My first exposure to the New Tech Network (NTN) was last year when I took several staff members to learn about Project-Based Learning (PBL)…or at least that is what we thought we were there for. The workshop seemed to be more about implementation of NTNs around the state of Michigan. This was not necessarily what we signed up for, but was interesting information none the less.
Just last week I was asked to visit a NTN High School in Indiana and I agreed, as our district is exploring the implementation beginning with a segment of the ninth grade class in 2011. So I made the three hour trip to Fort Wayne after our Open House, arrived in the hotel and fell into bed at 11:00. I woke up this morning looking forward to seeing this school in action.
We were one of three districts visiting; Willow Run and Niles are also in the same exploring stage as we were. New Tech Academy @ Wayne High is in its second year of implementation, there are 100 freshmen and 100 sophomores at this school within a school. As the philosophy was explained, the key elements of the teaching strategies were shared with us and used to guide us in the inquiry process. What do we know (about NTN)? What do we need to know (about NTN)? were the guiding questions used in all NTN lessons as well as with the visiting groups. PBL in a 1:1 environment is the basis for all instruction in NTNs.
The next session of the day consisted of a panel of students who were open for questions regarding PBL. These students were able to articulate the advantages, challenges and examples of PBL projects in their courses. Most courses were integrated such as BioLit, ICAP: Integrated Chemistry Algebra and Physics, and GeoCad: Geography and Computer Aided Design, to name a few. One particular project consisted of working with Edy’s Ice Cream to help them design a packaging method to ensure the same volume of ice cream with less overhead for how they packaged their product. The final projects were presented to a member of the Edy’s organization…Freshmen, yes freshmen accomplished this task!
The next session involved student led classroom visits—phenomenal! The students in the class clearly articulated what they were doing and why, worked collaboratively and independently on their laptops. The sophomores were clearly able to function in this setting with very little direction from their facilitators (as the teachers are considered more of facilitators of learning rather than the teacher who relays information). On our tour we noticed that there were no locks on lockers, how could that be? Students don’t worry about having their valuables stolen? "No we trust each other" they said…WOW!
Our next session had the same students address CULTURE! The driving beliefs of NTNs are Trust, Respect, and Responsibility. It became very evident that the students in the NTN had a very different culture than those in the “other” school, Wayne High. These schools are in one building, which made me wonder how do they interact? How they treat each other? The students described feeling that New Tech was “their” school. There were signs on doors that did not permit the Wayne High kids to come into the New Tech part of the school. This still makes me uneasy, but most kids seemed ok with it, New Tech kids and Wayne High Kids as I got to talk to both. There seems to be an accepted feeling that kids in New Tech are “better” than the other kids, and New Tech kids believe it. Why wouldn’t we want to offer this experience to all kids? The CULTURE that New Tech has created is we are about learning, not the drama that comes with traditional high school settings. Why can’t all schools have a CULTURE of Trust, Respect and Responsibility? They can…#edreform!
In an effort to shorten this already long post, what New Tech is about is CULTURE! It is not the 1:1 initiative, the focus on 21st century skills, the link to the future workforce environment, or a small house setting. It is the CULTURE. The students are immersed in a respectful environment where they have a voice, they create their own norms, they create solutions to the problems that are developed in their course, and they are in charge of their own learning! I can only hope to take back ideas on how to create the same culture in our traditional setting (I beg to differ that our school is really all that traditional, but we are) and make it work with our kids!
As always I am an optimist and this CULTURE is and what should be in every educational setting—I want it! I want it bad! What is student achievement about? It is about the CULTURE! What are high performing teachers about? It is about their CULTURE! What is a successful school about? It is about the CULTURE! What are supportive building and central office administrators about? It is about their CULTURE! What is an Exemplary District about? It is about the CULTURE! It is about the CULTURE, folks, it is about the CULTURE!