Growing a School-Wide Innovation

On Friday, our amazing Primary School faculty supported learners from Grade 1 through Grade 5 to plan their own full, rich and balanced day of learning as part of something we have come to call “PIE”.

“PIE” is a home-grown innovation that stands for “Personalization, Intervention and Extension” and has been implemented school-wide, from Grade 1 through Grade 12. The implementation looks and feels different in the PYP, MYP and DP to allow for consideration such as of age of learners, divisional structures and programmatic differences. However we all share a common goal: empowering learners to understand themselves in order to make choices and take action within a supportive community as a way to continuously to grow and improve.

PIE is an initiative that grows out of our unique context. It is unlike other eduction innovations I have been part of at the other PYP schools at which I have worked – which is a good thing. One of the messages I try to give when I am consulting with PYP schools around the world is that innovations should be grown and not transplanted. And that is exactly what has happened with PIE.

PIE has grown out of:

  • our understanding of the new IB Standards and Practices
  • our school’s unique Mission and Core Values
  • our community’s philosophy and understanding of curriculum
  • our commitment to being a Professional Learning Community
  • our working towards using the Response to Intervention approach

Considering these different ingredients – the different dimensions to our identity as a school – has led to an initiative that allows us to bring all of these elements together in divisionally-appropriate ways.

The Middle School and High School have been implementing this structure for a few years, and the Primary School was excited to roll it out to our younger learners as well. In the past, the Primary learners and faculty have engaged with the concepts of voice, choice, ownership, needs and wants as a learners as well as personalization in different ways, but we were excited this year to approach those concepts through a shared, school-wide structure.

We had a little bit of a curve-ball thrown at us when we found out school was starting online, but the teachers quickly pivoted the face-to-face implementation plan to allow for a soft-start while learners were still at home. As educators, we know there are specific skills, approaches and pedagogical moves needed to support learners to make choices for themselves that can be difficult to expect from parents or caregivers supporting their child with online learning. However, we still wanted to build the momentum of learners making choices for themselves, but in a way that we felt was more manageable while they were at home.

But once we had learners back on campus with us – we were ready to launch the full implementation plan!

Here is how it went:

PREPARING

Working with Faculty

Starting the year, we were ready with a fully developed implementation guide that was built the year prior and collaboratively fine tuned with the input of teachers across different grades and subject areas. Once we heard that campuses were closed, we adapted the implementation guide to a fully online context and from the start of the year were supporting teachers with this modified, online implementation plan.

Once we heard the government decree that campuses were allowed to be re-opened, we were ready to switch over to the face-to-face implementation guide and continue to take the next steps with the faculty of how this would work on campus. We prepared all the background documents into one Google Classroom post, and allocated a faculty meeting to go through all the systems, structures, tools and routines specific to being face-to-face.

We also made sure to create additional support opportunities for the teams and teachers who needed it.

Many teachers and teams took us up on these additional support offerings. During my weekly collaborative planning times with teams I was able to support them in small groups to figure out what made the most sense for the age and specific needs of their learners. Together we worked on developing ideas, tools, references materials and procedures to help our first “on campus PIE” be a success.

Keeping Parents in the Loop

Another ‘piece of the PIE’ was to ensure we were keeping our parent community in the loop. Up until this point we had shared a video overview of PIE with them close to the start of the year to help them understand the purpose of PIE.

But now that we were coming back to campus it was a perfect opportunity to offer a live session to go into more detail. So myself, the Secondary School VP and our Director of Learning collaborated to put together an optional evening session for the parents.

We started all together with our Director of Learning sharing the “why” behind PIE – explicitly showing the connection to the IB Standards and Practices, our Mission statement and Core Values as a school, and the links with being a PLC and RTI school. He also offered some broad strokes to help illustrate for parents how PIE works.

Then we split up into breakout rooms to dive a little deeper into how it works in each division. I was able to work with a small group of Primary School parents and share more details about how PIE works and what it might look like for their child.

It was a small group, but an engaged and passionate one, who asked lots of great questions to deepen their understanding of PIE.

When it comes to supporting parents, we also worked with the faculty to help them understand how their communication with parents is essential in order to bring them onboard. We shared some professional resources to give them some ideas how to do this, and will continue to work with them to help them see the power of not only keeping parents in the loop, but also empowering them to understand the role they can play at home.

Then it was time to launch with the kids! 🎉

THE LAUNCH

The structural backbone of our PIE initiative is the PYP action cycle – CHOOSE, ACT, REFLECT. We not only wanted to harness this model, but also explore it with learners. We want to be very intentional to not tell learners to choose, act and reflect, but instead to teach them how to choose, act and reflect.

Choosing

Teams worked collaboratively to plan systems, structures, tools and supports that were age appropriate for their learners. Many teams explored the concepts of ‘needs’, ‘wants, ‘balance’ and ‘prioritization’ as teaching-points in preparation for the choices their students were going to make.

We had an all-hands-on-deck approach, which allowed us to present the learners with lots of adult-led learning experiences throughout the day, that were supported by:

  • homeroom teachers and TAs
  • single-subject teachers and TAs
  • integrationists for ICT, library and PSPE
  • Support services team – EAL and Learning Support teachers

This flexible and creative use of time, space and faculty allowed us to harness 33 educators to support 138 learners!!!

Teachers also created different tools, based on the ages and skills of their learners to help them document the choices they made.

We saw lots of drawing and labeling in the younger grades.

And the integration of digital tools in the older grades.

When it came to support for learners during the ‘choose’ block there was whole-group instruction, guided groups and one-on-one support to help them understand how to make the best choices for themselves.

And, of course, lots and lots and LOTS of conferencing! Both peer-to-peer, and teacher-to-learner.

Questions I heard during these conferences:

  • What did you choose? Why did you choose it?
  • How did you know those choices were right for you?
  • Do you feel your day is balanced? How do you know?
  • Which of your choices are ‘needs’ and which are ‘wants’?
  • Are you sure your choices address your priorities? How do you know?

The conferences really provided an opportunity for partnership. A chance for the teachers to understand the perspectives of the learners, but also a chance to share their professional expertise with the learners about needs and priorities. This shared decision-making is an essential part of ensuring learners are making informed choices about their learning.

After learners made their initial choices, conferenced with peers and teachers, refined and improved their choices, they were ready to sign-up for any of the adult-led learning opportunities.

Many of the grade-levels also displayed the sign-ups within their learning environments.

Once the plans were finalized… it was time to act!

Acting

As soon as the clock struck nine there was buzz across the Primary campus! Learners were literally running to their first block! As learners were acting on their choices it was amazing to see all the different learning opportunities made available for learners, from all the different educators within the Primary Faculty.

There was support for learners with their Units of Inquiry for catching up, going further and taking action connected to all three Lines of Inquiry:

Inquiry into our learning environments

Inquiry into our learning communities

Inquiry into myself as a learner

As well as support for ATL skills, like research and self-management

There was support for math, in the forms of:

Additional instruction

Guided groups

One on one support

Opportunities for extension and challenge

There were opportunities to grow language and literacy skills, in the forms of:

First language and additional language support

Support with phonics, spelling, letter formation, rhyming, fine motor skills and vocabulary

Read alouds

Author Studies

Storytelling

Independent Reading and Writing

Reading and Writing Conferences

There were also opportunities for interventions and extensions with our specialist subjects like Visual Arts, Performing Arts and PE

There were opportunities for personalization:

Support with starting a personal inquiry

Time to pursue personal interests like coding or building

Throughout the day, there was lots of support with how to act on your choices. Teachers helped learners build the skills of referencing schedules, referring to plans, and keeping track of what they’d done so far

Reflecting

Teams also worked collaboratively to plan how best to teach learners to reflect on their day. Similar to the ‘choose’ block, teachers made informed choices based on the age and skills of learners to create tools and routines for the reflection block as well.

Learners expressed themselves through writing, drawing and speaking to reflect on prompts provided by teachers. These prompts helped them to think deeply about the choices they made and the impact those choices had on their learning.

The educators supported learners with mini-lessons about the skill of reflecting as well as lots and lots and LOTS of conferences!

Questions I heard during these conferences:

  • How did your choices go? Which ones made the biggest impact on your learning?
  • How did you do following your choices? What makes you say that?
  • What did you learn about yourself as a learner?
  • What might you do differently next PIE?

There were also some cool opportunities for learners to participate in reflecting on PIE as a whole, beyond their own individual learning. One team used a ‘plus/delta’ protocol to invite the learners to offer feedback about what worked and what needs to be changed and improved for next time.

Another team also took this opportunity to create a “PIE Learning Story” to share with families. They documented and explained how the day worked to help parents better understand how their child experienced ‘personalization, interventions and extensions’. They posted it on their bulletin board and shared it with their families via Seesaw.

NEXT STEPS

Teachers Next Steps

As we are learners first and foremost ourselves, it is essential that we build the habits on ongoing reflection. Teachers were given some reflective questions to help them analyze what was revealed throughout the day, and how they can use those observations and evidence next week to respond to learners.

My Next Steps

Just as the teachers analyze and respond to evidence from their learners… I also must analyze and respond to the evidence from my learners, aka the faculty! I will take some time to sift through my observations and reflections from the day and strategically support individuals and teams with suggestions, scaffolds, tools and coaching to help them continue to grow in their implementation of PIE.

I was also provoked by our Grade 1 team creating a ‘Learning Story’ about PIE for their grade-level parents community and I would love to do the same for our Primary-wide parent community. I think the ‘show and tell’ aspect of a learning story can contribute to parents’ ongoing understanding and of our PIE initiative.

Our Collective Next Steps

Together, we will reflect and work towards identifying and ‘de-bugging’ any logistical or structural glitches that impeded student learning.

At the moment we have collectively identified a handful of issues and are already working collaboratively to address them before next week.

Overall, it was an AMAZING day of learning. There was a buzz in the air. Learners were energized, engaged and empowered. The conversations with learners about their choices were rich, reflective and grounded in a strong sense of who they are as learners – aware of what they need and want and are interested in. At the end of the day there was a palpable sense of pride, confidence, accomplishment and celebration – from the learners and the faculty!

I look forward to continuing to partner with this amazing faculty over the course of the year, through multiple cycles of action research, as we continually choose-act-reflect towards our shared goal of: empowering learners to understand themselves in order to make choices and take action within a supportive community as a way to continuously to grow and improve. .

10 Tips for Moving from Professional Development to Professional Learning – Choose  Act Reflect

Reimagining the POI

This is not my first time sharing my two cents about the PYP POI.

At the time I wrote that post, I was teaching grade 5 so although I could reimagine our approach to our grade-level POI, thinking bigger – whole school – wasn’t really in my purview at the time.

But now that I am in the role of PYP Coordinator, these wonderings have begun to swirl around in my mind once more.

There are two potential ideas I have been chewing on lately that I am considering taking a risk and giving a try for next year. They are by no means fully cooked ideas yet; merely seedlings that I’ve been incubating for a while. Not only does getting them down in writing help me clarify and develop my own thinking, but getting potential feedback from my fellow PYP peeps around the world could be just what I need to get a few steps closer to being ready to launch!

So here’s what I’m thinking…

Living POI

One of the issues we have been bumping up against is trying to balance a more emergent, organic, learner-centered approach to unit planning with having some sort of central POI that is transparent, visible and accessible to the whole community. The traditional approach to POI planning – more or less – is to do it in advance, ‘lock it in’ or ‘freeze it’, throw it on the website, print it out, frame it, hang it on the wall… and then more or less follow it for the course of the year.

That approach is difficult for us, because our first two questions we ask ourselves anytime we are planning a new unit are:

  1. What are we noticing about our learners? (interests, strengths, curiosities, needs, misconceptions etc)
  2. What is going on in the world? (locally, globally, virally, seasonally etc.)

Then we consult our learning outcomes… and well, you know the rest!

Starting the unit planning process with these two questions have helped us get a little closer to building significant, relevant, engaging and challenging units that reflect that specific group of learners at that specific point in time. But has made it tricky to document the POI in the same neat and tidy way!

So I’ve been thinking about how we might adopt an approach for a “living POI”. One that can be organically, emergently, responsively built – unit by unit.

With the magic of Google Slides, I think I might have a way to do that!

I’d build a central Google Slide as the comprehensive, whole-school, PYP POI.

This would display the “big bones” of each unit for each grade-level – as it is built – whether transdisciplinary or stand alone.

Even though this will be the centralized place where everything is displayed, it wouldn’t be the place where everything is updated. To make it easier for teams, I would build each grade-level and subject team their own Google Slide deck for the units they are responsible for.

Each of these individual slides from every grade and subject team would be linked back to the master document.

That way, as they responsively, organically and emergently build units, they can simply document the “big bones” here. Then, thanks to the magic of Google, all I will need to do is hit the “update” button and it will appear in the central, whole-school “living POI”

This would allow each team to be the keeper of their grade-level or subject POI, while I can be the keeper of the whole-school “living POI”. Every time a unit is built, it can be easily updated and therefore accessible and visible to the whole school community.

This would also allow each team to have a smaller, more manageable set of slides to take ownership over and add to as they build units, throughout the year. While at the same time having easy access to the central POI to see all units happening through all grades throughout the whole school.

By the end of the year, we would have our POI documented, but we wouldn’t need to sacrifice our responsive, emergent, learner-centered approach to unit planning in order to make that happen.

Learner-Centered POI

One of the potential criticisms of a more emergent and organic approach to unit planning in the PYP is the loss of articulation over time.

However, I’m not sure the current traditional approach to POI articulation actually accomplishes what it is trying to accomplished anyway…

Most schools, at the end of every year, or on a pre-set cycle every few years, step back and analyze horizontal and vertical articulation of their POI to ensure balance across things like concepts, ATL skills, Learner Profile attributes etc.

But this ‘point in time’ articulation approach seems flawed to me. Sure, if a school builds a balanced POI and freezes it for 7-8 years then it accomplishes it’s goal of balance for the learners who go through those 7 or 8 years of the Primary Years Program at that school. But currently, I would bet that most schools are venturing more towards refining, updating and improving units on a more regular basis – many each and every year. So what good is a perfectly balanced POI at ‘one point in time’ if by the time those learners in Early Years make it to Grade 5 the units have grown and shifted and changed (as they should in an agency-supportive, learner-centered approach!) So if I am a Grade 5 teacher interested in balance and articulation and I look at a the current POI … it is very unlikely that my current Grade 5 learners explored the units documented in that POI when they were in younger grades. Meaning I am judging articulation by looking at units my group of learners may have never encountered!

What I think we need to be articulating is POI balance ‘across time’. Enter my idea for a “learner-centered” POI.

What if, instead of articulating the POI at a given time, we spent our time and effort articulating the POI each learner experiences across their years in the Primary Years Program?

My thinking is that we could set-up learner-centered POIs for each grade-level and then year after year capture the units they have explored and continuously update the elements of articulation we want to track to therefore inform future planning for that cohort.

Here is an example of what I’m envisioning:

If I think of the learners who will complete the PYP at our school next year at the “PYP Class of 2021/2022” I can create that cohort’s POI.

I can then go back through the archives and capture the different units they have explored so far in their PYP journey.

At the end of this academic year, we can update the units they explored in Grade 4

Then next year’s Grade 5 teachers can easily see what units their incoming learners have explored over time, to help inform the planning and decisions they make for their written curriculum throughout the year.

I am also considering an “over time” articulation slide, where the Grade 5 teachers – for example – can easily tally things like key concepts, ATL skills, attributes of the Learner Profile for that specific cohort, which again can inform their planning for this group of learners.

Perhaps even a colour-coded running record of parts of each TD theme descriptor…

As a I mentioned, these ideas are half-baked at best! But I’m definitely itching to take some risks and reimagine our school’s approach to building, capturing and balancing our PYP Program of Inquiry.

I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback to help me further reflect upon, refine and fertilize these idea seedlings.

Supporting Teacher Agency – Take 1

Last year, when I was new to my school and new to my role, my biggest focus was to ‘seek to understand‘. Now that I have had that first year (and what a year it was!) to learn about the school, experience the context and build relationships, I feel I am ready to move on to a new professional goal – supporting teacher agency.

New-ish goal might be more accurate.

Last time I was out of the classroom I was experimenting with Ed Camps and other models of Personalized Professional Learning and I was having some major shifts in thinking from working with adult learners. But it wasn’t until I found myself called back into the classroom that I began to find my identity as an agency-supportive educator. That’s when I was able to ‘risk and reflect‘ when working with my Grade 4s and then embarking on the collaborative adventure that was Studio 5. That’s also when I began to dabble with Agency PD to support schools around the world with their journey.

But now it’s time to ground that passion and that goal in this context with this staff. And boy, am I lucky with this staff! ❤️

I am a firm believer that the medium is the message. And learning through agency can be just as (if not more!) powerful than learning about agency.  Therefor I believe that putting my eggs in the basket of supporting teacher agency will have the biggest impact on teachers supporting the agency of their child-learners.

So as I work with my principal and the rest of our school’s Academic Leadership Team to get ready for a new (and unprecedented) school year, there have been some specific agency-supportive ‘moves’ I have tried to attempt to begin the year respecting and supporting the agency of the wonderful teachers at my school.

Here’s what I’ve been experimenting with so far:

Town Halls

No doubt this year there is lots of new and lots of unknown. Lots of differences and lots of change. So as my principal and I have been thinking through approaches to this unique year, we have intentionally attempted to make decisions with our staff, instead of for our staff.

We hosted a ‘Town Hall’  and shared our current thinking with our whole Primary staff on things like the structure of the day, scheduling, first UOI of the year, Family-Led conferences and the public planner.

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Then we invited them into an adapted, asynchronous Tuning Protocol where they could share their questions and feedback with us.

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Then we coded and analyzed ALL that data!

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Then we organized the trends in the data to be able to feedback to staff and respond.

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I then recorded and shared videos responding to the major questions and feedback and created a pathway for further questions and feedback.

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Think Tanks

There are some things we are trying to build and decide as leaders that we have less experience with than teachers. The last few months of the school year, teachers were on the ground with distance learning and therefor the ones with experience and expertise! So we have been trying to capitalize on this, by including their voice and opinions in not just the decisions, but the thinking as well.

One of the ways we have done this is through an asynchronous “think tank”. Where we have used Nearpod to invite teachers to think through some of the nuances of how we are approaching asynchronous learning this year.

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We invited PRO and CON analyses…

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We asked for votes on potential models…

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We invited them not only to connect with our thinking, but also to contribute models and designs based on their thinking….

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And because our staff are ROCK STARS, we not only got some mock-ups, but they initiated a critical-friends conversation in the comments sections offering feedback on one another’s ideas!

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We were then able to export all this data from Nearpod and bring it with us to leadership meetings to ensure that teachers’ voices and ideas were part of the thinking process.

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Agency Supportive O-Week

Planning for orientation is a normal part of any leader’s back to school process. This year is unique though. We will have teachers on campus, teacher in the same time zone but unable to be on campus, and some teachers spread around the world in very different time zones! So it challenged us to re-think some of our traditional approaches to planning staff orientation.

Myself and a colleague of mine – who are both passionate about supporting  agency of both child and adult learners – pitched a collection of ideas to our Academic Leadership Team to hopefully inform the course of our orientation week planning.

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Hopefully with an orientation week that respects and supports teacher agency, we can not only personalize the professional learning to each unique individual’s needs and interests, but also maximize everyone’s time to ensure that every minute is purposefully… while at the same time modeling some of the philosophies and practices we hope to see teachers use with their learners!

In-House Experts

Leaders know some stuff. Leaders do not know everything. And that’s okay. Now more than ever leaders must look to the teachers who were on the ground during remote emergency learning last spring to harness their experience and expertise as we prepare for another unprecedented year.

Myself and my principal have tried to keep this in mind as much as possible, as we build our orientation week.

We’ve invited teachers to help curate resources that can be used in orientation and through the year.

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We’ve invited teachers to lead workshops during orientation in the area of their expertise.

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We’ve invited teachers to contribute to criteria on diagnostic tools.

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We hope to invite and make space for teachers to share their learning and passions during orientation week.

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Space for Voice

We know this is a challenging time for all. Lots of questions, uncertainty, nerves, fears and excitement for starting the year. So we’ve tried to carve our space for teachers’ voice.

One of the ways we are doing that is offering drop-in office hours for them to pop by and have a space for whatever it is they need space for.

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Respect for Summer

Did I mention we are all still on summer holiday!? So we’ve been very careful to ensure all of our approaches are invitations, but not expectations. We know for some teachers August is still a protected time for rest and relaxation – great. We also know for other educators, in August a switch gets flicked and there is a burst of energy and interest in thinking about and working on the year ahead – great. And for some educators… it’s somewhere in-between – great.

So as much as possible, we are trying to be mindful of all those different perspectives and create structures that allow individuals to choose how much they participate based on what they feel is best for them at this moment in time.

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I’m sure there is MUCH more we could be doing, and hopefully we will continue to challenge ourselves and one another on the leadership team to keep finding and making space for inclusive practices that flatten hierarchical structures, harness expertise regardless of position and see the humanness of each individual within an organization.

 

How are you respecting and supporting the agency of your teachers?

How are you building and protecting space for teacher’s voice choice and ownership?

How are you modeling with teachers, what you expect in the classroom?

Agency in the time of COVID

I’ve started to receive some messages in my Twitter inbox asking my personal opinions about how us agency-supportive educators can stay true to our beliefs and philosophies this upcoming year despite the unique circumstances and constraints of how we are returning to school. These requests have engendered much deep thought and reflection throughout my summer holiday; despite my best efforts to shut-off and re-charge!

Instead of sharing my thoughts just with them individually via Twitter messages, I decided to share my thinking here, with all of you – in hopes of opening up a larger dialogue as an education community.

DISCLAIMER: I have no magic answers.

All I can do is share my thinking at the moment.

And then I hope you do the same.

So we can all learn and grow together and keep the global momentum for respecting and supporting student agency going, even during these uncertain, challenging (and likely more restrictive) times.

Regardless of health and safety protocols or whether we are face to face or online (or some sort of hybrid combination of both!) here is my perspective on where there might be space and opportunity this year for continuing to nurture learners’ agency:

  1. Prioritize their humanness – Now more than ever we must see, understand and respect our learners as human beings.  Definitely, their academic growth and development is still important; but it shouldn’t be the only thing on meeting agendas and day plans. This is a year where have to honor, prioritize and advocate for their physical well being, emotional and mental health, physical needs, and social development. We need to respect that they (like all of us) have gone through change, uncertainty, and potentially loss and trauma. Now more than ever we must see them as whole human beings – not partially complete adults-in-the-making.
  2. No secret teacher business – This is year there will likely be many new restrictions, special parameters and constraints in place; rightfully so, for the health and wellbeing of the community. Why not bring learners into the conversation? Make the “why” transparent. Take the time to discuss the reasons, purposes and benefits behind the decisions that have been made in these unique times.
  3. Democratic decision making (where possible) – Although this year many additional decisions will be made by leaders, administrators, boards, ministries and governments there will still be many decisions that rest with the teacher. Why not share those decisions with your learners? How best can we use the time we’ve been allocated? How can we still collaborate while needing to be 2 meters apart? What games can we play where we can keep our distance and don’t need equipment? What should the order of our units be? What online tools and resources might help our inquiry? Obviously, the specifics of the questions depends on your age of learners, subject, and unique context – but the idea of inviting and involving learners in the decisions that are still up for grabs can apply to all.
  4. Be intentional with making space and time for their voice – Make school (whether face-to-face- or virtual) a time and place where they know they will be heard. Specifically have a plan for their questions, ideas, problems; things they want to talk about out; perspectives and opinions and philosophies they’ve developed these past months; their reality, experiences, hopes and fears. Why not have a dedicated whiteboard somewhere in the physical or virtual classroom for this? Or a specific Padlet? Perhaps a daily Flip Grid? Or an infinite Google Form? Or carve out a designated community meeting time?  Somewhere and somehow intentional;  where their voice is not an add-on or interruption to the learning. Somewhere where their voice is seen and respected as an important part of the learning.
  5. Meet ’em where they are… and move ’em along – now more than ever we need to be critical of the “should be” approach to curriculum. Many agency-supportive educators are always critical of trying to standardize learning, achievement and human beings; but the current reality has amplified the tenuous nature of this curriculum model. What learning and progress was able to be made for each learner in the final months of last year’s school year differs learner to learner and has many variables – family situation, access to technology, health, language – just to name a few. Now more than ever we need to take the approach of understanding learners’ current knowledge, understanding and skills and helping them progress and grow from where they actually are. Regardless of if that is where they are “supposed to be” or if they are “ahead” or “behind”.
  6. Stay critical about what’s worth learning – the world has changed, but for many of us, our curriculum hasn’t. Many of us are going back to the same documents that contain the same outcomes and standards that were “critical” a year ago. But what’s worth learning now? What has risen in importance? What has declined in importance? What has presented itself, that wasn’t acknowledged before? What was there before, but now seems less relevant and significant? Getting discussions going about what’s worth learning with colleagues, your learners, their parents is also a great step towards exploring different paradigms of curriculum (like co-constructed and emergent approaches).
  7. Plan in response to learning – As PYP and inquiry-based educators we should always be planning in response to learning, but now more than ever, this approach makes the most sense. We don’t know where our learners are in their learning journey… Many of us don’t know if or how long we will be face-to-face or on-line… and none of us know what the future holds. So although it can be difficult to let go of those perfectly laid out curriculum maps and long range plans and unit designs… we might find that this year, getting to know our learners and their families first, then involving them in decision-making and planning and always going one step at a time might be a more fruitful approach.
  8. Explore the concepts of individual freedom and collective responsibility – Every country around the world is engaged in their own inquiry and exploration of the balance between an individual’s freedom and their responsibility to the collective wellbeing. Why not explore these same concepts within the context of your classroom. Where does individual freedom supersede collective responsibility in your learning community? Where does collective responsibility supersede individual freedom in your learning community? How does the interplay between those two concepts manifest in some of the changes learners are experiencing at school this year? What is their experience with this in their home country? How do they feel about it? What are their opinions? Do they have any suggestions? Agency-supportive educators often naturally find themselves trying to figure out how best to navigate these concepts anyway, but now more than ever the conversation is globally relevant.
  9. Use your language as your compass – the words and phrases we use when speaking to and about learners can be a very interesting barometer to reveal where our own and one another’s thoughts and practices are in relation to our learners’ agency. How often are we saying “make them” “force them” “allow them”? What does that reveal about our thinking? Beliefs? Philosophies? Decisions? Constraints? Contexts? When are these words and phrases in relation to the issues above (health and safety; wellbeing of the community etc.) and when are they not? If we are wondering where we’ve held our course and where we might have strayed – the answers will likely be found in our language.
  10. When in doubt… ask your learners –  How can we ensure choice this year? How can we ensure voice this year? How can we ensure ownership this year? It is second nature of us as educators to ask these questions of ourselves, of our colleagues, and of our leaders, administrators and coaches… by how often do we ask those same questions directly to our learners. Be transparent about your goal to respect and their support their agency in light of  the additional parameters and restrictions. Ask them how you are doing with this goal. Ask for their ideas, feedback, suggestions when it comes to amplifying their choice, voice and ownership in their learning and their learning community this year.

Did anyone else notice I used the phrase “now more than ever” in almost every section? That was not intentional! But I think it might be revealing…

Revealing that this year – as we go back to whatever re-opening plan our school or district has in store – not only are agency-supportive practices prefered, but they may actually end up being essential. Essential in order to give our learners the support that they deserve. Essential in order to surf the waves of uncertainty and change. Essential in order to maximize the learning in consideration of each learner’s unique needs, challenges and situations during this global pandemic.

So maybe we won’t be able to have 120 learners freely flowing through an open-concept, student-designed learning studio, mixing with different groups of peers and interacting with different adults… but I believe there is still lots of space – regardless of the constraints and parameters – to see and respect children as human beings, invite and involve them in their learning and the decisions that impact their lives, and make school a place where learning is relevant, significant, challenging and engaging for each learner.

What do YOU think?

What would YOU add to the list?

Where do YOU see space for agency-supportive practices this year?

I’m here – listening, learning, reflecting, changing.

Hopefully every educator in the world right now is taking this time to reflect about their role and responsibility in the Black Lives Matter movement.

I know I am.

As someone who is early in their own personal and professional journey of deep reflection and self inquiry, I don’t know exactly what to say or exactly how to contribute. I don’t feel like I have any tips or advice or suggestions. I don’t feel comfortable telling others what to do, because I am still trying to figure that out for myself.

But I also don’t want to stay silent either. I don’t want to be neutral. I want to publicly stand together with the rest of humanity at this important point in history.

So although I don’t feel I have anything new or novel to share to the conversation, I want to still speak up. I want to be open, honest and vulnerable.

All I feel I can share at this moment, is what I’m personally doing in my own journey to become anti-racist.

Which is currently…. listening, learning and reflecting.

I’m provoking my own thinking about how, as an international educator, I am part of the problem. Reading these three articles really helped me contextualize the issues of equality and systemic racism, and how they specifically live and spread within the unique environments of international schools.

International education perpetuates structural racism and anti-racism is the solution

Black Lives Matter: An Open Letter to the AISB Community

An Open Letter to the International School Community: Our Role in the Black Lives Matter Movement and Anti-Racism Work 

I’m taking advice from my students. I am honoured to work at a school with an amazing student body, who has published this site called “80 Ways“. It suggests 10 books, 10 podcasts, 10 websites, 10 films, 10 articles, 10 accounts as well as actions, petitions and donation recommendations for understanding and supporting the movement. I plan to use this as a library as I continue to learn and grow and take action.

I’m confronting my own implicit bias, ignorance and privilege. I’m not shying away from conversations, or trying to present myself in a certain light. I’m trying to critically and harshly see these things in myself and trying to be brutally honest and vulnerable in discussions with family, friends and colleagues about it.

I’m thinking about my impact as PYPC and AP, and the responsibility I have to place anti-racism at the center of everything I do.  I’m auditing and documenting the changes I can make to unit planning processes, curriculum design, staff orientation, professional development, dress code, school policies and resource purchasing to ensure I help break the cycle of systemic racism at international schools.

I’m reflecting on the impetus, now more than ever, to shift the paradigm of education. For years I’ve been joining many others around the world calling for a drastic change to the current way we “do school”. But it wasn’t until coming across provocative articles like this one that got me wondering about the connection between re-imagining education and the Black Lives Matter movement. Now more than ever, I feel driven to continue to advocate for a new approach to education that rejects our current power-imbalanced, compliance-based model, to one that is more humane and democratic for all. Now, more than ever, I see the need to be rebels, not robots and push back against the system in which most of us have been indoctrinated, for sustainable and enduring change.

I am nothing, if not a learner. So I am open… to resources, to discussion, to conversation, to suggestion and to feedback.

I want to be a better ally in this fight – and I’m open to help with that journey.

I am here to listen. I am here to learn. I am here to help.

I am here.

Pedagogy 101 For PYP Parents

All week long I haven’t been able to stop thinking about a request that one of our parents made during our virtual “Parent Coffee”. Throughout this Distance Learning adventure, our Parent Coffees have provided space for the voices, opinions, perspectives and needs of our Primary School parent community. Each time, I leave with a page full of notes which lead to reflection, action and adjustments. But this time was different. This time my thinking was provoked – in a larger, more substantial way.

She was talking about how, inevitably, parents have taken on a bigger role in their children’s learning, and in most cases are now sharing in some of the roles and responsibilities that normally are fulfilled by teachers in face-to-face school. And as such, requested some help. Help that goes beyond what their children need to focus on and where to find resources and activities. Help more specifically focused on how to support their children in their learning; the pedagogical tips and tricks, us educators have in our back pocket when we are helping learners.

I’m sure parents at any school are likely overwhelmed at the prospect of taking more responsibility supporting their children’s learning. Now factor in what it must feel like to be a parent at a PYP school that is built on inquiry-based, concept-driven, agency supportive approaches to education. Wanting to help their child… but not being sure exactly how to do so.

We have to remember that most parents are not educators. They don’t have multiple degrees in education. They haven’t read endless books and blog posts. They don’t have resumes full of PD workshops. Understandably so, it’s our career – not theirs.

So how can we help? How can we share what we’ve learned through all those degrees, books and blogs, courses and workshops into something manageable and helpful that we can transfer over to them?

Here is my attempt. A pedagogy distilled. Condensed. Simplified.

Dedicated not only the wonderful parents at my school, but to all PYP parents around the world partnering with us during these difficult times to support their children.

1. Take an inquiry stance

Meet a question with a question. Often our first instinct when a child asks us a question is to provide an answer. But this approach can prevent a golden opportunity to have learners not only learn that thing, but also learn something about how to learn. So next time your child asks you a question (“How do you spell ….?” “How do you multiply fractions?” “What are the types of energy?”), no matter what the question is, instead of supplying the answer, try responding like this:

Great question! How could you find that out? What resource could you use to discover that? How could you figure that out?

Be prepared to inquire together. Sometimes, when you meet a question with a question, you get an “I don’t know”. That is an invitation to a great teachable moment! If your child doesn’t know how to find out on their own or what resource to use, you can step in as their partner and respond like this:

No problem! Let’s figure it out together. Maybe we can try this…. Have you ever used this… Let’s see if this resource has the answer….

This way you are still supporting them to figure out what they are trying to figure out, but along the way you’ve also helped develop their skill as an independent learner – so the next time, instead of needing to ask you, they might have some ways to figure it out on their own.

Ask the magic question – “What do you notice?”. No matter what subject, what area of learning, or what age – the secret ingredient to inquiry-based learning is asking learners to think about what they notice. Whether your child is learning their letters and looking at the letter “B”, or building their multiplication fluency by looking at a multiplication table, or developing their scientific knowledge by studying a model of a cell…. that one question works every time, and can always be followed up with “what else do you notice?” to probe for further thinking.

Don’t feel you have to be an expert, just be a learner. It is okay to not know something. In fact that presents an amazing opportunity to model your own approaches to learning. Feel confident to say, “I don’t know” or, “I have no idea”. Just make sure to follow it up with, “But now I want to know, so here is how I am going to find out!” or, “Let’s figure this out together!”

2. Support conceptual understanding

Value process. As often as possible get your child thinking beyond what they did and what they learned, and more about how they learned. Some great questions include:

How did you do that? Why did you do that? What strategy did you use? How did you learn that strategy? What steps did you take?

Harness the power of the key concepts. In the PYP we have 7 Key Concepts, that are secret ingredients to help learners think more deeply and understand… ANYTHING. The beauty of these key concepts, is they work for everything! You can apply these questions to any subject or area of learning. Whether your child is trying to learn about shapes… commas…. a historic figure…. a sports skill… sentence structure…. an art technique…. a water bottle! Anything. Here are the key concept questions you can ask your child at any time about anything they are learning:

What is it like? (Form)

How does it work? (Function)

How is it connected to other things? (Connection)

How does it change? (Change)

Why is it like that? Why is it the way it is? (Causation)

What are the different points of view? (Perspective)

What are our responsibilities? (Responsibility) 

3. Prioritize Reflection

Get them thinking about their thinking. Similar to the Key Concept questions, there are two questions you can ask your child to help them think deeper, about whatever it is they are learning. Again – any subject, any topic. More specifically, they get children thinking about their thinking! Here are two magic questions to support learners deep understanding:

How do you know?

What makes you say that?

Whether they are showing you the solution to a math problem, discussing parts of a book they are reading, summarizing information, sharing their perspective on a world event… these questions have super powers!

4. Support your child’s agency 

Invite and involve their voice. Don’t be afraid the let them express themselves. Give space for them to articulate what they like and don’t like about learning, and why that is. Listen to when they are advocating for what they need as learners. Listen for what they really care about and matters to them and try to understand and find ways to support it.

Respect and support their choices. Be aware of what choices you are making for your child, that they could probably be making themselves. Choices may include when they learn, where they learn, what they learn, and how they learn. Coach them to make informed choices, by making the decision making process explicit (What choice are you making for yourself?), then follow up with a reflection about how effective that choice was and whether it’s a good choice to be made again in the future (How did that choice work out for you? How do you know? What will you choose differently next time?).

Emphasize ownership. Sometimes learning can be something that gets misrepresented as something done to learners, or around learners. This creates a false sense that they are passively drifting through the process, and have no impact on their own learning. We want learners to know it’s their learning, they own it, they impact it. It is something done by them, for them, and we are the supporting actors. Use words and phrases that build that sense of ownership over their learning:

It’s your learning.

You’re in the driver’s seat.

Your learning, your choice. 

5. Be purposeful with feedback. 

Teach to fish, don’t give a fish. As much as possible, when you give feedback to your child, think about how to give advice that will go beyond that one moment. As teachers, we often use phrases like, “teach the writer, not the writing” to help us give tips that will impact that learner in a bigger, more sustainable way. Instead of just telling them how to fix something. Here are some examples of ways you can phrase that type of feedback:

“Readers…. (often go back an re-read what they don’t understand; share their opinion about what they read; break words into small chunks to help them sound it out etc.)

“Writers…. (read their writing outloud to themselves to try and find their mistakes; use capitals to show the reader a new sentence is starting; support their opinions with facts and evidence; add details to make their writing more interesting etc.)

“Mathematicians…. (double check their solutions for accuracy; use objects and drawings to help them solve problems; use short cuts and tricks called “algorithms”; use special words etc.)

This helps phrase feedback in a way that will help them in that moment, but also help them in that area beyond that moment as well. Feedback that not only fixes mistakes but helps them grow and develop as readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, historians, artists and athletes!

 

As PYP educators, we need to see this as more than a short-term investment. The time and energy we spend supporting parents who are looking for help in this area, will pay long-term dividends when life returns to normal and we have a coalition of parents who not only understand inquiry, concepts and agency – but have experience living it.

What other points of pedagogy could we share with our PYP parents?

How can we help them, help their children?

What tips and advice can we impart unto our parent community as they become pioneers of at-home pedagogy?

A Hard Goodbye

For those of us who work at international schools, goodbyes are a normal part of the end of the school year, as students, families and colleagues pack up and move on to their next adventure.

This year, I am the one who is moving on to a new adventure and as such, have spent the past few weeks saying goodbyes.

This year, one goodbye in particular was especially difficult… the goodbye to my team.

I’ve written before about how I am not a natural collaborator, but these past two years I’ve experienced first hand the difference between going fast alone, or going far together. And it has changed me as an educator and a person. I can no longer remember what it feels like to be “in it” alone, nor do I want to.

So, to my very special team, I would like to say thank you…

Thank you for accepting me for who I am, flaws and all.

Thank you for leaving me alone on Monday mornings and not sitting with me at lunch on days when I have no preps.

Thank you for helping me see and understand my “blind self”.

Thank you for challenging me, disagreeing with me and making me think.

Thank you for seeing and treating my students as your students.

Thank you for picking me up when I was down; helping me fix my mistakes, solve my problems and not get stuck in my failures.

Thank you catching me up on what was on the morning memo, what time the assembly starts or what special event was coming up.

Thank you for keeping me balanced, fed and hydrated.

Thank you for showing me how much better life is without shoes.

Thank you for indulging all the selfies, chroming all the photos and agreeing to the flash mob.

Thank you for ALL the amazing renditions and remixes of “Baby Shark”.

Thank you for taking my phone hostage, making me get in the pool and all the unwanted (secretly wanted) hugs.

Thank you for teaching me what a true community feels like and how rich authentic collaboration can be. Lessons I will definitely take with me to my next post.

It’s been a slice 😉

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A far off dream…

For anyone who is a fan of the TV show How I Met Your Mother, you will be familiar with the scene where the bunch a friends is sitting around and gets struck with the amazing idea to open a bar.

”WE SHOULD TOTALLY OPEN A BAR!”

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Just as, for many of us educators disillusioned with the current paradigm of education, we will be familiar with scene of sitting around with like-minded colleagues and getting struck with the amazing idea to open a school.

”WE SHOULD TOTALLY OPEN A SCHOOL!”

I myself have been in this scene more than once, with more than one group of colleague-friends. Not that I have any idea how to open a school… or build a school… or a run a school… or where I’d even have a school…

But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t put some thought into what it would be like…

Concept: I’d love to borrow a page from the health care community and mirror their approach to holistic health centres. But instead of having one place where you can have access to a naturopath, a pharmacist, a chiropractor, a psychiatrist, you’d have a place where you’d have access to a learning coach, a counsellor, a nutritionist, a community liaison…. As many different parts and pieces that would be needed to provide a Holistic Education support community.

Location: Somewhere in a natural setting – a forest perhaps – where children could be immersed in nature and the local environment. Playing, exploring, getting dirty! Somewhere in the world where learning centres can exist without having to be “schools” and that aren’t stuck complying with mandated structures of the traditional paradigm.

Layout: I have a vision of a large circle, one long, never ending corridor. With many different spaces and places – kitchen, design lab, library, lots of nooks and crannies. All with direct, unimpeded access to the center of the circle, which would be a large, enclosed natural  space. With trees and picnic tables and large moving parts. Things to build and climb. Places to sit and talk and run and play. That is open, available and accessible to everyone, at all times.

Community: The community would be democratic. Where adults and children, staff and parents – anyone connected to the community – has a voice and a role in decision making.  The center would be a cooperative, co-owned by all stakeholders – staff and parents.

Curriculum: Would be entirely emergent, holistic and co-constructed. Starting first with the child – their strengths, their interests, their passions. Following the road map life has hidden inside them. There would be no clinging to the idea that everyone needs to know and learn exactly the same thing. There would be no pressure to standardize a natural, organic, non-linear process. Each individual would learn what he or she needed to in order to follow their own path. Academic skills would be learned when people wanted or needed them. 

Assessment: The emphasis would be on progress, not achievement. Meeting each individual where they are and helping them move along at their pace. Celebrating growth and development without constantly chasing some fixed notion of where someone of a certain age “should be”. Assessment, understood as a verb, something owned by the learner within the context of the process of learning, not as a noun, something done to someone by an external body.

Scheduling:  Timetabling would be non-existent. Pick-up and drop-off flexible, rolling starts and dismissals. People would eat when they are hungry, drink when they are thirsty, play when they choose and visit the bathroom as they need. All spaces would be open, active, supervised – with free flow of children and adults of all ages. Systems would be in place for advertising learning opportunities and signing up for small group and one-on-one support when needed.

Staff: All staff would see themselves as learners first and foremost; experts in learning secondly; and finally, as unique individuals with their own talents and passions to share with the community. All staff would wear multiple ‘hats’. Meeting with small groups of students to start and end the day as a social-emotional support and learning coach, and offering and participating in a range of learning opportunities throughout the day. People with expertise and interest in cooking, dance, literature, nature, photography, coding, business, environmentalism, writing, building, art, meditation etc willing to share their passion with others, as well as take risks and try new things being offered by other members of the community.

Vibe: A place where staff love coming to work and children love coming to learn and parents feel welcome and involved. A place where, when asked the question, “If your students didn’t have to go to school, would they?” The answer would be a resounding, indesputable “YES”. Where everyone not only feels comfortable to be themselves, but feels compelled and supported to work on becoming the best version of themselves.

Identity: We would know who we are and who we are not, and we would be comfortable with that. If someone was looking for a high-stakes, test-driven, finite-curriculum focused, competitive approach to education, we would be okay to say “sorry, that’s  not us – but we hope you find what you are looking for”

I know that at this moment in time I don’t have the means, skills or know-how to start my own school. I know there are a million ins and outs I haven’t thought of, or planned for, or even know about. I know there are probably a million and one reasons as to why this wouldn’t work….

But, what’s the harm in dreaming!?!?

Bringing Parents into the Conversation

It’s no secret that the grade level I am involved in does things a little differently. Ok, “a little” might be an understatement. We are very different. And as a result, sometimes parents need support understanding and feeling comfortable having their children become part of our pilot program. With only a few months left in the school year -and next year right around the corner – this is one of those times.

Parents from the grade level below us started to share some worries and concerns with the school about next year, so we decided to get out ahead of things and offer an evening parent session for all of the parents in the grade level below us. Our PYP coordinator contacted the parents and invited them for an evening with us.

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It was important for us to collect their concerns, questions and worries to inform our planning for the session in response to their needs. So we asked them to fill out a short Google Form to help us gather that information.

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Then as a team, we analyzed their responses.

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After analyzing their responses, it was clear most of them were looking for specifics about how things work and what exactly happens on a day to day basis.

But jumping into hows and whats without investing first in the why is not really our style… and not something that we felt would help to build sustainable buy-in for the long run. We believed the overarching goal should be to bring parents into the conversation about education, to help them develop themselves as critical thinkers. To be able to look at the current paradigm and question it, challenge it – hopefully even criticize it! So we had to figure out a way to address what they wanted from the session with what we felt was important for the session.

We decided to frame the evening as “Starting the Conversation” with a heavy focus on the whys, followed by a brief overview of hows and whats – with transparency about our plan for continuing the conversation in order to ensure they felt their voices were heard.

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We had a great response! We had 40 families RSVP for the event.

And true to our collaborative approach, we had 10 representatives from our team there, each of whom took ownership over a small section of the presentation. It was important for us to show Who We Are in the way we work together in each and every thing that we do.

Section 1: Provocations

If our main goal was to bring parents into the conversation, it was essential to begin by poking and provoking their thinking about education. Both by ‘stepping in’ in order to connect with their own experience as a student and ‘stepping back’ to attempt to objectively look at the system of school from a distance.

We decided to use a chalk talk with a range of provoking questions to stimulate these types of thinking.

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Then we brought the whole group together to pull out the big ideas from each of the provocation chalk talks. At first the parents were hesitant to contribute, but once we got the ball rolling lots of great ‘noticings’ were shared.

We finished the discussion with what parents hoped for their childrens’ future, which acted as a great segueway to our next provocation about skills. Instead of telling parents what skills are currently valued, we wanted them to make those discoveries for themselves. So – in the vernacular of our students – we had them “search it up”!

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All the parents took out their phones and did a little research about what skills are currently valued in post-secondary and the workplace. After some inquiry time, we had parents shout their discoveries. Some began to make connections with responses from the chalk talk, which was an unexpected bonus!

Then we shared a provocation from the World Economic Forum to provoke their thinking about how rapidly the landscape of skills continue to change…

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Which walked them right into one of our main provocations….

If the nature of desired skills keep changing so rapidly, who amoung us knows exactly what will be needed by the time their child graduates in 2030?

Which helped us usher in AJ Juliani’s quote:

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Section 2: The “Why”

Investing a large chunk of time into provoking parents’ thinking, let us transition smoothly into talking about the “why”.

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We touched on that nature of the industrial model of education…

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We touched on the growing body of educators standing up to say that something is wrong with the traditional paradigm of school…

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And we ended with the need for a radically different approach.

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Section 3: The “Hows”

Even though our main focus was the “why” behind our approach, we also wanted to honour our parents and most of their worries and concerns were centered around “hows” and “whats”. So we made sure to briefly touch on some of the most important “hows” without going too deep into the details.

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We explained how our mission statement drives everything we do as well as the time, thought and energy that went into developing it.

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We explained how we have a broad view of “success” and how we make sure success in one area does not come at the expense of another area.

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We hilghted the importance of learning how to learning and how we use the PYP ATL skills to support that.

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We touched on how we use Dan Pink’s work on motivation as a driving force behind what we do.

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We explained how we work as a team with parents and students to ensure everyone’s voice is heard and perspective is valued.

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We shared how Learning Support, Challenge and Enrichment and EAL support works in our model.

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Section 4: The “Whats”

The one part of the presentation that the parents wanted the most, was the one part of the conversation that we chose to dedicate the least amount of time to.

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The majority of the worries and concerns that parents shared in the aforementioned Google Form were about ‘what’ exactly happens on a day to day basis. And although we wanted to honour their voices, we also wanted to be careful not to oversimplify this part or give off the idea that it is static and concrete. Because the truth is that the “whats” are constantly changing. So “what” a typical day looks like now, is not what a typical day looked like a month ago, and will not be what a typical day will like for their child next year. So we decided to acknowledge the whats, without committing to any specifics.

For example, we addressed the fact that our approach still includes transdisciplinary Units of Inquiry as well as stand-alone math and literacy…

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We explained that our approach includes many different pathways for learning…

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We acknowledged many of the nuts and bolts of our approach, but were transparent about the fact that even though the function of these elements stay the same, the specific form is constantly growing, changing and evolving.

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We were open about the role of our own reflections and action research as a vital part of what we do, and linked that back to our non-committal approach to explaining the “nuts and bolts”.

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Part 5: Next Steps

Before wrapping up the session, it was important for us to explicitly acknowledge the worries and concerns that came through the Google Form that we chose not to address in this first session. Again, we re-iterated that the session was just the “beginning of the conversation” and clearly explained our plan moving forward to ensure they knew that all of their needs would be addressed at later times.

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We also focused their attention on what specifically they could do now, in the interim, to prepare themselves for the experience of being a parent in our model next year. We hilighted the importance of having them join the current conversation about changes needed in education.

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In order to support them in this, we shared a resources document with them that included any source we referenced throughout the presentation, as well as other resources we felt might help them along in their journey to think critically about the education system.

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Overall, it was a really successful evening! The energy in the room was great – parents were engaged in the conversation, sharing stories, reflections, thoughts and discoveries. Of course there were a few parents that hung back to speak to us one on one about further worries and concerns – and we were glad they did! Our goal was to start the conversation, so we were happy to have parents engage further with it right away!

Sadly, I won’t be there next year to continue the conversation with this group of parents… but I hope one of my colleagues picks up the mantle and documents the rest of this journey!

How do you bring your parent community “into the conversation”?

How do you support and challenge your parent community to develop a critical thinking approach about the current educational paradigm?

The Language of Agency

Arriving back to school today after a week off for the Tet holiday, I found myself in a professional development session about “choice words”. To kick off the session, our principal provided us with the following quote from the book How to Create a Culture of Achievement:

“Language creates realities and invites identities”

This provocation led me to start thinking about the language of agency.

What words are we using that create realities of student agency in our classrooms and schools?

What words are we using that invite identities of students as agents of their own learning?

And perhaps…

What words are we using… that don’t.

This reminded me of one of the sessions I attended at the 3E conference this past fall, where myself and a colleague spent our time thinking of all the words we use as educators that don’t reflect the ethos of agency.

Words we use when we talk about students:

  • Make them…
  • Force them…
  • Get them to…
  • Have them…
  • Let them…
  • Allow them to…

Words we use when we talk to students:

  • You must…
  • You will…
  • You have to…
  • You are going to…
  • You can…

If we look at many of the words we currently use when speaking about and to students, we might need to acknowledge the fact that our words may actually be creating realities and inviting identities of compliance, even though our intentions and actions are striving towards agency.

So what can we do about it?

Notice these words. Write down all the words that you think reflect an ethos of compliance, then try to catch yourself using them. Listen to the instructions you give to your students. Look at instructions on your slides, assignments and hand outs. Read the notes you take during PD.

Bring the words to the collective attention. Discuss these words with your teams and staff. Co-construct a list of words to watch out for. Tally and track when these words are used at collaborative planning meetings and staff meetings. See which words are used and how often. Turn it into a game. Help each other catch these words when they slip out.

Dig into what those words reveal. It’s one thing to acknowledge that we are using these words and phrases… it’s another thing to dig a little deeper into what they reveal about us, our beliefs, our philosophies of education, our biases. And not just on an individual level, what do these words reveal about the current paradigm of education, the system of schooling, the traditional power structures of teacher and student.

Strive for agency-supportive words. Brainstorm the words that create realities and invite identities of agency. What would those words be? How often are we using those words when we talk about students? How often are we using those words when we talk to students? How could we use those words more, and what impact might a change of language have on our practices in the classroom?

What comes first… the words or the behaviors?

How does one impact the other?

How can developing a language of agency help develop a culture of agency?