What’s your story?

The most important question I ask myself constantly while planning instruction is, “so what?”. The most valid reason for learner disengagement is irrelevance. When designing learning experiences, I try to ensure that everyone always has a reason to be engaged.

In the case of this unit, What’s your story?, personal connection is the hook as the learner will inquire into a family or community member to deduce connections between themselves, their research subject, and History. They will also use photo, video, and other media applications to organize a VoiceThread presentation to tell their subject’s story, or personal history. VoiceThread will be the new technology application, for them and me. In terms of writing, we will inquire into writing a documentary style script and visual literacy as it relates to organizing and presenting media, as well as the importance of copyright and citation.



We have already started this unit by inquiring into primary sources related to the Russian Revolution and spread of Communism in Europe. It has been a great way to begin to explore Perspective in History and develop skills that students can apply to their independent research and project production. Most of the students are planning to create a personal history for a grandparent or older relative, so the connection to World War II and the Cold War should be very strong.

In terms of Global Collaboration, I understand the VoiceThread allows comments in various forms by any other VoiceThread users. I’ve been collaborating with a teacher in Hawaii who is very keen to exchange feedback via VoiceThread, which has been a strong motivator for me to learn that application. Another possibility would be to invite other teachers to do the same project and provide the students with an opportunity to link their presentations into a sort of historical net. Perhaps while my students are researching their subjects, I can delve into more research about technology tools to support this project.

We will be publishing our projects on our class blog, so I hope you’ll come visit to see them in a month or so!

Constructing The Learner Profile

One of the most positive and sincere refrains one hears in education is to teach ‘the whole child’. Most of the time, however, what that means isn’t clear. Common sense dictates that we should care about students’ emotional and social growth as much as academic. Inquiries into learning modalities or multiple intelligences seem to shed light onto planning more inclusive learning opportunities. As a slogan, ‘teach the whole child’ is perfectly fine.
The IB Learner Profile takes a much needed step toward articulating more specifically what the attributes of a ‘whole child’, or indeed any person, are.
My approach to reflecting on and documenting development of the Learner Profile in my classroom is very simple. The attributes are posted at the edges of a large blank display. As students demonstrate an attribute, they or I suggest to attach an artifact of the event on the display. When someone ‘nominates’ an artifact, it’s an ideal opportunity for reflective discussion and celebration of our achievements!
Thus far, we determined that exchanging origami Peace Cranes with students in Hawaii showed that we are caring, so we stuck some cranes on the board.
Our origami Peace Cranes show that we are caring.

Symbolically, I love having a visual representation in the classroom of our growth, not only as learners, but as people.

Our learner profile will fill up as the year progresses.
Visualizing our thinking and learning is a fun and remarkably useful endeavor, particularly in elementary school. In what ways are your students showing what they have learned and how they have grown?

COETAIL, meet Connected Learning.

My first truly connected learning experience was the Learning Creative Learning course from MIT Media Lab. The philosophy, content, and community opened my mind and clarified so many notions that had been simmering in my educational philosophy, but hadn’t yet boiled over. The course syllabus and Google+ community are still active, and I highly recommend anyone interested in the nature of learning to explore them. It was my first connected learning experience, but I didn’t actually know it yet.

During the course, I discovered many brilliant people to follow on twitter and participated in the Google+ community, which led me to find the Making Learning Connected MOOC at the beginning of last summer. If Learning Creative Learning opened my mind, Making Learning Connected blew it up and sent the pieces flying in all directions. While sailing through the air, the pieces of my mind connected with too many wonderful connected learners to count, let alone mention. You can follow my personal ‘clmooc’ journey on my blog, Symphony of Ideas (links to posts tagged with the ‘clmooc’ label).

Most of the action occurred in the Making Learning Connected Google+ community. It’s hard to describe how I felt or how I grew, but I think any curious inquirer would learn a tremendous amount from reading the participant’s posts and viewing the wonderful variety of learning artifacts. An adventurous connected learner might even complete each ‘make cycle’! I’m sure you would receive very useful feedback and enthusiastic encouragement from that outstanding community. At the very least, please take a moment to read the Connected Learning Principles and reflect on how they apply to your own learning and the learning in your classroom or school.

The rest is, as they say, history. I’ve connected with a fascinating array of people, communities, organizations, and had a few interactions that defy classification. All along, I’ve had a strong sense of wanting to share the thrill of connected learning with the students in my class, so that’s what I’ve been doing. In a few short weeks, we’ve utilized our class blog to publish some of our learning and connect with other classes, practicing invaluable 21st Century communication and collaboration skills. We give and receive insightful comments globally and one of my student’s first posts was even featured on Comments4Kids!

My Independent Inquiry project has also flourished as a result of my summer of connected learning, as you can see on our class wiki.

The research behind Connected Learning coming from the DML Research Hub (including Mimi Ito, whom COETAILers would certainly recognize) and all of its associated projects and communities are an indispensable resource for any connected educator. Enjoy!

What are your treasures?

Peace Cranes

Being a connected educator is not easy. Often, a single tweet or blog post will disrupt my plans for the day, bring my train of thought screeching to a halt, or overturn part of my philosophy of learning and teaching.
And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it! One of the best tweets I’ve received was from Melvina Kurashige, in Hawaii, inviting my class to exchange origami peace cranes as part of the Peace Crane Project. Who wouldn’t want to do that?!

It was a simple and meaningful activity which involved writing messages of peace on paper, folding them into origami cranes, and sending them off. Just before sending ours, we received a package from Hawaii containing the beautiful cranes and postcard in the photo.
To bring our classes closer together, we held a brief Skype session in which the students asked each other questions about their schools, where they live, and their interests.
The activity connected perfectly with Shibuya Peace Day, one of our schoolwide events. I could imagine a class participating while reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes for a strong literature connection or as part of an arts & crafts unit on origami.
This fun global collaboration was most meaningful due to having a simple and worthy goal: to promote peace.

Global Collaboration: To the point

Having been a virtual participant in the Flat Classroom Japan Conference last March, and having connected students from grade two to six over the last several years from Los Angeles, Kenya, Lesotho, Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, and India, I am certain that global collaboration contributes to authenticity of learning, engagement in school, and the development of empathy.



After exploring Kim Cofino’s extensive resources starting with A Step-by-Step Guide to Global Collaborations, The Global Education Conference website, and a few of Cybrarymans’s Collaboration links, I am very impressed with the many creative and innovative approaches that have been used and the fascinating artifacts shared.

However, I believe that much of what I see is “doing old things in new ways”, as Marc Prensky writes in Shaping Tech for the Classroom. As I alluded to in my own post, Inquiry should be action-oriented, global collaboration should have a point. In order for a project to have meaning, in my opinion, we must be working together to do something to ‘make the world a better place’.

In the last few weeks, I was invited to participate in the Peace Crane Project by a teacher in Hawaii. It was a simple collaboration to write messages of peace on paper, fold them into origami cranes, and send them to other classes participating in the exchange. In fact, what I liked most about it was its simplicity. The goal was clear: Send symbolic messages of peace, but how any teacher approached it was up to them. In my case, it was a neat fit for Shibuya Peace Day and we only applied one lesson to it. I could see how other classes might connect the activity to literature by reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes or integrate it into an arts & crafts unit about origami and folded paper art.

What appealed to me was the simplicity of the project. From that concept, Peace, an infinite variety of learning experiences could grow.

Illustration by Yuka Miller


That’s what I had in mind when I started Friends in Distant Lands. The goal is to create an open collaboration for any class that wants to take action to help children in need. I imagine that teachers would join the wiki and set up their own page. As their classes inquire into children’s rights and issues, they document and reflect by sharing their products, links, and other resources. As more teachers join, they would find resources useful to their inquiries along with the authentic results of other classes.

Connections between students could occur in an open way, either by discovering each other’s blogs, collaborating via google docs or other media, depending on the needs of their inquiries and interests. Open collaboration provides the opportunity to learn and practice the core values of connected learning: Equity, Social Connection, Full Participation. Naturally, teachers could arrange more structured collaborations, even following the same unit plan and completing the same tasks. Perhaps there would be points of collaboration, but not necessarily entire projects. However they do it, teachers and students would contribute to a repository for learning resources related to children’s issues to inspire and empower others to pursue their projects. The success of the project would only be limited by the creativity and dedication of the participants.

The point is to help children.

All collaboration is good. Global collaboration fosters international-mindedness and empathy, two values that can only make the world a better place. So get to work! Let’s get these kids connected and making a difference! Who knows? Maybe youth connecting globally is the key to world peace. You never know.

Geeking Out with Google Apps

I love teaching and learning at a PYP school. Inquiry-based, conceptually-driven learning matches impeccably well with my constructionist philosophy and pedagogy. The chaos is inspiring and the triumphs and failures are motivating. The most relevant learning occurs when we provide the time, tools, and independence for each learner to build their understandings in their own ways, whether with their hands, computers, pencils, blocks, paint, sounds, etc.

My shift toward increasingly individualized education has been supported by technology. I would like to share a few of the tools I’ve developed with Google Apps which are intended to place the learner at the center of learning documentation and provide a transparent medium for reporting to parents.


Tracking progress along the Scope & Sequence

During inquiry, learners naturally apply and practice an astounding array of skills. However, unlike traditional assessments, aka tests, the assessment products are varied and often unique to each learner. In order to document learning outcome progress, I created Scope & Sequence Documents for Language in Google Drive. Each student has their own set which is shared with their parents to view and comment on. When a learner demonstrates increasing fluency related to one of the learning outcomes, I type the date and change the shade of that box closer to white. If there is an artifact to scan, photograph, or link to, I create a hyperlink to it so that evidence of that learning can be instantly accessed. When a learning outcome has been demonstrated three times, and at least one artifact has been recorded, the box is changed to white and considered ‘mastered’.

When I introduced this to parents during their orientation session, they were very excited. If you would like to view an example for writing, please follow this link. Since this experiment is only in its first few weeks, I’ve only documented a couple of artifacts, but I expect to include many more as our first unit wraps up.

Tracking the basics

Before the school year began, I spoke with the parents of my students about their perception of school and in particular, inquiry-based learning. Overwhelmingly, they like it. They enjoy seeing their children learning autonomously, following their interests, and utilizing many tools to do so. However, they are concerned that their children aren’t learning ‘everything they need’, and their concern is valid. They want their children to read with understanding, write with correct spelling and grammar, be able to perform mathematical calculations accurately, and develop a strong work ethic. To this end, I sought to develop rigorous and efficient routines for reading comprehension, spelling, mathematics, and homework, and to leverage Google Drive to automate the system of reporting to parents.

What ensued was an epic ‘geek out’. First, I created a sheet to record scores in each of the four categories. The data for each student is automatically transferred to a student sheet which is published as a website, like this. Each student has a unique page which parents can bookmark and review whenever they like, just like the Scope & Sequence documents. They update automatically every time data is entered. Each item, whether a quiz or homework task, takes only five to ten minutes yet provides regular formal formative assessment data. That leaves plenty of time for inquiry, collaboration, and the fun of learning.

Independent Inquiry

Finally, I use a Google Form for my students to reflect on their Independent Inquiries. Please visit my Independent Inquiry wiki for details about that project. I embedded the reflection form in our class wiki in a widget, and the published responses in another widget. The result is a self-contained page on which you can complete your reflection and read your peers’ reflections instantly. Go ahead, reflect on your current independent inquiry! We would love to have some guest inquirers! You can even click the ‘analytics’ link to see cool graphs of our data.

The next ‘geek-out’

Well, hope you enjoyed reading about my geeking as much as I enjoyed doing it. For my next project, I plan to create tutorial videos for each of these tools, so please stay tuned!

Silent Discussion

Classroom discussion is a valuable opportunity to share ideas and develop communication skills, but often, the full benefits are enjoyed by the most extroverted and precocious students in the class. While I do believe that everyone should develop skills in all areas, especially those that are not as strong, I also believe that teachers, or better yet, metateachers, should design learning activities that provide equitable opportunities for learners with different strengths. The ‘Silent Discussion’ is just such an activity.

Simply explained, it’s a way for a group to hold a discussion without speaking. I tried it recently and the results were fantastic, so I thought I’d share.

In our current unit of inquiry into Rights & Responsibilities, there are three lines of inquiry we have been following:

How rights are viewed globally
How rights are granted
Actions required to protect rights

Everyone knew that the lines of inquiry would guide our learning for the next few weeks, and the unit had been provoked by a guided inquiry into the Bayaka people of Central Africa. The Silent Discussion was intended to develop our understanding of the concept of Rights and focus our attention in a socially creative manner.

Organizing the Silent Discussion
1 Print the lines of inquiry, one each, on large paper (we used A3).
2 Place the papers at different corners of the room, or around a central table (consider elbow room).
3 Everyone browses silently with their favorite writing implement, writing comments and questions about the lines of inquiry.
4 Read others’ comments and questions, reply, continue.


The activity started slowly, and grew in energy during a fifteen minute session. I injected some provocations and modeled different ways to engage with the activity (drawing pictures, circling and connecting different comments/questions). Finally, we posted the sheets and reflected on our thoughts and interactions.

I believe that the activity works best if it begins with abstract concepts or statements, rather than topics. It was also helpful to play thoughtful music (I generally stream KUSC).

It occurred to me that a techologized version of the Silent Discussion could be possible, but I rather like the museum-like energy generated by thoughtful browsing and the visceral nature of physically constructing our collective understandings on paper.

Another detail that would have extended the activity would be to post provocative images around the room, and perhaps provide videos or news articles to further contextualize the lines of inquiry.

Have you learned or taught through an activity like the Silent Discussion?