Monday, July 22, 2013

Blurring the Lines of Learning

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting with Shilpa Yarlagadda & Roya Huang,  two of the students who started Club Academia.  (If you aren’t familiar with their site I would encourage you to check it out.)  The site currently contains over 300 student created videos to help foster peer to peer learning.  

Club Academia strives to organize existing knowledge in ways that make learning easily accessible while simultaneously inspiring people to discover and innovate. Club Academia promotes “education of the students, by the students and for the students ©”  Through brevity, humor, and the student perspective, we foster a fun and creative educational atmosphere through our videos.”  

While meeting with Shilpa & Roya, I was struck by their passion, enthusiasm & dedication.  A little over a year ago, four high school students came up with a great idea that they believed would help enhance learning for students and they did something about it.  They spent time outside of school learning how to make videos, brushing up on content & creating. They weren’t doing any part of this for a grade or because it was assigned to them, they were working on a project they felt passionate about.  Now, with some of the original founding students heading off to college they have a created an amazing website that supports peer to peer learning and has opened up all sorts of opportunities for them.  Club Academia was recently awarded a Westley Prize & the students are being invited to speak at educational conferences across the US.   Shilpa shared that the students plan to continue this work even as they head their separate ways.    Reflecting back on the last year, they can’t believe all that they have learned and are eager to find ways to share both their passion and knowledge with LASD students (more to come on this at a later date.)

While these students have created something remarkable, I wonder what would have happened if they were encouraged to work on this personal project during the school day?  How might teachers have helped to facilitate this learning as a part of their school experience?  Why was it something they had to work on late at night after they finished their homework?  How many personal learning projects never get started because of these hurdles?  How can we blur the lines of learning between what is learned during the school day and what students want to learn?

Thankfully, I’m not the only one asking these questions.  I see it as a regular topic of conversation in my twitter feed and know there are great examples of “20% Time” & “Genius Hour” projects happening across the country.   Regardless of what the projects are called, I love that schools are starting to carve out time to help nurture personal passions of students.  Beginning next year in LASD, students at Blach Intermediate School will have the opportunity to take an elective geared towards the nurturing of personal passion.  It will be exciting to see what develops as we start to blur the lines of learning!

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

Sunday, July 21, 2013

What I Learned While Bird Watching

How much do we learn through observation?  My family and I just took a trip to the San Diego Zoo and we saw many animals of all shapes and sizes.  At the end of the day we always ask the question, what did you like the best?  It so happened that we all really enjoyed the flamingo exhibit.  I know what you’re thinking… flamingo exhibit – why?  At first glance when you walk into the area there’s just a pond of water with pink flamingos doing various things.  Then we started to observe closer and saw tall mud nests with an egg in each one of them.  There were baby flamingos at different ages.  We guessed
what age they were given their size.  Then on one side of the pond there were two that were playing/fighting, all the birds seemed to have different personalities.  My family and I had a discussion about what was going on and came up with some conclusions together.  We laughed about the fact that there were ducks in the exhibit as well.  They also had ducklings following their parents around.  We figured that they were local ducks that found a great place to live. 

After spending some time there we started walking away and discovered information about the flamingos on a placard nearby.  We read about their circle of life as well as their behaviors and environment.  As we were reading we realized that we had already discovered most of what we were reading through our observations and discussion with each other.  We did this naturally without anyone to tell us to do it.  This is what the definition of science is all about.  According to the dictionary science is a systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.  These are the most important elements of science.  Science needs to be learned hands-on through experiments as well as by observing the world around us.  All knowledge shouldn’t come from just a book or a lecture.  Have you ever noticed how many toys are designed around building, creating and making?  Tinkering and the Maker Movement as well as the integration of STEM education have become a big part of how science is being presented.  It is an engaging way for students to learn the world around them not only by reading about it, but by actually experiencing it. 

Students need time to observe, discuss, experiment and reflect on their experiences.  I know it is not always easy to give students exposure to real world in the classroom, but it’s important to be creative in how to simulate these experiences for students.  Demonstrating an experiment is good, but giving students the opportunity to do the experiment on their own is even better.  Give students a chance to build or create things on their own.  For example, after learning about electricity and circuits give the students some tools and parts and see what they can create.  Give them a challenge of creating a motorized vehicle that can move in a straight line.

As the next school year approaches think about how to make science more hands-on through experimentation and observation, as well as collaboration and discussions, to make it an enriching interactive and engaging experience for all.

Contributed by Karen Wilson, Instructional STEM Coach

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Game On!

I have been spending some vacation time with my teenage nephews, one age 14, and one age 11. A lot of our conversations have revolved around gaming. We talk about games around the lunch table and play them on different devices throughout our day.  Waiting for tables at restaurants or spending some drive time in the car has allowed a few gaming challenges. We’ve played on cell phones, iPads, game consoles and in the game arcades downtown. When they are in gaming mode, concentration is high and persistence counts.

I am continually amazed by their vast knowledge of game mechanics and game strategies. I have learned a few things about game design from the 14 year old. He can give me good arguments about why a game designer chooses to include certain elements and has well thought out suggestions for a next generation version. He is passionate about gameplay. He is not as passionate about school. Our conversations around school experiences are very different. When I asked him what he was interested in learning, he had many answers. When I asked him what he was interested in learning at school, he said, “not much.” Ouch! His school experience is very traditional with little innovation or technology happening in the classroom. His high school has recently gone 1-to-1 with iPads, but there are teachers who ask students to put them in large plastic bins when they enter the classroom because they don’t want the students distracted by games. Double ouch!

This year’s major topic at ISTE was gaming. Many people are looking at ways to apply gaming to classroom curriculum and employ game mechanics in learning. My nephew thought this was a great idea but didn’t see it happening. He’s right. The conversation is just beginning and technology is still slowly leaking into school districts. However, we must do a better job of training and setting the stage for our teachers to use the tools that they are being given. School districts who take time to establish the value of technology and allow teachers to explore and collaborate on new learning strategies are the ones that will move their staff and students forward into these new frontiers.

I believe that we are just beginning to see the possibilities for gaming in classrooms. However, we must be clear in our direction and establish how we can best utilize game mechanics to support and engage students. Most of all, we must educate and help all teachers understand the value of the experience and teach them how to apply it to their own curriculum design. Handing a student an iPad and then asking them to put it in a plastic bin during class time is a tragedy.

I’m not sure how many ways gaming will play into our learning innovations. I just know that for the last week, I learned, discussed, and bonded with my nephews through Skyrim, Skee Ball, and Angry Birds. It’s been a great week!

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Monday, July 15, 2013

Moonshot Thinking is Fueled by Passion

I find it exciting that more and more educators are talking about the importance of student voice and passion in learning.  It some ways it seems silly that this seems to be such a revelation, and I hope these conversations translate to actionable changes that improve learning experiences for all students.  So, where to start?  Seems likely that we need to start by  inspiring teachers and encouraging them to incorporate their passion into their practice. But how?

During our recent iLearn Summer Academy, we began the week by having every participating teacher think about how they would define their passions & creatively incorporate them into their practice.  Surprisingly, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds.  Then throughout the week, teachers shared their passion with the group using  a modified Ignite  style presentation.  I was speechless after many of these short presentations from teachers!  Who would have known we had a national footbag champion among us, or that teachers passions and expertise outside of the classroom ranged from horseback riding to Mexican folk art.  Not only was I impressed by the hidden talents and passion of the groups, but the sharing of passions in this format created amazingly strong bonds in a very short time among the teachers.  I couldn’t help but think about how a classroom, a school staff or an administrative team might be transformed by taking the time to share, acknowledge and nurture personal passion.  Do you know the personal passions or native genius of every member on your team?  If not, I would challenge you to take the time to discover and share personal passions on every level of your organization.

Defining personal passion is a great place to start, but the inner cynic in me knows that isn’t enough.  Passion is an important foundation but it must be combined with hard work, investigation and determination.  Just this week a colleague reminded me about the Google video  on “Moonshot Thinking.”  (If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to watch it.  It is well worth the almost four minutes.)  

This is it!  Moonshot thinking builds on passion, but recognizes that so much more is needed.  When people embrace moonshot thinking they are actively choosing to be bothered by problems that don’t seem to be easily solved and  commit to working towards solutions.    “People can set their minds to magical, seemingly possible ideas and bring them to reality.  That set’s people on fire and makes them think about things that were impossible are actually accomplishable.”  If we successfully ignite passion in all learners and embrace Moonshot Thinking, the possibilities are endless.

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

Thursday, July 11, 2013

PBL Online Curriculum: An Oxymoron?

I came across this article the other day, “ Launches Project-Based Online Curriculum.” Being a strong advocate for Project-Based Learning, I was both curious, while at the same time, appalled. Using the word “curriculum” alongside PBL seems like an extreme contradiction. However, I thought it was worth a closer look and so I ventured over to to see how it worked.
There is very little information regarding what the actual units or projects are based on, just general statements around pretests, projects, and reflections. You must inquire further to get a look at the actual product. At a glance, it appears to follow a general outline of a PBL unit, however, there seems to be a huge emphasis on technology skills. Most of the pre-test section focused on assessing students’ technology skills and the project section was very vague. While this is not a bad thing, we all know not all projects are about the technology tool, but the authentic outcome, and this is where I start to cringe.
For me, true Project-Based learning revolves around students and their need-to-knows. You start with a great essential question and then let student voices guide the direction of your driving question or questions. Also, your outcome is generally something that requires teamwork and collaboration in order to achieve an authentic purpose. There is no way to “can” this process or to regiment it into a prescribed curriculum. Project-based learning is often messy and doesn't fit in a box.
However, there are many teachers who are uncomfortable with this very loose and open-ended teaching method and are much more comfortable with a teacher’s manual and pacing guide. In that sense, maybe this is a good first step. If using an inquiry based online curriculum helps students sharpen their technology skills and allows teachers to experience a less teacher directed project, than it might be worth a closer look. It is a step to creating more customized learning experiences for students and may be moving some classrooms in the right direction.
I believe we will see many more of these types of "project- based curriculums" being offered to educators. Everyone is looking for the quick fix. For me, it still comes back to crafting a mix of student voice and passion based learning that creates an incredible project-based learning experience for students. I’m just not sure that can be bottled, packaged, and sold.
Your thoughts?

By: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Monday, July 8, 2013

Maybe Change Isn't Hard, Maybe It's Just Messy

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend an outstanding Innovative Leadership Seminar hosted by Santa Fe Leadership Institute (highly recommend) with school leaders from all over the country.  While the background context of each of our schools and communities differed a bit, there was a core desire from every individual in the group to learn how to more effectively inspire change and innovation within an organization to improve learning for all students. Everyone recognizes the educational landscape must change to better prepare students for the world in which they will live and leaders must stay ahead of the curve in order to effectively lead the changes necessary.  To help build our own leadership skills, we spent a better part of a week exploring four main themes:  
  • What is innovation?
  • sustaining innovation
  • change & culture
  • innovative leadership vs. good leadership

In each of these themes, “change” is a major player.  No surprise.  There are tons of articles out there about how hard change is,  tips for how to manage change and motivational pieces to help see you through change in an organization.  In fact, if you google “change is hard” there are 941,000,000 results.  I haven’t taken the time to investigate all of these resources, but the sheer number of related items is a clear indicator that change is something humanity struggles with. Now this isn’t to discount all of the incredible research that has been done on the difficulty of change.  Clearly there is a lot to be learned about change.  But somewhere during day two or three of the Innovative Leadership Seminar, our conversation shifted from “change being hard” to “change being messy.”   This simple alteration of word choice helped me reframe a lot of ideas about change.  

Reframing change from “hard” to “messy” instantly made it feel more do-able and action oriented. We all have different tolerance levels of messiness, but we all know what it feels like to be in the middle of a mess.  As a mother of two boys under the age of four, embracing messiness has become a way of life.  Honestly, this wasn’t easy at first but I have learned that some of the best times come from the biggest messes.  I can now almost gauge how much fun my boys have had at preschool by the amount of dirt caked on their clothes and under their fingernails.  The other thing I have learned is that the mess is temporary.  All messes eventually get cleaned up.

Embracing the messiness of change seems to give permission to experiment, freedom to play and investigate the answers along the way.   I wonder how many people we have let off the hook by overstating how hard change is, thereby giving them permission not to change.  It is my hope that we collectively embrace the messiness of change in education and get going!

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

Friday, July 5, 2013

LASD iLearn 2013: Taking Teachers to Wonderland

We just wrapped our second iLearn Summer Academy here in LASD. This summer we had nineteen teachers representing all schools in our district. It was once again, an incredible experience for all involved.

Last summer our focus was on technology. A natural place to start with teachers and a way to open the door to new possibilities outside of the textbook and teacher’s manuals. We followed up with those twenty-four teachers throughout the year, continuing to support their growth and encouraging their attempts at new strategies in their classrooms. Their reflections around the changes they had made over the past year were inspiring and remarkable. Our entire district staff made significant changes regarding their attitude towards the use of technology and understanding the need to upgrade and move students in new directions. Laying a foundation last year allowed us to take teachers even further this year.

We started our week with the essential question, “How do you become an innovative designer of your curriculum and a creative teacher leader on your campus?” We took the focus away from technology tools and moved to focusing on student outcomes and looking at ways to get there. Technology became the transparent tools that were embedded into the week and called upon when needed. We offered flipped opportunities for teachers to learn unfamiliar tools and customized instruction with short one on one tutorials as required. Because teachers were at different skill levels, this allowed them to move forward when ready and get instruction when they needed it. By modeling a blended learning environment throughout our week, we hoped teachers could see the strategy in use and transfer to their classrooms.

What we value. We discovered it was the same things that students valued, written on sticky notes
from our Student Ed-Con experience from the previous week.
We also set up the week using a modified Project Based Learning model with an essential question followed by a daily driving question. Day 1 began with “How do you define your passions and creatively incorporate them into your practice?” It was important to start our week with everyone understanding the power of passion based learning. An early activity was to have everyone create a modified Ignite session to present to the group. I would have to say that these presentations, sprinkled throughout our week, were the highlights of each day. We led team building activities, discussed what we valued, learned the importance of creativity, and explored how to set up an environment for success by establishing Habits of Mind. Teachers created their own e-portfolios to record and reflect their journey.

Throughout the rest of the week we discussed what it meant to revolutionize learning, looked at the meaning of innovation, held a 60 minute film festival, practiced design thinking, learned the importance of reframing and creating relevancy, and planned digital citizenship lessons. We also learned how to “break the rules” through board games and practiced some programming using Tynker as we explored the STEM world. Teachers were excited about creating good online content for blended learning opportunities and left with a clear vision and set of goals for sharing their learning at their individual school sites.

Experimenting with
changing the rules.
I believe our district is one of the most forward thinking districts in the country. We have incredible leadership that continually challenges and supports all staff. As a dedicated team, we work to continue moving forward with the goal of bringing rigorous, engaging, and state-of-the-art learning experiences to all students. I’m excited to see what amazing learning opportunities evolve from our week long learning adventure. We invited teachers to enter “Wonderland” and I’m hoping they never want to leave.
By: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach 
Twitter: @kamithor

Monday, July 1, 2013

ISTE 2013: Reflections

Taking Sixth Graders to the Movies
Student Showcase
Last week I was in San Antonio, TX, for ISTE 2013. It’s always great to spend a few days hanging out with the technology crowd and teachers from all over the country. My fellow teacher, Kelly Rafferty, and myself were there to share a Project Based Learning experience through a student showcase.

The theme for this year was Gaming, with Jane McGonigal kicking off the conference as a keynote speaker. She has developed several game experiences for students that tackle real world problems. Awesome concept and I would have been excited to see more sessions that explored the design of creative game concepts and less about the best game apps for the iPad. There were some fun game activities sprinkled throughout the conference, but I feel as though gamification of curriculum is a new frontier and waiting for more creative pioneers such as Jane to do some more trailblazing.

A recurring phrase heard throughout the conference was “technology should be transformative and transparent,” yet it felt as if attendees were still looking for the magic tool, app, or game that would revolutionize their classroom. Perhaps if they had a better smart board or more apps, students would be more engaged and learning would skyrocket. While there is value in cool gadgets, I certainly have my share of them, it still comes down to how we use them in our classrooms. The best sessions that I attended were the ones that shared how to blend the technology so it was not the focus, but a means to a bigger end. Andrew Miller did an excellent job showing how to embed social media into the PBL process with a focus on intention, asking teachers to be intentional in their choice of tool and being clear in their purpose for choosing that tool. My favorite quote from ISTE is from George Couros, "Learning is meaningful creation, not consumption." Easier to remember outside of the vendor hall.

The best parts of the conference of course are the conversations and connections that are made while hanging out in the Blogger’s Cafe or attending the different “playground” areas and student showcases. Here is where you hear and gain the most creative ideas and innovative strategies. A lot of tables sharing their STEM experiences which may be an indication of where next year’s ISTE may focus.
ISTE New logo

As Kelly and I shared our student’s PBL experience with creating a district film festival, our most often asked question was, “What tool did your students use to create their movies?”  We still have some work to do, moving mind sets from looking at technology as a quick fix, to seeing the possibilities of where it can take you.

By: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach