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?

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Getting Parents Onboard

One of my big professional goals this year is to do a better job getting parents to understand and support our agency-based approach to learning.

I used to do a pretty good job of this at my old school, but last year – with a new country, new school, new grade, new approach – it fell off my list of priorities. I lost sight of how crucial it truly is.

So this year I’m making a more concerted effort, to not only help the parents understand what is going on in the classroom and why, but more importantly to bring them into to the conversation about why school is broken and get them onboard as allies in the education revolution!

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Design by @orenjibuta

Here are a few things I’ve done so far:

1. Embrace and encourage parent meetings

Sometimes as educators we try to avoid, sidestep and minimize parent meetings. This year I’ve tried to shift my perspective to wanting and welcoming parent meetings.

Right at the beginning of the year I sent out an open invitation to any parents who had questions, comments and concerns about our agency-supportive model. I had about a handful of parents reply and set-up a meeting.

If the reason for the meeting was more about their specific child within our agency-supportive model then I made sure to encourage a 3-way conference approach to the meeting. Making it clear that our school philosophy was that meetings that take place about a child, should include that child.

To structure the meeting I used an adapted protocol where child, parent and teacher all had an opportunity to share their goals, needs, worries and suggestions.

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Moving on from these initial meetings I had some families that wanted to schedule regular meetings – once a month – to stay connected and involved in their child’s learning. And others who felt that the initial meeting had met their needs.

Another thing that came to light from these meetings was that parents wanted to feel more involved in the model, wanted to better understand the model and wanted help and support learning how to be a parent within the model. This feedback informed many of the following steps I’ve been taking this year to get parents on board.

2. Harnessing the power of digital platforms

It was clear that many parents wanted to feel involved and part of their child’s learning at school, but because it was so different from when they went to school themselves, they weren’t exactly sure how.

So thanks to the power of Google, SeeSaw, Weebly and other platforms we were able to start helping them feel more involved. We got in the routine of digitally sharing assessments, weekly goals, day plans, reflections and documentation.

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This not only gave parents insight into their child’s learning but allowed for them to leave comments, suggestions and feedback to become part of the learning process.

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3. Make planning transparent

“No secret teacher business” is a pretty common phrase for agency-supportive educators when sharing their thinking and planning with their students – why not with parents as well? What better way to have parents understand not only what is happening in the classroom, but also (and probably more importantly) why and how.

So each Monday I take a screenshot of our actual team planning (which is built around Simon Sinek’s Golden Circles) and record a voice note to explain, in detail, the thinking, reasons and research behind our planning.

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There has been a really positive response to these posts from parents!

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So this prompted me to start to share beyond the weekly why, how, what to other important systems and structures that we have in place to support students’ learning.

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4. Hook parents as allies

One of the most crucial aspects of getting parents on board is helping them become critical thinkers about the current paradigm of education and what needs to change. Each week I send home a provocation – a video, blog, post, article, tweet, or quote – that is meant to poke and provoke their thinking about education.

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I’m lucky that I’m part of a team that shares similar philosophies and practices getting parents on board, because we work together to collect and collate parent provocations.

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5. Seek and Action Parent Feedback

I think it’s also important to recognize and make space for parents’ thoughts, ideas, and feedback – not just with regards to their specific child, but also in more general ways as well.

Whether it’s taking time to collect their philosophies and beliefs about education…

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Taking time to ask them about their child…

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Seeking feedback about the new ways you are approaching teaching and learning…

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Or seeking feedback about how you are doing as a teacher

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It is important that they have a voice and they feel like their voice is heard and honoured.

My Reflections

One of most important things I’ve learned so far is that the more it feels like an invitation – whether it’s to come in for a meeting, have access to their child’s documents, listen to the thinking behind our planning, engage with a parent provocation or fill out a survey – the more comfortable it feels for parents. That way parents can be as involved as they wish to be. And for some that means very involved and for other less so to not at all.

As a classroom teacher it definitely becomes easier to get parents on board the more your PYPC, administrators and Head of School take similar approaches in the work they do with parents. I’m thankful to be part of a school where everyone shares a similar approach to energize, engage and empower our parent community as an essential part of shifting the educational paradigm. Maybe I can even get my PYPC coordinatorprincipal or Head of School to write a guest post about their contribution to getting parents on board within their role… Stay tuned!

How do you get parents on board for agency-supportive models of learning?

How are you inviting parent voice into the process?

The Magic of a Student Designed Studio

We have 120 Grade 5 students.

We have 10 learning spaces in our Grade 5 hallway.

And to start the year we believed that those 120 students should have the trust and ownership to collectively design and set-up those 10 learning spaces.

So they did. And it was pretty amazing.

Before Day 1

As usual, our team started with why. With the help of our PYPC and instructional coaches, we talked as a team to ensure we were all on the same page about why having students set-up their learning spaces was essential to starting a year full of respect and support for their agency. From there we were able to move onto possible hows and whats , but we knew that most of the planning would be in response to what actually happened each day, so we started small, with one first step – “unsetting up” the space.

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We knew that in order for students to be able to truly own the space, we would need to provide them with a blank canvas – essentially undoing any thinking, decisions or organization from us. We also knew it was important that students could easily see and access all the furniture, resources and materials that we had as a grade level, so we decided to collate it all into separate areas. We put all the tables in one area, all the couches in another area, all the shelves in another area, all the baskets/bins/organizers in another area, all the consumable materials in another area and all the learning resources and manipulative in another area. We also ensured every wall, shelf, cupboard, and bin was completely empty.

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We also knew that is was essential to keep parents informed and involved. So we sent them this email a few days before their child’s first day of school:

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Day 1

On day 1, we pretty much just said “Go! Set-up your studios!”. We wanted to prevent too much guidance and ensure our thinking wasn’t accidentally seeping into their thinking. We also wanted to use this as a cold diagnostic – to see who they are and what they currently think and understand about learning and school. Since there were lots of big, heavy pieces of furniture we did have a safety briefing to talk about how to lift and carry furniture and how to ask for help when needed.

Then they were off…

And it was incredible to see the action, initiative, thinking and teamwork right out of the gate!

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 Immediately we started to see creativity and great ideas:

A table for adults to drop of forgotten lunches….

An indoor handball court…

A welcome sign…

We also started to see different types of learning spaces emerge:

And by the end of day 1, students had successfully set-up 7…. classrooms.

Day 2

Although students did an AMAZING job with their first attempt of setting-up, it was clear that many of them were still in the mindset of “doing school” – a paradigm we knew we wanted to challenge immediately. So in small advisory groups we all facilitated a guided brainstorm activity to get them thinking about the concept of a studio.

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Once we helped students organize and unpack their own thinking about the concept of a studio, we asked them a challenging question.

“Yesterday we told you to go set-up your studios. Looking at the people, places, materials, and purposes from your brainstorms this morning…. did you actually set-up ‘studios’?” – Us

“No….” – Them

“Yesterday, what did you set-up?” – Us

“Classrooms” – Them

“Do you guys want some more time to try again?” – Us

“YAASSSSSS!!!!!” – Them

So they tried again. And it was just as – if not more – amazing! We started to see spaces emerge that would support authentic and purposeful pursuits and endeavours.

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But we noticed students weren’t really considering the purpose-built spaces. We have two small rooms with doors, one large room with doors, 4 medium rooms with 3 and 3/4 walls and two large open spaces. Yet students weren’t matching the purpose of the space to the unique features of the space. So we broke into small advisory groups again to push their thinking further. We analyzed the features of each space and debated what type of studio would be most appropriate in that space. Obviously there was no clear right or wrong answer, so we ended up with several, equally good options.

Day 3

We took the most popular options that arose from discussions within advisory groups and synthesized them into 3 main floor plans. Then students and advisors analyzed the floor plans and cast their vote.

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It was clear that “option B” had the majority of votes, so that is what we went with.

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Next, we had students commit to a team that they felt motivated to help with.

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Then we let them go again to bring “option B” to life in their new teams.

We started to see the space take shape, but noticed they were focused mostly on the big things and not yet thinking about the smaller details. So we pulled them together and provoked their thinking further with these 6 questions.

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Then we really started to see the spaces take shape.

We saw more thinking and action connected to organization…

We saw more attention to aesthetics…

We started to see signs and instructions…

We saw more thought into what was needed in each space and how to get it…

Day 4

Since all the spaces will be used be all 130 of us, it was important that the teams responsible for each space were considering and using the ideas and opinions of people who were not on their team. So we gave students the opportunity to “tour” each space and then leave feedback for the group responsible for designing that specific studio.

Then teams had time to analyze the feedback and decided how they were going to take action to honour the ideas and concerns of their peers.

Day 5

At this point spaces were starting to shape up, but we noticed that most students (with an exception of a few) weren’t looking beyond what they already had in their space. So we poked their thinking further into what else they might need, where they could get it and, of course, how we as adults could support them in that process.

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Day 6,7,8

At this point in the process, we noticed a plateau. It seems that students took themselves as far as they could and weren’t sure where to go next. So that was a big clue for us, that it was time to jump in and help them go beyond where they could take themselves. So we had one adult join each of the teams and act as a coach. Each person had their own style of how they supported their group, but we all shared the common theme of helping support students’ thinking and organization towards their next steps.

We noticed that this support helped students go further and begin to think about the smaller details within their space.

Even MORE cool ideas began to emerge!

Day 9

Then, finally, the spaces were “done” (knowing that there is always opportunities for reflections, refinements, new ideas and changes throughout the year!)

We ended up with a book nook…

An art and design studio…

A recording studio…

A science and maths lab…

A town hall space…

A drama studio…

A fitness studio…

A digital production studio…

And a “chillax” studio…

At this point it was important to take time to pause and reflect in order to look for learning. We challenged the students to think about the last 9 days and notice and name the attributes of the IB Learner Profile, PYP attitudes, ATL skills, strands of math and stands of language that have been embedded within their experience designing and setting-up their learning spaces – even if they didn’t realize it at the time.

We then displayed their reflections for the community – to help parents, other grade-levels and visitors to our school understand where the learning has been during the first two weeks of the year.

Day 10

Now that the studios were fully set-up it was time for all of us to explore and use the amazing spaces!

It was also time to show and share the spaces with their families. So during Back to School Night, students gave their families a tour of all the learning spaces in our hallway. We invited parents to leave their feedback so we could include their voice in the process.

Here is what they had to say:

Reflections

  • It was such an enjoyable first few weeks of school
  • It provided great diagnostic data about our students’ thinking, initiative, teamwork, problem solving and creativity
  • It established a really strong sense of community
  • It set the tone for a culture of initiative, not a culture of permission
  • It helped students understand the spaces, resources and materials they have available to them this year
  • It challenged us all to break down our “homeroom” mentality
  • It showed students we are serious about respecting and supporting their agency as learners and as a people

I feel extremely lucky to be part of a team of fellow risk-takers who were all on board to jump in with both feet. I also feel extremely lucky to be at a school with a parent community who trusted us and tried their best to understand our approach and how they could be part of it. I also also feel extremely fortunate to be at a school where our leadership, admin and even Head of School not only understood what we were trying to do, but supported us and even publically shared and celebrated our approach.

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If you want to involve your students in setting up their learning spaces, but happen to be at a school where your team, leadership, admin and/or Head of School are not on board (yet), take comfort in the fact that the Enhanced PYP has your back!

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How do you involve your students in setting up their learning spaces?

Student-Planned UOIs

Currently, our grade level has 84 different Units of Inquiry happening simultaneously – a different one for each student. All connecting to different transdisciplinary themes, exploring different key concepts, developing different ATL skills, strengthening different attitudes, developing different attributes of the Learner Profile and lasting for different lengths of time.

It is PYPx?

Nope… it’s just a “normal” week in Studio 5!

How did we get here? What was our “why”? Our “how? Our “what”? And where do we go from here? Stick with me for this lengthy blog post and I will try to capture and share our journey through supporting our students to plan, execute, and report on, their own Units of Inquiry.

Why?

So often as PYP educators, we start with the UOI and then work hard to figure out how to wrap each student around the unit we have planned. We use provocations, tuning in activities and student-generated questions to help students find “their connection” to the UOI. And although UOIs are broad and conceptual with lots of space for inquiry within, at the end of the day we are still trying to get students to find their connection to our units.

 

The more and more my team and I began to understand and value student agency, the more and more we began to wonder:

Why do all of our students need to be inquiring into the same UOI all at once, for the exact same length of time?

Aren’t all of these teacher-made decisions when planning a UOI pulling us away from our goal of respecting and supporting students’ agency as learners?

Do all of our students even need to be inquiring into the same TD theme at the same time?

Dissatisfied with our previous attempt to reconcile agency and teacher-planned Units of Inquiry, we decided to be risk-takers and take action. Instead of trying to wrap each student around a UOI, we decided to try and wrap a UOI around each student.

Our goal was to help students plan their own Units of Inquiry based around their own passions, interests and curiosities, while at the same time protecting and maintaining the role each of the 5 essential elements of the PYP played within a UOI.

How?

If we were going to expect our students to plan their own units based around things they were intrinsically motivated to learn about, we knew we had to empower students to understand motivation and more specifically, understand their own motivation. So with the help of Dan Pink’s research and resources we began an inquiry into motivation.

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Next, we wanted to help students be able to choose something they were truly motivated to learn. We knew that jumping straight into “What’s one thing you are intrinsically motivated to learn” was unlikely to get us where we wanted to be, so instead we crafted some questions to hopefully help students uncover things in their lives that already showed evidence of intrinsic motivation.

Students filled one in about themselves:

Their parents also filled one in about their child:

Then students used both “planners” to select one “purpose”. We chose the word “purpose”… well, purposefully! We knew that eventually we wanted to have students plan their unit using a modified PYP Bubble Planner, and we wanted to keep the essence of that planner as much as possible. And since box 1, question 1 on the Bubble Planner is “What is our purpose?” we knew that eventually the student Bubble Planner would ask “What is your purpose?” Another reason we chose purpose is because we wanted to steer clear of the word passion. Earlier on in the year, our Head of School provoked our thinking with the article “7 Habits Instead of Passion” which posits that ‘follow your passion’ can be dangerous advice. Ever since then we as a team have been very careful not to de-rail our student planned UOIs by focusing on “passion”.

We also discussed the concept of purpose with students –  with the help of this “continuum of purpose” compliments of @sylviaduckworth.

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Knowing that this was the first time many (if not all) students had planned their own UOI around their own purpose, we knew there would be a range of the types of “purposes” that fuelled these units – many which we guessed correctly would start in the “self-awareness” and “discovery” stages.

Once students had nailed down their first “purpose” they met with a learning advisor to plan their first personalized Unit of Inquiry. Since this approach was new for my team, we all decided to use a different planner –  but all of which were based off of the PYP Bubble Planner, and connected to Dan Pink’s 3 magic ingredients of motivation. As the experts on the PYP, we helped students to “wrap the PYP” around their purpose by identifying how their purpose connected to each of the 5 elements.

As can be seen from these examples, students selected their purpose, decided how long they would need to achieve their purpose, chose how best they would document their learning, what their evidence of mastery would be, and what specifically would need to be “learned about” and “developed” throughout their unit. Careful time and consideration was also given to supporting students to brainstorm resources for their learning, both within the school and beyond.

Next students were supported in creating their own timelines, tailored to the amount of time they estimated they needed to achieve their purpose.

Then students were off an running!

Along the way, students had regular check-ins with their learning advisors to discuss their progress, challenges, adjustments to timelines, needs for resources etc. We also organized an adult-database that collated teacher and parent professions, hobbies and interests and showed students how to make use of the database to contact experts connected to their purpose.

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We also put together a procedure for students to organize their own field trips out into the community.

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Students also received support, guidance and encouragement from their parents who were invited for “learning conversations”. Parents were brought into the fold about the “why, how and what” behind student-planned UOIs and were coached in how to stimulate conversation about their child’s learning, while showing respect for their child’s agency over their learning.

We even had students who had “virtual conversations” with their parents via Skype and FaceTime!

Most impressively though was the way students supported themselves and one another. It was not uncommon to see students curate their own learning resources and materials (microscopes, scales, glue, wood, cameras, safety glasses etc.)

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And reach out to one another for advice, expertise and support.

Students were also great at knowing when they needed an adult’s help and sought out assistance, supervision or feedback – regardless of whether it was “their teacher”.

It’s also been great to see that opportunities for sharing learning have been organic, authentic, purposeful and student-initiated. Most of the time it’s the simple “you gotta see this!” or “check this out!” moments.

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But occasionally there have been some bigger, more planned moments where students have “taken their learning public”.

Whether it’s asking to perform a song around the campfire during a school camping trip

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

Or signing up to sell a product at our school’s weekly market

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Or putting together a student-led workshop, to more formally teach other students what they have learned.

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

What?

So what exactly did these student-planned UOIs explore? Anything and everything under the sun!

Robot hands and flying shoes

Digital design

Special effects movie make-up

Entomology

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

Film production

Doll house construction

Mosquito repelant and anti-itch serum

Digital music mash-ups

Cooking

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Photography

basketball skills

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

font design

Miniature Models

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A scale replica of the KL race track

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Not to mention… taking care of young children, building mini arcade games, coaching swimming, writing poetry, shoe “flipping” (buying bulk at a low cost and selling individually at a profit), app development, singing covers of pop songs, shoe design, dress making, stand-up comedy and the list goes on…

Looking over this list, I can’t help but think of this quote from John Taylor Gatto:

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So, where do we go from here?

Currently students are at a fork in the road, where they have the option to “pivot or persevere”. Students who have achieved their purpose or have noticed their intrinsic motivation has dropped (or perhaps was never there to begin with) can choose to move on to a new purpose. Students who feel their intrinsic motivation is going strong and would like to continue to pursue their first purpose can choose to stick with it.

Either way, students will reflect on and report their learning at this check-point. “Pivot-ers” will write a summative evaluation of their learning that will be shared to parents and “Persevere-ers” will write an in-progress, update of their learning so far, which will also be shared with their parents. Both templates are built around the 5 essential elements of the PYP.

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Finalized comments, such as the one below, will be shared with parents as the official UOI Evaluation of Learning (report card) via Mangebac.

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Then the cycle starts again, and those wishing to explore a new purpose will be supported to develop a second Unit of Inquiry, while those continuing with their first purpose will be supported to continue to act on their plan. No need to limit learning to a pre-determined, 6 week block.

Another consideration at this stage in the game is documentation. If students plan their own UOIs, then what happens to the POI? I say….If a Unit of Inquiry can be personalized, why can’t a Program of Inquiry also be personalized!?

My vision would be a long-term tracking, ever growing and evolving document that captures students’ personalized learning throughout their PYP journey. If we as teachers, follow the process of “start with each child and wrap the PYP around them” then each year we could note what TD themes have been explored, which understanding of concepts of have been deepened, which skills developed, which attitudes strengthened and what action has been taken.

As a homeroom teacher, I am envisioning a type of Google Sheet, where each student in my class would have a tab and thought the year I would use their bubble planner and their EOL to retroactively document the 5 EEs of the PYP. This would allow me to help support and guide them to find balance as well as vertical and horizontal articulation within their own personalized POI over the course of the year.

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And what about the PYP Exhibition? Isn’t that supposed to be the one time when students have the chance to plan their own unit? And I guess our retort to that is – Why would we sacrifice our students’ agency across 5 other units, just to protect the  specialness of having students design their own unit once? We would much rather approach PYPX as an opportunity for students to reflect upon who they have become as learners and people, and what they have discovered about themselves – their motivation, their purpose, their success – a true culminating PYP experience.

If we refer back to the purpose of PYPX from the Exhibition Guidelines document, we feel confident that we are doing right by our students, not only having them experience these features once, for a pre-determined 6 week period, but at different times and in different ways all throughout their final year in the PYP.

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Final Thoughts…

Now my team and I are at a place where we feel much more comfortable about “Agency and the UOI”. It’s not perfect by any means – we are still learning, growing, failing, arguing, reflecting and tweaking. We know (and are glad) that there will be many iterations to our approach, our process and the templates that we use. But in the meantime we feel a much greater sense of ease that we have managed to respect and support our students’ agency, while still honouring the essence and expectations of the PYP.

I think that if we as a PYP community are going to talk the talk of agency, then we also need to be prepared to walk the walk of agency. And that is likely going to look and feel different from what we’ve always done and what we’re comfortable with… but isn’t stepping out of our comfort zone, where we keep telling our students that the magic happens?

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Differentiation: Not Just for Students

I know what you’re thinking… I’m going to say differentiation should also be for teachers. And although that is very true, I’ve blogged about that before. This time I’m interested in thinking about how we should be differentiating for parents.

We spend a lot of time and effort making sure our students’ differences and perspectives are considered and honoured, but what about the diversity in the perspectives and preferences of the families we work with? If one size does not fit all for students, then perhaps one size should not fit all for the families either.

In the past week, getting ready for a new school year, I have had many thought-provoking conversations with colleagues about how we can better meet the unique needs of every family each family.

Here is what we have come up with so far:

Weekly Updates

Many of us send home weekly information and often get frustrated if it is not being read. When working with students we often say, “If they aren’t learning the way we’re teaching, then let’s teach the way they learn.” If we apply the same thinking to the families then if parents aren’t consuming the way we’re communicating, then maybe we should start communicating the way they’re consuming. This year I am trying out a system where I send home a weekly written blog post for families and also an YouTube video. That way parents who are comfortable with English and have time to read can gather information from the blog post and families who are unable/uncomfortable reading English or prefer watching videos can gather the same information from YouTube.  

Collecting Information about Students

Many of us like to get to know our students through the parents’ perspective either before the year starts or during the first weeks of school. Some of us send home a graphic organizer for parents to fill out, others request a letter from the parents, others use a Google Form with questions. Just like our students, I’m sure parents have preferred ways to share information with us. This year I shared my goal with the parents of my students – that I want to learn about their children through their eyes – but instead of mandating how, I offered three choices. I invited parents to come in and have a face-to-face meeting if they want to tell me about their child in person, or call me if they preferred to tell me over the phone, or to share electronically by filling out a survey on a Google Form.

Communication Logs

I have a colleague who used to have daily communication logs for all her students at her old school, but when she transferred to our school last year she let go of that practice since it wasn’t the norm at our school. Throughout the year she found that some parents were upset that there was not a daily communication log, so this year she was playing with the idea of reintroducing them into her teaching practice. Then we started to chat about the idea and realized maybe it doesn’t have to be all or none, maybe it could be optional based on the preference of the family. Now she is planning on offering this to all her families and seeing who is interested and who is not. For some families daily communication is essential. For other families daily communication is a nuisance. Why can’t we satisfy both groups? And those in between! Not only is she going to ask if her families are interested in a daily communication log, but she is also going to ask. how they would like to communicate. A notebook that goes back and forth… Google Sheet that is shared…. a phone call? Whatever works for that specific family.

Homework 

I used to assign mandatory homework and then get frustrated when students did not complete it and the families did not support it. This year I was planning on having a zero homework policy. Then I realized that it doesn’t have to be an either or… it can be a both and. If I as the teacher mandate homework for all my students, I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value their time after school for other activities and wish not to have homework. If I as the teacher outlaw homework I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value extended practice of the academic skills we explore in class. So this year I plan to conduct a collaborative inquiry into homework with my students, where we can gather and analyze diverse perspectives about homework (student, parent, teacher, administrator, research etc.) and then share our discoveries with the families. From there each family will be able to decide if they want homework for their son or daughter, why they want homework and how they want to approach homework.

So far, this approach has been very rewarding. I have received positive feedback from my families about the choices and options they have had. I hope I can continue to reflect and discover other options for family differentiation to help me work towards my goal of a more inclusive education experience for all involved.

How do you differentiate to meet the needs of your students’ families?

What other ways can you think of honouring families’ unique and diverse perspectives and preferences?