The Wonton Knowledge Cafe

Dustin Keller is guest blogger today at Learning the Now. He has been at John Oliver Secondary School for four years and is presently the Media Arts Director. I worked with Dustin as both his Principal and, way back, as his teacher colleague at Gladstone Secondary. He has been a huge part of the John Oliver technology initiatives and it was his persistence (and badgering) that ultimately led to my entry into blogging and the twitterverse.

Dustin is passionate about public art and is actively involved in curriculum writing and large community /school based projects. He is an outstanding educator who, on a daily basis, engages both students and fellow staff. In his brief time at John Oliver, he has established the Annual JO Film Festival, he has developed a plethora of multi-media and digital imaging classes and was instrumental in helping plan and design the John Oliver Learning Commons.

Dustin has one of the most eclectic teacher blogs in the Vancouver School District. He is, without a doubt, a 21st century Renaissance man and I count myself as blessed to be able to call him my friend.

Dustin’s post, The Wonton Knowledge Café, speaks to a very important point: If we’re serious about preparing students to be critical thinkers and innovators, we have to help them develop a new set of skills and fresh ways of thinking that they won’t acquire through textbook-driven instruction. And, most importantly, we have to create spaces in which this new normal can flourish.

Dustin’s story, poignantly drawing upon his own personal experiences, is a great example of how we, as reflective educators, can be innovators and in doing so empower our students to thrive in their changing world. The answers are all around us . . . we just have to ask the right questions (and Dustin does just that).

This is his blog post:

Part 1:

The Classroom…

Chances are you have been in a classroom very much like this one. Remember the pallid aesthetics of the room itself? A floor of yellowish linoleum, a ceiling of off-white 2×4′ fiber board tiles, a grid of square, aluminum windows which when broken were replaced with pieces of fogged plastic, and walls painted an off-beige so “off” that the beige has forgotten if the ‘e’ comes before the ‘i’.

Welcome to class…

RM #208 June 2012











When I was in elementary school, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by forest and within a ten minute run to a ocean. I was in the world and it was in me. As a learning disabled kid though, I sucked at ‘school’. . . but I loved learning.  I had many great teachers but one, Mr. D. Marriott, was brave enough to let me spend what seems now like a month of afternoons building dams in a small creek that ran near our school, under the guise of learning about turbine engines and hydro electricity.   In high-school I also had brave teachers who would not only let us ‘check in’ and then ‘check out’ of the building to work independently on various assignment, but would, when the warm weather came, take us outside and hold class under a tree.

I have very strong and fond memories of learning in non-school type environments: on walks, in gardens, in the homes of my classmates where their parents had shops or studios, and where we would go as class field trips. . . I loved these adventures.  I was allowed to get out of contrived settings and experience real things, walk through landscapes, listen to and talk about ideas.  I was able to experience things for myself and  ask questions that mattered to me.  I don’t remember being tested on any of these activities. . . In my mind testing was saved for classroom activities to make sure I was paying attention…

As a student I spent a lot of time day dreaming. . .

I still value day dreaming greatly for its ability to let the mind wander, in wonder, from 

an idea or thought sparked during a class and a connection made to something else.  An new inference, perspective or an authentic moment of satori.

I still value places which can spark learning.

As a learner amongst learners, I find myself constantly seeking out un-school-like environments during the school-day to hopefully ignite a creative thought within the minds of those students I serve. The Wonton Knowledge Cafe is an attempt to create a non-traditional space in a school where students can engage, share and create authentic content based on class curriculum and their own passions and interests. 

Part 2:

The task

My principal Gino Bondi, who has since left for a district position, let me conceptualize and furnish the above photo’d classroom into a high tech lab space.

Our building was slated to go wireless and I wanted to create a lab in which teachers and students mingled, shared space, shared ideas, shared tools, worked in groups (and alone), to produce independent student driven projects that they were genuinely interested in.  Then I saw the image of Rafa Nadal from an article, Wanted: Teachers, Coach or both, and thought, no. I do not want students to blindly follow me and learn my ‘moves’ nor do I want students to simply do what I ask of them.  I want students to do things because they want to do them.

not sure where this article came from…

If I really want students to be engaged in their own learning, try out the activities I am delivering and collaborate with others I want to create a space in which there is as little hierarchy as possible:  Teacher as waiter?

Part 3:

The Wonton Knowledge Cafe.

RM# 208 Sept 2012 The Wonton Knowledge Cafe.

I grew up in Vancouver in the early 70’s.  Whenever we dined out we would go to China town where food was inexpensive.  We would walk through the back alleys until we came upon a painted door – either Green, Black, or Red.  Each colored door indicated a different restaurant.  I do not remember any signage, just the old metal doors covered in paint.  They were heavy and when they opened steam and smoke wafted out and up. (I think I remember the Red door most prominently.)

Entering, we walked down wooden steps in to a large subterranean room, dimly light, filled with large round tables covered in white table cloths , lazy Susan’s, tea cups and pots, large oval dishes of food and bowls of white rice.  The loud sounds of Cantonese and chopsticks on china – I loved this!!!  Large families, or groups of people, ordering many dishes to be shared,  each person free to take what he, or she, wanted from each plate.  Teacher as waiter…  A metaphor for 21st century learning?

In the Wonton Knowledge Cafe there is no table for the teacher.  He, or she, mingles with students developing projects, talking over ideas, offering encouragement and discussing personalized solutions and directions for student created content.

The Wonton Knowledge Cafe is a place to facilitate project based learning.   Small pods of students have the opportunity to delve deep into their own inquiry, challenge themselves and access technology in  aesthetically innovative ways.  The main emphasis is on sophistication of thought as developed and manifested through the students own passion, engagement and motivation. They are each, individually, an item on the menu but together, in the Cafe, they make up the whole meal!

RM #208 September 2012

This year the Cafe is serving three blocks of Digital photography, a few more Multimedia courses and offers dim sum in the form of meetings and workshops for school and district staff. More importantly, our students love the space.  The teachers using it are enjoying it as well, although one has forbidden the students to refer to him as a waiter!

RM #208 September 2012

Welcome to class, on the menu today. . .