A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop run by Alan November of November Learning and ADVIS (The Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools). I was lucky enough to be able to bring two of my 8th grade students to be a part of my learning experience. We had just gotten back from Canada, so we were all exhausted, but excited to be doing something outside of the classroom together. Imagine that…learning outside the classroom with students?
Alan whisked off my students and put them to work using a google doc to collaborate with other students to create notes for everyone that attended the conference. This is what they came up with. While they were busy being engaged, I was backchanneling the conference on twitter. I have virtually attended many events and conferences by following live bloggers,tweeters, ustream, and elluminate rooms. It is amazing what a rich experience you can have sitting in your pajamas while expanding your professional development. I wanted to give that experience to teachers that could not attend the Alan November conference. Here is the archive notebook of my tweets from that day.
Right before the morning break, a discussion about mapping conversations and the Harkness table came up. I am lucky enough to have a Harkness table in my room, so I quickly located an image and tweeted it out:
After I did this, I went down to the podium to introduce myself to Alan. I told him that I was backchanneling the conference, so he had me pull up my twitter account on the larger-than-life screen behind me. As I was showing him what I was doing, he clicked the last tweet that I had posted about the Harkness table. What transpired next happened so quickly that I didn’t even really have time to process it. As I was explaining the difference between learning in a traditional classroom on the left and the Harkness table on the right, he turned to me and said:
Alan: What is your role?
Me: In the classroom?
Me: I am an equal.
Little did I know that those four words were going to change the rest of the course of my day. Alan told me that he has never in 30 years heard that as a teacher job description. He told me that I would be presenting for the next ten minutes about Harkness and Twitter…he also wanted to have lunch with me! Oh my, what had I gotten myself into? As I was standing at the podium, Alan began talking about the role of a teacher in the classroom in the 21st century. As I was setting up on his laptop to present, I quick checked my twitter feed and saw this:
When Alan turned the mic over to me, I talked about the Harkness table and twitter…I even combined them to refer to Twitter as a virtual Harkness table. People who don’t understand twitter think that it is a one way conversation. Twitter is anything but that. It is a conversation within your Personal Learning Network (PLN)…your group of educators that you have chosen to be a part of your daily professional development. I would argue that #edchat is the greatest example of a virtual Harkness table where educators vote on topics and have real time discussions on Tuesdays at noon and seven. By the end of my conversation, I had new followers on Twitter that were joining in on the conversation as well as people tweeting for the first time. The twitter feed changed for the rest of the day. It was active and had now engaged not only the people in the room, but their followers as well.
So…back to that equal thing…
I went back to my seat exhilarated from having the opportunity to present in front of 200+ people, and from being recognized by Alan. I sat back down and began to process what happened…but the phrase that came out of my mouth kept milling around in my head “I am an equal”. I was taught during a time period when teachers were the gatekeepers of knowledge. They were the all knowing, and you were lucky to have their knowledge bestowed upon you. I can tell you right now that this system did not work for me as a student. I knew at a very young age that this was not what teaching and learning is all about. I knew that I would become a teacher and do things differently…so I did.
So what does being an equal mean? To me, it means having an equal role in the classroom. Sometimes I’m running the show…sometimes they are running the show. I believe in authentic, student centered learning where students are engaged in the process of learning. Each student’s process and outcome are different, but they have all been exposed to a balanced curriculum that challenges them to stretch themselves creatively, emotionally, and collaboratively. If we are truly teaching process, and not focusing on the product, students become equal…they transform themselves from learners to leaders. They understand that the journey is just as important as the destination…isn’t that what we believe as teachers? By creating a classroom culture where the foundation is mutual respect, responsibility, and equality, both students and teachers become truly engaged in the process of teaching and learning. It becomes a dynamic and vibrant place to be…a place where students want to learn and grow, and a place where teachers are inspired to learn and grow. It is a place where I am an equal…a place where we are all teachers, learners, and leaders.
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Thanks for sharing your valuable experience and insight.
Yes, Right. Each of us can become a mentor as well as mentee.
Megan…what a beautiful post. I could really see and feel the whole experience with you, through your writing. You are a rare breed of young teacher!How wonderful for your students! I encourage you to stay the course…keep your enthusiasm and passion. Continue to share it with others and inspire them. Hope you will think about mentoring newbies in the future! (if you aren’t all ready)Would love to do a piece on you (and Yoon) for my blog…maybe in the summer!~Lisa 🙂
Thanks for posting, Lisa…and thanks for calling me a “young teacher”! Next year will be my 16th year teaching, and I still feel like I’m learning and growing every day! I’m currently finishing my master’s in Educational Leadership along with my principal’s certification. I’m not sure where that will lead me, but it was something that I wanted to have in case the opportunity ever popped up! The only thing stopping me is the fact that I’m not ready to leave the classroom…yet! I love to watch the wonder, excitement, and drive that each new class brings. I’d love to work with you guys on something this summer!
Ah, if only others saw the role of the teacher as you do. I have seen the Harkness model used in my upper-level university courses, but rarely in high school and the middle and lower grades — thanks for giving everyone the visual and a name for it!
I believe that the traditional model, as a rule, is somewhat dangerous — it goes back to the hidden curriculum. When we present ourselves as adults lording over our youthful peons, we teach also that to gain power in the world, one must always be in charge. It is no wonder that children will defy even the best teachers who use the traditional model, if only to feel like they have some control and input into the learning process. It is so important to command, rather than demand, respect from not only our students, but all those in our lives. The Harkness model allows for mutual respect and learning. I’m glad that you have been heard by such a large audience, and hope that your words will have heavy impact on those teaching and learning now and those who will be in our schools of the future.
Thanks so much for taking the time to post, Kim. I’ve been lucky enough to have my Harkness table for two years, but before that, I had always set up my classroom in a circle. In this method, there is no “back of the classroom” or “front row seat”. By composition, everyone is equal. It has been ideal for the way that I teach and learn. Discussion becomes a natural occurrence for students, and not just an isolated experience for the “smart ones” who always have their hands up. However, middle schoolers are still middle schooler…this act of questioning and dialoguing does not come easily. I’ve been using blogging for the past three years to have a “pre-conversation” about material before it is introduced at the table. This way, I can pull up responses from the blog to elicit discussion that was already processed. This makes them feel safe and confident in their sharing instead of questioning themselves and their answers. Often, this is what will hinder students from participating in class. School should be a place where you can question, experiment, and learn from your mistakes. It is a time when students should be learning how to learn…not learning what someone tells them what they should know.
I teach 9th grade English, and I’m interested in how the Harkness table–or even just a circular set-up– works in your classroom. I’m not sure my classroom management skills are strong enough yet for me to do that and make it work.
I’d also like to shift from a more teacher-centered style to a student-centered approach, but I’m kind of a control freak, and I don’t really know where to start. Do you have other blog posts you could point me to?
Hi there Melissa.
Thanks so much for visiting my blog. My first piece of advice to you would be to start with one project. You will need to slowly give up some control in order to create a balance in your classroom. I would suggest starting with literature circles. Choose a theme and three or four different novels within that theme to use in your circles. If you are not familiar with the teaching practice, I would definitely purchase Mini-Lessons for Literature Circles by Harvey Daniels & Nancy Steineke. Literature circles are a good way to give your students independence, while making your role as a teacher more of a guide.
Another way to start is by teaching students socratic dialoguing or shared inquiry techniques. The Great Books Foundation is a great place to start to learn about shared inquiry. Once you have your students questioning their reading, the focus of the discussion will shift from you to them.
Once you have taught these literature circle and inquiry skills, I would put your chairs in a circle and try a discussion. When you are in a circle, everyone has a front row seat…there is no where to hide! Often, to promote discussion, I will have students pre-think the discussion on their blogs the evening before. During class, I can then pull up the blogs to encourage discussion. Students feel more comfortable with discussion once they have had the chance to rehearse through blogging. I’ve found that this is one of the most effective strategies for teaching discussion skills.
What you need to remember is that you can’t just snap your fingers and magically have a student centered classroom…you need to build it one project at a time. Once you and your students become more comfortable in these roles, designing new student centered activities becomes very natural. Best of luck! Please keep me posted on your progress!