EdWeekSJSD: A Litany of Thanks

The calm after the storm

I’m beat, but delightfully so. Deep learning is hard work. Designing an ecosystem in which others can learn deeply is even tougher. Teachers know this. I mean, pick your favorite food. Then eat five heaping plates of it. Back to back. If someone treated me to a week of epic seafood meals prepared by skilled chefs, I’d eat big every day. You don’t get that opportunity very often. Well…  we did that (again), and I’m tired. Next week I’ll revel in quiet solitude, no doubt reflecting on the intense social learning of the past week. This week was EdWeek.

EdWeekSJSD is but one small construct of the larger vision of professional development in our district. Sometimes in a large learning organization you design PD events where everyone sees, hears, and performs the same thing. You have to. There are times when we all need to be on the same crucial page. We need a core of common language around learning. We need a common vision at some level, and we need norms around the central mission of our schools.

Yet, like the students we serve, teachers are all individuals with differing needs and aptitudes. We could never meet the needs of 11,000 highly individual learners with a team of 900 identically-trained educators. In subscribing to that belief, on some level you must be willing to design constructs of learning that cater to these differences. EdWeek is one of those constructs. EdWeekSJSD is a series of day-long explorations into innovative and creative approaches to learning in a modern classroom. For more detail on the structure and happenings of this week, see the wiki from the past two years, as well as an explanatory post, There’s No Week Like EdWeek, I did last year in anticipation of our first experience of this type.

Thanks are in order:

We have so many thanks to give for the success of the past week. For one, if you were there at all, thank you. Trading in an off-contract day of basking in the summer sun is admirable. If you showed up at all, I salute you. Thank you for making all of the planning and preparation worthwhile. If you showed up for all five days, I am deeply humbled by your professional commitment and love of learning and sharing. I could go on and on about each of the past five days. The new things I learned, the collaboration I witnessed, and the open and public sharing that was done. Many of those details already exist online in reflective posts by my colleagues. Do me this favor, please post links to your work in the comments below, and I will embed those directly in a future edit to this post. For sharing in a collective reflection of this week, I thank you. I’ve already read many of these posts, and I couldn’t possibly detail those days any better. Nice work, Mike.

Digital writing matters

Troy Hicks, author of The Digital Writing Workshop, and Because Digital Writing Matters, took us on an exploration of the broader meaning of literacy on day one. Troy challenged us to see literacy as not only the ability to make deep meaning from reading and writing text, but other forms of rich media as well. For me, he drove home the point that literacy instruction in the classroom of today must make efficient and creative use of the many forms of media that blanket our lives like never before in our history.

Silvia, I thank you again

Joining us again this year, Silvia Tolisano reminded us that any approach to innovation with technology must begin with a focus on learning first, followed by careful selection of modern tools to do the job. She pushed us to consider uses of technology beyond the automation of substitution of current tasks. We both share the belief that using technology to maintain the classroom status quo is a prohibitively expensive proposition. What is beyond mere “integration” of digital tools? Using them to transform learning events into something that would not have been possible otherwise. A wiki that includes resources addressed that day gives you an idea of the broad scope and detail of those explorations. We’ll certainly soon be seeing some amplified classroom experiences for our children.

Learning to be

Our next two leaders were neighbors from the North. Darren Kuropatwa joined us this year from Winnipeg. I deeply admire approaches to learning that are multimodal and which feature rich instances of story. I especially appreciate these things when they arise from a career of motivating students to study mathematics in this way. He’s the math teacher I always wanted. He challenged us to create an environment where students aren’t merely doing math, or history, or science. The set of resources Darren thoughtfully planned to support our day is found here. He deftly made the case for empowering students to be… a mathematician, a historian, a scientist,  a writer. Thank you, Darren.

The seriousness of silliness and play

Dean Shareski made a return trip from Saskatchewan to Joetown this year with his fun and serious allwrappedintoone approach to learning and exploring media and ideas. You can’t spend professional time with Dean without making things. Experimentation and play was the theme of the day. We created artifacts, quickly, shared them widely, and debated where the learning lies within each. Check out the seven different forms of exploration from our day together. You can’t attend a session like this without re-examining your classroom tone, nor without acquiring new lenses for seeing the seriousness inherent within play and exploration. Dean- again, many thanks.

Now batting cleanup:

Diana Laufenberg. Diana brought the perspective of a powerfully creative teacher into our little meeting room…  and allowed us to swim around in it for a day. During the first half of the day, teachers found the tables turned as they took a reflective trip through what it feels like to be a student in her classroom. Diana helped us close out the week with a close examination of the architecture of and for learning she builds into her classroom. We also explored the benefits of participatory learning in a technology-savvy way and the crucial role of failure in any approach to learning. I’d be shocked if there was a single attendee who didn’t secretly wish to have experienced a government classroom that felt the way our room felt today. Thank you dearly, Diana.

Learners AND facilitators

Participating the entire week, and helping to facilitate it is a monster. You want to dig in and explore every single challenge. And yet, your role is also to help support a diverse room full of teachers with different needs. Just a short year ago, I was the lone instructional technology specialist in the room. With a massive bloom from four to fourteen 1:1 schools, we now have a real team to tackle our district’s burgeoning needs in this area. I can’t tell you how good that feels. We are gelling as a team in short order, and will have much to offer both individually and collectively as the coming year unfolds. Participate, facilitate, participate, facilitate. Focus on the task. Bounce about the room. Support. Comfort. Archive everything. Knowing just how difficult this is fills me full of appreciation of the work of Melissa CoreyTerri Johnson, and Jennifer Gatz. You were great this week, it wouldn’t have worked without you.

The die-hards

They just kept coming back. Just over one hundred teachers, coaches and administrators took part in the week’s festivities. An untold number lurked along via Twitter, Ustream, or Today’s Meet. A total of 38 participated in even more than one event. A few came back… every. single. day. What if you took them all to a conference like ISTE, and assuming the experience was equal to such a conference, (which is severely lowballing it) think about what that would cost. Do the math. Of the 38 repeat customers, 11 completed the full meal deal. Other than those of us who were participant/facilitators, there were six die-hards. Mike DialCindy FaucettErin NashMandi TolenJason Tolen, and Chantelle Schwope attended EdWeek in its entirety… all five days from 8am to 3pm. Epic. That is not easy. I have homeland knowledge of the fact that one of these folks was also simultaneously juggling two online graduate courses.

Opt-in professional learning, off-contract and in the summer. I begged for this two years ago. Not everyone believed this would fly. It was possible that no one would attend. It works if the design is right. Thanks to Dr. Dial’s trust and willingness to carve out a chunk of resources, it finally happened for the first time a year ago. This past week, EdWeekSJSD happened again; a hypodermic shot of innovation and creativity in an increasingly standardized world. Like I said, I’m beat, but delightfully so.


*”Twins” by Jon Smith via Creative Commons on Flickr
*The remainder were taken by either Jaime Dial or I.



Tinkering: A “Boys Only” Club?

Boys only?

According to the NCES, since 2004, girls have -in general- been shown to outdo boys in nearly every measure of academic success.  Girls outpace boys on nearly every one of our measures of “winning” when it comes to school.  And yet, when push comes to shove on earning degrees in engineering or computer science, boys still outpace girls by margins of 77% and 85% respectively.  The overarching assertion:  girls don’t tinker. Or at least, they aren’t often encouraged to.

Tinker. In nearly every published version, the origin of the word seems to trace back to an itinerant mender of kitchen utensils- and more specifically, those made of tin.  As a verb (of which we are obviously more interested here) it hints of clumsy, unskilled or experimental efforts.


After that little search, I’m even more interested than before.  Clumsy?  Haphazard?  Unskilled?  Somehow I have always elevated the word in my mind toward something more sophisticated.  I wonder why I so highly regard this word (and many of its associated meanings) when it seems this may not even be the general consensus at all.


Just last week I read an Education Week article entitled Teaching Girls to Tinker by author Lisa Damour.  As an educator of nearly twenty years and a father of two girls under three years of age, this article certainly gave me pause.  I’ve gone forty years (see how I slid that big number in as text) assuming that even if “tinkering” was not done with a specific purpose in mind, it was still a valuable effort.  The idea of tinkering being a valuable pursuit seems to be at odds with the definitions I found today.  And yet the truth remains…  at times, connotation means everything.  Think of how these two statements paint opposite connotations of the word:

He tinkered with the nation’s economy by regularly deregulating banks.

She tinkered with the lure in order to make it run deeper in the water.

Perhaps overall success… or gravitas plays a role here?  Of course my take on this comes through the lens of a teacher/instructional coach.  Before sitting here to type this evening, I even asked the Twitter crew what sort of off-the-top-of-your-head definition they’d give for the word.  Twelve of them responded with:

tweeps on tinkering

tweeps on tinkering

I see tinkering on par with the sort of purposeful play I so highly value in the classroom.  The kind of play we don’t do enough.  The sort of thing most NCLB required state exams force teachers to push aside.

I find it interesting that although some of the twelve Twitter responses speak of tinkering as simply “messing about,” most contain language that seems to elevate the activity a bit, such as: “investigate”, “modify”, and “explore.”  Several even mentioned it as something that leads to an actual accomplishment.  Is it perhaps that the vast majority of these people are educators?  Or is it that they are progressives?  Things got even weirder while writing this post tonight when I clicked a Twitter link to view the list of scheduled “conversations” at Educon2.2.  A quick scan down the list shoved me smack into a Sylvia Martinez presentation entitled “Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency.”  Her brief description of the session mentions that the content will surround themes she’s been exploring on her blog.  Networked digits provide digital serendipity, no?

Tinker vs. struggle?

Regardless of our take on the meaning of tinkering, apparently by some measures girls are not being afforded an equal share of the tink.  Damour points to the 1994 book Failing at Fairness which includes an observation that, “…teachers allow boys to struggle with mathematics problems long after they have rushed in and rescued girls from the same struggle.”  This seems certainly overlapped with the concept of “tinkering” mentioned here…  but it also seems to go in a bit of a different direction.  This quote speaks directly of struggle.  How much overlap do you see in these two words?

scientific struggles

I try to create struggles every day.  More often than not, it’s my classroom modus operandi.  In short, I try to engage students in a concept…  address the fuzziness between what we know and what we don’t know… point towards the structure we’ll be using to explore it…  settle on how we’ll evaluate our work…  and then allow the relatively safe struggle between learning and meaning to take place.  My role is coach.  My day to day mission is to support this type of tinkering with ideas within the framework of standards in which we work.

This tinkering takes its highest form when actually following a problem through to include actual harvesting and analysis of data followed by conclusions that lead back to more problems.  In line with data presented in the article, my females generally tend to outpace my males in achievement.  How do the numbers hold up by the time my students graduate from college?  Even with the dawn of social media, this data is still fuzzy.  So I’m left to wonder…  could I too indirectly contribute to the tinker-divide outlined by Damour?

At home

The bottom line for me is that any article that comes back to haunt me a day later is a good one.  In fact, just the other night I found this one still on my mind.  That night my two-year old approached me in the kitchen with toy troubles.  She had stuffed far too many toys into a little lunchbox that holds critters.  While holding it up to me with two hands and two big eyes, she asked me to “fix it, Daddy.”  I looked down to see both ends of the latch not quite matching up with the strain of the critter load.

the tinker box

My gut reaction was to reach right down and latch it right up for my little dollface.  However, I stopped short…  sat down beside her and coached her through it without touching it myself.  I wonder how that might have played out if Delaney were a boy.  I don’t consider these tiny struggles to be “tinkering.”  I do, however, consider them to be related.

And yes, I still open doors for women.  When you’re forty (twice in one post!) and were raised to be (roughly) a gentleman, it is just something you do as a kneejerk.  Heck, to me it is a courtesy thing toward other humans in general.  So yes, I treat men and women differently on a conscious level.  It’s the subconscious level I wonder about.


*Sculpture by iwishmynamewasmarsha on Flickr.
*Twitstream definitions by the twelve mentioned in the image.
*Classroom inquiry by me.
*Tinkerbox by me


On Sandboxes and Classrooms

Backyard classroom

Have you ever wondered why we build sandboxes for children?  That’s exactly what I did today.  Today I wondered while wandering about the yard, putting the finishing touches on a landscape and backyard garden update.  I wondered long and hard about the role of play in learning new things.  In between digging holes, sinking plants, and spreading mulch…  I took short breaks to watch my two year old daughter play with sand.  This backyard classroom is every bit as much mine as it is hers.

I watched her take that first chartreuse-shovel scoop into a fresh sandbox today.  I sat beside her as she pirated empty plant pots and filled them scoop by scoop with moist sand fresh from the bag.  I saw her level off the orange pots and pour one into the other, and the other into another.  Aside from the obvious tactile pleasures like digging naked toes into cool wet sand, there just seems to be so much going on with sandbox play.

A quick look at the packaging on the toy set which includes buckets, scoops, shovels, etc., reveals three things that are supposedly developed with these toys.  The three listed are:  fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and cause and effect.

Future Engineer

And more?

I think those three skills/concepts are easily seen in this type of play.  You could argue that the majority of toddler toys target those very things.  However, I just really feel like there is something more going on here- something far more sophisticated.  What did I see today?  I saw what seemed to be a child unknowingly acquiring the roots of understanding two critical concepts:  volume and mass.  Can she define either?  No.  Can she really even talk about it much?  Not really.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

The brain of a human child is an unparalleled learning machine.  Beyond grasping for nipples and blinking at bright lights, the first thing it does beyond survival is play.  I would argue that this play is not merely pastime.  I would contend that it is far more than fun.  I would suggest that it is fun for a toddler because that is what is needed to feed the brain at that developmental stage.  All a child needs at this point is the opportunity.

Though a child’s mind cannot comprehend an abstract concept like volume, the roots are taking hold in those moments.  Filling buckets… emptying a small one into a larger one several times, and on and on.  Today I wondered about whether we realize why we build sandboxes.  I bet the average parent doesn’t think about the why any more than the two year old does playing.  Not consciously thinking about it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Fast-forward to the end of formal public schooling.  The brain inside the skull of your local quarterback cranked through calculus and physics last Friday night in an attempt to connect time and time again with his pass-catching receivers.  He managed perhaps hundreds of variables without flinching in order to control the trajectory of a very odd-shaped object.  He may or may not graduate having sat in a chair during a formal session of calculus or physics, but he’s doing it every day.  Even if nothing more than a calculation machine, the human brain is an amazing thing.  I am awed by its power on a daily basis.

High School Football

Think about a student’s ability (or willingness) to grasp those first formal attempts at abstracts such as volume or mass in a school setting.  What if those attempts hinge to a certain degree upon backyard experiences from age two or so?  Thoughts like that poke at my gray matter.  We almost universally agree about the power of diverse background knowledge as it relates to success in school.  Hearing complex conversation in your home.  Growing up surrounded by books.  Museum visits for “fun.”  Travel.  Experiences.  These are not things that happen in a typical high school setting (this is why you might want to continue reading past the first section of the aforementioned book),  and yet all is not necessarily lost.

So what?

So where is the “sandbox” in your classroom?  Does it even exist, and if so, is it really a place?  Perhaps it is a time?  Or is it rather interwoven throughout the environment you build for children?  Do you purposefully employ “play” in your classroom?  How similar is this “play” to the “explore” phase of the learning cycle model?  Do current practices in your school allow for purposeful play, or has it been politically pushed out of the classroom?


*Future Engineer by katherine lynn on Flickr
*High School Football by JamieL.WilliamsPhotography on Flickr