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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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?

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!

Agency PD – A First Attempt

A few weeks ago I shared my thinking about how best to structure professional development focused around student agency, and this past weekend I had a chance to test it out! I spent the day with an amazing group of passionate and dedicated educators all committed to upping the amount of voice, choice and ownership in the work they do to support their learners in their specific role.

Here is how it went…

The Before:

The first thing I knew I needed to do was get to know them as learners. So I sent out a quick Google Form that helped me begin to understand who they are and what they are hoping for from our time together.

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The results were very informative and helped me put together a day of professional learning about agency tailored to their needs.

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From there I focused on building a workshop where they were able to not only learn about learner agency, but learn through experiencing their own agency as learners. All of my planning and decisions were guided by the question, “How can I help them learn about student agency” instead of focusing on “How can I teach them about student agency”.

Before the day of the workshop I also spent some time putting together a virtual learning space, our own Google Classroom, to help distribute documents and resources.

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I knew that not all participants were comfortable on Google Classroom, so I insured that there were plenty of other options and avenues for accessing resources and using some of the templates.

For example, sending out links via email:

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And having shorty links visible when they arrived the day of the workshop:

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The During:

When participants arrived the day of, I made sure they all had access to the presentation slides – which were editable – as there were a few activities where everyone would need to contribute thoughts and ideas.

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First we started with a simple activity to help them connect with each other, the topic of the workshop and their own experience as a student.

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Then I was transparent about the structure of the workshop – Choose, Act, Reflect – and my thinking behind it.

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The “Choose” Portion of the day…

To help them self-assess where they are in their own journey of understanding and supporting student agency, I used a Gradual Increase of Independence (adapted from the original design by @orenjibuta)

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Next I guided them in using the data from their own self-assessment to create their own personalized success criteria for the day

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Then, we co-constructed a menu about documenting learning – starting with the “why”, and moving to possible “hows” and “whats”

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Everyone took a turn to share how they were planning to document their learning throughout the day, and it was so great to see so many different approaches!

After that, it was time for them to plan their day! I took some time to give them an overview of all the different possible options that could support their learning throughout the day.

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I briefly explained what my optional workshops were about and how the conferences would work:

Who the Skype experts were:

I helped them centralize the things they might want to discuss with one another:

I previewed the resource document that I built for them.

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And then… they were off planning!!! (using their success criteria and self-assessment to inform the choices they made about their learning)

The “Act” Portion of the day…

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Optional Workshops:

1. The “Why” Behind Student Agency

First we started with an opportunity for them to tune into their own understanding of what they think student agency is.

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Next we moved into a “Tug of War” to help them debate and discuss a variety of underlying beliefs, assumptions and philosophies connected to agency.

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Finally, we did Chalk Talk to help them engage with some provocative stimuli to poke and provoke their thinking and emotions further. (Warning – some stimuli are quite extreme!)

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2. Transferring Decision into the Hands of Learners

First, I had everyone brainstorm all the decisions they make in their role as an educator

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Then, I had them use a quote from the Empower book to challenge them to think about which of those decisions learners “should” or “could” be making themselves.

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Then I invited them to visit other groups and leave some feedback to push each other’s thinking a little further.

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Finally, I had them reflect on any shifts in their thinking as a result of the activity.

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3. Self-Reflection and Planning for Action

First I introduced a few self-reflection tools, to help them see where they are already respecting and supporting student agency and also where there might be some space to make some changes in their practice to work towards even more respect and support for student agency.

I used a sketchnote from @terSonya

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and a questionnaire that I developed

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Once they had some time to engage with the tools, I supported them in using their self-reflection to develop a personal action plan

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Optional Guided Groups or Conferences:

I only had one conference slot filled about agency vs. the curriculum. We sat and chatted for 15 minutes about questions, challenges, ideas and resources.

Skypes with experts:

I was so fortunate to have 4 amazing educators donate some of their weekend to support the learning of people in the workshop.

@bondclegg chatted with MYP and DP educators about how to up the agency within and around program restrictions

@hktans chatted with leaders and administrators about how to support the development of teachers when it comes to understanding agency and also how to bend and break rules in order to re-imagine what school could be

@ms_AmandaRomano shared her own personal journey as an experienced educator unlearning, learning and relearning how to support student agency as a classroom teacher

Stephen Flett chatted with educators about how learning support can function within a system that supports more student agency

Collaborative Conversations:

There was LOTS of connecting, chatting, dialoguing, brainstorming and challenging

Independant Inquiry:

There was also lots of personal inquiry into the resource document

The “Reflect” Portion of the day…

When we all came back together at the end of the day, I guided them through a formative self-assessment where they were able to choose how best to assess their personalized success criteria to know where they currently are and where they need to go next

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Then we spent some time collectively brainstorming the “why”, “how” and “what” of reflection

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and everyone chose the style and content of reflection that was most useful and comfortable for them. It was great to see such a wide range of approaches to reflection! Everything from painting, writing, sketching, talking, sleeping… to even graphing!

Then we spent a few minutes talking about how the learning doesn’t have to end…

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How fears are normal…

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And how leaving your comfort zone often leads to something amazing!

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Finally, before they left, I asked if they could share their honest feedback with me about the day. I wanted to make sure I was honouring their voice as learners!

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The After:

When I got home, I read through the feedback:

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Reading through their feedback was so helpful. It helped me reflect on what parts of the workshop worked really well, and also some parts of the workshop I need to revise for next time.

As I was reading through the “wishes” I noticed that there were many people who felt that two things were missing from the workshop:

At first I started to go down the path of regret and all the shulda, coulda, wouldas…. but then I realized that  just because the workshop was over, didn’t mean that my support for their learning had to end! So I decided to take action and respond to what their feedback was telling me.

I made two Google Slide presentations (linked above) – one to address each area that seemed to be missing from the workshop. And I sent those presentations to the workshop participants via our Google Classroom and email.

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Now I can feel a little bit better that I honoured their voice as learners, and took action to respond to their needs… even if it was technically “after the workshop”.

My reflections….

  • overall, it was a really great day
  • learning through agency is essential in order to understand agency
  • empowering educators to understand themselves as learners and where they are on their own journey helps the learning extend beyond the hours of a workshop
  • investing time in the “before” and “after” really helped me honour their voice as learners
  • this structure created a really relaxed, comfortable vibe for the day
  • the medium IS the message

How do you support educators in developing their understanding of student agency?

What feedback do you have for me as a workshop planner/facilitator in order to better meet the needs of my learners?

APPENDIX (added to the original post)

The Monday after this workshop I received the following email from one of the participants:

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What a great feeling to see that learning from the workshop lead to action that resulted in happy, successful teachers and students!!!

Some thoughts on PD about agency

Recently I’ve been invited to visit a school in China to help poke and provoke their staff’s thinking about student agency. So being the keener that I am, I started putting together my workshop for them!

It was beautifully planned down the very last detail:

First I will provoke their thinking with a range of quotes, videos, and tweets. Then I will tune them into what they already know, or think they know about the concept of agency using a Frayer model and a Growing Definition. The I will get them to create their own questions using the Question Formulation Technique. Then I will give them a resource doc and have them inquire into the different resources and capture their thinking using a Connect-Extend-Challenge. Then I will get them to complete an agency self-reflection tool and put together a personalized action plan. Then to finish it off, I will have them complete a reflection activity called “I used to think… Now I think…”.

At first I was quite pleased with myself – inquiry-based, interactive, hands-on, lots of choice, full of Visible Thinking Routines and other best practices. Done and done!

But then I caught myself…

I couldn’t help but notice a pattern: “I will…, I will… I will… I will…” whether it was, “give them, get them to, or have them complete…” I was definitely the one engineering the learning.

So I began to wonder…

If the medium is the message, am I respecting and supporting their agency as learners?

Am I modelling for them what I’d hope to see them do in their classroom with their own learners?

Does the structure I have planned help them learn about agency, or through agency?

So I scrapped everything I had and went back to the drawing board, keeping those guiding questions in mind.

Now my plan looks totally different:

First, I will be transparent about the structure of the workshop. Explaining why the medium needs to be the message and what that has to do with my vision of them as capable, competent learners who know themselves and know what they need and how they learn best.

Next, they will construct their own personalized success criteria that shows what they hope to know, understand and/or be able to do by the end of our time together.

Then, I will present some systems and structures that provide a plethora of potential ways to learn about agency: a variety of optional sessions led by me, a structure for workshops any of them want to offer for each other, a resource Google document with many resources about agency that is editable so they can add new resources they find/create, an expert wall where teachers can sign up for aspects of agency they feel confident helping one another with, a conversation wall where they can add topics related to agency they want to discuss with one another, some possible time slots for one-on-one or small group conferences with me, opportunities to Skype with other educators experimenting with agency etc.

Next, I will provide them with blank schedules where they will fill in what they want to learn, how they plan to learn, where they will learn and with whom they will learn over the course of our two days together. Also blocking out potential breaks and time for lunch as they see fit.

Also, we will discuss planning for documentation. We will discuss all the different ways to document learning – Evernote, Google doc, Google slides, Twitter, notebook, bubble catcher, personal blog etc. – and then they will choose how best to capture and record their own learning.

Then the majority of our time together will be them learning – hopefully, with some conducting personal inquiries, others learning collaboratively, some choosing to attend my sessions, others attending peer-led sessions, lots of conversation – one-on-one, small group, and large group – with me and with each other. Not to mention taking breaks, eating, drinking, time for play and fun.

Towards the end, they will self-assess using their personalized success criteria to evaluate their own learning and ascertain their next steps in their learning journey towards understanding and implementing agentic models of learning.

Finally, to wrap up our time together we will collectively brainstorm why we reflect, how we can reflect and what specifically we can reflect about. My hope is that this generates a menu of “how” options ranging from conversation, to painting, to vlogging, to writing, to sketchnoting and “what” options ranging from what they learned about, to how they learned, to how they felt about their learning. Then they will reflect in a way that is most comfortable and purposeful for them as learners.

Obviously I won’t know how it goes until it actually happens… but I can say that I feel much more comfortable (and less hypocritical) with my second plan, compared to my first.

I know there are many of us in the education community charged with supporting teachers to learn about agency and shift their practice towards a more agentic model of learning. I think if we want to do so successfully then we need to be very purposeful in crafting professional learning experiences where the medium is the message – where teachers experience agency as learners, in order to be able to then go back into the classroom and respect and support their students’ agency as learners.

What are your approaches to helping teachers understand and implement more agentic models of learning?

*I’m also very open to feedback and suggestions about how I can make my plan even more agentic for the teachers I will be working with, so please feel free to leave constructive comments below!*

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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