Personalized Units of Inquiry

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

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

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

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

Starting with motivation and purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unit Planning

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

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

Tracking

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

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

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

Self-Evaluations

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

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

We provided them with the following guiding questions:

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

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

Parent Involvement

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credits: @puglifevn @juoulette @phuhua

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

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

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

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Trying to break the “homeroom” mould

Last year we tried many things to help get us and the students to break away from the traditional notion of a homeroom.

  • We encouraged free flow and fluidity between spaces.
  • Teachers and students offered workshops open to anyone in the grade level.
  • Students collaborated with whomever they liked, regardless of whether they were in “their class” or not

But despite our best intentions and efforts, more often that not it was still “my room”, “my teacher”, “my class” (for both us and the students)

So this year we have to decided to keep trying to break that stubborn mould – which as we discovered – is a deeply entrenched concept in the collective current understanding of what school is.

Here are a few things we’ve decided to try this year to hopefully move further away from the mindset of the homeroom:

1. We’re not assigning rooms to teachers. Instead of having Miss Taryn’s room, Mr. Pug’s room, Miss Amanda’s room – where a specific set of students and teachers lay claim – we’ve decide to have all spaces shared and co-owned. It’s been a hard habit to change our language of “my room”, “your room”, but in trying to do so it has made us all more mindful of both the language we use and our own deep rooted habits of thinking and being. We’ve taken to referring to the rooms simply by numbers, but were hoping when students arrive they think of some more creative and purposeful room names!

2. We’re meeting as a grade level first. On the first day of school, after we collect our specifically assigned students from the basketball court, we’ve decided to meet altogether, as a grade level, in our town hall meeting space. We’re hoping that meeting together in a shared space first will help them identify with the larger community and space, instead of reinforcing that idea of “my room” if we take them into a specific, smaller, classroom-like space. From there we will breakout into smaller groups, but we’re planning on purposefully and arbitrarily picking a room and using general language, like “let’s go meet in that room”.

3. We’re purposefully rotating where we meet with students. Building on the ideas above, we’ve also decided to rotate the spaces we use whenever we pull the students into smaller groups. Again hoping to help all students see all spaces as available to them for the betterment of their learning.

4. Students can choose where to keep their things. This was a big discussion as a team. We wanted students to have a consistent homebase – somewhere to put their backpacks, lunch bags, swim clothes each day – but we were also aware that that typically means a cubby section in an assigned classroom. So we’ve decided to make all cubbies available to all students, but have students choose one cubby to make their “home base” for the rest of the year.

5. We’re having one Google Classroom. Another structure that kept us in the mindset of homerooms last year was having separate Google Classrooms. This year we’ve decided to have one centralized Google Classroom where all teachers and all students can connect and collaborate with one another.

6. Students will decide how best to use and set up the variety of learning spaces we have. Our biggest risk – and hopefully biggest crack to the mould of homeroom mentality- is having students set up their learning spaces. But instead of having them set up classrooms, we’ve decided to have the whole cohort take ownership over the whole grade-level area – hallways, quiet learning spaces, loud learning spaces, and regular learning spaces. To assist with this process we have “unsetup” all the spaces to create a blank canvas. We’ve emptied every shelf, bin and cupboard, stock piled every table, couch, pillow and collated all the learning supplies and resources. On the first day of school we’re going to ensure students know they are empowered and trusted to envision, create and take ownership over their learning spaces, resources and materials. After giving them a little bit of time to try, struggle, have tension, solve problems and persevere we’re planning on supporting their thinking as well as the process – having 120 students set up 9 learning spaces will be no small task!

I’m sure there are still many ways that our mindset and that of the students will be stuck within the confines of the “homeroom mould”, but hopefully these 6 steps propel us further down the path of true learning and further away from doing school.

As with any worthwhile risk, I’m feeling the perfect combination of excitement and fear. It’s either going to be amazing or a complete disaster!

The adventure begins tomorrow…

Wish us luck!

Student-Written Reports

A while ago I read a blog post asking Should Students Write Their Own Reports? and of course my answer was a resounding YES!

But it was not until this year – where I had team of like-minded educators and the support of leadership and administration – that I was able to put this idea ino practice.

And, spolier alert, it was pretty magical!

In order to dispel the common misconception that initiatives like this one means saying to the students “go write your own reports” while teachers sit back, sipping coffee and browsing their facebook…. I will share with you our process, from start to finish, along with some honest reflections along the way about how it worked and what we will change for next time.

Here is what we did:

We knew that we really wanted students to take ownership of reporting their growth and progress to their parents for the first Unit of Inquiry, however we were also aware that this was likely the first time students had ever done this. So we thought long and hard (and spent many hours discussing) how we could support them in the process of writing their own reports. In the end, we decided to try guiding them through the writing process.

Step 1 – Pre-Writing

First we had students choose two Self-Management Skills and two Social Skills that they felt they developed as a result of our Who We Are Unit. Next,  we used the Visible Thinking Routine “Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate” to help students reflect on the learning expereinces that contributed to their development of each of those skills.

Generate: Students wrote down anything and everything that they had done within the unit.

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Some students went through their Seesaw portfolios and others browsed their day plans to help them remember all their different experiences. They wrote each experience on a small piece of paper.

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Sort: Students placed the learning experiences purposefully on a graphic organizer. The more that learning experience contributed to the development of a specific skill, the closer they placed it to the skill on the organizer. The more it contributed to their understanding of Who We Are the closer they placed it to the transdisciplinary theme in the center of the page.

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Connect: Students drew arrows to show connections: between two learning experiences: between learning experiences and skills: between learning experiences and the transdisciplinary theme etc.

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Elaborate: Students explained their reason for the connections along the arrows they drew.

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Secondly, we set up a Google Form where students could synthesize some of the ideas from the above brainstorm. We set-up the form so students could evaluate to what extent they developed each skill and so they could bring together the different experiences that developed each skill. We also had questions to allow students to evaluate their understanding of the central concepts of the unit, as well as begin to brainstorms their next steps as learners. eol gf

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The Google Form was set-up to auto-format their responses into a Google Doc that they could then refer to when it was time to draft their comments.

Step 2 – Drafting

To help students take their ideas from the brainstorming stage and turn it into comments that would be understood by a reader, we set up a graphic organizer with guiding questions.

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Students then used their VTR and their automatically formatted Google Doc mentioned above to write a first draft of their comments in the boxes.

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Step 3 – Revision

Our big focus for revision, was organization and transitions. Because students wrote four separate responses in the four boxes shown above, we wanted to support them in synthesizing those separate responses together into a coherent piece of writing. So first we had them copy and paste their responses from the boxes, into one piece of text.

Then, we pulled out examples of transition sentences that some students naturally used in their draft and shared them with all the writers.

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Then we colour coded either where we had seen an attempt in their draft to transition from one idea to the next, or where a transition sentence might be needed.

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Step 4 – Editing 

Before we started the editing  process, we used the Golden Circles approach (Why, How, What) to create a class anchor chart about feedback.

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Then students took themselves through a process of self-editing

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and peer editing.

Finally, the teachers gave feedback to students by leaving them detailed and specific comments on their Google Doc. For English Language Learners and students who needed extra support, we sat with them and shared our feedback orally.

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Step 5 – Publishing

In order to also contribute our voice and perspective to the report, the techers then wrote a short paragraph in response to the students’ evaluation of their own learning. We wrote about the degreee to which we agreed and supported the students’ evaluation based on our own observations and assessment data.

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Finally, we posted the final product and Managebac and pushed it out to parents.

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Step 6 – Getting Feedback

We wanted to make sure we gave parents a chance to share their perspective with us about our approach to having students write their own reports. So we sent them a Google Form.

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Here is what they had to say:

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Reflections…

  • it felt so nice to have students take ownership of this process
  • it was the first time I felt like I was doing reporting with students, not to students
  • it helped our students develop their evaluation skills, along with their meta-cognition skills
  • it helped our students see that we are not just “talking the talk” of student ownership, but actually “walking the walk”
  • it was one of the most authentic writing tasks I have ever seen; there was an authentic purpose, an authentic audience and therefore an authentic need for planning, revising and editing
  • this specific process, was a bit too overstructed and as a result, convuluted – in the future we will streamlime to process (specifically with regards to pre-writing and planning)
  • it was SO validating to see that NOT ONE parent wanted to have fully teacher-written reports!
  • it was definitely “assessment as learning” in order for students to evaluate and synthesize their report, they needed to deeply consolidate and reflect upon their own learning
  • moving forward, we need to go through all of the constructive feedback from the parents and figure out how to address  their concerns in order to help them feel that the student-written Evaluations of Learning (EOLs) are even more effective

 

What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of student-written reports?

How do you include your students in the process and product of their written reports?

What feedback do you have for us to help us strengthen our approach to student-written reporting?

 

Respecting and Responding to Student Voice

My students have been at school for two months now and it is really important to me that I understand how it has been going for them. Ensuring my students have opportunities to share their honest thoughts and feelings about school and me plays a huge part in respecting and supporting both their agency and their humanness for the time they spend in my care.

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This year I structured my questions around the qualities of establishing an inclusive classroom that I learned from an IB training.

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I also included questions to find out what I have been doing well and what I can do to improve.

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Here is a link to a copy of that form if you are interested in seeing it.

It’s always hard to put yourself out there and ask these types of questions. I get nervous every time I read their responses. But I also believe I get better every time I read their responses. So those temporary moments of a bruised ego are worth it because they lead to my growth both as a professional, and as a person.

So in the spirit of vulnerability and shared reflection, here is what I learned and the action I plan to take:

IMG_6459Looking at the quantitative data, I have built some professional goals that I will post in the classroom for students, parents and colleagues to see. I will invite constant feedback from my community to help me work towards these goals.

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Looking at the qualitative data, I will reach out to specific students to find out more. I will invite the 6 students who said they didn’t feel challenged to have a focus group with me so I can dig a little deeper to discover what they need. I will invite the student who didn’t feel listened to or understood to have a one-on-one conference with me to hopefully help us get to know each other better. I will ask the 3 students who do not feel safe what changes we could make to our classroom to help them feel more safe.

I also plan to share this data and my action plan with the parent community. I think they deserve to be included in this process, to know how students are feeling about school as well as the steps I plan to take to address some of their concerns.

How do you encourage and respond to student voice?

What do you ask your students to help you grow as a teacher?

What IS the Purpose of School?

How often as educators do we dialogue and debate this question?

(Answer – hopefully very, very, very often!)

But how often are we asking this question to the two groups of people who have the most vested interest in the answer?

…our students and their families.

Each year, I start the year with a student survey and a parent survey to help me better understand my students as people and the families from which they come. But this year for the first time I asked them both a new question:

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Their responses were beautiful, fascinating and informative.

Here is what my students think:

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Here is what their parents think:

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Not only do the answers to this question help me better understand my students, their families and what they are expecting from their time at school… but it also lets me know that we’re all on the same side… the same team…. the same page.

So often we lean on “but the parents want…” as a crutch to cling to antiquated educational models and practices. But, is that what they really want? Have we asked them recently?

Perhaps we should.

Supporting Students’ Agency

My students and I were recently asked to Skype into a PYP workshop to share examples of how student agency works in our classroom.

In preparation, we brainstormed everything this year that contributed to students experiencing a sense of ownership over their own learning. In addition to sharing our story with the participants of the workshop, I thought I’d also share the list with you!

So here it goes… a list of ways to support student agency:

What they think…

Setting up the classroom

Student shared that being invited to help set-up the classroom at the beginning of the year helped them to have a voice in decisions about their learning and how the classroom could be set-up to support their learning.

Making decisions together

Students reflected that being able to participate in decisions usually made by the teacher helped them feel like they had a voice. The specifically pointed out our classroom board where they could identify problems, ideas, and questions. The explained how the routine we had each morning going through the board and collectively solving problems, agreeing on ideas and answering questions helped them experience more control over in their lives as students.

Pre-assessments

Students identified the pre-assessments (or time capsules) we do at the beginning of each unit as playing a role in helping them to own their own learning. They explained that the pre-assessments help them know themselves and what they already know and can do before a unit starts. This helps them know where they are and where they need to go.

Choice and Trust

Students shared the importance of choice and trust in feeling agentic. Choice in where to learn, how to learn and who to learn with were identified as factors that helped them have agency in their learning. They also shared the importance of having trust from their teacher to test out different options and space to make mistakes and wrong choices along the way.  It was often experiencing choices that blocked or hindered their learning that had the biggest impact on getting to know themselves as learners.

         

Three-way conferences

Students reflected that our approach to three-way conferences also helped support their sense of student agency. Being able to share their thoughts and perspectives about their own learning first – before hearing from their parent or teacher – helped them feel the sense that the learning is theirs.

Planning their own day

Far and beyond, the one thing that students identified as helping them experience the most agency as learners was the opportunity to plan their own day. This has been a ongoing experiment and has taken many forms along the way – but the main idea is having students write their own day plans.

(I plan on writing a full post about this experience soon!)

Creativity Thursday

One specific version of students planning their own day is Creativity Thursday. Students explained that this provided them with the most ownership over their own learning – because unlike other days when they are planning their days around teacher planned units or school-chosen curricula – on Thursdays they have ultimate choice over not only when, how and where to learn, but also what to learn. On Thursday they are able to truly pursue passions, interests and curiosity of their own choosing.

What I think…

Learning about learning

I believe that investing the first month of school to learn about learning and learn about ourselves as learners set the stage well for students to feel empowered and capable of exercising ownership over their learning for the rest of the year.

Assessment

In addition to pre-assessments, our approach to assessment in general this year has helped students to feel more agency in their learning. Approaching assessment as something you do with students – not to students – has helped them experience more ownership and voice in the process of assessing and evaluating their learning.

Learning Plans

Taking the time to purposefully plan out their learning, based on personal learning goals has also helped students be in charge of their own learning. Taking data from pre-assessments and planning what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn, how they were going to get feedback and how they will know if they achieved their learning goal really put them in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Learning from each other

Building a culture where students see one another as valuable sources of learning, assistance and feedback has also helped students to be able to take ownership of pursuing learning through multiple avenues – not only depending on the teacher in the room.

Shifting from mandatory to optional 

This year, as much as possible, I have tried to move away from things that are mandatory for students (often decided, organized and arranged by their teacher). I tried to take things that students are usually obliged to participate in, and reimagine a way to make them optional. Our approach to reading buddies is one example of this.

Supporting student initiatives

I think it has been important to try and create a culture of initiative. Whether it is an idea to label to garbage cans, the desire for a height poster or a proposal for a field trip, I believe that honouring and supporting students’ initiatives this year, both inside and outside of the classroom, have help students notice and be aware of their own agency. It often comes at the cost of a “pinterest-perfect” classroom, but it is worth it!

   

Teacher transparency

I think it has also been important that I share my goals to develop student agency with my class. I think there should be no “secret teacher business” and that my students, their parents, my colleagues and administrators can all have a part to play in helping me work towards my goal. Being open and honest about my goals was a great first step, but then taking the initiative to ask for feedback about my goals was really what helped me reflect and grow along the way.

I am by no means an expert on the matter. Just a curious and interested learner who has tried to take risks and reflect in the pursuit of building a classroom that honours student agency. I’d love to continue my journey as a learner and hear from you as well!

How do you respect and support student agency in your classroom?

You lost me at levels and incentives…

A few weeks ago I attended a training session for an online reading product. I arrived open-minded and ready to learn about a new tool to help my students develop their love of reading.

Then words and phrases from the presentation started to buzz around me like pesky bees.

“stars earned for books read”… swat!

“limit their levels”… swat!

“comprehension quiz”… swat!

“pre-made”… swat!

“worksheets”… swat!

“generic lessons”… swat!

Then it started to become worse than buzzing. I was shown how to control what students read, how to restrict how they read and how to send them messages to which they could not reply. Cringe.

Where is the student ownership, voice, agency?

So I began to do a little research on their website:

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Ranking. Control. Practice, practice and more practice. 

Nothing about love, joy or passion. 

The whole time I was listening to the presentation and browsing the website I could not get this poem written by John Locke our of my head:

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I don’t want to do anything that gives my students an aversion to reading or learning. I do not want to make reading a business for them. I want to help them grow their passion as readers.

5 years ago I probably would have jumped on board and signed my students up. I’ve become more discerning since then. I become more informed since then. I’ve become more critical since then. I’ve become more emboldened since then.

Amazing provocateurs like Pernille Ripp, Mark Barnes and Alfie Kohn have challenged my thinking about reading practices like reading logs, levelling, and incentives. They have prompted me to reflect on how the choices I make as a teacher can kill my students’ love of reading. They have forced me to think of myself as a reader when thinking about what I should be asking of students. They have provided me with guidance about how to create a passionate reading environment. They have inspired me to become a reading warrior where I critically think about and advocate against literacy practices and products that negatively impact children. They have inspired me to break the rules.

Yet time remained in this presentation, so I tried to see the potential uses. Here was a website offering thousands of online books. Books… hmmm. I began to wonder about these “books”. So I dug a little deeper.

“professional illustrators who have years of experience illustrating educational material

excerpts and adaptations from literature”

Was this a place where students could access real books or materials for reading instruction?Because those aren’t the same things.

I think my students deserve exposure to good quality literature. I think my students deserve to be free from levelling and ranking. I think my students deserve voice and choice in what they read and how they read. I think my students deserve to develop their love for reading away from prizes, rewards and incentives.

Is there not an app or website where students have access to literature with no levels, no incentives, no restrictions or limitations?

Is so, please tell me about that.