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Robert Joyce: Help students tell their own stories

By Nicole Krueger
December 15, 2017
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Are term papers dying out? Is the essay becoming obsolete? These questions plague English teachers everywhere as they deplore what video and social media have done to the art of rigorous writing.

But Robert Joyce isn’t one of them.

His students are as likely to write scripts as essays. They’re as familiar with green screens as with narrative structure. And they’re apt to present their research in an animated video rather than a term paper.

For the eighth grade teacher at Berner Middle School in Massapequa, New York, English class isn’t just about writing anymore.

“I’m not just interested in writing, but all expression,” says Joyce, winner of the 2017 ISTE Outstanding Teacher Award. “Stand-alone writing is going to become more and more rare as words are combined with visuals, audio and various forms of expression. I’m interested in helping students combine those skills into one package.”

Of course, Joyce isn’t your typical classroom teacher. He began his career at a startup day-trading firm where he learned how to use digital tools in a fast-paced environment to help wealthy clients trade their assets. He also did a lot of writing, which eventually led him back to school to get his master’s degree in education.

Returning to the classroom, this time as a teacher, he brought his collaborative startup mentality with him. He painted the entire back wall green and swapped the traditional rows of desks for a cluster of mini-studios where students collaborate on video projects on their 1:1 Chromebooks.

His goal was to create a learning environment that’s malleable enough to let kids follow wherever their inspiration might lead.
“All the concrete structures of learning need to be loosened up as much as possible so students aren’t limited at all by the learning environment itself,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out the right combination of tools and approaches to be able to tap into as much of their potential as possible by setting them free in terms of their ability to connect with the outside world.”

That sort of divergent thinking often got Joyce in trouble as a student in traditional classrooms where he felt penalized for going his own way. 
As an educator, however, it makes him a leader among his peers who see him as a role model for technology integration. He collaborates with other teachers on digital projects, presents at conferences and proudly shares his students’ innovative work on Twitter.

“I want to reward my students for being individuals,” he says. “I want students to think differently and creatively and outside the box and be rewarded for it rather than penalized.”
Individual expression is so important to Joyce that he’s sometimes wary of showing students sample projects to help get them started.

“Students sometimes need me to show them an example to get across what I want them to do, but at the same time I almost regret it,” he says. “The second I show an example, it inhibits their own creativity and shuts down other thoughts and ideas they may have had. I don’t want 100 copies of the exact same thing.”

By encouraging divergent thinking in his own classroom, Joyce enables students to pour themselves into their projects, eliciting a deeper level of engagement and commitment. Even when there’s no daily homework assignment, students often collaborate online after school, refining their work and propelling each other toward excellence.  

“It’s much easier to get students on board when you’re giving them choices for how to do something. If it’s something that doesn’t connect to them and they don’t have any choices about it, they’re not as fully invested as they would be if they could bring in their own personality, their own humor, their own background knowledge.”

When students demonstrate their learning through finished products, such as a videos or essays, what they’re really doing is expressing the stories they have in their minds, Joyce says. He strives to give them as many tools as he can.

“We have to figure out ways as educators to enable them to get those stories out. Everybody has a different way of expression. I think it’s very important to give students as many methods as possible to express themselves. 

“That way, we enable them to be storytellers and to figure out how they can tell their own stories.”

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter. She writes about education technology and the transformation of learning.