Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Dissecting The Un-Makerspace: Recycled Learning

A 1980's cassette player, a broken computer mouse, an old monitor... all ready for the dumpster... drop it by my classroom! Why? For my "Un-Maker Space" inspired by my first journey to the Bay Area Maker Faire two years ago. This Steampunk Mad-Scientists event with its many innovation, creative geniuses and 100,000’s of onlookers descending on the San Mateo, California area with such a wide array of inventions, it would be hard not to be inspired!

IMG_2510.JPGLet's step back for a moment.  I love all the recent focus on Maker Spaces in schools. If you’re not familiar with what a Maker Space is check out this blog by Vicki Davis. Basically a Maker Space is a place for students to take raw materials and create “things” using their imagination. The creativity required and the "in-time" learning that a maker space provides is powerful. I saw an example of the power of "making" this last school year when I had students, who would normally struggle in a traditional class, create things such as a working catapult fashioned out of popsicle sticks, rubber-bands and cardboard.

My journey into exploring the power of making continues for a 3rd year with two added goals. First,I plan to expand the depth of learning that goes with "making" by creating Maker Connection Logs where students write, take photos, and record short videos to show their thinking while making connections between curriculum areas and their creations. The goal of the “Maker Logs” is for students to be able to give me insight into their creative process, thinking and provide a way for reflecting with the hopes of improving the future process of "making."

My second goal, which I recently accomplished, is to create an "Un-Maker Space." Simply put, a space where kids can take things apart.  So many of the creative geniuses I met at the Bay Area Maker Faire two years ago spoke of taking things apart when they were kids. Watching my 3 year old son recently take apart his toy vacuum really solidified this idea for me. We all have this inner drive to create an understanding of the world around us. This is founded in the desire to answer all the "why" and "how" questions in our thoughts. Why did that little wheel spin when I pushed the play button on that cassette player? How did the electricity get from the cord into the monitor and then create a picture? How can I take this apart?  So my students will have a space to dissect all the discarded and unwanted items and to ask those questions. In this un-maker space they’ll have the chance to explore the possible answers.

How will I do this? Garage sales! Tool donations, safety gear... And a means for them to log their dissections through writing, photos and video as we explore the scientific way to take things apart.  I see many opportunities for learning including opportunities in math, writing, critical thinking, fine motor skills, and a chance to help develop a greater level of executive functioning skills (to name just a few).  I work hard to foster an atmosphere where student questions drive their desire to learn and this fits right in with it.

Beyond all the learning taking place in the dissection process, it will provide opportunities for students to try and rebuild or use the parts to create something new.

IMG_3576.JPGSo join me and grab those broken cassette tape players before they get tossed into the dumpster. Smile when you see a keyboard that isn't working, and celebrate that old laptop with the broken screen that is out of warranty. It's all how we look at things, our mindset, that can lead us to finding "new" in the old, new questions to answer, new places to explore and new learning to gain. As for those broken "unusables," they get a second life by becoming another learning opportunity for our students! When will you have an UnMaker event in your classroom or at your site?  

I'd love to hear your thoughts. I would also be happy to share the guiding document I created to use with my "Un-Maker" teams.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Assigning Optional Homework?

So... Should homework be required or eliminated?

A few years back, my district went through an exercise of looking at homework and our policies surrounding it.  Meetings were had, discussions and debates occurred, and in the end... nothing much seemed to have changed.  I understand why... this is a tough issue! Homework, after all, is truly a pillar of education.  So as the debate over homework seems to continue on like Pink Floyd's song "Comfortably Numb" ...looped..., some arguing for it and others against it, all with no solution... I'd like to propose an optional new policy... The Optional Homework Policy.  The optional homework policy states this... "Students, if you or your parents would like you to complete homework, then here are your options."  Yes, giving the decision making power, to have or not have homework, over to the students and their families. Crazy!?  Will Not Work!  Kids' Scores Will Drop!  Before you judge, please think growth mindset... and know that I've actually been testing this out over the past school year with positive results for all parties involved with the homework debate.

There are three basic explanations/reasons why I reconsidered required or no homework:

Grades, Grades, Grades...

As teachers we have the choice to calculate homework into a grade or not.  Most teachers I know have homework as a small percentage of a student's overall performance, yet many of the report card conversations between teachers, parents and students, from my experience and as shared with by many other teachers, revolve around the topic of missing or late homework.  Now I don't believe that something should be changed to avoid a conversation, but these conversations can often become distractors or points of contention between parent and student, student and teacher, and teacher and parent, thus creating problems in partnerships that are vital to real learning. These homework conversations are another draw away from the important conversation about learning, true student needs, and areas of growth.

The important question to ask oneself about homework grades is why is it being given?  The typical answer would be work completion, practice of concepts or responsibility at primary levels, and preparation at the higher levels.  Most don't say that the primary or important factor in homework is as a diagnostic tool to report to parents on a students ability or performance. There's too many variables that impact homework to use it as a diagnostic for student learning or as a tool to help guide future lessons and instruction. When homework becomes optional though, the feedback, and not the grade, become more important to the learner.  Feedback is how we learn.  I've seen the focus shift and become about the quality rather than the completion. So rather than giving grades based on completion of work, grades can continue to move towards being about reporting levels of learning growth.

Help or lack of it

It's a "Goldie Locks" deal... some get too much, some not enough and others just the right amount. While parents and teachers are often on one side or the other in this debate, the optional homework policy pleases all. Ideally the parents who may offer too much help to a child, thus taking away their chance to feel the success that builds confidence, find that their help (which is at times aimed at grades) becomes obsolete and the focus shifts to supporting a child's learning.  Fewer conflicts occur between child and parent and student and teacher.  On the other hand, the student that always struggles with homework, and comes to our learning environments already with a feeling of failure, now is far more open to learning.

Real Impact?

On a study my teaching partners and I did in 2007, surrounding homework's true impact, we found that through a comparison based in data, the students who received less homework (in the subject area of math for our study) had three key factors surface.  First, parents reported better relationships with these children. Next, students positive attitudes and feelings towards learning and school showed a measurable increase as well as in-class focus and participation based on surveys and observable evidence by two outside teachers watching the three groups in class for engagement and effort. Finally, the group who received the least amount of homework, actually showed the highest percentage of gains from pre-assessment to post assessment on the math concepts.  Again, with the number of variables, I can't say beyond doubt that homework or lack of it, was the factor that truly made the difference, but it did play a key factor.

Still not convinced... Me either

My main hope is to "get you up on the fence" about this topic so you can look down on both sides and clearly evaluate homework requirement practices and why they are in place.  One quote that sticks with me came from some of the additional video content from the movie Race to Nowhere.

"Homework may be the greatest single extinguisher of children's curiosity that we have yet invented..."

So, where do our fears as educators and in education lie with letting go of homework? Are we giving homework because it's always been done or because it makes a positive impact?  If you believe it makes a positive impact, what real concrete proof do you have that it's the homework providing this improvement?

I write this blog only to encourage you to question things that have always been... I hope you'll question some norms... maybe even check out my previous post titled "Subversive Education Unconference Style"

My Steps and Results

So what did I do to make homework optional? Well... when I change things I don't only consider the implementation I will make, but I consider "will others be able to do this too?"  Confession... This isn't for everyone. Baiscally I took the assignments I would normally assign and said... "This is optional..."  after all, I have no foundational research to show homework was actually beneficial, so how could I justify continuing a required practice that no one could prove even worked after decades and decades of research and debate.  So rather than stop giving it, or continuing to require it... I made it optional leaving the decision to the parents and students.

How has my experiment gone? First, please know I wouldn't have tested this without the data from the study we did in 2007 and a great deal of research... but it's been great!  One of the most positive outcomes I've seen is that it's pushed me as an educator to continue create in-class assignments that drive kids to want to continue their learning on their own at home, intrinsically, by choice. It's so rewarding to have my students have the desire to learn more about a subject I'm teaching, because it's one of the main reasons I went into teaching... to inspire my students to learn.  In addition, many students who have wilted under "required homework" policies have started to blossom and come to life as learners in my subject areas.  I can't say beyond a doubt that The Optional Homework Policy has alone created the success and desire to learn I've seen, as I'm always trying new ways to inspire my students to learn, but I do feel confident it's been a key contributing factor to success for both my students and myself.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

Are you going to try The Optional Homework Policy? Tweet at me or comment to let me know.  My next action step... student choice self-assigned homework. I'll let you know how it goes...

Additional reading on the homework debate that's gone on since the early 1900's ACSD's look at Homework through the 20th and 21st Centuries

Thanks so much for reading!  With my best hopes for you and your students!

Subscribe and check out my next blog post on Creating E-Magazines with your students or read my recent post on Live Broadcasting: Creating Your Own Student Press Conferences!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Subversive Education Un-Conference Style!

It takes distance for me to really get a full perspective. I think of the many drives I’ve taken into Yosemite Valley, stopping at Tunnel View or standing at Glacier Point, looking back on the tree filled valley, river winding, rock formations surrounding it like the hand of God holding this amazing location in it’s palm.  It’s that perspective, that can be found in those lookout spots in life.  Likewise while standing at the base of El Capitan and looking up at the largest monolith of granite in the world or being drenched on the Mist Trail by two massive waterfalls towering over in Vernal and Nevada Falls, you can feel so small and in your surroundings.  Surfing gives me this same perspective as I'm sure something in your world gives you. For me, both the near and far have moments that provide perspective.

Breakfast Pre-Edcamp LA
Edcamp LA Photo Walk
Please know, I loved my experience at EdCamp LA, but it does not compare to the inspiration that Yosemite holds for me personally.  Yosemite is simply my way to show a clear distinction of perspective.  EdCamp LA in every way was an awesome experience for me as an educator. This blog post though is my "Tunnel View" or "Glacier Point Perspective" and not my valley experience on EdCamp LA.  

My valley experience would be filled with my conversations with the dedicated educators I spoke with throughout the day starting at breakfast with Sean, Chris, Elizabeth, Senna, Greg and David leading into the jokes and smiles with amazing educators like Bill, JR, Elana, Jo-Ann and others.  It would have the details of how to take Minecraft use in my classroom to the next level, or the meandering photowalk from the depths of the parking garage to the highest point of the four story school building rooftop playground.  Some of those details are now difficult to see as my memory fails me regularly, others are only valuable when emerged in the experience itself.   What remains are those big ideas, those "Half Dome" landmarks that impact my view on the classroom and my instructions.

Looking back two things still standout to me and come to mind regularly...

First: Courage and Connection

Courtyard Connection
During the session I had put on the board titled Subversive Education (I'll tell about that coming up) , backed away from the circle of seats I had adjusted, sat a lone lady. I spoke encouraging words for her and others to join the circle for the session. Most did... she did not. As we got to the heart of the session many of the group were agreeing on one specific topic but not that one unlikely vocal teacher who sat outside the discussion. She got major pushback from the group as a whole but this teacher had the courage to speak against what most in the session were sharing about and brought up some very valid points. I admired that despite the pushback, she still spoke. For me, her subversive perspective on one of the topics in the session was beautiful!   

As I ate lunch in the courtyard outside, I saw that same teacher, again off on her own, eating lunch.  I wanted to learn more about her and the courage I felt she demonstrated. I approached her and started up a conversation. I'm an introvert and connect better one on one and feel a bit awkward in large social setting even though I push myself to participate in them (& why I picked the title of an upcoming blog of mine On Being Social Media Awkward). As I did, one of the educators I respect the most, Genein Letford, came out and I invited her into our conversation. As Genein and I learned more about this special education teacher, I could see the courage she had and knew this was how she taught. With courage. As much as I feel Genein and I may have shared with her about things, I was incredibly inspired by her story and courage. Although there is so much more to the story and the conversation, I will leave those details on the "valley floor." Those in the session may remember her for taking a not so popular stance. I'll remember our conversation and that she spoke up with courage and that was truly why I posted the Subversive Education session at EdCamp LA. She was the model of disruption and looking from a distant vantage point the details fade, but the monument of courage and connection stands.

Second: Subversion/Disruption 

I whole heartedly believe in the concept of disruption. I see the value that disruption creates. I see the beauty that comes from subversion. My quick definition of subversive education/disruption is a teacher, a group of educators or an organization going against the norms (norms like pacing guides, standards, and the enforced requirements) all in the effort to create a more powerful learning opportunity for their students. It's not about opposing things, but about providing innovation that leads to deep learning and potentially systemic changes. After all... if all we do is follow the same path set out before us, innovation would not occur. So I taped up (on the outside of the session boxes encouraged by Sean and Vicki) on the EdCamp LA board "Subversive Education: What cool things are you doing that don't fit the standards or Common Core?" Selfishly I wanted to have this session to confirm what I suspected, that I wasn't the only one experimenting with new strategies and pedagogy in this transition time between standards. I wanted to know what other efforts where happening to innovate and positively impact kids lives and educational experience... but happening "somewhat underground." 

The session started with me sharing about a non-education speaker I had listen to a few weeks prior at the 2014 OC Business Outlook (I believe I was the only k-12 teacher among thousands at that event). He had told stories about small start-up companies disrupting the way things worked for the big corporations and how the big corporations could "deal" with these small disruptors. I was so inspired, but I'm not sure it was how the speaker intended. I didn't hear his message from the big business view, I heard it from the view of the disruptor. I figured that if we, as small "classroom start-ups,"could innovate and disrupt, then the education world would have to shift from the same old thing and change just like the shift small start-ups named Google, Apple, YouTube and others did to the world of information and technology.  

To lead the sharing of risks in the Subversive Education session, I told my personal stories of having a class pet that wasn't allowed. No big deal. I was hoping to start small and lead up to a climax of education changing discussions and idea generation. I spoke of trying to podcast with my students several years before and having our district place a sticker on my personal Apple computer that I brought in to use to produce the student "Stories in History" podcasts. The sticker simply said along the lines of "This is Not An Approved Electronic Device and Must be Removed Immediately!" along with some other district rules for power use. I know neither of these I shared were massive disruptions, but both had the intent of providing a positive experience for my students.  

The session was off and running with many of the other amazing teachers sharing stories of subversion, some big and some small. The discussion went in many directions all with the continued hope of sharing about educational lessons that didn't follow the norms or standards, but that these dedicated educators knew were good for their students. It was empowering to know this was happening all over. I hope if you read this, you too will share your story of disruption and subversion with others. I also hope to see Subversive Education sessions cards pop-up (on the outside of session boxes of course) on session boards at other EdCamps! After all... it is the Un-Conference and perfectly disruptive itself!

* I'm thankful for the time I spent at EdCamp LA. It was a valuable investment that has paid off over the last two month in my classroom and my teaching spirit. I'm so thankful to the educators and contributors who took their time to organize such an awesome event. If you haven't attended an EdCamp I hope you'll consider it soon. Most importantly, I hope you'll become a disruptor of the norm, working to innovate the educational experience we provide for our most valuable resource... our kids!

For Info or Support in Starting Your Own Subversive Education Session at Edcamp, Please Contact Me @TASFair or @ScottBedley on The Twitters.

Look for the upcoming blogpost on CUE14 and a disruptive topic Optional Homework... Seriously? Thanks again for reading and pardon any errors and formatting issues!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Live Broadcasts: Creating Your Own Student Press Conferences

Each year it becomes a fun challenge to figure out ways to engage my students and connect them with authentic audiences. Along with different uses a technology based activities such as Mystery Skypes, virtual field trips, BYOD and others, I started to broadcast my students in events via Google Hangouts. One such event I’ve held with my students for the past six years called “The Dead Explorers' Press Conference.”

This Common Core-based project is built on a foundation of research, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity (I add a fifth “C” in competition) with students taking on differentiated roles. One of the most powerful aspects has been adding the use of Google Hangouts. Through this addition, our students have the chance to share with a global audience all they've learned about explorers in a "typical press conference" style activity with press in the audience and explorers up front. I decided to broadcasted the event live so I could provide an authentic audience by inviting other classrooms to watch and learn. Several classrooms have joined us to observe from locally here in Southern California to across the country in North Carolina and other places in-between.

Let me paint a more detailed picture. Eight to ten students (of my 35) take on the rolls of being explorers. They work to keep their "explorer identity" secret from the other students. Those not taking on the role of explorer take on the role of reporters and team up to start their investigation. Their job, as reporters, is to first research and understand all the key explorers and their information that we are focused on and gather. They organize the information to create questions. I take time to teach my student reporters about the different types questions that fall into bloom’s taxonomy ranging from simple to complex. (Confession - Many tend to still use yes or no questions when the press conference begins, but it’s all a process of learning) As the students research background information to become reporters and build their bank of questions. Meanwhile the other students are researching in depth to “become” one individual explorer. Reporters... Explores... it sounds a bit crazy but it's incredibly motivating and exciting for the kids.  

After four one hour sessions of research, information gathering, and preparation, the students are ready for their press conference. The goal for the reporters is to use their research and questions to solve who the Mystery Explorers are part of the press conference.  

Student reporters choose news outlets to represent from such as Yahoo News, NY Times, and even local TV news channels.  The broadcast begins. Reports shout out to try and be recognized and ask their question. The kids love this... Their teacher requiring them to shout out... Awesome!  Being broadcast increases the energy, desire to succeed, and overall performance of the students.  The kids know other students are watching and this creation of an authentic audience adds excitement, accountability as well as motivation for students to produce high quality end products and accurate information.  The results of learning are demonstrated in the writing project that comes after the event.  

After a series of questions, reports must write an article identifying who they believe each of the 8-10 “Mystery Explorers” to be by providing evidence from their research that matched the answers given by each explorer to the questions in the press conference.

While reporters write their articles via Google docs, my student “explorers” write an in-depth reflection piece on their individual explorer along with a comparison to the other European Explorers. They tell why their explorer deserved their acknowledgement they have received in history. Although my press conference is focused on the Age of Exploration, it’s a lesson frame that is easily adaptable to all types of content.

To start broadcasting your class you can take the same steps I took or find an even faster way.  First, and most importantly, be sure your students have waivers/parent permission to take part in such an online event.  I had also already previously created my YouTube Channel, Gmail and Google Plus Accounts, all important. You’ll need a webcam and external mic to best capture the content.  Using Google Hangouts, I started my broadcast, but we were not live broadcasting yet. Starting the hangout gave me my link to share. Once I had a link for my Hangout On-Air I shared that link via our class website, Twitter and Edmodo. Then just click “broadcast” and you’re live!  Just imagine the positive impact your class can have on the world!

It's been impressive to see the students during their press conference.  They not only step up to the challenge, but they exceed my expectations.  Although I’ve only touched on a few aspects, the depth of learning this project provides is far beyond any lecture or history book unit and the addition of an authentic audience through live broadcasting the event only increases the quality of work. Check out this years conference!

Dead Explorers' Press Conference

Friday, February 7, 2014

Punk Rock 2.0 - Education's New Song

Circa' 1984 - In the town next to mine, in a drainage ditch my friends and I had discovered we could use for skateboarding, we settled in for a day of grinding our Independent Trucks on an liberated parking block. Our then cheap Emerson tape player (that wouldn't even qualify as a true 80's ghetto blaster) played cassettes from bands like Youth Brigade, the Toy Dolls, 7 Seconds, T.S.O.L., Minor Threat, and others (who never made official albums only cassette tapes) urged us to not only express ourselves, but to create, have humor and challenge what was accepted about society, without waiting and without limitation.

The music itself wasn't created by brilliantly trained musicians, nor would it ever really gain mainstream acceptance like many pop-punk bands of the late 80's and 90's that you hear playing in the background of Target and hotel lobbies.  The music did allow for freedom of thought and raw creativity and was created by brilliant minds.  It's voice came mainly from suburban middle class kids who'd been forgotten, rejected because of not fitting societal norms, who couldn't live up to the standards set for them by the boomers, or maybe who were even bored and unchallenged mentally with the norm. These punk rock kids, like me, were not willing to compromise to fit in, but instead lived with strength.

David Theriault 
Oliver Schinkten
This same strong clear voice is starting to be heard, not in garages, community centers, or abandoned homes with empty pools, but in classrooms, free professional development gatherings and via social media throughout the world.  Dare I say there is an Education Revolution (#edurev for my tweeps). There is a generation of educators using this current transition time, as we move from the knowledge straining, creativity choking standards to the next effort to reform education referred to as the "Common Core," to create a raw experience of learning like never before.  In the classroom "garages" people like Oliver Schinkten, Catlin Tucker and David Theriault are creating their own learning punk rock and they are not looking to follow any sheet music. These strong voices are coming from teachers like Ramsey Musallam, administrators like Joe Sanfelippo along with educators of all ages who are tired of the norms of the educational society and desperate to write a new song on their own, focused on creation and all willing to challenge the norm.
Catlin Tucker
Joe Sanfelippo

Ramsey Musallam

Their song plays out with passion just like those punk bands of the early and mid 1980's.  It's one of a deep desire for change.  It's testing the limits of how education is defined.  It's one that can sometimes feel intolerant of the old "school of education" thought, because of the desire to create the new, just like the punk music that inspired me as a youth.  And like that punk music, it's messy, off-key and for many "educational elites" sounds and looks like noise.  How could there be free professional development like EdCamps or the remixed version EdCampHome that actual draws teachers on their own time to grow and learn from each other not a $5000 1 hour keynote? These new un-conference #edupunk keynotes are paid (like all those who attending) in free swag that may value $12 from the many education tech startups wanting to connect with the movement and keynoting is available to any teacher or administrator with an innovative idea who is willing to share.

How does this punk song play out in the classroom? This new music is noisy with the sounds of students actually communicating with one another along with the teacher and challenging each other to learn more.  It's song is of students choosing to learn instead of being "taught at." Its sounds are of collaboration and critical things, of computers and tablets.   It reverberates the passion of the hearts of the learners, and avoids the restrictions of any structures, scripts or pacing guides.  It's the sound of learning and the volume is being turned up by those puck rock educators.

My caution to you, fellow agitators, innovators and creators, my fellow #edupunks, please know those of you pressing the norms, the push back is coming.  Your efforts though will empower a generation to think and create, to question and flight for what they believe in, to grasp at learning and not grades. I don't write this post with a light heart.  I take risks everyday and fail, but I'm not playing my #edupunk rock to change the minds or views of the educational traditionalists or elites, I will never be a part of them, those who see teaching as a means to control learning and knowledge.  I'm playing my songs to empower a generation of students who will face greater obstacles, who are creative and brilliant, and who despite many believe need to pay their dues by suffering through a traditional controlling education, will flourish when given the chance to play their own music and to have their passion for learning allowed to continue to burn bright rather than extinguished by the very system that's meant to add logs.

So pickup your guitar and drumstick with me.  Turn up your Amp. Learn and Create. Play loud and fast.  Question the norms with that passion for impacting your students my fellow punk rock teachers.  Promote your concerts using the tools of today.  Make free demo tapes for anyone willing to listen.  If we don't take the lead as we transition to the new "Common Core", if we don't play loud, we'll find ourselves listening to that same old song and so will our students.