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:

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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.


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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

The Road Not Taken – Making, Crafting and Constructing Meaning in Minecraft

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The Road Not Taken – Making, Crafting and Constructing Meaning in Minecraft

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 Designing lessons that foster creativity, collaboration and depth in thinking is multifaceted. We need to use tools that provide an opportunity for interaction and collaboration. This includes a method for students to help one another and provide feedback. The context needs to be relatable and flexible. The content, whatever it is, needs to have value and personal connections and it needs to matter -and if it does, it will have depth and purpose. I offer the following as an example.

Summary of Lesson:

Robert_Frost_RoadsAs a whole class, students would create (Yes, actually build )  the poem “A Road Not Taken” using Minecraft as a Medium (using a server). Students would have already discussed the meaning of this poem and there many perspectives. This can be done with any poem. In Minecraft, students would need to compromise, share skills, collaborate and of course problem solve. Importantly, the students would need guidance and support from the teacher, both inside and outside the realm of Minecraft. The chat tool is pretty handy. To add a dimension of “self” to this shared story, students would find an area within the class creation to share a poem or story that they created themselves.

Big Idea: (Current theme is ‘Journalism’)

Journalism and poetry are a perfect mix because together they bring WORDS, VOICE and EMOTION to life. In this activity students would read, write and bring to life a poem through visualization, collaboration and co-construction.

Grade Six Lesson Objectives/Goals ~Relating to Curriculum:

* to use synthesize and infer meaning in texts

* to use make personal connections to a variety of texts

* to participate in discussions by asking questions

* to think critically about a topic, offering a variety of points of view

* to work collaborative in small and large groups offering support and feedback as needed

* to use a variety of tools to enhance the final product and extend learning as needed

* to understand metaphor and analogy in poetry

* to use visualization in reading and writing

* to create, in written form, a poem

* to use creative and collaborative techniques to share, model, and visual literature

Inference, Storytelling, Reflection and Language:

tierna_quoteStudents would be introduced to a variety of quotes. Instead of a teacher led introduction or hook, students would initiate the task. In a collaborative document, they would share a quote that resonates with them and explain why through storytelling and reflection.  (In our case, the quotes were provided and theme based). Here is what they published: “Our Thoughts will Change the World” (Posted with permission). In our example, students used a shared Google Presentation, accessing the link on the classroom blog.

Personal Connections and Critical Thinking

kid_poemIn sticking with the Journalism theme (and now that they have a background), students would create their own poem based on their personal connections to learning. The poems would be shared using a collaborative document, where they would offer feedback and critical questioning and would participate in a discussion that fostered critical thinking and depth of ideas. Eventually, they would take their poem/story and share it on “The Road Not Taken”. Hidden Gifts along the path…

 

Visualization, Metaphor and Analogy

 Students would be introduced to ‘ A Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost. Here, they would engage in discussions around metaphor, analogy, descriptive language, vocabulary…. They would use connections to the real world to visual the poem and would find a variety of ways and perspectives that one might interpret the meaning. They would listen to each other, offer critical though, ask questions and draw conclusions.

Making, Crafting and Constructing Meaning:

Students would use MINECRAFTEDU to: 1) Co-create a visualization of the Frost Poem by adding individual elements of creativity, words and interpretations. Here, students would be each given a section of the poem to place in the collaborative construction; 2) Co-Create, discuss and construct (literally and figuratively) the meaning of their own poem.

In a nutshell, students would have a whole group task to build a visualization of the Robert Frost Poem while also adding in their own poems where they see fit. Layer upon layer upon layer.

When the students go home and tell their parents “We played Minecraft”… you’ll know what they actually did…they delved deep into literature, collaborated, created, problem solved and shared. And they had fun!

Are students Accountable for their I.E.P’s?

Each student in my class has an I.E.P…..

 It varies how long the students have had a formal identification and it varies what type of identification, although all of them are identified as “Gifted”.  During the first week of school, I began reviewing their files and updating their IEP’s, however, I struggled with this daunting task, since I barely knew the students.

In fact, most of their IEP’s looked closely to the same – the same modification (s) , the same accommodation (s), the same test results, the same strength and weaknesses. I

How could this be that they were all the same?  These documents, created on templates, with drop down menus were not telling of who these children are.

How I INVOLVE them (and make the entire process a bit more authentic)

1) Ask for Student Input when developing the IEP. Of course, this would depend on the age group and how you structure the questions and interviews.

Around the second week of school, I handed out the IEP’s to the students and had them go through and add, edit, and comment on each of the sections.  Most of them had neither see or heard of the “IEP” before so it took a bit of time to explain the terms (accomodations, modification, strategies, methods).

2) Meet with the students individually and go through the IEP’s with them explaining how and why this document came to be.  Help them understand their own identification and what they need to best succeed.

During the first month of school students did research on their own exceptionality. Many of the students wrote blogs about what it means to be “Gifted” or as they often see it, “Labelled”. One student (Nicola) writes,

“Those who are deemed gifted still need support; they need to feel like they are not the only ones with this label. Remember, never judge a book by its cover. Anyone can change the world, whether they passed a test or not. Everyone is equal, and that’s what’s most important to know. Like I said, to be gifted can mean a bunch of things. What does it mean to you?

3)  Set aside time for students to continually develop and alter their own programs. Don’t let this be a “one off” lesson. Build this into a weekly plan. Build it around their Learning Skills.

We do this every week with tea.  We try to discuss one area of need or learning skill. What does it mean to be responsible? How much independence should students have at what age? What is fair and equal when it comes to learning? How to advocate and ask for feedback.

4) Provide a organized system for students to view and edit their IEP’s as needed.  Of course, since some parts of this document may be highly confidential, the template would need to be altered.

 

 

5) When updating the IEP’s each term, send home the “working copy” along with the formal copy to allow the parents and families to see how much student input is valued

 This IEP development strategy takes a lot of trust and relationship building to work. Students need to feel safe and free to express their honest feelings and advocate for themselves. One students said to me after reading his IEP, “Wow, I sound like an anti-social nerd that has no friends”.

 

After implementing this student centered strategy with the students in a self-contained gifted classroom, I wonder if a similar strategy would work with NON identified students. Since we know that all students work better when they have input and when they are engaged in their own learning goals, then couldn’t we implement this in a regular classroom as well? I also wonder, at what ages this would work best? Students are very self-aware at the Middle School level  which certainly makes sense to have them identify their own strengths and weaknesses. How could their other teachers be involved in this process? Will they have input as they travel into other grades? I wonder.

World of Sand Challenge – Problem Solving, Inquiry – and fun.

“Salt and water combine to form salt water, which sinks below pure water. Heating up salt water causes it to split back into salt water and steam. Steam rises and condenses, eventually forming water droplets. Plants drink water and grow, but die if exposed to salt water. And that’s just three of the nineteen materials available for you to draw.” – World of Sand

What I’ve discovered most about my students in this Gifted program, is that they want challenge. Not just any challenge, but a challenge that doesn’t have just one answer, but a myriad of possibilities. They want a challenge that can be done, and re-done over and over, with different results or possibilities. They want to create the challenge, to ask the questions, and to discover solutions. The epitome of inquiry?

Today, one of the students finally got to implement HIS challenge. Details posted on his blog post – “World of Sand Challenge” (A comment on his post would result in a  smile).

Using the REFLECTION app on the SMARTBOARD along with the iPad app World of Sand, he demonstrated how to combine the elements, tools and chemicals to create reactions. Once the students had a chance to practice, he set specific guidelines: Acid, Liquid Fire and Acid to be set as “automatic” – in that order. The problem? Combine the other elements so that these elements/chemicals do not touch bottom of screen.

 

Here is one student explaining their result. I feel humbled to be part of their learning journey.

MY TOP 10 LEARNING SPACES – A Universal Design, in a Gifted Classroom

The learning environment is what will help create community. Before anything, students need to feel safe. Not just physically safe, but safe to learn how they learn, safe to think “outside the box”, safe to ask questions, safe to make mistakes, safe to be who they are.  I recently read a post by Jackie Gerstein, a friend and mentor who talks passionately about the importance of community in the classroom (It’s About Connections Not Content). Below, I talk about the learning spaces to honour all learners.  It is my intention to help these students find their passions, their gifts, and their understanding of themselves.

The Circle

Each day, we start off in a large circle. We might play a game, talk about a current event or gather our ideas for upcoming lessons. The circle gives brings the class together as one team, a group of co-learners and a support structure that they will need.

Comfort and Escape

A few years ago, I taught in a brand new school with small classrooms. A quiet “comfy” space was not an option and was strictly forbidden by fire regulations. I yearned to provide my students with an area to go when they needed to unpack and reflect. As we know, this 7 hour day, surrounded by an assortment of individuals can be overwhelming and draining. This classroom (an older school) allows for this space.  Students can use it to work collaboratively using the bulletin board or small table or even the floor as a workspace.  Of course,  reading a book, plugged into a good song is also pretty fantastic for any learner.

It only took about one hour before a student crawled into this “getaway”.  A calming environment that is still in the same room is a true gift for any classroom.

 

Exercise – Meditative, focus~refocus, transition

I truly love to Hula-Hoop. Not only because it is great for the abdominal muscles, but the repetitive motion is soothing. After a long day, or a long think-session, there is nothing better then grabbing a hula-hoop,  with a little music (or quiet is good too) and finding a place to gather thoughts and re-fuel for the next “thing” to come. Another true gift that this classroom offers – enough space.

Game

There has been much debate about the use of Gaming in the classroom and its integration into core subjects like math, social studies and language. The Kinect offers an incredibly fun way for students to work together in solving problems, debating stories and characters, and thinking through puzzles and math games. Allowing students to move around, challenge one another and discuss the creation and process of the game itself is incredible insightful and meets them in their world. We will be integrating Minecraft in our classroom this year, as a way to plan, think, and discuss through creation and collaborative building.

Apple TV, Reflection, Interaction.

So often, we use the projector and whiteboard to deliver instruction and content. But with the Reflection App or Apple TV, students can broadcast their work and designs on a larger surface. To show the students a quick video, or demonstrate an iPad tool, I can stand anywhere in the room and broadcast quickly and safely. Even better, students can broadcast their work.  Only a few years ago, I found myself stumbling trying to improve my motor skills when using the Smart tablet.

Group Think-Tank and iPad Center

One of my students asked, “Too bad we can’t just write on this table!”. I wonder if “Idea Paint” would work here.  To move away from their desk workspace to a group workspace is valuable. It is also valuable to have an option to go back to ones own individual space. With the use of the HWDSB iPad program and the School iPad purchases, I have about 10 iPads in the classroom. We will start of with interview videos. A favourite app used today was WORLD OF SAND. I highly recommend it. Highly.

Weekly Schedule, Handouts and TEA.

Posting a daily overview is important, but to see it in context within the entire week is essential. Like adults learners, our younger students want to know what is next and why, and especially how it relates to their learning. There is a definite accountability attached to this practice, but it is so worth it. At the end of the week, I brew tea and together we work on the next weekly schedule. It empowers them and gives them voice.

Choices and Voices

This image keeps changing. As students become more comfortable with me – and more confident, they start adding more ideas and information here. It is fascinating to see how many students ask to get away from the brick and mortar. They want field trips, walks, and to learn outside.

 

Online

Blended learning is not only going to provide more solid communication and on-going information for students and parents, but also more access to content and learning. While it might be surprising to some (ha, ha!), I am not the bearer of all knowledge and information.  Neither is the Internet. A blended learning platform (where students can also learn online) such as EDMODO (something new I’m trying this year) will allow me to facilitate content that is rich and diverse to a group of students that vary greatly in learning needs.  As well, each student will be given a personal blog, and will have access to my daily plans through Google Docs and our classroom blog (another huge accountability risk that is worth the immense outcome).

 Community

My favourite learning space – The real world.  This year, I’ve established a partnership with the Hamilton Farmers Market where students will get a chance to learn stories of the lives of real Hamiltonians. Students will learn to shop, cook and share resources.  Most importantly, they will have an opportunity to socialize and interact with citizens and with each other in authentic ways. With some structure and guidance, they will have a chance to apply what they have learned at school to something real.

 

We have also arrange for several community walks. Our school location is surrounded by hundreds of acres of forests (Royal Botanical Gardens) and wooded trails. The colours, smells, sounds and wildlife are the inspiration I’ll need when teaching poetry and creative writing. Perfect for finding space and time to talk, share and develop a real sense of self.

 

 

My “Top Ten” Voicethread applications

 VOICETHREAD IS A UNIVERSALLY DESIGNED TOOL ALLOWING EVERYONE TO CONTRIBUTE.

STUDENTS, TEACHERS AND COMMUNITY CAN USE ANY MEDIUM TO SHARE, DISCUSS, POST, REFLECT AND PRESENT. OPEN DOORS TO OUR LEARNERS!!

A couple reminders that might ease your mind about using this OPEN and FREE tool…..

* Voicethread provides tutorials, ideas, and examples. Give yourself some time to explore and PLAY

* Voicethread comments can be moderated by the owner

* Voicethreads can be public or private and can be shared with one or many people

* Voicethread tool is free and is accessible on computers, iPods and iPads

*Voicethread can be uploaded to a website or blog using an EMBED code.

* Voicethread has been around for about three years and there are MANY MANY resources out there

#1 – Parental/Community communication (My PERSONAL favourite)

  • Bring parent voice into the classroom: Add a Voicethread to your Classroom blog or website asking for parent ideas and thoughts about the topic you are studying.  For example: Upload a map, ask parents to talk about historical story of their family using the map (Ie: immigration, jobs, travel, climate, war, environment).
  • Parent input and perspective: Add Voicethread to District website asking for community input about a specific topic (ie: building of a new building, closure of schools, announcements of upcoming board meetings.
  • Community input on Board Meeting minutes:  Upload the minutes on voicethread allowing parents to use the voice, or video to make comments and express concerns, thoughts, ideas.
  • Parent-teacher communication:  Use the voice thread to  communicate with the teacher about student work. Make the Voicethread only public to you and the parent. The voice and video option creates a less intimidating situation as the parent can see you, hear you and understand the communication.

#2 – Assessment (Also my PERSONAL favourite)

Before a lesson or activity:

  • Diagnostic: Ask students to share what they already know about the topic using a prepared Voicethread.  This might help the teacher in the planning stage of the unit/theme and to identify student strengths and weaknesses.
  • Learning Goals and Criteria: Use the Voicethread to upload the learning criteria. The comment section will allow students to discuss the criteria and add, modify or change the criteria if needed. The use of the audio and video functions will help provide a more detailed example and rational behind the criteria that was developed.

During a lesson:

  • Ask Questions: Use the Voicethrad as a station in the room.  This could be done with a stand-alone computer or portable device (iPad, iPod). Students go to the Voicethread and ask questions (or listen to other questions) during work time.  Put up “sample” comments to help students know how to respond appropriately in audio.
  • Review/Test prep: Use the Voicethread to post questions that review the course content. Allow students to comment, respond and ask questions throughout the course. This would be helpful to students and parents during exam preparation.

After lesson, completed project, or assignment:

  • Reflection and Meta-cognition: Have students post their reflection, discussion and overall thoughts about the assignment or project that they handed in. Allow them to make self-assessments about their strengths, weaknesses and next steps.

After a lesson: Exit Card? Homework? Feedback?

  • Exit Card: Have a voicethread ready to go on the computer, portable device, or interactive whiteboard with a focused question relating to the goal of the lesson.

Research – gather data, information

  • Research Tool:  This could be meant for a small focus group or a larger group as a way to gather information about your topic.  Use the Voicethread to build on the questions each week.
  • Shared Leadership in department: Use the Voicethread to gather knowledge and skills from a variety of educators and leaders in the department.
  • Crowd Source:  This tool can be made public. Use the tool to crowd source your question and gather information from a larger network.

Feedback

  • Teacher – Student Feedback. DESCRIPTIVE, AUDIO FEEDBACK: Use the Voicethread to provide detailed descriptive feedback to the student. Upload a picture of the student work, use the pen/drawing function along with your Voice and add comments to the work for improvement. 

#3 Collaboration Tool

  • Classroom-to-Classroom: Use this tool to form a classroom partnership and focus student learning on a specific topic. Students can use the Threads to comment on each other’s ideas.

Examples: Upload art from a variety of classrooms or schools; Create joint stories about a topic, stories from a neighbourhood, a community.

Student-to-student: Peer mentorship. Students can partner on a Voicethread based on a book or an activity that they have been working on. Like a blog, they easily post pictures, video’s, and text . What if you had class partners from different places in the world?

    • School-to-school: District schools that partner on themes and activities (i.e.: sports, drama, music festivals, art) can use the Voicethreads to communicate information, seek information and advertise the events.
    • Division or Department Planning: Use the Voicethread in partnership with a blog, wiki, or website to plan, discuss and develop collaborative ideas. Take it further and use Voicethread to collaborate with OTHER DEPARTMENTS AND DIVISIONS.

CHECK OUT THIS VOICETHREAD…A Couple of years old, but still going strong. Why are you using a PLN to support your learning? How has twitter impacted your professional development?

#4 Newsletters

      • Classroom News: Each week, copy/paste your newsletter to a classroom Voicethread. This allows the teacher to make comments and reminders directly on the VT as well as having students and parents comment when needed.
      • School News: Post news, questions and ideas with  a Voicethread  to the community.
      • English Language Learners: Use the Voicethread to extend written and spoken words to students and families that speak other languages. Make use of student, parent or district translators when needed.
      • Interactive: Make the newsletter interactive and accessible through the use of audio, video and text together.

#5 School Announcements

      • Whole school announcements:  Have students record their voice, text, or video of a school announcement. The announcement could be relayed during the morning announcements
      • Class announcements: Use a VT to announce upcoming events in the classroom.

#6 Instruction

      • Post-Instruction: Add a video of yourself (use the smart recorder, or video camera) teaching the lesson and post it on the Voicethread for students to review if needed. The collaborative nature of the voicethread allows students to ask questions and make comments based on the lesson that was posted.  
      • Pre-Instruction: Add a video, text, image or audio that focuses on follow-up lessons. This will help students move ahead as needed. Integrate this with a Flipped Classroom lesson.
      • Review of Content: Use the Voicethread to post the notes from each lesson.  At the end of the unit, the Voicethread will include notes from every lesson. This will help student with review for test, exam or culminating activity.

#7 Student Work/ Student products

      • Student Work: Allow student to hand in their assignment using a voicethread. Use the audio comment tool for student to give a reflection and summary about their work.
      • Differentiated Instruction:  Use the audio feature to allow students to SPEAK their answers rather then requiring written work.  This allows students to  be more confident when explaining their work, images or uploaded videos.

#8 English Language Learners:

      •  Use the Voicethread to post audio and video of a lesson, activity or classroom/school information in a variety of languages and formats.

#9 Differentiate Instruction:

      •  Product: Allow student to use their Voice or Video to demonstrate their learning instead of the traditional “text based” response.
      • Process: Use the Voicethread to provide a varied instruction using your voice and video. Information about upcoming assignments, tests, and events can be made in a variety of mediums. DECREASE PAPER that you are sending home.

#10 Student Leadership

      • Student-Created –  Student – driven Voicethreads: Students from a lower (or higher) grade, division or school to present information about a topic. Students from another class or division are to respond and give feedback.

 

 

Leaders – do you know your staff’s learning needs? Does it matter to you?

Over the last 10 weeks, I have had the most humbling opportunity to influence pre-service Teachers during their final year before they enter the profession. Having had a taste of instructional leadership in my grad studies, and within a school district and now in a Faculty of Education, I have noticed that the approach to adult learning differs greatly once these adult learners enter the field. Let me explain.

 

Just like in the classroom with children, these pre-service teachers differ greatly in their learning needs. In every one of my classes, I have some students requiring specific accommodations and/or modifications (even adults are on an IEP). I have noticed huge disparities in knowledge and understanding of tech use and problem-solving ability, of coping and stress management skills, of organizational skills and of resources. I have students who are privileged with supports from their family and I have students who are living thousands of miles away from anyone familiar. I have students who are coming to school hungry and living in poverty every day. I have students who are caring for terminally ill parents or who are taking care of their own families. I have students with reading disabilities, processing disabilities and anxiety disorders. As their teacher, just like with children, it is my duty to provide a varied approach to my instruction.

These are the teachers who will be soon applying for teaching positions.

These new teachers will NOT disclose their learning differences (I didn’t). They will NOT disclose their personal stressors such as poverty, or familial issues. When hired, they will be treated the same as everyone else. The accommodations and modifications that they were once provided will no longer apply. They will need to abide by the same time-lines, schedules, and instructional duties as all other teachers.
Is there a dichotomy here? On one hand, in the field of education, we are advocating and insisting universally designed instructional practices, success for all, differentiated instruction, and varied approaches to teaching and learning. On the other hand, we rarely provide a differentiated approach in our instructional leadership within the schools – in fact, learning differences in teachers are in most cases seen as a weakness (which is why our Unions suggest we NOT disclose this to our district).

Since it is my job to prepare these adult learners for the workplace, I cannot dwell on this real, and frustrating dichotomy. Instead, I need to help them find ways to self-differentiate – and to cope. So, I present them (and you) with three timeless, authentic and organic strategies: Network, collaborate and find a critical friend.
It is these very strategies that contributed to my own success. My network provides me with current, on-going, and varied forms of information. By collaborating, my learning communities balance out my weakness and strength and offer me shared rewards and success. My critical friend (s), provides me with real and authentic feedback, especially when I am feeling vulnerable and scared. Leaders today have the use of social networks, collaboration tools, blogs, websites, shared wikis, and more – all which can sustain a professional learning community, collaboration, and mentorship (critical friends).

What are you doing as a leader to model a differentiated approach for your staff? What are you doing as a staff to support the varied learning needs of your colleagues? What are we doing as a system to encourage diversity in our teaching population.

What is the Ultimate Learning Space?

Learning Spaces
A couple of years ago, I landed an incredible job at a brand new school. The school was equipped with a Smartboard in every room, a Front Row amplification system in every learning space, wireless Internet throughout the school and mini computer pods attached to groups of rooms. I could hardly wait to start teaching that year. At first glance, it seemed like a perfect teaching and learning space for the 21st Century.
Today, I would argue the opposite.
It first started with a conversation I had with my students, who, in a podcast, describe their “ideal” secondary school. They didn’t mention technology as being essential (although for them, that is a given). They mentioned collaborative spaces, comfortable learning areas, choice and freedom. From that point, I not only began to look at my own learning spaces differently but I also began to explore this topic on a variety of levels.
In January 2011, Rodd Lucier and I presented, “Learning Spaces of Tomorrow” where educators and leaders from across North America joined together in groups to literally design learning spaces using Livescribe Pens (in person) and Scribblar (online). The major themes presented by all groups was that learning spaces should be collaborative in nature, flexible in design, differentiated, comfortable and engaging (almost verbatim what my 12 year old students described). Again, technology infrastructure was a given.
In my post, “Ultimate Learning Spaces” I describe the look and feel of the new Hamilton Public Library, which, interestingly, was designed using the major themes mentioned above – flexible, comfortable, collaborative and differentiated. Continue reading

Teacher Engagement – Leaders – and the Netgens

As educators, we so often talk about student engagement and what it really means to be engaged.

According to Wikipedia – Student engagement occurs when “students make a psychological investment in learning. They try hard to learn what school offers. They take pride not simply in earning the formal indicators of success (grades), but in understanding the material and incorporating or internalizing it in their lives.” (Link)

In a classroom with kids, engagement requires a rich inquiry based learning environment. Every students needs a purpose and every student needs to to feel safe to make mistakes. Collaboration is essential in discovery and learning as is presenting to an authentic audience.

As an educator, teacher engagement has become essential to my practice. In fact, If I am not fully and authentically engaged in what I am doing, my performance in the classroom becomes dull, tedious and lacking in richness – similar to what happens to my students, when they aren’t fully engaged.

What if we changed the word “student” to “teacher” in the above definition? Would the research, and arguments also prove true?

After reflecting on this myself and, addressing this issue (teacher engagement) with friends, colleagues and my PLN, I discovered that the expectations of professional development, teacher training, staff meetings and committee meetings differ greatly – not depending just on age and generations, but also on one’s involvement with learning outside their immediate organization.

Overwhelming, teachers want choice, freedom, integrity and openness, entertainment and play, collaboration and relationship building and to be innovators themselves. Sound familiar? These characteristics are what Don Tapscott presents in his book, “Growing Up Digital” as the eight common attributes pertaining to the “Netgens”.

I am not a “Netgen”. I am considered, “Generation X”. However, I am immersed in a ‘Netgen’ culture and the attributes I listed above are applicable to how I life my life both professionally and personally.

I believe strongly that if teacher professional development and training were aligned with the characteristics presented by Tapscott, teacher engagement would increase, resulting in overwhelming openness and willingness to embrace new methods of teaching.

It is my hope that principals and leaders across our districts assess their own level of engagement and recognize that they will benefit greatly by democratizing their staff and embracing the 21st Century as it pertains to teacher training.

As an adult instructor myself this year, I am going to make it a priority to use the NETS*t as my guidelines. I do have an advantage, however. I am coming from what I would consider a 21st Century fluent classroom – student centered, differentiated, collaborative and one which prioritizes a universal learning environment. So I offer these suggestions to my fellow instructional leaders:

1) Do not start the first staff meeting of the year with a Power Point Of course, you have ‘house keeping’ business to take care of and your due diligence with informing staff is priority. Model new strategies, new skills, new fluencies. Inspire and Engage your staff from the beginning.

– Create a Wikispace and show staff how to sign in. You can call this the “Staff Room Wiki”. Staff can sign in at any time, any place and view the house keeping business, rules, timelimes.

THE BEST PART OF THIS IS THAT IT IS COLLABORATIVE. THE PRINCIPAL DOES NOT DO ALL THE WORK. IT IS SHARED.

– Like kids, your staff wants to enjoy what the are doing. Consider creating a COLLABORATIVE google doc, or form for staff to work on during the staff meeting. MAKE IT FUN.

– Consider starting a backhannel – http://www.todaysmeet.com/ – Pick one or two of your staff to ask questions throughout the meeting. Shy teachers or those who don’t participate often may be more willing to use a backchannel.

– Invite an expert to SKYPE into your staff meeting. There are MANY amazing leaders out there. JUST ASK.

2) Think – is there a better way to provide your staff information that is quick and to the point then through EMAIL?

– Open a SECURE school TWITTER account. Only your staff is approved to see posts. Again, this method of communication is quick, easy and collaborative. Learn how to use a #TAG. Promote ongoing, sustainable discussions.

3) Start the first staff meeting by showing your staff YOUR NEW BLOG. Even if it is the first, “Welcome” entry- Your staff wants authenticity, integrity and openness. Show them how it is done. Guaranteed, they will connect this to their own teaching practice. Be a model.

4) Survey your staff – find out who they are. As a classroom teacher, differentiated instruction DEPENDS on knowing the students. Do the same with your teachers. Ask them what kind of PD they want – ask for their input. You can use a Google Form for this.

5) Be willing to ask an expert – even if that expert happens to be a first year teacher. Many companies have had huge successes after using new staff as part of their leadership and decision making structures. These teachers are also coming with an advantage. They are the digital genaration.

PLEASE SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS AND COMMENTS SO THAT WE CAN INCREASE TEACHER ENGAGEMENT.

Inquiry Based Learning – A TedxOntario Theme


WHY AN INQUIRY APPROACH?

Many years ago, during my teacher training, I was asked to write my philosophy of education. As a new teacher, this was a daunting task because I had not yet tapped into a philosophy. At that time, the only thing that I could do was reflect upon how I learn. I was always driven by inquiry. I asked lots of questions and when I got the answers, I asked more questions based on the answers. I liked to create my own assignments and I often neglected the required ones. I wanted to be in control of my own learning. I was the student that asked, “what’s the point of this?”. I was not good at memorizing facts, resulting in many years of poor grades, – What I needed the most, was to be given the freedom to discover knowledge for myself.

I don’t know if it is coincidence, or irony, or purposeful planning but it seemed to me that the principles of inquiry based learning were a major theme at TedxOntario on April 9, 2010.
Ray Zhab from Impossible2Possible inspired the audience as he talked about how his personal journey of transformation, through inquiry and experience has changed his life. Ray uses his experiences to inspire people – children and adults- that they CAN achieve beyond their perceived limits and that hard work, determination and support are the key factors. Lee LeFever of Commoncraft, followed Ray and again emphasized the importance of connections when learning. Learning something new needs to have a meaningful context. Joel Savoy, a classroom teacher, again emphasized the importance of inquiry through hands-on experiential learning programs and connections to the world beyond the classroom. We heard Tim Long joke about his own experiences with “do it yourself” winner projects, but his message was clear – discovery is engaging.

It has taken many years for me to recognize that my approach to learning is one that widely known as an “inquiry approach”.

“Its core premises include the requirement that learning should be based around student’s questions. Pedagogy and curriculum requires students to work together to solve problems rather than receiving direct instructions on what to do from the teacher. The teacher’s job in an inquiry learning environment is therefore not to provide knowledge, but instead to help students along the process of discovering knowledge themselves. – Wikipediea

The education system that I grew up with, did not support this approach. And it didn’t for Jesse Brown either – another TedxOntario speaker. Jesse explained that in spite of this system, he persisted by constantly asking questions, trying new methods of learning and tapping into the intelligences that were not considered ‘academic enough’ for school credit. He joked about spending so much time ‘in the office’ and yet, all joking aside, Jesse expressed grave concern that school has not allowed- or encouraged – many students to learn in the visual and interactive way that they are used to -during non school hours.

It is ironic, and not surprising that I too, a teacher today, base my own philosophy on Dewey’s theory of learning – “that the best learning and growth occur when people are confronted with authentic, real problems to solve.” Whether it be constructing a ‘hands-on’ Lego set, or leading expeditions across the Sahara Desert, or creating a learning platform to hone and support visual literacy, I believe in what Dewey emphasized,

“that curriculum and instruction should be based on integrated, problem-based tasks with hands-on activities that engage learners.

Even a century ago, he advocated that students needed a wider sense of themselves and a global approach.

Tim Ludwig – was the last presenter for the TedxOntario event. A shy, high school student, braved the stage and conquered his own fear and years of discomfort amongst educators. His message was clear. Get to know your students. He reminded the educators in the crowd that boredom results in disruption. Tim talked about his need for inquiry based, hand-on and experiential learning as not optional – but as necessary for kids like him (and me…..and Jesse Brown) to succeed.

There are many blogs and websites that discuss inquiry based learning. Thirteen.org advocates that “Educators must understand that schools need to go beyond data and information accumulation and move toward the generation of useful and applicable knowledge” and stated that “Inquiry in education should be about a greater understanding of the world in which they live, learn, communicate, and work.” The Queens University page states that, “one of the most important teaching practices used today is the use of inquiry in the classroom. With the inquiry method of instruction, students arrive at an understanding of concepts by themselves and the responsibility for learning rests with them”. Further, the Center for leadership in learning at McMaster University suggests that, “Teaching through “inquiry” involves engaging students in the research process with instructor support and coaching at a level appropriate to their starting skills. Students learn discipline specific content but in doing so, engage and refine their inquiry skills.”