Tuesday, September 29, 2015

EdCamp Harmony

Melissa and I went to our first EdCamp, EdCampSTL, two years ago. We loved it. The best part about EdCamp is that we get to learn what we want from the experts among us, our peers. The learning is relevant and immediate and has become the best PD we've had. We always go to EdCampSTL and other EdCamps when we can swing it.

The other day, on a Twitter chat, a teacher asked what our "moonshot idea" for the year was. My response was, "A student EdCamp." Melissa and I had thrown the idea around before but never seriously. But then, I thought, why not? We control our own space and time. Why can't we organize a student learning event modeled after the EdCamp model? After discussing it for a few minutes, EdCamp Harmony was born. Our first EdCamp Harmony will be Monday, October 12 from 8:45-10:15 am.

Using five learning spaces (four classrooms and the tech room), and ninety minutes of our core time (8:45-10:15) we can run an EdCamp featuring five sessions running concurrently in each of the three 25-minute time slots (8:45-9:10, 9:15-9:40, 9:45-10:10) for a total of fifteen sessions. Kids will be able to attend three sessions in the ninety minute block of time. Kiddos will be able to teach a class (or three) or just attend classes that other students will teach. This event is strictly student-driven. Teachers will not be presenting or teaching any of the sessions; this is an all-kid event. Melissa and I will organize the day but after that, it's all up to the kids. 

I introduced the concept of EdCamp Harmony to the kids today. They were stoked! "Can I teach Minecraft?" one student asked. "I know how to work the 3D printer. Can I do that?" another asked. "What if we want to teach two sessions?" a third student asked. "What if we don't want to teach anything?" another kiddo asked. And finally, "Does it have to be school-related?" on student asked. Needless to say, the kids were ready for this kind of learning. I told them that I was happy to see them so excited and if this one went well, we would repeat this model a couple more times this year. 

Next week, we will post the blank time slots so that kids can fill in those slots with their session topics. We will get a good idea at that time of the kinds of sessions that will be offered. Kids will then be able to put together their schedules and have those schedules in hand on Monday morning. We are opting for efficiency here over spontaneity. This pre-planning does deviate from the EdCamp model a bit but we think it will be good for our kids to do it this way for our first EdCamp. It will also allow the presenters to plan their session a little better by knowing how many kids will be attending their sessions.  

This kind of learning is important for kids. They need to see each other as experts, teachers and students. Our kiddos have to understand that everyone has genius within them and everyone is an integral part of the whole. We believe this is going to be a great learning experience for all of us and eagerly await October 12.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Our Voices Matter

Once in a while, we are able to directly connect our kids' learning and voice to the global community. Recently, we were active on our Teen Lit Review Twitter page when a tweet came in. An author, K. J. McPike, asked if one of our reviewers would give her book, Xodus, a review. We immediately agreed and she sent us a copy. The book was only available for pre-order on Amazon since its official release date was the next week.

The kids were stoked. A published author was asking them to review her book? Well, that awesome! When I presented the opportunity to the kids, a half dozen hands immediately shot up. They wanted to read and review the book.

The day the book came to school, I opened the package in class and gave the book to the first student in the queue, Emily. She has reviewed books in the past and has done a great job. Her reviews are funny, clever and well-written. Her reviewer pseudonym is E. M. Wolf.

Today, E. M. Wolf shared her review of Xodus. I posted the review to the Teen Lit Review immediately, tweeted out the link to our followers and, within ninety minutes, we had 45 page views of that review. Certainly this event is evidence that our kids have a voice and others want to hear their thoughts and opinions. When a published author solicits our kids' opinions, it really boosts their self-image.

Those who want to see some great thinking by teens about YA Lit should subscribe to the Teen Lit Review and follow them on Twitter (@teenlitreview).

Friday, September 18, 2015

Creative Genius

Several years back, I started using a little block of time on Fridays for something I called Creative Genius. My intention was to feature some big ideas that would get kids thinking about project ideas for school and also things they might want to pursue for the rest of their lives. I think it is crucial for us to get kids thinking about their strengths, passions and intentions for a fulfilling life. So far, we have seen ideas about Nike making shoes for a 16 yo boy with cerebral palsy (here), seen an Elon Musk transportation idea called Hyperloop (here), watched the Abbot and Costello routine "Who's on First" (here), seen a video about the potential of solar highways (here), watched an artist convert computer circuit boards into artwork (here), watched a video about "Shoes that Grow" (here), seen a fire extinguisher that puts out fire using sound waves (here) and watched a short video about a designer who created the Solar Puff Lamp for those who have no access to electricity (here).

Why is it important to expose kids to these kinds of ideas? Well, we know that kids will be doing jobs that don't even exist yet and we have to prepare them for those opportunities as best we can. I want kids to think of the seemingly impossible, to stretch their imaginations and know that just because something has not been done yet does not mean that they cannot do it. Instead of relying on others to create the next wave of great inventions, they can see themselves as capable of inventing those next great things. All kids need is an imagination and an unshakable belief in themselves.

The time we spend on Creative Genius is time well-spent. Sure, it takes a bit of time away from the regular class period activities, but I think it is so essential that I am glad to dedicate time to these fascinating ideas. I want kids to see that genius has many manifestations and that each of them has genius within them. I want them to take risks, try to translate their imaginations into something tangible and show them that their own ideas are worthwhile and valuable. I want kids to learn out loud and be fearless in their learning. If they fail, so what! Those who invented the things we show in our Creative Genius time failed many times and look where that failure lead them. The kids are starting to get it. Many of them are already starting to think of ideas they can do for projects and even their 20% Time projects that they will do later in the year. If I can get them thinking creatively, then I consider that a huge win.

Friday, September 11, 2015


Today was a milestone for our team. We finally got our very own Harmony Team Instagram account. I have been using Twitter for a couple of years to highlight students' work and help move their learning outside of the school walls. "We're not on Twitter" the kids would say. Twitter is huge for teachers and educators. There are education chats, communities of learning and other opportunities for teachers to develop professionally. The kids are not on Twitter though, at least middle school kids. The kids are on Instagram. So, in order to better represent the kids, we created an Instagram account. I decided it was time to practice what I preach. If I want to have a student-centered class, why are we not where all of the kids are? That made no sense. Now our Instagram account, monte.goes.mobile, is up and running. Stay tuned!

My Role is to Inspire

Over the past few days, I've been explaining to the kids how most of their work will be published online for a real, worldwide audience. I introduced the Teen Lit Review and our accompanying Twitter handle (@teenlitreview) so that kids can see examples of students' work online. I told them about TLR Radio, our weekly podcast about YA Lit (available on iTunes). During our talk about the importance of getting their work outside of the school walls, they took over the conversation. "What about a magazine?" "Do we have a team theme song?" "I could write a soap opera!" "A line of clothes!" "We could do animation." Kids shouted all kinds of ideas that came to mind. It was awesome! All it took was a little push, or "permission" to think of expanding our footprint, and they were off to the races. They were pumped!

I didn't have to do anything. They bounced ideas off of each other and built one idea on top of another. The magazine idea evolved into an online magazine using Flipboard. The show idea became a segment on the school's "This Week at Hixson" Friday morning show. The kids who wanted to do animation will contribute to the Flipboard magazine and also have a stop-motion animation channel on YouTube.

We'll see how these ideas evolve. Some will probably succeed and some will probably fail. There is a greater chance of the kids following through because they were the kids' ideas and they are very excited about them. We know from doing so much personalized learning in class that the fuel for the follow-through has to be ownership of the idea. The kids do indeed own these ideas. I will encourage them but I cannot push them too hard. The execution has to be on them. I can cheerlead, guide, help and match kids to resources, but I cannot take over the idea. My role is to inspire.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Experiential Learning Sticks!

After spending a few weeks learning about prehistory, archaeology and forensics, it was time to assess the kiddos. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a fan of content-laden tests. In fact, I don't give tests. I would rather assess what the kids really have learned instead of what they've crammed from the study guide in order to regurgitate it on a nearly-identical test paper. To me, that kind of "assessment" is not learning, it is merely playing the game of school.

We did not fill our time with talk of the Stone Age or the Copper Age. Those are good to know about but not essential. The kids can Google facts about those ages if they want. No, what I am more interested in the kids learning is the problem-solving that goes into acquiring new knowledge even if there are no accompanying written documents. Our overarching question for the unit has been "How do we know what we know?"

We watched the fascinating film about Otzi the Iceman. The kids were amazed by the archaeological discoveries made through observation, testing, forensics and developing and testing dozens of hypotheses. We saw some video from the Discovery Channel about a cold case death and the forensics involved in that event as well. The kids also did their own archaeological dig so that they could experience first-hand the thinking and hypothesis testing that goes into discovery learning. Through all of our learning activities, we kept in mind the "hows" and "whys" behind the learning. The kids experienced as much as possible in the time frame that we had.

In today's assessment, the kids wrote for a class period to the question "How do we know what we know?" They were able to use their archaeological dig experience, the film they saw, the puzzles they worked, the games they played and the texts they read in order to expound on what they knew about the subject. I expect that the writing pieces will be of good quality because they have written about things they've seen and done themselves. They experienced the learning. Experiential learning sticks!

Here are some scenes from our archaeological dig.