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:

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.

Parents as Catalyst for Professional Development

During end-of-year conferences, I had an enlightening conversation with the parents of twins. What made it interesting was the fact that the two siblings have completely different approaches to learning. We described one as a ‘Part to Whole’ learner and the other as a ‘Whole to Part’ learner. In the conference, they generously shared a story about their children learning to walk: One carefully analyzed the process of walking before venturing out; the other stood up and stumbled across the room without hesitation. It reminded me of my summer DES!GN project and my interest was piqued. How might I better design learning experiences to better engage ‘whole to part’ learners? Hence this blog post.
A brief inquiry led to this fantastic paper by Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D., Visual-Spatial Learners.

Although sharing terminology with the learning modalities and multiple intelligences, I am finding it very helpful to think of different approaches to learning existing on a continuum from Visual-Spatial to Auditory-Sequential.

Everyone is unique, but from an instructional design perspective, if I always consider the extremes of the spectrum, I should be accommodating any learning style on the spectrum.

This is different than the left brain/right brain theory, which I find to be rather simplistic and dated. The more we learn about the brain, the more it seems to be a connected, rather than compartmentalized, system. (Neuroscience is a great tumblr to follow on the subject of the brain). We can still use right brain/left brain vocabulary to describe visual-spacial and auditory-sequential learners, as in the graphic below.

graphic via mindjet

I do have questions. For one, are there people who are auditory-spatial or visual-sequential thinkers? Also, when considering learning modalities and multiple intelligence preferences, I make a point to help learners to challenge their weaker areas as well as capitalize on their stronger areas. Shouldn’t the same apply to the spatial-sequential spectrum? Wouldn’t anyone benefit from being more balanced?

School is generally well-suited to sequential-auditory learners, and my classroom is no exception. Teachers naturally feel obligated to break content down to make it palatable, but maybe we shouldn’t always do that! Perhaps sometimes we should start with a broad concept and provoke the students to break it down, or not break it down at all…

So my driving question is, what can I do to make visual-spatial learners feel more welcomed and engaged?

In general, I assume that interest-driven learning, inquiry-based learning, and independent inquiry are beneficial to all learners and visual-spatial in particular, especially in upper elementary classes. Perhaps a good place for me to start would be to learn more about whole-to-part learning processes and design some of our activities around those approaches.

This will be an ongoing inquiry for me as I prepare for the next school year. Suggestions welcome!!!!

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

Learning Creative Learning – Summative Reflection

At the close of the MIT Media Lab ‘Learning Creative Learning‘ Course, I’ve been enjoying organizing my thoughts to write this summative reflection. I took the course as an elementary school teacher looking to expand my approaches to teaching and learning, so most of what I took from it is what I can apply to my profession, although my experiences were not limited to the classroom-related.

Introduction to MOOCs
This was my first Massive Open Online Course. I was most impressed by the lack of deadlines. I could complete reading and watch class session videos at my own pace, yet the imminence of the live sessions helped me to maintain a reasonable schedule. Despite not being required, I sincerely looked forward to watching each session video each week, diligently read assignments, and felt odd pangs of guilt when I fell behind.

There were many tasks which I didn’t complete, in particular when materials were needed, but through the nature of being ‘massive’ and ‘open’, I still gained insight into the technology presented through other people’s sharing and reflections.

Now I’m very curious about non-structured MOOCs and collaborative inquiry. To me, Internet tools provide endless possibilities for open-learning. Through the LCL, I have even met several people with whom to experiment and many of us are beginning to assemble an open course on the topic of cities. I believe that my experiences living in many of the world’s most diverse cities will contribute to the course quite well.

Primarily, I think that the experience of participating in totally open learning collaboratively will inform my classroom practices as I strive to design learning environments which empower students to design their own learning.

To me, STEM, the ubiquitous acronym for Science + Technology + Engineering + Mathematics, is painfully inadequate. What is the point of that name? I understand that it’s a way to learn those disciplines within the authentic contexts in which they are actually found, but aren’t they also found in the contexts of Design and Sociology? Geography? Philosophy? If we’re aiming for context, let’s get all of the context. End of diatribe.

I don’t consider myself a ‘maker’. When I built a bookshelf for my bedroom when I was sixteen years old, I followed the directions.

However, during the maker- and tinkering-oriented discussions, I related to their ideas in terms of music.

As a composer and arranger, I am a musical tinkerer. In fact, musicians utilize the same pitches and rhythmic language with remarkably little variation when one considers the full possibilities of sound manipulation. They say that Bach already wrote all of the possible melodies and that the rest of us are just adding variations (iterations).

Jazz music in particular, being collaborative, interactive, and improvisational, aligns beautifully with the maker mindset. I’m sure I’m at my best when I apply this mentality in the classroom. The skills we apply to building together should be identical to those we apply to learning together. It’s also important to note the critical role mentors play in these constructions, the best of whom use their expertise to help learners practice the skills to form their own understandings.

Anybody can call a meeting; nobody can oblige others to attend
This concept will stick with me. It’s from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society and represents the essence of what I want to achieve in my teaching and learning. It may also be the very definition of Democracy.

How we learn
The greatest reward of participating in this course has been the development of my teaching philosophy.

Through experience, I have always believed that ‘fun’ and ‘social’ are as important as ‘visual’, ‘auditory’, and ‘kinesthetic’ learning modalities. The LCL readings and discussions have provided a firm pedagogical foundation for me to develop as a Constructionist teacher and learner.

Building on what I’ve learned from Dewey, Vygotsky, and Gardner, the pedagogy behind the LCL course has focused my attention more toward the processes of learning, a reorientation which I have already seen lead to superior learning products.

In my opinion, there is no debate between learning process and product. If we focus on process, the products will avail.

In particular, I enjoyed this excerpt from Design, Make, Play. I look forward to utilizing their criteria, Engagement, Intentionality, Innovation, and Solidarity, for assessment as I attempt to guide students, and myself, along paths of inquiry and collaboration.

You can take the course now
All of the materials are posted on the syllabus!

The real problem with Common Core

I like content standards and Common Core in particular.

Now, after dodging hurled tomatoes and enduring understandable jeers and hisses from a very vocal majority of people who work with children, I’ll explain why.

Content standards like Common Core are written curriculum. Written curriculum is always a work in progress and always up for debate and revision. Any written curriculum has flaws, because what is important to ‘know’ is always subjective and constantly changing. Most importantly, content standards don’t prescribe how to teach and learn, only what should be learned.

In my ideal teaching dream world, the written curriculum is agreed upon, discussed, debated, and revised; the taught and assessed curricula are entirely up to the communities engaged in learning to construct. Typically, that would be students, parents, and teachers. Simple, relevant. ‘How we learn’ and ‘how we show what we have learned’ should be the province of the learners, after all.
Unfortunately, bureaucracies never seem to leave anything simple. Their first victim is the assessed curriculum and their weapon-of-choice is standardized tests. It wouldn’t be appropriate at this point to mention the standardized testing companies who relentlessly lobby governments to spend more tax revenue on their often tedious and arbitrary products, so I’ll just focus on the fact that I don’t really mind those tests.

They’re not as challenging as the authentic assessment tasks my students regularly complete, and consistent test-taking practice develops important research and thinking skills. Similar quizzes also provide learners with critical formative and summative feedback on their learning throughout the year. Taking a few hours out of a school year in exchange for scientifically-collected data about the learning in my classroom is fine with me, assuming the tests are accurate and fair.

If that were the end of the intervention into children’s learning, I really wouldn’t mind. It turns out, however, that the companies which make tests also publish textbooks! Surprise, surprise. These text books “teach” the standards on which the tests are based. Even that isn’t so bad; it’s great for a classroom to be thoroughly resourced, after all, and it should provide excellent connections to the written curriculum. Until it becomes mandated. That’s when this situation becomes ugly. When a school board, district bureaucracy, or central government mandates the use of particular materials, it’s like when the school bully “gives” you a present and then tells you how to play with it.

It gets worse. In order to ensure that the kids “learn” everything in the books, the publishers make available a generous variety of materials. In fact, they are proud to sell ‘everything you need’ to “teach” those kids the standards. Including teacher scripts.

If you are a teacher who is forced to follow a script, I feel deep and bitter empathy for you. In my opinion, it can’t get worse than scripted curriculum. It’s a short step away from replacing teachers with videos.

There is one glaring problem with any standards as they relate to learners with special needs. Naturally, we are all individuals and not always able to meet identical standards. However, Common Core doesn’t specify how most standards must be assessed, allowing teachers the freedom to scaffold and accommodate as needed. A healthy sense of equity is all we need to realize in which cases standards are inappropriate.

In conclusion, the content standards, a good idea per se, are always too easily blown out of proportion. The problem is how stakeholders react to them. On one side, reactionaries decry them for their impersonality and rigidity. On the other, standards and their associated products are championed blindly by politicians and ‘reformers’. Students, parents, and teachers may feel confused, intimidated, and discouraged.

What a shame.

Use standards as a menu to help plan lessons and activities and structure inquiries to be engaging and relevant to ensure breadth of instruction. Knowing that we will ‘cover everything’ in the standards, we are at liberty to pursue our inquiries with vigor and enjoyment.