Redesigning Classrooms with Design Thinking

Redesign of a 3rd Grade Classroom

Click the image above, in order to view a more “visual” experience of the process.

During the 2017-2018 school year I had the opportunity to redesign a third grade classroom as part of our Innovation Team’s, Inspiring Spaces initiative. As a general rule of thumb for our department, I followed the Design Thinking process to guide the way.

The Discovery process began by making multiple classroom visits to observe the learning taking place and witness how the teacher and students were using the physical space. Pictures were taken, video was recorded, observations were written down- all of this data was gathered and stored. To gain empathy for the students and teacher, interviews were conducted regarding how they felt the functionality of the classroom worked. What was going well? What could be improved? Did they feel inspired? A visual listening activity was also played out, where students placed different colored post-it notes on a variety of different styles of classrooms. Essentially, they were “voting” for what they liked and didn’t like. An unpacking of those results was then discussed, seeking to understand what and why they preferred certain classroom features over others.

It was then time to sit down with the teacher and look at all the evidence that had been collected. Deriving from all the images, interviews, and visual listening feedback, we narrowed down the field to focus on seven drivers for the space. These drivers would provide the focus for moving forward with redesigning the classroom. They set the tone and would always need to be considered through the process. Those drivers were: choice, student ownership, ambience, agility, multi-use, wonder, and social.

We then began to brainstorm different items. What furniture or installations were possibilities that would match the drivers. No ideas were bad ideas. We were looking for a large quantity of prospects that could then be narrowed down and mixed and matched to complete the room.

Next came the creation of different layouts for the classroom. With specific pieces of furniture selected, where would they go? How can the layout of the installations best support the learning that would take place? Multiple sketches were developed and a final prototype was decided on. We met with local providers who assisted with some of the furniture, custom installations and a mural to cover a wall.  Orders were then placed and the waiting game began.

Once furniture was delivered, it was time to evaluate and see how it functioned. During this process, we circled back into the prototyping phase as certain items performed better than others and some items took longer to arrive. Improvisations took place and there was a period of flexibility for the teacher and students. Students did need some time to get accustomed to learning in a “different” style space. The teacher needed to exercise a different type of behavior management than before, as students actually needed some instructions and expectations for how the furniture was to be used. It is mid-March and we’ve been in school since mid- August. Students are now in a groove, learning is taking place and we continue to make sure our drivers are being met with whichever layout the classroom happens to be in.

The Design Thinking process has without a doubt driven the alteration of this classroom and continues to do so, as we continue to cycle back and forth between prototyping and testing.





The FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is a competitive program developed to encourage the exploration of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The FLL challenges students to research and develop an innovative solution to a real-world problem. In addition to the challenge, students compete against other schools using LEGO Mindstorms technology, which they have designed, built, and programmed. All along, students abide by and work to develop the FLL’s prescribed Core Values. This is the first year ASFM has participated in the FIRST LEGO League, and we currently have four teams, two in the elementary and two in the middle school. While we have yet to compete, students have been working on the 3 components designed by the FIRST LEGO League.

Core Values


In order to provide students with a chance to get to know each other, participate in some team building, and work on developing the Core Values, all four teams took a trip to Warica. Warica is a ropes course in the Huasteca Canyon, where a custom designed experience was created to help students learn about each other and learn how to work together. Activities ranged from students introducing themselves, maneuvering through a high ropes course, collaboratively passing a ball down PVC pipes, and moving simultaneously on an enlarged set of skis, students had the opportunity to develop and understand each of the 8 FIRST LEGO League Core Values:

  • We are a team.
  • We do the work to find solutions with guidance from our coaches and mentors.
  • We know our coaches and mentors don’t have all the answers; we learn together.
  • We honor the spirit of friendly competition.
  • What we discover is more important than what we win.
  • We share our experiences with others.
  • We display Gracious Professionalism® and Coopertition® in everything we do.
  • We have FUN!



This year the project theme for all participants is hydrodynamics. Students are encouraged to think like engineers and scientists to improve how people find, transport, use, or dispose of water. Our elementary teams are still in the exploration and learning phase of the project. Students have watched videos and explored current problems about how people find and transport water, doing their best to focus specifically on Monterrey. Some brainstorming has occurred in the form of sketches in order to try to design solutions to these problems. The end goal for the project is for students to create a way to share their innovative prototype with others. The presentation will be live and may contain posters, models, multimedia clips, props and costumes. Creativity and intentionality of the presentation are key.

Robot Game

The robot game contains 18 different missions (challenges) that students must program a LEGO Mindstorm robot to autonomously complete. Each mission is built from a 2,500 LEGO kit and placed onto the playing field. This week the elementary students at ASFM have built the missions and are working on their coding/programming skills to complete each challenge. This has been a huge area of learning, as team members are developing skills to program the robots that contains two motors and multiple sensors. They are currently making the transition from programming the robot on the robot manually to using the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Programmer app on an iPad. These are both tricky and impressive learning experiences for third, fourth and fifth graders to achieve.

As ASFM’s FLL teams continue to learn and improve throughout the season, we will continue to document and share updates.

Intentional Social Media at #TriConf17


As a presenter and attendee of the annual Tri-Association Educators’ Conference for the past couple years, the 2017 conference in Costa Rica introduced an exciting additional component- an intentional implementation of social media. While many conferences around the world have well developed hashtags and digital components, this was an area of opportunity for enhancement at the Tri-Association Conference.

In past years, you would often find the same 10-15 people Tweeting links and sharing ideas, and that was about it. Generally speaking, it only happened during the days of the conference, rather than as a continuous collaboration throughout the remainder of the year. This year proved different. First, Silvia Tolisano was on board with the mission of encouraging the use of social media throughout the 3 day learning experience. She spoke to the attendees, following a keynote presentation, about the power of social media and its benefits for collaborative learning. She then introduced two powerful tools that would be used throughout the conference in order to encourage the use of social media in a positive and intentional manner: Twitter and GooseChase.


The Twitter hashtag #TriConf17 was introduced and demonstrated to show how the hashtag can be used to aggregate and curate the resources and ideas shared throughout the conference. After the promotion and understanding that we would all be using a consistent hashtag, it was clear the explanation proved effective. Based on my experience, it’s easy to say (and see) that this was the busiest year the Tri-Association Conference had on Twitter. In addition, a Storify was also created for the conference- to bring content containing the #TriConf17 hashtag together from other other social media platforms outside of Twitter.


GooseChase was the other fun and engaging tool introduced this year. This free mobile app creates a mixture of physical and digital components in the form of a scavenger hunt. This tool created a sense of community, learning, and healthy competition. The entire attendee community was divided into teams based on the country they were representing at the conference. There were a series of challenges, each attached to a valued number of points- and countries were encouraged to complete these challenges throughout the days of the conference. Updates were given as teams completed challenges and it added a great sense of fun- and maybe a little bit of anxiety (the good kind). Challenge examples ranged from sharing your favorite educator blog to actually writing a blog post and sharing it (this is that example!). Others challenges included created a human pyramid, organizing and documenting a flashmob, and taking selfies with people you met and plan on collaborating with (example below).


Overall, the addition of the digital and social media component at the 36th Annual Educators’ Conference created a new sense of learning and community- that will hopefully continue through the year… and onto next years conference in the Dominican Republic!

FIRST Inspires Competition, Definitely Inspired

IMG_7118 2.JPG

A team of technology teachers from ASFM recently attended the FIRST Inspires, Robotics Competition, in St. Louis, Missouri. There was so much to experience and learn during this opportunity, it was difficult to decide where to start this reflection. The event was divided into three sections- an Innovation Faire, Conference/Workshop Sessions, and the Competition. This post will provide an overview of what occurred during each section, as well as my takeaways.

Innovation Faire

The Innovation Faire combined the feel of both an Expo and Maker Faire simultaneously. Different techie exhibitors were in attendance to show off their products- encouraging students, mentors, teachers, and spectators to step up and try them out. Lines were long at the Virtual Reality station, where you could (and I did!) experience what it is like to be a Power Ranger.  A buzz was also in full force at the Monsanto booth. Here, participants were provided with a battery, small motor, toothbrush, tape, and some pipe-cleaners to create a “Brush Bot” that would race down a strip of plastic. Builders were encouraged to keep their creations and improve upon them throughout the week. The Monsanto experience definitely provided me with ideas for different team building and maker activities to pursue with both students and teachers.

It’s probably not a surprise that I spent most of my time at the LEGO Education playgrounds. Without being a competitor in the First Lego League, one could have an attempt at programing a LEGO MINDSTORM through the actual robotics course being used in the competition for the 2016-17 year. This provided me with a feel for what students would have been working toward all year- as well as a chance to ponder questioning techniques I might use to help provide guidance for students when faced with frustrations with the course. LEGO WeDo 2.0 sets were also out for exploration, they even handed out free bags of LEGO to create a Mini Milo, WeDo’s mascot. LEGO also showed off 3D printers made of the famous bricks, a functional telegraph and even a pinball machine. In my opinion, LEGO did a superb job of creating a hands on learning/maker experience.

IMG_7112 2

FIRST LEGO League 2016-17 Competition playing field


I wasn’t sure how much attention the conference workshops were going to have with both the innovation faire and robotics competitions going on. However, it was pleasantly surprising to see students of all ages, as well as teachers, engaged in conference sessions. The stand out sessions I attended meshed between STEM, Maker Edu, LEGO Edu, and How to Create Your First Robotics team- all similar topics that ASFM is leading toward through our Strategic Innovative plan.

Throughout the sessions, students and teachers of all experiences and ages; asked questions, answered questions, and participated in valued discussion. Each voice was heard. It was incredible to see the amount of learning that shifted among generations.

After the hour long sessions, often run by teams who were also competing, session leaders were open to sharing ideas and connecting with teams (including those who were scoping things out for the first time). Multiple connections were made, as well as cards and emails shared. There was an inviting collaborative component to the overall experience.

The thing that stuck out the most to me during these sessions, was a 16 year old woman who overheard our group of teachers from Mexico contemplating the implementation of a First LEGO League team. Originally from India, she was now living in Michigan and was part of her First Robotics team’s outreach and mentoring branch. She initiated the conversation by asking if we needed any guidance or help to get started. She continued by stating that she’d love be part of a mentoring team to provide our students with support. Personally, as a junior in high school I cannot imagine approaching a group of adults, let alone offering my services to teachers and students in another country. Her confidence and willingness to help attests to the type of atmosphere found at the conference- as well as the benefits of the First Inspires programs.


At the St. Louis Championships, four levels of robotics were included:

  1. First LEGO League Jr.
  2. First LEGO League
  3. First Tech Challenge
  4. First Robotics Competition

Honesty, individual blog posts could be written about each group individually- and maybe that will happen eventually. However, this reflection will provide more of an overview between the First LEGO League Jr (FLLJR) and First LEGO League (FLL) as those are the sections I would primarily have affiliation with.

First LEGO League Jr. targets grades K-4 (6-10 years of age). Guided by an adult coach, teams look at using an innovative approach to solve a real-world problem- following an “Explore, Create, Share” structure. This year students explored an animal that lives in the same habitat as a honey bee, and were challenged to learn about the animal and its habitat. Teams then created a motorized LEGO model with WedDo to help demonstrate what they learned about this animal, along with a “Show Me” poster. Finally, teams shared their learning by participating in an Expo or hosting an event for school family and friends. Students in the FLLJR showcase in St. Louis- were highly engaged and excited to talk to spectators about their model and poster. Based on the products the teams produced, the FLLJR is a definitely a level that ASFM students could pursue. Our students currently have experience with the WeDo 2.0 LEGO set, and their research, reading and writing skills are on target for taking on the challenge.  

IMG_7333 2.JPG

FLLJR Show Me Example

First LEGO League includes students in grades 4-8 (ages 9-16). Again, guided by an adult coach, the FLL teams focus on three areas; the Robot Game, Core Values, and the Project. The Robot Game changes yearly- and has teams construct a robot with LEGO MINDSTORMS, which they program to autonomously move through a series of challenges to be completed in two and a half minutes. The Core Values is a physical representation (most often a poster) that shows analysis, research, and invention of a solution for that year’s project. And the Project is an innovative solution to a given problem. To arrive at an innovative solution, the process generally includes research, problem solving and engineering. The problem and solution are shared through a presentation to a panel of judges. This year’s challenge was to identify a problem where people and animals interact, and to design a solution that makes the interaction better for the animals, people, or both. During the Championships in St. Louis, when teams were not competing in the robotics portion of the event, they were stationed at their booth in the pit, presenting their core values poster. Students in both locations were highly engaged and able to articulate their process for programing their robot and their learning from the animal challenge. It was easy to see their commitment and belief in their team and project. Again, after witnessing both the robotics challenge and the core values components of the FLL- this is an endeavor our upper elementary students are definitely prepared for. Every student has exposure to LEGO MINDSTORMS, basic block coding in their technology class, and are continually evolving their skills of finding problems and solving them in their everyday life.


First LEGO League Pit: A Team’s Core Values and Project from Tokyo, Japan

After reflecting on the entire experience and dissecting where our current practices are at ASFM- our next steps at the elementary campus, are to create our first, First LEGO League team and potentially a LEGO League Jr. team for the 2017-2018 school year. This will be an exciting addition to the student extracurricular experience at ASFM, and an opportunity for students to have more exposure to the STEM field. I look forward to experiencing and reflecting/blogging about our process as this initiative unfolds!

Coding as a Formative Assessment Tool

A handful of third graders have spent their lunch time on Fridays in the Open Mind Zone learning about some basic coding. Interest in the group derived from the introduction to a Sphero one day during lunch.  When realizing the device was not something to just maneuver like a remote control, curiosity peaked. We designated 4 Fridays for 6 students to have the chance to explore programming with kid friendly apps and devices.


We began unplugged by taking a look at what the different lines or blocks of code looked like and what it meant to program something and watch it “run.” By starting with physically moving pieces of paper into place and coding each other, the foundational idea of coding was developed. We then moved onto digital devices.

img_3756Tickle and Tynker are two kid (and adult) friendly apps for learning and testing fundamental codes. With both of these apps, the lines of code appear similar, making operating between the two quite seamless. Students used Tickle to program the Sphero and BB-8 and Tynker for the Rolling Spider Drone. To get an idea of their speed and agility students had one full lunch period to program the devices with complete autonomy.

During the final two sessions, students worked to program the devices through obstacle courses. This is where I would say a majority of the skill building and learning took place.

  • Math skills: adjusting the rate and percentage of speed the devices would move.
  • Problem Solving: altering the number of seconds devices needed to get from one place to another.
  • Communication: talking out the process and collaborating on the lines of code.
  • Persistence: iterating lines of code to have the device move in the correct location.
  • Procedural knowledge: breaking down a larger task into smaller procedures

While observing students through the process of coding, the realization came that these apps were also serving as Formative Response Tools. Formative Assessment being defined by Wikipedia as “…formal and informal assessment procedures conducted by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment.” This was happening every time students tested out their code. They would write the lines of code and with each time they pressed play and watched the device move, they were receiving feedback in order to alter the script, improve it, and move one step closer to completing the challenge. The great thing was, a teacher wasn’t needed to jump in and provide students with the feedback. The app and device provided the feedback, and it was up to the students to determine what adjustments needed to be implemented. This is the second and most important component of Formative Assessment-doing something with the feedback that is given- and in this case the students had full ownership over that process, which empowered them to continue on. As always, now that the awareness has been brought forward and I’ve been able to reflect on the learning experience- more intentional questioning and facilitation will take place on my part as more students come into the Open Mind Zone to code.

Top 5 Reasons To Use a Learning Management System

A Learning Management System, or LMS, is meant to do exactly what its name states. If you really dissect each word, rather than pass them off as a singular term some realization may come. Our school has had multiple Learning Management Systems for about 6 years, however it wasn’t until recently that we began to use them with a more focused and intentional purpose- striving to address each of the words. A Learning Management System is meant to manage student learning through a singular system. Manage Learning. Those are powerful words for any educator. What does it mean to manage learning in a digital space?

This has changed over the course of the last 6 years at ASFM. Initially the LMS was used to house content and post homework. It was rarely referred to during school hours, and its main purpose was to have a place to access content should students be absent or the school be closed for a undetermined amount of time. Was this a Learning Management System or a Document Management System?

Today, with students having access to personal devices throughout the school day things have changed. Along with a school wide goal to, “Transform curriculum delivery models into a blended learning experience to enhance student achievement,” there is a more focused vision on how to use the LMS. While there are numerous ways to integrate a Learning Management System and multiple tools both physical and digital to incorporate blended learning successfully, these are my top 5 (for now) reasons for using a Learning Management System.

interactive1. Increased Interactive Content Most LMSs, afford students with the ability to add content to class pages, participate in discussion boards, and answer quizzes or polls. Interactive content engages students and provides them with ownership over their learning. Another benefit of having interactive content, is it encourages differentiation among students. Varied levels of scaffolded material can be hosted, which raises the potential to reach an increased number of students.

feedback2. Reduce the Feedback Loop Formative response tools can be embedded into class pages. Quickly receiving digital feedback after a lesson or day of learning can usher teachers to altering instruction for future lessons or units. It may also provide students with feedback on how well they are proceeding through the learning process. Gaging student learning is not the only purpose a formative response tool offers. Gaining insight on the classroom climate and social-emotional pulse can also prove useful.

diagram3. Streamline Instruction Adopted tools and open educational resources can be embedded or/and linked to classroom pages in a Learning Management System. Presentations used to deliver instruction, collaborative projects, and class pictures can all be hosted in one location. Rather than emailing students links or projecting lengthy URLs for students to copy, a Learning Management System provides one location for students to access all their class content.

cloud4. Accessibility Because LMSs are websites and cloud-based, students can access their class page from most any device and from anywhere they have internet access. This can be helpful for students who need to access homework or class resources when they are home or traveling. Students and teachers are not attached to a particular device or a physical book/agenda in order to create or interact with digital content. Because content is always available, learning can go on uninterrupted.

users5. Social Experiences Just as people are connected via social media, a Learning Management System provides the experience of being connected to other learners. The learning that is taking place is no longer isolated when physically alone. Projects can continue to be worked on from multiple locations in real time. Not only does content and skill development continue, but students are learning how to create appropriate and positive images of themselves in a safe place.

This Top 5 List doesn’t mean there aren’t a multitude of other reasons for using an Learning Management System, I just feel these particular areas umbrella over other aspects that might also be included. These items are also taken from the perspective of the grade levels I have had the most experience with, primarily third-fifth grade.

Is It Worth The Time Invested?

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 2.24.23 PM

Teachers, both new and experienced are always on the lookout for ways to make learning and productivity as streamlined, effective, and efficient as possible. Many teachers are masters at having systems in place to maximize student achievement. Yet as experienced as some educators are- the beginning of the school year always requires a multitude of hours when preparing for students to arrive. And once students are finally in classrooms, lessons tend to take longer than anticipated, activities aren’t completed, and daily plans get pushed to the following day. This happens primarily because routines have yet to be established with the new group of students. What used to be completed in 30 seconds at the end of the previous year- now takes 5 minutes. Yet teachers persevere and take time to establish routines and expectations because of the long term benefits they will have on student learning. The result is worth the time invested.

Time is the operative word here. A common question teachers ask themselves is- “Is it worth the time invested” to complete a particular task? Hours are spent preparing the physical classroom for students, creating the most productive learning space possible, because it is worth the time invested as the year progresses. Additional time is spent creating grade books, labeling student names, establishing routines, creating and revising lesson plans, and numerous other tasks because they make the school year function more seamlessly.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 11.48.46 AM

When it comes to the digital world, the same “time investment” question should still be considered. Yet this doesn’t seem to happen as often as it does in the physical world. With technology, we are so accustomed to quick fixes, workarounds and efficiency, that it can be frustrating when there is not or quick trick for something we want to accomplish. Tasks such as creating email groups with all parent emails, organizing files in Google Drive, or creating content on a learning management system can sometimes seem daunting when it can’t happen as quickly as one may prefer. These tasks may be left incomplete or refrain from getting traction at all because they seem so laborious. This is where it’s time to ask, “Is it worth the time invested?” Like many physical world tasks, digital undertakings at the beginning of the year may take some extra time, yet they can make the life of a teacher more efficient- which leads to greater student achievement. For example, while it would be great to have a way to import all parent emails into an email group with two clicks, the functionality may not quite be there yet. A task that could take 4 clicks and 10 seconds, might take a greater amount of typing or copying and pasting and about 20 minutes. Consider the following questions; Is it worth my time invested? How many times will I email all the parents in my class? Is 20 minutes at the beginning of the year worth the amount of times I will benefit from having all parents in one email group throughout the school year? Does this make me a more efficient and effective teacher? Answering these questions might help make the decision regarding whether it is worth your invested time.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 11.49.16 AM

As another school year is underway and time is of the essence, whether working in the physical or digital world, I encourage you to consider, “Is it worth the time invested?”