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Paul France

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My six-year old student asked me if he could make a QR code. Here's what I did.

Posted by Paul France

Jan 11, 2016 3:03:53 PM


“What about a QR code?” he said as he sat adjacent to me at our hexagonal tables.  He continued to look at me tentatively, almost as if he had said the “wrong” answer. I’ve always been a painfully transparent person–the kind who wears his emotions on his sleeve–so he was probably responding to the blank stare on my face.

Well, how can I help him with that? I thought.

Simultaneously, however, I thought about the purpose of these projects on which we were about to embark.  They were about inspiration, about passion, and about challenging ourselves to do something interesting, to face failure head on and to develop the grit and persistence to work through it, to make mistakes with the understanding that it would be the only way we’d learn anything.

“Alright,” I replied to him. “I don’t know anything about that, but I’ll do what I can to help you. Where should we start?”

We got out his kan-ban board and began listing off some steps, the first of which would be to do some research on how QR codes work. It didn’t take long before we found a YouTube video that explained how to decode a QR code by hand. I noticed, too, that all it required was an excel sheet, much to my surprise.  He watched the entire video, start to finish, all twenty minutes of engineering and computer science jargon, much of which I’m sure went right over his head.


But nonetheless, he persisted, finishing the video. Together, we brainstormed some more steps, including learning how to use Google Sheets, and learning more about powers of two, which was, unbeknownst to me, something you need to know when making a QR code.  But that was the beauty of the entire process: while my student was learning a lot through experience, I was able to learn alongside him, modeling the grit, problem-solving, and persistence needed to accomplish something challenging in a really authentic way.

After that, I set him up on Google Sheets, helped him navigate some of the basic functions, and off he went.  He was filling in boxes for the anchors, counting squares and determining the appropriate sizes and areas of the different patterns, until he finally began working on the code itself.

And this was the part where I was absolutely blown away.

The message within the QR code consists of a zigzag pattern, each character of the intended message created by a combination of the powers of two that create an alphanumeric code within an 2-by-4 area of boxes.  Here’s an example from Wikipedia:

Project-based-learning3As you can see in this example, this QR code would direct the user to, due to the arrangement of the boxes and the encoded letters within each 2-by-4 rectangle.  My student created a different message, though–a much cuter one.


The first character within my student’s message was the letter “i.”  In order to do this, he had to first input his message length (8 characters, outlined in red) and then refer to a chart that provided the sums necessary to provide the desired outputs–in this case, 73 was the desired sum for the letter for “i” (outlined in blue).  Then, he had to fill in a combination of the 8 boxes that would then add up to 73 (64 + 8 + 1). He proceeded to do this until the entire message was filled in.

And then he ran into some trouble.

He noticed that the remainder of the QR code required some pretty complex mathematics in order to fill in the “error corrections,” something I knew he wasn’t ready for, and quite frankly, something I wasn’t prepared to teach.  But one of the values of my school, AltSchool, is leveraging the world around us, including experts, to help us learn the new things. So, in order to finish this, I called upon one of our incredible AltSchool engineers to help him get the error corrections into his QR code.

The ending result?  A working QR code, a sense of accomplishment, and a lifelong lesson about persistence, grit, failure, critical thinking, teamwork, leveraging others’ expertise, and the never-ending desire to pursue challenge in the interest of bettering ourselves, and of course, learning.

Be sure to scan the code.  It’s humbling how much work went into that teeny tiny message.

This was originally posted on InspirED

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Topics: School, Classroom Stories

Back-to-School-Night, Reimagined

Posted by Paul France

Sep 30, 2015 12:50:37 PM

(Originally posted on InspirED.)


Back-to-School Night has always been one of my favorite nights of the year. Everyone – educators, families, and students alike – are bright-eyed and excited for a new year. Parents buzz in, practically bursting with questions, admiring work on the walls, wanting to see more of what their child’s day actually is like. Ironically enough, on too many Back-to-School nights, parents leave with just the opposite. They don’t learn in the way that we want our children to learn. Instead, they sit, they listen, and they have little opportunity to actually interact with their child’s environment.

Fortunately, my team and I did something to change that last night.

Sure, we had 25 minutes of obligatory logistics. There are many things that parents need to know going into the school year, including communication norms and expectations, curriculum, and the general approach for the year. But this doesn’t have to be incredibly detailed or arduously long. Instead, it needs to be visually engaging, concise, and help parents to leave with a sense of confidence, excitement, and wonder about their child’s upcoming year in the classroom.


Our most exciting experience, though, was the part when the parents were actually able to step into the shoes of their children. Part of the AltSchool experience is the playlist – the set of activities that students are able to access on their own. In lower elementary, specifically, when starting the school year, this looks mostly like student-driven documentation, as students with their little fingers and developing minds, need a lot of guidance on how to simply turn the device on and take pictures. My team and I wanted to help provide this experience to parents first-hand, and so last night, we gave them the job of documenting their child’s work.


Each family opened up their child’s playlist, found the activity entitled “Explore Our Learning Space,” and proceeded to take pictures of student work and key areas of our classroom. Not only did this help families to construct their own mental model of our classroom, but it allowed them to see exactly what it’s like to be in their child’s shoes, to document their own work, and to learn in within the four walls of our classroom.

Even after the families were long gone from our classroom last night, a quiet energy still hung in the air, slowly dying with the twilight of the evening sky. Parents’ voices, bubbling with excitement as they left, still rang in my ears. And while I’m proud of our curriculum, our strong communication procedures, and exciting technology, I don’t think that’s why the families left so excited.

They left excited because they had context, they understood, and they could empathize with their child’s experience more than they ever possibly could before. With this new context, and with this reimagined Back-to-School Night, we set our classroom, our students, and our families up for an embodied experience – one that breaks down the barriers between home and school, one that increases common understanding of what learning should be, and one that helps them to understand their child and his or her experience, even better.

In my opinion, that’s what Back-to-School Night should feel like. And I’m proud to say… last night did.

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Topics: School, Classroom Stories, Parents

Going out into the real world...for real

Posted by Paul France

Sep 11, 2014 11:19:00 AM

PotteryBarn2School should be a part of the community, and community should be a part of the school. In fact, the whole purpose for education has arisen completely out of a need from the greater community. In order for a community to survive and thrive, educating its future citizens is of utmost importance.

But somehow, education has turned into a segmented good, something mass manufactured and prepackaged, only to be delivered within the confines of the four walls of a school.  So how does one solve this problem?  How does one make it so this reality is no longer so?

You go out into the community.  That’s how. And this doesn’t sound as impossible as one would think.  In fact, it’s way easier.

Yesterday, my class went to Pottery Barn.  Yup, you heard it right, the Pottery Barn.  Best and most free field trip ever.  Why you ask? To be inspired by the beautiful furniture and home decorations so that we may design our classroom.  Students bustled around with iPads and notebooks, taking pictures and sketching images of cabinets, chairs, and desks, bursting with ideas for classroom items.  We looked for shapes, uses for practical objects like lamps and pottery, and of course, beauty, so that our classroom may be a structured, practical, and beautiful place. Check out some of their sketches below.



Teachers fantasize over making learning truly real world, but they tend to leave out the most important component of the real world, and that is, well, the real world.  In fact, the word “real world” has become so much of a buzzword that it’s become all too easy to forget what the term actually means.  But when it comes down to actually honoring the idea of “real world experiences,” we cannot expect to fulfill this manifest within the four walls of the classroom.

The ability to learn resides within a student’s ability to see himself or herself within the curriculum.  Moreover, the manifest of becoming a lifelong learner can only truly be achieved if a child can see himself or herself in the greater world.  By going out into the community, and by giving students truly “real-world” experiences, we can help to empower kids to be resourceful and use the community as a place of constant growth and learning.

And to think… it’s as simple as going to Pottery Barn.

Paul France is one of our educators and featured bloggers on the AltSchool Hub. This article was originally published on his blog, InspirED


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Topics: Learning in the Community, Classroom Stories, InspirED with Paul France

When Dreams Come True

Posted by Paul France

Aug 21, 2014 1:15:00 PM

FortMasonThe following is a guest post from new teacher, Paul France

I arrived early last Friday, adhering to my normal morning routine of a cup of coffee and plain bagel (toasted, with butter) at Starbucks before beginning my day.  Lucky for me, there is a Starbucks very appropriately placed immediately next to my pristine new school.

It was about 7:00 in the morning, and I stood across the street, watching some of the workers putting finishing touches on things, moving out some tools, and examining their work.  And that’s when it hit me.

I’m opening a school. This is literally a dream come true.

Most teachers go into education with an overly optimistic hope of changing the world.  We believe that if we’re true to ourselves and always keeping kids’ best interests at the center of everything we do, we will make and impact and we’ll make a change.  Too often, though, these hopes don’t come to fruition, teachers succumb to systemic pressures, and they burn out, like a wavering candle flickering on a low wick, drowning in its own melting wax.

No teacher wants this to happen, though.  But it happens all too often.

I sat in my new classroom, before anyone else had arrived, admiring the open space, the blank walls, even the negative space, filled with the unknown possibility of what a new school year, a brand new school, and brand new students and families will bring to my life.  I felt the urge to do a million things, to start setting things up, to order more supplies–all of that stuff.

However, my teaching partner and I have agreed to change the way we set up our classroom this year. Instead of ordering all of the furniture and decorating the walls, we are starting with a blank slate.  It occurred to me recently how impossible and impractical it is to truly set up a space for kids without their input.  Learning is messy, learning is dynamic, and learning never takes on the same form that it did the day–or the year–before.

photo (9)This year, our students will be designing their own space through a variety of provocations, design thinking experiences, and pure experimentation.  They will be building the space in which they will learn and grow, hopefully, over the course of many years.  It’s my hope that this experience will not only invest them in our space and make them love coming to school, but also that it changes the way that they think about learning and its role in our every day lives.  And it is my hope that it will fuel my passion for what I do even more.

I think, above all else, I’ve realized through working in an office for the past month, that I need my students and their ideas to keep my fire burning, just as much as they need me for the same, which is why I am so excited to design a space with them, one that makes their ideas and their unique perspective on the world visible and tangible on the four walls of our classroom.  It will be a concrete display of one of the most foundational and rudimentary truths of what education is and should be: The art of teaching requires symbiotic relationships, where the constant exchange of ideas and passions promotes synthesis and mutual growth.  I’ve missed the art, I’ve missed the chaos, and I’ve missed the synergy that permeates the classroom.

And I can’t wait for this school year to start.

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Topics: AltSchool Fort Mason