Thinking Beyond the School Box: Inspired Architecture + Contemporary Learning

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I recently visited our newest multi-age space redesign in a small rural elementary school. When we began the process to modernize this school, we knew we had to design and build new space from the inside out.  The school had some nice elements including a clerestory roof line that should have allowed natural light into classrooms but didn’t because tall storage cabinets added over the years blocked light from the classroom work areas.

In the redesign the school’s 20th century rectangular classrooms were combined to create a variety of multi-age spaces. An art room located in an older trailer and the small library were moved and integrated into a common arts and library space. The design team increased connectivity and transparency by adding doors and windows that opened up access to the school’s rural, park-like setting. The teachers in this school see the rural area, local farms, and natural environment as a learning asset. They also believe that access to fresh air and movement is key for learners to stay engaged throughout the day.

(the school’s playground view) 

The learning flexibility created by our new school-wide, multi-age spaces offers a much wider bandwidth of opportunities and potential experiences to children. We have learned from multiple research sources that natural light is a key ingredient to create environments in which learners thrive. Since the redesign, light pours into halls and learning spaces. A variety of flexible furniture, seating, and informal work areas provide learners and teachers with both choice and comfort options to locate in space differently depending upon the work that is being done. The teachers know from learning research that both spaces for quiet, independent work as well as for small and large groups to gather are critical to address the range of children’s needs, planned learning experiences, and instruction necessary to maximize learning potential across the school.

When I visited this newly redesigned school, I watched a live cam of polar bears wandering the ice pack in the Arctic on a touch screen in the library. Multi-age learners gathered in informal hall spaces to work together on projects. Students oriented themselves at tables and on the floor to write in a 3,4,5 space  —  some choosing more traditional seating while others, as some teachers label it, engaged in “belly-writing.”

It’s not easy to make changes from physical teaching places to child-centered learning spaces. It’s even harder to shift practices, values, and beliefs associated with teaching age-based classes to those essential to creating viable, multi-age learning experiences. It takes time for teachers who have “owned” a room to learn how to share space, plan, and teach together.

Sharing space in concept is different than sharing in reality — for adult and young learners. Seeing children through a developmental lens in multi-age spaces challenges the way we’ve learned to use learning standards, benchmarks, and expectations in single-age classrooms. What does “on level” really mean? How do we teach grade-level math standards in a multi-age class? What do we notice about social-emotional learning development that’s different in a group of children ranging in age from eight to ten versus a class with all ten year olds?

Negotiating curricula, assessment, and pedagogy isn’t easy when you begin to work in a co-teaching team. Compromise, collaboration, and negotiation skills become critical to moving through the forming to storming to norming to performing phases of the team’s work. The dysfunctions of working in isolation become more apparent in teams than in the traditional structures and schedules of schools. That’s one reason why time to build relationships, plan, and reflect together is key to the process of developing a strong and effective team.

From prior shifts in redesigning spaces in our schools, we know that change is an iterative process with both growing pains and gains. I see it every time we go through the process. Are there strategies that increase the likelihood of success? Yes — here’s what I notice.

  • The ideal and real life of change are quite different. Accept that every journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.
  • The first step is visualizing big possibilities and then moving towards that vision in stages. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We must accept that deep change in school processes and practices doesn’t happen overnight.
  • Physical space redesign doesn’t force change but it can make it easier to shift to contemporary practices. More than anything, it’s the time adults devote to working together to design, plan, experiment, and reflect that results in change. You can’t undervalue investing the funds for the time teams need to build relationships and plan ahead. Space matters. Resources matter. People matter the most. Invest in their time.
  • Care, support, and empathy are essential to working with educators embarked on making radical change. We say that kids need to feel emotional comfort when they take on learning challenges. The same is true of adults.
  • Every time that we take a risk, it may lead to either success or failure. Celebrate success but avoid punishing failure. Many years ago a leader said to me when I took a risk and failed, “rather than beating yourself up, let this be a learning experience —  and consider what you would do differently next time. The failure to do that would be the real failure for you in this.” Be present as a leader with your team when you are taking them into the waters of deep change.  Leadership matters.

Finally, I’ve learned over time that children know everything we adults need to be wise in our work together. The children in this small rural elementary school recently offered words of wisdom to their peers and their teachers. Practice words of wisdom with the adults in your team and not just with the children you serve.

And remember, the sun always shines after a storm.

Beyond the Sky: Imagine That!

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Beyond the Sky … 

When kids get passionate about learning and they ask me to join them, I have to say yes. Even at 7 am on a Saturday morning.

It’s why I found myself getting up early to head off to a local park on a misty morning last June. When I arrived, the kids, a team of middle schoolers, were already there along with their teachers, the school principal, their parents, the media, and … me.

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Why? Because two eighth-grade girls decided they wanted to fly a high altitude balloon to the edge of the atmosphere. They’d enlisted adults, their teachers, and other interested students in their project. We were all gathered to see what would come of this year-long project.

I watched with my camera, capturing video and photos, as they worked to put all the final pieces together; the go-pro camera, an arduino-driven tracking system, and the balloon. They checked their tracker app on their cell phones and installed it on my phone, too.  Finally, after their final check, they called 4 different air traffic control centers from Charlottesville to DC.

balloon-prep

We adults stood back and watched the kids position the balloon and let it go.  It rose, and cheers went up. Then, in silence, it glided back to earth. Shoulders drooped a bit but the kids got to work. They figured out what parts of the apparatus could be ditched to lower the balloons weight and then they let it go again … this time it rose and rose –gliding out of sight and we all cheered.

balloon-tracker-app

They checked their cell phone tracking apps over the weekend and into the early days of the week. These modern-day rocket kids began to wonder if their balloon had wandered too far afield and all their work was now lost. Then – an alert triggered. When the call came to central office that they were off to collect their balloon, we all cheered again. Our balloon chasers found it on the other side of Lake Anna , more than fifty miles away, and secured permission from a farmer to retrieve it out of a wood-lined pasture. Guess what?

 

balloonsky

The go pro footage showed Mission Accomplished!

 

 

Who wouldn’t want this kind of learning passion for all kids? As superintendent I find my own passion in the work I do comes from helping educators create multiple pathways to learning so that all our young people find their way to pursuing hopes and dreams, to have as many choices as possible when they move into adulthood, and to gain an equity of access to rich, experiential, creative work that educates them for life, not school.

droneclubI think Julian captures this vision in his passion for making and flying drones – and through what he’s learned as he’s participated in the maker movement that brings passion alive in young people in our schools today. What started as an isolated passion in a library maker space while making drones took Julian one day into the school cafeteria with his drones to see who else might be interested. As a result of Julian’s leadership, he’s now surrounded by a score of middle and high school student who share his interest.

That passion also resides in Ayoade, a high school senior, who believes that engineering is fun and a great career choice.  However, Ayoade believed that many young girls might not know that. So as a sophomore she took a startup idea to her engineering teacher who said, “why not?” Abridge-girlss a result, she became a social entrepreneur, creating not just a bridge-building camp for middle school girls but one in which participants give back to our community by creating bridges that make our local walking trails accessible.

 

courtney1And, there’s Courtney who isn’t just a fabulous actress, choreographer, and dancer in her school’s drama program but also a script writer who just had her own award-winning, one act play performed in state competition. What makes Courtney’s work unique? She believes that arts are a path to teaching communities about issues of social justice and her most recent script, Necessary Trouble (taken from a speech quote by Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis) pushes audiences to engage in discussion about what rights mean to students who find themselves on different sides of a civil rights issue.

Josh1.jpgFinally, there is Josh, a tenth-grader who speaks to his tough life experiences –foster parenting, many transitions in homes and schools, and his challenges with the greatest frankness. He has shared on the national stage how engaged, hands-on, project-based learning, along with support from his Team 19 peers, teachers, and his principal has changed his attitude about high school – going from a kid who thought he might not graduate when he entered high school to now dreaming of becoming a tech engineer. You might ask so how did Josh get to a White House podium? Last year, he participated in a focus group at his high school led by a member of Student Voice and Josh’s voice, filled with passion and authenticity, was noticed by the facilitator leading to an invitation to speak at the White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools.

These stories don’t happen by chance. They happen when educators see the future as adjacent to the possibilities we build inside our schools today. Courtney, Ayoade, Josh, Julian, and the balloon kids represent every child inside our schools – classrooms filled with poets, engineers, artists, nurses, programmers – and yes, I hope, future teachers, principals, and maybe a superintendent or two.

We don’t find our children’s passions or talents when they sit in rows facing a dominant teaching wall, listening hour after hour, day after day, year after year, taking test after test to prove what they know-  but with little chance to show us what they can do.  Yet, when our young people get hooked on learning and take that passion into life along with a sense of personal agency, their voices will influence first their schools, and then their communities, the nation, and the world.

Unleashing the potential of our young people so they can build agency as learners and find their voices through experiences that plumb their passions means the sky is no longer the limit. Beyond the sky becomes possible.

Imagine that.

A New Year. Multi-Tasking. My Peach Cobbler. Connections. Hidden Figures.

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A New Year.

The opening of a school year creates the same fluttering inside me as occurred on the first day of the first year I attended school. I remember that year, first grade because there was no kindergarten, helping my mother pack my metal lunch box, obsessively snapping a 3-ring binder filled with fresh Blue Horse lined paper, and filling a wooden pencil case with sharpened #2 pencils. The scent of learning has changed but tonight I feel the same tension created by a desire to sustain both the slower pace of summer balanced with the pull to again experience a first day of school. Today in the grocery store, the day before all the teachers return to schools in my district, I was asked if I was ready for a new school year. I replied, “Of course. School just isn’t school without kids and teachers in the building.” Summer is beautiful. School is even more so.

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 Multi-tasking.

As I consider this next first day of school, a precursor first day with all teachers walking through our doors a week ahead of our young people, I am checking my email on the phone, writing this post on my laptop, and watching a semi-final 1500 meter women’s race. It’s hard to even remember the first days before mobile devices – days when everything was written out longhand, when the TV was still a small box catching signals from an antenna perched on the roof’s ridge, and the landline phone hung on the kitchen wall, its compressed cord tethering me to a limited area in the room. Some friends express nostalgia for those days but I don’t think many would give up their microwaves, on demand digital television, smart devices, or online apps even as we sometimes yearn for a slower pace and fewer intrusions from the digital world. At new teacher academy last week almost no hands went up from 140+ new teachers when I asked them if they could identify a reel film case – even fewer than just a year ago. Soon there will be no educators left in schools who can remember threading film through a projector – maybe just a few middle aged educators, once students who watched long ago teachers struggling to show documentary films found in film cans such as this.

film container

My Peach Cobbler.

Earlier this evening, I peeled a large bag of peaches thinking I would make my 95 year-old-mother’s peach cobbler recipe. I pulled the index card written in her flowing script from an old tin recipe box given to me before I left for college. It lives on a shelf in an even more ancient pie safe in my kitchen. Self-rising flour? None of that in my cannisters  so I immediately googled “how to make self-rising flour” and the answer popped up. Two hours later I slid the cobbler out of the oven. Old tech. New tech. Tools matter. Problem-solving usually depends upon them.

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Connections.

Time is more precious than gold. I think of the countless hours of practice, practice, practice in which Olympic athletes engage as I watch a British male gymnast take the lead with a tenth of a point. Many in the audience film him on floor exercises with their phones. It won’t be long before footage is posted in some version of YouTube, GIFs, or Vines even as the IOC works to get unauthorized images and footage taken down.  At the same time, I watch my twitter feed light up with retweets of an article delineating why homework is not a particularly good use of time, especially in elementary school. People’s beliefs drive opinions for and against homework (most RTs are against.) I read comments about homework building self discipline and rebuttals from those who see it as a compliance-driven exercise. It’s a lively conversation but civil. I like that. Educators are in general a very polite group even as they exchange perspectives. They tend to listen. They ask questions. They share. Today these connected educators make sense of a topic which continues to create conflict among teaching peers, parents, and students old enough to hold an opinion. The world is connected as it has never before been. Communication is not limited to face-to-face communities. Instead, communication happens everywhere all the time – it’s a global network unlike anything ever seen before in human history.

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 Hidden Figures. (The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped the United States Win the Space Race)

Tonight I am inspired by Olympic athletes.  Most of all though, I am inspired by stories of young black women who in the 1940s and 50s became “human computers in skirts” for NASA. Who knew? Men went into space because of these women’s calculations. It’s a story worth knowing, sharing, and celebrating even as we educators bemoan the math performance gaps of today. I am reminded that we choose to define and limit the possibilities of what children are capable of accomplishing.  The narrative of Kathryn Johnson challenges us to do better by at-risk children in today’s classrooms. We have come a long way since the days of the segregated world she experienced in Hampton, Virginia. We still have work to do.

 

Getting to Yes

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Have you ever agreed to something and then wondered if it was the smartest thing you ever did?

That happened to me last spring. A colleague shared with me that a group of middle school kids was on a mission to reimagine the dining experience in their cafeteria which I thought was a fabulous idea. After all institutional cafeteria settings aren’t typically the most human-centered community spaces in our schools. I imagined the kids designing and building booths in their relatively new maker space, maybe putting a few plants around and placing posters or student art work on the walls. Instead, I began to see images pop up on Twitter and Instagram that caused me to wonder what I’d agreed to support.

waltonwork

When I checked in with colleague @irasocol who was working with architect Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop and our middle schoolers, I heard they’d decided what they REALLY needed was not dining booths but rather tree houses, and not one but two tree houses. Rolling tree houses, no less.

I didn’t see tree houses coming.

“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else has ever thought.” — Albert Einstein

If we want a culture of contagious creativity, we have to get ourselves to yes. Sometimes that’s not so easy. This was one of those times for me.  But, I immediately did what I advise others to do and said yes – as long as the tree house didn’t get too tall- say 8 foot or so. I decided I better visit.

I imagine you are thinking, “Pam, get yourself to yes all you want to on cafeteria tree houses, but not me.” But go with me through this – you see I’ve been there saying to myself “just say no.”

Getting ourselves to yes is a lifetime challenge in education when our urge is NOT to say “what if” instead we are quick to go to “yea but or just plain no” and the conversation ends there.  Fortunately, a mentor early in my career said to me that if a young person or a teacher comes to you with an idea, say yes. If you don’t, they will leave your office and tell ten others that you said no. More importantly, those ten will ask why bother coming to you when they have an idea they want to make happen.

alexprojectHere’s what I discovered when I visited the cafeteria. Middle schoolers were scrambling all over the tree houses. I could only think  that maybe this getting to yes philosophy does have limits. Then I stepped back to observe the kids working under Alex Gilliam’s watchful eye. They were a diverse mix representing all the demographics of their tiny middle school. But what really caught my attention was their joy in designing and building, using saws, and drills, and hammers like pros.

I talked with the principal and discovered that several of the kids climbing the structure with great care were kids who weren’t always the most successful in class. I heard from a teacher about his reflection that the kids were learning to use complex math competencies that some thought were beyond their skill level. I stepped back and thought this may be the best story ever to define getting myself to yes on a proposal that challenges every radar beep from my superintendent’s antenna.

I work as superintendent in a school district that is learning to get to yes  – from teachers to principals to learners. Last summer, watching the evening news, a story popped up that caught my attention illustrating our trust in students when we say yes. It was one of our high school students in the woods sharing a summer project. As I listened I smiled to realize that this project was the perfect example of the contagious creativity that emerges when we say yes and unleash the potential of young people.

 

student Iyoade.jpg

Iyoade in maker space

Iyaode, high school student and budding engineer, had approached a mentor teacher to share a challenge she wanted to solve; how to engage middle school girls to understand the possibilities of engineering.  His response to her? Why not?

She  wanted to gather some high school friends and offer a summer engineering camp for middle school girls. The solution she designed? A bridge-building summer camp in which her team and the middle school girls designed a bridge, hauled construction tools and lumber into the woods, and built a bridge over a creek along a walking trail in our community. That night, as I watched middle school girl builders and realized that the power of yes to encourage creativity in our schools had spread well beyond my office doors. 

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Julian with his drones

In my district, creativity abounds and we believe that getting to yes is step one in the process of redesigning every nook and cranny of 20th century schooling. It doesn’t matter whether I walk into a library maker space and find Julian  working on a drone or flying one in the gym. Or, I wander into a former computer lab turned into a music studio and get the chance to listen to Grace performing and recording original music.

Our schools are different because of educators who are getting to yes. Our kids have 3-D printed prosthetic solutions for peers with handicaps and prototyped a portable MRI.

Teens such Nyghee, Courtney, Josiah, Emily, and Obed have choreographed their own dance numbers and directed musicals that challenge their peers to think. They’ve posted their performances to YouTube and shared face-to-face with live audiences. Others like James have posted original music online to share with authentic audiences all over the world. 

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Memphis cast members on stage

This work happens in formal and informal learning spaces because we encourage passing on the power of saying yes to creativity – and when we do we find that creativity becomes contagious, spreading from person to person, classroom to classroom, school to school across our district.

So, why should we all work on getting ourselves to yes? Unless we can get ourselves to yes, the next steps in the change process won’t matter.

 

Getting ourselves to yes keeps kids coming back to school every day to pursue their own passions in learning for a lifetime.

Getting ourselves to yes embodies an open atmosphere of creative design to address grand learning challenges that can be solved together by adults and children alike.

And, getting ourselves to yes means that collaborative communities get the chance to reimagine what it means to educate young people for life, not for school.

Henley gym3

Middle School Fitness Center “not a gym”

Our schools now have maker and hacker spaces, learning commons, design studios and wonder lounges, spark spaces and fitness centers, genius bars and mechatronics labs, music construction spaces and dance studios. We’ve taken down walls  and removed lockers literally and figuratively.

 

And, with each redesign we learn that imagining education differently means our young people no longer must check creativity when they enter our schoolhouse doors.

Today, when I visit the tree house cafeteria, I find kids perched high above or below working on writing and projects or eating and listening to music with friends during a lunch break. The kids in this school have gone on to build beautiful seating for outdoor spaces in their schools. And, I have no idea what they might want to do next but I am sure they have no issue with bringing their ideas forward.

treehouse.jpg

There’s no secret sauce or recipe for getting ourselves to yes. Yet, it’s the cheapest but most powerful strategy we have in our tool belt to encourage fresh and creative ideas.

Why not try it?  Just remember to take a deep breath.

After all, sometime soon someone is going to ask you about building their own version of a tree house.

Be ready.

Just say yes.

The Power of Image and Lifelong Learning

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Cameras interest me —

the science of converting the real into image and the art of seeing image in the real.

My grandfather loved cameras.. he claimed that he once had taken pictures for a newspaper but I never believed him. But — he did have boxes and boxes of stained, brittle, and faded black and white or yellowed snapshots stuffed in crannies and drawers throughout his well-used farm house.

My grandfather, a maker (1889–1983)

I didn’t realize that photography might have meant more to him than simple documentation of family until I found photos he’d made of rocket launches at Cape Canaveral and late 60’s lunar walks. After he died, I sat on the floor cradling his photos. Why would this man who was born in the days of horse-drawn vehicles be so taken with space flight?

Man on the Moon by C.S. Ridge (1969 taken on his 12″ b&w TV set

Today I understand that the brain is a living camera, taking its own snapshots and creating portrait, landscape, and still life images of the world in which we live. Our physical cameras serve as technology facilitators of our neural efforts to remember images that fade over time. As I look back through my own photo binders, I touch older images of my mother as a young woman in a halter top. My father, the athlete swinging a driver over his right shoulder. My grandfather seated on his favorite horse, Rocket.

In my own aging world, I have long abandoned my manual SLR and shifted to using my iPh*ne as my camera. My photos reside in its memory and on Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram. Today, my digital images don’t fade away, but I do sometimes miss the capability to shift printed images in my hand and reminisce about a trip to Ireland or my son’s college graduation. It’s why I occasionally lay old photos out on the coffee table because sometimes I like to revisit the “low tech” memories of my own youth even as I hunt in tiers of computer files for recent digital images I want to look at on this night.

Times change. Technology changes. But even in my own nostalgia, I know my grandfather would have loved a phone with a camera built into it. He would have been amazed and delighted at the wonder of it all, this technology we take for granted at our fingertips today.  He was infatuated with how things work and with the scientific advances during his long life.

I think he would be disappointed that we don’t attend enough to the technology advances in our own lives or simply take for granted what humans a few decades ago could only imagine in a Star Trek episode.

My grandfather only finished eighth grade but he modeled what it means to be a learner for a lifetime – his infatuation with cameras and moon shots reminds me of that every time I touch those images.

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And for more on cool cameras of the past, check out this camera collection…

Cameras of John Kratz at Flickr

To Write is to Make: Reflecting on Paul Oh’s Words

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I read a Medium post yesterday morning, “Writing as Making” written by Paul Oh. Paul is a favorite educator and one of my earliest connectors (@poh) on twitter. He serves as a Senior Program Associate for the National Writing Project. As always, Paul’s voice causes me to reflect on our work in schools to create authentic experiences that help young people make meaning as they develop a sense of their own voices and agency in their own learning.

This past week as I’ve walked schools newly open for the ’15-16 school year, I’ve observed children of all ages finding paths to learning through writing. I’ve seen children already writing individually or in shared experiences by choice and by design. I’ve noticed children belly writing on the floor, perched on couches, chairs, or standing at tables – most often choosing to not just sit rigidly at a desk when given a choice. I even walked a nature trail on the third day of school with fifth graders who paused on their own to note-make and sketch as they observed cardinal flowers, stinging nettles, sycamore leaves, bag worms, and beetles. I’ve witnessed a variety of writing tools in the hands of children, deliberately chosen depending upon the task at hand.

writing1When children have choices in how they physically orient in space, in the tools they use, and the words they select to represent their own thinking, their writing comes alive through the process of moving words from inside to outside of themselves. Teachers with writing process expertise listen and look for entry points to help illuminate next steps with children to increase their expressive complexity as they learn to write and write to learn.

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Even as we value the importance of writing, a principal asked this question recently. “Why do our youngest children write so freely and with excitement, yet seem to disengage as writers as they move up through the grades?”

writing5writing14I wonder if we’ve moved so far afield  from why humans became writers in the first place that we’ve forgotten that writing was invented as a timeless communication tool for making and sharing truth, ideas, beauty, stories … rhyme.

Today in our standardized world of education, test prep writing work and writing tests contrive a kind of writing that lacks purpose and meaning to children. In such a world, children who begin school as curious language learners lose their earliest sense of voice when made to over and over practice writing designed to teach them to perform well on tests.

Yet, we all know teachers with expertise who intensively study how to facilitate writing15children to develop more complex and authentic writing. They know writing begins inside a person as a reflective exploration of experiences, interests, and questions. They believe writing can be joyful for children and adults alike. They value that children have something important to say and share with others – from their classmates to the world outside their school doors. Such teachers listen and look for entry points to help illuminate next steps to increase children’s expressive complexity in using language as they learn to write and write to learn in a variety of forms of media – including digital connectors.

writing19This morning, reflecting on the best of writing teachers I’ve known across decades brought me back to Paul’s premise of “writing as making.” And, his words led me to reflect on the question of “why do we humans write?”

Here’s my response with a twist on his post.

Writing is Making .. It’s a reflection of our capability  to capture the stories, images, and artifacts we make — and it happens today through old tech such as pen and ink and #2 pencils and new tech including phone note-making apps, trans-disciplinary media, and Google everything. Writing helps us makes meaning: who we are, our questions, what challenges us, our accomplishments, our I-searches to inquire, discover, and explore curiosities, and our potential to change ourselves, our communities, the world. Writing makes our ideas, information, and imagination come alive for and with others in whatever ways we choose to search, connect, communicate and make.

SPES-japanese-garden

Disruptive Innovation in Schools From Inside Out – Not Outside In

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I’ve been thinking about disruptive innovation in schools. Disruptive innovation has evolved into a buzz phrase with superficial interpretations that can confuse understanding. First, its history. In 1997, Clayton Christensen coined the term to describe the concept’s application in the business sector and defined it in The Innovator’s Dilemma.

“Disruptive Innovation: The theory of disruptive innovation describes a process by which a product or service transforms an existing market by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability. – See more at: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/key-concepts/#sthash.fVqlOlnb.dpuf” (Christensen Institute)

Here’s a few examples. The personal computer replaces mainframes. The cell phone replaces land lines. Online sellers replace department stores. And, a question.

IMG_0571Will maker work replace factory school work?

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Math class

In Disrupting Class, Christensen originally hypothesized the rise of online learning as being the big outside disruptor inside K-16 education, believing the exponential increase in virtual coursework would lead to replacement of a significant percentage of face-to-face classes over the next decade. Today, Christensen identifies blended learning models – a combination of virtual with bricks and mortar opportunities – as a key disruptive innovation occurring in schools.

However, I believe there’s more astir within the nature of disruptive innovation in education than simply the blending of technologies and the Internet with school and home to “personalize learning.” I see signs of a different form of disruptive innovation in schools, one grounded not in online coursework but rather in young people working together face-to-face as they search, connect, communicate and make to learn. My perspective is informed by teens who often share their value for the social nature of school communities as they learn with each other inside and outside school walls. I also hear it in their voices as they engage in the creativity processes inherent in making to learn and learning to make. How is this perspective being translated into schools?

The Learning Commons as Disruptive Innovation

Recent dynamic changes in how some libraries are used has shifted them to what now is labeled as the concept of the learning commons.

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Music Industry Studio in the library

For example,  high school librarians in the district where I work as well as in some other districts across the country are providing students with opportunities to do much more than sit silently, research or read virtually or otherwise. Progressive librarians are turning space into areas where students can search, connect, communicate and make throughout the school day and before and after school. A disruptive innovation result? Kids who never stepped into a library unless required to do so now choose to spend hours there.

Librarians who disrupt the concept of library have become hackers alongside students. They encourage slam poets, music makers, videographers, app developers, gamers and design thinkers to share space alongside more traditional readers and researchers. As a result, kids are finding each other and forming social communities for formal and informal learning inside the school’s walls.

ESOL students creating art in the library

ESOL students creating art in the library

What else happens when librarians hack library space? Circulation goes up. Students who never would have visited the library voluntarily do so. Teachers value the library as an active and thriving space for their classes to produce, develop and curate as users, not just consume content. Libraries pick up a “market share” of teachers and students who never before saw themselves as library users by choice.

 

Libraries in this change process have become far more than a source of static, pre-curated materials used by people in permanent “silent” mode.  Instead, these libraries represent an Agora, a marketplace of ideas, creativity, discovery, and interaction. As  libraries become a gathering space in schools, cultural changes reflect students’ value for formal and informal learning opportunities – only some of which may represent Christensen’s blended learning disruption. Instead, it’s the emerging communal nature of the library inside the school that’s disrupting learning – the evolution of shared and open spaces where young people come together as agents of collaborative learning.

“The Agora (/ˈæɡərə/; Ancient Greek: Ἀγορά Agorá) was a central spot in ancient Greek city-states. The literal meaning of the word is “gathering place” or “assembly”. The agora was the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city. The Ancient Agora of Athens was the best-known example.” (Wikipedia)

 Makers Inside Schools Disruptively Innovate

Perkins+Wills interior designer works with 3rd graders on design thinking bedrooms

Perkins+Wills interior designer works with 3rd graders on design thinking bedrooms

Beyond libraries, what other ways are schools becoming sources of disruptive innovation? Teachers and librarians who see themselves as creatives, designers, inventors, and even entrepreneurs are building start-up cultures in their classrooms grounded in the “make to learn” movement.

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learner as teacher in elementary school

In classes with a maker mindset as Dale Dougherty of Make labels it, teachers and students redefine roles of teachers and learners as interchangeable. Students actively steer  their own learning as they work on projects, researching information they need in their “make to learn and learn to make” work using tools such as YouTube while seeking expertise found in interactive social media sites such as Twitter or Instagram. Students in maker-based learning environments begin to see learning as seamless, collaborative, and extended – not defined by other’s goals for them but by their own drive to learn.

 Freedom to Learn from the Inside Out

Educators who disruptively innovate the use of pedagogy, tools, and curricula through a maker-empowerment focus (Harvard Project Zero, Agency by Design) engage young people differently, reaching students who haven’t seen themselves as successful learners in traditional settings. These students may have silently resisted or even actively sabotaged school learning opportunities, regardless of their capability or background. From the maker-empowerment studies, students who experience passion, challenge and a chance to pursue their own learning interests are less likely to “drop out” emotionally and intellectually or to physically check out of school. Instead, “maker-empowered” learners build knowledge, competency and confidence through the relational support of teachers and peers. They come to see their potential to learn far more in school than educational standards prescribe.

The maker movement as disruptive innovation transcends the “personalized” options touted in blended learning or specialized environments such as charter schools. I’ve discovered a surprising number of makers in all kinds of spaces inside public schools once built to factory model specifications for the use of time, schedules, facilities, and learning resources. I’ve noticed middle schoolers taking apart a bike to figure out the physics of its design principles and observed teens repairing a compressor in a re-purposed audio-visual storeroom and using the library as a resource for finding the science, math, and technical knowledge and skills they need.

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compressor

These are signals that mainstream education is being disrupted by the spread of maker ed, a simultaneous challenge from inside school walls to both the 20th century factory school  and the 21st century virtual learning model. Maker education is a simple, accessible and affordable way to change the way our young people experience learning – and it’s far more compatible with how humans learn than the dominant teaching wall, desk in rows, bell schedule driven schoolwork of the 20th century.

Isn’t it about time? 

Walking on Air: Remembering Seamus Heaney

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And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air …. I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible.”

Seamus Heaney’s lecture to the Nobel Foundation recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1995

I woke up at 3 a.m. and in the early morn I could almost hear Seamus Heaney reading “Death of a Naturalist” on a YouTube video, perhaps preserved for all time. I’d driven down one of the old roads of Virginia the day before, a road that reminded me of another Heaney line from “The Wood Road.” In the dark, I turned to my phone and tweeted out the line with an image I’d captured from the side of a gravelled lane.

woodroadHow many times in the lives of humans do we connect moments together in the night only to figure out why in the light of day?  What compels the subconscious to make sense of that which is important to us when the conscious forgets?  When I opened an RSS news feed from Ireland mid-morning I knew why Heaney had slipped his voice into my night dreams. Today. August 30, 2014. The first anniversary of his death.

I’m reminded on this anniversary that it is a poet’s words that make the content and context of humanity accessible to us all. Poets make meaning for us – the artistry of converting image to word.

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

(from “Exposure”, 1975)

Poets solve conundrums and, like mathematicians, they subtract the extraneous and leave the essential, the perfectly constructed theorem on the blackboard. They notice the world; quantum word mechanics who machine together patterns of space and time.

He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

(from “Clearances”, 1986)

Poets create lines of code, a complexity of action no less sophisticated than the work of a great programmer.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

(“Postscript”,1996)

And, poets seek to understand as philosophers, seeking unknown answers to questions asked.

….  Where had we come from, what was this kingdom
We knew we’d been restored to? (from “Leaving Going, 1993)

Why cherish the words of poets in a time when we educators are told it’s far more important to focus today’s children on informational texts than poetry?

I am no poet. I studied science. I taught science. My love of science has shaped my interests and my perspectives on education. At the same time, I know we humans have always reflected the importance of  the cultural spaces we inhabit. Cave paintings under flickering firelight, images created on walls before poetic word.  The ancient language of Beowulf,  spoken aloud by Seamus Heaney as poetry was intended to be shared. NPR’s anthology of rap  and fifth grader ‘Savannah‘ who wrote “Waiting in the Dark” so many years ago in the school where I was principal.

Why poetry in 2014? Poets explore the richness of what makes us human, placing words perfectly into the air for us to hear.

Poets link the disciplines of learning. Poets evoke the faces around us. Poets remind us we humans are more than the training manuals and research texts that some would say define us in this century.

Heaney’s poetry did all of that for us.

 

 

 

Hawk Watching and Other Observations

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butterflyonthistleI spent the morning observing a 5-lined skink skitter across the patio in search of breakfast, back and forth, slipping in and out of the stone wall. Overhead, a crystal-sky overlayed the slightest of breezes. In the air, the scream of a pileated woodpecker reverberated as he pounded square holes into a round tree trunk. Monarch butterflies, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and kettles of hawks all poise to leave Virginia this month in their annual fall migrations. In fact, about a week ago I saw my last hummingbird  dive bombing garden flowers one last time.

As I walked the hollow’s graveled road under today’s late morning sun, I was reminded of a similar day some time ago when I perched atop a Blue Ridge peak – a day with middle schoolers spent counting hawks , watching them draft ever higher on thermals, until they faded into pinpoints and then, into nothing. Overhead, today’s vultures slid across the sky catching a bit of heated air as they spiraled high above me. Across an overgrown field, a red-tailed hawk soared with the vultures, wings only occasionally beating the air. There are no children with me, but the blue sky reminds me of them.

vulture

This time of September happens to be peak hawk migration season in the Blue Ridge. And no matter how far I drift from those days spent gazing skyward, during this time of year, memories of hawks lofting skyward still lift me, too. I almost always carry my phone with me as I walk, an easier camera with which to grab images than either my old Canon SLR, a ‘70s relic, or my newer version which is fully digital. My little phone is my mainstay today as I wander schools, the built world, and natural environments observing ecosystems through which I move.

Black Racer & cell phone_T_2

I was trained to observe closely as a student of field biology when I was in college. Teaching children to be good observers made sense to me when I began teaching middle and high school science in the mid-seventies. Then, when I became a school administrator, observing became a key skill in that work, too. The skill of observing is one that cuts across disciplines and forms a basis for building knowledge and understanding of the world around us. Yet, in a learning world that’s fraught with focus on hurrying children through curricula and educators through teaching so everyone can arrive on schedule for high-stakes standardized test dates, there’s little time left over for children, teachers, or administrators to simply slow down and observe the world around them.

Middle Schoolers Exploring an Estuary Circa 1977

I worry about our young people who seldom are afforded time in school to simply observe. So much of what we ‘70s science educators used to call inquiry learning, exploration, and hands-on experiences has been subtracted from learning time today.

This was brought home to me recently at the grocery store when I ran into a middle-aged man whom I taught in the mid-seventies. We recognized each other immediately despite the fact that he was 12 and I was in my early twenties when we spent time together – teacher and learner. In those days, I was teaching six classes of more than thirty students each, no planning period, and eating lunch with a class of children. My first year of teaching was defined through inquiry science with one class set of texts as a resource for science.  Today much is different for today’s learners and teachers than when I was in the classroom. In the middle school where I began teaching science, we used instructional principles that guided our work in the collaborative, somewhat open, learning spaces of the time:

  • Engage learners in inquiry and scientific experimentation.
  • Make interdisciplinary connections across teams.
  • Use the school grounds and beyond to learn about the natural environment.
  • Plan, teach, and assess to high levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  • Let kids make things – baby jar barometers, plastic cup anemometers, water drop “microscopes.”
  • Set up stations for activities in which kids use technologies to experiment – equal arm balances, beakers, hot plates, Celsius thermometers.
  • Bring all the senses to bear in learners’ observations.

Along with the children I became an even better observer of the world around me, inside and outside the classroom. We discovered together the power of school ground “field trips.”  One day we set up string grids in the grass to observe and quantify flora and fauna inside the strings – and found a lot of creatures crawling there we didn’t anticipate. We walked into nearby woods and plucked sassafras twigs to see if they really tasted like root beer. We learned to identify poison ivy, tulip poplars, and reindeer lichen. We used my college field guides as a resource and began to sketch and describe everything we did. It didn’t matter whether we were blowing through a straw into Bromothymol Blue or digging a small courtyard pond and introducing native plants, fish and turtles into it, we recorded it all.

We spent class time seeking knowledge, building competencies, and pursuing interests. We weren’t without a curriculum, but we weren’t limited by one either. In those days, I didn’t worry about standardized tests even though children were taking those even back then. However, our school’s science goals were about children using what they were learning to become better thinkers, enthusiastic observers, and scientifically literate young people.

My former student, now a middle-aged man who had grown up in a poor rural Virginia family, was accompanied by his son, a middle schooler. The father reminisced about his memories of being in the middle school science club, a group I co-sponsored, taking field trips to distant places such as Wallops Island and the National Radio Observatory in West Virginia. I’m not sure how we paid for everything back then but we made and sold a lot of bird houses. My partner teacher and I threw in what we could, as teachers often do today, and paid for what our kids couldn’t fund raise. The principal chipped in a bit, too.

This former student, now a parent in his own right, asked me why kids in school don’t get to do this kind of learning anymore. It’s a good observation for a parent to make I say to him. I’ve been bothered also by visits to classrooms across the United States where children bend over test-prep curricular worksheets or engage in “drilled into the ground” review work to prepare for standardized tests each spring.

As I talk with this parent, I remember the joy and passion of children jostling their way outside to go on a nature walk, sketchbooks in hand. I almost can hear the sound of them oohing and ahhing the first time they watched pH paper change colors when we tested acid-base properties of “unknown” chemicals. I tell him that I pull out old photographs occasionally and remember kids delighted by the “found” exoskeleton of a deceased horseshoe crab we once stored in one of our curio cabinets.

beachkidsKids, some experiencing the ocean for the first time, circa 1977

Children deserve to experience joy and passion in their learning every day. It’s what keeps all of us coming back to press past learning challenges in our youth and our adult lives. Learning in school should push us – educators and children alike – to be curious, to think, to feel stretched, to continue to ask questions after we walk out for the day, and to want to come back for more the next day, and the next. I want that, and more, for all our children and all the educators who serve them, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

It’s hard to fight upstream against the tide of standardized testing that reduces learning down to a least common denominator. I like to think we educators and parents can turn that tide. We know from research and experience that when our children’s hands and minds engage together, learning happens and it sticks. And, that’s stuck with me for a lifetime.

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Chatting with this middle-aged man, a former student, at a grocery store checkout, I am reminded that no one much remembers their responses on four-choice, one-right answer tests.

Instead, I was taken back to a long ago field trip, captured still in a binder of old photographs, when he said with a smile, “ Do you remember that field trip we took to the ocean? I’ll never forget finding that horseshoe crab.”

His memory is exactly why I keep pushing upstream against the tide of standardizing everything just so kids can pass a test.

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Remembering the Child in the Back
A trip to the Beach

A Summer of Maker Learning

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Coder Dojo Maker

Coder Dojo Maker

“… Design and thinking is … idea of making creative leaps to come up with  a solution… allows people to not just be problem solvers with explicit, but also tacit knowledge… they are learning by doing… coming up with solutions by making things.”

Bill Moggridge, former Director (deceased)                         Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum                           Design and Thinking, the Movie

Public educators and young people have lived in a world defined by standardized test results for well over a decade. We now see millennial educators entering our profession, having grown up in what I sometimes refer to as the “test prep” generation. They, in many cases, never experienced some of the learning opportunities that older generation teachers remember or experienced themselves as children.  In many public schools, field trips, school plays, guest speakers, in-depth discussions, inquiry projects and hands-on activities no longer exist.  In others, professional positions from art teachers to librarians have disappeared from our school staffs. Imagine the recess play that used to be the norm in elementary schools, but now often is the exception.

Consider time. Consider resources. Consider children.

Consider these questions.

How are our schools better spaces for learning and learners as a result of the standardization movement? Are our little “widgets” happier, more creative, more capable critical thinkers? Can we say they’re learning to … play well with others … contribute positively to their communities … acquire competencies needed in contemporary and future workforces?  Can they access and use the learning knowledge they need from multiple sources both virtually and in the real world?

A Summer for Young Makers

This summer, I’ve had a unique opportunity to watch children of all ages across my district engage in maker “summer school” curricula, one not predefined by standardization or test-driven results. They’ve created, designed, built, engineered, produced, played, marketed, and contributed as they have worked to make, take apart, problem-solve, and understand what it means to learn through your hands and mind. In doing so, they’ve balanced the use of embodied and encoded languages, the DNA of human learning. I’ve walked spaces where children are improvising jazz for the first time, learning how to use a drill, making soap, constructing squishy LED circuits,  designing cardboard buildings and arcades, building robots in every form and material imaginable, and programming in computer code from Scratch to Python.

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Our district’s elementary maker summer camps were fueled by our Maker Corps affiliation with MakerEdOrg. In  another elementary school, children both made and marketed their wares to raise funds to donate to the SPCA. A diverse group of high school students participated in a Leadership Academy designed to infuse a cadre of different leaders into their school. They built teams and designed a project to wash cars, earning money for Habitat for Humanity. Over 800 learners ages 5-18, worked in multi-age Coder Dojos to develop and extend coding skills, making games, websites, and programs. Middle school summer schoolers participated in cooking classes, learning all sorts of key math and reading skills along the way. And, the jazz makers – kids who came together for two weeks in beginning to advanced jazz camps – culminated their summer learning with a free concert at the downtown pavilion.

A Spark that Inspires Teachers and Learners

The educators who worked with our young people this summer say “these kids have been so engaged, fun, excited, curious, hardworking, and collaborative. And, some are kids who really struggle with ‘doing school behaviors’ during the regular year.” Rather than a summer school experience centered in tutorials and repetitive practice work designed around standardized tests, our kids have built complex language through experiential learning in rich environments, been challenged to use math, science, history, and the language arts as they’ve designed and created – everything from jazz to video games.

Why are we focusing on #make2learn and #learn2make as a pathway to lifelong learning rather than the current test prep mania? Because educators everywhere know that children who are bored by school work, turned off by worksheets, tired of listening to adult talk, and stripped of opportunities to stretch their hands and minds are kids who struggle to sustain attention and value learning. Those with effective “doing school behaviors” might get their A’s and look like good students but they also often feel disconnected from joy and passion for their work as learners.

Boredom in school is the number one reason listed by dropouts for dropping out. It’s also felt by our top students – not because of content lacking rigor. Rather, it’s because teachers  today feel compelled to fly through a scope and sequence of standards so their students acquire information paced so students will have covered what they need for a test one spring day. Teachers often feel compelled, if not required, to subtract from their teaching the very things that engage and entice children as learners – field trips, special guests, extended discussion of interesting topics, hands-on projects, inquiry activities, and interdisciplinary opportunities.  In subtracting the school experiences that enrich and extend learning, opportunity gaps between  middle class children and children living in economically disadvantaged homes only grow wider.  “Test prep” disadvantages all learners as experiential learning has been subtracted from our classrooms and schools. Our children who face challenges associated with risk factors are disadvantaged the most.

Why is it that big, huge corporations get beat by kids in garages? … because they’re inventing the future.”

Roger Martin, Dean                                                      Rotman School of Management                                       Design and Thinking, the Movie

Making is a process, not a “one-right answer” end in mind. It’s a process of learning,  developing knowledge, pursuing interests, and developing the confidence and resilience that comes with making mistakes, too. It’s not a bottom line of measuring what students know in standardized test results. Rather, it’s a bottom line in which lifelong learning is assessed when kids show what they can do with what they know.

Making is the fuel of America’s inventive spirit; its citizen-thinkers, workforce, entrepreneurs, artists, and solution-finders.

That’s why we value our kids spending time as active makers of their own learning – a competency built for a lifetime.

Leadership Academy

Leadership Academy