Multi-faceted Refractions

Thoughts and Reflections from Vinnie Vrotny

Multi-faceted Refractions

Shifting Roles @ ISTE – From Learner to Facilitator

June 26, 2014 · No Comments · Uncategorized

I used to go to NECC/ISTE eager to learn and grow. I remember being fascinated by the potential of virtual learning environments (1993), the revolution that would be unleashed by the Internet (1994), the advent and power of connection (2007), and the explosive growth of small mobile devices (2010). While some of these have had greater impact on teaching and learning, each represented a shift.

This year, the shift seems to be towards the Maker Movement. I am guessing everywhere you look and see, every conversation that you eavesdrop on, someone will be either sharing their experiences or looking for answers, guidance, and resources so that they too can jump on this bandwagon, to stake a claim.

In the past, when I attended NECC/ISTE, I used to be one of those who were looking for the next big idea and gathering resources. I would engage others in conversations so that I can learn, grow, and implement the ideas with the teachers, administrators, and students.

This year, instead of learning, I will be leading. A look at my schedule is completely different than what it used to be. This year I will be:

  • Sharing at the Independent School Educators Network table in the Community Network Fair Saturday afternoon.
  • Co-hosting the Independent School Educators Network social gathering Saturday evening
  • Presenting my Poster Session on Creating a Maker Mindset that will share my personal journey into Making, Maker Ed, and the Maker Movement on Monday afternoon
  • Co-hosting the Independent School Educators Network Birds of a Feather/Annual Meeting on Monday afternoon.
  • Acting as the Master of Ceremonies for the screening of Emily Pollitin’s new film, If You Build It on Monday early evening. This includes moderating a question and answer session after the film.
  • Organizing the Maker and Agile Learning Spaces Playground which will run from 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday.

As can be determined, this is an extremely full schedule. You can also note that instead of searching and learning about the next big idea, I have been immersed and will be leading several opportunities for folks to share my experience and lessons learned. I am excited to share while at the conference.

Here we come, Atlanta.

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2014 Update – My 9 Tips for a Balanced ISTE

June 25, 2014 · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

This is an updated post for 2014. While others have shared similar sentiments, I have been sharing similar As an introvert, I find ISTE can be overwhelming. Here is how I try to keep in balance.

ISTE can be an overwhelming conference with over 10,000+ attendees. I have been to the conference 15 times previously, and ISTE seems to get larger each year. Coupled with the advent of social media, there is a celebrity-like buzz and excitement  that has evolved, especially with the growth of Hack Education (formerly EduBloggerCon/SocialMediaCon). This is so unlike the first ISTE (then the NECC conference) I attended in Orlando twenty-one years ago in 1993.

My goal for ISTE is to maintain a balance between my own learning, connecting with others while living a rounded lifestyle. In order to achieve those goals, I am sharing the 9 tips which I try to follow:

1. Meet new people – It is easy to stay with friends and colleagues with whom are familiar and comfortable. It is easy to live in the Blogger’s Cafe or other ISTE Playground. However, in order to grow and not  stagnate, it is important to meet and have a meaningful conversation (15-20 minutes) with people who you have never met or are on the extreme periphery of your Learning Community. Go hangout in the newbie lounge to encourage and welcome new users into the mix. Encourage others and allow the network to grow.

2. Seek Out a Diverse Set of New Voices- It is also easy to go through the conference program and select either the spotlight sessions or sessions given by other members of your Learning Community. However, also find two to three people who you don’t know, either in the poster or paper sessions. Sit, listen, or converse with them. It is amazing how much this can benefit your learning. Seek a diverse set of voices to help challenge you and your thinking.

3. Celebrate Connections and Friendships - Yes, it is important to reconnect with those who most of our communication is done virtually, through Twitter, Skype, Google Hangouts, or other networks. It is important to celebrate those friendships face to face while you have the chance. Take time and really connect with great friends and colleagues.

4. Exercise and Sleep - It is important to keep moving. Sitting in seven sessions, for over 6 hours, is not what most of us normally do. We wander and move. So find the time to exercise. Walk to the conference center, rather than take the bus. In both Washington D.C and Denver, I found a bikes that I could rent for less than $10 per hour. Take a ride, go for a run, step away from the conference to recharge your internal energy stores. Likewise, it is important to get sleep, at least 6 hours. Your body cannot stand the increased stimuli from the ideas, sounds, lights that you will be experiencing.

5. Eat balanced and healthy - Your mother told you to have a variety of colors on your plate, not just fried foods. It is important to eat your fruits and vegetables to maintain yourself at the conference. That is not to say that I am going to skip southern (think fried chicken, biscuits and gravy)  food this week in Atlanta. But find a way to balanced set of meals, which includes breakfast. Even if this is not a normal part of your routine. In D.C., I found a great Asian place  just outside the conference center, with a great noodle and tofu dish and in Denver, I found a great salad place (I usually disdain salads) that provided the balance to the heavier foods eaten later.

6. Don’t be afraid to share – even when you may have a contrary idea. Don’t let network celebrity get in your way and keep you quiet. You have great insights to share and ideas to test and build. That is why you are going to ISTE in the first place, right? This one is I really have to work on. I tend to be be quieter and shy in larger conferences. Don’t be shy and afraid to ask.

7.  Look to the periphery - on the vendor floor or in one of the cafes or playgrounds, look to the periphery. This is where I find the best new ideas, products, and people.

8. Stay true to yourself - I know that I am more introverted. I have to get away from people and enjoy some solitude. It is perfectly fine just to go off by yourself sometimes. Don’t try to be something that you are not.

9. Be Careful Out There – As many of you know, there was a blog post about behavior that crossed the line. Last year, I distinctly remember leaving one of the events which was highlighted in this story and discussing with a friend that educational conferences had been blessed by not having been involved in a scandal or incidents that have plagued other conferences and professions. There seems to be a party/celebrating seeking aspect to this conference which does not forward the purpose we are attending, to learn and connect with others, to build ideas

I look forward to the ISTE experience. I hope we can connect. I will be hanging out at during the Community Network Fair at Independent School Educators Network booth on Saturday from 3:00 – 5:00, the Independent School Educators Network Annual Meeting  Monday at 5:15 p.m, and the Maker and Agile Learning Spaces Playground on Tuesday from 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. Other times, you can catch me in the Blogger’s Cafe or somewhere else in the hallways.

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Video Post from Chicago Tribune – Minecraft

April 26, 2014 · No Comments · Uncategorized

Minecraft video game taps into students’ creative power: Chicago area teachers tap into the creative power of the video game “Minecraft” to help educate students in everything from history to engineering to biology. (Chuck Berman/John Keilman, Chicago Tribune)

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Minecraft and Dragons

April 25, 2014 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

Beginning last spring, I introduced Minecraft into the community at my school, Quest Academy. After researching and learning about the possibilities from Joel Levin, father of MinecraftEdu, Lucas Gillespie, and Kevin Jarrett. It was at EduCon that Kevin convinced me that I had all of the tools I needed, both in terms of hardware and software, but my personal skills to implement this.

I originally brought Minecraft into an After-School program two days a week. During one of our faculty in-services, where we ran a mini-EdCamp model, I had eight teachers spend 40 minutes learning about Minecraft through playing. They explored the World of Humanities, a MinecraftEdu world created by Eric Walker. They explored many different civilizations and began to understand the possibilities that Minecraft held.

As a result, we have had many curricular projects that teachers are allowing Minecraft constructions as the artifact demonstrating knowledge and understanding. This year, 8th grade students have built monuments for an art project, 7th graders have created medieval villages, a 6th grader created a world depicting the events in Huck Finn, and 5th graders created manipulatives in math class that we then printed on our 3d printer.

One project which I have been partnering with is our 5th grade. The teacher, Heidi Senetra, shared with our parent community the genesis of this project. The rest of this post are her words to show how this tool can be integrated appropriately and thoughtfully into a curriculum, not boot strapped. This is an essential ingredient in the integration of technology into the classroom.

Dragon Cosmology

Every year, students in the 5th grade Dragon (homeroom) class begin their school year exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth cosmology through an in-depth study of one of his fantasy novels – either The Fellowship of the Ring or The Hobbit. During their study, the students have the pleasure of reading an amazing fantasy story written by THE master fantasy writer, while at the same time working through the rigorous challenge of learning to recognize and analyze the interconnectedness of its literary elements.

As worthy and well-fitted as this type of work is for my gifted students, my over-arching goal in the introducing my students to Tolkien’s fantasy writing has been more about guiding them in a discovery of the complexity, the magic, and the wonder of Tolkien’s incredible imagination. Year after year, I have found it is the amazing detail of his characters, his mystical settings, ancestral legacies, invented languages, and layered conflicts, that “hook” my students to the point where they become so immersed in his imaginative stories, they truly hunger for more of the wonder of Middle-earth.

But that is only the beginning of their journey, because in the process of learning about Tokien’s Middle-earth cosmology, my students are presented with the challenge of modeling their own creative writings after his and using their own well-equipped imaginations to invent a cosmology of their own – specifically a dragon cosmology!

The process begins with each student inventing an organic dragon, equipping it with its own unique “special abilities:, such as the ability to communicate telepathically with other dragons or creatures on its world, or to cloak itself and become nearly invisible in a variety of home-world landscapes.

Next, each student must design a “home-world” for his or her dragon which, in its uniqueness, gives reason for the dragon to need its special abilities. The “home-worlds” must have “other-worldly” features and unique domains. These domains cannot be found on planet Earth; therefore the students have to stretch their imaginations, think beyond their own realm of reality and invent dragon habitats that are highly-fantastical.

Now, typically, my students begin generating ideas for their dragon cosmologies, they write descriptive stories or Episodes and begin sketching detailed illustrations to solidify and bring to life what they imagined in their minds. The physical products they create – written episodes, or artifacts such as paintings, sculptures, diorama, or fabric banners, challenge the students to make their dragon worlds “real” enough that the class becomes familiar with each dragon character and understands the conflicts or challenges each faces on its “home-world”.

This however is not easily accomplished – trying to re-create images or an idea from your mind, in all its detail and complexity, on paper or through model building, can be frustrating, especially when your young fingers just can’t physically create the perfection you hold in your mind.

But this year, I was introduced to something quite exciting – a means by which my students could possibly bring their images and ideas to life on a computer screen and build animated dragon worlds. Using Minecraft technology, I envisioned my students not only creating individual animated dragon home-worlds, but interactive world where my students would be able to enter into and participate within the entire collection of dragon worlds.

I began to imagine on how amazing it would be if my studnets were able to re-create their dragon episodes, play them out as mini-dramas, in virtual dragon “home-worlds” they created themselves and then share by interacting within the “home-worlds” of their classmates. Well, I became quite excited and, in sharing my idea with my students, I confessed to them that I did not have the expertise nor even a “handful of pieces to the puzzle” to carry out my idea, but they might and so might Mr. Vrotny, our Director of Academic Technology.

As you might guess, my students were all over this and began researching, experimenting, and reporting back to me just what they had discovered about Minecraft and how they might be able to create a virtual dragon cosmology using technology. Feeding off of their excitement and encouraged by their research, I began to feel like Michelangelo – removing the stone to reveal the sculpture within. The next step was easiest – sharing my idea with Mr. Vrotny and what happened next is his story.

Now you know the background to the story. Soon, I will share the story of what we have done and how we have gotten there. I will also be sharing an article being written for the Chicago Tribune, and hopefully share pictures that they shot with this class.

Until the next episode….

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A Year of Learning in Our Innovation Lab

April 15, 2014 · No Comments · Uncategorized

For our school’s quarterly magazine, I was asked to write a reflection updating the school community on what we have learned and done as a result of our having Innovation Lab. Here is my first draft:

Learning in the Innovation Lab

by Sheryl Peterson, Arturo Garcia, and Vinnie Vrotny

One year ago, we were actively working on the transformation of the Innovation Lab – choosing color schemes, ordering furniture, cabinets and lighting, ordering equipment, and developing the curricula that our middle school students would experience when they arrived this fall. Looking back at the year, we are excited about what the students have been able to build and create while at the same time noting what we want to tweak and improve in the following years. Here is a sample of what we have learned from the students throughout the year.

More Them, Less Us

Especially in the Computer Science and Design and Engineering trimesters, we have created a framework which allows for student’s to explore the skill to suit their passions rather than having the entire class do the same activity. There are two benefits that this approach have emerged that even visiting educators have observed and commented on. The first is that the students are more engaged in their projects since they control the path of their own learning. The second benefit is the cross-learning which occurs naturally through the interactions and exchanges between learners within the classroom. This co-learning sparks new ideas and pathways to explore from simply inquiring and sharing what they are learning.

This shift in classroom culture and mindset has not occurred naturally. In the fall, we had to push students out of their comfort zone. Many students initially struggled with the notion that they had to find their ideas rather than being handed one, that there was not a common end product, or that we would not answer their question, “is this good enough?” Students were uncomfortable with the notion that this class was about learning rather than teaching. Now in the spring, they have adjusted to this culture shift and we have watched numerous students soar now that they have been given the freedom to define their own path.

Flexible + Adaptive = Explosion of Possibilities

The new lighting, new color palate, and new furniture have changed the mood and functionality of the space. Students now routinely come into the classroom and either set up the tables, group them together to create team workspaces, or move them aside depending on whether they are wanting to film on the green screen, use Makey Makeys, work on design proejcts, or continue on a programming project. Simply reclaiming an area defined for teacher use and not having the First Lego Robotics table dominate the central learning area has allowed the space to be better utilized. We have also created our own project boards where ideas can be sketched, created, and saved for later use. These ideas also spark new creative notions in other students for their own projects.

With all of the furniture on wheels, except the computer workstations and laser cutter, we are able to expand making and building beyond the Innovation Lab and we now move equipment and tools into the Middle School Commons or an individual classroom for specific projects. The flexibility afforded by this type of design allow for creativity and innovation to occur anywhere and everywhere creating a culture and mindset around invention and tinkering rather instead of students feeling that this type of work has to be done in one specialized and defined space.

Students Breaking Barriers

The tools and culture that has been established in the Innovation Lab has allowed students to break through barriers and begin to build and create new and wonderful projects. We have had sixth graders prototyping new furniture mash-ups, combining the functionality of two different pieces of furniture like a table and a bed using the laser cutter and 3d printer. Students have created controllers using Legos and coins, recycled and repurposed joysticks, mini hockey sticks, and gummi worms for programs they have programmed themselves. We have seen students etch and print gifts for siblings, parents, and grandparents. Students have created projects designed to raise awareness of topics surrounding digital citizenship. Parts have been designed and cut for a tower garden for service learning. Math manipulatives have been designed in Minecraft and printed for use in the classroom. Custom designed play-doh cutters have been printed for Koalas and Otters based upon their current units of study. Choral binders now display vinyl-cut Quest Q’s. We have eighth graders building robots that will teach Otters, Koalas, Manatees, and Dolphins the basics of programming.

We are just beginning to scratch the surface and understand what may be possible. We are excited to see what the future holds.

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