Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Good Things are Happening: Teaching & Learning (Part 1)

I work at a fantastic school, full of motivated, intelligent and creative students, with an equally progressive, dedicated, and engaging staff.  I know that there exists a call for reform in education, and I agree with much of the conversation about how schools need to change to better serve our students.  I have watched several times the video of Sir Ken Robinson, discussing how students are being educated OUT of their creativity.

System-wide, I agree with his comments, especially when reflecting on my own schooling, but I am happy to report there has been growth in this area, especially at Burnett Secondary School.  I have been fortunate enough to be invited to observe a couple of lessons in recent weeks that reinforce much of what is good in education, and intend to blog about what I have witnessed in a multi-part series about the good things that I see happening in an attempt to share the news with other staff members at our school.  What follows is part one.

In late January, I was invited to a Communications 11/12 class where the students were presenting the projects they had spent the previous month working on.  They had been assigned a multi-media presentation project where the students, in groups, would share information they had learned about a social issue of their choice.  The presentations were spectacular, and the students were extremely proud of their work.  After I had observed the class, I asked to speak with the teacher.  Mrs. Bronwyn Fackler agreed to sit down and share some thoughts on the exercise, its trials and tribulations, and what she felt the students got out of the assignment.  Here is what she told me:

The idea for this assignment came from our district literacy leader whom I was working with marking Grade 8 Performance Based Assessments as part of the district's Intermediate Reading Initiative.  I was speaking with her about some suggestions for a Communications 11/12 class I was teaching, and she suggested that I observe a class on Digital Storytelling at another local Richmond high school.

I approached our Principal about the idea, and she quickly supported it, finding the money for some release time to enable me to go.  I observed an English 10 class presenting what they called "Twisted Fairytales", and got several ideas for my Communications class.  I decided that I could move the focus from fairytales to Social Issues, since my students were a little older, and may relate better to a topic of their own choosing.

As I planned out the unit, I referred to a series of lesson plans I had seen via a Professional Development day in 2009 called "Let's Get Digital".  I had the students get into groups, and then asked them to brainstorm some ideas about what was important to them, who they felt their audience should be and what was the purpose of the message they were hoping to send. 

I asked them to put together a proposal based on some basic questions, and led some discussion about what aspects of a media project are important for grabbing audience attention.  Students commented  about how music, visuals and text influence people's emotions and can greatly add to the impact of such a presentation.  I provided some very quick feedback to their initial plan, then booked the computer lab for the next 4 weeks so the students could start putting together their presentations.  We spent a great deal of time researching information on the internet, accessing clips, music, literature and messages, and inserting photos and text.  Students checked in with me periodically and I provided instant feedback about where they were, what they may want to tidy up, and tried to provide them some editing tips.

For those 4 weeks, the students were completely engaged and learning in such a way that classroom management was never an issue.  They used all the classtime they had to work on the assignments, and sought out opinions from the teacher and each other for how to make improvements.  The learning about the social issue of their choice was apparent, since they had picked the topic, and they seemed to care passionately about the message they were trying to convey.  What they were learning about the technology and how to work together was significant, as I helped them navigate some difficult social situations, and together we stumbled through some obstacles with the technology.  In fact, much to my surprise, every student in the class agreed that Windows Movie Maker was preferable for them to work on than iMovie.

As we neared the end of the assignment, I also asked the students to perform some metacognition and be prepared to answer questions where they had to reflect on the assignment.  I wanted students to comment on what they had learned, what they struggled with and what the obstacles were, and what made them most proud.  

When it came to presentation day, I invited a number of staff, including our librarian, the administration, the counsellors, and the literacy leader who suggested the project, to observe the final products.  At the conclusion of each presentation, the groups included a visual summarizing their responses to the reflection questions, and they were asked to elaborate on the learning process.  This was likely the most rewarding and enlightening part of the assignment.  The students indicated that they thoroughly enjoyed the process, and all felt that they learned a great deal.  The students were very proud of how hard they had worked, what obstacles they had overcome, and what they had produced.  The sense of accomplishment is something that will stick with these students for a long time, along with some of the skills they learned about the technology, problem solving, working togther, and of course the social issue they profiled.

Topics covered included Teenage Pregnancy, Cruelty to Animals, Global Warming, the War on Drugs and Drinking and Driving.  Below is one example:

The content, while edgy, is relevant to the students, and, as echoed by their teacher, the learning that took place (on the topic, about the technology and how to work together), is extremely valuable, and will resonate with students for a long time.

The teaching that went into this unit was progressive, risk-taking and had the results all teachers want; engaged students who reflectively looked at their work, pushed themselves to do better and created assignments that they were proud of and learned tremendously from.  Congratulations to the students on what they produced and to the teacher who created the environment.  As stated in the title, good things are happening.  Now we need to share them with each other.  Vehicles like blogging and enabling teachers to observe one another in action allow these great ideas to spread.

On a side note, classes such as the one described here are not the exception.  Burnett staff are looking to create engaging learning opportunities throughout the school.  These are learning experiences that resonate with students, hold their interest and thus their engagement, and promote creative thought, problem-solving and collaboration.  Kudos to Mrs. Fackler and the students in her class.  I know there are more classes like the ones I have seen recently, and welcome the opportunity to be part of them.  If you have one planned in the near future, I would love the opportunity to observe.  I am encouraged to see that they are much more common than some critics of education may claim.

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