Jumping into the 21st Century: One Teacher's Account

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"I think all teachers must have times when they’re faced with the decision to continue on the safe road that they know, or radically depart on a way that they believe to be better, but the specific route and outcomes are unknown," writes Shelley Wright on the excellent educators blog Voices from a Learning Revolution.

With honesty and in great detail, Wright talks about how she decided to jump in with both feet to completely reorganize her class structure and the way she teaches. Wright shifted the teacher-centered, textbook-based class to a collaborative learning space, encouraging students to research units individually and in groups, and to help each other. They even created their own online textbook.

How did it go? She discusses the first few halting steps:

First, my science, technology, and English classes are paperless. This is a big change for me and my students. All the information for our class is housed on our wiki. My students are in the process of adapting to being responsible for their own education. Instead of having things handed to them, whether it be the answer, or a piece of paper with their assignment on it, they are now required to take initiative and access all the information they need.

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This semester we’ve also switched from a traditional Holocaust novel study Q & A, to a framework that scaffolds group discussion. Some weeks they’ll meet in homogeneous groups, with those who have read the same book. Other weeks they’ll meet in heterogeneous groups, with those who have read a different book from their own.

Today was their first day of novel discussions. One word for it — painful. Many of my students lack the skills necessary for an insightful conversation surrounding their book’s characters and motivations. They’re not familiar with the kinds of questions that don’t necessarily have a right answer, let alone more than one. And so, haltingly and awkwardly, they answered the questions that were set out for them. Few poured forth deep, poignant insights. There was no critical dialogue. Yet.

But she perseveres. Rather than giving up, Wright recognizes that it's her first step in skill building, and as with all skills, it takes practice, and the first attempt is never perfect -- or anything close to it.

I wonder how often, as teachers, we have classes that feel like failures, but they’re really not. Instead it’s a messy, awkward success, given the stage that our students are at. How often do we want the end result — engaged, articulate, deep discussions — without being willingly to do the hard work to get there? Instead of seeing all the struggling as the necessary first step, we see it as a failure and don’t try it again. I know I’ve been guilty of this.

I find in the beginning that it takes as much work for me not to jump in and rescue the conversations as it does for my students to have them. So today I walked around and listened, and told myself over and over, “This is painful, but next week it will be a little bit better. And the week after that will be a little bit better still.”

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Read the more about Wright's path to realizing her own learning revolution at Wright's Room.

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