In Search of A New Playground

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A few years ago, a friend of mine, Mary Cantwell, wrote a blog post that really resonated with me, entitled Seeking a New Playground.’ That blog post caused me to pause and consider the similarities and differences between work environments and playgrounds. Working in an elementary school, the playground is an essential part of our day, where students come together to learn and play and interact with different groups of people than perhaps the students in their homeroom. What if as adults, we applied that playground approach to our own work?

Well…fast forward a few years from that initial post, and now it’s my turn. Growth, while often bittersweet, is, to me, inevitable. And so I too, am seeking a new playground. I am hoping to find a new space where I can grow and collaborate alongside members of a diverse team, much like my students do on the playground. 

My professional journey has been a windy road beginning with an undergraduate program at Rosemont College in elementary education & psychology, then moving to a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in education policy and program design. From there, my journey led me to a wonderful K-5 public school, working in the role of teacher/librarian & media specialist, and to my most recent role as a technology coordinator at a PreK-12 independent school.  Along the way, I’ve also worked extensively in public libraries and have had the opportunity to present and share my work and the work of my students in both local and state-level venues throughout the country.  I am grateful for the additional twist in my journey that allowed me to travel to San Francisco with a group of Doctoral students from Penn last spring. I had the opportunity to take classes at Stanford’s d.School and have collaborative conversations about technology and its meaningful integration in schools with a variety of educational leaders.

While I have been fortunate enough to create a makerspace in each of the schools I’ve worked in, I would love the opportunity to work in collaboration with teams of teachers, adult learners, and/or students to infuse the sort of thinking that accompanies a makerspace into the broader pedagogy and curricula conversations of an organization. I would like to take the concept of a makerspace beyond a lego wall, to move the idea of design thinking beyond a wall of post-it notes; taking each to the next level.

In short, I am seeking a new playground. For me…”choosing to go towards the cracking in order to keep expanding, is the only way to go.” While the present may be uncertain, it is filled with possibility and opportunities for growth. I carry with me a set of diverse educational experiences and skills, as well as a creative and innovative spirit.  

Until then…you can find me online @christybrenn or at christina.m.brennan@gmail.com

 

The Why, What, & How of Makerspaces

*Note- this post was originally published in the fall newsletter of the Delaware Valley Region-Pennsylvania Association of Supervision & Curriculum. The full newsletter can be found at: bit.ly/DVRPASCDFall2016

Why:

What if the first question you were asked every day at school was ‘what will you make today?’ How would you respond? Makerspaces provide both students and teachers with opportunities to make what they imagine. They allow teachers to introduce students to the growth mindset of ‘making’ and to develop students’ skills for both digital and physical content creation. Students are able to explore STEM and literacy concepts through hands-on projects while developing skills in the areas of innovation, collaboration, and creativity.

From a curriculum or school district standpoint, the opportunity to design a makerspace is an opportunity to design a new way in which teachers approach their craft. It is an opportunity for that third grade social studies unit on immigration to shift from students finding facts about a country to asking the question ‘How might we learn from others?’ With this as the starting point, and a bit of background knowledge on immigration, students could then head down a path of inquiry, asking questions like:

  • How might we meet the needs of __(person)__?
  • Could we redesign his/her immigration route?
  • Could we design an object/tool that would have helped them in their journey?
  • What might we create that would help them once they arrive(d) in Philadelphia?

Similarly, a second grade unit studying fairy tales could shift from reading and writing fairy tales to students asking questions like:

  • How might we design a better house for the three pigs?
  • Could we come up with a different way for Jack to get to the top of the beanstalk?

Makerspaces provide teachers with the possibility of shifting their thinking from writing lesson plans and unit outlines, to designing learning experiences for their students; all the while covering the same core content and standards.

What:

So, what is a makerspace? The term, though becoming widely used in education, often proves difficult to define. There is no recipe or list of essential elements that a space must have to gain the title of ‘makerspace.’ No two makerspaces are the same. It’s also important to note that ‘makerspace’ is not a verb. It’s not something you do but rather a learning environment that encourages tinkering and exploration. It doesn’t need to be shiny, new, and filled with the latest tech gadgets. It can be any place where the maker mindset unfolds, expands, and grows. Where students and teachers are inspired to create and share ideas with tools that can range anywhere from cardboard and art supplies to 3D printers and laser cutters.

How:

The task of building a makerspace and integrating it into your classroom or school may seem overwhelming. Since no two makerspaces are the same, the process for creating them is not necessarily linear. Laura Flemming in her book, Worlds of Making, identifies a cyclical process for planning a makerspace, the start of which is being able to understand your learners. Allowing for student voice and input while planning your space is critical. From there, it’s helpful to assess existing curricula and programs within your school community and see if they might benefit or be enhanced by having access to such a space. It can also be helpful to consider global trends and best practices and to develop themes within your space. Themes can range from building, creating, and coding, at the elementary level to topics like engineering, bioethics, physics, and blogging at the high school level. Regardless of the age of your students, having a mix of both fixed and flexible centers or stations based on your theme(s) can be a great way to start to introduce students and teachers to the space.  Once you’ve considered the needs of your learners and curriculum, it becomes time to order equipment and materials. Starting small, with perhaps one theme or area of focus, can be helpful. This way, students and teachers can begin to explore and play in a way that is not daunting or overwhelming. As you continue on your makerspace journey, it’s important to keep checking in with your learners (both teachers and students) and asking them the question of, “what will you make today?”

Links to additional makerspace resources can be found at: bit.ly/MakerspacesMatter Be sure to save the date and join us at our spring event, April 20th at Cabrini University, for conversations on promoting student creativity and engagement through design thinking and maker education.

Is it Mission-Critical?

Having spent the past week immersed in the startup culture and innovative ethos of schools and companies in San Francisco, I am now thinking about how this might translate back to my east coast environment. A common thread that has emerged in my thinking is the notion of something being ‘mission-critical.’ Many, if not all, of the startups and independent schools we visited grounded their innovations in their company or school mission. When attempting to introduce a change or new idea, whether in a tech company or a school,  the questions often posed are: “Is that mission-critical?” “Is it helping to further the strategic plan or goal of XYZ school/organization?” This has led me to  think about how I might articulate my own “mission” as an educational leader.

If you were to craft a mission statement for yourself, what would it say? How might it connect to that of your school/company? Of those in your professional network?

Networks are mission-critical to me. As a first year teacher-librarian, I was lucky to find ‘my tribe’ through Twitter (#TLchat). I learned so much from teacher-librarians and others in education across the country who openly shared the amazing things that their students were learning. I found a home online that counteracted the isolation that came with being the only librarian in my building.

At the end of the last school year, I took a risk, and left my role as teacher-librarian. I moved into a new type of school and new position within education. Once again, I felt very isolated. The task of building a new network within this rather unfamiliar context has been challenging. However, spending the past year without my TL tribe has allowed me to think critically about what is ‘mission-critical’ for me in a specific job, an organization, and life in general. The ideas of collaborating, taking risks, creating, designing, and sharing are all mission-critical to me. Consequently…

I’ve decided that my mission statement is:

Mission

Each of the phrases above is connected to someone within my tribe. Whether I’ve had the opportunity to connect with them in person, or have been following them from a distance, their words have impacted me in one way or another.  As I start to build my new tribe, I am very grateful to have met the #pennsv16 group of educational leaders, and look forward to continuing to learn with them.

What is the Uber of Education?

The first day of our #pennsv16 adventure began at Wharton’s San Francisco campus. On our ride over, the question of ‘What is the Uber of education?’ was posed. As someone new to Uber, (yes, I downloaded the app upon arrival at the SFO airport), it was interesting to think about how Uber has disrupted the traditional transportation industry. Even more intriguing, was trying to think about an equivalently disruptive innovation within the education industry.

Working in a school with a rich and deeply-rooted history, I think the tension between innovation and tradition is ever present. Being relatively new to this particular school myself, I’m interested in how we might continue to develop our identity without simultaneously becoming trapped by it. Particularly within high-performing schools, the challenge seems to be not only articulating the value in disrupting something that’s already considered to be ‘good,’ but then acting upon that thinking.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to start a school from scratch.

Would it be easier to innovate in the absence of a history, with a team of people building a school culture together rather than assimilating into already existing structures?

Conversely, is it more challenging to develop and ultimately disrupt a culture that doesn’t exist? Would Uber exist if there were no taxis preceding it? What does this mean for our schools and their leaders?

Notes from the day: 

Notes #pennsv16 Day One

What’s That Part?…and Other First Grade Inquiries

I recently had the opportunity to gather together resources and stories to share for a presentation on embedding inquiry across the curriculum at a PASCD Fall event. When trying to come up with a definition of inquiry, after collecting responses from colleagues, I found it helpful to identify what inquiry is NOT. I kept coming back to the idea that inquiry is not teachers asking students questions we already know the answers to. Instead, it’s providing students with open-ended exploration driven by their curiosities.

So what might this look like in an elementary classroom?

For one of our first-grade technology lessons, we decided to explore some of the different parts of our Chromebooks and figure out how the parts came together to make a whole. Students first brainstormed some parts that they thought a Chromebook might need in order to work. Then we took one apart to see what the inside looked like. We discovered screens, batteries, screws, wires, and lots of other parts too.


Our next job was to take a closer look at two ‘mystery parts.’ We 
recorded our observations and made some predictions about what we thought these ‘parts’ could be and how they might work together to make a whole. We were excited to discover that our parts were LED lights and batteries and that when we put them together in a certain way, we were able to make the bulb light up!

PLN1 Final Reflection: Where Do We Go From Here?

Overall, I found this course and project to be very beneficial to both myself and my students. A common theme that stands out to me from our conversations throughout the course is the need for a common language to implement this framework at perhaps a district level. As a person working with grades K-5, I lend a different perspective to what this model could look like if implemented across the board. I think it would be helpful to our learners, both students and teachers, to be using the same language, if not framework, K-12. The quality of work produced by my students would be richer and at a deeper level if the four lenses and five processes were introduced in the early elementary grades, and then spiraled as students progressed.

In thinking about my library curriculum, I would wonder if a project like this one could be used as a pilot to look at one project within one grade to start to introduce ideas of project-based learning or higher order thinking skills that the PA Core demands? Having looked at a variety of school library curricula (New York, Pennsylvania, Iowa, etc) there is a need to increase the rigor and depth of thinking required of our students. While I appreciate the PA Model curriculum for libraries and its fidelity to the PA Core standards, I think it could be supplemented by being approached from a PLN mindset that moves beyond standards and focuses on not only the learning by also the metacognitive piece.

That being said, having completed this project for one unit in one of the six grade levels that I teach, it is overwhelming, at times, to consider creating something of this caliber for every lesson at every grade level. Looking forward, I would like to start looking at a kindergarten or first grade level to see how this could be implemented and then grow with the same cohort of students as they move from kindergarten to fifth grade. As a person new to my role and also to the district, I’m still learning where my students are at. While I love trying new things and approaches, it is important to be mindful of what my students are used before radically changing their routines and/or processes. An example of this would be our shift from a significant amount of teacher talk to student talk. Though some time was devoted to explicitly teaching the language needed to collaborate and listen to peers, in the long run, students are now more accountable for their talk and on their way to becoming better, more active listeners.

I love a quote mentioned at the Collins lecture, “kids need to know about words and the world.” In developing this project, it was important to me that my elementary students share their learning, both product and process with a wider audience than their homeroom. The ability to use technology to connect and collaborate with one another as well as mentors at our high school allows students to see and take ownership over the connection between their words and learning and our 21st century world.

A final thought throughout the building of this project is the role of technology within a PLN framework. In creating these lesson plans, the technology tools seemed to fall into place naturally and were not added on as an afterthought.  While I attempt to integrate technology in a way that is meaningful and relevant, I wonder how or if this link should be looked at more explicitly. Thinking about models of technology integration, SAMR being one, I wonder what it would look like layered on top of a content area curriculum developed with these lenses and processes in mind? I like to think that technology provides teachers an opportunity to accelerate our pedagogy, and that this is done most effectively when the technology becomes invisible and just another tool at our disposal. Yet, taking transacting with text as an example, do the skills we teach and strategies we use change when the texts shifts from physical to digital? While the lenses are constant, do the processes change? Should they?

Words & The World: A Common Language for Writing

“KIds need to know about words and the world.” In a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, John Collins presented ‘The Ten Percent Summary: the Perfect Writing Assignment?’ His model seems to blend the words/vocabulary with the world/context and audience across the writing process. I appreciated how he began the presentation by identifying three key shifts that are necessitated by the Common Core: building knowledge through content-rich non-fiction, grounding reading/writing/speaking in evidence from text, and practicing regularly with complex texts. Looking at Collins’ five types of writing within the contexts of these shifts creates an interesting framework for teaching writing across content areas.

A key take away, for me, from the presentation was the idea of the ten percent summary. I loved the S “T” A r t model and could definitely see it being used with my upper elementary grade students. In thinking about the I-search project that my 5th grade students recently started, this model lends itself really well to their reading of a variety of informational texts, while summarizing & synthesizing the information they find along the way. I”m not sure what the model might look like with younger learners, but would be interested in also applying it to the work of my K-2 learners in the future.

While I found the presentation to be full of great resources and ideas to try with student writing, I began to wonder about the potential of the writing model. What would happen if we had a common language to do this across grades and content areas? As someone who works with students K through 5th grade, I would love to see some sort of continuity so that we could take the model/skills that each grade level has and run with it. Imagine the powerful summaries students could be writing by 5th grade if the concept was introduced in kindergarten. Perhaps then we could look at not only the words but connecting with the world at every grade level.