"How to Showcase an Army of Talent Through Tech Projects”

How to Showcase an Army of Talent Through Tech Projects

By John Hardison (Twitter @JohnHardison1)

(Originally published at www.gettingsmart.com)

Just last week I was fumbling through a cupboard spilling over with drinking glasses and java cups, and I found myself staring at a coffee mug that was given to me many years ago. It reads "The three biggest reasons to teach: June, July, & August." I giggled to myself at the absurdity of the written words. First of all, what happened to three months?
Secondly, I detest that coffee cup. In fact, I never drink from it. Deferring to the unwritten "gift" rule, I am simply unable to discard someone’s present to me, although it embodies the total opposite of how I feel about my job as a high school Language Arts educator in an interactive and collaborative classroom. It has been roughly three weeks since the last students walked out of our classroom, and I absolutely miss them all. I miss their creativity, their hilarious comments, their budding brilliance, and their authentic and innocent unknowing. In short, I miss school.
However, being the diehard optimist that I am, I choose to use the summer as a chance to step back and reflect on the classroom-learning environment I participate in creating. My reflections have led me to a plan of action for one particular area needing improvement, a professional weakness rooted in control.
Project-Based Learning With Technology Threatens the Illusion of Classroom Control and Empowers the “Army of Talent”
Let's face it. The illusion of control is a driving force in many teachers' daily plans. The fear of losing a classroom of energetic students due to lack of control appears real. I suffer from the same angst at times. So with the overwhelming growth of all things deemed educational technology, project based learning, flipped classrooms, and many other new shifts in the teaching profession, my initial reaction was quite common. I was afraid. How do I stay abreast of new apps, web-based resources, and current trends that have students naturally leading their own learning? I asked myself this very question many times during the past school year.
I felt I was standing in the octagon awaiting a duel with Bruce Lee, Jason Bourne, Clint Eastwood, and Rocky Balboa, all at the same time, with the terrifying, "Let's get ready to rumble!" from Michael Buffer ringing in my ears. I was up against a seemingly insurmountable task. Like always, I simply sought to engage my students by making the latest technology available for project assignments, but with AP Language essays to grade, engaging lesson plans to create, professional meetings to attend, and interactive classroom learning structures to implement, I struggled to keep up with the lightning-fast proliferation of educational technology.
My sense of control was quickly fleeting. Even with the on going nurturing of my infantile, professional learning network through Twitter, I desperately needed one of two things: twenty-eight hour day or consistent help from very knowledgeable minds. With the unfading concept of synergy lifting me up and by natural default of my two options, I have chosen the latter.
In my fourteen years of teaching, I have witnessed classroom after classroom of creative and lively teenagers peering back at me for direction and learning management. Musicians, artists, writers, actors, techies, athletes, orators, charismatic leaders, and many other gifted students have blessed our classrooms with their presence. So, if Wikipedia defines synergy as “two or more things functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable,” naturally I must turn to my one saving grace to my classroom full of students - the “Army of Talent.”
In order to successfully and efficiently utilize all creative resources available to me, I have devised a plan that will ultimately add “incredibly” to an already “awesome class.” It is a plan to systematically and continually grow a repository of video tutorials that students and teachers can access to support and strengthen their assigned curriculum. And here it is…
Leverage Google Drive and Webmix to Create Personalize Projects
Step one consists of establishing an immediate connection with my students through . Think of it like this: all thriving businesses share the common tenet that accurate feedback from their customers is invaluable. How is this any different than education? After all, aren’t our students the customers? Absolutely. Can I get an “Amen?”
With this in mind, I will continue to ask the “customers” to contribute to a prefabricated survey in Google Drive that collects data on all pertinent student information. I implemented a similar form last year, but my questionnaire categories were not precise enough. This new survey, which can be easily shared via e-mail, Twitter, or a teacher’s webpage, contains prompts ranging from students’ self-evaluations of skills such as acting, writing, leadership, and technology prowess to more writing-intensive cues that invite students to divulge their personal interests, hobbies, and talents. Of course, I always ask students if they own smartphones, tablets, or any other mobile devices that could augment the classroom-learning environment.
Perhaps the most important prompt, one that confronts the current malaise caused by lack of time versus the tech gadgets explosion, is the last survey request that leads students to my to review resources for project based learning. After perusing this evolving collection of links, students are asked to choose a technology tool they either have presently mastered or one they would be willing to learn for the betterment of our collaborative, learning family. If a resource is not listed on the webmix, students are encouraged to suggest other alternative tasks or additional tools to be added. Hopefully, this survey will stand as the foundation for an engaging classroom of shared knowledge.
No longer will I learn in the final three weeks of school that the quiet John Doe student sitting in the back of the room is actually a young guitarist who can play out any Eric Clapton riff upon request. No longer will I wait until the last month of the school year to learn that Justin X. Ample is a young and promising Steven Spielberg. No longer. With the Army of Talent assessed and assembled, I will now kick-start week one with an establishment of priceless familiarity that acts as a springboard into phase two of the plan.
Use Screencasting to Capture and Create New Learning
To me, the next step is powerful and theoretically simple, yet it tap-dances on the nerve of teacher control once again. However, the legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson states that a true leader, one who strives daily to have his students think for themselves and see life as constant learning, is oftentimes “invisible.” With this paradoxical notion in mind, screencasting and video recording are the answers to this overstressed nerve.
After downloading the survey from Google Drive as an Excel spreadsheet and studying the students’ feedback and suggestions, I will spend the next few weeks implementing and encouraging a routine that allows for students to work on screencasting sessions in a rotational, blended learning structure while completing their literature assignments. Using or software from and only when it specifically applies to class assignments, students will create video tutorials roughly three-five minutes in length that guide their peers through previously unknown technological terrain. If students’ demonstrations don’t involve sharing a screen or the concepts somehow require an external recording devices, video cameras, smartphones, tablets, and other recording gadgets are useable.
Many writing, editing, speaking, and presentation skills will be utilized to construct effective and concise video tutorials. Perhaps my hardest task during these times of creation is to manage, curate, and ultimately harness the collective power derived from the students’ shared expertise. Isn’t this an excellent problem to have? To expedite the process, I will continue to open my classroom doors before class hours, after school, and, when appropriate, during my planning period.
As I have learned with many of our students’ projects over the years, an engaged and appreciated Army of Talent will find the time and place to create authentic examples of knowledge. Whether it’s at home, in the school’s computer lab, or patiently waiting at my door at 7:15 a.m., students will find a way. This yearlong process of creating and collecting video tutorials is limited only by one’s imagination.
Students can create tutorials that showcase the construction and editing portions of an essay, guide others through a powerful vlogging site like Voicethread, or demonstrate how to drop a newscast background into a video using Chroma-key technology. The tutorials could be as simple as a thirty-second video that reveals the correct way to insert a header for an MLA paper, or they could be as complex as dropping a pre-recorded MP4 file over a muted video segment in MovieMaker Live. Whatever the tutorial may be, several things are certain: the process will be empowering, and it will certainly ask the teacher to relinquish the illusion of control and participate as a knowledge-hungry student at times.
Create a Video Repository For Future Learning Reference
The final phase, storing the tutorial in a video repository, is one that must be discussed with a school technology or media specialist, and depending on your district’s technology status, a number of possibilities exist. In its simplest form, a video repository could be organized on a shared classroom computer through the organization of a folder system. Aptly named tutorials would be placed in appropriately labeled folders. Compare it to putting up the laundry. The socks go in the socks drawer. Simple.
However, other districts may elect to store tutorials in an area more accessible by a multitude of students and teachers. A video gallery on the school’s website would be perfect, and any additions to the repository could be submitted to a media or technology specialist. Of course, there are numerous options ranging from a YouTube channel to a school’s shared network drive. Whatever the situation, a technology specialist will easily point you in the right direction.
Please don’t misunderstand me. This plan is not in lieu of the mandated curriculum. Preparing students for the Advanced Placement Language Exam and studying American Literature is and always will be the primary focus of our classes. The video tutorials will simply accelerate many assignments. Think on it. How many times have you been asked the same technology question when assisting a class of diligent workers with their projects? Instead of repeating the mind-numbing answer multiple times, a teacher could remind students of the video repository where they could view a classmate’s steps in delivering a coherent, thesis-driven speech, or they could study a team of teenage writers as they render their interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” in a totally authentic rap song through Mixcraft software. Again, the possibilities are limitless.
Sure, naysayers might say, “There are many tutorials already on the internet. Why reinvent the wheel?” My answer? I want our students to be leaders who spearhead any new challenge with gusto. They should seek to create, to be original, to think forwardly. If a certain video tutorial already exists on the Internet, students may choose to improve it in the name of efficiency and clarity. If our students have an amazing idea coupled with doubt, they should fearlessly dive headfirst into making that vision a reality.
Finally, some educators will argue over the extra time needed to curate an endless video repository. However, I don’t see it that way. I see efficiency, classroom ownership, an effervescent learning atmosphere, true mastery and understanding of the standards, endless creativity, and time well spent. Besides, I would rather manage students’ excitement and energy stemming from an engaging classroom than to discipline boredom’s evil offspring…student misbehavior.
After eight weeks of refreshing and reflecting in the summer sun, I will definitely be ready for day one of the upcoming school year. No doubt I will stare into the next ten months and see before me an intimidating array of challenges. Although it may feel like I am preparing for a bareknuckle brawl with Bruce Lee, Jason Bourne, Clint Eastwood, and Rocky Balboa all at the same time, I will remember to rely on the Army of Talent and defeat my nemesis, the illusion of control. And it really doesn’t matter to me if the leader is invisible.
Works Cited
• Jackson, Phil, and Hugh Delehanty. "The Invisible Leader." Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. New York: Hyperion, 2006. 147-68. Print.
• "Synergy." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 June 2012. Web. 17 June 2012. .

"Blended Learning & Classroom Magic"

A "blended learning classroom" is erroneously becoming synonymous with a "21st century tech room." This is not always so. Blended learning can occur (and often does) without the slightest hint of technology. Through interesting classroom learning designs and structures, a creative and flexible atmosphere of collaborative learners can create "classroom magic," with or without technology.

"The Pivotal Moment That Took My Literature Teaching Digital"

"The Pivotal Moment That Took My Literature Teaching Digital" by John Hardison (@JohnHardison1 & @Studio113_EHHS)

This blog was originally published on Gettingsmart.com.

I looked up from my grade book and stack of essays one day during my first year teaching to witness my class of thirty students all totally quiet with their books opened to the appropriate page. After all, they had their assignments, so shouldn’t they be quietly reading and ingesting the unbelievably compelling piece of literature before them? Wrong!
They were quiet for a reason. Probably half of them were asleep, and the others were respectfully fighting back the continual head drops. Well, it flew all over me. I asked myself what kind of teacher I wanted to be right there. The answer was quite visual.
I pictured nearly every one of my past Language Arts teachers. The exact antithesis of those models was my answer. I didn’t want to sit behind a desk and discuss the excitement of literature with a contradictory monotone style. No way.
I wanted to be engaging, interesting, challenging, creative, innovative, and connected, so I hopped up, snapped them out of their boredom-induced lethargy, and implemented something I knew would surely rejuvenate them: An improvisational skit from Whose Line Is It Anyway? that was directly connected to our assigned fiction to be performed on the other side of a Sony Cybershot.
Before I knew it, the class could hardly hold back the laughter. Characters came to life. Settings were realistic with vivid colors and images. The story line was undeniable. All I had to do was insert the literary terms, and the students ran with creativity. When the bell rang, a collective “Ahhhhhh!” resonated in the classroom.
The next day I played the videos from the Cybershot as a review and as a class starter. They were enthralled and absolutely ready to dive back into the novel. I realized at that moment the exact class I wanted to be a part of – a class where literature creatively comes to life with students as the stars. A simple Sony Cybershot was pivotal. The students absolutely loved seeing themselves in action. Since that day in ‘98, I have eagerly looked forward to any new technology that would enhance the classroom learning experience. We have never looked back.
Students must be continually valued as a vital part of the collaborative learning process. The “sage on the stage” mode of teaching is not nearly as effective as enlisting an army of students, heavily furnished with a bulk of challenging standards to be mastered, to go into the digital world and assess the videos, media, applications, etc. that will so easily merge with class assignments as a tangible, real-world concept, problem, or solution.
Students then have a piece of the class ownership. They realize their thoughts and connections matter and directly apply to present day situations and personal interests. Through every validated student’s voice, the class is authentically exposed to a variety of cultures and learning techniques.
An open-project contract has been very successful in our classroom. Though we don’t implement it all the time, our students oftentimes have the opportunity to propose a creative project idea for an assigned list of standards. It goes like this:
1. I assign the list of standards to be mastered in a unit.
2. After analyzing, reviewing, and discussing these standards and their accompanying literature through a number of original classroom structures, students choose from the list of project options or they propose an original idea to me.
3. The students and I discuss the details and requirements of the project. This includes materials needed, technology issues, and possible out-of-class time needed.
4. The contract is signed. The freedom to choose how to master the standards immediately draws the students in to the standards and literature. Their own interests connect them to the assignment. This connection is the very foundation of showcasing students’ artistic, technological, and musical skills.
Here are a few excellent videos my students have created in the last year:
I am a curious student at heart, so I naturally investigate any new item that could move our students forward. However, the greatest factor in my professional motivation would undoubtedly be the privilege of witnessing high-level mastery of the assigned standards through students’ unique, creative, and talented presentations. Furthermore, the energy of a creative, energetic, and free-thinking class is contagious. I get caught up in the same energy and find myself ecstatic to begin the day’s presentations. I sometimes don’t know what to expect.
I believe a bottomless well of creativity is within every student. Today’s students, being digital natives, normally choose to express their knowledge in tech-savvy ways. They learn in a very unique way. We, as professional educators, must take note and forever be students incessantly seeking to interest our customers, the students.

"No Enclosures: Creating the Environment for Summer Learning"

The other morning I walked into my son's room to wake him up, and I discovered a notebook full of detailed plans and drawings for a small, rudimentary chicken coop.  This was not my first time to find my son's ideas and plans for some creative project lying out in the open for anyone to view. It is quite customary to find my twelve year-old son's YouTube-tutorial-led drawings and paintings strewn about the room like some unorganized studio for an up-and-coming new artist, and it is not uncommon to read one of his unfinished short stories inspired by a sleepless night where he wrestled with heavy eyelids and a mind overflowing with imaginative thoughts.  Knowledge and originality seem to pour from him, and inspiration and curiosity are his companions.  One is the match and the others the flame, but I have no proof to determine which one first acts as the impetus for such an expression of talent and creativity.  Whether he is tweeting, posting to Instagram, practicing a musical instrument, annihilating Rosetta Stone lessons, or teaching himself some new web-based tool, my son represents perpetual learning and inquiry. 

And what about my eight year-old daughter?  The same.  Although she is soaking up Spanish through Rosetta Stone like a porous sponge dropped into a bucket of fresh water, my daughter's path to creativity is a tad different than my son's. In a nutshell, my daughter is an athlete.  She is a 57-pound body of fast-twitch muscles and kinesthetic simplicity.  She watches a friend work three softball pitching drills and then flawlessly reproduces the tedious skills needed to accomplish the tasks and successfully release a fastball in windmill fashion. Recently, when asked to try switch hitting, my blonde, curly headed daughter jumped on the left side of the plate and mirrored her accomplished right-handed swing.  Not perfectly but quite impressive for the first time.  Now, don't misunderstand me.  My daughter possesses a wide-range of skills, too.  Her "teaching" lessons to her classroom of stuffed animals are unquestionably rigorous and authentic.  Although I have yet to hear one of her "students" respond to her questions, she definitely runs a classroom that is structured, inspiring, accountable, and tech-integrated with devices like Wi-fi enabled iPads and iPods.

So, as I sat staring at my son's chicken coop plans that morning and wondering how to make his dream a reality in a covenanted subdivision, I was reminded of a recurring educational topic of discussion this month: "How do we continue students' learning through the summer break?" I was quickly reminded of a tweet quoting Lao Tzu that said, "To lead the people, walk behind them." Since I am blessed to spend so much time with my kids during the summer, I am certainly an educational leader to them.  Just like at work, I constantly ask myself, "What learning environment am I creating for my two kids?" I frequently wonder what interests them, while eagerly hoping they will share those passions with me. 

Naturally, when my son produces a three-page guidebook on constructing a beginner's chicken coop, I follow.  When my daughter sends me, the self-promoted principal at her make-believe school, out of her classroom as she delivers an engaging lesson to Maximus the horse, Katie the Cabbage Patch doll, a fuzzy lion, a green tiger, and other stuffed animals, I obey.  When my son asks question after question during a mature, thought-provoking movie, I stop, listen, and follow his lead through a mesmerizing volley of inquisitive wonderings that ultimately leave most pre-conceived notions in the past.  And when my daughter "feels" her way through a strongly executed swing by closing her front side down, spinning on her back foot to drive with her hips, and firing her hands to drop the barrel on the ball, I shut up, ready myself for another soft toss, and listen as she leads me through her learning. 

To be quite honest, I struggle with this month's predominant, educational theme.  "How do we continue students' learning through the summer break?" Perhaps it's as simple as creating an environment of autonomy that allows students to explore their own interests.  Perhaps learning will simply "just happen."  Maybe it is comparable to breathing...effortless and seemingly incessant.  Maybe they have waited patiently for ten months to study their personal interests.  I really don't know.  However, I do know this: one question I don't seek the answer for is "How do you stop students' summer learning?" Beats me.  I will be too busy attempting to tear down any enclosures that rob my kids of the freedom to lead their own summer education.  After all, I simply want to follow.

(also published at http://gettingsmart.com/blog/2012/06/no-enclosures-creating-the-environment-for-summer-learning/)

"What is cognitive rigor?"

My good friend and colleague Greg O'Dell recently tweeted an interesting question: “@ugaodawg: What is your personal definition of 'cognitive rigor' as it relates to instruction, learning, and/or assessment?”

I definitely want to give the question more to time to resonate. However, my knee-jerk reaction produced this definition: cognitive rigor- the challenging of students' thinking processes and original ideas through realistic and energetic application of the assigned curriculum while hoping those brilliantly minded thinkers eventually arrive at their own hearts.

...more to come

"A Student in Flight"

“A Student in Flight”

By John Hardison

(follow me on Twitter @JohnHardison1)

Opportunities to be a student are everywhere, every day. By accepting an impromptu flying invitation the other night, I was reminded of the state of education as seen through my students' eyes. Please stick with me until the landing of this essay and you'll see, too.

Just the other night my next door neighbor texted me with an alarming, "Hey, you wanna go fly for awhile?" No doubt I had to do a double-take, and then I quickly texted back two, monosyllabic words to convey my enthusiasm.  The local airport was literally two miles away, so we were opening the hangar doors in no time.  My neighbor, a newly licensed pilot for all of a month, walked me through the pre-flight inspection, and being the incessant seeker of knowledge that I am, I soaked it all up. I was ecstatic as I followed my young, but confident, first-month pilot and stepped up on the wing of the Piper Cherokee 140, a late '60s plane that had been meticulously restored to a polished white with navy blue trim.  Being a buck seventy and 5'9", there is no doubt I could be mistaken for Captain Average, but I felt like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as I sat down in the tiny, four-seat cabin.  I was resting my butt in a closet with wings. My trusty pilot, Nick, continued to teach me about his 1,300 lb. toy and all of its gauges.  I was mesmerized.  Enthralled. The hook was in me.  I swear I remember every word he said and what each gauge represented.  My iPhone 4S was burning hot as I was snapping pictures, narrating videos, texting my family to prepare them for the fly-over, and, of course, tweeting to the world (or to my slowly burgeoning group of following colleagues) my newest adventure.  If I would have remembered, I would have started a new Evernote book of facts. Lord knows I was quickly retaining a catalog of pilot's terms.  The always exciting, and sometimes bumpy, takeoff was next. With a radio headset covering my ears, a padded microphone comfortably perched on my bottom lip, and my reliable, handheld fruit computer recording any personal hints of trepidation, we effortlessly lifted off the ground and into a sea of air.  Calm and exhilarating.  All at once. We quickly reached a cruising speed of about 120 MPH, but it felt like we were floating at 5.  I had to quickly snap out of my hypnotic trance as we did a quick flyover to wing-wave at my family below, which surely induced a bit of fear-based adrenaline from my 7-year-old daughter. Even high above I could see her Shirley Temple curls. As we climbed a bit higher, Nick managed to continue his confident delivery of terminology and proper flying procedures just before he mentioned the 2G roll.  By this time, I was taking in all the sights.  The trees. The local prison. Yonah Mountain. The ball field lights as the sun slowly began to set and give way to manmade illumination. Heck, even the golden arches of Mickey D's. All sights merged together on a canvas that could only be imagined, or seen, at 2500 feet. At about this time, the paint on my mental canvas began to run a tad as Nick began a 2G roll.  I guess that's when it registered that 2G was 2 x the force of gravity.  Rolling ever so painfully to my right with my shoulder against the vibrating door, my head morphed into a cranium full of rattling bricks. I was nauseous and felt like I was about to blow chunks.  "Nick, dude, you gotta roll back out. This is tough, brother." Being the polite host of the flying aluminum can, Nick leveled the plane and gave me a few seconds to regroup.  My senses weren't far behind the leveling of the plane. 

My equilibrium returned to normal levels and the contents of my stomach slowly settled.  I was comfortable, and in awe, again.  Nick's voice interrupted my musings."All right, now, see the rudder pedals at your feet?" I nodded."Well," he continued, "press the right pedal and watch what is does." I complied. "Now, try the left. See?"  I realized what I had heard so numerously about small engine planes on the tarmac...you steer with your feet.  Pretty cool stuff, I thought.

But it was nothing compared to what happened next. After a quick recap tutorial on some of the gauges and the actions of the yoke, or control column, Nick turned the control of the plane over tome.  "It's all yours," he said.  "Play as much as you want. Just pick out a benchmark ahead and go towards it."

I did as he asked. Yonah Mountain. Cleveland, Georgia. About 3,000 feet high.  Much higher than we were in the plane.  This local landmark offers visitors a challenging hike to the rock-faced apex, a location used also by thrill-seeking rappellers. With a few minor adjustments, I had the plane headed towards this mountain I had already trekked once before but had desperately longed to conquer again ever since. I pulled back on the yoke, and the plane climbed high and fast.  With a sudden but innocent push on the yoke, the plane dropped its nose so quickly I was reminded of that jumping gut sensation produced by any kick-butt rollercoaster. The entire time Nick laughed, smiled, taught and completely supported me as I respectfully, and cautiously, played with the plane. 

My navigating experience probably lasted all of five minutes, but it felt like an hour.  My senses were heightened the entire time, and I was totally engaged. 

Even though I never made it to the majestic Yonah Mountain (partly because of the distance required and the overwhelming reality that we would have created a small, white blemish on the side of my chosen benchmark), the short plane ride was a monumental lesson for an educator of fourteen years.  Nothing that happened after I released the control column registered with nearly the same magnitude.  Not the descent towards the runway as the sun faded in the west. Not the awkwardly bumpy landing guided by a novice pilot. Not the tarmac taxi via the rudder pedals.

In fact, I felt as if I finally landed and made a smooth transition the next day when I stepped into Studio 113, an interactive Language Arts classroom equipped with a centered, hexagonal stage, a rudimentary recording studio, flush-mounted ceiling speakers, Chroma-key painted walls, and an adjacent mini-lab of eight computers.  In essence, our Language Arts classroom is a learning environment that seeks to bring literature to life by using the creative intuition of the talented students.  Basically in Studio 113, as the students have dubbed it, any problem/project based assignment is doable when coupled with students’ inspiration, creativity, and personal interests.  On any given presentation day in this creative classroom, students and educators navigate through a number of creative presentations that range from web-based projects such as Glogster, Prezi,Weebly, Voki, Twitter, ToonDoo, Animoto, Xtranormal, and many others to non-web-based creations like improvisational/parodiable skits, authentically written songs, traditional paintings and drawings, and a variety of persuasively motivated projects created through a diversity of movie-making software.  In this shared and very collaborative classroom, the students’ resourcefulness is limited only by their imaginations.

Just like my next-door neighbor so smoothly and uncannily guided me through a quick, but appropriately concise, tutorial on the ins-and-outs of flight navigation, my approach as an interactive language arts instructor is oftentimes the same. The students and I introduce the proposed standards and objectives to the new unit of study and begin to ask pivotal questions like, “How does this unit relate to me and my world?” We immediately make an attempt to connect the proposed unit to each student.  After all, if students don’t see the upcoming lessons as relevant, what’s the point?  Within the first couple of classroom hours, we seek to dive directly into the unit by allowing the literature to showcase the mastery and brilliance of words that inspire, entertain, and ultimately prompt students to question and challenge their world.  Don’t be mistaken, however.  This process is never inactive or strictly sedentary.  Very similar to the demanding and complete involvement during my first piloting experience, students become actively engaged through a variety of authentic learning structures that require attention, comprehension, teamwork, spontaneity, and accountability.  With or without technology, these structures or learning models allow the students to collectively take control of the reins while a seasoned instructor stands nearby and properly guides them through any difficult questions.  The powerful structures are as diverse as their names.  Ranging from “The ChosenOnes” to “Random Chaos” to “Stage Fright” to “Flip Forum with Silent Discussion and Unaware Speaker” to “TNT,” each model serves as a separate gauge or instrument to measure students’ levels of understanding and interest.  In essence, it’s “Playschool” with balanced structure and organization, and just like Nick, I laugh, smile, teach, challenge and completely support the talented students as they energetically analyze and play with the literature and standards.

After revisiting our classroom approach for the entire school year, perhaps I have landed at the impetus of my frustration at semester’s end. It is this. While administering the American Literature End-of-Course-Test, many students caught my attention while they were working through the state exam.  Being the hard-working students they are, they hunkered down and white-knuckled the exam.  They had worked hard all year.  Habit took over now.  However, something was missing.  Something we had witnessed all year as a class, as a learning family.  As I walked around the classroom to proctor the exam, the students’ faces told the truth.  I witnessed lack of engagement and undeniable boredom. The students’ sighs and shoulder shrugs seemed to exhale and release any frustration, and although the EOCT definitely asks the students to read and comprehend while demonstrating understanding of key standards and objectives, it fails to measure certain critical skills needed for future employment in an expanding world economy. These include collaboration, technical knowledge and efficiency, writing prowess and perhaps the most important aspect of all…innovation.

As I slowly and quietly meandered through the many tables and learning stations in our classroom, I observed many apathetic test-takers. However, one student seized my attention.  I can’t erase his expression. With a sluggish lifting of his head, I witnessed that he was undeniably losing the fight against H.E.S. (Heavy Eyelids Syndrome).  He hadn’t seen me watching him fight through the test.  He batted his eyes, shook his head, and exhaled a long, therapeutic breath that nearly parted the hair of his peer sitting directly across the table. But with a sudden shift in focus, he seemed to notice me for the first time.  His eyes met mine, and I witnessed a look, a stare, that I not seen from him all year.  Although we looked at each other, we were undoubtedly centered on a shared challenge. I immediately recognized the message revealed with those glazed eyes, numb from multiple choice questioning, and I believe we saw the exact same thing. After flying high all year long with active learning environments and creative and expressive projects, we both saw in the distance and on the horizon a scholarly mountain we both wanted to climb. Instead, the completion of the exam beckoned, and he was forced to turn away.