Category: Innovation

Learning Space vs. Learning Environment

Learning Space vs. Learning Environment

My science classroom space has changed dramatically over the last five years as I embraced an innovator’s mindset and shifted our classroom learning environment from a teacher centered space where I dictated the course of our learning path including destination points to a student-centered space where students chart their own learning journeys under the umbrella of our science learning objectives with guidance from me.  As I embarked on this change in course, our traditional classroom space began to feel stifling and confining.

Two summers ago, I decided to drastically change our learning space.  I ravaged garage sales and thrift stores and kept a careful eye out for free roadside pickups.  When my students entered our classroom that August, it no longer looked like a typical science classroom.  In fact, it didn’t look like any learning space that most of them had ever encountered before.   Unexpectedly, the students walked in and just looked around, nobody sat down.  They all looked at me as if they were waiting for permission, which it turns out they were.  I invited them to find a seat wherever they felt comfortable and our year began.

I had removed most of the big, cumbersome science lab tables that filled the room before, replacing them with low and high tables.  Many of our ugly, painfully uncomfortable (how can student learners sit in these things for 7 hours every day?) “school” plastic chairs were replaced with a variety of seating choices, high seats, low stools, floor pillows, a couch.  Teachers and students both started to call it the “Starbuck’s café” of the school.  Our transformed learning space encouraged collaboration and creativity.  Students started coming to class early because they felt safe, comfortable and wanted in our learning space.

We made sense of science in this learning space for the next two years, diving into problem-based learning and design thinking.  My students and I loved the flexibility our learning space offered.  We loved being able to rearrange the room to create small group areas for teams to work on their most recent design challenges.  Visitors to our learning space often commented on how welcome they felt upon entering our space.  The depth of thinking my students were engaging in was different.  They were creative, problem focused thinkers.  Considering the impact these changes to the learning space had on the learning that was occurring, I strongly believed the learning space itself was the impetus for the changes I was observing.

Two years later, I had the opportunity to accept a position at another school.  It was a change I needed in my professional and personal life.  The kicker, though, was if I accepted the position, I wouldn’t have my own classroom anymore.  In fact, I would be moving four times throughout the day to three different, very traditional classrooms that I would share with other teachers.  Hmmm…. I thought, learning space is important, it is one of the reasons why I believed my students were so successful.  Always up for a challenge, I decided I would make it work.

I moved around a lot last year (and gained firsthand knowledge of what students feel like throughout their school day).  I packed up all of my classroom furniture and made space for it in the corner of my basement, hoping that I would be able to pull it out again sooner rather than later.  I consolidated fifteen years’ worth of materials, supplies, etc. down to five boxes and I walked into the three very traditional classrooms that I would be teaching science within, two science labs and one math classroom.

As my students and I moved through this year, I started to realize something important.  Not having the learning space that I envisioned was frustrating but it didn’t mean the innovative learning that I had seen the prior two years had to stop.  While we weren’t in what I consider an ideal learning space, at the end of the day, what really mattered was the learning environment, not the learning space.  Deep, innovative learning can happen anywhere.   I didn’t need comfy chairs and choice to create a learning environment where students are comfortable asking deep, thoughtful, hard questions.  I didn’t need flexible seating choices to create a learning environment where student teams are comfortable thinking big and broad, taking risks and failing fast and often.  I didn’t need a space that was easily manipulated and reorganized to create a learning environment where deep thinking and learning was the norm.  Over the course of this year, I realized the importance of the learning environment.  Learning environment, not learning space, cultivates learners.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am still a strong advocate for flexible learning spaces that encourage collaboration, creativity, problem solving and deep thinking.  In fact, when the opportunity arose to move into my own classroom for the upcoming year, I leapt at the chance.  I just believe that the learning space does not need to dictate the learning environment.  So, next week I will pull my flexible seating out of storage.  My students and I will determine how to organize our learning space and create a place where they can put on their best question asking and problem solving hats and get down to the business of deep, hard thinking and learning.  But I will remember that the learning space isn’t nearly as important as the learning environment.  We will create a welcoming environment where student learners feel safe and supported.  We will create a learning environment where student learners think about real problems and issues as they use their science understandings and learnings to tackle these problems.  We will create a collaborative environment that acknowledges the strengths and contributions of every learner, that respects differences in opinions and that honors learner feedback.   Learning spaces are important but, it is the learning environment, created by the learners that occupy it, that cultivates and nurtures deep, positive change.    

“Geeking Out” Thinking Differently about Research in Design Thinking

“Geeking Out” Thinking Differently about Research in Design Thinking

“When research is real, it doesn’t feel like research.  It feels like geeking out.  It feels like learning.”  When I read this in LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, I paused for a moment and thought  “boy, they totally hit the nail on the head”!  I am an inspired learner and when I discover something that piques my interests, I dive in.  Diving in is fun, exhilarating and inspiring!  

I picked up LAUNCH because I am “geeking out” over design thinking.  I have been enamored by design thinking since I was introduced to it several years ago at a district event focused on thinking differently about how professional learning opportunities are created and offered.  After this workshop, I began researching design thinking to learn as much as I could.  My research led me to the Stanford, Creative Confidence by Ideo founders David and Tom Kelley, multiple design thinking workshops and numerous blogs by educators who also saw the promise of design thinking in a classroom setting.  At the same time, I was trying to integrate problem and project based learning into our science classroom.  PBL and design thinking seemed to blend nicely.  

My first attempt at PBL and design thinking was a chemistry unit where students designed, built and tested filtration systems to clean simulated dirty water from rural Dominican Republic or urban India.  It was enlightening to frame the project around the end user of the product and developing empathy for their end users pushed kids to think differently.  

As I continue to use PBL and design thinking to frame our middle school science units, one area where my students struggle is during the “research” phase.  More often than not, there is generally a collective groan of unhappiness and I look out to a sea of misery stricken faces when the word research comes up in the classroom.  Students have visions of notecards and long, boring texts in their heads.  Many students would prefer to completely bypass this stage if given the opportunity.  But we can’t.  Research is critical to the design thinking and PBL processes.  It’s how we come to better understand our problem.  It’s how we develop empathy for our end user.  It provides a starting point to help forge our path.  So, how do we help students make the shift of thinking about research as boring to getting them excited about diving into a topic?  How do we help them get to the “geeking out” stage?  As Spencer and Juliani suggest, maybe it’s as simple as redefining what we mean when we say research.

My 13 year old son is an avid fisherman.  Give him a stick and a hook and drop him off at a body of water and he is in a state of bliss.  He recently purchased his first boat, a fishing kayak.  He’s been thinking about this purchase for awhile.  He got his final paycheck from the spring season of soccer refereeing last month and every time we got into the car, he asked when we could go to the sporting goods store.  I asked the obligatory parental questions of course:  “Have you done your research?”, “Do you really want to spend all $300 of your earnings on one thing?”,  “Can that thing even fit into my car?”.  He had an answer for every one of my questions but it wasn’t until we got to the actual store that I realized the depth of his “geeking out” on this boat.  

Now, my son is not a reader, getting him to read anything is like pulling teeth.  But, he is an inventor and an amazing user of YouTube.  This kid can find and learn about anything using video.  When he was ten, our power went out right before we woke up one school morning.  He is an avid collector of animals and the filter for his rather large Tiger Oscar fish had stopped working.  The fish was not doing well in his oxygen deprived state.  We have a generator for situations like this but we couldn’t get it to start.  My husband and I left for work; my son stayed behind trying to keep his fish alive by continuously churning the water.  I checked in two hours later to see how things were going.  He had been busy.  After using his 3G signal to access YouTube, he figured out what was wrong with the generator and how to get it started so that he could power the filter.  The power was still out but the filter was working and the fish was happy.

So, I should have realized that my questions about his forthcoming boat purchase were unnecessary.  Of course he would have done his research, on YouTube.  He started rattling off a list of features this particular kayak had and why they were necessary for his fishing endeavors.  He went on to tell me about at least ten “hacks” he was planning on making to customize his boat.  I don’t know how long he spent on YouTube geeking out but it was clearly hours.  He was researching, he was learning, but in his mind he was just  following his passions and using the tools that allowed him to best access what he decided he needed to know and understand.  

Spencer and Juliani define research as “anything we do to answer our questions and make sense of new information”.  Our classrooms need to become the safe spaces where students are the generators of the questions that drive the learning.  When we give students the opportunity to discover the answers and solutions to the questions that they ask, this becomes the first step to making the transition from just “doing research” to “geeking out”.  This is a subtle shift in language but a significant shift in student ownership.  Students are now the directors of their learning, “geeking out” happens and teachers are the facilitators and coaches that help student learners navigate their learning journey.  

I am excited to continue to “geek out” about design thinking as I entwine the LAUNCH cycle into our learning space this year.  I also look forward to helping my students find their way to the geeking out stage of the design thinking process.  Like Spencer and Juliani write “research isn’t about reading; it’s about learning”.

Keep Throwing Darts at the Dartboard

Keep Throwing Darts at the Dartboard

I recently viewed the A Plus condensed version of Will Ferrell’s commencement address to the graduating class of 2017 at USC: Ferrell’s charge to “keep throwing darts at the dartboard” resonates deeply with me.  This has been a challenging year, maybe the most challenging of my 16 years as a middle school science teacher.  I accepted a position at a new school in a new district.  I had three preps, none of which I had taught before, and I moved classrooms 4 times throughout the day (although this movement helped me gain a much better appreciation of how our students feel during their school days).  This year was hard.  It pushed me way outside of my comfort zone.  It was a year of steep, steep learning.  It was frustrating at times but it was also deeply rewarding.

I love teaching.  My passion is to create learning opportunities and environments where kids push their thinking, find and develop their strengths, are creative, think critically and discover and develop new ideas and understandings.  Creating this environment though is a messy process and requires constant revision and reflection, problem solving and risk taking.  The bullseye on my dartboard is student understanding. Here’s the thing though; the bullseye is on the move, it’s always changing, it’s constantly getting tweaked and sometimes it gets completely revised. The bullseye on my dartboard looks different with every new group of learners in August.  It is modified with every new learning objective that we are working towards.  It is adjusted based on the needs of every learner that walks through our classroom door.  The bullseye on my dartboard must be tweaked every day depending on what happened to each learner earlier that day, the night before, last month or years before.

Every time I throw a new dart at my dartboard, I aim for the bullseye but I know I’ll never quite get there. If I think I have, it’s probably time to do something else because I’ve lost sight of my target.  This is what makes teaching exciting and rewarding but hard.  This moving bullseye gives me the push to take risks and try new things. This year I threw lots of darts.  I completely missed a few times, especially in those first few months of the new year.  But I also think that I threw some darts that were pretty darn close to hitting their mark. Through all of this dart throwing, my student learners amazed me.  They were creators, they were problem solvers, they were risk takers, they were thinkers, they were learners.

I learned as much from my misses this year as I did from those darts that were creeping up on the bullseye.  As I close out my first year in my new school, I look forward to reflecting on what my student learners taught me this year.  I look forward to taking my learnings from this challenging year and recalibrating my aim for next year’s darts.  I look forward to the next school year when I will continue to ‘keep throwing darts at the dartboard”.

Photo Credits: DartboardDartboard with Darts

Challenge, Choice, Creativity, Constraints……Innovation

Challenge, Choice, Creativity, Constraints……Innovation

A snippet of dialogue that occurred multiple times over the last three weeks:  I had challenged my 6th grade TIDE (Technology, Innovation, Design and Engineering) students to design, engineer and showcase something that would inspire and/or impact another person.  Individually or in small groups, they had come up with some great ideas including light-up slime, a website to help people find and donate to credible charities and R.’s idea that involved designing and building a moving vehicle that younger kids could experiment and play with.

The students, using design thinking, began by empathizing with the end user of the product they had decided to create.  After ideating and zeroing in one idea, they were now building their first prototypes and R. was struggling.  In all of our design challenges, there are criteria and constraints.  I believe that constraint begets creativity and innovation.  In this particular challenge, because so many ideas were being pursued, the primary constraint I gave the students was that they needed to create their prototype/s using things that they could find in our room.  I had one motor in the classroom, this was R.’s sticking point.

In his daily productivity logs, R. let me know again and again that he would not be able to successfully create the moving vehicle that he had envisioned unless he had many more motors.  
Four days into the challenge, I almost gave in but then I reminded myself of what happens when we have constraints.  We are forced to get creative.  We are compelled to get innovative.  We are pushed to think more deeply.  And as a result, we often create/develop something that is better, or at least really different, than we originally intended.  I stood strong and kept encouraging him.  Day 6 – Breakthrough!

After being stuck for 6 days, R. figured out a solution.  He spent the next 5 days tweaking and testing and tweaking and testing his prototype until he was satisfied.  When he showcased his work, his smile stretched from ear to ear.  He was so proud that he, on his own, persevered through his struggles and was able to create a final product that met his original criteria.

Merriam-Webster defines a constraint as “the state of being checked, restricted, or compelled to avoid or perform some action”.  Constraints, at least in the minds of my middle school learners,are often perceived as a negative; things to avoid if at all possible.  After a year of multiple design challenges, each with their own criteria and constraints, I have a deeper understanding of the power of constraints.  Constraints can be an avenue to help learners open their minds, get their creative juices flowing and think differently and deeper.  When paired with choice, constraints push learners to be innovative.  Constraints are uncomfortable though and can be met with resistance.   As the learning facilitator, it is critical to create an environment where learners feel free to take risks while receiving encouragement, support, feedback, time and in some cases, scaffolding, to break through their self imposed walls and become problem solving innovators.  Constraints become the wings that allow a learner to fly.

                                                                                     Photo Credit:  Kyle Szegedi (Unsplash)
I’d love to hear how others embed and entwine constraints into learning opportunities.  How do your students respond?  What challenges have you faced?  What successes have you seen?
What is Innovation?

What is Innovation?

Innovation is a commitment.  It means being open and willing to think differently about common and not so common issues, problems, questions and learning targets.  Embedded within innovation is a willingness to take action even when the outcome being sought is not guaranteed.  Innovation can feel like a risk but it can also feel incredibly rewarding.  As I try to innovate in the learning space that my students and I call our classroom, it usually feels messy and chaotic in the moment but fulfilling and comprehensive upon reflection.  I hear the opportunities for learning that innovation creates in the questions and conversations of my students and I see the learning that innovation promotes in the physical manifestations of their problem-solving.  As we work towards learning deeply about the sciences together, innovation looks like inquiry, problem-based learning, engineering design challenges and design thinking.  It looks like collaboration and experimentation with a focus on deep learning, not grades.  It sometimes feels frustrating because deep learning is hard and takes time while turning in a paper for completion is not.   Innovation can also feel lonely depending on where others are in their own learning journeys.  At the same time, innovation in learning feels more inclusive and accessible to all learners, regardless of past performance and experiences, regardless of learning style, regardless of “baggage” that all learners bring to their learning experiences.  Ultimately, innovation both challenges and inspires me to become a better educator and learner.

Photo Credit:  Sky

Ignite: A New Learning Experience

Ignite: A New Learning Experience

Last summer I decided to participate in an Ignite session at the InnEdCO 2015 conference.  The Ignite motto is “Enlighten us but make it quick”.   An Ignite is a fast paced, 5 minute talk where the presenter must use a pre-timed, 20 slide presentation.  In math terms, this means that each slide automatically advances after 15, very short, seconds.

My motivation to participate in the Ignite session was simple; I wanted to push my comfort zone and try something new.  I had presented at numerous conferences, but as a presenter, I had never experienced anything like an Ignite before.  I felt passionate about my focus and wanted to share my ideas and thinking with others using a non-traditional format.  Despite a minor technical glitch about midway through my allotted 5 minutes, my slides decided to stop automatically advancing, the Ignite went pretty well.  I walked away from the Ignite stage that day feeling like I had accomplished my goal.  I then spent the next few days debating if I should blog about the experience.  Standing up and sharing my Ignite with a couple hundred people was one thing, but sharing it publicly on my blog, well that, in one word, was just scary.  I thought about the post, I started a Google doc and titled the post, I even tracked down a video of my Ignite, but then July and August came and went, school started, life got crazy again, and I didn’t write the post.  If I’m honest, I didn’t write the post, not because I didn’t want to write about it, but because I was scared to post the video.  Silly, but true.

Fast forward ten months.  Today I finished “The Innovator’s Mindset” by George Couros (@gcouros). I found Mr. Couros’s book inspiring and so many of his ideas resonated strongly with me. In the later portion of his book, Mr. Couros emphasizes the importance of sharing our reflective thinking about our learning and our practice.

So, thank you George Couros, for convincing me that it’s not enough to think about and put into practice our ideas and our learnings. If we truly want to help move education forward, we must also share our honest reflections on our experiences and our learnings.  If you have 5 minutes, check out my Ignite: What If? by Erin Mayer.

Ignite Photo Credit:

Scrum: Let’s See Where This Take Us

Scrum: Let’s See Where This Take Us

51rdmaOjUWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI recently finished reading Scrum by Dave Sutherland. Although scrum was created with businesses in mind, many of scrum’s core ideas can be translated into an education setting.  I am fortunate to work with an amazing core team of teachers at Oberon Middle School.  The 2015-2016 school year will be our second year working together as a core team and we have decided to use scrum this year in two ways. First, we will use scrum to help us address kids who are struggling for any myriad of reasons (more to come on this once the school year starts).  Second, we had already decided as a team last spring to do our best to implement problem and project based learning in our classrooms whenever we could this year and I am thrilled to write that last week we started using scrum to help us initiate our PBL focused year!  

FullSizeRender (13).jpgLanguage Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies are all represented on our core team.  We all bring very different backgrounds, experiences and ideas to the table.  The first thing scrum reminded us was that for us to work together as a truly effective team we need to understand is what is happening in each of our classrooms.  We spent some time giving each other a brief synopsis of our curriculum and then we pulled out the sticky notes!  


Our first goal was to begin discovering the natural connections that occur throughout our curricula.  We don’t want to force connections but we definitely want to acknowledge that there are connections and start to highlight them, thus the sticky notes.  Just to get an idea of where our units would fall, we set up a rough map of the year, month by month, keeping in mind that “the map is not the terrain”.  Math and Social Studies curriculum had to be in a specific order but there was some flexibility in science and language arts. We took advantage of this flexibility to highlight some natural connections.  The first unit in my science class will focus on biological adaptations and natural selection.  In social studies, the kids will be learning about ancient civilizations including the implications of artificial selection on human society.  Awesome, our first significant connection!  We are in the process of taking advantage of this nature connection to develop our first PBL event of the year.     

You might be saying to yourself right now “Well duh, this isn’t rocket science, why didn’t you do this before?”.   To be honest though, I have worked with some amazing educators and teams over the last 15 years but I have never been on a team that has started off a school year like this.  Despite best intentions and common sense, it has just never happened.  So what’s different this year?  I’m not sure, but to start, we have all made the commitment to be deliberate and intentional and we have found a framework, scrum, that we believe will help us make learning better for our students and for us. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I can’t wait to see where we end up!

Photo Credits

Summer “Learning”

Summer “Learning”

My son (let’s call him T) does not like school. He is a pretty good student overall, he does his homework without prompting from me, he behaves in class for the most part, he excels in some areas (math) and struggles in others (reading) but, with the exception of recess, he has never been interested in school. He, like all of us, is a learner at his core, he just doesn’t like the way “learning” goes down at school.

During T’s first couple of summers in elementary school, I did what I thought parents were supposed to do to make sure their kids didn’t have “learning loss” over the summer – I purchased summer bridge books. I had him work on the bridge book for about 30 minutes every day in addition to reading 30 minutes every day. He hated those daily 60 minutes. He thought the bridge books were boring and he is dyslexic so reading is really tough. Last summer, the summer before 5th grade, I decided to forgo the bridge books and, without telling him, let T take control of his learning. (Amazingly, he never even questioned the lack of bridge books.) T ended up working on two projects last summer; developing a working pair of human wings and building and sailing a homemade boat.

T tackled the wings first; I tried not to interfere. He started with some research on YouTube (it’s fairly amazing what you can find when you Google human wings). He drew out some plans, made his list of supplies and asked for me to take him to the local hardware store. At the hardware store, he sought the advice of an employee about what materials were the most lightweight but durable and therefore excellent wing material. The employee also gave him some unsolicited advice; “Be careful where you take off from, I don’t want to see you on the nightly news.”. He purchased his supplies using his allowance money, went home and started building. T created about 6 different versions of his wings, testing and tweaking as he went. Ultimately, he only made it a couple of inches off of the ground but he didn’t care, he was thrilled by his success. My only contribution throughout his project was to tell him that he couldn’t jump off of anything higher than 12 inches as he attempted to take flight. As it turned out, I didn’t even need to enforce this rule because he decided a running start down a steep hill would be a better method to achieve lift off. Based on my observations from the side, T dabbled in economics, design thinking, physics, geometry, communications and effective research just to name a few but if you ask him, he’ll just say it was really fun to make human wings and try to fly.

Human Wings “In-Development”

About 3 weeks into the human wing endeavor, T decided to change gears and focus on making a working sailboat. Once again, I stood back and watched my 10 year old direct his own learning. Over the course of the next 4 weeks, he designed, built and successfully launched his boat in not 1, but 2 different Colorado lakes. From the side, I watched him dabble in budgeting, discount shopping, characteristic properties, weather and construction just to name a few, but again, if you ask him, he’ll just say it was awesome to be able to sail his own boat for an afternoon.

Sailboat Trial #1

This summer, T has decided to create an online store and sell some mini crossbows and arrows that he has designed and successfully tested. He continues to tweak his designs and he is currently 1 week into the website design process. I have no doubt that soon I will be able to list off a slew of things this project allowed him to dabble in and again, I’m sure if you ask him, he’ll say it is super fun to be the owner of a store and sell stuff that he made for money. 

As I’ve watched my son over the last 2 summers, I’ve realized that something important is often missing in our schools and classrooms (including my own 7th grade science classroom); the opportunity for kids to discover, develop and follow their own passions and interests. Why is it always the teacher and/or the curriculum that dictates what will be learned and how it will be learned? It seems like we have this entirely backwards. Although he would never call what he is doing learning, T loves “learning” over the summer because he is in charge, he is deciding where he wants to go and he is figuring out how to get there. What would happen if we consciously began to create opportunities in our schools for this type of learning to take place? Where would our students go if we focused on becoming their learning coaches rather than their teachers? What would our students walk away with by the end of every year if they were in charge of their own learning path? I want my own children and my students to love to learn all of the time, not just during the summer break from school. Maybe passion based learning is a great place to start.


Three weeks ago, I jumped into the blended learning model and I am loving it. My approach to creating a blended learning environment has focused on three important changes in my classroom:

  • student choice 
  • student ownership of learning 
  • my role as the teacher 

Student Choice
I have used Schoology all year as a learning management system for our classroom, posting resources, pushing out assignments, giving assessments (pre, post and formative) and creating discussion boards for my students to publish their own thinking and respond to their classmate’s thinking. The first thing I changed to create a more blended learning environment was how I organized the resources on Schoology and how students were given assignments. I created a separate sub folder for each concept we explored in our Genetics Unit, 5 concepts in all. The first item in each sub folder is a mini-lesson (less than 5 minutes) introducing students to key concepts and ideas. I expect my students to watch the mini-lesson, either at home or in class, and then choose their path for the rest of the sub folder. For most concepts, I have created three paths: pilot, flight attendant and passenger. All paths are self-directed and each path has varying levels of independence. Students who feel like they need more help and direction choose the passenger path, students who think they need less help and more choice in the direction of their learning choose the flight attendant or pilot path. I wasn’t sure how this system would play out at first – would all kids choose the passenger path because they thought it might be easier? It turns out that my students have, for the most part, made appropriate choices. Many, including my non-traditional learners, are challenging themselves by picking the more independent roles of pilot and flight attendant. At the same time, students who feel like they need a little bit more teacher direction tend to choose the passenger role.

In addition to allowing students to choose their path through each concept sub folder, I have also given them lots of student choice when it comes to showing their understandings. I have been trying to encourage them to use their iPADs to their full potential as a powerful tool to demonstrate their understandings. My students have chosen a variety of tools to showcase their learning and understanding from many apps including Skitch, Popplet and Educreations.

Student Ownership of Learning 
For several years I have been skeptical of “flipped classrooms” because I didn’t like the idea of “lecturing” my students. My skepticism towards mini video lessons has undergone a fairly dramatic change over the last 3 months. As I stated earlier, I have created short mini-lesson to introduce the main concept of each sub folder. My expectation was that students would view the lesson as they began to explore each concept. I also hoped that students would go back and re-watch the mini-lesson as they explored each concept in order to clarify ideas and clear up misunderstandings. I was thrilled to watch my students actually use the mini-lessons as a resource throughout their time with each concept. I have also built in formative assessments throughout each sub folder so that both myself and each student can gauge their understandings. I have seen many students start the formative assessments and not only realize that they are not quite ready to move on yet but also make the decision (on their own!) to go back and revisit previous activities, including the mini-lessons, in the sub folder before moving on.

The Role of the Teacher
One of the biggest benefits I have seen as we evolve into a blended learning environment is the time I now have in class to work with students who are struggling. I am a strong believer in formative assessments. Using data from these ongoing assessments, I know who is struggling and who isn’t. My struggle has always been finding time during class to help the students who are struggling while not hindering the students who aren’t. This is a hard task to manage with thirty-two students. Our blended environment has alleviated many of these time constraints. Because the students are pacing themselves through the unit, they are at a variety of different places at any given time. I have found that it is fairly easy to work directly with a small group of students who are struggling without slowing down the rest of the students.

Overall, our jump into blended learning has gone very well. There are of course some problems. Some of my students are struggling with the self directed component of our new learning arrangement. They are used to being told what to do and would much rather have me direct their learning. I also have a number of students who are missing work. In most cases, the work is missing not because it is not completed but rather because it just hasn’t been submitted. Because their learning is more self-directed, due dates are now very flexible and vary from student to student. This is a big adjustment for many of my students and they are still learning how to manage their own work flow. I am also trying to find the best systems to manage my own work flow as well as finding the time to build each concept’s sub folder. At the end of the day though, the benefits far outweigh the challenges as I watch my students begin to become self-directed learners who are taking on the challenge of owning their learning.

The “Flipped Classroom”

The “Flipped Classroom”

I first learned of the “flipped classroom” several years ago.  I didn’t buy into the idea at first.  I’m not a lecturer, never have been, never intend to be.  So I didn’t really explore the idea of creating video lessons that my students could watch prior to class.  If I never lectured to begin with, how would this work with my students.  

In the last few months, three things have happened that have made me reconsider my previous, very limited, understanding of the “flipped classroom”.  First, my district adopted the Schoology learning management system.  My students and I have been using Schoology, with much success, since last August.  Second, this past January, I received a grant for a classroom set of iPADs.  Finally, this winter I took a fantastic online course on screen-casting.

I still don’t like the term “flipped classroom”.  To me, it implies that lecture is a huge part of the classroom format and I don’t believe that lectures are an effective learning tool for most of my seventh grade students.  I do, however, see that there could be value in creating short, mini-lessons that introduce and review key vocabulary terms and concepts.  I like the idea of students being able to access these mini-lessons on their own initiative when they think it would be helpful to clarify ideas or clear up confusion.  Our iPADs and Schoology have given me the opportunity to rethink how to establish a classroom environment that pushes all students to learn and create in their own individual, unique ways.  So, I’ve decided to go for it and completely change what our class format looks like.  I still don’t like the term “flipped classroom”.    I much prefer “blended learning”.  In my mind, blended learning implies student ownership of their learning.  I see my role in a blended classroom more as a facilitator and a coach, than a “sage on the stage”.  I’m curious and excited to see how our classroom as well as the roles of “teacher” and “student” evolve over the next few months.