Thursday, March 27, 2014

LASD Participates in the First California “We Day” - A Celebration of Service Learning

Yesterday, over 150 LASD student leaders attended We Day at Oakland’s Oracle Arena joining 16,000 bay area students to celebrate their accomplishments in service learning.  We Day is unlike most student events.  You can’t buy tickets to We Day, students have to earn their way in by completing a minimum of two service learning projects, one local and one global.  We Day is just a small component of Free the Children, an international charity and educational partner, working internationally to empower and enable youth to be agents of change.

We Day is a full day event designed to empower and inspire young people to take action and affect change. Attendees were treated to performances and speakers by several well known celebrities including Magic Johnson, Martin Sheen, Martin Luther King III, Orlando Bloom, Selena Gomez and Seth Rogen.  All had powerful messages to help encourage this generation to take charge and make positive changes in the world.  Gomez spoke about the pressures young people face today while Rogen encouraged the young attendees to focus on their individual passions and talents. Other motivational speakers included Spencer West and Clemantine Wamariya, both of whom shared stories of incredible challenges they have overcome.  Spencer, a man without legs who summited Mount Kilimanjarow, encouraged students to remove “can’t” and “won’t” from their vocabulary, focusing instead on how.  Clemantine, a survivor of genocide, reminded students of their power and ability to raise other’s spirits, especially those in need.  Everyone wants to be seen and heard. The day truly inspired and touched all who were involved!

Not only are we proud to have had LASD student leaders involved in this event, we are more excited about the ways in which our students are getting involved to make a difference in the world.  Here are a few examples of ways LASD students have gotten involved -
  • participated in the "We Scare Hunger" campaign at Halloween donating food to local food bank
  • collected & donated new PJ's and Toys to the Community Service Center
  • created a coin drive for Typhoon Haiyan relief, raising over $3,000.
  • participated in the "We Are Love" campaign to raise money for a village in India
  • raised money to enlarge and rehabilitate two buildings into Birthing Centers in Nepal
  • participating in the Water Project and helping to build one well by raising one thousand dollars or more.

What is really exciting about LASD involvement in these projects is the passion and dedication demonstrated by our students.  Most, if not all of these projects were selected and championed by our students.  Our commitment to service learning as a district led us to becoming an Educational Partner with Free the Children.  LASD pride was felt by all students, teachers and parents in attendance at We Day when our district logo was displayed on the arena’s large screen highlighting this partnership.   We look forward to expanding service learning opportunities for students with Free the Children, and are excited to engage in the new campaigns for the Year of Education.  I truly believe our children are ready to change the world, and it is our job to support them in these endeavors.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done!” - Nelson Mandela

Contributed by Alyssa Gallagher, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Community Partnerships
Photos by Erika Benadom, Principal of Almond School

Monday, March 24, 2014

Education: Between a Rock and Hard Place

March has been conference month. Having attended and presented at SXSWedu, ASCD, and CUE over the last three weeks, I have observed many educators and people outside of education having interesting and critical discussions around what should be happening in classrooms. In Austin, at SXSWedu, we were surrounded by many edtech developers who were either shopping their product or idea, or hoping to get some insight into what teachers were looking for. Many of them had solutions and were hoping to find those problems, and many were just confused as to what the problem actually looked like. Welcome to the world of education at the moment.

Next came ASCD in Los Angeles, where most sessions and vendors where focused on answering the needs of the common core and the new Smarter Balanced Assessments. However, included were teachers presenting on passion based learning, innovative ways to incorporate creativity and gamification, and the importance of student voice in the classroom. We were there to present on blended learning, design thinking, creative curriculum design, and STEM.  Interesting mix all around and conversations ranged  from the value of student choice and voice in the classroom to the absolute need to have everything mapped to the common core.

Ended our tour at the CUE conference in Palm Springs, CA. The opening keynote was Dan Meyer who spoke about the importance of using curiosity to find perplexing and interesting real life problems and then resolving them with math. Refreshing look at how to approach a tried and true curriculum subject such as mathematics. The ending keynote was Sal Khan, announcing that Khan Academy is now fully mapped to the common core and is now including exercises that mirror the Smarter Balanced Assessments. A perfect example of bipolar philosophies. Sandwiched in between were some wonderful sessions given by inspiring and hard working teachers who are using technology to create amazing learning experiences for their students and are exhilarated by the many possibilities and opportunities that are presented on each end of the dialogue.

On one side is the rock, common core and state testing, and on the other is the hard place, the classroom where we try to encourage our students to follow their passions, and where we work to design meaningful learning experiences for every student that will build not only test skills, but more importantly life skills. Yes, it can feel as though we sometimes get stuck between the two, but I choose to emulate those teachers who are reaching beyond, looking for the best of both worlds, and seeing new learning opportunities for all. Stop pushing against the rock, let other teachers and your students help you navigate the hard place, and the path will become clear.

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Monday, March 17, 2014

Using PBL to Establish a District Film Festival

I am passionate about movies and digital storytelling. In my classroom, I love to use movie clips, rattle off popular movie quotes to enhance lessons, add drama and suspense to mundane content, and create with music, video, and sound. My students picked up on this passion and found their own love of film, so when I asked them how we might increase student voice not only in our classroom, but across our district, I wasn’t surprised when the idea of a district wide film festival popped up. This led to developing a driving question for a project-based learning unit, “How might we design, organize, and execute a Los Altos District Film Festival?” We were off and rolling.

We first developed five different teams to keep ourselves organized; Submissions, Public Relations, Website, Judging, and Event teams. After outlining the responsibilities of each team, students used a job application form to apply for the team they felt they were most qualified for. Once teams were formed, I developed a Google site with a page delegated to each team. This would be the way we communicated and updated each other on our progress. I also created a timeline board on our back wall for each team to post important deadlines and coordinate with each other. It gave us a place for quick “stand-up” meetings so all parties were informed.

Each team had specific task lists that they created. Public Relations team was responsible for creating posters and a promo video to share with schools and on the website. They also performed a short sketch at each school assembly to kick-off the film festival and spread information. Fundraising was also a large part of their mission. Submissions team created the guidelines and categories for films as well as the submission form that students would need to fill out. As films came in, they were responsible for reviewing each one to make sure it met the guidelines and was entered into the right category. Our Judging team created the judging rubric, recruited and communicated with judges for each category, and handled thank-you’s. They also arranged for all prizes to be awarded. A smaller team designed and maintained our website and our Event team focused on the actual festival event, ordering food, decorations, and planning the awards presentation. Each team was required to develop and post budgets on our site and journal and document their progress.

Our first film festival was a great success. We had 78 entries and a large turnout for the awards ceremony. We opened up a gallery walk the hour before so all films could be screened by attendees. Our event team did an excellent job of scripting and emceeing the event and it was exciting to see happy winners come forward to collect their trophies. It was an incredible learning opportunity for our sixth grade students and many were awed by the amount of work and coordination it takes to plan and execute a large event. I am pleased to say that our film festival is in it’s third year this year and is becoming a tradition. The awesome part is that the event is handed over to a new class and new teacher each year as a project experience. It is a student voice event that is led and designed by students. You can check out this year’s website and event here, and the video below is our first two groups of sixth graders reflecting on their experience.

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Monday, March 10, 2014

California Mission Redesign, Crafting Phase

Ready, Set, Craft! Our week of crafting is upon us and the kids couldn’t be more excited. Armed with their paper plans and knowledge of Minecraft from personal use outside the classroom as well as from the tutorial world, the kids jumped onto the world eager and ready to go Monday morning.

Setting up the server:

During the first session, I had to figure out the best way to teleport the students to each of their plots. We decided to line the kids up in the virtual world and have them one-by-one teleport themselves to their assigned plot. This took a bit of time, but seemed to work out in the end as once the world was saved the kids would always start where they left off. Once they were at their plot, we turned off chat. We had students focus on surveying their land to see what materials they had to build with for about 8 minutes, then they started clearing their area. NOTE: we did not put kids into creative mode until day 3 however retrospectively I would have placed them in creative mode sooner so that they would be able to clear and to build at a faster rate. After this session it is incredibly valuable to reflect on what went well for the students as well as what they need to prioritize during the next session.

On the second one hour session, the students jumped onto the world once it was set up with the direct connect, IP address. Right away they were ready to go with executing their plans. Today, as the teacher, we gifted all students sets of blocks that would benefit them during their mission construction phase (bricks, sandstone, wood planks, tools, torches, etc.) It worked well and the kids were great with coming to ask us when they needed more of a certain time of block. 

While the server worked well yesterday, there were many more issues with it today. Kids would be kicked off the world. However, as long as the teacher is saving it regularly this is not a huge issue, more of an inconvenience. The kids learned that they would just click direct connect again and rejoin as the IP address would be the same as before. Now would be a good time for me to mention that even if the server says it is unable to keep up, it is still working fine. The server software is able to run on unibody Macbooks, so most likely your computer should be able to handle running one world. Plugging directly into an ethernet port helps as well. As does utilizing the network when there is less traffic on it. After this session it is valuable to reflect on the knowledge that we are stronger as a partnership rather than as individuals. Prepping for day three, it is important for student again to figure out what they will be focusing on.

A few key reflections happened after day two. Number 1: it is very key to turn on the feature that allows students to teleport themselves to the surface. Quite often we had students fall into holes and be unable to remove themselves from them. It was very time consuming to teleport yourself to the site teleport station and then teleport the student to you. Number 2: be sure students know how to change the vantage point or point of view, check out how to do that here. Number 3: tomorrow we will be testing using creative mode as the students will have unlimited access to materials which should allow them to build and clear more effectively.

By today students were able to arrive at the lab and join the world straight away. It helped to set the server up prior to their arrival. I placed the IP address on the board and students were able to join and begin playing. Since we were putting them in creative mode today, I did freeze students once they were in the game to explain the reasoning behind changing their player mode. Additionally, I took time to discuss the use of only Minecraft blocks that would be available in the era of Mission building. Students were allowed to use the flying feature as it made their construction much easier. If students were abusing the creative mode privilege then they would be placed into Minecraft EDU mode which you can set on a student to student base. As I walked around observing their interactions and building, I noticed that students were forgetting about vertical scale. The walls they were constructing were only two blocks high thus about 6 feet as we used the scale of one block to 3 feet. We paused and discussed as a group what would be a good base height and decided on the following minimum: one block for the floor, three for the walls, and one for the roof, thus five in total. Today I felt that the kids really took off, they were working and collaborating as well as persevering more than when they started. At the end of this session, a wonderful idea is to have groups of students from different teams meet and share about their missions. This exchange of ideas can help inspire some students who might feel stuck at this point.

On our fourth day of building, students were flying. Today it is helpful to emphasize gaining a perspective view by flying up above the mission. By doing this, students are able to see how their buildings are relating to each other. They can check scale and size as well. At the end of today, have students discuss their priority for building on the last day. What structures do they really want to finish? Note: be careful with students using the spawn eggs to spawn animals. The kids tend to spawn too many and then there is an outbreak of chickens or horses.

Final day. Students continue to build. During the class, have students pause at one point and fly up to take a screenshot of their mission. This way, there is a living record of their work. Most likely after today, students will need more time to build. It was amazing to see what they were able to accomplish in the short time we allotted them. From adding intricate floor patterns to anvil’s in the blacksmith’s workshop, the students worked extremely hard to create a well crafted mission. Most likely the teachers will be continuing to offer students time to build on their missions once a month or so. When the students and teachers feel they have accomplished all they want, then I will assist with helping students create a screencast tour of their mission using Quicktime. There are a few other programs that are recommended as well, however, since we are using Macs, Quicktime will allow us to not install or purchase another program. (Creating a screencast with Quicktime).

Overall, this was a wonderful project. Students learned many skills along the lines of perseverance, resilience, and collaboration. It was great to use a medium through which students felt confident and comfortable. They enjoyed having the opportunity to build missions in Minecraft: “I thought using Minecraft was a great idea because it is fun, a lot of the blocks were used in mission time, and you had the chance to make your imagination come alive,” (4th grade student). Not only was this a fun experience for the students, but they were able to have a more personal connection with the missionaries: “I liked Minecraft Edu because it led us to great challenges that could help us learn how it was in the older days and how challenging it was for the missionaries to build the mission,” (4th grade student).

Gaming offers students and adults new ways to experience the world. Adding a creative layer, Minecraft EDU brought the missions alive for the students in 4th grade. Think about what gaming could offer your students and how the open-ended creativity side could bring some kids to life who would otherwise be lost.

Helpful Documents:

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

California Missions, Redesigned with Minecraft EDU Part 2

California Missions in Minecraft Part 2, Constructing El Camino

While easier than building a real life El Camino Real, crafting the base world for the Minecraft EDU mission project was challenging and rewarding. In a bulleted list, here are my steps, some changes I would make, and some difficulties I ran into:

  • To start I chose to create a randomly generated world. I turned off day and night as well as PVP and fire and TNT.
  • Originally I decided to build the road out of yellow wool, think Wizard of Oz. However, then I realized that some kids could simply destroy my road if they wanted to. So I decided to remove that road I had already crafted and replace it with the red x blocks which would prevent students from destroying it and thus losing their way between mission sites.
  • I created missions sites by using placing a simple sign post with a number to mark their area. Then I switched to a stacked block approach so the tower was more visible. From top to bottom: Number Blocks, Information Block, Type Block, Base purple block.
  • At first, I wanted to make a full day pass in between mission locations to mimic the days journey between missions in California, but I noticed that as I spent time laying the road it would take me too long to construct. Thus I simply made them “generally far” apart. In retrospect, some of the mission plots I made too close together. I would make sure that the sites have ample area so that the students do not intrude on neighboring plots.
  • Some of the sites are placed in heavily forested areas due to the generated world. I am a bit worried about how students will fare in this terrain as well as desert terrain, but I am looking forward to seeing how it pans out.
  • I am wondering if generating a flat world would have been better for the project as a whole. If it were flat, students could focus completely on building rather than clearing their area. Pros for choosing the randomly generated world is that it is more realistic in regards to settling a new land.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Using Design Thinking to Inform Future Direction of LASD

Our learnings from 2,535 sticky notes, over 300 participants, days of observation & 60+ interviews.

Earlier this school year, a small team of LASD administrators and teachers met to talk about the strategic planning process for the year.  Three years earlier, our Superintendent, Jeffrey Baier revived strategic planning in LASD and led the development of our “Educational Blueprint.”  This process included representatives of all stakeholders who helped us define our vision (Los Altos School District will be a leader in revolutionizing learning for all students), identified  goals and created objectives to help us reach these goals.  The Educational Blueprint group met twice yearly to share progress, create new objectives and course correct if needed. LASD staff reported monthly to our Board of Trustees on the progress and goals which keep us accountable and on track.  During the past three years, our district has made incredible strides towards achieving our vision.  (You can read about some of these accomplishments here) And yet, even with all of this success we began questioning our approach.  With all of the recent success, we knew we needed to dig deeper to inform next steps to improve student learning and identified design thinking as the appropriate strategy. Design thinking is a human centered methodology for solving problems popularized in our area by the Stanford d. School.   And so we set out to understand & observe.


As a public k-8 school district we have many different users: students, teachers, parents and community. As we moved down the path of developing empathy for our users, we wanted to make sure we were simultaneously gathering broad data as well as doing a deeper dive with our users and created structures to enable both.  We created opportunities for all parents, teachers, administrators and students to have a voice in the process.  We also created a small design team led by Greg Bamford from Leadership + Design to conduct deeper ethnographic research in our district.  Every aspect of this process was geared to help us better understand, “How might we revolutionize learning to meet the needs of all students?”

What we have learned about our own organization in the last few months has been powerful. While this process has taken much longer than a more traditional strategic planning process, I am confident the investment of time will yield more exciting opportunities for students.  There is so much to share from our learnings, but for the purposes of this post  I will focus on the broad input we gathered and will share out the work of our design team in another post.  

For the broad gathering of input, we held eleven input gathering sessions with over three hundred participants.  This process was inspired by and modeled after some of the work taking place at the Design 39 School.  We used the following prompts to generate both conversation and ideas.

  • Why does learning need to be revolutionized for all students?
  • What excites you about revolutionizing learning for all students?
  • What scares you about revolutionizing learning for all students?
  • What changes do you think need to be made to revolutionize learning for all students?
  • What are your learning hopes for your students?
  • What if schools were places where students could….
    • Then we would need teachers who…
    • Then we would need parents who…
    • Then we would need leaders who…
  • An LASD graduate will be able to….

Every single response to these prompts was collected and is represented in the data visualizations.  What was interesting to note is the similarities in responses from parents, teachers and administrators.  Essentially, we all want very similar things for our students and our children. All of the data visualizations can be viewed here, but the ones that excited me most are embedded below.  These images are word clouds representing all responses, but size of the phrase/word indicates the frequency of this response.

Portrait of an LASD Graduate

I can’t help but think of the many ways we can use this portrait of an LASD graduate. How do we develop this student?  What are we currently doing that contributes to this?  What do we need to stop doing?  What do we need to do differently to achieve this for students?

What if schools were places where students could….

Then we need leaders who…

Then we need teachers who…
Then we need parents who…

We will be using these images to generate conversations and next steps with our educational community.  Staff will be reflecting both individually and as a group to generate commitments that will move us closer to our vision.  How will you make your impact on this revolution?

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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

California Missions, Redesigned with Minecraft EDU

The Historic El Camino re-envisioned in MinecraftEDU

According to Dr. Mimi Ito of Connected learning, Gaming is the entertainment medium of this generation. By capitalizing upon students’ love of Minecraft, we can engage kids in curriculum in ways that were impossible before. The multiplayer aspects of Minecraft and the creativity it fosters within any type of student, opens the doors to deeper understanding.

A bit of backstory, Minecraft is a popular sandbox game, think virtual legos. It is an amazing learning tool because it allows students to discover, to create, and to imagine in ways that are impossible in a traditional classroom setting. It is amazing to see the creative power that students can unleash in the world of Minecraft.

Sometimes it is hard to know where to begin with a new tool. When I started on my Minecraft journey, the first order of business for me was to play the game with no strings attached, just play, just for me, not for thinking about my educational agenda. Once you are comfortable with the game, it is far easier to dive in and think about the powerful tools that MinecraftEDU has that are specific to assisting teachers in utilizing the game in the classroom.  

The idea of gaming melding with education may seem odd to some, but according to Katie Salen, a game designer, animator, and educator:“Playing video games is a kind of literacy. Not the literacy that helps us read books or write term papers, but the kind of literacy that helps us make or critique the systems we live in…. When we learn to play games with an eye toward uncovering their procedural rhetorics, we learn to ask questions about the models such games present.”

Gaming teaches students skills we want them to have in the real world. It teaches perseverance and risk taking. It allows students to work together to solve problems and to discover solutions. It allows kids to understand how steps of a puzzle fit together to allow a person to reach a goal. All of these skills are essential to real life vocations.

Currently, I am working with grade 4 students on crafting improved missions in Minecraft. The project stemmed from the question: “How might we modernize the California Mission project and focus on student learning?”

Working in the tutorial world in Minecraft EDU

Beginning with a far fetched idea of integrating philosophical questions of colonization on future alien planets (see original assignment), the teachers and I reached a consensus to utilize MinecraftEDU as a way to leverage connected learning in the classroom (see final version).

Connected learning is about the crossroads of interest and education (see a good introductory article on Edudemic, What is Connected Learning? ) In order to capitalize upon student learning, tapping into their interests is an ideal place to start. Thus, Minecraft was a go to platform.

Surveying the classes, (see survey)we found in each room there were several self-proclaimed experts which we realized would make the project both easier and more challenging. As a team, we brainstormed skills we thought would be tested while utilizing the game as a learning platform: risk taking, perseverance, patience, collaboration, and team-work all came up continuously.

Each mission will be designed by two students. They have had the opportunity to work through a Minecraft EDU tutorial world, and are now diving deep into planning out their missions on paper before constructing it in Minecraft. Students must propose the materials that they need to their teachers and justify why they feel they need the items.

We are thrilled about the possibilities of combining gaming and PBL and more.

Minecraft resources as well:

Minecraft Introduction
Collaborating on navigating the tutorial world in Minecraft EDU

Can Minecraft be Educational?