I’m a science teacher. I didn’t immediately embrace this identity, as I began my career a passionate English teacher. It didn’t take long before I was bouncing back and forth between English and science classrooms, and I quickly grew to love both equally. Today, I primarily teach science, but I have not left my English background behind. As a Teacher Consultant of the National Writing Project, I am always looking for opportunities to incorporate new literacy skills into my science classroom.
When Dawn Reed of the Red Cedar Writing Project presented the opportunity to work with Paul Allison and to write curriculum using the LRNG online platform, I saw a unique opportunity to once again blend my love of science with my love of English. I eagerly volunteered, though I had only the vaguest idea of what I was volunteering for.
The curricular pieces published on LRNG are called playlists, and each playlist guides students through a series of mini-lessons that culminates in a final product. A student who successfully completes a playlist receives a “badge” for doing so. In my view, the greatest beauty of the model is in the student choice, and there are no restrictions on the topics that might be addressed.
I, of course, chose to focus my playlist on a science topic: genetic engineering. I imagined my own students applying their knowledge of genetic engineering to take a position and (virtually) engage in discourse with others by publishing to the student-centered social network Youth Voices. However, because playlists should be accessible to a wide audience, I had to figure out how to provide enough scientific background within the playlist to allow students to understand the content well enough to take a stance. Once I dove into this first mini-lesson, I was able to lose myself in the work.
The process of buliding a playlist in LRNG forced me to very deliberately scaffold the curriculum. In the classroom, it’s easy to fill in small gaps with individual students as necessary, but I wouldn’t be in the room with my new LRNG students. This curriculum had to be airtight, had to leave no details unaddressed. This curriculum, as a result, took longer to develop than a traditional classroom unit would.
Building the curriculum was fun; building the playlist using the LRNG platform, still in Beta, was an adventure. When I design a handout or a webpage for students, I spend longer than I should on the aesthetics. Students have an easier time following instructions and distinguishing important ideas from a text that adheres to basic design principles. Relinquishing control of formatting and design, forced instead to rely solely on the words I typed into boxes, was difficult for me. Because I couldn’t simply indent lists or add headings where I saw fit, I spent hours playing around with words and the basic capabilities within LRNG to present my instructions to students with clarity.
I don’t consider myself particularly savvy with web tools, but I have always been able to fumble my way through the logistics of a new platform. LRNG was no exception. Because LRNG was still in Beta, there was a bit more “fumbling” than usual, but as our pilot group began to provide feedback to those responsible for developing LRNG, we started to see changes. Some of my formatting concerns were addressed. The presentation of individual playlists saw improved readability. Technology glitches began to disappear. And one by one, the members of our group began to feel confident enough to publish our playlists.
Our feedback was being used to inform decisions about a product, and that motivated me to power through issues I encountered while designing my playlist. Had I thought my concerns were merely being shouted into the ether, I might have abandoned my playlist; because I knew that my concerns were being heard and addressed, however, I grappled and persisted.
I worry about students encountering difficulties on the other end. Will they grapple and persist now that this playlist is sitting out there, with no specific teacher to respond to frustrations? Or will they abandon the playlist as I might have done had I no listening ear? I can only hope that the time I devoted to developing a clearly scaffolded, carefully delineated playlist will prevent student frustration in the first place. Today’s youth deserves the opportunity to explore their own interests, to engage with a wide audience, and to experience all that LRNG has to offer.