Saturday, December 26, 2015

Adele is not an innovator. But who cares?

I've been listening to Adele's latest, 25, and I'm loving it.  It is everything one might expect from an Adele release: big, emotional songs.  Lots of adjectives come to mind  while I listen to the songs: genuine, cathartic, heart-felt.

But the word that does not come to mind is innovative.  When I think of innovation in popular music, I think of Jimi Hendrix, Madonna, David Bowie, or Moby.  Each of them is an innovator because they found ways to create new sounds or almost new genres of music.  Adele hasn't really created an avant-garde sound or a different way of making music.  If anything, her style hearkens back to someone like Edith Piaf who used soaring vocals to tug at people's heart strings.

Adele's gimmick is just pure talent.  She "gets by" by pairing songs that speak to people's innermost feelings and powerful vocals.

Similarly, good teachers do not have to innovative.  I know I write and think about innovation all the time.  I have read dozens of books about innovation (with respect to teaching and not at all related to teaching).  I have been in lots of schools and hundreds of classrooms.  I like innovation and I seek innovation, but I also realize that innovation is not the Holy Grail of teaching.

I have seen very workman-like teachers who are very effective.  They do not create much in the way of new material or strategies, but their students still learn a lot.  These teachers, like good singers, find ways to interpret other people's content or methods that really reach learners.  Conversely, I have seen very innovative teachers whose students did not seem to be getting much learning done. Sometimes, these innovative teachers had so much going on that it was hard to focus in on what students were supposed to be learning.

For me, I will still continue to seek new ways of reaching my students minds.  I try to be forward thinking while still using some tried and true methods from the past, and I try not to be judgemental of teachers who spend a lot of time in either of those camps.  

If I did have to pick one trait that I have witnessed increase the efficacy of teachers, it would have to be engagement.  Effective teachers seem to be able to engage the hearts and minds of their students. Just like Adele.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Teaching is Prototyping

The other day, I was reading about 3D printers, and how they are getting so good and so fast that they are not just being used for prototypes but actually for production. 

I remember first getting the concept of prototyping from reading Tom Kelley's excellent book The Art of Innovation.  He talks about the starting with a basic model for a concept (like the Macintosh mouse or a shopping cart), knowing that the model will be changed, adjusted and adapted with each successive attempt to get at the final product.   The basic model might go through countless iterations as testing informs each modification. 

I also talked with Lisa Mulzet about the idea of protoyping when she gave me my first look at a 3D printer, and how she used it with her design students.  Her students would design, make a 3D model adjust, redesign, and make another model, repeating the process until they achieved the desired end.

Reading this article last week about prototyping, I started to think about how I use prototypes, but I don't always do so intentionally.  The risers I created in my class for an alternative to traditional desks and workspaces were meant to be a prototype, but I didn't change them that much, though I did alter the original design after using the risers with kids in a class. 
The original plain, bare plywood and 2x4 prototype.
The tall riser, if you tip it on its side, is the same height as the short riser.  The original design I envisioned was closed at the back, capped with plywood so that when you tipped it on its side, you would have a massive flat surface like a stage, especially slid it up against the short riser.  We would have used it as a platform for drama, playing, or display.
Why didn't I stick with the closed-back design?  I wanted to get the risers in class as soon as possible so I slapped them together with the materials I had (remember the Ikea cabinet door for the top?), and a minimum of bought materials (mainly 2x4s).  Then when the kids started using them, the open back worked way better than the envisioned closed-back design. The students put chairs behind the tall risers so they could go face to face with students sitting on the short risers, picnic bench-style.  Students were able to crawl under the risers from both sides, creating some "cave" space that kids like.  The lack of a back kept some of the weight down too. 
Okay, okay.  Here is the real reason, maybe not the real reason, but the initial reason I didn't start closed-back: I couldn't get a piece of plywood that width to fit in the back of my car!  But all of the other good reasons for keeping it open-back came out of this initial accident and then testing the prototype in the classroom.  This is why prototyping and an open-minded approach to design is important because you get to work out the bugs and explore the possibilities without being constrained to a set design.
The current prototype (the design hasn't changed in 5 years) is stained, stabilized with cross beams,
and is covered with laminate flooring because it is durable, cleans nicely, and I had some left over!
The evolution of the lapdesks, from plastic doc holders to the current wooden "J" design has definitely been a (slow, multiyear) journey of prototyping.  Each model had advantages and disadvantages, and even with the current model, there are things I will change. 


The idea of prototyping really appeals to me, especially in terms of teaching.  I don't believe there is any one way to do anything, and I cringe when presenters or teachers say, "The WAY to do  ________ is ...."  Different things work for different teachers.  Different things work for different kids.  Yes, you need to have a goal and a plan, but that plan should be open and flexible to meet the needs and nuances of different students and teachers. 
Teaching is a series of prototypes.  We start with a basic model, and then adjust and modify to shape our learning.  We are going to make mistakes, but those mistakes are like chipping away unneeded stone to create the sculpture of learning.  As much as possible, I try to stick with this open model of teaching and create a workshop-like atmosphere: a little bit of instruction, a whole lot of trial and error, then we share and reflect, then we try again.  Repeat.  Just like prototyping. 
Prototyping goes beyond teaching for me.  I am a lifelong tinkerer.  I used to take stuff apart when I was a kid (and on the rare occasion I could get them back together).  I liked seeing how things worked and how I could change or improve them. Even now, I tend to buy cheaper things, thinking that I will change or improve them at some later date.  Maybe it is why I like old, anachronisms like safety razors, winding watches and fountain pens.  I wrote a post on another blog about how I like to mod guitars on the post: "Why Buy Cheap Guitars?"
The only things I don't prototype are people.  My family and my friends are perfect; they don't need change, modding, or improvement.    But our relationships?  Those are definitely works in progress. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Last Lapdesk? The J.

If you have been one of the 7 faithful followers of this journey, you would know that I have been looking for the ultimate portable desk.  In fact, the name of this blog came from the idea of portable learning anywhere.   Having the risers in my class where students work in different places all over the room and in different body positions, regular desks were not going to suffice.  So I started trying different kinds of portable desks.  

First, were the $2 plastic document holders.  They were light, gave a nice flat surface for writing and had a little storage, but they did not last more than a year.

Next, I tried dollar store clipboards.  They were okay, but because of the lack of storage, students lost a lot of pencils.  They were good for hanging up on the wall out of the way when not in use.

So I started making my own desks inspired by a wine box I saw.  They were gorgeous and had some storage.  Putting a clip on the long sliding lid made for a good clipboard and built in stand up easel. Unfortunately, these boxes were bulky, heavy, and used all of my woodworking skills, so they took a long time to build.  

So back to the clipboards for a while.

Then I came across some shower board and played with an easel idea.

But I wanted to have some storage, and came up with this idea based on a boutique shopping bag. Between the great surface that could be used as a whiteboard and the shopping bag appeal in the design, this was a very popular lapdesk.  After cutting the wood, it was a snap to build by using duct tape which gave a little pencil storage at the bottom.  But that was the downside: the tape could not hold up to the rigors of being a lapdesk.  Plus, the shower board is no longer available.

I started thinking about something sturdy and that had some storage.  I was looking at what students had in their pencil boxes that they needed all of the time.  I played with the idea of a zippered pouch velcroed to a clipboard, but my sewing skills are worse than my woodworking skills.  I kept going back to the students' ubiquitous pencil boxes to figure out how I could replace them.  That is when I had my eureka moment: Instead of replacing the pencil boxes, why not incorporate them into my design?

Enter my latest lapdesk incarnation:

The J.

(Yeah, I know.  Ooh.)

Made from my labour-friendly factory (where I normally park my car), skilled craftsman (with grade 8 woodworking skills) can whip one of these babies up in minutes (once all the parts are cut and prepared) for less than $1 CAD per unit.

The wood is cut from one large sheet of 3/8 plywood.  It is light and sturdy.
The lapdesk stands up for compact storage, but can also be hung from the handle.  
The solid wood bottom gives bottom ballast so the surface does not tip easily.  

The clip is allows the lapdesk to be used like an easel.  The lip, (the J) allows the pencil box to be nestled under the writing surface when in use or when stored.  

When the lapdesk is flipped over, the "hook" part gives a raised part 
so the user has a good writing angle.  
The screwed-in solid wood bottom is strong enough to hold the angle in place 
when written on (unlike the duct-taped model).

The writing surface is slightly larger than a letter-sized piece of paper, 
but unlike other incarnations, the surface is not so big that grade 2 arms can't reach the top.  
The clip can be moved to the side to keep the paper in place. 

Below is a chart that outlines the qualities that I wanted in my lapdesk (on left) with the different incarnations of lapdesks (top).  

traditional desk
plastic transparent document holder
box with sliding lid
shopping bag style
The J
no, unless you are really strong
no, but long lasting
economical (cheap!)
buildable with grade 8 woodworking skills
nope.  I don’t extrude plastic.
easier to buy
sort of, but time consuming
very easy
can be

While The J does not win in all categories, it does well enough in all the categories that are important to me.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why Innovators Don't Ask for Permission

A while back I wrote a post about the relationship between confidence and competence in teachers.  (You can find that post here).  I wrote about how when teachers feel confident, they tend to try different things and are more exploratory, but when their confidence is threatened, they go with the tried and (not necessarily) true and teach more by rote.  Safe. This particular post seemed to strike a chord with some of my colleagues and they told me how it matched their experience. 

Extrapolating from the teachers who feel confident and competent, I started to think of some of the innovative teachers I've met.  Not only did they feel competent when embarking on their particular innovation, but they tended not to seek permission or try to achieve consensus with the rest of the staff. 

One high school teacher put a big screen in his class and started a movie club at lunch time.  It gave kids a place to go instead of smoking or hanging out at the store.  He built this quiet community of kids who had a common experience with these films.  The teacher didn't ask; he just did it.

A middle school teacher created a classroom economy where students had to earn "money" by doing particular tasks and completing their assignments.  They used the money to pay for privileges and for necessities (e.g. rent for their desks).  The teacher didn't ask; she just figured it out.

A primary teacher had students record each other using digital cameras and iPods to document learning.  The learning went much deeper when she projected those pictures on the screen and the students discussed, reflected on and unpacked the learning that had taken place.  By making the internal process of learning visual and oral, the students were able to be metacognitive and used this experience as a springboard for future learning.  The teacher didn't ask permission or wait for the rest of the staff to get on board. 

I have these and more examples of innovative teaching practices on the Bright Ideas Gallery that I did a few years ago.  Most of these teachers did not ask permission (though some did consult their administration), nor did they form committees or try to get consensus on the right way to go.  Why didn't they?  Were they rebels?  Perhaps a little, but they had other reasons for not asking:

  1. Most of the innovative teachers I talked to did not have a real plan.  They were making it up as they went along and didn't know where they would end up or how long it would last.  It might not have even occurred for them to ask permission or include others.  Why bother if the idea fizzles or does not continue tomorrow?
  2. Some teachers just wanted to get going.  To research the idea intensively or to get others on board would take time or would have halted the momentum.  Think of the difference between sending an email and sending a letter.  I click a button and the email flies around the world in seconds.  With a letter, I have to: print the letter on paper which means finding paper, making sure the printer has toner and is plugged in, and that the cable is connected; then I have to find an envelope; then I have to write on the envelope; then I have to fold the letter, put it in the envelope, and lick that really gross glue; then I have to find a stamp, lick it, and put it on the envelope; then I have to find a mailbox.  The letter process usually takes me between a couple of hours and a week or so.  (It usually gets bogged down at the finding the stamp part).  The point is each one of the steps is an opportunity for the task to fail.  Compare the relatively simple task of mailing a letter with the incredibly complex task of getting your staff to agree on something as wacky as getting rid of all of your desks, and it is too daunting to even start. The innovators I talked to were really already on their way, and they wouldn't slow down, for anything. 
  3. The innovators were not excluding others; they just weren't ready to share yet.  They really wanted to work out some of the bugs before they presented the unusual ideas to others. 
  4. The innovators did not want to be asked to stop
Innovators are looking for a better way.  That way may not be obvious to others, and sometimes it is not obvious to the innovators.  It is a messy but fun process.  A lot of the innovators would get this grin or twinkle in their eyes when they talked about when they were getting started with their innovation.  There was something deliciously subversive in going against the "way we've always done it."  And what kind of fun would it be to get permission to be subversive?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Am I a Tier 1 teacher?

A colleague of mine told me about three tiers of students and the different supports they receive.  That is, students at the top of the pyramid, or Tier 3 students, are students with profound challenges that cannot be met in the classroom alone.  Tier 2 students have challenges that can be supported with a few additional measures.  Tier 1 students are the bulk of students; their needs can be met within the classroom.

I was writing an email in reply and came to a realization: I am a Tier 1 guy. That is not to say I reject or ignore Tier 2 and 3 students. I think it is my goal to have all needs of all students met as much as possible within the regular classroom. It is also my goal to support all my students so that they don't turn into Tier 2 and 3 students. 

Here are some thing that I think about in terms of supporting all students:

  • I have the design point of view that works in service of Self-Regulation, and that classroom environment must be in sync with instruction.  (Tier 1)
  • I am a classroom teacher who has had some success with kids who have real challenges because I build strong relationships with those students, create a place where they belong, and try to be consistent in terms of expectations, discipline, and instruction.  (Tier 1)
  • I believe in the UDL framework that what is good for some benefits many.  (Tier 1)
  • I work from strengths (not deficits, and not one size fits all). (Tier 1)

Everything I do seems to operate from a Tier 1 perspective.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Animal Trading Cards

In the last month, I needed a quick project to do for an Animal unit in Science.  Last year, when I did Superheroes as a theme, I did a trading card on each student's every day hero.  Each student made one card which we put on display to honour their hero.  This year, I decided to do the same thing, but as an animal theme, so I geared the information on the card to match the curricular learning objectives. 

After more thinking, I realised it would be richer if students were able to trade cards with each other. That is when I pitched the idea to the other teachers of my grade that we all do Animal Trading Cards, we each pick a different habitat to cover with our classes, we photocopy multiple copies of each students' card, colour them to match our series, and then get together on Trading Day to exchange cards.  I know, I know, it is slightly stupid to pitch a project in the last month of school, but I pointed out: these cards could theoretically be done in one day, it would be a good way to quickly cover some curriculum, and it would be loads of fun.

I got 4 other classes to join in, and we quickly created a template.  (See below).

The left side is the front and the right side is the back.  When folded and glued, the paper turns into a two sided card.  The front has places for the name of the animal, a small picture, and a place for the student's name at the bottom.  The rest of the card is about information on the animal.  Each teacher picked a series or habitat: river, seashore, savannah, etc.  These series had  a matching colour to clearly denote the habitat: dark blue for seashore, green for river, etc.

The students did a draft, filling in the information and got it checked over by the teacher.  Students then completed their master copy which was two of these cards on one sheet.  The master copy was done in dark pencil which was then photocopied 2 times for each student; that way each student now had 6 copies of their cards which they now coloured, cut, folded, and glued to look like a card.

Trading Day was amazing!  We met in the gym, went over expectations, and then let loose 120 students to trade cards.  It was just like a real card swap. They talked to each other, haggled, exchanged information, and when kids had cards from each series (the objective), the sat on the sides and read or sorted their cards.

Intentionally blurry, identity-concealing picture
of students exchanging Animal Trading Cards
during Trading Day,

A bunch of cool, unexpected things happened:
  • The kids really got into it.  Some really dug into the research and found some really interesting information or printed off multiple picture for each of their cards.  Teachers told me some kids who were not strong in their writing were able to be successful because the template was easy to fill in, plus they could show their understanding verbally during the exchange or artistically with the small picture. Very UDL.
  • During trading day, students used a whole bunch of skills, and learned a lot, in terms of animals but more importantly about human behaviour. 
  • The teachers really got into it.  One teacher picked one animal for the whole class to study which made filling in the cards easy, and was a culmination of his animal study.  One teacher, instead of picking a particular habitat picked Canadian animals (this time, as a culmination of some Social Studies content), and then when we exchanged with other classes, students were able to see the overlap of habitats across Canada.  Another teacher picked the Savannah, so we were able to sharply contrast that habitat with the others. 
  • We teacher were able to collaborate in a different way.  We have done some whole school projects and activities and some "buddy" work, but this was the only work I can remember the grade 2 and 3 classes doing together.  It showed we can probably do more together if the project is right. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Interesting use of ubiquitous blinds

I was walking by another teacher's room a while back and noticed this.

Rem explained that her blinds were broken and would not longer move or open.  So she got some string and attractively fanned them. Now she could get some light into the room and increase visibility. 

I thought it looked terrific and was a way to turn something that is pretty common into something really attractive and eye-catching.

Who is reading?

I am always surprised who reads this blog.  Scratch that.  I am surprised anyone reads this blog.  It is nice that people read it, but my main goal is really to use it as a journal to keep track of some of my thoughts at the time. 

So when Gail, my colleague on my staff, mentioned something on my blog, I was taken aback.  I'd forgotten that I let people see inside my head.  Same thing when Roxanne started talking to my about electric bikes.  Or when a school trustee was talking about my favourite action hero. 

I guess in the back of my mind, I write for other people, but in the front of my mind, I am really writing to myself.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Specific Reasons for Designing Classroom Environments

Last week, we had a professional development day at my school, and one of the topics we talked about was classroom design in the service of increasing self-regulation.  During our discussion, someone said, "It would be really great if we all went into each other's classrooms and told one thing we liked and one thing we didn't like about each other's spaces."  Though I didn't say anything at the time, that suggestion really stuck with me. 

I have come to realise that all of the changes I have made in my classroom have been made with very specific reasons.  For example:
  • The lighting is low because it helps keeps kids calm and focuses their attention on the places that are lit.
  • The books boxes are on the floor by the wall to keep the counter lines clean and available as a workspace. 
  • The risers replace as many desks as possible to give more choices for body positions, to give me as much easy access to my students, and to give my students as much access to learning as possible.
  • There is a definite lack of commercial borders and posters to keep down the visual noise, and to reflect more of a link to the classroom with the real world. 
  • The big piles of junk in the cloakroom are kept there because I need access to those materials, but they are too big, ugly, or unwieldy to be kept anywhere else. 
  • The big clocks are there because I am bad with time so they remind me.  The big round faces break up some of the right angles and grids that are predominant in this building, especially the beams and the prison-like grid on the windows. etc.
When people tell me they like my class, I just kind of nod.  When people tell me they don't like something about my class, I just kind of nod. As I have said many times, the classroom environment is, should be, and must be in synch with the teacher's teaching style, philosophy, and personality.  The classroom is such a personal reflection of the teacher. 

Have I given advice to teachers about classroom design? Sure, lots, but that was after a discussion of what they wanted and who they were, or even better after getting a chance to see them in action, in that room, with students in it.  Plus, they asked for my advice because they were starting the process of rethinking their learning spaces. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Reinventing the Wheel, Literally

What happened to my bike?
I used to ride my bike all the time then two things happened: one, I moved to a house on a big hill, and two, mortality set in. 

Okay, people I know laugh at me when I mention the hill because it is not that big, but if they really knew me, they'd know that though the hill may not be big, my ego certainly is, just as my will to physically exert myself is small.  The hill provided enough of an impediment from me hopping on my bike and pedalling into the sunset.  So for over ten years, my bike sat in the shed collecting rust and dust. 

What happened to my body?
But a few years ago, even more mortality set in and when I looked down, and -- oh man!  What is that!  A paunch.  Someone put a paunch under my shirt where a scrawny, but flat stomach used to be!  I had to face the sad truth: this old body needed to get out and moving again. 

What to do?
I tried running, and only stuck with it for a while because it was boring torture: torture because my body does not like going up an incline (remember the hill?) so trails and the roadways around here are out, and boring because the track though soft and flat, was really tedious.  I felt like I was in a lab experiment on the track.  (Do I get my cheese now?) 

Skipping?  Between my "50 year-old Asian shoulder" syndrome (supposedly a real thing, look it up; apparently our warranty runs out) and my lack of coordination, skipping was out.  Besides, I gave up skipping when I gave up pigtails and jacks.

My family and I really like cross-country skiing, but I don't think I can do enough of it to keep myself fit year round.   

Back on the bike?  Research says...
The bike seemed like the next step, but what to do about the hill?  It was hard enough to talk myself into going out and exercising, but it was impossible to gear myself up enough to want to end my run with a longish uphill.  That was a no go on the bike. 

Possibly, part of the problem with my protruding paunch is technology.  As my waistline has increased so too has the number of electronic and sedentary gadgets I have amassed: iPod, smart phone, tablet, and even cable (and PVR) on my TV. So what is the logical thing to do when confronted by such a seductive and sloth-inducing enemy?  Succumb! 

I used all of my electronic resources to help me to investigate solutions to my exercise problem.  I gathered all of my devices, their screens like adoring faces glowing up at me, on the couch and Googled away.   How do I use my first love, my bike, to help me with my exercise, but still mitigate getting up the evil hill?  To solve my problem with my get up and go, I lustily sat, nay, lay with all of my "research tools" for hours.   I came up with a few solutions:

1. Move.  Too expensive and my family would miss me.
2. Walk my bike up hill.  Too shameful and not really inspiring me to exercise. 
3.  Electric bike.

#3 was the answer to all of my problems.  I could pedal around on flats and down hills on my own power, and then when it was time to come home, flick on the pedal-assisted power and scoot up the hill like nuthin.  Yes!  My love for technology and my need for exercise interfacing in a beautiful seamless union.  Perfect. 

So back on the couch and computer to further research my next exercise purchase.  e-bikes are very popular in Europe and Asia. My friend Pat's 80 year-old aunt used one on a bike and barge tour all across the Netherlands.  The sweet lady even sent me a couple of catalogues from Europe.  I watched YouTube videos of e-bikes cruising up and down the roads to local ski hills. 

But if e-bikes are so great, why haven't they caught on?  For the same reasons I never ended up getting one:
-cost.  Decent e-bikes are thousands of dollars.  I could justify the expense if I used the bike as a constant alternate mode of transportation, but with my family and what I need for work, it is not practical to have an e-bike in my rainy environment.  I also would not feel safe enough leaving such an expensive bike locked in front of a store or the library.
-unreliability of used e-bikes.  Used e-bikes are much cheaper, but the batteries, which run hundreds of dollars, are unpredictable on a used e-bike. 
-weight, the e-bike's not mine.  Between the batteries and hardware, e-bikes are heavy.  So if the battery ever died during a ride, I would be stuck on a really heavy bike, which would be like going up a long hill, all the time

So what did I do? 
I bought a really nice, but new affordable (non-electric) human-powered hybrid bike.  By hybrid, instead of meaning alternate-fueled, the bike is a cross between a skinny tire road bike and knobby tire mountain bike.  It is nice and light, and is geared really low, so getting up that hill, though still a chore, is manageable.  And when I am feeling really uninspired by the hill, I bought myself a little rack, so I can throw my bike on the back of my car, park, and ride on the non-ego-crushing flatlands.

New Love?
I still might get an e-bike, but until those main problems are fixed, I will watch from the sidelines.  I still check the internet for more info on e-bikes, and on a recent visit to an e-bike site, I found a "cooler" mode of transportation...

electric unicycle

  ... a self-balancing electric unicycle!  At speeds of 18km/hr, and a range of 20 km, this could be a viable option for getting me around the neighbourhood or to school and back.  With a weight of 10 kg, I could put it in the cupboard or under my desk. 

The unicycle looks like a lot of fun, but it does not really solve my exercise problem, and I think Johnny Hart may have invented this transportation a long time ago:

What does this have to do with classroom design?
Not much, really.  This post though is a sad example of how design has to fit reality and that reality is based on the needs at the time.  I need to exercise, but the dread of it prevents me from doing so. (Cue: "A Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down.)  This post does speak to making something necessary (e.g. education) as comfortable and accessible as possible by using design structures that enhance and support learning, instead of the reality: making learning cumbersome, dreary, and obstacle-ridden.  I'm not saying that classrooms have to be slick or fancy, but like the wheel, classrooms could stand to be improved upon to at least match their purpose: thinking, inspiration, and wonder.  Learning.   

Sunday, April 12, 2015

New Student-Designed Projector Stand

I needed a better projector stand.  The ones I had previously rolled too much which sent the image out of alignment all the time, or were too high so my students did not have good sight lines.  I tasked my grade 2 students with coming up with a suitable design.  They worked on the plans on a sheet that had views from the front, side, top, and a slanted angle. 

The "finished" product turned out great, and I will keep making changes to the stand to suit our needs.  (I have since moved the printer closer to my laptop).  For materials, I used leftover pieces I had in my garage.  I used slats from a bed for the uprights and cut a cupboard door for the flat white parts.

I took the best ideas from all the students' designs (well, ones I could actually do --- the "hovering" stand is currently beyond my skill set), and came up with a clean, open design.  The stand is stable so it doesn't jiggle, but is easy to slide out of the way when necessary.  It allowed for cords and ventilation.  The projector height is perfect for getting a good image that everyone can see.  The design is also flexible, and has allowed for some modifications, and you know how I love mods!

The big surface on top turned out to be a good place for a doc camera (above left).  We used a fixed-focus web cam that hooks up to the laptop by USB.  (I used to use an auto focus camera that was sharper but had the annoying habit of going in and out of focus, especially in low light). 

Now we can project student work (or anything else) on the board so everyone can see it (above right).  See how the diagram projects on the big board and the laptop as well.  We can use whiteboard pens to draw and write on the image to interact with it. 

I will probably fiddle with it some more.  That is, until I find a different design project.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Courage: Teaching without a Net

A month ago, I was lucky enough to participate in a Talking Circle put on some excellent teachers from our Aboriginal Education Department.  I have been involved in regular talking circles before, but this one felt different.  Because of the First Nations focus, this particular circle seem to have more of a spiritual impact on me.  It was very moving, so moving for some of the participants that they were brought to tears.  Kirk, one of the leaders, said that it was okay to cry, that it happens all the time in the Talking Circles, and that it takes courage to cry.

I definitely agree that it takes courage to cry.  Maybe it is why I go to great lengths NOT to cry in public.  Just under the surface, I am a big marshmallow, and I am afraid that once I start crying, I will not be able to stop.  I lack that courage to cry.  In fact, in that particular talking circle, when it was my turn to speak, to honour someone who influenced me, I said something glib.  It got a laugh and got me off the hook from really exposing my vulnerable side. 

And there was so much that was sitting there inside of me.  After that meeting, I was going to meet my mother and my sister at the bank to decide what we were going to do with the rest of my dad's estate.  My father's memory rests heavily inside me, and I knew that if I mentioned anything at all about him, I was just going to lose it.  But I chose not to go there.

I did, however, admire and respect the people who did choose to show their vulnerable side.  I was aware of the trust that has to present for people to take that brave risk.  I don't happen to share that kind of bravery.

Can we create the same kind of environment of safety and trust in our classrooms?  Today, one of the girls, R, in my class was crying.  Another girl, J, came up and told me that R was crying.  I asked her why.  J didn't know.  So I told her to go ask R.  J told me that R wished she was back at her old school.  I told J to ask R why she wished she was back at her old school.  Off went J.  She came back and said R wished she was at her old school because she missed her best friend who was there, and she only got to se her once a year, on her birthday.  I told J to take R for a walk, and make her feel better.  J put her arm around R and they walked up and down the hallway and talked for a bit.   Then they read together in the hall, and decided to be friends.

The learning for me in this situation is that I really don't have any answers, I just have to keep my eyes open for opportunities for students to build trust, and then try to act on them.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Making Mods

I've loved guitars as long as I can remember, even before I started playing in grade 7 because my dad played so there was always a guitar around the house.  I didn't want to bore my 6 readers here about my interest in guitars, so I started a new blog .   

The thing is while I started the blog as an aside or even an escape from thinking and blogging about education, I keep seeing the parallels in my thinking when I write about things guitar.  I've only written a handful of posts on the guitar blog, and a couple of them are about modding, or making modifications to my guitars. 

After chewing on those posts, I began to realize that my views on modding guitars are almost the same as my views to "modding" teaching.  I tend to buy cheap, imperfect electric guitars, and then change the pickups on them, or swap out the tuners, or change necks on them.  Similarly, I tend to get a basic understanding of a teaching method and then change the components as I go.  Like my cheap guitars, I am okay with imperfections and uncertainty as long as I can make changes to suit my needs.  With guitars, it is about sound and feel; with teaching, it is about learning and feel (or relationships).

I've mentioned on this blog that I can't follow someone else's lesson plan or teacher's guides. I am not inherently a non-conformist. It is more that I am lazy and can't be bothered to read lesson plans, or I have more desire to make things my own than to follow someone else's recipe.  I think my explorations with classroom design reflect this attitude.  I am tweaking and modding the concept of a learning environment to suit my needs and the needs of my students.  All of my mods reflect my desire to maximize learning, enhance self-regulation, and to strengthen the bonds I have with my students.  Sound and feel, indeed. 

I want my modding philosophy to be reflected not just in my teaching but in my students' learning.  To be clear, teaching and learning are always the same thing.  I have this great, cosy classroom where students choose appropriate learning spaces for them to work, but sometimes my teaching can only be described as stand and deliver.  I have made forays into inquiry-based and project-based learning, and I'd like to continue in that direction where students start with a big idea (instead of the sound and feel of electric guitars, maybe the importance and preservation of Beluga whales), and with my help, chart a course where they take that big idea, investigate or enact a plan (for instance, to share the importance of the whales or implement a way to save them), making changes along the way. 

Having gone through the process of my own PBL (with guitars, classroom design, curriculum design, teacher professional development, and home fitness-with varying levels of success), I can probably find a way to help my students with their own inquiries more than I am now. Just like guitars, I just need to make changes that are necessary, doable, and manageable.