Charter School Leaders share an independent spirit and the dogged belief that change is not only possible but also they have a way to make it happen. And they’ve been right. Time after time, innovation in education sprouts from the charter school sector. And now, more than ever, it’s time for charter schools to be the beacons to guide the future of education.
Schools are beset with the frustration of what the rules for engagement and opening might be in the Fall, the uncertainty of whether we will even begin school in the Fall, and how programs need to adapt to fit the post-COVID world. And, of course, wrestling with the question of how we are going to pay for it all. As we wait for leadership and guidance, the calendar days keep flipping and the virus seems to be going nowhere anytime soon.
So, let’s not wait.
Tap into the maverick spirit that sparked your interest in becoming a charter school leader, administrator, funder, teacher, staffer, parent, and start sharing your ideas. There are far too many outlets for venting frustrations and anger, and far too few places where we can collectively come together and harness the intelligence and creativity that vibrates through the charter school industry.
Blended learning may very well be here to stay, so instead of trying to force a plug-and-play system onto your program, what can you create? We may eschew the technology and online learning as not as good as in-person or try to replicate the same in-person experience online. Neither approach will be satisfying. We did what we had to do in the immediate term, but where will we go from here?
When the entire educational system was suddenly pushed online, there was such a concern for how to do it “right.” A recovering perfectionist, I understand this, and producing our webisodes challenges this notion of getting it “right” every week. However, I’d like to share my experience with my first online classes as a teacher many moons ago to hopefully encourage you to stick your creative neck out there a little.
“Flavor your lessons with your own special sauce.”
Just like parenting, if you are happy and engaged in something, your children and students are more likely to be engaged as well. When you can demonstrate the depth of your own engagement in the material and concepts, you will connect with them. It may not look like your colleague’s version of it, but that’s the point. Flavor your lessons with your own “special sauce.”
Whatever it is that you do well, that you love, seek to incorporate it into your lessons. Is there an avenue to embrace the form and format for what it is, instead of trying to turn it into something it is not?
I was so worried when my first online workshops weren’t full. I worried that the students who weren’t there were not getting the full experience. They did not have their actual paragraphs reworked onscreen, true. However, I found out later that many of those students would have been too mortified to have their work dissected publicly. They preferred watching a detailed deconstruction of someone else’s work, and then they could apply it to their own privately. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was part of differentiating for my students.
When I did have full workshops, we would cover more general ground, but the quality of the papers was better when there was more depth instead of breadth. Even if it was another student’s work that was being examined, the opportunity to really dig into the “why” we were making changes helped all the students learned.
Sometimes, I would have twenty students show up and other times just one…and occasionally none. Those “Dancing with Myself” sessions turned into taped lectures, which were just not as strong because I was talking “at” them. The process taught me that remaining flexible with my plan was truly the most effective. The more I pushed through a pre-set agenda, the more the sessions turned from workshop to lecture. The students shifted into observer, instead of participant, mode.
“Remaining flexible was truly the most effective plan.”
The process taught me that remaining flexible with my plan was truly the most effective. The more I pushed through a pre-set agenda, the more the sessions turned from workshop to lecture. The students shifted into observer, instead of participant, mode. They asked far fewer questions, and even though I would check off every little nugget of knowledge I wanted to impart, those sessions did not resonate as much as the times when I had a simple outline of key items and let the student needs dictate the flow. Really knowing my material allowed me to let go of the minutia and freed the class up to dig in deep. When I let my Inner Socrates do the questioning, our sessions were fantastic and the student work quality increased.
Another note about online platforms is that they can be excellent tools for learning a multitude of subjects, but our students are savvy, sophisticated consumers of all things online. All digital content is, in some ways, the same for them. Their expectations of entertainment, brevity, and aesthetics have been shaped by both Hollywood and Silicon Valley. We cannot ignore that this is an important part of online education.
Teaching online at a university, we had a well-oiled learning management system in place. The scheduling, course selections, and tracking was efficient and effective. The machinery was humming, but it was machinery, not education. Beyond the workshops, there was information that needed to be disseminated. And, like most teachers I know, we love a captive audience to wax poetic, but it doesn’t really work to talk at someone. In my preparation to teach, I took a free online course at a prestigious college about gamification. The professor stared at the screen and talked…for 30-45 minutes straight. It was, to be honest, painful. Because of his college’s budget, the production value was high and due to his knowledge, the content he was disseminating was solid. However, even if George Clooney had been cooing at me the ins and outs of gamification, I wouldn’t likely be able to stare into his big brown eyes for forty-five straight minutes and keep focused on the learning.
So, I investigated what other teachers were creating for lessons. Some had long pages of instructions and readings. Others had hundreds of links to outside visual content. A few had Keynotes, etc. that were all done in a very business-like style. I tried that, but I was teaching Creative Writing, in a university that served students who wanted to be in entertainment. It just didn’t sit well with me to “tell” my students instead of “show” my students how to be creative, and so I created my own content. I was a professional writer and producer by trade, so I loved storytelling. I had little to work with technically, but I self-taught what I needed to know with Photoshop, Keynote, and I-Movie. I also found visual and audio assets that are available free-to-use, especially for education. Compfight.com became my favorite go-to source for CreativeCommons.org licensed images. Sure, a subscription to the many online stock photo sources like Adobe Stock give you a lot more, but I needed free and fast.
It was a huge challenge, but I enjoyed learning new skills and could really walk the walk for the students. As I went along in my teaching, my skillset improved vastly. And when I could afford proper gear, etc., it was a game changer. But the first video I did for the students remained the most popular, even years later. It wasn’t because it was perfect. It was because it was imperfect. It looked like something they could have created themselves, and the sound effects were clearly voiced by me over sometimes-blurry photos. It was cheesy, yes, but it was mine and the students knew it.
This rawness and willingness to be real, warts and all, helped me to forge a strong bond with the students, even when we only actually spoke once a week in the workshops.
I also later found out that students would watch these mini-videos and listen to these archives repeatedly to pick up tips they missed, and to feel connected. Even though it wasn’t my face up there talking at them, the connection was made needed. Student feedback and data analysis confirmed that the students accessed these materials often, and they felt it was “highly engaging” even though the actually never saw my face. I kept creating videos for the students that were quirky and imperfect and continued my workshops based on student work. This created a strong education for them and a really rewarding experience for me.
Having walked that particular walk, I wanted to encourage all the educators out there who are thrust into online platforms to be as fearless in your approach online as you are in the classroom. Take risks, experiment, and don’t be afraid to have a little fun.
Online teaching is in my rearview mirror, but the experience of finding a way to connect with students that was comfortable for me and actually teach effectively was incredibly rewarding. Having walked that particular walk, I wanted to encourage all the educators out there who are thrust into online platforms to be as fearless in your approach online as you are in the classroom. Take risks, experiment, and don’t be afraid to have a little fun. And, for the administrators, trust and encourage your teachers to use their own “special sauce” to best connect with their students to elevate online education. In times of great change, creativity is key to forging the next path forward. Let’s come together to share best practices and keep that independent charter school spirit alive and well in whatever “new normal” we will face in the fall.
Check out our webisode with Elevate Academy, one of the first schools back in school in 2020.