Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversations?” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
“I feel good. I feel great. I feel wonderful.” Bill Murray as Bob Wiley in What About Bob?
“Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through delivery of content and instruction via digital and online media with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace.” “Blended learning,” Wikipedia entry
The opening line of Carroll’s classic book is a timeless characterization of childhood. Alice was bored and her patience worn thin. Her boredom soon led her down an unpredictable path of adventure, wherein she learned lifelong lessons and met many unique and wonderful characters along the way. Many of our students are like Alice. They’re tired of sitting idly by, and they can’t wait to dive headfirst down a rabbit hole. But one of the scariest things as an educator is knowing that if you’re going to give your students the freedom to explore, you can’t place enough soft cushions along the way to guarantee a comfortable landing for those in your care. There are going to be trials and tribulations. There are going to be bumps and bruises. But there will also be a plethora of Alice’s wishes: pictures and conversations. And, most importantly, there will be an abundance of transformational learning.
In this winter quarter of coursework at Seattle Pacific University I’ve been exploring the ISTE Standards for Students. Student Standard 4: Critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making. Students use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources. My application of this standard led to a question for my students: How can I introduce the idea of library collection development to 4th and 5th grade students, specifically in regards to supporting their science curriculum needs?
Recently I was privileged to attend the 2016 NCCE Teacher-Librarian Summit and the keynote speaker was Andy Plemmons, an award-winning teacher-librarian from Athens, GA. Right out of the gate he spotlighted a project from his library that explored this student standard. In his blog Expect the Miraculous, Plemmons documents a student library collection program at this school. A group of students develop surveys, gather input, and with the help of book vendors and print catalogs, the select appropriate titles to add to their library’s shelves. It’s quite telling that of all of the projects that he’s undertaken in the past years (there are many!), Plemmons consistently refers to this student project as his most impactful one. From NCCE’s website: If you had $1,000 to spend on classroom tools and wanted to make the greatest impact on student learning, how would you spend it? (Plemmons’ response): “Through my student book budget project, I’ve seen what a powerful experience it can be to give students total control over a portion of a budget. By developing surveys, conversing with peers, analyzing data, setting goals, meeting with vendors, making wish lists, and debating a final decision, students become committed to the task and their decisions are respected by the school community. Anytime that students lead the decisions it will have a greater impact on student learning” (Agostinelli, 2016).
Plemmons’ student book project is an example of project-based blended learning unit in a classroom. Although the teacher-librarian organized the framework for the unit of study, the students were allowed freedoms within that structure. For example, when the books were received, labeled and ready to put on the library shelves, the students were then responsible for the development and application of a marketing plan. The freedom to explore ideas and try new things directly resulted in higher student interest and engagement. Wikipedia’s entry highlights the importance of an underlying structure of a blended learning program, but indeed, the draw for most learners is the “element of student control”. But taking the first steps into changing the culture and structure of your classroom into a blended model can make teacher and student alike feel a bit like Carroll’s Alice peering down into the unknown of the rabbit hole.
In terms of the SAMR Model of technology integration, a project such as Plemmons’s student library book task extends far beyond enhancement into the area of transformational instruction. Students are learning in ways that are not possible without technology. Surveys and data collection, budgeting and spreadsheets, book resource lists (both on- and offline), web conferencing. Technically all of these could be done with technology, but the reality is that the technology tools provide access to goals that could never be achieved in total in a timely manner by elementary students.
Disappointingly I have not yet introduced the student library book project to my students. Some of this is due to scheduling and logistics and some is due to fear. The fears that I need to overcome? Fear of giving up more control in my classroom. Fear of possible comments and critique from colleagues or administrators upon seeing the inherent messiness of project-based learning and going off-script from district instructional calendars. Fear of failure, compared to others — how can I do what Plemmons and others have done when I have a fixed and full schedule with little flexibility? The very real fear of projects never ending, especially in light of the limited times I see my students each week.
When it comes to shifting the model for my classroom, I’m afraid I bear less of a resemblance to Alice and more of a resemblance to Bill Murray’s character Bob in the 1991 comedy What About Bob? Bob knows what he needs to do, but his fears are getting in the way of living a good life. Then along comes direction and guidance in the form of a psychiatrist and his self-help book, Baby Steps. With a constant and simplistic mantra of “baby steps” this and “baby steps” that, soon Bob is rising above his initial fears, achieving goals, and realizing his life’s potential. So, rather than focusing on fears and excuses, I’m finding that I have to remind myself daily about the importance of baby steps. Baby steps to producing and posting a introductory video for students to watch on-demand. Baby steps to building openness for creativity into project planning. Baby steps to being ready to watch students try and fail and try again.
The ISTE Student Standards and SAMR model are both important reminders of the importance of students in student learning. Andy Plemmons and the work that he has shared on his blog are inspirational and insightful. Edutopia and other educational websites have an abundance of resources to provide guidance for those just starting out with project-based learning and blended education. Now it’s time for my students and me to take some baby steps to the rabbit hole and beyond.
Agostinelli, M. (2016, February 16). Meet a tech savvy teacher: Andy Plemmons. Retrieved from http://blog.ncce.org/2016/02/16/meet-a-tech-savvy-teacher-andy-plemmons/
Blended learning. (2016). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 2, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blended_learning
Carroll, L. (2015). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Puffin Books.
International Society for Technology in Education. (2016). Standards for students. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/ISTE-standards/standards-for-students
Edutopia. (2015, April 6). Blended learning: Resource roundup. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blended-learning-resources
Plemmons, A. (2015, November 12). Student book budgets 2015-16: Getting started | Expect the miraculous. Retrieved from http://expectmiraculous.com/2015/11/12/student-book-budgets-2015-16-getting-started/
Wong, W. (2014, April 1). How technology enables blended learning | EdTech Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2014/04/how-technology-enables-blended-learning
Marx, S. Down the Rabbit Hole. https://flic.kr/p/67xtJA (CC BY 2.0)
SAMR chart adapted by J. Haney from Dr. R. Puentedura. http://hippasus.com/blog/archives/227