“You don’t know me, so don’t pretend like you do.”

These words were spoken by a naively fearless student to a gaggle of teachers, as we munched on our desserts at a culminating meeting for a year-long professional development program.

The spunky 9th grader had consulted as a student advisor for our school team’s Powerful Learning Practice action research project. Now she’d been given the opportunity to “speak the truth” to a captive audience of teachers. What did she think they needed to know about working with students today?

Although my student’s delivery might have lacked polish, her message was essential: Take the time to talk to your students, to know their passions, and to learn with and from their inquiries. Listen to their pleas for understanding, relevance, fairness, and engagement. Collaborate with them as they construct their own knowledge, providing the very necessary teaching and guidance they need to improve and succeed.

When students design their learning

I’ve found that my practice as a teacher and administrator has altered dramatically whenever I have encouraged students to design their own learning experiences. The first design invitation occurred several years ago when I was teaching an elective in Creative Writing for which half the class would be absent at least a week, leaving a gaping hole in the syllabus. Given the opportunity to explore new ways to communicate, the students immediately gravitated towards mixing familiar media to test out the ways text and images communicate something more than either medium does by itself.

Some wrote children’s picture books, while others blended photography and the visual effects of words and letters; still others played around with cartooning. Although none of these forms was new, they were certainly new formats for me to work in as a teacher, and they caused me to realize how media and images have become irrevocably intertwined with writing in contemporary culture. I learned from my students that writing now means working with words and images together to communicate a message, and I recognized that I needed to help my students learn how to master the new and different combinations of these skills if they were to succeed.

As an English teacher, I found this shift would permanently knock me out of my orbit of merely reading novels and teaching essays in the old, comfortable ways.

The exhilaration of learning together

More recently, I found myself in a similar situation when half my AP English Language students traveled to Washington, DC, for a week-long school trip. I asked my juniors, who would remain behind, to propose what they would like to learn during that week — it would be a treat to drop the structured AP curriculum for a bit. When no concrete proposals emerged (often our best students have the hardest time thinking outside the traditional curriculum), we discussed focusing on some of the “classic” poems that might help them get a jump on AP English Literature for next year.

Meanwhile, through my professional learning network (PLN), I learned about a website called Book Drum, which broke down novels page by page and provided images and sounds for readers to better grasp the context of their reading. For example, the entry for To Kill a Mockingbird provides a photograph of a bowl of scuppernong grapes that might be unfamiliar to readers outside the South; another page offers a video of a Bobwhite issuing its distinctive call. Unfortunately, the site only allows participants 18 years of age and older to contribute. But why not, I thought, do this with poems, and in a Google Document? The result was an exhilarating week of co-constructed learning.

The excitement in the room was palpable as students worked in teams to find images (what better way to teach the power of imagery) to convey important information about the poems they read. Imagine trying to come up with an image for “galumphing” from Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” For “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” my students from the barrios of Houston listened to the sounds of trees creaking under the weight of a heavy snowfall via a YouTube video in order to fully appreciate the significance of watching “the woods fill up with snow” in Frost’s famous poem. The most powerful impact came from their line-by-line photographic illustrations for Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” On most occasions when I have taught this poem, I have spent an excruciating amount of time explaining “rose-moles” and “stippled” to glassy-eyed teenagers. In this case, the students constructed a visual representation of the blessings of natural diversity. My students’ co-constructed knowledge brought the poem alive. Students exclaimed out loud, “What a cool poem” and “This was fun. When can we do this again?”

New teachers are sometimes old-school

One of the more challenging aspects of my position now involves helping new educators understand how to approach their profession from a 21st-century perspective. Contrary to what one might think, many young teachers still often staunchly advocate for “old things in old ways,” as Marc Prensky (way back in 2005)  referred to the way education was conducted in the last century.

Recently, a guest speaker introduced our new teachers and Urban Teaching Fellows to the societal shifts driving education, and I could see these young people retreating into their comfortable spaces as he spoke. I recognized that they faced the daunting task of designing lessons for demanding sixth-graders or equally challenging juniors the next day. How could they think about doing things differently when they were just learning how to maintain a reasonable hold on the classroom?

The next week I introduced the “PLN Challenge,” my way of urging my new teachers to reach out into untried territory and learn from the best teachers they could find via the Internet. I was shocked at their lack of awareness of the rich discussions about education taking place in the blogosphere, but I urged them forward to see what they could learn. As it happened, a synchronous chat in Twitter specifically for new teachers was being held during our meeting time. As our new teachers and Fellows jumped into the conversation – my only request of them, really – their learning slowly infected the room.

The next day, one of them joked, “I’m so mad at you. I’ve been tweeting all day, and I’ve learned so much.” I listened further as she explained, “We were the generation who were told the Internet was a scary place and not to go there. I had no idea it could be like this.” Now I know why our young teachers pushed back so hard. They were taught to fear this remarkable learning system. I’ve learned that I just need to hold on to an attitude that I call “persistence patience,” as I introduce others to the power of PLNs for sharing, connecting, and learning.

My 21st Century lessons learned

I have long believed the role of the teacher is to ask the best questions she can, and to help her students answer them. I also believe, more than ever, in empowering students and teachers with the attitudes and skills necessary to become change-agents in their own lives. That includes leveraging the powerful tools made available by new technologies to help students and teachers become co-creators of knowledge collaboratively and online.

It’s an exciting time to be in education. I believe we need each other, teachers and students sharing and learning together, to figure out the future unfolding around us.

Images: Big Stock, Creative Commons, Creative Commons

About the author
Susan Lucille Davis teaches middle school language arts at St. Mark's Episcopal School in Houston Texas. She also teaches critical reading online for the Center for Talented Youth of Johns Hopkins University. Susan shares her thoughts about teaching and learning at The Flying Trapeze (with co-blogger Renee Hawkins), as a regular blogger for Getting Smart, and on Twitter @suludavis.