I don't just mean TOEFL. From April to October in 2011, I went from contract work in production to holding a full blown post as a high school teacher at an international school. In that time period, I didn't become more skilled or capable of performing this task. In fact, all I did was trek a bit in China, take some actors' headshots, write some articles, and move to Ecuador. I accumulated no additional training; I only did frantic research and let my years of high school and university instruction resurface, willing cream to rise from freshly settled milk.
Like a good student of dance, I mirrored the teachers around me and tried my best to make our choreography match in the eyes of our pupils. Those pupils consisted of 26 international students who expected a high-quality, dynamic, innovative education in the realm of Creative Arts...from me.
Teacher? How'd that happen?
In July, after finding this new work opportunity, I signed on to document their goings-on around the world. I was to work in a similar capacity as my previous years, what I had plenty of on-the-job training and academic credentials to do. Poised with camera at eye, we headed to the Amazon rainforest on my birthday in September, after the first week of formal classes in Ecuador. When we returned to Cuenca, there was a recent opening in the no-man art department, and it was clear to me that the position would be filled internally. There were a couple moments in those first two weeks when I looked around the room of my colleagues, all of us nibbling on aji-slathered bread, and said:
You all know what's about to happen, right? This isn't about to be a guest lecture series or unclaimed time. You know why this is freaking me out, correct? This must be what Miss Cleo feels like.
This repeated statement was usually paired with a glare that showcased my irises with uninterrupted borders of white, often slightly bloodshot. I was correct. Soon after, at the start of October, I took ownership of a classroom, already a daunting experience for most. Actually, it wasn't even a classroom but rather a gathering of international students that required art education in whatever geographic location they inhabited at that exact time.
My very first classroom was in a university building on San Cristobál island in the Galápagos, followed by the beach across the street (also inhabited by sea lions). Then, I stood in front of sleepy teenagers for three consecutive hours on a Saturday morning in an old hotel meeting room. We popped into the regular host school classrooms from time to time, not necessarily easily for me as they were thirty minutes from my other work desk. The transit also involved swerving taxis and straight diesel exhaust to the brain. The trimester topped off with a science laboratory equipped with sliding chalk/whiteboards and extreme ventilation.
It didn't stop there, for I remained the Creative Arts teacher during the next term in Chiang Mai, Thailand–utilizing the most incredible art facility I've ever seen at a high school.
Give 'em finger paints. What's the problem?
At a nomadic high school, the learning environment takes many forms, the class an amorphous blob that can breathe and prosper wherever it can be found. First year (trained) teachers already face a rough learning curve in a static environment with a set curriculum and tools, so one can imagine my daily trials/tribulations of learning a new gargantuan skill while trying to juggle my main job as Media Specialist and maintaining staff writer status at Matador.
I wasn't all that successful. See Matador. See also emaciated TGS Cuenca playlist on YouTube.
During my first teaching term in Ecuador, I took a total of 2.5 days off total. When I didn't have to respond to the bat signal–running at the first utterance of a moment necessary for filming–I had my nose in the interwebs, peeling through webpages on Cuenca, digital photography, potential guest speakers, sample rubrics (you know what those are? I didn't), production report templates, assessment ideas, Bloom's taxonomy (also a mind-blowing education on my part), and definitions of the teaching terms all my co-workers assumed I understood.
Along with the process of actually assembling a curriculum, I spent hours picking the brains of fellow teachers for ideas on how to wrangle, motivate, and manage 26 students of varying interest levels, competencies, backgrounds, behavior, and wavelengths. Even though these students are nowhere near the lot from Dangerous Minds, they needed clear expectations, to feel a balance of security and urgency, and somewhere realistic to which they could aspire.
All of this needed to come from me, and in order for that to be transmitted, no one could be wrestling in the corner. Yes, I had two boys wrestling in the corner at one point. I still talk about it.
I used PowerPoints (heard all about how boring that format is), created an organizational system with strips of paper and numbers (saw them quickly disintegrate in idle hands), and randomly called on students (forgot who I already called on).
This always ended when I got instantly distracted from my management techniques as soon as a student even shifted in his seat, let alone murmured. I was the dog from Up!...SQUIRREL!
There were constant realizations of "I'm better than I was before at this," but every day I was also reminded, "I am not an educator."
I am not an educator...
Creative Arts...that's broad
This discipline was thankfully open-ended enough for me to establish a focus I felt comfortable teaching: digital arts. Even if I merited little respect as an educator in the classroom, at least they couldn't consider me completely incompetent when discussing what I was being paid to do (funnily enough, being around high school students initially makes you a little self-conscious even about things you've since 'owned').
(Pardon the plethora of parenthetical phrases that give voice to my exhausted, sarcastic exclamations of the time.)
It was also a matter of what 'language' these students had a need for, a way of communicating their global experiences and memorializing major events in their lives. Equipped with their Apple kits and excellent camera gear, I wanted to make sure they were intentional pixel creators from the start. For me, that was a necessity and something into which, after a decade of formal study, I was well-prepared to dive.
I did a little triage; what was the most important thing they needed to learn first? I began with what tools a photographer uses to say something with an image. They created photographic essays from the Galápagos and explained every choice. They applied these new storytelling skills with images and exhibited work voicing their social commentary on Cuenca. They evolved from stories with one image to stories with moving images and made their host city a character in some short films.
Pending events got their blood pumping with the onslaught of a photographic exhibition and a student-organized film festival. Learning about One Day on Earth and Banksy also did the trick when I felt my voice wasn't engaging enough.
By the time December insisted I pack my bags, I realized all my time had been consumed by the needs of the classroom and the camera to capture TGS in bulk. It was all I could do to piece together an iMovie trailer of the highlights from the trimester for our online audience and imply more to come. I had become completely overwhelmed by my two positions to do either to my best ability.
All I wanted was to not screw up their opportunities to learn and appreciate something about the arts.
Perhaps team teaching would help?
Moving to Chiang Mai, Thailand to our new host school campus also brought partial solace to my intimidating Google calendar of 90 hour weeks. The resident IB Visual Arts instructor at PTIS, Emily, swooped in on her trusty steed (also known as room full of resources and head full of great ideas) to turn down the volume on my choking.
I learned along with the students how to merge studio arts with experiential learning in Thailand and do crazy things like screen-printing. The skill-building became more visible, the projects more meditative. I also gained more confidence in my ability to structure a lesson and choose what was important for the students to learn.
Regardless of my sluggish improvement in teaching, they always loved it more when they were talking; I learned this quickly. Whenever we learned about some rule-breaking, punk-thinking artist like Warhol or Tatsanasomboon, I made them battle it out, explaining to each other what the artists were saying, why they said it, and whether it was successful in moving them.
Sometimes I came home completely frustrated and disheartened; many other times I wanted to do high kicks because they showed me they learned something (and were happy about it). The bulk of the work was outside of class on final projects: an acrylic painting depicting an issue of marginalized versus dominant cultures in Thailand and a self-portrait screen-print of their identities.
The final exhibition of their work would have been a fairly proud moment for me, had I not been learning of my grandfather's failing health at the same time.
What about Germany?
When I returned to school for the third trimester, I was no longer the art teacher. It was a sizable relief. Though I would have enjoyed digging into the art historical periods that grew out of Berlin, this job restructuring eliminated roughly 30 hours per week of 'overtime' hours and allowed time for me to create videos.
That same restructuring also resurfaced an expectation I had moving to Ecuador, that I would assist the students in their creation of new media: videos, blogs, social media, etc. And with that refresher came the birth of the newMedia Lab, a non-weighted course to support the students creation of new media for school and otherwise.
In short, I was to teach the students the skills I use every day as a blogger, digital photographer/filmmaker, and social media marketer, in addition to presenting tools and techniques that would help them accumulate 21st century skills.
Homework is in need of going global these days.
Berlin marked the first implementation of the Lab for all students, and, after the initial resistance to something new that took up time, it proved to be crucial in supporting both teachers and students in any digital assessments they wanted to assign. On top of that, this wild world full of opportunities could be better processed with this time and idea mill, materializing as sharable time capsules.
newMedia Lab and its first full year
Since this course developed in April 2012, the weekly time allotment for Lab has doubled, and even the over-booked IB students have a block with me to learn about this ever-evolving industry of viral videos and futuristic technology preparation. In my many Google searches, I never find a course like it that someone has offered to the public or spoken about publicly.
Last year, I began in Argentina with an introduction to their Apple devices and moved into blogging, filmmaking, photography, and a conceptual overview of social media. In Boston, we dug into the same languages of communication but with very different focuses: citizen journalism, infographics, animation, and the development of blogs as digital portfolios.
In observing the teachers and their needs of student skills and the speed of their skill development, I determined an order with which we tackle different media of communication. Rather than putting vlogging, Twitter, and music-making into a bag from which students pull ideas to try, or rather than diving headfirst into animation, I introduce five types of communication each term in a specific order: written, audio, still, video, and social. I almost followed this model perfectly last year, and it proved to be a thoughtful and successful progression of concepts for techy teens.
What's to come for the newMedia Lab
In its second full year of implementation, I'm hoping to see more than just TGS students in the Lab period but teachers and staff as well. At a school where constant skill-building in technology is a necessity and where everyone teaches and learns from everyone else, I think this leveling of the classroom and emphasis on a space for development is what will produce prepared graduates for the world beyond high school.
The students are creating their content for a global audience, and so am I. My course lives on Spot, THINK Global School's online learning management platform, and this information is open to the public to use. What can be found on the course are pages that act as narrative lesson plans on a topic, such as photography or digital media management, as well as blog posts with more specific project ideas or topics of discussion for a day.
My hope is that more people take a look at the content, provide their insight, and maybe even use it in their own classrooms! A course guide and set curriculum are coming soon.
I also plan to engage far more people in my course than just myself, as I am far from an expert at every type of communication and technology available today. Instead of playing the role of teacher, I am assuming the role of facilitator/guide and engaging people outside of our community to contribute their knowledge in exchange of whatever value our kids can provide. This outside world interaction with the school is often deemed weXplore, but I am branding this specific interaction with my Lab as a series called the "newMedia Marvels."
Those with know-how in new media or the digital world answer three questions that provide the students accessible insight into their expertise, and the fourth question is aimed to the students, "What can the students provide you in knowledge or value in return?" With our first visitor, Merlin, the students explained how Twitter can be used to elevate a person's online projection and what language is necessary to build a voice. Maybe the next "Marvel" will be looking for brainstorming help with a new domain name or participation in a photography competition.
newMedia Marvels end up being people I come across that have knowledge I know my students don't have and would be enriched by. If you are interested in being a newMedia Marvel and sending a video to my students, please contact me!
And then I became an Ed Tech/newMedia teacher...
I started writing this blog post in February of 2012. Nearly two years later, I am able to look clearly at the progression of my job and see it within the larger context of my career and life. After applying for a job as a "Videographer," I am now a teacher, producer, and temporarily wearing the shoes of an ed tech coordinator. I've always believed that travel expedites growth and maturation, and if that wasn't clear to me in a professional sense before, it definitely is now.
Every once in a while, I take a step back from this kind of writing and think to myself, "When did I start using phrases like skill development and looking at things like Bloom's Taxonomy?" Out of necessity, I built knowledge in teaching that I never thought I would want or need, and what has resulted is a course of study that excites me and often gets my students engaged. There are always hits and misses, but when I get a hit, I walk with a skip in my step.
I'm also constantly getting better at the same time, expanding my skill set to include infographics and audio podcasts as content I understand. I now create every kind of content like an insatiable beast!
The concept of technology that supports or enriches education is really cool to me, and I enjoy flexing creative muscles in this arena at work. It's difficult though to whittle through these layers of my work to identify my true interests, because all these bits and pieces of my job intertwine so much. I'm not sure if, in the future, I would want to only pursue production or if looking at new media in relation to education is my way forward.
Whatever the answer to that quandary, it's clear I have developed immeasurably at THINK Global School, operating feverishly in an amorphous bubble of mobile learning. But I don't really need to identify those pure interests for now, because there's much more to come for me at TGS.