Steve Sapere currently teaches Healthcare Science at Creekview High School and is a M.Ed. student at Georgia Southern University.   

Buffy asked me to post my reflections upon the completion of a collaborative unit I worked on with Lisa Kennedy and Peggy Corbett, two of our outstanding English teachers here at Creekview.  My involvement in the unit was brought about as a result of the requirements of my final semester in Georgia Southern University’s Instructional Technology Masters program, which will lead to certification as a school library media specialist.  Playing the role of the media specialist in this collaboration was challenging, interesting, frustrating, fun and above all educational – not only for our students but for us as well!  Through excerpts from my own blog (which I have been required to maintain as a part of my Masters program), as well as some new commentary to fill in any of the blanks, I will briefly recap the genesis of the unit, as well as its evolution throughout a period of several weeks, ultimately leading up to our students’ production of VoiceThread presentations on various issues relating to the elderly and aging.

Jan. 14, 2012: Speaking of the instructional unit, I spent some time today conferencing with one of the teachers with whom I will be collaborating, Lisa Kennedy.  She and I used to teach together when I was her Special Education co-teacher, and we have worked together during my program on other units.  We talked in broad strokes about the scope of our collaboration, and mapped out a tentative schedule.  The students (enrolled in 9th grade Literature/Composition classes) will be reading Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, and will be researching issues related to aging.  I will be creating the pathfinder for the students’ research, as well as instructing them during the final part of the unit, where they will be creating some digital, multi-genre presentations using a variety of Web 2.0 tools (we will be meeting further to brainstorm the specific nature of these presentations).

Lisa and I sat down with Bruce Guyer, one our school’s media specialists (we are fortunate to have two at the high school level in our district) to do some more in-depth planning for our instructional unit.  He is new to our building and new to the profession (just completed his program at Georgia State), so the meeting was as much about developing a productive working relationship as it was about lesson planning.  I feel like we are off to a positive start.  Bruce will be working with the classes on the research phase of the project (the “heavy lifting” part of the job, as far as I’m concerned… teaching the research process to high school freshmen is a mammoth task, to say the least, and Bruce will do a fine job with it…).  I’m very glad to have Bruce involved in this.  He will also be working on end products with one of Peggy’s classes which I will not be able to service.

Feb. 4, 2012: At any rate, we spent some time this week making some more concrete plans for the technology lesson I will be guiding Lisa and Peggy’s students through.  The students will be creating VoiceThreads or narrated Glogs (we’ve narrowed it down to these two modalities) to present both their research findings on various issues of aging, and the results of their interviews with senior citizens at a local senior center.  Lisa and I discussed the project rubric, as well as structuring the assignment as much as possible for the students, 9th graders who are inexperienced with both research and the type of technology we’ll be asking them to employ.

Feb. 18, 2012: Lisa, Peg and I also reviewed all of the handouts and materials for the lesson and made some last-minute alterations.  It has been interesting to see the process from our initial brainstorming session back in January to where we are now.  As with all good planning processes (and I believe ours has been a good one), we started with a wide range of ideas, and have continually narrowed our focus.  We both share the philosophy that it is more effective to do one or two things very well as opposed to a dozen things half-way.  This ‘less is more’ approach has brought us to a plan that we are both confident in executing.

We ultimately narrowed our presentation modalities down to just one, VoiceThread.  Again, we sought to err on the side of simplicity, particularly after an informal survey of the students indicated that few, if any of them had any experience with the software.  In addition, there was a learning curve for us as well.  I had only used VoiceThread once or twice previously.  Lisa had a bit more experience with it.  She is fearless when it comes to experimenting with new technology, which is why I enjoy collaborating with her – she makes me feel brave!  Peggy had the steepest learning curve of all.  She is an experienced and masterful teacher, but by her own admission is unfamiliar and a bit uneasy with certain aspects of technology.  Settling on the one program (VoiceThread) made it easier for everyone to focus.

Leading up to the actual delivery of the lesson over the culminating VoiceThread project, the students in Lisa and Peg’s classes had done a number of other activities critical to the success of their final products.  They produced research papers on self-selected issues related to aging, and then took a field trip to our local Senior Center to interview the seniors there about the impact some of these issues have had on them.  Students were asked to incorporate their research, their interviews, and their own reflections, not only about the issues they researched, but about the entire process as part of their VoiceThread presentations.  The day that we delivered the culminating project lesson to the students was the day that I was being observed for my program, so naturally I wanted to make sure that everything went well.  As such, I sought input from Buffy prior to the day of the lesson.

Feb. 18, 2012: I spent some time this week with Ms. Hamilton, my site supervisor, working on and talking about a number of different things.  First, I picked her brain for a bit about my plans for my site visit since I wanted the benefit of her experience.  This was a very beneficial conversation, and I came away from it noting the need to make a few significant changes/additions to my lesson plan and pathfinder.  At her suggestion, I also went through a quick check of the equipment that will be needed for my lesson (headset microphones, working computers, access to materials and other resources).  Everything is in place and we are ready to go.

On the day of the actual lesson, we were thrown a curve ball of sorts…

Mar. 3, 2012: Of course, our technology department made some modifications to our network over the break, and we started the day in our building with no internet – NOT GOOD, since the lesson and the students’ work is dependent upon a web-based presentation tool (VoiceThread).

Fortunately, by the time of the lesson, all of the technical and network issues were resolved, and the delivery of the lesson went as planned.  After we had the primary teaching done, our students got down to work.  As we found out though, the process would take quite a bit longer than we had budgeted for.  We also encountered other technical issues along the way, most notably some problems getting our headset/microphones to function properly.  Now, before you say anything, yes, I know this was one of Buffy’s last-minute pieces of advice, and I did follow it.  I just failed to try out a headset/microphone on every computer…  The big problem was that this was a hit-or-miss issue (on some computers the headsets would not function, while on others things worked just fine), which made it extremely frustrating.  Above all, it underscored the need to troubleshoot everything ahead of time, as opposed to scrambling around doing triage after the fact.  File that in the ‘live and learn’ notebook!  You can never do enough ‘test driving’ of your equipment…

Mar. 10, 2012: A big focus this week was finalizing the VoiceThread projects with the classes I have been collaborating with.  Overall, the project took quite a bit longer than I anticipated.  After discussing this throughout the progress of the project with Ms. Hamilton, the high school media specialist, we both agree that for a majority of our Freshmen (both of the classes I worked with were 9th grade classes), there seems to be a very steep learning curve in terms of practical use/application of technology.  Surprisingly, many of them have limited skills even when it comes to Word and PowerPoint.  This is problematic since the majority of the ‘heavy lifting’ in this project for the students is in the form of creating a storyboard in PowerPoint, which has turned into a tedious and laborious process for most of them.  This speaks to the ongoing debate about digital natives versus digital immigrants… while most of these students (so-called ‘natives’) can run circles around me when it comes to smart-phones, Facebook, I-Tunes and Twitter, they lack many of the functional skills that will be required of them in many of their high school classes, in college, and in the workplace.  This fact is a bit troubling, as I know great pains are taken at most of our feeder elementary schools to build technology skills into class assignments.  There seems to be a disconnect at the middle grades level which puts us in a situation of having to play ‘catch-up’ with our students in terms of technology skills.

Once faced with this learning deficit on the part of our students, we had to address it in the only way we could, by teaching.

When someone is faced with the task of teaching me something I know nothing about, I always ask them to “explain it to me like I was 6-years-old”.  Over the past 2 weeks, I, in the role of the media specialist, and the two teachers with whom I have been working, have done a LOT of explaining things as though our students were 6 years old.  While that has been frustrating, it is (in my opinion) our job, and we must do it and do it well if our students are to be prepared for their futures as students and employees.  As tempting as it is to ‘pass the buck’ to the previous grade level(s), we are called to meet students where they are and do our best to bring them where they need to go.

Ultimately, we taught our way through the difficulties…

We are finally at the stage where most of the students are finalizing their VoiceThreads and are ready to be evaluated.  Even though it has been quite a process, we are very pleased by the initial results.  We have believed all along that the time and effort that we and the students have spent at the ‘front end’ of this project would pay dividends in the final product, and we have not been disappointed.  Thanks to the efforts of Bruce Guyer, who along with Lisa and Peg guided the students through their research process to some valid, current, scholarly information about aging issues, the students had plenty of good ‘raw material’ for their VoiceThreads. 

I am including a link to a student work sample as part of this post:

This leaves me looking forward to next week, when we will be evaluating the students’ work.  My work with Buffy Hamilton the past six years has taught me that the role of the SLMS as an instructional partner extends far beyond the mere creation of a pathfinder page or assistance with finding and documenting resources.  The SLMS must be an integral part of every step of the instructional process, including the assessment of learning products.  I think that, based on the dozen or so final-product VoiceThreads I’ve seen so far, this project, despite the time that it took, was a success.  It was certainly great experience in terms of my role as an instructional partner, and what Ms. H. terms “embedded librarianship.”

Even though I am not currently employed as a media specialist, and have no immediate plans to pursue such a position, this experience has been an invaluable one that has definite applications to my current teaching assignment.  I think the biggest joy for me in all of this was the opportunity to work closely with fellow professionals in a shared endeavor.  As much as we are all proud of the products of our efforts, it was the process that we and our students benefited most from.  I am very grateful to Lisa and Peggy for allowing me to work with them and their classes.  I also owe a special debt of gratitude to Bruce for his key role in all of this.  I feel like this has been a great example of the collaborative process in action.  Finally, many thanks to Buffy for inviting me to share my reflections on this experience!