Redefining the teacher

David Preston, Righetti High lit instructor, uses technology to hack today's education system

click to enlarge Redefining the teacher
OPINIONS WELCOME: AP literature and composition student Melissa Steller told the class what she thinks of a poem she just recited from memory, The Laughing Heart by Charles Bukowski.

The students faced a list of questions displayed at the front of David Preston’s classroom at Ernest Righetti High School. It was the start of third period on Aug. 15, and each senior in the AP literature and composition class was writing the answers to those questions in a growing journal.

“How would you go about writing a satire of the Poisonwood Bible?” one of the questions read.

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel was one of the class’s summer reading assignments. Preston’s students were already in the process of writing down their answers when he asked, “Can anybody tell me what satire means?”

No one spoke up.

“Now, how are you going to write about satire if you don’t know what it is?” Preston pressed.

The class laughed.

One of the girls sitting at a round table in the back looks up the definition of satire on her iPhone and read it out loud. Although many teachers might discourage the action of pulling out a cell phone during class time, Preston encourages it.

The reason is simple: Anyone can access anything by typing in a few words and pressing enter. Preston said it’s just the way society works now, and public education needs to prepare students to interact successfully with that digital world. He’s not just talking about using the Internet, but knowing when and how to use it safely and securely, and knowing which online tools are best for the job.

His class is all about bringing as many tools as possible into the classroom. The possibilities of using the outside world to add to what’s already being taught in a classroom are limitless.

“The point is that this is global,” Preston said.

For example, his Santa Maria AP lit class can—and does—interact with authors and experts who live all over the world.

Preston uses a method of teaching coined Open Source Learning. It’s a concept he’s used for the last two years, tweaking and learning more about what works along the way.

In addition to the traditional curriculum—required readings, essays, and analyzing—blogs, videoconferences, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and interdisciplinary study all play a vital role in Preston’s AP class. This type of learning is where the future of education is, said John Davis, Santa Maria Joint Union High School District assistant superintendent of curriculum.

“The days where the teacher is the content expert in a classroom setting are long gone,” Davis explained. “How do we stay relevant as an education system in a world where those walls are so broken down?”

Davis said he’s fascinated by the model of education Preston is using because it shifts the student-teacher paradigm.

“We’re pretty excited about what he’s doing,” Davis said. “All of the elements of a traditional curriculum are there in his class; he just turns the curriculum upside down … and encourages students to pursue their own lines of inquiry.”

A big component of the method is using technology and the Internet both in and out of the classroom. For instance, Preston and his students may have just started the new school year, but many of them have been chatting on the class blog since April.

“Computers are not the end all be all,” Preston said. “There’s no substitute for talking to one another.”

What’s most important about an open source education is the conversations and collaboration that happen among students, their teacher, and whoever else is willing to join the network. The questions and answers those communications generate enable participants to learn from one another and grow as a network. Essentially, a teacher pulls from as many sources as he or she can to generate an environment in which students are actively engaged.

While students were writing in their journals on Aug. 15, music from Fela Kuti played softly from a set of computer speakers. Preston then asked students to relate the song they heard, “Teacher Don’t Teach Me No Nonsense,” to the Poisonwood Bible.

click to enlarge Redefining the teacher
EXPLAINING WHY: Teacher David Preston talks to his students about why note taking is personal. He told them it’s important that they don’t just take notes because he asked them to, but that they take notes that help them explore things further.

Students’ answers varied, and some thoughts didn’t have anything to do with the book, but Preston was glad so many voices spoke up.

He encourages his students to challenge what’s being taught, ask their own questions, and even create their own assignments. During the recent lesson, some students even chimed in about what they thought their essay topic should be over the weekend.

Preston said the end goal is to get students more involved in their own education, so they can learn to figure out the answers for themselves because “ultimately, education is voluntary.”

“We tell people to sit still and listen, don’t talk, don’t collaborate,” he said. “If you attach value to what you’re doing, it’s going to be a whole lot easier to think of it as your personal journey.”

He compares the current education system to a cattle operation preparing veal (students) for the end goal of being on someone’s dinner plate (to graduate high school as a Scantron assessment test statistic).

“All that [test] tells you is that a kid put pencil to paper; it doesn’t tell you why,” Preston said. “It’s just a snapshot … it’s completely meaningless.”

What has meaning for Preston is the total bulk of a student’s work: the portfolio of their progress throughout the year, the way they’ve evolved in blog posts and conversations, and the things they attach meaning to and why. He said it shows him how each student learns and makes it easy for him to individualize each student’s education.

Open Source Education is something Preston has pursued full bore since 2011, when he gave a talk at the Institute for the Future. He explained that until then, he was just an individual teacher on a mission to educate as a solo entity. But after the talk, he began networking with other teachers and professionals, and that connection opened his eyes to what he could bring into the classroom.

He’s taught many forms of literature to students from ninth- to 12th-grade at Righetti High since 2006. Before that, he taught at the fourth largest high school in Los Angeles and was a college professor at UCLA.

Preston said last year’s students collectively won more than $1 million in scholarships.

Students in Preston’s third period class said those scholarships were one of the reasons they decided to take a class with him this year. But they also said the chance to be taught a little bit differently drew them in. Less than a week in, many students were excited about the class and said they already felt like they were learning to be more independent.

“The blogs are the biggest difference,” said third period student Lisa Malins. “It allows us to teach each other and learn from each other.”

That chance to give input to and receive input from both their peers and their teacher is what student Kevin Lake said was so cool about the class.

“In a way we’re not just learning about literature, we’re learning to just teach ourselves about literature,” Lake said.


Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at [email protected].

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