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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Faith Like a Child

As a Christian, one of the most difficult things I am called to do is have faith like a child. Whether you believe, like me, that Jesus is your Lord and Savior, or believe he was a prophet, or a guy, or even a fictional character in a story...the challenge is an interesting one: Faith like a child.

This past week I was awarded the opportunity to participate in a visioning institute meeting. During the meeting a video of Ken Robinson was played: Video - I had previously watched this video at least a dozen times, but what stood out most to me in the video was the information he shared about the importance of divergent thinking and it’s connection to creativity. During his talk he discusses a study that was done where 1,500 kindergarteners were tested on the genius level of divergent thinking...and what percentage of students scored on the genius level? 98 percent! Let me say that again….98. As the students grew older their scores dropped….why? Life, education, experiences, etc. all slowly take away the ability of a student/person to believe in anything without question. Enter the challenge: Faith like a child…

There is nothing quite like having a conversation with a group of kindergartners. If you have ever worked in the elementary school setting you know exactly what I am talking about. When simply asking a group of kindergartners what they would like to be when they grown up I was given the following answers: Doctor, artist, my mom, principal, and my personal favorite...a lion. Yup, a lion. Of course I had to ask why? The answer, “Well duh, because they are king of the jungle and I want to be king.”

Children enter education ready to become anything. They don’t see the challenges life will bring, they don’t see the hurdles they will need to overcome, they don’t see the curveballs life might send their way. The world is theirs for the taking, and there is nothing wrong with that.

How do we keep this alive? Better yet, how do we as principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, and parents maintain the belief our students have in themselves? Here is the truth: Life moves forward, and it won’t be long before our students begin to learn about barriers such as stress, finances, time, and other challenges along the way. In essence, it won’t be long before our kids stop dreaming about being a lion, and start settling for the future they feel is reachable, which in reality may just be the tip of the iceberg each child is capable of achieving.

So...what am I going to do? What am I going to encourage my amazing teachers to do? Love the journey, fail forward, risk big, believe in every child, and focus on self-efficacy.

If our students have any hope of reaching their kindergarten dreams they need to learn one key thing: It’s alright to fail, especially when we fail forward. I can’t count the number of mistakes I have made in my life. I am actually quite good at it...but you know what? I am alright with that. I embrace the fact that I am human and absolutely not perfect.

I truly believe there are countless students sitting in classrooms across this country believing there is no point in even trying because they know they are going to fail. Depression, frustration, self-doubt, and devastating life choices happen when a student believes he or she is a failure. So what do our students need? Simply put...their inner kindergartner, or more importantly - self-efficacy.

I remember my first round of parent-teacher conferences as if it was yesterday. I was 21 years old and wanted nothing more than to show how smart I was to each parent. I carefully wrote an introduction to articulate my educational background to each parent, and I am still haunted by my breakdown of self-efficacy. It went something like this: “Please know, one of the biggest goals I have as your child’s teacher is to ensure the growth of his/her self-efficacy. I want my students to have a good sense of who they are, and in turn, have a positive view of their own self worth.”

It wasn’t until my second to last parent-teacher conference that I had a parent say, “Do you mean self-esteem? Self-efficacy is a student’s belief in his ability to be successful, not a belief in his self worth.”

Apparently it wasn’t enough to just say, “I think you mean self-esteem, not self-efficacy.” Rather, I was given the definition, backed up with a face full of pity pointed in my direction.

Although the hit to my pride was pretty hard, I learned a valuable lesson, and it wasn’t to check my facts (although that is important). Even though, on that day, I did mean self-esteem, from that day forward I began to focus on self-efficacy. The definition I was given from that parent spoke to exactly what I wanted to do, to build up each of my student’s belief in their ability to succeed.

The challenge: Faith like a child. A kindergartner can be anything - and a person with a strong self-efficacy can as well. Knowing that...Could there be a better gift for a child then self-efficacy? It may not seem like much, but a student’s belief in his ability to be successful can mean the very difference between settling for the surface of life’s journey, or growing up to be a lion. And who wouldn’t want to be a lion?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Risk to Learn Part One

I think the saying “Taking a risk in education” is starting to become more cliche than meaningful…

I was participating in an edchat the other day and the questions all stemmed around the idea of helping students improve. The majority of answers started to sound the same:

”We need to take risks in learning”

“Ts need to take risks with tech”

“Risks in education is the only way to get Ss successful”

“Support risks in the classroom”

“Allowing and supporting Ts to take risks”

The last one was basically what I wrote. After I had hit submit something dawned on me. What on earth were we all talking about? What risks? Who is taking them? What does that even mean? What does it mean learn through risk taking...or in my blog’s case - risk to learn?

It all starts with understanding what a risks in education are and why we need to take them...and for me, its really quite simple in concept - A risk in education is creating a learning environment for our students that steps out of the norm and allows students to own their learning. An environment that encourages students to ask questions, learn from failure, focus on the process of learning rather than the outcome, and using collaboration not as a point on a rubric - but a true sharing of new information and knowledge. Why? Students need something different...The teacher is no longer the keeper of knowledge...think about that for a second...The teacher is no longer the keeper of knowledge. What a shift in the educational world.

How long does a student have to wait to get an answer to a question they have? It is getting to the point where they only need to wait long enough to type a question or idea into a Google search engine...So how do teachers stay relevant and powerful...enter risk taking.

Where is the risk? It comes when we step away from the routine…This week I encourage you to look for those who are doing something different than the norm in a classroom. What is taking place with technology, collaboration, or projects? Where are student voices being heard and shared?

I will be doing the same this week, and I look forward to sharing the risks in education I see with others.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Learning Commons or Makerspace? Don't Forget the Library

Creating a Learning Commons, with the addition of a Makerspace, has been quite the journey. In the past I wrote, and shared, about the process we went through to create our Learning Commons - I also wrote about the importance of the Prinicpal-Librarian relationship - Yet as I continue to reflect on our tranision, it appears I have forgotten to address one very important thing...Our Learning Commons takes place in a fully funtioning library, as it should.

In the beginning stages, before walls were painted and shelves were moved, I consistently made one thing clear as plans were formulated...I am a literacy guy. In fairness, I am happy to see the STEM/STEAM movement, love a good engineering project, and even look forward to experimenting with PBL types of activities in the K-5 classrooms, but I - am - a - literacy - guy. Can’t help it, and I don’t want to...stories excite/inspire/entertain/drive me, and the value of a good book still outweighs anything I could create out of cardboard...well, for me anyway.

It was painful to walk by the library each day and see shelves of books quietly sitting there with little actual learning taking place around them. While we did have thousands of books checked out each year, and wonderful short stories read to children each just seemed to be a quiet and empty place. Something needed to change, and for us, that was the creation of our Learning Commons/Makerspace.

In creating the right amount of space, some shelves were removed and our entire reference section was replaced with a laptop opened to Google.

Yet it is important to note that we worked very hard to keep each and every book that wasn’t needing to be weeded out. Why would we do this? It would have been much easier to just remove many books in order to add more room...Simply put: We didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In education, there is a tendency, at times, to throw the baby out with the bathwater in the pursuit of the next big thing...I mean think about it, how many times have you overheard, or been apart of, a conversation that sounded like this: “I would try that, but if you have been in education long enough you soon find out that everything is circular, give it time, that strategy will come I don’t see a reason to change now.” Personally, I don’t think thoughts like this are shared due to an unwillingness to change, but rather a history of having new ideas completely replace other proven ones. --- Of course, there can also be a tendency in education to hang onto everything. So instead of replacing unsuccessful ideas, we continue to add and add, leaving less and less time in the day. It can be a slippery slope either way...

At Christie, we knew that something needed to change, we knew we wanted to create something amazing, but one thing was clear...we were not going to throw out the library with the Learning Commons/Makerspace.

So naturally one question needed to be answered: How were both the library and Makerspace going to thrive in the newly named Learning Commons? We want our Learning Commons to not only be a place to find a great book/hear a good story...but a place where inventions are made, ideas are shared, and the slogan “If you can imagine it, you can create it” reigns.

The first step was easy - Keep as many books as possible. I know this was addressed above, but I wanted to reiterate the fact that this was a crucial first step.

Once the books were moved and saved to the greatest extent possible, we created the Learning Commons - again, you can read about our Journey from Library to Learning Commons here.

The second step was equally important - identify and utilize several campus leaders to oversee the newly created Learning Commons. For me, it was important to find those, outside of the librarian, who would be excited and passionate about transitioning our library to a Learning Commons. This is a key point in ensuring the Learning Commons continues to be a fully functioning library - think about it...librarians are very important, but the idea of running a continually used Learning Commons/Makerspace as well as reading stories to students, teaching how to check-out books, re-shelving, and ordering/reviewing other texts would be an almost impossible task. While I am sure there are librarians willing to take on this task, the fact of the matter is that having a Makerspace used all day, as well as a fully functioning library requires multiple hands on deck...not just one person’s…

The third step was all about space - we are very fortunate to be able to have a library classroom that is not only inside the Learning Commons, but has a door with a room containing all the technology and elements of a school classroom. This space is a huge blessing for our campus - essentially what it does is allow the Learning Commons/Makerspace to be used all day - yet our librarian is able to continue to teach lessons, read stories, and help students through a traditional library lense when needed.

The natural fourth step was then to figure out scheduling - Due to the fact that this is the first year with our Learning Commons, we decided to make the use of this space optional. Using an electronic cloud-based calendar, we sectioned the day into 45 minute segments. Teachers are able to check out time in the Learning Commons/Makerspace during the instructional day. At the same time, our librarian created a schedule for our Kinder, First, and Second grade classes to come for a weekly library day with story time in the library classroom. Our third, fourth, and fifth grade classes also have a schedule in order for self-checkout and library lessons to take place as needed.

What has been most impressive is the learning that takes place and the creations made throughout the day from all our K-5 classrooms and students. As the principal, it has been nothing short of amazing to see first hand the use of: Lego Robotics, Lego Creation Center, K'nex, Circuitry, Makey Makey Inventions, Green Screen Video, Robotic Petting Zoo, Cardboard Creations, Reverse Engineering, Sticky-Note Designs through Blueprints, Research Tools, Coding, and so much fact, our 3D printer is on the way…

Next year we are adding a third room/area that is attached to the Learning Commons which will be called our Multimedia Center. This area will house our green screen filming, tablet tech bars, 3D printing, and will be the home of our technology to be utilized throughout the building such as tablets, iPhones, Chromebooks, and additional laptops.

The last note I would like to add is this: Our teachers facilitate the learning in the Learning Commons. This is a crucial step that cannot be missed - it is our teachers who check out time, our teachers who decide what activities will ultimately take place, our teachers that care for and maintain the environment, our teachers that partner cross-grade levels, our teachers that keep our dream alive.

The next steps? We are answering them as they come. But again, it is important to remember that our goal was not to throw out the library with the creation of our Learning Commons...and we haven't.

At Christie, we focus on and celebrate the process, while expecting great results along the way. Our Learning Commons blends beautifully with this belief. What is most exciting about this space is it gives students an opportunity to create, imagine, and build something out of their imagination. We want our students to become creators instead of consumers, so utilizing the Four C’s (Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking) through the Learning Commons/Makerspace lense is one of the most valuable tools we use in education for authentic, student owned, learning.