Bringing the Phone Tree out of the Moth Balls

Never having played sports in school (or ever, really), the phone tree, as I understood it being used by soccer moms, never really entered into my life. I got the concept, but never needed.

When talking to a music teacher a few weeks ago about how he was using technology to care for students, the phone tree became suddenly relevant.

After a marching band gig, the teacher had sent a mass text to all of his musicians thanking them for showing up and performing. A simple act this teacher hadn’t thought much about until I’d worked to underline the importance of the ethic of care in the classroom.

It was a simple act that, after the instruments had been packed away, reminded the students that what they did mattered to other people and that they were valued.


It also got me thinking about a possiblity for phone trees in the classroom. Apps are great and I’m all for welcoming kids to bring tech into school spaces. Oftentimes, this transitions to a mandate or a platform requirement.

Enter, phone ring.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. At a class’ opening, each student is linked to another. A to B, B to C, C to D, etc. until Z is linked back around to A in the end. (More of a phone ring, I’m realizing.)
  2. Working on anything – homework, projects, whatever – if C has a question she can’t quite figure out, she gets ahold of D via whatever means necessary. It can be text, IM, e-mail (gasp), phone call (double gasp). D and C work together find an answer.
  3. If they can’t, that’s cool. The ring continues. D says, “I think we need another brain,” and gets ahold of E. The ring continues.
  4. Knowing the system is in place, the teacher begins the next class asking if any questions or troubles made it around the ring since their last meeting. It’s a formative assessment gold mine.

Student are practicing social skills, it’s low-threat collaboration, it values the asking of questions. It’s low-cost and allows for the use of mobile technologies without requiring them or the installation of new functionalities.

P.S. In putting together the chain, I’d probably take personalities into consideration and try to build in as much student choice. The easiest way I’ve found is starting with a conversation of what it means to be connected to someone who supports your learning and then asking each student to write down the names of three students they know would support their learning if they were linked and one student who would probably derail their learning. After that, it’s up to teachers’ professional opinion to make matches that foster student growth.

Learning Grounds Episode 001: In which Megan discusses her learning, inclusion, and professional collaboration

For the first episode of the podcast we spent a cup of coffee with Harvard Graduate School of Education student Megan. Over the course of a grandé, we discussed Megan’s drive to implement a truer inclusion program for special needs students as well as the difficulties of professional collaboration when new teachers meet existing systems.

Things I Know 293 of 365: The glacier of higher education is drifting toward collaborative learning

If you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research.

– Wilson Mizner

I’m in the throws of finals at the moment. Today was spent reading the relevant four sources to be synthesized and analyzed in the essay final I’ll be writing tomorrow for one of classes. Contrary to my instincts, it won’t be available for viewing here until after the due date for submission has passed in keeping with the explicit instructions that we are allowed to discuss our ideas for the paper while we are planning and thinking about what we’ll write, but not once we’ve begun writing.

While I understand this guidance as keeping with the College’s policy of preserving “the status of the work as the student’s own genuine intellectual product,” I also wonder what effects such policies have on our abilities to build a fund of knowledge or work collaboratively.

Much of the work I’ve been doing over the course of this semester includes ideas around setting policy at the organizational and systems levels. This work has asked for definition of purpose and principles of design. It has asked for the articulation of beliefs as I would integrate them into organizations and systems under my supervision.

At the same time, the refinement of those principles and beliefs has largely been done individually.

There should be road testing.

Instead of my design principles, I’d love the chance to work within the context of a 70-student course to come to consensus on our design principles. Imagine the process of starting with 70 disperate ideas and the discussion surrounding their integration. Imagine the learning of the experience.

To be clear, this is the faulting of the system, not any individual. Much of the work done within higher education has to do with looking at the writings of those who have come before us and working to invent something just different enough so that we might call it unique. Given the plurality of ideas accessible in a globally networked world, such a process is intensely competitive.

In one of my courses this semester, we were asked to move toward a collaborative process. In teams, we were asked to set a research agenda and share our findings. Though not planned, this led to the sharing of resources across teams to the point that the course’s teaching team created and online space for teams to archive their research. Once allowed, the sharing was contagious. Not only was each piece of work created for that assignment each student’s own genuine intellectual property, it had the added benefit of drawing from the depth of a commons shaped by all the minds in the room.

This is an excellent start.

Still, we can do much more to foster individual thought built through communal knowledge.

The leading example of what is possible exists in Writing History in the Digital Age. Edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, Writing is “a born-digital edited volume, under contract with the University of Michigan Press for the Digital Humanities Series of its digitalculturebooks imprint.”

It signals a shift in how we can better leverage intellectual capital to build polycultural works.

What’s more, the research is coming to support such a shift. If you’ve got the time, look at the work Sarah Thorneycroft is doing to change academic publishing or consider Doug Belshaw’s transparent, conversational and deeply academic work on digital literacies.

While I’m frustrated by the lingering restrictions of classroom 1.0 I’m encountering in graduate school, I’m heartened by these bright spots highlighting ways in which networks can be leveraged to support both individual creation and communal refinement.

Things I Know 130 of 365: Professional development must be warts and all

Good design begins with honesty, asks tough questions, comes from collaboration and from trusting your intuition.

– Freeman Thomas

A group of teachers cam to visit SLA Tuesday. Particularly enterprising, their school is heading to a project-based model next year, and they’ve been using this year to experiment. While not fully project-based, their classes have featured a few projects throughout the year, and they wanted to talk shop.

When I sat down, they were talking to Tim Best about rubrics and expectations.

They wanted to adopt a similar approach next year, and I had a question.

I asked if they had a plan for getting the more hesitant members of their faculty on board.

No matter who comes to visit SLA, they never bring the most recalcitrant members of their faculty with them. Those who come to visit are of like minds.

This group had no plan.

They asked if we had any suggestions.

I had one.

Be vulnerable.

Whenever I’ve been part of a faculty or heard stories of a faculty that was adopting a new approach or program, there was never a sense of vulnerability.

Every launch, unveiling or introduction has been orchestrated with the promise of perfect like some sort of Kevlar-covered pedagogy.

Nothing ever is.

No matter what these teachers say next year as they start to shift the way their school approaches teaching and learning, it will not be perfect.

My suggestion was for each of them to sit down with a group of their peers and workshop a unit plan, project description or rubric they’ve built this year.

When new initiatives are launched, all many teachers hear is “We’ve figured out the problem with our school. You’re teaching the children wrong, and we’re hear to fix you.”

Asking their peers to sit down to a curricular discussion that values the knowledge and experience of everyone involved can be a way for their school to make thoughtful change.

Even better, those conversations will bring new eyes to the process in a structured way so that this beta group can refine their practice with the help of their peers rather than burning out mid-year next year because everyone is looking to them to keep pushing things along.

Some school initiatives fail because they are either bad initiatives or bad fits for the schools adopting them. Other initiatives fail because they’re thrust upon a faculty with pomp and circumstances, but lacking dialogue and reflection.

By inviting their faculty to the table as colleagues, these teachers could have a good shot at eliminating 50 percent of the reasons they might fail.

I like those odds.

Things I Know 112 of 365: It’s not enough to have the door open when I teach

An open mind leaves a chance for someone to drop a worthwhile thought in it.

– Unknown

One of the few specific pieces of training for being a teacher I remember was a piece of cautionary advice – Don’t teach with your door closed.

As is often the case with this sort of advice, no one ever really filled in the gap of how to do the opposite of teaching with my door closed. Namely, I received no direct instruction in door-open teaching.

I often read about technology’s affordances for networking teachers with one another. It’s always seemed a bit like showing someone a telephone and wishing them luck on finding useful numbers.

Teaching with my door open is best when it is a combination of the personal and the virtual.

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a fellow SLA teacher linking to a Slate article about movie theaters’ resistance and attempted avoidance of the Food and Drug Administration’s draft rules requiring restaurants to post the nutrition information for the food they serve.

Movie theaters would rather not have their patrons realize each tablespoon of butter they just doused their popcorn with had nearly double the number of calories of a tablespoon of the butter back in their kitchens.

I tagged the article in delicious (long may it live) and stowed it away to use last week in my food class. The students and I read the article and engaged in some pretty fantastic conversation about the economics of movie theater food as well as the cultural implications of the event of going to the theater.

I’ve talked all over the place about this food course. Even before it started, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about it. I wasn’t bragging, I was just thinking and planning aloud, inviting anyone who read or heard what I was thinking to throw in some ideas.

Thus, the e-mail.

We read the article in Tuesday’s class, whetting our appetites for Friday’s convening.

I remembered about a month ago one of my science teacher friends explaining an experiment to me during my first year at SLA.

Students exposed popped microwave popcorn to a sodium hydroxide solution that corroded the organic matter.

One would imagine that would include everyone one would find in a handful of microwave popcorn.

No so.

I remembered this experiment because it had sounded interesting. Were I a teacher who claimed open-door teaching, but who really only carved a window into the door, I would just have told my students about the experiment.

While, I’m fairly eloquent, me telling can never replace them doing.

Friday’s class, everyone met in my room. Then, we walked down the hall to VK’s room where we donned safety goggles and completed the experiment.

First, we submersed the popcorn to a hydrochloric acid solution so the kids could see what happens in their stomachs.

Next came the sodium hydroxide or lye.

We watched as it ate through the corn and could feel the heat of the exothermic reaction.

When all was said and done, we were left with a white substance at the bottom of our beakers. This, VK explained, was the plastic used to coat microwave popcorn kernels in order to keep them from burning through the bag during the popping process.

More importantly, this was the plastic a person ingested with each handful of popcorn.

Not only had I kept the door open, I’d led the class out the door and down the hall to experience a perspective I wasn’t equipped to provide.

This Tuesday, we’ll return to the article and reflect on the experiment and try to cobble together an understanding of the role of popcorn at the intersection or science, culture and literature.

Had I propped my classroom door open and simply waited passively for technology to bring me something worthwhile for class, it never would have come.

What I wasn’t taught in my teacher preparation, but needed to experience for myself is that teaching with my door open works much better if I’m willing to walk through the door and see what’s out there that I can bring back to the classroom.

Things I Know 103 of 365: Students should teach one another

The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.

– Thomas Stallkamp

Matt and I looked at each other halfway through the class period and asked each other why we hadn’t tried this until the end of the third quarter.

In the last class of the last day before Spring Break, our students were working together, collaborating and mentoring one another all the way to the end of the period.

My original plan had been for my G11 students to visit Matt’s G9 class and share the vignettes they’d crafted and then discuss their writing process. I saw it as a chance for the upperclassmen to mentor the freshmen in reading and writing.

Surely, the younger students would be enamored of stories from their elder peers’ lives as readers. Well, probably not, now that I type that. The point is, we’ll never know.

As in the best learning experiences, very little went as planned.

Matt’s class had been disrupted earlier in the week by a field trip that had only taken a portion of the kids our of the room. Some students were working on making up the day, others were revising their own memoir projects and still more were working on a smothering of other smaller assignments.

As shocking as it was, I came to terms with the fact that these kids weren’t clamoring to hear vignettes detailing my students’ lives as readers.

Instead, we did something much less contrived. We had the older students pair up and work with the younger students.

They sat around Matt’s room. They occupied tables in the hall. They migrated to my room for more space.

The conversations were real and earnest.

“Mr. Chase,” one student said, “I don’t know who needs help.”

“Walk around and introduce yourself. Then, ask how you can help,” I told him.

He did.

I looked to one side of Matt’s room and saw one of my students who is most frequently off-task completely focused on helping one of Matt’s students improve his writing.

I would be lying if I told you I hadn’t been struggling daily to find ways to motivate this student to engage in class. Turns out she wasn’t waiting for my help, she was waiting to help.

After I’d heard a student advise, “You’ve got the outline of a paper here; now you need to fill it with what you want to say,” another one of my students approached me asking what he should do now that he’d helped two students with their papers.

“Go back to the one you helped first,” I said, “And see if she’s made any progress. It’s something I do as a teacher all the time to help students focus.”

He looked at me as though I’d just given him secret teacher knowledge.

In reality, the whole process was a reminder of my general lack of teacher knowledge.

While I’m keen to point out teaching’s general lack of willingness to utilize the wisdom of the elders of the profession, I should also be looking to the wisdom of our older students.

My students have walked this way before. They’ve known what it is to stare confoundedly at a laptop screen trying to piece an argument together. They’ve also felt alone in the effort to be better writers.

Every one of my students, no matter their level of proficiency, was an expert today to someone who benefited from that expertise.

I can and should attempt this type of cross-pollination more frequently. Failing to do so ignores the resources of the school and reinforces the artificial boundaries adolescence creates in the presence of a difference of two years.

Things I Know 48 of 365: It’s okay to leave the classroom

Today’s the day.

– Joan Cusack, as Sheila Jackson in Shameless

I once heard people who live in apartments are less psychologically sound than those who live in houses and condominiums where they can walk out their front doors and be outside. Something about instantaneous access to the outside world, an immediate exit, makes things ok in their brains.

After years of apartment living, I live in a rowhome now. I think there’s something to the claim.

All my evidence is anecdotal, but my theory is the same is true for classrooms.

Forget the argument that teaching with your door open opens a literal gateway to collaboration and being a part of your larger school community. Ignore the touted benefits of talking to those around you. I’m claiming here and now, that stepping outside your classroom is good for your brain.

We’re having what I am taking to be a false positive on Spring’s arrival in Philadelphia right now. Today’s high was in the mid-60s. I took a walk to get my lunch.

I taught better the rest of the day.

My colleague Matt Kay took it a step further. He took his last period class down the street to a park near the school, and they read. Then, he circulated among their literary clumps and peppered them with questions for discussion.

Yeah, yeah, it was good for the kids.

But, I saw Matt walking down the hall after he’d entered the school. The man was glowing. He’d dared to step outside the classroom, outside the school, and it showed on his face that he was all the better for it.

Too often, I meet teachers who see the hallways outside their classrooms as Tron-like rails leading them perhaps to the office but definitely home.

They shouldn’t.

Our classrooms are connected. Beyond anything electronic. Our classrooms are physically connected. The world connects not just virtually, but physically as well.

My friend Jeff teaches middle school students history. Today, they were squirrelly (as is their wont). He took them on a field trip – a walk around the neighborhood. When he got back, he was a better teacher. What he knew was good for his students turned out to be good for him.

I’m not suggesting all teachers need to take their students for a walk (it’s not a terrible idea).

Tomorrow, I’m going to eat my lunch outside, maybe with another teacher. You should too. If it’s too cold, go out to a restaurant that has cloth napkins. Step outside.

Crazy cat ladies die in apartment, not houses or condos (I did a Google News search). Let’s not be the crazy cat ladies of our schools.