Learning Commons as Classroom

“Chance favours the connected mind.”

-Steven Johnson

I have been obsessed lately with the deskless classroom and environment as the Third Teacher, so much so that I will be co-moderating a discussion on using design thinking to help students remake their learning space at EdCampYYC 2016.

In this TED talk, Steven Johnson talks about where do good ideas come from and asks: What is the architecture of the space? What are the environments that lead to creativity? Adults, when given the chance to choose a work environment, often gravitate towards the coffee shop or social media. Ideas are cobbled together from what we hear and and we stitch them together. (Johnson, 2010)

Spaces lead to new ideas

We need to build spaces that look more like learning commons as classroom. “Ideas don’t happen alone at the lab bench, they happen at the conference table. The liquid network where ideas jostle together.” A good idea comes from a complex network of interactions. (Johnson) If ideas have long incubation periods, how do teachers create an environment that allows for that long incubation time? Allow hunches to connect with other hunches? Allow students to turn ideas into something greater than the sum of their parts?

Schedule vs Playlist

Every morning, my routine is to enter my classroom, drop off my bags and review my expectations for the day. Before students come in, I post the daily schedule. Some things I look forward to more than others but I always know which parts of the day I’m most excited about. When students come into the classroom they are in the habit of looking at the board. Usually there is a “yes!” and a little happy dance when something good like Genius Hour is on the schedule. I have been thinking lately, though, about motivation and why as the classroom teacher I get to be “the decider”.

Before leaving home in the morning, I what parts of the day I am most excited about. Why should that be different for children? What if our classrooms looked more like a conference and less like a prescribed schedule? What if students had more choice in their day? Some things need to be fixed on the schedule – when there are 600 students and only 1 gym or 20 classrooms and only 50 laptops there has to be some scheduling, but how can we build a more personalized experience? What if a classroom worked more like an education conference? I have been playing lately with the idea of the learning commons as a classroom or classroom as learning commons and using a playlist instead of a schedule.

“Hey, students, at 10:30 am there will be a session on place value’s role in subtraction of numbers to 1000. Attend if you like! These students must attend: x, y, z”

“The bloggers café: always open”

“Pop in to the collaboration corner if you want to consolidate your understanding!”

It would require students having a handle on what they know and what they need to develop. Teachers, too. The very idea of letting students just “go” and fall through the cracks is scary. Students who don’t already know how to advocate for their needs would need to learn that skill and teachers need to use professional judgement. It’s not a free-for-all when it’s carefully planned.

Personalized learning takes student autonomy, careful documentation and reflection on learning, co-planning, and careful goal setting. In my opinion, personalized learning is not adaptive learning environments. While I see the good in including some adaptive technologies like Lexia or Mathletics, this drill-and-practice learning is not understanding. When a child needs to learn multiplication tables adaptive learning can be a huge help but real learning is messy and I worry when we teach students that learning is just progression up a ladder.

I recently saw a picture of a school where there was a cubicle for each of 300 students, touted as being “innovative” because every student was participating in adaptive learning at the same time. “Look ‘ma! No teachers…!” Yikes! Is the “cubicalization” of education what we really want for students? We can be alone anywhere… We cannot be together everywhere. I think more than learning to be apart, students need to learn to come together and technology is one of the many intermediaries for collaboration. I have seen even very young learners collaborating to produce one coherent product that demonstrates learning and providing one another with feedback on content and mechanics of learning both face-to-face and online.

Accountability remains a concern for me. When it is poorly managed, I think it’s easy for students to slip through the cracks in a personalized approach. Students need to be accountable to themselves, to teachers, to parents and need to really reflect on what they know, how they can show it, and what they need to know. I do think this is possible even for very young learners.

When we weigh risks in education, I’m not convinced that a traditional approach in which every student is doing the same thing at the same time is less of a risk than a personalized approach. Is it easier to manage as a teacher? Yes… Is it worth turning kids off learning by telling them what to learn and how to show it? Goal setting and demonstration of understanding is important. In my experience, when students are given the power to choose what and how the engagement goes way up.

Alfie Khon wrote here about the overselling of ed tech and said “show me something that helps kids create, design, produce, construct — and I’m on board. Show me something that helps them make things collaboratively (rather than just on their own), and I’m even more interested.” Collaboration is key!

Where do ideas for teacher and for students come from? They come from the lightning that is what’s in your head meeting what’s in my head and transforming the sand in both into the glass of something greater than what existed before. Ideas come more from collaboration than they do from working alone. I think we need to provide students with the opportunities and spaces to interact, to learn from one another, and to demonstrate that learning in a way that makes sense to them.

 

Teaching as narrative art; teacher as storyteller

Once upon a time there was a writer, turned teacher, turned writer… Turned teacher/writer. Good teachers at our hearts are essentially story tellers. We know story hooks children into the learning whether the topic be children in South Sudan or the quadratic equation, minds wander to why.

Failed teacher? Failed writer? Which came first: the chicken or the egg…

For me, I started as a teacher but in my head I was really a writer. I taught for six years, liked it well enough, worked hard, had success. Then there was a confluence of events as there often is: I had a hard year of teaching at the same time as my husband was offered an exciting position working in Montreal. “Be a writer?” He said to me. “Are you kidding?!” I said,”of course I will.” I told my friends the plan:

“I’m going to be a writer!”

“So how are you gonna make money?…” They would ask.

“I’m going to be a writer…” I’d repeat.

“So…” (long pause here…) “Your husband will take care of you?”

Okay then… I left the classroom and took up another life…

I got a degree in translation, I worked as a translator, a copy editor, a writer. I wrote scripts, pitch documents (so many pitch documents…), I wrote a novel (or two) and participated in a mentorship through Humber college with Joan Barfoot. Yann Martel read me. I met Robert McKee and loved his workshop. I was published in Scholastic instructor. Once upon a time I made it to top 20 in the CBC Canada writes blogging contest. I translated a science textbook…

Where does my work appear now? Mostly nowhere but here…

Finally, I found that the freelance life wasn’t working for our family. I couldn’t be up all day with kids and work at 10 o’clock at night to deliver a document at 6 o’clock in the morning. So I quit.

Maybe.

I’m back in the classroom where I seriously love to be. I am doing a masters degree and have a love for reading and writing about teaching and learning that allows me to marry my loves together into pretty much my dream job.

I think every teacher brings something amazing and different to the table. Part of what I love about teaching are the many varied talents of my colleagues. Not every teacher is a writer; I know plenty of teachers were or are something different in their lives outside of school (sales people, secretaries, personal trainers… the list is endless). But I do think blogging is accessible to every teacher. It’s cheap. It’s accessible. It opens our practice to discussion.

Blogging is a reflective practice; it is important because it makes visible that reflection that often occurs in our heads, on the way home after work, while cooking, while running, while waiting to fall asleep at night.

Does the “publish” button sometimes make me take a long pause? You bet. My admin reads my blog. Potential employers may see what I write. Potential PhD panels may see it in the future and decide I’m not the candidate they are looking for. At the least (or maybe at the most), though, I hope that I can demonstrate blogging is a place for reflection and interaction. It is a place to celebrate success but it is also a place to share what doesn’t work for me and to seek opinions.

Not every teacher brings “writer” baggage to the table, but every teacher can and should blog. It’s the opportunity to make visible the reflective practice that so often happens as teachers. It’s not only what happens in our classrooms that makes us professional educators but also the reflection on best practices, on assessment and evaluation, on feedback, on knowing our students that makes us true professionals.

Anybody can stick a shiny sticker on a spelling test with 100% written on the top. Not everyone knows how or why that might not be best classroom practice.

The truth is that teachers are one part craftsman, honing a skill that can be passed from one practitioner to the next, one part artist, storyteller, dramatic artist, engaging students in the magic of learning, for when it’s done well, any story is narrative art.

What being a student taught me about being a teacher

Recently, I found myself in a “Yoga for Runners” class and had an “aha” moment about my teaching. How often as an adult do we find ourselves in the position of learning something new? Not nearly often enough is my answer, especially if we are teachers.

I have been a runner since I was a teenager. I don’t claim to be very fast or to be able to go very far, but I do LOVE it. I decided to add yoga to the routine because all I was doing was pounding my body with the same old same old four times a week. I have done yoga before but it never really “took”. I do love the dim lights and the quiet, the incense and the chanting, but I am the kind of girl who needs a runners’ high. I want to feel like I have worked hard. I never really felt like I was amongst my tribe.

Yoga for runners blew my mind:

I showed up in my running tights and thought, “meh… They’ll do the trick.” Little did I expect every other yogi and yogini to look like me! The room was full of Nike and Sugoi and not the hemp and bamboo I had expected. They all had feet like me: rough, and bent. Every other yoga class I had been to was full of people who seemed to respect their feet more than I did, but this class seemed to be full of people more interested in where their feet could take them. I found power in knowing every one of those runners had a tight front body and a weak back body. Camel pose that goes straight up and down at best? Yup, that’s me. There is power in finding people with like interests.

I found myself wanting feedback rather than wanting to disappear into the background. The teacher demonstrated, described, and provided feedback. She used words, a demonstration, and sometimes a hands-on realignment of our position. I was not afraid to get it wrong! Rather, I was more concerned with getting it right. There is power in being allowed to make mistakes.

Several times she said, “There is no judgement only practice.” That right there? That blew my mind! I was not right or wrong but on a continuum towards my best me. How freeing to not be afraid to get it wrong! She provided us with feedback and then let us try each position again. The feedback came in the middle of the practice, not at the end where I would have forgotten before the next session. There is power in just-in-time feedback.

She guided us to the ropes and wall hooks where I was incredibly intimidated: what torture device is this? But she made it fun! My first inversion! Did I look like a fool on the outside? Probably. Did I feel like a five-year-old on the playground on the inside? Absolutely! Let’s not forget the value of play in the classroom! There is power in fun!

The class was Robin Hilton’s Hips and Hams at the Bodhi Tree and I highly recommend it. I also highly recommend putting yourself in the student role occasionally and experiencing the slight discomfort of learning something new.

Pinterest, FTW!

Today my students scored a pretty fun afternoon, and I’m pretty pleased with the results of their work. After spending some time on Pinterest, I was inspired to adapt this art project for my students’ work with the Grade 4 curriculum’s unit on rocks and minerals and the Grade 5 curriculum’s unit on weather.

This lesson covered so much: science, language arts, art perspective.

One of my students even remarked: Mme! We’re having fun, but we’re learning, too!

20121116-160429.jpg

The students traced their hands and feet, then they drew their faces and bodies. Students were required to include three rock samples and one cloud sample, all of which could be identified by a viewer. After drawing, students outlined their work with a sharpie and painted with water colour. Finally, students blogged their rock and cloud samples and a QR code posted next to their work takes viewers to their site.

I loved this project and I think students were pretty pleased too!

Saskatchewan Film Employment Tax Credit; Why I Care and Why Saskatchewan’s Educators Should too.

Before I begin, know that I write this from my own point of view; it is not endorsed by my board of education or my professional association. This is my own opinion as an educator. I do, however, have a vested interest in the topic, being a teacher, being the wife to a talented, nationally recognized picture editor, and the mother to a boy who will soon enter the school system. We live and work in Saskatchewan and, before the proposed cut,  had no inclination to leave here. This is my home. I do not want to leave it so that my family can continue to work in the

fields that pay our bills, but our livelihood here is threatened. This video is a compelling argument about the children of the Saskatchewan film industry, children of families affected by the proposed cuts.

Imagine the career landscape in Saskatchewan a year from now if the Saskatchewan Party decides they should go ahead with scrapping the tax credit. Many film and television industry leaders have discussed more clearly and succinctly than I can what will happen: the film industry in Saskatchewan will go away. Why should this matter to teachers? We are not in the business of making movie stars. Our government is not in the business of financing dreams. We are, however,  in the business of educating our children. Sir Ken Robinson, an important thinker in the field of education, stated it best in his book, The Element, when he said that every student is best served by finding their passion, their own learning mode. To me, that means that we need to meet students where they are and we need to do what it takes to get kids fired up about learning.

For many students, the spark is that of freedom to create; write stories, stage plays, make movies, create mini-documentaries about what they have learned. Ever done a heritage fair? How many of your students showed up in costume? How many of them took a few extra steps and visited the places they were researching to take pictures and shoot video? Not all of them, of course, but in the time I have done heritage fair, I would guess approximately 10%. Those students who take an extra creative step often inspire the students who did not to do better the next time. I have seen students who, after spending a month researching and writing, are inspired for next year’s project. They want to learn and they want to create and share.

We teach children to follow their passions, that they can be anything under the sun that they want to be, that they can ask questions, find answers, and share their knowledge.

How limiting is it for our students to dream big, but know that there is no future at home in the film, television, and new media sector? Our government sees the value in students making films to celebrate the legislative building’s 100th birthday, but they do not see the value in making a career out of film making. Many of Saskatchewan’s film industry jobs are for documentarians (want to make a living asking questions, finding answers, and sharing your knowledge?), crafts people, cooks, etc. There are myriad and unlimited ways to express creativity and to contribute to the economic engine at the same time. I once had a student ask: “Mme, is there a job where I can do social studies for a living? That is my favourite subject.” Yes! There are many! One of them is making documentaries! But now my government is telling me that it’s just not economically viable to tell stories from here. I won’t try to discuss the economics of film making here; there are many informed people in the industry who have done a better job than I can, Nova Herman-Alberts is one of them.

You might note that a couple of children in the video state that they want to be actors, directors, movie stars. They also state that they are considering a career in dentistry or palaeontology! These are careers in hard science that I believe the government of Saskatchewan would encourage our youth to pursue. We need geologists to keep the oil and gas and potash industries producing, no? Children inherently follow their interests without preconceived notions that art, science and economics do not belong together.

Science and art need not be disparate ideas! Many talented scientists are also talented artists. Art and science work together to make a whole person like baking soda and vinegar work together to make a cake. When the cake is done the ingredients are unrecognizable as individual ingredients. That does not mean that, therefore, one of the ingredients could be removed and we would get the same results. My students have painted science (solar system investigation), they have filmed social studies (mini-documentaries about student exchange programs).

What will happen when the tax credit cuts go ahead and our talented artists, actors, seamstresses, camera operators and others follow the money to our neighbouring provinces? Who will mentor our students? How will students share their ideas? How will we inspire them to ask questions, find answers an share knowledge?

Many of the talented people who make a living in the film and television industry also contribute significantly to the education scene. Judith Silverthorne, a prominent Saskatchewan writer of children’s fiction who also makes documentary films often makes an appearance in schools to talk with children about the writing process. Peter Krowler, a well-known actor, who has appeared on widely recognized shows like X-Files works with us though the CREATE program. While I cannot speak to what these two individuals  might do following the cuts, I  wonder what happens to our children’s exposure to real-world applications of what they learn at school when talented resource people leave our province.

Education and film and television are complementary, teaching children that what they learn at school is greater than the four walls that contain them. If you agree that our students benefit from a local film industry please take a moment to investigate the petition. Since the budget vote takes place on Thursday, I encourage you to phone Brad Wall’s office and share your thoughts. Write a letter and fax it in. These are our children, these are our students.

Goal setting

This year I have been on mat leave with my second son and have had some time to concentrate on myself and my goals. I have been blogging regularly and have checked-in with my goals about once a week. Doing so has taught me some important things about goal-setting:

1. It’s not enough to set a goal at the beginning of a project and walk away, expecting the goal to have magically come to fruition. Goals have to be revisited frequently. I have set year-long and monthly goals and when I look back sometimes find myself thinking, “Did I actually say I was going to do that?” I think for students this means that goals should be set at the beginning of the year and after each term and that they should remain visible, rather than tucked away Ina binder as I have done in the past. Maybe we will try posting them on a corner of our desks?

2. Goals must be scaffolded. My goal to run a half marathon in under 2.5 hours is predicated on my ability to meet the monthly goals I have set for myself. It’s not magic- running 5k in January, 10k in February, and so on is the work necessary to get to my long- term goal. It gives me something to check off every month and I can SEE my progress. For students, I’m not sure what this means. “Complete all Grade 5 objectives” is too obscure, “get better at writing stories” is too vague. A good example of a Grade 5 goal might be: “write one short story and publish it on my blog” or “read a book every week”. These goals, however, do not necessarily demonstrate growth. Is it worth showing students curriculum documents so they know what it is they are supposed to learn?

3. Making goals public means being accountable for your progress. I am often asked how my training is going. I think it is reasonable for parents to sit down with their kids at supper and ask them how they are progressing at meeting their goals.

These are just my thoughts so far. I am not sure that I am not being too idealistic as I sit back with lots of time to think (haha- not really because I’m on mat leave), but the pace of life is different than it is in the classroom. We’ll see where this thinking leads in the fall.