RVS Teacher, Banded Peak School – “Wow… it feels like a business meeting is going on in here!” Our music teacher unknowingly provided the greatest compliment my students could have received last spring on an impromptu visit to our class. Her remark was greeted by cheers and smiles, but also a quick return to writing and discussions of projects and deadlines. This late-May morning in our classroom (and the surrounding hallways) featured one group of students filming a webcast they had scripted, two others interviewing our assistant principal for a magazine article, another group story-boarding their graphic novel, one writing a play to be recorded as a podcast, and others coding and writing the marketing materials for games that they would upload onto our blog, which was being designed built by yet another small team of students. Spring 2016 in 5/6B at Banded Peak School was filled with many mornings like these; working to write, script, portray, upload and publish the products that were to be displayed at the official launch of our classroom-based companies, Student Spark Media and PineCo Publishing.
The long road to Student Spark originated with a “Communication Portfolio” project in my Language Arts classroom. My vision was for the portfolios to be filled with real-life opportunities where writing, spelling/grammar, organizing and editing skills were important and worth practicing. I started by introducing different communication challenges to my class every two to three weeks, having them work through drafts towards final copies that would be put to real use. Term one’s assignments started with letter writing using the “Great Canadian Mail Race,” which was followed-up by learning how to write proper emails and choosing a professional out in the working world to contact – the goal in each assignment being to write effectively enough to receive a reply (indeed, some students did receive replies from a whole variety of other writers: from fellow students in different provinces to professional authors, the head chef at Hotel Arts, even an Olympic Medallist). In hindsight, these projects turned out to be what I now consider realistic practice, valuable for developing skill, but something short of truly real work. I choose the term realistic rather than real because as I reflect now, I see that I remained at the core of each project as creator and evaluator. It was as I began to implement my term two project in the communication portfolio that I stumbled out of realistic work and into an opportunity for something far deeper.
The path to that “business meeting” and the end of the year launch featuring 13 unique media products stretches way back to the beginning of March, when my students (without my knowledge) took responsibility for making their learning real. I had just introduced the term two communication portfolio assignment, a letter to the editor. It was a few days after filling my classroom with local newspapers, placed there for my students to find an issue to care about and read some examples of letters written by other caring community members, that I overheard a conversation about scheduling a google hangout for a group chat after school. I was also asked if I would loan out some clipboards and iPads to a small group at recess time. Understandably, I was a little worried, but I quickly discovered that two competing (but friendly) newspaper businesses had sprung up among my students. Kids were signing up fast to work at the “Grizzly Growler” or “Redwood ‘Round the Clock.” Negotiations had even been completed to ensure that the Growler would focus on school news while ‘Round the Clock covered events in the community. This effort was pretty impressive and at first I didn’t know exactly what to do. After a little more effort by me to try to push the letter to the editor assignment forward, I gave in… I mean, jumped in and opened the door for my whole class on this real work.
After cancelling the letter to the editor assignment, we spent a few classes as a full group re-defining the Communication Portfolio around the student-run newspaper ideas. I introduced the definition of “media” as well a current events story about layoffs and re-organization at Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper publisher. The entire class was on-board with the big idea of building a company and creating media products, but they were not all keen to become newspaper writers. The “Growler” and “’Round the Clock” were put on hold until every student could put some time into a proposal about how they could best spend their time working in the media. As my students set to work on their proposals, I imposed four working conditions:
- our company would be non-profit;
- every member of the class (myself included) would be equal employees of the company;
- decisions would be made through Direct Democracy (every employee would have an opportunity to have input); and
- decisions would require consensus to move forward (this was particularly interesting when it came time to decide on our name… long story short, we learned how compromise which is also a key part of consensus).
The first round of direct democracy was required after the student proposals came in. We needed to narrow the number of projects and then divide and conquer. Giving every student a one minute opportunity to comment on all of the proposed projects, whether or not they personally wanted to work on them, was a unique opportunity in learning about having an equal say. Thankfully, common interests and complementary skill sets emerged and a plan started to become clear. In all honesty though, there was a good amount of time spent experiencing how long decision making can take and how frustrating it can sometimes be when every voice is truly equal. My role evolved into finding the balance between moderating the strongest voices and encouraging the quieter ones. After eventually splitting into groups, students created their own timelines for each media project. These timelines were posted in what had become the head office of our company, and the work started.
After the initial investment in discussion and decision-making, concepts like the process of breaking down the creation of a webcast into scripting, rehearsal and filming were easy to teach. Other than occasional reminders and quality control checks, the students didn’t really need me for staying organized. The greatest challenge was simply finding enough time for the students to get the work done within the confines of our school schedule. Reflections from many students at the end of the year echoed this:
Nonetheless, the Student Spark web-based projects and PineCo printed products all took flight. For the first time in my teaching career, I honestly experienced a near total transfer of autonomy from teacher to students. A great example of this is in the variety of technologies that were used and learned by the different groups in the class. My comic novel workers, for instance, approached me with a request to use Pixton, an online comic creator, with the first chapter of their novel already complete in a trial version. With the students so invested in their work, I was able to spend time with groups and individuals developing standards for the level of quality we hoped to achieve as a team. I tried to provide exemplars of media similar to each project where I was familiar with them. For example, one student showed a lot of interest in developing short “sports tips” webcasts. After showing him a few clips of “Body Break,” he spent an entire weekend developing two segments of his own. He and I were able to collaboratively present to the rest of the class, focusing on the level of professionalism we wanted to see in all projects. The student showed a Body Break example followed by his clips, while I shared a “Pontiac World of Skiing Performance Tip” and my own video “sports tip” that I had been inspired to add to the project.
Other projects delved into areas where I had no expertise or exemplars that came easily to mind. However, the students easily took up the challenge in these cases. The Student Spark creators of “Who’s Got Dance: Teachers versus Students,” independently started their work by researching current dance contest television shows and developing a template to write their own episodes. As well, a group of students passionate in gaming and coding took their lead from a business simulator video game that had been introduced to the class through the Junior Achievement program, creating and marketing games of their own using Hopscotch and Scratch, and publishing in WordPress. In these and all of the projects, the tasks of editing and quality control were truly accepted as responsibilities in and among the groups in the class.
As we neared the end of the year, I invited a few experts in the media business to meet with my students to reinforce what “professional level” truly means. Mr. Mark Kamachi the owner of marketing and media company AdMaki, graciously spent an afternoon helping us to start on designing our logo as well as providing input on presentation and branding to each group as they put the finishing touches on their products. Likewise, Ms. Joan Kollewyn, an RVS learning specialist in technology dedicated time to our webcast and podcast groups around achieving a consistent look and feel. These opportunities provided the last bit of motivation needed to get the work to the finish line, which was our culminating launch party.
I was so immensely proud to invite Mr. Kamachi, Ms. Kollewyn as well as all of the parents and family of the Student Spark and PineCo employees to a celebration of learning in our classroom at the end of June. Each and every student stood up, introduced their projects and shared their reflections on the process of working in the media. They shared both challenges and successes honestly. For instance, the publishers of Summit Speaks Magazine acknowledged that their original goal of producing two issues turned out to be unrealistic, and they mentioned the technological hurdles that they had to overcome, “out of the blue, random pictures would be inserted and work would get deleted.” Their pride in their work however was undeniable: “we have learned many things that could help us with a future edition… and we finished a great magazine!” All of the work was unveiled in print, video, on iPad and over the airwaves. It has all been showcased on my classroom blog, which was turned over to my students as editors: www.student-spark.ca – please visit to see and celebrate the work.
As we are a combined grade school, Student Spark and PineCo will continue in 2016-17; this year’s grade 6 leaders have just welcomed their new colleagues in grade 5. As we start to uncover areas of passion and interest, and move towards new ventures, we will also connect with our mentor grade 7’s, now experienced media creators and distributors. Keep an eye on www.student-spark.ca to see what will be next!