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Twenty-first Century Sub

I just spent a couple of weeks substitute teaching, the job that straightens spines and builds character. Actually, it was a great gig. I was filling in for the amazing Matinga Ragatz, the 2010 Michigan Teacher of the Year, who was in South Korea, presenting on the Hybrid Classroom.

Matinga and I did some work together over the summer, building model instructional units using the new Common Core Standards, the Framework for 21st Century Learning and Michigan's content standards for World History and Geography. I learned a lot from Matinga about blended learning--how to help students weave personal learning networks around important disciplinary topics and questions. We agreed to collaboratively pilot one of our units--on Revolution--in her World History classes.

Because it is early in the school year, her classes were in that barely-jelled stage. Mostly 9th graders, a good percentage of them were on board with the idea of taking responsibility for their own learning, guided by teacher-explicated big ideas around the development of diverse global civilizations over time. Others were concerned mostly with who was kissing Tyler in the hallway and did you see what she was wearing OMG!?! A small handful was bent on actively resisting any change to their default strategy for getting an A: just spoon-feed the material to me, then quickly let me take the test. Plus extra credit for copying key terms out of the glossary, of course.

Matinga teaches in a good school. I've been in lots of schools and taught for 30 years--and this high school is safe and orderly, full of articulate kids with future plans. Her fellow teachers are a diverse and friendly bunch; one rushed past in a frog-buttoned, mandarin-collared shirt calling out "Chinese Dynasty Day!" Matinga's students weren't crazy about having a sub--another sign that they had formed some bonds of trust--but the time went by quickly, and the kids were great.

Here's what I learned:
• Traditional schools still aren't set up for student-led, concept-based learning--and that's not related to presence or absence of computers or other technological routes to accessing knowledge. World History (a required course for all MI students) was taught in chronological chunks, closely following a conventional textbook, and structured with straight-out-of-the-book lectures and quizzes requiring of discrete bits of memorized content. Little analysis, zero synthesis, no big themes to chew over--just a chapter-by-chapter slog. Knowledge designed to be temporarily stored, then disgorged via multiple-guess/radio-button "on-line quiz" format. And computer-based quizzes are not the understood purpose of blended learning.

• Kids are not automatically tech-savvy by virtue of their youth. The students all had cell phones and were adept at texting and sending embarrassing photos and videos to each other. But many of them had very little experience with accessing, evaluating or organizing important ideas and knowledge. Also--most students had only one strategy for getting on line. Technology glitches stopped them in their tracks, and their bag of resource-acquisition tricks was limited to YouTube, and occasionally Wikipedia.

The concept of looking at lots of potentially useful resources, then selecting the best and most on-point to build a coherent narrative or thesis was foreign to them. The suggestion that they might be inspired to use the amazing tools at their fingertips to pursue their own intellectual interests drew skepticism. Digital natives? Only in the shallowest sense.

• Content matters, a great deal. One of historical figures we encountered in the textbook chronology was Genghis Khan. He gets four pages in the book, mostly about nomadic tribal living and a long list of unpronounceable military campaigns and conquests that expanded the eventual Mongol empire. You'd think it would be impossible to make Genghis Khan boring and forgettable, but no.

I mentioned that Genghis Khan was both great military leader and reprehensibly cruel dude--depending on one's perspective. Were there other people like that, in history? Long pause. Tentatively: Hitler? Good. Who else? How about Robespierre? Who? Look him up. And we were off, disengaged from Chapter 8, but exploring the juicy idea that one citizen's idealist hero was another's butchering slaughterer. Plenty of sticky resources to utilize--images, lists, conquerors and despots from Vlad the Impaler to Pol Pot.

• Personal relationships still matter, too. In spite of all the rhetoric about creative disruption made possible by devices, it will take a generation or more for the idea of guided conceptual learning to supplant even "on-line" recitation of facts and terms. And the facts and terms still have to be there, filling out the structures and questions inherent in the discipline. And underneath it all, a person who can convince you that understanding such a discipline is more important, engaging and long-lasting than who was kissing Tyler in the B Hall. The teacher.

Post-script: A conversation with Matinga, which I begin by babbling about how exciting it was to pilot the first lessons of our Revolution unit, how geeked the students were to look for and evaluate artifacts, timelines, eyewitness accounts and data charts illustrating an historical revolution. Matinga tells me that a parent has complained: Isn't the teacher supposed to dispense the knowledge? Why are they paying her if kids can just go to the Internet and find information? She's shut down stage one of the piloted unit, and returned to the lectures, on-line quizzes and extra credit at the end of the chapter. She sighs, thinking about how she left those kids to go to Korea to present on her innovative classroom.

Suddenly, I'm dying to have my own classroom again, fighting the next battle.

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