“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
Susan Lucille Davis
Latest posts by Susan Lucille Davis (see all)
- Show and Tell PD for Teachers - February 28, 2013
- Skills Every 21st-C Teacher Should Know - September 18, 2012
- Knocked Out of My Orbit: Becoming a 21st Century Educator - January 17, 2012
Terrific blog. Thank you. Can you give Twitter hashtag for new teachers?
Thank you! The synchronous chat for new teachers is #ntchat. They also have a wiki at http://newteacherchat.wikispaces.com/ .
Susan – This was a joy to read! Our school was also part of the PLP Dublin Dallas cohort last year.
I love the exercise in imagery for your poetry. Have you ever used PIC*LITS? http://piclits.com/compose_dragdrop.aspx I like using the images to help prompt poetry writing, but this gives me yet another way to use it!
Good for you for getting your faculty involved in Twitter chats! I love dropping in to #4thchat on Monday evenings whenever I can. There is no end to the learning and resources!
Thanks for a great peek into your classroom, and a wonderfully motivational post!
Susan — great post! I had not heard of Book Drum before, and you have inspired me to write about it on my blog. Thanks! At some point, I’d love to see the google doc your students made where they had poems come to life. I’m hoping to do similar work around “active reading” with the students in my middle school.
I’m fascinated by the new teacher’s comment about what she had been taught about the internet. Clearly those who were teaching her had done their job well. She was still fearful of being online. How sad.
Thanks, Patti, Steve, and Kathy,
I didn’t know about Pic*Lits, so thanks for sharing.
The links above may appear to go to the poems mentioned, but should actually take you to the students’ work. If this doesn’t work, let me know!
As for the teacher mentioned at the end, she’s not afraid anymore! She’s tweeting avidly and learning exponentially (also teaching me in the mean time — I just need to keep up with her!)
What an inspiration, Susan. I always seem to learn something new from your insights. We are looking to create a New Teacher Cohort starting next August with our new teachers and I would like to model part of it on your PLN Challenge. We’ll talk more…we always do.
Thanks so much for mentioning Book Drum. You’re welcome to get your students involved through a class account set up by someone over 18. Our Terms only restrict registration (for data privacy reasons), not participation. There’s a great paper about teaching with Book Drum here: http://www.bookdrum.com/news/2011/07/13/teaching-with-book-drum-a-reflection.html
Thanks, Hector, for setting me straight! I will look into this. As an update on my project, I am finding that my students approach annotating a poem differently from annotating a novel, which we are trying with Ishiguro’s ARTIST OF
…THE FLOATING WORLD. I look forward to learning from more experienced educators who have used this format. Working simultaneously has been an issue with more students involved — so I already know I need to organize their activity on the project better. Also, one of the limitations with Google Docs is not being able to add video or audio (only links). I am eager to see what we can do with Book Drum!
How are you getting on with Artist of the Floating World? We’d love to see it on Book Drum, so feel free to set up an account and start building the profile with your class!
Drop me an email if you’d like more information.
How do you know its not authentic?