Finding “Space” for Student-led Learning

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If “home is where the heart is,” then the classroom should be “where the learning is,” but also where inspiration is, where passion is, and where exploration is.  Just like every home should be different and customized to its inhabitants, so too should we be able to customize our learning spaces to suit the needs of our students.

I primarily teach in a computer lab.  For at least the last 5 years “Lab 239” has been my home base, mostly for information technology courses, with some “extras” in past years thrown in–Interior Design and Yearbook to be specific.  I love having the lab, and it is obviously essential for the types of courses that I teach, yet it still functions as a 20th century classroom despite the fact I am teaching 21st century curriculum.  Why?  Well, I am limited by the constraints of my physical space!  My computer stations are built in, with power supplies positioned accordingly. The lab was built in the mid-1990’s, (yes–I have teal and purple classroom accent colours!) and this style of “worker-bee” computing was the standard.  I’ve adorned the walls with movie posters, fun slogans, and other creativity-inspiring elements; however, I am daily faced with the physical configuration of my classroom.  I believe that many other teachers find themselves in a similar situation, wishing for a more homey classroom, but faced with rows of desks and built-in elements that are just not conducive to modern education.

So the question becomes: how can we transform our 20th century classrooms into 21st century learning spaces?  In some cases, it might mean asking for funding.  It in others, it might mean sacrificing “teacher space” to make room for “student space.”

For me, that means some funding.  For others in a traditional learning space, it might mean moving desks out of the way for circle discussion, or grouping students in work pods.  Companies that make educational furniture are listening to the needs of students, and are making new and innovative designs (I love to look at the Natural Pod catalog personally!).

On top of our classroom layouts, we can also transform our walls into shifting, moving inspiration by changing what our students see on a regular basis. We can’t all afford to paint each wall with white-board paint (you can always ask though!) but there are other options to look into such as giant vinyl whiteboard adhesives from Writey Boards.

Colour, safe spaces and movement are all great ways to change traditional classrooms into 21st Century Learning Spaces.  I encourage you to explore what is available and find ways to “redo” your classroom!

 

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Substance over Technology: Tools, Tasks & Takeways

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Is technology a stumbling block for you?  Does a lack of internet connection ruin your day?

There are two extremes to technology use in the classroom; with a full range in between.  On the one hand, there are teachers who utilize technology tools because they feel that it is the ‘thing to do.’  They are creating Powerpoints instead of overheads, using YouTube Videos in lieu of VHS.  They have embraced technology as far as they feel comfortable.  If you mention blogging, or hashtags, they bear a panicked look–hoping beyond hope they can retire before anyone notices their Smart Board is covered in dust.  On the other hand, there are teachers who have plunged classrooms into the deep end of the technological pool.  Every day they use something technology-based with their students.  They’ve logged hours upon hours on the in-school COWS, and have a ‘app’ for everything.  They use so much technology, students are beginning to forget how to write with pen and paper.  Both of these extremes exist; fortunately, the majority of teachers fall somewhere in the middle.

substanceovertechnologyTechnology doesn’t need to be the centre of your classroom.  It also doesn’t need to be a pain in the you-know-what.  Think of technology in two ways: as a teaching tool, and as a learning tool. By combining both tools, you should be able to create a dynamic and modern learning environment for your students, where technology makes tasks easier, and takeaways more magical.

Never feel pressured to teach with technology, 100% of the time.  For example, does it make more sense to use a tablet for notes in math than an old-fashion overhead? Of course! Notes can be reused and saved, rather than erased…plus, no more overhead pen all over your hands!  Technology as a teaching tool can make your classroom a better place for not only your students, but for you as a teacher.  How you incorporate it is up to you, and I encourage you to find new ways to give notes and lessons, be it through presentation software, or perhaps Skyping with an expert.  You don’t need to use it all the time, but at least find way to use it sometimes, and always for the betterment of student learning rather than for the sake of technology.  Technology tools should make daily or weekly tasks, like notes, easier and more engaging.  When technology is used as a learning tool, students are given the opportunity to learn new technology, but how to use technology as a tool rather than a toy (see HERE for a post about that).  When there is sound, pedagogical reasoning behind using technology as a learning tool when it comes to students, good things happen.  When students use technology to explore, to engage and to demonstrate their learning, the takeway factor is magic.   Don’t be afraid to discontinue the use of technology if it isn’t positively impacting learning in your classroom or if students aren’t yet ready to use it for learning.  Find another way, another tool, that does work for your students.

And above all, when using technology in your classroom–for teaching or otherwise–make sure that what you are doing has substance.  Make sure that you are utilizing technology as a tool for learning, that the tool hasn’t taken over the teaching.  Remember: Substance should always win over technology.

Learning Technology: What Kids Should Know

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Every vocation is different, and each requires its own unique training, whether you are a doctor or plumber, teacher or graphic designer.  Not every career requires coding skills, or skills related to difficult computer technology usage.  Not every career requires typing skills or research skills.  Daily life; however, is a little different.  Lately, colleagues and I have entered into conversation surrounding what students REALLY need to know when it comes to computers, once they leave our academic nest to the next step of their lives.

team-523239_960_720A lot of discussion about students and technology seems to be geared towards what skills they required when they enter the workforce, but I would argue that any and every job
(for the most part) will and should offer specific training for the technology required of its skilled workers.  Universities and colleges offer beginner computers courses, and other introductory courses that are vital to specific careers.  I don’t believe that we need to necessarily prepare students for specific careers in the K-12 system (unless of course they are enrolled in those amazing apprenticeship programs!), but rather prepare them for a lifetime of learning, of critical and creative thinking, and of social responsibility.  I feel strongly that BC’s new curriculum, specifically the Core Competencies, truly embody what a BC graduate should have in their toolkit when they leave our system for the workforce or into post-secondary training.  Should students know how to use technology?  Absolutely.  They should know how to use it responsibly, how not to spend 20 hours a day playing games, how to be respectful, how to be appropriate.

Students should also know how to use storage programs, like Google Docs, or iCloud…or, as simple as it seems: adding an attachment to an email.  Students don’t need to know Photoshop, or how to make games.  They don’t need to know Minecraft, or how to make websites.  They need to know how to critical examine content found online, how to cull through the millions of hits from Google for real, factual information.  They don’t need to know how to code robots, they need to know how to express their opinions and be good digital citizens.  I am not saying that students SHOULDN’T be using photoshop, or making games, or learning robotics–I’m saying that it’s important not to get caught up in those things without considering what real skills our graduates should be leaving our doors with.

 

 

Coping with Mediocrity

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Lately, I’ve been very disappointed in student work.  Not all student work, but lots of student work.  Not because it isn’t done (that’s a whole other can of worms) but because it just isn’t great.  It’s “good enough.”  It’s “a pass.”  It’s “the bare minimum.”  We at the secondary school level especially (I can’t speak for my intermediate or elementary colleagues) have been running into mediocrity at ever-increasing rate in recent years, and boy, it is a hard hit to the teacher-ego.  We sing, we dance, we give inquiry opportunities.  I find that in my classes I have a sliding scale: 15-20% is AMAZING,  15-20% is done well,15-20% isn’t done,and the remainder falls into the bare-minimum, or “mediocre” category.  The question is…why?

Is it my teaching?  Assignments?  Length of time given to complete work?

It is school culture?  Student apathy?

Is it lack of consequences?  Is my rubric allowing mediocrity to become the status quo?

Galit Zolkower and Debra Munk, in Educational Leadership, wrote an article (http://bit.ly/1oWqTGb) disseminating ways to get beyond mediocrity, with a school out of Maryland. They talk about three major areas that required addressing by their administration team in order to push their school “out of mediocrity.”   They looked at instruction, rigor and school culture, all of which fit my above questions. It is through those three areas that I am currently examining my own classroom and determining how to also move out of mediocrity.

In terms of instruction, I’ve changed my assignments a lot in the last 6 years.  I expand on big ideas, and give students more individualization opportunities.  In visual arts and computer science, this allows for students who aren’t necessarily in my class because they love computers to use topics or visuals that they are interested in to complete the assignment.  I find that even the most interesting projects (I use Sphero robotics in two programming classes) still don’t motivate my most apathetic students.  This has been incredibly frustrating (hello, ROBOTS!?).

I will say that there doesn’t seem to be many ramifications for mediocrity, or even failure in today’s schools.  Incomplete Packages are offered to students who don’t pass, late work is always accepted, and as long as we get something (anything) we are usually okay.  I get that its hard to push students, and I also know that it is hard to find time to push 100 students + to redo work that technically is handed in, and already marked.  One thing that I know will help with finding time is the revised curriculum–it will open up opportunities for me to individualize assignments and projects more (I am already doing this with my Grade 12 classes) but it may also give me time to figure out why students are apathetic about their work in my classes, and meet one-on-one to determine what will motivate them.  I know I am not alone in this, so to those who also struggle with mediocrity in their classrooms—take heart.  It won’t be an easy fix, it will take time but also, it’s not only up to you…students need to confront their own mediocrity in order to overcome it.

Coding, Curriculum and the Classroom

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1108_classroom_tech_630x420Have you heard the news about “coding in the classroom” as a part of British Columbia’s new curriculum?  If you are a parent or a teacher of a student in K-12, this news should have caught your attention.  As a Computer Science teacher, I want to reassure everyone that coding, at any grade-level, is possible (even without years and years of teacher training!).

Coding is different than programming.  Programming is intensive, time-consuming and tedious.  It is infinitely more complex than coding.  Coding is about having an understanding of how certain programming languages function, and then using those languages to create something, be it a game, function or otherwise.  The great news is that there are TONS of awesome resources available for a variety of age groups to help them learn to code.  ALL of these resources require technology, which unfortunately is not readily available to every student, in every classroom.

(Unless, of course, we are all going to be the subjects of some technology windfall!)

This is what you need to know about teaching coding: coding is all about “cause and effect,” and about “variables.”  For example, if A happens, then B happens.  If I press this button, the light goes on.  Variables work the same way, but with more options.  Choices are A and B, and depending on what option is selected, either C or D will occur.  You don’t need to have a computer or iPad to teach these ideas to students.  Coding is also about critical and creative thinking.  Students who know how to code should also know how to be innovative and how to problem solve.

Coding is also cross-curricular.  It can be used to demonstrate mathematic concepts, to teach storytelling, even for physical education purposes (my students and their robots get a lot of exercise!).  In British Columbia’s new curriculum model, there is a place for coding. It is by far one of the most powerful 21st century learning/teaching tools we have available–as intimidating as it might seem–and it is time to learn how to use it for the sake of our students.

Want to hear the good news?  It won’t be nearly as complicated as programming the VCR.

In the next few weeks, I will take the time to post resources and options for teachers interested in learning more about coding in their classrooms, with a variety of platforms, to demonstrate that coding can be accessible to all classrooms, despite whatever technologies are available to utilize.