Ben Wilkoff’s Biography
Not everyone has tech-savvy grandparents, but I was lucky that way, I guess. My grandparents took me to PC user group meetings starting when I was in the 7th grade. I started leading a special interest group (SIG) not long after that for those of my fellow teenagers who were interested in getting more out of their computers than just games, word processing, and IM. I think even from that early age, I was planning lessons for how to make meaning out of a seemingly segregated worlds of learning and technology.
It sounds overly geeky, but I was the founding president of the Computer Club in my high school. I think that it was quite possible that I was the only one passionate enough about being the “biggest geek” to want the job. Although it doesn’t have much bearing on my current relationship to educational technology, this was my first exposure to finding free online tools (productivity and entertainment mostly) for others to benefit from. I also encountered an amazing teacher, Carolyn Petite, who fostered in me a balance between the academic pursuit of logic and programming and the human pursuit of teaching.
Just as the possibilities for Educational Technology seem to grow to a crescendo, my college career (and my teacher education program) intervened. Although we participated in a technology integration course (1 whole quarter), it was in the guise of how to incorporate Microsoft Office products and prefabricated webquests better into our classrooms. At this point I decided to concentrate merely on teaching literature to the best of my ability, given that educational institutions (as I saw from the preparatory program and student teaching) were the last place that a full-throated defense of technology as authentic learning would occur.
I started teaching 7th grade Language Arts in 2004, and it was at this time that I started to reconnect the dots of Learning and Tech. A lot had happened while I was off learning how to teach in the 20th century classroom. Blogs had happened. Immediately I started a teacher blog (unfortunately, this relic of 2004 no longer exists). Seeing the benefit of audience and just-in-time feedback, I dedicated an essay writing unit to exploring blogging with my students. That spring, I started to see what kind of potential I had initially found when speaking to my friends about the “cool and useful tool of the moment” when I was in the 7th grade myself.
But blogging wasn’t just a “cool tool.” It was a way to learn who my students were and how they learned. It was a way to create an environment of writers and thinkers, a purpose for learning. So, after my initial experience with essay blogging, I tried my hand at memoirs, poems, and classroom lessons. I was hooked.
It wasn’t until the spring of 2006, however, that my ideas started to coalesce into any kind of coherent narrative. Up until that point, I was mostly just consuming things when I had the time, and creating tech integration when I had the access. That spring, I decided to download every educational podcast I could, read every edublog I could find, and try to understand just what made the community thrive. I started to save every link in my social bookmarks. I started to frame everything I did in my classroom in terms of when the student learning was aimed: the past, present, or future.
By the time the 2006-2007 school year rolled around, I was ready to implement a fully formed blogging curriculum. At various points in the year, I also tried my hand at digital storytelling, collaborative podcasting, wiki projects, and embedded media. My kids ate it up. Consistently, my evaluations spoke of a type of learning that wasn’t happening everywhere. It required a new word: authenticity.
After the early successes and the constant reflection that followed, I felt that it was time to create a system of pedagogy that would support the type of learning I was seeing in my classroom. That is how the Academy of Discovery came about. During a bout of student standardized testing, I conducted tech integration research and started to craft the language that would eventually be the 6 strings of Authentic Learning. Although implimenting such a program has had its challenges, the process of creating change within a supposedly rigid system that is resistant to it, it an amazing feeling.
Today I am compelled to share my story, my progression from creating an artificial separation between technology and pedagogy to defining the connections. I love talking about where I have been, where I am going, and what it takes to frame change for success. I consider it a privilege to help others who are interested in walking down a similar path. My pride and passion for this work is shown in every presentation I do, every project I work on/create, and every class that I teach.
So, yeah. I teach. And learn. A lot.