A Tale of Two Teachers

Fall 2013

By David Cutler and Preston R. Michelson

The role of “teacher” is changing. In the classroom, no longer are adults the only source of knowledge — and often they aren’t even the best. Now more than ever, kids are taking learning into their own hands. The best teachers embrace this development and don't feel threatened by students who may know more than they do. Instead, they revel in a changing dynamic, in which students and teachers learn together to improve their collective understanding and mastery of relevant subjects and skills. 

David teaches journalism at Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay, Florida. In spring 2011, he began conferring with then-junior Preston, a strong student and local sports columnist, about how to improve campus media. Over a two-year period, their relationship came to exemplify what is possible when students and teachers learn together, beyond the traditional “sage-on-the-stage” dynamic.

Pioneering together

In early 2012, Palmer Trinity School was approached by PlayOn! Sports to partner in its live broadcasting venture. At a growing number of schools, students use PlayOn! Sports to cover competitions, ceremonies, graduations, interviews, and special events. All that’s needed is reliable Internet access, a digital camcorder, a laptop, and a video-capture cord. 

Though he wasn’t yet enrolled in David’s journalism class, David and Preston had worked as a team to get PlayOn! Sports up and running. Since his sophomore year, Preston had served as the public address announcer for all varsity sporting events. In the second semester of his junior year, he started writing bi-monthly sports columns for The Pinecrest Tribune, a community newspaper. He also published his own blog, Michelson’s Musings, and he had a strong idea that he wanted to pursue journalism as a career.

“I had done public address announcing, but I hadn’t done much in the way of live play-by-play,” Preston says. “It was going to be difficult and come with its fair share of live troubleshooting, but I was up for it. I was very eager to get more students involved in the program.”

David also wanted a medium for students to express themselves and build confidence. “To survive in any modern newsroom, a journalist needs to be able to do absolutely everything,” David says. With respect to basic broadcasting skills, PlayOn! Sports provided interested students with an opportunity to learn “absolutely everything.” It needed a cameraman, a producer, a graphics designer, and an announcer or two. And some of those roles could be consolidated. The job would develop crucial skills like teamwork, public speaking, and creativity. But despite PlayOn! Sports’s ease of use, it required a small but dedicated team. At a small school like Palmer Trinity, with 650 students in grades 6-12, this proved challenging.

“We wanted to show students and the wider community what was possible with this great technology,” Preston says. “If we could get the program operating smoothly and reliably, and show how easy and fun it was to broadcast, we felt confident that students would show interest.” Preston spent long hours in David’s classroom, mastering the ins-and-outs of the program.

“Preston seemed to pick it up quickly. It was right in his wheelhouse, and, for whatever reason, I couldn’t seem to get it,” David says. “It could have even been that I became uncomfortable with the fact that he could master it so quickly and I was still trying to understand the basics. The roles were reversed.”

In mid-April, the two traveled to Coral Shores High School in Tavernier, Florida, for the inaugural live remote broadcast—a girls’ lacrosse district-final game. “The public address announcer, the scoreboard operator— they had never seen anything like it: a high school streaming their game over the Internet,” Preston says. By year’s end, more students had expressed interest in joining journalism to learn how to broadcast events. 

Learning together

David loved teaching, but he felt a sense of relief as summer approached. It had been a busy year for him and his journalism class. As part of the School’s efforts to go green and to teach 21st-century skills, students had scrapped the print edition of The Falconer, the campus newspaper, in favor of an all-online format. David tried his best to learn basic code and how to operate Squarespace, the online website builder that powers The Falconer. But he struggled with learning enough about special programming to teach how to make the site user-friendly, and its clunky design left much to be desired. 

“Much of the content was a lot better than how the site looked,” David says. “I also had a difficult time learning and introducing the class to other storytelling tools, especially with how to produce a professional news broadcast. I didn’t know enough, and I felt overwhelmed.”

He spent his vacation reading books and watching YouTube videos, mostly geared to how to do and teach successful 21st-century journalism. David’s first order of business called for mastering advanced video editing software, and producing a virtual newsroom using a newly purchased green screen. He explored various options before stumbling upon HitFilm, an easy-to-use program. It was perfect for creating a professional-looking newsroom, he thought. 

From there, David learned about Audacity, a free but powerful sound-editing program. He really wanted his students to create quality podcasts. He also improved his photo editing abilities to teach his photographers those essential skills. But despite all that he had learned, there remained much he didn’t know. He felt inadequate, as if he couldn’t possibly master everything before the start of another new school year. 

Soon enough, David’s outlook began to change. That fall, Preston would join the newsroom. They had worked well together with PlayOn! Sports, and David felt confident that this collaboration would only translate to more success now that Preston was an official member of The Falconer team. 

Indeed, as the new academic year kicked off, Preston provided significant vision, passion, and technological expertise. For the first time in his career, David really started to question the traditional role of teacher. 

“I learned to be comfortable knowing that I didn’t have to know everything,” David says. “Preston understood how to use many emerging technologies much better than I. In fact, his would often surpass my understanding of various tools, and he would then take the time to teach me.” David leaned on Preston, who enjoyed teaching his classmates. 

“Sometimes, David was busy with various newsroom matters and he felt confident letting me introduce new ideas to the class,” Preston says. “Often after class, we would have discussions about students and who needed more practice or one-on-one attention.” Preston felt up to the task. “I had spent the summer using Audacity, and I didn’t even know David was learning it at the same time. I was glad to see that he had a basic knowledge, and I was overjoyed to share some of the intricacies of the program,” Preston says. 

Preston liked that the class also used iMovie for video editing. But he noticed that students weren’t making effective use of transition, music, and voice overlay. “There were some truly basic corrections that I was able to make, and those increased the quality of the production significantly.” Preston worked with David to instruct students, and the newsroom improved on all fronts. The community responded favorably, requesting more coverage. 

Creating together

David and Preston then redirected their attention to The Falconer’s redesign. They agreed that the site lacked appeal that made it exciting for users to post and access content. “Students want to post on something that looks cool. Something that’s different. The former iteration of The Falconer wasn’t any of those things. We needed a change,” Preston says. David and Preston developed the basic look and feel of the new website, but they soon discovered that even as a team, they lacked the technical knowledge to continue. They contacted a professional website designer, who built the site with their input. 

“We spent long hours with the designer, trying to create a website with the functionality and design of USA Today, with attention-grabbing colors, embeddable videos, and interactive content,” David says.

On the day of the relaunch, David and Preston hit a snag. They had accidentally deleted some code, resulting in huge, empty white space on the homepage, and the school’s Internet was down. They couldn’t stand going home without a solution. 

When school ended, Preston left to use the Internet at a nearby Starbucks. He sat down, took out his laptop, and got right to work. No sooner had he taken his first sip of coffee than he saw David rush in, frantically trying to find a seat. They looked at each other, laughed at the situation, and got right to work. 

“I couldn’t believe that we both had the same idea of going to Starbucks, and at almost the same exact time,” Preston says. “We were in this together, and nothing could stop us from finding a solution.” Preston eventually found a copy of the deleted code in an old e-mail, and The Falconer was back in action.

Once the new Falconer launched, site traffic more than doubled—as did the enrollment in David’s second-semester journalism class. “I was thrilled to have 21 students in the class, but I was even happier that I could rely on Preston, whom I began to regard more as a co-teacher and co-learner than a student,” David says. “We worked together, equally hard, to help a growing newsroom produce quality content each day.” Student journalists could now produce that higher quality content and cover more stories. 

In late January, Preston directed live student coverage of Martin Luther King III’s campus visit. Afterward, Preston used the virtual newsroom set-up to interview the famous civil rights activist’s son. That night, local news agencies used The Falconer’s coverage in their own broadcasts. 

“If I had interviewed Mr. King a year prior, I would have been especially nervous,” Preston says. “But I had already interviewed different people in David’s journalism class. In the beginning, we would work together to form questions and rehearse. Then I developed greater confidence to further hone my skills.”

As David and Preston’s collective understanding and passion for online media evolved, so too did their yearning to follow their own journalistic pursuits. 

Inspiring each other

“I got a chance to experience the nitty-gritty of being a journalist while existing in a comfortable learning environment. I felt that it was acceptable to make mistakes—which I did,” Preston says. “David and I were able to make learning through failure an invaluable component of our growth.”

Preston used his experience working with David to develop himself as a journalist. He took comfort in the fact the experience prepared him well for the rigorous curriculum at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where he is now enrolled. 

“The green-screen technology, the photo editing, the voice-over work—it made me a stronger worker. And instead of being taught the inner workings, David and I were able to learn them together. I have no doubt that that made my information retention stronger and more lasting,” Preston says.

For his part, David rekindled his own passion for journalism. In college, he had been a reporter for The Justice, the student paper of Brandeis University. He eventually became the news editor there, before stringing for The Boston Globe’s metro section.

David drew new inspiration from Preston, and after six long years, he finally decided to return to reporting. This time, though, David decided to forgo objective storytelling, and instead express his thoughts on the current state of education. Last year, he launched the blog, SpinEdu, featuring his take on emerging teaching and learning trends for the 21st century. 

Cutler is most passionate about how technology, blended learning, and project-based learning will continue to transform learning and teaching. Partly because of his blogging efforts, Cutler was selected as a Teacher of the Future by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) for the 2013-2014 school year. In this role, he and like-minded colleagues serve as teacher-leaders in the online education forum, NAIS Connect, and encourage others to contribute their thoughts. 

“Without Preston’s support and encouragement, I would never have started SpinEdu,” David says. “He inspired me to adapt my skills as an old-school news reporter to those of a passionate education blogger. I’ve become a much better teacher and learner, and I’ve had the chance to interview so many remarkable individuals.” 

Reflecting together

Preston and David continue to support one another’s personal endeavors. Now that Preston has graduated, they consider themselves close colleagues. As a final project together before Preston moved on to college, they wanted to reflect on their colearning experience. David says, “I will miss Preston’s presence in the newsroom, but I know that he will accomplish great things.” 

Preston is encouraged to know that that in all likelihood, this won’t mark the last time that he and David learn from one another. “The best students and teachers know that they don’t know everything. If that is realized, then the future of education is truly bright,” Preston says.

David Cutler

David Cutler ([email protected]) teaches government and history at Brimmer and May (Massachusetts). He also advises The Gator, the school’s award-winning student news site. He writes about education for edutopia and The Atlantic. He also blogs at Spin Education. Follow him on Twitter (@Spinedu).

Preston R. Michelson

David Cutler teaches government, history, and journalism at Palmer Trinity School (Florida). He also serves as head boys’ cross country coach and assistant track & field coach. He currently manages SpinEdu, an education blog.