Tag Archives: innovation

“Do we get iterations?” : Creating a Culture of Innovation

Over the last few years, my teaching partner Margit Boyesen and I have been working to help our young students develop persistence and grit…and to see themselves as producers in the learning process. We’ve been trying to explode the notion that learning is something that takes place only within the walls of the classroom and is assigned by teachers. We aim to have students learn more by doing than by listening, and as much as we can, we try to have students engage in meaningful projects that extend the learning environment beyond the school and whenever possible connect them to others who are interested in or engaged in similar endeavors.

These are lofty goals—and like other classroom teachers we are faced with state standards, accountability measures, and even the often slow to change expectations of parents, the community, and the educational system. But we also believe that students who are persistent problem solvers, designers, and communicators will have the skills they need to succeed in testing situations and in the world. But mostly, we believe learning should be fun…for our students and for ourselves.

And we’re lucky. Margit and I co-teach a multiage class of first, second, and third graders. Twice as many students, two interconnected classroom spaces, and students we get to teach for three years. Unlike many teachers, Margit and I don’t teach in isolation and our planning involves starting with an idea and building on each other’s thinking, adding to and challenging the whys and hows until we land on the lessons we will facilitate with our students. Two teachers in the classroom give us flexibility in supporting students…and in challenging them.

Thanks to our San Diego Area Writing Project colleague, Abby Robles, we added an advanced vocabulary routine to our instruction a few years ago. We include the target word without defining it (last week’s was precarious) in our morning message and ask students to think of possible synonyms based on the context. Students refine their guesses through the week, continuing to use new context clues from each day’s message until the definition is revealed on Thursday. Students help to generate a gesture to use each time they hear the word…a gesture that also helps with remembering the meaning.  We select words to enhance the learning we have planned–to give authentic context for using the word and for our students to incorporate it into their personal vocabulary through experience.

iterations

Because we are interested in design and making, last year we introduced the word iteration to our class…and the practice of iteration as an intentional part of our teaching. (I wrote last year about a project that focused on iteration here.) And not only did our students learn the definition of the word iteration, they also began to recognize the value of iteration in their learning. It was obvious when we started programming using the app Hopscotch, that computer programmers value iteration. And that language of designing: imagining, trying out, testing, and improving as a continual loop began to permeate our classroom. Instead of talking about writing as drafting, revising, and final drafts…we started to talk about iterations, and gave students opportunities to plan, write, try out, improve. Another iteration became a much friendlier and positive way to talk about revision…and better yet, students started to ask for opportunities to iterate, in their writing and in all their projects.

hands scratch jr

“Do we get iterations?” became a common question as students began a new project or a new writing piece. And Margit and I found ourselves asking whether we had given students enough opportunity to iterate when we saw the elevated level of work and the increased creativity of products students produced when they could go beyond a single try.

As school began this year, we intentionally built opportunities for iteration into our instruction. And when we forgot, we often revised our lessons to allow for time to iterate. On our first day of school this year we planned a “mini make” out of a piece of aluminum foil and before the end of the lesson, we added time for a second iteration the following day. This practice of iteration has developed a culture in our classroom that supports collaboration, persistence and innovation. I was reminded of this today as students were working on an Alexander Calder-inspired mobile design challenge. Our forty-four students were at different stages of work on two projects: getting their individual blog titled and about me page posted and gathering materials to start on the mobile project. While it was “a lovely mess” in the words of my teaching partner, it was calm, productive, and collaborative. Margit and I each helped individual students…with their blogs, with cutting pipe cleaners and ribbon lengths, threading strings through “doo-dads,” and more. And what’s better, students were helping each other too. They were free to move around, collect materials as needed, be the second set of hands for tying a tricky piece of string or holding the growing mobile from the top as the creator worked on balance elements. And as time flew by, I could feel the flow of learning our students were engaged in.

hands mobile

When I think of cultivating a culture of innovation, I think of the power of iteration and the design process. In order to risk doing something new or different, its important to know that your first effort isn’t your only effort. When students ask about iterations, they are asking if they can try something new, if they can start over again, if they can learn from their attempts—even those that didn’t work the first time around. And they learn to persist and help each other out too, because that’s what we do in this culture of exploration and deep learning.

And even better, this attitude toward learning changes our teaching too. We also find ourselves in a culture of innovation, as teachers and co-learners. We can try that project that involves something new that we aren’t even sure exactly how it will work—especially with a classroom full of students—because we know that our first attempt isn’t the only attempt. Like our students, we get to iterate too, refining our teaching, our expectations, our processes as we innovate and work to provide meaningful learning experiences for this generation of learners.

Engagement, Learning, and Technology

How do we, as teachers, use technology in ways that improve opportunities for student learning in our classrooms?  Now in our second year with 1:1 iPads, this question is always on our minds.  My teaching partner and I are always thinking about ways to increase student engagement and participation in all aspects of the classroom–in line with our beliefs that engagement and participation play an important role in learning.  Sometimes those ideas involve our iPads–and somethings they don’t, we are always considering student learning rather than iPad use as the goal.  Paula over at Amplifying Minds wrote earlier today about the role technology should or could play in enabling learning.

This week we experimented with using the app educreations as a tool during our morning calendar time to encourage more interaction and participation.  My immediate observation is that more students can share their mathematical equation generation since the white board feature allows students and teachers to see many more attempts than were available orally.  And the novelty factor is certainly at work–students are interested in using the iPad, so there is more immediate engagement.  I do realize we could do a similar process using our actual handheld white boards and markers–messier, but similar.

I’m also seeing students use different aspects of the educreations app for their equation generation–the typing feature, the writing feature, a variety of colors…  (And it’s way less messy than the markers!) I feel like this is just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities, and I suspect that students will show us more ways to use this tool.

And an added bonus was reported back to me…a guest teacher who worked for my teaching partner on Wednesday using this new tool in our classroom implemented this strategy in another classroom later this week.  She was quite excited about the success and engagement the students experienced, and proud of her own ability to implement a new strategy with the students.

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Sometimes it take a new tool, like the 1:1 iPads to push our thinking about ways to modify our own teaching strategies…to move out of comfort zones and try new ways of working with and engaging students.  I don’t have any illusions that this particular strategy being a ground-breaking innovation in learning, but even small steps can improve the learning experience for students.  We just have to keep moving forward…and be open to experimentation and listen to student ideas about innovation as well!

How are you supporting and enhancing student learning in your classroom?