Want a documentary video of the teachers-versus-students basketball game? How about IT help on using Google Docs in your English classroom? Or posters advertising a new student club? At the Dreamyard Preparatory School in the Bronx, teachers and students alike turn to a student team to find solutions to these tech problems: the MOUSE Squad.
Rudy Blanco, Digital Learning Coordinator at Dreamyard Prep, a public school serving grades 9-12, started the club in spring 2013 as a way for students to develop tech skills while pursuing their interests. Soon after founding it, Blanco came across MOUSE Squad, an organization which supports local student tech groups, and purchased a membership and access to its curriculum.
But Blanco soon found that Dreamyard Prep’s MOUSE Squad was more effective when led by students, rather than using lessons provided by the national organization. “I was micromanaging the projects too much at first,” he explains. “So I let go of the curriculum, and we made [MOUSE Squad] more passion-based.” Now, the 15 students in the club propose their own projects, and the whole group checks in at the end of each weekly meeting to assess what each team has been working on.
These student-directed projects range from documentaries about the basketball halftime show to a Waffle Social, where students came together over waffles and maple syrup to learn about developing computer games. But the most popular project is the social media team.
“We don’t just do straight technology,” explains Ruben Germosen, a freshman at Dreamyard. As a project manager for the social media team, Germosen has been working on a website for the MOUSE Squad, which he hopes will go live before the end of the 2014-2015 school year. The site will include “pictures and videos from assemblies, and profiles of the members of our MOUSE Squad,” he says. Germosen has also reached out to companies providing apps and products used by MOUSE Squad, like Zello and Sony, about sponsoring squad projects and events.
Germosen and the social media team are also forging international ties. The squad recently did a digital exchange program with students in Morocco, where the two classes shared two truths and a lie about their schools over video chat. Next year, MOUSE Squad students will help implement the digital exchange program in other classrooms at Dreamyard Prep; meanwhile, the social media team is reaching out to the Moroccan students for their Facebook and Instagram accounts to feature them on the MOUSE Squad site.
Beyond the 15 core members of the Dreamyard Prep MOUSE Squad, there are 15 or so students involved in “MOUSE Squad ELLs,” or the English language learners MOUSE Squad. “Our school is about 60% Latino, and many students don’t speak English,” explains Blanco. “One student, Anyelina, wanted everything available in Spanish at assemblies, so she became the student coordinator for the duplicate MOUSE Squad for Spanish.” Like many of the projects, MOUSE Squad ELLs has been entirely student-driven, from inception to implementation. “Anyelina took the idea and single-handedly ran with it,” says Blanco. “It’s all passion-based.”
Exponential learning and exponential growth
As Blanco sees it, this philosophy of “exponential learning”—teaching students to pursue their own projects, and to help their peers do the same—helps students not only learn about web design or iMovie, but develop skills for the workplace.
“We claim that students are digital natives, but they truly aren’t,” says Blanco. “You can’t survive in a 21st century job without being able to compose a proper email, but you don’t practice and apply that in school.” Blanco believes the skills that his students develop in MOUSE Squad will serve them in any future career. By helping teachers and administrators solve technology problems in their classrooms, students are “dealing with customer service and relation skills off the bat,” and by taking ownership of their own projects, “students are developing leadership, and the ability to learn what they love, as opposed to what they must.”
Several Dreamyard Prep students are using MOUSE Squad to develop skills directly related to future career interests. “I want to be a video editor professionally, and can learn about cameras, lenses, transitions, and lighting at MOUSE Squad,” explains Gabrielle Bowen, a senior. Bowen edits videos of Dreamyard Prep events, like a recent basketball game between students and teachers, to show at school assemblies. “I’m not really a technical person, but I can use iMovie and the Internet as tools to learn how to do and make,” she says.
As Blanco sees it, exponential learning also makes MOUSE Squad self-sustaining, both within the community of current students and beyond. “I bring MOUSE Squad members to middle schools, to recruit students to Dreamyard,” he explains. By introducing middle school students to the “little family” they could be a part of, “they’ll know upperclassmen, and have a support system, when they get here.” Blanco also hopes that the focus on personal initiative within a strong community will bring MOUSE Squad graduates back to mentor Dreamyard students. Eventually, he envisions “graduated students coming back to lead the squad” in his position.
“MOUSE Squad creates life readiness,” says Blanco. Regardless of whether they pursue their interests back at Dreamyard Prep or far afield, he believes that the experience gives his students confidence in their own abilities, as well as both concrete and “meta skills” for the workplace.
His only regret is that the community and resources didn’t exist when he was a student. “I was the kid who knew his way around Paint Shop on student government—if there was a place where I could have pursued my passions while using technology, I absolutely would have been in there,” he says. “Of course I would have wanted to do MOUSE Squad!”