Classroom Design Matters

As a classroom teacher, one of the most exciting aspects of starting a new school year was organising the classroom learning spaces. Where would the desks go? Can everyone see the board properly? Can everyone move around the room easily?

While I took a great deal of time thinking about the physical objects, I didn’t spend as much time thinking of the use of display areas in my classroom – how students would learn best using the materials selected for display. The classroom environment truly is The Third Teacher.

As my love and appreciation of design has developed, I have noticed those who make a considerable effort to consider an holistic view of classroom design. Physical space, classroom displays, learning opportunities, student preferences, movement of people – all contribute to an engaging learning environment and a positive learning climate.

Flexible Learning Spaces

Effective teachers are catering for a rStanding up desks Jakiange of learning preferences in their classrooms. Jaki Graham, Grade 3 teacher has a combination of traditional group desk formations, standing up desks, low tables with cushions, and bean bags in her class set up this year. “I want students to be able to choose a space to work at which suits them best,” she said.

Standing up DesksFellow Grade 3 teacher Kim Duffy experimented with stand up desks last year, and she noted how much of a difference it made to her more fidgety students. “It really helped them focus,” she explained.

Nicole Tripp, who teaches Grade 4, has also provided the option of stand up desks for her students (see photo, left).

Comfortable Furnishings

Traditionally, a comfy chair was a privilege only given to teachers. Nowadays, we recognise that, like adults, all learners enjoy working in comfortable environments. Many teachers, like Anne Marie Chow, Middle school Literacy Coach, organise armchairs, lamps, or couches in their classrooms, which make them feel more like homes than classrooms.

FullSizeRender_3Heather Kingston, Head of Grade 6, has Turkish carpets, armchairs, as well as bright red couches and cushions, which gives her room an inviting feel.

If you were a student in these classrooms, you’d want to settle in some of these places, surely!

Theme for the Year

IMG_8943Some teachers select a theme which sets the tone for the classroom experience in the year ahead. Middle school English teacher Paula Guinto has taken this approach for a number of years. This academic year, her theme is “Level Up”.

Her classroom features retro-inspired game elements, from Mario Bros to Pac Man, and invites her students to level up their thinking. Paula shares that for her, the theme is a chance to set the tone and allow her to focus her energies on teaching and learning.IMG_8940

She explains,

“Big picture though, it’s really an act of love. I put a lot into it because I want the kids to know that I love them. That I value their space and the time they spend in it. That they inspire me. To be creative. To be a learner. To be better in what I do. It’s a way for me to say, this space is safe, that I have your back, that from the very beginning, they are the priority and yeah, we’re in this together.” 

Middle school English and Humanities teacher Miles Beasley has worked with themes for the past 2 years. Each theme was carefully chosen to pass on a message about the year ahead to the students he teaches. Last year’s theme was around Dr Seuss’s book “Oh the Places You’ll Go” which aimed to create a sense of excitement about the first year of Middle school for his Grade 6 students.

IMG_2378This year, Miles has selected another of his favourite books – Wonder, by R. J. Palacio – to set the tone. It says to students, in this place, we care about each member of our community. How we treat each other is one of the most important aspects.


His teaching partner, Trish Waszczuk, helped select some of the precepts that featured in the book, to be made into large posters to inspire the students.

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Student Involvement

20654602841_44064e4c3e_kGreat teachers like to get students involved in design, rather than have it solely be a teacher-directed experience.

Middle school English teacher Jabiz Raisdana had his mentor class this year put together a shelf to put plants on. They planted seeds, and got their hands dirty, providing a real sense of ownership in the class decor. This community building, participatory environment reflects Jabiz’s approach to teaching and learning.


Miles’s Wonder theme also invites student participation. He plans to kick off the year by having students make Wonder-style self portraits using the iPad, so they can contribute their images to the blank walls, to make it really feel like their classroom.

Grade 1 Head of Grade Ben Morley and his team create inviting displays that will encourage student exploration and creativity in their shared Pod area. Each new unit gets a brand new display.


IMG_1389These Reggio inspired pod displays spill over into the classrooms as well, with natural wood and other materials featuring.

Living Things

There is something about having living things in classrooms that make them feel more real. Increasing numbers of teachers include plants in their classroom design. Aside from their obvious decorative and aesthetic qualities, plants have been used as the inspiration for poetry writing, and lessons on responsibility.

As a parent and a teacher, I understand the effort that goes into the decisions around classroom set up, and appreciate the care and concern it shows for our children.
They are truly in great hands.

Additional Resources

IMG_894420 Classroom Setups that Promote Thinking – This blog post outlines a number of different approaches teachers can use to set up their rooms. There is something for everyone in here.

Classroom Makeovers to Engage Learners – This article from Edutopia shows a collection of 5 minute videos that show different classroom set ups.

Stephen Heppell speaks here about Space: The Final Frontier

Ewan McIntosh speaks about the 7 Spaces of Technology in School Environments.

I would love to hear your thoughts on great classroom spaces.
Have a wonderful year ahead.

Designing Effective Presentations

Every educator today needs to learn how to present effectively. But how much do they know about what makes an effective presentation?

Garr Reynolds, author of the popular book Presentation Zen Design, notes:

“For many of us, there is a hole in our education when it comes to visual communication… In the past, the tools for creating high-quality graphics and multimedia presentations belonged only to a select few. Today, those tools are in the hands of virtually anyone with a computer. However, possessing the hardware and software tools and knowing how to operate them does not a designer make.” (p. 22, Presentation Zen Design).

Keynote iconMy colleague Dave and I are very passionate about Visual Literacy. We want to give educators the tools to develop their Visual Literacy skills, and presented recently to our fabulous Primary Leadership Team on Designing Effective Presentations.

Embedding the presentation here would not make sense. If you could understand the content of our presentation just by looking at the slides, then we would have failed in our job. There would be no point presenting if you could just read our slides! However, we did create some other resources which might be useful to share.


We wanted our audience engaged in our presentation. We didn’t want them to feel they had to take copious notes as we spoke. We prepared this handout, because there were a few key things we wanted them to take away from the presentation, and we thought this 1-page handout could be posted at a desk to refer to when designing presentations later.

Presentation Redesign

Finding Quality Images

Finding the right images to support the message you are sharing takes time – and is time well spent. This slide-doc takes you through how to find quality images. It is geared for teachers at our school, so bear that in mind as you look through.

Focus on the Audience

Really understanding what your audience needs and is hoping to gain from your presentation is important. We had participants in our workshop consider the needs of their audience using this handout we adapted from Nancy Duarte’s fantastic resource Resonate.

Know Your Audience

Additional Resources

Some of our favourite resources for presentation design can be found here:

We hope you found these useful! Please let us know if you would like further information about designing effective presentations.

Our Digital PJ Party – Walking the Walk

PJ Selfie

PJ Selfie

I have a kind of love-hate relationship with the topic of Digital Citizenship.

I recognise fully that we have a responsibility to teach students how to interact positively, consider other people’s feelings, and be mindful of the impact our choices today have on our future. I see this as our responsibility to help shape good citizens full stop – not just good “Digital Citizens”. I love that aspect of being a teacher!

By the light of the iPadHowever, I hate the way parents love to blame technology for the difficulties they have with their children. It’s easy that way. Screen time is the enemy, changing children into monsters who argue back when it’s time to turn the device off and so on. It’s much harder to reflect on one’s own parenting style and wonder if you are doing the right thing…

I have presented to parents a number of times on the topic of Digital Citizenship, and one of the things foremost in my mind when we start a workshop is to get both parents and children to recognise the positive things technology has brought to our lives. Technology is neither good, nor bad – it is the choices that people make with technology that make it so.

When my husband and I reflected on how we were approaching the parenting of our two children (9 and 7), we realised that we had perhaps been too loose in our expectations given their age, and knew with the summer holiday moving ever closer, we needed to do something about it.

One thing we were extremely conscious of was the need for any conversation with our kids to be seen as something they had equal part in, and something that was going to be a positive experience. We didn’t want to call a family meeting and then start laying down the law. At the same time, we had some issues to address, so careful planning was needed.

My husband Miles attended a course with the delightful Robyn Treyvaud recently, and realised he wanted to connect more with the kids around gaming, so as not to get left behind, and to be involved in an aspect of their lives that was very important to them.

While home sick, I hashed out a possible approach.

  1. Discuss the game plan
  2. Build excitement
  3. Gather perspectives
  4. Readjust the rubber band
  5. Finish with a positive

Discuss the Game Plan
If you’re going to have this sort of conversation with your kids, there are bound to be some over-arching concerns or areas to discuss. Having a chat with your partner beforehand is important, so you are both on the same page, and can iron out any differences before bringing in the kids.

There were a number of areas Miles and I wanted to discuss:
– Screen time on weekdays/weekends
– Online access when we weren’t around
– Balance between digital/non-digital activities
– Gaming as a family

We talked about our ideal scenarios for each of these areas, and agreed on some common understandings before we sat down with the kids.

Digital PJ Party Invitation

Digital PJ Party Invitation

Build Excitement
As I mentioned earlier, we wanted the kids to have a positive experience with this conversation, in the hope that open communication channels established now, will reap rewards for us later. We want our kids to feel they can come and talk to us with issues that may arise, now and in the future.

I decided to make a proper invitation, inviting them to a Digital PJ Party, which got them totally PUMPED! I thought we could have popcorn and watch a movie together after we talked. I may have overdone the building excitement phase, however… Due to farewells and so on, we were going to have to have the Digital PJ Party a while away, but the kids were so excited about it, they forced us to have it in the morning instead of the evening as I had planned. This worked out extremely well, because there was no rush to get out of bed OR PJs on Saturday morning, which was fine by me!

G & S answering their questions

G & S answering their questions

Gather Perspectives
I created a little survey for each of us on a Google Doc, so everyone could write their thoughts down before we kicked off the par-tay.
Questions for Kids
Questions for Parents
While we drank coffee and attempted to wake up, the littles answered their questions. There were questions about how much screen time they thought was reasonable, what their favourite things to do on digital devices were, what they liked doing together with us, and what was important for us to understand, from their perspective.

Here are some of their responses (interesting to see the non-digital stuff come in too):

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 1.08.47 pm

And some more…

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 1.09.55 pm

Miles and I also filled in the parent survey. It had similar questions, but a few extra ones about things we were worried about, and things we wanted our kids to understand.

S sharing her responses

S sharing her responses

Readjust the Rubber-Band
We kicked off our chat with the kids sharing their answers to the questions. That was interesting in itself! Giving them the chance to share their thoughts, meant that issues we thought might be hard to tackle, were actually a breeze.

By way of example, Miles and I agreed on a screen time limit we were happy with before we had the party. It turned out the kids both suggested exactly the same time limit as being a reasonable amount of screen time to have on the weekend, which meant we had no arguments at all over that.

[Full disclosure: if our responses had differed significantly, at the end of the day, Miles and I would have made a decision about what we thought was fair, and explained our reasoning.]

We also shared our responses, and there were a couple of things we wanted them to know:
Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 1.13.56 pmTrust between parents and children is a lot like a rubber band. Pull too tightly, without giving enough responsibility, and you may find your children hide things from you, so as to have a chance to experience them. Hold too loosely, and give too much responsibility too soon, and they may find themselves out of their depth. 

We explained to our two that we felt we had held too loosely to the rubber band, and as a result, we had lost some trust in them – partly our fault, partly theirs – but there were some areas where we had to pull the rubber band back in.

This metaphor seemed to resonate with them. They seemed to understand why certain boundaries were put in place, and it wasn’t a hard conversation.

Finish with a Positive
Although we didn’t have a hard time with the conversation, it wasn’t particularly upbeat after the boundaries aspect of the chat.

We wanted to finish with a digital activity we could do together. Some ideas we had included a movie with popcorn, or playing Minecraft together on the iPads. As it happened, we decided on another approach.

The littles had been on and on at us about getting an XBox or Playstation so they could play games together. We held off for a long time. We decided that this could be the perfect opportunity to show that we had been listening to what they wanted, and reinforce some of the new regulations we had put in place (e.g. no unsupervised computer time) by changing platforms from a computer, to a gaming platform instead. Gaming platforms are more limited in their scope, and it is easier to prevent the link-hopping that can get kids into trouble on the computer.

Miles getting schooled in the ways of the XBox

Miles getting schooled in the ways of the XBox

We proposed that if they were prepared to contribute a sizeable sum from their pocket money, we would pay the remainder towards an XBox One. We explained that the time limits we agreed upon would still be in effect, but that we hoped there would be opportunities to play together as a family, especially over the holidays.

The littles were totally stoked! We went shopping together later that day, and that afternoon, the kids were showing us the ropes. It has only been a few days, but we have had no issues with the new guidelines, and everyone seems pretty clear about being on the same page. I will update in the holidays to see how long this digital peace lasts!

I don’t have all the answers, but I feel like at least I have made a start. Digital Citizenship is going to be an ongoing topic of conversation in our household, that much I know.

What approaches have you tried with your kids? What suggestions do you have for us? I value your input.

7 Reasons Why Wunderlist Works

My colleague Dave and I work on many collaborative tasks. Our antiquated system for managing these tasks was a post-it note that Dave kept on his desk, that we would occasionally look at and cross things off.

Our MS/HS colleagues Adrienne and Jeff had been talking up using Wunderlist to stay on top of their To-Do List, so we thought we’d give it a go.

What we LOVE

  1. Working across multiple platforms – I can access my Wunderlist on my iPhone or on my browser. There are a number of compatible platforms (including Android, Windows and Apple Watch) that let you check off your task list from whatever device you happen to be using.
  2. Multiple Lists – I have a grocery list with my husband, a DLC Task List with Dave, a list with my sister in NZ who is visiting soon and wanting to know what to bring. The ability to have multiple lists makes it easy to manage the different aspects of your life.
  3. Adding Subtasks – There are many occasions when a big task needs to be broken down into multiple subtasks, and Wunderlist enables you to do this easily. Really handy to be able to feel like you’re making progress on those huge jobs!
  4. Assigning Tasks – Dave and I can assign our big tasks to each other, or leave them for both of us. It’s nice to be able to see quickly what you are responsible.
  5. Reminders – Time based reminders can easily be synced with your calendar. We are using Sunrise on our phones to manage our Google Calendar, which works a treat.
  6. Commenting and Notes – We can comment or write notes on tasks, clarifying new additions or reminding each other about things that are upcoming. Great feature.
  7. Attaching files – Adding a file, dropbox link or voice comment is another handy feature of Wunderlist.

What we WANT

  1. The ability to assign sub-tasks would be helpful.
  2. Linking to a file in Google Drive (although we can add links in the Notes section).
  3. The ability to undo the last action  – especially useful for accidentally checking off the wrong item! It can be retrieved with a few clicks, however undo or command + Z would be quicker.
Why not give it a go with your team?

6 Alternatives to Comic Sans (With a True ‘a’)

You are just not my type

It is no secret that I am a bit of a font geek. It is also no secret that I (like many others) dislike the widespread use of Comic Sans. Sites such as Comic Sans Criminal are solely devoted to the derision of the font.

The main reasons why Comic Sans bears the brunt of this font snobbery, really comes down to fonts having a personality and purpose: in the case of Comic Sans, it has a childish, overly informal quality, that I feel suits a very limited range of writing.

FontsFonts are the clothes with which we dress our words.

We need to choose a font to match the way we want our text to be received. If we want to be taken seriously, Comic Sans would not be a natural choice.

Many educators choose Comic Sans deliberately because it is one of the few fonts available natively on both Mac and PC which has a ‘true a’ – that is, an ‘a’ which is a circle and stick (rather than the one used in my current font!). “I know Comic Sans isn’t the greatest,” they say, “but it has the ‘true a’.”

It’s time for me to be solution-focused! Here are some alternative fonts you can use that contain a ‘true a’.The following fonts you will need to download and install on your computer:

National First Font

Hattori Hanzo Light Italic (make sure you select light italic, as the regular version does not have a ‘true a’.)

Hattori Hanzo Light Italic

Aller Light Italic (make sure you select light italic, as the regular version does not have a ‘true a’.)

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 4.46.11 pm


Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 4.45.47 pm


The following fonts are also Google Fonts, so you can use them in your docs/sites too.

Ubuntu Regular Italic (install the whole font family, or select regular italic to get the ‘true a’.)

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 4.46.02 pm

Architect’s Daughter (this installed better for me within Google Apps)


Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 4.44.43 pm

I hope this helps you! What other fonts do you know of that have a ‘true a’?

Image Credit:
CC licensed (BY-ND) flickr photo by (debz):

Digital Approaches to Writing

FullSizeRenderThere have been some exciting writing projects going on at UWCSEA, which my colleague Dave Caleb and I really believe deserve a wider audience. This prompted us to begin writing a multi-touch book called Digital Approaches to Writing, which is now available on the iTunes Bookstore.

The book focuses on why we need to include digital approaches in a balanced writing programme, and highlights two projects we have worked with to incorporate digital approaches in the writing process. It is packed with tutorial videos and templates so teachers can adapt and modify as needed. We plan to add more chapters through the coming year.

As is our custom, the book is FREE, so please share!

Writing a Real Book Makes a Difference

I have been lucky enough to work with our Grade 3s in the publishing phase of their informational book writing process. What an adventure!

Steve Kay (the Digital Literacy mentor) and I both hoped the team might consider creating digital books with iBooks Author, and were thrilled when all 7 classes got on board.

We set up a time to take all the teachers through some of the features, and they practised creating their own book, complete with sourcing Creative Commons images, and experimenting with widgets. This step was crucial, as it meant we had a real partnership when introducing iBooks Author to the students.

One of our aims was to help students make connections between the functions available on Pages and those on iBooks Author. We began by getting students in pairs (and later, groups) to identify the similarities and differences between the two programmes. This encouraged them to explore the menus and try different features before getting started. We shared these as a class.

Prior to this, with their class teacher, the students studied non-fiction informational texts and noted the features common in the genre, such as labelled diagrams, images and tables. They chose something they knew very well to write about. There was a diverse range of subjects selected – from Christianity to Minecraft – and everything in between!

Students wrote their drafts in a Google Docs template provided by their teacher. It was peer edited using the commenting function. Words to be included in the glossary were made bold, and images they thought they might look for were identified in a different colour on the side (see example below).

Once the text was ready, it was time to transfer it to iBooks Author, and add the features the students felt would help convey an understanding of their topic to their reader.

Students used Creative Commons Search to look for images to use in their books. Referencing the majority of these images was made extremely easy due to the use of Cogdog’s Flickr CC image bookmarklet (drag the blue button to your bookmarks bar and click to attribute from Flickr).

Building on our work with the design principles of CARP (Contrast, Alignment, Repetition & Proximity), students worked carefully to make sure their choice of colours fit their content, was easy to read, chose a font which matched their content, and considered the alignment of their text boxes etc. They were very mindful and deliberate in their choices.

One of the excellent features in iBooks Author for informational books is the interactive image widget. It allows you to zoom into parts of an image, and provide more details. Labelling the parts of a flower, then zooming in to each part and getting more information is one example of how this can work. This was very popular with the students.

In addition, some students chose to add 3D images, which they sourced from Sketchup’s 3D warehouse. The ability to get just about any 3D image (from Touch Rugby pitches to the latest Lamborghini) made this a popular option!

Many pupils used the review tool to create interactive quizzes to check for understanding of their content. Being able to use images and labeling diagrams in the reviews as well as typical multi-choice questions meant there was a lot of variety.

Students added glossary terms they identified in their draft writing, and it was lovely to see their definitions written in their own words.

Some chose to record their blurb as their intro media to the book, while others decided to create keynote files to add.

Once finished, students exported their finished books as .ibooks files, and uploaded them to Google Drive. This allowed for easy transfer to the iPads.

I loved watching their faces as they opened their books for the first time.

When reflecting on the process, the students I spoke to were unanimous about their enthusiasm for using iBooks Author as the platform for writing their book. They were able to articulate many reasons for this, however, one student summed it up nicely by saying:

“Google Docs is good for drafting, Pages is good for posters, but iBooks Author is best for books, because we’re supposed to be writing a book! This feels like a REAL book, but better, because we can add all the extra features for interactivity.”

A celebration followed, where students showed their completed books to their very impressed parents. The final piece in the puzzle is our growing list of published authors on the Write Now bookstore. Follow this link for examples of our published books. More will be added as they come to hand.

A huge thank you to the tireless Grade 3 teachers for all you have done in getting students to this stage.

Photography by Dave Caleb