Innovative and Creative Learning Spaces

Recently, a team of various staff members from the American School Foundation of Monterrey had the opportunity to explore innovative and creative schools and spaces in the Bay Area. Within the three days of learning walks to multiple campuses, we witnessed a wide variety of physical spaces, pedagogical practices, and core values. While each of these attributes looked different in practice at each site, what stood out between these eight locations were the consistencies between them. Passion, flexibility, a willingness to grow, a sense of community, and student centeredness were easily visible during each visit. (Schools and work spaces are listed in the order we visited them.)

1. Gunn High School, Palo Alto, CA

With a robotics team 20 years old, this was the heart of passion, sense of community, and student centered learning that were visible at Gunn High School. Students work collaboratively on creating a robot that will maneuver through a challenge or set of obstacles in a competition put on by FIRST Robotics. The learning space (which might also be referred to as a Maker Space, though it is used most heavily in the robotics field) is equipped with materials you would find in a professional wood shop or mechanical garage. Students have full privileges to use the equipment and space as they see fit in order to complete the challenge. Local businesses and parents also contribute their assistance to the team by providing guidance to students throughout the process, as well as setting up the mock obstacle course based on the theme of the robotics challenge that year. Students in this facility are in a “real life” scenario- working with professional equipment with professionals practitioners, applying knowledge and learning in the moment.


2. Everest Summit School, Redwood City, CA

Blended learning was the highlight of student centered learning at Everest Summit School. Working with programmers from Facebook, Everest has a Learning Management System that is original to the school itself. High school students work through a personalized learning plan and monitor their own learning, with guidance from their teachers as mentors. In math, they are bordering on a system that would eliminate grade levels completely- as students would move at a pace based on their skills and benchmarks, no matter their formal grade level or age.

3. The at Stanford University, Stanford, CA

Everything at the encourages flexibility, creativity and collaboration. Just walking into the building gets you excited to begin creating. In a space well known for its use of Design Thinking it is easy to see why students at Stanford University flock to the building to work, redesign, and learn. The learning space can be made into any type of model the user desires. Whiteboard walls are moveable and nearly every table, storage device and seating arrangement is on wheels, which allows the transformation of an open space to be altered into sectioned off, more private work spaces within a matter of seconds. To assist in keeping organization among rooms that promote chaos, reset displays are posted so users can put the room back together after using it.


4. Google Merchandise Store, Mountain View, CA

Since we couldn’t get into the Google offices, we did the next best thing and headed to their flagship merchandise store. Biking around the headquarters, playing around in the Android playground, taking pictures of a Google maps Street View car, and purchasing some Google merchandise was a fun way to end the day.


5. Brightworks, San Francisco, CA

Gever Tulley himself, co-creator of Brightworks school provided us with a tour and description of how things work at this “extraordinary school.” With five years in its history and approximately sixty students in total, Brightworks offers a unique learning experience where passion, flexibility, a sense of community and student centeredness are definitely present. Teachers are referred to as “collaborators,” and students advance, and sometimes move back, through “bands,” versus traditional grade levels- depending on their skill set and maturity. Students have a large amount of autonomy over the direction their learning will take them. The physical space in Brightworks is just as unique- it resembles a maker space and indeed there are multiple tools to be used for making. It has an open concept which encourages collaboration among bands, while smaller, more private work spaces are also incorporated. Students learning in Brightworks will without a doubt feel comfortable moving into a creative professional working environment.


6. Double Robotics, San Francisco, CA

The office at Double Robotics is another unique and creative space. We had the opportunity to test out a Double and have a conversation around how the robots might be used in an educational setting. Another young company, just five years in making, Double Robotics provides employees with a physically open concept with smaller workspaces also available. It is easy to witness flexibility, collaboration, and a sense of community.

7. New Technology High School, Napa, CA

Student Centeredness and community are at the forefront of what can be seen at New Tech High, with Problem Based Learning at the center of the school’s pedagogical approach. Students collaboratively work through the PBL model with the opportunity to take classes at a local community college to prepare them for college careers. Students are given privileges to reserve rooms throughout the school to work on projects or present information to peers- rooms that may be completely empty or fully equipped with production technologies.

8. Remind Offices, San Francisco, CA

Culminating our visit were the Remind Offices- a very flexible, collaborative, fun, and “teacher-obsessed” space. Walking into this office invites you to be playful and creative. By approaching a ruler-lined desk with hopscotch, swings, and enlarged paper airplanes hanging from the ceilings, it promotes creativity from the very beginning. The Remind app encourages collaboration between teachers, parents and students- and their offices encourage the same collaborative theme. Again, open rooms and flexible furniture allows the space to morph to any format the user desires. It is easy to feel the sense of community the employees have while walking around this innovative and creative work space.

A HUGE thank you to the EdTechTeam and Amanda Hensley who did an amazing job scheduling each day, driving us around, providing facts about the Bay Area, supplying great snacks, and being a wonderful guide.

The Hour of Code, Unplugged

Since 2013, millions of students around the world participate in a week long challenge called the Hour of Code. The purpose of this challenge is to introduce students to the field of computer science and demonstrate how anyone can learn the basics of coding. The world of computer science is one that is growing heavily as advances in technology continue to expand. Educators are working to develop programs in schools to encourage STEM and STEAM related projects to prepare students for possible careers in the computer science arena.

At the American School Foundation of Monterrey (ASFM), grades 1-12 participated in the virtual world of coding through the Hour of Code website. Students coded characters in games such as Star Wars, Minecraft, and Frozen, while also exploring artistic shape making. When it came to nursery, pre-kindergarten, and kindergarten we took on a different approach. We went for a second year of coding, unplugged.

Grounded with research and feedback from teachers in the early primary years, the tech integration team made the decision to limit screen time and keep the focus on coding and programming- rather than on a particular technological device. Based on past experiences with these students, the focus often turned to the physical device and not what was going on inside of it, and rightfully so- the are 3-6 year olds after all!

Two technology integration specialists entered 20 individual classrooms, for 15 minute increments. One dressed as herself and one dressed as a “robot.” A very brief and basic conversation was had about what coding means. The following points were made:

  • When we use an iPad we are telling the iPad what to do.
  • Before we open the iPad from the box, someone programmed it. They put things inside it to make it work the way it should- so when we push the buttons it operates how we want it to.
  • The person who makes the iPad do what it should is called a programmer.
  • Lots of items we use need to be programed, one of those items is a robot.

This is where the fun began. Students were told that this robot does not understand Spanish or English, it only understands code. The code it understands, is arrows. What this means is an arrow pointing up makes the robot take 1 step forward, an arrow pointed down makes it take 1 step back. If the the robot is shown an arrow to the left it moves 1 step to the left, and an arrow to the right will have it move 1 step to the right. Visual cues were provided with large arrows drawn on pieces of paper.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 12.54.47 PM

The robot was then “programmed,” being modeled by the tech integration specialists. It would move forward, backward, and side to side when being shown the correct symbols. Students were eager for their turn to program this robot. After a few students took their turns with the programing, the robot’s battery suddenly “died.” But luckily there was a new robot on hand- a smaller one ready to go. At this point in time a smaller robot helmet was given to a student, while a second student had the opportunity to program it. For some classes this activity had a steeper learning curve than others, nonetheless we witnessed complete engagement and awe throughout the brief 15 minute experience. Upon finishing the activity, we overheard many students asking their teachers if they could create robot helmets and arrows to use as a center during their school day- which we considered a success! As an added bonus, most students were able to articulate that the person who “tells a robot what to do” is called a programmer.

Being the second year of the unplugged routine, the tech integration team was able to reflect and fine tune a few steps- as we could anticipate the responses from nursery, pre-k, and kindergarten students. Overall, the experience was well received by both students and teachers- and is an endeavor we will continue to improve upon in the coming years.

Breakout of Traditional Education with Breakout EDU

Our Technology Integration team spent a significant amount of time developing the year’s outlook, with initiatives toward Student Creation & Innovation and Innovative Teaching & Learning Pilots- to name a few. These particular project initiatives are based on the combination and repurposing of multiple tools to support student learning while developing critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration skills. When piloting new technologies or educational tools, there is consistently a focus on matching the appropriate pedagogies with content and learning styles. In addition, a Makerspace has been developed, and while it is currently in beta (as I feel they always should be), multiple maker-kits and supplies have been added to support these initiatives toward student achievement. A recent highlight, a Breakout EDU kit, has been put to the test with groups of third grade students as they worked to solve “The Simple Machine Mystery.” 


What is Breakout EDU?

Breakout EDU is a kit that primarily contains multiple boxes and locks. Similar to “Escape Rooms,” participants need to use clues to solve problems or challenges to unlock the locks and open a series of boxes in order to “escape” from the room within a given time limit. Each box contains a clue to either opening the following box or clues that work together to solve a larger problem. Breakout challenges are typically based around educational content areas in terms of the clues, yet while working through the game, learners are simultaneously developing problem solving, communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and troubleshooting skills.

Description of the Breakout.

In this particular Breakout, The Simple Machine Mystery, third grade students needed to determine which simple machine had gone missing from the classroom. Learners followed the clues on prepared envelopes to determine the code to unlocking the locks and boxes at five different stations. Inside each box was a clue that helped them put together a puzzle that guided them in determining which simple machine was missing. After unlocking every box, and solving the riddle at the end, students put an end to the mystery and were able to breakout! In support of a school-wide Blended Learning initiative, challenges contained a mix of both physical and digital challenges. Students worked in four groups of five, and had forty-five minutes to complete the challenge.

Video used to introduce the challenge to students:

Unpacking of the developed skills.

This Breakout challenge was used to review the Simple Machine content explored during the unit, students were engaged entirely throughout the forty-five minute activity, while additional skills were further developed. Following the team building experience, students were facilitated through an unpacking to discuss which particular skills were developed and how they might be transferred to different areas in life and learning. Naturally, and occasionally with some necessary scaffolding, students were mindful about the experience and able to articulate these skills on their own. Top reflections included:


“We needed to work together. Sometimes one person would read the challenge while others were trying to unlock the lock- and they were just guessing. We needed to make a plan first and then do it together.”

Problem Solving

“We did not read the clue! We just watched the BrainPop video and did not know we had to listen for a certain word. After we tried lots of words for the word lock, we looked at the challenge and then knew what we had to do. But then we did not listen to each other. Everyone thought it was a different word. Then we looked at the clue and saw it was a four letter word. We didn’t give up and had to try many times, but finally we got it.”

Critical Thinking

“When we got to the challenge we had to make a compound machine and we weren’t sure if we each needed to make our own or if we had to do one together. So we each made a simple machine and figured out how we could combine them all together. That way if we each needed one we would get the key to the lock, or if we needed one for the group we would get the key to the lock too.”


“The final step was to write the missing simple machine in the Google Form. We wrote the word “door stopper” because that is what it was, but it didn’t work. So then we tried “Wedge” with a capital W, that didn’t work. So next we did “wedge” with a lowercase w. That did it, and we broke out!


“We had to think differently. Even though there was one final answer we had to solve, we could figure out the answers to the clues anyway we wanted. No one told us what to do. We were in charge of how we went about the challenge.”

Upon my own reflection and unpacking of the experience, particularly linking the challenge to our Tech Integration initiatives, the Breakout EDU challenge was right on target. Students leveraged content knowledge and utilized transferable skills in multiple scenarios while using both technology and the physical world to successfully complete the challenge- all along piloting a new and innovative educational tool.

Video used to explain the challenge for teachers:

Where Are You in Your PLN?

We are now in the middle of Connected Educator month 2016. This is a great time for educators to reflect on their Personal Learning Networks. In my opinion PLNs run in three stages. While it is definitely possible to flow between different stages depending on what is going on in life, take some time to reflect on where you are momentarily. Now might be the time to take it to another level.


1. Development. Teachers are constantly learning from each other within the school walls. This is a great thing, as there is a wealth of knowledge and experience we can learn from. It takes about the same amount of effort as walking down the hall to a colleague’s classroom, as it does to begin learning from educators beyond the brick and mortar of a school building. Once the development of your PLN is underway, the process eases as you can begin blending your learning and can grow from information on any mobile or digital device. To develop your PLN and become a connected educator, decide which tools work best for you personally. If social media is your venue, try Twitter, Facebook groups, Google+, Pinterest, or Linkedin. For alternatives to social media, check out educational blogs, webinars, or curating articles through bookmarking websites. There are plenty of avenues to take in terms of developing or broadening your PLN. Decide which you tool(s) you want to use, how you want to learn, and when you want to learn. If you already find yourself in this developmental stage, I challenge you to broaden your reach. Stretch yourself to find people to connect with outside of your immediate region or even outside of your content or grade level. Push yourself to connect.


2. Consumption. Most people enter the digitally connected arena by participating through consumption. This may include reading Tweets, searching for articles, maneuvering through blog posts, watching YouTube videos, or viewing webinars. The learning and growth generally comes as a result of what is being read or taken in by the user. The learning, while more passive in the digital sense, may be shared with colleagues actively or implemented into daily practice in the physical world. If you identify yourself within this stage, I challenge you to consider sharing content or articles of your own. Try Retweeting an article you read, or reflecting and writing a blog post about a lesson that went well. It can be intimidating to put yourself out there, but take an initial step and begin to go beyond consumption.


3. Contribution. The natural next step after consuming content is a progression of participation within the PLN. Contribution may grow in the form of writing Tweets, sharing articles, or reflecting on learning through blog posts- to hosting a webinar or sharing educational videos created on YouTube. The individual at this point is in a give and take environment, where they are not only learning from others- but others are learning from them. If you already contribute within your PLN, I challenge you to push yourself outside your comfort zone. Try creating and sharing beyond the medium you are accustomed to. If you are a YouTube creator, try writing a blog post about your learning, or vice versa. If you solely learn through Twitter, try Google+ for a change. Experiment with not only broadening your PLN but also yourself as a contributor to open educational resources.


If you are finding it tough to define yourself within any of the categories above, it is never too late to exercise your growth mindset and learn from those around you. Connected Educator month is a great time to begin, as you are among many educators who are ready and willing to provide you with the support you need.

Maker Movement Comes to ASFM with the Open Mind Zone

The Maker Movement has come to ASFM. The “Open Mind Zone” is the name given to the makerspace on the elementary campus, and its name is part of what makes this particular space unique to other spaces within the maker community.


What is the maker movement? The maker movement is a trend where individuals or groups of people come together to create some type of product. Often the creations are made from combining multiple resources, several of which may be seemingly unrelated. From items that have been discarded or recycled, to dissembled pieces of technology, a “maker” looks for different ways to repurpose nearly any item put before them. For younger builders and creators, various maker kits provide safe tools to assemble pieces of cardboard, plastic, Legos, paper, etc. Makers naturally filter through steps of the design thinking cycle, where they ideate, prototype, and test their creations. Due to this exploration of ideas and prototyping, makers know the meaning of failure and do not view it with a negative connotation. Failure means learning from what went wrong and making adjustments to a product in order to make it that much better.

How is the Open Mind Zone unique? Along with being stocked with multiple resources, the ASFM makerspace has an additional resource- a focus on social and emotional development. While students are coached with creating, rebuilding, and repurposing by tech integration specialists, they are also being guided by a school counselor who prompts them with questions to encourage the development of collaboration and problem solving skills in a positive and inclusive manner. With upwards of twenty students creating in the Open Mind Zone at one time, accidents happen. Lego towers topple, roller coasters made of blocks crumble, artwork gets destroyed and at times tempers rise and feelings get hurt. Having guidance from a counselor helps to get through those frustrating times. The reinforcement of these skills and mindsets are directly transferable to both the classroom and life outside the school walls. With lives full of structure, in the Open Mind Zone, students have the opportunity to experience relationship building through play and exploration.

What’s next? The Open Mind Zone has been in action for about five weeks. Ahead, there are plans to: hold team building sessions, add tech materials such as a 3D printer and production equipment, and to begin encouraging students to document and share their creations with a global audience.

To stay up to date with what is going on in the Open Mind Zone, follow us on Twitter: @OpenMindZone

Weeks 1-5

Flat Stanley Redefined

This Flat Stanley traveled among 22 cities and 10 countries including Brazil, Chile, China, England, Iceland, Italy, Mexico, and the United States!

A group of second grade teachers was looking to reach a broader range of friends and global connections with the Flat Stanley project. They had progressed from the traditional stamp and envelop model to emailing and receiving Microsoft Word Documents that contained text and photos from different countries around the world. While this switch did increase the breadth of connections- the organization of emails, ever increasing size of Word Documents with numerous images added, and desire to compile all of the incoming information in one location proved a hassle. Upon sitting down and investigating which universal collaboration tool might create a more streamlined experience, we decided on Google Slides. The free tool allows for real-time collaboration and the only thing needed for functionality is an internet connection, as Slides is cloud based and software is not necessary.

The process was as follows:

1. The team of 8 teachers collaboratively created a single Google Slides template.

2. Each teacher “made a copy” of the original document, adding some minor personal adjustments pertaining to their classroom.

3. The presentation’s share setting was set to “anyone with the link can edit.”

4. A screen cast tutorial was made to provide directions for recipients on how to add content to the Google Slides presentation.

5. An email was sent out to parents introducing the project, and parents assisted in forwarding the link of the presentation and tutorial out to friends and family living abroad.

6. Friends and family added to the presentation.

7. As the presentation was updated, students and teachers witnessed how far their digital Flat Stanley was traveling.

8. Students and teachers broadened their global connections and understanding of different cultures.

Here is the “Travel Journal”

With Change Comes Frustration… and Learning

With the desire to encourage students to develop creativity and collaborative skills, a 4th grade team of teachers was willing to scrap a traditional project that had been implemented for years, relinquish control, and provide students with some autonomy over the demonstration of their knowledge.

For about 10 years, culminating a unit on electricity, approximately 160 students showcased their knowledge through the creation of an electrical quiz board. With this particular project, there were limited opportunities for creativity and problem solving to be explored. Because technically, the quiz board was limited to 2 formats of completion.

The approach to the final project needed to be shifted. Students were given the prompt to work with group members to address, “a problem in their lives that could be solved applying their knowledge of electricity.” The final products would be presented at an “Electrical Engineering Fair.” With a more open ended task at hand, students had the opportunity for multiple problems and solutions to be addressed- which increased student agency as it provided autonomy over their task, technique, and team- 3 of the 4 “Ts” Daniel Pink refers to in his book, Drive, which examines motivation.

To encourage creativity, students explored different Maker Kits and alternative forms of electricity that allowed them to address their problems from an unconventional perspective.

A FaceTime call with David Patrick, an engineer and green home designer in New York, also allowed students to witness adults as life long learners who address their problems with solutions- as well as the process of developing prototypes and having to learn and adapt to unforeseen obstacles along the way.

The project was a roller coaster of emotions and learning for students. Initially, there was quite a bit of hype over the amount of ownership they had for demonstrating their learning. However, as the building phase began and students ran into hitches and stumbling blocks with their plans, emotions changed. Frustration levels escalated for both students and teachers- as failure was a territory that was rarely experienced and did not play a role in their culture of learning. Students were challenged with the need for adapting their blueprints or starting over completely from scratch. Teachers were confronted with the hurdle of not simply providing answers for students, but responding to students with questions to push and stretch their thinking, while boosting tenacity. On top of experiencing these frustrations, it was an additional challenge for students and teachers to move forward through the process, and reflect on the amount of skill development and learning that was ongoing simultaneously. However, as both stakeholders proceeded, perseverance and creativity around problem solving were exhibited and cultivated. By the time the Electrical Engineering Fair arrived, emotions and excitement returned to where they were at the introduction of the project. What was most exciting to witness was the authentic enthusiasm students had over their own learning, and how devoted they were to completing their product, as they had a personal investment in solving a problem they themselves had identified. Teachers walked away with a wealth of learning as well, upon reflecting on questioning techniques and being a partner in their students learning versus a leader.

While change can be a difficult experience to manage and frustrations have the potential of running high, great learning is there to uncover when willing to reflect and find it.