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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.    

Moving Forward with Purpose (v2)

Moving Forward with Purpose (v2)

Tomorrow I begin my sixteenth year of teaching in the classroom!  This year is different.  I have moved to a new school in a new district.  I do not have my own classroom this year; I will be moving amongst three, yes three, classrooms.  I will also have the opportunity to teach sixth graders and eighth graders.  As I have written about before, I am thrilled with these changes.
As I embark on my new adventure, I’ve been contemplating and refining my goals for this year.  Two years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a Cowboy Ethics workshop.  My takeaway from this workshop was not only the importance of putting goals in written form but also bringing a sense of accountability to the goals by publishing them in a public forum.  I met, or at least began to meet, most of my goals two years ago.  I attribute part of this success to my public sharing of these goals.  

In the spirit of Cowboy Ethics, here are the goals I am committed to working towards this year:
Teaching Goals

  • Think BIG, Fail Fast, Try Again
  • Infuse the core ideas of design thinking into our science learning space to allow my students the opportunity to refine and vocalize their amazing ideas as they problem solve to create extraordinary things
  • Make learning applicable and relevant for all of my students

Personal Learning Goals

  • Listen, really listen, to those around me
  • Write at least 750 words every day
  • Publish at least 2 posts/month on my blog “Reinventing Class

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Stepping Through the Doorways

Stepping Through the Doorways

My family’s life is hectic, some might say crazy. We are fortunate to live in a beautiful area in the mountains outside of Denver. For the last 17 years I have taught in a suburb of Denver located about 45 minutes from home. My children attended school in the same town that I taught in. For the last three years, my son has been swimming on a team that practices six days a week about thirty minutes away both from where we live and where we go to school. What this amounts to is a whole lot of driving and a whole lot of early mornings and late nights. Last year, I started to think about how we could simply our hectic lives. I knew that my children would be transitioning into high school and middle school respectively and I was beginning to worry that the days, and sometimes nights, that we spent on the run would start to take their toll.  At the same time, I was beginning to feel like I needed to expand my horizons professionally.  We love where we live so leaving that special mountain home was never an option on our road to simplification. What started to make more and more sense though was getting our respective schools and sports into one place.
I set the ball in motion to accomplish this last December but all of the pieces of the puzzle did not find their way together until recently. The puzzle is now complete. Both my children and I will start the upcoming school year in a new school district.  My new district, Boulder Valley, has an amazing reputation for innovation and forward thinking.  As I continue to meet my fellow staff members at my new school, Casey Middle School, I am equally impressed by their commitment to ensuring that every student that walks through the doors of Casey feels safe and is challenged, engaged and ultimately learning.  I will still be teaching middle school science but will now get the opportunity to work with sixth graders and eighth graders (I have been working with seventh graders up to this point).  My teaching focus will be on the earth and physical sciences. My daughter will be attending a high school right down the street from me and my son will be a seventh grader in the school where I will be teaching. At the same time, both of my children have decided to join sports teams in Boulder, the town where they will go to school.
It will be a fresh start for all three of us in many important aspects of our lives. There’s something to be said about starting over. Sure it’s scary, but at the same time, I’m finding it quite refreshing and inspiring. It’s a chance to let go of what hasn’t been working and to embrace change. Fresh starts provide the opportunity to attempt new things. It’s a chance to increase our worldviews and experience new opportunities. I’ve always loved to change things up; that’s probably one of the reasons why my hair color changes every few months.  I’m excited to see what kinds of doors this rather large series of changes will open up for my family. I’m looking forward to stepping through these doorways and discovering what lies on the other side.
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The Messages We Send

The Messages We Send

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is modeling appropriate use of social media. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to be a teenager right now, trying not only to navigate through today’s physical world but also trying to navigate through their online world.  Bad choices with social media can have huge, life impacting consequences. We know that adolescent’s ability to take into account other perspectives is still developing. We know that they often engage in risk taking behavior. Navigating social media often means that kids are making adult decisions and choices without a fully developed toolbox. It is up to the adults, to act as role models, helping them navigate this slippery slope.


Unfortunately, too often we are terrible role models. Recently, two young men from Alabama were arrested for starting a forest fire several miles from where I live. This fire would ultimately be contained but not before burning down eight homes. The men did not intentionally cause they fire. They started an illegal fire on private land and then failed to properly extinguish it. They made a series of uninformed, terrible choices that had devastating consequences. They are certainly guilty of making bad decisions but to see the postings on Twitter, you would think that the fire and its path of destruction was premeditated. They were attacked for being from Alabama, for supposedly not being able to read, for being transient. The list goes on and on. The response on social media was disgusting. I understand that homes were lost and beautiful land was darkened. I understand that people are upset with them. They have a right to be upset with them but too many of the postings were uncalled for. We are the role models. Kids look to the adults in their life for guidance, whether or not  they recognize and acknowledge it. By viciously attacking others in a social forum, we are sending the message that this is acceptable behavior. It is not. As adults, we need to be so much more cognizant at all times of the behaviors we are condoning. After all, our kids are navigating this world every day without a fully developed toolbox. Let’s do a better job of helping them not only complete their toolbox with the right tools but show them how to be appropriate, positive, kind, productive and intentional with these tools.

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Status Quo

Status Quo

Recently, my daughter had to make an important decision. She had to decide if she wanted to maintain status quo. Would she stay with what was comfortable and easy, but overall incredibly unsatisfying or step outside of her comfort zone and do something different, something uncomfortable, something scary, but something that was ripe with opportunity and potential.

I am proud to say that she went for the latter choice. It’s easy to stay safe, it’s easy to encourage the safe choice. After all, if it’s safe, as a parent we know what to expect, as an individual, things become more predictable, life gets easier. But life shouldn’t be about predictability, it should be rich and exciting and satisfying. Our experiences should push us as human beings, they should stretch our comfort zones and our minds. Experiences should expose us to new things, different ways of thinking, new people, new ideas. Safe is boring, safe rarely helps us grow and become better stewards of our communities, our amazing planet and ultimately our families and ourselves.

Over and over again in my school, I see safe choices. Maybe it’s a student that is good at school, always following the directions, staying with the lines, aiming for the right grade rather than the learning. Maybe it’s a teammate that hangs back and watches everyone else manipulate an idea, a new design, a question, an experiment, only stepping in when he is one hundred percent sure that he has it covered. Maybe it’s a teacher that sticks to what he knows, what he is comfortable with and what has successfully worked for him in the past even though it’s not working anymore. Maybe it’s an administrator that doesn’t want to rock the boat by encouraging her teachers to think differently.

I’ve never been what I would call a safe person. I certainly take more than my share of risks. You might not look at me or talk to me for the first time and think this, but I do. I like to say that I embrace, welcome and often times look for change. Many of my risks, my “jumping of the cliff” moments have occurred within the confines of my own classroom. Some have led to great things, some have led to massive failures. Despite the risks that I have taken within my classroom, I have also played it safe at the same time. I have taught in the same school for 15 years. I have taught the same subject and grade for 15 years. I have always justified this stagnation because I love what I do. But lately, it hasn’t been quite enough. I’m still challenged every day, but something is missing. My daughter provided me with great inspiration. I too have a potential opportunity to do something different within the confines of what I love to do, help kids learn. This opportunity would require me to step far outside of my comfort zone. It will be hard. I will have to leave the community that I has supported my growth and the development of my craft over the last 15 years. But change is good, risk is good, being a little bit uncomfortable is good for the mind, body and spirit.

Thank you Sage, for reminding me that the human spirit thrives under conditions of change.
Making Daily Pages a Habit

Making Daily Pages a Habit

I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a few months now. I started a blog, Reinventing Class, over three years ago with the goal to publish a post every month. I’ve only been averaging a handful of posts every year – 3 to 4 if I’m lucky.  Recently, I read a blog post by AJ Juliano, “How to Make Writing a Habit” which got me thinking about why I haven’t met my blog goal. Habits can be hard to come by. I’m busy right?  I am; I have two kids involved in sports, one of whom practices every day. I live in the mountains so I commute 30+ minutes to the school where I teach science, my son swims in a town 30 minutes away from home and from where I teach, my daughter plays soccer and is a referee, I like to run most days, I have 2 dogs to take care of, I have a husband that deserves my attention as well, I’m a dedicated teacher who likes to be innovative and creative and likes to give timely, honest, helpful feedback.  I can make the list go on and on and the list is accurate. But, at the end of the day, my list is just another set of excuses.
If I want to write, if I think that it is important enough, then I just need to do it.  A few days ago,six to be exact, I read Will Richardson’s post about the site, “Writing Every Day“.  I found the purpose of this site really intriguing.  Basically, the underlying idea is to log-on and write at least 750 days everyday.  
Based on my blogging history, or lack of, over the last 3 years, I need to conscientiously develop a writing habit. This might be a great tool to encourage me as I try to develop and refine this new habit. I started last Friday, the first day of summer vacation. I just finished my fifth round of daily pages.  This is my first blog post to come out of my daily pages but I have about 3 more posts in the works.  It’s fun, it’s encouraging me to consistently capture my ideas and my reflections and it’s helping me begin my journey as a writer.  
Sundays Are Hard

Sundays Are Hard

Transitions – for our most impacted students, and many others, transitions are hard.  Transition from elementary school to middle school, from 5th period to 6th period, from science to social studies, from Sunday to Monday. I get it; sometime during the last two years of high school, Sunday’s suddenly got hard for me. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure I was worried about my

impending “adulthood” and the soon to arrive transition to college. At the time, Sunday’s were just hard. I don’t think I ever told my parents about this. My worries came out on Sunday nights. After everyone was asleep, I’d wander from bedroom to bedroom, peeking in to make sure all was well. I often invited my youngest sister, just 10 years old, to sleep in my room pretending that I was doing her the favor not the other way around.

Ten days ago, our new school year began. I don’t know my 151 students very well yet but I do know that each one of them enters our classroom every day with their own strengths and worries and fears. I know that for many, Sundays are hard. I know that for many, transitioning from 1st period to 2nd period is hard. I know that for many, switching from subject to subject every 49 minutes is hard. I know that for many, transitioning from one activity to the next within a class period is hard. One of my goals this year is to focus on relationships. I only have 49 minutes every day with most of my

students but I plan to take advantage of this short period of time. Every Monday, we will begin class with a community building activity. I’ve also implemented a leader-board challenge for my students.  Participation is voluntary but all activities are focused on building both community and relationships, between the students and between the students and myself. I hope that when things get harder and when struggles become more apparent that I will be able to fall back on these relationships and use them to help kids and maybe help Sundays become easier.

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One Meaningful Adult

One Meaningful Adult

This morning, I had the privilege of hearing Jonathan Mooney speak at Arvada West High School.  Jonathan painted a poignant picture of his experience as a dyslexic, ADHD student and the role that pivotal adults in his life played as he navigated our education system.   Through a series of personal stories, Jonathan challenged our traditional educational practices, arguing that “we confuse the global faculty of intelligence with the skill of reading” and “when all we do is “fix” kids, the message they get is that they are broken”.  His message resonated strongly with me from both a personal perspective as a mom of a nontraditional student and from a professional perspective as a teacher who works with nontraditional and traditional students alike every day.  

I wrote about my own son in a recent post.  I could see my son in Jonathan Mooney as he stood before us on the Arvada West HS stage.  My son is a creative, inquisitive, inventive learner outside of school.  At school, he doesn’t fit into the traditional definition of what constitutes a “good” student, which in his case primarily means that he is not a “good” reader.  He doesn’t like school and I can understand why.  Jonathan challenged the 150 plus educators in the room to “build school experiences that ask how is this student smart, not how smart is this student” and that “we have the opportunity to help kids understand that intelligence isn’t determined by 1 skill”.  I would love to watch my son and his teachers acknowledge and develop his strengths rather than always focusing on what he, and the traditional school system, call his deficits.

I also saw so many of the students I have had the opportunity to work with over the years in Jonathan.  Kids who walk into my science classroom with 7 years experience of being “fixed”.  Kids who think they have nothing to offer except trouble.  Kids with a fixed mindset who believe they aren’t smart.  It is heartbreaking.  Jonathan reminded me of one student in particular that I had the privilege of working with last year.  This student was tough.  There were plenty of nights when I couldn’t sleep trying to figure out how to reach him.  There were plenty of days when I had to take a deep breath after he said something rude or mean to myself or his classmates.  He hated school and who could blame him.  Four of his seven periods in the day were focused on “fixing” his deficits.  I don’t think he had any electives in his day because of all of the intervention classes.   Jonathan reminded us that “there is a strength in every student that is a pathway to success; our job as educators is to find it”.  It took months to develop a relationship with this particular student and then, just as we were finally figuring it out, the school year ended.  I hope that the tiny bit of success we had, the identification and development of his strengths which, yes, he has, carry forward this year for him and change his path.  

As I get ready to begin a new year of teaching with new students that each bring their own individual strengths, challenges and passions into the classroom, Jonathan reminded me that connections and relationships matter.  I need to remember this when the going gets tough.  I need to “define kids by what they can do, not what they can’t do”.  I need to ask “what are you good at” and not accept “nothing” for an answer.  I need to remember that every student has something to bring to the table and that it is my job to help them find and develop this nugget.  And I definitely need to remain an advocate for that student that I worked so hard with last year.  After all, one meaningful adult can put a child on a different path.

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Moving Forward With Purpose

Moving Forward With Purpose

My classroom is ready to go and the kids have arrived!


As I begin my 14th year of teaching, I am excited, energized, full of ideas and ready and willing to step outside of my comfort zone and try some new things that will help me grow as a learner and allow me to help my students recognize and tap into their passions, interests and potential as they also grow as learners.  

Participating in the “Cowboy Ethics” workshop last week, reminded me that it is important for me to get my goals out of my head and onto “paper”.  So here goes:

Teaching Goals
  • Take a stab at gamifying my science classes (thank you  @techedupteacher for inspiring a non-gamer to give this a go)
  • Incorporate the concept of the “genius hour” into my science classes (many thanks to @JoyKirr for sharing her awesome resources)
  • Continue to use technology as a powerful tool to personalize my student’s learning

Personal Learning Goals
  • Write at least 2 posts/month to my blog “Reinventing Class
  • Become an active Twitter participant rather than a silent observer

Photo Credit
venspired via photopin cc

The Cowboy Code of Ethics

The Cowboy Code of Ethics

Today was my first day back at school.  To kickstart our school year, my principal brought in Kent Noble from the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership.  Kent facilitated a half-day workshop called “Standing Tall:  What’s Your Code”.   

This workshop is based on James P. Owen’s, 2005 book, “Cowboy Ethics:  What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West”.  


Kent began his workshop by introducing us to the Cowboy “Code of the West”.  


After reviewing the “Code of the West”, Kent turned our focus to the “11th Principle”.  In essence, over the following three hours, he led each of us through the creation of our own Code of Ethics. While our immediate goal was to create our own personal Code of Ethics, in order to help every staff member stand behind their code, Kent encouraged us to publicize our personal Code.  So, here goes…

My Code of Ethics
  • Find balance by focusing on the big picture.
  • Happiness is a decision.
  • Only I control my attitude
  • Stand up and speak up for what you believe in.
  • Always look for the gold nuggets.
  • Make an impact.
  • Success doesn’t happen without failure.
  • Never doubt that one person can make a difference.