21st century

Loving the homestretch: meaningful work and active engagement

Oh, these crazy days of May! As sure as the weather gets warmer, our students get antsy, lose their focus and challenge our well established rules and expectations. Attention spans wither and distractions bloom. But thanks to the engaging nature of PBL and student choice, I love my classroom in May.

Although my students know the year is almost over, they are (for the most part) fully engaged in meaningful work. They have invested weeks (even months) into final projects, and they know that due dates are right around the corner. They are proud of the work they have done and eager to see it all come to fruition in a completed, published form.

So instead of battling distracted students and misbehavior in May, I have the pleasure of circulating as they work, answering questions, admiring their progress, and enjoying the beauty of students blushing with pride as they show off their best work.

My 8th grade English students are putting the final touches on their magazines, a project that allows them to pursue a topic of interest to them, while also building their skills in essay writing, graphic design, media, advertising, target audience, and long-term project completion.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Overlapping with the publication of their magazines is the completion of their digital portfolios, where they reflect on the work they have done this year, highlight their best pieces, and add symbolic images. Students spend the final class days presenting their portfolios to the class.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My favorite part of their portfolios is the final piece: a gratitude slide, where students represent their journey with one final symbolic image and thank an adult on campus for their impact on their lives. Middle schoolers can be a bit self-absorbed, but with just a little prompting, they can see and appreciate how the adults in their lives have affected them. And it is through these final slides that we see not just the appreciation of teachers, but also counselors, administrators, campus supervisors, coaches, office and cafeteria staff. My students are fortunate to have so many inspirational role models across our campus:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How do you keep your students engaged in meaningful work during these final, crazy days of May?

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.

IMG_7617

 

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.

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 delivered aquaponics units — sustainable food production systems used to raise fish and cultivate plants — to 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.)