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The Metamorphosis of Me: from Teaching to Facilitating in the Classroom

How exactly am I supposed to teach a child who texts, tweets, IMs, FBs, plays RPGs and MMORGs while listening to Green Day or 50Cent? Teaching already requires the patience of Job; so adding to that challenge students whose ability to concentrate is hampered by all the distractions at their fingertips, can prematurely age even the greenest teacher. These “students need to be stimulated in ways they were never stimulated before” (Dretzin, 2010). So as a teacher, what am I to do? How do I approach this challenge in a way that sustains student engagement and enhances student achievement? Todd Oppenheimer calls this “instant gratification education” (Dretzin, 2010). My biggest fear is that I could not bridge the gap between the level at which I am teaching, and the level at which I need to be, to become an effective teacher of these 21st Century students. The surest way to a solution, of course, is to engage in some form of professional development through which I can acquire the skills and knowledge I needed; but how? “What distinguishes successful people from others is what they do with their fear” says Carly Fiorina (2007). Taking a risk is essential to success and taking that risk requires trying something new (Fiorina, 2007). As such, the Dobbs 21st Century Learning Fellowship was a natural choice and perfect fit for my goals. At least that is what I thought at the time, because what I believed about 21st Century Skills was that they all involved achieving some kind of proficiency in the use of technology. But I was wrong. 21st Century Skills encompass much more than technology, and for a long while, I had no clue about what exactly I was supposed to be doing or where I was supposed to be going. Luckily for me, I chose the right book to read during the winter break: The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need–and What We Can Do about It, by Tony Wagner (2008).

For the first time after a lot of reading about what 21st Century Skills are, I got a clearer picture of what we as educators and instructional leaders must accomplish. Wagner’s extensive research and revealing interviews with corporate America identify what he has coined the “Seven Survival Skills” that students need to compete for jobs on a global scale and become active informed citizens in a democracy (p 10): 1) critical thinking and problem solving; “kids need to be problem solvers” (Dretzin, 2010); 2) collaboration across networks and leading by influence; 3) agility and adaptability; 4) initiative and entrepreneurialism; 5) effective oral and written communication; 6) accessing and analyzing information; and 7) curiosity and imagination (p 67); the world is going to require students to do stuff, to build stuff, not memorize as we used to do (Dretzin, 2010). Not only does Wagner clearly define what industry’s expectations are with regard to each skill, but he also exposes the contrast between what employers are seeking and what is actually being taught in the classroom. Wagner’s “learning walks” (p 47-63) in some of America’s best schools with willing instructional leaders revealed how disturbingly deficient our instruction is with regard to what students actually need to be successful after high school.

First, I set goals:

Once I had a clearer picture of what I needed to accomplish in terms of grooming 21st Century students, I was able to focus in on some specific objectives that I wanted to meet during my tenure in the Dobbs 21st Century Learning Fellowship:
1) Move from teacher to facilitator in the classroom;
2) Move from defining everything students must do to allowing student-driven
learning and creative license;
3) Move from isolated to collaborative teaching practices;
4) Develop proficiency in all available technology tools;
5) Develop my own creativity skills; and
6) Collaborate with and engage my students with online communities.

The process:

The first of my two goals went hand-in-hand, as enabling student-driven learning required that I become a facilitator rather than a teacher. I truly wanted to change my habit of strictly defining what students had to accomplish in class. I would give specific assignments with strict guidelines on how to meet the objectives. Many times, the students became frustrated because of the limits, and so did I when they did not meet my expectations. So I worked harder on becoming a facilitator and my students rewarded me with outstanding performances.
The first present that I got from my students involved their Black History project. We were reading
//Things Fall Apart// and //Cry, The Beloved Country//. I asked them to create a Black History Project incorporating themes from the novels and somehow, relating those themes to their Black History. I had no rubric, I had no rules. I gave no direction. I gave one or two hints but nothing that would tell them how to create their projects. I even let them pick their partners. I simply told them what I wanted. To top it off, I made them work under pressure: I told them the project was due the following class period. Despite the many protests about the time limit and the lack of “guidance,” I refused to relent, and ultimately, the students lived up to my expectations. They came to the next class with completed projects that included slide shows, videos, movies, PowerPoints, collages and posters, all of which accomplished what I asked them to do, and sometimes even in ways I could not fathom. One of the best projects focused on the theme of “journey” and included a PowerPoint on the protagonist’s journey and a video collage of African Americans’ journey from Africa to today—totally awesome! There was evidence of critical thinking, collaboration, research, adaptability, initiative, imagination and effective oral communication. I could not ask for more. At the end of class, when I asked students what they liked about the assignment, the overwhelming response was that they enjoyed having to figure it out themselves.

A Demonstration of Student Proficiency in 21st Century Survival Skills:

The next time they surprised me was with their peer review of research papers during their writers’ workshop. The process went well and the students had wonderful conversations about how they could revise and improve their papers. Though one or two still wanted me to read their first drafts, most were grateful for their peers’ feedback and enjoyed getting other students’ perspective on their work. At the end of the workshops, I asked students for a list of items that they needed specific help with, that they wanted me to review the following class period. Specifically, in-text citations, transitions, attention grabbers, redundancy, relevance and flow were significant challenges for the students. So the following class period, the content of the lesson I designed was student-driven and student-centered. I provided each student with a list of transitions for incorporating quotations and paraphrases, and excerpts from an article. Together, we proceeded to write the first few paragraphs of a research paper. As we worked through their list of concerns, the students expressed relief that their needs were met and that they were now able to proceed to the second draft.

The Metamorphosis:

Without realizing it, I had accomplished my goal and moved from teacher to facilitator, but it took another set of eyes to show me. For several weeks during the semester, I hosted an international exchange teacher from Cambodia through the Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program via Georgia State University. We had a chance to discuss his observations and whether or not he had met the goals he established for his learning experience: he was very excited to see how teachers and students engage in an American classroom and the level of academic work the students do. To my surprise, the teacher said that I am a facilitator in my classroom; that my students engage in self-directed learning; that I ask questions that get students to think critically and more deeply about the material they are learning; and that they willingly participate in all classroom activities without much direction from me. I was flabbergasted!

My next goal:

I was so excited about my progress that I wanted to share what I was doing with the rest of my colleagues, which was my third goal. I worked diligently to put together a professional learning community or PLC (Professional, 1997) in my school through which I could share what I was doing in the Dobbs 21st Century Learning Fellowship. I started with my common-planning team-members. I shared the new collaborative technology tools we discovered and even attempted to plan lessons together using Vyew.com, one of the more exciting ones. But the exigencies of our daily tasks and the demands of our high school transformation got in the way of successfully completing our plan to co-teach a lesson. So I went one step further. I asked for and was granted permission to make a presentation to the faculty and staff about 21st Century Skills in the classroom.

I discussed Wagner’s (2008) 21st Century Survival Skills and shared my own success stories with students. At the end of the presentation, I asked for volunteers to join me in creating a PLC for the purpose of implementing the skills into our classroom practice. I had a meager response, and those who volunteered were never quite able to connect with me to form the PLC. I am not sure why this effort did not work, but I suspect that an overabundance of reform measures at our school overwhelmed these teachers: “there was simply too much going on” (Brooks etal, 2008). However, I do intend to regroup, refocus and redouble my efforts in achieving this goal but I must find “supportive, non-intrusive [ways to] support this process … [so] that teachers see [that our efforts can lead] to improvement in student achievement as well as in their instructional practices (Darby, 2006).

Unfinished business:

While I have had significant success this year in the Dobbs 21st Century Learning Fellowship, I have not met all of the goals that I fixed at the outset, notably developing proficiency in all available technology, and developing my creativity. First, I think the goal I set with regard to technology was simply unrealistic: there was no way I could possibly become proficient in all available technology. However, I did make significant progress in learning and utilizing some of the technological tools I gathered in the Dobbs 21st Century Learning Fellowship. I even coached colleagues on how to use sites like Typewith.me to collaborate on revising and editing the Design Implementation Guides for our new small learning communities. I also introduced my brother, who is working on his MBA at George Washington University, to Vyew so he could collaborate with his classmates on projects. So even though I did not achieve the proficiency I had hoped for, I did become somewhat of an expert in the few tools that I learned. But while I know that creativity is an area in which I need to develop some expertise, it was the goal which I was least able to fit into my practice this year. I hope that I can find some way to work on this essential ability in the near future.

21st Century Survival Skills: A Student's Perspective on Learning.........

Finally, I believe that I have helped my students gain essential collaborative working skills with assignments in and out of the classroom. The students attested to the significant progress they made in working with others, especially those with whom they do not regularly come into contact; much of their success in collaboration was evident in the outstanding work they produced.

1) Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving:

"The ability to ask the right questions."

2) Collaboration and Leadership:

"Working with people all around the world" and having "the ability to influence" others.

3) Agility and Adaptability:

"Think, be flexible, change, use a variety of tools."

4) Initiative and Entrepreneurialism:

"You'll never be blamed for failing to reach a stretch goal, but you will be blamed for not trying."

5) Effective Oral and Written Communication:

"What do you want me to take away from this meeting?" Be "clear, concise, focused, energetic and passionate."

6) Accessing and Analyzing Information:

"It's not only the sheer quantity of information [that's challenging], but also how rapidly [it changes]."

7) Curiosity and Imagination:

"Solve the biggest problems in ways that have the most impact on innovation."

While I still have work to do in getting my students to connect with online communities to collaborate on broader assignments, I did manage to encourage their use of online collaborative tools to complete their work. Students utilized my Teacherweb site and the resources therein; they engaged in discussion using Facebook, Skype, and other tools. In addition, during our recent trip to Greece, I required the students on the trip to compose an online tour diary through which they were to share their daily experiences. All in all, I believe that my students and I had a very successful year that was certainly enhanced by the skills and knowledge I acquired during my tenure with the Dobbs 21st Century Learning Fellowship: I “reconstructed [my] self-understandings through opportunities to improve teaching practices and reinforce [my] professional [identity] (Darby, 2006).

Brooks, Jeffrey S., Roxanne M. Hughes and Melanie C. Brooks. (2008). “Fear and Trembling in
an American High School: Educational Reform and Teacher Alienation.” Educational
Policy. 22:45
Darby, Alexa. (2006). Teachers’ Emotions in the Reconstruction of Professional Self-
Understanding. Elon University.

Dretzin, R. (2010). Digital Nation. Frontline. PBS.
Fiorina, Carly. (2007) The Dynamics of Change and Fear. Stanford University. http:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3IbKbDhfKw. Sep 22, 2009

. Vol. 29. No 3. National
Staff Development Council.
Professional Learning Communities: What Are They And Why Are They Important? (1997).
Issues…about Change. Vol. 6. No 1. SEDL. http://www.sedl.org/change/issues/
issues61.html. Nov 22, 2009.
Rotterham, A. & Willingham, D. (September 2009). 21st Century Skills: The Challenges Ahead.
Educational Leadership
. Vol. 67. No 1. 16-21.
The Global Achievement Gap - Tony's new book is now available in bookstores and online!
. http://www.schoolchange.org/news/
online!.html. Dec 26, 2009.

Wagner, Tony. (2008). The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach
the New Survival Skills Our Children Need—and What We Can Do About It. New York:
Basic Books.//