Monday, July 11, 2016

Today's the Day!

Kristen Wideen and I couldn't be more excited about our first book Innovate with iPad: Lessons to Transform Learning in the Classroom.  This has been a complete labour of love, and proof that two friends and dedicated educators can co-write while living over 4,000 km apart.

Today, we are excited to announce that our book is available for purchase on Amazon. Here is what Amazon has to say. 

In “Innovate with iPad: Lessons to Transform Learning in the Classroom” primary teachers Karen Lirenman and Kristen Wideen provide a complete selection of clearly laid out engaging open-ended lessons to change the way you use iPad in the classroom. By simply downloading a few basic, open-ended creation apps, your students will engage in the learning process and demonstrate their newfound knowledge in the way that works best for them. In addition, throughout the book Karen and Kristen provide beginner and advanced lessons and quick tips and practical suggestions to make the integration of iPad go as seamlessly as possible.
This beautifully laid out book also features downloadable task cards, student generated examples and extension ideas to use with your students.
Whether you have access to one iPad for your entire class or one for each student, these lessons will help you transform learning in your classroom. 

For more information be sure to check out  

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The K-3 SAIL Story

This past week I had the pleasure of sharing the beta year of the SAIL K-3 story at ISTE.  While I presented several times over the conference, this session was the one nearest and dearest to my heart.  It is a story that needs to be shared.  At SAIL we are looking at school differently and we are trying to change the way school is done.  I have been fortunate to get in on the ground level and this past year I had the opportunity to reinvent school at the K-3 level.  I won't lie though, it was one of my more challenging years of my career, but it was also one of the most rewarding.  Let me share some of my slides and a bit of our story with you.

The SAIL program came out of the rebranding of the previous Surrey Connect program.  Things weren't as good as they could be with Surrey Connect and SAIL was designed to change that.

In case you are wondering SAIL is a FREE PUBLIC school program which welcomes students from all over the lower mainland. This means you do not have to live in Surrey to attend SAIL.

SAIL is a distributed learning program which means some of the learning must take place away from school.  For us that means four full days in school, and one day away.

The weekly home learning includes parent involvement, family learning, and community learning. I will admit, that this has been one of the challenges of the past year as I'm constantly trying to be creative with my planning so that the home learning that goes home is meaningful, engaging, and connected to our classroom big ideas.  Having my students only 80% of the time means the home learning piece is an important part of the program.

At ISTE I focussed the presentation on the fact that with SAIL we are trying hard to put structures in place for successful student learning.  You need to understand that some of my students were losing patience with their neighbourhood schools for one reason or another.  Some of the structures we've put in place  include valuing student choice and voice AND using child centered reflective teaching practices.  From the slides below you can see that I spoke about some of the ways we value student voice and choice.  I don't think it's so much that we are doing something innovative, but more so that we are open to letting our students have more voice and choice.

 Below are a few snapshots of our classroom.  You'll see that we have no assigned seating and my students can work where they want to within the room.  Some get pretty creative from time to time, but as long as they are on task doing what is expected of them, they select where and how they work.

My students also have the choice of selecting the tool that works best for them.  While we do have access to technology in my room, technology isn't always the first tool chosen. It really depends on the task and the learner.

We also have a lot of self regulation toys in our classroom. We are trying to create an environment where the students have control over their learning.  In a more traditional class these toys may all be available but more often than not it is the teacher deciding who needs what. For example the noise reduction headsets may be assigned to the child who is sensitive to noise. In my classroom these are just tools that any student can grab as needed.  My students are not singled out.  They use the tools available to  them as they feel they need them. And yes, there was pre teaching around this and my students have become much more aware of their unique and individual needs.  Teaching self regulation is a very powerful strategy for student success.

I've also broken down some of the more traditional things I've done.  I've spent  lot of time rethinking what structures I have in place to keep me happy, and found ways to open them up to allow my students to be happy.  At such a simple level, the Valentine's folders below are just one place where I let go.  Yes, my students did have criteria for making them (they had to hold valentines, their name had to be clear, and there needed to be at least one moving part) but how they were made was up to them. As you can see everyone had a different take on the task, and I did what I could to support them.

My students often have a variety of ways to show what they are learning. Take for example the image below.  As part of our inquiry on trout my students were required to create a trout habitat and explain the key features of their habitat.  As you can see by the images below my students created in a variety of different ways, yet each one was able to explain what they did to create their artifact and why.

Inquiry was another big theme in our classroom.  At times I would wonder if we were in fact doing inquiry but as I started to collect a sample of their inquiry projects I was quickly reminded about how much inquiry my students did do. Below is a list of just a few of the inquiry projects my students explored.

In our classroom we also do a lot of learning by design. Below are "dream" playgrounds created and designed in Lego.  It was through their creations, and the discussion and reflections that followed,  I learned a lot more about my students and what they valued.

My students also worked through many design challenges to solve problems linked to real life situations. Here my students are creating a prototype of a shelter for a plant that was stuck in an environment with way too much rain.  My students worked with simple items but explained their thinking at a complex level. Each part they added to the prototype had a purpose.

And of course we have a maker mindset in our classroom. My students knit, sew, garden, bake etc.  They create with and without technology.

If you haven't figured it out yet my approach to teaching is very student focussed. My students help guide the direction of my planning.  As a teacher I strive for child centred reflective teaching practices. I speak of innovative teaching practices and authentic learning but really what I'm trying to do is what's best for my students.

 Below are just a few of the ways my students learn.  They aren't extra "events" in our room, they are just how we learn.

I also try, as best as I can, to bring in real life learning. We are makers by nature growing flowers and food (yes we grew, harvested, prepared and ate potatoes), learning to knit, and creating for purpose, using anything we can get our hands on.

We have come up with ways we can help our classmates, our school, our community and our world.  The Earth Rangers program was a huge catalyst for many of my students as they got right to fundraising to help save endangered Canadian animals. 

We also have a very STRONG motto of kindness and even when we are upset with one another we keep our words kind.  Kindness penetrates everything we do in our room.  My behaviour management system is building relationships with my students, and supporting them with theirs. 

Many think our program is an accelerated one, that you need to be a gifted learning to join, but none of that is true.  The real beauty of the program is that we dig deeper with our learning so the skills that we are gaining will transfer to different situations.

We have many other structures in place to support student success.  Our flexible furniture allows our learning spaces to change as needed.   We learn in multi aged cluster classes which means we focus far less on individual grades and far more on who we are as learners. Yes, each child does work through their required curriculum, but the focus is on them as learners.  We have both interdisciplinary learning where many content areas are uncovered together through some of the projects or activities my students do, and disciplinary learning too.

Technology is seamlessly used in the class. Those who need a device will grab one as necessary.  Many of our devices are shared too if that's what is need.  In general we work pretty collaboratively. There is no point in me being the only teacher in the room when I have a room full of teachers.  My students knowledge is valued.

What I believe has been some key successes of this program is that we have engaged learners whose anxiety has decreased and  there is increased empathy in all situations.  It's really quite wonderful.

But of course everything hasn't been perfect and I'm already thinking about ways to improve and change for the next school year.  You see, that reflective piece is so key for both me as the teacher, and for my students.  My students regularly reflect on what they have done well or are proud of, and what they'd like to get better at.  They have both their blogs and their digital portfolios to do just that. 

Below are a list of a few of the things I'd like to keep working on to improve as we move towards are second year of SAIL.

So that is just a little snapshot of the SAIL program.  If you're curious to learn more about SAIL please be sure to check out the website  There is a great video on the k-7 page that I think you might enjoy.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Exciting News to Share!

Excited to be making this official. My good friend Kristen Wideen and I have a book coming out soon. We hope our book will help transform how iPad is being used in classrooms because the potential of iPad goes way beyond just practicing math facts and listening to stories.

To be one of the first to know when it's available for purchase fill in this short form.   In the meantime check out our very cool book cover and stay tuned for more details on how you can get your hands on your own copy! 

We can't wait to share our book with you. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Still Affected, Many Years Later: The Impact of Teacher

Today I attended a fantastic professional development opportunity which focused on the design process and making. I was part of a group of four and together we went through the process of design thinking followed by creating a prototype for a new and improved lunch kit. As a team we had many great ideas.  However when it came time to use the tools to bring our idea to life, I struggled.  It wasn't that I couldn't add to the ideas, and help with the design, it was that I really had a fear of using the tools to create.

You see back when I was in grade eight sewing and art something happened in both classes that still haunts me to this day. I never really realized how badly it has affected me but it was very obvious today as I tried to be hands on with my group as we began to create the prototype of our idea.  You see when I was in both grade eight sewing and grade eight art my teachers used my products as the examples of what not to do.  In one case my work was referred to as a "dog's breakfast".  Needless to say I've never felt so humiliated.

To cope I developed strategies, I'd come to class when no one was there and make sure my work was not in sight.  I'd do my sewing when no one was really around - before/after school or over lunch etc. I did complete all the required projects - yes I even made a jacket - but I showed no one anything I made.

Art class was the same. I'd sneak in and grab my work when no one was looking. There was no way that I was going to be humiliated in front of my peers again.

Fast forward to today, and I'm back in a maker environment. I've got tons of ideas and have a real vision for what our product should look like.  I listen well and feel I'm a good group member. But when it came to actually using tools to create I nearly froze.  I was able to clearly direct what I wanted to be done, but I could not do it on my own.  In fact I made just one cut with a knife before passing it off to someone one else. I was truly afraid that I was going to mess up our project. Crazy right?

I'm still baffled several hours later at how much the "making" process flooded me with these terrible memories from high school.  I know the whole thing is irrational but it's crazy how much of an impact it has had on me.

So please, if you have a student who may not have the strongest skill set in a particular area honour them for where they are at. Provide with the support and guidance to help them improve but DO NOT humiliate them to the point that it still affects them many years later.

As a side note, when it came time to show case our finished prototypes I received rave reviews for my selling capabilities. That made me laugh, and smile. After the flood of negative memories, I needed that.

So, when you are making in your classroom, be mindful that there may be a student like me. One who has had a bad experience with making even though the rational side of their brain knows better.

And as an educator, be good to your students always. Even, or more likely especially when they are struggling.  We have an impact far deeper than we probably realize.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Learning to Listen

One of my big goals has been to listen more and speak less. By listening more I mean to listen with the intent to understand, not just to listen to hear.  This has been a particularly important goal with my students this year although it really started back a few years ago when I taught an inquisitive young man who was often questioning what was happening in the classroom.

 It was this same young man who asked, "Ms. Lirenman why do you tell us which math station to go to and why can't we just choose our own"?  The first response that popped into my head (and thankfully stayed there) was that I'm the teacher and I want it this way. I liked the control it gave me to keep the class organized and well run. I liked that it meant every student would make it to every activity. I liked it that way.  But I didn't say that instead I said, "let me think about it". 

I went home that weekend and did think about it and when I returned on Monday I told that student that he was right, and that if he and his classmates could make choices about their learning and pick the math stations that best met their learning need to fully understand the concepts we were learning about I would be cool with that.  I did say that I would jump in and support those learners who weren't able to make those choices yet, but I'd jump in with the intent to help them learn how to make those choices on their own.  

Really to no surprise, my students were amazing. I still set up the activities but they were able to make their own choices about what they needed most. Yes, I did step in at the beginning for a few students, but quickly they were successful too. They showed me what they really are cable of doing if and when I let them show me.

Fast forward a few more years.  I'm now teaching in a multi-aged, home/school blended classroom which is part of SAIL (Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning).  I have highly inquisitive students in fact I'd say that most of my class is exactly like that inquisitive young man I taught a few years back. I still write a day plan based on my students and what I know about them as learners.  I understand the curriculum and  have ideas of how we are going to learn what we are going to learn. However I've created an classroom environment where it's okay for my students to suggest other ways to meet the learning objectives. The rewards have been incredible.

My listening with the intend to better understand and know my students has paid off greatly. How are you listening to your students as a way to support their learning?

Nap Every Day: A Metaphor for Education

This past Wednesday night I was given the honour to present as one of the speakers for edvent 2016 where each speaker was asked to chose one line from Robert Fulghum's  poem Everything I Learned in Kindergarten and relate it to education.  After my first choice was already chosen by some else, the line I spoke to was "Take a Nap Every Afternoon".  

For those of you who were not able to attend, here is more or less what I said, with the images that I shared as I went.

According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary a nap is defined as a sleep in the middle of the afternoon. As a grade one, two, and three teacher I think if I tried to have a nap in the middle of the afternoon, while my students were still in class, more than likely I'd no longer have a job. Having said that though, there is a lot we can learn about from a daily nap, even if a metaphoric one.  
I'd like to start with a story, but I must admit there are many truths to my story. This year I work at SAIL, the Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning. It is a blended home school program and falls under distributed learning. My students are most likely no different than yours. They are keen, curious, eager learners. They specifically have chosen to come to SAIL and travel from all over to attend. But for some of my students there is a very specific reason why they left their previous schools. It let them down. When they entered school they thought it was a place to explore their curiosities, but instead they quickly learned it was a place to please their teachers.  Some of my students were disillusioned with the notion of school and felt their voices had little place in THEIR learning.

So again what does this story have to do with a daily nap? What can we learn from that daily nap?

A nap forces us to slow down. As educators we never have enough time. We are always in a rush - We need to cover curriculum, attend required meetings, do our supervisions, learn new things, connect with our colleagues and of course teach our students. And sometimes in the rush I think we  fail to truly get to know our students. I know I certainly can be guilty of that. We need naps to slow down so we can watch and listen more. Not watch and listen to see and hear but to understand our students better.

A nap allows us to pause and reflect. It helps us learn more about our students interests, passions and learning styles.  We learn what makes them happy and what scares them greatly.

A nap allows us to absorb all of this, and worry less about who we expect our students to be and celebrate more of who they truly are.

Each day a metaphorical nap gives us the strength and the courage to reboot and re examine our roll as an educator. We no longer have to  expect our students to do it our way, and we can be open to them learning ways that works best for them. It gives us the opportunity to put our learners back in the centre of their learning where they belong. It can help remind us to switch from saying, “this is how I’d like you to do it”  to more of  “that sounds like a great idea, I can’t wait to see how it turns out”. Regular naps give us the opportunity to make a change to better meet our students needs. Not our needs, our students needs.

And, there are perks to those naps. The process of shutting down, even for just a few minutes allow us to  refresh and be more creative. We are less frazzled and more open to new and different ideas. We can better handle adversity, and develop better resilience and our judgment gets stronger too.  

The productivity both ours and our students, goes up when we put the learning back in their hands. When we do this we support meaningful and magical opportunities for learning for our students.

We need to slow down to avoid burn out.

But more than anything, as an educator, as a mother, as a father, as a partner, as a friend, a daily nap allows us to be good to ourselves. If we aren’t good to ourselves who will be?

So slow down, strive to understand, rest your worries, and have a nap. Our students are counting on us.

Thank you.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Teaching in Beta at SAIL

This year I am teaching at a new district program with Surrey Schools called SAIL - Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning.  This is the "beta" year for the program so there is a lot more unknown than known as we create this unique learning opportunity for our students.  The students who are in my class are there because of a personal decision by their parents to find a program that hopefully better meets their child's needs at this time.  For some it's to get their child excited about coming to school again and for others it's to support their passion for science, technology, engineering, math and art. There are many other reasons why parents have chosen to take a chance and learn with us at SAIL. I feel honoured to be given such a responsibility.

SAIL is a home/school blended program and falls under the distributed learning mandate.  My students are in the building with me four days a week with some flexibility around start and end times.  In some cases the children are the building less than four days a week.  But because school is not just being done in a "brick and mortar" school I am also responsible for ensuring my students have "school work" to do with their families in their homes. It allows for the parents of my students to have a much more active role in their child's learning since they are uncovering 20% (or more) of the curriculum with them directly.  There is an important, on-going relationship between  myself, my students, and their families.

SAIL is also  multi-aged classes.   I am the official K-3 classroom teacher.  For the first few months of  school  I had quite a unique multi-aged class with students in grade one and students in grade three. Yes, you read that correct, I had a one/three without the grade twos.  Because I was missing the 'bridge" between the grades there were times that things were a bit more challenging to best meet every ones needs.  But the beauty of missing the bridge is that it really made me focus on what my students need in spite of what grade they  are officially in.  I think that's one of the beauties of teaching a multi-aged class. As much as government issued curriculum is always something I need to keep in mind, I worry far less about what "grade" each child is in and  I focus more on who they are as learners.

The slight glitch to all of this is that I do, as the teacher, have mandated curriculum that needs to be covered and so I need to find ways to uncover this curriculum in ways that work for my students.  This isn't always an easy task, particularly when uncovering content for three grade levels at once, but with the new BC curriculum, and the curricular competencies which can apply to most of my students passions, it provides me with the opportunity to uncover the curricular content in new and hopefully exciting ways.

One of the struggles I have with this home/blended learning piece is that each week I need to design home learning plans for my students that will be engaging for them, and that their families can help with  as necessary.  I also need to be mindful of the required curriculum because the reality is 20% of my students' learning is done in their own environment. (Okay that line makes me laugh because I know my students do a lot  more than 20% of their learning at home, but in terms of the BC Curriculum and what needs to be uncovered I am leading 80% in the building, and planning for the other 20% to be done in the student's home).  Each week it takes me a while to come up with ideas that are meaningful to my students and tie back to my students' learning.  I will admit some weeks I do a better job at that than others.

A couple of the more recent successful home learning plans that stick out are when we were learning about sound, and when we were learning about trout.  During out sound inquiry  one of the activities for the home learning plan involved them creating an instrument from items they found in their home, and then being able to share their instrument, and where/how the sound was made with their classmates on Monday.  It tied in with both the hands on nature of our class, the science content (for my grade one students), and the science curricular competencies for all of my students.  Click the image below to hear them play their instruments. (Or here if the image link doesn't work)

We were then able to extend the use of these instruments through classroom discussions, in music class, and with reflection.  It was an activity that went beyond the home.

A second home learning activity that made me smile was when we were studying trout in preparation to a visit to a trout hatchery. For  home learning my students were encouraged to design a habitat for a trout to show me what they had learned through our inquiry on trout, and in preparation for our field trip to a local trout hatchery.  As usual the expectations were quite open ended and the children were able to create in ways that worked best for them.  I still smile when I think of the products my students created.  Some took the time to build a trout habitat in minecraft, and explain each of the areas they built.  Others used paper and coloured pencils to draw a trout habitat.  Another used modelling clay to design their habitat.  One even programmed Dash to travel up a river and back to the home where the trout would lay its eggs.  The acceptance of these different ways of showing learning is what I believe is one of the greatest strengths of our program.  As much as I cover mandated curriculum, my focus is on my students, and finding ways to help them learn in ways they are excited about.

The program is also built around a maker mindset where I believe my students have more hands on opportunities for their learning. My students make bread most weeks and have documented the process through images, blog posts, digital books, and coding adventures.  During Valentine's Day they were expected to create their own Valentine folder's. Those folders had to hold their valentines, have their name clearly written, and have a moving part.  I'm always inspired by the way their brains work and what they are able to create.

The SAIL  program  provides me with some innovative freedoms that aren't always available in other environments. The past few years I have been innovative with my teaching when  I felt it better met my students needs.  But my innovative ideas weren't always welcomed by parents who see school in the more traditional way.  So I'm extremely fortunate to be working with children and families who are excited about new ways of teaching and learning.

 While we are still in the BETA year and our numbers are low at the moment the registration forms keep coming in for the new school year. Who knows where we'll be a year from now! #excitingtimesarehere

Curious to learn more? Check out the SAIL website.