All posts by marylisaharper

The Role of Play in Education: Guest Commentary by Ed Goulart

I am thrilled that my colleague and friend, Ed Goulart, has agreed to contribute to the Primary Innovation Studio Blog. Ed encapsulates the kind of coach/facilitator and teacher that students need today. He incorporates a healthy blend of joy, creativity, and expertise into his classroom. Ed is one of those colleagues who supports and challenges me throughout the school year. Tony Wagner asserted the importance of play in his recent book, Play, Passion and Purpose, and it dawns on me that educators need permission to use the word PLAY with purpose and confidence. Thanks again, Ed!

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“Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” Plato

Recently, I have found myself thinking quite a bit about the role and the experience of play in the lives of the children I teach. It started with an idea for a song I wrote. As often happens, once I’d started thinking about the importance of play, I began to run across articles and other writings about it. Of course, the topic came up again and again in conversations with different colleagues. Mary Lisa was one of those colleagues, and she asked if I’d write this blog entry. So, I Googled the words “play” and “learning”, looking for quotes and thoughts that might motivate and inspire me. The following are my thoughts.

Watch a child at play. What do you observe? Total concentration. Absolute engagement. Imagination, perseverance and resilience. Roles arise from deep within the imagination. Perhaps the child is replaying a favorite book or movie. Or maybe he is pretending to be an animal. Or an alien. Problems and challenges arise, are confronted and resolved, only to be replaced with new challenges. Often, the role a child chooses to play is that of a real-world person: a mom, dad, teacher or police officer. The child, through play, is exploring the options and constructing the person he will someday become. Despite the importance of play to the future man, however, play is crucial and vital to the person that the child is today.

“In play, a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”  Lev Vygotsky

The desire, even need, to play is hard wired into children. It is critical to their development as human beings. And it should never be diminished. Time to play is every bit as critical to a child as any endeavor that might be identified in adults. Through play, children discover reality. They begin as individuals, alone in their own little worlds. Soon, however, other children begin to be incorporated as characters into their stories. Through this play, a child constructs an awareness of the world as a social arena, and he begins to explore and create his own role within that world. Rules, which began as mandates from above, become social conventions to be negotiated and agreed upon. Play provides the opportunist to experiment with different behaviors in a safe environment in which consequences are reduced to being tattled upon.

“Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.” Abraham Maslow

Children engaged in active play with each other are learning to communicate with each other. They talk through and act out the rules or parameters of their play. They must, of needs, collaborate with each other in order to maintain the game. As problems arise, they work together to produce potential solutions. Here is the essence of creativity as a means of solving problems. This process also requires critical thinking as the child analyzes the problem, makes connections to similar situations he has experienced and the solutions that worked, and then evaluates the likely success of those potential solutions in this new situation. I’m exhausted just thinking about all of that thinking. The child, however, is happy in his play.

Play is not a reward. Neither is it the opposite of work. It is not something separate from learning. In fact, play is an inextricable part of the learning process for children. How often do we see children take things they are learning and transfer/translate them into a game. “Hey, let’s pretend we’re horses today.” Soon, you see a group of children acting out what they know about horses. Or another group may be using Legos to replicate and extend their thinking; to stretch what they know and how they know it. The point is that play becomes a means of contextualizing and synthesizing learning in a personally meaningful way. It also becomes the place in which children learn to ask what is, perhaps, the most important of all questions: What if? What if our horses could fly? How would that change our game? This question is foundational to innovative thinking and creative problem solving. No less a thinker than Albert Einstein would seem to agree through his quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Of course sometimes, play is just play. But even there it serves a valuable role. New ideas and understandings often spring up when we are not focused on anything in particular. I should also note here that not all learning should, or even can be, play. Although it is funny how  often a child will refer to an activity as play when performing a task that I would consider to be work.

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Mr. Rogers


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Ed Goulart is a first grade teacher at Mammoth Heights Elementary in Parker, CO. He has been teaching primary aged children for over 20 years. Ed holds an M.Ed. from Lesley University and an Elementary I credential from the American Montessori Foundation. Ed has experience teaching in both public Montessori as well as traditional public schools, and has helped to open 4 different schools in his career.

Creating a New Space for Learners


After I finished reading Edutopia’s recent article, Classroom Makeovers to Engage Learners, and have been chatting with teachers during these frantic “get our classrooms ready” moments, I thought that a blog posting in regard to creating a NEW space might be useful. Most teachers do not have thousands of dollars in grant money to redo a classroom, and there are many ways to accomplish a novel space without ‘many’ dollars. Rethinking design and routines from years past will propel you forward.

And why are we doing this? We are creating new environments for new kids. The days of industrial revolution fueled teacher driven instruction have passed. Today’s student must work, learn and play in an environment that is spontaneous, alive and collaborative. In past years the teacher was the driving force, now it is the students’ inquiry. This has been a major shift for me as I grew up entertaining, singing, acting….and the curtain has closed for most my frolics in the classroom (sage on the stage); however, my new coaching role has been a welcome surprise and I really like it!

Ironically, today, my principal sent a great quote, and I will share as well:

The appearance, organization, and structure of a classroom can invite learning with appealing colors, effective displays of student work, spaces for both solitary and collaborative work, easy access to materials and supplies, furniture arrangements that focus attention on peer input rather than largely or solely on the teacher, and visible cues to support quality work. Conversely, a classroom’s physical environment can diminish learning by being barren, drab, cramped, teacher-focused, distracting, or limiting (with seating arrangements that isolate students from one another). More significant than this physical climate, however, is the classroom’s more intangible emotional climate. Students learn best when they feel safe, respected, involved, challenged, and supported. Thus, a learning environment that invites each student to be a full participant in the classroom—with full support for the journey—is a necessity for robust differentiated instruction.

Off the top of my head, I’ll assert some items to consider, some changes that could create that “collaborative” and less teacher centered environment. Always knowing that YOUR innovation will not look like my innovation, hers or his!
Below is a simple table of some ideas that you might want to consider and reasons why. These are some ideas in which I have tried and LOVED and some ideas from other innovative classrooms of colleagues and friends.

Might you Consider? Why?
Move toward tables instead of single desks. Encourage Collaboration.
Eliminating desk tags. Students OWN the room, not only a desk.
Limit ‘before school’ teacher made decor. Let kids design spaces. Save space for anchor charts.
Provide color. If you cannot paint, use paper or fabric as ‘color’ areas throughout the room. Color themes are less cluttered.
Create open spaces. Kids like to move around, and group themselves. 4×4 flat pieces of wood for floor work, beanbags, large pillows, carpets.
Make things moveable. With more space, furniture can be moved easily for varied learning experiences.
Take some books home, consider not having as many books, and make the ones you keep in the room more special. Rotate them.Literacy rich, not literacy clutter Less is more, students usually will not filter through endless crates of books. Display books ‘out’ and kids will be enticed to look at them! Using slat, library, type board is optimal.
Lower white boards Kids will use them.
Move teacher desk out. Gives you more space. Room does not tend to have a “front”. Room is open, like a living room.
Consider virtual word walls. More space, and more differentiated
Raise a table. Some kids like to stand and work.
Limit homework Research shows that it is not needed. If parents want it, supply it. Make it optional.
Accept movement Kids learn and move at the same time.
Limit lecture Kids need to explore and have their hands on learning. They need to talk about it with peers.
Make graphics clear and concise. Think of the icons used for applications on an IPAD, less is more.
Use music. Current songs are great for transitions and let kids know without your always talking.
Survey kids. Find out what kids are interested in within a standard or topic.
Kids first, standards second. 21st Century Skill acquisition will naturally occur through rich projects and inquiry based explorations. They will connect to standards, trust.
Create a Maker’s Classroom. Have unique supplies available to encourage students’ showing learning in unique ways.

Myth Busting!

 Misconception    Primary Innovation Studio
Students are not required to meet Colorado State and district Standards. Units and explorations are planned according to district and Colorado State Standards. Students are expected to perform appropriately and are aligned with other MHE Second Grade Classrooms. However, the heart of the studio is:

There is no structure, kids run wild. There is a very established, practiced and revisited routine and classroom culture of learning routines. Integrity is a sound tenet of the space, and is embraced and discussed ALWAYS.
Students who prove that they can show learning individually get that chance. Those who are not ready, get a higher level of “teacher” direction. It’s all about the student and his/her needs. Guided reading, writing and math groups occur daily.
Students design their own learning experiences. While personalized learning paths are embraced, students are coached and supported as they explore and respond to content; however, in unique ways.
There is lots of ‘free’ time. Students have content to embrace and practice through jobs and responsibilities. They are continually supported and their path is individualized according to their unique needs.
It is never quiet. There is always a buzz in the classroom; however, students who need quiet spaces are encouraged to find them and/or their needs are addressed and supported.
There is no research to support this environment. Last year, my students exceeded past students’ gains, especially in the areas of reading fluency and the use higher level vocabulary. In mathematics, students’ exposure to higher level concepts increased and struggling students were offered more support opportunities. Students’ critical thinking skills were documented and noted through writing samples and verbal skills.
Students just play instead of learn. Yes, students do play and they do have fun as they are involved in learning experiences which are engaging, hands on and student centered. Joyful play is at the heart of learning for anyone.
 Students use technology too much. In the Primary Innovation Studio, technology is a tool just like a pencil, paper, a paint brush or a book. Students use tech when they need it and/or when it fits their learning challenge. There is not a ‘tech time’ or tons of direct instruction in regard to using tech. It is just there like all of the other materials in a learning environment. You won’t hear this: “Okay kids, it’s IPAD time.”

Design Thinking and a Classroom Maker’s Space

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Two boys were researching animals in the desert ecosystem. This is the way they showed their learning.

I CAN do this.

Marveling over the many options that are packed into the notion of a Maker’s Space is like going to the best candy store; however, once you are in the candy store, you have to CONTROL yourself. Running through the aisles randomly tasting every treat, throwing wrappers on the floor and eating until you get sick might not be the best of plans, or a lack there of!

Let’s face it, the Maker’s Space is a candy store to kids–they have an insatiable desire to be make stuff; however, they need careful and explicit guidance into how a classroom maker’s space is to be used and the reasons for it. This does not happen magically or overnight. It is a guided process that takes many weeks, and starts on day one of a new school year. And above all, this is not a space that is controlled by the teacher, but it is is a space with purpose, and kids need to understand that.

As I have ventured into my new quest of trying to make my instruction/craft/space more student focused, personalized, and striving for a more ’21st Century- skill- available’ environment for kids, I have noticed that teachers are excited about many components and ideas, but they are a bit wary of the notion and creations of the ‘Maker’s’ part of the environment. I can’t count the times that teachers have inquired, “So, how do you manage that Maker’s Space?”, and I would answer with my usual “um, errr, it is fantastic and my students make a proposal to me on a planning sheet–yadda yadda…” That never felt like enough.

We teachers might be somewhat  wary of a Maker’s Space because it is an area that we cannot predict or control—it’s MESSY. Trust me, my adventure last year came with many Maker’s challenges; however, it also brought so many more remarkable celebrations! There were times that the chaos of the Maker’s Space resulted in a headache and tons of reflection afterward—continually trying to improve and wrestle the space. My conflict always revolved around the 21st Century tenet of teacher as coach, facilitator, not dictator. In the beginning, trying to manage the space in a way that “looked” pretty and calm, turned me into a demander of this and that. I knew that sort of teacher within the great space was not what kids needed, and finally, after lots of revisiting and give and take with my students, we came up with a way to work toward quality products within the space; moreover, products in which we were proud to share with larger audiences.

The Maker’s Space can be a culture in the classroom, as I have detailed in blog postings and within a Google Site titled: Maker’s Space = Maker’s Culture.

The elusive Maker’s Space has the potential to be a hotbed for student discovery and it offers opportunities for personalized learning; moreover, it can propel a student beyond and out of routine academic benchmarks which have made or broken self esteem over the the past 100 years. For example, the Maker’s Space is where ‘Sally’, a student with dyslexia, found her voice and became ultra important within our community because of her clever hand built interpretations of book settings. She was not the girl sitting at her desk continually  needing help with the action of reading. She became revered for her creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, and communication.  A Maker’s Space does not care about a DRA score, it cares about critical and creative thinking and problem solving. And guess what, when the brain is churning and moving and grooving–fueled with confidence and self worth—that DRA score will most likely rise!

In summary: The Maker’s Space was the main vehicle for creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration in OUR classroom last year. When we all gathered around the large table on Fridays to share our products, I would very often sit in amazement at what the kids had accomplished…in what seemed to be that chaos that makes some teachers and administrators shush with conviction until the classroom silences. I fight being THAT teacher sometimes–busy and engaged kids create a buzz that can result in….yes…..a headache.

Moving through the Maker’s Space journey, messing up, collaborating and trying again has been a necessary part of the process for me. It is dawning on me that I have been accidentally, without knowing, working within THE design process already, so why not teach the process to my kids and give community voice to it?

But, I know they need more tools to organize their thinking.

And today, there I was, halfway thinking of my next blog posting as walked through the Denver International Airport terminal. Amongst beautiful pictures of children’s faces along the terminal hallway, all of this came to me, a simple connection of sorts, one in which I know many of you have had already. Maker’s Space = Culture Fueled by Design Theory.Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 10.41.41 PM

For this coming academic year in my classroom of 25 second graders, I will give my students even more explicit instruction and support, featuring the Design Thinking Model. Last year, students were encouraged to complete design plans for their experiences in the Maker’s Space. This worked (somewhat); but, I always knew that it could be improved upon—well…..just like one improves upon their prototype in the design process.

Having cruised the internet, I have collected a few interesting sites that feature Design Theory in primary spaces, there are many, just plug Design Thinking into a search engine.

My thinking, as mentioned, will be to carefully teach and model each process-step to my students and make the stages visually evident in throughout the room. This way, students will not only have a tangible paper/digital way to organize their thinking, but it will become a part of the look of the space. Students will also begin to use the vocabulary as they communicate their design thinking and process.

I will keep you posted, let’s consider this the IDEATE phase of my new and improved Maker’s Space in the Primary Innovation Studio!

Collaborative Supports for Students

2014-02-24 13.21.35Summer is filled with anxiously awaited personal hobbies, trips and fun; however, amongst every teacher’s planning of those sweet summer days includes some thought, reading or internet surfing as they start to prepare for a fresh new year. I have marveled at the plethora of great information that is skipping across my computer–great articles on personalized learning, project based learning, 21st Century classrooms and much, much more. Today, I was inspired to expand on a tenet of Project Based Learning that resonated in the Edutopia article, Five Keys to Rigorous Project Based Learning. One of the “keys” is an affirmation in regard to working with students, especially primary ones. It is the explicit need to teach, coach and support STRUCTURED collaboration. Still, so many label innovative and novel classrooms as unstructured, with kids completely doing magical inquiry with no guidelines, just being amazing (or not….) because the environment or teacher is one of the “innovative ones.”

Well —- I can attest to the fact that rigorous and purposeful collaboration does not magically happen in second grade. Most students do not have the skills to work together, and socially and developmentally they are unable to understand the give and take of working with others. These skills need to be modeled, guided and revisited, ad nauseum.

This hits upon the same tune that I sing throughout this blog, which is that notion of primary teachers living in the journey part of student growth. In other words, we mingle in the messy, sometimes chaotic world of students trying new things for the first time, trying again and again, getting better and better.

Our “house or common place” is not necessarily the shiny destination of complete mastery. We are the road.

I am posing the question: Is is best for students to experience assigned collaborative roles as they become collaborators? Do young students gain confidence in the “structure” of a modeled and understood role for their first collaborative attempts? The Teaching Channel details structured collaboration in this video:

Chef of Joy: A Recipe



This week, I have been enjoying Create Something Great: ideate, initiate, implement as teachers have gathered together to talk innovation fueled by design theory. The symposium began last night with a panel of folks from across the nation, addressing where we are in regard to education, paradigm shifting and more. As I have been digesting all of this brain food, it is clear that I, as a teacher, learning facilitator and coach of young students, continue to listen to a resonating tune. It is the song of joy. That is what we as primary educators need to be cooking up. It is not the latest and greatest computer, the fanciest room, or the latest project based lesson idea—-it is COMMUNITY–a place that embraces each child and a place that the child wants to be in. Then, the child will learn.  Briefly, I will mention some tidbits of inspiration that I gleaned from the speakers last night:

Doug Daniels, Google: Doug’s theme statement was, “don’t settle for the 10%, go for 10x.”  This is a Google mantra and he suggested that teachers think on this one. He too connected success with a healthy classroom culture. I appreciated his Rules for Revolutionaries: 1) Data not opinions 2) Users not competition 3) Innovation not perfection 4) Enrich you environments 5) Live in a modern workplace 5)Ideas come from everyone 6) Enable your information workers 7) Work and hire the best.

Meenoo Rami,English teacher at the Science Leadership Academy:  Meenoo was a proponent of inquiry and project based learning which is modeled and focused on questions. She emphasized the need for staffs who all hold a clear vision and excitement about kids. Kids first—–then standards. She also talked about how tech is only a tool to evaluate work not a babysitting service. “If kids are having fun in a classroom, go in a figure out why and do it yourself!”

Adrian Bazemore, Proctor & Gamble: Adrian’s theme was the need for critical thinking in the workplace. He begged teachers to teach this explicitly and give students opportunities to practice it. He talked about the influx of information that kids are privy to and the need for them to be able to read it and turn it into their OWN thinking. He questioned students’ ability to multitask and process and expressed a concern in regard to information and screen overload. Just like Meenoo, he proclaimed that tech does not do the most important job of a teacher: “helping create within the student a desire to learn, curiosity and a drive to inquire.”

Elliott Asp, Assistant to the Commissioner at CDE: Once again, an experienced educator reminds us that tech is ONLY A TOOL. Elliott also spoke of the importance of getting to know students individually and delving into their interest areas. Interestingly, he also asserted that it is only an assumption that all parents want a traditional classroom for their kids. Parents want their children to be excited by learning and exploring!

Jon Wuerth, Co-Found of School in the Woods: Jon drove home community like nobody’s business. The students at his school start the day with a 30 minute classroom meeting and end the day with a 30 minute meeting!  Wow! I love that! Parent volunteers are encouraged and valued. Jon emphasized the importance of identifying children as naturalists and could not preach loud enough about outdoor opps for kids.

Vic Ahmed, Innovation Pavilion, Visionary: Vic founded the Innovation Pavilion in Centennial and is a visionary in regard to entrepreneurs and start up companies. His no bones about it approach highlighted discussions in regard to student debt and even the question of college being for everyone. “The high school can become the business incubator.” His three suggestions to educators: 1) Experiential Learning 2) Life and Leadership Skills 3) Problem/Project Based Learning.

So, as you see, my head is full, and after spending a couple days with folks who are thinking about the future of education and how we can make things great for kids, I am still waving that little shiny PRIMARY flag. How do we prepare the youngest learners for their amazing learning path into the future? Well, after all of this, my conclusion is this: create a classroom community of trust and joy. Simple as that, with a cherry on top!

Primary Innovation: Conversation with Ted Knight

Yesterday primary colleagues, district media specialists and I had the pleasure of conducting a google hangout about innovation in the primary grades, kindergarten through 2nd grade, through a conversation with Mr. Ted Knight, Assistant Superintendent of the Douglas County School District. His open and no nonsense approach confirmed and pushed our thinking as we tried to define changes and look fors that primary teachers might consider nurturing or striving for. As I have had the pleasure of hosting many teachers in my classroom over the past two weeks, the question continues to arise, “What does this look like in the primary grades?” Throughout the Google Hangout, Mr. Knight listened, supported and interjected ideas from his experience and emphasized futuristic predictions of what our younger students need in order to succeed in this new 21st Century educational world. The video is one hour long and below are some of the initial comments.

Other Attendees:
LInda Conway: Director of Library Media Programming
Lillain Escobedo: Assistant to Linda Conway and technology support
Ed Goulart: First Grade Teacher, Mammoth Heights Elementary
Kristin Kinner: First Grade Teacher, Pioneer Elementary

Ted: Primary teachers need to start looking more at innovation because the vocabulary and comprehension are so easily integrated. How can we do a good job at assessing students’ reading ability and get them reading fluently at grade level, and then quickly moving toward a more interdisciplinary, integrated and innovative experience without forsaking a student from actually being able to learn to read?

LInda: Reading is shifting, now they are reading more online, more snippets of info, traveling around, not sitting and engaging for long periods of time. They are still reading—just because they are not reading a book or story, they are still reading.

Ed: I see more nonfiction skills being more required. We must facilitate the making of connections and how they will apply that.

Kristin: Primary students have to learn how to learn. What does this look like? They have to know how to read and write before they can move forward.

Mary Lisa: We talk about the teacher lecture issue; however, in primary there has to be explicit instruction but in smaller amounts—maybe snippets of time as Linda said?

Ted: All of the digital media that kids see, visual stimulation changes every 10 seconds, even a 5 minute lecture is hard for a kid. It is a balance, there are times that we need direct instruction, just like adults. If you can chunk that, pull quickly, release, let go, repeat, might be the best way to figure out the best balance.

Mr. Knight agrees that we need to have more conversations with primary teachers, developing an understanding of what all of this holds for our youngest students; moreover, I was moved by his hesitation to dictate certain norms in a classroom as a “one size fits all” sort of formula.

Tis the time of year that elementary schools are full of rumblings of what might be in store for the next school year. “Who will be my child’s teacher next year?” ” Who will be changing grade levels or schools?” ” What is in store for us?” ” What is best for my child?” ” What is best for my student?”

A Structured Environment?

As I have been listening, digesting and responding to this yearly chatter, I can’t help but tune into a constant ad reoccurring theme:

Some still attribute “structure” to an old school model. “My child needs structure” could be translated to ….what?

I believe that there is a misconception here.  Can any teacher teach without structure?  I do not think so. Can one coach and guide 25-30 students without an explicit underlying structure? I can proclaim, that my new environment would not function without very carefully planned and practiced structure, which is explicitly taught, practiced and revisited. So, what is the structure some folks are wanting?

One hears and reads proclamations that the teacher of today should not be the “sage on the stage” or the controller; however, the teacher of today still has to manage a group of students, and when they are in the primary grades, even more so. However, what those students are doing and how they are interacting is very different in a modern environment.

So, I am wanting to shake up this word structure. What are folks meaning by a “structured” environment these days? What does it really mean? Are we using it to clutch to our old comfy paradigm?

Here is the question I pose to you:

Is a class that has moved away from the industrial revolution’s paradigm of teacher controlled environments equal to a class lacking in structure?  

Help me ponder this….

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What is your thinking about structure in a modern classroom?  When kids move and talk does that mean the environment is not structured?  What are your thoughts?