Teacher Spaces vs Student Spaces

Who is most important in the classroom? Who is the classroom designed for?

Obvious answer… the students!

But if you take a second look at a typical classroom, does the physical space and set-up point to the same answer?

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Teachers typically have a large spacious desk with multiple drawers, many of which that lock. 

Do students?

Teachers typically have a large, comfy, adjustable chair with wheels, 

Do students?

Teachers often have a private, locked cabinet for their personal possessions (bags, wallets, phones etc.).

Do students?

Teachers typically have a personalized corner of the classroom where they post pictures of their families, friends, old classes etc. 

Do students?

Arguably you could say that teachers spend more time in the classroom than students – that it is their home away from home and therefore they need more comfortable furniture. Arguably you could say that teachers have more to do than students and therefore need more space. Arguably you could say that teacher’s possessions are more valuable than students and therefore need to be locked up. I’m not sure I agree.

Students spend a large part of their day in their classroom and I’m sure if you asked them they would say it is also their home away from home. Students have SO much to do and organize in a day – multiple subject, assignments, binders, notebooks, projects – and I’m sure if you ask them they would say they would like more space. Students come to school with many valuable things, not only wallets, lunch money and phones, but also precious and sentimental toys, books and artifacts and I’m sure if you asked them they would like to be able to safely lock up their treasure.

So if we return to the original question – who is most important in the classroom – the large desk, comfy chair, extra space, personal photos, locked storage… it would seem like many teachers have a lot more comforts and luxuries than their students. Why is this the way it is? What does this reveal about how teachers and students are viewed in the school system? Does it have to be this way?

As a teacher, I wonder what it would be like to spend a year with a simple desk, a basic chair, an open cubby in the hallway and no personal pictures on the wall.

Maybe I will give it a try and find out… 

Re-thinking “morning work”

How many adults wake up and start their day with a worksheet?

None that I know of.

Whether it is called “bell work” “morning work” or a “a daily warm up” lots of students begin their day by completing a worksheet, answering questions or a doing a pre-planned activity – all of which have been decided for them by the teacher.

Just check out Google or Pinterest to see all the different varieties:

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But how do people start their day in their ‘real world’?

I start my day by scrolling through my Twitter.

My husband starts his day by meditating.

My mother starts her day by doing a crossword puzzle.

My father starts his day by playing chess.

My best friend starts her day by working out.

My mother-in-law starts her day by reading.

My father-in-law starts his day checking sports scores.

All different. All valuable. All self-chosen.

Why can’t students start their school days like this? Why can’t students choose how they start their own school days? Perhaps if we allowed students to choose how to begin their school day we would not have to stand in the halls and count down from 10 and compel our students to enter the classroom. Perhaps they would want to enter because they are excited and happy to be at school and start their day. I know teachers have many administrative responsibilities at the beginning of the day like attendance and collecting field trip forms, so a 10 – 15 minute window of time is needed to ensure these responsibilities are met. But why are we dictating how students spend those first 10-15 minutes warming up to their day?

Next year I plan to have a discussion with my students about how humans start their days. I plan to share how my friends and family begin their days, and I hope my students will share how their friends and family begin their day. I hope we can use this to create a list of possibilities about how students might start their day and post it somewhere in our room. Then I plan to respect their freedom and choice over how they start their school day while I am competing my administrative responsibilities.

Imagine the learning that might happen….

Imagine the connections that might happen….

Imagine the skills that might be developed….

Imagine no longer needing to find, photocopy and mark “bell work”…

My plan for a more fair and free place to learn…

Yesterday I shared my thoughts and reflections about my own practice creating a democratic community in the classroom and I promised to share my plan for next year- once I had one. Well, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and as a result a plan has started to take shape, so here are my initial ideas, as promised!

Classroom Set-up

In the past I would spent the summer coming up with a blueprint for my classroom set-up and then during the week before students would arrive, I would spend countless hours setting it all up on my own. This year I plan to hold off on any classroom set-up until the first day of school. Once the students arrive and attendance has been taken, we can come together for the first time as a community and together decide how we want our learning space to be set-up. From there I am hoping we can break off into task-forces (classroom library, physical set-up, boards, resources and manipulates, school supplies etc.) where I can support students in coming up with a plan, putting that plan into action and then reflecting on how things went. I have to be prepared to let go, allow the process to unfold and resist the urge to jump in and rescue or veto. Overtime, I think the natural consequences of any design flaws will appear and as a community we can come back as a group and discuss what is working and what might need to change to better serve the needs of our learning community.

Systems and Routines

This will be the hardest for me. Every year that I have taught, I have started the year with a clearly laid of plan for every routine imaginable within the teaching day. This year, I plan to come up with these systems with my students. As a community, we can brainstorm all the times in the day it would be beneficial to have a routine, and then discuss what routines they might have used in other classes. From there we can discuss the pros and cons of different approaches and vote on the ones we want to try. I think it would be helpful at this point to document the why, how and what of each routine in a visible spot somewhere in the room – perhaps with some criteria for how we will know it is working, and clues for when we might need to revisit and refine our plans.

Community Building 

Obviously it is essential at the beginning of a new school year to build a sense of community and help students get to know each other. Similar to classroom set-up and classroom routines, this has been something I have spent hours in the summer planning – to the point that when I started a new school year, the first five day plans were fully filled out and ready to go! This fall I would like to develop this alongside my students. I plan to start with the why – and stimulate a discussion about why it is important to build relationships with the people in our community. From there we can dive into the question – how do humans build relationships? Hopefully this provides a long list of potential activities that we can use throughout the week to build a strong community.

Schedule

In the past I have always built our class schedule alone – without the input or ideas of my students. This year I’d like to try and build it with them. I have been given a schedule template (which accounts for all my specialist classes) but aside from those specified times I plan to leave the rest blank until the students arrive. When the students arrive I’d like to invite them to help build our class schedule. In order to make informed decisions, I think it would be important to first inquire into learning – how do people learn, why do people learn, how do other schools and classes schedule their learning. I also think at this point it would be important to be transparent about our limits and boundaries with regards to curriculum and programming. As an IB school that has adopted the Common Core, I think it is important for students to inquire into “what” they are supposed to learn and also “how” they are supposed to learn. Once students are familiar with what they are supposed to learn in Grade 4, how they are supposed to learn as IB students along with what options are out there for structuring a school day – then we can work together to design a schedule that meets our needs. Perhaps students will breakout into groups or work on their own to come up with a proposed schedule and then we can vote on which one, we as a community, like best.

Homework

In previous years as a classroom teacher I have decided what is for homework, why it is for homework and when it is for homework. When I started to think about going back in the classroom I decided that there would be no homework ever. Now that I think about that, I have realized that either way I am deciding something on the students behalf – which I would like to avoid. Instead of a blanket decision for the entire class one way or another, I have decided to open it up to a personal and family decision. Again, in order to make informed decisions I think it would be important to inquire into the different perspectives around homework (student, parent, teacher, administrator, research etc.) and share those discoveries with the parents community. From there each student, along with their parents, can decide if they want homework. Then, I can support the students who have opted for homework to come up with a personal plan – starting with why, then working out the how and what.

Conflict Resolution

When you force 24 humans to spend 5 days a week, 7 hours a day together in one room, conflict is bound to occur. And in the past when conflict has happened, I have been the judge, the jury, and the mediator. I have had a plan for how I would deal with conflicts in the classroom, but this year I want students to not only be part of the decision, but also part of the actual processes once they are decided. At first I was going to impose a model of “council meetings” like they have at Free School, shown in this documentary from minute 23-32. But then I realized making that decision on my own for them, was just as un-democratic. So instead I’d like to discuss as a class, how humans in the real world solve conflicts. I’m hoping this leads to discussion of strategies for small conflicts and also options for when people with unresolved conflicts look for extra support form the community (i.e.. mediators, councils, town halls, judiciary committees etc.). We can inquire into how humans solve conflict in the real world, then we can see how schools have adopted these practices and then finally decide as a community which one(s) we would like to have as options when conflicts arise.

Goal Setting 

Usually the week before school starts I am exhausted from setting up the classroom and planning the first week of school….but since I won’t be doing any of that this year without my students I am anticipating a lot of unused time on my hands. In thinking about building a democratic classroom community, it is not only important that students have a voice, but also that parents have a voice. So I think a great use of my free time would be to invite parents in to meet with me for a pre-school year conference. I would love to sit down with parents and ask them what their goals are for their child for the year and what they would like from me in order to support those goals. I would also love to ask them to tell me about their child’s needs, interests, skills and passions. I think this would be a really great to lay the foundation for a collaborative partnership with my students’ families and also a great way to show that their voice, knowledge, opinion and perspectives are not only welcome, but also valued.

Thinking in this way has been a huge challenge for me. I am still very inclined to come up with these plans on my own during the summer and I actually have to force myself to stop, but becoming aware of those tendencies has helped me see more clearly the power structures that have existed in my previous classrooms. I am really excited to take this new approach and I am hopeful that the time invested to have these conversations, conduct these inquires and democratically make these decisions will lead to a really powerful and productive learning community. I know as the school year gets underway, I will need to think about how to democratically approach things like curriculum, units, assessment and reporting… but for now, I am happy with my plan in these seven aforementioned areas. And, as always, I will report back and let you know how it goes!

How do you plan to establish a more democratic classroom this school year?

How do you plan to ensure your students’ voices are equal to yours?

How democratic is your classroom?

I am currently in a summer course called Alternative Approaches to Schooling – which is BLOWING my mind – with concepts of free-schooling, willed-curriculum, unschooling, holistic education, critical pedagogy and democratic education. We have also been reading an amazing book called Tuning Points, which chronicles the personal journeys of 35 education revolutionaries.

All of this new knowledge is provoking my own thinking about my plans for next year. Am I helping to develop the whole child? Will my students experience freedoms and personal liberties? What structures of power will exist?

And the question that has been circling my mind the most…

How democratic will my classroom be? 

I used to think my approach to teaching was very democratic and that I helped to set up a community of learners where students had ample voice and choice…. but the more I have read, thought, discussed and watched real examples of democratic classrooms, the more I am beginning to wonder. Schools like Summerhill and Windsor House are living breathing examples of how trusting children to participate in real and important decisions can be quite magical. Watching a student-led “council meeting” from minute 23-32 on this documentary shows just how powerful true democratic processes can be in the classroom.

I think back to my pages and pages of detailed classroom layouts that I would sketch in the summer, showing exactly where every piece of furniture would be, all to be set up before any student stepped foot into the classroom…

I think of my pages and pages of detailed systems and routines for being quite, moving spots, going to the bathroom, starting the day, ending the day, cleaning up, packing up, solving problems that I would plan on my own and train students to follow during the first few weeks of school…

I think of all the “community meetings” where I controlled what was discussed, how it was discussed and who participated in the discussion and when….

And I’m feeling like, perhaps, my classrooom was psuedo-democractic at best. Where I always had the final voice and veto and I would carefully decide what decisions and plans students were allowed to participate in.

This year I would like to try and do better. I would like to try and become a truly democratic community, where students and I make plans and decisions together. Where all of our votes count for one. Where students are trusted with real responsibility to make real decisions that actually matter. Where the classroom looks and feels and functions more like the real world.

How? I have no idea yet… but when I figure it out I’ll be sure to share it with you here! 

In your classroom and school, are you teaching about democracy… or through democracy?

How much have you planned  for next year without your students?

My Magic Answer

As PYP Coordinator, I am honoured to be considered a resource for teachers when they have questions about teaching, learning and everything in between. The questions I am asked cover a wide range of curiosities:

“How should I set up my classroom?”

“How can I welcome a new student coming part way through the year?”

“How can I have my students show what they’ve learned about ______ ?”

“How can I get my students attention?”

“What should the timeline be for this project?”

“How can I be a better teacher?”

Even though I get asked a wide range of questions, I noticed something interesting. Something very interesting! I can answer all of the questions above – and most of the questions I get asked throughout the day – with the same answer:

“Ask your students.”

Go ahead, try it. Go back through the list and see if that answer doesn’t work for any of those questions…

Teacher: “How should I set up my classroom?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I welcome a new student coming part way through the year?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I have my students show what they’ve learned about ______ ?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I get my students attention?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “What should the timeline be for this project?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I be a better teacher?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

See! It is magic! It works for every question! Let’s try some more…

Teacher: “How can I build a classroom community?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I use Twitter in the classroom?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “What should I put up on my inquiry cycle?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I have my students reflect on their learning?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “What resources will help my students inquire into ________ ?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I tune in to what my students already know about ________ ?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher:“Why are my students not engaged?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Oftentimes teachers are so busy and bogged down… now I know why! They are doing the thinking on behalf of all of their students. Why not share the load? They say two heads are better than one, so surely 20+ heads are way better than one!

Why not invite student voice into your decision making?

Why not share problems of teaching, learning and everything in between with your students?

Why not turn the questions we have as teachers into collaborative inquiries with your class?

Why not trust your students to have creative, brilliant solutions that you maybe haven’t thought of?

Why not get rid of “secret teacher business” altogether?

Why not trust students to tackle the problems we grapple with as adults?

So next time you have a question why not try turning it over to your class first, because you know what my (magic) answer will be anyway…

Ask your students. 

 

Goodbye clip charts. Hello individualized behaviour plans.

The term ‘behaviour management‘ has always bothered me. It gives the impression, that as teachers, all we are trying to do is ‘manage‘ behaviours in hopes of getting by and surviving the day. If our focus is only on managing behaviours are we missing an amazing opportunity to help develop good humans? I think so.

In my opinion one of the biggest culprits of ‘managing‘ behaviour is the good ol’ whole class behaviour plan.

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You know the one. Maybe you’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve used it. Maybe you’ve experienced it as a child. It comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is shaped like a guitar. Sometimes it looks like a stoplight. Sometimes it uses IB language. Sometimes there are stickers involved. Other times, clothespins. Lately it has made its way online in the form of  Class Dojo. No matter how you slice it, it is what it is. A whole class behaviour plan. Very public. Very one-size-fits-no-one. Google image search “Whole Class Behaviour Plan” to see the full spectrum of options!

I’m not the first blogger to launch an attack on the whole class behaviour plan…

So What’s My Problem with Public Behaviour Charts?

Why I Will Never Use a Behaviour Chart Again

6 Reasons to Reject Class Dojo 

But I do want to take a different approach when re-thinking the whole class behaviour plan. I have decided to interview the most child-centered educator I have ever worked with. You may know her as the Globally Minded Counsellor or follow her on Twitter @h_sopierce. I know her as Heidi, my colleague, sounding board and friend. I have decided to interview her in order to explore the debate about whole class behaviour plans from a counselling lens – with the student’s best interest at the heart of it all.

Press play on the podcast below to listen to what Heidi had to say about whole class behaviour plans versus individualized behaviour success plans:

Here is a summary of the major points from Heidi’s podcast:

From a counselling lens, what do you think about whole class behaviour plans with regards to classroom management?

  • only manages behaviours at a surface level, but unless we look at what each individual students needs they will only be management tools to help the teacher succeed, but not necessarily impact the students’ behaviour
  • more about keeping a classroom in control, than changing students’  behaviours
  • sets the tone that the teacher believes that students will fail in their behaviour somehow
  • shaming and calling students out in public are harmful to the student in the long run

Is there ever a time when a whole-class behaviour plan is needed?

  • need to reflect on strategies teachers are using and perhaps gaps in systems, routines, consistency, boundaries that might make it seem like a whole-class behaviour plan is needed
  • might need to identify behaviours that 2 or 3 students need to change, not usually all 20 students need to change

What can teachers do who want to move away from the use of whole-class behaviour plans?

  • build authentic, genuine relationships with students (greet each student at the door – make eye contact, shake their hand use their names; get to know them as individuals – what motivates them, what’s happening at home, what are their interests)
  • reach out to other teachers and counsellors and see what works, what they suggest, and what resources are available

How do you know when an individualized behaviour success plan is needed?

  • after you have tried a variety of differentiated strategies for behaviour supports for your students and they still aren’t working that might indicate that a student would benefit from an individualized behaviour success plan
  • the 1 or 2 students who need to be “taught” about their behaviour and not just “told” or “reminded” about their behaviour

What advice to do you have for teachers who want to create an individualized behaviour success plan?

  • sit with a counsellor or administrator and consult about wanting to set this up
  • create it with the student – sit with student and discuss behaviour; pick one or two specific behaviours to focus on;
  • ensure it is goal oriented – make it specific, not general and vague
  • make it developmentally appropriate
  • ensure the plan allows for the student to celebrate success
  • have a ‘celebration’- high five, chat with the teacher, playing with teacher etc.
  • build in time to re-set
  • praise, praise, praise, praise – share the good stuff with their family!
  • keep it simple
  • make it a working document that is revisited
  • needs to be consistent
  • be okay with trial and error
  • involve student in tracking and self-reflection in an age-appropriate way

(To read more about Heidi’s perspective on the impact whole class behaviour plans can have on students, check out her blog post: How your classroom management practices led to counselling.)

To sum it all up, I will use a famous “Heidi question” that I hear Heidi ask all day, every day (it’s what makes her such an amazing, truly student-centred educator)…

What’s best for students?

If we use this question to re-think our use of whole class behaviour plans and drive our process when building individualized behaviour success plans, we can rest assured the we too are keeping our student’s wellbeing at the heart of everything we do.

What are your thoughts on whole-class behaviour plans?

What are your thoughts on individualized behaviour success plans?

How do you ensure you practices align with what is best for students?

 

What does an inquiry-based, first week of school look like?

During this year’s staff orientation, we used inspiration from two blog posts (sowing the seeds of inquiry & 10 things to do on the first day of school) to move towards a more inquiry-based, first week with students.

Here is a glimpse into what it looked like in classrooms from KG to Grade 5…

Students helped set up their learning environment:

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Students helped choose what to do for the first week:

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Students explored the school:

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Students’ questions were honoured:

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Students and teachers learned about and connected with one another:

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Students and teachers discussed what it means to be ‘students’ and ‘teachers’:

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Students shared what they want to learn about in the coming year:

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Students thought about and shared their learning preferences:

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Students explored the learner profile, PYP attitudes, key concepts and action:

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Student constructed essential agreements:

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Students reflected:

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Students played:

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The week was a success! The feedback from teachers and students was overwhelmingly positive. Students loved being included in the planning and set-up for a new school year and teachers felt the more ownership they handed over to students the more positive and enjoyable the learning community became.

There is a definite buzz around our elementary school. Enthusiasm… fresh ideas… confidence… inquiry… I can’t wait to see where all this amazing energy takes us this year!

What does your inquiry-based first week of school look like?