Classrooms for Tomorrow

11/04/2011 11:32 am ET | Updated Jan 04, 2012

I was honored for the opportunity to represent 826LA and the 826 National network at a recent panel put together by the New York Times titled Schools for Tomorrow. The main focus of the day-long conference was to discuss how technology will continue to impact how children learn and how schools may change to accommodate this revolution. There were folks from all spheres of education from Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP charter schools, Randi Weingarten from American Federation of Teachers, to the new superintendent of Chicago's schools, Jean-Claude Brizard. Even Larry Summers, president of Harvard, made an appearance and gave an impassioned talk about the tools the learners of tomorrow will need to work on including 'collaboration' -- which was by far my favorite buzz word of the day.

My panel followed the first of the day that was moderated by NYT's columnist David Brooks (who apologized at the outset for being a Luddite). My panel included Ben Packard, whose organization K12 was also one of the event's sponsors. We focused on the environment of future schools, which is one of the most peculiar things about what we do. Most people might point to our creative store fronts as an example of how we attempt to offer our students and volunteers a different learning experience. But something many folks may not know, unless they've volunteered, is that we approach our work with students in a very Socratic way. We believe that every student has potential and the best way to bring that out of a child is through respect, understanding, and teaching how to ask questions. We do this in a one-on-one way or in a group setting with a volunteer acting as moderator. It's all about letting students define their learning with the support of a caring adult. In addition to our own evaluation, numerous studies reinforce the importance of 826's work, such as "The Effectiveness of Volunteer Tutoring Programs for Elementary and Middle School Students: A Meta-Analysis." This article synthesized 21 independent articles, each of which conducted its own study on the effectiveness of volunteer tutoring. According to the article: "Students who work with volunteer tutors are likely to earn higher scores on assessments related to letters and words, oral fluency, and writing compared to their peers who were not tutored." (Ritter, Barnett, Denny, and Albin, 20).

I wanted to say more about this aspect of the 826 model, but unfortunately, time didn't allow. The one point I was able to get across was that community building is an important part of the learning process. Whatever a school ends up looking like in 2050 or beyond, I hope that the learning environment allows for students to shine, develop as critical thinkers, and that they get plenty of support and opportunities to learn from each other. Like Mr. Summers, I also wanted to convey the idea of collaboration as a way not only for students to learn but also for teachers, administrators, and outside agencies like our own to work closely together. When I taught high school I benefitted greatly from collaborations with other teachers and organizations like 826. Because of these partnerships, my students were exposed to experiences inside my classroom and outside of it that I alone could not offer.

Regardless of how many computers and new technologies our schools adopt, we cannot let basic human interaction become less important. Personally, I'm very excited about the learning that computers are making possible. There are amazing projects taking place all over the world that use blogs, Skype, smart phones, and twitter to connect students from far away regions. In fact, here at 826LA we will soon be embarking on a social media exchange with students from a local public school in Los Angeles and students in India who will be using an iSlate, a device similar to an iPad which is being developed by Professor Krishna Palem at Rice University. This project, being cultivated by Marc Martens and his design firm Seso, is working to create a user-friendly interface for the iSlate to help students in India learn math and even communicate with the outside world. Interactions like these will only continue to grow and become easier to implement as broadband becomes more accessible to schools and communities in the U.S. and beyond. It should go without saying that access to technologies like these must be equitable and meet the needs of all types of learners. But the teacher must be central to the planning of these projects.

Learning communities are growing beyond the walls of classrooms. But before we move too fast into that realm, it is critical that students get the support they need to navigate this frontier. They need to learn to think critically, synthesize information, and communicate their ideas effectively and clearly. Most of the students 826LA works with in inner-city schools are in desperate need of these types of skills. It takes lots of work and support to help struggling students, and certainly there is no one better equipped to do this than teachers. But communities can help teachers by providing their students with more one-on-one interactions in classrooms and by connecting students to adults with different perspectives. It's essential that students continue to get more individualized support from their teachers and community volunteers even as technology becomes more prevalent in classrooms. And it is especially important that access and support for this new technology be equitable and sustainable for all schools, not just those with more resources.

Watch live streaming video from schoolsfortomorrowa at