Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Keep Moving Forward...

... from the movie CastAway, taken in the rLab, 2011.
Sometimes in order to think about moving forward... you have to look back.

In January (2013), just before exams, and right before I was about to leave on the semester-long sabbatical I was awarded by peers, I learned the work in the entire department, including the rLab, was going to shift to a heavily (web) scripted course curriculum format and workflow. "Scripted learning" it was called.

... a January 9th introduction at the department meeting, with a January 11th deadline for new course descriptions. No debate. No discussion. Done deal.

Course topics would be taught in a 'Blended Learning' environment, four subjects in the same room - which we'd always done in the Lab... just a lot more than four, and would be focused on a more traditional introduction to 'Design Thinking,' and then choice solely within four topics: Robotics, Animation, Interior and Architectural Design, and eDesign. 'Solely' was the hard part to digest. No more student choice to explore their own passions. Topic choice beyond those defined areas would no longer be possible. Major project threads like our class inquiries into the impact of technology on the news, healthcare, and education would no longer be possible. 

The new script went further. Each student would be required to input their work into a standardized school issued e-portfolio (template) to document their learning. Each portfolio would look... the same. Each exploration thread would be self-paced and may potentially lead someday to some individual projects, but just as an extension of those defined threads.

It took some time to stomach... "standardized portfolios"... would replace real web publishing / student websites that involved student choice and design, web scripted chronology instead of 'messy learning.' Limited topics instead of student choice and all the work we'd done to make community connections and archive projects… it wasn't settling well.

I left on sabbatical to study, ironically, 'what fostered and prohibited innovation in schools' and pondered it heavily through my sabbatical travels over the next seven months.  Mainly, 'inviting student inquiry into the educational process' was always a goal. Under the new structure moving into place... it no longer would be possible.

I always felt delving into these three project threads and then student choice led to much deeper explorations of learning, 'digital citizenship,' and ultimately promoted students taking ownership of their education rather than feeling like it was something that was done 'to them.' Creating chances for students to experiment with their goals... is important. Otherwise, I've always felt, we're asking them to mispredict their futures. The explorations were often challenging to traditional school structures, and it was a shame to see these explorative threads and the flexibility disappear.

So, over the last six months I felt the need to step back and look at how the rLab had evolved. I talked to many students, alumni, parents, project community consultants, and just over 40 folks from other schools who visited us in the Lab over the years about our work here in the rLab. It's been great to hear that the work we've done has had a wide scope of influence over the last eight years.

Here's a view below under the rLab (aka Tech Research) hood. 

Work in the Lab over these eight + years was individualized toward the needs of each student on how they approach learning at this time in their lives, and how that vision can evolve into the future. We used technology itself as a lens to explore the world, their place in it, and the goals of learning how to learn, or as I often said to students on the Lab, to "find out what makes you tick." What were students good at? What were their pitfalls in learning, their achilles heel? How can those strengths be built upon? How can those struggles be analyzed and conquered?

We explored three large topics to introduce 'project based education': How technology has impacted the news, healthcare, and education. There's some soul searching involved in those topics, and potential for great philosophical and ethical debates - all relevant to the world now and into the future. Students were actively encouraged and prompted to debate these topics with their families and in class with each other. Along the way, we built up folks research and collaboration skills, proficiencies in the tools we used, and presentation and public speaking skills. It also helped people look at the potential of technology, and the pitfalls.

We had a series of smaller projects, too. One example were our 'impromptu speeches.' Students picked a random subject out of a box, had three to five minutes to research, and conjure a short and engaging presentation! Students added topics to the suggestion box... and it was always entertaining. We mixed it up... presenting to the full class and to small groups.

Students were then asked to choose their own projects to explore. That's where things got interesting.

Topic choice is a healthy practice and I've always thought it's one too rarely explored, especially in high schools. Students are often conditioned in traditional models in education to be great at being told what to do and how to do it. The rLab courses were placed philosophically and very intentionally far on the other side of that more traditional educational spectrum.

Students did over 1000 projects here in eight years, covering an incredibly diverse array of topics. Focusing efforts on topic choice led to 55% female enrollment in 'tech classes' here in the Lab. Learning along with them was challenging and exhilarating at the same time. I learned exponentially faster than at any time in my life previously.

A transformation idea sparked by MIT OpenCourseware... I chose to have students archive all their project growth, struggles, and contacts within them for their peers to build from and upon. If students chose a topic of study that had been done before they could use the work of their peers to move further. Seeing and hearing about the struggles other peers had in learning can pretty powerful. The good, bad, and ugly of every project could be used by peers to build upon. One project that took, say, 15 weeks the first time was used by a new student... who covered that same ground in 10. The next time 8. Almost every project went further each time as people built off their peers work.

Each student project had to last a minimum of three weeks. It was a sufficient time frame to figure out if you liked what you were working on. It allowed some immersion, some tests to overcome some initial obstacles and to make some connections. Students often did one or two projects per semester, mostly one. Many projects extended over multiple semesters and even years. One student took the course five times in their high school career.

I always thought, as these digital tools we use constantly increase our ability to communicate, then we must work on increasing collaboration and communication skills. Students were also asked to connect via social media in the field of study and with with community consultants as part of their projects, professionals outside the school, who could help drive all this learning forward. Over 1000 professionals outside the school became mentors. We built a database of those people over time which made it easier for new students to make connections.

To understand their own learning, students made inquiries into cognitive psychology (the 'isms', behaviorism - get some directions, cognitivism - understand thinking on complex problems, constructivism - doing and design thinking, and connectivism - working with others, teaming and exploring collaboration and mentorships) and then how you use these tools and insights at hand and resources available to carve a path into the future.

We explored and debated Gardner- Multiple Intelligences; Bruner- Spiral Curriculum; Reggio Emilia Children early childhood education - art focus, hands-on, and inquiry based; Science Leadership Academy - Assessment and PBL; High Tech High - PBL; Bolman and Deal - Project Management; (and) MIT OpenCourseWare - Archiving and shared knowledge philosophies were all huge influences explored in this the rLab discourse.

For many students it was the first time they could pursue something they were interested in. It was the first time many had not been told specifically 'what to do.' For some, learning how to learn and why they felt the way they do about education was the most important mission and ultimately the most rewarding. There's a phrase that floats out there I've always liked... "good learning is messy." I agree. Inquiry based learning is most often the focus outside of school, and it takes practice.

Assessing so many individual projects and students individualized growth curves within them within them was a challenge... but I got pretty good at it. Each student was challenged individually to make strides in their self-motiviation, how they learned, their struggles, approached their work and to keep building something meaningful, document it, archive it and develop it into a professional blog / website of some sort. Managing over 100 independent projects and learning plans within them each semester took... some trial and error. As I developed systems I asked students to challenge them / revise them with me each semester. We all learned from one another. Like the top of the blog says here... "a self organizing system."

Of course, this evolving system created challenges to regular constructs of academia: Course restrictions, topic restrictions, and that I was 'teaching / mentoring out of my 'subject area' surfaced from some departments and the Union.

We created opportunities to look at how we were doing 'school' as a 'school.'

The work in the Lab went beyond projects though and toward the well being and learning opportunities within the school itself. Student lobbied for their rights, access, food changes, and even in the structure of 'school' itself.

Here's a link to some of these proposals which led to some great educational growth here at this school and many others. The Lab work also played an important part on the philosophical growth at the school to be much more student centric with technology. That project we posted has also helped many other schools along the way that have visited and over social media as well.

Our largest project... teachers even became a 'Student for a Day'. This class project was viewed over 100,000 times and featured in many other blogs and journals like Dangerously Irrelevant, and MindShift) into the educational process can be a challenge to traditional school structures... and also to perceptions on how they impact student learning. I've always felt that debate essential to avoid stagnation and the train ride of 'business as usual.'

The BG Light
We hosted 49 visitors in the Lab from other schools. It was great to hear that many visitors have built upon our assignments, proposals, and spirit of inquiry to make shifts at their own schools. Making the work enduring and having an impact on other schools in this fashion is something I'm proud students here were a part of. This work here informed what became the Winooski iLab, Mt Abraham Horizons Program, and informed Vermont legislation called Act 77 - Flexible Pathways, and many others. All those folks and many others visited the rLab here. 


When my sabbatical trip came to a close in mid-August, I did settle in for a bit to build curriculum in the scripted formats the subject tracks that had been chosen. Basically nothing had been done while I was away over the Spring and Summer. I'd mentored so many student projects in those subjects over the last eight years and made incredible community connections therein... so it'd be pretty easy to script out five tracks. 

But, it all wasn't sitting right for me. I felt the need to continue lobbying for student topic choice in their education, promoting flexibility with the school schedule (and getting students involved in that discussion), and taking the potential we saw for multidisciplinary / interdisciplinary work that can spin with it even further. I wanted to pursue even more discussions on shifts schools can make to open up individual and community learning opportunities.

So when a late offer came up to do just that, and after some soul searching, I decided it was officially time I moved on. I took a position at Burlington High School and District in Vermont in Technology Integration and to participate in the Partnership for Change Initiative.

Hey, I have to do something with all that sabbatical research, right? ; )

We'll see where it all leads.

My sincere thanks to the incredible students I've worked with here, so many peers, the project consultants - the experts called on by the students in their project work, visitors to the Lab, the incredibly supportive communities, and to the school here at Burr and Burton itself. I'm truly privileged to carry so many lasting friendships into the future.

It likely wraps up over 20 years as a head coach in High School Baseball as well, the last six years here at Burr and Burton. Assembling the help of many, we helped rebuild the youth programs in the town, repaired the relationship between the school and the town toward upkeep of the shared facility, built new training infrastructure, grinded out he most wins in school history over a six year period - so I'm told, and evolved into making the State finals three times in the last six years. Build, baby, build ; ) I had a lot of fun doing it.

(coaching update added here in 2014)

rLab (II) 8/2005 - 8/2013

I like this picture of the rLab above... a little rough around the edges, minimalist, student designed diverse work spaces... truly a self-organizing system that constantly evolved based on student feedback and design (as it's always said on the top of the blog here since we started). 

We made the whole process transparent day-to-day here on this blog over eight years and readily gave the assignments, rubrics, and scaffolding away to many. I'll continue to do so as people request materials. It's been amazing to see how many people and schools have visited this lab over these eight years and then adopted personalized learning plans, and setup programs based on these ideas. I've lost track of how many schools have told us our class proposals have helped them in their journeys as well. Students publishing real work to a live audience… we win. 

It's tough to close up shop sometimes... but it's also exciting. 

If I always preached "keep moving forward," to students, I guess I had to heed the same advice.

So keep learning, achieve new levels of collaboration, and please do keep in touch. I'm easy to find on the web ; ) 

I always did love the iconic sign-off from the late CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite. I always felt it was a fitting way to end the day that now moves into history...

"And that's the way it is," the close of my role in the rLab at BBA, Friday August, 23rd, 2013...

Thanks for tuning in.

Adam (hereafter at creativeStir.blogspot.com)

Friday, January 18, 2013

To Boldly Go...

The first semester has flown by and it's time for me to head off on this exciting sabbatical trip.

"The world is not in your books and maps… it's out there!"—Gandalf, The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

And just that. I'm off to see these great schools and educators I've chatted with and learned from over the years. I'll meet many new people, catch up with friends, and explore the world. I'll have some time to reflect, invent, and renew... in 8 countries. A fine recipe for the future. 

And while I'm away...

Paul Molinelli steps in to work with folks here in the Lab, and I couldn't be more excited about that coming to fruition. Paul brings a wealth of experience to the mix and it's been great to get to know him better over the past month. Paul will be smithing this Lab blog here over the semester with students too. There are some great threads in motion already.

Tony Cirelli will step in to mentor the baseball program this Spring, and the players and families are in good hands. I've had the privilege of competing against Tony over the years when we coached at different schools and also to work with him to build this baseball program. Tony's a very competent and dedicated coach. This years Varsity team is a special group and it was a tough decision to step away from them this Spring. Ultimately though all those strengths and the tremendous character of the team made the decision easier. 'The Ship,' as in competing for a championship, is once again within reach.

My thanks to all the students, colleagues, and friends who have wished me luck and safe travels on this journey. Of course, this wouldn't have been possible without the generous support and visionary thinking of Barry and Wendy Rowland. Words can't express the gratitude I have for the Rowland's support to send educators out into the world on adventures.

I'll be blogging for Edutopia as this trip unfolds, and posting updates on my personal blog, CreativeStir, as well (there's a bit more about the logistics of the trip posted there already). I'm looking forward to the challenges to smith these journeys into some good stories and all the personal reflection and deeper thinking it brings.

Gandalf: You'll have a tale or two to tell when you come back. 
Bilbo: Can you promise that I will come back? 
Gandalf: No, and if you do, you will not be the same.

Step out your door...

Keep moving forward...


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Student for a Day Video

In a class discussion about 'how technology has shifted school,' the discussion got pretty heated.

Students thought 'school schedules are often organized by adults.'


What is the school schedule like through the eyes of a student?

Do school schedules meet the needs of students educationally and socially? 

How can the 'student experience' be improved?

How does the school schedule effect families?

Five teachers became a 'Student for a Day' to find out. Here are their thoughts on the experience (and some good humor) in the full video below.

Their experiences lead to some timely questions to answer in education. 

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject too. Feel free to comment in this blog post or send me a note.

Thanks to all involved in this great project, especially our dedicated A block Tech Research class who conjured up this great idea. Special thanks to Meg Kenny, Assistant Headmaster (and also a 'Student for a Day' in the video).

We had a blast working on it and hope you enjoy it.

Thanks for tuning in, AP

BBA Student for a Day Project from Adam Provost on Vimeo.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Student for a Day Project Video Trailer

After proposing the project, a schedule delay for Hurricane Sandy, editing, and a holiday break... at long last, here's the trailer for the 'Student for a Day' project!

We'll post the full video in a day or two.

Stay tuned!

Trailer from Adam Provost on Vimeo.