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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.


Make the Moments Count

January 28, 2016

I remember being in 3rd grade, watching the Challenger launch so many years ago. Christa McAuliffe. A teacher who gave her life doing extraordinary things to inspire her students. I look at this photo now, of a childhood hero floating in the same plane that I was lucky enough to go weightless on a couple of years ago, and I feel an understanding for how thrilling the entire experience must have been for her.  Years later, her  husband Scott McAuliffe said: “I know Christa would say that that is the most precious lesson – ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions when they remain true to themselves and enthusiastically pursue their own dreams wherever they may lead.” And that? Being an ordinary person enthusiastically doing what you love, no matter what. THAT is teaching.

I have a tiny pin that I got from NASA that says “Teacher in Space.”  I keep it in a box with a few other things, like my class ring and some other small mementos.  There is something about it that I hold onto.  A little pin that’s a stark reminder of the profound meaning in the ordinary moments.  Every day is a chance to show courage for our students, whether we are standing up for them, taking a risk in a new strategy, flying in Zero G, or reaching out to learn something new.   And that pin? It’s a reminder that we must hold tightly to those chances and make them count with everything we have in us.

Because that is exactly what Christa McAuliffe did, so many years ago. And it’s something I will never forget.

Photo Credit: NASA

Photo Credit: NASA

Meant to Be

January 26, 2016



For far too long, science and art have been an afterthought in education.  We’ve treated them as ancillary classes, subjects that weren’t “on the test” and therefore unimportant.

Yet, here we are.  Our world has changed. Kids are growing up in a world where they are dreamers, doers, thinkers, creators, and designers. Solving problems doesn’t mean just writing an answer.  It means building something. 3d printing an idea. Creating with cardboard. Engineering a better way to solve an old problem.  Using your hands, your mind, your heart, and your soul.

I’d like to think if design is where art and science break even, that maker ed is where design takes roots and grows.

That is exciting. And game changing. And the way it was always meant to be.