Category: Inquiry

Hey, What’s Your Problem (And How Will You Solve It)?

This past week I was charged with putting together a presentation on Cognitive Learning Theory to deliver with a partner who would be doing the same, only on Constructivism.  In the end, we worked to draw parallels in a combined effort at outlining learning theory in practical ways.  Our intention in doing so was to inform best instructional practices from an educational leadership perspective, both for adults and children as learners.  We delivered our presentations on Wednesday evening.  I know what you’re thinking…my invitation must have been lost in the mail.  Please don’t feel left out.  While you were walking your dog, eating a lovely dinner with your family, or catching up on some pre-recorded episodic television, seven lucky educators were excitedly engaged in our riveting presentation.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Regardless of the visceral enthusiasm that you may or may not feel upon hearing about the event, there was some content that might be useful to you, whether you’re in educational leadership…directly responsible for the ongoing learning and growth of various adult stakeholders in your school community, or a classroom teacher…responsible for the same with regard to your students.  Below are some summative thoughts from our take on how Cognitive Learning Theory and Constructivism might inform instructional design (for my reflection and your consideration).

How are you delivering information?  Learners come with some degree of knowledge, some individualized skill bases, and unique levels of readiness.  To varied extents, with care not to pigeonhole or limit, children at any age should be viewed as developmentally ready or not for processing further information and attaining certain skills.  Adults, in part because they have complex lives, filled with distractions, frustrations, interests, and aversions, can similarly be thought of as developmentally ready or not.

For adult learners, it could be argued that the intake of particular information, and the development of particular skills, is sometimes preempted by frame of mind.  For example, considerations like emotional availability, political culture, and relationship structures can be viewed as motivators or deterrents, and should not be overlooked when designing professional learning structures in school communities.  Also, even in ideal, collaborative school climates, knowledge of assorted learning styles is essential.  Some adult learners receive information well through lectures and presentations, others are better served to read articles and process on their own, while a third group might benefit from experiential, hands-on activities.

Are you offering tools and time to process?  Do you include structures in your lesion planning (classroom or PD) that give learners the opportunity to reiterate or clarify information that is being delivered.  Children and adults tend to come into learning situations with a framework that is in many ways unique.  Whether individually, with partners, in small groups, or through the facilitation of whole group discussions, it can be beneficial for learners to reflect on the intake of information, and to consider the reflection of others.  In what ways do you work to solidify the consumption of information, for individuals…and for the group?

In what ways do you perpetuate the making of connections?  When content isn’t relevant to the learner, the learner tends to be less engaged…or not engaged at all.  What is the meaning of any given learning or developmental scenario?  In what ways will the learner be able to incorporate new knowledge and skills into his/her paradigm, and make them useful in his/her daily life?  This is where the problem comes in.  “What’s your problem?” is an essential educational question.  We learn in the name of progress.  Educators are charge with the development, implementation, and maintenance of programs, systems, and structures that help stakeholders move along pathways of next steps aimed at achievement (students first and foremost, but all stakeholders to that end).

Problem solving is a key ingredient in forward progress along those pathways…and, in order to solve problems, we need to have problems to solve.  One approach to critical processing with regard to relevant problem solving is the incorporation of problem finding into the learning process.  What structures can you put in place that will allow your learners to think of and explore problems that are relevant to them and their individual and collective developmental pathways?  How can you help them put the learning into play, in real time, and in meaningful ways?  What can you do to provide experiences that parallel, or even resemble the experiences for which the learning is intended to inform and enhance?  Again, what’s your problem?  What’s their problem?  By what processes can it…and will it be solved?

What’s the bottom line?  Through a relatively basic lens, when combined, Cognitive learning Theory and Constructivism contend that our brains are hard wired to make sense of the world in which we live.  We are always in the process of construction new knowledge and developing new skills.  Our brains take in information, process it, make sense of it, store it, and access it when needed.  Additionally, there is a social component of learning and development that, when incorporated into instruction can add depth to development and enhance the process/outcomes for everyone involved.  The social component, when accessed effectively, can build comprehension by adding multiple perspectives to an otherwise individual experience.

This post is filled with questions rather than answers, in large part because I’m much better at asking questions than I am at giving answers.  It’s how I learn.  My hope is that considering these questions will assist me (and anyone else who cares to consider them) better design learning opportunities to meet the relevant and connected needs of my school community (and theirs), and effectively address the many meaningful ways in which we each contribute to the progress of the world at large.


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Using Scissor Skills as an Inroad to Positive Student Growth

Recently, my four-year-old procured a new sheet of temporary tattoos.  Angry Birds.  Couldn’t he want to play with something called Happy Birds, or even Mildly Frustrated Birds?  “Angry” is just so harsh.  Anyway, I think that the sheet may have come from a birthday party gift bag.  Regardless, yesterday was tattoo day.  After a long morning of rotating between Tickle Monster & Daddy Jungle Gym, I was ready for a bit of rest.  We climbed the stairs and headed for the Lego drawer in the living room.

Part of my great love for Legos is that they’re awesome!  My kids love to create.  They reach deep into their imaginations to construct things that one might not think would be possible to construct with Legos.  While all of their architectural masterpieces don’t exactly resemble those “impossible” things, they always seem to make some sort of sense with creative explanations and close inspections.

The other reason Legos are cool is because when we play with them, no one is jumping on stomach, stomping on my face, beating me in the head with a Styrofoam hockey stick, insisting that I pick them up by their feet, swing them around, throw them up in their air, and repeatedly chase them around in small spaces for hours on end, or sneezing directly in my face at close range (incidentally, I’ve experienced some relatively productive sneezes in that fashion, but that’s beside the point).

As the Lego play ensued, a look of pure joy came upon my big guy’s face.  He remembered the sheet of tattoos sitting on the kitchen counter.  One of those tattoos was just waiting to be adhered to the back of his hand.  Jumping up and down, he declared, “Daddy, we need to do our tattoos!”  He and his little brother grabbed each other and bounced around as if they just connected on a game-wining touchdown pass.  Little sister and I looked at each other and smiled.  Those goofy boys!

Here’s the rub, when we got to the kitchen I asked which tattoo each of the brothers wanted, then I proceed to cut the specified tattoos out of the sheet.  My four-year-old looked at me in amazement.  He said, “Daddy…you are a great cutter!”  At the risk of lacking humility, I must admit, I am a bit of a tattoo-cutting wizard.  I never go over the lines, I leave plenty of space in between tattoos, and I can get the one right in the middle without damaging any others.  I know…impressive.  Seriously though, it’s a skill that he admires.  While it’s nothing to most adults, four-year-olds find cutting that way pretty challenging (and not just because their rounded, plastic, scissors don’t work as well as ours).

When I put this in the context of education, I remember that we have many opportunities each day to connect with students around growth and development, simply in the ways in which we model and respond to their perceptions of us.  One of the things we’re looking to do as educators is help these young people function with increased automaticity in progressively more ways as they advance through school, into college, and eventually independent adult life.  When our students look at us with amazement, whether it’s because of something relatively basic like our expertise with scissors, or something relatively complex, like our ability to negotiate consensus through conflict, we need to be aware, take note, and make a plan.  Those moments are ripe for learning, connections, and delivering a sense of value to those whose positive growth is our charge.  Take the time to follow up with students who express interests in learning things that you know.  A few sessions of “Scissors 101,” can go a long way in showing a kid that he/she can, and that we care!


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

When Creative Play Turns Into Video Production

This morning my four-year-old decided to wake up extra early.  It was quite a feat, given that we all went to bed extra late last night.  Adding insult to injury, my wife was up every hour on the hour with our runny-nosed infant.  Even as my mind raced to come up with some good reasons why it should be her turn again, I knew that I wasn’t nearly that clever.  I rolled out of bed.  My feet hit the floor with a bit of a clunk.  My shoulders stood up before my neck or head, bringing them along for the ride.  I followed the sound in the dark.  “Momma?  Momma?”  He was calling for her.  Didn’t that mean anything?   I knew it didn’t.

When I arrived at his bedside (little brother sawing logs next door) I naively asked if he wanted to rest some more in Momma and Daddy’s room.  I crossed my fingers, threw salt over my shoulder, held my breath, and visualized all kinds of pennies and rabbits’ feet…all to no avail.  The words didn’t come out right away.  It appeared as if he was considering the invitation.  I hoped.  In hindsight I think he must have simply been shaking that last bits of sleep off before dropping the, “I want to go downstairs” bomb.  He followed that classic with, “and I want apple sauce, milk, yogurt, and a Fiber One bar.”

I ached for my bed.  It called to me.  The whisper of my pillows slithered through the hallway and shimmied in through the boys’ cracked bedroom door, “Seth…we miss you.  We miss your head.  Please come back and lay down!”  I could almost feel my face resting against a revitalized “cool side.”  Alas, it was but a dream.  I was awake, and it was “go-time.”  Then I remembered yesterdays’ post.  “Be present,” I told myself.  Life is short.  I get to sleep every evening (for a little while at least).  However, I don’t get to wake up and play with my buddy every morning.  A burst of energy shot through me.  I picked the kid up, and down we went.

This one loves to draw.  We collaborated on some farm animals.  I did the rough sketches and he did most of the coloring in.  He told me what to draw, and while my technique admittedly leaves much to be desired, it was good enough.   As we worked he began to tell the story of three farm friends.  Turns out, “Cow-iobi,” “Pig-iobi,” and “Sheep-iobi,” were best friends.  One day when Cow-iobi was walking near the barn, he saw Pig-iobi climbing down from a tree.  On the last climb, Pig-iobi leapt out of the tree, only to get stuck on the fence.  The two friends had to think fast.  What would they do?  It wasn’t long before they remembered that “Sheep-iobi” was a real handy guy.  If he could come to the barn with his hammer and screwdriver, he might be able to set Pig-iobi loose from the fence.  As luck would have it, that’s just what happened!  The three friends celebrated.  They were filled with joy, and in being so filled, they proceed to jump for it (joy, that is).

This morning our creative play reminded us that friends always help friends, a wonderful lesson to remember in my estimation.  We had so much fun drawing, coloring, and making up a story, that we decided to produce a short film about the farm friends’ adventure, another reminder.  Extending learning based on learners’ interests is a great way to promote longterm engagement and achievement.  Little brother joined us before long.  Then came Momma and baby.  We all sat together for a while, playing and creating the Berg Brother’s debut production.  So, without further glamorization or adieu, pop your corn, find a cozy spot, and enjoy the film that critics are calling the breakout hit of the holiday season!

The Berg Brothers proudly present:  “Farm Friends in ‘Stuck on a Fence’.”

Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.


A Fun *Way to Celebrate The Incredible Work Our Teachers Do

One Way

One of my favorite things about being a school administrator is that I get to spend lots of time with a whole bunch of phenominal teachers and a ton of incredible students.  It’s been an amazing growth expirence for me as an educator.  From a leadership perspective, I belive that support, encouragement, and celebration are three key ingredients for perpetuating healthy learning communities in classrooms, in school buildings, throughout districts, across entire states, around the country, and globally.  It’s one of my core values.  Twitter has been helping me transtate that value into action in my school community and beyond.

You may have already known that it’s quite easy to email a tweet.  If you didn’t, now you do.  Check it out.  Below is a tweet I sent from our 6th grade band concert.  A rocking musical event!  Focus on the three dots next to the word “more.”  Clicking on those dots provides a drop down menu that offers a couple of options.  The “Share via email” option is your Huckleberry in this case.  Click it, and you’re off to the races.  My admin team and I have been taking pictures of some of the great instrcution happening in our builidng.  We’ve been tweeting them, displaying them on our website, and sharing them through our facebook page.

Via Email

One of the practices that’s brought us a lot of joy and helped to further connect us with our community of rockstar teachers is following up with an e-mail of acknowledgment/apprecitation.  I highly recommend it.  It helps to perpetuate an ongoing diologue, it invites collaboration, and it reminds everyone involved that the great work happening in the classrooms and the hallways of our school is what it’s all about!

If you want to take it a step further, use a hashtag to archive as you go.  We’re using #rcshms (Rochester Community Schools – Hart Middle School).  In doing so, we can backtrack, share at any given moment, revisit with individuals and groups, or even scrapbook if we want!  It’s an easy way to chart your course.

Some Awesome Ways

Make It Fun, Make It Relatable, Make It Interesting

Bike Math

This teacher brought his bike tredmill into school to deal with ratios.  He gave the students some information about the size of the tire, then asked them to do some computations.  They were able to visualize the concept as they worked.  It was engaging.  It brought fun and energy into what might have otherwise been a stessful and even intimidating learning expireince for some.  The shared enthusiasm for learning and application was palpable!

Get Creative, Connect To Application

Creative Math Tools

With some rulers, some tape, and some string, this teachers was able to help his group connect the curriculum to natural environment application.  He introduced the lesson with a story about how he actuatlly used the same set-up in a building project that he did at home over the summer.  His students had an opportunity to use the makeshift tool outside of the classroom.  They got a taste of how math applies to everyday life, and how deeply connceted innovation and imagination are.  It was good stuff!

Give Options, Tap Interests And Abilities

Childrens Book


These pictures represent some of what this incredible Language Arts teacher uses to promote her students’ achievement…their interestes and abilities.  We’ve got art, we’ve got music, we’ve got passion and engagement!  Allowing students to deisgn their pathways to achivement in the creative writing process fosters a sense of autonomy, and a allows for feelings of competence as their work unfolds.  Also, it’s fun for them to share their talents with one another.

Put Them In Other Peoples Shoes

MapLenssound room

Facilitating a process by which students are encouraged to view the world from multiple perpectives is a great way to help them expand their own.  Above you see three examples of activites in which students had opportunities to think/work from a lens other than their own.  Writing about potentially adopting the metric system from the perpective of a chef, being hired to design a sound-efficient living room, or deciding where to live based on actual historical events, each perpetuates authentic learning and growth.

*This post represents the first in a new series I’m calling “ways.”  When I see, read about, or otherwise come across great ways to engage learners in development and growth, I’m going to consider adressing them under this category.  I anticipate that the focused reflection will enhance my learning process as it relates to application, and I hope that readers will benefit from the updated organization.  As always, input is welcome and appreciated!


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.


I’ll be the Giant Robot and you be the Caterpillar Radio

The Point:

Everyone has interests and curiosities.  Educators enhance their ability to tap individual and collective potential by seeking to understand the interests and curiosities of their students, then weaving them into the learning process.  Tools and information may not be as important as understanding, encouragement, and empowerment are in growth and development.

The Story:

I remember the first time I saw one of those huge cell phones in a bag.  I thought it was the coolest thing ever.  You could literally talk on the phone without having to be connected to a chord in the wall!  A mobile phone, imagine that!  My family had a top-loading Betamax machine – you probably don’t even know what that is.  It’s how we watched videos until the innovation of the VCR.  Fancy!  My brother saved his pennies for years to buy a camcorder when he was about fourteen.  We lived with that thing in our hands.  We must have made hundreds of videos.  Now we can’t even watch them – the technology doesn’t exist anymore (of course we converted to digital, but that’s beside the point).  I remember figuring out that we could make each other disappear and reappear by stopping the recording and leaving the room.  We spent many hours saying “abracadabra,” and feeling super cool when we showed the ‘Hollywood magic’ to our friends.  It was pretty awesome!

Technology continues to change at a dizzying pace.  However, passion, imagination, vision, possibility, and enthusiasm are arguably very much the same as they have always been.  They still have the capacity to excite and energize their host.  Furthermore, when coupled with persistence and belief, they tend to catalyze amazing outcomes.

As educators, we are responsible for facilitating highly engaging learning experiences for our students.  I think it’s important that we tap our own learning and developmental history as tools in achieving this charge.  In doing so, put aside the fact that technology is evolving at the speed of light.  Forget, for a moment, that the world’s gadgets and tools come in and out of fashion more quickly than we can figure out how to use them.  Boil it all back down to the human components of learning for a moment.



My four year old recently approached me with the following instructions, “I’ll be the giant robot and you be the caterpillar radio.”  Now, that may seem a bit enigmatic on the surface, but in fact, he was offering me an invitation to engage in some imaginative play.  Actually, it was more than an invitation.  He was telling me that it was time to play!  It didn’t really matter what the giant robot or the caterpillar radio would be doing, just that they were doing it together, and that they were taken seriously.  There’s no faking imaginative play with a four year old.  It’s not enough to hold an action figure (or a caterpillar radio) and make a silly voice…you have to seriously get into it!  You have to become what your collective imaginations create.

When I play with my buddy in this way, I remember how real movie making with that old camcorder was for my siblings and me.  Again, we spent hours fully engaged in a creative process.  We were excited to explore and create.  We worked through meals and bedtimes (when we were allowed to).  We were thrilled, we were learning, we were making connections, and we owned all of it.  It was based on our curiosities and our interests.

I don’t imagine it would have been very different if our camcorder was a smart phone, or if our Stretch Armstrong was a giant robot.  The key was that our imaginations were accessed through our interests, and that we had support, encouragement, and a license to explore what we were driven to explore in the ways we were driven to do so.  They say that childhood is a time of magic and wonder.  Take a look at a child when he/she is totally engaged in a creative process that’s based on his/her interests and curiosities.  It’s easy to realize that “magic” and “wonder” may very well be understatements!

Some Connected Thoughts:

Exhaust any amount of time necessary to get to know your learners.  Trust the data you gather through efforts to understand, and use them for scaffolding in goal development and instructional design.  As interests and curiosities unfold, incorporate them into the individual and collective learning structures of your classroom.  Adapt instruction based in part on the prompts your students give as they become increasingly comfortable revealing what commands their attention and enthusiasm.  Facilitate a process by which students are able to own their learning, connect the curricular content to their daily lives (past, present, and future) in meaningful and authentic ways, and dig deep into creative exploration because they’re super excited about it.  If you’re asked to be a caterpillar radio that likes to play with giant robots, do it.  Then, when you can’t stop your student’s workflow or get them to leave the classroom, you know you’re on the right track.  When you do get to that place, let me know how you did it – I need some pointers:)!


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Interest: Fostering Authentic Learning

The Point:

We are each unique and amazing.  When we feel comfortable exploring our world through the lens of our unique amazingness, we reap incredible developmental benefits.  Perpetuating interest and inquiry in the classroom and school community can be a highly effective engagement strategy.

The Story:

For those who love to mow but feel restricted to lawns, take a lesson from my two-year-old son.  The kid is a mowing fanatic.  I teeter between confused and concerned when he insists that one of his two, state of the art, bubble blowing, noise making, colorful plastic lawn mowers goes with us – everywhere.  Is this normal?  Is this all right?  I’ve consulted “Baby 911” to no avail.  Alas, nothing about mower toting toddlers.  We drag these things to the park, the mall, the zoo, birthday parties, doctors’ offices, etc.  Today we had a late breakfast together at one of our favorite pancake joints (their Mickey Mouse is to die for.  It actually has two tiny pancakes for eyes…awesome!).   It was wonderful bonding time between the little guy, his lawn mower, and me.


As I watched him walk the streets of the downtown area, mowing concrete with every step, grinning from ear to ear, I began to see this phenomenon thorough a different lens.  Maybe there’s nothing to be concerned or confused about at all.  Here’s a tiny little person feeling free to explore his world in any way he wants.  In fact, that freedom may be just the thing he needs.  Could it be that his design will perpetuate maximum developmental benefits, along with the most individualized and holistic outcomes?  Every passer-by smiled, winked, called out, “What a cutie…vroom-vroom,” or “Hey buddy, you missed a spot!”  In no time at all, the spirit of the everywhere-mower came over me as well.  One lady insisted, “But there’s no grass here.”  In solidarity with, and defense of my unique son, I smiled and replied, “Now there isn’t.”  The kid and I looked at one another, hi-fived, and proceeded with our important, albeit imaginary, task.

I see amazing teachers masterfully build classroom cultures in which students feel comfortable expressing the tenets of their unique paradigms as scaffolding for individual and collective learning.  They perpetuate attitudes of acceptance, they celebrate collaboration, they revel in diversity of thought, and they tie instruction to learning through interest and inquiry.  They guide, they support, they inform, they challenge, and they facilitate; all the while helping students make connected meaning of their school experiences through authentic and comfortable lenses.

Today, my little lawn mower man reminded me of how important it is to let kids be kids.  While I had many great experiences as a young student, I was often remanded to the hallway for talking too much (and I may have occasionally been slightly silly at the wrong times).  What if I was taught how to talk as it relates to literacy learning?  What if I was given topics to debate?  What if I was shown how to translate oral language into written language, then given practice and publication opportunities?  What if, instead of a distraction, my deep and enduring love of my own voice was viewed as a pathway to learning for my peers and me?

Educators have difficult jobs that require intense amounts of preparation along with exhaustive time commitments.  It seems pretty hard-core to suggest that we could be individualizing instructions to the point that each of our students would be guiding his/her own learning.  The fact is, I’ve seen it done.  Actually, I see it done all the time, and when I do, I see it work.

Tools and Strategies:

As an administrator I am constantly seeking pathways to shared learning for the faculty I serve.  This year I will continue trying to find/implement strategies that recognize individual and collective interest and inquiry as important factors in the professional learning process.  I know that a lot of the teachers I work with are already designing unique learning opportunities for themselves through social media and live professional networks, which they independently construct and nurture.  I wonder if action research, Edcamp style PD sessions, and project based initiatives can help perpetuate the kind of culture that allows for folks to drag their analogous lawn mowers around as they learn and grow.

We also ate jelly with a fork…don’t tell my wife.


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Summer Learning Happened So Fast!


Keeping Kids Engaged All Year Round



Kids will engage in learning over the summer if they are given exciting opportunities to do so.  Finding creative ways to connect students with their peers and their parents through playful exploration motivates them to keep the learning wheels turning.  With passion, play, and purpose it is possible to avoid the summer lag!










I’m really dating myself by using a Grease reference for the title of this post, but it just seems to fit so well!  For you younger readers who aren’t making the connection…rent the movie Grease (it’s with the guy from Pulp Fiction).  To the point though, I have to admit that when I got the, “Hey all, our first Harlan Citizen Science meet-up is tomorrow,” text from the incredible Elisabeth Stayer, I thought, wow…already?!  I love that we just left the buildings and already this amazing group of educators from Birmingham Public Schools’ Harlan Elementary are coming together with students and parents to begin sharing the learning they’ve each been doing as Harlan Citizen Scientists over the past two weeks.  Mrs. Stayer and her colleagues organized this wonderful project around the book Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard by Loree Griffin Burns, with Photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz.  Check it out at









From the title you can imagine that the book outlines ways in which children can use their curiosity and imagination to learn through exploration and critical thinking.  I was honored to be a part of the filming of the Harlan Citizen Science video that was used to introduce the concept to students at the end of the school year.  There was an assembly at which Mrs. Stayer and her team passionately outlined the plan and introduced Harlan students to the supplemental materials, including an awesome reflective learning blog.  Later, they distributed Citizen Scientist journals (that they created) to students who wanted to participate.  They gave parents the option of buying or borrowing the book.  There were 20 copies ordered and put in a plastic box in front of the building with a sign out sheet.  Harlan Citizen Scientists are trustworthy people.  How cool is a makeshift summer library based on the honor system?  Leave it to a media specialist and a group of highly passionate elementary school teachers!

Check out the blog for the video and more information about the project at









Meanwhile, Tuesday’s meet-up was a big hit!  The incredible Brianna McKinney and her awesome, curious toddler greeted me as I pulled into the Harlan parking lot.  We barely had a chance to say “hello” before the cars started to roll in!  Together with the first group of Citizen Scientists we walked to the outdoor classroom where we began to discuss explorations, observations, and ideas for next steps in unfolding the mysteries of backyard bugs and bird nests.  Did you know that the Black Capped Chickadee is the most common bird found at feeders during Michigan winters?  Neither did I.  Now I do!  I think I’ll put a winter feeder out so that I can get to know this round little breed a bit better.  Did you realize that some ladybugs look like taxicabs?  Some people even call them taxicab ladybugs.  The really funny part is that they’re scientific name is Propylea Quatuordecimpunctata.  We got a few good laughs trying to pronounce that!  We decided to stick with taxicab ladybugs.










In no time, Mrs. Simonte, Mrs. Stayer (along with her wonderful toddler and some Fig Newtons), and a whole bunch of other Harlan Citizen Scientists had arrived to confer and collaborate.  We looked over each other’s notebooks, we shared drawings and notes, we extended our research using iPads and iPhones, and we explored the field and the playground…hunting for butterflies, beetles, flowers, and dandelions.  We had so much fun!  We learned, we laughed, we thought, we talked, and we planned.  The student and their parents were excited.  I was amazed by the critical thinking that was taking place on that playground, and during summer break!  Some of the students were making lists and drawing pictures, some were talking about connections they had made and information they had learned, some were flipping through the model text, and others were serving as an authentic audience for their peers.  This is a group of real scientists!  The program, along with this first successful meet-up, inspired me to go home and continue the Citizen Scientist explorations I’ve been doing with my sons.  The learning is fun, the engagement is amazing, and the positive modeling is phenomenal.  I love that one of the kids is wearing a “The Future is Mine” t-shirt while being supported in an effort to actively develop himself as an engaged learner.  Well done Harlan Citizen Scientists…keep up the great work!


1.  Kids will engage in learning over the summer if they’re given exciting learning opportunities.

2.  With passion, play, and purpose it is possible to avoid the summer lag!

3.  Parents are excited to get involved in their children’s summer learner.  Giving them structures makes it easy for them to do so.

4.  Collaborating with colleagues to develop learning initiatives is a great way to move those initiatives forward.  Two, three, or more heads are better than one.

5.  Using model texts is an effective way to introduce and perpetuate learning.

6.  Giving students ownership can enhance their learning experience and outcomes.

7.  Exciting science opportunities exist right in our backyards!

8.  Teachers actively and authentically engaging in learning with their students can be an extremely effective motivator.

9.  Fun learning is engaged learning.  Students enjoy being explorers.

10.  Getting together a few times during the summer to perpetuate continued engagement is not a difficult thing to do; the benefit out ways the burden.

Exploration Instruction: “Take It Apart Tuesday”

Exploration Instruction:  “Take It Apart Tuesday”

A Great Strategy for Activating Your Students’ Curiosity & Innovative Creativity

The Point:

When students are allowed to explore things that interest them in ways that excite them they tend to engage in critical thinking and creative learning.  Scaffolding exploration with effective instruction about the scientific process, introducing an umbrella focus topic, and allowing groups of students to guide their own learning through research, inquiry, and reflective processing can be incredibly effective in sparking their imaginations and supporting their growth.

The Story:

I first heard about “Take It Apart Tuesday” at a Community Education Meeting at Pierce Elementary School.  One of the parents was reminiscing about this great activity that her kids used to do at “Kids Club” (the after school activities group).  She was going on about how they “loved” exploring televisions, toasters, cell phones, and other gismos and gadgets by simply taking them apart.  She made it sound like she was describing the latest new gaming craze.  The cool thing is that she was talking about learning!  It was one of those instructional ideas that grabbed me immediately.  I promised myself that I would put it into practice soon.  Turns out I didn’t have to wait.  The incredible John Kernan made it happen with his fourth graders and invited me to participate.  One of John’s great strengths is his ability to adopt new strategies, implement them into his instruction, and adapt them to meet his students’ needs along the way.  In this case he gathered donations ranging from VCRs to iPads, brought in a bunch of tools, set up the initiative with scaffolding instruction about scientific exploration, reflective note taking, and next step planning, and thrust the practice into his “Simple Machines” unit of study.  Perfect!


I have been amazed at the great process and the incredible (and ongoing) outcomes.  To begin with, these fourth graders couldn’t be more enthusiastic about their science exploration.  Of course, the wonderful modeling and enthusiasm from Mr. Kernan and the groups’ phenomenal paraprofessional Carol Maynard doesn’t hurt.  Being in this class reminds me of just how important it is for educators to actively and overtly live their learning philosophies.  Students really pick up on the energy of their teachers!  Also, I’ve been hearing some really promising exclamations like, “So that’s how they do that!” and “Oh, I didn’t realize that’s how it fit together!”  It’s this kind of stuff that leads me to believe that these explorers are engaged in some complex critical thinking.  What an authentic opportunity for them to dig around into the world of simple machines.  I’ve heard kids talking about the fact that it takes many simple machines to make up a more complex machine.  I saw a group of kids re-assemble the printing mechanism of an old printer, put an ink cartridge in it, and roll a piece of paper through.  It was if they discovered fire!  The room was a buzz with congratulatory anecdotes about their work, like: “Can you believe that they actually figured out a way to print!” and “How Cool!”


One of my favorite moments was when a group discovered a QR code on one of the chips that they removed from a relatively old Dell laptop.  They immediately accessed their scanning devices.   iPads, iPods, and cell phones were flying out of pockets, ready to retrieve information for these excited learners.  Turns out, the QR codes were too small.  Mr. Kernan encouraged a few students to go down to the office and enlarge the codes in the copy machine.  I love that he was adaptable in supporting their efforts!  In the end, the codes led to product identification numbers.  It was a bit disappointing for the students because they wanted a link to some company website that would enlighten them as to what the chip was for.  However, in true explorer fashion, they gathered themselves and perpetuated a conversation about the implications of their discovery.  Consequently, they’ve challenged themselves to research the history and evolution of QR codes, thinking that maybe this computer was built before companies began using the codes in the ways they do today.  I am so impressed with the line of exploratory thinking and the students’ comfort with following a path of inquiry based on curiosities about the discoveries that they are making.  Great instruction!  Great Learning! Great Teaching!  Great work!

The Take: 

1.  Inquiry instruction is often frontloaded with intense work both on the part of the teacher and the students.  However, when teams of learners understand and are able to employ scientific exploration and research strategies the growth benefit is tremendous.  Time taken to scaffold Project Based Learning (PBL) is time well spent!

2.  Inquiry instruction can help to support the development of students’ imaginations, their creativity, and their ability to conceptualize innovation as real and relevant.

3.  Reflective processing and critical thinking are essential to learning and growth.  When teachers offer time, support, and encouragement to that effect, the transition from information to knowledge and understanding is enhanced.

4.  When I keep my ears open for great instructional ideas they come.  Listen, adapt, and partner with as many people as you can.  Collaboration is among the best ways to grow as an educator, and it seems to offer the maximum learning benefit to the diverse group of students that we serve.

5.  I can’t remember a new instructional strategy that worked exactly the way I intended it to.  Some blow me away with incredible outcomes that I didn’t anticipate and some disappoint me by delivering poor results.  However, I’ve never regretted trying something new, and with every new attempt I enhance my knowledge, my understanding, and my practice.

6.  Reach out to the community…people are willing to donate stuff!

7.  Taking things apart can help you learn about how they work.

8.  Making connections is a key component of PBL and Inquiry.  In order to successfully support student interest, systems and structures have to be in pace to ensure that those interests are explored in ways that connect to critical content and developmental skills.

9.  Be the learner that you expect your students to be.

10.  Let students veer off in organic directions.  Manage the process so that enduring understandings and essential outcomes remain in focus, but allow for flexibility.  True exploration has the potential to surprise the explorer.  True discoveries are often unimaginable until they are uncovered!

Project Based Learning: Some Great Things Happening At Harlan!

Project Based Learning (PBL) is an effective instructional strategy for capturing students’ imaginations and helping them become truly involved in their own learning. I’m particularly excited about the level of student engagement and ownership that can be generated when students are involved in relevant and meaningful projects.  Documenting students in action reminds me just how effective well-implemented PBL can be.  There are many wonderful examples of how teachers at Harlan Elementary are using this strategy in their classrooms.  A few are showcased below.

Ten lessons I’ve learned about PBL from the incredible experts at Harlan:

1)   Student choice helps generate interest, excitement, and engagement.

2)   Scaffolding projects with effective instruction in scientific exploration and research is key to student success.

3)   Modeling, support, and guidance during the research process helps students stay on track and allows for a smooth release of responsibility within any given year and across grade levels.

4)   Partnerships enhance instruction.  Ask your media specialist how he/she can help kids learn about key word searching and using databases.

5)   Stretching across the curriculum can make for rich projects and the development of connected skills.

6)   Finding ways to help students figure out how their projects can be relevant and impactful in and outside of makes learning real.

7)   Enlist other teachers, administrators, and parents to provide an authentic audience for your students.

8)   Capping off a project with a fun, social, showcase event can help motivate your group to focus on quality.

9)   Celebrate the progress and outcomes.  Highlighting parts of the process as important landmarks can help students understand the their value.

10)  Authentic enthusiasm is contagious.  When teachers are excited and involved, student learning is enhanced!


A Few Examples:

Karen Abels introduced a Michigan project by allowing her 3rd graders to choose their course of study.  Incorporating student choice helped generate interest and excitement. Mrs. Abels gave her students some suggestions as to what might be important to study about their great state, she supported them in researching the topics, and she guided them in a collaborative effort to narrow those topics down.  After some initial learning (both of content and research skills) the group chose to move forward with “invasive species” as their focus.  It’s important to point out that Mrs. Abels enlisted the help of Mrs. Stayer, the incredible Harlan Media Specialist, to co-teach throughout the project.  Critical partnerships can be extremely effective!

Candi Gorski put together an incredible cross curricular project for her 1st graders that got them thinking about ways in which they can be impactful in their community.  Mrs. Gorski read an amazing true story about a boy in Africa who designed and built a windmill to help his village generate much needed energy, eventually leading to cleaner water and other key resources that improved lives and inspired others with hope.  After sharing the story she facilitated critical processing, helping her students make connections to their own lives.  The students were charged with designing contraptions that could help keep people stay safe during in extreme weather conditions.  These 1st graders were given a license to be creative in exploring the finer points of their science study while considering social studies concepts and using important reading and writing skills.  Mrs. Gorski did an incredible joy implementing this cross-curricular model of learning.  They were invited to be innovative and suspend disbelief, effectively giving them the sense that they are able to make a difference through research, understanding, creativity, and action.

Karen Hasler engaged her 5th graders in a design project that had them working with faculty members as architectural clients.  The students used their math skills along with drafting technology to design homes for their clients.  Mrs. Hasler organized a design expo to culminate the project, effectively extending an authentic audience for her group.  Parent and teachers gathered in the media center to see the designs and speak with young architects.  I was amazed with the enthusiasm that the students presented their work with.  Not only were they proud of the outcomes, they were also excited to go into detail about the process.  Students, dressed to the nines, stood by their finished designs posing for pictures and pictures and answering questions.

Each of the above projects is similar in that the students involved were actively engaged and excited about the work they were doing.  From 1st graders to 5th graders, they were collaborating with one another, being creative, thinking critically about their work, and being concerned about the outcomes that they were working toward.  There are many other incredible PBL efforts happening at Harlan and around the district.  Whether you’re working to plan for the final month of this year or preparing for the fall, get in touch with a colleague who you know has an interest in PBL, put your heads together, and make some plans.  Let me know if I can help!

Engagement: A Great Start for Critical Thinking!

The Point: When students are authentically engaged, learning is enhanced.  There are lots of ways to promote and sustain engagement through the purposeful use of instructional strategies including hands on explorations, interest based inquiry, effective modeling, motion and exercise opportunities, connected technology integration, and the incorporation of learning games in a workshop model.

The Story: Another great week for learning and growth with my partners in BPS!  I experienced all kinds of great instruction and collaboration across the grades (and had some fun designing blogs with the wonderful Senior Leibson in the Spanish department).  Something that really resonated with me this week is the incredible way my colleagues have been able to keep their students engaged in the learning process.  I saw students from Kindergarten to Fifth Grade taking ownership over their learning and stretching their critical thinking capabilities to awesome depths.  Here are five examples:

1.  These two girls have a box full of stuff.  They’re building a machine that will help them explore motion.  I walked past them in the hallway a few times as I was in and out of a neighboring classroom working with groups of students on video production.  Each time I walked by the girls they were totally wrapped up in the task at hand.  One of them was in my class last year and she didn’t even take the time to look up and say, “Hi, Mr. Berg!”  When students are so engaged in critical problem solving that they can’t look up to notice their 4th grade teacher walking through the 5th grade hallway, something’s going right!

Sometimes I find myself so distracted by people walking by that I can’t focus on my work.  These two didn’t even realize I was there…good stuff.  I recently heard of a great idea called “Take It Apart Tuesday.”  Just like it sounds, the teacher solicits “junk” from home during the year.  Every Tuesday the students spend some time just taking things apart.  They get old radios, small pieces of furniture, toys, etc.   They explore and discover.  The teacher who told me about it also told me that her students count the minutes until it’s upon them each week.  Seeing the girls working reminded me that I want to try implementing a “Take It Apart” workshop one of these days.  I’m going to check in on next week to see what they discovered.

2.  These 1st and 2nd graders are doing a “See, Think, Wonder” routine.  The incredible Ms. Prindle often implements this and other “Visible Thinking” routines when she’s introducing content for her inquiry units.  If you look closely you can see the picture on the back wall.  It’s a picture of Mars.  Everyone, including me, thought that it was the moon.  It was great to see the students get excited about what they thought they were seeing, to think about what they knew, to enthusiastically write down information about the moon, and to actively wonder about their curiosities.  This age group is particularly exciting when it comes to wondering because they don’t tend to limit themselves when it comes to possibilities.

The best part about being in the room during this great lesson was watching Ms. Prindle model the type of enthusiasm she expects from her students.  She was excited about letting a visual prompt guide her thinking, she was excited about the moon, she was excited about the potential for learning more, she was excited about having a team of learning partners who would be exploring interesting ideas that she would eventually learn about too, she was excited about outer space, and she used her words and her actions to make all of that excitement clear.  It was authentic, it was contagious…it was engaging!

3.  All students get the wiggles, some more than others, and some are better able to focus through them.  The brilliant Mrs. Radeky found this old exercise bike and thought that it might help quell some of the more intense wiggles in favor of engagement in learning. I’m happy to report that it seems to be working!  The students in her 3rd grade classroom have come to understand the purpose of, and the expectations about using the bike.  Those who need it us it, when they need it.  Mrs. Radeky has done an incredible job of making clear that her goal is focus for all.  The bike is not a toy, it’s not a weight loss device, and it’s not a Tour de France training apparatus…it is a tool for enhanced engagement.  Well done!

4.  The 3rd and 4th graders pictured above are super motivated about research and writing.  The process that Mrs. Rayle and Mr. Keilmen use is heavily reinforced by modeling and practice with finding and understanding how to process digital information that connects to content and personal interests.  These students look forward to digging for information about their topics and translating it into something meaningful, knowing that in the end they will have opportunities to communicate it in creative ways.  I really appreciate the intentional use of technology for this purpose.  The students are excited about using iPads, laptops, and desktops to explore information.  They are fully engaged in collaborating on the transfer of that information, through their writer’s notebooks, and onto their group’s wiki page.  The room is steeped in creative energy!

5.  Fun games are engaging.  Fun math games are engaging and they provide students with opportunities to practice critical thinking about math!  Mrs. Lindsay and her students have this concept down pat.  I was in the room with these 1st graders when a group of them invited me to join in a round of “Top It,” a great game from the “Everyday Math” Program.  I noticed two very important things.  First, these students were extremely excited about playing a game during their math workshop.  They all knew how to set it up and they were thrilled to have an opportunity to teach the new guy (me).  Also, the room was functioning like a machine.  It was great to see that Mrs. Lindsay’s 1st graders have the workshop structure so engrained in their daily routine that she was able to spend the entire time rotating through small groups, conferring with students, gathering formative data, and delivering individualized instruction.  Everyone knew where to go and what to do.  The group I was working with was wonderfully engaged in having fun and building critical understandings!