Sunday, December 6, 2009

Partnering, Sharing, and Hamlet

Marc Prensky is a good friend of mine and is probably best known for coining the terms Digital Native and Digital Immigrant. Lately he has been working on his newest book called “Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning.” I got a chance to preview a copy last month. This book, when it comes out this spring, will really turn the tide towards what is truly important in education - partnering with our students instead of direct instruction, where we are the only ones doing the instruction. In Marc’s partnering model, which really isn’t that new or different from anyone - what is different is the terms that he has put around this idea and the multitude of resources he provides in this book to reach the Digital Natives in your classroom. It was a great read and one that I can’t wait to pick-up at the bookstore this spring.

One idea that I really pulled out of there is the idea of sharing and working collaboratively with one another - the students mainly - but in all reality I wanted to work a bit more with the other English teacher in our high school Ben Jarman. He and I team teach one section of 9th grade and then I have my own section of 9th grade. He also teaches two sections of 11th grade and the 12th grade English classes. While I take over and teach the 10th grade. We work very well together and going into the year Ben has been a lot of help as my mentor checking in with me, helping me deal with student issues, and really more than anything being there as a sounding board. A few months ago we both started to think about the next unit that we were planning in our classes. Ben wanted to cover Hamlet in 9th grade and then in 11th grade he wanted to cover Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was looking at going through The Crucible with my 10th graders...and then we started to think about there any way that we can take Marc’s idea of partnering and apply it to what we are doing in our classroom? Well, we looked at a few different things, like our ideas for the semester and the guiding question for the unit and the focus on the arts school. We decided to do something radical, something that I have never done before: We are teaching Hamlet in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade. Obviously we have differentiation with each grade level and we are covering with a bit different emphasis in each grade level, but the interaction between each grade level has been amazing. As we were thinking about this proposal and sending text messages back and forth - how about that for planning time - Ben’s reaction when it really started to hit us about how immensely powerful it would be to have all three grade levels together covering the same material was priceless. Ben texted me: “Mind Blowing.”

That is exactly what this has been from the beginning. The interaction between Ben and I has been absolutely amazing. We have been able to partner with one another each afternoon and really plan out exactly what we want to cover and some really creative ways to do it. One of the reasons that we decided to cover Hamlet with all three grade levels is that we wanted everyone on the same page, because this being the first year of the arts magnet and really being at the groundbreaking level of crafting and making this high school what we want it to be, we thought it would be good to cover this play. In addition, this way the students have not ever covered any Shakespeare in any other classes before encountering Hamlet and so they are all getting the base foundation with this play. There is no way to teach a play without acting it out, but in English class we really wanted to focus on less of the acting part because we wanted to leave that up to our acting teacher so that in his acting classes, which are primarily 9-11th grade, they can cover the acting stuff. Plus, that cross-curricular support has been an amazing blessing and has made the content come more alive for the students in those acting classes. Then our focus in English class became to understand the content within Hamlet and to really focus on appreciating the art that Shakespeare created. Through this unit we have really encouraged and pushed students to work with one another across the grade levels. It has been totally awesome to see the 11th graders working alongside the 9th graders to help each other out with their homework. This part has been absolutely amazing, but I think hands-down the most beneficial part of this unit has been partnering with Ben throughout the whole process.

Now this is not exactly the way that Marc wrote for the term to be used, as he defines and looks more at partnering in the classroom with teachers and students, but I think that it also applies to teacher to teacher work. Ben and I, because we have been intentional about this unit and planning, have met every afternoon to plan the week, to look ahead, bounce cool ideas, and lessons off one another. Then we divide the work and really knock the teaching out of the park. It has been such a “Mind Blowing” experience because we each bring really unique and amazing passions and gifts to the table and putting both of our heads together has produced some pretty amazing lessons. It has helped both of us become better teachers and has drawn us together in amazing and wonderful ways. It has also given me a great idea of what partnering in the classroom, as how Marc defines the term, could and does work given the right parameters.

The exciting thing for me, and this is also something from Marc that I remember reading a few years ago, is that Ben and I are trying to figure out how to share this unit with other teachers everywhere. I look forward to spending part of Winter Break doing this. Marc wrote an article in 2007 titled: “If We Share, We’re Halfway There.” In this article Marc talks a lot about the need for teachers to share the things that are working in their classrooms on the web so that other teachers can find out what is going on. He writes in this article: “The fastest route to engaging our students (and our teachers) is re-using, in our own way, those things that are already working. But we can’t do that until we know about them! Technology can be our savior here.” This idea also came up in Marc’s new book in which he wrote: “Until this posting and sharing begins to happen in a regular and systematic way by partnering teachers, we are, sadly, re-creating almost everything on our own, time after time, which is a terribly inefficient way to do things and a huge waste of partnering teachers’ time and effort. So please, as you succeed in partnering, be a sharer!”

Ben and I before were creating everything from the ground up for every day by ourselves, but now we are partnering and creating much better and more effective lessons for our students. We have shared this idea and partnership with other teachers within our building, which in turn has inspired them to partner also - not only two teachers with one another, but across disciplines. Now as a high school we are looking at creative ways to work together in the 3rd quarter - English, Civics, Science, and Math. It has been immensely powerful to work together. The future for partnering, both between teachers, but more so in my classroom on a daily basis between students is looking very promising.

I look forward to sharing all that Ben and I have created through this Hamlet unit in a few weeks. Anyone have a creative way to share lessons - one that has worked before? I was thinking about creating either a Wiki or a Google Site, but I didn’t know if anyone else had a better idea.

To borrow the words from Marc, when we share, we truly are halfway there. Halfway there to creating powerful, engaging, content-driven, and amazing lessons in which partnering can thrive - both for the instructors and the students.