Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Contextual and Authentic

I’m working with a new group of collaborators who happen to be in the fourth and fifth grade.

Nine to eleven year olds from the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School ( are creating a book based on some kids’ poems I wrote decades ago and are illustrating them and publishing them and selling them and creating a marketing plan around our work. Eventually, they will use what they’ve created as a fundraiser for their school.

These students are participating in a new form of learning that involves a mentoring relationship, new classroom roles, and embedded virtual learning. I’ve been able to Skype with them, email feedback about their work, and create additional learning “side trips” based on in the moment opportunities.

Their art teacher, Shana Gutterman-, their classroom teacher, Stephanie Teitelbaum-,  their Learning Coach, Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano-, and I virtually collaborated on the development of this project, via Skype, email, and Twitter. We came up with objectives and lesson activities and planned virtual sessions. We had a modern learning plan in place and launched our project with the intent of changing the level of engagement and learning with students.

Then, we discovered something. Something big.

Because of the depth of instruction and the built in time to negotiate new roles for the students and the upgrade of seeing themselves as collaborators rather than passive learners, we struck oil! Silver! Gold! Students began to self identify interests that were related to their planned learning and lead us down paths of unplanned learning that enriched the designed project.

While students were working on designing pictures to accompany poems in a book for multiple audiences, they also opened up cans of worms that were unforeseen in the curriculum design. These were some of the “teachable moments” the “side trips” that came out of our collaborative work:

  • Students learned new contextually specific vocabulary words such as emphatic, explicitly, iteration, synesthesia, and negative space.
  • Students were invited to investigate the meaning of “chiaroscuro” as it related to contrasting elements in their illustrations.
  • Beyond the chiaroscuro investigation, they were invited to read a book, The Tale of Despereaux, which explores chiaroscuro as a metaphor for the characters and action.
  • Students were asked to investigate and learn about Grandma Moses and art techniques that involved the layering of backgrounds and foreground elements in a painting.
  • Students learned about warm and cool feedback and improvement for the sake of the team versus just getting good grades.
  • They learned to articulate the reasoning behind the “why” of what they were doing and to be as specific as possible in deciding why their illustrations were a good fit for the poem’s text. They did this both with me and their peers, which I personally think is hugely significant. Once again: their peers helped to inform their improvements.
  • They became open to suggestions that were rooted in improvement versus identifying what was wrong with their work. This positive take on “doing what’s best for the intended audience” was a huge shift in meaning making.
  • They learned that its okay to explore different interest areas that were outside of the intended learning, particularly with one student that wanted to create his own comic books. We were able to have a conversation about the usage of Comic Life on the iPad to start designing his own graphic novels.
  • They learned to respond to different types of feedback from their formal teacher, their virtual collaborator, and their peers as they shaped their work.

I would also like to add that the students referred to me as their collaborator; that the work we were doing was OUR work. I loved that. I also loved that their classroom roles included roles like “Skype coordinator,” “Twitter Expert,” and “Illustrative Notes Expert.” So far beyond “Reader,” “Writer,” and “Notetaker.”

Authentic learning experiences that ask students to be part of the instructional design process AND the product are critical in the modern learning classroom. Student-centered work becomes student-owned learning even if teachers maintain an instructional anchor. In this case, the anchor was the product: the book. Everyone is contributing to it, though in multiple ways and with multiple extensions around their individual learning.

I should also mention that this project, because of the level of collaboration between teachers and students, was not a neatly contained event. It took some time to develop, to interact, to collaborate both virtually and in person, and even after these several weeks, the students are just now gearing up to start working on the marketing plan. As teachers, we had to find a new common ground of comfort when balancing the time it takes to do something like this with the deep learning that was possible.

Also, if you’d like to look at the project from several points of view--there’s a lot of blogging going on around it:

Learning in the Modern Classroom - by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano
Assessment in the Modern Classroom - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 - also by Silvia

Student Blogs:
And my favorite on vocabulary: Wacky Wacky Words!

Needless to say--but I’m REALLY proud of my collaborators! I will be presenting with them at EdJEWcon in Jacksonville, Florida in a couple of weeks. I couldn’t be more excited to finally meet them in person and see our finished product! I’d also like to say Thank You to Shana, Stephanie, and Silvia for all of the great professional collaboration.

Upgrade Your Curriculum - Now available from ASCD

Picture from Pixabay

No comments:

Post a Comment