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.

Conference Like A Champion Today

Heck, I hate ’em, but it’s been a long time, so the title nod (at least on this post) goes to the guys from South Bend.

I’m here in Prague where drizzle congeals for the 2012 Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum, and the fun has begun. Re-connecting with colleagues from around the globe like Bram Faems and many others from the European Forum in Lisbon is great. Other, less expected opportunities have cropped up already, as well.

I have sprung brief, very focused monologues about student-centered, constructivist, project-based learning on several edu-luminaries, including one whom I believe may be connected with the French Ministry of Education. Also, upon some visiting professors of education from a number of European countries. I waxed rhapsodic about Turkey to a Turkish teacher, about China to a Chinese teacher, and about my desire to visit India to several Indian teachers.

I’m in my element.

I also somehow immediately gravitated toward two women who engrossed my edu-nerdhood with extreme prejudice: Suzie Boss, who termed our wee cabal “the anarchist’s table” and Lisa Nielsen, who I watched demolish a Twitter echo chamber this week with guilty schadenfreude. Our conversation was excellent because it ranged from who’s interested in PBL in India to the vagaries of education in NYC to strengths (*gasp*) of the Common Core. Also, I was reminded that not everyone has my personal experiences, and that these personal experiences give me an angle on this big topic of teaching and learning that I care so much about. I tell kids often, as they write college app essays, to plug into their personal history, that which they take for granted, because it’s not what their audience has experienced.

So, dude. Come on. Like, heal thyself, too. OK?

I’m excited about learning new things this week and building some strong connections with smart, interesting people who dedicate themselves to helping children have wonderful learning experiences. Also, I’mma write this one up. So stay tuned.

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.