As middle school teachers, you are inherently mavericks… Do what is right for your kids… Be the mavericks you are. – Antonio Viva, Head of Walnut Hill School for the Arts, in his keynote address at “Teaching for the Future: A Conference for Middle School Faculty”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person sitting in the audience with an open mind, high hopes, and a soupçon of skepticism. We were, after all, approximately 100 middle school teachers, waiting for the opening keynote for the first-ever middle school conference run by AISNE (the Association of Independent Schools of New England). An underlying optimism characterizes most middle school teachers, but on the other hand once you’ve attended enough conferences, you know that all keynote speakers are not created equal. The topic, 21st Century Learning, offered few clues as we in the education community have been debating what exactly that means for, well, a decade now, as Mr. Viva reminded us in his opening words.

Time and time again, you hear the call that our country needs, in the words of Daniel Pink, “design thinkers and problem-solvers.” Time and time again, the rapidly increasing pace of change is used to drive home the point that we are preparing our kids for an uncertain future. Literacies are changing, and the skillset required for success is also evolving. The abilities to communicate and collaborate, among others, continue to be vital, but the tools we use and the skills those tools require are radically different from those of the past.

Tuesday night, I move my cat away from the computer monitor and log in to the Elluminate session being hosted by the Facebook group “Teachers’ Letters to Obama.” The by-now familiar screen pops up with the list of participants, chat room, virtual white board, and, in the lower-left-hand corner, the microphone icon which I have never personally seized, though I test my levels just in case. Soon, nationally known advocates for research-based educational reform are speaking on what they have been doing to “Stop Griping, Start Organizing.” I click to save several PowerPoints so that I can reference them later, and listen to ideas on what actions have been and could be taken. At one point, I open another browser window, do a Google search, and go back to the chat room to post a link to a helpful website. 90 minutes later, I log out having saved a screen shot linking me to a website where those interested in taking further action can network.

In examining the common characteristics of the top ten businesses, you see not only collaboration (which implies communication) but also creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and real world problem solving. Toward that end, Google has suggested a “major in learning.” The company, certainly one of the most creative, innovative and dominant in the world, views non-routine problems as opportunities, and asks employees to set aside a full 25% of their time to “do something creative.” Google’s headquarters include a Lego room, where the only activity in which you are allowed to engage is… playing with Legos.

In such a world, literacies are also evolving. Students of today need new skills related to multitasking, simulation, appropriation, transmedia navigation, judgment, play, performance, and more.  They are in many ways well-equipped to acquire these skills as they are plugged in, interconnected and social, unique, able to be involved in global classrooms to a degree never-before possible, networked with people with common interests, always on, and seeking authentic roles. Rather than sitting passively absorbing what we tell them to, they seek to be critical consumers of their learning experiences.

What an opportunity!

What, then, should teachers be doing to take advantage of this opportunity? We need to be networking if we want to be able to lead the next generation of educators. We need to reimagine ourselves as “educational Sherpas” (Viva), modelers, concierges, incubators, synthesizers, and facilitators (a word I’ve personally been increasingly stressing as of late).. Our spaces need to change, with art classrooms as a model, we need to examine the resources we provide, and we need to rethink how students can demonstrate what they know and understand. We need to be asking the really big, profound questions (which our students are already doing!), reflect on the relevance of our practice and evolve as needed, and be willing to make mistakes along the way. In the process, we can be modeling tenacity, a desperately-needed quality in today’s world and one which is increasingly difficult to teach.

And we can support our public school colleagues, Mr. Viva (a former teacher at Amherst Regional High School) added, by showing what can happen when we teach in the absence of the mandates and ineffective external motivators being imposed on the profession without adequate research backing up these practices.

With all these ideas safely written down for future reflection in the “Notes” app of my iPhone, I applauded Mr. Viva warmly, and then stood up to move on to the first of three break-out sessions. If he had succeeded in setting the tone for the conference, it promised to be a very good day. He had, and it was.