Investigating the shadow

I relearned an important lesson about students today. And, as is often the case, the lesson was learned while visiting church. But, it wasn’t the priest who taught me the lesson. Not the deacon, not a Bible study leader… not even a human.

It was a candle that illumined me.

See, in our church, there’s candles. Candles do a variety of different things. The most obvious of these is they produce light. But this isn’t all they do. See?

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Actually, maybe you don’t see. I mean, when you are used to looking at candles like this, then the light is probably the most obvious effect. I suspect if you are close enough to it, you will quick recognize the heat as well.

But those candles are doing more than that. (I’m not trying to get all spiritual on you here. I’m talking physically.)

Can you see it? Maybe you need another picture of the candles.

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So, this is the same set of candles, but see? I took a picture of the shadow the candles cast on a nearby wall. See the distorted image vertically rising from the candles? There’s something happening to the light that passes through the space directly above the flames that messes with the light as it passes through.

But you can’t see it here. I mean, I guess maybe if you stare at it long enough… maybe…

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Anyway…

By now, it would be reasonable to ask why I was so interested in candles. And the simplest answer is that I saw something that intrigued me.

Is this the way it is with our students? There are lot of things they are doing that are obvious. They are loud or quiet. They are successful or struggling. They are social or reclusive. These things are obvious. These are the flame of the candle. Any teacher paying any attention to their students would see these things.

But what we don’t see are the hidden effects.

We don’t see that the successful student is working like crazy because of the pressure her parents are putting on her. (It’s not work ethic… it’s fear. Be prepared for what that looks like when the struggles come.) We may not see that that student who is struggling is a skilled leader on her soccer team. (There’s a lot of usable strengths if you can just create classroom situations that use them.) We don’t see that the student who we don’t think is paying attention could design and implement not less than 3 effective fixes for that wobbly stool in your classroom. (How can you sell your content on that student?)

To successfully support these students, we need to see their shadow along with their light.

How do you look at your students differently? There’s a variety of different ways, but the first is that you need to be interested. You need to be willing to see something that intrigues you. Find ways to see them differently. In general, school mostly expects students to do the same sorts of things. But you don’t HAVE to do it that way. Challenge the successful student. Innovate with the struggling student. Chat with the quiet student.

Remember that their “shadow” would almost certainly reveal plenty of things going on. Important actions, skills, impacts that you aren’t aware of. How would the classroom experience improve, both for the student and for you, if you knew what those “shadow” effects were?

The Blessing of the Broken Tech…

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I was reminded this week of the risk of good tech. It’s easy for good tech to take on greater value that it deserves. Teachers… good teachers… sometimes remember that tech is a tool that needs to be wielded with the skill of a discerning educator in order to be effective.

And so, sometimes when the technology isn’t working right, you get a reminder that the teacher ultimately makes the decision about how a tool gets used and, thus, whether a tool is effective.

This week it was a teacher who was struggling with the audio of a video. The video was designed to accompany their math content and, under normal circumstances, there would be a temptation for the tech to BECOME the instruction for that lesson.

But then the audio broke…

So, the visual parts of the video simply became props for the teacher. She could still use the tech, but it could no longer stand alone. It was frustrating moment, to be sure, which I understand because the emergency-lesson-plan-rewrite isn’t usually the favorite moment in the life of the educator.

But, if we allow ourselves to be opportunistic and learn from all circumstances (#GrowthMindset), then we see that the technology going down can help us see the areas in which we are becoming too dependent on the tech. And then we can learn to rebalance those areas. And the constant striving for improvement is the hallmark of the type of learning we should be consistently modeling for our students.

Why I love this picture…

I want to tell you why I love this picture.

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I took this picture this morning in Lansing, MI during some wonderful small group math talk. There is one device, an iPad, with an Osmo setup attached to it.

So, here’s why I love this picture.

There’s tech and…

… manipulatives and whiteboard markers and collaboration. Tech fits among the variety of tools available. It’s not the best tool unless it best supports the learning. And sometimes other tools work better. And in this case, the students were being led into learning with all the different tools.

The activity is built around the social nature of learning. 

The kids are clearly sharing their answers with each other and the teacher… there is a constant back-and-forth, sharing ideas and discussing them. They were seeing each other ideas, but…

Their strategies aren’t all the same. 

One girl is using an array. One girl is using groups of three. One girl wasn’t quite sure what to do (so it was a good thing she could see the other two girls’ work.)

The teacher’s hands are off. 

The students are doing the reaching, arranging, manipulating. Remember, the one that does the work will be the one that does the learning.

That’s why I love this picture. it captures so many wonderful things about the right kind of teaching and learning.

The Beauty of Geometry

Every now and again, I take the opportunity to simply opine on the beauty of geometry. Math gets a bad rap because of it reputation of being cold, lifeless, functional and academic. (Some folks aren’t helping this by proclaiming that the arts are what we do to enjoy school and math is what we study to get paid later on in life.)

Don’t get me wrong, there certainly are academic ways of discussing art, music, iconography, fashion, design. There’s technique and vocab to all of these areas. Students of these disciplines are still students who must study, but their exploration isn’t saddled with the atmosphere that math is. In math, it is often believed, the box is set; the boundaries drawn. The math frontier is closed. There is no need for exploration when there is nothing to explore.

I’ve always felt like geometry has the capacity to challenge those notions. Kolams, quilts and origami help students understand the aesthetic value of straight lines, precise measurements, perfect circles and right angles. Sometimes, you have to build them to complete your understanding of them. That process alone can bring with it its own supply of feedback. When you are trying to create something visually appealing, often times, the eyeball becomes the expert in the room, not the teacher. Attention-to-detail and technique become valuable without encouragement.

At a recent professional learning opportunity, I was given some time to play with KEVA planks. So I did. The planks are all congruent rectangular prisms. So I placed one on the table. Then I placed a second on with a slight rotation (the diagonal intersection points were designed to sit right on top of each other, but the counter clockwise rotation was determined by the next block being placed so that the vertices were placed on the preceding blocks’ short-segment midpoints. It ended up being about 10 degrees.)

That all sounds pretty mathy (and probably somewhat unclear since I’ve never had to verbalize the process before). But the resulting tower is pretty cool-lookin’ (at least I think.) I simply love when objects with straight lines and right angles are arranged to look like curves. This can happen in algebra as well. As a teacher, of course I don’t know if my students will share my fascination, but fascination isn’t the goal. It’s tough to measure and, besides that, it’s fickle.

I’d encourage you to look for opportunities to change the cold, academic atmosphere surrounding the math. How can we warm this wonderful subject up? We used to take advantage of those tricky days right before a long break and do art projects. Thanksgiving Origami, or build a Christmas (or holiday… or wintertime) scene using nothing but triangles.

 

What ideas do you have?

Why “maker” seems so appealing…

In the education world, “maker” as a vocabulary word seems very trendy, but the thought behind it really isn’t new. We learn by doing. We do by creating. The ability to create within the content requires connections among a variety of different related content pieces and often testing and trouble-shooting which are themselves tasks that require pretty significant understanding.

So, it shouldn’t surprise us that creative activities seem valuable from a learning standpoint.

What is significant is how satisfying they are for our students… 0r at least the advocates would have us believe. I was able to be a learner today in an all-day session regarding maker-style learning and this quote by Mark Hatch certainly got my attention.

“Making is fundamental to what it means to be human. We must make and express ourselves to feel whole.”

A Google search of the quote revealed a second part of the quote:

“There is something unique about making physical things. The things we make are like little pieces of us and seem to embody portions of our soul.” (Quote found here.)

That’s a pretty powerful statement. There aren’t a lot of areas of education that will evoke words like “soul” and phrases like “fundamental to what it means to be human.”

And it makes sense. Let’s remember that each of our students (and each of us) were CREATED. We were literally made by a MAKER. And we are not just made, but we are made specifically in the image and likeness of that maker. We are created to be creators.

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.’ ” (Genesis 1:26) This quote, by the way, is uttered just after God the Creator had made the universe and everything in it. Our Lord, Himself a maker, created humans and said “Let Us make them in Our image…”

So, it should not at all be surprising that a day spent making is much less likely to feel like a day wasted. Perhaps our souls recognize that the time spent making is time that is bringing us closer to the image in which we were created. Time spent being who God made us to be. A chance to be our best selves.

And isn’t that our job as educators? To help our students be their best selves?

Maker Geometry – What can blocks do for you?

So, today I got to play with blocks called Keva planks. A set of Keva planks are nothing more than a whole bunch of congruent wooden rectangular prisms. You can build towers, mazes, bridges, and… of course… geometric shapes.

So, a task came to my mind. Let’s suppose we were going to take the planks and make the smallest possible cube.

  1. How many planks would we need for the combined widths to match the length of a single plank?

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The answer’s five, by the way. So, each face is 5 planks wide (which is a single plank long)

Looks kinda like this…

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So, naturally… now we can calculate stuff. Like surface area and volume. But to do that, we’ll need some numbers.

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So, in my haste,  I clearly did a lousy job of lining up the blocks on the measuring tape. Sorry about that. Not exactly a deal breaker, but annoying.

But since maker materials are becoming more common, I figure you might prefer your students pull their own measurements.

There are a couple of ways that I could see variations of these: different shapes (different kinds of prisms, for example). I could also consider challenges like, given x-number of blocks, who can build a figure with the largest volume or a flat shape with the largest area?

Keva blocks seem like a low-risk, high reward manipulative simply because the start-up would be so quick. What could you do in your class with a set?

The Value of Opening Your Doors

Have you ever heard a teacher say something like “Yeah, you know administrators make all these rules and policies, then I close my door and do whatever I think is best”?

Ever heard that? Or something that basically means the same thing?

There’s a lot of different directions that could take, of course, with that as a starting point, but I want to focus on “closing the doors”.

Let’s look at this at several levels. Often “closing the doors” represents an attitude as much as it describes a physical state-of-being. “Closed doors” implies that we don’t want people seeing us do what we do. (Or perhaps, at least, only certain people.)

But it also creates risk. “Closed door” teachers often don’t see their classroom practice compared to other teachers. This stifles innovation, collaboration, public relations and other essential components of schools in search of consistent improvement.

It follows, then, that one good first step toward improving innovation, collaboration and public relations in a school is to open the doors. Let teachers explore each others work, let the community see what goes on. And not just see, but explore, participate, and engage.

Yesterday I saw that attitude on display at Cavanuagh STEAM in Lansing, MI (follow them on Twitter @CavanaughSTEAM ).

 

School hasn’t started yet. It begins the Tuesday after Labor Day, but already the doors were open, the teachers were ready to give the community a chance to explore their classrooms.  Parents were given a chance help shape the direction of the projects their students will be completing and provide opportunities for authentic audiences for student work. One kindergarten teacher had a small block-based  maker activity ready for the incoming kindergartners. She reminded me as I chatted with her prior to the event that this was many of her students’ first school experience. She clearly wanted to make a good first impression.

The event, “Family STEAM night” gets repeated 4 times per year. After the first one, subsequent evenings have a strong emphasis on showcasing excellent student work and giving each teacher a chance to highlight some of the outstanding experiences their students explore in the classrooms.

Their doors are open and they invite the community to come in and join them. Sadly, I had to leave before I got to see what it looks like when they do. I look forward to the next Family STEAM night when I can see the halls filled with parents and students getting to see first hand what it means to be a student at @CavanaughSTEAM.