Monday, November 11, 2019

"New" School: Smiling Creek Elementary

Hi Classroom Design Friends,

Last year I moved schools from a 50 year old (but my room looked Dickensian; no direct sunlight, grates on the windows, mice) school, Leigh Elementary, to a factory fresh school with the cheerfully natural name of "Smiling Creek".  I tend to move every 4-6 years to keep my teaching fresh, to learn new things, and have an excuse for not knowing what is going on.  I was looking for a move. 

When I was thinking of leaving my beloved Leigh, I had NO intention of going to a new school.  I have taught in two new schools and a third in its second year, with the amount of work it takes to get a school up and running is daunting, you usually start with limited supplies, the students are a massive pack of wild cards, the parents have unrealistically high expectations, and trying to build a school/staff culture takes time and energy (which you already used up moving).   New schools are a constant year (or ten) of playing catch up.  Going into my 30th year of teaching (yes 30th and yet I'm only 19),  I didn't think I had it in me to go to a brand new school.

But I did.

Why?  The first and biggest reason is Remi.  Remi was my principal at Leigh.  He's a smart, fair guy who handles chaos in a very low key way.  In the time that Remi was principal at Leigh, the population doubled.   In addition to the solid core of teachers that were already at Leigh, Remi was able to attract and hire excellent teachers to keep pace with the student population growth.  When I found out that Remi was going to be opening Smiling Creek, I started to budge a bit about going to a new school. 

Knowing that I had opened a few schools and with my interest in classroom environments, when Remi began ordering supplies and furniture for the new school, once in a while he would run an idea past me.  Unlike previous new schools, I had the sense that Smiling Creek would have sufficient supplies to open.  So that ticked another box in Smiling Creek's favour.

The part that finally tipped the decision to shrug off my resistance to a new school was the new staff.  When I found out the who the teachers from Leigh that were probably going to move with Remi, plus the names of the teachers from other schools who were interested in moving to Smiling Creek, I could NOT pass up this chance.   When the dust finally settled with staffing, I was working with some newish friends, some old friends, some young up and comers, and some veteran legends.

What about the other parts that dissuaded me from a new school?  The work load of opening, the catch up, the kids and parents?  The last parts were less unknown than I thought or were overcome easily.  The students were not as wildcardish because a good chunk of them were coming with us from Leigh.  Likewise with the parents; we knew lots of them and they knew what to expect in a Remi-run school. 

What about the first year work load and the culture building?  Again, I think Remi really set the tone.  Remi has a style of principaling (is that a word?) that really appeals to me:

  • 1. Bring together the best people possible.
  • 2. Have a loose plan/flexible framework, but figure it out along the way.  Together.
  • 3. Trust in your people, and support them where they need it.  And then get out of their way.
Looking back, Smiling Creek's first year wasn't that much more work or stress than a typical school year.  It was by far, the easiest of the new-ish schools where I have worked.  

My take aways? 
  • Start slowly.
  • Work together.
  • Listen.
  • Never say never.
  • Grey polyester does not look good on almost everyone.  (Okay, me).

And in an odd turn of events, my wife also ended up changing schools: to Leigh. 

Monday, March 05, 2018

Where was I? Oh yeah...

As I was saying....

Last year, I wrote about monotasking, and how to put all of your eggs in one basket by focusing on the basket (i.e. what is the thing that brings all of your tasks together into one meaningful bundle?).  And then I ended up in Emergency because I couldn't feel my feet, so I don't know if that strategy really worked for me.  Or maybe the strategy works, but I wasn't doing it properly.

I decided to do less and to say "no" more.  I was really successful at it, and I had all of this time,  Well, up until the end of November of last year.  I did five presentations in three weeks, (four of them were within a week, and two of them were on the same day), and they were all on different topics, none of which was Learning Environments.  Did I mention I was doing my first term report cards at the same time? 

What did I learn? 

  • I am actually getting better at saying no.  
  • My timing sucks.  
  • My time management has greatly improved (but I was heavily supported by my wife who basically did everything at home).  
  • I can do a lot in a little time if I really push myself and do a lot of planning (I had my three week calendar as my desktop background to remind me of which part of which task I had to have ready by when, and I stuck to it).  
  • Even though I was busy, I didn't actually feel that stressed with the amount of work (though I still get very anxious when I present).   I think it was being so relaxed going into the busy time, and having time to decompress afterward that made the difference.
  • Surrounding yourself with great people and presenting to an appreciative audience is positively motivating.
  • Caffeine is not helpful to me in a prolonged, intense experience, but adrenaline in short bursts is.
  • I really love my pressure cooker.  (Hmmm, interesting metaphor).  It was helpful in making quick, tasty, and nutritious hot meals on cold days.   

Sunday, September 10, 2017

3 Books about Innovation, the Power of Simplicity.

I read some books about innovation, and they all say the same thing: simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.

1.  One of them is Ed Catmull's Creativity, IncOne of my respected colleagues, Cheryl Lloyd, sent me an email with the subject line, "My book choice for you to read, Greg!"  The email had no text in the body of it, just an attached photo of the cover.  I was intrigued and read the whole thing over the next couple of days.  Catmull told really interesting stories about Pixar, one of my favourite movie studios.  They consistently produce high quality, entertaining, and imaginative movies that appeal to a wide audience where age really doesn't matter.  The one thing that drives every movie, and drives every decision of making each movie is one thing: the story.

The story is the thing that is the conduit for the characters, the setting, the animation, the music, the marketing, etc.  Everything.  It becomes really apparent from the anecdotes and examples that Catmull describes in the book that the directors, the producers, and animators have to understand and be committed to the story or the project does not work.  I loved the book as a good read about corporate insight, an understanding of the creative process, and (from a follow up email from Cheryl) how the physical building affects communication and creativity.  This entire blog is devoted to how a creative environment enhances people's (students') productivity (learning).

2.  The second book, Insanely Simple by Ken Segall is about Apple and Steve Jobs, and how Jobs was always striving for simplicity.  Examples are: the one button iPhone, the two word ad campaign, "Think different.", and the clean lines and user interfaces of iPods, iPads, and iMacs. Not only are Apple's products minimalist and streamlined, but their processes are too.  There aren't meetings about meetings, in fact Segall explains how Apple's meetings are a small number of creative people who have the authority to make decisions.  Segall tells the story of Jobs politely but clearly asking people to leave meetings because their roles and functions are not clear, nor necessary to making decisions.  Similarly, there are no focus groups.  Jobs eschews focus groups because they tend to yield mediocrity, not innovation, or try to please everyone which leads to feature bloat.  

3.  The third book is In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew May.  I wrote about this book years ago (here), but I was reminded of it while reading these two other books because of its message of simplicity.  Elegance in design is the reduction of the unnecessary and distracting; the ability to pare something down to its core but still allowing the user to modify and personalise.  

What does this mean for education and classroom design?

I love elegance.  In the things I have created and designed, I have tried to keep everything as simple as possible, rejecting the ornate.  Reading these books, I am reminded of how important simplicity is.  

As we've been getting ready to go back to school, I've seen countless images of classrooms on line Classroom design has really taken off in the last few years, but with the influence of Pinterest and TV design shows, I think we have created a monster.  In the name of classroom design, people are creating these beautiful and interesting spaces, but they are beautiful and interesting the same way that I find Las Vegas beautiful and interesting.  

We are packing classrooms with homey borders and accessories, lighting that rivals something from Cirque de Soleil, furniture that is varied in colour and design presumably to give students choice, but might turn out to be clunky because they don't fit with the rest of the classroom, etc.  Maybe it's because I value simplicity, or maybe it is because MY purpose of classroom design is to help self-regulation while kids learn and to remove distractions, but I think we need to dial back and edit some of our design choices.  I am definitely guilty of this and need to relook at my classroom.  

These three books uphold the power of simplicity.  I think this concept is directly applicable to education as well, beyond classroom design.  Why not keep the users' (students') experience (learning) as clear and as simple as possible?  By simple, I don't mean boring, but how about a clean, clear way that keeps distraction and abstraction to an absolute minimum?  You know, elegant?

I took this picture to remind me what simple looks like.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Cruising and Personal Space

This is a follow up to my last post about introversion and classroom design.

Last week, I got back from a trip to Europe.  My generous mom took me, my wife, my daughter, my sister and her two girls to the Mediterranean.  Last year, my mom, expressed a desire to take us all on a family trip somewhere to create some family memories, but with the potential of being positive family memories.  We deliberated for months, eliminating places because of cost, dietary restrictions, interest, etc. and somehow achieved consensus on a cruise in the Mediterranean. 

It was a wonderful time.  We saw amazing sights, we had great experiences, we created lasting, positive memories.  Mission accomplished.

But the part I want to talk about here is the cruising experience, especially with respect to introversion and space design

The ship we were on was a marvel.  There were 7 passenger decks.  There were 8 restaurants, 5 bars, 2 swimming pools, 3 stages, and a library.  The staff and crew were lovely, friendly people who worked tirelessly.  I really liked ever single crew member I met, especially when I took into consideration what they had to put up with: 2000 passengers.

Take 2000 people and put them in a confined space, and what do you call it?  Prison.  A cruise.  Actually, there are many similarities to cruises and prisons except on a cruise the food is better, tourists behave worse than inmates, and the cruise staff are only armed with manners.  Maybe it is because so many people are in a relatively small space, but people do odd things and either carry on as if they are the only people on board (e.g. cut through long lines of people waiting to get their fresh prune juice, talk non-stop or sing along with every performance, stick their feet on the chair beside you so you too can enjoy how much they walked all day in the hot sun, etc.) or over-compensate so that everyone wished those people were the only ones on board (e.g. treat the staff rudely or like slaves, hoard tables or food, "There is too much walking on this {walking} tour!", etc.).

But I paid special attention to what they ship did to mitigate this inevitable behaviour:
  • They offered different kinds of activities during different times of the day: cooking classes, dance, bar hopping, performances, sports, lectures, trivia, etc.
  • They spaced those different kinds of activities, and thus different kinds of people, to different kinds of places on the ship.  The library was not under the basketball court, the religious services were not to close to a bar or casino, etc.
  • They tried to stagger eating times as much as possible. 
  • They made the staterooms a viable refuge for seclusion.  They made each of the guest rooms very sound proof.  Apart from the odd hallway noise and vacuuming, I never head anything from the rooms adjoining ours.  If your room did not have a balcony so you could sit and read or gaze out at the ocean, you could watch a wide selection of movies or watch the video feed from the front of the ship.  The cruise also provided 24-hour complimentary in room food service delivered to your door which was ideal if you had had your fill of the combat-level buffet on the Lido deck. 
The ship did everything they could to minimize the lines, crowds and impact of the confined spaces. And what can classrooms learn from this?  Probably what we already knew:
  • Have different places for different people, different activities.
  • Try to stagger times so line ups don't occur, or spread materials out so that students don't have to crowd up or compete to get things (including information or instruction).
  • Have viable options for people who need to be alone at certain times.  I'm going to try to create more caves in my class this year, possibly with music playing through noise reducing earbuds, to help those students who need to recharge.  I won't be providing room service. 
I have to say that despite being an introvert and usually avoiding large groups or people, I did amazingly well on the cruise.  I did not jump ship nor set any of my fellow passengers adrift in one of the life rafts in the middle of the night.  The thought MIGHT have crossed my mind.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Inclusion, and Me

I just got back from the Sunshine Coast with my family.  We stay in this great trailer a few paces back from my wife's parents' summer home that looks out on the water.  It is a pretty, glorious spot and we go there every year to frolic on the beach.  I always load up with audio books on my player so I can listen to stories and books while I am up there. 

This time, one of the books I listened to was Amy Schumer's book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.  While I won't be reading it aloud to my students or constructing Readers Theatre scripts to act out from it, I was struck by certain parts of the book.  As you know, Amy is one of the most outrageous stand up comics today, and her book is graphic, but it is also very candid.  One of the parts I was struck by was her declaration that she is an introvert.  Introversion is not a trait that I would associate with Amy Schumer but the way she described how, even though she can bare her soul in front of thousands of people during a stand-up concert at Madison Square Garden, she needs time to be alone to recharge and refocus.  She says she loves people but every human encounter is energy-sucking. 

I feel exactly the same way.  I am way more shy than Amy Schumer, but even still I related to loving to be with people but also needing to have some alone time.  I've written here before about Susan Cain's book, Alone, and how we introverts need time to ourselves, but hearing introversion from the point of view from Amy Schumer made me think about how shyness and introversion are not the same thing.   

I was at a session this year with the incredible inclusion guru, Shelley Moore.  She has these great stories about inclusion in her book, One Without the Other, which reads like you are having a nice conversation with Shelley.  She tells these very personal and relatable stories from her experiences of how teachers can include every student in every classroom.  She gives well-attended, energetic workshops, getting people to belly dance to show how everyone starts from different places, or she relates bowling to inclusive learning.  People love Shelley because she tells stories that make people feel something and rethink how we include different kinds of learners. 

But the declaration that made me think the most was when she confessed she is an introvert.  I was floored!  Here was this incredibly charismatic, non-wallflowery speaker who has auditoriums of people in the palm of her hand, telling me what an introvert she is.  She explained that she likes giving lectures and presentations because it is just her talking, and it is not really an interchange between her and others which she would find unnerving.  And when she gets home, the couch and Netflix look pretty good and she will be in for the night.

What does this have to do with classroom design?

A teacher emailed me in June after reading parts of my blog and was asking me for advice about how her classroom could accommodate different kids of learners. She said that it was easy to come up with the Campfire (a communal place where the whole class could meet for large group discussions or instruction) and Watering Holes (smaller places where pairs or small groups could work together), but she was having difficulty coming up with Caves (places of isolation where students could work by themselves undisturbed).  She asked if she could come by and look at my classroom to see how I'd set up my Cave places. 

I was writing back, "Sure...".  Until I looked at my classroom.  Over the previous months, I had been rearranging my classroom to include vertical work spaces for group work, or moving things out from the walls to display some projects, or widening our role-playing Social Studies interactive bulletin board.  These adjustments and others had slowly chipped away from my Cave spaces.  I hadn't even noticed I'd eliminated them!  And looking back, I realised that the students who needed them the most had missed them too but hadn't noticed or hadn't said anything.  (Oh, that's why K kept crawling under the risers.  Oh, that's why normally social R stopped playing with people and would draw by herself at the end of the day. Oh, that's why T burrowed himself into the box of cardboard scraps,  etc.).  It all made sense.  In retrospect.

As Shelley might remind me, "If you are going to have supports in your classroom, you have to make them available to students and let them know the supports are there for them."

As Susan Cain might remind me, "Introverts should be celebrated, so make space for them."

As Amy Schumer might remind me, "You're ****ing taking educational advice from me?  No ****ing way!  Get the **** out of here!   No, I mean it--go so I can be alone now.""