inquiring minds

international teaching

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Course 1 Final Project

My favorite unit to teach so far this year is our story unit.

I love stories and so do most second graders so this unit is a match made in heaven.

The unit was coming up around the same time as Jason Ohler‘s one day Digital Storytelling workshop at ASIJ.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance to see if his ideas could compliment or enrich our already well established unit of inquiry.

After the short one day workshop, not only did I feel we needed to shift the main focus of our unit, but I rediscovered my own passion for storytelling.

Ohler emphasizes the equal  importance of oral storytelling, written storytelling, and art in his process, where as our unit was only emphasizing the written aspect of storytelling. Stories have been passed down orally since before written communication existed. And the ability to tell stories to persuade, sell, or get your point across, makes it an increasingly vital skill for our current times.

My favorite example of Ohler’s Digital Storytelling is Hannah’s story, because I think it’s powerful the way Hannah tells the story orally with her hand drawn illustrations supporting her in the background. It’s something my second graders can do.

Ohler’s whole philosophy, approach and resources are on his site and are available for anyone to use.

PYP Unit Planner – Grade 2 – How We Express Ourselves


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DIY and Inquiry

One thing I’m really interested in is the idea of Makerspaces.

In an age of consumerism, I like people realizing the value of making or creating something for themselves.

A couple summers ago I got frustrated with the fact that I didn’t know how to make anything. I remembered how I liked to draw when I was a kid, so I bought a Bamboo Tablet and started playing around with drawing. I got really into it and drew my own ‘Infographic’ in lieu of sending home a lengthy letter to introduce my PE program to students and parent.

Lower School PE Infographic

Lower School PE Infographic

Shortly after that I decided I wanted to learn how to knit. Winters in Finland are very cold and I wanted to challenge myself to knit my own accessories. I taught myself using videos from YouTube and KnittingHelp. I also followed several knitting blogs and joined Ravelry, a social network especially for knitters.

This year I feel like I see inquiry in a new light. Inspired by my colleagues, I’ve been allowing my students to investigate topics that interest them, but always within our unit themes. My second graders become enthusiastic and motivated when given this opportunity for ‘personal inquiry’. They beg for more time dedicated to ‘PI’ in our busy schedule and amaze me with their independence and self-direction.

After a conversation with another colleague, I thought, ‘Is it truly personal inquiry if I restrict my students to inquiring within the confines of our unit?’

How much of what my students make or create is their choice? How often do they get to decide what they learn?

How much of what they learn or make is dictated by me?

This may not be the answer, but I was nonetheless thrilled when one of my colleagues introduced me to DIY, an online community for kids that encourages them to make things.

From the DIY website:

DIY is a community where young people become Makers. They discover new Skills, make projects in the real world, and share their work online to inspire and learn from each other. The big idea is that anyone can become anything just by trying – we all learn by doing. Our company and our community strive to make it easier for Makers to build confidence in their own creativity.

Not sure how I plan to use this in my class yet. I like the amount of choice and the freedom to inquire. And I like the idea of kids learning something because it interests them. I’m not 100% convinced about the extrinsic motivation factor, (badges), despite the research out there about the power of gaming elements in real life, (like earning badges and leveling up).

What do your students make?

What do you make?

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Why We Should be Teaching Kids about Money

Talk about an authentic math lesson…

Today my students and I went to the grocery store.


It was so powerful watching my students interact with the shopkeepers, compare produce prices, weigh vegetables to make sure they have the right amount, and even stress out when the store doesn’t have what they need or they go over their projected budget.

I started thinking about how important money is in our everyday lives and how little we touch on financial concepts in school.  We are living in an age of mortgages, credit, and student loans. Where job security and long-term employment, (complete with retirement fund), are no longer the norm. Financial literacy is timely and essential for every individual no matter their chosen field.

When I was growing up, the topic of money was very taboo in my family.  It was considered rude to ask about money and the cost of something like a family vacation or new skates. My brother and I started making our own money at around twelve or thirteen years old with weekend, evening and summer jobs, this carried on throughout school and into our post-secondary educations.  A work ethic was something we never lacked. We were very good at making money. But because we were essentially forbidden to talk about money as kids and because we weren’t explicitly taught about money in school, we never learned to manage it properly.  We did not have basic financial skills like budgeting, saving, or investing.

This summer I read a book that will hopefully help me get my ducks in order now that I am debt free and able to save and invest.  Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School taught me everything I should have been taught once I started making my own money. (And a couple of things that wouldn’t have hurt me to know before then.) Up to this point I had read several books designed to instruct or inspire financial independence, but this was the first one that really clicked and deepened my understanding of what I should be doing to secure my future.  It is written by Andrew Hallam (read his bio), a teacher at Singapore American School who wrote his book in response to the lack of sound financial lessons in schools.

As a teacher I try to create authentic opportunities for math learning for my students.  Now that we have visited the grocery store, my students are enthusiastic to start their own pretend grocery shop in our classroom.

If you are a parent, please take your kids shopping. Talk about comparing prices and the value of the yen (or dollar, or euro, etc.) Let your kids help you budget your next family vacation. Give them an allowance and take them to the bank to put a percentage into a savings account.  (Read this snippet from Daniel Pink’s Drive first.) Have them save up for something they really want. Show them how you are saving for their college or university and talk about why you’re saving now when your child is only in second grade. Even talk about retirement, (yours and theirs), and what people do to prepare.

(Apologies if some of these topics are based on North American financial issues and values.)

How do you teach your students or children about money?

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The Future of Libraries


Photo by Ellen Forsyth on Flickr

Thanks to the Google Apps for Education Summit and a presentation by Librarian Brian Farrell, my interest in the changing face of school libraries was reignited.  In his presentation, Brian talked about some changes that libraries are facing and pointed out the 3 elements of libraries that need to be looked at critically.

  1. The physical space
  2. What is kept in the space
  3. The person that manages the space

I am interested in  the changing role of the school library and teacher librarian in an age where information is at everybody’s fingertips.

In regards to the physical space of libraries, Brian was of the opinion that schools will always need communal spaces where people can come together to learn. I also came across some interesting ideas by a designer of school libraries in this article.  Two points that resonated with me were the author’s insistance on designing libraries with flexible instructional space, and the author’s strong opinion on the value of printed material in schools: ‘Printed books are still an essential tool, especially for beginning readers.’ 

On the other hand, in one of the blog posts I found online, The Unquiet Librarian argues that librarians can be mobile, and quotes Dr. David Lankes when he says, ‘Want to save money in a school? Close the library and hire more school librarians.’ I thought that was an interesting statement.

In regards to what is kept in the physical space, Lankes, in the same blog post quoted by The Unquiet Librarian insists that the most important collection a library can have is it’s community.

As for the physical and digital collection, during his presentation Brian mentioned there is still no e-book solution for school libraries.  I found this infographic that claims printed books and ebooks can coexist. Not sure what I think.

As far as the role of the teacher librarian, this is still a big question for me.  Here is an article about Sarah Ludwig and in contrast, the thoughtful response from The Unquiet Librarian. (Also referenced above.)

I would like to add one more element to the list of items libraries need to critically reexamine:

4. The purpose of the space

‘Libraries need to change from places just to get stuff to places to make stuff, do stuff, and share stuff.’ This quote is from the School Library Journal article that takes a critical look at the challenges libraries face in this new age.

The changing face of libraries fascinates me and the articles I spent the afternoon reading have only made me more curious and doubled the amount of questions I have.

What about you?  What do you think libraries should look like in the information age?

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Messing Around

At the Google Apps for Education Summit (GAFE) I was lucky enough to attend several of Jim Sill‘s workshops.  Sill introduced me to the Google Art Project, showed me the simplicity of the YouTube Video Editor, and demonstrated the endless possibilities for authentic collaboration on Google Maps.

Now the GAFE conference is all about tools.  The presenters were just sharing google web tools and their potential uses for the classroom.

Jim Sill is a dynamic presenter and you only have to look back at the twitter history from the conference to see that I was not the only one raving about his many presentations. (All of which he has up on the resources page of his blog.)

Throughout the conference one thing was nagging at me.  I slowly realized that during the presentations I attended I found myself missing a lot of what the the presenter was demonstrating because I was absorbed in messing around with the tool.

After a while I even found myself wishing that the presenters would change formats.  Instead of diving into the presentation, what if the presenter said, “Let’s explore (insert name of tool here).  Open it up and mess around for about 10 minutes.  What do you notice? Talk with the people around you if you want. What can you discover?” I felt like, if I just had 10 minutes to mess around with the tool and get it out of my system, I’d be more focused on the rest of the presentation and more open to deepening my understanding of the tool and it’s possibilites.

Once I had this realisation, a second thought hit me: Wait a minute, don’t I present new tools and skills to my students the same way as these conference presenters?

No wonder half my students get frustrated with bordom or feel lost when I introduce something new on our laptops.  I’ve never handed out the computers to my second graders and said, “Just click around a bit. See what you can discover. Share with each other, walk around to see what others are doing.”  I’ve never given them time to mess around and get a feel for a program, website, or just the machines themselves.

Instead I’ve been doing exactly what many of these presenters did. Because of time constraints, the conference format, and the pressure to fit in as much as possible in a short tim: coupled with this sensation we have that if we are not Teaching something, we’re not doing our jobs.  But just look at the learning that happens when we stop Teaching. (‘Teaching’ with a capital ‘T’ refers to being the center of attention, the one talking, the one giving direction, etc.) When we stop Teaching, our students are more apt to discover things for themselves, or work with others to make discoveries. They will help and teach each other, most likely leading to more enduring understandings of what they are learning.

Next time I have the chance I will throw out the step by step instructions, the everyone working at the same pace to learn a new skill or learn about a new tool.  I will let them inquire. Write their own steps and work at their own pace, like I do in other areas of instruction. Why, in my mind, did inquiry not apply to the technology I put in the hands of my second graders? It does now.

What about you – do you Teach or present when demonstrating a new skill or tool? Or do you leave room for inquiry, exploration, and messing around to facilitate new learning?

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Go Where the Students Are

This article by Clarence Fisher on his Remote Access blog resonated with me.  I started following Fisher’s blog because he was on the COETAIL list of recommended blogs to follow.  It’s quickly become one of my favorites because I am interested in many things Fisher has been doing and writing about for years.  (Like makerspaces and coding. Funnily enough our Raspberry Pi computers arrived at around the same time.)

But it was Fisher’s article reflecting on his practice of using individual blogs for his students that clinched it for me.

Fisher throws out a bunch of solutions at the end of his article. I like this one: “Interest / passion based communities that exist outside of schools that we simply help them to locate and join?”

What a powerful idea! Students joining an online community based on a personal interest or passion and beginning to connect, share, and create within the community. Sounds like they’ll be geeking out in no time!

My favorite comment was from Juliana Bonilla Garcia who said “I appreciate your honesty… It takes a reflective practitioner to know when to abandon something that is not working for their students even when it goes against the mainstream. I hope you figure out what the “new” thing is that will get your kids excited about sharing their thoughts, reflections and voices. When you do, I look forward to learning from you.

When it comes to anything we do in the classroom, what has worked in the past will not necessarily work forever.

Here’s where I’m going to connect what Fisher and Garcia were talking about with my own experiences. Please note that my experiences are different. From what I understand,  Fisher has been a middle school classroom teacher for many years and a pioneer in student tech use. I, on the other hand, before ending up at tech-savvy YIS, was teaching elementary students at a school with one tiny computer lab. Then I moved on to teaching PE at a school that was beginning to explore the importance of technology in the everyday curriculum, but was not quite there in terms of implementation.

This is just a head’s up that my experiences have to do with student – teacher communication – not connecting authentically with a global community like Fisher’s struggles. Because of my limited experience these are the only connections I’m able to make at this point.

When I was teaching PE in Helsinki, I was having a hard time keeping in touch with my MYP classes because I only had class time with them once a week.  Communication was essential because our lessons depended on the weather and the facilities available. I had to communicate to them where to meet and what to bring, sometimes at the last minute. Every year I tried something different; text messaging, a class blog, finally closed Facebook groups combined with a class blog to post resources and assignments that they needed to access outside of class time, (+ we used our mobile phones for emergency purposes or to text last minute messages).  With this combination of tools, our interactions became more frequent and more collaborative. They made authentic connections beyond the classroom. Using these tools, they were even able to rally their community to support a charity event that was successful because they advertised and built hype where everyone they knew was hanging out.

I was trying to meet the students where they were hanging out, and in the case mentioned, it worked for me and the group of kids I was with.

So my suggestion for Fischer is to find out where his students are hanging out and ask them how they authentically connect with their community and beyond. Is it Facebook? Twitter? Tumblr? ReaditFlickr? YouTube? How do they connect in these communities? What do they create? What do they contribute? Maybe it’s different for each student.

How do you get beyond something that doesn’t seem to excite your students anymore, especially when it’s been so successful in the past?


I’m Back / Vulerability

“Do you have a blog?”
“Yes, but I haven’t posted on it in a year.”
“Well then, no offense, but why do you have a blog then, what’s the point?”
“…I don’t know…”

-An actual conversation had between me and a fellow COETAILer at our first official face to face meeting. 

When I think about not blogging all the usual excuses surface, ‘I’m so busy…I have my class blog…I don’t have a desk…I just moved half way across the world for heaven’s sake!’

The truth is I know myself as a writer and it takes me a painfully long time to write anything I feel is worth posting. On top of that I continually psych myself out, analyzing every phrase, guessing what others will think about my ideas, thinking up my own counter-arguments. I think everything sounds fake, superficial, pointless, it’s endless.

I don’t want a blog that feels like a mask. I want it to feel like me.

I also don’t need a blog to show the world what I do in my classroom. I have one of those.

The actual truth is – I’m chicken.

I’m just plain afraid of what others will think.

The worst is when I start to think of all the great bloggers already out there. How they somehow tap into their souls and write from the heart.

How can I be vulnerable and still keep up the illusion of ‘teaching excellence’? It takes courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable to the world, to open yourself to judgement and ridicule. Can I admit that sometimes I feel like a garbage teacher? That I make mistakes? Sometimes show my anger?  That I have bad days where I’m not as prepared as I should be?

The blog I want to have includes honest reflection on the good and the bad. My unabashed feelings about learning and the future of education.

I like it when teachers can be open and honest with their practices. My favorite blogs are the ones filed in my RSS reader under ‘Introspective Teachers‘.  Teachers like John Spencer, Pernille Ripp, and Royan Lee make me rethink how I teach and what I teach and why. They leave me feeling raw and ashamed but also like I’m not alone. I’m not the only one who struggles with these issues.  The best teachers do too. Truly reflective teachers face them every day.

What can I learn from these expert bloggers who aren’t afraid to be real? Can I be vulnerable on this blog? Do I really want to?