Last year I presented my school administrators with a proposal for change. While our school supports and encourages using technology to promote student learning, we still have a problem. Our tech support mainly comes from ITS or one person with the title "Academic Technology Coordinator". They provide types of support that are most welcome: when we have trouble with our computers, they are there; when we can't log on, they fix it; when our printers run out of toner, they're on the job. But when it comes to trying to re-think formative assessment or incorporate self-directed learning into a project or a whole course of study, they lack the shared vocabulary and pedagogical knowledge which is required to design an effective learning experience for a student at Lawrenceville, a grade 9-12 residential school in central New Jersey.
Armed with geek pride, and with a desire to offer my techspertise to the teaching community, I met with the administration in an effort to help them imagine how we could change my role at the school, whereby I would teach my normal classes, but also dedicate time and energy to support a few faculty members each term, for the entirety of the term.
The idea was that I would not just act as tech support for them when needed, but I would also help them to clearly identify their goals for student learning, while collaborating with them to generate new ways in which they could use tech effectively to achieve those goals. Having been a teacher at Lawrenceville for five years already, I've gained first-hand knowledge of the issues and concerns that we, as an institution, feel are important in better educating our students for life in the 21st century. I also have been a huge proponent of tech in the classroom and have experimented widely in my classes, so I felt I was uniquely qualified to offer this kind of support to other teachers.
I imagine a teaching & learning community in which we as faculty are collaborating with each other more openly in order to come up with better ways to provide formative assessment, to give timely and effective feedback, to promote self-directed learning, to let students master knowledge and skills by applying them in meaningful, real-world projects or simulations, to foster community and to encourage service to others. The list goes on, but the point is to move our teaching faculty toward a culture, in which the foundations differ from the ones they're accustomed to: a culture which emerges from the digital world of instant communication, sharing, and knowledge creation.
So often at a big school like Lawrenceville (800 students, 140 faculty) teachers get isolated -- pigeonholed into their classrooms and departments, where it can sometimes feel like you're just trying the same "new" things over and over again. When we overcome the barriers that separate us, when we broaden our networks and start pulling ideas from the outside, we can really begin to see our practice take new form.
Much to my delight, the administration saw value in the kind of role I was offering to create, so this year I'm filling that role in the new position of Technology Mentor Teacher (although I prefer the title "Networked Learning Coach"). For each term, I team up with different faculty members and work with them throughout the 10 weeks on a single course, through working with them to develop new ways to run their courses or working with them on individual assignments and projects.
This fall I've teamed up with the III Form Science team, which consists of a group of science department faculty who teach the year-long sophomore science course (traditionally: chemistry). Two of our teachers are piloting the course with the iPad, so I've been working with one of them on choosing apps and designing ways for the students to collaborate across tools like Google Drive, Notability and Edmodo.
In another discipline, History, I've been working with one teacher to design a research assignment focused around a wiki. The research centers around an open question: How did we move from a world of empires to a modern world of nation states? Combining this kind of open-ended question with a collaborative knowledge curation tool gives students both a means to collect and present descriptive data, but also to assess the quality of that data and analyze it in response to the question. Our goal was to move away from the traditional history essay, and provide a different way for students to experience data collection, assessment, and analysis (key aspects of the research process).
Last year I worked with the same history teacher on a similar project; she wanted to create a more meaningful means for the students to present their work. We thought that expanding their potential audience through a website would both motivate and engage the students. Upon reflection afterward, we realized that while the project design was sound, we didn't fully take into account how websites organize information differently than essays. Most of the student pages ended up looking just like history essays. So we went back to the drawing board with the question: how do we change both the format of the presentation and the expectations for the research process to give students a new academic experience that takes advantage of collaboration tools, a wider audience, and the pride that comes with making your work public?
I'm continuing to work with all these teachers, but so far, the experience has been a positive one both for me and those involved. Sometimes, when you're trying to re-think your assignments or projects, it just helps having someone to bounce ideas off. For me, I've enjoyed the chance to hear how teachers from other disciplines approach their subjects. Each discipline is characterized by it's own way of seeing the world. The fundamental questions differ for science, for math, for history, for art, for english, etc. This opportunity to work with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries can remind us about the reasons we're in the classroom in the first place: to help students discover the way in which we humans have come to understand, describe, and question the world we inhabit.
All that said, I'm left with some new questions recently that maybe some of you can help me out with. I'm looking for tools for teachers in the same course to collaborate and share information about what's happening in their classrooms. We have many multi-section courses at Lawrenceville, and while each teacher essentially covers the same thing, sometimes they feel they have to go too far out of their way to find out what exactly Ms. X or Mr. Y are doing in their classrooms that might provide them with ideas or insight into how to best construct activities for their own students.
So: what are some great tools or methods you've found to promote healthy collaboration among colleagues teaching a shared course?
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