Saturday, March 22, 2008

Faces Speak a Thousand Words

Terry Smith, fourth grade teacher in Hannibal, Missouri, established a collaboration between his class and students in Australia. What better way to get to know aussies than to taste their favorite treat? Terry's Vegemite Communications video tells the story. But don't stop here-- check out other gems in this busy teacher's treasure chest of imaginative projects.

Find more videos like this on Classroom 2.0

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Big Screen, Big Lessons

What’s your school best known for? Do you have a tradition of excellence that you share with your community or even the larger world?

Next Monday night, a full house is expected at the 1,600-seat Rosebud Theater in Effingham, Ill., for the fifth-annual AHA Film Festival. The event showcases the work of talented young filmmakers from a high school multimedia class (students also plan and organize the festival, learning more real-world skills). It’s a testament to what teachers can accomplish when they give students room to run with their ideas.

The successful program is the brainchild of two award-winning educators, Joe Fatheree from Effingham High and Craig Lindvahl from Teutopolis High. Their schools aren’t even in the same district. Effingham is a small town (pop. 12,000), and Teutopolis is only a fraction of its size. But such factors haven’t stopped these teachers from teaming up to pool resources and creative energies so that students can make real movies about topics that matter to them.

What makes it all worth doing? In a recent discussion about digital storytelling on Spiral Notebook, Fatheree told me about the value of challenging his multimedia students to use higher-order thinking skills for advanced problem solving. He cited more benefits from collaborative learning, project management, and other life skills. He went on: “It will help them develop an entrepreneurial mindset that will prepare them to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Students cannot hide ‘C’ work on a 30-foot screen.”

He's not just talking hypothetically. Fatheree and Lindvahl are also accomplished filmmakers themselves.
This year’s student festival includes documentaries, comedies, animations, music videos. Across all genres, viewers can expect solid storytelling, careful editing, powerful visuals—all skills that students master in the classroom and then take into their own productions. A jury will award one of the entries a grand prize, but it’s easy to see that everybody wins as a result of this tradition.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Watching a Project Unfold

What do the myriad details of project-based learning look like in action? What sorts of questions arise when teachers agree to collaborate for the first time? How do you make sure a project adds up to more than a series of engaging activities?

The answers should become more clear in coming weeks, thanks to a dynamic high school math teacher who has agreed to open a window on her next project, from start to finish.

Jane and I met Telannia Norfar Thursday night during a conference call organized by Sarah McPherson, discussion leader for ISTE's SigTE book study group. Telannia told us about a class she teaches called Logic, Inc. She's the CEO. Students take turns sharing management responsibilities as they work on real-world applications of mathematics.

Telannia suggested that teachers would benefit from watching a project unfold--from initial idea through collaborative planning to implementation with students and engagement with experts. We agreed, and she gamely offered up her next project as a real-life, real-time demonstration.

Will it get messy? Maybe. Will everything unfold according to plan? Probably not. Will it be worth watching? I think so.

Already, Telannia is showing us some of the qualities that PBL teachers tend to exhibit. She's willing to try new ideas to meet her students' learning needs. She came to teaching after earlier careers in journalism and telecommunications. So she knows from experience that projects aren't just an interesting idea in education; they're how the real world operates. And she wants to make sure her students are ready and able to participate in life after high school.

I'll be checking in often to watch her next project unfold. (Her students will be blogging about their experience, too.) Stay tuned for updates.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Where Teachers are Entrepreneurs

Recent press about high test scores for students in Finland has many wondering what secrets we can learn from the Finns. In eSchool News, this story about an international delegation organized by the Consortium for School Networking emphasizes Finland’s emphasis on project-based learning and teacher autonomy.

The Wall Street Journal (in “What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?” ) describes a Finnish approach to learning that’s “simple but not easy,” emphasizing “well-trained teachers and responsible children.” What does this look like in action? As WSJ reports:
Finnish teachers pick books and customize lessons as they shape students to national standards. "In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs," says (Andreas) Schleicher of the Paris-based OECD, which began the international student test in 2000.

One more factor is worth nothing: teacher collaboration. Our research about real-world project based learning led us to interview a cross-grade teaching team from Oulu, Finland, about the development of a project to foster inquiry among primary students. Teachers wanted to encourage young students to pay attention and ask questions about the real world, so they had them use camera phones (ubiquitous in this mobile-phone-loving country) to snap photos en route to school. One student team got curious about local recycling habits and used their photos (along with GPS and a networked learning environment) to gather more data. They wound up advising the school on how to expand its recycling efforts—applying their understanding to an authentic problem. Pasi Mattila, one of the teachers who designed the project, calls this kind of approach “meaningful and motivating learning.”

If students grow accustomed to learning that is meaningful and motivating right from the primary grades, it shouldn't surprise anyone when they continue to excel academically as teens.