Personalized Units of Inquiry

Last year I shared my teams’ dissatisfaction with the typical PYP approach to planning Units of Inquiry for students – especially within a context aiming to respect and support student agency.

Last year, I also shared my team’s first attempt at Units of Inquiry planned by students, as well as an update later on in the year as the process evolved.

This year we continue to grow and refine the process… always reflecting… always iterating… never satisfied. Keeping the parts of the process that were successful last year, ditching things that weren’t and trying new things we hope can make the process even better.

Here is a synopsis of how we’ve changed and improved the process from last year:

Starting with motivation and purpose

Similar to last year, we spent the first week inquiring into motivation and supporting students to uncover what their purpose might be.

Here are some of slides that helped us in our own planning, as well as guiding the students’ planning.

Something new we tried this year was having students think of their own, “why, how and what” when they were committing to their purpose. This in-between step helped them begin the thought process of unit planning, but in a very simplified way.

This simple, first step was really effective at helping students to begin to think about their journey.

This year, we also joined the community of learners – following each and every part of the process alongside our students.

Here is a link to the slides we used to guide this process with students.

Finding Connections

Something new we tried this year, was helping students find connections – both among their peers and within the school community.

First we decided to post all the students’ purposes in a central location. We chose to organize them by TD themes to help with our own tracking and horizontal articulation over the year.

Once all 120 students’ purposes were posted, we realized that although they were organized by TD theme, it would be helpful to also organize them by category. So we decided to look for trends and colour-code them based on what we noticed.

Then we decided to invite anyone and everyone who worked at the school that might have something to offer our students – single-subject teachers, coaches, our CAS coordinator, our Head of School etc. We asked them to do two things:

1. Analyze the students’ purposes and do a “see, think, wonder” leaving post-it notes with advice, observations, suggestions and questions.

2. Fill in a poster about what you are willing to help with and how you prefer to be contacted by the students.

As soon as the first post-it note and “I Can Help With” poster went up, students were at the boards, taking notes, photos and videos of anything and anyone that might help them achieve their purpose.

Unit Planning

Similar to last year, we had students go through the unit planning process. We felt it really helped them take their vision, and break it down into more manageable bits and pieces.

To simplify the process, this year my team spent a lot of time debating the different unit planners we used last year and reached consensus (which is rare for us!) about a unit planner that was simple, effective and aligned with the PYP planning process.

Tracking

Something new we are also trying his year, is to do a better job tracking all the different UOIs to be able to document horizontal articulation. Although last year we knew there was breadth and depth of exploration across all six TD themes, because we were all new and figuring it out as we went, we didn’t have a process for keeping track of it all.

This year we’ve decided to create a database that will document each student’s personalized UOIs over the course of the year, creating somewhat of a personalized program of inquiry.

This will allow us to see which TD themes have been explored by which students and therefore which TD themes and students might need a nudged over the course of the year. It will also provide a record that we can share with IB visitors during evaluation visits to show that we are meeting the Standards and Practices of students engaging with all six TD themes in their final year of the PYP.

Self-Evaluations

Another element of the process we wanted to keep from last year, was having students evaluate their own learning (i.e. write their own reports). However, we felt that it wasn’t only important for students to evaluate their own learning upon the completion of their unit, but also the creation of their unit.

So after students created their own personalized UOI, they formally evaluated their understanding of their own motivation and indicators of success.

We provided them with the following guiding questions:

Then we responded to their self-evaluation based on our own observations and assessments of the unit creation process.

After six weeks we will follow the same procedure as last year, asking students to reflect on and evaluate their motivation and success in order to make an informed choice whether to “pivot or preserve”.

Parent Involvement

Something new we are going to try is involving parents more in supporting the students throughout their Units. Last year we had a few parents come in as experts, but we felt the process could be much more intentional and organized.

First we reached out to parents to see who might be interested in donating time and expertise to support our students’ Units.

From here, we are planning to look at the data and begin to create a sustainable structure of matching up parents who have something to offer, with students who are looking for help.

Something from last year that worked really well that we plan to do again this year, was inviting parents in for a UOI consultation. Parents came in and sat with their their child, looked at their unit plan, the documentation and evidence and both celebrated their progress as well as offered advice and suggestions about next steps.

We’re only a few weeks in… but it’s been a wonderful few weeks! It’s been great to see students start to explore their purpose, build connections, reach out to experts and take action! The buzz is real!

Photo credits: @puglifevn @juoulette @phuhua

Overall, the changes and improvements have had a positive impact on maintaining the integrity of student voice, choice and ownership in the process while balancing the expectations of the program.

As usual, we will continue to reflect and refine as we go… and I’ll keep sharing our journey with you along the way!

How do you ensure Units of Inquiry are significant, relevant, engaging and challenging for each student?

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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!

Supporting Students’ Agency – Take Two!

Last year, was the first year in my career as an educator where I tried to my best to respect and support my students as agentic learners. There were many successes, many frustrations and a whole lot of learning. This year I am it again! Hoping to continue to challenge and change my own beliefs and practices and hopefully do a better job respecting and supporting my students’ agency.

This year I have changed schools and joined a team of like-minded educators, who are also interested in re-thinking education, pushing the boundaries of “doing school” and innovating the PYP. Our initiative is called Studio 5 and it has been amazing to be a part of it so far.

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We are in the process of organizing ourselves so we can share, in detail, what we are doing, why we are doing it – and the part that is usually most appreciated by teachers – how we are doing it. When that blog is up and running I will be sure to share the link here.

For now, I just wanted to take some time for myself to reflect – What approaches have I kept from last year… What have I changed and improved… What new things have I tried… and most importantly how it’s all been going so far.

Morning Cafes

Each morning is a slow start to the day – meaning students can come up to class any time they like between 7:45 and 8:15. During this time all 4 homerooms are open and offer something different and the students roam freely from room to room, building, creating, playing and enjoying each other’s company.

Student Written Rights and Responsibilities

Using the Visible Thinking Routine “Growing Definition” students came up with a list of rights for the time they spend at school.

Student Voice

Providing lots of opportunity for students to voice their thoughts and opinions including using the Visible Thinking Routine “Compass Points” to collect their needs, worries, excitements and suggestions from the first day of school; having an ongoing place in the room for students to document problems, questions and ideas; asking students to complete surveys with honest feelings about school, learning and themselves.

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Student-Planned “Bonding Day”

At the beginning of the year, each grade attends a “Bonding Day” to help students and teachers get to know one another and begin to build a strong sense of community. Instead of teachers planning and running this day for the students, the students planned and ran this day for themselves. This involved researching activities, putting the plans together, testing out their games on each other and their parents, receiving/analyzing/actioning feedback from multiple sources, advertising their game and finally -when the day came – running their activity.

Re-designing the Learning Space

Since we are trying to break through the typical notion of “my homeroom” and create a collaborative culture where all Studio 5 students are learning and working together, instead of having students set up their own classroom, we had the entire Studio 5 student body re-design the whole Studio 5 area. This required having students really understand the “why” of having them design their own learning space as well as having some interesting discussions on planning and making decisions on behalf of a large group of people. In order to make this happen, students connected with others across the grade who shared a similar interest, collaboratively conducted research and collected data, put together a video proposal on Flipgrid and if they received majority support from the community they could put their plan into action.

Inquiring into Learning

We used the Frayer model to tune into what we thought “learning” meant, then we used the process of “Growing Definition” to come up with a shared understanding of what “learning” means to us. We used this definition to create criteria to help us know that learning has happened (can be seen below along the right side of the day plan template). We also spent time thinking about how learning happens and who we are as learners. Finally we “looked for learning” by identifying the learning that had happened over the past weeks – even if we weren’t aware of it at the time.

Building a Culture of Initiative (Not Permission)

I was also cautious not to quash curiosity and any initiative my students were taking to pursue a curiosity or interest. Whether it was building, designing, figuring out if a lime could power a light or how best to make a wad of clay stick to a glass wall… I tried not to stop them or stand in their way.

Planning Their Own Day

I started having students plan their own day the same as I had done last year by giving them a blank template that had the timings of periods and empty boxes. Thanks to collaboration and amazing team members, I was able to fine tune and improve this process. I started to use the MOSCOW method to help students see different priorities for the day and I amended the day plan template to build in space for not only what they were doing, but also why and how. One of the best improvements to the day planning process and template was building in a focus on ATL skill development.

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Inquiring into Reflection

In order to help students get to know themselves as reflective learners, and to become more aware of their reflective preferences, we discussed and experimented with many different approaches to “how” we can reflect as well as “what” we can reflect about. From here students will (hopefully) be able to make informed choices each day when reflecting on their learning. Students are also working towards using their daily reflections to inform the choices they make the following day when completing their day plans.

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C.A.R. Time

The first period and last period everyday is “C.A.R. time” where students are supported by a learning advisor to “Choose. Act. Reflect”. The groups are small enough that the advisor can meet with each student in the morning to offer advice on planning their day and again in the afternoon to encourage deep and meaningful reflections about the day.

Student-Led Workshops

In our Studio 5 model it was important to us that students felt empowered to lead their own workshops for other students. In order to get this process started, students first used the “Gradual Increase of Independence” to reflect on things they can do independently, as well as things they would need to be taught, helped with and things they could teach others. These reflections were then shared in a central place so students could start to see both workshops they might want to offer and workshops they might want to participate in. From there students took initiative to plan, advertise and facilitate workshops on a range of topics.

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Optional Teacher Led Workshops

As much as we wanted students to be empowered to lead their own learning, we also wanted to make sure we were a part of their learning too! So in attempt to move away from the typical mandatory, full class lesson model, we began to offer optional workshops that any student – regardless of which homeroom they were in – could sign up to attend. Workshops ranged from read alouds, to creative writing, to math concepts to tech skills.

Building a Culture of Passionate Readers and Writers

In our Studio 5 model it is important that students are developing their literacy skills – but we want to be careful that this does not infringe on their agency as learners. So we have been focusing more on creating a culture of passionate readers and writers – with the help of advice from blogger Pernille Ripp – focusing on what we can do to help them want to read and write. We try to make books visible, accessible and valued; we encourage students to use and enjoy the beautiful school library; we ensure space for students to share book recommendations with one another; we encourage reading at any point in the day; we invite students to become reading buddies for younger students; and we provide options and opportunities for practical and creative use of language.

Developing Assessment Capable Students

In order for students to be able to lead their learning, they must have access to all the usual behind-the-scenes process teachers engage in. For our first stand-alone math unit we wanted to support students in not only understanding what is expected to be learned by the end of the unit, but also how they could figure out what they may already know. We supported the students in using the “Gradual Increase of Independence” to self-assess where they thought they were for each math learning outcome. But more importantly, we discussed the difference between thinking you know something and being sure that you know something. We discussed the role of providing evidence and gathering feedback from experts to ensure you are on the right track. Some students decided to create a Google Slides presentation to house their evidence and others preferred to collect their evidence in a notebook. Some students used a teacher as an expert, others used an older sibling, parent or peer. As students received feedback from their experts, many of them made changes to the placement of the learning outcomes along the Gradual Increase of Independence.

Parent Voice

Similar to ensuring that students feel their voice is heard and valued, it is equally important to ensure that parents feel their voice is also heard and valued. Sending home a Google form was an amazing way to better understand their child, their family and their perspective on the purpose of school.

Student-Written Reports

I am so excited that our administration supports the idea that if students are truly owning their learning, they should be the ones to write their evaluation of learning report. To help them in this process, we used the Visible Thinking Routine “Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate”. First we had students reflect on everything they had done in the Who We Are unit, then we had them think about how those learning experience helped them develop two self-management and two social skills as well as how those experiences contributed to their understanding of “Who We Are”. From there, students used their concept map to reflect on questions in a google form. Next week, students will then turn these responses into a cohesive paragraph that will be used as their official written report for the Who We Are unit.

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My reflections…

  • it has been amazing to be surrounded by like-minded educators who are also striving to respect and support students’ agency during their time at school
  • approaching these initiatives as a grade level, as opposed to a single class has provided much more opportunity for students
  • having an administrative team and head of school with a similar vision has helped to alleviate some of the fears associated with innovating and taking risks in the classroom
  • letting go of exactly what I did last year has been hard, but the growth and progress from letting go and being open to my team’s ideas and suggestions has been amazing
  • the days are so enjoyable – the vibe is relaxed and free; there is always a buzz in the air filled with conversation and laughter; students and teachers are interacting as partners in the learning process; it all feels very humane
  • the parents have been amazing allies in this process, providing lots of supportive feedback about what we are trying to do and how it has been a positive experience for their child
  • there is still so much preventing us from being able to truly support students as agentic learners – practices and procedures deeply embedded in the current paradigm of schooling limit the type of true agentic environment we dream of
  • I am still a learner… I have much to learn, unlearn and re-learn about how best to work within a system and yet at the same time push the limits of that system

What is your feedback about what we have been trying so far?

How can we continue to improve as PYP teachers in support of student agency?

How have you been respecting and supporting your students as agentic learners?