Monday, July 14, 2014

Constructing Modern Knowledge 2014 Reflection

Last week I attended a “minds-on” learning experience in Manchester, New Hampshire titled Constructing Modern Knowledge.  This was very much an “unconference” type environment where the participants spend a bulk of their time working on self-selected projects with daily presenters who talked about their passions and experience to inspire our learning.  Describing the four-day long learning environment is challenging but imagine an adult maker-space with wildly creative educators challenging each other’s thinking while using computers and electronics as learning and art tools.  
The week kicked off with a presentation from the CMK organizer, Gary Stager, that launched into a collective brainstorming session with one prompt, “What do you want to make?” Ideas like giant robot arms, interactive sound garden, robotic high-five, automated chicken coup, drone, etc. were written down on giant Post-its and hung around the conference hall.  From there, attendees started self-organizing into groups based on interests in bringing ideas to fruition.   The days that followed were a milieu of thinking, making, trying, failing, and collaborating all in the name of learning.  There was a bevy of electronic components to play with and enhance the making process.  This was also a tremendous learning opportunity for me.  I’ve dabbled in the world of programming and computer parts but the CMK environment immersed me in a pool of things like Ardiuno, MakeyMakey, LittleBits, Scratch programming, LEDs, sensors, wire, soldering and basic computer-based making.  It was an exceptional opportunity to apply newly acquired knowledge and have some fun doing it! At the end of the week I found I had learned more from the people around me than I could have expected.  It reinforced the idea of learning as a social activity and function.  I learned by making, sharing, asking questions, playing, and interacting with the people around me.  I Googled things I didn’t know, asked someone that knew more than me and helped others with things I knew about.  The level of knowledge, collaboration, creative energy, and appetite for learning was unparalleled in my professional learning experiences.   On top of it all, was the opportunity to listen and learn from an assortment of world class guest speakers.  Mitchel Resnick, Edith Ackermann, Pete Nelson, Cam Perron, Marvin Minksy, and Gary Stager shared their expertise in areas relating to education and learning.  Not only did the speakers talk to us and answer our questions, many of them spent time exploring our projects, asking us questions, and helping with our making.  It was truly an open-ended learning environment where trust and autonomy were paramount in my “unconference” experience.

To see a video that overviews a little of my learning experience, click here.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

#GeniusHour Update #2

It's been a pretty wild and interesting progression of events with our #geniushour students since we began a little over ten weeks ago.  As the weeks passed there's been a tremendous amount of feedback from students, teachers AND parents about the projects and their outcomes.  What began with a 30 minute, whole-class brainstorm activity, grew into nearly a dozen projects of student choice, driven by student interest and passion.

Here is a partial list of questions that have been researched, discussed, and answered.  In some cases, like the question regarding wormholes, the term "answered" is relative, relatively speaking.  (See what I did there?)

How can I learn about and make codes?
How can you come up with a successful NHL team?
How can I make and publish a book?
Can we make a video game on a flashdrive?
What are wormholes and what role do they play in modern science?
How do you make a claymation movie?
How do you make a movie?
What is the scale of Minecraft in relation to real life?
Which gender has better senses?
Can we make a rocket that goes 400ft high?

Watching and supporting the development of these projects was a tremendous learning experience for everyone involved.  I want to break it down into three groups: me (admin support), teachers (classroom and data/tech coach) and students.

As a (pseudo) administrator, I simply encouraged and supported the teachers to try something they heard about at EdCampChicago and had been reading about on Twitter.  (Our building principal was also very encouraging of the idea.)  I have some experience guiding basically the same idea from when I offered 20% Time to my students as a 4th grade teacher, which proved helpful in supporting the teachers to structure time, create outlines, and assessing student work.  I also was able to support certain projects that I had personal interest and knowledge about, like the rocket project.

The classroom teacher really stepped out of her comfort zone to try something new and grow as an educator.  It takes courage to take risks in education but, as she has seen in the student projects, the rewards in student learning and excitement can sometimes be literally incalculable.  Genius hour is not a traditional curriculum by any stretch of the imagination and some might rightly justify the concept as progressive.  Like all of life's challenges, it takes bravery to navigate the unknown but support and encouragement from those around you is incredibly helpful.

And finally, the students.  This is the easy part.  Apart from one student, there was little we as educators had to do in order to create interest or generate ideas.  The students did 99% of the work associated with answering their questions, not because they were told to do it, because they wanted to do it.  It's that simple.  The kids shared ideas and questions they were interested in, we (as teachers) helped them more clearly articulate their goals and then gave the students time, space and resources to make it happen.

The spoils of these learning experiences really are the student outcomes.  I've watched a group of boys build and successfully launch a rocket, I'm in chapter six of a 240 page original novel written by a 5th grader, played part of a video game made with Scratch, and watched a research study make a case for girls as the superior gender.  And that is only a sample of what I've seen from these kids.  Call it genius hour, call it progressive education, call it taking risks, but as our principal says, it's really just "teaching kids." 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

#GeniusHour Update #1

Last week, I joined two teachers in the pursuit of this idea called "Genius Hour."  It's basically the same concept as Google's 20% time that allow students the freedom to make/do something based on their own ideas.  It's a risky endeavor in the world of public education because it puts "standards" in the backseat of a learning car being driven by students.  But don't worry, the teachers make sure everyone wears a seat belt!

So how does this look in the classroom?  Logistically, we are working with a class of about twenty 5th graders for one hour every Tuesday and Thursday morning, until further notice.  Undoubtedly, we will miss a day or student here and there but we will all stay connected using a group in Edmodo.  Students will be asked to submit project updates periodically using a Google Doc or posting on Edmodo.

We began our class with an introduction to this idea and then facilitated a whole class and small group brainstorm to collect ideas for student interest projects.  Some of the ideas were what you might expect from ten and eleven year olds.  Others were so off the wall, it seemed impossible to realize but that's okay!  We wrote the ideas on the board and then picked one to "flesh out."  We used a movie as our example and divided it into the major components we thought went into a movie.  We are NOT professional cinematographers but we did our best to use what we already know and prepare for the process.  (As a teacher, I know there will be a tremendous amount of learning in the execution of a movie project.  The details of that learning will be uncovered as we go.)  After that, students divided themselves into groups and began "fleshing out" their ideas.

Initial brainstorm and "fleshing out" of the movie project idea.
And here we are today, Day 2, and the students have already made big steps in their projects.  I, as the teacher, spent about 15 minutes talking with the class about expectations and told them I am here to support their ideas and learning.  I spent too much time talking to the whole group today but I wanted them to know how eager I am to be a co-learner in their space and want to help anyway I can.  The kids spent the next 45 minutes researching, discussion, writing, sketching, collaborating, and moving further down their project/learning path.  

As of right now, we have six/seven-ish groups working on the following ideas/prompts:
  • potato energy to power an appliance
  • rocket that goes 400-600 vertical feet
  • [traditional] movie
  • claymation video
  • video game (platform TBD)
  • fantasy NHL 
  • YouTube Channel
These ideas and projects will challenge thinking, provoke natural problem solving opportunities, require collaboration, and engage students in their learning.  More updates to come...

Student with a smile after he (and group) figured out how to wire and boot a Raspberry Pi.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Thoughts on Professional Learning from EduCon

It can be challenging as a teacher to find time for your own learning but it is an essential component of being a "lifelong" learner. I put "lifelong" in quotes because I think being a learner is an attitude and outlook that one either has or doesn't. If it sounds like I'm over simplifying the thought, then I'm making my point. And I will continue to do so throughout this post.

I'm attending EduCon for the third time in my young career and continue coming back because this "unconference" is an opportunity to connect with passionate, like-minded educators in a face-to-face, no pressure environment. For the sake of learning, there are so many reasons this kind of experience is important for all learners.

Let's start with context. Traveling to a city like Philadelphia offers an impossible to replicate platform for learning about American history; people, places and events. One of my conference colleagues remarked to me after seeing the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall that they had forgotten how exciting it can be to learn about history. I think it's a lot easier to learn about the origin of the Declaration of Independence when you're standing in the room where it was signed, hearing the story from an expert that takes pride in telling it.  Today, teachers and students have the ability to create immersive learning environments with various technology tools that can inspire meaningful learning. Altering the physical environment for learning is a very simple way to encourage people to see things differently than they did before.

Now let's talk about standards and expectations. It's easy to tell when someone cares about what they say and do. Actions speak louder than words but when words and actions are consistent, it sends an even stronger message, one that exudes integrity and passion. At EduCon, the expectation is that you engage yourself and others in conversation, challenge people and ideas, and contribute to the learning process for yourself and others. No one person, or group of people for that matter, is an expert. Knowledge is now accessible to everyone with the internet but experience is something that can only be gained one way. Engage, interact, debate, and respect are all verbs that describe some of the ways in which learning can happen and must be initiated by the learner.  Learning with and from others is a valuable skill that every person should have and be able to do.

Finally, and for the sake of making a point I'll say most importantly, is the opportunity to converse with other incredibly passionate, knowledgeable, and committed human beings.  Being connected to other people online thru social media, forums and the like, is all fine and good but has a limit. Understanding the dynamics of social behavior, cultural norms, and human interactions can be challenging and requires practice. I overheard two people talking about someone's Twitter handle and one said to the other that they really wanted to meet the person behind their handle so they could "get to know their personality, ya know what I mean?" I know exactly what she meant and I think you do too. There is a degree to which you can develop a relationship with someone you've never physically met.  There is a deeper level to which humans can connect when they are emotionally, mentally, and physically present in a conversation or experience. EduCon is an awesome platform for doing just that.  I think interpersonal skills will prove invaluable in our increasing connected world.