Friday, March 17, 2017

Down With Rainbow Vomit!

Recently, I read an article online about how much decoration on classroom walls is useful. It has been a long-standing observation that the majority of learners, while they do notice things occasionally on the walls, don't really care too much whether or not they are decorated in what can colourfully be described as rainbow vomit (a term which was not coined by me, but by a former colleague of mine - also, that pun was completely intended).

I wouldn't say that I've been one for a classroom full of white, bare walls. No, I think every learning area does have to feel inviting and warm. But often, I feel like there is a lot of pressure to make things look good, just for the sake of them looking good and bright and shiny. Style over substance, in other words.

As someone who can easily get distracted, the main points in the article are very relevant to me. Too much visual stimulation (or auditory stimulation for that matter) can actually make it difficult for learners (or in my case, adults) to stay focused on the task at hand. The researches actually tested this theory and had two sets of children in two classrooms - one bare and one decorated. Their initial findings were that the children in the bare walls room retained more of the information given during the lesson. Obviously this needs to be replicated on a bigger scale, but it makes sense.

For what it's worth, I've taken a multitude of approaches when it comes to what's on the walls in my classroom (sadly, though, I don't have many pictures of these to share and those that I do have are hidden away in the maze that is my file structures on Google Drive and my external hard drive). I've had the big displays to get children interested. I've tried individual spaces on the wall for learners to display what they've wanted to display (which turned out to be a lot of work for me as many of those spaces were in inaccessible spots or too high). I've put up work in progress.

My personal opinion, based on my patented logical thinking and looking at the situation from many angles is that anything put on the walls has to have a purpose - and that purpose begins and ends with the learners who are in the environment. Everything put up has to be for them. Not for leadership, not for the parents, not for ERO.

I think walls should be always changing, with the learners taking ownership of the majority of things on them. Obviously there needs to be organizational things on them, but that shouldn't take up too much space. The environment should be clean and welcoming. One thing I'd like to add is plants, or other calming things. Leaner made art should be put up (though I would argue that if you have 25 or so copies of almost the exact same thing, it's not really art).

This has come at an interesting time when we're trying to decide collectively as a team what to put up in our Habitat. This has certainly given us something to think about.

Friday, March 3, 2017

In Defence of Play Based Learning

Recently a colleague at work shared this ARTICLE with our whole staff and asked for our thoughts.  In an act of clear click-baiting curiously titled Why I Don't Like Play Based Learning, the article does not actually have anything against Play Based Learning, but rather against the "hijacking" of the term by some educators.

The problem, the author asserts, is that some educators are making their normal (i.e. boring) tasks more fun by adding games to things such as literacy or numeracy tumbles. This is not play based learning. Play based learning is literally a time or chance for learners to play and explore their world. One of the main things I want my learners to realize is that no matter what they do, they are learning something. I told this once to a class of mine and one boy made a smart-alec remark (admittedly, I see that as a positive), but I turned it back on him and said "You've just learned how I react to silly remarks. Next time, you'll probably stop and think before you do." His expression when I said that was priceless.  The point I'm trying to make is that no matter what a human being is doing, they are learning something in the process.

In my opinion this disconnect between actual play based learning and what some educators call play based learning stems from educators wanting to do the "latest thing" but not actually understanding the why behind it or not being willing (or able) to let go of the structure that has been indoctrinated into them. As educators, we need to go deeper and understand why we do what we do - all of it.

I've had some interesting discussions around this idea lately and it has always been something I've thought about as it pertains to my practice. One of the few things I actually remember from my University days is a simple formula (which I may or may not have already shared on this blog):



This is very relevant when it comes to play based learning. If we allow learners to play, that reflection can actually be more powerful than any other direct acts of teaching that we could provide. Yes, they do need some direct acts of teaching, but it is my belief that play can motivate children to want to read. To want to write. To want to learn how to manipulate numbers. Obviously in reality we need to teach these things regardless of desire, but we can use the play to make learners desire.

For our part, I do believe my Oresome School does offer a great assortment of play based learning opportunities for our learners. The pictures throughout this blog show our morning provocations and our loose parts playground.

I think, as educators, we need to make sure that we ask ourselves why we're doing things and then actually make sure that we acting consistently with those reasons.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Back From My Disappearing Act or Welcome to 2017!

So, I've been a little absent from the online community for the past few months. There have been various reasons for this, but basically life was good and then it wasn't. Both the good and bad events made me think deeply about what was important in my life. Some things were missing (and to a degree still are) and it caused me to ignore a big part of my life - my career.

Without going into details (I want to avoid giving TMI), there were some issues about the people surrounding me in my personal life (though, I should also credit the amazing and supportive people who helped me through this - and continue to support me in many ways). Being a foreigner who moved here along about 5 years ago, I do not have a support network. It has been difficult to deal with the stresses of being a teacher and of being a person in that context.

I think the thing I learned, or rather the thing that was reinforced, is that every educator needs a good support network beside them. Every educator needs to have something beyond their school - a reason for working. Despite many of us viewing our career as a calling, at the end of the day it is a job and we need something beyond that.

That being said, today was my first official day back from the holidays and though I was not in a great headspace I feel in a much better headspace. I can't say I'm quite ready for the new school year, but I'm definitely feeling more ready for it than I was a week ago.

Today we did a lot of different sessions on a lot of different topics. My biggest takeaway from the day was a session we did on collaboration. We were put into groups and given the following task: Work collaboratively to lift one of your team members as high as you can. After some great ideation where we all shared some amazing ideas and built upon each others' ideas we decided to use the elevator to lift one person. When we went downstairs to actually do it, we came up with a variety of other ways in which we could not only lift our person (we lifted her into a chair and then lifted the chair up) but also how we could collaborate (we had a pretty long chain reaction of people that got her into the elevator and pushed the buttons).

Afterwards we discussed the skills involved in collaborating and realized that we need to be cognisant of teaching the specific skills that learners will need when we ask them to collaborate. As adults (who are used to working in teams) we often forget this fact as we have learned this skills over time. When our learners come next week, this will be a good place to start with, as we'll need to get to know each other and do team building activities. I'm looking forward to creating a collaborative habitat this coming year.

Later in the day we discussed one of the unique ways in which OrmPS shows learner achievements and progress: Narrative Assessments. For more information, I'm sure someone will be sharing these at an educamp or Google Summit or uLearn, but to make a long explanation short, they basically show what learning was done, often with pictures and other artefacts and include next steps. They are to make learning more visible and not just ticking boxes. To practice making these, we watched the video (below) and worked in teams to make a narrative assessment of the man in the video.

Going forward I'm going to look at ways in which I can do these narratives in an innovative way, so any ideas are appreciated in the comments (though we do have lots of ideas that we've discussed and tried at OrmPS already).

Monday, October 24, 2016

Science Unleashed: Making Motorized Cars

I'm super far behind on my blogging. I've actually already had the third Science Unleashed lesson, but I've not written about the second.

After the first night, I was very excited to get back to the North Shore (without the wrong turns this time!) and see what Chris had in store for us. When I walked in, there were a variety of some really cool things on the table: motors, cardboard, propellers, battery packs. This was clearly going to be a fun evening.

We were again working in partners and our task was to make a vehicle that moved. We had a certain amount of time to build our first prototype and test it, with very little direction - except for the basic concept of the car and how we could potentially make it. My partner and I quickly discussed what we wanted to make and divided up the tasks. We made our vehicle quickly and when it didn't really go, we looked at the problems - the wheels were a bit sticky and not turning easily, the motor didn't have enough power - and decided how we would modify it.  We made smoother wheels and added a second battery pack (some may say this was cheating, but I'm not among them).

Here's a video of how our test worked out at this point:

Afterwards we had the conference like we had the week before, but instead of just discussion what we could potentially test and change, we came up with a plan of who would investigate what. We ended up looking at whether or not weight made a difference or if more power made a difference.  When we tested these as a group, ours went quicker than everyone else's - most likely because of the extra battery packs.

Again, we had a discussion on how we could improve our vehicles.

What was interesting today was not necessarily what we did, but how our scientific community evolved from week to week. We learned from our mayhem the week before and became more organized in our methods, which led to us being more successful in coming to a consensus in the end. I'm going to give Chris the benefit of the doubt and say that this was his plan - get us to create our own community. I look forward to the last two sessions (spoiler - the next one was pretty good too!).

On Changing Schools Mid-Year

These past few months I've had to make a major life/career decision and it was difficult. I recently changed schools at the end of 2015 so that I could take on new roles and opportunities to develop both myself as a human being and as a professional. I chose my destination because I thought it would be a place where I would discover what I now know as my tribe.

However, due to unforeseen events, that was not the case. Don't get me wrong. I work with lovely people who are hard working and inspiring educators. But we are not on the same page. And that's ok. We, as teachers, are all finding our own way. I'm just at a different point in my journey than most around me. So I needed a change. When an opportunity presented itself to me, I felt as if I had to take it. As much as we teachers must care about our learners, we do need to remember to put ourselves first. A healthy and happy teacher is a good teacher. And this was a move that was going to keep me that way.

The unfortunate part of this whole thing is that the people most important to me, my learners, are missing out for the last term of this school year. I have been increasingly feeling both guilty and sad as my last day approaches. As a group, we have come a long way. They have clearly grown as can be shown in many of the different things I've shared about them. I've learned lots by working with them. I just worry that, in my absence, all the good and amazing things they have developed will be squashed once again. I hope that I've taught them to look at learning in a new way and to always improve.

This week has been especially jarring as it has involved the slow transfer of my things from classroom to home. Yesterday was perhaps the worst. My lego. All 15000+ (estimated) pieces disappeared from the class, making it less colourful and less fun. The children were good about it, helping me unbuild everything and sort it. I spent money on that lego, but money so that my learners could have some opportunities and experiences that I never had. I hope that they remember the 3 terms we had and that they continue to push to ask questions and figure things out on their own. Even right now as I write this (and they're writing their own things) they continue to impress me with their curiosity and wonderment. It's a good sign that I've done something right.

Tomorrow is my last day. I'm not sure even what I'm going to do. Leaving like this is not something I've ever done. Word has clearly gotten out as many children outside of my classroom have been asking me and expressing their sadness. As have parents. Sometimes life is hard and it forces you into choices that are difficult, even though they may seem obvious. I know I have made the right decision, but I hope that the negative consequences of it are not felt by the people I've been charged with guiding this year.

So to all my Smart Sharks, I need to say thank you. You have been the majority of my life since February. You've frustrated me at times but you've also amazed me every single day. It has not been easy, but I wish I could get you to see how far you've come and realize how far you can go. I will miss you.

Update: The above was written before I left and said my goodbyes. Before I published, I wanted to go through the process and then share how I felt afterwards.

My last day was full of emotional highs and lows. It was both an exciting time and a sad time. We spent most of the day doing regular things with each other. It was only until the last 30 minutes of the day when things got real.

I wanted to leave my students with some life advice before I left. The problem was that I immediately started to tear up when telling them this. Which led to a lot of them tearing up at the same time.  I thought perhaps I should share the advice I gave to them in our last hour together:
  • There's not one right way to do anything. Don't let anyone tell you there is.
  • Always question authority - they might be right, but you should still ask why.
  • There's always someone better off and worse of than you are, so don't compare yourselves to others.
  • Make the world a better place than what it was before you came into it.
  • Smile at strangers - you never know the positive impact it can have.
  • Always assume the best in people - not the worst.
  • Do what you love and find a way to make money doing it.
  • Don't take no for an answer.
  • Sacrifice for your friends, but don't be friends with anyone who only asks you to do the sacrificing.
Yes, they are a bit cliched, but I wanted to make sure they heard these things from someone. Also, I should add:
  • It's ok to cry - even for boys.
Afterwards we went outside to play on the parks. I wanted to have some fun with them so that they would have some positive memories of me (and I of them). After a few minutes of this, a couple of children were sitting under some of the play equipment, visibly upset. I went over to talk to them. This meeting slowly grew until it was the whole class, most of whom were crying. One of my students said something that, while it made us both sad, was actually a positive reflection on me and my practice. She said: "You gave us choice. No one has ever let us choose before." So there's that. When time was up we went back to the classroom, had our goodbye hugs and the bell went to end the day. 

One of the parents remarked that they have never seen a whole class leave the room in tears. I am torn about that. On one hand, it's good to know that we all had something worth crying over. On the other hand I feel terrible for putting these children through something like this.  At the end of the day (or the month) I do feel that they will get over it. They will move on and they will be happy. At the time, something like this is difficult, and it is not something enjoyable. But in life we have to realize that when we start something good and positive, it will have to end, one way or the other, eventually.

I'm glad we had our time together and I'm glad we said what we wanted to on the last day and we had fun and danced. I had actually been very depressed all day, but a close friend of mine had sent me a text, reminding me to have fun with them (she's definitely a keeper) so we could enjoy our last time together. I certainly did. The tears were tears of joy, not sadness.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Hosting a #digitaledchat for #MakerEdNZ

Recently, I was give the opportunity from Stuart Kelly to host a #digitaledchat on #MakerEdNZ. I was very nervous about this proposition, but was also excited about the chance to not only run a major, international chat, but also to learn from others and start the conversation.

It was very difficult to set the questions as I wanted to encourage lots of rich discussion, but I also wanted to make sure that the talk was accessible. I initially made a few too many questions, so that I could whittle them down to the best ones.

In the end, I settled with the following 6 questions. None were earth shattering, but I felt that they would direct the discussion and help bridge the gap between the early adopters and those who were just learning about maker spaces for the first time.

  1. What is your experience with makerspaces?
  2. How would you define a makerspace?
  3. What barriers have you had or do you have in getting a makerspace in your school?
  4. What are the benefits or disadvantages to letting learners make or create whatever they want?
  5. How much direction do you think should be given in a makerspace?
  6. What are you going to do to either add to your makerspace or start one?

I wanted to focus on building the base and getting people motivated to start trying these things, which is one of the main reasons I started #MakerEdNZ

The chat went fairly well, and we had some good discussion. A transcript of the whole thing can be found here.

One of the first things that came out of the discussion was actually what a maker space is. Many schools probably have such a space and do maker activities, but they wouldn't necessarily call it that. Perhaps this is one of the realizations that we need to encourage in NZ schools so that educators can start thinking in terms of building on what they already have, rather than having to start a new thing that they've not heard of before.

We even came up with a new word: Thinkering, which given the mix of thinking and tinkering gives a great description of what learners would do in a makerspace - both expanding their mind and using the materials they have to create something.

Many of the barriers to makerspaces starting up were ones that we have heard before: time, money, space, a dedicated staff member, leadership buy-in. These are all things that need to be addressed, though one of them was seemingly discussed as an easily solvable problem. Maker spaces do not need to be full of expensive equipment. Many schools get by with using completely recyclable things, which are very easy to get within the community. Other barriers will need to be given a bit more time, but another purpose of MakerEdNZ is to help get through these.

Many teachers saw providing maker spaces as a positive way to encourage creativity, problem solving and to provide open ended problems. Some worried about wasted time and wasted resources. I've certainly cringed when I've seen my students spending hours on something, using a whole roll of tape in something that won't likely turn out to be useful, but the process of this does hold some value in my opinion. Thought it is tough to see all that wasted tape. Some other teachers echoed this sentiment during the chat as well.

Most teachers agreed that as little direction as possible would be best, though there is a need for some up front direction so as to keep children safe and to provide them with a starting off point. This has shown to be key for me and my learners and after some initial difficulty with the freedom of choice, they were able to become independent and self-directed quite quickly and easily. It's that getting lost or stuck that promotes real, authentic learning.

The actions that teachers are going to take are varied. Some were going to start using the term maker space, while others were very specific in their ideas going forward. Several wanted to get donations of materials for their spaces and find ways for learners to start making.

All in all it was a great conversation, and one that I hope to help continue. It definitely clarified what a maker space is for some and it got others starting to share with each other - an activity that will be key to growing the movement here in NZ.

I look forward to the next chat that I'll be able to host, whether it takes the same format or it pushes a bit beyond. Either way, this was a valuable experience and an important step forward in the #MakerEdNZ journey.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Exploring Literacy and Coding

A while ago, I participated in a wonderful Twitter chat with #digitaledchat where we discussed what you could do with robots in class, such as Sphero. One of the things that came up was using them to create stories or videos by coding the robots as characters. I liked that idea so much, it got me to thinking quite a bit about how coding and literacy could be combined.

I've tried really hard to make my class a creative one, in which my learners are able to explore different ways of learning that are fun, creative and exciting. I want the children in my charge to wake up in the morning, excited to come to school and do their work (which they won't see as work). I have had many different ways of making stories and being creative (including Stop Motion and Digital Storybooks) so it wasn't a big step to try some new things. Here are three ways in which my learners used coding or computational thinking to create stories:

Choose Your Own Adventure Stories Using Google Forms

Many of us have read these books as children and this idea is definitely not a new one. You can use the "go to page based on answer" feature of multiple choice questions to direct readers to new pages based on their choices. When we first did this, I used Google Drawings to plan out the story (it can get very complicated if you have a lot of choices) but it isn't always necessary. A pair of my learners created this story earlier this year.

There are other ways of making stories like this, including Scratch.

Stories on Scratch

This idea came from where you can find a whole 8 lesson module on coding stories for code clubs, though if anyone has used Scratch Jr, that's basically what that app is for. The idea is simple: code the sprites to speak to each other and interact. As coding knowledge increases, so too does the complexity of the stories. This is definitely an area to explore for reluctant writers who happen to like coding (and I've noticed the majority of my learners are liking coding more and more everyday, some even attempting to code a Choose Your Own Adventure story).

Coding Robots to Tell a Story

This was the big idea from #digitaledchat that I have been waiting a while to try. We only have made one attempt at this, but it went, in my opinion really well. Some interested children joined me for a short brainstorming session. We came up with some characters and starting thinking about what their story was going to be about. Some other learners got interested and joined us at this point and the discussion started taking off. I backed off and let them sort things out. There were varying levels of coding abilities in the group and they were able to support each other. A lot of the story didn't really utilize coding knowledge, but it was a fantastic start. Again though, a little disappointed that these children won't get to try this again with me, but I'll keep on introducing these ideas to children and see how they develop.

The plan with this topic is to continue to explore it further, get children making more and more stories using their coding skills and then to share this in more depth next year (hopefully at GAFE & ISTE). So keep an eye out if you're interested as I think this is an exciting way to develop a plethora of skills amongst learners.