Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Measuring up to Maker Spaces

I often have conversations with myself about balancing progress with the rest of Life.  At times I find myself feeling like I'm behind my edge-pushing colleagues when it comes to the latest, greatest ed trend, app, book, or pedagogical method; I feel like I should be pushing harder to be in the know.
One area I feel a bit removed from is the Maker Space. One definition of a maker space says:
        "Makerspaces, sometimes also referred to as hackerspaces, hackspaces, and fablabs are creative, DIY spaces where people can gather to create, invent, and learn. In libraries they often have 3D printers, software, electronics, craft and hardware supplies and tools, and more."  Ellyssa Kroski

My first thought is, 'how come I never did this?' Then I start thinking back on my own teaching experience, and remember craft tables smeared in glue and glitter and googly eyes; finding pipe cleaner snippets in the ruler bucket, or a neglected doll's shoe ditched between the bookshelves. Those items were all part of a maker-activity at some point, but it just wasn't called that.  

I'm not suggesting that the craft centre and a maker space are the same thing. Organizations like assert that maker spaces encourage DIY projects using technology.  Until recent years my hands-on projects were for an art activity, or perhaps an artifact to compliment a book or science concept. Mary Beth Hertz, in this blog post points out that maker spaces are an answer to the US's mediocre performance in STEM education.  It seems schools are more frequently investing in kits, 3D printers, and other high-end tech products to help students develop creativity and problem-solving skills; yarn and Tinker Toys at the cozy craft table don't cut it any more. 

What if that's right where we are today? Are we doing a disservice to kids by offering modest tools to foster creativity? No. While we need to give ourselves props for being capable, competent educators in this moment, we want to be better than that in twenty moments from now. A next step would be to think about when and why students should be makers: Is this particular context an appropriate one to introduce techno-DIY, model building, movie creation? Why not let students build or create something as one option to express their learning? Are they fully engaged in their learning without having an extensive creativity space? 
Part of why I'm not there yet is because I haven't tried much myself.  I owe it to students to grow, improve, ask questions, try stuff, fail, and try more stuff, all in the name of being satisfied that I tried to push and own my learning. There are countless websites, blogs, books, and Twitter feeds that can all help us; we are far from alone here. Like we tell our students, set a realistic goal, and work towards that one small improvement that makes us more comfortable with maker spaces.
What are your favourite maker space resources?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Case for Collaboration

Collaboration is a big buzzword in education right now. We’re told that employers want creative team-players, who can solve problems with critical thinking. Working together often allows students a place to bounce around and grow ideas, yet I find some teachers still reluctant to take a risk and change their practice to include a collaboration project. There is pressure to hit all the curriculum expectations, to deliver quality test scores, and to regularly communicate with parents about student progress, be it in person or through written reports. To contemplate, on top of all this, a new way of teaching that involves another class, possibly another school, and technology-infused learning can seem daunting and intimidating to even the most seasoned veteran. So the question then begs: Why would anyone do this?

I have now completed two different collaboration projects involving my grade 4 class, and a grade 10 class in a neighbouring city. Both projects happened towards the end of the year, and integrated a few subject areas, as well as the “soft skills” like communication, compromise, and teamwork. The first year we had one end product- an interactive history museum, featuring structures from Ancient Times; the second one resulted in a variety of passion projects, ranging from constructing and operating a drone, to designing a music school and lessons for the less fortunate, to running a bake sale and flag football tournament to raise funds for a local sports charity. (as a team we raised $600)

All well and good, but in your educator’s mind, you are asking: how did this push students forward?  How is this an improvement on what I’m already doing?

The first Grade 10 class was at the Applied level; kids who were not ordinarily in leadership roles suddenly became mentors; grade 4 sought opinions and valued their input into the design process. The older students acted as “contributing citizens” fostering “respectful relationships”, both qualities outlined in our Board’s Improvement Plan.The learning products weren’t just another task in the vacuum of our classroom; the exhibits were for someone else. Parents, grandparents, and other school visitors came to our museum to learn from the experts. Students became more confident and creative with how they used technology tools. Students blogged about the entire process, often getting comments and feedback from their high school partners, and family members too. Growing confidence, practising metacognition, developing critical thinking; all of these elements push students forward.

I believe one of the most important features that kept students engaged, was creating something for others. Students enjoyed opportunities to help the less fortunate, or to teach other students, and in both cases helped to create the conditions for success. Kids made a difference on their own, to people in the real world. As a team, with constant communication in an environment of respect, kids felt great about what they accomplished. At that point I knew this was something bigger than just a cool, innovative project. The students grew as people. A year after the fact, my high school colleague still had students coming back to him, asking if he was going to do another project with this year’s class.

Was it difficult and at times messy? Yes. Did we know what the exact outcome was going be? No. I am not in the classroom this year, otherwise I would absolutely do this again. In my current role, I can share my experience with other education innovators, and hopefully persuade them to try a collaboration project too.

In my experience, this approach was well received by both our school administration and the parent community. If you are interested in learning more, chatting about this or ready to find a project partner, please follow the link to a form where you can leave me your contact information.

cross-posted at

Monday, August 31, 2015

Transparency and Trust

This year I am beginning the school year in a different role; I will be away from direct classroom instruction, and working with colleagues around the Board as a Digital Literacy Support Teacher. That means I get to help teachers as they think about ways to incorporate technology into their practice, making positive changes that keep kids engaged and excited to learn.

I'm already feeling the change- no classroom set up; no class lists, duty schedules, etc. I do miss the first few days in late August when many of us roll back into the school and re-connect after the summer. The energy is motivating, and I'm often excited to get back to it with my colleagues. I'm now just thinking about last fall, and the single best thing I did as a teacher to set myself up for support from the parents.

I invited my class parents to all come at a specific time on Meet the Teacher night, for a 15 minute demo of the major technology tools I would be using in class with their kids. The "techno-slam" gave parents a chance to see Twitter, Google Apps, and Weebly in action, and to hear why I was using them.  We even had personal movies ready for our parents (see link to Mark Carbone's blog post) telling them how excited we were to be in Grade Four.

In addition to our Board's standard Media Release form, I also created my own specific form to allow students to be seen and heard on social media. I felt this was critical in order to make monthly news videos, rather than send home a monthly news letter.

At the end of my fifteen minute blurb, every family present had signed the permission form; a clear message to me that they were on board with my program!  Thanks to Mark Carbone, the evening was documented in video, so I could share it with others. Parents commented throughout the year that their students we so excited to be using tech tools; some commented that this was the most motivated their children had been so far as students. The products I received from kids, as well as the sharing we did through social media, made for experiences that would not have been possible without embracing the positive powers of technology as learners. Looking back on how much we created, learned, and shared, I can say The Slam was the smartest move I made to guarantee support and success.

Monday, February 16, 2015

I know what my word is...

In response to a question posed by Mark Carbone, I have figured out what my word for 2015 is. I like the idea of choosing one word to focus on; something that makes me ask why I do what I do in my classroom, and professional practice.

Push. That's my word. This could be interpreted several ways; I don't mean the evil shove of a cold, steel hook as you stumble bound and gagged, heart thundering, terror-struck down a gangplank to circling sharks.

The push I want to consider is the insistent little voice that reminds me to just go ahead and try it. It's the nudge to go ahead and submit proposals to present at conferences; to overhaul units so kids create the content; to attempt a re-working of my current work flow to work smarter.

I want to pay closer attention to when I should push. When I find myself thinking "I've always done it like this" or "It worked fine last year..." that's the precise moment to consider a push in a new direction.

What stops me sometimes? Fear of failing in front of the students; looking incompetent in front of colleagues and peers, although I feel it less and less, the more I feel convinced that my new push is a good idea. Mark's word is 'model'. I can certainly model for students and colleagues that I'm trying something new; it may or may not work, but at least I tried something new.  Sometimes the push is hard, when previous leaps got me nowhere, or weren't widely accepted as successful. It just takes that one real fire-cracker of an idea, with positive impact on everyone involved, that excites me to keep trying. It's like getting that one sincere, heartfelt note from a parent telling expressing great appreciation for what I do- regardless of what happens that day, I'm in a confident, happy place, and can handle just about anything.

One day I won't need the affirmation from outside sources.  I will share my explorations regardless of outcome; I know I learn tremendously from colleagues and peers through their shared experiences; it's only right to share in return. My own gut instinct tells me if my push is a good idea or not. What matters to me is that I just keep gently pushing.