Recent graduate of the GW Museum Education Master’s Program (MEP) and former history and English teacher, Liz Fort, shares her thoughts on her week at the Smithsonian EdLab’s Teacher Workshop in July.
I attended one of EdLab’s Mission: Possible teacher workshops this summer. This four-day workshop focused on exploring identity, partnering with the Smithsonian Latino Center and the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. Over the four days, teachers became the students as we engaged concepts of identity through daily challenges focused on discovery-based learning and integrating new media and technology in both research and presentations. Overall, this was an exciting approach to professional development that imparted real knowledge and techniques that I believe many teachers can and will use in the classroom. Below, you’ll find my key takeaways from the week, both “keeps” and “changes,” as well as some suggestions for the future.
- Positive and Supportive Environment. From the first moment, the EdLab team set an upbeat and fun tone. Teachers were assured that this was a “safe space” and were encouraged to think creatively. This environment really allowed us to think outside the box.
- Applicable Activities and Missions. The activities and missions were fun for the teachers, and also easily translatable into the classroom. This gave teachers the chance to play both student and teacher - thinking about the challenge in each role.
- Daily Review and Reflection. Reflection is essential to becoming a better practitioner. Each group was required to present their solution to the day’s mission, sharing some some of the tools and challenges they faced when creating their presentation. These were collected and shared with everyone via posters and the FB group. Additionally, each teacher reflected on the day in his/her Design Log in Googledocs, similar to an online diary.
- Templates and Toolkit. The list of digital tools and the lesson planning template are great resources to use in the future when planning potential missions in the classroom.
- Facebook Group = Support Network. The FB group is a wonderful resource of support and advice from colleagues and peers - both locally and nationwide. Hopefully this new community can continue to use each other for ideas and feedback throughout the school year.
- Organization and Clarity. There was a lot crammed into this four-day workshop! Learning theory, technology tools, missions, field trips, projects, presentation, etc.! It felt like perhaps the workshop was trying to be too many things at once. Is it a tech workshop? Or a Mission-Based Learning (MBL) workshop? And speaking of MBL, what exactly is it? We never got a clear (and concise) definition. By the end of the week, I felt like I understood it, but if I was a teacher, I would need a one-sentence explanation to take back to my administration.
- Does it work? This is the big question. On the last day, the EdLab team shared some really positive feedback from previous workshop attendees who had implemented the techniques and tools in their classrooms. They reported seeing real success and positive improvement in their students. This kind of evidence needed to be shared from the first day so that all of the teachers could buy-in from the get go. Also, if I was a teacher, this hard evidence (DC-CAS scores, AYP, etc.) is what I would need to show my administration in order to get their buy-in and support.
- Support/Sustainability in the classroom. Another tough issue. How can this type of teaching and learning be truly implemented in the classroom? As a former teacher, I know that once school starts, it is really tough to do anything “extra.” Sometimes you feel alone out there in your classroom. If I am going to make big changes in the way that I teach, I need to feel like I have a support network. Who can I turn to for advice if I don’t have buy-in for MBL at my school? Where can I find tools and ideas when I’m planning potential missions? Who is going to back me up when my administration asks for answers?
So there you have it - my experience in a nutshell. I don’t like to end on a down-note, so here (in my humble opinion) are some suggestions for EdLab to implement in the future that might help address some of the concerns I raised above.
- Promote Process over Product. This can be done in the workshops and then on-going through the FB group or website. Teachers and students will learn more, take more risks, and be more reflective if the process of learning (or doing a mission) is the main focus, rather than the end-product. As teachers, how can we (you) promote a culture of “process over product” in the classroom? How can you redesign (or have your students redesign) your project rubrics to reflect this new focus on the process rather than just the end product/presentation?
- ToolKit/Super Website. Create an awesome, incredibly helpful, easily navigable, searchable, community-driven website/supertoolkit. What if there was a site where you could find reviews of the latest tech tools as well as tips on how to use them in the classroom? This super site would also have a community message board where you could connect with other teachers implementing missions in their classrooms. You could post a question or a review of a recent mission. Resources ranging from tech tools to education theory to Thinking Routines would be just a click away. In other words, THE Educators Dream Website.
- Supportive Community. This was kind of mentioned above, but is worth mentioning again. Teachers need to feel supported - especially when trying out radical new teaching methods. EdLab leaders can check-in with teachers, but also create a forum where teachers can connect with each other.
I hope this is helpful to some of you out there. Good luck with the start of the school year and please share your experiences (both good and bad) with the community!