The Making of a Digital Educator

For my recent post on DMLcentral I wanted to explore how digital educators are trained to do what they do… or are we just figuring it out on our own?

You can read the original here or read it below in full.

Last year, I read Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher” and it changed the way I understood education in America.

Fundamental to this essential history (of recent efforts at education reform, not just in the U.S. but around the world) is the question of whether teachers are born or made. The book’s subtitle telegraphs Green’s answer “How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone).” If teachers are born, then all we need to do is support those inherently strong at it then push out the rest. If they are made, however, the task is much harder, but more hopeful, as we can instead develop successful strategies to support educators to develop the complex skill sets required to inspire and inform the next generation.

Through my read, I kept reflecting on its lessons and comparing them back with my own experiences, now in my 16th year in after-school learning institutions. As a digital learning educator, was I born or made? What did I learn at Global Kids and, more recently, at the American Museum of Natural History, that made me so effective at weaving digital learning tools, strategies, and pedagogies into curricula? How did I become so skilled at leading groups of 20-30 students through a digitally-infused learning process?

Rather than answer these questions on my own, I thought — on the eve of the Digital Media and Learning Conference — we could explore them together. So, in essence, I pose to you: How are digital learning educators made?

If your are a formal teacher in a formal school, there are all sorts of ways you became certified to be in your classroom. But, did any of them include preparations or ongoing support to integrate a connected learning-style pedagogy? And, if not, how did you learn to do what you do?

Inversely, if you work in an informal educational setting (I work in a museum, for example), I am presuming you are like most people I meet in our diverse but related fields. You learned it on the job. Again, I want to know how. Did you have any training before the first time you met with your first group of learners? What forms of on-going feedback, mentoring, professional development exist to help you not just support the youth within your organization but to continually improve your abilities to do so?

Whatever your answers might be, whatever supports and training you might have had or not had, PLEASE share below. Let’s watch for patterns and see what emerges. Will we find that some spaces have more institutional support for teacher/facilitator training than others? Some with more freedom to innovate? Some with better abilities to identify effective and rigorous teaching methods and the mechanisms to identify them and institutionalize their practices?

Or, are we all just floundering around, cobbling it all together at conferences like DML the best we can?

But wait! There’s more. My post was intended to start a dialogue, to invite my peers to share in the comments their own story. Below is the one I contributed:

So how was I made into a digital educator? Upon reflection, in three phases.

PHASE ONE: In the first phase, in the second half of the ‘90s, I taught (on the side) undergraduate and extension courses on how to build web sites, using HTML, coding by scratch. No one taught me how to do that. I had an orientation for helping people, a performative nature, and an empathic perspective that helped me to see something complicated from a naive perspective. I had no idea if what I was doing was effective but I could tell I was having fun. Once, after teaching a group of seniors, one comment card reported, “I now understand I have no business making web sites,” which told me I was doing something right – she had entered the course riding a wave of hype and family expectations and left with enough agency to make a decision on her own

After a few years, I ended up teaching a group of teachers. Afterwards, one told me “You’re a master teacher. And we should know, we’re teachers.” That was flattering, and floored me. I had never had any professional feedback on what I was doing, even that general, and I felt I still had no idea what I was doing. This gave me the confidence to leave the professional world of web design (my day job) and strike out in the world of education.

PHASE TWO: In my second phase of becoming a digital educator, I was trained to be an outstanding youth development professional at Global Kids, an after school program in NYC that trained urban youth to become community leaders and global citizens.

Every school year began with an intensive 2-3 week long staff training period, for staff both old and new. This included such thing as:

– Learning (and reviewing) the basics of youth development pedagogy and practices
– Learning how to create project-based programs
– Standards for writing and sharing curricula
– Once we were more seasoned, developing and running these very staff trainings.
– How to support experiential learning – how to start with a personal, albeit abstract, experience and scaffold that towards understanding of a learning objective
– How to take a rotely taught lesson and make it interactive

Through strong supervising we all had the opportunities to develop:

– classroom management skills
– co-teaching skills (all programs were run by two staff, always)
– crisis management skills
– youth recruitment and retention techniques
– and more program management skills

In our facilitation pairs, our practices were further developed by:

– collaborating on curricula design and delivery
– after every session, taking the time to ask first “what went well” and then “what could we have done differently”
– thinking together about program challenges, or struggles with a particular youth

Outside the organizations, we were encouraged to access other resources, like additional youth development trainings, attending and presenting at conferences, and more.

I was at Global Kids for a dozen years. My training did not conclude after my first year, but was an on-going process that never ended. Doing the work MEANT being part of a reflective and training process that always upped my game.

PHASE THREE: While I was being trained in youth development and project-based learning, I was learning how to incorporate media education or media production – in essence, how to be a digital educator – but in a totally different way.

In this third phase, which overlapped with the second, I set out to learn how to combine what I did before GK – web design – with my emerging skill set – youth development. I looked around and saw that Media Literacy was a strong and vast space that I could draw from. The Web was just another medium, like movies, television and radio – to which later I would add podcasts, digital games, virtual worlds and all that followed.

While youth development came through a formal staff development process, for digital learning I was largely on my own. I watched my peers and read their curriculum. I familiarized myself with their key questions – who benefits from the creation of media and how can the disempowered gain authority and agency by producing their own? Through NYC peers in collectives like Hive I saw what the end product was suppose to look like – a polished media product with a youth face connected to its production. I attended workshops at conferences and gatherings, and learned by osmosis (experience). And I mentored my staff.

At the same time, I learned about design practices, about working with youth to achieve educational goals through media production. As with learning how to be a digital educator, I was largely left to my own devices. I was lucky to be at an IDEO-designed training for the organization that grew into the Hive Network, and that began a passion for design practices.

Very little I learned in phase 3 was like phase 2. I’ve trained dozens of staff since then to be digital educators – to be able to incorporate emerging media into educational programs, to understand what they afford towards the intended learning goals and to keep the learner first – but not within an embedded practice like GK developed to teach youth development.

Today, at the #2016DML conference, there are a half-dozen of us who have “graduated” from GK and now work in museums, libraries, or academia, bringing digital learning into different spheres. Youth development is the air we all breathe. And we hold deep appreciation to GK and its practices for the training we received.

Yet when we ask how we learned to be digital educators, we each point to someone else at the table. We learned it through mentorship, through an apprenticeship model.

What’s your story? How were you trained?


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