Reflections on Our All Day DaVinci Day

The Friday before a holiday break; Memorial Day no less. Everyone, students and teachers alike, are counting down the weeks, days, minutes until our final day of school. Yet today we had 120+ students engaged and energized during our second “All Day DaVinci Day”.

Below are a few of the structures we put into place to organize our day and a few moments that stand out to me:

1. Organized Brain Breaks-  Students met in our school’s auditorium for each of their core subject area classes. For some students that meant that they were there for three 55 minute periods in a row. No one can keep focus for that long. To help students have worthwhile distractions we placed 10 QR codes throughout the room.  Students were allowed to get up and scan these codes with their smartphones whenever they wanted. The codes led students to a variety of sites: a one minute yoga video, a dumb joke website, a list of successful people who first failed, and tips on public speaking.

2. Scheduled Quiet Time  For the most part, students were allowed to work in clusters and share ideas. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon we required everyone to work silently and independently for about 30 minutes.  This productive silence allowed students to focus on their research, presentation plans, or required blog posts. They enjoyed returning to their groups and sharing what they had accomplished during these work sessions. Positive peer pressure was also exerted. Many students who were finding difficulty finding motivation had their level of concern raised when they learned of the progress made by their friends and classmates.

3. End of the Day Share Out-  It was the Friday before Memorial Day weekend so by 1:15 (our day ends at 2:15) we realized we were on borrowed time even with our high achieving, focused students. We brought all the students back to the center of the auditorium at 1:50. We applauded them for their work ethic and progress. Surprisingly they broke out into a spontaneous round of applause for themselves. We then asked volunteers to provide us with a one to two minute unrehearsed speech to introduce everyone to their projects. We had 5 brave students take center stage and share their unfinished work with 115 peers and 4 teachers.  It was at that moment that we all realized these Genius Hour projects are real. Our community sharing night is going to happen and it is going to be fantastic.

As the final impromptu presentation was finishing, a student turned to me and said, “I can’t believe this is almost over. I am going to really miss this next year.”  It is the day before Memorial Day weekend. There are four weeks of school left and that student and I are not ready for it to end.


Listen to the Students!

My teaching partners blog…we see this everyday!

Learn. Lead. Laugh. Repeat

Regardless of the best efforts to re-imagine education, we sometimes fail to recognize and act on the obvious. Even in the best circumstances where leaders strive to create a positive culture, and teachers drive learning, we often overlook the best compass for true learning: our students.

Through a combination of writings, informal conversation, and reflective feedback, the very students who sit before me (and even my own children) give me some of the best PD in terms of what will help them to learn in a meaningful way. In one instance, a student wrote an editorial on lengthening the school day. In her writing, the student does not reject a longer school day, but does remind us how easily we can shut students down by how we handle their wrong answers. She writes, “Students are made to look stupid whenever they don’t understand a lesson or ask a ‘stupid’ question…

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DaVinci Day: Reflecting the Genius in All of Us

On Tuesday night my teaching partner and I presented our version of Genius Hour to our Academic Performance subcommittee of our Board of Education. We wanted to inform the Board and the community of perhaps the most affirming and inspiring “project” we have ever been involved in as teachers.

Genius Hour is a byproduct of a movement implemented in corporations such as Google, 3M, and HP. Employees were (are) allowed to take 20% of their work time to work on pet projects. Most companies added the caveat that the project had to have the potential of earning money. Google’s Gmail and Adsense are both profitable outcomes of this initiative.

Educators across the country have adopted this concept in their classrooms.. These “projects” are sometimes referred to as “Passion Projects” or “Genius Hour”. Among my teaching team we have adopted the name “DaVinci Day”.  Our implementation began in February and the results have been spectacular.

Students have been given the opportunity to research a question or to identify a problem to solve. On each Friday, one of the four teachers on our team hosts DaVinci Day and students work on their investigations. Our only caveat, and probably the hardest part of the process for our students’ to grasp, is that it must be something that genuinely interests them. Enthusiasm, awareness, and a sense of purpose are among our most “profitable” outcomes of this initiative.

The diversity of topics being investigated, including designing apps, raising money for Doctors without Borders, and hosting classes on Chakras, demonstrate the unique interests of our students; interests we would have been unaware of through our standard curricula.  It is these discoveries, and others, that forced  me to discuss this entire process and the student projects, as “projects” earlier in this post. The word is entirely too trite and insufficient to describe DaVinci Day.  What the students are doing is learning for a purpose, the purpose of identifying or strengthening their individual passions. This process will have more influence on our students becoming life-long learners than any lecture I could craft regarding the Civil War.

As educators we now have a clear vision of what we need our kids to be able to do at the end of the year. The culmination of our DaVinci Day will be a community event at which students will  deliver TED style talks sharing their passions, their successes, and yes, even their failures with their parents, neighbors, and peers. We are now able to craft our classroom instruction to facilitate this end.

Our Civil War project has been revamped to allow students to create their own research questions, create digital supports, not a PowerPoint crutch, to accompany a mini-TED style presentation.  The students appreciate the fact that we are giving them opportunities to hone their research and presentation skills. They have (almost) requested more opportunities to speak in front of the class because they want to be prepared for May 20 when they will perform in front of a larger audience.

Why such enthusiasm?  Because the learning has relevance and is self-directed.

So now our Board, administrators, and community know of our plan. We must continue to fine tune our instruction because we can’t let our students down. We must complete our DaVinci Day which is adopting DaVinci Day.  Our teaching serves a higher purpose, one greater than mastery of a test, igniting and celebrating the passions of our students, developing lifelong learners.  Yes, that has always been our goal; however, we now have a mechanism in place which allows us to see it happen.  Witnessing a joy for learning is the most affirming experience possible for a teacher.



Rethinking Wednesdays and PLNs

Wednesdays are meeting days in my school district. I typically dred Wednesdays. Not because I do not want to meet with my colleagues. Not because I dislike or disrespect any of my administrators, but because the meetings are typically filled with the necessary evils of education: information about new state testing procedures, clarification on the new teacher evaluation model, or the generation of yet another curriculum embedded assessment to collect data that no one really understands how to use. This Wednesday, however, will be different due to a serendipitous encounter between myself and another educator through Edmodo.

A few weeks ago I was browsing through the Social Studies page on Edmodo and saw that a teacher, somewhere in the United States, had developed a phenomenal activity on modern day slavery, a topic my teaching partner and I were about to cover as part of our “Oppression and Reform” unit.  His lesson included a link to a TED video that I had not known of and was then able to incorporate into our lesson. I was able to share with this unknown colleague  a New York Times article with a link to online quiz that allows one to determine “How Many Slaves Work for You”. It was not until after this exchange, perhaps a week later, that this colleague and I realized we teach in the same school district. I am in my fifth year in my current position (although I have been with the district longer) and he is in his first.

So this Wednesday my teaching partner, this newly discovered like-minded peer, and I will meet face to face. On this Wednesday I will be excited and energized because I am certain the conversation will be filled with a meaningful exchange of resources and ideas that I can immediately implement in my classroom. Professional learning, like all learning, is best when it is directed by the learner, planned by the learner, and relevant to the learner.  We all know this for our students, but do we, including our administrators, recognize it for ourselves? Social media including Edmodo, Facebook, and most of all Twitter, have connected me with other educators who, among other things,  want to challenge themselves and their students, infuse technology, and require creativity and authenticity in their classrooms.  These relationships have provided me with more than would be possible if I only met with the same colleagues, in the same room, on the seemingly same Wednesday.

I hope Wednesday comes quickly this week so this new connection can be solidified. Hopefully, the way the three of us connected can serve as a model and inspiration for those who have not embraced developing a professional learning network through social media. Happy Wednesday!



An Introduction

“You know what the really good thing is about Humanities, Mrs Gurysh? I really feel accomplished after every project”

Wow! I was speechless when I heard these two lines from perhaps our most resistant student this year.  She is actually beginning to get it, understand why taking control of her learning, demonstrating her knowledge through authentic avenues, and infusing technology are more important and relevant than acing a test.

 As a 9th grade social studies teacher working with an English teacher to forge a new and improved model of interdisciplinary studies in a traditional high school, I have faced many obstacles. First of all my teaching partner and I were asked to take our two unrelated curricula and create an interdisciplinary course designed to challenge gifted and high achieving students.  Additionally, we were selected as the 9th grade team to pilot a one-to-one computer initiative. Now in our second year, we are beginning to realize that not only do we need to retrain ourselves, our administration, and parents, we need to retrain our students.

For the nine years prior to reaching our class, most of our goal oriented and competitive students have succeeded in environments that required them to read, learn, and repeat. In our Humanities class, we are challenging them to read, learn, and create. It is in the creation that many students become frustrated, yet it is in the creation where the learning takes place.

It is through this blog that I hope to capture the moments like the one experienced today. Those tiny ephemeral moments when you know you are doing something right, when real learning is taking place.