Friday, September 28, 2012

Tapping Into Our Native Genius

What is your native genius?   This is the question that was posed by Liz Wiseman, author of the book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, last week during a meeting with all LASD principals and instructional coaches.    A native genius, as defined by Liz,  is something that people do, not only exceptionally well, but absolutely naturally. They do it easily (without extra effort) and freely (without condition)…They get results that are head-and-shoulders above others but they do it without breaking a sweat.  Once the question was posed, the room became quiet and you could feel a little unease in the room. Why is it that we have such a hard time publicly sharing what we instinctively know we are good at?   This was only the beginning of a two and half hour session with Liz that really helped to push our thinking on how we individually utilize our own native genius to bring out the absolute best in those we work with and become a multiplier within our organization.  

A Multiplier can amplify the smarts and capabilities of those around them – they are as Wiseman and McKeown define them, 'genius makers'.    Research has shown that multipliers can actually double the intelligence you get from your workforce.  Tapping into an individual’s native genius is one aspect of becoming a multiplier, but there are five key behaviors that a Multiplier demonstrates:  (short multiplier video) 

  1. Attract and Optimize Talent – Multipliers lead people by operating as Talent Magnet which allows them to attract and deploy talent to its fullest potential
  2. Create Intensity That Requires the Best Thinking – Multipliers are Liberators, establishing a highly motivating work environment where everyone is free to think and expected to do their best work
  3. Extend Challenges – Multipliers operate as Challengers by seeding opportunities, laying down a challenge and generating a belief that it can be done
  4. Debate Decisions – Multipliers engage people in debating issues upfront, leading to decisions that people understand and can execute
  5. Instill Ownership and Accountability – Multipliers are Investors, establishing high expectations and hold themselves and others accountable to these standards

Having the opportunity to work with Liz and our leadership team is extremely exciting.  I hope that our entire team of leaders in LASD can truly operate as multipliers, but I can’t stop thinking about what might happen in our schools if every teacher aspired to be a multiplier.   What then becomes possible?  Are we tapping into the native genius of each child in our school system?  What does that even look like?  What if we were able to double the intelligence we get from our students?   I am passionate about investigating the answers to these questions and excited about the possibilities within our school district if we are successful.  

by Alyssa Gallagher, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Our Thinking Got Bigger!"

This year, I left the classroom to take a new position as our district's Innovative Strategies Coach. The first few weeks of school, I thought, "What have I done? I miss my students, I have no idea what I'm doing, and I'm not sure I know enough to make a difference." Fortunately, I have teachers that have invited me into their classrooms to work with their students.  Last week, I stepped into a second grade classroom. The teacher had asked me to come in and work with students on teambuilding and discuss the importance of teamwork. I started with a divergent thinking game (thank you Tiki Techs in Hawaii) that required students to make connections. It goes like this. Students stand in a circle and one student stands in the center and says, "I'm a tree!" Another student steps into the circle and becomes something that might be next to it or connected to the tree in some way. Here's how it went:

"I'm a tree!"                    
"I'm the grass!"
"I'm an apple!"
"I'm a bush!"
"I'm a butterfly!"

The fifth person stays in the center, everyone else returns to the outside circle, and we start with the butterfly. We continued this game until everyone had taken a turn. Students stepped into the circle and became more trees, the ground, and a leaf, until suddenly someone became a bear. Next, we had a hunter, and then, a hurricane. Yes! Things were changing.

Photo: Luc Viatour
Before we moved to our next activity, we debriefed for a moment and I asked the second graders what happened. I told them I noticed that at first, everyone was choosing some of the same things and thinking of simple objects. I asked them what changed. One little boy raised his hand and said, "Our thinking got bigger!" The clouds parted, the sun shone down, the choir sang! It was one of those golden moments in teaching when a student puts into words the exact thing you were hoping for and says it better than you could.

We finished with a short teambuilding activity and I left with a huge smile. I thought about that comment all weekend. That sweet second grader summed up my purpose in this new role. I need to help teachers with their thinking. I need them to see new connections and say, "Our thinking got bigger."

In order to do that, I need to stretch my thinking. I'm keeping up with Twitter, I have a stack of books next to my bed, I'm reading blogs and watching Ted Talks. I'm having as many conversations with teachers as I can and observing them in classrooms. I'm modeling new strategies and co-teaching students. I love my new job! No, I don't have all the answers. Yes, I am making mistakes along the way. However, I have a new passion for learning and I am challenged and excited to share as many innovative strategies as possible.  My thinking is getting bigger!

By: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

If You Build It...They Will Innovate!

We needed a space.  A space where educators could come together to brainstorm, share, plan and strategize.  A place to inspire teachers and help them transform their practice.

Ballroom A in June 2012.

That space was nicknamed Ballroom A. It was awful! Dark green carpet instantly brought to mind casinos, slot machines, run down hotel ballrooms, everything but…education. Tattered blinds hung on the windows and mismatched chairs sat looking depressed.  This was the space to inspire teachers!!? Eek! We had to do something! This is the story of how Ballroom A transformed into the iLearn Design Studio.

A photo of the Stanford Photo credit: website.
Last Spring, the AdCo team visited the Stanford for a collaborative meeting. With moving white boards, furniture on wheels and wide open spaces, the aims to “make space” for collaboration and the emergence of creative ideas. Principals came away from the experience raving to teachers about the dynamic experience.
       “Visit the!” they said. “Tours are on Fridays! It is so cool!” If only we could capture some of the creative spirit at the and bring it back to Los Altos!

During iLearn Summer Academy, Grace Choi and Gina McDonell create their vision for the classroom of the future.
iLearn Summer Academy
   Fast forward to the iLearn Summer Academy when 24 teachers and four facilitators had a professional development experience in Los Altos like never before. Jeffrey Fairchild donated the whiteboard furniture rental for the week-long teacher technology training program. The multi in Covington was transformed. The whiteboards, designed by MGTaylor and Atheneum International, allowed individuals to share their ideas and dreams with each other for the classrooms of the future.
Teams from Santa Rita and Almond Elementary utilize breakouts to collaborate in small groups.
In contrast to our classroom furniture, which constrains movement and flexible grouping, these whiteboard walls are on wheels and reconfigure to the needs of the group. During the week, teachers learned a plethora of technology tools, danced to fun music, listened to guest speaker presentations and brainstormed and collaborated in a fashion like never before. Visitors loved the energy in the room. Guest speakers from edtech companies said that they had never seen such an inspired group of educators. They were so impressed with Los Altos. The environment, the music and the content of the training channeled passion and energy for teachers to create change. We were on to something.
iLead Learners Jill Croft and Genie Sitler are energized after a visit from Edmodo.
Scanning Environments and Seeing Patterns
Inspired by the Stanford and the environment at the iLearn Summer Academy, we set out to create a mini iLearn space for our teachers in Los Altos. Our team wanted to  design and create a place devoted to teacher collaboration.  We visited the and took copious notes and tons of photos.  We delved into the book, Make Space and Courtney added lots of her post-it notes. 
Photo credit: Stanford website.

For months, everywhere I went, the iLearn Studio was on my mind.  I visited a classroom created by Shelby Biddy at Loyola with her hanging whiteboards and chart papers, explored Yahoo Inc.’s collaborative training space and visited 8works consulting space during a trip to London. 
I visited 8works collaborative space in downtown London.
I thought back to my years

in MGTaylor Navigation Centers and adult learning spaces like the Lean Learning Center. What did all of these spaces have in common? Patterns started to emerge.  The spaces share key elements: large whiteboards, furniture on wheels, bright accent colors to elicit creativity and space for people to move and learn.

Our team narrowed down a list of key components for our collaborative, creative space and the iLearn Studio was born.

*Whiteboards: Rolling and Wall Mounted
*Stackable chairs
*Lightweight, fliptop tables
*Furniture on wheels
*Bright colors for accent walls and chairs

Under construction: A bright blue color adds vitality to the space.
The new iLearn Studio
Reconfigurable and Flexible
Our work is multifaceted and we can configure our environment in a variety of approaches.  With moving walls and reconfigurable furniture, we can quickly transition from whole group learning experiences, to small breakouts and individual thinking spaces in minutes. In contrast to our classroom furniture, which constrains movement and flexible grouping, the whiteboard walls are on wheels and reconfigure to the needs of the group. The rolling, stacking and nesting furniture allow us to be flexible and agile. We can “make space” for small groups or large groups to convene.

Resource and Special Day Class Teachers in a recent session at the iLearn Studio.
Opportunities for Collaboration and Creative Expression

Large whiteboards allow people to stand up and share their ideas so all people can participate in the collaborative process. When ideas, notes and concepts are written on large whiteboards, it is amazing how group engagement and individual participation increases. People build on each other’s ideas and discuss ideas more openly, moving quickly through an iterative process.
Whiteboards encourage interaction and participation. 
A New Era
The iLearn Studio excites people! They love the bright “pop” of color on the chairs, they want to write on the walls and work together. It is a fresh start and a symbol of a new era in Los Altos. And I’m thrilled to be part of it! I’m thrilled that teams of teachers are using the space on planning days, teachers are dropping in for coaching support and teacher groups are having collaborative sessions in the studio.  I’m thrilled that over eighty teachers signed up for our iLearn classes. The quote from A Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come” is ringing true here! Teachers are coming in droves to the iLearn Studio to inform and transform their practice. 

Ultimately, another goal is for the iLearn Studio to inspire teachers to rethink their own classroom environments. Stay tuned for my next post when I’ll highlight some of the innovative changes teachers are making in their classroom environments to improve the student learning experience.

Ellen Kraska is the Technology Integration Instructional Coach for 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.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Power of the Post-it® Note

I recently encountered a unique situation when I peeled the last Post-it® Note away from its packaging.  After putting it to good use, I calmly walked over to the closet, in an attempt to replenish my supply, when I was forced to acknowledge the fact that the cupboard was bare!

After overcoming my initial shock and adding "Post-it® Notes" to the grocery list, I took a few moments to consider the question:  What was pre-Post-it® life like?  I am old enough to recall my father leaving phone messages on the counter, which inevitably "blew away"; friends taping notes to my locker, leaving behind a sticky mess; a traditional bookmark becoming dislodged from a carelessly tossed novel, wreaking havoc with my reading flow; and using notebook paper for brainstorming sessions, leaving me bound by the order of my thoughts or shackled to the grueling process of recopying my reorganized ideas -- How did we function in a Post-it® free world?

Returning to my desk and surveying my surroundings, I suddenly realize that I'm swimming in a sea of Post-its®!  Several mark lesson ideas in resources on my shelves; my husband has left me a note on a Post-it®, which dutifully clings to my computer screen awaiting deciphering; a scrunched up Post-it® is wedged in a corner by the filing cabinet, evidence of my cat's lack of perseverance; a Post-it® has replaced the traditional check register, documenting spending until I take the time to access my online bank; and a number of Post-its® peek out from a packet I received at a recent training, increasing the likelihood that I will refer back to these materials at some point this decade.  As my mind registers the presence of the numerous Post-its® in my immediate vicinity, I begin to marvel at their power.  

It seems as though the Post-it® Note was destined for power from the outset -- its advent being an example of serendipity at its finest.  A mistake (whose value was not immediately recognized) yielding an infinite number of applications.  How could an entity with such a backstory not achieve greatness?

In addition to their origin, Post-it® Notes also derive power from their essence.  By their very nature, Post-it® Notes improve functionality at a low cost.  This functionality is impacted by their versatility.  In a classroom, one sticky has the potential of serving an infinite number of purposes:  Informal assessments, data collection, class surveys, brainstorming tools, collaborative aides, bookmarks, placeholders, a convenient way record a thought or make a label, the possibilities are endless…

Brainstorming at Stanford's d.School
I suddenly realize that, during my education and over the course of my professional career, I have not sat through one minute of Post-it® Note training.  No entity for which I have worked has crafted an acceptable usage policy for Post-its®.  No one has ever required me to read through a terms of service agreement before purchasing or using Post-it® Notes – and therein lies yet another inherent source of power, their ease of deployment.  Functional, versatile, easy to implement, no training time or costs, could Post-it® Notes be the ultimate user friendly tool?

As I move to discard the final piece of packaging, I am struck by the irony.  This product, whose adhesive nature is minimal, has found an enduring place in my world.  Simplicity of design yields an infinite number of applications.  Scraps of paper, revolutionizing the world.  The Post-it® Note, I surmise, is one of those entities whose presence has become so ingrained in our way of life that it nearly always goes unnoticed until its absence commands our attention.  These realizations inspire me to pay hommage to the Post-it® in this blog.  Its power, derived from its origin, essence, and invisibility, raises its status, in my mind, to that of superhero.  I invite you to join me as I chant:  All hail the Post-it® Note!  What would we do without you?

by: Courtney Cadwell, STEM Instructional Coach, @CourtneyCadwell

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Designing a Creative Matrix for Instruction

Hacking the Matrix

I love science fiction and action movies and it doesn't get much better than The Matrix trilogy. At the time the Matrix was released in 1999, it was forging new roads in visual effects and in its use of technology. Machines were taking over the world and humans needed to rebel. As I work with teachers, some are feeling like Neo; threatened by machines and needing to rebel. For those teachers, I wish I had magic glasses that would let them see into the matrix to better understand how it's constructed, because I picture instruction like a huge creative matrix, and as teachers, we write the code.

In math, a matrix is an array of rows and columns made up of elements, It is also defined as something that constitutes the place or point from which something else originates, takes form, or develops. When applied to instruction, it's an array of tools, strategies, and design elements that form a point where students develop meaning and learning takes place.

Taking Inventory

The first step to designing a more creative matrix, is to take inventory of your current matrix. Think about your curriculum and the tools that you rely on most as you ask the following questions:

What tools, resources, and strategies
do you already have in place?
  • What is your "go to" mode of instruction? Direct instruction? Teamwork?
  • Do you spend most of your time in front of the room or are you moving with your students?
  • Do you follow the curriculum guides lesson by lesson, or do you occasionally venture down a rabbit hole?
  • Does technology play a role in your instruction? If so, how much?
  • Do you deliver curriculum or help students discover curriculum?
  • Is there balance between instruction and learning?
  • What do you feel are your strengths as a teacher? Weaknesses?
As you think about your current practices and materials, evaluate their effectiveness. Do they engage students? Are they modeling 21st century skills? Are you feeling the creativity flow through your students and your classroom? If not, you may have some code that needs rewriting. 

Expanding the Matrix 
Re-design your matrix
If your matrix needs some reloading, (this would be part two of the trilogy for those of you following my Matrix analogy) think through some design elements to see where you can upgrade your methods or materials. You are the designer of learning in your classroom so be creative! Think about movement in your classroom. Not just the physical movement of students, but how you're leading and guiding students towards key ideas. Build harmony between lessons, tools, and concepts. Look at your classroom interactions and increase collaboration. 

Maybe you need more than a Matrix Reloaded, maybe you need a Matrix Revolution. Model innovation by re-thinking your entire practice and reconstructing your classroom. Re-invent your space,  explore project based learning, learn about design thinking, flip a few lessons, always assume there's another way. Cultivate creative learners and offer students opportunities to focus on process over product. Model taking risks, failing, and acting on what you learn. Teach students how to see challenges and solutions from every angle while learning how to ask the right questions.  Today's students are not just consumers of technology but need to learn to be creators of technology, and while we are not all able to write complicated computer code, we can encourage students to be curious, to be passionate, to be risk takers and persevere. Building those skills and opportunities into your creative matrix will help your students succeed at designing their own matrix. Super intelligent machines may sometime decide to take over the world and we may need students who know how to reboot the matrix.

By: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach