An Interview with Laura Bradley

Innovative Middle School Teacher

December 6, 2016
Email Interview with Laura Bradley

Laura Bradley has been teaching middle school English in Sonoma County, California since 1988. She also teaches digital design and broadcast media, where her students produce the school’s daily news show. Laura holds an M.A. in Educational Technology, and is a community facilitator for Edutopia, a Google Certified Innovator/Educator, PBS Digital Innovator, National Board Certified Teacher, Bay Area Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and first place winner of the Henry Ford Teacher Innovator Award. Laura’s husband, Doug, is also a veteran middle school teacher, as well as a track and cross country coach. Laura and Doug have two adult children, Chloë and Duncan.

Laura, you have a well deserved reputation for being a highly innovative middle school teacher and I certainly want to give you a chance to explain what you have done to earn that reputation. But first, could you please define the word “innovate?”

To innovate is to use new methods, to be original, to be creative, and I think that’s what I have always enjoyed most about teaching: no matter what standards I am required to teach, I can be creative in how my students learn and demonstrate their learning. My students need to learn grammar, they need to learn to analyze literature, they need to build their writing skills. There are innumerable ways they can do that, and keeping my classroom creative, fresh, and innovative makes my job so much fun, and hopefully it makes the learning fun for the kids.

What is one of the more “innovative” things you have done as a teacher?

As a writing teacher, I’ve always tried to give my students creative, engaging assignments so that they will feel invested in their writing. In 2011, I took a leap of innovative faith and challenged my 8th graders to write a novel (as part of National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a. NaNoWriMo). It was a big, scary move, because I knew from experience that junior high students were easily intimidated by long writing assignments, but I also knew that giving them the freedom and ownership to write a very long story might be the kind of challenge that would engage them in their writing. Not only did my students dive in to their novel writing with enthusiasm, but many of them eventually self-published their novels and are selling them on Amazon. It was a huge success and became central to my M.A. thesis, which focused on online writing, student-centered writing, and writing instruction that is driven by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Thanks to free curriculum provided by the Young Writers Program of NaNoWriMo, any teacher (grades 2–12) can offer this novel-writing challenge, even if we haven’t written a novel ourselves. The excitement generated during that first year spread across our campus, and now all of our 8th graders write novels during the first semester of the year.

Could you describe something else thing that you have done that has led to your reputation as an innovative middle school teacher?

Thanks to an innovative principal (Emily Dunnagan Todd), I was given the freedom and support to create two new elective courses for our school: one a broadcast media class (on which I collaborate with history teacher Isaac Raya) and the other a digital design class. Students in the broadcast media class take full responsibility for prepping, anchoring, filming, and uploading to YouTube and Twitter a daily news show that is aired across our campus every morning. After teaching English for over 20 years, it’s been an eye-opening experience to teach the broadcast class. Because there are so many different jobs involved in producing the show, the students have to learn to work independently of the teacher, as well as collaboratively with their classmates. It’s a powerful thing to watch: every day, these 12 and 13-year-olds are doing the work of a professional studio, using professional equipment, and producing a daily show. Last year our broadcast program was awarded the Jack London Award for Educational Innovation from Sonoma State University. A $20,00 grant from Educator Innovator (the National Writing Project, the MacArthur Foundation, and musician John Legend) helped us expand our program from a before-school club to two sections of broadcast media.

For teachers and schools interested in creating a broadcast program, we have put all of our resources, as well as an equipment and grant list, on a public website. Our students use the website every day to produce the show.

The digital design class that I created was central to my application for the Henry Ford Teacher Innovator award. What makes it innovative is that students are given the freedom to choose from a wide range of technology-based projects (digital animation, digital sculpting, 3D modeling, 3D architectural drawings, game design, coding, movie editing, Google Earth trips, music mixing, infographic and website design). They decide when they are finished and ready to turn in each project. They have access to a website full of video tutorials so they can teach themselves new programs, and they are encouraged to work together to learn. They assess their own work, reflecting in writing on what they have learned, what they are proud of, and how they overcame challenges during the process. Some students might spend a month or more on one big, detailed project, while others might create smaller projects and switch to a new one every week or so. That kind of student-directed environment teaches them so much more than academic or technology skills; they also learn to manage their own time; to plan, iterate, fail, and try again. They learn to work through all kinds of problems as they navigate new programs; they learn perseverance and critical thinking; and they develop great pride as they see their efforts result in original pieces that they have designed.

In 2015, you received a 1st Place Henry Ford Innovative Teacher Award. In this regard, can you tell us about the application that you had to fill-out, being sure to provide any information that might prove helpful to others wanting to apply for the award?

An unusual aspect of the Henry Ford application is that there wasn’t a limit on how much we could submit. So in addition to a video that showcased my digital design students and their projects, I also included news articles about my work, a letter from a former student, connections between my program and the Common Core Standards and the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Standards, screenshots of the choices offered to students on my website, and images of student projects. I focused on my digital design class and how students were in control of the kinds of projects they made. Since the applications could contain a wide variety of artifacts, it’s hard to say why I was chosen. The other winners were innovative in a variety of ways.

To learn more about the award, click here. This year’s applications window is December 1, 2016 — February 28, 2017 with winners to be announced June 5, 2017

Laura Bradley Honored During Henry Ford Innovative Teacher Award Ceremony.
The First Place Henry Ford Innovative Teacher Award

What did you have to do, or get to do, as a result of having won the award?

The prize from the Henry Ford was significant. The ten 1st place winners were flown to Dearborn, Michigan for a week at the The Henry Ford, which included tours (led by curators, archivists and historians) of the Henry Ford Museum, The Benson Ford Research Center archives, the Ford Rouge Factory, the Henry Ford Estate and Greenfield Village (80 acres dedicated to recreating an American village from the 19th century). We also attended workshops on innovation and received curriculum to help us teach our students to be innovators. Our time there also coincided with the Maker Faire Detroit, which we attended, along with a couple of award ceremonies. The ten of us spent the week together, and learned so much from each other. We were treated like winners!

For a more detailed description of my time at the Henry Ford, click here.

Working on any innovative things today?

Yes! I have had my students participate in the Hour of Code since its first year (2013), but this year I decided we needed to take it beyond just one hour of experimentation. Even though coding wouldn’t usually be found in an English class, I decided to have my students devote the month of December to coding. They just finished writing their novels (during NaNoWriMo), so I thought they would enjoy designing and coding a computer game that connected to their novels. We had some good conversations about how the characteristics of games are similar to those of novels, and also how the process of coding a game is similar to the writing process. They started out by learning to code a game on Scratch, and now they are in the process of designing their own games. They will share their games with classmates to get feedback for revision, and then eventually they will publish their games on the Scratch site. It’s exciting to watch them tinker, design, innovate and create!

One big picture question — if you had the power to change this country’s middle school education system in just one way, what would that be?

The next big change that I would love to see is interdisciplinary, hands-on, problem-based learning across all campuses. I have always taught in large, very departmentalized junior high schools, and I know how difficult it is for teachers to offer students learning opportunities that bridge the subject areas. We don’t share the same students, we don’t have shared planning times, we just don’t have a system in place that allows us to collaborate on interdisciplinary projects. I love what I’ve seen at High Tech High, and if I had enough years and energy left in my career, I’d want to see that happen at my junior high. We’re seeing smaller schools create fabulous programs like this, but a huge question is, how do we transition from a big, traditional, departmentalized school to something that allows for interdisciplinary, project work? I think it would need to start with a small team of teachers that could pilot that kind of program on a larger campus — those teachers would have the flexibility to have their students work on these interdisciplinary projects, rather than be chained to a rigidly departmentalized schedule.

Another big picture question — if I wanted to learn more about you and other innovative teachers, where should I go? Is there, for example, an innovative teachers website?

I love Twitter for that, especially because I can narrow my search by using hashtags (#edchat, #futureready, #edtech, #engchat, #litchat). I heard someone say, “There aren’t any negative teachers on Twitter.” It tends to be a place where teachers go to share their great ideas, and we all know the best teachers steal whatever they can from other teachers.

I also love Edutopia for connecting with innovative teachers and curating lesson ideas. It’s a significant warehouse of lessons, units, videos, interviews, etc. Google Certified Innovators is a great network of forward-thinking educators, as is the PBS Digital Innovators. There’s just no reason for teachers to think they have to reinvent the wheel or tackle innovation on their own. We have so many resources at our fingertips. Sure beats my early years in the classroom when I used a typewriter to create new lessons!

Anything you’d like to say in closing?

There has never been such an exciting time to be a teacher! The ability to connect with other educators all over the globe, to see teachers in action via videos on websites, to borrow and share lessons and ideas with just a click, to collaborate with innovative teachers at conferences and in online spaces… I’m so glad I stayed in the classroom long enough to participate in this revolutionary time.

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