WTH VT?

Maybe that’s coming on a little strong.  Let me explain.  I recently returned from SoCal with a team of amazing educators and admin from Lamoille Union.  While there, we attended CUE, visited four schools, and attended Deeper Learning.  It was an amazing experience full of inspiration in the form of real people doing some incredible things in schools.  From innovative learning spaces–open space devoid of desks, materials at the ready, seats built for movement, etc–to deeper learning through projects driven by student curiosity and choice, to design thinking the way to a better educational experience for students and teachers alike.

IMG_0720And they are doing it with 34 students in their rooms.  No joke.  Really–34 students packed into smaller rooms than those we are lucky to have at Lamoille, and students are engaged.  Often times when I stepped into a classroom, the teacher was difficult to locate.  In one instance, the teacher was at a desk in the corner looking through designs that her students had recently submitted for a competition, while the students themselves worked on prototypes.  In another case, where students were guiding a 6,000-piece robot around the room by remote control, the teacher wasn’t even there that day.  No spitballs in the air, no fires in the maker space–just a few super engaged boys tweaking their basketball-throwing robot.

Perhaps you’re thinking these are pipe dreams–something only the wealthy districts can afford to do, but that wasn’t the case, either.  In fact, Vista Innovation and Design Academy (VIDA) was an absolute mess just three years ago.  Gangs were prevalent as was gang culture throughout the small school, complete with fighting, graffiti-laden school furniture, and students who didn’t believe their school was a school.  Three years later, with the leadership of Eric Chagala Ed.D, that school has a much different story–one where students are engaged, digging deeply into the design process to bring projects to life, and finding joy in learning.

IMG_0749So, Vermont, what is holding us back?  So many of us are fortunate to have class sizes of less than twenty.  Time and again, tour leaders pointed out how great it was that students could “get plenty of one-on-one attention” when their class sizes were just shy of thirty, or in one case, when the other half of the class was on a field trip and there were only eighteen students with one teacher.  In a state that has just passed a law requiring us to personalize learning, what excuse do we have to do anything but embrace it with fervor?

As a Rowland fellow, I constantly shoot out new findings to my steering committee, hoping that they don’t just hit “delete” when they see my name.  They never disappoint me.  In fact, two days after I purchased our first Breakout Edu box, Pat LaClair was using it in his Latin class.  A few weeks later, Chris Bologna had designed a Breakout lesson around Africa.  This week, Whitney Kaulbach took it for a spin in conjunction with the Russian revolution.  I am not so naive as to believe that every educator has the energy to cannonball new ideas as these three; they are, indeed, exceptional.  However, what is stopping us from pushing the boundaries more often?  My theories, and their answers, below:

  1. Time.  There is never enough time.  Instead of saying, “I just don’t have the time to [fill-in-the-blank],” try reframing the thought.  How about, “What can I accomplish in the few minutes that I have?”
  2. Resources.  If you are teaching in a public school, there are never enough of these either.  But if you’re teaching in Vermont, at least at my school, you’re lucky.  You have what you need, and when you want something new, ask.  What harm is there in asking?  And if the admin denies you, check out DonorsChoose.  Find a way.  Be resourceful.
  3. Apathy.  On the part of the kids or on the part of the teachers?  Maybe it’s both.  Either way, take a look at the system in place.  It’s been around for over a century.  We don’t live like we did a century ago, so no wonder we are apathetic about school.  Remember why you started teaching, even if it was years ago.
  4. Ambivalence.  Some teachers find it easier to just keep doing what they’ve been doing for so long.  They’re right about the ease–change is difficult.  But really, if we continue teaching the way we have over the last 100 years, with the teacher at the helm driving everything about the experience, we aren’t educating our children to become thoughtful, creative, innovative citizens of our world.
  5. Fear.  There are plenty of things that could go wrong when you try something different.  If you lived by that credo, however, you’d still be eating plain cereal and drinking from a sippy cup.  Dig as deeply as you need to in order to recapture that curious, playful child within and trust in him/her to guide your explorations.
  6. We ARE doing amazing things, but we don’t talk about it enough.  Honestly, I think this might be the key to what’s happening in VT.  This sabbatical has given me time to visit classrooms and talk to teachers about the amazing things they are doing in their classrooms.  I think they are so busy prepping awesome lessons and doing the insane work that great teachers do that they don’t have time to go the extra step to get it out there–by website, by newsletter, whatever.  The Alt School has a documentarian on staff to capture many of the great things they are doing.  Perhaps we can invite students to help us in this quest by asking them to use their social media prowess to help us get the word out.
IMG_1134
Kaulbach & Bologna with their IGNITE awards–inspiration for us all

It’s time for people from around the country to start visiting us.  There are incredible things happening in our classrooms; documenting and then publicizing them helps us celebrate our successes, inspire others, and push one another to be the change.  Let’s start focusing on the bright spots and leave the five excuses above in the dust.

Designing learning spaces to inspire adventure

It’s true that I’ve been incredibly fortunate to attend four conferences in the last three months, and as I dive into the fourth (Deeper Learning) at High Tech High, I am faced with the question of how best to share the information when I return to my home school.  People are innovating; how best do I use my exposure to these conferences and school visits to inspire my fellow teachers at Lamoille Union?  I think I may have stumbled upon the answer while listening to the amazing Eleanor Duckworth today.

IMG_1000 (1)
Eleanor Duckworth & Rob Riordan

“Telling people what to think is no way to get them to think it, too,” she reminded us.  That is, use the power of inquiry to encourage people to come upon their own realizations and lessons, and then the true learning happens.  When they come to the conclusions themselves, new pathways are truly formed in their brains and then change can happen.  I know; it’s perhaps a simple idea, but equally profound.

 

So to that end, I offer up these:

IMG_0985
HTH International (above) HTH elementary (below)

IMG_0973

IMG_0988

IMG_0742
VIDA Maker Space in Vista, CA

IMG_0743IMG_0744

IMG_0709
Da Vinci School in LA

IMG_0714

IMG_0683
The Sycamore School in Malibu

IMG_0674IMG_0673

So here is my question: how might we redesign our learning spaces so they encourage wonder, inquiry, and a sense of adventure?  Subtlety has never been a strength of mine, so I’m not sure I am practicing Duckworth’s ideals as well as she might have intended, but I hope that these photos of High Tech High/High Tech Elementary, VIDA in Vista, and The Sycamore School in Malibu can start some conversation around learning spaces.  What do you think?  How does your school look different?  In what kind of learning space do you want to teach and learn?

Let them play! Recapture the adventure in learning

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 9.16.07 PM
Opening slide–credit Pasi Sahlberg

Yesterday, I was fortunate to have attended a discussion led by Pasi Sahlberg and Saku Tuominen from Finland at #SXSWedu.  They titled their talk, “Can the Finnish Education Miracle be Replicated?”  The talk was more a call to action shaped by these three Finnish cornerstones: 1. Let them play! 2. Prepare kids to be wrong and 3. Build on what works.  If we are to transform education in the US, then we must embrace these ideas and shift our culture to show that we value them.

As a proponent of game-based learning, I found these ideas validating, exciting, and inspiring.  The Finns embrace play as a regular part of the school day–everywhere–recognizing the importance of what Einstein once said: “play is the highest form of research.”  Play inspires curiosity and inquiry, and isn’t that what we want from our students?  For those teachers looking for a structure to bring playful inquiry into the classroom, games provide the necessary framework to both inspire and engage.  The Institute of Play created a list of seven game-like learning principles which, when carefully considered, paint the picture of an ideal classroom environment.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 10.04.34 PM
Photo credit–Quest to Learn

Challenge, participation, learning by doing, feedback, iteration, interconnectedness, and fun are all recognized as pieces of the game puzzle, and also as solid classroom pedagogy.

So to answer Sahlberg and Tuominen’s call, let’s bring more games into classrooms.  Number two on Sahlberg’s list asks us to prepare kids to be wrong.  Not only do games provide students with a safe place to fail, but they also teach the idea that failure is really just iteration.  How many times have you seen students playing a simple game (either surreptitiously in class or elsewhere)?  They aren’t quitting when they don’t accrue the points they want, or when they fail to guess correctly.  Instead, they are motivated to try again and again to get it right, or get better.  Why?  Because it’s fun.  And fun has an important role in the classroom.

I think that some educators are reluctant to integrate games into their classrooms because they don’t believe that games can provide the necessary challenge inherent in deeper learning.  Perhaps they think that games are just filler for the end of the period, or to be used strictly as a review tool.  While those applications are valid, I’d like to offer some examples of games that require students to dig deeper and to actively use higher level thinking skills.

Paul Darvasi, an English teacher and NYU doctoral candidate located in Toronto, Canada, has experimented with delving deeply into game based learning, and has arrived at incredible results.  Darvasi took the plunge by using Gone Home, an award winning game completely devoid of zombies and killing, as the basis for literature study.
Brilliant!  Rather than reflecting on the narrative of a images-3bound novel, Darvasi asked his students to discover the narrative elements in this emergent media, complete with annotation and close reading tasks as well as video game review.  Essentially, he used the game as a catalyst for building critical thinking and writing skills.  Ever humble, Darvasi shares both his lessons and reflections on his blog, and invites other teachers to experiment as well.

Peggy Sheehy, a teacher from Suffern, NY, also dives deeply into games in her classroom.  With a focus on the hero’s journey, Sheehy, in partnership with the curriculum writer Lucas Gillespie, uses World of Warcraft as a catalyst for deeper learning.  Connecting three elements–the game, Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, and students’ real lives, she invites
images-4students to dissect the meaning of the hero’s journey as it plays out in each different arena.  Again, students engage in similar exercises as they would if they were reading a bound copy of a novel alone, comparing the game to other texts and media, writing creatively in response to game-based prompts, and drawing connections between their experiences in real life and those in the game.

As an English teacher, my bias is clear on choosing these two games on which to focus, but I believe in the importance of paying attention to games as a viable tool in the pursuit of deeper learning.  The third tenant of Sahlberg and Tuominen’s suggested path was to build on what works, so I encourage you to take the plunge, and if you do, please tell me about it!  If we are to embrace play and recapture the adventure of learning, games are the perfect vehicle.  Teachers can provide the opportunity for both the deeper learning they crave and the play that students so desperately need in our current educational setting.