PYPx – Beyond Poster Boards

Google “PYP Exhibition” and you’re likely to find many images of students standing beside a poster board that tells what they’ve learned about over 6 week period.

Our school’s approach to PYPx is a little different…

Firstly, we believe that PYPx is more than having students share what they’ve learned about, and should be an opportunity for students to share what they’ve learned about themselves as learners during their time in the Primary Years Program.

Secondly, we believe that it’s a much more deep, meaningful and powerful process to have students show what they’ve learned about themselves as learners rather than tell it.

Thirdly, we believe that the PYPx is not a presentation, but rather an invitation to a conversation where the learner is able to engage with their visitors, share their stories, respond to questions and also ask questions.

This approach became even more essential last year when we decided to empower Grade 5 students to plan all of their own personalized Units of Inquiry. Which meant they didn’t have one 6 week block of a personal inquiry to share, but rather a year’s worth of experiences, successes, failures, discoveries and life lessons.

Here’s a glimpse into how it went:

Introducing the PYP Exhibition

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Sampling symbolic representations

To help students make an informed choice about how best to symbolically represent their journey as a learner, we led them through an inquiry where they got to “sample” many small tasting of different symbolic representations: colours, sounds, images, symbols, movements, shapes etc.

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After students had sampled all the different types of symbolic representation, we helped them reflect on which modes of communication allowed them to express themselves most effectively in order to make an informed choice about their PYPx symbolic piece.

Co-constructing success criteria

Before beginning to plan their symbolic piece, we took the time to co-construct what success would look like.

We used the VTR Growing Definition to allow each students to start with their own criteria, then moving to synthesize with a partner, then a group, then the entire class.

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This list of criteria became a constant point of reference for reflections and feedback during their planning and creation process.

Planning their vision

To support their planning of creating a vision we used a few optional tools to help students identify the modes that help them best express their journey and the skills and talents they already have that they can use to create something.

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Creating

Once students were committed to a vision, they jumped in with both feet! Thanks to many years of experiencing voice, choice and ownership in their art classes with @annadeibisu  and @NaomiFeil  the students were empowered, dedicated and resourceful creators.

Some chose to represent their learning journey through music…

Others through film…

Or paint…

shapes and structures…

words and fonts…

video clips…

Images…

Fabrics and textures…

Objects…

Maps…

Movement…

Even a Rube Goldberg!

Support from each other

Even though each student had their own symbolic piece, it was beautiful to watch the way they took interest in each other’s creations and offered guidance, support and feedback.

Support from adults

Throughout the creation process, it was all-hands-on-deck and we were lucky to have so much support from adults within the community – specifically connecting with students and sharing their personal interests and areas of expertise.

We were also fortunate to have art and music teachers who were comfortable collapsing their timetable for the Grade level in order to create a open “studio-style” schedule where art and music spaces, people and materials were open throughout the day for students.

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Ongoing Feedback and Reflection

Throughout the creation process we continually worked with students to provoke their thinking about the symbolic piece in hopes of deepening the layers of symbolic representation.

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This process also included helping students think through the lens of the Learner Profile, PYP Attitudes and ATL Skills and how might those layers be represented in their symbolic piece.

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Artist Statements

Since we knew there would be times throughout the Exhibition when students wouldn’t be standing next to their piece, we wanted to make sure students were still able to share their story with any visitor at any time. So we supported them to create “Artist Statements” to allow for members of the community to understand what they had made, why they had made it and how it represents their PYP learning journey.

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Staging and installation

Once the pieces and artist statements were complete (or almost complete!) it was time to stage the exhibition!

We started with our multipurpose room, added some cloth, lanterns, lamps, wires, walls, boxes and stands to set the mood…

Then students began to move their installations into the space and made their final adjustments to their pieces.

Finally the PYPx staging was complete!

There were 80 unique symbolic pieces to represent 80 unique PYP learning journeys!

An invitation for a conversation

As mentioned above, we strongly urge our students away from thinking about PYPx as a presentation where they memorize a spiel and repeat it over and over again. Instead, we support our students to think of it as an invitation to a conversation where they are able to engage and interact more authentically with their visitors.

To help prepare them for this we offered optional workshops on conversational skills.

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Sharing with the community

Then it was time to invite parents, teachers, students and community members to celebrate our learners’ journeys!

Feedback

The response from the community was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone was proud to see how confident, creative, reflective, self-aware and articulate all the students were.

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Moving Forward…

This was my first PYPx experience, and although it was an amazing experience I am always looking to reflect and improve. So as I head into the final half of our school year – knowing another PYPx is just around the corner – I’d love to hear your thoughts:

What is your school doing to innovate and push the boundaries of the typical approach to PYPx?

What feedback do you have for us to make our process more student-centred, learning-driven and agency-supportive?

What blog posts out there have poked and provoked your own thinking about PYPx?

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Agency Self-Reflection Tool

Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at leading workshops to help educators along their journey to respect and support student agency. One element of my workshop is providing educators with self reflection tools to help them identify parts of their practice that are already agency-supportive and also to illuminate areas in their practice where there is space for more student agency.

Here is a questionnaire I created with that purpose in mind:

(Click here for a printable copy)

Agency Self-Reflection Tool

Without judgement, honestly and critically reflect on the following questions.

Beginning of the Year

1. How involved were your students in setting up their learning space? (desks, shelves, bulletin boards, classroom libraries, manipulatives, resources etc.)

  • Not at all
  • Slightly involved
  • Very involved
  • Students had full ownership

2.How involved were your students in establishing class systems and routines at the beginning of the year? (attention getters, tidy-up routines, etc.)

  • Not at all
  • Slightly involved
  • Very involved
  • Students had full ownership

3. How involved were your students in establishing their rights and responsibilities (or essential agreements?)

  • Not at all
  • Slightly involved
  • Very involved
  • Students had full ownership

Day to Day Voice and Choice

4. How much voice and choice do your students have in where they learn? (desk, floor, cushion, hallway, library etc.)

  • None
  • Some
  • A lot
  • Full control

5. How much voice and choice do your students have in who they learn with? (partners, groups, etc.)

  • None
  • Some
  • A lot
  • Full control

6. How much voice and choice do your students have in how they learn? (lesson, video, reading, listening, experimenting, peer-to-peer, play etc.)

  • None
  • Some
  • A lot
  • Full control

7. How much voice and choice do your students have in when they learn? (Which day, which period, for how long, how often etc.)

  • None
  • Some
  • A lot
  • Full control

8. How much voice and choice do your students have in what they learn? (content, skills, concepts, topics, etc.)

  • None
  • Some
  • A lot
  • Full control

Planning, Assessing and Reporting Their Learning

9. How involved are your students in planning their units?

  • Not at all
  • Somewhat
  • Very
  • Complete ownership of this process

10. How involved are your students in choosing, gathering and sharing the resources they use to learn? (videos, books, podcasts, manipulatives, experts etc.)

  • Not at all
  • Somewhat
  • Very
  • Complete ownership of this process

11. How involved are your students in choosing how they organize their learning? (notebooks, Google Docs, Evernote ,Google Slides, notes, diagrams, sketches etc.)

  • Not at all
  • Somewhat
  • Very
  • Complete ownership of this process

12. How involved are your students in choosing how they share their learning? (presentation, story, podcast, blog, video, vlog, etc.)

  • Not at all
  • Somewhat
  • Very
  • Complete ownership of this process

13. How involved are your students in assessing their own learning? (pre-assessment, diagnostic, formative, summative etc.)

  • Not at all
  • Somewhat
  • Very
  • Complete ownership of this process

14. How involved are your students in the process of feedback (when, from whom, about what, how often etc.)

  • Not at all
  • Somewhat
  • Very
  • Complete ownership of this process

15. How involved are your students in evaluating their learning? (grades, spectrums, letters, numbers, etc.)

  • Not at all
  • Somewhat
  • Very
  • Complete ownership of this process

16. How involved are your students in formally reporting their learning? (report cards, evaluations of learning, progress reports etc.)

  • Not at all
  • Somewhat
  • Very
  • Complete ownership of this process

17. How involved are your students in conferences involving parents

  • Not at all
  • Somewhat
  • Very
  • Complete ownership of this process

Other:

18. How comfortable would your students be to disagree with you?

  • Not at all
  • Somewhat
  • Very
  • Completely comfortable

19. How comfortable would your students be to make changes to the physical learning space?

  • They would not think they could make changes
  • They would ask permission to make a change
  • They would notify me they were going to make a change
  • They would just make the change

20. When your students need to take care of physical needs (going to the bathroom, eating, drinking, visiting the clinic etc.) they are most likely to:

  • Not do anything, the know they are not allowed during my class
  • Ask permission (May I please go to…)
  • Notify you (I am going to…)
  • Just do it

21. How often do you ask your students for their feedback (about you, your teaching, how they feel in your class, suggestions for improvement etc.)

  • Never
  • Once year
  • A few times a year
  • Regularly

 


 

Obviously, this questionnaire reflects my thoughts, opinions and beliefs about student agency – but with that also comes my biases, blind spots and misconceptions too. And posts like this demonstrate how much stronger we are when we share ideas, challenge each other and push one another’s thinking forward.

So, I’d like to know what you think…

What would you add, change or remove?

What’s missing, that’s essential to empowering students to be in the driver’s seat?

What’s included that’s redundant, misleading or unnecessary?

How could I make it more inclusive for all educators, regardless of the age or subject they teach and the system they work in?

How could I adapt it for leaders to reflect on how they respect and support the agency of the teachers they work with?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts…

Personalized Units of Inquiry

Last year I shared my teams’ dissatisfaction with the typical PYP approach to planning Units of Inquiry for students – especially within a context aiming to respect and support student agency.

Last year, I also shared my team’s first attempt at Units of Inquiry planned by students, as well as an update later on in the year as the process evolved.

This year we continue to grow and refine the process… always reflecting… always iterating… never satisfied. Keeping the parts of the process that were successful last year, ditching things that weren’t and trying new things we hope can make the process even better.

Here is a synopsis of how we’ve changed and improved the process from last year:

Starting with motivation and purpose

Similar to last year, we spent the first week inquiring into motivation and supporting students to uncover what their purpose might be.

Here are some of slides that helped us in our own planning, as well as guiding the students’ planning.

Something new we tried this year was having students think of their own, “why, how and what” when they were committing to their purpose. This in-between step helped them begin the thought process of unit planning, but in a very simplified way.

This simple, first step was really effective at helping students to begin to think about their journey.

This year, we also joined the community of learners – following each and every part of the process alongside our students.

Here is a link to the slides we used to guide this process with students.

Finding Connections

Something new we tried this year, was helping students find connections – both among their peers and within the school community.

First we decided to post all the students’ purposes in a central location. We chose to organize them by TD themes to help with our own tracking and horizontal articulation over the year.

Once all 120 students’ purposes were posted, we realized that although they were organized by TD theme, it would be helpful to also organize them by category. So we decided to look for trends and colour-code them based on what we noticed.

Then we decided to invite anyone and everyone who worked at the school that might have something to offer our students – single-subject teachers, coaches, our CAS coordinator, our Head of School etc. We asked them to do two things:

1. Analyze the students’ purposes and do a “see, think, wonder” leaving post-it notes with advice, observations, suggestions and questions.

2. Fill in a poster about what you are willing to help with and how you prefer to be contacted by the students.

As soon as the first post-it note and “I Can Help With” poster went up, students were at the boards, taking notes, photos and videos of anything and anyone that might help them achieve their purpose.

Unit Planning

Similar to last year, we had students go through the unit planning process. We felt it really helped them take their vision, and break it down into more manageable bits and pieces.

To simplify the process, this year my team spent a lot of time debating the different unit planners we used last year and reached consensus (which is rare for us!) about a unit planner that was simple, effective and aligned with the PYP planning process.

Tracking

Something new we are also trying his year, is to do a better job tracking all the different UOIs to be able to document horizontal articulation. Although last year we knew there was breadth and depth of exploration across all six TD themes, because we were all new and figuring it out as we went, we didn’t have a process for keeping track of it all.

This year we’ve decided to create a database that will document each student’s personalized UOIs over the course of the year, creating somewhat of a personalized program of inquiry.

This will allow us to see which TD themes have been explored by which students and therefore which TD themes and students might need a nudged over the course of the year. It will also provide a record that we can share with IB visitors during evaluation visits to show that we are meeting the Standards and Practices of students engaging with all six TD themes in their final year of the PYP.

Self-Evaluations

Another element of the process we wanted to keep from last year, was having students evaluate their own learning (i.e. write their own reports). However, we felt that it wasn’t only important for students to evaluate their own learning upon the completion of their unit, but also the creation of their unit.

So after students created their own personalized UOI, they formally evaluated their understanding of their own motivation and indicators of success.

We provided them with the following guiding questions:

Then we responded to their self-evaluation based on our own observations and assessments of the unit creation process.

After six weeks we will follow the same procedure as last year, asking students to reflect on and evaluate their motivation and success in order to make an informed choice whether to “pivot or preserve”.

Parent Involvement

Something new we are going to try is involving parents more in supporting the students throughout their Units. Last year we had a few parents come in as experts, but we felt the process could be much more intentional and organized.

First we reached out to parents to see who might be interested in donating time and expertise to support our students’ Units.

From here, we are planning to look at the data and begin to create a sustainable structure of matching up parents who have something to offer, with students who are looking for help.

Something from last year that worked really well that we plan to do again this year, was inviting parents in for a UOI consultation. Parents came in and sat with their their child, looked at their unit plan, the documentation and evidence and both celebrated their progress as well as offered advice and suggestions about next steps.

We’re only a few weeks in… but it’s been a wonderful few weeks! It’s been great to see students start to explore their purpose, build connections, reach out to experts and take action! The buzz is real!

Photo credits: @puglifevn @juoulette @phuhua

Overall, the changes and improvements have had a positive impact on maintaining the integrity of student voice, choice and ownership in the process while balancing the expectations of the program.

As usual, we will continue to reflect and refine as we go… and I’ll keep sharing our journey with you along the way!

How do you ensure Units of Inquiry are significant, relevant, engaging and challenging for each student?

Getting Parents Onboard

One of my big professional goals this year is to do a better job getting parents to understand and support our agency-based approach to learning.

I used to do a pretty good job of this at my old school, but last year – with a new country, new school, new grade, new approach – it fell off my list of priorities. I lost sight of how crucial it truly is.

So this year I’m making a more concerted effort, to not only help the parents understand what is going on in the classroom and why, but more importantly to bring them into to the conversation about why school is broken and get them onboard as allies in the education revolution!

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Design by @orenjibuta

Here are a few things I’ve done so far:

1. Embrace and encourage parent meetings

Sometimes as educators we try to avoid, sidestep and minimize parent meetings. This year I’ve tried to shift my perspective to wanting and welcoming parent meetings.

Right at the beginning of the year I sent out an open invitation to any parents who had questions, comments and concerns about our agency-supportive model. I had about a handful of parents reply and set-up a meeting.

If the reason for the meeting was more about their specific child within our agency-supportive model then I made sure to encourage a 3-way conference approach to the meeting. Making it clear that our school philosophy was that meetings that take place about a child, should include that child.

To structure the meeting I used an adapted protocol where child, parent and teacher all had an opportunity to share their goals, needs, worries and suggestions.

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Moving on from these initial meetings I had some families that wanted to schedule regular meetings – once a month – to stay connected and involved in their child’s learning. And others who felt that the initial meeting had met their needs.

Another thing that came to light from these meetings was that parents wanted to feel more involved in the model, wanted to better understand the model and wanted help and support learning how to be a parent within the model. This feedback informed many of the following steps I’ve been taking this year to get parents on board.

2. Harnessing the power of digital platforms

It was clear that many parents wanted to feel involved and part of their child’s learning at school, but because it was so different from when they went to school themselves, they weren’t exactly sure how.

So thanks to the power of Google, SeeSaw, Weebly and other platforms we were able to start helping them feel more involved. We got in the routine of digitally sharing assessments, weekly goals, day plans, reflections and documentation.

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This not only gave parents insight into their child’s learning but allowed for them to leave comments, suggestions and feedback to become part of the learning process.

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3. Make planning transparent

“No secret teacher business” is a pretty common phrase for agency-supportive educators when sharing their thinking and planning with their students – why not with parents as well? What better way to have parents understand not only what is happening in the classroom, but also (and probably more importantly) why and how.

So each Monday I take a screenshot of our actual team planning (which is built around Simon Sinek’s Golden Circles) and record a voice note to explain, in detail, the thinking, reasons and research behind our planning.

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There has been a really positive response to these posts from parents!

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So this prompted me to start to share beyond the weekly why, how, what to other important systems and structures that we have in place to support students’ learning.

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4. Hook parents as allies

One of the most crucial aspects of getting parents on board is helping them become critical thinkers about the current paradigm of education and what needs to change. Each week I send home a provocation – a video, blog, post, article, tweet, or quote – that is meant to poke and provoke their thinking about education.

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I’m lucky that I’m part of a team that shares similar philosophies and practices getting parents on board, because we work together to collect and collate parent provocations.

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5. Seek and Action Parent Feedback

I think it’s also important to recognize and make space for parents’ thoughts, ideas, and feedback – not just with regards to their specific child, but also in more general ways as well.

Whether it’s taking time to collect their philosophies and beliefs about education…

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Taking time to ask them about their child…

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Seeking feedback about the new ways you are approaching teaching and learning…

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Or seeking feedback about how you are doing as a teacher

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It is important that they have a voice and they feel like their voice is heard and honoured.

My Reflections

One of most important things I’ve learned so far is that the more it feels like an invitation – whether it’s to come in for a meeting, have access to their child’s documents, listen to the thinking behind our planning, engage with a parent provocation or fill out a survey – the more comfortable it feels for parents. That way parents can be as involved as they wish to be. And for some that means very involved and for other less so to not at all.

As a classroom teacher it definitely becomes easier to get parents on board the more your PYPC, administrators and Head of School take similar approaches in the work they do with parents. I’m thankful to be part of a school where everyone shares a similar approach to energize, engage and empower our parent community as an essential part of shifting the educational paradigm. Maybe I can even get my PYPC coordinatorprincipal or Head of School to write a guest post about their contribution to getting parents on board within their role… Stay tuned!

How do you get parents on board for agency-supportive models of learning?

How are you inviting parent voice into the process?

The Magic of a Student Designed Studio

We have 120 Grade 5 students.

We have 10 learning spaces in our Grade 5 hallway.

And to start the year we believed that those 120 students should have the trust and ownership to collectively design and set-up those 10 learning spaces.

So they did. And it was pretty amazing.

Before Day 1

As usual, our team started with why. With the help of our PYPC and instructional coaches, we talked as a team to ensure we were all on the same page about why having students set-up their learning spaces was essential to starting a year full of respect and support for their agency. From there we were able to move onto possible hows and whats , but we knew that most of the planning would be in response to what actually happened each day, so we started small, with one first step – “unsetting up” the space.

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We knew that in order for students to be able to truly own the space, we would need to provide them with a blank canvas – essentially undoing any thinking, decisions or organization from us. We also knew it was important that students could easily see and access all the furniture, resources and materials that we had as a grade level, so we decided to collate it all into separate areas. We put all the tables in one area, all the couches in another area, all the shelves in another area, all the baskets/bins/organizers in another area, all the consumable materials in another area and all the learning resources and manipulative in another area. We also ensured every wall, shelf, cupboard, and bin was completely empty.

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We also knew that is was essential to keep parents informed and involved. So we sent them this email a few days before their child’s first day of school:

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Day 1

On day 1, we pretty much just said “Go! Set-up your studios!”. We wanted to prevent too much guidance and ensure our thinking wasn’t accidentally seeping into their thinking. We also wanted to use this as a cold diagnostic – to see who they are and what they currently think and understand about learning and school. Since there were lots of big, heavy pieces of furniture we did have a safety briefing to talk about how to lift and carry furniture and how to ask for help when needed.

Then they were off…

And it was incredible to see the action, initiative, thinking and teamwork right out of the gate!

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 Immediately we started to see creativity and great ideas:

A table for adults to drop of forgotten lunches….

An indoor handball court…

A welcome sign…

We also started to see different types of learning spaces emerge:

And by the end of day 1, students had successfully set-up 7…. classrooms.

Day 2

Although students did an AMAZING job with their first attempt of setting-up, it was clear that many of them were still in the mindset of “doing school” – a paradigm we knew we wanted to challenge immediately. So in small advisory groups we all facilitated a guided brainstorm activity to get them thinking about the concept of a studio.

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Once we helped students organize and unpack their own thinking about the concept of a studio, we asked them a challenging question.

“Yesterday we told you to go set-up your studios. Looking at the people, places, materials, and purposes from your brainstorms this morning…. did you actually set-up ‘studios’?” – Us

“No….” – Them

“Yesterday, what did you set-up?” – Us

“Classrooms” – Them

“Do you guys want some more time to try again?” – Us

“YAASSSSSS!!!!!” – Them

So they tried again. And it was just as – if not more – amazing! We started to see spaces emerge that would support authentic and purposeful pursuits and endeavours.

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But we noticed students weren’t really considering the purpose-built spaces. We have two small rooms with doors, one large room with doors, 4 medium rooms with 3 and 3/4 walls and two large open spaces. Yet students weren’t matching the purpose of the space to the unique features of the space. So we broke into small advisory groups again to push their thinking further. We analyzed the features of each space and debated what type of studio would be most appropriate in that space. Obviously there was no clear right or wrong answer, so we ended up with several, equally good options.

Day 3

We took the most popular options that arose from discussions within advisory groups and synthesized them into 3 main floor plans. Then students and advisors analyzed the floor plans and cast their vote.

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It was clear that “option B” had the majority of votes, so that is what we went with.

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Next, we had students commit to a team that they felt motivated to help with.

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Then we let them go again to bring “option B” to life in their new teams.

We started to see the space take shape, but noticed they were focused mostly on the big things and not yet thinking about the smaller details. So we pulled them together and provoked their thinking further with these 6 questions.

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Then we really started to see the spaces take shape.

We saw more thinking and action connected to organization…

We saw more attention to aesthetics…

We started to see signs and instructions…

We saw more thought into what was needed in each space and how to get it…

Day 4

Since all the spaces will be used be all 130 of us, it was important that the teams responsible for each space were considering and using the ideas and opinions of people who were not on their team. So we gave students the opportunity to “tour” each space and then leave feedback for the group responsible for designing that specific studio.

Then teams had time to analyze the feedback and decided how they were going to take action to honour the ideas and concerns of their peers.

Day 5

At this point spaces were starting to shape up, but we noticed that most students (with an exception of a few) weren’t looking beyond what they already had in their space. So we poked their thinking further into what else they might need, where they could get it and, of course, how we as adults could support them in that process.

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Day 6,7,8

At this point in the process, we noticed a plateau. It seems that students took themselves as far as they could and weren’t sure where to go next. So that was a big clue for us, that it was time to jump in and help them go beyond where they could take themselves. So we had one adult join each of the teams and act as a coach. Each person had their own style of how they supported their group, but we all shared the common theme of helping support students’ thinking and organization towards their next steps.

We noticed that this support helped students go further and begin to think about the smaller details within their space.

Even MORE cool ideas began to emerge!

Day 9

Then, finally, the spaces were “done” (knowing that there is always opportunities for reflections, refinements, new ideas and changes throughout the year!)

We ended up with a book nook…

An art and design studio…

A recording studio…

A science and maths lab…

A town hall space…

A drama studio…

A fitness studio…

A digital production studio…

And a “chillax” studio…

At this point it was important to take time to pause and reflect in order to look for learning. We challenged the students to think about the last 9 days and notice and name the attributes of the IB Learner Profile, PYP attitudes, ATL skills, strands of math and stands of language that have been embedded within their experience designing and setting-up their learning spaces – even if they didn’t realize it at the time.

We then displayed their reflections for the community – to help parents, other grade-levels and visitors to our school understand where the learning has been during the first two weeks of the year.

Day 10

Now that the studios were fully set-up it was time for all of us to explore and use the amazing spaces!

It was also time to show and share the spaces with their families. So during Back to School Night, students gave their families a tour of all the learning spaces in our hallway. We invited parents to leave their feedback so we could include their voice in the process.

Here is what they had to say:

Reflections

  • It was such an enjoyable first few weeks of school
  • It provided great diagnostic data about our students’ thinking, initiative, teamwork, problem solving and creativity
  • It established a really strong sense of community
  • It set the tone for a culture of initiative, not a culture of permission
  • It helped students understand the spaces, resources and materials they have available to them this year
  • It challenged us all to break down our “homeroom” mentality
  • It showed students we are serious about respecting and supporting their agency as learners and as a people

I feel extremely lucky to be part of a team of fellow risk-takers who were all on board to jump in with both feet. I also feel extremely lucky to be at a school with a parent community who trusted us and tried their best to understand our approach and how they could be part of it. I also also feel extremely fortunate to be at a school where our leadership, admin and even Head of School not only understood what we were trying to do, but supported us and even publically shared and celebrated our approach.

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If you want to involve your students in setting up their learning spaces, but happen to be at a school where your team, leadership, admin and/or Head of School are not on board (yet), take comfort in the fact that the Enhanced PYP has your back!

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How do you involve your students in setting up their learning spaces?

What could an agency-supportive first week of school look like?

We’ve just finished our first week with students – and it was amazing! As a team, our goal was to start the year respecting and supporting student agency as much as possible.

Here is what we tried:

1. Invest time in the “why”

So often as educators we spend lots of time thinking about and preparing “what” we are going to do with students during the first week of school. This year as a team, we took a step back and invested most of our energy thinking about our “why”. We had many discussions, disagreements and debates, which was needed in order to ensure we were all on the same page about planning a week that encouraged as much student voice, choice and ownership as possible.

2. Plan in response, not advance

Once we were all solid in our “why” we were able to begin to move onto the “how”. We agreed that in order to respect and support student agency, we needed to take an approach of planning in response to learning, instead of in advance. So we decided not to plan beyond the first day, to allow for us to meet our learners, make observations, and collect their feedback. We also agreed that in order to make this approach work we would need to meet as a team at the end of each day to debrief, share notes and collectively analyze any student feedback in order to plan for next steps.

3. Involve students in planning the first day

Even as we were planning the first day, we knew that we wanted to set the tone for flat power structures and shared decision making. So we decided to involve students in the co-construction of their first day of school. Which meant, as usual, we spent our time planning for their planning. How could we structure and support systems to allow for their ideas and perspectives?

First we invited students to brainstorm any and all ideas about how we could get to know each other and how we could get to know our school.

Then, we had them sort which activities were structured, whole group activities that we would need to do together and which were more unstructured, small group or individual activities.

Next, we had them vote on which activities they were most interested in and used that data to create an agenda for the day that balanced structured and unstructured times in the day.

We also involved the students in collectively deciding how much time should be dedicated to each activity and what locations would be best for each activity. Students were also included in solving problems regarding the day’s agenda as they arose – like when another class was on the playground when we planned to go there, or when one activity ran longer than expected and there was not enough time for the next planned activity.

4. Teacher transparency

A huge theme that ran throughout the week (and we plan to continue throughout the year) is transparency – #nosecretteacherbusiness! Right from the get go we shared our “why” with them, involved them in decisions like how they want us to collect their attention in large groups and were honest with our reflections when things weren’t going according to plan.

5. Involve students in setting up the learning space

A big way we wanted to walk the walk of agency, was involving them in setting up their learning spaces. So we decided the spend our time the week before school “unsetting” up the learning spaces to make time and space for their ideas about the learning environments that best support them as learners.

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Since we also wanted to break the traditional mindset of “homerooms” we didn’t have the students set up just their classroom, we had all 120 students work together to set up the entire Grade 5 hallway – in total 10 learning spaces! (More about this in a blog post coming soon!)

6. Provide opportunities for student voice

It was also very important that from day 1, students knew their voices matter. So we aimed to have many opportunities for students to share their thoughts, ideas, concerns, worries and suggestions with us.

7. Act on student voice

Having a place for student voice, and actually acting on student voice are two different things. So we knew we wanted to make it clear to students that not only were we taking time to read and analyze what they shared with us, but we were also using that data to reflect on our own practices and decisions as well create the plan for the following day.

In order to make sure students knew their voices were being heard, we were transparent in each step of the process. Students knew that when they went home on the first day, we stayed and spent over an hour reading each and everything they wrote and using their feedback to create a plan for the second day. We compiled all the most common questions, ideas, worries etc. and visibly shared that data with the students the morning of the second day, then took the time to have small group discussions based around those topics.

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Their feedback not only impacted what we did, such as allocating more time for set-up, but also how we did things. For example, the first day we stayed in our smaller advisory groups for the co-constructed get to know you activities. But based on the feedback we got from students, we discovered they wanted a chance to do some of those activities in small mixed groups, with different students across the grade level. So based on that suggestion, we got together as a team, identified the activities that were most popular to all 6 advisory groups’ brainstorms and decided to have a sign-up based “get to know each other time”…. an idea we probably would not have ever thought of without them!

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Here are our reflections from the week:

It was SUCH an enjoyable first week. As a team, we couldn’t believe how energized and happy we all felt at the end of each day and how excited we were for the following day!

It planted the seeds for a strong sense of community. Both amongst the teachers, the students, the advisory groups and the grade-level as a whole, you couldn’t deny there was something special going on. Even after only a few days, you could feel that we were a crew, a team, a family.

There was lots of positive feedback from students and parents.  It was amazing to see students bringing their parents, siblings and friends through the grade-level for tours to show off what they had been up to the first few days of school. We also received emails and had pop in visits from parents to share how energized, empowered and engaged their children had felt when they came home each day.

The week leading up to school was a breeze. Usually teachers spend endless amounts of time (and often money) setting up their classroom and meticulously planning the first week of school. But because we planned do to the set-up and planning with our students once they arrived, we found ourselves with lots of spare time to hang out together, play games and ease into the school year.

It set the tone for a democratic community. Because we purposefully made all the decisions with the students from the moment they arrived, a culture of shared decision making and a flattened power structure has already started to emerge. For example, sometimes when all 130 of us get together in a townhall meeting, the students self-organize and collect each other’s attention without any input or intervention from the teacher.

It’s essential to differentiate support for students. That amount of voice, choice and ownership can look and feel quite different depending on the student. We tried to be cognizant,  empathetic and supportive to students coming from a more traditional school system, as well as students with specific learning, language, social or emotional needs.

Overall, it was THE BEST first week of school I have ever experienced. Of course, we have a lot of room to grow and improve, as this was the first time our team attempted anything like this. But we can feel good to know that how we approached the first week aligns with our belief that students have the right to have their agency respected and supported during their time at school.

However, we’re not experts and we don’t pretend to be – we’re just risk-takers, firm and passionate in our belief of what we think school should be.  That’s why I used the word “could” in the title of this post, instead of “does”. These are simply the ways we tried to respect and support the agency of our students during the first week of school – I’m sure there are many other ways out there.

How are YOU planning to start the year with a focus on student agency?

Trying to break the “homeroom” mould

Last year we tried many things to help get us and the students to break away from the traditional notion of a homeroom.

  • We encouraged free flow and fluidity between spaces.
  • Teachers and students offered workshops open to anyone in the grade level.
  • Students collaborated with whomever they liked, regardless of whether they were in “their class” or not

But despite our best intentions and efforts, more often that not it was still “my room”, “my teacher”, “my class” (for both us and the students)

So this year we have to decided to keep trying to break that stubborn mould – which as we discovered – is a deeply entrenched concept in the collective current understanding of what school is.

Here are a few things we’ve decided to try this year to hopefully move further away from the mindset of the homeroom:

1. We’re not assigning rooms to teachers. Instead of having Miss Taryn’s room, Mr. Pug’s room, Miss Amanda’s room – where a specific set of students and teachers lay claim – we’ve decide to have all spaces shared and co-owned. It’s been a hard habit to change our language of “my room”, “your room”, but in trying to do so it has made us all more mindful of both the language we use and our own deep rooted habits of thinking and being. We’ve taken to referring to the rooms simply by numbers, but were hoping when students arrive they think of some more creative and purposeful room names!

2. We’re meeting as a grade level first. On the first day of school, after we collect our specifically assigned students from the basketball court, we’ve decided to meet altogether, as a grade level, in our town hall meeting space. We’re hoping that meeting together in a shared space first will help them identify with the larger community and space, instead of reinforcing that idea of “my room” if we take them into a specific, smaller, classroom-like space. From there we will breakout into smaller groups, but we’re planning on purposefully and arbitrarily picking a room and using general language, like “let’s go meet in that room”.

3. We’re purposefully rotating where we meet with students. Building on the ideas above, we’ve also decided to rotate the spaces we use whenever we pull the students into smaller groups. Again hoping to help all students see all spaces as available to them for the betterment of their learning.

4. Students can choose where to keep their things. This was a big discussion as a team. We wanted students to have a consistent homebase – somewhere to put their backpacks, lunch bags, swim clothes each day – but we were also aware that that typically means a cubby section in an assigned classroom. So we’ve decided to make all cubbies available to all students, but have students choose one cubby to make their “home base” for the rest of the year.

5. We’re having one Google Classroom. Another structure that kept us in the mindset of homerooms last year was having separate Google Classrooms. This year we’ve decided to have one centralized Google Classroom where all teachers and all students can connect and collaborate with one another.

6. Students will decide how best to use and set up the variety of learning spaces we have. Our biggest risk – and hopefully biggest crack to the mould of homeroom mentality- is having students set up their learning spaces. But instead of having them set up classrooms, we’ve decided to have the whole cohort take ownership over the whole grade-level area – hallways, quiet learning spaces, loud learning spaces, and regular learning spaces. To assist with this process we have “unsetup” all the spaces to create a blank canvas. We’ve emptied every shelf, bin and cupboard, stock piled every table, couch, pillow and collated all the learning supplies and resources. On the first day of school we’re going to ensure students know they are empowered and trusted to envision, create and take ownership over their learning spaces, resources and materials. After giving them a little bit of time to try, struggle, have tension, solve problems and persevere we’re planning on supporting their thinking as well as the process – having 120 students set up 9 learning spaces will be no small task!

I’m sure there are still many ways that our mindset and that of the students will be stuck within the confines of the “homeroom mould”, but hopefully these 6 steps propel us further down the path of true learning and further away from doing school.

As with any worthwhile risk, I’m feeling the perfect combination of excitement and fear. It’s either going to be amazing or a complete disaster!

The adventure begins tomorrow…

Wish us luck!