Friday, May 17, 2013


“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man how to fish and he can feed himself for life.”

This proverb speaks to education. While content is important, it is more impactful to teach students how to learn.  Instilling that motivation, drive, perseverance and curiosity about the world we live in will make a student successful in life.  Giving a student a task and the tools to complete the task without giving them step-by-step instructions gives students the opportunity to think and problem-solve.  We need to let our students think, make decisions and create a variety of ways to show us, the educators, what they know about a topic. 

Students need experiences to develop their brain in order to make connections to the world around them.  During a course I took called Reading Research in Education I read many articles pertaining to education, but there was one article that the professor apologized for having us read because it was quite dry.  It was about the “white matter” of the brain where the myelin is developed.  Myelin is a white fatty substance that coats the cables, known as axons that are found in the brain where the “white matter” is located.  Myelin is considered to be the conductor for the brain’s signals.  It was found that the myelin plays a greater role in transferring information than once believed. The layers of myelin develop over time and are not finished developing until between the ages of 25 to 30.

Since this myelin is still developing throughout early adulthood there is a question of whether it has an impact on intelligence.  There is a correlation between the complexity of skills being learned and the degree of changes in the white matter that occur. It became one of the most interesting articles the class read and we brought it up throughout the semester because it described how the experiences the students have now will impact them the most for their future.  We came to realize that as teachers we contribute in large part to developing students‘ myelin.  We became the “myelinators.” As educators, we are so important to students’ lives, and what we present to them in one year are the foundations on what they will build to the next.  One way to build these experiences is to keep curiosity alive! 

How do you keep curiosity alive?  Curiosity is the root of learning.  When a student is curious they begin to ask questions.  When children are very young, they are in the natural state of asking “why?”  They want to know about everything.  How can we bottle that and keep it as children grow older and become students? How can we spark that curiosity in the classroom?

Asking the right types of questions can ignite wonder and give the students the opportunity to ask more questions.  The website, Wonderopolis provides a “wonder” question everyday.  Another way is to set the stage for curiosity by demonstrating an experiment without explaining it or providing a video without words like the ones from the KhanAcademy project site.  Science is so fascinating and intriguing that it provides an easy pathway to curiosity.  Next time you are planning a lesson, think about what will spark curiosity in your students.

What sparks your curiosity?

By:  Karen Wilson, STEM Coach

Fields, Douglas R. (2008).  White Matter Matters.  Scientific American, March, 54-61.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Reflection & Celebration

“Wahoo! This is such an exciting and great opportunity! Thank you on behalf of my students!”  LASD Teacher in response to Innovative Teacher Grants

“The conversations I am hearing around campus are so exciting-change is in the air!”
“I am so excited with the direction we are moving as a district.   You all have expressed just the right amount of  urgency while also being understanding to teachers' questions, concerns, and feelings of overwhelmedness.”

Spring is a tricky time in education.  The pace is fast.  We are fully engaged in the current school year and yet already looking ahead to next year.  We are exhasuted, overwhelmed thinking of everything we hoped to accomplish this school year and excited by all of the new possibilities next year will bring.  For these reasons, I find it is even more important to reflect and celebrate all that has been accomplished.  I am amazed and humbled by the collective accomplishments in LASD this year.  Below are  a few accomplishments that come to mind.  This is certainly not a comprehensive list.  If you have another LASD accomplishment to add, please feel free to add in the comments.   

LASD Admin Team Featured in New Educational Leadership Book
A newly released educational leadership book,  The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside our Schools shares stories of leaders who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them.  LASD administrators are listed among some of education's best leaders.  Under the leadership of Jeffrey Baier, LASD Superintendent, the LASD administrative team has been recognized for harnessing new ideas & energy to drive educational innovation. We have been so fortunate to work with the author Liz Wiseman and are honored to celebrate the launch of the new multiplier book with her next week.

Upgraded Units of Instruction
This school year we have worked with our entire teaching staff on upgrading units of instruction. The process has pushed our teachers outside of their comfort zone, but the results for students has been incredible.  We recently created this short video to highlight the process and encourage reflection among all teachers:

Student EdCon 2013: Learning Rocked & Redesigned
This year we will be launching our first ever Student Ed Conference.  The goals of this conference are to: increase student voice in our vision of revolutionizing learning and empower students to become creative doers and thinkers. This event will be held in June 2013 and will be an opportunity for students to participate in a design challenge to help reimagine the school day. Seventy to one hundred jr. high students will work in small action collaboratives with facilitators on a design challenge.  The conference will culminate with a showcase of ideas that have the potential to improve learning for all students.  

iLearn Classes
We launched an after school opt-in professional development program for teachers.  Thus far we have had the following
  • 20 different classes offered
  • over 80 hours of  after school professional development
  • topics included: project based learning, digital storytelling, design thinking, eportfolios, visual thinking & infographics, Creating Innovators Book Club, Google tools, edmodo, twitter, Maker Faire, hands on science video production, podcasting
  • 90 classroom teachers opted in to after school professional development during the fall session - 38% of teaching staff

Instructional Coaching
  • over 500 coaching interactions logged between August - March
  • interactions include modeling lessons, debriefing, instructional planning, observation, one on one coaching, small group coaching

Targeted Initiatives
  • Increase access to technology in special education teachers
    • equipped resource rooms with additional technology and provided teachers training to help them individualize instruction for all students.
  • Blended Learning
    • Target Audience: new Grade 5 & 6 Teachers, Jr. High Math Teachers New to Khan Academy in a Blended Learning Environment
    • provided a full day of training to equip new  teachers with knowledge and tools necessary to implement a blended learning environment in math to more effectively differentiate the instruction.
  • Innovative Strategies - Rethinking Instruction in Grades K-4
    • equip primary teachers with the tools, strategies and training to implement innovative instructional strategies to more effectively engage students and meet individual needs of students.
  • Systematic English Language Development
    • 120+ hours of professional development to over 65 teachers in Systematic ELD
    • 3 of the 7 elementary school sites have almost 100% of their teachers trained in Systematic ELD.

Innovative Teacher Grants
  • Completed 3 cycles for the LASD Innovative Teacher Grants
  • Teachers awarded grants had the support to work on an idea they believed would help improve the learning experience for their students.  Here are some of the ideas explored
    • Redesign Primary Classroom - removing desks replacing with round tables covered wtih idea paint, & WittFitts for seating.
    • Redesign Upper Grade Classroom - the room will be designed with the end users, our students, in mind using the design thinking process
    • Contemporary Music Instruction -  piloting the use of SMART music an online interactive tool to help with instrumental music practice.
    • Design Thinking - create lesson plans using design thinking and pull together a prototyping supply rack to use with students during the process.
    • Sound/Filming Studio - creation of space in the computer lab for students to use for filming with green screen and basic sound equipment that is accessible to all students and teachers on campus for multi-media projects.
    • STEM Project - creation a new STEM project aligned with a current fifth grade science unit incorporating materials from “Engineering is Elementary.”
    • Multi-media Projects -development & best methods for incorporating the creation of multi-media projects into the first grade curriculum.
    • Programmable Robots - collaboration with Khan Academy to have students create simple robots that can be programmed during their CSTEM class
    • ePortfolios: creation of electronic portfolios to move towards becoming a paperless classroom.
    • Robotics Elective:  creation of a Lego Robotics elective for jr. high students
    • Chromebooks in Primary Classes:  piloting the use of four Chromebooks in each classroom to determine the effectiveness of this tool in primary classes.
  • Now we get to focus on identifying which initiatives have been most successful and which ones we want to scale across our district

Lead Learners on Every Site
  • invested in 2-3 teachers (professional development, resources) on every site to enable them to be lead learners
  • lead learners worked to inspire teachers to change instructional practices and support them in this process
  • creative structures and supports implemented such as morning genius bars, staff presentations, modeled lessons
  • each lead learner documented their experience through an eportfolio

Reflecting and celebrating these achievements makes me realize how much progress we have made towards realizing our vision of revolutionizing learning for all students.  Thank you to all of our teachers, administrators and parents who contributed to this collective success.  I am beyond excited when I think about all of the possibilities and opportunities that await us next school year.
Contributed by Alyssa Gallagher, Asst Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction

Thursday, May 9, 2013

How Perseverance and Feedback Create a Better "Next Time"

Second Time is a Charm:
Nest #2 and one of the morning
doves at our home
I am not a bird person, but this morning a family of morning doves captured my heart. Last Spring, a pair of doves attempted to create a nest under an overhang near our daughter’s bedroom. After a few weeks of feeble attempts and fluttering efforts, they moved on to start their family elsewhere. So you can imagine our surprise when they returned this Spring and we giggled when they chose the exact same location!

“Don’t they remember last year Mom!?” my five year old daughter asked.
“The nest kept falling down!” remarked my four year old. “It’s not a safe spot!”

I thought it was strange that the pair of doves returned and didn’t learn from their previous attempts.  But the doves were persistent and smarter than they appeared, and the pair embarked once again on gathering sticks and grass. We never gave them much thought and figured they would leave as quickly as they arrived.

This morning, I was delighted to see not only the two morning doves in our yard, but three miniature doves as well!  Enjoying the crisp morning air, the successful little family of five explored the garden. Their new nest design and their family had made it!

The Second Time You Are a Genius
Often times when we try something the first time, our plans don’t turn out as we hoped. I’ve seen many students and teachers this year trying to stretch out of their comfort zones with new lessons, units, technology projects and approaches in their classrooms. And to be honest, we know that our first attempts aren’t always the best. But the second time, we can feel like a genius! And as we continue changing, reflecting and improving our practice-we become more confident and skilled. 

Those morning doves reminded me that when we are armed with more experience, our second and future attempts are destined to be more powerful than our first. After this year's iLearn Classes, ReThink Days and our Unit Upgrade process to align to the Common Core, and with people stretching to try new Upgrades, I have a feeling that a lot of magic will happen next year in Los Altos classrooms. 

Reflect and Survey Students to Future Think
As we head into the final stretch of this school year, I think it is a wonderful time to reflect and determine how we will channel our energy to improving the student experience for the upcoming year.  Which lessons and Units need to be strengthened? What can we rethink and redesign with our knowledge and experience from this year? How about asking your students?

Providing  students with a survey and reading the results may surprise you! How about asking them: Which learning experiences made the biggest impressions? Which lessons should be redesigned or abandoned? What did they enjoy learning the most? What do they remember as being most valuable? How did they grow as a student this year? What are they most proud of?

To help a teacher plan for next year, one teacher
suggested a survey that gets feedback from students
about which experiences "deserve a second look" or
"rocked my world."
During the teacher Extreme by Design session last week, one teacher remarked that she wasn't sure how to uncover and reveal the best learning experiences from this year. As part of the Design Thinking process, her partner designed a prototype of a student survey to help address this challenge. The picture shown is a model of a survey which allows students to sort learning experiences into three different categories. By involving students in the reflection process, we can discover even more about how we can make it better "next time."

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