When NOT to use Minecraft in the Classroom

I do not share this post with the intent to judge others in their attempts to educate students by using specific tools.  Instead, I want to encourage critical thinking, reflection and discussion. I share it as a way to ask for support and guidance as to when we should be using Game-Based tools to engage and teach certain content.

I struggle with incorporating the popular “Craft Reconciliation” project into my current Inquiry Lesson about Truth and Reconciliation between the Canadian Government and First Nations Peoples. I struggle at the thought of using a tool that for many students is considered a “game” to address such a deep, personal and difficult topic. I do not want to put light on an issue that has had such dark implications and caused so much harm for so many.

It is important to me as an Educator to have my students truly understand why Canada is involved in the process of Truth and Reconciliation as it pertains to our First Nations, Metis and Inuit. This isn’t just part of our history – our past and present – but it is part of our own individual need to understand why reconciliation, truth and forgiveness, is necessary for individual growth so that we can authentically make and act upon changes – not just say reconciliation, but also demonstrate it. These are the values that we uphold as Canadians.

In my role as a Teacher for Gifted (ages 9-14), I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity for students to dive into some of the deeper issues that involve First Nations, Inuit and Metis (FNMI) not just as Peoples of the Past, but of the Present. I was also thrilled at the potential of using creative approaches, like Minecraft, for students to engage in this initiative – Craft Reconciliation is an initiatve  -https://www.facebook.com/WabKinew/posts/10153017657506618:0 where students would engage in a inquiry process and design thinking.

I was excited to participate in this process – at first.

But then, as my colleague (Kristy Luker) and I began designing the inquiry lesson, I became more and more uncomfortable with having students sharing and demonstrating their thoughts in Minecraft. The task yes, but why was I so uncomfortable with my Minecraft when I have done so many lessons using Minecraft in the past?

Let me be clear here. I am a HUGE advocate of Minecraft in the classroom. I have used Minecraft for almost six years and have presented locally and Internationally over the past several years on why Minecraft is a choice learning tool for design (and for thinking, engineering, collaboration, math, science, literacy …you get the point). I write blog posts about Minecraft and have even won awards based on my use of Minecraft within an Inquiry driven classroom (The Enrichment and Innovation Centre).  My point is that  I am in FULL agreement that Minecraft is a fantastic tool.

BUT….I am uncomfortable with students using Minecraft for this particular topic. Am I afraid of minimizing the content? Am I afraid that students will be distracted from the seriousness of the issue? Am I worried that they will not give attention and justice to an issue that has had such dark and destructive impacts on an entire culture? Are we over using Game-Based tools…to the point that we have lost perspective?

I can attest that I know how student work in Minecraft. I have worked on Minecraft related projects with over 600 students over the last few years.  Keep in mind, I am talking about students at the Junior or Middle school ages (9 – 14). I’m not sure how this would be different for Secondary level students or adults. I wonder if it is different for those students who have only used Minecraft in an Educational sense? 

Watching them work, play and create is what made me love it so much as a learning tool. But I have learned that they work differently in this platform. Even in a most focused and rich design task, they are in “play mode”. This isn’t bad, it is just a fact. Most of them have been ‘playing’ Minecraft before any teacher or school ever introduced it to them. They know well and and used the tool well before most teachers. They go into “Minecraft Mode”.  It is almost impossible for us to tell them to stop “playing” and get to the task/design. FULL ENGAGEMENT. I am certain that any teacher who has used this tool in the classroom can attest to this.  They can’t help but get giddy and excited – like anyone would that is allowed to use a creative, open-ended and collaborative tool. Plus, it’s Minecraft!!  And, too often, they need some reminding to stay on task (they love to build Minecarts or anything involving redstone for just about anything).  They also need a lot of time and thinking as part of the process. A lot.

It is exactly these reasons that I am uncomfortable with students using Minecraft to explore and recognize Truth and Reconciliation between Canada and the FNMI people. Why? Honestly-   I don’t want them to get “giddy and excited” in this topic. I don’t want them to Play when talking about the Residential schools. As I read and read (and read) the information and documents released, I realized that the issues go so deep and personal. We are not just talking about the physical symbols and cultural values that our First Nations have brought to Canada. We are talking about the the fact that over the years, Canada has policies that were geared at eliminating Aboriginal rights. The report released in 2015 explains, “For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation and cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. (Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, 2015)

The more that I learned from the report about the Residential Schools in detail the more angry and upset I felt. “For the students, education and technical training too often gave way to the drudgery of doing the chores necessary to make the schools self-sustaining. Child neglect was institutionalized, and the lack of supervision created situations where students were prey to sexual and physical abusers (Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, 2015) .

If you have ever read my blog or tweets, you know I am an advocate for the use of engaging and current learning tools. I believe that we need to do better at engaging our students. But as an advocate, I am also cautious and I tend to think critically about how we do this in a balanced and respectful way.

I hope this doesn’t get read with offense but more as a discussion starter about when we should be employing Game Based tools in our curriculum. Does the content matter? Are students able to recognize the seriousness of a topic when using a tool that they are used to using for fun? Maybe I’m way off. Maybe fun and engagement can help us understand hard topics better? But in this case, I am going with my gut.

Consider joining in the conversation.

EndNote:

We did our first of 5 lessons about Truth and Reconciliation. We talked about why we were not participating in the Craft Reconciliation Project. They said, “It doesn’t feel right”.

Here is the overview (just an overview) of our lesson. Keep in mind, it is changing as we go along.

-Zoe

 

Gifted and Learning Disabled – The dichotomy in learning

DSC_0086 (2)I have students attend my After School Program (STEM focused Makerspace)  every Wednesday who struggle in their regular school. Many of these students struggle academically and socially. Yet, these same students, at the Makerspace,  perform skills and engage in social and academic activities that demonstrate knowledge of math, science, engineering and ARTs  with a proficiency beyond their age and grade level and with a strong level of motivation and confidence. It is often confusing for them for their parents. It got me thinking about the amount of Learning Disabled and Gifted students we see on a regular basis. Students that struggle to find and demonstrate ways that show what they know.

I had a conversation with two students this week,  both from different areas of the city, different grades and from different school districts and yet both had the same story to tell.  I highlight these conversations here to demonstrate the dichotomy with how students are performing in regular classes and how they are performing in self-driven Makerspaces  outside class time.

Note: A Makerspace is defined as a learning environment that is designed around the concept of making, creating, designing and innovation. These spaces bring in the ART with Math, Engineering, Science and Technology and allow for a good degree of autonomous, self-paced and passion passed learning.

I write this post in hopes that parents and teachers read it and begin  take a second look at the child/learner in front of them. What if the student is LD (Learning Disabled) but is also highly intelligent, highly gifted, highly creative? What if WHAT the student needs is to be surrounded by other students and learners how are engaged in hands-on learning activities? What if the student’s IEP (Individual Education Plan) could be based on STRENGTHS instead of WEAKNESSES?  Regardless of the test result (CCAT, Report Card, EQAO) could the child be Gifted?


 

ART“My teachers thought I was dumb”.  “I thought I was dumb” – Grade 10 Student.

Interestingly,  in their middle school years, the students I spoke with, were tested as “highly Gifted” and both were deemed as “Dual Exceptional”.  This means, that they were both Gifted as well as Learning Disabled.  You can compare the LD (Learning Disabled) to wearing glasses. Without the glasses, many people would be debilitated, wouldn’t perform, would be unable to complete tasks.

 

The idea of dual exceptional students is confusing for teachers or parents since LD (Learning Disability) is often affiliated with intelligence (even though this is incorrect).  If a student is not completing their work, cannot make decisions, struggles with problem solving or self-regulation, is impulsive or behaviour,  is slow in grasping a concept and has high anxiety, how could they possibly be Gifted? Shouldn’t they know better?

To complicate matters, the GIFTED student with LD may need specific accommodations but the content, the grouping, how the content is delivered, the level of content might need additional modifications. Are we accommodation for the Learning Disability as well as the Giftedness?  Many times, these LD gifted students require opportunity to work with other Gifted Students.  But many times, because of there LD, the teacher may be focusing on assisting the student with these deficits rather than enriching the curriculum, instruction and learning. Thus, the student is working with their LD counterparts rather then there Gifted counterparts. 

This article gives some great insight about Gifted and LD students: “What teachers need to know”

http://ldatschool.ca/assessment/gifted-students-with-lds-what-teachers-need-to-know/

 

This article shares research about the value of homogenous classes and how these congregated classes server the needs of Gifted students, differently than other types of homogeneous special needs classrooms.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02783190209554146

 Intellectually gifted individuals with specific learning disabilities are the most misjudged, misunderstood, and neglected segment of the student population and the community. Teachers, school counselors, and others often overlook the signs of intellectual giftedness and focus attention on such deficits as poor spelling, reading, and writing. (Whitmore & Maker, 1985, p. 204)


 

One student shared his story with me. In elementary school, his teachers were so concerned about his ability to learn as well as his lack of motivation that  they recommended he be put in a self-contained/congregated class for Learning Disabled and ‘Developmentally Disabled’ students. According to his teachers, his reading and writing were far behind the other students. He didn’t read until after his first grade  and was seen as being far behind his peers in Math. The problem wasn’t his understanding of the concepts, but instead HOW he learned them. He couldn’t retain information (working memory) and he processed information with difficulty and very slowly but he could spend hours focused on learning one specific task. So, he was described as being “Slow” and of course this was reflected on his report card and also reflected how the teacher treated him as well as programmed for him.   He tells me that even from an early age, he was drawn to creative, hands-on activities – especially those that focused on building (lego, for instance) but these tools and choices were only provided when his other work was complete (which was rare).  The psycho-educational assessment eventually identified him as being Gifted with a Learning Disability. The student laughed aloud when he shared this with me. He thought it was a joke. He was always seen as the ‘dumb one’. He looked around the room and noted that he wasn’t the only one with this story.  Today, this student is a lead programmer and builder for an award winning Robotics team. Many would argue, that while he continues to struggle in some areas of academia, the expert computer science , engineering, and programming skills are those that are needed more than ever in our society.

Still, what I notice over in over in my job as a teacher for gifted is a dichotomy between the assessment and evaluation (and consequently programming) of the student and what the student actually knows and is capable of, his/her level of thinking. The evaluation is sometimes focused on the learning disability rather than what the student knows about the material (the how versus the what).

I wonder how many VERY INTELLIGENT, CREATIVE and OUTSIDE THE BOX THINKING  students are misrepresented because they are seen as behavioural or slow?

It is important to understand that Gifted isn’t just about being smart.  While there is no universally accepted definition of Gifted, the National Association of Gifted states, “Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports).” Read NAGC’s position paper, Redefining Giftedness for a New Century: Shifting the Paradigm. – See more at: https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/definitions-giftedness#sthash.fYgGWaDk.dpuf

Another student (she was a visiting alumni currently in her first year of college) made the point that many of the students here (she was referring to the Robotics Team)  the very students that are designing, programming and competing in world-wide robotics competitions struggle academically. She was the media representative and wrote speeches, articles and created media presentations to access funding. Her grade in English was mid-60’s. She would often be writing a speech for her team while also having to write an essay. Her speech would receive an award grant her team funding, while her essay would get an low average mark.

IMG_0442I asked the students I was working with that day (Grade Eight Gifted Students, Grade 9 – 12 Secondary Students)  if the same  level of engagement, trust, autonomy and safety that they felt in their Robotics Makerspace also existed or connected back into their regular classrooms.

One of them explained – when grades and assessment are dictated by the teacher or school, rather than through their own errors (like in robotics, programming) it changes the mindset of the activity and the authenticity fades. They don’t do it because someone is grading them, but instead because it is important to them personally. Students’ self-accommodate and modify as needed by using the people, tools and devices around them to help them. The students explained that there was very little connection to what they were doing with their Robotics Team and academics, and yet, many academic professionals come visit and observe to try to learn from them. They identified this dichotomy quite well.

For these dual exceptional students, teachers and parents need to be willing to think outside the box when it comes to programming and assessment. We need to be understanding with these students doing things differently and be willing to find a variety of ways for these students to show what they know, even if it means taking unplanned opportunities for assessment or evaluation.

The Makerspace Classroom is WAY more than Circuits & Programming

_20151213_203359The Enrichment and Innovation Centre  is considered a ‘Maker Space Community’ with a strong focus on STEM principles, problem based learning, design thinking and arts education, each with an overriding theme of Social Justice and Environmental Education. The Inquiry driven model was designed with specific attention to enriched programming, current pedagogies, computer science, environmental considerations (physical space), online and blended learning, and community partnerships.


 

The Learning Environment is something that I’ve discussed many times in this blog. More and more, the term ‘Makerspace’ is becoming synonymous with the “Learning-space”.  A space where we teach, learn and create.  However, the conditions for engaging students and teachers in a space where creativity and design is at the core needs to be implemented first. Making requires a strong sense of community, of team work, of shared learning experiences and requires tough challenges and risks and it also requires constant evolving innovations. There is so much more to the space then providing a set of robotics, circuits or robotics –  we need to provide the opportunity to develop strong relationships and a place where learning can happen regardless of age, or skill, or interest.  Here, I share our story in creating the Innovation and Enrichment Centre – a Makerspace Learning community that is far more than circuits.

In 2008, when Skype, along with the internet first became available in my district (at my school), my classroom walls literally opened up. Even in that small classroom,  students became empowered to learn outside the classroom, from people and sources beyond the teacher and the curriculum. It was fascinating. 2009, we Skyped (yes, its a verb now)  over 80,000 kms on the first and second day of school.

If you’ve read my blog you will know why I have tea circles in the classroom or have a crock-pot of soup on throughout the day. You will know why I so strongly value game based learning and feel strongly against the ‘gamified’ approach which I believe contradicts the factors that are so necessary for learning to be fully realized. Learners, regardless of age, need to feel respected and valued and honoured. We need to create instances where we talk naturally (games are a great way to make this happen) and to find real world connections to what they are learning about.  Learners (all of us) need to have a say in what we are learning as well as provided with up to date, current and challenging tools and projects.

Why we Protest…Class of 42 students (My Story)

Dear Reader,

It was almost three years ago that I  shared with you why I stood strong with my Union.  “Why I Protest”. Then, for several weeks, I spent my days in solidarity with many teachers across Hamilton Wentworth District School Board, and across Ontario, in Protest against Bill 115, a legislation that would eventually force a contract upon us and force Teachers to return to work without respecting a mutual bargaining agreement – one that would could improve our Standards of Education.

Now, three years later – the Elementary Teachers across Ontario are once again asking the Government, and the public, to support Public Education with the highest possible standard.

In this round of contract negotiations,  ultimately, teachers are asking for better working conditions. This means smaller class sizes, more support for special education students and the autonomy to use professional judgment during non-instructional time.  This brings me to a story I want to share with you – One that hits all of these issues.  I see now how it has helped shaped who I am today and why I stand tall with the Elementary Teachers Federation.

 Last week, I was having dinner with my family when a young man approached me. “Mrs Pipe?” He asked.  It took me a minute to recognize him, but then the memory of that school year came rushing back.

I’ve never shared this story before, but I want people to understand just how demanding, overwhelming and debilitating our jobs can be without the proper support, choice, and autonomy with how we spend our time.

 A few years ago, I was the teacher of a class of 42 Grade Five students.  I was super excited to start this new job…at first. It was a brand new school. I was leaving a small community school that I worked at for several years and I was ready for a change. In June, I said goodbye to my class of 20.

The first day of school that year, I had 38 students. Because the classrooms were smaller than what I was used to, I had to get rid of all tables, teacher desk, quiet reading corner, additional book shelves, or any extra furniture in order to make room for 38 desks. It was a challenge.  Quite honestly, I wept coming home from school that day. Space is important to me. I wasn’t sure how I could do it.

Then, on day two, I got the news that 2 more students had registered and would be put in my class, bringing my total up to 40.  There were no more desks available so two students would share.  That week, I began reading through my OSR’s (Ontario Student Records) only to discover that more than 14 of my students were on an IEP for a variety of reasons (Learning Disabled, Gifted, Developmentally Disabled, etc. ). I also had two students that did not speak a word of english. The biggest challenge was the blind student because we had to ensure the room was clear of obstructions. Due to the needs of this blind student, there was an Educational Assistant (EA) in my classroom. Thank Goodness! I had fifteen I.E.P’s to co-write which included meeting with parents and the Learning Resource Teacher. 

I soon realized that my running routine (a personal love of mine) was going to abruptly come to a stop. And it did.

On day three,  4 more students registered and were split up between my classroom and the other classroom (who also had 38 students). That would bring me to 42.

I have heard some educationalists argue that class sizes do not matter.  Let me tell you just how much they matter.  Just do the math. Parent communication became scarce. If you were parents of a student in my class, you could speak to me, say, once every two months. That is IF I found time to contact a parent everyday. Assessments and grading?  I had to become really good at oral feedback and ensure that I only spoke to each students for a short period of time each day.  I taught Math, Science, Social Studies, Language, Art, and Drama. I became good at both cross-curricular teaching and assessment. That’s a positive.

By week two, I was finding ways to manage my class. I had developed a very strong online network. I felt isolated lonely in the school since so much of my time was dedicated to simply managing the class and the duty schedule. Way back then, my online colleagues  (and now my good friends) became my supports – @dougpete @thecleversheep @courosa @crutherford. They kept me grounded.

Unfortunately, the amount of students that I had, did not change the type of support or expectations that I had in other areas of my job at the school level.

By mid-September, I had to start my DRA’s (Diagnostic Reading Assessment).  42 DRA’s. Again, unfortunately, the support staff in the building (Literacy Improvement Teacher, for example), were there to assist teachers with programming needs, not with student assessment, so I was on my own.  I would try to do 4 DRA’s per day in order to meet the deadline. This meant photocopying hundreds of booklets and assessment pages for the students to complete. My mom came in and helped me.

I was happy when the weekend came because this gave me a chance to do what I really loved. Plan my program. This was the year that I started classroom blogs and skyping in the classroom. This was an olympic year (Vancouver 2010) which connected so well to our Inquiry Big Idea – How do International Events strengthen Canada’s connections with other countries?

At school, the September/October deadlines and meetings continued. We have annual learning plan (ALP) goals (a several page document) to complete and hand-in. This was late. It is hard to explain the frustration and embarrassment I felt when my VP sent an email to me (and some others) reminding me this was due. Then there was the TLCP framework template. Also due and also late.

By week three, I was told that there would be some reorganization of classes and my class numbers would be reduced. But this would need wait another couple of weeks. This reorganization was a district initiative, not a Provincial mandate.

In the meantime, I became quite unaware of most things around me. My friends, my family and my colleagues.  The honeymoon phase for many of my students was over and their needs became more and more prevalent.  One student, a ward of the CAS cried most days. Another, slept on his desk because he rarely slept at night. Another, would often leave class and not come back for a long time.  The students’ parents wanted interviews (all 40 of them), the ELL teacher needed my time, the LRT needed my time, the EA needed my time and then  there was the new protocol to have “divisional meetings” during  our nutritional breaks.

At home, I was barely present. I regret that now.

I remember this one meeting (during a nutrition break)  as if I was watching myself, rather than actually being in the meeting. I sat down in the library with 5 other teachers and the Vice-Principal (VP) of the school. I had a stack of books, papers, and files in one hand and some food in another. As the VP began the meeting, without thinking,  I abruptly interrupted her and asked if I could share how I was feeling – perhaps seek help/support from my co-workers. I’m not sure if I’ve ever asked for help like that before. But, her response wasn’t what I expected. She hushed me and explained this wasn’t the time. I’m not sure what I felt, but I couldn’t let it go. Again, I explained I needed help, and again she said that the divisional meeting was prescribed and that I needed to focus on the task at hand.  But I couldn’t and I left the meeting in tears. And I had to teach Math in 10 minutes.

I don’t regret that year because I eventually connected with some of the most incredible students and teachers. I was working in one of the first tech oriented schools and learned and unlearned so many strategies that are only now being seen as mainstream and innovative.  I found ways to make it work. I began presenting at conferences and unofficially became a GAFE (Google) teacher.

But I also lost a lot too, and so did my students. 

Clarity…

Not too long after that meeting,  I had a moment of clarity on what can be lost when we forget about the human aspect of our jobs as educators. I lost and found myself sometime during this school year.  Clarity came as I sat on that bench at the side of the road, watching as my brand new Subaru was towed away.  I don’t quite remember the drive or how it happened. On my break that day, as I drove to Tim Hortons for a coffee, I simply went into a daze and hit the bus in front of me like a brick wall, totalling my car. I wasn’t hurt seriously.  In fact, I was given a chance to really reflect on the demands on our job and how we need to stand up for our work conditions and our needs as teachers – because ultimately, this impacts our students. It has to.

The student that approached me during that night out with my family, surprised me with a hug. He towered over me. He looked at me and smiled, “You were my favourite teacher.” He said. I teared up.  He has no idea!!


This is WHY I PROTEST.

Makerspace, Inquiry and Minecraft – Enrichment and Innovation Centre

I am excited, thrilled and honoured to be given the opportunity to present some of  my experiences as a Teacher and Researcher, in particular how and why I am using Minecraft in my Maker/Learning Space. I look forward to meeting, sharing and collaborating with the many innovative and curious educators that will be attending ISTE and hopefully attending my session on:

Monday, June 29, 12:45–1:45 pm EDT (Eastern Daylight Time)
Building/Room: PCC 108

What will I be presenting? Sharing?

This year, I co-created and facilitated programming at the Enrichment and Innovation Centre, at the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board. I’ve tried to write and share my experiences and personal reflections throughout the past school year. In one post, I write about the Classroom Design and I call it, “A little Starbucks and a little Kindergarten” . In another post called, “Problems that Matter…Where our Inquiry Started…and never ended.”. Here, I share what it is like to teach in an “ideal” learning environment where all students are given an Individual Education Plan, where there are no bells and no interruptions and where the class is infused with a variety of technologies. In another post, I share how I infused the Inquiry Process with Minecraft and literacy and provide a sample lesson plan called, “The Road Not Taken”. Here, student deconstruct and then reconstruct the Famous poem, by Robert Frost.

Please join me on Monday where I will discuss further, some strategies on how to implement Minecraft and other creative tools into the classroom space.  Here is a sample of what I will be sharing:

My INCREDIBLE Network – I bet you are in there somewhere!

Over the past couple of years, I have been teaching the Junior Basic Qualification course (ABQ) at Brock University. The purpose of the course is to provide comprehensive training for teachers who are already qualified teachers, but need their Junior Level Qualifications to teacher Grades 4-6, in Ontario.

For one of the Modules, these teachers spend a couple of weeks learning about how teachers at the Junior level are using non-traditional methods to teach and learn, including the use of a variety of online tools, technology tools, social networking sites, blogs, and of course innovative tools that engage and inspire learners in this day and age.

Probably the BEST RESOURCE that my students have collaboratively gathered is their contributions to my EDUCATORS that INSPIRE book (below). Seriously. Amazing. Tonight, for the first time in a while, page by page, I went through this wonderful resource and realized how ABSOLUTELY fortunate I am to have such a wide variety of co-learners (educators, leaders, education activists, writers, bloggers) in my network.

 
Next week, I’ll be heading to #iste2015 to visit some of the people here and I hope to personally thank them for their genorosity, care and constant belief in Education!

 

Be PROUD of that “Minecraft Teacher” label (or whatever the label)….

A couple of days ago, I read a couple tweets from a teacher that was voicing thoughts about being labelled as a “Minecraft” teacher, rather than an Innovative teacher that uses many engaging and creative tools including Minecraft. I looked back through the Twitterverse, but couldn’t find the tweets again.

FDSC_0271irst, I think that any teacher, leader or principal  that is labelled a Minecraft teacher should be EXTREMELY proud.  Bring it ON!  Think about it. You are being labelled as a teacher that is creative, open-minded, collaborative and willing to use tools and methods that are engaging and encourage students to venture into ARTS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING and MATH! Not to mention, using a tool that lends itself well to having students THINK, REACT and ADAPT to certain situations.  And to further the point, you are using a tool that is Universally Designed and doesn’t restrict students that have literacy barriers or language barriers.

 

So, if people see you as a MINECRAFT TEACHER, then I suggest you thank them. Maybe they just don’t understand what a compliment they gave you!

I find myself thinking  more and more about the assumptions that are made about teachers that research, share, blog and reflect on specific technology tools they use as part of the learning and teaching process. In fact, sharing specific examples about the tool or program on Social Media can have an interesting result since the context isn’t always obvious and assumptions get made about the teacher. For example, The Minecraft Teacher, The Smartboard Teacher, The Livescribe Teacher, The Google Teacher, The iPad Teacher…… You get the point.

But who cares? I am certain that I’ve been labelled a certain “kind” of teacher. I suppose it depends on who and from when. Today, I might be considered the “Minecraft Teacher”.  I delivered several Smartboard workshops for my District about 10 years ago, so back then, I was the “Smartboard Teacher”.  About 8 years ago, I started using blogging platforms with my students, so those who know me then, might consider me the Blogging teacher, or the Skyping teacher since we used Skype so often. A couple of years later, I began incorporating tools that were Universally Designed, such as audio amplification systems. I used the Front Row system and had a microphone around my neck most of the day. Yes, for a while, I was the Front Row teacher. And then, there was the iPad. My iPad ‘ONE” was the only iPad in the school (of 700) for 2 years. This single iPad labelled me as the iPad expert.  In 2006, my students were using Scratch and Robotics and even for a short while, I was seen as the Programming Teacher. Then, there was the Livescribe. Another action research project that had me integrate the tool in ways that I still find myself attached to, especially around assessment.  Recently, I’ve been investigating and integrating a variety of Microsoft tools into the classroom. Maybe that makes me a “Microsoft” teacher too.

Doesn’t it seem like the technology tools and innovations that we blog and tweet about seemed to override everything else we do as teachers? as leaders? as learners?

Do we take the time to sift through our assumptions, to get to know the person and understand why they use the tools or methods they do? Why the “act” the way they do on Social Media? Who are they really?

I now use all of these tools or program as part of the teaching and learning process, depending on the situation, the student and the context. Those of have taken the time to know me, know that I am NOT an expert, but am willing to try out as many tools as possible in hopes that I can reach my students in a way that supports higher order thinking, inquiry, and depth.

My classroom focuses on collaboration and inquiry, not technology, not Minecraft, not Livescirbe, not Smartboard, not Coding, not Google, not robotics… (you get the point).  I am good with the many labels that are attached to my name and I’m even good with the fact that I have probably used these tools for “Subtitution”  (SAMR) on occasion. But…I used them and I continue to learn.

DSC_0272Back to the “Minecraft teacher “ and for all the “Minecraft teachers” out there, be proud of your label, because you ROCK. You are taking risks, trying new things, engaging your students and putting yourself out there to be scrutinized and judged…and still, you do it. Remember, it is most often due to the ignorance or lack of understanding of you and your practice that results in the LABEL, not you!

 

I wonder, what ASSUMPTIONS, based on interactions in Social Media,  about educators, leaders or others in your network, do you have?  

What assumptions do you think are made about you? 

 

What inquiry looks like in a classroom with no bells, no subjects and no interruptions….

Problems that Matter…
Where our Inquiry Started…and never ended.DSC_0166

“Inquiry” seems is a hot topic in education today (although it certainly isn’t a new concept). Facilitating a true inquiry can be a challenge when students are strapped to a schedule, a curriculum or even when being assessed or monitored for their performance. It is a challenge when the classroom environment doesn’t allow for exploration or choice. Inquiry can be challenging because it isn’t predictable and it means taking risks, not knowing how long it will take and not always having the final answer.
DSC_0254Where I co-teach with Beth Carey at the “Enrichment and Innovation Centre” (geared for Gifted Students at the HWDSB), these stipulations do not exist. A few things are important to note about our program and its uniqueness compared to a “traditional” classroom setting. First, our schedule is completely flexible. We do not have periods or subjects, there are no bell interruptions, no set lunch, no duty and no specific transition other than when to arrive and when to leave. We do not have specific seating or teaching areas. This is key because this schedule and environment allows us the time and flexibility to fully and completely immerse ourselves (teachers and students) into topics and let our natural curiosity take over. It should also be noted, that we do not start each lesson with “how it will be assessed”, but instead we leave this open-ended and students drive their own assessment through constant feedback and dialogue. With support, students monitor their own thinking and we (and they) adapt as needed.

That is what happened today.

IMG_0021_2While we don’t have ‘Subjects”, we do use Big Idea questions to drive a topic. Today, for instance, we started with this question: How can LOCAL and GLOBAL citizens impact the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? Of course, this led to further questions: Are we working on Problems that Matter? In order to understand a problem (or perceived problem) do we need to try to live or experience that problem ourselves? What is the role in FAILURE to help us guide innovations? Of course, this is also very tightly connected to the History, Geography and Social Studies Curriculum (as well as Language, Science and Arts).

For the most part, students participated in an INQUIRY focus around the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and the role of NGO’s, NPO’s and everything in between. Students collaboratively investigated and researched local and global initiatives and co-created a series of inquiry questions to help them develop their own humanitarian initiative. They had to first understand the topic and what exists already (and why). They c0-created a book to share a few of their ‘passions’ and what they deem as “important”.

Students created inspiring ideas. Seriously. 

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 7.22.50 PMOne group presented their idea, “Teen Teachers” , an idea that resembled something like a Khan Academy, except teens could join this website as ‘teachers’ or ‘students’ and learn together, as they wanted, when they wanted and what they wanted. This idea was so popular that a few other students began side conversations about how they might market this, how this could be part of their “Individual Education Plans”. Another group proposed a topic around Mental Health and Teens and suggested an organization that encouraged teens to use their musical talents, in hospitals or nursing homes, as a way to help those suffering from Mental Health disabilities. They suggested (hypothesized) that playing music for others could help the performer as much as it could help the audience.

Another group shared an inquiry that they eventually named, “Pretty in Pink”. Similar to the “Neighbourhood Watch” initiative, this organization would encourage neighbourhoods to train, talk, discuss and learn about issues relating to Women Safety. Residents, after being trained, would get a sign/logo to post in their front window, a way to show solidarity and support and let Teens in trouble know they had somewhere safe to go.

Another group spent the afternoon learning about local farmers only to find out they had more questions then answers. Why do local products tend to cost more then imported products? Why are local farmers not supported more in schools? How can local farmers reach out to the urban communities? This group decided to form a initiative to promote local, organic and non-gmo foods and to use a crowd-sourced donation effort to bring costs down.

DSC_0244As the students collaborated, their inquiries led to further inquires and more questions. The flexibility of our day (as I noted, we do not have specified periods, recess or lunch) allowed us to veer off topic when our questions guided us in different directions. At some points, students became entrenched in their work, even when they recognized it wasn’t leading to their final outcome. The fact that we didn’t fixate on an “assessment agenda” or “evaluative criteria” freed students from the need to perform. For instance, a couple of students found themselves immersed in the Raspberri Pi’s (small computers), eventually changing their inquiry topic completely. I could write an entire chapter on the amount of problems these students had to tackle in order to get the Raspberri Pi’s running (we don’t have an ethernet internet connection). They recognized that these small computers, priced under $50.00 could solve problems relating to lack of technology access.

15375At one point, we found our Sustainable Garden group with their heads in the Worm Compost (literally) which soon became a big excitement, as student after student had to observe, touch, smell and watch these little creature do their magic (and we found thousands of little baby worms, which was very exciting). “Black- Gold or Magic Soil is what we use in our classroom garden,” we tell the students. “The worms eat our fresh fruit and vegetables and then do their job”. The students were fascinated which led to more questions about how this could be an initiative in parts of the world where fresh food wasn’t always accessible.

Back to our initial inquiry. Problems that Matter.

The Big Ideas in Social Studies, History and Geography – Collaborative Inquiries

SS_history_and_geography

 

Starting January 2015, I began facilitating a series of Collaborative Inquiries focusing on History, Geography and Social Studies (Ontario Curriculum) with Pre-Service Education Students at Brock University.

 

The objectives of this 10 Week course were to: 1) have a strong understanding of  approach, content and rational of the Ontario Social Studies, History and Geography Curriculum, 2) use 21st Century tools and teaching methods to design lessons and learning opportunities for students, 3) have a strong understanding of the theories and research regarding History and Geography as it relates to Education and 4) to use collaborative inquiry planning tools and  4) to publish and share a series  of co-created TLCP’s Teaching Learning Inquiry Cycle (adapted from Ontario TLCP)

Adapted from the Ontario TLCP (Teacher Learning Critical Pathways), we used a similar Framework to guide our INQUIRIES

In each section/week of this course and as directed by the learners themselves (depending on readiness), Teacher Candidates would use one area of the Framework to guide their inquiry and investigation.

For example: In week one, teachers investigated the curriculum (purpose, changes, content, rationale). In week two, Teachers picked a ‘Big Idea’ and using an Inquiry Framework decided on a Grade, Topic and Objective for a 6-8 Week Teaching Cycle. In the following weeks, Teachers would use questioning, discussion and investigation to complete the Planning Framework. The below examples demonstrate how teachers incorporated Critical Literacy, Inquiry and Design Thinking  as well as using a variety of assessment and evaluation strategies.

 

A little Kindergarten and A little Starbucks – Universal Classroom Design

We designed our learning space with a little Kindergarden and a little Starbucks  – Here is how it happened:

zoe_and_beth

In June 2014, we were informed that we would be moving to an empty/unused classroom at Holbrook School (HWDSB). We were also informed that our proposal for new technology was granted which included 1:1 computers, projector, interactive whiteboard, doc camera (microscope), tablets, 3D printer, and NXT Robotics. Regardless of the fact that we were at the mercy of the physical space and size, including windows, electricity and lighting, we were absolutely pumped to design our “dream” classroom space that was Universal  for all learners.


computers

maker space

 

From the onset, we wanted a space that not only engaged students to be active participants in their own learning, but also a place where all learners could feel comfortable, safe and part of a community.

 

 

 

15677095578_8caf15298d_z

We would create an environment that felt completely different from a “traditional” classroom and yet was full of big ideas, information, tools and learning, and of course, with full guidance from a variety of educators.  There would be a mix of exploration, hands-on learning and inquiry, but with a ‘bistro’ or ‘coffee shop’ feeling. We would end each day with a cup of tea and a group circle to ensure that every single student would be seen, heard and valued. Community would be vital to making this work.

 

This space would be where students or adults could sit around and table talk, listen and create ideas together – to be active learners and leaders.  In this space, students wouldn’t be judged and wouldn’t place judgement on others, but instead, would welcome differences and offer support, skills and talent whenever needed. This space, in some way, would speak to every single student and would welcome all abilities.

pan

images

SCIENCEIMG_5233We would respect the quiet learners but would also encourage team and cooperative learning in variety of ways, including game-based learning, through the ARTs and infused with technology and design.

 localbig questionAbove all, we would centre our program around Social Justice and local/global issues. This  learning environment would match our beliefs and values about how students learn best and would reflect the changing nature of learning (and teaching).

 

 

In the room, there would be strong emphasis on Critical Literacy. Inquiry questions and Big Ideas would provide focus for exploration of Millenium Goals (United Nations) and for both guided and self-directed learning. A writing and podcast centre would  provide resources such as Livescribe Pens, Journals (for co-written topics) and a variety of choices for students to write, draw and share at their level and interest.

alternative spaces

The room design would  recognizes the need for quiet and individuality when learning, and so, we would design a small and separate space for “chilling” – one that resembles a most cozy living room (lamp, curtains, carpet, couch and books).  It would be a goal to ensure that even the most “anxious” learner could find a place where he/she felt comfortable to engage in inquiry.

 

 

health

Our space would speak to our strong belief, that Health and Fitness are what “Matters Most”. We would plant a small herb garden, healing plants, and provide literature dedicated to healthy living, including fitness, balance, and mental health. We would practise and model an environmentalist approach to living through recycling and composting. Maintaining a worm composting system teaches students how to create fertile soil and to learn what it means to be self-sustaining.

art2

The entrance of the room would demonstrate that the ARTS would define our space, not technology. We would use the giant wall space to create a Green Screen for video productions and storytelling  and we would reserve a large section of the space for Visual Arts. We would ensure that music was available for listening or playing. We envisioned students gathering around a shared space to compose, play and create.

 

We would reserve one side of the room for group laptops, ipads and an apple TV for sharing. Close by would be the 3D Makerbot printer along with tablets and computers allocated specifically for design and engineering.  We would use creative programs like Minecraft, Tinkercad, Lego NXT Sketchpad, Spore and Portal2 (to name a few) to engage students in design concepts as well as provide opportunity for them to co-create.

3dprintingcomputersgreen screentwo_roads_diverged_in_a_yellow_wood

3DPRINT2

It would be incredible to create a space for our students to tinker, take things apart and build. If space allowed, we would dedicate an area for lego and whatever building materials we could get our hands on. We hope to teach “maker skills” like cooking, and knitting.

3d printer

ART

IMG_0450

We would combine our Science and Math spaces which allowed for personalized exploration. We would set up manipulatives, both physical and virtual to help engage students in real world problems, including city planning. The interactive Smartboard would be used solely for student led activities and would always have Google Earth and current news sites up in the background. We would infuse other technology with the interactive smartboard including a Ladybug Document Camera so our students could examine the world around them – in detail.

math iwb

We would recognize the need for clarity in voice and listening and would use a classroom amplification system. Students and teachers could share, speak and be heard – effortlessly.

 

 

 

Our physical space would be blended with an online space. Students would have access to online learning (E-Learning). We could post information, offer feedback and provide opportunity for rich discussions, even when students were not present. We could use collaborative tools like Office 365, Google Documents, Mindomo and Voice Thread (to name a few)  to share work and allow for natural and engaging extensions.  We would further use or connectivity to reach out to leaders, learners and experts around the world, to network, share and make connections.


 

We were truly given the opportunity of a lifetime – to create a universally designed learning space that modeled changing teaching and learning practices.

music

We would honour this goal: to open our space for all learners – of all ages and abilities, to respect difference and to recognize that learning and teaching are in a constant state of flux. Here, we will create a classroom environment that would be used as a demonstration for others  that are also seeking ways to enrich their own program through inquiry and project based learning spaces.