Doing School Differently to Ignite Student Innovation

While many other teachers across the country enjoyed one more day of summer break in mid-July, thirty some teachers, three school administrators, Morehead Writing Project’s director Deanna Mascle, and teacher-leader extraordinaire Liz Prather gathered  in Bath County Middle School’s library in Owingsville, Kentucky.  Normally, teacher PD’s wouldn’t occur for another couple of weeks; yet, here we were gathered together over donuts and fruit trays ready to kick off our first professional development day of the 2017/2018 school year.  Why so early?  

The answer is positive change.  Our school was awarded one of ten Educator Innovator grants this year.  After learning about this in May, it was time to roll up our sleeves and prepare to launch our project for the upcoming school year.

This opportunity was a direct result of Deanna Mascle’s vision.  As site director of the Morehead Writing Project, she has worked with many of Bath County Middle School’s teachers over the last decade.  Many teachers from the school had taken  Morehead Writing Project’s Summer Institute.  Often, those teachers become involved in leadership opportunities offered through the Morehead Writing Project.  So when Deanna saw the grant, she immediately thought of our school as a place where this opportunity would be embraced by the staff.  She was right.  

She pitched the idea to several leaders at our school, the proposal was written, and the rest is history. Funded and supported by the National Writing Project, John Legend’s Show Me Campaign, the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation, and Collective Shift (lrng.org), this grant will change the way Bath County Middle School students learn this year, and teachers at our middle school were eager to get started…so eager that they were willing to meet on a 90 degree day from eight to three to make Genius Hour a reality for our students.

Here is a brief overview of our project:

Making A Future for All: Connecting Passion To Profession

Owingsville, KY

After engaging in a wide range of opportunities to imagine diverse professional paths and investigate their personal interests and academic work, the students at Bath County Middle School in Owingsville, Kentucky, will design, develop, and create passion projects. The students will work both  the classroom and out in the community to learn skills that support their passions and professional futures. Working collaboratively with near peers in high school, students will create a range of multimodal projects, from websites to video games to podcasts. The year-long investigation and creation process will culminate with a block party showcasing the projects to local elementary students and the wider community.

I was excited about this opportunity for our school, which serves anywhere from 475 to 550 students in our county depending upon the year; but, I didn’t fully realize the potential impact this grant could have on the future of this rural county that has lost much of the industry it once sustained.  Tobacco farming is not as profitable as it used to be.  Residents often seek employment opportunities in surrounding counties.  In short, there are few job opportunities within the county.

My epiphany of what this grant could bring to Bath county took place after attending a National Writing Project conference last week in Denver, Colorado with Deanna Mascle and Liz Prather. We were invited to write a monograph to help other writing project sites develop an online writing project summer institute, an exciting opportunity in itself.  But the conference also gave me a chance connect with 60 other passionate educators from a number of states across the country.  There were five or six past recipients of LRNG grants at the convention, and after talking with them about their projects impacted their students and communities, I saw how this grant could not only transform my students’ lives but  the community I serve as well.  It was then that I realized that the students of Bath County could be the most effective innovators in the county.   

Bath County is different from any other places I have taught. Small communities are knitted together by an intense love of God, the land, and tradition. The people in this area protect their way of life with admirable ferocity. Change doesn’t come easily to the generations of people who have made their home in the foothills of the Daniel Boone National Forest.  Family cemeteries evidence the deep connection between place and family.  I feel unqualified to share their stories, but as a teacher in the area for the last 11 years, I appreciate the values of the people who live here.  

Because of these values, there is often a nervous trepidation that sets in when change is suggested.  While people in the community want the area to grow enough to provide viable employment opportunities for their children, many don’t want it to grow so much that big city problems impact their way of life.   

A perfect example of this delicate dance occurred this summer when an initiative to legalize the sale of alcohol in the county was placed on the ballot.  The wet/dry vote evenly split many people into two camps as witnessed by the “Vote No – Do it for the Community. Do it for the Kids”  and  “Vote Yes for Progress” signs that dotted lawns up and down the hill on KY-36 and along both sides of Main Street in Owingsville.  The community ultimately voted to keep Bath County dry, but only by about 40 votes.  People in the area know job opportunities are needed but seem unsure of how best to meet that need.

It is also unlikely that people from outside the community will have much success in bringing change to the area. People who don’t live there fail to realize how deeply invested the people are who have made this county their home for generations.  There is a healthy amount of skepticism when someone comes in with “big city” ideas. If Bath County is going to change, ideas for revitalization and growth for the area will most likely come from the people who live there.

This grant gives our students the chance to be innovators who can bring positive growth to the area in a way that is acceptable their people.  My students understand Bath County because they are Bath County.  They can find ways to promote growth in the area without sacrificing the values held sacred to most who live there.  However, to make that happen, our schools require a different model that enables students to dream, imagine possibilities they never knew existed, and develop ideas that will bring positive change to the community.  

At yesterday’s PD, the change began.  Our staff learned about the scope of the grant and thoughtfully questioned the specific requirement that must be fulfilled.  They looked at ways to structure  the dedicated time devoted to the “Genius Hour class” concept. They reviewed  flexible curriculum frameworks that provide enough scaffolding to allow students to dream without stifling creativity, yet still hold them accountable.  They saw the potential, and they worked tirelessly to think of different ways to ignite students’ passions.  

This project cycle replicates the journey of every scientist, writer, musician, entrepreneur, and innovator who has ever dared to dream.  The first third of the year will be devoted to discovery, the second third to development of a project, and final third to the sharing of their ideas.  At the end of the year, students will showcase their products, presentations, published work, and performances at a block party allowing the young and old alike to come out and see the possibilities our students see for themselves and for Bath County .

The Education Innovator grant will allow us to purchase materials needed to make our students’ visions of the future a reality. Possible purchases may include traditional makerspace materials, coding kits, green screen kits, and audio recorders so students can make high quality podcasts.  There is money set aside that can be used for things we don’t even realize we need yet.  

As our students embark upon their passion projects this year, I hope they discover the limitless possibilities for themselves and for Bath County.  This grant puts our students in the driver’s seat to move Bath County forward in a way that doesn’t contradict the values that make it the wonderful place it is.  What a fantastic way to start out a new school year.  I can’t wait to see what our students do!

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How Failing the Google Test has Made me a Better Teacher

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The final day of the 2017-2018 school year was over.  I placed the plants from my classroom in the backseat of my car and reflected on school year number 23 as I headed home for the summer.  After unpacking the car, I slept for 24 hours straight, a tradition that is now far more appealing to me than going out for a drink on the last day of school. The next morning, I did what many teachers do: I planned out my summer.  

After updating my calendar with professional developments, curriculum planning time, and a possible week long working vacation to Denver, Colorado, I settled down with my Chromebook and a hot cup of coffee, and I started looking at the Google Level 1 Certification Test requirements, the first task on my summer list.  

There were lots of reasons that I wanted to pass this test.  First of all, after 23 years in education, I know that staying up to date is essential.  Bottom line:  Either “get Googleized or get retired.”  Additionally, each grade level English teacher at our school had just received a set of Chromebooks as part of our school’s 1:1 initiative to become more digitized.  If I could pass this test, it would show the district I was a good steward of their generosity.  Additionally, the district was willing to reimburse me the testing fee and offered to give me a really nice Chromebook to use in my classroom upon successful completion of the test .  Finally, an 80% or higher score would earn me a Google virtual badge which I could affix to to my email signature that would show anyone who cared I was officially a certified Level 1 Google educator.  This would strengthen my credibility as a presenter at any conference I presented at in the future.  

Although I have always been a good student and usually do well on tests, I am aware that technology is not my strong suit.  I have to work at it. Believe it or not, I have never owned an IPod, and for years, I was that teacher who didn’t text due to my cell phone’s antiquity.  Over the last five or six years, however, I have improved because I started including summer technology conferences in my summer plans, and they have made a huge difference in my comfort level with technology.  I love the way technology simplifies grading and engages students if used correctly.  After using Google Suites tools this year, my most frequent post on Facebook and Twitter was “Have I told you how much I love Google?”  

I went to the  Google Test Training Center  and quickly surveyed the 13 units I needed to work through and realized that passing this test would take more study time than I had originally planned, so I adjusted my summer calendar accordingly.   I also found a series of YouTube videos called  Google Educator Test Prep and decided to watch them as well. After two or three weeks of non-stop studying and practicing (I am rather obsessive when I focus on a goal), I signed up for the test and paid my $10.00. Google responded telling me my testing ID had been set up, and the test would be available for the next 48 hours.  

As I started the the test that Saturday,  the first section seemed easy; however, all that changed as I started working on the tasks, exercises designed to test your ability to use each Google Suite tool effectively.  Then, my computer froze up while working on the first task.  Luckily, I was able to return to my test, but not after losing access to the test and my sanity for 10 valuable minutes.  I ran out of time before finishing the test. Exhausted and defeated, I waited for my final score. I knew I had failed but didn’t know by how much. I hoped I had at least earned a 70%.  That turned out to be wishful thinking. The results appeared on the screen in front of me.

 

Examination Unsuccessful

Your score: 59%

 

I was stunned.  I knew I hadn’t reached the required 80% mark, but 59%?  How could I be that far off the mark?  After some heavy sighing, I finally accepted the grade and scanned the rest of the message. It said I could retake the test in two weeks.  Fine, I thought, I have a technology conference next Tuesday, so I will go to the session on passing the Google Level 1 Certification Test, and I will review units 4, 7, and 10 just as the comments suggest. I decided this was a small bump in the road.  It would cost me another $10.00, but that would only make victory sweeter when I passed.

For the next two weeks, I reviewed all 13 units again, especially the top three areas the Google evaluators specifically recommended.  I even made classroom lessons that used those Google tools.  When I felt I was ready, I paid another $10.00 and awaited the arrival of my confirmation e-mail.  I can do this, I thought.  A day later the email arrived, and I decided to take the test that Sunday after church.  The next day, I prayed for a little divine intervention and clicked on  “Start the test.”

This time, everything went smoothly.  Answers that had tripped me up the first time came easily.  I knew what to do on most of the tasks, and I also knew that I could bypass any task giving me trouble and return to it later, something I hadn’t realized the first time I took it.  My keystrokes were quicker, and I was actually enjoying myself in my own nerdy kind of way.  Then it happened again…

My computer crashed with only 30 minutes remaining. This happened before.  Just restart the computer, I thought to myself.  It will be OK. As I  awaited for my Chromebook to reboot, I tried to remember how many tasks I had completed.  When the test came back up, I saw that 10 minutes or so had elapsed.  Once again, I felt the tension building.  Up to this point, I had been far more confident.  With only 20 minutes remaining, I raced to finish.  But, once again, my three hours ran out before all tasks were completed. I stared at the screen and again awaited my results.  Maybe the work I did will be enough for an 80%, I thought.  Moments later, the screen told me the answer:

 

Examination Unsuccessful

Your score: 72.0%

 

My shoulders sagged in defeat and that was followed by a flash of anger and another string of ugly words.  I shook my head in disbelief and thought  Why can’t I get this test finished? Why can’t I remember which command to complete for each step in the Google applications? What don’t I understand?  I felt dumb. Hadn’t the presenter who had given the Google Level 1 Certification class at the technology conference a week ago said anyone could past this test the second time around?  Apparently, I was really dumb.  

It was at  that moment a student’s face came to mind.  This girl always did her homework. She always paid attention.  She always tried to understand the reading assignments.  Yet, she had experienced the exact same thing that I was now experiencing. She had repeatedly failed my tests.  Her frustration must have been excruciating.  Other students who experience this type of failure often give up long before entering my 7th grade classroom.   But not Cathy.  She was different.  She had persevered.

Unlike Cathy, after only two unsuccessful attempts, I was ready to give up.  My compassion for her and all the other students who struggle welled up inside.  Every day had been a struggle for Cathy; yet, time after time, she shook it off and tried again.  I am ashamed to admit it, but there were some days I grew frustrated with Cathy.  Now, I am filled with admiration!  She came in every day with a smile, and tried again.  What a strong young lady!

As I think about my attempts to encourage students who fail in my class, I know I have to follow my own advice. Instead of giving up, I have recognized the growth between test #1 and test #2 and celebrated that growth.  I am spending time studying each specific Google Suite tool separately so I feel more comfortable with each one. I have set up tutoring sessions with friends whose  technology skills seem second nature.  I will take the test a third time in September when I am once again allowed to pay another $10.00 and sit down to the three hour test. I will do this for Cathy and every single student like her.  I will try again.  I will not give up.

This summer’s technology experience yielded far more learning than a test score will ever reveal.  It allowed me to step into my students’ shoes for just a moment and better understand their struggles.  Because I can now relate to their struggles, I think I will be a far more compassionate teacher.  I will share this story with my future students so they know I have been in their shoes.  I never thought I would be so grateful for twice failing a test, but I am.  Who knew failure could yield so much success?