Tuesday, October 20, 2015

STEAM Acronym Conversations I've Had Lately

This year, every school in our board will be participating in an inquiry to explore STEAM education. Two weeks ago we launched this initiative with a kick-off event for secondary teachers at the Education Centre.

STEAM is part of my job title; it is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. We anticipated some uncertainty about what this would look like in schools, particularly in secondary schools where we naturally separate the subjects into different rooms, hallways, or wings of our school buildings. I am proud that this acronym is part of my title, though I might add that I've had my fill of STEAM puns and jokes for the time being. (These include, but are not limited to 'STEAM rooms,' 'getting STEAMy,' references to trains and conductor's hats, and the use of phrases like 'full STEAM ahead!'...I'm sure you get the idea.) 

I have had many conversations with teachers in the two weeks since the secondary STEAM launch. There are lots of great ideas brewing as school teams decide what direction their projects will take. Interestingly, many of my conversations with teachers have touched on the acronym itself. Months ago, when the idea to focus on STEAM was ‘born’ at the SCDSB, we were aware that the acronym might be met with some raised eyebrows. It turns out we were right!

Acronym Conversations, Type 1: “Where’s my letter?”
  • Can I ‘do STEAM’ if I am a History teacher?
  • I don’t teach Science and I’m not comfortable with Math. I don’t see myself in this.
  • I teach a Foods class and would like to incorporate some Science and Geography. Does this count?

It is obvious from these conversations that the STEAM acronym understates the scope of this work. Focusing on the letters puts us at rick of limiting our thinking. It leaves out the ‘H’ from History, the ‘C’ from Civics, and the ‘G’ from Geography. Social Studies, Health and Physical Education, Business, Modern Languages, are also missing (I'm sure you'll let me know if I have missed 'your' letter). Imagine the possibilities if we bring in other subjects: SHAM, SASS, GAME, CHAT, CHEATS, BEACH, CHASM, GAMES…

I can picture students creating wearable electronics in fashion class, advocating for community needs through kinetic art projects created using found materials, or partnering with schools across the world to learn about the impact of water pollution on health and well-being. I want everyone to hear, loud and clear, that this project can include your letter, even if it's not one of the letters in the slide deck.

Acronym Conversations, Type 2: “There are too many letters!”
  • I already do STEM really well. Do I need Art?
  • I can imagine bringing some Art into my Math class, but Science too?!?
  • I’m a Tech teacher. I think I do these things already, just not all at once.

It is clear to me that the other problem with the acronym is that it may imply that the removal of a letter diminishes the value of subject integration, suggesting that STEM, MAST, SEAM, TEAS, SEM, MST, TEM, ST, SM, MT, ET, ES, and EM, when done well, are less valuable than STEAM.

Unless subject-specific departments and course codes disappear from secondary school it will be difficult for most teachers to engage in '5-letter STEAM' in a rich way. In our team’s view, every time we purposefully integrate skills and knowledge from more than one discipline into our teaching, we are bringing STEAM education to our students. Teachers who are helping students make these transdisciplinary connections are doing a great job being STEAMy! In this case, the upcoming inquiries may be an opportunity for these teachers to share their good practice within or among schools, or may allow them to meet with like-minded teachers to explore a particular area of interest such as assessment.

So what?

In giving this initiative a name we certainly did not intend to strictly define – or limit – its boundaries. I hope that teachers will be able to look beyond the acronym and see two things: that STEAM already lives in their schools, and that the possibilities for this project are endless.

The word STEAM has become a word that encompasses everything we love about student-driven, inquiry-based learning that integrates a variety of skills and concepts from across our curriculum. As one colleague correctly stated, we could just call it ‘SCHOOL!’ 

Monday, September 28, 2015

We Are All Learning

(This post also appears in our SCDSB 194 Days of Learning Blog!)

About eight months ago, I blogged about the challenges of supervising my daughters' daily piano practice. The post described how we were all learning something from this shared experience, particularly about grit and perseverance.

The last week has brought about an interesting development in our family piano journey. I have agreed to take on the role of piano accompanist for a community choir I belong to. Our previous accompanist had moved on, and although I didn't volunteer immediately and enthusiastically (I have lots on my plate!) I knew that I could fill the position if they needed me to. 

It has been several years (read: more than 10) since I did any work as an accompanist, and I do not practise piano regularly (read: almost never). The challenge of jumping back into this type of role was attractive to me; an opportunity to shake off the cobwebs and see what I'm capable of. 

Now I find a little bit of time each day to practise piano. I am acutely aware that I can teach my girls about 'piano grit' by modelling that grittiness in a very real way. So, I repeat the same three bars of music 10 times if I have to. I get out the metronome and slow down when I encounter challenging rhythms. I write down a list of things I need to work on so that I can use my time efficiently. I stop or take a break if I get frustrated.

Kids learn by example. As parents and teachers it is important that the young people in our lives see us taking on real challenges. Sometimes there is discomfort associated with a teacher learning along with (or in front of) students, but I can't think of a better way to model learning strategies and growth mindset.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Hologram Story

(This post also appears in our SCDSB 194 Days of Learning Blog!)

I work with a phenomenal team of people. We don't always see a great deal of each other throughout the week as we pop in and out of the office on our way to and from schools across the county. One way we keep in touch is through Twitter. (You can see what our entire team has been tweeting by checking out Pat Miller's list here: https://twitter.com/pmillerscdsb/lists/pit-2015-16).

Tuesday evening, I saw this tweet:

Turn your Smartphone into a 3D hologram? Let's just say this: if you want to do an 'upcycling' project to create a device that turns iPads and smartphones into hologram viewers, you don't need to twist any arms in our department. Those of us who were going to be in the office Wednesday morning offered to bring supplies, and we were off and running.

In the morning we got down to business, creating templates for our CD case pieces on millimetre graph paper, carefully cutting out plastic pieces with utility knives, and trying out different types of glue to see what would best hold our device together. In true PIT fashion, we streamed the whole process on Periscope and viewers from all over the world checked in to see what we were making.

In the end? It worked. (It's really neat; you should try it.) But what happened next was what made this more than just an impromptu craft activity. We tried to improve upon our original design. We built a couple of larger templates. We talked about other materials we could use. We shared our project with nearby colleagues inside and outside the department. We discussed all of the curriculum connections (math, science, art, etc.) that this activity could support. We discussed classroom safety concerns and modifications for different age groups.

Do you think we'd allow our learning to stop there? Of course not! Later that day when we went home we shared the hologram devices with our families and continued to create bigger, better, and different devices. I made one out of an acetate sheet. My husband used my model to create a template for making more, and proceeded to use this as an activity with his math class on Thursday.

All of us shared our learning with our families and let our own children check out the holograms. They were a big hit. Lisa Boate used her dog's e-collar to build a larger hologram device that she took to a school with her the following day to share with a students. Their reaction sums up the way we all felt about our first glimpse of one of these holograms:

Jamila recognized the power of the hologram activity to inspire. I am grateful to her for running with this inspiration and I know that all the thanks she really needs is to see the ripple effect it created.

Sometimes it is OK to drop everything for the sake of making something beautiful. (As long as you have the appropriate safety equipment, of course!)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Library Evolution

(This post also appears in our SCDSB 194 Days of Learning Blog!)

Today I had the privilege of visiting the library at Baxter Central Public School. Last spring I had corresponded with the librarian, Andrew Morrison, about transforming part of his library into a 'Makerspace.' 

Makerspace has become a bit of a buzzword in the last couple of years; many people are curious about them and wondering how they can create one in their school. Our teacher librarians have a key role to play in this venture as we see many 'learning commons' being transformed into multi-purpose spaces, and Melissa Jensen has been doing a phenomenal job sharing her expertise with all of our librarians as they consider their changing roles in our schools. The arrival of the green screens in schools last autumn was probably one of the first indications that our libraries were becoming key locations for students to engage in hands-on creation.

After our short exchanges in the spring, I was thrilled to hear that Andrew had decided to dive into the murky waters of Makerspaces head-first this fall. The list of opportunities that students are being offered in the library at Baxter Central is extensive:
  • 2 puppetry / stop motion lego stations with green backdrops
  • Electricity Snap Circuitry station
  • Builder Station (variety of building supplies with principles about structures and design)
  • Junior Coding Station with CanaryMod / Minecraft on four tablets, also serves as GAFE station
  • Junior/Intermediate Coding Station with two Raspberry Pi devices
  • Examination Station with microscopes, magnifying glasses, and various items
  • Inventor's Booth with materials and guidelines on invention process (taken from Quirky.com)
  • Deconstruction station where there are a variety of devices that the students can take apart.  Using a camera, they'll take pictures as they take items apart to document their findings.

Upon my arrival in the building this afternoon, I announced to the office staff that my destination was the library. I was immediately told that the library was 'the place to be' and that it was fast becoming students' favourite place to spend time. 

When I arrived in the library, it was buzzing with activity. The makerspace area was jam-packed with students working on a variety of projects. Students were disassembling coffee makers and computers, experimenting with a sonic motion sensor, analyzing body organs taken from plastic models, working on plans for inventions, creating green screen stop-motion videos with LEGO minifigures, and observing slides under a microscope. Sound like chaos? It was. The room was electric. Students were engaged, and reluctant to leave their projects when lunch time arrived.


After lunch I had the pleasure of sticking around to observe a grade 2 class experiment with a Roominate set. (You'll notice it's branded for girls, but any girl knows that branding shouldn't be a limitation for creativity...right, LEGO?) With no instructions students built buildings and furniture and figures out how to create circuits including lights, switches and motors. Students shared their newfound knowledge with their peers, saying things like 'You need to switch the wires so that red goes with red.' and 'If you add a button then you can switch the light on and off; let me show you!' Their enthusiasm was fabulous and it was a delightful way to end my first visit.

Andrew is calling his Makerspace the 'STEAM Room.' Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math were all happening in the STEAM room, but, more importantly, the essence of a STEAM program was alive in that room. Students were collaborating, making decisions, performing research, communicating with peers and with a wider audience, asking deep questions about their tasks, and engaged in authentic tasks. All of this with minimal guidance. Baxter Central is proof that, with appropriate provocations, students will create their own learning opportunities that are guaranteed to produce deep understanding of the world around them.

If you're thinking about STEAMing up your library or classroom, keep your eyes open for our STEAM inquiry. Every SCDSB school will have a chance to participate in this learning opportunity, and we can't wait to see how it will transform your buildings.

So, what are you going to make this year? Keep your eyes on this blog for more about our SCDSB Makerspace trailblazers!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

AEIC 2015 - We Love Learning!

Yesterday I had the pleasure of helping host an Arts, Equity, and Innovation Conference for teachers. This was the third Saturday of ‘free PD’ that has been organized and hosted by members of my team during this school year. (You can read my posts about EdCamp and the PUSH Conference from earlier in the year.) These events are playing a key role in transforming mindsets about professional development and innovation in education. They have certainly opened my eyes to the importance of providing venues for teachers to learn and share, an area I have identified as important as we try to find ways to #makeschooldifferent.

Yesterday’s conference had a special vibe that is only felt in the presence of artists. Attendees learned about drumming, silk screening, printmaking, strumming, dancing, and drama. Sessions focused on things like assessment, student voice, equity, and social justice. A variety of vendors and guests energized our innovation space with gorgeous examples of art making and some fabulous teaching (and crafting!) resources. 

Attendance at the conference was excellent considering the conditions: yesterday was a beautiful, sunny Saturday, it is Mother’s Day weekend, and our elementary teachers are about to begin a work-to-rule campaign as part of their ongoing efforts to negotiate a new contract. Much like with EdCamp (which also happened on a sunny Saturday) our teachers did not disappoint. They had not paid for the event, and there was no consequence for not attending, but they came just the same.

The rewards for attending?
  • connecting with friends and colleagues from across the school board
  • learning how Art can help us connect with some of our least engaged students (because even boys love yarn-bombing)
  • listening to student presenters share their views on ways to improve their learning by giving them more control and focusing on providing meaningful feedback
  • communicating the importance of Art to our overall well-being
  • learning how deeply we can integrate Art into math and other parts of our curriculum
  • sharing ways to use Art to help make our world more equitable and just
  • teaching ideas for creating Art using tools and techniques that are appropriate to our school budgets
  • coming together to create beautiful things with the help of expert makers

      Have you held this type of PD event in your school board or district? You should seriously consider it...check out the #aeic2015 tweets from yesterday to see the impact it had on some of our teachers:

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ideas and Action (after the Anger)

I have been reflecting about the power I have to drive positive change in my school board - the ‘action’ part of the #makeschooldifferent conversation. I enjoyed reading @Dunlop_Sue’s ‘So Now What?’ post that addresses this issue, and thought that I should write explicitly about what I can do to address some of the issues I raised in my original #makeschooldifferent post. Although I am one person, my central role gives me the potential to reach a large number of teachers and students, and I want to make sure I am carrying out my work with purpose.

The following is a list of four things that have become important to me in my work with teachers this year. These are things that I have grown passionate about. These are things that I love to discuss and debate with my colleagues. These are the things that I read about in my spare time. These are the things that I want to focus on in the months to come.

Professional Learning for the Love of It!
One of the frustrations I have voiced this year is the perceived reluctance of some teachers to push their own learning forward. Ideally, school culture would place a high importance on continual improvement in teaching practice and growth in the ability to use new technology in the classroom. Members of my team have run three free events this year to help create an environment that encourages learning for learning’s sake. EdcampBarrie, PUSH Your Learning Conference (featuring GAFE), and our upcoming Arts, Equityand Innovation Conference. These events have helped create a community of learners, and I look forward to seeing this type of learning continue in our school board. In my work with schools I want to help create communities of learning where the staff embraces the challenge to continually improve their practice without direct (and prescribed!) instruction from someone like me.

In my 11 years of teaching before this year, my assessment practices changed dramatically. Interestingly, I believe that my personal growth in the last 8 months has exceeded that of the previous 11 years. My understanding of triangulation of assessment has improved considerably. I know more about how to make use of digital tools to create a more complete picture of students’ learning. I am intrigued by the notion of ‘standards-based’ grading and the opportunity it allows teachers to shift their practice and provide more meaningful feedback. I have discovered that assessment can be a touchy subject, but I am prepared to have challenging discussions with teachers and encourage them to push their thinking.

Advocate for Student Voice
At the start of the year, @lowenesst was the person who brought the significance of student voice to my attention. Her advocacy for students was evident in many formal and informal meetings and her voice invariably helped us focus on what was most important. Now I find that I have internalized Louise’s message and find myself asking people to consider student voice (and choice). Some of my key growth moments this year have occurred in conversations with students, and I want to encourage teachers to engage in the kinds of conversations that will allow students to help drive change in our schools.

Inquiry-Based Learning
Working with teachers who are navigating the world of inquiry-based learning with their students has been challenging and rewarding. Giving students control over their learning while honouring the curriculum can present enormous challenges for first-timers. Imagining a classroom where exploration and creation (think Makerspace) are an integral part of the learning culture has huge potential to transform the student experience. I know can support teachers in building students’ inquiry learning skills and mindsets and encourage the teachers to take ‘safe’ risks as they get started in inquiry.

What are you doing to help #makeschooldifferent in your classroom, school, or school board? Share your ideas for how to take action!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

#MakeSchoolDifferent: Is it OK for anger to drive change?

I have enjoyed following the #makeschooldifferent discussion on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Scott McLeod (who initiated this conversation) has been working hard to compile responses to the ‘5 things to stop pretending in education’ prompt in this document. Take a minute and read through some of the list right now if you aren’t sure what I’m talking about. (Then come back here, please.)

When I took the challenge to add my voice to the #makeschooldifferent conversation it felt really good to speak honestly about some of my current areas of concern in my work with teachers. A few days after that post I was reading some other teachers’ posts when I became concerned about the tone of some of them. I revisited my own post and realized that it could be interpreted as being very negative.

After some reflection I decided to stop worrying about how my tone might be interpreted. Passionate opinions are required to drive positive change. I was reminded of this TED talkIn the talk, Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi describes how his outrage at the injustices of the caste system and child slavery in India prompted him to take action. His mantra? Anger. Idea. Action. His may seem like an extreme example, but it reminds us that strong emotions and a sense of injustice can help motivate us to improve our circumstances.

Do some of the voices in the #makeschooldifferent discussion sound a little angry? Yes. The anger has its root in the deep caring we have for our profession and for the well-being of our students. Anger is much better than indifference and complacence IF we direct our energy to help us find ways to make positive change.

How would you #makeschooldifferent? What issues in education raise your heart rate? Share your thinking. Get a little angry. Just don't forget to come up with ideas about how we can take action. Anger alone is not enough.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Let Students Help Drive Change

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about our efforts to consult with students to plan a large event as part of our board’s commitment to the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning global partnership. A group of 40 students from 13 different schools ranging from grade 4 to grade 12 gathered in a sunny library to discuss the meaning of deep learning and work on some guided inquiry projects while their parents, teachers, and administrators met elsewhere in the building.

As facilitators we did not know what to expect from these students. We did not know the majority of them personally and did not know what skills they were bringing to the table. We were not sure how much guidance they would need to use the computers and iPads, perform research, or create presentations to share their learning. We were not sure whether they would come to the event with inquiry mindsets, collaboration skills, or curiosity. Faced with so many unknowns our planning was uncomfortably open-ended; there were more question marks on the agenda than any of us would have liked.

We were very lucky to be joined by some special guests, whose presence at the event inspired students, staff and parents. Our guests were brothers; one a grade 12 student in our board, the other in university. They shared their personal story of how they loved to build and create as kids, and that in their desire to create they saw a need for a 3D printer. This technology was too expensive for them to purchase, so they solved this problem by building their own 3D printer. Their description of their desire to create something, their ability to become part of a global online open-source 3D printing community, their perseverance through difficulties, and their honest expression of pride in their work was truly inspiring for our students at the start of the day. A fan club quickly grew around the 3D printer with students drifting to and from the station throughout the day. Our guests' enthusiasm and willingness to answer questions never waned.

With the 3D-printer running in the background, our student cohort dove into their inquiry projects with as much confidence as we had hoped they would. Some student chose from a selection of open-ended inquiry questions while others created their own. Several groups tackled questions about designing better classrooms, libraries, and playgrounds. Other students set out to overhaul school in its entirety. One young lady came up with the recipe for success, using her cellphone to create a video to explain it to the world. A secondary student boldly explained in a recorded soliloquy why he thinks students fail in school (hint: it has something to do with suppressing students’ choices and interests). As facilitators we spent our time troubleshooting technology, documenting student work, and simply listening to students’ ideas and discoveries. It was hectic but blissful. It made me miss my classroom.

If I had my way I would have loved to keep these students together for a week or more, sharing their opinions and experiences with each other and trying to create a deeper understanding of the possibilities for our NPDL initiatives.

I would also love to extend this invitation beyond the realm of our designated NPDL schools and see student voice continue to play a larger role in shaping growth and learning in all of our school communities.