Saturday, April 27, 2013

It All Comes Back to a Good Story

Here in Los Altos, we just wrapped up a series of Innovation days with our 1st through 4th grade teachers where we asked them to rethink everything about their practices and beliefs regarding education. This last training day revolved around creating an action plan for implementing some of their new ideas into next year’s classrooms. As I wandered the room, many teachers were discussing ways to break away from the current model of teaching each subject in isolation. In most schools, it’s common for teachers to have designated times for teaching reading, math, writing, and science, and often, the daily schedule is posted for students to follow. Teachers were inspired to want to try new strategies such as project-based learning and design thinking but were finding roadblocks when looking for time to implement these types of learning activities. Suddenly, the words “thematic units” started popping up and teachers began discussing ways to mix the cross-curricular themes into more blended learning opportunities. Experienced classroom teachers commented, “This is the way we used to teach.”

As with everything, the pendulum is swinging back to a better balanced, hands-on approach to learning, updated and reinvented. Teachers blending math, science, reading, writing, and technology into incredible projects that allow students to apply concepts to real-world situations and challenges. Why? It makes a better story.

Everyone loves a great story. Story is a part of our DNA and we know that students learn and retain more when information is relevant and connected to their world through story. It’s difficult to tell a great story when you’re stuck working within one subject area. You can’t achieve the depth and tap into passions without expanding across the curriculum. Teachers are more excited to teach and students are more excited to learn when you can stretch across subject areas. Building a great project takes time, but it’s worth it. You allow students to dig deep and explore topics instead of rock skipping through the textbook. They not only get a chance to hear a great story, they become creators and writers of a great story.

Some of the best quotes from teachers about what they learned through this experience;
  • “Be creative, don’t hold back your imagination.”
  • “Focus on student passions and my passion.”
  • “It’s OK to not be like everyone else.”
  • “It’s OK to question teaching practices, fail, and try again.”
  • “Take risks with my kids.”
  • “It takes time.”
  • “My paradigm has been diced, sliced, chopped, then put back together in a brand new way.”
We are creating a new story. How are you breaking away from the isolated curriculum model? What story are you creating?

By: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach, Los Altos School District
Twitter: @kamithor

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Question the Answers

Best for students or what is most convenient for adults?

“Student-centered” learning is a hot topic in the world of education, no doubt, but what does that really mean and what are the implications for schools if taken to its logical end? For the community of Lindsay Unified, a K-12 school district in the heart of the Central Valley, “student-centered” is the foundational idea upon which every educational decision has been made for the past 5 years, with astounding results.

Kami Thordarson, the LASD Innovative Strategies Coach, and I had the opportunity to visit Lindsay Unified a few weeks back. We spoke with students, met with teachers and administrators and got a first-hand look at this student-centered district. Over the course of that day, we learned that Lindsay Unified began their journey with a question: If the system currently in place is failing students, why not change the system to better meet student needs?

With that question, they began a process of pushing back against prescribed answers and began focusing on student empowerment and student need. They moved away from a traditional educational model to a Performance Based System. For example, in this new system, students at every grade level have an understanding of what standards they have completed in each content area, what they still need to learn and are encouraged to learn at their own pace. There are third graders receiving instruction in 5th grade content areas! There are eighth graders taking classes at the high school because they have progressed beyond the middle school curriculum! An emphasis is placed on critical thinking and problem solving skills, moving students beyond just mastering the basic skills.

And how’s this for a revolutionary concept? Instead of tailoring a school’s master schedule around what would be most convenient for adults, schedules are created around what would be most conducive to learning, flexibility across grade levels and student collaboration. It seems so obvious but in reality, this is a real mind shift away from the roots of our educational system, a system under which a majority of our nations’ schools still operate.


The current educational system was born at the height of the Industrial Revolution, out of a necessity for workers that could support a growing society. Schools were built around the idea of preparing students for a future in the labor force. The physical space of schools and factories even looked similar.


In the past 100 years since it became compulsory that all students in the U.S. attend school, there have been revolutionary shifts in the way we view education, how students learn and what preparation students need to be successful in life.

We know that kids and adults learn best when they are:
  • engaged in collaborative, hands-on projects that require them to pull knowledge from many different sources and curricular areas
  • given real-world problems to solve and, thus, are invested in their learning and
  • quite simply, encouraged to have fun working through the learning process!

Kids are no longer viewed as products to be churned out as on an assembly line but instead beings whose creativity and skills must be nurtured and cultivated in order to prepare them for their future in college and/or career.

It is astounding to consider that given this profound shift in the way we view learning, that our schools still continue to operate as if they are still stuck in the year 1913 instead of 2013.

Lindsay Unified is an inspiring example of how a group of adults continually look past how things have always been done and, with student empowerment firmly in mind, choose to take the risk of trying something new in the hopes that student needs will be met, even at the risk of momentary failure.

So I leave you with this question: What would your classroom, school or district look like if you began to question the answers?

By Raquel Matteroli, Coordinator of Categorical Programs and Student Assessment

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Design Challenge - Marshmallow Style

What happens when you put 20 kindergarten teachers in a room and a bunch of marshmallows?  Magic!  The kindergarten teachers came together for a ReThink day full of wonder and creativity.  They started off with a marshmallow challenge.  This challenge was a spinoff of the famous marshmallow challenge.  The well-known marshmallow challenge uses 20 strands of spaghetti, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string and 1 marshmallow.  The object is to construct the tallest structure placing the marshmallow on top within 18 minutes.  Our challenge in the iLearn studio was slightly different because of the materials provided.  The teachers were provided with 20 coffee stirrers, 5 large straws, 2 Twizzlers®, and 14 marshmallows.  They also needed to create the tallest structure using those materials with 18 minutes to complete it. 

There was a lot of laughter, excitement and talking around the activity, but what the teachers discovered was they needed to work together collaboratively by communicating plans and ideas as well as problem solve.  One of the most important discoveries was the idea of prototyping and iterations to that prototype in order to get a freestanding structure.

Many groups had success building a freestanding structure and others wanted us to take the picture fast before theirs’ toppled over!  The highest structure stood at 27 inches.

The teachers were provided with kits to take back to their classrooms in order for them to implement the activity with their kindergarten students.  There was one teacher who took it back and did with her students the next day!  Before the teachers met again to reflect on the activity they all had their students complete the activity.  Here is one teacher’s experience:

Ms. Goines quote and class experience:  “We did the Marshmallow Challenge today! Very fun and quite interesting. You really get a picture of student social dynamics. Frustrating for many as they just wanted to make it stand. Turned into a lesson on working through frustrations, compromising, perseverance, and knowing that it's okay if something "fails." Best part: tallest student structure was 12"...4" taller than our teacher (group) structure on training day. Yes!”

Teachers and students alike discovered some of the same elements needed to complete the task.  It was a fun learning experience for all!

By: Karen Wilson, STEM Coach

Friday, April 12, 2013

SEC2013: Learning Rocked and Redesigned!

SEC2013: Learning Rocked and Redesigned!
Inaugural new learning program from Los Altos School District (LASD)

LASD is excited to announce that we are offering a new opportunity for current sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students to share their ideas for reimagining and redesigning their educational experience, using the design thinking model. We know students are full of ideas about how learning can be improved—and this is the time for us to learn from them with the introduction of our new program, the Student Educational Conference (SEC2013). 

SEC2013 is an innovative program designed to teach children a range of important critical thinking skills. It promises to encourage them to express their creativity and learn important lessons regarding teamwork and collaboration, systems design, performance outcomes and influencing others. 70 students from across the Los Altos School District will get the unique chance to work with facilitators to create and prototype new ways of learning.

Selected students will also present their ideas to a panel of school district and community members on the last day of the conference. The panel is hoping to elect a few ideas for actual implementation during the next school year by student teams. Our goal is that students will walk away knowing that their voices are important in our learning revolution and their input is valued and actionable.
In addition, some incredible speakers will come to share their experiences and inspire the participating students. Nikhil Goyal, 17-year-old author ofOne Size Does Not Fit All, will address the conference in an opening keynote. Sal Khan will add his vision of what’s possible in education, and Chris Gerdes will speak about prototyping and share some exciting innovations happening in his Stanford design lab.

Students may start applying now through our website: 

All applications are due by May 11th and we will notify selected students will be notified by May 18th.  
 The conference will take place June 13 and 14 from 8:30-4:00 p.m., and conclude on Saturday, June 15, from 8:30-12:00 p.m. All conference activities will happen at the Covington campus.

We are currently looking for sponsors to help with this event. If you are interested, please fill out the sponsorship form and we will send you more information.

While the students participating in the conference will benefit from this special learning experience, all parents and students in the district will know that we care deeply about students’ feedback regarding what makes an ideal educational environment. We’re counting on your support and participation!

By: Alyssa Gallagher, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction and Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Extreme by Design Workshop

Extreme by Design is a film by journalist, Ralph King. The film documents the journey of Stanford students in the Design for Extreme Affordability class. The class is a multidisciplinary, project-based course where students work in teams, using design thinking methods, to develop products and services that serve the needs of the world’s poor. Using the film as a way to model design thinking, Ralph has developed a workshop format that allows viewers to stop at various intervals and practice the process. He has been working to bring this unique workshop experience to different audiences, including students, parents, and teachers. Here in Los Altos, we started with a group of 7th and 8th grade students at Blach Junior High.

Thirty students arrived early for a late start day. They came in looking a bit sleep deprived but smiling. After a few warm-up activities to get their blood flowing and their brains thinking, the facilitators began setting the stage for the workshop. Their challenge was to rethink the junior high elective experience. They began by interviewing each other and asking open ended questions about their partner’s current elective. They listened and took notes, continuing to ask questions that lead to further understanding. After watching a portion of the film, they discussed the importance of empathizing in the design process. Following this came defining, ideating, and prototyping, in between watching Stanford students address real-world issues using the same skills. 

Students were highly engaged and excited when they entered the prototyping phase. They were eager to gather materials and had no trouble jumping in and creating something that represented their idea. We saw creative models that involved classroom spaces and routines to new strategies such as the "helicopter of choice." Students were enthusiastic to share and couldn't wait to bring more ideas to their principal, Sandra McGonagle. She was just as excited as her students and promised to seriously consider their ideas for possible implementation.

Another important outcome of this experience was looking at how the film modeled teamwork. In the film, adult students struggled with collaboration issues; the same ones that often appear in the junior high classroom. The students in the film address conflict with honesty and in the end, valued reflection. It was also valuable for students to see that not every project was a winner and how important the testing and evaluation process is in the design cycle.

We plan to offer this same experience to both our parents and our teachers. We hope to continue to encourage design thinking within our community and feel the combination of hands on and video really help everyone see how the design process works and is applied to real world situations. In our district, we are working hard to bring student voices into the decision making process and this workshop let students experience a valuable tool for designing change. We hope many of these students will join our Student Ed-Con 2103: Learning Rocked and Redesigned this June!

By: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach
Twitter: @kamithor @stuedcon

What If...?

Those two little words are quite possibly my favorite two words when combined because together they have so much power.  To me, the utterance of these two words opens up a world of possibilities and signifies that the person using them doesn’t have all of the answers.  They are open to exploring ideas.  One person asking, “What if..?” is intriguing, a collective group of thought leaders within an organization asking, “What if...?” is powerful.

Earlier this week we had a “What if..?” conversation in LASD with a group of twenty administrators, teachers, parents and board members all focused on brainstorming ideas that could improve learning for all students.   We structured this conversation to fall in line with our “Educational Blueprint,” part of our strategic planning process, where we celebrate accomplishments towards our five years goals and set short term objectives.  So while the process of strategically planning for the future isn’t a new concept in our district, the format of this meeting was different that what our group is accustomed to.  

The outcomes from our ninety minutes together were truly exciting.  In less than an hour, we brainstormed over 300 ideas that we believe will improve student learning for all students in our district  and then focused in on 50 of those ideas that may warrant further investigation and exploration.  A range of ideas were generated that surprisingly fell into natural groupings around concepts such as  student centered learning, skills/content, grades/assessments, class size/groupings of students, community partnerships, instructional day, facilities and instructional approaches.  I recognize that idea generation is only the first step, but it is truly an important one in developing the vision for the future of student learning.  

A little less than two years ago, we engaged in a similar process with our administrative team to brainstorm possibilities.  Looking back, I am proud to share that we have realized much of what we brainstormed - a flexible professional learning space for teachers, support for teachers in rethinking instruction, instructional coaches and increased professional learning opportunities.  As a district, we have accomplished an amazing amount in a relatively short period of time.  Would any of this have happened if we weren’t actively engaging in “What if...?” conversations?  

When was the last time you had a “What if..?” conversation?  Maybe it is time to structure one for your team, your classroom, or even your family.  If you are ready to jump into a “What if...?” conversation, I encourage you to spend some time on the front end planning the facilitation of the conversation.  An effective hour long brainstorming conversation, easily takes a few hours of pre-work to ensure you will get the very best of your team.  Here is a list of suggestions, largely taken from the work of Tina Seelig, author of inGenius (which has a fabulous chapter on how to host brainstorming meetings):

  • ensure every participant understands their role
While the perspective of every participant is valued, it was important for us to clarify their role and set accurate expectations.  Those in the brainstorming session would not necessarily be the ones making the decisions.

  • get the group warmed up prior to brainstorming.
We used a combine & connect activity called “Two Buckets”  One bucket had a list of name brands, the other bucket had a list of product categories.  Participants selected cards and paired up.  Their challenge? Create a new product with the information they were given and design a slogan using six words or less.  This is a quick activity that requires all participants to loosen up and begin exploring new ideas.  One of our teams developed a “Harley Davidson Car Seat” with the slogan “Ride Safe in Style.”

  • establish & review brainstorming rules
    • reiterate that THERE ARE NO BAD IDEAS
    • do not evaluate ideas as they come but include everything
    • encourage wild and crazy ideas
    • defer judgement and push beyond obvious solutions

  • encourage flare!  Prepare questions that can be used to spur new ideas. The questions are essential because the way you ask the question will frame all of the solutions. Below are a few sample questions we used -
What if we could create a school guided by the best instructional, innovative, & creative practices available? What would that look like?  
If money was no object, what instructional practices would we want to see implemented across the grades/school sites?
If we had the opportunity to visit a school in the year 2113, what would it look like?  
If we wanted to prepare a student to be the individual that cures cancer/solves world hunger/eliminates global warming, what skills would he/she need to learn and what would their educational program look like, K-8?  
What kind of educational program would students create, if given the chance? How could we build in student choice throughout the instructional day?

  • spend time narrowing the focus to provide closure
After brainstorming in small groups, we asked every participant to place a red circle next to idea with the biggest impact; a blue circle next to the “Pie in the Sky” idea,  a yellow circle next to quickly implemented ideas; & a green circle next to ideas that are the most cost-effective.  This allowed every participant to have say in highlighting their favorite idea.

I encourage you to take the opportunity to engage in thoughtful brainstorming with colleagues, family, friends and students.  The possibilities are endless.  “What if...?”

Contributed by Alyssa Gallagher, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction