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?

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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?

Stealing their thinking at recess: Are you telling or asking?

Last year I wrote a post asking teachers to reflect on whether or not they are stealing their students’ thinking. At the time when I wrote that, my understanding was that an inquiry-based approach to teaching was something that happened within the classroom – an approach to academic teaching. Now as my own understanding of inquiry grows and evolves I am starting to see how inquiry as a philosophy should inform our interactions with students throughout the entire school day and extend to include those teachable moments about behaviour, personal choices and social interactions. The biggest part of the school day, where I have noticed that an inquiry-based approach is missing… is at recess.

Recently, I have tried to be an inquirer at recess and observe how teachers deal with problems and situations. More often than not I am seeing and hearing teacher telling students what they did wrong, why it was wrong and what they need to do next time.

Where’s the thinking in that?

I have to admit that before reading a blog post from @h_sopeirce about her Magic Question, I too was approaching recess interactions this way. But when I started to use the magic question “What will I see differently next time” in my conversations with students I started to see the power of asking instead of telling. I realized that for as long as we are telling students what they did wrong, why it was wrong and what to do next time, we are stealing their thinking. We are doing the thinking and reflecting for them and all they have to do is look at us and listen.

How can we expect change in their actions or behaviours without helping them reflect on and change their thinking?

How can we expect them to change their thinking, if we are doing their thinking for them?

So over the past few weeks I have been testing out ‘an inquiry-based approach’ to recess duty! Here is how it usually goes after I notice something of concern and invite the student(s) involved over for a chat:

What do you think I would like to speak to you about? 

I have found this is a key question. If our goal is to have our students be truly reflective, then they need to be the ones who notice and name their undesirable behaviour and I have yet to have a student who is unable to do so when asked this question.

Why do you think that is a problem in our school community?

I have noticed that many times I have asked this question and students truly have no idea why their choice or action is problematic. How can we expect students to behave a certain way if they do not understand the reasons behind those expectations.  I have also noticed that this question allows students to develop the understanding that sometimes expectations for school look and feel different from home and it is important to understand why in the context of school a certain behaviour or action is not welcome.

What will I see differently from your next time?

This is the magic question from the Globally Minded Counsellor. Check our her post to see why it is so magical!

And if I don’t see that next time what should I do?

This questions is an interesting one for a few different reasons. First of all because it throws the students for a loop. Most of them are thrown when they realize I am asking for their advice about what to do as a teacher. Second, the suggestions are usually grossly disproportionate to the behaviour. “Send me to the principal office” or “Call my parents” or “Expel me” are typical pieces of advice for choices  like running in the halls or throwing garbage on the floor. Thirdly, their suggestions are usually quite punitive and come in the form of punishments. This requires some guidance and reframing that my job is to help them learn about their choices and grow as people, not punish them and I am looking for a suggestions that will help them think about their choice and hopefully learn from their mistakes.

teacher telling

If we think of the golden 80/20 ratio we strive for within the classroom (where students are doing 80% of the talking and teachers are only doing 20% of the talking), perhaps we should be striving for the same ratio during recess conversations.

Afterall… whoever is doing the talking is doing the thinking. So if we are doing all the talking in a conversation with students at recess, we can be pretty sure that we are stealing their thinking.

Thoughts?

 

 

Modelling Conflict Resolution: One Conversation as a Time

At our school when students have a small problem, we encourage them to solve it for themselves using Kelso’s Choice. We have had so much success with this program, I would encourage you to check it out!

Kelso's Choice

But when it comes to larger problems where an adult needs to step in, how can we truly help work through these problems, but also ensure that students are learning peaceful and productive ways to deal with conflict?

Here is a framework that I have picked up along the way to help guide students in working through their bigger conflicts:

1. The Invite

Can you and you please come have a chat with me so I can help you solve your problem. 

2. The Initial Agreement

I am going to help you solve this problem and I am going to give each of you a chance to tell your side of the story, but first we need to agree that we won’t interrupt each other when someone is telling their perspective.

3. Uninterrupted Sides of the Story – Listen and Rephrase 

Can you please go first and tell me, in your opinion, what happened?

I’m going to tell you what I heard. I heard you say that…

*repeat with all students involved*

4. Making Sure Stories Match

(This is a tricky one. Oftentimes when students are telling their side of the story, the stories don’t match right away. I have learned to avoid the ‘L’ word and use other methods to help get the stories to match.)

Second Chance – Unfortunately your stories aren’t matching and I can’t help you solve your problem until I understand what actually happened. So I’m going to give you a second chance to really think and see if there are any parts of your story that you want to change to make them more true. 

Clarifying Terms – You said he hit you. He said he didn’t. What did you mean by ‘hit’? 

5. Identifying Causes of Feelings

So if I am hearing you correctly, you are saying that you are upset because…

*repeat with all students involved*

6. Taking Responsibility & Action

Think about what you just heard about why the other person is upset and tell me what you might have done in this situation that was not the right choice.

Now that you know how you made this person upset, what can you do to make them feel better?

*repeat with all students involved*

7. Reflection

How could you have handled this situation differently? What different choice could you have made to solve this problem more peacefully?

*repeat with all students involved*

8. Resolution Check-In

Do you feel this problem has been resolved?

*repeat with all students involved*

9. Peace Offering

After problems have been resolved it is nice to show a gesture of peace that says, ‘problem is solved, let’s move on’. What would you like to do to show peace; high five, hand shake, fist bump, chicken wing, nod etc.?

True this model takes time, which is often something that comes at a premium during the teaching day. But, I often find that these steps allow me to work through student conflicts without needing additional help, so I try to make time for them. If I’m on duty at recess I will often find a grassy spot or picnic table where we can sit down and chat. If it happens during class time, I take the first opportunity possible when students are doing independent learning to gather the students involved at a guided reading table. Or when there is no other option, I tell the students to wait and cool off and we will do some problem solving together privately at recess.

Sometimes it feels like these ‘teachable moments’ get in the way of the learning we have planned for our students, but what could be more important in the pursuit of helping to make good humans, than helping students learn how to peacefully work through conflict?

How do you help teach students to work through their conflicts?