The following op-ed was written as the first of a series for The Oakland Press, part of my work as an EdVoice Fellow.
Is it possible for a teacher of nearly 30 years to change his thinking about what he teaches?
When I was going to school in the 1970s, an era of Betamax, wookies, and 3×5 note cards, my wonderful English teacher Pat Dorian-Sandbothe–one who in many ways inspired me to English, though I would never have said so to her–compelled me to write a 12 page fully-“bibliograph’ed” essay. Mine was predictably on the Cold War and what would happen if 20 megatons fell on Detroit. That paper, equally inflammatory and morbid, mercifully has not survived. It fell into the dusty heap of my own nostalgia, and no one saw it but me, my mother-proofreader, and Ms. Dorian-Sandbothe.
Of those times, only the wookie has survived. …
So, too, with teaching: we can predict little of what will remain. Key education objections will and should remain, to be sure: critical thinking skills, the ability (and desire!) to read deeply, to ask questions and solve problems across math and history.
But the past two decades have seen a swath of education reforms threatening and liberating us to teach to the test, achieve Mastery, find our Common Core, compete for Choice schools, Leave No Child Behind, pull Back to Basics, Reach To The Top, re-engineer education with STEM, Balance Smarter, and somehow or other Be Finland.
Fortunately, and I still believe this, most education reforms–however maligned or misinformed–begin with an interest in improving our student’s learning. True, in political practice and social media they often transform themselves into seeming monsters intent on devouring the intellectual and emotional souls of children.
Teaching today, then, means hanging on to the key education objectives. It depends upon treating our youth as small but thinking humans over mere statistics. It relies upon us embracing the awkward and uncomfortable changes of culture, even forsaking nostalgia. And at our best, we employ education reform to assist us, not shackle us.
Last spring I encountered again this idea in assigning my students the dreaded research paper.
My first idea of transforming my traditional and dreaded research paper into a work of digital literacy with my students began simply enough: we’ll just upload our papers to a website!
Dreaded? “Not so this time!” I vowed to my high school juniors, naively imagining that I could translate this scourge of English classes into something clever. But Matt complained early that the paper would be too long for anyone to read, a true member of Generation Distracted. Lucas’ idea for an expose on J-Pop demanded video and audio feeds. And Rachel’s topic against recycling was already gathering some antagonism. What might happen if we made it public?
I need not have worried overmuch.
I watched while my Cold War memories dissolved into an evolving understanding of digital literacy, of composing across different media, not simply on paper.
The research paper became a weekly blog series of posts, each a different angle or application of their topic. The documentation, while still with the rarer bibliography, now included hyperlinks. And images and video clips (all cited) appeared to bring the sections to life.
Now student grades did not depend merely upon written coherence, detailed paragraphing and supporting evidence, varied research, an extended argument. They included appropriate use of media, design mechanics and aesthetics, coherence across images and sections, even leveraging of social media to promote their work. We discussed in class the tech problems of various platforms and copyright issues with cross-linking evidence. We solved problems together. The student research series were rich, at time humorous, interesting, even provocative.
What changed? Note cards were gone (though some used EverNote). Not a book was opened (though GoogleBooks found some use, too). And the only pens that were put to paper were students sketching diagrams of their organizational structure and media galleries.
Even old dogs can shift their thinking. And at their best, education reforms can spur us to rethink traditional pedagogy, even if we challenge them politically and later set them aside.
In the coming weeks, I’ll address a few of these reforms more directly. Perhaps we can set aside much of the hype and drama surrounding most, and from the classroom view–where it is truly important–see some opportunities.
Steve Chisnell is a teacher of Advanced Placement English and blended learning at Royal Oak High School (MI), a Fulbright-Hayes teacher, and a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow.