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. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

New Paradigms Make Exciting Teaching

This year our new principal, Noel Dougherty, formerly a beloved teacher and Dean of Students, has redesigned faculty meetings to be context for teachers to share best practices emerging or growing in their teaching. This focus has begun to transform faculty meetings from places where announcements are made into celebrations of experimentation and innovation in our classrooms and beyond.

In our first meeting, one of our college counselors, Mike Salmon, talked about a case studies program he is developing for parents so that they get a clear idea of the nuanced process of admissions. Parents are given a number of student portfolios and school profiles and they are required to make mock admissions decisions based on collected information. After the parents make their decisions, real admissions officers weigh in on how the process might have actually evolved. This program is gaining momentum in its popularity. What becomes clear is how layered the admissions process has become.  Who colleges admit is, in part, a marketing strategy for colleges trying to anticipate success, and by extension, opportunity for recognition for their institutions via the accomplishments of its graduates. I guess that's always been the vision of college admissions, but I never knew how layered the process was. For our parent community, the program offers experiential education in college admissions. An informed parent is much more likely to be an ally than one who is operating out of ignorance about a process.

In our most recent faculty meeting, two teachers presented. Tenth grade history teacher, Ken Sommers, talked about a case studies program that's been growing roots at our school called Axis of Hope. The premise is that students engage in a day long seminar in which they role play various groups in world conflicts. For two years the program focused on our sophomores and invited them to experience the complexities of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. The genius of the program is that students develop empathy for their roles and find themselves representing sometimes radical views with an understanding of both the radicalism and the human, emotional tangle of people fighting for what they believe is their homeland and religious epicenter.

The man who runs the program, Carl Hobert, is a master educator with a clear sense of allowing students autonomy in the context of his very structured debate between groups. His experience with Outward Bound methodologies would be clear to anyone familiar with Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, ELOB. Since Ken first introduced the program at our school, it's grown to include case studies in the Rwandan genocide and invited seniors to explore the complexities of immigration in the United States.

The second teacher who presented was our biology teacher, Mike Newhams, who spoke very openly about some dramatic changes in the AP Biology curriculum. In an effort to recognize how our understanding of science continues to evolve, course designers suggest less content and more concept. To meet this objective, the course has become organized into four categories called "Big Ideas." Newhams observed that this had allowed him to more organically navigate relationships between concepts such as evolution and cellular processes like mitosis. This change has freed up time allowing an extension of what used to be short labs into longer inquiries that can extend into weeks. Students have been able to explore ideas that emerge naturally in the course of discussions. Newhams notes that students were increasingly encouraged to hypothesize as practicing scientists. Though the teacher felt the adjustment had not been easy (he cited feeling some loss of control), he admitted that the new approach has allowed for a substantially improved learning environment for students.

OK, you can say it now. I am so lucky to work at this school. These teachers are playing, experimenting, moving beyond their comfort, allowing for the unknown to seep into learning. These things represent best practice in learning. They give latitude to learning and invite learners, parents and students alike, into thinking. Isn't that what quality teaching is all about?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Markup, paperless grading on ipad

My school will be launching an ipad program in the middle school this coming fall. All 8th graders will be required to have an ipad. Teachers are being encouraged to research electronic texts and use educational apps this spring in anticipation of the change. Until this past school year, we required all tenth graders to have laptops. The policy shifted when some at the school began to question if we really needed to require devices since so many kids seemed to naturally have them anyway. While the term BYOD (bring your own device) wasn't expressed as the policy change and we still have rules against cell phones in school, the thought was the that need to require specific hardware was becoming a moot point.

As one who's been working towards a paperless model in my classroom for the past few years, I found the lack of clear communication of expectations about equipment left a few students struggling to find ways to lease or purchase devices at the start of school. As I queried others, I found that my problem was somewhat more pronounced than others because I was using technology more regularly as part of the course design.

One of the tools that I have grown to love is a paper grading program called Turnitin. Turnitin is a leader in this area allowing teachers to collect essays, grade them using auto grammar correcting, written comments, and even audio. Additionally, the program allows students to maintain electronic portfolios which are indispensable for monitoring the development of student writing and helping parents understand areas of development in their child's writing skills. Despite all of its wonderfulness, only a handful of teachers have adopted the technology. More on that in my writing about the 2013 Writing Board at ODA.

Today I came across this post about Markup, an app that allows teachers to grade papers on an ipad. What's kind of appealing here is not only the ipad functionability but also the fact that teachers can essentially still embrace that old model of physically marking a page. Teachers load the papers via email (a rather slow and cumbersome process when one has a classful of essays), then they use a stylus to mark the text. The graded paper looks very much like a classic, hand-graded essay. I think this method could offer a palatable transition to electronic essay grading for teachers who are not yet ready to embrace a full featured program like Turnitin. Plus, it offers an entry point for ipad grading. Interesting.

Check it out.