Just last week I was fumbling through a cupboard spilling over with drinking glasses and java cups, and I found myself staring at a coffee mug that was given to me many years ago. It reads “The three biggest reasons to teach: June, July, & August.” I giggled to myself at the absurdity of the written words. First of all, what happened to three months?

Secondly, I detest that coffee cup. In fact, I never drink from it. Deferring to the unwritten “gift” rule, I am simply unable to discard someone’s present to me, although it embodies the total opposite of how I feel about my job as a high school Language Arts educator in an interactive and collaborative classroom. It has been roughly three weeks since the last students walked out of our classroom, and I absolutely miss them all. I miss their creativity, their hilarious comments, their budding brilliance, and their authentic and innocent unknowing. In short, I miss school.

However, being the diehard optimist that I am, I choose to use the summer as a chance to step back and reflect on the classroom-learning environment I participate in creating. My reflections have led me to a plan of action for one particular area needing improvement, a professional weakness rooted in control.

Project-Based Learning With Technology Threatens the Illusion of Classroom Control and Empowers the “Army of Talent”

Let’s face it. The illusion of control is a driving force in many teachers’ daily plans. The fear of losing a classroom of energetic students due to lack of control appears real. I suffer from the same angst at times. So with the overwhelming growth of all things deemed educational technology, project based learning, flipped classrooms, and many other new shifts in the teaching profession, my initial reaction was quite common. I was afraid. How do I stay abreast of new apps, web-based resources, and current trends that have students naturally leading their own learning? I asked myself this very question many times during the past school year.

I felt I was standing in the octagon awaiting a duel with Bruce Lee, Jason Bourne, Clint Eastwood, and Rocky Balboa, all at the same time, with the terrifying, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” from Michael Buffer ringing in my ears. I was up against a seemingly insurmountable task. Like always, I simply sought to engage my students by making the latest technology available for project assignments, but with AP Language essays to grade, engaging lesson plans to create, professional meetings to attend, and interactive classroom learning structures to implement, I struggled to keep up with the lightning-fast proliferation of educational technology.

My sense of control was quickly fleeting. Even with the on going nurturing of my infantile, professional learning network through Twitter, I desperately needed one of two things: twenty-eight hour day or consistent help from very knowledgeable minds. With the unfading concept of synergy lifting me up and by natural default of my two options, I have chosen the latter.

In my fourteen years of teaching, I have witnessed classroom after classroom of creative and lively teenagers peering back at me for direction and learning management. Musicians, artists, writers, actors, techies, athletes, orators, charismatic leaders, and many other gifted students have blessed our classrooms with their presence. So, if Wikipedia defines synergy as “two or more things functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable,” naturally I must turn to my one saving grace to my classroom full of students – the “Army of Talent.”

In order to successfully and efficiently utilize all creative resources available to me, I have devised a plan that will ultimately add “incredibly” to an already “awesome class.” It is a plan to systematically and continually grow a repository of video tutorials that students and teachers can access to support and strengthen their assigned curriculum. And here it is…

Leverage Google Drive and Webmix to Create Personalize Projects

Step one consists of establishing an immediate connection with my students through Google Drive. Think of it like this: all thriving businesses share the common tenet that accurate feedback from their customers is invaluable. How is this any different than education? After all, aren’t our students the customers? Absolutely. Can I get an “Amen?”

With this in mind, I will continue to ask the “customers” to contribute to a prefabricated survey in Google Drive that collects data on all pertinent student information. I implemented a similar form last year, but my questionnaire categories were not precise enough. This new survey, which can be easily shared via e-mail, Twitter, or a teacher’s webpage, contains prompts ranging from students’ self-evaluations of skills such as acting, writing, leadership, and technology prowess to more writing-intensive cues that invite students to divulge their personal interests, hobbies, and talents. Of course, I always ask students if they own smartphones, tablets, or any other mobile devices that could augment the classroom-learning environment.

Perhaps the most important prompt, one that confronts the current malaise caused by lack of time versus the tech gadgets explosion, is the last survey request that leads students to my Symbaloo webmix to review resources for project based learning. After perusing this evolving collection of links, students are asked to choose a technology tool they either have presently mastered or one they would be willing to learn for the betterment of our collaborative, learning family. If a resource is not listed on the webmix, students are encouraged to suggest other alternative tasks or additional tools to be added. Hopefully, this survey will stand as the foundation for an engaging classroom of shared knowledge.

No longer will I learn in the final three weeks of school that the quiet John Doe student sitting in the back of the room is actually a young guitarist who can play out any Eric Clapton riff upon request. No longer will I wait until the last month of the school year to learn that Justin X. Ample is a young and promising Steven Spielberg. No longer. With the Army of Talent assessed and assembled, I will now kick-start week one with an establishment of priceless familiarity that acts as a springboard into phase two of the plan.

Use Screencasting to Capture and Create New Learning

To me, the next step is powerful and theoretically simple, yet it tap-dances on the nerve of teacher control once again. However, the legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson states that a true leader, one who strives daily to have his students think for themselves and see life as constant learning, is oftentimes “invisible.” With this paradoxical notion in mind, screencasting and video recording are the answers to this overstressed nerve.

After downloading the survey from Google Drive as an Excel spreadsheet and studying the students’ feedback and suggestions, I will spend the next few weeks implementing and encouraging a routine that allows for students to work on screencasting sessions in a rotational, blended learning structure while completing their literature assignments. Using screencast-o-matic.com or Jing software from techsmith.com and only when it specifically applies to class assignments, students will create video tutorials roughly three-five minutes in length that guide their peers through previously unknown technological terrain. If students’ demonstrations don’t involve sharing a screen or the concepts somehow require an external recording devices, video cameras, smartphones, tablets, and other recording gadgets are useable.

Many writing, editing, speaking, and presentation skills will be utilized to construct effective and concise video tutorials. Perhaps my hardest task during these times of creation is to manage, curate, and ultimately harness the collective power derived from the students’ shared expertise. Isn’t this an excellent problem to have? To expedite the process, I will continue to open my classroom doors before class hours, after school, and, when appropriate, during my planning period.

As I have learned with many of our students’ projects over the years, an engaged and appreciated Army of Talent will find the time and place to create authentic examples of knowledge. Whether it’s at home, in the school’s computer lab, or patiently waiting at my door at 7:15 a.m., students will find a way. This yearlong process of creating and collecting video tutorials is limited only by one’s imagination.

Students can create tutorials that showcase the construction and editing portions of an essay, guide others through a powerful vlogging site like Voicethread, or demonstrate how to drop a newscast background into a video using Chroma-key technology. The tutorials could be as simple as a thirty-second video that reveals the correct way to insert a header for an MLA paper, or they could be as complex as dropping a pre-recorded MP4 file over a muted video segment in MovieMaker Live. Whatever the tutorial may be, several things are certain: the process will be empowering, and it will certainly ask the teacher to relinquish the illusion of control and participate as a knowledge-hungry student at times.

Create a Video Repository For Future Learning Reference

The final phase, storing the tutorial in a video repository, is one that must be discussed with a school technology or media specialist, and depending on your district’s technology status, a number of possibilities exist. In its simplest form, a video repository could be organized on a shared classroom computer through the organization of a folder system. Aptly named tutorials would be placed in appropriately labeled folders. Compare it to putting up the laundry. The socks go in the socks drawer. Simple.

However, other districts may elect to store tutorials in an area more accessible by a multitude of students and teachers. A video gallery on the school’s website would be perfect, and any additions to the repository could be submitted to a media or technology specialist. Of course, there are numerous options ranging from a YouTube channel to a school’s shared network drive. Whatever the situation, a technology specialist will easily point you in the right direction.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This plan is not in lieu of the mandated curriculum. Preparing students for the Advanced Placement Language Exam and studying American Literature is and always will be the primary focus of our classes. The video tutorials will simply accelerate many assignments. Think on it. How many times have you been asked the same technology question when assisting a class of diligent workers with their projects? Instead of repeating the mind-numbing answer multiple times, a teacher could remind students of the video repository where they could view a classmate’s steps in delivering a coherent, thesis-driven speech, or they could study a team of teenage writers as they render their interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” in a totally authentic rap song through Mixcraft software. Again, the possibilities are limitless.

Sure, naysayers might say, “There are many tutorials already on the internet. Why reinvent the wheel?” My answer? I want our students to be leaders who spearhead any new challenge with gusto. They should seek to create, to be original, to think forwardly. If a certain video tutorial already exists on the Internet, students may choose to improve it in the name of efficiency and clarity. If our students have an amazing idea coupled with doubt, they should fearlessly dive headfirst into making that vision a reality.

Finally, some educators will argue over the extra time needed to curate an endless video repository. However, I don’t see it that way. I see efficiency, classroom ownership, an effervescent learning atmosphere, true mastery and understanding of the standards, endless creativity, and time well spent. Besides, I would rather manage students’ excitement and energy stemming from an engaging classroom than to discipline boredom’s evil offspring…student misbehavior.

After eight weeks of refreshing and reflecting in the summer sun, I will definitely be ready for day one of the upcoming school year. No doubt I will stare into the next ten months and see before me an intimidating array of challenges. Although it may feel like I am preparing for a bareknuckle brawl with Bruce Lee, Jason Bourne, Clint Eastwood, and Rocky Balboa all at the same time, I will remember to rely on the Army of Talent and defeat my nemesis, the illusion of control. And it really doesn’t matter to me if the leader is invisible.

Works Cited

  • Jackson, Phil, and Hugh Delehanty. “The Invisible Leader.” Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. New York: Hyperion, 2006. 147-68. Print.
  • “Synergy.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 June 2012. Web. 17 June 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synergy>.

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