Monday, November 26, 2012

Curation vs. Creation

I was reading on Twitter a while back that curation was getting attacked.  The biggest slam is that when you just repeat other people's ideas, you aren't really adding anything to the conversation. 

Here is my response to that:


(I actually didn't think up that response myself.  I saw it somewhere else, and I thought it was appropriate here, so I copied it and pasted it into this blog.

Why?  Well, it summed up pretty well what I wanted to say, so I didn't see the point of cluttering up my nice, clean blog with something too wordy, [You know, unless it is parenthetical].

Besides, what's wrong with curation?  I come from a long line of copiers.*  I am pretty sure my conception followed pretty much the same pattern as that of of my forefathers.  So maybe curation is in my blood.  One of my uncles was a jeweller.  He didn't go out and mine or create diamonds, but he did do a wonderful job of taking people's gems and setting them so other people could witness and appreciate the beauty of the precious stones.

I'd like to think that as a curator of other people's ideas, I do the same thing.  I hold up other people's ideas for scrutiny, for appreciation, and for inspiration. 

Or maybe I am just lazy.  It is hard work, coming up with brilliant ideas all the time.  I don't know how people do it!  I mentioned before my action figure might be Inaction Man because I am so lazy.  But now, as an idea curator, I've moved up in the world.  My new role is Coat-Tail Man!  I fearlessly ride around on other people's coat tails until something interesting happens.

I've had a lot of success in my career, but a lot of that has come from being in the right place at the right time.  Sometimes I feel like the Forrest Gump of education.  Cool things happen around me, and I just happened to be there.  It pays to show up.

I do have to say that sometimes it is more than that.  I have created this new word that describes why some great things have happened to me: serendipportunism.  It's a mixture of serendipity and opportunism.  Unplanned happy things fall in my lap, but, and here is the important part, I take full advantage of them:  I met my Fairy Godmother on a ski hill 17 years ago, and turned the opportunity into some dream projects [plus two videos, a handful of articles, and a magazine cover];  I was asked to do some very rudimentary desktop publishing and parlayed it into an honour from the Governor General; and my aunt tried to set me up with this girl a bunch of times, but I couldn't stand the thought of being set up by my aunt, so I married the girl instead.  You know, serendipportunistic stuff like that.

I like to think that curation has its purpose.  Someone has to bring the ideas together and share them so we can all learn from them, even if it means rejecting the ideas.  Curation helps to define us, to refine us, and to document us.  Someone has to reflect our ideas back at us to say, "This is us," or ask "Is this us?"

At the very least, curation gives me something to do until I step off your coat tails and create something of my own.)

*I have a cousin who works for Canon.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I always think of my father as one of the most influential teachers in my life.  He was actually an engineer for his working life, but he had a way of explaining things to me that was clear and methodical.  He also tried to model everything he believed. 

One of the biggest things that he tried to do, though, was to open up my life to experiences that were different from what I'd always done.  This was not always successful as we were very different in interests and background, despite coming from the same gene pool.  My dad is a linear, outdoorsy, country music-loving, man who was raised on a farm.  I was a scatterbrained, city kid who dreams of being a rock star.  (Actually, I'm still all of those things.)

My dad tried to share his passion for fishing with me.  Fishing was one of those "best of times, worst of times" scenarios.  At the beginning, I really enjoyed it because it gave me a holiday from school that most kids didn't have.  But as my friends, my guitar, my part time jobs, and my occasional girlfriends became more important, fishing seemed, well, a bit dull.  Actually, it was more than dull.  It was painful.  I hate getting up early, and my dad would wake up at four to get the early bite.  Sometimes it would get rough on the water, and I would get really seasick.  Dad could go for "just another pass" which meant another two hours on the boat.  All those hours on the boat, I would long for the things I really loved to do instead of fishing, (i.e. playing my guitar, hanging out, sleeping, not vomiting, etc.).  As I became an adult with a family of my own, I understood that fishing was a good time to spend with Dad, but I still went out kind of grudgingly (because I still hate early mornings and I still get massively seasick in rough water). 

But these days, my dad's struggles with Parkinsons have all but ceased his ability to stand in a boat, let alone go fishing. He is more homebound, so a lot of our time we spend watching TV programs together (yes, the odd fishing show).  He started getting more and more disengaged, and would fall asleep for long periods of the day, so I was trying to think of ways to get him out.  Last summer, I bought this new little car, so I took him out for a spin.  He seemed to perk up a bit, so I thought of places we could visit in my little car.  They had to be short trips (to accommodate feedings, medication times, and fatigue) with destinations that were flat and accessible (to accommodate walking, his walker, his wheelchair, etc.). 

We went to all kinds of places locally.  We went out to this park to watch some strangers in a softball game.  We wheeled his wheel chair along a river walk.  I found a bench by this other river that was only about a 20 metre stroller walk from a flat parking spot.  I would wheel him out to the local boat ramp where he would watch the boats come and go, just like he did 20 years ago when he would disappear on a breezy afternoon.  By taking him for these outings, I guess I was trying to pay him back for all of those times in my youth when he was trying to get my lazy butt out to actually experience the world. 

I thought the ultimate outing would be to see some salmon.  I thought of all those times he tried to expand my life by taking me salmon fishing.   Salmon had played an interesting role in our relationship.  One year, Dad even arranged for me to get a job at a salmon hatchery when I was between schools and between jobs.  It was a cool job for a city kid; just me, these pens full of salmon, and the occasional bear.  Now, I thought if I could take Dad some place to watch the salmon, it would be like "full circle."

A few weeks ago, I saw that the local streams were having their "Salmon Come Home" festivals.  After spending hours of my childhood holidays at salmon hatcheries with my civil engineer father, I knew he would love to watch the salmon come home to spawn.  This would be that ultimate payback outing.  So I did some reconnaissance, and found a place to park that wasn't far from a viewing site over the stream.  The viewing spot I found was perfect because it had some good places to see salmon, and it had a good rail that Dad could lean against when he was watching the salmon.  One Sunday, I bundled Dad up in the car with his stroller and parked in the spot I had scouted.  It was pouring rain, and it took me about 15 minutes just to get his rain slicker on, but I didn't care.  I was having one of those feel-good moments with my dad.

We get to the stream.  The rain is dripping from our clothes as we hang our heads over the rail to watch the salmon.  I'm grinning as a few salmon flicker by as they pass underneath to get where they are getting.  We've been there about four minutes, communing with nature, when Dad turns to me and says, "Okay, can we go to the casino now?"



Sunday, October 28, 2012

My Innovation Site is (finally) Public!

I am happy, proud, and slightly exhausted to say that the site I've been working on can now be viewed by everyone in the internet universe. 

It can be found here.

I have visited classrooms around my district looking for interesting things that are going on in an effort to share and spread innovation.  It's been a wonderful, wonderful experience.  Teachers have been gracious in letting me in their classrooms, but humble about what they do.  When they get talking though, they get this gleam in their eyes because they are talking about something they are passionate about.  It is very inspiring.

The new public site is in blog format, whereas the in-district site was more like a collection of themed magazines.  I liked the themes and magazine style because I could add an editorial comment at the top about the collection of ideas.  We switched to blog format for ease of management, but viewers can still group the stories into themes by clicking the categories on the left of the page. 

Please stop by the site if you have a moment and browse through some of the ideas. 

The thing that is special to me about the ideas is that most of them came from individual teachers who were trying to do things differently (not national initiatives, not big budget programs, etc.).  Most ideas originated because teachers were bothered by something and they wanted to fix it.  Or they heard of something similar happening somewhere else, and they thought, "What would it look like if I tried that here?"  Even if they adopted someone else's ideas, they made them wholly their own.  I like that.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Lighting Is Everything

If you want to make a quick, dramatic change to your room, start with lighting. 

I don’t know about your classroom, but my classroom has these bright fluorescent fixtures that suck the life out of you.  I try to keep them off as much as possible.  I don’t get enough natural light from my north-facing windows, so I augment with some spot lighting.  The area lighting also creates some interesting zones. 

The 4 overhead hanging lights create intimate areas for small groups.  light 3

The floor lamps create a spot to cozy up in the comfy padded chair with a book and a buddy.


A couple of desk lamps along the walls make for nice private areas for solo work.


light 2


Mr. S

My buddy next door, Mr. S teaches grade 4/5.  He has been experimenting with lighting effects too.  Check it out.

An arm lamp at the back by the sink creates a great, flexible workspace.


The floor lamp defines the mood of the carpeted reading area.


A couple of clamp lamps become instant wall sconces.



If you can’t change the wall positions or even the wall colours, lighting is an easier alternative.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Window Dressing: a different experience

When I was in San Francisco, I was wandering just off Market Street and I came across this cool shop window.

It was a funky hardware store. Instead of the usual merchandise posed like mannequins with price tags, this store had their merchandise displayed like Art. A tape measure was formed into a crown.  Some sink parts were arranged like the ripples of a Monet pond.  The frames were made of yardsticks.  The window was visually appealing. It was intriguing. It told a story. It made me want to walk in the store and see what happened inside.  So I went in. 

Inside, visually it looked like almost any other urban hardware store with goods from floor to ceiling in cramped little aisles.  But there were subtle differences. Instead of the metallic smell of nails and screws, there was this buttery aroma.  Near the entrance, there was a cinema-style red popcorn dispenser with a hand drawn sign that said, "Help yourself!"  So I did.  I shoveled some popcorn into one of those little red and blue striped bags.  I merrily chewed on the popcorn as I browsed the aisles.  Around the next corner, I was asked whether I wanted red or white wine.  (I chose red.  I don't trust free white wine, even in northern California, unless it is to clean my windows).  Even without the wine, the staff seemed genuinely glad to see me.  They were just  happy to talk to me, and once in a while, we even mentioned hardware. 

Of course I HAD to buy something.  How could I not support such a business that created such a pleasant experience in a HARDWARE store?  I ended up buying some picture frame wire for $15.  But what I walked out of that store with was joy.  Yeah, it's hard to believe that I spent a week in San Francisco (with its glorious shops, hotels, restaurants, museums, architecture, natural beauty, etc.) and my most gratifying experience was in a hardware store.  But that's just it.  I expected to find rich experiences in those other places (and I got them), but not in a hardware store.  The hardware store delivered a fun, intriguing, personal experience in a place which at its best traditionally is utilitarian, and at its worst, BO-ring. 

This is what we should be doing in schools.  No, I don't mean giving kids popcorn and wine.  No, I don't mean having them sell hardware.  No, I don't mean configuring objects in interesting, artistic ways to attract customers (though that is cool).  No, what I mean is redesigning the whole experience of education.  Instead of merely focusing on the product and hustling our clients in and out as fast as possible, why not slow the process down a little and make it more pleasant, personal and beneficial for everyone involved?  Those hardware people were able to design a hometown experience in the financial centre of a major city.  If I lived in San Francisco, I would visit that store every time I was in the area.  They focused on the clients and gave them the best experience possible while they looked for a new toilet seat or found the right light bulb.

I would love to educate kids in a way that would have them love the experience as they learned.  Have students see the joy, beauty, and wonder in every day things, like hardware, language, numbers, rocks.  Spend long times with individual students so they can share what is wonderful to them with me and vice versa.  Sir Ken Robinson said that we need to go from an industrial model of education to an agricultural one, that we just need the right conditions to develop children properly.  I think that the hardware store was on the right track.  They took the expected (the hardware products) and added the unexpected (the personal, joyful experience). 

We could do the same in education:  take the expected (learning), and add the unexpected (a personal, joyful experience).  It doesn't take a lot of money nor does it need to change radically (after all, they still sold hardware), but it does take time and a great deal of imagination.  How else will we start to see things in a new way unless we use our imaginations?  Like the hardware store, imagination will be the nuts and bolts  for designing a new experience in education.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Is it time for a reboot?

I've been investigating classroom design for three years now and I was starting to think that it might be a good time to start over and reboot. We had some political tension and I wondered if I should take down everything I bought or created. I decided not to for a number of reasons. One of the reasons was that a little political tension was not a good enough reason. Also as a protest it seemed lame.

But then I wondered if tearing it all down would be interesting from a scientific stand point. But I decided that was unnecessary too. I already know of classrooms that have minimal thought to design or classrooms where the environments don't work for the teachers or students, so I already know what effect those classrooms have on learning.

I do have to say that in some oddly masochistic way, I did find the idea of starting over from scratch appealing.  I've been helping other teachers rethink their classroom, so I might be getting swept up in their enthusiasm.  I think I am also getting wary of getting stuck in the rut of "But I've done it this way for years."  It has only been three years, but I do want to practice what I preach.

For now, I'll keep it the way it is.  No reboot yet.  I am out of my classroom more next year, so it would be tricky making too many changes.  I'll probably have a new teaching partner and I'll definitely have a new crop of students, so I'll have to implement any changes gradually with them.  Plus, I need to have my classroom set up in my odd way as an example for other teachers who are looking at alternative designs. 

The year after this one though, hmm, all bets are off.  I know I'll have that itchy feeling again.

Friday, July 13, 2012

"It's a year later, and I'm wondering where you are now with this?"

I was going to post something else, then I noticed that one of my (5) readers left me a comment(!) that provoked me into some reflection.  I thought I'd use it as the basis of a new post.

Andrea asked (in the post "So you want to get rid of your desks?")

"It's a year later, and I'm wondering where you are now with this?"

That's a great question, Andrea. I actually think you've gone further with this than I have, classroomwise this year.

I have this one day per week district job that has me going to other people's classrooms and checking out their innovations, so my inquiry work in my own classroom has taken a slight backseat. So in terms of advancement, I haven't made much, but in terms of reinforcement, lots. I've had dozens of visitors come by my classroom who have watched how the environment plays a major role in the students' learning. Their comments are always interesting, and I get some provoking questions and feedback.

Andrea also wrote:
"After reflecting on your post, I created zones in my classroom last year for different types of activities, and also surveyed children about how they preferred to work and tried to meet their needs."
Like you, Andrea, we are constantly tinkering with our classroom, and it changes as it needs to be changed. We set up a store for a while so the risers became shop stalls. When we were working through some class issues, we had this big, one level circle to maximize that community connection. When we were doing lots of projects and art, the risers, floor and easels became big work and display spaces. So I guess I am still trying to create a flexible space that meets the demands of what we are doing at the time.  Most of the time, our classroom is set up with the 3 zones (campfire, watering hole, and cave) to accommodate different kinds of day to day learning. 
Andrea also wrote:
"(I teach middle school). We made some changes that increased engagement, so this was time well spent!"
Part of my district job was to help people implement changes in their classrooms, and the one area I spent a lot of time on was classroom design.  I was in many classrooms, and I can honestly tell you, (though you already know this) that classroom design matters.  I've witnessed first hand that classroom design influences (for better and worse) several big and small factors:
  • visibility (and hearability?)
  • self regulation and stimulation level
  • classroom community
  • traffic flow
  • comfort
  • engagement
  • connection of teachers with students
  • temperature, light, and smell
  • ability to teach different subjects in a variety of methods
  • pride and ownership
  • safety
  • student interactions, etc.
I am really interested to see what you found out, Andrea, especially in your surveys.  Students sometimes have different priorities than teachers when it comes to classroom environments.  I worked with this one middle school teacher whose students were highly resistant to making changes to their classroom.  They were really wary of making their classroom into something too babyish.  It wasn't until she showed them some pictures of alternatives that they saw some positive possibilities and then the ideas really started to fly.  That teacher said it transformed her class into a community and transformed her teaching to be much more personal.

Andrea also wrote:
"Thanks for bringing up a topic that helped me improve the experience for my students."
Thank you for the comment that spurred me into writing this post!  And please send me pictures of the kinds of changes you made, if you can.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Design Thinkers: Engaging Kids in Math

As part of my district job in finding interesting practices going on in classrooms, I came across some your designers in Pam’s class.

Pam is working on her PhD in engaging elementary students in Math.  She believes that by activating the affective parts of students’ learning personality, we can engage students’ cognition of Math. 

When I went to visit Pam’s class one morning, the students were working on a Math project in Shape and Space that was addressing all the regular curriculum goals.   Their task was to think of a possible building and a problem that building solved.  Here are some of the ideas students had:ph 007


  • A boy came up with an igloo design (right) for a restaurant franchise he created.  The top part of the dome was glass to let in natural daylight, and at night it was augmented by rainbow lights.



  • One girl offered a house on a bridge because it gave privacy.  The house was situated on a cliff and bridge could be reeled in.  The house was octagonal so that each room had its own section.


  • Another girl offered a spiral staircase design (below) that went through the centre of an art gallery.  There were branches that extended off the staircase to access each floor which housed a different artist.     
  • ph 003  ph 004


  • One boy’s idea was to have a gas station with a series of ramps (below).  The ramps would maximize the amount of pumps you could have in a small area.  Some of the overhead ramps could be used for a quick oil change. 
  • ph 010

In their write-ups, students talked about use of shape, symmetry, function, and design.


I asked the students, if they did not have any ideas of their own, to design me an projector cart that did not move until I wanted it to (because my Smartboard frustratingly goes out of alignment too often).  In a matter of minutes, Pam’s students had a number of options: velcro and duct tape fasteners, wheel covers, retractable wheels, arms that came out to stabilize the cart when not in motion, and wheels that flipped onto their sides so they didn’t roll but fastened to the floor.  We talked about wheels that weren’t round.  One girl had in idea to put only two wheels near the bottom, but off to the side so that the cart could be moved like a wheelbarrow (I actually might try this one). 

I was blown away!  (Did I mention that these students were in grade 4 and 5?) The more they talked, the more they fed off each other’s ideas.  Their ideas became more refined but somehow still expansive.  One of the reasons these students had so many great ideas was that Pam had inspired them with the work of Thomas Heatherwick.  He is a contemporary English designer who design things from hand bags to cafes and hospitals.  His buildings look like sculptures.  Pam showed her students pictures and videos of Heatherwick’s work to engage that affective and imaginative parts of her students’ brains.  They saw the need for the bridges or the buildings, but they were also moved by the beauty and cleverness of his design work. 

It is this connection to the affective and imagination that is a large part of Pam’s work with her PhD studies and her investigation of Kieran Egan’s Imaginative Education.  She deftly uses Heatherwick’s work to construct a narrative, and the students create personal connections with that story. In turn, their personal connections help them to engage with, for example, Shape and Space concepts in Math.  The students see the need for such concepts, and then can apply their imagination to these concepts by using rich tasks, like Pam’s design challenge.   

ph 017 ph 005 ph 008 ph 009 ph 011 ph 012  ph 014 ph 015

(This post will eventually be part of the district’s public site, but we wanted to share the designs with the families in Pam’s class now).  

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Tennis Anyone? Lessons from Tennis Lessons

I remember watching a tennis instructor giving a lesson and being impressed with the way he was able to get kids progressing very quickly. And then I thought of my daughter's dance, skating or swimming instructors and it was similar. So I started to observe and try to figure out why they were so successful, so I could get the same results in my classroom (because it was humbling to see the kind of progress kids in tennis, dance, skating, and swimming were making compared to the modest gains I was making in my elementary classes).

Here were some of the differences:
  • The instructors were all really young, like under 30. Hey, wait a second! Shouldn't my years of experience count for something? Apparently not.
  • The classes were all on the small side. Dance was the largest at 15, and swimming was the smallest, 3-8 (which is comforting because smaller groups descreased the chances of pupils drowning).
  • Students attended once or twice per week in half hour to hour lessons. Maybe having large breaks is a good idea for freshness. Mind you, if I count the number of subjects I teach then maybe this is not going to work or the students will be about 40 when they graduate.
  • Students were grouped by ability, not age. 
  • The instruction all seemed to be the same pattern. 1. Get everyone together at the beginning for an overview. 2. Do only two or three things per lesson, but with a tremendous variety of ways so it doesn't get stale. The teacher gives a brief demonstration of each variant. 3. Students go off and try each variation while the teacher goes around and gives BRIEF feedback or fine-tuning to each student. 4. The lesson ends with something fun like a game.
  • Almost the whole time the students were DOING following brief instruction.
It is the last two that I keyed in on in my own classroom as the rest were out of my control (barring a change in policy and a time machine).  I try to run my some of my classes this way, but I've come to realize that the tennis lesson approach does not work well across the board.  It is great for anything physical or that uses discrete skills such as long division, hand writing, learning phonics, art skills, memorization, etc.  Anything that is progressive that can be broken down into a series of advancing skills works with the tennis model.  However, it does not work well with anything conceptual, such as problem solving, critical thinking, creative writing, debating, why we use long division, etc. 

Extrapolating further, I think I could probably teach in a class of 40 kids if all I had to do was teach them to memorize and regurgitate a bunch of facts, or have them do math calculations (but not know why or how to apply them).  I could teach a big class if they only copied what I did.  I could teach a class like that if they didn't move or didn't talk to me or each other.  I could teach 40 kids if they only learned skills instead of concepts.  I could teach a class in this way if I didn't want to treat students as individuals.

Actually, I couldn't.  I probably wouldn't teach if this is what schools were like.

I use the tennis approach in appropriate circumstances, but not as the overall model for my teaching.  I am trying to create an atmosphere where we go deeper than the lockstep series of discrete lessons.  Learning should be more holistic, applicable, imaginative, and conceptual.  Lecture halls and desks in rows facing the front is a perfect venue for factory-driven lockstep teaching.  Maybe that's why my classroom looks like an odd circus at times: lots of action, wonder, interaction, and fun.  We need our students to go beyond individual skills and work collaboratively, cooperatively, and creatively.

Using the tennis approach is indeed useful.  But not for everything.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Self-Regulation and Classroom Design: Disco Lamps, Cookies, and Will Power

I was reading this book called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and one of the points in the book that was noteworthy was the work of Roy Baumeister.  (You can see a video of Baumeister here).  Baumeister's research is in self-control and will power.  He says that will power is expendable and  when it is used up, it needs to be replenished.  He cites research where hungry subjects were told to eat radishes and resist some delicious chocolate cookies that were available.  The subjects were then given some impossible math puzzles to solve.  The ones who expended energy resisting the cookies gave up far faster than the ones who were given nothing or the ones who were allowed to eat the cookies.  Baumeister says that this energy devoted to resisting all kinds of temptations comes from one central pool.

I can back this finding up with a recent experience of my own.  I was a meeting on Friday afternoon that was the end of a series of meetings we had throughout the year, so we decided to have a celebration at the end of the meeting.  Before we began the meeting, we set up the food and decorated.  Someone asked me to bring in a revolving disco lamp I had.  I turned it on and forgot to turn it off when the meeting began.  And do you think I could think clearly during that meeting?  It was just after lunch, so I wasn't hungry but I found the stupid disco lamp such a distraction that 15 minutes into the meeting, I had to turn it off or else I was going to implode.

Now transfer this situation to our students.  They sit in these hard little chairs for hours while the teachers drone on.  The lighting is usually harsh.  Sometimes there are displays or colours that scream for attention.  There are noises from every direction that reverberate off all the hard surfaces in the room (the desks, the walls, the ceiling, the hard tile floor, etc), plus the whirring of heating systems or fish tanks. 

Add to this whatever social or emotional factors that are preying on our students' attention, and it is a wonder they learn anything at all.  Our students come to school hungry, tired, sad, worried, and angry sometimes.  We may not be able to fix all of these problems, but we can acknowledge them and help students deal with these challenges. 

In my classroom, I'm trying to mitigate some of these physical environmental challenges: 
  • I try to keep my instructional portion short so they don't have to sit and listen for too long. 
  • If I do drone on, I allow them to sit on risers that do not confine movement and they can wiggle to self regulate.  They are also allowed to stand if they need to.  Due to my sciatica (ah, age), I understand the need to stand up after sitting for a while.  Choice and movement seem to help with self regulation.
  • When they work, students can lie on their bellies, stand, or sit.  In terms of seating, there are barstools, rolling chairs, stacking chairs, risers, and benches.  I've seen classrooms with yoga balls and I think that's great for kids because of the comfort and ability to move.  I do not use them myself because I don't know how to store them when not in use; whereas all my other seating options, when not used for seating, can be stacked, folded, or used for something else.    
  • In terms of working surfaces, there are desks, risers, lapdesks, the floor, bulletin boards, counters, the surfaces of rolling storage bins, vertical bulletin boards and computers. 
  • I keep the lights on the low side.  When I am using the Smartboard, it is downright dark because it focuses all of the attention on the board and away from other distractions.  If we are having a discussion or interaction, I'll turn the lights up a bit so students can see each other. As the conditions change, I have a student monitor who adjusts the overhead lighting as necessary.
  • I'll turn the lights a bit down again during individual or partner work time because it sets up different zones of work.  Cooperative work tends to happen by the natural light of the windows.  Individual, silent work tends to happen under the glow of individual spot or floor lighting.  The dark minimizes distractions and the light amplifies the work spaces.  Students start to understand for themselves the kinds of conditions they need for the type of work they are doing at the time. 
  • I use material to filter some of the harsh fluorescent lighting.   There are "daylight" bulbs in the lamps around the classroom to provide warm light, also.
  • I've brought my background colour of my walls way down to neutral, except for a few splashes of accents on the "non-teaching" side walls.
  • When tile was installed in my classroom last summer, I brought in some cheap area rugs to limit the amount of reverberation from the hard floor surface.  Luckily, I have one of those sound towers that amplifies my voice without having to yell or strain my vocal cords. 
  • As an aside... Before I became a teacher, I remember watching my mom teach a primary class, and just before all pandemonium was going to break loose, she brought all of the students together and talked to them in a REALLY quiet voice.  Later, I asked her why she did that and she gave me 3 reasons.  First, yelling at them would have riled them up and not calmed them down.  Second, because she was so quiet, they had to be really quiet in order to hear her, and it created this nice community tone as they sat there together.  Third, she was letting them know they were good kids just by her tone, but they needed to be quieter, good kids.  I was impressed with Mom, and I recognized how much patience (or as Baumeister would say "ego depletion") that took. 
In Kahneman's book, he also mentions that in order to facilitate people's thinking (or student learning), we need to minimize cognitive strain.  We can do that by making the default as close to the conditions we want in the first place, so people don't even have to think about it.   So I see reducing cognitive strain by promoting any conditions that help my classroom be wondrous, be agile, and meet the needs of my students.  I see my classroom environment as one that tries to minimize cognitive strain and help students understand how they can make changes for themselves to meet their own needs.  In the long run, they will be more capable and adaptable if they learn to regulate themselves in this way.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Risers Outside

Now that the weather is finally improving here, we are spending more time outside.  (Actually, we spend some of our afternoons outside, regardless of the weather, but I'll post about that later).  Sometimes we take our books outside and read, or we take our art or work.  On a nice afternoon, we carried the risers outside and used them outside.  Here we are reading.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Design experiments in my school

Some of the other teachers in my school are on their own design journeys at my school.

Here is a grade 1/2 classroom. 
There is a window treatment that softens up the harder angles.  The green from the treatment and the seagrass baskets combined with the unpainted shelving add an organic touch.

A little remnant piece of carpet creates a nice reading zone on the floor.

Keeping the desks together gives enough space to have a generous space in front of the Smartboard.

Here is a grade 2 class.
The couch and carpet create a lovely reading area.  The natural light from the window and the deep colours add warmth.

The egg chair is a quirky whimsical piece.

There are rows and clusters to provide seating for different kinds of learners.  I've also seen students break out all over the room during work time: on desks, on the couch and carpet, sitting up on the windowsill, etc.

 This is a small exploration corner.  One of the things students do is put transparent and opaque things on the overhead and shine the light on the wall to create images.

A large carpet remnant provides enough seating for the whole class in front of the Smartboard.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Liquid Networks

Last week, E, the Learning Innovation Coordinator in my district set up a Liquid Networks session. She brought together some of the classroom innovators we've been profiling on our district site. It was a really stimulating morning. We had a previous session but for whatever reason this one just seemed more "liquid."

Even though the group was diverse, there seemed to be a strong thread of like-mindedness. There was one to one mingling, small group conversations, and full group discussions. Maybe it was the full group discussions after the sharing that made me see how connected the group was.

I've said previously that you can't focus group for innovation. That might not be true anymore for me. If you bring together the right group, it is possible. With the group last week, the messages I took away were: anything is possible, and the same old model of education just doesn't cut it anymore.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Steal Like an Artist

When I was in San Francisco during Spring Break, I picked up this great book at the SF MoMA.  It's called Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.  It reminds me a bit of The Third Teacher in its format, only that you could flip to any page randomly and still get a lot out of it.  Both are the kinds of books that would have been cool if they had been written on cards instead of bound. 


There are some really practical bits of advice that drive creativity like:

"Use Your Hands." 
So much of what I do is thinking and writing on my computer.  Yet my most creative times are when I get dirty and build or create something.  And apart from being with my family and friends, they are my happiest times too.  Kleon has inspired me to doodle more and write things in notebooks.  I am looking for my fountain pen because I love the feel of the nib as it skates across the surface of the paper.  I like the randomness of creating webs when I brainstorm instead of the precisely aligned organizers I create with my computer.  I've gained some efficiency by using my iPod apps, but I've lost something in my creativity by not using physical objects.  And maybe it's why I've enjoyed the design process so much.  It takes thinking and reflecting, but I am creating something tangible too.

"Side Projects and Hobbies Are Important."
I think I mentioned that I play in a jam band with some other staff members every Thursday.  When I came to the staff, I thought it was odd that there were all these musical people who didn't play together.  When we started playing together it was rough sounding, but fun.  We've grown as a band over the years, but more importantly, we've grown as a team.  A lot of the skills and attitudes we've learned as a band have carried over into our teaching: we've learned to listen to each other to bring out the best in the group; we each take the lead as the song or circumstance dictates; we've learned to persevere and laugh while doing so; and we've learned to trust each other as we take risks and go outside our comfort level (this is the same band that does "Comfortably Numb" and "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden"). 

"Don't Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Get Started."
You can't predict which way your art, your teaching, or your life is going to go.  You can front load all you want, but until you are in the thick of it, you have still may not have any clear direction.  It is the process of working with and through these situations that form who you are, and who you are will determine how you teach and how your life is going to go.  With my design journey, I had a rough plan: have as much fun as possible until someone tells you to stop.  The thing is, I'm still having fun, and no one has really told me to stop.  The journey has been great!  It has affected my teaching and the students' learning, and I've learned things about myself that I didn't know.  It's as if I decided to use emergent curriculum on myself before I sprang it on my kids.  It's only fair.

"The Secret: Do Good Work and Share It with People."
This bit really spoke to me.  I think it's why I started this blog.  I wanted to share with other my design journey and see what the world thought.  As it turns out, the educational world seems to be heading in the same direction I am going.  It also turns out that it wouldn't really matter if no one read this blog (though I do appreciate my 7 faithful readers which will hopefully include my mom one day) because I found out that I process information best by writing.  It is the act of writing that seems to shake some things loose and consolidate others.  The evidence is that when I am with a big group of people (say, more than 2), I don't say too much.  But when I get home and I email the same two people about a thought I had and I go on for about 13 pages.  I am WAY more articulate as a writer than I am as an orator.  So in this case the act of sharing for me is a purely selfish one. 

I don't think of myself as an artist, but I definitely see the benefits of thinking like one when I am trying to tap into my creativity.  Thanks Austin!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Are Parents Lining Up to Have Their Kids in My Class?

Someone from the district came by to have a look at my odd-looking classroom.  She liked it and understood the intention and the spirit of it.  She was taking a few pictures, and she turned to me and asked, “Are parents lining up to have their kids in your class?”  I was a little surprised as I never thought of my project as a “magnet” program.  Also, the question never occurred to me because the answer is, “No.”

On reflection, there are good reasons why this is so.

The first reason is: There are a whole bunch of really incredibly talented teachers in my school.  We have a huge shared set of beliefs, but we have individual talents and idiosyncrasies that make us stronger as individuals and as a team.  My design project is just another one of those idiosyncrasies.  Other teachers on staff are far ahead me in terms of things like the ethic of care, social responsibility, play and project based learning, technology, and just awesome teaching.  You could walk into any classroom in my school and see something great going on.  It’s a pretty exciting and fulfilling place to be.  So my adventure in design just happens to be another education-forward concept being played out in my school.

The second reason is: Parents and kids don’t really get it.  Well, not the parents and kids outside of my classroom.  The kids I teach really get it.  Our classroom is a calm and cool place to be.  The space is flexible in that we can turn it into any kind of space we need it to be.  There are zones within the classroom that accommodate different kinds of learning and different kinds of learners.  Our room works for us, we don’t have to work in spite of the room.  The parents of my students are just happy that their children like coming to school. 


Now about the kids who I don’t teach, a lot of them do not understand what we are trying to achieve in my room.  Their needs might be different, but also their idea of school may not have changed because they haven’t experienced anything outside of the traditional model.  And when students are given choice, it is interesting to see what they want.  One of my friends let her students pick how they were going to organize the room.  This is what they came up with:




This teacher almost cried.  She has been working all year to change the atmosphere of her class.  First she had tables.  Then she set up interesting zones for learning with couches, carpeted areas, a combination of desks and tables, etc.  And then she opened up the discussion with her grade 1s and 2s.  She documented the discussion (and her resistance to the idea on this letter posted in her classroom):


Though this may seem it goes against what we are trying to achieve with classroom design, it really doesn’t.  What this teacher and I are trying to do is make the space the best possible environment for learning for our students in our context.  The challenge comes when that vision differs among the teacher, students, and the parents.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Pride of Ownership

Ownership is huge.

It's the reason I have gone as far with this design journey as I have. It is MY project. No one told me to do it and no one told me I HAD to do it. It started by accident, I started having fun with it, and it took on a life of its own. Even though my journey has been due to a bunch of happy accidents, I still feel like I am in control because I still make the decisions including whether or not to continue.
I've been following the work of Dan Ariely. He's had a fascinating life where a serious accident led to his life's work. His writing reminds me of Daniel Pink's though Pink comes to the concepts from a journalist and Arielly from the point of view of a researcher, a behavioral economist. In Ariely's book The Upside of Irrationality, he describes the fond, anthropomorphic bond he has with a toy chest. Though utilitarian and cheap-Looking, it is Arielly's favorite piece of furniture. Why? Because he had to struggle through building it himself. It's the Ikea model for interpersonal relationships: the emotional investment created in building something yourself is a bond that can last a lifetime.

I myself have come to agree with this rationale, with and without the inclusion of a little hexagonal wrench. I love all the things I built myself despite their wobbly, ugly, or illogical composition. The emotional investment I have in each piece is irrational but undeniable. My favorite creation, my daughter, I have become quite attached to. It makes no sense. She is a liability in terms of capital in flow. She takes up huge amounts of time, space, and energy. At the beginning, when we brought her home, she wasn't terribly useful, yet I love her more than any other thing I've created or any other investment I've made. Go figure.

But the irrationality of my feelings makes sense. It is the pride of ownership, not that I own my daughter, but it is the sense of marveling at something I've had a part in creating or helping to develop. Look at the experiment I talked about in my last post. My students love their classroom because they had a hand in forming it. They have an investment in making sure that it fits their own and everyone else's needs.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Audience Participation

Unlike my friend C.L., with the great middle school classroom, and I.K., the PhD student, who both give students full say about how to organize the classroom, I’ve been a little hesitant about letting my students run with their own ideas in terms of classroom design.   (Remember the suggestions for the wall to wall pool?).  But in light of the posts I've written about student voice, I gave my students (somewhat) free reign over the class design.  We had a gap in the lessons with a little time to kill due to an unforeseen school activity, so I told my students they had 12 minutes to move the classroom furniture any way they wanted.  There were a few zones and things they couldn't touch (my supplies, the projector stand for the Smartboard, etc.) but everything else was fair game. 
Here are some Before shots:
audpartic 022
audpartic 001 audpartic 002 audpartic 003   audpartic 021
They set to, and I was impressed with how harmonious the moves went.  They didn't seem to have an overall plan, but they definitely went to the places that they wanted to change the most.  The big targets, which also happen to be the biggest pieces of furniture, were the risers and the rolling storage bins.  Small teams of students clustered around them and then decided where they were going. 
Another partnership rolled up the gold carpet (the third picture above). I bought the huge, almost new carpet at a garage same for $5!  I thought it was such a great deal … until we sat on it with dark pants.  The shedding fibres made it look like we’d been mauled by a Golden Lab with dermatological issues.  But until recently, we kept the carpet because it added to the warmth of our classroom.  They replaced the carpet with the very utilitarian grey carpet remnant.  We filled in the blank spot at the back where the grey carpet had been with the unraveling indoor/outdoor carpet we’d had in our class a long time ago.  (I’d moved it into the the teacher oasis I created a while back.  Incidentally, I moved the gold carpet into the teacher space, as we don’t roll around on the floor too much).
The students dismantled the horseshoe that the risers formed. I was disappointed because it really added to the communal feeling we had, especially during instructional times.  Though they dismantled the riser horseshoe, they created another smaller horseshoe with the rolling storage bins.
The After and the Reasoning
I was a little dumbfounded about their choices and moves, so we debriefed afterward.  I was blown away! Weeks ago, I showed them the set up of the Apple Store, and they really liked the zones created by furniture there.  The zones were flexible, but each emphasized different kinds of activities and interaction.  They had set up our class in the same manner!  The carpet at the front is intended for instruction because it allows all of us to see the Smartboard as I am giving instructions. 
Here is the Campfire area they created:
audpartic 020 audpartic 009  audpartic 015
At the Apple Store, they liked a private space where people could turn their backs or be shielded from distractions for concentration and privacy.  With the rolling bins, they created a cave of silence.  Students can go inside the the horseshoe or they can stand and work at one of the rolling bin carts.  There are additional silent, private spots at the back window counter and the easel. 
Here are the Caves the students created:
audpartic 007  audpartic 006 
 audpartic 019  audpartic 016
The rest of the riser and carpet spots were set up for individual, partner, or small group work.  They moved the risers so that people could talk or work, but they dismantled the horseshoe so that the small groups did not interfere with each other.  They recognized that when all of the talking groups were together in one tight spot, it got too loud.  With the risers being separated, now they had three different zones for interaction, instead of just one.  Notice that they kept the picnic bench set up of the long risers so they could sit on either side and talk across it. 
Here are some Watering Holes the students created:
audpartic 008  audpartic 018   audpartic 011   audpartic 014   audpartic 017  
I don’t ever remember telling my students about the Campfire, Watering Hole, and Cave concepts.  Regardless, they see the need for such zones for themselves.  Notice that they also kept some desks for people who want their own space.  They also put them in front of our classroom library.  Just like the Apple Store, we try to keep the unsightly rows of items that are stored on shelves blocked from view.  In this case, the desks block the books.  At the back counter where there are other shelves with things stored on them, I tried suspending a taffeta curtain.  It gets pulled down by people’s feet, so I am looking for a better solution. 
audpartic 010
There is definite pride of ownership.  Right after reorganizing the classroom, we had a school-wide writing activity where students were allowed to go anywhere in the school to write.  None of my students left our classroom.  Though there are still some problems with our classroom, (I miss our horseshow for discussions where everyone can see everyone else), the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.  The students are proud of their classroom, they use the spots appropriately because they designed them for their own purposes, and the classroom seems bigger.  I was trying to figure out on my own how I was going to create Caves in our classroom for the last few months.  In the same time it takes for my students to clean the classroom at the end of the day, my little designers fixed a lot of the problems I was working on.
A useful 12 minutes.