Reflections on Microsoft “Partners in Learning” European Conference

I had the good fortune to attend the Microsoft “Partners in Learning” European Conference. I submitted our Digital Journalism course’s podcasting project to a contest for teachers in Switzerland and came in first place, earning me a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, for the week of March 19. I spent the week with some Microsoft employees, including a very skilled, very organized intern (and ZIS alum) who will begin her teaching career in Switzerland next school year, and many excellent educators.

The week included some sightseeing and a few brilliant moments of exploration, which I live for. We ate amazing food. We soaked in as much sunlight as possible. I was part of a Swiss team including an outstanding Spanish teacher from near Lucerne who organizes incredible projects between students in her town and students in Spain, culminating in an exchange of groups for a week in Spain and a week in her town. Incredible! For anyone who thinks gaming is interactive, I challenge them to virtually outdo the interactivity of a trip to live with a family in Spain.

The setup for the conference was another competition. We all set up booths, including, help me, posters. Mine was minimalist, linked to a series of examples via a hashtag and a QR code, which is so obscure, even to geeks, that it makes me positive that these will never catch on in their current form. Many other people incorporated a number of screens and projectors, beautifully produce glossy posters, gifts, candies (I took Swiss chocolates, for they are delicious), brochures, handouts, and even a flip animation book crafted for every project except mine – honest mistake, truly. Not so, me. I had a computer and headphones, though, which were useful.

I presented my project to three judges, interesting educators all, and greatly enjoyed these conversations. At the end of the week, I realized how useful the opportunity to reflect at length about my curriculum proved, and the resulting ideas will change both this curriculum specifically and my teaching in general. My project was entitled “Digital Journalism: Podcasting,” and that was the way I pitched it; curriculum rose up first, and was followed by the forms of assessment. I guess it worked, because our project came in first last place or “Third Runner Up” in the “Collaboration” category. This surprised me.

I was curious to see if the glitzy projects employing wild gaming tactics built on video game hardware would win out. My perception is that some teachers are stretching hard to do chapter or spelling tests with a panoply of gadgets, doing old things in new ways. Uniformly, these projects were not recognized.

A number of teachers created projects in which students created educational materials, not so much in the classic sense of teachers turning students into wee lecturers, but more in lines of creating progressive teachers with some level of cooperation with (usually) younger peers. Uniformly, these projects were rewarded.

As I take anything away from this conference beyond memories of a beautiful, if currently traumatized city, I leave dedicated more than ever to creating authentic opportunities for students to learn essential language skills and to explore texts and media in personally authentic, meaningful ways. I believe we owe it to students to move beyond the strictures of external curriculum and standards in order to teach in ways that we know are the best; Kristen Weatherby of the OECD made this clear when she posited that most teachers they interview know best practices but ignore them due to the contorting effects of standardized testing. I believe we must allow for connected, cooperative learning to take place in non-linear ways, for kids to learn how to “talk to strangers” as Bruce Dixon (quoting Will Richardson) stated, and for kids to take actual risks, venturing into what Liv Arneson called the “Uuhh-ooohhhh” zone in ways that they value, risking what that value, in order to make huge gains later.

For me, this means integrating service learning possibilities into the Digital Journalism curriculum when students are interested, making connections between students worldwide to allow for communities of interest to coalesce, and facilitating students in connecting with the world beyond the classroom. I am planning on creating a choice menu for the Digital Journalism final exam in which they get points in the creation of a reflective media piece on their growth as journalists by contacting and communicating with peers, peer experts, adult experts, networks, and so forth, practicing digital communication skills in the midst of proving their fluency in them. This is in the rough draft stages, but it’s a working concept.

Additionally, I recognize that, by gaining an invitation to the global Microsoft “Partners in Learning” conference in Athens in November, I have an opportunity that many of my colleagues worked hard to achieve. As such, I am hoping to revise my display and communication plan into something clearer and more powerful, giving the work of my students its due and honoring the challenge. As I do so, I want to expose my thinking and my process to students, modeling the writing or creative process as I go.

The Partners in Learning conference was a great chance to meet like-minded, powerful educators who are doing incredible work with youth. While I have serious doubts about the efficacy of competition between educators as a means of stimulating cooperation, I have freely entered this process and intend to honor it with my best work in Athens.

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