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One person’s #TEDxNYED

Posted by lpearle on 8 March 2010

It’s lunch and my brain is exploding – all the great ideas I’m hearing about at this conference, and trying to fit it into some coherent way in which to incorporate it at work.

The thing that struck me first was, there’s definitely a way to make our students’ experience of class both more participatory and more open.  How?  What if we expanded (and reformatted) our course packs to include multi-media and allowed students to help add content for future years and classes?

Let me explain.  When I first got to Hackley, I learned that there was a Middle School History teacher that had developed a new curriculum, one that was interesting for students but one for which there was no real text available.  Solution?  Find information in a variety of sources, copy it and pass that out as the text.  Problem?  Serious copyright violation.  Solution? Find a way to get reprint permission, create course packs, sell those to students in lieu of text.  Which is exactly what we did, and not just for these two MS classes, but for some Upper School English classes (for all the wonderful things that the Norton Anthologies giveth, they also taketh, much to the teachers’ dismay, creating a need to “cut-and-paste” their own anthologies).  We even added an Upper School History class to the mix.

Yes, it’s a very time-consuming process but it does send a powerful message to our community: this school honors intellectual property.

Back to my TED thinking…  So, what if in addition to these articles and cartoons and editorials and stories and all that, we added other content?  For example, if there’s a recording of a poet reading their work, why not include that in the text?  Or embedding the video of Cronkite’s breaking in to Another World when JFK was assassinated?  You get the idea.  The problem is, of course, the technology.  Some of our teachers do this sort of thing in their class portal, but what if it was all mixed as one textbook?  Does that technology exist?  Dunno.

I had lunch with Kristen Swanson and Dan Callahan, and we started talking about this idea.  You know what that means, right?

Objection 1: standardized curriculum

The idea is that every teacher teaches the same subject in the same way.  My question is, why?  Why do we expect that?  Let’s use the wayback machine to travel to the year 1974, and the start of 7th grade…

At my junior high school, 7th grade was, like Gaul, divided into three parts.  My guess is that this was done because there were three K-6 elementary schools and this was a way of mixing us up while giving us a smaller feeling group (150 vs 450 people to get to know).  Anyway, I was in Team P, which meant that I had Mr. Hiteman for history.  Back then, 7th grade meant New York State History, and our town was one that had been settled in 1788 so there was a lot around us that was “history”.  Mr. Hiteman liked archaeology and we spent a lot of time in class learning about various pottery (stoneware vs. earthenware vs. porcelain), nails, glass and other daily stuff.  Then we actually went into the field and dug for artifacts, learning how to map and catalog our finds.  (many of us thought he’d salted the site, because there was a lot of stuff that we dug up!)

Now, I know that the members of the other “teams” did not go on an archeological dig.  They did learn New York State History, of course, but not the way we learned it.  Perhaps they had an inspired science teacher.  Or an amazing English teacher.  In some way, our experience with Mr. Hiteman balanced with their experience with their teacher.  Was it fair?  I suppose not.  But we all know that each teacher brings their own strengths and weaknesses and enthusiasms to their classes.  Unless you mandate that they adhere to a script, there will always be variations in what each class gets. I’ve seen that in every school in which I’ve worked.

Which leads me to Objection 2: School Boards must approve classroom materials.

This was new to me, but Kristen and Dan said that – technically speaking – the school board needed to approve any material used to teach. (At least, that’s the case in Pennsylvania) So a teacher who reads an article in the paper or a magazine that really expands their curriculum technically needs to get permission to use it. I wonder if Mr. Hiteman had tacit, or explicit, permission for what he did.

So, back to my vision…

If you created a basic text, but allowed teachers and students to add materials (like Mike Wesch’s students do; and honestly?  it’s just a LibGuide mixed up with a text and fed  steroids), how cool would that be if you were Middle or Upper School?  You might get students excited about class, and ones that remembered what they’d studied past the last test.  Yet Objection 1 suggests that parents would complain that Teacher A was doing different things than Teacher B and that it wasn’t fair (As my father often said, life isn’t fair.  It’s not even a carnival).  Objection 2 would inhibit adoption of new materials as class evolves.

Sheesh!  I’m more willing to accept technologies limitations than the limitations those objections impose.  Now, how do I find a teacher willing to play and experiment with me?  That, as someone once said, is the question.


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