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.

 

 

Developing Teacher-Leaders

How are formal, organized and appointed leadership models in schools adapting to teacher leadership initiatives that are self-organized, community oriented, and both deliberate and organic in nature?

From teacher training programs, to experienced teachers, to online learning communities  – teacher leadership is becoming the driving force behind some of the most authentic, current and innovative projects and evolving pedagogies in education.  Information is more available and accessible then ever before. Networks are connecting beyond schools, districts and Ministries. Educators are forming learning groups, communities of practice and support mechanisms even beyond the formal direction or moderation from a supervisor or evaluator directly in their organization.  Almost every night of the week educators around the world are learning and supporting each other through online chats, e-learning environments, ed-camps, unplugd retreats, collaborative blogs, and shared video resources.

As a teacher-leader, I am inspired and excited by the efforts and partnerships between the Ministry of Education and the Ontario Teachers Federation for nurturing, supporting and empowering teachers to take on leadership initiatives at the Ministry Level through programs such as the TLLP (Teacher-Leadership-Learning-Program).  I applaud Faculties of education such as Brock University for empowering new teachers through a blend of leadership and technology courses.  It is thrilling and exciting to see Directors of Education (ie: John Malloy – Director of HWDSB or Chris Spence, Director of TDSB) at local districts not only using and modeling social media tools to expand vision and build capacity within the community but to also encourage and show support to staff. Myself – I  am honoured and proud to be part of a community of learners (of practice) through the online network at the grassroots level with educators, teachers and leaders at all levels in education.

There are so many supports and structures in place that empower teachers!  However, I wonder if there is one a missing piece in the development and support of Teacher-Leaders:

How are formal leaders (Principals, Vice-Principals, Superintendents) in our organizations – the formal, appointed leaders – being trained or prepared to adapt to a changing landscape of leadership within their schools and organizations? How are they using teacher-leaders in their schools to empower the rest of their staff? How willing are they to participate in a distributed and shared leadership model within their schools?   Is our Principal training programs and our Ministry of Education training and supporting principals to adapt to a 21st Century Model of leadership? Are they modeling the same skills that many of their teachers are practicing themselves?

How much of our Teacher Professional Development and Training continues to revolve around what the Principal-Leader directs? And, is it an irony that often, this Principal-Leader is not participant in the e-learning professional networks along with his/her staff (or beyond?)

Ann Lieberman, Professor and Author from Stanford University explains to a group of teachers at the Teacher Leadership and Learning Program earlier this week the importance of nurturing teacher leadership programs as a way to enhance school programs and student learning:

“Research tells us that people learn on the job, which presents some dichotomy for the academic world between the theory, research and practice.  The “dailyness” of work is different that the kinds of questions that are asked in research. The TLLP, for example, helps form a community of like minded people who are willing and open to better their practice.  When given the support and structure to implement an action research and have built a community of practice, Lieberman emphases that , teachers in leadership programs use their “fist full of strategies” to transfer and apply their learning and reflection with their own students.

Resources and further reading and learning ->

Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders

21st Century Teacher Education and Leadership Training

Ontario Teacher Leadership (TLLP)

OTF (Federation Initiatives) TLLP

Edtech Cohort (Brock University) develops future Education Leaders

 Sustaining Teacher Leadership in Enabling to Inchoate Cultures

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.”

It’s a Global Network – Then and Now

Dear Mom,

I was asked to reflect upon what made me so passionate about educating students within a global perspective. From the time that I can remember, you have always taught me to pay close attention to what is happening in our world.  You provided me with a foundation of which I use today as a focus of how I live. You gave me the inspiration and passion to continue your path as an educator.

mom class

I know that education has changed since your first years. However, your vision to make change in our world and to advocate for social justice has not changed. You taught students to be fair. You helped impoverished families. You tirelessly helped immigrant families find their place our community. You taught children to make connections to the world beyond themselves. You helped them see that  they need to be active and engaged participants.

35 years ago you recognized that students need an inquiry approach to learning. Today – we are are saying the same thing, and we say its because they have access to instant information – but its not. It’s because students need to be active participants in their learning.

It is now my turn to continue what you started. To connect myself and my students to the world beyond their own. Many years ago, you said that people are more educated now about injustices- and that it is thanks to groups that were the first ones to bite the bullet, the first ones to talk about things like racism .

YOU SAID.. It may not be popular, but it’s necessary. I hear this same statement everyday about students learning across our world. It is necessary that we provide them with adequate, fair, and universally designed learning space. Not always popular, but necessary.

It was about 10 years ago when I made my first personal connection, as an adult, to the world outside my own.

mom newspaper

Sometime in the spring of 1999,  Kosovo hit the international headlines when forces under the Yugoslav President Milosevic tried to suppress the Albanian majority’s independence campaign. This news item struck my interest because you taught me to pay attention to what was happening in our world, to always ask questions and to listen to stories. So I did. I wanted to know more. With my new computer and first ever Internet connection, I  began following blog posts from Kosovo Albanians who were being forced to flee their homes – thousands killed. Night after night I read posts from people all over the world expressing their disgust and concern over the Milosevic rule.

That was my first taste of the Web 2.0

– My first time publishing my own thoughts for the world to see. This was my first Social Network outside my personal space. I felt incredibly empowered and excited that this could be possible. I had passion ,

I had an opportunity and I had a platform to do what was necessary and give my students the same opportunity to learn that the world needs them.

my class

You taught me to be authentic and current. It is my goal to give my students the gift of a Global Learning Community and as a result, I have found one myself.  And, You were right when you said, “don’t do it alone”. 10 years ago, I began to share my voice to strangers, and  I felt connected. Today, I share my voice with colleagues, friends and supporters from all over the world and I never feel alone.

You helped me see how one person’s passion and dedication can lead to progress and change and you told me to network and be active. I can’t compare my experience with your involvement in anti-war protests in the mid 1970’s or your leadership in the civil rights movement, or your membership in Affirmative action coalitions. But, I can tell you that I am become networked. I have met so many people – across Ontario and Canada- and the world – that share their knowledge, their passion.

Jenny from Australia inspired me to use tools like ipods in the classroom so my students can blog and read news and events from their homelands – in their languages. Doug from Ontario sends weekly props as encouragement. Andy from Bellville –always the first to offer help with any tech question, Jen from Alberta and Kathy from Saskatchewan share their classrooms with me in literacy and numeracy and remind me everyday with their blogs and tweets that learning and teaching is fun and engaging and connected.

You might think that my world as an educator is much different from yours. In many ways, it is. Today,  technology has provided opportunities, and tools, and choices – but most of all – access. With these, tools I can translate,  podcast, listen write, share and collaborate – all for free.

It is my vision – my dream,  I suppose to provide equal opportunity for my students, like you did. While the tools that I currently use in my classroom will change, I promise that I will continue to learn new ways of reaching peoples potential -.

Through innovation, creativity and new technologies, our world is catching up to a movement you started years ago.

Mom, enjoy your retirement.

Have comfort in knowing that the community of activists for students around the world continues growing bigger everyday.

With Love, Zoe

What was your first taste of 2.0? Do share…