After leading two freshmen English honors sections through a Flat Classroom Project experience each of the last two years, the prospect of joining the pilot certification program was an opportunity I couldn’t pass. Teaming up with Vicki Davis and Julie Lyndsay has been a fascinating and instructive journey. Thus, the opportunity to do so again in an even more formal setting was a pretty exciting prospect.
As part of the program, participants get a preview of the forthcoming Flat Classroom Project book. Any advanced preview is always a bit of a treat, fostering a feeling of specialness. In reading a draft of the second chapter, the testimonials made me think back on my experiences in the inaugural NetGenEd Project and subsequent original Flat Classroom Project. In retrospect, both experiences were highly successful but in very different ways.
Participating in the first NetGenEd Project was eyeopening for me, the students, key members of my school and district, to say the least. Having read about the first project on the ladies’ blogs, I envied them, feeling the ties of curriculum and wishing that I had the kind of freedom to engage in such an endeavor. So, I was quite surprised when the Technology Director and Integration Specialist approached me in early 2009 and asked if I would be interested in applying to participate in this new Flat Classroom-like project. To be honest, I am not sure that they believed I would be accepted, but I jumped at the chance. Three days later I was in and had to dive right in with a class of twenty-five freshmen. In a previous post, I wrote more extensively as I was preparing to jump in for another go.
Looking back on that first time, I remain amazed at how we got all twenty-five multimedia projects completed by the deadline. The Technology Integration Specialist attended every class during the project and was an amazing ally and advocate. I really couldn’t have pulled things off on my own. She rallied a lot of the resources we needed and had the administrative rights to deal with all of the technical obstacles that we would encounter, and there were a whole lot. I am quite fortunate that my school had a fair amount of available resources, a fact that has only gotten better and more sophisticated in the past couple of years. Yet, as my students and I embarked on that first project, we were really pushing the boundaries of what we were capable of accomplishing.
While we had more than enough PC laptops, they were at best a hodgepodge of missing drivers, limited battery life, and substandard multimedia software. We quickly found out just how poor a product Windows Movie Maker is, even though I was pretty sure we were headed for trouble. We broke any notion that our computers were really only used for basic Office software and surfing the Net. Consequently we were pressing the machines to perform in ways that they had not really been set-up to do.
In the final two day push to wrap the multimedia pieces, I had the twenty-five students frantically working and running into all kinds of unanticipated stoppages. In addition to the regular presence of the Technology Integration Specialist, we had our Tech Support Specialist, Network Manager, video production teacher with two elite senior production student aids, and myself all assisting students to complete their videos. Also, the principal stopped into observe at one point. It was a pretty wild couple of class periods to say the least. Had I not possessed the technical skills and knowledge that I had, along with a fair amount of sheer determination and refusal to fail, we would have been in serious trouble. Still, the results were fantastic.
I spent about a week in post-project surveys and reflection on the project with the kids, who were fairly ambivalent about the whole affair. As I inquired and highlighted all of the things that they could explicitly say that they learned, their ambivalence lessened and they began to feel a certain amount of pride in how much they had achieved. Nothing they had ever done in school had been quite this ambitious, calling on so many different skills, and incorporating so many tools. All of the confusion started to dissipate.
Sure some students were still a little unsure about things, but that is always the case with any long project. More importantly, other people in the building had taken note. As a school, we had a much clearer idea of what it really took to fully engage in sophisticated, highly technology-driven efforts. Decision makers realized that most teachers, faced with the kind of technical obstacles we had overcome, could not be expected to be successful.
The next year as I prepared a group of nineteen freshmen for the Flat Classroom Project, I was supremely more confident and informed about how to shepherd a class through the experience. Plus, our school had switched to Macintosh computers and all of the technical problems that were experienced the previous year all but vanished. This time, I needed no additional technical support and led the group through the project solo. We had more and better audio/visual gear and computers that were much better suited for developing multimedia.
However, the timing of our involvement rendered the most serious challenge. Diving into the project so early in the year, meant that a lot of the students struggled more than the previous lot. The NetGenEd participants started the project over half way through the year and already had clear understanding of the class expectations, workload, and the privilege of being involved. The second time around we were barely a month into the new year. Most of the students were still dazed from the mere transition from the middle school. From a maturity and conceptual standpoint they simply were less ready for the fast and frenzied pace, let alone the initial confusion that is a normal part of Flat Classroom-like experience.
Ultimately, the second class had a more positive experience too, but the results were not quite as strong for the group. The one exception to that was the young woman in my class that ended up taking the grand prize and winning the multimedia competition. This was an enormous victory for a girl who was fighting back tears when we discovered an unanticipated technical problem involving screencasting, Flash, and iMovie that very nearly prevented her from submitting her work before the deadline.
Fortunately, the deadline was extended and, after a weekend of troubleshooting, I was able to convert all of her problematic footage into a form that she could then quickly assemble in a final cut. it proved to be neither easy or much fun and pushed my new MacBook to its capacity. I must have crashed the thing a dozen times while salvaging the footage. As good as her work was and deserving of mention, I can only wonder how much better it would have looked had she not encountered such tricky technical issues.
So, I guess this is my testimonial of sorts about my experience working on these projects. It has been fun reliving some of the trials and tribulations, especially when remembering how significant the challenges were and the quality of the outcomes. I absolutely believe that the students learn so much more than is quantifiable engaging in these projects.
The students may not always completely comprehend the connections to English class, but they all leave knowing that they got to do something completely different from what they have encountered in their education. It is something intellectually challenging, conceptually deep, exceedingly current, and forces them to develop or hone a host of skills that schools typically don’t demand. That’s why even for those that still struggle with why we participated, I say, “When are you likely going to get another experience like this in school?” Their silence speaks resonantly.