Friday, December 13, 2013

Chatting with Alice...

OK. I admit it. My blogging has slacked and now I have no written record of the first semester of my journey in my new position as the Director of CLEO, Collaborative Learning and Educational Outreach. But that doesn't mean (AT ALL) that I am not aflame with things to say and ideas to spread.

Recently, Alice Lin of the Imagination Foundation Google chatted with me about some of the neat things we've been exploring. She and I have connected through Caine's Arcade and the Cardboard Challenge. My school hosted an event which went quite well--will link my NAIS shout out here.

I saved the chat. As my re-entry to blogging I offer it here with live links to our references. Thanks, Alice!

Alice:  hey camela,
 Alice:  quick q for you if you are not in the middle of something.
 me:  Hey there, Alice.
No. About to quit working. Imagine that. So I can dream about work and get up again tomorrow. : )
 Alice:  hahaha. love it.
 me:  What's up?
 Alice:  i'm on a researching binge, up to my neck in 21st century skills and just wondering if there are any really seminal books (articles or even videos) that totally changed the way you see/do things, teach, learn stuff in that vein. i know outward bound rewired your brain, but seeing as that's not so replicable/shareable...
 me:  I love Will Richardson. He has a good short one called Why School--I think it's a short Kindle book for like 2.99 or something. I love him. Also reading Cathy Davidson right now. She's kind of brilliant. Now you See it--is the name of her book. My dad gave me "the smartest kids in the world" by Amanda Ripley over Thanksgiving break. It looks pretty good, but not fully dived into it yet
 Alice:  oh, yeah, i just heard about that one.
 me:  Ripley was on NPR today talking about the miserable PISA scores.
 Alice:  (the ripley book) what was her angle?
 me:  Honestly, I was double tasking and had to go back to read the recap on my phone at my daughter's singing class. Mostly it was saying how nothing has changed in education in terms of our students' performance.
 Alice:  hmmmm, that's sad.
 me:  Wealthy schools are competitive with the best worldwide, but most schools are about as good as those in Poland. Our kids did worst on open ended questions that require critical thinking.
such a great argument for things like Cardboard Challenge.
 Alice:  I was just looking at p21.org's framework for 21st century skills and thinking if we could achieve these things in education it would be a coup! (or a good reason for me to go back to school)!
 me:  I heard of a cool project at the FCIS convention last month called Innovation Day where teachers get kids to submit proposals for projects then bring in some experts to act as consultants for the kids. One girl wanted to make perfume. Another a trebuchet. It was so like CC, really, but expanded to other student-driven ideas about learning. I don't know p21. I will look into it.
 Alice:  Here's a ... document I came across. Am hoping to come up with something a bit more accessible. But lots of useful breakdowns. Investigate ...: http://virtualsalt.com/crebook1.htm
 me:  We doing massive curriculum redesign right now at my school. I am hungry for facts to build ideas as courses begin to roll out. Will check it out for sure. Did IC ever get in touch w/ you and Nirvan re. coming back to Summit this summer to present to educators?
 Alice:  www.p21.org (lots of heavies weighing in. well thought out learning standards at first read at least. creativity/innovation section overlaps so much with what we're trying to do, so that was nice to see. No haven't heard from IC yet. I think they have all their holiday campaigns to worry about right now.
 me:  Cool. I will look at it for sure. Good timing. 
 Alice:  Innovation Day sounds awesome. I think some of our CC organizers do it as well. I will research more.
 me:  You might enjoy reading some of Kurt Hahn's early work about experiential learning. He was so on the money.
 Alice:  Am trying to develop a couple proposed models for Imagination chapters. Some with tighter curricula and others looser.
 me:  yes, the Innovation Day was a Florida private school Can't recall the name. Are you familiar with ELOB?
 Alice:  In brainstorm mode.... No what's that?
 me:  That's the branch of Outward Bound that's totally concerned with school program design. You might check them out.
 Alice:  I suppose I could google it Oh yes, I will!
 Alice:  How do I save this chat, so I don't lose this treasure trove of info!
 me:  I love their stuff and they have some schools that rely on that design as an essential aspect of the school. A middle school in Portland, ME, I think.
 Alice:  I love google sometimes.
 me:  Some others too.
 Alice:  There are so many amazing programs out there.
 me:  yes. I want to save it too. Where'd you go?
 Alice:  A shame that even with search being this advanced, info is still not connecting to the hungry!
 ...
 Alice:  Have you heard of: 1/ homeboy industries
 me:  No. who are they? Did you ever get connected to that group of IC educators in the Google group?
 Alice:  largest gang-related prison re-entry program in the nation
it's based in LA.
 me:  There's lots of interesting chatter in that group. Lots I need to copy and paste into a notes doc.
Hm. Interesting. I'll look into that.
 Alice:  Just wondering b/c the main guy is the incarnation of compassion.
great for empathy stuff. --lots of takeaways
 me:  Those programs are interesting. Sir Ken Robinson was just in a recent TED talk and he said the most innovative work in education is in alternative programs--I guess nothing to lose so folks are willing to experiment. Check out his latest talk on TED.
 Alice:  also consider: RSA Animates: The Power of Outrospection. talks about empathy as seed to real change and revolution. Kind of amazing if paired with giving kids the tools to think and create and act.  Okay, I will! Haha, I think we should start an #edchat of our own.
 me:  Cool. I will look for that. I will try to aggregate a list of goodies from the IC group to share w/ you.
 Alice:  But not limited to 140 characters. Ahhh we'll start with this for now. I love technology
 me:  yes! the beauty of Twitter is its linkability to articles and blogs.
 Alice:  Yes, looking forward to the aggregation and very much appreciate it.
 me:  Do you keep a blog? I always mean to
 Alice:  That's true but I think it gets too pithy and you lose out on the chance for a certain other type of conversations. the nature of chat keeps the word count down, but there more room to free flow.
but perhaps that's b/c i'm not so good at Twitter still.
 me:  Yup. Feels a bit like talking down an echo chamber sometimes. Twitter rocks, but it's a time sucker.
 Alice:  i used to have a blog, but last post was in 2011. starting to feel like i have a moral obligation to share some thoughts
 me:  totally. I know what you mean.
 Alice:  but it's very tiring. i get a bit ocd when writing.
 me:  Does get to be a burden.
 Alice:  haha, i may have to become the first gchat blogger.
 me:  that's the beauty of a chat or Twitter.
 Alice:  this is more my medium. i am a conversationalist
 me:  Hilarious. You may be onto something, really!
 Alice:  by mother nature. hahaha, well then I'm saving this chat for sure. It is surely HISTORIC!
 me:  Cut and paste this into a blog entry. Make the references hot links. Yup. Good one. The Universe is out causing trouble.
 Alice:  this is not a bad idea, camela. heheheh
 me:  I know. We'll be edtech stars and Google will buy us out. We'll have an IPO.
 Alice:  CHORTLE CHUCKLE. I'm already rich thinking about it.
 me:  Ha. OK. I do have to go. Love that you popped in to ask.
 Alice:  Yes, Okay. I will send you chat in case it doesn't save. Later! Thx!!!!
 me:  I am saving this. Might do a prototype blog tomorrow for our new product.
Thanks, Alice!
 Alice:  LOVE IT
 me:  Good night.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Summer Development Immerses in World of Plenty


I love summer for so many reasons, but near the top of the list is the time it offers for me to refuel for the school year. One of the most important ways for me is attending summer workshops and visiting family--both providing me with ample food for my thought table. This summer I went to an Edtechteacher workshop in Chicago on ipads. I knew of edtechteacher from articles I'd read online and various links and mentions on Twitter, but I hadn't yet had a direct interaction with them. What I found was a three-day workshop on technology integration led by two passionate teachers who have adopted the "tread fearlessly" mantra needed for successful tech exploration and integration. How I marvel at the experience their students must be having as these two, Shawn McCusker and Heather Chambers, lead them into creative modes of critical inquiry and production. Consider the impact of making a short film composed of Vines that illustrate autobiography for Chambers' psychology class or McCusker's strategy of having absent students Skype into class and participate in discussion via Today's Meet for his history classes. Brilliant ideas that are sure to engage and stimulate students.
At the end of the workshop, edtechteacher founder, Tom Daccord, shared big picture thinking about meaningful tech integration and the need to consider our use of technology in the context of Ruben Puentadura's work on the SAMR framework for tech integration. I loved Daccord's comment that "the best tech integrationists practice convergence," rather than replacement of technology for other more traditional tools that support higher level thinking. Daccord stressed that teachers need to focus more on the "formative process" more than on the "summative process" in the integration of technology. A critical point here being that the student who masters how to use the flashing transitions or video embedding on a student-made website must be questioned about process and mindful use of tools over how polished or produced a final project might be. What enlightened thinking and so important in our age of flashy highly produced work that may or may not offer examples of critical, original, and creative thinking. Daccord stressed the importance of asking students about the choices rather than marveling at the final product. Consider the implications of this thinking for our current focus on testing rather than on embracing process. We seem to be missing the forest, I think.
Always interesting at tech events are the tools getting the buzz. Prior to the conference, we were asked to load our ipads with a number of apps. Here's a small sampling of some that we worked on that stick out to me as having great application for education and beyond.
Evernote: This tool keeps coming up. At every tech event I have attended in the past few years, techies are talking about the power of this online notebook, filing cabinet, information repository. It's free and offers a powerful way for students to use technology that is not machine dependent. I used this last school year with students primarily as a way to encourage taking notes online. I never had a student who was unable to access her notes as long as some internet device was available. On more than one occasion, students reported how thankful they were to have their notes available online. Perhaps most powerful is the ability users have to email articles, images, and links to their notebooks making them truly a transformative tech tool for information gathering and organization.
Notability: As an English teacher, I am always interested in tools that promote active engagement with reading. This tool allows users to actively mark PDFs. My favorite application of it of this summer? Downloading and signing my completion certificate from the workshop and instantly emailing to record-keeping at my school and signing a tuition form for my kids that I could instantly email back. Awesome. McCusker showed how he used to gauge a student's active reading of a shared article. He had the student email him his actively read article when completed as a homework assignment. McCusker was able to assess the student's generalized information about the reading quite quickly. McCusker prompts students to read materials and mark them them so they don't have to re-read it to get important content in each section.
Today's Meet: Mccusker and Chambers described this tool as compartmentalized Twitter. It allows students to have quick communications within the group. McCusker illustrated how he used it to have a "back channel" of discussion during films that may need a sensitive or guided approach. He used it to allow discourse during a film on 9-11. In another terrific example, Mccusker shared how he'd set up a Today's Meet for students to have discussion during the Presidential debates. He encouraged parents to chime into the shared reflection, urging focus on the strategies used in the debate rather than inviting discourse about politics. Brilliant. In the SAMR framework, this example offers a redefinition of tasks in that the use of technology allowed for the "creation of a task previously inconceivable."
Twitter: It's hard to overstate the importance for teachers to engage with Twitter. Though the sheer volume of material shared can be overwhelming, it's important to commit some time each day to connecting with other professionals. As one moving into a new role this coming school year, I have found Twitter to be critical in helping me set up support networks to help me navigate my own changing landscape from full time classroom teaching to technology integration and helping my school connect students to our local community. The woman sitting next to me in the conference, a tech integrationist from a suburban Chicago school, shared that she commits the first 15 minutes of each day to exploring her Twittersphere. Personally, the richest reward in using Twitter begins when others begin connecting and retweeting each other's findings. What tremendous opportunity for expanding one's professional network! I am increasingly aware of the superstars emerging in the Twitter realm--they are the ones sharing good information and responding to others.
I suspect that the tools I highlighted here are well-known to just about anyone navigating web tools for education. I think, however, that I will continue some discussion of the other perhaps lesser know apps in another post in the hopes of not overwhelming the brim of this cup that is about to runneth over. So more later as I have the luxury of summer to see exactly what I loaded onto my ipad and how I muddled through in the sandbox time of my workshop. What an exciting time to be a teacher.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sharing Writing Assessment Offers Opportunities to Improve Teaching

Managing student writing from instruction to feedback to revision is one of the most time intensive aspects of teaching. Typically this instruction is left to English teachers though all classes are expected to be engaging students in writing. The teachers who do assign written work, sometimes express frustration about the quality of the writing and wonder why the work they are receiving is sub par. At our school, we decided to delve into the challenge of improving student writing from a multi-curricular angle. Using an online submission process and assessment tool, Turnitin.com, we created a course especially for assignments that would be graded by a team of teachers we dubbed The Writing Board.

The Board was comprised of five tenth grade teachers: two history, one science, two English. Our mission was to share one writing assignment from our classes, discuss grading rubrics, and share the load of assessing the writing. As an English Department, our goal was to begin the process of establishing common criteria for quality writing. Besides establishing standards for formatting such as MLA headings, margins, fonts, and source information, we also hoped the experiment would allow us opportunity to discuss and assess mechanics, organization, and structure in writing. We wanted to model this not only for students, but also to begin the process of establishing standards for all academic writing on campus. Based on discussions with other departments and with students, we found that sometimes students put forth less effort in the quality of their writing when they were writing for classes other than English class. In English classes, some students felt comfortable revealing themselves as unpolished writers for a course they were used to not doing as well in.

These facts came clear as students wondered which teacher would be assigned to grade their essays, a random process, and sometimes expressed that they hoped theirs would not face an English teacher, someone they felt might hold them to a higher standard in writing. For Writing Board assignments, the grader was not revealed to the student, though many were able to assess identities based on depth and perspective offered in feedback. If students had questions about how papers were assessed, the ultimate power of re-assessment was always left to the assigning teacher.

The results of our year of experimenting were mixed. Definitely one benefit was an immediate alleviation of grading burden for the teacher whose work was up on the board. Though even that aspect of the process was problematic for some. We tried to be mindful of not overburdening the other teachers, so every effort was made to give other teachers a manageable load, typically not more than six papers. For teachers who taught several sections of the same class, that fact sometimes meant the hosting teacher was left with as many as thirty papers to grade. Still, that number was far less than what the assigning teacher would have had to grade otherwise.

We found that timeliness became a factor too. We wanted to be mindful that each outside teacher would still have her full load of teaching in her own classes, so we gave two-three weeks for papers to be graded. This long period of time from turn-in to return meant that sometimes the returned papers became stale. While most English teachers will admit that grading a full load of papers takes an incredible amount of time, depending on others meant waiting for a process to be completed without any real sense of when that would be. In one instance, one teacher on the board was unable to complete her six papers and they languished, finally having to be picked up by the original assigning teacher after a long lapse in time. This time delay meant that offering students timely feedback or possibility for revision became very challenging.

We also discovered that establishing very specific rubric was critical. Having a clear rubric meant that other teachers would understand grading criteria very clearly. While the hope is that over time some of the basic expectations of quality student writing will become ingrained into all subjects, initially we found that defining those expectations in an itemized rubric left no room for uncertainty. One teacher expressed frustration at how grading each section of the paper diminished her ability to offer a wholistic impression of the writing, however. She preferred to grade the essay in its entirety rather than restrict herself to a piecemeal assessment of each aspect of the writing. For students, being able to see how a grade broke down into component parts was helpful.

Another challenge of the Board was determining what was most important about each assignment. While English teachers felt quality of written expression to be top on the list, the science teacher in the group felt that the Board was unable to assess accuracy of scientific information for her data-specific assignment. This teacher's rubric, in fact, (one of the first we assessed for the board) was focused entirely on representation of data instead of writing. While the data was central to her teaching goals, as a Writing Board, we did not find the rubric helpful for writing instruction, our central objective in creating the board. From our perspective, more attention to the mechanics of the writing, presentation of facts, and layout of the assignment were more in keeping with what we felt prepared to assess.

At the end of the year, we had some great opportunities to reflect both as the full Writing Board and later as English teachers. We came to a few conclusions that we will implement next year.

1. Writing should be assessed for both content and mechanics. These grades should be separate. This fact will allow for teachers such as our science teacher to maintain the integrity of fact representation while still holding students accountable for the writing.

2. We need to meet more frequently and be more timely with returning papers. While few full time teachers ever feel they have time to spare during the school year, communication is vital. We are hoping to have a group grading activity to set the bar for each assignment before teachers go their separate ways to assess the work. We think we'll be able to do this fairly painlessly through a lunch period or two at the start of each assignment. Ideally, we would like to meet at the end of each assignment as well to share notes about common problems in the content or mechanics of each piece to give the assigning teacher clear feedback about instruction that needs to occur as follow up for the students.

3. Students definitely need time to revise and revisit their work. In response to this fact, we decided that we will use the Writing Board next year as the foundation of research projects in 9th and 10th grade. The English Department divided up research paper tasks into four quarter chunks that will correspond with a completed, revised, polished piece of research to be submitted at year's end. Students will have the opportunity to conduct research in a topic that corresponds to a course they are taking. Topic approval for each course will be left up to subject area teachers.

4. Assignments for the Board will be shorter (grade an intro, grade a body paragraph, offer a revised section)and more manageable to grade and return in a timely manner.

5. We will include our school librarian in the process and invite her to present research skills and citation responsibilities so that we maintain consistency in expectations for all papers in this regard. The assignment will also give our librarian several opportunities for research instruction, something she's set as a goal for her own teaching engagement with students. We will also use her to give instruction about using images responsibly in one's writing. In our desire to drive forth the point that writing is formal presenting, we will require that students proffer a polished and visually appealing final paper. This goal will include the use of at least one image embedded into the writing or as part of the title page.

Though some teachers felt the experiment was not successful, the information we gathered, the experience of collaborating on student writing, and the opportunity to reflect meaningfully and specifically about our work with students and with each other was invaluable. We will continue with our efforts to improve student writing through this shared experiment. As we modify expectations both for ourselves and for our students, we model the ever-important process of learning, adapting, and coming back for more.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Art Project Reaches Kids and Cancer Patients

Student Artist Presents Artwork to her Partner 
My colleague's art project concluded yesterday. What an amazing way to engage art students in a creative process that had meaning and reached beyond them to a world that needs as much light and goodness as it can get. Check out the article that a student wrote for our school paper, The Bolt, about the process, "Artists Paint a Picture of Cancer" by Cassandra Ratzlaf. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect was seeing the patients pick out which piece they thought had been created for them. The joy in their faces radiated.

 To summarize, our upper school art teacher, Paula Kozak, used her personal experiences battling cancer to reach out to others to educate, enlighten, and inspire. Students were invited to interview patients receiving chemotherapy about their experiences fighting the disease. Students then returned to the art studio to work for the next few weeks to create a piece that represented the experience. Those pieces were then presented the chemotherapy center to hang for a permanent installation. Each of the patients were given card prints of their image along with a short write-up about what inspired each image. Several journalists beside our own ODA Bolt reporter have covered the story. One article came out on the day of the presentation in one of our local papers, The Observer. That article, "Creative Healing" by Josh Siegel is linked here. Beautiful project!

Other Write-Ups about the Project
Sarasota Herald-Tribune's article by Jessi Smith "Teacher's Cancer Inspires Artwork"

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Community Partnerships with Film Festival Encourage Critical Thinking

Watching my students strut their stuff on the red carpet at this year's annual film festival is something I won't soon forget. A couple of highlights: Juniors Max Provost and Drew Fineberg flexing their muscles in front of a gaggle of photographers; Junior Kelli Bagwell's speech about this year's Junior Jury award winner delivered with such confidence and pizazz anyone would have believed she was a festival regular. Junior Adil Shariff enjoying laughs from a packed house as he recounted some of the unique features of our selected film. The Sarasota Film Festival has just wrapped up its 15th annual film festival. This Gulf Coast film showcase is quickly becoming known as the best festival nationally for supporting educational programs in local schools. In fact, over 5000 students participated in educational programs related to the festival this year. All free.

This year, the Out-of-Door Academy expanded its involvement across school divisions. Last year students in the upper school were treated to a free screening of Rory Kennedy's biographical film about her mother Ethel Kennedy, titled Ethel, this year our engagement expanded. This year, underclassmen were again invited to the festival to enjoy another documentary, Maidentrip. Second graders were invited to see a series of shorts in the Youthfest program. Seventh and eighth graders were guided through a festival curriculum in the process of critique and review writing. The best review was honored by being published in the Observer, a community paper, and awarded a framed recognition at the culmination of the festival. Congratulations to eighth grader Emma Roberts for her review of the film Luminaris by Argentinean director Juan Pablo Zaramella.

In ninth and tenth grade, students were again invited to see a film, another documentary. This year's film, Maidentrip, offered the story of Laura Dekker, the Dutch teenager who circumnavigated the globe, solo. The film was directed by Jillian Schlesinger, a young American film maker who became inspired to write the story after seeing the media frenzy over the legal battle Dekker and her family had to surmount before launching the trip. Students were captivated by  Dekker's courage and pluck, generally blown away by her accomplishments. Many noted what a difficult, or at least unconventional, childhood the young woman had had. Her necessary independence at a young age seems to have contributed to her ability to manage such an incredible journey.

After the film, Schlesinger spoke to students about the creative process of making the film. She became interested in it after hearing about Dekker on the news as she faced a legal battle in the Netherlands to get permission to sail. Schlesinger created a Kickstarter page to raise money to make the film. Hearing about vision moving into reality for both the young film maker and the sailor was a compelling example of fulfilling a dream.

In the upper school, Journalism students halted production of the paper to work in two hour film critique workshops with the film festival's Educational Director, Allison Koehler. Koehler discussed ways of seeing film including criteria related to story development, production value, and audience appeal. The films, ten shorts ranging in length from two to twenty-six minutes, were literary, thought-provoking, and beautiful. I was impressed by the level of discussion and attention to detail from students in classroom discussions. The mixed level group noted camera angles, narrative style, as well as plot development, acting, and visual appeal. As an English teacher, I was inspired by the curricular connections to literature analysis. My students' insights, intelligence, good humor, and articulation of sophisticated ideas related to narrative illuminated aspects of the films I had missed or thought about differently.

As we moved into deliberations about the "best" film, students argued for their favorites based on cumulative scores. When they struggled to reach consensus they looked for other ways to make a sound decision in their nomination. Imagining that one objective for film makers in showcasing their work at festivals is to get noticed by production companies, students further deliberated about what the film's creators might be able to offer in future films. With help from Koehler, who provided links to interviews and additional evidence of the film makers' work, students felt confident that their choice wasn't simply a "one hit wonder." I was pleased with how seriously they took the nominating and by the care and consideration they offered in exploring the creative process behind the films. 

For the end of the festival celebrations, the Journalism students were invited to walk the red carpet at an event honoring local student film makers, actors, and critics. While they all suspected that paparazzi that wooed them into poses on the carpet were plants instructed to treat them like celebrities, they were nonetheless amused by the attention and hubbub. After the red carpet performance, ODA journalists were invited to share their critique of their favorite film The Scared is Scared and were subsequently treated to an unusual video thank you from film maker, Biana Giaever, in which she personally thanked ODA students for their nomination as she munched an enormous chocolate chip cookie and drank milk, reminiscent of scenes in her film.

Next year, I hope to expand the program for 9th and 10th graders, inviting students into small group discussions at the conclusion of the film rather than dismissing them to afternoon classes. Each fall, students and faculty take an afternoon to discuss an all-school read. Having a community "film talk" seems like a great continuation of the tradition of shared narratives, one that all students will have fresh in their minds. I also hope other divisions at the school will continue to find ways to bring the festival into teaching. Perhaps one day we might even boast a film making class in which we premiere the year's work at the festival.

Our educational collaboration with this rare community asset will continue to grow, I predict. I look forward to participating in the festival as programming matures and ODA explores ways to further integrate our curriculum with those resources and the creative minds involved in film making. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Authentic Learning

I kind of hate the buzz-acronym "PBL." But the educational paradigm it represents is one of the most compelling in education. When I think of the most powerful experiences I have had as an educator learning my trade, all of them were situations that required solving problems, real problems. They were authentic learning experiences, learning that happened because it had to, because there was no other option. When people ask me how I got into education, I think immediately back to a student I taught during my internship at public high school in Miami, Coral Gables High School.

My students had to deliver oral reports as part of a summary project for Romeo and Juliet. I had a student, Elmore, who had such a paralyzing stutter that he could not speak. Amazingly, he was a gifted rapper who regularly attracted crowds of kids during breaks to hear his latest songs. I imagined that he might do a Romeo and Juliet rap as his final project. Now, 17 years later when I hear presenters talk about technology they say "meet the kids where they are." That's what I did. He rapped the most magnificent final project about the complications facing the two young lovers in the play that his classmates stood on the seats of their desks to applaud when he was done. It was then that I knew I wanted to teach.

While that experience doesn't fit the definition of PBL, project-based learning, in the classic sense, it was a moment when I was compelled as a teacher to solve a problem to support student learning and engagement.
That experience was powerful and arguably one that shaped the course of my working life.

I know experiential learning is powerful. I know engaging students in the process of authentic learning is a requisite part of making our teaching have resonance. The high school in the video below is one that is exploring ways to offer big world problem solving as core experiences in teaching, a critical change that needs to happen in formal education on a large scale.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Technology Growing a Gap?

It's mid-week. I am fresh off the plane from ASCD in Chicago. I have to say this was perhaps the best conference I have ever attended. I gauge that by the low ratio of dog sessions to dynamite sessions. In three days, I attended only one session I would call a "dog." That's a sign of great conference. The others ranged from off-the-chart amazing to perspective building and contextualizing radical shifts in how professionals are adapting their approaches to education based on shifting paradigms powered by technology.

As an independent school educator, I find I have to shift through sessions that offer straight content to those that are offering approaches for how to navigate new responsibilities in program-based learning (Common Core at the moment). While the public school focused sessions do offer some good content, I always find I am somewhat out of the lexicon loop, that public school teachers know a language that I am only vaguely familiar with. What is Common Core, for example. Well, I can guess and make inferences based on conversations with others and based on perusing books dedicated to the subject, but meeting federally mandated curriculum standards is not the language of independent schools.

Instead, I find I am able to pick sessions that speak to learning that is driven by other forces. In a session about ischool, a NYC charter, I listened as its principals (yes, there are two) described restructuring curriculum to allow for modules. Modules are units in experiential learning. In a particularly compelling example, Alisa Berger and Mary Moss described how their students worked to create an exhibit for the Ground Zero 9/11 museum. Students were asked by museum curators to discover global perspective of teenagers on the disaster. They found teens in Israel who told them Americans need to move on, teens in New Orleans who compared federal response to 9/11 versus Hurricane Katrina, and even teens in Iraq who described their country's celebrations in the streets. The students compiled their findings and presented them to the museum where they are now on permanent display.

In the most moving session of the conference, I was rapt by the descriptions students offered of their experiences in an experiential learning project, Minkai, to reform education in an impoverished, rural village north of Buenos Aires. This program began as an opportunity created by a visionary teacher to bring her privileged students from St. Andrew's Scots Prep School to interact with young people in a rural village north of the capital called Palomino. The students were so moved, that they launched their own non-profit devoted to teacher education and scholarships for the village school's instructors and students. Today the program includes teacher exchanges, fundraisers to build resources (a marathon and a gala dinner), and outreach to families within the town.

While other sessions offered ideas about how to employ technology to extend learning, these schools were finding ways to engage students in authentic experiences supported by technology. In a session on responsible social media led by a talented tech director for a school district in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Steve Anderson described hearing a teacher boast about kinesthetic learning in a unit where students build dioramas with toothpicks and marshmallows to create a small village. Anderson offered that programs like Minecraft have created much more sophisticated approaches, allowing students to imagine and construct urban centers. But when I heard about Mikai, I couldn't help seeing that learning as the pinnacle of what all technology, all Common Core curriculum, all best practices should aspire to.

The expansion and development of technologies that support learning are incredible, no doubt. But educators must find ways to engage authentically.

I grew up in Evanston, a northern extension of Chicago at this point. Coming to ASCD in my hometown offered not only incredible opportunities for reflections like those I offer, but also time to visit with family and friends who have also devoted their lives to education. My best friend from high school teaches the same grade I do in an urban high school. She and I met for coffee one afternoon to get caught up. I was brimming with news of the conference, excitement about diving deeper into Twitter to connect with other teachers and improving ways I engage with students to guide learning. I was tempered by her stories of a principal who begins meetings by berating teachers about cell phones, students who tell my friend that if they ever come to school with their guns they won't go after her, and stories of teen mothers and their families bent on suing the school district. While I would be naive to think independent schools aren't facing some of that, the dialog is not the same.

When I asked her if she used technology in her classes, she laughed and told me that the school won't allow it. In fact, ASCD's presence in Chicago that week was news to her. No one she knew had been encouraged to attend. She talked of needing to search her book room for a class set of novels for her next unit, an IB program about to begin with no teacher training in sight, and new teachers relegated to five period rotations with no place to hang a book bag. On my way home from work today, I heard a news story about how Chicago is about to close 61 schools due to a budget short falling of a billion dollars. This will be the largest mass shutdown in US history!

The inequities in education are appalling. While I left our meeting with a profound awareness of the blessed environment of my independent school, I couldn't help feeling for my public school counterparts who are struggling to build skills while simultaneously enduring administrators who've been Peter Principaled into leadership positions and crumbling, underfunding infrastructures and resources. These are educators who have the same love for their students, the same passion for their curricula, the same dreams of possibilities in learning, but they are battered by a system that is eroding beneath them.

We need to look long and hard at what we value as a nation. The models for best practices are out there. Consider ischool's modules or St. Andrew's Scots Minkai program. In 2009 I attended NAIS where I was lucky enough to hear Michell Rhee, chancellor of schools for Washington, DC speak about her experiences. In this enormous session of several thousand independent school educators, Rhee said we could fix the public system by eliminating the private one, that once independent school educators and the powerful families that send their children to them were absorbed, the public system would be forced to change. She then told us she was not truly advocating an elimination of independent schools. She offered instead that independent schools provide the model we need to aspire to in public education. 

What happens next is critical. Those with access to technology and innovation in teaching are moving even further away from those who don't. We are increasingly facing a divide in access to learning. This bodes badly for the future of education.

I am happy that I have the many opportunities I do as an independent school educator. I am overjoyed that my own children have access to this education as well. But I worry for the students and educators we are leaving behind in a system that was originally designed to offer equal access to success.