Monday, September 05, 2005

A discussion with Florence McGinn

I remember standing out in the school parking lot on a freezing afternoon picking Florence McGinn's brain on one of her last weeks at our school. She had already created a course that earned her national recognition, and she graciously explained to me how she was able to earn grants from AT&T and others that enabled her to provide her kids with the resources to do some amazing things. The weeks and years after that took her and her kids to China and in front of Congress as part of the Congressional Commision for Web-Based Education. Since then she has formed GKE Learning Systems working in Beijing and elsewhere and has published Blood Trail, a volume of her poetry.

Once again Florence was kind enough to explain how she was able to accomplish so much with the technology of ten years ago. Her strategies and methods are based on honoring the individual strengths of her students and developing strategies to give students the choices and flexibility they need to be successful.

She used the videoconfrencing technolgy to make it possible for her students to collaborate with different audiences. She explains some of that here:
In those collaborations, because we had the technology, we had kids that were fine when we connected with Rider University, and they didn’t have a problem with being connected to the professor or with a university student and they’ll take their poem and they’ll put it out there. You have others that that is not appropriate for them. They feel that internally, and they need a choice. Or they need to shift and they can also extend those curricular skills and learn them by mentoring younger kids, so we also connected to the middle school. And some of the kids worked with the younger kids, and some of the kids wanted to be editors and some of them wanted to work with other high school kids and that led to the Asbury Park project. So there were choices that the individual made that were really their own. So we actually worked with what are learning styles and why you might need different expressions for yourself in developing these skills. Why might you want to exercise these at different times and shift? Because you found that some students were afraid initially and wanted to mentor a younger student, then they would become an editor, then they would want to show their work to a college student. And the technology was able to offer enough flexibility in the classroom. So yes, to answer your question collaboration was important, but just as important was to honor the individual creative process and learning process within each student.
We often teach students about creative process and they recognize that they have these needs, but we offer them only one alternative – the writing workshop in the class and that doesn’t fulfill them enough. So this was allowing students to take charge of their own learning process and the thing that really thrilled me was that they went way beyond the curriculum. In fact, some of the things that were very exciting to me was that, given that opportunity, they honored the learning so thoroughly that many of them accelerated to the point that was totally unexpected. These kids wanted to spend so much time after school that their parents would literally be knocking on the door to get them to come home and they would be screaming that “there’s a time warp in here” and they were working on writing, they were working on words.

Now that's what I call kids that are engaged in their learning! The way Florence was able to create such a flexible learning environment and still manage her classroom is remarkable to me. She's an inspiration to me of what is possible within the confines of the educational system if you are given the resources and support.
Florence not only understands how kids learn, but she found ways to make it matter to them. Certainly one of my goals this year. Here's more:
One of the things is that they’re dealing with the information that we teach them and it’s informing them, but it goes further than that, it’s forming them too, it’s shaping them. And that’s what we have to do. We deliver the information and let it integrate and let it shape them, and let the kids shape that information into what they need because they have things to do. It becomes really relevant.
I learned a great deal from this discussion, and I will be featuring more of it as I begin to put things into place this year. Read the full interview here.