Listening to Students, Peggy Sheehy, and NECC

The great thing about going to a professional conference is that there is so much to write about!  I attended the NECC (National Educational Computing Conference) in Washington DC last week and my head is full of wonderful ideas to incorporate into my teaching.

Tuesday I went to “No Avatar Left Behind,” a session by Peggy Sheehy from Suffern Middle School (New York) who is an innovator using social networking for learning, especially Second Life.   I’ll refer you right over to her own web presence, but I want to highlight some of the things I heard in terms of motivating students to learn.

Below is a video created by Peggy’s students as a response to how educators (i.e., adults) see this generation of learners.  She mentioned that they were shown information from Mark Bauerlein’s book “The Dumbest Generation,” and she asked the students to respond to it.  More information about the presentation is located on the YouTube page, which is available here.

Some of the ways that this video resonated with me, and have to do with my goal of making research more meaningful and motivating for students:

Students should have time to “play” with an idea before they are assessed on it.

One of the benefits to Second Life that Peggy found was that a virtual environment allows students to “Try on different roles with minimal consequences.”  A student echoes this sentiment when he  comments in the video: “School should be more like a game.  If you get it wrong, just try again.”

My 6th grade research class is nicknamed “Mistakes Class” because we like to see it as a place where students can try out different things without having to worry about being graded on them.   The entire class is not graded (they receive an effort grade only).  When we do something, like an oral presentation, a bibliography, or even just an acting exercise, we talk as a group about what worked and what didn’t, and also how we might use this information in the future.  The goal is not to “feel bad” about what we’ve done wrong (or not done at all), but to use what we’ve learned from doing the task to improve the next time.

What liberation there is behind the concept that you don’t have walk through the door already good at something, or even good at the first try, in order to derive some useful learning from it.  As Malcolm Gladwell said in his keynote address at NECC, it takes many hours to become an expert at something.

I have seen fear of grades (or negative feedback in general) debilitate a student before s/he has even started.  Some students can be so concerned with the end result that they cannot see the steps they need to take to get there.  Students ask lots of clarifying questions (Is this important? Should I write it down?  Do I have to use this source?  Is it ok to put this in a Power Point?), but I often wonder if what they are saying is: “Tell me exactly how you want me to say this, because I would say it a different way, but I don’t want you to penalize me for it.”  I hear this from teachers (including myself) when we start wondering if we should spell-out or “spoon-feed” more information to our students in order to achieve a desired result.  This leads me to my second impression:

Students should have some control over and ownership in the learning product/method of assessment.

Another “ah-ha” moment for me in the video was when the students commented:  “I can’t create my future with the tools of your past….  Today I learned that you are the expert…that you want me to do it your way.”  They respond to this feeling with a great montage of ways they would rather share their learning:  “Let me show you what I can really do.  Let me build it… photograph it… sing it… record it… dance it… act it out. ..analyze it… program it… explain it… paint it… play it.”

I was pleased to see how much this sounded like learning styles and multiple intelligences.  How often are we having students produce results that we can understand, simply because that is the way that we did it, or that is what we are comfortable doing ourselves?  Are we afraid that the students will stretch us beyond what we are ready to handle?

We’ve had a measure of success with using multiple methods of learning and expressing in our “Mistakes Class.”  We set objectives for the student, but leave open how they will be achieved.  We spend some time in the beginning of the year, working with our learning specialist and guidance counselor , talking about how we prefer to learn.  We discuss how each of us is different and we express ourselves in different ways.    We say: “Here’s what you have to learn.   You need to show me that you have learned the material.  The method you use to show it to me is up to you.”  For example, the students do a Composers Project for their General Music classes.  They use a variety of sources to gather information about the composer, and they are given some special time to do a “PIT” Activity (PIT stands for “Putting It Together”).   They have to synthesize all they have learned into a product of their choosing.  The can create journal entries and/or correspondence, as their composer or between relative of that composer, they can write/record a song or a rap, they can do a “graphic novel” of the person’s life, they can create a box of artifacts for that person, design the jacket for their biography, etc.  If they create their own method of showing the composer’s life, and it’s feasible, we try to say yes.   We get some amazing results from this activity.  They get checked off if they did the work, but they are not assessed for it.  It is a way for them to get some meaningful and thoughtful experience with the material, to become an expert on their composers, before they are asked to do the oral presentation which is the final assessment.

“Help me get there.”

This is what the students in the video had to say to us.  As Peggy asked her audience at NECC: “Can you let go of some of the power of the “Sage on the Stage” and let kids take ownership?”   I do think that kids not only need us, but they do want us along for the ride.


Peggy Sheehy biography from the Alan November website:

Suffern Middle School in Second Life


About Paula Montrie

I am a Middle School Librarian at Friends School of Baltimore. I have been a librarian for 11 years, serving 6 years with the Howard County Public School System before arriving at my current school. I teach two classes: SpeechCraft (a combination of information literacy, public speaking and theater), and Media Literacy at the middle school level. I also collaboratively co-teach with a number of teachers at the school, including Music, Geography, and U.S. History. I love it! My professional interests are: information literacy, multiple intelligences and learning styles, teaching through movement, curriculum-writing, technology integration, and bridging the gap between digital natives and digital immigrants. My personal interests are: dancing, singing, knitting, sewing, art, living history, writing and of course - reading!
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