Friday, November 30, 2012

Shhh.....I just need time to think!

   We live in a world of constant motion with a continuous stream of information coming at us from email, cell phones, ipads, and television. We’re checking Twitter and Facebook, seeing who pinned what on Pinterest, following friends on Instagram, and instant messaging. I sometimes feel that I spend my entire day just reacting to the multitude of inputs around me. Sometimes, I just need time to think. I need the world to quiet, and I need to process and reflect. It’s the same for students.
  I think there are two basic kinds of kids. One is the student who raises his hand before you even finish giving directions and asks, “Can we work with a partner?” and the other is the one that quietly walks up to you after hearing directions and says, “Can we work on our own?” Sure, there are a lot of kids who fall somewhere in between, but students tend to lean towards one or the other; the social butterflies or the deep thinkers. Everything I’m reading today talks about collaboration being an important part of instruction and I’m not disagreeing. I spend most of my day collaborating with others and it’s a vital piece of how the world functions. However, I hope that we leave time for our deep thinkers as well. We learn from each other. The quiet ones need to work with the outspoken and learn to get their voice in the room. The ones who are quick to speak need to learn the value of sitting and mulling over their ideas before going with the first one that pops into their heads. It’s all about balance.
  Teachers need to consider this when planning. We have so much material and knowledge that we feel we must impart to our students within a given amount of time that sometimes  classrooms are constantly shifting from this to that with barely time to breath in between.  I’ve been there with my students, and I know we all go home exhausted from the constant pace and the nonstop need to react quickly and move on to what’s next. 
by verbeeldingskr
   How do we find balance? Focus on what’s most important. Know your students and assess what knowledge is needed. Teach your students to ask great questions and coach them through answering them. Use the teacher’s manuals as a guide and not an official mandate for what you need to teach that day. Find what matters most and let go of some of the rest. Give students time for collaboration and time for individual thought. Help them learn to manage the flow of information and become better listeners. Let the social ones teach the quiet ones how to speak out appropriately and let the quiet ones model what it looks like to deep think through a task. Allow time for reflection and a brain break when transitioning between subjects.
  In our fast paced world, think about helping our students learn to thoughtfully react to the stream of information around them, leading to quality collaboration. Sometimes it’s OK to turn off and tune out. We just need time to think.

by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Integrating Technology in LASD...A ScreenCast Update

It has only been a few months in my role as the Technology Integration Coach, but I feel that we have started on a journey to provide more opportunities for teachers and students to embrace technology in their classrooms.  A few weeks ago, I presented an update with regards to our Educational Technology happenings during a Los Altos School District Parent Education Coffee. 

With our iLead Learner teachers sharing technology tools and practices at our sites, our Leadership Technology Advisory Group revamping our Student Acceptable Use Policy and a Chromebook rollout in all fifth and sixth grade classrooms, we are making strides to integrate technology more seamlessly throughout our curriculum here in Los Altos.

In an effort to reach out to those that weren’t able to attend the Parent Coffee, I went ahead and used Camtasia to screencast my Prezi presentation.  Technically speaking, I find Camtasia to be really easy to use.  The only trick is being forgiving of myself for minor mistakes and my speaking skills when something goes up on the web!  Avoiding spending an inordinate amount of time to finish the screencast is the biggest challenge of all!  I look forward to presenting another update in the spring to share how far the teachers and students have come since today.  Meaningful and inspiring projects are in the works!

Ellen Kraska is the Technology Integration Instructional Coach within the Los Altos School District. She is passionate about edtech, creativity and collaboration within innovative learning environments. You can email her at and/or follow her on Twitter @kraskae.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Teachers as Curriculum Designers

Designing a better backpack.

    I spent some time learning about the Design Thinking process this summer by attending a workshop at the Stanford d-school. This fall, I have been sharing these strategies with some of our students, ranging from second grade to sixth grade. It’s been exciting to watch our students get into the process and take to designing like ducks to water.  Children do it naturally, letting creativity run wild during brainstorming and prototyping. They ask questions and gather information, sort and organize their ideas, and aren’t afraid to start hot gluing things together in search of the perfect end product. When it doesn’t quite look like their original vision, they’re quick to rip things apart and start over or modify and expand their vision as they go. Most of the time they are happy with their final prototypes and usually have some significant insight while reflecting on what could be improved if they were to repeat the process.  
Design Thinking Process
    Putting adults through the same process is interesting. They’re wonderful at asking great questions and gathering information, but letting go and finding their creative groove takes a bit longer. One of my goals this year has been to help teachers see themselves as designers. I’m hoping they will see the connections and the value of using the Design Thinking process to become curriculum designers. We’ve been discussing how pre-assessments can be a way to gain empathy for students and diagnose specific needs of students, just like asking questions and then clarifying help you deep dive into the needs of a user. Once they know where to focus, the next step is looking at the materials that are available and then brainstorming a creative way to put it all together. When teachers see the pacing guides and teacher’s manuals as simply another tool in their toolbox, they can begin to see ways to blend in other tools and craft their lessons to meet that particular group of students needs in that moment. Curriculum guides, technology, websites and applications, projects, delivery strategies, and any other resources you can find are your prototyping tools. This is the tricky part for teachers because it involves risk. For some teachers, there's great comfort in following a guideline and they're a bit reluctant to pick up the glue gun and start putting pieces together. Finding the right blend is creative design work, and sometimes we get the results we want, and other times we need to reiterate and try again. Taking time to reflect and look at the end results of our attempts is a crucial piece to improving and gaining confidence in the process.
  The benefit of this mind shift is that our students are getting a customized learning environment that meets their specific needs. We are leaving the one size fits all behind and using our educator expertise to take control of our curriculum and design and refine our materials to make the best learning experiences for our students and ourselves. 

By: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Friday, November 16, 2012


Wonder is an amazing trait and it seems to be following me around recently. I’ve heard so many whispers regarding wonder that I just needed to write about it. It started out last month when I shared three of my favorite books with our 7th graders - I did my own Book Talks. One book I shared is an inspiring book called Wonder by R.J. Palacio. If you need an uplifting, touching book to read over the many coming holidays - I would highly recommend this one. It might just change your life.

At home, my youngest son must be going through some sort of developmental phase right now, because his wondering self is back - I haven’t seen him since he was three or so (he’s almost 10). Right now it is question after question. Thankfully they’re deeper than when he was three, but he is curious about EVERYTHING!

To help me out with scratching his wondering itch, I came across an AMAZING website this week called Wonderopolis. “It’s a place where wonder and learning are nurtured through the power of discovery, creativity and imagination.” From avalanches to  helicopters, they do a great job of providing succinct explanations, awesome visuals and videos, key vocabulary, and create connections for you that you may not otherwise think of. You can even nominate your own wonder. This is one of the best sites for creative learning that I have seen in ages. I wonder if junior high kids would like an elective class to explore their own wonders? Hmm...

Here’s to keeping wonder alive!

by Sandra McGonagle, Blach Principal

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Science of Storytelling

Good storytelling is powerful.  I came across an article by Jonathan Gottschall, the author of The Storytelling Animal. Apparently, in business, storytelling is trending. In his article, "Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon," he says, "Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence." 

It was time to rethink storytelling. Most teachers are natural storytellers and weave their magic throughout the day. We don't consider storytelling a weapon but an engaging way to deliver content. In my classroom, I used storytelling constantly, to bring history to life, to give directions, to connect with students. I hadn't thought about how or why I told stories; it just made sense. Gottschall says, "there is an important lesson about the molding power of story. When we read dry, factual arguments, we read with our dukes up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this seems to leave us defenseless."

I teach my students how to write stories, but am I teaching my students to be good consumers of stories? Stories are delivery systems for the teller's agenda. I should be teaching my students to be critical thinkers of all stories, not just happy listeners.  This includes redefining story as not just something that takes place in a book. Good storytellers will play our emotions until we lose track of rational thought and follow along like the Pied Piper. We see it in advertising, in television shows, and in marketing campaigns aimed at young people. Gottschall concludes that "in a world full of black belt storytellers, we had all better start training our defenses." While teaching students to become great storytellers, I also need to be teaching them how to recognize them.

by: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Monday, November 5, 2012

Creating Innovators

Last night, Kami Thordarson, LASD Innovative Strategies Coach and I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Tony Wagner speak.  He provided the opening keynote for the K12 Academic Summit where we are presenting our work on "Blended Learning in Math with Khan Academy."  Dr. Tony Wagner, the author of The Global Achievement Gap & more recently Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World,  is now the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard.  He has done extensive work around improving student learning.  As a fan of his books, we were very much looking forward to hearing him speak.  Here are a few of our takeaways:
  • Find time to allow students to explore their passions.
  • Play, passion and purpose are the things that really matter in learning
  • There's no competitive advantage to knowing anything that can be "googled"
  • It's about what you can do with what you know.
  • Content is important but the value added is the skill
  • We must increase student to student interactions.
  • Let's hold ourselves accountable for what matters most.
  • The culture of schooling is radically at odds with the culture of learning. 
  • An innovator is just a creative problem solver. We are all born curious and creative.
Many teachers in LASD are currently reading Creating Innovators.  In fact, this week we are hosting our first ever book club to discuss many of the concepts shared by Dr. Wagner.  I look forward to the discussion and know this will be the first of many to come.

by Alyssa Gallagher, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction