I grew up in the Midwest of the United States, so many people (not from the Midwest) assume I grew up on a farm. Far from it. We Neals are not the handiest or hardiest of folks. We didn’t fare well in the fields and quickly found white-collar work. I grew up around farmers, though, and I understand, though admittedly secondhand, the combination of intelligence, dedication, creativity, sacrifice, and hard work required of those in agriculture. I know I would be utter rubbish at it. Yet, the metaphor of a farm has helped me change the way I am teaching some of my English classes. My students and I have been using a digital farm concept to structure our study.
I first heard of the digital farm idea from Alan November. Quick plug: if you ever get the chance to attend November Learning’s Building Learning Communities Conference held each summer in Boston, go. My BLC experiences have been some of the most practical, rewarding, and provocative professional development I have ever had.
In my experiments with a digital farm, every student is given a chore (or two). Over the course of a predetermined time period (I find students need about two weeks to try out ideas and make multiple attempts), each student must make a meaningful contribution to everyone’s learning in his or her assigned role. Students may contribute in any way and at any time, too. If they are, for instance, designated a Feedback Provider they could still make a contribution as a Big Thinker. Also, depending on the size and personality of the class, I assign multiple students the same role. Students may work with partners or alone to fulfill their task. Students must also communicate with me in a timely fashion so that I can plan our lessons around their contributions.
At the end of each chore cycle, students complete a journal reflection and their work. I give one-to-one feedback, and then assign new chores for the next cycle.
Visit our Digital Farm wiki for a complete set of jobs. Some jobs are not assigned but come up in a rotating fashion. Discussion Leaders and Student Scribes work this way, and I will make a future post on the Student Scribes concept I learned from Darren Kuropatwa.
When I first heard about the Digital Farm idea, it instantly resonated with me. I thought, “Right. This approach is a tactile way that 21st century classrooms should be different.” Restructuring the power balance of a classroom to leverage a wide variety of learners and learning tools feels like a no-brainer. Of course, moving from that moment of inspiration in a posh hotel conference room to shifting my everyday pedagogy takes some doing. Therefore, I decided, as I most often do, to start small. A few years back, I tried this idea for about two months in my grade 11 rhetoric courses.
The students really responded to the shift. Overwhelming, they told me that they took their class participation more seriously because it felt “legit.” They enjoyed making contributions that shaped the scope and sequence of our learning. Such reactions make sense. We all like to feel in control of our learning in some way.
Then, like I too often do, I sort of forgot about the idea. Well, more accurately, I told myself that I got too busy, and I simply didn’t make the time for this idea, relying instead on methods that I had used for years. This year, however, I stopped lying to myself and made time to try the idea again.
For about a month now, my grade 10 students and I have been using a digital farm approach, and we are energized by the work so far. Our wiki does not look like much right now, but I am confident it will grow. The students will find ways to make their thinking visible beyond our four walls, and the change in classroom culture is already tangible.
We are finishing up our short story unit, and I am really pleased with the shift in power I am seeing in the classroom. The students chose the stories we read. They created the big unit questions. They led discussions. They took and shared communal notes. Of course, I still guided all this work. I was still very busy, but as I look back on the unit, the majority of intellectual “heavy lifting” was done by my students, not me.
I need a concrete metaphor like the Digital Farm to help me make the daily shifts in my pedagogy that I know lead to more authentic learning. In other words, I need a system to give up control. So far… it is working beautifully, and I am excited to see where this shift takes our learning.