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Deeper Learning Conference, 2018, Day Two: Diving Deeply

While the first day of the Deeper Learning Conference ran as a traditional conference, the second day was what they called our “Deep Dive” day. In each deep dive session, conference attendees would experience deeper learning (and some project-based learning) as a student, exploring a problem and developing a project to showcase their solution.

My deep dive was “Come Write a Play in a Day,” a workshop that promised to stretch my imagination and deepen my understanding of narrative story structures, character development, the writing process, and equity and education.

Boy, did it do all of those things and more.

When I walked into the session, I was handed a large booklet, which contained a unique link to a Google doc in which I would be creating my play script using the template already waiting for me. Around the room were various posters to explain our objectives and tasks as well as an explanation of how this deep dive would serve to represent deeper learning.

After writing a reflection about what we were nervous about, we started the deep dive with an introduction of the professional actors who would be eventually acting out our plays: a short two to three page production that would enlighten the audience about inequity in education. I was going to have to write a play that was good enough for these professionals to act out without laughing at how terrible my play was and I only had this afternoon to write it? Eek!

Next, our actors showed off their talents by presenting three short plays to the class. As a class, we dissected each play, analyzing the protagonist’s objective, the conflict, and how a resolution was achieved. As an English teacher, I was struck by how the learning was hidden in the activity. There was the plot pyramid I teach my students, hung on the wall for us all the reference; here we were throwing around terms like trope, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and climax and analyzing character and plot development but without it feeling like a lesson in a language arts classroom.

Once we all understood how to structure a three minute play and develop to characters in a few short pages, we were asked to complete a gallery walk around the room to read and think about some quotes on the topic of equity in education. After choosing a quote that stood out to us, we were asked to discuss this quote with a nearby partner and then brainstorm how one might develop the idea of the quote into a play. We collaborated on our ideas for a few minutes and then shared out to the class.

Finally, it was lunch time and we were given our main task: Go write a play about equity in education. We were given an hour to eat and write before we had to cast our plays. Readings would begin in an hour and a half.

What could I possibly write about? And how would I possibly be done in just an hour and a half?

Our booklet contained some guiding exercises to help us write. Diagrams of story structures; story types, a step-by-step guide to writing about writing small about a big issue. Some students were using the guides. I, instead, asked my tablemates for help. We brainstormed ways schools or teachers often think they are being equitable but actually aren’t. I thought about my home district and the hypocrisy of how we are the Redkins because we are honoring the Native Americans who used to live on our land. My transgender students came to mind and how many schools believe that setting aside a separate bathroom for these students is demonstrating acceptance. An African American student came to mind and how she told me that everyone always compliments her on her hair and asks if they can touch it and how this didn’t make her feel good, but instead it made her feel like they were singling her out.

I brainstormed all the ways that people think they are being nice and accepting but are in actuality driving a wedge between us.

Then I began writing. First I started writing a scene with a teacher teaching her class. “What did you think of Black Panther?” she asks her African American student. “Wasn’t it great?”

“I, uh, didn’t see it,” the student responds.

I stopped there. I couldn’t fit in all my scenarios this way. Delete. Delete. Delete.

What about a monologue of some sort? How about the morning announcements?

So I started writing.

By 1:30 the actors had started readings. With scripts still warm from the printer, they acted out each of our plays and gave us feedback on the characters, plot, and overall writing. Some classmates were still finishing their writing, while others were watching the actors and were providing feedback to the writers.

I was not done yet. I had to make sure my play made sense. I did not want to be embarrassed when the actors performed my work. Because the work was authentic, I had a real stake in its success.

This made me think of my own classroom. How can I provide opportunities for authentic learning for my students? How do I get them to feel a real stake in their work?

Finally my work was finished and it was sent to the printer. I watched as the actors read my lines, laughed at my jokes. I listened as they offered notes on character development and where I could add some more humor.

After the actors provided us with some constructive feedback, we had a little bit of time to revise and edit. Then 10 plays were chosen to be included in the showcase at the end of the day. Here, all of the teachers at the DL Conference would show off the projects they had worked on all day.

Mine was chosen. I made sure it was as perfect as it could be.

It was nerve-wracking to watch my play being performed again, but this time in front of real crowd. Would they laugh? Would they appreciate my humor?

And then I got some laughs. Laughs from the crowd. Ah! How accomplished I felt.

I had some time to walk around and view the other projects educators had worked on. Fair-trade chocolate; visual metaphors for democracy; problem-solving using design-thinking. This was a showcase of learning. How powerful it was to roam these beautifully-designed halls and talk to educators about what they had worked on, why it was important, and why it was meaningful.

This reminded me of the student marketplace the conference held the day before. Students selling t-shirts, honey, bracelets, food, body scrubs, etc. Projects that had grown authentically from driving questions asked by teachers who believe that what they are teaching isn’t only important but essential to create informed citizens ready to go out and conquer the problems of the world. Each product served a real purpose, solved a real-world problem.

It made me rethink some of the experiences I provide for my students. What can I do to make my lessons based in the real-world? How can I create authentic experiences for my students?

Furthermore, as an English teacher, does literature (especially classic) play a role in this authentic, real-world and problem-based learning?

It’s a question that’s stuck with me since the conference a month ago and perhaps a question another blog.

Overall, the Deeper Learning Conference was a great experience. Most importantly, I got to spend some time with some district colleagues that I did not know before. They affirmed my belief that we’re all doing great work teaching our students to be thoughtful, productive citizens, but that we’re all always striving to be better for our students.

I am thankful to have been surrounded by such deeply devoted educators and to have been able to deeply learn from them.

P.S. Thank you to Marc Chun and Jessica Mele for a wild ride of a day.

P.P.S. Thanks to Kevin Deissler for letting me steal some of his photos.

Honey Vanilla Chamomile

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