Perspectives on a Distance-Learning Residency

The Ford’s Theatre Education Department is in the exciting process of scaling up some of our successful student and teacher initiatives, particularly our National Oratory Fellows program. The NOF program is well into its third year with a cohort of 14 ambitious and dedicated educators from around the country who are learning and sharing strategies for integrating oratory and drama into their day-to-day classroom practice. The Fellows all teach students in the fifth- to eighth- grade range.

This program is primarily implemented via videoconferencing technology – a Ford’s Theatre Teaching Artist holds a virtual session with the Fellow and her/his students several times during the school year, collaboratively planning with the Fellow via phone or video-conference between classes. During these sessions, the Teaching Artist models oratory and drama strategies for the Fellow through direct contact with their students. The Fellow eventually uses the strategies independently, through a gradual release of responsibility.

At the end of the year, the Fellows travel to Washington, D.C. for a three-day retreat, where they take master classes, share strategies, and connect with other members of their cohort. As part of the project, each Fellow gets to bring two student delegates who demonstrate the Fellows’ work by delivering speeches on our historic stage. Sometimes, students get the chance to rehearse their speeches at the Lincoln Memorial.

With Fellows in Maryland, D.C., Pennsylvania, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Idaho, and Arizona, we make wide use of distance learning with student populations that range from rural to urban, elementary to middle, and from 5 to over 25 students per class. I work with two teams of classroom teachers in Washington, D.C., and Independence, Missouri.

Through a series of unexpected opportunities, in November I was able to visit James Bridger Middle School in Independence, Missouri, for a special two-day residency in the classrooms of two of my Oratory Fellows, eighth8th- grade teachers Cathy Sperry and Jennifer Erdtmann. I made three interesting observations that I’d like to share.

1. Rigorous distance learning can enrich an in-person classroom visit.

For two months prior to my visit, we had been conducting work sessions via webcam. This set the stage for a richer in-person experience, as the students and I were able to develop a rapport that was fed by the anticipation of finally meeting each other in person. Team-building exercises and character-exploration activities became more meaningful to the students because we had already been working on various oratory integration projects. With time always at such a premium in classrooms, it was refreshing to skip the awkward introductory period that often accompanies a teaching artist residency on the first day. That said, it follows that…

2. A brief immersion in the school environment can have a positive impact on the distance relationship.

Every year, the Oratory Fellows create videos and narratives about their schools and communities to give us, the Teaching Artists, a deeper understanding of their learning environment’s advantages and challenges. While this is always helpful, spending two days living and working in Missouri enabled me to gain a visceral connection to the unique teaching and learning environment there. I even attended a teacher staff meeting, which gave me a valuable sense of perspective on the teachers’ experiences.

4. Professional development is the key to administration and staff buy-in.

While our Oratory Fellows have been great ambassadors for the program, I’ve found that conducting professional development workshops with other teachers in their schools is also a valuable way to get overall buy-in. Teachers outside of ELA and history sometimes cast a skeptical eye at oratory integration, so it’s helpful to demonstrate oratory strategies that can be applied to various subjects. Also, as the students moved from class to class and talked about their experiences in the classroom with me, their other teachers were in a position to immediately implement oratory strategies that they knew would be familiar to the students.
We will continue to scale out the National Oratory Fellows program, and our primary approach to teaching will remain distance learning. After my trip to Bridger Middle School, I’ve found that one visit, strategically placed after I’ve built rapport with the students and teachers, can add a great deal of value to a distance learning residency.

You can follow the learning of Ford’s Theater Teaching Artists by reading blogs and accessing resources they post to their group space on the Exchange– simply visit the Ford’s Theater Oratory Initiative page and click Request to Follow.

View the qualities of strong oratory practices in action in these videos from Ford’s Theater: Podium Points for Assessing Oratory

The Evolution of a Digital Discipline

A few decades ago, when the digital revolution was just beginning to influence education, it was not uncommon to read enthusiastic forecasts of what computers and online communication could mean for science, math, career and technical education, foreign language study, and the social sciences. But the prevailing notion at that time seemed to be that, except for embracing word processing, English and literacy studies wouldn’t change much.

And as we can well see, that notion has turned out to be completely wrong.

The evidence that literacy teaching has been transformed by digital technologies is everywhere. Just one example: the Conference on College Composition and Communication, with the theme “Open | Sources, Access, Future,” offered countless presentations that demonstrated the fundamental shifts in our understanding of what a text is, and how the borders continue to blur between texts rendered in different media. New grammars are emerging that reflect the changing sensibilities of a public immersed in a limitless stream of text, music, photographic and video images, and social media. It’s no exaggeration to say that what it means to read and compose today looks very different than it did a single generation ago.

One effect of this evolution—an effect I would argue is mainly positive—is the democratization of knowledge. Not only is so much more information readily accessible today, but there are countless ways to find meaning in that information. Rather than relying on a handful of famous critics/analysts to  explain what a text means, students can learn to build a plausible case for their own interpretations—to defend their claims with evidence.

And while many today associate this push for argumentation and appropriate use of evidence with Common Core Standards, it seems more like a natural priority in a digital age where authority for meaning making is shared.

Several years ago, NCTE established and then updated its definition of 21st Century Literacies, further supplementing it with a Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment. Both documents were based on the notion that learners today must:

  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so as to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

In every era, what it means to be literate is inextricably linked to prevailing technologies. Thus in 18th-century America, being literate meant being able to sign your name on official documents. Later, in an era where books were scarce and highly valued, the ability to “sight read” and recite poems and passages from memory defined the literate citizen. Still later, literacy was associated with knowledge of rules of language and the ability to interpret books and articles. In every case, the standard of literacy shifted when the tools for publishing/expressing thoughts or reading/analyzing language evolved.

So it appears the digital revolution not only swept English and literacy studies along with it, but has challenged literacy educators to think about their work differently.

Historic shifts like this are never easy—we tend to keep trying to do all that we’ve done before and layer new digital literacies “on top.” But once we’ve worked through the transition, what a landscape of possibilities we see for literacy teachers and students alike. Our literacies are sure to evolve as fast as our culture and our newest technologies.

To borrow a phrase from Lewis Carroll, literacy is sure to keep getting curiouser and curiouser!

Reading and Writing Aren’t Just for the English Department

Several years ago, Principal Mark Thomas and his staff at Northview High School realized their students needed more help reading. Thus began a school-wide focus on reading, beginning with fostering and facilitating student choice, which has already had some positive results.

“I still have a lot to learn about the reading process itself,” says Mark Thomas, principal of Northview High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Yet the greatest undiscovered asset we have is to set up our daily instruction to focus on reading and writing and speaking. The best improvement in student achievement starts with doing a lot of reading and a lot of writing and a lot of speaking.”

A few years ago, Mark and his staff noticed a pattern in their students’ scores on the ACT test. They saw many cases where a student’s performance lagged in the last ten questions of the test. Guessing patterns showed up and misses increased. Thomas says, “We concluded that many times it was because they hadn’t been able to get there because they don’t read successfully. The ACT is a reading test.”

Thus began a school-wide focus on engaging more students in reading, beginning with fostering and facilitating student choice in what they read. According to Thomas, “We are trying to immerse them in the concept of enjoying reading so that we can build stamina for reading from there.”

This past year, the entire English department participated in professional development from Penny Kittle, author of Book Love, to develop practices in Reader’s Workshop and choice reading. Teachers learned strategies to foster students’ ability to choose an appropriate text they would like to read, to ensure daily individual reading time, and to provide regular conferring with every student.

In his classroom observations, Thomas has already seen an increase in the number of students reading around the entire school.

“At the beginning of class,” he says, “you’ll find our English teachers walking around, checking in with three or four students, asking them what they’re currently reading, finding out what they like about it and what they need help with—basically keeping a log. It’s work trying to connect to the individual student and find what they like while trying to steer them to things.”

Teachers are also using book talks and asking students to lead book talks to help deepen these connections.

What if choice reading practices were to occur in every classroom of the high school?

“Sometimes people—teachers and students—feel like reading and writing are the domain of the English department,” says Thomas. “Part of my role as a leader is to create a culture where reading and writing and literacy do not just reside in the English department. When our students struggle in science or social studies, for example, it is likely a reading issue or a comprehension issue.”

To that end, there will be a second cohort of teachers from other core and non-core areas who participate in the Reader’s Workshop and choice reading professional development next year. Thomas says the English teachers will become mentors to the other departments “so that we can continue to build this reading and writing culture.”

Guided practice and collaborative learning are a part of Northview High School’s instructional model. Thomas and his staff have worked hard to increase the amount and depth of student talk in classrooms. “The one who is doing the talking,” says Thomas, “is the one who is doing the learning.”

Thomas wants to apply what his staff is learning about students working together to their own professional practices. “I always believe the greatest solutions are going to be in our teachers,” he says. “The more we can create shared ownership, the more we can create collaboration, empathy and compassion for each other, the sooner we can increase student achievement.”

One of the biggest challenges that the school has in building this culture is that there is not enough time built into the schedule for teacher collaboration. Thomas believes that “one of the greatest things that a teacher or administrator can do is reflect on our practice.” Yet “for the most part, teachers are collaborating and reflecting with each other on their own time.”

However, Thomas is already seizing an opportunity provided by the renovation of the high school building. To reduce isolation, teachers will have private office space in new teacher workrooms, which will also provide areas for teachers to collaborate.

“We will create space for shared work, data walls, and putting up information,” he explains. “Teachers will be around each other more and they can look at each other’s work.”

Thomas wants Northview High School to become a professional learning community, and he sees building students’ academic stamina through increased reading and writing as something that every teacher can relate to and benefit from. He is doing whatever he can to promote professional dialogue and collaborative work on reading and writing strategies across content areas.

“What I’m noticing is our students are willing readers,” says Thomas. “And now they are becoming eager readers.”