Winter Residency at High Tech High

c3sbjkjxuaakjou-jpg-largeLast week eleven of my colleagues and I had the privilege of traveling to High Tech High in San Diego, California for a transformative professional development experience. High Tech High is a collection of charter schools whose students are admitted by a zip code based lottery designed to draw students who demographically reflect the diversity of the surrounding San Diego county. “High Tech High” is a bit of a misnomer, because although the school incorporates technology in a variety of ways into the classroom, technology is not the focus. High Tech High focuses rather on using project-based learning (PBL) to enhance student engagement and achievement.

What is PBL?

PBL is a constructivist approach to teaching that involves student-centered instruction through assigning purposeful activities and projects. It allows students to work more autonomously to construct their own learning, and culminates in realistic, student-generated products. While the projects are the product, the processes by which the students arrive at that product are far more important. Teachers use scaffolding, elements of design thinking, front-load students with essential understandings and develop inquiry questions to be answered before the conclusion of the project. PBL proponents understand that student knowledge is constructed, not transmitted and work to build a reflective understanding of the project development experience.

The 2017 Winter Residency

img_5589Over the course of our three days at the HTH Winter Residency, participants worked to refine their understand of PBL through activities and discussion. Our group came well prepared with existing projects and ideas we were looking to refine and tune. Some of the major initiatives we’ve been working on at our school include our ‘Innovation Wednesdays’ and a possible school wide project to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Individual teachers also had inquiry questions and class projects they brought to HTH to tune up and reflect upon with colleagues from around the US and Canada.

Two of the most valuable and rewarding aspects over the three days of the residency I found were the opportunity to explore the campus and to interview current HTH students.

I’ve always been interested in the intersection between form and function and specifically in a school how its physical space influences the style of instruction. The classrooms of HTH have enormous windows giving visitors like us the opportunity to peer in and easily see what’s happening. Students work in rooms where desks are arranged in circles or small groups for more collaboration. Transparency is seen not only in the generous windows, but also in how student work is displayed throughout the interior of the buildings. There were visual displays of learning around the schools including murals, exhibitions and even science demonstrations that could fit in a classroom windowpane.

Making learning visible is a consistent theme, and was achieved primarily through three methods; firstly, the aforementioned exhibitions of work, secondly through presentations of learning, and thirdly though student-led conferences. During student conferences, students would address what they are learning and why, how they’re successful, what challenges them, how they’re doing as an individual learner and how they’re doing within the broader learning community. Conferences are mediated with a curated selection of student work the provided authentic evidence.

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-8-01-19-pmThe opportunity to speak with current HTH students was also immensely insightful. All the students we spoke with were incredibly articulate and able to express quite thoughtfully their experience at the school. They all seemed very aware of what a special place it was they were attending, and how lucky they were to have been chosen by lottery. Student performance seemed to be buoyed both by the fact their work is constantly exhibited, and because they knew the opportunity they had been afforded was one coveted by many other students. In my discussions with the students I tried to dig deeper into any perceived shortcomings of their experience, to take a more critical look at anything HTH could be doing better with their project-based approach. One of the aspects the students lamented was that they didn’t have many of the conventional extra-curricular experiences like sports teams or school dances other schools were more likely to have. Any shortcomings, however, paled in comparison to the educational opportunities made possible by going to HTH, including the remarkable post-secondary enrolment rates.

Dr. Kaleb Rashad

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-8-02-31-pmThe other truly inspiring piece of the Winter Residency was the chance to hear the new Director of High Tech High, Dr. Kaleb Rashad, speak. He was both the keynote speaker and also provided a Q&A session at the end of the three days. He encouraged us to look for inspiration during our time, and not simply to try and imitate what they were doing. Dr. Rashad had a lot to say about leadership, both from a theoretical and practical perspective. His mantra was to “love your people” and that in doing so, they would feel empowered to do “badass work!” When asked what he looked for with respect to instruction when sitting in a typical HTH class, he said that students should be engaging first in divergent, convergent, and then reflective thinking processes. When it comes to Pro-D he suggested we should always be modeling for teachers what we want them to do in their classes – avoid stand and deliver professional development experiences! Dr. Rashad has had a variety of educational leadership experiences, and throughout all of them it is evident he’s worked hard to build positive relationships and an inclusive and supportive school culture. To that end, he’s introduced something he calls ‘open mic’, where he makes an effort to sit for 10 minutes at the start of the year with each and every staff member to listen closely to his or her concerns without judgement. Anything said in those meetings is always shared in confidence. Dr. Rashad urged us to build trust and show people you love them – and that your staff, in turn, will also trust and love each other. One of the best ways to do this was via what he called “the two P’s”: permission and policies. Give your staff permission to dream big – to go for it and try something new and innovative and have them feel supported. And the second “P” is policies. An educational leader should work to get the rules and policies out of the way stop people from doing amazing work. Reducing those barriers will help cultivate a positive school culture and make great things happen for students.

Documenting the Process

c3snc8kuyae07g3-jpg-largePart of my process in attending the Winter Residency was to document the journey of my North Vancouver colleagues. I made an effort throughout the three days to grab as many sound bites and video clips as I could to stitch together at the conclusion of our time together. I’m pretty self-critical, so the finished product is never as good as I’d wish, but I was really happy that in documenting our experience I got to celebrate my colleagues’ experience and all the wonderful reflections they had. If building collegial trust and relationships is considered a vital piece of positive school culture, we certainly checked that box off on this trip. Spending four full and intense days together was a wonderful way for us to bond, and I know we’re stronger as a staff for having taken so many people down with us. I have to thank our school board for being so supportive of this experience in allowing us to go. This video also helps validate the professional growth we were all hoping to gain by attending.


img_5626There were so many take-aways from this experience from project-tuning major school projects like “Innovation Wednesdays” & “Canada 150”, to speaking with students and exploring the campus, to reflecting on educational leadership and connecting with colleagues. This was truly a transformative professional development experience. For Handsworth staff, all of these take-aways were wrapped in the over-arching goal of increasing student engagement. Our first week back at Handsworth has already been influenced by our time away. Staff met this week to introduce a student leadership course to bring new student voice opportunities to our school and to help shape version 2.0 of Innovation Wednesdays. Our Canada 150 project has a small working group who will start drafting details for our staff. Each staff member who came on the experience had to commit to refining one piece of his or her practice, and for me it’s all about how I make student learning more visible. One of things I was reminded of while at HTH was that students raise their performance when they know their work is going to be public. It becomes less about the marks and more about the quality of the work itself. Look for me to be sharing more student work in the future via social media and in exhibitions around the school. Thanks to HTH and to SD44 for a wonderful experience.

Winter Residency at High Tech High

My First Slice of Raspberry Pi

My First Slice of Pi: Discovering Raspberry Pi with my Class

Raspberry Pi is an exceptionally small, inexpensive and simple computer used to help teach students about hardware and programming. My former principal first introduced it to me, suggesting that Pi might be a neat activity to try with one of my computer classes. Not knowing anything about, I started researching what it was all about.

What is Raspberry Pi?rpi2b

To quote Wikipedia, The Raspberry Pi is a series of credit card–sized single-board computers developed in the United Kingdom by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the intent to promote the teaching of basic computer science in schools and developing countries. 

How I Got Started

I decided that the curriculum of my Business Communications course, a precursor to senior programming classes, best fit the intent of Pi. Funds to purchase 16 Raspberry Pi 2, Ultimate Starter Edition, were generously provided through my school PAC, and my school administration.  I got 16 of them so I would have at least 1 for every 2 students, as well as one Pi as a teacher demo model. Not knowing anything about Raspberry Pi I began by watching a number of different YouTube videos on how to get started. There are countless videos out there, but here’s an example of one I watched:

Growing Pains

I took the opportunity on one of our professional development days to figure out how exactly to have my students dive into Pi. Here’s a summary of what I learned:

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 10.33.18 PM

Despite purchasing the “Ultimate Starter Kit” for my Pis, I didn’t have the proper adaptor to enable the Pi to be plugged into our Dell monitors. The Pi has a built in HDMI port, and an HDMI cable was included, but I had to also purchase HDMI to VGA converters so we could use our monitors. It also only came with only male-to-male breadboard jumper wires. A few of the projects students found online later required the use of male-to-female wires that we didn’t have. My first lesson was to never assume all the hardware needed will be included! There are always additional costs to consider.

I spent a considerable about of time learning about how to format the SD card and download the NOOBs (New Out Of the Box operating System). Because I don’t have the proper administrative privileges on our school computers, I had to request that our district IT team install special formatting software on a few of the computers. I only realized later that because I had ordered the Ultimate Starter Kit that the SD cards included already have NOOBs on them.

My first time turning the Pi on was anticlimactic. I had the monitor, USB mouse and keyboard, Ethernet cable, and power plugged in, but nothing appeared to be working. I realized after that I had to have the power cord plugged in last, not first. I unplugged everything and plugged it all in again, attaching the power last, and it finally fired up!

Starting with Students

First Lesson

My first “lesson” with the students was spent looking at the different components of the Pi. After all, one of the great educational aspects of the Pi is the opportunity to identify different hardware pieces. Next we had to insert the mini SD card and install the operating system Raspbian and Scratch. In order to do this we had to start attaching some peripheral hardware to interact with the Pi. This involved taking all the mice, keyboards and monitors from our classroom computers and plugging them into the Pi. This was tough because everything is tied together so securely for fear of theft that some of the cables were difficult to access. Installing the operating system took about 25 minutes, but because the students were in pairs I could have them shift to another computer to continue working on another class project. At the same time we were also working our way through Codecademy, so I had them work on that. Providing sufficient time at the end of each class was important as it took some time to plug all the mice, keyboards and monitors in again and ensure they were working properly for the next class.

Second Lesson

When in doubt, read the instructions. The students and myself were both a little mystified when we were asked for a username and password during the next book up, even though we had never previously set one up. Thankfully in the accompanying instruction manual we found that the username was ‘pi’ and the password ‘raspberry’.

During the second lesson we made sure everyone had installed the operating system properly. It took some time to set up the devices again with the monitors and other peripherals but once we were all booted up the students finally had a chance to start interacting with the device. From the main menu there are basically 2 options – you can go to the command line Raspbian or to a program called Scratch, which is a free visual programming language. If you go to the command line and type in “startx” the Pi launges a graphic user interface which has a few other programs you can easily access, including a version of the popular game Minecraft.

During this class, students familiarized themselves with the boot up process, and how to access some of the different programs both through scratch and the GUI. Students who were comfortable with the interface could go and try out the Scratch website also, which has a great tutorial.

Third Lesson

During lesson three we began looking at Raspberry Pi projects that the students could try out. has a bunch of neat simple projects as options, but there are many other more sophisticated ones to be found on the web.

Because we had a breadboard included in the kit, I printed off instructions for students to do some simple breadboard – LED activities. As previously mentioned, all the wires we were given were male-to-male, so I had to also order a bundle of male to female wires off amazon for $10. Students were encouraged to do a more ambitious project if they wanted.

IMG_0032A friend of mine had taken a Raspberry Pi and turned it into a Super Nintendo simulator. I brought that into the class and plugged it in for the kids to see. It’s one thing to tell them what they can do, but being able to show them a finished product was even cooler. This inspired some students to research how to make one themselves. Because some projects that were larger may have needed students to buy other peripheral hardware like controllers, I provided an added incentive saying that if anyone came up with a substantial project that required some personal investment on their part, that they could take the Raspberry Pi home permanently when they were done their project.

Work on their projects consumed our third and fourth lessons.


One of the biggest questions I got was “How are we going to be marked on this?” Lesson 5 was spent addressing assessment. Although the formative assessment that was ongoing throughout the project classes was also remarkably evident. Students with a more proficient skill set had the opportunity throughout the lessons to provide peer support… and I even noticed some scaffolding of their classmates learning!

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 10.41.34 PMDuring lesson 5, students were required to do a reflection and discuss to what extent were they successful in completing the project they set out to do. They were asked what they learned and what they’d do differently.

My Own Reflection

As a type A teacher, a complete lack of instructional structure was a bit terrifying, but with the recent push for more personalized and project based learning, I thought this experience represented an excellent opportunity to loosen the reins a bit.

The next time I do this project, I’d like to have more self-paced mini-projects to provide the students, so those with few ideas can at least feel like they did something substantial with it. I feel like some students viewed the projects daunting despite their apparent ease. I’d have more wires etc. so the class would be less limited by the hardware constraints.

Providing a working example of a successful video game emulator really captured the students’ attention. If I have access to the same system next time, I’ll certainly be sure to make use of it again.

The administrative privileges on our computers make it incredibly difficult or impossible to download or install anything. We needed to download and install different card images on the SD cards depending on the project the students wanted to do, but couldn’t because we didn’t have the necessary permissions. There was a program we needed to use to reimage the cards, but we weren’t able to download it. I tried to download it onto my school laptop, but the same restrictions were in place. That was probably the most frustrating part of the experience and one that is common to many projects we try and do with technology.

I think it’s important to always try new things. Failure is okay. Some of the students I know have been inspired to try and do bigger and better things with the Pi on their own time / during lunch hours, which I think is great and has to be considered a success. 5 lessons as an introduction were perfect for this year and I hope to be able to build on this ‘first slice of Pi’ with my new understanding of the device in the years to come.

My First Slice of Raspberry Pi