Monday, 2 December 2013

New to Elementary Connected Classrooms

Many people still ask, “What are Elementary Connected Classrooms (ECC)?”  In the simplest terms, ECC are  a group of classrooms in different locations who connect  virtually on a regular basis to do common lessons.  The lessons are taught by a “lead” teacher at one location, and are supported at all the other locations by the regular classroom teachers.  My name is Chris Lewis, and this year I am at Lytton Elementary School, where I am the ECC teaching member of School District 74 Gold Trail (SD74).  

Since there is apparent confusion regarding the purpose of ECC, you may wonder why I not only chose to be a part of the program, but also why I am extremely excited about it.  This is my fifth year in SD74.  Since becoming a teacher, I have been constantly looking for ways to make my teaching engaging and relevant.  Engaging students is imperative.  If you have their attention, you don’t need to worry about classroom management, and students are willing to participate.  In my limited experience, students engage when the content is accessible and they see how it relates to them.  Okay, to be honest, what it comes down to is if my class is engaged, they’re having fun.  If they’re having fun, then I get to, too.  One way to engage students is with technology.

Technology is all around us.  It is ridiculous to think that computers or the Internet are only fads or that the skills to use them are not necessary for students for the future.  Technology has made information more accessible, and communication more readily available.  Administration in Gold Trail has been very supportive of making SD74 a technologically progressive district.  Like many smaller districts, we are seeing declining enrolment and our communities are getting smaller.  Smaller communities means smaller social groups.  This is where the magic of ECC enters.

Elementary Connected Classrooms connect students from different communities.  This may sound like small potatoes to those teaching in larger centers, but when you only have ~20 kids, in your whole community who are the same age, it’s a big deal.  Every day, students are connecting with communities and classrooms that are not their own.  They collaborate and socialize.  They exchange perspectives and ideas.  They also get to experience different instruction styles, and witness professional collaboration between the various teaching members.

I love teaching.  I love creating exciting lessons that will challenge and excite my students. Unfortunately, it is too easy for a classroom teacher to close their door and essentially teach in the vacuum of their room with limited outside influence.  In this situation, who is challenging the teacher?  In ECC, we are exposed.  We teach in front of our peers.  Regularly!  We each teach 1-2 ECC lessons a week. I know that is not that much, but that makes the lessons we do all that much better.  Not only do we need a great lesson for when we teach, but we need a lesson so powerful that we will engage and excite students in three other towns.  This is exciting stuff!  The ECC model may have begun as a way to deal with low enrolment, but the ECC experience  has been, in some ways, better than a mere solution.  It has improved teaching!

ECC is also an exciting way for students to expand peer groups.  It is a way for students to share their ideas and be heard.  It is passionate teachers doing what they love—with the benefit of feedback!—and students are reaping the rewards.  I am a part of this program because it makes me the best teacher I can possibly be.  It challenges me and forces me to adapt and improve.  I am not in a vacuum.  I am excited.  I am a teacher.

I hope this blog clarifies some of the misconceptions surrounding Elementary Connected Classrooms.  It is my intension to share some of my experiences participating in this program.  

Saturday, 30 November 2013

ECC Fall Highlights

I don't know how it came to be the last day of November. I'm thinking that the Elementary Connected Classrooms (ECC) is a good example of that old saying, "time flies when you're having fun!" We've certainly had fun while learning in the ECC this fall. Here are highlights from the last couple of months:

From three to four schools!

This year the ECC expanded! Instead of three schools as in the past, we are now a group of four! Last year the offer was extended to the remaining three schools in the district that did not have an ECC class. This was basically an invitation to come and learn what the ECC was all about and, if the interest was high, to join in. Well, Mrs. Patterson, teaching at Cache Creek Elementary took on the challenge and, thanks to her, Cache Creek Elementary students in her grade 5/6/7 class are now a part of the ECC! We have a full screen now when video conferencing and it's fantastic to bring in another teacher with fantastic ideas and a passion for working with students. Plus it's great to have another class full of peers to make friends and learn with!

All Four ECC Schools Onscreen During a Connected Lesson
The Gathering

Late last month, Ashcroft Elementary hosted our first gathering! All four classes met in Ashcroft and headed off to a local ranch to pick pumpkins at the pumpkin patch, run through the 'Haunted Barn' and snack on delicious fresh picked apples! It was a wonderful opportunity to finally meet teachers and students from all four schools in person. Some were shy at first, but that's the norm for the first gathering. It was the first opportunity to build relationships in person and enjoy a shared experience together. Thank you very much Ms Marlow and the Ashcroft Smarties for a great day!

Picking Pumpkins and Taking Photos at the Pumpkin Patch

Most Memorable Lessons

One of the best things about the ECC is that when you have four teachers working together instead of one, the students (and teachers) experience a whole range of lessons, teaching styles and enthusiasm. Each teacher brings their own uniqueness to each lesson and the daily learning environment is enriched because of it. I think, too, that because we are teaching our colleagues' students, and teaching in front of our colleagues, that we ensure our ECC lessons are the very best they can be. And teachers working together and setting the bar high create some very memorable lessons!

I've been leading students through a digital photography unit focused on having students learn about and learn how to use the elements and principles of design. Students love taking photos and they are really learning how to 'see' in a different way: more observant, more careful, more thoughtful. Students are building a bank of photos to be used in a variety of projects throughout the year including image editing in January and Digital Storytelling in the Spring. Finally, sharing student photos between the classes in a powerful way to enhance community building in our unique learning environment!

Mrs. Patterson led students through a series of fantastic lessons inspired by MindUp: mindful seeing, mindful smelling and the student's favorite, mindful tasting! She starts each connected lesson with mindful breathing, playing the chime and helping students to settle in and get ready to learn. Students love it and they are learning a variety of skills and concepts along the way!

Ms Marlow and her students have captured our interest with dramatic group readings of stories during her Writing Power lessons. Instead of just reading the book to students in her weekly connected lesson, she had the brilliant idea of assigning character's dialogue to different students in her class. What emerges through the connection is not only the illustrations and text on the SmartBoard, but also a live, drama performance on screen! This has absolutely hooked students (and teachers!) and we love to watch and here the stories as they unfold!

The most memorable moment, for me, anyway, has to be when Mr. Lewis dissected a cow eyeball live using the document camera during a connected Science lesson. I'm sorry, but there's not much that can compete with that for novelty, cool factor and grossness all at once! Many of my students are still talking about the "best connected lesson ever!" and I'd have to agree that it will be pretty tough to top! I'm guessing though that Mr. Lewis will find a way to set his own personal teaching bar even higher!

Dissecting a Cow Eyeball
One note about the eyeball. We live in ranch country, and this was donated by a ranching family for Mr. Lewis to use for Science and learning purposes.

That's a quick recap of some of the great things happening in the ECC so far this year!

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Back to School, ECC Style!

Well, school here in BC is in the third week of classes already! The year is off to a great start and I had to share the excellent beginning we have had in the ECC!

Two of the novels we decided on for the first round of
online literature circles starting in October.

In the last post, which I wrote the day before our first collaboration planning day, I was full of questions, not a surprising state to be in the week before school starts! I have to say that the collaboration planning day was wonderful and by the end of the day I was super excited and thankful to be working with such a great team of people this year! We talked about everything from novels toconferencing to community gatherings that day. Once they get settled into the ECC, I'm sure you'll see posts here by our newest team members, Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Patterson, introducing themselves in this space.

There is a huge amount of effort and many, many people involved in making the ECC start up each year. We need to have a combined effort involving the teachers, the admin at each school, the district tech team, many district staff at the board office and sometimes other departments in the school district such as the carpenters/electricians. Many, many people contribute to the amazing learning environment for the ECC students.

This year, I was amazed, proud, and thankful, that the ECC completed start-up as planned because this summer, the entire district went through, and continues to go through, a major technology overhaul. Some of the overhaul included new laptops throughout the district, new wireless ports and wiring to those ports, a new image on the computer and exciting new ways to use the computers. That's a HUGE undertaking! And in the midst of it all, we needed our new addition to the ECC, a classroom at Cache Creek Elementary, outfitted with video conferencing equipment, in addition to making sure that the video conferencing and desktop sharing systems were all up and running in the other three rooms.

All four Elementary Connected Classrooms connected
via video conferencing for our first lesson together!
Well, the tech department and many, many others, came through for the kids. The ECC started as planned with four separate video conferenced teacher and classroom introduction lessons. I have to say, when I first saw all four classrooms on that screen together, I almost cried! I admit to being filled with all sorts of emotions when that first connection worked. It really did feel like a new beginning of something really amazing.

My lasting impression of that moment when I saw all four classrooms connected together on that screen was that I was overwhelmed with excitement for the students. I was excited for all 100 kids, my class...our class, who get to learn in such a cool, innovative, student-focused way. Nobody else does exactly what we do here in SD74 with Connected Learning, and I'm thrilled that I can be a part of something so great for kids.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

2013-2014 School Year Start-up in the ECC

A new year in the Elementary Connected Classrooms (ECC) is about to begin! Tomorrow marks the official start of the preparation as the ECC team will meet for our back to school planning day. We take one day the week before school starts each year to collaborate and plan together. It's a great way to get motivated, get organized and come up with a fantastic start to the year for all the ECC students about to begin!

This year we have expanded from three to four school sites connecting each day. Cache Creek Elementary is now on board! Also, we have a new teacher taking over at Lytton Elementary. Both teachers are used to stepping outside their comfort zones to make learning exciting and relevant for their students, both enjoy working collaboratively, and both are experienced using technology to enhance the learning environment too. It's exciting to be working with them this year!

One of the new laptops all ready for back to school!

Another change this year is that each ECC student and teacher will be working on a brand, new laptop this year. Every computer in the entire district was replaced this summer as part of School District #74's ambitious technology plans that are moving our district along for the purpose of staying current for our students. I'm sure the students will be thrilled to be working on new machines - I know I am!

One thing I'm looking forward to is deciding how to grow the ECC this year to fit this group of students, their families, and all the communities we live in. I also seem to be full of questions right now. Aside from one additional site, what will we do differently in the ECC this year? What will we change? How can we improve? How can we grow as a learning community this year?

I have many questions heading into the collaboration meeting tomorrow and my head, at this point, feels very open and enthusiastic. I'm sure the back to school panic will set in later this week, but for now I'll enjoy the hope and possibilities to come!

Thursday, 18 April 2013

"What's your inquiry Ms G?"

At our most recent collaborative planning day, the Elementary Connected Classroom (ECC) team spent some time looking at the focus for our professional development next year. I left the planning day feeling super excited that the focus for our professional learning next year is going to be centered around inquiry-based learning.

Thinking about that prompted me to write this post outlining a brief history of the Inquiry Project in the ECC. There is so much more that I want to write about this; I'm having a tough time deciding what to write next! But, before anything else, I need to thank Evander. It's important that I do that first.

Evander is a student in my class (not his real name). Recently, at the start of an inquiry block, I led students through a quick demo to show what a new, deeper layer of inquiry questions could look like. Afterwards, Evander came over and asked me a seemingly simple question.

"What's your inquiry Ms G?"

I thought for a minute. I stopped and honored that question - the first telling aspect to this little story is that I did stop and listen and think carefully before responding to this bright-eyed, curious, eager-looking ten year old standing in front of me. I started to say that two years ago I did my own inquiry for my Masters Degree, and then I started to say that a few years before that I did a few inquiries about technology in the classroom, but then I stopped myself. Again. The second stop? Also very telling.

I stopped and thought to myself, you know, that's a good question. Why don't I have an inquiry right now? And so I looked at Evander and answered him: "You know Evander, that's a great question and you know what else? I'm going to start an inquiry project right now and my inquiry project is that I want to learn more about the inquiry project."

That answer absolutely satisfied and thrilled him like it could only have satisfied and thrilled a ten year old. His serious and complete acceptance of my answer was absolutely precious - he was so excited, and so proud to be the one to have asked the question that prompted all this - have I said I love my job lately? I LOVE my job. That moment when he showed me how happy he was for me and his sincere acceptance of my response reminded me yet again that I love what I do each day.

So, Evander stood there and watched while I typed out a list of ten questions, ten things that I wonder about and want to learn about the Inquiry Project. He and I were both amazed at how quickly I was able to pour out ten decent questions; obviously this is something that's been on my mind and, interestingly enough, since writing out those ten questions, I have felt SO much better. I must have been overdue for some inquiry about inquiry.

I thanked Evander. He smiled one of those big, genuine smiles that fixes the world, if but for a second. And then off he went to work on his slideshow about poisonous snakes. He's WAY ahead of me, already working on his presentation while I've just written out my first set of questions. Guess I have some catching up to do...

Monday, 15 April 2013

Inquiring about the Inquiry Project

Similar version of this post is cross-posted in my own professional blogging space here.

For three years, the Elementary Connected Classrooms (ECC) project has run a year long, collaborative inquiry project. At my first planning meeting, as a brand new, member of the ECC, I was handed the article, 'Learning in Depth: Students as Experts' written by Kieran Egan. This article was the first piece I'd ever read on Egan's take on inquiry-based learning. While I had constantly enjoyed project-based learning before reading that article, and I had read An Imaginative Approach to Teaching, another of Egan's popular works, my practice since reading that article on 'Students as Experts' has not been the same!

The ECC team read through and discussed how we could integrate the whole idea of an inquiry project into our collaborative learning space. We decided to devote each Friday's video conferencing lesson to the inquiry project. We would take turns planning lessons and being the lead teacher, which meant that every three weeks each of us would be responsible to teach the next lesson in the unit. Student choice was built in as a crucial ingredient and we quickly realized the the context of the inquiry project would also be a great way to teach students a variety of other skills such as how to effectively search for information online and how to evaluate websites. We also recognized we could merge curricular content from Social Studies, English Language Arts, Science and more to create a truly cross-curricular learning opportunity full of multiple ways for students to connect ideas and experience deep learning.

One area that still proves to be a challenge is explaining how this all works to parents. They want to know how it's marked, what subject this fits into (a whole bunch depending on the topic the student chooses and the way in which they decide to learn about their topic!) and where this way of teaching/learning comes from. It's great to have all the questions and communication lines opening between home and school and it sure keeps me on my toes as far as being able to articulate exactly what we are doing, how it all comes together as the year goes along and why we are doing it.

A quick and accessible document created to help parents understand what the inquiry project is all about can be found here. It needs to be updated as the project has evolved each year based on the students but that document has proven to be an invaluable starting point for planning purposes as well as communicating with others. Thanks to my colleague, Brooke Haller, for giving me permission to share that as she's the one who originally wrote it up.

One tricky aspect to all this is that the inquiry project never looks the same two years in a row; it doesn't even look the same from student to student within one lesson, not to mention from week to week and class to class. Inquiry is a path of learning that leads into the unknown every, single time. It can be really challenging to lead thirty students down thirty completely separate learning paths, and it's about as non-traditional as any method I've explored as a teacher, but it is amazing when the learning starts to deepen and kids start getting super excited about what they're learning. It's the palpable positivity of the learning process during inquiry working time and the pride and ownership that students show once they get rolling along that makes it a tangible, worthwhile project to embark upon.

There's much more writing to come on this! I needed to start somewhere, but I'm thinking I need to stop somewhere too, for now, at least. If you have any experience teaching from an inquiry-based point of view, I'd love to hear from you. Or, send this along to anyone you think may have some thoughts to contribute. I'm officially embarking on my inquiry about inquiry-based learning, something I unofficially started three years ago when I read that first article. The fact that it's taken me three years to get to this point and actually write about it attests to the messiness of my own learning process here. I'm hoping that the writing will straighten out my path, just a little bit.

Imagery - Night Falls 3 by thebmag and Nature Trail #4 by Chalkie_CC, both accessed on April 15, 2013 from and used with Creative Commons permissions.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Second Gathering of the Year!

Time to get caught up on the ECC! Many things to share, but I want to start with the most important of the recent events - the Second Gathering!

The banner my students made to wave at our peers as they arrived! Students from all three classes signed it at lunch.
Back in October, the Smarties invited us to their school for the day. We spent that day running around a local pumpkin patch, finding perfect pumpkins and then enjoying a wagon ride and apples fresh from the orchards! We had a great time at the Smarties' school and were sad to leave at the end of the day. That First Gathering is always interesting because it's a time for students to meet face to face, often for the first time. Some have a few friends already as our communities are not too far apart and sports and other activities do bring kids together outside of school. It is interesting to see the interactions that occur as the students do come together as one large group for the first time.

The Second Gathering, always held at the Rec Center in my community, is a fun-filled day too! Students enjoy the pool, have lunch together and then go skating together in the afternoon before boarding the bus to head home. The neat thing about the Second Gathering is that the group has been connected and learning together via the video conferencing lessons, the moodle and in other ways for ~5 months and the peer-to-peer and student-teacher interactions are very different from those at the First Gathering. It is clear that learning relationships are developing and students interact much more between the three classes at the Second Gathering. They are also more trusting of the three teachers and it's wonderful to talk with my two colleagues and all the students face to face! I recognize the voices before the faces and do my best to attach names to as many students as I can so that I can continue to deepen that student-teacher learning relationship for the remainder of the year. While I try as hard as I can to attach names to faces at the First Gathering too, they never seem to stick as well as they do after half the year teaching and learning in our unique environment!

The other wonderful thing about the Gathering was that we had another great turnout of parents and other family members! First off, it was very helpful to have a dozen extra pairs of hands to tie on 80 pairs of skates!! Aside from practicalities though, it's great to bring families into the ECC. I was so happy to meet the grandmother of a student from Lytton and it was wonderful for the parents of my students to be able to meet Mrs. Sayenchuk for the first time. The connecting of not only the students and staff, but also the parents, of the three communities is powerful and wonderful to see in person. 

It was a great day and an important reminder of the reality of what we do in our Connected Classrooms each day. We are building a learning community. We do need the face to face to make it work, but the way we are teaching each day is building that community too.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Weekly Pro D

For 2 years now I have had Photoshop Elements sitting on my home computer.  Each time I turned on my computer I would look at it and tell myself that as soon as I got a chance I would sit down and learn how to use it. 

This year in Connected Classrooms Photoshop Elements was added to the student computers for them to learn and use in the weekly lessons with Errin.  Each week the students spend time exploring the different functions within the program while editing their photos.  Listening to the Errin's lessons and exploring the program with the students  has created a great learning opportunity for me, as well as the students.  I am now getting that time and instruction in learning the program that I had always planned for. 

This is the great thing about Connected Classrooms.  It not only provides the opportunity for students to learn from teachers with different strengths and from each other, it also provides the opportunity for us as teachers to learn from each other and the students.  During a meeting it was said that as teachers in Connected Classrooms we are experiencing Pro D every week with the lessons each teacher does.  This is something I truly believe.  Each week we are sharing our knowledge and passions with each other as well as the students.  While others have to plan for a single day of collaboration, we are incorporating this into our regular classroom schedules.

So often we look at the benefits for students when deciding to try something new in a classroom, and not at the effects and benefits for teachers.  The Connected Classroom project has provided a unique learning opportunity for the students and the teacher, something that I am very thankful for.