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How to Create a Classroom Without Walls

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). Today we're hearing from Joseph Fatheree, an instructor of technology for the nationally recognized multimedia program at Effingham High School. He was the recipient of the NEA's National Award for Teaching Excellence in 2009 and the Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2007.

I can still hear the screeching sounds of the wheels on the freight train right before the 150-ton engine tore through a small passenger car like a hot knife through butter. I had only one thought in mind as the scene unfolded. Please tell me we got that on film. Sound strange? Well, it doesn't to the students in my multimedia program. On that day, my students were in charge of coordinating a massive film shoot for a piece that would be used by Operation Life Saver. The students spent weeks planning the event with the police, emergency services, fire department, air ambulance, drama club, school administration, and railroad safety officials. There was no question as to who was in charge on the day of the film shoot. It was the students.

Over the years, the students in the program have done everything from crashing a train into a car to speaking at the International Human Rights Conference hosted by the United Nations at UNESCO in Paris, France. They have hosted a national symposium on poverty, helped create a model that provided educational videos to millions of students living in the Midwest, created a digital storybook for refugee children in Africa, collected tens of thousands of books and articles of clothing for disenfranchised children, worked with the homeless, consulted on projects for major corporations, and annually host one of the largest student operated film festivals in the world. The work they are doing with cell phones in the classroom is groundbreaking. Their work has literally been seen in every country on earth. In 2009, the class was recognized by the cable industry as one of the top education programs in the nation. During the course of a year, the students are taught how to write, shoot, and edit a film. They are trained on how to use industry level equipment and software to create award-winning stories. More importantly, they are encouraged to think out of the box, dream big, and build a scaffolding system that will enable them to accomplish their dreams.

I would like to say developing a program like the multimedia class has been easy. It has not. We have fought, clawed, and struggled to build a program that provides the students with a world-class education. The program has grown exponentially over the past 14 years. Each year, the students in the class raise the bar a little higher. The pressure is intense. The standards are high. However, the rewards are limitless. I sometimes catch myself smiling when I read about the national debate over standardized tests. Try being 16 and having your homework shown on over 800,000 televisions in the Midwest. That's accountability. Last spring, two of my students were invited to attend the global screening of the feature film, One Day on Earth. Their story made it into the final cut of the movie, and was shown in every country on earth that day. That's world ready in its highest form.

The class is unique and so are the problems. However, the biggest roadblock that stood in our way at the very beginning was me. I had no idea when I first started teaching how to develop and facilitate a program like the multimedia class. As an ELA teacher, I wanted my students to learn how to write and appreciate literature. I was awestruck when the students in my low-level classes balked at my approach. Naively, I believed every kid in America loved diagramming sentences as much as I did. I couldn't have been more wrong. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't reach my students. Finally, out of desperation, I sat down one day and told them how frustrated I was. I told them to bring it straight to me and not worry about being tactful. I just wanted to know what the problem was. I give them credit; they did exactly what I asked. My students told me everything. In the end, their biggest issue was the lack of connection between the real world and the curriculum. As high school students, they wanted to get out of their seats and experience the world. They were bored out of their minds, and saw no relationship between what they were learning at school and their goals for the future.

After our discussion, I went home and took a long hard look in the mirror and discovered my students were right. I didn't like the reflection that was staring me in the eyes, so I tried to justify my actions. My list of excuses was endless. However, I knew none of them mattered. At the end of the day, I either needed to change the way I taught or get out. I decided to change.

From that point on, the instruction and learning opportunities in my classroom improved. The lessons became deeper and more meaningful. My students responded. Attendance rates increased, discipline issues decreased, and academic performance improved. My students became active learners. Our roles shifted. The students began to develop and manage large projects. I became a facilitator whose job it was to provide support as needed and make sure the projects were tied to the learning standards. Together, as partners, we built a program that provides students with a world-class learning experience and helps prepare them for the challenges of tomorrow.

Unfortunately, my transformation was only the first part of the process. Financial constraints, lack of vision from leadership, bureaucratic systems that stifle growth, jealousy, limited support, and a host of other issues have stood in our way. Over time, I have come to understand those challenges are also an important part of the learning process. My students have become masters at problem solving and finding solutions to real-world issues. The results have been staggering. A willingness to look inward and make an honest assessment of why things were not working has made all of the difference in my career. Everything else fell in place from there.

--Joseph Fatheree

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