Monday, April 18, 2016

Still Affected, Many Years Later: The Impact of Teacher

Today I attended a fantastic professional development opportunity which focused on the design process and making. I was part of a group of four and together we went through the process of design thinking followed by creating a prototype for a new and improved lunch kit. As a team we had many great ideas.  However when it came time to use the tools to bring our idea to life, I struggled.  It wasn't that I couldn't add to the ideas, and help with the design, it was that I really had a fear of using the tools to create.

You see back when I was in grade eight sewing and art something happened in both classes that still haunts me to this day. I never really realized how badly it has affected me but it was very obvious today as I tried to be hands on with my group as we began to create the prototype of our idea.  You see when I was in both grade eight sewing and grade eight art my teachers used my products as the examples of what not to do.  In one case my work was referred to as a "dog's breakfast".  Needless to say I've never felt so humiliated.

To cope I developed strategies, I'd come to class when no one was there and make sure my work was not in sight.  I'd do my sewing when no one was really around - before/after school or over lunch etc. I did complete all the required projects - yes I even made a jacket - but I showed no one anything I made.

Art class was the same. I'd sneak in and grab my work when no one was looking. There was no way that I was going to be humiliated in front of my peers again.

Fast forward to today, and I'm back in a maker environment. I've got tons of ideas and have a real vision for what our product should look like.  I listen well and feel I'm a good group member. But when it came to actually using tools to create I nearly froze.  I was able to clearly direct what I wanted to be done, but I could not do it on my own.  In fact I made just one cut with a knife before passing it off to someone one else. I was truly afraid that I was going to mess up our project. Crazy right?

I'm still baffled several hours later at how much the "making" process flooded me with these terrible memories from high school.  I know the whole thing is irrational but it's crazy how much of an impact it has had on me.

So please, if you have a student who may not have the strongest skill set in a particular area honour them for where they are at. Provide with the support and guidance to help them improve but DO NOT humiliate them to the point that it still affects them many years later.

As a side note, when it came time to show case our finished prototypes I received rave reviews for my selling capabilities. That made me laugh, and smile. After the flood of negative memories, I needed that.

So, when you are making in your classroom, be mindful that there may be a student like me. One who has had a bad experience with making even though the rational side of their brain knows better.

And as an educator, be good to your students always. Even, or more likely especially when they are struggling.  We have an impact far deeper than we probably realize.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Learning to Listen

One of my big goals has been to listen more and speak less. By listening more I mean to listen with the intent to understand, not just to listen to hear.  This has been a particularly important goal with my students this year although it really started back a few years ago when I taught an inquisitive young man who was often questioning what was happening in the classroom.

 It was this same young man who asked, "Ms. Lirenman why do you tell us which math station to go to and why can't we just choose our own"?  The first response that popped into my head (and thankfully stayed there) was that I'm the teacher and I want it this way. I liked the control it gave me to keep the class organized and well run. I liked that it meant every student would make it to every activity. I liked it that way.  But I didn't say that instead I said, "let me think about it". 

I went home that weekend and did think about it and when I returned on Monday I told that student that he was right, and that if he and his classmates could make choices about their learning and pick the math stations that best met their learning need to fully understand the concepts we were learning about I would be cool with that.  I did say that I would jump in and support those learners who weren't able to make those choices yet, but I'd jump in with the intent to help them learn how to make those choices on their own.  

Really to no surprise, my students were amazing. I still set up the activities but they were able to make their own choices about what they needed most. Yes, I did step in at the beginning for a few students, but quickly they were successful too. They showed me what they really are cable of doing if and when I let them show me.

Fast forward a few more years.  I'm now teaching in a multi-aged, home/school blended classroom which is part of SAIL (Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning).  I have highly inquisitive students in fact I'd say that most of my class is exactly like that inquisitive young man I taught a few years back. I still write a day plan based on my students and what I know about them as learners.  I understand the curriculum and  have ideas of how we are going to learn what we are going to learn. However I've created an classroom environment where it's okay for my students to suggest other ways to meet the learning objectives. The rewards have been incredible.

My listening with the intend to better understand and know my students has paid off greatly. How are you listening to your students as a way to support their learning?

Nap Every Day: A Metaphor for Education

This past Wednesday night I was given the honour to present as one of the speakers for edvent 2016 where each speaker was asked to chose one line from Robert Fulghum's  poem Everything I Learned in Kindergarten and relate it to education.  After my first choice was already chosen by some else, the line I spoke to was "Take a Nap Every Afternoon".  

For those of you who were not able to attend, here is more or less what I said, with the images that I shared as I went.

According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary a nap is defined as a sleep in the middle of the afternoon. As a grade one, two, and three teacher I think if I tried to have a nap in the middle of the afternoon, while my students were still in class, more than likely I'd no longer have a job. Having said that though, there is a lot we can learn about from a daily nap, even if a metaphoric one.  
I'd like to start with a story, but I must admit there are many truths to my story. This year I work at SAIL, the Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning. It is a blended home school program and falls under distributed learning. My students are most likely no different than yours. They are keen, curious, eager learners. They specifically have chosen to come to SAIL and travel from all over to attend. But for some of my students there is a very specific reason why they left their previous schools. It let them down. When they entered school they thought it was a place to explore their curiosities, but instead they quickly learned it was a place to please their teachers.  Some of my students were disillusioned with the notion of school and felt their voices had little place in THEIR learning.

So again what does this story have to do with a daily nap? What can we learn from that daily nap?

A nap forces us to slow down. As educators we never have enough time. We are always in a rush - We need to cover curriculum, attend required meetings, do our supervisions, learn new things, connect with our colleagues and of course teach our students. And sometimes in the rush I think we  fail to truly get to know our students. I know I certainly can be guilty of that. We need naps to slow down so we can watch and listen more. Not watch and listen to see and hear but to understand our students better.

A nap allows us to pause and reflect. It helps us learn more about our students interests, passions and learning styles.  We learn what makes them happy and what scares them greatly.

A nap allows us to absorb all of this, and worry less about who we expect our students to be and celebrate more of who they truly are.

Each day a metaphorical nap gives us the strength and the courage to reboot and re examine our roll as an educator. We no longer have to  expect our students to do it our way, and we can be open to them learning ways that works best for them. It gives us the opportunity to put our learners back in the centre of their learning where they belong. It can help remind us to switch from saying, “this is how I’d like you to do it”  to more of  “that sounds like a great idea, I can’t wait to see how it turns out”. Regular naps give us the opportunity to make a change to better meet our students needs. Not our needs, our students needs.

And, there are perks to those naps. The process of shutting down, even for just a few minutes allow us to  refresh and be more creative. We are less frazzled and more open to new and different ideas. We can better handle adversity, and develop better resilience and our judgment gets stronger too.  

The productivity both ours and our students, goes up when we put the learning back in their hands. When we do this we support meaningful and magical opportunities for learning for our students.

We need to slow down to avoid burn out.

But more than anything, as an educator, as a mother, as a father, as a partner, as a friend, a daily nap allows us to be good to ourselves. If we aren’t good to ourselves who will be?

So slow down, strive to understand, rest your worries, and have a nap. Our students are counting on us.

Thank you.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Teaching in Beta at SAIL

This year I am teaching at a new district program with Surrey Schools called SAIL - Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning.  This is the "beta" year for the program so there is a lot more unknown than known as we create this unique learning opportunity for our students.  The students who are in my class are there because of a personal decision by their parents to find a program that hopefully better meets their child's needs at this time.  For some it's to get their child excited about coming to school again and for others it's to support their passion for science, technology, engineering, math and art. There are many other reasons why parents have chosen to take a chance and learn with us at SAIL. I feel honoured to be given such a responsibility.

SAIL is a home/school blended program and falls under the distributed learning mandate.  My students are in the building with me four days a week with some flexibility around start and end times.  In some cases the children are the building less than four days a week.  But because school is not just being done in a "brick and mortar" school I am also responsible for ensuring my students have "school work" to do with their families in their homes. It allows for the parents of my students to have a much more active role in their child's learning since they are uncovering 20% (or more) of the curriculum with them directly.  There is an important, on-going relationship between  myself, my students, and their families.

SAIL is also  multi-aged classes.   I am the official K-3 classroom teacher.  For the first few months of  school  I had quite a unique multi-aged class with students in grade one and students in grade three. Yes, you read that correct, I had a one/three without the grade twos.  Because I was missing the 'bridge" between the grades there were times that things were a bit more challenging to best meet every ones needs.  But the beauty of missing the bridge is that it really made me focus on what my students need in spite of what grade they  are officially in.  I think that's one of the beauties of teaching a multi-aged class. As much as government issued curriculum is always something I need to keep in mind, I worry far less about what "grade" each child is in and  I focus more on who they are as learners.

The slight glitch to all of this is that I do, as the teacher, have mandated curriculum that needs to be covered and so I need to find ways to uncover this curriculum in ways that work for my students.  This isn't always an easy task, particularly when uncovering content for three grade levels at once, but with the new BC curriculum, and the curricular competencies which can apply to most of my students passions, it provides me with the opportunity to uncover the curricular content in new and hopefully exciting ways.

One of the struggles I have with this home/blended learning piece is that each week I need to design home learning plans for my students that will be engaging for them, and that their families can help with  as necessary.  I also need to be mindful of the required curriculum because the reality is 20% of my students' learning is done in their own environment. (Okay that line makes me laugh because I know my students do a lot  more than 20% of their learning at home, but in terms of the BC Curriculum and what needs to be uncovered I am leading 80% in the building, and planning for the other 20% to be done in the student's home).  Each week it takes me a while to come up with ideas that are meaningful to my students and tie back to my students' learning.  I will admit some weeks I do a better job at that than others.

A couple of the more recent successful home learning plans that stick out are when we were learning about sound, and when we were learning about trout.  During out sound inquiry  one of the activities for the home learning plan involved them creating an instrument from items they found in their home, and then being able to share their instrument, and where/how the sound was made with their classmates on Monday.  It tied in with both the hands on nature of our class, the science content (for my grade one students), and the science curricular competencies for all of my students.  Click the image below to hear them play their instruments. (Or here if the image link doesn't work)

We were then able to extend the use of these instruments through classroom discussions, in music class, and with reflection.  It was an activity that went beyond the home.

A second home learning activity that made me smile was when we were studying trout in preparation to a visit to a trout hatchery. For  home learning my students were encouraged to design a habitat for a trout to show me what they had learned through our inquiry on trout, and in preparation for our field trip to a local trout hatchery.  As usual the expectations were quite open ended and the children were able to create in ways that worked best for them.  I still smile when I think of the products my students created.  Some took the time to build a trout habitat in minecraft, and explain each of the areas they built.  Others used paper and coloured pencils to draw a trout habitat.  Another used modelling clay to design their habitat.  One even programmed Dash to travel up a river and back to the home where the trout would lay its eggs.  The acceptance of these different ways of showing learning is what I believe is one of the greatest strengths of our program.  As much as I cover mandated curriculum, my focus is on my students, and finding ways to help them learn in ways they are excited about.

The program is also built around a maker mindset where I believe my students have more hands on opportunities for their learning. My students make bread most weeks and have documented the process through images, blog posts, digital books, and coding adventures.  During Valentine's Day they were expected to create their own Valentine folder's. Those folders had to hold their valentines, have their name clearly written, and have a moving part.  I'm always inspired by the way their brains work and what they are able to create.

The SAIL  program  provides me with some innovative freedoms that aren't always available in other environments. The past few years I have been innovative with my teaching when  I felt it better met my students needs.  But my innovative ideas weren't always welcomed by parents who see school in the more traditional way.  So I'm extremely fortunate to be working with children and families who are excited about new ways of teaching and learning.

 While we are still in the BETA year and our numbers are low at the moment the registration forms keep coming in for the new school year. Who knows where we'll be a year from now! #excitingtimesarehere

Curious to learn more? Check out the SAIL website.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Show What You Know with iPad: Using an iPad to Create and Self Assess in the Early Years

I'm often approached by educators looking for the best iPad app.  While my students have their favourite go to apps, what works for my students may not work for theirs.  In fact even my own students can't decide which app is best because each has their own preference depending on what they are trying to do. It's far less about the specific app, then what that app can do to show learning.

For me, the beauty of the iPad and more specifically the apps available for it, is that it allows my students to create, and show their learning in ways that work best for them.  For this reason I have created an iTunes U course titled Show What You Know with iPad: Using an iPad to Create and Self Assess in the Early Years.  This is a free course but does require an iOS device to access it through iTunes U . It can be downloaded onto  an iPod, iPhone, or iPad.

This FREE iTunes U course explores five open-ended creative apps including Skitch, Popplet, Book Creator, Draw and Tell, and Explain Everything. The course walks the reader  through how to use these specific apps and provides examples of how the various apps can been used in a variety of content areas.   The course makes you think about how these apps can work best for your students' learning.

In addition the course also explores ways these same five apps can be used as a tool for student self assessment in a variety of content areas.  Curious to learn more? Download the course. It's free! You've got nothing to lose. :-)

Here is a direct link to the course . For those of you who are already familiar with iTunes U the enrol code is  DCL-MYW-YNB.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls

As part of being recognized as a "Top 12 Global Teacher Blogger" by Cathy Rubin for Huffington Post, I am asked each month to respond to a question.  This blog post is in response to " What are the best ways for a teacher to engage their classroom in a global conversation?"

Before I talk about how to engage students in a global conversation I very strongly believe that a teacher should be involved in one first before expecting their students to engage globally.  For me, personally and professionally, that means connecting with the world through twitter, blogs, and various other on-line platforms.  I ask my questions of other educators both near and far and I learn with and from them.  I strongly believe if I expect my students to have a global conversation, then I should be too. This is not to say that every educator needs to connect the way I connect, but I do feel in this day it is important that you get yourself connected and learn beyond your classroom, school, or district.  Imagine only reading books from one bookshelf, when you have an entire library of great books to read.   

As for my students, I equally believe that they need to be able to learn far beyond their classroom walls.  For this reason our teaching and learning goes beyond our class, school, and district.  My students use tools such as blogs, twitter, and video conferencing to connect and learn with others.  We've taken part in collaborative projects such as the Global Read Aloud with children in other parts of the world.  Video conferencing has allowed my students to learn with others.  Just this morning my students taught children 2,000 km away about Hanukkah. Tomorrow they will be teaching a class within our school.  

So how do you get started?

Start small and bring a friend along. Find a venue that takes you out of your local comfort level.  This may mean joining a collaborative project such as one from  Projects by Jen  , or looking through the learning opportunities available on  Skype in the Classroom.  This isn't meant to be "another thing" to add to your teaching. Learning globally adds to what you're already doing.  For example, to help my students with their number sense, they played "guess my number" with several classes around North America. When they were learning about community they video conferenced with children in different communities to learn what features were common in all communities, and which were specific to where they lived.

Asking experts through twitter, or inviting them to video conference with your class is another small way to learn with the world.  Connecting with an author through twitter has been a pretty straightforward way to learn with others.  There's nothing like havin a tweet replied by someone your students see as important.  There are a lot of great people out there that are willing to help your students learn from an authentic audience.

So whether your first step is a small one or a big one, just be sure to take that first step.  There is so much learning to happen beyond your classroom walls.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

More Than Just an Hour of Code

This past week I hosted the Hour of Code at my new school.  As I mentioned earlier, this school is new to me and as much as I am part of this new school community, I am also the primary teacher for the new SAIL program within our district.  This means in some ways I work for both SAIL, and I work for my new school.

A few of the students in the new school know me because my students and I integrate into their PE classes, or I know them as my "field trip friends" because my class will be sharing a school bus with them.  We've also connected with a class when we have our presentations from the aboriginal culture workers. I've had small chat with many students, but my reality is, I don't know many of the students outside of the SAIL program.

One way to try to fix that is that I decided to host the Hour of Code for the entire school. A week earlier I had daily announcements made inviting students down to my classroom (a part of the school most students don't even know exists) to sign up for one of five tutorials.  Throughout the week I had heaps of children drop by and by Friday afternoon over 100 students had signed up.  How exciting I thought to myself.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) because of the large numbers of students, and the limited access to devices, and the size of my classroom, I broke the groups down into thirds with each group being invited either Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday at lunch.   These students did not disappoint and my room was packed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.  Each child had their own log in card and I was able to get them all up and running.  The beauty of is that students can start a coding tutorial at school, then continue it at home.

As the week progressed things started to change for me.  As I was walking in the hallways more students were coming up to me to say hello, and to ask if was their day to come for coding. They wondered what would happen on Thursday and Friday after every group and been through for their first attempt at the hour of code.  I was slowly becoming the teacher who does coding vs just a body that was seen in the hallways from time to time.  Student were starting to say hello to me by name.

I continued the week of coding over lunch, and on Thursday and Friday anyone was invited to spend the lunch hour with me.  Slowly I too got to know more of their names, and it made me smile to be able to feed their coding curiosity.  I was able to set them up in other tutorials, and to send a few of them home with some bitsbox information.  I was no longer that person they saw in the hallways from time to time, I was an equally important teacher in the school.

I hope that with time the rest of the school community will take notice that as much as I teach in a district program of choice, I am still a teacher, and I want to have a positive influence on any students I come into contact with.  Sometimes being part of something different, people think you aren't really there for them, but that is so far from the truth.

Hosting the Hour of Code has helped bring me into the school's community, and it has made the rest of the school community know that I am there for them too. It's gone way beyond just "the hour of code".  The best part for me (and I hope the students too) is  how excited I am to continue this "coding" with a weekly coding club the rest of the year.  I can't wait to share some of the incredible things these wonderful students will get up to.