Student-centered Learning Environments: Redesigning One Fourth Grade Classroom

“It is sobering to realize that the majority of American schools today, barring a minority of interesting experiments, look as they did at the end of the last century”

-Mara Krechevsky & Janet Stork, Harvard Project Zero (2000)

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Click here to access a short video on our Instagram page illustrating the flexible seating arrangement in action!

When I walk the halls of our campus at The Willows, I’m not so sure the above quote rings completely true. The schools I went to as a child and that I first taught in 17 years ago definitely don’t have the unique, vibrant energy from faculty and amazing artwork enlivening the environment that we have here.

However, even though The Willows does not closely resemble a school in 1899, some features in education are notoriously slow to change. Personally, I believe it is safe to say that the classroom arrangement of individual desks facing a teacher lecturing at the front next to a board is one of those features.

This year, in one fourth grade classroom at The Willows, dynamic changes are underway. Inspired by similarly-minded teachers and school leaders across the country, fourth grade teachers Stephanie Tanner and Lily Solomon have embraced the concept known as a flexible seating classroom for their students.

This arrangement was described in a recent article in NEA Today as the “Starbucks classroom” because of the focus on creating spaces for students to sit and work comfortably as adults are accustomed to at the iconic coffee shop. Instead of rows of desks, flexible seating classrooms feature students working at standing desks, café tables, couches, on top of pilate balls and next to hokki stools.

Beyond just giving students comfortable spaces to think and work, the research behind a flexible seating arrangement highlights several potential positive impacts for students:

  • Focus and engagement: students who struggle to remain seated and still throughout the day are often better able to focus and stay engaged with the task at hand when they have some choice over what type of seating is best for them
  • Responsibility: teachers allowing students to choose what type of seat is best for them communicates the message that the student is responsible for his or her learning, and that he or she is mature enough to make smart choices

When I first heard about flexible seating coming to The Willows, I wondered what had initially led Stephanie and Lily to consider redesigning their classroom space in this manner. Both teachers shared that this past summer, they reflected on how their group of kids had a lot of energy that was sometimes hard to channel, and that traditional seating arrangements were just not fitting the needs of most students (*note – 3rd and 4th grade students “loop” at The Willows, meaning they have the same teacher and classroom for two years in a row).

After scouring Pinterest and several other education blogs that featured tips for setting up a flexible seating classroom, Stephanie and Lily pitched the idea to Terri Baird, our Director of Teaching and Learning; she loved it, and had actually already been researching flexible seating on her own. Terri asked the teachers to write up a proposal for materials, with a plan in mind to pilot this approach this year in one classroom and possibly expand to other rooms if successful.

Two months into the school year, teachers and students alike approve of the new classroom arrangement. The teachers report that students are getting more work done without becoming distracted, and are working quicker and staying focused for longer. Students are motivated to stay focused since they know that if the teachers feel they have chosen an unproductive spot, they will be asked to move. Favorite spots for many children include the standing desks, wobble tables, and the couch; least prized seating options so far, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the traditional desks – though some students do prefer them.

Other Willows teachers are showing interest in potentially changing some, if not all, of their classroom seating arrangements. In one faculty meeting where we discussed flexible seating, many teachers agree it may not be the best approach for every classroom, or for every group of teachers and students. So far, however, for one fourth grade classroom, the change has been welcome.

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.

 

 

 

 

Designing with Empathy

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I teach in a makerspace each day. Design thinking and the steps of the design process are interwoven into so much of what takes place within my maker classes. During each hour-long class, students learn by engaging in work similar to real-world designers: facing challenges, coming up with creative solutions, and tinkering and experimenting their way towards a finished product.

In this space, I see myself as a coach or a guide, providing assistance, resources, and encouragement throughout the design process. When inevitable frustrations occur, I try to be present and listen to the needs of my students so I can provide a useful perspective to enable them to persist with the problem they’re trying to solve.

Do I see myself as someone who’s teaching children to develop their emotional intelligence? I have to admit that in the past I have not, or at least not in the same way as I see my colleagues, who are directly teaching tools for developing emotional intelligence in the classroom. However, recent events at The Willows have caused me to contemplate the connections between design thinking and the work we’re doing with emotional intelligence within our community.

As we begin our second year of work with Yale’s RULER program, I am reminded that the “R” and “U” in the RULER acronym stands for “recognizing” and “understanding.” Taking a second look at the design thinking process outlined by Stanford’s d.School, the first step, “Empathy” matches perfectly with these ideas.

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When designers are beginning a project, it is important that they ask questions like:

  • Who am I designing for?
  • What are their motivations?
  • What needs am I seeking to meet?

Stepping into the shoes of whom you are designing for and understanding the world from their perspective is crucial to the design process. Similarly, successfully navigating our interactions with the members of our community also requires recognizing and understanding the feelings of others. There is a spirit of inquiry and openness that is essential to both, and empathy is a key component to developing collaborative skills across the curriculum.

I give full credit to Christina Kim, our Director of Student Life, for helping me fully connect these ideas together. She was part of a group of Willows teachers and administrators that visited the d.School last spring while in the Bay Area for the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) conference, who came back inspired to redesign a space in our Middle School based on what they had observed on their trip.

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Shortly after their return, I found myself in a meeting that exemplified for me this intersection of design thinking and empathy. Lisa Rosenstein, our Head of School, brought together an eclectic group of 8th graders, Middle School teachers, administrators, and specialists in IT, ed tech and maker to engage in a dialogue about how to best transform one Middle School classroom into what has now become our designLab.

In a sense, all those assembled were being asked to empathize with the future users of the space – incoming 6th, 7th and 8th grade students (as well as their teachers). I was most impressed in this dialogue by the 8th graders; even with only weeks to go before graduation, they were full of constructive suggestions and comfortable sharing ideas at a large table full of adults. I saw a group of students reflecting on their experiences and imagining how the space could best serve the Middle School after they leave, and I also saw the kind of collaborative effort between different members of our community that makes me inspired to work at The Willows.