It was January, and I was prepared for another exciting day at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School to work with an amazing body of teachers and students alike to create unforgettable learning experiences. “The Little School by the Bay” is home to 300 students in programs PreK 3 to Grade 5, and is a 1:1 iPad school. The school is an outreach program of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Parish, and believes 21st century skills and character development are essential components of its academic, athletic and artistic programs.
The past four years, as an Edtech Integrator, I met with teachers to plan their next Project Based Learning event, as well as how to integrate technology throughout their curriculum. Additionally, I worked with students to prepare them to be responsible digital citizens. My goal was to best guide each person on their 21st century educational map. As an advocate of 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, and character education, I encouraged each teacher and student alike to apply these skills in their daily ‘unforgettable’ learning experiences.
Little did I know that that day I would take a different role at the school. There was an immediate need for a grade 4 teacher at the school and the principal asked me to fill the role through the end of the year. Accepting the difficult task of going back to the classroom, after being away from it for four years, only meant I could put into practice what I had been preaching!
Students leave their homerooms to attend science, math, art, music, physical education, Spanish, library, and a second foreign language classes. Consequently, there is limited time in the homeroom for reading, writing, grammar, and social studies. Yes, I know what you are thinking! “You should encourage interdisciplinary and student driven learning experiences through which the child’s curiosity motivates them and therefore natural learning takes place.” I am all for it! In essence there is only so much time in the day a homeroom teacher has his/her students in contrast to the many rich, challenging, and inquiry based learning moments worthwhile exploring. Eight weeks into my new ‘temporary’ position I think I have the answer. BALANCE, BALANCE, BALANCE!
The challenges I face as a homeroom teacher, an advocate for Project Based Learning, and a facilitator for mobile devices at our school are twofold. In the first place is the issue of time constraint and schedules. Additionally, our school goes up to grade 5 and we feed into many preparatory middle schools who still rely heavily on national testing scores and grades. Is this a prevalent issue all around the country? Sir Ken Robinson states, “Education can be stifling, no question about it. One of the reasons is that education — and American education in particular, because of the standardization — is the opposite of three principles I have outlined: it does not emphasize diversity or individuality; it’s not about awakening the student, it’s about compliance; and it has a very linear view of life, which is simply not the case with life at all.” It is time to revolutionize education!
We are an elementary school, and fundamentals need to be taught. No teacher would expect a student to know how to write an informative piece in grade 4 without mini lessons to teach the concept. Agreed, yes, one can teach it in class or one can use 21st century skills to discover and master these concepts. My conclusion is that balance is the key. Furthermore, to support individuality and creativity a student should have a choice of topic and way of deliverance. If a student has a choice, self motivation leads to a more in depth study of the learning experience, and therefore understanding and mastery is apt. I agree with William Glasser. “This is at the heart of all good education, where the teacher asks students to think and engages them in encouraging dialogues, constantly checking for understanding and growth.”
To summarize I believe there is room for student driven learning experiences, maybe one every trimester. Ideally, these would relate to their community and the real world. The remainder of the time needs to be dedicated to skills students need to acquire to be ready for their middle school experience. Students should have a choice in their own learning. Do they want to read an ebook or a paper back? Do they prefer to take notes with paper and pencil, or use their devices to create their own set of notes? Do they like to present their findings digitally, through different apps and social media, or do they want to create a skit? Do they form a group project, or do they research their topic in a group and present individually? Individuality, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and morality all lead to mastery of skills. This is of course until education revolutionizes itself, where we no longer rely on national tests, grades, but on an individual’s strengths, curiosity, and his/her belief on how they can best contribute to the world around them.
Was this what I had in mind when I took over the class as an Edtech Integrator and Project Based Learning advocate? Not really. True Project Based Learning is inquiry based, student driven, and has to do with the real world. During the past eight weeks we made many connections to our present day life, but we have yet to solve a local issue that might need attention. Balance, right? Being back in the classroom opened my eyes as an Edtech Integrator that there is only so much that can be done given the current system and time. Note that I have made no mention of technology. Technology cannot be seen as an entity by itself, it is prevalent throughout our day and lives. Like Alan November mentions, “The goal is no longer about technical mastery but about designing learning environments where technology could help children learn, regardless of whether the teacher actually acquired the technical skills.” When fall comes, I will resume my position as Edtech Integrator. My current position as a classroom teacher will better equip me when planning and incorporating student driven learning experiences, as well as manage my expectations!