How These 26 Teachers and an Author Are Redefining Today's...

Project-Based Learning

How These 26 Teachers and an Author Are Redefining Today's Student-Centered Classroom

By Stephen Noonoo     May 9, 2018

How These 26 Teachers and an Author Are Redefining Today's Student-Centered Classroom

One of Meg Ormiston’s biggest frustrations with education today is how long everything takes to roll out. Pilots drag on for years, technology changes and teachers start to lose enthusiasm. And the students are the ones most impacted.

“We can’t wait years because these kids need to get college and career ready, and we’re not doing that by over-scripting lessons,” says Ormiston, a former classroom teacher who now works out of Chicago as a consultant, spending her time speaking, working with schools and writing.

Ormiston is a prolific author, having written several books about teaching, learning in the digital age and using technology. But her most recent project is likely her most ambitious: a writing project called NOW Classrooms that she undertook with 26 working educators on the subject of what school looks like when students and teachers truly work in tandem; when technology is neither the focus of instruction or an afterthought; and when teachers—and their students—don’t feel thrown into the deep end of technology, but instead are given a chance to work up to it the way you might move through levels in a video game.

“This is a flip of how a lot of people are approaching technology,” explains Ormiston of her project. “Everything we do starts with teaching and learning, and then we figure out how to put the technology in there.”

The end result is a series of books covering a range of grade levels—K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12—all following a similar structure that introduces a broad concept or skill and includes specific projects classes can work through together. (A related fifth book focuses on leadership skills for educators). Creativity starts off every book, followed by areas such as 21st century skills, research, digital citizenship and technology and coding concepts. The high school edition comes complete with connections to career and technical education.

Ormiston scoured the Chicago area looking for recruits to help co-author the books. She tapped her networks, online and off, met with friends-of-friends and made innumerable site visits into some of the most innovative schools and districts she knew. Her goal was to find educators who had mastered teaching, but who also understood that it’s not a rubric—that risk-taking and failure were just important as creativity or good technology integration. Not every teacher fit the bill, but she found plenty—dozens and dozens of them—many of them eager and willing. Yet she was asking for a huge time commitment for virtually no financial compensation, given the dwindling return on split royalties. So in the end she signed up 26 teachers, and herself, to take on the books, which were released during the tail end of 2017.

The search was about more than finding co-authors. Ormiston was looking for a cohort of kindred educators to embody her vision of NOW Classrooms, a title as concerned with the present as its creator. Here, teachers give up a measure of control to their students with the expectation that they fulfill certain responsibilities, like setting and meeting individual goals. In exchange, students are allowed more freedom to learn as they like, and in many cases classrooms become more like coworking spaces where students work together and alone on various projects and activities to meet their learning objectives. Based on a theory of “messy learning” or “organized chaos,” as Ormiston and her writers put it, the style places a big emphasis on student ownership over things like goal-setting, data and learning trajectory.

In this world, teachers guide, nudge, encourage and suggest. The educator’s role becomes decidedly more passive, although the teachers Ormiston assembled for the project are anything but.

The Creative Process

Grace Kowalski is an Apple Teacher who taught 3rd grade in an Apple Distinguished School in Berwyn School District 100, which has had a 1:1 program dating back to the iPad’s first generation. She’s since switched districts, and moved into instructional coaching. But two-and-a-half years ago, when Ormiston first saw Kowalski teach during a site visit, she would have walked into a class where student “voice and choice” was already the norm long before the phrase became a buzzword. Aside from student ownership, Kowalski is passionate about a lot of things, including the importance of digital citizenship, safe social media use and what differentiation actually means (“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh I differentiate: I give harder math problems to this kid,’ but it’s so much more than that,” she insists).

NOW Classrooms book series
Solution Tree

Kowalski is also a good listener. She listens to her students, to her teachers now that she’s coaching and to her professional learning community. But she also perks her ears up for those who speak low and outside the edtech mainstream, and encourages them not to use their indoor voices.

Like Kowalski, Scott Parker had never written a book before—few in the project besides Ormiston had—but he had about two decades’ worth of the kind of creative cross-curricular experience Ormiston values. A “high school science teacher” is how he introduces himself, before revealing that he also coaches teachers, co-teaches students with disabilities and heads up a robotics program. “I teach science, but I would talk to teachers in other areas as a tech coach,” he says. “As I worked with them during the day, I could incorporate different things” into the book.

Parker became a natural choice to lead the team writing the book specific to high school grades, a role he describes as “the encourager, to keep people moving” during the writing process as he and his co-authors divvied up sections of the book based on expertise before meeting as a team to review.

Kowalski also served as team lead for her book, but in her typical fashion, she wanted everyone to feel included in the writing process. “We didn’t divide and conquer anything,” she says, “because we wanted it to turn out as a cohesive project.”

The writing process took years, over the course of many weekends and school breaks, writing together in coffee shops and at Ormiston’s home, where she regularly hosted small group writing sessions and cooked dinner. They teamed up with Solution Tree, a publisher Ormiston had worked with in the past, and along the way picked up an edtech sponsor, Otus, also based in Chicago, who funded some incidentals.

When the project first started, Ormiston worked closely alongside the K-2 team to hammer out an outline for the four classroom-specific books using ISTE’s standards for teaching and learning. Lessons in the book are split into three ability levels, and so can move with students as they progress.

Take a unit from Kowalski’s grade 3-5 book on instructional video for example, which starts off with teaching students how to evaluate pre-made videos before asking them to create their own high-quality video lessons. In a rather meta twist, the final stage challenges students to create an instructional video that can serve as a step-by-step guide for other students creating their own instructional videos, thus closing a neat circle. Even more neatly, as a branding exercise, or perhaps to further drive home the immediacy, Ormiston’s team decided to call the three levels “novice,” “operational” and “wow,” which taken together spell NOW.

Of course, the three levels aren’t intended only to help students scale up. Teachers, too, are encouraged to start at the novice level to get their feet wet as they explore concepts around technology integration and student agency. Modeling good technology use for students can be difficult at first, Ormiston acknowledges.

If pressed to pick a favorite section out of the sprawling series, she mentions a relatively straightforward K-2 lesson on narrative thinking and imagination: “the pizza box one” she calls it.

Created by one of the early learning teachers she wrote with, Lissa Blake, the crux of it revolves around spray painting pizza boxes green and fashioning coffee stirrers into stick puppets. Kids film themselves telling stories and then use green screen apps to change backgrounds. As it scales up to the most-advanced version, students are encouraged to take a more direct hand as editors and producers of their work. To Ormiston, the lesson has everything. It’s expressive, it’s rooted in ingenuity and independence and it leaves students with a tangible record of their learning. Like many of the lessons in the books, it’s more outline than instruction manual, allowing for almost limitless iteration.

“People need to see teaching and learning and technology together,” she says. “I’m huge about creativity, but it’s really hard for people who have not seen a creative technology lesson to do it themselves.”

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