Wrapping My Partners in Learning Project

This past week, I presented my Microsoft “Partners in Learning” Innovative Educator project at their Global Forum in Prague. Partners in Learning structures the presentations as a competition between educators, which in practice is much more about connecting with like-minded teachers than about “winning” among the competitors.

My project is my ongoing development of a curriculum in my digital journalism courses, particularly focused on podcasting as an example. When I applied for the program in January, I had no idea what I was applying for beyond a conference in Lisbon, Portugal. I won an Innovative Educator award in Switzerland and was invited to Lisbon. While I was there, my project was judged by the likes of Gavin Dykes and I received incredible feedback, opening my eyes to the possibilities of the presentation, essentially placing my young curriculum in the spotlight. I won second runner-up in the “Collaboration” category and was invited to the Global Forum.

The curriculum is unique, I think, giving time, space, and total choice of content to students in order to learn writing and communication skills. We cover news, opinion, feature, and investigative writing through writing for web publication, podcasting, and video production with student-selected content focuses and increasing freedom in setting deadlines throughout the year. Students also work in teams based on media choice in each nine weeks after the first quarter.

In short, it works: Kids began seeing themselves as writers and media creators, improving their communication skills and, for some of them, falling in love with journalism. Students asked for a second year of the course, so I created one, experimenting and revising this year as we go. What is amazing in this class is how students are working so hard to produce the student newspaper online, managing their peers, working together without guidance from me, and exploring areas such as editing, graphic design, marketing, SEO implementation, and many more.

In both classes, I provide feedback as necessary on individual pieces, conference with students on their work, lead discussions of ethics, and help students find examples of high-quality journalism to learn from. In fact, learning from excellent online media examples is a centerpiece of the curriculum. Students even write and revise rubrics based on these models.

So, that was what I presented in Prague. I was not recognized as a winner, but am proud of my curriculum and am happy with what my students are doing! I connected with many amazing educators from all over the globe and look forward to connecting our students to empower and publish student-created media. I also got feedback not from judges, but from other educators. Many people have suggested that my students might benefit from publishing to “real” audiences like professional websites or journals, or websites focused on specific causes like those in “Taking it Global.”

Interestingly, my core “soft” or foundational value is to create a space for students to explore content that they care about or are at least interested in. This is the main shift in my curriculum, as I see it. While some students explore, create, and publish about global issues like human rights, others do the same on Italian football or school events. I don’t judge, treating each topic as equal to honor student choices and interests. Also, I only assign one topic in the first year course, something timely to begin the exploration of opinion writing (and to model it myself, showing research skills in the process). I don’t want to assign sexy topics in order to facilitate publishing to existing publications.

A clear next step for these classes is to start sharing and promoting cool publication options beyond student blogs and the school newspaper in order to simply broaden the scope of possibility for sharing kids’ voices. I’m really excited about the possibility of connecting my students to peers in Hong Kong, Kenya, California, England, Hungary, and Slovakia. When I participated in Project Harmony’s Armenian School Connectivity Project in 2005, I saw great value in using online tools for cooperative PBL between continents. I wonder how the students might take advantage of such an opportunity on their own?

As always, I left this conference deeply grateful for my school’s resources and support for (hate this term) “entrepreneurial” curriculum and course development.The stories of teachers doing wonders in deeply impoverished village schools in Nigeria or the Philippines or El Salvador blew my mind; I’ve been there, of only briefly, teaching at the Babur School in Bazaar-Korgon, Kyrgyzstan from 1999-2001. Also, I was totally depressed to hear from a teacher in the US who was forced to take unpaid leave to attend this incredible professional development opportunity. I’m lucky. I am taking nothing for granted!

Were I to do this again, I’d focus on something like “Messy Learning – Students Constructing Skills and Knowledge Together” or “‘Time + Space + Choice =’ Our Media Classroom” (BTW, that piece is exactly awesome, and exactly what I’m trying to do (#validating)) or  “Students as Managers: Creating Together” or something. I’d print freakin’ business cards, but I would not give stuff out. PSA: Please, teachers, easy on the printing of elaborate brochures. Let’s love the earth. I can help you build a blog with all that information and share the link.h

That’s it for the PIL stuff. Congratulations to all the winners – you rock. Apologies for the long and clunky reflection.

Thoughts on The Future of Schooling

At Zurich International School, we’ve got a weekend “InnovateZIS” think tank approaching in which the topic is “Schools Out: Learning 2030. Will schools as we know them be needed in 2030?” A series of essential questions have been posited, including:

  • What is the role of creativity in school?
  • What core elements should the curriculum of the future contain?
  • How will Learning 2030 affect social relationships in schools?
  • Should schools prepare students for the world of work?

Two other questions deal with learning spaces, which is an important and fascinating topic that I have been thinking about regularly since a recent visit to Microsoft Switzerland’s headquarters. But beyond physical environments, what is the future of curriculum, creativity, and relationships in school, particularly in terms of what students should know after they leave school?

Thinking about the future of school is tricky. As Dr. Seymour Papert pointed out, “It is impossible to predict what the school of the future will be. History always outsmarts the futurists.” A large disconnect already exists between what the world of today is and how schools operate. Schools are inherently conservative institutions, where change comes slowly. As such, we continue to sort by age ( rather than interest area or fluency level, for example. As such, kids are robbed of a diverse community of learners, one more socially traditional than the hierarchical age model. Learning 2030 should be about social relationships predicated on a shared journey of discovery across age groups, including a student-teacher relationship of cooperative learning. As a teacher, I’d rather be a learner than an authority – a guide with experience in my areas of interest who creates opportunities for students to learn and build meaning individually and socially. As Papert goes on to say, “But it is easy to predict what it will NOT look like. I am sure that the practice of segregating children by age into “grades” will be seen as an old-fashioned, and inhumane, method of the “assembly line” epoch. I am sure that the content of what they learn will have very little in common with the present day curriculum.”

I hope Dr. Papert is right. A responsive curriculum is no curriculum at all. Curriculum tends to focus on facts that need to be learned or a banal, arbitrary “spiral” of skills; learn persuasion in 10th grade English as you read Julius Caesar, learn comparison in 11th grade English as you read Othello. Dr. Papert also described an “intellectual diet” of content for children and a broader curriculum predicated on fluencies in various skills like accessing information with “knowledge technologies.”  Teachers engaged in a mutually engaging, constructivist process of learning with students can craft this diet to help kids explore their passions by doing things. Doing is creating, permanently, temporarily, or ephemerally. The role of creativity in school is central, or should be. Standards and curriculum can’t really address that without being extremely broad.

At the end of the day, I don’t know any happy people who make a living doing something they hate. As such, preparing students for the world of work means helping them build positive working relationships, understand their areas of interest, build fluencies in skills essential for life in the 21st century (most of which were essential in the 19th century), and create habits of mind and habits of work for success, happiness, and ethical engagement in society.