Friday, October 14, 2011

Where have I been? And other things. Part 3: The Curriculum

Last week I wrote about the charter school I am now working with. To recap, this is a Hmong immersion charter school in St. Paul, MN. We have a 90% free and reduced lunch rate, nearly all of our students speak English as a second language and most would qualify for ELL services. We also are implementing a 1:1 laptop program for our middle school grades 6-8 and I have convinced the school community that it is important for the students to be given a lot of agency with regards to their laptops including letting students take the machines home. For these kids we have closed the digital divide (at least for the time they are enrolled in our school) but there still exists a production gap. That is where curriculum comes in.

One thing I told staff at the beginning of the school year when we announced that we would be giving each student a laptop was that for the program to be successful it will be necessary for it to change. Schooling will need to change and this will be both an exciting and stressful endeavor. It will not be easy and there are learning curves across all aspects of our organization. A few of our teachers have worked in 1:1 environments before but none of our administrators have. None of our teachers, administrators, board members, or parents have experienced schooling in a 1:1 environment so understanding and identifying a productive technology-infused learning environment will require a stretch of the imagination, the ability to seriously question sacred cows such as Carnegie units, grade levels, and time-bound courses. If we are successful, our school will not look like school but learning will be improved.

One obstacle we face is a teacher evaluation system and inherited school culture that supports and encourages a mass instruction model which rewards differentiation but not personalization. There is a fine line between differentiation and tracking, one which is too often crossed despite our best intentions. But, with personalized learning each student can work at and receive instruction that meets their own intrinsic motivation and at their own level. For this to work the curriculum needs to be co-created with the students.

For the time being, I need to still follow the mass-instruction model in order to keep my job. I think of it as scaffolding. Besides, taking students and staff who have been accustomed to one model of teaching and learning and throw them into a completely foreign learning environment would cause paralysis. For many of these kids this would be double culture shock. The recipe would be one of guaranteed failure. Of course, this frustrates me completely but if my plan works out, we should be much much closer by the end of the year to moving from a very traditional model of schooling to personalized learning.

To do this, I have been focusing on developing a project-based curriculum. Ultimately I want students to co-create/co-plan this curriculum but for the time being I am going to have to be content with a happy compromise. The compromise is this, in my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade technology classes I will offer pre-packaged or canned project-based curriculum based on the students' interests. I started the school year surveying the kids about their interests and aspirations then went about planning project-based units according to their responses.

Since we were also implementing Google Apps for Education this fall I had some time to plan the rest of the curriculum. My initial unit was on cloud computing. The students were responsible for learning how Google Docs, Gmail, and Google Sites worked and for creating "cheat-sheets" and video tutorials to distribute to their classmates and teachers. The three classes of students I currently have had a 3 week head start on Google Apps since we did not issue accounts for the whole student body until after they got their laptops. We assembled all the student-created instructional tools into one mass email to everyone on our domain so that when the other students first logged in to their accounts the one email waiting in their inboxes was full of links to teachlets created by their classmates. These students were also to be responsible in their other classes to be helpful experts for both their classmates and their teachers. This strategy allowed me, to use an ugly phrase, to kill three birds with one stone. Since I had inadequate time to work with staff prior to both the 1:1 laptop deployment and the Google Apps roll out this strategy allowed me to make up time missed with the staff. This also took care of a lot of the instruction needed for the rest of the student body and it started us on the path to creating a culture of shared learning by empowering students to be peer teachers.

What the students told me about their interests and aspirations was not particularly surprising. They were all very interested in video games, animation, how to design web pages. So, that is what I am focusing on. Sixth graders will have projects using Scratch, Windows Live Movie Maker, and Google Sites. Seventh graders will have projects using GameMaker8,, Audacity, Google Sites, and Windows Live Movie Maker. And eighth graders will have projects focusing on research and communication. We will utilize WebQuest-style lessons, challenge-based assessments, and self-organizing learning environments (SOLES) all with an emphasis on what the students create and produce rather than what they consume.

The other inherited drudgery is grading and assessment. My intent is to de-game school as much as possible. Do I really care if a student doesn't do the assignment but demonstrates proficiency with the points being assessed in another way? Should a student be penalized for not following precise instructions when I am trying to encourage students to make their own path? So, all of my assignments and projects are activities and not graded. Instead, I will be grading students based on whether or not they have met outcomes. They will be given multiple chances to demonstrate that they have met these outcomes and proficiencies throughout their time in middle school. This is standards-based grading system will follow them for the three years they are in middle school (the square peg). What I still need to determine is just how many of these outcomes a student in 6th grade should be expected to meet and for what grade, how many should be expected for 7th grade, and what to do with D, C, B's (the round hole). I also have to somehow develop MYP unit plans for a personalized learning environment.

I have a first draft of my curriculum map done. This will be a growing document and I know it still has a lot of holes. I would be grateful for any feedback. The outcomes and units are aligned to both the ISTE NETS and MEMO standards. Click here to view the curriculum map. I will blog again later in the year about our progress and share student work. Hopefully with both the 1:1 laptop program and this curriculum we can close both the digital divide and the production gap at the same time.

All of this work has kept me from the time-consuming task of archiving my Twitter Book Club tweets and conversations. I'm already six books behind in my archives. These six books also have greatly informed the direction we are taking and have weighed heavily on my mind as I have met my day-to-day challenges these past two months. My next series of posts will be my archives and reflections on these books. My goal is to have this done before the end of next week and I have carved out a big chunk of my time today to get this process started. I find it is a very important part of my own personal professional development to do this kind of reflection, something I have not had the time to do lately.

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