Friday, October 14, 2011

Are the Kids Ready

Over the past week I have started to formally observe teachers.  I have been in multiple classrooms each day conducting observations of non-tenured staff.  Additionally, I have been hosting pre and post-observation conferences.  I appreciate the chance to dissect a lesson with teachers and to discuss possible experiences for students.  Everyone benefits from the opportunity to engage in genuine discourse about teaching and learning.

There were a couple of moments form these observation that stood out. I was observing an English teacher who was using Twitter for a backchannel discussion.  Student were expected to transition between the physical and virtual world to exchange ideas about a core text.  Primarily, the expectation was for students to lead an in-class discussion and use Twitter as place to post questions and archive a quick thought.  The instructor encouraged students to start posting some thoughts on Twitter as a way to initiate the in-class exchange.  Subtly the teacher transitioned students to begin exchanging ideas in the physical world.  However, something happened when the discussion shifted from the virtual to the physical.  It appeared that students froze and were unsure of what to do.

I offer this observations not to criticize anything the teacher did or did not do.  It was an engaging and challenging lesson.  I was taken back by how students reacted to the expectation of having to simultaneously participate in-class and on Twitter.  The idea of a backchannel discussion was foreign to them.  What seems like a manageable task, posting questions and comments while participating in a whole class discussion tested students and their ability to seamlessly move between both worlds.

To an extent, I should not be surprised.  As we have developed blended learning environments, students have been hesitant to embrace the virtual world.  Teachers have had to push students to offer genuine feedback during forum discussions on Moodle or reply to a classmates blog post.  This has not always been the case, but it has been a trying process for teachers to develop consistent student participation in furthering virtual learning communities. 

I also sat in on a Latin class.  Introductory Latin course have been redesigned around the premise of a self-paced learning environment.  In Latin students are empowered to determine a plan as to how they will progress through various stages of the program.  Elements of the program were infused into units last year by our Latin teachers and in earnest since September.  It has been a messy process.  Students were uncomfortable when the responsibility for directing learning was shared.  Students were waiting to be told what to do as opposed to taking an active role in designing a learning experience.  Some students felt as if they were not learning and others claimed that the lack of structure hindered performance.  A month into school has revealed quite the opposite for kids.  To steal a line from a friend, the self-paced Latin class I observed was rocking.  For an entire block every student was thoroughly engrossed in a variety of activities and conversations. Students were confident and passionate about their studies. It appears as if they have embraced the notion of being empowered to make decisions and assuming ownership over the learning space.

I also should not be surprised that out Latin teachers have had to deal with push back from students.  Last year several teacher revised midterms to offer students multiple avenues through which critical understandings could be demonstrated.  Choice was presented to students.  However, students were unsure of how to proceed or even glamored for a traditional assessment structure. 

I just found it curious as to how students, not all, but enough still appreciate either a traditional system or fail to fully embrace ways in which digital tools, resources, platforms and systems can enhance the classroom experience.  These observations highlight the need for educators to mentor students across the K-12 spectrum.  For us to reshape or even revolutionize our educational system, students need to reflect upon our actions as life-long learners.  Our willingness to continue to learn and be innovative will be a driving force in initiating change for our students.