Thursday, December 30, 2010

6. Take Care of Myself

A lot of these Essentials of Education seem like no brainers, and this one definitely is in that family.  However, we have to teach kids overtly to take care of themselves.  Unfortunately, a lot of the aspects of our modern lifestyle lend themselves to an unhealthy life.  Ironically, technological improvements may have made some parts of our lives more convenient, but not more healthy.  We have instant fast food (but packaged food does not give us fresh food or the essential nutrients), instant access to information (so we don't have to get off our duffs to find out things, and instant action, (video games instead of exercise).

I'm not going to get into a debate here about the role of the family here.  It is just a fact of today that schools must teach children to make healthy choices and to teach them to take care of themselves.  This includes eating right, making safe and positive choices, exercising, knowing how to relax, managing stress, etc.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

5. Manage Information

Number 5 (of the essential things in education) is to learn to manage information
We get so much information and we have to learn what to do with it. 
Where can you find the information you need?
Is this the right information, and do you trust what you found out?
Is it accurate and reliable?  Does it make sense to you?
How do you record it so you'll remember it for later?
How can you retrieve the information you recorded?
How can I share what I found out?  What is the most effective way?

This aspect of education has really changed in my lifetime. 
In my school days, we had to memorize a lot of information because we did not have the same access to information that we have today.  Unfortunately, some of the information I learned was outdated, biased, or just plain wrong, (e.g.  You will never be able to fit a computer in your home, much less afford one.  Africa is a country. etc.).  We thought that teachers (and our parents)  knew everything, or at least hoped they did because they were our big sources of how the world worked.

Not so today.  What Google can pull up in a second exceeds what all my teachers knew in a lifetime.  If kids want to know about something, they can pull out their phones or ipads or laptops and Wikipedia or some other site will tell them. 

But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts
What kids get on the internet is just data, and lots of it.  They still need to learn to sift out what is accurate, what is true, and what makes sense.  That is what the role of teachers should be: not to pour facts into students' heads to be memorized, but to teach them to find information they need and then to show them to look at that data with a critical eye.  Students need to know about perspective and bias.  They need to know that information can be gathered from a variety of sources including experiences, media, and from other people.  Great teachers help students gather, sift, and analyze.

It's all about Perspective
I heard this really interesting documentary on CBC radio.  It talked about how we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people because it was just immediately easier on ourselves.  The internet opens us up to a multitude of different perspectives, and yet if we look at our Facebook or Twitter accounts, we hook up with people who are like us or think like us.  However, if we want to be truly creative, we need to be open to different points of view.  On the program, one guy noticed this effect when he looked at his own Twitter account, and then to reverse this, he started following a random stranger from a totally different demographic.  He said that it really opened his eyes to a different point of view and brought to light things that he never thought of before.   

Idea Building
The big idea is to help kids attach new information or new experiences with their view of the world.  When I was a student, getting information was like sculpting.  I chiseled away until I got to the newly formed idea.  As my teacher gave me new information, I used it to make my idea smaller and more defined.  Now getting information is more like pottery.  We add new bits of moldable clay to a base that seems to get bigger and bigger, and the shape seems to change with each new bit.  Some bits we discard and throw away, but mostly we seem to add on to what is already there. 

Having said all of this, I use Google to look up quick, recent facts or bits of trivia, but for the really tough answers, I still ask my parents.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

4. Get Along with Others

I probably don't have to explain why getting along with others is an essential thing to learn. We see it every day. We work with, know, or are even related to people who are talented, but don't have much in the way of people skills. I strongly believe these skills can be taught. And the best ways to get along with others is to use patience, empathy, and communication skills (mainly listening).  It is really hard to teach patience and empathy.  I can model it and talk about it and show examples from books, but young children especially can have trouble being patient and empathetic. I find it is easier to teach listening because there are overt behaviours kids can see and use.  These behaviours include: making eye contact, positioning your body toward the speaker, being silent while someone is talking, repeating back what they said, etc.     
A lot of times, the most popular kids in my class are the ones who are a bit on the quiet side.  Sometimes I will ask them what they do to have so many friends, and the answer is usually common (if they know it):  "I listen."  They don't have to have a huge personality, or be greatly talented or any of those other qualities we usually associate with popularity, but they do have to be good listeners.  This became clear to me when I had this really quiet boy, S, in my class who everyone loved, especially the rambunctious boys I had.  S never played soccer with them and he was an average student.  I asked one of the other boys why he liked S so much, and the boy replied, "He stands beside me when I am sad."  I then watched S and sure enough, he was always around.  He didn't say too much, but was present.  When others were sad or lonely, he would just go stand by them and they would start playing with him.  Just being there was enough for all of these boys to like him so much.  If you're a teacher, you probably know a kid like S. 

And you probably know the kid who is the exact opposite of S.  The one, sometimes a new kid who has been to a bunch of schools, who does really odd things to get attention, and gets does it, but repulses the other kids so much that they think he is a big pain.  Or the clown who is fun to be around, but not when it is time to work. 

Don't get me wrong.  There are some kids who are magnetic because of extraordinary things (positive and negative): making people laugh, having great beauty, being rich and generous, knowing the right people, being strong or a good athlete, having a popular sibling, etc.  These can really be things that make some kids popular or help kids get along with others.

But the catch is: I can't really teach kids how to be or do those things.  I can however, teach them how to listen.

And once we learn some basic listening skills, then other skills are possible: taking turns, cooperation, using manners, conflict resolution, restitution, etc.

Getting along with others might not get you hired, but it will probably keep you from getting fired.  In school terms, kids are definitely more happy and productive when they have friends and can cope with others, so why not teach these things?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

3. Get to Know Myself

To Know Me Is to Love Me
Identity is a big thing.  In fact, in one's life, it may be the only thing.  One of the great things about schools is that one surrounded by all kinds of models for one's identity.  Look at that girl over there who has lots of friends because she is so kind to other people.  I'd like to be like that.  Look at that kid over there who is doing that disgusting thing with his fingers, and look how people are reacting to it.  Man, I don't want to be like that!  And what about me?  When people are with me, what are they thinking about me?  Do they want to be like me or do I do some things that make them cringe?

Chip, chip, chip

I love the fact that kids get to learn about so many things in elementary school. They get a first hand chance to enjoy an experience and see if that idea resonates with who they are: "Hmmm. I liked that. I think I'll do more of that," or "That makes sense to me. It must be true," or "I'm not very good at that. If I don't get this pretty soon, I think I'll stop doing this," or "That's rubbish! I can't believe that!" Kids start to chisel out who they are based on their experiences, so we need to give them as many different kinds of experiences as possible, not just from books or second hand, but authentic experiences. I also believe that it is counterintuitive to grade young students on these kinds of experiences because not only are these young minds trying them for the first time, but in reality, an outside standard can't judge whether something will stick. If the experience resonates with the student (i.e. it is interesting, meaningful, or important), it will probably stick with them.

Tell Me Me
Reaching back to #2 Communicate, self expression is essential.  The way we get to learn about ourselves is by letting ourselves and others know how we think and feel.  Schools give kids lots of opportunities to do so: discussions, writing, dancing, painting, laughing, crying, reflecting, etc.  That last one, reflecting, is too underused.  Someone said at my last professional development meeting that we should have an additional day after the regular workshop or conference day, just to reflect and find ways to assimilate everything we've learned.  The same is true for kids.  We throw so many new ideas and experiences at them, but we give them very little time to think about their learning and what it might mean to them.  I see reflection as communicating with yourself. 

One of the ways we are trying to help kids learn at my school is by teaching them about self regulation.  We  can ask kids what they learned about themselves in doing any activity or learning about something new.  Hopefully, they'll begin to internalize this self talk: "When I'm working in a group, how is that affecting me?  I want to do my part, but I don't know what that is yet.  Maybe if I keep listening and asking questions, I'll figure it out,"  or "Linda sure looks mad right now. What were we talking about that might have made her so angry?"  It's really difficult for young children especially to think about their thinking, but we teachers try to model it as much as possible by thinking out loud.  By having students understand how their own emotional state affects them, they begin to see how emotions affect others too. 

Me on Me
I think this idea of identity resonates with me because I tried on all kinds of people's identity's until I found one that worked for me.  I took bits and parts of everyone I encountered until I sculpted out the identity I have today.  And though I think my identity is pretty well set now, I can still emulate other people depending on the task at hand, especially for tasks outside my comfort zone (e.g. negotiating a deal, speaking in front of large groups, trying on new pants when the mirror is placed outside of the changeroom, etc.).  Who am I kidding?  My identity is still in a state of flux.  I am still learning from other people and I am still learning about myself.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

2. Communicate

I said that Make Things Better was at the top of the list, but for the remaining essential things that I want my students to learn, order is less important.  Communication is very important though.  A lot of time, it is the process for making things better, especially between people. 


If we ever want to share an idea or get something from someone, we are going to have to learn to communicate.  In order to get our idea or request across, we'll need to be able to put that idea or request into a form that someone else can understand.  This is why talking and writing are so important.

I was watching a video of a dramatization of some native people trying to barter with a someone from a trading post.  They used no words in the video.  My students asked if they didn't talk back then, but someone realized that they probably did not speak the same language.  I pointed out that they were still communicating because they both knew that the First Nations people wanted good like blankets and tools, and the storehouse owner wanted their furs.  It was just a matter of how much.  Being able to speak the same language definitely cuts down on the confusion and misunderstanding.  (Though not all the time.  See: Married People, Politicians, Lawyers, etc.)

Some of the things I teach my students under the umbrella of communication are: talking, listening, writing, reading, looking, asking questions, interpreting and evaluating information (Does this make sense to me?  Does this fit with how I see the world?), drawing, acting, creating presentations, learning a new language, reading people's moods and body language, role playing, sharing, debating, arguing, playing music, making posters and signs, etc.

Perhaps if we lived our entire lives by ourselves we would not have the need to communicate.  But perhaps not.  Sometimes, just putting our own thoughts into words helps us understand something or work out a problem.  Recently, my friend KA told me that he knows that he processes things by talking.   So by giving kids words, I guess for some we are really giving them the vocabulary for thinking as well.  

Saturday, November 20, 2010

1. Make Things Better

Sure, it's way too general.

In my quest to find the 7 essential things to teach, I give myself lots of latitude so that I can encompass everything that is important to me.  It still helps me to focus my instruction and helps students to direct their learning, but most of all, it makes what I teach purposeful.

Make things better. 
This could be the most important item on my list which is why I put it first.  Isn't it the point of education?  (Of living?)  This item actually began on my draft as "Solve problems."  It wasn't enough and sounded too reactive.  I want my students to go into any situation with the mindset that they can improve things or learn from them (in turn, improving themselves).

The Japanese have this idea of Kaizen, continuous improvement.  Everything we do in life is to move us forward, to enrich our lives, and build upon what we've already done.  I really like that idea.  (I like it so much I was thinking of getting a tattoo with the Japanese symbols for kaizen, but the characters are too busy and too intricate.  I thought that it was a whole lot of strokes that would really hurt. That would not be life enriching to me.  Perhaps a nice wallet photo?)

With respect to what we do in school, making things better is why we teach science: so we can figure out how things work so we can make them better.  It's why we teach history and social studies: so we can learn more about ourselves as a community or a society, figure out what we did right or wrong and continue to move forward. It's why we teach any kind of communication: to share ideas and work things out.  It's why we teach math: to solve problems and organize the world numerically.  It's why we teach art: to add beauty and culture to the world and our existence. 

When it comes down to it, it's why we teach everything:
Improve your mind, improve your self, improve your world.

Making things better is both simple and complex. On the complex side, it is why green initiatives have become so important. We want to improve our planet, but the factors that are working toward destroying our planet are so numerous and complicated that it can be overwhelming. This is why the mantra: "Think globally.  Act locally,"  is so helpful.  It pares down something complex into something manageable.  On the simple side of making things better, it is why we tell jokes to friends.  For even a small moment, we improve the spirits of someone else and in turn feel good as well.   I think that is something kids could manage and get their heads around: "Improve the world one smile at a time."

Sunday, November 07, 2010

My Essential List

What is Essential?
Ken Robinson talked about Peter Brook who posed: "What can you subtract and still have theatre?"  Robinson then drew parallels with education and said that we should stick to the essentials of education, but not add anything that does not help it.   My question is: what exactly are those essentials in education?  I have the answer to that question for myself, but I'm not sure it applies to any other teacher.

One of the things I did a few years ago, but that I got away from, was that I came up with a list of 7 things that drove my teaching.  The list was all about the seven essential things that I wanted my students to learn, and that I could teach them.  They were global enough so that everything that was important to life would be included in the list, but they were specific enough that it wasn't so general that I could justify anything. 

I did not keep these essential things a secret either.  I tried to make them as explicit as possible to my students.  In fact, I told them to ask me, "What is the BIG IDEA?" over the course of each lesson.  My intention was to start each lesson with this objective, but of course, I forgot, so my students knew to trigger me with the question (they even competed to be the one to ask), and it was my job to tie every lesson to at least one of these essentials. I try to make each lesson applicable to their lives right now, not some nebulous time in the future (i.e. "Learn this because you might need this in the future."  What a load of hooey!)  Did I really need to learn the Prime Ministers in order when I can Google them now?  And exactly where do I need to use dividing by negative fractions?  And why are kids still getting marks for colouring their assignments in high school?  School is supposed to prepare children for the rest of their lives, not just the world of school.  But it doesn't.  School seems to be content on perpetuating itself.  Why are we learning this?  You might need it later in life.  Because it will go on your report card.  To get you ready for the next grade or high school or university.  None of these reasons can be important to the here and now of students, so I created the essential list to let my students in on the learning, not put it on the shelf for later.

Why Create Such a List?
Creating a list of the essential things that I want all students to learn was a really important exercise, and I urge you to do it for yourself if you are a teacher.  The list helps to justify what you do, and you'll see what is really important to education and to you.  It is also liberating because it helps you get rid of everything that is not important.  Why do it if it is not effective in reaching your objectives or if it is not important?  In telling students how each lesson ties to each of these essential things, it makes learning explicit to students (and myself).  They'll see the importance of the lessons because they are applicable.  (i.e. This is how your learning will help you, in your life. Today.)   If I couldn't reconcile the lesson with my list, I wouldn't teach it.

If you do decide to make your own list, here are some tips:
  1. Keep the list to under ten.  Brainstorm a bunch of things, and then sort and combine until you have a manageable number.
  2. Remember that the items are not mutually exclusive.  You'll find a lot of overlap.  Life is like that.
  3. Make your items teachable, doable, and important. 
  4. The list is NOT written in stone.

So, over the next blog entries, I will talk about the 7 things on my list that I think all students should learn.   If you are at all interested in creating your own list, I suggest you do so before you read mine because the process is important, plus I do not want my list to impede or colour your list.  The most important thing about your list is that it comes from YOU (because you are the one who is going to have to teach it, justify it and live it). 

Thursday, November 04, 2010

One More Word About Decor/Atmosphere: What Are the Best Conditions for Learning?

In the posts after this one, I will be going on a slightly different path than decor, so I thought I would say a few more things about before I change topic for a while.  I wanted to mention what a few other teachers are doing and how the experimentation with atmosphere is not confined to me in my school district. 

My friend K got really excited by the whole idea.  She ran out and bought The Third Teacher and really took the ideas to heart.  K has always been about choices and empowering students, so creating an atmosphere that reflects these tenets is an extension of her philosophy, as opposed to being an add-on or a stretch or disconnect.  K worked hard to bring in a variety of seating choices for her students.  She has easels so kids can stand, portable band risers, exercise balls, a loft, a couch, tables with and without chairs, and a few desks.  She rotates students through different seating places.  The great by-product of this practice is that her students can work with anyone because they have been exposed to all students in the class.  She feels that this flexibility and variety has really brought the group together as a team.  K is a wonderful teacher and the students really love her class.  Below are a few snaps from her class.  It's a really fun and inviting place.

loft and computer desk
easels and collapsible risers
comfy couch and inviting stuff in baskets

Another teacher who is passionate about bringing the world to her students (and vice versa) is Tamara.  [Her exquisite blog can be found at ].  Tamara believes in project based learning and real life experiences.  In her kindergarten classroom, she sets up these themed trays where students get to develop their fine motor control by experiencing beautiful real life objects.  Last year, she even took a radical step in real world learning: for an entire month, she took her class outside every day, all day.  The students spent their days with true hands-on learning in the sand, dirt, grass and forest.

Same Idea, Different Approaches
I find it interesting how the three of us have taken a different approach to a similar theme.  I like how we differ because it shows the personal nature of our spontaneous inquiry (as far as I know none of the three of us are doing this because it is attached to any organized research or group).  The question is probably, "What are the best conditions for learning?"  I'm sure the three of us would agree that it is not your traditional classroom. 

What do yo think?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Viva la (Educational) Revolution! (And Start with Kindergarten)

Further to Sir Ken's feeling that education needs a radical transformation to meet the needs of today's learner in today's world, I am excited by some of the changes that are happening in my little district.

The whole "Think Globally, Act Locally" mantra springs to light here.  Trying to change the whole world by yourself can be daunting (and not just in footwear fashion), but trying small things yourself is more manageable and you can begin to see and feel the changes yourself.  It is also inspiring to see teachers around me innovating and creating.  When you see it happening in the next classroom or the next school, you think, "Yeah, I can do that!" or even, "Hmmm, that won't work for me."  There are lots of things happening in my district from which I have the luxury of picking and choosing.

The implementation of full-day kindergarten has been an interesting journey.  It sparked lofty debate about whether such young people should be in school that long, or at all; the parents had more immediate concerns such as, "Who is going to supervise my kid when he's out on the playground with the other hundreds of kids?"  But despite the controversial beginnings, full-day kindergarten has forces my district to look carefully at what it does and why we do things.  Instead of merely doubling the kindergarten curriculum or extending downward the grade 1 curriculum, my district has explored different ways of doing things, such as: individualized learning, learning through play, and project based learning.  Granted these kinds of things existed before, but only in pockets, and usually from individual teacher's (or school's) experimentation.  We've never come out and said before, "This is the way we're going to do things.  This is the basis of our new system." 

I find that really exciting.  Of course, one of the changes that the new kindergarten rooms is making is the change in classroom atmosphere.  They are using a less structured, less industrial, more organic approach that for obvious reasons, appeals to me.  This is not change for the sake of change, in terms of just mere window dressing.  We're talking about a radical change in how we do things.  This is not your father's model of education.  It should look different.

Below, there are some pictures that show what some of these new kindergarten classes look like:

My transformation of education (seemingly) started with the physical, the classroom space.  I say seemingly because I've been wanting to change the way I teach and have tried lots of different things, but this beginning seems to be the most accessible to me.  For kids, the classroom setup is more obvious to them that things are changing, and they have responded positively to those changes.

My revolution will continue.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Two Posts in Two Days! (Sir Ken's fault)

I know, hard to believe.

I had yesterday's post on the back burner for a while, but couldn't post it because I hadn't uploaded the pictures yet.  You know how it is.

obligatory picture from

But I wanted to talk about going to see Sir Ken Robinson last Thursday.  My excellent administrator, Lisa, arranged for me and three other teachers to go.  As you may know, Ken Robinson is my guru for this journey I am presently on (see ).  In my quest to make learning more relevant for my students, I frequently refer to the words and ideas of Sir Ken.  So you can imagine my joy when I found out I was going to see him.  It was about equal to the excitement I felt when my buddy got tickets through lottery to see the Who in 1980.  How could he possibly live up to the expectations given hype like that?  Well, he did.  He was as profound and as witty as he is in his videos and writing.  Perhaps he is even more impressive because he was doing it live, without any notes, and feeding off the feedback from the audience.  There were quite a few technical glitches at the beginning (mics that didn't work, a projector that shone right into his face, a crying baby), but he rode them and even worked them into his presentation.  He relaxed the audience, not the other way around.

What Can You Subtract and Still Have Education?
One real a-ha moment was when Sir Ken was talking about theatre director Peter Brook, who asked, "What can you subtract and still have threatre?"  You don't really need lights or curtains or makeup or costumes or even a stage for that matter.  All you really need is an actor and an audience.  Sir Ken said that we need to apply this analogy to education because all we really need is a teacher and some students.  He added that we shouldn't add anything else unless it improves education

I thought this was profound for two reasons.  First, it emphasizes the crucial relationship between the teacher and the students.  In schools, it is that relationship that is fundamental beyond everything else.  Extrapolating, it also points to an individualized style of education and learning. 

Second, the statement shows how much excess garbage we put into education that does nothing to improve it.  When my niece was four years old, we all went on a family vacation to Hawaii.  When we went again, about five years later, she remembered nothing from the first trip.  I bring this up because it makes me wonder why we cram so many useless, arbitrary facts into young minds when it will not improve their lives or minds in any significant way, and there is a strong chance they won't remember it anyway.  If my niece couldn't remember the glorious time we had in Hawaii, is it really that important for her to learn to differentiate the abdomen from the thorax of a Monarch butterfly?

The things we need to teach students are things that are important and useful to them.  One of the ways to gauge that importance is how much they use that idea or skill every day.  And I am not necessarily talking about the school day, but their lives outside of school especially.  We do a good job of teaching kids the game of school.  They learn the rules and can usually play pretty well, but does that game apply to life outside of school?  When you talk to people on the street, do you raise your hand?  Is there someone to tell you that you got the right answer or thought the right thought?  When you ride your bike or read a book, can you tell that you did it well or can you just enjoy the experience for itself?

Bring on the Revolution!
We need an education system that reflects the complexities of life, but one that also makes us focus on what is important.  The education system we have today isn't different that the one we had two hundred years ago.  Accountants use computers to keep their books and doctors don't use leeches anymore (well, not in great numbers anyway), so why do teachers use the same methods from centuries ago, ones that we know are archaic?  In his TEDTalk ( ), Sir Ken Robinson speaks of a revolution that is necessary in education.  Like Peter Brook's theatre analogy, it centres on the essential and necessary parts of education and eschews the superfluous or counterproductive.  I think that life should be like that: helping us to focus on what is important to our lives and getting rid of anything that takes us away from that goal.  So shouldn't our education system mirror what our lives should be about? 

P.S. Check out the animated version of some of Sir Ken's ideas.
I actually found it a little distracting (having seen his TEDTalk first), but it highlights some new ideas and might be good to show parents.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Everywhere I Look: Tiers

Get the Picture?
I was looking at my blog and I realized that it looked a bit dull.  Even when I go to read it in the future, I will like to see more pictures to remind myself of what the heck I was talking about.  It's funny; I describe what I am doing or trying to do to people, and I refer people to this blog, but no one really gets it until they step foot in my classroom.  Sometimes, not even then.

If you've read the first few blog posts, you'll remember that I took the design idea of the risers from a trip to the Museum of Anthropology.
video viewing area at MOA

risers in my classroom last year

I liked how the bench idea enclosed the space so that it provided a good arena for discussion.  I liked the multi-tiered idea because we don't think of work space in classrooms as dimensional, but planar.

But now, as I tend to walk around, I'm aware that my multi-tiered idea is not so unique.  I remember that universities have multi-tiered auditoriums.  And the Roman Senate and Colosseum had a multi-tiered arrangements.

In fact, I was walking around the library in my community and there is a new courtyard there.  There's a small grass field, some sculpture that ties it into the surroundings and a stage/concourse area that they use for performances and exhibitions.  What I really noticed, though, was the seating arrangements they had on the perimeter of the field.  Check it out:

These benches I realized are like mine, and people were using them like mine.  Some were facing forward and using them like table tops. During performances (in the wooden stage area in the background in the left picture), people would sit on the table tops to get a better view with people sitting below.  My dreams of a patent and great fortune --- dashed again.

During the summer, I saw another interesting application of benches in an educational setting.  I was in Powell River and there was this great store for kids that did art workshops.  The shop is called Skylight Art.  In the back they have this booth where kids can splatter art all over their papers or canvasses without having to worry about the floor or the walls (yeah, that space looks like Jackson Pollock exploded).  There is another area where laptops are set up, so kids can explore movie making and digital media.  The walls are adorned with large digital prints of kids holding their artwork, and shelves and shelves of their creations.  I really love what they are doing: making kids the centre of artistic experiences. 

The rest of the shop is set up with, you guessed it, large benches.  The tables provide big open spaces for working with glorious mess materials, and the benches give young artists the opportunity to work along side other artists (or not).  Even aesthetically, I loved the long, clean lines the continuous benches and tables provided.  Another interesting point is that almost everything is white: the floor, the ceiling, the tables, the walls, etc.  At first, it didn't make sense to me because it would be such a pain to keep clean, but the message became clear: the space pops into life with the colour that comes from the art and the artists. 

Here are some pictures I took through their windows.
They have better pictures at

Tiers Are Not Enough
So the bench design is nothing new.  But the application of them in a primary classroom might be unique (even if that uniqueness only extends to my experience.  Let me dream, will you?).  I love the communal and open, flexible arrangement that my risers provide, but I guess my main goal in using the risers is to break the factory style of the traditional model of the classroom.  The message of the traditional classroom is: everyone face the teacher at all times because all of your learning is going to come filtered through that teacher (not from other students, not even from your own experience).  And yes, while at times I do stand up in front of my students and tell them what to do, I am trying to build in more authentic experiences and more interaction with other students.   

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Back to the BIG IDEA

Okay, okay, so my last post was this love letter to the risers because I've come to realize that they symbolize what is really important to me: ME.  Sad, isn't it?

Maybe now is a good time to remind myself that this whole journey is not about risers or even classroom decor per se.  It's really about creating the proper neural connections for kids.  My mission is for kids to associate learning with everything they do, everywhere they go, but the manifestation of that mission turned out to be classroom decor.  I wanted to break the idea that learning is only associated with desks and classrooms.  My reaction to that was to get rid of the symbol of institutional learning: desks.  So I redesigned my classroom, eliminating as many of the trappings of traditional classrooms as possible.

So here's the big question: does it make a difference?
The short answer is yes.
The longer answer is yes, sort of.
The explanation is that it made a huge difference to my students last year.  My students were proud of where they learned and it built a strong sense of community.  They loved the freedom and flexibility.  But I don't know if they made the leap that they can "take their learning with them wherever they went."  In my own defense though, I don't know if I took it as far as I could with that message in the time I had.  It will be interesting to see if I can replicate and extend the results this year with my new crop.  So far, so good.

At the very least, it has made a big difference to ME.  I have come to realize that the way I set up my classroom is really important to me.  Messing around with my classroom decor has really improved my working conditions and my frame of mind.  I've had a lot of fun trying different things and I've taken my students along for the ride, and they've loved it too. 

But again, I don't want it as decor for decoration's sake.  If that were true, I might as well go back to the commercial posters and borders.  I didn't want a classroom that looked like a traditional classroom because I want the neural break from factory-type learning.  But on the other hand, I didn't want the classroom to mirror my students' homes either.  What I really want is to create a classroom that reflects a more universal learning environment. Or perhaps a more ideal one.

Monday, October 04, 2010

New Year: Will the Risers Stay?

At the end of last year, I asked my class for feedback about the changes I had made.  They told me to keep the peaceful decor.  They told me to keep the risers.  They told me to introduce the risers slowly (the way I did it with them, so that my new class could get used to the idea).

Needless to say, I followed all of their advice.  I kept the decor (i.e. lamps, area rugs, mood lighting, pillows, reading nook, some drapes, the ceiling mesh, etc.) and added a few new things (a wall hanging, a big mirror that my neighbour left on his front lawn).  I kept one set of tall risers (that for the first month was used for me to pile my junk on because I got rid of my desk and filing cabinet).  Last week, the first set of 3 students got to sit on the risers.  It was a very big deal, bigger than I had imagined. 

Students really started to get motivated by the risers.  When someone asked why I chose those particular students, I told them it was because they could work in a number of situations, were always safe, and were organized.  I immediately saw others wanting to make an impression on me by being more conscious about work, safety, and organization.  Some even got rid of everything in their desks to show they were ready to go when I gave them the nod.  The funny thing is is that those 3 students were just a trial.  I didn't really intend to keep them on the risers, and in fact, I didn't even have the rest of the risers assembled.  (I took them apart during the summer to store them and to resurface some of them with some leftover laminate flooring I had.)  So now I have six students on two of the high risers, and worked my tail off over the weekend to have the rest of them ready.  I still haven't fully assembled the others, but they are ready to go as I see fit. 

I can see that the risers are important to the students, but I didn't realize how important they were to ME.  If you walked in my class during September, you wouldn't have noticed a big difference between my class and any other.  I couldn't figure out why my classroom did not have the same feel as my last classroom.  At first I thought it was because I switched classrooms, but my new classroom is in almost the exact same configuration, and I used a lot of the same decor.  Then I thought it was just because of the new year and new kids, but I have a cohort of some of the same kids and I think they feel the same way I do: it doesn't feel right. 

But as I start to add more sets of risers, the feel is returning.  My class is starting to look the way I like it, and my teaching, I noticed is starting to move in the right direction.  When I have a bunch of desks, I feel way more hemmed in, and my teaching is more directed: I am going to talk and you're going to follow what I say, step by step.  Subconsciously, the risers remind me that kids can't sit still for so long, so I have to be more economical with my words and less directive.  I tend to move more with the risers because they are more open and I can move randomly through the classroom instead of row by row.  The risers also tend to promote student interaction among a variety of students whereas the desks promote interaction with the same people they always sit beside.  With desks, it is not as easy for students to move because they feel the need to stay with the stuff in their desks.  I also feel cut off from my students; we are separated by their desks.  The risers promote more fluidity, more ease of movement for me.  The classroom with desks is also more rigid as I cannot easily change the configuration without having to move fifty pieces of furniture (which can be frustrating, cumbersome and loud).  With the risers, I can change the configuration of my classroom in about 30 seconds.  (This really promotes changing lessons on the fly.  For example, we can create large graphs because we can use the tops of the risers.  We can cut into a story drama of the book we are reading because we can clear the floor space.  We can have another class over to sing some songs because we can all fit).  I think it's all about the freedom, openness, and flexibility that the risers afford that makes me like them so much. 

Hmmm.  I didn't realize how much the risers symbolize my style of teaching until now.  By not having them, it has caused me to look at the how and why I use them.  And I wouldn't have noticed the difference if it were not for the students last year telling me to introduce them slowly.  Smart kids.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Living Colour

About Colour

First, yes, I am Canadian, so I spell colour with a u in it. Second, when it comes to my classroom vision, I don't believe in colour for colour's sake. Third, I am really inconsistent in that last statement.

I have not terribly conscious of my classroom decor in the past. Furniture arrangement I strategized a good deal but not decor too much. And when I did it wasn't very good. One year I tried to create different zones on my bulletin boards. Red was for math. Yellow was for language arts. Green for science. I think I may even have tried to match my duotangs colours with my bulletin board colours. It turned out to be bad for a number of reasons. I'm not disciplined enough to change my bulletin boards very often so the colours became pretty arbitrary especially when art would span over 3 or more coloured subject zones. There was too much colour. First there were the many multicoloured zones and then there were multicoloured borders then there were the multicoloured posters and the multicoloured pictures I put up. It was pretty much a multicoloured mess. Don't even mention the multistained carpet.

In my district they are really rethinking kindergarten and ones of the things we
are really paying attention to is decor and colour. My district wants a more organic and more flexible approach to classroom decor. Of course I could not be happier about this because that is exactly what I'm going for in my own classroom. The downside is that I don't teach kindergarten so I don't have access to the great furniture they are ordering for the new k classrooms. Check it out at
One message my district is giving is Back off on colour! And I get that. I have in the past bombarded kids with colour. It can be sensory overload. Remember that this whole project began when I saw the effect that subdued lighting and an inviting ambience had on my staff (they hung out a lot and didn't go home). Kids are probably more attacked by stimulation and yet we throw more at them regardless. I definitely found that my students seemed a little more subdued after the changes. The amount they could read independently definitely lengthened noticeably.

This year I greatly reduced colour overall. I got rid of borders, banners, posters, and even student work that was not framed. I also got rid of the 3 different shades of blue desks. I brought in the neutral or organic tone risers and area rug. I filtered the light through some white mesh. I did have some accent splashes of colour here and there: some jewel tone curtains, a large hanging of a kimono, the beaded door curtain, and some cool blue or white led lights. The only real mistake I made in terms of colour was the huge blue feature wall with the squashed sheep/cloud finish.

I learned my lesson. When it comes to colour, less is more. And I do faux finishes as well as I can do a triple back flip. Leave it to the professionals.

Written (badly) on my iPod.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Recommendations and Issues When Using Risers Instead of Desks

We Love Our Risers

During one of our final classroom meetings, I asked my students for advice about the risers and whether or not they thought I should use them again next year.  The message was clear and unanimous on two counts: definitely use risers again next year, but start SLOWLY.

My students loved the risers for these reasons:
  • The risers gave lots of choice in seating (i.e. stretched out, standing, sitting behind them, kneeling on the floor, cozying up underneath them, etc.).
  • The risers looked good.  (I actually disagree with this.  By the end of the year, the plywood covered risers looked like scuffed shipping crates.  I'll cover those ones with some left over laminate flooring, like I did with one other one.  The laminate holds up well, and cleans up nicely from food or art spills.
  • Everyone could see.  Because of the multi-tiered orientation, everyone could see the Smartboard, me, and pretty well everyone else.  
  • There seemed to be more room.  The risers were extremely efficient in terms of footprint.  I tended to have them in a horseshoe a bit in from the perimeter, so there was usually a big space in the middle where we could gather if necessary.  Desks tend to be more sprawling and they were always in the way when I was trying to get to someone.
  • The risers were more "friendly".   The students liked that they could sit side by side with their classmates with no barriers (desks) between them.  By the way, the students who recognized that they needed personal space would sometimes retreat to a desk, but mostly periodically.
All in all, students thought they could learn better because they felt happier and could see more.  Some students liked also that they had had a hand in assembling the risers.  I build the components in my garage, and then students would sometimes help me assemble the risers when I brought the parts to school.  They had also helped to sand the risers so that they were smooth as a baby's bum.  Most of my kids have never had the tactile pleasure of using tools or sanding, and they loved the experience.  It also created built in ownership.  Looking back, my students took REALLY good care of the risers (way better than the care they took of their desks).  Maybe that is a result of introducing them slowly as prescribed by my students.

Except for One Thing
The students also gave one piece of negative feedback.  The risers, especially at first, were uncomfortable.  The risers are long, flat pieces of plywood.  There are no scooped out places for little backsides like their blue plastic chairs had.  This didn't bother most students, but for the ones that it did bother, those students brought their own cushions or used some of the ones I had.  Some students also did not like the lack of back support ("bleacher back") and found their backs sore from not leaning back on their chairs or not getting elbow support from their desks.  Coincidentally, I found those complaints coming from students with the worst posture and muscle tone.  Also, this was only an issue when we all had to stay in one place, and I generally try to keep my teacher talk time down to no more than 15 minutes at a time.  When my students are working, they can choose a number of different body positions.

And Despite Initial Fears    

I have to say that using risers was a major success.  When I first envisioned using risers, I almost didn't do it because of the number of fears that I had.  But looking back, those fears turned out to be non-issues.  Here are some of the fears I had and what the actual resultant was:
  • Chaos.  Without desks, I feared there would be pandemonium and that everything would be a total mess.  The exact opposite is true.  Because everyone could see and hear properly, it actually cut down on off task behaviour.  Because there were no desks, students couldn't just mindlessly stuff materials in the back of their desks, and if they left things on the floor or the risers, it was highly visible so they'd have to take care of it.  Mind you, the little storage in their lapdesks and giving them alternate storage on a rolling trolley were essential too.
  • What would my principal think?  When I brought in the first set of risers, I didn't actually ask permission.  I just did it.  I wasn't sure if I was eventually going to go whole hog anyway, so I didn't want to scare anyone.  My fears were totally unfounded because my principal was so great about it.  She understands the educational value, and she supports me 100%.
  • What would the other teachers on my staff think?  Actually, they are pretty used to some of my weird ideas.  None of them have gone all the way and started building their own furniture, but some of them have really started to think long and hard about how their classrooms look and function.
  • Is this bad for kids' bodies and muscle development?  According to our great occupational therapist, no.  In fact, she praised the number of alternate body positions that out set up affords.  I was worried about bleacher back, but she said it was akin to having children sit on those big yoga balls.  As long as they kept both feet planted on the ground, it was good for muscle development.  (Linda also recommended taping paper to walls so child could work upright or having them work on their bellies).
  • What would the parents think?  By the time parents saw the risers, we had already had the full set up going.  The students had slowly gotten used to the risers as I only brought them in as fast as I could make them.  We experimented at the beginning about who got to be on the risers to see how each student responded to them.  In doing so, students saw that being on the risers was a privilege, and saw them as something special.  When the parents saw the risers, the students had already provided them with the hype, and our bulletin board outside provided the educational reasoning.  All of the feedback that I received from our parents was very positive.
  • Can I afford all this?  Because this was coming out of pocket, and I am cheap, budget became an issue.  The risers and lapdesks were going to cost me about $400 I thought.  The actual cost for them was really closer to $200.  I got some plywood from a parent, I used some Ikea doors, I had some 2x4s in my garage, I also had a bit of money left in a slush account, and one of my students gave me a giftcard to where I bought the lapdesks.  Sometimes being cheap also make you creative.  I can also justify the money in that because I no longer buy commercial posters or borders, I can now spend that money on my new vision.  Of course, that does not take into account the other items I bought to give a new atmosphere to my classroom.  (See the previous blog entry). 
Going Slowly Next Year
In an email to my friend Kyme, who is currently and enthusiastically exploring classroom atmosphere, I talked about some of the reasons why my students recommended implementing the risers slowly.  I'll list them here:
  • Going slowly gives kids a chance to process the changes.
  • The teacher gets a chance to see what is working and what doesn't. If you make all the changes at once, it is hard to pinpoint what made the difference or what the problem was.
  • Going slowly and introducing a few changes at a time prolongs novelty factor. Kids and their brains like novelty.
  • It is easier to handle financially.  Instead of spending $500 in one shot, it was gentler to spend over the course of three months.
  • By going slowly, your kids get to buy into the process with you, which they can't do if you've made all the changes before they got there.
Here is my new fear: can I sustain this?  I'll try to answer this in my next blog entry.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Who Are You?

I know it's an odd question, given that I don't give my name on this blog.

But I've been hearing from a number of different people who have been reading this blog. It is pleasantly surprising to me as I intended for this blog to be just a written account for me to keep track of my own learning journey. Sure, I pass along the web address to anyone who I think might find it interesting, but that number of people I think stands at 6. You'll also see that nowhere on this blog do I intentionally give my full name or where I teach, nor is this blog in blogspot's list of blogs.  I am really curious about who is reading this blog and what brought you here.

So I am asking you to do me a favour.  Please either email me at my district mail (if you know who I am) or leave a comment here (if you don't know who I am).  If you could tell me how you learned about this blog, I'd really appreciate it.  If you have any comments or questions, I'd love to hear them too.  Okay, some of you would like to send me money, but if you are reading this blog (i.e. you are a teacher), then you might want to save your money for your own classroom enhancement.  If you still feel moved, send me a gift.  No mugs.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Do It Yourself? The Why, the How, and the Cost.

Someone asked me for some suggestions about how one might start "revisioning" their own classroom.

The Recipe
Basically, there are 2 parts.
  1. Remove anything that works against whatever vision or atmosphere you are hoping to achieve.
  2. Bring in anything that will enhance your vision.
I know this is brutally simplistic, but sometimes we need some cut and dried guidelines to keep things clear.

What I Cut
When I created The Space, the teachers' lounge, (see Origin blog entry), I cut out anything that reminded us of kids or school, and I brought in anything that was calming (e.g. soft mood lighting, draping fabrics, couches, herb teas and cappuccino, old jazz music playing on the CD player). 
When I started this same process in my classroom, my idea was to make it less industrial looking.  I started by removing anything "schooly": commercial posters, display borders, desks, pocket charts, etc.  That also included removing anything that looked institutional, but that proved difficult or impossible.  For instance, some of the institutional elements included: the ugly wall brackets, the ugly walls themselves, and the life-sucking fluorescent overhead lighting.  So I got rid of the shelf brackets, covered one feature wall with blue borderless paper (though the cloud sponge painting was a mistake I won't repeat), and draped sheer netting along the ceiling to soften the space and the lighting.  I was still stuck with the ugly carpet, the window, the sink, the beige counters, the beige cupboard, the blue doors, the digital clock with built-in p.a. speaker, the cloakroom, and the white drop ceiling.  The rest, as far as I was concerned was mutatable.

I did keep a number of schooly things:
  • tubs for my books (until I can afford wicker baskets).
  • some class-made reading posters.
  • a teacher desk and a filing cabinet (my teaching partner could not live without them, though I will turf them next year.  My desk takes up a lot of space and I never sit there, but do manage to pile up a whole lot of detritus on it).
  • my Smartboard and whiteboard.
  • a few desks (for those students who liked or needed them).
  • a few school tables (you know the ones; metal with coloured enamel top).
  • two trolleys with the pull out tubs (for student supplies, seeing as I removed their desks).
I kept these things out of necessity or because I couldn't find a more organic replacement for them (yet).

What to Bring In
Here are the things I bought: 
  • 3 tall risers and 3 short risers ($100. Built by me and materials from Rona. These were a replacement for the desks, and to me were essential for de-schooling my classroom).
  • sheers.  ($7. Lill by Ikea.  I draped these along the ceiling to diffuse the lights).
  • indoor/outdoor carpet ($30.  Walmart.  These hid the ugly industrial carpet and defined a group area.  I don't recommend this particular carpet because it snagged a lot).
  • drapery panels ($12. Jysk These replaced the 20 year-old drapes that were there).
  • led lights ($6 ebay.  Blue, low energy, and programmable.  They gave a calming, happy feeling).
  • doc holders ($50.  Daiso.  These acted as lapdesks.  Pieces of plywood or clipboards would work well too).
  • frames for each child (Made from $30 of crown molding.  My dad and I actually made these 6 years ago.  They make for an attractive, but authentic way for the students to display work or art.  My students changed what they displayed as often as they wanted).
  • pneumatic shop stool ($25.  Canadian Tire.  A backsaver.  I can wheel around the classroom and be at the student's level.  The stool is small so it takes up little space, and it is pneumatic, so I can be at a number of heights). 
 Here are the things I brought from home:
  • some floor and clamp lamps to replace the overhead lights.
  • cushions to make the risers more comfortable.  Students brought some in too.
  • a wire 45 record rack from a garage sale.  This was used to display books students published.
Here are some things I still need:
  • more cushions.
  • I would love to have more or only organic materials in my classroom, but that may not be practical or financially possible. 
  • some of those reusable shopping bags.  The students could keep their lapdesks in them.  I had bought those cardboard magazine holders so students could keep their reading books in them.  The magazine holders are not terribly robust, but the fabric bags would be tougher.  I think I'll hang them from hooks along the wall so there is easy access to them.  Also, it would be easier for students to take their learning with them wherever they went.
Your Mileage May Vary
Do you need all of these things?  NO!  These were things that fit my vision.  They may not fit yours.  If I was to recommend the essential items for my vision, they would be: the risers and some kind of lapdesks (to be rid of commercial desks) and the sheers (because of soft halo effect it had on the lighting).

What is important is what is important to you.  When you think of your idea or ideal of education, what does that look like in your head?  When you get that concept, then make your classroom a place that reflects your vision.  If you want an active classroom, then create a place that has an open floor plan.  If you want independence, then create a number of different places where students can go.  If you want lots of hands-on, then create large work spaces.  If literacy is your cornerstone, then make your library your focus and have easy access to writing materials.  If you want lots of social interaction, then have meeting spots, couches and a communal space.  If technology is your focus, then get a bunch of power bars.  If you want peace and serenity, you might not want the classroom next to mine.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Who? Where?

Organic Learning
I am inspired by what Ken Robinson said about education that it should be an agricultural model instead of an industrial one.  When did learning get so institutionalized?  No wonder students can't see the connection between school and the outside world.  We've created an isolated micro-world that does not resemble what students see as reality.  I get that schools need certain structures to function because of certain parameters, but when did those structures start taking over the very nature of learning? 

(Apart from the fashion and technology, is this really that different from classrooms today? 
It probably even has the same effect and effectiveness).

Special Tactics and Weapons of Mass Instruction
Don't get me wrong.  I've done all those school things: put kids in rows so they'll stop yacking at each other and pay more attention to me, used grades as carrots and the goal of learning, stepped in and solved kids' problems just so I can get on with my lesson, etc.  And I'll probably use those tactics again in the future.  But that's all they are: tactics, a short term technique to solve a short term problem when I have nothing else to fall back on.  I don't try to base my philosophy or way of teaching on my tactics, but sometimes I wonder.

It's Not WHAT You Know
In Parker J. Palmer's The Courage to Teach, he talks about how we ask ourselves about the how and the why  and the what of teaching, but we rarely ask ourselves about the who of teaching.  We have strategies, reasons, and curriculum to help us teach, but we don't really look at what is it about ourselves that makes us teach or teach the way we do.  So when I use power or traditional tactics in my teaching, I now ask myself, am I using these things because that is who I am, or am I using these things in spite of who I am.  Either way, it is not very pleasant for my ego.  Am I so shallow that I have to rely on cheap tactics to manipulate kids into doing what I want them to do?  Or am I falling back on these things because that's all I have and am doing it despite knowing better?  Sometimes it is tough to be mortal.

My intent with the whole transformation in design was to give kids an alternative.  It is not what they think of as school, so hopefully they will have to rethink "school."  But in reality, my present classroom is not a place that reflects my students' reality.  Some of them come from some tough backgrounds, so I did not necessarily want to duplicate that.  Perhaps my classroom is becoming more of a vision of what we'd like our school and world to become: a place of peace, choices, learning, and possibilities.

Palmer and More
Hmmm.  Maybe Palmer is right.  My teaching is more about who I am than I thought and my vision for my classroom says more about me than I thought.  I am creating my own utopia with my students. Whew, talk about ego!  But I don't think there's anything wrong with teaching kids:

You can learn all the time.
You can learn from anyone.
You can learn anywhere.

So I'd like to add to Palmer's treatise that sure we need to ask ourselves about the who of teaching, but also the where of learning.  In my vision of real learning, kids learn from themselves as well as through their experiences.  And if they happen to be learning at school, then the atmosphere that each teacher creates is a reflection of who they are as people.  Hopefully, as Ken Robinson puts it, those teachers are creating the right conditions for learning, just as a farmer creates the right conditions for growing.   

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

A great book. A great webcast.

A Timely Discovery
We were down in the States a few weeks ago.  My wife took me to Borders bookstore because she wanted to show me this book that she thought I might be interested in.  It was a weird looking book.  It was black and orange with this stylized stain on the outside.  Without even really looking at the cover, I started leafing through the pages.  At first, I had trouble reading it because the page I turned to had enormous writing that filled the entire page (think 72 point font in orange on a black page).  Sure, I am all for cool design, and maybe I need glasses, but in order to get the page in focus, I had to back up into the next section (Sensuality; I know, odd to put by the Parenting/Educational section.  By the way, never back into the Sensuality section.).

When I settled down and actually started to read the book, I saw what my wife saw in it for me.  It was called The Third Teacher, and it talked about how classroom design is the Third Teacher.  The more I read, the more I liked.  It is written by designers and theorists about how they think education should be, and it is a refreshing change from most educational books I read.  There is very little educationese.  Basically, the book is a series of 79 concepts (like #8: Let the Sunshine In; or #15: Display Learning), each on a page, and then the following pages explain the concept or give examples.

I got as far as #3: Cherish Children's Spaces, and knew I had to have the book.  My wife must have seen the look in my eye and offered to buy it for me as an early Father's Day present.  Bonus!  I picked it up and thought I would read it cover to cover.  And then, I wanted to keep for when I had time to read it with due care and attention.  As it turns out, the book makes for an excellent bathroom read: flip open randomly to a concept page, and then it you have time, continue to read the exploration of that concept.  So my journey through the book has been fairly random.

I've Lost My Palm, but Gained the Touch
The day before I went down to the States, I bought an iPod Touch.  Why?  Because my Palm PDA that I've used for years died suddenly.  I thought I could get away with going without, but as I forgot where I was supposed to be, could not jot notes (that I could successfully find later), could not access the plans I had stored, etc., I realized that because of my failing memory, I could no longer rely on non-electronic means.  They don't even manufacture PDAs, so the next best thing was the iPod Touch.  I used my niece's for a few minutes last Christmas and was not impressed, and I was even less impressed when I bought mine and it wouldn't sync.  The day I got back from the States, I took my iPod to my niece's and was able to get it working.  Talk about Love at Second Sight!

Okay, what does this have to do with education?
One of the things I love about the Touch is how easily it shows YouTube videos, and one of the videos that popped up in iTunes U was the TedTalk by Sir Ken Robinson (Think: Michael Caine has a child with Kenneth Branagh).  I'd seen his talk four years ago about trying to put creativity back in education, and I took it to heart.  His latest TedTalk is about how schools are in need of a drastic transformation from "an industrial model to an agricultural model."  I was so excited when I heard this!  It was the exact idea I am exploring with the transformation of my classroom; I wanted to take the factory-ness out of education and try to create better, more organic conditions for learning.  I just never thought of it in terms of agriculture.     

The next time I opened The Third Teacher (in "the Reading Room"), I found a piece by who else?  Sir Ken Robinson.  It seems like all the planets are lining up.  I wouldn't be surprised now if I saw Ken lined up at the local Starbucks holding The Third Teacher

By the way, once in a while, I even use my iPod to play music.

The Third Teacher website:

Robinson's TedTalk:

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

A Good Concept, But Not An Original One

Safety in Numbers?
Remember how I asked Penny, the great mentor teacher, to find me some examples of interesting, organic uses of design in the classroom?  She told me, "I know we always want to go and see a model of what we are doing.. but what if there wasn't one out there.. what if you were going to be the model.. would that change things for you?"

I actually thought it would be exciting to be breaking new ground, forging new molds, exploring new horizons...  All that great and self-important stuff.

Even though I wanted to be the root of my own innovation, I kept an eye out for models or literature about classroom design.  Unfortunately, most of what I found really had to do with school design (like  which I can't afford yet, or integrating technology (like  which is not really my interest right now because I want something a little more organic.  However, I did scour every one of the 150-odd sites on the site mentioned and did come across one site that was a little comforting and a little disappointing. 

Like Wearing the Same Dress as the Hostess, It Can Be Nice to See That Someone Has the Same Tastes as You, But Still Disconcerting for All Involved
I found this company called Isis in the UK that makes some interesting educational furniture.  One piece is called the StepSeat.  (Shown below from

Look familiar?
No, I don't think they lifted the idea from me (especially as they seemed to have it first).  And no, I didn't lift it from them (because I really lifted it from the Museum of Anthropology).  Chalk it up to Coldplay having a song that sounds remarkably like a Joe Satriani song from five years ago.  Sometimes the same inspiration hits people from different places at different times.  (See the Popeil PastaMaker and the Canon PaperShredder, Lady Gaga and Madonna, etc.).  So I was comforted to see that someone else thought it was a good idea, but disappointed that I am not the innovator I thought I was. 

Sometimes Cheap and Shoddy Is Better Than Expensive and Well-Made
There are, however, big design differences between Isis's design and mine.  Let me tell you all the ways that my design is far superior to Isis's (and leave the huge design flaws of mine to your imagination). 

  1. Mine is versatile.  I can tip mine over on its side to create different kinds of workspaces. The top deck and the bottom deck of mine are separate so that they can be used for different applications.   My design can be used as multilevel tables.  The StepSeat  is basically one piece and can be used as a seat or as a really wide ladder for getting those cans of soup from the top shelf (en masse).

  2. Mine is easily moved.  Its weight makes it easy to lift and the bottom supports act like skis so that they can be slid all around the classroom.

  3. Mine has enough room on the bottom deck so that the front people don't have to sit on the top people's stinky feet.

  4. Though mine does not have any (built in) storage, the open design has several advantages: low weight, students like to read and lie down under the risers, and students are able to sit in many directions (not just facing forward).  (See the photo below where students are sitting in two directions in three planes).  I would not give these capabilities up to put in storage.  I can also see my kids running head first into the StepSeat's storage doors during an earthquake drill.

  5. I could afford my risers.  Even the ones that were not made from recycled wood probably only cost me $20, (not including the experience of making them, which is priceless).  I doubt I could afford the Isis.

  6. I can take my risers apart again.  If I decide to use less risers or move them, I can unscrew the tops from the supports.  The StepSeat looks like it is staying that way for a while.  I can also fit the parts in my Mazda 3 (which is how I transported them from my home).

  7. Mine looks more organic.  The StepSeat looks like a piece of nice furniture.

Convinced?  Probably not, but I'll sleep better tonight knowing I tried.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Lap Desks

Some people were asking me about the lap desks.  They are clear plastic document holders from Daiso ($2 each).  They are about an inch thick.  The clasps are not robust, and several students have snapped them off.  Some have stepped on their lap desks and cracked them or shattered them.  I do not replace them because I want students to take care of them (which may not happen if I just keep giving them new ones).  Some students have replaced them with zippered binders, but most like the light weight and convenience of the doc holders.   

The doc holders/lap desks have proven to be extremely versatile.  They hold pencils and the student planners, but not much more.  I noticed a few students are taking them to the library, and will take work outside and use the lap desks as something hard to write on.  They may even have become a source of pride. One girl takes her lap desk to assemblies where she likes to show it off.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Deconstructing the Classroom

The Debate
Last week, my students debated about the importance of different forms of technology at the home, school, and community levels.  The two teams that debated school technology chose paper on one side and the building on the other, as the technologies that are essential to a school.  The debate was really interesting especially when you consider that my students are 7-9 years old.  The paper side explained how difficult it would be to read, write, do art, make displays, and do any work without paper.  The building team pointed out that the structure protects us from the weather, it is a place to keep our belongings, it gives us privacy, and does a good job of keeping us from getting eaten by bears.  All good points, I thought.

The Big Idea
So the big idea was, "What technology is essential to 'school'?"

The Application
As they were debating, I thought to myself, "We could do this."  So the next period, I had students write their names on a piece of paper, and then write which technology would be the easiest to go without at school.  After everyone committed,we put up a t-chart and tabulated the results on the Smartboard.  Interestingly, exactly half the students thought it would be easier to go without paper and the other half thought it was easier to go without the building.  Then we told them that the following Wednesday afternoon, those people who were thought paper was a less necessary technology would go without paper, and the people who thought the building was less important would go without the building. 
The Reaction
The students were shocked!  Well, except for one who figured I would try something like this.  They asked a whole bunch of clarifying questions like, "What if it rains?" (You'll probably get wet, so dress for the weather), "What are we supposed to write on?" (Anything that is not paper or a paper product), "What can we take outside?" (Anything you can carry), "What will we read?" (Anything that is not written on paper), "Can we go to the bathroom?" (Technically no.  For some of you, the bathroom will not exist, and for the rest, you can go, but you are not supposed to used toilet paper or paper towels.  Try to go before the afternoon starts).  We explained that the students would be given a number of regular school tasks to do, and the we gave them time to plan with their teams.  That day we sent home notices that some students would be outside for Wednesday afternoon.
The Experiment
When Wednesday rolled around, you could tell that the students were excited about the experiment.  As luck would have it, there was a light drizzle.  My teaching partner, Shane, and my volunteer, Kalee, went out with the No Building group, while I stayed inside with the No Paper group.  Both sets of students were convinced that their own situation was the easier of the two.  The teachers were not as convinced.
The Tasks
Task 1: Read silently for at least 20 minutes. 
No problem for the outside group, once they set up tarps under some trees and got their umbrellas out.  The No Paper group had a brief discussion and decided to put up a Tall Tale on the Smartboard, gather around and read it, silently and simultaneously.  There were drawbacks: not all of them could read it, they read at different speeds, there was no choice, etc.  But because they were all so committed to the task, NO ONE complained.
Task 2: Write a story that is at least 6 sentences long. 
The No Building group had few problems.  They used their lap desks or binders to write on and Shane provided them with paper.  A few of them forgot their pencils, but others loaned them supplies.
The No Paper group was really diverse.  They used chalkboards, whiteboards, and the computer.  Others wrote directly on their lapdesks with washable markers.  
Task 3: Show 5 different multiplication sentences.
The No Paper group just used the writing materials they used for task 2.
The No Building group was a little more creative.  They used materials from outside: 4 sets of 2 sticks, 5 clover equalled 15 leaves, etc.
Task 4: Draw a coloured picutre of a boat on the ocean in front of some mountains on a sunny day.
The rain started to come down, so the No Building group had trouble keeping their art dry.
The No Paper group did not erase any of their previous work (to prove task completion to the other team), so they were running out of surfaces.  They started writing on the filing cabinet, doors and the cupboard with dry erase pens.  I was impressed with their problem solving skills and ingenuity. 
Task 5: Create a display and a presentation to explain why your technology is so important to schools.
The No Building group had been out in the rain for over an hour, so Shane started to pack things up.
In the No Paper group, three students got this far.  Again, they used dry erase pens and any surface they could find. 
The Debrief
Both teams loved the experience.  They loved the novelty and their own success and ingenuity.  Anita, our Learning Support Teacher, asked them if they enjoyed the experience so much because it was for a short time.  The students replied that they would love to try it again for an entire week.  The students asked the other team questions, and they saw that they saw that buildings and paper are not absolutely necessary to school.  They realized that you could learn without either, but that both certainly make learning more convenient.  I really tried to push the idea that they could take their learning with them wherever they went, but I think the students really got that concept based on their experience. 
The Residual effects
I learned that some students are more resilient and resourceful that I thought.
I learned that some students work extremely well with a series of short, sequential tasks that they can do at their own pace.
I learned that some of my resistant writers work very well on vertical surfaces.  Even today, I posted foolscap paper on the chalkboard and it yielded more writing out of some students than I thought possible.
I learned that when students have task commitment, they will work harder, more harmoniously, more cooperatively, and with more ingenuity than usual.  I think that with the experiment, students really thought they had something to prove and worked to prove it.
I learned that routine is important for creating strong habits, but novelty will yield growth in unexpected areas.