A New Culture of Learning



I recently finished an intriguing book that is less of a book about technology, but more a book about the social shifts in how we learn due to the dramatic changes in technology.  A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown describes how the mechanistic nature in which we educate our students does not match the way people are learning outside of school and in the workplace.

Thomas and Brown compare a traditional education of the 20th century as  a using a mechanistic approach where learning is treated as a series of steps to be mastered.  The result is what is valued.  In the twenty-first century learning and education are changing to an organic approach where the context in which the learning happens, the boundaries that define it, and the students, teachers, and information within it all coexist and shape each other in a mutually reinforcing way.  Now the process matters more than the result because the result is constantly changing.


In a traditional sense of culture: “When individuals become part of a new culture, they are generally the ones who are transformed (or leave.)”  In a new type of culture: “The culture transforms in an uninhibited, completely organic way, within the constraints of the environment. You do not interfere with the process because it is the process that is interesting.”  This is similar to add a new element to a petri dish the whole culture changes because of that one addition, but it is working within a constrained environment.  This is how social media and online gaming communities work.  Individuals connect together within a specific realm for a certain purpose and ideas take off.  The product is constantly changed and reinvented by the new additions of insight to the group.  This is the learning of the present and future.  Brown  and Seely write, “A traditional sense of culture… strives for stability and adapts to changes in its environment only when forced.  A new type of culture… responds to its surroundings organically. It thrives on change.”

This book, along with the book Invent to Learn, has shifted my thinking about the ways in which we engage students in learning and how we envision subjects and technology.  Technology allows an expansion of the amount of individuals bouncing ideas off one another, yet many school districts are hesitant for safety reasons to allow too much leeway with social media sites.  How can students learn in school in the organic manner and style they will need in order to navigate and succeed in the twenty-first century?  How can school learning match the type of learning some students are getting with technology outside of school?

Completing a Science Unit…and Weighing the Results

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This quarter I had the opportunity to teach an entire science unit to the 2nd graders in my main placement.  The unit was soils.  It was perfect for me, as my previous work experience is as a gardener and garden designer endowed me with an in depth knowledge of the subject.  As I wrote in an earlier blog post, I was extremely excited to teach this unit.  Being able to connect my 2nd graders to their immediate outdoor environment and surroundings is an area I am very passionate about.

I taught 16 lessons in this unit where we covered: soil components, the earth’s soil layers, which soil components are made from organic and inorganic materials, what are organic and inorganic materials, how plants help soil, how worms help soil, how to determine if a soil is healthy to grow plants.  It was a very well organized unit through the district science kit developed in conjunction with Betsy Fulwiler, but I decided to add in some elements that stemmed from questions from the students and, also, to bring in some of the outdoors into the classroom.  One of the items I incorporated was creating a wormery with the students where they were able to observe worms up close and then place them into our wormery where they would be our pets for two weeks and we could observe what they did with the plant material at the top and if they would create tunnels and mix the soil layers.


The wormery

We also had a couple of ongoing experiments sitting in our classroom, where the students could monitor the changes in our soil settling tests.


Soil settling test of all three soil components: sand, clay and humus.

Visual anchor charts were a big part of my lessons, where I would have a drawing set up in advance and together with the class would work through labeling and developing an understanding of how it all intertwined.  I would refer back to previous drawings often to make connections to current lessons.

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Learning how to guide and scaffold the writing of 2nd graders was one of the biggest learning curves for me.  With the help of my cooperating teacher I learned how to direct the students’ writing.  I would often check in with the writing in their science journals to gage their comprehension of the ideas and concepts we were learning.


An example of a writing prompt

This was one of the biggest learning experiences in seeing how my teaching directly related to the students understanding.  The dove into the experiments at first and was more focused on management of the materials.  (It was one of the messiest and material heavy science units a teacher can hope for!)  The first couple of weeks the experiments involved testing a lot of the different properties of the soil components.  The results from the students experiments did not always work out to the desired result and I struggled with how to avoid confusion in their understanding.  The soil components we were given did not always yield the correct results depending on if the clay was more clumped or the sand had more silt in it.

The last two weeks I tried tying all the concepts together and this is where I really studied the students journals and gaged the connections they were making.  I based my last lessons on areas that I felt were still confusing to the students.  Sometimes I felt like I was going in circles, but I guess I was trying to engage students’ understanding from different angles.

In the end, when I gave the test just over half the class scored above an 80%.  This devastated me.  I felt I had failed them.  My cooperating teacher explained how this happens and how we want students to be successful, not feel defeated.  She suggested going over the test with the class and providing another opportunity to show their understanding.  I did go over the test with them and we brought out all the anchor charts and referred back to some of the books we had used and answered specific areas of misunderstanding.  Then after recess, I gave them the test again.  This time 80% of the class scored above 80%.  I am not sure that I felt this was an authentic way of testing their understanding, but it did help many of them feel successful.  All the scores went up.

My last week teaching this unit was when I attended the science writing workshop my district offers.  This workshop really helped me see the importance of making time for writing in science.  The act of writing down predictions, conclusions and observations allows the students time to reflect and think about what is happening.  It was unfortunate that I could not take this earlier, but I have learned through this process to allow for whole science periods to just write and reflect on what took place the previous day and check in with the bigger concepts and ideas of the unit.

Diversity of School Cultures

I find it amazing how schools can be so different in the same school district.  A schools culture is defined by its mission and community.  It is interesting how like-minded people often end up living in a similar area.  This is often defined the living costs of an area, which then can translate into common values about education.  The school I am student teaching at is a geographical public school that draws upon its local area for its school population.  The area is an upper middle class community of well educated college-graduate parents.  Many parents have both had high-powered jobs and are well off in their careers.  This has instigated a strong mission to value high achievement  in academics for their children.  Less emphasis is placed on the arts and social-emotional learning.  Levels and testing are a big part of the parents language at this school, and thus, also the students.

Just five miles away in the same school district is an options public school.  It is not tied to a geographical location and perspective parents must chose to enter a lottery to enroll.  This system, also, allows for like-minded to connect a community.  This school values educating the whole child in physical wellness, the outdoor environment, social-emotional wellness as well as academics.  The academics are just one piece and not the whole picture.

These schools are in a large urban environment which allows for diverse school cultures, but I remember growing up in the suburbs where there was only one school in the community.  Everyone went to that school.  The central focus was the academic subjects of math, reading, writing, science, and social studies.  Art, music and PE were once a week.  The focus was on academic knowledge and getting kids into college.  There was no room to really specify a school culture because the job of any school in a less populated area was to educate students in academic knowledge – that’s it.  I do not remember ever hearing about a mission statement from the public schools in my town or the surrounding towns growing up.  Thus, my experience of school growing up was that it was my job, and my parents had their jobs and their was little mix of our “work” communities once we came home.

Gazing into Reflection

“Sometimes, you have to look back in order to understand the things that lie ahead.”
Yvonne WoonDead Beautiful


“A lake is a landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
― Henry David ThoreauWalden

Looking deeply at ourselves and the things we have done can be difficult or inspiring.  Often, we steer clear of taking time to look back because we are too busy trying to move forward.  But, I have found that by looking back and engaging in a conversation with myself about past events, emotions and feelings I am moving forward with greater understanding and I am more able to change my behaviors and patterns.

“Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy ready-made things in the shops.”
― Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe Little Prince

Reflecting requires us to make time to grow and learn. It requires us to be more present in our moments of living, so we can relive our experiences and make sense of them in our chosen quiet moments of reflection.

“Just as a snake sheds its skin, we must shed our past over and over again.”
― Gautama Buddha

Through reflection we will change and develop, growing into each new skin that we try on in our life journey.


“That’s sad. How plastic and artificial life has become. It gets harder and harder to find something…real.”
― Jess C. ScottThe Other Side of Life

Reflection allows for life to be felt more deeply, experienced more fully.  Through reflection I have learned how to dig deeper in my understanding of the overwhelming experiences I have encountered this year.

Blogging has been one of the more difficult methods of reflecting for me, as I am aware of a much wider audience.  I feel the need to orchestrate my thoughts before publishing.  Often, I have started with a draft, left it and then read it later to see if it is expressing the right concept or idea.  I struggle with finding words to express my thoughts.  It sometimes takes a few drafts to get at my intended meaning.  Blogging may come easier for writer-types, but the fact that you are aware of others listening, keeps your writing sane and rational.  The tangents are minimized (at least for me).


“Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections.”
― Jane Austen

“Indulging in the delight of unpleasant recollections…” sums up the bittersweet nature of reflection.  It is hard to look inward and really face who we are –  none of us is perfect.   But, at the end of reflecting on my day I always feel lighter… and, also, happy that I can go back to my thoughts and revisit them another time.  I can witness my growth.  This has been quite a year of growth.

Wonderful Moment

Two weeks ago I gained some confidence in my teaching abilities.  Being a student teacher and learning the nuances of teaching is exhausting.  More often than not, you see what you could have done better and focus on the aspects of your day that did not go so well trying to figure out better methods.  It is a learning process.  I need to remember to be kinder to myself because I am a student teacher and I am learning through working through these challenges.  But, when a moment shines that can keep your spirits up for a while you need to hang on to that.  This story was one of those moments.

Our school does Walk to Math.  My CT and I have the slowest paced math group for the whole 2nd grade with only 9 students in the class.    Their is a math tudor who is in the class to help specifically support two of the students.  Many students struggle with staying focused and many have lost their confidence in their ability to do math.  We were starting a unit on adding and subtracting double and triple digit numbers.  We had been working a week on adding and subtracting  10s and 100s from double and triple numbers.

On this particular day the tudor was out and my CT asked me to work with Bella (pseudonym).  We abandoned the worksheet as I saw she was mixing up her place values.  She would did not understand the value of a 3 in the tens place was 3 tens.  We needed to take a step back and understand what the value of each number was in a triple digit number.  We tried working with base ten blocks, but these did not really seem to help her.  I shifted gears and took out a white board and drew three columns.  I started by writing a triple digit number using the three columns as hundreds, tens and ones.  I would ask her the value of each of the numbers.  For example, for 345 I would ask Bella what the 3 was worth – what was its value.  What was the 5 worth.  We did this for a bit and then I handed the columned whiteboard to her and said a triple digit number to her out loud and had her write the number and tell me the value of the different numbers.

After we did this for a while we started to go back to the problems on the sheet.

345 – 20 =

We keep with the strategy of the columns because Bella needed to keep her place values straight.  We worked through the whole sheet of 8 problems together.  Class ended and I was not too sure about her capacity yet to do these problems on her own.

The next day my CT decided to give a test on the skills we had been working on because she felt some students were ready to move on and some who were not and she wanted to divide the class  according to their understanding level of the skill and work with them as two separate groups.  When I glanced at Bella’s test as she was working she was solving every problem correctly!  My CT and I couldn’t believe it.  She had been one of the two students that was just not making progress in her mathematical understanding, and thus, in her confidence in math.  She finished the test along with the other students and received 100%!  She was beaming.  My CT congratulated me. During the lesson afterwards she independently wrote answers on her whiteboard and silently celebrated every time my CT said, “Yes Bella, that’s correct.”

Later that day, when I was heading out after school, Bella was on the playground.  She ran over to me and warmly greeted me. She asked me if we were going to be doing the same kind of problems in math for a long time.  I could see she was still reveling in her glorious day in math.  She had gotten a taste of what it felt like to understand what was going on with the language of numbers and she wanted that feeling to last.  I told her we would be working with double and triple digit numbers for a while, but would be adding some challenges along the way.  She wasn’t too sure what to make of that, but nothing could ruin her day.

The following week Bella was a rock star.  At first she was a bit needy thinking I had to be at her side in order for her to understand the problems, but I quietly distanced myself from her and let her struggle when I knew she was comprehending.  At the end of this week she was the first to finish her timed test and the skills test on adding and subtracting all types of double digits even with borrowing.  That one day of going backwards and sorting out the value of a number based on its place made a difference.  but, the really difference came from the confidence Bella got from succeeding on her own on that first test.  I think she would almost call herself a mathematician now.  I think definitely by the end of the school year she will.



This past week I had the chance to teach a mini-lesson on writing a book dedication. My 2nd graders are in the process of working on their “All About” nonfiction books. For homework this past week they were going to work on writing their own dedications for their books.

On Monday my cooperating teacher was out for the day. I was in charge of leading the lessons.  This dedication lesson seemed simple and straight forward.  I had a few examples of dedications found in fiction and non-fiction books.  We went through the books’ dedications and looked at what information is given in dedications.  We discussed what dedications were and why they were found in books.  Together we came up with the following chart.  The main idea that came out of looking at the book examples was that dedications are written for someone who inspires you.  (As you can see this is highlighted.)


I showed the students where dedications were often located so they could explore their books at home to find more examples.  I showed them their homework assignment and where their final dedication was to be written.  I followed up with a couple of questions for those who were still stumped about ideas for whom to dedicate their book.  I ended the mini-lesson thinking that it went well.  The lesson seemed clear and their input seemed to be in the right direction and most students felt they had ideas for their homework.

Well, on Friday morning (when the homework for the week was due) a mother of one of the students in the class happened to mention to me the struggle her son had with writing a dedication.  He could not think of anyone to dedicate it to, other than my cooperating teacher, because she had “made him” write the book.  His mother said she could not get through to him that a dedication could be to someone you love as well.  He was adamant that a dedication is to someone who inspires you.  After the parent mentioned this to me I went back to the chart and saw how this could have occurred.  I then worried that other students in the class  had a narrow lens about dedications all from the lesson I taught on Monday.  I was anxious to read the other students dedications and see if they all put my cooperating teacher.

Amazingly, when I went through the homework, I found only four students had dedicated their books to the teacher.   The rest were very thoughtful and diverse and for a variety of reasons (other than “they made me do it”).  Oddly enough the four students who had trouble with this were three boys who are some of the brightest students in the class and one girl.  The boys are so literal that they struggle with looking beyond the given parameters.  It was an interesting learning experience for myself to see the results of the lesson I taught.   It was a little like opening a package and hoping the hints I put out were well interpreted.

Using Experiential Knowledge to Further Reading Comprehension

This week in planning for my next conference with my 3rd grade literacy buddy I used my new-found understanding about reading comprehension. The goal of reading anything is to understand another person’s ideas, story or concepts.  It is all based on understanding.  Without comprehending what we are reading the act of reading is meaningless.  In the book Teaching Children to Read Reuzel and Cooter neatly define comprehension as “intentional thinking.”  They get to the heart of the matter when they write, “Connecting new knowledge to what is already known provides the scaffolding students need to comprehend texts.”

My 3rd grade buddy is an avid reader, but mostly reads fantasy.  When assessing her comprehension and fluency this week through a short third grade reading passage she blew me out of the water.  She read 224 words a minute with no mistakes and wonderful expression.  She answered the comprehension questions, including the question about the theme, better than I could have answered it myself and this was after only having read the passage once.  I felt it would be hard choosing something for her to read next the time we met.  I wasn’t sure I could work on any new strategies with her on comprehension.  But, then I thought I could push her to experience reading new genres she felt less comfortable with.  Reading together I could bring nuances of the writing style in focus.  I thought of either looking at nonfiction or realistic fiction.  Realistic fiction seemed closer to fantasy, soI thought I would start with that.

I have chosen to pull an excerpt from Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata.  I will not tell my buddy whether it is fiction or nonfiction or even the title of the book.  I chose this book because the main character is a girl similar in age to my buddy.  I hope the age connection will provide a bit of experiential knowledge.  Also, this author has written a number of wonderful realistic fiction books, so if my buddy finds a connection with this one she may easily explore the others by this author.  I am excited to see if I can extend my buddies reading comprehension in new reading arenas.  Maybe I will need a follow-up post to this one.