Complex Classrooms

I have the pleasure of regularly going out to visit with teachers and students in classrooms.  This past Thursday I visited two classrooms: a Kindergarten and a Grade 1 class.  In the Kindergarten class I was video recording a learning documentation process the teacher uses iStock_000016027894XSmallto support her students story writing.  The students came up one by one to share their pictures and in some cases, also written stories.  They were very motivated and proud to be able to do this.  The teacher used her iPod Touch to record each student explaining and/or reading their story.  The teacher then plays back the students reflections in the quiet of her home and provides written feedback in each students journal.  The kids loved that I was recording them telling their stories!

While this was going on, one of her students had a bit of a melt down.  This particular student is designated as having certain special needs and a special education assistant (SEA) was present.  This student caused quite a bit of disruption to the class, not something I see very often in my visits.  In talking to the teacher, she described another 4 or 5 students in her class who have various special needs and the complexity of managing and personalizing learning in this classroom.  I was impressed with this teacher’s calm demeanor and her fearlessness in using technology to document students learning in a noisy, challenging, and disruptive learning environment.

My second visit last Thursday took me to a Grade 1 class where the teacher took the class down memory lane back to September.  She had taught the kids about bridges, bridge design, building materials, and documented the journey through pictures and textual descriptors.  She stored her documentation in SMARTboard notebooks.  I video recorded her taking the class back in time while the kids’ memories were activated.  They started with pictures (from the Internet) of real bridges from around the world then into a File:London Bridge Illuminated.jpgsequence showing each kid drawing plans for their own bridges.  As a students’ picture of them and their plan was displayed, they would talk about their design and the relative strength their bridge may have using triangles versus other shapes.  They discussed building materials that could enable curved structures, etc.  The journey ended with pictures of the kids showing their completed bridges built from various materials and using marshmallows as the connecting “glue”.  At the end of the class the teacher asked the kids who wanted to show Mr. Kuhn their bridges and every hand went up!  I was then taken on the grand tour of their elaborate bridge structures.

In this class there were students with special needs and one SEA.  But, the complexity I want to highlight for this class though, is the learning.  I was impressed with how much the students had learned about and could elaborate on bridge design and construction.  I wondered, how would the teacher capture this journey if it weren’t for her digital camera (iPod Touch).  Pictures really are a thousand words aren’t they.  But think about this extra layer of complexity for the teacher.  She has to be always on the lookout for learning to document with pictures.  Later, she has to transfer the pictures to her computer and organize them in a digital notebook with annotations, weave the use of this documentation into reflections with students, reporting to parents, and informing her own feedback to her students.  This is a complex process to add to her teaching practice and she’s done a fabulous job of it.  Listen to her talk about starting out as a documenter:

Documenting Learning

I think that the learning environment in which teachers practice, has become quite complex.  We technologists expect and encourage teachers to adopt a variety of technology to assist and transform their teaching and student learning.  We need to remember that the context in classrooms is already complex with each student having diverse learning and special needs.  Two things are radically different today then they were when I went to school: integration of all students in classrooms and the increasing presence of technology.  It really is encouraging to see increasing examples of teachers fearlessly experimenting and adopting new practices using technology.  Especially with complex student needs, there are so many ways technology is being found to assist them.  I think in the long run, complex classrooms will increasing be transformed through the careful and thoughtful use of technology.


  1. Brian, it was great to have you come out and visit my classroom. I am enjoying being a part of the documentation focus group and seeing how technologies can support our complex classrooms. Just a few clarifications : My class is a K/1 class, not just K, and very complex indeed. In addition to the challenges of the students I mentioned to you, I have learners who just turned 5 in December and others who turned 7 in January.
    I think you may have misunderstood how I use the iPod to support the diverse needs of my students. Using the ipod allowed me to give the students immediate feedback and deeply listen to their stories and be "present" for them in the moment. At the end of our conversation, I try to give each child one or two challenges that will move their learning to the next level. I am only able to do this because I have taken the time to record and regularly reflect on their development over time, which is the purpose of the iPod recording. Listening to the iPod at home, allows me to recall the earlier conversation that may easily be forgotten during the course of the day, In the quiet of my classroom or home at the end of the day, I make a written record which provides a running record for myself to analyse and plan next teaching steps. I also use it to share with parents so they can see their child's language development to date.
    Thanks again for the visit. Leona

  2. Leona - thanks for adding some clarity to what I wrote from my visit. I do remember now that you challenged each child after they shared their writing or picture with you - in essence, you were pushing them to go further or higher with their work. Nice process too with how you integrate the iPod with written feedback for your students and their parents. Until next time...


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