Friday, November 22, 2013

Getting Lost in the Weeds

We live and work in a rapidly changing and fast paced environment. Everyday is a flurry of emails, text messages, traffic, technology challenges, and panic attacks as we wonder how we’re going to fit it all in. It’s easy to lose direction and find yourself off wandering in the weeds. I’ve spent a bit of time there lately and I’m thinking that it may be more than time wasted, sometimes, there’s bits of treasure to be found there.

I consider myself to be a bit short sighted at times. I love the thrill and rush of jumping into something new, the excitement that is generated as you travel down an unknown path,and the challenge of making creative ideas work. It’s how I run my classroom and why my students are usually engaged. I am never satisfied with the first implementation of an assignment or project as there are always ways to improve and elevate the experience. I am continually rethinking, reframing, and starting over because I need the adrenaline rush of creating and pushing further. However, this is an exhausting cycle and difficult to maintain. I sometimes lack good follow through and overwhelm my students by the sheer pace and constant change in my classroom. I can get so caught up in creating, that I lose sight of the trail and find myself wandering with little direction, my students wandering right behind me. When this happens, I am learning to stop. I believe that when you’re out hiking a trail, and you suddenly find yourself lost, you are supposed to sit in one place and wait for rescue. Although rescue in this instance, comes from clarity.

When I’m out there sitting in the weeds, my brain has time to process and pieces that weren’t fitting, are suddenly finding their place and the trail emerges. Some of the most interesting and valuable classroom conversations evolve from these moments. One wise ten-year-old once said, “Mrs. T, if you could just give us a little more time, I’m sure we could find a better answer.” Ah, time, the most sought after commodity by everyone.

Working as a district coach, I’m seeing the same issues on a larger scale throughout districts and education in general. We introduce cutting edge initiatives and programs, hoping to push new thinking and create updated learning experiences for our students. The work is exciting and the landscape is constantly changing. We have “wow” moments and we leap into the next innovation, hoping to build on each success. Most teachers are willing participants, who are excited to engage and are happy to get caught up in the journey, however, many become overwhelmed and lost due to the rapid pace and continual uphill march. It’s difficult to sustain without well thought out support and follow through.

We need time in the weeds. It’s okay to wander from the path at times because we often find better solutions and perhaps even a better direction. The important piece is recognizing when you’re there and knowing that you need to sit down. Find the time to define needs, process, reassess, think it through. Clarity will often reveal a new path that’s easier for others to see.

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Monday, November 18, 2013

LASD Partners with zSpace

Every year in LASD is filled with exciting learning opportunities, but this year there are more than ever! During the past four months, we have been building out a new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) program at all of the elementary schools. Thus far the focus has been on creating STEM opportunities outside of the classroom such as lunch clubs, supporting the physical science strand and creating a new computational thinking/computer science strand for students beginning in kindergarten.  While those are the areas most visible at the school sites, the STEM team has also been working behind the scenes to develop a new robotics unit for grade 4 with Khan Academy and to explore possibilities that will enhance the learning for students in STEM.  While we are constantly seeking out innovative opportunities for LASD students, we are clear that these innovations must help produce better learning outcomes. Our exploration has led us to develop a fantastic new partnership with zSpace.  

Just over two years ago, we forged a relationship with zSpace, at the time a small company who had developed an immersive & interactive holographic platform that had many possibilities to make learning more interactive for students.  While we were blown away with the technology and explored the possibility of partnering in some way, we determined it wasn't the right time.  Fast forward two years to now and we have once again engaged in conversations with the team at zSpace.  There have been several interesting developments both within zSpace and LASD that make it the right time to move forward with a partnership.  zSpace has a new focus on education and we have built out a STEM program creating the perfect space to pilot their technology.  Explaining zSpace is challenging, so I encourage you to check out their website and watch the short video on their homepage to get a glimpse into what might be possible.

Through our partnership with zSpace, we will help to develop and expand STEM learning tools in Earth, space, physical and life sciences for students in third through eighth grade.  Fifth grade students at Covington and Santa Rita Schools will be the first to implement the zSapce STEM stations through a virtual hands-on lab on the circulatory system.  Covington and Santa Rita will be joined by Springer and Gardner Bullis Elementary schools as well as Egan and Blach Junior High Schools before the school year ends in June 2014.  Should the first two phases of our pilot be successful, we plan to engage all nine LASD schools in phase three beginning Fall 2014. 

We will be hosting an open houses on Monday, December 9 from 5 - 7 pm in the Covington STEM lab and encourage you to come experience zSpace.  Experiencing zSpace will allow you to better envision how we will use it with students to enhance and extend their learning. 

Our STEM team continues to meet weekly to ensure we are building the very best program built on best practices, current research and the cross cutting concepts articulated in the Next Gen Science Standards.   The LASD STEM team is currently attending the first statewide STEM conference in Sacramento, where two team members are presenting are robotics and CSTEM. The development of a STEM program wouldn't be possible without the incredible support of our parents and the Los Altos Educational Foundation.  Thank you!  It is an exciting year of learning for all involved, but most importantly for our students!

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

Friday, November 15, 2013

Spark, Whimsy -- the importance of learning simply to learn

Space Models at Brick Fest, Flickr via Creative Commons
Young children are encouraged to be whimsical and imaginative and to always ask why. Students in younger grades look with awe upon the lifecycle of a butterfly and draw endless pictures of colorful circles that they truly believe resemble their parents.
Then a few years pass. Times tables are memorized and we increase the content we teach and begin to instill a sense of conformity and pressure in our students that focuses on attaining success measured by society. It is no surprise that the imagination of our students changes to reflect a stale, stagnant state because they are learning what others want them to learn. Yet, our students are still creative underneath a shell of academic standards. However, we don't give them the opportunities to show the whimsical, inquisitive nature deep within them.

As teachers, we suffer from much the same ill-fated trajectory our students do. Believing we can change the world as a young teacher, we come to the first year of our teaching careers with an energy that feeds into our innovative lessons. Years pass and we are met with more strict standards, more programs to teach, less time to teach them, and more students, many of whom are bored and unengaged with the curriculum since they are being told what to learn and how to learn it.

Think of topics that you find interesting. Think of what you'd want to learn in school. Now think of what you teach. Think of how you teach it. Ask yourself, would I want to learn that way? Would I want to spend my afternoons at home doing that? A recent article came out about a revolutionary way of learning that focuses on engaging students with what they are interested in. Joshua Davis writes for Wired, "How a radical new teaching method could unleash a generation of geniuses." In it he explores a variety of progressive philosophies on learning.

Peter Gray, research professor at Boston college, is quoted by Joshua Davis as stating, " 'We’re teaching the child that his questions don’t matter, that what matters are the questions of the curriculum. That’s just not the way natural selection designed us to learn. It designed us to solve problems and figure things out that are part of our real lives, ' " which raises some key issues of institutionalized schooling. The whole purpose of school should be to teach kids a love of learning, a desire to understand the unknown, and the ability to apply what they know to questions they have. Ultimately its about the spark that fires up their curiosity thus raising their engagement in the classroom. It should not be about what other people think they need to know.

So, what if homework was filled with activities that truly sparked the curiosity of our children, thus supporting that their questions matter. What if students rushed to school the next day asking why, why, why? What if students eagerly awaited the next lesson rather than day dreaming through it?

A simple task like watching a video about space could be that spark for a child. A spark that could change the trajectory of a student's life, assisting them in realizing dreams they have. Take a look at these amazing videos on the International Space Station by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Here are two class work or homework documents I’ve put together, one for primary grades and one for upper grades.

Take on the challenge of giving assignments that you’d want to spend time on. If you wouldn’t want to do it, why would your kids?

Inspired and want more? Additional resources can be found at Ramsey Musallam’s Cycles of Learning blog that discusses in depth the use of video as a curiosity spark for initializing a love for learning.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Creating Space before Creating Change: A Cautionary Tale

I recently had the opportunity to visit a few schools that are creating amazing learning environments for students. Whiteboard walls, whiteboard tables, movable and adjustable furniture that can be reconfigured in a moments notice. Learning spaces that adapt to students’ and teachers’ needs, often with 1:1 technology available. Here’s what I observed: students sitting, isolated by headphones, focused on screens, furniture in traditional classroom layouts, blank white boards.

Now, I know that these room conversions were an expensive investment. I’m sure much thought went into which furniture to order, mac books or chromebooks, furniture and wall paint colors. I think these improvements to our school environments are not only wonderful, but absolutely necessary. However, I’m wondering if we are putting our early investment into the wrong place. If we don’t invest in the learning behaviors that happen within the space, what have we really changed?

It feels as if we are setting the stage without really understanding the script that will be performed. We bombard teachers with words and phrases: blended learning, project-based learning, design thinking, and then we create these wonderful environments which we release them into and say, “There, go do it!” Now, I know there are some amazing things happening in these spaces as well, early adopters who seem to naturally adapt and can clearly see the vision of new possibilities, but overall, the traditional roles of teacher, student, and school are hard to crack.

What I’m learning through my current journey, is that teachers want to change, students want new experiences, and most school districts see the need to do something different. I’m also learning that you can’t offer traditional professional development experiences, read a book, or attend a traditional conference and expect everyone to just walk away and “get it.” Most importantly, you can’t just order new furniture and paint the walls, expecting that everyone will just know how to perform in that new space.
The Classroom is Obsolete

Like anything that’s worthwhile, it’s a process that requires time and patience. Professional development opportunities need to model the instruction that you would like to see happening. Teachers need time for collaboration and sharing as they wade into new waters along with permission to take risks and make mistakes. It's important to create meaningful learning experiences for teachers outside of their classrooms until everyone experiences their "a-ha" moment. District leaders need to clearly communicate with parents regarding changing practices so they are able to support rather than question new classroom strategies. Schools need to build and define a new learning culture for students with updated expectations and establish new student norms. What does learning look like in that fancy new room? In any classroom? What does learning look like in today’s world? Can everyone see and define the same vision?

The famous movie quote, “If you build it, they will come,” still holds true. But if you want something different to happen when they get there, you need to pave the road.

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Handwriting Dilemma
The cycle of typing and tapping on the phone, keyboard, etc. As I settle into bed, I realize I haven't "written" anything with a pen and paper, all day. My gut races from excitement to terror as I realize there is simply no need to put pen to paper.

With the rapid increase of communication through digital devices, does it matter if we write or not? Is the future of a penned signature a fingerprint?

Common Core has removed the mandatory teaching of cursive.  A few articles highlight the importance of teaching cursive in school, In Defense of Cursive and Should Schools Still Teach Cursive. Yet, hardly anyone uses cursive as a primary form of writing. The opposite argument can be raised. If no one uses cursive anymore, then we shouldn’t teach it (clearly that is why CCSS removed it). So, with the disbandment of third graders’ write of passage, the future of penmanship as a whole appears to be misty and murky.

If writing with a pen is no longer typical, then do we even need to teach it in schools? Rather than writing in kindergarten, should kids just learn to type? Can we even extend that to touch typing on a screen rather than keyboarding?

Historically, penmanship was an art. From the Constitution, to love letters, penmanship was and still is a way to physically connect with a person by knowing that his or her hand penned the words.

Email has rapidly replaced telegrams and letters. E-cards are the new birthday notes.

The word write means to mark (letters, words, or other symbols) on a surface, typically paper, with a pen, pencil, or similar implement. Lets think about that word, “typically”, and understand that we are at a crossroads of typical and mainstream. If write means to mark, then as we type we mark the computer screen and as we write with a pen we mark paper. Yes, typically we write on paper, but in mainstream we mark on the computer. So the work write really should now include the mainstream devices we use to write which are computers.

And on the subject of writing, why do we still teach a “friendly letter” format when adults hardly send handwritten letters anymore? What we should be emphasizing is how to craft simplistic email subject lines, digital signatures, and text messages.

Communication has dramatically shifted from physical to digital. I don’t even know what ringtone is on my phone because my primary way of communicating is via text. Phone messages go forgotten because I don’t know anyone who actually leaves me messages, so when someone does I don’t even remember to check them.

Writing in school needs to keep up with the culture of communication. If we are preparing students for life, then we need to think about how they will be communicating in the world when they are adults, and thus we need to teach foundational skills that will help them in that arena.

Yet, on the flip side, there is deep historical and personal value to the physical connection between hand, pen, and paper. Productivity expert David Allen states in the New York Times article by Phyllis Korkki In Defense of Paper, “ Its physical presence can be a goad to completing tasks, whereas computer files can easily be hidden and thus forgotten, he said. Some of his clients are returning to paper planners for this very reason, he added.”
Beautifully stated, co-founder of Levenger, Steve Leveen expresses to the New York Times, “ ‘Paper reminds us that ‘we’re physical beings, despite having to contend with an increasingly virtual world,’ he said. People complain that writing by hand is slow, but that can be good for thinking and creating, he said: ‘It slows us down to think and to contemplate and to revise and recast,’ " (In Defense of Paper by Phyllis Korkki, New York Times).
The crossroads are here. Handwriting is real and physical, ideas spring to life with effort. Typing is quick, efficient, and productive. We accomplish more with less, and neatness is automatic. Handwriting connects us to the historical past, and typing pushes us forward.
Kids will rely upon texting more than email in the future. Maybe the business deals they make will be artfully crafted with emojis and Vines.
Where does handwriting stand? Where does communication stand? And how do we teach our students and children to expertly use the communication tools available to them if we ourselves stick to the tools we know?