Embracing the Struggle – Students Wrestling with Real-World Issues

Late last spring, a team of Writing Workshop faculty took a very deliberate plunge into the commitment to “Do Different” (see last few blog posts for reference…if you need to). As a team, they redesigned the 8th grade course called Writing Workshop. In brief, they created a suite of courses from which students could choose – Environmental Studies, Screenwriting, Journalism, etc. All sub-categorized writing workshops would build on the common ground of strong writing. However, students would now possess a more powerful voice in choosing the theme or topic about which they would problem find, problem solve, and…write.

About 30-40 students chose to focus on Environmental Studies. More specifically, they decided to explore global climate change. The teacher-facilitators combined sections so that they could team teach and collaborate more efficiently. The entire cohort utilizes multiple lenses through which to study the issue, and they remain committed to the particulars of writing about global climate change – how we use writing and complex communication to build understanding and/or persuasion around the issue.

In Linda Darling-Hammond’s book Powerful Learning: What We Know About Teaching for Understanding, she explains five core characteristics of project-based learning. Among other traits, PBL is “authentic, by posing problems that occur in the real world and that people care about” (35). Global climate change is such a problem. Public misunderstanding and controversy surrounding global climate change is such an problem.

So…the student learners take on these problems and struggle with understanding them. Kudos to them for DOING so. As a team, the teacher learners and student learners are contributing to and maintaining a class blog. Through this tool, the teacher-facilitators have expanded the teacher roster – those people who can participate in the learning progressions of the student learners and the team. Last week, from an authentic blog trail of responses and reactions, the class established a Skype session with James Hrynyshyn. On Tuesday, Hyrnyshyn wrote about the Skype session on his own blog.

I think this is SO COOL! For these students, the learning they are doing about the environment is integrated – science, math, history, writing, etc. are blended disciplines, mixed together in the genuine stew of real life. Technology is not the topic of discussion, rather it is merely a tool through which access to conversations and information is made possible and pursue-able. The learners are not limited by the people in the physical room. Walls are torn down in the name of leveraging tech tools to learn from those who know and participate in the problems in the world outside of school.

The pedagogy and content used in “Writing Workshop: Environmental Studies” is NOT a substitute for the pedagogy and content that used to be “covered” in the course. To think of it as such would make us worry about “what is not being covered” that used to be. This is new and it is important. Critical content, essential skills, and requisite knowledge is being constructed for these learners – in the wonderful messiness of real life. The teacher-facilitators are leading from an emerging future, not from past experience. After twenty years of being a professional educator, I imagine this course is something that the student learners will more deeply remember and call on when they are older. Our future depends on such transformation in schools.

The students could be writing process papers detailing the directions necessary to build a PB&J. Or they could be wrestling with real-world issues and embracing the struggle of finding the “truth” and building upon that solid foundation of learning. I appreciate the choice they have made…a choice to Do Different.

RECOMMENDED: Related post at Wright’s Room blog by Shelley Wright

I had an idea…and I like hers better

I have been dreaming of the blog post I would write to encapsulate and synergize the remarkably superb experience I enjoyed – and more importantly grew from – last weekend. Like pre-visualizing an athletic performance, I was imagining the words, the letters, the images, and videos. The text and subtext. The intro and the killer, kicker sentence that would cap it all. Then, I read @mmhoward’s post on the event and the learning…and I like hers better. I hope you’ll read it. It’s worth every nanosecond.

http://marymeganhoward.edublogs.org/2011/09/26/what-if-you-could-check-out-a-rabbit-nxtchp2011/

Valuable Time – Invaluable, Shared Insights

When I first began my role as principal (this current year is my ninth year in this role), I was not systemically connected to the work and learning of the faculty in my care. Ironic maybe, but true. In the ensuing years, I have developed systemic ways to plug into the work and learning of my colleagues. The efforts have resulted in valuable time and invaluable, shared insights.

1. Weekly, I attend at least 25% (1 of 4) of each of the PLC/PLT (professional learning community/team) meetings. Over the course of a year, this provides me with at least 144 hours of time with the teacher teams who explore ways to enhance learning for students and adults alike. I am able to learn side-by-side with those purposefully and collaboratively exploring curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.

2. I load into my reader the RSS feeds of the blogs from any Junior High faculty member who maintains a blog. What insight into the thinking, questioning, and practicing of my colleagues this provides!

3. I follow my Junior High colleagues on Twitter…if they have an account.

4. Maybe most importantly, I am given the great excuse (“professional responsibility”) to read the goals and self-assessments of the faculty. I do so to prepare for one-on-one or team conferences with each of the 80 Junior High faculty. These conferences provide opportunity for incredible dialogue about that which we are focusing on in our classrooms and learning spaces. These conversations are among my favorite of the year.

Reading goals and preparing for today’s two conferences is what inspired this quick post; reading a few faculty blogs and tweets also contributed to my compelling need to share.

From just these four, integrated, systems approaches to connecting with my faculty team, I am a part of an intricate web of deep thinking, rich inquiry, and innovative practices. I can see connections in people’s work…I can learn of what they are trying and researching to help students…I can be challenged in my own thinking and teaching practices. I can discern how they are using student/course feedback, peer visits, and administrative observations to reflect on their practice and improve their growing professionalism as educators.

‘Tis I who is blessed to be in this web of thinkers, doers, and learners.

“Bright Spot on Flexible Faculty Forum” Guest Post: Sally Finch

When Dr. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, numerous other runners soon ran through the opening that he cracked in an apparent barrier. Perhaps we have a similar situation here. Thanks, to Jen Lalley, the 112-day wait time paid off, and It’s About Learning enjoyed it’s first Junior-High-faculty guest post. Now, Sally Finch has offered up an email that she sent to Dean of Faculty Thad Persons. THANK YOU to Jen and to Sally for their willingness and courage – to share with a broader audience.

Thad:
I loved the ease of registering on the multi-colored spreadsheet!  It was so user-friendly and made so much sense.

I just read Bo’s blog about how he and Jill changed topics at the last minute and got a whopping increase in attendance.  This kind of flexibility for Faculty Forum, with an “expert” speaker working along with us, and with us teaching each other, is the best kind of choice for getting back to school.  Even those sessions I could not attend but wanted to (Sophie is just across the hall from me) can be an asset in the future.

The flexibility made it possible for Marjorie and me to work together on economics, and that was especially helpful since Jay was on jury duty.  I was getting a little nervous about the technology before Thursday, but feel much better now that I have taken some baby steps on some new things and know that I have lots of folks around to help.

Thanks for a great two days.
Sally

People often pick up the phone or pound on the e-mail to complain. Fewer (it seems) take opportunity to communicate about a bright spot. For instance, we call the help desk when technology is frustrating us, and we call Georgia Power when the power shuts down. How often do we call to say, “Things worked great today! Thanks for providing the tools and the electricity!” Such positive feedback goes a long way to building a record of what works, what helps, and what needs to continue. Thanks, Sally!

Let’s Know Our Campus & Getting the Wind Back in @clarkbeast

First, I hope you will read these two posts from @clarkbeast (they are brief in length and powerful in message):

“like a punch in the solar plexus”

“a simple vision”

I truly don’t have time to draft and publish a post this morning. By prioritizing this writing, something else important to the start-of-school is not getting done right now. However, a faculty member has inspired me to respond and support. As a true believer in formative assessment and community collaboration, I would be acting irresponsibly if I were slow to respond this morning. Additionally, what middle-school learning could be more important than a place-based education for our children? They should know their world, and that can begin with the very world around them…a world that we are fortunate and blessed to occupy with nearly 200 acres in the heart of Buckhead, Atlanta, Georgia.

This morning, I was following my routine of reading a few blog posts. I was concentrating on my folder of “Blogs-Colleagues.” In the past few days, it appears that @clarkbeast has been reflecting even more than usual on the delicate balance between our charge with technology and our critical need to attend to our natural world. Moreover, @clarkbeast has posted a response (same as second link above) to a call for #PBL ideas (link to Keynote on PBL…sent before 8-11-11 JH fac mtg). The intentions for our 8-11-11 JH faculty meeting took a different turn, and we discussed some questions that were not on the agenda. Therefore, we were not able to act with the #PBL ideas that people were asked to bring to the meeting. I am so thankful that @clarkbeast used his blog to ensure that the conversation did not end with a change-of-course-faculty-meeting.

On a related note, as I was playing around campus – in Nancy Creek – with my two boys, I snapped a few pictures and posted to my Posterous blog (such is now a habit with us). To the three Adams boys’ great pleasure, @clarkbeast responded to a post and got us excited about a potential stream exploration (click link to read that quick exchange)!

How can we better know our campus – our 200 acres of Atlanta, GA? What can we do to understand the natural world which is our very own school backyard? In what ways can we use our campus to study the essential learnings present across the departmentalized curricula?

I hope the JH will undertake this challenge this year. We have some superb feet in the door already – past bright spots to build on and improve. What’s best for the children? We need to get outside!