Sunday, October 12, 2008

Facing the Challenges of Learning New Ways

I've been working on a very important speech. It's been keeping me up at night. I've been thinking about it in the car. And while running. Even in the shower. 
No, I'm not presenting at an EdTech conference. Nor am I addressing the PTA. 
The words for which I am searching are to be spoken to none other than a very small (12 students) but challenging 5th grade class. 

I have had challenging classes before, and I can only hope that I have continued to grow and learn as a teacher. Funny how that doesn't really make it any easier. 
This isn't even "my" class.  
Here's the situation: As I mentioned previously, I am working with the 5th grade class on the Meet the Candidates webquest. The kids are required to work together in small groups to create a political ad. There's a high level of interest in the project. They are motivated and excited. 
The problem? They are finding themselves unable to work together productively. There have been tears, arguments, and me having to intervene with small groups as well as sit and "process" with the larger group. Friday was the most difficult day so far.
I thought, based on MY experience as a teacher and the groups I have led in the past, that I could lead any groups to success. Did I say that there are ONLY 12 students in the class?

I am humbled. Challenged. Learning IS messy, isn't it?

What I see here is, I believe, the failure of years of schooling that was based on worksheets and workbooks, the individual pursuit of academic skill-building taking precedence over the skills of collaboration and community building. 
The 5th grade classroom teacher is great. She is open to all ideas, discussion, suggestion. I think, if nothing else, she and I are a model for the students as they watch the way we collaborate. 
We discussed the problems over emails this weekend. Should we allow only some students to work on the project? She says that this is what the kids want. They feel that the school should do something about the kids who misbehave. We (the adults) are all talk and no action. 

I thought about it.
I thought about the "misbehavior." It really isn't misbehavior. It is that they DON'T KNOW HOW TO WORK TOGETHER. THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN REQUIRED TO WORK IN GROUPS. THEY HAVE NOT BEEN TAUGHT. Because it's FLIPPIN' HARD! It would be so easy to let this project melt into dust, to "babysit" them in the computer lab, give easy assignments and let them play games. SO. MUCH. EASIER. 
But sometimes learning involves struggle. And what kind of message would I be giving them if I gave up on them just cause it's hard for me to watch them struggle?

I am going to talk to them tomorrow, and I am searching for the words to say. I think I will start by sharing this quote I read in David Warlick's "Open Letter to the Next President" in Tech&Learning Magazine: 
"The real problems of the world are not problems of science and math. They are problems of communication, people, communities and values."
If I had my way, and I mean this, I would throw out all the grades and the other stuff that school has become. I would focus all of my energy on the community, on teaching them to compromise, discuss, value one another, understand the other person's point of view, work together. 
I thought it somewhat ironic that Friday was such a difficult day. Our school is a Jewish Day School, and Thursday was the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Of course, I don't really expect 5th graders to understand the idea of atonement. But I think they can comprehend the fact that none of us are perfect, that each of us can improve ourselves. 
That, as I see it, is the hardest part. I think that each one of them thinks that someone else is the problem. They aren't really willing or able to see their own role. So, as I was saying,  the teacher suggested that maybe a solution was to take certain kids off the project. That way the other kids, the ones who have an easier time getting along, don't have to lose out on the opportunity to create the video, the most motivating part of the lesson for them. 

And I thought about it. A lot. 

I have concluded that that is not the best solution. We are studying a presidential election. It is emotional and can be very divisive. But we will all have to live with the results of the election. If the candidate I am supporting does not win, I anticipate having to suffer based on what, in my opinion, are the poor choices made by others. This is part of life in a democracy.
And I guess that I believe that this is part of life in school. I am going to try my hardest to work with the kids, to express myself, to help them learn the difficult skills of navigating life on earth with so many other human beings. If we fail to make our videos, we will fail together. I think we will succeed. But the most important thing is that we learn something. 
Wish us luck.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Teacher Tech Club

Last year I started an after school tech club for students centered around blogging. The kids were amazing, and the tech club was the highlight of my week. I would throw out a tool or idea and watch them run with it. 
So this year I thought I would do something similar for teachers.  I envisioned giving teachers the time and space to explore, play and create while I was there to help. I imagined starting out by sharing a few things and then going to a hands-on workshop type of atmosphere. As usual, I learned a lot.

Although I know my teachers and their skill levels pretty well, my expectations for the workshop were WAY out of line with the reality of what was accomplished. Upon reflection, it wasn't just technical skill level that was the problem. It was a difference in.......learning style? learning ability? mental flexibility? I'm not sure what to call it, but, for the most part, the teachers were not willing to just let go and try things the way the students have learned to do.
If I imagine a representation of the two groups I would portray the teachers as a rock, the students as a lump of soft clay. How do I teach the teachers to become more clay-like?

I actually think that technology is both the problem and the solution. I believe that using technology, because of the nature of the multiple solutions to a problem and the need to learn through exploration, is a great way to become a better learner.

Now I've gone in a full circle. This is why I started the teacher tech club in the first place!

I started by surveying the teachers about their interest level in such a class as well as topics they would like to see covered. First of all, if anyone knows how to get teachers to respond to a survey could you share that with me? The surveys I did receive back indicated a very high interest in learning about digital photography, so I made that the topic for the first session. 
Now I realize that I should have started with file management (which will be session number 2). As I took the teachers' laptops to install skitch (which I thought I would share during the session) I noticed the extreme need for basic file management. 

Start with the basics!!!!!!!

I actually started to create a resource wiki for the class, with sites like animoto and rockyou, dumpr and flickr. The reality was that we spent much of the time learning to connect the camera to the computer, download and organize photos in iphoto. 

I guess what I am trying to say is if you decide to do something like this, start out slow and basic, unless, of course, you KNOW FOR SURE that your students can handle more. I really thought that most of mine could, but I was wrong. 

Follow-up. I don't yet have a good plan for how to follow-up with these teachers. I will continue to have the tech club sessions, with much more basic lessons in mind. It is hard to find the time to meet one-on-one with each teacher to see how they're progressing (if they're progressing?) but that would probably be most effective. 

I also feel concerned about the fact that out of 35 teachers at my school, only 8 responded (4 in each session-same session scheduled at two different times). I waver between being extremely happy about those eight and being worried/frustrated that more do not make their own learning a priority. This is where I would like to see my school's leadership step in and require teachers to attend at least some professional development. It is a fact that until teachers begin to use technology for personal productivity there is no way they are going to integrate it with their teaching.