Thursday, January 27, 2011

How Technology Is Transforming Learning

One of the things I appreciate about Gardner Campbell’s approach to technology in education is that he doesn’t focus on a specific cool new thing.  He wants us – teachers, students, administrators, as well as everyone else – to be thinking about the bigger picture, about how technologies of all kinds shape the way we think and the ways we teach and learn.  And he wants us to imagine the changes that technology makes possible not as a set of prescriptions about what we must do but about a set of possibilities.  That’s why instead of teaching faculty how to use online discussion boards or blogs, he begins by inviting teachers to learn about how new media is changing culture and all the myriad things it can make possible. 

But as he knows, as we all know, thinking about all of that can be overwhelming.  Change, and especially change that takes us in directions we can’t yet imagine, is scary, and for all the ways education can be a place of innovation it can be equally resistant to change.  The basic structures of education, at all levels, have not changed significantly over the last century, even though knowledge, what we know about learning, and the array of resources available for learning are constantly changing.  Because most education happens within institutions, thinking about large-scale restructuring can seem like a waste of time – no matter how important we think it is.  On the other hand, because teaching has long been a fairly private activity – teachers control their own classrooms, and we don’t talk all that much about what we do inside those rooms – we have the flexibility and power to make change from the classroom up.  A look at Gardner’s work on the EDUCAUSE website, and some exploration through the rest of that site’s Learning Initiative materials, can give you a glimpse of what’s possible. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Telling Youngstown's Stories on Stage

One of the pleasures of talking with Rob Zellers, beyond the fact that he’s such a great storyteller, is hearing the story of his own reinventions. As he notes in our interview, he came to playwrighting late in life, and it’s really his third career – teacher, non-profit staffer (though still with a focus on education), and now writer. Perhaps it’s because playwrighting is still a relatively new endeavor for him, but his passion for his work is palpable, and he seems almost surprised to have had so much success.

The two plays he’s had produced so far, The Chief, a one-person play about the life of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney, and Harry’s Friendly Service, set in Youngstown in the late 70s, should both appeal to local audiences. Many of us missed the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s staging of Harry’s Friendly Service last year, but you can still get a look at The Chief. It’s been made into a film, and you can read about it and order a copy online.

Zellers has written a third play with local connections, The Happiness They Seek, set in Youngstown in the 90s. Wouldn’t it be great to see one of our local theater companies do a play about Youngstown?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Optimistic Realism: Hoping for Change in the Valley

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a couple of energetic, committed young professionals who have recently moved to this area, people who seem to want to get involved in the community but are also looking for reasons to feel good about being here. They asked me some rather blunt questions: Why am I committed to this place? Do I think things are really getting better?

Part of my response is rooted in the things I discussed with Bill Mullane in this week’s interview – a general sense that there’s been a shift in how people are working to improve the economy, neighborhoods, and quality of life the Mahoning Valley. Like Bill, I’m not blind to the real problems we face, including those that we create ourselves, nor am I the cheerleader type. I can’t pretend that everything is fine, or even that we’re clearly on the path to fine.

At the same time, the work that Bill and his colleagues at the Raymond John Wean Foundation are doing is one of the reasons why I feel more optimistic than I did a decade ago. Wean’s approach to creating change has been significant. Not only did the Foundation change its way of operating, offering hyperlocal models that are strengthening neighborhoods and developing new leaders, it has also played a leading role in helping local non-profits to do their work better. Wean’s projects aim to foster grassroots work while also facilitating the efforts of long-standing organizations. The Foundation has been realistic about the need for grassroots efforts to be connected to larger structures and processes.

We are making progress, slowly. Wean’s work has not led to sweeping changes, at least not yet, but the atmosphere for community organizations in the Valley has improved, I think, as Wean has brought people together, offered practical support as well as a different vision, and pushed for new ways of doing things.

After three years of very active work, Bill suggests, Wean is ready to move into a “maintenance phase,” to let things settle a bit. They’re hiring a new director, and that, too, will bring some change. I look forward to watching what Wean and its related enterprises do over the next few years.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

New Leadership for Youngstown's Schools

The Youngstown City Schools needs the new leadership and vision that Dr. Connie Hathorn bring, and I was excited to get to talk with him about his plans. His focus on communicating better with teachers and parents, professional development, and tracking students’ learning long before they take the annual state exams all makes sense. And having someone with no history with this community, and thus no associated baggage, should be helpful.

Yet I have to admit that I had hoped our conversation would be more concrete and specific. Perhaps it’s just that he’s still finding his way, exploring the conditions in the community and the schools, and developing strategies. Maybe he’s just not ready to make public statements about his plans. Still, I want to hear more. I want to know how the professional development he wants to offer will differ from what’s been done before. I want to know what it will take to implement his plans for constant assessment. I want to know how he plans to create change in how teachers, principals, and school staff members interact with parents and the community. Call me impatient, but the problems in Youngstown’s schools are serious, and we need to make real change.