Saturday, February 13, 2016

Teaching in Beta at SAIL




This year I am teaching at a new district program with Surrey Schools called SAIL - Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning.  This is the "beta" year for the program so there is a lot more unknown than known as we create this unique learning opportunity for our students.  The students who are in my class are there because of a personal decision by their parents to find a program that hopefully better meets their child's needs at this time.  For some it's to get their child excited about coming to school again and for others it's to support their passion for science, technology, engineering, math and art. There are many other reasons why parents have chosen to take a chance and learn with us at SAIL. I feel honoured to be given such a responsibility.


SAIL is a home/school blended program and falls under the distributed learning mandate.  My students are in the building with me four days a week with some flexibility around start and end times.  In some cases the children are the building less than four days a week.  But because school is not just being done in a "brick and mortar" school I am also responsible for ensuring my students have "school work" to do with their families in their homes. It allows for the parents of my students to have a much more active role in their child's learning since they are uncovering 20% (or more) of the curriculum with them directly.  There is an important, on-going relationship between  myself, my students, and their families.

SAIL is also  multi-aged classes.   I am the official K-3 classroom teacher.  For the first few months of  school  I had quite a unique multi-aged class with students in grade one and students in grade three. Yes, you read that correct, I had a one/three without the grade twos.  Because I was missing the 'bridge" between the grades there were times that things were a bit more challenging to best meet every ones needs.  But the beauty of missing the bridge is that it really made me focus on what my students need in spite of what grade they  are officially in.  I think that's one of the beauties of teaching a multi-aged class. As much as government issued curriculum is always something I need to keep in mind, I worry far less about what "grade" each child is in and  I focus more on who they are as learners.

The slight glitch to all of this is that I do, as the teacher, have mandated curriculum that needs to be covered and so I need to find ways to uncover this curriculum in ways that work for my students.  This isn't always an easy task, particularly when uncovering content for three grade levels at once, but with the new BC curriculum, and the curricular competencies which can apply to most of my students passions, it provides me with the opportunity to uncover the curricular content in new and hopefully exciting ways.


One of the struggles I have with this home/blended learning piece is that each week I need to design home learning plans for my students that will be engaging for them, and that their families can help with  as necessary.  I also need to be mindful of the required curriculum because the reality is 20% of my students' learning is done in their own environment. (Okay that line makes me laugh because I know my students do a lot  more than 20% of their learning at home, but in terms of the BC Curriculum and what needs to be uncovered I am leading 80% in the building, and planning for the other 20% to be done in the student's home).  Each week it takes me a while to come up with ideas that are meaningful to my students and tie back to my students' learning.  I will admit some weeks I do a better job at that than others.

A couple of the more recent successful home learning plans that stick out are when we were learning about sound, and when we were learning about trout.  During out sound inquiry  one of the activities for the home learning plan involved them creating an instrument from items they found in their home, and then being able to share their instrument, and where/how the sound was made with their classmates on Monday.  It tied in with both the hands on nature of our class, the science content (for my grade one students), and the science curricular competencies for all of my students.  Click the image below to hear them play their instruments. (Or here if the image link doesn't work)

We were then able to extend the use of these instruments through classroom discussions, in music class, and with reflection.  It was an activity that went beyond the home.

A second home learning activity that made me smile was when we were studying trout in preparation to a visit to a trout hatchery. For  home learning my students were encouraged to design a habitat for a trout to show me what they had learned through our inquiry on trout, and in preparation for our field trip to a local trout hatchery.  As usual the expectations were quite open ended and the children were able to create in ways that worked best for them.  I still smile when I think of the products my students created.  Some took the time to build a trout habitat in minecraft, and explain each of the areas they built.  Others used paper and coloured pencils to draw a trout habitat.  Another used modelling clay to design their habitat.  One even programmed Dash to travel up a river and back to the home where the trout would lay its eggs.  The acceptance of these different ways of showing learning is what I believe is one of the greatest strengths of our program.  As much as I cover mandated curriculum, my focus is on my students, and finding ways to help them learn in ways they are excited about.




The program is also built around a maker mindset where I believe my students have more hands on opportunities for their learning. My students make bread most weeks and have documented the process through images, blog posts, digital books, and coding adventures.  During Valentine's Day they were expected to create their own Valentine folder's. Those folders had to hold their valentines, have their name clearly written, and have a moving part.  I'm always inspired by the way their brains work and what they are able to create.



The SAIL  program  provides me with some innovative freedoms that aren't always available in other environments. The past few years I have been innovative with my teaching when  I felt it better met my students needs.  But my innovative ideas weren't always welcomed by parents who see school in the more traditional way.  So I'm extremely fortunate to be working with children and families who are excited about new ways of teaching and learning.

 While we are still in the BETA year and our numbers are low at the moment the registration forms keep coming in for the new school year. Who knows where we'll be a year from now! #excitingtimesarehere

Curious to learn more? Check out the SAIL website.  https://sailacademy.ca/




Friday, December 25, 2015

Show What You Know with iPad: Using an iPad to Create and Self Assess in the Early Years


I'm often approached by educators looking for the best iPad app.  While my students have their favourite go to apps, what works for my students may not work for theirs.  In fact even my own students can't decide which app is best because each has their own preference depending on what they are trying to do. It's far less about the specific app, then what that app can do to show learning.

For me, the beauty of the iPad and more specifically the apps available for it, is that it allows my students to create, and show their learning in ways that work best for them.  For this reason I have created an iTunes U course titled Show What You Know with iPad: Using an iPad to Create and Self Assess in the Early Years.  This is a free course but does require an iOS device to access it through iTunes U . It can be downloaded onto  an iPod, iPhone, or iPad.

This FREE iTunes U course explores five open-ended creative apps including Skitch, Popplet, Book Creator, Draw and Tell, and Explain Everything. The course walks the reader  through how to use these specific apps and provides examples of how the various apps can been used in a variety of content areas.   The course makes you think about how these apps can work best for your students' learning.

In addition the course also explores ways these same five apps can be used as a tool for student self assessment in a variety of content areas.  Curious to learn more? Download the course. It's free! You've got nothing to lose. :-)





Here is a direct link to the course https://itunes.apple.com/ca/course/show-what-you-know-with-ipad/id1070360187 . For those of you who are already familiar with iTunes U the enrol code is  DCL-MYW-YNB.









Monday, December 14, 2015

Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls

As part of being recognized as a "Top 12 Global Teacher Blogger" by Cathy Rubin for Huffington Post, I am asked each month to respond to a question.  This blog post is in response to " What are the best ways for a teacher to engage their classroom in a global conversation?"

Before I talk about how to engage students in a global conversation I very strongly believe that a teacher should be involved in one first before expecting their students to engage globally.  For me, personally and professionally, that means connecting with the world through twitter, blogs, and various other on-line platforms.  I ask my questions of other educators both near and far and I learn with and from them.  I strongly believe if I expect my students to have a global conversation, then I should be too. This is not to say that every educator needs to connect the way I connect, but I do feel in this day it is important that you get yourself connected and learn beyond your classroom, school, or district.  Imagine only reading books from one bookshelf, when you have an entire library of great books to read.   

As for my students, I equally believe that they need to be able to learn far beyond their classroom walls.  For this reason our teaching and learning goes beyond our class, school, and district.  My students use tools such as blogs, twitter, and video conferencing to connect and learn with others.  We've taken part in collaborative projects such as the Global Read Aloud with children in other parts of the world.  Video conferencing has allowed my students to learn with others.  Just this morning my students taught children 2,000 km away about Hanukkah. Tomorrow they will be teaching a class within our school.  

So how do you get started?

Start small and bring a friend along. Find a venue that takes you out of your local comfort level.  This may mean joining a collaborative project such as one from  Projects by Jen  , or looking through the learning opportunities available on  Skype in the Classroom.  This isn't meant to be "another thing" to add to your teaching. Learning globally adds to what you're already doing.  For example, to help my students with their number sense, they played "guess my number" with several classes around North America. When they were learning about community they video conferenced with children in different communities to learn what features were common in all communities, and which were specific to where they lived.

Asking experts through twitter, or inviting them to video conference with your class is another small way to learn with the world.  Connecting with an author through twitter has been a pretty straightforward way to learn with others.  There's nothing like havin a tweet replied by someone your students see as important.  There are a lot of great people out there that are willing to help your students learn from an authentic audience.

So whether your first step is a small one or a big one, just be sure to take that first step.  There is so much learning to happen beyond your classroom walls.



Sunday, December 13, 2015

More Than Just an Hour of Code

This past week I hosted the Hour of Code at my new school.  As I mentioned earlier, this school is new to me and as much as I am part of this new school community, I am also the primary teacher for the new SAIL program within our district.  This means in some ways I work for both SAIL, and I work for my new school.

A few of the students in the new school know me because my students and I integrate into their PE classes, or I know them as my "field trip friends" because my class will be sharing a school bus with them.  We've also connected with a class when we have our presentations from the aboriginal culture workers. I've had small chat with many students, but my reality is, I don't know many of the students outside of the SAIL program.

One way to try to fix that is that I decided to host the Hour of Code for the entire school. A week earlier I had daily announcements made inviting students down to my classroom (a part of the school most students don't even know exists) to sign up for one of five code.org tutorials.  Throughout the week I had heaps of children drop by and by Friday afternoon over 100 students had signed up.  How exciting I thought to myself.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) because of the large numbers of students, and the limited access to devices, and the size of my classroom, I broke the groups down into thirds with each group being invited either Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday at lunch.   These students did not disappoint and my room was packed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.  Each child had their own log in card and I was able to get them all up and running.  The beauty of code.org is that students can start a coding tutorial at school, then continue it at home.

As the week progressed things started to change for me.  As I was walking in the hallways more students were coming up to me to say hello, and to ask if was their day to come for coding. They wondered what would happen on Thursday and Friday after every group and been through for their first attempt at the hour of code.  I was slowly becoming the teacher who does coding vs just a body that was seen in the hallways from time to time.  Student were starting to say hello to me by name.

I continued the week of coding over lunch, and on Thursday and Friday anyone was invited to spend the lunch hour with me.  Slowly I too got to know more of their names, and it made me smile to be able to feed their coding curiosity.  I was able to set them up in other code.org tutorials, and to send a few of them home with some bitsbox information.  I was no longer that person they saw in the hallways from time to time, I was an equally important teacher in the school.

I hope that with time the rest of the school community will take notice that as much as I teach in a district program of choice, I am still a teacher, and I want to have a positive influence on any students I come into contact with.  Sometimes being part of something different, people think you aren't really there for them, but that is so far from the truth.

Hosting the Hour of Code has helped bring me into the school's community, and it has made the rest of the school community know that I am there for them too. It's gone way beyond just "the hour of code".  The best part for me (and I hope the students too) is  how excited I am to continue this "coding" with a weekly coding club the rest of the year.  I can't wait to share some of the incredible things these wonderful students will get up to.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Using Scratch Jr to Code How to Make Bread


Each Wednesday morning my students start the day by measuring out and adding ingredients to our class breadmaker.  They then get on with their day until the bread is ready to enjoy and share with others.


This past Wednesday they did things a bit differently.  With all the ingredients in the machine, my students turned to the free iPad app Scratch Jr to create a program that tells others how to make bread.  While they have worked with Scratch Jr before, this was the first time that their "coding" had a real purpose.  They were coding to teach others how to make bread too.

My students could choose to work on their own or with a friend.  They then got down to work. And boy did they work.  For close to 90 minutes my students worked on problem solving their coding needs.  They wanted their final product to look as close to what they do themselves each Wednesday morning.  They added repeats to their coding so that a spoon would go back and forth to match how many scoops they added to the bread machine.  They played with the appear/disappear feature so that they could make it look like their ingredients were dropping into the bread machine.  They added "characters" you could touch so that you could hear what was happening in the picture.  They added other links that took you to the next step in the process.  Along the way they learned that you can only have four "scenes" in each Scratch Jr project so a few of them had to make more than one project.

Now this wasn't easy for them.  There was a ton of trial and error.  There were math computations to figure out to ensure the spoons and scoops stopped at the  right place.  There was timing of items becoming visible, and then becoming invisible.  There were repeat codes.  Here's a small sampling of some of their coding.  You'll notice that many of their pages had several items to code. Remember anything they've added to the page that moves or makes a sound, needed to be coded.

This code is making the ingredient drop into the bread machine at just the right time to match the ingredient moving toward the bread maker. They have also programmed the dropping ingredient to disappear into the bread machine.

This code is ensuring that the flour fall from the spoon at the right time, and then disappear after it drops.

This code is programming the scope to make it from the flour to the bread maker and then tip into the bread maker.

This code is making the spoon go up and over to the bread maker, tip into the bread maker, then return back to the beginning and repeat the process four times since they have to add 4 scoops of this ingredient to the bread maker.

This code has the spoon travel from the left to the right side of the page, up the page and then over the bread maker where it tips into the machine


Curious what they looked like? Here are a couple to check out. Now please note in the transfer process the sound was lost so these are silent movies. Remember though every action in each movie was created by a specific code telling the object to do exactly what it's doing.  Enjoy















Saturday, November 7, 2015

Learning By Design in a Primary Classroom

First off, I'm not an expert here, nor am I doing something new. I am not the first, nor will I be the last but I still want to share my story.

As many of you are away this year I'm in a brand new position with my school district as part of a brand new program. I am the only K-3 teacher for my district's choice program SAIL - Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning.  Being a new program means I am building a program as it runs.  I will admit there are some challenges because of this but there are a lot more positive adventures.

Creating their own problem, then finding their own solution through trial and error.
Student driven learning.

 I have incredible students who love to explore, create and design.  I've spent a lot of time watching them do this and have been trying to find ways to make our new curriculum fit with their passions, instead of in spite of their passions.  So this week we began to explore design challenges.

The challenges themselves are quite simple but the beauty of them is that they are using tools my students love to learn with, they were co-created with the students, and the criteria for success was determined by the students.  I provided the opportunity for them to learn this way, but they came up with the purpose.  Along the way they learned that they have to collaborate to be successful. That sometimes, even with the best laid out plans, that they aren't successful. That mistakes just lead to new learning. That perseverance is a skill, and some of us need to work hard to have some, and for some of us it comes naturally.  But above all they learned, once again, that learning is and can be student centered and fun!

So what exactly were our challenges this week?

The first was "The Contraption Lab"

Inspired by seeing Jake Lee use a product called Weird Wacky Contraption Lab with his grade one students in Hawaii, and how they were working through the design process with it, I knew we needed one too.

The goal of the first challenge was to "launch the pig". After some discussion, and actually counting how many pieces the toy had, the students decided that to be successful they needed to use between 5 - 10 pieces.

The first group thought they were successful until they counted their pieces and realized they didn't have between 5-10.  It was certainly a task in trial an error as the marble was flying of the track, or not landing where they thought it should. As I mentioned it naturally included communication through discussion, problem solving, and a lot of failure.  Not every group that has been through this challenge has been successful... yet.  Perseverance is key!


Working together to design a track that will allow a marble to travel from the top to the bottom and then launch a pig.


The second challenge was called Sphero.  In this challenge we talked about making a maze and using a pretty new (to them ) app called Tickle to program the Sphero through the maze.  We decided that as much as it would great to have a complicated maze, the reality was this is still quite a new app so just having  a one turn maze would be enough.  My students  learned a little bit about angles, and speed.

Trial and error to program a sphero through the maze.

The goal for this challenge was to program the Sphero using the Tickle app. In order to be successful at the challenge the program had to get the Sphero through the maze without hitting the walls.  This challenge also required my students to do a lot of trial and error - or as we called it test, modify, and re test.  For my younger students the angles and speed variables were a bit too much for them, so we modified the app they used and instead of programming, they guided the Sphero through their maze using the Sphero app. They still had to control the speed,  but they had more control when it came to the turn.

Design, test, redesign as necessary. Perseverance is key.

The third challenge we worked though was the "Dash" challenge.  My students have named Dash, Robo Don. The goal of the challenge was to program Robo Don to play Hot Cross Bun and an original tune on the attached xylophone. To be successful their program had to work and play the two songs as required. Hot Cross Bun was chosen because the students were learning how to play it on their tin whistles in music class.  This challenge was a bit easier than the others but it sill required the same skills - communcation, collaboration, problem solving, and test, modify, and retest.  One group's  version of Hot Cross Bun had a note or two out of place, for another group there were long pauses. The students had to figure out how to use the program and then program it to do what they needed it to do. They had to listen to the tunes they were composing, and correct any errors.

The sounds, just about right. Time to tweak the tune and try again.

Figuring out which notes we want "Robo Don" to play and then programming those notes.

Now learning by design challenges haven't been new to my class. Each Thursday morning, before we go to the school library, we have a lego challenge. We've written our name in lego, our numbers, made animals, built vehicles, and shelters. This past week our challenge was to make a plant, and some of my students made a full garden including a shed.  My students thrive in this challenge based environment.

Some of our Lego shelters

Odd numbers made with Lego.

Lego Ducks!

Lego Farm Animals

So I'm curious, do you offer design challenges for your students? Are they part of the design process? Please share! I'd love to learn from you.

*An update:  As my students are only in the building four days a week they have one day a week for home learning.  This weekend one of my students went home and designed their own challenge. They wanted to create a marble run that went from the top of their staircase, through tubes, and into a box at the bottom of the staircase.  They filmed an elaborate video (which I can not share here as it identifies a name with a face) and wrote this accompanying blog post.

"My goal was to make a marble run and get it in the bucket. I used tunnels to make it go through them. I messed up on some of them but I got it don. Some of the parts started to move out of place and then the marble didnt go through all the way. On each tunnel I put up I ran a marble to test it and see if it was good where it is. If it was good I taped it in place and did it over and over again. And I finished my goal and got the marble to go in the box. "


WOW! Our students are eager learners.  We need to continue to find ways to tap into their passions and help them learn in ways that work best for them.  I have a huge smile on my face right now as this child not only took what was of interest to her, but involved her family with her learning too. This is a form of teaching and learning I won't be too quick to walk away from anytime soon.



Monday, October 12, 2015

Social Media CAN Help Manage a Successful Classroom

As part of being recognized as a "Top 12 Global Teacher Blogger" by Cathy Rubin for Huffington Post, I am asked each month to respond to a question.  This blog post is in response to " Can social media have a role to play in managing a successful classroom?"

If you've spent anytime on this blog, or you've seen what I've shared on social media or what I present at conferences, you'll know that for me and my students, utilizing social media has been an important tool for learning. Let me explain some of the reasons why I believe this.

Social Media Teaches Children that Learning is Social

I've always valued the co-operative nature of a classroom. I work to turn my class into a family where we genuinely care about helping each other become the best we can be. For my students and I learning is social.  Utilizing social media allows us to be social far beyond the walls of our classroom.  My students have made connections with their weekly reading buddies two time zones over.  The have learned math with children in another country. They have connected with children all around the world. These children share a similar interest to them.  In one instance one of my students wrote about how much he loved soccer. A few students in Korea read what he wrote and responded back through a comment on his blog. They then took it a step further and created a soccer gift for him. Social media helps my students see the power of learning with others.



Social Media Teaches Children that Their Voice Matters

Social media also helps teach my students that their voice matters.  Whether it be through tweeting an opinion on a book, or sharing their way of solving a math problem, children and adults around the world hear what they have to say.  Social media allowed my students to interact with Elise Gravel, a Canadian children's book author.  My students had questions they wanted answered about her story the Rat, and they wanted to let her know what they liked about her book. Social media allowed them to speak to her directly, and to ask their questions. The best part in this interaction was that Elise Gravel heard my students loud and clear and created this image for them, which is the main character in her book.

To read more about this interaction please check out this blog post

Social Media Teaches Children About the World

Through tools like blogs, video conferencing, and twitter my students have been able to learn about other children around the world. A couple years ago we started our year with one simple tweet, "This is what it looks like out our classroom window. What does it look like outside of your window today?"


The result was that we received tweets from all over the world. Each tweet brought a set of curiousity questions to my students. "Ms. Lirenman, why are they wearing uniforms?" or "Ms. Lirenman why do they have a guard at their school?". Things are different around the world and it's important for my students to know and try to understand that.  Yet, things are equally as similar around the world.  My students were able to play "guess my number" with children as far away as New Zealand all because our learning is shared through social media. People see what we are learning, and want to learn with us OR we see what people are learning and we want to learn with or from them.  Social media helps us do that.

Those are just a few reasons why I feel social media can play a role in managing a successful classroom. How can or does  social media play a role in your classroom?