Originally published April 05, 2018 on the Educator Innovator blog
Written by Tim McIntyre Photo courtesy of Christopher Harris
Grass Valley Elementary’s schoolwide shift towards connected learning and maker education, supported by an LRNG Innovators Challenge grant, is letting students shine by giving them opportunities for authentic expression while connecting to their passions and communities.
“We often think of Grass Valley as ‘The Little School that Could.’”
This is how Paula Mitchell, a teacher at Oakland, California’s Grass Valley Elementary School begins the story of her school’s embrace of student choice and connected learning. The shift began in earnest in the 2016-2017 school year, as four of Grass Valley’s classrooms implemented a new project-based learning curriculum. This year, the transformation has gone schoolwide, thanks to a grant from the 2017 LRNG Innovators Challenge.
The LRNG Innovators Challenge grants stem from a partnership between LRNG, powered by Collective Shift, the National Writing Project, and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign to help educators extend time and space for Connected Learning. The Connected Learning theory posits that learning happens on a continuum—in school, as well as at home, work, and among friends—and is driven by students’ own interests and life experiences.
Through this project, called Linked Learning with Maker-Centered Education, Grass Valley Elementary is expanding its makerspace and leveraging that maker ethos to transform the whole school with school-wide projects, crowd-sourced afterschool events, and support for individual pursuits and tinkering.
School-wide projects establish a broad, guiding theme for the whole school, and then let individual classrooms and students find unique ways to explore that theme and demonstrate their learning. In the fall trimester’s “Self as Superhero” project, students were tasked with identifying a problem in their community, whether that be their classroom, school, neighborhood, or beyond, and worked through the skills and traits that they, as superheroes, would need to tackle their issue.
Students worked on a variety of problems, and their final products took many forms, including comic books, costumes, action figures, and posters. One class even decided to put on a shadow puppet show, working collaboratively to write a script, build their superhero shadow puppets, and even figuring out how to build and operate the lighting. Students had the opportunity to write, create, and construct, all while coming to understand themselves as superheroes: change agents with the creativity and power to have an impact on their communities.
The project culminated in a day-long Comic Con event, where students showed off their projects, proudly displaying comic books and art, as well as donning their carefully crafted costumes and acting out their stories.
The day also featured some unexpected community connections, including Amana Harris, the activist whose book had inspired the project, as well as a local artist whose paintings of African-American superheroes wowed the students.
In addition to the school-wide projects, Grass Valley’s makerspace holds regular afterschool events, with project ideas crowdsourced via a simple sheet of paper posted in the hallway. This has resulted in a variety of projects, with slime-making emerging as a particular favorite.
The makerspace also provides the opportunity to pursue open-ended, individual projects: students can bring in an idea, and teachers will support them in creating and carrying out a project plan.
All of these opportunities for student voice and agency are having an effect, says Mitchell. “I feel like they’re getting more and more empowered to speak up, say what they want. I see it already, they just come in like ‘I wanna make this, I wanna do this, I wanna do that.’ It’s great, it’s exactly what we hoped would happen.”
But the benefits of this approach don’t stop at giving students more say over what they’re learning; perhaps more profoundly, students now have much more agency over how they learn, and how they show their learning. “Through this project there’s an opportunity to showcase skills and talents that a lot of teachers didn’t know their kids had, until they tried a more hands-on approach and opened it up to the students’ vision,” says Mitchell.
This can be especially noticeable for the school’s special education students, who, despite experiencing difficulties with more traditional forms of school participation, are able to truly shine when given the opportunity to express themselves in a way that is authentic to them.
Mitchell points to one boy—a fifth-grader who had entered the school as a completely non-verbal kindergartener and still showed little interest in writing—whose “Self as Superhero” comic book particularly stood out. “He drew the most amazing character and then did all the dialogue,…he took off and created whole scenes and dialogue between characters and wrote them out in speech balloons. He owned that comic book that he created.”
This authenticity is at the heart of what makes the project, and Connected Learning in general, so valuable. By reshaping school work around students’ interests, not only in content but also in form, Grass Valley is creating opportunities for students to bring their passions and talents into the classroom (and library!) with full force, helping them grow into curious, creative, and skilled adults, ready to make an impact in their careers and in their communities.
After all, as Mitchell says, “the whole reason we have school is for them.”
Previously published by AbD Oakland, October 19, 2017 see original article here
“Maker-centered learning means that there’s choice, freedom for students to explore what they’re really interested in, to develop a passion for something, to really get engaged and light up their minds.”
Paula Mitchell, Teacher on Special Assignment for Maker Ed and Blended Learning
Grass Valley Elementary School
In the fall of 2014 Grass Valley teacher Paula Mitchell attended the conference: Project Zero Perspectives: Making, Thinking, and Understanding, in San Francisco. When she returned back to her classroom she brought new ideas, thinking routines, and making. Her principal at the time, Dr. Brandee Stewart, recognized that she was onto something: “I’ve always been on the search for this engaging culturally relevant way of engaging kids. And when I went into Paula’s classroom and saw and heard what she was talking about around maker education…I felt like this was the missing piece throughout my career.”
Since then, in order to create a sense of agency and empowerment in their learners, Grass Valley has made the shift to maker-centered learning, placing it at the center of the school curriculum and culture. With the guidance of Paula Mitchell, who was hired as a Teacher on Special Assignment with Project Based Learning & Maker Education, the school prioritized hands-on experiences, with the goal of getting students excited and empowered about learning.
“What can kids notice about their place in the world? And then how can they push against that? And how can they demand more for themselves?”
Roxanne Martinez, Resource Specialist, Grass Valley Elementary School
The overall shift toward maker-centered learning was implemented by first creating a long term vision then adjusting resources and schedules along the way to support that vision. Cohorts of teachers were created to collaborate on maker projects and share strategies within their Professional Learning Communities. Teachers in both special and general education collaborate alongside each other to share approaches and ideas, ensuring that the special education curriculum mirrors that of the general student population.
“Students who traditionally may not show up as the successful student can actually exhibit a set of skills and knowledge and talents that often surpass students in general education classes.”
Dr. Brandee Stewart, Principal, Grass Valley Elementary School
In November 2016, the school opened their maker space, called the “Wonder Workshop,” a classroom dedicated to maker-centered learning during the school day. This space has also served as a space for teacher collaboration, family making night events, and professional development workshops.
The success of the maker-centered learning program at Grass Valley Elementary is due to collaborations across multiple individuals and organizations. Within the school, Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, provide dedicated weekly meeting time for teachers to come together and share curriculum ideas and professional development tools. In addition to the PLCs, community partners such as Agency by Design have and continue to play a key role in providing professional development, support, supplies, and funding along the way. Not only did Grass Valley teachers Paula Mitchell and Diana Culmer participate in the 2016 – 2017 Agency by Design Oakland fellowship, they, along with two other colleagues, took the online Agency by Design course Thinking and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom, which was funded by a grant from the Light Awards. In addition, Grass Valley has partnered with Maker Ed to receive Maker Vistas, and has collaborated with numerous community makers.
Three times during the course of the 2016-2017 school year teachers brought their students together to share and celebrate their learning. The year-long curriculum focus on Health and Wellness was centered on these driving questions:
- How can we as students take control of our food sources?
- How can we, as food scientists, investigate ways to interact with food?
- How do we share our knowledge of health and wellness with others by producing, packaging, and marketing a product for a farmer’s market?
In Expo One students demonstrated what they were learning through visualizations of healthy food, maps of local food sources, and planter boxes they had built for seedling vegetable plants. In Expo Two students became food scientists, which was visible in their re-constructions of the human digestion system, cookbooks with their own recipes, and a variety of food offerings they had made. In Expo Three, the culminating event of the year, students produced a farmer’s market, showcasing products they had made, packaged, and marketed themselves.
Click to view Grass Valley Student Expos Video
Grass Valley teachers’ energy and dedication to pursue maker-centered learning continues to grow. This year there were seven Grass Valley applicants to the 2017 – 2018 Agency by Design Oakland fellowship! We are excited to announce that Monique Parish and Roxy Martinez will be joining us this year, and Paula Mitchell will be joining the Agency by Design Oakland coaching team as a Senior Fellow.
Lastly, we celebrate and appreciate the leadership of the Grass Valley educators! Three years after Paula Mitchell attended the Project Zero Perspectives conference in SF, she and and Diana Culmer share what they’ve learned through a workshop of their own, “Authentic Inclusion and Hands-on Engagement,” at the May 2017 Project Zero Perspectives Conference in Pittsburgh, PA.
Grass Valley is a small elementary school in the Oakland Unified Public School District serving just under 300 students, mostly students of color, in kindergarten through fifth grade. Over 70% of the student population is socioeconomically disadvantaged, 25% is served by the special education program and approximately 17% of the students are classified as English language learners.
“Book knowledge is just one piece of a larger education. What you learn must be applied in your everyday life. They’re the next scientists, they’re the next inventors, they’re the next presidents. And all of that starts here.”
Dr. Brandee Stewart, Principal, Grass Valley Elementary School
It is the last expo of the year and to cap off all the making, we will throw our first Farmer’s Market.
Grass Valley Elementary Farmer’s Market will feature handmade items by our student makers such as:
- Healthy Rice Krispies Treats
- Fruit Popsicles
- Trail Mix
- Meditative Tealight Candles
- Quinoa Pizza Bites, and more
All items are $3 or less, and proceeds go to each class’s non-profit of choice.
Don’t forget to RSVP to our event and to bring a reusable bag.
Wonder Workshop will be attending its first Bay Area Maker Faire on Saturday, May 20, 2017, from 10:00 am – 7:00 pm.
Our student buttons will be on available for a donation.
Join us for the April East Bay Maker Educator Meetups (EBMEM) at Grass Valley Elementary in Oakland for a night of culturally responsive making!
We’ll begin by learning about Grass Valley Elementary’s recent event, Black History Month Family Making Night, an event that included students, parents, and teachers in a convergence of both traditional and new forms of making. Teacher on Special Assignment, Paula Mitchell, and Maker VISTA members Crystal Le and Maria Renteria will provide a presentation on this event devoted to honoring and exploring historic and modern contributions of African American innovators. After this presentation, we’ll dive into a hands-on making activity inspired by an African American innovator and explore culturally responsive making.
Register for the event here.
Grass Valley Elementary is located at 4720 Dunkirk Ave in Oakland. There’s always plenty of street parking right out front. Please arrive ready to make!
We are excited to announce that we will be at the Lighthouse Maker Faire. Our students will be leading a maker station and there will be demonstrations by our Maker Ambassadors.
Lighthouse Maker Faire takes place April 21, 2017, from 10 am -2 pm. Join us for Wonder Workshop’s first official Maker Faire.
Register here to attend for free.
We hope to see you there and our students can’t wait to share their making knowledge with you.
Our world is what we make it
Previously Published on Makered.org
April 3, 2017 by Sam Erwin
Grass Valley Elementary School in Oakland, CA seems almost sleepy in its Bay Area scenic setting. Nestled in the Oakland Hills, surrounded by redwoods and framed in quiet, smooth residential cul de sacs, your biggest impression when driving up to the school is the tranquility of the surrounding area. Upon further inspection, however, you’ll discover that the students and educators inside are all energetically, boldly participating and thriving in the school’s maker education program.
Though it is one of many Title 1 public schools in the Oakland Unified School District, Grass Valley is considerably unique. The bulk of its student population isn’t drawn from those nearby hills and cul de sacs. Instead, almost all students must commute 5+ miles a day to attend school there. The district offers a special bus system to the students—which travels far further than most school buses each day—to ensure students have a ride, but mostly it’s dedicated parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who make the trek with students in tow everyday. The school also serves an above average amount of high-need students, with more than a third of the students enrolled in special education.
Like many schools who decide to transition from traditional learning frameworks to fostering student-driven, hands-on learning with a STEAM focus, Grass Valley leadership tackled challenges and often slow-moving wheels as they moved to segue from adopting the idea and intention of making, to actual implementation and integration. In 2016, four teachers (two general education and two special education) and the school’s principal participated in piloting program components and regular in-depth discussions in order to determine what concretely needed to happen in order to make school-wide maker education successful for their students. Towards these research and piloting goals, one teacher, Ms. Paula Mitchell, stepped out of the classroom and into a new role as a Teacher on Special Assignment.
To take on a transformation this layered, at a school as unique as Grass Valley, is an exceptionally large task—even for educators who (aptly!) refer to their workplace as “The Little School That Could.” They quickly came to the realization that to shift to a STEAM-based curriculum that was both hands-on and project-based, they would need support from individuals and organizations. So, in the midst of launching their pilot program, they applied to partner with Maker Ed through the Maker VISTA program.
While there is no doubt that Grass Valley was already in the middle of shifting the school’s culture, the arrival of two Maker VISTA members on campus—Crystal Le and Maria Renteria—allowed the staff to hit the turbo button on the transformation. Crystal and Maria arrived with strong, shared commitment to service, education reform, and learning-on-the-spot. They also brought previous experience with STEM-based projects, museum education and curation, and boundless energy and spirit.
The first task that VISTA members Crystal and Maria tackled was the creation of Grass Valley’s first makerspace. The school staff had already decided on a room to transform: an extra classroom that was being used for storage, referred to plainly as Room 9. Before the arrival of the VISTA members, they didn’t have the capacity to oversee the redesign of the space. The Maker VISTAs got to work building furniture, arranging layout, and sorting, organizing, and collecting materials. After a month and a half, Room 9 was totally renovated, rejuvenated, and reinvented as “The Wonder Workshop.”
“With the help of the Maker Vista program, the dream of a fully functioning makerspace came to fruition,” explained Paula. “Because we had Maker VISTA members dedicated to developing and helping us implement best practices for makerspaces, our materials and resources are well organized and we have systems for keeping track of materials and ordering supplies. We utilize the space for staff professional development, workshops, and trainings. Teachers are able to use the space as additional project workspace and storage for in-process projects.”
The work didn’t end with setting up the space. The Maker VISTA superstars, along with Paula, launched a full, grand opening event via a Family Maker Night, providing the opportunity for students to access and explore the makerspace for the first time alongside their families. Crystal and Maria worked with local businesses to secure in-kind materials and raffle prizes, and recruited STEAM-industry professionals to run demo stations during the event. They created flyers, planned the making activities, and trained the volunteers who would help run the different maker stations.
These leaps and bounds didn’t slow Grass Valley or the Maker VISTA team down. In the following months, Paula, Crystal and Maria busily brainstormed project ideas, initiatives, and more maker nights. In a school-wide undertaking, students across grade levels built wooden garden boxes, learning about sustainability, nutrition, and ecosystems as they constructed with lumber and guidance sourced from a local woodworkers union by Crystal and Maria. This winter, the team organized a Black History Month Family Night and Heritage Potluck, in an evening of connecting community and culture to making. They planned numerous activities, and commissioned a panel to share diverse STEAM career paths, stories, struggles and successes with students and families. The event also spotlighted the school’s first ever Maker Ambassadors, students from three grade levels who dedicated themselves to a month of project work based on the inventions of historical African American Innovators.
Whether redefining spaces, planning events, creating partnerships in the community, or connecting heritage to making, the Maker VISTA members at Grass Valley have made impressive and significant impact within just one year. While the school’s ambitious making journey certainly didn’t start with the Maker VISTA program, the partnership has accelerated progress, boosted capacity, and increased valuation for making in this unique, driven, determined Little School That Could.