Monday, April 17, 2017

Maker Mindset

Everywhere you turn, people are talking about makerspaces and asking lots of questions. Where should the makerspace be placed? What materials and resources are needed? How much is it going to cost? Is it in our budget? Who is going to maintain the makerspace? How will students utilize this space? These are certainly good questions, but the most important question that begs to be asked is WHY? Why do you need a makerspace? In reality, a makerspace isn’t a space at all, it’s a mindset. It’s about exploring, discovering new ideas, and creating. It’s about being innovative and creating things that are new and better. It’s about tinkering, inventing, building, problem solving, critical thinking, and taking risks. It’s about collaborating and learning from others. It’s about failing, learning from mistakes and trying again. It’s about finding your passions and sharing them with others. It’s about making!

At Cooper Upper Elementary, we transformed a dreary storage room into a vibrant makerspace that is utilized by fifth and sixth graders. Two of these students, Evan and Robby, were especially energized by this new learning space last year. The doors were not officially opened, but the boys immediately felt safe to share some of the innovative projects that they had been creating at home because they didn’t feel that their passion for innovating had any place at school. Ouch! Talk about a punch to the gut. Up until that moment, our words spoke of innovation, but in the eyes of the students, our actions did not. As your school contemplates the why for a makerspace, there is no better testimonial then that of these two young men. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

When Does Learning Stop?

As a seventeen year old getting ready to graduate from high school, I was on top of the world! Ready to be out of school and done with learning! Although I knew I would be going to college, I was convinced that learning only took place in school. As I was parading around the house celebrating my soon to be graduation, my dad sat in his favorite chair watching and listening. He then instantly deflated my enthusiasm bubble by telling me that my journey had only just begun and that my learning would never end. I laughed. Did he not remember that I would be graduating?

My dad was wise beyond his years and I was a young teenager ready to make my mark on the world. I did not fully understand at the time the knowledge that he was trying to impart on me. I equated my education with school and he equated learning with life! I get it now because I am a life-long learner. After graduating from high school, I went on to get three college degrees. I've participated in every learning opportunity made available to me. I've learned how to parent three beautiful children. I've learned how to maintain a household. I've learned how to teach. I've learned how to cook. I've learned how to drive a manual transmission. I've learned so many things, one of which is that I have so much more yet to learn.

The world is moving at a rapid rate and we need our students to be on board. They need to be prepared for life. Their life, not ours. Learning certainly takes place inside the walls of schools, but a student's education cannot and should not stop at the front door. Because there is no end to growth and learning, we need to embrace this attitude, so we can model life-long learning.

We need to create a culture where our students feel empowered to learn and lead. We need to embrace creativity and the innovator's mindset where we ask the question of what's best for each of our learners and then think differently about how we meet their needs. We cannot keep doing what we've been doing for years and expect to get different results. According to George Couros, innovation is a way of thinking that creates something new or better. If we truly want to move our school forward, we must change and grow alongside our students!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Do All Kids Matter?

My son ran everyday this summer for his high school cross country team. He went to every practice, worked hard, and was consistently running between the top two groups. He felt strong and at the top of his game. In August, he was invited to attend cross country camp for two weeks, which involved even more running and lots of team building. At one point, he was playing football on the beach with some of his teammates and the coach yelled at only him to stop playing. When one of his teammates asked why the rest of them weren't told to stop playing, the coach responded by saying, “He’s group one, he matters.” Ouch! Because my son was running borderline varsity, and the others weren't, they didn't matter? Sadly, the boys laughed it off and simply dismissed it as coach just being coach. I on the other hand struggled to keep the helicopter parent lurking inside of me from speaking up about the insensitivity of this statement. Ironically, just a few days later, my son injured his Achilles and could no longer maintain his training regimen. I was bummed for him because he was positioned to have a good running season, but my heart broke when he jokingly said that he was now a member of the “I don't matter anymore group.” Whether this is the message the coach wants to send his team or not, the reality is that the runners believe that only certain kids on the team matter.  The ones who can score points for the team. Now don't get me wrong, I understand that cross country is a competitive sport and the team wants to do their best to win as many meets as possible, but at what expense? My son continues to go to practice everyday, along with physical therapy, and is working to get himself back into race shape. Each day I ask how practice went, if he was able to run the workout, and if his coach has had any conversation yet about his progress or a recovery plan. Every day I get the same answer. Practice was fine, yes I ran, and no, the coach hasn't talked to me at all. He still doesn't matter.

As I sit back and watch the cross country season unfold, I got to thinking about my students. Do ALL of my students believe that they matter to me regardless of their academic, social, emotional, or physical success? Fair doesn't always mean equal, but it does mean that each student has what they need to be successful. Do they know this? Do they feel valued and respected? Have my words and actions ever made a student feel like they don't matter?

As I reflect on my son’s cross country season as well as my classroom, I am reminded of Maya Angelou’s famous quote:

I've learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did.
but people will never forget how you made them feel.

What we say and how we say it has a profound effect on our students. As educators we hold tremendous power to lift our students up or to push them down. I believe that all students do matter and that we have a moral responsibility to do what we can to make sure they know it!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Finding Joy

Earlier this week, I attended a conference in which the keynote speaker, Kevin Ozar, spoke about joy in education. The title itself caught my attention because too often lately, it feels as though joy has been sucked out of education. Budgets are being cut (again). Everyone is doing more with less. State mandates are growing. Class sizes are growing. Students are taking more standardized tests than ever. There seems to be a never ending list of things that can bring a person down. The question is, will you let it bring you down or will you choose joy? Joy is still there, right where you left it, but you have to make the choice to find it, not create it, and you will find exactly what you're looking for!

You need to look for joy and to surround yourself with joyful people! It's contagious! On the other hand, if you surround yourself with naysayers, that is contagious as well. Which one will you choose? I choose joy! I choose to assume best intentions and to be an advocate for joy. Life is too short to be any other way. We can find joy in everything, if we look for it.

A brief story that Kevin shared involves two wolves. One of the wolves is sad, depressed, upset and afraid. The other wolf is filled with joy and happiness. If both are placed in a pen to fight, which wolf would win? The answer, whichever one you feed. The same is true with us. If we surround ourselves with negative people who drag us down, we start becoming the same. If we surround ourselves with positive and optimistic people we will look at ourselves and others in a more positive manner. You will become like those with who you surround yourself. It's a mirror image.

My father-in-law always used to joke with me that he would take up running the day he saw a runner smiling while they ran. For the record, he never went for a jog. As a runner, I'll admit that I have good days and bad days. Somedays I feel like I could run forever and other days it takes a great deal of effort to get myself motivated to get out the front door. Often times, I'm exhausted and my body aches. So why do I keep on doing it? Because I find joy in running. I enjoy the feeling I get when I set out to run a predetermined distance and I do it. I enjoy the peace and serenity I feel when I'm on the road pondering life. I find that running relieves my stress, clears my head and opens the door for some creative ideas. I enjoy the camaraderie of other runners and the positive energy they share. Running brings me joy and it is a choice I make each day!

Look for joy! Go to it! Spend some time there! Make time for joy! Bring it to others and become an advocate for joy! Make the choice to do it!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Genius Hour

Last fall, I set a goal to incorporate Genius Hour into one or more of my classes. Working alongside Mrs. Erickson and her 6th grade class and Mrs. Bubar and her 5th grade class, we set forth on a Genius Hour journey. In fact, our passion project became Genius Hour.

Our mission was to give our students an opportunity to think creatively. We wanted to give them time to explore their own passions, wonders and curiosities. We wanted them to take risks, to learn from their mistakes, and then take some more risks. We wanted them to work on new ideas and to develop new skills. We wanted to give them the gift of time each week to find and follow their passions. We wanted to create a very student centered learning opportunity where all learning was celebrated. We wanted to cultivate wonder!

We were ambitious and anxious to get started with the kids! We had energy!  We were on fire! We had visions of our students asking prolific questions and pursuing their passions with grit and rigor! We shared all of this with our students and we let them go! We then waited for the enthusiasm of pursuing a passion project of their choice to pulsate within their veins and very existence. We waited. We waited some more….

We met twice a week to give students time to pursue their passions, during this time, we worked to build a culture of innovation where the students felt safe to take risks and to have autonomy in their learning. As excited as we were to see the learning sparks flying between our students, the reality is that Genius Hour got off to a slow start. It was almost as if the students weren't sure what to make with the time they were being given and many struggled to identify anything they were passionate about and wanted to learn more.

The first thing we learned was that our students needed a lot of guidance brainstorming ideas and narrowing these ideas down into “good” questions.  Much more than we had anticipated. When asked what they were passionate about, many gave a one word statement or no answer at all. With further conversation, it was evident that many of our students had many life experiences from which to pull ideas from and others did not. Their initial questions were Googleable and we wanted them to be Siri proof. As a result, we learned that we needed to take a few steps back in order to keep moving forward.

After a lot of conversations with the students, we decided to create a Wonder Wall where they could share their passions and post things that they wondered about. We then worked with students to build some essential questions based off of these ideas. This seemed to help those students who struggled to come up with an idea for their passion project. On the other hand, we had some students who has so many questions and ideas that they struggled to narrow it down to one. The dynamics were quite interesting. It verified to us that Genius Hour was what our students needed more than ever to ignite their passions, to inspire their learning, and to provide them the avenue for creativity.

As the year progressed, the ideas blossomed and the students slowly, but surely, pursued their passions with enthusiasm and motivation to learn. They researched their topics and made their learning visible. They learned from each other and collaborated. They set goals and met them. We as teachers learned so much about Genius Hour from our students and will continually work to make improvements to the process and to build a culture of innovation. There were countless benefits to partaking in Genius Hour this year, but the absolute best was building relationships the students and getting to know them better!
How Do You Bake Cupcakes?

How Do Plants Grow in Space?
Why Do Camels Have a Hump?

How Does the Eye Work?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Doors to Creativity Are Open

Our Makerspace journey began last year when I started learning about makerspaces at conferences I attended, from books I read, people I talked with and schools that I visited. To be honest, my first thought was that it was a lot of talk about arts and crafts and seemed like the shop classes that I attended back in middle school. But the more I learned, the more I realized that it was much more than that. Makerspace is a mindset. It’s about encouraging our students to create, to tinker, to design, to invent, and to innovate. It’s about not being afraid to fail and to take risks. It’s using what you have to make something new and different. Today’s students may be growing up in a world of technology, but too often they are passive consumers of information. They are not active participants who are producing or creating new content. They live in a world that is very scheduled and prescribed both at home and at school. For various reasons, many don’t have opportunities to build, create, and make things at home. Even the rigidity and rigor of the school curriculum has been prohibitive in the free exploration of creation.

This couldn’t have been more evident than when the doors of our makerspace were opened to students this week. Prior to entering the makerspace, I had a discussion with students about creativity and innovation. We also discussed WHY we have a makerspace and that although we have a makerspace room, the makerspace mindset should trickle back into their classrooms. There were multiple stations set up throughout the room and the students excitedly made decisions as to where they wanted to go first.

It was so interesting to watch. There was so much enthusiasm throughout the room that it was electric. They were excited. They were like hungry little puppies that couldn’t get enough to eat as they each immersed themselves into a station of their choice. In some cases, it was as if the students had never been given an opportunity to simply create something with no boundaries. They were hungry and eager for more. As I walked around the room observing and listening to the students, I was as energized as they were. Some things I overheard:
  • This is paradise!
  • This is the best library day ever!
  • I’ve never colored on a table before. This is awesome!
  • I love the makerspace because nobody judges what you make.
  • It’s a judge free zone!
  • Creativity is like your mind spilling over onto paper!
This week’s orientation into the makerspace is only the beginning. It will continue to grow and evolve. It will house static stations like Legos, KNEX and Ozobot Robots, but it will also have dynamic stations that will propose challenges to the students and change on a regular basis. You know you’ve got a good thing going for kids when the biggest problem of the week was getting the students to leave the makerspace when their class was done!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Our Maker Journey

The creation of our makerspace has really been a journey in and of itself. What started with a few ideas has grown into dozens. With every paint project completed, a new one is created. One of the most exciting, yet unexpected things that keeps happening while making this space, is the unsolicited help from our community. People have shared ideas, they’ve helped create displays, they’ve helped paint, they’ve donated supplies, they’ve built storage boxes, and so much more. Synergy helped build our makerspace and it is still a work in progress. The other exciting thing to happen throughout this whole process has been watching and listening to the mounting enthusiasm that is growing amongst the students. Although they have not been in the room yet because of the ladders and paint supplies, they can catch a glimpse of what is going on from the doorway.

“When do we get to use that room?”
“I can’t wait to go into the LEGO Room!”
“That room doesn’t even look like school!”

This enthusiastic response from the students has been energizing and motivating to get the room done, so that they can start using it to create, tinker and invent! Once the students start utilizing the makerspace, we will create a student led Makerspace Leadership Team to help generate ideas for how we can continually make improvements on it's use.