Cultivating 5th Grade Designers

Each school year, educators working in schools across the country gravitate towards some of the same shared ideas that are touted to transform teaching and learning in the classroom. Several years ago, the burgeoning Maker movement made such promises, and you’d be hard pressed to find a set of slides at most educational conferences these days that forgets to make at least a passing reference to Stanford University professor of psychology and author of Mindset Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets.

Here at The Willows, we strive to keep up with the current trends everyone is talking about, while still staying grounded in the values and traditions that have guided us for the last two decades. The last two years or so, one of the current educational memes that we’ve tried in earnest to incorporate is design thinking (see previous posts here and here for more information).

However, true to our constructivist and progressive traditions here, we are not just talking or teaching about design thinking – we are actually designing, and, hopefully, cultivating young designers in the process.

Let’s take a look at some of what our fifth grade students have been up to lately as an example. In Maker classes, I began a design and robotics unit back in March with an initial study of a particular design problem nested within our own community – well, to be more specific, a few blocks away from our campus proper.

Here are two photos (annotated by a fifth grader) and a video of a stoplight near our school that myself and many other community members approach each day on our way to The Willows. For first time users approaching this intersection, it is entirely unclear how traffic is supposed to proceed – there are no yellow or green lights (only constant flashing reds), and “Right Turn Only” signs are regularly ignored by drivers who weave their way around the concrete median in the middle of the intersection. As I told the kids, I am consistently baffled that there are not more collisions here!

designthinking annotated process copyTo approach this intersection as a design problem, I gave my students an annotated version of Stanford’s dschool’s design thinking diagram and asked them to consider several questions for each step in the process, including:

  • How do you think the drivers approaching this intersection feel?
  • How do users of this intersection decide when it is safe to proceed?
  • If you were to redesign this intersection how would you want users to feel?
  • What specific changes to the design of the intersection do you recommend?

In order to answer these questions, we not only watched videos but also took a short field trip to the actual intersection to accumulate some real time observational data. I encouraged each group of students in their observing to really try to put themselves in the shoes of the people who used this intersection – to empathize and understand the decisions of the drivers and how the unsafe conditions at the intersection impacted these decisions. Unsurprisingly, many fifth graders enjoyed seeing people disobeying the traffic signs and going around the median (though I discouraged them from chastising the drivers while we sat there at the intersection!)

Once we had collected data about the intersection and came up with some possible solutions, it was time for us to move on to the next step in the design process – to begin working on designing prototypes of a new intersection. Currently, we are in the middle of this process; first, we have had to take a few weeks to learn how to program LEGO EV3 Mindstorm robotic vehicles to be our “cars” in the new traffic systems.

Look for a new post on our progress as well as some other design work 5th grade has been engaged with very soon!

 

Telling Learning Stories Through Documentation

Documentation is an act of communication; it makes public a conversation about what we value. 

                                    -Harvard Project Zero, http://www.pz.harvard.edu

At certain times of the school year, things can feel so busy it’s tough to take a moment and catch your breath. This is of course as true at The Willows as anywhere else, especially given the number of diverse projects and endeavors always underway. A challenge busy individuals have within any organization is to make time to stop and understand the processes going on around them. A further step, beyond pausing to take stock, involves articulating what you have accomplished to others.

Last week, I was part of a group of Willows teachers and administrators that went to visit the High Tech High network of charter schools in San Diego. During the last school year, our community watched the film Most Likely to Succeed, which featured one of their high schools prominently to illustrate the power of project-based approaches on learning and curriculum building.

IMG_4616High Tech High is well known for impressive and high-quality project artifacts visible throughout their halls, and there were plenty of examples that wowed us as we toured each school. However, what caught my eye most of all was not the amazing creations on display– it was the documentation accompanying each project that helped explain the process behind the project.

Besides simply articulating details about process, the very best pieces of documentation help tell relevant learning stories about curricular projects. They might walk an audience through the steps of the process, highlight epiphanies or failures that led to necessary revisions, or unpack the knowledge that was developed by participants. Ultimately, the idea is to make the thinking and learning involved in the project visible to all in an intentional manner.

A long tradition of researchers and educators from Harvard’s Project Zero – who’ve published seminal works like Making Thinking Visible and Visible Learners – and the vast network of schools associated with the Reggio Emilia experience have long advanced the power of documentation as a tool for improving teaching and learning. According to these proponents, powerful pieces of documentation do more than just capture what happened. Instead, the intent is ultimately to push learning forward, and, as the quote above states, to make “public a conversation about what we value.”

While feeling inspired after leaving High Tech High, our visit also caused me to reflect on similar work with documentation that we’ve undertaken at The Willows. Some form of documentation regularly accompanies all of the artwork that hangs in our halls and classrooms, and we have worked this year to make some of these displays more interactive by adding QR codes for visitors to access additional relevant (and often process-oriented) content. Additionally, knowing that a great picture often tells its own story, we have provided several professional development sessions for teachers this school year on photography techniques and how to incorporate high-quality photographs into their documentation.

What’s next for The Willows and documentation? Knowing that teachers are always juggling many different priorities, we are currently exploring how we might better utilize different templates for easy input of content and photos (see this recent example from 3rd grade). tipi documentation-page-001Also, we have recently begun engaging fourth through eighth grade students in this process in Maker and Science classes, having them document their progress on projects by creating websites and digital portfolios using Google Sites. The more we can engage the whole community in the process of communicating the learning that is taking place, the better!

 

 

 

Video Essays: A Win-Win

“I’m done with my work. Can I go on my computer?”

I don’t know of any teacher who hasn’t heard a student ask some version of that question. We hear it all the time, and the query usually makes us suspicious at best.

“That depends. What are you planning on doing on it?” And therein lies the rub. The technology our students have access to can be a teacher’s best friend and worst enemy, often on the same day. To those of us who went to school in the “olden days” (pencils, paper, maybe a typewriter), incorporating technology can be a bit of a leap of faith.

When I designed a project for my class earlier this year in which they were to create a “Video Essay” about a figure or event from the Civil Rights Movement, I was only trying to give them an alternative to a “typical research paper.” Instead, why not try to do something that speaks to the times and to my students’ skills and interests? I knew what I wanted them to get out of the project; I hoped that if I gave these kids the opportunity to try something different, they would surprise me with the results.

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When the finished products began pouring in, I was floored at how good, how professional, they were. But you know what? I probably shouldn’t have been. These kids are constantly and consistently barraged with media, and as a result, have become experts by osmosis. I can’t tell you how many times I’m in front of the class teaching when some technical glitch attacks my computer. Before I know it, there are 3-6 helpful 8th graders providing me with quick fixes for not only the current glitch, but ways in which I can download a new font, change the language on my keyboard, and download a picture of a llama wearing a fez as my new screensaver.

So their ease with technical concepts such as pacing, editing, sound, music, montage, and rhythm were way beyond my expectations. But as this was still a research project, albeit one that seemed to play to their strengths, I was still concerned about some of the basics. Would they still be able to clearly convey a thesis? If so, will they be able to defend it with support? And what will that support look like?

As I watched these Video Essays, these concerns began to melt away. I watched one film about Plessy vs. Ferguson that used an iPad’s time-lapse feature, vocal nint_17_ms_intersession_bo072arration, and the student’s artistic talents to create a lesson so clear and concise, I am fairly sure I’ll be using her lesson in addition to mine in the future. Another student used editing techniques and music to create a feeling of momentum and excitement as she built toward her thesis in a video essay about our recent Intersession. Again, amazed by how sophisticated the work turned out to be.

So, is the takeaway here that students clearly no longer need to write essays, opting instead to let them play around on their computers? Absolutely not. Video Essays should be a complement rather than a replacement; an opportunity for students to learn how to develop a thesis and with valid support in a new, different way. To move scholarship beyond just creating knowledge and take on an aesthetic, poetic function.

I couldn’t be happier with how these projects have turned out. The students were excited about working in a new medium, while at the same time their strengths as thoughtful researchers were strengthened at the same time. I believe that is called a Win-Win.

*Some of the research and wording came from a website http://framescinemajournal.com/article/video-essays-in-the-cinema-history-classroom/

Intersession: The Power of Choice

Facing the waning weeks of winter and the promise of spring’s impending arrival, it’s that time of year at The Willows where we reflect on what we’ve accomplished so far this school year and look ahead to what still lies ahead. Around this same time, the school participates in the annual tradition of Intersession, when normal school routines and schedules are suspended for one week for specialized projects and classes for DK-8 students.

A year ago, I wrote a post about the success of Intersession coming down to two main elements: time and engagement. The power of both was still evident during this year’s Intersession, as I roamed the halls seeing students deeply immersed for hours in creating a wide variety of things: Escape Rooms, lamps, instructional videos, ramps and pathways for marble runs, and much more.

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Reflecting further on this year’s Intersession, I think one element that also contributed greatly to the success of this year’s projects was choice.

We always gave students a fair amount of choice regarding which Intersession class they wanted to participate in, but this year was unique. We worked especially hard to make sure every student had his or her first choice out of the many offerings that were made available.

Hot off the heels of November’s election, DK-8 students were given “ballots” detailing the class offerings; in grades 3-5, we even held a “primary” to narrow down an initial list of more than ten class options. Unsurprisingly, kids clamored their teachers for information shortly afterwards – “Did I get my first choice?” they asked, not knowing that we had planned for that all along!

Choice matters 

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Why was it important for us to ensure first choice? According to research, providing choice to students is strongly correlated with motivation. Certain school environments motivate students by rewards or punishments with teacher-centered activities predominating. Intersession at The Willows doesn’t remove the guidance of the teacher but encourages students to take more ownership over their learning in a setting where time is truly given for deep learning and engagement.

Choice inspires motivation, and choice pervades the interdisciplinary learning environment that we strive to create each year at Intersession. In one popular class this year, middle school students designed original lamps, utilizing skills and resources from our STEAM2 disciplines (science, technology, art, engineering, and math and maker) and design thinking. Students were challenged to make choices about artistic and operational design features for their lamps, and to consider the impact of their choices on the needs of the potential, ideal users of their lamp. The finished products displayed for parents a week later at our Family Education Night celebrating the work of Intersession, highlighted the powerful returns we reap from providing rich, choice-driven learning environments for students.

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Further reading

A colleague of mine recently recommended a book on this topic, Choice Time: How to Deepen Inquiry Through Inquiry and Play by Renee Dinnerstein. My copy is on order, and though its focus appears to be on DK-2 classrooms, I am excited to build on the successes of Intersession, and to seek out applications for choice to enliven all classrooms.

 

 

 

 

“Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It”

All of sudden, learning by doing has become the standard rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with froglike behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.

In advance of a visit to The Willows next week from Nicholas Negroponte, one of the world’s most innovative, revolutionary thinkers (and grandfather to one of our Kindergarteners), I was inspired to revisit an incredibly prescient short piece he wrote for Wired magazine 22 years ago, from which the above quote was taken. The whole piece, “Learning By Doing: Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It,” is short and worth taking the time to read in full.

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Negroponte is well known as one of the co-founders of the MIT Media Lab and for giving the very first TED talk, where he predicted much of the modern technology we use today (see links below). Reading this Wired article again, I found it fascinating to reflect on which of his predictions for education and society at large actually came true.

One quote that really caught my eye in the  article:

In the 1960s, most pioneers in computers and education advocated a crummy drill-and-practice approach, using computers on a one-on-one basis, in a self-paced fashion, to teach those same God-awful facts more effectively. Now with multimedia, we are faced with a number of closet drill-and-practice believers, who think they can colonize the pizazz of a Sega game to squirt a bit more information into the thick heads of children.

What was true in the 1960s and the 1990s is still true today. Now more than ever, what sells in Ed-tech are just shinier devices and platforms for delivering facts and practicing rote skills. Arguably, there are times and places for facts and skills, but Negroponte reminds us here that educators need to imagine all the ways to use computers to help people learn something besides Googling facts.

Learning By Doing

Negroponte’s insistence that schools promote more learning by doing resonates most today. Essentially, this is the ethos of the maker movement, and one that informs many of the projects I choose for the maker classes that I teach at The Willows.

For example, our third graders are learning about the Native American tribes of California, specifically the villages of the Chumash tribe. Naturally, the classroom teachers and I thought it would be a good idea for the students to make their own interactive version of a Chumash village, complete with littleBits circuits and other tech-related components.

However, before even beginning to create the Chumash village, I asked students to first just build a village. To kill two birds with one stone, I actually asked them to draw and program a village using the software Microworlds EX, so they could practice coding skills while sharing what they know about villages.

The direction I gave was simple: think about what you would find in a village and try to represent that on your screen. As they worked, spontaneous discussions arose about the difference between villages versus cities; students would identify certain components (shelter, food sources and storage, water), inspiring others to add on to their villages in an organic manner. By observing and taking notes as I circulated, I was certainly learning from their doing, and as they designed I noticed they were learning a few things too.

First, given a finite space on which to build, they had to carefully consider where to place different elements of their village, and how much space each could occupy. For example, most students showed that a village has more than one building some for inhabitants to live in and others for various communal purposes; each had to be scaled and placed properly, and much revision was needed as they tinkered with their designs. Second, many students learned that in their first iterations they had omitted certain vital features; for example, only certain students included some means of transportation to move people in and out of their hypothetical village.

Of course, I could have simply read a book or showed a video about villages to them beforehand if I wanted to ensure that they all had close to identical villages with all of the same elements. But my goal was for these third graders to construct their own understanding about how villages work, rather than mimic what I told them should go into a village. Or, echoing Negroponte’s words, I asked them to build their own village instead of dissecting someone else’s.

By asking them to learn by doing, I was actively engaging them, and also allowing them to teach me what they knew or didn’t know, to inform the rest of our project.

For more on Nicholas Negroponte, here are a few links, old and new:

 

 

 

 

Learning Commons=Maximize Space & Optimize Learning

Our Library/Media Center is the heart and hub of our campus, the soul of our school, and a center for collaborative and cross-disciplinary learning. At The Willows, “learning commons” are not limited to our library space but encompass many areas on campus and together create a vibrant 21st century environment that encourages creativity and meaningful social exchange. The importance of common space in primary, secondary, and higher education is gaining attention and changing the landscape of schools.14_Campus__Construction_Photographer040

Last week, I presented with Dwight Long, Principal, and Kami Kincaid, Senior Project Manager, Pfau-Long Architecture and Elizabeth DuPuis, Associate University Librarian for Educational Initiatives & User Services Director of Doe, Moffitt, and the Subject Specialty Libraries, UC Berkeley at the 2016 California Association of Independent School (CAIS) Trustee/Head of School Conference in San Francisco on “The Evolution of the Traditional Library into Learning Commons.”

Elizabeth INT_16_intersession_GM046and I were aligned philosophically on the need for learning commons for elementary, middle, and college students with comfortable, flexible spaces to learn and collaborate as a group and study individually. Like Berkeley, our own Director of Library Services, Cathy Leverkus, has been very forward thinking, envisioning our library as a communal space, adaptable and ready to offer differentiated learning and new configurations that best meet our students’ needs in our constantly changing world.

Collaboration Builds a School Culture and Community

Our Learning Commons facilitates many different types of collaboration:STF_16_Liz-Brian001

  • Student to Student
  • Student to teacher
  • Teacher to teacher

It also allows a constant dialogue between lower and middle school teachers and teachers from different disciplines and specialties. Our campus environment is dynamic and generates an exceptionally joyful community of learners.

MS_16_CAIS_SS011We share, question, and grow together. Our learning commons enhances this collaboration, which is a hallmark of The Willows educational approach, and is instrumental in shaping the soul and culture of our school.

Intellectually and Architecturally Open

“The ideal school is designed to reflect an educational process that is nonlinear and encourages personal expression,” writes Eric Lloyd Wright, the Architect.

Our open and spacious environment inspires listening and learning on all sides. The campus is alive with endless possibilities in a climate of accessibility, creativity and companionship. 14_Campus__Construction_Photographer062The space is almost museum-like with high walls and skylights. The light and air are conducive to learning.

Hallways and common areas also serve as extensions of learning as art galleries and areas to display student work. Learning and sharing continues in this way as students are immersed in The Willows creative environment that values student work and provides students with daily proof of their own ability to impact the world with their own ideas and perspective. Teachers and students both see the projects and the work going on around them–there is great sharing and symbiosis.

Maximize Space – Optimize Learning

The learning commons configuration extends the classroom allowing for small group work and large project creation. The learning commons offers additional area to create a project too large for a classroom; teachers don’t limit their ideas knowing they may expand a concept into a commons area. KM_15_Mayflower-Experience010An example is the Kindergarten Maker replica of the Mayflower complete with wind machine, which would be impossible in a classroom, but is an exciting learning experience in the Willows 1 common space. All our spaces are intentionally flexible offering a myriad of learning experiences and cross-disciplinary and multi-age opportunities. In our learning commons, our middle school students often buddy with our youngest students assisting in hands-on projects that are the very heart of our DK-8 model, building empathy and offering leadership opportunities.

Educational leader John Dewey wrote, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” The Willows mission statement says that “each child brings our community an extraordinary gift: a curious mind, ready to explore and eager to learn.” Our mission is to grow that gift and to give them every opportunity to engage with each other and the ever-changing modern world around them.ALL_15_ViewBook129

What better way to do this than on an open, expansive learning commons and campus?

 

 

 

Time + Engagement = Intersession

Each year after Winter break, The Willows school community participates in an annual tradition known as Intersession.

Essentially, Intersession is best described by what it is not­ – a time where “normal” school time, usually chopped up into discrete blocks devoted to different disciplines, is disrupted in favor of long, less-structured sessions where both teachers and students work on complex and engaging projects. Depending on the age range, these sessions last 3-4 hours per day; with our middle school, Intersession lasted all day for an entire week.

(Click here to learn more about the nuts and bolts plus specific projects undertaken during Intersession)

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Why take this departure from normalcy? Essentially, I see Intersession is an answer to the following questions:

What if teachers were allowed to create projects they were extremely passionate about?

 What if these projects were heavily student-driven with students choosing which project best suited their interests?  

 What if teachers and students had long periods of time to engage deeply with the ideas and skills associated with these projects?

There are myriad aspects of Intersession worth celebrating and discussing at length, but I’d like to focus on two that I feel are the most powerful: time and engagement.

The gift of time

Releasing everyone from the constraints of their normal schedules is one of the greatest gifts a school can give itself.

DSC_0126With unprecedented amounts of time, our students were able to build real expertise, often with new skills or concepts. Immersed in their projects, they were more willing to take risks, to persevere through difficulties, to collaborate and problem-solve with peers, and to see the true value in what we call “hard fun.”

Personally, I was involved in a project called Robot Theater, inspired by Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room. For six days, groups of students created interactive “rooms” featuring a variety of small robots with lights, motors, and sensors powered by Hummingbird controllers. Students wrestled with unfamiliar tech tools (and the occasional frustrations that go along with connecting and programming them!), built backdrops for their robot “characters,” and presented to groups of amazed parents afterwards. This work takes time – especially if you want to do things right. IMG_0951

Time + Engagement

While any school can simply abandon its regular schedule for some period of time, doing so may not always result in the kind of engagement Intersession delivers. There’s a palpable sense of excitement pervading every space of each building. There’s also plenty of intensity and creative struggle, as children work to realize the shared vision for each project. One easy indicator of engagement that I saw with my robot designers: instead of going outside for snack and recess, they would regularly stay inside to test a new light or motor or finish just one more block of code!

IMG_8594Ultimately, in my mind, time and engagement go hand in hand. Without the time to really dive deeply into something, engagement will always remain superficial while everyone moves on to the next regularly scheduled block of learning. When children are shown that educators truly value their strengths and interests and are willing to give them time to immerse themselves in meaningful projects, they really rise to the occasion.

** Check back for a video we’re preparing highlighting many of the amazing Intersession projects – coming soon!

 

Reinventing Math

Most students when asked what they think their role is in math classrooms say: it is to answer correctly. They don’t think they are in math classrooms to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, to approach the rich set of connections that make up the subject, or even to learn about the applicability of the subject. They think they are in the math classroom to perform. – Jo Boaler, What’s Math Got to Do With It?

At our Learning Lunches this month, teachers and administrators at the Willows began our time together pondering two questions:

Why do so many students loathe math?

Why do many teachers feel uncomfortable teaching math?

The initial discussion that followed focused on a few recurrent themes:

  • Math is different from other more open-ended subjects – there is just one correct answer, and you’re either right or you’re wrong
  • When students struggle with math problems, teachers feel they only have a limited amount of strategies to help students get to the correct answer
  • Teachers feel less comfortable with teaching math in different ways than they learned it as students

One teacher even spoke about math as being its own language, separate from the usual language we use to engage with language arts, history or even science.

All of this set the stage for us to watch a provocative TED talk from renowned physicist, mathematician and technologist Conrad Wolfram, who will be one the keynote speakers at the upcoming Reinventing Mathematics Education Symposium being held here at the Willows on January 4th.wolfram ted

In a recent Financial Times article, “Stop teaching kids to add up – maths is more important,” he states:

At its core, maths is a problem-solving process. You specify a real-world problem, develop an abstract representation of it, calculate an answer for the abstraction and then translate back into the real-world language you started with. Before computers, almost all human energy was focused on the third stage: calculating. Now it is usually focused on the other steps instead.

Throughout the video we watched, Wolfram essentially sidesteps much of the traditional debate about how to teach mathematics, in favor of a discussion about why we teach math – and, more crucially, what math is actually taught in schools.

Wolfram’s idea for reinventing math education: use computers. Not just for calculation, but also to build conceptual understanding beyond mere calculation. He maintains that the primary way that people understand processes and procedures that drive most of our modern world is through programming; a great way to check if someone understands math, he claims, is have them write a program to do it!

Implications

Looking at our classrooms at the Willows, we can see some applications of Wolfram’s ideas, mainly in the programming that students have been doing at our school for many years now. Even our youngest students begin wrestling early on with the basics of programming as they work with Bee Bots, working later with more formal programming in Turtle Art, Scratch and Microworlds.

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Beyond providing opportunities for programming (year round, not just for the Hour of Code), Willows teachers have also begun to take steps this year to reinvent math in other ways. Inspired by our school-wide theme of action, teachers in the P.E. department have started to incorporate the concepts of estimation and averages into the weekly activities happening in the gym. Utilizing pedometers for precise data collection, K-5 students were asked to estimate and then discover how many steps it took to complete a lap around the gym. Real-world results enabled rich discussions, as students saw that different student factors (pace, stride, height) influenced the findings. Further conceptual understanding of variance was explored as they worked to estimate and find the average number of steps per grade level.pe data

Further data collection and analysis has taken place in Middle School classrooms, centered around the question: What does a typical middle school student do for all four of his/her P.E. physical fitness tests?  Students estimated mean, median, mode and range for the tests, used Excel to work with the data collected by the P.E. teachers, and created graphs to make conclusions about the data. Best of all, student engagement in real-world math in action was clearly evident throughout both of these projects.

Next Steps

With our Math Symposium right around the corner, mathematics is on everyone’s mind at the Willows. Look for future posts on the subject after the Symposium in January!

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