Thursday, May 28, 2015

STEAM Academy

When I got home from work the other night, there was a letter on the dining room table waiting for me. It was from my daughter's school district superintendent.  After I got over the "oh no, what did she do now?" feeling that sunk into my gut, curiosity got the best of me.

My daughter goes to Summit View Elementary which is in the same building as a Summit View Middle School.  Same building, similar names, different schools.  However, the letter first said that they would actually dissolve the barrier and make it one Summit View Academy, preschool through 8th grade. (That thrilled me to no end, since she wasn't slated to go to that middle school originally.) 

However, the bigger news was that SVA will completely shift to a STEAM-based curriculum. Wow!  It was amazing the thoughts that dumped into my brain and swirled around in those first few moments. 
  • How cool is that?
  • My daughter is an avid reader. I'm so glad she'll get a technology and science emphasis.
  • My daughter is an avid reader. I really hope they don't ignore the language arts.
  • Maybe they are hiring?  Wait... I have a job. I signed my contract.  I love my job.  But, I would love to have a piece of that.
  • What a paradigm shift for those teachers.  Those first couple years will be rough sailing!
  • Do they need a Genius Hour teacher?  They could have Genius Hour as a special like computer, PE, art, etc.  Just saying.
In the end, I sent this tweet to her principal and superintendent.  

It will be interesting to see how things go from here, but I'm excited to see the prospects.  (Oh, and maybe my wife can get a teaching job there.)

I'll be sure to keep you posted.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What's Next?

If you spend any time with a preschooler, you know that questions abound.  Those little ones are inquisitive machines! As reported by Warren Berger in A More Beautiful Question, a child will ask about 40,000 questions between ages two and five. But, what's more staggering is that by middle school, those same kids will stop asking questions altogether.

I am convinced that the education system is a major player in this crazy decline of inquiry.  After all, we have a body of information to pass along to these kids, and we don't have time for them to dawdle with their own personal quest for learning.

One of my college professors used to us that she would ask her girls every day after school, "What questions did you ask?"  The answer usually came back, "Mom, the teacher asks the questions, not us."  Is this how things continue to be in education?

I was talking to a 5th grade girl yesterday, and she told me about something they heard on the radio on the way to school.  "Children love to learn more than adults."  Her 2nd grade sister piped up, "I love to learn!"  Sadly, my 5th grade friend didn't share that sentiment.  I quickly followed that up with, "No, you love to learn.  You just don't love to learn the things we're teaching."  After a moment of thought she agreed and told me she would love to learn about drawing.


You probably heard that my Innovation Classes have been cancelled for 2015-16 due to lack of students.  (If not, you can read about it here.) I realized this past week that I've been going at this Innovation/Genius Hour stuff from the wrong direction. Sure, it would be nice to kick off a brand new high school class full of bright inquisitive minds, and I'll still attempt to do that in 2016-17.  However, I realized I have a golden opportunity to catch them while they're young.

As mentioned above, school culture is very much a top-down flow of questions and answers. "I ask the questions, and you give me the answers I want to hear."  You can't just change that culture with a snappy course description that might not even be read.  You can try to change that culture by talking to the students, but that didn't work for me either.  However, I am in a unique position to make some of those changes beneath the radar.

I spent yesterday rewriting my overall elementary computer plans for the year. Grades 4-6 will have two or three month-long Genius Hour projects sprinkled into the year.  This will give them a taste of what will come in middle school. So when my 6th graders get their course descriptions in the spring, I'll be there to pounce on the Innovation Class for them.

My not-very-well-cloaked goal is to hook them young, to re-energize their slowly dying inquisitive mindset, and to slowly change the school culture from the elementary up.

We're not done yet!


Incredibly astute readers are probably asking some more questions:

  • You said you were going to hook them young. Why start the Genius Hour in 4th grade? Why not start in kindergarten or preschool? 
  • You are teaching middle school and high school courses. I saw that you're teaching Media Production. Why can't you sneak some Genius Hour into those?
  • What on earth does Genius Hour look like in a specials class?
Thanks for asking.  Let's take them one by one. 
  • Upper elementary is my comfort zone.From my research of Genius Hour in primary grades, the younger you go, the more structure you need in the projects. I'm going to need to get used to Genius Hour with upper elementary before I get into it with the little ones. If I don't have my sanity, I have nothing at all.
  • I'm co-teaching the Media Production classes, and I'm not the lead teacher.  We're still in the process of taking general ideas and writing the course details right now.  I'd like to create some student-choice video projects in there, but nothing has been decided yet. 
  • These projects will be more like Genius Nuggets rather than Genius Hour.  The intended schedule is below. The goal is to whet the appetite and help students see that their passions matter.
  • PreWeek - The week before we actually start, I will give a 5-10 minute talk about the project and send an email to parents about the project.
  • Week 1 - Project selections and begin research.
  • Weeks 2 and 3 - Research, building, creating, and updates with me.
  • Week 4 - Presentations to class.

I'm looking forward to seeing good things come next year, even if they weren't exactly what I originally intended.  

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Well...Maybe Not

It would seem that starting a new course requires some main ingredients.

  • Admin approval - check
  • Teacher planning - check
  • Students - ummmmm... About that.
I found out a couple weeks ago that I didn't have enough students signed up to support my new Innovation Classes.  So, last week, I turned into a traveling salesman, going from class to class promoting my new courses.  The students nodded their heads, they had looks of interest on their faces, and they didn't sign up.  It's not like students weren't interested.  I had a number of students tell me they want to take the class, but it conflicts on the schedule with something else -- like AP Physics -- and they couldn't fit it into the schedule. 

I just came from a meeting with the principal and we're going to table Innovation and hope to bring it back for 2016-17.  Ouch! 

To say I'm disappointed would be an understatement, but at least I have a lot of legwork out of the way.  I'll just start promoting earlier next year.  Now that students know about it and what the class is about, I think I'll have an easier time getting that all-important final ingredient of the recipe. 

Now, there are two other updates for next year that may interest some people. 
  1. I will be co-teaching a couple sections of media production. In this course, we will be teaching students about video and sound production from planning to final product. 
  2. I will spend an hour a week in preschool as an aide and probably doing some techie wizardry. 

I'm sure there will be updates on both fronts throughout the next year.  And hopefully we'll be talking about the revival of Innovation in 12 months.  Stay tuned...

Thank You, Mrs. Degler

I was sitting in class, taking part in the discussion, when the stench hit me.  All of a sudden, the room went from normal to nasty, and I had serious concerns that I forgot my deodorant that day. The whole body odor thing was still new to me, and I took it very seriously. I nonchalantly stuck my nose in my shirt to smell my pits but the smell wasn't coming from me.

Unbeknownst to me, Mrs. Degler had a Tupperware container of diced onions in the back of class.  While circling the room she stealthily opened the container and let the smell waft past her students, internally chuckling at our reactions.  I am certain there was an educational objective to this exercise, but I'm not sure what it was.  (That was more than 30 years ago!)

This was, however, my earliest memory of learning by experiencing in school.

Fifth grade in my school was a big deal, because it was the last year of elementary.  To be in fifth grade meant you were the top of the heap, the big kid, and I got to be a safety! (You know... the nerdy kid with the day-glo orange belt and shoulder strap who kept kids in order coming and leaving the school.)  But, those of us who got to have Mrs. Degler as our fifth grade teacher were in a special kind of heaven.  She was young, fun, funny, and brought onions to her science class!

Looking back on things, I firmly believe that Mrs. Degler's influence in my life is a large reason why I became an elementary teacher.

Mrs. Degler's influence didn't end when I left fifth grade though. I was very fortunate to learn the craft of teaching from Mrs. Degler as her student teacher.  I learned about organization, meaningful student praise, and the use of humor in the classroom.  She also gave me freedom in to explore "out of the box" teaching strategies, but what else would you expect from a teacher who spread onion smells through the room?

It's hard to believe it's been 21 school years since my second round of learning in Mrs. Degler's room. My career has taken me to three schools in three states, far from my little hometown in suburban Philadelphia. And, let's not fool ourselves.  It's no coincidence that a large majority of my career was spent in upper elementary grades.  The first 18+ years of my career spanned fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, and I'm convinced Mrs. Degler had a hand in that. Now, in my current capacity, I have the chance to influence students of all ages and help teachers of grades PreK-12.  And I have always tried my best to be unconventional, helping students learn by experiencing.

I don't know if Mrs. Degler will ever read this, but if she does, she needs to know that by crossing paths with me twice I have had the chance to pour myself into over 1000 students and help numerous teachers along the way.

Thanks, Mrs. Degler!  Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

NOTE: I'm frantically trying to find Mrs. Degler on social media, but I did find her in the picture in this article - center, with the pink shirt.