Sunday, October 25, 2015

Lifelong Learning, PBL and a Passion to Encourage Others - An interview with Clark Rodeffer

I'm really excited to be presenting with Clark Rodeffer at miGoogle next week! He will be joining me and Jake Gentry for our session, The Way of the Google Drive. (Here's a video trailer for our session.)

I met Clark about 12 years ago through our mutual hobby of game design. He worked in the automotive industry, but around 2010 our conversations began shifting toward education. He was tutoring and substitute teaching at that time and I could tell from his stories that he was a gifted, insightful teacher. He was eventually hired in a district that offered promising innovations along with enormous challenges.

I'll let Clark tell more of his story, but suffice it to say I have learned a great deal from him and his straightforward approach to teaching and learning. He met with me and Jake last summer through a Google Hangout and that discussion helped fuel Jake's passion for the inquiry-based lesson I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

You can follow Clark on Twitter at @CDRodeffer.

Read on to learn:

  • What he will be bringing to miGoogle
  • What he sees as the best attitude for success in education
  • What keeps him inspired.

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Mike:  You came into education later in life than most, but just this year you had another job change. Where are you working now and what does this new job entail?

Clark:  In an effort to both reduce costs and improve service, over the summer, the boards of education for Lincoln Consolidated Schools, Ypsilanti Community Schools, and Washtenaw Intermediate School District came to an agreement to share technology services. Beginning September 1st, technology services for the two local districts are contracted through WISD, where my title is Instructional Technology Specialist.

My role is transitioning away from fixing broken technology (one of the many hats I've worn for the past 20 years) toward instructional technology (a hat I enjoy a whole lot more). Instead of fixing broken stuff, now I get to open educators' minds to the possibilities technology enables. As you put it so well, I get to show teachers how technology can help them and their students do more, not just the same thing faster or more easily, but do more.

My job entails research (both original and external) for using technology (including any efficiency tools, not just computers and electronics) to improve learning in the districts I serve. I plan and lead professional development, run workshops, and train educators at the individual, team, small learning community, building, and district levels.

Mike:  So even though the tech support is not your job anymore, you are still juggling a fairly wide range of responsibilities!
Now, as I've always said, you bring a perspective into the schools that is very different from most educators I've talked to. Tell us more about your unconventional entry into the field and what advantages you think it offers.


Clark:  I grew up in a family of educators -- both of my parents are retired special education teachers, and my grandfather and several other relatives were or are educators -- but you're right, I took a different path, one you might describe as elliptical.

Let me explain. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are both in chemical engineering, and my main focus throughout college was research. I researched oil additive chemistry, gas-liquid separation science, diffusion, and fiber-reinforced composite materials. But at the same time I had an educational focus at the other end of my ellipse. I led Bible studies, tutored, assisted professors with their instruction and grading for courses I'd already taken, and taught general chemistry lab courses.

This continued in my first post-college job as a research associate in the legal/automotive industry. My focus was on automotive safety, but my work included the educational aspects of helping lawyers, engineers, and scientists understand one another, and of how technology could be used to improve that communication.

When my job disappeared in the 2009 automotive industry bust, I found work tutoring and substitute teaching, and after a year as a long-term special education substitute teacher, I was brought on as Site Technology Coordinator and Technology Coach for the New Tech program at Willow Run Community Schools.

The New Tech instructional model orbits around project-based learning, often integrating two or more subject areas, and more group work than in most traditional instruction models. Students are graded, not only upon their demonstration of knowledge and critical thinking for the subject area, but also upon their ability to collaborate with peers, to express themselves orally and in writing, and to demonstrate agency, advocating for themselves and others.

A couple of years later, Willow Run Community Schools and neighboring Ypsilanti Public School District consolidated to form Ypsilanti Community Schools, and the New Tech high school programs from both schools continued as one. From the consolidation until September, my role within these New Tech schools has been more than the basic tech support of fixing broken laptops. I help teachers (often referred to as facilitators) research, plan, and develop projects that meet their curriculum standards, are relevant and engaging to the students in the district, and that sometimes push the boundaries with original methods. So while my path to public education was nontraditional, I always had those two focal points of research and education to define my ellipse, my orbit.

Your second question, about advantages, is harder to answer. I don't like the standard pat responses many would expect, "Having worked in industry prior to academia helped me gain a real-world perspective," along with its equally condescending corollary, "It takes someone from the outside to recognize, repair and prevent the damage education is doing to itself." Neither is true!

There are intelligent and observant people both within and outside of education who are trying to make a difference.

Instead, I'm going to answer that I merely come with an attitude of lifelong learning, a growth mindset (to use the popular buzzwords), and a genuine care for the students in the districts I serve. Being an outsider coming to education is, of itself, neither an advantage nor a disadvantage. What matters is attitude.

Mike:  There's that straightforward approach I referred to! I appreciate how you zero in on what matters most.

When Jake and I were getting started with PBL activities in our district, the conversations you and I had were a ray of hope. They helped me see it was something to keep working for. Coming from a New Tech High School, what do you see as the strengths of PBL?


Clark:  Before answering that, I need to review the context from our earlier conversations. In our Hangout, you mentioned having used a more traditional approach to learning (direct instruction, assigned reading, classwork, writing prompts, etc.) followed by some sort of final product other than a traditional test or research paper to assess the learning.

By itself, this "project-based assessment" (your wonderful term for it) can be valuable. Instead of a research paper, assigning a graphic novel or a music video as the final product encourages creativity, appeals to different learning styles, and is a great example of how technology can help teachers and students do more.

However, the problem is, even with wonderful technology, innovative assessments can eat up class time. Imagine a traditional unit beginning with some sort of formative pretest, then a week or two of learning, then a test on the last day of the unit. If a project-based assessment is used instead of the test, it may add several days to the unit, throwing your class pacing off. By the end of the school year, you might not reach your curriculum targets.

In project-based learning (e.g., the New Tech model), the expectation for the final product is expressed right away, usually on the first day of the unit (or project) through some sort of entry event. Depending upon the content, your formative assessment could be an ongoing (the ongoing part is important) group or whole class discussion of what students know and what they need to know to complete the project and, along the way, acquire the curriculum content. Based upon their current needs, students collaborate with one another, the teachers (a.k.a., facilitators), and possibly community partners to fulfill those needs.

The lists of "knows" and "needs to know" has to be kept current, and students need to demonstrate agency by asking for workshops when they get stuck. Some classrooms even use Agile methods and hold brief stand-up Scrums in their groups to keep things moving forward. (What have you done since our last group meeting? What are you going to do before our next group meeting? What, if anything, is blocking you?)

Sometimes students work together as a group, and sometimes they work independently on different parts of their final product that will later be synthesized into a coherent whole. Instead of homework or a worksheet, teachers might have students use technology to make a YouTube video for their future selves explaining key curriculum concepts they need to remember. "How do I complete the square?" Such self-scaffolding videos are also formatively valuable.

In short, the learning is integrated into the project work itself rather than front-loading it, and this helps restore the curriculum pacing as opposed to the project-based assessment model.

I'm not sure this fully answers your question, but I see both strengths and weaknesses to the PBL approach. One weakness is that students need to be at least somewhat self-motivated. If they aren't, it's very easy for a group to get behind when one member doesn't contribute.

If the lists of "knows" and "needs to know" are not kept current, gaps can arise. The teacher's role definitely shifts from the highly controlled mode of direct instruction toward continuously monitoring individual student knowledge and support through workshops. That shift can be chaotic and uncomfortable.

On the other hand, project-based learning may make it easier for students to learn in the ways they learn best, and it develops time-management and project-management skills. As long as the end product is interesting and relevant, students are more engaged in their learning.

Mike:  I'm thrilled that you are able to present with us next week at miGoogle. What will you be sharing in our session?

Clark:  I'll be sharing how to create what I call "enhanced assessment items" in Google Slides as a way for teachers to help prepare students for high-stakes exams (e.g., M-STEP). It seems really small, just another thing that teachers can use, along with traditional writing prompts, paper worksheets and the like.

But using them could have two big benefits. First, by mimicking the types of questions students are going to see on these high-stakes exams, students will become more comfortable interacting with them and, if practice really helps, do better on the exams. Second, when a teacher models creativity and, as you say, teaches like an artist, it engages students and inspires them also to be creative.

Mike:  Through our talks, email conversations and thoughts you post on Twitter or Facebook, you’ve often been an inspiration to me and you set a great example of giving 100% even when it’s tough. What’s your secret to “staying inspired to inspire others”?

Clark:  This is the easiest of your questions. It's all for the kids, these kids. The districts I serve are, for lack of a better term, disadvantaged in many ways. I get to know these students day-to-day, and I see the discouragement they face. As young innocents, they deserve better. They need hope. They need a chance to succeed.

Obviously, I can't do everything by myself. But if I can encourage teachers, if I can ensure that technology never hinders their teaching, if I can model the energy that these students need, then I'm doing my part.
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I'm doing a challenge this month to post on one of my blogs every day. It's in preparation for my conference session, The Way of the Google Drive. Be sure to follow me on Twitter or on either blog to keep up with the "thoughts and tools to inspire". 

Click here to see all the posts from Teaching Like an Artist with the tag The Way of the Google Drive.

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