Tribes: Integrating with Edtech

Where Are All the Tribes Schools?

Finished! Reaching All by Creating Tribes Learning Communities is 400+ pages of philosophy, pedagogy, classroom implementation and institutional change. The book also contains a large resource in the back of cooperative strategies and energizer activities.

As I read the book, the thoughts that kept running through my head were:

1.This is a student-centered instructional view with a sound structure and lots of instructional strategies. The strategies can be used for social learning and academic content!

2. Why don’t more people use Tribes?

Now, I don’t know the exact statistics. The website says,

Thousands of schools throughout the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries have become Tribes Learning Communities, safe and caring environments in which kids can do well!

However, what I do know is it got a brief mention in my teacher training program, and I haven’t heard of it since. Until last year.

It wasn’t until I arrived at my current school in Guatemala City that I heard of it again. A certified trainer among the staff offered the basic Tribes training as a PD course for teachers interested in learning more about it. So the question stands, if Tribes aligns so well with a student-centered, cooperative learning approach championed by current educators, why don’t we hear about it more?

The only answer to that question that I can come up with is that (I think I can be so bold to say) that teachers in general are not fond of prescribed systems. Part of the joy of teaching is the art and the creativity involved in developing a style that works for you and your kids. Perhaps, teachers and schools find it too scripted and don’t want to be locked into “one way of doing things.”

Another reason why Tribes may not be a pervasive philosophy is that Tribes itself believes for it to truly work, there needs to be whole-school buy in. In a Tribes School, everyone is in a tribe, from students to teachers, to staff and parents. Institutional change like this is hard, of course. Perhaps, some teachers read this and dismiss it, thinking, “My school will never do this, so why should I go it alone?” I think there is some validity in that thinking, but it’s also very counterproductive.

Upon further reflection, other thoughts came to me. Tribes has been around for over 30 years. Educators (including myself) are wary of using outdated philosophies or systems. Aren’t we supposed to be teaching 21st century skills and using technology to enhance education? What can a 30-year-old philosophy have to offer? We don’t want to be behind the times! In actuality, Tribes does reference a 1999 report on 21st century skills by SCANS. It also refers to work on Social and Emotional Learning by CASEL. It does not, however, integrate Tribes strategies with edtech. It should be noted that the 30th anniversary edition was printed in 2006.

Reimagining Tribes

For my part, although my school doesn’t plan to become a “Tribes School,” it is a school that is dedicated to principles inherent in Tribes: it has a student-centered mindset, with an emphasis on active and cooperative learning, and a commitment to social-emotional development. My colleagues and I are also whole-heartedly dedicated to facilitating the use of current technologies like social media, iPads and Web 2.0 tools to enhance learning and engage learners.

I LOVE frameworks, lists, organizers, acronyms, etc. Not because they offer an easy way out, a script for teaching, but because they offer a way through. It’s very difficult to teach from scratch, and one thing educators said to me over and over is, “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” There are indeed a multitude of wonderful ideas, strategies and frameworks out there designed by dedicated and brilliant educators. It’s up to us to adopt what we can believe in and reimagine it to create something we can use and that works in our classrooms.

Rather than dismiss Tribes as a whole because we’re not going to become a Tribes school, or because it’s an old philosophy that doesn’t focus on technology, I’d rather take the lessons learned from this book and implement them in a way that makes sense and integrates with the technology we have at our disposal.

Lessons Learned

The most valuable lessons, unique to Tribes, that I learned from the basic training and reading the book are:

1. Groups should stay together for at least a month in order to learn how to work together to achieve goals.

2. All persons follow a path of development that influences that group’s development as a whole.

It is important for teachers to understand this path, identify what stage of development the group is in on the path and act accordingly. In Tribes, groups travel from “inclusion,” to “influence” to “community.” In the first stage of inclusion, students are working to practice the Tribes agreements for communicating and treating each other, and they are sharing themselves with each other in order to build familiarity, empathy and closeness. As students move into the second stage of influence, they begin working on ways to make decisions, solve problems and achieve goals. In the final stage of community, the goal is to bring forth and value the unique gifts of each person.

Any good teacher intuitively knows there’s a path–that you can’t just stick a bunch of kids in a group, assign them a task and expect glowing results. Cooperative learning doesn’t work that way. Students need to learn how to work together first. They need guidelines for behavior, communication and how to make decisions and solve problems, and they need a lot of practice.

I learned a lot about teaching cooperative skills from working at my school. Our school uses a literacy program called Making Meaning as a foundation for reading instruction. In this program, an integral part is modeling and practicing social skills and cooperative strategies such as “think, pair, share,” and elaborating on other’s ideas in group discussions with sentence frames like, “I agree with___because…” etc. I appreciated this program (although it is a scripted program) as a new teacher for the very fact that it helped me address the social-emotional development of children in some way.

Tribes goes further, however. A lot further. It encourages teachers to see a group of students working together as a developing entity that needs particular guidance at particular times. It provides activities and strategies appropriate for each of these stages and a wealth of problem-solving, consensus-building and decision-making structures. This idea is very comforting because Tribes states that when students are having trouble working together, it is just another part of the development, and it gives you strategies for working through the inevitable difficulties.

Integrating Tribes with Edtech

So what’s the plan? How do Tribes and technology meet in my classroom? Here is a list of goals that I have for the coming year:

  1. Use more iPad apps and web 2.0 tools in fun, creative and relevant ways to learning.
  2. Maintain my blog to continue reflection on my practice and sharing with others.
  3. Implement Digital Portfolios
  4. Establish a Tribes Learning Community Model

When I look at these goals, the first three are inherently integrated with technology. Number 4 is not automatically tech-integrated, but it so easily could be! Another thought I have about this is a reminder:

Sharon LePage Plante @iplante

all engagement doesn’t need tech focus….but why shouldn’t it…it’s about the learning…not the tech #edtechchat

I’ve heard this before in another way, “Keep the end in mind.” And, “Don’t just use technology to use it. Make sure the tech enhances the learning and connects to objectives.”

I don’t want to start integrating tech into Tribes just to say I did. It needs to be purposeful, and it needs to provide opportunities unique to the social and collaborative power of tech. This is exactly why I chose my four criteria for selecting work that meets my goals listed above to include in my own digital portfolio this coming year:

  1. Connects with Objectives
  2. Student Reflection
  3. Active Learning
  4. Community Collaboration

The first criterion addresses the issue I raised about connecting tech to objectives. Any tech use must connect to the lesson or unit objectives. Why are we using tech, rather than paper and pencil? The answer to that question must be…because it enhances the learning and creates unique collaborative opportunities. This leads right to the fourth criterion and connects with Tribes. Tribes is about connection. It’s about community and sharing and appreciating the unique gifts and contributions from all community members. What better conduit than tech? Education technologies provide differentiation for students who don’t do as well with pencil and paper. It provides limitless opportunities for creation with media that moves beyond paper and pencil, and it also provides a platform for sharing and collaborating that, when appropriate, can extend outwards to the world.


How? A Story about Integrating Tech with a Tribes Strategy

I’m going to imagine a story about the beginning of the coming school year. We’re in the beginning stages of our Tribes development, so we’re in temporary tribes, and our work is focused on “inclusion” activities and making sure everyone is practicing the Tribes agreements.

Let’s say that we decide to use the Tribes inclusion activity called “Bumper Sticker.” In this strategy, the purpose is to build inclusion, encourage attentive listening and provide the opportunity for the student to present something special about themselves. The assignment is for each student to design and create a “bumper sticker” they would like to attach to their family car, etc. They may then present it to the whole group or to their tribes.

What happens if we integrate tech? I envision offering students the option to create with colored pencils and papers or to create with Inkflow on the iPad. Some students love art and express themselves through art in amazing ways. However, I found last year that there are many students in upper elementary who do not like art, and feel ashamed and self-conscious about perceived shortcomings. If they were allowed to use PicCollage or Inkflow and use fair use pictures in combination with drawing instead of just pencil to create their images, they are still meeting the objectives of the lesson and have the opportunity to create something they think is beautiful. And since the concept and importance of a “bumper sticker” may be somewhat inaccessible to my students, we’ll instead create a T-Shirt design.

Students create their designs and share to their blogs. They first share the designs and get feedback and appreciations from their tribe. Next, the larger class community looks at all the designs and leaves appreciations as comments on the blog.

THEN…the possibilities are endless! If students feel comfortable, what if they organized their designs on a website that is accessible through the school website? All students 1-5th grade vote on their favorite designs. Student Council can then take the top designs and print the t-shirts to sell as a fundraiser to make school improvements or support a local cause. Or maybe, we can invite another school to do the same and share through blogs and Skype Classroom. Maybe the students can then present the other class the t-shirts as gifts.

Later in the year, students in literature groups, still familiar with this strategy may elect to do a similar project and create the t-shirt the main character of their novel would make to demonstrate comprehension and their interpretation of the text to their tribe members.

In this story, students are using a Tribes strategy to promote inclusion, and they are using tech to share with their Tribe as well as the larger class community. In addition, the story continues, and they have the opportunity to present their work to the school community and use it for positive social change. Later, this inclusion strategy has limitless possibilities when integrated with content.

I don’t feel like the story ends here, but this post has to eventually! Although I haven’t written a comprehensive guide about how to integrate Tribes with social media and web 2.0 technologies, I’m hoping this is just the beginning in an interesting journey this coming year.

Another Idea: Self-Portraits Inspired by My Dog is as Smelly as Dirty Socks by Hanoch Piven

Educreations Video Portrait

Inkflow Still Portrait

Note: Good digital citizenship is important to me, and if I’ve violated any copyright laws in discussing Tribes, please contact me, and I’ll modify my post accordingly. Thank you.


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