Starting the Year with the PYP Enhancements in Mind

Our PYP community is in a unique situation. We welcomed in the PYP Enhancements last school year – but for many of us, it was mid-way through the year. Which means this is the first time lots of us are planning our first weeks with the enhancements in mind.

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I’m sure many of these considerations were already present in our previous approaches to back to school planning. But now we have a solid, common, intentional framework from which to plan our first day, our first week, and even the days leading up to the first day.

So as we plan our start to the year we need to be sure to ask ourselves and each other:

Are we thinking about The Learners?

Are we thinking about Learning and Teaching?

Are we thinking about the Learning Community? 

To help us all in this collective goal I’ve shared some ‘start of the year’ blog posts organized around those 3 categories:

The Learner

Relationship Building 

Why We Must Invest in Relationship Building First

An Inquiry Into My Students

Connecting with Students 

Learning and Teaching

Sowing the Seeds for a Great Year – 10 Tips for an Inquiry-Based First Week 

What Does an Inquiry-Based First Week of School Look Like?

What Could an Agency-Supportive First Week of School look like?

Best First Week of School Ever!

Best First Month of School Ever!

My Plan For  a More Fair and Free Place to Learn

Starting the year off slowly

The Learning Community 

Reaching Out to Families

Getting Parents On-board 

How are you ensuring the PYP Enhancements are guiding your back to school planning?

What other resources would you add to this list to help strengthen our focus on The Learner, Learning and Teaching and The Learning Community?

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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?

Taking It Public

Sometimes my team and I get crazy ideas. Like having 120 students share their 120 personalized Units of Inquiry, 8 different ways, 3 days after the winter holiday.

It always seems like a great at the time. We hold hands, jump in with both feet, happily submerge into new waters… then we pop back up to the surface, catch our breath and look around.

What is first excitement, soon becomes panic.

“What were we thinking!?”

“What have we done!?”

“How do we get out of this!?”

Then the realization hits us. The fact that we are constantly asking our students to:

– think big

– take risks

– leave their comfort zone

– do something that scares them

– embrace failure

So in order to avoid being the world’s biggest hypocrites, we commit to our crazy idea, get all hands on deck and continue full steam ahead.

Here is the story of how we muddled through our first attempt at supporting students to “Take Their Learning Public”

As always, the idea came from a long and heated chat. This time, about how to wrap up the students’ first personalized Units of Inquiry. We all agreed, there needed to be some way in which they shared their learning with parents and the school community, but we wanted to ensure it was as authentic and student-driven as possible. So we settled on the idea of having all students “take it public” but in a way that made sense for what their unit was.

As a team, we brainstormed all the possible ways student could take their learning public, and because we’re crazy, we thought… “Why not have them all happening on the same day!?”

And because we’re even crazier, we figured “Why not the Friday after they return from winter holiday”.

So then we introduced the idea to students, as usual starting with the “why”. We talked about how regardless of what someone is working on, learning about, or pursuing, there typically comes a point where that person takes their journey public. It may be when a fashion designer puts on a show. Or when a scientist publishes their findings. Or perhaps when an inventor showcases a prototype at a trade show. Or even when a musician performs a new song.

So since they’ve been working on pursuing a purpose for the past 6 weeks, it was time for them to take their learning public and share it with others.

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Then we shared our plan for “how” we were going to help students to make this happen.

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We shared our plan for support.

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We shared our plan for time.

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Then we shared our thinking about “what” ways they could take their learning public. For each option, we shared stories and photos from previous years to help students understand and visualize what that might look like for them – hopefully helping them more of an informed choice when it came time to commit to one of the options.

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Then we had all student complete a Google Form to give us the data we needed to plan our support for them.

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We analyzed the data in order to make decisions about groups and adult allocations. We looked for styles of taking it public that could be grouped together (like Ted Talks and live performances; gallery and showcase) and we also took into consideration our individual strengths and preferences for which group we felt we could best support.

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Then we shared this information with students…

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and had our first meetings with our “TIP” groups where we able to get to know the students (since they were made of mixed groupings) and begin to co-construct a vision for what success would look like.

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These “Take it Public” (or “TIP” as it came to be known) groups would continue to meet at the beginning of each day, so the adult responsible for the group could support the students to create to-do lists and day plans in order to prepare and meet again at the end of each day to support students in reflecting on progress, challenges and next steps. Many advisors also set up TIP Google Classrooms to help with the logistics, organization and communication.

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At this point, we also knew it was important to communicate with parents to let them know the “why, how, and whats” of Taking It Public, so they could make arrangement to hopefully come in and be part of it. We decided to be completely transparent with the parent community, and position ourselves as risk-takers, hence the name “A Friday of Firsts” – both for students and ourselves.

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Then, the next few days were full of:

Researching…

Building…

Rehearsing…

Designing…

Practicing…

Preparing…

Memorizing…

Organizing…

and lots and LOTS of conferencing!

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Many of us used a variety of approaches to track the students’ progress and find out what support they wanted from us. This helped us stay involved with what they needed and the amount and level of support that made sense for them.

Some of us collected this data with small check-in Google Forms at the end of each day:

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Others took anecdotal notes, or had one-on-one, regular check-ins with the members of their group.

Regardless of how we collected this data, we all made sure to use it in order to inform our planning for the following day.

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We also paid attention to planning the logistics for the actual day. Taking into consideration what is happening when, who is involved, who is supervising whom and who is available to come an observe/participate.

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The morning of the event, students did their final touches and preparations…

And then…. ready, set, GO!

Ted Talks

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A Marketplace

A showcase 

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A gallery

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A catered “Food Friday”

Workshops for younger students

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And read alouds

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Photo credits: @puglifevn @juouelle @hktans @ms_amandaromano 

Reflections:

  • All in all it was a successful day – there was a palpable energy amongst students, advisors and the parent community, as well as feelings of pride, success and accomplishment
  • There were a few difficult conversations between parents and students, but we welcome and encourage that as part of the learning process from students first attempt planning and directing their own Unit of Inquiry – it’s all about failing forward and learning from mistakes 
  • As a team, we were glad we took the plunge and tried something new and scary – we left our comfort zone, and magic really did happen!
  • It was SO great to work with a mixed group of students and continue to build relationships with students across the grade level
  • It was surprising how smooth the transition was from winter holiday, right back into TIP preparations – we were shocked and provoked at the idea not necessarily needing to wrap up one thing before a break, and the unexpected benefits of having something familiar to jump right back into

 Future Thoughts:

  • next time it would be great for us to acknowledge the students that “took it public” on their own accord at some point throughout their unit, as we had a few students point out that they had already hosted a workshop, catered an event, participated in a market at a more authentic time in their journey. Maybe this teacher-led “take it public” does not need to be for everyone, but could be more for those students who missed this part of the process on their own
  • it would be great if we could figure out how to break this “taking it public” out of school-land, beyond parents and students, and support students to share their learning and accomplishments with the wider community

 

How do you support your students to have ownership over taking their learning public?

How do you model and experience taking risks and facing failures alongside your students?

PYPx – Beyond Poster Boards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a glimpse into how it went:

Introducing the PYP Exhibition

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Sampling symbolic representations

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

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

Co-constructing success criteria

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

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

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

Planning their vision

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

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Creating

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

Some chose to represent their learning journey through music…

Others through film…

Or paint…

shapes and structures…

words and fonts…

video clips…

Images…

Fabrics and textures…

Objects…

Maps…

Movement…

Even a Rube Goldberg!

Support from each other

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

Support from adults

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

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

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Ongoing Feedback and Reflection

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

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

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Artist Statements

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

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Staging and installation

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

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

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

Finally the PYPx staging was complete!

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

An invitation for a conversation

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

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

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Sharing with the community

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

Feedback

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

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Moving Forward…

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

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

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

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

Agency Self-Reflection Tool

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

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

(Click here for a printable copy)

Agency Self-Reflection Tool

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

Beginning of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day to Day Voice and Choice

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

  • None
  • Some
  • A lot
  • Full control

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

  • None
  • Some
  • A lot
  • Full control

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

  • None
  • Some
  • A lot
  • Full control

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

  • None
  • Some
  • A lot
  • Full control

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

  • None
  • Some
  • A lot
  • Full control

Planning, Assessing and Reporting Their Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17. How involved are your students in conferences involving parents

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

Other:

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

  • Not at all
  • Somewhat
  • Very
  • Completely comfortable

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

So, I’d like to know what you think…

What would you add, change or remove?

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

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

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

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

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts…

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

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

Here is what we tried:

1. Invest time in the “why”

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

2. Plan in response, not advance

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

3. Involve students in planning the first day

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

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

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

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

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

4. Teacher transparency

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

5. Involve students in setting up the learning space

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

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

6. Provide opportunities for student voice

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

7. Act on student voice

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

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

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

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Here are our reflections from the week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to break the “homeroom” mould

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The adventure begins tomorrow…

Wish us luck!