Sunday, May 30, 2021

Creating Culture in a New School

One of the workshops that I am the most proud of was the one I did the first year at Smiling Creek.  Because I was really wrapped up in my work with Landscapes of Injustice, I had not done much to contribute to my new school, and in the first year of any school, everyone should pitch in something.  We had so many strong teachers that I was not so sure what I had to offer.  For the January school professional development day, the Pro D committee was thinking of doing something about building our new school culture.  So I volunteered to facilitate this process.

To be honest, I didn't have a clue about how to do this.  Sure, I had been to goal-setting sessions before and I had been in new schools before, but I didn't think what I seen in those situations would apply here.  As I mentioned before about the principal Remi, he was really about collaboration and sustainability, so anything we did to build a school culture was going to be done together as a staff and would have to be doable over a long time.  

Our process was clear:

  1. Build a shared vision, together.
  2. Overthrow the (educational) world.
  3. Have recess.
The collaborative part was the key to everything.  We needed a vision we thought was: worth doing,  doable, and something everyone on staff could see their way in to doing that vision.

The repeating method was:
  1. Do an individual task.
  2. Each person shares their ideas, thoughts, and feelings to a group of 4.  The rest of the group listens without interrupting.
  3. Once everyone has shared, the group discusses what they noticed: patterns, similarities, BIG IDEAS and what is important to the group.
We did this method several times for different tasks that built on each other.

Step 1: Individual Bio Maps

  The first task was the Bio Map, an individual Value and Biographical Map of each group member.  According to Parker Palmer, we teach who we are and because we were a new school, it was important to get a better sense of each other.  The Bio Map got teachers to share what they thought about, what they cared about, what they liked to do or create, and the kinds of experiences, they had.

[I collected these individual maps and still have them.  We were all over the map in terms of thinking, doing, and experiences, but we all prioritized family and belonging.].

Step 2: Smeek, the group map

The second time was a Smeek (for Smiling Creek), a group map of shared team values.  Each group filled this in collaboratively as a team, now that we knew each other better from the individual Bio Maps.  As we filled in the team Smeek, we thought about our composite Smiling Creek students, and asked what is important, what do we want our students to know or think about, to do or make, and to experience?

After working through this Smeek, each team came back and shared with the whole staff.  While each team shared, the other teams listened, without interruption, for patterns, similarities, and priorities.  After all teams shared, we had a full group discussion.  

[Yup, still have these too.  Looking at them now, they are incredibly detailed.  This says a lot about the staff.  I think the sharing that day increased the level of trust and understanding, so much so that the ideas and collaboration started to flow.  Because of the detail I can't believe we were able to come up with anything so succinct and focused in Step 3].

Step 3: Synthesis and Consensus
The third step was the hardest and best part.  We took what we discussed and then synthesized what we knew about our school and what was important to us into a manifestation of our shared vision.  It could be in the form of a T-shirt mock up, a slogan, a motto, a mission statement, a song, a poem, a rap, etc.  Whatever each group came up with had to sum up what we wanted Smiling Creek's culture to be, it had to be short and memorable, and it had to be simple enough for the students and the public to understand (no teacher speak).  The big thing to remember for the statement was: "Our statement is for and about kids.
(I created this example to set the bar low.)

It is important to note in this retelling that I ran out of time at this point in my workshop.  I didn't think we'd even get this far, but everyone was so driven.  I started to wrap things up in my presentation, when Taryn stopped me and said we needed to finish this, now.  Everyone agreed.  Awesome.  It was no longer my workshop, but a staff mission.

After a quick break and a little more work time, groups shared.  There was a symbolic T-shirt logos, an acrostic poem spelling out SMILE, mission statements, clusters of post-it notes grouped together in clusters, etc.  I was blown away with the work, heart, and creativity the groups put into these manifestations.  

As a staff we came to consensus with one group's mission statement because it seemed to include bits of everything the other groups had.  It was:
  • be CARING
  • think BIG
  • feel INSPIRED
Everyone loved it.  It was clear, inclusive, and something students could do and remember.  It felt like the right order, too.  By the next day, we included another line to be more action oriented:
  • be CARING
  • think BIG
  • feel INSPIRED
  • make a DIFFERENCE
A couple of years later and this is still our guiding motto.  It is on shirts, bracelets, letterhead, classroom signs, etc.  I try to refer to the motto when appropriate and embed it in lessons that same way I embed the Core Competencies.  I noticed that our new principal, Ross, also refers to it every day on the announcements so it continues to be part of the Smiling Creek philosophy even with so many changes happening to the school over the years.  

For me, the biggest highlight was the watching the staff.  We really came together to work on something together to do work that mattered.  The shared vision came from a shared purpose.  I felt that it was a big step forward for us.  I look forward to post COVID when we can do something like this again.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Woodprojects in the Classroom 4: Student Design Challenge: T's New Workspace

 Following the success of the 3 Pieces of Wood project, a new project emerged naturally.  

As the year progressed, it became clear that one of my students, T, needed to change where her workspace was.  She was in and out of the classroom for sensory breaks and because her workspace was far from the classroom door, she would get distracted and not make it all the way there.  We needed to move her workspace closer to the door, but because her table was so big, it would not fit there.  We tried regular student desks in the past for her, but she kicked them around and was resistant to them because other students did not use them very much.  

What you have to know about T is that the students loved her very much, she was the friendliest kid and also the most stubborn kid we had all ever met.  Even though she was not fully verbal, you always knew exactly how she felt and what she wanted to do, and especially what she DIDN'T want to do. T needed a small workspace, but there was no way we were going to get her to use a typical student desk.  T was also the smallest student by far, so she would need a custom workspace.  

After conferring with Mrs. G (T's knowledgeable education assistant), we came up with a strategy.  Below is a Learning Story I created with the students using their words after we finished.  [My words are in square brackets.]

Student Designers to the Rescue 

This is T’s old work space. 
It took up a lot of space and her feet didn't touch the ground.

When we had to move T’s work space,
we realized we needed something different:

  • Something that fit T.
  • Something that took up less space.
  • Something that fit with our classroom.

We measured T.

      We like building.
      It was fun working together. 

We made our own designs, shared them with each other, and gave them to our teacher.
Our teacher took parts from our designs and
put them together, then he made T a work space
This is the sheet we used.
(using left over wood and grade 8 woodworking skills).

Our teacher took parts from our designs and put them together.  Then he made T a workspace.   This is us building.

This is when it was done building.

The finished project
    This is T’s new workspace. 
    The desk is epic.

[It was truly epic.  The students went with a mini-riser design that fit in perfectly with the group risers.  The seat was low, long, and heavy.  It fit T's needs (her size, her comfort, the way she would use it, and the product and process made her feel special but not unusual).  And it fit our needs (easily moved by us, not easily moved or kicked by T, sturdy and bottom-heavy so as not to tip, small so it would fit by the door, the sled bottom with felt pads made it quiet, etc.).  The students/designers even gave the design a name, the "Miss T." ]

Miriam Miller came in a helped us think about what we did and learned.

Personal and Social Responsibility
     It was challenging but fun.
     We felt some pressure to do a good job, but it felt good in the end.
     We took our time to do this. 
     We made some mistakes but we learned from them. 

Personal and Social Responsibility
How did we use these?

[Empathic Design:
       Empathy is thinking about how someone else feels (Standing in someone else’s shoes)
       Design is making things from our ideas, to make something useful (helping others)]

      Like the 3 pieces of wood project
      But we did T’s desk together and we were able to use more pieces of wood
      Working together can be better [new ideas, help if we get stuck] and harder sometimes [slower]
      We had to think about T’s needs [thinking from her perspective]
      We had to be polite [and inclusive].
      We had to ask her to measure her.  Mrs. G was very knowledgeable. 


Unfortunately, at the end of the year, T's guardian, her grandma, let me know that they were moving.  With hesitance, Grandma asked if she could buy the Miss T desk because she'd heard about the success we'd had with it.  I laughed and said she could have it for free because it had literally been made for T.  Like the students, I don't miss the Miss T desk at all, but I sure miss the little kid with the big smile who sat in it.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Wood Projects in the Classroom 3: Student Designs*

 Kids love to build.  I have Keva, Kinex, Lego, and Tinkertoy in my classroom, but the most popular building material in my class was this big bag of off cuts I had that were leftovers from my garage wood shop.  These off cuts were so, so popular.  

And they had to go.

Like any great (and failed) relationship, it started off slowly.  No one noticed the lumpy bag in the corner filled with dusty misshapen wood.  During Choice Time, students gravitated toward other centres and other building materials.  Then one day, this quiet kid noticed the lonely bag in the corner and took a chance on it.  He built a little ramp for cars, and shared it with the class during check in time.  The next day, a few kids joined him and all was right with the world.  

By the next week, all the building kids and a few other converts were right into the big blue bag.  I brought in another bag of off cuts that were cluttering up my garage, but it took no time for those to get grabbed up too.  And then the fighting began.

Some students hoarded and hid their favourite pieces.  They argued with each other and with me over the off cuts, especially when it was time to clean up.  It was loud, it was sloppy, but most of all, it was unpleasant.  My sharing, caring, cooperative community turned into greedy, suspicious hoarders.  I'd had enough, so I decided that the off cuts had to go.  

At a class meeting, I told my students the problem, and asked them why they didn't have the same problem with other building materials.  The students admitted that the off cuts were bigger so they could make really tall structures or long ramps, and because the off cuts were not all the same shape or same size (a la Keva or Lego) they could do some really unusual things with them.  We'd tried many group and individual problem solving strategies over the off cuts situation, but I decided it was time to end our relationship with the off cuts.  

The 3 Pieces of Wood Project

Instead of just taking the two big bags of off cuts home (I was trying to reduce the clutter in my garage, remember?), I tasked the students with a design project:  

    • What could you make from 3 pieces of wood? 
    • Design something that would not end up as garbage, but would HELP the world.

In turns, each student chose 3 pieces of wood (2 short and one long).  They designed their creation on paper, then they glued their pieces together.  I gave them demonstrations of what glued well (face to face works better than end to end, etc.).  Each student presented their creation and the rest of the class gave them feedback.

Student Designs

Student V

I designed a bookshelf.  I chose this design because my dad bought this other shelf, but he didn’t have the nails for it. This will help the world better by making more room for books!

Student T

I made a chicken decoration for my grandma and my grandpa.  

I used 3 pieces of wood. One looks like a chicken because I like chicken. The chicken is SO cute.

This makes me very happy. D thinks it’s cool too. A thinks it is really good.

Student I

I designed a small resting place for birds.

The way it works is you attach a string to it, hang it on a string to it, hang it on a branch, and then a bird comes along and sits on it. 

The way it will improve the world is by helping birds rest.

This makes me feel good. 

Student E

I designed a stuffy holder.

The way it works is I put my stuffies on the flat part.

It helps so my room is not filled with stuffies.

I enjoyed making this.

Student D

I designed two things in one:  you can put your pictures at the top and hang your coat on the bottom. 

This will make the world a better place because I always leave my jacket on the floor. Now I can hang it up. This will make my mom happy.

 I took it home and painted with acrylic paint because other materials did not have the exact colours. 

End Thoughts

It was awesome.  Students were very thoughtful about their designs, they gave feedback, the way they supported each other was amazing, they treated each other better, they learned a whole bunch of things, and I got rid of a bunch of garage clutter.

*The events described in this post happened last year before COVID.

T gives D some positive feedback on his Shark design.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Wood Projects in the Classroom 2: Teacher DIY

Unskilled labour

My worst subjects in junior high school were Woodwork, Music, and Social Studies.  If you know me, this is deeply, deeply ironic when you think of me now.  To explain, because of getting involved with Japanese Canadian history, I am known for my work in Social Studies, but my early teen self was pretty clueless and apathetic about Social Studies.  Though my teen self (and my present self) thought about or played music during almost every waking second of my existence, the trumpet was not my friend back then, so didn't do well in Band.  And with Woodwork class, I was unskilled, I could not follow a plan, and I was so slow that my projects were late or incomplete.  But now, you can find me in the garage cobbling something together with wood.  

I joke about my well-deserved C grade in woodworking because I enjoy it so much now as an adult.  Honestly, my skills have not really advanced that much, now in my garage workshop.  My projects are still wobbly, the paint and finish on them are non-existent or sloppy, and I am still glacially slow.  So why do I still do it?  I think of myself as a tinkerer, a designer, a scientist, and a problem solver.  Woodworking (woodplaying?) lets me explore all those sides of me.  The risers, lapdesks, and the students' storage bins (from the previous post) are examples of my wood tinkering.  

What do you need?

A while back, I was visiting a school where they were investigating self-regulation, and in one class a young teacher, Sarah, made her own storage crates and a big rolling table made out of a tree stump.  I was really impressed because I think she made all of her stuff in her apartment!  If you wanted to build some items for your class, this goes to show that you don't need a lot of tools or room.  

You basically need two things: 

  1. Something to cut your wood to the length you want.
  2. Something to fasten it back together in the shape you want it.  

For cutting, Sarah had the place where she bought the wood cut the wood for her.  I'm not that organized so I cut as I go, plus I am usually using leftover pieces of wood.  I use a miter saw to cut long skinny boards into short boards and a table saw or a circular saw with a guide for breaking down wide materials like plywood or reused Ikea cabinets.  For my first home projects (shoe shelves), I used a hand saw.

For fastening, I use nails, glue, screws, or a combination of the three depending on what I need the finished product to do or how it is going to hold up.  Because of my poor skills, I am not great at keeping things square, so one product that has really helped me lately is a pocket hole jig.  With it, things are usually square and they make relatively strong joints.  (There are lots of useful Youtube videos to explain how to use pockethole jigs).

[As an aside, one tool I would recommend is a cordless drill.  My whole woodworking rebirth came from the cordless drill.  It was the first tool I bought when my wife and I bought our house.  It was love at first use. I hung pictures with it. I assembled furniture with it. I reinforced mouldings with it. I drilled pilot holes with it.  Heck, I would have brushed my teeth with it if I could fit my toothbrush in the chuck.  I thought it was just me, but other friends who bought first houses and first drills felt the same.  Bonnie said excitedly, "Did you know there is a magnetic thing so the pointing things don't fall off?!"  Dave said, "Sometimes I  find myself walking around with it in my hand, just looking for things to drill."  Had I known that drilling was going to be this satisfying, I would have become a dentist.  Cordless drills are the gateway tool.]

Easy but useful projects

Here are some things I made that solved a few classroom problems.  (For both projects I used a pocket hole jig to make things square and strong, but you don't have to.)  

1. Classroom library book bins

For our classroom library, we arrange every book by genre and place the books in different bins based on those genres.  Students or teams of students adopt a genre bin and become the librarian for that bin, making sure books are returned to the proper bins.  

Some bins have lots of heavy books that would destroy the usual ugly plastic bins.  I had some nice dark wood bins that I bought at a liquidation place, but I did not have enough bins for every genre, so I had to make some sturdy bins using the pocket hole jig and (what else?) an unused Ikea shelf.  

bins with genre card and the librarian's name

2. Accessible teacher storage

The built-in teacher storage in my room is behind the sliding whiteboards and then there are swinging lockable doors.  I have this little rolling cart where my laptop and mic are, but the cart is around the corner from the teacher cabinets.  That means every time I wanted to grab a teacher book during a lesson, I'd have to walk around the cart, slide the whiteboards to the side, open the swinging doors, get the book, close the swinging doors, slide the whiteboards back, go back around to where the mic, camera, and laptop are, and then try to remember why I needed the book in the first place.  I needed a little bit of on-the-fly teacher storage.

There was this little corner (and I mean little, like less than 50 cm) where I could fit a shelf.  Because it was so skinny, I would need to go tall to get enough space for everything I needed there: read alouds, math materials, spelling resources, a place for my lunch, etc.  I left a little gap so there was room for my guitar and a place to hand my jacket.  

Like any of these teacher projects, by making it myself, I was able to create custom things that fit my needs (and constraints) perfectly.  

Friday, April 02, 2021

Wood Projects in the Classroom 1: Students' Storage during COVID

The Problem: Individual Storage

One of the many problems I had with COVID was storage.  Because we didn't know what was going to transfer the virus, I had students keep a minimum of supplies with them, but because some students were in desks and some were at tables, this meant that each student had to have individual, self-contained storage.  

At first, this was not a problem because I had enough white sliding bins so each student could have their pencil boxes, a duotang, a writing folder, a couple of notebooks, a whiteboard, and some individual supplies. Unfortunately, because these bins were flat, shallow, and horizontal, they easily overflowed or spill materials when students would try to dig out their whiteboards which they kept on the bottom.  Also, the white bins took up a lot of space, especially when students put them on the floor to give them more table space.  With the bins and scattered debris, it was like an obstacle course.

The Prototype

Using some materials I had left over from a kitchen remodel, I designed a prototype for a better bin.  These new bins were great because:
  • they took up a third of the foot print of the white plastic ones.
  • they were heavy on the bottom and slightly deep so they could be stood on end. Similarly, the students' materials could be stood on end so they were easy to find, instead of digging to the bottom.  
  • they were rugged and could stand up to the day to day wear and tear. 
  • the glossy white materials could be used as a dry-erase surface which students used to draw a picture or write a message to personalize their bins.
  • they looked okay.
  • they were cheap and easy to make.

I made a few prototypes and tried them out with a few students.  Like when I first introduced the risers, only trying them with a few students built a lot of cache with these new projects, and eventually every student was begging me for one.  

But I also was able to see how students used them and what I would change for the "production model".  One part I deleted was the hook for hanging the bin off the side of the desk or table.  I got the idea from this collapsible hook my mom would bring to restaurants so she would not have to place her purse on the floor.  "The Hook" was great in theory and allowed for more available space on the floor and on the work surface, but the test students kept knocking the hooks off the top or they would kick the bins unconsciously like a swinging pendulum.  Each time the bin would fall, their would be a big bang, so the hook got the hook.  


When the design was finalized, some students helped assemble a few of the new bins.

Then every student went outside and sanded down their own bin to bond with their bin and to make sure there were no rough edges.  


These new bins are vast improvement over what we were using them before.  They accomplished what they were meant for: creating accessible, safe, tidy storage.  They are so good, I can see using them post COVID.  Even if I don't, using re-purposed materials is better for the environment, (and freed up some space in my cramped garage).   Though I did the designing, I shared the process with the students, and it was good for them to see me work through the process of trying to solve the storage/obstacle course/safety problem, prototype, test, adjust, evaluate, and build.

Total cost: less than $10 for screws, glue, and sandpaper.