It all starts with Literacy.

Innovation. It’s the name of the course


Indiana high school teacher Don Wettrick is so giddy about innovation that he’s teaching a course in it.

To be more accurate, the teenagers pretty much teach themselves. Wettrick’s main role is to set things up so this can happen. “My students, they teach me,” he says.

It’s the students who come up with subjects to explore and projects to complete. One kid, for example, had the idea of writing and publishing a book.

Wettrick’s response: “Let’s do it!”

Never mind that Wettrick didn’t know how to self-publish a book. He simply encouraged the kid to figure out what he wanted to accomplish and the steps it would take to get there. “We backwards-design everything,” Wettrick says.

They reached out to the worlds of business and tech and found experts in self-publishing. “You find that there are plenty of people dying to help,” he says.

The class began last fall with a dozen students, and already has reaped “amazing” results, Wettrick says — not least of which, being among the 8,000 winners selected to test the highly anticipated Google Glass (more about that below).

One group of kids worked with solar-energy companies to figure out how to get their school off the grid (getting the school board to implement the plan — that’s another hurdle). Another, inspired by a 60 Minutes segment, put iPads into the hands of autistic children.

Some students have started a site that enables kids to collaborate on books or videos on subjects that interest them. It’s called Student HackEd. For example, some students are holding a discussion on how teens can share knowledge globally through a high school MOOC  (massive open online course). So far, they have participants from Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Uganda.

One politically-minded young man worked with the state General Assembly on educational reform and, with another student, started a TV round-table discussion show with the town’s local decision-makers.

“The class has provided me with the opportunity to do things that no pre-calculus class, no biology class, no traditional class can offer,” said the student, Connor Shank. “No other class can allow me to go the State House and talk to senators and congressmen and speak to them one-on-one.

“That’s real education. That’s innovation, and that’s the future.”

The high-energy Wettrick, 40, is a teacher at Franklin Community High School, outside Indianapolis. A dozen years ago, he quit teaching English to teach broadcasting.

His students were soon making documentaries about life around town, and he thought the works were so good that he started a film festival to show them off in a downtown movie theater. He also posted them on YouTube so that people outside their town of 25,000 could see them. Before long, the kids’ movies were getting 200 to 300 views. And the festival had expanded to include videos from schools throughout their own Johnson County, Ind.

Wettrick was floored by the quality of the students’ work, which grew out of the kids’ own passions and interests — such as this documentary about homeless teens.

Then he thought, why stop at filmmaking? Why not give kids other chances to let their imaginations loose and see what they can accomplish? By this time, the Indiana teacher was heavily influenced by thinker Daniel Pink’s TED Talk (5.2 million views to date) and book, Drive

“Freedom and autonomy are the key words of the class,” Wettrick says. “It’s up to the students to find a topic and then get two experts to collaborate with. When they’re done, they blog their findings.

“They also have to research the Common Core standards, find the ones their project deals with, and demonstrate their mastery of those standards.”

In February, a student named Briceson Hill saw a video about Google’s contest to find testers for its newest invention, Google Glass — a combination of eyeglasses and smartphone that puts online tools to use in real time — and quickly persuaded the Innovations class to enter.

Trouble was, the contest deadline was that very day. But in a scant two hours, the class wrote and produced a 15-second video featuring Wettrick — who normally talks at machine-gun pace anyway — rapidly laying out their case.

“If I’m selected, it won’t just be for me, It’ll be for my entire class,” Wettrick races to say in the video. “I run a publicly educated class called Innovations, and in this class we communicate and collaborate with other experts. This would allow us the opportunity to work with Google and then communicate our results to the world.”

Good news came on March 29. Google sent a tweet: “You’re invited to join our @googleexplore program. Woohoo!”

Wettrick is now waiting for word from Google to fly out to Silicon Valley and receive his pair of glasses, which will cost him $1,500 he says he’s happy to pay. He’s getting impatient. His seniors are graduating in a few weeks.

Once he gets the glasses, “I can be teaching a class and have other Google Hangout people watch my class,” Wettrick said in a TV interview. “I think that’s exciting, collaborating with people  — who knows? — all over the world.”

Not every class project has succeeded so well. “We fail beautifully. Nobody does that better,” Wettrick says exuberantly.

One student trained special-ed kids to run a coffee shop inside the school, but the administration closed it down after the cafeteria complained about the competition. Alternative energy-minded kids proved that converting Franklin Community High to solar would save money in the long run, but implementation will have to chill for want of $400,000 in start-up costs.

Nevertheless, Innovations projects keep expanding in scope. The class communicates all its doings on a YouTube channel called TheFocusShowOnline. And, increasingly, on Twitter, which Wettrick calls “the greatest educational development tool I’ve ever seen.”

“I’ve been connected with the world’s greatest teachers through Twitter. End of story.”

He urges other teachers to share what they’re doing, via Twitter or other social-media.

“I think our students are more savvy and innovative,” he says, “and it’s time people heard about the positive stories.”


— Story by Howard Goodman

One Response to “Innovation. It’s the name of the course”

April 17, 2013 at 9:14 am, Ellen Goodman said:

Don Wettrick teaches a powerful message–
We are empowered through innovations and limited only by our imagination.


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