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.

Digital Storytelling in 90 Seconds

I have been working on a variety of digital storytelling rubrics focused on specific types of journalistic reports lately, cooperating with students to reflect what they see as valuable or important in feature writing versus opinion writing versus news reporting, and so forth. My next project is video, breaking down what works in video in these various types of reports and adding investigative reports to the mix. It’s a work in progress.

But, I have also created a very, very brief digital story of my own this week: a “Virtual Classroom Tour” that may be found below. This project is part of the presentation on podcasting in my Digital Journalism course that I will make at the Microsoft “Partners in Learning” Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, in a few weeks. The time limit of 90 seconds was set by the good folks at Microsoft, and, as I so often say to students, I learned from having my communication forced inside an imposed structure. I wouldn’t only want to tell a story this way, but it’s a good opportunity to boil the podcasting project down to its essentials. Therein lies the strength of an imposed structure, similar to the AP exam’s time limit or a prescribed “elevator pitch” layout like a Pecha Kucha.

So, please check out this very brief digital story produced in Camtasia Studio and offer any and all feedback. I took the video of students with the iPad 2, which lacks a good microphone. I tried to compensate for that, but it only worked to mediocre effect. I also had to convert the video from the iPad to use it in Camtasia, which created very small final products. Part of my thinks the little “window into the student” effect of the almost embedded interview video is interesting, while another part recognizes it’s kind of crap. Still, it helped me conceptualize the curriculum a bit to push it out in 90 seconds. I can see the value of asking for super-brief videos asking for illustrations of key concepts as a method of formative assessment a as result of this experience.