Blazing Trails: An Analogy for a 21st Century Primary Classroom

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 7.24.55 AMWhen I am wrestling with an idea or concept, coming up with an analogy seems to help me understand and move forward. As many of you know, the continuing contemplation for me over the past 2 years has been creating and reflecting upon what I imagine as a modern, flexible and innovative learning environment for 7 year olds. Countless hours have been spent, alone and with others–thinking: making charts of then and now, picking apart those “wow” times, and replaying the reflect-redo button over and over again.

Yesterday, an analogy came to me. One that will stick and guide me through my practice this year–I just know when a WOW idea hits, it is adrenaline. It’s like when Elvis died, I won’t forget where I was….okay, if you want to know, it was standing in line at the Starbucks on Parker Road.

Maps. Yes, that is it. (NOT to be confused with the assessment, please.)

Creating the 21st Century Classroom which is best for the learner of today and the FUTURE world contributor of tomorrow is like a map with many trails.

Here goes, A story:

When I want to explore the beautiful state of Colorado, I usually have a goal in mind, a mountaintop, a breathtaking waterfall, or just the hope of exhilaration. I have resources here at home–books, internet–some trails look very difficult: some easy, some winding and some a straight shot. Others will not choose the same trail that I do, and it is great that I can find what works for me. I sometimes talk to my friends and family about the trails that they have chosen. I will refer to my map during my journey, that guide with directive purpose which will help me get there. When I begin my journey, I will stop every now and then and look at the mile markers, to see how I am doing, check my watch and have water and a snack. I might go faster than my group, but that is okay. Some days, I might go slower than others. Sometimes I will walk alone.  There might be days that I take the wrong trail. Most importantly, I can do all of this because I have had to learn how to read a map, and I have had to practice before I going out alone. Because of practice and reflection, I am good at it now, and I wonder if I could blaze my own trail someday!

So, most likely, my AMAZING reader, you have figured out the analogy. Primary students are learning about maps. The “map” is that illusive and yummy world of choice and personalized learning. However, young students (little kids) will walk around in circles unless someone (coach/mentor/teacher) helps them learn how to read the map and how to stop and assess their way at the mile-markers, not a dictator who makes everyone take the same trail.

Many primary teachers use the phrase, “It is like herding cats!!!”  Yes, this is true, and the cats will go nowhere until they are given the necessary tools to be the future inventors, collaborators, creatives, and givers of tomorrow. Primary teachers know this, we are the gentle tour guides.

As a teacher and after many journeys and experiences–using great maps, it is my goal to create curious humans who, someday, will blaze the trails and make new maps.  

Some Nuts and Bolts as I start a new year in the Primary Innovation Studio these days:

  • Students are having multiple opportunities to work in small groups. This is a challenge for for 7 year olds as developmentally they are just coming out of the egocentric phase of development and are seeing themselves as a part of a group instead of the “only” one. Tools are taught in a “fishbowl” format for common challenges such as the need for a plan, the art of listening, and the art of getting the whole group to focus on the task at hand. Detailing these challenges helps kids as they practice. This is hard work for everyone.
  • The circle is the heart of the space as we gather frequently to discuss discoveries, the great stuff and the challenges. When I see brilliant moments, I pop on my stage and direct all eyes to those “moments.” Young kids need to see what inquiry and showing learning in unique ways looks like. Naturally 7 year olds are herd-ish and when they see great stuff, they want to try.
  • Let them play. During the first days, this is when I see what my students are all about—and the whole year for that matter. This is when I see what “maps” might help them on their learning journey; moreover, this is when I see them.  If I am telling them what to do every second of the day, they are being me, not themselves. Last week, I found myself just sitting and marveling at their personalities and reflecting upon where to go next for big chunks of time. Offer multiple opportunities, and let them go. This is so hard to do as it feels very out of control. I promise, it is a gold mine.

For next week, I have some ideas:

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 7.12.28 AM

  • Curriculum  “front-loaded” to kids. I use a picture of a bulldozer and “dump” vocabulary and ideas on the kids, usually through a google document. This is when they can shovel up what resonates as they explore content in their own ways. Some need very little guidance, and some need scaffolded support. Videos will be made with information sharing apps such as Educreations and Doodlecastpro that show certain concepts. These will be available for kids and will be something they are asked to access during the “workshop/play” times.
  • More challenging collaborative experiences will be introduced as students are pushed to work together. Stop–reflect–discuss–try again. More hard work!
  • Kids will continue to have multiple play opportunities. They have learned the “map” of the classroom, and will be able to access it freely as I play with them and marvel at their uniqueness. I will be determining next steps and designing new maps.
  • The circle will continue to be the heart of what we do. We’ll meet there and discuss what is working and what is not. Kids will be taught the magic of making “plans.” That means sitting down and determining norms for certain classroom opportunities–taking turns, etc. For example: “Sally, I want a turn to stand on the stage and read the poem!” “Okay, Luke, let’s sit down and make a plan so we can both have a turn!”  Model this good stuff!
  • Invitation Boxes will be introduced. Look forward to details about this one in my NEXT blog posting.

So, as you are starting your year in the hope of busting down the walls of teacher boss, remember that when they are young, we still have to guide them and teach them how to read maps. They will find the trails that fit their journeys and you will too.

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