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.