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

| April 14, 2011 | 17 Comments
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Flickr:AzaRaskin

“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.

“How often do we want the end result — engaged, articulate, deep discussions — without being willingly to do the hard work to get there?”

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.

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.”

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

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  • http://twitter.com/teacherwonks John Norton

    We hear a lot about teachers becoming more “transparent” about their professional work and their journey to becoming more accomplished. It’s all too rare to see transparency in this much detail. And how great to see what the students were able to accomplish when they were given the reins.

  • http://twitter.com/scmorgan Susan Carter Morgan

    Shelley shares the intimate details of how she is meeting the needs of her students and helping them learn. We, as readers, relate on so many levels because while she is learning and sharing, we are, too. I am grateful to see her true journey, not just a post filled with buzzwords.

  • http://twitter.com/pickledtreats pickledtreats

    As a fairly new teacher it is oftentimes assumed that I know all of the “new ways” of teaching and that I have all of this 21st century “stuff” figured out. The truth is all teachers benefit when colleagues, near and far, share their experiences. This is particularly true for those of us who still have a lot of theory and not as much experience under our belts. Education is changing rapidly and professional development is important for teachers to stay on top of it – even those of us fresh out of pre-service. I follow Shelley’s blog and appreciate seeing her missteps and successes on my screen. They make me feel a little more comfortable with making my own mistakes for the sake of learning and growing.

  • http://connectedtalk.wordpress.com Robin Ellis

    I believe one of the key issues Shelley points out is as educators try different ways of engaging students it is difficult, and there are times when the easiest thing would be to go back to the way that was tried and true, regardless of the level of interaction. We do need to remember the struggles are necessary steps in scaffolding for us as well as for our students as we push them to become more independent in their thinking, asking them to take more ownership in their learning. Shelley is definitely making a positive shift in her own learning as well as that of her students. I look forward to learning more with her as she continues moving in this direction.

  • lanihall

    Shelley’s honesty, her transparency, her willingness to persevere, and her deep reflection are incredibly valuable to all educators who seek to design meaningful and authentic learning experiences for students. It seems to me that if we follow Shelleys’ modeling, then it will be from all of our transparent sharing and reflecting that we can collectively transform education.

  • Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

    After reading Shelley’s piece and others like hers I have come to realize that being a 21st Century educator is going to take a new set of dispositions and values including, but not limited to, resiting the urge to quit prematurely when things seem to not be going well. But rather seeing it through until what is “business as unusual” becomes the norm.

    Thanks for sharing this work!

  • http://twitter.com/funnymonkey Bill Fitzgerald

    Shelley’s piece, and the thoughtfulness of her reflection, stand in stark contrast to some of the other “solutions” being offered about how to “fix” education.

    She highlights the thoughtfulness that a new process required of her students. She emphasizes that success builds slowly over time, and that new habits require time to take hold.

    Most importantly, the skills her students need to develop and hone center around analysis, synthesis, and collaboration – all higher level skills that require a mastery of content, but do not place simple mastery as their goal.

    Thanks for highlighting this, and I look forward to additional posts that show other places where teachers and students are working together to achieve similar successes.

  • Sr._G

    Shelly’s truthfulness about her attempt in collaboration is REAL! As todays teachers we are giving birth to an entire different approach to teaching and learning. Giving birth – no matter what the circumstances is always painful. BUT .. the joy of a new mom as she holds her newly born child .. and AHH the joy of a teacher when the students “get it!!!” What is more important is presenting the new skills that students will need in the future in their real life jobs. Education MUST be all about preparing our students for those jobs.

    Shelly, as one educator to another … KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK .. even if it is painful!

  • http://twitter.com/wrightsroom Shelley Wright

    Thanks for highlighting my work here! This has been an amazing experience for myself and my studentsI I hope this post about my experience encourages other teachers to begin, or continue to take risks in their classroom. Once you start, your classroom is never the same. And you don’t want it to be!

  • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

    What an inspiring story…and so true to what I’ve learned in my own classroom. I hear the hope in the writing that Shelley shares and the desire she has for her students to succeed beyond where they thought would go in her class. She’s creating a new context for their thinking and forcing them (and herself) into new places and it’s a painful place to go at first.

    I often wonder why it is that we learn so much in the hard times….why can’t we learn more in the good times. But that doesn’t seem to be the way life works unfortunately. It’s probably only in retrospect and, with the help of friends, that we can see the value and wisdom we gain in things others label as failures as we might better label as growing pains.

    You go Shelley because the view will be grand once you get them to the top…way better than if you never attempted the climb. And they’ll be so much better off for having tried and learned in this new way.

  • Mark W. Carbone

    This is a great story about educational transformation. Shelley, you have shared about your shift in approach and the benefits to your students. Through your sharing, I sense your passion for teaching and making a difference. I can tell that you really care about your students and their best interests at heart as you foster their learning.

    ~ Mark

  • Tim Holt

    Excellent post and excellent food for thought. Thank you.

  • http://profiles.google.com/cheryloakes50 Cheryl Oakes

    Thanks for sharing your honest work that you are delving into with your students. Change happens over time. I hope the successes are something your students will continue using. I know I started on a change with a student. It is painful and there is not much to celebrate, until finally, in week 6 the student took the initiative to add something to their personal plan. Change leading to independence is worth celebrating!!! Please continue on sharing.

  • http://profiles.google.com/johnnort John Norton

    Shelley’s final post about the Holocaust unit is a must read – at her personal blog “Wright’s Room.” A story from the public exhibit, about what one elderly visitor had to share, had a profound effect on teacher and students. Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/fXgtGm

  • Karen Szymusiak

    Shelly’s persistence and dedication to her own learning and that of her students is so encouraging and inspiring. Change comes with many ups and downs and when it gets tough, we need to stay true to what we believe about learning and teaching. Our changing learning landscapes need teachers like Shelley who are willing to venture out beyond a comfort zone to blaze new paths for learning.

  • Vinnie Vrotny

    In reading this post and the original, there is a refreshing set of truths which emerge. The first that as teachers and our students have gotten used to playing the game of school, where we seek to find a single correct answer. Life is more complicated and complex, with multiple nuances. There will be times where their may be awkwardness or unease. But that doesn’t mean that learning is not happening. It is working through these periods of awkwardness and discomfort that most of the learning may actually be happening.

    I wonder what the parents of her students feel about the reversal. Oftentimes, the shift becomes disorienting for them, since this is not school as they experienced. As a result, they will feel incapable of being able to guide or steer their children towards a final destination or answer. I hope at some point Shelley shares some of the feedback she gets from parents.

    As Shelley relates, the journey can be messy. However, her willingness to be vulnerable and openly honest is refreshing. Thank you for sharing a new voice to follow as she takes the plunge. I cannot wait to participate in the journey from afar.

  • Krista Sly

    21st Century Collaborating and Communicating skills are needed and necessary. Continue the quest to shift your classroom. The skills for deep conversation and bringing something to the table for others is not going to come easy. Do you think the passion for learning is an underlying factor to success of classrooms?