Saturday, March 30, 2013

To Fail or Not To Fail?

I was giving a presentation to a group of parents last week and I was discussing Habits of Mind. As I was talking about Perseverance, I mentioned the importance of allowing kids to fail. I mentioned that it was important to model failure for students and a parent asked the question, “Do many teachers currently model failure in their classrooms?” As I was skating around an adequate answer, our Superintendent, Jeff Baier, added into the conversation by saying, “It’s human nature to not want to fail. No one wants to fail in front of anyone. Parents don’t want to fail in front of their children so it’s difficult for teachers to fail in front of students.”  That’s why he’s our Superintendent. He zeroed in on the main issue, human nature, which made me think about failure and reframe the idea of how best to teach young people how to fail. As I pondered, I thought, maybe it’s not about modeling failure, but about modeling our reaction to failure.

No one wants to fail and no one sets out to fail when they start something, however, failing is what causes us to learn the most when given the opportunity. That is the part we need to model, both teachers and parents. How do we react to failure? Whether it’s our own or someone elses, we need to have a strategy in place. We can have a negative reaction which includes yelling, scolding, and punishing, or we can take the positive road and reflect, assess, and help rebuild. I’ve seen both happen in classrooms. I know that circumstances can sometime dictate which reaction is required, but hopefully even the negative approach ends in some assessment and reflection so learning can occur.

Along with failure comes fear. I’ve been reading a YA book, Divergent, by Veronica Roth, where young people, living in a fractured dystopian society must learn to manage fear. They do this by creating a false fear landscape simulation where they confront their worst scenarios and learn to overcome. As teachers, we can help students with this same strategy. When faced with fear of failing, ask “What are the three worst things that can happen?” Having students voice their fears and talk through consequences as well as develop a plan of dealing with each, takes away the anxiety.

Teaching students how to react to failure is a lifelong skill and what leads to persistance. Helping them confront the scariness of trying, can help them attempt greatness, knowing that failure is part of the experience and there’s a plan for that. Human nature does not enjoy failure, but life continually throws us obstacles that cause us to fail, and then rise to success.

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

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What is your Kryptonite?

Standing in a coffee shop, I saw a piece of sign art that said, “I Teach, What is your Superpower?” I thought, “Awesome! Teaching is like having a superpower. What an excellent way to think about that.” And then I thought, “Wait a minute, if you have a superpower, that makes you somewhat of a superhero, and every superhero has a weakness.” Superheroes usually can identify what that might be. Thor was lost without his hammer, Batman was plagued by guilt, and Superman needed to avoid Kryptonite. If teaching is our superpower, what hinders us from reaching superhero status? How often do we sit down and reflectively think about what might be our weakness?

I have really enjoyed working on all of our campuses this year in my coaching role. It’s given me an opportunity to view our district from a different perspective and listen to teachers share their experiences. Many of our discussions revolve around those pieces of Kryptonite, things that are getting in the way of achieving superhero status. Some of the common threads revolve around time, energy, and the amount of curriculum.

Time: Time is always an issue, in any job. There never seems to be enough. In classrooms, time is a valued commodity and managed very carefully. One way of addressing the time bomb, is for schools to start looking at restructuring their schedules. If we want teachers to incorporate more project-based lessons, design thinking strategies, and performance based assessments, we need to give them enough time in the classroom to allow it to happen. Teachers also need guidance in understanding how to blend curriculum and think about creative ways to break away from teaching single subjects in isolation. Let’s stop putting a detailed schedule on the board and give students more opportunities to drive the learning with enough time for meaningful conversation and exploration.

Energy: Teachers work hard. No one denies that teachers pour their heart and souls into their students and in creating an environment that gives students structure and safety for learning. It’s draining. Sometimes I think that teachers are working harder than their students. We need to balance the scales. Allowing students more choice and voice in the classroom let’s them shoulder more of the learning responsibility. The byproduct of this is often a more excited and positively energized classroom. Consider it the antidote to the energy drain.

Too Much Curriculum: If you aren’t a teacher, you may not be familiar with the amount of curriculum that accompanies a textbook adoption. It’s a mile long and an inch deep. It covers a lot of information but not much depth. There’s also a pacing guide, teacher’s manual and additional resources for every piece and every student group, plus thousands of worksheets for just about any situation. Back away! Teachers need to become their own designers of their curriculum. Consider your talents, your students, and all of the tools and resources that you have available and blend them together to meet standards and students’ needs. Pull the curriculum pieces that you think are most valid for your current students and put the rest in the cupboard. In today’s digital age, there are so many choices to enhance textbook learning that are more vibrant and engaging for kids, don’t be brought down by worksheets and scripted materials.

It’s a tough time to be a superhero teacher. Technology is rapidly changing and students are demanding a different learning environment. Take time to reflect on your weaknesses. Identify your Kryptonite and strategize to overcome. Teaching is a superpower!

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

Monday, March 25, 2013

The E in STEM

When we think of engineering happening in the K-8 setting are we thinking the students need to know mathematics beyond calculus?  Well most of us think of engineering as being associated with a lot of math and high-level thinking.  Is this what we are talking about when we want to introduce engineering in the primary grades?  No not really, it’s more of a mindset or a way of thinking.  It is the process and application of the engineering discipline that we want to build into our curriculum.


Engineers want to make things work and they are persistent in that task. We want to teach our students how to be persistent in a task and not to give up but to try different approaches by appropriately defining and then researching a problem.  These are some of the qualities you can find in an engineer.  The engineering process starts with defining a problem, researching information around the problem, identify what is needed to solve the problem and develop a potential solution.  The next part of this process is to develop a prototype solution and then test the prototype.  If there are any issues then the prototype is redesigned until it works.  The final step is to communicate results of the prototype testing.

How can we apply this concept in the classroom?  Providing students with design challenges will enable them to utilize this process.  Allowing students to use their creativity and allow time to fail at first will help them to think about what is needed to make a prototype work.  In other words we can encourage “fast failure” wherein they learn to quickly iterate possible solutions. A more enriched learning experience occurs when something doesn’t work the first time.  This type of thinking can also take place when a problem is presented to the students.  In order for students to have a reason to pursue a problem it starts with a driving question. This allows students to create with a purpose and is also where critical thinking begins.

Dr. David Thornburg spoke at the CUE 2013 conference and discussed the importance of a driving question in order for the students to ask “why?”.  His foundation called the Knights of Knowledge promotes inquiry-based learning through STEM education.  His team has put together sample videos in many subject areas to help pique interest in students around a topic in a specific subject area.  He also discussed importance of setting expectations; not limiting what the teacher expects the students to achieve, but keeping it open or limitless.  This gives the students the opportunity to stretch farther.  He surmised that if you start at the floor students could reach beyond the ceiling.    

Engineering in education is about giving students the opportunity to go through the process and developing an approach to problem solving and critical thinking.  The idea or concepts of engineering are built into the Next Generation Science Standards.  With the implementation of Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards the content is not the forefront of the objective anymore rather it is the process by which you get to the content has become the focus.  It is the actions that the students take through analyzing and applying knowledge.  The engineering process is one method that will get us there.

The world is desperately seeking out engineers.  There is a company that is even willing to provide you with a free dinner for a year if you find them an engineer!  So find that driving question and let your students build and explore.  They just might develop into future engineers.

By Karen Wilson, STEM Coach
Twitter:  @kwilson_klw

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

No Permission Needed

Education reform continues to be a hot topic and sadly teachers are often caught in the crossfire. I’ve recently participated in a number of educational reform conversations in a variety of settings and have been struck by how unempowered many teachers are feeling.  I am encouraged by the number of teachers who understand the need for real change in education, but frustrated that many don’t seem to feel they have the permission or support needed to make the changes they envision. The lack of support and fear of putting themselves out there seems to be inhibiting some teachers from adding their expertise and professional opinion to the global conversation. Imagine what would be possible if we were able to tap into the “native genius” and expertise of every teacher at a school, within a school district, within a state, within a country... The possibilities are endless.  

This idea of professionals needing permission to act on what they know is best for students is concerning.  How have we gotten to this point in education?  Perhaps it’s time to redefine what teachers need permission for and have an explicit conversation around expectations.  In my opinion, teachers shouldn’t ever need permission to:
  • make the best instructional decisions for students in their class
  • be learners in front of their students
  • take risks that benefit students in their class
  • rethink the resources & strategies they are using to instruct students
  • ask administrators for support in providing for the needs of students
  • publish their work or their students’ work to a wider audience

This is probably only the beginning of what could be a very long list, but you get the idea.  

I feel fortunate to work in a school district where we value teacher opinions and expertise.  We have hired teachers in LASD, because they are knowledgeable, passionate and caring. We have placed great trust in our teachers.  Our administrative team encourages teachers to take risks, rethink instruction, pilot programs, challenge assumptions and push back on the way we have always done things.  In order to realize our vision of revolutionizing learning for all students we need every teacher within our organization to rethink current practices and take risks that are good for students.  Without this type of culture how do you ensure you are providing the very best learning environment for all students?  My hope is that we move from a culture of teachers seeking permission, to a culture of teachers acting in the best interests of student learning at all costs.

Contributed by Alyssa Gallagher, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Teach Story Thinking

Digital Storytelling made it’s way into the classroom as an engaging way for students to interact with the new media tools around them. It became a great way for students to tell a story and share their thoughts through a mix of audio and visual. Along with this strategy came some new skills that students needed to be successful. A strong sense of visual literacy and visual thinking, an understanding of storyboarding, and the ability to create tension and emotion through sound were just a few of the new concepts that needed to be added to the learning roster. Today, we shift in another direction with digital storytelling, as it enters into the world of marketing and business and is even appearing as a prerequisite in job postings.

Storytelling Resumes 
How does this impact the classroom? It’s more important than ever that we teach students the art of story thinking. Today’s marketing strategists spend a lot of time on branding their products. Hooking into today’s culture and connecting with an audience is vital to a brand’s success. Job seekers are even using branding as a way to differentiate themselves in the job market. Creative resumes tell a story about the job prospect that is memorable and connects to the viewer. If you look closely at successful branding, it’s all about telling a great story. The same elements come into play. Jonathan Gottschall writes in The Storytelling Animal, “We are a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” Pulling these strategies into the classroom might include creating their own or a famous person’s resume, developing a brand for a scientific element, creating a new product or service through design thinking and then coming up with a marketing plan. Students could also mock up the social media components that would be needed, a Facebook page, Twitter feeds, and a Pinterest board. Highly engaging activities in their native language.

Infographics offer another trend in digital storytelling with data. Creating a successful infographic requires students to have a good grasp of visual thinking and a basic understanding of graphic design. Blending timelines, graphs, and pictures together to craft a story that is laid out like a poster is a challenge for many. Understanding the point of view that is imposed is necessary for students to analyze and evaluate resources as creative infographics are showing up in the news and everywhere. Using data as a creative means to influence people has been an often used strategy, but today, that data is often disguised by fancy visuals and elaborate designs, creating connections to the viewer and telling a story. Peter Guber writes in Tell to Win, "Non-stories may provide information, but stories have a unique power to move people's hearts, minds, feet, and wallets in the storyteller's direction."
Helping students understand and navigate social media is becoming an important emphasis in classrooms. Helping recognize story elements within those settings, as well as being able to create those types of stories is important for today’s digital learners and future consumers. Again, Peter Guber writes, "Stories emotionally transport the audience so they don't even realize they're receiving a hidden message. They only know after the story is told that they've heard and felt the teller's call to action.”

Crafted properly, stories don’t just sell, they simply tell and teach by example. Add story thinking to the learning roster.

By Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Twitter: @kamithor

Monday, March 11, 2013

Café Mix: A Cross-Pollination Activity to Gather and Exchange Ideas, Reflect and Connect

A teacher shares her completed Cafe Mix.
It's Café Mix!
It’s musical chairs, speed dating and a healthy snack break all rolled into one. It's a fun way for people to quickly share ideas, gather insights and talk to a variety of people in a short period of time. 
It’s a response from our instructional coaching team to the need for more cross-pollination of innovation across our district.  

Expanding the Bright Spots
We have bright spots: incredible teachers, projects and strategies happening in classrooms across our district. But teachers have limited time to share and collaborate with colleagues at other schools and hear new perspectives. We know that often the best conversations and inspiring ideas come from spontaneous interactions in the hallways, at break times and “accidentally.” Frequently, the most valuable part of professional development or attending conferences, isn’t the formal instruction and learning, but the informal exchange of ideas between educators and forging new connections. As we designed our ReThink K4 Professional Development dates, we wondered, how might we intentionally add more “informal” into our “formal” agenda? How could we bring the spirit of "spontaneous interactions" into our activities? How might we embrace the concept of Steve Jobs's Pixar atrium space in our iLearn Studio to include opportunities for teachers to converse and spark creativity?

Our Solution: Café Mix
Each table receives a container of treats to
add to their Café Mix goody bag. 
We came up with Café Mix: A thirty-minute activity that allows for teachers to discuss ideas within a short period of time with a variety of people. Our goal: An engaging afternoon activity to increase interactions amongst teachers from different schools and provide a structured approach for teachers to listen and talk, to share and be inspired, all teacher to teacher. Oh-and we threw in some food too! Because food (especially chocolate) makes everyone happy! With the addition of the Sand Timer app and its upbeat tunes-we had a plan.

Curious about trying Café Mix with your class or at your Professional Development? 
Check out the video of Café Mix from ReThink K4  in the iLearn Studio.
Recipe for Café Mix

1.     To start, all teachers sit at a table of three to four people.
2.     Each teacher has an empty Café Mix goody bag. Each table has a container of items to add to their goody bag along with a spoon or ladle. (We include pretzels, raisins, nuts, peanut butter M&Ms and plain M&Ms. Needless to say, the chocolate is a hit!)
3.     We project the Sand Timer App on a screen and set it to three minutes. Kami Thordarson and Karen Wilson like “Lemondade Pie” and “Whistling Kisses.”
4.     Before starting the timer, we provide the topic. Our topic: Share an innovative idea that you have implemented in your classroom or would like to implement in the future.
5.     Start the Sand Timer. Teachers start talking, serving treats, eating treats and sharing ideas.
6.     When the timer is up, they’ll hear the music. It is their cue to choose one person to stay at each table. This person is responsible for starting off the conversation at the next round by quickly recapping the prior conversation.
7.     Everyone else dashes to find a new conversation table before the music ends. Expect lots of traffic near the tables with chocolate!
8.     Reset the Sand Timer for three minutes. The person that stays at the table provides a brief recap. Inevitably, this recap prompts a new dialogue with a new group of people.
9.     Repeat Steps five through eight approximately three to four times.
10.  A debrief or wrap up at the end is optional. Allowing teachers to eating the yummy snack during the entire Café Mix is preferred.

Cafe Mix builds connections and
jump starts conversations.
We Café Mixed (can it be a verb now?) three separate days and each day the Café Mix brought smiles to teachers’ faces. Some chuckled as the music came up, strategized over which table (and goodies) to visit next and rushed to sit down before the music ended and the timer started once again. I’ve never seen some people move so fast! This activity was an energy booster for our afternoons. Since it involved movement, listening, talking, and interacting with multiple people, the energy in the room increased. Teachers reflected, debriefed and bounced ideas off of each other. They were able to discuss, share and connect with colleagues across the district. One third grade teacher held up her Café Mix bag and told me “This was the best part! I love this!” A fourth grade teacher shared that she went back to her class and her students brainstormed ideas for treats they could have in their own version!

Café Mix Isn’t Just for PD!
How about in the classroom, for book studies, conferences or staff meetings?
If you are looking to have more cross-pollination and ideas shared within a group, and want to avoid formal presentations and whole group sharing, I recommend Café Mix. It engages people and helps fill the room with ideas. The process for shifting and sharing can be implemented in many settings.
Laura Wiley, kindergarten
teacher from Gardner Bullis
 with her Café Mix creation.

Café Mix for Math: Students could quickly share math homework solutions and problem solving strategies. When the timer is up, students move to a new group of peers to discuss a new problems. 

Café Mix for Literacy: How about specific guided questions for each round to structure Book Club talks or reading comprehension debriefs? 

Café Mix for Staff Meetings: Kami Thordarson experienced shorter versions of Café Mix for ice breakers to kickstart staff meetings at her school in Colorado. What a fun way to connect with a bunch of teachers who’ve been busy in their classrooms all day! 

I can’t help but think that there would be more learning and exchange of ideas, if people “mixed it up” a bit during meetings, lessons and conferences. Café Mix allows more voices to be heard and more ideas to be shared.

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, March 6, 2013

The Future of Education is I.F.F.Y.?

“The future of education is I.F.F.Y. - informal, friends, family and centered on you” -Dale Dougherty

Makerspaces come in all shapes and sizes, but typically serve as a gathering place where people have access to various tools, interesting projects and even mentors.  While the exact components of a makerspace may vary, they are all learning environments that are rich with possibilities.  The Makerspace hosted by EdSurge at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas was no different.  During this four day conference, people were demonstrating 3D printing, robotics, fablabs, and design thinking around the perimeter of the room.   In the center of the room, there were tables with legos.  The space was incredibly creative which encouraged you to linger and learn, both from the exhibitors and from other individuals.  The development of the space itself contributed to the likelihood that you would connect with a wide range of people including educators, software designers, and policy makers, all passionate about rethinking education.

One of the most exciting tools being demonstrated in this space was Tynker, a creative computer programming platform designed to teach children programming skills in a fun and imaginative way.  Tynker has been developed by a local bay area company (three of the founding members are Los Altos School District parents) and is being used in our Grade 6 CSTEM class, taught by Sheena Vaidyanathan. We are encouraged by the success of Tynker in LASD schools. Students are enjoying learning how to code and creating very imaginative products in the process.  We hope to continue our partnership with Tynker and look forward to discussing how to expand the use of their platform beyond Grade 6.  We were most impressed to discover the backs of their business cards featuring unique student creations, many of which were designed by Los Altos students using Tynker.
Also featured in the Makerspace was Karl Wendt from Khan Academy who was there showcasing his newly designed robotics projects: Itsy, Bitsy, Spider, and Spout.   We have enjoyed collaborating with Karl and are proud to have Los Altos School District involved in helping to refine his online tools for teacher implementation of both the Spout and Spider bot projects. This project is an extension of our collaborative relationship with Khan Academy formed in 2010 when we piloted their free online math software and created blended learning environments.

Prototypes from Mt. Vernon School
Mt. Vernon School from Atlanta, Georgia, was well represented in the Makerspace and shared their amazing work from their i.Design Lab.  Mary Cantwell has worked hard to bring design thinking into K-4 classrooms and developed a unique design thinking process called D.E.E.P. (Discover, Empathize, Experiment, Produce). Throughout this process students look at real world issues and create solutions, always keeping in mind their user’s needs. With an emphasis on empathy and imagination, Mt. Vernon’s students and teachers are paving the way to innovative learning in schools.

Alyssa Gallagher, Dale Dougherty,
Kami Thordarson in Makerspace, SXSWedu
It was interesting to listen to Dale Dougherty, founder of the Maker movement, talk about the importance of hands on learning in all content areas. Dale is a proponent of bringing the maker movement to schools because the act of doing elevates the learning of all students. His recommendation is to create a makerspace that is really an interdisciplinary space where teachers from all content areas can work with students to increase their creative output. To be most effective, this type of learning must be integrated into the curriculum and not left as an after school enrichment activity. It is about a fundamental transformation of the school day, not just squeezing in a "maker activity." As we develop more hands on learning projects, we need be conscious that we aren't having students replicate the same work from one grade level to the next. We can avoid this by giving students choice in what they are making.

Edsurge hosted the Makerspace, creating a truly exciting space for learning and networking. Stopping by for a short creative brain break led to a mixed conversation at a table with Nikhil Goyal, a 17 year old author,  Kirsten Bailey from Hootsuite, and Leonard Medlock from Edsurge. It was lively debate around higher education and the direction needed to create true reform in education.   

As we leave SxSWedu we are inspired to think more about creating these dynamic learning spaces for both our teachers and our students. Our first attempt at creating a dynamic learning space for teachers is an awesome start, but as we move forward, we need to create the same environments and opportunities for our students.

Contributed by: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach & Alyssa Gallagher, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction


Monday, March 4, 2013

Next Generation of Lead Learners

We are very excited to be launching our second year of iLearn Summer Academy this June. During iLearn teachers will have the opportunity to spend an entire week learning about new instructional strategies and how to seemlessly integrate technology into their instructional program.  During the 2013-2014 school year, these teachers will serve as Lead Learners at their school.  As Lead Learners they will work to inspire, provide knowledge and collaborate with colleagues as we collectively rethink our instructional practices.  
Thank you to all of you who applied, we had over 40 applicants and are thrilled to know so many LASD teachers are interested in continually learning how to perfect their craft.  Unfortunately, we were only able to select two teachers from each school.  The following teachers have been selected to be our Lead Learners for iLearn Summer 2013:  

Jean Benedict , Shelby Biddy, Joseph Chan, Jason Dewberry,  Melissa Dowling,  Shari Elmer, Christine Goldner Nicole, Gonzales, Riley Haggin, Tiffany Hickman,  Katherine Kingman, Barbara Lichtenstein, Kelly McLean, Mary Beth Miller, Cathy Moss, Chris Patterson, Laleh Rowhani, Jacob Sproule,  Jolene Welch,

A big thank you to LAEF for providing the funding for iLearn Summer 2013.

by: Alyssa Gallagher, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction