Dancing with Digital Nirvana

I rolled out of bed about three hours late this morning (Only a teacher would call 9:00 late, right?) trying to recover from a bit of a digital hangover! You see, I’ve spent the past two days completely wrapped up in electronic learning experiences with my kids and with the faculty members of my school.

Perhaps most importantly, my students joined George Mayo’s eighth graders and Wendy Drexler’s third graders in raising awareness about Darfur by stimulating some pretty provocative blog comment conversation on Thursday. All together, over 600 students from around the world joined in the dialogue—a pretty impressive effort, considering it was started by a bunch of kids ranging in age from 9 to 14!

I also helped two colleagues on my hallway to use Skype to bring an outside expert into their classrooms on Thursday morning. Turns out, they had a peer at Space Camp in Alabama who was interested in sharing what he was learning with the kids of our building.

After a crash-course in Skyping and a couple of rapid fire web cam installations that would have made a NASCAR pit crew proud, both teachers were able to give their kids a first hand experience with the ways that digital tools can give them access to faraway experts and friends. Considering that one of the teachers had been shouting "I’m Skyping You" across the hallway at me for the past few months, I couldn’t be prouder of her willingness to tackle something new!

I spent most of Thursday afternoon introducing the teachers of our school to what just may become one of the most exciting opportunities our school has ever had. With the help of the Center for International Understanding here in North Carolina, our building has been paired with a Danish middle school. Over time, we’re hoping to give our students chances to create, communicate and collaborate with peers across the Atlantic.

On Friday, I watched proudly as three of my students sat for interviews with our county’s communication staff, who were doing an article on what exactly "21st Century Learning" should look like. My favorite spontaneous quote came from the Flying Onion Boy (the moniker of one of the digital junkies in my classroom): "I like using technology because it just makes the world smaller."

I also answered my own questions in a separate interview for Cable in the Classroom about the ways that Web 2.0 tools can be used to promote new visions of student leadership in our schools. "Leadership is being able to identify and then act on your values," I said. "Web 2.0 tools makes advocacy—an approachable form of action—truly possible for twelve-year olds."

What was even more exciting, though, was that the better part of Friday was spent helping peers in other grade levels and departments think through potential applications for Web 2.0 tools—particularly Voicethread, UStream and Skype—in their own classrooms. Consider some of these developing ideas we’re polishing:

—Our dance teacher wants to use UStream to get students from our school "co-dancing" with students in our sister school in Denmark. She’s envisioning a performance where her students start a dance "in the here and now," and then the projection screen drops to share a live feed of peers in Denmark dancing as well.

(Of course, UStream is currently blocked by our district’s firewall—but that’s a barrier we can probably break down!)

—Our PE staff wants to use Voicethread to engage kids in conversations around the consequences of drug use. They plan to create a presentation that includes quotes from superstars like Marian Jones and Roger Clemens to stimulate thinking about whether or not steroid use has cheapened their achievements. They’re even going to find ways to incorporate video clips of these stars into the presentation—a neat Voicethread feature that I stumbled across this week.

—Our band teacher is planning on using Skype to give his students opportunities to critique—and to be critiqued by—band students at our sister school in Denmark. The tentative plan is to have students record their performance in an MP3 file, post it to a shared blog, assign students a piece to evaluate, then Skype in digital classmates for a feedback session. The best part of the project—giving kids opportunities to articulate what they know about quality musicianship to a real-world audience.

—Our art teacher is considering a collaborative Voicethread project around the core elements of art with her students. After uploading images—whether by professional artists or produced by her own classes—kids will discuss the use of line, color and texture with one another.

An eighth grade teacher and I are planning some joint digital work between our students centered on shared themes in our curriculum—primarily justice and injustice. While her students have become experts on race relations in the United States, my kids are well versed in the conflicts currently raging over immigration in Europe. Putting our students together will give both groups a chance to lead and to be led.

A special programs teacher and I are trying to think through ways to incorporate her kids into our digital efforts. "All too often, my kids are left out of things like this," she said. "That’s something that has to change. How can we get them involved?"

Talk about a whirlwind, huh?!

If we can pull off our projects, we will essentially be redefining the ways that we deliver curriculum to our kids. We’ll be tapping into the innate motivation that technology offers, but more importantly, we’ll be embedding digital experiences into the context of our courses—and that’s as close to digital Nirvana as you can get!

So what lessons have I taken away from this week’s wild ride?

  1. That the motivation offered by digital experiences is a hook that is too important to overlook: Over the past two weeks, my students have blown me away with their work on the Many Voices Darfur project, making 12 incredible contributions to our classroom blog.

    They’ve written open letters to Janjaweed soldiers and to the President of Sudan. They’ve written reflections about the idea of selfishness and about the role that the United States should play in world affairs. They created Public Service Announcements, music videos and Papercraft tutorials. They contributed 70 written comments in a Voicethread presentation that received just under 2,500 views in two weeks time.

    And every bit of this work was completely ungraded and done beyond the school day!

    (When was the last time that your students did this much work willingly without a grade?)

  2. That engaging students in a study of the required elements of our curriculum through technology is not an intimidating or impossible process: In the end, what I’m proudest of about our work during the past few weeks is the fact that everything that we’ve done is inherently connected to the curriculum that I am already supposed to expose my students to!

    Take a look at the writing—and the critical thinking—in all of our final products and try to tell me that they aren’t impressive examples of students who are wrestling with the kinds of expression and global awareness objectives that every state expects students to master. Clearly, digital tools have proven to be worthwhile vehicles for delivering curriculum in my classroom—as opposed to the cute distractions that some critics of digital learning complain about.

  3. That my peers are inventive—and excited about finding ways to make digital learning a part of their curriculum as well: I’ve got to admit that I’ve been a bit of a digital snob for the past few years. I’ve looked down on colleagues who aren’t automatically incorporating technology into their classrooms, assuming that they are too lazy to tackle the kinds of projects that have been a part of my instruction for the past several years.

    I found out on Thursday that nothing could be further from the truth! My colleagues are as jazzed about digital learning opportunities as I am and have incredible ideas burbling in the back of their brains. Like most accomplished teachers, they have an innate ability to translate good teaching to align with any tool and were brainstorming ideas within minutes of learning about the technology that was available to them.

    My role is simply to help them imagine—to show them examples of free services offered to educators, provide some tangible products created by other classes, answer a few technical "how-to" questions and then get out of the way!

    That was a cool discovery for me.

Now can you understand why I overslept this morning?

I’m sure that any of you who have spent significant time with "the mental juices flowing" over several straight days can relate to the complete exhaustion I feel right now. You can probably also relate to the digital-permasmile embedded on my face this morning too!

It was nothing short of an amazing week.

6 comments

  1. Pass the torch

    It sounds like your school is doing some really great stuff. I’m most interested in that which is started by the kids! Well done! (My book on youth empowerment will be released this summer.) Great post.
    Here via COE – my Flat Stanley post was included also.

  2. Pass the torch

    It sounds like your school is doing some really great stuff. I’m most interested in that which is started by the kids! Well done! (My book on youth empowerment will be released this summer.) Great post.
    Here via COE – my Flat Stanley post was included also.

  3. Bob Heiny

    Another good column, Bill. I’m puzzled, though, about Dayyle’s comment: “i suspect that many of our collegues would embrace technology if we just showed them the way.” In the spirit of comity, I don’t know what that means in a world where teachers and others use ubiquitous advanced technologies to complete daily tasks outside of schools. What’s special about using them in schools that requires special instruction beyond what educators like you, Bill, offer for free to anyone who will take the initiative to read your and others blogs?

  4. dayle timmons

    i suspect that many of our collegues would embrace technology if we just showed them the way. I think it’s their lack of confidence with the tools that is much of the problem. How exciting that you are embracing the opportunities! dayle