The Documenting Dilemma

This is a story of hypocrisy and empathy.

If there was a voice recorder in my classroom this year, more than anything else, you would hear me urging my students to document their learning.

At the beginning of the day…

“Don’t forget to document your learning!”

Throughout the day…

“Are you documenting your learning?”

“You should document that!”

“You’re missing it! Something awesome is happening… capture it!”

At the end of the day….

“Did you document your learning today?”

“Did you capture what you did? How you did it? How you felt about? What you learned? How you learned? How you felt about your learning?”

I had workshops about stronger documentation of process and growth

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We developed success criteria for strong documentation of learning

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I shared exemplars of strong documenting of learning

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I was obsessed with having them document their learning. And, I would bet that I am no different from any educator who is striving for more learner agency, yet still working in a fairly mainstream system. There seems to be some unwritten agreement that – yes, we will transfer ownership of learning back into the hands of the students… but only as long as they document it all to prove that it is happening. 

And then it happened… hypocrite moment #1

We were all sitting around at a weekly team planning meeting at the beginning of March and realized that we had neglected to document our learning journey. The blog that was set-up with the specific purpose of allowing us to capture what we were doing, how it was going and what we were learning from it… was blank.

Even though we knew about it.

Even though we all saw value in it.

Even though we had weekly reminders to document and capture our journey.

Blank.

This really got me thinking! It wasn’t that learning hadn’t happened. We had all experienced so much personal and professional growth. And it wasn’t that nothing worth capturing had happened. The previous 7 months were full of risk-taking, new initiatives, testing out new ideas, reflective conversations, multiple iterations….

It just wasn’t “documented”.

And there were perfectly acceptable reasons as to why:

We were busy.

It wasn’t the top of the priority list. 

We we’re so “in the thick of it” it was hard to step back from it to document it.

And here comes empathy moment #1. As I reflected on the reasons we were identifying for our lack of documenting, I realized these were likely some of the same reasons my students had for their lack of documenting.

Then came hypocrite moment #2

At the beginning of the year we were sent out a Google Slides template with 12 slides based on specific professional criteria. We were told to document our professional learning and growth throughout the year, by populating the slides with artifacts and explanations.

We were reminded to continuously update it.

We were reminded to “capture” our growth and progress.

And 3 days before my end of the year appraisal meeting with my administrators…. guess what? Completely blank.

Again, it wasn’t that I hadn’t experienced any professional growth. It wasn’t even that I hadn’t documented it somewhere. It was just that I hadn’t documented it there.

And there were perfectly acceptable reasons as to why:

I already had ways that I captured and documented things that were meaningful and relevant to me.

I was already comfortable with certain platforms (my blog and Twitter) that I updated on an ongoing, organic basis

I was more internally motivated to document and capture my journey for my own reflective purposes, rather than for an external source of accountability. 

Again, all perfectly acceptable reasons. Again, likely the same reasons my students hadn’t been documenting either.

(I got it done, of course. I did what I’m sure my students do when their documenting is “due” for review. I went back through and filled it in retrospectively.)

These two moments, connected to my own practice of documenting learning – when I document, how I document, why I document, how often I document – really gave me some food for thought about how I was approaching documenting with my students.

Everyone knows the philosophical conundrum:

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I wonder if a similar question holds true for documenting:

If learning happens and it is not documented, did it happen? Does it count?

The more I got thinking about this, the more I was reminded of a tweet that I saw a while ago from @AnneVanDam1996

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So, before we ask (force?) our students to document their learning, I think we first need to ask ourselves:

What is the purpose of documenting learning?

Who is it really for? Who should it be for?

Does everything learned need to be documented?

How often and in-depth am I documenting my own learning?

How different does it feel to document for my own purpose versus when it is mandated by someone else?

… and what might this all have to do with what we are asking of our students?

I have no answers. Just lots of questions. And lots of empathy….

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Upping the Agency in SLCs

A staple of any PYP school is the student-led conference. And although there are many different approaches to planning for student-led conferences, generally all iterations of SLCs have some element of student voice, choice and owership.

However that spectrum of voice, choice and ownership can vary greatly school to school, class to class.

This year our team decided to turn a critical eye towards SLCs to see where we as teachers tend to hold onto control over the process and the content, in order to then be able to transfer that control to where it should be… in the hands of the students.

The WHY

Instead of giving students our why for SLCs we supported them to come up with their own personalized why.

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Once they were aware of their own why, they were able to communicate to their parents what they wanted from them during their time together.

The WHAT

So often, the “what” of SLCs is pseudo-chosen by the teacher. “You must show something form math, literacy, UOI, art, music, PE etc…” So the student is technically able to choose what they show, but decisions about what-what is already made for them. This approach also often places learning into subject-specific confines, keeping that silo-mentality alive and well in the institution of school.

We decided that we wanted to move away from both of those typical pitfals of planning for SLCs. So instead, we put the decision of “what” entirely in the hands of the students and instead of guiding them to choose the what based on subject, we guided them to choose the “what” based on what they wanted to share about themselves as learners.

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We also decided to leave the number of “whats” up to them. So we purposefully did not make the template with a certain number of boxes or bullets, but rather let them drive the decision making based on whatever worked best for them.

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During their planning, we supported them to think about themselves as learners in different ways – using the IB Learner profile, PYP attitudes, ATL skills and a variety of sentence starters.

The HOW

Once students knew what they wanted to share about themselves as learners with their parents, we supported them in planning how they could best share that.

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We encouraged them to think about places, people, artifacts and resources that could help them express what they were trying to say about themselves as learners.

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Students really took ownership over this part of the planning and began to use their own systems of numbering, colour coding and organizing to help themselves feel most prepared.

The WHERE

The day before the conference students decided where they would be most comfortable conferencing with their parents and set-up their own conference location.

Overall, it was a very successful process. Students truly “led” the conference. Not just the conversation the day of the conference, but all the thinking, planning and decision making that happened in preparation before hand.

How you ensure students are in control of planning for SLCs?

How do you “up the agency” in Student-Led Conferences in your class?

Student-Planned UOIs

Currently, our grade level has 84 different Units of Inquiry happening simultaneously – a different one for each student. All connecting to different transdisciplinary themes, exploring different key concepts, developing different ATL skills, strengthening different attitudes, developing different attributes of the Learner Profile and lasting for different lengths of time.

It is PYPx?

Nope… it’s just a “normal” week in Studio 5!

How did we get here? What was our “why”? Our “how? Our “what”? And where do we go from here? Stick with me for this lengthy blog post and I will try to capture and share our journey through supporting our students to plan, execute, and report on, their own Units of Inquiry.

Why?

So often as PYP educators, we start with the UOI and then work hard to figure out how to wrap each student around the unit we have planned. We use provocations, tuning in activities and student-generated questions to help students find “their connection” to the UOI. And although UOIs are broad and conceptual with lots of space for inquiry within, at the end of the day we are still trying to get students to find their connection to our units.

 

The more and more my team and I began to understand and value student agency, the more and more we began to wonder:

Why do all of our students need to be inquiring into the same UOI all at once, for the exact same length of time?

Aren’t all of these teacher-made decisions when planning a UOI pulling us away from our goal of respecting and supporting students’ agency as learners?

Do all of our students even need to be inquiring into the same TD theme at the same time?

Dissatisfied with our previous attempt to reconcile agency and teacher-planned Units of Inquiry, we decided to be risk-takers and take action. Instead of trying to wrap each student around a UOI, we decided to try and wrap a UOI around each student.

Our goal was to help students plan their own Units of Inquiry based around their own passions, interests and curiosities, while at the same time protecting and maintaining the role each of the 5 essential elements of the PYP played within a UOI.

How?

If we were going to expect our students to plan their own units based around things they were intrinsically motivated to learn about, we knew we had to empower students to understand motivation and more specifically, understand their own motivation. So with the help of Dan Pink’s research and resources we began an inquiry into motivation.

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Next, we wanted to help students be able to choose something they were truly motivated to learn. We knew that jumping straight into “What’s one thing you are intrinsically motivated to learn” was unlikely to get us where we wanted to be, so instead we crafted some questions to hopefully help students uncover things in their lives that already showed evidence of intrinsic motivation.

Students filled one in about themselves:

Their parents also filled one in about their child:

Then students used both “planners” to select one “purpose”. We chose the word “purpose”… well, purposefully! We knew that eventually we wanted to have students plan their unit using a modified PYP Bubble Planner, and we wanted to keep the essence of that planner as much as possible. And since box 1, question 1 on the Bubble Planner is “What is our purpose?” we knew that eventually the student Bubble Planner would ask “What is your purpose?” Another reason we chose purpose is because we wanted to steer clear of the word passion. Earlier on in the year, our Head of School provoked our thinking with the article “7 Habits Instead of Passion” which posits that ‘follow your passion’ can be dangerous advice. Ever since then we as a team have been very careful not to de-rail our student planned UOIs by focusing on “passion”.

We also discussed the concept of purpose with students –  with the help of this “continuum of purpose” compliments of @sylviaduckworth.

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Knowing that this was the first time many (if not all) students had planned their own UOI around their own purpose, we knew there would be a range of the types of “purposes” that fuelled these units – many which we guessed correctly would start in the “self-awareness” and “discovery” stages.

Once students had nailed down their first “purpose” they met with a learning advisor to plan their first personalized Unit of Inquiry. Since this approach was new for my team, we all decided to use a different planner –  but all of which were based off of the PYP Bubble Planner, and connected to Dan Pink’s 3 magic ingredients of motivation. As the experts on the PYP, we helped students to “wrap the PYP” around their purpose by identifying how their purpose connected to each of the 5 elements.

As can be seen from these examples, students selected their purpose, decided how long they would need to achieve their purpose, chose how best they would document their learning, what their evidence of mastery would be, and what specifically would need to be “learned about” and “developed” throughout their unit. Careful time and consideration was also given to supporting students to brainstorm resources for their learning, both within the school and beyond.

Next students were supported in creating their own timelines, tailored to the amount of time they estimated they needed to achieve their purpose.

Then students were off an running!

Along the way, students had regular check-ins with their learning advisors to discuss their progress, challenges, adjustments to timelines, needs for resources etc. We also organized an adult-database that collated teacher and parent professions, hobbies and interests and showed students how to make use of the database to contact experts connected to their purpose.

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We also put together a procedure for students to organize their own field trips out into the community.

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Students also received support, guidance and encouragement from their parents who were invited for “learning conversations”. Parents were brought into the fold about the “why, how and what” behind student-planned UOIs and were coached in how to stimulate conversation about their child’s learning, while showing respect for their child’s agency over their learning.

We even had students who had “virtual conversations” with their parents via Skype and FaceTime!

Most impressively though was the way students supported themselves and one another. It was not uncommon to see students curate their own learning resources and materials (microscopes, scales, glue, wood, cameras, safety glasses etc.)

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And reach out to one another for advice, expertise and support.

Students were also great at knowing when they needed an adult’s help and sought out assistance, supervision or feedback – regardless of whether it was “their teacher”.

It’s also been great to see that opportunities for sharing learning have been organic, authentic, purposeful and student-initiated. Most of the time it’s the simple “you gotta see this!” or “check this out!” moments.

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But occasionally there have been some bigger, more planned moments where students have “taken their learning public”.

Whether it’s asking to perform a song around the campfire during a school camping trip

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

Or signing up to sell a product at our school’s weekly market

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Or putting together a student-led workshop, to more formally teach other students what they have learned.

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

What?

So what exactly did these student-planned UOIs explore? Anything and everything under the sun!

Robot hands and flying shoes

Digital design

Special effects movie make-up

Entomology

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

Film production

Doll house construction

Mosquito repelant and anti-itch serum

Digital music mash-ups

Cooking

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Photography

basketball skills

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

font design

Miniature Models

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A scale replica of the KL race track

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Not to mention… taking care of young children, building mini arcade games, coaching swimming, writing poetry, shoe “flipping” (buying bulk at a low cost and selling individually at a profit), app development, singing covers of pop songs, shoe design, dress making, stand-up comedy and the list goes on…

Looking over this list, I can’t help but think of this quote from John Taylor Gatto:

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So, where do we go from here?

Currently students are at a fork in the road, where they have the option to “pivot or persevere”. Students who have achieved their purpose or have noticed their intrinsic motivation has dropped (or perhaps was never there to begin with) can choose to move on to a new purpose. Students who feel their intrinsic motivation is going strong and would like to continue to pursue their first purpose can choose to stick with it.

Either way, students will reflect on and report their learning at this check-point. “Pivot-ers” will write a summative evaluation of their learning that will be shared to parents and “Persevere-ers” will write an in-progress, update of their learning so far, which will also be shared with their parents. Both templates are built around the 5 essential elements of the PYP.

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Finalized comments, such as the one below, will be shared with parents as the official UOI Evaluation of Learning (report card) via Mangebac.

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Then the cycle starts again, and those wishing to explore a new purpose will be supported to develop a second Unit of Inquiry, while those continuing with their first purpose will be supported to continue to act on their plan. No need to limit learning to a pre-determined, 6 week block.

Another consideration at this stage in the game is documentation. If students plan their own UOIs, then what happens to the POI? I say….If a Unit of Inquiry can be personalized, why can’t a Program of Inquiry also be personalized!?

My vision would be a long-term tracking, ever growing and evolving document that captures students’ personalized learning throughout their PYP journey. If we as teachers, follow the process of “start with each child and wrap the PYP around them” then each year we could note what TD themes have been explored, which understanding of concepts of have been deepened, which skills developed, which attitudes strengthened and what action has been taken.

As a homeroom teacher, I am envisioning a type of Google Sheet, where each student in my class would have a tab and thought the year I would use their bubble planner and their EOL to retroactively document the 5 EEs of the PYP. This would allow me to help support and guide them to find balance as well as vertical and horizontal articulation within their own personalized POI over the course of the year.

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And what about the PYP Exhibition? Isn’t that supposed to be the one time when students have the chance to plan their own unit? And I guess our retort to that is – Why would we sacrifice our students’ agency across 5 other units, just to protect the  specialness of having students design their own unit once? We would much rather approach PYPX as an opportunity for students to reflect upon who they have become as learners and people, and what they have discovered about themselves – their motivation, their purpose, their success – a true culminating PYP experience.

If we refer back to the purpose of PYPX from the Exhibition Guidelines document, we feel confident that we are doing right by our students, not only having them experience these features once, for a pre-determined 6 week period, but at different times and in different ways all throughout their final year in the PYP.

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Final Thoughts…

Now my team and I are at a place where we feel much more comfortable about “Agency and the UOI”. It’s not perfect by any means – we are still learning, growing, failing, arguing, reflecting and tweaking. We know (and are glad) that there will be many iterations to our approach, our process and the templates that we use. But in the meantime we feel a much greater sense of ease that we have managed to respect and support our students’ agency, while still honouring the essence and expectations of the PYP.

I think that if we as a PYP community are going to talk the talk of agency, then we also need to be prepared to walk the walk of agency. And that is likely going to look and feel different from what we’ve always done and what we’re comfortable with… but isn’t stepping out of our comfort zone, where we keep telling our students that the magic happens?

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Student-Written Reports

A while ago I read a blog post asking Should Students Write Their Own Reports? and of course my answer was a resounding YES!

But it was not until this year – where I had team of like-minded educators and the support of leadership and administration – that I was able to put this idea ino practice.

And, spolier alert, it was pretty magical!

In order to dispel the common misconception that initiatives like this one means saying to the students “go write your own reports” while teachers sit back, sipping coffee and browsing their facebook…. I will share with you our process, from start to finish, along with some honest reflections along the way about how it worked and what we will change for next time.

Here is what we did:

We knew that we really wanted students to take ownership of reporting their growth and progress to their parents for the first Unit of Inquiry, however we were also aware that this was likely the first time students had ever done this. So we thought long and hard (and spent many hours discussing) how we could support them in the process of writing their own reports. In the end, we decided to try guiding them through the writing process.

Step 1 – Pre-Writing

First we had students choose two Self-Management Skills and two Social Skills that they felt they developed as a result of our Who We Are Unit. Next,  we used the Visible Thinking Routine “Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate” to help students reflect on the learning expereinces that contributed to their development of each of those skills.

Generate: Students wrote down anything and everything that they had done within the unit.

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Some students went through their Seesaw portfolios and others browsed their day plans to help them remember all their different experiences. They wrote each experience on a small piece of paper.

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Sort: Students placed the learning experiences purposefully on a graphic organizer. The more that learning experience contributed to the development of a specific skill, the closer they placed it to the skill on the organizer. The more it contributed to their understanding of Who We Are the closer they placed it to the transdisciplinary theme in the center of the page.

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Connect: Students drew arrows to show connections: between two learning experiences: between learning experiences and skills: between learning experiences and the transdisciplinary theme etc.

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Elaborate: Students explained their reason for the connections along the arrows they drew.

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Secondly, we set up a Google Form where students could synthesize some of the ideas from the above brainstorm. We set-up the form so students could evaluate to what extent they developed each skill and so they could bring together the different experiences that developed each skill. We also had questions to allow students to evaluate their understanding of the central concepts of the unit, as well as begin to brainstorms their next steps as learners. eol gf

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The Google Form was set-up to auto-format their responses into a Google Doc that they could then refer to when it was time to draft their comments.

Step 2 – Drafting

To help students take their ideas from the brainstorming stage and turn it into comments that would be understood by a reader, we set up a graphic organizer with guiding questions.

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Students then used their VTR and their automatically formatted Google Doc mentioned above to write a first draft of their comments in the boxes.

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Step 3 – Revision

Our big focus for revision, was organization and transitions. Because students wrote four separate responses in the four boxes shown above, we wanted to support them in synthesizing those separate responses together into a coherent piece of writing. So first we had them copy and paste their responses from the boxes, into one piece of text.

Then, we pulled out examples of transition sentences that some students naturally used in their draft and shared them with all the writers.

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Then we colour coded either where we had seen an attempt in their draft to transition from one idea to the next, or where a transition sentence might be needed.

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Step 4 – Editing 

Before we started the editing  process, we used the Golden Circles approach (Why, How, What) to create a class anchor chart about feedback.

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Then students took themselves through a process of self-editing

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and peer editing.

Finally, the teachers gave feedback to students by leaving them detailed and specific comments on their Google Doc. For English Language Learners and students who needed extra support, we sat with them and shared our feedback orally.

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Step 5 – Publishing

In order to also contribute our voice and perspective to the report, the techers then wrote a short paragraph in response to the students’ evaluation of their own learning. We wrote about the degreee to which we agreed and supported the students’ evaluation based on our own observations and assessment data.

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Finally, we posted the final product and Managebac and pushed it out to parents.

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Step 6 – Getting Feedback

We wanted to make sure we gave parents a chance to share their perspective with us about our approach to having students write their own reports. So we sent them a Google Form.

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Here is what they had to say:

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Reflections…

  • it felt so nice to have students take ownership of this process
  • it was the first time I felt like I was doing reporting with students, not to students
  • it helped our students develop their evaluation skills, along with their meta-cognition skills
  • it helped our students see that we are not just “talking the talk” of student ownership, but actually “walking the walk”
  • it was one of the most authentic writing tasks I have ever seen; there was an authentic purpose, an authentic audience and therefore an authentic need for planning, revising and editing
  • this specific process, was a bit too overstructed and as a result, convuluted – in the future we will streamlime to process (specifically with regards to pre-writing and planning)
  • it was SO validating to see that NOT ONE parent wanted to have fully teacher-written reports!
  • it was definitely “assessment as learning” in order for students to evaluate and synthesize their report, they needed to deeply consolidate and reflect upon their own learning
  • moving forward, we need to go through all of the constructive feedback from the parents and figure out how to address  their concerns in order to help them feel that the student-written Evaluations of Learning (EOLs) are even more effective

 

What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of student-written reports?

How do you include your students in the process and product of their written reports?

What feedback do you have for us to help us strengthen our approach to student-written reporting?

 

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

 

Assessment done with students, not to students

This year I have tried to approach assessment differently. I wanted my students to feel that assessment is something I do with them… not to them.

I have made many shifts in my assessment practices to try and accomplish this goal:

Discussions about assessment

As a class we discussed the difficulty of trying to measure a human’s learning and I shared that there are many different approaches to trying to figure out what a student has learned in school. We discussed a handful of approaches for measuring learning and then we tried each of them out within the context of our unit.

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Co-constructed success criteria

Instead of teachers sitting behind closed doors, deciding what ought to be learned by the end of a unit, I made those decisions collaborative with my students. I used the structure of growing definition where first students brainstorm on their own, then they combine ideas with a partner, then they merge thinking with another set of partners, then a foursome with a foursome and so on until the whole class builds a list together. Once their student list was created, I consulted our school curriculum documented and added any knowledge or concepts they might have left out. This list then became our success criteria that we used throughout the unit.

Student chosen summatives

Teachers and teaching teams spend hours, upon hours, discussing and trying to figure out how students can best show their learning at the end of a unit. This year, instead of choosing that choice for them, I handed that decision over to my students. When we approached the end of the unit, I would ask “How best can you share your learning from this unit?” Some students who felt most comfortable expressing themselves orally would submit a vlog or request a one-on-one conference, other students who felt they best expressed themselves in writing would submit a written text, and others who felt they could best express themselves visually would produce a mind map, or concept map or cartoon – some sort of visual to convey their new thinking and new knowledge.

Triangulation of perspectives

Oftentimes as teachers we are the only – and ultimate – voice of assessment. Sometimes we tokenistically invite self and peer assessment, but rarely are those assessments equally valued. So this year I wanted to take a flatter, more democratic approach to assessment. Whether it was diagnostic, formative or summative, we always followed the same three steps: first the student would assess themselves, next they would find a peer to offer their perspective, then purposefully last, I as the teacher would share my perspective. What they end up with, is three different perspectives… all equally valued.

  

Interchangeability of diagnostic, formatives and summatives

Instead of approaching diagnostic, formative and summative assessments as assessments that you do at the beginning, middle and end of a unit – I took a much more fluid approach. If a student did a diagnostic and demonstrated all the knowledge and skills that were expected they could decide to use that as their summative and then either choose to extend themselves in this area of continue with a personal inquiry of their choice – thus the diagnostic becomes the summative. If partway through the unit a student demonstrates the required knowledge and skills, then that formative can then become their summative and they would have the same choice of extending or free learning. And finally, on the “last day” of the unit if a student completed a summative and had not yet demonstrated the necessary knowledge and skills they could choose to continue to learn, and therefore turn that summative into a formative and re-take the summative at a later time when they felt ready.

Decision making conferences

When it came time to enter “final marks” into the report card, I would sit with each student individually and have a conversation about where they thought they were in their learning. They would look back at the assessment data and tools and share where they thought they were and then I would do the same. Together we would agree on a mark that we both felt comfortable putting on the report card.

Taking it to the next level…

All in all, it was a great change in practice! I think my students felt empowered to have a voice in their learning and in the measurement of their learning. I think students felt their perspectives were respected and valued. And on a personal level, it felt much more humane and much more like a partnership in supporting their learning journey!

Upon reflections from this year and visions for next year, here are a few ways that I would like to take the approach of ‘doing assessment with students’ even further:

Individualized success criteria 

I enjoyed the process of co-constructing success criteria with my students, but to take that further I would love to personalize that process even more and have students design their own individual success criteria. Flipping the question “What should we learn but the end of the unit?” more towards “What should I (or do I want to) learn by the end of the unit?” This would open up some great conversations with students about choosing how they might know they have been successful at learning something or acquiring new skills. Here is a blog post with an example of how one teacher approached this.

Beyond triangulation of perspectives

This year I think I did a pretty good job shifting the assessment power away from myself as a teacher, and equally distributing it between myself, the student and a peer. However, I would like to push that model further and perhaps figure out a way to include the perspective of parents, industry experts or community members. I don’t think it would have to be all 6 sources every time. I think there could be a lot of authentic learning in having students decide which assessment perspective is most helpful in a specific situation.

Student written report cards

The only part of the assessment process my students were kept out of this year was reporting. Moving forward I would love to see students take a more equal role in writing their own report cards. Here is a great blog post with some suggestions I hope to be able to follow in the future.

How do you ensure assessment is something done “with students” not “to students” in your classroom or school?

Supporting Students’ Agency

My students and I were recently asked to Skype into a PYP workshop to share examples of how student agency works in our classroom.

In preparation, we brainstormed everything this year that contributed to students experiencing a sense of ownership over their own learning. In addition to sharing our story with the participants of the workshop, I thought I’d also share the list with you!

So here it goes… a list of ways to support student agency:

What they think…

Setting up the classroom

Student shared that being invited to help set-up the classroom at the beginning of the year helped them to have a voice in decisions about their learning and how the classroom could be set-up to support their learning.

Making decisions together

Students reflected that being able to participate in decisions usually made by the teacher helped them feel like they had a voice. The specifically pointed out our classroom board where they could identify problems, ideas, and questions. The explained how the routine we had each morning going through the board and collectively solving problems, agreeing on ideas and answering questions helped them experience more control over in their lives as students.

Pre-assessments

Students identified the pre-assessments (or time capsules) we do at the beginning of each unit as playing a role in helping them to own their own learning. They explained that the pre-assessments help them know themselves and what they already know and can do before a unit starts. This helps them know where they are and where they need to go.

Choice and Trust

Students shared the importance of choice and trust in feeling agentic. Choice in where to learn, how to learn and who to learn with were identified as factors that helped them have agency in their learning. They also shared the importance of having trust from their teacher to test out different options and space to make mistakes and wrong choices along the way.  It was often experiencing choices that blocked or hindered their learning that had the biggest impact on getting to know themselves as learners.

         

Three-way conferences

Students reflected that our approach to three-way conferences also helped support their sense of student agency. Being able to share their thoughts and perspectives about their own learning first – before hearing from their parent or teacher – helped them feel the sense that the learning is theirs.

Planning their own day

Far and beyond, the one thing that students identified as helping them experience the most agency as learners was the opportunity to plan their own day. This has been a ongoing experiment and has taken many forms along the way – but the main idea is having students write their own day plans.

(I plan on writing a full post about this experience soon!)

Creativity Thursday

One specific version of students planning their own day is Creativity Thursday. Students explained that this provided them with the most ownership over their own learning – because unlike other days when they are planning their days around teacher planned units or school-chosen curricula – on Thursdays they have ultimate choice over not only when, how and where to learn, but also what to learn. On Thursday they are able to truly pursue passions, interests and curiosity of their own choosing.

What I think…

Learning about learning

I believe that investing the first month of school to learn about learning and learn about ourselves as learners set the stage well for students to feel empowered and capable of exercising ownership over their learning for the rest of the year.

Assessment

In addition to pre-assessments, our approach to assessment in general this year has helped students to feel more agency in their learning. Approaching assessment as something you do with students – not to students – has helped them experience more ownership and voice in the process of assessing and evaluating their learning.

Learning Plans

Taking the time to purposefully plan out their learning, based on personal learning goals has also helped students be in charge of their own learning. Taking data from pre-assessments and planning what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn, how they were going to get feedback and how they will know if they achieved their learning goal really put them in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Learning from each other

Building a culture where students see one another as valuable sources of learning, assistance and feedback has also helped students to be able to take ownership of pursuing learning through multiple avenues – not only depending on the teacher in the room.

Shifting from mandatory to optional 

This year, as much as possible, I have tried to move away from things that are mandatory for students (often decided, organized and arranged by their teacher). I tried to take things that students are usually obliged to participate in, and reimagine a way to make them optional. Our approach to reading buddies is one example of this.

Supporting student initiatives

I think it has been important to try and create a culture of initiative. Whether it is an idea to label to garbage cans, the desire for a height poster or a proposal for a field trip, I believe that honouring and supporting students’ initiatives this year, both inside and outside of the classroom, have help students notice and be aware of their own agency. It often comes at the cost of a “pinterest-perfect” classroom, but it is worth it!

   

Teacher transparency

I think it has also been important that I share my goals to develop student agency with my class. I think there should be no “secret teacher business” and that my students, their parents, my colleagues and administrators can all have a part to play in helping me work towards my goal. Being open and honest about my goals was a great first step, but then taking the initiative to ask for feedback about my goals was really what helped me reflect and grow along the way.

I am by no means an expert on the matter. Just a curious and interested learner who has tried to take risks and reflect in the pursuit of building a classroom that honours student agency. I’d love to continue my journey as a learner and hear from you as well!

How do you respect and support student agency in your classroom?