Guest Blogger, Randy Evans, is an iLife Instructor and Project Coordinator for Dataseam.

Wow, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it.  The teachers left the comfort zone of their classrooms as they were totally immersed into the  world of photojournalism. Their journey took them from failure to the elation of success. They clearly experienced what the expectations were in the real world and what their students must learn to be competitive.

Their encounter with this real world project based learning experience was found in the activities at the Western Kentucky University Mountain Workshops 2011. For over 30 years WKU has sponsored the Mountain Workshops as a professional offering for photojournalists throughout the country. This week long workshop brings professional journalists, photographers, videographers and writers together with award winning/Pulitzer prize winning coaches as they produce online multimedia and a beautifully printed book containing coverage of their host city. This year the event took place in Somerset, Kentucky.

Eleven Kentucky teachers were thrust into this real activity with cameras in hand. The teachers were coached by professionals from the likes of The Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and National Geographic Magazine as they ventured into this new and highly competitive world. They quickly learned how high the expectations were to master the process of producing extraordinary storytelling images. Coaches were relentless as they pushed their, teachers now students, to produce better results.

“The insight I gained from working with award-winning photojournalists will prove invaluable in my classroom.” stated Sabrina Back from Morgan County.

Their success was phenomenal and their final images were competitive with the best professional journalists participating in the event.

“It was a fast paced and extremely challenging workshop,” said Tori Schneider of Hancock County, ” but the skills and knowledge obtained from it will pay huge dividends in the work that I do with students.”

How did this happen? What took place that made things just click in the minds of these teachers?

Many things came together to produce such outstanding results. The mindset and culture of the workshop coaches immediately set the stage with high expectations and professional attitudes. The coaches emphasized,  “If you want to create anything new or original, you have to be prepared to fail.”  Failure was not only an option, it was expected. In other words the teachers were allowed to fail so they could get back into the game and do it again using what they had learned.  This was a powerful learning technique.  The teachers were motivated to be their own best critic taking ownership of their work.  They knew their photos would be published for all to see. The results were outstanding.

“The mountain workshop experience was one of the best professional opportunities I’ve had,” explained Missy Murray from Fairview Independent. “Not only were we afforded the chance to work with some of the most talented journalists in the business, we were given the opportunity to look past what most people take for granted and look for the important details and angles not always as obvious.” she added.

Learning has  traveled home with these teachers in an infectious way. They are still so motivated from their experience, they continue working on their storytelling image skills.  An even stronger trend is the transference of learning that has taken place in their classrooms. In Amy Hollan’s kindergarden class at Jackson Independent, the tiny students are actively videoing and photographing each other in learning activities for blog entries on their web page. It is unbelievable to see this take place with such a young group.

“It was the toughest workshop I have ever attended,” Jane Cambron from Middlesboro Independent stated, “but the most rewarding.  Award winning people in the world of journalism took the time to sit with us; work with us; and make sure we gained as much knowledge as we could.  It was incredible. Other than time with my family, it was one of the best weeks of my life.”

We are in the business of learning, as a result we must be the best learners. Our students will benefit from our own success.

Given the right opportunities, learning environment, expectations and tools, an innovative learning journey can fire up our students to be their competitive best.