Saturday, November 19, 2016

November Reflection: Gathering Momentum

When I first joined the What's the Story team two summers ago, I viewed the course primarily as a space--quite distinct from the traditional public school classroom--where students could pursue their own interests. To a considerable extent, that's precisely what the course is, but what's changed is my perception that the kind of work students do in WtS needs to be so different from the rest of their educational experiences. In my personal life, I go out of my way to learn about topics that interest me because they interest me. As a teacher, though, I've often been reluctant to allow my students the same freedom for all sorts of reasons. How will I ensure they choose an appropriate topic? Manage their learning? Assess them? When will we get to the rest of the curriculum? The framework WtS provides has helped make these questions seem much less daunting, because, through it, I've been able to see firsthand the possibilities that exist when students are given the tools and support to discover and inquire into what matters to them. This isn't to say that all classes should mirror WtS, but the structure of the course (which Bill and Tim have refined this year) has a lot to offer educators who wish to reap the rewards that come with providing students the freedom to explore.

Perhaps one way for What's the Story to continue innovating is to do what it's doing now: tapping the educators involved for their insight. Based on the changes made to the course since its inception, another effective way to keep improving it is to monitor what works and what doesn't and adjust accordingly. Bill and Tim have proven extremely adept at this so far. After only a single overnight weekend with students, I already have the sense that this year's course will run more efficiently than last time.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

November Refelection-Learning to Fly

  • In what ways does WtS serve as a model that helps others think more creatively about how to design learning?

What's The Story gives students the opportunity to design their own learning in a way that support them when their endeavors go well and offers support and guidance at times when they need it most. WtS encourages students to be active thinkers an work collaboratively. This means that they are entrusted to build this rigorous course into their already rigorous lives. Sometimes that's not easy. However, with frequent check ins and feedback, WtS becomes part of our students' routine. They count on each other to build and grow together and they count on their mentors to hold them accountable and offer help when needed.

  • How can our WtS team bring an even more creative approach to how we design, orchestrate, and report our students learning?

I would love to see more of an emphasis placed on a creative element to the work that students are doing. As a lover and teacher of poetry, through conversation I know that many of our students express themselves similarly. I would like to see these elements have a chance to be at the forefront of what some of our students produce.

November Reflection: For What It's Worth

My title might give the impression that I lack self confidence. That may be true, but my title signals something else: I am brand new.

This simple study cottage in Norway is emblematic of how I see WtS? after experiencing it only briefly. The students and adults are invited into the warm light of seeking and learning. All too often students in our schools are disconnected from what they should be learning because they have never been asked to be part of designing and implementing what they do. They stand outside in the cold, looking through the window at the books basking in the warm light. 

WtS? As a Model

• Students design their curricula as long as it's under the overarching concept, in this case creating social change.
• Individual learners cozy up to a single topic by writing in public blogs using "I-Search" methodology. 
• Learners sort themselves in groups. (I witnessed amazing flexibility as students amended what they had thought they were going to research in order to form small groups, each of which focused on a single story.)
• Mentors work their way toward individual groups in order to help them achieve their goals.

That's as much as I've experienced thus far, but this is a lot! I cannot even begin to list all the pedagogically muscular work this evidences. Student choice. Differentiation. Coaching over "teaching." Learners at the helm... (For starters.)

What Can WtS? Do Better?

I've got nothing for you yet. I'm at the "totally impressed" stage. I'm sure that at some later date I'll have plenty of snarky suggestions.  

November Reflection: Thoughts so far

In what ways does WtS serve as a model that helps others think more creatively about how to design learning?

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of WtS is the collaboration between adults. In most educational settings, a course is taught by one teacher, though occasionally courses are team taught. However, the number of adults teaching a course almost never rises above two. WtS on the other hand seems to be a true team effort. Yes, Bill and Tim take the lead but all the mentors have important roles to play, whether it is commenting on blogs, brainstorming with individual teams or leading a short activity outside to stretch our legs. At the retreat last weekend, I suggested to Bill that each team report out on their initial planning process so that teams could glean useful ideas from each other. He took my suggestion and incorporated it into the agenda when all the teams came back together. I'm not sure this level of collaboration and trust between teachers exists in many schools today due to compartmentalism, departmentalism, and grade level silos. Thus far, the adults have done a good job modeling a high functioning team, which is key since we ask the students to work in teams. Each adult brings a unique skill set to the table and the high level of trust and collaboration we have allows for us to design learning experiences of high quality.

How can our WtS team bring an even more creative approach to how we design, orchestrate, and report our students learning?

Being new to the program, this is tricky for me to answer at the moment. However, I would echo what Ben said about required reading on the new group topics. There were some specific requirements around research when students were looking at their individual topics and I wonder if students will be as well-read on their group topic if they dropped their original topic and picked up a new one last weekend. I also wonder if there will be opportunities for feedback from the group at upcoming retreats. Will groups report out on progress and get feedback from others on things like depth of research, presentation methods, even writing conventions in blog posts or other writing?

Friday, November 11, 2016

November Reflection

In what ways does WtS serve as a model that helps others think more creatively about how to design learning?

WtS invites students to use personal experiences to engage in the process of learning. Inquiry, reflection and experimentation provide WtS learners a framework to imagine and create.

How can our WtS team bring an even more creative approach to how we design, orchestrate, and report our students learning? 

Provide space for WtS learners to develop an understanding of what matters to them, in order to imagine a life focused on what's personally important. Purposefully create opportunities to practice math and science proficiencies as measures for student learning. Move students to embody the methods of WtS by "teaching" different audiences. 

November Reflection: Stronger Together

Problem solving--the kind we need to solve our nation's and our world's real problems--takes collaboration, compromise, and maybe most importantly, a powerful, irrepressible, deep care for something larger than ourselves. I saw all of these last weekend at the first What's the Story retreat. I listened to adolescents talk with passion (and nervousness) about things they cared so deeply about: migrant farm workers, gender inequality, educational opportunities, animal cruelty, the opioid crisis. Listening to them share their research and present their plans--such lofty and idealistic and abstract plans--made me hopeful for the future, but also reminded me of the importance of teaching students the transferable skills they will need to turn these abstract plans into actionable realities.

The structure of WtS encourages idealism, but grounds it in the practical skills necessary to achieve change. Students are asked to dream, to research, to ask questions, to find answers, to seek perspectives, to deepen their understanding, and to find their place as change-makers. And as they do this, they are provided structures to support them, space to mess up, a net to catch them if they really fall, sign posts to direct them, adult mentors and blog readers to ask questions, time to discover and think, and instruction to push their skills and help them communicate. These are all provisions that could be replicated in our schools. None of these parts is all that innovative, really. The innovation is in putting them all together and trusting that students have the agency and maturity to learn beyond the traditional boundaries we set for them.

As WtS continues, we'll get better at guiding our students to dream big, but act small; we'll improve how we support their long-distance collaboration, a key to the future of problem-solving; and we'll progress in our ability to communicate what creativity and innovation and personal growth looks like. What we're all doing here feels really important. These students will find new passions and stumble on new problems they want to solve in the future, and I am confident that they are leaving this course not only feeling like they can make change, but having the skills and understandings to know how to do so.

November Reflection: Discussing Issues That Matter

Image result for socratic dialogue

  • In what ways does WtS serve as a model that helps others think more creatively about how to design learning?

For a variety of reasons, What's the Story is a functional and innovative approach to learning that serves as one positive model for how to design a pedagogical strategy that works. One reason is that it allows students to take agency in their education -- that is, students choose what they're interested in and explore topics of their own choosing. Another reason is that it then encourages students not only to consider different viewpoints about or approaches to that topic, but it requires collaboration with others who share similar interests. Moreover, WTS habitually offers students the time and space to reflect on their own learning: how do I learn, what are my struggles, what is working, and what do I need in order to be successful? Among MANY more examples of how WTS serves as one good model is that it gets students out into the community to examine real-world issues that won't just be forgotten at the end of a paper or an exam.

  • How can our WtS team bring an even more creative approach to how we design, orchestrate, and report our students learning?

I would actually qualify the question and suggest that we need to blend more traditional approaches with our creative approaches to design, orchestrate and report on our students' learning. For instance, I think there should be required reading on the topics of our students' choosing, and they should be asked to synthesize, summarize, and make arguments and counterarguments about certain reading. And the blog posts are AWESOME, but I think they could be balanced with more traditional forms of writing that we would assess. This is all to say that what we are doing now is great and creative, but I do think we could strengthen our students' "school" skills a bit more.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

November Reflection: "Getting Better All the Time"

In what ways does WtS serve as a model that helps others think more creatively about how to design learning?

For me, the greatest asset of WtS is the sheer amount of one-on-one time we get with our learners. We've all known for a long time that a huge key to educational success is that students need to feel valued and connected; however, fostering these relationships in the traditional classroom is not always easy.

With WtS, its quite literally easy to form great relationships with students because we, as mentors, are working along side our learners (as opposed to monitoring them from afar), and we therefore the moments we spend together go a very long way.

So how does this encourage me to think creatively as I design learning experiences for my students in my "traditional" classroom? Unfortunately, changing the number of students in my classes and the amount of time I get to spend with them isn't under my control. That said, WtS has encouraged me to think differently about how I interact with my students in all the other moments of the day -- in the hallways, in study hall, and in other precious times when I find the opportunity for good, unhurried conversation.  

As always, I continue to think about ways that I can balance both the standards and the values I hold dear with the cutting-edge and ever-changing ideas reflected through educational frameworks such as Universal Design or courses such as WtS. For example, I am currently working with my grade-level teaching partner at Middlebury Union Middle School to brainstorm ways in which students can respond in non-print formats to traditional print texts. (We're recruiting Tim's help in this endeavor).

Perhaps the most powerful message for teachers that WtS has to offer is the reminder that students are very motivated by choice. When provided with just the right -- and personalized -- mixture of structure, support, freedom and delicious food (and yes, it's a magical formula that requires time, space, expertise and adequate funding), students, as evidenced by WtS, flourish in ways that they never have before. 

How can our WtS team bring an even more creative approach to how we design, orchestrate, and report our students learning?

In my mind, reporting out is the trickiest aspect of WtS? My experience with teaching is that speedy and frequent feedback is crucial. With the weekly blogging phase of our course, students are getting timely and thorough responses to their thinking.

It would be tough to match the real-world skills -- especially around technology, digital storytelling and collaboration -- that students glean from WtS. However, last year, once we broke off into our separate groups, honest, effective, individualized and documented feedback seemed to wane. While I absolutely love that this course is about the learning and not the grade, we want to make sure that the rigor, quality and quantity of work matches that of the traditional classrooms from which some of these students are now absent. I don't have an immediate answer to this question, but I would like to continue to think about ways that we can separately report out on both students' progress with work habits (timelines, responsibility, active engagement, commitment, etc.) and their products. Ideally, we would do this in one comprehensive, effective document that is transparent, honest and collaborative. 

Much in the way that our new blog space streamlined students' work and brought all the personalized thinking into one dynamic yet cozy platform, it would be great if students could track their progress in one spot and if mentors had a way of contributing to this feedback.