Visiting Brightworks

Visiting Brightworks

Visiting Brightworks

Arriving a day early for the NAIS Conference in San Francisco, our team took the opportunity to visit the Brightworks school. Greeted by Founder and Education Architect Gever Tully who wrote the book 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do, I was immediately struck by the open layout and the sense of freedom and possibility in the school.

Visiting BrightworksVisiting Brightworks
Visiting BrightworksStudents can access tools to construct prototypes of nearly anything one can imagine. The more dangerous tools are placed higher on the wall, if only to give pause to a student before proceeding to utilize. Visiting BrightworksVisiting Brightworks
Visiting Brightworks We were given a tour by one of the older students who was working on an airplane when we arrived. There are no classrooms, only spaces. No classes nor grade levels, only ‘bands.’ Students gather in spaces to following specific learning arcs and/or their own learning passions and curiosities.Visiting Brightworks No lockers, only cubbies. Visiting Brightworks Visiting Brightworks Visiting Brightworks Visiting Brightworks Visiting Brightworks Visiting BrightworksA stack of “Lord of the Flies” shows that classical literature has a place in every school.
Visiting Brightworks Visiting Brightworks Spotted some familiar sights like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and some unique sites (we don’t have our own school dog yet).Visiting Brightworks Visiting Brightworks I felt right at home once the students brought out the drone. They let me try on the FPV (First Person View) goggles which puts you in the front seat of the aircraft. Visiting Brightworks Visiting Brightworks

My visit to Brightworks was both inspiring and uncomfortable. I’m so glad we had the chance to tour and learn. As someone who grew up (and taught) in fairly traditional Atlanta schools and who currently works in a school that leads in innovation, I had a lot of questions about how certain logistics worked.

Inspired by folks who are trying a different approach to educating children, I left wrestling with the healthy tension between letting curiosity (a natural motivator) drive learning v. a prescribed, strict set of require content (learning outcomes). I think there is a need (and space) for both.

What do you think? When designing a lesson, unit, classroom, school, or any learning environment, what is the best mix/balance of content and curiosity?

10 Ways e-Portfolios Increase Learning

9 Ways e-Portfolios Increase Learning10 Ways e-Portfolios Increase Learning

In schools, the use of e-portfolios is increasing as a way to enable learning, as well as a means to measure it. See Admissions Revolution (80 colleges and universities move towards use of online portfolios). There are a variety of types and purposes of e-portfolios including workspace, showcase, academic, employment, etc. This post focuses primarily on the blog as student workspace – designed as a tool to accelerate learning at any age, as well as to build capacity for being globally competitive beyond schooling. How might e-portfolios increase learning?

1) Writing – Does the importance of writing need to be explained or defended? It’s connection and value to learning is self-evident. Blogs and online journals (via e-portfolios) are a fantastic platform for encouraging and facilitating writing for learners. Whether one is expressing ideas, posing questions, or making arguments, here are more than a dozen reasons why writing is vitally important to learning.

2) Storytelling – More than just a mode of writing, storytelling precedes writing in the history of humanity. Storytelling is a powerful connector of people. Oral stories and parables are incredibly effective modes of communicating very complex ideas in a form that is accessible to the common learner. Today, exciting possibilities exist with digital storytelling, while the classic archetypes of storytelling remain as relevant as ever. Let’s teach both to our students!

9 Ways e-Portfolios Increase Learning 3) Meta-cognition – It goes by many names. Thinking about thinking. Reflecting on learning. Self-regulation. The monitoring and control of thought. The gift that keeps giving. Despite its importance in the learning process, it is not well practiced in today’s classrooms. How can e-portfolios be used to build these muscles? Teachers can supply prompts for reflection. Students can capture their reflections in writing, in voice memo, on video, on podcast, through art, etc. All of these are ripe candidates for e-portfolio demonstrations. See these K-8 meta-cognitive strategies.

The ability to learn is not a fixed quantity (read Dweck’s ‘Mindset’). Members of our team have modeled meta-cognition through the reconfiguring of physical space, as well as the emotional environment as key elements of teaching and learning.

If we are to teach students that a growth mindset is not only possible, but desirable, then we must first embody and exemplify a growth mindset as educators. If we expect students to reflect and curate their learning, should we not also be practitioners ourselves? This is why the blog you are now reading exists.

4) Multi-media Technology – We often read about the mistakes educators make when using (or not using) technology. With e-portfolios, there is an opportunity for students (and teachers) to learn a variety of valuable skills including embedding presentations, video creation, graphic creation, font and style choice, podcasts, stop-motion video, voice memos, google hangouts – with screen capture, 3D printing, etc. What specific technologies should students be learning in schools? Why do these technologies need to be learned? How frequently does this list change as technology advances? Is it a futile effort and is time wasted learning technologies that will be obsolete in a few years? Is it more about the mindsets that are required and developed by the pursuit of learning new technologies?

5) Feedback – Here is a skill that was not formally taught when I was in school. And what a mistake it is that we don’t teach how to give and receive feedback intentionally! I highly recommend ‘Thanks for the Feedback’ for anyone interested in learning about the 3 types of feedback and how every human needs them, yet they are often as cross-purposes. With e-portfolios, students can receive feedback on their demonstrations of learning from teachers, peers, parents, and external experts. Students can learn how to deliver feedback by providing it to one another in the form of comments, uploaded directly to the e-portfolio.

9 Ways e-Portfolios Increase Learning 6) Assessment of Learning – If your goal is to expand the ways in which you measure student learning beyond numerical, quantitative grades, you should take a good, long look at e-portfolios. They provide a qualitative, longitudinal measure. Students can post a writing sample from September next to one written in November and we should be able to visibly see the progression of learning. If we don’t, then the measure is still helpful because it tells us where the student stands in relation to learning outcomes. E-portfolios can be the perfect platform for displaying digital badges earned for demonstrating specific knowledge, skills, or transfer of skills. Badging is yet another fantastic measure of learning that can accomplish the same, if not much more, than a numerical grade.

7) Choice & Ownership – When designed properly, students can pursue their own topics of interest and curiosity through e-portfolios. They can share their learning with others. E-portfolios allow students a much greater audience for their learning which in turn generates a stronger sense of ownership and urgency. We all want to ‘be seen’ – acknowledged and appreciated by others. Students should have the freedom to add their own demonstrations, in addition to being assigned demonstrations by teachers. It is not an ‘either or’ proposition. Students should ‘have permission’ to customize the look of their e-portfolios and include demos that may not be related to school.

8) Digital Citizenship – As the author of one’s own blog, website, or e-portfolio, students learn the importance of ethical decision making and wise choices. See the 9 Elements of Digital Citizenship as food for thought.

9) Graphic Organizer(s) – There is no shortage of graphic organizers available online. Can teachers use e-portfolio assignments as advance organizers? How might this increase the mastery and measurement of specific learning outcomes in a school? How might graphic organizers be used with e-portfolios to introduce new concepts? Or to formatively assess student learning via entry, transfer, and exit tickets?

9 Ways e-Portfolios Increase Learning10) Communications/Branding – At least one school I know has explicitly written into their mission statement the goal to prepare students to be globally competitive and engaged citizen leaders, though I assume a lot of schools would say they aspire to do the same. In the age of the internet and marketing, being savvy with one’s web presence, branding, and social media strategy seems like an important set of skills to begin ‘baking in’ early in our students formal educational journey. Experience curating one’s own e-portfolio can position students much further along than their global competitors. Conversely, it can leave them at a great disadvantage if these skills and mindsets are missing.

What other ways do you see e-portfolios can increase learning?

For more on e-portfolios, read these posts and resources.

Reconfiguring Learning Spaces

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.18.28 AM

Today’s #MVMiddle Faculty Meeting might have been my favorite in 3 years. In pursuit of our wildly important goal of “Nurturing Innovators,” our teachers were asked to “reset the space” into 5 unique configurations and reflect on both the physical and mental impact on their learning. How might reconfiguring learning spaces help ignite and nurture innovators in your school?

Debate Seminar Senatorial Independent cooperative

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 3.29.20 PM
Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.15.20 AM

First, teachers reset the space from the room’s typical “horseshoe” configuration to a “cooperative” learning configuration. They were given 60 seconds with a timer projected on the board. When time was up, there was an unmistakable ringing bell sound.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.15.28 AMOur ethnographers are Mary and Jim…

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.15.43 AM
Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.15.51 AM Cooperative mode

Once in “Cooperative” learning configuration, the teachers were instructed to collaborate and create an assessment map for the current semester. In other words, Learners were asked to “produce.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.16.12 AM

Several groups discussed the work at hand…Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.16.19 AM

Although the seating configuration was intended to foster cooperation among groups, the nature of the task (create an assessment map) was a bit more individualized in nature. Thus, although several “groups” were sitting together, and they were certainly “producing,” they were not necessarily “collaborating.” This reveals how thoughtful and intentional teachers/facilitators must be in designing their activities to match their desired outcomes.
Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.15.57 AMScreen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.16.04 AMAfter 60 seconds it was time to reset the room. Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.16.26 AM


Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.16.32 AM
Independent Mode

Learners were shown a picture and asked to reconfigure their space into an “independent” formation. Learners were asked to “consume” information on the form of a video (while listening with headphones) about how to post upcoming major assessments on Haiku and how to update to the shared, major assessment calendar for their grade level.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.16.40 AM

The learners easily reconfigured the space within the allotted 60 seconds and very shortly the room was quiet.Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.16.48 AM

Though the design was intended to foster independent learning, there was still some evidence of collaboration (even if simply by sharing earbuds).
Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.16.56 AM

Some educators have described this configuration as “soldiers in rows.”Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.17.03 AM

There is a time and place for a variety of physical configurations and mental modes.
Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.17.18 AM

Time is up. Reset the room!Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.17.10 AM


Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.17.36 AM
Seminar Mode

This time, learners are asked to created a “seminar” configuration and they will be “searching” for something. They are asked to “communicate” which of the 5 principles and practices of the MV Continuum is most important. It’s a trick question – all of them are equally important, though we quickly learn that or learners don’t see it that way. Our goal in asking the question is simply to get them to search for the MVContinuum document, read the 5 principles and become more familiar with them.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.17.44 AMWe were surprised to learn how strongly many felt that “relationships are foundational for learning” was the most important principle and “curiosity and passion drive learning” was very popular, too. No one raised their hand for “learning demands interactive and flexible spaces” or “empathy influences learning.” “Learners apply knowledge to make an impact” had a handful of supporters.Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.17.27 AM

You can find the MV Continuum here.Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.17.51 AM

Reset the Space!

This time, learners shifted into “senatorial” mode. A facilitator (me) led a discussion seeking feedback about our team’s recently created “Group Work Norms.” Specifically, are you using them? If so, how? What is working? If not, why not? What would improve them? We were interested to learn that several wanted to further develop the “group norms” portion and that there is a need for these norms to be applicable not only for large, long-term group projects, but also for short, 10 minute group work in the day to day.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.17.58 AM
Senatorial Mode
Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.18.20 AM
Debate Mode

Reseting a fifth time into “debate” mode. Learners have adapted and are very quick at resetting now, leaving 20 or 30 seconds remaining on the clock. We start the next activity early. Learners are asked to communicate. They are asked if advisement is being used the way it was envisioned in pre-planning. We proposed two models for how to address this:

option A – specified activity each day

Monday Tuesday Wed Thursday Friday
study hall/help eportfolio Chapel/Xian Ed badging/reading study skills/advising


option B – student choice each day with rooms designated for each activity

Room 1 Room 2 Room 3 Room 4 Room 5
study hall/help eportfolio Chapel/Xian Ed badging/reading study skills/advising

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.18.13 AM

Many learners really enjoy debate mode!Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.18.05 AM

Finally, learners are asked to reflect on their learning. Specifically, they are asked to write two responses. “I used to think…” and “But now, I think…” The room is silent 5 minutes except for the furious and fully-engaged sound of typing fingers.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.18.37 AM
Students in senatorial mode

After reflection, discussion, and debrief, the room is reset one final time to the teacher’s original setting. I was happily surprised to hear the teacher instruct all of us not to reset to the “horseshoe” but instead “senatorial.” She was already experimenting with what she learned and transferring it to our students. #Exemplar!

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.15.36 AM


And yes, there is always amazing food and coffee at our meetings!

“My” Classroom Space Configuration 2006-2010 (Part 1 of 2)

Recently, our team was discussing classroom space configurations. Mary and Jim asked about the configurations I used as a teacher. I drew them a diagram (recreated in Google drawings here). We had one type of student desk (yellow seat attached to wooden desk with metal basket underneath). Desks were arranged in two groups of rows. One grouping faced the “front” of the room and the other faced the “side” of the room where the double whiteboards were mounted on the wall. At least 3 factors limited the flexibility of this space…1) the type of desks, 2) the role students were asked to play (mostly consumers), and 3) the teacher’s lack of imagination (me).

I created a nice flow from the doorway into the room so students could easily access their desks. I also created at least a fourth or a third of the room for “teacher” space. I had two large bookshelves for “my stuff” behind “my desk” and an extra table where students could pick up their handouts. In the front corner were two filing cabinets, fully labeled and color coordinated with lesson plans and resources. The TV and DVD player sat on top of the two filing cabinets. I had a wooden podium for lectures and a white pub table (also for lectures). The blue circle is a stool. The red X is where I would stand when I wanted to start class. Students knew it was time to begin when I stood in this spot and they would “shush” each other. I didn’t have to say a word.

yellow classroom desks

These were exactly the desks students used. Functional for individual work, but not for collaboration. Not very comfortable. Not terribly flexible.


One of my AP World History classes doing a “JC Penney catalog pose.” I painted the map on the wall and used it throughout the year, changing the focal point from the front of the room to the back.IMG_5394
Another class doing the pose. Great kids – loved them all.IMG_4894

Mr. Rountree was my “trailer” mate and partner in crime. We called our double-wide portable classroom the “Tree-House” (a combination of Rountree and Houston). My current team will notice the color flow charts on the table behind him. Apparently, I was in to flow charts back then, too.

Behind my desk(s) were two solid oak bookshelves. All of my resources were on the middle and bottom shelves for easy access. I always preferred a clean desk at the end of each day. (And an empty INBOX).IMG_6287IMG_5477

Behind the podium in a tie. And in jeans on a Friday. Mr. Rountree and I frequently took our classes outside for a “brain break” and a friendly game of Ultimate Frisbee. We played, too.

There was only one other configuration we used. Before major tests, we would play “Quiz Bowl” with the electronic buzzers. Teams would rotate. Students not playing would sit behind and listen to the questions.

How might you reconfigure your learning spaces? How would you advise me to reconfigure this space from 2006-2010? Stay tuned for Part 2 when I will share how I would re-imagine the space today.