An Interview with Royan Lee

Recently, if you’ve been following Royan Lee (@royanlee) on Twitter, you’ve had a glimpse of what his classroom will look like in a couple of weeks when school resumes.  He’s openly transparent about what he and his students do.  Yesterday, he posted about his students’ “Thinking Books” and that really got me thinking.

In the middle of the post, he notes:
We are paperless in the sense that students and I don’t use paper to submit and return assignments, but we use paper everyday in the process of learning, to collaborate and think. Paper is an absolutely essential tool for learning; we shouldn’t try to eliminate it just for the sake of it.

After a couple of back and forths on Twitter and comment on his blog, I thought that this needed to be more than just a tweet or two and decided to turn this into a blog post.  I’ll also post this to

Doug:  Thank you for sharing your thoughts about paper and technology as you introduced us to your Thinking Books.  I really like the title and would like to follow up with some questions.

Doug:  In your post, you describe yourself as a Learning Centre Classroom Teacher.  If I was to walk into your classroom on a typical day, what would I see?

Royan: Well, we’re all public school teachers that deal with budgets, limitations, and equality of resources, right? In my room, you will currently see round tables designed for four people in a N-S-E-W configuration. You will also see an old IKEA kitchen bench which was redundant in my house, so now serves as essentially a work and charging station for mobile technology. We affectionately call it ‘the bar’. Look high and you’ll see something we’re terribly fortunate to have: a ceiling mounted projector. Other than that, it’s the same ol’ blackboard, whiteboard, etc. Oh, did I mention there are iPad devices and mobile devices scattered everywhere?

Doug:  Does your layout change when you’re using technology versus using paper for your activities?

Royan: Nope.

Doug:  Would you call your classroom a BYOT learning environment?  If so, how do you ensure that the students have the applications that you need?

Royan: One of the keys to getting BYOT to work in our class is our access to Google Apps for Ed. That, more than the devices, are the real key to making it work from a technical standpoint. GApps are device agnostic, and ever more so by the day.

Doug:  For students that don’t bring their own technology, do they feel different?  How do you address this?

Royan: This is the biggest molehill made into a mountain with BYOT. I try my best to foster a culture of equity where people get what they need, but not necessarily in an equal manner. We need our students to be comfortable with “he needs a notebook for this, and she needs an MacBook Pro for that”. That being said, BYOT works for us from an equity perspective because we have enough devices to supplement ‘have-nots’, and, like Robert Munsch, we share everything. When students see that I am willing to let a student use my iPhone or MacBook at any given time, they have no problem sharing. My students are not in little pods; devices are scattered everywhere. If an iPad gets bumped, bruised, or even shattered because of this environment, well, que sera. Learning trumps touch screens.

Doug:  For the technology that exists in your classroom (the MacBook Pros, the smartphones, and the iPads), who determines and installs the applications?  Most importantly, who makes sure everything is properly charged?

Royan: My students and I in equal measures. By the end of the year, there is always a core group of mini Doug Petes and Royan Lees eager to look after EVERYTHING tech related. My ‘geniuses’, to borrow the Apple Store term.

Doug:  In looking through the examples you shared from your Thinking Book, there is some pretty interesting artwork!  Is this the nature of the classes that use the Thinking Book or is The Arts a strong theme through everything that you do?

Royan: The arts is everything for me. I don’t even do it consciously. And, by ‘arts’, I mean creativity, risk taking, comfort in open-endedness. Some of my biggest influences pedagogically are David Booth, Larry Shwartz, and Bob Barton, not Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Doug:  Are students allowed to take their Thinking Books home with them?  Are they allowed to take any of the classroom technology home?

Royan: Yes, everything. I’ve let students sign out iPads and 1 out of 100 times they come back damaged. Great odds.

Doug:  Are the Thinking Books or any of the technology used in a student led parent-teacher conference?  How?

Royan: Yes, absolutely, I’m so glad you asked that. They are essential artifacts for explaining the ‘whys’ of this kind of learning to parents, especially skeptical ones. Many parents hear about what we do and think: a) Awesome! b) What a hippie crackpot? c) Does he work for Apple? I want to make sure the latter two understand that it’s about their child as a whole, not as a number.

Doug:  In your post and my follow up Twitter message, it’s very clear that you have a balance of 50-50 with technology versus traditional paper.  Is this optimum?  How do you know?

Royan: I do think it’s optimum, because that’s the ratio I’ve observed students gravitate towards in settings where traditional tools and tech are integrated seamlessly on-demand. When the tech is boring because it’s always around, students can more objectively talk about which tools best serve a particular purpose for them.

Doug:  Is the use of paper or technology for a particular task a student choice?  Do you ensure that students experience all modes during the course of the school year?

Royan: It’s a mix. I basically use a gradual release of responsibility framework for this. I start off saying, “this must be done in Animoto, that must be done in chart paper, etc.,” then I get students to reflect on the tools. By January, everyone’s pretty metacognitive about it. I prefer to use differentiation, rather than systems like TRIBES, for culture building.

Doug:  Are there subjects that tend to be better addressed with paper than technology?

Royan: It’s funny you should mention that because I’m always thinking about this question. There are two main situations where I find technology to be a disruption, favouring pen and paper tools: math problem solving, and independent reading. I find that these two activities are ones that demand the most perseverance and quietness in the artificial setting that is a room of 30 sweaty children. I find it a good time to disconnect.

Doug:  Do you favour one or the other for student writing?

Royan: I personally favour digital by far, and I encourage students to write digitally, because of the collaborative and editing possibilities. Except in the case of idea generation. I try and make that a matter of personal choice.

Doug:  Do you use any other methods for students to create a learning portfolio?

Royan:  Yes, we use blogs, which we basically treat as our digital Thinking Books. Read more here.

Doug:  Do you have the full support of your administration and parents in your approach?  How do you show evidence of learning?

Royan: I do have a lot of support from parents and admin, which is basically what allows us to do what we do. In the case of the former group, I occasionally run into barriers from a vocal minority. I treat them as teachable moments. My approach has always been that if I think I may be doing something that is perceived as subversive in any way (note that I say perceived – many stakeholders have no problem with ‘traditional’ methods that have no foundation in curriculum or theory) I am ready with my pedagogical defence for it.

Doug:  Thank you, Royan.  One final question – if a classroom teacher is reading this and looking to get started with a blended approach to traditional paper versus using technology, where should they start?  How will THEY know they’re being successful?

Royan: Hmmm. This is a tough question for me, because I feel like my most honest answer could be seen as unhelpful or glib. I suppose the way I started is just by… starting. By trying to integrate technology into what I was doing, by collaborating with people and sharing my stories. I’ve done far more failing than anything else. Basically it’s about disposition. If you’re ok with working with these tools – any tools – in a manner akin to my 1yo learning to use a spoon, then you’re off to the races! I don’t really want to say, “Well, start with Google Docs” or “Get a MacBook Pro” or whatever. It makes no sense to say that because so much of it is contextual. It’s more important to take rewarding risks, surround yourself with people venturing similar terrain, and be resilient. As Yoda says, do or do not, there is no try. Do, reflect, share, do, reflect, share. Rinse, repeat. Thanks, Doug, love talking to ya.

Again, thank you, Royan.  p.s. He did miss a real opportunity.  If you’re getting started or you’re looking for ideas to refine your approaches, make sure that you follow Royan’s blog where he shares so much.

OTR Links 08/20/2012

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.