Monday, December 21, 2015

Physical Space Makes a Difference

Empowered Collaborative Learners
One of the things we believe in for our students is the need to be collaborative learners.  Problem solving and creativity rarely happen as solely an individual pursuit. We are social creatures who depend on others for so many things including our learning.  Our vision for learning requires a different kind of space to support the interactive, messy, sometimes chaotic, always changing, and noisy process that is learning. So, how do we support this type of student learning?

Team-Based Professional Development
Professional development, is certainly part of changing the learning environment.  Learning for adults mirrors the type of learning we want for students. We are team based with 3 hours of collaborative PD time in each week. K-12 teams and grade level/content area teams meet weekly. This supports our professional learning community (PLC) model where teachers own the learning and decide the direction they need to take to work towards our district vision.

Setting team goals, viewing and giving feedback on instruction and discussing articles and student work require a collaborative space. As our PD model has become more entrenched, teacher teams naturally started gravitating to rooms where there were tables instead of desks. They went where there were comfortable chairs on wheels and spaces that were more open.  They started asking for different types of furniture in their own rooms. Now, all our team meetings happen in rooms with no student desks (and we still have plenty of rooms that have student desks yet - finances are still a reality).

The Difference Furniture Can Make
The furniture in a learning space says a lot about what you believe learning should look like. If desks are all placed in rows, it says, "No talking. Be Quiet. Listen" Likewise, when furniture is arranged in groups, it communicates something about cooperative learning. What does it say when there are a variety of types of furniture that are easily movable for students? We believe it says, "You have a choice. What type of setting is best for what you need to learn and accomplish?"

When it's a chore to move furniture, it rarely gets moved. If it does get moved, it is usually through a planned lesson on the teacher part where he/she allows the furniture to be moved. It's a chore and rarely spontaneous.

As we encourage students to take more ownership in their learning, to become empowered learners, it seem contradictory to say, "Now do it quietly in these nice rows of desks." Instead, flexibility in space and furniture has become key. Sometimes we need to sit and listen; sometimes we need to sit and work alone; many times we need to talk with others to do our best work. Our space design tried to take into account flexibility. We planned a variety of learning spaces with a variety of furniture to support student choice, comfort and need. The picture below is the furniture design for a collaboration space in our building.

Here's the actual picture of the collaboration space. Campfire seating (circular) lends itself to conversation. You should have heard these students (left) when they walked in the collaboration room as they prepared for the technology class. They were so excited to enter the room and they raced to the middle area seating where they just started talking about their projects. No one wanted to be left out. Some pulled up chairs to join. Besides this campfire seating there is a high top table with 8 seats, three white board tables that can be grouped to seat 6, there are two soft seating groupings in the room, bean bags and easily movable stools.

Thinking About Unique Learning Spaces
When you envision a place for your teachers to collaborate and learn, how does the furniture support that?  This space pictured to the right was too small to be a classroom, and is just off the collaboration space pictured above. This became a perfect place for adult learning resources. You might not notice the technology access in the space. An interactive whiteboard, Apple TV, mobile devices, and Swivl recording devices are all housed here. Yes, there's a treadmill in the PLC Room for teachers to use while they watch video, read, learn or just have down time (desk for it is being designed by our high school shop class). The furniture can be easily moved from the sofa look to a campfire look.

The lobby space has had a variety of furniture in it over the past 7 years I've been here. It has always been a congregation place for students. Various pieces of furniture have come and gone in the space. As students gave input on the types of furniture they preferred, one high top table seating 8-10 students (instead of shorter, smaller tables) is the main seating area in our lobby. Along with a long sofa piece and a smaller grouping of soft chairs, the lobby is a hub for student learning throughout the day.

When thinking about the types of learning experiences students need to be regularly engaging with as 21st century learners, collaborative problem solvers is surely part of the mix. With just a couple of furniture changes made in these existing spaces, we are already starting to see our students gravitating toward these spaces. It supports the feel of our building that learning happens everywhere.

Monday, March 2, 2015

My Learning on Dyslexia

The state of Iowa added a definition of dyslexia into code last spring, and it's bringing attention to the learning disability in public schools.  Really I'd liken it to an awareness similar to that of recognizing how many cars of a particular type are on the road once I bought one. Now that there is a definition in code for it, I'm surprised by how many resources there are (and aren't, in most cases) for dyslexia.

My journey started a couple of months ago when I attended a Decoding Dyslexia Iowa evening event. I was an educator-listener attending with my friend who has a dyslexic child; I was support for her. I was also prepared to be in defender of public schools. While there were moments that I felt those hairs on the back of my neck stand up, most of the evening was spent sharing information and seeing schools as partners (yay!). It was helping parents understand that schools had no training in specific strategies to use with dyslexic students and that information and training was a key part in helping the child.

While I believe strongly in partnerships between home and school, I left that meeting thinking that it shouldn't be on parents to educate me or my teachers. As an instructional leader, I should take on the responsibility of understanding it more and deciding how I can best help my team to address the learning needs of students who may be dyslexic. So that's what really started my journey. I didn't want to be the school leader that told some parent, "Because your child learns in different ways, we can't help him/her."

While this post is far from a complete, all-you-need-to-know description of dyslexia, I hope that sharing my learning may help someone else in their journey. There are students we know are there, but aren't reaching well enough. Understanding dyslexia may help some of those students.

To start, these two videos have been helpful for me to understand what dyslexia is and why I should care. This short video explains the brain research behind dyslexia. It doesn't get overly complicated, even though it talks about the neurology behind the disability. Another much longer video (50 minutes), is a documentary that does a nice job of putting faces, families and feelings to the learning struggles. It also talks about what it is and what we can do to make a difference.

I also appreciate simple FAQ's for starting to understand a topic. The International Dyslexia Association offers this set of questions and answers to help. The response to my burning question about how do I help students with dyslexia comes in a simple and extremely complex answer, "multi-sensory approach to teaching." That's my next step in this journey to understand dyslexia.

More to come...

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

K-12 Writing Resource

Teaching writing is never a quick and easy process. One idea that may help teachers and students can be found in collaborative conversations around student work using a common tool. has a series of writing samples annotated with the language of the standards. Teachers and students at various grade levels can read the student work samples and see the notes left by experts in the field highlighting examples and non-examples of the standards in action. Teachers and students alike can discuss what makes some pieces of writing better than another. Collaboration amongst teachers around these tools could really help transfer the learning from discussions into instructional changes that could be made to help students avoid common pitfalls. It could also help infuse the language of the standards into writing instruction with samples of work to support the conversation as models.