GGHC2011 2011-03-26 Roeper
Linda (L) and Emory (E) brought their years of teaching experience at Roeper to i3Detroit. We ran through the topics on our questionnaire. Our goal was to get a feel for what it's like to be a teacher at Roeper - the major challenges, the success stories, and the techniques they rely on to communicate with and educate their students. Roeper, being a school for gifted children with small classes, highly committed teachers, and unconventional teaching strategies, is certainly an outlier on the spectrum of responses about common educational problems that the GGHC is intended to address. Nevertheless the conversation was stimulating, enlightening, and has propelled our group forward with many ideas for our project.
What is the least effective technology you’ve incorporated into your teaching? What made it ineffective?
L: I use so little. We don’t have it. If you consider a laptop technology, that’s it.
E: We do more labs and hands-on science.
L: We have an inventor’s workshop, where kids look for problems and needs, figure out a solution, and build it.
E: We also do LEGO Mindstorms competitions for the other kids.
L: The most technology used are science tools. People have talked about Smartboards. We have cheaper alternatives to Smartboard we’ve considered building.
For us, a big class is 18 kids. I think kids should learn more about how processors work, how technology itself actually functions. Microprocessor building labs. Some kids do C++ and Java on their own time. Beside video editing, there’s very little technology that we really use.
Ed: Some technologies are out there and get thrown around like buzzwords.
L: For those, it’s like the technology drives the program instead of vice versa.
Ed: Right, that’s exactly it. We wondered if you’ve used these technologies.
E: We don’t jump on fads and trends, no. But if kids do projects, if they come in and want to do something, we support their interest in the project. We don’t have any real programs around that. For instance a student wanted to build his own Dance Dance Revolution game.
Mario: <Shares a story about Dance Dance Immolation - a version of DDR at Burning Man where the gamer wears a fireproof sealed suit during play and is blasted with fireballs>
What is your favorite creative technique, tool, or practice that has aided education in your classroom?
E: We’re very heavy with the scientific method. "What’s your question? What are you going to do to find out?" We hammer that in. Data collection, inquiry, reasoned responses.
L: Most questions get answered with questions. "What would you do? What do you already know? What do you need to find out?"
E: Right. "What was your conclusion? How valid was your conclusion? What were your variables, how big was your sample?" Etc.
L: If we’re giving kids assignments, we teach them concepts about heat insulation, etc - and then challenges that put the knowledge into action.
E: We bounce around between the abstract and the concrete. “Here’s an example of heat transfer, the science of it; these are the principles.” Then we put that into practice in a hands-on, concrete experimental example. And we see things in that example that deviate from our expectations, so we go back to the princples to explain and investigate it. And so on.
E: We also like making the kids active participants in changing the activities, not passive recipients in knowledge. They have to be the actors, not just to carry out the experiment but to design it first.
Ed: That jibes with something we’ve heard from other teachers. The big struggle is getting kids to *do* stuff, not to be passive recipients.
E: We have a built-in advantage - small classes. The kids enter Roeper early on [in their lives] and stay in small classes that encourage them to think of learning as hands-on, engaging; they have always thought of learning that way. Unlike Detroit schools - they have what, 60 kids in a classroom. It’s babysitting, you can't avoid it.
What are the common difficulties you face throughout the school day?
E: Even at Roeper there’s a divergence of ability, the fact that some kids are at higher levels than others.
L: I don’t know enough of what all the kids would like to do. I don’t know what resources exist that could take them even farther. They could be building their own microprocessors, they could be programming them, learning how they interact - a zillion things they could learn, I don’t even know all of it. That’s the frustration for me - the next level. They’re ready to take on the next level and I don’t know where to take them.
Ed: How do you focus your attention with kids at different skill levels?
E: It’s not as big a problem as it could be, there’s very little competition - the kids don’t get pitted against each other. It’s a safe place to not know things. The teachers model that by not thinking they know everything. They’re down there learning at the same time as the kids. We learned rocketry one semester that way, right next to the kids.
What difficulties do students face?
E: Our kids are bright, but scattered. Would an *organizational* thing help them? They have genius thoughts about things, but they can’t remember to bring a pencil.
Ed: Personal productivity software, essentially.
Mario: That’s it! An interactive pocket protector that keeps its status! “You’re missing a pencil and you’re going to art class!”
E: Right! Remembering homework, organizational stuff, etc. One of the problems our kids have is that they’ve always been pretty smart, they know they’re smart, and don’t think they need to be organized to be smart. But a little bit of that would help them.
... Let’s see... What about the outside world? We’ve been at Roeper maybe 35 years.
L: I often think the biggest frustration for kids is the need to physically move. Not just sitting in a class room.
E: How about bringing that back to the DDR idea? Kids write down their answer so to speak by dancing it out, interacting physically. … We don’t let kids move around. Teachers at some schools do inside recess, etc, and it’s horrible - we don’t let kids move around. If we could come up with something that lets kids answer by moving around.
Can you think of a story that demonstrates a challenge that you or a student has faced or overcome?
E: There’s always kids that make slow but sure progress, kids that are going against the grain. The kid who guesses at everything tries all the alternatives has to learn to be a little more linear, the kids that think very systematically and linearly need to think more creatively. … Math, as a learning curve, is a good example. Math isn’t intuitive, you don’t get it at first. It takes a long time to get started with it, but once they get it - they cross that “Aha!” moment - they really take off. If there were a way to reassure kids that there’s something there to be understood. When you think the math is so scary that you start getting a math phobia, you can’t really learn it after that. Anything you can do about math phobia.
L: I think about the kids at the top of the zip line, the physical challenges. Or the kid who isn’t going to look at anyone else’s plans [for a project].
L: Right! Kids that don’t look at other people’s plans because they think it’s cheating - it’s amoral. If they’re not coming up with the solution from first principles, if they aren’t reinventing the wheel.
E: Besides that, the biggest problem is analysis paralysis. You can see perfect, but you can only do good, so you just do nothing. Genius perfectionism.
Ed: It’s interesting - Whether you’re struggling with math or some other subject, and you haven’t gotten up the learning curve yet, or whether you’re a super-genius and you’re paralyzed by analysis at the top, the solution for both sides is learning that it’s okay to make mistakes.
E: [Regarding teamwork, with some kids excelling past others on the same team] Some feel the genius kids are held down by forcing them to bring up the other kids, but the reality is that the gifted kids are going to grow up without knowing how to play well with others [if they don't learn to work with peers].
E: Science. Most schools don’t do science [as a subject]. We do science, one teacher does most of the sciences for the younger kids. That teacher has all the equipment, self-selected into that path, isn’t afraid to learn. At other schools, most teachers don’t approach it. No one specializes in it; they prefer other subjects [social sciences and humanities]. As a result no one teaches science well in America. So, you could come up with a way to idiot-proof the teaching of science.
Mario: Our school ignores science for the most part because it isn’t on the MEAP.
E: We don’t have to do the MEAP, so we ignore it. We don’t have to teach to it.
Nate: My sister is a substitute teacher. As a result she has a lot of freedom. She can put on “Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land” and do whatever the rest of the day. It gives her freedom to ramble on about whatever strikes her. And she can talk about whatever she wants, like say - how do digital screens work (on your phone or computer)? They’re everywhere - you can teach that, make a memorable, accessible lesson about near at hand technology.
E: If there can be done anything that helps kids take things apart, and understand it.
L: We do a lot of “How does that work?”
E: Right, but how do you institutionalize that? How do these guys make that a process?
L: The problem, too, is that teachers have the same learning fears that the kids do!
Ed: I like that! The teachers have to figure things out as well.
E: What are the target skills for the 21st century that most schools don’t teach? Sifting through tons of information - collaboration - creative thinking and problem solving. … We know from neuroscience that kids need to develop the executive function of the brain. These are developed by art, experiments, sports, decision-making - that forces you to discover meaningful information and hanging on to it, and knowing how and when to apply it.
E: Too many teachers have these lesson plans that are battle plans - it’s down to the last detail, it is an exactly right lesson plan that the teacher made perfect, and it’s terrible. There’s no room for the kid in there. And some of our competitors promise that when the kid graduates, he will be exactly X - but that means you just cookie-cuttered that kid.
L: But you have to relinquish control, let the kids be who they will be. That means the classroom will get messy, you won’t be in control as much, but that’s okay. Bottom line, the content actually does not matter - it’s going to change anyway. What matters are the skills the kid is going to learn to apply for the rest of their lives.
Nate: One project idea - “Here’s a set of parts that have been *proven* to do a certain thing, but we aren’t telling you how.” We give them minimal instructions, some base principles, and let them loose on it.