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?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Changes Ahead...

Back in June, I applied and successful acquired a new job.

Here was the job posting...

(Click on it to make it larger)

What appealed  to me most about the job was that is was a position that supports my vision of education and it was housed in a building being run by an administrator I highly respect. While I wasn't looking to move schools, it was a job opportunity I couldn't let pass me by.

This new job means that I ...
  • have a multi aged classroom ( a possible k-3 class although at the moment I have students in grade one and grade three)
  • will continue to support inquiry learning
  • have students who are not in the building every day as there is distributed learning piece where children are learning from home 
  • have the responsibility to plan appropriate/meaningful learning tasks for the home learning piece
  • am available to meet with parents to help support home learning
  • keep a focus on STEAM learning and integrate seamlessly
  • foster and support wonder and inquiry
  • embrace the maker movement as a way of learning
  • have my students look for and solve real world problems
  • continue to have my students learn with the world
  • teach the new BC curriculum and find meaningful ways to go deeper with it 
  • have on-going communication with families
  • OF COURSE honour my students as who they are and support them as passionate learners
Much of this is not new to me, or my way of teaching but it's in an environment that completely supports what I believe is best for kids.  To no surprise I have some pretty big dreams for my new adventure but first and foremost I am listening and learning from my students.  Within this first week I have learned that I am working with a capable curious bunch of learners.  I have a train expert and a dinosaur expert, and I have a group of students who need to move to learn.  The class magnifying glasses have been a hit for many, and our adventures in coding taught me a lot more about my students and their ability to persevere when things got tough.  I have also learned that I have some compassionate people, willing to use "I messages" to let their classmates know how they are feeling.  It's been a really great first week, and I can't wait to see where our year together takes us.

I am super excited to work with these children who are looking at a new approach to learning. And yes, my class is technically a k-3 class, but in my mind my class is a group of learners, who together will create, inspire, and support one another on each of their personal learning journals. Yes, there is curriculum that needs to be embedded into our learning, but student centered learning will be what we focus on most.

The program is available to most  students in the province, but the reality is you need to be face to face  in the classroom at least 3 days a week.  If you're curious to learn more about this new school be sure to check out the website at  Exciting times are upon us.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

*Together We Are Stronger

I believe that as a classroom teacher, together we are stronger.  For this reason I create a classroom climate where students support each other with their learning, and where student ideas are listened to and valued. When a classroom supports the learning of all, then all are able to flourish.  But it takes more than just fostering a supportive classroom environment, parents need to be equal partners too.
As part of  The Top 12 Global Teacher Bloggers”, each month we are asked to share our views on a specific question.  This month’s question is “What are the best ways parents can help teachers and that teachers can help parents?’ 

I see each of my students as unique learners with unique needs so I'm leary to give "advice" that will be of benefit for every student.  However at the most basic level parents can help teachers by being there for their children.  It is far less about what I need as a teacher, and far more about what their child (or my student) needs. It's about making the child's learning a priority.  This does not mean I expect parents to be on their child's case all the time because learning in a toxic environment doesn't benefit anyone. 

What I'd love to see is a family who creates a home learning environment  that is encouraging and supportive.  A family that makes time for a child by being interested in their learning.  And yes, I realize that many families are very "busy"  but if a family it too busy for quality time with their own children, then maybe what's keeping everyone "busy" needs to be looked at again.  Quality time together doesn't have to take a lot of actual "time" but it should be  meaningful. 

As a teacher I appreciate when I am provided information about a child that I might not already have.  However it's usually not ideal for a parent to show up unannounced or try to share this important information  during school pick up or drop off.  It's best if we can prearrange a time to meet and discuss, or if the information could be put into writing so that when I have a spare moment, I can give the information the attention it deserves. Open communication between the home and the school is crucial.

As a classroom teacher,  we can help by providing a variety of ways for parents to connect with us and to see into our classroom.  What we do in the confines of our classroom walls should not be a secret. One way I am open and transparent is by maintaining a class blog.  I also provide my students with their own individual blogs.  In addition each child in my class has their own digital portfolio housed in Fresh Grade which highlights individual student learning and includes feedback from myself, the student, and ideally the parent too.  Other ways teachers might share student learning wih families might be via a daily agenda messages,  e-mail updates,  Remind messages, and/or traditional  newsletters.  Social media sites such as twitter, facebook, or Instagram could help keep the communication open between home and school.  The tool is some what irrelevant, what is important   is that teachers and parents have clear avenues for ongoing communication.  With authentic relationships and open teacher-student-home communication all children should have the opportunity to flourish. 

Together we are stronger.

*This post is part of a series of monthly questions that Cathy Rubin is asking several education bloggers to respond to.  This month's question was "What are the best ways parents can help teachers and that teachers can help parents?"  It is an honour to be a part of this group.  Please check out the complete list of posts here  . 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Celebrating Picture Book 10 for 10 #pb10for10

Today marks the anniversary of the picture book celebration #PB10for10.  It is a day where fellow educators share some of their favourite picture books with each other.  You can find many links to their blog posts (with some really great book recommendations) by checking out #pb10for10 on twitter.

It's been a couple of years since I first participated but it's something I've always hoped to get back to.  Thankfully this year I am back.  Below you will find 10 pictures books that are near and dear to my heart for one reason or another.  I didn't really follow a theme, like many do, but instead I went to the small pile of books that are sitting in my apartment right now as most of my classroom library is packed up tightly in boxes in my brand new school for the 2015/16 school year. (A blog post on this change is still to come).  So I guess I could say my theme is... books that I just couldn't leave packed up in boxes over the summer.  In no particular order here are my ten books...

The OK Book - By Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld

There is something about a book that celebrates us not for being the best at something but for being okay.  I love the message this book shares and I love how everyone I've ever shared it with can relate.

The Most Magnificent Thing -  by Ashley Spires

 I love that through things going wrong (and don't they for all of us at one point or another) something new and exciting comes out of the mistakes.

Good News Bad News by Jeff Mack

This book in nature is really quite simple. Something good happens, then something bad happens, then something good, then something bad and that's how the story goes.  But what I like about it is how most students can connect with this story and can usually come up with their own version of this book.  It's a great book to inspire writing in the early years (and most likely beyond).

Stuck  by Oliver Jeffers

There is something about Oliver Jeffers that I can't get enough of. What a great author writing such crazy stories.  Here a boy gets his kite stuck in a tree and a whole bunch of silly activities follow.  I love the giggles that come with this story when I share it with my class, and the guess they  make about what might get stuck next.

Hey Little Ant - by Phillip and Hannah Hoose Illustrated by Debbie Tilley

Another older book but one that always brings up good discussion and writing with the students I've shared it with.  Everyone has an opinion around what should happen in this book.

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse -  by Kevin Henkes

How can you not like Kevin Henkes. What stands out for me with this  book (and in all honestly all his picture books could make this list) , is that it's another story both my students and I can easily connect with. Waiting is hard, and sometimes, we just don't want to do it. I also love how creative she gets when she's angry.

Anything is Possible  by Giulia Belloni and Marco Trevisan

Such a great book to keep our dreams alive.

The Day the Crayons Quit - Drew Daywalt illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

I love listening to stories, and every time I share this book with my students they get right into the crayons stories too.  When given the chance to write their favourite crayon back the writing is always passionate and purposeful.  A keeper for certain. 

This Plus That: Life’s Little Equations by Amy Krouse Rosenthal Illustrated by Jen Corace

This is the sweetest book ever and really gets you thinking about how things all aroud you are connected.  My students have always loved coming up with their own "Life's Little Equations" each time coming up with something different. It's the book that keeps on giving. :-)

My students and I are huge Todd Parr fans.  There is something great about the topics he writes about in such a child friendly manner.  His illustrations are super colourful too.  This book always brings about great discussion around reading, and it helps me build that love for reading to my students.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What's Your Students' Ideal Workspace?

I strongly believe that we all learn in our own unique learning environments.  I tend to do a lot of my writing while sitting on my couch with my feet up.  I often prefer to stand instead of sit. And just like me, my students work best in different environments too.  It's kind of sad that many teachers expect children to sit in desks (or  tables) with little or no say around where they can do their work.  I wonder if it's a control issue (I'm pretty sure that's what it was for me when I had assigned seats for my students), or if it's the only furniture that's available to them.  In either case, for the sake of our learners ,shouldn't we be creating the best learning environments we can to help our students be the best that they can be?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not about to run off to the nearest furniture store (or thrift store) to buy what my students need.  I'd be broke before I started and personally I'd much rather spend my money on good children's books. But I can be open to letting my students work around the room in spots that are best for them.  And the thing is, when you let them choose where to work, they will surprise you with where they want to work.  For some that has meant always standing up, and learning against a higher piece of furniture.  For others it's meant taking a plastic TV tray and finding a quiet place to get things done.  Some students love to work on bean bag chairs, while putting their writing on a hard surface.  Some love to be under a desk, or inside an inexpensive tent.  Some work on their belly's, some work on their backs. But the thing they all have in common, is that wherever they chose to work, they DO THEIR WORK! Crazy right?!

So as you set up your classroom for the 2015/16 school year be sure to think about how you can let your students work in environments that are best for them. You'll be surprised to see where they chose to work.

Curious about some of the places my students have chosen to work? It's nothing mind shattering, but perhaps it might give you a bit more confidence to let your assigned seating plan go.   Here are a few of their favourite learning spaces...

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Some Reflections on ISTE 2015

When I returned from ISTE I immediately started writing a blog post as a way to share my experience.  I wrote about  some of the great things I got up to while I was there both at the  convention center and in the community (I love Philadelphia if you were wondering).  Things like heading to a Phillies game with people I'd never met in person and having a really great time, or heading to a party where someone was so supportive of me and tried hard to get me networked and more known by others.  There were many highlights. But the more I typed the more I felt like I was trying to make more of my experience. Yes, I did have many incredible experiences while in Philadelphia, and I'm thankful for each and everyone of them, but I'm not so sure my take away was as incredible.  ISTE was so much more about my own personal self reflection this year than all the good that I was surrounded by.

For me ISTE is about the face to face meetings of "My People".  It's the ability to share what I have learned and to learn from others doing similar and different things.  It's about the hugs, the smiles,  the conversations and the multiple opportunities to connect with people who get me.  ISTE brings together a large collection of people who understand my work, my purpose, and my passions.  It's a place where I can truly be me, floating around with the people who get me.  It's these same people that push my learning, and make me really think about my why and my purpose.  It is through them that I am a stronger educator, a more reflective educator, and hopefully a better educator. For me ISTE is far more about the face to face interactions with people then the sessions that I'm able to attend.

This years ISTE was different for me though.  I took on way too much and so I ended up being pretty stressed most of the convention.   I had sessions every day and between the workshops I was giving (three 3 hour workshops) , the Ignite and 1:3 adventures and the rehearsal time they required, I presented over 15 hours over the three and a half days of the conference.  I didn't get even remotely enough time to connect with many of the people I wanted to connect with. When I saw someone in the convention centre I'd often be able to offer them a little more than a couple of sentences of small talk, but in most cases my reality was that I was off to get to my next obligation.  I missed events I was really looking forward to attending but I also needed a lot more time for me.  As extroverted most believe I am, I get drained by people and need quiet time to recharge.

In addition I felt like I was being pulled by too many people and constantly letting people down.  Despite my logical brain saying "you can't be everywhere with everyone at the same time"  it bothered me  and  made me feel guilty.   Eventually I did get stronger at listening to myself and what I needed.  I also realized that others were feeling just as I was, being pulled in various directions, wanting to do more than was possible with so many great options happening at the same time. I learned a lot more about myself this year at ISTE.  I learned that I love to share with others, but when the sharing takes so much time (and causes me so much unnecessary stress) that I don't have enough time to connect with people who matter most to me,  then something is wrong.  This year I barely connected with anyone beyond the surface level and that's not something I'm proud of.

However despite feeling extremely stressed most of my time at ISTE, constantly running from one place to another, and feeling awful for having so few quality interactions with people, I did manage to sneak in some highlights.  One of the highlights  was my IGNITE session on the first day of the conference, but more specifically the support I had from my friends and district AND the luxury of time that I had with the people who I shared the backstage of this Ignite with.   I can't even begin to thank the wonderful people that I was back stage with. While our conversations may not have gotten deep enough - there is still so much more I'd love talk to you all about - we had a special bond behind the scenes.  I love how supportive the group was.  What most of you don't know is that when we finished our ignite the "team" was waiting backstage to congratulate one another.  I will admit it took me a few ignites to join the ritual but I think that was just the  fact that it took me a while to come down after my Ignite.   

The Ignite also scared me a lot and  required me to dig deep to keep calm and be brave.  As nervous as I was about going first, in the end it was probably a blessing because I got it over with first. And the thing is when you try something that really scares you, you get stronger as a person to try something frightening again and no one can take that confidence away from you.

The room for the Ignite
(I stood in front of the little screen in the middle)

If you're interested, here's a recorded copy of my Ignite. Thank you Petra for capturing and sharing this with me.

Other ISTE highlights included...
  • attending a ballgame with a great crew of people
  • connecting with friends from my part of the world
  • reconnecting with far away friends from my various learning communities
  • meeting on-line friends in real life for the first time!
  • connecting with  brand new friends 
  • sharing meals or drinks with people near and dear to my heart  
  • attending sponsored social events 
  • connecting with developers creating products I'm very interested in
  • eating all types of  food from Reading Market
  • visiting the String Theory School 
  • running up the "Rocky Stairs"
  • visiting  historical sights
  • and learning - about coding, robotics, makerspace, minecraft , STEAM, and so much more!

I have already reserved a hotel room for next years ISTE in Denver. I just need someone to remind me that I don't need to submit or be a part of so many presentation proposals.  And the Ignite and 1:3, I'll let others give those a try next year. I'm not sure anything can top going first on the BIG stage at ISTE.