Monday, September 7, 2015

Formal and Informal Learning Can Coexist Within Varied School Worlds by: Tony Iannone

Formal and informal learning can coexist
within varied school worlds.

Imagine the following scene; an elementary school teacher and his Science thinking partners (from Discovery Place) have just placed an array of materials in the middle of his fourth grade classroom. The materials include (among other things) used and broken toys, construction paper, art supplies like construction paper, markers, crayons, duck tape glitter, pipe-cleaners, glue-sticks, glue guns, and tissue paper. The school teacher’s Science thinking partners add to the mix, bringing tools like screwdrivers, scissors, and hammers. The room is buzzing with excitement as the students anticipate how the materials assembled have anything to do with what’s supposed to be happening this morning. The teacher moves to the middle of the room, gets the students’ attention and states, “This has been an amazing year of discovery! We have learned a lot from each other. To honor our learning journey together Maggie, Michael, and I have compiled this assortment of materials you see in front of you. Your directions for the next 90 minutes are simple, get up and MAKE something.” Because of their previous experiences with the adults in the room, the students were up, out of their seats, eager to get started, before their teacher finished his last thought! What ensued was a 90 minute exploration into what was possible via thinking, collaborating, problem-solving; MAKING!

The scene depicted above is rooted deeply within a concept known as MAKE. By MAKE, I mean a process that involves (but is not limited to), inviting students to literally, make things; with words, with natural and man-made materials, and with their ideas of how to make their worlds. MAKE (within the context of school) uses content specific to a grade levels' course of study and is literacy rich, asking students and teachers to share, reflect, loop back, remake, revise, remix, and connect with others. How does a teacher, situated within a school world predicated on formal learning, partner up with Science educators from Discovery Place, an organization established on the premise that informal learning is what ignites wonder to create space for students to learn, and, through experiences like the one described above, balance both forms of learning? The short answer; through participation in collaborative happenings like the Intersections Project. Not enough detail? Want more? Keep reading. Understand though, before you proceed that the long answer is a bit more complicated, nuanced, and full of twists and turns. That should not stop any of you though because if you are reading this resource, you are, like me either a teacher or some variant of educator that spends the majority of your day working within this complicated, nuanced, “twisty-turny” world. It is very familiar terrain so, come and join me!

Formal and informal learning can coexist
within varied school worlds.

The path ending with the MAKE described above comes through hours of negotiation; negotiation with pacing and curriculum guides, with administrators curious and simultaneously supportive of how Science and Literacy intersect through the concept of MAKE, with the Science educators from Discovery Place in an effort to align both forms of learning, and finally with the students, who come to the classroom well versed through their many and varied experiences, in both forms of learning yet a bit tentative as to how both can intermingle within their classroom. Negotiations of this nature are not foreign to anyone reading this piece. Like me, you engage in similar forms of negotiation daily as you attempt to construct (dare I say; MAKE) a learning experience for your students that will result in your students getting the most out of the instructional day.

Formal and informal learning can coexist
within varied school worlds.

For me, the path has been paved through my participation with the Intersections Project. This project paired classroom teachers like me with Science educators from Discovery Place in an effort to inquire into the intersections of Science and Literacy, as well as formal and informal learning. My participation has taken many forms; both outside of the classroom, through planning sessions and within the classroom. A recent example of participation took place in my classroom while I was teaching a Science unit on Electricity. This example, in my humble opinion, shows the potentiality that lies within both an exploration into the intersection(s) between Science and Literacy as well as the convergence of formal and informal learning. It shows that…

Formal and informal learning can coexist
within varied school worlds.

I decided to start the Electricity unit in a traditional (formal) manner; I read some of the material in the science textbook, in an effort to orient the students in ways to read this sort of text. Informational text is typically not read in the same way one reads a novel. I wanted the students to see the difference so, as I read, I thought aloud about the content, made comments, posed questions, and noted things that I found interesting. Next, I had them read several lessons from the textbook. All I required of them during this time was that they emulate what they saw me do while I was modeling how to interact with the text. One way I get students up and talking to each other is to have them find a friend, stand back to back with that friend, then turn and talk. To start the conversation I may invite the taller student to start or a student wearing white shoelaces. If both students meet the requirement, I ask one of them to just invite the other into the conversation. They were charged with commenting on the text, posing a question to their partner; only if they had one, and talking about something that interested them.

Next, I had the students take notes. I’m charged with helping my students recognize different forms of energy (like light, and electrical) and to think about how these varying forms create change. They needed a way to capture their thoughts. So, it only made sense to have them use daybooks, as a place to do their thinking out loud on paper. Specifically, I had them use a strategy they were very familiar with; the dialectic journal response.

Formal and informal learning can coexist
within varied school worlds.

At this point, we are still within the realm of formal learning and you are probably wondering, where is the convergence with informal learning? The convergence comes when formal learning experiences like the one I have portrayed here include informal experiences. Before I proceed, I feel, for the purposes of this Resource that I need to define what I am talking about. This definition is by no means definitive; it merely provides an image of what is possible. That said informal learning experiences can involve tinkering, specifically the manipulation of tools in an effort to make something. This tinkering can be done in isolation, working by oneself or in conjunction with others, tapping into the collective intelligence. Throughout the school year my students have had many opportunities to tinker as they’ve explored the “intersection” of Science and Literacy. This tinkering has come in the form of several MAKES. The tools have been as simple as construction paper, pipe cleaners, and glitter to the more sophisticated like screwdrivers, hammers, saws, and electrical tape. With these tools the students have constructed diverse images of learning ranging from collages that represented their understanding of Nutrition concepts to re-presentations of animals and their adaptations made from bits and pieces of old toys.

After the formal learning experiences focused on electricity, I wanted to see what would happen when the students were given tools and merely prompted to, “MAKE!” So, as the students walked into the classroom, 2 days before the end of the school year, I informed them that we would be doing one more MAKE. Like the MAKE that opens this piece, I proceed to take out the tools, construction paper, cooper tape, surface mount LED lights, and ion lithium batteries. I told them they could do whatever they wanted, working alone or with friends. The only (direct)-ion was; MAKE something! I stepped aside and watched.

Formal and informal learning can coexist
within varied school worlds.

Some students chose to work alone. Many decided to work with a friend. Before I knew it one of my girls had figured out how to get the lights to “light up” using all of the tools at her disposal. Words cannot describe the look on her face, the success she felt in that moment. She immediately went to a friend to show her what she’d done. From that moment on, it became the collective mission in the room to help each student experience that same success. In order for that to happen, they figured out that they were going to have to work together. The only thing I did was provide more tools when students needed more. I had only allotted 45 minutes for this MAKE. However, the collective momentum and desire for each student to succeed propelled the experience to 90 minutes.

Formal and informal learning can coexist
within varied school worlds.

It is my hope that after reading the experiences here that you reflect on your own classroom practice. I am confident that as you proceed with that reflection you come to realize that what you’ve read here isn’t necessarily too far away from your own practice. The differences, if any, are nuanced; predicated on a belief I have physically placed throughout this piece…

Formal and informal learning can coexist

within varied school worlds.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Paper Engineering

The door to my 8th grade classroom opens, and in walks a group of the district’s administrators and central office staff, including the superintendent and three principals from our district’s high school.  My students don’t seem to notice, seated silently in rows, deep in their own thoughts, their attention is fixed on the computer screen sitting in front of them.  

The group of administrators, whisper among themselves, and start back towards the door. I make eye contact with the superintendent, who whispers to me, “I’m sorry, we don’t want to disrupt.  Are you testing?”

“Even better,” I say, “we are writing reflections!”

There was a pause as they stopped to consider this, perhaps trying to make sense of the scene before them.  Twenty-five 14-year-olds, oblivious to the visitors in the room, absorbed with the document open on the screen before them, typing like they could not get the words out fast enough.

I continued,  “Students are writing reflections on what they had learned through the process of creating pop-up books.  You should definitely stay and see what this group of rising 9th graders can do.” I directed them to a counter, lined with carefully crafted books, each telling a story that mattered to students, and invited them to experience the students’ work. They browsed through the books, in awe of the craftsmanship and maturity of the content. As they read the books, which spoke to subjects including addiction, bullying, urban crime, sex trafficking, and genocide, subjects that students chose inquire into.  I also added that the students made videos of their books for publication on social media, arranged to have them put on display in the teen section of the public library, and planned on hosting a maker-faire in Discovery Place where they showed others how to create them.

Rightly so, they were impressed with what what they had seen.  But what they hadn’t seen, what was most important about what these students learned and composed, was the innovative space created in our public school over the last four weeks: the chaotic, organic, and connected experiences that students were writing so intently about.  This was the story that needed to be heard.  

Speaking quietly to this interested audience over the sound of clicking keys, I began to tell them the story of a classroom that looked very different over the last four weeks.  


Over the last two years, I have been working with the science teacher on my interdisciplinary team, Tiffany Green, to incorporate experiences for students to make.  Open-ended experiences that encouraged students to produce, rather than consume, where students took the reigns to decide what to make, how to make it, and what content was important enough in their lives to make something about.  Though our curricular “content” was interwoven throughout each make, Tiffany and I also both knew that empowering students to make, regardless of where, or if, the content fit, worked at the heart of what each of our subjects was about.

As a Language Arts teacher, I saw make fitting in perfectly with how we use literacy to reconstruct our world.  It was an act of composition, with words and images. An authentic experience in negotiation and revision. And for Tiffany, make represented the process of doing real science, the sort where you explore and tinker with the world to figure it out.  We both wanted our students to be makers.  We wanted them to develop these skills and habits of mind fundamental to working and learning in our respective fields, yes, but more importantly we wanted them to have a school experience that developed their sense of agency and empowered them to engage with their worlds.  With the support of the other like-minded UNC Charlotte Writing Project Teacher Consultants and other and their students, that’s exactly what we did.

The idea we had with making pop-up books represented an approach we hadn’t before tried, around a medium that neither of us knew much about.  But pop-up books interested us, and felt like a nice fit into what we wanted students to explore through make. They’re a genre typically found in children’s hands, but the construction of them is more than childsplay.  It’s math, it’s science, it’s writing, it’s art.  It’s paper engineering a story and a great medium to convey a message just to be read, but experienced.

The Make, part 1--The Set-up

The project grew out of novels students were reading in my 8th grade ELA class. The novels, 20 AYA titles that in some way fell under the broad theme of injustice, were read by students in small book club groups, or literature circles.  Towards the conclusion of their novels students brainstormed themes and subject matter related to the text that they felt was important to their lives and/or community, and used this area of interest as a starting place for both research and creative writing. Writing that students would riff off for the storyline that would guide the books they would soon be engineering.

Building a pop-up book required students to be able to do more than write a compelling narrative; they would also need some familiarity with the mechanisms commonly employed while creating them.   Robby Stanley, the Make Embassador from Discovery Place, and self-taught (over the two weeks prior to this project) paper engineer, collaborated with Mrs. Green to transform her classroom for a few days into a paper engineering workshop.  With plenty of scrap paper, scissors, and markers on hand, the two teachers guided students as they worked through iterations of each of the four mechanisms commonly used in pop-up books: pull tabs/sliders, flaps, layers, fold-outs, and wheels.

Pull Tabs

There was a spirit of play that pervaded the classroom as students tinkered with the craft of paper engineering.  Each day, Robby demonstrated the approach to making a different mechanism, but that didn’t necessarily mean that a student was bound to master it that day.  Some would use their time to continue to refine a mechanism introduced the previous day, gaining assistance from Robby, Tiffany, or a classmate if they needed it. Other students used this time to explore, perhaps decorating the mechanism they created and figuring out what moving paper could enable in their art. Others used this time to invent, to modify an mechanism for a new purpose or play with combining mechanisms to make them work together.  

And when a mechanism didn’t function as it was supposed to, which in most cases it did not the first time through, students were encouraged to figure out why.  Robby encouraged this on the first day, telling students that they were engineers, and the job of engineers could be summed up in two words: “solving problems.” Students folded and cut, refolded and recut.  Early iterations were piled on a table in the back, and students frequently went back to this table to pull out scraps to try out something they weren’t sure of, or repurpose what another had discarded.
Learning about Learning
Through this low-stakes, playful paper engineering workshop, students learned the basics of the craft, and just as importantly, they learned about learning.  They began to re-see the importance of just diving in, even if the first try doesn’t work out.  The developed a playful attitude towards discovery and learned what it means to tinker, to play with materials without knowing what they will become. and to persevere and solve problems.  In itself, Robby and Tiffany’s paper engineering workshop was an experience that mattered, but what made it more than a successful experience, what made it powerful was what came next: the opportunity for students to put all of these skills and awakened habits of mind to use to compose and speak into their world through building a pop-up book.

Make Part 2--Composing Workshop

On the days while students tinkered with paper in Science class with Robby and Tiffany, in my class they were  finishing and sharing their creative writing pieces, negotiating collaborative groups and the stories that their books would feature, and beginning to storyboard the individual pages. And at this point, I stepped out of the way and gave over the control, and for the first time, making this book felt less like a project and more like a make.

While all students were creating a similar form, how they crafted that pop up book--from the story it told, the pop-up mechanisms it employed, the ways illustrations supported and interacted with both, was up to them.  What was also up to them, and perhaps the greatest challenge, was how they figured out how to make this all happen as a group. It was a process of constant negotiation and iteration. It wasn’t neat or easy, and fraught with unexpected challenges and frustration. In other words, it was a space that was rich with learning.

While it wasn’t uncommon for students to add a page they started to the scrap table because it didn’t work out they way they had envisioned, as the week went on, it also became more common for students to go back to this scrap table and build prototypes models of the before working on the actual page of the book.  And it seemed that the more students iterated, the more they also innovated.  They also began branching out from the models Robby had shown them.  Students combined mechanisms, for example, integrating a slide into a wheel.  They searched youtube and discovered more complex ways to engineer paper.  And they even played around with introducing new materials into their book, like string, duct tape, and electronic circuits made from led lights, copper tape, and coin-cell batteries.  

The cycle continued and grew, and with it students’ excitement and investment. The week I had set aside for students to make was nowhere near enough, nor was the extension I gave.  By the time we came to the new deadline we agreed upon, students books resembled something far different, and greater, than what they initially conceived.

It was the most rigorous experience with composition that has ever taken place in my classroom.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Writing and Making our World
This group of administrators seemed content as they left my room on what was a much longer stay then I’m sure they envisioned. They seemed excited about the work that was happening, One commented on the way out that it was great to see students who took writing so seriously.  I understand why she said this.  The level of involvement of my students in their writing was uncommon. I hope, though, that something that she and the rest of my visitors took away was was the importance of our informal makerspace for student writers.   Writing is, of course, making, and making, minus the printed words, is no different than writing. Some of this I saw to be true as students made their books, but confirmed it when they put words on the page about the process afterwards. My students didn’t have to take time to collect and formulate their thoughts into words, the heart and most challenging part of writing, because they had already done so while making.  They could write deeply, because they had deep experiences to write from. And, what facilitated the process further, something that I have believed for some time to be true, is that since students were so accustomed to the just dive in there and figure-it-out-as-you-go, risk-taking, tinkerers’ spirit of Make, there was no hesitation on their part to do this with their writing.  

My students wrote like makers, and while this scene provided a powerful image for a group of administrators to see, I hope that it’s not the only one they are leaving with. I hope that they are also leaving with an image of just why make matters so much in school. Too often in teaching we are pressured to focus heavily on teaching content rather than teaching students; on students consuming, rather than producing; and having standards and assessment data drive instruction, rather than students’ own interests and purposes. Make represents an approach and underlying belief system that is much different, one that empowers the student and would not be possible if the teacher was not empowered and trusted as well. I want these administrators to pat themselves on the back for entrusting Tiffany and I to do this work. Like our students, we are left the experience excited and empowered, with a sense of being closer to the community and feeling the agency that comes from being able to make our world.  

By Steve Fulton

Friday, May 8, 2015

Teaching students to be curators of their own content

Quite a bit of what I read online are pieces that have been remixed and re-purposed.  It’s content that has been taken from various places on the web, then collected and organized, or “curated,” by someone other than the original author of that content.  It’s a form of composition that is definitely real-world, but until this year, it wasn't a format I had given much thought to inviting my students to write.  

Asking student writers to curate, though, is a worthwhile venture.

In addition to being an authentic, curation also has value because it gives students a chance to engage with web stuff differently than the passive-reader role we often ask them to take on.  When we invite our students to curate, they can speak back to and narrate the importance of what others have posted.  We enable them to view web content as a conversation where they can participate and invite others to listen in.

In the case of my class, the content that I planned to ask students to curate was their classmates’ work posted in a g+ community, titled Making STEAM, that we and several other schools use to share our STEAM focused “makes.” I wanted students to “round-up” collections of pieces that were unique, important, or spoke to them in some way, thus giving greater depth to what was happening in this online space.  Through writing and sharing round-ups, students' words would narrate unique stories of learning taking place, and conversely, student makers would see new significance to the content they posted by seeing it reflected and discussed by their classmates.

The challenge for me was figuring out how to teach curation as particular form of composition.  Like any other type of writing, it’s a form with a certain set of conventions.  I needed to familiarize my students with them and craft an assignment that contained enough parameters to guide but without the rigidity that could limit creativity and the myriad of exciting directions that this activity could take.

My plan went something like this:

Part 1: Inquiry into Round-Up (35 minutes)

I shared the following set of round-up posts with students, and assigned them each one to read. As they read, I asked them to think about what the writer is doing in this piece.


  The Weekly Round Up (from the Rhode Island Monthly Newsletter)

After reading, students met with others who read the same post and discuss:
  • What was the post about?
  • How was it organized?

Each group took a turn presenting their responses to these questions to the class, and students not in that group pulled up the post being discussed on their computers so that they could see the post the group was talking about.  Students could also share aspects that they noticed the group left out of their presentation.

After all groups presented and all students were exposed to all roundups, students got back into groups to discuss:
  • What did the round-ups have in common?
  • How were the round-ups different?
  • What sort of things happen in a round-up
  • What doesn’t happen in a round-up?

Share out and make a list on butcher paper of the last two bullets.  Below is a typed up version of what one of my classes came up with:

Round-ups do:
-explain what is being rounded up
-have a point, focus, or argument
-use stuff made by other people
-include text, images, tweets, videos
-have hyperlinks to sources used
Round-ups don’t:
-have random, disconnected stuff
-have long paragraphs
-use really formal language
-use really informal language
-contain spelling errors
-have outdated news

Part 2: Making STEAM Round-up Writing  (1-2 hours)

I explained to students that they would be creating their own round-ups, curating the content posted in our G+ community.  This assignment was about them telling the story of something important that they noticed happening in what people were doing and saying in the Making STEAM community. It was up to them to decide which posts they would select and what they would say about them.  

These were the requirements I gave them (the amount of artifacts and to include was something that we negotiated as a class):

Write a post that curates a collection of postings made in our G+community.
Should include:
  • 3-5 (5-7 if with a partner) posts from the Making STEAM community (screenshots and links)
  • Your commentary on those posts (what they have in common, what you find interesting about them, why they matter, etc)
Format: You decide--Google Slideshow, Google Doc, Prezi, Blog Post,  something else?
Publish your roundup on G+ Making STEAM community under the “Curation and Reflection” category.  Include a brief description of what your round-up is about and be sure to tag any students whose work you featured in it (type +their name).

I also shared this doc with them as a reference for the requirements of the assignment and a how-to of posting to g+


After two days of students mostly working by themselves, and sometimes with partners, most completed roundups and had them posted in our g+ space under the category of curation and reflection. As I had hoped, these round-ups took all sorts of directions (though most students chose to use the same tool (Google Slides) to create them.  
My next project is to round-up these round-ups, examining the sorts of things that students did through them.  Stay tuned….