my head. OK, maybe no visible light bulb, but certainly there were flashes of light in my eyes. As I had predicted when our new furniture first arrived, my students were most enthusiastic about the chairs on wheels, which not only could be maneuvered around the classroom with a light push of the foot, but which also swiveled in place, making it so easy (and fun) to turn to different areas of the classroom, depending on the task. The rolling chairs also have an attached desktop (that swivels, of course!) allowing students to work wherever their rolling takes them.

But we all know that relying on something trendy and cool, like futuristic furniture, won’t bring any kind of long-term change to education. After all, how much would this new furniture affect my students’ learning if I just lined them up in rows, all students facing front, and taught my class in traditional lecture format (interrupted often with pleas of, “Stop spinning your chairs!”)?

No, if our investment in 21st century learning spaces is going to result in meaningful changes for students, we need to pay attention to how new furniture and its arrangement can shake up our expectations of how students should work and what collaboration looks like.

The ah-ha moment came after I had given my students directions for an essay outline they were going to work on that day. I had them all face (or swivel to) the front, and I went over the directions projected on the screen. After a quick check-in, I told them to get to work, and to collaborate with each other if they wanted to. And then the magic happened.

photo 5I watched as students started rolling into configurations that appealed to them: partners like Cittlaly and Sara, best friends and a predictable pairing; trios like Matt, Carlos and Eddie, all athletes working on sports-themed essays; mixed-gender groups of kids, like one from the leadership class working on social justice pieces; and a few students who chose to slide off for some solo work. After experimenting a little with the rolling, swiveling and grouping, they settled in to their work.

But it wasn’t long before some students started rolling again. Cittlaly swiveled around to slide next to Ellie to ask for help on her outline, then she rolled back to Sara. The leadership kids, chatting longer than the others, started to pull away from their big group to make smaller collaborative groupings. Aaron, working alone in the corner, looked up to find Carlos rolling toward him. Heads together for a few minutes, they exchanged ideas on their essays, and then Carlos slid back over to his group.

And this is when the lightbulb went off: we’ve been doing collaboration all wrong! All these years, school-style collaboration has gone something like this:

“You four students sitting in these four chairs around this table will collaborate on this particular project from now until the due date. And then you will be done collaborating.”

But how much of our adult-world collaboration looks like that? When I collaborate with
colleagues, it looks more like this:

Scrolling through my Twitter feed one evening, I find a new app, strategy or project that I’d like to try with my students. I might start by collaborating online with someone on Twitter or Edutopia. Then I’ll probably try it out with my students on my own (that’s the Lone Ranger in me). At some point I’ll bring the idea to a department meeting, where we might collaborate as a group to fine tune it. Or I might talk with just one colleague who has expertise in a certain area.  Often I will work with my grade-level teachers in our PLN on a project for all 8th grade students.

In other words, real-world collaboration means that we go to the people we know are the right fit for a particular issue we are facing. And sometimes we work alone. And then we find someone or some people who can help us past the next phase of the project. And we aren’t bound by artificial parameters like space or time or numbers of people. And we can work alone when it works for us to work alone.

Since my students are piloting a variety of furniture types, we also have tables and chairs in the classroom, which are grouped in sets of four. I watched those students stay in their groups and collaborate with one another, talking easily around photo 4their tables; or some working alone, eyes down, possibly avoiding eye contact with their table peers. Their chairs don’t have wheels, which seemed to mean that they weren’t allowed to move from their table group to work with other students. While this worked fine for four friends who happened to grab a table together, there was less collaboration going on at the missed-out-on-the-wheelie-chairs and too-late-to-sit-with-friends groups.

Those students at the tables missed out on the real-world fluidity of collaboration. If the students in their group weren’t a good match for what they were working on, they worked alone. They watched with envy as their classmates rolled over to work with a variety of students, and it didn’t even occur to them to ask me if they could get up out of their stationary chairs and work outside of their table group. You can bet they are counting down the days to their turn to pilot the rolling chairs!

So this past week I have come face-to-face with the pseudo-collaboration that I have been foisting on my students all these years. And it makes me wonder: how can we give our students real-world collaboration opportunities? While the rolling chairs are a huge step in that direction, there’s got to be other ways to create the kind of fluid, collaboration-friendly environment for our students that so many of us have in our adult work places. How do you inspire and provide for meaningful collaboration opportunities for your students?

(Originally posted on Edutopia.)