Beyond Trinkets: How MakerEd and Community connect.

I love to take on big projects with my students. A part of this is knowing that I won’t have all the answers to the questions that come up along the way. I often admit when, “I don’t know,” and working with students to figure it out so we’re all better by the end. It has been this learning with students that has allowed me to become comfortable using 3D printers with my 5th graders. It is often assumed that 3D printers in elementary schools are just for printing trinkets; simple objects that have no meaningful value or purpose. Recently I’ve had the chance to witness otherwise.

20190410_201414.jpgThis past December, I agreed to take part in a project that would become the most community-involved in-school project that I’ve been a part of. A colleague from Brilliant Labs, Sarah Ryan, suggested I work with her on a project in conjunction with the Neil Squire Society; an organization that works to empower people living with physical disabilities. Sarah proposed the idea of having the student’s design and 3D print assistive devices. I did some digging and found out that 3D printing assistive devices is at least 90% more cost effective than buying them commercially. For someone living with a condition such as arthritis, there are countless assistive devices that can make simple tasks easier, but they can be quite costly. The group Makers Making Change has a bank of pre-designed models that are open source and can be 3D printed at a very little cost. I have two classroom 3D printers that I was awarded through the GE Additive program, and my 5th graders have become very comfortable designing things in Maker’s Empire and TinkerCAD through a project where we designed, printed, and sold holiday ornaments to raise money for our local children’s hospital. But this idea was so much more than a 3D printing project.

Deep Learning

The “4Cs” has been a popular phrase in education for years, recognizing the importance of teaching and allowing the practice of collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity. I believe it is through these “soft skills” that students develop love of learning.6cs-of-education-credit-sylvia-duckworth

Earlier this school year I was invited to take part in a pilot project in my district to explore and implement the ideas of Michael Fullan as outlined in his program, New Pedagogies for Deep Learning. Fullan adds to the 4Cs to include two more: citizenship and character education. Fullan suggests stretching empathy and kindness outside the classroom walls to connect with the community, and how this should be a fundamental aspect of learning. The idea is to emotionally connect students to what they are learning and fill them with purpose. There are countless success stories following his model around the world, it’s worth checking out!

Project overview & curriculum connections (Nova Scotia curriculum):

  • Grade 5 human body systems
    • Students will learn about a physical condition/disease/disability that affects one or more body systems.
  • ELA: Speaking and Listening
    • Guest speakers, Google Hangouts with students in other schools, or even email correspondence with people that are living with these conditions
  • ELA: Writing
    • Creating a website to share their product, and to share what they learned.
  • Math: measurement, geometry, computational thinking
    • Working with a partner, build a working prototype for an assistive device that will be given to someone living with the condition (when possible).
  • Information & Communications Technology (leveraging technology, & 6Cs)
    • Tool usage would be left wide open: 3D modeling, electronics, coding or any physical materials that met the needs of the project.

Community Connections

During the two weeks we were learning about a variety of physical conditions and we had numerous guests in the classroom. Parent visitors discussed cystic fibrosis and cerebral palsy, a student’s family friend came in to teach us about daily life with rheumatoid arthritis, a representative from the Canadian Arthritis Society,  and I arranged 2 Google Hangout with colleagues at different schools so we could meet their students and find out what kind of devices could help them in their daily lives.

I wanted each group’s project to have a person in mind; they weren’t just going to make this for anyone, they were making it for someone they have met! As students moved into the research phase, we invited representatives from Brilliant Labs and The Neil Squire Society to help us launch into our prototyping. They showed us more examples of devices that are helpful to people living with specific conditions and we used this as a springboard and inspiration into our own designs.

As expected, the variety of projects was wide and personal. Students had their parents and grandparents in mind when designing. Several made devices for people with arthritis, or for the students we met via Google Hangout.


Final Products

I love maker projects like this because students get to practice the mindset that things can be improved through feedback and trial & error. One group 3D printed a pencil grip design 6+ times to get it right. After all, the goal wasn’t just to make a device, it was to make a device that someone in our community could actually use! In the end, we had several devices for holding pencils and markers, a video, fidgets, a cane (3D printed in segments), utensil grips, grocery bag hooks, key holders, a medicine storage container, and even a Micro Bit proximity sensor to keep someone with vision impairment safe from hazardous areas such as the top of stairs. These 10 and 11-year-olds were learning grade level curriculum that had a greater purpose than anything I’ve ever been a part of before

We sent prototypes to students and adults in our community and beyond. For the students to hear back about how their device was being used was very powerful. We received photos of them in use and letters of gratitude. It was a great way for the kids to see the impact of their work.


Looking Back

Screenshot 2019-05-05 at 10.22.56 PMI felt throughout the project that what we were doing was valuable and time well spent. However, it wasn’t until a representative from my district office came to interview the students about their projects and I heard them explain to someone else how they felt about their work that I really understood how the layer of citizenship added a depth to the learning that I don’t think I could have achieved in another way. They fully understood what the project was intended to achieve.

When I think back to my own experience in elementary school, the things I remember most were things that I made. A log cabin diorama and a science fair project about recycling are the first things that come to mind. I think this will be one of those projects that students will remember and be proud of for a long time.




“Hey Google, how can I use Google Home in my Classroom?”


Like many people, I couldn’t resist the half price Black Friday sale on the Google Home Mini. I have a Google Home in my living room, and it’s not only a great speaker (I’m a Google Play Music subscriber), but also very convenient to have the Google Assistant available! I recently listened to a podcast by Vicki Davis about using Amazon Alexa in the classroom. It was great to hear that this is already starting to catch on! But what would it look like in my grade 4/5 class?

Getting Started:

As of January 2018, Google Home isn’t compatible with G-Suite accounts. This means it needs to be linked to a regular gmail email address to work. I decided I didn’t want to have it linked to my personal email, so I created a new gmail account that I would use specifically for use with Google Home in the classroom. I have considered the possible issues with privacy involving these devices, and in my option, since it is not sharing any student personal data, identifying information or photos, it doesn’t seem to be violating any of the privacy acts that are used in my province. Using the Google Home app on my phone, it was easy to set it up using my school’s secure wifi network.

Introducing it to Students:

Each morning my class meets in a morning circle. We share how were feeling and I give a prompt for students to think/pair/share. I used this reduced-distraction meeting to talk about what students already know about these devices and artificial intelligence generally. Of course, a few have them at home, or at least use Siri or Google Assistant on an Android device. I revealed that I had one for use to try, and this led to a great conversation about how it could help us in the classroom! I shared my vision about how it could be used to answer simple fact-based questions that students have, and how this would free me up to have more time to give feedback and have conversations with students about their work.  Some examples we came up with for our Google Assistant for included:

Google Home command poster
Our poster after the first discussion

Hey Google…

  • How do you spell…
  • Define…
  • What is a…
  • What is the sum/product/difference/quotient of ____ and ______

But there must be more it can do than answer simple questions! Over the first day, students had more great suggestions for uses in class:

  • A student could be in charge of being the DJ and choosing music to listen to at appropriate times.
  • Set voice reminders so we weren’t late for gym, or so we don’t forget to write in our agendas (it happens more often than I’d like to admit).
  • “Hey Google, let’s play Mystery Animal” is a great way to fill 5 minutes with a meaningful and fun task. Google is a bit snarky in the game. The students love it!
  • Setting a timer for things like read aloud since it’s so easy to lose track of time.
  • Getting the current temperature before going to recess.

The Difficulties:

Like any new tools, there are always things that don’t go well. I am confident that we will get past these challenges, but for now there are still lots of reminders. Here are some things that we’re still working on:

  1. You don’t have to yell: The microphone is great in the Google Home Mini. It can understand what you are saying well even with some background noise. Some students think they need to put their mouth right up to it, while others just shout from their seat (which is obviously quite distracting to others). We have moved the position of the Mini twice. Now it is on the center wall at the back of the room (near my desk, but not too close to other seats) and it is wall mounted using a 3D printed mount I found on Thingiverse. We model and practice properly speaking to it.
  2. It is distracting to others, so leave the volume as it is. So far keeping the volume at 4 while we are talking to it, and at 6 when listening to music seems to be the magic numbers. The first day a few students thought it was funny to tell it to turn the volume to 100%. Luckily, students are quick to let their classmates know when they are abusing it, and remind them of our guidelines–it means more coming from their peers than from me!
  3. Yes, it can tell jokes, but during an independent work period isn’t the time for it. In line waiting to be called to the gym? Perfect! After the room is tidy and we’re getting ready to go home:? Why not!
  4. My 2 and 6 year olds both do it at home, and the students do it in class–When someone says, “Hey Google…” It seems to be an invitation for others to interrupt and say something else to the device. It’s not even just one person, if someone starts to ask it for something, there is a good chance 2-3 people will start shouting something else at it, and then no one gets what they need from it. Like a playground full of kids and 1 swing, they’ll get used to taking turns.

What’s Next:

Screenshot 2018-01-06 at 10.25.40 AM

I’m hopeful that Google and third party companies continue developing more classroom centered software for the Google Home. This has begun at There are 5 listed so far, including a Google Docs add-on called Story Speaker that lets you write a “choose your own adventure” type story in Docs and for others to experience on Google Home as it reads your story aloud. I haven’t tried it with students yet, but I can think of a few students that I know are going to take off with it during free writes. The Meme Buddy experiment could also be used in class. The Google Teacher Tribe Podcast recently had some ideas around students creating memes to demonstrate understanding and learning, this is just another way for students to get creative!


This HAS to be just the start. More apps and add-ons will be made that can be utilized for engaging learning activities. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

Printing Kindness: How a 3D printing project united my class

The Results:

We held a Make Sale at our school’s Christmas concert! We sold over 200 student-made 3D-printed and Perler bead ornaments with all proceeds donated to the local children’s hospital, the IWK Health Centre. We earned $347 for the hospital!

How We Got There:

Last year I received a few grants that allowed me to buy a SeeMeCNC Orion Delta 3D printer (Thank you to the NSTU & Brilliant Labs). It was new to both me and my students. As anyone that has tried 3D printing can contest, there is a pretty big learning curve for teachers–more so than there is for the students! Admittedly, I spent many hours learning how to use the printer properly. We completed several whole-class design projects including personalized keychains, Sphero accessories, and free-choice designs. My students loved having the printer in our classroom and many even designed items at home using TinkerCAD to print at school. Despite this, I knew I hadn’t yet found the best way to make this a meaningful tool in my classroom. The set up that I established had two main flaws:

  • It was teacher centered: I was the person responsible for using the print software and keeping it printing.
  • Slow turn around: with only one printer, we would be printing projects for 3-4 days to get the student’s items printed!

In August of 2017 I found out I was accepted to take part in the GE Additive program–a grant program for teachers that was providing over 400 schools around the world with a kit including two 3D printers, plenty of filament, curriculum linked materials and access to Polar Cloud 3D print software and several connected design apps.  This package introduced me to tools that allowed me to solve my main issues from the year before. With the web-based Polar Cloud software, students have access from any device to slice and queue print jobs, and I don’t have to do a thing! The Polar Cloud is synced with all 3 of my printers, so we can now get student projects printed MUCH faster.

Inspired by a friend in Kingston, Nova Scotia (Nick Baskwill), I decided to follow his lead and have my students design and print Christmas ornaments as our main launch into 3D design. We started designing using TinkerCAD. Nick and I even arranged for small groups from our classes to have a Google Hangout so his students could teach mine how to make a Christmas tree in TinkerCAD, it was awesome! But like any tool, TinkerCAD wasn’t ideal for some of my students. At first, students struggled with tasks such as resizing shapes to scale and positioning objects. I decided to try Maker’s Empire, one of the apps recommended by the GE Additive program.

If you haven’t tinkered with Maker’s Empire, it’s an app for iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows that is designed specifically for K-8 students. The app is gamified to increase student engagement–they receive points for completing design challenges and trying new tools. Like the Lego Life app, students can post their designs for other users to view and leave comments. My students were immediately drawn to this app that was designed for kids more than TinkerCAD. The teacher dashboard is also very useful, and student’s work is automatically sent to the Polar Cloud for easy slicing and printing.

We were planning to design flat ornaments, so the “flat shapes” library in Maker Empire’s Shaper tool was a perfect fit for our needs. In the Blocker tool, students can create models that feel like designing in MineCraft. We had a few block Christmas trees for sale that were a big hit! I had several things I was actively trying to achieve:

  • We had print software that was student driven
  • We had three printers to ensure I could keep up with the print queue.
  • We had multiple design tool options to allow students choice in how they created
  • Students felt excited to create because we had a meaningful purpose and audience.

I had most students interested and invested, but this was a class project so I needed everyone on board!  So what was missing? What was I overlooking? Although I had given a choice in digital design software, I had neglected to offer choice of medium. Some students aren’t interested in designing 3D models and mass producing their designs. I needed to have options for students to create that preferred to work with their hands. Enter: Perler Beads!


Screenshot 2017-12-27 at 9.04.14 PM
I picked up a bucket of Perler Beads at Ikea the week before with the intention of using them as an art lesson, but this seemed perfect. For the next 4 art classes, our classroom was run like a makerspace. There were always different activities happening in each pocket of the room. TinkerCAD, Maker’s Empire, monitoring the printers, Perler beads, stringing ornaments, making displays (our MakeDo cardboard construction tools came in handy for this), all while singing along to our favourite Christmas songs!

As the event came closer, we focused on sharing our project with the school and community. Some students made posters while others wrote scripts to inform other classes about what we’ve been doing. A group even wrote the notice that was sent home so parents would know to bring some change. After debating prices, we decided that we would sell our ornaments as free will donation. No limit on how many ornaments you can take, no minimum cost to buy. Since GE Additive supplied us with filament, we had $0 in overhead costs! We didn’t need to worry about making “at least” any certain amount. We could provide work we were proud of and share it with the community for whatever they could give. The holidays are a hard time of year for many of us, and we wanted to respect that.

Our sale in progress.

We set up a table in the hall outside the gym with our Flashforge Inventor II (my favourite printer) printing an oversized version of an ornament designed by one of my students. We had more than 200 ornaments ready to sell and a schedule of students ready to get us through the day. But we overlooked a key piece of information! Parents coming to the concert were more worried about getting an awesome seat for the concert than buying Christmas ornaments! Going into the concert, we had barely made any sales. As predicted, we were getting a wide range of donations. The first donation of the day was $10, and the second was $0.10. After the concert that was our busiest time! My students were smiling ear to ear as excited adults and kids surrounded the table to buy ornaments. It was a very powerful moment for my students! I’m so glad I was able to be there to see it. The project gave us a mutual goal to work towards, and the class worked so hard to make it a great success.

When we presented the IWK with our cheque, they gave us this jumbo cheque to keep. It’s a great reminder of our accomplishment.
A few week before the sale I read a blog post linked from Twitter by Tom Murray called “No. Your 3D Printer Does Not Make You Innovative.” Basically, Murray outlines four different ways 3D printers are used (and not used) in schools. I feel like if Tom came into my class within the last two months, we would fall into his MVP Printer category; “MVP Printers being used in schools are worth every penny. They are viewed as a conduit for learning, not as the learning experience itself.” The challenge will be to keep it that way.

#IMMOOC Reflection Week 2


As much as a love to think that these are all important characteristics for teachers (they are), I feel like these are all traits I would love to help develop in my students as well!

In some cases, developing one of these could lead to others. For me, it was becoming #4: Networked that led me to taking more risks and becoming more reflective. Seeing what others are doing on my Twitter PLN drives me everyday to try new things and do what is best for the learners in front of me. Influential educators like John Spencer, Alice Keeler, and George Couros always give me big ideas to think about and keep challenging ideas I believe to be true about my practice. It’s the best!

Finding opportunities for innovation in my teaching feels natural. . I don’t have a binder that is filled with perfect lessons from the perfect year I just had, so to repeat things I’ve done before seems illogical. Each year I take skeletons of what I did the year before and iterate and attempt to improve what I able to achieve with my students in the past. Nothing ever goes PERFECTLY, so there is no reason to do it the same as I did it the year before. These attempts to improve and taking on new angles to how I’ve done things in the past is how I bring innovation into my teaching.

#IMMOOC Week 1 Reflections

This fall I’m taking part in #IMMOOC: an online course and book study for The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros. I’m hoping to blog weekly and take part in the virtual discussions!


I love the idea of modeling my reflections. I often ask my students to share their thinking in writing, so it only seems fair that I should do the same! I have made efforts in the past to do this on a consistent basis, but it never pans out. I’d love to post some writing on a weekly basis–I think it would help me clarify things for myself, as well as improve my own writing skills. So thank you #IMMOOC for the push!

Innovation has been an important part of my teaching philosophy since before I even used the word to describe my outlook on education. I love trying new things, and my students become used to being guinea pigs pretty quickly each year. But just trying new things isn’t “innovation.” When I think of innovative teaching (in addition to new), it needs to make the learning process better in some way. Sometimes this can be in terms of how my students enjoy learning, while other times it is more about the depth of the learning that occurs. From Breakout EDU to passion projects, I am willing to try new things not because they sound cool, but because I believe the tool or practice has potential to improve learning, or make my class a better place to be five days a week for both my students.
If for no other reason, the best thing that comes from attempting to be innovative is that my students see me modeling a practice that I expect from them everyday: risk taking. September always remind me how far students grow over a year. Thinking about my class last June, I could throw anything at them and they would try it, iterate through it, and whether it was awesome or bombed they would respect the process of trying new things. A fresh crew in September is a different story. I continue to model my own attempts, failure, and reflections. I give my students various opportunities to take risks themselves so they can develop personal growth mindsets, a class culture we can all be proud of, and resilience to be successful and try more new things throughout the year.
Tomorrow is October 1st already! This coming month will be filled with more chances to help my students feel innovative in their learning. The Cardboard Challenge, our first Mystery Skype, learning to apply coding, and (don’t tell them yet) 3d printing! These are all outlets for us to apply our learning from across the curriculum in meaningful and innovative ways.

Virtual Reality and Learning

In the spring of 2015 I was accepted to beta test a new app from Google before it’s general release. It’s title was Expeditions and it would allow me (as a classroom teacher) to curate virtual field trips to hundreds of destinations around the world without having to leave my classroom. I downloaded the app on my phone and tablet at home and I was amazed by it’s potential–if I was having so much fun with it myself, I knew my students would be drawn in just as quickly!

Here in Nova Scotia, there are several options for teachers interested in applying for funding for innovative teaching methods in their classrooms. The most accessible is Brilliant Labs. Based in New Brunswick, this team of forward-thinkers has made STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, & math) materials accessible for teachers across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to motivate students to create and learn in meaningful ways.

Brilliant Labs funded my project and helped me purchase five Asus Zenfone 2 and five Google Cardboard units to bring virtual reality to my students.

Jaws dropped. We could all see the potential for this as a learning tool right away. Software options have expanded dramatically over the past year, and now in 2017 many more uses for these Android phones have surfaced in my classroom. In addition to the 10+ VR apps installed, They are also used to code and control robots (Sphero, Dash & Dot, drones), to create worlds in Minecraft, as a translator for English language learners, and even to make stop-motion animation.

This past fall I discovered the web-tool that to me, is where VR in education needed to go. There are countless ways for students to consume VR content, but there hadn’t yet been an accessible way to create it. Then I discovered

Grade 5 students exploring for the first time.

CoSpaces is a website that allows users to easily create 3D environments. But it gets better! Students can use the CoSpaces app on a phone and a VR headset and visit and explore the world they created! They can walk (or fly) around inside their own creation! They recently added options for Blockly coding integration (check out an example here). Here in Nova Scotia, coding is a part of our curriculum. Students learn and apply coding in the classroom. Using CoSpaces, students can create a world and use coding to create objects and characters that their audience can interact with. This means that a student could build a 3D virtual diorama of Ancient Egypt, and code it to (verbally or in text) share information about how the pyramid was built, it’s materials, area, weight, etc. Check out their blog about student created exhibits. Students can make it completely interactive with sounds, movement, text, and narration. So often we use technology in schools for consuming content. The STEAM education movement turns our students into content creators!

I teach in a classroom that has 1-to-1 Chromebooks. I see everyday how well planned lessons and projects can motivate and engage students in meaningful learning activities that they get excited about! The generous contribution of Brilliant Labs to bring VR into my classroom has sparked interest and empowerment for my students using this exciting technology. They feel like they are videogame designers!

We will undoubtedly see more applications for VR over the next few years. How do you see VR evolving in terms of its classroom accessibility and applications?

Reflections on my first year with 1-to-1 Chromebooks

Technology has always played an important role in my classroom. Early on in my career I knew that using tech as a tool for learning was a way for students to find increased engagement in their learning activities. Since my first year teaching (10 short years ago), my class has always been tech leaders in whatever school I am working with. We show other classes how to use tools and how they benefit our learning. This is great for the students, but also for teachers to see that the students can take leadership in using technology–the teacher doesn’t have to be the one with all the answers and skills!

In the spring of 2015 I heard about a funding opportunity through my teacher’s union. They have a fund of $200 000 per year to support innovative teaching projects across our province. I was lucky enough to have my project funded! My project involved having my students write blogs. The goal of the project was to see if writing for a wider audience would increase my student’s desire to produce higher quality work since it would be read by more people, and others could comment on their work. In addition to students being more open to making edits and revisions, I also found that students were more willing to write generally. Students that used to complain about writing in class and being asked to make changes were much more willing to do so when writing on a laptop. This creates a new question: were my students more willing to write because of audience, or because they could use a computer?

IMG_20160820_125932I decided to buy the computers from a private company as opposed to buying them from my school board. The perks of buying from the board would have been that the Chromebooks come with a 3-year warranty and would be administrated by our Google Apps Administrator (more security for theft, etc). However, when I read about about the Lenovo N21 Chromebook, I couldn’t get past the benefits that this model would provide.

IMG_20160820_130033It is perfect for the classroom! It has a built in handle to carry it, it’s impact resistance has allowed for countless bumps and drops without any damage. On at least a dozen occasions a computer has hit the floor. There are always a few gasps and the room falls silent. I walk over (typically greeted by either excuses or apologies, depending on the student). IMG_20160820_130017We pick up the computer, check that it works, snap the plastic back into place if needed and we were back on track! Another feature that we love is that the camera swivels around to front facing. This has been a great way to take photos of student work, to take pictures of books during research (so Read&Write can read it out loud), and for creating stop motion animations!

Screenshot 2016-08-18 at 10.16.24 PM.pngWhen you have something this big and exciting to reveal, you have to play a BreakoutEDU game to unlock it!

The biggest shift my my planning for 1-to-1 has been using Google Classroom. It has allowed me to offer my students written instructions for tasks that they can refer to anytime. Screenshot 2016-08-18 at 10.07.57 PM.pngAnother great byproduct of this is that I am able to teach nearly paperless. If I want students to read a text, I don’t photocopy 25 pages, I snap a photo of the page with my phone and added it to our Google Classroom feed! It is there for their referenScreenshot 2016-08-18 at 10.10.55 PM.pngce for the rest of the year, and it’s saved to their Drive until they delete it. If you are using Google Classroom, be sure to pick up Alice Keeler and Libbi Miller’s 50 Things to do With Google Classroom, and 50 Things to Go Further with Google Classroom. Both are fantastic resources to help find ways to get past using it to handout worksheets. Assigning and collecting entry tasks, exit slips, videos, google forms, collaborative documents, etc.  I look forward to discovering ways that Classroom will help me facilitate a more student-led classroom this year. New updates for the fall of 2016 include parent digest options, and teacher’s can hand-write and highlight student work from the Classroom app!

In any classroom, if a student needs a pencil sharpener, they take it out and use it. When they need to refer to a book, they take out and read it. I wanted it to become normal that students could take out their computer when they needed it just like any other learning tool in the classroom. This took a lot of pre-teaching, lessons around choosing the right tool for the job, and most importantly, trust. Near the end of second term I was comfortable to say this goal was reached. It wasn’t easy! It was very common to see students using a variety of tools depending on their task and their needs.

IMG_20160211_133609Students collaborating with group of students an hour away via Google Hangout to complete a Digital Breakout EDU challenge.

I look forward to applying everything I learned about 1-to-1 teaching last year and using it with a new school and group of students. I know that I’m helping to reach more learning needs in my classroom through the use of laptops and I can’t wait to find more challenges to overcome with this relatively new teaching style in upper elementary!


Student Led Learning

Over the past 2 years I’ve been taking steps to change my role in the classroom. Like most teachers, for years I have seen the classroom as mine–“This is Mr. Hennigar’s Classroom,” “You are my students,” Do your best for me.” This line of thinking is what is known as “teacher-centred.” In classrooms like this, the teacher is the centre of attention. The teacher is the owner of knowledge and decides when and how the students need and receive new information. How self-centred of me to view my role like this for so long! To me, the shift comes down to a reminder: I do this job not so I can teach, but so I can empower the students in my class to become life-long independent learners.

Last summer I discovered Dave Burgess’s book Teach LikScreenshot 2016-08-09 at 4.58.37 PMe A Pirate. It’s loaded with great ideas for turning lessons into experiences. Dave challenges his readers to ask themselves important questions such as: if students had to pay a $1 to attend your class, would they come? He also offers 30 hooks intended to elevate teacher’s lessons and engage students in the delivery of the curriculum content. This fantastic read led me to the second book released in the “____ Like a Pirate” series: Learn Like A Pirate by Paul Solarz. Like me, Paul teaches grade 5. Unlike me, Paul has mastered the art of student-led teaching! In Paul’s class, students independently manage many of the day-to-day events and rely on each other as experts rather than seeing Mr. Solarz as the only source of knowledge. What a powerful message! Reading this book last summer, my jaw was dropped for “ah-ha!” moments more than any other book about teaching that I have read. For example, if a student was being bossy during group work (before reading this book) I would pull that student aside to to talk about their choices and explain how their tone and words are affecting others. Not terrible, but Paul takes a different approach. He would pull the student aside and thank them for taking the risk to lead the group–What a shift in thinking! He would then take the opportunity to give meaningful feedback about how the student can more effectively lead the group. The book is loaded with examples of this type of focus-shift to help students learn how to accept feedback from other students, work collaboratively without teacher intervention, and to follow their passions as learners.

I already include many aspects of Paul’s book in my teaching:

  • project-based learning
  • collaborative learning
  • improvement focus vs. grade focus (last year I only talked about grade when it was report card time, and that was only to remind students that grades aren’t important! My message is that their growth is what they need to be thinking about, not their grade).

For me, I want to focus on consciously changing the following areas of my practice:

  • offering students more control in the classroom and less teacher intervention (more chances for students to lead). INCLUDING allowing students to interrupt the class to ask a question, share things they have learned, or reminding the class of upcoming transitions.
  • turning passive activities into more active learning activities.
  • Teaching through simulations (giving our learning a narrative)

From the first day, I want my students to know that we are a group of teachers, and a group of learners. We all have the same roles to play! More updates to come. In the meantime, I hope to see you on the #learnLAP twitter chats Monday nights!


Blog Goal for Next Post: To be more concise and giving more classroom examples.



BreakoutEDU: More Than Just a Game

It was the summer of 2015 when I first heard rumblings about BreakoutEDU on twitter. At the time there was no more than 4 games posted on the official site and celebrations for the sales of beta kits was still in the dozens (now thousands). After watching the short introduction video by James Sanders and his team, I had knew this was going to be big.

The main idea is that you turn your classroom into an escape room. The teacher becomes the gamemaster and students have 45 minutes to complete a series of puzzles, clues, and various other tasks in order to open the breakout box and win the game. The focus is on collaboration, teamwork, and (most important to me) grit. It isn’t always clear in a breakout game what you have to do next. Participants will fail many times, and like in life, that needs to be ok!  So often in school students come to a challenge and their first reaction is to put up their hand and ask what they are suppose to do. School has taught them failure is negative rather than that it is a step towards success. BreakoutEDU challenges this negative view towards failure and gives teachers a tool to help students practice perseverance.

Looking to do your first BreakoutEDU game with your class? Well step one is to gather the kit materials. You can purchase kits from, or you can take option B and buy each item separately yourself to create a DIY kit. $99 for a kit in the USA seems like a reasonable price, but here in Canada I saved over $50 by doing some shopping around. My kit cost about $110 Canadian dollars (currently sells for $159 on Of course now that I’ve become obsessed and see everyday items as potential clues for future games I’ve spent more. I think when you see the excitement and engagement that a breakout brings to your classroom, you’ll be willing to spend a little on a cool new lock as well!

I’ve run 4 breakout games with my class, and presented 2 sessions at a school board conference on innovative teaching practice. I’ve seen teams win and teams fail, but regardless of the outcomes participants always want to know and understand what they could have done differently, or what would have been next! Be sure to make time for a class discussion after the game! Have students reflect orally or in writing about their experience:

  • What clues were challenging?
  • When were you proud of yourself or someone else?
  • How did it feel when _____ happened?
  • Are you proud of how you interacted with your team during the game?
  • Can you offer advice to someone else that might play this game?
  • How did this game connect with what I’ve been learning in school?

These types of questions help students to make deeper meaning and connections to what they really learned by playing the game.

My first game was designed to reveal to my students that we had a class set of computers to use for the year. It was loosely based on Kern Kelley’s game, “The Candy Caper.” My purpose for the game was to focus on team building. Next I started from scratch and created a game to review curriculum content. Focusing on grade 5 number sense and operations in math, I created “The Mathematician’s Code.” The game has graduated from beta and is now on the games page of I’ve received great feedback from teachers all over North America that have enjoyed playing it with their classes.

I wanted to challenge myself to do something new with a breakout game. I didn’t want to review material that the students already knew, I wanted to see if students could learn something new through playing a game! The end result was The Riddler’s Room. A Batman themed game where students need to help rescue Batman from the Riddler. If they solve the Riddler’s clues they’ll create a chemical compound that will free Batman! The curriculum content focuses on physical and chemical changes/reactions in our “changes in matter” unit for science. Each box they open gives students an ingredient to complete a recipe as well as another clue to continue on in the game. It takes advantage of technology (specifically the Aurasma app) as well as physical puzzles and clues. I am very proud of this game, and I hope to submit it to the official BreakoutEDU site soon!

I suggest trying to find a few others teachers interested in trying breakouts to share the cost of your first kit. I know that once you see the powerful influence it can have on your teaching and student’s learning, you’ll be scouring for hours through the Sandbox of games to try! Learning the game inside and our is important for gamemasters! You’ll have to give students meaningful hints when they use their “hint cards.” Designing and setting up for a 1 hour activity takes what seems like countless hours… But remember: we didn’t become teachers because it was easy, now did we?




Mr. Hennigar’s Blog

If I’m going to be asking students to be risk takers and publish their ideas, work, and reflections, then I better do it myself as well!  My blog will focus on my professional learning. Most of this comes from working with students and challenging myself to try new things in class, but also from reading other blogs from great teachers and leaders.

Thanks for reading!