“You joined InLab? How is that?”
This is what I hear from students, teachers, and members of the community when I mention my new role in Innovation Lab. “Do you like it?” “What makes it any different from the other classes you teach?” “What are you actually doing down there?” So, for my first blog post, I thought it might be useful to reflect on my short experience as a new teacher in Innovation Lab.
Riding the local bus. Our first field trip together.
Officially I’m here to be a Humanities teacher, or perhaps facilitator is a better term. I’m partnered with Mike Belanger, and together we lead a double block that aims to pull our English and history content together through long-term, high stakes projects. To execute the projects well, the students must acquire, synthesize and apply their understanding of skills and content. We can differentiate with students to make their knowledge acquisition process most appropriate for their level of interest and ability. We can provide individualized support as they synthesize and evaluate what they have found. And we can question them appropriately to help them apply and express their understanding.
But what I’m really doing is learning, and it’s difficult. I am struggling to learn to let go and let the students make mistakes. Basically, for now, I fail in letting them fail. Intellectually I know that we learn from failure. Most would agree with the prevailing pedagogies that tell us that letting students fail is good practice. They’ll develop grit, they’ll get real-world experience. But how often do we feel that we have the time to let failure happen? What does it feel like to fail during an observation, or when you have a summative assessment coming up? To me, failure has always felt like a great concept, but not a realistic option in my classroom. Now, in InLab, I’m learning through my students, my colleagues and my own missteps that it is possible. InLab provides us with the space, the flexibility, and the mindset, to fail and to fail well. I’m not comfortable with it, yet, but I’m learning quickly!
And that’s the thing. I’m learning as much as my students are. This is a new kind of learning curve. It’s not just the content; I have to make a serious shift in my habits and teaching methods. One of the best things about this situation is that because how we learn is such an integral and transparent part of the InLab philosophy, my students are one of my greatest resources. One student gets distracted from her work by articles about 21st-century learning, and another is willing to brainstorm new grading systems. We collaborate to find the best ways to learn.
Preparing for our Greenwich Issues and Interviews field trip with Greenwich Oral History Project sources.
Early in the year, our class went to Greenwich Avenue to interview experts on local issues. We had some incredible successes that day. Students interviewed the head of the Conservation Commission, the First Selectman, a local attorney, and a small business owner. We also had some groups who left empty-handed. In the end, they all understood why their days had worked, or not worked, for them. With this knowledge, they enter the interview portion of their current documentary project better prepared.
As we head towards the end of our first quarter, our tenth graders are in production mode on short documentary films that use their understanding of the Progressive Era, social issues, argumentation, storytelling, and persuasion to identify, research, and identify solutions for modern local issues. There are hours of conferencing and guidance, and hours of letting go. In a week they’ll be editing, and soon after they’ll screen their rough cuts in class. It’s hard to say what the results will be. I expect some will be successful, and others will not. But I know that the students will take what they learn from this experience, and apply it to the next project. I know that they will be able to assess their growth and learning, and that they’ll be able to set goals for their next project.
Emma Olmstead with Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei
So, to answer your questions: How is InLab? It’s difficult, it’s engaging, it’s different, and it’s the same. Do you like it? I love it. What makes it any different from the other classes you teach? I have more flexibility, more permission to explore and make mistakes, and more time with each of my students. I’m in front of the room less, but at the table with students much more. I don’t have more time or less work but my practices have changed. What are you actually doing down there? Much of what my creative fellow teachers already do outside of InLab, but with the environment that allows us to take it even further. We encourage our students to drive their own learning, to express their learning in complex and meaningful ways, to focus on growth, and to find success in failure.