When given the opportunity to create a learning environment for 7 and 8 year olds that was modern and innovative, to be honest, it seemed easy! For me, and my style, it was so fun to design the environment, drawing from articles on the internet, my past experience with young kids and collaborative support from colleagues. This was not the hard part. The room evolved during the summer of 2013. But then the kids came!—-twenty five curious and ready young kids, interested in what this “crazy” room had to offer. Well, the offerings were well planned, and some will go down in the history books as successful, and some not. After 5 months with the kids and in the space, I can report on the results–and in order to help the next teacher who is ready to make some changes in regard to space and craft. This Wednesday, January 29, I will be hosting a Google Hangout for any interested folks who want to discuss innovation for young children. It is my hope to extinguish myths that a more modern classroom is a free for all with no structure, all technology with no explicit reading instruction. Below I will detail some of my learnings so far:
Routines HAVE to be set up and PRACTICED: There is a structure that needs to be underlying for the classroom to operate through the year. These routines, rules and norms are set up from day one. The first two months of school are dedicated to setting up that culture, continually revisiting the “structure”, practicing and reflecting upon it. We’ve been doing this for years in primary! Right?
Young Kids NEED Explicit Instruction: When one chats about the modern, 21st Century innovative teacher, they seem to proclaim the notion of a lack of teacher control and the absence of teacher lecture. This is the GOAL for the higher grades. With young children, there will be a bit more teacher control and “lecture”. Little kids do not have the background knowledge that older/intermediate/middle and high school students do. For example, primary students need to see concepts from the teacher, and then have a large chunk of time to practice and get their hands and heads “in it”. I have culled down my “in front of the class” control time; however it is not absent, it can’t be!
Writing is the perfect example, as direct modeling is important, students watch the teacher write on an easel pad or type into a document and then go and give it a try—we’ve been doing this for years. The change is giving them MORE of the trying time and letting them lead the way more as they are in the trenches giving it a go. Plus allowing more choice in regard to product production—be that paper, tech, creation, etc.
Of course, reading is another area which demands explicit instruction. In a more innovative environment, the reading materials might be more varied with choice between digital and paper book formats available for students. Instruction is targeted, assessed and presented in whole groups, small groups and one on one. Comprehension strategies are also taught explicitly and students are given chances to show their thinking in creative ways such as digital products, communicative arenas, and collaboratively. Students read everyday and have choice between digital books and paper books.
The quest for quality is a mission: Young students are spontaneous, herd-ish animals. They ALL want to try something new, and in that they often produce products which lack focus and quality. As a teacher, I have had to trust the process of letting them try and create. Often, the results are not so “great”. But the key is finding “that kid or those kids” who are digging deeper and making the sort of product that shows more of a critical thinking slant. Once those products are isolated and highlighted in the classroom, others will rise to the occasion; however, the road to those products will be paved with the more simple and sometimes silly products. The words QUALITY PRODUCTS has been a mantra for kids, with an accompanying rubric to guide students.
As a classroom community, we are always looking at our creations, critiquing and discovering how we can accomplish products which will inspire our audiences. NOTE: In primary, students often “tire” before they reach the quality piece; however, the journey of trying to improve will show when they try the next creation. There is more journey in primary than destination.
They get technology: Folks have different views of what tech looks like in classrooms. For me this year it has been all about balance, but I have to admit, more of a move toward technology, and that move has been made by the kids not me.
Primary kids need 1 to 1 tablets–Ipad, Surface, Nook, Kindle, Android, etc., (Driven by school choice.). In a perfect world, I know. It is hard to share a tablet.
Some apps are great and some are rubbish. Unfortunately, the ones that are great require money, and schools need to think of ways to fund this. I wonder if school supply lists will become smaller as classroom are 1 to 1 devices. For example, the app Whiteboard can replace the whiteboard and dry erase markers. Here again, students need to be taught norms and behaviors which accompany the use of tech. If kids do not get to use the technology frequently, when they do get it in their hands it is so novel, they can’t focus on the task at hand. Always referring to the SMAR model, substitution is a lower level task; however, substituting for supplies will free up money for applications needed.
Maker’s Movement, What?: I LOVE the Maker’s space in my classroom. This balances out the heavy tech—kids getting their HANDS on things. The Maker’s Movement throughout the world encompasses many activities: invention, tinkering, building, computer programming, art, and the list goes on. It is in the exploratory stages, and there are no resources for Maker’s in the primary classroom. Most likely because we’ve been making for years; however, it has been driven by the teacher.
There are no rules for this space; however, in my primary classroom, I have blended the philosophies of the Reggio Emilia “invitation” (very art driven), Lego Education and computer coding. I will be presenting about the Maker’s Space at DCSD’s tech conference in February, more to come.
This space, unmanaged, is where the kids would flock everyday. Designing a fair way to experience this space has taken 5 months. I am not quite there yet; however, at the moment, students are required to “order” their Maker’s Experience, and they use this document, this is only a portion of the document. Students need to list materials as well. This has been working pretty well and the products have been inspiring so far!
Restorative Environments Work: I feel that primary teachers have created “restorative” communities for years. We invented the “circle” as a place to work things out and move forward. The community of mistake driven learning moves kids to take more risk, accept critiques and get better. There has been a little bit of magic this year for that learner who might not be a great reader/writer. Those kids do not “stand out” anymore as they have opportunities to shine through the other options in the room. I love that.
Flexible Furniture & Space: There is something to be said about the lack of clutter. Folks that have known me and my style over the past 12 years are amazed that I got “rid” of it all. It really was not that hard. A more agile environment enables kids to own the room, not just their labeled desk space. TABLES, TABLES, TABLES! Figure out how to get them! The collaborative experience is supported by the furniture and room set up. However, there are times when a kid might need a desk, etc. for organization, work completion, and so forth. If the kid needs it, they get it.
Primary kids do gravitate toward routine, and I find that they make their own “owned spaces”. This changes naturally, and it has been interesting to watch. Do I have to “move” students to more productive learning spaces….you bet I do! This is part of the culture: “If you are with someone who is not supporting your learning, it is your job to listen to your internal compass and move.” This is a journey and we revisit it everyday; however, they are getting really good at advocating for their learning.
Many teachers tell me, “Well you got the big grant, it was easy for you to create the environment!” Yes, that is true, I get that; however, all through my career, if I learn that something is good for kids, I have begged, borrowed and stolen to make it happen. There is always someone who will support you, somewhere, I promise! You just have to find them.
In closing today, I will say that things are going well in the Primary Innovation Studio, full of celebrations and moving toward some pretty magical stuff. Extinguishing the myths of a “free for all” and “no structure” is my mission of late.
It was my promise in the grant that I wrote to communicate through a blog the ups and downs, discoveries and ah-has of the process. Look forward to these subjects in the future: parent communication: the virtual backpack, parent involvement, how many apps are enough?, virtual collaborative tools, getting products out there to authentic audiences, and some more as they come to mind! (-; mL
I invite teachers to come and see what we do!