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How transparent is your classroom?
by Chad Evans
If you asked teachers about the transparency of their classroom, it would most likely be low on their list of priorities. And that’s a shame. In the high-stakes accountability driven world educators currently operate in, the tendency has been to hunker down, close the door, and hope that no one notices you long enough to make you endure yet another series of frustrating changes. At the same time, what if instead of crawling back into the caves, we took another approach? What if instead of hiding, we did the opposite? What if chose to shine a light on the learning that is occurring in our schools and classrooms?
The philosophical shift to building a more transparent classroom is not an easy one. It takes courage and resolve and a belief that by sharing everything (warts and all), the classroom will become an optimal learning environment for both a teacher and their students. There is a vulnerability that comes with transparency as well as humble acknowledgment that we may not have control of or even understand the magic of learning in our classrooms. Let’s take a look at some ways we can begin to move towards more open and transparent classroom environments.
1) Document everything. Evidence of learning comes in many shapes and sizes these days. Technology affords us the ability to document all of it. Use your cell phone to take photos, video and audio recordings. Instead of focusing on grading student work, provide feedback to them while “collecting” it. Focus less on recording numbers in a gradebook and instead focus more on what these artifacts mean for your learners. In itself, documenting everything does not make you transparent, but it is a necessary practical first step. Record your mini-lessons and small group conversations so that absent students can view them later on. Remember, students who need extra support also have this resource to go back to and view at their own pace. They have the advantage of pausing, rewinding, and re-watching the lesson. Even more important than teachers documenting evidence, we must provide students the opportunity to document their own learning journeys. Let them give one another feedback through digital collaboration tools or peer evaluated rubrics. Let them pull out their cell phones and support them in creating their own understandings through media and evidence collection. Again, documenting everything does not make your students learning more transparent, but it does begin to create larger conversations about quality, revision, and publishable products.
Create a digital learning community. Many teachers have moved towards Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard, My Big Campus, Schoology, and Edmodo (for example). These environments allow for continued collaboration and communication and provides opportunities for students and teachers to continue to interact after the school day ends. Most LMS’ are “gated” communities which allow for students to have a safe place to share their work without making it available on the web immediately. Think of these as playgrounds or sandboxes for kids to work and play. They should be places where kids can take academic risks and make mistakes. While many teachers and students prefer to have these communities be open to students and teachers only, some of them provide opportunities for parents or community members to participate as well.
Digital Portfolios of Learning. Student portfolio’s are not a new idea but have often been locked away in a classroom closet or drawer only to be pulled out at parent-teacher conference time. We need to be helping students create digital portfolios that are dynamic, visible, and showcase both evidence of the learning journey as well as published final products. Through the use of google sites or wikispaces (though there are many others), students can create spaces that provide opportunities for feedback from peers, teachers and/or experts. What is key is that no matter what tool you use, the students should determine the visibility of their work, while you encourage openness.
To do this though, we need to practice what we preach. Imagine that teachers modeled this by making their lesson plans, brainstorms, assessments, and rubrics available for colleagues. What if teachers recorded their most effective strategies and best practices as exemplars for peers to view? What if teachers posted videotaped parts of lessons to receive constructive feedback from their colleagues? How could digital teacher portfolios of learning help us to continuously improve?
Blog.Teachers and students alike should consider blogging because it helps make our thinking and learning visible. We need to be more reflective as professionals and we need to model and encourage reflection for our students. The best teacher blogs are ones that share insight into the classroom experience, sharing the ups and downs, the successes and failures. Consider that by having a blog, other teachers just like you might have the courage to try something or learn from you. Blogging is one of the most transparent and scary things we can do as educators. It is also one of the ways we can regularly communicate with and invite parents into our classrooms and the insights we bring to our profession. For students, it provides them a voice and an opportunity to very publicly wrestle with questions and concepts for an audience far greater than their teacher and classmates.
Use Social Media. It is becoming more common for districts and schools to use social media to communicate with parents and the community . Teachers should consider the use of social media not just because it can be effective communication tool with students and parents, but also because it provides us an opportunity to model how to use these tools for learning. Twitter and Facebook (for example) provide platforms to share resources and information as well as celebrating the fun and learning occurring inside of our classrooms.
In the end, transparency in teaching is mostly about sharing. Sharing learning spaces with kids, sharing ideas with colleagues, and sharing success with parents. As educators we must challenge ourselves to be more open to sharing and transparent in our thinking so that all stakeholders can continue to learn and grow.
Chad Evans has been an 8th grade social studies teacher in the Quakertown Community School District for the past 13 years and has served as a Learning Facilitator with a focus on intructional technology for the past three years.