Thursday, August 19, 2010

Feed the Bees

This is a picture of a flower I have growing outside of my kitchen (no, I don't know what it is).  Over the last two weeks, the plumes have been eaten by bees.  Not just sipped, but devoured, dried up, consumed.  I take this to be an analogy for the learning that should be happening in my classroom.  If students dry up one interest area, great!  On to another! 

Scott Love (NoteShare) connected me to this video today: What is a learning ecosystem and how does it advance educational innovation?   59 minutes of YouTube is hard to watch, but I recommend the first half at least.  No, you don't really need to know what a "learning ecosystem" is (unless, like me, you are fascinated by the connection between literacy and science).  And the basic graph is a bit hard to grasp.  But persist.  The message is clear.  I summarize it this way:
Today's students are learning more from reading and writing in out-of-school interest-driven networks than from in-school learning experiences
this is learning largely not mentored or guided by knowledgeable adults
(students are using Internet sources and media to teach themselves more about what they want to know).

Surprise!  Actually, the 1st statement did not surprise me.  I think this has always been true.

But the 2nd observation did give me pause.  In my experience, and the experience of my many and varied students, outside interests were guided by an adult: teacher, parent, grandparent, the guy or woman who had the knowledge, a neighbor, sometimes even a remote correspondent (that was true before the Internet - going back thousands of years).  There traditionally has been a mentor, or what Sugata Meta calls a "Granny," to move students from the "hang and dip" aspect of social learning to the "dig deeply" stage of learning.  Student peer groups, according to the YouTube video and other studies, are not enough to guarantee this move.  The best online learning networks have easy access to such mentor-teachers embedded.  Luckily, most schools have a rich staff of trained and experienced professional educators, as well as access to a community of mentors (online or around the corner).

So, the challenge becomes how to embed in literacy education mentoring or guide experiences for students out-of-the-classroom AND how to pull interest-driven independent explorations into the classroom. 

When I did my own search for the Stanford University study of student writing cited in the YouTube video, I found this summary article by Clive Thompson - with links to the Stanford study site.  There is food for thought here.  If educational leaders, including the state of Maine, believe that writing is getting worse and worse and control of Internet social activity is necessary, and if this is driving curriculum and instruction (along with testing and Core Curriculum), and IF THIS IS BASED ON INCORRECT DATA - Then where are we?  We are solidifying a teacher-centered, building-based learning system that is not going to meet the needs of our students.

We are putting our heads further into the sand - cutting down the flowers that feed the bees.  Scott Love asks me, "How do we provide a creative choice for kids to discover and leverage interest-driven learning?"  That is, it seems to me, the real Essential Question for literacy educators today.

I am going to dedicate my year of teaching to exploration of that question.  Some ideas I already have, which are fast becoming my 12-step program:

  1. I have purchased for every student a Reporter's Notebook (nice tool sold by WB Mason), to be used in place of a journal (reading, writing) - my hope is that it will encourage interest exploration, be used in every learning space, and travel to and from school
  2. As previously posted, I will be attaching to this notebook the Question Matrix so that questioning becomes key to journaling
  3. As soon as students are able to do so, they will move "reflections on reading" to NoteShare and use the Reporter's Notebook for questioning, idea-gathering and connecting - I will make it a point to use this at least once every class.
  4. My reading & writing strategy-modeling will use thought-provoking texts - and I will wear my lab coat (Lego Ergo Sum) for all of these sessions
  5. Student reading will be choice, and thought-provoking, and text selections will include informational and other non-fiction (aim: 50/50 split during the year)
  6. I will celebrate student out-of-school online engagement that is driven by their interests - I have lined up two adult writing mentors and will be Skyping with students myself as often as they need it
  7. I will work with Guidance to make sure that every student household has high-speed Internet access (guaranteed by Maine but hard to implement)
  8. I will use multiple on-line communities to support learning and exploration: VoiceThread, ning (blogging, forum), wiki, animoto, NoteShare, TeacherTube, Glogster, and more
  9. I will work to develop a "playlist" of standards that each individual student needs to attack (idea from School for One) - and work to make attacking these standards interesting by using digital tools that support independent learning (in grammar topics, vocabulary, etc.) - this is my concession to the data driven instruction model adopted by our district
  10. We will write and write about what we find interesting - I will be writing too
  11. None of this will be confined to the classroom or to meeting times - we will not just workshop Reading, we will workshop What We Are Finding Out About.  Small and large group presentations/announcements should happen spontaneously and happen online.  
  12. ?
The path to change is spikey - luckily, every year there is a larger support system and more data to support the validity of the effort.  It ain't your old ELA any more...   
Is this really innovation?  It is for me - but I need to open the doors even wider, raise up the screens and let the bees into the house.  

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