Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"The Talent & the Agent: My Desired Class"

"The Talent & the Agent: My Desired Class"
(originally published at gettingsmart.com)


The students and the teacher, the audience and the speaker, the players and the coach, the learners and the sage: I could go on forever with the many ascribed labels attached to the occupants of a classroom, and depending on the structure, purpose, and direction of the class, these tags can be negative or positive in nature. Leaning on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous “frightening conclusion” quotation, I am Zen-like in my focus on the classroom atmosphere and I intend to create – the talent and the agent this upcoming school year. By developing flexible lesson plans, implementing interactive learning structures, and engaging the customers with passion-based projects, the class of my dreams will be a reality.

Skeletal Lesson Plans

Lesson plans should be skeletal in nature. The assigned curriculum and all its supporting standards and literature act as a strong but flexible framework for the students to continually add muscle and flesh by challenging, playing, and wrestling with the daily tasks. With a supple but fluid approach for each unit, students sense the freedom to suggest further exploration while dropping creative hints for engaging classroom activities. Some of the best lessons I have ever witnessed were ignited by students’ original questions and ideas. Who knows how many times I was too focused on one of my golden lesson plans to hear the heartbeat of the class. Maybe if I slow down enough to learn the likes and dislikes of each student, I will keep a steady finger on the pulse of the class.

Interactive Learning Structures

Drawing from authentic learning structures such as “Doorball,” “Cell Phone and Literary Seismograph,” “Bullet Train,” “The Chosen Ones,” “Voting Chips,” and “Wax Museum,” students participate in interactive classroom designs that foster responsibility, creativity, spontaneity, and collaboration. These learning activities offer an organized but unscripted atmosphere for students to work with the assigned standards in individual and team settings. The energy and level of engagement is quite contagious, and the students oftentimes enter class asking to continue a certain structure from a previous lesson.

Passion-Based Projects

As all educators know, balance can sometimes be a four-letter word. How much time should be given for projects? How many traditional settings are effective? How can interactive learning styles develop mastery of the assigned standards? The questions keep coming and are sometimes collectively answered only after subjecting any teaching theories to experimentation in the actual classroom. One such experiment that continues to yield excellent results is the passion-based project. Whether drawing from our shared Symbaloo webmix or from creative ideas that involve little or no technology, passion-based projects where students merge their personal interests with the assigned standards are a lock. They simply work. I witnessed this truth firsthand this summer when my eighth grade, suburbanite son asked me to help him construct a basic chicken coop with the ultimate conclusion of owning several Silky chickens. The result was more than I could imagine. Not only did we construct a very cool enclosure for a few furry hens, but an engaged middle-school learner and his sister realized the world is the true classroom.

For the last four years in our class, Studio 113, students have blown us away with original paintings illustrating an in-depth understanding of symbolism, with painstaking lyrics for a new thematic song covering Dark Romanticism (scroll down to second song), and with action-packed videos featuring zip-lining superheroes who speak using examples from AP Language literary terms. To drop it like it’s hot, students have talent. They can even take something as mundane as discussing strategies for multiple-choice questions and transform it into a multi-camera movie trailer that has the audience looking for the ticket booth.
Maybe students just want to have fun with the assignments. Maybe it is how they learn best – by creating. Maybe they subscribe to Will Smith’s quotation: “The greatest dreams are always unrealistic.” Whatever it is, students can consistently create original music videos or literary remakes that not only master the standards but also bend and shape the lessons into something new, something that resembles art. Ah, but that would label the students as artists. Fine with me. I will gladly stand back and admire the talent as long as students do not believe the only things they create are the illusions that their level of engaged learning can be qualitatively and quantitatively measured by standardized test scores. As for the talent and the agent, I simply hope my skills match the students’ potential aptitude. After all, who wants to be “fired” by a class of bored students who are hungry to unveil their personal interests and abilities? That would be mismanagement of talent.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"An Energetic Classroom through Interactive Structures"

"An Energetic Classroom through Interactive Structures" by John Hardison (@JohnHardison1 & @Studio113_EHHS)

(This post was originally published at Richard Byrne's website: freetech4teachers.com)

Surely any passionate educator would say the teaching practice is one of trial and error, success and failure. I am no different. Whatever hasn’t worked in our classroom, the students and I have simply altered, enhanced, or sometimes completely overhauled. Quitting is not an option. We collectively supply the energy needed to create a collaborative and engaging atmosphere of shared knowledge. To allude to a favorite baseball great, we “Pete Rose” any challenges in our AP Language or American Literature classes by diving in headfirst and supplying a zest for learning that is clearly palpable in our classroom. The great Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once stated “The world belongs to the energetic,” would surely agree. In essence, our students transcend selfishness, boredom, narrow-mindedness, and unoriginality by embracing an academic setting that demands participation.

Even with the success of our project-based assignments and some traditional teaching methods, the most tested and highly effective solution for creating this active environment is our implementation of learning structures. The students and I totally create them ourselves. With names like “Stage Fright,” “Recording Artists,” “Force Field,” and “Six-Shooter Firing Squad,” these organized but spontaneous designs have been the foundation of our success in Studio 113, an interactive Language Arts classroom that houses a basic recording studio, a hexagonal, raised stage, green screens, a smartboard, and a secondary room for digital production.

One of our top ten structures is one verbosely named “Flip Forum, Unaware Speaker, and Silent Discussion.”At first, it may not appear overly exciting, but the students’ feedback reveals a clearer vision. Actually a conglomeration of three mini-structures, the design is highly effective. First off, the students are placed in one of four teams that will eventually rotate through four structured areas. Stations A & B, circled around our stage in the middle of the room, constitute the “Flip Forum” discussion, where students analyze and discuss the assigned literature by sharing their original ideas, flipping over their assigned numbers located in front of them on stage, and then calling on classmates to continue the thread. A continual backchannel via Polleverywhere is viewable on a drop-down screen, and students are also encouraged to enlarge the discussion audience by using Apple’s Facetime or by simply switching to “speaker” on their cell phones. There is nothing quite like having a student’s mother offer her opinion in real time. Obviously, I remind the students a few days before to prepare any outside audience members with a tentative schedule for our “Flip Forum” discussion. If communication on the assigned prompts needs to be extended, Voicethread is embedded on my webpage for afterschool continuation, or students can use Posterous to send in their video-recorded opinions to our class blog.

Station C, “Unaware Speaker,” invites the students to record a team member to speak to the assigned prompt while pretending to be oblivious to the symbolic and silent acting performed behind him. One particular student, acting as the camera man, will frame the video with the acting appearing directly over the speaker’s shoulder. Students can choose to share camera, speaking, and acting responsibilities in this station. All videos may be later mashed-up into an original video in a style determined by the class after completing all rotations. Ideas range from movie trailers to newscasts to music videos to any original and appropriate student proposals.

Finally, Station D is one that adds a bit of serenity to the bustling learning environment. The “Silent Discussion” asks students to explore the prompt by contributing in a TodaysMeet chatroom or by using a Twitter hashtag. Of course, I follow along on my iPad or laptop as I stroll through the stations and observe the students sharing knowledge in a variety of ways.

A few educators in my PLN question the effectiveness of the “Flip Forum, Unaware Speaker, and Silent Discussion” in their classrooms due to a perceived lack of technology. That may very well be the case. As I have witnessed so many times, students are eager to share tech gadgets, knowledge, and ideas to circumvent any problem caused by technology or the lack thereof. However, no worries. I have used this exact same structure with Post-It notes, dry-erase boards, rolls of bulletin board paper, rotational manila folders, etc. Whether it’s old school or tech-integrated, the students are encouraged to express their original ideas.

But the next structure I want to share with you is way too simple, yet it’s extremely effective. In fact, the “Wax Museum” structure comes with a warning. Although no technology is required, the energy level in the class will skyrocket the moment the students understand the level of freedom allowed to create a motionless, symbolic “wax” statue that successfully addresses the assigned prompt. Here’s how it goes. 1. Students are instructed to use any appropriate items in their possession and any within the classroom (or my storage closet of tech gadgets and props for that matter) 2. While focusing on the prompt at hand, students should plan a “wax” statue that will be held without movement for up to five minutes or more. 3. Students are given roughly 15-20 minutes to discuss and prepare the assignment. 4. Once all teams are ready, students are instructed to hold their positions quietly and as perfectly still as possible while I record their creations with a video camera. 5. Lastly, the students continue to hold their positions while one or more team members explain their rationale while only moving their lips. Simply put…students love it.

Honestly, I am not sure if Mr. Emerson’s quotation stands true for our class. After all, our energetic students in Studio 113 may not actually own the world after an invigorating class, but there is one certainty: I can guarantee you they will share their classroom of knowledge and creativity through engaging structures, project-based learning, and forward thinking. That’s all I ask.


John Hardison is a facilitator of learning in an interactive classroom called Studio 113 at East High School in Gainesville, GA where literature creatively comes to life on a stage with students as the stars. In the past 14 years at East Hall High School, Hardison has taught AP Language, American Literature, World Literature, and Applied Communications. Through original learning structures and a shared classroom concept, students are inspired to connect literature with their own talents and interests. Follow John on Twitter @JohnHardison1 and his class @Studio113_EHHS. Hardison blogs monthly for GettingSmart.com and shares his interactive structures in workshops at local technology conferences.
Blogs from GettingSmart.com
The Structure Factory Blog
John Hardison’s Studio 113 Webpage