My first-year teaching at an inner city school was one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, of my life. Despite five years instructing post-graduate industry tech courses at the college level, I was very much the noob high school teacher. But it wasn’t just any high school but a program for at-risk learners, aged 18-20, who had been out of school for several years and dealing with significant academic, life and social issues. As a formerly at-risk youth, I saw it as a chance to make a real difference as a teacher. As a media teacher with a computer lab, it was an opportunity for innovation.
My first big insight transitioning from post-secondary to secondary was that all my cool webby projects wouldn’t fill an empty classroom where chronic attendance issues weren’t so much a matter of compelling curriculum as serious social crises. Every week, I worked overtime to create the most differentiated and meaningful lesson content for students who arrived up to an hour late for my 2.5 hour class. I drew on their lived experiences, interests and backgrounds – from designing Photoshop “Wallpapers” that mixed real and fantasy worlds to remix music videos – I found myself struggling to accommodate problems that had nothing to do with my curriculum.
Initially, I used blogs because they were a relevant interactive learning experience. But soon discovered that the course blog was also serving an unlikely purpose: classroom management. If a student was late, I had activities ready for them on the class blog. I made a list of routines for late arrivals that sent them to the blog. Rather than disrupting class with questions about what was going on, I updated my blog before class with the topics and resources I’d be covering. During the swine flu outbreak, students who were ill could use the blog to keep up with what was happening in class. While the blog was never a substitute for in-class learning, the students benefited from the additional scaffolding.
Classroom management 2.0: Addressing the social
You don’t have to be teaching in an at risk program to face challenges to your awesome webby teaching. Students at all levels of learning are Facebooking through class. Even Howard Rheingold, one of the most fascinating figures of the internet, has faced his own challenges with student “attention” focus while teaching at ivy league universities. The real problem for Howard and the rest of us isn’t Facebook, but we acommodate and work with the behavioural and social habits our students bring to the classroom. In Howard’s case, working with post-secondary students, an emphasis on reflexive learning and collaborative teaching helped his students become more self-aware and productive.
Work like Howard’s addresses the fact that Classroom2.0 has got to be about more than curriculum-focused tools and tips. We need to talk about the peripheral social and behavioural issues as well. Given my own experiences, I believe that approaches to classroom management and engagement – offline and on – must be truly holistic (whole person – life, heart, mind) – to be effective. That means addressing the hidden curriculum of contemporary learning and understanding the identities and needs of our students must be reflected in their classroom activities. It also means asking questions about what “basic” needs, beyond learning, are being met by our curriculum design. Most of our human problems arise from unmet needs. This is the basis of holistic philosophies to life, work and learning.
The wisdom of freelancers
As a freelancer, I’ve been able to work effectively from home without the help of a boss looking over my shoulder. I’ve been able to eat the foods of my choice at the time of my choice and structure my work tasks around other needs. I wasn’t naturally self disciplined. I had to learn how. A missed deadline meant not getting paid. With the right models, supports and motivations, anybody can learn these same skills.
Many of the people I’ve met in education have not worked in new media studios where people take breaks to play video games during the work day. I imagine the thought of getting any work done in an environment where everybody is talking, laughing and “goofing” around seems outrageous to many teachers. And yet some of the most successful and innovative companies in the world are doing just that. I think it’s because a lot of the “unconventional” people who created most of our technologies worked as freelancers and structured their companies with practical and creative needs in mind.
My question is: how many of these needs do we permit our students while they’re working or learning? What would happen if we were to remake the classroom – need by need – to create a space that is both human and learner friendly?
Here’s a list of things freelancers take for granted in their work day:
I like to eat throughout the day. I will graze while working. And I like a nice cup of coffee in the morning. There’s nothing to prevent me from eating or drinking in my workspace.
Off task behaviour: Inattention, lethargy, eating snacks in class.
Some people like to work with the radio or music. I’ve met many journalists and editors whose idea of an effective work space is three televisions going at once. Most creative professionals I’ve worked with had the most extensive music collections at work. Most of our students listen to music while they do homework. Why not during independent study?
Off task behaviour: Fiddling with mp3 players instead of studying.
3. Internet access
How many browser windows do you have open at the moment? I count four. Email, Twitter, this post and one of the news sources I enjoy. I can usually maintain my focus on the task at hand while checking in on other things. Having the option to refocus my attention every now and then keeps me stimulated.
Off task behavior: Facebooking, checking email during class.
4. Social interaction
I like people. I like social interaction. I’m sitting with my husband right now and working even though he’s talking to me from time to time. When I freelanced, I was often working alone for long stretches. Social networks and communities allowed me to interact with others and be “social,” which I liked.
Off task behaviour: Chatting on msn, talking.
5. Virtual meetings
A lot of my clients are busy, wired people. Many of them, like me, bill by the hour. Scheduling an in-person meeting of one hour = 2+ hours of travel +1 hour to prepare myself for the meeting. That one hour meeting has eaten half my billable day. This is why many wired people have skype meetings. Unless you can give me a concrete reason why I need to be somewhere in person, I would rather meet you virtually.
Off task behaviour: Skipping class.
When my back starts to bother me I can get up and move around. If I’m feeling stifled in my office I can go to the backyard and work wirelessly. If I’m ill, I can lay down on my bed with my laptop. If I need a break from everything I might go in the living room and stretch out on the couch. When I worked at a hip new media company they had a futon couch for naps. Nuff said.
Off task behaviour: Fidgeting. Slouching.
For many of my students, not having their basic physiological, social or emotional needs met is the basis for attendance and other issues. Moodle won’t put food in an empty belly but changing the rules of your computer lab will. “No food or drink in the computer lab” is reasonable enough but there must be a third way. For example, my school had a morning nutrition program that accounted for increased punctuality and attendance, not to mention more energy and enthusiasm for learning. Given that my morning class took place in a computer lab, I had permission to allow my students to eat (and clean up after themselves). My insight: every computer lab should have a space set up for eating – this is both practical and equitable.
Unmet needs: The holistic classroom
My husband teaches elementary school. Last fall I helped him set up his classroom. It had a reading centre with colourful artwork and textures, comfy couches, carpets, pillows, building blocks, learning stations and a sink and cupboards. It was set up for anything a human child might need to do and then some. At recess the kids get to go out and run around – be physical, noisy and social.
Most high school and college classes do not have any comfy couches, toys or a place to prepare a snack. When I consider the kinds of jobs that require people to sit in uncomfortable rows I can only come up with one: assembly lines. We let children play and learn on carpets, in comfortable seats and in groups. Why do we stop doing this at the secondary and post-secondary level?
I had initially written this post with links to computer lab strategies (which I’ve decided to put together as a follow up post – thanks Bud and Jason for your feedback for that one!). The more I thought about it the more I realised that I had to begin with a post about the role of unmet needs and a call for more holistic approaches. Whether the need is related to one’s attention focus or the need for greater movement, the engaged classroom of the future is one that must be increasingly individualised and adaptive.
A challenge for YOU
Reviewing and augmenting my (freelancer inspired) list above, what needs can be realistically build into our classrooms that might contribute to even greater learning and enthusiasm? (with or without the help of technology)