Using Tech to Ground & Engage Your Classroom

Often times, technology is touted as either a solution to the problems in education or a growing concern we need to address as students spend more and more time in front of a screen. I want to touch on the idea of tech as neither a solution or a concern, but simply a tool, and a great one to have in your classroom when you want to create a positive environment.

I have found technology to be invaluable tool in helping me keep track of tasks,  organize my schedule, and maintain a good work-life balance as an educator and a professional. Apps like Lift, Headspace, Wunderlist and Supercal, provide support in building new habits, meeting goals, being more mindful and keeping track of everything that’s involved with coordinating technology at my school. I think it’s important to introduce similar, developmentally appropriate, tools to our students to help them see how they can use technology as a tool in their school and home lives to stay healthy and organized.

GoNoodle Brain Breaks

Hurdle Stretch

Stretching Before the 100M Hurdles

I recently learned about a new tool called GoNoodle that offers a variety of free brain breaks that you can use in the classroom. It’s ideal for elementary students but I think some of the activities could be used with middle or even high school classes that need a break or some exercise. One of the things I love about the tool is that it provides different types of breaks (e.g., calming, energizing, focusing) and most of the activities range between 2-5 minutes long. This means that I can easily squeeze a GoNoodle activity into my Maker Club agenda after school or even during a short thirty-minute tech time with students.

Since GoNoodle is web-based, I can access it from any computer, regardless of what classroom I’m in and it really seems to help students get ready for work, especially after recess, when they’re a bit wound up, or at the end of the day when they’re starting to feel tired.

GoNoodle allows you to set up a classroom (or multiple classes if you teach more than one) and choose a Champ to act as your class character/avatar. The champs grow as your class completes more activities, motivating students to participate and try new brain breaks.

Champ_1

GoNoodle has been particularly helpful with my Maker Club students because at ages 5-8, they’ve already had a long day when they come to see me after school and as much as they want to dive into making, they’re often feeling restless, wiggly, and tired. We often do activities with Maximo, who guides the students through yoga poses and helps them focus, or we do one of the Zumba activities to get everyone up and moving! If you have a longer block of time or indoor recess (we have had a lot of them this winter!), you could easily combine a few activities together and get closer to increasing your class champ level.

Using GoNoodle Video

Since I have also been exploring mindfulness for the past year, I really appreciate the “Airtime” break because it helps my students gain an awareness of their breath and take time to just breathe. A number of classes at my school have started using GoNoodle for brain breaks and I’m excited to see each class grow their own champ and begin to develop their favorite brain breaks, just like they have favorite greetings for morning meeting.

GoNoodle is also running a fun contest this month on Pinterest where every week, a teacher will win a GoNoodle Madness classroom pack! To enter, you can pin an image in this post or anything from GoNoodle.com and then tag your pins with @GoNoodleBreaks and #GoNoodleMadness!

Stop, Breathe & Think

If you want to go deeper into mindfulness with your classroom, the Stop, Breathe & Think app is another wonderful (and free!) app that you can use. It prompts students to first stop and assess how they’re feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally. This is something older students could do independently or younger ones could do with the guidance of a teacher.

You can choose up to five emotions from an extensive list, organized on a spectrum from happy to angry, and then the app provides a list of suggested mediations in response to those emotions. Each meditation is between 3-9 minutes so if you’re short on time, you can always choose a quick one from the list.

The app provides an audio-guided meditation that eases the listener into and out of the meditation with student-friendly language. Similar to leveling up with the GoNoodle champs, you can earn stickers as you complete more meditations in the app. If you can sense a certain mood with a specific student or among your class, you can also go into the app and choose any of the meditations from the list without filling out the self-assessment.

I think the app could be great to use as a whole class in the morning or after lunch and it could also be nice as a center or even for individual use, if you have devices available that a child could take to a corner to find some “headspace” if they’re feeling unsettled.

What kind of brain breaks and activities do you use in your classroom?

Do you have a favorite tech tool you can share to help teachers engage their classroom and create a positive learning environment? 

Let’s Let All Educators Learn by Experience

learning to paint

Last week, I had the unique opportunity to take an impromptu painting class as part of a professional development program I’m involved in at my school. The interesting part was that learning to paint wasn’t the ultimate goal. Instead, our focus was on the experience.

  • What does it feel like to be a novice and learner and, for many of us, in a foreign context?
  • How does learning by doing differ from sitting in a classroom and being told how to learn or what to do?
  • What does painting show us about the importance of each individual learner’s perspective?

These were just a few of the questions that began to emerge as the evening progressed. All us in the class worked to paint a still life after receiving nothing more than a brief 15 minute instructional tutorial.

I thought about other experiential learning experiences I’ve had, whether they’ve involved learning to program an Arduino or making jewelry, they have all been powerful. What makes these experiences so meaningful? Do my students experience the same benefits?

There seem to be some core components that help make experiential learning both memorable and a natural entry point into deep learning:

  • Opportunities to learn with/from peers –> community of learners
  • Appreciation for individuality and varying skills –> self-awareness
  • Being receptive to feedback and critique –> growth
  • Diving in with minimal training or prep –> learn as you go
  • Setting your own learning goals –> empowerment
  • Ownership of the work –> intrinsic motivation
  • Freedom to take risks –> creative innovation

How can we find ways to integrate these components into everyday classroom learning? I’ve found that two new educational movements or approaches facilitate this work very well: the Maker Movement and Design Thinking.

The first is sweeping the nation, as shown in part by Obama’s announcement this week to host a Maker Faire at the White House this year! Making as a mindset for learning involves encouraging students to create products and be completely immersed in inventing and tinkering as they follow their passions. There are more and less scaffolded approaches to making and many schools are struggling right now with how to assess and structure making but in my Maker Club, I’ve seen students thrive. Students that might feel hesitant talking in class are suddenly giving me detailed explanations about the projects they’ve built and taking on new roles as collaborators and designers. They’re excited to learn and enthusiastic about taking risks and developing new skills.

The second approach, Design Thinking, involves challenging students to respond to prompts like “How might we …” to solve real-world problems. By exploring, researching, empathizing, prototyping, seeking feedback, improving, and creating a final product, students engage in deep learning experiences. Whether they are trying to solve global water issues or prototype a new and better snowplow, students are experiencing many of the components I listed above while also learning valuable skills they can use for life.

I’m still learning daily about both the maker movement and design thinking and ways to integrate them meaningfully in schools. And although I’m also still reflecting on the answers to the questions that first came to mind during our painting class, I’m also wondering how we can infuse more of these experiences into our lives as educators?

My biggest takeaway from our painting class was:

It’s extremely important to engage in learning experiences where you are inspired and motivated to wonder, particularly in settings where you are asked to take risks, learn from the perspectives of your peers, and think critically about your pedagogy.

I think that in addition to seeking ways to integrate more experiential learning opportunities for students, we need to be asking how to create and offer more of them for teachers too. Take a look at our experience when we were asked to learn by painting (captured with Google Glass!):

An #Educon Manifesto for Educators

In the spirit of the Wonder by Design session I attended at Educon this past weekend, I thought I would summarize some of my ah-ha moments and key takeaways in an Educon Manifesto (in draft form, of course!). I see it as a manifesto for teaching and learning and maybe more importantly, something to post in my class for daily inspiration – a reminder of the work I want to do and why it’s essential.

Here’s the short version:
Educon Manifesto

Here’s the long version: 

Be a Wonderer 

Because who wouldn’t want to be? Wondering leads to all sorts of inquiry and investigation and it’s often the impetus for meaningful dialogue and deep learning. We need it in all of our classrooms to drive exploration and sustain a sense of awe in our day-to-day work as educators.

Plus, as Loris Malaguzzi said,

“The art of research already exists in the hands of children acutely sensitive to the pleasure of surprise. The wonder of learning, of knowing, of understanding is one of the first, fundamental sensations each human being expects from experiences faced alone or with others.” 

It seems vitally important that we don’t take that expectation away from our students or deny it from ourselves.

Prototype it!

If you’re interested in trying a new structure for your class or you’re considering building a new space in your school … prototype it! Design it and try it out before setting it in stone (which hopefully doesn’t happen to often in schools).

It seems simple enough but how often do we actually test out an idea and see how well it works and then get feedback from students and other audiences that will be affected by a change before we implement it?

Make the Space You Need

After you’ve tested out a variety of prototypes and improved on the parts that have failed, get started making! Whether it’s a new school, a makerspace, a standing classroom, or a nook in the corner that just needed a redesign, take initiative to make your learning spaces into what you need them to be. It could be as simple as changing the lighting or it might be as complicated as working with architects and consultants to construct something completely new.

There’s plenty of inspiration out there and lots of resources to work with so let’s put on our Maker Hats and design the environments needed for a maker mentality and wonder to flourish.

Tinker with Technology, Don’t Just Use It

Kano Kit

As Sylvia Martinez suggested in one of the #MakerEd sessions, computing is the game-changer in bricolage that allows us to dig into deeper learning and making. We need to tinker and experiment with technology and help our students learn how to create it for themselves so they can create new inventions for others.

Don’t consume tech –> Create it. Don’t take for granted how tech works –> Tinker with it until you find out!

Let “Real Life” into Your Classroom

Richard Culatta, Director of Ed Tech, encouraged educators to stop giving fictitious problem sets to students and instead to provide real life problems for them to solve.

It’s time to start breaking down the artificial dichotomies between school and the “real world” so that students walk away with experience engaging in dialogue about current events and issues facing their communities. Let’s start asking students what problems they want to solve and making school a place to tackle them.

IT Starts With the Students & Always Will

A reminder about the importance and value of the learner and creating learner-driven classrooms. Our role as educators is to foster wonder and make spaces where students feel encouraged to learn. It’s easy to get caught up in the tasks, standards, and restrictions that seem to hold us back and turn our attention away from the students. Yet, our work has always been and will be, to honor their voices, respect their choices, and empower their actions as they make, tinker, problem-solve, and create anew each day.

Document, Document, Document … Reflect

365daysofglassAlthough not a huge focus of #educon, documentation has been a highlight of my work this year as I explore ways to use Google Glass in the classroom. It seems that if we want to encourage wonder and focus on student interests, then we need to be constantly documenting the teaching and learning happening in our classrooms so we have material to review and reflect on. To be intentional in our teaching and help scaffold student inquiry, we need to act as researchers and reflective practitioners and to do that, we must start by documenting.

Definitions are Defined by Context 

A big question in the Designing Learning Organizations session was “what is the new learning context?” Ultimately, we decided that the context is rooted in what we value and our values affect how we define learning and schooling. Therefore, if we want to create a new context for learning, we have to look at how we’re defining learning and make a space, as well as develop a mindset, that supports our desired definitions.

Basically, if we want to work and learn in organizations that are flexible, responsive, collaborative, and full of wonder, we have to take into consideration how we’re defining learning and how our space and context is shaping that definition, so we can understand what might need to change.

Decide to Always be Learning 

Another topic under discussion at #educon was how to create change in traditional schools and envision a learning organization. A big part of the answer seems to be a mindset. Whether it’s a mindset for making, a mindset towards openness, or one of design thinking and PBL, you have to decide that you are going to engage in that work and commit to it.

I’m not sure that there’s any one mindset that’s best for all teachers and students aside from a mindset to always be learning. So decide that you want to keep growing and constantly continue to learn.

Learn to Keep Asking Questions 

Questions were a hot topic at #educon. Some people talked about needing to ask the right questions, others encouraged making questions more inclusive “what if we …”, while another educator suggested that the goal is to “keep falling in love with the question” without finding The Answer.

Whether your questions are open-ended, categorized, or unanswerable, I think the most important piece is to keep asking them! Ask them over and over, in new ways and in old ones, just never stop asking questions.

Stay Inspired & Keep Playing 

In order to see wonder and come up with creative ideas for prototypes and spaces, we need a key ingredient: inspiration. It pushes us to tinker and guides us to question, it feeds our thirst for learning and helps us be open to new mindsets. Inspiration is the energy drink of educators and with it, we can take up @ChristianLong and @djakes charge to “assume epic success” and be “extraordinary!” My best advice is to stay inspired and keep playing – with ideas, with questions, with technology and most of all, with young children who can help us remember the “pleasure of surprise” and the “wonder of learning.” 

Now it’s your turn … what would your manifesto include?

2013 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for my blog. Check out what happened during the past year!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.