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Student voices: How to build a culture of collaboration

5 min read


This post is sponsored by VSTE.

“I would go back to high school if it meant going to a school like this,” commented my companion as we toured the Warrior Tech Academy, a school within a school administered by Henry County Public Schools in Virginia. We were being led by four Warrior Tech students — sophomores Charquise Smith-Stultz and Kaitlyn Thompson and juniors Delinda Nguyen and Ana Caro — and the pride in their innovative learning space was evident. The Academy’s classrooms and hallways, carved out of a media center, have turned traditional classroom design on its head. Windows face into the hall so classrooms are bright and transparent. Classroom walls are whiteboards where students are encouraged to brainstorm and communicate. Chairs and tables in the classroom are portable and the hallways include comfortable small group planning areas with overstuffed chairs and small display screens.

The careful attention to space demonstrates the commitment to collaboration that underlies Warrior Tech’s project-based learning curriculum. Students are engaged in relevant, authentic projects that integrate content learning with critical thinking and problem solving. For instance, one group was investigating the pros and cons of uranium mining, an issue of concern for Henry County since it sits on one of the biggest uranium deposits in the United States. Students work closely with the adult facilitators and are responsible for identifying their own learning needs as well as helping to develop the norms that govern the students in the school. Supporting this innovative approach is a culture of trust, responsibility and respect.

This was my second visit to Warrior Tech Academy but my companion was seeing it for the first time. I was excited to be able to introduce him to the school and its impressive students. Especially since my companion was a pretty impressive young man himself. Sixto Cancel, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, struggled through a difficult childhood as part of the foster care system. His response to these troubles was to find ways to connect and support other at-risk students to make a difference in their chances for success. At 15, he joined the National Foster Care Youth and Alumni Council. Before he graduated high school, he had created Stellar Works, an SAT prep program. Now, as he prepares to graduate from VCU, Sixto is the chief executive officer of Think Of Us, a tech startup working on a self-development platform that helps foster youth make their own decisions about life, work, education, and health.

Sixto and the Warrior Tech students were meeting to begin planning their upcoming panel discussion for the 30th Annual Technology in Education Conference. The theme of the conference is “Honor the Past, Imagine the Future.” One goal of the conference is to include student voices, helping them connect with the educators in attendance. Sixto will facilitate a conversation with the students around their use of technology for learning and collaboration as well as how they are growing as critical and creative thinkers through their work at Warrior Tech.

This first meeting was the fruition of an idea that I had earlier this year after I met Sixto and saw him in action and then toured Warrior Tech for the first time. I wanted these young people to connect and carry their message of student empowerment to a wider audience. As we gathered in the conference room after the tour, the three “grown ups” sat back and watched Sixto skillfully lead the students in a conversation about learning, technology and collaboration. Together, they considered the important themes they wanted to highlight during the panel. They teased out the details of why Warrior Tech was successful as they described how they were introduced to the culture and expectations of the school. The students were reflective and articulate, clearly comfortable with thinking critically about themselves and their strengths and weaknesses. This kind of self-discovery is another part of the Warrior Tech experience.

But they were also kids, at times struggling to find the words for the big ideas and admitting to being nervous about their upcoming conference appearance. Sixto put them at ease and promised one more meeting to help them plan and organize their ideas. His quiet confidence and supportive leadership provided a strong example for them of their own future.

While part of the Warrior Tech Academy formula for success comes from its participation in the New Tech Network, school administrators emphasize that the elements can be integrated into any classroom or school. It simply takes a commitment to putting students in charge of the learning and, like those of us watching the meeting, being willing to step into a supportive role.

Interested in imagining the future with Sixto and the Warrior Tech students yourself? They will be part of the Sunday Spotlight session on Sunday, December 6, at the 30th Annual Technology in Education Conference held by the Virginia Society for Technology in Education. The conference will be held at the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center in Roanoke, Virginia, December 6-8, 2015. Learn more.