Level Up Village: 6th Grade Global Partnerships

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One favorite talking point for most educational leaders and policy advocates these days is that children must acquire 21st century skills in preparation for work in a global economy. Beyond the rhetoric, what 21st century learning actually looks like in schools can vary; personally, I believe The Willows remains on the cutting edge with our longstanding focus on interdisciplinary, project-based learning that integrates current technological tools in thoughtful, meaningful ways.

One recent example of The Willows cultivating students’ 21st century skills involved our 6th grade participating in a unique partnership with the organization Level Up Village. The mission of Level Up Village is to “facilitate seamless collaboration between students from around the world via pioneering global STEAM enrichment courses.” Our first experiences with the organization took place last school year, during middle school Intersession, where a group of Willows students collaborated with students in India to co-create websites using HTML and CSS. Encouraged by this initial experience, middle school teachers looked at other, potentially lengthier, course offerings, and they were excited to find one focused on a novel study of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which 6th graders already read in their Core classes each year.

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Click here to access the video.

As you can see in the linked video above, one of the main components of the Level Up partnership is student-created videos that are shared by students in one classroom with another classroom in a different country. Willows 6th graders were paired up with classrooms in Ghana and Zimbabwe for the novel study, and their first task was to create short videos introducing themselves to each other.

As they read The Giver over the course of approximately five weeks, students traded videos on various topics, including utopias, dystopias, and methods for solving specific problems related to one’s community. Teachers made use of blocks of time in their weekly schedules specifically devoted to technology integration for video creation and support with navigating the online Student Portal used to submit videos and access materials for the students’ collaborations.

The teachers involved with this project report that it was a worthwhile endeavor overall, though it was not without its challenges. For example, the classroom that was paired with students from Zimbabwe was presented with some unique teachable moments as that country found itself in the middle of a military coup during their five-week collaboration. Besides giving teachers with an opportunity to compare our government and culture with theirs, Willows sixth graders had to practice patience waiting for their partner videos to be uploaded. Furthermore, discussions in all classes emerged as our students had to come to terms with cultural differences observed while reviewing videos, as well as technological challenges (i.e. limited computers) that their partner classrooms might have been dealing with.

One of the unexpected gifts this project offered was that, through reviewing their students’ videos, teachers were able to learn so much about them, in a way that doesn’t normally happen in the typical school environment. Liz Ganem, one of the 6th grade teachers, said that “Going into parent conferences after this project, I felt like I knew some kids better than I ever have before.” She noted that students creating these videos in quiet spaces away from class and for an authentic audience had an opportunity to express themselves and elaborate in a different kind of way. Teachers and students, in a sense, treated the videos almost as they do traditional writing assignments, using revision notes and teacher feedback on ways to make their messages clearer before sending them off to their partners in Africa.

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This last revelation has inspired the 6th grade teachers to contemplate how they can use video more often as a means for their students to respond to literature. Furthermore, the Level Up Village project reinforced the universal tenet that people all over the world can connect through great literature. As Liz remarked to me, “I love that it was a book that was connecting these two cultures – it made my kids realize that you can talk to anyone in the world about a good book!”

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!

 

 

 

Raising Resilient Children

What is the mind? What can we do to help kids develop a resilient mindset when facing life’s challenges?

These perplexing and provocative questions were just two of many raised and discussed at the most recent event in our annual Ideas@TheWillows speaker series, led by acclaimed UCLA professor and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute Dan Siegel.

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One of the things that I truly value about working at The Willows is our community’s willingness to engage in a thoughtful exchange of ideas with extraordinary people like Dr. Siegel. I first became aware of his work in my early years of fatherhood, when my wife and I read his book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Later, I became aware of his efforts to introduce mindfulness into schools through his Mindsight Institute’s MindUp curriculum that we’ve used parts of with middle school students at our school.

In his wide-ranging and lively talk, Dr. Siegel shared findings from research about resiliency, which he linked generally to the concept of integration in brain research. Adults and children who are adept at integrating the various systems of the brain in a harmonious manner are better suited to facing life’s challenges without becoming overwhelmed or disconnected. To illustrate this at one point in his talk, Siegel asked for volunteers – specifically, people who sing in choirs (including our Director of Library Services Cathy Leverkus) – to come on to the stage with him. He gave his singers various directions to demonstrate the results of an integrated brain (harmony, where different singers worked together towards a common goal) versus a non-integrated brain (chaos, where different singers covered their ears and only sang their own song). E_17_Speaker_Dan_Siegel040

Besides sharing essential brain research for everyone to ponder, Siegel also underscored several helpful takeaways specifically for parents in attendance. According to Siegel, the most powerful finding from parenting research that many are not aware of is the need for parents to make sense of their own lives first – in his words, “It doesn’t matter what happened to you, it’s how you make sense of it.” If we neglect to engage in this process of looking inward and examining our lives, we run the risk of sending mixed messages to our children as we direct them to make good choices in their lives.

Additionally, he mentioned several times the importance of parental presence. I have found myself repeating one line from his talk several times on this subject:

The more present you are, the more you are willing to learn about who your children are versus who you want them to be.

In Siegel’s view, modern parents’ preoccupation with a future destination for their children often leads them to send messages that provoke shame, which he defined as the opposite of resilience, as well as encouraging children to compete with each other instead of “competing with the world’s problems.”

Afterwards, I debriefed with my colleague Andrea, who is part of a team of teachers at The Willows working to implement and strengthen our school’s RULER emotional intelligence program from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. One connection she made between his message and our school’s work with mindfulness and emotional intelligence was Siegel’s emphasis on the need to look inward, to be aware of this inner world that we all need to connect to in order to recognize and regulate the energy associated with our emotions. Clearly, this message applies for adults and students alike in our community.

One final note: Siegel did give an answer to our initial question above – “What is the mind?” – which I have to share (I would recommend reading one of his many books on the subjects of mind for a detailed explanation:)

The mind is the embodied and relational self-organizing process that regulates informational flow between ourselves and others and the planet.

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Lisa Rosenstein, Head of School, Dr. Dan Siegel, and Christina Kim, Director of Student Life

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.

 

 

 

 

How do we respond?

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

-Victor Frankel

Walking through our halls Wednesday morning after Tuesday’s election, discussions about the election results could be overheard everywhere. Most children sought out friends with which to share their collective surprise over the news; others parroted remarks they may have heard on TV or from various adults. Some others said nothing.

I can only speak for myself, but watching the results the night before I couldn’t help but wonder: what do I say to the kids tomorrow? Regardless of one’s own personal political persuasion, the nature of this campaign and its surprising end made for an election night like no other. Contemplating spending Wednesday with young children eager to discuss this at school, I asked myself: how do we respond?

Waking up Wednesday, I thought of Victor Frankel’s famous quote (above). One of our most challenging jobs as educators is to live in the space between stimulus and response, to appropriately model for our students the importance of taking the time to pause and be thoughtful before we react to the words and actions around us. Imagining my conversation with a student about the election, I resolved to offer more questions than answers, especially open-ended ones like “How are you feeling?” or “What’s making you anxious?” so that students feel they have a safe space to process their emotions or concerns.

Shortly after arriving at school, I saw an email in my inbox from Lisa, our Head of School, stating that we would be meeting as a faculty after school to discuss our school-wide response to the election.

During our discussion, we heard from various teachers about their experiences throughout the day, many of them similar to my own. We all agreed on the need to acknowledge feelings, encourage conversation, and allow for differing points of view. Lisa reminded us that the RULER emotional intelligence tools we’ve been implementing in classrooms over the last year and a half are truly powerful for times like these. (Read a short message on the election from Yale’s Emotional Intelligence team here)

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Different grade levels shared specific moments and activities from the day. During their morning meeting, first graders plotted themselves on the classroom mood meter; one student acknowledged the news of the election had left him feeling “uncomfortable,” after plotting his mood somewhere between blue and red.

One third grade teacher felt that the activities surrounding a mock election held at school had really helped her students learn to be respectful of others’ choices and to deal with feelings surrounding winning and losing an election. In the middle school, certain math classes had studied polling surrounding the various California ballot propositions, and their discussion Wednesday morning covered not only the predicted versus actual outcomes, but also about the vital need to cultivate a mathematically-informed electorate in our country.

Although it is unclear what the next four years will bring, it is certain that plenty of emotions and other stimuli in need of our collective responses await. Of the many things I saw on social media Wednesday, one short passage shared with the staff by third grade teacher Stephanie Wald helps show a path to the growth and freedom Victor Frankel spoke about:

Let’s start small. Let’s start by looking each other in the eye. By smiling to a stranger. By picking up a piece of trash. By being helpful in your community and commit to listening to each other. Let’s start with more mindfulness, more self-care, more reading and writing. Let’s take it day by day. We have a lot of work to do, but today let’s be really kind to each other. Let’s be honest, generous, and forgiving and connect through our hearts rather than through our minds. Let’s start small, and with love. Let’s start now.

Some helpful links for parents and educators:
http://betsybrownbraun.com/2016/11/09/talking-to-your-kids-about-the-election/
http://www.tolerance.org/blog/day-after
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-should-we-tell-the-children_us_5822aa90e4b0334571e0a30b

 

 

What’s next?

This time of the school year, parents and educators alike have their eye on the calendar, counting down the last days of school. For teachers, a much-needed break awaits, and school days are often consumed with wrapping up end-of-year projects, preparing final grades and/or narrative reports, and packing things away for next school year. During this busy time, it’s tempting to feel a sense of finality, as if the work of the school year is all but done.

However, this time of year I find myself thinking of one of my all time favorite phrases:

                    What’s next?

The genius of this phrase is its utility across a variety of disciplines, with children and adults alike. As a teacher, I annoy kids daily when they come up to me with something they think is finished and I prompt them with “What’s next?” They might be showing me a piece of writing, an animation programmed in Scratch or a maker project constructed out of cardboard and foam, but my intention for using this particular prompt is identical for each.

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Ideally, “What’s next?” prompts learners to take ownership over the project at hand, and to adopt the mindset that most projects are, in fact, works-in-progress, always able to be revised, extended, and improved. Echoing the best ideas from the design thinking movement, this mindset embraces the idea that projects can always be taken to another iteration. Additional layers of complexity and sophistication can be introduced, and some documentation of the creative process can be cultivated in anticipation of sharing the project with a wider audience. Even during these waning weeks of the school year, we are compelled to ask our students, “What’s next?” even only to hope that they at some point begin to ask this question themselves.

Of course, “What’s next?” is also a useful prompt for teachers and school administrators at this time of year. Reflecting on the ups and downs of the year behind us, what was learned that should be applied to the next year ahead? What points of interest and excitement must be capitalized upon and carried forward? What projects or endeavors almost worked in the way we intended, and with a bit more fine-tuning could really have the impact we desire?

Asking “What’s next?” is, however, not enough. What actually lies next after that depends on the willingness of all parties to put in the work needed to grow and improve based on the conversations that spring forth.

What’s next for you?

 

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“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: