Classrooms Without Borders

Imagine a 30 by 30 room, with students sitting silently in rows, ostensibly listening to lectures, text messages covertly being sent inside hoodie pockets, and whispers here and there.  Eventually, completion of multiple choice exams at the end of an instructional unit measures learning.  Sadly, this probably sounds familiar.  While there is a time and place for extended direct instruction and lecturing, the majority of kids do not benefit from this type of instruction, as it does nothing but increase the chance for more disengagement, failed tests, and I don’t care about anything at school uttered from freshman to seniors.


One reason why I teach and enjoy my current position is possibility.  The possibility to redefine what teaching and learning looks, sounds, and feels like.  The possibility to forge community partnerships to give students models of successful adults in various roles.  The possibility to give students chances to unearth passions and shift their perspectives.

At the end of February, I was fortunate to travel to the Navajo Nation with students and teachers Brent Peters and Joe Franzen from Fern Creek Traditional High School.  Today, the collaboration continues as a Navajo delegation arrive in Kentucky.  WFPL’s Devin Katayama produced this story about the exchange, a tribute to possibility and passion in public education.  

The more teachers are allowed to blend personal passions with instructional standards, the better.  Peters, a former chef, and Franzen, an avid urban gardener and sustainability leader in the community.  They are collaborating to teach Food Lit. at Fern Creek, a hybrid junior English course.  Interdisciplinary instruction is endless–when you talk about food, you’re talking about biology, storytelling, ecosystems, the environment, health issues, history.  Students have met with local farmers and chefs, worked in the school greenhouse, explored family traditions, and written editorials about Asian Carp.

Break out of the 30 by 30 box, letting an exchange of people, activities, and ideas permeate the classroom.  On my end, I’ve partnered with WFPL’s Katayama and Kertis Creative, a local media strategy and production company, in my digital storytelling class.  

If you teach science, why not use Skype with biologists or university professors?  If you teach art, why not contact local art associations and galleries to set up student art shows?  If you teach PE, why not invite college athletes and fitness trainers in to design exercise programs and share them with the community?  You get the gist.

If you’re a principal or building leader who shuns innovation, community partnerships, and dynamic uses of technology, you’re short-changing hundreds of students in your school.  I could care less if your test scores increase.  Your school may look effective to some, but what about the students?  Can you look them in the eye and tell them you have done everything you can to prepare them to be productive citizens in society?  Do your students toss their graduation caps in the air, excited to continue pursuing a project or idea learned in school?

We educators–especially those of us at “struggling” schools–are still under immense pressure to increase test scores.  But that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice the pursuit of possibilities for redefining and creating successes for our students.

How about you?  Did you have a teacher with a creative approach who embraced possibility?  Should more schools strive to build partnerships with community members and experts?  What was your most powerful learning experience?


  1. Great. I love the words “possibility” and “passion.” And, I like the partnership approach that really gets done where kids are. We have wonderful partnerships where a company or group supports a program we implement, but the partnership you are talking about brings passionate people together with the teacher and directly with kids. They can SEE the passion, learn and FEEL the possibilities for themselves – in whatever makes them excited. In Finland, one school we visited carved out and hour and a half in the middle of the day for “hobby lessons.” Teachers and others shared their passions with the children. One second grade teacher was a former Finnish rock star and he organized a great student rock band that performed for us!

    It was great to have all of you at our Board meeting. Inspiring! THANKS.

  2. Sadly, the Alec agenda will be promoting more disenfranchised learning environments. There is an assault on intellectualism, critical thinking, and the humanities in general. My university faces the pressure of a governor that would like to penalize students seeking art and literature majors by raising their tuition, and rewarding those in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) majors, by lowering their tuition. Not to mention the corporate based charter schools cropping up everywhere and dotting the landscape, like the giant big box stores that have hunkered down all across America. My beloved university professors, passing on their passionate love of literature, and giving us in depth exams built from the heart of the narratives we read, may soon have to resort to multiple choice and “scantron” type testing because they may have to absorb more classes, or pack existing classes with even more students.

  3. Getting kids outside is so important. Whether it is on a class trip that takes them to a new exotic place, or simply out on the football field to classify the physical geography that surrounds them. I know when I take my kids outside the box, deeper learning happens.

    I want to know more about Bread Loaf and the kinds of ways you are networking classrooms around the world. Besides the Navajo project, are your students doing projects regularly with other schools? Do you connect digitally some way?

  4. Lillian,
    Thanks for highlighting what has been a powerful catalyst in my professional life. The more BLTN teachers can share and teach others about the dynamic projects going on across the world to connect students and educators, the better!

  5. I remember one Biology teacher in high school who was teaching us about DNA nucleotides. The fact that I still know that words says enough. Have gave us a large collection of little blocks that connected together and we had to find the right pieces that would make a strand of “DNA” that wouldn’t break. The teacher would take it when we were done, do a little dance, and shake the DNA around. If it fell apart, try again.
    To anyone else, it may seem we were playing with toys. But I still know what nucleotides are and what they do, so clearly, I learned something.

  6. I think writing about this collaboration during Bread Loaf Teacher Network’s 20th year is timely. It is a celebration of not only what has been done, but it is a call for what we must now do. Dixie Goswami, the long-time director of Bread Loaf Teacher Network, and other BLTN delegates were visiting the Navajo Nation and Yup’ik villages before mass access to digital platforms were used with such frequency as they are now. In fact, BLTN became the digital platform carrying stories and other artifacts between teachers and students on the Navajo Nation and in Yup’ik villages to other BLTN teachers and other students in the southwest, the southeast, New England and beyond. Indeed, Goswami’s life’s work has been an effort to break down barriers between schools and communities’ literacy practices, to celebrate rural, urban, and international teachers’ and students’ contributions to school narratives and school success, and to elevate these contributions in collaborative lasting ways. The initiatives illustrated in this post, and other dynamic generative work pursued by teachers associated with Bread Loaf and the Bread Loaf Teacher Network, speaks to the distance BLTN and its teacher participants have traveled in the last 20 years, the enthusiasm they still bring to their work in classrooms and online, and that, despite the ways the Internet has made the world much smaller, there is a great deal still to be celebrated, shared, and learned in the moments when students from Kentucky and the Navajo Nation gather, when their teachers gather, and when they work collaboratively toward common goals which are of interest to us all. Thanks for sharing, Paul.

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