Elite New York “Pressure Cooker” Schools are Rethinking Homework

An article about homework in this weekend’s nytimes couldn’t have happened at a more appropriate time, as I continue to search and explore ways to make homework (now called “home learning” in our second grade classes) be meaningful.

Sending a worksheet home, so that it can be returned the next day for the sake of compliance is not the message I want students to get. If I have to assign it, and kids have to do it, it has to have purpose beyond that. Being prepared to share something in class with their peers is valuable.  So is practicing various skills as long as there is immediate and meaningful feedback. Unfortunately, over the course of a regular busy schoolday, one often doesn’t have a chance to check a child’s homework until after the end of the day, so by the time a child receives feedback, was the home learning task really that successful?

Towards the end of last year, I thought I’d give Kahn Academy a try, and while it worked for some, it didn’t achieve what I was hoping. What I did like was the immediate feedback kids were getting at home. Sal Kahn spoke at our regional conference this year and I was surprised how novel his ideas seemed to many teachers.  He isn’t the only one who’s been trying new things, but he’s been endorsed by Bill Gates and has also done a TED talk, so he’s definitely more visible.

So this year, my teaching partner suggested some other online tools which were more age appropriate than Kahn’s, covered multiple subjects so that kids could have some choice in their learning, used tech in a way that allowed for immediate feedback, and allowed us to still included elements that required kids to be prepared to share as well as take some responsibility to bring certain things back to school (even though it might not be daily).

Well, I wouldn’t call it a complete success after the first month. There were a lot of elements to consider, and some we have reconsidered.  Many things, however did work. There are elements that really seem to be doing what we hoped, and they just need to be revised and tweaked. In the classroom, my students have begun to start appreciating the idea of process and revision and not always about getting it right on the first try. It’s great that I can show kids that it is also how adults learn. We didn’t get it right on the first try, but we’ll see how the adjustments go, and report back. Thanks to all my students’ parents who provided excellent feedback in helping us refine it.

It’s nice, though, to know the most elite independent schools in New York (not that it should be a measure of anything) are also working on similar issues. We too, will be giving a “Home Learning” holiday on October 31st!

Still Learning #isedchat

In the book The New Culture of Learning, which I briefly posted about a week or so ago, the authors conclude that the fusion between the two elements of information and experimentation, and the resulting transformation of both, is what defines this new culture. In a sense, it’s learning through play.

This past Friday, I concluded a three week teaching stint for SIG at The Overlake School. I have done a lot of reading about longer 90 minute classes, multi-age groups, process-based curricula, etc., and these past three weeks gave me the opportunity to experiment with those ideas.

It’s true one can learn a lot through reading, or be inspired by watching. I have to agree with the authors, though, that until you do it yourself, fail, learn and try again, play and experiment, the other kind of learning isn’t transformational.

My challenge for the coming school year will be to make sure my students are not only inspired to learn, but are given opportunities to experiment as well. I also want to try and have a good balance which focuses on both the processes as well as the skills.

One of the many reasons I blog is that I’m intrigued by the pros and cons of social media, something I’m still learning a lot about. And believe it or not, it was a tweet I responded to that led me to the summer gig. Aside from my own personal learning, it was great to meet and work with some wonderful educators and kids.

I’d love to write and reflect more about my experience, but I’m in the middle of nowhere and just glad there’s currently a small wifi signal so I can post this. So much for those who insist iPads are only consumption devices.

The new culture of learning is about mindsets and motivation. Hopefully, I can teach kids that.

Best PD for Teaching IS Teaching

It’s been a while since I’ve taught during the summer, but this one particular program I started at yesterday intrigued me. First, the objectives of the classes were not written the way  State Standards or Core Curricula are written. For example, one of the objectives in one of the classes I’m teaching is for the student to ‘explore the different ways to employ creativity techniques in the development of a new invention.’ Second the classes are 90 minutes long which really allow for project/problem-based learning activities. Third, these are all multi-aged classes, so I’m seeing kids from ages 5 to 12 throughout the day. Not having committees, faculty meetings, regular email communication with parents, homework to assign, and unbelievable amounts of autonomy to reach or adapt these objectives to the actual kids I’m teaching, I have had time to play with, use, and have kids use technology in the class already. Finally, the program is only three weeks long, so there’s a lot of interesting thought that goes into planning out the courses. There are a lot of books about regular classrooms and how important it is to set the tone and expectations for kids in the first 6 weeks. I’ve only got three!

One can read and see examples of project/problem-based learning, but until you have a solid 90 minute block and figure out how to utilize that time best to suit the needs of the kids, it’s just a theory. By nature of the schools I’ve worked in, I haven’t taught a multi-aged class in over a decade. It’s been a lot of fun (and it’s only been my second day on the job). I am also loving the objectives being so open-ended and relevant to kids’ lives. While objectives for basic skills can be and are appropriate, it is evident that these kids are getting basic skills instruction and practice as part of their project/problem-based objective. Just thinking about the ‘real-world’ product that kids will create as a final assessment has been fun for me. Making the material relevant to them now, not someday in the future increases their motivation incredibly.

Professional Development can happen in so many ways. We can have workshops, attend conferences, teach other teachers, or coach, but in my mind, I think the best way to become a better teacher is to keep trying new ways to teach and adapt to your students.

In our own schools, it is possible for us to develop professional development like this. According to Douglas B. Reeves in his book Transfroming Professional Development into Student Results, he notes that not only does a school have to have vision for this kind of PD, but also implementation. Without implementation, the vision “not only fails to achieve the intended objectives but also engenders cynicism and distrust.”

Reeves also criticizes most schools for what he calls “Institutional Multitasking,” and that we need to FOCUS: Focus on teaching, curriculum, assessment, and leadership. Darling-Hammond and Richardson (2009) stated that the largest effects in teacher improvement were found for programs offering between 30 and 100 hours over 6 to 12 months. We’d have to use all our faculty meetings and in-service days throughout the year just on one topic to reach that goal. So what is one of the biggest factors in supporting this kind of PD? The schedule. Marzano (2009) notes that school “leaders must be the architects of systems and schedules.”

Finally, Reeves talks about recognizing our biases and being willing to fail. “School leaders have a particular responsibility to respect research integrity, particularly when a teacher-researhcer expresses disappointment that a planned intervention was ineffective.” Teachers have to get over their fear of being wrong or making mistakes. It’s how we learn.

This summer job that I’ve got is a great one. Including the work I’m doing prepping for each class, I’m spending about 105 hours. That definitely puts me in Darling-Hammond’s range. Unfortunately, it’s not over 6 to 12 months. The systems and schedules for the next school year, may determine how effective our school’s PD is. I will have to build in my own to maintain what I’m currently learning.

We had a guest speaker talk about the campus's Green initiatives. These kids are examining native and invasive species on the campus's wetlands.

Another 8 Things Learned at ISTE

The final day of ISTE came fast and furious. To squeeze in more sessions, the breaks were shorter and there was no shortage of information overload. The ending keynote was given by the principal of the Philadelphia Science Leadership Academy (a public school working in partnership with the Franklin Institute), Chris Lehmann. Before he was introduced on stage, we were given three bits of advice: 1) Get it out of your brain (write about it, blog or old-style journaling), but organize and put it all somewhere; 2) Don’t wait to get started (try some of those new tools, reflect on how you’d use it with your class/school, etc.); 3) Share! I plan to do more sharing, but for now, here are 8 things I learned today.

8) I’d love to come back to ISTE and have others from my school to share the experience. It’s in San Diego next year, which might make this more feasible. Perhaps partnerships with nearby public schools.

7) We should take no greater pleasure than seeing our students eclipse us. (Paraphrased from Lehmann’s keynote.

6) The great lie of education is to tell kids, “You might need it some day.” Make it relevant. If they need to know it now, they will be motivated to do it now.

5) I understand resources cost money, but some companies are selling devices that no smart teacher would use if they knew the much much cheaper alternatives out there. There are document cameras at our school that cost over $600 (I won’t say who this vendor was). I found one for $75 from the company iPevo. Apart from no light source it’s a great simple to use document camera. The company had a booth and the people there were extremely helpful. When I asked about light source when lights are off, they offered a couple of solutions – one) a cheap desk lamp; 2) a small flashlight and some zip ties; 3) the exposure mode in the software (something new I learned). They were more about, “How can this tool help your kids,” and less about “buy this version now. It’s improved.” I know, different sales tactics, but if you start your pitch with my students, I will be more inclined to take the time to listen.

image from ipevo site

4) Jobs that are facilitated by tech are growing. Design, architecture, engineering, science, and in fact most jobs of the future will depend on the creative class (current trends, Daniel Pink, Richard Florida). Technology facilitates creativity. Those that can be replaced by tech will and should be (i.e. online math tutors in India for fractions of the cost). You cannot compete with price. This includes teachers who don’t see themselves as creative and aren’t learning when to use tech to facilitate teaching/learning. A teacher needs to matter to a student. If you look at Dale’s Learning Cone from 1968 or Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), they still hold true for how we learn and how important it is to focus as in the case of Dale’s Cone (the bottom) and in the case of Bloom’s Taxonomy (the top). With Bloom’s you cannot do the top if you don’t have the skills below it.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Dale's Learning ConeModified Blooms Taxonmy

3) A cartoon I saw that I loved had a boss yelling at an employee, “Get back to the cubical and start thinking outside the box!”

2) More early literacy resources at Readilicious (again, thanks to all presenters for posting their links, resources, etc.)

1) Don’t give your kids the answers. Let them grapple with it, predict, apply, be resourceful. A good metaphor was the horror movie: If there is a real intense scene and someone tells you, “don’t worry, the cops will arrive just in the nick of time,” that experience is lost. That is the same for kids’ learning. If you TELL them rather than let them DISCOVER it, you have just spoiled their learning experience/opportunity.

What an incredible 3.5 days! I have never before been this overloaded with information. Still the bottom line is this: No matter how much tech is out there. No matter how extensive your PLN is, you have to remember it’s all about relationships. The response you received from a question you tweeted didn’t come from a google algorithm. It came from an actual person. What a great experience to have met some of the actual people in my extended PLN. It’d be great to find educators public and independent elementary teachers who tweet locally. I’ll leave you with this: I am smart. My colleagues, students, parents of students, are collectively much smarter. My PLN is brilliant!

I will continue to share bits and pieces review the resources I’ve learned about and talk about a great book I’m almost through called The New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the  Imagination for a World in Constant Change  by John Seely Brown. The independent school group at ISTE has chosen this book as a summer book club book, and they’ve got the author to agree to a web chat sometime between mid-August and early September depending on the author’s schedule. I’m more than half-way through. It’s quick easy and thought provoking. If you’re a twitter user, Vinnie Vrotney will be hosting an #isedchat on July 21st. More details to follow.

If you’re interested on Chris Lehmann’s talk, you can get an idea of his philosophy through his TEDxPhilly talk.

8 Things I Learned Today

One of the sessions at ISTE that I attended was called Google to the Max: The Power User’s Guide by Dr. Howie Di Blasi. The title was not an understatement. After a nice introduction where he talked about 8 things he learned today, the speaker powered through example after example of incredible ways to utilize the free tools available through google that kids and teachers can use. One simply has to be creative. Thank goodness those resources and examples will be posted tomorrow, so I could sit back an actually learn a few things. Here are 8 of the many things I learned today.

8 ) There are so many resources out there that it’s extremely hard to sift through them all. Thank goodness others are sharing the wealth. An example, would be from a session I attended today called Resources for Emergent Literacy Teachers by Boni Hamilton. Here is her resource page on early literacy alone. Of these resources, I really liked the reading assessment database which gathers all available reading assessments for preK to 3rd grade, groups them into either criterion referenced or norm referenced assessments, tells you how much they cost, and what these assessments do and do not test. For example, you can see on the chart that the DIBELS assessment, one of the tools we use at our school, is a free resource that assesses reading comprehension (through retells), decoding, cipher knowledge, phoneme awareness, and letter knowledge (depending on the grade). What it doesn’t assess is language comprehension, background knowledge, linguistic knowledge, phonology, syntax, semantics, lexical knowledge, alphabetic principle, and concepts about print.  Depending on the age of your kids, you would look to other assessments then, to glean more information about the other areas or reading.

7) Collaborative writing is interesting, and I participated in a demonstration this morning using the tool MixedInk. This would have a lot of potential for teachers who want to create a shared document on school policies, beliefs about education philosophies, or other subject areas. Having said that, I tried a shared google doc with our faculty this year, but did not get any participation. I also think peer editing works for older kids and that younger kids aren’t ready to ‘critique’ their peers’ work without it becoming a popularity contest. Some teachers say they assign code names to their students, so only the teacher knows, but in the end many shared theirs with each other. I would also find it difficult to have 8 year olds deciding which of the different sources is best. The fact that this tool allows users to rate others worries me too.

6) I’ve never seen so many ed Tech vendors gathered in one space. You can tell who the big players are as their ‘booths’ look like full-blown stores. What’s even better is that many have their own sessions – and they’re good. Here’s an example. What I liked was that you obtained their schedule by snapping a QR code with your smart phone. No paper. It’s a tech conference. I do not want fliers, pamphlets, or google logo beach balls. As it is, the conference program is over 200 pages. I will however claim an ipad if my name is drawn – so far, no luck.

5) Tech Ed. does not belong to the young teachers. It belongs to those motivated to learn. I would say most here are over 40. Neither age nor gender seemed to play a factor in tech ed. Except that during the purely elementary school sessions I attended – males are still grossly underrepresented. Using tech in education is a mindset.

4) I love infographics. I attended a great session with Kathy Schrock. Again…resource/info overload. Thank goodness for a site she put together for this presentation with all the links.

3) Administrators need to play, explore, use technology to teach (hold meetings, reflect, share resources, engage in PD, blog, etc.) as well as teachers and students to really make change happen as better decisions on the type and implementation of tech is more likely to happen. This message was repeated by several presenters.

2) Tech seems designed to bring out the problem solvers in us. Let it bring out the problem solvers in kids. Kids in second grade or younger should work in pairs when on a computer. It’s not simply the tech that’s helping them learn different literacies, but the conversation they’re having with each other is even more important for development.

1) People from Philly are direct. Walking through the massive maze-like conference an attendee asked one of the security workers for directions. After giving him directions, the attendee started walking the wrong way. The security agent rolled her eyes, yelled at the gentleman and said, “Sir, did you hear anything I said? It’s that way.” As he reversed direction, she threw her arms up in the air and in a voice loud enough for all to hear she continued, “That’s a man for you!” I felt for the poor guy, but was so glad it wasn’t me.

Rubik's Cube solver made of Lego - I really liked this.

What is the Point of Learning?

Several weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a TEDx event at Eastside Prep. Several speakers really spoke not only about what’s wrong with much of our education system (that would be too easy to do). They also spoke of changes that would enhance learning – the real kind of learning where you take risks, sometimes fail, but persevere until you get it. The reward is intrinsic. The value and motivation comes from the learning itself. For example, changing the schedule to allow for longer deeper inquiry or assessment without grades. Honestly, if I was evaluated on a grading system rather than through goal setting, feedback, and reflection, I wouldn’t do it. So why do we do this with kids in middle, high, and even some elementary schools? I’m glad people are motivated to put on events TEDx events focused around education. There’s another TED education event in this area, TEDxOverlake (How People Learn,) happening on June 18.

This week, the videos of these talks were posted, and I wanted to highlight a couple of speakers that addressed the above in different but concrete and passionate ways. The first is by Shawn Cornally, a high school math and science teacher called The Future of Education Without Coercion (you should also check out his blog, ThinkThankThunk.

The second is the talk by Dr. Tae whom I wrote about a few weeks back. His talk was titled: Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?

If you’ve read Daniel Pink’s Drive, read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, seen the movie Race to Nowhere, or heard Sir Ken Robinson speak or read his book The Element, a very similar theme emerges in all of them.

Virtual Art

I finally had some time to play with Google’s new “Art Project” site where you can virtually tour 17 art museum around the world. I’ve been very fortunate to have been to 10 of those, and it’s never the same as standing in front of an actual piece and viewing it in person. I’d rather my students actually go and see a piece of art in a local museum or gallery in person. Field trips are an essential part of learning, and while many schools are cutting back due to the recession, many can be had for free. Nonetheless, I have to say that it’s an amazing website and the virtual tours seem like their ‘street view’ in Google maps. Most of the top artworks are available, and if you have a google account, you can start your own collection and save them in the cloud. Unfortunately, there are a few disappointments. One of the biggest impacts I had viewing art was in Madrid, at the Museo Reina Sofia.  It was Picasso’s painting, Guernica. That painting is not available for viewing. Each museum only has a few wings you can tour through. Nonetheless, it’s a great tool for having children respond to art when you can’t get to the Moma in New York, for example. Once you get deep into using the navigation and information tools in the side bar, it’s easy to get caught up in it. There are audio and video guides and notes, but best of all for many of the featured works: you can zoom in possibly closer than you could in the museum without setting off any alarms. Some of the high-res pictures are great for looking at detailed brush strokes. This article from the Boston Globe today about schools cutting back on field trips is quite sad. If the objectives of the field trip are clear, a lot of learning takes place outside the classroom.

The folks at Google are planning to add more museums and wings. And, should the Seattle Art Museum be added, it would be great to have a virtual preview of a place and then have them see it for real in person.  This youtube video below is a good way to get an idea and get started. How else could this be used in education? I look forward to hearing your ideas. I can tell you that this year, the simple ability to project and use Google Earth has made the concepts of continent, ocean, country, and even smaller divisions, much easier for all second graders to grasp, not to mention geographic vocabulary.


Looking at Biomimicry and Nature to Become More Sustainable

Anyone looking at today’s headlines may think the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Yet, one of the main reasons I teach is the optimism kids have about their future, the potential kids see in creating a more just world, and the endless possibilities of things they believe they can accomplish.

Over the past few years, our school has run an annual coin drive to benefit a particular global organization. This year, our fifth graders chose World Concern as the organization, but more specifically, that the money collected would go to purchase solar cookers for families in Chad. With the recent population boom in eastern Chad mostly coming from war-torn Sudan, many children are sent miles, through often dangerous terrain, to fetch wood so their families can cook their meals. Aside from protecting children, it also protects the deforestation that has happened in that region. For an area that is often hot and receives a lot of sun, these inexpensive and innovative cookers make a lot of sense.

How innovative can we be with our own sustainable practices? I watched the TED talk below last week and was awed by what people are thinking about and coming up with. Not only that, I also realize how much I have to learn in order to actually teach it. I don’t want the idea sustainable practices to feel like lip service in order to gain whatever points one needs to have a building LEED certified or some other sustainable stamp of approval. I simply want the process to be genuine. One of my frustrations this year has been trying to learn about sustainability because the topic is so complex, full of paradoxes, and for me, something new. I don’t know what starting small means. I’m also not sure how to bring it down to a level that makes sense for second graders (besides reusing, recycling, and composting materials). Our school’s symbol is the sun. Having children understand that it gives us energy that we can harness and store, and that it’s a renewable source is something I can work with and so can my students. Unfortunately, in Seattle, with hydro power being inexpensive, and sunlight being scarce in the winter, I’m curious how long it takes for a solar panel to pay for itself, if at all.

Anyway, take a listen to this amazing talk and you’ll see what I mean by how complex sustainability can be. My favorite line from the video, “You could look at nature as being like a catalogue of products, and all of those have benefitted from a 3.8 billion-year research and development period.” Let’s inspire our kids to develop the tools needed to think this way and “set their souls ablaze” with optimism and hope.

Using Slides to Engage

It’s one thing to use technology in a classroom  such as an interactive whiteboard and enhance your lessons with slides (and I don’t mean death by bullet point) – I mean well-thought-out slides that actually enhance and engage by adding the right amount of text and visual content so auditory, visual, and text based learners can all benefit.

It’s the first year we’ve had these tools, which puts us quite behind and the pressure to use them has been a little overwhelming. Only because there’s no point using it if it doesn’t convey the message of the lesson effectively. One thing I’ve learned in creating some of these slides is to keep it simple, have little text (unless of course the objective includes having the kids read the text), and put less on each slide. One simple thing I learned this year was just to get rid of bullet points altogether. At our curriculum open house last week, I decided to start simplifying our slides and giving it more visuals that weren’t just clip art in the corner of a slide. I was happy with the edit. Not great, but overall, better.

Of course, the templates that come with powerpoint are usually the main problem and have a lot to do with why presentations at meetings can often put one to sleep. Usually it’s a title followed by five to a dozen bullet points. Charts should also be visually appealing and designed so the graphs have the maximum impact in conveying its message. Some data make more sense in a pie chart, others make more sense in a bar graph. Colors can make a huge difference too. Whether at a faculty meeting or in a classroom, a presentation is a presentation, and if we are going to use visuals to enhance the presentation, we need to learn how to do it effectively. There are a lot of how-to classes in powerpoint which focus on how to add a shape, or add a transition, but not a lot of tips on how to make those visuals resonate with your audience. Like most kids, at first you want to put every bell and whistle into your slide deck, but actually thoughtfully putting it together requires paring it down quite a bit.

In the end though, we are educators, not designers and haven’t been taught these things in school (in fact much of this didn’t exist when we went to school). Now, some 7 and 8 year olds seem so at home creating slides. I can’t afford to leave what I love doing to go to design school, for the sole purpose of making my lessons peppier. Yet, kids seem to be more and more visual in the way they learn and process information and it would be a shame if we didn’t tap into this media – but only if it enhances the lesson by making it more meaningful or engages kids more.

In his book Brain Rules, Dr. Medina mentions that the brain processes information in a visual way. Rule #8 – Sensory integration (stimulate all the senses) and Rule #9 – Vision Trumps All Other Senses means that we need to also think visually. Graphic organizers are wonderful, when getting kids to organize their thoughts before they begin to write. In order to make slides effective though, one really has to observe others who do this well. Below is a youtube video of a powerpoint slide deck. The first two slides are just credits but do go past it. It’s worth it. After that, watch how artfully the elements are put together. And yes, the entire thing was done in powerpoint 2010. It’s a little ironic that our students are using computers with powerpoint 2010, but many of their teachers are still using 2003. In some ways though, that constraint has helped, as it has forced me to keep things simple. Transitions are only effective if they add to the meaning. Otherwise, they become clutter. Microsoft paid this company to show the potential of using many of the features of powerpoint which may make part of it seem busy, but boy, if I could learn to do half of those things. Of course when you find out how long it took a team of people to do this, you have to wonder, is it realistic for teachers to prepare lessons this visually appealing? Am I going to have to learn how to animate next? Furthermore, educators need to learn more about “fair use” and “creative commons”. Not just for our own use, but to teach children how to use their sources responsibly. It’s really a confusing and difficult thing in this rapidly changing world. Is linking to a url of an image ok (apparently it’s ok to link to an article)? I’ll save that for another post. Anyway, here’s that video. Hopefully it inspires us rather than the opposite.

The Importance of Art in Schools

It’s surprising and disappointing how so many schools choose the arts as one of the first department to go either when times are tough or when they are pressured to increase their scores on achievement tests. It doesn’t take one long to find that these cuts are taking place all over the country: Fort Lauderdale, California (and that was in 2006 when things weren’t as grim) (here’s a more recent story from CA), and even as recently as this past week over in the UK. At least according to the Obama’s art-education platform, it states that …”we should encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education.” This article about the exhibit from the Seattle Times talks about the links art has to “math, science, literature, you name it.” I feel extremely fortunate where I work. When they designed the new school building, they had several local artists contribute to a few pieces around our campus.

Yesterday my students and I had a great day of art. One of Seattle’s local artists, Juan Alonso who created 5 pieces of abstract art around our campus came to talk to the students about what inspired him and about some of the process involved. He also started giving workshops to classes on abstract portraits. I can’t wait until it’s our class’ turn. What I love about abstract art especially is that it is open to interpretation unless the artist actually tells you what inspired him. The sculpture on the right sits in front of our school. I always pictured it as the font of knowledge or something to do with passion. Juan Alonso explained that when he thought of an elementary school, he thought of a child with arms reaching upward. Now every time I see it, I can’t help but think of that.

After our assembly, four classes headed to the Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. It’s the last week of the exhibit, and I have never seen the place that packed. Rather than battle the crowds and try to see all of it, our wonderful docent selected just a few. She had the kids full attention and began by asking them what they thought they saw. With this kind of open ended question, it was amazing how much effort the children spent looking at the painting, the colors, shapes, etc. and the thoughtful, yet out-of-the-box responses were inspiring. Asking children to inquire about art is no different than what we ask them to do in science. Much of the vocabulary needed to describe Picasso’s work is shared with geometry. Reading about his life and the times, learning about Spain and France, and writing about their experience are natural connections. Our docent was wonderful and asking the right kind of questions forcing the kids to think a little more critically rather than just come up with a one-right-answer response.

Of course, what I loved is that his art is celebrated for breaking the rules, for being a visionary and wanting to push boundaries in art, for leading change rather than following it, and working hard. Some of his paintings were based on hundreds of initial sketches. This exhibit also highlights someone who worked until he was 91. Noticing a couple of my children’s eyes light up when the docent pronounced that Picasso created his art as one would write a diary. You know the kids who want to draw before writing and those who prefer it the other way around. Why not celebrate both kinds of kids and be open to different ways of arriving at the same objective.

The children then took part in a workshop at the museum offered by a teaching artist where they created mixed media collages of portraits using the concept of viewing things from multiple perspectives. The results, though unfinished, were wonderful, unique, and more importantly something they were all proud of. Whether it be the performing or visual arts, schools must make room for it. Visual art promotes multicultural education, critical thinking skills, inquiry, creativity and innovation, math skills, science, literature, and so on.

The exhibit runs for just a few more days until the 17th of January and the museum has extended its opening times until midnight. This was one of those things that wasn’t part of the planned curriculum, but in my opinion, worth doing. It was my third time seeing this exhibit, and I was still awed. I hope some of the children were too. If you don’t mind crowds, you can click on the picture below which will link you to the museum’s website.

The Shadow by Picasso

“I Believe We Can Be Better.”

How many books about differentiation can Carol Ann Tomlinson write. Here is a list:

  • The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of all Learners (1999)
  • Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms
  • How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-ability Classrooms (2001)
  • Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom (2004)
  • Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiated Curriculum (grades K-5/5-9)
    Tomlinson, C.& Edison, C. (2003)
  • Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiated Curriculum (grades K-5/5-9)
    Tomlinson, C.& Edison, C. (2003)
  • Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Contents and Kid
  • The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning (2008)

Well – she’s got a new one out called: Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom. At first I rolled my eyes and thought seriously, another one?

Differentiation continues to be a big buzz word in education these days and truly, you can go back to the title of her first book and see that differentiation is simply ‘responding to the needs of all learners.’ Those needs are going to vary a lot among students and change from year to year. Being able to adapt to your students’ learning needs is the essence of differentiation. Those of use who realize this, get it. Now what more could she possibly add. But then I opened the book and read the preface which began with this quote:

Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.  – Louisa May Alcott

For some reason, that resonated with me. It had “Growth Mindset” written all over it. The author then began to tell a story. An autobiographical account of her epiphanies (many which she didn’t even realize until much later in her career) regarding differentiated instruction. Some she realized on the spot. “… I understood at that moment that an effective teacher is not someone who just teaches content. He or she is someone who teaches content to human beings, and the classroom has to work in such a way that each individual in it has a legitimate opportunity to grow as much as possible from his or her starting point.” Classroom management is not about keeping kids in their seats but about giving good directions, providing an engaging curriculum, and adapting to individual and group needs. She ends the preface by saying that the book is an aspirational guide. “We have no illusions that any teacher — even the best among us — reads a book and emerges with radiclly different teaching style in tow. We do believe, however, that there are many teachers who aspire to grow as professionals every day.” And that was just in the preface.

Then, in chapter one she calls on classroom teachers to be leaders for change, and she says in order “to achieve such a level of leadership we must

  • Work from and aspire to an objective that is an improvement over the status quo.
  • Articulate this vision so that those who are asked to follow have a compelling reason to do so.
  • Move knowledgeably toward this vision while simultaneously attending to the voices and needs of those who will necessarily help enact it.
  • Be patient with and supportive of followers, yet impatient with artificial barriers to progress (I was so glad to see this as this describes me quite well – I thought my impatience with those barriers was a flaw. Woo Hoo! Carol Anne Tomlinson says it’s ok to be impatient with certain things).
  • Maintain a pace that consistently ensures visible progress without pushing the system beyond it’s capacity to change. (Well here’s where I could learn something – As a wise colleague once said to me, “It’s a marathon and you can’t sprint the entire race.”)
  • Monitor outcomes of the change and be willing to adapt, when necessary to achieve desirable outcomes and eliminate undesirable outcomes.

The rest of the book helps define what differentiation really is, uses it as a philosophy, clears up many misunderstandings about differentiation, discusses how to be a more reflective teacher, and how to begin that journey.  The second half of the book focuses on the mechanics of managing an effective differentiated classroom. There are some excellent ideas posed. She then ends by responding to almost every possible resistance in order to go on this journey.

Perahaps that earlier quote resonated with me because earlier I was reading the president’s speech regarding the recent tragedy in Tucson. His words were simpler, but echoed the earlier quote of Louisa May Alcott. He said, “I believe we can be better.”

Maybe Carol Ann Tomlinson did have more to add on differentiation. Teachers can learn to differentiate well, adapt to the needs of their students, and continue to grow.

Making Data Beautiful

Making sense of student ERB test scores on a spread sheet can be daunting for some, and after staring at those numbers for a while, make one’s eyes a little blurry. Turning those numbers or any kind of numerical data into something more concrete, like a pie chart or bar graph makes it much easier to read and grasp. Taking it one step further and pairing up with other data could reveal some interesting patterns. For example, with the test scores I mentioned, when comparing them to other schools, what if we were able to include data on the size of the school as well. Would the results change? What is the statistical significance when comparing a school with one class per grade to one that might have 10 classes per grade. Does the sample size change the data set in a way that might be interesting? There are many other ways one can think about data and there has been quite a rise in what is called an infographic: taking the data, adding some design to it, and representing it in a way that can be visualized so it can be easier to understand.

In his TED talk below, David McCandless draws interesting conclusions from complex datasets and pairing them together. So instead of looking at simply what country has the biggest military budget, he might pair that with the country’s GDP and suddenly, the results are quite different. He also has a blog worth checking out called Information Is Beautiful. It’s definitely worth checking out.




Big Praise for Prezi

I made my second “Prezi” this week.

In my class the children arrive during a 15 minute window before school starts. During that time, I usually have them settle in, read a morning message, and engage in a math problem as well as look up our word of the day in a dictionary.

Since I’ve taught at my school, there has always been an event called Celebration of Science. The kids love it. It includes a whole school assembly, hands on exhibits, and workshops that the children attend all organized by our wonderful science teacher.

I wanted even more of the day to include science including that short time in the morning when the kids arrive. I found a great video on youtube of adélie penguins nesting so that the children could take the time to observe some of the animal’s behaviors. Unfortunately, I couldn’t embed the video into a powerpoint slide since I’m using powerpoint 2003 on an XP machine. Well, prezi.com allows you to put youtube videos in a presentation and you don’t need any software loaded onto a computer other than your web browser.

While that slide was projected, I was able to teach the first two children how to use the interactive whiteboard to replay the video as others arrived. It took seconds for them to click on the board with the interactive stylus and figure out how it worked.

While we’ve all heard about death by powerpoint, using media effectively can motivate kids. A slide with tons of text on it is only good if you expect the children to read it in order to practice reading. Visual images should enhance lessons and slides should not be one slide after another of bullet points. Prezi is really one slide and you can choose how complicated to make it by zooming in and zooming out. Like with any technology, you can overdo it, but prezi is a nice free alternative to software that’s 7 years old. To me the board isn’t interactive if it’s just me interacting with it. Students need to interact with it too. With second graders the only downside is that they are too short to reach the upper half of the board. I suppose I could buy a stool or something like that to solve that problem. Anyway, if you’re a teacher, you should check out prezi.com. The free educator’s license gives you a few more features too.

Teachers Who Blog

There are a plethora of teachers who blog and they do so for a variety of reasons. To share their voice and opinions, to use technology productively, to reflect on their practice, to share their learning publicly, and to hone their writing skills. Many teachers in high school use it to interact with their students.

One thing I have found is that I have learned a lot from other teachers who blog – still not on the twitter thing yet, but I’ll get there. Even if it changes in the next year or so, or is here to stay for a long time, we cannot fall too far behind our children.

Here are a few I’ve stumbled across:

The Tempered Radical – A teacher not afraid to speak his mind

iLearn Technology – if only I had time to try all of these very interesting things out.

dy / dan – former math teacher, Dan Meyer who’s gone back to school. It’s high-school math, but I’m geeky and wish I had a math teacher like that.

There are many more out there. You have to like teaching to visit. They aren’t celebrity gossip focused the way TMZ is, or often written satirically like The Onion. They’re just teachers who want to share what they do and learn from others doing the same.

There’s nothing good on TVs on Fridays so I watch TED talks – I know – nerdy. But even so, I came across this TED talk (less than 7 minutes) from another teacher who blogs. The topic is about the importance of taking risks, collaborating, design thinking, and the importance of facilitation.

5 Lessons from Outgoing Microsoft Software Architect Ray Ozzie | Fast Company

5 Lessons from Outgoing Microsoft Software Architect Ray Ozzie | Fast Company.

I was reading this article and thinking how to apply these 5 lessons to education, or at least the school setting.

1. Take time to paint a vision of the future. What is the future of education? Well that’s anyone’s guess. All I know is that it isn’t what it is now and we have to try new things from time to time. Medicine, Biotech, Tech and other industries are changing rapidly, but so many schools are stuck in 1970. What will it take for education to match the reality that’s out there?

2. Put past success “in perspective” – Just because it worked for you before doesn’t mean it’s going to work again. There are some tried and true methods that work for most kids, but some kids are wired a little differently, and those things just don’t work for them. Are we innovating enough to meet the needs of diverse learners?

3. Recognize what’s inevitable in your industry – look for new opportunities and stop fighting the inevitable.

4. “Inevitable” is not the same as “imminent” – Technology will play a vital role in education whether or not the teacher is ready for it, but there’s time to be ready for it. Teaching kids to be critical thinkers and approach problems from multiple perspectives is inevitable, and teachers have time to do this if they’re not already doing so. Individualizing is also another thing I think is inevitable in education if teachers aren’t already doing it, there’s still time. The education buzzword for at least the last decade has been differentiation, but how much is really happening?

5. Read transformation has to come from within – According to the article, “if you want to make people shift from the old world to the new, the people inside your company have to see it, believe it, and have a passion for it.” I totally believe that with teaching. If you’re not passionate about it – do something else, please. The article continues, “You can bring in outside consultants to tell you where the future is headed, but if the people inside your company don’t live it and breathe it themselves, you won’t get there very fast, if at all.”   Furthermore, those with the power (in education that would be superintendents and other administrators) “are responsible for developing and articulating a compelling vision, eliminating obstacles, prioritizing resources, and generally setting the stage with a principled approach.”

Multiple Perspectives

I had the fortune to visit the Museé National Picasso in Paris years ago and perhaps aside from the Museé D’Orsay, it was by far my favorite museum. For a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was in a house and very intimate compared to the immense Louvre or Pompidou, and secondly, because it contained works from his own collection that he never sold, works that were personal to him. Also, these works spanned all the different periods this one artist had. Without a doubt, he was an innovator.

Well, as the museum in Paris undergoes some construction, Seattle, is one of the few cities that is showcasing this work and we are fortunate to take our kids to the exhibit in January. The SAM is an excellent resource for educators and they have put together a great website full of great resources including audio guides as well.

Today, there was a workshop for educators which included several activities, a tour of the exhibit, and learning how to integrate art into your curriculum. The Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, Chiyo Ishikawa provided a lecture on the man’s life and periods as well. I like hearing her speak about art at anytime.

I have to say that the education department at the Seattle Art Museum is excellent, as I didn’t just learn about the art and artist, but they also teach it using different strategies that one can bring back into the classroom easily.

It was a very different experience seeing the same work on large white walls, but I still was in awe of his constant pursuit of something new. When asked, how does this relate to your curriculum? The evidence was everywhere.

Relationships – besides his many female companions and muses, Picasso entered his blue period in part because of the suicide of a very close friend. This plays directly into our social and emotional curriculum. One teacher from another school, told my colleague, “You teach Second Step? – well use some of his images to elicit empathy from your kids.”

Identity and expressing oneself – we ask kids each day to look at themsleves and look at the differences that make them unique. What are their strengths? What are things they need/want to work on? An artist, writer, musician, or dancer, etc.  often puts a lot of his or her emotions into their work and then displays it for all to see. Picasso was also moved to make political statements and his response to the German and Italian bombings of Guernica, his piece of the same name (not in this exhibit, but in Madrid), is a fine example of political and expressive art.

Growth mindsets – although Picasso was an art prodigy, he resisted the status quo and pushed himself to pursue what he believed in. He pursued excellence and worked hard. While he died a very rich man, he was not always so, and as studies suggest, effort more than ability, is what matters – and kids need to be praised for their efforts.

Innovation – This one is obvious. But innovators often go against the status quo, and it did not deter him from trying new things.

Those are just the big ideas, but the there were plenty of day to day curricular extensions. Social Studies, Science, Math and Language arts were the focus. I was with a group of lower elementary teachers whose task it was to create a math activity using one of his works. Geometry was an easy choice, but we picked a piece called Sacre Couer (which you can view here – due to strict copyright laws, they asked us to save certain images for class use and then view it online otherwise). We were given this lesson plan from the museum as a guide. We focused on the main objective being that kids would learn about 2D and 3D plane and solid shapes and how to do that on a flat surface. What struck me is that as some of use talked about using other global landmarks, or their own community landmarks to deconstruct, and started to think about some of the bigger ideas and concepts of critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, how to get kids working collaboratively, etc. a few teachers were very emphatic that those things didn’t get tested and therefore were not important. Their school would either be rewarded or punished if their kids did not perform well on a test. This sent shivers down my spine as I feel very strongly that skills beyond the basic recall of information, but that is the reality that some schools face. The museum even included a copy of the Global Competence Matrix in our package. You should check it out. It’s well worth it.

Anyway, the results from all the different groups produced some good lessons that were all adaptable and covered a wide range. One group who were high school teachers took a quote from Picasso, “Art is not made to decorate rooms. It is an offensive weapon in the defense against the enemy,” and used it as a way for kids to use art to make a statement. That same kind of thing could be done with younger kids and how it relates to bullying, for example.

My favorite quote was, “Painting is stronger than me. It makes me do what it wants.” I’d turn that around and ask can teaching be stronger than you? For me, the answer is yes. There are some days where the best laid plans go out the window and you try something new because your students are craving it and they couldn’t care less what was in your plan.

The theme of the day was multiple perspectives. Whether that is what you think of when you think of Picasso’s work, look at art in a mathematical way, or have personal and cultural perspectives of individuals influence a collaborative effort, Picasso can teach us and our students a lot. I have never seen the museum so busy before and am glad that this exhibit is a great success.

I’m looking forward to our field trip there in January.

Planting the Seeds of Opportunity

I had the pleasure today to be in Vancouver to hear Sir Ken Robinson talk about the schools of the future. But where to start? There were so many great nuggets.

The thing that stuck with me most was the idea of stripping education down to its main purpose and then ask what is essential. If you strip away everything, the school building, the text books, the standards, the politics, and so on, what you are basically left with is a student and teacher. That teacher can be a parent, a professional teacher, or another peer. In essence, education relies on Relationships. Anything you add to that, if it doesn’t improve it – get rid of it. He said all the rest of it is noise or distractions.

Education, especially in the public schools are bloated with a lot of things we don’t need or do not improve education. Organizations like schools are not machines. They are about people and feelings.

The other thing he mentioned is that everything happens at the ground level between student and teachers and that we are going through an education revolution.

He said he cannot predict the future, but asked us to imagine what the processing power of a computer 10, 15, 50 years from now. Just think about it. If you could go back in time to the 1950s, would they believe you could have all the computing processing power in your pocket? We don’t know what kind of jobs these kids are going to have (most haven’t been invented yet). So as teachers, we need to try new things, take risks, be creative, and in turn nurture the same thing in our students. We cannot continue using practices from the 19th or even the 20th century. Change happens, it happens slowly but it is increasing. Sir Ken mentioned that if you asked Queen Victoria if she would have imagined the British Empire gone within one generation, do you think she would have believed you?

The first words of my school’s mission statement is: “Through innovative teaching … ” That means we should be trying new things in our classrooms all the time, and while some may work, others might not. And it isn’t just in math and language arts, which are the subjects that tend to be the major things that get measured on standardized tests. True, they will need some of these skills to be successful, but standardized tests only measure one kind of skill and are designed for kids to identify one correct answer, rather than look at a novel way at solving a problem. Would you evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness by giving him/her a standardized test in pedagogy or observe how they interact with their students?

Sir Ken Robinson mentions that there are two factors that are facing us in the future – one is technology, and the other is the growing population and our limited resources. I mentioned imagining what computers would be like in 50 years (there are predictions that they may emulate an adult human by then), but what will our population be in the year 2050 (There are estimates of over 9 billion)? If we consumed like the people in the subsaharan do today (oil, food, etc.), he mentioned that there’d be enough to sustain about 15 billion people. If we consume like North Americans do today, we could sustain 1.2 billion people. We are already over 6.5 billion as we speak.

People who are going to solve these problems along with climate change will need to be good at math and science, but they will also need to be innovators. They will need to take risks, and try new things – as crazy as they may seem to some people.

What we also need to do is help students find and develop their passions. Yes, literacy and numeracy are important goals, but there are some who never discover high levels of achievement and personal satisfaction in the the thing that they do well naturally. In his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, he calls the element ” the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion.

At this point, he says something similar to Yong Zhao, we have to give these kids opportunities to develop their talents, whatever they may be. Sir Robinson is an incredible speaker, had a slide show prepared, and chose not to use any images. His talk was compelling enough.

He recalled an anecdote about Sir Paul McCartney who was told by his music teacher that he didn’t have much talent. George Harrison was in that class too and told something similar. Here was a teacher who had half the Beatles in his class, and missed it! What are we missing in our students.

If you look at the biographies of many people who changed the world. Many did well at school, but many did not. Somewhere along the way a teacher, peer, or parent, spotted this different aptitude and that child’s love for it, and the rest they say is history.

He summed up is talk by saying there were three things he thought were important to education of the future:

  1. Person (relationships) – People learn from people. Find the talent in your students. Help your students find the talent in each other.
  2. Diversity is crucial. Different cultures take different things for granted and our thinking is not homogenous. It leads to new ideas. We need to see the other as friend, not foe. If kids feel they are not good at something (like math or reading) they may inadvertently suppress their “element.”
  3. Economics – we need to stop investing in models of the past and look toward the future.

I could go on – I’m still grasping a lot of what he said. It was inspiring. So get into your classrooms, and if something isn’t working try thinking about it differently. Adapt and innovate. Visionaries don’t necessarily know what the future will hold, but they continually ask questions, make predictions, and try new things. Many have called Sir Ken Robinson a visionary in education.

His book is absolutely fascinating, and I’m only part way through it, but  I’m sure I will post more about it as I finish it up.

On a side note – One thing I enjoyed was that the sold out audience included the BC minister of education, administrators, teachers, parents, but al so high school students. Thanks for inviting me, CR.


Where Good Ideas Come From

I haven’t done a Ted Talk post in a while and this one is a great one by Stephen Johnson about innovation: where great new ideas come from, and what are the environments that lead to creativity. Ted is a great source of under 2o minute, thought provoking keynotes from some great minds. I feel fortunate to have listened to John Medina and Yong Zhao last week in person and there’s nothing like that experience.

I’m really excited about several lectures that I’m going to attend in the next month.

Sir Ken Robinson – on Creativity (I’ve shown his TED Talks on here before) Here’s a link to my previous post.

Michael Sandel (author of Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do) who has also spoken at a few TED events before. Here’s his TED page.

Jane Goodall – who’s also spoken at a few TED events (here’s her page)

Anyway, here’s Steven Johnson’s talk. Enjoy.

Yong Zhao at PNAIS: Children Are Like Pop Corn

Dr. Zhao’s presentation at the PNAIS fall conference today was great. With the main premise that American education promotes innovation and entrepreneurship. When asked where the next Microsoft, Apple or Google would come from, the answer was the US.

With the former president’s NCLB and the current administration’s Race to the Top, where test scores are the main measure for student success or teacher accountability, they are actually doing more harm.

The world is changing and it’s the creative class that are going to be the most successful. He joked that if you asked kids in India or China what they aspired to, they answered engineer, scientist, etc. and that they wanted to go to Harvard or MIT. Americans would answer the same questions with answers like Perdue, or another school. And then he joked about the time he asked his 5 year-old daughter about what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she said, “an elephant.”

It was a great story to say that as Americans, we dream big. We aspire to more than being competent in calculus. We have a broad education and we nurture our children’s talents.

While we have a goal that every third grader will be able to read proficiently, it’s not high enough. We want them to dream. We want them to dream big.

What is important in American education is innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, passion, purpose, and pursuits. The more diverse your place of work, the better it will be. Not because those who are diverse have better ideas, but they will have different ideas to bring to the table and from the combination of several ideas may even emerge a novel one. This would apply to children in a classroom as well. He said technology, talent, and tolerance will lead the way.

He then recalled a first grade teacher that said to him, “Children are like pop-corn. The all pop at different times.” And when we expect children to fall within a line on a chart by measuring them through a standardized tests, we are not teaching them to be innovative, create,  and be entrepreneurs.

“Where’s the hope?” Zhao asks. Then his next slide is a picture of Madonna. She probably didn’t have the highest scores in elementary school, came from a small town in Michigan. Sure she has a niche audience. But that niche exists all over the globe.

Like Daniel Pink said in his book A Whole New Mind, Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning are the skills that will guide the leaders of the 21st century.

As our current president endorses extending the school year, China is looking to shortening it.

So what can we do to acheive this?

Personalize Education toward “the drive to tailor education to individual need, interest and aptitude so as to fulfill every young person’s potential” (Department for Education and Skills (UK), 2004)

We need more kids aspiring to become elephants.



Bulletin Boards

Bulletin boards serve several purposes. Sometimes they can display items, like the work of children. Other times, they can hold information that can teach. And perhaps, sometimes they can do both.

With our theme of sustainability this year, I decided to create a welcome back bulletin board made entirely out of recycled or reused materials (including the information panel on the far right). The photo I’ve included below is a 15 foot bulletin board outside our 2nd grade classroom. On the far left is our school logo Consisting of our initials the E and the S below a setting (rising) sun. The slogan itself isn’t too original. It says, “Set Sail for 2nd Grade.” but if you look closely, the letters in that slogan are all created from shapes from the original E and S in our school logos. It’s an odd typeface, but I think it works.

Welcome Back! (click on image for higher resolution)

There are 10 sailboats, each with two names on them. The student’s first homework assignment is to create torsos of themselves for these sailboats. They of course can only use what’s in their recycle bin at home. Just in case, I printed out some directions on a quarter sheet of paper too – they could use the back of that if needed.

The panel on the far right (made out of recycled cardboard) asks the children to find at least three sources of renewable energy (solar, wind, tidal were the three I was thinking of).

Within the sustainability theme, we have been asked to focus on three areas:

  1. Sense of Place – with our school logo clearly placed on the bulletin board, our sense of stewardship, care, belonging, and respect from ourselves to our universe, should be a fun one to continue integrating into our curriculum.
  2. Transportation – Apart from sailboats on the bulletin board, I’m not sure how we’ll approach this with second graders. Perhaps graphing how they get to school, encouraging more walking, discussing how much energy it takes to move.
  3. Reduction of materials, and the responsible use of materials. Considering everything on that bulletin board (except for staples and  a little glue) either came from the recycling bin or things that were going to be tossed, it’s a good start.

I can’t wait to see what the little ones turn in tomorrow. Onward to day 2!

By the way, if you notice a little book on the ledge of the bulletin board, it’s titled Once I was a Cardboard Box … But now I’m a Book About Polar Bears.

First Day

One thing I love about the first day of school is the multitude of feelings that parents, teachers, and students all have.  Excitement, anxiety, and anticipation are just a few. Today, we opened up a beautiful new building with a ribbon cutting ceremony. It was great to have the children witness how many people it takes to put something like this together. From past trustees, the former head of school, the architects, the construction workers, the people who dreamed it – most were there. It was wonderful because it showed the children that it took a team (several in fact) to do this.

It’s taken a few weeks and I’ve had a chance to get the room ready for the first day. It’s now up to the kids to populate the room with their ideas, work, and energy. The walls that house our school are beautiful (many new things are), but it will be the people (both inside and outside those walls) that make up the heart of the school. It will take many teams and our class is just one of them.

The all-school theme for the year is sustainability – there’s no catch phrase or slogan for the theme yet, but the official time period for that doesn’t start until January. With the privilege to work in a school with class gardens, a 500 gallon cistern, solar panels, green roofs, furniture from sustainable forests, etc. there is certainly going to be a lot of learning going on for everyone).

Detail of a bench by Seattle artist Juan Alonso. One of my favorite artistic elements of our new school.

Being Resourceful

I’m still running on fumes, so please forgive the dearth of posts lately. Our new classroom is almost ready.

I’m fortunate that I’m at a school that gives its teachers an amount to spend on their kids and classroom. Still, it’s amazing how quickly supplies add up.

Living in Seattle, one has to prepare for “Rainy Day Recess” and one activity many of the children (and grown-ups) enjoy is playing with Lego.

A table like this one

Cost: $299.95

will cost close to $300. It’d be nice to make that money go further, especially since there are always curricular resources and supplies that need to be purchased as the year progresses.

Well, here’s what I did. I took two “Lack” tables at IKEA ($9.99 each). Built the first table as is, attached casters to the second table top (no legs), and then attached them with velcro (yes it really works). I already had 3 base plates, so I only had to purchase one more – ($6.99) and affixed it to the top of the table with contact paper and some double sided tape. Oh … I had some extra wire baskets that came with some of the new classroom furniture that was just lying around too.

Here is the result:

Table from IKEA with wire basket.

Second Ikea table (just the top used - casters were lying around in the tool box at home) - notice the velcro on the corners.

So, for less than $30 (10% of the cost of the table above, I was able to make my own. Our school’s mission statement’s values mention being respectful, responsible, and resourceful – I think this project qualifies for the latter –  perhaps more $$ can go to lego purchases. They are not a cheap toy.

And, when separated from each other you have a lovely side table and a nice dolly if you should need it.

Math Tips

Written by a teacher, this article has some great tips for teaching math.

Teaching Secrets: Making Math Meaningful for All

Published: August 18, 2010

By Cossondra George

While it is considered unacceptable for the average person to lack basic reading and writing skills, people often brag about their inability to “do math.” It is almost a badge of honor to be numerically challenged.

As classroom teachers, we must overcome this attitudinal acceptance of not being successful at math before we can create numerically literate students. We must learn to teach in ways that make mathematics accessible to every child and build our students’ confidence in their capacity to master the knowledge and skills associated with our important—and intriguing!—content area.

Here is a quick list of her ideas:

  1. Purchase a set of student whiteboards for your class. (Thanks for getting us a class set, Steve!)
  2. Create real-life examples of concepts you are learning.
  3. Use small groups and presentations where students teach each other as well as the entire class.
  4. Teach the power of “Is your answer logical?” (essential in math)
  5. Integrate technology to capture student interest. (check out her links)
  6. Encourage, require, demand re-do’s. (this, along with number 2 and 3 should be done in all areas).

You can read the full article by clicking here.

Can you find the math in this 2nd grade activity?

August is Here …

… which means my back to school panic mode has begun to set in. For those who don’t work in fields where they get their summer’s mostly off, every summer – just when you think that the slow pace of the long days is really the way we should live, the reminder that Labor Day is right around the corner comes as a bit of a jolt. The summer letters written to welcome the new class was due, meetings among faculty (not for social reasons) are starting to happen, my work email inbox is getting a little fuller, and I received my school’s Spring/Summer update. The latter reminded me that I’ll be moving to a brand new classroom in a building that will focus on sustainability. One of the key features will be that each grade will have its own raised garden bed to tend to each year. What do I know about gardening? First of all, I suppose I will have to build in time to the schedule so that the children can plant, water, fertilize (naturally, of course),  create garden signage or art, learn about where food comes from, insects and animals, native and sustainable plants, just to name a few. Then of course, we would make sure to link and integrate math, reading and writing while we’re at it.

I borrowed this great book from the public library (but to be honest, it’s a little overwhelming for someone who only just learned how to prune roses – thanks, Susan!) called How To Grow A School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers. Blogging about it will force me to read and learn.

At least the first few chapters are straightforward.

Ch. 1 Why School Gardens?

  • They enhance academic achievement
  • They promote healthy lifestyles
  • They instill an environmental stewardship ethic
  • They encourage community and social development
  • They instill a sense of space

You can’t really argue with those, can you?

Ch. 2 Laying the Groundwork

Luckily, our lower school math teacher is also a master gardner and many of my co-teachers have the expertise to get us novices started. Those who were most interested, parents and teachers alike were consulted, and with a new school being built, I’m assuming that the garden will magically just appear at some point. And this chapter mentions the issue of funding (many thanks to our generous community who is supporting this and our development admin team).

Ch. 3 Getting the Most from Your Site

  • Who’s going to use it?
  • Who’s going to manage it?
  • Will there be a tool shed?
  • Will that shed contain clipboards, writing materials, gardening supplies, etc.
  • Can that shed double as a teaching area?
  • Are the pathways inviting for little ones?

Well that was also taken care of by the garden committee and architects, so again, my fingers are crossed.

Ch. 4. Groundbreaking, Budgeting, and Fundraising

I have always found fundraising a great “real world” way to involve kids, but since we are an entire school that tries to raise funds each year, fundraising as a class activity has been frowned upon. If you think of the math involved, the publicity and outreach, and the positive social learning, it can be a great learning opportunity.

The next part of the book is where I will be learning a lot. It focuses on curricular activities and ideas, including garden maintenance once you’ve got the garden going. There are some great web resources available too that I’ve stumbled upon:

Top 20 Reasons for iPhones in the Classrooms

Late last week even after the iphone 4 antenna fiasco, Apple posted an incredible quarter. They also mentioned that for some reason they couldn’t get the white plastic right until the end of the year. I was waiting for that one, but decided that was too long to wait and got myself the new one. What to do with my old one, I thought. It’s headed to my classroom. Here are my top 20 reasons for having iphones in the classroom. If you have more, I’m all ears!

  1. It’s an ipod after all – kids can listen to audio books (formerly called books on tape) – and it can play music
  2. It’s an e-reader – even though I can’t read for too long on those small screens, kids can.
  3. It’s a recorder – kids can record themselves reading
  4. It’s a camera – kids love taking pictures and from their perspective, there are always interesting shots. Unfortunately my phone is 2 versions old and doesn’t do video (but I hear there may be a way to do this)
  5. It’s a drawing pad – just think, no messy fingers full of paint, no wasted paper, and a gallery of kid art
  6. It’s a calculator – you can even geek out and get one in reverse Polish notation
  7. It’s a clock – and a timer, stop watch, alarm – you can even get a binary clock.
  8. It’s a dictionary
  9. It’s wikipedia
  10. Kids can watch BBC or PBS clips on youtube (National Geographic, Nasa, and Discovery have great apps too)
  11. It’s a web browser
  12. That means it’s also a writing tool (zoho.com is a good example – a mobile google docs is coming soon)
  13. It can still be used as a phone without a plan over wifi (skype)
  14. A lot of educational games – Scrabble, chess, sudoku, tangrams, pentominos, (and a lot of games that aren’t) – there are also flashcard games, memory games, strategy games, puzzles, mad libs, etc.
  15. It can be used as an FTP server (if you don’t know what this means, ignore and read the next one)
  16. It can be used as a remote for your slide shows, used as a mouse, even be a remote desktop for your pc!
  17. It can be a translator or converter (imperial to metric, dollars to euros)
  18. Kids can use it to roll dice or flip a coin
  19. It’s great for mapping – google earth is amazing
  20. It can be used as a flashlight/level/ruler (you get the idea)
  21. (bonus) – it’s a musical instrument too.

If anyone reading this has an old iphone 3g or 3gs sitting around in a drawer somewhere, I am accepting donations for my classroom. I’ll also be accepting any old Kindles that would otherwise be unused.

Interesting story here – don’t know how legit it is, but a $35 tablet computer? I’ll believe it when I see it.