Having worked in public education for over 20 years, I can say that the 2019-2020 is unlike any other. With the closure of schools due to COVID-19 and the implementation of remote learning, I experienced a system of education that I could have never anticipated. Added to this was the social change that occurred when the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis policy. This tragic event, coupled with many similar events of people of color dying in police custody, has forever changed the way that I will view the work that I do with all students going forward.
I am currently reading Zaretta Hammond’s book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.” This book, along with others, was inspired as I sought to make sense of the reasons behind the many protests occurring in my town and across the nations, I actively sought out a way to productively and intentionally respond in a way that affirms the dignity and worth of all humans, not just ones who look like me or have similar cultural experiences. As I processed the many thoughts and words of protestors in the media and my own social networks, I realized that I needed to spend deliberate time reflecting on my experiences and consider the privileges that I have that many students that I work with do NOT have. I have a 8 year old son who means the world to me. I thought about what his life will be like as he grows up and I begin to wonder if I am doing en.s been a season of reflection, contemplation, and intentionality.
This “lens” is how we view the world. It is shaped by the experiences that we have growing up as well as many unspoken practices and rules that can be observed and learned. He is growing in a world quite different from where I grew up. I grew up in rural Appalachian in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. My family was not very wealthy but I had a lots of love and support from others. The world that I grew up in involved eating “soup bean and fried taters” (pinto peans and fried potatoes for those outside of my lens) at lead five nights a week. This was out of necessity because this meal was cheap and easily obtained. Both my parents worked hourly jobs. We had clothes, but they were not designer brands. We did not mind this as we realized that designer brands were simply a status symbol anyway. What we did have was lots of great experiences back in our “holler,” where we played late in the evenings in the woods, creeks, and the mine dumps. Yes, you heard that right, the mine dumps, an area where rocks and other minerals had been mined with remnants of dirt left behind. Mind you, these remnants were not toxic as best we know. We lived in an area abundant with minerals and rocks known throughout the state and nation for these resources. Most of my relatives and neighbors had worked in mining at some point.
As I reflect on my childhood, I now realize that I grew up in a very collectivist culture where we all had to work together for survival. The church served as the focal point for the community and we often would assist others in our community. I recall going on a weekend to a widow’s home to help several men with re-roofing her home before the roof was being to “cave.” I also recall that when someone died, the grave was dug by locals and there was no charge to the family for the digging of the grave. We had only one high school in our county and we all knew each other by graduation. When I would make new friends, my parents would ask me who the parents of my new friends were. Often I discovered that many of these parents were individuals that my parents were friends with in school. My parents were leery of letting us go to anyone’s home that they did not know their parents. We were raised on and taught the value of working toward a common goal and to make sure that we had everyone with us. One of the lessons that I still carry with me to this day involves the process that we would go through when dropping off our friends at their home or cars after an evening out. We were specifically instructed to never leave a friend until we saw that they got into their home and turned on a light or that we made sure that their car started and was moving before we left. It is these and so many more lessons that has helped shape the lens in which I view the world.
When I went to college, I left home and went over four hours aways. Even though four hours away is not far, I found a world drastically different from the one where I grew up. This part of my state was heavily industrialized and more diverse. It was faster paced and seemed more impersonal in many ways. My college experience provided me with many unique experiences and more importantly more exposure to new ideas and lens. I went to the beach for the first time as age 19. I remember running around a cow as part of a World Religions experience where I visited a Hindu temple. I interned in a school in London where most of the students were Bengali immigrants. I taught a summer camp for inner city kids from Cincinnati. I purposely sought experiences that would challenge me to grow and help me to expand my cultural lens. I took lots of Anthropology courses and spent time volunteering with AIDS education programs, recruiting campus speakers who would introduce new ideas, and working to better understand the experiences of an increasingly more diverse student population. Part of my teacher education program allowed me to focus on diversity (what we would now call Culturally Responsive Teaching) and how I can best support all students.
When I landed my first teaching job, I taught at an inner city high school with roughly an equal number of White and African-American population. Over time, the LationX student population grew and the percentage of White students declined. I loved the challenges of this school though but my first year was tough. I struggled in many ways connecting with some of my students. But it is not the students who you may think. I struggled connecting with students who looked much like me. While we looked similar, my experiences were so different from there’s. For the students who looked like me, they had large homes, played multiple sports in many cases, and took nice vacations over the United States and Europe. Many of these students had experiences that I could not related to since I never had them. The students that I seemed to most connect with were students who on the surface did not look like me. However, we had similar socio-economic experiences such as worrying about how certain bills may get paid, or how we can support our neighbor down the street who may be going through a difficult time since he/she was laid off their job at the mill. As a i reflect on this unusual experience, I think that much of what allowed me to connect with students who looked quite different from me was a shared experience where we knew what it was like to struggle to survive. We understood the challenges associated not being able to pay all our bills that month. We knew the value of making sure to support our neighbors in need since we never know when we may be that neighbor needed help.
As I prepare for the next few weeks before our new school starts, I am reminding of the importance of understanding our lens and how it impacts how we see the world. Hammond actually refers to that lens as an aperture which is what allow more or less light in a photo. It can also be used as a metaphor to describe how we may or may not allow more experiences in to help shape our own individual picture of the world. As I continue to read Hammond’s book, I am reminded of the importance of making sure that we are supporting all learners in our classroom and ensuring that we challenge all students to learn at high schools by creating a system in which ALL students transform into independent learners. Too often, more most dependent learners are not provided opportunities to be challenged and learned at high levels. My next few blog posts will involve I am reflecting on my experiences and expanding my lens by allowing more light through my aperture to ensure that ALL students will have challenging learning experiences to become independent learners. This is my journey toward addressing the lack of equity experienced by many students.
The last few months have been quite challenging for educators and learners. With school buildings closed, we have had to create remote learning opportunities to help our students. Some students have thrived during this time while others have not yet checked in. Most students fall somewhere between these extremes. Regardless, I think we can all agree that this time has challenged us to consider how we deliver instruction and help our learners progress.
As a scientist and educator, I fully understand the role that disruptions can cause. Our geological record is covered with the signs of major disruptions that signal how climate and life has changed over time. I believe that we are essentially at this point with education. Many of the professional learning sessions I have attended in the past several weeks have alluded to the importance of using this time to reconsider and reimagine how we are helping students to learn. We must place emphasis on learning here, not grades or other measures. In fact, as I reflect, I think that it is time that we reinvent our education system to really focus on learning and not metrics that reduce learning. We must also also use this opportunity to shift mindsets and philosophies from preparing students for an industrial world to one that prepares our learners to live and thrive in an information age.
One of the more interesting connections that I made during this time is a partner that my home school system, Rowan-Salisbury Schools, is partnering with is Transcend (@TranscendBuilds). Transcend is an organization dedicated to supporting communities in creating and spreading extraordinary, equitable learning environments. I love that the focus on disrupting inequity in education.
As a technology facilitator, I have seen our system reduce in equity by providing students with a device that the majority take home. As our chief technology officer recently shared over 99.4% have devices at home during our building closures. For those who do not, I am guessing this is due to either a device repair (even though efforts have been made to provide students with devices) or a personal choice not to take the device home. When our system first transitioned to its 1-to-1 initiative, I was teaching science at Salisbury High School. I remember that we distributed devices in late August which is typically very hot and oppressive in North Carolina with our humidity relentless. I recall leaving school and walking our main door to see several students who lived over two miles away that walked back to school. They were trying to figure our their Z-Scaler passwords for accessing internet outside of the school. They said that they walked over from one of our larger public housing centers in our city. After helping them, I recall thinking that this may be the first time that many of these students have ever had a laptop in their home. This definitely changed the game as the 1-to-1 initiative put all gave all students a device and access regardless of their personal circumstances. This initiative has continued to make a huge difference in the learning opportunities for all students. It has reduced a major source of inequity in our community.
This is not to say that we have reduced all inequity in our system though. We still struggle with making sure that all our students have access to internet while at home. We also have other inequities based on the support that students may have at home, their ability to use different software programs, and even with teacher preparedness. As a technology facilitator, I have supported teachers in remote learning. I have been so amazed at how much many of our teachers have progressed in become more effective in digital learning. Many of our teachers have grown exponentially in their professional learning. Our own school system has offered extensive array of professional learning opportunities including webinars. Our educators have also engaged in many other opportunities. As a result, our educators have customized and chosen their own individual professional learning opportunities. As a result, they are learning and acquiring new skills that matter to them. This has customized their own learning and resulted in educators who are more satisfied with their professional learning.
As we continue to work through this pandemic, we must use these lessons learned to customize our education for our students just as educators have customized their professional learning. As we look toward the fall, it is my hope that we will continue to use this disruption to create an education system that is much more equitable to all students. I hope that we use the lessons learned during this disruption to create a better education system where we are focused on learning, not measures that negate true learning such as test scores, with educators who are well supported with extraordinary professional learning. We must work toward creating an accountability system that is tied to our community expectations, not one that serves bureaucratic establishments that rewards and diminishes students based on personal circumstance or zip code. Now is the time to make a definitive break in our education record and create a new and better system just as we see in different strata in our geological records.
Earlier this morning, we had a staff meeting via Zoom. It has been challenging for many of our teachers to be separated from their students. They genuinely love their students and want to support them. I have seen how agonizing it has for many of them not to be able to give high fives or that needed pep talk to students in the hallways. It has been hard for them. As a technology facilitator, I don't always work directly with students as much of my work is concentrated on supporting the educators in our building. So I thought that I was doing okay and focusing my time on supporting our teachers and staff. However, this changed yesterday afternoon as I attended one of our 6th grade zoom meetings. As I saw the pictures of our 6th graders popped, my heart just melted as I realized how much I missed seeing them in the hallways and classrooms. I was really thrilled to see them and know they were okay.
I also had the opportunity to attend a weekly meeting with Jaclyn Stevens (@jaclynbstevens) of the Friday Institute for instructional coaches, media coordinators, and technology facilitators. The Friday Institute has been doing an amazing job providing support and professional learning for all educators during this remote learning time. In yesterday's session, Jaclyn shared some great ideas and resources to engage staff and help us focus on meeting their social emotional needs. Based on the ideas and inspirations that I received from her session and my realization of how much I missed our 6th graders, I wanted to work with our instructional coach, Amanda Pembroke (@pembrokeamanda), to create something to help our staff share what they were feeling and experiencing. As I was walking the dogs, it hit it- remix an activity that I had done with the North Carolina Digital Leaders Network a few years on emoji writing with some of the ideas from Jaclyn's session.
From this, was born the activity "5 Pictures and 15 Words." In activity, our staff would be divided up into breakout room in zoom of 3-5 people and complete a slidedeck where they tell about their quarantine experience using 5 images and up to 15 words. I prechoose the images using Pixabay (www.pixabay.com). Pixabay is a great resource to find pictures that can be used without copyright consideration since they already provide the permission for use with no restrictions (but it is always good to provide attribution for them as a good model for students). Each group received the same five pictures and they could use them in any way they chose. The beauty of this activity as Mrs. Pembroke pointed out is that it allows for critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. Each group was assigned a slide in the slide deck and asked to complete it within a certain amount of time. Our principal floated between rooms helping facilitate conversations. A more complete list of rules is available in our slidedeck posted below.
We reconvened and we had our groups share their creations and it was AWESOME! It was amazing to hear what each group was experiencing and their interpretations of the pictures. I loved seeing how the same starting points diverged into a variety of emotions, experiences, and creations. It also allowed our staff the opportunity to share in small groups their experiences and stories. We expanded our empathy for others as a result. We also continue to build connections between our staff and expand our relationships. As I listened to each group share, I was blown away with their final products. Below are some of the creations that they shared and I was truly touched by this. Perhaps remote learning has taught us some important lessons about human connections that we could not have learned otherwise. Let remember those when we do reconvene face to face and be sure to continue to touch the hearts of others.
Our instructional coach shared how this could be a great activity to modify to use with students in the classroom as a exit ticket, warm up, or a formative assessment. If you would like to have a clean copy of the slidedeck to use, you can make a copy of it into your Google Drive by visiting this link. Be sure to drop us a line or tag us in a tweet (@scibri and @pembrokeamanda) if using this activity and let us know how it is going and how you may be remixing it.
We have had so many changes in the last few weeks in our world. Most of us are now living under “stay at home” orders and sequestered to our homes in almost all cases. Many of us are now very aware of maintaining social distance from others and washing our hands often. Much like our “new” normal, we have a “new” normal in education.
In just a few weeks, we have seen education move from the classroom to a new stage – the home. Parents are now serving as home school teachers and classroom teachers are serving as instructional designers. As our teacher plan instructional cycles and design lessons, there seems to be one tool that many are using but, perhaps, it is not getting the recognition that it needs. We often take this tool as granted and overlooks its multiple uses. My guess is that almost all students with a device have either used or benefitted from this tool without realizing its importance. It is the camera that almost everyone has on their device. In my district, our K-8 students have an iPad with a camera and our high school students have a macbook air with a camera. It is these cameras that are working so incredibly hard these days with many of our apps.
Here is just a few ways that cameras have benefited me in the last few days.
The ubiquitous camera is a tool that is often not given the credit that is due. It has and will continue to serve many purposes in education and creation. Coupled with various apps, it can totally transform students from mere consumers to creators. So, the next time you use your camera, think about how amazing this tool is and how much more we could be doing with it.
Forget the Full Moon & Time Change; Focus on Scientific Literacy, Media Literacy, and Empathy During the Coronovirus Outbreak
What a crazy week it has been? Normally a time switch to daylight savings time along with a full moon in the middle of March is enough to put many educators on edge. However, this week has proven to be unlike any other one.
In a period of a week, we have gone from some concern over the coronavirus to canceling large gatherings of groups, closing churches, and urging people to work from home. In addition, many states have closed public schools. As a science teacher and technology facilitator, I have gone through a range of emotions. I watched as my college students received notice yesterday that the rest of their sport season is cancelled and witness their disappointment. I saw our 7th grade students leave school on Tuesday with excitement of going to Charleston only to learn a few hours later that the trip was cancelled due to concerns about the outbreak.
It has been a week of challenge and reflection. As I sit at my desk this evening, my mind runs among three main areas: scientific literacy, media literacy, and empathy. It is quite the combination. But I believe that it is these three areas that will yield the most answers and direction as we move forward.
In my forty-four years, I never recall a situation such as this. As the parent of 7-year old son, I am sensitive to the emotions, feelings, and challenges that impact him. As a public school educator for over 20 years, I am very aware of what many of the middle schoolers that I work with are experiencing and wondering. As a classically trained chemist, I am amazed at how much more work is needed in improving scientific literacy. As a technology facilitator, I am confident in knowing that media literacy is needed more than ever. So how do all these things converge?
In many of my conversations with students, friends, colleagues, and others, I have come to realize the need to have a good understanding of viruses and how they spread. I think that a lot of individuals have major misunderstandings. While there is some widespread debate about viruses (and if they alive) in the scientific community, they are basically the equivalent of DNA hijackers. They invade a host cell, insert into the genome structure, and force the host cell to replicate the new structure. They live off the host cell eventually spreading to other cells both in the host organism and other organisms. Viruses are common and most often, we are only impacted by them for a short period. This often results in staying home sick and symptoms that are undesirables. Healthy individuals tend to recover in a short period of time. Individuals with compromised immune systems are considered more at risk. Recovery times are longer and the symptoms are more extreme. There is a higher rate of death in individuals with compromised immune systems who are infected with viruses. The current coronavirus is one member of a large family of coronoviruses. Coronoviruses often causes respiratory illnesses, fevers, and coughs.
It important that we understand that these viruses are spread through contact and the best way to limit the spread is through limited contact with others. I am not advocating for living in a protective bubble though. Instead, the utilization of good hygiene practices is most likely a better route. Routine washing of hands with soap and warm water is one of the most common recommended practices. Additionally, the regular cleaning of surfaces with proper solutions will reduce their spread. If a person is coughing or sneezing, it is important these individuals cover their mouths or noses so they do not spread the virus to others. Finally, if an individual is showing symptoms, they should limit their contact with others and focus on recovering though plenty of rest and proper nutrition. Even with these practices, viruses can still be contracted and we must realize that is part of living in our world.
The sociopolitical impact of this outbreak has been very interesting as well. I think that a lot of individuals initially associated the outbrak with a political issue and this may have created some challenges in ensuring that everyone had correct information. This is why media literacy is so important. In today’s polarized world, many individuals simply agree with what their preferred politician instead of analyzing what said politician may be saying. I have preferred politicians and I usually like what they say. But it does not always mean that they are correct. In many instances, they are incorrect. I don’t think that they purposefully choose to be incorrect but rather they want to appeal to their supporters. I get it but we, as citizens, must be vigilant in analyzing what others say in the media and social media. We must be willing to do fact checks and accept that our preferred politicians may be speaking in hopes of public approval instead of accuracy. We have to learn how to verify information from multiple courses, apply what we have learned, and be able to determine the accuracy and shades of accuracy in what others say. We must be willing to challenge others whose words are not accurate. We have to be aware of the dangers of inaccurate information and limit the circulation of this information.
Finally, we come to empathy. This is one of the more challenging areas. Our students are unsure about what to feel. They look to us adults to help them make sense of this new reality. But we, as the adults, are often not sure what to make of it ourselves. We need to make sure that we have accurate information that can be verified (hence, scientific and media literacy). But we have to also make sure that we are supporting each other. Each of us will process and react differently to this new reality. It is okay to let our children know that we are not certain about everything. I think that we need to have open conversations where we listen to our students and acknowledge their concerns and seek to answer their questions. Our students and children must feel safe and we must make sure that we do our best to make them feel and be safe. We have to also ensure that we validate their feelings and help them navigate their complex feelings and emotions. We have to ensure that we take the time to really understand them and what they are thinking. We call this empathy. We must also reassure our students that they are supported and loved. This new reality can be a great learning opportunity for us to connect in authentic ways with our children and students. We must acknowledge that it is okay to be concerned and even fearful. We must reassure them that they have our support and we will work through these events together.
As we move forward, we must show love and kindness to others. The safety net that many of us have enjoyed (often not realizing) has been removed. So as we adjust to a new normal, be sure to help and support each other. We can always show our true humanity by taking the time to listen to others, support them, and help them find correct answers to their questions.
It has been a long time since I was able to post but I am thrilled to share about our Kindness Club Challenge. The Kindness Club meets once a week. Students elected to be in the club. The purpose of the club is to spread kindness to others. This is such an admirable challenge for our students. Mrs. Losey is the club's sponsor and she has done a great job with inspiring the club to spread kindness to others. In discussing the club with her, we decided to tackle a large challenge that students would complete over the course of a few weeks. Since it had been a long time since I was able to help with a Design Challenge, I was eager to implement this with the Kindness Club. We decided to have students create a book for children in early elementary school. In doing so, we were able to connect English/Language Arts (ELA) standards as well. While the connection to content standards was not an initial goal, it was awesome to be able to connect what students where learning in their ELA classes to a real world, authentic challenge that encompassed kindness and empathy.
We immediately recruited our dynamic literacy coach to assist with plot diagrams and story boards. Mrs. Pembroke was outstanding and pushed our students to create books that were extraordinary. We worked in helping our students examine children's literature books and determine what devices were effective and ineffective in them. We then compiled a list of these practices to consider implementing in our creation. Our students were eager and committed. As we journeyed through the creation process, we had several obstacles to overcome. The largest obstacle was that of time as we approached Thanksgiving and the Winter Holiday break. We also had several interruptions which kept the club from meeting each week. Additionally, we had to contend with students being pulled out for remediation during this time. However, the Kindness Club did not let this discourage them from creating their children's books. Instead. they worked hard outside of the club period and completed some amazing products that exceeded expectations.
We partnered with our nearby elementary school, China Grove Elementary School. The Media Coordinator, Mrs. Litke, arranged for the Kindness Club to share their creations with the entire 2nd grade. This was no small feat as it was the week before Winter Holiday break where time is a challenge. Our students were initially nervous about sharing their creations as I think that any creator, designers, author, and illustrator would be. But once they got started, they rose to the occasion and the 2nd grade authentic audience loved it! The 2nd graders loved meeting authors who looked like them and our students shared about their design process to the younger students.
I was so proud of our students for taking this opportunity to design an authentic product that will positively influence younger students. I am also pleased that our Kindness Club students learned that they can be designers, authors, illustrators, and creators. The process of design lies in the ability to change paradigms. Our students also were challenged to examine assumptions that they may not have realized. I asked them if they had ever thought of themselves as authors and most replied "no." Upon deeper conversations with the students, they began to realize that they could be authors, designers, creators, or anything else they wanted to be. This experience served to liberate our students from many of the assumptions that they held about what they could be in the future. Additionally, we discovered that many of our students are natural storytellers, a fact that was readily apparent in our 2nd graders attention to the authors.
I am deeply appreciative that our Kindness Club was able to share their amazing creations with others. I hope that during this season in which we often espouse love and peace that our Kindness Club shared these with others. I cannot wait to see what many of our students will do in the future as a result of learning the transformative power of design. During January, we will have creations on display in the CGMS Media Center. I invite you to come and check them out.
What an exciting month it has been with our designers and creators at China Grove Middle School. I have collaborated with our two 7th grade ELA teachers to connect Design Thinking to the novel "Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie" by Jordan Sonnenblick. About a month ago, one of our newest teachers, Miss Makenna Pate (@MakennaPate) approached me with an idea of how to connect the novel to Design Thinking. Honestly, I had not never thought about doing this. As I thought about her idea, my excitement grew. Here was an amazing way to connect the novel with her curriculum standards to Design Thinking. Miss Pate's idea illustrated what I love most about creative thinking and innovation. She saw a way to connect two seemingly unrelated things together in a new creation that will benefit her students.
I was excited but a little uncertain about how to combine these together. How would we work with the empathy piece since the character does not exist in actuality? Should students work in groups or as individuals? These and more questions ran through my mind as I contemplated how to approach this amazing opportunity. I immediately went to some of the Challenge Based Learning (CBL) activities that we used last year North Rowan High School and began to adapt them to meet our needs. I worked closely with Miss Pate and Mr. Jeremy Boice (@boice7ss) to connect their Common Core Standards to our templates. We realized that empathy is a key theme for the 7th grade ELA curriculum. We also explored the resources that we had available and connected an Achieve 3000 about Koko the gorilla and showed an amazing Inside Edition video to "hook" our students prior to the article. I also reached out the Design teachers at North Rowan High for some extra support and was reminded of the empathy maps. We worked to create an empathy map based on Steven the main character.
Since none of us were ultimately certain about how this would turn out, we spent several hours planning, providing feedback to each other, and wondering. In the end, I think the activity was well designed and we supported each other in the process. It was a positive and rewarding experience to work with the content area teachers to plan and adapt the instruction to support student use of Design Thinking to create a product that would solve a need for Steven. During this time, AJ Juliani posted a blog "Empathy: the Most Important 21st Century Skill" which was so timely and really helped me to "connect the dots" with our students. Juliani discusses one of the ways to teach empathy is through stories and we were doing just that by reading the novel. The students were the expert on Steven. They knew about him, his experiences, his challenges, and his dreams. As a result, we were able to create an experience where students showcased their critical and creative thinking while solving a problem that mattered.
As I reflect on this experience, it has truly been career changing. Previously I had struggled personally to see how to connect Design Thinking to the curriculum of my colleagues. But in one swift moment, a beginning teacher solved that challenge for me. I am elated with what our students have done and inspired by their willingness to work hard to find a solution to help Steven in the novel. Perhaps more importantly, our students have experienced the power of empathy and how it can transform their perspectives. We worked with students of all academic abilities in this activity. It was amazing to see that all students have the capacity to be challenged with Design Thinking in a meaningful way. Many students commented that they loved the active learning associated with Design Thinking and that their thoughts were important and valued. Below is a short interview that I conducted with two of our students.
Many of you may find the materials that we used helpful in connecting Design Thinking to curriculum areas. All of our students have an iPad and we used Pages due to the ability to integrate tools such as video, audio, and drawing with ease. We spent less than five minutes showing students how to use the technology over the period of three days. We also created an empathy map using Keynote. We then printed out the empathy map for students to complete. We broke the journal up into smaller pieces to make it more manageable for our students so they could focus on one area at a time. Additionally, we provided some background on Design Thinking so students were able to connect the process with their activity along the way.
Below are the files that we used. There may be some things in the file that need to be changed but overall, we are excited about sharing the extraordinary things going on at China Grove Middle School with others. For more images documenting the experiences of our students, check out the twitter feeds of Miss Pate (@makennapate) and my own twitter (@scibri). Once again, a big thank you to Makenna Pate and Jeremy Boice for their willingness to create design challenges in their classes.
It is tough to believe that we are already half way through the first quarter. Before we know it, the end of the first quarter will be here. As I have worked with various teachers in the building and co-taught several classes, I have been impressed with the positive energy and mindsets of teachers who want to do what is best for our students. It has been amazing to see the thinking and design that so many of our staff are doing to create engaging learning experiences for our students.
Earlier this month, I worked with our 6th Grade ELA teachers to provide an introduction to Design Thinking. We started by teaching Design Thinking vocabulary. The students were charged with using empathy to get to know their partner. They were pushed to deduce insights to determine their partner's needs in order to create a personalized background for their iPad. Check out the full activity in this hyperdoc. Students found this activity to be interesting and it really pushed them to step outside of themselves to create a meaningful design for another person. For many of our 6th graders, this was a challenge. They had to learn how to ask questions that dug deeper and were more than just one word answers. We modeled how to ask good questions and had them write their own questions prior to the activity. As we moved toward the prototype phase, one student commented that "I think that I need to go back and ask my partner some more questions." I responded "Exactly. That is the beauty of Design Thinking, we can go back and do a different stage at any time."
The highlight of the experience occurred when students shared their design with their partners. I attend this sharing of the screensavers with several of the classes and it was truly a magic moment for so many of our students. There were lots of smiles and high fives. Most students felt that their partner did a great job getting to understand them and creating something very personal and unique. I was blown away with many of the designs. Below this post is one of the more interesting backgrounds that students created. The young man who drew this screensaver did so by hand on the iPad. He learned his partner's favorite colors and that she loved cats. As a result, his creation was well received and his partner shared that she would pay money for this screensaver.
As we continue to implement Design Thinking across China Grove Middle School, our teachers being challenged to think creatively and boldly about how to connect Design Thinking to their curriculum. In our next challenge, I will highlight the work that 7th ELA teachers will be doing with Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. One of our newest teachers approached me several weeks ago with an extraordinary idea about how we could combine Design Thinking with the novel. We are currently developing this project as students finish reading the novel. I am so inspired by this new teacher's willingness to think beyond the box about how to make her curriculum more relevant to her students.
This week ended on an extraordinary note. I spent the summer thinking and planning on how to help classroom teachers integrate the process of design thinking (and related variations) into their classroom. Last year I worked at a high school with tremendous vision that opted to challenge the status quo of traditional education that treats the students as consumers and measures their success on how their ability to consume and reproduce information on a standardized test. North Rowan High School realized that this method does nothing to help our students develop the skills and experiences necessary to lead a productive and passion filled life in our world. Instead they rejected the notion that a standardized test can measure a student's true learning and the effectiveness of a school. In our state, schools receive "letter grades" based on test performance. This method too often reduces schools to a simple letter grade that is easy for politicians and bureaucrats to divide schools in easy category for analysis. Each school, much like the students who attend them, is much more complex than a letter grade. In reviewing grades assigned to various schools in my system and the rest of the state, there is a strong correlation between the grades assigned to schools and their population. In North Carolina, the higher the letter grade, the more likely that the school serves less students of poverty. As poverty increases, the letter grade typically decreases. While there are exceptions to this, more often than not, this pattern holds true. If you look at schools earning higher grades, they tend to be more affluent. This affords those students with opportunities to have experiences that students of poverty may not have. If you look at a school rated as "A," it is much more likely that many students have visited different states and even foreign countries. In schools with lower ratings, it is highly likely that many of their students very rarely have gone outside of the county where they live much less the state.
With this mind, I learned many valuable lessons while serving as a Design / Challenge Based Learning (CBL) instructor at North Rowan High School. The work that the staff has and continues to do with the integration of Design Thinking and CBL has already proved its worth as students have developed and expanded on many skills necessary for success in the future. Their students can work effectively in groups, share ideas and evaluate them in ways that lead to better success, and solve problems in unique and innovative ways. It is for these reasons that I realized that this important work must be shared and replicated at other schools. When presented with the opportunity to serve as an instructional coach at my previous middle school where I would work with teachers to implement a similar curriculum, I knew that I had to answer this call.
The power of having students create something is akin to something sacred. Our great creator gave each of us unlimited potential in creativity. Michael Cohen (@thetechrabbi and write of Educated by Design: Designing the Space to Experiment, Explore, and Extract Your Creative Potential), describes creativity as a mindset. And I definitely agree with him. Upon returning to China Grove Middle School, my challenge is to help teachers transform our students into designers who create, not consume. This will be our first year of focusing on having students "CREATE, NOT CONSUME." In doing this, we must find a way to connect the curriculum to having our students create products that matter.
This week, we had a major transition in the "force" of moving students into becoming creators and designers. And it was in the most unlikely of all subjects - math. I say that with deep admiration for math. I am a chemist by training and a recovering chemistry teacher who still dabbles in teaching chemistry lab at a local college. As such, I know the importance of making sure that our students have a strong math background. But if I had to pick a subject area willing to go forward with transitioning from having students be full consumers to creators, I most likely would not have guessed math. But it happened and it was amazing, scary, and organic.
Our two 7th grade math teachers, Mr. T Downs (@neverletudowns) and Ms. A Ramey (@rameyac), wanted to find a way to make rates come alive for our students. For many 7th graders, the idea of rates is very challenging. One of the greatest challenges that 7th graders face is understanding what rates are and how they relate to their lives. We worked collaboratively as a team to develop a challenge where students would have to create their own rate, measure it, and then apply it in a new way. We spent time planning and collaborating to create this challenge and broke it down into smaller pieces. Both Mr. Downs and Ms. Ramey are amazing educators and I applaud them for stepping outside of their normal roles to try this new way of helping students connect to math. We put safeguards in place and Ms. Ramey and Mr. Downs worked to create an environment where students could take risks, fail, and learn from failure. For me personally, it was like a spiritual experience to see the engagement level of students with various academic abilities get excited about math and connect it to the real world. It was very inspiring to see educators willing to be vulnerable and try this new way with no guarantee of success. Here is a link to their plan for this challenge.
While the students have not quite yet finished the project, here are some of the initial take aways that I observed:
While there are numerous benefits that we could continue to list, it is important to note that students are excited about learning and connecting rates to their daily lives. I am in awe of both Mr. Downs and Ms. Ramey for their incredible willingness to step away from the box and forge a new way to make math relevant to their students. I am confident that many students in the 7th grade math classes have gone home and shared what they are doing with their parents. And for many 7th graders to share anything that they are learning and doing at school with their parents is an epic win.
I hope to post some of the final products with additional reflection in the coming week. Be sure to follow Mr. Downs (@neverletudowns) and Ms. Ramey (@rameyac) and show them some love for their willingness to be educational disruptors. Check out some of the sites and sounds from today below. I encourage you to think about how to transform your students from only consumers into creators and designers just as our 7th grade math teachers have done.
Design Thinking Video #1: Notice the vibe of the classroom
Design Thinking Video #2 - Teacher Coaching Student in Processes
The last two weeks have been very busy. I collaborated with the design teachers at North Rowan High School and provided a three day training for 10 educators from three of the feeder schools in the North area. This training was the first of a kind for our community. Our objective were to prepare teachers that will be teaching design and Challenge Based Learning (CBL) for the upcoming year. This training was truly trailblazing for many reasons. We crafted the training that we felt neophyte design teachers would need. We also wanted the training to be active and for participants to be truly engaged in the process. We provided a balance of having teachers participate as a student as well as providing teaching tips. Many of the teachers that we trained readily shared how effective that they found the training.
As design teachers, we must model what we teach. We met in May to begin to outline the training with identified learning goals and outcomes. But we also wanted an extraordinary learning experience that would ensure that our attendees dreamed big and boldly. We incorporated two off-campus learning expeditions (field trips). In the first expedition, participants were ushered into an activity bus and taken to a local shopping center after completing a design process where participants partnered up and progress through the Design Thinking process. They were charged with creating a gift based on determining the needs of their partner, an activity provided by d.design school from Stanford. After participants had ideated and received feedback from their partners, they choose a prototype to create. We then quickly ushered the participants to the local shopping center with $5 to purchase materials for their prototypes. Participants had the opportunity to purchase any items within their budget to create their prototypes. They had to obtain items that could be assembled together to create the prototype. They could not give their partner a pre-made item; instead, they had to assemble the prototype using multiple items. Our second trip involved visiting our local homeless shelter where we learned about the services provided both to homeless individuals and those with financial needs. We also managed to work in a presentation about the energy efficiencies of the buildings Participants were totally blown away with what they experienced. They also had lunch at the shelter where they interacted with many of the guests that the shelter serves. Participants were encouraged to spend some time getting to know some of the guests and their stories, another connection to the empathy piece of design.
Many participants found the process of creating a gift for their partner to be challenging as it required them to create something new that met the needs of their partners. And this is the point of design. As we progressed through the training, we reminded teachers of the importance of helping students to focus the needs of others instead of their individual needs. I asked several groups what each person thought about what their partner made for them and if it met their needs. I also asked each person if they would buy the product that was created and how much they would pay for it. It was amazing to see the variety of responses. Some individuals really felt like their partner "zeroed in" on their needs and created something that would personally benefit them. Other individuals felt differently and would have liked to see have seen their partner focus more extensively on their needs. This is an important element of design. The designer must suspend much of their self (and possibly ego) to create something that focuses on the end user. This is what I love most about teaching design. It helps others step outside of themselves and connect to another person or larger world in a way that makes a difference. I reminded participants that much of the work that they will be doing will overlap with the work that an anthropologist does when they employ ethnography to understand a new group or culture.
Perhaps a much larger important point of design focuses on helping the designer to expand their ability to empathize with others. I think many of us would agree on the importance of this in today's world. As a former science teacher, I understand the importance of making sure that we have scientific literate citizens and teaching our content. However, I would argue that even more important than that is creating citizens who understand others and solve problems that change the quality of life for others. And this is precisely what we do in design. It is my hope that after this training, the teachers will be better able to support their students as they learn to design for others and make a difference in the lives of others.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.