Listen to the Walls

In preparation for next weeks #pypchat on learning spaces, I thought I would reflect on my walls, and see if the chat changes how I approach it.  At the start of the year, the walls are empty.  Like a blank canvas.  They are covered in butcher paper and bordered with those border packages (I never used them but a staff member recommended it, and it does look more aesthetically pleasing!).  As we learn new concepts or skills, we use marker and write it directly on the board.

[caption id="attachment_1405" align="aligncenter" width="300"] A section of our math wall[/caption]

For subjects like Math and Language, we keep the same paper up all year and keep adding to it.  Like a continuously growing mind-map.  It can get a little messy, but it lets us make connections, draw lines, separate concepts that are different and gel concepts that are similar   Sometimes I do it, other times we collaborate on the walls, other times a student takes it upon themselves to update.  The most important idea that we take away from this is the interaction with the wall.  We use it as a place of research, review, or for developing new ideas.  At the beginning of the year, I find that it is mostly me drawing attention to the wall, but as the year progresses, the kids begin to realize what a resource it is and do it themselves.

Our units of inquiry are a bit different.  I wish I had the space to just leave up all 6 units and have them as permanent histories of our investigations, but I can't for space reasons.  Instead, I have developed the following system.  At the beginning of each unit we start with a blank canvas.  As we get into our inquiry, we add elements to it.  Sometimes we write directly on the board, sometimes we draw, sometimes we glue pieces of paper (the glue is key, as I will explain later).  We are always interacting with it.  It acts as a class brain.  A storage space for memories and ideas.  Like an external hard drive that is always visible.

[caption id="attachment_1406" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Near the end of our health and nutrition unit[/caption]

I print of pictures that I take and stick them up.  We glue reflections.  We choose work that helps us remember or that we are proud of.  Since most of our final products are digital in nature (and posted on the class wiki) I tend to print out examples of work and ask the authors to glue them up.  I try and have each student represented equally in each unit on the board.  At the ned of the unit, we take out the pushpins, take down the large sheet of paper, roll it up, fasten an elastic around it, and put it somewhere safe.  Later in the year, we will come back to it to sum up the year and look for more connections from unit to unit.

For now, we put a new piece of paper.

A blank canvas.

[caption id="attachment_1407" align="aligncenter" width="300"] A blank canvas for a new inquiry[/caption]

There is something soothing and relaxing about seeing that blank piece of paper.  It sets the mood for the inquiry.  We don't know where we are going, but we are going to get there together.  We are going to create something as a collective.  Discover what the blank canvas needs.  And then, we take it down and start all over.



Traveling through the educational blogosphere, it is impossible to not come across Understanding by Design.  I must admit, that it is not something that I have studied in depth and not something that I am that familiar with.  I will get to it, eventually.

What I do know about it, I don't like.  It seems like a linear program designed to guide the learners to a pre-ordained conclusion decided on by the teacher.  It does not seem child centered, but rather planning centered.  The best unit planning template, in my eyes, is a blank piece of paper.

I don't know.  Convince me otherwise.  I don't read too many criticisms of it, just praise.  I want to hear more perspectives.


Why so serious?

Math is a tool.  A way of studying and understanding the world.  The science of numbers and operations.  A logical method for making complex things simple.  A way to uncover the beauty of nature. A serious part of education that is essential for kids to master to be literate in our 21st century.

Sure.  It is all those things.  But, it is also imaginative.  It doesn't have to be connected to anything.  It can just be fun.  A sense of play.  It can be fictional.  Schools tend to treat it as a non-fiction subject that is directly related to the real world, and you must master it because then you won't understand the world and if you don't understand how the world works then you will be missing a key indgredient in the recipe of life..... (why don't we say the same thing about painting?).

I remember coming across a great quote in The Mathematicians Lament by Paul Lockhart (if you haven't read, please do, you will not disappointed and it's only 25 pages!) when I was just in teachers college, and I jotted it down and stuck to the wall in my classroom, where it has been ever since:

I love this conception of math, and I try to include it in my math instruction whenever possible.  Of course we spend the majority of our time on real-life things, like graphing results from surveys, measuring land to build a house, or finding the area to tile a kitchen floor (because those will be incredibly useful skills to have when they grow up, I re-tile my kitchen floor at least once a month, and I am constantly building houses, in random places and I just leave them there, I have no idea if anyone actually uses them or not, and as for surveys, I hand them out every weekend and analyze the data in my free time).

Sometimes, I like to pose a problem that has nothing to do with anything, has no real world value or application, but is purely intellectual, interesting, and downright puzzling.  The kind of problem that leaves you scratching your head, but unable to look away.  There is some great thinking in those types of puzzles.  For an awesome treasure trove of such problems and questions see 101qs.

Math doesn't have to be about the real world.  It can be an imaginative world, one of your own creation, like any fictional writing, but you are bound to rules and laws.  Within those rules and laws, you can create or make anything that you wish.  The book Flatland is a beautiful thought experiment of mathematical wonderfulness, but it is also a sharp criticism of the political climate of Victorian England.  Mathematical thinking can be artistic.

When I asked my kids (and some partners down in Yokohama who we have regular math problem solving sessions with on skype) how many hot dogs could you stack one on top of another to go from the ground to the top of the Tokyo Sky Tree, I didn't care that the answer would have no value for them in their lives.  It is a thought experiment, a way of playing with math in your head, testing yourself and what you know, making assumptions, understanding what information is relevant, choosing the next direction you will take on your own and not just blindly following a procedure or an algorithm, checking assumptions, seeing the multiplicity of mathematical ideas, etc.

My kids enjoy these types of questions (or at least they like posing them, we are working on the solving part!), and after the skype session was over, sitting in the cafeteria eating our lunch, we came up with more.  How many grains of rice would it take to fill this cup?  How many oranges could fit in this room?  How many people could stand in this room shoulder to shoulder?

Its fun.

Play with it.

Leave the serious study to serious things, like painting and sculpting.


Visible Thinking; I used to think... but now I think....

Context: Studying health, nutrition and fitness; we had a Yoga PE lesson.  Most of the kids had never done Yoga before, some had, and a couple do it regularly.

This is the simplest of Making Thinking Visible routines, just fill in the blanks and finish the sentence, or maybe even turn it into a paragraph (or a whole essay for older kids?).  Yet, it is one of the most powerful.  Before we started our Yoga lesson, we brainstormed words that we associated with our conception of Yoga and wrote them on the white board.

Then, we followed along with the Youtube video and did a thirty minute workout.

After the workout, we caught our breath, had a drink of water, a little mediation time, and then we brainstormed a new list of words that we thought about what we just experienced.

Great routine.  Really put into perspective what they thought at the outset, and how it changed after the activity.  I loved that we did something physical also.  This was my first attempt to link the Visible Thinking routines to PE, since I don't normally teach it.  Hopefully the kids are beginning to see how these strategies cross disciplines and apply to all parts of life.

Some of my favorite reflections:

  • I used to think Yoga was calm and relaxing, but now I think that my body hurts and I am tired.

  • I used to think I would feel squishy after, but now I feel only pain.

  • I used to think it was like meditation, it would calm my body and mind, but now my back hurts and I can't think because I am tired.

  • I used to think that Yoga would be my favorite, but now I think it is my third favorite (1 is golf and 2 is ballet)

  • I used to think it was fun, but now I think it is torture.


Food Exchange

In grade 5.6 we have been talking a lot about food recently.  Studying nutrition and health it was inevitbale.  My wife, who happens to be the Japanese teacher for my class, mentioned to a Korean student how much we love chapchae.   A couple of days later, we received a bag of noodles and instructions on how to make it, along with a couple of sets of korean chopsticks.  Being Japanese (and Canadian), we could not let a nice deed pass without recopricating, so we passed along a favorite of ours with a recipe attached, Quinoa.  Though not a Japanese dish, it is one of our families favorites.

Tonight (moments ago) I received an email from the student saying that their family had just enjoyed a nice Quinoa dinner and very much enjoyed it.  This got me thinking about food, but not in the health sense that we have been looking at it in class, rather in a more global sense of connection making.  Culture and food are so intricately linked to each other that they are often confused as each other.  When doing units on culture in an inquiry school, we tell ourselves that we need to move beyond the three F's of food, flags, and festivals and get to the deeper meaning of the concept.  Yet, there is some truth to food being.  The food we eat is very much a part of where we come from, and where we come from is very much a part of our culture.  I found it fascinating that a Japanese/Canadian mixed family could sit down an enjoy a gift from a Korean family, and a Korean family could sit down together and enjoy a gift from us.  We were not present at either dinner, but we were sharing our culture, our histories, and how we live.  Our cultures were in contact with each other because of our connection through school, but it is us who reached out and shared.  Due to the gift giving nature of both cultures, the reciprocity involved allowed the connection to take place.

As I continue to reflect on this, I realize that what we are doing is extending the borders of school, reaching out our hands and connecting schools to families, adding another link in the chain of who we are, and how we live.  This web, which started with food, has connected two families that have never met each other (so to speak) in a way that is deep and authentic.  The boundaries between school and home seem a little more porous, and the lines that we set up as a society (school or organization) are a little more blurred.  Our cultures were shared, but is was deeper and more meaningful.  It was not just our surface culture that we shared, but our cultures, the cultures of our families.  In doing so, we strengthened the web between school and home, between parent and teacher, and between student and teacher.

Visible Thinking; Sentence -- Phrase -- Word

Context: Finishing up a large project in which the kids wrote an e-book explaining what all those words on nutrition labels mean.

The basic progression of this routine is very simple, but the thinking is complex.  The book recommends this as a way to open up a discussion, but I used this as a way of winding one down.  Instead of kicking off an inquiry, we used it to help us remember what we just did.

Sentence: Write a sentence that sums up your project.  This was hard, they had to stick to the bare basics and the big picture.  In other wards, the concept, whereas the research project itself was focusing more on the content.  After researching and writing about all the details, here I was, asking them what it means in one sentence.  This gave me instant assessment feedback.  I knew the kids who really knew their stuff, and I could see the ones who didn't and help them along.

Phrase: One the sentence was written, this part was actually really easy!  The sentence was by far the hardest but this just emerged naturally.  Interesting to note that they immediately went to metaphor for this phase.  True, we have been working explicitly on using metaphors to explain science, but I didn't force them to do that, yet most of them did.  Perhaps they are finding the value in using the metaphor, so much so they are using them without my explicit request?  I'll have to keep an eye on that... interesting thought....

Word: Same as above.  It was intricately linked to the phrase and a natural continuation of the metaphor.

Visible Thinking: The Explanation Game

Context: We are about to start a short personal inquiry into what a diet is, and how they vary from someone who is trying to lose weight, to a power lifter who wants to pack on the muscle.  They are all diets.

Name it: The first step was to give what they see a name.  Some called it dinner, but then others interjected and said that it could be lunch.  Others jumped right to meal, while some took it further to healthy meal, and even balanced meal.  This was a great discussion because on first glance it is simple, its a meal, but as you start to look more you realize that there is some kind of organization behind this meal.

Explain it:  I asked the kids to go a bit deeper and explain why we are talking about it.  They made comments like, because we are studying health, and we talked about food last week.  This stage caused some struggles, they were unable to connect with this any more than because we are a doing a unit on nutrition.  Frankly, I struggled with this step as well.  I couldn't really differentiate it from the next stage which is to...

Give Reasons:  This stage was great.  Why do you think its a balanced mean?  The kids started pulling out all the jargon from the last three weeks, talking about different types of fat and the importance of natural sugars.  We wrote them all down as point form notes centered around the Name it phase on the table.  It was beautifully messy and a great lesson in the importance of writing notes in brief/informal language.  The groups that tried in full sentences filled up the table and found a huge mess on their hands.  Sorry, no pictures, my phone was dead.... can't believe I missed that!

Or....:  Here, I asked them to go back to the first Name it stage, and I asked, what if you were wrong about that?  What else could it mean?  Each group has a conversation about what else it could have been.  We didn't record our results for this, but rather thought of it as a kind of oral thought experiment.  It took what they experienced in the first few stages and tangled it up and made it messy.  They thought they had constructed a really strong case, but as they talked they began to doubt their original ideas, which is precisely the point, and why I think this is such a powerful step to this routine.  Sometimes, we need to take what is comfortable with us and tangle it up until we can't recognize it.  Being comfortable with that uncertainty is a powerful life skill....



Content and Concepts; Key Vocabulary

Content and Concepts are autopoietic by nature; they create one another and are created by one another.  Like it or not, even if we swear to the moon that we are teaching a concept based curriculum, we still need content.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="167"] A simple auto-poietic system, replace the names in the two boxes with content and concept[/caption]

Part of process of becoming functional within the concept is getting to know the content; specifically the language and jargon that a given field (subject, discipline, what have you) use.  The word Line means something different if you are studying Maps than it does it you are studying Communication Systems.  Sifting through this language can be a difficult task, especially if you have ESL students who are still mastering the language.

One way I have found that helps this is gDocs.  At the start of every unit, we create a new Key Vocabulary document that we all have access to.  Throughout the unit we revisit this document and build it together, use it is as place to gather information, help us write, remind us, or challenge what we know and push the learning further.

CLICK FOR EXAMPLE (this is our current vocabulary list and it is a work in progress)

Here are some ideas on how to engage with this:

  • Have one student assigned to be the Key Vocabulary expert everyday; when we come across a new word they put it in, either at home or in the class (assuming you have a functional computer in your class)

  • At the end of a project or large activity, have all students go into the document and update all of their key words

  • Put a word and definition in the document that is inaccurate, and have the students find it and discuss how it should be changed

  • When writing blog posts or reflections, have it opened in another window to assist with memory recall with the content

  • Have the students sort and resort the words according to different criteria

  • Use it as a way to inquire into the differences between nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.

  • Print them off at the end of each unit and create a vocabulary book for the year

Any other ideas?  Please share.


Editing Ferris Wheel

Context: We are researching what all those things on Nutrition diagrams are and creating an e-book about them using iBooks Author.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="219"] What does all this mean?[/caption]

Continuing from yesterdays ideas on group writing, today we tried some group editing.  There was a two-fold purpose to this; firstly, I wanted them to read what others had written in their research projects.  This was a good way to share what others had found and learned.  Next, I wanted them to work on editing and give the book a more uniform voice.

We had ten people in a group, and started by editing our own, then passed it around the circle.  Each person found small mistakes or made slight improvements.  It was amazing to read the what the kids found, and you could see different strengths and weaknesses combining to create a product that only a collective could. Some students were good at noticing the Capitalization, others were great with using commas.  Some had a sharp eye for spelling, while others were good at questioning whether the sentence actually made any sense.  The end result was a rewrite of our original work, this time with the input of ten other brains, not just the teachers.  And to be quite honest (and I worked in editing for a brief time), they did way better then I ever could have done if it were just me on my own!

The whole really is stronger than the sum of its parts.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Beautiful Learning[/caption]


The Simplest Thing

How wonderful it is to sit back and watch learning happen.  My students are working science fiction stories to go with our Unit on health and the human body.  They have to incorporate the real facts and science into a story.  We are using this to work on writing a realistic setting, how to write dialogue in our writing, and powerful words that help the reader visualize the story.  That is the explicit instruction that I lead.  However, I decided to try something different, something that I'm sure many teachers have done before, but something that I have never included in my writing instruction.  This time they are co-writing their stories with a partner.

As I sit and listen I hear the items that I expecting to hear from our joint sessions; they are discussing the setting, they are examining their dialogue, and they are debating over which word is more powerful.  However, there is more happening then just the items I wanted them to discuss.  They are talking about tenses, punctuation, verb-adjective relationships, transitions, and adverbs of frequency (those are just the few I noted in the last minute I was listening).  They are teaching each other.

I have no idea why it took me so long to try this.  I always assumed that writing was an individual endeavor (and I will do individual stories again in the future), but now the power of the collective writing voice is too strong for me to go back.  Also, using googledocs, we can have two students on computers next to each other, talking to each other will both editing the same document.  Tomorrow, we are going to swap stories and have somebody else edit our work.

This was a big day for me.  I realized how if given the right circumstances, and the an engaging task, just how much kids will take the learning on themselves, and just how valuable that dialogue of doing is.  I will focus on the three main points that I am making explicit, and I will let them deal with the rest.



I had a long list of things I was going to do over our Fall Break; blogposts, assignments, writing, planning for the next unit, etc. Instead, I ended up doing nothing. I disconnected and spent some quality time with my boy. We went on a short vacation. Watched movies. Relaxed. Went to a drumming festival. And now I feel completely re-engerized and ready for the next term. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all.