Innovation Day 2011

As a teacher you have good days and you have bad days and if you are lucky you have a great day. Today was one of those great days. We held our inaugural Innovation Day for the 6th grade in my building. Throughout the day we had over 250 6th grade students working on self chosen and self directed learning projects. One of the hallmarks of the school I work in and the principal that leads us is innovation. As teachers we are encouraged to be innovative in every aspect of our jobs. Naturally, this spilled over into our work with students. Matt Langes, who is a 7th grade teacher and team leader, piloted the innovated day idea with his team of roughly 100 7th graders with a great level of success about a month ago.

The 6th grade teams began talking about doing a similar day but decided to do it with the entire grade level instead of just one team. To get things rolling we had to introduce the whole idea to the students. Our students have been known to break down crying when their lockers are jammed so telling them they would have an entire day to own their learning was a big step. We told them that they would have an entire school day to learn about what they wanted and to create evidence of their learning in any way they chose. As we started talking about the day, the students started getting excited.

When we got closer to the actual day, students were filling out plan sheets that outlined exactly what they were going to be doing. Within their plans they had to pick what they were going to be learning about, what resources they needed, and what their final product or evidence would be. As teachers we helped students focus their plans but the ideas were theirs as the power of choice was a key belief we had.

Today was the actual “Innovative Day” as students came to school with their supplies, resources, and an abundance of enthusiasm. We broke the students into working areas based on their topics of choice and the resources needed. There was a section for building, art, music, technology, videos, cooking, physical education, and more. Variety was the name of the game as there were over 200 different learning projects being worked on over the course of the day. Many students were working independently but there were plenty of learning groups that developed throughout the day as well. Students started helping each other with projects and ended up learning more than they even originally planned. Here is just a sample of the great work that was done.

We had a student:

• Writing and performing his own guitar solo
• Creating a model out of wood of the Sears Tower
• Writing her own historical fiction short story
• Creating a Rube Goldberg machine
• Designing and creating a replica suit of Roman Armor (out of tinfoil and cardboard)
• Creating a how-to tutorial on baking a cake
• Painting a still life on canvas of a nature scene
• Writing and performing a one-man comedy act
• Researching and presenting on the concentration camps of the Holocaust
• Creating a video highlight reel of basketball moves and plays
• Building a model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa
• Writing a biography of his favorite teacher Mr. Stumpenhorst (<-----ok, I made this one up!)
• Creating a video documentary of Innovative Day
• Building a model of Big Ben
• Choreographing and performing a dance
• Researching Walt Disney and creating a model of the Epcot Center
• Creating a model of numerous World War II battles
• Building a model of the Eiffel Tower
• Researching and creating countless Power Points, posters, and Photo Stories

There was amazing work being done everywhere you looked and it was not unnoticed either. As the students were diligently working they actually had some unexpected visitors stop in. A few adults in suits and business attire stopped in and roamed around the work rooms. They sat down with students and talked with them about what they were doing and genuinely got involved in the students work beyond just the role of a bystander. These adults were the administration from our district office which included our superintendent himself. This is not something that happens often and was a great thing to see for so many reasons. First, they took time out of their administrative schedules to be with students. This simple act shows that they care about the work being done in schools and have an invested interest in the kids. It is nice for our student’s work to be noticed by those outside of our classrooms or their individual homes. The second reason this was a great thing was it allows the decision makers within the district to see the great work the teachers are doing. This is important for them to see what teachers are doing so they can adequately support them in a positive way. As a teacher, to see one of your struggling students able to articulately speak to an associate superintendent about her passion for her work was a very powerful thing for me.

In addition, to the “big wigs”, we had many teachers outside of the grade level stepping in and giving up their plan periods to hang out and work with the students. It was great to see so many teachers and other personnel in the building stepping in and taking an interest in student learning in its purest and more unfiltered form. Nothing they were doing will be on a test. None of their activities were part of a district assessment. There will be no questions on a standardized test about what they did. They were learning about things they had a passion for and nothing else.

There are surely those readers who are asking a few questions that I will answer in the closing of this post.

Was the student’s work graded? Nothing was graded nor will it be. The focus was on the learning.

Did you have any discipline issues with giving kids the freedom to day what they wanted for a whole day? None! When you give kids a highly engaging activity that they choice in and buy into; behavior problems are nonexistent.

What did you do with the projects and things kids created? We documented them all with pictures and videos taken throughout the day. In addition, students saved all their work in a global network drive for future viewing. We also spent the last 45 minutes of the afternoon doing a large group show and tell with the students sharing their day’s work.

Again, this was a great day. One of the best moments was the end of the afternoon when a 12 year old boy stepped in front of over 250 of his peers and played a song on his guitar that he wrote himself. The room was dead quiet except for the sound of a blaring electric guitar responding to his small but nimble fingers. When he was finished nearly every student in the room was on their feet cheering and yelling.

As the students were walking out at the end of the day one student stopped me and asked, “Can we do this again tomorrow?”

I responded with, “Well, I would love to but tomorrow is Saturday,” in a half joking manner.

This student looked me dead in the eyes and replied, “I would come back tomorrow to do this again.”

Parents in the Classroom

Last night I spent the evening in my son’s preschool reading books with him and his friends for literacy night. This was the eighth time this school year that either my wife and/or I have been in my son’s school interacting with teachers, students, parents and the principal. Four of these times were for “parents in the classroom”, where parents spend the day with their kids in class.

To me this is pretty amazing as I reflect on my own school. Over the course of a school year I am required to hold two parent teacher conferences, one open house, and one parent orientation. That is four times a year where parents have an opportunity to be at school. There is no occasions where parents are in our classrooms participating in learning activities at the level I have been involved in with my son’s preschool.

Last year I did a read aloud activity with my class and invited parents to join us. It was a great experience as parents got to interact with their child, with me, and with other parents. I am planning on doing this again in the spring as it was a great way to bring the parents into my classroom.

As a parent, I love being in my son’s school and being with him and his classmates. I know as a teacher I need to provide more opportunities for parents to be involved in my own classroom. Looking at the activities in my classroom, I need to find a way to bring parents in more often to be involved in their children’s learning.

I would love to hear what other schools and classes are doing to bring parents in on a more regular basis. Parents a key part to the success of a student and we can always be doing more to bring them in.

What are you doing to bring parents in?

6 Month Anniversary

I recently looked back and noticed that I have offically been blogging for 6 months now. As a 6 month anniversary post I wanted to compile a list of my most viewed posts. I know the first three months or so my dad was probably the only one reading the blog. Hi Dad!

  1. I Resign From Teaching
  2. Twitter 102 Tutorial
  3. Evernote 101 Tutorial
  4. What is Innovation?
  5. Lie To Your Kids
I hope to have another great 6 months of blogging, sharing and learning!

Feedback to Students

Tuesday night’s #edchat discussion about feedback got me thinking about a number of things. I wanted to reflect upon those things in what I hope will not become a completely rambling post. For me, there are a number of ways in which feedback could and should be used. In addition, there are a number of tools that are used to provide feedback. Personally, I am a visual person so I made a chart to help me understand my own thoughts.

Type of Feedback




My thoughts


I think we all know what these are…

It gives kids an indication of where students are from a grading
standpoint. It gives a concrete placeholder on their learning based on
predetermined grading scale.

Grades do not motivate students to do better or learn more. Grades
are not always clearly articulated and are often based in an antiquated
system of assessment. Grades are often an indication of behavior more so than
learning. When grades are given it is often the end of learning.

I am
realistic to know that my students need grades to prove their learning to
parents, colleges, etc. Getting rid of grades may not be possible, but
looking at how, what, and when we grade would be a great first step.

Standardized Test Scores

These are those lovely state and federally mandated tests we give.

I may get shot for saying this but they do provide some level of
accountability that subject matter is being taught. These tests do aim to
ensure that various curriculum areas are being addressed on a large systemic

These tests are often used as be-all end-all indicators of student
learning which they are not. They are one piece of the pie and should be treated
as such. They cost millions of dollars and take away time that could be used
on learning.

I know nobody likes these tests and I agree. However, if you get rid
of standardized testing completely, where is the accountability for teachers?
There should be away for our students to provide evidence of their learning
in an easier, cheaper, and more effective way.


This can be done in a formal meeting or informal conversation with
student about work, behavior, life, etc.

This is very personal and builds a great relationship with students.
It gives them more feedback than can often be captured in a grade or in
written feedback on an assignment.

This is often very time consuming and can be subjective in nature.

This really works well if you have a strong and trusting relationship
built on a mutual respect. Personally, I talk with each kid as often as I
can. These conversations are not always about work but you can learn a lot about
a student and where they are coming from in regular short conversations.

Written comments on student

These are annotated notes that a teacher makes on a piece of work
that a student has turned in. The format of these can change depending on the
work turned in.

Written comments are much better than a simple letter grade or score.
If done properly can give good feedback on what a student is doing well and
where areas of growth are.

This can be time consuming as well and can also be subjective.
Another negative is written feedback can be taken out of context or be misinterpreted.

I use written feedback and it can be a great tool. Key to it being
successful is making sure it is straight forward and honest without being judgmental.

Parent Teacher Conferences

Those twice a year meetings with parents and teachers to discuss
work, grades, progress, etc.

Chance to sit with parents and discuss student’s progress and get
their feedback as well. Can give feedback directly to parents that may not
always being getting home through a student.

These are often driven by grades and do not happen regularly enough
to have a lasting impact on student learning.

While parent conferences are good, teachers should be in more regular
contact with parents to provide feedback than twice a year.


This type of feedback could be a sticker, award, candy, or other
external motivator

Some kids will work hard for a Jolly Rancher… This can be a a good initial motivator to
get things started but has little lasting effects.

Some kids will work hard for a Jolly Rancher…and that is the only
reason they are working hard. It programs a kid to work for rewards instead
of for the learning.

I am not a fan of this because it causes kids to work for the sake of
a “prize” rather than for learning or growth.

With all of these forms of feedback there are a few things that must be kept in mind:

• It must be ongoing and constant.

• It must lead to more learning and not be an end point.

• It should happen before, during, and after learning is taking place.

All types of feedback have their place at some level in education. The trouble we get in is when we use one piece of feedback such as grades, or test scores, to try to illustrate the sum of a child’s learning. Feedback should be a process not a product.

Stories the Networks Should be Running

With all the negative press that educators as well as technology is getting, I thought it time for another take on the news. Please enjoy...and share your own stories. Thanks to George and Alec Couros for letting me use their work.

Type of Teachers

In education there are five types of teachers when it comes to technology use in their classrooms…in my humble opinion.

Oblivious – IWB? Twitter? What does that mean? These are teachers that don’t know what they don’t know. Technology is not something they use nor do they seek to learn about it.

Fearful – The fearful teachers know of the tools out there but are too afraid to try them. They have heard of the newest tools and might have a few in their classrooms. However, they are neither comfortable nor confident in their own skills. Typically, these teachers want to use more technology in class but lack the direction and confidence to get started.

Dabbler – The “dabbler” has a few technology tools and resources they use. Usually, they will have a few favorite websites or activities they will default back to. These teachers are willing to try something new but will revert back to their favorites which are often the first resources they ever used.

Poser – Teachers in this category use a long list of technology resources and tools. However, they are just using the technology to use it. Their students are not actually extending learning or deepening comprehension. They are like the golfers the show up with $1000 golf clubs and hack it up and shoot a 130. Another characteristic of this type of teacher are elaborate projects with very little substance. They think that if a kid is on a laptop or if the IWB is turned on, they are “using” technology to help kids.

Pro – Pro users have a wide array of tools at their disposal similar to the poser. These teachers, however, use the tools to make learning more rich for their students. They are not using the technology because they can; they are using it to make learning better for their students. The key to being a pro is realizing that you don’t need the technology in order to help kids learn but you realize the power it has to make learning better.

I would argue that all of these types of teachers have their pluses and minuses. The key is to first identify which one you are and reflect on what you are doing to help students learn. Students will learn from each of these teachers, but I would hope we all aim to be a pro or at least a dabbler at some point. Just as a doctor’s work changes with new tools and technologies, so too must a teachers. Regardless of what type of teacher you are, you must remember that student learning must be the center of all that you do.

What kind of teacher are you? What kind of teacher do you want to be?