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Teachers, multimedia, and Skywalker Ranch

Big Rock Ranch\'s big rock
Big Rock Ranch’s really big rock

I spent the morning at Big Rock Ranch, which was once and may still be part of Skywalker Ranch (yes THAT Skywalker Ranch) and which is where GLEF makes its home. Marin County teachers and multimedia enthusiasts gathered to talk about multimedia in Marin’s schools. The event was sponsored by GLEF, the Marin County Office of Education, and the Marin Learning Conservancy.

The program was short — 8:30 to noon — but packed a big punch. Kristina Woolsey kicked it off by telling us all about the Golden Age of Multimedia and specifically the MacMagic Classroom, which started in 1991 at Davidson Middle School, and ran right up until last year. She showed a video of kids in the program that was just amazing: using multimedia in a collaborative environment to create projects that showcased learning and included student reflections on the process and on their own personal development.

Afterward, there was a panel discussion featuring two of the teachers from the 1991 MacMagic classroom (Karla Kelly and Steve Arnold), Kristina Woolsey, Reed School District Superintendent Chris Carter, and 8th grade teacher Anthony Armstrong. We talked about how technology tools can help kids get past learning blockages, and how teachers are really working on the same things now that they were then, although the tools have gotten more diverse and plentiful.

Anthony Armstrong spoke next, and he totally knocked my socks off. This is not to say that Kristina didn’t; I think my socks have been so repeatedly knocked off by Kristina that I just check them at the door when I go to hear her speak. Anthony teaches 8th grade history in Marin and he talked about how he uses Wikispaces in his classes. And he really uses Wikispaces. He knows it inside and out, and he pulls in videos and polls and Wordle diagrams and all kinds of other tools too. His students have to use primary source material that he pulls together and links from the wiki — including texts, videos, images, and everything you can think of — to construct their own understanding of events in United States history. Anthony is very firmly off the stage in his class, and the students are on it. His kids work collaboratively to understand why people made the historical decisions they did, to argue for other options that might have happened, to explain the context of events… they debate and write and record videos… and they do the wiki work as homework. In class, they work in groups using their own pencil-and-paper notes to have conversations about what they have discovered in their research. In short, at the end of his talk, all of us in that room were ready to enroll in his class. I know I was.

When he was done, the panel came up again to talk about how that kind of teaching and learning can happen in more classrooms. Anthony credited colleagues (in particular, Jennifer Carrier Dorman) that he met through their blogs for giving him ideas and helping him along the way, and pointed out that a lot of this work exists, because other teachers have put together things for their classes. He encouraged other teachers to reach out and contact someone whose projects they admire or have questions about.

All in all, it was an amazing morning. I came away with some practical things I can use, too, even though I’m not a teacher: a new angle for Smart Objects, which I’m struggling with for the K-12 Horizon Report right now; ideas for how to work on projects at home with my own son, who is in 3rd grade and not bored by learning, and who won’t ever be if I can help it; and a renewed desire to help public education be something more than what a lot of it is now, instead of just turning my back on it as I am so often tempted to do.

Thanks to all who organized and spoke at the event today. I am so glad to have gone.

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