Who’s In Charge?

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A visit with a former colleague reveals a dynamic veteran educator who welcomesstudent use of technology to boost learning.

“I DON’T KNOW what that is a picture of—ask Sarah. Christian, see Ben about incorporating that design into the site.He’s in charge of the Web team.”

Policy & Advocacy

PEER-TO-PEER Killough’s students
give instruction as well as take it.

That’s Joy Killough, science teacher at Westwood High School in Round Rock, TX. I observed her class as part of an evaluation of one approach to a 1-to-1 computing environment. Joy wasn’t shirking her duties as a teacher by directing students to seek instruction from each other; in fact, I wouldsay she was fulfilling her duties. Let’s start at the beginning.

Joy’s classroom is a typical modern biology classroom, with seven round lab tables, a few sinks, the walls plastered with posters and butcher paper, Joy’s desk and table mounded with papers and books, and a computer for her to use forattendance and other administrative tasks.

Less typical are the two carts in the back of the room—each with 16 wireless laptops—and in the front of the room, Joy’s laptop, connected wirelessly to a ceiling-mounted projector. Even before the bell had rung to start class, students wererushing in, taking their laptops from the cart, and booting up.

I asked Joy what was going on. She said that her three biology classes had taken a field trip to a nearby creek, where they took digital photos and recorded other pertinent information on their laptops. I asked her what she wanted them to get out of the field trip. “Oh, I didn’t organize the field trip,” she said. “They did.”

An executive committee of students had planned the trip, including establishing learning stations at the site, determining what data to gather, and selecting which students were in charge of different data sets. After the field trip, Joy and the students realized they had gone to a lot of work only to fill out lab sheets and take a test. The students wanted to share the results of the field trip with others who may be interested in the creek they visited, or in the impact humans have on the environment. So they decided to create a virtual field trip on the Web that others could use. The student executive team assigned topics for each of the three classesto cover.

Class In Session

Westwood High School is on a block schedule (90 minutes per class), and this was the second and last block devoted to creating the virtual field trip. When the bell rang, Joy took attendance and introduced two students, from another of the three classes, who had created templates for each section of their developing Web site. They explained how to find the templates on their site, how to flow data into them, andwhere to save them.

Next, one student came to the front of the room and led a brief brainstorming session—using Inspiration Software and Joy’s laptop, which was connected to a projector—that centered on how to get the word out about their virtual field trip. Finally, another studentcame up and showed a splash pageand logo he had created for the site. All ofthis took less than 15 minutes, then thestudents continued creating the content fortheir sections of the site, including findingand incorporating photos from their trip. Forthe next hour and 15 minutes, all the studentswere totally engaged. Often, onestudent would get up with his laptop, takeit across the room, show someone something,and then return.

I have not seen a teacher more comfortablewith students’ use of technology than Joy."I don’t have to know everything, and I don’t haveto control everything," she said. "The result is,kids are learning more than I am teaching."

There was occasional calling across the room from one student to another. Joy deflected most questions onto the other kids, or she would say something like, “It looks like planaria, but check with...” She seemed to be everywhere at once, but she was facilitating communication not only among students in the room, but also among students from the other classes.

Since Westwood High does not allow student e-mail accounts, and communicating on the shared drive is inconvenient, the students had devised a low-tech system of butcher paper covered with sticky notes of reminders, ideas, and suggestions from the three classes. Joy said she wasn’t worried about communication:“These kids communicate outside of classin ways you and I haven’t even thoughtabout.”

I asked Joy how she was going to come up with a grade for each student, a concern teachers commonly have about small-group projects. She said she wasn’t; the students were going to evaluate themselves and each other. She pointed out that not one student had asked her about grades. They all were interested in creating a cool project that others could use. She said she had used rubrics in the past, but she found them counterproductive—students would do exactly what was asked for in the rubric and nothing more. When the rubric was removed, students did so much more.

I already had known that Joy was an outstanding teacher; I taught with her at Texas’ La Porte High School more than 20 years ago. She knew her subject matter then; she knew what she wanted students to learn over the course of the year. She had a great rapport with students, and she had high standards for all kids. That still holds true, but she is a far superior teacher today because of two factors: maturity and technology. Those two elements are not mutually exclusive, even if it’s commonly believed that the older you are, the more resistant you’ll be to technology.

I have not seen a teacher more comfortable with students’ use of technology, and with exploiting their tech skills to benefit their learning. I asked her why. “I don’t have to know everything, and I don’t have to control everything,” she said simply. “The result is, kids are learning more than I am teaching.”

What is this anecdote doing in a Policy& Advocacy column? Because I want to create a policy in teacher education and professional development that embodies Joy’s attitude: I don’t have to know everything, and I don’t have to control everything. Technology can play a critical role in this. Any ideas?

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editor-at-large of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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