Toy Hack – Thomas the Train Plays Marimba

For my Making Learning Connected Toy Hack, I used a laundry clip to attach one of my almost two-year-old son’s marimba mallets to his Thomas the Train toy. I had to wait until he was taking a nap because he doesn’t appreciate when I fiddle with his toys.

This is exactly the type of toy hack I would have tried as a child. It started from a novel and fairly simple idea. Acquired the time and materials. Put it all together. A moment of triumphant elation when it works. Then disappointment or dissatisfaction coupled with a nagging desire to make it better, louder, faster, more complex…

Introduction for Making Learning Connected MOOC

I ‘signed up’ a little late, but should be caught up by the end of the weekend. I’m so excited that I found this MOOC, Making Learning Connected, because it applies directly to my Independent Inquiry project and will be fun professional development for the summer. I am an elementary school teacher at an international school in Tokyo.

By way of an introduction, please visit my SoundCloud profile and listen to my music. I composed all of the music on there, and will be uploading more soon, including my current improvisational electronic project.

Maiden Voyage – Global Collaboration

My first attempt at global collaboration was nearly a titanic disaster. That is to say, it was a phenomenal success. As with anything innovative and ambitious, most of what we did was improvised along the way. Nothing turned out as planned and everything went better than expected.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain

Philosophical Foundation
The project started as our “Sharing the Planet” PYP Unit of Inquiry, Friends in Distant Lands. The central idea and lines of inquiry centered on children’s challenges and opportunities. The action goal was to help children in need. My primary inspiration was participating virtually in a Flat Classroom Conference, although action has always been a feature of my teaching.

Friends in Distant Lands Wiki

I did not want to plan a project. I wanted to provide the opportunities for inquiry that would empower my students to plan their own project(s). If we shared our opportunities with collaborators, and they shared with us, our perspective could broaden and the possibilities for taking action would expand.

I put out a few advertisements before the unit started for collaborators, such as on PYP Threads, and curated many resources like documentary films about children’s rights, a novel, and relevant websites. It occurred to me to create a wiki to document, reflect, and share resources we used and the work we were doing, and as collaborators joined, I added pages for their projects.

When it was finally time to embark, we unpacked the theme and central idea. We made a list together about what we thought is important for children, which led us to the UNICEF website. Finally, we created a Google Form to survey people about their awareness of children’s needs.

“Our voyage had commenced, and at last we were away, gliding through the clean water, past the reeds. Care was lifted from our shoulders, for we were free from advice, pessimism, officialism, heat and hot air.” K. Adlard Coles

I was not certain what would come of our international partnerships, but quickly, things began to ‘heat up’. Our collaborating class in Hong Kong, as well as many people around the world, responded to the form adding their perspectives, insights, and wisdom to our discussion. We received work samples and videos from India related to our central idea. We explored a variety of media including a feature film, Rabbit Proof Fence, TED talks related to children’s issues, the novel Kensuke’s Kingdomnews articles, etc, and used our class blogs to explore and discuss.

Perhaps our most successful collaboration was via Google documents. Students from different classes wrote questions on a chart with a column for each student to submit answers. When they were complete, they contained responses from students in different countries. It was very valuable to analyze, compare, and contrast people’s ideas. The potential for this simple collaboration tool is immense, especially when coupled with video exchange, Skype, or Google Hangouts.

An expert guest speaker is an invaluable addition to  any inquiry.

Finally, we were honored by a visit from Asumi Suzuki, a teacher who volunteered at Phaung Daw Oo School in Myanmar. Her stories and insights into children’s challenges and opportunities there provided an intense and vibrant perspective to the inquiry that could only lead students to further inquiry and action.

The inquiry into children’s issues segued perfectly into our next unit on digital media. I set up a wiki for my students to use to explore basic web design and finally create a simple page to raise awareness for a global issue. We used our class twitter account to advertise our pages and received a fair amount of feedback. Many chose to advocate for children’s issues, which was quite gratifying for me!


The project was a whirlwind of information, questions, and digital data. Looking back, however, we did precisely what we set out to do. I mean, my students did exactly what they were supposed to do. I just hung on and tried to keep the ship on course.

I plan to use the wiki again next year, and hopefully recruit more collaborators, add pages, and accumulate media and resources. Since the mission of the project is very broad, “help children in need”, it can be utilized in any variety of ways. I think this kind of open collaboration will prove to be the most beneficial and effective.

Picking up the maritime metaphor, I feel as though I’ve spent a healthy amount of time practicing sailing a new boat around the harbor. Next time, we’ll be setting out for the high seas!

“A ship is safe in harbor but that’s not what ships are for.” William G.T. Shedd

EdTech Unplugged

Educational technology has become synonymous with computers. However, I often remind myself that any tool is technology, and different tools work better for different people for different jobs.
Late 20th century classic, the individual whiteboard.

I’ve never met a class that didn’t enjoy creating word problems for their peers on individual whiteboards and voraciously solving each others’ problems.

Focus on DES!GN – Summer Pro Dev

Watching tweets and posts scroll by about last days of school around the world is giving me that familiar ‘last days of school’ feeling.

It’s not that I’m overexcited for vacation (yes I am), I’m excited to get to work on my Summer PD! I truly enjoy abandoning the schedules and information of teaching to focus on the thinking. The key word for my plans for the summer is Design.

Why Design? First, I would like to consider graphic design principles to make the learning environment more engaging and inspiring for my students. As my classroom becomes more internet-based, I want to avoid the abyss of screens full of text, but I don’t want to create experiences littered with gaudy images or unbalanced webpages. Luckily, my wife, Yuka, is a freelance illustrator and designer, so she will be able to direct me toward good resources for my self-study project, and perhaps assign some authentic and useful assessments.

Creative Space: Mozilla London (photo cc Rock drum)

Next year, I will be moving to Grade 6 and organizing my school’s first IB PYP Exhibition. I would like to create an environment which can function equally as classroom and design studio, which facilitates social creativity as well as deep, individual focus and autonomy. In the last several weeks, I visited Exhibitions at three schools. Two were field trips to rehearsals to provide our students the opportunity to observe some of the inner workings, ask questions, and receive advice. Those real-world experiences combined with a wealth of online resources should provide a stable foundation for planning during the summer.

Although I have utilized computer technology more this year than before, I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of leveraging the tools to enhance learning. Some quality time learning more about Google Apps and digital video/audio editing will do me a lot of good, as well as gathering more games and skills-oriented sites.

Teaching older students will also require that I reorganize many classroom routines. There are many learning activities which should be automated. I would like to explore designing self-directed study routines which can ensure that students master essential skills while allowing them independence and opportunities to collaborate to apply those skills in creative and relevant ways. This should integrate seamlessly with Independent Inquiry, a project which has yielded encouraging results, yet would benefit from a redesign.

Dan Pink’s TED Talk The puzzle of motivation about Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose will serve as my inspirational guide and the assessment criteria of Engagement, Intentionality, Innovation, and Solidarity from Design, Make, Play will serve well as a conceptual framework for the environment I want to create. Metateaching is my goal, to continue to become more a designer of learning and less a teacher.

I’ve enjoyed expanding my learning networks on various websites. I plan to maintain a healthy pace of sharing and hope that my mentors and collaborators will do the same.

Finally, so as not to be snared in last summer’s ‘just a few days off’ trap, I’d best get started right away, if not before the last day of school.

Independent Inquiry – Clean personal spaces

The shoe is actually a pencil case.

Not all inquiries are particularly academic. In fact, I’m always pleased when students’ goals focus on social, personal, emotional, physical, gastronomical, or any number of different categories of activities. In anticipation of the end of the school year, one student suggested cleaning personal spaces at school and at home. Many agreed to set it as a goal, although they agreed it was really a secondary goal and that no one had messy enough personal spaces to require a week of cleaning.

Lockers as neat as the first day of school.

I understand that this Independent Inquiry was particularly popular among parents. My favorite comment in their Ind Inq Meeting was that “now that I cleaned my locker, it’s clean every time I look at it!”

Bill Evans – Creative Process and Self Teaching

What is genius?

Most of us grew up believing that genius is inherent in certain lucky people. Similarly, “talent” is often considered to be some sort of genetic trait. Stories of savants, from Mozart to Fischer, perpetuate this idea. Particularly in music, an inordinate amount of attention is given to prodigies who play sophisticated music at a very young age.

Is genius genetic? Is talent luck?

As a Constructionist teacher and advocate for Genius Hour and 20% Time in Education, I have inquired substantially into Interest-Driven Learning, Connected Learning, Social Creativity, and Independent Inquiry. Leaders in these movements need concrete models to help inspire in learners the idea that genius is not granted, but built.

Legendary jazz pianist, Bill Evans.
Bill Evans is one such artist. He is arguably the most influential modern jazz pianist and universally renowned as a genius. However, as you will see in the video, his opinions about ‘talent’ differ dramatically from the popular view. The video begins with a suitably reverent introduction from actor and musician, Steve Allen.

Evans’ comments about jazz not as a genre or style, but as a ‘mental process’, and about the analytical nature of the creative process, should resonate well with teachers.

In Part Two, he elaborates (and argues with his brother, the interviewer) on the importance of honesty and the development of fundamental skills in the inquiry and mastery processes. There’s also an interesting demonstration of musical form and jazz improvisation.

Part Three is probably of most interest to teachers. Finally, Bill discusses his development as a musician and improviser.

‘The whole process … is to take these problems from the outer level in, one-by-one, and to stay with it at a very intense concentration level until that process becomes secondary…’

I like what he says about the importance of teaching ‘principles’, rather than ‘style’, and the primacy of the learner in deciding what to accept or reject into his or her understanding.

To me, the greatest benefit of Genius Hour and 20% Time in Education is that the focus is on the creative learning process, not curriculum. Students’ interests and passions drive their motivation. Curriculum is a tool for them to use to pursue their interests and passions. As metateachers, we design the physical, social, emotional, conceptual, and informational environments in which learners can thrive.

The rest is jazz.