Learning is Awesome Like That

February 10, 2016

We don’t need to know the definition of engagement to “get it.”  A colleague recently called it, “In the zone.”  That zone.  Learning.

It’s partly an organized chaos, partly a buzz of questions balanced with spurts of ideas, and partly something that I can only equate to… a kind of magic like seeing a fireworks show or watching a balloon pop in slow motion.  It’s a calm in the air that you can feel the storm of learning brewing right beneath.

It’s beautiful. It’s messy. It’s intricate. It’s fragile.  It’s the most valuable thing we have in our schools because it’s something that grows organically from the hearts and souls of our kids.   And when we teach? We are a part of that.  Lucky enough to be involved, but wise enough to know the value.

You can’t reduce it to a script or fake it. And really, why would you want to try?  It’s like growing a garden.  You can’t pull a seed out of the ground to “hurry it along.”  It would never bloom.  But cultivate it, give it time, space, and love?

And you can’t stop it from shining in the sun.

And you can’t help by smile when you see it happen.

Learning is awesome like that.



Maybe a Few More Labels: Organizing an Elementary MakerSpace

February 10, 2016

There are photos that float around the internet these days of new, shiny makerspaces that are starkly decorated rooms with bright colors and fresh paint.Um, I may have even taken some photos like this of our maker space when we opened it.   The floors are spotless, the tables sparkly, and the materials are no where to be seen.   Nobody is talking about managing a space filled with stuff.  I know, I know. Making is NOT about the stuff.  But at the end of the day, the details do matter.  It’s like an art room combined with a science room, mixed with an engineering space.


But then reality sets in.  There is STUFF.  Cardboard. Fat markers. Thin markers. Permanent markers. Dry erase markers. Duct tape. Masking tape. Clear tape.  Cardboard. More cardboard. More cardboard. And that?  It’s the tip of the iceberg.

I didn’t have a system – because I didn’t really know what we’d be using.  So the space has devices, cords, printers, laptops, desktops, robots for our youngest learners, robots for our older learners, vinyl cutters, a 3d printer. Stuff to create with.  Stuff that needs to be visible, accessible, and easy to use.

My “starter” plan for organizing and trying new things built up like a giant cardboard volcano until the mess exploded into areas where we needed more organization.  I spent a few days buried in thought, like the lost citizens of Pompeii under a mountain of stuff.


Back to basics.  Labels. A place for everything and everything in it’s place.  Giant plastic boxes for “scraps” that are like treasures chests of creativity for kids to dig into.   A storage closet for extra cardboard.  Accessible tools for creativity.

But also?  Clean spaces to brainstorm.  Spots where materials aren’t everywhere.  Kids are just like us.  Some need a pile of cardboard to crawl in, and others need a small pile in a plastic box to thumb through while they sketch.   I love the freedom with which kids are using devices, and taking care of them.  Because they have a place.  The other “stuff” needs a place, too.

If the  space is going to be a space for all learners, and THAT is exactly what a makerspace needs to be… for students, teachers, learners… then it needs to have a skeleton. A frame.   A frame that can only happen after you figure out what your school needs.  There is no instruction book for that.  And that?  It can be a challenge.   It’s going to evolve as making in your school evolves, and you have to let it, while you refine it.  I’m sure it’s like icing a cake in a grocery cart moving through a crowded store while you try to make roses that look at least a little rose like. Learning can feel like that sometimes.

The ownership of a learner to get their own supplies?  It matters.  If we as teachers are truly going to step back and let kids explore, then we have to support them with an environment that not only offers this type of learning, but invites it to happen.

And when we notice that maybe we’re smothering some of the flames with a flow of a room that’s not working? We climb out from under cardboard mountain and we look at what the learners need to create… and then we make labels. Lots of labels.  And scrap filled treasure boxes.  And maybe a few more labels.


Dare To Be… Different.

February 7, 2016

I have this memory of my early days in teaching.  My student teaching supervisor said my lesson was “All wrong.”  She felt there was far too much talking and movement in the room.  I went home crushed.  I had failed.  The room wasn’t silent like my Harry Wong book suggested.  She suggested I “stick to the textbook a bit more.”

There was no encouragement to follow my intuition, to be myself, or to find my own “flow” as a teacher. Instead, I was presented with an array of tools, like the Madeline Hunter lesson plan and forms that reminded me to tell kids what to learn then test them to see if they remembered it.   Ironically, the same “game” of school I had to learned to play as a kid was presenting itself to me as a teacher, and I was the one being encouraged to run it.

There was no room for creativity.

I wish someone, somewhere along the way had stopped me and said, “What do you think?” I wish someone in my student teaching had tossed a textbook in the trash can and gone all Dead Poet’s Society on me.  I wish someone had said that doing things differently would cause waves, even cause people to dislike you for a variety of reasons.  And most of all, I wish someone had said, “Be yourself anyway, because THAT is what kids and your colleagues need.”

Education doesn’t need billions of identical teachers doing identical things in identical ways. Education needs YOU. It needs ME.  It needs the crazy mismatched unique patchwork of people that make up a school.  It needs people who speak quietly and people who shout.  It needs people who love to learn in a hands on way and people who love to take notes.  It needs them all.  Because it’s only in that fiber of differences that we are able to reach each and every single kid who passes through our doors.

Most of all? It needs people who have the courage to follow their hearts, dreams, goals, and desires to be exactly who they are, no matter what.  And that would have been a great tip in my early days of teaching.  But nevertheless, a great tip that’s never too late to learn.


Squish the Boredom and Power Up Play with Squishy Circuits

February 6, 2016

squish1Full disclosure: I’m embarrassed of the way I taught circuits in my classroom many years ago.  I was bored with the topic.  I mainly lectured to my 10 year old students and asked them to draw a circuit. Then we moved on faster than I could grade the tests and check their regurgitation. I’m sharing this because I know I’m not alone in feeling that way.  We weren’t taught how much fun circuitry can really be, nor were we encouraged in our teacher training to veer off the path of the textbook and engage kids with Playdoh.  But everything has changed in my mind.

Squishy Circuits are featured in this amazing TED Talk by AnnMarie Thomas.    It takes the intimidation of wires out of learning about circuitry, conduction, and electricity, and puts the focus on clay, colorful lights, and your imagination.   While this activity primarily makes it way through younger maker crowds, it’s great for makers of all ages.

What do you need to get started?

You can get the entire Squishy Circuits Kit based on University of St. Thomas’s work.  The kit is honestly well worth the initial cost. It’s reusable and you won’t have to hunt around for the parts to get started.  But if you are looking to start smaller, you can purchase the materials yourself.  Here’s what you need:

squish2The minimum? A 4 AA battery pack. LED lights. Playdoh, or make your own homemade dough that contains salt.  The salt is key for conducting.

TIP: LED lights come in a variety of sizes. I love the 10mm size, especially for tiny hands, but the 3mm and 5mm size are more widely available and less expensive.  Their lights are equally impressive.

Taking it to the next level?  The minimum, plus modeling clay, an electric buzzer.   The modeling clay, a non-conductor, allows kids to build clay figures using the clay as a barrier in the Playdoh.  squish3

After the art of positive and negative creations are mastered, add in Copper tape to lengthen the leads and raise the bar.  Toss in a motor to add spin to designs. Cardboard to build bigger and better.  Cardboard, just like the modeling clay, is a great barrier between the positive and negative dough. Kids can experiment with what conducts or doesn’t conduct. Paper? Cardboard? Model Magic?  Plastic? Small wood scraps?

What do Squishy Circuits Offer Students Across the Curriculum?

Reading:  What book character can I build?  How might I light up words I’ve built with dough?  Where can I read about circuits in the library?

Writing: How do circuits work? What kind of story can I create about the creature I built with light up hair?   What will happen if I try…?

Math: How many volts are the batteries?  How many lights will this set of batteries power?   How long does my wire need to be to reach the playdough?

Science:  What is a conductor?  What materials conduct electricity?  How do I build a circuit?  How do LED’s work?  How can I use copper tape instead of Playdoh in a similar way?  Do humans conduct electricity?

Social Studies:  How might I use LED’s to light up a topographical map?  How was electricity developed and by who?  What careers are available in the field of electricity?

But these questions will be even more powerful if you start with one thing….

Play.  Explore.  Let them try things.  Try things yourself. See what happens.

And Playdoh becomes the foundation for playing, learning, and reimagining science in the classroom.  Design, dreaming, and doing.  The way it was meant to be.





January 31, 2016

I wrote this quote several years ago and realized how it still rings true.  Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world, but it’s also one of the most rewarding.  Although my role has changed and I’m lucky enough to teach teachers, teach students, and teach myself on a daily basis, I’m still a learner first.  I updated this one with some fun colors and a mosaic background, because our teaching life is made of millions of tiny learning moments, melded together into one unique experience that makes us who we are as a teacher.  And that? It’s something pretty special.