Give Me Something That Matters

In November of 2007, I found myself in the audience at TechForum, wondering what I’d gotten myself into as I had just recently taken the position of technology coordinator in the district I was working in at the time.  There were lots of things I did not know (I still hate you Adobe CS series) and I never felt like I knew the answers to the questions I was being asked.  Alan November was giving the keynote that day, and I’d not really heard of him much at all, only that people either loved him or hated him.  Needless to say, his message that day became a pivotal moment for me in that I really haven’t looked at education or learning the same way ever since.

Alan talked about ownership and outsourcing that day in regards to the work we do as teachers.  Essentially, teachers do too much of the work of learning, and students can and should do more of the work.  That work, however, had to be owned by them.

Yesterday, I revisited that moment with a group of teachers during the second of our spring TED Series when we showed Alan November’s “Who Owns the Learning?” talk from this year’s TEDxNYED.  Alan shared a few anecdotal stories from his past with the audience, none that I haven’t heard versions of, but it was clear to me that although his message hadn’t changed much, it was still holding its value now.

About five minutes into the opening activity, the room turned its eyes to the locked door, indicating to me that we had a late arriving participant, and upon first glance I was taken back.

It was a student.

I had opened all of my Spring workshops up to students this year, and I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t fully expect to be taken up on it.  She came in and introduced herself to those in the room that did not know who she was and from that point on became as much as contributor to the discussion as any of us.  In fact, there were several junctures where we all fully leaned on her as the expert on certain matters.  At one point, after we had watched the talk, she said what to me, has become some an obsession lately:

“I mean, I agree with everything he (November) is saying.  If you’d given me the choice in my last two years to work on something that I could select, that was my interest and passion, I’d work on that non-stop.”

Dumbstruck, I was.  Why hadn’t we done this sooner?  Why did I wait so long to invite these voices into the room?  Shame on me.

To that end, my thinking since yesterday has been on fire, with ideas and hopes and dreams pinned on this new vision of creating opportunities for meaningful work to take place in my schools.  During my run this morning, I was full of ideas to try out and to push out into this space for vetting and hashing out, all predicated on these things:

  • Tangible artifacts of learning: the things our students create should be usable by others, and should serve not only their passions but their communities as well.
  • Globally available: accessible by anyone, anywhere.
  • Lasting: we feel different when we know that the work we create will live on after we are gone.
In closing, during the beginning of the session yesterday, I asked the teachers in the room to quickly craft ideas for projects they would do if they were unfettered by the current curricular restraints.  They had to abide by the above three rules.  Here’s a brief sample of what we quickly crafted:
  • run a political campaign for a student to be in town office.
  • Feature magazine to include all aspects of creative culture within a school.
  • Architecture: designing your own schools.
  • Forms of communication: how did societies communicate with one another in the past and how did it evolve over time?
  • Special Ed students to leave a legacy behind to other special ed students.
  • Collect the oral histories of the residents of our town and feature them on the web.

I don’t know how many of these will come to fruition, but I know it’s important for us to have these ideas and let them breathe for a while.  I do know this, my goal is to help them grow legs within our current structures, and hope they help us morph our schools into what we think they should be.

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5 thoughts on “Give Me Something That Matters

  1. Hi Patrick,

    Nice quote from the student here:
    “If you’d given me the choice in my last two years to work on something that I could select, that was my interest and passion, I’d work on that non-stop.”

    I like this too:
    – Tangible artifacts of learning: the things our students create should be usable by others, and should serve not only their passions but their communities as well.
    – Globally available: accessible by anyone, anywhere.
    – Lasting: we feel different when we know that the work we create will live on after we are gone.

    Quick story: Last night I got an e-mail from a past student sharing a YouTube message he received from someone in Jakarta, Indonesia. The message asked if they could use one of his films in their upcoming children’s film festival. My former student of course said yes. What’s amazing to me is that this was a video he created over two years ago in my classroom during summer school. He wasn’t even enrolled in summer school. He came in on his own for three hours a day to work on his film while I taught my class. He created an amazing stop-motion film using post-it notes. So here we are two years later and his film has over 5,000 views on YouTube, and may be shown at a film festival half way across the planet. Here’s the link to his film:

    I love this particular idea from one of your teachers:

    Collect the oral histories of the residents of our town and feature them on the web.

    Great idea! Check out http://storycorps.org/about/.

    I’m reconnecting with my RSS reader lately and have been enjoying reading your posts.

    1. George,

      It’s great to hear from you. I hope you’ve been well. Your example, combined with what we know about what motivates people only prove the point about how schools really get it backwards sometimes. One element we kept getting bogged down in the room was the element of scale. If we do believe that we want our classrooms to become environments like your camp, or at least places where we can give kids meaningful work, can it be done on a scale the size of a large high school? Or, better question, could it be done in a community that still places value in what Ken Robinson called “the protracted process of college admission?”

      Glad to hear that you are finding value here. It’s been a struggle to find my voice again lately.

  2. @George – I love reading stories like yours. I have a similar one around the edcamp logo. It was designed by one of my seniors in the graphic arts program. Seeing the logo go viral inspired not only him but all of his classmates as well.

    The logo became something that mattered and its success gave him the confidence to pursue a career in design.

    1. Funny thing, Mike–you and George would get along famously. We’ll have to meet up in the Philly area sometime.

  3. I recently viewed an Alan November video during a professional development sessin at my high school. He made some very compelling observations about how we have continued to structure school – same old system since the turn of the 19th century. I have been teaching algebra and geometry for the past 15 years and I often wonder if I am giving my students what they truly need. I have recently become interested in finding ways to engage all my students – I want to make school meaningful for all students. How do we do this? I think one answer is in the idea you presented – find authentic projects that build on the interests of our students. I would really like to incorporate this type of learning experience in my algebra class and I am interested in any websites that may offer some ideas.

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