08 December 2014

Making action visible in the PYP

Of the facets of the IB Primary Years Program, my Grade 5/6 class emphasizes Action by focusing on three elements from our school's Mission Statement & Philosophy: 'inspired', 'independent', and 'contribute to world peace'.

With this in mind, in the first week of school we discussed and agreed to a class identity: Uniters.

Rather than addressing my class as 'Grade 5/6' or 'children' or 'hey you', I say 'Uniters'. Aesthetically, it's a bit like being a team of superheroes. Compared to being called a number or being identified by one's category, who wouldn't prefer being called 'Uniter', 'Peacemaker', or 'Humanitarian'?

The theme of 'unity' provides a rich context for inspiring, evoking, sharing, discussing, and reflecting on action. An emphasis on action will be particularly important in the spring when this class prepares their PYP Exhibition, a self-directed inquiry project with the ambitious goals of authentic action, community service, and engagement with globally significant issue.


Along the LX Design line of inquiry, I realized that we need an interactive tool to document and share our 'action' in its various forms. At first I considered digital tools, but none seemed to provide the immediacy and high visibility required. Thinking of my wife, Yuka's 'inspiration board' at home, I wondered if a bulletin board would be best.

The following tweet from Craig Dwyer and the informative Action in the PYP document to which it links helped to stimulate my thinking further.

03 December 2014

How to eat sushi (like a snob)

A long time ago, I submitted my How to eat sushi (like a snob) 'how to' video to the Making Learning Connected Make Bank, a fantastic cooperative repository of accomplishment and inspiration. According to Terry Elliot's post, the Make Bank is a Convivial Tool, and I agree whole-heartedly.

You may also find this article from The Creativity Post interesting: Seven Life Lessons From Making Sushi contains life and learning lessons from one of Japan's most renowned sushi chefs, Jiro Ono.

If you're hungry for more cat sushi pictures, please savor this post from Spoon & Tamago: Nekozushi | an absurd combination of cats and sushi.

24 November 2014

Student Empowerment | COETAIL final project

A keen observer will notice that I haven't exactly followed the assignment here. Rather than revising a unit of instruction to attempt to redefine learning, my goal is to utilize educational technology to empower students to redefine their own learning. In a sense, I am reimagining every unit I teach. I started by trying to revise a single unit, but every change I made toward increasing student choice, voice, and agency, resulted in thinking less about deciding what I wanted students to do, and more about how I was going to document and curate what they would decide to do.

20 November 2014

IMAV for the K12 Online Conference

Leveling up

I 'leveled up' last month when my video presentation for the K12 Online Conference on Trust and Transparency in passion driven learning was published. Please follow the link to view it and refer to my post, Trust and Transparency, for a transcript and links.

Getting noticed

I don't know which is scarier: That people would watch my presentation or that nobody would watch it. Regardless of how I felt about it, people did indeed watch it, and a few even took a minute to share on Twitter!

13 November 2014

Maker Club year 1

One year ago, I started a Maker Club at my school as part of our after school program. While maker spaces for older learners generally focus on robotics and digital creation, I believe that an elementary maker experience should start from concrete, physical creation. Most of our materials were donated by families, but we also frequently raid the school art supplies.

Based on my participation in the Learning Creative Learning MOOC in 2013, the initial guiding principles for our Maker Club were Independence and Social Creativity.


It's critical that Maker Club have no assignments. The only requirement is to always be 'making'. Imagining, researching, designing, sharing, and reflecting are all parts of the making process.

Maker Faire often includes digital production, as well as arts and crafts, engineering and construction, cooking, scientific experiments and demonstrations, and the visual and performing arts. There are no artificial limits.

For the first few meetings, there was a refrain of 'What should I make?', 'What do you want to make?'. This dialog is indicative of empowerment. As young makers realize that they are in control of their learning in their maker space, their creativity is ignited.

In a sense, this is what makes a maker space. Of course, maker tools and materials are important, but most important is fostering an environment in which everyone feels safe to experiment and create.

Every maker must be encouraged to try anything, and indeed, 'makes' that fail are not failures at all. Failures are courageous learning experiences and opportunities to safely practice a growth mindset.

30 October 2014

Trust & Transparency

(from the K12 Online Conference)

I have been facilitating Independent Inquiry in my classroom for the past three years. It's similar to Genius Hour and 20% Time in Education. Witnessing the enthusiasm and engagement with which learners pursue their interests and passions has motivated me to evaluate, redesign, share, and promote passion driven learning.

In these years, the single greatest challenge has been establishing trust that time students spend pursuing their interests and passions is well spent. As asked by The Tinkering Studio in Chapter 5 of Design, Make, Play:

'It looks like fun, but are they learning?'

15 October 2014

Inquiry with Evernote vol 3 | Introducing the Inquiry Learning Resources Project

In the summer of 2013, I started using Evernote to collect and curate resources for planning and pursuing inquiry learning, as I blogged in the posts, Inquiry with Evernote vol 1 and Inquiry with Evernote vol 2 . Since then, my collection of notes has expanded. More importantly, the channels from which I collect these images, videos, and articles have become much more diverse and poignant. Most importantly, I am slowly refining my tagging strategies to make the collection more conceptually connected and social and environmental action oriented.

Now, I would like to introduce the Inquiry Learning Resources Project. The effort to build a digital notebook of inquiry provoking notes continues, but I have expanded the project to social media.


The project's primary home is the public notebook, Inquiry Learning Resources. Feel free to join, search, and utilize it for your classroom or personal inquiries.


This project was inspired by a desire to organize the fascinating content I discovered on Tumblr. Resources are shared on the Inquiry Learning Resources blog and using the tag #inquirylearning. That blog accepts submissions, so if you're on Tumblr, feel free to contribute.


I set up the account @provokinquiry to share resources on Twitter, and also using the #inquirylearning tag. Hopefully it will also be a great way to raise awareness for the project.


The public board Inquiry Learning Resources on Pinterest is also a great place to share. Please ask to join to submit pins.


Resources are also shared on an Inquiry Learning Resources Page on Facebook.

The future

My immediate goal is to get in the habit of updating regularly, although completing projects is always a challenge due to the crunch of the school year before January. Hopefully, more inquiry educators will want to collaborate to help expand the project further!

25 September 2014

LX Design

Two intersecting areas of study which have captivated my interest this year, Design Thinking and Project Management, have significant promise as I consider how to apply new principles to planning a year of learning in my Grade 5/6 classroom.

The two disciplines are strongly intertwined and have profound implications when applied to designing learning experiences. This post seeks to define LX Design as an approach to classroom planning and as a framework for ongoing iteration and reflection.

Design Thinking

Completing the Macromedia University Design Thinking MOOC introduced me to the discipline of User Experience Design, or UX Design. When thinking in terms of user experience, a designer considers all human elements and possibilities related to a product or service, not only the material and economic.

For example, when designing a machine to make coffee, one must consider not only the cost and suitability of the materials used, but also the likely moods of users, often early in the morning, while using the coffee machine.

A common theme in Design Thinking is to understand people's emotional, social, psychological, and spiritual needs when designing products, services, and experiences. In the case of education, we design learning experiences, hence the term 'LX Design'.

Meanings of use

Klaus Krippendorff's lecture, The Key Concepts of The Semantic Turn, and in particular his explanations of 'meanings of use', challenged and transformed my thinking about learning. I recreated the graphic below to represent what I consider an essential model for educators. It is the foundation for my approach to LX Design.

17 June 2014

Twitter misadventures and stumbling into connected learning


Like most connected educators, my first 'virtual mentors' came via Twitter. While I have had a Twitter account (@BarMill) dating back to 2009, I didn't really make any new connections there. Mostly I followed my friends and a few celebrities. However, I did find time to share some insights from my classroom. Please enjoy these highlights:

09 June 2014

Asking for help

I've had bad luck with mentors, at least when I needed them most. In my first two years of teaching in a startup charter school in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, my teaching mentors quit and left the school. At least I'm pretty sure they didn't leave because of me.

On top of that, I'm not very good at asking for help. Being introverted and stubborn, I tend to want to do things in my own way and bulldoze my way through challenges.

Luckily, I shared a lunch period with Karen Kazanci, an outgoing teacher of similar age and a bit more classroom experience, who was generous to share ideas, provide feedback, and offer reassurance. She is now the proprietor of Leaping Lotus Yoga, which provides yoga classes designed for young children.

She taught me that the most important act of mentoring is listening. When I struggled, she listened to my lamenting patiently and always responded with positivity. When I celebrated, she celebrated with me. When she offered advice, it was usually to capitalize on what she saw as my strengths.

She also seemed to know exactly when not to talk about the classroom and work.

The two of us were the only founding teachers to stay as long as we did in what was at times a challenging and intense environment. We contributed to what would become a healthy and supportive learning community in spite of significant obstacles. I suspect that our chats over lunch had a lot to do with it.

03 June 2014

Service learning in elementary school

The New York Times Magazine cover story, Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?, explores the work of Adam Grant, whose 'studies have been highlighted in bestselling books such as Quiet by Susan Cain, Drive and To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink, Thrive by Arianna Huffington, and David and Goliath by Gladwell'.

In that article, the case is convincingly made that altruism is not only beneficial to the beneficiary, but also to the benefactor.

A little kindness goes a long way by Ed Yourdon CC BY NC SA 

This apparent contradiction is supported by research findings not only in neuroscience, as in the article, Altruism, egoism: Brain exercises cognitive analysis, but also by commonly accepted wisdom contained in the world's ancient and respected religious and spiritual disciplines as explored in Carolyn Gregoire's post, What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Compassion.

Mindfulness and empathy help to make connections in the brain which manifest as action.

Caring for others makes us smarter.

So why isn't service learning an essential characteristic of every school? Why isn't it designed into the curriculum and culture of schools?

30 May 2014

Inquiry or research?

In the past several years, I have adopted an inquiry based approach to teaching. In connecting and conversing with colleagues, I have observed that there is as much disagreement about what inquiry based learning and teaching is as there are approaches to inquiry itself.

From my perspective, there is one driving question that can summarize inquiry based education as a whole:

How can we all become better inquirers?

If this is the basis for discourse and conversation, then the possibilities for learning are endless.

The tweet below sparked my interest to inquire into the difference between inquiry and research:

Technology to redefine learning

There are two possible units of inquiry that I will be leading in the Autumn of 2014 as potential candidates for redefinition through technology:

Rights & Responsibilities - inquiry into how human rights are granted, viewed, and protected

What's your story? - inquiry into personal histories and the role of primary sources in historical understanding

In any case, my goal is to embed technology to maximize student agency. There are also Web 2.0 tools that need to be introduced and practiced throughout the school year so that students will be prepared to use them for their end of year Exhibition. Which one of these units is most suitable to be redesigned around a Web 2.0 tool in a way that redefines the learning of the unit?

One way to address this question, or determine if it is even a good question, is to consider tasks. In order to assess whether students have mastered using a new tool, they must be able to use it to complete a task.

23 May 2014

Exhibition: PBL To The Max!


This year, my sixth grade class prepared and presented our school's first Exhibition. As an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program candidate school, it was an opportunity for me to research project-based learning, put into practice the guidelines established by the IB, and for our students to experience a culminating project to conclude their elementary school lives.


The timing of the Deeper Learning MOOC, a massive open online course dedicated in large part to Project Based Learning, could not have been better. A host of organizations were introduced and resources shared and discussed, as well as models and frameworks that I could use to inform and enrich my role as a facilitator and coach.

During the Week 9 Participants Panel, moderator Rob Riordan remarked to me, 'If you want to get engaged in deeper learning, a good way to start is to schedule an exhibition.'

His words reminded me of a quote by the prolific composer Duke Ellington: 'I don't need time. What I need is a deadline.'

22 May 2014

The future of learning

This week, I am excited to continue my connected learning inquiry as a participant in a new course, Teacher Practice in a Connected World, taught by Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching.

I feel very grateful to be enrolled in the course on a scholarship from The Rendell Center for Citizenship and Civics.


Our first task is to write a statement of goals. It's a perfect opportunity to reflect on my connected learning and teaching journey which began about one year ago and summarize my hopes and goals for the future.

16 May 2014

SAMR v Smart-Board

In October, the dry-erase whiteboard in my classroom was replaced with a Promethean ActivBoard. The children at school aptly described it as a 'giant iPad' as they explored the functions of dragging and dropping with their fingers and writing with the provided styluses.

It was a much anticipated change, and now that I've had opportunities to integrate it into my approaches to teaching, this is an ideal opportunity to assess how I've utilized it according to the SAMR model of technology integration.

11 April 2014

Hanami 2014

Viewing the plum, almond, and cherry blossoms in Japan is a social, aesthetic, artistic, and philosophical activity. Hanami (花見) means 'flower viewing', and is a highly anticipated and enjoyed activity here.

Photographing the blossoms is a very serene way to enjoy the warming weather.

31 March 2014

Transgender Day of Visibility

March 31st is International Transgender Day of Visibility, and it's a perfect opportunity for everyone, particularly teachers, to learn about the impressive progress being made toward gender equity and equality, and individual empowerment.

Visibility is the most important step toward acceptance and empathy, so I encourage you to visit the Trans Student Equality Resources site (transstudent.org) and explore their outstanding resources, particularly the engaging infographics.


For more of my own reflection and classroom practices, please read my post, Empathy & Acceptance: Toward a gender-neutral classroom.

25 March 2014

Reflecting on Edcamp Tokyo

Beginning with an errant tweet and concluding with an impressive Demo Slam, helping to organize and then participating in Japan's first Edcamp, Edcamp Tokyo, was a truly remarkable experience.


Incredible Team

Special appreciation belongs to Kim Cofino, Clint Hamada, and Yokohama International School for hosting us so well. Their attention to detail and world class facilities left nothing to be desired. The fluency of collaboration demonstrated by the entire organization team including Greg Feezell, Glenda Baker, Sarah Sutter, and Rab Paterson was simply astounding.

The result was an organization and planning process that was as enjoyable as it was effective.

Making Connections

The strongest connection I made at Edcamp was in the sharing of ideas between diverse learning communities. It was the first time I gained a sense for the approaches to learning and teaching being practiced at other schools and in a variety age ranges and developmental stages.

Discussing the Maker Movement with secondary educators was a revelation for me, as I gained insight into how my efforts at the elementary level can build the fundamental scientific, mathematical, collaborative, and innovative thinking skills that learners will expand and develop in the future.

Making Thinking Visible, a relatively new line of inquiry for me, turned out to be an in-depth discussion of the conceptual connections between learning in various disciplines and how explicitly taught and practiced 'thinking routines' can provide continuity between skills, topics, and ideas.

I was happy to share my experiences developing the Independent Inquiry project with a group of educators in the 20% Time in Education session. I hope that they will find the resources shared to be useful as they cultivate self-directed, interest-driven learning.

In the Creativity, Design, and Innovation session, there was a palpable desire for change. We all shared a passion for learning and hope for the future that was an inspirational way to end the day.

The notes from the sessions are all linked to the Collaborative Organization Document (aka the schedule), a resource which I hope can help to maintain the connections we have made.

Building Community

How Edcamp Tokyo helped to build a community of learners in Tokyo and across Japan remains to be seen. There haven't been any tweets using the #EdcampTokyo or #Edcamp東京 hashtags on Twitter for awhile, nor is there much activity on the Edcamp Tokyo Google+ Community.

In all likelihood, participants returned to their busy lives and classrooms with new perspectives and tools, but not necessarily time to reflect and share publicly. Given the intensity of engagement throughout the day, I'm confident that we are all applying our new understandings in creative and meaningful ways.

Personally, I feel that what we did was ultimately in the service of learning. Every idea shared was a generous gift and I'm happy to express sincere gratitude to all of the participants in Japan's first Edcamp.

12 March 2014

Visual Literacy Achievements Unlocked!

My final projects for the Visual Literacy COETAIL course are a slide presentation to inform my school community about our first PYP Exhibition and a video to inspire my Grade 6 students as they prepare their Exhibition, a self-directed and collaborative research and service action project.


As detailed in the post, Exhibition pre-Zen-tation, I struggled to transform my text-heavy, visually dry slides into a more engaging and thought provoking accompaniment to my speech.

The process was mostly subtractive. I deleted nearly all of the text and replaced it with carefully selected Creative Commons licensed images.

One of my most important lessons from this course has been the importance of audience. With that in mind, I shared the second draft of my slides and received very insightful comments, which led to the final version.

Introduction to the Exhibition

04 March 2014

Infographics in the classroom

Who doesn't love a good infographic?

I get my fix from Daily Infographic, but a quick Google search uncovers many more sources.

I'm often surprised how the layout, color palette, and design of a document draw me into a topic. To capitalize on this phenomenon in the classroom, I started building an infographics section on the wall.

The concept is so simple and fun. Just print infographics, laminate them, and affix them to the wall with magnetic tape. Students are welcome to browse during independent reading and inquiry periods. Having them mounted magnetically means they are portable. Occasionally, they become very excited about a particular graphic and share with each other.

Although it has been somewhat labor intensive to build a collection, the result is an engaging range that my sixth grade students find very inviting. Changing the selection always results in some kind of excitement, and learning with them builds visual media fluency and provokes inquiries in a novel way.

With such an emphasis on digital technology, it's important to remember that people learn in many different ways. Providing a variety of approaches to learning is always the best application of educational technology.

Why not start your own infographics wall?

02 March 2014

PYP Exhibition: A Rite of Passage

Several weeks ago, I began an inquiry into visual literacy. Feeling that visual communication is My Greatest Weakness, it's been an exciting challenge to spill this can of worms and start stomping. It has been easy to find opportunities to practice and apply new skills and understandings in the classroom.


My students have begun preparing their PYP Exhibition. It's our first in every sense: as individuals, as a class, and as a school. I have researched extensively about elementary school Exhibitions around the world and have been trying to approach the process from a design perspective.


The essence of metateaching is knowing students well and designing an environment in which their learning can thrive.

For Exhibition, that environment consists primarily of independence, yet it is important to introduce the project in a way that helps inform and inspire the process.

When I was preparing the presentation I would deliver to the school community about Exhibition, the Exhibition pre-Zen-tation, I intended to provide information about what we should all expect during the coming several weeks.

I blogged about the meeting in the post, Exhibition Week 0. It was successful, but there was something missing. From the perspective of visual literacy and storytelling, I realized that my efforts could accomplish much more if I aimed to persuade rather than inform, or, to use Seth Godin's terminology, 'persuade' rather than 'convince'.

The presentation and slides are effective at delivering information and provoking thought, 'convincing', but they wouldn't inspire anyone to join the adventure. They don't 'persuade'. They lack emotion.

What I needed was a video.

My own inspiration

To inspire my video, I pondered the Exhibition. The objective is for students to demonstrate mastery of the IBO Primary Years Program through self-directed and collaborative inquiry. It occurred me that it closely resembles a traditional rite of passage, a ritual marking the transition from one state or status to another.

In this case, the students are moving from elementary school to secondary school. They are presented with a challenging task and provided limited assistance and expected to use what they know to organize and take action. They are intended to cause cognitive dissonance, the resolution of which is both the process and product of the experience.

This led to the conceptual framework for the video. It would start with an introduction to rites of passage, then invite the students to engage in the inquiry process through video footage of other schools' exhibitions.

I do everything the hard way

At that point, things became ugly. Or interesting, depending on your perspective. I was trying to learn several different technologies, as well as visual literacy concepts and skills, all at the same time.

First there was searching for Creative Commons licensed images and video to remix. Next, learning how to use iMovie to organize and edit them, as well as adding the text. Adding text involved searching for an interesting font, a process in which I became totally lost for most of an evening. Finally, I hacked together a scratch music track with audio from one of my class' collective improvisations for keyboard percussion. Unfortunately or fortunately, I'm really not sure, technological misunderstanding prevented the audio from being included in the uploaded YouTube video.

Without further ado

I decided to share this version of the video because part of my personal inquiry is to be more collaborative. I have always had a very thin skin when it comes to critique and criticism, something I am working to improve. 

Please view my video and tell me what you think!

EDIT 19 March 2014 - View the final video in the post, Visual Literacy Achievements Unlocked!.

24 February 2014

Compare cultures through literature

Spoiler Alert! The last line is "...until the day they were crushed to death in a shower of flying stones."
One of my favorite inquiries is to deduce and compare the values of different cultures based on their "Cinderella" stories. Probably the oldest, and my personal favorite, is Yeh-Shen from China.

20 February 2014

Exhibition Week 0

School Community Meeting

On Thursday evening, we held a presentation and meeting for students, parents, and teachers to learn about and discuss our school's inaugural PYP Exhibition to be held in about two months, on 26 April during our International Children's Day event.

I began the meeting by reviewing the description of the Exhibition on the International Baccalaureate Primary-Years-Program website and the directing everyone to the Exhibition Guidelines for further details.

Next, I delivered a short presentation. Here are the slides and notes:

19 February 2014

Elementary Digital Music

For the past few weeks, I have enjoyed looking forward to my 'Music with Computers' after-school class on Wednesdays, for 2nd through 6th grade students.

It's a ten week course. During the first five weeks, I introduced various creation tools. The second half is for exploration, experimentation, composition, and creation.

The availability of intuitive, expressive, professional, free sound creation tools is exploding. I've enjoyed exploring to find a few of the best to share with students, as well as a few teachers who happened to be in the media center on Wednesday afternoon, and I would like to share them with you!



SiON SoundObject Quartet

17 February 2014

Gearing up for Edcamp Tokyo

In the Spring of last year, I tweeted my interest in having an Edcamp in Tokyo:


There wasn't much interest, although in retrospect I suppose it would have been helpful to use the actual #Edcamp hashtag. I set up a page on the Edcamp Wiki and laid in wait...

Several months later, a tweet piqued my interest once again:

As Greg would later observe, it snowballed from there. Several Tokyo and Yokohama teacher-leaders joined the organizational team. We set up an Edcamp Tokyo website, held a Google Hangout with Edcamp Foundation Board Member, Kristen Swanson, settled on a location, Yokohama International School, and a date, March 15.

Countdown to Edcamp Tokyo

With only four weeks to go, there are currently more than fifty dedicated educators registered and conversations percolating on our Edcamp Tokyo Connectivity page, Edcamp Tokyo Google+ Community, Edcamp Tokyo Idea Wall, and of course around the #EdcampTokyo and #Edcamp東京 hashtags on Twitter!

This is the first chance for educators in Japan to assemble for self-directed, collaborative professional development. Even those outside of Japan might be interested in our activities, especially as they pertain to inquiry-learning, multilingual and third-culture education, technology, and whatever inspiration may strike!

I can't wait to see you there, in person or virtually.

Edcamp Tokyo

13 February 2014

Pottery Field Trip

My class had an outstanding field trip today, in connection with our unit of inquiry into the effects of changes in science and technology. We recently completed a modeled inquiry into 3D printing, introduced in the post, Modeling Inquiry. Having delved into the future of manufacturing, a visit to Uzumako Ceramic Art School was ideal to provide perspective by experiencing one of the world's most ancient crafts, pottery.

Student hands dig into wet, spinning clay


Playing at the window after a snowstorm
As part of my inquiry into Visual Literacy, I have taken up photography as a hobby. I think that hobbies don't get enough credit as deep, informal learning experiences!

In this photo, my first of an artistic nature, I tried to capture the wonder my son expressed as he felt the sunshine and surveyed the snow-covered rooftops all around outside after Tokyo's heaviest snowstorm in more than forty years.

If you are interested in following my new fotomania, please find my photo feed on Instagram.

06 February 2014

Exhibition pre-Zen-tation

My Grade 6 class is currently embarking upon their PYP Exhibition. It is the first event of its kind at my school, and one of my responsibilities is to make a presentation for the parents and school community about it.

The fact is, the Exhibition is a gargantuan task. The event itself represents the culmination of all learning and growth in a child's life to this point in time. Also, it is not an 'assignment', but a framework or set of guidelines within which students pursue an inquiry for several weeks. It has structure and should occur at a particular time, but the nature of the inquiry and how it is expressed is up to the students.

To help myself articulate the goals of our Exhibition, I actually started creating this presentation last summer. I suppose I should call it a pre-Zen-tation, because I was woefully unaware of design principles like those detailed by Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen.

The pre-Zen-tation:

What you see here was not finished. I simply saved a 'before' copy before beginning to edit according to my new insights into presentation design and visual literacy.

03 February 2014

Student Blogging & Meaningful Connections: The Noobster

Using the Internet and specifically blogs to network classrooms around the world is a priceless learning activity, in my opinion. Writing for an audience provides incomparable motivation, receiving objective feedback provides authenticity, and engaging in developing as writers with other people promotes relevance and significance. I have blogged before about strategies for developing this network of connected young learners in the post, Engaging and Authentic Student Blogging.

A wild tweet appeared

More recently, during a #teach2blog Twitter chat, a wild tweet appeared:

While I was unable to properly participate in the chat, I did come up with a solution based on the Liebster award. Why not make a Liebster for student bloggers?

Introducing the Noobster

Student bloggers are 'noobs', and I think that the negative connotation that accompanies that term in online video games and chat rooms needs to be reappropriated into something positive. A Noobster is awared to student bloggers who are expressing themselves and sharing openly. A Noobster honors their courage as communicators.

The structure for writing a Noobster post is very simple. Be sure to include these directions in yours!

It should include: 

-The red  Noobster 'Noob' image embedded.

-One paragraph linking to the post in which the Noobster was nominated and describing your thoughts about receiving the award.

-Answer five questions about yourself.

-Write five random and interesting facts about yourself.

-Ask five questions to your own Noobster nominees.

-Nominate and link to five other student bloggers, preferably in different classes, to make your own Noobster nominations.

Comment on those five blogs informing the authors that you awarded them with Noobsters so that they can write their own. Don't forget to leave a link to your Noobster post!

Have fun!

I'm excited to see if this works to help students to connect and get to know each other as authors and audience. Here's a link to the first Noobster post. Watch your comment box for your nomination, noobs!

02 February 2014

Better visual design in the classroom

Last week, as part of my inquiry into visual literacy and design (My Greatest Weakness), I decided to redesign the display board outside my classroom door based on the principles I learned from Garr Reynolds' From Golden Mean to 'Rule of Thirds'.

These ideas are not new to me, at least conceptually. The Golden Mean is well known in music composition and fiction writing as a standard to keep in mind to maximize drama, suspense, conflict and resolution, and climax.

Applying it visually is a new exploration for me.

The Display

Here is a photo of the original display board for our unit of inquiry focused on changes in science and technology:

The text on the left is simply information about the unit. The photos are from students' formative blog posts about 3D printing, and the small, diagonal texts, are quotes from their posts.

My design concept was to line up the large text on the left and then just fill in the rest in whatever way it would fit.

Not really 'design'

'Fit it all in' is not really 'design'. In order to truly begin to design the display, and to apply my constructionist philosophy, I printed out the photo of the display and cut out each element. With this hands-on model, I began rearranging the parts. By thinking of the 'rule of thirds' grid, and utilizing a design strategy beyond 'just fit it all in', I found that different arrangements led to different impressions and understanding.

I set up a center in the classroom and invited my students to help me. Here are a few of the iterations we documented:

My favorite came from a student, the one in the lower right. I like how the layout of the large text respects the 'rule of thirds' and draws the viewer from top left to bottom right. It also utilizes proximity to associate each quote with a particular image, rather than grouping them together. The effect is that attention is drawn toward the most 'important' information, and the viewer is free to explore the rest.

Questions lead to more questions

Shouldn't the quotes should be bigger because they are actually the most important part of the display to which the viewer should be directed? How would that alter options for the layout? Should the other text be smaller? Should I choose different images? Is it possible to arrange everything in a way that tells a story? What is the story? Should this display do more than simply present information?


Despite being a source of some anxiety for me, this activity was fun for two primary reasons:

1 It involved a model that could be manipulated, creating a sense of 'play' rather than 'work'.
2 It was collaborative. Inviting others to help created an authentic feeling of shared purpose.

These are critical considerations for instructional design, and I'm happy to have had this authentic experience for myself.

Going further

I am excited to expand this inquiry. I applied these concepts to photography this weekend, the product of which you can view in the post, Plum Blossom.

There is also a Visual Literacy unit in the planning stages for my class, a topic I never had the courage to try to teach explicitly in the past. Wish me luck!

Deeper Learning Student Work

Looking at student work

I'd like to share three pieces of student work, each of which shows unique applications of deeper learning.


The first is a Grade 2 'landforms' project. The task was to build and paint an island with landforms. The example shows a few examples of deeper geographical understanding, especially that the river is carved into the land, rather than simply painted on, and that it flows from the hills to the ocean.

However, it would have been better to provide greater opportunities to practice with the clay and paint in a creative way. The student's reflection, 'I could to better', is very revealing of the fact that this little project utilized too many different, new skills. I should have planned a stand-alone art unit using these tools before applying them in this Geography activity.

Plum Blossom

First plum blossom by Bart Miller, Tokyo 2014

Japan's most famous blossom is, of course, the cherry. But I think most people have a soft spot for the lovely pink plums that bloom about a month earlier.

The cherry blossoms celebrate the arrival of Spring. The plum blossoms are the invitation.

Here's a photo I shot at our neighborhood park while playing with my son of the first plum blossom I've seen this year.

Modeling Inquiry

In general, I like to classify classroom inquiry activities into three general categories: Independent, Guided, and Modeled.

Independent Inquiry

I have blogged fairly extensively about Independent Inquiry and created a wiki dedicated to supporting interest-driven learning in the classroom. Independent inquiry should be totally independent, in my opinion, not limited to 'schoolwork' or 'homework', due date free, and without any regulation by authority figures beyond common sense and safety.

Guided Inquiry

Guided Inquiry is what is mostly practiced in schools and provides the richest opportunities to balance autonomy with predetermined curriculum. Differentiation is inherent as learners require varying levels of guidance in various situations. The guided inquiry environment is fluid, productive, and engaging.

Finally, Modeled Inquiry most resembles classical, Socratic education. The teacher has a clear sense of the goal and direction of the learning, and crafts small tasks, like dialogs, in which students participate in order to emphasize learning of the inquiry process.

In my class' current unit of inquiry, I planned a modeled inquiry into 'the role of technology in scientific understanding' and its effects on people's lives. Feel free to visit the planning document which contains links to the resources we utilized along the way.

30 January 2014

Teacher as Learning Documentarian

Looking at student work

'Looking at student work', the focus in the Deeper Learning MOOC this week, has me reminded of a project I have been working on this school year.

I teach in an inquiry learning elementary school  (PYP), an environment which facilitates and empowers deeper learning very effectively. As I have explored inquiry in the classroom, I have noticed that I do far less teaching and far more documentation.

Students engaged in authentic learning shouldn't be bothered by standards or specific learning outcomes, yet they constantly accomplish them. As a teacher, I see myself more as a learning documentarian seeking out evidence of their learning as they inquire into their interests and curiosities.

Google Doc experiment

In order to document learning according to an established continuum, I devised a shared google document which allows teachers to document learning individually for each student and can be used by any stake holder to review like a portfolio. It's still experimental, but I can already see how it is helping to maintain a balance between student-driven learning and traditional learning outcomes or standards.

How it works

Our learning continua are organized by phases, so I color coded each. When a student demonstrates a particular learning outcome, I indicate the date and hyperlink it to a digital version of the artifact. Examples so far have included scanned writing assessments, photographs, Evernote entries, videos, and blog posts. When an artifact is recorded, the shade of the box for that learning outcome is made lighter. A white box indicates a mastered learning outcome.

The example I provided in this post is for a sixth grader, so I took it for granted that the first three phases were mastered. Please have a look at phases four and five and follow the links to get a sense of how this type of document can work. If it were used from a young age and accompanied the student through elementary school, it would serve as an authentic representation of their learning.

This is still an experiment, and your comments and suggestions are highly welcomed. I would certainly appreciate collaborators on this project to develop an efficient system to document deeper learning!

23 January 2014

Blackout Poem - go for kill

Thought I'd have a go at a 'blackout poem'.

go for kill
repel a din
as other ants believe in ion ears

A poke or tack
in that terror wound we treat old

now have assailants
say anything

rat alert
violence in ash

21 January 2014

My Greatest Weakness

Anticipation for the Visual Literacy Course in the COETAIL program has been both eager and anxious for me. Visual literacy, graphic design, and the language and tools that they use are arguably my weakest skills.

To date, I've done literally nothing to spruce up the appearance of Dal Segno al Coda. My own blog of teaching and learning, Symphony of Ideas, is not a terrible eyesore only due to the generosity, patience, and talent of my wife, Yuka. Thank goodness Tumblr has decent default designs! Finally, I have procrastinated purchasing my own domain and establishing a landing site for myself for a myriad of reasons which are really probably just excuses because, after all, I think I'm just afraid to design it.

Time to face the music

Fact is, I need to grow. I'm a composer, or as Aaron Copland would say, an 'inventor of music'. Need counterpoint for a bebop melody? I'm on it. Want to reharmonize that pop song? No problem! Horn backgrounds for a power ballad? I'll rock it. String Quartet? Working on it. I'm comfortable creating with sounds.

I am illiterate

Unfortunately, according to one of my heroes, George Lucas, in an interview with James Daly for Edutopia, Life on the Screen: Visual Literacy in Education, I am illiterate! This is a multimedia era, but I am a monomedia creator.

In this course on Visual Literacy, I'll be bumbling along an unfamiliar road. Coincidentally, an early topic in the Deeper Learning MOOC is academic mindsets, and one mindset in particular is staring me in the face, daring me to act.

My first official published photo (2013)

07 January 2014

Empathy & Acceptance: Toward a gender-neutral classroom

Through Her Eyes Film

The debates within and surrounding LGBTQ communities about gender identity and sexual orientation, and how individuals (and groups) express themselves, are reaching a sort of critical mass. Educators would be remiss to ignore it. Nobody explains the situation more fluently than Peter DeWitt, author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students.

In the classroom, the first step can only be to tear down obvious and ubiquitous bias. As Dawn Casey-Rowe documents in the article, Does Gender Bias Affect The Way You Teach?, the negative effects of bias persist even when it arises from positive intentions. Pernille Ripp addresses the issue from a different perspective by asking, Are the Boys Welcome in Your Room?. I would argue that even the notion that boys and girls have stereotypical preferences should be categorically rejected in the classroom. Societies do not need any help promoting traditional gender roles. In fact, I believe that the messages from media and commercial ventures about gender and sexuality should be subdued, filtered, and contextualized in order to empower every individual to thrive.

As an elementary educator, I feel the responsibility to promote a culture of Empathy and Acceptance. I am also in an ideal position to do so.