Colour Outside the Lines

#IMMOOC Week 5- Blog Post 3

The wise words above were written by my 14 year old daughter. She started high school this year and was so excited about beginning this new chapter. I have written about Sarah and her journey through school before, but summarizing it all in the big picture; school has always come easy for her, but in many ways, over the years, it has also left her under challenged and somewhat disengaged. Sarah thought high school was going to be different.

You see, Sarah is a creative soul. She loves anything artistic in nature and has an amazing way with words. She is a thinker and a problem solver. She enjoys collaborating with people and enjoys public speaking. She is very globally minded. She embraces learning that encompasses these pieces.

Sarah does love the culture of high school. She has made some lovely connections and new friends. She appreciates the offering of more clubs and experiences and is taking advantage of them. She welcomes the extended freedoms and opportunities. But she also thought, because of the nature of the program she is in, that she was going to see less worksheets, less videos, less lectures, less textbook assignments and less rote. She was looking forward to more project work, more discussions, more collaboration and more creative means to share her thinking and learning. Sarah thought high school was going to be different.

So, to feed her creative soul, over the last couple of weeks she has started to drive some of her own learning outside of school. She is writing daily, based on prompts and ideas she has found online. She is reading a lot of poetry. She set up a blog, entitled Long Story Short, to share some of her past writing pieces and she is working on some new blog posts. She is finding her own way to colour outside the lines.

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The Meaning of Meraki

fullsizerenderA year ago almost to the day, I wrote my first post on this blog, The Meaning of Meraki, shortly after being acquainted with the word itself. Fitting, that this month I received the necklace above from my family, who had it specially made for my birthday, recognizing what this word has come to mean to me.

Meraki…the soul, creativity or love you put into something. The essence of yourself you put into your work.  

I am not sure I can truly explain or articulate my love affair with this word.  It just is.  I love what it means and what it stands for.  I love the way it looks on a page.  I love how it found its way to me. I love that it is of Greek origin and it is one of those words that has no direct translation in English. I love that since being introduced to it I have found many other fascinating untranslatable words, some examples you can read about here. I love that I think about it often.  I love that I have witnessed what I deem as real life examples of the word’s essence in people who are obviously passionate about their jobs, their hobbies, and their life, which have included; artists, athletes, musicians, inventors, chefs, students, and educators I have encountered over the past year.

It is a blessing and gift to find passion, joy, reward, and love in what we do and how we spend our time. This past weekend, I came across another great example of this in reading  Shelley Moore’s book One Without the Other: Stories of Unity Through Diversity and Inclusion. This book is a must read for all educators.  It explores how inclusive education can increase the learning and life chances of all students.  After reading the book and looking further into some of Shelley’s work online, one thing that becomes quickly apparent is her strong experience base and her true passion for children and education.  She is a master storyteller who appears to leave much of her heart and soul in all that she does.  She has most certainly found her meraki, and through her work, shares her voice to inspire that in others.  

In the book, Shelley Moore, suggests a definition of inclusion in which there is no “other”. Instead, she states, “ We are diverse, all of us. We all have strengths, we all have stretches and we all need to get better at something. The difference in teaching to diversity, however, is that we don’t start with our deficits, we start with our strengths.”

Imagine the possibilities if we organized our students by strengths instead of most schools’ traditional model of deficits. Imagine the possibilities if we supported our students in their quest to find their passions and fuel their interests. Imagine if schools were places that relentlessly sparked the inspiring artists, scientists, engineers, musicians, poets, designers, inventors and makers in our midst with regular opportunities for creation and exploration.  Imagine the possibilities if we gave learners the opportunity to explore these interests using a student driven, personalized learning approach that honoured voice, choice, and autonomy. Imagine if innovative programs like High Tech High and inquiry/interest based initiatives like Genius Hour were the norm in our schools and not the exception. And imagine the possibilities if ultimately, as educators we served as guides in supporting our learners in finding their own sense of meraki.

This week I received a gift; a beautiful piece of jewelry, envisioned by my 13-year-old daughter capturing a word, a concept really, that means a lot to me.  However, the real potential gift is the realization of the meraki that lies within all of us.  

 

Time to Breakout!

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From time to time we see popular culture take an educational spin and translate into some sort of activity or practice in schools.  However, I don’t ever recall an example quite as powerful as the escape room phenomenon and the classroom application known as Breakout EDU.  Over the holidays, I spent some time getting acquainted with how Breakout EDU works using my own children and their friends as guinea pigs. They LOVED it!

If you aren’t familiar with this learning opportunity here is a big picture explanation from the Breakout EDU website and the creators themselves, Breakout EDU creates ultra-engaging learning games for people of all ages. Games (Breakouts) teach teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking, and troubleshooting by presenting participants with challenges that ignite their natural drive to problem-solve.

Breakouts are perfect for classrooms, staff trainings, dinner parties, and at home with the family! At the end of a Breakout, your players will be eager for the next! Speciality K-12 Breakouts can be used to teach core academic subjects including math, science, history, language arts and have embedded standards that apply problem-solving strategies within a real world OR collaborative context.

With the purchase of a Breakout kit, you’re able to play countless Breakouts. Each kit comes with a collection of locks, hidden contraptions, timers, keys, and other “diversion hardware” that can be used to play the Breakout challenges available from the store.  Currently, all the games in the game directory are free!”

Or check out this video.

We live in a dynamic, rapidly changing world.  As educators, we constantly must strive to meet the unique and unprecedented learning needs of our students in the midst of these changing times. In 2015, The Economist Intelligence Unit (the world leader in global business intelligence) completed a study focusing on preparing our students for the future, and what skills that reality will demand.  After surveying respondents from countless industries, business sectors and fields of education from countries around the world, the study showed that organizations felt the top five critical skills for employees today are: problem-solving, teamwork, communication, critical thinking and creativity.  

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Over the past two years, I have been working with teachers, and ultimately students, in my school division in Winnipeg, to support the development of these 21st-century skills.  One of the most successful strategies teachers have found and embraced in supporting learning in this area is through the use of Instant Challenges. This term comes from a program called Destination Imagination, which is a challenge program in which students learn and experience the creative process while fostering their creativity, curiosity and courage.

The purpose of an instant challenge is to put a team of students and their collaborative problem-solving abilities, creativity, and teamwork to the test in a short, time-driven situation.  The challenges are either task or performance based and have teams involved in doing anything from building a structure, to designing a catapult, to performing an infomercial for a new ice cream flavour they invented, to creating a new constellation and sharing a skit about how it got its name. Through this challenge based learning, teams must plan collaboratively, assess the use of available materials, apply strong time management skills, often utilize performance abilities, and work well as a team, under tight time constraints.

Instant challenges have been embraced by the educators I work with.  Classroom teachers are using them across grade levels, and throughout the disciplines. Adult learners are taking part in them regularly at staff meetings and professional learning days. Educators see the true value these motivating activities offer their students related to critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, risk-taking and building resilience. Check out this document for further explanation and resources around Instant Challenges.

So what’s the connection to Breakout EDU?  The way I see it, this approach to learning uses a similar skillset and methodology to Instant Challenges in an engaging, dynamic and extremely fun way. Students work together to crack codes, solve problems, decipher locks, untangle riddles, think critically and collaborate to “breakout” (in reality they are actually “breaking in” to the box but you get the idea).  Teachers can find ready made, Breakout scenarios online linked to many curricular areas and outcomes, or create their own to meet their students’ needs and interests.  A next step could also be to offer students the enriching opportunity to create their own Breakout EDU challenges for their classmates to solve.

Educators can purchase a ready to go Breakout EDU kit here, complete with the lockable boxes, hasp, hint cards, invisible ink pen, UV flashlight and a variety of locks.  This purchase also gives teachers access to a code and all of Breakout’s ready made scenarios and resources.  Some schools are choosing to create their own similar kits by purchasing the locks and other materials online through companies such as Amazon or at local hardware stores. Educators can also find hundreds of Breakout EDU related resources on platforms such as Pinterest.  And check out this teacher created resource from Lynne Herr explaining how to run Breakout EDU with one box for a whole class. The possibilities are endless!

In addition to supporting and developing 21st Century skills and competencies in students,  Breakout EDU can also involve solving math problems in context.  It uses reading, writing, and word study in meaningful, hands-on ways.  It promotes students asking questions and investigating answers to knowledge and content related outcomes in motivating, relevant situations.

Breakout uses an integrated, multidisciplinary approach through which all students can find an entry point.  Kids love a challenge. They enjoy finding answers to difficult questions and riddles. They relish in a  good mystery and they embrace the idea of the “hunt”.  Breakout EDU checks all of these boxes as a learning opportunity and authentically engages students in their learning. As educators, we are constantly searching for innovative and appealing ways to motivate our students.  Here is an opportunity to breakout and try something new and exciting!

Teach Like a Pirate

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Teach like a Pirate by Dave Burgess has crossed my path numerous times over the past number of years, but I am not sure why I never picked it up. I tend to shy away from things that feel a bit gimmicky, so perhaps it was some preconceived notion I had.  However, this past summer a colleague of mine highly recommended it, so I decided to download it for the ride home across the Canadian prairies.  I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. I was sold. I loved The Pirate’s enthusiasm, passion and message about increasing student engagement, boosting creativity and  transforming the lives of educators.

I found each of the six sections of the PIRATE system (Passion, Immersion, Rapport, Ask and Analyze, Transformation, Enthusiasm) relevant and through provoking. Dave Burgess has a way of disrupting our thinking as readers and pushing the envelope.  It may be difficult to find too many teachers that can match his energy, style and somewhat outlandish ways but we can all apply the principles behind the thinking in our own way.

Throughout the book, Dave Burgess has a refreshing way of telling it like it is.  This starts early on page 3 when he addresses the issue of passion and acknowledges that it is NOT possible or realistic to be passionate about EVERYTHING we teach. He talks about how passion is broken into three distinct categories: Content Passion, Professional Passion, and Personal Passion.  The key to impassioned, successful teaching involves tapping into all three of these types of passions and in doing so we become “relentless in our pursuit of excellence as an educator”.  Teaching is not a profession in which we can leave our passion, and the essence of who we are, at the door.  Demonstrating passion as an educator is a game changer.

When Dave Burgess talks about immersion the stand out for me is the pool metaphor.  When it comes to teaching… are you a lifeguard or a swimmer?  A lifeguard type of teacher sits above the action and supervises the pool deck.  A swimmer immerses him or herself in the water, gets wet and is an integral part of the action. For me, this powerful analogy drives home the importance of being present and involved as an educator and truly immersing ourselves in what we are facilitating, modeling, and teaching. It means at times being vulnerable. It means being a risk taker ourselves and it means learning alongside our students.  As we move away from traditional practices of stand and deliver and students as mere passive learners, to a more personalized approach with students taking a more active role in their own learning, we must let go of the idea that we as teachers have all the answers. It is essential that we immerse ourselves in the journey and be learners ourselves.

In discussing the necessity of developing rapport with students, the pirate does an excellent job of outlining just how to start to build this foundation.  He highlights the importance of developing relationships and community, first and always.  As he outlines his “First Three Days”, he suggests the need to slow things down, focus on really getting to know students, offer regular opportunities for teamwork or collaboration and set the stage for an exciting, inclusive, engaging, dynamic learning environment.  If we truly want to reach our students, we must first develop rapport, next build trust and ultimately strengthen relationships.  It is through the thoughtful planning of meaningful, engaging, and rich lessons and learning opportunities that “the pirate” hooks his audience, gets huge buy in, ensures his learning intentions are met and ultimately develops rapport with this students.

One of my favourite parts of the book comes up in the ask and analyze section.  I am a firm believer that as educators, one of our most important skills and charges is to be creative.  We constantly have to come up with new and improved ways to teach a concept, adapt a lesson, structure a project, deal with a problem, support a learner, and three thousand other things along the way. Thinking and doing in creative and innovative ways is inherent and necessary within the job, perhaps like in no other profession, each and every day.  The 6 Words spoken to him by a teacher at a workshop…”It’s easy for you. You’re creative” resonated with me.

First of all, teaching isn’t easy. Being an effective, engaging, empowering educator is no simple feat.  It takes hard work, a lot of time, great effort, constant learning, along with continuous personal and professional reflection and growth.  It’s not “easy” for the pirate and it’s not “easy” for any of you reading this.

Secondly, as the pirate so eloquently says, “We all have unbelievable creative potential”. That creativity can be demonstrated and shared in a variety of ways, but each and every one of us has our own individual creative capacity.   We MUST believe that of ourselves and we MUST  believe that of our students.  Often people get caught up in seeing creativity through a very narrow lens. Creativity goes beyond art, music and dance.  Creativity is not reserved for those with dramatic tendencies or a knack for design.  We all have valuable, innovative ideas worth developing and sharing. Dave Burgess outlines a plethora of ways it is possible to be creative in our classroom in the second section of the book.  The key is asking ourselves the right questions, being open to trying something new, and believing in our potential as educators and creators.

In the transformation section Dave Burgess suggests two questions for raising the bar: “If your students didn’t have to be there, would you be teaching to an empty room?” and  “Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets for?”.  I found the second question fascinating and compelling.  I liked the idea of thinking about my own “stand out lessons”.  In my mind these are the lessons or a sequence of lessons that I would never dream of leaving to a substitute. They are the activities that kept me up at night in anticipation, that had me jumping out of bed in the morning to get to and that had become refined works of art over the years.  As teachers, many of us have units, lessons, and activities we do with our students that we are the most proud of, that we know are highly effective and engage our students in superlative ways.  An important skill for any educator is reflecting regularly on our practice, building on our strengths, recognizing our challenges and planning our next steps.  The pirate’s question about “lessons we could sell tickets for” gives us a lens to start this good work. Watch for more on this topic, and my own reflections, in a follow up blog post.

If there is one thing Dave Burgess is not short on, it is enthusiasm which he readily admits, however in this section he also acknowledges many of things he “is not good at” as an educator. He explains how, like all of us, despite our many years of teaching experience we are still a “work in progress”. He goes on though, to stress the necessity and importance of being enthusiastic. If we do not demonstrate interest and enthusiasm in what we teach, how can we expect engagement from our students? In fact, it doesn’t matter how much material you cover, or how much work students do, nothing is more important than “nurturing and building a love of learning”.  

The second part of the book does an extraordinary job of outlining page after page of practical ideas for crafting engaging lessons.  There is an extensive selection of prompting questions, ideas and “hooks” related to:  presentation styles, props, movement, costumes, artifacts, music, the arts, technology, food, drama, current events and building on students’ interests.  There is also a considerable number of unique and novel suggestions in areas such as:  student choice, classroom design, magic, mystery, reality tv and the list goes on.  Dave Burgess outlines how to send students out on secret missions for extra credit.  He uses “advanced tactics” to come up with mysteries to unravel related to content. He describes the ways he has transformed his classroom to replicate a bus, a factory, the moon, or a courtroom, dependent on his unit of study. He offers suggestions in dressing up like a multitude of characters to build authenticity. He promotes the use of just the right video, image, piece of music or prop to provoke, entice and illicit interest and intrigue.  He makes learning relevant, exciting and fun, which in turn both engages and empowers his learners. There is no shortage of amazing ideas to build on here and I think it may be hard to walk away from reading this section without at least a few things to try in your classroom…. tomorrow…… at any grade level.

Dave Burgess names two intents for the book. The first one is  to be inspirational, and the second is  to offer a variety of ideas for educators to apply to their teaching.  The book goes well beyond that and serves as an excellent reminder of the importance of setting a stage for student learning that engages, inspires and empowers learners on a daily basis, that boosts creativity and nurtures a love of learning. It then backs it up with practical, real, time-tested ways to do exactly that!

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Hamilton

ham-fbRecently, in a conversation with a colleague, the musical and recent Broadway sensation, “Hamilton” was brought to my attention. To be honest, once he explained it was about American founding father, Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution my interest waned significantly. Don’t get me wrong, I do LOVE a good musical. Seeing a show on Broadway has always been on my bucket list, and I enjoy what I can in the way of musical tours through Winnipeg or those  to the big screen. But, if there is anything that interests me less than American politics, it is American history. It’s typically not my thing, so Hamilton was not on my radar.

However, as I looked for a Saturday afternoon “Cleaning the House” sort of playlist on Spotify this weekend, wouldn’t you know that indeed the “Hamilton” original cast recording had somehow made its way to my recommended section. I decided to give it a chance.

As I let it play out, I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised.

As the musical score played on, I was sold. Clever, creative, contemporary, inventive, moving, and unique…Hamilton is in every sense, truly a work of art. It tells the lesser known story of Alexander Hamilton, from his humble beginnings, to his rise in the ranks to be George Washington’s right hand man, his role in writing the Federalist Papers and the shaping of America, his scandalous personal life and the tragedies he encounters along the way.

How Hamilton’s creator, Lin Manuel Miranda, manages to take this historic storyline of the life of Alexander Hamilton and so passionately bring it to life using hip-hop and a modernized perspective, is beyond extraordinary. The soundtrack is truly remarkable including contemporary hip- pop, rap and R & B influenced songs you will choose to listen to over and over again. The storyline is informative, engaging, fast-paced and captivating.

In my mind, this musical is truly one of a kind, and it seems well deserved of every bit of critical acclaim, the countless awards and the record breaking box office sales it has received. It is lively, energetic and laugh out loud funny. It is a history lesson like you’ve never had before. It is moving, gut wrenching and at times brought me to tears. If the music in itself is this powerful, I can only imagine the emotion and reaction that must be evoked by experiencing this story in theatre. Add that to the bucket list….

For me, the most interesting part of this story lies with the playwright. Lin Manuel Miranda, an American actor, writer, rapper, and composer with Puerto Rican roots is an intriguing individual and speaks articulately about his inspiration for writing the musical. When asked about the innovative, contemporary spin he has put on these 18th century beginnings he discusses the creative license of artists and says “I think that’s what we do as artists. It’s coming up with, what’s the thing that only I can contribute? It’s saying, hello world, here’s this idea that never existed. It’s in my brain, and unless I express it, it’s only going to stay in my brain. It’s more about personal expression than imposing your will on the world. It’s more about, you know, if I don’t get this idea out of my head and onto paper, it dies with me. You think to yourself, what’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” Hear more of Miranda’s reflections and insight on the writing of Hamilton in the video below.

Lin Manuel Miranda’s words resonate with me. We are all creators. Each and every one of us has novel, ingenuitive, worthy ideas that deserve to see the light of day. Each and every one of us is a creator in our own right, based on our own strengths, passions and interests.

As parents it is our job to support and help develop this creativity in our children. As educators part of our role is to encourage creativity in our learners and help them to make connections, take risks and go in new directions. Somewhere along the way Lin Manuel Miranda found the inspiration, the insight, and the ideas to create Hamilton and put this unique, monumental and hugely enjoyable masterpiece out there into the world and for that the world is a better place. Check it out!

(**Note: I found this link to Hamilton’s script/lyrics helpful when listening through  for the first time.)