A Well Connected Classroom

“You can see a lot just by looking” This quote, attributed to Yogi Berra is one that I think that I’ve used in virtually every interview that I’ve had.  I firmly believe that there is so much to see in any situation if you take the chance to look.  I had yet another chance to do that at Ryerson Public School yesterday.

I met @Gill_Ville last summer at the OTF Wikis and Web 2.0 institute in Hamilton.  She was there to learn like so many and took away a great deal.  At the CATC Camp later that summer, she was a clear leader within the cadre of Waterloo Region educators and was sharing her thoughts and ideas with her colleagues.  It’s quite one thing to share ideas but it’s a completely different game to actually put it into action.  I got to see the fruits of her actions yesterday during my visit.

Ryerson Public School is a new rebuild of an existing school and I had been bugging my friend @Ron_Mill for a tour ever since he had told me about the new facilities.  I’ve had a keen interest in learning spaces and how technology fits for some time now.  I’ve worked with a couple of superintendents with new school construction and school boundary design in the past.  I have a total respect for urban planners and architects as a result.  While new thoughts about learning spaces can certainly be build into legacy buildings, new designs can have the ability to make it non-negotiable, particularly with the proper leadership within the building.

So, off I went to see what this was all about and to hopefully do some brainstorming with Kim about what she’s done.  Essentially, I was there to steal ideas!  I typed the address to the school incorrectly into my GPS and headed east.  When I arrived in Cambridge, I was only off about 500 addresses and as I reached a dead end to turn around and look up the proper address on my phone, I found the school.  Phew!

Ryerson is a K-6 school and there was evidence of that just in the organization of the parking lot, visitor spaces, and student drop off lane.  Upon entry to the school, I reflected upon design.  Unlike the old buildings that so many of us attended, modern architects take great pains to make at least the entry ways open and inviting with natural lighting.  Mandatory, of course, is to have the school office up front to welcome visitors.  I pulled up to the counter – you have to have a counter – and the friendly secretary phoned Kim’s room to let me know that  I was there.

Check out their virtual tour:  http://voicethread.com/share/1412412/

As we headed out to Kim’s room to drop off my backpack, we did pass the library.  Through the class walls, you could hear the message “this is a place to learn” and no “this is a place for books”.  Well weeded, the stacks took second place to the spacious areas and up front a computer lab with iMacs bootable to either a Macintosh or Windows environment.  These students would have the best of both worlds.

Just past the library was Kim’s room.  As with most special education rooms, it is smaller than a regular classroom but there were learning activities everywhere you looked.  There were aides in place, helping students, who were spread throughout the room working on computers, iPads, manipulatives, and reading a book.  As we entered the room, there was also the smell of chocolate chip cookies as the class was also baking for a fund raiser.  I’ve visited a lot of classrooms before and typically everything stops as the “new guy” is checked out either as an intruder to the learning or as a welcome break to the lesson.  Here, I clearly felt like an intruder.  In fact, within the first two minutes, I was elbowed aside as one of the students needed an assist with one of the words to a story.  In great teacher style, Kim didn’t give an answer but provided a couple of alternatives to the student so that she could find a solution by herself.

After dropping off my bag, we took a tour of the school.  You can see evidence of working within funding guidelines.  In order to maximize classroom space, storage is at a premium.  The hallways were friendly and the classrooms were organized by pods with outer learning areas with a couple of computer.  The classrooms themselves were outfitted with SMART Board technology (the school is recognized as a SMART Showcase School) and a Macbook Pro connected.  That was it for computers in the classroom.  Kim indicated that the school had opted for the bookable computer lab and was also part of an iPod project for portable computing.  The entire school had wireless network access so it was a natural.  I pulled out my phone and, sure enough, could see the network but couldn’t attach without credentials but that’s OK – and good.

Charging iPod Touches for projects like this is so important.  There’s nothing worse than a good lesson gone bad because of the lack of a charge.  Your home solution of a charging connection to a computer just doesn’t fit.  Charging bays are the order of the day here to keep things up and running.  The other challenge which Kim indicated is a time consuming challenge is making sure that you have the right applications installed plus dealing with the logistics of the App Store in Canada for purchased products.  Hopefully, this gets resolved so that it’s easy for schools to replicate this.  Quite frankly, I don’t know how many people would put the time and effort into this that Kim did.

After a quick tour and a chance to renew some acquaintances like @NickyTwirp, it was time for the morning nutritional break.  Kim and I took a break from the school and continued our conversation at Starbucks before returning.  Upon return, we would dig deeper into some of the current projects.  With the use of Web 2.0 technologies, the students in the classroom were truly connected to the outer world for parts of their learning.

There was a map outlining the travels of Gill the Goldfish as four of them were shared with classrooms worldwide, travelling and bring back stories from these travels.  The technology that was readily available for student use really facilitated these sorts of projects.  As an adult, I couldn’t help but feel envious for these students.  I never had these opportunities.  They were currently doing research about their community, collecting information about what the various businesses do, websites, email addresses, pictures, etc. and were building an application with the assistance of @ianchia in Australia.  What an opportunity for the students.

There was a real focus on the digital footprint that these students were developing.  Whether it was through their Twitter account, their blog, the iPod Project wiki, or the class wiki, or just the summary of everything, it was quite evident that these students were enjoying the benefits of being so well connected.

Our final event for the day was the trip to the computer lab where the students entered their findings into their blogs for the iPod Community project.  The students hopped on the computers and were off and running while Kim and I interviewed the students individually about their use of the portable technology.  I really like it when students can articulate what it is that they’re doing and more importantly, why they’re doing it.  I experience a student led conversation about the best educational application, their favourite application, and how to work their iPad device.  You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to stay abreast of a lesson on iPad orientation, pinching and swiping as they showed off their skills!

The one area where student and teacher diverge is on their choice of device.  When I asked, to a student, they preferred the iPad mostly because it is easier to read.  (I got a dizzying lesson about how to pinch and zoom on an iPod Touch).  The teacher perspective recognized the reality of costs and would prefer to have the numbers that an affordable iPod Touch would provide.

Whew!  It was a light speed visit.  It almost took as long to write this post as I had to enjoy my four hour visit to Ryerson.  At the end, my head was just exploding but it was a good exploding.  You really can learn so much from students who know their stuff and are willing to demonstrate it.  It was a thoroughly enjoying visit – I could have used a nap at the end but that wasn’t about to happen.  With all of the connections, these students were engaged and motivated so nicely.  What a great environment for them to enjoy.