The Conover Effect

In my last post, I mentioned that I ask the question, “What if?” a lot (hence my twitter handle @whatifclass). In my line of work, a benefit of being out of the classroom is being able to visit teachers far and wide who are changing the game. My role is to not only celebrate what is happening in our own classrooms in Manor, but also what is happening right next door…in Pflugerville.

Through a serendipitous series of events, many of us have had our minds blown by visiting Mr. Conover’s class at John B. Connally High School. Hang with me while I explain how a Chilean copper mine, game salad, the Geology department at UT, skype, and project management have in common. When you enter Mr. Conover’s classroom, you see a student skyping with some scientists and sharing her clay models with them, other students working on a keyboard writing music, some digitally sketching, but all are on task completing completely different tasks. Conover has created an environment where within multiple periods, students must collaborate digitally via Google tools in quite a unique structure. We interviewed teams of artists, musicians, designers, and even project managers (talk about giving students a role!). A junior in high school we spoke with was incredibly articulate as he explained how to his second year as a project manager put him in a position to help develop first year project managers. He explained his expectations for his teams and the routines he set up to check in on their progress. Again, this is a junior in high school. These students create not mock businesses and proposals, but actual presentations for graphic artists, game developers from those currently working in the Simi Hills of Austin. Many were so impressed that the relationships end up in internship opportunities and donations to the class. Conover has taken his role as an educator and leveraged it to CONNECT his students to the actual workforce. I said to stay with me on how gaming, geology, and Chile are connected, so here it is. The key vocabulary to focus on here is relationship, connected, creative, and digital.

The story goes like this. Dr. Pierce from the Geology department at UT worked in Chile preserving local geological resources in that community and built a relationships with the local copper miners there. Meanwhile, Conover decides he wants to shake up his STEAM class and knocks on some doors at UT. Conover and Pierce really look outside the box and ask, “What if we didn’t just teach kids about gaming, but gaming with a real word purpose?” Together, they help students digitally collaborate with the miners and the geology department to identify community challenges so that they can create a game to help bring awareness and solve that problem.

This is a different call of duty. For example, I interviewed a students who was developing a game using a free web 2.0 program that was reminiscent of Pac Man. The goal was to bring awareness to oil spills near Texas forest habitats and “eat up” the oil barrels in the environment he’d created. The student even revised the game after he found that players were cheating the system and actually doing more damage to the forest environment to merely win the game.

This may be happening in a district next door, but I encourage you to start asking “What if?” for your classroom. I know what you are thinking, “Lacy! You want me to work a full day teaching, go to my staff meeting, grade papers, prep for the next day, feed my family, and THEN go rub elbows with the Austin Tech community in an effort to make connections from the real world to my classroom?!”Nope. I want you to feed your family well, make eye contact, AND enjoy them as well as what you do. I just want you to ask,”What if?” more! Here are a few great ways to build relationships, connect your classroom to the real world, and give your students an audience. Here’s a few simple, efficient ways to have your own “Conover Effect.”

1. Network and View all your Relationships as a Possible Asset to your Classroom. When you go to your spouse’s holiday party, get social! Find out what they all do! You might run across an interior designer who would love to come and digitally come (Google Hangout) to your class as you happen to be teaching area and surface area or measurement in an upcoming TEK.

2. Capitalize on the Network of Others. Some folks DO have the ability to go to all those after school activities that inspire educators. Find a few well connected folks, use and abuse them! Ask them to share resources that might be pertinent to you. You can do this by following them on Twitter or Google +. The only wrong question is the one unasked. Someone may personally know a screenwriter that can speak with your class about the process from napkin to silver screen. Set aside 15-20 minutes to check up on what the guru’s are up to. It’s a great practice to set aside time that will refresh you.

3. Treat Yourself as a Professional. Professionals network, grow their network, and diversify those they work with. Don’t be afraid to reach out to programmers, coders, voice over actors, geneticists, universities, etc. They all WANT to give back and simply don’t know about the opportunities to do so. You’d be surprised how many Austin companies actually incentivize their employees to do more community service in exchange for extra PTO.

This is not bring your dad to work day I’m talking about. I’m saying ask and hunt for free, creative, integrated speakers and activities using things like Clearsea, Google’s new Connected Classrooms (stop reading this right now and Google that-it will rock your world), ¬†or a physical guest to give your students an audience that will motivate them and connect them to the universities and companies that make Austin such a promising city. As you start to think towards starting a new year your students may be starting to tune out your voice, start asking yourself how you can bring new voices into your classroom. Just remember to start that thought process with, “What if?”