2014 – a year of connection, disconnection, and loss

I believe that I learned more in 2014 than in any year of my life since Kindergarten. A close second would have to have been 2001, during which I lived in New York City, studied composition with the great Ludmila Ulehla, and experienced the terror of ‘9/11’, or 1996, when I graduated from high school and spent my first semester of college studying abroad in Nepal.

The past year was the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Horse, and I, being born in the Year of the Horse, sought to make it a year of work. I set my professional goal for the second half of the 2013-2014 school year to learn and practice as much as possible about Project Based Learning, self directed learning, and self determined learning in order to best facilitate my sixth grade class’ culminating Exhibition. To that end, I participated in the Deeper Learning MOOC and Macromedia University Design Thinking MOOC.


With that learning as inspiration, I have been inquiring into and blogging about PBL, project management, and design thinking in education using the label ‘LX Design‘.


Loss

Unfortunately, tragedy struck in September of 2014 when my father died. It happened unexpectedly just two weeks after my family and I returned home to Japan from a trip to my hometown in California to introduce our two year old son to his grandfather and other family and friends.


It was a devastating way to start a school year, and a bitter way to end what was otherwise a sweet summer.

Connections

Visiting California after being away for four years provided many lessons in perspective through reflecting on familiar sights and experiences from a new point of view. It was also a chance to practice using the Visual Supply Co photo editing and sharing tools. I began sharing my attempts at artistic photography there on my VSCO Grid as well as following the feeds professional and highly skilled photographers.

Of course, people have shared bazillions of vacation photographs via social media, but my goal was to find opportunities to create and share meaningful art through my experiences. Finding moments to express myself as a travel, food, landscape, and artistic photographer, however amateur, was fun and enriched my travels by allowing me to enjoy and reflect more deeply.



During the trip, I entertained on the idea of Connected Living as an application or generalization of Connected Learning. One of my desires as a teacher and learner is to obscure the artificial boundaries that exist between formal and informal learning, ‘school’ and ‘real life’. Such distinctions between digital connection and analog, ‘face to face’ connections should also be blurred.

Sometimes, I am discovering, not shooting a picture to share on Instagram is infinitely more profound than doing so.


Relocating the muse

This New Year marks the tenth year in a row that I have resolved to finish a piece of music. At the conclusion of 2013, it was my string quartet. I have the first several measures of dozens of pieces, but they are all merely sketches in a notebook.

It’s not surprising. In the past ten years I have started a family and a career.

However, this year it is an especially solemn resolution to make in the shadow of my father’s death. One of my planned projects for years has been to publish arrangements of ‘Songs My Father Sang’, of which my jazz big band arrangement of Streets of Laredo is technically the first and regrettably the only.

Indeed, wrestling myself away from my smartphone might be just the signal my muse needs to come around to visit me again. I certainly have support from my connected learning friends and especially Brent Bedford, creator of the International Society for Fugues, who has been doing his best to inspire and motivate me to get out behind the woodshed! I hope he knows how much his efforts are appreciated.


2014 was a year of work. 2015 should be a year of fun. That’s my resolution.



Transgender Day of Visibility

March 31st is International Transgender Day of Visibility, and it’s a perfect opportunity for everyone, particularly teachers, to learn about the impressive progress being made toward gender equity and equality, and individual empowerment.

Visibility is the most important step toward acceptance and empathy, so I encourage you to visit the Trans Student Equality Resources site (transstudent.org) and explore their outstanding resources, particularly the engaging infographics.

http://www.transstudent.org/2014
For more of my own reflection and classroom practices, please read my post, Empathy & Acceptance: Toward a gender-neutral classroom.

Gearing up for Edcamp Tokyo

In the Spring of last year, I tweeted my interest in having an Edcamp in Tokyo:

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Crickets…

There wasn’t much interest, although in retrospect I suppose it would have been helpful to use the actual #Edcamp hashtag. I set up a page on the Edcamp Wiki and laid in wait…

Several months later, a tweet piqued my interest once again:

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As Greg would later observe, it snowballed from there. Several Tokyo and Yokohama teacher-leaders joined the organizational team. We set up an Edcamp Tokyo website, held a Google Hangout with Edcamp Foundation Board Member, Kristen Swanson, settled on a location, Yokohama International School, and a date, March 15.

Countdown to Edcamp Tokyo

With only four weeks to go, there are currently more than fifty dedicated educators registered and conversations percolating on our Edcamp Tokyo Connectivity page, Edcamp Tokyo Google+ Community, Edcamp Tokyo Idea Wall, and of course around the #EdcampTokyo and #Edcamp東京 hashtags on Twitter!

This is the first chance for educators in Japan to assemble for self-directed, collaborative professional development. Even those outside of Japan might be interested in our activities, especially as they pertain to inquiry-learning, multilingual and third-culture education, technology, and whatever inspiration may strike!

I can’t wait to see you there, in person or virtually.

Edcamp Tokyo

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.)

No Sleep November

I hereby dub this month “No Sleep November” because there are so many fantastic learning opportunities for teachers and I don’t want to miss any.

First, I’m participating in the COETAIL (Certificate of Educational Technology and Information Literacy) program and working toward a Master’s Degree. Course 1 was an enjoyable survey and blogscussion of Connectivist Learning Theory and Course 2 promises to address issues related to technology.
Next, the Deeper Learning MOOC preview. This is exactly the kind of exploration I’ve been looking forward to and will mercifully commence in January. The preview is this week, and will focus on Academic Mindsets.
To further inform and develop my Independent Inquiry project, a philosophy and framework for connecting learning in and out of school, I enrolled in the Make/Hack/Play Together MOOC. I’m planning to participate along with my students, so hopefully a good portion of the assignments will be completed during class time.
Finally, I’m hoping to catch up on everything I missed in the K-12 Online Conference. I made a note of this awesome event months ago and checked in on the last day only to be blown away by all that I had missed! 
Did I mention I’m writing a novel? I’ve put down about fifty-thousand words, although haven’t worked on it for a few months. Thanks to the folks at Educator Innovator for reminding me that November is National Novel Writing Month! How convenient. I don’t expect to finish mine this month, but I shouldn’t let it slide for too long.
How can I possibly expect to do all of this? It can’t be ignored that I have a rambunctious two-year-old son at home and a school-wide musical to organize, rehearse, and produce!
The solution, of course, is to forgo sleep. Rather than burning midnight oil, I’m considering a regimen of coffee-fueled early morning work sessions. Even just five hours per week should be enough to stay on top of these projects and lead to wrapping up 2013 with a thunderous bang.

Here’s musical score for ‘No Sleep November’, my own composition for jazz orchestra, Insomnia.

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?

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.

Five innovations for the first day of school

Although I was at school last week, tomorrow is the first day for students and I’m very excited. I’ve changed a few of my approaches to teaching and can’t to get started. I think other teachers may be interested, so I’ll outline a few of this year’s innovations:

1 Organizing resources with Evernote. As I’ve been reporting in my ‘Inquiry with Evernote‘ posts at Inquire Within, I have a few hundred photos, articles, videos, websites, etc tagged according to theme, concepts, and disciplines. The result is a cache of resources that can be called upon in various ways and is meant to provide provocation and support for inquiry-based learning and teaching.

2 Using the class blog as a learning hub. This year, our blog will be central to learning, connecting, and collaborating. With that in mind, I’ve already prepared posts in draft form ready to be published when the time comes. For example, in our first unit, we’ll view two videos and read a magazine article. We’ll discuss them in class, but respond on the class blog. I’ve embedded the videos and link to the article in posts so that they can be reviewed before students respond by writing comments.

We’ll be inviting other classes inquiring into similar themes or topics to respond, as well, by searching their blogs for related posts on which to comment and using twitter to raise awareness.


3 Designing connected, creative learning. Tomorrow, there’s a significant chunk of time set aside for a Marshmallow Challenge. This year, I want to introduce and nurture the ‘maker’ spirit much more than before. MIT Media Lab’s Learning Creative Learning course and this summer’s Making Learning Connected MOOC inspired me to think less like a traditional teacher and more like a designer of learning experiences, or metateacher. Providing materials and time for tinkering and the tools for collaboration and reflection is a great way to get started, I think.

4 Emphasizing Independent Inquiry. My grade 6 class will undertake our school’s first PYP Exhibition. Independent inquiry is essential for the process, so I plan to help my students develop their skills during the entire year both in and out of school.

5 Using Google Apps to engage parents. During parent orientation last week, I introduced families to an experiment. I plan to document students’ development along the PYP Language Scope & Sequence by using using this google doc. I’ve made a set of four for each student (listening & speaking, viewing & presenting, reading, writing). Learning outcomes which they have already achieved are changed to white background color. As they practice the phase 4 and 5 outcomes, I’ll be adding dates and linking to artifacts, whether they are online, scanned images, etc. Each time an outcome is practiced, it’s color becomes lighter. When it’s white, it’s considered mastered.

The beautiful part is that I’ve shared each student’s documents with their parents so that they can see, comment on, and participate in tracking their child’s learning. They seem very excited about it and I can’t wait to see how it works.

Thanks for reading! What are your innovations this year?

Engaging and Authentic Student Blogging

Last year, I started blogging with my students on Kidblog. I immediately saw the benefits to their motivation to write and the potential to expand our classroom across oceans and continents. In the next school year, I plan to use our class blog as a hub for writing and collaboration with other classes around the world.

There are as many approaches to student blogging as there are innovative teachers doing it, but I have a suggestion related to promoting and commenting which I think would make blogging more engaging and authentic for students.

Photo by Lars Plougmann

I think the Comments For Kids community is a fabulous idea. Certainly, writers love recognition of and feedback for their work. However, I wish there were more interaction between students. What follows are practices which I believe can accomplish this.

When students complete a task on their blog, they should tag the posts specifically. For example, ‘persuasive essay’ or ‘nature poem’. This allows those posts to be shared via a link to just those posts. Here’s an example of a link to students’ posts as part of an inquiry into Rights and Responsibilities: http://kidblog.org/JIESGrade6/category/units-of-inquiry/rights-responsibilities/.

A teacher can use that link to promote students’ writing on twitter or any other platform. More importantly, if another teacher notices posts that are particularly relevant to learning in her class, she can post that same link in her own class blog for her students to follow, read, and comment.

Finally, when a teacher uses a class blog for an assignment, create a post that allows students anywhere to participate. For example, if the task is to respond to a video, embed the video in the post so that students from other classes can participate. If there is a resource students would need, include a link in the post so that anyone can find it.

I think that student blogs should be central to collaboration and developing international mindedness and just a few careful habits from teachers can make it happen. Let’s create a deep net of posts, links, and comments!

My Connected Learning Credo

Make Cycle 4 Reflection (Credo)

I believe that trust is the foundation of learning.

Learning is built on a foundation of trust.

I’m having a hard time trying explain it. It’s kind of a gut feeling and it will probably be different tomorrow anyway. I would like to I really need to reflect on how I arrived at it, however.

I joined the Making Learning Connected MOOC for summer professional development and specifically to help develop my Independent Inquiry project for the next school year. Since the project was largely inspired by Mimi Ito’s talk in the MIT MediaLab Learning Creative Learning MOOC, it only made sense to continue along that path of inquiry. I introduced myself innocuously and interacted with some nice people until…

I was shanghaied by the dread pirates Tellio and Dogtrax and their band of swarthy makers and dangerous creative thinkers! They hacked and challenged me and each other with unbridled aggression. Do this! Do that! Look here! Look there! My Google+ notifications were a distress beacon calling mayday on the high seas of my iPhone.

Then they did something unprecedented which has changed my outlook on learning forever.

They encouraged me.

With fervor. I couldn’t help but get swept up in the enthusiasm. I felt driven to participate. Within days, I felt that I had joined the gang. I was encouraging other land lubbers with positive comments and thoughtful suggestions. I began to consider piercings and tattoos. I hoisted the Jolly Roger and invaded new communities, trying to draw others into the mischief.

Then I began to trust my fellow pirates. I knew that whatever I tried, they would take seriously. If I made an honest effort, they would return it in kind. If I stumbled, they would lend their arms. When they hesitated, I would urge them on. Keep to the code.

The confidence that followed freed my mind. I began to act strangely, pondering the imponderable and imagining the unimaginable until a revelation hit me like a storm-driven swell!

This is what I want for my students, and now I know how to do it.

Build trust through unrelenting encouragement.