Sunday, June 30, 2013

Conscious Classroom Design

I'm Going to Have a Classroom!
I have so many posts in draft; most might never be published...but, who knows?  I started writing this one last summer. I had the idea to create a classroom design challenge, based on thinking about the kinds of spaces that might be optimal for learning. Now, I have a more urgent reason to revisit these thoughts, as...(drumroll please) I am, after many, many years of being a non-classroom educator, going to be teaching 4th/5th grade language arts (and piloting 1:1 iPads with my students)!

Just before this opportunity presented itself, discussions about classroom design had been coming up in my coaching meetings with 4th/5th grade math/social studies teacher, Shelly Zavon. I encouraged her to begin the year with a blank slate, a room that would be co-created with students.
"White Wall"

What's the Theme? is my chance to put my own ideas into action! It was funny and surprising to me that, once the students learned that I would be their teacher, many of them asked me about the "theme" of the room. I had no idea this was of such interest to them! I got some strange looks when I explained that the theme would be "learning" (as opposed to bears or turtles or outer space...), and that we would be creating the classroom space together. [This is another example to me of my differentness as a teacher. Judging by Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers, and the abundance of whimsical teacher blogs, I am led to believe that most elementary school teachers are super-duper organized, colorful and cutesy. I am none of these things.]

My Vision 
I envision sort of a Starbucks feel (without the coffee)-- comfortable, with long tables and soft, cozy chairs. I'd love to find a couch. I have requested to have the desks removed and replaced with tables. I like plants; they add life and color to a space. The room is fairly small, so I am hoping to get rid of any furniture that is unnecessary or extra. A language arts classroom should be filled with books. As for the walls, they will be almost completely blank (with a few exceptions- more on this later) until the students begin to create (at which time they will be covered with words, thoughts, ideas and documentation of learning that is happening within them). I've begun collecting visual ideas on a "classroom design" Pinterest board.

All the Cool Kids Are Doing It
Top Private Schools Adopt a Homeschool Model lists ways in which the innovative Avenues School  more closely resembles an informal home school environment than the traditional classroom with rows of desks and a teacher at the front of the room. The Avenues School seems pretty awesome.

Despite the fact that I am not a cutesy teacher, I am a very visual person and a huge believer in the importance of design. When I created my first teaching portfolio, over 20 years ago, I wrote:
"One of the most important tasks of the teacher is to set up a physical environment which is comfortable and which encourages students to interact with each other and with their surroundings. "
I still believe this as wholeheartedly as when I first wrote it.

The Challenge
Below is the post I started writing last summer. I thought it would be good to engage in some thoughtful reflection about designing spaces for learning. 

As you are dismantling your classrooms and packing away materials in preparation for summer break, I invite you to begin envisioning how you will set-up your classroom for next school year. Now is the time to get rid of outdated materials and resources rather than putting them into storage.

Here is the challenge. Feel free to pick and choose from the ideas below.
1. Write, revise or refer to your philosophy about learning.
2. How do the design choices you make support your beliefs about how students learn?
3. Take lots of photos of your classroom and post them- before, during and after.
4. Try to look at your classroom through the eyes of a child. What does the child see? Is it inviting? Over-stimulating? Comfortable?
5. Now look through the eyes of a parent. When a parent looks into your room for the first time, are they excited for their child? Is the room well-organized? Alive? Does it look like a place for exciting learning?
6. Look at the walls and use this rubric (from our school's learning target) to self-assess and set goals.

[Note: I really like this focus on classroom walls. It's easy to see where you are and easy to move forward. It's a concrete, external change that can also change the way that students are co-creators in the learning environment. So many teachers use pre-made posters with information about math or language arts, but do students actually use the information? Do they know in what situation it might be useful? Are they more likely to access the chart that they, themselves, helped to create? 

Image: Angela Stockman
For a great example of the highest level of classroom wall-use, read Angela Stockman's post about her daughter's 5th grade teacher with descriptions of how that teacher used her walls to create, document and extend learning. 

7. Visit other classrooms in your school or check out other classrooms virtually (try flickr or Pinterest). Take photos or otherwise make note of good ideas for classroom spaces.

What else? What are your ideas for adding to the list of challenge activities?

--You might also be interested in Christopher Brantner's post "18 Tips to Give Your Classroom the Coffee Shop Feel."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

If You Give a Kid an (iPad) camera...

One of my favorite activities to do with young kids is the digital camera scavenger hunt.

  • It is fun.
  • It is creative. 
  • It is outdoors.

In the past, I have had to scrounge up enough cameras for each group to have one camera. Now that we have 20 iPads to share, I was able to give each child their own iPad. Awesome.

In the past, we put together slideshows of the photos. It was somewhat labor-intensive and usually took a second session (session 1: take pictures, session 2: make slideshows). Not a huge deal, but I had to be involved with the students to help them put together the slideshows. I had to have the account for the slideshow creator. I had to download all the photos and push them out to the kids' computers. There was prep involved.
Not with the iPad.
scavenger hunt list- tweak according to your curriculum

  • One hour with first grade. 
  • Review the handling of the device.
  • Read the scavenger hunt page in the classroom. Answer any questions. 
  • Go outside and have fun taking pictures. 
  • Return to classroom, and each student made a pic collage with their favorite photos. 


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Connecting the (Learning) Dots

We talk a lot about the importance of making connections. In fact, many people put "connect" as one of the "4 or 5 C's of learning in the 21st Century." When I think about connections, two ideas come to mind.

  • human connections 
  • connections we help students make that enable learning to be relevant and deep.

Sometimes I feel like the pieces of the puzzle are coming together in small and big ways as a connected culture becomes more the norm in our school.

Here is a small example:
In the MJGDS first grade, we have a brand new teacher and new assistant teacher. Their spark of excitement about what is possible have ignited a classroom open to the world in fun and transformative ways through the use of Skype. (If you are interested in specifics, the teacher, Pamela Lewis, has blogged almost every single day of her first year of teaching- an amazing accomplishment!)

On Monday of this week, they Skyped with the wonderful author and artist, Peter H. Reynolds (human connection). I was scheduled to be their "mystery reader" on Tuesday. Since I follow their blog and Twitter, I knew about their Skype, so I decided to read his book The North Star (learning connection). I also connected my learning to their learning by recalling an activity that I read about and found intriguing. I brought the iPads and offered them the opportunity to visualize and doodle the story, just as I had read about in the blog post. Had I not been a connected teacher, constantly learning from the sharing of others, I doubt I would have thought about doing this.

When the dots start connecting, it feels right.
See below for the Animoto video showing some of the doodles.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Teacher-Led Evaluations

As my job has evolved over the years, my role and responsibilities have changed to reflect our school's understanding of the changing paradigm in education. When I started at the school in 2006, my job title was "technology coordinator." I always had the seeds of something else inside, but it took time and other changes to bring that to the surface. After a brief stint as "21st century learning specialist," I adopted the job title, this year, of "Director of Teaching and Learning." Teaching and learning-- that's it. No need to specify that we are currently alive in the 21st century or that digital technologies are commonly used tools for learning in this day and age.

This "quasi-administrative" role is not only new for me, it is new for the school. Much of it is still in the process of being defined.  A lot of it looks the same as what I've been doing in previous years and previous job roles. Two new responsibilities I've adopted are working with the K-5 general studies teachers to outline a professional development plan at the start of the year and, for this same group of teachers,  twice-yearly formal observations.

Observations. Evaluations. Whatever they're called, many teachers find them a source of anxiety, the job-equivalent of high-stakes testing. One of my goals was to transform this process into something that felt natural, meaningful and useful, part of an ongoing pathway of growth and learning. Of course, this was only possible when I was already walking that road with the teacher. As Jim Knight writes about in Unmistakable Impact, A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction, so much hinges on the relationship.

Speaking of this book, another facet of my job was to participate in a book discussion group with our head of school, Jon Mitzmacher, learning and literacy Specialist, Silvia Tolisano and librarian, Karin Hallett. In the course of reading and discussing Unmistakable Impact, we realized the importance of working to design a collaboratively-created one-page target that would help us clearly outline goals for professional growth and development in the context of our school's vision for teaching and learning.

adapted from and inspired by
The creation of the target was a challenging undertaking. There were moments when I thought it might be an impossible task. However, as I look back, it seems that the discussions, debates and discomfort were part of the process.

Part of the learning path was the individualized professional development plans (PDPs) I co-created with each teacher.  4th/5th grade math and social studies teacher, Shelly Zavon's PDP focused in large part  on piloting our school's first student-led conferences (or SLCs). As the days went by and the separate but interconnected responsibilities of my job progressed, pieces of the puzzle started to come together. 

A question arose. If it made sense for students to "own" their conference, couldn't and shouldn't this idea apply to teacher evaluations as well? We started talking about the teacher-led conference or "TLC" and wondering what it would look like. What form would it take? How would feedback be shared? We know from experience that the best way to answer these questions is to try things with the mindset of "learn, reflect, share." So that is what we did.

I had the opportunity to experience the piloting of the first round of TLCs from both the perspective of listener and giver of feedback, as well as putting together my own documentation of growth and goals. I did not give my teachers much structure, as I wanted to see what they would put together. All I requested was that they tie their artifacts to the learning target, reflect critically and set goals. I received everything from handwritten pages of reflection to deeply self-evaluative Google docs with images and links.
Some samples:
 Shelly Zavon, shared some of hers on her blog.

My "TLC"
I decided it made more sense for me to use the ISTE Nets for Coaches for my TLC as opposed to the schools' learning target. As I went through the coaching standards, finding examples and artifacts of how I fulfilled each one, it was an extremely useful process for me. I had struggled during the year with the lack of clarity around what my job entailed. Being typically self-critical, I often felt like what I was doing wasn't enough, wasn't what I was "supposed to be doing" and I often wondered if I was making any kind of impact. Looking back, using this strategic reflective lens, gave me the opportunity to see my work in a more objective light and realize that I was actually fulfilling almost all of the diverse roles and responsibilities of a digital learning coach.