Differentiation: Not Just for Students

I know what you’re thinking… I’m going to say differentiation should also be for teachers. And although that is very true, I’ve blogged about that before. This time I’m interested in thinking about how we should be differentiating for parents.

We spend a lot of time and effort making sure our students’ differences and perspectives are considered and honoured, but what about the diversity in the perspectives and preferences of the families we work with? If one size does not fit all for students, then perhaps one size should not fit all for the families either.

In the past week, getting ready for a new school year, I have had many thought-provoking conversations with colleagues about how we can better meet the unique needs of every family each family.

Here is what we have come up with so far:

Weekly Updates

Many of us send home weekly information and often get frustrated if it is not being read. When working with students we often say, “If they aren’t learning the way we’re teaching, then let’s teach the way they learn.” If we apply the same thinking to the families then if parents aren’t consuming the way we’re communicating, then maybe we should start communicating the way they’re consuming. This year I am trying out a system where I send home a weekly written blog post for families and also an YouTube video. That way parents who are comfortable with English and have time to read can gather information from the blog post and families who are unable/uncomfortable reading English or prefer watching videos can gather the same information from YouTube.  

Collecting Information about Students

Many of us like to get to know our students through the parents’ perspective either before the year starts or during the first weeks of school. Some of us send home a graphic organizer for parents to fill out, others request a letter from the parents, others use a Google Form with questions. Just like our students, I’m sure parents have preferred ways to share information with us. This year I shared my goal with the parents of my students – that I want to learn about their children through their eyes – but instead of mandating how, I offered three choices. I invited parents to come in and have a face-to-face meeting if they want to tell me about their child in person, or call me if they preferred to tell me over the phone, or to share electronically by filling out a survey on a Google Form.

Communication Logs

I have a colleague who used to have daily communication logs for all her students at her old school, but when she transferred to our school last year she let go of that practice since it wasn’t the norm at our school. Throughout the year she found that some parents were upset that there was not a daily communication log, so this year she was playing with the idea of reintroducing them into her teaching practice. Then we started to chat about the idea and realized maybe it doesn’t have to be all or none, maybe it could be optional based on the preference of the family. Now she is planning on offering this to all her families and seeing who is interested and who is not. For some families daily communication is essential. For other families daily communication is a nuisance. Why can’t we satisfy both groups? And those in between! Not only is she going to ask if her families are interested in a daily communication log, but she is also going to ask. how they would like to communicate. A notebook that goes back and forth… Google Sheet that is shared…. a phone call? Whatever works for that specific family.

Homework 

I used to assign mandatory homework and then get frustrated when students did not complete it and the families did not support it. This year I was planning on having a zero homework policy. Then I realized that it doesn’t have to be an either or… it can be a both and. If I as the teacher mandate homework for all my students, I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value their time after school for other activities and wish not to have homework. If I as the teacher outlaw homework I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value extended practice of the academic skills we explore in class. So this year I plan to conduct a collaborative inquiry into homework with my students, where we can gather and analyze diverse perspectives about homework (student, parent, teacher, administrator, research etc.) and then share our discoveries with the families. From there each family will be able to decide if they want homework for their son or daughter, why they want homework and how they want to approach homework.

So far, this approach has been very rewarding. I have received positive feedback from my families about the choices and options they have had. I hope I can continue to reflect and discover other options for family differentiation to help me work towards my goal of a more inclusive education experience for all involved.

How do you differentiate to meet the needs of your students’ families?

What other ways can you think of honouring families’ unique and diverse perspectives and preferences?

Teacher Spaces vs Student Spaces

Who is most important in the classroom? Who is the classroom designed for?

Obvious answer… the students!

But if you take a second look at a typical classroom, does the physical space and set-up point to the same answer?

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Teachers typically have a large spacious desk with multiple drawers, many of which that lock. 

Do students?

Teachers typically have a large, comfy, adjustable chair with wheels, 

Do students?

Teachers often have a private, locked cabinet for their personal possessions (bags, wallets, phones etc.).

Do students?

Teachers typically have a personalized corner of the classroom where they post pictures of their families, friends, old classes etc. 

Do students?

Arguably you could say that teachers spend more time in the classroom than students – that it is their home away from home and therefore they need more comfortable furniture. Arguably you could say that teachers have more to do than students and therefore need more space. Arguably you could say that teacher’s possessions are more valuable than students and therefore need to be locked up. I’m not sure I agree.

Students spend a large part of their day in their classroom and I’m sure if you asked them they would say it is also their home away from home. Students have SO much to do and organize in a day – multiple subject, assignments, binders, notebooks, projects – and I’m sure if you ask them they would say they would like more space. Students come to school with many valuable things, not only wallets, lunch money and phones, but also precious and sentimental toys, books and artifacts and I’m sure if you asked them they would like to be able to safely lock up their treasure.

So if we return to the original question – who is most important in the classroom – the large desk, comfy chair, extra space, personal photos, locked storage… it would seem like many teachers have a lot more comforts and luxuries than their students. Why is this the way it is? What does this reveal about how teachers and students are viewed in the school system? Does it have to be this way?

As a teacher, I wonder what it would be like to spend a year with a simple desk, a basic chair, an open cubby in the hallway and no personal pictures on the wall.

Maybe I will give it a try and find out… 

Noticing, naming and not allowing “ready-made knowledge” in the classroom

The first time I came across the term “ready-made knowledge” was when I read the following quote by Seymour Papert:

“The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge” – Papert

Ever since reading that quote I can’t get this notion of providing students with “ready-made knowledge” out of my head. It got me reflecting on my years in the classroom and I realized that like many teachers, I am guilt of providing my students with an endless supply of ready-made knowledge… and not much else. Worksheets, workbooks, textbooks, readers…. Knowledge that has been decontextualized, oversimplified and often sterilized.

Our students deserve better.

This notion of ready-made knowledge reminds me of a picture I came across recently on Twitter.

orange in packaging

Like selling peeled oranges in plastic containers, I am beginning to think that pre-packaging knowledge for students is silly, time-consuming and above all else – completely unnecessary.

This year I aim to shift my search for resources away from pre-packaged, made for school, sources of knowledge. This may have you nervously wondering “Then what will students use to learn?” To answer that I ask you in return (as I have asked myself while reflecting on this idea) “What do the rest of us use to learn?” Answer – tweets, YouTube videos, TedTalks, podcasts, news articles, blog posts, research journals, interviews, documentaries… and the list goes on.

So I’ve begun to curate a list of potential learning resources that could be helpful to support our Units of Inquiry this upcoming year. I started a Google Doc and listed the main concepts for our six UOIs and anytime I come across a tweet, a video, an article, or a podcast this summer that relates to one of our concepts I added a link to the doc. I will continue to do this throughout the year. This way when it comes time for a new UOI I will have a collection of sources of knowledge  to chose from that have not been ready-made for student consumption.

Here is what it looks like so far:

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Are these sources free of bias and error? Absolutely not! But that makes them even more valuable. They provide opportunities for discussions about critical thinking, critical literacy, perspective, sourcing, citations and the like. These are essential skills to be developed because these are the types of sources of knowledge students will be encountering in their real life that they will need to be able to decode, deconstruct, analyze and make informed decisions about… not worksheets and workbooks.

I look forward to letting go of years-worth collections of school-land learning resources and instead replacing them with the same sources of knowledge that people are exposed to in their daily lives. I also look forward to sharing this Google Doc with my students so they can add resources they come across during their inquires too!

What sources of ready-made knowledge have you used in your own teaching?

How do you avoid pre-packaged knowledge in your classroom?

What questions or suggestions do you have for me to stretch my thinking further?

Re-thinking “morning work”

How many adults wake up and start their day with a worksheet?

None that I know of.

Whether it is called “bell work” “morning work” or a “a daily warm up” lots of students begin their day by completing a worksheet, answering questions or a doing a pre-planned activity – all of which have been decided for them by the teacher.

Just check out Google or Pinterest to see all the different varieties:

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But how do people start their day in their ‘real world’?

I start my day by scrolling through my Twitter.

My husband starts his day by meditating.

My mother starts her day by doing a crossword puzzle.

My father starts his day by playing chess.

My best friend starts her day by working out.

My mother-in-law starts her day by reading.

My father-in-law starts his day checking sports scores.

All different. All valuable. All self-chosen.

Why can’t students start their school days like this? Why can’t students choose how they start their own school days? Perhaps if we allowed students to choose how to begin their school day we would not have to stand in the halls and count down from 10 and compel our students to enter the classroom. Perhaps they would want to enter because they are excited and happy to be at school and start their day. I know teachers have many administrative responsibilities at the beginning of the day like attendance and collecting field trip forms, so a 10 – 15 minute window of time is needed to ensure these responsibilities are met. But why are we dictating how students spend those first 10-15 minutes warming up to their day?

Next year I plan to have a discussion with my students about how humans start their days. I plan to share how my friends and family begin their days, and I hope my students will share how their friends and family begin their day. I hope we can use this to create a list of possibilities about how students might start their day and post it somewhere in our room. Then I plan to respect their freedom and choice over how they start their school day while I am competing my administrative responsibilities.

Imagine the learning that might happen….

Imagine the connections that might happen….

Imagine the skills that might be developed….

Imagine no longer needing to find, photocopy and mark “bell work”…

Forced feedback or found feedback?

Feedback.

One of the it words of education today and probably something most educators around the world seem to agree about – that feedback impacts learning. But I wonder if our obsession with feedback has us so focused on the potential impact of feedback, that we are forgetting to question the context and conditions of that feedback.

This tweet from @justintarte provoked my thinking about this:

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Are we forcing our feedback upon students or are we empowering students to own their learning and find feedback in order to help themselves grow and improve?

This got me thinking about training I received last year to become an instructional coach for teachers. The biggest takeaway from the course was that instructional coaching needed to be optional in order to be most effective. Teachers needed to seek out a coach by choice because feedback for their teaching was more powerful and impactful when it was something they were looking for on their own accord. Something done by them, not something done to them.

…gathered, not given.

…found, not forced.

This means the difference between a coach scheduling a meeting with a teacher and telling them “here is what you need to do in order to get better” and a teacher requesting a meeting with a coach and asking them “what can I do to get better?”

So if we acknowledge and protect that for adult-learners, why are we not doing the same for child-learners?

As teachers, are we scheduling a conference with students and telling them “here is what you need to do in order to get better” unsolicited? Or are we empowering students and creating conditions where students request conferences with teachers (and beyond)  so they can ask “what can I do to get better?”

If we believe that feedback is most effective when sought out by the learners themselves, the question for educators then needs to move away from “Are you giving your students feedback?” and towards “How are you empowering your students to understand the purpose and process of gathering feedback?”

Who should be writing the day plans?

In most classrooms, the writing of the day plans is a job done exclusively by the teacher. Each afternoon, after the students leave, teachers around the world sit at their desk and decide what their students should learn the next day and how their students are going to learn it.

In my opinion, handing over the writing of the day plants to our students is one of the best ways we as teachers can tap into student voice, student choice, student agency, student autonomy and student ownership of learning.

Here is how I envision it happening:

  1. Let them in behind the scenes – if you are lucky enough to work at a school where students are trusted to choose what they want to learn about and when, you have the luxury of ignoring this first step! For the majority of us though, we have standardized curricula, collaboratively created units of inquiry and reporting timelines to consider. Why consider them alone? Invite students to inquire into their curriculum and what the powers that be have decided they should be able to know and do by the end of the grade. Share with them the learning outcomes that have been pre-decided for a specific unit. Be transparent about what knowledge and skills will need to be reported on and by when.
  2. Discuss ‘learning’ – If students are going to be making choices about what they learn, when they learn and how they learn, it is probably a good idea to help them make informed decisions. Conduct a class inquiry into learning. Look at the different ways human learn. Discuss the different things humans learn about and learn to do. Brainstorm lists of approaches to learning that can be posted and referred to somewhere in the classroom.
  3. Come up with shared expectations – As a class, decide what is reasonable when planning a day. Should reading, writing, listening and speaking appear everyday? What about math? Should there be a minimum time spent on each? How will breaks work? Can you make changes to your plan throughout the day? Is play a respected part of the day?
  4. Share your template – At the end of every day, carve out a chunk of time where students can plan their own upcoming day. For students who prefer paper, make a copy of your empty day plan (with specialist classes already blocked out) and for students who prefer to work electronically, push out an excel version or Google Sheet.
  5. Offer optional workshops  – Figure out the needs of your class and in response to those needs, offer optional workshops and collaborative inquiries. Post the purpose, content and time of the workshops and inquiries when students are planning their day so students who are interested in participating can account for the workshops on their day plans.
  6. Offer optional conference times – When you are not offering optional workshops and inquiries, make yourself available for individual conferences. Conferences could be requested for a number of reasons – for reading, writing, math, inquiry guidance, personal reasons or even to play together! Post the times when you will be available for conferences when students are planning their day so they can make a note of when they would like to reach out to you.
  7. Provide support – For the first few times that students are creating their own day plans, offer guidance. Perhaps invite any students looking for help to participate in a shared approach. Then, with the students who self-select for assistance, go through the day plan block by block and help them plan what they are going to, how they are going to do it – and most importantly why they are going to do it.
  8. Provide feedback –  Take the time you would have spent writing your day plans, and invest that time in providing feedback for your students’ day plans. Either on the shared document or the paper copy, jot down questions that will help students clarify and improve their own plans. An hour is a long time to write, have you planned for a break? I noticed you have not built anytime for independent reading, why is that? You have noted that you want to practice your times tables, how do you plan on doing that? 
  9. Reflect – build in time and model the value of reflecting on day plans each and every day. Help students think about what went well, what they enjoyed, along with what did not go well and perhaps why that is. Encourage risk-taking, by guiding students to try something different or check out how a classmate structured their day of learning.
  10. Back off – If you are going to say you trust your students to know what they want and need to learn about and how best to go about it, then you need to actually trust them. You can offer guidance, advice, probing questions… but at the end of the day you have to respect their decisions and truly believe that they know what is best for themselves.

I’m imaging a classroom where some students are reading, some students are writing, some are practicing math, some are playing games, some are talking to one another, some are painting or building, some are attending a optional teacher-led workshop… but all are learning. Learning in their own way, at their own pace, and on their own schedule. Doesn’t it sound wonderful?

I have never tried this before, but I plan to this year as I head back into the classroom! As always, I would love to hear your feedback and suggestions about this idea!

How can I improve this plan?

What obstacles might I encounter?

How do you involve your students in planning the day? 

My plan for a more fair and free place to learn…

Yesterday I shared my thoughts and reflections about my own practice creating a democratic community in the classroom and I promised to share my plan for next year- once I had one. Well, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and as a result a plan has started to take shape, so here are my initial ideas, as promised!

Classroom Set-up

In the past I would spent the summer coming up with a blueprint for my classroom set-up and then during the week before students would arrive, I would spend countless hours setting it all up on my own. This year I plan to hold off on any classroom set-up until the first day of school. Once the students arrive and attendance has been taken, we can come together for the first time as a community and together decide how we want our learning space to be set-up. From there I am hoping we can break off into task-forces (classroom library, physical set-up, boards, resources and manipulates, school supplies etc.) where I can support students in coming up with a plan, putting that plan into action and then reflecting on how things went. I have to be prepared to let go, allow the process to unfold and resist the urge to jump in and rescue or veto. Overtime, I think the natural consequences of any design flaws will appear and as a community we can come back as a group and discuss what is working and what might need to change to better serve the needs of our learning community.

Systems and Routines

This will be the hardest for me. Every year that I have taught, I have started the year with a clearly laid of plan for every routine imaginable within the teaching day. This year, I plan to come up with these systems with my students. As a community, we can brainstorm all the times in the day it would be beneficial to have a routine, and then discuss what routines they might have used in other classes. From there we can discuss the pros and cons of different approaches and vote on the ones we want to try. I think it would be helpful at this point to document the why, how and what of each routine in a visible spot somewhere in the room – perhaps with some criteria for how we will know it is working, and clues for when we might need to revisit and refine our plans.

Community Building 

Obviously it is essential at the beginning of a new school year to build a sense of community and help students get to know each other. Similar to classroom set-up and classroom routines, this has been something I have spent hours in the summer planning – to the point that when I started a new school year, the first five day plans were fully filled out and ready to go! This fall I would like to develop this alongside my students. I plan to start with the why – and stimulate a discussion about why it is important to build relationships with the people in our community. From there we can dive into the question – how do humans build relationships? Hopefully this provides a long list of potential activities that we can use throughout the week to build a strong community.

Schedule

In the past I have always built our class schedule alone – without the input or ideas of my students. This year I’d like to try and build it with them. I have been given a schedule template (which accounts for all my specialist classes) but aside from those specified times I plan to leave the rest blank until the students arrive. When the students arrive I’d like to invite them to help build our class schedule. In order to make informed decisions, I think it would be important to first inquire into learning – how do people learn, why do people learn, how do other schools and classes schedule their learning. I also think at this point it would be important to be transparent about our limits and boundaries with regards to curriculum and programming. As an IB school that has adopted the Common Core, I think it is important for students to inquire into “what” they are supposed to learn and also “how” they are supposed to learn. Once students are familiar with what they are supposed to learn in Grade 4, how they are supposed to learn as IB students along with what options are out there for structuring a school day – then we can work together to design a schedule that meets our needs. Perhaps students will breakout into groups or work on their own to come up with a proposed schedule and then we can vote on which one, we as a community, like best.

Homework

In previous years as a classroom teacher I have decided what is for homework, why it is for homework and when it is for homework. When I started to think about going back in the classroom I decided that there would be no homework ever. Now that I think about that, I have realized that either way I am deciding something on the students behalf – which I would like to avoid. Instead of a blanket decision for the entire class one way or another, I have decided to open it up to a personal and family decision. Again, in order to make informed decisions I think it would be important to inquire into the different perspectives around homework (student, parent, teacher, administrator, research etc.) and share those discoveries with the parents community. From there each student, along with their parents, can decide if they want homework. Then, I can support the students who have opted for homework to come up with a personal plan – starting with why, then working out the how and what.

Conflict Resolution

When you force 24 humans to spend 5 days a week, 7 hours a day together in one room, conflict is bound to occur. And in the past when conflict has happened, I have been the judge, the jury, and the mediator. I have had a plan for how I would deal with conflicts in the classroom, but this year I want students to not only be part of the decision, but also part of the actual processes once they are decided. At first I was going to impose a model of “council meetings” like they have at Free School, shown in this documentary from minute 23-32. But then I realized making that decision on my own for them, was just as un-democratic. So instead I’d like to discuss as a class, how humans in the real world solve conflicts. I’m hoping this leads to discussion of strategies for small conflicts and also options for when people with unresolved conflicts look for extra support form the community (i.e.. mediators, councils, town halls, judiciary committees etc.). We can inquire into how humans solve conflict in the real world, then we can see how schools have adopted these practices and then finally decide as a community which one(s) we would like to have as options when conflicts arise.

Goal Setting 

Usually the week before school starts I am exhausted from setting up the classroom and planning the first week of school….but since I won’t be doing any of that this year without my students I am anticipating a lot of unused time on my hands. In thinking about building a democratic classroom community, it is not only important that students have a voice, but also that parents have a voice. So I think a great use of my free time would be to invite parents in to meet with me for a pre-school year conference. I would love to sit down with parents and ask them what their goals are for their child for the year and what they would like from me in order to support those goals. I would also love to ask them to tell me about their child’s needs, interests, skills and passions. I think this would be a really great to lay the foundation for a collaborative partnership with my students’ families and also a great way to show that their voice, knowledge, opinion and perspectives are not only welcome, but also valued.

Thinking in this way has been a huge challenge for me. I am still very inclined to come up with these plans on my own during the summer and I actually have to force myself to stop, but becoming aware of those tendencies has helped me see more clearly the power structures that have existed in my previous classrooms. I am really excited to take this new approach and I am hopeful that the time invested to have these conversations, conduct these inquires and democratically make these decisions will lead to a really powerful and productive learning community. I know as the school year gets underway, I will need to think about how to democratically approach things like curriculum, units, assessment and reporting… but for now, I am happy with my plan in these seven aforementioned areas. And, as always, I will report back and let you know how it goes!

How do you plan to establish a more democratic classroom this school year?

How do you plan to ensure your students’ voices are equal to yours?