Using ‘digital storytelling’ to help teachers improve their skills

Teachers in a New York City high school are using digital technology to figure out how to become better teachers.

At New Design High School in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, they’re banding together to discuss problems they’re experiencing in their classrooms and to brainstorm solutions.

Then they’re taking the unusual step of creating simple videos to post online, showing how they might have solved a problem. Remarkably, they’re posting their experiences even when they’ve failed to solve the problem.

In other words, they’re daring to let the world take a peek at the untidiness inside their classroom walls.

“It’s very courageous of those teachers,” says David Rothauser, the science teacher who led the effort. “This is one of the most difficult professions. And no one has a perfect classroom.”

Educators have long counted on their peers, or their principals, for tips or feedback on how to improve the ways they manage their classrooms or present their material. The advent of online video, however, adds a whole new dimension — the possibility of getting feedback and ideas from across town or across the country, from teaching professionals who would never have the chance to step into the classroom in question.

“Something radical is going on here,” Rothauser told Innovations for Learning.

Rothauser, 33, calls the process a “beehive,” the term suggesting the power of collective activity. The purpose of the beehive is to “hack,” or problem-solve, in parlance borrowed from computer culture.

This is meant to be bottom-up professional development “that doesn’t suck,” Rothauser says.

It begins with a small group of teachers gathering once a month to accomplish an orderly sequence of tasks. One meeting, they’ll identify a problem. The next, they’ll brainstorm a wide number of potential solutions, the more ideas the merrier.

Later they’ll zero in on a the best idea and test it by talking to peers and experts, visiting other schools, talking to students. Finally they’ll post a digital story of their solution, or hack, online, and hope for more feedback as they repeat the process.

One of the most unusual aspects of the process is its public aspect. In graduate school for education, Rothauser said, teachers are trained to publish “action research” that is pretty polished.

But in the beehive, teachers make public their classroom problems and solutions before they’re proven, or even finished. The idea is to invite feedback and learn even more, and to quickly put good ideas into wider practice.

The process requires teachers to delve into digital story-telling technologies, some of which they haven’t used before. That kind of stretching is all to the good, Rothauser argues.

“I feel like we have a responsibility as educators to help our students prepare for 21st century jobs we don’t know about yet,” he said. “Digital video and problem-solving are here to stay.”

What kind of classroom problems do the teachers want to solve?

In the first group that Rothauser led last year at New Design High, one teacher said he wanted to make his classroom less teacher-centered and more student- and activity-centered. An English teacher wanted his students to read as much as possible — he was looking for ways to make reading more of a pleasure for them.  Another teacher wanted to incorporate more technology into his classroom.

Marc Sole, a science teacher and the current leader of New Design’s beehive, wanted to encourage more group work. What he found, through the beehive process of discussing the situation with colleagues and seeking some expert advice, was that he needed to create a structure to make that happen effectively — to allow students to progress as independently as possible, but still hold them accountable for staying on task and reaching curriculum goals.

His solution, or hack, was to have groups of students develop and sign contracts to commit to working together or suffer consequences of their own design if they didn’t. There were small things to think about, too. He used class time, for example, for the kids to exchange phone numbers in case a group member was absent.

This year, the entire teaching staff of New Design High School — a small public high school that uses principles from the design industry to reach students in all disciplines — is using the beehive. And Rothauser is hopeful the concept will spread.

Rothauser is currently using beehive-style professional development to help 25 New York City educators in the Sci-Ed Innovators Fellowship to integrate democratic science teaching methods into their classrooms. “While the focus of this group is a little different, the method of adult learning is the same,” Rothauser said.

In the video that Rothauser made to describe the beehive, Sole confesses he wasn’t sold on the process at first. It didn’t seem valuable to him until well into the process.

But in the end, he became an enthusiast.

“When you set out to make an innovation,” Sole says in the video, “it doesn’t have to be to change education as a whole. It can be as small as, ‘I’m going to come up with a better way to take attendance, or take attendance faster, in my room.’

“If you start out looking at it like that, you can make these small little changes that will eventually add up to a totally different classroom.”

For examples of two teachers’ hacks, click here and here

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Posted on November 5, 2012, in Innovation, Reading, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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