Sunday, March 18, 2018

Innovation Lab Update


Several people have reached out to me on Twitter and Facebook inquiring about our Innovation Lab and its transformation. I realized, while I have spotlighted several activities throughout the year, I have yet to write an overview of our journey thus far.

I became a technology integrator ten years ago, assigned to an elementary school in the same district I attended as a child. I have been in the same room, in the same school, for all of this time. Over the years, it has been a huge struggle for me to get others to view this space as "our room" as my desk was in the back and the room was filled with heavy tables, chairs, and laptops. Because this was the room I was assigned, people viewed it as "Mrs. Letter's Lab", not a shared working space. When teachers wanted to collaborate with me, they brought their students to this space because it was easier than rolling a huge, metal cart across our open-campus school with sidewalk cracks and uneven terrain.

Every lesson used a laptop.

Every student sat in a chair.

Every chair faced the front of the room.

I died a slow death with each lesson I taught.




Ten years ago, "innovation" wasn't the focus as it is now. I struggled to adjust to this new structure of instruction - wanting to support technology integration efforts of others in a space that never shifted, with a room design that was static and stagnant.

When I was a classroom teacher, my room was fluid. If I wanted small group work, we moved desks around and made it happen. When we had a camping day as a culmination for our "Where the Red Fern Grows" unit, we pushed the desks to the side, brought in pillows, sleeping bags, and flashlights, and told spooky stories while "roasting" Smores over our pretend campfire.

Camping Day in Mrs. Letter's Classroom (Memphis, TN - 2002)

I was that teacher. I did whatever it took to engage my students in learning and make my classroom the space that I wanted as a student. I would dress up as a pioneer. I would transform my students into museum tour guides. I created learning experiences that went beyond the textbook because I wanted to cultivate a love of learning in my students in the same way my 6th grade language arts teacher, Mrs. Dalton, did for me. 

She had a plastic bubble. 

In the middle of her room.

You could read, write, or draw in the bubble, but had to earn the right to go inside.

That's all the incentive I needed to become a teacher.

But that was then and this is now. I changed roles from classroom teacher to technology integrator and this was my new reality. Four walls and a door. Twelve tables, twenty-four chairs. I taught my lessons, walking in and out of each row, monitoring laptop screens from the back, but I knew this wasn't ideal for learning.

It wasn't ideal for my students.

It wasn't ideal for me.

Since a large part of my job is providing teachers with professional development, I wanted a space that could attend to their needs as well, in a cozy environment - not one with stark, white, cement walls and immobile furniture. I needed more. They needed more.

Two years ago I took a risk. I started a GoFundMe campaign to change up the back corner of Lab 1 so it was more appealing for teachers. Inspired by the #StarbucksMyRoom hashtag, I designed this space, dreaming big. Gone was my teacher desk - I wanted bar height tables and chairs! A coffee maker! A bookshelf with new, relevant books by up-and-coming authors (not the books that were written decades before and collecting dust in my garage.) Could I even get a sofa? Who puts a sofa in a computer lab?

Apparently me.

Bar height table and coffeemaker (My Zumba instructor later donated a Keurig to the Tiny Tech Cafe!)

The start of our Lending Library - always accepting donations!
Doesn't everyone have a sofa in their computer lab?
With the financial support of friends, family, and community stakeholders, we opened our Tiny Tech Cafe September 6, 2016 and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Teachers were now stopping in to grab a cup of coffee or take a quick break in their day and almost always these resulted in conversations with one another.

My relationships with teachers grew as did my desire to make this happen for students, too.

Digital logo I designed for our Tiny Tech Cafe
I even painted our own Tiny Tech Cafe canvas!
In Spring of 2017, I applied for a Creative Classroom Grant with the Hanover Education Foundation to transform the remainder of the room, so that we could have flexible seating options and resources at our fingertips whenever we needed them. (Do you know how many times I had to run down the hall and ask someone if we could borrow pencils, paper, and clipboards as we worked with technology? We needed basic supplies in here, too!)

Our grant was fully funded (with matching funds from my school) and we were on our way! So exciting! Unfortunately it was a painstakingly slow process to get everything in place according to the vision and timeline. When school began in September, I was still waiting for bulletin boards to be removed, shelves to be added, and stools to be put together. There was no official "Welcome to Our Innovation Lab" grand opening because... well... it was, and is, a constant work in progress!

But we had portable tables and, for me, that was enough to start diving in!

Students enter "polling booths" to vote on SCA Officers

Students learning about hurricanes and Kind Coins from Jet Stream Jax in TX
As the year progressed, we started building out the room. We purchased a green screen app for our iPads and made arrangements to keep the iPads in the Innovation Lab so access was equitable and convenient. We even created a coloring poster and invited students, teachers, and parents to work together to make it come to life so a part of them would be displayed in our room.

Creating green screen winter haiku videos
Adults and children coloring during Open House

Our finished poster - "Create"
We put velcro tabs on the wall and added 12 x 12 Lego plates so the traditional "Lego Wall" could actually be dismantled into individual work stations using the Legos we inherited from a former Legos club.

Each green tile can be removed from the wall to use anywhere in the room.
Mrs. Tapper and I exploring Lego pattern building during our Mardi Gras Makerspace (Teacher PD)
We added a recording studio for students who were self-conscious about recording themselves. We added carpet. Pillows. I got a great end-of-season sale on patio furniture cushions and purchased 6 scoop bucket seats for $35 (which, by the way, are a hit for all students K-5, no matter what that weight limit says on the box!)


Our corner recording studio

Students can zip themselves inside the recording station to record!
Students working in small groups around the room in the scoop bucket seats
"If you build it, they will come." I clung to this Field of Dreams mindset, hoping others might see the potential this space could have for ALL students, ALL teachers, ALL disciplines. I started shifting the types of lessons I offered with teachers, guiding them through problem-solving design processes and small group station rotations with students leading the way.

The Innovation Lab wasn't just a shift of space; it was a mind shift as well.

In February, our bulletin boards were removed from the walls and shelves added in their place which completed our makerspace area. Now we could store our bags and crates of supplies into neatly labeled containers that were easy to reach.

Materials organized, labeled, easy-to-reach
Makerspace ready for use with shelves for project creations!
Our Innovation Lab has 100% flexibility in design, in purpose, even in scheduling. We created a website for our space and distributed magnets with the website URL to all teachers so at the click of a mouse they can add their name to a Google Sheets spreadsheet and reserve the lab for whatever need they have. They can also use this website to request supplies, borrow a book from our lending library, or be inspired by lesson ideas of others.

Innovation Lab Website with tabs for pages across the top

Our Innovation Lab banner displayed outside the door
I'm proud to see all the ways this space is being used. We've had theme days like Talk Like a Pirate Day with back-to-back lessons complete with station rotations. We've shared in collaborative learning experiences between classes as older students support the learning of younger students. We've coded robots, designed three dimensional shapes with 3D Doodler pens, and created public service announcement commercials about why you should Save the Bay. 

Our students are at the helm of their learning experiences. They are teaching us how to create videos with iMovie and new uses for cardboard rolls and tape. They are solving real world problems and developing compassion and empathy in the process. They are offering suggestions on how to make things flow better and sharing their expertise with others. They are even taking ownership of JOY with Julilant Outcries of Yes!

For those who are worried about the loss of testing space, have no fear. In less than five minutes time I can transition this learning space back into a traditional computer lab complete with twenty-four laptops, twenty-four chairs and six stationary tables. (Yes, I have actually timed myself to see how fast I could go!)

Now we have paper. 

And pencils. 

And clipboards.

And the moment that testing is complete, we can get back to learning the way learning is intended.

The way we need it to be.

---------------------------------------------------------

Connect with Tamara on Twitter (@tamaraletter) or email (tletter@hcps.us). We also welcome visitors, so please contact her to set up a date/time if interested in stopping by! A special thanks to Dave Burgess, George Couros, Katie MartinTom Murray and Kayla Delzer for their innovative ideas and inspiration that fueled the fire for change. We are definitely better together!


For more information our journey in creating this Innovation Lab, visit the blog posts below!

September 2017


October 2017


December 2017


February 2018


March 2018

Celebrating Seuss (Video Promo)





Do you like this story?

Get Free Email Updates!

Follow us!