Expert in the classroom, virtually

By definition, a generalist teacher is not an expert in any particular discipline. Fortunately, most of us are, and enrich our classrooms with our interests and passions. Unfortunately, the scope of a school year of inquiry stretches far beyond any one teacher’s expertise.

Excursions and guest speakers can make up the difference, and video communications technology makes it possible to bring experts into the classroom from anywhere.

Near the conclusion of a recent unit which focused significantly on advertising, it occurred to me that one of my friends, Adam Lisagor, is the founder and owner of Sandwich Video, one of today’s premier creative advertising organizations. It only took a few text messages and time zone conversions to have him on the big screen in the classroom.

Honored to have Adam Lisagor chat with my class today about Sandwich Video! #edu

A post shared by Bart Miller (@bartlmiller) on

 

To prepare students for the interview, we first viewed several of Adam’s videos, then set a home learning task to explore more. Then, I asked them to submit questions via an online form so that I could sort and select in a way that promoted a conversational mood. As questions were chosen, students approached the camera one at a time to speak with Adam. Not surprisingly, their questions were insightful and elicited excellent comments on persuasion, honesty, and creativity.

In addition to an excursion, I would attempt to schedule a guest speaker, either in person or more likely via video, for every unit of inquiry.

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Data evolution & revolution

The past

Data has been an undercurrent in my teaching since my first classroom in 2007. Of course, in that year, I struggled to gather data and there was virtually no chance of utilizing much of it to inform and enrich instructional planning. For good or ill, data is not essential to the survival of a first year teacher.

Each year after, I slowly improved, including a variety of experiments like the one shared in the post Student Empowerment | COETAIL final project. I tried different forms, organizers, notebooks, etc, until finally unveiling an integrated digital system last year. I shared it as a presenter at the GAFE Summit 2016 in Kobe, Japan, and used it for the school year to publish students’ ongoing assessment data, and other key information such as website usernames and passwords, directly to them as web pages. After celebrating and discussing the system, I felt that it was terribly unsatisfying.

The present

Inspiration came in the form of media such as Jack Norris’ keynote presentation from Strata + Hadoop World in San Francisco, Let’s Get Real: Acting on Data in Real Time, embedded below.

The concept of ‘data agility’ through converged data and processing appealed to me because what I sought a tool which would organize all assessment data in a way that could be searched, shared, and analyzed. Over the years I had been introduced to many ‘tracking systems’, only to discover that they were utterly unmanageable at scale. Ticking boxes on scope and sequence documents or highlighting learning objectives almost arbitrarily seemed like a show at best. In fact, a colleague who shared such a system with me admitted that at the end of a term, due to a lack of hard data, he would simply choose outcomes to highlight on every student’s document regardless of their actual progress or learning. To quote Mr Norris, I wanted my data to ‘get real’.

While designing my own system, I became somewhat of an amateur data scientist. The implications of the article Putting the science back in data science got me thinking about the flow from data entry to visualization and publishing. A quote from the post Can Small Data Improve K-12 Education? helped to clarify the objective for the project.

‘Small data observes the details or small clues that uncover large trends. The idea is that by honing in on the elements that make up relationships and narratives in schools, education can be enriched.’ The Edvocate

What I wanted to do was bring transparency to the relationships between myself, students, parents, and administrators. Further readings within the big data and data science trends like Data Quality Should Be Everyone’s Job  by Thomas C Redman directed my attention toward the purpose for the data. Before data is collected, it should already have a purpose, and that purpose dictates the design of the collection, publishing, and analysis tools.

 

screenshot-5
Copious data entry (lots of dragging)
The next piece of the design puzzle was my school’s Assessment Handbook. In it were the categories, criteria, and descriptors on top of which my system would function.

 

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Student data visualization via Google Sheets
Utilizing a system of Google Sheets, data is entered and student progress viewed in potentially real time, depending on the efficiency of my data entry. As we began using the system I shared a video, Tour of your data book, embedded below, which illustrates the details of the user experience much better than I can describe in words.

The future

This system has been remarkably effective and unlike last year, I only plan to make minor tweaks, especially to the user interface. Feedback from students and parents revealed, as I expected, that there are too many graphs and that it’s difficult to know which are more or less important.

Another feature I plan to add is a Google Form which mirrors the data entry document which would allow teaching assistants, specialists, and even parents or students themselves to contribute data to the system.

If articles like The Three Ways Teachers Use Data—and What Technology Needs to Do Better by Karen Johnson and 7 Steps to Becoming a Data-Driven School by Eric Crites are any indication of the direction that data utilization is heading in education, I’m glad to be along for the ride.

Creativity = Motivation + Discipline

All I need to write by Grant Snider


This post started as a quick reflection on my personal journal on Tumblr and why I haven’t felt like posting lately.


But the more thought and consideration I put into it, the more it seemed appropriate to write a more formal article to reflect on and share my creative process. I have always been frustrated with my creative output, and a self study was long overdue.

To begin my analysis, I reflected on my feelings. Sometimes I feel creative. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I feel motivated. Sometimes I don’t. I sketched a graph to represent these poles.



Next, I considered which activities seemed to align with different conditions. When I feel highly creative and highly motivated, it’s difficult to stop myself from creative work. However, when I feel neither creative nor motivated, even simple editing or organizing feels like a significant accomplishment.

But is my creativity at the mercy of my feelings? Do my moods really dictate my output?


That’s when I decided to get really geeky and gather some actual data by creating a Google Form for myself which I keep open in a tab on my smartphone web browser.




Over the past few weeks, I have diligently assessed my activities, resulting in some interesting data.


Mostly, I am curious to analyze these data to discover patterns. Do I follow my feelings logically? Do my activities influence my feelings? Am I wasting my most creative opportunities?

As this self assessment continues, I took some time to explore my creative history…


The muse is not a fairy

My first and most important lesson in creativity came from Jack Grapes, founder of the Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective. In a writers’ workshop session, he described how it was a mistake to believe that creative inspiration is a phenomenon that ‘happens’ to us.

He instructed us to follow a creative routine: Write at a certain time each day. By doing this, we would train our minds to think during thinking time and write during writing time. Ignore spontaneous inspiration that leads to pulling over to the side of the road to jot down an idea you ‘don’t want to forget’. 


If the idea isn’t good enough to remember, it’s not good enough to drop everything to write down. Trust that the vast complexity of our brains will cooperate.


Connect socially

Jon Caliguiri, an old friend, also an alum of Jack’s writing courses, and long time creative collaborator responded to my post by sharing his Song of the Month Challenge:


‘I agree! Almost 3 years ago, a friend and I committed to writing and recording a song a month each.  We’ve been doing it consistently for that time and I haven’t missed a month aside from the “furlough” months we take off every year to reedit and tweak things.  It’s been the greatest experience and has helped my songwriting and recording immensely. It’s like a book club for rock and roll.’

Connecting with others in my creative work has always been a weak point for me. I don’t accept critique particularly well. I respond to critique terribly. I take great pride in my work, but ironically not enough to share with confidence. Often, my products are not shared until they are finished and my focus and energy have moved on to a new project. 

Perhaps the brilliance of Jon’s project is that it’s a concrete commitment, not a nebulous goal. What he’s making is not necessarily as important as his engagement in the process.


The product flows from the process, and the quality of the songs he has produced is clearly increasing as a result of his commitment.


Jon’s comments reminded me of a quote by Duke Ellington which I also referenced in the post, Exhibition: PBL To The Max!‘I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.’


Discipline

Arguably, the most important element of creativity is discipline. While I was studying music at The New School, my piano teacher, LeeAnne Ledgerwood, shared an important video which I published and commented on in the post, Bill Evans – Creative Process and Self Teaching. In the video, Bill insists that honesty and commitment are crucial to building creative fluency. An analytical approach that systematically builds skills lays the foundation for creative expression.

The more I reflect, the more the solution is clear. I need to set aside a time to practice creativity. As a teacher, father, and husband, that time can only be five o’clock in the morning. This wouldn’t be the first time to follow such a masochistic schedule, as I described in the post No Sleep November, but the purpose is quite different, more personal, and permanent.

Can I drag myself out of bed that early every day? Or perhaps a better question is ‘how?’ Nobody else is going to do it for me. Optimistic, the short video by CHris Jimenez, provides a succinct guide that is helpful for me.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/80037988


Perhaps if I can focus on going to bed well, I’ll be on my way to meeting the first goal of waking up in a good mood.


There have been two great graphics on creative routines published recently: The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People and When Genius Slept, both based on Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. Another resource worth exploring further is This Emotional Life guide to Creativity by PBS.


These are all great for entertainment and even inspiration. They may even lead to increased motivation. But they won’t finish a novel or My String Quartet.


The only way to achieve those goals is through discipline to commit to a regular work time and to muster the courage to share my works in progress early and often.

It’s going to hurt, but it will be worth it. 
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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.



Student Empowerment | COETAIL final project

A keen observer will notice that I haven’t exactly followed the assignment here. Rather than revising a unit of instruction to attempt to redefine learning, my goal is to utilize educational technology to empower students to redefine their own learning. In a sense, I am reimagining every unit I teach. I started by trying to revise a single unit, but every change I made toward increasing student choice, voice, and agency, resulted in thinking less about deciding what I wanted students to do, and more about how I was going to document and curate what they would decide to do. A class wiki was needed first to act as a home base. In theory, it contains and organizes links to every online resource and tool we use in class. The link is jiesgradefiveandsix2014-15.wikispaces.com, and it’s the only link you will find in this post because it leads to a page containing links to everything my class does online, including our Inquiry Tasks Organizer.

The Inquiry Tasks Organizer is the hub of our inquiries and assessments. The public ‘class’ organizer feeds private organizers for each students, to which they add links to their learning artifacts and self assessment rubrics. Over the course of the school year, this document will be used to empower students to take more control of the direction of their learning by providing a flexible and agile model for documentation and reflection.

Currently, our inquiries and tasks are quite structured, but as the students become more fluent inquirers, more freedom will be transferred to them without changing any essential procedures. This ‘Project Management’ aspect of my COETAIL final project, creating an interface that can maximize agency and transparency in the classroom, is an inquiry I look forward to pursuing further along a design process in which all participants’ experiences are documented and utilized to inform ongoing iterations.

This ‘Design Thinking’ approach to classroom planning ensures that a unit is never ‘finished’, and that refinement and revision are designed in rather than being added or changed later.

The student experience thus far has been mixed. Some students enjoy the freedom that this approach affords, yet might be too easily distracted from relevant inquiries. Some are reluctant to let go of the traditional models of instruction, either our of confusion or lack of experience as independent learners.

Consequently, the full potential of this project has yet to be realized. That’s great, because it is evidence to me that the project is working. Surely if students could easily adapt and thrive, it would imply that the learning environment hadn’t changed much and certainly wasn’t redefined.

Learning won’t be redefined in one unit, but in the ongoing cycle of innovation and reflection that connected learning communities like COETAIL encourage and promote.

Trust & Transparency

(from the K12 Online Conference)

I have been facilitating Independent Inquiry in my classroom for the past three years. It’s similar to Genius Hour and 20% Time in Education. Witnessing the enthusiasm and engagement with which learners pursue their interests and passions has motivated me to evaluate, redesign, share, and promote passion driven learning.


In these years, the single greatest challenge has been establishing trust that time students spend pursuing their interests and passions is well spent. As asked by The Tinkering Studio in Chapter 5 of Design, Make, Play:

‘It looks like fun, but are they learning?’

Cynicism about learner directed learning is understandable. We don’t have content. The students inquire into and create the content.

When I asked students their thoughts and feelings about Independent Inquiry in our classroom, they agreed that it’s fun. But they also said:

I can do anything I want.’
‘I like to make things.’
‘We can work together.’
‘We can challenge ourselves.’
‘When we make things, we improve ourselves and think a lot.’
‘We practice being reflective.’
‘In Independent Inquiry, you don’t feel bad about making mistakes.’
‘Sometimes you have to start over again.’

We have had a fascinating variety of inquiries over the last three years, from baking to basketball free throw practice, lego robotics to fashion design.

Teachers who try passion driven learning in their classrooms discover that the deep learning occurs around the processes of thinking, inquiry, and reflection. We all pursue our passions differently, and our best learning occurs from exploring different paths to understanding, making mistakes, persisting through frustration, and reflecting on the process.

Regretably, many teachers go to great lengths to design detailed project organizers to ensure that students cross all of the ‘t’s and dot all of the ‘i’s of their learning process. Understandably, they want to have artifacts of student learning to control the process just enough to be able to ‘justify’ the use of time.

But that’s not learner directed, is it? It’s a project in which students have some voice, but the direction is already determined.

One might object, claiming that ‘most students don’t know how to direct their own learning. They can’t do it.’

‘They can’t do it.’

I cringe visibly when educators say that.

People don’t learn by already being able to do things. They learn by trying new things.

The brilliance of passion driven learning, what makes it the vanguard of a meaningful revolution in education is that it’s based on the premise that ‘They can do it’.

Our responsibility is to empower them.

Trust the learner

The first and most important trust that passion driven learning requires is between students and their teachers. We must trust that each learner will pursue their interests and passions to the best of their ability and gain their trust that we will do anything possible to help.

An infant doesn’t begin to learn to walk by taking a first step. They begin in the cradle by wondering how it is that other people can move around so easily. Their first attempts at mobility are so pathetic, they are adorable, and that’s exactly what we expect.

Self directed learning is no different. Most learners fail miserably and that’s exactly what needs to happen. Failure should be encouraged and celebrated. This failure is the foundation of a growth mindset and an environment of trust empowers everyone to act with courage to grow.


I have observed a wide range of fascinating independent inquiries. Some are shining examples of committed and creative hard work, some are simply pathetic. But the best and the worst are of equal value as they represent different stages of learning how to learn. In many cases, the so called ‘worst’ inquiries are actually the best.

Learn; don’t be taught.

When students enter my upper elementary classroom for the first time, they know how to ‘be taught’. They are well accustomed to clever lessons, activities, worksheets, and quizzes.

My goal is for them to learn how to ‘learn’. Which begs the question: ‘If students aren’t in school to ‘be taught’, what’s the purpose of teachers?’

It’s a fair question! What we are essentially saying is, ‘send your kids to my classroom! I’m not really going to teach them anything.’ What is needed is trust among all stakeholders including students, parents, teachers, administrators, policy makers, etc.

I have been fortunate to teach in an environment that explicitly promotes inquiry learning, and given the current trends of deeper learning, design thinking, and maker education, I imagine most schools would be willing to allow an experiment in passion driven learning.

Even given the initial trust of stakeholders, it’s our responsibility to sustain that trust by clearly demonstrating the success of our programs. Fortunately, the inspired faces of students describing their learning speak volumes, but it’s not enough.

The key to sustaining trust is transparency.

Transparency

The first and indispensable tool I use is a Google Form for weekly reflection and self assessment. It’s the hub of our passion driven learning as we use it to reflect and discuss our learning.

The form we use in my class includes elements from the IB Primary Years Program, The 21st Century Fluency Project, the Connect Learning Core Values, and a writing prompt. These elements represent the essential goals for the school year. Of course, a form could include virtually anything, including Common Core learning objectives.

The transparency comes from the spreadsheet the form feeds. Every reflection is recorded with a timestamp and can be searched by any variable. The sheet itself is not sortable, but a straightforward script can import the contents to another sheet that is sortable. I have included all of these in a public Google Drive Folder for anyone to copy.

After several weeks of inquiry and reflection, it’s very revealing to give each student a printout of their own reflections to analyze. They are always impressed with the growth and maturity their inquiries and reflections show.

We also use the form during a weekly Independent Inquiry Meeting. My class has two consecutive hours scheduled for self directed learning, once per week, and each sessions begins with a meeting in which we discuss their previous reflections, new inquiry models, collaboration and service opportunities, and anything else pertaining to independent inquiry.

These meetings are also a great chance to explore our reflection ‘analytics’, a summary of the reflections in graphic form.

Coach, document, curate, share

Back to the question of ‘what does the teacher ‘teach’?’ in a self directed environment. One answer is that we become coaches. We must be intimately familiar with each student’s project, their strengths and areas of need as inquirers. Often, when I notice a student pursuing a particularly difficult line of inquiry, I independently perform my own research to help them find useful yet difficult to find resources. At other times, particularly when students work in a group on a highly creative inquiry goal, I just leave them alone to negotiate their own ways through the challenges.

The learning environment is incredibly dynamic, and opportunities to capture and document the best learning come and go in flashes. Another answer to what teachers do is that we become documentarians and curators.

My smartphone is always at hand to snap a picture and take a quick note. For curation, Evernote is extremely useful, as it allows me to tag photo notes with the student’s name and any other important information, including quotes from students about their learning.

Teachers know that well organized portfolios of student work including a range of assessment data are a good way to endear ourselves to administration.

Finally, all this learning needs to be shared, certainly with parents and ideally publicly. My preferred media are a class twitter account and blog. Twitter is perfect for live sharing of the learning in class and interacting with parents and other classes. In our class blog, I often reshare tweets and include more photos and explanation.

The best way to describe this sharing is ‘broadcasting’. If the passion driven classroom actively broadcasts its activities, the levels of engagement and depth of learning will be evident and celebrated.

Trust yourself

Trust yourself to learn from mistakes, reflect, adapt, try again, and above all, share your own process for passion driven learning, just as we wish for our students.

Trust yourself to persist through the mishaps and misadventures of learning innovation and openly model a mindset to inspire students to embrace and pursue their interests and passions.

Inquiry with Evernote vol 3 | Introducing the Inquiry Learning Resources Project

In the summer of 2013, I started using Evernote to collect and curate resources for planning and pursuing inquiry learning, as I blogged in the posts, Inquiry with Evernote vol 1 and Inquiry with Evernote vol 2 . Since then, my collection of notes has expanded. More importantly, the channels from which I collect these images, videos, and articles have become much more diverse and poignant. Most importantly, I am slowly refining my tagging strategies to make the collection more conceptually connected and social and environmental action oriented.

Now, I would like to introduce the Inquiry Learning Resources Project. The effort to build a digital notebook of inquiry provoking notes continues, but I have expanded the project to social media.

Evernote

The project’s primary home is the public notebook, Inquiry Learning Resources. Feel free to join, search, and utilize it for your classroom or personal inquiries.

Tumblr

This project was inspired by a desire to organize the fascinating content I discovered on Tumblr. Resources are shared on the Inquiry Learning Resources blog and using the tag #inquirylearning. That blog accepts submissions, so if you’re on Tumblr, feel free to contribute.

Twitter

I set up the account @provokinquiry to share resources on Twitter, and also using the #inquirylearning tag. Hopefully it will also be a great way to raise awareness for the project.

Pinterest

The public board Inquiry Learning Resources on Pinterest is also a great place to share. Please ask to join to submit pins.

Facebook

Resources are also shared on an Inquiry Learning Resources Page on Facebook.

The future

My immediate goal is to get in the habit of updating regularly, although completing projects is always a challenge due to the crunch of the school year before January. Hopefully, more inquiry educators will want to collaborate to help expand the project further!