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

Friday, November 14, 2014

Nurture a Growth MIndset


In the Los Altos School District, we have designed a set of learning principles that we believe form a foundation for all of the work that we do. There are seven learning principles.



Through our iLearn program, we are developing and offering our teachers an after school professional development series focused on each one. We started with growth mindset as we believe that forms the foundation for everything that happens next.

Carol Dweck, a leading Stanford psychologist, argues that a critical quality that separates successful people from those that are less successful is whether they think their intelligence can be developed or whether they believe it is fixed. "Being mastery-oriented is about having the right mindset. It is not about how smart you are. However, having the mastery-oriented mind-set will help students become more able over time."

Part of developing a growth mindset involves the practice of embracing challenges, persisting in the face of setbacks, and seeing effort as a path to mastery. Mindset is everything. Some tools to practice with yourself and your students:

Small Wins - Ask a small question to make big changes. Caroline Arnold, author of Small Move, Big Change, calls this "working within the margins." She says, "There's really no such thing as a small behavioral change in terms of impact. By working the margins, you gradually get to where you want to be."  Celebrate the small wins which repeated over time can lead to a growth mind-set.

Praise Effort - Get gritty and focus on the effort and strategies rather than the intelligence. Pay attention to the words you choose when commenting on students work or your own. (Process & Outcome)

Focus on the Value of Learning - While grades are important, the value of learning should be prioritized. Take time to notice and comment on the learning that is happening outside of the expected outcomes. (Process & Outcome)

Collaborate - Working with others helps build motivation and a sense of responsibility. The positive feedback loop of effort and success can also encourage a growth mind-set.

Having a growth mindset doesn’t always come easily and needs to be practiced. As we move forward and explore other learning principles, it will be important to embrace a growth mindset and remember that we are all in this together.

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach


 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Step Into the Learning Zone

How is it possible to operate at your best even when you are doing something for the first time?  In a new book, Rookie Smarts, author Liz Wiseman shows how, with the right mindset, it is possible to recapture the enthusiasm, curiosity and fearlessness of beginners.  In a rapidly changing world, experience can actually become a curse as it allows us to operate in our comfort zone. Some time ago, operating in the comfort zone worked for people the span of their entire career, but with the pace of change around us that is no longer the case. For many types of roles, constant learning is now more valuable than mastery. For a short synopsis of Rookie Smarts, you may enjoy watching this short video.  In her recent work, Wiseman reveals the different modes of the rookie mindset that lead to success:
  • Backpacker: Unencumbered, rookies are more open to new possibilities, ready to explore new terrain, and don't get stuck in yesterday's best practices.
  • Hunter-Gatherer: Rookies seek out experts and return with ideas and resources to address the challenges they face.
  • Firewalker: Lacking situational confidence, rookies take small, calculated steps, moving fast and seeking feedback to stay on track.
  • Pioneer: Keeping things simple and focusing on meeting core needs, rookies improvise and work tirelessly while pushing boundaries.
What might Rookie Smarts look like in the field of education?  While writing the book, Liz reached out to people across different industries and challenged them to help create a specific learning itinerary for someone wanting to take on the rookie mindset in their world of work.  I had the opportunity to collaborate with Elise Foster, co-author of The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius in Our Schools, to create a learning itinerary for educational leaders.  Our challenge was to create a learning itinerary that would “Help Recharge a School’s Leadership Team.”
As any school leader knows, the daily pressures of leading a school can be exhausting and time consuming.  The constant pressure can make it challenging to lead and execute on a bold vision for a school. Here are some experiments school leaders (or really anyone in education) can try that may help unleash their inner rookie and actually bring new insights to their work:


Make a Map:  Try seeing your school through the eyes of a student.  Sit in a student, teacher or colleague’s seat and walk the school as they do.  How do these observations inform the work of your team?  How do they inform your teaching?


Talk to Strangers:  Connect with other principals or educational leaders outside of education together.  Recharge yourself by learning what is happening in other schools, districts or industries.  
Try to Get Fired:  List the top ten changes you would make to improve student learning if you weren’t afraid.  Share the list with your Principal, Superintendent or School Board.  How might these ideas spark discussions that lead to improvements for students?


Risk & Iterate:  Set up a playground for your team, where everyone can experiment with procedures, processes and the status quo.  Let your staff meeting be your sandbox - change the location, invite students or frame the agenda with three big questions to encourage collaboration.




By stepping outside of our daily routine and challenging ourselves to take on new learning, we actually become happier and do better work.  This new perspective can even help us be more present with staff, students and community.  A fresh perspective and recharge may be just what you and your team needs to deliver on that bold vision (or make it even bolder).

There is a lot of evidence of the Rookie Smarts mindsets and practices in play at Los Altos School District. In fact LASD Superintendent, Jeff Baier is acknowledged in Wiseman's work for introducing a new hiring criteria for teachers. "They (LASD) have established a specific set of qualities beyond a teacher's technical skills, which include: open-minded, adaptive, growth-minded, sense of humor and joyfulness." With this new hiring criteria we are finding that new teachers are better able to innovate and adapt in the perpetually shifting field of education.

How can you stay fresh in your role at work? I encourage you to read Rookie Smarts and challenge yourself to adopt the practices of a rookie. I'd love to hear about your journey, especially anyone who "tries to get fired" with a top ten list of changes needed in education.

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

How Might We Reimagine the K-8 School Experience? Collaboration with Design 39

Last week a small team from LASD had the opportunity to visit Design 39, a brand new public school located in the Poway Unified School District.  The school is currently a K-6 with 840 students but will grow to a K-8 over the next two years.  Our visit down south was triggered by a desire to learn from other educators who are also on the path to revolutionize learning.  Design 39 is especially interesting as the school was built with a new paradigm of learning in mind.  A core team of educators, including the principal, Sonya Wrisley and a few lead teachers, spent over a year learning from leading educators around the country and planning for their new school.  


We had the opportunity to meet Design 39’s core team last fall during their EdJourney and spent a day collaborating in LASD around professional learning models, STEM education, learning management systems and a variety of other topics.  While we have continued the relationship and collaboration since their initial visit to LASD, it was extremely exciting to visit Design 39 while school was in session and see their vision realized.  


When you arrive at Design 39, you can’t help but be impressed by the building itself - a magnificent new multi-story building, but the real WOW happens inside.  Here are a few of our key take-aways from our time at Design 39:


  • Language Matters - “The School Office” has been renamed “The Welcome Center,” “Teachers” are referred to as “Learning Experience Designers” and “Noon Duty Aides” are referred to as “Motion Managers.”  These may seem like small shifts but they are intentional shifts that communicate the beliefs of Design 39 and highlight how the language we choose contributes to the overall culture of the school.  
  • Space Impacts Learning -   Learning spaces around campus are designed with what is best for students in mind first, as a result teachers don’t have their own classroom. Teachers may teach in a variety of classrooms within their pod depending on the groupings of students within a multi-age span.  Multiple teachers share a “Design Studio” - think collaborative office space - where they store their personal belongings and collaborate with their colleagues during planning time every morning from 7:45-8:45.  Learning spaces are large relatively uncluttered and varied depending on the learning activity - large group spaces, interactive screens to display student work, makery spaces, etc.
  • Learning Flow Matters -   Students at Design 39 have the opportunity to be truly immersed in what they are learning.  The day is structured with fairly large chunks of uninterrupted instructional time. In the morning, students are working on integrated learning (think Language Arts, Social Studies, Science) then after lunch depending on the day they will either have 90 minutes of math, or a deep dive (an elementary version of electives) followed by an hour of “Minds in Motion” (a new take on PE, think kids crossfit, dance, basketball… It doesn’t matter what class students choose, what matters is that they engage, get sweaty and have fun!).   Learning isn’t ever disrupted by bells, even body breaks (aka recess) are taken when it makes sense for that particular group of students.  This -ish type of schedule requires much more collaboration on the part of the adults at school, but results in a much better day to day learning experience for students.
  • Kindergarten Reminder List
    Question Everything - Why do we require students to respond to bells, walk in straight lines and raise their hands to speak?  What do these routines communicate to students about our belief in them?  Design 39 has reimagined many of these of practices.  Students know it’s time to head to class when a song is played over the intercom (Songs are dedicated to particular grade levels) and students still eating or playing enjoy the music.  Students are taught how to respectfully get from point a to point b on campus but are never required to walk in a straight line.
  • BYOD Can Work at Any Grade Level -  Design 39 is a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) school beginning in Pre-K.  All students are encouraged to bring a device from home to use a learning tool.  Students without devices may check out a chromebook to use for the year.  We saw a variety of devices in use throughout the school, it doesn’t really matter as all instruction & instructional tools are web based and device agnostic.  
  • Are Report Cards & Grades Necessary?  Student progress is being reported via “Growth Guides” instead of formal report cards.  Growth Guides are a definite work in progress, and aren’t fancy (currently an elaborate shared google doc between student, teachers, and parents) but they communicate actionable feedback about learning in a timely way.  
  • Change is Hard, Personal Flotation Devices Help - Teachers are engaging in a very different way of planning and teaching.  Most of the teaching staff has previous experience as a teacher which is sometimes helpful but can also be challenging as they consciously don’t want to fall into comfortable traditions or patterns.  With so much change at hand, their principal encourages the use of a “Personal Flotation Device” when needed. This may be a personal practice not entirely inline with the new direction of learning but one that is helping the teacher stay afloat for the time being.  The personal flotation devices are only temporary and provide teachers a way to say, “Hey I’m working on this, but am not quite there… yet.”


School Vision in Student Language
Those were a few of our big take-aways from the day of learning, but what personally impressed me most was the dedication of the staff.  It is clear that the entire staff is working with a lot of ambiguity, they are out on the leading edge doing work that hasn’t necessarily been done before in public education. It is uncomfortable for the staff, but necessary as they learn a different way to work.   Leading author and business leader, Liz Wiseman suggests, “We have to get comfortable asking people to be uncomfortable. Don’t ask people to do more work, ask them to do harder work.”  It is clear that under the leadership of Sonya Wrisley, the Design 39 team is being asked to do harder work as they reimagine learning for their students.  


While there were a lot of ah-ha moments for our team, we also recognized that much of the work we are doing in LASD has helped pave the way for a new learning paradigm in LASD.  With our new Learning Principles, we are actively engaged in questioning practices and reimagining learning for all LASD students.  We look forward to continued collaboration with the Design 39 team and other innovative teams of educators on this journey.  For more information on Design 39, you can go to their website at https://sites.google.com/site/design39campus/home

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


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Lunchtime is Not Only for Eating!

The bell rings!  Hooray!, it is lunch time.  Students are excited because it is their day to go to tinker club where there is always a challenge to meet.  After students get filled up from eating their lunch they walk into the STEM lab to find straws, newspaper and tape.  They are asked to build a bridge with these materials that will span across a specific distance between two tables.  That’s challenge one... the second challenge is making the bridge strong enough to hold a book.  Students get busy building by rolling up paper, using tape and affixing straws.  They start to line up to test their prototype and if they don’t succeed then they get the opportunity to ideate their prototype and try again.  This is all part of the engineering process.  Although students are learning this process through their STEM classes it is reinforced through the lunch club challenges.  


The lunch clubs are a big part of the LASD STEM program. Students have an opportunity to attend lunch club at least once a week.  Some of the challenges have consisted of creating musical instruments, zip lines, catapults, oobleck, Rube Goldberg, reverse engineering, egg drop and the list goes on and on…


Students at Loyola put a creative spin on their egg drop challenge this year by hurling them through the air using a sling shot.  The students were so excited to see their egg drop vehicles sail through the air in hopes that the egg would land safely.  


Fun?  Yes!  Are the students learning how to persevere through the challenge, collaborate with their peers, build and create? Yes, it is all part of the STEM learning experience.   


Here are some responses from students about Lunch Club:
“I get to work with my friends!”  
“It's ok if it doesn't work, Mrs. Rafferty even likes it when we fail!”
“Cool stuff happens that we don't get to do in the classroom.”


Kelly Rafferty, the STEM teacher at Santa Rita, said “I like lunch club because it lets me connect with all grade levels every week, even when I am working with their class. I think they feel connected to me and the space as a place where they can try anything, it doesn't have to be perfect and we all love when something doesn't work as planned, because then we get to try again and make things better.”


Lunch clubs are happening at all 7 elementary schools in the STEM labs, 2 to 3 times a week.  Many of the schools are doing themes for the month, for example Gardner Bullis’s November theme is “Come Fly Away with Me.”  The students will be challenged with rocket building and launching, creating and analyzing Balsa Wood Gliders, and a zip line challenge.  

Lunch clubs are not only fun and social, but a learning time for all!  

Contributed by Karen Wilson, STEM Coach

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Choose Guideposts over Pavement


My son sent me a preview video of the new Assassin’s Creed Unity game because he knows I’m a huge fan, have played most of the series, and pre-ordered both of the coming editions. It was exciting to see that in this new world, they have provided the player with a large array of options for achieving a goal. Previously, the game play was somewhat laid out before you and if you followed the road and did some serious button mashing in spots you found success. Engaging and fun, but didn’t require a lot of finesse or deep problem solving. This new landscape appears to require some further contemplation, planning, and decision making as you take into consideration strategy, skills, historical context, and reputation.

How does this relate to education? In the classroom, we’re trying to achieve the same goal. Provide our “players” with an engaging and fun learning experience but one that provides depth and many different avenues to the learning objective. That idea of personalization which keeps cropping up but is difficult to achieve on a large scale. In the traditional classroom, standardized curriculum guides carefully lay out a paved road to learning outcomes, with little room for deviation. There is differentiation, but not personalized learning. It gets a bit confusing as we start tossing around terms such as differentiation, individualization, and personalization, because on some level, they address the same idea, but they are very different. I love this Personalized Learning Chart by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey and shared through Sue Strautz’s blog, as it clearly states that the main key to personalization is that it’s learner centered instead of teacher centered, a key difference. This can be difficult to accomplish in a large classroom with various student needs, testing pressure, and technology access that can vary. The good news? It’s not an all or nothing.

In this Stages of Personalized Learning chart from Bray and McClaskey, there is a progression through three defined stages. The first is more teacher centered with a gradual move to giving students more choice and control of their learning. I think of this as teachers starting personalization with a dirt trail. Students need a path to follow as they learn to navigate a new learning trail with a few forks in the road that allow for choice but that ultimately lead them to their destination. As they become more comfortable, teachers can slowly remove the path and replace it with guideposts, suggestions that point them in the right direction but allow them many different routes to the end. When they fully understand how to map their own trail, that’s when we turn them loose. At that point, we’ve given them something that is far richer than anything that comes from a textbook; skills, tools, and grit that will get them through the rough patches and lead them to the finish. It becomes more than just personalized learning, it becomes a way to navigate the world.

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach