Andy spent the Fall 2010 semester working on this WikiEducator project for his arts, humanities, and social sciences (AHS) capstone project at Olin College. These are his greatest insights after reflecting on the process and content of the project.
- 1 Process
- 2 Content
The following insights relate to the process of HOW I completed the project.
I had used wikis in the past both casually and with a project (co-planning a conference). However, I've never used it for an academic project. The best part about the wiki is how it transformed my writing process. Every single page on the site has been revised at least twice, and most have been edited more than that. It encouraged me to post up whatever information I had on its own page, go back, reorganize it, and then update the homepage to clarify what value the collection of pages now contained. I typically struggle to write lots of text, yet I easily generated many pages of text when I trusted that I would be able to go back and easily change things in the future. In addition, all of my changes are logged by the wiki, so I was comfortable that I could revert to an old version if I made a mistake.
Wikis are also great because they are publicly accessible. When I wanted to share the latest version of my work with my advisor, peer buddy, friends, or family, I just sent them the link. Whenever they got around to reading through the site, they would see the most up-to-date work without me having to send them files, keep track of versions, etc. If they were interested, they could hold onto the link and check back every few weeks to see new content and a clearer purpose of the site. With more eyes looking over the site, I also had the extra incentive to want to go back to clean up poor writing and organization so that nobody would see the uglier versions very long.
Finally, the specific wiki I chose, WikiEducator, was a good choice for a few reasons. First, all of its content is licensed as CC-by-SA (see logo in bottom left), which means that my content is free and open for others to browse and use, but if they make modifications and want to release them, they also need to use the same license. This helps my goal of getting other people to use and build on my content. Second, there is a community of educators that builds content designed for other teachers here, so finding people to link to my pages and help build the project is much more feasible. Third, the popularity of the parent site means higher Google ranking for these pages (try Googling "rapid teacher training"). Many thanks to Mel Chua for her advice with this, as my original plan was to use a cornered-off site like wikispaces.com.
Goals and project plan was critical for desired capstone experience
I had used project plans to varying levels of success in different projects, but once flaws are discovered in the plan, it typically gets ignored. On this project, however, having more abstracted timelines and goals worked incredibly well. The goals took a long time to formulate, including a round of iteration with Rob and Chris, but most of them remained highly relevant all semester. It was only with the prodding of my advisor and peer buddy that I looked back at them after September, but they helped me answer questions of direction almost immediately. The project plan kept major time sinks scheduled appropriately, such as the time-intensive interviews at the beginning and the sample course planning and delivery starting at the end of October. In the end, I actually stayed on track almost exactly to plan.
The goals were also useful as a tool for reflecting. The majority of the topics in this reflection came from stepping through each of the six goals and comparing it to my actual progress. I know what parts changed, what I did well in, and what areas I struggled with.
Advisors and buddies and their feedback
I was fortunate to have a very diverse team of people providing me with detailed feedback. My advisor, Ken, was especially helpful in keeping the project in line with my learning goals. He let me try things that didn't necessarily seem feasible while asking probing questions that let me discover my own boundaries for what I could and could not do. Rob, the capstone course teacher, was most interested in the information flow. When he visited the home page, he wanted to know why he was there and where he should click. He also looked for a stronger explanation of what each page contributed to the site. When he was reading about one topic, he wanted to see more cross-links to other pages. Chris, my peer buddy, was always asking WHY. He helped me cut out pages on the site that added no value, shape the direction of the Olin student RTT course, and consider the different ways to use the wiki to my advantage. Collectively, they helped me stay focused on the most essential parts of the project, keep it in line with my personal goals, and communicate it effectively.
Pilot class useful for all the unexpected reasons
The intention of the pilot RTT class for Olin students was to provide a concrete example of the how to make an RTT program using the guide and core components on the wiki, all while helping Olin students become better teachers. The students I was working with started as a group working with a specific charter school receiving Friday afternoon RTT lessons with me. Due to quirks in the Olin schedule, we moved it to a lunch meeting without a whiteboard or classroom, somewhat changing the nature of the class and what kind of activities were best. Then the students stopped going to the charter school for reasons out of the students' control. In order to stay relevant, I had to make significant modifications each week that made the curriculum completely incoherent as an example to an outside observer. However, this process was incredibly insightful for me as the writer of the guide. The key was to focus on the specific needs of your trainees at the moment, preparing them for whatever teaching challenges they were most likely to face. These programs had to be flexible, especially if the teaching goals of the target trainees were not completely fixed. I also better understood what level of specificity in my guide and core components was helpful enough for me to generate useful curriculum.
These insights are related to my increased understanding of rapid teacher training programs.
RTT works because it is specific -- there is no general RTT program
The key to understanding why effective rapid training is possible is the existence of constraints. When you prepare a teacher in a four-year college program, that teacher could go many different directions, including urban or suburban schools; public, public charter, religious, or secular private schools; different types of school districts, different teaching philosophies, etc. In many cases, the specific school or program where the trainee will teach is known ahead of time. They are given one primary way to do most things, not simply exposing trainees to a common set of methods. The purpose is not to prepare them to teach anywhere -- it is to teach here, right now. Since general education (high school, often college) is assumed for admission into the RTT programs, only the teaching-specific, at-this-school-specific knowledge and skills are necessary.
This insight, emphasized by my advisor, had also changed my core deliverables. If the key to RTT was specificity to the specific task, there was no way to create the ultimate RTT program from the best components of each. I kept the common core components, not as a ranked list, but instead as a grab-bag that may have value to people creating their own programs. The criteria for ranking components was dropped, but this insight was transferred into the guide for developing an RTT program.
RTT exists, not because it is ideal, but because it fills a necessary gap
At the beginning of the semester, I was looking at papers comparing Teach For America teachers to college-trained teachers, trying to see who was more effective. I believed that the four-year programs were doing it wrong and there had to be a better way. It may be true that the TFA philosophy and method of preparation is more effective for urban teachers, but this philosophy over a longer time period for preparation would probably result in better teachers. Instead of gunning for the college programs, I changed my focus to why these programs exist in the first place. In most cases, schools or programs cannot find or afford fully-trained teachers to do the job. They instead take the best mold-able talent they can find and do their best to give them the essential skills to teach in their environment. As a result, the focus of this website is now helping the small programs that need to train people as teachers do the best job they can preparing their flexible and often young talent into effective teachers.
Ongoing professional development is very different from full day training
In my attempt to design my own RTT program, I decided to go with a multi-week, short session model, instead of a full-day workshop. I figured that if the total time was similar, the results would be too. In addition, I would have time to try things, adjust, and come back the next week with a better plan. For the purposes of this first run-through, it was probably the best decision. However, it had nowhere near the intensity I heard about in the multi-week, full day training. Without other commitments, the trainees are able to go through 10 hours of training together each day plus have time at night for reading and other independent learning. Given this much time with a well planned schedule, a lot can get done. In comparison, weekly lunch meetings for an entire semester may only add up to 14 hours, but then the inefficiency of starting and ending meetings, plus the increased likelihood of scheduling conflicts, brings it closer to 10 hours, a single day in full time training. For addressing new issues and trainee questions during the school year, this kind of professional development is critical. For introducing general skills or techniques, however, it is probably best to use part of a full day session, as there is much more room available. Given more experience, I would probably setup a Saturday teacher boot camp instead of ongoing lunch meetings to teach the training course.
Social relationships are highly motivating
Given my inexperience in teaching, and especially in teaching teachers, I knew that retaining trainees in the course would be difficult. However, having a group of people who already knew each other through the eDiscovery group at Olin made it easier to form cohesion amongst the trainees. They also knew me ahead of time, and as the lunch meetings began to recur multiple times, I built in more group sharing about teaching experiences (a great idea from the mid-semester feedback survey), increasing group comfort and cohesion. It was the social relationships of the group that made the final push to bring people back week after week, even when the class or readings were not as interesting or exciting as they could be.