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

 

Motivated Students

In education we often hear the question being asked, “How can I  motivate my students?” And though I am sure that question always comes from a genuine place of desire to help students learn and grow… I’m not sure it’s the question we need to be asking.

Recently I have begun a professional inquiry into motivation. I started by watching the very famous Ted Talk by the very famous Dan Pink about motivation:

Although his Ted Talk is specifically focused on motivation in the business world, there is much to learned – and much that has already been learned – about how this translates in the education world.

Many people are familiar with the new paradigm Pink offers regarding human motivation:

Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose. 

Autonomy – The desire to direct our own lives

Mastery – The desire to be better and develop ourselves

Purpose – The desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves

And many people can see how this paradigm fits into a system of education that supports agency and life long learners… but then comes the ever-present question on educators’ minds:

“But what does it look like in the classroom?”

So I have begun to brainstorm ways to turn this theory into practice. I’ve started to a list of  ideas – linked to resources where possible – that I believe can help teachers build learning communities that support students’ autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy – The desire to direct our own lives

Mastery – The desire to be better and develop ourselves

Purpose – The desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves

I think it’s time we switch the question away from “How can I motivate my students?” and more towards “What are we doing – or not doing – as educators that is getting in the way of students’ motivation?” and “What changes need to be made in both our classrooms and the education system that allow students more autonomy, mastery and purpose during their hours spent at school?”

What does autonomy, mastery and purpose look like in your classroom?

How you do translate Dan Pink’s theory of motivation into practice with your students?

How do you protect and foster your students’ intrinsic motivation?

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?

What if?

I started this year with a dream to build a fair, free, democratic classroom where students have agency over their own learning… and to be completely honest, it has been quite difficult. Most days I feel like I am trying to jam a round peg into a square hole. There are so many constraints and structures that run deep within the current system of school, that it has been difficult to circumvent them.

This year I have tried to change my practice to fit within the system, but I’m beginning to wonder if those goals are fully achievable without changing the system itself.

So I have begun to wonder…

What if curriculum, instead of being multiple pages with hundreds of bullets, was simply “find out where students are and help them move along”?

What if assessment, instead of being focused on achievement, measured and celebrated the amount of progress made by a student?

What if school goals, instead of being focused on an percentage increase of reading scores, focused on a percentage increase of love of reading?

What if reports, instead of being written solely by the teacher, were written collaboratively by the student, their family and the teacher?

What if timelines, instead of being based on pre-determined start and finish dates, were driven by students’ learning needs and interests?

What if grades, instead of ranking and labelling with letters, numbers and words, changed exclusively into feedback that advised students about how to improve and where to go next?

What if day plans, instead of being written by the teacher, were written by each student?

What if standardized tests, instead of measuring skills and knowledge, measured how much students enjoy school and find it beneficial to their life?

Sir Ken Robinson urges us that reform of the current system is not enough – it’s a complete learning revolution that is needed. Based on my experience this year I would have to agree. I think that making small shifts within the system is not enough, we as educators need to continue (or for some of us begin)  critically looking at and discussing what parts of the school system are harmful to or a hindrance of student learning. It’s time to stop talking about how best to jam a round peg in a square hole, and time to start talking about how to change the whole itself.

What revolutionary, systemic “what ifs” would you add to the list?

Are we providing “space” for virtual making?

Maker Space is the current hotness. No debate there. I cannot scroll through Twitter without seeing a school’s new Maker Lab, a classroom’s new Maker drawer or an article about the benefits of “Making”. Yet I can’t help but wonder…

Are all “making” experiences being treated equally?

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students cutting cardboard, rummaging through tools, using a hot glue gun, and twisting wires together . They would probably be pleased. They would probably say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students all on their iPads. But, on their iPads they were playing the game MineCraft. Would they be pleased then? Would they say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”?

A few weeks ago I know I wouldn’t have. A few weeks ago, my understanding of Maker Space was something that existed in actual reality. Then one day last week, when my students were taking a ten minute break to “recharge their batteries”, I made the great decision to ask my students a simple question:

What are you doing on Minecraft?

I was actually blown away! One of my students showed me a three story mansion with over 10 rooms – stables, secret panic rooms, appliances, fireplaces, staircases, furniture – that she had built by herself… brick by brick! She told me about the different materials she needed, and the different combinations that made certain structures. She spent three weeks building it – of her own time. 

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My thinking was instantly challenged and my perspective began to shift. Wasn’t the Maker Movement about the essence of designing, creating and building – not hammers, boxes and ductape. Were those goals not still being accomplished, virtually, through Minecraft?

I began to wonder if virtual making is being held in the same regard as physical making in today’s schools. And if it’s not, why? Is it because as adults we are unfamiliar with virtual maker programs like Minecraft? Is it because as adults we have biases against virtual experiences? Is it because as adults if we don’t understand it, it must not be worthwhile? I know for me, most of the answers -sadly – are yes.

So I will strive to learn. I will strive to become familiar with what my students love and are using. I will strive to become literate in new literacies. I will strive to become more aware of my own biases and my prejudices against things that I don’t understand. I will strive to not value learning in the physical realm over learning in the virtual realm.

And when visitors come into the room, see my students on their iPads and ask “What are your students doing?” I will confidently answer “they are doing Maker Space”.

You lost me at levels and incentives…

A few weeks ago I attended a training session for an online reading product. I arrived open-minded and ready to learn about a new tool to help my students develop their love of reading.

Then words and phrases from the presentation started to buzz around me like pesky bees.

“stars earned for books read”… swat!

“limit their levels”… swat!

“comprehension quiz”… swat!

“pre-made”… swat!

“worksheets”… swat!

“generic lessons”… swat!

Then it started to become worse than buzzing. I was shown how to control what students read, how to restrict how they read and how to send them messages to which they could not reply. Cringe.

Where is the student ownership, voice, agency?

So I began to do a little research on their website:

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Ranking. Control. Practice, practice and more practice. 

Nothing about love, joy or passion. 

The whole time I was listening to the presentation and browsing the website I could not get this poem written by John Locke our of my head:

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I don’t want to do anything that gives my students an aversion to reading or learning. I do not want to make reading a business for them. I want to help them grow their passion as readers.

5 years ago I probably would have jumped on board and signed my students up. I’ve become more discerning since then. I become more informed since then. I’ve become more critical since then. I’ve become more emboldened since then.

Amazing provocateurs like Pernille Ripp, Mark Barnes and Alfie Kohn have challenged my thinking about reading practices like reading logs, levelling, and incentives. They have prompted me to reflect on how the choices I make as a teacher can kill my students’ love of reading. They have forced me to think of myself as a reader when thinking about what I should be asking of students. They have provided me with guidance about how to create a passionate reading environment. They have inspired me to become a reading warrior where I critically think about and advocate against literacy practices and products that negatively impact children. They have inspired me to break the rules.

Yet time remained in this presentation, so I tried to see the potential uses. Here was a website offering thousands of online books. Books… hmmm. I began to wonder about these “books”. So I dug a little deeper.

“professional illustrators who have years of experience illustrating educational material

excerpts and adaptations from literature”

Was this a place where students could access real books or materials for reading instruction?Because those aren’t the same things.

I think my students deserve exposure to good quality literature. I think my students deserve to be free from levelling and ranking. I think my students deserve voice and choice in what they read and how they read. I think my students deserve to develop their love for reading away from prizes, rewards and incentives.

Is there not an app or website where students have access to literature with no levels, no incentives, no restrictions or limitations?

Is so, please tell me about that.

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

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

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

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

Our students deserve better.

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

orange in packaging

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

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

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

Here is what it looks like so far:

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

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

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

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

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