Where Is The Learning?

Originally published April 24, 2016 on CambridgeLearns.

img_5149Cambridge Elementary is two years into a journey of documenting and sharing student learning electronically through digital portfolios. One very important thing that this process has done is essentially reflect back to the viewer a clear picture of the learning that is (and sometimes isn’t) taking place. The documentation forces one to ask the very important question, “Where is the learning?”

In the work I do daily, I have the opportunity to visit many classrooms. These visits allow me to not only connect with and support students and staff, they give me the opportunity to have a strong sense of the learning taking place. Like when I visit digital portfolios, my class visits always take me to the same question, “Where is the learning?” And when I talk about learning, it’s important to know that I don’t just look at specific curriculum connections, but also the development of core competencies and “soft” skills.

A phenomenon that has stormed into Cambridge and many other schools throughout SurreySchools this year is 3-D design and printing. Everyone seems interested in the possibilities of this new technology and students are spending hours of their own time at home designing and testing items. As students become more proficient with their design, we gradually grow closer to the point where they begin to think of how they can harness the power of 3-D design and printing to actually solve real-world problems. We know students everywhere are doing this already! A great example of this is a wonderful project completed by outstanding local Teacher-Librarian Anna Crosland and the students over at my previous school, Georges Vanier, who used 3-D design to create and print braille tags for doors to help a visually impaired student navigate safely from place to place within the school. Read more about this work here!

One teacher in particular at Cambridge Elementary, Peter Beale, has demonstrated a genuine passion for learning about 3-D design and printing and has opened up this new world of learning to his students. Recently, they were given the opportunity to reflect back on their 3-D experiences and they were encouraged to go back to the all important question, “Where is the learning?” Sure we knew students were engaged and had a great time designing and printing their objects, but could they articulate their learning?

Kiera, a Grade 6 student shared:

3D objects designed and printed by a Cambridge learner
3D objects designed and printed by a Cambridge learner

“I created a 3D model of the Eiffel Tower. Later on I added two more towers like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Seattle Space Needle. You might be wondering how I made the Seattle Space Needle, Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Eiffel Tower. Well, I searched up tinkercad models of these towers to try and find the right shapes. Somehow I was able to create these towers. I was pretty impressed myself.

Creating the Eiffel Tower wasn’t easy. I really didn’t know what shape to use for the base, until I started experimenting till I finally found it. I really only needed to use 3 shapes. Pyramids, Cubes, and the shape called a Round Roof. Once I was done, I thought it turned out pretty good but I thought I needed more things. You’ve probably noticed that I didn’t add the criss cross like the real Eiffel Tower in Paris. I tried making it but it was complicated. Some things would pop out and it just looked like a big mess.

Now the Space Needle was a different story. It was the hardest one. It took me days just to find the right shapes. I had to combine shapes just to have the right shape. I also searched up a model of the Space Needle and tried to make my Space Needle like theirs. The base wasn’t that hard until I got to the point where there were details that were almost impossible to figure out how to make. In the end, I was able to make it and I was proud of my self.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was probably the easiest one to make. I didn’t really need to search up a model of it from tinkercad cause somehow I was able to just experiment with a bunch of shapes and create the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I duplicated a lot of things and didn’t add much detail as the real one does. I was really happy on how it turned out.

Notice the powerful language…

  • I created
  • I searched
  • I really didn’t know
  • I started experimenting
  • I thought I needed more things
  • I had to combine shapes

mistakesThis learning story talks about critical thinking and problem-solving, not knowing and searching, trying again in the face of failure, and most importantly that mistakes help us learn. The student above communicates clearly where the learning is!

So if you were wondering if students actually learn anything in the process of 3-D design and printing, this student helps us respond to this question with a resounding “Yes.”

Digital Portfolios … Moving Beyond The Glorified Scrapbook

FullSizeRender 5
Surrey Schools Superintendent, Dr. Jordan Tinney, CNN Interview, 2014

Co-authored with Kelli Vogstad.

Inquiry is a dynamic and emergent process that can foster a culture of collaborative learning with teachers working together to consider, explore, and reflect on issues and approaches related to shared questions and intentions. It has been said that when educators make their own discoveries, they become energized by the desire to inquire more deeply and to learn more broadly. You actually get the opportunity to not only ask questions, but also to delve deeply into these questions.

We think it would be safe to say that in the culture of openness, sharing, and genuine curiosity fostered in Surrey Schools, the process of inquiry has led some teachers into a state of dissonance. Dissonance, results as teachers pause and take a step out of their practice and become increasingly reflective. Teachers have called into question much of what they have always done in schools, and careful reflection and discussion, has led them to make responsive changes in practice as they work to better meet the needs of their students. We suspect teachers throughout the district continue to experience this so-called dissonance, and the unrest it has caused has resulted in thoughtful exploration around many topics, one in particular, communicating student learning.

We began by asking . . .

  • What does exemplary communicating regarding student learning look like?
  • Do our current tools and strategies adequately communicate the rich learning taking place in our classrooms?
  • Do parents have the information they need to be the supporters of student learning that we want them to be?
  • Do we hear the voice of students?

For the first time, we were equipped with the tools to create digital portfolios with learning evidence in the form of descriptive feedback, images, audio and video. Imagine giving parents the opportunity to see and hear their children in class engaged in activities that demonstrate their learning in almost real time. Parents can now be invited to look into their children’s classrooms, access activities, and see what their children are learning on their own time and schedules. No longer do they have to wait for the parent-teacher interviews, products to be brought home, or report cards. Teachers now had the tools to make this all happen.

But learning is messy; inquiry is a journey, and most journeys have bumps in the road. With digital tools in hand, it became easy for teachers to collect artifacts…too easy! Many digital portfolios became “media dumping grounds” and “glorified scrapbooks”. In the beginning, it was new and exciting. Parents loved to see their children smiling into the cameras, a beautiful piece of artwork, or a polished published story. As teachers began to question their collections and reflect on the goal behind digital portfolios, they asked themselves: How are we communicating student learning? It became clear that parents didn’t need more, they needed better.

Transformation calls for us to move past simple replication with technology. As our inquiry into communicating student learning continued, teachers had to ask themselves: Were they using these tools to document, show, change, and improve student learning? We had to move beyond the technology, and focus on the pedagogy and what we were really communicating to parents. If you take a picture of a spelling test and send that to a parent does anything really change? Can we justify sending an image of a student simply posing with some artwork which he or she created? If anything, this is a recipe for infuriating parents. As parents ourselves we’d be asking some pointed questions:

  • Really, you spent $500 on an iPad for a teacher so that they could send me a photo of a spelling test?
  • The artwork is great, but can you tell me why they created it and what they were supposed to learn?
  • Why don’t I hear my son or daughter reflecting on what they learned?

It would be easy to be disappointed, to point the finger at technology, to make excuses, but the road forward is not paved with excuses. Rather, it is time to leverage the connections we have with teachers and to harness some of the exceptional exemplars we know exist. These exemplars are created and chosen by asking simple but serious questions whenever artifacts are collected and shared with parents.

Where is the learning?

If we describe learning as a change in behaviour (“I couldn’t do this before and now I can”, or “I used to do this but now I do this”, or “I used to think this but now I don’t because…”) we begin to think critically about what we capture and share. What we document should show what kids know, understand, and can do. What is captured and shared should show a child’s learning over time, changes and growth in his or her ability to communicate, think, and build his or her capacities of self as a learner.

Here are some examples of teachers and students talking about changes in behaviour:

Students making learning visible by explaining their thinking:

Students reflecting on their work over time:

IshanScreen Shot 2015-07-08 at 12.51.56 PM

Students engaged in conversations about their learning:

What is worth sharing?

Parents know their children best. Often times, parents are able to share with teachers, what their children can do. We believe parents want to know how their children are changing, both in how they act and how they think. Parents also want to support their children at home. We can help parents provide better support by showing and communicating to them not only WHAT their children are learning, but WHY. At the same time, if we provide the criteria behind what is shown in the portfolio so students and parents both know what “good” looks like we can help move parents to deeper understandings of the “whys” behind the learning tasks. And, to go further, if we include descriptive feedback prior to summative assessments we can provide parents with meaningful data they can use to assist in the intervention process.

Here are some examples of teachers sharing this kind of valuable information:

Explaining to parents how they can support their children’s learning:

Sharing criteria and exemplars with parents:

f04891909a0111e489c76d79d5b99163-rotated-Screen-Shot-2015-01-11-at-4.34.51-PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 3.35.50 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 3.36.04 PM

Explaining to parents WHAT students are learning and WHY:

c2997d509de811e48ca5afeb2449ad77-rotated-yThRG_16-01-2015-05-32-55

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 3.44.40 PM

How much should we share?

When teachers suddenly found themselves with the ability to easily capture evidence with their devices, they thought they had to capture everything. Not only did this inundate parents, it overwhelmed teachers. We didn’t collect and share everything before; why start now? How much we collect and share is a discussion we are currently engaged in. For us, it comes back to Jordan Tinney’s quote cited at the start of our post, “We’re trying to boil it down to what do parents really want and need to know…”

True, different parents want different things, but we believe all parents want to know if their children are learning and progressing. They want to know if their children are having difficulty and struggling in their learning. They want to know what the teacher is doing and what they as parents can do at home to help their children be more successful. And mostly, parents want to know that their children are cared for, safe and respected, and liked by others. Through thoughtful digital portfolio collections, parents can be reassured that the teacher really understands and knows their child and is helping them learn and succeed.

As we continue this journey of inquiry into communicating student learning, we have become connected in our desire to improve our understandings and practices and to continue to reflect on what we know, what we do, and how this relates to student learning. We are ready for more dissonance and more questions as we develop better and more meaningful ways to help students learn so we indeed have the data and documents to capture and collect and share with parents. This is our challenge!

What Makes A School “Great”?

“And then parents, you’d walk into the front office and the people
don’t even look up at them, let alone see them as who we’re serving.”

Steve Barr, Green Dot Charter School Network

Source: Fraser Institute
Source: Fraser Institute
This past week, I had an interesting chat with a parent. Her family had just moved into the area and she wanted an opportunity to speak with me about the school and to have a look around. She also said something that really interested me. She shared that according to the Fraser Institute, our’s was a “good” school and was trending in a positive direction. While I am obviously pleased that public perception of our school is good and that this parent was doing the leg work to gather information about our school,  I am disappointed that the Fraser Institute’s Report Card on British Columbia’s Elementary Schools is one of the few tools parents have to determine the quality of a school. Even more, when parents realize that the Fraser Institute’s Report is based almost completely on a standardized text taken once per year by Grade 4 and 7 students, they realize that this is one very narrow measure of school quality.

Formula used to determine overall school rating. Source: Fraser Institute
Formula used to determine overall school rating. Source: Fraser Institute

But, schools are like organisms and are therefore complex in nature. Schools are alive and dynamic and can’t be reduced to a mathematical formula or a letter grade, as some jurisdictions are now doing. In the video below, Steve Barr of the Green Dot Charter School Network talks about his view of what makes a great school. Qualities he includes are:

  • Quality teachers
  • A welcoming environment
  • Students are treated with care and respect
  • Teachers are empowered
  • High expectations exist for all
  • There is a sense of family
  • Quality resources are available for teachers and students
  • Parents are viewed as partners
  • Schools are accountable to parents
  • There is a belief that all kids are worth it and that they can all learn

So much of what Barr talks about is relationship-based. Relationships are central to the work we do in schools. Students not only need see the value in the work they do at school, they need to feel a sense of care, inclusion, and safety. This is essential work that forms the foundation of quality learning.  Teachers also need to be able to engage learners. With all the competition that exists (peers, television, social media), this is no easy task. But from my experience, kids are like adults and therefore thrive on doing work that is interesting and meaningful. I am proud of the many examples of such efforts from staff at our school:  Innovation Week, technology integration, the WikiSeat project,  30-Hour Famine, Genius Hour, KIVA, and promoting creativity. I am further buoyed when I see that our efforts are not isolated, but are evident throughout Surrey Schools and beyond.

So, what would you add to this list of qualities that makes  a great school?

Do you think your school is great?  How do you know?

Innovation Week – Unchartered Territory

IMG_3899

gvInnovationWeekTo me, being innovative doesn’t just mean making things different, but making things better! Given this,  I think our first Innovation Week at Georges Vanier Elementary would meet the criteria for being innovative. Our Innovation Week took place from December 9 – 13, 2013, and was inspired first by witnessing Genius Hour in many classrooms in our school, then by hearing about Jesse McLean‘s experience with his own Innovation Week at Greystone Centennial Middle School in Parkland School Division in Spruce Grove, Alberta. What prompted us further was hearing about Innovation Week over at Fraser Heights Secondary in Surrey.

Discussions started with staff members who embraced the idea, then we began to advertise to students. I have to say that as much as we tried to explain what Innovation Week was (though not really being too sure ourselves), I’m not certain students actually understood what they were signing up for or what they were missing. Some took their application, filled it out as best as they could, while others opted out and decided to wait and see what Innovation Week would look like.

We had a total of 75 students from Grade 3-7 participate. I was neither surprised or disappointed by that number as I didn’t really know how the event would evolve. What I do know is that since there were not enough students participating to collapse other classes to thereby free up teachers, I was alone with the group much of the time. Special thanks for our EA staff who came in to assist and to the many teachers who stopped in to look and ask questions, all on their free time. I even had a teacher who retired last year, Liane Jagger, come and assist for three days. What a great help!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Innovation Week projects included:

  • Developing an app.
  • Website development.
  • Remote control car modification.
  • Creating a document camera.
  • Building a Minecraft server.
  • A jewelry holder.
  • Christmas crafts.
  • A new and improved chair.
  • A rolling storage container with built-in iPod charger.
  • Modifying a Snickers Bar.
  • A new breakfast cereal.
  • (Just to name a few).

So how was learning improved? Over the course of the week, students:

  • Were engaged in personally relevant learning.
  • Adjusted their initial plans based on the challenges they were having.
  • Became increasingly independent.
  • Confirmed that they made good choices regarding learning partners or realized that the choices they made regarding partners did not help them in their learning.
  • Reflected on the competencies they were developing and demonstrating.
  • Were inspired daily by videos about creativity and innovation. One favourite was Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From below.
  • Were on-task and continued to work without direct adult supervision.
  • Developed ideas for future Innovation Week Events.
  • Were extremely proud on of their learning on presentation day, sharing their projects with peers, teachers, and parents.

Most impressive to me was the curiosity of students who chose not to participate in our initial Innovation Week. These students were often out in the hallway, peering inquisitively at the work begin done inside the gym, asking to come in and see what was happening. But most rewarding to me was the response I received when I asked the group involved in Innovation Week, “Would you participate again?” They emphatically said, “YES!”

As an aside, other innovative ideas that were popping up around the school while Innovation Week took place in the gym.  In Ashley Henderson and Matt White’s classes, students participated in Learn a New Skill week and, like the students participating in Innovation Week, were initially taken aback when given the opportunity to make their own decisions about their learning, but later embraced the freedom of the experience. Skills students decided to focus on included:  juggling, learning card, magic and coin tricks, stop motion animation, duct tape purses, and optical illusions. While in Francoise Rempel and Hugh McDonald‘s classes, students spent time everyday working to create Rube-Goldberg Machines.  I had the chance to visit on the last day and were students ever challenged and engaged!

2013 ended in a very positive way at our school and I look forward to working with our wonderful staff  and community to further explore ways to innovate in order to further engage our learners and bring genuine enthusiasm to the work they do.

What innovative ideas are swirling around in your head?  Are you ready to share them and put them into action?

What’s Different Now?

photo-116Colleagues from my school and I are days away from a sharing session at which we will share our Innovation Learning Designs (ILD) journey with other schools. It has been a journey, but like most journeys, I don’t foresee an actual final destination. How can I? One of my greatest realizations now is that two short years ago we could not have foreseen where we are today, nor can we foresee where we will be in another two years. I often joke about the fact that when our initial ILD proposal was written, no one on our team had ever touched an iPad, let alone worked in a wireless environment. How could we possibly predict where we would go. That’s why it was fascinating to meet with members of our team and answer a question like:

What’s Different Now?

You’d think the place to start would be to discuss the obvious things we are seeing our students doing. What’s different now? Students are:

  • Documenting and reflecting on their learning via ePorfolios
  • Following passions and determining what and how they learn during Genius Hour
  • Writing in and out of the classroom, in and out of class time,  for authentic purposes through their eBooks and blogs
  • Developing questioning skills and learning about the world around them during MysterySkype sessions
  • Bringing their own devices so that research and publishing resources are at their fingertips
  • Fulfilling their need to socially connect with peers around the world through projects such as Global Read-aloud, Postcard Exchange, and blog commenting
  • Creating, building, and sharing furniture as part of the WikiSeat project

Yes, things have changed for students. No, I could not have predicted these changes just two short years ago.

But, something surprising happened along the way. Many of our teachers transformed – as did their practice. Before technology impacted students, it first opened doors to our teachers. What came through the doors forced many on staff to think critically about what they were doing, encouraged them to share the already great things going on in their classes, and exposed them to what I consider to be the only source of high quality, on-going professional development. Quite frankly, none of the rich activities listed above were taking place prior to the floodgates opening. When I say floodgates, what I really mean is the combination of…

Wireless + iPads + Twitter +Connection

…and I attribute all of this to the ILD process. Historically, hardware replacement was based on the premise of having so many machines for so many students and replacing it every so many years. Frankly, this method was flawed. Successful implementation (which was present only in pockets around the District prior to ILD) was dependent on who your admin was and who was on staff. Mostly, hardware was given to schools with most asking the question, “Now what?” ILD forced schools to come together, work collaboratively, and develop a plan based on learning that could be supported with technology. It had never been done this way! The fact that teams committed to professional development and sharing further strengthens the process. So has ILD been successful? I dare anyone to say it has not. There is a tremendous amount of evidence to support this:

Part of the Surrey contingent at #ConnectEDca
Part of the Surrey contingent at #ConnectEDca
  • Over 30 educators from Surrey attended the recent #ConnectEDca conference in Calgary. That’s over 10% of attendees. There is an obvious thirst for learning and sharing.
  • I have NEVER been connected to more administrators and educators as I am today. These people both validate and make me question what I do.
  • Home-School Communication has been enhanced. Parents are reading the school blog and following our school Twitter feed. At a recent parent event I shared the Vanier News (our school blog) and asked how many parents had visited the site. I was amazed when probably 75% of parents put their hands up!
  • Teachers are venturing off (virtually and physically) to other schools and bringing back innovative practice. There is definitely a “cross-pollination” of ideas taking place.
  • Teachers are increasingly open to change and new ideas now that the world of teaching and learning has been opened to them.
  • Teachers are becoming increasingly reflective via blogging. It is now cool to reflect, blog, and share.
  • Teachers are CONNECTED!
  • Since there is technology in each room, it has become “invisible” with the focus being on authentic learning experiences.

photo-115So as I look back and look ahead, I am amazed and excited. Amazed at the growth that has taken place in our students. They are excited about learning. Many arrive early most mornings. A teacher who recently had her students start blogging (which was a HUGE leap for this teacher) shared excitedly with me one morning that many of her students wrote a blog the previous evening, even though it was not assigned. Students writing?  Because they want to? How could this be? It’s happening!

I am excited because teachers are now not only excited about their student’s learning, but their own learning as well. The most significant aspect of our ILD journey has been, and will continue to be, the growth in the adults in our building. For truly when teachers become co-learners with students and are open to risk-take with opportunities that promote innovation, creativity, and doing authentic work, then the journey will be a grand one for all.

I look forward to the continuation of this learning trek…

I would like to personally thank Elisa Carlson for her drive, determination, and support in moving so many educators forward in the Surrey School District. She was the first one to give me the confidence to share my views, learning, and understanding.

Elisa, thank you for valuing those around you and for asking the difficult questions that needed to be asked!

Students Shine In A Culture Of Creativity

“Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t waste energy trying to cover up failure. Learn from failures and go on to the next challenge. It’s OK to fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.”

-H. Stanley Judd

The Catalyst. No longer a piece of welded metal but a piece of art!
The Catalyst. No longer a piece of welded metal, but a piece of art!

I don’t know about you, but today was a great day! May 30 was Georges Vanier Elementary’s first ever WikiSeat Showcase. If you’ve been following our WikiSeat journey, you’ll know that it’s been one of great learning, risk-taking, and uncertainty. When our WikiSeat experience first began and we gave students catalysts, none of us…Ron O’Neil, Matt White, Hugh McDonald, Gallit Zvi, Francoise Rempel, or myself…knew where we were going or how things would end up. Our experiment also was very public as students continued their work during separate visits from educators Lindsey Own, Michelle Hiebert, Chris Wejr, and Kristin Peters.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Today was such a rewarding day because of how our students rose to the occasion. With adults taking on more of a facilitator role, students were encouraged to think for themselves, solve problems, create something totally unique, and do this all for an authentic audience. This morning as WikiSeat participants sat ready to present their creations, hundreds of peers poured into the gym, viewed projects, and asked questions. We were visited by the local newspaper as well our District’s media department, making the learning very “real” for students. Best of all, learners were completely focused on what’s important…their learning rather than letter grades (which by the way were not assigned to projects).

As I stood back and marvelled at how excited and proud our students were, I thought a great deal about school culture and about how school culture determines whether or not opportunities such as these every make it to students. It’s certainly a culture I try to foster at our school, but it’s a task I cannot do alone. I am thankful to the educators who participated in this project not only because they took part, but that they embraced and celebrated the sometimes messy and ambiguous learning that comes from innovation and creativity.

Leaving our comfort zones was made easier knowing that we can ALL be creative, and that all students truly have the opportunity to shine in a culture of creativity!

Where do we go next?

When Square One Isn’t A Bad Place

“Maybe it’s not about trying to fix something broken.Maybe it’s about starting over and creating something better.” – Unknown

Yesterday as I sat, dissatisfied, looking at my WikiSeat, I made the decision we all need to make sometimes – to start at square one! Sometimes you think you have a great idea, but when faced with what the idea really looks like, you change your mind. So I dismantled my WikiSeat and went back to the drawing board. I eventually drew something I liked better, then set about figuring out how to make the design work. Five hours later, and after trips to the Home Depot and fabric store, I was finished my WikiSeat (with the exception of some sanding and staining I need to do).

My WikiSeat 2.0
My WikiSeat 2.0

Today, I made a point of mentioning this work to the students at my school. I wanted to let them know that a little struggle along the way is OK. It also shows that not only is starting over sometimes the best decision, but being back at square one isn’t a bad place to be because it shows you’ve been reflective and haven’t settled on something you weren’t happy with.

Meanwhile, students in five classes at Georges Vanier Elementary have continued to work on their own WikiSeat projects. From the first day we introduced the catalyst to them, there have been several construction days – and yes…they have been chaotic. In fact, what we as adults have realized is that in addition to all the learning students have done, there are many things we have learned about how we would roll out the WikiSeat project next time, such as:

  • Encouraging students to spend more time on the design and model phases
  • Working with classmates in their own classes as coordinating schedules has been problematic
  • Staggering times when classes work on their WikiSeat project so students have access to the tools and support they need
  • The importance of modelling creativity and resilience for students
  • Conducting “mini-lessons” on important steps in the building process such as measuring, marking, drilling, and upholstering
  • Reminding, reminding, and then reminding a little more when important dates are coming up
The Catalyst!
The Catalyst!

But for me personally, today was the most rewarding day in the WikiSeat journey so far. A few classes were out of the school and I had the chance to work with a couple of small groups. Half way through the day as we were cutting some wood to length, I heard a student say, “This has been the funnest school day” … or something to that effect. He didn’t say it because he thought I would hear it, but because I believe he was genuinely enjoying the work he was doing.

Mostly, the students today enjoyed doing work they were proud of and personally invested in. As the conclusion of this project nears, we look forward to our WikiSeat showcase on May 30th and the celebration of student (and teacher) creativity!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Doing Work That Matters

“Deprived of meaningful work,
men and women lose their reason for existence;
they go stark, raving mad.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

I hear it all the time…We could focus on the stuff that REALLY matters if it wasn’t for all the small, menial, (and yes sometimes bureaucratic) tasks that sometime seem to dominate our time. The more time I spend in schools and with my own growing children, the more I believe that kids feel the exact same way adults do about the importance of our time. Specifically, they not only want to do work that matters, but they also have the need to know why they are doing the work. The more I look around, the more examples of this I see.

photo-75My oldest son Jake is in Grade 11. He’s a good kid, does well in school, but nothing in school has ever really interested or motivated him. But recently, I’ve noticed a change – a good change. He has combined his passions of soccer and technology and has started to write a blog about one of his favourite teams; the Vancouver Whitecaps. His blog isn’t something that he just throws together, but rather something he devotes a great deal of time and care to. In fact, for the first time I can recall, he spends the time to make his blog “just right” instead of “just good enough”. He contributes to other blogs and has bloggers write for his. I was most impressed when, before our last Whitecaps game, Jake told me that he didn’t need his ticket because he had been given press credentials and would spend the game watching the game from the press box with the media. A few days later, he met with the editor of a local newspaper to discuss the possibility of doing an internship. Yes…Jake working for free in order to learn! To him, this is work that really matters!

Another great example of students embracing work that matters is the recent 30-Hour Famine that took place at Georges Vanier Elementary. I’ve always loved working with our senior students, but being a few months away from moving on to high school, some can have the attitude that they no longer need to buy into any school events. Teachers at the school promoted ownership by introducing the idea of doing a 30-Hour Famine and allowing students to discuss charities they were interested in supporting. Together, students and teachers agreed on dividing the money three ways between Kiva, BCSPCA, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. There was something about helping people, children, and animals in need that struck a chord with the 54 students who decided to participate. When the event had concluded, over $3900 was raised. Who said you can’t get Grade 7 students to care?

Finally, many teachers at Georges Vanier Elementary have introduced their students to Genius Hour, a time weekly when students not only get to learn what they want, they get to decide how they will share their learning with others. How do I know this approach is making a difference? It is obvious when you walk into a class during Genius Hour that students genuinely care about what they are learning because the learning is meaningful to them. Initially, some students find it difficult to come up with topics because they’ve rarely been asked what interests them or what they would like to learn more about. With time, the process becomes natural and topic selection easier.

Do we give students enough opportunity to consistently do work that really matters to them? Probably not, but the work I see currently being done throughout Georges Vanier and many other schools gives me hope that the shift towards passion-based, student-centered learning, has not only started, but is beginning to grow. After all, we all deserve and yearn to do work that is personally fulfilling and meaningful!

I’d love to hear about strategies and projects you implement to make learning meaningful for your students!

Creativity Takes A Seat

photo-56I feel compelled to write about an upcoming project at my school. Compelled not only because I am extremely excited to be involved in the project, but also because I want to spread the word and hopefully have more students in Canada participate. Months ago, I came across a tweet regarding the WikiSeat project – essentially an opportunity for students to do the meaningful, hands-on, creative work of making a functional chair given only a “catalyst“. After much discussion back and forth and with much support from WikiSeat founders Nic and Aleric, educators Sean Wheeler and Jared Nichol, and several departments in Surrey Schools, our learning journey begins.

A few weeks ago, the catalysts arrived and my mind has been working overtime since. I’ve been having on-going conversations with teachers on staff and now we are at the point of introducing the project to our students. We’ve quickly realized that we are going to be doing as much problem-solving and learning as our students…and that’s VERY exciting! Questions we are mulling include:

  • How do we best promote creativity? How much do we let student struggle?
  • How much information do we actually share with students? Do we tell them they are ‘supposed’ to make a chair or do we leave the project open-ended? In other words, how much steering do we do?
  • Do we leave it to students to supply (all) their own materials?
  • How do we ensure student safety given they will need to use tools at some point in their work?
  • How will students document and share their learning?
  • Where will students do their work?
  • What will the showcase at the project’s conclusion look like?
The Catalyst!
The Catalyst!

Essentially, being WikiSeat rookies, we don’t know what we don’t know. But what I do know is given our staff’s openness to innovation and foray into Genius Hour, I’m confident the seeds of the WikiSeat project have landed on fertile ground. I hope you follow us on our journey!