Sunday, June 22, 2014

Rethinking Space to Support Collaborative Learning!

    As the push towards collaborative learning grows, so does the importance of reinvisioning learning spaces within our schools to support it. This does not have to mean new construction, or changes to the integrity of the school building. Through thoughtful redesign of every space in a school we can better support innovative instructional practices like: increasing small group purposeful talk, teaching in the power zone (Sean Cain's Fundamental Five) , and the rigor of the task students are engaged in to higher level Blooms.

    Our district uses the Fundamental Five to measure quality instruction and facilitate a common language for teachers and administrators. There is a large focus on teachers facilitating meaningful student talk and working in the "power zone." For this to be done properly, the idea of desks in rows and teachers dominating the learning can't happen. To support this initiative and other instructional practices that encourage student centered learning, I felt compelled to look at every aspect of the learning environment. I became increasingly interested in how physical classroom space supported all of this.  

 I worked closely with a group of educators from my current campus  ( @MR_HUTCHINGS , @HansenArtClass@AltomSarah ) to rethink spaces to support the type of instruction we expected to see. We used the book Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration  as a reference   to look at several open and unused hallway areas to support collaborative learning in our building.  Our hope was to use the model presented in this book to create spaces throughout the building that would increase productivity and creative thinking. 

   We called our first space the "Collaboration Station". With no funds, we had to be simple about what we used to create the space. We took unused desks and put them together as student work areas. We then used old furniture from the library and set up little meeting area for our students. We encouraged students to use the windows for brainstorming with sticky notes and dry erase markers. Teachers started using the space for projects and Administration used the area for our "Grilling for Great Teachers" luncheons. We were able to take an unused hallway space and turn it into an area for learning and camaraderie through simply branding the area as everyone’s space.

   This year we worked on establishing the space, planting seeds for others to rethink their classroom design , and using what we had available. I am happy to report that when the doors of Weatherford Ninth Grade Center open next year we will have made several more improvements to this space. It is movable so that everything can be arranged to fit the needs of the students and teachers using the space that day. Mini collaboration areas will include: a small whiteboard, a small desk area, group seating, and access to a technology piece at each center. Teachers will reserve the space and have access to the “Collaboration Station” which will include the following: Strategically designed collaboration areas for each student group, a brainstorm tool kit (w/ sticky notes, pens, markers, highlighters, and dry erase markers), and one iPad 2 per collaboration group. In this space we would focus on students learning the art of effective feedback, brainstorming, critiquing, and communication. Our inspiration for the final product comes from the pictures below provided on the Stanford D. School website.

   Our hope is for teachers and students to view this space as a home for creative work and collaboration opportunities. Creating space that supports design thinking will support students and teachers in fostering meaningful small group discussions and project/ task outcomes that reflect the strengths of all of the students in a classroom.

   The "Collaboration Station," is only the beginning to the redesign of space on the Ninth Grade Campus. Our librarian, Sarah Altom, has transformed the library into a hub for student's collaborating, reading, learning, and relaxing. She has written and received a grant to completely makeover an unused library room into an interactive media space. There are many more plans being discussed to fully take advantage of the amazing spaces throughout the entire building. 

   I challenge all educators to think about the spaces in your schools. Does it support future ready learning? Does your school create an atmosphere to learn everywhere? Can you make simple changes that will support learning and connectivity in more areas? If so, share your ideas and support the shift!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Scared to Try Something New? Let your Students be Your Guide!

 In today's classroom, teachers may often feel overwhelmed with the expectation to keep up with new technology opportunities. It is hard to find the time to learn how to use new tools effectively in instruction. Every school has different initiatives to encourage teachers to try these new tools and take risks in their classrooms. It may be tech meetings after school, teacher play days to explore thorough experimentation, encouraging teachers to attend relevant pd, or instructional technology teams that work one on one with teachers in the classroom. Sometimes this is not enough, and not everyone is lucky enough to have access to this kind of support. But, have no fear, there is another way that may be even more effective, let your students be your guide!
 To many teachers, the idea of walking into a classroom and not fully understanding how to work every aspect of what you are assigning is terrifying! In 2011 I worked in a district that sent me to extensive PD on Project Based Learning. In order to take this concept back to the classroom and implement it, I had to incorporate a wide range of tech tools to allow my students to connect with experts and share their ideas. There were an exorbitant amount of tools we could use and I had NO idea how to use any of them. That is when an assistant principal on my campus suggested I just let the students figure it out. At first I didn't know what she meant. "But I need to teach them to use the tools," I argued. She assured me they would figure it out and they would even teach me.
I decided to take her advice and let go of the the need for control.  I included students in the planning process and tasked them to find out the best tools for the project we were working on. They jumped on the chance to have a say and came back within days well versed in several different tools that could be used to support the project. Those students became the experts and were available to teach not only me but their peers. The project went smoother than I could have imagined and all of my students  had more choices because they had the help of their peers.
From that experience I began enlisting students regularly to figuring out the new up and coming tech tools. We worked together to develop an understanding of what was actually creating a better experience and not just fluffing up an assignment. 
So next time you have the urge to try something new, look no further than the students in your classroom. They have grown up with technology providing instant information at the push of a button. Including them in your planning and empowering them to contribute and teach their peers will create a buy in to the project and the content.