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I spent this past weekend in Banff at the Middle Years Council Conference where I did a session on using technology to improve communication and make our learning public, and listening to a number of good presentations. The two speakers that inspired this post were Phil McRae and Shelley Wright, as they both helped me tie together a few ideas I have been having trouble connecting.

Phil McRae spoke about where education is going in the future and talked about two specific areas we need to be concerned about – Technology and Parenting. The point I took away from his talk came at the end when a question was posed to him about how we can best focus on helping our kids for an ever-changing future and Phil’s response was that we needed to teach them Resiliency.

Shelley’s talk was amazing, she told great stories of the work she has done with her students and the power she found in giving up control of her room, her classes and her teaching to her students. It was an engaging 90 minutes, and the point that really hit home with me was when she talked about how her kids worked so hard and gave more than she had ever thought they could because the work they were doing had Meaning.

During our Innovation Week, there was a common theme we found amongst the really special projects our students were able to complete. We found that when the students took on a really challenging, but meaningful project, they all hit a moment where they were Stuck. A point in the project where the progress hit a stand still and the group or individual was put to the test. How would they move forward? WOULD they move forward? What we found in those that created great work is that they did find the motivation, or inspiration, to continue and to find the answer they needed on how to progress. In the end, they would all talk about how they didn’t know what to do or where to go, but that they kept at it and in persevering, found the path to success.

Resilience. We have all heard that its an important attribute to instill in our students, but how often has that comment been followed by “… and this is How”. Its very easy to say Resiliency but a heck of a lot harder to figure out how to introduce it, teach it, develop it, challenge it. I am not writing this post to tell you I know how, but I think with our Innovation Week project, we have found one method to create the opportunity for students to develop resiliency. I believe that one way we can foster resiliency is to create learning opportunities that follow this progression:


A) Start with Excitement

We need to create learning opportunities that get kids excited. Listening to Shelley talk about the projects she had done with her students, and the amazing results they were able to achieve just reinforced this idea for me. When we give our students the chance, they will exceed our expectations, but we have to provide them work they believe is exciting.


B) Get Our Students Stuck

We have to help students get stuck. This is a big challenge, and maybe one that you end up failing more than you succeed at in the beginning, but worth it if you are able to figure it out. We have to help students find projects that are challenging enough that they can’t just breeze through it, and not so difficult that they could never find success. With our Innovation Week, there was definitely a selection of student groups who were able to find that key zone of challenge, one that pushed them to the edge but that they were able to persevere through and complete. Yes, there were groups that fit on either side of this zone, some who chose work far too easy and some who tackled tasks that were a little beyond their abilities. When it comes to the ones that found that right level of challenge, maybe it was just luck, or maybe it was that these students had a very developed ability to judge their own potential. Maybe with more opportunities, the rest of the students who didn’t quite find the right challenge would develop this awareness as well. Maybe, if we know our students well enough, we can help guide them towards projects that are the right level of challenge for them, remembering that we WANT them to struggle.


C) Meaningful Enough To Work Through

Now that we have them “stuck”, what is going to happen? Well I believe that if the work is personally meaningful enough to the student, they will do what it takes to keep going. If the work isn’t meaningful enough, there is a chance, probably a pretty strong chance, that the student could shut down or walk away. We have all seen it in our classes, I know for me the clear memory I have is of trying to teach a class Trigonometry and a student being so frustrated by not getting the ratios that he blew up and ended up having to be removed to the hallway. So how do we make the work meaningful enough? My best bet is Choice. The reason that projects like Genius Hour are so successful, and that we see the best work come from our kids during these projects, is that inherently there is always meaning for the student doing the work. Innovation Week for us provided our students the meaning in their work to push through challenge and literally practice resiliency.


If we are going to teach students to be resilient we are going to have to have them practice being resilient. We want them to know what it feels like to be frustrated, to feel lost or helpless, to feel like they are at a dead end. That is not pleasant, and if we don’t give them the meaning in their work to want to see it to its completion, they won’t persevere. We found our Innovation Week provided a solid blueprint for this type of practice, but what has worked for you? I’d love to hear what lessons or activities you find provide your students a great experience in resilience.

Engagement is Enough!

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Ad@mK

I love when a metaphor is so clearly portrayed in a picture. We have all heard this one… parent spends an exorbitant amount of money on a toy for their child only to have the child get more out of the box itself. The parent always tells the story as a funny but frustrating anecdote, and with a sigh, laughs at the silliness of it all. In the end, they have a happy baby, excited to play and that’s all that matters.

I have been spending a lot of my free time reading and discussing a number of innovative projects being done by people all over the place. I’ve spent time discussing Genius Hour on the hashtag #geniushour and today, was lucky enough to hang out with the first lady of Genius Hour, Gallit Zvi (tomorrow I am spending the morning in her class for their Genius Hour!). I have been reading about Passion Projects and Fed Ex Days, and of course Innovation Day/Innovation Week. My morning today was spent at the Inquiry Hub with David Truss, hearing how they are able to provide students with the time and space to really take ownership of their learning. Speaking with Gallit and David, you can see their pride in their students and the amazing projects they are doing. They are eager to share just how driven their students are when working on work they care about.

As I read and converse more and more with other people considering these projects, I often hear questions about how the projects are assessed and how they connect with curriculum, and while these are valid questions, they always seemed to irk me a little. I felt like people needed to experience these projects for themselves to see the real power they possess, and if they did, they might not be so worried about the assessment or curricular ties. You see the real power in these projects is the engagement that results in our students when they are given the power to direct their learning. I saw it during our Innovation Week, and I have read about the same reaction is students experiencing Genius Hour, Passion Projects and Fed Ex Days. Kids get excited about learning.

To me, that is reason enough to try one of these projects. After our innovation week, there was excitement residue all over the place. Students talked about their projects, and what they were going to do for the next innovation week. Innovation-style activities started popping up all over our building as teachers embraced the energy from the week and re-created it in their rooms. If we can do projects that get students excited to come to school then we are creating a culture in our buildings of eager students who value learning. Isn’t that a good start for any building?

Eventually, we can add the curricular connections we want our students to make, and we can find appropriate ways to assess their learning, but it doesn’t have to be the driving force behind every learning experience we provide our students. Creating a passion for learning, an engaged young person will pay dividends for us in every lesson we teach so for now Engagement is Enough. We get our excited student the same way we get the excited baby happy just to play with the box, and we can be ok with a student who is just excited to learn as well. If having students excited to learn and engaged in the process is something important to you, think about giving one of these projects a try. While it may not hit the outcomes or end up with a grade on it, I am willing to bet it will be one of the most enjoyable experiences you’ll ever have as an educator.

Let Them Discover

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I spent some time on my spring break going back over things I favorited on Twitter or put into my “read later” places. One of them was a great interview by Jeff Herb on his podcast Instructional Tech Talk, where he interviewed Jessica Pack and John Stevens about their 20% projects. It was great to hear the two of them discuss how they set up and ran the 20% project in their buildings and the wonderful results they saw with their students. I was lucky enough to attend a Google Apps For Education Summit in Edmonton in February and saw a session by Sean Williams on Google 20% time. He shared stories of people doing similar projects and had a teacher from California connect with us over Google Hangouts to share his story as well. Their are a number of great posts out there on why Google 20% time is beneficial in education (here and here) as well as posts about how it is going in schools all over the place (here and here).

The Google 20% model has a lot in common with what Gallit Zvi is doing with her Genius Hour projects, and what Josh Stumpenhorst is doing with his Passion Projects and Innovation Day. Students having choice in what they learn about, freedom to learn in their own way, not limited by schedule or structure, and students excited about the learning. Josh’s Innovation Day inspired us to run our own Innovation Week this past December. It was an overwhelming success and every day I am at school I am asked by at least one student when our next Innovation Week will take place (Innovation Week 2 coming this June!).

I don’t think there are many educators out there that are surprised by the success of any one of these initiatives. I believe most of us are well aware of the power in transferring the responsibility for learning to our students, and the impact that it has on the engagement of our students when they are given the responsibility. I do think that some educators are afraid of giving up so much of the control of the learning in their classroom. Most have made the transition from stand and deliver to guiding the learning, but this goes even further. We have gone from providing the information to providing the right questions, but with initiatives like these, we want the students to be asking the questions as well.

So what is it that we do as teachers when we undertake one of these learning initiatives?

What I believe we do is we help students to discover whatever it is they are passionate about and are excited to learn about. I believe our job goes from crafting the powerful questions that challenge our students to helping students find ways to challenge themselves. Katherine von Jan recently wrote in her post entitled “Pursue Passion: Demand Google 20% Time at School”:

Real break-through happens when we are free from others’ expectations and driven by individual passion.

I believe this includes us when it comes to the “others expectations”. We can’t judge what our students are passionate about, but we can help shape the experience to improve the chances it will have real depth and meaning. Katherine speaks eloquently to this idea as well when she says:

For example, if a child is inspired by bridges, why not start there and let the learning follow their curiosity? They may need to learn calculus to build a bridge, but then they have a reason to love and seek calculus, rather than calculus being a requirement. They may need to understand the history, policy and politics of getting a bridge approved. Or team-building to get all the right talent on board.

Our job can be to find the connections to deeper learning in the questions that come from each development in the project. During our Innovation Week, the single greatest commonality among all of the best projects was a shared moment of struggle. Every group that was able to take their Innovation Week project to amazing places found some time where they were stuck. What each of these groups also found was that they were able to overcome this impasse and stagnation by finding a way to solve the problem. It was in these moments that they sought out a new solution, consulted teachers, classmates, websites, pictures etc and they developed a plan.

Our group that built the functioning hovercraft began with a plan to use a lawnmower engine to power it. When they constructed the hovercraft and found it would not float, they tried increasing the number of airholes on the bottom, and they tried altering the position of the engine, but nothing worked. They realized after multiple tests and failures that the engine was too heavy, and in developing a new plan to use a lighter leaf-blower engine they learned far more than just physics. When our students choose topics they are truly passionate about, they will show greater resiliency than we could have ever expected. They will seek out further understanding and they will find solutions to problems that we may not have thought our students could solve.

We talk all the time about how our students can show us so much when given the chance, but then we subject them to learning that never provides that chance. What these projects all share in common is the ability to provide our students with as a great a challenge as they are capable of. Sure, it also provides us with just as many opportunities for our students to fail, but we all know these experiences are just as important as the successful ones. I think this is even more powerful when we distance the assessment as far from the project itself, as we can. We should assess our students skills and competencies during these projects but through observation and through the assessment of their reflections NOT by assessing the actual success of the project. If we can help our students understand that we want to assess their learning, and that failure is just as much a part of learning as succeeding, hopefully these projects can instill a passion for risk-taking, creativity and innovation.

I know how powerful these activities can be. Our innovation week was the most eye-opening and invigorating 5 days of my education career. I also know from experience that it can be a bit scary to undertake one of these activities. It all comes back to the idea of modelling for our students that we are learners too, and that we aren’t afraid to take risks and to chance failure if it is going to provide us the chance to grow. I know that if you are reading this, you are someone who wants to see the best education for our students, and knowing what these initiatives can provide them is reason enough to give them a try.

Innovation Week Day 5 – Taking Flight

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Andy.Schultz

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
― Leonardo da Vinci

I have always loved this quote. In conversation with George Couros at our Innovation Week wrap up he talked about the scene in the Matrix with the Red and Blue pill. Both are fitting, I find mine a little more eloquent though.

But I’ll come back to that…

Yesterday was our final day of our Innovation Week. We finished the week with an Open House, with each individual or group set up at tables to show case their work to the rest of the school and to the parents and members of the community that attended. It was a really great couple of hours with students proudly displaying their projects, walking each passer by through each component, and eagerly explaining the step-by-step processes that took place to complete them. For these students, they became the star of the show, as the people walked around to see just what they had done. It felt great to see that our project was able to make celebrities out of learners.

After the Open House we finished with an assembly just for the students involved in Innovation Week. We rode our Principal in on a hovercraft built by three Gr. 9 students (trust me, there will be a post about these three young men and their project). We had a selected number of groups come up and show their projects, and gave them the microphone to talk about their experiences during the week. There were many cheers and a great deal of excitement, especially when our Principal let them know that there would be another Innovation Week coming sometime this school year.

While there are things we will do differently, we were very pleased with the event (see post from our happy Principal here). I think a lot of great learning came out of this week for us as a staff and we have a lot of sharing and reflecting to do when we return from the break.

Which brings me back to my conversation with George…

As we walked around the Open House, we talked about the impact the event would have on our students. George talked about how after an event like this, any type of “old school” lesson just wasn’t going to cut it for these kids anymore. I have to agree, and I believe our next step is to pursue ways for us to implement Innovation-style activities into our day to day teaching. Whether it is in a one hour class, over the course of a unit or in a week long project, ensuring that students have a chance to choose what they study, how they do their work, or what they produce, will foster the innovative learning we are hoping for.

I would hope that if you are reading this and you have an Innovation activity that you have used or read about that you would share it here, or if you have ideas or tips for our next Innovation Week those would be great as well. Josh Stumpenhorst, the creator of Innovation Day, and Matt Bebbington, who ran his own Innovation Day in England, both helped me a great deal in bringing Innovation Week to our staff and students, and we would love to help anyone else looking to run a similar event. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any of the details further. There will be more Innovation Week posts to come, as there is so much more to reflect on and discuss, but as for the week recaps, that’s a wrap.


Innovation Week Day 3 & 4

Wow. What an amazing four days it has been. New learning experiences for students that are bound to be ones they won’t soon forget. Novel opportunities for students to be successful, and proud of their accomplishments. Positive, growth-provoking interactions between student – teacher, student – student and student – community where learning was the end goal and motivation was never in question.

I believe the biggest reason why this week has been so successful is because it has provided so many of the goals that we strive for in our teaching throughout the year, only those goals have happened almost completely without a great deal of teacher involvement, input or design. So often we strive for a learning experience that will provide our students with choice, challenge and curiosity. We try to provide opportunities for all of our students to enjoy success. We work so hard to meet our students at their level, and then do our best to help them improve and grow. Innovation Week has done some or all of these things for a number of our students.

As I said in the previous post, I will try to write about all of these topics and more in the coming weeks, as we break down the week and reflect on all aspects of the project. For now I want to continue along the lines of providing ideas on how this could be done in other buildings, and discuss some of the issues we dealt with during the week.


As the week progressed, some students finished their projects earlier then they had planned. Other students had difficulty with staying focused and on task for such a lengthy period of time. In a couple instances, groups decided to scrap their projects. The way we decided to tackle this was by being flexible with individual student needs. Students were able to go back to their classes for a short period of time, for the entire morning or afternoon or even for the rest of the day and then allowed to return to their project at a later time. Some students left their Innovation Week projects and helped other groups, attended their gym classes, or wrote tests their classes were having. Doing a project for the first time with 260 students ranging from Grades 5 to 9, we expected there would be some of these challenges. The key of course was having flexible staff who were able to handle the flow of students in and out of their classes while still maintaining a positive learning environment for those students who were not taking part in Innovation Week.

Lack of Assistance in Certain Areas

Specifically technology. We have a pretty dynamic staff, and while we are lucky to have a few teachers who excel in the arts, a couple teachers who are great with hands-on type mechanical work, and a number of staff who know their way around a computer and an iPad, we were still short with help a lot of the time. It didn’t take long for us to realize that in many cases, the best helpers were the students themselves. We quickly identified who was good with certain devices or software, who had recorded music before, who had built and launched rockes before, and those students were enlisted to help other students. They did it willingly, and certainly drew a sense of pride from being the “expert”. I think if any school were to do an Innovation Week style event, identifying “In-house Experts” would be a good way to bolster your assistant numbers and to give those students a chance to be the teacher to others.

Opportunity to Connect with Community

We didn’t do enough when it came to this… really, I didn’t do enough. A colleague, who also happens to be one of our Learning Coaches in the building, suggested this project would have been a good opportunity to connect with “Experts” in our community, even if it meant taking the students TO THEM. In a couple instances we did that, with a group heading to a bakery to learn and ask questions for their baking project, and other groups that had people come into the building to help them. What we should have done was make “Outside Experts” a component of the proposal process. With enough time, every student could find someone to meet with, either at their place of work, in our school, over Skype or at worst over the phone. Connecting our students to resources outside of their day to day lives would be a valuable learning experience for when they encounter issues in adulthood, either at their job or at home.


Tomorrow we have the students present their projects in an Open House-style setting, and we will see how many of them were able to create projects they are proud of. Day 5 will be a big day, and one I’m sure I’ll have lots to write about when its over.

If you are reading this and you have any questions or comments, please leave them. While we would love to help other schools do this, we are also already starting to plan Innovation Week #2 and we would love input on how to make the next one even better for our students.

Innovation Week Day 1 & 2

Photo 12

Well two days are in the books. I’m tired, but it’s a good tired. We started the week off strong and the wave of energy and enthusiasm continues. We can only hope that the kids and the staff can keep it rolling.

When it comes to writing about our Innovation Week project its one of those rare times when I have an overly abundant number of ideas I could write about. I could tell you about the way the staff of our school have done such an amazing job of inspiring and motivating our students’ learning regardless of the certain mental and physical fatigue all us educators feel in the last week before the holiday. I could tell you about the amazing engagement and excitement coming from our students, the outstanding depth and magnitude of their projects and the way they are pulling together, helping each other out and working as one large and effective learning community. I could also write about how initiatives like Innovation Week, and so many others like it, are the antidote to the status quo and the way forward if we are truly going to help our system break free from the old model of prescribed curriculum and standardized tests. I could write about all of those wonderful topics (and probably will at some time) but in these posts I really just want to give you an idea of how we are making Innovation Week work, and how you might improve on it and run your own in your building.

Managing The Space

When all was said and done we had nearly 260 of our 540 students involved in Innovation Week, which meant we needed half the classrooms as well as the use of some of our more specific work spaces (Gymnasium, Foods Room, Flex Lab). We also needed to ensure we had adequate work spaces for the students who did not take part in the week. Because our staff was so behind the project, they were very flexible with giving up their spaces and sharing the responsibilities of supervising students. We decided to group the students by the theme of their projects and to a limited degree by grade level. We have Building Rooms, Performing Arts Rooms, a Writing Room, a Cooking Room, Tech Rooms, a Display Room, a Sewing/Craft Room, a Research Area, as well as a few other targeted work spaces. Students start their days in this room (following a daily opening assembly) but are not limited to working in these spaces. They are, however, responsible to the supervising teacher in their workspace and keep that teacher informed on where they are choosing to work. There have been some difficulties to overcome including creating a supervising schedule of teachers (we made sure everyone was a part of Innovation Week for at least one day) and creating a gym schedule (to create prep time for teachers and provide physical activity for the students in regular classes) but so far it has seemed to work. I think the keys to making this work in a building are obviously the support and flexibility of the staff, as well as being comfortable with the learning becoming a bit geographically messy.

Photo 6

Sewing Room

Photo 7

Writing Room

Photo 9

Display Room

Photo 10

Display Room

Optimizing The Impact

It is important to us that the students are getting the most out of this learning experience, so to try to ensure we were having them capture part of their own learning process we purchased everyone of them an Innovation Week Journal. In this journal, students will reflect throughout the day on what went well, what was difficult, and how the learning process evolved throughout the week. Because the supervising teachers in each Innovation Work Space, we are also having the teachers provide constructive feedback and thought provoking questions in the student journals. This gives the teacher coming into the room the next day an idea of what feedback has been given so far and how they can help the students with their projects. On Day 1 we found the reflections to be a little on the light side in some instances, so we provided some writing prompts at the end of the day to better provide direction for our students on what they could be reflecting on.

Opening Assemblies/Community Focus

Each day, we are starting with an assembly to get the ball rolling. We have shared videos on innovation and creativity to inspire our students for the day. We have gone over house keeping issues such as break times, safety and shared use of technology. We have talked about how Innovation Day began, and what the idea behind it was all about. These assemblies have been very useful in our first two days for a couple reasons. One being that this is our first Innovation Week and issues have been popping up throughout the first two days, and this gives us the ability to talk about these issues with all 260 students at once rather than trying to do PA announcements or spreading the word room to room. The other reason is that we have been able to get a bit of a community feel to develop. The students in the assembly are all there for Innovation Week and there seems to be a shared pride in that. When we started the first day, they cheered at being told it was “time to get started”. Today when we asked everyone to think about their fellow Innovation Week participants and share the technology in our building, we noticed a much smoother day when it came to sharing the Laptops, Desktops and iPads.


I haven’t had as much time as I had hoped to get into classrooms and see the projects, speak to the students and teachers and really get a feel for how each persons experience was going. I am going to try to get to more classrooms tomorrow, and document more of the week. When this is done I hope we will have a great deal of video to share as well.

For now, I will leave you with a plea to please disregard any typos, spelling mistakes or poor writing in this post, I am going to go ahead with it without the usual proofreading and re-writing. More will come, hopefully separate reflections from Days 3, 4 and 5 and hopefully with a bit more care and attention. Its 11:30pm and my wonderful experiences of the past two days have worn me ragged. I need sleep.


Ok, They’re Excited…

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Nagyman

255 approved applications. 255 excited kids ready to start working on projects they chose, on topics they care about, and under their own direction. They are excited. Excited about learning. How great is that!? Really, if that was our goal, we’d be done! And it wouldn’t have been a bad goal, to get nearly half of our students excited to learn. We could probably have let the project run its course and slept well when it was over.

But the truth is, there is a loftier goal. We have to aspire to more than just excitement about learning. We want Innovation Week to be more than a week of excited kids. We want Innovation Week to be some of the best learning these kids have ever experienced. We want Innovation Week to be some of the best learning that has ever taken place inside the walls of Greystone Centennial Middle School. You see, if we want education to move forward, its projects like this that can help that happen. We need to show the public that amazing things can happen when we break free from the old routines and tired practices. If we ever want to get away from prescribed curriculum and standardized tests, its not enough to complain, we have to provide alternatives. Projects like Innovation Week and others like it, (see here and here) help us build our case for change and for a better way.

So this coming week, even though our students have been given the chance to choose their project, plan their learning and direct their own activities, it will be us, their teachers, that will guide them towards deeper learning. We will push them to get the most out of the week, challenge them to take their projects further and help them find the real learning that exists in the week.

Imagine! Students choosing to learn about what they are interested in, and teachers there to guide them to quality learning experiences. Maybe we might be on to something…