Friday, 16 September 2011

Learn by doing

On Monday I started my digital & information literacy class (aka Web 2.0 class) with this 2007 video by Michael Wesch

The video went viral a few years ago and provoked an ongoing conversation about what it is like to be a student today. When the video wrapped, I asked my students to comment. Some of them related to the video, while some had questions about the cost of higher education and “is that really what a college classroom looks like?” After we discussed their initial reactions, I asked them, “What is it like to be a student today?”


When these responses came back, I followed up by asking them what they would change? They seemed to want some time to relax throughout the course of a school day and more engaging classrooms where they are active participants. Their requests seemed fair.

After our discussion, I told them they were going to create this video. Their prompt:

“What is it like to be a student today at BHS?”

Once the prompt was established, I shared a Google Doc with them. I took a few steps back in this assignment and provided minimal directives. I defined some roles that I felt were imperative to seeing this video through to completion and posted them on the doc.

  • Project manager(s)
  • Film crew
  • Design team
  • Research team
  • Screenwriting team

The class is comprised of sixteen students. Every student had to have a role in the project. I told them to pretend that our classroom was their hip, Boston office space that had exposed brick and modern furniture. Every day they would come to the office and get to work on this video project. They would have to check in with the project manager(s) each morning and at the end of each day. They had a tentative deadline of finishing the project in seven days, but if they needed an extension they would have to provide me with evidence to grant that extension.

After my brief overview of the project, I told them to begin. Silent, static students followed. They did not know where to begin. Some of them looked genuinely frightened as to what they should do next. Just minutes earlier these same students told me that in most of their classes throughout their academic career they were told what to do as opposed to having more freedom to do. They would have to shed the system for a moment that they were marching along with since their first day of school.

Eventually the google doc (comments welcome) started coming alive with active students. They each started by joining a team. The project managers were established and they started leading the different teams. As the project started to develop I noticed something happening. Once the students felt is was okay to do, they started to make great progress. The Google doc continued to build and they began to make progress.

The next few class periods I noticed some really amazing things happening.

The film crew organized and started tinkering with iMovie. They told the project manager that they wanted to use this application to edit, but never used it before. Without any direction, they went to YouTube and found instructional videos on how to use iMovie. They continued to play around with iMovie and eventually learned some really great tricks for editing. The film crew also realized that they needed to check in with the research team and design team so they could start framing their shots and scouting locations. They learned by doing.

The research team put together a list of questions they wanted to ask their peers to gather data. They performed a Google search for how to create google forms and found a video on how to create and collect data through a Google form. Once they had their form created, they thought about where they could post it. Some suggested email, but they decided for best visibility they would use Principal Larkin’s blog. Once they post the form, they would make an announcement to all students and teachers during morning announcements. They learned by doing.

The design team organized with the screenwriting team not because I told them to, but because they felt it was necessary for their two teams to collaborate. They started their work by consulting with the research team. They wanted to know what questions they would be asking so that they could make shot decisions and create a storyboard. Once the design and screenwriting teams were briefed by the research team, they started to sketch a storyboard. First they used pencil and paper and then transferred their sketches into photoshop. One member of the design team had prior experience in photoshop and started teaching the rest of the design team how to use the program. They learned by doing.

While the end result of this project will be a simple video, the skills and talents elicited during this project are authentic to most working environments. I challenged my students to think differently about learning, collaboration, and time management. I put my trust in them and allowed them to talk in class and connect with each other. Collaboration was imperative and students had to make decisions with each other in order for their team to accomplish their intended tasks. The onus was on them to question, adapt, and learn.

A little over a year ago, a very special person in my life told me I needed to watch the David McCullough documentary, “Painting with Words”. Near the end of documentary (3:14) he says, “The great thing about the arts is that you can only learn to do it by doing it.” This message resonated with me and I believe so strongly in it. I also believe that classrooms, regardless of the subject, need more active participants, more talking, more discussing, and more doing.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011


CC image via Flickr by fpsurgeon

Today was my first day of school at Burlington High School. I woke up early, packed up my school bag, and left for Starbucks in the morning darkness and rain. I arrived at Starbucks before the door was unlocked. I waited patiently in my car listening to the radio and the raindrops. The clock struck 6am and a barista opened the lock on the door. I entered, ordered a large iced coffee with an add shot -otherwise known as a “Red Eye” – and left the store.

When I approached my car, I clicked the key fob and nothing happened. I clicked it again and nothing happened. The rain continued to fall as the subtle daylight started to peek through the night. I clicked again. Nothing happened. For a moment, I panicked. I could not get into my car unless this small piece of technology in my hand worked properly. More, I would have to call my brother, wake him up, and have him come over before work and open my house so I could get my spare key. Plus, I needed to be at work on the first day of school. The first day of school that included every student arriving with an iPad 2. It was imperative that I get there on time without delay.

I placed my coffee on the hood of my car and hit the fob twice on my hand. I clicked the fob again and it worked. My headlights flashed and the door was open. I was in my car and on my way to work.

On my way to work, I thought about what just happened. The simple moral to this story is that we will all encounter new challenges this school year that may cause us to panic and, on occasion, freak out. We may have a new mail system or a new device that will now be part of our school day. It may take us some time to learn it and use it effectively, but we must be patient. We must understand that with any innovation there will be hiccups and hurdles.

We may be using a new technology in our classroom and it may break down. We may be reading a new text and one student may have a page missing. Stay calm. Take a deep or subtle breath and work though this issue. Don’t panic and don't just give up. Take some time to work through the problem and if it doesn’t work, be prepared to incorporate plan B. Think of all the progress we might have missed out on if our greatest innovators had panicked and given up on landing on the moon or curing diseases. 

As educators we must be flexible and understand that everything we try may not work the first time, but the fact that we are trying something new is a positive. Educators should never be too comfortable with their classes from year to year. No matter how long we have been teaching, we should seek the best ways to make our classrooms engaging and relevant to our current students. This simple, patient attitude will give your students something exciting to experience and provide a dynamic learning environment for all involved.

Have a great school year everyone and share your hits and misses.