The Art of Teaching

Linda Auman, Chief Academic Officer for Fayetteville Public Schools, says she was encouraged to see so many people emphasize the importance of education in our community during last week’s Fayetteville Forward Economic Development Summit.

“You saw it at almost every table during the first session,” she says. “People kept talking about education as the foundation of our community.” We’re sitting in her office last Thursday afternoon. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked for Fayetteville Public Schools for nearly a year now, and most of my current work is with the Project 21c team.)

When you’re working to develop a new curriculum for an entire school district while at the same time planning for a new high school, having the community place so much value on education is a very good thing. Fayetteville Public Schools, long one of the best districts in the state, is working to craft a new curriculum better suited to meet the needs of the 21st century.

“We know we need to adapt,” Auman says. “We’ve looked at the data. Something’s wrong when you see 367 high school students drop out in three years. You know we can do better when you see that Fayetteville schools are no longer top across the board in Northwest Arkansas.”

In working to design a new curriculum, Auman stresses the importance of reaching out to the community.

Auman laces her fingers together: “It’s all about making connections,” she says. “We have to connect with other parts of the community. How can we say we’re preparing our students for college if we’re not talking with the people who teach freshman-level courses? How can we say we’re developing our kids to enter the workforce if we’re not talking with people in the business community?”

She stresses that the district is working with people at all levels within the school system, too.

“A 21st century system isn’t top down,” she says. “There’s distributed leadership across the district. It’s a participatory thing, because people support what they help create. For example, we don’t want to develop a curriculum, and then hand it to teachers; we want them to be a part of the process. It’s about everyone investing in it together.”

Auman says one of the first issues they identified was communication.

“We’re not properly training our students to effectively communicate both orally and in writing,” she says. “We’re not. We have to rewrite the curriculum so our kids learn how to communicate better.”

Writing this piece a few hours later, a thought stops me: as I’m typing, I’m clicking back and forth between the draft and my notes; I’m listening to a podcast; I’m occasionally responding to questions or comments on Twitter; I’m sending questions for another interview to someone on Facebook; and I’m answering texts, emails, and instant messages on my phone. I could have done only two of these things when I was in high school, because cell phones weren’t yet ubiquitous and the Internet was in its infancy. It’s no wonder our schools today have trouble teaching kids how to communicate effectively: there’s always a Next Thing, and it almost always comes with its own (often rapidly evolving) set of rules and customs.

I ask Auman how you teach students when the environment changes so quickly.

“If you’re using technology as we plan to,” she says, “then it’s much easier to adapt to the Next Thing. We wouldn’t have understood Twitter, for instance, if we hadn’t first had blogs. And kids,” she adds, “are great at adapting. Kids aren’t afraid of technology. They push buttons until they get it right. My five-year-old grandson figured out how to use my iPhone recently. And you know what?” Auman smiles. “It made him want to learn to read. He hadn’t had much interest before, but now he’s highly motivated.”

Technology isn’t the only key, of course. Auman stresses the need for collaboration.

“A 20th century classroom is built around a very inflexible schedule,” she says. “In a 21st century system, we have to collaborate. We have to be flexible. The new high school needs to be able to serve many needs and to accommodate collaboration. It needs to be a centerpiece for the entire community.”

I ask Auman how the district plans to implement the new curriculum.

“We’re phasing it in gradually,” she says, adding that the goal is to have the curriculum implemented by the time the new high school opens in the fall of 2012. “One of our first steps is to create demonstration classrooms to illustrate a 21st century system.” Auman says the district is starting with science. “We’ll have students write about and share what they learn using different technologies. For example, students can create podcasts to post online so their parents can share in what they’re learning. They can make short science films to post online.” Auman’s face lights up. “Imagine a science film festival,” she says.

Anything, it seems, is possible.

“A 21st century system questions everything all the time, so it’s important that we have a clear, tight idea as to what our students should know and be able to do, but that we remain adaptable as to how we get them there. That,” she says, “becomes the art of teaching.”

You can learn more about Project 21c at Linda Auman also encourages people with questions to email her at lauman (at) fayar (dot) net.