Teacher as Learning Documentarian

Looking at student work

‘Looking at student work’, the focus in the Deeper Learning MOOC this week, has me reminded of a project I have been working on this school year.

I teach in an inquiry learning elementary school  (PYP), an environment which facilitates and empowers deeper learning very effectively. As I have explored inquiry in the classroom, I have noticed that I do far less teaching and far more documentation.

Students engaged in authentic learning shouldn’t be bothered by standards or specific learning outcomes, yet they constantly accomplish them. As a teacher, I see myself more as a learning documentarian seeking out evidence of their learning as they inquire into their interests and curiosities.

Google Doc experiment

In order to document learning according to an established continuum, I devised a shared google document which allows teachers to document learning individually for each student and can be used by any stake holder to review like a portfolio. It’s still experimental, but I can already see how it is helping to maintain a balance between student-driven learning and traditional learning outcomes or standards.

How it works

Our learning continua are organized by phases, so I color coded each. When a student demonstrates a particular learning outcome, I indicate the date and hyperlink it to a digital version of the artifact. Examples so far have included scanned writing assessments, photographs, Evernote entries, videos, and blog posts. When an artifact is recorded, the shade of the box for that learning outcome is made lighter. A white box indicates a mastered learning outcome.
The example I provided in this post is for a sixth grader, so I took it for granted that the first three phases were mastered. Please have a look at phases four and five and follow the links to get a sense of how this type of document can work. If it were used from a young age and accompanied the student through elementary school, it would serve as an authentic representation of their learning.
This is still an experiment, and your comments and suggestions are highly welcomed. I would certainly appreciate collaborators on this project to develop an efficient system to document deeper learning!

My Greatest Weakness

Anticipation for the Visual Literacy Course in the COETAIL program has been both eager and anxious for me. Visual literacy, graphic design, and the language and tools that they use are arguably my weakest skills.

To date, I’ve done literally nothing to spruce up the appearance of Dal Segno al Coda. My own blog of teaching and learning, Symphony of Ideas, is not a terrible eyesore only due to the generosity, patience, and talent of my wife, Yuka. Thank goodness Tumblr has decent default designs! Finally, I have procrastinated purchasing my own domain and establishing a landing site for myself for a myriad of reasons which are really probably just excuses because, after all, I think I’m just afraid to design it.

Time to face the music

Fact is, I need to grow. I’m a composer, or as Aaron Copland would say, an ‘inventor of music’. Need counterpoint for a bebop melody? I’m on it. Want to reharmonize that pop song? No problem! Horn backgrounds for a power ballad? I’ll rock it. String Quartet? Working on it. I’m comfortable creating with sounds.

I am illiterate

Unfortunately, according to one of my heroes, George Lucas, in an interview with James Daly for Edutopia, Life on the Screen: Visual Literacy in Education, I am illiterate! This is a multimedia era, but I am a monomedia creator.

In this course on Visual Literacy, I’ll be bumbling along an unfamiliar road. Coincidentally, an early topic in the Deeper Learning MOOC is academic mindsets, and one mindset in particular is staring me in the face, daring me to act.

My first official published photo (2013)

Growth Mindset

What I have lacked is agency. Just like a student who thrives in literature-oriented activities but recoils when mathematics enter the picture, I have simply been avoiding learning something new and (as I perceive it) difficult. As Eduardo Briceño describes in Mindsets and Student Agency, this is an ‘essential opportunity’ for me to explore and build my Growth Mindset.

Play, Passion, Purpose‘, a model from Tony Wagner that I use to frame independent inquiry in my classroom, will be useful for me in my own inquiry.


Develop visual literacy. Specifically, I need to increase confidence interpreting and creating visual media. Over the years, I’ve experimented with Adobe Photoshop. Recently, I hacked the Deeper Learning MOOC logo to create one for our Deeper Learning in the PYP Google+ community, but that’s about it. I’ve created and shared a Laziness Map, and even a photo Learning Walk and Autumn Leaves ‘photoblitz’. But I need to do more. As an Edcamp Tokyo organizer, I need to contribute to the design of our promotional materials. My blogs and class websites need more personality. I’d like to take better family photos. I should be producing videos! The more I think about how I wish to apply visual media skills, the more imperative this inquiry becomes.
[tl;dr] Learn more tools and take more risks to communicate visually.


Play visual communications with the Walk My World community.


I can envision a future in which I create multimedia experiences integrating original audio and video. However, I don’t yet feel passion for it, and I think it’s because it seems unbelievable that I would master these new tools and literacies. With such a fixed mindset, I can conjure countless reasons and excuses not to try, even though I know I can.

With a growth mindset, it’s my choice to rise to the challenge.

Empathy & Acceptance: Toward a gender-neutral classroom

Through Her Eyes Film

The debates within and surrounding LGBTQ communities about gender identity and sexual orientation, and how individuals (and groups) express themselves, are reaching a sort of critical mass. Educators would be remiss to ignore it. Nobody explains the situation more fluently than Peter DeWitt, author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students.

In the classroom, the first step can only be to tear down obvious and ubiquitous bias. As Dawn Casey-Rowe documents in the article, Does Gender Bias Affect The Way You Teach?, the negative effects of bias persist even when it arises from positive intentions. Pernille Ripp addresses the issue from a different perspective by asking, Are the Boys Welcome in Your Room?. I would argue that even the notion that boys and girls have stereotypical preferences should be categorically rejected in the classroom. Societies do not need any help promoting traditional gender roles. In fact, I believe that the messages from media and commercial ventures about gender and sexuality should be subdued, filtered, and contextualized in order to empower every individual to thrive.

As an elementary educator, I feel the responsibility to promote a culture of Empathy and Acceptance. I am also in an ideal position to do so.

While I may not directly address gender and sexuality issues in my classroom as one would in secondary education, there are several practices that I have adopted in order to make my classroom a welcoming place for every learner. If we seek to design and manage a learning environment which is safe for inquiry, exploration, creativity, and collaboration, it must be based on trust. If children trust that the adults in their lives will never embarrass or pass judgment on them, particularly regarding such personal topics, a potential obstacle to learning has already been overcome. Modeling those behaviors for other students also nurtures a positive and supportive community.

Here are a few of my policies:

– Never group students according to gender. In fact, I would prefer not to indicate gender on role sheets because if the environment is truly inclusive, the only reason to know a person’s gender in advance would be based on an extraordinary special need. If a child tells me ‘I’m a boy’, then he’s a boy; if a child tells me ‘I’m a girl’, then she’s a girl. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter to me and shouldn’t matter to anyone.

– Never generalize based on gender. For example, make statements like ‘some people prefer’ rather than ‘girls prefer’, or ‘people enjoy different activities’ rather than ‘boys like sports’. Freeing myself from gender stereotypes has been very liberating and helps my students to feel more at ease and accepted as they inquire into their identities. Play Fair is a wonderful blog whose mission is ‘fighting to end stereotyping in children’s toys and media’.

– Students in my school change clothes for physical education classes, and I wish there were a more private option to having ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ changing rooms. Ideally, we would have private changing booths like clothing store dressing rooms, although I recognize the logistical challenges this would pose.

– Design situations so that gender-based preferences or exceptions should never be necessary.

– Rather than trying to appeal to perceived preferences related to gender, appeal to learning modalities, various forms of intelligence, and directly to students’ interests, as in Independent Inquiry.

– Directly address conflict and debate related to gender and sexuality issues from the perspective of empathy and acceptance, and actively model the behaviors and thought processes associated with an open-minded point-of-view.

Considered choices in classroom language can contribute a great deal to a culture of acceptance. In the Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language by the National Council of Teachers of English, many simple and powerful suggestions are made.

Substituting for inherently biased terms is also a good habit to establish. One of my favorite bloggers on Tumblr, Ben Crowther, shared a photo of a table of ‘Suggestions for Reducing Gendered Terms in Language’. Some that are immediately applicable in an elementary setting are to use ‘humanity’ instead of ‘mankind’, ‘firefighter’ and ‘police officer’ instead of ‘fireman’ and ‘policeman’, and ‘kinship’ instead of ‘brotherhood’. Many of these have become conventional already, and I expect that this progress toward more inclusive language will continue.

Singular ‘they’ is a fascinating idea, though I must admit it feels rather awkward to use ‘they’ or ‘them’ when referring to one person, but has the potential to begin to dissolve the gender-specific nature of language. Another option is to simply use a person’s name whenever referring to them instead of using a pronoun and/or avoid assigning pronouns to people at all. It may sound strange at first, but with a bit of creativity, becomes as fluent and natural as the gender-based system we currently use.

‘When Sam is done with her assignment, she should give it to her friend to read.’

What if Sam identifies as a boy? What if Sam doesn’t identify with a gender at all? Avoid assigning her a pronoun a pronoun to a person like this:

‘When Sam is done with the assignment, it should be given to a friend to read.’

Save the pronouns for the things, and the dignity and privacy for the people!

I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but I think this is a conversation educators should be having candidly. After all, how can we expect to model empathy and acceptance if we don’t practice it ourselves?

(2014.01.08 edit: Just discovered this poignant e-book, Let’s Talk About Gender & Sexuality: A guide for friends and family of LGBT*QIA individuals.)