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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching

Heather Howle

Village 248: The Making of a Classroom Community

After spending five years teaching in Houston, Heather Howle returned home to Louisiana where for the last 10 years she has taught in St. Francisville, a rural town of 1,500. In her essay, Heather describes how she has learned to create a similarly tight-knit community in her classroom, empowering students to innovate and achieve in the challenging field of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Her results speak to the power of the relationships she builds with students: At the outset of the last school year, her students averaged a score of 34 percent on their robotics exam, and zero percent demonstrated mastery. By the end of the year, 94 percent of students did, with an average score of 87 percent.  

I was once queen of my own kingdom. From my high tower, I gave directives that were immediately followed by my loyal students or off to the office they would go! The best ideas in my kingdom were my own because they were the only ideas allowed. From the outside, my kingdom was lovely, peaceful, and orderly. To my students, though, it was a prison. Each day they followed my decrees and watched the clock, often asking the only question on their minds: “What time do we get out of here?”

As queen, it was a lonely existence.

I can’t recall the exact day or hour that my kingdom was changed forever, but I do remember the moment. Our community had just approved a 1-to-1 technology tax that put a MacBook in the hands of every student. To use this new technology, I designed a lesson where students used iMovie to deliver a weather report on a biome of their choice. For a queen, it was a pretty good lesson. A student called me over and asked, “Mrs. Howle, would it be OK if I green-screened myself into the biome using PhotoBooth?”

“What?” I said. “You can do that?”

“Sure, Mrs. Howle. It’s easy. Let me show you.”

“That’s amazing! I had no idea. Can you show the class?”

Mrs. Howle uses technology in her classroom to enhance her students' experience.

With that, the biome project went from good to great, becoming more than I could have imagined. Inspired, students green-screened themselves reporting from a news anchor desk, in front of a weather map, stumbling through the desert, and shivering in the arctic tundra. The bar was raised, and even those who chose not to use a green screen responded. Abby, for example, transformed her parents’ shower into a steamy tropical rainforest and delivered her report from under an umbrella with a rubber snake draped around her neck.

I still vividly recall those reports and the projects that followed. The gains in our state science scores indicated that students remembered as well. Long-term retention of science content greatly increased when my students were more engaged. And that increased engagement came when students were given a voice in the direction and outcomes of our lessons.

My walls crumbled as I ceded some control over to the students. My kingdom fell when I admitted to myself and my students that I was not the supreme holder of all knowledge and ideas. In my kingdom’s ruins, we began to build a village: the Village of Room 248.

Students aren't the only ones learning new things in Mrs. Howle's classroom.

The evolution of Village 248 from teacher-controlled kingdom to student-centered village was sparked through technology, but grew based on trust. Each year I stand before the class and say, “Welcome to Village 248. We are going to do great things together. You need to know that I do not have all of the answers. If you see me making a mistake, tell me. If you think of a better way, share it. If you figure something out, help us all to understand.” A seed of trust is planted when students see that their teacher is fallible like them. They are more willing to try new things. They take more risks.

Our classroom village is messy, noisy, and busy. It may even appear a bit chaotic, but everyone has a purpose. Everyone has a voice.

The engineering design cycle is on the whiteboard for reference.

Today in Village 248, we are applying the engineering design cycle to build a vessel capable of protecting a raw egg from a five meter fall using limited materials and a tight budget. It’s the classic egg drop lesson—but with a twist. We are using SeeSaw, an online digital portfolio, to document our progress. I have asked the class to post their progress and current budget to the class board. As I scroll through and approve the posts, I notice that Harrison and Joseph’s post looks very different than the others. They have posted a video. The group’s recorder, Harrison, explains his decision.

“I decided to use a time lapse video to show everyone our idea. I thought this would be a better way to show what’s in our heads.”

I approve the post and comment “Love this!!!” to the group board.

 

“When can we leave?” is no longer the question on my students’ minds. Now, their question is, “Do we have to leave?”

 

LeDarrious pipes up from the back of the room. “Mrs. Howle, I think it is ridiculous that we can’t exchange materials. We should be able to spend our money on whatever materials we want. Think about it. We will have to make more choices. The vessels will be better.”

LeDarrious has a point. Perhaps I have made the project too restrictive. Students are limited in materials: one sheet of newspaper, four toothpicks, two rubber bands and so forth. Each material has a price tag. LeDarrious is suggesting that students should be able to exchange materials of the same price, such as four toothpicks for a sheet of newspaper.

I put it to a vote of the village. “Should we be limited in our materials or should we do as LeDarrious suggested and be able to exchange materials of equal value?”

The village votes in favor of LeDarrious’ idea.

In this village, “When can we leave?” is no longer the question on my students’ minds. Now, their question is, “Do we have to leave?”

A student in Mrs. Howle's class tests her egg drop contraption.
Students record their observations in SeeSaw.
A student films one of the egg drop tests.
A newspaper parachute breaks one egg's fall.
A student reviews data from the egg drop experiment in SeeSaw.

Though I no longer reign as queen, I retain much classroom control in my new role as the village leader. I specifically chose SeeSaw over other digital portfolio platforms because I set the parameters and must approve all posts. Students have much freedom in how they express their learning, but ultimately I have control over what appears on the public board. To keep Village 248 running smoothly, I use ClassDojo as a digital classroom management tool. With ClassDojo, I set the classroom village expectations and can reward or deduct points based on students’ behavior choices. Students are rewarded for helping others, being on task, and showing persistence. Points are deducted if students show disrespect, are off task, or are unprepared for work. The most valuable feature of both SeeSaw and ClassDojo is the parent access option. By offering parents a glimpse into our classroom, I create a transparent community based on trust.

Drawing on the outside community of our town would also prove helpful in the evolution of Village 248. For our village to blossom, we needed to grow. Starting robotics was a scary risk but one I knew I had to take. Our community’s population is dwindling as our youth leave for jobs in the cities. STEM career opportunities continue to grow and many can be done from anywhere with an internet connection. I wanted to give our kids a choice, and robotics was the STEM entry point for my students.

But I knew nothing about robots. I had no funding. I didn’t know how to code. Honestly, I’m not even that tech savvy. So I knew I had to go outside the safety of our village and ask the community for help. Parents and the community put a great deal of trust in teachers. They trust us to keep their children safe. They trust us to prepare their children. They trust us with the future. But how much do we trust them? How often do we ask for their input? How often do we ask for their help?

I let down my guard and asked. The community offered a bounty of support. A local industry granted over $20,000 to purchase 35 robots. Universities and tech companies lent their knowledge. Community groups donated funds. Parents drove four hours to robotics competitions and packed the house to watch the robots battle it out during our “SumoBot” tournament.

Robots that students built for last year's SumoBot competition are displayed in Mrs. Howle's classroom.

Village 248 is now a village of many. We have no boundaries. No walls. Our community is limitless. So is our potential.

So classroom kings and queens of old, this is my call to you: Tear down your walls. Lay a foundation of trust. Let help in. Start a village. Watch it grow.


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