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!

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“Agency” and the UOI

For any of you playing around with the concept of student agency in a PYP school, you will likely know the stress and struggle of trying to negotiate the interplay between what students want to learn, with what teachers, schools, and systems have decided they have to learn.

Much cognitive dissonance and feelings of hypocrisy stem from standing in front of students saying “You own your own learning! We trust you! Follow your own passions, interests and curiosities!…… buuuuut make sure you’re meeting the learning outcomes that have been pre-determined for you in the units we have designed for you within the timelines we have set for you.

Much frustration also stems from walking around and seeing the students “not doing what they’re supposed to be doing” – regardless of autonomy over where they learn, when they learn, how they learn, who they learn with, how they share their learning… at the end of the day – if you look through the layers of choice –  we are still expecting them to learn what we want them to learn.

So can we blame them if they don’t care as much as we do?

Anytime we as teachers sit behind closed doors in planning meetings and design units for our students and then “hand the unit over to the students” we run the risk of pseudo-agency…. where we are saying students have ownership of their learning, but don’t really.  Or don’t fully.

And although it feels better than the traditional approach to education (because students are experiencing more choice than normal)… it still doesn’t feel quite right. And it makes you very hesitant to use words like “agency”.

Even when my team and I have tried to design a unit that is concept-based with a very open central idea that offers as much content choices as possible, at the end of the day we find that it is still too teacher planned… too teacher controlled… too teacher driven. 

So we’ve decided to stop planning their units of inquiry.

And instead, start helping them to plan their own units of inquiry.

At first we were going start the way many PYPXs start… by showing the students a Transdisciplinary Theme and asking them which part they are most interested in.

But then we decided that was not good enough. So we decided that we were going to try and flip that process.

As our PYP Coordinator says: Child first. Curriculum second. 

We are still in the early phases of planning this process, but we’ve begun to brainstorm some ideas.

Here is what we know so far:

  • We are going to be transparent with our students about our frustrations regarding pseudo-agency within a UOI
  • We are going to share Daniel Pink’s work about motivation and admit that although autonomy is in place, mastery and purpose are lacking (our fault)
  • We are going to take time to support students to identify their passion/purpose/interest
  • We are going to find/develop puroseful processes to help students do this
  • We are going to help students bend the Transdisciplinary Themes around their passion/purpose/interest
  • We are going to go through the process ourselves first
  • We are going to create a student-friendly PYP bubble planner (based around the guiding questions for “Planning the Inquiry” and also “Reflecting on the Inquiry”)
  • We are going to help students to set their own UOI timelines

Is this true agency?

Still, no.

But are we getting closer?

It sure feels like it!

Any maybe that’s the best we can do for now – within the current constraints we have as a PYP school.

(Until we’re ready as a PYP community to critically look at and break the mould of needing “units” in the first place…dun dun dun!)

Wish us luck!