Monday, March 30, 2015

STEM to STEAM: A Teacher Field Trip



The acronym STEM has been around for awhile now. STEM is the integration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to solve a real-world problem. So what is STEAM?! It is the same thing, but with an addition of art! When we talk about tinkering and making which is part of STEM one cannot be within that wheelhouse without the idea of art. Since LASD has a STEM program and an Art Docent program we decided to bring the two worlds together for a day of collaboration.

It was a brisk Tuesday morning when a group of LASD teachers and Art Docents met to carpool over to the San Jose Art Museum. It wasn’t a teacher’s day off, but a special fieldtrip that was arranged in order for teachers to experience learning in a different way. One of our districts Learning Principles is “Connect Experiences” and one way to do that is to be out in the world and have shared event. A field trip is a great way for teachers to collaborate and share ideas.

We started in a room with nothing on the walls, nothing on the tables and just a sign-up sheet in front. I wouldn’t have imagined an art museum being so stark, but that didn’t give us any indication of what was to come… As we stepped outside the room there was a beautifully created sculpture hanging from the ceiling made of paper clips. We looked at one another and many of us repeated the same thing “I love that - how can we make that for our rooms?!”

The first part of the day we spent in the museum learning about interpretation of photos or paintings. This was an exercise where everyone participated either with only one word or a story about what they thought was going on in the image. It was truly engaging for all. We even had a chance to be
part of a painting. The focus shifted to the classroom and how as educators we can bring these types of discussions into the classroom, how to honor everyone’s opinion and interpretation as well as having students explain their thoughts by using evidence from the image. Now it was time to apply what we learned about interpretation into our own work. When we entered back into the room with the sign-up sheet I noticed that there was a lot more in the room now. It had materials ready for the city creation project.

We worked in teams of 3 to 5 creating our city or town, but we didn’t jump right in as many of us wanted to do! We first had to brainstorm alone all of the things we could imagine or want in a city or town. Then we had to discuss those items as a whole group and decide what was going to be in our collective living space. The next step was a little difficult for my group. We had to sketch it out on paper. The paper we recieved was the same size as the plot of land that we will be using for our build. Each of us picked up a pencil, but no one wanted to make the first mark. I know personally, drawing is not my forte, so I was nervous that the image in my head was not going to translate on paper. Once




Erika, a team member, took the first step and made a mark we all jumped in and started to sketch. We finally had something to work with; a blueprint which became very handy as we brought our town to life.

Now it was time to start assembling the town. I watched and listened as other groups began their builds. There was a definite buzz of excitement as the teachers and art docents began putting their towns together. We received a small lesson on some paper techniques to help us create buildings and other essential items for our town. As I looked around the room there were four towns/cities erected, all with some similarities and some differences. We had an opportunity to reveal our towns and explain the layout as well as the features. One of the similarities between all of the towns/cities was a water feature where people can sit, walk or bike around and some of the contrasting features were wineries, civic centers and churches.

It turned out to be a great day full of creativity, collaboration and application of STEAM. Teachers walked away with ideas on how to implement more art into the classroom and ways to use active listening skills as part of the VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies), a technique the art museum uses for teaching about art. VTS includes asking questions and tips on how to respond to student's comments as well as emphasis on being open to student interpretation. When students are responding the instructor then uses paraphrasing as well as focusing on accepting students responses neutrally. I think this technique is useful not just for art, but in all subjects!

Contributed by Karen Wilson, STEM Coach

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Might We Transform Education?

LASD Participates in Re-Imaging Education Project in Washington, D.C.


LASD was recently asked to be a part of a national group re-imagining education,  Convergence Center for Policy Resolution.   This group is focused on creating a new paradigm for learning.  The request for LASD participation links back to relationships developed through our blended learning work.  Convergence created a vision that outlines  five interrelated elements essential to a new learning paradigm:
  • competency-based
  • personalized, relevant and contextualized
  • learner agency
  • socially embedded
  • open-walled


There is considerable overlap between these five elements and the seven LASD Learning Principles we have identified as critical to our vision of “Revolutionizing Learning.”  Simply put Convergence recognizes the current educational system was designed in a different era and structured for a different society.  Their vision is a call to action, not to tweak or modify the current system but to create a drastically different paradigm of learning that will serve all children.
Convergence hosted a “Pioneer Base Camp” of educators who have demonstrated their belief in one or more essential elements outlined in the vision.  “Pioneers” were identified by Convergence team and then if interested asked to interview.  LASD was selected as a Pioneer, interviewed and attended the Pioneer Base Camp in Washington DC last week along with 150 other educators from 35 organizations.  The invitation to participate in this event is testament to the work we have accomplished over the course of the last few years.


Our team consisted of:  Jill Croft, teacher at Covington, Alyssa Gallagher, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Community Initiatives; Katie Kinnaman, Principal of Gardner Bullis; and Sandra McGonagle, Principal of Blach.


After spending time with educators, policy makers, private corporations and foundations dedicated to improving our education system for ALL students, we all returned to LASD with  renewed commitment to revolutionizing learning for all students and BIG ideas about how to accelerate our work in LASD.  It was a tremendous experience to connect and learn with so many diverse groups.  Here is a list of some of the other Pioneers that attended:  Big Picture Learning, Design39 Campus, High Tech High, Iowa BIG, Lindsay Unified School District, MC2, Quest to Learn, Re-School Colorado, and Roycemore School. Our reactions to hearing what is happening elsewhere in the country ranged from “We do that, too!” to “Ooooh, we could do that!” to “How in the world did you do that?”


Fundamentally, our world is changing and so should our education system.  We are fortunate in LASD to have already embraced this mindset.  However, knowing we need to grow and adapt is only the first step, we must now apply new strategies and approaches across an entire organization. This is challenging.   Especially, when we are talking about making changes to a system that so many of us are products of.  Too often we hear, “I survived school…. It worked for me, what’s wrong with it?”


Yes, that system worked for me, too. Everything I needed for research could be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica and I relied heavily on my ability to memorize content.   In this traditional system, we “learned” at school, and then we left to “do” at work.  This approach no longer works - in today’s world learning and doing have become inseparable.  If we continue down the same path, are we preparing students for a world that no longer exists?  


Having just participated in this national conversation about transforming education, we are asking a lot of questions - questions that challenge the core of our learning system.  Here are a few of the questions swirling in our minds -
  • Why do we determine what a child learns and is exposed to based on how old they are?
  • How can we design a system that embraces the fact that not everyone learn in the same way or at the same pace?
  • What role does learning outside of traditional school “hours” and “walls” look like and how can we partner to make sure we are expanding opportunities to learn, not limiting them?
  • How can we re-organize our current resources (time, money, people, space) to shift our system now, rather than waiting for a full-scale, start-from-scratch re-design?


Knowing that there are big challenges ahead for all educators and educational organizations, I am extremely grateful to work in a school district that has already recognized the need for change and created three year goals headed in this direction.  I am more excited than ever to work on meeting the individual needs of all students.  While we don’t yet have answers to all of the questions posed above, we are working on them and committed to re-imaging what is possible for all students.

Contributed by Alyssa Gallagher, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Community Partnerships

Friday, March 13, 2015

How Might We Be Shutting Down the Intelligence of Our Students With the Best of Intentions?

5 Things We Can Do to Bring Out the Best in Students


Sketchnotes by @leoniedawson25 
Last night I had the privilege of hearing Liz Wiseman, best-selling author of Multipliers: How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter and Rookie Smarts, speak at a parent education event at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park.  It is always a treat to hear Liz speak about Multipliers and Rookie Smarts, but I was even more excited to know that that she would be sharing information on both of these topics through the lens of education.


Liz began her research several years ago with a fairly straightforward question: How do some leaders create intelligence in the people around them, while others diminish it?  Her research uncovered two fundamentally different types of leaders.  In the first group are the Diminishers.  These leaders tend to believe there are few really smart people and that people will not figure things out without them.  The second group of leaders are Multipliers.  These leaders bring out each person’s unique intelligence and creativity.  They see their organization as filled with intelligent, capable people and create the right opportunities for continued growth.  As you can imagine these two types of leaders get very different results.  Multipliers tend to get twice as much from their resources as do Diminishers.  Liz goes on to identify a leadership continuum with Multipliers and Diminishers on opposite ends of this continuum.  As you might expect, just a small number of people fall into either polar extreme of being a Multiplier or a Diminisher 100% of the time.  Most of us find ourselves along a spectrum functioning as Accidental Diminishers.


This concept of Accidental Diminishers is especially intriguing to me in education, as most educators I know are extremely well intentioned, following popular leadership and instructional practices which may actually have a subtle diminishing influence on those we lead whether they are teachers or students.  With some focused effort, we can shift our accidentally diminishing tendencies and develop skills to lead and teach more like a multiplier.  In fact, Liz shared five thing you can do tomorrow in your school or classroom to bring out the best in students. (All of these suggestions work in work in parenting as well!)


5 Things You Can Do to Bring Out the Best in Students


  1. Shift From Answers to Questions
What if we stopped operating in telling mode and shifted to questioning mode?   Too often we fall into the trap of telling our students things they might already know.  Test this out by going extreme and only asking questions of your students for an identified period of time. What do you notice? Chances are everyone will learn more and you’ll improve your ability to ask questions in the process.
  1. Play Fewer Chips
Often as adults we just take up too much space.  We have so much to share, that we actually end up shutting down what our students have to share.  What if we thought of our contributions as poker chips to be played?  When planning, try identifying a number of “chips” to be played.  By limiting your contributions, you might actually create more space for students to do their best thinking.
  1. Offer Bigger Challenges
Imagine for a moment that the challenges we give our students are like the stretch in  rubber bands.  Now imagine that you are holding tight to one end of a rubber band and a student is holding tight to the other end of a rubber band - if you pull the rubber band to it’s maximum tension point (without breaking) the person holding the other end has a couple of choices: let go or they can step in and move closer to you.  In teaching we need to experiment with the amount of stretch on the rubber band.  Are we stretching too much so that students give up?  Are we not stretching enough? Are we stretching but then lessening the stretch at the first sign of struggle?  Try thinking of challenges in the amount of stretch offered.  As a teacher, do you tend to over stretch or under stretch?  Human beings are built for challenges, in fact our best learning happens when there is maximum tension on the rubber band and we have to step into the learning.
  1. Find Their Genius
What if we learned to see our students differently?  We all know our students are unique and have their own innate talents.  What might happen if we saw our primary role as teachers to identify and nurture the native genius of our students?  Challenge yourself to observe and identify the native genius of every student in your class. Help students see this native genius and nurture it.
  1. Give the Pen Back
We all know that learning is a messy process and there are times when people get stuck.  As educators our goal is to help students but sometimes when we jump in to help we end up taking the ownership of the learning.  What if we helped just enough to get students unstuck but then quickly gave the pen back, transferring the ownership of learning right back to the student?


Experimenting with these five shifts, may help you teach more like a multiplier and unleash genius in your students.  If you try any of the above experiments, I’d love to hear what you and your students experience!  

Contributed by Alyssa Gallagher, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Community Partnerships

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Recipe for STEM

What do Scratch, MaKey MaKey and regions have in common?  A great recipe for a STEM project!  In LASD we have been working on integrated STEM, not only in our STEM labs, but in the classroom too.  Classroom teachers and the STEM teachers are working together to make the curriculum and STEM blend together.  The 5th grade team at Gardner Bullis did just that with the social studies curriculum.  Amy Shelley Bayani, the STEM teacher, brought the idea to the 5th grade teachers as a way to apply the learning of Scratch with the use of Makey Makey to create an informational game about regions.  Here is her story...


amy bayani 2.jpegAmy Bayani, Gardner Bullis STEM Teacher


The 5th grade students were learning about regions of the United States in their Social Studies unit and in previous years they would build a 3D model of their region and then do a research report about it.  I was brainstorming ways to enhance and integrate what we were learning in computer science with the content in their class. After some brainstorming and consulting with others I designed a project that could enhance their old 3D model project while integrating Scratch and MaKey MaKey.  While students build their 3D model they each picked 4 places on their physical model of their region that the user could learn more about.  For example, the agriculture, the river as a water source, mountains, and local animals.   Each region would have a “touch point” or a paperclip that would be connected to an alligator clip that went to a MaKey MaKey.   Once the physical model was designed we programmed a Travel Game Show on Scratch.  The user, or player of the game, would be greeted by a travel guide that would take them to each region on Scratch once they touched the “touch point” on the physical model.  Once in that region the travel guide would provide information about the area and then ask a question. The player of the game could type in the answer.  If they were to get it correct they would earn a point.
If they got it wrong the facts of that region would repeat and give them a second chance.   The goal was to get 4 questions correct in order to win the game.  The students were excited and engaged throughout the whole project.  They learned not only about the regions that they were studying, but also how to program a game and make it interactive.  This was such a huge success that as a STEM team we quickly realized that this model of using Scratch, MaKey MaKey, and engineering a physical 3D model can be used across many other content areas.  

After sharing this idea with the STEM team many other thoughts arrived about how to apply it to other subjects.  Katie Farley at Covington shares her experience with this concept.


katie.jpeg Katie Farley, Covington STEM Teacher


Inspired by Gardner’s project, our 5th graders will be integrating MaKey MaKey and Scratch to demonstrate their newly-acquired knowledge of state trivia. With the touch points on their 2-D and 3-D models of an assigned state relaying important facts and information, participants can have a museum-like experience. The platform also allows for a personalized learning experience for the viewers as the information presented on Scratch will be tailored to their level of understanding.  For example, students may be invited to “touch the teepee to learn more about the Native American tribes that originally lived in Arizona”.  When the teepee is touched on the 3-D model, pertinent information about the Navajo tribe will appear on the computer screen. At the end of this project, students, teachers, and parents will be invited to take a “museum walk” through the projects to learn more about each state in America.


The idea of mixing MaKey Makey and Scratch to enhance curriculum can be applied to just about anything.  It is an engaging way for students to learn about a content area as well as learning to code with a bonus treat of understanding circuits.  If this interests you try it out and share how you used it! We’d love to learn from the recipes you create.

Contributed by Karen Wilson, STEM Coach; Amy Bayani, STEM Teacher; Katie Farley, STEM Teacher

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Tech on the Go!


Technology is all around and is moving at the speed of light.  It can get your head spinning with everything that is out there like 3D printer, laser cutters, vinyl cutters, GoGo Boards, Arduino just to name a few.  Many schools are moving in a direction that incorporates STEM into the classroom or have developed a STEM Lab, Innovation Lab or MakerSpace.  Are these technologies or equipment needed in these spaces?  I had the opportunity to visit the FabLab at


Stanford University where they are researching Multimodal Learning Analytics to find out if some of this equipment has an impact on student learning.  They also do outreach programs where students come to the lab to create all sort of things.  One of the widely used piece of equipment in the lab is the laser cutter.  Katie Farley, one of the STEM teachers at LASD, had the opportunity to use the laser cutter.  It was so fascinating to watch plywood being cut into a shape of a smilie face.  Brogan, the director of the lab told us that watching the machine cut the object was part of the learning process.  It is watching the precision of the cut that will allow a person to see if their design works with the material being used.  In some cases, if the design is cut too thin, the pieces will break off.  

As a public school system how can we keep up with it on a limited budget?  We just recently met with Raffie Colet, Senior General Manager with the TechShop.  The TechShop is a makers dream destination!  They have all the latest equipment from 3D printers, laser cutters to welding stations and even a textiles department.  
It is a huge facility where a member can make just about
anything.  It sounds fantastic, but how can this help schools get to equipment they need to create a maker space for students?  Yes, a field trip is possible, but not always cost effective or not easy logistically.  Now the TechShop can come to you!  They have just launched their innovation truck called “TechShop Inside” similar to Stanford’s Sparktruck.  It is a 24-foot trailer with a maker lab inside equipped with laser cutters and 3D printers.

LASD is looking forward to moving toward using this type of equipment in their STEM program, but not ready to make such purchases.  The TechShop Inside will give us the opportunity to explore if this type of equipment is impactful to learning and the ability to enhance the students’ experience with STEM/STEAM.  We hope to have the truck visit in the Spring with an Innovation class happening at one of the jr. highs when the students are in the prototyping stage of their project.  Other ideas will be to have the truck visit the elementary school STEM Labs.  More to come as we explore this new adventure.


Contributed by Karen Wilson, STEM Coach


Thursday, December 4, 2014

PBL: Project "Balanced" Learning!

Project Based Learning is a teaching strategy in which students learn through the investigation of a complex question, problem, or challenge, and units usually occur over an extended period of time. In-depth inquiry driven by a need to know, allows students to gain 21st century competencies, or the 4 C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity skills, as they work to problem solve and produce for a public audience. One of the keys to success of PBL is Balance.

Balance of Teacher and Student Voice:
One of the best features of PBL is the opportunity it allows for students to guide and direct the course of the project. Often times teachers find themselves doing most of the creating, instructing, and decision making during a class project, but students miss out on important learning moments and are less invested in the outcome. When designing a PBL unit, you need to balance the important content focus with areas of flexibility and open-ended exploration. Think of it as developing guideposts along an unmarked trail.

A great place to start is with a well crafted Essential Question. Essential Questions are about big ideas. They spark conversation and create more questions. Through a well facilitated discussion leading from the Essential Question, you can often guide students to co-creating a  Driving Question in the direction you want them to go, allowing students to own the learning. The Driving Question gives them the ending destination, but there could be many different routes that will get them there. A good PBL unit will have a well thought out Essential and Driving Question to get students started in the correct direction, but allow for student voice and choice to pave the trail. Developing guideposts along the way, such as check-ins to update their need to knows and timelines, will help keep students moving towards their destination and keep them from getting lost in the weeds.

Balance of Skills:
A teacher becomes a master conductor of a learning orchestra during a project. Each student has their own unique talents and instruments that they bring to the concert. Taking the time to blend those talents in a productive way is critical to each group’s success. Starting out with teacher selected teams can help with balance. You can build in some self-selected group or whole group activities to help relieve any team tensions and allow students to gather new insights and perspectives as they move throughout the project. Since collaboration and communication are important skills in PBL, students need opportunities to recognize each other’s talents and know where their own strengths and abilities can benefit their team.

As you are designing the project, also look to see that your scope is large enough to offer students a variety of work options. Think about how the project will integrate tasks for those linear thinkers as well as offer challenges for those divergent thinkers. While students need practice and exposure to new skills to build their creative confidence, it’s also important that they have places where they can stretch and expand their natural talents. We may want to play every instrument, but there is usually one that draws us in and makes us shine. It’s designing a delicate balance between those solo moments and blending all of the voices that creates a successful performance at the end.  

Balance of Time:
Time is usually the critical factor when planning a PBL unit. Instructional time already feels overcrowded with various curriculum demands and although PBL is an integration of subject areas, most classrooms are set up to teach subjects in isolation. In the planning phase, look for those skill based lessons that are needed to support the project and how those lessons can be integrated into those isolated subject lessons. Perhaps students will need to strengthen their nonfiction reading skills and need some different strategies for curating information. Spending time on focused skills before starting the project will help students make better use of their collaboration time.  Gathering continual feedback through visual thinking strategies and quick formative assessments will help point out surprise areas where students may need more support or direct instruction. Projects nearly always take longer than you think so providing yourself a time cushion will lessen stress.

Balance of Group and Individual Work:
Finally, a good project should balance group and individual work. Whenever I would introduce an assignment or project in my classroom, I would hear the same two questions: “Can we work with someone?” and “Do we have to work with someone?” Because PBL is focused on collaboration, group work is expected and often times students are set up in team units. However, in order to honor all working styles, it’s important to include individual accountability as well as team accountability. Also, having a protocol in place for students to follow when needing adult help to problem solve group conflicts is also helpful. Students need to feel valued as team members but also feel that their individual efforts are being recognized.

Project Based Learning can feel like tight-rope walking. But with careful planning and practice, the well-orchestrated chaos can seem more like a walk in the park.

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Blended Learning is the Now!

Image from http://www.totaltrainingsolutions.com/blendedlearningsolutions.html 

We can all agree that we have entered a digital age and live in a digital world. And students take heart, schools are catching up and entering that digital world as well. In fact, in September, the U.S. Office of Educational Technology began encouraging Superintendents to sign a Future Ready pledge, focused on blended learning. Over 1000 Superintendents have already put pen to paper, or in this case, filled out the Google form and electronically “signed” the pledge. The pledge commits school districts to foster and lead a culture of digital learning, empower educators through professional learning opportunities, and provide access to high quality digital content and more.

It’s a great start to the conversation and it’s exciting to see districts that are moving beyond the talking and getting to the doing. I am impressed by the work at Summit Public Schools, a charter based network of schools here in the Silicon Valley. As they built their blended learning model, they were in need of a personal learning platform to help empower their students. Rather than wait for something to be developed, they hired an engineer and partnered with Facebook engineers through Facebook’s Secondment Agreement program to design their own. They are working to scale it out beyond their own district in the near future. (Learn more here.)

For many districts, the constant development of blended learning tools is a bit overwhelming and confusing. The market is continually changing and new products are popping up every five minutes. How many more passwords and log-ins must we remember? The landscape seems to be progressing however, as we see more open educational resources (OER”s) become available. A recent article in The Journal highlighted an 11 state coalition that is developing OER materials for math and ELA for K-12. The K–12 OER Collaborative will build resources that will be aligned to Common Core State Standards and will include instructional materials, contain tools for differentiated instruction, and offer a full suite of assessments. Hopefully, we will also start to see Learning Management Systems more fully develop to become single sign-on, one stop portals for all of the many different learning tools as well as better gathering places for student data and progress reporting.

Blended learning is no longer the future, it is the now. Because of the need for individualization and the many open learning opportunities for students, schools need tools that are adaptable and gather good information on student learning. Teachers need a better understanding of how to use data to drive their instruction and incorporate a more blended approach. As we move from the “one size fits all” strategy to a more personalized model, classroom tools, spaces, and strategies must shift to a new model. Here in the Los Altos School District, we are working to build and expand our blended learning model. Designing relevant professional development and adopting strategic tools to help us achieve better personalization.

It was exciting to look at the agenda for the National Summit on Educational Reform taking place in Washington DC this week. There were strategy sessions that focused on the need for better assessments, a session that speaks to the way we craft our message around educational reform, and looking at ways to innovate the teacher certification process. It’s uplifting to see forward thinking and such an important conversation happening on a national level. As we work to reform education, blended learning is clearly becoming a part of the conversation.

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach