Sunday, March 27, 2011

Making the Shift: How we learned we could learn from each other

My school recently celebrated its Centennial. The 2010 school year was a commemoration of 100 years of growth and dedication to developing the minds and spirit of young women. Among other events that took place was the customary filling of the Time Capsule, of which yours truly was placed in charge. I sent out notices requesting contributions with a reminder that the Time Capsule would not be opened until 2035! I requested “artifacts” that represented our school, our city, our country, or our world as we experienced it in 2010.

Among the many artifacts I received for the Time Capsule were several iPods, signed uniform kilts and jumpers, and favorite books and year-end magazines. The one item that gave me pause, however, was the stapled packet of fill-in-the-blank worksheets.

Of all the items I placed in Ziplock bags, I couldn’t stop thinking about the worksheets and wondered what the reaction would be when they were pulled from the time capsule 25 years from now. Would our alumnae remark, “Gosh! This looks exactly like what my daughter is using!” or, “Remember when we used these?

It’s true that we need to implement big changes and these changes are unsettling. To complicate matters, teaching is such a solitary profession. We go into our rooms and come out for coffee and lunch. We chat in the faculty room, mainly about students or our lives, but seldom about our practice. I struggled to understand it and to find ways overcome our isolation.

And like most big problems in need of a solution, it came to me by complete accident.

I work at a Moodle school. Moodle is our Learning Management System and we needed it to do four things: we wanted to use it to document our curriculum in a transparent way for all members of our community to access; we wanted to use Moodle to create blended learning options as a way to alleviate some scheduling conflicts; we wanted a platform for continuity of learning should we need it; and finally, we wanted to give our students 24/7 access to resources and content.

The only way to accomplish these things was for every teacher, from the 3-Day Three’s to Twelfth Grade, to attend a workshop. And not just any workshop. No. This would be the mother of all workshops: three days packed with 15 hours of learning opportunities!

We offered the workshop in June and again in August to ensure as many faculty as possible could participate. It was a blend of “keynotes” on blended learning, assessments, and curriculum documentation, workshops on Moodle for beginners and advanced users, and hands-on learning with Twitter, backchanneling, podcasting, VoiceThread, creating and embedding videos, screencasting, Diigo social bookmarking, wiki’s, blogging, and creating quizzes with HotPotato. Moodle, we said, was our “portal to learning.” We would use Moodle to direct our students to resources and activities outside of our classroom.

Any do you know who taught these workshops? We did. We taught ourselves. Our First Grade teacher and Eleventh Grade English teacher led a session on blogging and writing, a math and history teacher led the advanced Moodle workshop. Teachers from our Lower, Middle and Upper schools worked to created discipline-specific Essential Questions and discussed opportunities for new forms of assessment.

What I learned during those three days is this: I am surrounded by experts. Need help with backchanneling? Go see the Latin teacher. Want to embed video? Call the Middle School History teacher. If you want to design the prettiest, most content rich blog your students have ever seen, make an appointment to see the First Grade teacher. We learned that we all have something to share and we welcomed opportunities to learn from one another. This was the happy accident. We like learning, and we like learning from one another.

Once we started learning how to use the tools, we began to discuss why we should use them. When the chair of the History Department started blogging with her students, she wanted them to not only write well, but also to connect with experts, and she shared this outcome with members of her department. When our Fifth Grade teacher chose to use VoiceThread, she did so because she believed it would be more engaging and the feedback more meaningful than the traditional “stand and deliver” method. She was right. She told students to respond to 3 classmates in the VoiceThread project, but every student responded to every one of her classmates. Once she explained why she thought it worked better than the “old way,” other teachers were willing to try it themselves.

I am a believer in the power of professional sharing. I’ve experienced it first-hand. It is both empowering and satisfying to teach a skill, share a best practice, and learn something from someone with whom you thought you had nothing in common. And I always circle back to this question: If it works so well for us, and makes us feel so good, imagine what it would mean for our students. Shouldn’t our students have opportunities to teach and learn from one another; to develop and share their expertise?

I’m less concerned about those worksheets now. They are fast becoming just what I called them: artifacts. They’ll stay hidden away for 25 years and when removed those alumnae will role their eyes and laugh. “Remember when we had to use these?”

Remember when, indeed.

This blog is cross posted at Voices from the Learning Revolution.


  1. Wow- this got me charge up again! I agree, colleagues teaching each other has been a fantastic experience. Schools need to continue to encourage professional development (and the funding for it)and then to create time in the schedule for the new experts, novices,and intermediates to share with their colleagues.

  2. Thanks Beth! It's no secret that our summer workshop was a powerful experience for me. I wish we had more regular opportunities for this kind of PD.

  3. We are gearing up to follow your lead this June at SPSG. We are moving pd out of opening meetings and into summertime fun. Thanks for your time in speaking with us earlier this year to help us get started with brainstorming how we can attempt such a feat at our school.