Thursday, November 27, 2014

Authentic Audiences: Empowering Learners to Make a Difference

I work with some of the most courageous, inspiring educators in the world.

Bold statement...I know.  But truly, I do.  Allow me to explain...

When I was a fifth grade teacher, I always ended the year by sharing several books with my learners. Books like Oh the Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss, I Knew You Could by Craig Dorfman, and I'd Choose You by John Trent. If I were still a fifth grade teacher, I would now include The Dot by Peter Reynolds! My goal, of course, was to share some bit of "wisdom" with my learners before they headed off to middle school. Well, since then I have discovered that my learners have far more wisdom to share with me than I could ever hope to share with them.   Looking back, I don't even know if those timeless stories ever had the impact I was hoping for, but I do know that they led to some great conversations and precious memories during the last week of school each year.

Of all the books I shared with my learners during those last bittersweet days of their fifth grade year, my favorite by far was Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. Based on the true story of Alice Rumphius, this precious book is the story of the real "Lupine Lady" who had three wishes in her travel the world, to live in a house beside the sea, and to make the world a more beautiful place. She worked hard to make all of her wishes come true and, in the end, made the world more beautiful by spreading lupine seeds wherever she went. These seeds eventually blossomed into beautiful patches of "blue and purple and rose colored flowers" that carpeted the town where she lived.  

I absolutely loved this story of giving back and living a life that made an impact on those around you...a legacy of sorts...but sometimes I felt frustrated because my learners...well, they often didn't seem to "get it." Oh, they said all the "right things" and definitely knew the "right answers."  

Ms. Malone: "What's this story about?"

Learner: "A lady who was a librarian and who travelled around the world, but then got hurt and went to live by the sea."   


Ms. Malone: "What else did she do?"

Learner: "She spread seeds everywhere and flowers grew all around the town."


Ms. Malone: "Why did she do that?"

Learner: "To make the world more beautiful."


Ms. Malone: "Why did I choose to read this book to you today?"

Learner: "Because you want us to do something to make the world more beautiful too."


So what's the problem, you might ask?  Well, they were saying the right things...but still, they didn't get it.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say they didn't believe it. Despite my best efforts, many of my kids were leaving me not believing that they would ever really make a difference.  Many of them left not believing that they should...or could...or would...ever do anything to make the world a more beautiful place.  What a sad indictment on my teaching!  What a sad indictment on me!

Here's the good news...I am no longer the teacher I once was...and the learners in my classroom...they are different as well.  They are more confident, more self directed, and more globally minded than those who came before them.  They are more willing to take risks, step into the unknown, and face challenges than ever before.  And most exciting to me, they believe that they have what it takes to make a difference in their world!  And they believe that they can make that difference this this time and place...and they are...well...RIGHT!

So why the change?  What is the impetus behind this shift in the way our learners think, act, and believe about their place in this world of ours?   Well, there are a lot of answers to that question.  
  • Our world is changing...true.
  • We live in a global society...true again.
  • Technology is changing how kids learn...ummm...yes!
All of that...and true.  But at Austin Elementary, I, I know...that SEM is also a huge part of the impetus to change.   Our kids are different...because we allow them to be different!  Our kids are making an impact because we tell them that they can...and then give them the tools to do just that!
"What kind of tools?" you may ask.  I could go on for days answering that question, but for now, let's keep it simple.  Two words...Authentic Audience. These two words have been part of my vocabulary for several years now.  I first heard them from Marcia Gentry, Professor of Educational Studies at Purdue University, while she was leading a session on Enrichment Clusters that I was attending at Confratute  during the summer of 2010.  Dr. Gentry talked about the power of an authentic audience to bring purpose, meaning, and real world significance to the work kids do...and I believed her...and I've shared my belief with those around me...a lot.  But finding...and a real world authentic audience is not as easy as it may sound.  It's tricky...and scary...and well, hard!  And so for a long time these two words remained just that...words.


But not anymore!  Here at Austin Elementary, the inclusion of "authentic audiences" into the learning design in our classrooms is becoming more the norm and less the exception than ever before.  Recently, I stepped into an enrichment cluster where the children were learning to sew.  On the surface, it might have seemed to the untrained eye to be simply a sewing class. Enjoyable? Yes...but really worth giving up an hour of instruction every week? Well, if "enjoyable" was where it stopped, my answer would have to be no.  But learning to sew, while interesting and exciting for these young learners, was not the ultimate goal.  For you see, the conversation in this room went far beyond how to thread a needle or bind a seam. The most prominent conversation in the room was not about the what or the how of sewing, but rather, about the why behind their work.   Who would benefit from these new found skills?  How could they use what they were learning to help those around them? In short, how could they use this experience to make the world a more beautiful place?  

Cool conversation...yes?  But here's what's even cooler.  It is a conversation that is happening in enrichment clusters and E-Time groups all over the building!  
  • Trendy Styles is creating hats, hairbands and clothing for orphans and needy children around the world.
  • Seeing Through a Dog's Eyes is making pull toys for service animals.
  • Stop Motion Films, Inc. is creating videos to raise awareness about global warming, pollution, and hunger.
  • Cause for Paws is making blankets for homeless animals.
  • Sew Fashionable is making stockings for children in need.
  • Broadcasting is exploring tools to make visual announcements possible on our campus.
  • Calling All Carpenters and EVENTful Planning are working alongside the PTO to plan, design, and build games that will be used in the Spring Carnival.
  • second grade E-Time group is creating cards/posters for nursing home residents.
  • The list goes on and on!! 

And even cooler than that?  It's not just happening on Fridays!  This idea of authentic audience is catching on, not only throughout the building, but throughout the week as well!  Daily, our learners are having conversations...with each other...with educators...maybe even with you...about how they can make an impact on the world around them!  How cool is that?!

Now I realize that some of you may be wondering why this is such a big deal.  After all, you may not have sent your child to school so he or she can change the world.  All that can come later...right?  Maybe...but here's the deal.  The payoffs for children immersed in this kind of learning environment go far beyond the obvious social emotional benefits that come from the realization that they have valuable contributions to make to our world.  Let's just look at a few...
  • Learners develop skills that will allow them to be competitive in a global workplace. These skills include communication, collaboration, creativity, problem solving, self awareness, and many more.
  • Learners identify areas of strength and talent and are given opportunities to develop those areas in a supportive, risk free environment.
  • Learners understand their identity as global citizens and begin to take ownership of the privileges and responsibility that identity requires.
  • Learners are immersed in real world experiences that give value and purpose to their efforts.
  • Learners construct new understandings of their role as both learner and educator in a world where the value of each is absolutely immeasurable.
  • Learners develop perseverance in the face of challenges and obstacles as they work to accomplish tasks and goals that are globally relevant and personally meaningful.
  • Learners dive deep into academic content in the context
    of real world problems that provide relevance and purpose to the learning that is taking place.
  • Learners demonstrate a higher level of motivation, task commitment, and willingness to take risks with academic skills that are embedded naturally into the tasks they are striving to complete.  These skills include concepts related to measurement, numeracy, data collection, fine arts, reading comprehension, written expression, scientific understanding, and many more. 
This list could go on and on!  The benefits are truly endless!  

So, back to my original statement...

I work with some of the most courageous, inspiring educators in the world. 

Still don't get it?  Stay with me...
  • For the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) to truly take hold in a school, the educators must be willing to let go of the reins and give the learners control of their learning...scary.  
  • In order for the Schoolwide Enrichment Model to continue to grow and begin to change the culture in a school, the educators must be willing to demonstrate flexibility and resourcefulness like never before...demanding
  • If the Schoolwide Enrichment Model is going to truly define who you are as a school and impact the way every learner and every educator thinks and behaves
    on a daily basis, educators must be able to take a deep honest look about what they believe and then take steps daily to truly live out those beliefs...bold.  
Helping our learners identify and reach out to authentic audiences is just one example of how the educators at Austin Elementary have made these things happen.  

It's scary.  It's demanding.  It's bold.  It would be easier to give decide its not worth go back to the comforts of "the way things used to be."  After all, will it really make a difference if there's one less fashion group in the world?  Will one small group of learners working together to make make a difference in the lives of orphans halfway around the world really change anything?  Well, I can tell you, if you ask the learners in those cluster groups, their answer to that question would be a passionate and heartfelt YES.  
So, on this eve of my most favorite American holiday, let me just say THANK YOU to the educators and administrators at Austin Elementary who day in and day out say YES to the sometimes scary, often demanding, and many times bold choices that bring innovation, opportunity, and empowerment to our learners! 

 Inspire. Digital image. N.p., Mar. 2012. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Is a Square a Rectangle and Other Questions to Ponder

Is a square a rectangle?  Is a rectangle a square?  This is such a fun conversation to have with learners!  For you see, a square is most definitely a rectangle.  Don't believe me?   Neither do the kids!  Let's take a look at the conversation that ensues.

What is a Rectangle:   a closed figure with...                                    
  • four vertices                                    
  • four right angles
  • 2 pair of parallel lines
  • four sides  

Does a Square Have...
  • four vertices...yes!
  • four right angles...yes!
  • 2 pair of parallel lines...yes!
  • four sides...yes!            

Does a square meet all the criteria for being classified as a rectangle?  Yes!


All squares are also rectangles.

This is where the fun starts, for now that I have the learners fully convinced that a square is indeed a rectangle, it's time for the next phase of the conversation.  I begin with another question.  This time I want to know, "Is a rectangle a square?"  Now, fifteen minutes earlier, every child in the room would have absolutely sworn that no, a rectangle is definitely not a's a rectangle!  A rectangle is a rectangle and a square is a square, and by the way Ms. Malone, what's wrong with you today!?!?!? 

But remember, I just spent fifteen minutes convincing every one of them that a square is, in fact, a rectangle, so for these learners, it naturally follows that a rectangle is also a square.   Unfortunately, they couldn't be more wrong.  (Are you beginning to see why I have so much fun with this conversation?) 

Let's take another look at the criteria.

Square: a closed figure with...

  • four vertices
  • four right angles
  • 2 pair of parallel lines
  • four congruent sides

Rectangle: a closed figure with...
  • four vertices
  • four right angles
  • 2 pair of parallel lines
  • four sides
but... those sides are not necessarily congruent!



All squares are indeed rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.

Okay, fun conversation...but what's the point?  

Well, some might say the point is to help kids to understand the difference between a rectangle and a square...nope!  

Maybe it's to give kids a chance to talk to each other using mathematical language?  Important, but... nope!

Learn more about squares?  Nope!

Learn more about rectangles?  Nope!

Show them the teacher is always right?  Ha..tempting, but most definitely...NOPE!

Here's the point.  Through this conversation...and others like learn to evaluate ideas, concepts, decisions, etc...through the lens of the criteria that define them.!  But as we say in the classroom...So what?  Now what?

Well, this same line of questioning can be applied to any number of topics in any number of ways. For example...
  • in a family...a dad is always a father...but not all fathers are "dads."
  • at the grocery carrot is always a vegetable...but not all vegetables are carrots.
  • in your neighorhood...a home is always (or usually) in a house...but not every house is a home.
  • in the world of construction...all buildings have a foundation...but not everything with a foundation is a building.
  • in the Schoolwide Enrichment Model...all enrichment experiences are enjoyable for the participants...but not every experience that a learner enjoys is enrichment.

Whoa...what?  I thought the Schoolwide Enrichment Model was all about student interest...passion based teaching...learner driven instruction?   


And that it involved providing enrichment experiences for all learners based on those interests?


And if learners are interested in something, they will enjoy experiences centered around that interest?


So therefore enjoyment = enrichment?!

Let's go back to the criteria.  

What is Enrichment?  
  • learner driven
  • no pre-determined lesson plans
  • interest based
  • authentic tools / methods
  • advanced content
  • real world problem solving

What is Enjoyment?
  • learner driven
  • no pre-determined lesson plans
  • interest based
  • fun!
  • may...or may not...include authentic tools / methods
  • may...or may not...include advanced content
  • may...or may not...include real world problem solving


All enrichment is enjoyable...but not all that is enjoyable is enrichment!  

Click on the link below for more information about how the Schoolwide Enrichment Model is changing the face of learning @Austin Elementary!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

SEM 2014-2015: The B.E.S.T. Year Yet

I just bought a new house...a brand spanking new house!  I designed it myself...picked the colors, chose the tile, selected the cabinets....and the carpet...and the lighting...even the sink!  It was so much fun!  I moved in over the summer, and I absolutely LOVE my new house!  But as much fun as I had during the design process, and as exciting as it is to live in my brand new house, there have been times when I have felt a little...unsettled...nervous...even scared.  Now, I realize you may be thinking, "She's crazy! What's so scary about living in a brand new house?"  Well, you wouldn't be the first person to call me crazy, but hear me out.  In a brand new house, EVERYTHING is DIFFERENT.  For example, in my new neighborhood, I am surrounded by strangers...neighbors I don't know...and who don't know me! What if I don't like them? What if they don't like ME?  And in my kitchen, there's this new oven...completely different from my old one.  The other day I was making dinner for my son, and I couldn't figure out why the chicken wasn't cooking.  My son is the one who discovered the problem. The chicken wasn't cooking because I hadn't turned on the oven!  And my closet..instead of long and skinny, it's short and fat!  All my clothes are in the wrong place!  My pantry has sink is too big...I have a study.  A study!  I've NEVER had a study!  What the heck?!

Okay, so clearly I am being facetious, but let's face it...change IS hard.  Its uncomfortable.  It's stressful. Sometimes it's even a little scary.  So, if that's the case, why bother?  Why do we put ourselves through this painful journey of change when it would be just as easy...easier, in leave things the way they are?  Well, let's think about my new house.  Yes, there is some discomfort.  I don't know where things are.  I am further away from work.  My furniture doesn't quite fit.  BUT IT'S A NEW HOUSE! It's got these lights
that fade on slowly to save electricity.  And the cabinets have a soft close feature which makes it nearly impossible to slam them shut.  (Sure wish I'd had those around when my kids were teenagers!)  There's even a rain gauge built into my sprinkler system that enables it to recognize when nature has given my lawn the water it needs so it doesn't waste water by adding more.  My old sprinkler system couldn't do that.  Oh old house didn't even HAVE a sprinkler system!

Now one thing my old house did have was size.  Two stories...four bedrooms...two and a half baths...two living areas...a huge backyard.  It was big...and perfect for raising three rambunctious
children, especially when I was young and spry and as full of energy as they were.  But that time in my life is gone, and my needs are very different now.   I no longer need four bedrooms or two living areas. I certainly don't need, or even want, a big backyard.  However, a sprinkler system is pretty handy to have around.  And a house with no stairs is the perfect fit for a girl with a bad back.  And the study...oh my...the study allows me to separate work time from play time and find a balance between the two that leads to greater joy in both.  I love the study!

So what's the point?  Simply is changing.  I'm not talking about a subtle shift of educational pedagogy.  I'm talking about moving into a brand new house!  EVERYTHING is DIFFERENT.   It's uncomfortable...and it's stressful...and sometimes, it's even a little scary.  It would probably have been easier to just leave things the way they were. But "easier" is not always "best."  Heck, sometimes "easier" isn't even "good."   I could have stayed in my old house.  It would have been much easier.  I was comfortable there.  I knew my neighbors.  I was close to my school.  It was "home."  But I was paying for space I didn't need....rooms I never used...stairs I couldn't climb.  My foundation was cracking because I wasn't strong enough to pull out the hose to water it. didn't have a study!  Staying would have been easier...yes....but if I had made the "easy" choice, I would have missed out on the "best" that replaced it.  Our kids...the learners in our classrooms...they are different.  Their needs are different.  And they don't need easy.  They need BEST!

As we begin a new school year, I am more excited than ever about the "BEST" that the Schoolwide Enrichment Model has to offer to our learners.


Brings opportunities for all learners to collaborate with peers and adults who share like passions.
Enables all learners to identify and develop their unique interests and talents.
Supports the development of future ready skills such as collaboration, creativity, and communication.
Takes control of the learning away from the educator and puts in the hands of the learner!

SEM's going to be the BEST year yet!

Monday, March 31, 2014

S.E.M. - The Week in Review 3/28/14

Click on the the link below for an overview of The Schoolwide Enrichment Model at Austin Elementary this week.  Brown Bag Lunches, garden construction, visitors, and more.  Don't miss out!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Transformation - It's About the Kids

I love Saturdays...don't you?  I get to sleep in late, read in bed, maybe go shopping or take in a movie.  No responsibility.  Isn't it great?!  That's what I was thinking this past Saturday as I slowly woke up, stretched and yawned in my bed, and welcomed in the new day through my open window.   But then I was the day!  It was time to put our money...or at least our muscle...where our mouth was.  The construction of the reading garden was about to begin!

When I arrived at school, the construction materials were just being delivered.  Lumber, screws, soil, trash bins, tools, watering cans...the list goes on and on.  Stuff!  A lot of it!  I stood there, alone with one other teacher, and lots and lots of...stuff...and I wondered, "What in the world have I gotten myself into?"  How was this huge pile of...stuff...going to be transformed into...well...anything?  Much less a garden!
                                                                         Soon enough, help began to arrive.  It came in all forms.  Parents, administrators, husbands, PTO members, friends, teachers...and kids...lots of kids!  I watched as they arrived.  I, I felt...their excitement...and suddenly, everything was okay.  We didn't really know
what we were doing.  We didn't have the right tools...or enough of the ones we did have.  We didn't really have a plan, and we certainly didn't know how this little adventure was going to work out.  But, we had something more important...something that no amount of frustration or confusion or exhaustion can take away.

We had the kids!  We had their hope...their optimism...their energy...their sense of wonder.  We had the joy that comes from knowing that they are the reason we are here. 
One look into the eyes of those kids, and I knew that I was right where I needed to be.  All the stresses and pressures of the week melted away as I became absorbed in the purpose...the real purpose...for this day.  You see, it wasn't about a garden.  It wasn't about me or Mrs. Cook.  It wasn't about "doing it right."  It wasn't even really about "going green."  It was about the kids!  It was about making a dream come true. 

And so it began!  Step by step, piece by piece, things began to fall into place.  A group of volunteers worked together to create a design for the raised beds.  Others ran home to gather more tools and supplies.  Still others began the process of transforming that pile of "stuff" into a garden. 
We drilled, we pushed.  We lifted, we measured. We placed the beds in the perfect spot...and then moved  them to a place that was better.  We blocked the weeds, we poured the soil.  We laughed, we cried...well, not really, but sometimes we wanted to...we built a garden!  We built a garden! Or at least, the beginnings of one.

You might be thinking, "So what!  It's just a garden!  What's the big deal?"  Well, okay, I get that...but here's the big deal.  This wasn't just any garden.  This was a garden born out of the dreams and passions of 2nd and 3rd grade learners who wanted to make a difference. This was a garden that came to be because of the dedication of an inspired educator and the generosity of an amazing PTO.  This was a garden that was built because, as Mr. Hilton put it, a "village" came together to make it happen.  This garden was the fruition of a dream that began a year ago in the hearts and minds of the learners in the Book Blooms Enrichment Cluster...and culminated with another group of children who came together with parents, educators, friends, and family to make the dream come true!

Remember my question?

How was this huge pile of...stuff...going to be transformed into...well...anything?

I found my answer!  Transformation doesn't always come in the form of plans or tools or materials.  Those things are important...I get that.  But taken alone, those things are just "stuff."  The magic happens...the transformation takes place, when you add a little something more.  Transformation happens when you add passion...and hope...and dreams.  Transformation occurs when "a village comes together to make it happen."  Transformation happens when we's all about the kids!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Community Garden Day

One of the goals of enrichment clusters is to give our learners opportunities to use their interests and passions to make an impact on their world.  The 2nd and 3rd grade learners in the Book Blooms Cluster did just that last Fall when they designed a reading garden for Austin Elementary.  After much work behind the scenes, the time has finally arrived to make their dream a reality, but these young learners need your help!

We are looking for volunteers to join us on Saturday, March 29th, for a Community Garden Day. Our goals that day include:
  • building two raised flower beds
  • building two raised vegetable beds
  • creating planting barrels for science investigations
Please see the flyer below for more information.

This will be a tremendous opportunity for parents and children to work side by side as together, we help these young learners make their dreams come true!  If you are interested in participating in this unique event, please use the link below to let us know you are coming.  No special skills are required...just a willingness to work hard and a desire to make a difference in the lives of kids.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Many Faces of E-Time

I've always been a people watcher.  I absolutely love sitting on a bench in the middle of a busy park, standing silently in a crowded mall, or moving quietly down a bustling city street...and watching...watching as the world rolls on, fast and furious around me.  As I watch, I find myself contemplating the faces of the people who pass me by...staring into the depths of their eyes...and wondering.  What's that smile about?  Why those tears?  What's the mischief behind the young boy's impish grin?  What wisdom is hidden behind the wrinkled, rheumy eyes of the elderly couple walking hand in hand through the park?  The excitement...the fear...the joy...the sorrow...where did it all come from?  Where have they been?  Where are they going?  And why are they here...right this time and place?  What's their story?

For you see, everyone has a story.  And one of the most humbling aspects of my life as an educator is the absolute privilege of helping kids write theirs.   So, I thought, what better way to look at E-Time...what better way to tell the story of the Schoolwide Enrichment Model at Austin Elementary...than through the faces, young and old, of those who live it everyday?  So sit back, relax, take a deep breath...and enjoy the story...

It's a magical story, and we would love for you to be a part.  If you are interested in becoming involved as a volunteer, contact Liz Malone through her email,  If you are interested in just learning more about what this SEM story is all about, click on the link below to secure a spot on an E-Time tour.

Click Here to Sign Up for an E-Time Tour