About Lightning Strikes

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Design Thinking: Taking the First Steps

Sliding under my daughter's bed in search of her collection of beanie babies is a most unusual part of lesson preparation, even for an elementary teacher. But, I needed a number of stuffed animals for a creative problem solving lesson and I thought the beanie babies would fit the bill nicely. We'll return to them in a moment.

I began my integration of creative and design thinking into my 4th grade curriculum with the book Creative Confidence, which I wrote about back in August.  I realized, though, that I would have to begin by laying a foundation for my students that would include brainstorming experience, productive collaborative work, listening skills, and a variety of practice scenarios before we could use many of the ideas from the book. I have some experience using Creative Problem Solving (CPS) in teaching, so I turned to one of the books I have, Big Tools for Young Thinkers by Susan Keller-Mathers and Kristin Puccio. CPS is a method that advocates a step by step process to encourage creative solutions. Both CPS and design thinking emphasize identifying a problem to solve, generating lots of ideas, suspending any judgment on the value of ideas, collaboration and divergent thinking, so I felt that CPS activities would be a productive first step..

The first sessions with my class were from Big Tools for Young Thinkers and introduced the rules of brainstorming, which they then applied in an activity generating ideas for preventing a squirrel from stealing all the fruit from your fruit tree. The students worked in small groups with the goals of coming up with as many ideas as possible and not criticizing anyone else's ideas during brainstorming.  (They were also not allowed to harm the squirrel as part of a solution.) The next lesson we did from the book was machine creation through a drawing activity. For this exploration students drew ideas for three new machines, then switched papers with a partner. With someone else's ideas in front of them and their own in their heads, students tried piggybacking off their partner's machines to create different new creations. Our third CPS exercise was creating a new type of transportation by forcing a relationship between two different modes of transport. As can be seen, these activities are also a lot of fun.

I switched gears for the next lesson and took an idea I had gotten from Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Success, Happiness (and World Peace) by Chade-Ming Tan. This is a wonderful book on mindfulness. One of the exercises in the book is a listening exercise in which partners take turns listening and talking. The speaker has three minutes to speak, uninterrupted, about any one topic. The topic should be a serious one that is important to the speaker, such as a time when you were upset or sad. The listener's job is to listen, look at the speaker's face, nod encouragingly, and possibly say, "mm hmm," but nothing more. If the speaker runs out of things to say, the two sit in silence until either the speaker says something or the three minutes are up. Then they switch roles. Though I got this from Search Inside Yourself,  one of the drama teachers at Quest told me this comes from drama education. I chose to do this activity because one of the aspects of the design thinking process is really listening to others (often customers in the business and engineering worlds) in order to understand the problems that you might be trying to solve. I wanted to apply this to some of the problems I would present to my class during the year.

For my 4th graders, talking is not very difficult, but staying silent and focused on the speaker was a huge step. I was thrilled at how well they carried this out. With debriefed afterwards about how they felt as speaker and as listener. Most of them found both roles challenging.

One of the stuffed animals created after interviewing a partner

The next lesson called on listening skills, as well as brainstorming. This exercise asked students to take two stuffed animals and create a new animal through the forced relationship. This is the reason I was under my daughter's bed, searching for beanie babies. She had collected a lot at the height of the Beanie Baby craze, and they are smaller than many stuffed animals, making it easy for me to bring a lot of them to school. Each student got two diverse animals and drew a new stuffed animal, with a description or name. Taking this activity a step further, I had partners interview each other, using their listening skills, about what characteristics each wanted in a stuffed animal. Then they created animals for each other, again drawing them on paper, and presented them to the class.

All of the above activities were done in our first trimester. One of the challenges in adding Creative Thinking to my curriculum was finding time for it. I spend between 30 and 60 minutes on it per week, though some weeks special events take over that time. I have a long Thursday afternoon with my students, so these types of lessons, that are more interactive, are perfect for keeping focus and engagement.

In the second trimester we will be moving into some different types of creative explorations. I am planning ways to integrate creative thinking and problem solving lessons into other subjects, especially now that me students have some of the basics of the process down. We are in the alpha stage of development - an exciting process!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Blogging: the Beginning

My 4th graders are enjoying their first forays into blogging. We began with several lessons on Internet safety and citizenship from Commonsense Media, followed by taking a quick look at some existing blogs to give students a visual image of how a blog might look with the template background. We then moved to creating the first posts on paper. I assigned the first topic, which was favorite foods, thinking that everyone likes food. And everyone did have a favorite food, from ribs to tofu, which they wrote about.

Next, we discussed commenting. My guidelines are that comments need to be positive, related to the post and written in complete sentences, with capitals and punctuation. For the paper blogs we used post-its to stick comments onto the posts. Here is the bulletin board my partner teacher made with the paper blogs her class created:

Moving onto the Kidblog site, I had my students type up their favorite food posts onto their blogs. Most of their posts were not very long, which judging from last year, is typical for the beginning of the school year. After typing and publishing their posts, students read and commented on their classmates' posts and uploaded avatars for themselves.

Now we will be blogging each week in class. The students can also access their blogs from home and I encourage them to finish posts at home, as well as read each others' posts, comment, and start new posts on whatever they would like to write about. It's working! One of my students just published a post, about an experience he had, less than an hour ago. Each week I offer a "challenge post," which is just a prompt, but the children are only required to take a challenge once a month. If they have other topics they want to write about, I'm delighted to let them do that! The challenges are a help with those students who can't get started and also with ensuring that at least once a month everyone writes about a topic with some substance. The first challenge was to write about a favorite book and explain what you liked about it.

I attended a session at a tech workshop this fall on blogging in school. I was impressed to see how many different ways teachers were using blogs in the classroom, but the main idea I took away from the session was the importance of teachers blogging along with their students. The presenter showed with real examples that when a teacher writes a blog of several paragraphs, students will model their writing on that, sometimes even borrowing some of the language. On the other hand, teachers who only wrote a sentence, giving the topic that students should write about, students wrote very brief responses. One the things I will be doing differently this year is to blog each week, writing in response to my challenge.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Blogging with Students

Last year I blogged with my students for the first time. Blogging is a wonderful adjunct to writer's workshop where students can write about topics they choose themselves in a supportive community of their fellow students.

I decided to try blogging with my class after attending the ICE conference in 2013 and going to a how-to session on this topic given by Pernille Ripp. She presented a step-by-step organized plan, beginning with an initial blog on paper. Internet safety, tagging, commenting, including parents, and opening up to connecting with other classes were discussed. Pernille also said she doesn't grade her students's blogs. She encourages them to come up with their own topics, but also offers a weekly challenge topic.

I was excited about trying student blogging as a way to develop student enjoyment of writing, as well as their growth as writers. I also saw blogging as a way to practice digital citizenship and safety, and as a window into our classroom for parents. On the other hand, I had some concerns about beginning this project. Where would I fit it in? Like all teachers everywhere, my school day is packed. I was also worried about how parents would feel about their children blogging, especially the safety factor. Our technology educator Vinnie Vrotny, encouraged me to give blogging a place in 4th grade, but also to take the time to plan before starting. This I did, using the information from the ICE session as well as online sources noted below.

I decided to sign up with kidblog.org. Though there are a number of sites specifically for blogging with younger children, kidblog was recommended by Pernille Ripp and it is easy to use. For the digital citizenship part of blogging, I chose to use the online lessons available from Commonsense Media. I attended one of their workshops and my grade level partner and I had already been using the lessons for our grade level. I decided to use 30 minutes per week of language arts time for blogging.

I introduced blogging by showing the class several examples of real blogs for students to get a visual of what a blog might look like. Then they designed their own blogs on paper and wrote a sample post on their favorite foods. A lesson on paper blogging can be found here. Several weeks later, after digital citizenship lessons and planning on paper, students began their kidblogs.

Blogging was very popular. At the beginning, many students spent a lot of their time finding images, both as their identity and as their posts, but most began writing short posts within a week or so. I wanted to leave blogging fairly open as an assignment, but I did offer a weekly challenge, which was a topic suggestion or a question. I asked that they take at least one challenge a month as a topic. I soon found that I had to make a few more rules:

  • Posts must have a topic. This led to better paragraph writing. 
  • No more than three exclamation or question marks can be used in a row. 
  • No begging for comments from others.
  • A comment must be a complete sentence with substance. If you write "Cool!!!" you must follow up with more.
After my students were comfortable with writing posts and comments, I opened up the blog to parents, who could read and comment, but not join as bloggers. I had only a few parents leave comments, but all were positive. Before introducing blogging to my students, I explained the idea in detail to parents through my newsletter. None of my parents expressed concerns about blogging.

Later in the year, I read the students' blogs from the first post to the most recent and I was amazed at the growth in writing. From the beginning posts where many of the kids focused on posting visuals, they grew into the idea of sharing their thoughts in a fairly organized way. They also developed a positive community through reading and leaving comments for each other, supporting others' ideas and adding their own. I see student blogging now as an important aspect of writers' workshop, not an add-on. 

I plan to repeat this blogging journey in the 2014-15 school year and expand by connecting with other blogging classes. Two sites to help with connections are Comments4kids and QuadBlogging

Happy blogging!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Summer Rejuvenation: Creativity

I always end the school year and thinking about how various aspects of the school year went, and especially what I might want to do differently next year. This year I made a list of things I want to either think about or explore this summer. My list includes possibly tweaking the writing curriculum, reviewing the pilot year for class blogging, and thinking about ways to include more creative opportunities and problem solving in the curriculum.

A few years ago I read The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner. I highly recommend this book in which Wagner identifies and discusses seven essential skills for the 21st century, based on conversation he had with business leaders. The seven skills are problem solving and critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurship, oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imagination. As a 4th grade teacher, I thought the skills that I could most readily incorporate into my classroom were problem solving/critical thinking, communication skills, collaboration, and curiosity/imagination. We also work with some of the other areas, but developmentally, 4th graders are most ready to work with these four. Also, it's always a good idea not to take on too much change at once.

While my partner and I have been regularly incorporating these skills into our teaching in 4th grade, I am interested in doing more. A high school classmate of mine happened to post a list of the best books on creativity on a popular online social site. I looked it over and decided to read one of them, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley and David Kelley. It was a good choice. The Kelley brothers are partners at IDEO, a design firm, and their book is written with a business audience in mind, though the ideas can easily be applied or adapted for education and other areas. They have also written a Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit, which is available on their website for free. The Toolkit is written to guide teachers and administrators through creative problem-solving,.

I really like Creative Confidence because it is encouraging, upbeat, and full of ideas. The Kelleys believe that everyone can be creative and that everyone should be part of the creative process. As I read, I found many activities that I want to try with my class, including quick design challenges, like how would you make lunch better? There are activities to be done in a short time frame and ones that take longer. I could see ways to use these ideas in writing, social studies and math. My students will have the chance to work collaboratively, to work in divergent ways, and to mess around with materials. They will be encouraged to become risk-takers in a safe environment. We have a new STEAM program in the middle school, and these types of creative, problem-solving opportunities will help prepare upper elementary students for STEAM.

I also like Creative Confidence because it opened up new ideas and tools for me to use. So not only can I use the ideas to set up learning experiences for my students, but I can use these concepts myself. For example, there is a short section on using simple drawing to communicate, which I can use to communicate while teaching. I also particularly like the strategy "to think like a traveler," using fresh eyes rather than jumping to "I already know..."

I plan to post about Creative Confidence strategies once school is back in session. Meanwhile I'll be exploring writing curricula, mindfulness, and more on design and creativity.