Last summer, 15 students from Chicago's public school system were charged with answering this question: "How can 21st century technology enhance rigor, relevance, and relationships in high school?"
To answer the question, they interviewed teachers and community members, researched best practices, held panel discussions, and conducted a survey of 380 of their peers. They developed a 53-page document of 18 recommendations for Chicago Public Schools -- titled "Bringing Chicago Public High Schools into the 21st Century" -- as well as an entertaining video about the process.
It was a new twist on an annual project led by Mikva Challenge, a Chicago-based nonprofit that enables youth leadership and civic involvement through activism, electoral participation, and policy-making. The Education Council, as these 15 students are called, advises the CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) on a variety of issues every year.
The 2010 Education Council had plenty to say -- and they're certain they'll be heard. Among their suggestions:
1) Allow access to restricted Web sites like YouTube for educational purposes.
2) Hold technology integration training workshops for teachers.
3) Use cell phones as a "teacher-defined learning tool."
4) Partner with media-savvy youth organizations like YouMedia so that students who participate in technology-rich projects outside of school can receive elective credits.
I asked participant Laurise Johnson, a junior at Roger Sullivan High School, her thoughts on the project. "When it comes to school issues, I think adults should listen to us. We're the ones who go here," she said.
Here's more from our conversation:
Q: What do you think are the most important recommendations included in your report?
A: I think one of the most important recommendations is for CPS to offer workshops for teachers on using technology in the classroom. We have some technology at school, but teachers don't know how to use it. If you look at the big picture, technology adheres to a lot of people's different needs. You can hear it. You can see it. It can be hands-on. I think that if teachers really learn how to use technology, then they will have better engagement with their students. Kids will learn more and be excited to learn.
Another recommendation that captured me was the idea that teachers should have a personal password for unblocking restricted websites for educational purposes. During our research process, we used YouTube a lot. To make our video, we used clips from YouTube. A lot of teachers from our teacher panels said that they'd had the experience where there was a video that they wanted to share with their class, but they had to download it onto their own computer and take their personal laptop to school [because YouTube is blocked on campus]. If students are already using YouTube, and teachers can see where they can use YouTube in class, then why not let it happen?
Q: Do you think these recommendations are going to be implemented at CPS?
A: Yes. We already have momentum from the teachers and we have support from so many people. These recommendations aren't far-fetched. They are basic things that I think CPS needs to go back to so that they can catch up.
When I was at the CPS Tech Talk held recently, I was talking to one of the ladies from Apple about our report and she's interested in holding a workshop for us to help teachers better understand technology and learn how to integrate it into their classrooms.
And Todd Yarch, principal of VOISE Academy [a face-to-face high school with an all-digital curriculum, recently launched in Chicago] is already starting to implement some of these recommendations. He wants to talk to us about setting up a workshop on technology integration for principals, too.
Q: What advice would you give to other students and schools interested in replicating a project like this?
A: Keep striving for what you see best fits the students there. Don't necessarily let decision-makers try to turn the tables on what they like and what they see as best fitting their school district. Reach out to any and everyone. Reach out to principals, students, and teachers. Make it a bottom-up movement instead of a top-down one. Start implementing some of your recommendations inside your own school so when you do go to head officials, you already have a portfolio of evidence that you can bring to them.
Also, research other schools outside of your district and state. Some of the research we found was implemented at universities in different states (Arizona, for example). We could see that it has been done. It is possible. People have already succeeded.
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