Reflecting on a Year of Risk-Taking

Last year, when I decided to leave my role as PYP Coordinator to go back into the classroom, one of the biggest reasons was to have the opportunity to take risks, innovate and disrupt the model of “doing school” at the classroom level.  I had big dreams of what I wanted to start, stop and continue and I had a vision for a more fair and free place to learn. Now that the year has come to an end, it’s important for me to reflect on how things went. And since I have been sharing my journey with you along the way, I wanted to share my final reflections with you too.

So, here are my reflections from a year of taking risks:

Students setting up the classroom 

Inviting students to help set up their learning space was one of the best things I did all year! Not only was there SO much thinking and reflecting and problem solving that took place, but there were a lot of curricular connections, made authentically. Above and beyond that, it set the tone that students have a voice and are equally contributing members of our classroom community.

Read more about it here. 

Flexible Seating

Flexible seating was also a huge success. It took us a while as a community to test it out, problem solve and find the line between comfort and safety… but once we found our groove it was smooth sailing. Students were relaxed and comfortable during their time at school and often reflected on how that positively impacted their learning.

Respecting student’s physical needs

After reading the blog, post 10 Ways to Get Your Students to Respect You,  I couldn’t believe all the years I spent as a teacher, controlling, limiting and even not allowing students to tend to their physical needs. This year students ate when they were hungry, drank when they were thirsty and went to the bathroom when they needed to go. If felt much more humane and again had a noticeably-positive impact on their learning.

Democratic decision making

A huge part of my MEd degree was becoming more aware and critical of the power structures that exist in schools. This year I actively worked to create a more democratic classroom. We made ever decision together – where possible – regardless of how big or small. This not only set the tone that each and every student has a voice and a right to be part of decisions that effect their lives, but it also opened the door for some amazing learning about democracy, decision making, fairness, equity and equality, authority and hierarchy.

Optional homework

For the first time in my life I did not make the decision that my students would have homework. Nor did I make the decision that my students would not have homework either. Instead I decided… to let my students and their families decide! I guided them through an inquiry into homework and then students made their own conclusion about if they should have homework, and if so, what, when and how much. This approach worked very well – families that didn’t want homework never complained they had too much and families that did want homework never complained they didn’t have enough. It also had an unexpected positive side-effect: throughout the year when students genuinely reflected and felt like they needed more help or practice with something they would self-identify the need and take initiative to request extra help and resources.

Read more about it here.

Student-written day plans

This was the risk I was most excited about and the risk that ended up being the hardest to execute. We started out the year strong. We spent weeks inquiring into learning, inquiring into the PYP, inquiring into making day plans and then students were off and running planning their own day. It started out really amazing… students were excited and energized to have autonomy not only over how and where they learned… but for the first time in their life when they learned. Then I got in my own way of such an amazing and successful risk. I started to feel the pressure of time, and standards, and consistency… and slowly more and more of their blocks were being planned by me, because “we had to get something done” One day I woke up, looked around and realized that I was back to my old ways – planning one standard school day and obliging my students to follow along. Towards the end of the year – when reports were done and the pressure was lessened – we went back to having students plan their own day. And once again, life was good.

Read more about it here.

Involving Parents

It was important for me this year that I included my students’ parents in our learning community. Firstly, in the sense of having them involved in their child’s education and what happens in the classroom. I invited them in for before-the-year-starts meetings, I asked them for feedback three times throughout the year and I attempted to differentiate my communication in order to reach as many families as possible. But more than that, I wanted them be involved in our vision… our risks… our movement. I would share screenshots of provocative tweets, infographics and links to PYP and education related blogs to challenge and provoke their thinking about what school look like in 2017. As the year went on it was great to see them engage more and more with the ideas being shared. The best was when parents started sharing their own provocations and resources with me about the future of education! I still remember receiving an email from a parent with a YouTube link to The People vs. The School System and her thoughts about how it connected to what we were doing in our classroom!

Assessment done with students, instead of assessment done to students

This year I took a drastically different approach to assessment. I wanted assessment to be an inclusive process that involved the students as much as possible. We co-constructed success criteria together. We used that co-constructed success criteria as a tool for self, peer and (always last) teacher assessment. Students chose how they felt they could best share their learning. Final marks were negotiated between me and the student, during a one-on-one conference. The results were incredible. Student became much more assessment-capable. They were much more aware of their own learning, growth and areas of need and they were much less nervous and afraid of the assessment process.

Read more about it here.

Creating a culture of passionate readers

This was a hard one for me. I loved everything I read from Pernille Ripp about creating a culture of passionate readers and I couldn’t shake the quote “if they only read and write when we force them to read and write – then what’s the point?” So this year I took a hard, critical look at my own literacy practices and decided to ditch many of them in favour of achieving this goal. I got rid of nightly reading logs, book bins/bags, levelled library, forced guided reading, Daily 5, mandatory reading and writing workshops… pretty much anything where I, as the teacher, was choosing or forcing things on my students. The results were miraculous. I had students choose to become reading buddies; I had students request reading conferences with me; I had students self-select to all read the same novel so they could discuss it; I had students take initiative to create their own reader’s theatre; I had students sign up for optional reading workshops; I had students volunteer to read in front of the whole class. Was there still “progress” as can be measured by a standardized reading test? Yes. No more or less than there has been for my students in the past. But more than that, this time there was also students who learned to love reading; students who began to identify as readers; students who experienced agency and authenticity in their lives as readers.

Creativity Thursdays

If you ask any of my students, they would tell you this was their most beloved risk of all. It was also the risk that received the most scrutiny and push-back from ‘above’. After reading, watching and discussing Sir Ken Robinson, my class decided to devote as much time for creativity as we do to literacy development. That worked out to 20% of a week – a whole school day. So each and every Thursday students would pursue their creative passions – Minecraft, acting, painting, sewing, fashion design, digital music making, construction, jewellery design, singing, slime, modelling, nail art, playing instruments… the list goes on and on. Thursdays were magical… everyone was happy, relaxed, engaged.  It was the day of the week were our sense of community was the strongest. And it was the day of the week with absolutely no behaviour or classroom management issues. There may not have been a lot of “schooling” on Thursdays, but there was definitely a lot of “learning”!

Read more about this here.

Global Connections

Another goal of mine this year was to support my students in connecting with other students around the globe. We had a class blog, a class Twitter account and participated in my Mystery Skype calls. My success in this area was mediocre. The blog and twitter started out strong at the beginning of the year, but fizzled out over time. Mystery Skype were great, but I waited too far into the year to organize them (only when it fit with our unit). This is definitely an area of growth for me, and I will be doing some reflecting over the summer to try and figure out how to better support my students next year as global citizens.

Making time for play

My students and I decided that for every 30 minutes of focused learning, we would take a 10 break. This seemed to jive with research about how long children can focus and aligned with our IB Learner Profile of being balanced. Even though my students are in Grade 4 I think this time for unstructured play was essential. Not only did I notice lots of authentic learning taking place, but this is also when many of the friendships developed and when our sense of community grew. It was not unusual for us to receive confused or skeptical glances from passerbys while students were “on a break”, but it was something we strongly valued as a class and something we all felt positively impacted our community and our learning.

 

So what have I learned?

  • It can be lonely to swim upstreamFind your allies, whether that means people at your school, or like-minded educators in your PLN
  • It is SO worth it. Seeing the children’s growth – not only as students – but as humans is so rewarding
  • Students and parents are AMAZING allies. Let them in on your vision, provoke their thinking, ask for their input and feedback often
  • The pressure is real. Despite my best intentions to avoid “doing school” and instead pursue real learning, I felt immense pressure throughout the year about time, standards, standardization, test scores etc. from multiple sources…not only external from, colleagues and supervisors but also internal, from within
  • Systemic change is needed. There were many times in the year where I ran up against a roadblock that precluded school from being a place of true learning. Ingrained parts of our education system like curriculum, grading, reporting, grade groups, scheduling, etc. were constantly getting in the way of learning, but beyond my control as a classroom teacher
  • I have much more to learn. Much of this year I felt like I was in my first year teaching, not my eighth. But in a way, I guess I was in my first year – my first year trying to let go of being a teachery-teacher and instead respecting and supporting my students’ agency as learners. I am looking forward to spending the summer learning more and hopefully changing my thinking further, so that I will be ready to try again next year and hopefully come a little bit closer to making my classroom a place of real learning

 

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15 thoughts on “Reflecting on a Year of Risk-Taking

  1. Adam Hill June 9, 2017 / 8:38 am

    Hi Taryn,

    This is a great summary of your learning and growth. It is great for me to revisit your fantastic ideas and posts.

    What you said about standardisation, scores, etc. is interesting (and sad). I thought I’d share this quote with you: “At some point in your career you have to decide if you care more about teaching to tests or teaching kids.” (Dave Burgess). You are so obviously in it for the kids. Don’t let the other pressures bring you down when you are inspiring the rest of us to focus on what truly matters.

    Keep up the amazing work!

    Adam

    Liked by 1 person

    • tbondclegg June 9, 2017 / 11:05 am

      Thanks Adam for your kind words!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pernille Ripp June 9, 2017 / 10:43 am

    This was incredibly inspiring to read. You are making me long for my days with my 5th graders where I had so much more time and autonomy to do incredible things. Well done you!

    Like

    • tbondclegg June 9, 2017 / 11:06 am

      Thanks Pernille. You are a huge inspiration for me as an educator – so thank you for always sharing YOUR inspiring posts. They have contributed to much of what happened in my classroom this year. 🙂

      Like

  3. Mason McCormick June 10, 2017 / 12:57 am

    Taryn,
    I loved following your year of learning on twitter. My little learners thought our mystery skype was amazing.
    We always place a great emphasis on reflection for our students, but rarely for ourselves. There is so much value in this post. Thanks for being an excellent member of my online PLN.
    Keep growing.

    Like

    • tbondclegg June 11, 2017 / 6:12 am

      Hi Mason,
      Thanks for the support and kind words! Looking forward to mystery skyping again next year!

      Like

  4. Hemal Panchal June 10, 2017 / 6:05 am

    Hey Taryn,
    This is such an inspiring post. Though the year has come to an end but I feel so empowered for the next year. Amazing thoughts and ideas. Thankyou for giving us so much of insight on your teaching and learning practices.

    Like

    • tbondclegg June 11, 2017 / 6:12 am

      Thanks for your comment Hemal. I wish you the best of luck in your own “risks” next year 🙂

      Like

  5. Graeme Anshaw June 10, 2017 / 6:25 am

    A brilliant post from a brilliant teacher! Thanks for putting in all the time and thought into blogging- very inspiring!! 🙂

    Like

    • tbondclegg June 11, 2017 / 6:13 am

      Thanks Graeme! Means a lot coming from you!

      Like

  6. Judy Imamudeen June 10, 2017 / 11:34 pm

    I have been waiting for this post and looking forward to an authentic assessment of the changes you wished to embark upon! (: Thank you for a genuine reflection. Change is hard, especially when you have taught for a while- we can get back into our “rut”. I think it takes a conscious effort to make learning more student-driven and personalized. I know we have grappled with these issues at our own school, as we debated the balance of compliance vs. autonomy, especially in the early yeas in lower primary. I’m not sure what grade you will teach next year, but I know that this year’s experiment was your “1st iteration” and you’ll take forward the lessons learned from this year and make it even better. Enjoy your summer!

    Like

    • tbondclegg June 11, 2017 / 6:16 am

      HI Judy,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Yes,change is hard – especially unlearning and re-learning approaches to teaching that are deeply ingrained from when we were students! I’m also looking forward to next year, when I can try again and hopefully get a few small steps closer to my vision 🙂
      Looking forward to continuing to learn with you!

      Like

  7. bconceptsblog June 16, 2017 / 6:54 am

    Hello, thank you very much for your thought provoking and inspiring blog. I am a PYP workshop leader and I can see, with your permission, how I could use some learning engagements you have engaged your staff in.

    I enjoyed your last post and it looks like you have had an exciting year. I think it took risk-taking and wisdom to go back to the classroom. Personally, I think more PYP Coordinators should do the same at some point.

    Thank you for your sharing and for inspiring us.

    Bene Benoit, Hong Kong

    Like

    • tbondclegg June 26, 2017 / 6:17 pm

      Hi Bene,
      Thanks for your kind and supportive words. I would be honoured for you to use anything you read about on my blog in the work you do with PYP teachers. The more we all share, learn together and push each other’s thinking forward… the better for all of our students!

      Like

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