By Karen Richardson
As an early birthday gift, my husband gave me a mushroom growing kit. It was pretty much a box of dirt with a bag of “starter,” which I think were spores in peat moss. I spread the contents of the bag over the dirt, spritzed with water, and then covered it up with plastic. Waited patiently. When I opened the plastic, I discovered that the contents of the bag had begun to grow, not into mushrooms yet, but into a white web of organic material that spread over the dirt. There were some areas where the web was thicker. In other places, only thin strands made the connection. But the web was there. I spritzed some more and covered it with cloth to protect from drafts. More patient waiting. Then, one day I lifted the cloth, and there were tiny white heads in amongst the web. Teeny tiny mushrooms! I spritzed a bit, covered and…you guessed it…waited patiently. The next time I lifted the cloth, I discovered full-sized mushrooms rising from the web.
As I harvested a few this morning, I couldn’t help but think about the community that I have been a part of for the six months or so. It’s grown in a very similar way. In the case of my cohort, independent school teachers from across the United States came together. Sheryl and Will spread the starter and did the initial spritzing by developing a compelling professional development experience for these teachers. And they made sure they didn’t forget about the dirt: there was a strong support structure of both people and tools of which I was just one piece.
Then, we waited patiently. Probably the biggest difference between mushrooms and learning communities is the time involved. Mushrooms…about six weeks. Professional learning communities…potentially a lifetime. But, at the least, several months. Being part of this community was a reminder to me that change, especially in education, takes time and patience. But the web began to grow, supporting the voices of participants as they learned and grew together.
Mary Lou shared her hopes and fears as she faced the journey ahead:
“I teach fifth grade math, and I am struggling with how I can incorporate technology tools in what I presently do in the classroom. Misty May Trainor on Dancing with
the Stars tonight made a statement about learning to dance that seems very appropriate at this time. She said that learning something you have never done before is the most uncomfortable feeling. I think it will take time and practice in order to be comfortable with the tools to the extent that their use becomes somewhat second nature. I am also excited, and I share your fear of not having time to thoroughly explore the facets of Web 2.0/technology tools on a day-to-day basis.”
As some participants expressed concerns about how they would find the time to get involved, Shelley offered her gentle support:
“I think it can be challenging for educators to embrace the process/journey approach for ourselves because we tend to come to this profession after being very successful at “doing school.” It’s hard to face all the unlearning, and non-linearity and “gray” and not feel unsettled. But stress kills learning, so we need to find a way to make peace with the journey, or we risk shutting down. Though it may sound simplistic, one thing I try to do is remember to be forgiving of myself for not having “the answers,” and proud of myself for being willing to ask questions, consider big ideas and push myself into uncomfortable territory. The fact that we’re all here learning together is no small thing. It’s something that many of our colleagues — master teachers though they may be — are not yet ready to do. That’s something.”
The community became the place where they could return to share their new knowledge. Nanci wrote, “Since the consortium and Ning I feel like I’ve been all over the place – blogs, rss readers, google apps, and so much more. So it’s been a hands-on period of processing, experimenting and sampling . Thanks for the reminder to come back to where it all started and to share the resources. I am reminded that an important part of this process is to share as I go along rather than waiting until I have a finished project.”
Now, as the teams plan and implement their projects, we see the potential for expanding that web. The teams are spreading the starter and doing some spritzing in their own schools, providing the fertile ground where the web can grow, nurtured by patience, time and support. At least one team has already implemented a learning fair at their school. You can learn more about it at the wiki and read Julia’s reflection as well. The purpose of the fair was not just to spread the word about cool tools but to help teachers begin to see the potential of these tools to support student-centered pedagogies. Wendy wrote about how their conceptual approach has moved away from the tools:
“The theme of our discussion was to focus less on the tools and technology and more on teaching strategies and learning outcomes that support active authentic learning. Our ultimate goal is to increase the number of teachers at our school who think in terms of active learning and begin to incorporate technology that supports this framework. However, past experience tells us that change is more difficult for some than for others…The nice thing about the conversation is that teachers really started thinking about how to put more of the learning responsibility on the students. Our final challenge at the end of the discussion was to try one thing in the classroom in the next 3 weeks that reflects “more them, less us”. In other words, one activity that puts the responsibility for learning on the student. I know this seems small, but we were pleased with the direction of the discussion. We hope to share the results in April…Sometimes small starts turn into big leaps.”